Sunday, February 28, 2010


The retreat went well, even though my body threw a revolt or two. The morning of day one was fine; by one o'clock I was feeling a bit queezy, and by three o'clock I puked my guts out. I laid in bed during the afternoon group sittings, and I may have gone home that evening were I not so weak. At 7:00 pm I was strong enough to attend the evening discourse and then hold myself upright for the final sitting. Before bed I took some travelers antibiotics and in the morning I was well enough to go on. Last time I did one of these, I got this dizzy, woozy feeling on the third day, and by the seventh it wore me down enough to send me home. This time I didn't get the dizzy feeling until day eight. I was sort of expecting it to come the whole time, and when it finally did I was too far along and too resolved to not let it bother me. I'm glad, because the feeling of finishing such a course is a rare one. It's not elation or excitement. You're happy to be sure, but it's a very calm, lucid happiness. In the middle of the retreat, everyone looked kind of like bewildered animals constantly being herded around. By the end, everyone was holding themselves up straight and confident with a vast, placid look in their eyes. Since I leaned how to speak, it was the longest time I've gone without speech. Midway through the tenth day noble silence was broken, and I was giddy and awkward with the novelty of communication.

I'd like to describe the mental experience of having to meditate for so long, but it's hard to sum it up. You learn things about yourself that you couldn't learn any other way. Again, I'd like to express what those things are, but there aren't proper words for them. I can say that I felt my body as mass of flowing energy, and experienced the constantly changing nature of the universe... see I told you there wasn't a clear way to describe what I felt. All I can do is recommend that everyone do this same retreat. There are centers around the world and you can find one at

The Dhamma hall. That's my spot in the back left.

The walk to the dormitory

I had this cubicle all to myself!



Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Points and Gestures

I guess I've sort of dropped the ball on keeping this thing up to date. It's been two weeks and two countries since my last post. The lapse is due to expensive or slow internet, but also to apathy on my part. I've been traveling around on this subcontinent for so long that time and experiences are blurring together as a normal sort of routine. Things that would have caught my attention when I first got here like lady-boy cocktail "waitresses" or buckets full of live ells in markets are now familiar parts of the scenery. I used to ordering food with points and gestures, and having locals stare and talk about the felangs (westerners) as they walk by. It's amazing how normal a place can become, even when you're a perpetual stranger. There is always companionship here, though. Westerners always glom onto each other out of comfort and safety, and even when I was "alone" I had a solid crew them to travel with through Laos.
I went to a city called Vang Vienne, which is part of the deeply rutted tourist path. I would guess the local population to be a few thousand, and the tourist population to be three times that. Every other building in town is a hotel or guesthouse, and they were all full when I was there. The attraction is beautiful scenery and a bar-lined river. In the early afternoon, people take taxis to the starting point and instead of walking from bar to bar, they just jump in the river and float down. If you hail them, locals will throw out life preservers and pull you in. When you climb up to the bamboo dance floor, your first greeting is a local offering free shots of Laos whisky. There are also 20-30 foot rope swings and slides into the water. Remember, this is when the sun is high in the sky and pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The whole thing seems like the kind of party that would happen right after the apocalypse before society totally unraveled.
I stayed a week in Vang Vienne, and halfway through, Miles met up with me. We spent a coupleof days hiking through the hills, but I had to be on my way again and left him there while I went to Vientianne. I only planned to spend a night there before crossing the Mekong into Thailand, but while walking to a market to buy a sandwich, I ran right into John. We had split up with him over a month before and last we heard he had bought a boat with his brother in Cambodia and were motoring up the Mekong River. We each had no idea the other was in Vientianne, so you can imagine how surprised we were. Because of the reunion, I stayed an extra night, but then Miles showed up the next day, so two nights turned to three, and we all went out drinking and reminiscing.
Now I'm back in Thailand and alone again. Miles and I crossed the border together and got dinner in Khon Kaen before he caught a night train to Bangkok. He's flying home in a couple of days and those were the very last hours of our four and a half months of traveling together. I'm excited for my own ticket home in three weeks, but I still felt the somber weight of something coming to an end. After seeing him off on a busy street, I went back to my bland hotel room and thought about my own remaining time. 21 days--10 of which will be spent at a Vipassana retreat (Check it out here: The retreat is pretty much my last thing to do here. It starts tomorrow, and I'm a bit anxious--anxious to get started, but also just about going. Little thoughts about not going have flitted through my mind like a bird darting in and out of a room. I'm going--that's for damn sure. I don't even know what I'm nervous about. It's not as though I'm being plucked from some active, fulfilling lifestyle. I sit around most days anyway, so I may as well sit around with a purpose. I guess I'm just nervous, because I know that it'll be hard and some days will pass with agonizing slowness. But like I said, I'm goin.


My morning routine, in a nutshell

That was my bungalow--the one on the left.

Around Vang Vienne

That's Vivi from Phili. We shared a bungalow for a few days.

Some crazy quarry. We were going to watch them dynamite a boulder, but they made us move along.

These little spelunkers guided us through a pretty deep cave.

A market here in Khon Kaen

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


I'm traveling on my own now. Calum, Miles, and I all had slightly different plans, and for me to be where I want to be in a few weeks time I had to part ways with them. That's part of the reason. The other part is that for the last four months I haven't really been alone. Miles and I got along just about as well as two people can get along. In fact, until now, I had never spent so much time around just one person, and I don't think I ever will again. Even when I get married, unless my wife and I work at the same job, or get stranded on a desert island, it's likely we won't have as much contact as Miles and I had for the last four months. So even though Calum and Miles were just about the best companions to have, I began to miss my autonomy.

My first solo destination was Hanoi. It's a cool city--very crowded and very Vietnamese--but I'm losing my appreciation for cities. For almost two weeks I've been staying in pretty substantial urban centers, and I'm ready for a change in that regard too. To solve that problem, I have a bus booked to Laos, which is the mountainous country landlocked between Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. Most people recommend flying, but I'm partial to overland travel (plus it's about an eighth as expensive) so I opted for the bus. Despite my affinity for buses, I have to say I'm not looking forward to this one. They say it's an 18 hour ride, and I'm sure that's a best case scenario estimate. Like I said, Laos is a mountainous country, and a lot can happen in 18 hours. I can't imagine that they've averaged into that 18 hours all the delays from breakdowns, flat tires, or road construction. So I'm pretty much dreading it.

Enjoy some photos!

Our bus got a flat and we happened to find the ablest mechanic in all of Vietnam. He spent two hours patching two tires with the most rudimentary tools. His fee: 50,000 Dong (about $2.50).

The morning we parted

On the night bus from Hue to Hanoi... eating oreos.

Old town Hanoi

The shoe district

A riverside banana port. Women come here to load up their baskets and then flood the city with bananas.