Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

Pirates of the Mediterranean


Welcome to our nation-state. It is 43 feet long and 23 wide — a bareboat catamaran, if you prefer. We are plying the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey, wandering at will among bays and coves, tying up where we like, doing whooping cannonballs off the bow. Our chartered craft flies the French flag, but we aren’t French. It makes us feel like pirates.

There are eight of us — friends and friends-of-friends. We are bad sailors with good attitudes. Our skipper is Captain Marco, a Californian (like most of us) who last roamed these waters 15 years ago as a charter captain. He will maneuver the boat with more ease than I could pilot a bathtub toy, transform us into a crack crew and regale us with tales of his past exploits — whether we like it or not. These waters are known as the Turquoise Coast. They could well be the source of the word “turquoise,” which is simply French for “Turkish.” If not, they deserve to be. Looking out to sea, we summon up all the words we know for “blue” and still leave shades unnamed. The water is so clear that, in shallows, it glows incandescent from rays of sun bouncing off the sea floor.

Over the next seven days we will sail from Marmaris to below Fethiye and meander back up to Gocek. We’ll snorkel among shards of ancient amphorae, cavort in mud and play amateur archaeologist. Two Dutch yachties will stand on their stern, serenading us with harmonica chanteys as we dance an impromptu jig. One morning, I’ll come up from my cabin and spy Winston Churchill, reincarnated as a bulldog, strutting along the deck of a sailboat docked next to us. Another, I’ll be awakened by Pavarotti, the opera-singing donkey. We’ll fix cucumber salads and fry up lamb chops onboard. We’ll wash down smuggled French chocolates with duty-free grappa.

Our shoes — banished to the hold by Captain Marco — will ferment, forgotten, sloshing in a splash of seawater.

Food, Mud, History

As Mamaris dims to a murmur in the distance, we test ourselves at sea, taking the cat up to eight knots under sail. Stealing speed from the air makes us giddy. We think we could go anywhere.

We turn east and overnight in Ekincik, at a restaurant-with-a-dock that serves up food and hot showers to boaters. “I’m Captain Marco!” our skipper shouts to the kid who comes to catch our stern line. “Captain Marco! Remember me?” At most, the boy has seen 15 summers. Marco is sweetly oblivious to math and time.

At night, we rock below deck, in four tiny cabins wedged into the boat’s double hulls, lulled by the slap of waves and the groan of mooring ropes.

In the morning, a battered wooden motor launch fetches us up the Dalyan River, past a powdery crescent of beach where sinuous flipper tracks from breeding loggerhead turtles disappear into the sea. We weave through tall reeds to the harbor town of Kaunos, which lies marooned by silt — as well as by history. It dates from the 9th century B.C., though the remains are mostly Greek and Roman. Outside an amphitheater sited to catch sea breezes and dispense panoramic views, a goat climbs halfway up a tree to snatch tender leaves.

Past the shell of a Byzantine church and ruined baths, down a stone road, warehouse foundations and mysterious monuments are all that’s left of the harbor’s bustle. One in our party helps a French woman descend from a crumbling wall. “This is not the first time America has come to the aid of France,” her husband says with a touch of irony.

Upriver, Lycian tombs dominate the cliffs. Their carvings mimic Greek temple facades, with pediments and columns, hovering halfway up the rock face. The Lycians ruled this slice of coast long before the Greeks arrived. They had their own language and alphabet, created the first known democratic union and were fiercely independent. Lycia was the last holdout on the entire Mediterranean coast before finally being absorbed into the Roman Empire in the 1st century A.D. These tombs are remnants of their ancestor worship.

Further upriver, we wallow like pigs in a mud bath, coating ourselves in sulfurous gray ooze, then letting it dry and crack in the sun. We look like bush tribesmen but feel like fools — until we stand rinsing off in communal showers and discover how soft our skin has become.

At Dalyan town, we forage beyond the tourist shops rimming the dock and find a greengrocer who sells us strange, leafless branching vegetables that look to have been bred on an alien planet. She breaks off a piece for us to taste, and it’s salty. (Later, back home, I find out they are “sea beans” grown in marshlands.) Through pantomime and a bit of English, she tells us the freaky greens should be boiled then tossed with olive oil and lemon. Her proud friend elbows into the cooking lesson to show us photos of her son living in North Carolina. She points to each person in the snapshots and explains all about them in Turkish.

In the Gulf of Fethiye, we anchor off of tiny Karacaoren Island, a deserted, jagged mass of black volcanic rock pocked with ruins. We plunge into the deliciously chilly waters. From the nearby mainland, hopeful hawkers head our way in battered wooden boats.

Two men in a dinghy beckon, holding out ridiculously expensive tomatoes. Then a woman pulls up, seducing us with gozleme, Turkish “pancakes,” made fresh on her brazier and folded around salty, crumbled cheese and sprigs of fresh dill. They are so good that we put in dessert orders for more warm envelopes filled with chocolate, bananas and honey.

“Sorry,” we say to the hustler in a slick speedboat waving Magnum ice cream bars. He seems to have raced over from another century.

Tombs in the Stone

Karacaoren is guarded by treacherous stones that jab up from the sea, yet we want to explore its meager ruins. Captain Marco agrees to maneuver our rubber raft to a landing point where we can jump ashore as the waves heave our little craft toward the rocks. We leap onto parched terrain carpeted with goat dung. Remnants of terra cotta roof tiles crunch under our feet. Climbing to the summit, we find remains of a modest church and small, vaulted tombs with traces of frescoes. We suspect they’re Byzantine. We discover cisterns and ponder the hard life on this sun-blasted knoll, with no fresh water source, in cramped buildings built from dark stone. Were these people religious hermits? Traders? Lookouts? Not a soul shares the island with us; maybe the goats are ghosts, too.

Nearby Gemiler Island looks more welcoming, with pine trees and a bounty of ruins. Byzantine-era docks and stone warehouses lie partially submerged along the shore, and paths lead to remnants of five churches built between the 5th and 6th centuries. It’s possible to catch glimpses of mosaics and inlaid marble floors in the remains of a basilica on the island’s highest point, a good hundred yards above the water. But what saves our souls is the view.

Some say St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, once lived here, making Gemiler a popular pilgrimage site back in the Byzantine era. The island’s mysterious masterpiece is a long, enclosed walkway that snakes down its center. It has spawned many tales, but my favorite says this vaulted, fresco-decorated corridor was built for an albino queen so she could promenade through the city without exposing her delicate skin to the sun.

That night, we encounter the only siren’s song of our trip. It’s belted out by Pavarotti, the opera-singing donkey of Cold Water Bay. We succumbed to a little ad in our boat manual to anchor in this harbor-with-a-restaurant because, really, who could pass up an asinine aria? Pavarotti’s owner, Ali, plies us with grilled fish and boar stew, cooked by one of his “boys” who squats by a fire built on the ground. It’s the best food we’ve encountered on the voyage. Ali fires up a fat cigar, commands an extra bottle of wine and joins us at our table under the trees.

“Shut up!” Captain Marco suddenly shouts, and our group falls silent, exchanging nervous, guilty looks. “Shut up!” he cries again, laughing. “That’s how you order more wine in Turkish!” Ali doles out the wine, the glow of his cigar punctuating his moves as darkness pushes in from the sea.

Ali tells us his village lies on the other side of this mountainous territory guarding the water, and he offers to take us there. The lure is Lycian tombs and the deserted Greek town of Kayakoy.

The next morning, Ali makes good on his promise. Because Cold Water Bay is cut off from inland roads by the coastal mountains, it’s a roundabout tour. We pile into Ali’s speedboat and rocket along until we reach a beach where a road runs inland, then all squeeze into his van and careen over the mountains.

Ali shows us two types of Lycian tombs — modest versions of the temple-facade-style burial chambers, carved into the base of a cliff, and free-standing house-type sarcophagi cut from massive hunks of stone and topped with thick, peaked slabs. There’s something of the South Seas about these house tombs, a sensibility far different from the Greek-influenced temple tombs.

We swing by Ali’s big stone house topped with a satellite dish and help him load cases of wine into the van. Ali’s wisp of a mom comes out to show us her flower garden and hand out hugs.

Nearby Kayakoy was abandoned in the 1920s by more than 2,000 Greek families, who were “exchanged” by the government for Turks living in Greece. Their forsaken, roofless, whitewashed houses march up the mountain like rows of rotting teeth. In the small rooms, corner fireplaces and bits of bright, painted decoration hint at what the occupants left behind when the deportation occurred. A church with beach-pebble mosaics waits forlornly for worshipers to return.

Ali spirits us back to Cold Water Bay, covering the sea distance in a blink, compared with sailboat speed. As we lift our anchor and sedately set out for open water, Ali waggles his cigar in farewell while Pavarotti sings us off from shore.

Backpackers, Beware

We sail for Butterfly Valley, reachable only by sea — or by a deadly, precipice-hugging path known to devour foolish backpackers. The 1,150-foot cliffs embrace a canyon that slices back from a beach of rounded stones, luring hikers with a forest of oleanders that rain candy-pink petals, while 35 species of butterflies flutter and flirt. The path slowly constricts, grows more sinister, clotted with boulders and tangled roots, but the prize at its end is a 200-foot-tall waterfall.

Returning to the beach, I shake oleander petals from my hair and swim out to our boat. We circle back to the Gulf of Fethiye, scouting the island of Tesane. Though there are remnants of ancient shipyards, the place looks desolate and desiccated, baked brown as an overdone sugar cookie, with scraps of buildings poking up.

We sail on to Tomb Bay, beautiful despite a name filled with doom. Scraggly tiers of old olive groves mount steep hills, with Lycian tombs etched into high rock faces. We leap into the cool water and climb out on stone steps, once part of docks where goods were hauled to the agora above. As I scramble uphill, lost steps emerge from the brambles. Who passed this way hundreds of years ago, stopping to gaze out at the gulf — fearing pirates, not the package tour boats that we shun?

At Ruin Bay, we set anchor and tie up for the night, roped to a pine tree. A shore party paddles over to see ruins of the baths where Cleopatra soaked herself in asses’ milk, so it’s said. Was this the beauty secret that conquered Caesar and Mark Antony? The baths’ crumbled foundations lie mostly submerged, begging for someone with a grand imagination to conjure the exotic queen.

The vision isn’t helped by the rusting hulk of a ship that hunkers at the rickety dock, serving as restaurant and bar. We toss down a beer and row back, holding plates of meatballs and chicken to serve with the spaghetti simmering in our compact galley.

After dinner, we lie on deck, trying to pick constellations out of the glittering, crowded sky. There’s talk of skinny-dipping. It seems perfectly natural. The salt crusted in my hair seems perfectly natural. No one wants to surrender our boat the next day. We wonder how far we could sail before they’d find us.

© 2007 Gayle Keck
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Taiwan: The Beauty is in the Details


The Beauty is in the Details


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The Land of a Million Elephants


“I feel like a gangster,” an Irish fellow mutters, struggling to close his wallet around a fat wad of kip. We’ve congregated, with an ark-worthy queue of assorted foreigners, at the one ATM we could find in Luang Prabang. The most cash you can withdraw in a day is 700,000 kip: about 76 bucks. Within two days, you can be a kip millionaire.

Strangers talk to one another here, people who’d never strike up a conversation when touring London or Rome. It’s one of those clues that tell you this Mekong River town in northern Laos is an outpost. The atmosphere is part “Star Wars” bar, part “Casablanca.” Backpackers descend from the surrounding mountains or step ashore off slow boats, clutching tattered Lonely Planet guides. Europeans, Australians, Thais and a few Americans wing in on prop planes. Members of ethnic hill tribes, particularly the Hmong, appear at sunset, spreading their wares along the street. And everywhere you turn there are Buddhist monks in blazing-orange robes.

My husband, Paul, and I have stopped in for five days because Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site — and because Laos still holds enough mystique to offset the escalating buzz from media must-visit lists and tourists seeking the next hot destination.

A town of 26,000, Luang Prabang is shaped like a tongue, formed by the Nam Khan River as it curves to meet the Mekong. The waters of these two rivers are dense with mud, as if history were dissolved in them and were flowing relentlessly, opaquely past.

In 1353, this lick of land was the seat of a kingdom known as Lan Xang, or the Land of a Million Elephants. It also was once the Laotian capital, losing out to Vientiane when France took over the country in 1893. And it was home to the royal family until 1975, when the Pathet Lao communists gained power and, it is said, banished the royals to a cave.

We’re in cozier quarters: a thatch-roofed bamboo bungalow set on a high riverbank outside town, overlooking the Nam Khan. There is no TV. From our balcony, lazing against triangular bolsters, we shamelessly gaze down on our neighbors across the river with that fascination modern urbanites have for the simple life. The far bank is patchworked with small plots. Men hoe vegetables, women scrub laundry in the dingy water, a fisherman checks his bamboo traps, kids turn a washbasin into an impromptu boat and skid away from their soap-wielding mom.

The vast majority of Laos’s population is rural, but 10 minutes away by tuk-tuk, the bargain-priced motorcycle-powered open trucks, Luang Prabang bustles. In 1988, the year Laos reopened to tourists, only 600 of them visited the entire country; there are probably that many trolling Luang Prabang’s streets today alone. We see bamboo scaffolding where repairs are being made to colonial-era stuccoed homes with mossy tiled roofs and sagging shutters, efforts to meet the growing demand for guesthouses.

Luang Prabang’s architecture catapulted it onto the World Heritage list in 1995. The sublime mix of old Laotian wooden houses, half-timbered buildings, stalwart French structures and ancient Buddhist temples can be found nowhere else, UNESCO says.

But these days, to spot them on some streets, you need to look among swaths of telephone and electrical wires, restaurant signs, shops stocked with chorus lines of Buddha statues, fume-belching tuk-tuks and tour agents’ placards with long, handwritten essays advertising offerings in fractured English. (“If you are interesting please contact us inside.”)

It’s hard to appreciate — or find — Luang Prabang’s charms on our first day. Drenching rain falls nonstop. And this is supposed to be the dry season.

We scuttle to the Royal Palace Museum, where more than a hundred soggy, muddy shoes cluster around the main entrance. Etiquette forbids footwear inside most buildings, though shopkeepers often call out “Shoes okay!” to tourists. The parked shoes provide an instant tip-off to who’s inside. (That comes in handy one day when I misplace Paul and track him down by spotting his battered size 13 Nikes.)

Exploring the royal palace is a bit eerie because the government has never revealed the fate of its former occupants. The early-20th-century building is a mash-up of Laotian and western architecture, highlighted by a throne room crusted with royal bling: thrones, swords, regalia, the monarch’s howdah (a chair for perching atop an elephant) and spectacular mosaics of multicolored pieces of mirror set onto deep-red walls. The royal bedrooms are austere, furnished with drab, vaguely deco furniture. Backstage life in this monarchy had all the appeal of a two-star hotel room.

Alas, though I’m primed to shop in one of the few countries where dollars still have value, the renowned night market is canceled because of the rain. So we head for a performance of the Royal Ballet troupe, revived after a communist-imposed hiatus.

Before the traditional dances begin, members of a group of older Laotians chant a blessing, then fan out into the audience to tie white strings around both wrists of every spectator. This is the basi, a ceremony to ensure that guardian spirits essential for good mental and physical health are bound to a person’s body.

The spirits clearly realize that my mental health is tied to dry weather, and when we emerge, the rain has ended. We celebrate with tall bottles of Beerlao at Tum Tum Cheng, a restaurant named for the sound of temple drums and cymbals. We sample Mekong catfish, beef stew made with pungent galangal root and huge bowls of “Secret Soup,” packed with chicken and vegetables, including eggplants the size of cherry tomatoes.

There’s a French culinary influence here, too, left over from colonial days. In the market, we see baguettes and filled beignets, while bakeries are stocked with oddly evolved pastries, Galapagos versions of French desserts.

For authentic Laotian fare at lunchtime, we seek out Tamarind, a tiny restaurant where we pick up bites of sticky rice with our fingers, dipping it into small bowls of vegetables and chili sauce. We sample chewy dried water buffalo and fried, pressed sheets of “river moss” (which I suspect, after investigating the Mekong, starts life as green slime).

Curiously, a jolly-looking, solitary man is at both Tum Tum Cheng and Tamarind when we dine. Sure enough, he turns up at Tum Tum Cheng when we return to feed my newfound Secret Soup addiction. “I’m going to ask him where else he’s eaten,” Paul says. “Every place we’ve seen him, the food has been great.” As Paul invites the fellow to join us, I ponder whether he’s a spy.

“Australian Bob” has been adventuring along the Mekong, traveling like a backpacker, despite his crisp shirt and spotless khakis. He regales us with tales of $2-a-night lodging and prodigious (but refused) offers of drugs. “And the women!” he says. “There are lots of them traveling alone.” Then, sotto voce, “They keep propositioning me.”

We nod politely. It’s tough to picture this portly, 60-something engineering professor as a sex object. But, almost on cue, a tour group of eight women-of-a-certain-age passes through the restaurant, all of them ogling our chap. “See?” he says.

With a bit of sun, everything is transformed. We marvel at the graceful, sloping, tiered roofs of the town’s temples, or wats. Teenage novice monks sit outside, intent over their lesson books. For poor boys, wats offer the only chance of education. For tourists, they offer a chance to stalk the perfect monk photo: orange robes and shaved heads artfully arrayed on temple steps.

We climb Mount Phousi, the steep, 330-foot-high sacred hill in the midst of town. From the top we can look down on gaggles of slender, long-tail river boats and dozens of temples and also chat up young novices hanging out to practice English. “Do you like Laos?” one asks. “Where are you from?” I might as well be from Mars, I think, wondering how to describe what he might see from my city’s hills. “Do you have any books,” he asks, “or notebooks?” Those are rare commodities, we learn, and I wish I’d come with a satchel of reading material.

We ease that regret by tutoring young monks at Big Brother Mouse, an organization that prints books and provides a meeting place for local kids to speak English with foreigners.

Wandering tranquil Kounxoa Road, popping into temple complexes that catch our fancy, Paul and I happen upon Wat Xieng Muan, where wood chips fly as young monks carve Buddhas. It’s a UNESCO program to revive traditional arts that were squelched in the early communist era. At the small shop, we pick out a lithe Luang Prabang-style Buddha, happy to support the monastery’s work.

In the city’s most historic area, near the tip of the geographic tongue, we visit Wat Xieng Thong, founded in 1560. The main building, the sim, sports dazzling exterior mosaics similar to those in the palace throne room; inside, Buddhas large and small, sitting and standing, await worshipers amid regal, gilt-stenciled surroundings. Another temple structure holds the ornate, gold-leafed royal funeral carriage and a clutch of life-size standing Buddhas with the eerie aspect of exotic department-store mannequins.

On our stroll, we see racks of rice cakes, loops of sausages and frames of handmade mulberry paper, all set out in the sun to dry. I stop to peek inside a kettle an old woman is stirring over a brazier next to her house. She nods “okay” to a photo and flashes a big, one-toothed smile when we show her the image.

Up another street, I hear “Thwack!” as a coconut bangs onto the pavement. “That’s a weird coincide-,” I start to say, glad we didn’t get beaned. “Thwack!” Another plummets. Then I notice a man with a machete, swaying in the top of the palm tree. “Thwack! Thwack!” Two women in the street are acting as coconut crossing guards, calling up to the man when a vehicle comes along. A crowd gathers to watch the spectacle until the man finally shins down the trunk.

Although that is enough action for me, Paul hankers for an adventure tour. A tour company drives us seven miles up the Nam Khan to an elephant camp, where we, aboard elephants, lumber across a teak grove and through a stream. I even get to ease down from the howdah and sit right on the elephant’s shoulders for part of the ride, her ears flapping against my bare legs.

After the elephant ride, our guide, Phun, a wiry university student, pilots us on a raft down the sluggish river. We paddle till our arms ache, passing wallowing water buffalo, rickety rafts of market-bound bamboo, women washing — hey, one is even brushing her teeth in the river! — and men calling out with offers of lao-lao, a wicked rice whiskey. We float by another elephant camp as the mahouts bathe their charges in the river.

I feel more sure of myself navigating the night market, which flows over town streets like rivers of woven cloth. Swaths of silk and cotton scarves, old tribal clothing, appliqued pillows and rich, hand-loomed fabrics cover block after block. We negotiate for simple silk scarves ($4) and a fine, intricately patterned shawl ($18). “Lucky, lucky, lucky!” the seller chants, anointing her other wares with our fortune-bearing bills.

On our final morning, we wake before dawn to witness the daily gift of alms to the monks. Our tuk-tuk driver says he’ll take us to two spots: one nearby, with a few monks and no tourists; the other in town, with lots of monks and lots of tourists. As we hop out of the tuk-tuk, through the 5:30 a.m. gloom I see local women kneeling along the curb, clutching baskets. A line of monks passes by, each monk holding out his food bowl, into which each woman deposits a pinch of cooked sticky rice.

The last woman motions me over. She and the two next to her scoop rice onto a basket lid and offer it to me, demonstrating how to pull off the proper amount. I kneel next to them and shape little bites, silently depositing one into each man’s bowl as it pauses in front of me. As the last of 30 or so barefoot monks pads off into the dark, I turn to thank the women for their generosity. “Khap jai, lai-lai,” I say, raising my hands in the praying motion called a nop, the Laotian gesture of greeting, gratitude and farewell. “Thank you very much.”

A few minutes later, on Luang Prabang’s main road, bleary-eyed tourists are thronging, surrounded by vendors hawking cheaply prepared foods, some wrapped in leaves, to offer to the town’s monks as they pass by. Despite guidebook cautions against these substandard offerings, which the monks often throw away, people are buying. Lit by the hard rays of dawn, the monks’ procession takes on a parade atmosphere, with packs of paparazzi tourists snapping away. The spiritual magic has evaporated.

That afternoon, as our plane climbs up over the bamboo-forested mountains, I ponder Luang Prabang’s fate. Will the town’s allure help preserve its traditions or lead to their demise? Will this beauty survive the tourism beast?

It’s in the Leaves


It’s in the Leaves
360 Magazine

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