To travel, you need an Atlas (moth)

December 30, 2006

Atlas Moth A spectacular Atlas moth just coming out of its cocoon. We went to a farm an hour outside Kuala Lampur today, where we saw this moth. An Atlas moth seemed an apt symbol of our atlas exploring trip. This moth will live for about two weeks from the fat deposits built up during its time as a caterpillar and die almost the same time we return home. More details on the trip to the farm tomorrow.

Welcome to Malaysia

December 27, 2006

Still in the present and thus out of sequence…

Since the Taiwan earthquake has disrupted telecommunications throughout Asia, I wrote half of this on my Blackberry, which seems to not to have been affected. Internet connections are working slowly and intermittently but I managed to finish the post on my laptop. I could not however upload the photo to flickr. I eventually managed to get the photo uploaded to this site, but the net is still very flaky.

I met my friend, Boon, from Malaysia at Birthing of Giants, a three year long entrepreneurial education program run by MIT, Inc. Magazine and the Entrepreneurs Organization (formerly YEO). I had been hoping to visit him in Kuala Lampur for some time, and now I am finally here. The only problem is that Boon is in Australia! The good news is that we will overlap one night for dinner, but in the meantime, he was nice enough to introduce me electronically to his forum named “a.S.i.D”.

For non-EO readers, a forum is a group of peers that EO members meet monthly to discuss whatever issues are important to the members. Forum groups often become quite tight over the years and a.S.i.D. has been together for almost a decade! Any friend of Boon’s, it seemed, was a friend of the forum’s. Several a.S.i.D. members were kind enough to contact me before my arrival with a variety of invitations.

One of them, James, wrote me last night and told me he was leaving town, but that he was free tonight and tomorrow night. He asked where I was staying and when I was arriving. I sent him the information and agreed to call him when I got in. I understood this to mean that I’d call him when I got to my hotel about 8:30 that night. He understood it a little differently.

I never got a chance to call him because he was standing in my hotel lobby and greeting us warmly before I had a chance to make it to the check-in counter. He had Rosemary, another Forum member, and her husband Stephen in tow. The five of us went out for Chinese food and then for coffee and dessert. They were warm, gracious and fun! It was a fantastic, if somewhat unexpected, welcome to Kuala Lampur. Of course given the ubiquitous English and the modern air conditioned mall with Prada and Cartier we could just as easily been in Los Angeles.

James had devoured both my blog and Soyan’s and was full of birthdays wishes for Soyan and questions about our trip. He also shared some of his travels in pursuit of his goal to visit 200 countries before he dies. While he is only a little over 25% of the way, I don’t doubt he’ll make it. He seems to have an incredible knack for organizing adventures. It took me years to get my Forum to go to Las Vegas. “a.S.i.D.” has gone to Angkor Wat, Hanoi and the Taj Majal to name just a few spots. Along the way they have the orchestrated impossible dinners in places like Hanoi’s Temple of Literature and an Angkor Temple.

James was kind enough indulge me in my favorite pastime of learning about other people’s businesses and told me a little bit about his hospitality furniture business. Rosemary gave me some insight in to the Kuala Lampur real estate market and her multigeneration-family friendly town houses. Her husband Stephen runs a Malaysian ISP and brought me up to speed about the local market for technology products and workers. I had never given much thought to living in Malaysia, but now it seems so easy. I’ll get a condo from Rosemary and Internet access from Stephen. James and I have already started discussing ideas about selling his furniture online. Not bad for 12 hours in the country.

Tsunami Birthday

December 26, 2006

Tsunami sign in Ko LantaNow that I am out of sequence, I thought I’d point out that it is a big day here in Thailand. It is the Tsunami anniversary. The photo to the left was taken in Ko Lanta, two weeks ago in the Tsunami zone.

It was difficult for me to understand how the Tsunami affected the Thais before I came to Thailand. The Tsunami was so unexpected and devastating that not even the royal family was spared casualties. While it has not had quite the same impact on the Thai national psyche as 9/11 did on the US psyche, it is close.

It has had a major impact on people’s view of the weather and travel. There is a new level of fear (respect?) everytime the news reports on rough seas. On the plus side, before the Tsunami, Thais did not feel welcome in Phuket. It was just for the tourists. Only after the tremendous loss of life (and tourism) did the Thai government start a campaign to encourage Thais to visit.

Dressed for dinner.On a more personal note: it is Soyan’s birthday and our last night in Thailand. Yesterday we went shopping and tonight the efforts bore fruit as Soyan dressed up for dinner. We went to some sushi place that is alleged to make the Japanese swoon. While the food was quite good, I did not see anybody actually faint. You can’t really trust reviews.

Tomorrow we go to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia to visit a friend and celebrate New Years. Then to the Philippines and we come back to the US of A. I can’t believe we’ll be home in just 3 weeks! The trip has gone so quickly and been so much fun!

Merry Christmas from Bangkok

December 25, 2006

Central World Mall on ChristmasChristmas is no longer a christian holiday. Through TV, Movies, never ending Christmas songs and the power of international retail Christmas is a worldwide phenomenon that transcends religion. Thailand is 94% Buddhist, and today is not an official holiday, but you would never know that if you went to any of its many malls.

For the Jewish perspective on the Chinese take on Christmas be sure to visit my friends the Shamrock Jews.

NB: I have been writing about our fantastic adventures in Thailand, but I haven’t posted anything because I was trying to keep things in sequence. So please forgive this time warp. I am trying to catch up.

Unwritten Rules

December 14, 2006

I haven’t written about our overland trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu. I have barely written about Kathmandu or Chitwan in Nepal. I haven’t written about Hong Kong or Macau. Vietnam’s Ha Long bay and Sapa have befallen the same fate. I’d like to write about all of them, but actually experiencing them seems to have taken priority. Add to that that I was sick for 10 days and I am too far behind to catch up. Soyan has touched on some of these things so if you aren’t already reading her blog to keep tabs on me, check it out.

Here are some photos of some I have uploaded to flickr, but not yet linked here…

Hanoi, Vietnam Sapa, Vietnam Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Policy Architecture and America’s Defeat

Hanoi Narrow buildingsRarely has the architecture of policy, been so visible. Hanoi residents pay property taxes based on the linear street frontage of a building rather than its square footage. The predictable result is very narrow, very tall, very deep buildings.

Until 1986, farmland in Vietnam was allocated on a similarly ill-concieved and strictly per capita basis. Each family got 360 square meters of land to farm, per family member. If you wanted more land, you had more kids. It will surprise no one that this resulted in one of the highest birthrates in the world. Families with “only” seven children were considered small. The soaring birth rate just created more mouths to feed, and did nothing to encourage improved productivity on existing land.

Fortunately Vietnamese policy changed and the government instead began renting land to people based on their ability to produce crops and pay for the land. As a result, Vietnam’s production of rice has exploded. Vietnam has in fact become the world’s second largest rice producer. This status was obtained by “beating” the United States. Oddly, and in stark contrast to the US view of defeat, the Vietnamese rice victory seems to play a much more important role in national pride than the earlier military defeat of the US. I was worried that there might be some hostility or resentment about the US role in the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War). This, however, seemed to be water under the (Da Krong) bridge.

The rice victory is such a source of pride that three seperate people have told me about Vietnam’s victory in climbing toward the top of the rice heap. The people varied in the degree to which they emphasised this as a victory over the US, but all clearly saw it that way. I, however, did not feel even the slightest shame or disappointment in America’s “defeat” as the world’s second largest rice producer. To be honest, before learning of this loss to the Vietnamese, I had never given a moment’s thought to the source of the world’s rice.

I guess it doesn’t hurt so bad to lose when you don’t even know you are fighting…

Tailor Made

Thu Thuy Tailor shop Hoi An VietnamHoi An is a charming, but certainly not undiscovered coastal town in central Vietnam with a population of 70,000. It is well known for its tailors. The streets are lined with hundreds of tailor shops, many bearing large hand written testimonials on butcher paper. Each satisfied client is more fanatical in his praise than the next — at least of those that I can read. In addition to testimonials in English, I’ve seen testimonials in all the best backpacker languages like Dutch and Hebrew, but not one in Vietnamese.

This is hardly a surprise because every local woman not working in a hotel or a tailor shop, where a traditional ao dai seems to be obligatory, is wearing jeans that are 3 to 10 inches too long for her. The extra fabric is folded up on the outside of the jeans forming an enormous cuff. Unlike a 14 year old boy’s pants that might go from being two inches too long to two inches too short before they wear them out, these women are in their twenties so they have had any “growth spurt” they might expect. In general, the reason the pants are too long may be related to the fact that even after their growth spurt almost one third of them are still less than 5 feet tall.

Those not wearing jeans generally work in the hospitality, retail and government sectors. The local ao dais are made of beautiful fabrics and are very flattering, but the cut and construction, while tailored is quite simple. Against this backdrop, caution seemed prudent. My brother and online investigation yielded many cautionary tales, but some happy customers as well. Based on an excellent article by Deborah L. Jacobs I picked a local tailor, for an experiment in casual clothes, but I decided to hold off on any suits or dress shirts until Bangkok.

I brought a favorite Indigo Palms camp shirt as a model of the cut, style and workmanship I was seeking. I picked out a pair of fabrics while Soyan looked through the 4 inch thick book of catalogs. She picked selected a long white skirt similar to one she had been looking for and picked some red corduroy to use for copying a favorite pair of Lucky brand jeans.

When I came back for a fitting I liked the shirts enough to pick out a few more fabrics, but there were a few small tweaks that I asked to be fixed. On my third visit I tried on the second set of shirts which again needed small fixes. On my fourth visit most of the kinks had been worked out, but one shirt made of a light weight silk, just didn’t hang right. They pledged to try and fix it, but said that if it didn’t work out I didn’t have to take it. Finally on the fifth visit I took the shirts home (other than the silk one). They weren’t as perfect as I’d expect from custom tailored shirts, but I was pleased with them. My biggest complaint was a slight pucker just below the collar at the base of my neck. It was subtle enough that I would have let it go buying off the rack, but it was a disappointment for custom made.

Overall I was glad I had had the shirts made. I thought they looked nice and at $16 a piece they were a bargain compaired to Indigo Palms, but 5 visits is too many to have to make. Fortunately I had the time, but it was a bit of a bother to be always planning around our next appointment at the tailor especially for a few shirts.