Tag Archives: Luang Prabang

Indochina Tour: Guided Access

Go and visit. Stay and connect. This is one of the tag lines (or themes) which we’ve used as a family to help guide our journey from the moment we first decided to embark upon our Family Sabbatical. However, going into our recent Indochina Peninsula Tour, we knew that the jam-packed schedue (4 countries, 15 cities in 25 days) would make connecting with locals challenging.

One of the unexpected joys of the tour turned out to be the local guides whom served as our Hosts in their respective cities/regions. They were our Teachers, providing cultural and historical context to the many sights, sounds, and experiences. They were our Guardians, giving expert local advice on how to avoid shady people, places, or situations. Some even let down their guards enough to become Friends whom we look forward to someday hosting in Seattle.

Gai was our guide in Bangkok and Ayutthaya, Thailand. She was energetic, she smiled with her eyes (you could even tell through her sunglasses), and her manner reminded me of some of my Aunts in the Bunda Clan. Gai was a proud Thai–she even mentioned that she wished the country were still called “Siam” like it once was. She lived in the U.S. (Virginia) a few years ago, but decided to come back after 3 years because she missed her country and “her people.” Gai was a devout Buddhist. Her knowledge in that arena came in handy as we visited more temples during our time with her than at any other time on the tour. Gai quickly gravitated towards Kamaile took extra care to ensure that she understood what she was seeing.

Gai and Kamaile outside the Temple of the Reclining Buddha

Kay was our guide in Chiang Mai, Thailand. At first, I assumed that she was an introvert, but I realize now that any guide would seem that way to us right after Gai. Kay actually had the same laid-back demeanor that many of the people in Chiang Mai seem to possess. Like many guides, she herself is an avid traveler. Kay took particular interest in Trey–commenting a number of times on his height, as well as the fact that “many Chiang Mai girls will be interested in him when he comes back in a few years.” Too funny. Kay was paricularly good at helping us get unique experiences (Tigers!) despite the fact that we were in a number of tourist-infested places. 

Bidding farewell to Kay at the Chiang Mai Airport

Sengphone was our guide in Luang Prabang, Laos. He lives with his wife and kids in Luang Prabang, but is originally from a mountain village near the Chinese border. When we first met Sengphone, I remember thinking that he had the calm, gentle disposition of a monk. Shortly thereafter, we learned that he, like many poor boys from the countryside, joined a monastery when he was 13. Sengphone went on to explain that his primary motivation for joining was Education (there were no schools in his village), followed by bringing prestige to his family, and finally for religious purposes (his own). One thing I really appreciated about him was the way he actively partipated and/or taught when we visited local craftspeople in their villages. Sengphone came across as someone who could actually make the mulberry paper or silk cloth himself, not just talk about it. Finally, being a father himself, Sengphone was also very good about reading the kids’ moods and energy levels–suggesting modifications to our time in Luang Prabang to better suit our needs. 

Note: Sengphone was part of a previous post “Laos: I Gotta Get, I Got-Got Ta Get It.

Saying goodbye to Sengphone at the airport in Laos

Jay was our guide in Hanoi, Vietnam. We arrived pretty late in the evening prior to our Hanoi Bike Tour, but he still took it upon himself to greet us and try to gauge our excitement about the next day. His given name is Giang, but he introduced himself as “Jay, like Jay Z.” Needless to say, I had a good feeling about him. Our bike tour itself was tough. We nearly quit after Kamaile crashed within the first 20 meters of our ride out of the Old Quarter. The fact that we were already exhausted, fighting crazy heat and humidity, and in a very hectic, new place was not a good combination. After about an hour of riding, I was about to call it a day. Jay suggested that we just sit and chat under a tree to cool off a bit. In the next 40 minutes, we engaged in an amazing conversation about Jay’s hopes and dreams for the future, his struggle to keep up with his peers (the Rat Race is alive and well in Hanoi, too), and the role of faith (or lack thereof) in his life, which he initiated 100%. He then invited us to ride to a neighborhood well off the beaten path to see how he and “most people in the city live.” I believe the only reason he felt comfortable enough to to bring us there was the very unscripted conversation that we’d had just before. What a privilege! 

Muggin’ with Jay after our crazy bike tour

Thuy was our guide in the mountain city of Sapa, Vietnam. She was easily the most reserved, even close-vested, of all our guides on the tour. Thuy fascinated me for a number of reasons: 1) She was from the Red Dzao tribe and dressed in traditional clothing every day, whether or not she was working; 2) She talked openly about her views on the courtship (previously non-existent, now Facebook vetting is acceptable) and marriage practices for the Dzao, as well as the many Hmong tribes in the area (still arranged, but at least kidnapping your potential bride from another village/tribe is no longer common); and, 3) She shared less about herself than any of the other guides on the tour despite our best attempts. During our last 30 minutes together, she finally spoke a little about her husband and son. 
 

Thuy saw us off at the train station before our overnight journey back to Hanoi

Toan was our guide for our day trip to Ky Son Village (outside of Hanoi, Vietnam). He was a humble man whose parents met in another village while his father was part of the Viet Cong. As the story goes, once the Vietnam War (or “American War” as they call it there) was over in 1975, his parents chose to move to this farming village to start their new life. Toan grew up as a farmer as well, but when a businessman from the city bought up property in his village to create a museum/resort for visitors, he jumped at the opportunity to earn money in a different, less physically strenuous manner. His English was good, as is, but even more impressive to me when we found out that he learned primarily by talking to visitors (as opposed to the formal training that each of the other guides received). Toan was proud of his village and that pride was only surpassed by that which he felt for his 15 and 10 year-old daughters, Ngoc an Linh. He even brought us over to his house for a few minutes so we could meet them and share tea together. 
 

Toan, Linh (10), and Ngoc (15) in their beautiiful home

Ty was our guide in Hoi An, Da Nang, and Hue, Vietnam. He was a nice guy that was very proud of Central Vietnam–especially his hometown of Hue. More so than any of the other guides on the tour, Ty took a long time to grasp that we were not the type of people to passively just go wherever the itinerary said (or, worse, wherever he wanted). Ty also had a couple quirks which were sometimes irritating, and at other times funny.  He did not seem to prefer talking and walking at the same time. Coupled with his habit for repeating a concept 2-3 times at minimum, this meant we spent long stretches of time standing in the hot sun listening to him lecture through a thick Vietnamese accent. The poor kids really struggled to pay attention. I think he finally got the picture on the 2nd day, when I would put my arms around the kids and just start walking off in a direction as soon as he started repeating himself. To Ty’s credit, things started to go much more smoothly after I took him aside a couple times to specifically explain that we had limited attention spans and only enough energy to see the specific things which interested us.     

One would think that capturing a good pic of Ty would be easy with all the standing around we did

Lot was our guide in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. The amount of fun we had with Lot may have even surpassed our experience with Jay. She was quirky, funny, and a bit of a jokester. At the end of our first day, she said flat out that we’d be seeing another guide on the second day. When I tried to give her a tip, she quickly ducked away with an awkward goodbye. Lot then returned the next morning but introduced herself as Lot’s sister and tried to keep it up for a few minutes. What?! LOL Lot also treated Kamaile and Trey as if they were her niece and nephew–with that familial mix of fun, protectiveness, and even some correction when warranted. I know that she made the kids’ experience that much better.   

Goofing around with Lot and Ut, our day guide in Ben Tre (Mekong Delta). BTW, I’m not supposed to say anything, but I’m pretty sure Lot is waiting for Ut to ask her on a date.

Proney was our guide in Siem Reap. Heat have been the most compelling of all of our guides. Like Sengphone, Proney spent time during his teenage and early adult years as a Buddhist monk. Like Toan, war was a part of Proney’s history–just much more recently. When the Khmer Rouge was in power, nearly 1/4 of Cambodia’s population was killed. Most of those people were the well-educated (doctors, lawyers, businessman, and civic leaders); and, in the eyes of Pol Pot, capable of organizing resistance against the Khmer Rouge. As time went on, young boys (especially those from poorer families) were often forced to fight for the Khmer Rouge. For a short time, until he escaped, Proney was one of those soldiers. Risking great peril, he eventually snuck away and joined the relative safety of a monastery where he learned about Buddhism, as well as the English and Japanese languages. Proney mentioned that many of his immediate family members were not so “fortunate.” His father was shot by soldiers one day while farming–apparently mistaken from a distance as a resistance fighter. Proney also lost 2 siblings to some of the many land mines which still plague parts of the country. Unbelievably, he lost 2 more siblings to starvation. With very little outward emotion, Proney told me that his story was not special; that “everybody lost family.” Proney now treats his profession as a calling to help bring prosperity (via tourism) and stability (via educating others) to Cambodia. Stunning. Heartbreaking. Inspiring. 

Proney (far right) had us dropped off at the Blue Pumpkin in the middle of Siem Reap and then quietly bid us adieu

Thank you to ALL of our guides for your part in making our Indochina Tour a life-changing experience. Thank for giving us glimpses into your lives and teaching us about your cultures. We are forever grateful!

Laos: I Gotta Get, I Got-Got Ta Get It.

The tune to “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” had been on repeat in my brain for nearly 24 hours. The words, however, were slightly altered and far less catchy:

“I left my iPhone in Kuang Si Waterfall. I left my iPhone in Kuang Si Waterfall. I left my iPhone in Kuang Si Waterfall. I gotta get, I got-got ta get it.” – A Tribe Called Quest

Saturday was shaping up to be one of our very best since we left Seattle back on May 11th.

Our Itinerary:

  • Have breakfast in a peaceful, serene setting at our ridiculously cool hotel (My Dream Boutique Resort).
  • Take a blissfully lazy, 4-hour ride on the Mekong River via Long Boat (or as our guide, Sengphone, calls it, “Tourist Boat”). 
  • Buy whiskey from a riverside village distillery, where they were known to include Scorpions and Cobras in the bottle. Come on, Tequila makers, is a little worm all you’ve got?
  • Visit literally thousands of Buddha statues at Pak Ou Caves.
  • See 28 bears from the region that have been rescued from poachers trying to illegally bring them into China.
  • Swim and dive in the cool, refreshing waters of Kuang Si Falls.

The weather here in SE Asia has been incredibly hot & humid. I’d actually prefer to use words like “oppressive,” “swampy,” and “unbearable” here, but I’ll do my best to tone down the drama. While we’ve finally come to accept the fact that we will be drenched in sweat at least a couple times a day, the prospect of cooling off at Kuang Si Falls made us all lose our minds a bit.

In fact, WE ALL GOT A LITTLE GIDDY as we approached the beautiful, light-blue water. The pools and surrounding areas were filled with countless groups of both locals and tourists vying for places to establish a home base. While a pragmatic approach for us would’ve been to work together to find a spot, change, swim, etc., we each kicked immediately into auto-pilot, scattered upon arrival, and raced to get in the water. This moment of exuberance would later come back to bite us in the butt. Hard.

Diving off of the tree (or half-falling, or half-jumping, or belly-flopping) and into the pool was a blast. After a couple “safe,” feet-first jumps, Trey tried a front summersault and almost nailed it. Meanwhile, Kamaile, as the only girl her age even trying to jump, quickly amassed a cheering section of local women and fellow travelers. We swam around the pools and giggled at all the little (we hope) fish that constantly nibbled at our feet. When we eventually decided to sit at the base of the smaller waterfall for a few minutes, I remember thinking how magical the past hour had been. 

About 10 minutes later, it was time to dry off and head further up the falls to see the main waterfall. As we gathered up our belongings for the quick walk, Trey turned to me with an ashen look in his face saying, “Dad, I’m pretty sure I left my phone in the changing room.” I know how difficult it is for the kid with the eternally golden tan to look that way, mind you, so I knew we were in trouble. 

The next 15 minutes were a blur. We raced over to the changing room and gave it a once, twice, thrice-over. Gone. In between each pass, anyone within 50 meters heard (or at least saw) me alternating between interrogating Trey to retrace his every move; and, unfairly, unkindly, and dare I say inappropriately berating him for “just not thinking, again.” It. Was. An. Ugly. Scene. Definitely not a proud moment as a Father. Definitely not my proud moment as a man committed to showing people–family, friends, strangers–the Jesus kind of love. 

“I gotta get, I got-got ta get it.”

Unfortunately, we couldn’t just call the phone or ping it via Find My iPhone as we normally would. Laos is one country with whom T-Mobile does not currently have an awesome international roaming agreement. Since we were only going to be in Luang Prabang for a few days, we decided not to buy local SIM cards and instead kept our phones in Airplane Mode–basically giving us off-line, WiFi-only devices while there. 

The phone was officially M.I.A. Trey was certain about where he’d left it, so the only logical conclusion was that someone either still had the phone in their possession or had already turned it in. Our hope was that whomever picked up the phone would be gracious enough to return it.

“I gotta get, I got-got ta get it.”

I sprint-walked back to the park entrance and tried to explain to the guards what had happened. Needless to say, I was disappointed (and more than a little ticked off) when they chuckled as they told me all about how tourists lose phones every day and that we might get it back. This exchange was almost entirely in Laotian, but I could understand their meaning quite well.

“I gotta get, I got-got ta get it.”

At this point, we felt a sense of helplessness, each for totally different reasons: Trey beat himself up over the whole thing happening in the first place; Laura fought to keep Trey and me from biting each other’s heads off; and, Kamaile struggled to merely endure the tension–something she does not often handle well. 

Meanwhile, it slowly dawned on me that I had taken the password lock off of Trey’s phone a few days earlier. Crap! This would mean that anyone with bad intention could potentially start messing with the thousands of pics, vids, contacts, files, etc., via the apps on the phone. Worse, yet, if that person were to enable data roaming, etc., he/she would have the ability to quickly rack up thousands of dollars in charges. We needed to get to an Internet connection quickly so that I could lock the phone down before too much damage was done. I frantically directed Sengphone to get us get us back to the hotel ASAP.

“I gotta get, I got-got ta get it.”

The 45-minute ride back to the hotel was excruciating. Knowing that we were in a race against both time and the nefarious phone-finder (as I’d built him/her up to be in my head by then), just sitting there in the transit van proved to be the perfect way to inspire a kind of pointless rumination that sent my blood pressure soaring. The awkward silence in which we rode was broken occasionally by Sengphone asking well-intentioned but tech-clueless questions, Laura giving Trey a few reassuring words, Trey praying, and me sighing deeply every 30 seconds or so. 

As soon as we arrived at the hotel, I jumped onto WiFi and completed all of the steps recommended by Apple. Then the waiting game began.

My best guess was that one of following scenarios was most likely to occur:

  1. Some Good Samaritan either turns the phone in or texts me directly (I had previously placed an “If found, please contact” lock screen message on the phone); or,
  2. Apple’s Lost Mode feature kicks in as soon as someone tries to use the phone to access either a cellular or WiFi network.

Either way, getting the phone back was an iffy proposition, at best. 

“I gotta get, I got-got ta get it.”

On Sunday morning, our Luang Prabang itinerary continued with the 5:30am Alms Giving Ceremony, and visits to nearby villages whose people specialized in making crafts such as Silk, Paper, and Ceramics. All of these were wonderful experiences, but it was hard to escape thinking about the missing phone and/or data every other moment. I know, lame. 

On Sunday afternoon, we were supposed to do more of what I call “Tourist See, Tourist Buy” visits, but I called an audible and asked that we be brought back to the hotel so we could check out early and spend some time in back in the City Center before heading out to the airport.

As soon as we got back to our room, I received a notification from Apple that Lost Mode had been activated on Trey’s phone just 4 minutes earlier, meaning that someone had just attempted to connect to a network. It worked! Even crazier, Lost Mode gave me an approximate location of that attempt via a satellite map on my phone. It was less than a block away from the hotel!

 

Our hotel was the purple dot at the far left.

I could not believe what was happening. We were fortunate that the phone might be only a couple blocks away, but why did the phone immediately go back offline again? Why hadn’t the person on the other end followed the Lost Mode prompts to contact me via phone, text, or email, yet? Was he/she planning on keeping it, after all? What do we do now?

As a family, we made a pact about a week ago that we would keep each other accountable as Jesus Followers by actually asking God for guidance whenever we were in a sticky situation before setting off to solve the problem. Suddenly, we were facing our first opportunity to put our beliefs into action. We said a simple, earnest prayer, then asked our family and friends via Facebook to do the same.

Thanks for your support!

We decided to enlist the help of the hotel manager, Joy, to act as our guide. We didn’t know the neighborhood, would need a translator as we chatted with folks in the area, and were counting on him to help us sniff out any dicey situations we might encounter. While the kids stayed back at the hotel, Laura and I headed off to the last known location reported by Apple. 

We arrived at a building that looked like it could be the one shown on the satellite map, but there were huge gates at the front. I figured that anyone wanting to keep the phone as their own would attempt to purchase a new SIM card, so we checked with the little store next door instead. No dice. No recent customers requesting SIM cards or new activations. 

We went back to the gate of the first building. The woman who answered tried to identify the building on the satellite map, but couldn’t manage it. She called out to a man who happened to be walking down the street towards us. He wasn’t any more successful at pin-pointing the building, but rather than shrugging and say “good luck,” he invited me into his bosses office to see if we could get a better map on his bosses computer. This was HUGE.

Within seconds, that man, his boss, and 2 other co-workers were all huddled with me around the computer. After a barrage of words I could not understand, they all agreed that the location in question had to be the guesthouse another 100m down the road. Joy, Laura, and I headed over to the guesthouse. The crazy part is that we had no clue what we’d do when we actually arrived. 

This particular guesthouse was like a collection of 6 studio apartments that were being rented out to local for medium- to long-term stays. Joy parked the van in the driveway and asked if there was anything specific I wanted him to say. I immediately replied, “You’re the expert. What do you recommend?” I think Joy actually puffed out his chest a bit in that moment, as if to say, “You’re right, I GOT THIS.” 

We stepped up to the first apartment. This buff Laotian dude in a tight t-shirt that read “Oh My Buddha,” jeans, and a cowboy hat introduced himself as Le. Joy told him that we were asking around to see if anyone had found a black iPhone 5 in the last 24 hours; and, that we were offering a reward for the right one. Le said that he hadn’t seen any, but that I should definitely ask the people next door. Le also said that he knew the owner of the guesthouse and he offered to leave my contact info with him. In Le’s words, “I just have to help.”

The second apartment turned up nothing, but Laura mentioned later that she’d noticed a woman replacing the SIM card in her phone just moments before Joy started talking to her. Fishy, IMO. 

As I wrapped up with both Le and the woman at the second apartment, Joy had already moved on to the third apartment. He was leaning on a motorcycle just outside the door with a little smile on his face. I remember thinking as we approached that Joy looked like a cat that had finally caught the mouse he’d been chasing all afternoon. He said that the woman standing in the doorway in front of me had a friend who’d recently found an iPhone. That friend was on her way and would be back in a couple minutes. 

Sure enough, that friend arrived in her scooter about 2 minutes later. The woman held her purse nervously in front of her, but did not show the phone until I told her (through Joy) that the phone was now of no value to anyone but me because of the software that I’d enabled which she’d activated as soon as she tried accessing the network. Joy went on to explain that the software was the reason we were able to find her so quickly (of course, we know that the software got a ton of help from real people). The woman sheepishly showed the phone and said through Joy that there was no case. I think she was trying to say that the phone might not be the one we were after, so I asked if I could see it for a second. I powered it up and immediately the Lost Mode prompts which I’d put in the day before appeared on the phone, as designed. This confirmed, undeniably, that the phone was Trey’s, so the woman quickly acquiesced. 

Despite my suspicions that the woman did not originally intend to return the phone, I told Joy that I still wanted to give her the reward. $20 USD and 1 LifeProof case lighter, we were on our merry way.

The story I’m telling myself is that the woman bought the phone on the black market and whatever little money she paid for it was now lost. I’m choosing to believe that she was an innocent player in a bigger game who thought she got a great deal on a legit used phone that she could use to take pics of her cute little baby girl. I’m choosing to believe that she’ll use the $20 to someday put towards another cool phone that isn’t stolen and will not be retrieved by some foreigner immediately after purchase. 

Ultimately, I am blown away that we actually got the phone back, avoided being fleeced by someone with darker motives, and that all 1200+ of Trey’s pics/vids were left intact (the woman attempted to delete the files, but left them in iPhoto’s ‘Recently Deleted’ folder). I am thankful for those that prayed and sent well wishes from thousands of miles away as we headed out to find the phone. I am thankful for Joy the Hotel Manager, the various multiple neighbors, Le the Cowboy Rocker, Apple the Company, and Lost Mode the Magical Software. I am thankful that I’ll have more opportunities to not be such a jerk to my kids in future stressful situations.

I am just thankful. I get it. 

The woman who returned the phone took about a dozen pics with her baby girl before getting online and triggering Lost Mode. Immediately, she could no longer access those pics, or anything else, for that matter. Trey decided to keep the phone for fun. 🙂