Giving Back to Southeast Asia

I was very fortunate to be able to take time off and travel for 202 days in Southeast Asia in 2015-2016 — mostly in countries where the dollar stretches pretty far because of the disparity in wealth between the country where I happened to be born and the places I was visiting. I decided to give back, in a small way, by pledging a certain amount of money to charity for each day I spent in each country.

Thailand: 72 days

Because I spent the most days in Thailand, I split my donation between two charities.

My closest Thai friend was, like many Thais, reverent toward the royal family. I have my own outsider opinions about all that, but I respect my friend and her values for her own country. The Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, under royal patronage, provides emergency shelter, health services, vocational training, and many other services to women in Thailand.

 The SET Foundation gives scholarships to those in need, with the unique principle of supporting students for a full twelve years, from elementary through collegiate studies, rather than just for a semester or two.

Malaysia: 11 days

As you travel Malaysia, it’s hard not to notice the oil palms: acres and acres of them, a giant monoculture dominating the landscape. I didn’t visit Malaysian Borneo on my trip, but I went there recently, and I discovered the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which helps orangutans who’ve lost their mothers to recover and prepare for reintegration into the wild. Malaysia’s unique wildlife is precious and under threat — the oil palm plantations are pressing in, and the lumber industry wants what trees are left — but places like the Sepilok Centre have the potential to drive up the economic value of conservation and diversify the local economy by bringing tourism. And in the meantime, the preservation and restoration work they do is saving unique animals in a unique environment.

Vietnam: 44 days

I met my friend Christina Bui in Myanmar through a chain of travel connections, and ran into her again in Saigon and Hanoi. She works at Pacific Links Foundation, which helps to protect people in Vietnam from human trafficking — being forced into factory work, domestic work, and the like — and empowers women and communities in Vietnam. Slavery is bad and Christina is good, so this was a pretty easy choice.

Myanmar: 23 days

Yangon is a time capsule. Decades of misrule have had the perverse effect of preserving the older part of the city much as it was under British colonial rule. Yangon Heritage Trust is working to preserve and restore the city’s remarkable architecture before it all gets torn down and turned into KFCs, and I hope they succeed in making Yangon the gem of a city that it deserves to be, like today’s Hoi An or Penang but on a much larger scale. (Nothing specific against KFC, by the way. I threw up in the bathroom of the Yangon KFC and they were very polite about it.)

Cambodia: 8 days

Cambodia is rife with terrible NGOs and scammy voluntourism projects, so I wanted to find an organization with a good rating on Charity Navigator, and Cambodia Children’s Fund has that. They take “a holistic, family-based approach” to childhood education, which is sorely needed in this poor and damaged country. They recognize that there are root problems like hunger and violence that can undermine education, so they try to deal with all of these issues as they help young people get the schooling they need and deserve.

Laos: 23 days

Perhaps the most dangerous thing I did in Southeast Asia was go for a walk in Laos.

Laos has more unexploded ordnance (UXO) per capita than anywhere else on earth, a sorry result of a decade of American bombing during the Vietnam War. On a tour of the Plain of Jars, on a trail that was supposed to be cleared, my guide suddenly jumped back and pointed. “That’s a cluster bomb detonator.” He then told me how his brother died: he’d gone fishing and was cooking up his catch in a rice field when the heat triggered an old pineapple bomb that took his head off.

I split my Laos donations between two organizations that deal with the ongoing disaster my country left behind. COPE gives people their lives back by providing prosthetics and rehabilitation to UXO survivors and others with mobility-related disabilities, while the Mine Awareness Group (MAG) works to demine Laos (and other places) and educate the local people about how to avoid UXO accidents, thereby reducing COPE’s potential clientele. I saw both organizations at work in Laos, and at one point even had to stop driving while MAG blew up some UXO they’d found in a field — a field that, when cleared, could provide food and income to a Laotian family.

Indonesia: 18 days

Yayasan Usaha Mulia (YUM) – Foundation for Noble Work has been around a long time and does holistic community work focused on education and alleviating poverty. Finding a good charity in Indonesia — especially one that wasn’t religiously based — was a bit difficult, but YUM seems to have a decent track record.

Singapore: 3 days

For Singapore, I cheated. Singapore is a wealthy country, so there’s not a tremendous need to give there. Instead, I donated to Singapore-based Choson Exchange, an innovative NGO that supports North Koreans with hands-on entrepreneurship training, helping to create an ownership culture and a better standard of living for North Koreans. I’ve met the founder and some of the team, and they’re passionate but not naive about what they’re up against. I admire what they do and wish them success.


Phoenix, Arizona, United States

After Songkran, I headed down to Phuket for Passover, and then on to Bali, both of which I’ve previously written about. The latter part of my trip to Bali with Leander involved renting a car and driving around the island on some terrible roads, first up to the mountains, then around to the beaches in the southwest, where the waves and rip currents are fierce and dangerous.

Tinderizing Jogja

Yogyakarta, pronounced Jogjakarta (photos), is known as the heart of Javanese culture. Leander and I decided to spend a few days there, but we had no idea that the day we were arriving was also a Muslim holiday that created a long weekend, drawing zillions of local visitors from nearby Jakarta. We were barely able to find a hotel room to share — two rooms at the same hotel was impossible by the time we looked — and the streets were swamped with giant crowds.

Overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, we put off hitting the major tourist attractions until the weekend was over. Instead, we pressed through the hordes on Malioboro, the main thoroughfare, and looked at Jogja’s endless batik shops. A friendly guy on the street lured us to a batik gallery with talk of a one-day art exhibition, and it was a scam of a sort, but the batik art was actually lovely, and I ended up buying several pieces, and then we went to lunch with a group of Koreans who’d been lured there in exactly the same way.

Unsure of what else to do with ourselves, we each got on Tinder and started looking for locals to meet. That might sound weird if you’ve only used Tinder in the West, and only as a tool for hooking up. In Asia, though, we’d both found it a useful way to meet local people socially. And, yeah, also to hook up. But the first thing was just to meet some people who could help us navigate the strange chaos we’d landed in.

We first met a young woman who was studying tourism at the local university, and she brought along a friend in a hijab. It was my first Tinder date that ever paused for a prayer break in a musholla. Later on, we went to the sprawling home of an older woman, a designer and descendant of the royal family of neighboring Solo, who introduced us to her flirty transgender friend in short-shorts, but didn’t introduce us to the white guy we saw wandering around in the back of her house. The whole scene had a weird vibe, like the parts of The Big Lebowski with Julianne Moore and her giggling friend — but not so weird that we didn’t go back the next night for dinner. After that, we connected with a hilarious young woman — another designer, this one a maker of leather handbags — who claimed to be from Neptune (not very seriously) and who told us about one of the oddest tourist attractions I visited in all of Southeast Asia.

Chicken Church

If you’re in Jogja, there are a couple sights in the surrounding area that are musts: Borobudur (photos), the world’s largest Buddhist temple, and Prambanan (photos), a spectacular Hindu temple complex, rich with gorgeous reliefs, that also serves as the backdrop for evening performances of the Ramayana Ballet.

And then there’s the Chicken Church, which just might be the worst building I’ve ever seen.

The Gereja Ayam, or Chicken Church (no relation to Church’s Chicken) is neither a chicken nor a church. It’s a multidenomenational prayer hall, meant to be in the shape of a dove. The whole thing is the mad vision of a local Muslim man, who spent years trying to get this thing built until his wife finally made him stop.

The unfinished building is a construction nightmare. The sections of the tail are all out of proportion, the concrete work is terrible, rebar sticks out at all kinds of random places. You can take rickety wooden stairs up to the inside of the head — views from the beak are spectacular — and then to the top of the head.

But it gets weirder.

For a long time it was abandoned, but when we arrived, there was a group of deaf mutes at work on the place. They directed us to the basement, a warren of terrifying cave rooms whose purpose was obscure. I read somewhere, though, that drug addicted teenagers had been taken to these cells for reprogramming, which sounds creepy as hell.

Enjoying Jogja

Once the crowds had gone back to their regular lives, Yogyakarta reverted to the sort of place that appeals to tourists from abroad. We spent our last couple of days exploring the town itself, with its many murals and Dutch colonial buildings, and soaking up gamelan performances at the palace.

Jogja is a quirky place that sees far fewer foreign tourists than, say, Bali. Groups of tiny women in hijabs kept wanting to take pictures with Leander, who’s tall and blond. The tourist shops sold T-shirts with puns only Indonesians would understand. And the smaller streets and alleyways were full of old homes and bird cages, which our Neptunian friend explained were popular because the local people enjoy birdsong.

I liked that Jogja felt like nowhere else I’d been: not mainland Southeast Asia, not Bali, not Malaysia. After Jogja, it was just Singapore, which I knew would be easy, and then a short stay in Bangkok. After many months of travel, Jogja was my final step into the unknown, and I’m glad I went, rounding things out with one last dose of disconcerting strangeness.

Bottles in bags

Jogja has, I think, dreams of becoming more than it is: a tech center, perhaps, or a global tourism destination. These goals seem quixotic under the circumstances. Tech centers tend not to get established in countries that don’t let in Israeli passports. And as for becoming an international tourist hub, well, their airport — and airport staff — need work.

As we entered the airport to fly back to Bali — Leander to stay a bit longer, myself to catch a flight to Singapore the next morning — the security staff at the baggage X-ray stopped Leander to ask if he was carrying any bottles. After some digging, he produced three flasks of cheap liquor, each picked up in a different country along his travels. The guards declared that he could only carry two with him. At that point, I stepped in and asked if I could take the third. No, I was told. It was only two bottles per party, not per person.

“Oh,” I said. “I understand. Enjoy!”

If you want to be a major tourist destination, you can’t be stealing liquor from people’s bags at the airport.


Last Photos from Southeast Asia

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Well, here they are: the final photos from my trip. Lots and lots of them. (You can find the full set on my photos page.)

I still have more to write as well, and hopefully I’ll do that soon — about Northern Vietnam, Thailand for Songkran, the seder in Phuket, Bali, Java, Singapore. But pictures for now.

Singapore (May 2016)

Java, Indonesia (May 2016)

Bali, Indonesia (April-May 2016)

Thailand (April 2016)

Vietnam (March-April 2016)

Passing Over to Bali

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

I’m in Bali, and it’s better.

Back in the 1990s, I went to a World Music Institute performance by a Balinese gamelan group at Symphony Space, in Manhattan. I probably went to the concert because every time I went into one of those global craft stores and asked about the thing I liked most, it was from Bali.

I’d never heard anything like it. The climax of the show was the kecak monkey dance, which blew my mind. Recordings can’t do justice to the weird ways that the sound traveled and shifted around the room as the dancers chanted in complex, interweaving patterns. Since then, I’ve dreamed of visiting Bali, to hear the music in the place it came from.

Tonight I lived that dream. I sat in the front row at the Ubud Palace and watched a performance of Balinese dance and gamelan music, performed at a high level. It was wonderful. It capped a day that also included a visit to a jungle full of monkeys and temples, a wander through galleries of Indonesian art and handicrafts, and a lunch overlooking a river. Then we went out and had a delicious Balinese dinner, followed by gelato made with local ingredients.

A new adventure

It’s good to be on a new adventure again. Indonesia is somewhere new: new currency, new food, new languages to reckon with. Bali is still culturally connected to other places I’ve been — shades of Myanmar and especially Malaysia — but it feels distinct too. The landscape is different, and so is the culture: no more karst mountains or reclining Buddhas.

My Dutch friend, Leander, and I will spend a couple more days here in Ubud, soaking up the culture and going on a pre-dawn hike to the top of a volcano. Then we’re hoping to rent a car and drive all over the island, going wherever the road and our whims take us.

It feels good to be doing something new again. Not only is this a good place to be right now, to refresh my Southeast Asia adventure; it’s also making me feel more positive about the new life I will be creating in a few months in South Korea. A night and a day in Bali has left me feeling refreshed and hopeful.

Seder in Phuket

Backing up a bit, I should note that the Chabad seder in Phuket was impressive: some 400 people, mostly Israelis, packed a big hall at the Novotel to celebrate Passover. There were more people at the Chabad House as well. (The seder was impressive, but Phuket was not; Patong Beach was my least favorite place in all of Thailand.)

I sat at the English-speaking table with Levi Shemtov, a remarkable young guy who’s buddies with Rabbi Shmuel Tiechtel from Chabad of ASU and runs a kosher restaurant in Uruguay, and I also sat next to a guy — Mark something — whose mom lives in Lucas Valley, and who has been to Chabad of Marin a few times, and who used to live in Phuket for about ten years.

I’m not very religious, but I’m grateful for what Chabad has done, which is to re-create a global network of synagogues and Jewish points of contact, something that existed across the world for centuries but was devastated during World War II. To put on a kosher seder for 400 people in Phuket is no easy feat! Indeed, the maror (bitter herbs) got held up by Thai customs, which in this case defeated Jewish customs. (Personally, I declared eggplant a bitter herb and made the blessing on that.)

The seder was what seders should be: joyous, chaotic, raucous, a confused muddle. The food was great and there was lots of it. It arrived in the wrong order. People stood up in groups for no apparent reason. Half the room was on Hallel while the other half was still eating. It was, in other words, like every good seder I’ve ever been to, writ large. And in Thailand.

The Beginning of the End

Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand

Yesterday I bought my ticket home, and my heart broke a little.

It’s getting to be time. I’ve moved on average every 2.5 days for the last six months or so, and I’m tired. I’ve noticed it in small but telling ways: not bothering to blog about Northern Vietnam or Songkran, caring less about taking good photos, doing less exploring on my own and booking more package tours so I don’t have to figure it out.

Still, it hurt more than I expected to put a final date on this adventure, to cap it and say I’m going home. (I’ll be back in Phoenix on May 18.)

What hurts most is that I will be saying goodbye to someone I met at the very beginning of my trip. Someone who has become rather important to me, as it turns out. She’ll take me to the airport, and then maybe I won’t ever see her again. We always sort of knew that the day would come, but it’s none too comfy to see the date on the calendar.

Bali before bailing

Before that day comes, though, I still have one more big adventure to go: Indonesia and Singapore. Tomorrow I’m flying from Phuket to Bali, and I have 17 days to explore Indonesia. From there I’ll go to Singapore for four days, where I will meet up with my important Bangkok someone.

Altogether, that’s 21 days (plus two more at the end in Bangkok) — just two days less than I spent on my trips to Myanmar and to Laos, both of which felt like they went on for a good long time — possibly too long. So I’m not done. I have quite a bit to go.

But the end is on the horizon. The end of this adventure that has occupied my thinking for so long.

And then it will be time for new adventures. For some time in the US, a visit to NYC, and on to a new life in Korea. Much more to come.


Where I’ve Been Where I’m Headed

Sapa, Vietnam

I realize that it has been ages since I last gave an update, so here it is.

Laos and Vietnam

After Cambodia, I spent a few weeks traveling around the north of Laos: Luang Prabang, trekking in Luang Namtha, a trip down the Nam Ou River from Muang Khua to Muang Ngoi to Nong Khiaw, back to Luang Prabang, out to the Plain of Jars, down to Vang Vieng, and finally through the capital, Vientiane. I will (I hope) have more details to provide eventually.

From Vientiane, at the end of March, I came to Hanoi, where I gave a lecture on how Jewish people raise their children, in between visits to Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, and now Sapa. I head back to Hanoi this afternoon.


Then it’s on to a weekend at the beach in Hua Hin, Thailand, a couple of days in Bangkok, and then up to Khon Kaen from April 13 to 16 to enjoy Songkran, the Thai new year festival. After that, I’ll have a couple more days in Bangkok, then head south to Phuket — I’m already booked for the Passover seder at the local Chabad on April 22 — and Krabi, and maybe some other beaches too.

Singapore and Indonesia

When I finish up with South Thailand, I’ll pop in to Singapore for a few days, probably around the end of April. From Singapore, I’ll fly to Bali and begin a month in Indonesia. You cannot possibly see all of Indonesia in a month (or ever, really), but I intend to spend a week or two in Bali and Lombok, beginning with the cultural heart of the island in Ubud. When I wrap that up, I want to visit Jogjakarta and some of the historical sites around it, and if there’s time, I’d like to visit Kalamantan (Borneo) as well. Jakarta I can skip, or so everyone tells me.


I’ll probably circle back to Bangkok to catch a flight to the US, probably Los Angeles. From there, it’s a quick hop to Phoenix on a local flight, but I might spend a couple days in LA and environs, if anyone wants to put me up and can accept my jet lag. I’m expecting that to happen around June 7, more or less.

I’ll be in Phoenix probably through June, and would like to visit NYC in July. Anyone have a place for me to stay?

Korea and (maybe) Japan

And then? Well, school starts on September 6, so I need to get to Korea before then and find a place to live (and furniture, and Internet, and cable, and, and, and … eep!). But I might spend August touring around Korea beyond Seoul, and possibly even Japan. Again, anyone who has a place for me to stay should let me know.

Travel and Vacation

There’s travel, and then there’s vacation.

After a long stint of travel in Myanmar — buses, trucks, taxis, boats, trekking, and hotels with odd flaws like bathroom odors, water that pulses hot and cold, wheezing pumps near the room, etc. — I’ve been on a bit of a luxury vacation in Thailand, first at Cape Dara in Pattaya, and now for a few days in Bangkok at the trendy and spot-on Aloft Hotel. On Monday I didn’t even leave my hotel until evening. I had lunch in the hotel restaurant and sat in the rooftop pool for a while. These are not backpacker joints. They’re fancy hotels, pleasant and stylish, and a bargain for the price.

Heaven. For a while, anyway.

Tomorrow I’m back on the road, to Saigon for Tet. I don’t know what it will be, but I am hopeful it will be something. I needed some nothing for a few days — a chance to catch up on my writing and blogging and photo posting, to lie around, to feel zero pressure to go be a tourist and see the sights — and now I’ve had my fill.

The second half

I suppose this is a kind of halftime lull, even if it’s a few days before the midpoint. Plans for the second half are starting to come into focus:

  • Vietnam for Tet and then a little beach time until mid-February.
  • Cambodia, Laos, and Northern Vietnam from mid-February to mid-April.
  • Back to Thailand for Songkran in mid-April, with maybe some South Thailand beach time before or after.
  • May in Singapore and Indonesia.

Now’s the time to get in touch if you want to join me for any of those places.


Myanmar and Vietnam galleries are up. There will also be a trickle of Myanmar blog posts over the next few days.

Myanmar (January 2016)

Vietnam (December 2015-January 2016)