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.

Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Seoul

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Just a couple of days left in the US, and then it’s on to the next phase of my life.

So here’s what’s next for me:

If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that I’ll mostly be in Seoul, or possibly doing a bit of internal travel around Korea. It’s my new home, and while I won’t quite be officially moving there until September 7, it’s where I’m going to be setting up a new life for myself.

I’m excited to see my Korean friends again, and to make new friends there. I’m excited to be staying long enough in one place to build new relationships. I’m excited to have somewhere to call home — my home.


Phoenix, Arizona, United States


Singapore is a theme park of itself. Everything is tidy, well organized, and expensive. The area around Marina Bay looks like a World’s Fair, and the Marina Bay Gardens look like some kind of Avatarish future utopia jungle, with giant fake trees and postmodern glass domes with forests and waterfalls inside. Even the normal, functional parts of the city feel like theme park zones: Colonial Land, with old colonnaded British buildings, or Downtown Land, with tall buildings and office workers. Singapore’s Chinatown and Little India have a reputation for showing the wilder side of the city, but they have to be the world’s mellowest, least overwhelming Chinatown and Little India. Nothing in Singapore is ever confrontational.

All this order is not entirely benign. At the hotel check-in, the clerk informed us that “Singapore is a fine country: there’s a fine for everything.” In our taxi from the airport, the driver assured us that no taxi driver would rip us off: “They would kill me.” The hotel desk clerk said something similar in response to an offhand joke about coming into our room. Singapore seems to be run the way I imagine Disneyland would be if it had its own police force and judicial system: it’s a great place to be in charge of the rides, and they will let you live if you put on your Mickey costume and don’t complain, but don’t step out of line.

Still, after 196 days of slogging across Southeast Asia, what might have felt stultifying or creepy at an earlier stage in my travels was now a welcome relief. I met Tam at the airport, and together we would enjoy a long romantic weekend in the cleanest, most efficient of the most populous region in the world. It was a bittersweet end to a long journey. After Singapore, I would spend a couple more days in Bangkok, then head back at last to the United States.

Pop rocks and glitter

On our first night, we rode the Singapore Flyer, a giant ferris wheel that offers grand views of Singapore’s high-quality highways and their uncongested traffic. Singapore is maybe the only place I’ve ever been that appears to have excess infrastructure capacity.

We delighted in some absurdly commercial exhibitions at the ArtScience Museum — one combining technology and art, the other a celebration of the high-end jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels — mostly just so we could go inside the weird building that hovers over the bay like an alien hand. We visited the vast, high-end mall at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, spent a little time in the casino — I walked away with SD $27 and a new understanding and fear of roulette — and dined at sunset at the spectacular Sky on 57. The view was more memorable than the meal, but I was amused by the dessert, which featured a chocolate sauce punched up by pop rocks.

Afterward we headed down to a plaza on the bay to watch Wonder Full, a water-and-light show that involves projections on fans of water, a soundtrack, lasers across the bay, and maudlin images of children and unity or whatever. It was spectacular and inane at once, and moving, too, if you let it move you. Which, come to think of it, is how a lot of Singapore felt. It teeters on the margin between tasteful and tacky, like the fancy mall with the Nordstrom in it. In Singapore I felt like I should always be wearing a polo shirt and discussing annuities, as if I were in a commercial for a brokerage firm.

New Yorkipore

Over the weekend, we headed to Sentosa Island, Singapore’s designated zone for actual theme parks and similar entertainments, and paid a visit to Universal Studios. It was something Tam wanted to do; she’d never been to an international theme park before. We went on the usual rides, after waiting on the usual lines and spending the usual too much money.

But I was surprised at how emotional I got when we entered the New York zone, a simulation of New York City streets under a glass canopy to protect us from the tropical afternoon thunderstorm that came pouring down. The fake brick buildings, the fake sidewalks, the fake Rockefeller Center almost brought me to tears.

I missed home. And I missed having a home.

Then we tried the pizza at the fake New York pizza place, and it was terrible. Chicken rendang is not a New York pizza topping. Theme park nostalgia can only take you so far.

Home and back again

From Singapore, it was back to Bangkok for a last couple of days, and then Tam took me to the airport for the trip home. After 202 days at 62 hotels, three homestays, a jungle camp, and a night bus, spread across 55 places in eight countries, the long adventure was at last at an end.




Wet Hot Thai New Year

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

After Northern Vietnam, I made a return trip to Thailand to see Tam, my Thai girlfriend, and to experience Songkran, the Thai new year festival, in her home region of Isan.

Morocco to Switzerland

In my very first week in Bangkok, I met a local who invited me to a street concert and charity fundraiser put on by the Apache Motorcycle Club (photos). I had not come to Southeast Asia in search of biker gangs named after American Indian tribes. But I had absorbed enough critical theory to be suspicious of my own ideas of the authentic — temples, Buddhas, rice fields, native garb — and I was grateful to be offered a window into how real, actual Thai people lived their real, actual lives. Bangkokians dressing up in leather vests and riding motorbikes and playing electric guitars to raise money for a good cause is at least as authentic as Americans dressing up like Japanese anime characters at Comicon.

Nevertheless, it would probably not have occurred to me to visit the Swiss Sheep Farm in Cha-an (photos) or to stay at a Moroccan-themed hotel in Hua Hin (photos), a beach town on the Gulf of Thailand that’s a popular getaway from Bangkok. I would probably have visited some more temples and stayed somewhere Thai-themed. But Tam’s whole life is Thai-themed, and she needed one more night of teak walls and pad thai about as much as my American readers need to visit a suburban mall and eat french fries. So instead we lived like Thai people, which is to say that we did exotically un-Thai things with our leisure time.

And then we got up early for the sunrise over the beach, and to my surprise, here in this resort town, monks were walking along the sand, collecting alms in silver bowls, much as they do more famously in Luang Prabang. We were still in Thailand, and it still had the power to surprise and delight.

Pardon me while I powder your nose (photos)

All across Eurasia and its offshoots, people gather together in autumn festivals of light, where the atmosphere is sacred and familial: Christmas, Diwali. And then, come spring, they go nuts: Carnival, Mardi Gras, Holi. In Thailand, these seasonal holidays are Loi Krathong and Songkran, the Thai new year, celebrated when the temperatures soar but the rains haven’t yet come.

To  celebrate Songkran, Tam and I headed to the rapidly developing town of Khon Kaen, the biggest city and home of the largest university in the rapidly developing northeastern Isan region. Long a backwater full of rice farmers who speak a dialect closer to Lao than Bangkok Thai, Isan has been going through a tech boom, and stylish new malls have sprung up along the wide avenues in the center of town.

Little of what goes on during Songkran in Khon Kaen feels especially traditional. People wear bright flower print shirts and plastic goggles and waterproof pouches for their cell phones, and they tote bulbous water guns as they navigate the crowded streets from one amplified dance party to another. The main things you do are shoot water guns at each other, dump water on each other with buckets, point hoses at each other, wipe each other’s faces with talcum powder, and dance to very loud music. The water play is a sane response to the crazy-making heat — it was over 40 degrees every day we were there — and also a kind of plea to the gods for a good rainy season. Thailand was in the midst of a long drought, and there were government calls to limit the water play, but they seemed to have little impact on what went on in Khon Kaen.

The talcum powder is a peculiar phenomenon. People walk up to you and gently wipe it on your face, often while apologizing. In Thailand, you never just touch someone’s face like that, so it’s the violation of a taboo. Boys would reach out to touch pretty girls’ faces, teenagers would wipe talcum powder on patient police officers and soldiers, and lots of people seemed to want to touch a bearded foreign face. There was a gentleness and intimacy to it, a very Thai-feeling approach to the fleshly side of carnival.

During the days, when we weren’t indoors hiding from the heat, we walked around town to visit some of the many Buddhist temples. Maybe the most traditional part of Songkran in Khon Kaen is the washing of Buddha statues, everywhere from the town square to temples to the entrance of the biggest mall. At one temple, an impressive pulley system raised buckets of water from the ground to the top of a towering chedi, then dumped them out.

I joined in the washing, and at first I was just pouring cups of water right on each Buddha’s head. Someone gently pointed out that I should be pouring the water in the Buddha’s shoulder instead, and that made intuitive sense. This was, after all, a gesture of respect, not the ice bucket challenge.

But the real partying began when the sun began to sink. The main street was lined with stages set up by corporate sponsors, each one blasting the latest global techno hits from tall stacks of speakers, or presenting a local rock band, with much handing out of corporate swag. My favorite was the local high school kids playing pretty awesome ska at a stage set up by an organization promoting an alcohol-free Songkran.  At one end of the road was the main stage. Each evening would start with some boring speeches by politicians. Then came an organized human wave up and down the main avenue, its progress videoed by swooping drones. The wave would climax in fireworks and the emergence of one of Thailand’s bigger rock bands.

Off the main street, there was an area set up for the old folks to dance their old dances, but even then, the music was electrified, and the feel was retro rather than traditional: rockin’ to the oldies, not performing the ancient folkways. The partying got looser and wilder on the streets that angled off the main plaza. Down the pub street, people drank, danced in dense packs under flowing hoses, and generally let loose, while pickup trucks with barrels of water and crowds of splashing revelers crawled along in the traffic.

At times, this could all get exhausting and overwhelming. Hot as it was, it was still rough getting cups of ice water tossed on us over and over. The crowds could become claustrophobic, the revelry taking on a menacing edge as hand after hand reached out to touch my cheeks. But that’s part of the point of a carnival. You want to feel like everything’s a little bit out of control. And for three days in Khon Kaen, in the wilting heat and the crazy wet, we danced in the streets and let the festival carry us with its wild energy.


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.

Back to Backpacking

I’ve had a bit of an interlude away from backpacking: first a stay in Thailand, relaxing and seeing very little, and then a long visit with a friend in Vietnam over the Tet holiday. It’s not that I haven’t done any touring — I will have a blog post soon about Saigon on Tet, Phu Quoc Island, the Cu Chi tunnels, and the War Remnants Museum — but it’s different when you’re hanging out with a local who handles the logistics.

I’ll be back to solo travel tomorrow. I’m headed to Phnom Penh for a couple of days, and then Angkor Wat for pretty much as long as I feel like staying. Cambodia will get a short stay so I can have more time in Laos, which seems like a lovely place to chill, maybe trek again, enjoy nature. Then it will be time for Northern Vietnam, and I’ll finally be giving that lecture on how Jews raise their children on March 27 in Hanoi. Let me know if you want to come. And after that, I plan to visit Thailand again for Songkran in mid-April.

It has been nice relying on locals and taking a break from the backpacker trail. I’m a little apprehensive about getting back out there. But I know it will be great. I will meet new people, see new things, have new experiences. That’s what I’m here for.

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)