My Vacation in Haiku

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It’s been one of those weeks when I’ve thought of several blog topics. Yet, nothing really gelled into anything coherent enough.  Since I’m still getting lots of positive feedback about my posts on Laos, particularly about my iPhone photography, I’ve settled on the easiest post of all: my vacation haiku interspersed with photos.

Most of these were written on the flight(s) back home, motivated by my disappointment that I had been on vacation for 10 days and hadn’t written a single poem to commemorate the journey.

I was traveling to visit my step-daughter and her friend, two professionals in their 20’s who wisely and boldly took a four-month sabbatical to enjoy life and create new experiences.  Fittingly, I took my trip to join them with a friend of my own from college, Angela Casey, with whom I had spent time in several Asian countries 20 years ago. Twenty years? Say it isn’t so!

The first haiku is about youth and how many experiences seem wasted on them. Of course, the motivation for this poem isn’t about Erin and Abby. It’s driven by my recent discovery of my old journals as I prepared to write my memoir, and, likewise, having thumbed through more than a thousand travel photos prior to Angela’s first visit here to Vermont to plan this trip.

“Regret” is wisdom
Condemning youth for missing
The signs. Damned hindsight!

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(Above: Me in rural southern China in 1997. Below: Me and Ange at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore in April 1995.)
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The next one is about my return with Angela to Beijing after so much time. Some of my feelings and opinions developed during the course of my nearly three years as an ex-pat in Beijing were chronicled in this post a month ago.

Beijing, have you changed?
Wi-Fi. Starbuck’s. House of Cards.
Emperor’s new clothes.

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(Above: Ange and me in a Beijing hotel lobby in 1994. Below: The two of us on Tian’anmen Square a few weeks ago.)

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(Above and below: After nearly 20 years, Beijing was different and the same, all at the same time.)

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Most of our trip was spent in Luang Prabang, Laos. This ancient capital and former French colony is situated along the Mekong River and is still home to dozens of active and well-preserved Buddhist temples. None of the four of us had been to Laos before, so we were all discovering new things. Every day was packed with enough bold color and interesting experiences to last a lifetime.

Many of the subjects that formed these haiku were also described in earlier blog posts. And, certainly, also caught in pictures. If you are interested in finding out more about the topics of these poems, be sure to use the links to get more info.

Along the Mekong,
Bold color and bounty spring
From the river banks.

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(Above: Despite the “dry season”, the Mekong banks were alive with crops and boats. Below: Members of a family that farms eggplant along the river. They graciously let us to use their lean-to for our lunch-time break from kayaking.)

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Morning market throng
Fruits, spices, meats of all hues,
Dizzy the senses.

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(Above: Spices at the Luang Prabang morning market. Below: Just a small section of the market.)

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Each temple yard yields
Countless monks by sunrise to
Walk tourist-lined streets.

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(Above and below: Different perspectives of the “tak bat” or morning alms-giving, a daily ritual at sunrise in Luang Prabang’s historic downtown.)

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Blazing orange robes
Catch sunbeams between the trees
To clothe patient monks.

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Fearful ride atop
Elegant, beautiful “beast.”
Wild elephant ride.

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(Above: My view from atop the elephant as we headed into the river at Elephant Village. Below: Our guide’s photo of me and Erin, after I moved from the seat to the elephant’s head.)

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With the months of preparation and research that went into the trip, including a reunion with Angela and a series of planning sessions, not to mention the work and household planning to accommodate it, it’s amazing how quickly the trip arrived and then was gone. With all of the unforgettable experiences that comprise the journey, there’s still nothing like coming back home to Vermont again.

There and back again.
Like Bilbo’s long adventure,
Nowhere else like home.

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A Wild Elephant Ride

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I’ve been back from Laos for exactly a week. The most common question I’m asked is: “What was the best part of your trip?” That’s a terribly difficult question to answer. There are at least 10 different answers, ranging from spending time with my step-daughter, to reconnecting with my old college friend, to traveling through rural Asia for the first time in over 16 years, to returning to my old stomping grounds — Beijing, to creating many unique memories in Luang Prabang, some of which I have already discussed on this blog. Here, I answer this question very narrowly.

I’ve already written about the Mekong River, Laotian food, and the impressive Buddhist influences in Luang Prabang. These are memorable parts of my trip that I will not soon forget. However, if I had to choose just one day among the 10 of my vacation to remember and cherish forever, it would be the one spent at the Elephant Village, an elephant sanctuary and tourist destination dedicated to the protection and rehabilitation of Laotian elephants.

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It’s difficult to impart the unique combination of exhilaration and fear that I felt riding on Mae San, a 35-year-old rescued elephant (read her story here).  Erin and I started out the hour-long ride on the bench atop the elephant — we had to mount by climbing up a platform and then jump onto the 10-foot tall animal! After a brief walk on level ground, Mae San, under the guidance of a Mr. Pan, purposefully headed downhill toward the river. We knew then that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, each wrapping both arms around the bench, holding on for dear life during the descent.

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Shortly after crossing the river, our guide jumped off and asked if one of us wanted to sit directly on Mae San. I turned to Erin who wildly shook her head “No!” So…I volunteered. To call it a “mistake” would indicate that I wouldn’t do it again if asked. I am truly glad I did it. It was amazing, terrifying, and wonderful, all at the same time. Had I known that I would be scared for my life nonstop for 40 minutes, that my quads would shake and pound uncontrollably for at least half of that time, or that the wiry hairs on Mae San’s head would feel like coarse sand paper filing the skin off my ankles ahead of time, I might have responded to the question exactly as Erin had. As it turned out, I am very glad that I was both blissfully ignorant and naively brave when the question was asked.

With the above said, I’ll let the photos that Mr. Pan and I took of this experience speak for themselves.

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Elephants have a long history in Laos and the current situation for the animal there is dire.  As I mentioned in my last post, the original name for much of what is now Laos (including the entire Luang Prabang region) was Lan Xang, which means “one million elephants.” The name indicates how prolific elephants used to be in the area. Today in Laos there are less than 600 elephants in the wild and just over 400 domesticated ones. Read more here.

Why have they essentially disappeared? Of course, many elephants fell victim to the ivory trade.  More info can be found here and here. And, many others were over-worked in the logging industry. Because female elephants are easier to domesticate, elephant cows did nearly all of this logging work. Under the stress of hard work, most became unable to reproduce. The Laos government reports that only 33 of the country’s elephant cows are under the age of 20 and thus safely able to reproduce.

After our exhilarating elephant ride, before our afternoon of kayaking, we boated up the river to see some nearby waterfalls. We were extremely fortunate on our way back down river to catch a glimpse of “Maxi”, a rare male elephant born at the Elephant Village last May.  Maxi is expected to have an important role in repopulating his species. Fortunately, the sanctuary we visited is just one among many organizations dedicated to protecting and repopulating elephants in Laos and neighboring countries.

Needless to say, visiting Elephant Village and riding Mae San are experiences I will never forget.

Land of Golden Buddha

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Even though I am now safely and happily back home in Vermont, there are a few topics related to my recent trip to Luang Prabang, Laos I’m still researching.  One of them is the prevalence of Buddhist temples and monks there. Of all of the items I posted on Facebook during my trip, the photos of monks in saffron colored robes were the most “liked.”

It turns out that the city of Luang Prabang gets its very name from Buddhism. Luang means “land” and “phra bang” means “golden Buddha” in Lao. It was changed to this name more than 300 years ago, after Cambodia gave a gold statue of the Buddha as a gift to the city. At that time, the city was the center of Buddhism for the entire region.

According to a Luang Prabang legend mentioned here by USESCO, “the Buddha smiled when he rested here for a day during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful capital city.” In case you’re wondering how they knew Buddha had stopped by, one of the temples built into the mountainside has Buddha’s footprint on display!

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The type of Buddhism in Laos is unique. It is an offshoot of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition which is the oldest Buddhist branch and considered to be the most conservative. There are over 150 million followers worldwide of the Theravāda Buddhist branch.

In Laos, however, Buddhist beliefs are intertwined with native Animism.  One prevalent element of Animism is the idea that there are spirits that influence health and prosperity. Many of the offerings the Lao make at Buddhist temples are accompanied by requests to these spirits to make a positive influence in their lives or to reverse something negative. There are Buddhist statues of countless varieties, each with a different meaning.

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It is estimated that 65% of the Lao population is Buddhist.  And, when you take into consideration the Animism component, closer to 90% of the population are “nominal adherents of both Buddhism-Animism” (more info is here).

Shortly after our arrival in Luang Prabang, I was so excited to capture this photo of two monks walking down the street in front of our guest house, thinking that it was a rare sight:

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Little did I know that monks are quite literally everywhere in Luang Prabang. There are 32 Buddhist temples and more than 1,000 monks that serve the city. Because of the UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the temples are in excellent condition and most have already been restored to their original condition.

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Perhaps the most incredible experience from my entire trip was the morning I took part in the procession of the monks. Called “tak bat” or morning alms-giving, all of the monks that serve the local temples leave their temples before 6am and walk through the main streets to receive alms from the devout who line the street.

According to an article on About.com by Michael Aquino: “The ritual is done in silence; the almsgivers do not speak, nor do the monks. The monks walk in meditation, and the almsgivers reciprocate with respect by not disturbing the monk’s meditative peace. For hundreds of years, the ritual has cemented the symbiotic relationship between the monks and the almsgivers who maintain them – by feeding the monks and helping the laypeople make merit, tak bat supports both the monks (who need the food) and the almsgivers (who need spiritual redemption).”

Due to jet lag, I was awake every morning before sunrise. Therefore, walking the 3 blocks from our guest house to watch the procession was a no-brainer. Before I was even able to register that I was in the right location, I came under the powers of an authoritative and industrious local woman who directed me to take off my shoes, sit cross-legged on a mat, and pay 50,000 kip ($6.25) for sticky rice and crackers to give the monks.

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After giving alms to three groups of monks, I was out of food and decided to put my shoes back on and take photos of the rest of the procession.  Within half an hour, I had seen at least 10 groups of monks stream past, with no end in sight.  Satisfied that I had both observed and taken part in something really special, I sauntered off in the direction of our guest house, in search of a strong cup of Laotian coffee.

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Doing research for this post, I discovered that the original name for the entire Luang Prabang region was Lan Xang, which means “one million elephants.”  That is probably going to be my next topic. Stay tuned. 

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The Mighty Mekong

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Laos is land-locked, bordered by Thailand to the east, China to the north, Vietnam to the west, Cambodia to the south, and just a tad by Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest. However, you wouldn’t know it where we are. That’s because the Mekong River, the 12th longest river in the world and the longest in Southeast Asia, after winding it’s way from Tibet through a chunk of China, also worms through western and southern Laos. And, it has a lot of tributaries, too.

The river creates very fertile soil in the extended river basin and also makes it easy to transport both goods and people. On land, rice is the biggest crop by far. Others include peanuts, corn, tamarind, soybeans, eggplant, and cucumbers, among many other fruits and vegetables. Local markets are plentiful with nature’s bounty in every hue.

I’m in Luang Prabang, the original capital of Laos that was founded in 1353, because of its fertile location along the Mekong. For the same reason, through the centuries, it came under the influence of various neighbors like the Siamese, Burmese, and Vietnamese, and, in the 20th Century, was a colony of France.

All of these cultures are evident here in many ways, including the architecture and the food, along with very strong influences from both Buddhism and Animism. It’s hard to detect that Laos is a Communist country, having become so after Vietnam defeated the French in 1954 — and that it did not open to tourism until the break-up of the Soviet empire in 1989. Due to its rich and evident culture and well-preserved history, Luang Prabang became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/479).

All of the above, combined with the beautiful natural environment, make Luang Prabang a tremendous tourist destination. This has lifted up the economy of the entire province. Laos is still one of the poorest economies in all of Southeast Asia, but it grew by more than 8% annually in 2013 and is continuing at that pace (http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/lao). This province, certainly, is well above the average. The extended area of Luang Prabang has a population of 50,000. Our local guide that took us up the Mekong said that 90% of the folks here make their living through tourism.

You would not believe the tourist infrastructure here and yet there’s something about it that isn’t “touristy.” Even as you pass through markets that cater to visitors or visit villages with a tour guide, seemingly all of the Lao people have a friendly, laid back style and do not try to push you to make a purchase. The historic downtown is certainly almost all about tourism, with markets, storefronts, tuk-tuk drivers, restaurants with large English translations, and money exchange kiosks. But, you have to picture all of these things sending off a laid back vibe. So much so, that waiters don’t even come over to take your drink order, unless you ask. My theory is that they’re waiting for you to close the menu or that if you want something, you’ll let them know.

I strongly recommend that anyone traveling in SE Asia already or others just looking for a unique and unforgettable vacation experience come here. The only place I’ve been that is remotely similar was Guilin, China back in the 90s. That’s the best comparison I have. But Luang Prabang is more relaxing, more cultural, and has a much wider variety of amazing things to do.

Getting back to the subject of the Mekong River, my next blog post will feature how the agriculture that grows along it influences Lao cuisine.

For more information about the Mekong River, go here: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/373560/Mekong-River.

A great intro to Laos is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laos.

The best traveler’s resource on Luang Prabang I found is here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/laos/northern-laos/luang-prabang.

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Where Are You Going?

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Tomorrow, I begin a 10-day trip to Asia with my old college pal, Angela Casey.  I have one foot out the door already. Recall that this trip is my insanely generous reward to myself for following through with my unexpected and difficult New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol this year.

About twenty years ago, Ange and I had the time of our lives palling around Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Mainland China.  Now, we’re in our mid-40s and we’re going to try to re-capture some of our glory days on a mission to check-in on my step-daughter who’s in the middle of a 4-month journey of her own. Erin and her friend Abby’s travels are documented in a separate blog here.  It’s not lost on me that Erin and Abby are about the same age now that Angela and I were back then.

In the morning, Ange and I will rendez-vous at the Port Authority in NYC to head over to JFK Airport together. Our first stop is Beijing, my old stomping ground. Thinking about this part of our trip motivated me to quickly thumb through about 1,000 old photos. A few shots of me and Ange together in the 90’s are below:Image

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I also couldn’t resist looking at a few of my old journal entries from the “China Years” and discovered that I had some Beijing anger issues back in 1996. A journal entry from October became a short essay in my Christmas letter that year titled  “Beijing, Bejijing, where are you going?” It’s not exactly a promo from the Beijing Tourist Bureau.  However, it’s how I felt at that moment in time, as an expatriate living and working in Beijing. 

Beijing.  Beijing.  What do I really think of you, you capital city of this huge ‘socialist’ country?  You’re no longer protected from the peasants.  Your economy remains a bubble, but the whole country is moving with you, or against you, or in spite of you.  You have it all, don’t you?  All but clean air.  I mean you have history; you have culture; you have the old and sprouting up around and over the old is the new.  The results of ‘development’.  You have cars and the pollution that accompanies them; pollution which will someday rival even Bangkok.  You also have the coffee shops and the jazz bars and even a bagel shop or two.  You must have known that Dunkin’ Donuts was only a decade behind McDonald’s and Avon.  Or had you bothered to consider this?

And, look at your populace.  Women with their tough-as-nails, calf-length nylons, their penciled eyebrows, and their sequined sweaters.  They’re almost fashionable, at least compared to the Russians who roam your streets in search of bargains to bring home to their starving nation.  And your men with their PVC briefcases and pagers.  They’ll be real businessmen someday.  But you can still see the difference between your own and your Singaporean, Hongkonger, and Taiwanese brothers, can’t you?  Your perms are a little too dry, yet.  And your shoes a little too dirty.  But you’re almost there.

You will arrive soon.  But where is it that you think you’re going?  You are rushing ahead so quickly with unparalleled determination.  But what are your goals?  What is your raison d’être?  Your 9th five-year plan.  What does that say?  What unrealistic jargon does it use to unite and confuse you as you approach the future?  I’m only asking because I want you to care, it’s not that I give a shit.  I’m just an observer here.  But I am thinking deeply as I observe.  I ask questions of your taxi cab drivers, your shop keepers.  And I sympathize with their confusion.

They own property, you know, these socialists you have raised.  You let them buy because you wanted a piece of the wealth that originated in the south and spread to the hinterland – not like wildfire – but like something.  You let them buy, but you’ve made it so difficult for them to sell.  What kind of ownership is that anyway?  You’ve confused them with this Chinese characteristic of capitalism or socialism or whatever it is you call it nowadays.  And your billboards confuse us all – foreigners and Beijingers alike.  You want your children to “seize opportunity”; you want your own reforms to “deepen”; you hail an “expansion of openness” and an “acceleration of development”.  Yet you caution all to “maintain stability.”  You fear another Tiananmen.  Or at least you want your children to fear that.  It’s a tall order, this billboard you’ve erected on Chang’anjie, a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen says it all, doesn’t it?  That gray expanse from the Forbidden City to the Gate itself.  So symmetric it all is, with the Chairman’s mostly synthetic body on view right smack in the center of it all.  But at least you proved that your children can line up like the civilized barbarians.  They do so daily from 8:30-11:30am; I’ve seen them do it.  Quickly and orderly they wait in the queue to glimpse their deceased Chairman.  “Ten thousand years” to the preserved flesh of the man who became more than a man.  The icon of Mao.  The one who fucked you all over in his paranoia.  “Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao.”  Arguably the second most influential Chinaman who ever walked the earth.  Mao, you will fade, though.  You will not live in human memory 10,000 years.  You are not Confucius, didn’t you know?

So, Beijing, where did you say you were going?  Please let the world know when you get there, won’t you?  We are all interested.  And we’re almost as confused as you are.

Ange and I will pause less than 24 hours in Beijing, as we journey toward Laos. As you can imagine, we plan to make the most of our brief return to one of our old stomping grounds. It will be very interesting to see how much (or how little?) things have changed in the past 18 years. 

Testing. 123. Testing.

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This is a test of my ability to publish a blog post on a mobile device.

I am heading to Beijing with my long-time great friend, Angela Casey, on Wednesday.

We’re planning an amazing “Throwback Thursday” photo shoot on Tiananmen Square as soon as we get organized (and after we polish off some Peking Duck at the Peninsula Hotel),

Then, Ange turns 44 on Friday and we head over for “one night in Bangkok,” before getting to our actual destination on Saturday morning, Luang Prabang, Laos.

We are extremely stoked to be meeting up with the Two Mermaids, Erin Farr and Abigail Siegel, in Luang Prabang.

Adventure highlights in Laos will include a day hiking and kayaking to the Pak Ou Caves and Kuangsi Waterfall, an unforgettable trip to an elephant preserve, and Laotian cooking lessons.

We’re expecting the unexpected and hope for an unforgettable trip. I promise to post thoughts and photos as often as Wi-Fi affords me the opportunity.

Hole in My Pocket

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I led you astray in my last post when I titled it “I’m Saving Big Bucks!” Although I am really excited about saving more than $4,000 of our family income by not drinking alcohol this year, all that cash is already starting to burn a hole in my pocket. Sure, saving it would be great. But, in keeping a resolution as difficult as this one, I would really like to reward myself. That’s precisely what all the experts say I need to do, in order to increase my chances of success.

For example, a well-received book by Charles Duhigg is all about New Year’s Resolutions and the power of habit. Of course, at the heart of my resolution is to create a new lifelong habit of reduced alcohol consumption.  Duhigg places “rewards” as the third most important factor out of 5 for creating new habits like mine.

Additionally, there are dozens of online articles that also stress the link between rewards and resolution success. Among these, I find this Top 10 Tips to New Year’s Resolution Success particularly awesome, because I didn’t do steps 1 through 4. One is to “be realistic”; 2 is to “plan ahead”; 3 is to “outline your plan”; and 4 is to “make a pros and cons list.” I just skipped straight to 5, which is to “talk about it.”  That said (no pun intended), the sixth thing on this Top 10 List is to reward yourself. This other article, makes it clear that there are different types of rewards — daily rewards, milestone rewards, and having a large great reward when the resolution is successfully completed.

In terms of daily rewards, I have already found that the routine of herbal tea with my husband in the evening is both very relaxing and enjoyable. And, also that my newfound ability to exercise in the evening (something I couldn’t do when I was drinking wine every night) is a reward both in that it makes me feel healthier and it enables me to sleep later in the morning. 

I have decided to roll all the rest of the rewards that I deserve into one really big one. With my budget of over $4,000, I have an opportunity to make it really meaningful and awesome. No, it’s not paying down the mortgage, increasing contributions to my IRA, or finishing the ceiling for our basement re-model.  These are all important and practical things that deserve consideration. However, the research says that my reward should be personal to me. I have decided to make it a once in a lifetime experience.

What is my reward? I’m planning an amazing 10-day vacation to Laos.

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(photo: courtesy of Phoenix Tours)

There are several great benefits wrapped into this reward.  First and foremost, I’ll have a chance to check-in on my step-daughter, Erin, who recently took a leave of absence from her career as a fashion designer and is traveling in Southeast Asia for the next four months. (You can follow her journey here). Being with Erin on a small part of her personal journey should be something both of us will cherish for the rest of our lives.  Secondly, I’ve enlisted my old college pal, Angela, to make this trip with me. Ange and I both studied Mandarin and, back in the 90’s, traveled together in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mainland China. What a hoot it’s going to be for us to go to Bangkok and Laos on this trip twenty years later!

I’ll be a full two months into the resolution before we start our journey to Laos.  This means that I will be well on my way to creating a new habit. In fact, the experts say that it only takes 28 days. And, I’m sure that the memories and experiences I’ll take back home will continue to reward me for the rest of my resolution journey.

It’s quite a reward, don’t you think?