Archive for June, 2010


Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

We had an amazing first day in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  It was an easy flight from Phnom Penh.  We first landed in Bangkok, picked up our bags, passed through immigration, and then had to circle back to domestic departures to catch our flight to Chiang Mai.  It sounds like it was a bit crazy but it was much easier and smooth than I had anticipated.

Once we arrived in Chiang Mai around 10:30pm, our driver was at the airport – sign in hand – to transfer us to our hotel.  The Raming Lodge was very nice, comfortable, and had a more reliable internet connection than we found in Cambodia.  We were exhausted after a crazy day in Phnom Penh (crammed in a LOT of things before catching our flight) so we were ready to climb into bed.  We explored the area around the hotel, picked up a snack, and were in bed by 12:30am.

LET THE ADVENTURE BEGIN – that was our motto starting Monday morning.  These are the last two days of this journey before heading back to the States early (very early) Wednesday morning.

I had the chance to Skype with Cindy around 6:30am (Thailand time).  This would have been a miserable trip if not for Skype!  It would have been difficult being on the other side of the world and not being able to see her face and talk to her everyday.

Promptly at 8am our driver picked us up at the hotel to take us to Chiang Dao.  It’s about an hour drive north of Chiang Mai but it was a very comfortable (and air-conditioned) van.

Once we arrived at the camp, it wasn’t long before we were fully engaged with the mahount (trainers) and the elephants.  They even did a little “performance” for us.

After the “show,” they took us to a platform.  There Mike and I mounted one of the largest and oldest elephant at the camp.  He is definitely the leader of the pack with large tusks and really big feet!  He was very gentle and we climbed on board.

It took a bit to get used to the rocking motion on his back.  I’m not sure I ever got completely used to it but it was a great experience.  We made our way through the Thailand rainforest jungle for almost an hour until we arrived at a small native Lisu village.  They had handmade items for sale ranging from woven bags and hats to hand-carved wooden things.  I had the chance to meet several of the village people – very friendly and excited about us being there.  And, yes, I picked up a couple of very cool souvenirs.

We took a different path back to the base camp.  The scenery is beautiful.  It was so quiet you could here only the sounds of the jungle, including the water that was about to become part of our path!

And it was pretty relaxing the second time around.  We were much more comfortable with riding the elephant than before.  We did have an unexpected adventure.  The seat that we were riding in slipped off the elephant while we were in the middle of the jungle!  Our mahout jumped off, climbed up the elephant’s butt, attached it, and we were on our way – relaxing again.

Once we arrived at base camp, some of the workers had prepared lunch for us – authentic Thai food and much more than either Mike and I could eat.  Everything from fresh spring rolls, soup, and a couple of spicy dishes.

After a very delicious and quiet lunch by the river, we walked down a path to our awaiting bamboo raft.  Yes, we were only beginning the second half of our day.  Mike and I walked across several rafts to get to ours, took our seat on the small bench, and started down the river.

Not being one that just likes to sit, I pantomimed to the “driver” to see if he would let me steer for a while.  He hesitated at first but then relinquished the pole.  For almost an hour, I was the “captain of our ship.”  Mike took his turn behind the pole as well but mostly concentrated on making sure we had lots of pictures and video while I steered us down the river.

I’m going to try very hard in the next few days to get these picture organized and uploaded to our Flickr site.  I’ve already posted many from Vietnam and Cambodia in a collection called Southeast Asia.  I’m sure there will be many more to come!

Once we made it back to the landing, our driver was there to meet us with cold clothes and cold water in hand!  It was a very welcome sight as it was extremely hot on the water.

Even thought we’d been going strong since 6:30am, our day still was not over.  We talked our driver into stopping at a tiger preserve on the outskirts of Chiang Dao.  The tigers here are all Asian Bengals and we had an up-close experience with many of them.

After wrapping up here, we made our way back to the hotel in Chiang Mai.  It was HOT and we were hungry.  We decided to take a quick swim before hitting the streets to find some food.  Half the fun of being in a city like this is exploring the streets and night markets after hours.

Our hotel was located inside the “old city wall” of what was originally Siam.  We walked from our hotel (which was an experience all by itself) to the streets outside the ruins of the city wall.  We found a great little restaurant where we ate way too much food for 450 BHT or about $12.

After dinner, we had one more “unique” experience for us – DR. FISH.  Yup, you drop your feed in a large tank with these little fish and they eat away the deposits and dead skin.  The first 60 seconds were almost unbearable – especially for ticklish feet – but then it was kind of nice (but not relaxing).

One more adventure of the evening before heading back to the hotel was a little shopping in the Night Market.  This place is HUGE – food, clothes, bags, watches, and lots of fake stuff.


Sunday, June 27th, 2010

We arrived in Phnom Penh early on Friday morning.  Chris Merritt, from New Future for Children orphanage, met us at the airport.  We flagged down a tuktuk, negotiated the deal with the driver to get us to our hotel and then to NFC to meet the kids.

Tuktuk is the fastest way to travel in Cambodia but you have to have a good driver.  There are no “rules” to driving here – no one cares what lane they are in, they don’t stop at lights, and pull often pull u-turns in the road with little warning.  Add the fact that there are about 200 motorbikes to every car and you’ve got some crazy streets!  There are little “shops” along the roadsides that sell gas in litre bottles, just enough for a you back on the streets.

We dropped our bags at the hotel and made our way to the orphanage.  There were some initial preparations we had to do, kids were still in school, so Chris made some curry chicken and we ate lunch.

The kids started to gather in early afternoon.  Mike and I spent the next couple of hours teaching them some simple magic tricks.  All of them learned and some of them excelled.  We worked with smaller groups so we could give some individual attention to those who needed it.

We took the opportunity to take those students aside and share with them some more difficult ones.  We would see how well they would master them the next day.

Around 6pm, it was time for us to get back to the hotel and get some rest.  There are few choices for transportation from NFC because it is in one of the more rural areas of the city.  Remember those motorbikes?

We’ve been going strong since we landed in Vietnam almost a week ago, sleeping little more than 4-5 hours a night.  We were both exhausted.  Chris joined us for dinner at the hotel; afterwards, Mike and I relaxed in the pool and were in bed by 9:30pm.

We were up around 7pm the next morning.  I had the chance to sit outside before the heat climbed above 95 and talk with Cindy on Skype.  It’s a great way to start the day!  Chris arrived with a tuktuk drive to let us do a little sightseeing in Phnom Penh before heading back over to the orphanage.

Our first stop on the trip was outside the city.  A 20km tuktuk ride to the Killing Field,s as they are now known.  This is a memorial to one of the worst genocides in history.  Under the Khmer Rouge, millions of Cambodians were slaughtered – men, women, and children.  Babies were used as target practice, thrown high in the air and shot.  Or they would simply hold them by their legs and slammed the heads against the trees.  Hundreds were beheaded.  The details are too gruesome to describe in detail but I would encourage you to google it to find out more.  This evil regime was in power from 1975 until the Khmer people were liberated in 1979.  Three million people were killed – doctors, educators, intellectuals, and those with social standing.  Over 20,000 people were slaughtered and buried in the mass graves of the Killing Fields.

After taking power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge set out to immediately revamp Cambodian society.  Their first step was to rusticate the cities so that the “urbanites,” suspect for their regressive class background, could be reformed through hard labor.  These reformed subjects could then contribute to the new agrarian economy focused primarily on massive rice production.  Thousands of people died during the evacuations.  The Khmer Rouge transformed Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich, no poor, and no quality of life.  To accomplish this, they abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, private properties, foreign clothing styles, religious practices, and traditional Khmer culture.  The regime destroyed the national bank, church, pagodas, temples, schools, mosques, churches, and hospitals turning them into prisons, torture chambers, and “re-education” camps.  If you could not be re-educated to follow the reigme, you were tortured for a confession for crimes again the government and you were killed.

In January 1979, the Khmer people were liberated from the Khmer Rouge and this moment stands today as a reminder of the sacrifices that were made during those very dark years of the dictator Pol Pot.

Cambodia still suffers today in poverty and ignorance because of those educators, cultural icons, and confiscation of wealth by the Khmer Rouge.  It will take many more years for them to begin to see light at the end of the tunnel.

After the Killing Fields, we made our way back into the city to the Russian Market, a large indoor and outdoor market where you can literally buy anything you want or need.  I picked up a couple of souveniers and then we were on our way to visit on of the local wats.

This place is HUGE – a combination of local and tourists items from clothes, food, motorbike parts, DVDs, CDs, local and pop music, and much more.  It filled several city blocks…but it was also a metal roof covered market so it was a lot like walking into an oven in this heat.  Imagine how hot it was in there when we walked in the cooking area with hundreds of fires and burners!

We had a lot of ground yet to cover to see some of the city sights so it was back to the tuktuk.  Here are just a couple of highlights – War memorials, Temples, Monks, Statues, etc.  Here are some pictures.

After stopping for lunch by the river at a great, little Thai restaurant, we were on our way back to NFC to being working with the kids.  Just as we walked into the restaurant, it started to rain.  We’ve been fairly lucky since we arrived in Southeast Asia.  It is the raining season but we’ve only experienced a brief storm or two in other places.  Today, it was raining – hard!  And it didn’t let up.

NFC had planned to do a small show at the orphanage for kids, staff, and some guests.  In March, a group of volunteers came and build a stage in preparation of our arrival.

Unfortunately, the rain just didn’t stop and the area around the stage was a muddy mess.  We had to move the show up to the driveway but the kids did a great job of decorating it.  The Young Artist Group also had an art show of original paintings planned for a silent auction.  One artist, Sopheak, did most of the paintings on display.  He is amazingly talented and the depth of his art is incredible.

In spite of the torrential rains, we ended up with a fun audience and had a great time.  Mike and I did a little magic, the kids did some Khmer dancing for us, and a few of the kids performed some magic.

We wrapped up around 9pm.  It was time to leave NFC and head to our next destination. In such a short time, it’s hard to believe you can make a connection with theses kids.  Many of the older kids became especially attached to us in these few days.  Saying goodbye was difficut.  After saying goodbye to all the kids, our tuktuk driver took us back to our hotel…in the rain.

Mike and I hadn’t eaten since lunch about 9 hours ago.  There’s not much in the way of food out where we are staying.  We walked outside the gate to a little VERY local place.  No one here spoke English and they didn’t have a menu (not that we could have read it).  So we just ordered beef fried noodles, chicken fried rice, and some mystery soup, all prepared as traditional Khmer cuisine.

Here’s what we’ve decided.  We’re not big fans of traditional Khmer food!  I wouldn’t say it was tasty, but at least it was filling.  And the chicken fried rice had very little chicken and a whole lot of bones!  Every bite had to be chewed slowly so you wouldn’t break your teeth!  The mystery soup wasn’t bad.  We gave some of the things we didn’t recognize to the dog sitting next to us.  If he ate it, we tried it.

Today, we leave for Thailand.  We will fly to Bangkok first, clear immigration, and connect to Chiang Mai for a couple of days.  More adventure to come!


Thursday, June 24th, 2010

It has been a full day today.  I woke up around 5am and talked with Cindy for a while before meeting Mike for breakfast in the dining room of the Jasmine Lodge.  Our car arrived at 7:45am and we were on our way to the temple complexes of Angkor.  As we drove through the main entrance, we were first greeted by a popular mode of transportation for some of the temples.  We opted to hike in spite of the incredible heat and humidity (what were we thinking?).

After playing with the elephants, we walked toward our first temple of the day…but not before having the opportunity to  meet the Welcoming Committee.

The morning itinerary was really tight with stops to see the giant faces of Bayon, the South Gate of Angkor Thom, and Baphuon (the site for the movie “Temple of Doom”) before eating lunch.  Nothing “interesting” today on the menu – banana flower and chicken salad, yellow curry chicken, and fresh fruit.  After lunch, we wandered over to some of the little shops that surround the complex.  Mike picked me up a copy of a great book on ANGKOR from one of the kids pitching on the corner.  Unfortunately, it’s in Italian – but the pictures are amazing.

Together, Mike and I have over 720 pictures just from today’s visit to the temple complexes.  The jewel – the biggest and most impressive – of all the ruins is Angkor Wat.  This is the one I had been waiting for all day.  The others were spectacular but Angkor Wat is mystical and magical.

It took close to two hours to get through this complex and that was at a quick pace!  I could have easily spent an entire day here wandering the tunnels, looking at the many buddha’s, and climbing the massive spirals.  Around every corner is another mystery, carving, or story.

We wrapped up the day hiking up one of the temple mountains – Ta Keo – to check out the view.  Our guide did not join us on this hike.  He just waited for us at the bottom of the mountain.  What e didn’t know there was actually another temple up there but, much to our surprise, the path opened up to yet another set of amazing ruins.

They look huge because they are!  We climbed all the way to the top and stood among the spirals.  The view was spectacular, overlooking the valley and the distant Angkor Wat complex.  It was an inspiring way to end the day.  Our driver and guide dropped us off at the Jasmine Lodge where we couldn’t wait to get out of our sweat soaked clothing and into a cold shower!  Diner is yet to come….


Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

DISCLAIMER:  Forgive me if some of this doesn’t make sense or if you find my writing style not quite up to my usual standard.  I’m still battling some minor jet lag but, mostly, we’re just taking it all in.  Three countries and five cities in ten days!

I was up early this morning so I could Skype with Cindy.  It was awesome to see her beautiful face on my screen from the other side of the world!  We had a chance to catch up on things and explain some of the pictures I’ve been sending her.  It’s hard to imagine some of them if you’re not here.  Mike met me in the lobby for breakfast and then our car picked us up to take us to the airport.  It would be a quick flight on Vietnam Airlines from Saigon to Siem Reap.  We landed right on time around 12:30pm and our guy was there in his tuk-tuk to pick us up.  We had the whole day ahead of us.

There is a striking difference between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap.  As we flew over, the first thing you notice is the farmland.  The second thing you notice is the lack of roads and highways.  It’s very rural, very basic, very underderveloped.

Once we checked into our hostel – the Jasmine Lodge – we made arrangements with Kunn (the owner) to have one of his employees stay with us for the day and escort us around town for food, shopping, and some adventure.  Turns out, we were able to go to all the “local” places because we had a translator and someone to help us “bargain” for goods!  The first stop was the Old Town Market where we did a little souvenir shopping.  I bought a couple of things for Cindy for the house and then we were off to find lunch.  Our dude helped us order some authentic Khmer food – some of it kind of spicy!

After lunch, we wandered the Market again and tasted some of the locally grown fruits.  I know it sounds like I don’t do anything but eat my way from country to country but there are so many things to experience.  And mixing with the locals is never dull!  And having Mike with me means we can always find an interesting challenge!!

After lunch, we jumped back into the tuk-tuk and made our way to the Angkor Museum in preparation of our tour of the temple ruins tomorrow.  This was a really cool place filled with antiquities from the 9th-13th centuries and a great timeline of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

The tour tomorrow is going to be about 7 hours and starts at 8am.  It’s going to be another long day but exploring Angkor Wat has been on my “bucket list” for a long time.  I can’t believe that I’m on the other side of the world ready to explore one of the greatest finds in civilization.  I know it’s going to be a day that I will never forget.  Inside the museum, there was a small version of the Temple Complex – which is HUGE (almost the square mileage of Los Angeles – that’s what they tell me).

After the museum tour, we rode around in the tuk-tuk and did some further exploring.  We stopped along one of the streets to check out the vendors.  Some very interesting fare on the cookers you might say.  We bought some crickets, grasshoppers, and large water bugs to try.  They had been either fried or roasted and then seasoned with various spices.  Most of them were crunchy but the water bug was a little “meaty.”  It tasted a bit like peanut butter actually.

After those tasty appetizers, our guide rustled us back into the tuk-tuk and we were off…bag of crickets in hand.  Because we have an early day tomorrow, we decided to eat dinner and head back to the hotel.  We stopped at another amazing little place – very regional, very local.  Only about 5 tables filled with people who clearly frequent there often and all know each other.  The “food of the day” was beef!

Mike and I did a little magic for the small group of people there.  It never ceases to amaze that, in spite of language and cultural differences, and little magic goes a long way!


Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

I arrived safely in Ho Chi Minh City, with my traveling buddy Mike, late Monday night.  It was one long flight – Roanoke to Chicago, Chicago to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to HCMC.  All in all, about 30 hours of traveling. Our driver was at the airport to meet us, placard in hand with my name on it, and we were whisked away to the hotel.

That first night was a little rough trying to get acquainted with the time zone.  Even after going to bed after midnight, we both woke up around 3am and then on and off until 6am.  Finally, we just decided to get up and explore the area around the hotel. I was surprised to see how many people were already busy setting up shop on the street.  The “wet market” is just around the corner.  This is a huge market place where morning fish, seafood, and meat are brought in and slaughtered/prepared for customers.  It is quite a sight!  And there are also flowers, fruits, and some household goods.  This young lady is preparing snakes – delicious!

Once we finished exploring, we made our way back to the hotel to eat breakfast.  We had arranged for a private tour of the Mekong Delta region that would take more of the day.  Our tour guide, Ha Dang, arrived promptly at 8am, we climbed into a nice air conditioned van and started the 75 minute drive to the countryside outside of Saigon.

The next 6 hours would be an amazing journey through the villages, jungles, rivers, and lives of some of the most generous and humble people I’ve met.  The poverty is overwhelming but it doesn’t damper their spirit or their hospitality!  We visited a small village where they make candy from coconuts and wine from almost everything (including the samples I had of banana, coconut, and snake!).

Once we started down the Mekong River, our boat driver thought it would be a good idea – not sure why – to let me steer for a while through the wide open areas.  I gladly jumped behind the wheel and had a little fun.

And when not steering the boat, one of the best seats was right on the bow – great view of the river and the sights surrounding it including fish farms, floating markets, house boats, and more.

While back in the villages, Mike and I share a little magic with lots of the village people.  It’s simply amazing how magic can transcend language barriers and bring smiles to the faces of children and adults.  Literally, from village to village with shared a trick or tour and listened to people laugh and scream “HOW?”

While traveling through the region on a motorized tuk tuk, Dang decided to stop along the way to take us up on our wish to sample one of the most talked-about fruits of the area, Durian.  There’s no easy way to explain this fruit.  It’s very spiky on the outside and the odor is…..horrible.  Dang talked to an older woman for several minutes before finally settling on a particular “melon” for us to try.  Using a small machete, she cut it open and the pungent odor just took over.  Inside were two or three pieces of bright yellow fruit.  The goal – or challenge – was to get the fruit to your mouth without losing your lunch!  It proved to be quite nice – a creamy, chewy, texture that’s sweet like ice cream.

We continued through the jungles until we arrived at another small village.  This is where we would stop for a meal.  Picture a large deck, covered with palm branches, in the middle of the water surrounded by the jungle – paradise!  We sampled lots of traditional Vietnamese food including a local favorite, elephant ear fish.

Toward the end of the afternoon, we made our way back to Saigon.  Our adventure for the day was not quite complete.  After spending 8 hours in the Mekong, we made our way through the main streets of the city and walked to the Saigon River.  We had booked a buffet dinner cruise that would take us around the city and let us experience some Vietnamese entertainment – traditional dance, music, and even a little magic.

It is morning here now.  We leave at 9am to catch our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia….more later.


Sunday, June 20th, 2010

I was up early – around 4am – so as to have time to get to the airport for a 6am flight to Chicago.  This is where my journey begins.

Cindy and I spend the last couple of days together, trying to relax and get in some quality time before I leave for about 10 days.  We have had a great time and I know I’m going to miss her very much while I’m gone.  I spent the night last night in Roanoke so I wouldn’t have to get up so early this morning BUT 4am still came fast.

I’m sitting at the airport now (5:20am) waiting for my first of three flights.  This one will get me from Roanoke to Chicago.  I’ll meet up with Mike there and, together, we’ll fly on to Hong Kong.  That’s going to be one long flight – 15 hours and 17 minutes!  After a short layover in Hong Kong, we’ll pick up our last flight from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  It’s still almost unbelievable to write those words.  The next few days will be simply amazing.  I’m sure of it!


Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

I’m back in my office for a few days.  I have to complete a few projects before the end of the week.  Today I’m working on completing a grant with Autism Speaks, one of the leading foundations confronting the issues facing individuals with autism spectrum disorders.  I needs to be done before Friday!

Our 2010/2011 tour schedule is mostly complete.  You can find it on the website or on Pollstar.  We should have it up on the Facebook page by the end of July.  These schedules include only public performances, not necessarily all of the speaking engagements for Hocus Focus and Healing of Magic.

I’m trying to spend as much quality time as I can with Cindy this week too.  I leave early this Sunday morning for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand for 10 days. This is going to be quite an adventure!  I’ll be blogging and posting pictures through the journey so I hope you’ll follow along!

Gotta run – work to do!


Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Alan and I have been in Longview, TX all week.  We’ve been a part of the Summer Camps of LeTourneau University.  We’ve been conducting MAGIC CAMP – two sessions each day, one in the morning (8am – 12pm and 1pm – 5pm).  We’ had some fantastic students!  What was most exciting was watching each of them become a performer.  Starting on Monday when most of them were kind of shy and a little awkward on the stage, each day was something new as they performed their tricks for the group.

On Friday, they performed for a large group of their families and friends.  They were fantastic!  Each one of them really showed off their personality and creativity.  They had to do more than just perform a magic trick, they also had to tell a story to go along with each one.  I’m really proud of all of them!

After a great week, we are heading back to Virginia for a few days.  I’m looking forward to spending some time with Cindy before leaving again on Sunday, June 20.  So far, my summer has been going full speed.


Saturday, June 5th, 2010

This is going to be a long blog entry – so I apologize in advance.  For the last 8 days, Cindy and I have been in Italy with my parents.  This was one of those “trips-of-a-lifetime” being able to share this adventure with my wife, mom and dad.

We left from Washington, DC and flew all night.  We made our connecting flight in Paris and arrived in Venice the following morning.  One of the more spectacular views from the airplane was the site of the Swiss Alps.

After checking into our hotel, we explored the island for the remainder of the day.  We had dinner at a quaint family-owned pizzaria – simply amazing.

After dinner, we walked to the Rialto Bridge and enjoyed a cone of gelato along the way.  The Rialto Bridge crosses the Grand Canal.  It is filled with markets, shops, and crafts people.  And it is one of the most spectacular venues in the evening.

Probably the highlight of the city for all of us was touring the Basilica San Marco located in the heart of Piazza San Marco.  The architecture is remarkable dating back to 828 AD and the history is even more inspiring.

The piazza is massive and difficult to capture in a picture or video.  It is surrounded by cafes and restaurants,..and lots of birds.  Feeding the birds is a favorite pastime for many visitors.  Cindy and my mom got in the action (my dad did as well) and I was able to capture a couple of great pictures and some very cool video.

After a few days in Venice, we rode the Eurostar train from Venice to Rome.  It’s a beautiful ride through Tuscany and the Italian countryside of fields and vineyards.  The four hour journey dropped us at the Termini Station in Rome.  Our car was waiting and we were whisked off to our hotel in the Via Veneto district close to the American Embassy.  After checking in, we walked around the area to the Spanish Steps and got a little cone of gelato.

The next few days were packed.  We were up early to make our way to the Basilica San Paulo.

Here, behind the grille, you can see the side of the sarcophagus that is the Tomb of St. Paul the Apostle.  The chains above the grille are, according to an undisputed ancient tradition, the chains that compelled St. Paul to live as a prisoner in Rome.

After visiting this Basilica, we had to run to the other side of Rome to the Piazza Navona to meet up with a tour group.  This English-speaking tour would take us to several of the highlights of Rome including the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, The Roman Forum, and the Coloseum.  Our guide was great and very knowledgeable (a PhD in archeology and Roman history).

After our tour, we took the subway back to our hotel for some dinner.  And then we jumped on the “Hop On, Hop Off” bus that literally drives you around Rome.  With the pass, you can get off at 17 different stops.  Every 15 minutes, another bus arrives to continue the circuit.  It was a great way to see the city and some of the places we might never have seen.

The next two days are kind of a blur!  We did some shopping, ate lots of food, made visits to historical sites, and toured the Vatican and Museums.  Certainly one of the highlights was seeing up close Michelangelo “Pieta” (the only sculpture he ever signed) and the Sistine Chapel.

It was an incredible week!  After a couple of days of rest, I’m off to Texas now to teach at “magic camp” in Longview!