That said, there are some drawbacks. There is no body of water. But, and this is an important caveat, there is an asset neither one of us had even contemplated – there is a huge and amazing Monkey Forest just in the center of town. Some 500 Macaques live and roam freely in the park. While not entirely “free” in the sense of wild, they are not cage bound. This is worth a lot of points, both for both of us. The nature around Ubud is beautiful and the people are unusually friendly and easy to initiate rapport with. So what’s the drawback? Of all the towns/cities we are contemplating, Ubud is probably the most difficult for us to articulate a revenue-generating strategy. Not impossible perhaps, but certainly not obvious; and the cost of living is about twice that of Hoi An. All that said, Ubud is a strong contender. For me it has all, but a body of water; For Ben it has all, but an obvious source of income. But it has monkeys.
We continued our shopping spree in Thailand. We wanted to see Chiang Mai and Pai. Chiang Mai was certainly liveable. A much bigger city than either Hoi An or Ubud, Chiang Mai is foreigner friendly. Suffice to say that it has a live jazz club every night and a movie theater that features not just big Hollywood blockbusters, but also European films. The street food is perhaps not as accessible as Hoi An’s, but it is extensive and the markets are good – not fabulous, but good enough. Chiang Mai is adjacent to a large mountain which has, among other virtues, a waterfall. But the return on investment to that waterfall is not great – its distance is inversely proportional to the size of its waterfall… lots of motorcycle riding, not much more than a sprinkle – not exactly a game changer in our selection process. Chiang Mai has a large expat community, which is both positive and negative. With the expats come some useful restaurant infrastructure and a local population that is accustomed to dealing with foreigners with no or limited language. On the downside, the novelty in the locals/foreigners meetup is gone and some of the mutual discovery process we have experienced in Viet Nam is therefore not part of everyday life. In short, Chiang Mai is “liveable”, but neither one of us is rushing to set up camp there.
Pai turns out to be worth a visit, some 5 hour driving through twisty mountain roads, but is too small to be a home town for us. It’s beautiful, has nature, has waterfalls and has some street food. But after 48 hours, it’s easy to start dreaming about moving on to discover new destinations. Pai is out too.
And then there is Laos. We flew into Luang Prabang. Love strikes again. A gorgeous, World Heritage UNESCO Site, Luang Prabang meets many of our criteria. The town’s architecture is just beyond any expectation. The ethnicity factor is highest, as it sits as the largest town in a region of Northern Laos where some 100 ethnic minorities cohabitate The markets are ok and the food culture is very strong. One does not go hungry for gastronomic delights in Luang Prabang. To the important criterion of a body of water – no need to look any further as Luang Prabang is in fact a peninsula, bordered by not one, but two rivers – the mighty Mekong River, and a smaller river. And there is a breathtaking waterfall within a short distance to run to when it’s hot. The Cappuccino requirement is won hands down by Luang Prabang which, with its French Colonial history, is dotted with boulangeries and Paris-quality croissants (to go with said Cappuccino). There is yoga too. Of all the places we have visited, Laos probably has the highest potential for an impact oriented professional endeavor. The fact that it is close to “bamboo country” means that the 6 years we invested in the bamboo value chain in Nicaragua might become a launching pad for a bamboo-centric activity in Laos. So Luang Prabang is in.
So after one year of traveling in the ASEAN region, we have down-selected three towns we could absolutely live in and build a meaningful and rich life in. It’s down to Hoi An, Vietnam (big plus on the beaches and the food); Ubud, Bali/Indonesia (big plus on the yoga front and vegetarian/vegan scale – and importantly, the language, which is infinitely easier to learn than either Vietnamese or Lao); and Luang Prabang (big plus on the architecture and ethnicity content).
We will now pause and let opportunity dictate. We could live in all three. Maybe we’ll live in all three. Stay tuned to find out where we actually start to grow roots.