Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Phonsevan, Laos and the Plain of Jars

It's cold here! Being up in the mountains at the coldest time of year is not quite what I expected from SE Asia.  I'm only about 100 miles straight line from the southern border of China so what did I expect?  I'm not sure really.

We came to see the Plain of Jars - 2,000 year old limestone jars scattered all over this province and nobody knows why they are here, what they were used for, or who made them.  They are anywhere from 2ft to 8ft tall and some weight over 2 tons.  They've survived being in the most heavily bombed region in the world which took place during the "secret" war from 1964-73 when the US dropped millions of tons of bombs here to try to route out the Communists and keep the Vietcong from using the hills as hideouts.  Laos and a few NGOs are trying to get them recognized as UNESCO world heritage sites, but first they all have to be de-mined and cleared of UXO - unexploded ordinance.

There are a lot of people missing their limbs and more who are dead from the 30% of the munitions which failed to explode but remained active and explosive.  People can't cultivate even half of the arable land here which leaves them starving and impoverished, because they risk finding and triggering UXO which would leave them mortally wounded or dead.  People consistently find the remnants of cluster munitions laying about (about the size of a baseball) and kids who don't know any better often play with them, eventually causing them to explode.  It's just such a wonderful legacy that we should all know about but like to neglect, the war was not just in Vietnam but arguably more so in Cambodia in Laos (by volume of ordinance dropped).

This NGO - Mines Advisory Group is a great example of what's being done to help, but unfortunately at the current rate of clearance it could take up to 100 years!

That's all, I'm done freezing my ass off and going to go find a motorbike to ride to get even colder!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Holidays in Asia

Well since my friends arrived on the 12th they have pretty much absorbed the little time that I had previously had to spend online and updating my blog, so again I'll try to summarize the past couple weeks in a short highlight reel-esque post. 

Bryce and I spent his one day in Bangkok just wandering around and going on the various (fun) forms of public transport.  The canal boats and river boats often rock excessively from the wakes of passing boats and it can be pretty fun.

The morning after Katie arrived we took a public bus to the Cambodian border crossing at Poipet, where we had thankfully read enough beforehand that we skirted the attempts to scam us for our visas, paid our $20 at the real border, and had our visas in a few minutes.  We got to Siem Reap and got a guesthouse for $3 per person, per night.  We spent 4 days there and went to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples for 2 of them.  

On our first day in Angkor Wat, Bryce and I were having lunch and being hounded by souvenir hawkers as usual.  Fortunately I was nice to one of the ladies and started asking questions about her life and about Cambodia, and by the end of the conversation we were invited to have dinner with her and her family the next day at their rice farm.  They had never had any foreigners visit their house before, and it was a pretty big deal for all of us.  Needless to say it was a great experience and great food.  The rice had just been harvested the day before, the eggs came from their chickens, the chicken was bought fresh from the market, and they picked the fruit fresh from trees in their back yard.  They also live near a lake where the king of Cambodia from ancient times used to swim - we of course had to swim in it to.

On the 18th Bryce had to fly to Kuala Lumpur for his debate tournament, so Katie and I just rode bikes around town and explored the markets.  The next day we headed back to Bangkok and unfortunately missed the night train to the Laos border north of Nong Khai.  We stayed in Bangkok overnight, toured around a bit the next day, and caught a 6.30 train north.

We spent a day in Vientiane, checked out some old French buildings and the National Museum, and the next day caught a bus to Vang Vieng - infamous as a party spot for backpackers.  We've been here 4 days now and were going to go to Phonsavan today to see the Plain of Jars but after Christmas night we didn't get up early enough to catch the bus, so we'll have to go tomorrow.  We're here with a group of other travelers - mostly Canadians - and a Thai lady who's food stall I eat at whenever I'm in Bangkok.  

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Getting back to Thailand

Well the time since my last post has carried a number of fun adventures...I'll try to summarize them in brief.

On the 26th and 27th of Nov. my host and I decided (at about 8.30pm) to take a series of buses overnight to Pangandaran, on the southern coast of Java.  It was a beautiful place and I'm glad she spoke both Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese because in some places the locals barely even spoke Bahasa - the national language.

We spent just one night there but got up early Sunday morning to go to the Green Canyon...not very big, but gorgeous and a ton of fun just the same!  We could have taken a boat up the river to the canyon (isolated in the jungle) for about $8 and then paid more to get out and swim around, but instead asked a local who told us how to hike there. All along the canyon there was water dripping and sometimes pouring out of the rocky walls, which were probably close to 100ft high.  In some places it was just a slow dripping and in others a steady stream more like a waterfall, but it all looked and sounded amazing.  I jumped in the river (which was surprisingly chilly, only about 60 degrees!) and swam up the river a ways to an outcropping of rocks, one of which was a stalagmite about 15ft high, and safe to jump off of. Of course I had no choice but to give it a try. Standing on top of the rock, under a cascade of water pouring out of the canyon walls above like a hard shower I stood for what seemed like an hour just reveling in the fact that I was taking a natural shower over a beautiful river in the jungle in Indonesia.  In reality it was probably only about 5 minutes before people below - who paid for the boats - were suspect that I may not do it and began urging me to jump.  I performed a near perfect cannonball, trying to soak as many of them as possible, and swam back to where I had come from.

Afterwards we ended up hitchhiking part way back to her city and taking a bus the rest of the way, I spent 2 more days there before going to Bandung, Indonesia.

Bandung really doesn't deserve a lot of space here, it's called the "Paris of Java" and maybe rightly so.  It's main draw is cheap outlet malls and opulent houses.  The economic disparity was nowhere more evident than my couchsurfing host's neighborhood and personality.  I learned more about corruption and disrespect, but little else.

The only highlight was going to Tangkuban Prau which is a big hill with some craters and hot springs.  It was nice to go hiking again, especially on my own, and I joyfully ran about 1km of the way up.  This may not sound like much, but it was nearly 7,000ft in elevation and a constant line of 2ft stairs carved into the hillside.  One of these days I'll get the corresponding pictures uploaded to my other webspace: http://louisnk.info

On Saturday, Dec 4th I flew back to Bangkok (overnight, with a 6 hour stop in Singapore) and spent a day bumming around the city before leaving Monday afternoon on a train bound for Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, where I sit writing this now.

My couchsurfing host here is great, an old British expat who has a large house overlooking a small pond and some fields, with a couple nice balconies overlooking the aforementioned pond.  The city so far is beautiful and today I am going into town to rent a motorcycle for 100 baht - for those of you who don't remember, $1 = 30 baht.

Last night I was lucky enough to go with my host to a festival that he is helping run a stall at, and his friend's stall is an activist group working with and for the Burmese people, while there I was also lucky enough to meet a Shan (ethnic group in NE Burma) guy who had to flee Burma after the 2007 Saffron Revolution (when all the monks were killed) because he was caught carrying a flag during a protest march and subjected to violent abuse and torture for 3 weeks, 2 weeks hard labor, and a contract promising he would never participate in any political activity again.

I uploaded a ton of pictures to my other webspace while I was in Singapore, but am still not up to date. If you look there you can get the stories behind a lot of the pictures by reading my posts on here about those places. http://louisnk.info

I'll be in Chiang Mai until Friday night when I'll be taking another overnight train back to Bangkok and Sunday night meeting with Bryce and Katie who are coming to visit for part of Christmas break.  It will be nice to see a familiar face again and not keep telling the same stories over and over, hopefully just once!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Lake Toba, Medan, and beyond

I have been informed that my posts are too long, so I'll try my hand at an abridged version of the events...

Lake Toba, well, it's a big lake.  It's nice, the surroundings are similar Coeur d'Alene, Idaho with more jungle-like plants.  The island in the middle was also cool but it seemed the locals were fond of the money that tourism brings, but not so fond of the tourists themselves.  I felt like I was looked at as A) a walking bank, and B) possibly gay for not yet being married at 23!

I met a couple interesting people but the locals were pretty reserved and constantly searching for opportunities to line their pockets.  Other than that it was pretty expensive, at least substantially more than staying at somebody's house for free and only paying for 2 meals a day at about $1 each.  After 2 days and 3 nights I decided to bail and fly to Jakarta.

I showed up at the Medan airport at about noon, expecting to have no problem getting a cheap - less than $50 - flight to Jakarta sometime later in the day.  When I found that the cheapest ones were more on the order of $150 for that day I decided to go back to my Couchsurfing host for a couple nights and fly to Jakarta today (Thursday, Thanksgiving for all of you at home) for a reasonable $52.

I made it to Java, met with my host, and have my own room and bed, crazy! I think this may yet be the best CS experience I've had, although Penang was pretty good and I think the upcoming time in Bali will be tough to top.  Tomorrow I'm going to...a giant mosque? A second-hand market (whatever that means in a country where things are used until they are useless then tossed in the river to be disposed of, I'm not sure?)  And maybe a museum or two, who knows?!  So many things to do, so little time! 

I'm also going to count how many times I hear "Hello, Mr!" as it seems to be about the only line that kids are taught in their English classes here.  At first it was obnoxious, but now I just laugh and say hello back, then play a game where I engage them in conversations of absolute fiction on my part, to make it more interesting for all of us!

Pictures tomorrow?  Perhaps yes! At least I hope so...I have so many to upload!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Successful loose planning

Well Sumatra is a lot bigger than I realized, oops.  So rather than going overland (which I have been informed would take at least a couple days without stopping) I will be flying from Medan.  I haven't really left the city but it's been fun.  The couchsurfing group here is very organized and are pretty close knit.  I was picked up at the airport by my host and immediately whisked to a meeting in a park with some other members.  After the park we got lunch and went to a school to play basketball.  Apparently it was a national holiday so everyone had the day off to play and hang out with me.

Yesterday (my 2nd day here) was the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adh which I spent with a wealthy Pakistani family living here in Medan.  It was tough not to laugh at first when their son who I met through couchsurfing was telling me quite proudly that they were going to sacrifice a cow rather than just a goat, and eat it.  I reminded myself that they probably laugh at some of our traditions too, but that this was something significant to them both culturally and religiously, and that to laugh would be highly offensive and likely revoke my invitation. It was an interesting ceremony to see - not much of a ceremony really. The eldest son got the honor of cutting the cow's throat with a large sword/machete and then the butcher did the rest.  The women and the help prepared the food, although me and the other 2 westerners who came also helped. They were all very friendly and didn't seem put off at all by the fact that I'm American.  There was no praying or overt religiosity present, which I suspect is typical of the modern, progressive Muslim family.  They told me that there are only a few areas where the Muslims in Indonesia are conservative at all, and they are typically isolated anyhow.  Being a male I shouldn't receive any unwanted attention or harassment according to them, so it was nice to have my lack of fear justified.

They did ask at one point why so many Americans dislike Islam and Muslims, but after talking with them for a while they admitted that they hadn't met many Americans and really only knew from what they had read, heard, or were told.  They were all fairly educated and progressive, the wife had even just been in London last month and none of the girls were even covering their hair. It was interesting to get their perspective on things, but sad to see that a family of a high social and economic status with a superior education to most of the population - at least by my estimation - was still fairly ignorant to the truth behind what they are told.  Although in writing that I realize that most Americans are not much different. I doubt most Americans have ever met or talked to a Muslim either and yet most seem adequately terrified and distrusting as well so I shouldn't be that surprised.  I guess it's easier to listen to somebody else telling you something you already moderately believe than to go investigate and understand for yourself.

In any case, they were all very welcoming, generous, and open to my being there.  I'm sure they enjoyed sharing their tradition with me as much as I enjoyed being allowed to participate.  The beef from the cow which we later put on skewers, marinated, and bbq'd was delicious, and extremely fresh of course.  It was a bit strange to think about the fact that what I was eating had been alive only a few hours before - it took about 4 1/2 hours between slaughter and eating.  There was also all you could eat rice, beef soup filled with vegetables and potatoes, and some cookies.

Although they were very generous to me, the help was not so lucky.  They pretty much worked continuously from the time we got there at about 9am until we left at about 5.  I guess this isn't so bad, but when you think about the fact that the rest of us were sitting around enjoying freshly bbq'd beef, soup, and rice, it seemed rude not to invite them. After all, they were the reason we were eating.  This was clearly just a case of the separation of classes here and much less (if anything) to do with the religion.  The religious aspect of the tradition dictates that the family only eat 30% of the cow or so, and donate the rest to the needy.  I guess it's a bit like Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one, although it is not celebrating the birth or death of any prophets and isn't commercialized. 

Today I didn't do much, got a tourist map, sent some couch requests, and made a plan to go to Jakarta.  Hopefully getting to Bali by next weekend.

So far it's been quite cheap aside from buying a sim card and using said sim card.  Less than $10 in 2 1/2 days, though I am staying for free with couchsurfing and being driven around for free too which helps a lot. Hopefully Jakarta will be more good experiences with the CSers there, as I have already arranged a last minute host! Great!

Still no pictures though, slow internet ahh!

Before I embark on this though, I will be going to Danau (Lake) Toba, one of, if not the, biggest volcanic lakes in the world.  It also contains an island, making it interesting for the fact that it is an island within an island.  I've read that rooms can be had at a bargain of around 30,000 rupiah (about 9,000 rupiah/1$) and there is some fun to be had.  Although there is no couchsurfing there, it should be great to see.  I can stay on budget by having days like today and yesterday where I spend only $4 or $5...It's a 4-6 hour ride by public bus and ferry across the lake, but in total costs around 30,000 rupiah also for the trip.  That leaves about 30,000 rupiah for food for the day, which seems doable if I don't want any real meat, rice and tofu it is!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sitting on bus in Georgetown

Yep, Georgetown.  Named so lovingly after King George of England (I'm not sure which one) when Sir Francis Light "bought" the rights to the island of Penang from the kingdom which controlled it in the late 1700s.

Today I saw an old fort which was constructed shortly after the transfer of ownership, a couple beautiful old mosques, an old church, and countless old buildings which date back to the 1800s.  The fact that they are a) still in use and b) still looking good is both a testament to the builders and the tenants through the ages who must have completed at least minimal maintenance during their tenure.  Many now house the areas of little India and China town, which I'm not sure if the original builders ever anticipated.

It is a bit odd to walk down a street which is reminiscent of a classic European city, yet covered in signs with Hindu words and/or Chinese characters.  Although these minorities were present during the time of colonial ownership, I suspect they never inhabited the colonial style buildings.

It is a very modern city though, with several buses running all over the island, all fully equipped with wifi which is connected to mobile broadband.  Although it is certainly not lightening fast, it is sufficient for simple browsing.

The first couple nights here I stayed in a guesthouse with a pair that I met in the Cameron Highlands, but spent the days at a couchsurfing gathering hosted by Michel, a Frenchman who is a CS ambassador.  He is a bit eccentric but very generous and very much in love with couchsurfing.  He rents a 16th floor condo about 100m from the beach and has equipped his 2 spare bedrooms with 6 small beds - all free and all for CSers!  The view is beautiful and he gets to enjoy lovely sunsets every night.

Tomorrow I am flying to Medan, Indonesia which is on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra.  I got anti-malaria pills for the first time and finally found some mosquito repellent loaded with DEET, hopefully between these and staying relatively covered up during high-risk times, I'll be fine.

On a side note: "In 2008, there were 247 million cases of malaria and nearly one million deaths – mostly among children living in Africa. In Africa a child dies every 45 seconds of Malaria, the disease accounts for 20% of all childhood deaths...Approximately half of the world's population is at risk of malaria. Most malaria cases and deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. However, Asia, Latin America, and to a lesser extent the Middle East and parts of Europe are also affected. In 2008, malaria was present in 108 countries and territories." - WHO

I remember seeing a big display in UN Headquarters in NYC last April when I was there for the national Model UN conference.  It was a mock-coming detailing the plague of malaria in the developing world.  It was something I had never really seen or thought of before, especially not something I had ever worried about.  Having never traveled to an area where there is any real risk of acquiring the disease, it is easy to forget.  

It is amazing that even in the most high risk of areas it is easy to greatly decrease the risk of contracting the disease by proper use of mosquito nets and protective clothing (long sleeves, pants, socks, etc.).  However, in many places even if there are thousands of nets available, most people are unaware of a) the importance of using them, b) the advantages of using them, and most importantly c) how to use them.  

This is an incredible problem and the fact that nearly a million people a year die from a disease so easily prevented is atrocious in a world where we (the developed world) are spending untold millions to ineffectively patrol the Gulf of Aden for Somali pirates 1.  The piracy patrols and piracy in general could lead me to rant for hours, but the point is that despite the economic downturn of recent years, it would be incredibly easy to greatly reduce the number of deaths from malaria, and while this may then lead to other problems (sadly: overpopulation, increased malnutrition/starvation, etc.) it has been included as part of the UN's Millennium Development Goal #6 and should be given attention accordingly.  For those who have never heard of the MDGs, maybe you should read them.  They represent the challenges and hopes for the start of this century, hopefully not the whole thing.

Climbing off the soapbox, I'll finish my post.

After a couple bad experiences with couchsurfing - or at least less than positive - I have renewed faith in the project after meeting Michel and the other surfers staying with me there.  I have successfully secured a host for my arrival in Medan, Indonesia tomorrow, and will hopefully be able to plan enough in advance to continue surfing, rather than staying in guest houses and hostels.  By doing this I should be able to easily get by on a budget of about $15/day or less, rather than then ~$30/day for the first 36 days.

My goal is to traverse Sumatra to the southern tip, take a ferry to Java, cross that to Bali, and then take a combination of flights back to Bangkok to meet with friend/s who are coming to visit in early-mid December.  I have at least 3 weeks to make the journey, maybe 4, and it should be a hell of a ride.  Although it is a predominantly Muslim country which has suffered from bouts of violence in recent history, everything I have encountered, read, and heard so far has give me nothing but positive thoughts on the upcoming experience and I believe I have nothing to fear.  My only mission is to experience the culture, beauty, and history of the place, while spreading love and understanding, and hopefully generating more positive feelings towards the US of A as they begin to understand that we're not all hell bent on destroying Islam and those who follow it.

Pictures again are delayed, though I have many.  I need to work on sharing some so you can see the beautiful things that I have over the past week or so in Malaysia.

My trip will definitely be taking a turn for the better in the coming days, and I will welcome it with open arms!

For those of you with extra time on your hands and want to learn a little more about this world we live in, take a look at James Mawdsley's book The Iron Road - A stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma. At about 450 pages it is an easy read which is saddening, motivating, and uplifting.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cameron Highlands to Penang, Malaysia

After spending a couple nights and a full day in the Cameron Highlands of the central Malaysia peninsula, I took a bus to the town of Butterworth for 30 RM and a ferry across the small straight to Penang, an island containing Georgetown.  Georgetown was one of the first trading ports in Malaysia to be colonized by Europeans.

The Cameron Highlands are said to be a place full of stunning natural beauty which must be seen when visiting Malaysia.  True, the narrow winding roads and steep drops, the occasional indigenous looking people and huts, the jungle, the few waterfalls, and the semi-colonial looking construction nestled deep in the hills was nice.  It reminded me a lot of a tiny Leavenworth, WA.  Of course the architecture and heritage here is not German, but some of the hotels have tried to make themselves look it, and the pine trees which may actually grow naturally (I hope they weren't imported by one of the colonizers in their time here) were a welcome sight which I have missed for over a month now.  I spent my only day there going on a day trip to see the world's biggest flower (wtf?), an "aboriginal" tribe - bogus - a tea plantation which was cool looking, but there's really not much to learn about tea, and going to the highest mountain in SE Asia that you can drive on top of (6,666 ft).  They also took us to the "mossy forest" - which was just a forest with a lot of moss in it, like any old growth rainforest I've seen before.

Basically this trip served only to feed my dislike of the tourism industry, package tours, and the exploitaition of indigenous peoples by governments.

I decided I had seen enough, and although the hills were beautiful and I caught a great sunset, it was surprisingly not anymore special than so many mountain scenes I have seen before.  It was a little more green, a little warmer (although at nearly 7,000ft it was only about 55 F), and had some different plants, but I would argue that the views from Oyster Dome or many other high vantage points in Washington are more spectacular.

I had seen enough, and my guesthouse was vastly overpriced as I had decided to ensure a room by booking online the night before, apparently they add about 30% to the price online.  I went to Georgetown with a couple guys I had met in the Cameron Highlands, and though I won't say it was a mistake to travel with them and agree to seek out lodging together for the sake of saving money, it kind of was.  Andreas took a different bus from Matt and I and should have arrived at the same place about 20 minutes behind us, but took it one stop too far and we ended up waiting over 3 hours.  I took this time to call a few of you (unfortunately I couldn't get to some people's numbers so my options were limited, don't feel bad if you didn't get a call) and have a snack, but would have much preferred to be at the nearby CS BBQ which had been organized so graciously, or exploring the beautiful old colonial buildings and forts on the island.  I suppose expecting people to get off at the right stop (the one we discussed the night before) is too much to ask, and I shouldn't expect people to be capable of finding their way around - it took Andreas over 2 hours to find his way from a bus terminal about 15 miles south up to the area we were waiting in.  He's also addicted to his lonely planet, which in my (and I would suspect most locals, restaurant and guest house owners as well) mind pegs him as a bit of an idiot who is overly dependent on his guide and scared to find things for himself.  He insisted on going to a restaurant they recommended (which sucked bad, terrible service, expensive food) and delayed us further by having to stop to consult his book every few steps to make sure we were on the right path to cheap lodging.  I had been given a map and instructions from a French guy staying at my guest house in KL a few days previous and had taken the time while waiting for Andreas to familiarize myself with it and the town so I could avoid having to stare at it constantly.

In the end we made it to the CS event and met some pretty cool people, although as an event apparently it was quite lacking - the charcoal didn't arrive until 40 minutes before the BBQ was to be clear of people  and not many brought any food.  Some of the locals took us out and showed us around, but seeing as most of the travelers attending are on a tight budget, the clubs they took us too were all a bit pricey (12 RM for a glass of beer, not even a pint. That's 4$ - FOUR?!?!) and we opted for a poorly lit pub with a crooked pool table which you could play for free, complete with tipless cues and exceedingly drunk older locals.  Some of us didn't even drink, but those who did were only paying 6RM for a bottle of beer, still $2 but not nearly as bad.

Today I am getting picked up by one of the CS locals to go to the BBQ again and actually bring food, take advantage of the wonderful pool, etc.  The owner of the condo who is having the open house/BBQ is a CS Ambassador who has been to over 200 events globally and after 3 years of traveling RTW (round the world) he decided to settle here in Penang with his Malaysian boyfriend.  He signed a 2 year lease on a very nice condo on the 16th (top floor) overlooking the beach with views of the sunrise and sunset - he pays 1000 RM/month - that's just over 30 RM/night, about $10.  That's not much more than most guest houses charge, and for everything he has I would say he found quite a deal.  He is very gracious to invite all these strangers to his home and has totally set it up as a CS haven - 5 individual beds for CSers to come crash on for free!  Hopefully the BBQ and everything today will be much more enjoyable.

Monday I will be seeking malaria pills at the pharmacy so I can safely travel through the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Bali for a night or two.  If I can get them in Penang it will save me the trip back to KL and a pretty penny on a flight too, as I can fly from Penang to Medan (on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia) for about $40, the cheapest I found from KL to Jakarta or Bali was over $60 one way.  I may also be able to take a ferry from Malacca or Penang which could be great fun too.  Time will tell!

No pictures yet, but the internet connection here is surprisingly fast so maybe I'll get some uploaded.