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.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Visiting Mosques

Today, although disappointing, turned out to be alright.  Much more relaxed than most every day to this point in Malaysia.

After dinner we decided to take a walk, and it was quite rewarding.  We happened across a mosque - the Jamek Mosque - as dusk was falling and the lights were all on as they shouted the call to evening prayers.  It was beautiful both to look at and to listen to, as the rhythmic chanting echoed off of nearby sky scrapers. It was a strange scene seeing such an old looking structure surrounded by modernity, and palm trees.  It was also quite awesome.  This small picture can't do it justice, but you can see/download the full one here.

We also had the chance to see the Petronas towers all lit up, and the KL Tower too.  Other than that it was pretty uneventful and I spent the rest of the night planning my next week or so on the peninsula of Malaysia.  I just had to share this photo though, which I thought was beautiful, and a great bit of luck.

Across the river was another old building, unfortunately I couldn't get a view without the trees in the way of the old building which has a bit of colonial architecture but looks to be mixed with Islamic or local Malay too...

Unfortunately, although these rivers that run through the city look nice at night, they are brown, disgusting, and smell like raw sewage all day.  I think the raw sewage just gets dumped into the rivers from all the pipes around the city...quite unsanitary for such a modernized city.

Going to sleep, getting up early to take a train to Shah Alam, south of Kuala Lumpur and home to a beautiful mosque and museum.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Visa Hassles

After arriving too late at the Indian embassy on Monday (yesterday) to apply for my visa, I returned this morning bright and early.  Upon getting out of the taxi in front of the embassy I was quickly alerted to my mistake - the High Commission of India (the embassy) doesn't accept applications for tourist, student, or business visas.  For that you have to go to their visa processing center in downtown Kuala Lumpur, not far from my guest house.

I took another taxi there - unfortunately they are not cheap here, I've wasted about $20 US so far taking taxis to the embassy and back - and located the appropriate forms.  After reading the 3 page FAQ and instructions on the wall, I filled them out and went to turn them in.

As I handed them to the woman behind the desk, she rather rudely informed me that my plans to go to India were thwarted by a rule which was just put in place yesterday, the 8th.  Happy birthday me!  Apparently this rule states that non-Malaysians who are not residents of Malaysia, cannot apply for a tourist visa.  She then told me that I could still submit my forms and pay the 150 ringgit fee (about $50), wait 6 days, check online, and hope that they would make an exception for me as they could do it on a case-by-case basis.  I thought it was pretty unlikely that they'd make an exception for me, and decided to save my time and money by keeping my forms and walking out the door.  She seemed pretty surprised about this, and I'm not really sure what she had expected after telling me that they don't give visas for people in my category, but I could still spend my money and give it a try.

So I guess my plans are changed once again.  Especially disappointing since I just spent $40 on a guide book for India so I could figure out how to get around - I've been told that although they speak english, the transportation can be extremely difficult to figure out if you don't have any clue beforehand.

I guess I'll be looking into south-western Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia for the next month or so then instead...maybe I can even see a volcanic eruption in Indonesia!

Going to meet Charlie to get lunch in Little India - 6 ringgit for an all you can eat buffet? Brilliant.  Then going with a couchsurfer that we met up with last night to go do a bit more sight seeing around KL...Malaysia is definitely more interesting than I expected though! And expensive...

That's all for now! Hopefully later I can get some pictures online...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Kuala Lumpur

After a bumpy, cramped, but otherwise comfortable ride of over 22 hours from Phuket, Thailand which started on Friday the 5th at about 7.30 am, I made it to Kuala Lumpur and safely checked into a guesthouse in China Town on Saturday morning, the 6th at about 5am.

 On the first bus from Patong Beach to Phuket Town I met 3 girls dressed nearly identically from Northern Ireland. They were quick and clear to clarify that they were from NORTHERN Ireland, though other than ostensibly being Protestant, I doubt there's much difference. They were pleasant enough company for the ride, though one had a pretty bad attitude, but upon arriving in KL we pretty much parted ways.  Although I had hoped to find some friends to explore with they seemed to have their own agenda and I was just as happy to go my own way.

Saturday I pretty much set about going to see the only thing of significance that I know in KL - the Patronas Towers.  They are the shining twin towers which many see as the symbol of the city.  They were clearly marked on the map that the hostel receptionist gave me and I found the nearby stop on the sky train which would take me right to them.  For 1.60 MYR (the exchange is about 3 MYR / USD) I rode for about 10 minutes and was there.

Although they are surprisingly large - I'm not sure how many stories - more surprising was that they are so clean and shiny! Who washes all those windows?  I have pictures, but due to the terrible internet connection here I haven't really been able to upload much of anything.  One day when I have fast internet, I'll be posting a lot though!

Unfortunately the rides to the skybridge between the towers and the observation deck (not sure what floor it's on, but it must be awesome!) start selling at 8.30 am and go first-come-first-served, so I need to get up early to get there and get mine!  It's 40 MYR to go to both the skybridge and the observation deck - that's like $13 - and will be totally worth it in my opinion!

Last night (the 6th) I was wandering around and while having dinner noticed another western guy sitting alone, reading, eating, and drinking beer.  I hurried to finish my food and went over to join him, looking to find a partner in crime for the night.  His name was Charlie, 24 years old from London.  He had just been travelling for 2 months with his girlfriend of a year but she had to return to London to her job.  He quit his job in April and has been travelling since, he first spent 3 months bicycling around Europe - around 3 sides of France, down the west coast of Italy, and then to Greece for a bit - and has been in SE Asia since.  He seemed like a pretty cool guy and we were getting along rather well, and with both of us being solo we decided to go visit the reggae bar - seemingly the only popular bar in China Town.

While sitting there and drinking our beer we were eaves dropped on by a pair of Yemeni guys, only one of whom spoke English.  At first the conversation was light and friendly, of course saying where we were from, how long we'd been traveling, then talking about Qat (a "drug" plant that you chew on the leaves of, getting a high something like natural speed) which is legal in Yemen, telling drinking stories and discussing the Barclay's Premier League.  After 15 minutes of this they turned around and left us alone...for a while.  Some time later they turned back and simply asked "How do you feel about the war in Iraq?"

This was not really something we wanted to talk about, especially with these guys.  Charlie seems to be a pretty well read and well rounded guy, and we certainly didn't mind discussing the issue factually, but when it came down to it these guys were slightly misinformed and rather angry about Israel and the Afghan and Iraq wars.  They repeatedly told us (while drinking beer with us, and being clearly intoxicated) that alcohol was a terrible drug, and George W. Bush and Tony Blair only started the wars because they were drunk one night.  Great info guys!  Not sure where they heard that from, but they seemed pretty dead-set on the merits of the story.  From here it progressed to them trying in some way to use Hitler and his persecution of the Jews to explain why the Jews were bad?  We didn't really get it, and when we corrected them and told them Hitler killed a lot of people, not just the Jews, hell he even killed Muslims if he had the chance, and that he was allegedly non-religious, they got pretty upset.  Fortunately they left instead of causing trouble, and we decided to disappear into the back of the bar to play pool.  There we met some Iranian girls, drinking, smoking, flirting, and generally not being strict Muslims like I'm sure their relatives in Iran would like them to be.  To avoid conflict we told them we were from Canada and New Zealand.  From there the night was fun, but much more relaxed as we had hoped it would be.

At the end of the night we decided that since neither of us had any major plans for Sunday (today, now almost 7 pm) we would meet up about 11am and go exploring a bit.  We wanted to go up the Twin Towers, but by the time we got there the tickets were all sold out.  Instead we explored the ridiculous designer mall between the bottom 5 floors of the towers - full of shops like Gucci, Prada, Louis V, Marc Jacobs, Jimmy Choo, Burberry, Chanel, Armani, etc. etc.  It's nuts, 6 floors of overpriced shops that must sell something, though I don't know to who...

Afterwards we went back to China Town and hopped a cab to little India to get some curry.  It was pretty good and only 6MYR for all you could eat, surprisingly less spicy than I expected!  From little India we walked to the National Museum, which was quite interesting and taught me a lot that I didn't know about Malaysia - this is what I should have been doing all along!  It was only 2 MYR to enter and there was loads of stuff to see, a great deal!  We spent about 2 hours there and met an Argentinian girl who said she'd see us tonight at the bar, though who knows.

Afterwards we walked over towards the National Mosque - not nearly as beautiful as the 2 buildings before it which looked more like mosques.  Nearby was the old colonial railway station, which was an interesting bit of architecture - something like Islamic and British mixed together - and after seeing these, still being stuffed with curry, we went back to our guesthouses and agreed to meet at the bar at 7.30 to go get dinner.  Seeing as it's getting on to that time now, I'm off!

Tomorrow I go to the Indian embassy to apply for my visa...wish me luck!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ao Nang, Koh Phi Phi, Phuket

Ao Nang was just another tourist trap with a nice beach. This time there were more families and fewer hookers, but the same variety of narrow shops stretching deep into buildings, filled with cheap t-shirts with the same slogans as every other one, fake this and fake that, complete with a young Thai sitting outside begging you to come have a look as you pass by. The worst though are the taxi/tuk-tuk drivers and the tailors, who innocuously greet you with a heavily accented “Hello friend, how are you?” They are all Indian it seems, and yes they have the stereotypical Indian accent.

The boat to Phi Phi was nice and I got some good pictures, though I was rather anti-social and instead of talking to my fellow passengers, chose to jam out to my i-pod and enjoy the heat of the sun and the smell of the slightly salty wind on my face. It was great, and my anti-social behavior had no consequences once I got to Phi Phi.

Arriving at Phi Phi was a slap in the face to any notions I had had of arriving at some beautiful scene of natural beauty – don't get me wrong of course it had that too. The bay was full of speedboats, other ferries, small cruise boats, and a few longtail boats too. The shore was covered with expensive looking “huts” and hotels. Not quite what I had had in mind. The habitable portion of the island has all but been covered with guest houses and hotels, a few bars, massage parlors, and the occasional 24-hour tattoo shops thrown in as well. Not to be missed were the competing travel agents with the same variety of tours, and the dive shops, all with the exact same menu of diving experiences, equipment, white-faced instructors, and prices.

The beach opposite the pier – Koh Phi Phi has a narrow strip of land with 2 beautiful beaches sandwiching the village between them – was less full of chairs and umbrellas than I had expected, though there were plenty of beach bars, fire shows, parasailing operators, and kayak rentals. When I got there my first night I ran into some Canadians I had seen on the ferry from Ao Nang, and went to chat with them. They were Joel, Laura, and Ashton from Alberta. I spent all but my last night on Phi Phi with them, and some of the days as well.

There isn't much to do on Phi Phi other than dive, drink, eat, and take day trips to nearby islands. You can even drop 2,000 baht for a sunset booze-cruise with all you can eat and drink for 4 hours while sailing around Phi Phi. I nearly did this, but then realized it was twice as much as I had paid for my 4 nights in a hostel, and I could find a lot better ways to spend the money. I was going to go for a half-day tour around the neighboring islands on my 2nd full day there, but as it started raining early in the morning, I didn't want to risk being rained on the whole time. I signed up for a 4 hour session of rock climbing on the beautiful limestone cliffs above the bay the next day, paid my 1,000 baht, and went off to drink with the Canadians again. This was the night before Halloween – the 30th. Of course on Phi Phi there were to be big Halloween celebrations because it is full of tourists, but most Thais do not celebrate Halloween.

I woke up Halloween morning feeling quite ill and threw up a few times before going back to sleep. The weather was terrible, and my climbing session was non-refundable. I spent the day in bed other than going out to grab some gatorade, water, and a boat ticket to Phuket for the 1st.

I barely woke up in time to run to the pier and catch my ferry to Phuket, but made it and was on my way. The weather sucked the whole way, as well as my first day on Phuket.

Upon arrival I was crammed into a minibus (big minivan which has been equipped to seat 11) and taken to Phuket Town – the less touristic, cheaper part of Phuket. It is not near any beaches, but is only a short bus-ride away. I met a Spanish girl on the minibus who had also come from Phi Phi and was going to a cheap hostel in Phuket Town, seeing as I didn't have any in mind I chose to go with her, and for 200 baht had a room complete with a fan and free internet. The building was very modern, and next door was a small attached pub with western music, pool tables, and expensive beer.

I met a few Spanish guys, who despite their struggles with English, rarely reverted to their mother-tongue in consideration of their English speaking guests. There was also Rick, a Swedish guy who lives near Malmo and barely missed getting into university and decided to take a couple years of working holidays to travel before trying to go back, and 2 Norwegian girls who were just passing through on their way to Phi Phi. We passed the night together at the hostel because there was nothing around of interest other than a big outdoor market where I got dinner. We played a few games of pool and ended up watching a movie we had all seen too many times, with half the group falling asleep before it was over.

The next day I went with Rick to see a Gibbon Rehabilitation center which I had been told about by Emily Lewis from WWU, and Bang Pae waterfall which was a bit brown in color but still beautiful. Though it was raining pretty hard, we decided it was still good fun to be in a rainforest during the heavy rain. Although we were told by the hostel staff that public buses ran by the road to the waterfall every half an hour, we were told by staff there that the next one wasn't until 2.30. It was only 12.45 so we decided to start walking and try to hitch-hike. It didn't take long before we were picked up and taken to a major intersection where we caught a bus in a matter of minutes.

At 3.30 I caught a public bus from Phuket Town to Patong beach – the most popular and supposedly the most beautiful on the “island.” There I met up with Emilie who is beginning her 2 months in the islands – 7 on Phuket, 7 on Phi Phi, 2 weeks on Koh Samui, and a full month on Koh Phangan. What she will do for so long in each of those places I have no idea, as I was starting to tire of Phi Phi after only 2 days and can't imagine that Samui or Phangan are much more exciting or interesting most of the time.

Planning my next move I will be going to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia either Friday or Saturday morning at 7am on a 22 hour bus ride. This depends on whether or not the weather cooperates for the day trip we decided to take around some islands near Phuket, complete with lunch, kayaking, and the James Bond island! Although the bus ride will be long, it is less than half the price of flying, and it gives me time to read about India and plan my adventure – I'll be getting a guidebook for India before I go. I didn't spend any time before leaving researching India, and I've been told it is much more intense and less easy to get around for tourists than Thailand.

Originally I was going to stay in SE Asia, go to Cambodia, Laos, maybe Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia before going to Vietnam to teach, but with the flooding and resulting damage to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos those ones are pretty much out of the picture, and the wet season is about to hit Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. This left me to choose between the Philippines and India, I choose India. I don't think it will be difficult at all to spend 7 or 8 weeks there, and at less than half the price of Thailand, it will ensure that I still have plenty of money to float for a couple months in Vietnam if need-be.

That's all for now! I likely won't update again until I'm in Malaysia, but may have a chance tomorrow night after my day trip.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Still Wandering!

Hah, every time I start to make plans they get changed.  This time I was planning to go to Trang, to Pak Meng beach - actually to the pier there - to get a boat to Koh Muk (Mook) which is said to be very un-developed and tourists are rare, those who do go get to sleep in tents!  It sounded great and I was excited to go, but instead met a Thai on the train who lived south, closer to Satun.

Satun is near the Malaysian border, and also near Pak Bara pier - the jumping off point for Koh Lipe.  We shared a cab and I ended up going to Koh Lipe for a night.  I would have stayed longer but it was rather expensive, the cheapest place to stay was 300/night and the cheapest meal I found was 70 baht, more than 2x what it has cost everywhere else!  I figured I would save myself some money to just leave in the morning, it was beautiful and mildly developed, but I guess that means it costs more too.  I passed the night at the Mellow Mango bar with the owner who spoke nearly perfect English.  Cool guy.

On the ferry to the island I met an interesting Thai guy who was very passionate about Thailand and nearly cried when he was telling me how corrupt and undemocratic it is, and how because of everyone's greed his beloved country is being destroyed.  He seemed to know what he was talking about, and his comments certainly warrant more investigation!  He said the only difference between Thailand and Burma (where a brutal military junta have oppressed democracy violently for over 30 years now) is that the people have been brainwashed to not believe it - they actually believe it's a democracy - and that the outside world turns a blind eye.  I definitely need to find out if this is true.

In any case, on my ferry back to the mainland he was there again, and when we landed he offered my a ride with his friend who was going to Krabi.  It's about 300km and would have cost over 600 baht to make the journey myself by any means, so I gratefully took the offer.  I skipped Trang and Koh Muk and instead went to Ao Nang - near Krabi, and a jumping off point for Koh Phi Phi (Pee Pee).

Koh Phi Phi was made famous by the movie The Beach - with Leonardo DiCaprio - and has been developed heavily, though hopefully not as much as places like Pattaya or Phuket.  Hopefully I can find accommodation for 200/night or under as I did in Ao Nang.

I've also uploaded new pictures to Picasa that may give a brief snapshot of my last night on Koh Samet and my night on Koh Lipe, they can be found here: http://picasaweb.google.com/105962156335543450490/KohSametKohLipe?authkey=Gv1sRgCOzjxsv-6Mr9fw&feat=directlink

Boat to Phi Phi leaves in 15 minutes, so maybe I'll update again from there!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Back on Track

Back to my original plan, ish, I am happily back to travelling alone and will be headed south tonight on an overnight train which takes 15 hours and change to take me almost to the Malaysian border.  I'm told that these are some of the last unspoiled islands, which is much more in line with what I'd like to see.  I walked from Khao San Road area to Hua Lamphong train station which is about 4km, then paid a tuk-tuk 45 baht to come back.  The ticket for the train was 521 baht, but considering that I won't have to pay for lodging tonight that sounds pretty good for going so far.

Having a travel partner was fun for a while, but also led me to do things that I likely wouldn't have if I had come on my own.  Some of the things I saw and did were great fun, some seemed a waste of time, all in all it was a good experience but being solo again will be glorious!  I will meet so many more people and here so many interesting stories I'm sure.

Last night being alone on Khao San Road I ran into somebody who I had met before through a couchsurfing meeting and we spent the night walking around and drinking beer.  I could think of a lot worse ways to pass the time.

Planning to go to Koh Muk, Koh Lanta, and others around the Trang province, where I will be surprised if they have electricity around the clock.

It may be a few days before I update again, so until then, adios!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Week 2, in brief.

After leaving Bangkok we caught a bus to Pattaya for 109 baht. It was a lot more than expected for the bus, and it took nearly 2 hours, but it is pretty much the only option for transport so we had little choice. It was fairly cramped with our backpacks at our feet, but for such minimal discomfort, the anticipated excitement of Pattaya definitely overpowered it.

Pattaya was like nothing I've ever seen before, if I thought the sex tourism industry was busy in Bangkok, in Pattaya it was 10 times worse. There is a street called walking street, which is probably about ¾ of a mile long and consists entirely of strip clubs, bars, more bars, 7-elevens (which are EVERYWHERE here), mens tailors who will make a custom suit for about $100 usd, and little independent shops selling knockoff watches and sunglasses. In just that short stretch of road there were probably 2-3,000 prostitutes, and plenty of men looking for company. Telling which was a lady-boy (katoy) and which ones were real women was a fun game, but seeing all the men who were clearly there to drink and play STD roulette was shocking. One would think that the prototypical customer would be a man who for whatever reason (age, weight, etc.) would be unable to find a girlfriend or company in his home country, and surely there were many examples. However it seemed that a lot of the men there were average looking and there for the party.

The city was just dirty. Thailand in general is pretty dirty, they don't seem to have a concept of cleanliness in throwing their garbage in cans or whatever, and recycling is unheard of. Pattaya was worse. There is garbage everywhere, there are empty lots full of trash. It is very much a city of contrast, with what seems to be a beautiful beach upon first look with many tall and shiny looking condos and apartments, when you look closer there is a coat of dirt everywhere, and the beach is unfit for walking barefoot.

The first night we just walked around and took it all in, because even though it is sad, repulsive, and disappointing, it is surprising to see with your own eyes, and shows that improvements in the quality of life from the spread of globalization have yet to be realized by many people, and there are hordes from the more developed countries who still seek to exploit this.

These pictures are from Sunday at about 7pm, Saturday it was MUCH worse and you couldn't see through the crowds at all.  As you may be able to guess, Boyz town is for the gay crowd and the lady boys.

The second night we decided to try to enjoy it a little bit, for what it was, and went out to Mixx Discotheque – a dance hall with 2 parts, one hip hop and one electronic (techno). After a couple hours there we wandered back down Walking street to another smaller bar where I was glad that I was not alone, because even walking 5 feet ahead by myself, I was accosted by Thai women who weren't just trying to dance.

Monday morning we couldn't escape Pattaya fast enough, and hopped a bus to Rayong for 50 baht each - which is the jumping off point to Koh Samet. We met a couple at the bus stop – Nathan from Michigan, and his Thai girlfriend whose name I cannot even imagine how to spell. They were also headed to Samet for a couple days, and we sat with them on the bus. Nathan teaches English in Myanmar (Burma) and offered that If I wanted to experience a very slow, friendly way of life, I could very easily get a job there at one of the language schools because it is hard for them to find teachers. I can't imagine why with such an oppressive and restrictive military junta running the show. The only way for westerners to enter the country is by air – they won't let you come across at a land crossing. Apparently the visa process takes 2-3 days, and you better not say you're a reporter. It's an option I'll keep in mind, he said the pay is about $2,300 a month, and the cost of living is maybe $500. With not much to do in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) it would be easy to save quite a bit.

Koh Samet is beautiful. It is the first time I have ever seen white sand beaches, and they stretch out for quite a ways. Because we got to the pier at about 4pm, we had to pay 300 baht per person to take a speed boat there, but it was a pretty fun ride, and they dropped us off right on the beach. We started to walk down the beach and wondered how much it was for rooms which were directly on the beach, but the cheapest we could find was 1,200 baht per night, and we decided to wander into the small town. The town is pretty much one road, with buildings on either side and not much else – no side streets or anything to speak of. We found a guest house which had rooms for 400 baht per night, which seemed ok, so we checked in and went to have dinner on the beach. The prices are a little higher than in the city, 40-50 baht for a plate of chicken and rice with vegetables, more if you wanted seafood. It tastes delicious, the sauces they use are always a little different, but always very good.  These pictures are from the night we arrived.

On Tuesday morning we decided to wander farther into town and look for cheaper options for lodging, and stumbled across “Papa Roger's bar and guesthouse.” He is an old very gay Finnish guy who lives on Samet during the winter, and this is his 21st. He's got a great personality and his English is decent, but the accent makes it more fun. 250 baht per night for rooms with a fan is pretty cheap on a little island like this, and we are still only about 3 minutes walk from the beach. He likes to call it the “Backpackers Hilton,” which may be an exaggeration, but its still a decent little spot and cant be beat for the price. The only thing that would make it better is internet access in the rooms.

We'll be here through Sunday and have met a hand-full of characters since arriving. An old British woman who lives in Goa, India and was only here for 10 days so she can go back and get another visa. “Audi” the bartender at Mbar – where buckets of the local whiskey are only 130 baht from 10-midnight daily. He is quite the entertainer, he also plays guitar and does Thai boxing (Muay Thai). A pair of ex-pats from Bangkok who were here to celebrate the birthday of the older one, Jessica who is a 28 year-old South African, and apparently still has quite strong feelings about the post-apartheid government. Her partner in crime was Erin, a 17 year-old English girl who is living in Bangkok with her parents – they met at a South African discussion group because Erin's dad is Afrikaans.

Wednesday we rented a motorbike for 250 baht for 24 hours, it was an automatic and easy to ride, though on some of the roads it took some getting used to. Think some of the worst forest service roads with massive ruts from the flash floods, peppered with large rocks and random areas of pavement. We managed to get about 2/3s of the way down the island before it started pouring down rain and we decided to turn back. Before too long we found a little shelter near one of the resorts and pulled over to wait it out. By then we were thoroughly soaked so after waiting for the rain to lighten for about 30 minutes we took off back towards our guest house. We wasted away most of the rest of the day and got ready to go to the bar.

We hung out with Audi, Jessica, and Erin for pretty much the whole night, and after he closed Mbar we walked up the hill to a Reggae bar to get food. I definitely ate too much yesterday. Today (Thursday) I wasn't really hungry in the morning and all I wanted to do was get rid of all the food that was in my stomach. 3 normal sized meals and 3 pancakes was apparently too much, and today I'm paying for it. I'm sure I'll be just fine, I've definitely felt worse in the past and I'm drinking plenty of Gatorade (Yep they have it here, though for half the price you get the Thai knock-off) and eating easy foods.
Thursday morning we woke up early and went to the north end of the island so that Emilie could learn to ride the motorbike, because she probably never would on her own. It was fun, but being tired all day and not feeling great kind of put a damper on the fun. Hopefully I'll be back to normal in the morning.

That's all for now, and I've taken almost 3,000 pictures since landing 9 days ago.

Friday, October 15, 2010

My wandering path through Thailand

Well, I am glad that I did not make any concrete plans, but rather just had goals and ambitions, but left myself open to change.  But I'll start back where I left off after the scavenger hunt through Bangkok...

Thursday (the day after the scavenger hunt and hanging out at a small bar in downtown Bangkok) it was planned to meet some other members of couchsurfing at the northern train station at Hua Lamphong around 7:30 am.  My host got up late to call a taxi for me to get to the subway (he lives about 20km outside the city center, the subway starts about 10km away) and the subway took much longer than I expected to get to the station (about 45 minutes, with 18 stops) and long story short, I ended up being late to the meeting point and missed the 8 am train by 1 minute.  I called a couple people who I thought were going, but none answered, so I bought a ticket for myself on the 8:20 train going to Ayutthaya.

The train station was very interesting...it was an odd mix of modern construction and technology, with an obviously old structure and very old benches.  I was told today (saturday) that most of the railroads were built by Thai slaves during WW2, so although the rail system is fairly good, it is a sad memory for many Thais.  The station was full of a big variety of people, from the destitute who were probably traveling with some of their last baht to find work or visit family, to backpackers fully loaded with the nicest backpacks and high-tech clothes, guide-book in hand.  The picture to the right was at a station farther up the line, but hopefully it gives you an idea of how people use the train in Thailand...it is much more than just an easy way to go visit friends or whatever, many of them were carrying goods to take and sell.  I almost expected to see some animals (not pets, but those being taken to be butchered, cooked, and sold), but was disappointed on that front.

I bought my ticket in 3rd class for 20 baht with no air-conditioning, but still relatively comfortable, and with the window down and the wind blowing in my face it was a nice ride.  I sat with an old lady who spoke no English, but we had a short conversation still about where she was from and where I was from, and where we were going.  It's amazing how with a few gestures and simple words, much can be understood.

Having not ridden many trains in the US or anywhere else I guess I wasn't used to riding in the lap of luxury or anything, so this train seemed just fine to me.  I sat near the end of the car, but close to the front of the train still.  It seems like with how close to the front I was, 1st and 2nd class must not have been too big, or if there even was a 1st class.  The train stopped several times before it got out of Bangkok, and the picture at left which I took during my scavenger hunt shows a pretty typical stop in downtown BKK.  This was taken under the Phaya Tai BTS station, but apparently there is a train stop there too...people standing in between the tracks is completely normal, and the gates across the road are placed there by hand by guards who I guess stand there all day?  When we weren't moving much, sitting in traffic I guess, it got pretty hot because it rarely drops below 80 F here, with 80-90% humidity being about average.  The rains are actually a nice respite because it cools the air just a bit and legitimately gets you very wet, instead of just making you sweat slightly and feel sticky.  It may not sound like much fun, but at least there's rarely a need for a jacket or pants.  The rains, although typically heavy, are also typically brief.

When I got to Ayutthaya alone I started searching for somewhere to rent a bicycle and ride around the ancient city, seeing the temples (wats) and cruising around among the locals.  Although it took me a bit to find a place and was an interesting adventure along the way - maybe I'll tell that in another post - I made it and for 40 baht I had a set of wheels for the day.  The city is not very big, and in about 10 minutes I was pretty much on the opposite side.  I saw quite a few temples and took quite a few pictures, but without a local there to guide me, I was pretty ignorant of the history and significance of the places.  All the signs are in Thai and I didn't want to spend the 70 baht to buy brochures at each place...

Nearly all of the temples were in ruins, but I guess most are quite old - 200+ years.  The Buddha images though were quite surprising, as they were almost all damaged in some way.  The majority of them were missing their heads and/or arms, with the rest being disfigured in other ways (missing shoulders, torsos, just the top of the head, etc.)  Still, they are revered and respected by Buddhists, as you can see by the yellow string of flowers on the broken Buddha image to the left.  

After touring around quite a few temples and seeing elephants, a small floating market, and a lot of surprised locals (apparently most farang - foreigners - don't ride around on bicycles, but instead take tuk-tuks or motorbikes) I decided to head back to the train station at about 2:15.  The next train back to Bangkok was not scheduled until 3:35 so I found a massage place and got a one hour foot massage for 200 baht.  It felt good, but unfortunately my feet were still a bit sore when I put my shoes back on and went back to the station.  

When I got to the station I found out that the train had somehow been delayed until 4:45, but having already turned in my bicycle and being ready to get back to Bangkok, I just hung around the station.  It didn't take long before I met some fellow travelers.  First was Ed, a slightly overweight older guy from Tennessee who was balding and wearing a sweat-soaked Nike t-shirt.  He was sitting on the hard wooden bench outside on the platform waiting for the train to Bangkok.  He had 3 large (1.5L) beers in a plastic bag, with one in his hand. Upon hearing that I was from the US and had just graduated in June, he immediately grabbed another one out and opened it for me, without asking if I even wanted it.  Apparently being a recent college graduate automatically means I'm open to drinking free beer, good call Ed.  The beer here really isn't any different, most is between 5.5% and 6% abv.  I hung out with Ed the rest of the time before the train came and on the train.  We pretty quickly downed the beers he already had, and at about 4 went back across the street to the little market which had food carts with a variety of meats and noodles being cooked.  The aroma was great, like being at a giant barbecue with a ton of different spices and flavors all being blended together.  Most things are grilled and smoked over open flames, though I'm not sure what they burn, probably propane.  Ed was very generous and bought me beer for the train ride, I think he was quite happy to have a fellow American to ride with and the money he saved in taking 3rd class over 2nd class (the only difference according to him seemed to be assigned seating) meant he still came out ahead.

After getting back to the station from the market, fully prepared with 6 fresh, cold beers for the train ride, and a few skewers of barbecued chicken (40 baht per beer, and 30 baht per skewer of chicken) we sat down and started to eat.  While we were sitting there a pair of couchsurfers who I had met the night before at the bar, after the scavenger hunt, showed up and we all began talking.  

About 10 minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive I noticed a lone backpacker sitting, or rather laying, on a bench across the platform.  She looked tired and bored, and when I got closer I noticed small Canadian flags sewed to her backpack.  I said hello and started talking with her, asking if she wanted to come join our random group of travelers (at this point we had also added a lone Japanese guy with a massive bundle of dreadlocks perched atop his head) as we drank beer and chatted on the platform and on the train back to Bangkok.  Our group's plan when we reached Bangkok was to immediately head to the river and ride a river taxi up to the pier near Khao San Road, where there was a couchsurfing meeting at yet another bar, to meet with yet more travelers.  After talking with her for a few minutes the train was coming near and everyone was hurrying out into the middle of the tracks - unfortunately I didn't get a picture, but there were railroad ties on the ground to raise it to the level of the tracks.  There were 2 railroad-ties laid end to end to make a path from the platform out to the middle of the tracks, where we all had to stand to board.

It turned out that the Canadian's name was Emilie, and she was taking the train back to Bangkok because she was quite sick and had been for almost 3 days and wanted to get to a hospital.  She had bought a ticket in the air-conditioned first class so that she could have her own seat and be as comfortable as possible, so we wished her the best and found seats together in our non-a/c 3rd class. 

For the entire 2 hour train ride I sat with Ed as he showed me several different ways to open beer bottles, some I had seen before some I had not. We were joined by Thancyn - one of the couchsurfers (a big Burmese guy who is from Texas, and travels with his wife around the world as they teach English and do freelance reporting - they are headed to Burma in a couple weeks to report on the upcoming elections.)  Across the aisle was Thancyn's wife Courtney and the Japanese guy whose name I cannot recall.  The train ride was a great deal of fun, and by the end of it we were all super excited to get to the bar and meet up with the others.  I'm sure the 4 or 5 big beers I had drank since meeting Ed contributed to the excitement.  However when we got off the train in Bangkok and started walking out towards the street, my plans were immediately changed.

We again ran across Emilie, who was now searching for a phone so that she could call a contact she had in Bangkok and get to the hospital.  I offered her mine and after a brief conversation in French - she's actually from Quebec, and I'm sure plenty of jokes will ensue - she hung up and looked even more distraught than before.  Our group of travelers offered to take a taxi with her to the hospital - which wasn't too far away - but traffic was so bad that no metered taxis would even think about going in that direction.  Finally we found a driver willing to haggle over the price and said for 150 baht he would take us there (for 150 baht in a metered taxi you can go all the way across the city, we were going about 20 blocks).  When we were actually going to the taxi, my fellow travelers decided maybe they would rather just help pay for the fare and go to the bar to meet up with everyone else.  I could see the fear on her face when it seemed like we were all leaving her, and could only imagine being in her situation.  

Traveling alone is exciting and invigorating most of the time, but when you get in trouble and need help, you are completely reliant on yourself and the goodwill of others.  It can be incredibly scary, and not yet having been in a situation where I was in real trouble and really needed help, I cannot even imagine how scary it would be to think you would have to go through it completely alone, and have no idea what was going to happen or how you would be when it was all over.  Just thinking about how scary it would be if I was in trouble, and what I would want somebody to do for me, I offered to still go with her to the hospital and make sure she got there and got taken care of.  I still fully intended on just going, basically dropping her off, and turning around to go meet the others at the bar and have a fun night in the backpacker mecca of Bangkok, which is one of the biggest backpacker destinations in the world.

The cab driver had apparently thought we said the name of another hospital, even though we had had a bilingual Thai speaker write it out in Thai so there could be no mistakes.  He got us within about 3 blocks, but I think that traffic was so bad he just made up the excuse of a mistake so he could get us out and escape the traffic.  We hurriedly jumped out and I grabbed her backpack, leaving her to carry my small bag with cameras and maps in it.  The driver was useless in giving us directions to where we really wanted to go, so we had to resort to asking locals selling their wares on the sidewalk.  After being pointed down a small side street we had to run across 6 lanes of traffic to cross the street and get going in the right direction, which at that hour was nearly gridlocked and not much of a problem.  Normally traffic in Bangkok does not stop for pedestrians, and little motorcycles weave through traffic as if it was unmoving and they were simply racing through an obstacle course at breakneck speeds trying to win first place.  

When we got to the side street which the hospital was on it seemed like it stretched out for miles with no end in site, the sidewalk was made up of broken blocks and 200 ft down the road we ran across freshly poured concrete, forcing us to walk on the busy street with cars racing by.  We had no idea how far down the road it was or even if this was the correct road, so every time I saw somebody standing on the side of the street or at a security gate I ran over and pointed to the hospital on the map, trying to ask where it was.  They kept pointing us further down, and I could tell that she was having a hard time just walking down the street but wouldn't let me take the two small bags she was carrying.  When we finally reached BNH hospital, apparently the nicest private hospital in Bangkok - probably the nicest in Thailand - we went to the emergency room, which looked more like a reception room at the hospitals I've been to in the US.  The nurses were all dressed in perfectly pressed uniforms and there was no hurry to care for her, but instead the asked her to fill out some forms before she could have a bed.  Hopefully this procedure could be circumvented in the case of a life threatening emergency.

When they got Emilie into a bed and started asking questions I started thinking about how I would feel being there, laying in a bed alone in a foreign country, with people asking questions and trying to treat me for some unknown ailment.  I don't really know what made me stay at that point, but I just felt like I should, and should do whatever I could to help her get through the ordeal.  I called a couple friends who I had met who would be at the bar, to let them know I wasn't going to make it to hang out, and pretty much hung out in the waiting room for a while before going in and sitting with her behind the curtains.  At that point I still figured that once they got her situated and taken up to a room to get cared for, I would leave and go back to stay with my CS host.  

For whatever reason I ended up staying with her through the night and sleeping on the couch-turned-bed in the hospital room, which looks more like a hotel.  I talked with my CS host who was nice enough to bring my backpack full of stuff - mildly important things like my clothes, laptop, passport, etc. - and meet me at the BTS (sky-train) station near the hospital on Friday morning.  Again I had fully intended on going to meet with other couchsurfers to go south towards Phuket on Friday afternoon, but instead chose to ride the canal boats around Bangkok for a while and stay with Emilie again so she was not stuck in her hospital room alone with nothing to do all day but read her travel guide and watch Thai TV.  In the evening I took the MRT (subway) up to go bowling with some couchsurfers and grab dinner, leaving her with my laptop to facebook and email her friends and family. 

In the mall which housed the bowling alley, there apparently was the bowling alley, an ice-skating rink, and a movie theatre with 10 screens, all on the TOP floor.  It seems to me like all of those things would go on the bottom, but I guess not.  The escalators also made no sense.  Typically they are arranged so that going up or down you only have to take a few steps to get to the next escalator going the same way, but in Thailand it seems to alternate so that the end of the up is next to the end of the down, so you have to walk around the mall to get to the next escalator to go up another floor.  I suspect they just want you to have to look at more shops and see their junk so hopefully you will buy something.  There is also a full skating rink on one of the floors, but I never looked to see which one.  The bowling alley played all western music, and even had the little animations on the screens mocking the player based on their efforts in that frame.

When I left I walked past the MRT station, thinking that I had seen it and it was closed because the trains had stopped running for the night.  I turned around and started jogging back to the hospital because it was about 3km, but luckily I saw where I had previously gone by, that the MRT station was actually open, so I went down and took the train back to the station closest the hospital and got back at about 11pm.  Walking by myself from the MRT station to the hospital, I was approached several times with guys offering to sell me porn DVDs, and probably more if I wanted it.  I also saw a few clear instances of the sex trade, in about 3 blocks on the main road I saw 2 different old white men with young Thai women, and one old white guy with a young Thai guy.  Sad, but I guess it's the reality of things.

Today she should be discharged in an hour or so and we will be taking a bus to Pattaya, which is south-east from Bangkok, not towards Phuket but still nice and tropical beach-like.  From there we will head to Koh Samet and Koh Chang.

I don't know exactly when I'll be updating my blog again, but hopefully this has given a good idea of what I've been up to and what it's like here...

Until next time!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

First 2 days

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

Great first 2 days, I've seen so much and taken a lot of pictures.  Tuesday my host took the day off work to show me around and we went to several temples, including the imperial palace, Wat Aron, Golden Mountain, the great teak mansion (the largest all teak wood structure in the world, they even used wooden nails - built over 100 years ago), the emerald Buddha, and what is considered to be the most beautiful reclining Buddha in Thailand - it is 15 meters tall and 46 meters long.  Learned a lot.

Today (Wednesday) I took part in a Couchsurfing.org scavenger hunt around Bangkok!  Fitting as it was I wore my Ski to Sea t-shirt and was teamed up with another Swedish girl from Umea!  Lucky for me she had lived in Bangkok before and knew her way around a bit better than me, so it was a lot of fun.   It is definitely confirmed, the Swedes are a great bit of fun!  Afterward we went to meet with quite a few couchsurfers at a bar and had a few beers and met some very interesting and cool people from all over, pair from Texas who have been travelling over a year, some German, Dutch, Czech, Indian, Thai, so many!  I know there are more who I have forgotten.

Tomorrow I will go to Ayutthaya - the ancient capitol and home to a great number of temples and other old cultural relics - it is only 20 baht for the train trip 90km up there and 100 baht to rent a bike for the day to tour around (32 baht = about 1 usd)

So far so good, glad I brought both my big (SLR) and small (point and shoot) cameras though, just wish I had a small backpack to carry things for day trips...oh well, it is still lovely and a great deal of fun.

Still jet lagged, but forcing myself to adjust to the schedule here.  It is 12.20 am and I need to be up by 6 to make the train...maybe I can sleep on the train? Doubt it.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Getting through customs was a breeze, I had no address to put on my immigration forms so I just wrote "Khao San Guesthouse, Bangkok, Thailand" and apparently that was enough to avoid any scrutiny.  My host from Couchsurfing.org was there waiting in the arrivals hall as promised and was quite easy to find, I wish I had a picture of him waving at me, but it was definitely a relief and an exciting site.  Time to sleep and in the morning he is taking me to downtown Bangkok to show me some temples and such, should be great!

Half way around the world

The boarding process at Seatac was uneventful, the flight to Seoul was long but smooth, I was able to get 4 or 5 hours of sleep which was nice, and the food was decent.  Somebody sat in my seat so I just traded him, and ended up getting an aisle seat with nobody next to me.  Plane was a Boeing 777-200, narrow seats, video games on the little screens in the seat backs.

70 minutes until I board for Bangkok.  Met some other travelers, a brother sister pair from New York who are also going to Bangkok, so if my CS host doesn't show to meet me at the airport, I will likely take a taxi in with them and find a guest house to stay at for a few dollars.

Need to get an adapter for my plugs, but don't know which they'll have in Thailand and Vietnam so I have to wait...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Getting Closer

Benjamin Franklin said that there are two ways to be remembered once you're gone: "either write something worth reading or do things worth writing about."  Unfortunately he also hit the nail on the head when he said: "life's tragedy is that we get old to soon and wise too late."

This fits right into one of my favorite short essays by Russell Baker, "School vs. Education."  Basically, he mocks the public education system and suggests that true education begins long after the student has 'graduated' and begins to open his/her mind and actually learn.

Basically, these two things combined are my admission that the merits of my experience and writing may be less than others, and I will try to avoid making any claims or generalizations which could easily be incorrect given my lack of overall experience...hopefully over the course of my adventure I'll gain a bit more useful insight and be able to make more knowledgeable judgments and assertions.

Of course we all want to believe that we learned lots of meaningful things in our 12, 16, 18, 20+?? years of schooling, and I'm sure that some people do, but by and large, we don't.  I - like so many others - want to think so, and I have convinced myself that I learned a lot. After all, I know the scientific method (it was reiterated enough), some development theories and brief, bullet pointed lists of the main theories of some famous political scientists, and a plethora of other knowledge which has shaped the way I look at the world.  Perhaps that does constitute some learning, but I would say that some of the most meaningful lessons and ideas I took from 
college, were not specifically from class.

Now that I'm done meandering through my thoughts and opinions on the structured educational system - which amusingly enough are appearing to be not that dissimilar from my opinions of religion (I'll leave that for another post though) - I'll get on with what I actually started to write about!

Monday the 20th I got an unlocked quad-band GSM camera phone to take with me on my trip - basically it will work pretty much anywhere in the world that has cell coverage - for a great deal.  It is a Sony-Ericsson K550i, sure it was released in 2007, but it's still brand new (sat in a box in a storage locker for 2 1/2 yrs) and seems like it should be pretty durable.  Price, durability, and some neat features like picture blogging direct from the phone, were selling features.  Glad it's not a touch screen and has a normal number pad, not a stupid full keyboard.

Tuesday the 21st I was talking to the guy from Bangkok who has offered to host me (through CS) and he decided he would also come meet me at the airport when I land on Oct. 11th.  I had been a little unsure about what I was going to do when I landed, because my plane touches down in BKK at 11.45 PM, and not knowing the city or the language at ALL, I was a bit weary about venturing into the city via cab (who are apparently notorious for trying to more than double the price on farang - foreigners if they can get away with it).  I may be bold, brave, adventurous, naive, unknowing, and many other adjectives I've heard used to describe my upcoming adventure, but I'm not quite bold enough to try my hand at midnight travel in an unknown city yet...let me get some more solo travel experience first!  

My host, whose house I'll be staying at, lives in the Nonthaburi suburb/neighboring city a little ways north of Bangkok. By bus it's not far, and is fairly inexpensive to ride.  Should be fun to get out and see where some of the more "local" people live, rather than being in another metropolis the whole time.  Admittedly, I am excited to go see central Bangkok and all that it has to offer, the famous Khao San Road, some of the scenes of the Red Shirt protests which took place last April/May, and of course the Vietnamese embassy to get my visa!

Oof, that was long, and sadly I could write tons more, but I won't, I'll spare anyone who is actually reading from the lengthy ramblings that I could post (yep, that was the short version up there!).