Friday, July 15, 2011

...The End... for now....

Ladies and Gents, I know it may seem that I’m less in touch now that I’m home compared to the flow of updates when I was in Southeast Asia, but life is busy once you return to it. Plenty of things need to be straightened out if you’ve left stateside for 4 months. Plus the entire state is vying for my attention, like, duh dude, right?! MAN it’s good to be back in Californ-ah-yea. Alright alright, my ego feels fine, so back to it….




Cambodia may feel like forever ago already but some things can’t be forgotten. My last post about Angkor Wat was a really special time in my trip, it was a beautiful and rightfully praised attraction. After that attraction, I headed by the bus towards southern Cambodia (By the way, almost all foreign countries I’ve visited have had more efficient long distance bus systems than the US). I headed to a small town on the Tonle Sap Lake in Central Cambodia. I came here to visit a floating village. I headed to this town even though there are larger more popular sets of floating villages closer to the increasingly popular Angkor Wat area, but that’s is precisely why I came here instead. Take the typical Cambodian village and you are guaranteed to find a gas station, mobile phone shops, schools, dogs, fruit stands, chickens, restaurants, the curious smell that is everywhere, shanty houses and oh yea, Cambodians. Take that and make it float, and you’ve got the village I was in. Everything was Cambodian about this village except that they had installed it on the Tonle Sap lake and, similar to Venetian style, had motorboat transportation style and canals (and fairly polluted water). It was a cool sight to see and motorboat through all the canals on this massive lake.

From the waterworld of Tonle Sap, I headed to the Southern coast of Kampot. This would be my second to last stop before heading to Bangkok to fly out, and I was just looking to relax here. I had visited this town before with a Couchsurfer from Phonm Penh when I first arrived to Cambodia, and I enjoyed it enough to know I wanted to revisit it. Kampot is known for its pepper, ‘Kampot Pepper.’ When the French occupied the area, it was said that no distinguished French restaurant in Paris was without Kampot Pepper on the table. I didn’t think pepper could be different, but it can be, this stuff is DELISH! Another fun part of Kampot is that is lies on a river/estuary so you can bike and dine up and down the river. One of the nights I swung over to a cool backpackers’ hangout on the river and a whole bunch of us did a night swim. To our delight, there was bioluminescence!! YAY! Swimming with bioluminescence is one of the coolest things, quite a phenomenon to me. Swimming around at night and glowing.



My last stop in Cambodia was Phonm Penh, the capital. I headed there because one; all roads in Cambodia pass through Phonm Penh, second; I was revisiting my friends there that I made through Couchsurfing. Any big city is manageable when you have people you know in toe, and friends to party with. We all hung out in Phonm Penh and enjoyed the afternoon rain and thunder storms that cooled the temperature to a delicious 85 degrees F. I began my mental summation of my trip there, wrapping things up and realizing I leave in a few days. So what did I do you ask?

- Noodle Soup daily

- Iced coffee daily

- Avoided the rain, then said ‘screw it’ and danced in the rain

- Read the ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ Trilogy

- Got massage(s!)

- Confirmed my flight



Interesting, is it not? I think so, I realized I don’t do much to prepare to go home, I just float through it and have faith that everything will go as it is meant to go. Maybe this is why I have culture shock when I go home because I don’t prepare myself for it. I didn’t do that much to treat myself or deprive myself or anything, I just enjoyed what I knew I would enjoy the last few days in Southeast Asia.





Once I got to Bangkok and gathered myself, it seemed to be time to leave already. Now I was dreading the flight because I heard (and later confirmed) that the jet lag flying from Asia to USA is worse than the reverse. I took China Airlines, and got through customs and security with no problems. Once in the airport, I didn't have enough Baht left to eat but I was starvin'! So unfortunately I got on my plane hungry. My first flight from BKK to Taipei was 2 1/2 hrs., and to my great surprise I was fed a full meal and drinks on this 2 1/2 hr flight! I had a slight layover in Taipei. Next I had the 12 hour flight cross the Pacific. This was an overnight flight for me, but I was going back in time. And for my second lovely surprise I got fed two more full meals and tons of drinks and free alcohol. Plus the emergency exit, window seat. I was happy as a clam, even if I had to entertain myself for 12 hours. Now what really got me was the time difference, I left Bangkok at 5pm on June 16th and arrived in San Diego local time 8 pm on June 16th. So three hours had passed on the local clocks but I'd been in transit for 16 hours. It took me about 1 1/2 weeks to adjust to CA schedule. So luckily, or to your dismay, my extensive flight home wasn't that eventful. Maybe next time it will be like "Lost"- but I don't really hope so.



I’ve now returned stateside and started to adjust to life here, which sure can be busy! I’m sorry the ending may seem uneventful, but I do wish for only for one thing…

… ‘And She Lived Happily Ever After’

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Majestic Angkor

Who here has heard of Angkor Wat? Raise you hand. Maybe you recognize the iconic picture below...



Angkor Wat and the Temples of Angkor are the MUST SEE of Southeast Asia. Comparable to the Great Wall of China, or Machu Piccu, or the pyramids of Egypt.

So I arrived to the town of Siem Reap, the jumping off point for the extensive set of ruins that are ALL over the region. Angkor Wat is just one of the many scattered around the landscape. Others include the beautiful Ta Prohm where Angelina filmed part of the Tomb Raider. Bayon temple which has some 200 faces carved in stone looking in all directions, and there are many many other great temples. Even if you don't think you would get a kick out of walking around old buildings, you could find something to peak your interest. I bought a three day pass for the park ($40 USD) and started my exploration.

You can't ride your own motorbike here, only bicycle, so the idea is that you have to rent a moto driver or tuk-tuk driver to scoot you around to wherever you want to go. The prices are definitely negotiable and vary on how far out into the sticks you want to go. (Although don't go TOO far out in the sticks, as Cambodia is the most heavily landmined country in the world- stick to the path!! ) My first day I went to the Bantaey Samre and Banteay Srei temples, the most out of the way temples. These were especially rewarding because they are known for their carvings of sandstone, which is a popular material used on the temples. The carvings are intricate, detailed, and beautiful. Although I had no idea what they meant, so I bought a book off a kid there and started to get a gist for what the whole area is about. The carvings are mainly for the Hindu god Vishnu (the Protector) or Shiva (the Destroyer), but they are scenes with many other characters and meanings. It is really fascinating, especially since I know nothing about Hinduism or Buddhism. Cambodia and some of the countries around adopted India's Hinduism, but definitely put their own twist on the religion. It is evident when you look around at the temples.
This day I also stopped at the Landmine Museum. It was a reality shock. The place is FULL of deactived bombs, grenades, landmines etc... that have been collected by this one man. This gentlemen was in the Khmer Rouge army and later switched to fight for the Vietnamese when they invaded the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (he ended up shooting at his own uncle who was fighting for the Khmer Rouge while this gentleman was fighting for the resistance with Vietnam- !!!) Most of the weapons were manufactured and dropped by the USA, Russia or China, with other nations in there. The museum also gave a comprehensive idea of the reality of the situation in Cambodia. What actually happened. The Who's Who. What war life was like. What is the current situation of the clean up (it is estimated that at the current rate of clearing the Landmines in Cambodia, it will take 100 years to clear all the area!). And things of this sort. It was an eye opening experience, but also enough to twist you stomach into knots.
 I think disagreement in the world is inevitable, but war like it is conducted is NOT necessary.

That was my first day, and I took it quite easy, I was working myself up for the real biggies, like Angkor Wat. The second day I did what is called the Big Loop. I intentionally left out the Angkor Wat area, and Ta Prohm- the two biggest complexes. I visited all the rest on the second day. This included small temples crumpled and overgrown by trees and nature. Moat enclosed temples. Mountain temples with amazing views of the area. Temples left for nature to do it's job. As well as the Prohm temple where Angelina Jolie filmed her movie (she is a popular topic here). They were all special feeling, some more interesting than others, but all respectable. I also read up on each one as I visited and learned quite a few things of the ancient Angkor Kingdom. I also started to form a very small understanding of the ancient gods and importance of religion.

The third day started early when I rented a bike and biked the handful of miles to the temples at 5 am. I arrived in time for the sunrise over the Angkor Wat temples. Although it was a cloudy day and the sunrise was uneventful, I was able to imagine how beautiful it would be to see a clear sunrise over these massive and majestic temples, and also able to get an early start in the cooler weather! I was enchanted by Angkor Wat and spent 4 hours at that temple alone. I never thought I would, but I was very interested in the carved wall murals that where along the entire out wall of the Temple. It included murals of certain ancient stories like the "Churning of the Milk Sea" which created the elixir of life. Also the "Heaven and Hells" mural where there was some real graphic depictions of their version of hell :-/. Also the conquering of Vishnu and his avatar Krishna over the demon gods. Things like this that never peaked my interest before suddenly occupied hours of my time. I dissected the story from each and looked at the carvings- it really was cool!!! Angkor is also the Hall of Thousand Buddhas where there were "that many" Buddhas at one point when Buddhism took over Hinduism in the Angkor kingdom. There was so much to see at this one temple and I was enchanted. It deserves the praise it gets!!
I then biked over to the other complex Prohm Wat. This is a larger complex and contains many smaller temples, all really different. This place is different because it is comprised of many different kinds of buildings. The Royal palace which the King at the time built is surrounded by a moat and in front of that is the Elephant Terrace. The Royal Palace was beautiful, but the Elephant Terrace in front of it was quite unique. The terrace was about 10 feet tall and stretched for at least 1/3 mile, it had carvings of elephants at each staircase entrance. Also there was the Leper King monument where the Leper King statue overlooks a maze. The maze below has walls about 20 feet high all carved with gods and demons and everyday life scenes.


After the Elephant Terrace, I headed over to Bayon Temple. This is a very crowded temple because King Javayrama VII thought his face, with a mixture of the Buddhas facial characteristics, was the greatest thing (as most Kings do). 


The temple has pillars with 4 sides, most containing his face on each side, directed toward every imaginable angle. It is estimated some 150 face are in this one temple. The temple felt like a maze! It was cool to go through every nook and cranny and find your way out and in. I really enjoyed this temple, and it got even more fun when the daily afternoon rainstorms started. Biking back 8 miles in heavy downpour was invigorating!

My experience with the Temples of the Angkor Kingdom was extremely rewarding, and I'm very glad I got a chance to visit them. I would recommend anybody in this region to go and see them!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

1 week to go

Hey all,

I really hope you've enjoyed reading my blog so far. I have exactly one week to go til I'm home back in the good 'ole US of A.
I'm not fully caught up on my blog, meaning there are some things I haven't gotten a chance to write about yet, but I'll try and finish that up. Is there anything anybody wants to know before I depart from this region of the world. Any aching pain in the side questions that just HAVE to be answered??? :-)   Feel free to ask!

I hope all is well with you, and we'll see everybody soon!!
Life is bueno!!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Frogs and Grasshoppers in Cambodia

After saying goodbye to Allen and Isabelle and the kids, I had booked a flight with the relatively cheap Air Asia and was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Phonm Penh, Cambodia. Budget airlines like Air Asia make getting around this region cheap and easy, if you have more money than time.

I arrived to the capital of Phonm Penh during a rain and thunderstorm, which are all the more prevelant as we are approaching the wet season. I stayed here with a couchsurfer named Patrick, and his roommate Brendan. A few days spent here in the capital city with their friends and seeing the sights. One of which being the Tuol Sleng Musuem.
First of all, ignorance is not bliss in this case. Maybe you have or maybe you haven't heard of the Khmer Rouge, I know it's possible some of my generation hasn't, but you really need to inform yourself here on the not-too-long ago past of Cambodia. Search Khmer Rouge or Pol Pot Regime.
The history of the Khmer Rouge plays a major part in what a traveler would do go and see in Cambodia. For example, the Toul Sleng Musuem is acutally a former prison. This is where the brutal Khmer Rouge, S-21 section, tortured and killed thousands and thousands of Cambodian people. It was an eerie place to go and witness the torture chambers, prison chambers, and torturing equipment. I can't explain too well the feeling you get when going to this kind of place, but I did ask myself, "Is it even possible for human beings to do this to eachother, and for what?"
During the Khmer Rouge it is approximated that the genocide commited under the nasty Pol Pot killed about 2 million Cambodians.  Approximately 50% of the Cambodian population is under 25 (the people born young or after the Pol Pot regime).
But, from what I've seen, the Cambodian people stand strong and have plenty of smiles to give.

With my two couchsurfing hosts Patrick and Brendan, we decided to leave for the weekend and head toward the coast of Cambodia. We went to Kampot (which I revisited because I like it so much) town. It is laid back town on an river estuarary near the ocean. We did the trip with their motorbikes, and it was definitely a fun time. We revisited some of Patrick's old fav's since he used to work in this town, went for a swim, played mini golf etc... and also headed to some caves in the nearby mountains. The landscape there is quite gorgeous! Also this town is famous for it's PEPPER! It is supposedly world class, and it does taste amazingly good!

After Kampot and Phonm Penh, I headed east to Kratie. Kratie lies on the might Mekong river, which every time I see that river on this trip, I'm still amazed at how beautiful and massive it is. I headed here for a particular reason, I wanted to see the Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins that inhabit the Mekong river in these parts. Some of you may remember my story of the pink fresh water dolphins in the Amazon, and this is a similar experience, except that the dolphins aren't pink, but you get the sense that it is somewhat wrong. You are 100's of miles from the see and you are surrounded by tons of dolphins in the river. I still think it is just so cool!! :-)

As for Cambodian cuisine, it isn't too spicy, they love soup here, and it is good. But Cambodians differ a bit from their neighbours because they find nothing wrong in eating things that we would consider weird. Any time you ride on the bus and you stop at the restaurants for a bathroom or food break, there is undoubtedly the lady there selling the Cambodian bus-snack favorite, grasshoppers. I tried them, they are actually quite good!!!

Cambodia continues...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Transported to the future in Singapore

Country #4, Singapore.

A couple months before I left on my trip I got a friend request on Facebook from a Melody (my last name is case you didn't know). I accepted the request and got to know a family member, technically related as my dad's cousin, but family is family. Also,  come to find out, Allen lives in Singapore with his wife and children. What a strange coincidence, no?!

So I had made it one of my goals to reach the southern town of Singapore on the Malay peninsula. I headed here after staying in the cool and temperate Cameron Highlands. Heading into the city which is an island about 25 miles long 15 miles wide (I think), I got quite the culture shock! First of all I was on an actual highway, just like one at home. As I snaked through the city around sunset I started passing downtown and enormous skyscrapers, the modernity of it was just astounding after spending the last 2 1/2 months in much less developed (what is the p.c. term nowadays?) countries like Laos.
I met Allen and his wonderful family including his wife Isabelle, from France, and their three children. They were more than generous, and gave me my own room, the nicest room so far on this trip! Being in Singapore can be related to be home, although I think in some aspects it was much more developed than home, as well as the obvious financial wealth. Singaporeans have lots of money, and they want to spend it.

Spent the days doing a wide variety of things and getting to know eachother and enjoy the company. Some of the highlights included going to the Night Safari Zoo in Singapore. Apparently we were destined to be the stars of this night. First, we were watching a fire breathing show and they needed a 'big strong man' volunteer, and guess who got picked... We all had a good laugh watching Allen on stage with fire being blown around him and he being asked to roar and flex his muscles. What luck. After the fire show we headed down to the Creatures of the Night show where they brought out a whole variety of night creatures including a wolf, otters, and tarzirs. When they asked for a brave young boy to be a volunteer out of the 150 people there, I thought no way, but their son got chosen and was able to be up close and personal with the tarzirs. Lastly the show had 'apparently' lost an animal. After searching a few places they came over to right where we were sitting and asked to see in the area below our feet where there was an underground box. They opened it up and to my surprise at least, there was a 10 foot anaconda just chillin. !!!! Eeeewwwwww. The rest of the night we spent on the safari exploring and seeing a whole bunch of animals in their natural like environments and when they are most active (because during the day it is way too hot!).

We also did some hiking in the reserve on Singapore island which was a really really nice day. We walked down Orchard St.- what seems like the biggest most outlandish shopping area I've ever been too. There were 3 Louis Vutton stores in a matter of 1/3 mile, and the amazing thing about all these stores and shops (which included Starbucks) was that they were all full, even mid-afternoon, they were all full. We went to Sentosa Island, their slogan; "The World's Most Desirable Address." We had some great meals, and this part was a special treat for me after 2 1/2 months of eating oily street food and noodle soup, which I love, don't get me wrong, but it was nice to change it up. And I got to experience a bit of French cuisine, and I liked it, a lot! We toured downtown Singapore which is full of important business buildings, shopping, ridiculous law signs, eating, architectural amazements, camera monitoring, and trash bins! ( I posted many pictures on Facebook)

We did many things and our days were full. I very much enjoyed my stay there and am thankful to Allen and Isabelle for showing me such a great and generous time, they really were too kind!!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Thailand- freedom of speech?

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110527/ap_on_re_as/as_thailand_monarchy

""Thailand is a constitutional monarchy but has severe lese majeste laws that mandate a jail term of three to 15 years for any person who "defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir to the throne or the Regent""

Thailand to Singapore, and the inbetween

After leaving Thailand, knowing the next time I return will be mid June for my flight home, I venture on. Country #3 (I know, it feels like much more), MALAYSIA.
There were things that were shaping up to make this experience great;
- Number 3 of anything is usually lucky
- It was my first Muslim country to visit ever
- Malaysia is known for it's cultural crossroads, which should provide interesting sightseeing, good eats, and an understanding environment
- Malaysia was enroute to Singapore, where I was ready to meet some new family!
- Malaysia's interior contains the Cameron Highlands, supposed to have a cool climate, and if I sweat one more day in my clothes I think they'll fall apart.

So...with my spirits high, I cross over into Malaysia and head to Penang. I only had a limited amount of time allotted for Malaysia and Singapore because I had booked a flight May 19th from Kuala Lumpur to Phonm Penh, Cambodia. So I had to be picky, and narrowed my choices for Malaysia down to two. The first stop Penang. I chose this place for own reason and one reason alone, to eat. Penang is an island, and was a great port town when the British were colonizing and pushing their culture on everybody. That means that many different cultures migrated here, the three main cultures being Indian, Chinese, and Malay. These cultures which are very different in their customs have been able to live peacefully on this island while still prospering with their business and maintaining their culture. The peace was evident when I started walking down one of the main roads known as Harmony Rd. In a matter of a half a mile, maybe less, I first passed an Indian temple, followed shortly by a Chinese shrine and shop house, which was right next to a Christian church. All three full of people. It may not sound like much, but to me it seemed like Tolerance. This history of the island and in particular the main town of Georgetown is complex and I won't pretend to write like I know all about it because I don't and I only spent a couple of days there. What I did start to understand in that couple of days was one of the best parts of traveling, food.

Ask any traveler and they know, food is wonderful. Food gives pleasure but also gives gas. It brings people together to talk and share and laugh, and also brings diarrhea. It can be comforting and it can be intimidating. And it comes in all shapes and forms.

Some of the possibilities of things to eat in Georgetown included; Koi thiaw (Chinese dish) a dish based around a large flat noodle and turns into a soup like consistency or can be served regular. 3 out of 5 stars. Laksa (Malay dish) based around some shredded meat and is mostly a soup and contains noodles. It also has a really potent taste, I didn't enjoy it that much. 2 out of 5 stars. Naci Lemak (Malay dish) I didn't get to try this one, but heard it was good. Quie (Malay) Malay word for sweets, and it contains a whole variety from Jellies to pastries. 4 out of 5 stars. Roti Chani (Indian) not usually sweet and typically served with a dipping sauce. It is a flat bread. 4 out of 5 stars. Banana leaf meals (Indian) usually in the afternoons the Indian restaurants offer a compilation meal served on a banana leaf. You can sometimes choose what main things you get on the leaf (i.e. which meat) but it usually contains about 7-10 items and is a great way to try many different things, plus your eating off a leaf! 5 out of 5 stars. Tea Tarik (Indian) a drink, tea with milk, but something about the way they prepare it, they pour it in and out of a glass like 5 times. I got it every time! These are just the food items I can remember, and unfortunately I could only eat so much, but I enjoyed all of it- Thank you Georgetown!

From Penang, I headed to my second destination in Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands. This is high up in the interior of Malaysia and has one of the coolest climates around.   I want to be cold!!! I headed to the small town (really small) of Tanah Rata, tucked away in the mountains. I stayed at a really cool guesthouse/lodge and met quite a few people that I really enjoyed, which led me to stay here longer than intended. This region is known for two things, strawberries and tea. Yes and Yes. We all went for a hike one of the days to a nearby mountain of 6,666 ft ( :-/ ) that you hiked through moss forests to reach. It was a nice couple of hours hiking through the jungle, and although the top was covered with clouds it was still really nice. On the way down, we first stopped at a strawberry farm and met the farmers, held a baby goat and had amazing strawberry popsicles. It was really cool to see rows and rows of strawberries, which I've loved ever since I was a little girl, just ask my Nana- I'll take all the strawberries. These ones in the mountains were also the most fresh and delicious tasting strawberries I've ever had. We continued on down the mountain and walked through a tea plantation. Although I didn't learn what the process of making tea is, it was a beautiful sight, all the young tea plants, bright green and rolling all the way into the distance. After admiring the fields we hitched a ride on the back of a recycle truck and went back into town.


But my time was up and I booked a bus ticket to Kuala Lumpur and then transferred on the bus to Singapore, headed to see family....

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Southern Thailand

 So now that I'm back in Thailand traveling on my own again, I decided it was time to see the much talked about Southern Thailand.

Southern Thailand is known for it's beautiful beaches, friendly people, great diving and snorkeling, good food, limestone formations and plenty of other things.

I started off by going to Hua Hin, which is just about 4 hours south of Bangkok. This is more of a vacationing spot for the city dwellers of Bangkok and less a backpackers haven, for example the royal family has a vacation beach house here. But I wanted to see it regardless. Luckily, I met a French lady on the train, Magalie, and got to chatting and found out that she lives in Hua Hin with her long time boyfriend, David, from South Africa. He is teaching there at Webster University and they have been livin gin Hua Hin for 2 years. She was kind enough to invite me to their home and give me a place to stay. This resulted in me staying here much longer than most backpackers would stay in Hua Hin. They were so nice, we spent the days going to the beaches, hanging out with their Thai friends, other foreign teachers, riding bikes, eating seafood, noodle soup and other yummy cuisine, and just hanging out . They were so lovely and it was a nice thing for me to be in a home and be able to relax in one place for a bit. Plus their puppy, named 'Puppy' was just to adorable with it's cone on her head from her recent neutering!

After thanking them for letting me crash at their place and for showing me around Hua Hin, I got a over night bus ticket to arrive in Phuket (pronounced Foo-ket , in case you were wondering!) I chose to go to Phuket because my good friend Jenna who is in the Navy was going to be in port there and we go the chance to meet up. How cool right, a friend since middle school and we are meeting up on two very different kind of trips...in Thailand!! Once there, I met up with Jenna and was introduced to her friends, and from there the Navy 'In port' adventure began. Quite a different pace from my normal travel style, Jenna and her friends had about 48 hours to enjoy Phuket and Thailand, and they were aware that definitely ISN'T enough!! We ended up walking around the town, trying some cuisine, trying the beer, going to get them custom tailored suits (a very popular thing for people to do when they come to SE Asia because it is so much cheaper), and that was just the first day. We ended up spoiling ourselves some more, and Jenna was kind enough to spoil me (THANK YOU JENNA!!!). That night we went out on the town of Phuket, which basically meant the one pedestrian street full of bars, parties, restaurants, and many many other things. The next day was spent relaxing and recuperating and getting Thai massages. The 48 hours we spent together in port were definitely memorable, and I had a great time seeing my friend while traveling abroad. Cheers to more stories chica!

After the whirlwind pace of Phuket, I once again headed off by myself south toward Krabi. I stayed on the remote beach of Rai Leh, which was accessible only by boat although it was on the main land. This beach was absolutely gorgeous and a great place to walk up and down the beach and watch the avid rockclimbers scale the 100's of feet cliffs on the beach. The limestone formed cliffs here are just surreal to look at, and make for an unforgettable and unique beach scene. I was running short of days for my visa, and only had two full days to enjoy Rai Leh. My fullest day I spent on an excursion, which was a blast! We started off by heading on the boat to Bamboo beach, a white sand beach a few miles off the coast. We got to swim and check out the local huts on the beach and see the tsunami evacuation route. From there, we headed to a Pirate cave (!) yes used previously by pirates or just people looking to hide out, and monkey bay. After that to Maya Beach. Maya beach is where they filmed the Hollywood movie "The Beach" made off the popular travelers book. I read the book at the beginning of this trip and I thought this island was quite a good fit, beautiful crystal blue waters, white sands, a small cove, jungle-inland etc... it was gorgeous, packed with tourists, but gorgeous. From there we headed to the popular island of Koh Phi Phi, iconic Southern Thailand. I know I keep repeating myself, but this beach was gorgeous too! Plus I had random groups of Asian tourist come and ask to take pics with me on their camera, and then on mine. Offshore of Phi Phi, we did our first snorkel spot. I LOVE snorkeling, it is so awesome. It also helps when the visibility is about 20 feet in every direction, and I felt like I was diving in the movie 'Finding Nemo.' I saw a puffer fish, anemones, the black and white 'scarfish', huge schools of fish that ate bread and anything else you threw them, coral beds, and much much more. I was the first one in the water and the last one out both times, it was just too pretty!! From Phi Phi we headed back to Krabi and Rai Leh beach, at about 4pm, plenty of time to swim and lounge at the Rai Leh beach until I got to see the repetitively spectacular sunsets! Ahhhh, I see why people get stuck in the South of Thailand and never leave...but I had to be going.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Going to the movies in Bangkok

Going to the movies is an EVENT. 

I was in Bangkok a couple of days after Brad left straightening and extending my visa so that I could stay in Thailand. I decided why not go and entertain myself in the nicer part of Bangkok, known as Siam Square. This is the ritzy rich clean part of Bangkok where you can find shopping, nice hotels, and expensive restaurants. Obviously not some place I was hanging out... 
So I headed over that way via subway and headed to the malls. In the city the malls also contain the movie theaters, usually on the top floor. First of all, Asians do malls WAY better than any malls I've seen in the states (maybe minus Mall of America in Minneapolis). On the 7th floor of this mall I found a full size theater showing all the latest movies- including THOR! So let me walk you through this...

First step; approach the counter and you are greeted with the 'Wai,' the traditional Thai or Southeast asian greeting where they form the prayer like symbol with their hands and slightly bow. You then look at the screen facing you and it shows a map of all the seats in the theatre. There are about 4 different price zones for the same theatre movie. The prices differ on how close to the front or middle you are, and also there are the VIP seats in the back of the theatre. So I didn't know what this theatre looked like, I thought maybe I would be transported like in Star Trek, it seemed so fancy. So I chose a seat and bought a popcorn (American day!) and headed toward the entrance. 

Second step; You are greeted with another Wai by the lady checking your ticket for the entrance. After she verifies you are allowed to enter, you head up the escalator to what is now the 8th floor. The 8th floor includes another concession stand and two main halls for the theatres. 

Third step; You figure out which hall you are in and proceed. It was tough to proceed while I was passing the concession stand because here they have Diet Coke and three different flavors of popcorn!! First, salt and butter. Second; Plain. Third: Caramel Kettle. DANGER! Once you reach your hall and try and push the caramel popcorn out of your mind so that you don't contract diabetes in the next 2 hours, you reach another greeter. This greeter gives you the Wai sign (again!), and finally rips the stub off your ticket! (I think.... I'm Home freeeeeeeeee!!!!) 

Fourth step; I find my theatre entrance, walk in the door, and then walk through the red velvet drape and finally, finally reach the theatre for Thor. I'm all kinds of excited now, ready to sit back and enjoy this movie. I start  looking down the aisles at the lit up signs....A....B....C....D........... I'm in J 4.......and I look up from the aisle and what do I see.... Reclining extra wide cushioned cream leathered seats. .... I think I've reached heaven.

The seats at Bangkok's movie theatre...maybe similar to the entrance of Heaven. 
Yes, oh yes. 
And here are the VIP seats...



Fifth step: As I'm stumbling, mouth agape at the amazing seats in front of me, I reach J 4 and practically fall into my seat (of course I didn't spill the popcorn or Diet coke, that'd be sinful!) But I sit my butt on nice cream leather and laugh at the experience this has already become. I sat my coke in the cup holder and started munching on the popcorn. 

Sixth step; The movie starts and the previews get through, and the 'Turn off your cell phone' message shows, and then an all-to-familiar song comes on. Is it what I think it is?.... Oh YES it is! The Thai national anthem starts playing and a slideshow of the current King of Thailand starts playing. Oh wait...everybody is standing up, I better too! I stand up and watch as pictures and videos of the King's entire lifespan play on the movie theatre screen. They play the entire national anthem and finish with a message something along the lines of, The King is the greatest, Done so much etc... etc... WOW people, I only know Democracy, and we sure as hell don't show Obama's pictures before each movie. How different is this?? hahahah I'm just busting up, this is the most different movie I've ever been to. 

Seventh step; I watch the entire movie of Thor and enjoyed the heck out of it, and my popcorn, and Diet coke. And like any good backpacker does in a foreign country, I movie hopped and then watched Fast & the Furious 5. 

BEST MOVIE EXPERIENCE EVER. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chang

Alright alright, I know it has been awhile, but sometimes you just get busy when you are traveling around.

After LAOS, I headed back into Thailand to meet up with Brad. He flew in on April 17th and was here for a week. We definitely enjoyed our week together, although I would of preferred it to be longer (of course) I was happy to see him for a week. You'll be jealous to know that most European countries get about 6 weeks of paid vacation a year, and are much more lenient on leaving work for extended periods of time and still having a job. I know I'm jealous! But, within the week that we were together we spent a couple of days in the big city of Bangkok. Exploring the Grand Palace and lovely architecture, eating yummy food from restaurants and street stalls, walking the entertaining street of Khao San Rd. - "The Backpackers Ghetto", going out and dancing and partying it up, then more eating, frequenting 7-11 of course because they are everywhere, and lots of walking around and seeing the culture and enjoying eachothers company.
But after we'd had enough of the city, we headed east toward Cambodia by bus and ferry to reach the tropical island of Koh Chang. (Chang = Elephant (in Thai)) We had a scary taxi ride in with some new found friends from Britain, and found a nice bungalow in the small village of Lonely Beach. We spent quite a few days relaxing here on the jungle clad island and swimming around in it's aqua marine blue waters and white sand and beautiful sunsets. (See facebook pics) We also did a fair amount of trying the local cuisine like Pad Thai, Thai curries, fruit shakes, ginger chicken, seafood, etc... and going out at night and meeting fun people and hanging out. Two of the adventure highlights were one; going the the treetop adventure park. Here Brad did ziplinning, rope swings, shaky bridges, and a whole assortment of 'George of the Jungle' like activities. He was like a kid in a candy store. Especially on the 400 feet zipline over the jungle canopy! Second of our adventures was riding elephants at the elephant sanctuary. We had an amazing time with our elephant named Rambo. We rode through the jungle and headed to a stream/pond where we got to bath with Rambo and sit ontop of him and have him splash us and throw water all over us. It was a fantastic experience!!! They really are huge amazing creatures, and it really reminds you how different you are from these types of animals. Plus we got to drive Rambo back! Check off the bucket list!
The week that Brad visited was a fantastic part of my vacation and I had a wonderful time with him being out here.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

4,000 Islands, Happy New Year

Yesterday I left Laos, and was sad to see it go. I really enjoyed that country, the landscape was beautiful from Northern Laos' limestone mountains and rivers all around, to Southern Laos' coffee plateau and the width of the Mekong River. The Laos people I thought to be very different than the Thai people. The Laos people were very reserved and shy, and quite conservative, but I was invited into many people's homes for drinks and dinner in Laos and they were all very sweet and giving. The food was also different yet delicioso!! Not so much spicy as Thailand, but flavorful all the same. Also, Laos is just much less crowded, there is room to breath, most people live outside the cities, but the landscape still seems uninhabited. All is all, Laos just fit, and I really enjoyed it.

I spent my days heading south after Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi. I first went south to Vang Vieng. This place is a party, and lets just say it fits a certain niche for travelers. Without going into too much, the main attraction there is tubing. You rent a tube for a couple of dollars and float down the nearby river. There are plenty of places to stop along the way. I met 4 girls from Norway and 2 guys from England and we hung out for the day. We stopped along the river to do have a drink or do the adrenaline spots they set up. Among those that did included HUGE swings into the river, ziplines into the river, and enormous slides into the river. I definitely got my adrenaline fix, and had a great day!!

From Vang Vieng, I headed south via Sleeper Bus. Now this 14 hour bus ride was pretty fun itself. This was a double decker bus that had full length beds on both sides of the aisles. The beds were made for Asians though, because they barely fit a 5'10" guy, and also weren't very wide at all. Come to find out my seat/bed was in the very back of the bus on the second level, and my seat was 1 of 5 in the back cabin. So me and four other travelers crammed into this little room lined with red leather over the engine, and made the best of the situation. It was pretty humorous.

I arrived to Pakse, Laos in the south. Over a couple of days me and Korina, a girl from Norway, explored the area. We took the local bus up to Tad Lo one of the days. A beatiful multilevel waterfall up in the Bolaven plateau. The Bolaven plateau is were Laos grows all of its coffee, and their coffee is good and has a unique taste. This waterfall made for a good day trip, going for a dip in the nice emerald pools and relaxing in the sun. Plus we got to see Elephants again, which I always enjoy. They are so COOL!!! Another one of the days we went and ate dinner on the Mekong at one of the floating restaurants. Yes, it is just what it sounds like... you go and eat dinner on a boat on the Mekong. It was really nice and romantic, and I tried Laos laap for the first time which came with fish from the Mekong. Laap is minced meat and vegetable dish which I can compare to Ceviche.

After Pakse, I headed even further south towards Cambodia, to a place called 4,000 islands (Si Phan Don). I had heard good things about this place and decided it was where I wanted to spend my last days in Laos before heading back to Thailand to meet Brad. 4,000 Islands is the name, I'm not sure if there actually are 4,000 of them, but I bet it is pretty close. It gets the name because here the Mekong is at it's widest and it spreads out over the flat land and creates many many islands. Of course only accessible by boat, but that made it all the better for a relaxing peaceful time. Amenities are slim on the island, no ATM's, very slow expensive internet, and patchy electricity. But the small island of Don Det that I stayed on was really really nice. I got myself a bungalow overlooking the river with a hammock and fan for 30,000 Kip (just over $3 USD) and spent my days lounging around, reading, swimming with the kids, going to the 'beach', and eating noodle soup (yummy! best culinary part of Laos, they love their soups!) It was a very relaxing setting, and beautiful to look out of the blue river and bike around the island and see the water buffalo and all the local houses and family. Don Det, and all of Laos and Thailand, was in a festive mood because this time of year is when they celebrate their New Year (aka Water Festival). So during the day and night there is usually someone blasting Laos music, beer and Lao Lao whiskey going down by the liter, kids armed with squirt guns, water balloons, and buckets ready to splash you. You just had to stay in your bathing suit and light clothes all  the time, because any time you walked down the path of the village you were bound to get soaked!! It was a blast, and especially nice because April is HOT! What a fun time.

Thanks LAOS, you were great!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Staying near the river

Laos has a lot of water.
There are rivers everywhere here, including the mighty Mekong river that flows through all of Southeast Asia.

After heading from Luang NamTha in the north, I traveled all day to try and reach Nong Khiaw (pronunciation probably seems absurd, but it's not too bad). Traveling all day can be quite tiring, but when you backpack you get accustomed to doing bus rides for 7 or 8 hours and accept it as normal. Whereas at home, in 7 or 8 hours I could get to Arizona or to Morro Bay,CA and I only do that a couple times a year. But on these buses you fill your time with reading, listening to music, chatting with the person next to you, people watching, landscape watching, worrying about if the bus goes off a cliff, and lots of  'looking inward'-- and that makes the hours fly by. Lots of interesting things tend to happen in transit.

Nong Khiaw is a very small village on the river Om and is surrounded by jungle covered limestone karsts. A absolutely gorgeous scenery. A small village with no more than 2,000 people, it was easy to explore the village and feel oriented in the first day. Oh the worst thing happened though... I had to get a cabana with a hammock on the porch looking out at the limestone karsts, hot showers, mosquito netting, and a quite garden setting around. It was absolutely horrendous, mostly because it cost me 50,000 kip ($5.50 USD)- I know, I was REALLY suffering!!
One of the days when I finally felt like getting out of my hammock, I walked about 2 km outside of town to some caves. These caves were where the people of the area hid out during the Second Indochina war which ended in 1975 (called the Vietnam War in the West and the American War in Vietnam) when the US and other forces were carpet bombing the area daily. Sidenote: Laos and Cambodia are two of the most heavily bombed countries in the world. You will commonly see signs in the area, and it goes without saying, that you need to stay on or near the path! Because of those millions of bombs dropped about 30% did not explode, refered to as UXO's (unexploded ordinances) Also, common decoration are old war relics, rusted bomb covers etc... well they at least make for good potting dishes! But, back to the caves. After a 2 km walk that I didn't mind so much because the scenery was beautiful, I reached the mouth of the cave. There was a sign at the bottom of a staircase leading up the said "Becare  full, stairs are slipperly"...ohhh I will watch my step! These caves had section all throughout that indicated "Nurse section" "Telecom section" "Provincial governor" "School" and so on because in these caves the people made a community in which they lived for long periods of time during the war. There was also Buddhist graffiti on the wall. A young Laos boy met up with me at the mouth of the cave to take me to the 'Bank Cave.' I thought it was humorous following this 24 year old Laos boy named Paul, with his one working shoe along the cave wall for one reason in particular, he was about 4 feet 10 inches... 5 feet at the most, I was taller than him!! Hey I fit in in Asia, everybody here is short, I sometimes even worry of bumping my head. Anyways, this bank cave he took me to was were the entire province of Luang Prabang kept their money and bank people from 1968-1974. Can you imagine going to the bank to hold your probably useless money in a maze of caves? It was pretty surreal. America has taken part in a lot of wars, but we have never been on that short end of the stick. I think we Americans don't realize how lucky we are, but also we don't realize the bad things we've taken part in all over the world.

The rest of my days were spent lounging around Nong Khiaw and reading until I headed up the river to Muang Ngoi ( I know the pronunciation!). On the way up the river by boat, there were herds of water buffalo everywhere and villages scattered along the banks. I thought Nong Khiaw was small, Muang Ngoi is even smaller. This village is not accessible by road, only boat, has a population of about 500, and the electricity is only turned on for certain (limited) hours of the day. I headed this way due to a recommendation from Beth, and she was right, what a great little village! Very relaxing spending your time on the river beach, reading, hanging with other interesting travelers, exploring the caves in these limestone mountains, swimming in the river, eating at the Laos buffet for 15,000 kip (2.00 USD) and whatever else came about. You might be wondering about all these caves, and it is safe to say that I'm kinda tired of going in them all by myself in the dark cool caves after I went in the cave at Muang Ngoi and saw a big black spider just larger than my fist headed my way- I high-tailed it out of there faster than you can say 'Muang Ngoi.' Creepppppyyy!!! But this is cave country in Laos and there are plenty to see, so I'll keep my eyes open for good caves as well as other people to accompany me!

Until next time ladies and gents. Hope all is well!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Same Same but Different

The ever popular phrase in Southeast Asia of 'Same Same, but Different' is all to right. Laos is the same as other southeast Asian countries, but definitely different.

I decided I want to experience some more jungle by heading to northern Laos to the city of Luang Nam Tha, a hot spot for trekking. Although the weather had been cold and rainy north of Luang Prabang, I was looking forward to the change of climate to cool the blood. It is a small town tucked away in the jungle mountains. I decided I would like to really get to know the scenery, so I booked a 3 day 2 night trek through the Laos jungle. I know, totally normal right.
Well I knew it would be a good trek when I met my guide, a nice Laos guy, named Porn. Umm....yea. Atleast this will be a humorous trek! So we headed off on the first day outside of town into the National Protected Area (NPA) - these NPA's only started coming to fruition in the 1990's. It is more evidence that Laos has had a tumultuous history. We headed out from a small rural village within the NPA with a smile after we saw a little boy running around with no pants with a blown up condom on a string as a balloon. Told you it would be a humorous trek!
Our group, Ria (Canada), Porn, another local guide from the village, and myself, crossed the river and trekked the first day for 5 hours. The jungle has all elements of a jungle in your imagination, rivers, big trees, big leaves, birds with ever sound, hills, valleys, slippery mud etc...but the difference between this jungle and any other i've trekked is that there is Bamboo everywhere. Most of the houses and such in the Laos area are made out of bamboo, and this is really durable useful stuff. As seen when we arrived at our 'camp'- an open air bamboo platform near the river with mosquito netting. Perfect. We set up our sleeping bags and then started a fire and dinner. All dinner, lunch, and breakfast  was eaten on banana leaves and with your hands, but DELICIOUS!!! Sticky rice is the staple food in Laos. It is rice in the sense of it, but glutonous so that it sticks together in a big clump, and you pick off a decent portion, clump it into a ball, and then grab food of another dish (i.e tomato and potatoes) with the sticky rice in you hands and indulge- YUMMY! (i'm really loving the cuisine aspect of SE Asia). So we finished off dinner and sat around the fire and chatted, and presumed customary Lao tradition by drinking Lao Lao. This fire whiskey is made from rice and all Laos drink it, so we proceeded to be Lao and drank an entire bottle (Our guide Porn said that is tradition to drink the whole bottle- you can't very well cap it and drink it tomorrow! of course haha)  It was all good fun though (and humorous!).
After a rainy and cold night, we started the next day trek, up and down, up and down, exhausting. We made our stop for lunch after a couple hours trekking in this very small rural village on the river where their primary language is their own dialect, and secondary language being Lao. They were friendly people and the kids loved the little toys Ria and I brought. Not to mention all the pigs, chickens, and naked babies running around your feet. Priceless.
I looked around and couldn't help but notice how little these people in this village seemed to have. Bamboo huts, bottles of Lao Lao, and a couple of farm animals. But these people seemed genuinely happy, and I couldn't help but wonder, is less more?
These people have so much less material wealth, but seem to be content with their lives, would you be happier with more, or less?

We thanked them for the stop and continued along the river for awhile to the next village where we stayed the night. Ria and I bathed in the river, which is done in a sarong like the locals, as to not offend anybody by showing too much skin. Laos people are quite conservative. Afterwards we played with all the children, teaching them Tic Tac Toe in the dirt, Rock Paper Scissors, and showed them the simply flying toys we had brought. They were elated. Later, we headed up to their school, which was a building with one room the size of my garage. They had one teacher and three classes in this one room. It being Sunday, there was nobody there for school, so we proceeded to draw on the chalkboard and practice Laos words and English words...and again play that highly entertaining game of Tic TacToe (oolala). The afternoon spent with the kids was the best part of the trek, well not to mention the happiness of endorphins!
That night after eating the chicken we had just watched them kill, pluck, and boil, we enjoyed more sticky rice, another Lao Lao whiskey bottle and company of a bunch of Lao guys asking us to sing American songs in exchange for their reciting Laos tradition music. Fair trade- although our singing was poor, they couldn't tell the difference! 

The next morning, we set out parallel to the river and continued through the jungle, but eventually came to some really lovely views of the rolling green jungle mountains. We trekked for 4 or 5 hours that day until we arrived to town, sore, hungry, happy, and in the mood for a burger and a beer!!

It was a fantastic trek, and I'm very happy I did it. It was a great way to spend three days and really get a feel for Laos culture.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Laos first impression

I'm in my second country!!!
Yea, I made it to Laos! This country was the one I was most excited for, and now I'm here. Yippee!!

After crossing the border at Huay Xai into Laos, I hopped onto the slow boat from Huay Xai to Pak Beng to Luang Prabang. This slow boat traveled down the Mekong River from Huay Xai. The boat carried about 100 people and the first day we traveled for about 6 hours down the river through beautiful scenery. Lush mountain sides that were snaked through by the river, nice sandy beaches on the river, limestone like formations creating large sharp stark mountains. And the occasional Elephant, family having a picnic, or small village along the river. We stayed in Pak Beng that night (I split a room with 2 British girls, and we only paid $1.50 each!). The next morning the adventure down the river continued...for 8 more hours. Well this being the second day on a boat, we had to find ways to entertain ourselves, cards, silly games, reading, chatting, eating, drinking, and the best of all...watermelon bowling down the aisles!
The scenery continued to be amazing, but we finally arrived to the city of Luang Prabang at about 5 pm. This is the second biggest city in Laos, with a total population of 100,000. Yea! The total population of Laos is between 6 and 7 million only (San Diego has 1.3 million) In other words, Laos may big big on the map, but the population is few and far between.
This town was once colonized by the French during Laos' complicated and fairly recent history in world politics. So Luang Prabang has this leftover influence from the French, that makes for a really cool setting. French like architecture mixed with Laos architecture. Crepes being sold on the streets. Wine. Curbside cafes. Tucked maze-like alleyways. The signs have subtitles in French, and the Laos ladies address me as Madame.
What a nice little town. I planted myself there for about 5 days, and they floated by.
You could hike to the top of a hill in the middle of town that had a Wat and a great view of Luang Prabang below. You could see the Mekong and the other river Nam Rah, as well as the small city laid out before you. What a place for a sunset!
One of the days I challenged myself by taking a Laos cooking class. Now ask anybody that knows me, and I'm not like my Mom or Maija or my Grandma...I'm not a cook! I can do little things (I make a mean spaghetti and boiled egg, and prepare yourself for my expertly made microwave burrito), but this seemed like a good way to challenge myself.
So the Laos cooking class was all day. We started by taking a trip through the local market which is pretty large and offers everything from raw meat, to batteries, to 10 lb. bags of tobacco. We picked up vegetables, spices, and a few other ingredients. Once back at the school, we started by making the famous Luang Prabang salad which is based around their particular style of sauce, yummy! Okay I can make a salad, you can't burn that, you can't deform it too much...phew safe. But then I had to start cooking things :- /  I burnt the first dish, which if I remeber correctly was a meat and vegetable dish with noodles, those noodles got burnt in the wok. Oops. At least I was the only one who had to eat it. Then, we were shown how to make 5 traditional dishes, and then had to choose three to make ourselves.  So I moved on with a smile and made three dishes that turned out pretty darn well if I do say so myself. I made a fried eggplant, vegetable and pork dish. Also a chicken curry, and lastly another pork vegetable noodle dish. It was a fun day, and I enjoyed the other two people in the class. I'm very glad I did something different and something challenging, I liked it so much, I think I'll take a cooking class in each country I go to in Southeast Asia. The cuisine, and culture for that matter, is so different in all of them.

The next day I spent going to the waterfalls outside of town (a little more in my realm of familiarity). These were amazing sights to see. The waterfall park included a bear refugee, Laos having 2 of the 7 species of bear in the world. These bears were cute to watch playing around with eachother, smacking each other in the face and hanging around in hammocks- kinda reminded me of me and my brother. The I hiked up to the waterfalls. :-O Wow!!! The waterfalls were set in the Laos jungle and the color of the water was spectacular, a crystal clear blue that reminded me of the Caribbean. There was the main waterfall but also tons of smaller sets of falls up and down the river from that, some meant for swimming, others for gazing, and others had rope swings to jump into the water.  I hiked to the top of the waterfalls (which to compare were somewhat similar to Cedar falls in the shape) and was treated to a beautiful view of the valley and jungle. I was able track down a set of pools off the beaten track and had them all to myself to take a swim and read and enjoy the views. Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous.
Another enjoyable thing about Luang Prabang was the Hmong night market, seemingly endless rows of stands selling clothes, knick knacks, silver, and all sorts of other pretty things to feast your eyes on and get your inner-hippie going. At the end of the market was what I dubbed the food alley, and ate here every night. You walked down the crammed alley full of fried chicken and meat, questionably looking floating meat dishes, and a buffet. For 10,000 Kip (just over 1 USD) you buy a plate and get to put however much you can fit of the delicious Lao food and take a seat among people you don't know and have a feast!! I was happily in food heaven (especially since I knew how to make some of those dishes.)
I really really enjoyed Luang Prabang and won't feel guilty if I stop by there again for another couple of days ;-p


But, I've moved up north. I took a minibus from Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha. The ride here I just had to mark on my scale. I've created a scale while traveling that pertains to bus rides or other forms of transportation. Known as the "Sport Bra Worthiness" scale. It ranges from 1 being a nice smooth ride in a luxury like bus where you could practically sleep the entire time (and wear a regular bra) to 5 being you need a sports bra, don't bother eating before you go, better not have to pee, you'll bounce 6 inches out of your seat and sleep...well you shoulda done that before! For my 8 hour journey from Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha...it rated a 4.5 on the SBW scale. Laos doesn't put much money into their roads...

But I'm hear, and a little soarer in the tailbone for the worse, but not too bad. So off to explore some more...

Feel free to comment on the blog and say HI! I'd love to hear from people :-) Life is good. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The end of Thailand (for now...)

Well I've left the town of Mae Sot, and I was sad to see it go, especially the kids I grew so much to like in the past two weeks. I will miss that town. But I feel I left it in good hands because a new batch of teachers came in that will be staying for 2 months. I spent the last  couple of days wrapping things up and saying good bye to friends that I had met and spent time with in Mae Sot. 
Another reason for me leaving is that my Visa is up March 20th for Thailand...so I've got to boogy out of the country. And even though you may put the dots together and ask 'Why do you have to leave if you are on a border town with Burma?' Good question...well because of recent issues with the Thai and Burmese at this particular border town, as well as the elections in Burma, this border has been closed since July. 
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Mae Sot, and it reminds me to keep my ears open for more volunteer positions. I have found them to be the most rewarding memories and connections you make while traveling. Whether it is with the foreigners you meet doing similar things, or with the local people you interact with while trying to complete something.  
Me with one of my classes. :-)


So I head north on the twisty and windy roads toward Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son ( I know pronunciation is tough, but you get it while you are here) I went by sungtao, the name for a pickup truck with a fancy bench set-up in the bed of the truck. Well...at least they are good for some fresh air...and some rain to the face. 



On my way out of Mae Sot on an absolutely beautiful ride through the northern jungle and mountains of Thailand...it started to rain. I didn't know at the time that this would be the beginning of 4 days straight of rain...had I known, I would of, well I wouldn't of done anything...maybe bought a scarf!! BBrrrr....Cold for the first time in Thailand. I stopped after an awesome sungtao ride in Mae Sariang and stayed the night there. I was treated in luxury with delicious green curry with chicken, yummy coffee, the sounds of rain, red silk sheets (:-O gasp!) as well as a TV!!!!!!  
Out of all those things, let whichever you want amaze you or catch your interest...whether some yummy curry sounds good to you, or the red silky sheets sound sultry, or perhaps you are interested in what I watched on TV. If not, i'm going to tell you anyways, so get over it and read on !!
When flipping through the channels of Thai TV we were confronted with the following choices...
  • News about the unfortunate Japan earthquake (in Thai, so not as informative as you think)
  • Thai 'MTV' with the newest and greatest Thai-pop
  • Ten Things I Hate about you II  (yes there is a second one!)
  • Raising woodstock (questionable)
  • Australian hippie shows
  • A live video cam of random coffee shops (no acting no sound, just the video camera recording customers, and the occasional water spill or security gaurd)
  • And just when you thought there wasn't any more, the winner! A 24 hour LIVE video cam of a zoo PANDA!!!!! Yes the station shows 24/7 a video camera of a Panda. FYI since we watched some, Pandas don't do much at all but sleep sleep and walk around. Boring, but there is a TV channel showing it 24/7- only in Asia!!
From Mae Sariang, I headed to Mae Hong Son. I had run into one of my students from Mae Sot school at the bus station and we made the trip together. And yes, it was still raining. Mae Hong Son was a nice mountain town surrounding a small lake/pond with Burmese/Shan influence showing in their Wats (remember a Wat is a temple) I couldn't see much because it was torrentially downpouring all day, but Brad sent me some handy information about that particular town, sweet that he is. There are many hillside tribal communities around there, including the Longneck tribes. They are famous for their necks being abnormally long, it is because they were the coils on the neck and each year they add a coil, extending their neck even further. I had a girl in my school at Mae Sot who did this for part of her childhood and did have a longer than normal neck. I only spent a day there and moved on, in hopes of escaping the rain. 

Mae Hong Song and the lake. In the back Burmese Shan tribe temples


I moved onto Pai, the hippy village of the North. The town name is pronounced Pie or Pi and it is pretty hippy-ed out. By that I mean there are places to get dreadlocks done all around, people with dreads all around, hippy people, laid back atmosphere and full of things for foreigners to do when they cross long distances to be with other foreigners. An interesting place to walk around. But the real beauty was surrounding.I met a friend and we rented motorbikes (100 Baht for 24 hours (approx. 3 dollars- then add in gas)). First stop of the day was at  Mor Paeng waterfall a couple of kilometers outside of town.  A pleasant little waterfall that looked strickingly similar to Three Sisters in the San Diego county area near Julian. From there, after a strong (and possibly spiked) jug of coffee at this local hippy Thai place... we headed to a hillside Wat (temple) that overlooked the beautiful valley of Pai. An interesting thing that struck me is how brown the landscape is. Because it is March, and this month along with April and May are the Hot and dry seasons in most of SE Asia. There isn't the lush tropical forest you think of when you think of Asia...at least no this time of year. After the hillside temple, we headed to the Pai Hotsprings, but were met with a pleasant roadside surprise...ELEPHANTS!!! 
There was an elephant training camp or elephant refugee place on the road and right there were two amazing elephants, Mai and Po. I was able to touch the elephants and everything. They are amazing creatures when you get up close. Videos and seeing them from afar at the Zoo doesn't do these animals justice. Just remarkable really! Their skin so rough yet soft and their huge trunks you can hug. And they love to get their ears rubbed. I can't really describe it much better than I was jaw-dropped and lost track of time just looking and touching these animals. The day's (and possibly a trip) top so far! We continued on to the Pai Hot springs and enjoyed a soak in the pools for a $2.50 (i know you are jealous) . Finishing off the day riding around at sunset through the hills and valleys and rivers of the countryside and headed to Pai Canyon. A cool little scene for a beautiful sunset. 
I was QUITE the day indeed!!! 

Can you say Classy Red Scooter!?!

A pretty roadside cafe
Waxing never seemed so enticing


As of now, I'm on a break from the bus headed to Laos. By tomorrow morning (my time) I'll be in Laos, my second country of SouthEast Asia. Until then, life is definitely good.  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Min Ma Haw

Min Ma Haw, post-10 school for Burmese refugees. My school.

The homework question was...

"If you had a cap of invisibility (like the one from Perseus and Medusa greek mythology), what would you do and why?"

Well, I imagine if you were to ask any class of teenagers in the US or other countries what they would do, you'd receive answers like, sneek into the girls locker room to the showers. Or sneek out every night to party with my friends. Or break in to a bank and get rich.

Well if you had a cap of invisibility, what would you do?
I didn't have an answer, but was pretty stunned by the answers my students presented. My students who are 16-22...

When my Min Ma Haw students read their individual answers aloud to class this morning, the answers seemed to range in a similar style, but definitely differed.
Their answers included

- "Return to Burma and sneek into prison and free all the political prisoners"
   Recent counts on the amount of political prisoners range very high, and most are imprisoned for no reason at all. Others for being pro-democracy. Others for simply standing against the Junta. I believe this website is based here in Mae Sot, an association to help the thousands of political prisoners (http://www.fbppn.net/). I met a man last night who wrote a book I have, he was imprisoned for 17 years, many of those years spent in solitary confinement, and the others in torturous conditions.

- " I would return to Burma to see my girlfriend, even though she is in love with another man, I will go back because she is the love of my life and to steal her back and be with her"

- A handful of the young students said "They would sneak into the government/parliament and kill the head general of Burma and the members" in order to do the bad things to them that they've done to us.

- "I would sneak into a bank and rob it, and give the money to all the poor families"

- "I would travel around the world" These Burmese students have very few options of where they can go. They can't legally move around Mae Sot, a small city. If they are caught, even here in Mae Sot, they are sent back to Burma. The LAST PLACE in theworld they want to be. They can be in dangerous Burma, under risk of death, slavery, rape, beating, and fleeing, or they can stay here in Mae Sot. It is very unlikely these kids will see past Mae Sot in their life, unless Burma's regime ends.

- "I would go to the beach to see the sunset"  A novel concept, to someone who has never seen the beach.

There were other just as meaningul answers that kinda left me jaw-dropped. I couldn't believe that these kids, so young could have such a passion to change things, to do such good. I have a lot of respect for these kids,and hope that someday they can get their hands on such an 'invisibility cap' and do all the great things they want to...the world would be a better place.

---

Many of the issues are very hush hush in Mae Sot. Also, it is known that there are Burmese spies here looking for certain key individuals that have fleed and are attempting to start an uprising from Thailand. Don't worry people at home, foreigners are not in danger (including me- don't worry!) Everyday I meet somebody doing something interesting. A lot of NGO workers, or journalists, or aid workers are here. Yesterday I talked to a guy from Spain, a journalist staying here for 2 years. He is focusing on Burmese migrant workers and the horrible conditions they are put under because they are illegal.

I'm keeping my heart, ears, and eyes open still. I'm only sharing partsof everything that comes up, i know there is so much more but I can't rememberit all to write it down. I want to learn more. The situation is complicated and intricate, and what I learn here only seems to be a piece of the puzzle.

One of the most prominent helpers in Mae Sot- The Best Friend Library ( http://www.thebestfriend.org/ )

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Burmese

Hello again,

So i've migrated a lil west of where I was. I'm now located in Mae Sot, Thailand. If you look on the left hand side of the map, you'll see Mae Sot is located just on the Burma border, but still in Thailand. There isn't much Thailand about this town, actually the population is 70 % Burmese, and 20% Thailand,  and the 10 % I dunno, stray dogs. This border town is mainly a refugee for Burmese fleeing from the military ('junta') run country of Burma. Now I wasn't too aware of the Burmese conflict that has been going on for soemthing like 40 years now, just as I imagine most of Americans aren't aware of it. But the junta government has consistenly been abusing human and civil rights in their country. Killing Burmese in their own village, causing them to flee, guilty of murder, rape, and violation. It isn't a pretty picture, much like Colombia before or even the Egyptian and Tunisian affairs right now. A country on the brink of civil war. Well i'm not the most of current affairs, but i can tell you what I've seen here and what i've heard.


What that all means for Thailand is Refugees. Mae Sot alone has 2 very large refugee camps here. Full of Burmese tribal people forced to flee their country, but Thailand won't recognize many of their rights and they can't really leave the camp. The others that are here in Mae Sot, not in a refugee camp are here illegally. Strange thing is the Thai police know that 70% they are dealing with Burmese, and don't even speak Thai, but it is in a way 'accepted' just looked over. So what that creates is a very interesting town full of Burmese food, culture, and people. A more conservative culture than Thailand. 
That also means there needs to be education and some employement in places like factories. If they don't create some kind of situation for them, they end on the trashy sid eof things. Literally. A few days ago, I took a trip with a friend I have met here. We took a bike ride out to the 'Rubbage dump.' I've never been to a trash dump, only just seem from afar or saw in pics in school or on a news real. But this wasn't a news reel, when I arrived, I saw something quite shocking to say the least. Karen people, a tribe of Burma, are living in and around the rubbage dump. They live on top of, next to, or below the huge mountain of trash. Their reason, to collect plastic that gets disposed there. Once collected a Kilo of plastic, they can collect from the recycling plant 3 Baht ~ about 9 cents. 
Collecting trash. I've never seen so many flies in my life, or wanted to hurl at the smell. 
It was a sad sight to see and one of the more uncomfortably surreal things i've ever seen. I still haven't quite digested it. 

But in my attempts to help the situation here, I was able to track down a volunteer position. I'm volunteering for 2 weeks (as long as my visa will allow for now) at the MeeMaHaw Post 10 school for Burmese Refugees. I'm teaching English reading and grammar to a handful of kids. I've only just started this week, but I hope that somehow it will help this whole depressing situation. This is the foot in for a Burmese person being able to apply for a Thai University to continue studying English. This is an intensive preparation course for them. They are very sweet and always smiling. A large portion of them older than me, but still manage to be young at heart and easy to laugh. They make me smile and laugh too. Which I guess is all either of us can as for. I will certainly be a meaningful purpose. 

Not to mention, Mae Sot is full of volunteers and informative events and things on Burma and the situation. So in keeping my eyes, ears mind and heart open- maybe I"ll be able to grasp something on why things like this happen in the world.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Thai massage

I got my first Thai massage!!!

Woohooo. So I never really knew what the difference between a Thai massage and a regular body massage was, but it looked a little something like the above picture. Although they did a lot of things to me, I'm pretty sure it didn't make me turn into a cartoon character. But you never know.
A lot of Thai massage is based on cutting off circulation to a particular part of your body and then massaging it. For example your leg, if you cut it off near your hip, the feeling of the blood running through the limb again is a fun sensation. It also included a head massage and judo chopping my back. And one of the bigger suprises was when I realized this small Asian lady was standing on top of me!!! hahahaha took me a bit to realize, but man did it feel good.
The most Thai part of the whole massage was the ambiance. It was set to the background of a very loud TV blaring a Thai tv game show!! I guess I can't bargain for the price of 200 Baht (USD$ 6.50) for 1 hour. I was giggling inside most of the time at the funny situation. I think i'll have to try it again to see what happens next time.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What's a Wat?

What's a Wat?
You've heard of Angkor Wat? Comprable to Machu Pichu in Peru. Well a wat is a temple/temple area, and they seem to be everywhere. Thailand is sprinkled with historic ruins, more toward the north which is the direction i'm heading. The south is more pretty beaches. I left dizzy Bangkok after a couple of days, the heat was stiffling. I headed north by train to Ayathuya, the original capital city of Thailand. But this city was destroyed by Burmese invaders who sacked the city and stole all the heads off most of the Buddhas because they contained gold. But it left for a cool sight to see.


Wat in Ayathuya, the old capital of Thailand
 I met a friend, he was a British Italian guy and we biked around the the grounds. Thus creating a picture you can actually see me in...
I think it leans a little to the left, I like it!


I've been eating new foods as well. Granted because it is so hot and humid here, it really kills your appetite and normally I just crave something cool and soothing. These smoothie, slushie, cokes, water stands are everywhere and provide for a nice reprieve from the scorching sun. I've been pleasing my tastebud with delicious Phat Thai, egg rolls, noodle soup, balls of pork (not to be confused with the balls or testicles of a pork, I'm brave, but i dunno about that one!) and a bunch of other things that I didn't even know the name of. Also, while strolling through the large market, something caught my eye...

There was a bucket on the ground the size of a manhole cover, but the water was swishing around. At first I thought fish- common, logical. But then I got my face closer and to my surprise it was a bucket of about 50 eels!!!! One of my leaast favorite and the grossest animals , blehhhhH!!! Just ask brad about how I squirmed and gagged while at the Birch Aquarium eel exhibit ;-( But it got better. I looked up on the table and it looked like a 6th grade science project, about 5 frogs cut up the middle  showing their fine intestines, in case you interested in buying. Right next to them a large mesh bag full of live frogs squished together!! It was a jaw dropper, continuing down the line and seeing all the fish, shells, squid and shrimp- as many as you please. So when I say I've ate things I don't know the name of... as long as it isn't a frog or something. Although, gotta try everything once.... tbd


The Thai people have continued to be very friendly and helpful. And my budget has coincided with what I thought it would cost spending 15-20 a day if i've been moving around. And more towards 10 or less if I stay place. Much less than what it costs at home I gaurantee it!



I stayed in Ayathuya for a couple of days and practiced my Thai phrases and numbers with the guesthouse owner, Toi was his name. He was also a geography genius! For example (without using the internet or anything) if anybody can answer the following countries (w/o internet!) I will bring them back a souviener.
What 11 countries in the world have a name with only 4 letters.
I'll give you the first one
1. P e r u 2. _ _ _ _ 3. _ _ _ _  etc... etc... Hint: I didn't even get them all, how sad :-(

But after exchanging some Thai words, like 'Cheers' is pronounced 'CHOK DEE' and you have to look at the person in the eye. Also his friend should some magic tricks. It was a fun night.
The iconic Buddha head in the tree. Something I really wanted to see while here.

Today and yesterday I have moved much further north to the town of Sukothai. This town holds very important temples (wat s ) that are similar to the Khmer (Cambodian kingdom of the past) style of Angkor Wat. A English lady I met on the bus said that these temples are important because they were where the Thai people met long ago and started a new kingdom in order to push the Khmer rule out of Thailand and back to it's origin in Cambodia. These temples seemed very unique and were scattered throughout a forest.
I biked most of the day alone, exploring the nooks and crannys of the temples,  and then later met up with a German guy and a guy from Pakistan and we rode together. I'm sunburnt!!! The biking amounted to about 8 miles all day around temples, lakes, protective moats and forests. Beautiful scenery indeed.



The beautiful ruins of Sukothai




200 meters up to a Buddha statue in the forest. Overlooking Central Thailand <3



Today was an exhausting day riding around and walking the grounds so i'm off for a cold beer and some good food and goo d company, until then  my friends. Thanks for reading!!! The Good life.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Thailand, the land of many smiles

Why, helllllooooo!!!!

Welcome to Bangkok ladies and gents. First things first, it is freakin hot and muggy. Eewww. Secondly, I have no idea what day it is. I could probably figure it out, but that would require intensive thinking and math skills, and also I'm not sure I want to know what day it is, it is nice being out of touch.
I left LAX at 1 pm on Thursday after saying my goodbyes, packing the bag which is quite small might I add, and cutting my hair. I flew 14 or 15 hours to Taipei Taiwan ont his jumbo of a jet, two floors! I've never been on a plane like that. Also picked up some local language via the interactive t.v. they had, a cool 'learn the language' feature for any country you wanted. Learning even bits and phrases of Thai is much harder than Spanish, mostly due to the different sound and tonal use. I expected myself to just be able to pick it up in a snap, but haven't yet. But also, i've only been here 2 days, maybe I should give myself some time, you think?
So I slept in the airport in Taiwan from 10pm-6am (their time) and then hopped on my flight at 7 am to Bangkok, arriving conveneintly at 10 am.
Anyways after finding this little guesthouse in the hip and touristy section of Bangkok (which includes Khao San road) for 170 Baht/night (approx 6 dollars a night) for a single with a fan! (oohh lala~ trust me, that fan is a NECESSITY).
I walked around a bit, got lost a bit, rested a bit, ate a bit etc...
I also found the famous backpacking/tourist hub of Southeast Asia....Khao San Road. Located in the old town of Bangkok, it is a pedestrian only street lined with hostels/hotels, knickknack shops, scam artists, american music and lots and lots of tourists. Too many. It is a bit comforting if that is what I'm looking for, but it is a bit overwhelming at the same time. So I'm finding a happy mix between Thai life and touristy life, both which are prevelant here in Bangkok.

Yesterday was spent mostly walking the streets, meeting people from random places (like Alabama, and France) drinking some local beer (Tiger beer!) munching down the street food getting a foot massage on the street (100 baht for 1/2 hour- approx 3 dollars) and catching up on sleep .

Today I did a few more productive things, while still touristy, very much amazing!
I took the river ferry to visit the Grand Palace of Bangkok. This was the previous royal home where 'his majesty' and the administration offices for the Kingdom were. But now it is just an attraction and administration offices (no hopes of seeing the King there) Below is a pic from the internet as I haven't uploaded any of my pics yet (Hold your breath for those...)

Aerial view








Me at the Grand Palace in Bangkok!!
 This is a sample picture. Pretty freakin epic. Every face of each building is covered in some sort of gem, glass, porcelain decoration. It was a bright shiny and amazing sight. Filled with all kinds of buildings, buddha statues, and the great Emerald Buddha. I went in the palace not knowing much, so i'm going to read up on teh place so I know the meaning of everything I saw today.


I also went and saw the Reclining Buddha (Oh by the way there are Buddhas everywhere!!) This is part of the largest and oldest wat (temple) in Bangkok (dated back to 17th century) and includes a 49 meter (150 foot long) Buddha lying on his side plaited in gold. Most of the temples have statues plated in gold. 



.
I walked and tuk-tuk ed (motorcycle/taxi vehicle) my way around some more. Thailand is known as the land of smiles, and I'd say it is fitting as the people smile quite a bit and are friendly and willing to help. Although you do have to keep your gaurd up so you don't get scammed into buying something you don't want or didn't ask for.
I will change and add pictures once I get a chance.
But to rap it up, I'm doing great and exploring and sweating my buns off!
My love to all at home :-) 4 months may seem a long way away...but I'll see you soon