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Saying goodbye to Chiang Mai

Posted by Ted on Dec 16, 2010 in Travel, Vagabonding

Mid-afternoon on November 13th, we arrived in Chiang Mai intending to stay for just a week, ostensibly so that Liz could take a massage class and we could be in town for the Loi Krathong festival. In fact, we had already purchased train tickets to Bangkok for the 22nd and plane tickets to Hanoi for the 23rd with plans to explore Vietnam. Five weeks later, we are still here, having received a 50% refund for the train tickets, and our airline seats left without us.

Needing a break from harrowing adventures and moving around every few days, we quickly found ourselves at home in Chiang Mai. It’s a very easy city, offering great food and lodging at all price points. There is a plethora of activities to choose from, such as massage and cooking classes, yoga, elephant riding and training, interacting with tigers, and both on- and off-road cycling. Street food costs less than $3 for two people, and an hour-long Thai massage can be had for only $4. The city is relatively small and easily navigable, and transport across town costs between $1 and $5. Its central location makes a great home base for exploring all of mainland Southeast Asia. Despite a large population of both transient and long-term foreigners, it retains its character, a modern Thai city with deep Lanna roots. It’s no surprise why it has moved up to the #2 spot in Travel & Leisure’s “Top 10 Cities” list (behind Bangkok).

Liz’ planned one week introduction to Thai massage at ITM turned into two, receiving her certification. After a week’s break, she continued her studies for two more weeks, delving deeper into body alignment and mechanics at RSM. I took a cooking class, explored south of Chiang Mai on a bicycle tour, and went on an overnight mountain biking trip along the Mae Taeng river valley. We played with tigers, spent two nights visiting Pai, and did two visa runs to Burma. I’ve had weekly straight-razor shaves, and we’ve both enjoyed many hours of massage.

We have met some exceptional people during our stay here. We’ve met ITM students from South Africa, Russia, Bulgaria, Italy, and Japan. Our home-away-from-home, WaLai House, has its own community, expanding outwards from the two proprietresses. We had a Thanksgiving party, and several nighttime outings spent dancing the night away to reggae and hip-hop. We’ve been blessed to become a part of Team Chiang Mai, a group of folks living in or just passing through the area. I’ve met two more Vagabonding Case Studies in person; Bessie & Kyle, and Inderjeet. We had dinner with the extraordinary archivist, Victoria Vorreiter, whom I had the pleasure of meeting earlier this summer.

Not surprisingly, food has been a highlight of our stay here. Noodle dishes such as Pad Thai are light years beyond what we’ve had in the U.S., and a new favorite is Pad Si Ew. Chiang Mai has its signature soup, Khao Soi. Of course there is also fried chicken, fried spring rolls, and pork balls. Fruit shakes (cantaloupe or honeydew and coconut being the best) and fresh guava, jackfruit, and mangosteen. And I could not forget my rotee addiction.

As you can see, there’s a lot to love about Chiang Mai. We already look forward to returning.

In half an hour, our first RTW will come to an end. A taxi will arrive to take us to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. Then we have a flight to New York, via Korea. Flying east across the dateline, we gain back the day we lost three months ago, and we arrive at JFK twenty minutes before we leave Seoul tomorrow morning. Tonight will be a very. long. night.

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Looking forward

Posted by Ted on Dec 11, 2010 in Travel, Vagabonding

As I write this, we are somewhere between Mae Sai and Chiang Mai, having just renewed our Thai visas at the Burmese border again. This time we took the “Green Bus” in much more comfort than the minivan two weeks ago, and without the enforced shopping stops. Wasting another day with a visa run when we have only 5 days left before we fly home to the U.S. seems a bit silly, but it saves us over $100 in overstay fines. At least this time we had long enough to sit down and have some tea-leaf salad for lunch.

It’s almost hard to believe that we left home 80 days ago. Time being relative, it feels both forever ago that we were relaxing in our daybed on Gili Air, and just recently that we took a longtail boat through a cave in Kong Lor. Our feet have touched the ground on 6 countries, and we have slept in 18 towns. We’ve seen and missed so much, barely scratching the surface of these places we’ve visited. One thing is for sure – we will be coming back to Southeast Asia.

With our trip winding down, knowing that a week from now we will have traded hot and humid for the cold and dry of New York in winter, I find myself reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future. I already know some of the things that I will miss when we leave, such as;

  1. Street food – The U.S. doesn’t know what it’s missing. There is so much more that could exist than hot dog carts and taco trucks. Whether koay teow in Penang, khao soi in Chiang Mai, or papaya salad in Thakhek, I will miss the plethora of food that can be found at simple street stalls.
  2. Freedom – For a country founded on the concept of freedom, the U.S. feels restrictive in some ways, going out of its way to protect people against themselves. Street food, open-back songtheaws, launching flaming paper lanterns into the sky, and playing with tigers are all things that one regulation or another wouldn’t allow.
  3. Cheap – Airfares aside, it is a financial win to be here over living in San Francisco where monthly expenses are in excess of $2000. Our average night’s lodging has been about $9. A cheap meal is less than $3, a splurge less than $20. We can rent a motorbike for $5/day, and a hired trip across town costs between $2 and $10.
  4. Unbridled Exploration – Every day offers an opportunity to experience a new facet of a foreign land, to connect with people who speak a foreign tongue, and to solve simple problems in entirely foreign contexts. Of course, one can discover new things in their own backyard as well, and therein lies the challenge when returning home with a fresh perspective.

For all of the excitement found in exploring new places, meeting fellow travelers, and appreciating a different way of living, there is plenty to look forward to in returning home;

  1. Family and friends – Unlike adventurers of even the recent past, we have managed to stay in contact with those we care about through Email, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype. In some sense, we have brought everyone along with us, which has helped sustain us during hard days. However, nothing virtual can replace hugs and laughter shared together.
  2. Home – By the time we return to Oakland just before New Years, it will have been four and a half months since we slept in our own bed with our three cats vying for space around us. It will also be nice to have a larger clothing selection than 4 pairs of underwear, 2 pairs of shorts, and 4 shirts.
  3. Cooking – Cheap street food has been great, but we miss going to the market and making our own food. Thankfully, we now have some new favorite dishes to try and recreate.

They say that all good things must come to an end. In so doing, they retain their specialness, set apart from the mundane and ordinary. Like night and day or good and evil, the normal and the exceptional serve to counterbalance one another, highlighting the inherent value of both.

When you travel, what differences do you appreciate? What comforts of home do you look forward to returning to?

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5

Our 15 Minutes in Burma

Posted by Ted on Dec 1, 2010 in Travel, Vagabonding

Failing to arrange a 60-day Thai visa in either Malaysia or Laos, opting to save money by taking buses from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai instead of flying (which would have provided us with extendable 30-day visas), and intending to stay in Thailand for several weeks meant that our visas would run out before we planned to leave the country.

With one day left on our visas, this meant that we needed to make what is affectionately called a “visa run“, or risk overstaying our visa and paying fines of $34/day. A straightforward process, it simply means traveling to a nearby country for a very short time in order to officially leave and then re-enter the desired country, resetting the visa clock. We traveled almost 15 hours in order to spend less than 15 minutes in Burma.

Rather than take the bus, we joined a tour by minivan that just happened to include a stop at Mae Sai, the Thai town across the river from Tachileik, Burma. Theoretically, for minimal additional expense, we would be picked up, travel in a more comfortable ride, with A/C, lunch, and a few tourist sights along the way. What we also found was confirmation that we really aren’t the packaged tour types of travelers, to no surprise.

Our first stop was the underwhelming Mae Kha Chan, a hot spring in the middle of a truck stop, surrounded by shops. Whether the geyser – constantly erupting – was natural or not is unclear, but the attraction are a couple of small pools where you can hard boil eggs. Buses and minivans arrived by the score, unloading tourists, which would set the theme for the day.

An hour later, we rolled into Wat Rong Khun, one of the most beautiful and creepy temples I’ve ever seen. Construction began in 1997, and while the structures are finished, the intricately hand-carved detailwork is ongoing. The entrance to the temple complex is guarded by red demons denouncing the earthly vices of smoking and drinking. The outside of the main assembly hall is blindingly white and covered in mirrors which are all cut and placed individually by hand in the nearby workshop, and the inside walls are covered in paintings. One enters the back wall through the mouth of a demon with flaming red eyes, the image of George Bush in the right, and Osama bin Laden in the left. The demon is surrounded by a crazy mix of modernity like spaceships, digital watches, and false idols such as Spiderman, Batman, Superman, and Keanu Reaves. The side walls have people fleeing on clouds towards the front wall of Buddha and enlightenment.

Our next attraction was Sop Ruak, where “the thousands of square miles of the opium growing region [the Golden Triangle] has been distilled down to a single point.” Once again, this was simply another stop on the tour and mini bus circuit, offering some semblance of interest wrapped in a neat little package. The highlights are getting one’s picture taken in front of a sign, and taking a longtail boat to the Laotian island of Don Sao, which doesn’t require a visa and offers duty free shopping.

Lunch was at a roadside buffet offering “international cuisine” such as chicken ala king, sweet & sour fish, pork & “sauerkraut”, and Burmese chicken & rice. We talked with our vanmates, including two Americans from Las Vegas who say they never eat street food.

Finally, we reached Mae Sai, yet another tourist shopping mecca. However, our goal was to cross over into Burma. Our tour guide escorted us through immigration control, as we were stamped out of thailand, walked across the bridge, and then stamped into Burma. Our passports held at the border, we spent 10 minutes walking down through the Burmese market, being offered cases of cigarettes, Saddam Hussein playing cards, knockoff phones, and copied DVDs. We turned around, retrieved our passports, walked back across the bridge, and got another 15-days in Thailand.

Our return trip to Chiang Mai had just one stop, an “Akha hill tribe village“. Once again, a parade of minivans pulled in to give tourists the chance to .. yes, you guessed it, shop. A half dozen stalls with women in traditional dress selling hats, bags, and jewelry. Sure, these were Akha women, living in a village, and they were selling handmade gifts. However, the village itself was across a small footbridge, blocked to outsiders. One can’t blame them for not wanting random farang walking through their homestead, but I’d hardly call the experience worthwhile.

We arrived back at our guest house three harrowing hours later, as the driver went very fast over twisty roads, in our minivan with crap suspension. We got what we had wanted out of the trip – our visas extended for another 15 days – as well as a glimpse into the life of a package tourist. This was both confusing and enlightening, wondering what our vanmates got out of the experience, and what kind of a cultural introduction such a tour really offers. It served as confirmation that we prefer to explore the world on our own. We might miss some sights – we would never have seen the creepy temple otherwise – but what we do see, and who we meet along the way, feels much more organic and natural.

What are your experiences of guided tours? Do you find them worthwhile? Disappointing? Enriching? Did you find a hidden gem, or just pitstops on the tourist circuit?

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A comfortable break in Singapore

Posted by Ted on Oct 22, 2010 in Travel, Vagabonding

After two weeks on Gili Air, you might not think that the world’s fourth largest financial center and busiest shipping container port is a place to relax, but Singapore was a very comfortable place to re-acquaint ourselves with modern society. An island country city-state of over 5 million people within 274 square miles, it has all of the advantages of a big city without the frenetic feel of other Southeast Asian metropolises such as Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh, Jakarta, and Bangkok.

While our last weeks on a small island in Indonesia were certainly paradise, we were already beginning to look forward to some modern conveniences such as fresh (not  brackish) water, indoor plumbing, hard (not sand) sidewalks, and more choices for food than mie goreng, nasi goreng, and gado gado. Neither overbearing nor aloof, Singapore provided all of these things, and then some.

The cleanliness of the city is legendary, so of course it was one of the first things I looked for. As we rode the MTR train from Changi airport to Bugis station, I looked out on the streets below and was amazed by the lack of trash. While one could see the occasional discarded wrapper or food container, it really was the exception rather than the norm. A game of “spot the litter” revealed maybe a dozen or two items during the 15 kilometer ride. This initial impression was only confirmed as we walked across the city over the next several days.

We had made reservations at the InnCrowd hostel in Little India, and while sufficient, confirmed for us that we really don’t prefer dorm lodging. However, the location allowed us to enjoy our first Indian food on the peninsula, and to get a taste of what the streets of Chennai might be like. The streets were alight with Deepavali celebrations. While India was not on our short list of places to visit before, it sure is now. We had the best Mushroom Masala Dosai at a place called Madras Woodlands.

During our previous few weeks in Indonesia, we had been compiling a shopping list, mostly of toiletries, that we needed to stock up on in Singapore. Most of the items were easily found, oddly, save Imodium or equivalent. Apparently, the anti-diarrheal of choice is simply activated charcoal tablets. The other very important todo item was getting my camera cleaned. I had noticed when taking photos that spots were appearing on every picture, regardless of lens. So early in the trip, this was unacceptable. Thankfully, I tracked down the Camera Hospital, conveniently only a few blocks from the hostel, and open on weekends.

Another modern convenience we enjoyed was watching a movie in a theatre, taking advantage of A/C in the middle of a hot day. While the evil villain’s raison d’ĂȘtre was somewhat ludicrous, Reign of Assassins was a thoroughly enjoyable movie, with excellent martial arts, an intricate plot, and a warm love story. While in Chinatown, we also sampled the food at a “hawker centre“, like a food court, which exist throughout the Malaysian peninsula, but the best was experience was snacking our way down the Chinatown Food Street one night. We also tried a durian pancake – not bad!

All in all, our three day stay in Singapore was a welcome re-introduction into modern society. However, it totally blew away our daily budget, and so we moved onwards and northwards into Malaysia.

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What’s in your money belt?

Posted by Ted on Sep 19, 2010 in Travel, Vagabonding

At T-1, we’re one day and 13 hours from leaving everything behind us except what fits in our two 35L backpacks, a camera bag, and a satchel.

Because of our self-imposed domestic homelessness for the past month, we’ve been moving bits of our stuff around the Bay Area for much of that time. “Recreational moving” to the extreme. On the one hand, not living in our home while still in our home town has been a bit surreal, having to schedule visits to see our stuff and our cats. On the other hand, it has afforded us a gentle shift in adapting to a more nomadic lifestyle, such that leaving in just over a day feels no sense of apprehension. In fact, the thing that I am most looking forward to at the moment is sitting in seat 41K on Korean Air flight #24 with nothing on a todo list. However, I’m sure the elation of being in that seat will wear off a few hours in to our 19 hour trip from San Francisco to Bangkok, via Seoul.

Now that the last mail orders of clothing and gear have arrived, the packing begins in earnest. Replacing my iPhone as my closest guarded possession for the next three months, my money pouch now holds;

  • My passport, which will have many more stamps before returning home to New York for Christmas
  • My travel wallet, which contains;
    • Bank card
    • VISA credit card – zero balance, low interest rate and credit limit
    • PADI certificate card
    • DAN insurance card, which covers both diving and non-diving accidents
    • Red Cross blood donor card, conveniently displaying my blood type
    • California drivers license
    • Spare passport photo
    • Couple of business cards
    • 541 US Dollars
    • 95 Euros
    • 2550 Thai Baht

While the pouch will be kept close to me, I have no love for it, especially in hot climates. Whether worn around the neck or one’s waist, money belts are often in the way and are excellent collectors of sweat. What do you carry in your money pouch when you travel? What kind of pouch or belt do you use?

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