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?



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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Celebrating Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai

Posted by Ted on Nov 24, 2010 in Events, Travel

Imagine yourself sitting in a field in northern Thailand, your eyes closed, mesmerized by the chanting of Buddhist monks, followed by the calm contemplation of a guided meditation, effective even in a language you do not understand. You open your eyes to find you are surrounded by other celebrants as three thousand waist-high torches are lit. You unfurl a bell-shaped paper lantern, about 3 feet wide by 5 feet high, and hold it above the torch nearest you to light a waxed ring of wick. The lantern fills with hot air, expanding as it fills with dark grey smoke, becoming lighter in your hands. A gong sounds, everyone lets go, and thousands of lanterns rise into the night sky at once.

This is what you would have experienced if you were at the Tu Dong Ka Sathaan Lanna Buddhist meditation center this past Saturday night. About 15km north of Chiang Mai, next to Mae Jo University, this is the most spiritual and awe-inspiring event of the yearly Loi Krathong festival that is typically observed around the full moon in November. When we first started planning our Southeast Asian Adventure, this was one of only two “must-dos” on my list. Culminating in this past full moon weekend, lanterns in the sky and the sounds of fireworks have been a nightly presence since we arrived a week ago. The gates and the moat around the Old City have had displays of hanging lanterns, dragons, and elephants all month. The Thais take their 700 year old festival seriously. Seriously crazy perhaps, but serious nonetheless.

Somewhat confusingly, there are actually two festivals that just happen to be celebrated at the same time. “Yi Peng” is a Lanna festival that is held on the 2nd month of the Lanna calendar (and in fact translates as such), and the khom loi, (“floating lanterns”) are technically part of that tradition. Floating on water rather than in the air, a krathong is made from a section of banana tree trunk, or bread, and is decorated with elaborately-folded banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks, which is then set adrift in a river or pond. Legend has it that the festival was adapted by Buddhists in Thailand as a ceremony to honour the original Buddha with light during the growing darkness of winter. It is also said that Noppamas, a consort of the Sukothai king Loethai in the 14th century, was the first to decorate the floating raft.

We made ours on Sunday, the night of the full moon, when Chiang Mai was at the peak of its celebratory craziness. We parked our rented motorbike next to the Nakorn Bridge, on the Mae Ping river, conveniently in front of a sidewalk krathong-making workshop hosted by Lanna Commercial College. We then walked down some nearby steps to the riverbank where hundreds of people were spread out, launching krathongs, khom loi, and otherwise sitting and taking in the sights and sounds of the festival. We joined them, watching a steady stream of krathongs in the water, some very ornate, and others very simple – just a single flower and a candle in a curve of banana stalk. A man stood waist-deep in the river, shepherding the floats along, pushing them into the current if they got stuck at shore, or relighting extinguished candles. We launched a couple of sky lanterns into the night sky to join the migration overhead, and then we released our krathongs into the river with a thought and a prayer.

We moved on, walking down the closed street next to the Warowot Market, towards Tha Pae Road. When we reached the Nawarat Bridge, we found ourselves in the middle of the action as fireworks and khom loi leapt into the sky all around us, and the police were clearing the center of the streets for the oncoming parade. We watched the slow procession of floats and marchers for a time, and then grabbed some street food and settled down in a small park to eat and rest. I laid my head in Liz’ lap and watched the constant stream of golden lanterns arching into the night like spirits, revealing wind patterns as they rose, first moving south until reaching a higher altitude and switching directions to the north. The khom loi were ever-changing constellations, replacing the stars obscured by an overcast sky. Darkened lanterns tumbled downwards, their fuel spent, littering the city with the remnants of released wishes.

Ironically, the festival is believed to originate in an ancient practice of paying respect to the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha. Between dead lanterns, krathongs held together with nails, and the multitude of fireworks set off along the banks and bridges of the Mae Ping, one wonders what the goddess would think of these respects. One thing is for sure, a festival of this sort would never happen in the United States. Open flames in paper lanterns being released all over a city and fireworks being set off in and over large crowds would be a municipal fire department’s worst nightmare.

On Monday, the last night of the festival, we got a late start due to a miscommunication. After 11p, we caught a tuk-tuk down to the Tha Pae gate and walked towards the bridge, the streets already reopened to traffic. The party was clearly winding down, but people were still lighting lanterns and fireworks. One of the symbolic acts of floating away the lit candles of krathongs and khom loi is letting go of all one’s grudges, anger and baggage. I bought a sky lantern, and embracing that spirit, launched it with the following vow, “I hereby release all of the shit that isn’t mine anymore.” The other symbolic act is one of wishing for good luck and a positive future, for which Liz took care of with a second lantern.

With that sense of completion, we went home, looking forward to returning to Chiang Mai again during a future full moon in November.

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Putting your trust in the man with the knife at your throat

Posted by Ted on Nov 17, 2010 in Activities, Travel

If you’ve been following along my Facebook and Twitter updates, you’ll know that we are now in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We arrived on Saturday afternoon, having taken 20 hours of buses from Luang Prabang in Laos. Initially planning on a week, we’ll be here for at least two while Liz takes Thai Massage classes at ITM, just around the corner from our guesthouse, WaLai House.

Showing up last minute, the cheaper fan-only rooms are booked until tomorrow, so we’ve been in a slightly more luxurious AC-room. While we haven’t used the under-powered air conditioning much, another feature of the room is a TV and DVD player which we’ve taken advantage of a few times in order to relax and watch movies. The last movie we watched was Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp. Somehow avoiding this Sondheim musical until now, the story, while somewhat predictable, was new to both of us. Unsurprisingly, this Tim Burton version is particularly dark and gruesome.

Despite that fact (or perhaps in some twisted way because of it) I decided it might be an interesting experience to find a capable barber in order to get my own close shave. Part of yesterday’s afternoon involved not only a one hour back massage for 130 Baht ($4.33), but walking into half a dozen shops in the area asking if any of them did shaves. Obviously, this is a separate skillset than the cutting and trimming of the hair atop one’s head. I was finally pointed down a street to the one guy who does. Today I paid him a visit.

A small shop with sliding glass doors, the barber was resting on a couch, wearing a colorful Tibetan shirt. He was quick to stand up, and upon me making a shaving motion with a questioning look, he waved me to the chair. I sat down as he covered me in a sheet and adjusted the head rest. I watched as he opened a fresh blade, broke it in half, and slid it into his razor. Then he lowered the head rest. As I kept my eyes closed for most of the procedure, I have only sound and sensation to recount. At first, I felt the cool wipe of an alcohol-based cleaning of my face, followed by the tender application of the barest minimum of shaving cream, massaged into my beard. I opened my eyes to see the hinged razor moving towards me.

He started with my sideburns and cheeks, and the first thing I noticed was how rough it felt, and how scratchy it sounded, as if it were a completely dry shave. I breathed calmly. He worked efficiently, moving around my face, to my lips and chin. I felt a pulling sensation, and what seemed like the hard edge of the razor, but trusted in his experience. Then he brought the blade to my throat.

With the same efficiency of motion, he worked across my neck, pulling the skin slightly taut as needed. I remained as still and calm as possible, taking care not to swallow when he was working around my Adam’s apple. With short order, he finished the longer initial strokes and moved on to touch-up work, his tender fingers caressing my skin finding missed spots. He laid down his blade, and trimmed my nose hairs with a pair of fine scissors before laying a cool washcloth over my face. Preparing for the experience to be over, I was then surprised as he gave me a head and shoulder massage.

I opened my eyes and looked in the mirror, and a new me stared back. The man with the knife had been gentle and efficient, carving away my goatee and weeks of stubble, complete with a relaxing release of stress. All for less than $1.

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The Kong Lor Loop of Laos

Posted by Ted on Nov 4, 2010 in Outdoors, Travel

On the great Mekong River, 337 kilometers southeast of Vientiane, is the town of Thakhek. Decently sized by Laotian standards, it still has a fairly relaxed vibe and a riverfront strewn with restaurants and food carts offering a sunset view over Thailand. It is also a convenient starting point for The Kong Lor Loop,
a two to four day journey by motorbike through a dramatic karst landscape in order to take a small longtail boat underneath an immense limestone mountain.

The secret to this trip is revealed in a hand-drawn photo-copied map by Mr. Ku, whose one-room office is conveniently adjacent to the Thakhek Travel Lodge, a reasonably-priced guest house which features hard beds (the norm throughout Laos), excellent laap, and a bonfire every night. Mr. Ku will also rent you a motorbike for 100,000 kip per day, taking your passport as collateral.

The suggested route is counter-clockwise, and it is strongly advised that you always get an early 8a start to the day’s ride. Starting at 1p on our first day, we decided to reverse the directions by taking the main higher-speed road in order to cover the 186km to Ban Kong Lor, the village after which the cave is named, before sunset. Perhaps if we had not stopped to have our breath taken away by the spectacular grandeur of the Phu Hin Bun National Protected Area, we might have succeeded. As it was, we discovered the hard way that my bike did not have working head or tail lights.

Arriving after dark, the serene beauty of Kong Lor wasn’t revealed to us until the next morning when we awoke to water buffalos grazing in rice fields, framed by jagged limestone peaks. After a leisurely breakfast, we rode the 1km to the end of the road, paid the minimal park and parking fees, and happened upon a woman sitting at the gate reading a book. Her name was Katie, from Adelaide, and she was waiting for two other people to share the cost of one of the 3-seater boats through the cave. Finding it fortuitous that we all needed each other, we set off together to rent headlamps and hire a boat for 130,000 kip – about $16.

We walked into the small mouth of a cave which immediately opened up into a big cavern, and made our way over a soft clay floor to a waiting long-tail boat at the water’s edge. 20 feet long and 3 feet wide, with a small engine connected to an 8-foot long propeller, these craft ferry travelers the 7.5km through the pitch black subterranean tunnel and back. Riding just 6 inches above the surface of the water, we skimmed out into the river and headed upstream. The only lights were from our headlamps shining circles on the walls and ceiling like scanning floodlights against a night sky. The only sound was of the water rushing past and the loud engine, without which we would be stranded beneath a mountain like Gollum.

As we wound through the serpentine cave, our mouths were agape in awe. Generally about 200 feet wide, the tunnel’s ceiling varied between 10 and 100 feet above our heads. Then we would turn a corner and enter into a cavern that would reach 300 feet high, and all sense of significance was lost. We were but the smallest creatures in a gargantuan underground cavern. This happened over and over again as we navigated the river. After about 2km, we pulled to the shore in a large section with lights illuminating a particularly impressive series of stalactites and stalagmites. Surrounded by strange shapes in a dusty grey moon-like landscape, we felt as if we had stepped onto the set of a sci if movie.

We returned to the boat and snaked our way upstream, passing through more caverns and occasionally having to get out in order for the boatmen to push the craft through shallows. We finally exited into blinding daylight, finding ourselves in a lush green wilderness, surrounded by majestic peaks. We spent some time on shore walking to a nearby village before returning to the boat for our trip back through the cave. Heading downstream this time, we sped through the twisty tunnel without stopping. At one point we stopped to add more gas to the engine, and I relished the quiet moment, listening to the water echoing in the cave, wishing that we could have turned off our headlamps, just for a minute, to experience the cavern in its lightless natural state.

When we returned to Kong Lor, we shared a quick lunch before saying goodbye to our new friend and heading out again, aiming to make Kuon Kham before sunset, not only racing sunlight but dwindling fuel tanks. Arriving on fumes, we found a gas station and a nearby guest house to crash for the night. The next morning we set out early towards Lak Sao, 58km to the east, knowing that the day’s ride would be a hard one. The wind blew with fierce determination, causing us to stop several times just to gather our nerves. We had intended to hit the ATM to replenish our supply of kip, but neglected to take into consideration that it was a Saturday, and the one bank in town was closed. Thankfully, we had enough for lunch and our guest houses were happy to be paid in Thai Baht. Then we turned south, and that’s when the five hours of stressful riding really began.

The “road” from Lak Sao to Thalang is 62km of harrowing white-knuckled excitement. The first half is rutted uneven dirt and rocks. The second half was more flat and even, but composed of loose gravel. We could not tell you anything about the scenery, for navigating the road on motorbikes in 2nd gear required every iota of concentration that we had. Thankfully, we arrived in Thalang just before sunset. There’s a reason that the suggested route is counter-clockwise – it puts this section of road squarely in the early morning. Had the sun won the day’s race, we would have camped out by the side of the road rather than continue on in darkness. We found a guest house, and as we relaxed by the after-dinner bonfire, sharing bottles of Beer Lao with another couple taking The Loop, who should arrive but Katie, having made her own way by walking and hitchhiking.

Our last day began early again, parting ways shortly after breakfast. The road south of Thalang offered no respite, the gravel finer and only slightly less loose. Stopping in Nakai for lunch, we ran into Katie again by the side of the road on the south side of town, our game of leap-frog providing a moment of levity in the otherwise stressful second day of hard riding. We did not see paved road until many kilometers later, shortly before we turned west towards Thakhek. We relished in being able to use 4th gear again. 30km from the end of our adventure, we stopped to take a short break. That’s when Liz’ motorbike failed to start.

Neither the electric starter nor the kickstart brought the bike to life. We wheeled the bike into the nearest small village looking for a mechanic, but there were no one but children. We stashed the bike off the road, and continued on. The first shop we found was closed, being Sunday. 6km further, we found a mechanic relaxing with his family. With no common language, we played a game of charades, using the working bike to convey that the failing bike had gas, and we’d tried both methods of starting it. He pointed to the spark plug, and we simply shrugged. He grabbed a new one and a couple of tools, then followed us back down the road. Within 2 minutes, he replaced a worn black spark plug with a shiny new one, and the bike purred back to life. For this emergency out-call service, he asked for just 20,000 kip – about $2.50.

Finally on our way, with just an hour before sunset, we were rewarded with the most spectacular scenery yet. These last few kilometers east of Thakhek took us through a range of karsts, a deep orange-red sun playing peekaboo among the vertical cliffs. Tears of joy and sacred awe fell beneath my visor. Sadly, I was too frazzled and worried about the dwindling daylight to stop and capture the magnificent beauty with my camera. We made it into town before dark, and a mere 20 yards from the Travel Lodge that we had left 3 days earlier, we saw a familiar traveler walking down the road. By separate means, we and Katie had managed to travel the same route in the same time, each with our own stories to tell.

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