Thursday, November 1, 2007
You may wonder, if it was so hard for me to leave, then why did I? Multiple reasons. Among them, the most important being that I wanted to make it back in time to see my sister who is visiting from her current home in the Cayman Islands. We’ve actually been living on exact opposite sides of the world (when it is noon for her, it was midnight for me) for the last half of the year, and I have not been able to see her for over a year since I had just arrived in Asia on her previous visit. If I didn’t get home quick, it wouldn’t be until her next return in June that my whole family could be together again. In this case, I would probably end up visiting her in the Caymans, but it is not the same as having all five of us under the same roof.
Additionally, a part of me felt like I was ready to move on from S.E. Asia. I successfully experienced everything I had hoped for—teaching, volunteering, traveling, and a whole lot of learning. I am very ready to work (and be paid) again, and I am eager to see other parts of the world. The next destination on my list is South America where I hope to study salsa dancing and Spanish, and find a job that involves tackling local issues and helping the local community. The timing was also optimal as I would hate to miss the holiday season at home. I may have missed my birthday, my graduation, and Sea-fair; but now I get to have Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years!
As most of you probably know, I told almost no one of my return home. Partially because I didn’t really believe it was going to happen until I forced myself to buy the ticket 3 days before my departure. Even then, it didn’t hit me until the airplane took off. Also, I recognized that the absence of any clue of a “return date” is very rare and I may never again have the opportunity to surprise (I just love surprises!) so many people at one time. I couldn’t wait to see the shocked faces when I showed up at some social function when I was believed to be on the other side of the globe until god-knows-when. And every time I have surprised someone, it is just as good as I’d hoped it would be.
One of the first funny little cultural nuances that I experienced upon my return happened when I was simply crossing the street. Faren warned me of this when we were still in Thailand. She said, “you are going to be so surprised when you get back to America and cars actually stop for you when you want to cross the street.” I agreed, but did not think twice about it. On one of my first outings, I was in downtown Kirkland with Solveig and we were waiting to cross the street. Not at an intersection, but at one of those random crosswalks that is only convenient for pedestrians. The cars immediately stopped for us. We barely had to pause before we crossed. I was shocked. There was no red light, stop sign, or intersection and the car STILL stopped. For god’s sake, in Asia, cars don’t even stop at intersections and they barely slow down when they see you crossing the street. Motorbikes don’t slow down at all, they just go around you. While I appreciate the politeness of it all, I don’t appreciate that I can no longer jaywalk, even when the nearest crosswalk is a long block away.
So, this is it. One of my biggest fears in coming home was that everything I’ve experienced over the past 6 and a half months would feel like a distant dream and dissolve into my memory. But it still all feels very real. I can tell that everything I have seen and done lives on in the deepest part of me and continues to influence my daily thoughts. I never needed to be scared that my time in South East Asia would fade away, because I take it with me. I take all of my adventures with me, wherever I am. My learning experiences will continue to make me a better person, as long as I consciously stay aware of everything I have gained. I know it was only upon my return home that I could fully understand this.
And IF I ever do start to forget, I’ll just pull up my blog on the internet. :)
Friday, October 12, 2007
We elected not to stay in Vientiane for long, since there was not a lot to do or see, and there is so much to do and see everywhere else in the country. The morning after we arrived, we left on a bus (this time a nice, spacious, air-conditioned, comfortable bus) for Vang Vieng, a little over 3 hours North of Vientiane. Vang Vieng is famous along the S.E. Asia backpacker route for tubing, which involves sticking your bum into a black intertube to float down the river, gaze at the beautiful mountains, and make frequent stops at some of the many bars for drinking and jumping off of tall wooden platforms into the river, by way of rope swing, zip line, or some other contraption. It was quite an experience and it reminded me very much of something a college fraternity would organize. I can hear it now...what's better than bikinis and booze? I can understand why young people come for miles just to go tubing. It has become something of a Laos-phenomenon, and other parts of the country are catching on and capitalizing on this popular activity. Laos is an under-developed nation rapidly expanding their tourism industry. I'm grateful that I am able to visit this unique country before it becomes westernized and a more mainstream place to travel.
The 6+ hour drive from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was absolutely stunning, which made up for the cramped minivan and the twisting mountainous roads (perfect for causing severe car-sickness). I was too nauscious to read my book, so I stared at the beautiful scenery and listened to my iPod to pass the time. The mountains are so perfectly pristine and untouched that Faren and I felt like we had driven right into "The Land Before Time."
Luang Prabang is known as South East's Asia most charming town. And I love it! This small city (walkable from end to end), located on the junction of the Mekong and Nam Kam Rivers, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995 to preserve the town's 32 temples, the former Royal Palace, and classic French colonial buildings, which are remnants of the time when Laos was part of France's Indochine colony. Luang Prabang is filled with cafes, eco-friendly travel agents, sweet-as-sugar Laos people, lots of random farm animals roaming the streets, orange-robed monks, and some very beautiful arts and crafts. Better yet, the surrounding area of majestic green mountains, rivers bordered by limestone karst formations, and powerful waterfalls is ideal for outdoor adventures of all kinds. The multitude of travel agents organize tours and treks, ranging from 1/2 day to 3 days long, and include activities such as hiking, elephant riding, biking, kayaking, swimming...the list goes on. There is plenty to do.
On the first afternoon in Luang Prabang, I insisted that we bicycle to the local waterfall, which is about 30 km south of town. Faren was feeling a little under the weather (another sinus infection), but she agreed to go with me because I had so patiently waited for her all morning :) And she was sure glad she did! We started out on the ride with wary attitudes. We'd been told by several people, foreigners and Laos alike, that the bike ride was too long and hard, and we should just take a tuk-tuk or minivan like everyone else (every tour company in town sponsors a trip to the waterfalls every day). But I was stubborn, and I wanted to bike it! Even if we didn't make it all the way, I wouldn't give up until we had at least tried. As I passed a few local boys on the way UP a hill, they asked me where I was going (typical question everywhere and anywhere in S.E. Asia), when I answered enthusiastically "the waterfalls!", the boys laughed. At that moment, I thought to myself, "Ok, fair enough, I'm not even sure if we're going to make it over this giant hill." Obviously it is ideal to have a mountain bike with gears when you are biking in the mountains, but the only extra feature that my $1/day rental road bike had was a wimpy bell. Luckily, the entire road to the falls was well paved, with very few potholes. So, with all of the discouraging remarks, the intermittent light rains, and impending nightfall, Faren and I kind of expected that we would not make it all the way to the waterfalls. We took one hill at a time, fighting our way to the top and soaring down to meet the next one. And somehow, we made it all the way. Needless to say, we were (still are) very proud of ourselves. Even though that boy who laughed at me will never know, I really showed him!
By the time we arrived at the Kuang Si waterfalls, it was dusk and starting to rain again. There was not person remaining in the park. The gateskeeper must have felt sorry for us because he let us in for free. A local young man latched onto us (he wanted to give us and our bicycles a ride back to the city in his tuk-tuk) and proved to be quite a useful tour guide, especially as night quickly fell upon us and left us in the cold, dark, wet woods not exactly sure of the best way to hike back to the village where we had locked up our bicycles. The waterfalls themselves were worth every bit of effort and sweat it took to get there. The biggest fall, massive and breathtaking, gives way to a several tiered pools, each one divided by multiple smaller waterfalls. The pale green-blue water looked eerily mystical at dusk. The trees, growing out of the water and intertwined among the falls, seemed to warn us of the impending danger of nightfall. I was captivated by the sheer beauty of it all, it seemed nothing short of unreal, yet I could reach out with my own hand and feel the coolness of the water against my skin. After we tore ourselves away from the waterfalls, Faren and I accepted that it was too dark and rainy to even consider embarking on the long journey back into town on our bikes and by ourselves. Our new friend's efforts were not in vain, and after some price-haggling, we took him up on his original offer for a ride back into Luang Prabang.
We had a hard time making decisions about our itinerary for the next day. Based on several recommendations, we were determined to find a boat making the trip up the Mekong River to a small village called Nong Khiaw. The scenery on this boat ride is apparently some of the most beautiful in the country. Unfortunately, the boat doesn't leave until there are at least 8 people, or else it is not worth their money, and on this day, we could not find a boat making the trip. So, we caught another tour just as it was leaving (walked by a tour office at the right minute, I suppose) to the nearby Pak Ou caves. This tour took us on a slow boat down the Mekong River to the "cave of a thousand buddhas," stopping at the local whiskey village, where the people make traditional Laos whiskey. The caves were interesting to see for their religious significance and use as Buddhist shrines. We also met some very inspiring people on the boat, including a man whom has travelled (literally) all over the world and a young woman who just spend a year setting up an English language school in Cambodia. Faren and I immediately took the opportunity to pick both of their brains about their experiences and turned this small trip into a multi-leveled learning experience of our own. During this excursion, we found that the beautiful 8 hour boat ride to Nong Khiaw made use of the same flimsy, uncomfortable boat that took us to the Pak Ou caves. There were multiple reasons why we definitely did not want to spend 8 hours on that vessell, including the hard wooden 90 degree angle chairs and the lack of toilets and protection from the weather (it has been raining a lot). There is a minivan to Nong Khiaw, however, after internet research we were able to conclude that perhaps there is not so much to do in that area that we could not do in Luang Prabang. So we decided to cut back on our transit time and book a (local) kayaking trip for the next day instead!
The kayaking trip on Khan Nam River was nothing short of awesome. Our guide, Thuey, was very sweet and the other people were friendly. The rapids were thrilling but never too scary. My kayak never capsized, but others sure did. The scenery was stunning. Thuey loved to sing, and since he was my kayak-partner, I was serenaded many times. Also, as part of the tour, Faren and I chose an "alternative itinerary" of touring a local village with our guide rather than ride the elephants, since we'd already experienced this in Chiang Mai and it is quite expensive. It was a Sunday, so a lot of people were around. The kids were playing at the school yard, women were hanging laundry out to dry, and teenage boys were showering in their underwear outside (and were positively mortified at the sight of 2 western women catching them in the act) while teenage girls were bathing in their sarongs on the other side of town. We made friends with a group of adorable children when we pulled out the camera. They immediately started posing, and followed us as we left the village. Needless to say, the photographs are precious.
Our kayak trip down the river included a stop at the Tad Sae waterfalls. Faren and I may have already been impressed by the Kuang Si waterfalls, but these ones were even greater. And better since we had time to swim in the pools and climb around in some parts. We even decided to return to these falls, on our own without a tour, a few days later to play around and just enjoy the beauty. Which was great except for the part when we almost got stranded at nightfall without a boat ride back down the river. Luckily, we were never completely alone as we had recruited George from Canada to join us. We had accidentally paid the boy who took us across the river the entire round-trip fare. Of course he had no reason to come back, and instead another man "magically" appeared to save us at the perfect moment. From all of our experiences around here, it was obvious to us that he had set up this little arrangement with his friend to get more money out of the vulnerable foreigners. But we weren't having it, and we managed to get our ride back without paying extra. We conveyed to the new boat driver that he would have to get the fare from his friend, to whom we'd already given it. On the other side of the river, we were grateful to see that our faithful tuk-tuk driver was there to pick us up. We had only paid him half of the round-trip fare to ensure that he would be there upon our return. But then, before he would leave, he thought it would be a good idea to demand more money from us. Faren and I are so sick of being tuk-tuk drivers trying to screw us over that we refused and even laughed at his "joke." And in the end, all of our efforts to stick up for ourselves paid off :)
We had a lot of fun in Luang Prabang. We had a wine and dessert night with two new friends whom we met while tubing in Vang Vieng, David from Portugal and Daniel from Chile. We experienced our first Asian bowling alley, also with David and Daniel. We mingled with young Laos people at the discotheque. We found more new friends at our favorite dinner spot (also a very social spot)--a street vendor selling delicious and cheap vegetarian food, buffet style and only $0.50 for one plate. We shopped in the night market for hand made silk scarves, paintings on banana leaf paper, and lots of jewelry. We savored delicious coffee and goodies at the best bakery we've found in S.E. Asia, called JoMa Bakery Cafe (if you ever go to Laos...). We explored the town and surrounding areas on bicycle, stumbling upon a huge real Laos market, where we were stared at like a white person had never been seen in that market before.
From Luang Prabang, we ventured back down to Vientiane on a 12 hour bus ride and had about a day to kill in the capital city of Laos before we were to catch our night bus back down to Bangkok. We rented bicycles to explore the town, which has become one of my favorite pasttimes. Faren calls me a "bicycle fiend." It's the perfect way to see a small city when there is not too much traffic, without being confined to just one area since you are on foot, and without losing your freedom since you are at the mercy of a tuk-tuk driver. Not to mention that it helps us stay active. We've both agreed that we are much more inspired to bicycle in other parts of the world, including in our own hometowns.
After another long overnight bus ride, Faren and I are back where it all started--Bangkok--and ready to have some big city fun...
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Hoi An is a very old, small, and sweet town in the central part of the Vietnam coast. Cobblestone streets give it a European flair, and the tailor shops outnumber the restaurants, quite a feat for a tourist town. This place is known for the plethora of cheap tailors. You can have clothing tailor-made to your body for prices cheaper than clothes off the rack back in America. I became accustomed to the idea of having suits and dresses tailored while in Thailand. There is a healthy choice of tailors in most popular tourist locations since cheap Thai labor = cheap clothes for Westerners. Faren had a few dresses tailored on Phuket and her boyfriend had a few suits made, but I never got into it. Even though I was aware that Hoi An was heavily saturated with tailor shops, I really had no idea HOW bad (or good?) it would be. And, seduced by the wool coats that would be perfect for the cold Seattle winter (which will seem even colder after spending over 6 months in a tropical climate), I ordered one at the first shop I stopped at. By the end of the first day, this was the only article of clothing I had bought, but I had a lot of ideas forming in my head. So the next day, I splurged. The evening before, I had designed 3 cocktail dresses and yet another coat. This one I wanted to be made of "winter white" wool. I put in these orders first, and then over the course of the day and after looking through countless catalogs, I bought several other items, including black leather boots (also designed by myself!). I know that I got a little carried away, but I could justify most things. Especially the shoes, since they are to replace some at home that have been worn to death. And not only have I been resisting most clothing shopping while in Asia (it was finally time to give in), I won't have to do the usual winter clothing shopping trip this year. I think that Hoi An is probably the best place to do some damage because it is so cheap compared to American prices. Plus, this was the most unique shopping spree I may ever have. Not only are the clothes tailored for ME, I got to design half of them. Of course, not everything turned out exactly how I envisioned it, but the tailors did a pretty good job with what they had. In case you are wondering, I had to buy another suitcase before I left Hoi An. So much for my days as a simple backpacker... ;)
Other highlights of Hoi An included a cooking class, bicycle rides, and the beach. While Hoi An may be a small town, we still found it incredibly convenient to ride around on bicycles the whole time. It stopped motortaxi's from constantly hassling us, it helped big-time when we were running back and forth across town to different tailors (I barely caught my bus out of town in time after the tailors frantically hurried to finish the alterations on my cocktail dresses), and most of all, it was so much fun! One afternoon we rode the bikes out to the beach, just a few miles away from the town center, and explored one of the many fancy resorts. The beach on that part of the coast was very similar to those in the tourist areas of Mexico--long stretches of white sand and perfectly placed palm trees. Very picturesque.
For 8 USD, Faren and I partook in our own private Vietnamese cooking class. We were each allowed to choose three dishes. Our teachers made sure the class was very hands-on so it would turn into a cooking demonstration rather than a class. We were quite impressed with how complicated yet simple the dishes were. There were many different ingredients and steps, but it all went so fast and the same ingredients seemed to be repeated in many of the dishes. The food was incredibly delicious, and I can't wait to show off my new cooking skills for my friends and family when I return home.
From Hoi An, I had a 16 hour bus ride (!!!) up to Hanoi. I was prepared for the worst, so the ride was not as bad as I'd anticipated. I think it helps that after many overnight bus and train rides, I am becoming more accustomed to sleeping in odd places.
I've found that Hanoi is not quite as enjoyable as Saigon. The people are more likely to stare coldly at you in the North than give you a friendly wave and smile, like they did in the South. And to make matters worse, almost every person with whom we've had a "business" transaction has tried to rip us off or get more money out of us in some way. From our hotel to cyclo drivers to motortaxi drivers to fruit vendors. It was a pain when when the motortaxi driver demanded more money than the price we had agreed on, after he had driven us through the city, but it was a ROYAL pain in the butt when our hotel tried to charge us more money at check-out because we had failed to book any tours with them. Faren and I are more concerned with the principle of the matter, that they are dishonest and trying to cheat us, than with the actual loss of a few dollars. We always insist on sticking up for ourselves, instead of being dumb tourists whom everyone takes advantage of. In this case with our hotel, we had to put up a pretty big fight to get them back to the right price, especially because they had already taken my money and were refusing to give back change. We got the money back in the end, but it left a bad taste in our mouths.
We went on a 2 day trekking adventure up in the Northern hills of Vietnam. It was absolutely gorgeous, albeit overcast and rainy. The low clouds gave the mountains a mystical presence, and when the fog cleared up, the hills seemed to possess every shade of green. Rice paddies as far as the eye can see are accented by the occasional river, stream, or waterfall. Cows can be seen roaming about as frequently as the children. Men and women, adorned in the traditional conical bamboo hat, slowly move through the fields, which are built like ledges into the giant hills making for an interesting geometric pattern in the landscape. We were at a high altitude, so the temperature was cooler than we were used to. But all of the hiking kept us warm. One day, it was so muddy that our feet were literally heavy from the mud caked to our shoes. Every step I took left my entire foot submerged in the soft, red ground. The local people sold us bamboo sticks, which I stubbornly refused to purchase until I took one look at the steep, extremely muddy hill we were about to traverse. When we started out on the trek, we could not figure out why a whole band of local woman and children were tagging along, but after they literally held our hands to help us across rivers, down slick hills, and along treacherous ledges over steep cliffs, we quickly understood. And we understood even more when they offered their homemade goods--earrings, purses, clothing--for sale at the end of the day. How are you going to say no to a woman who has held your hand all day? I could have made it perfectly fine without the extra help, but I didn't really have a choice in the matter. The locals were dead-set on helping us, whether or not we truly wanted (or needed) the assistance. Would have been a sweet gesture if it was not actually a shrewed business tactic.
Halong Bay, meaning "Bay of the Descending Dragon," is a UNESCO World Heritage site about 3 hours outside of Hanoi. The first tour we booked to this famous tourist attraction was a 2 day tour, but halfway there, our minibus turned around because a typhoon had hit the bay and it was no longer safe. Since a group of scuba divers were recently killed in Thailand after their boat capsized during a storm, we were grateful that the tour company decided to lose money rather than put our lives at risk. Needless to say, they had tried pretty hard to make it work in any event. Our van was the only one (out of many) that actually made the attempt, which was frusterating since it had resulted in a 4 hour car ride to nowhere. We elected to take the night train to Sapa that evening for trekking, with the hope that the weather would improve over the next few days, and in time for us to see Halong before our visas expired on Saturday. We arrived back from Sapa at 5 am on Friday morning, groggily found a hotel to take a quick nap and shower, and boarded another minibus to Halong Bay at 8 am for a one-day tour this time, since we had to be out of the country by the next day.
Luckily, the sun was shining and the bay was beautiful for our tour. In Halong Bay, thousands of massive steep, limestone structures rise spectacularly out of the ocean, like the top of a jagged mountain range. During the boat ride, we saw floating fishing villages where we could buy all sorts of shellfish and fish, with the option of having the boat crew cook it for us immediately. My favorite stop of the day was at one of the many hollow islands, where there were caves so incredible it was difficult to believe they were not man-made. In a corner of one of the massive grottos, two gaping holes in the "ceiling" allowed sharp rays of sunlight into the dark abyss, so it looked as though we were witnessing the grandest stairway to heaven. It was one of those phenomenons you thought only existed in the movies.
As I write this, it is Saturday, September 29th, the day that our Vietnamese visas expire. We leave on a 20 hour bus ride this evening to Laos, a country that has been widely recommended to me by every traveller whom has ever visited. According to Lonely Planet, Laos' isolation from foreign influence offers travellers an unparalleled glimpse of traditional Southeast Asian life. From the fertile lowlands of the Mekong River valley to the rugged Annamite highlands, Laos is the highlight of Southeast Asia. I can hardly wait!
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Saigon, a.k.a. Ho Chih Minh city is a big city full of motorbikes and pho. In case you are unfamiliar with pho, it is a Vietnamese noodle soup (usually with some kind of meat) that is eaten at all times of day in this country. Since we were coming directly from spending almost a week in Phnom Penh, Saigon seemed pretty easy. The hassling by beggars and street vendors decreased by ten-fold and we felt a lot safer walking around in the evening. And when I say the city is full of motorbikes, I mean it is actually crowded with them. The motorbike is the dominant mode of transport in most Asian cities, but in Saigon you will regularly see crowds of motorbikes waiting at traffic lights and it looks like a crowd of people. Crossing the street with motorbikes everywhere is another experience, and it involves walking INTO moving traffic. Some intersections (more in Cambodia than in Vietnam) do not have any sort of traffic lights or stop signs, so it becomes a free-for-all. Whomever is most skilled at weaving through traffic will get through the intersection the fastest. Faren and I were so amazed by this that we had to take a video of the craziness, and for the first time, I actually felt grateful for the traffic cops and all of the traffic rules in the U.S.
Another thing to be noted about Saigon, and Vietnam in general, is how incredibly sweet the people are. Everywhere we go, we are greeted by a chorus of “hello’s!”. In Thailand and in Cambodia, most of these “hello’s” were from people who were trying to sell you something or give you a ride in their tuk-tuk. In Vietnam, the greetings are usually genuine, and smiles are almost always returned. I suppose that in Thailand, most of the Thai’s are fed up with tourists (can’t really blame them), so they are not as friendly. And in Cambodia, the people are so poor that everyone simply sees you as a walking wallet (not that this doesn’t happen all over S.E. Asia) rather than as another human being. But in Vietnam, we have been pleasantly surprised and impressed by the character of the people.
Similar to how I devoted time in Cambodia to learn about the Khmer Rouge, a significant amount of time in Vietnam has been spent learning about the Vietnam War, which has been heartbreaking. I visted the Cu Chi tunnels, a vast network of underground tunnels outside of Saigon, and an integral factor in the Viet Cong victory over America. They are more than 250 km long and three levels deep. A bit more history:
"The district of Cu Chi was the most bombed shelled, gassed, defoliated, and generally devastated area in the history of warfare. It was declared a "free fire zone" which meant that artillery fire fell on it at night, and that bomber pilots were encouraged to drop unused explosives and napalm on the area before returning to base. In essence, anything that moved was considered a target and blown away.
While U.S. forces relied on artillery support from fixed "Fire Bases," the Vietnamese used their tunnel system to move their artillery around, making it difficult for the U.S. troops to locate them. In one tunnel complex in Cu Chi the U.S. found two 105 field pieces in perfect working condition. They would be stripped down outside, taken into the tunnels and assembled during the day for maintenance, stripped again, and then taken back through the tunnels to be reassembled in a new location outside and used the next night.
These are only a few of the stories of the tunnels of Cu Chi. Today the tunnels still stand, proof that the determination of the people - and not technology - can determine who wins a war."
During the Cu Chi tour, I was able to climb on a destroyed American tank, see the most brutal boobie-traps ever, climb through the tiny tunnels, and...shoot an M16 machine gun! Although it was definitely counter to my peace-loving, anti-war mentality, curiousity got the best of me. When else in my life will I have the opportunity to shoot a real machine gun used in a war? I had to know what it felt like. Too bad I wasn't that impressed.
After the tunnels, my friend Zach and I were dropped off by our bus at the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. I quickly became very disturbed by all of the war history. For example, there was a large exhibit showing the effects of "Agent Orange," an herbicide that was sprayed over forested areas by the Americans to kill vegetation and expose enemy guerilla forces. This chemical has not only caused diseases and deaths in Vietnamese soldiers and civilians during war times, it has continued to effect the children of those who were exposed in the form of birth defects and illness. Entire families have had their lives severely debilitated or even lost because of Agent Orange, and the effects are still very visible in Vietnam today.
Also in the museum is an exhibit of paintings done by school children about life during and after the war, which was simply heart wrenching. And learning about all of the brutal murders and innocent lives lost--especially the children--was almost too much for me to handle. I suffered from a knot in my throat and worked hard to fight off tears the entire time I was in the museum, and I wasn't always successful. Eventually, I could not focus or stand up any longer, even though there was still a lot to see. Once I was back in the privacy of my hotel room, I cried my eyes out to Faren. There is so much sadness, hate, and cruelty in the world--from the Khmer Rouge to the Vietnam War--and it is very depressing. It's so easy in America to turn a blind eye because we are not forced to deal with war or genocide in our daily lives. It's not in our face, but it's happening all around us. When my grandparents were young men and women, it was World War II. When my parents were in their 20's, it was the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Now, there is the Darfur genocide and a war in Iraq. And there are so many others...one day, my children will learn about how awful the war in Iraq was and all of the inhumane crimes the U.S. forces committed in the name of our country. What's more, it kills me that no one stopped the Khmer Rouge regime for 4 years, and it kills me even more to know that another genocide in Darfur is happening as I sit at this computer. I understand that warfare is part of human nature, it has been since the beginning of history as we know it, and it probably will be forever. Most agree that there is not very much we can do to change this fact of life. But it is difficult for me to understand and accept WHY it has to be this way. Man has such an innate will to survive and so much to live for. We love our friends and family so much, so why is it that we are able to kill other people's friends and families? Why do we take our most precious gift--life--away from one another? I am easily depressed by these thoughts, and the only way I can make myself feel better is to truly give thanks and praise for my own life. I was born in the land of opportunity and I can do anything I wish. I have so much gratitude for the charmed life that I lead. And since I am so incredibly blessed, there is nothing that I want more than to share my love and joy with others.
Mekong River Tour
While in Vietnam, you’ve got to see the Mekong! We took a boat tour all around the river, which is so big in some parts that it looks more like a lake. Some of the activities included a floating market, a visit with the river people to see how many of their local specialties are made (lots of free goodies and tea), a bicycle ride on an island, a canoe ride down a smaller stream, and a tour around another Vietnamese market—where I watched a woman slice the skin off of live snakes. It was surprisingly educational and very cool to see how the river people live with the water, which becomes so much a part of their livelihood. Their daily life is so different than that in the city. Experiences like this one often make me feel like I’ve stepped into some other universe or era. I suppose that in some ways, I have! Our tour guides made the day even more enjoyable as Faren and I really enjoyed their innocent jokes and goofy sense of humor. Although we did feel a little guilty since most of the time we were laughing AT them rather than WITH them AT their jokes…
On the night of our third day in Saigon, we took a night bus to Nha Trang, a small city right on the Ocean—or the South China Sea, to be exact. The beaches in Vietnam look a lot different and perhaps less exotic than those in Thailand, but they do possess their own beauty. We rented bicycles and spent a day exploring the area, with its vibrant markets and sandy beaches. We signed up for a four island boat tour to see more of the surrounding nature. Although the snorkeling was good, it was still not as impressive as the crystal clear water and colorful corals that we have seen in Thailand. The most unique part of the boat cruise was the post-lunch “performance” in which the crew turned into a band by pulling out an electric guitar and a homemade drum set. After singing a few songs, they proceeded to pull members of the audience on stage, one by one, to sing a popular song from that particular person’s country. Of course I happened to be one of the lucky ones (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) whom he pulled on to the stage. But instead of choosing an American song, he picked a Beatles song. And then later when he found someone on the boat who was British, he said “oh, same same as America!” and didn’t bother to bring her up for a song. I’m not sure how the British people felt about that… ;) The most entertaining part of the day (better than the “concert”) was the floating bar and free red wine! The main tour guide lept into the water, urging us to follow him. Everywhere you looked, bodies were throwing themselves overboard and crew members were tossing intertubes in after them. Our guide floated around with a crate full of wine, serving it in little plastic cups to the passengers, who were sitting with bums in the intertubes to keep afloat. And, to make it all a little more interesting, it was raining. Everyone was holding on to the bar, so to a by-stander, there was a huge clump of people in the ocean—mostly Japanese and Vietnamese—laughing, drinking, cheers-ing, and scrambling to be closest to the “bar.” Every time I turned around, another friendly face was holding their cup up to cheers me. Although we could not communicate in words, we understood each other perfectly. If I ever make a movie based on the travels of myself and others through South East Asia, this scene will be quite crucial in conveying the essence of how truly comical my adventures can be.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
The bus ride that we took from Bangkok, over the Thai-Cambodia border, and on to Siem Reap is notorious for its scams. They arrange your visas for you when you arrive at the border, overcharging you and taking a big chunk of money for themselves, and then they make sure you don't arrive in Siem Reap until about 10 pm (by taking extra long breaks and driving extra slow), at which point you are exhausted from 14 hours on the road, in a new city, in a new country, and aching to drop your bags at the first place you see. So they deposit the bus load of people on the doorstep of a waiting guesthouse that has already paid the commissions to have you there! Of course no one is going to physically force the foreigners to stay at the predetermined guesthouse, but the intimidation factor is strong and there is always a showdown and a lot of resistance if you decide to leave. The third scam that Faren and I were not prepared to deal with was getting completely tricked out of a lot of money at the border by a money exchange counter. I had asked our guide on the bus for the exchange rate between Thai Baht and Cambodian Riel. Since he was taking us across the border and we had been talking with him all day, we trusted him. This was our mistake. The rate that he quoted matched the rate we received at the border, without realizing that the guide and the money exchange counter were in cahorts to screw us over. So we both lost about a third of our cash, it took me only a few hours in Cambodia to put the puzzle together. Needless to say, Faren and I were pretty mad. Not only at the situation and the people who stole from us, but also at ourselves for not thoroughly researching the exchange rate. Frusterated with the situation and feeling very stubborn, we refused to stay at the guesthouse where the bus dropped us off, finding one closer to the center of the town instead.
The best part of the bus ride was when the driver pulled over in the middle of nowhere for a bathroom stop. We joked that this would happen after Faren asked the driver when the next stop would be and he said "5 minutes," meanwhile there was nothing in sight but fields and a dirt road. We did not actually think it would happen, but if it were to happen anywhere, Cambodia would be the least surprising. Faren and I were the only girls on the bus desperate enough (or maybe just shameless enough) to take advantage of the bushes. The second best part was a pickup truck packed to the brim with Cambodians. There had to be at least 30 people crammed in there. The truck and our bus passed by one another several times, and the faces in the truck were perfectly in align with the bus passengers. You could clearly see the fascination and delight with which each grouped viewed the other as we exchanged waves and smiles.
Once in Siem Reap, we bought a 3 day ticket to visit the world-famous Angkor temples, which are considered one of the wonders of the world. They were built during the height of the Khmer (Cambodian) empire over a period of 4 centuries. The temples at Angkor are spread out over about 40 miles, and range from single brick towers to giant stone structures, complete with a moat the size of a lake around Angkor Wat, making those around European castles seem like tiny streams. In fact, Angkor Wat, the "mother of all temples," is the largest religious monument in the world. Another temple, Ta Prohm, was the set for the "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" movie. The first day we spent climbing through the ruins of the magnificent temples, riding around the sites on the back of a tuk-tuk. The second day we rented bicycles for $1.50/day and rode through the park, visiting ruins we had missed the previous day. The third day we woke up at 5 am in order to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The temple faces west, so the sun rises up behind it, silhouetting the massive complex against the bright, beautiful morning sky. It was an unforgettable sight to see.
From Siem Reap we caught a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and the place where Faren and I both began a tumultuous emotional roller coaster. We started to learn--reading books, watching movies, and visiting museums--about the heart breaking Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) in which about 2 million Cambodians were killed. I really knew nothing about it before I came here, which is pretty sad considering that this genocide was, in may ways, just as inhumane and cruel as the holocaust. We visted a museum that was once a high school and then converted into a prison and place of torture (for innocent victims) during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. It was really difficult to walk through the prison cells and torture chambers, seeing not only the torture instruments but also blood spatters everywhere. Can you imagine? It took a lot of courage for me to just be there and in the presence of so much suffering that still haunts the air.
At the same time, I was reading a book about one young Cambodian girl's personal experience during the Khmer Rouge. I recommend to any traveler, particularly those visiting recently war-torn nations, that they should supplement their trip with a biography like this. In my experience, it strengthens your understanding of the history and depth of human suffering that took place in the very city you are sleeping.
Shocked by the tragedies and disturbed by the desperation of the people still fighting to survive and recover from this dark period, Faren and I wanted to help in any way we could. After some research, we found an orphanage in great need of a little love. With no other options, we just showed up at the orphanage to volunteer.
The children are so sweet, a lot of them just want to hold your hand! We wanted to do something that would have a greater impact than only teaching a few songs and new English words, so we made flyers to promote the orphanage and posted them all over town. We've already brought other foreigners in, so it's been very rewarding to see instant results. Hopefully the sign will continue to attract people. We even made a friend out of one of the volunteers we recruited, Zach from California. Coincidentally, he happened to be leaving for Saigon, Vietnam on the same day as us, so we've all been traveling together. It's nice to have another face around.
One funny thing about Cambodia is that they use the U.S. dollar! The country has their own currency, the Riel, but they rarely use it. In most restaurants, grocery stores, clothing stores, etc. everything is quoted in USD. The only place where Riel dominated was in the outdoor markets, and even then the vendors would always accept dollars. It was a really weird concept to us that not only did the Cambodians prefer another currency over their own, but also that the U.S. government does not do anything about it. Interesting.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
The three of us took a night train up to Bangkok, spent the next day wandering around the city, and then caught another train that night to Chiang Mai. Two nights of sleep on a train was not the best idea, but it was the cheapest possible route to take. While in Chiang Mai we explored the miles of shopping at the Night Bazaar, weekend market, and various other markets. The shopping in Chiang Mai was unbelievable. Thousands of vendors are selling anything and everything you could ever possibly want to buy--as a souvenir, that is. A lot of arts and crafts are made in the North of Thailand, and this is the best place to buy these goods. Needless to say, I have greatly improved my haggling skills. In Thailand, you can bargain for pretty much everything--from vegetables at the market to jewelry sold by a street vendor to the prices for food at a restaurant to contact lenses at an eyeglass store. No joke.
Our other major activity in Chiang Mai was a trek through the jungle, complete with elephant riding and a float down the river on a homemade bamboo raft. I was not quite sure what to expect, but I quickly found that this trek was serious and not for the weak of mind or body! There was a lot of rain and a lot of steep hills to fall down during the hike (I managed to avoid leeches, thank god), some intense rapids while on a very rickety bamboo raft (I was left with some battle wounds after being thrown around a bit), and quite the roller-coaster of an elephant ride. We slept in a cabin, no electricty anywhere for miles, in a hilltribe village only accessible by foot. Our guides, three young Thai men, were very good-natured, trustworthy, and competent--although, innocently enough, quite flirty. Overall, despite the rain and having to wear wet clothes (that refused to dry) for a few days, the trek was amazing. I love being outdoors, active, and close to nature. I've noticed that although this desire is a basic human instinct, it is often suppressed and easy to forget when we spend so much of our lives in cities and indoors. A simple walk in the woods always reminds me how much I cherish the earth, so a few days of no contact with cities and modern conveniences really refreshed this appreciation in me.
After we were hiked-out and shopped-out in Chiang Mai, we hopped on a night train to Bangkok. Unfortunately, once we reached the train station at 8:45 (45 minutes early, or so we thought), we found that the last train to Bangkok was actually at 9 pm and had no sleeper cars, only chairs. Of course the schedule we looked at while at our guesthouse ( a.k.a. cheap hotel) did not coincide with the true schedule. Pretty typical for Thailand. So, after literally sprinting to a nearby eatery to grab a dinner-to-go (now that we had about 10 minutes before our train departed rather than the schedule 45) we boarded the 9 pm. None of us wanted to be stuck on a train for 14 hours with no food and empty stomachs that had not been fed since lunchtime. Ironically, a train attendant came through right after we "took off" and handed us free dinners. We were pretty shocked. Sure, it wasn't the best food I'd ever tasted, but it wasn't the worst. And I cannot begin to tell you what a rarity something like a free dinner is in Thailand. Nothing is free! Especially when tourists are involved. No other train or bus ride that any of us had been on in Thailand has ever handed out free food--it would not exactly match the poverty mentality that prevails in South East Asia. We were appreciative of the food, but it would have been nice if the ticket vendor had at least tried to tell us, thus saving us a few bucks and a lot of hassle. But this was definitely not the worst part of the train ride. The air-conditioned car was so air-conditioned that we were freezing. All night long. So cold that Faren and I had to layer on every semi-warm article of clothing in our backpacks. After living in a tropical climate for months and months, not only are you completely acclimated to the heat and very intolerant of the cold, you have ditched most clothing that traps any heat against your body. Luckily, Faren and I both still have fleeces (for such situations) and raincoats. I was wearing both. Plus socks and my only pair of paints and a long skirt over the pants. The skirt was supposed to work like another blanket. We wrapped ourselves in our sarongs and covered our bodies with the provided blanket, and we were still cold. It was a long night and an even longer train ride. When we finally deboarded in Bangkok, it took me a good 45 minutes of 95 degree weather and a hot cappucino to de-thaw enough to the point that I wanted to take off my thick fleece. I was that cold. (I wonder how long it is going to take me to acclimate to the Seattle weather.)
In Bangkok, the three of us thoroughly explored the classic sites: Khao San Road--the infamous backpacker street, MBK--the huge fancy mall filled with a whole lot of the same crap you can buy on the street, Patpong District--heady nightlife famous for girly bars and "ping-pong shows," the Grand Palace--a bit of Thai history and architecture, and lots of shopping (more browsing than buying) at several markets. Faren and Bryan spent a few nights alone in a 5 star hotel since he would be leaving in just a few days, on August 31st. And when I visited them at the hotel, I experienced a strange culture shock from the decadent luxury. I've been roughing it for over 5 months. I lived in a classroom for a month while in Surat Thani--sleeping on the ground, no bed and definitely no conveniences like mirrors or screens on the windows. I shared a small hotel room with Faren for 2 months in Phuket, this has been our nicest long-term home. We shared an even smaller room at the Health Oasis for a month, and I lived in the room by myself for another 3 weeks after she left. This room did not have a flushing toilet OR a sink in the bathroom. We have stayed in bungalows that are little more than a shack made of sticks, complete with many huge spiders and other creepy-crawly critters. We've been roughing it and living very cheaply for months, and to suddenly step into a world class hotel in a big city was overwhelming. And fun. I had a lot of fun at this hotel, and I wasn't even staying there! Poor Bryan came down with a bad case of the flu the first night in the hotel and was out of commission. So I took over his spot at the beautiful al-fresco hotel restaurant, located 65 stories in the air. They had a dinner reservation and someone had to keep Faren company! The food was delicious, but the atmosphere was what we were really paying for. It is indescribable in words. After stepping off the elevator, we were ushered across a long, beautifully-lit glass runway that ended in a kaleidoscope glass window framing the city below. From the runway, a grand staircase led us into the main dining area where we spent our entire dinner gazing at the breathtaking view. It was the most enchanting, unique restaurant I have ever been to in my life.
After Bryan left, Faren joined me at my backpacker guesthouse on Khao San Road. Cheap but clean, with a fun atmosphere to seal the deal. I was ready to move on pretty quickly, having spent more than enough time in the big and polluted, albeit entertaining and exciting, city of Bangkok. Almost immediately, before we had the chance to even book our tickets out, I came down with the flu. It was bad, complete with a 103 degree fever and the worst headache I've experienced. Thank God we had not bought our tickets. I spent way more time in that hotel than any person ever should. After a few days I was still a bit under the weather, but now I was also suffering from cabin fever and anxious to get out of the city, so I decided that I was well enough to tough it out and board a bus for the all-day trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia where we were to visit the revered temples of Angkor Wat...
Thursday, August 9, 2007
For Faren and I, the next segment of our journey was to more deeply explore our new-found interest in achieving good health through the means of holistic healing and alternative medicine/therapies. I’ve always had an interest in health, but it was nothing I had previously taken the time to delve into. This curiosity was sparked with Faren’s plethora of health problems that were misdiagnosed or not diagnosed as anything at all, were declared as incurable or “curable” with antibiotics, and really never quite treated correctly. I joined Faren in her research of alternative methods, from special diets to homeopathic treatments to emotional healing. We began to read books about fasting and detoxification, quickly learning that cleansing the body is a tried and true method of relieving illness and preventing disease.
We decided that we wanted to spend more time exploring this idea of holistic healing, a philosophy that views our mental, physical, and spiritual sides as being closely interconnected and all integral for complete healing of the body. There happen to be a lot of health centers in Thailand that combine fasting and detox programs with alternative therapies, and operate under the values of holistic healthcare. After e-mailing and corresponding with several health resorts, we decided to pick up all of our belongings and try our luck on Koh Samui, where the manager at one particular resort, the Health Oasis, had been particularly receptive to our idea of an “energy exchange,” in which we could complete a detox program at a discounted rate (in fact, my fasting experience requires a blog-post of its own) and stay at the resort (free of charge) while we interned. Coincidentally, the Health Oasis Resort is a very laid-back, loosely organized, and slightly under-staffed place—meaning the manager (also the resident naturopath), Graham, could use the help of two intelligent and university-educated interns. We've completed several projects, the latest one being the most interesting. Faren and I actually wrote, scripted, directed, filmed, and starred in a video that will be used to supplement the introduction to the fasting programs. We got a kick out of the filming and acting, so if nothing else, we will be left with a very entertaining video that, in its own way, documents our experience at the Health Oasis. Some of the biggest challenges: avoiding excessive cheesiness (a lot easier said than done), shooting scenes outdoors using an amateur hand-held video camera and trying (in vain) to find satisfactory lighting not too bright and not too dark, shooting outdoors in the blistering mid-day heat, memorizing lines and monologues, writing a script about something we were clueless about…the list goes on. I am currently in the process of editing it, on my own, as Faren left about a week and a half ago to spend the month of August traveling around Thailand with her boyfriend, Bryan, who has come to visit. In the past few months he has graduated from law school and taken the bar exam, so he’s in need of some serious rest and relaxation. You really can’t get much better than Thailand! Anyways, the whole process of making the video (especially editing) has been quite the learning experience, considering Faren and I have no experience in making a movie. I can confidently agree with the mantra that the best way of learning is by doing.
One thing I have forgotten to mention so far is the beauty of the Health Oasis Resort. It is located right on a gorgeous stretch of white sand beach, lined with picture-perfect palm trees, on Koh Samui island in the Gulf of Thailand. I practice yoga every morning on the beach and I swim in the waterfall pool at the edge of the ocean every afternoon. I do my work in a breezy open air room, just a few steps from the sand. So, although I may be looking at a computer screen, all I have to do is shift my eyes to catch the sparkling blue-green of the water. It is truly paradisical.
I have made some great friendships with the other people who work here and I'm learning a lot from them as they are all from different parts of the world, different ages, and at different walks of life. We do all sorts of things together, whether it be making dinner and staying in, playing music and singing along, going out to dinner on the beach, laying by the pool and chilling out, partying and dancing the night away with the tourists. The Health Oasis is located in a rather remote and quiet area of the island, which can be peaceful and relaxing, but sometimes leaves something to be desired. So when we feel hungry for some action, we venture into the beach town of Chaweng, which has something for everyone: swanky bars, cheap hole-in-the-wall bars, “girly shows” and girly bars, lady-boy shows and lady-boys dressed in elaborate costumes, a huge dance club called The Green Mango (my favorite hang-out spot), and many holiday-makers looking for a good time.
I plan on staying at the Health Oasis until about the 4th week of August, when I will join Faren and Bryan in touring Chiang Mai and Bangkok until Bryan leaves at the end of the month. Subsequent to his departure, our plans are indefinite, but it looks like we may finally be making our way out of Thailand come mid-September. We’ve both stayed here longer than expected, yet would not have it any other way.