Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Amazing Disappearing Photos

Hmmm...they're all gone, aren't they? I'm hoping this is temporary, but I have a feeling it's because I've maxed out whatever storage alotment I have for photos on Blogger. Which may make it difficult to get them back. Fingers crossed that the pics are back up later today....and if not, I'll figure out some kind of Plan B to get them back this weekend...whatever that's gonna be...

UPDATE: Apparently this only happening on some computers (including mine at work) and is not restricted to my blog alone. Hopefully it'll sort itself out soon.

Thailand, Part 3: Parks with Soundtracks, Disco-ball Volkswagons, and 8 Pairs of Socks

Alright, can of caffeine, Thailand tour book, K-OS on my iTunes…..check, check, check. All set for writing Part 3.

It was pretty hard to top Wat Pho. Although the Grand Palace was right next door, it was closed by the time we got out of the temple. So we quickly proceeded to Plan B, which happened to be a few minutes of chilling out at the small park across the intersection (which may or may not have been called Suan Saranrom. I wouldn’t put money on it).

I was kinda surprised by the park, not in particular by its natural beauty or peaceful setting, but more in the small things we learned there about Thai culture. Almost as soon as we arrived, we noticed a circle of 8 or 9 young guys kicking around a ball, often high into the air, like it was a hackey-sack. As it turns out, they were playing a game called “takraw.” The object is to keep a woven rattan ball in the air using any part of the body except the hands. These guys were amazing, the speed and acrobatic agility required to play makes tennis look like a beginner sport. And these guys were playing in 40 degree heat. Nuts.

As we walked around, we also noticed that even parks in Thailand are an exercise in extremes. I mean, why have only one fountain when you can pack ten into a park the size of a city block, or just one gazebo when you can have five? Crossing bridges over small ponds and moats, we made our way around the park to the tune of piped-in elevator music blaring from speakers placed on 9-foot posts. It was kind of surreal, to be honest.

From there, we went back to Rachel and Mikey’s place to rest and recoup for the evening’s activities. We chose a fancy restaurant and dined on soft-shell crab in curry, duck with lychees (a white, juicy Asian fruit with a tough outer skin, which is peeled away, and a hard inedible seed at its centre), an interesting pork dip, and a delicious yellow curry with chicken and yams, followed by a dessert of sticky rice topped with a scoop of coconut ice cream. It was a total blow-out, but well worth the money.

Just outside of Nana Plaza (another go-go bar district, three floors of bars built around a central open space, similar to Patpong the night before, but with more of a theme orientation), we spotted a food stall selling one of the more unique delicacies available on the streets of Bangkok. Yes, those are bugs. And yeah, I have it on good authority that this wasn’t just a photo opportunity, people go there to eat. Fortunately, I was still full from dinner and didn’t need a snack.

We met up with Rachel’s Aussie friends and proceeded to the coolest bar I went to while I was there, the Volks Bar. This place was incredible – it was a VW camper bus, pop-top and all, that had been converted to a moveable bar. You could even book it for a private party if you wanted: they’d park it in front of your house if the price was right and serve your guests all night long. We sat on stools along its side as tuk-tuks and other traffic passed behind us, inches away from where we were sitting. As the disco ball spun around, we downed some cocktails ( I think one of mine was called an “elephant kick”…luckily, it contained no elephant), wondering if a bar like that would even be legal in Canada. I’m sure the liquor licensing laws would kill that one real fast.

It was an early night since we were flying out to our next stop, Chiang Rai, very early the next morning. We said our goodbyes to Mikey (who had to work) and arrived at the airport while it was still dark outside. For breakfast, we chowed-down on some burgers from Burger King. In Thailand, just about anything goes as a breakfast food. The flight was pretty open and all three of us managed to get a row of seats all to ourselves.

Chiang Rai is in the far north of Thailand, near the “Golden Triangle” an intersecting point between Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. The city is ancient, founded in 1262 during the time of the extinct Lanna Kingdom. Although the modern city of Chiang Rai isn’t particularly noteworthy for its architecture or tourist destinations, it’s well-known for its Night Bazaar and as a starting point for “treks” into the surrounding countryside. And trekking was exactly what we were there for.

We arrived at the airport, which, for no reason any of us could explain, smelled like a mixture of beets and liquid nitrogen. It’s possible that after Bangkok, we were just smelling the unfamiliar scent of clean air again, as if for the first time. As we made our way into town, we noticed that unlike in Bangkok (where traffic seemed to be made up almost entirely of taxi cabs and tuk-tuks at times), the locals preferred to travel by pick-up truck or motorbike. We passed more motorbike dealerships in Chiang Rai than I’d probably seen in my entire life up to that point.

Our taxi left us in the middle of town, and after spinning around in circles a few times, we found our bearings and set off on a long walk, often down sketchy alleyways, to our guesthouse where we were staying for the night.

In Thailand, a guesthouse is kind of like a cross between a youth hostel and a flea-bag motel. In other words, they were unbelievably cheap and catered to travelers exclusively. You could get your own room, priced based on the number of beds and whether you wanted a fan, an air conditioner, and/or a private bathroom. Typically, the entire bathroom doubled as a shower stall, with a showerhead emerging from the wall right next to the sink and toilet. Unfortunately, “drainage” was often a theoretical concept instead of a practical one. We also encountered another Thailand quirk as we moved northwards: toilet paper became increasingly hard to find, often replaced with a hose. And we also found that the term “toilet” was also open to interpretation, as was the concept of “flushing.” You’d be surprised at how fast you adjust to that sort of thing, though. Necessity is the mother of adaptation as well, it seems.

Our guesthouse was built in the Northern style out of teak wood, and our room (at $3 Canadian, split three ways) was the cheapest accommodation of the whole trip. The rest of the afternoon was spent criss-crossing downtown researching, re-researching, and finally settling on and booking a trek for the next day.

That evening, we made our way to Chiang Rai’s famous Night Bazaar. The variety and quality of the goods for sale there was staggering. Unlike Chatuchak in Bangkok, the Bazaar catered mostly to tourists and was one of the best places to buy hand-made crafts on the trip. Stalls sold everything from woven textiles to stone and wood carvings to silver jewelry to traditional hill-tribe clothing and head-dresses. Mike and Rachel were particularly impressed by one stall where they each bought eight pairs of ridiculously-cheap imitation brand-name socks. Judging by how pleased they were with their purchases, the trip to Chiang Rai was worth it for the socks alone.

We dined on giant prawns in spicy curry sauce and a couple of bottles of Singha in a beer garden in the middle of the Bazaar. While we ate, we were entertained sometimes by a band of Thai musicians, who played seated, and sometimes by a trio of Thai dancers. We hit up another few bars on the “Farang” strip (oh yeah, this one’s important, farang = foreigner), and had our first introduction to our fourth, and final, Thai beer: Tiger. It was good, but still, it was no Singha.

Okay, my caffeine’s worn off now, drawing another part of our story to a close. Check out Part 4: Elephant Snot, Akha Tea, and a World Vision Moment, coming up real soon.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Thailand, Part 2: Bitten Ears, Khlongs, and Reclining Buddhas

Our first big evening out in Bangkok was a blur. Everything started off at a gigantic open-air Beer Garden not far from Patpong market. It was massive, it could easily seat thousands and was ringed by scores of food stalls. We found a seat near the middle of this stadium-sized eatery while swarms of pretty Thai girls representing beer companies lobbied for our drink orders. We settled on a tube of Chang beer, our third Thai beer – not as good as Singha, but cheaper and just as strong. I say “tube” because, although it wasn’t much larger than a Canadian pitcher, it was served in a clear plastic tube balanced on a base, with a tap to dispense beer at the bottom. Gravity did the rest (this is one of the things I should have taken a picture of and didn’t).

We gorged ourselves on some Thai curries and a whole sea bass (served with its head intact) while we sat at the table and listened to some truly god-awful Thai pop-singers. We couldn’t believe how bad the music was – let’s just say I can’t wait for future episodes of Thai Idol, coming soon to CTV. As we were leaving, we witnessed another popular Thai pastime: singing Karaoke in enclosed cubicles not much larger than phone booths. And here I was thinking that Karaoke was all about inflicting your singing on other people. They looked like they were having fun though.

From there, we were off to Patpong Market by Tuk-Tuk. What’s a Tuk-Tuk, you ask? Imagine an old-fashioned motor-scooter. Okay, now put three wheels on it, slap a roof over top, and then put a bench seat big enough to seat 3 people across the back. Top it off with some blinking lights, the smell of gasoline, a little dancing-girl figurine dangling from the rearview mirror, and you’ve got a tuk-tuk. Essentially, they’re a cheap alternative to taking a taxi, provided you don’t mind weaving through traffic at high speed in an unstable, open-sided vehicle with nothing but a metal bar to hang onto for dear life. At this point, I learned not to worry about things like tuk-tuks and to relax and enjoy it. Honestly, you have to. If you don’t, you’ll worry yourself sick and you’ll never have a good time there. Yeah, by our standards, they’re pretty unsafe….but I also thought they were a lot of fun. My first ride felt not too much different from the feeling you get riding a rickety portable roller-coaster at a fair (Super-Ex all over again!).

If Chatuchak was our first exposure to true Thai-style information overload, Patpong took it one step further. Patpong is Bangkok’s most notorious (and largest) go-go bar district, and home to just about every Thailand sex-trade rumour you’ve heard about. Oh yeah, there’s also a night market there, but I doubt that many of the foreigners we saw walking around were looking for carved elephants or fine silk goods.

It was here that learning our first words in Thai was essential: “mai ao” (my-ow), meaning “not one” and extended to “not interested,” and the politer version, “mai ao krup” (my-ow-cup, my-ow-ka for the ladies), meaning “No thanks.” (Side note, we used these phrases, and the Thai words for “thank-you,” more than any other phrases while we were there. We used them a lot). We didn’t feel like we had to be polite in Patpong. It was like St-Catherine Street in Montreal on speed.

Everywhere you looked, there were neon signs for three-storey go-go bars (the higher you went, the naughtier they got). There were people handing out flyers telling you what the girls would do at their clubs. There were people trying to grab you by the arm to pull you inside. There were “ladyboys” (I don’t think I need to explain that one). And it went on and on, for blocks. And of course, you can’t go to Patpong without seeing inside at least one of these clubs…

Much like the market outside, the go-go bars are all about volume - at some point in the past, an enterprising club-owner must have asked “why should I put one girl on stage when I can have 25!” And then the rest of the clubs followed suite. Again, it was overwhelming. Unlike clubs here where the dancers have “names” like Candii or Ecstasy, in Bangkok, they wear numbers so that, should the urge strike you, you could order your very own dancing girl by filling out a card.

Of course, this kind of environment makes the go-go girls pretty competitive. Mike got targeted by a particularly aggressive girl at one point. At first, it was relatively innocent...until, without warning, she bit his ear. HARD. I can’t imagine who would appreciate that, but suffice it to say, Mike wasn’t a fan. After checking to see if she had drawn blood, we paid for our drinks and made our way out of the district.

Another tuk-tuk and we arrived at a more conventional club. There were still subtle differences. We negotiated our cover in by agreeing to buy a bottle of whisky for the table. While we were enjoying a surprisingly talented foreign cover-band, Rachel’s Mike (who we’ll call Mikey from here on in, not because he goes by Mikey, but because it just makes things easier) pointed out a corner of the bar which was known to be frequented by Russian prostitutes. And there they were! Apparently that sort of thing is matter-of-fact in Bangkok. We spent the rest of the night dancing after the band did a kick-ass version of the Black Eyed Peas, almost as good as the real thing.

The next morning, we stopped at a street vendor to get some breakfast. Like with souvenirs and t-shirts and the like, wherever you look on city streets, you’ll see people selling and cooking food. Some might be what you might expect – fresh cut mangoes, melon, and papayas, soups, curries, skewers of meat in spicy sauce, spring rolls, etc. – but some are a little more exotic. Skewers with whole fish, mini-octopus, and other “meat products” were pretty common, all cooked over a small BBQ-like charcoal burner and served in clear plastic baggies with toothpicks for utensils. Even sauces came in baggies. Often these stalls are portable, fixed to carts, bicycles, motorcycles, or even boats, to get them to where people are hungry.

We made a bee-line to the Chao Phraya River, the life-giving vein of the ancient city of Bangkok, to see a man about a boat. One of the things Rachel rightfully insisted on was to take us on a tour of the river by Khlong, or longtail boat. Khlongs are long, slim wooden boats with several rows of seats for passengers. But their most notable feature is that they’re powered by an engine torn straight out of a car. So these engines are fixed on the back of the boat on a pivot…and the drive shaft coming out of it, instead of connecting to an axle, has a propeller on the end of it. The operator muscles around the naked engine with a lever to steer the boat, sitting inches away from a sharp, spinning cooling fan. Gutsy.

Our first stop on the tour was Wat Arun, the Temple of the dawn ("Wat"=Temple). The main spire is massive, probably ten-stories tall.

Although Wat Arun was one of the less well-maintained that we visited, the level of detail was extraordinary. All of those individual dots you see are all individual ceramic tiles. The entire structure was also encrusted in statues like this one. It kinda speaks for itself.

Another short sprint by boat and we toured the National Royal Barge museum. No pictures here (they were charging extra admission if you wanted to take any). But the barges were incredible, fully carved from wood and inlaid with gold and gem stones, used by Thailand’s royalty for special events. Check out this link if you’d like to see what they’re like.

The rest of the tour brought us down various waterways off the main course of the river, and it was here that we really understood why Bangkok is known as the Venice of the East. The canals are lined on both sides with houses built on stilts above the water and we saw people fishing and swimming along the route. We passed a floating restaurant and 20-or-so Wats, bought drinks from a lady in a boat who pulled up next to ours, and fed bread to two-foot-long catfish (sold to us by way of a bucket lowered down from above) before heading back to the dock where we started the tour.

From there, we made our way to Wat Pho, Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple and one of its earliest centres of higher education. But most importantly, it is also the home of the 150-ft long "Reclining Buddha" statue, built from plaster and brick and gilded with gold leaf. It was awe-inspiring. For good luck, we made 100 donations in 100 pots, all placed in a row.

While we were there, we learned that the spires, known as “chedi,” found at every Wat were actually burial monuments. Wealthy families make donations to the Wat in return for the honour of being able to house their family members' ashes beneath the spires - the bigger the spire, the bigger the donation the families are responsible for. And many of the statues seen around the Wats were often there because they were used as ballast on trading boats coming from China. Our guide was awesome and told us tons about Buddhism and temples that we never would have figured out on our own. Our guide books didn’t even come close.

Wow, was hoping to get a little further than this, but I guess the early posts need those extra bits of description to help flesh out what the experience was really like. Watch out real soon for Part 3: "Parks with Soundtracks, Disco-ball Volkswagons, and 8 Pairs of Socks."

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Thailand, Part 1: Three Hours in Japan, Rooftops, and Millions of Cellphones

Thailand….well, where to begin? It was the trip of a lifetime (hopefully the first of many). When my oldest buddy Mike - we’ve known each other since Grade 4! - said that he was off to visit his sister Rachel and her hubby Mike in Bangkok, it took me a matter of seconds to realize I wanted to tag along. Of course, the actual logistics of whether or not I *could* go came later, but it was clear right from the beginning that if I passed on this one, I’d kick myself forever. A bit of negotiation at work and a bit of research online, and the answer was clear: I was going, and man, now that I’d made up my mind, those three months leading up to the trip would be lonnnng.

I was so excited the night before I left that I barely slept - which is unfortunate, because I’ve discovered that I just can’t sleep properly on a plane. At all.

I arrived in Chicago and met up with Mike at our gate. The trip to Japan was pretty uneventful (all 13 hours of it). The plane was full of Japanese and the airline food was also decidedly Japanese – teriyaki and rice was pretty popular. (On all of the flights, they fed us well - by the time we reached Bangkok, we had eaten 7 meals over the course of the full 26 hours of travel).

My three hours in Japan was more entertaining than you might expect. Even at the Narita Airport in Tokyo, their culture shines through. Everywhere you looked, there was a kiosk selling Hello Kitty merchandise or electronics. Somehow, I don’t think that this Hello Kitty Collon would sell very well in North America, but who am I to judge? Just gross, yo.

It was the little touches that made it really interesting. For example, you could actually rent a room at the airport for a half hour where you could shower and change if you wanted to (very popular with the Japanese business men). In the smoking lounges, the ashtrays actually had a lighter attached to them (efficiency at its best). Everyone who worked at the airport was very helpful and SO HAPPY. I’ve never met nicer airport employees. And all of the food kiosks advertised their meals by showing a plastic version of the food in a glass case just before the spot where you order. Even the beer came in plastic form.

Although I was excited about the prospect of free massage chairs, it turned out that the ones we found were pay-chairs. We topped off the last few minutes at the airport with a pint of beer and a snack of warm soy beans. Delicious.

I have to admit that at this point, it was adrenaline and excitement that kept me going more than anything else. Getting on another plane and flying for another 6 hours felt like cruel and unusual punishment.

After what felt like the longest day of my life, we landed at Bankok International and unloaded from the plane on the tarmac for the 3rd time in three flights (batting 1.000). As we emerged from the back of the plane and moved our way forward to the exits, the humidity hit us like a wall. My shirt was soaked through with sweat before I had even gotten off the plane. I knew right then and there that despite warnings, I had underestimated the heat by a wide margin.

Fortunately we spotted Rachel’s smiling face bobbing out of the massive throng of people gathered around the only exit gate at the airport fairly easily. We caught a cab and upon arriving at Rachel’s, we were treated to our first taste of Thai beer, a Leo (first order of business!). Her place was AMAZING and although we were exhausted, no rest for the wicked. We all agreed that a club was in order. Even though it was like 1 in the morning when we left.

Luckily, Bangkok has a wide variety of after-hours clubs (which were only slightly illegal). And she took us to one of the best, a bar on a rooftop named Josephine’s that featured water jets sprayed onto the patio to keep its patrons cool (much needed, I assure you). At the same time, we were introduced to two of Rachel’s friends from Australia, Heidi and Wendy, and to what was soon to become our favourite Thai beer, Singha (pronounced “Sing,” believe it or not). We had a lot of Singha over the next two weeks. It was delicious and very very powerful.

Although we struggled at first to place our orders, it didn’t take long to get comfortable, despite the drama that was brewing at a table next to ours (a Thai woman and her white boyfriend were having a bit of a domestic….drinks were thrown, shouting ensued, and a few slaps across the face for good measure). We lasted a lot longer than we thought we would before finally getting back to Rachel’s and passing out hard.

We started the next day relatively early with plans to get a feel for the city. After a quick breakfast, we took the elevated train to Chatuchak market, the best place to get acquainted fast with Thai culture. We weren’t disappointed.

It didn’t take us long to realize that many things in Thailand are about sensory information overload. The sights, the smells, and the sounds are all super-sized. If a Thai merchant has an opportunity to a) sell 20 or so really nice things, or b) as many things of varied quality as they can possibly fit on one table, they’ll always go for the latter. And they’re EVERYWHERE, from markets, to city streets, to beaches, even to residential streets and inside bars and restaurants. Every corner you turn, you’re faced with a new smell (often strong and often unpleasant to our pampered western noses), a new sound (often LOUD or completely alien to our fragile western ears), or something new and amazing to see (often so incomprehensible that I’d walk around for hours with my mouth hanging open in sheer awe).

In the Chatuchak market, we were treated to our first major dose of tangible information overload. They sell *everything* there, from clothing (jeans and imitation fashion labels were popular), shoes, souvenirs, furniture, silk pillows, sea shells, pewter mugs, umbrellas, statues, foodstuffs, snacks, even live animals. A whole section of the market was devoted to livestock, another to carefully groomed and blow-dried puppies and rabbits – I didn’t have the heart to think too much about what would happen to them if they weren’t sold though. If you wanted it, you could probably find it somewhere in the labyrinthine maze of the market if you looked hard enough. But the place was huge and there was no regular order to the placement of the stalls that I could see. Gifts were randomly purchased and much bottled water was had.

Upon being instructed that the only meats you can really trust in Thailand were pork and chicken, and most people choose pork, my first real Thai meal was a bowl of Tom Yum noodle soup with an iced tea. I was erroneously pleased with my “Thai” drink until Mike shattered my world and pointed out the English label reading “Lipton Iced Tea” on the other side of the bottle. I swear it tasted different though.

For the first time on the trip, we hooked up with Rachel’s Mike, who had flown in from Koh Samui earlier that morning. After a brief rest at a nearby park (where Mike and Rachel shared a glass of orange drink that they both agreed tasted like human sweat), we jumped in a cab and headed to one of the main urban “mall” areas – Siam Square, a popular teenager hangout.

Most noteworthy here were some of the stores we walked by. Thais are obsessed with Santa Claus, he’s like a rockstar there. So naturally they’d name a hamburger joint after him.

Obviously Jesus is a celebrity there, too, judging by this Holy Pizza restaurant – anyone up for a slice of Pepperoni Pope with extra cheese?

We also tried a place called “Milk Plus” (made me want to tollchock someone in the gulliver) which gave us our first look at differences in snack foods between our two cultures. In Canada, we dig the fried food and sugary pastries. In Thailand, they dig gelatinous chocolate milk products and slices of white toast with honey or caramel or pudding on top of them. The place was packed.

As we left the square area, we paused to take note of the massive concrete structures all around us. Bangkok city planners love the concrete. What you’re looking at here is concrete walkways lacing above the city like an ewok village for the rich people who don’t want to mix with the garbage and smells of the streets below, along with the structure supporting the elevated railway.

From there, we were off to MTB, which is bar none, the strangest mall I’ve ever been to. The first three floors were pretty standard mall-fare, clothing stores and the like, much like any mall you’d find here. But the fourth floor was trippy. It was thousands of square feet of nothing but stalls selling used and new cell phones, varied electronics, and bootleg software, movies, music, videogames, and any other intellectual property that could be copied and distributed for peanuts. It was overwhelming. And through it all, the various stalls compared prices with the others. There wasn’t really any competition per se in terms of prices….and yet the sheer number of competitors for sales was staggering. We must have walked past literally hundreds of stalls selling almost nothing but cell phones alone.

Off to Rachel’s then for a rest before dinner! We’ll leave it there. Up next, I’ll continue with Part 2: “Bitten Ears, Khlongs, and Reclining Buddhas”

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Traveling Bug

Before I left for Thailand, some of my more travel-savvy friends told me that traveling would change me. They called it getting bitten by the "Traveling Bug," and considering how many times I heard it, I fully believed in it before I even got on the plane. But what they didn't tell me was how far it might reach into so many diverse aspects of my life. Call me naive, but part of me thought it would just make me want to travel more and keep traveling every chance I get.

Surprise! I've gotten back, and I do feel like a different person. Certain things seem to matter less. I mean, how can I worry about paying my phone bill or get all bent out of shape when someone doesn't call me back after seeing real poverty firsthand? And in the face of often poor living conditions, Thais seem to find joy and fun in the smallest, most innocent things. And how can I get really really excited about a night out at a pub or a trip to a bowling alley after riding up a mountain on the back of an elephant?

And certain things seem to matter more. Family and friends seem so much more important after finding myself so far away from them, even for such a short time....and I found out that a fun, positive experience is always worth a little risk.

All of this to say, I know I haven't gotten to the travel posts yet, and they're coming real soon. I guess it's just been hard getting back into my old patterns since I came back. I'm not even sure I want to go back to the exact same patterns as before. But blogging is definitely one that I need to place a higher priority on. I'll try to set aside a chunk of time tomorrow to start Part 1. Stay tuned!