Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chang Mai - "Elephant City"

After the beaches I wanted to end my trip (I know, already, right? Haha) in Northern Thailand. Chang Mai is a formerly walled city with a river moat and has easy access to hills and jungles in the north. The location was a perfect base for more adventures, including a day at an elephant farm (I got to feed and bathe elephants that were rescued from street begging, land mine accidents or abusive owners); a 2-day jungle trek to visit local villagers who live in the mountains and return via river rafting and bamboo floating; and finally more rock climbing!

While I write this from the Bangkok airport, I can’t believe that my trip is already over, but at the same time I am excited to go home and have tacos, hamburgers, Texas BBQ, water from a faucet (it does pain me to go through so many plastic bottles per day), a wardrobe with more than 7 shirts, 3 shorts and 2 shoes to choose from (or as my dad would say, “2 choose to choose from”) and of course my friends and family whom I missed dearly.

I am also extremely grateful for the opportunity (I kept telling myself, when else in life will I have time, money and no commitments), for the hospitality of host countrymen/fellow travelers/locals/new friends and for a better understanding of different cultures and traditions. The world sometimes truly feels small yet so vast at other times. Seeing different perspectives and different ways of life increases my curiosity for learning and at the same time my gratitude for the opportunities I have had in life. I encourage everyone to step outside of your comfort zone and learn to put faith in humanity so that you too can be rewarded by the knowledge that people from all over the world can be open, helpful, friendly and genuine. And when you meet travelers you’ll remember what it felt like to be helped out and maybe you’ll extend a hand to the person who looks lost on the street or asks you for advice.

I hope you enjoyed the blog and if you ever need travel advice for Brasil, Argentina, South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia or Thailand (that was a mouthful!) please feel free to ask me. Of course I have a ton of photos too so I’ll try to organize them and find a way to share them with you.

Safe travels.

Phuket, just relax

Phuket was so safe that it made Bangkok seem like it was in a different country. I joked with locals if one was wearing a red shirt and they loved it.

Phuket was way more expensive than Bangkok but the beach was amazing (Le Meridien had its very own private beach and was full of day activities like kayaking, soccer, tennis, basketball, pool sports, wall climbing, etc.). The nightlife in Patong was a bit too young/commercialized with throngs of lady-boys, sex shows and young drunk Aussies. But Phuket was also a great launching point for getting to the southern islands and that was next on the trip.

First stop was Don Phi Phi (said like “Pee Pee”) which was destroyed by the tsunami a few years ago and totally rebuilt…although I wish they were a bit smarter about the redevelopment because the place, while beautiful with mountains and oceans, was just too overrun and too cheesy. Highlights were me jumping rope a rope on fire (I have the video to prove it!), eating amazing curry dishes at Papaya (where the cats hang out in the fridge to keep cool), watching sunset from the highest point of the island and the day trips.

Day trips included an early morning journey to Maya Beach where the movie “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed. We successfully avoided the crowds to enjoy one of the most spectacular beaches in the world. Then we went snorkeling to see some fantastic coral reef and an impressive array of fish. The next day we did another boat trip to check out Monkey Beach, the Viking Caves and of course more snorkeling and beach time.

Then I was dying to try some rock climbing after successfully negotiating the climbing wall at the hotel. Railay, another island, is known as a climbers’ paradise and it did not disappoint. Since it was slow season, the Canadian girls that I met in Cambodia and I had a private climbing session and did some really cool climbs just on the beach. It was one of the biggest thrills and I can honestly say I’m addicted!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bangkok Is Burning

My one-night stand in Bangkok could not have been better timed. When I arrived things had been relatively peaceful and quiet as the red shirts were in agreement with the current government in support of new elections. The hotel owner gave me some tips of areas to avoid but convinced me that the city was safe. I wondered quite a bit and I must say that I had a strange feeling looking into the eyes of the military officials there. It just felt odd…like they were in a war. Their eyes gave away an intensity and impending doom that I hadn’t seen before in soldier’s eyes. I actually felt uncomfortable and retired to my hotel room that night knowing that I had a flight the next day.

I spent some time on the skytrain which was amazing – clean, easy to navigate, cheap and fast. And of course the street food was amazing and super-cheap. Pad thai, green curries, red curries, fried noodles, noodle soup…everything was so tasty and spicy.

As luck would have it, my feelings had some validity. The day I left for Phuket the riots started as the military used physical force to move the protestors. The next few headlines in the paper were “Bangok at War,” “Bangkok is Burning,” and “Civil Unrest.” I was very grateful to not have been there during that time.

Cambodia Random Musings

OK…on to the part where I digest what I’ve seen and experienced. For Cambodia (and some of these hold true for other SE Asian countries as well):

1. Cambodians love white skin. In fact, it’s such an obsession that they (a) constantly complement white travelers on how beautiful their skin (I’m too dark now to get that but I see it all the time); (b) completely avoid the sun – now this gets ridiculous at times when it is 100 degrees outside and locals are wearing long sleeve shirts (I’ve even seen a turtleneck!), hats, pants and sometimes even umbrellas and gloves; (c) generously apply “whitening cream” which is available as a lotion, as part of the sunscreen (huh?) or even face wash. For them, white is beautiful and tans/brown skin is not. Such a shame because most of use would die to have their mocha colored skin tone.

2. Not sure if this one is related, but it cracked me up…women during the day are dressed in full-on pajamas – like the set you had as a kid with a matching top and pants with some sort of funky little design. I guess it’s all about comfort before fashion in Cambodia.

3. And speaking of comfort, you also see scores of butt naked children running around in the streets – I guess it makes sense considering they will outgrow clothes so quickly and the parents probably can’t afford to spend so much on clothing (it tends to be the poorer kids who are naked of course).

4. Another strange custom was that many males have long fingernails. When we asked one about his nails, he said it was for scratching and cleaning out his ear/nose. But given the widespread drug use I’m not convinced it doesn’t have an alternative use.

5. I might have alluded to this one in another posting, but speaking of alternative uses, the river is also a toilet. At our rest stop on the 9 hour boat from hell, we had a chance to use the toilet. When you open the door you realize it is literally a wooden floor with a hole in the middle that leads straight to the river. I definitely didn’t go for any food at that rest stop.

6. Finally, if you thought having a Lexus in a developing country isn’t flashy enough then you must be Cambodian because on the sides of all the high-end cars are huge labels saying the brand. I guess the owners truly are proud people.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ankor What?

Actually it’s called Ankor Wat (Wat means “temple” and Ankor means “city”), but there was a great bar in town named Ankor What? Many bars/restaurants are plays on the English language and it has been a hoot reading their English (one of my favs: “Please don’t flush foreign bodies in the toilet”). Ankor Wat is a must-see as it houses an array of impressive temples, buildings, paintings and carvings of Hinduism. The story of Ankor Wat is almost as disturbing as Cambodia’s past as many raids have ruined the statutes and all the jewels have been stolen. The place however still exudes otherworldly feelings and it truly deserves its standing as one of the 7 manmade wonders of the world.

Siem Reap is the city closest to Ankor Wat and it was so much more relaxing than Phnom Penh – and not just because of the readily available $5 massages (I had a massage by a blind woman too and it was great), but just way less urban and a centralized location (called Pub Street of course) for foreigners to kick back. I made the trip with my new Mexican friend Benjamin whom I met at our cinco de mayo party in PP and we met a bunch of cool Canadians (I later traveled with 2 of them thru Thailand).

I decided to make the next leg of trip by myself though and I still regret it. They offered a boat from Siem Reap to Battambang, on the way to Bangkok. The boat was crowded, hot, totally uncomfortable and lasted 8.5 hours! Although the water life was interesting to see (houses, shops and schools along the river), it was painfully slow and the river was extremely dirty (even though that didn't stop locals from bathing, drinking and washing their dishes in it). At some point we even had to get out of the boat and push it because the water was too low for the engine. So painful…and I completely wasted an entire day because I was dead by the time I got to Battambang and the next morning I headed out to Bangkok. Now I need another $5 massage!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Phnom Penh: Guns, Ganja and Girls

This is literally the title of a book that I picked up while here – and a surprisingly fitting title for a book about PP. I was blown away by my first step in Cambodia – a fully developed urban grind with more than its fair share of taxi, tuk-tuk (motorcycle with an attached cabin for passengers) and cyclo (a pedal bike with 2 comfortable seats for passengers) drivers yearning to take visitors to the Killing Fields and the Firing Range. I’ll get to these soon.

First of all I arrive on May 5th, better known to many as Cinco de Mayo – the celebration of Mexico winning the battle at Puebla and popularized by gringos especially in border states (Cali, Texas, etc.). Since I was staying at “Hotel California” in PP, I arrived to a full-on party at my hotel’s bar. When presented with margaritas and carnitas with beans and rice I was more than happy to join in the fun. The night progressed to a smattering of local bars and my oh my did I see more hookers than I ever have in my life. That explains the “Girls” part of the book – apparently prostitution runs rampant in PP and is inexpensive and virtually legal.

The next day I went for more cultural activities and visited the T21 museum that was used as a prison camp during the Pol Pot / Khmer Rouge regime. A brief history for those who may not know: Cambodia’s King was overthrown by a US CIA-backed coup that was soon ousted by a militant group Khmer Rouge who effectively killed or imprisoned all the nation’s “elitists” including those educated, living in cities or with wealth. The KR ran everyone out of Phnom Penh, tortured and killed an estimated one to two million citizens and wreaked havoc throughout the country through fear and intimidation. So, the museum lays out this tragedy and the Killing Fields show the area where, like a concentration camp, the bodies were just thrown upon each other in heaps. It’s an incredibly sad history and it is amazing how Cambodia has recovered from such a brutal history. Cambodian people were so sweet and a welcome break from the too-obvious hustlers from Indonesia. Other Southeast Asia countries call them “na├»ve” but as a traveler it is such a relief to not have to negotiate for 1 hour for a decent price.

This history led to the “guns” part of the book which now is a business that allows tourists to shoot any of a large inventory of weapons (including AK-47s, rocket launchers, uzis, etc.). I didn’t do this activity but lots of tourists do.

Now to the “ganga” part…in a country that seems to be lawless it is only fitting that restaurants openly advertise their “happy” pizzas. All tuk-tuk drivers also pull over and ask if you if want anything. The city is definitely a bit crazy, but given the friendliness of the citizens, it more than makes up for the lawlessness. The next stop was a bit more of a dip into earlier history with a visit to Siem Reap and Ankor Wat, some of the largest Hindu temples in the world built around 1000-1100.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ballin in Bali

For me, Bali has always been a place that conjures images of tropical paradise and mystic spirituality. My expectations were for a fisherman’s town rife with gurus and temples. I guess I could say I was about half right, but reality was that my expectations were so far from reality.

Let me try to explain. The first Bali that I found was a sun-seeking, surfing, partying town. Only later did I discover that it really has multiple sides. The first few days Ruen (my high school buddy who works in Iraq met me in Bali for 2 weeks) and I checked out the beach (not the prettiest) and pretty much got harassed/hustled everywhere we went. We did make some good deals and some really bad ones (Ruen with a few glasses of beer will absolutely buy anything for $5 or less!). The food was amazing and everything was dirt cheap. So let’s call this Side 1: Party Surf Town, which is basically Kuta and Legian.

Side 2: Cultural Beauty. We made a few road trips around the island of Bali and saw some amazing landscape including volcanoes, rolling green rice fields and farmlands. We entered a handful of Hindu temples (Bali is the only Hindu Indonesian island – the rest are Muslim of course) until we were “templed out.” The funniest part about the temples is that we were literally celebrities. Well, I won’t go that far, but all the Balinese visiting from rural areas wanted to take pictures with us. So I kid you not at some point we started avoiding camera-toting groups of screaming young ladies eager to pose with us. I now know how it would feel to be a celeb…for 15 minutes. We also stayed a few days in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali and from here we saw a traditional Balinese dance (so not worth it!) and made a 2 hour trek to the top of an active volcano. I also went with friends to see the Guru made famous from the “Eat Pray Love” book for a palm reading (Kekut Lying) and what a disappointment! He gave the three of us the EXACT same reading and then tried to charge us $25USD. What a joke. Fortunately the guy was very positive and despite being 95 years old still had his wits, but I would definitely not recommend getting your fortune read by him…actually just give me the $25 and I’ll tell you exactly what he will tell you (“You berry berry lucky. You have many success. Very rich and handsome/pretty. You will live long…100 years and have 2 children.”).

Side 3: Beach Paradise. Ahhhh, now we’re talking – a 1.5 hour speed boat ride to Lombok island and the “Gilis” took us to an absolute paradise where there was much less hustle and much prettier beaches. I ended up renting a scooter in Lombok (Ruen was too scared…and rightfully so since I did wipe out when another scooter cut in front of me) and met a nice local kid who showed me around his village. The people were so welcoming and despite the language barriers we shared a ton of smiles and laughs. Gili Trawangan was our next stop and it is a small island (we walked the whole thing in 1.5 hours) with no motorized transport and no police. The island is super-safe, relaxing, fun, cheap and the closest place to paradise I have ever been.

Side 4: Bling Bling Bali. We met up friends that I had made in Singapore at a bar called Ku De Ta and all of sudden a whole other part of Bali opened up. This new area called Seminyak was filled with high-end boutiques, cool bars and top restaurants, spas and hotels. Of course I spent my last few days here and had some amazing spa treatments (for only $6USD you get a 1-hour full body massage!) and did yoga to complete my Bali experience.

Given the current status of the demonstrations in Bangkok I decided to forgo spending time there and just changed my flight to arrive in Phomn Phen, Cambodia just in time for cinco de mayo! I’ll work my way across Cambodia and then down Thailand to end my world-wide journey in Phuket, Thailand on May 25th. I look forward to being back and catching up with my family and friends live.