Saturday, January 29, 2011

Slowboatin' the Mekong

The sun has broken through the clouds, brightening the already perfect temperature and charm of Luang Prabang. This morning was welcomed by the bustling street outside the guesthouse. After a customary morning routine, Robyn and I strolled up the block to Utopia Restaurant where we met David and I indulged in a Ginger-Carrot-Apple smoothie and a large breakfast of two eggs, bacon, local sausage, wild mushrooms, roasted cherry tomatoes, mango-pear chutney and homemade bread. Full and content with the sun rising beyond the scenic mountains I delved into a new novel, "The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac. We have succumbed to a leisure pace of existence in the everyday life of Laos.

Yesterday we stretched our legs and cycled around the old capital, exploring side streets and playing cards over fruit smoothies and sticky rice with mango at a riverside cafe. After winning a round of Rummy and drunk with excitement I encouraged participation in local Laos massage. With rubber arms Robyn soothed into a facial as David and I were pounded by the tiny fists of our young Laotian masseurs. What could have been a wonderful massage was continuously interrupted by the constant chatter and one-handed-texting of the girl performing my treatment.

In leaving Chang Mai, we rode a bus for five hours to a boarder town with Laos. Along the way we took breaks at a fruit dehydrating facility and visited the glimmering mirror studded, white plastered, Buddhist fantasy styled Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai. Our final stop in Thailand was, in contrast to our previous experience, a dreary experience. The woman who was in charge of receiving our bus, as well as a few others, was greatly disorganised and had a miserable personality to accompany the chaos of the situation. Guesthouses were not prepared in advance and the town was pretty dungy. Happy to leave the following day for Laos, we crossed the river two hours after schedule and on the other side we were greeted by a very friendly man. This man told the horrors of the boat trip to come and dissuaded many travellers from partaking in the journey and instead recommended a quick bus ride. Those who agreed with him received half their payment back and in addition paid an extra fee to take the bus. We were very pleased with our decision to stay with the boat as it was a beautiful and calm trip up the Mekong. The boats were clean and we found cheap rooms at our overnight stop without any trouble.

Along the Mekong, the vast jungle and mountainous landscape was easily embraced in the open air of the long boat and there was ample room to wander up and down the length of the craft to converse with our fellow travellers. The slow and steady ride was dotted with small villages, children playing waterside in the soft sand, fishermen, and the occasional farm. It was a worthwhile journey and we are happy to be settled in a clean and comfortable guesthouse here in Luang Prabang for a few days. We are planning a three day kayak trip in the near future and look forward to exploring more of this beautiful country.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Im Alive!!

Here I am everybody!!  Yes, I am too a part of the trip.  Maybe the best part?  Maybe... 
So, I realize that David and Jevin put alot of thought into creating well written reflections of our journey.  Do not, I repeat, do NOT expect this from me.  From me you will get alot of  .......  and blablabla and hahahaha.  And it probably wont make sense most of the time.

ok, so it has been almost 3 weeks.  It is time for me to share what I have learnt about Thailand.

Rule #1 - Bring toilet paper with you where ever you go.  Even if your only leaving for a minute.  You never know when your going to have to pee, and they havent invented toilet paper here yet, just buckets of water you have to splash at yourself. It gets messy.  Just bring t.p.

Rule #2 - If you are fair skinned like myself, do not trust anyone that is trying to sell you anything.  Thai people are smart and have figured out the correlation between fair skin and a willingness to overpay for everything.  Chances are, the price they are asking is 4 times what it is worth

Rule #3 - Smile at everyone and always try to say hello in Thai, even if it sounds really bad.  Even the grumpiest thai man will give you a smile and a giggle when they see you trying.  and everyone is willing to give lessons to help you speak Thai.

Rule #4 - If you find your self drinking with an old Thai woman on an overnight train.  Do not assume that the price of beer on the train is the same as anywhere, and proceed to offer to buy her drinks.  This woman has also figured out the correlation between fair skin and a willingness to over pay.

Those are the most important things for Thailand, today is our first day in Loas, so there will be more to follow.

Love you all!!! Miss you all!!!


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lost on the way to Laos

It's been two weeks since we started our adventure and the distraction provided by the novelty of our situation is slowly giving way to the question of our purpose in this strange land.

Robyn and I both assumed that our adventure would automatically launch us into an accelerated state of learning and personal growth.  While the experience so far has been wonderful, I feel that it's going to take some work and internal exploration to take the trip to the next level.

What do we want?  Why are we here?  What can Southeast Asia provide that we don't have at home?  Maybe it's the freedom from the distractions of our daily lives.  Or the opposite, we've been thrown into a situation where everything is a distraction.  Maybe this is an opportunity to quench the need for distractions.

I plan on exploring these questions in depth during the coming days.  We'll be spending quite a bit of time on a boat floating down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang (maybe spelled wrong).  There may be up to 70 of us on a fisherman-style boat with nothing but eachother and the backwaters of Laos to entertain us.  I have a feeling that I won't be the only one on the boat asking these questions.

Please don't misinterpret this entry.  I am having a wonderful time and am very grateful to be here.  Everything comes and goes in waves, and the waves can be very big!


Monday, January 24, 2011

North of Chang Mai

The buzz of ice mocha begins to eliminate the throbbing at the back of my skull after a wild night consisting of one Leo bear at Spicy Pub in Chang Mai. The crowd was sparse, to be expected for a Monday night, but conversation with a few Israeli fellows was a nice change after wondering aimlessly for hours through the crowded night market boasting every item you could ever think of not needing. Tempting as it may be to spend your baht like monopoly money, I settled on two scoops of gelato - blueberry & white chocolate.

Today is a day free from expectation. There is nowhere to be and I feel satisfied after a three day trek through the mountainous jungle North of Chang Mai. Day one consisted of an Orchid farm, village of the long-neck women, elephant ride and a three-hour vertical climb to one of the seven hilltop villages. Robyn, David and I were paired with an Australian family of five who reminded me of home. Australia seems a lot like Canada only warmer and with different animals. We spent the night in a large hut constructed of bamboo and slept on hard mats with sandbag pillows. A comfortable night for me, but the village dogs barked the whole night through.

Day two was a much more relaxed hike through the mountains with stops at two waterfalls and an overnight stay with a family of four who lived on the mountain. We told tales again of home and scared the guide with ghost stories. I continue to be amazed with the versatility of Bamboo. It can be used for piping, bridges, houses, flooring, roofing, rafting, etc. Too bad it doesn't grow as well in Canada. After our last night in the mountains we continued onwards to a white water rafting stint followed by a very short bamboo rafting ride and about two hours of chilling riverside skipping stones.

Arriving back at the BMP residence in Chang Mai, David and I jumped in the pool to refresh before heading out to explore more of the city. Chang Mai offers many of the same markets and night life as Bangkok but is not so crowded and the temperature is just slightly cooler. After a good swim and a yoga session in the sun this morning I headed out into the heat of the day well packed and ready to eat. Taking a back road off the main tourist strip I came across a crowded food stand and pointed at a few dishes with identifiable ingredients. The spice was tolerable and the food was very satisfying at less than a dollar. I quenched the heat on my lips with a roadside fruit smoothie and continued my journey to the city centre. The day has much to offer and I must be on my way.

Trekking and Chiang Mai

We've had an eventful couple of days starting in Chiang Mai, Jan. 21.  It's a popular little city about half the size of Saskatoon.  Our party split up once we got settled in and I wandered off towards the town center where I ran into a Belgian couple who we've been running into at every stop since we left Bangkok.  We got together that night for supper and drinks, wandering through the street markets in a quest for the strangest dessert.  I think that the best one so far has been a deep-fried banana-filled chocolate and condensed milk-covered crepe prepared on the street by someone whose shop is attached to their motorcycle.  Strange but true.  
Our Belgian friends sharing a bottle of Thai rum at a Blues Bar in Chiang Mai.

The next morning we headed out for trekking through the jungle mountains of northern Thailand.  We jumped in the back of a truck that had bench rows installed in the box for passengers (a popular mode of transportation) and drove west.  I don't know why I feel safe in the back of a truck winding through mountain trails at high speed when I won't drive two blocks in Saskatoon without my seatbelt, but I do.  

Our first stop was an elephant training camp where we rode the beasts on a path alongside a beautiful rocky river.

Jevin and a new friend riding Elmo the Elephant.  Banana trees in the background.
We got off the elephants, zip-lined across the river, and headed into the bush where we walked almost vertically uphill for almost three hours.  I really enjoyed it, but I think Robyn almost died.  At the top of the mountain, we reached a hill-tribe village where we would spend the night.  The hill tribes speak their own language and have a very different culture than the Thai majority.  

Approaching the hill-tribe village at the end of our mountain ascension.

When we got into the village, we were greeted by the tribe members selling handmade jewelry and offering massages, 5 CAD.  Jevin and I were under the false impression that the tribe members had some mysterious amazing massage technique so we went for it.  To our dismay, the massage consisted of awkward rubbing by two women while they argued with each other in their native tongue for twenty minutes.  It was a bizzare experience which ended with them trying to overcharge us.  Nice try!  

Apart from the terrible massages, the hill tribe village was quite a nice experience.  Our sleeping area was a bamboo hut on stilts.  We slept on firm mattresses on the floor under mosquito nets and had the most amazing view of the valley.

View from Hill-Tribe Village at Sunrise

After the noise and pace of Bangkok, it was so refreshing to be in the village.  The night air was filled with the sounds of birds, bats, crickets, and the the village children singing as they went from hut to hut.  Our guide, Tik, prepared all of our meals and I think they were some of the best we've had so far: curry on rice, fresh pineapple and watermelon, and eggs on toast for breakfast.

On the second day of the trek, we went downhill through a few more villages and eventually to a waterfall where we could take a refreshing swim.

Robyn contemplating the pros and cons of diving into a waterfall pool
That night we hung around camp, playing Rummy and chatting with our guide, finding out what life in Thailand was like for Tik.  

There were two adorable children at this location, about 2 and 3 years old.  They literally lived on the side of a mountain and played on the rocks and cliffs with the giant snakes and terrifying spiders.  They were so tough.  Robyn watched as the two-year-old tired of playing with his bamboo stick and ran to his dad.  His father rolled his eyes, took out his machete from a sling around his neck, and then sharpened the stick to a point.  He then gave it back to his delighted son who now could stab at his sister with a real weapon.

On the last day, we headed down the mountain back to the river.  We did a little white-water rafting and then headed to town, a 1 1/2 hour drive in the box of that same truck.

The end!

I'm going to add some pictures of Koh Chang and monkey town to the previous posts, so go and check them out.

Tomorrow we are taking a 3-day journey to central Laos via slow-boat.  I hope that doesn't mean that we'll be crammed on a canoe without a toilet for that time, but it might.

Until then,
  David Parker

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Commuter Train 109

The open air cabin of commuter train 109 from Bangkok to Ayutthaya is a reminder of a simple freedom we give up as Canadians for the sake of public safety. A humid nights pungent air laps putrid then sweet aromas in cooling gusts against my welcoming brow after a day of sundrenched wandering through busy streets filled with hawkers and gawkers of all kinds. Deep, guttural grumbles of the diesel engine sojourn us North along moonlit steel tracks. The familiarity of this land is close to home with fields of vegetation and towers webbed with wires ensuring the connection and distribution of power and information to the needy masses. Differences exist in the faces of smiling people, proximity of shelter or makeshift habitat to rail lines and the previous mentioned little freedoms of self governing safety.

We arrive in the ancient capital Ayutthaya, which is littered with the remnants of crumbling wats that had been burned in the last war with Burma. A new city has been constructed around the ruins of the old but not forgotten past. Plaster and mortar has since peeled from the faces of brick constructed towers and pillars as desiccated Buddha's lie in broken heaps with softened features aged by brutal force and exposure to natures other elements.

Today was our first cycle experience as we rented bikes from our guesthouse and braved the streets in search of the past and also culture of today. Cycling was a welcome change from the short roofed Tuk Tuks we have been accustomed to employing in our adventures from site to site. On route we discovered massive compounds, giant reclining Buddha's and bustling market places rich in colour, sound and smell. Taking shelter from the hot afternoon sun, Robyn and I indulge in iced coffees under the canopy of lush vegetation as we overlook yet another monument in ruin. Thoughts of displaced monks escaping from the destruction of war seems like a strange thought; stranger still that it continues to occur even to this day in other places throughout Asia. After a full day in Ayutthaya we return to the guesthouse to collect our belongings and wash from our bodies the grime of the day with cooling showers. Tonight we take the overnight, twelve hour commute, to Chang Mai where we will spend a day before heading to the jungle on a three day trek. We are well rested and in great spirits, enjoying the many sites and flavours of Thailand.

Ayuthaya and Monkey Town

We've given up island life in favor of the inland flavours.  Yesterday we got on a bus and headed back to Bangkok.  From there, we hopped on a train towards Thailand's ancient capital, Ayuthaya.  I'll post some pictures when I get the chance, but for now I'll just describe our adventures.  Ayuthaya is full of 700-year old ruins, huge structures that were all but destroyed when the Burmese sacked the city.  The structures are pretty amazing and the history is also interesting.  The main part of the city is surrounded by a few rivers that join up, making the town center an island. 

Robyn, Jevin, and I got off the train around 21:00 and jumped in a tuk-tuk to get to our guesthouse, Baan Eve.  We were greeted by friendly staff and found that our room was really quite nice.  So far we've had it pretty good.  I'm sure there will be an end to that.  In the morning, we rented bicycles to tour the city.  We travelled all around, each of us singing Hawksley Workman's 'Tokyo Bicycle' to ourselves the entire time.  We visited several ruin sites, got lost, and then lost eachother.  I was biking down the street, turned around, and there was no Robyn and no Jevin.  I was on my own!!!

I looked for them for about 5 mintues, decided it was pointless, and went find lunch.  I got some luke-warm chicken pieces served on rice at a street stall.  Maybe that wasn't the best choice, we'll see.  After that, I just biked around randomly.  We were on an island so I didn't feel that I could get too lost.  Eventually, I ended up in a huge marketplace.  The biggest part of it was all food: mangoes, pineapple, veggies, chicken and seafood.  Some of the food they sell there looks so bizzare.  I ran into something last night that looked like the contents of a chicken's intestinal tract.  Old ladies shopping for supper poke at the raw meat, looking for the best cuts.  Public health nightmare!  Some of the seafood was still alive and just left to writhe around on the chopping block.  There was a bucket of eels or water snakes or something, very weird, and a big bucket of toads, delicious!!

I also caught site of a food I really want to try, the durian.  It is a big spiky fruit that apparently smells and tastes like raw sewage, but the thais just love it so I figure I should give it a try.  I didn't have any today though because I had just finished eating four mangoes, all served on a stick.  Everything here comes on a stick.  I also had chicken on a stick, fish balls on a stick, pineapple on a stick, dessert on a stick.  It just tastes better on a stick!

From Ayuthaya we travelled by train to Losburi, Monkey Town.  There are also a lot of ruins in this city.  Modern buildings have been erected all around them.  Now, the monkey town gets its name from a roving band of monkeys that hang around, just like the dogs and cats do.  We saw them fighting and fornicating downtown but it wasn't too exciting.

Alright, this post is getting very long so I'll save some for next time.  In a few hours we're hopping on a night train the Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.  From there we'll head out on a three day trek through the jungle so I might not update until after that.  We'll see. 

David Parker

Update!  Pictures of Ayuthaya and Lopburi!

Ruins in Ayuthaya

Robyn found a friend!  Soooo big!!!

Ruins in Lopburi

Lopburi Ruins

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Scooting Around Koh Chang!

Another wonderful day! Woke to the call of a roasters and the glow of a rising sun not quite reaching past the peak of the island. The compelling draw of yoga to stimulate the body into wakefulness is much easier satisfied in the warm humid morning of Koh Chang in contrast to the frigid dark dawn of Saskatoon. Greeted by Uri, a Ukrainian yogi, who offered me a cd of his practice I participated in very limited conversation before heading up island on a rented scooter. Breakfast at a restaurant on Lonely Beach consisted of fried eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, toast, tea and juice. Too much meat but it satisfied my hunger. After strolling the beach side for twenty minutes I embraced the salty water lapping at my toes. Emerging ankle to knee to waist and then the full plunge! Relief from the building heat of the day. With a lung full of air I swam after small yellow fish scurrying the white sand floor of this tropical retreat. Completing my swim I applied spf 30 to keep the blistering sun from scalding my white Canadian flesh, a lesson hard learned from past exposure.
With 40 baht worth of fuel in the scooter I rode South to Bang Boa and up a jungle road. Not so much of a road as a crumbling asphalt pathway. Passing tree huts and skittering animals I reached the end of the road. It disappeared into a cavern requiring some backtracking. Stopping at a stretch of beach to meet with some new friends that we are arranging to snorkel with tomorrow I ran out of time before meeting them and had to return the rental, but not before stopping for an Iced Mocha made with sweetened condensed milk, cocoa and espresso a very delicious treat!
It is just past noon and more of the day awaits. Robyn and David have already ventured off and I soon will look for another satisfying bite to eat. So much satisfaction in the variety and wealth of dishes this country has to offer. Smiles and tans everywhere with relaxed travelers from the world around. Farewell for now with thoughts and dreams of so many friends.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Koh Chang Island, Thailand

Well, we've found tropical paradise.  For less than $10 a night we are staying in a beautiful grass-roofed bungalow overlooking a garden.  Down the path are restaurants right on top of the clear aquamarine waters and just a little further is a white sand beach overlooking the endless ocean.  The routine has been to wake up with the sun, do some yoga in the garden, and then head down to the beach for a refreshing swim.  After that, we'll head up to one of the many restaurants for a leisurely breakfast and then explore the island.

Today we're going to check out Bang Bao Bay where Thai fishermen bring in their catch.  I'm looking forward to some fresh seafood for supper and then watching the sun set over the ocean.

This backpacking thing isn't as hard as I thought it might be.


Update, here's some photos of Koh Chang:
Sunset on Koh Chang

Relaxing after a nice lunch

Garden of Bailan View Guesthouse where we stayed

Grilled Squid!!  I ate squid every day on this island.  Cannibal!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Day 1

It's only day one and it feels like we've been here a long time. The three of us weren't sleeping much so we decided to get started early, around 6:30am. Breakfast wasn't scary at all, eggs and sausage, and the bathrooms and shower are all really nice.   So far so good.

We started wandering and it wasn't long before we began to attract attention.  A thai man came up to us, asking all sorts of questions, just begging to help out.  He taught us some thai phrases and ended up planning a tour of Bangkok's Wats for us.  He even hailed a tuk-tuk (motorcycle carriage) and bartered the fare ( $1 to have the driver take us to 6 sites).

Our view from the tuk tuk

The first wat we visited.  Giant Bhudda in the background....very giant.

Walking across the street in Bangkok is probably the most dangerous thing I've ever done.  At some points, pedestrians cross 8 lanes of traffic, aggressive drivers cruising at full speed and motorcycles weaving between cars.

We got tired of watting and so let the driver decide where we should go.  This was a mistake.  We ended up sitting in suit stores trying to convince the tailors that we had no use for a custom-made suit while chilling on the beach.  I guess the drivers get a commision if we buy things there.

Eventually we ditched that driver and started wandering again.  This time a thai woman came up to us, asking us all sorts of questions and giving all sorts of advice.  Then she hailed a tuk tuk for us and bartered the price on our behalf.  We didn't actually want to go for another ride but we had nothing better to do so we hopped on.  It was cheap, it was adventure, and we had no reason not to let strangers decide our fate.

We ended up at a government-run tourist help center where we put together the itinerary for the bulk of our trip.  In two days we'll be chilling on an island beach. From there we're going to battle some monkeys, run around the jungle, float on bamboo rafts, and eat tons of Vietnamese food. 

The rest of today was spent wandering around trying to find food that we could identify.  This was not entirely successful. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Safely in Bangkok

Well, after 28 hours in transit, we have finally made it to the first stop on our adventure, Bangkok.  We're going to stay here at the Savurin Guesthouse for a few days and try to get our bearings.  We walked around the area a bit after we got off the plane but soon realized that, just like in Saskatoon, there's pretty much only drunks and drama at 2 am anywhere in the world so we went back and hid in our room. 

Our first international accomodations

Walking down the alley.

The view from our balcony.

Another view from our balcony.