Archive: January, 2012



Broken Motorbikes + Chinese New Year | Mae Salong

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Mae Salong is nestled in the foothills of Northern Thailand, away from the tourist path, and away from, well, pretty much everything. It is a unique, magical town steeped in history and culture, and it’s one of my favorite places in Thailand so far. The drive (up a very windy two lane road) provided spectacular panoramic views of the mountains and local tea plantations. It’s chilly enough for cherry blossoms to bloom here, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of their glory.

This tiny town was founded in the 1960s by former Kuomintang (KMT), or anti-communist rebels, who settled in the area after fleeing China (and being expelled from Burma) following the 1949 Chinese Civil War. In return for asylum, they fought against communist insurgents along the border until the early 80s. They also acquired a sizable share of the booming opium and heroin trade. Today, Yunnanese Chinese refugees still make up 90% of the population and maintain their Yunnan dialect and customs. I happened to be here during the Chinese New, a beautiful coincidence, that ultimately created one of the highlights of my trip. Off-limits to tourists until the early 70s, there is still a sense of isolation to Mae Salong, even today. Slowly a thriving tea industry has replaced the opium trade, and many tea plantations and tea shops (best known for Oolong tea) now dot the countryside.

I decided that if I was going to do learn to motorbike, I might as well really go for it and do it in the mountains. Unfortunately, the rental shop was “out of helmets,” (sorry, mom) so I drove myself to a makeshift basketball court where I got the feel for the bike before setting off into the mountains. When you are traveling alone, you learn to spot other lone travelers, and if you are in the mood for company, you can latch on to each other and make an adventure. This was the case for Gilles and I, a young french guy nearing the end of his 6 month backpacking trip through India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia. Gilles had just set out on a four hour walk, and I was on a mission to cruise backroads, so we exchanged numbers and planned to meet later in the day.

I just kept going and going and going. I must have had a smile permanently plastered on my face as I motorbiked through the countryside, because every time I encountered locals walking along the road, I made them smile. It was pure bliss. I stopped on a side road where I met some Akah Hilltribe women selling their handicrafts. I picked up some gifts for some friends at home, interacting and laughing with the women as I made my purchases and took their photo (showing them the photos in the LCD screen made them erupt in laughter). As a side note, after much research, I’ve opted NOT to do any “Hilltribe Tourism” while in South East Asia. I’ve found there much more authentic ways to interact with these communities. From what I understand, many of the hilltribes in close proximity to Chiang Mai feel like human zoos, and some are perhaps set up and controlled by the government for the sole purpose of tourist-gawking. Please plan your trecking trips and organized tours wisely. I highly recommend Spicy Joe’s trecking trips, which I will talk about in a later entry.

After my motorbiking adventure, Gilles and I headed out for part II together. The adventure started out wonderfully, with Gilles leading the way, and each of us honking our horns when we wanted to stop to take pictures. We planned to watch the sunrise over the mountains and then head to another village where Gilles had promised to return with whiskey for the Chinese New Year. Sometimes things don’t go as planned….

As we were puttering up a steep grade, Gilles stopped to take a picture. Since I did not have the same strength as him, when I tried to stabilize my motorbike on the hill, it tipped over. It seemed like no big deal, except when I got back on, there was something wrong with it. We decided that the engine might be hot, so we waited with fingers crossed as we went over possible scenarios. “Well, I could push your bike with my foot while I drive mine…” After waiting 30 minutes, we tried the bike again, but it still was not working.

We walked up a hill to where there some people mingling about. A young woman, who saw the worried looks on our faces, came to see what was up. We pointed to the bike and tried to explain that it was working, but had lost its power and wasn’t suitable to ride. She called over some friends who came and tested out the bike. After they poked and prodded the bike and talked amongst themselves, we were still standing there clueless, unsure if it was a serious or minor problem. Gilles and I both called Thai-speaking friends to have them help translate, and long story short, with a few tweaks of a small wire, my bike was back to normal. In the process of all this, a man who spoke a little English had been summoned by the others. He explained that his wife was Swiss and they were camping up the road, and he invited us to come eat and sit by the fire with them.

This is where our story took a beautiful turn. We climbed up a hill to join our new friend and his Swiss wife and found not just his wife, but an entire group of family and friends sitting by the fire, eating, and celebrating. “We don’t live here,” his wife, Grizelle explained. “We are just camping with our roommate’s family, who are from the Akah hilltribe. Grizzelle had met her Thai husband (I can’t for the life of me remember his name now) while she was teaching English near Chiang Mai almost 10 years ago. Now they have a child together and have settled in Thailand full-time.

As we talked with Grizzelle, she extrapolated on her relationship with her roommate’s family. “About five years ago, all of these people were living much further from here in a more remote area, and there was a bad fire. They lost everything. When it happened, I was able to raise some funds from some Swiss friends and family, and what you see now is what we rebuilt, about 10 houses. They are still grateful towards me every time I visit.” It still astounds me how, as a world and as a people, we mange our money. I come from a country where men get paid millions of dollars to throw an inflated ball into steel hoops and between posts, and here I was sitting in a village in which less than a thousand dollars could rebuild ten homes. I can only shake my head and wonder sometimes…

The hospitality this family showed us was incredible and humbling. As we sat around the fire, they brought out watermelon, sticky rice, and tea. After visiting the kitchen, I realized the feast hadn’t even yet begun, as they were preparing fresh fish, seasoned pork, and fresh vegetables they had grown themselves in their garden. As we sat down to eat, I felt so grateful for this experience, and the generosity we’d come across. And the feast, well, it was unbelievably delicious. The stars above were glowing, celebratory music was playing in the distance, and after we returned to the fire, fireworks began crackling in all directions. Happy Chinese New Year! It is these experiences that motivate me to travel again and again. It is these experiences that push me out of the cage of my comfort zone. And it is these experiences that leave me feeling like a child again, exploring unfamiliar territory, foreign languages, limited communication, and a faded curiosity that often leaves us both with age, and as we go through the motions of our own routines, in our familiar towns, familiar homes, with our familiar families and friends. Yet in these moments, gratitude always emerges for both ends of the spectrum… the distant familiarity and present moment of hanging on the metaphorical monkey bars on the playground of new experience. For all of these things, I am grateful. For all of these things, I am in awe.

The next day after an early morning motorbike cruise, Gilles and I parted ways, and the tiny unknown town of Pharao waited for me in the distance….

we aren’t lost… we just don’t know where we’re going…

assessing the broken motorbike

to the fire we go….

without a tripod, this is the best shot i could get of the stars above…

the feast!

preparing a special kind of sticky rice

one of my favorite pictures i’ve taken on the trip so far…

it was quite chilly but i couldn’t help but laugh outloud when he busted out these gloves….

what bus ride in the mountains would be complete without someone vomiting all over the floor? this girl’s sister (leaning in back) couldn’t quite make it…we found a piece of cardboard on the side of the road and literally scraped out the vomit from the van floor…

after mae salong, i made  brief stop in chaing rai to see the white temple…

i’m starting a collection of humorous and bizarre photos from my trip, the one on the right will no doubt make the collection…

Please do not use or reproduce any of these photos without permission. If you’d like to follow me on my journey, head over to my facebook page.

Island Adventure | Koh Chang

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

I wasn’t planning to go to Koh Chang, but I’m so glad the opportunity arose. Priya’s friend Phon invited us to his music gig on the island….one night turned into two, and the whole experience was quite special, mostly because I saw a side of Koh Chang not many people do. We left Bangkok before sunrise, and arrived via a minibus and ferry ride six hours later. Upon arrival, we headed to the Djembe House, a drummer’s fantasyland. So many friends came to mind when I stepped afoot in this place (shout out to Duncan). It feels like it’s out of a dream. The kept schedule at the Djembe House is as follows: wake up at dawn (or whenever), watch the sunrise while swimming in the Gulf of Thailand, read or go back to sleep, wake up and turn on some music, drum for a couple of hours, take a nap, chat with some tourists as they walk along the beach, eat delicious homemade food, go out, play music, and party. Wake up, do it all over again.

south east asia travel blog (104)

After a lazy day with the boys, and an amazing family cooked meal, (by the way did you know it’s rude to leave rice on your plate? If you’re full, you must give it to your neighbor), we headed down the beach for the music gig. It took some work to get the van out from where it had been parked…and let’s just say driving in Koh Chang at night is an adventure in itself. The band played an awesome, lively gig at a tourist spot. We shot some pool, smoked some shisha, and let the didgeridoo and drums seep into our brain into the wee hours of the morning. Priya and I were extremely tired by the end of the gig, but the boys were ready to party. We spent the next five hours driving from bar party to bar party around the island…that is, the boys did…Priya and I slept in the van because we were just too tired. Keep in mind it was 3 am at this point (and we had awoken before dawn). We arrived back at the Djembe house just before sunrise.

I woke up to some serious activity in my stomach. An earthquake, really. I shot up and ran to the bathroom. Did.Not.Quite.Make.It. Go ahead, laugh. Of course, as with many places in Thailand, there’s no toilet paper and no handle to flush, so I just had buckets of water to wash myself and “flush” out the dirty water. Although fairly effective, at this point I just wanted a fluffy white roll of Cottenelle and a toilet handle! Because it was nearly dawn when we got back, the sun was  already up, which was my saving grace, otherwise I would have been operating in darkness. I’ve already shared too many details… but let’s just say this continued for a couple days. We decided the culprit was the raw crab from a papaya salad earlier in the day, but there’s no way to know for sure.

the bathroom…
south east asia travel blog (105)

Until very recently (the early 1990’s),  Koh Chang was just a simple place where Thai fisherman and fruit farmers lived. Lonely Beach was discovered by backpackers around the 1970’s and continued to be a “secret getaway” until it became more commercialized in the 90s. Like any remote place that becomes commercialized, it hasn’t come without it consequences. There is a lot of construction happening on the island now, and huts are being torn down to create resorts. It still mostly guesthouses and bungalows, but I imagine this will no longer be the case in 5 years.  Priya also mentioned that a lot of farmers have stopped farming fruit and have turned to rubber, a more lucrative product, and indeed, everywhere we went there were rubber trees.

We decided to stay a second night, but Priya and I left Phon with the band and headed to the east side the island to her friend’s guesthouse, Judo. (Judo in Thai by the way means little kid’s boner… but tourists don’t know that so it’s funny…and it also implies having a good time). I hitched a ride on a moterbike with a cute Finnish guy, Priya found a taxi, and we went the rest of the way together. Her friend Peo, the manager, is adorable and so sweet, and the guesthouse was lovely. Because it’s on the eastern side of the island, far from the port where the tourist ferry comes in, it’s quiet and tucked away. We set out for a kayak adventure to the virtually inhabited island across from us. It was silent on the water except for Priya and I singing “We’re cruising together” and Raffi songs like Baby Bulga. We saw a couple of dolphins, though Priya made me laugh when she said, “I think they might be baby whales!” I humored her and said, “Yea, maybe!” We swam around for a bit, took some pictures and then headed back to Judo. After an eventful dinner of me not eating and going to the bathroom every 10 minutes, we settled in for the night, and Priya’s from Peo brought me some delicious to settle my stomach.

The next morning we set out again for the island, went snorkeling, and then kayaked around the whole island. We rowed hard for five minutes, then stopped, leaned back in the kayak, took in the panoramic view, chatted about a memory, then continued gliding through the water. We saw schools of jumping silver fish, which were so cute! It just felt magical out there. It was just us and the island, just us and the water. Silence. Echoes. Laughing. Singing, like we were in our own little surreal world. I was truly reminded of the sheer awe that nature brings forth. This will be one of my most special memories from this trip.

south east asia travel blog (119)

south east asia travel blog (117)

the path to the djembe house

south east asia travel blog (116)

welcome to the djembe house

south east asia travel blog (112)

south east asia travel blog (115)

south east asia travel blog (114)

south east asia travel blog (111) south east asia travel blog (110)

south east asia travel blog (109)

south east asia travel blog (108)

south east asia travel blog (107)

sleeping quarters… where i awoke to an earthquake in my stomach

south east asia travel blog (106)

meet chong… i’m kinda in love with him so they’ll be a lot of pictures of him

south east asia travel blog (77)

south east asia travel blog (102) south east asia travel blog (101)

south east asia travel blog (100)

south east asia travel blog (99)

south east asia travel blog (98)

south east asia travel blog (97)

south east asia travel blog (96)

south east asia travel blog (94)

south east asia travel blog (93)

south east asia travel blog (92) south east asia travel blog (91)

south east asia travel blog (82)

south east asia travel blog (88) south east asia travel blog (89)

south east asia travel blog (87)

south east asia travel blog (86)

south east asia travel blog (84) south east asia travel blog (83)

south east asia travel blog (81)

south east asia travel blog (80) south east asia travel blog (79)

south east asia travel blog (78)

south east asia travel blog (76)

south east asia travel blog (75) south east asia travel blog (73)

south east asia travel blog (74)

south east asia travel blog (72)

south east asia travel blog (69)

south east asia travel blog (67)

south east asia travel blog (66)

south east asia travel blog (65)

south east asia travel blog (62)

south east asia travel blog (61)

south east asia travel blog (60)

south east asia travel blog (59)

south east asia travel blog (58)

south east asia travel blog (57)

south east asia travel blog (56)

south east asia travel blog (55)

south east asia travel blog (54) south east asia travel blog (53)

judo guesthouse…

south east asia travel blog (52)

south east asia travel blog (51)

Priya and her friend Peo

south east asia travel blog (50) south east asia travel blog (49)

south east asia travel blog (48)

south east asia travel blog (47)

south east asia travel blog (46)

south east asia travel blog (45)

south east asia travel blog (39) south east asia travel blog (38)

south east asia travel blog (36)

south east asia travel blog (35)

south east asia travel blog (34) south east asia travel blog (33)

south east asia travel blog (42)

south east asia travel blog (43)

south east asia travel blog (41)

south east asia travel blog (40)

south east asia travel blog (31) south east asia travel blog (32)

south east asia travel blog (30)

south east asia travel blog (27)

south east asia travel blog (25)

south east asia travel blog (14)

south east asia travel blog (23) south east asia travel blog (22)

south east asia travel blog (21)

we set out again in the morning…

south east asia travel blog (20)

south east asia travel blog (17)

south east asia travel blog (19)

south east asia travel blog (18)

south east asia travel blog (16)

south east asia travel blog (15)

south east asia travel blog (13)

south east asia travel blog (12)

south east asia travel blog (11)

south east asia travel blog (10)

south east asia travel blog (9)

coconut tree…

south east asia travel blog (8)

south east asia travel blog (4)

south east asia travel blog (3)

south east asia travel blog (2)

south east asia travel blog (1)

Stay tuned to find out what happened after I lost my train ticket…Did you reach this post by chance? Keep track of me on my Facebook Page.

Chinatown + Nightlife | Bangkok

Friday, January 20th, 2012

If you want to find the heart of any city, head to Chinatown. In Bangkok, the produce and home goods market in Chinatown is incredible. The food is downright delicious, and at $1 a dish, the sky is the limit. Just know what you are eating. Everywhere you look are huge bags, bins, and buckets of unknown food items (think chicken’s feet), but when you find the right place, it’s like winning the lottery. Thirty cent fresh oysters? Yes, please! Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice for less than a dollar? I’ll take three! I must confess though…I feel like I cheated, because on Priya’s advice, we went at the tail end of the day when things were starting to close down. During the day, the market is nearly impossible to walk through and completely overwhelming… but the nighttime stroll was just perfect.

After our dinner in Chinatown, we went back to Thong Lo to clean up and amp up. Priya was determined to get me over my jetlag. Her cure? A wild night out in Bangkok. We started at The Balcony in the gay district. I say the gay distract because it’s super gay, but what’s so cool about Bangkok is how gay, straight, and trans culture seem to mix seamlessly. I’m still wrapping my head around the vibe, but in general, if you’re LGBT in Bangkok, you’re in good hands. Many Thais are intimate with both males and females without worrying about what to label themselves. Crossing dressing is widely accepted, and males who cross dress are referred to as “ladyboys.” I was familiar with ladyboy culture before I came, but experiencing it has been refreshing. People who would be openly mocked on the street in the US (with the exception of New York City) are welcomed and embraced in Thai society. Priya also introduced me to the term “gig,” which might be comparable to “friends with benefits.” It is very common for people to have a primary partner and “gigs” on the side. Though having gigs often includes a sexual relationship, I learned that it’s not always that way. “A gig might be someone you just have a special connection with, or a mutual crush, like someone who comes over and takes care of you when you are sick.” How cute is that?

Next we headed to an ex-pat watering hole called Wong’s. Here, you will meet people from every country. Allow me to clarify, here you will meet plastered “professionals” from around the world. It’s a small, body-to-body bar that plays 80′s music videos from Madonna to Micheal Jackson. One patron sums it up (click the above link to read the CNN article about this famous spot) by saying, “It’s dark, it’s cramped, it smells. It’s the best damn place in the universe,” If you are in Bangkok and already drunk, I highly recommend Wong’s. Let me stress, the if you are already drunk part, this is not a place for sober people.

What time does a wild night in Bangkok end? Not 4 am. All the sudden we were at The Arabic Disco, or as Priya calls it, Bangkok’s best kept secret. I wish I could tell you the name of it, but I can’t. I literally can’t, and no one seem to knew it, it’s just “The Arabic Disco,” and the place is open until dawn. Don’t ask me how, don’t ask me why, but I spent most of the night belly dancing on stage. Do I know how to belly dance? No. No, I do not. But despite this, I seemed to collect some fans throughout the night, both male and female. I kept trying to take pictures, but the owner kept giving me a stern finger wave…I realized later that this late night spot is also frequented by Thai sexworkers. Sexwork, for better or worse is a huge part of Bangkok’s culture, so almost anywhere you go late late night, this is true. Clink the link above if you would like to be enlightened on the sexwork industry in Thailand.

After experiencing the sites and smells of Bangkok, Priya, Phon, and I headed to the islands…stay tuned to learn about the djembe house and my experience with raw crab…

A few pictures from the day, before we headed to Chinatown…forget coconut water in a box…this is the real thing. After you drink it, you eat the inside of the coconut with your hands or a spoon.

Priya’s awesome frog purse… I want one…

stay tuned for a “Coolest Cats of Bangkok” blog post….

Chinatown… there are many lanterns up in preparation for Chinese New Year this weekend

Some sort of crazy morterbike thing…

lots of kids shops in Chinatown

they roast chestnuts in coffee… delicious

also stay tuned for a “coolest street dogs of bangkok” post…this guy makes the list don’t you think?

hello hello? anyone care to explain this….

cute old couple eating a raw oyster bar

first drinks of the night at the balcony…singapore sling

wong’s bar…

one of only a few handful of pictures that exist from the arabic disco…

Did you find this blogpost by chance? Keep track of me on my facebook page.

Temples and Happy Endings | Bangkok Day 1

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

After a small glitch at the airport, (I needed to purchase a refundable onward ticket to Vietnam since I was traveling on a one-way ticket) and 24 hours of traveling, I arrived safely in Bangkok. Priya greeted me with open arms and delicious leftovers at her lovely flat in the SoHo of Bangkok, Thong Lo. For those of you who don’t know, Priya was my first girlfriend in junior high school. Even though she moved away the year after we met, we’ve managed to stay in good touch over the last 12 years, in part because of our mutual love of travel and international living. She’s been living in Bangkok the past four years, working with Non Violence International and the UN, and it was her invitation to visit that initially sparked this trip.

On my first day in BK, I decided to amble around the “temple district.”  Because Thailand is Buddhist country, they are everywhere. And they are beautiful! I grabbed my first tuk tuk (cheap transport) and wandered into a few smaller temples before heading to Golden Mount (Wat Saket). This ended up being my favorite temple. After Golden Mount, I ventured to the Grand Palace. There is a strict dress code and I had to “rent” a shirt to cover up. Inside, there are many things to see, but the emerald buddah is the biggest attraction and probably Thailand’s most sacred site.

Everything in Thailand is cheap. Dirt cheap. Street food, (which is amazing) for example, is $1-2. Long distance cab rides are $3-4. And what’s the most amazing cheap thing you can get in Thailand? Massages. Massages are a huge part of Thai culture, and many people get them every week. A two-hour Traditional Thai massage will set you back about $12.  So yesterday I set out to get my first Thai massage. Priya told me there were dozens along the main road near her house, so I strolled that way. I passed one that looked quite fancy, and so I ultimately opted for one that looked less extravagent. The sign said Traditional Thai Massage and “Sauna.” Sounded good to me. It honestly didn’t phase me that the massage tables were double beds. I just assumed that was normal! After a extremely gentle massage and a lot of giggles from the staff at the front desk, I left. No happy ending for me, and in fact I didn’t realize it was a men’s happy ending massage parlor until I causally pointed out the place to Priya and her friend Phon. They started hystically laughing… and that’s how I learned sauana is a code word for happy ending.

My happy ending was dinner. My first taste of real Thai street food was amazing. I just cannot believe how good and how cheap the food is. I will eat my way through this city if it’s the last thing I do! Tomorrow Priya, Phon, and I are going to the islands, where Phon has a music gig…we will be staying somewhere called the Djembe House, which is a hippy musician house on the island of Koh Chang. After a few early mornings and a wild night out in Bangkok (next blog post) I have recovered from my jetlag. After only a couple days into my trip I am fantasizing and plotting about how I can live here 3-6 months out of the year…

The view from Priya’s flat

Priya lives next to a school, but they don’t seem to hold any classes, they just play outside and make music all day.

priya

temple at the end of priya’s street

my favorite tuk tuk driver

view from golden mount temple

the grand palace

a shoe thief would do well in bangkok…

emerald buddah

amazing detail work

studying monks

apparently monks also like coffee while they study

late night squid

ice cubes in beer is the only way it will stay cold longer than five minutes

 

 

All Images Copyright Erica Camille Productions | Blog Theme Created by LJP & SLR Lounge