Saturday, November 30, 2013

North Again to Udon Thani and Miracle Springs

So I'm on a bumpy old Thai bus out of Udon Thani, way up north near the Lao border.  Hopefully on my way to someplace called Ban Dung (pronounced Baan Doong) where my pal Steve Areen will come and collect me (once I figure out a way to call him).  
I left horrible Klong Kloi beach and awful Koh Chang yesterday (funny it doesn't look horrible, does it?) travelling by mini-bus across on the ferry and then on up to the airport in Bangkok.
 I got a nice clean room near the airport with aircon and actual furniture and a warm shower!  Heaven.  No stream of fire ants crossing my mattress to attack my bags.  But up at 5am to make my early flight.  Happily I was able to trade in my flight from Trat for this one and it only cost me another $50 or so to make this sojourn  north.
It was really a toss up beteen visiting Steve way out in the Issan boonies, or going to the quaint Lao town of Luang Prabong.  I've wanted to visit LP for many years, but after travelling solo for weeks, it will be great to be with a friend, especially one as interesting and funny as Steve.  
I am a bit nervous about this leg of the trip however.  I'm the only farang on the bus and WAY off the tourist trail here.  I have no idea where we are, but we keep stopping to take on and let off passengers.  I'm just trusting the driver will let me know when to get off and that I will indeed get off at the right place.  Trust.
Writing later:  that bus trip took about an hour and it was pretty clear where to get off, but I was wrong about Steve meeting me there. I was supposed to call him and I know this sounds lame but I couldn't figure out how to use the pay phone!  I tried a bunch of times but kept getting a message in Thai.  No luck.  Finally some people at the copy shop next to the pay phone sort of adopted me.  At one point there were six or seven of them trying to figure out what the hell was my problem.  When they finally got that I just needed to call someone locally a man went in and dialed the store phone...and got Steve on the line!  
Most of the time I've travelled in Thailand I'm on a tourist route.  You can get wifi in almost any cafe or restaurant, people speak at least some English.  Safe to say that VERY FEW farang come through Ban Dung, and those who do probably know what they're about.  For me it was a powerful opportunity to feel how kind and compassionate Thai people can be.  
Turned out I needed to get on another bus to go another half an hour.  I went back to the bus station and three more Thai people helped me (in a very respectful but determined way).  They gave very clear instructions to the bus driver where to let me off!
And there was Steve waiting for me and now I'm here at his Thai dome home.  One of the coolest places I've ever been in.  His house is near a small lake in a mango orchard.  I'll put up some photos in my next post.  
Down the road a ways is Miracle Springs, owned by Hajjar and Lumiyai.  Hajjar is Steve's sister's husband's brother.  I think.  There are also some really cool wwoofers from Finland, Australia, and the US.  Hajjar Gibran is a distant cousin of the great Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet.  Hajjar wrote Return of the Prophet a few years ago, based on channelled conversations with Kahlil!  He also invented the dome building method that Steve used for his famous house.
Apparently Steve's dome house really has become famous.  It's been written up in print magazines all over the world and of course in lots of internet blogs and websites.  He's been getting love letters from women all over the place!
Did I mention there are rubber tree plantations here?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

On The Road to Koh Chang

SWell the mini-van ride down to the Poi Pet border crossing was a breeze.  The damn thing was almost an hour late, but whatever.  I had a cozy spot in the back seat and was very comfy.
That sure changed once we got to Poi Pet.  The transport service dumped us off and pointed at immigration, a little ways off.  The line wasn't too bad.  But everyone else was bound for Bangkok and had their baggage put into a big funky cart hauled by a little old lady.  Not me!  My special Koh Chang destination allowed me to drag my heavy bag for about a fucking mile, and up a very steep flight of stairs and down.  At the end of the line I was there with all the Bangkok folks who were picking up their carted luggage!  Oi.
The Cambodia departure side wouldn't have been that bad.  A uniformed officer invited me to pay him 200 Baht for VIP clearance, but I declined.  Instead I got into the line from hell.  I had four lines to choose from and picked the one with the broken scanner/mentally challenged or deranged official.  For every one person clearing our line there were five or six moving through the other three.  This was a bit alarming and frustrating.  A very good opportunity to practice mindfulness.
Once I finally cleared it was simply a matter of dragging my suitcase about a mile down a filthy dirty road through sweltering heat with no visible signage to reassure me.  I had read about this ahead of tiime (not the luggage dragging) so I wasn't quite as freaked out as I would have been.
Eventually I made it to the Thai immigration building, clearly marked and was confronted with the stairs.  Holy fucking shit.  
At the top of the stairs was a big hallway with three incredibly long lines.  You couldn't even see the officials up at the front.  I was more careful choosing the line this time, but it didn't really matter.  There were about 45 people ahead of me, same in each line more or less.  It only took forever.  
The room was air conditioned, down to a temperature of about 85 degrees.  People were civil.  I got into a decent conversation with the Swiss backpacker in front of me.  That made time pass.  All in all it was only an hour or so in that line.
Then down the stairs and down another filthy road, with no signage.  But they'd put a little red square sticker on my chest with KC sharpied on it.  All the Thai people knew where I was supposed to go and waved me on.  
I made it just in time to climb onto the back of an oversized songtheaw with about 15 other people and all their baggage.  I had to stand on the bumper and hold on!  That took us here to this cafe where we're supposed to eat before the 4 hour ride to the ferry.  So I'm having a club soda and fried noodles with egg and vegetables.  70 baht.
Holy shit again, I'm packed into a mini van with 13 other travelers and all our bags.  A LOT of bags.  I think most of the folks are Italian, just a guess.  Off we go...a four hour ride...

Edit...okay, so I'm here.  It only took 13 hours, including waiting an hour for the ferry and the hour long ferry ride and the terrifying trip around the island.  And the exhausting dragging my suitcase in the dark down a sandy narrow little alley, past a bunch of other funky little places, then lugging it across the beach and finally arriving.
What a slog, but totally worth it, right?  I'm totally not sure.  My room is pretty hideous.  The matress feels more like a box spring.  There's no proper windows or screening, so I'm supposed to sleep under a pink mosquito net I guess.  Easy to feel a bit disouraged.  But this place got absolute rave reviews and I'm steps away from the beach, so we'll see what tomorrow brings.  It may be paradise or I may have to look for better digs. 
At least there's good wifi...

Monday, November 25, 2013

Field Trip

Yesterday was probably my favorite day so far, touring-wise.  After changing to a new hotel my driver took me way out of town to Banteay Srei, the "citadel of women' about 45 kilometers from here.  
45 K isn't all that far in a comfy car or air con mini van.  Sitting in an open air tuk tuk with terrible suspension is a different story...especially since they don't seem to go much over 25-30 mph.  And that's not counting having to slow down for the incredible pot holes, traffic clogs, dogs and chickens in the road and so forth.
For a while, as my spine was getting pounded, I was regretting my choice of a tuk tuk, but once we really got out in the country side I realized it was absolutely perfect.  No window between me and the people and landscape.  360 degree views.  And my driver Choom was happy to stop whenever I asked.  He even offered many times at choice places.  Really nice.
Me and Choom, my driver.
Being in the countryside allowed me to see how rural Cambodians live.  Which probably hasn't changed a lot in the past 2000 years.  Sure, there's scooters and bicycles and weird farm vehicles, and lots of plastic garbage in places.  But the houses up on stilts, the woven hammocks, the baskets, the hand loomed cloth, the rice and chickens and water buffalo, it seems pretty timeless.
After a while I noticed that some compounds were really nice, with no trash or litter at all.  Others were an ugly mess.  Not that different really than the US I suppose.
Banteay Srei is touted as one of the jewels of the ancient Khmer empire.  It's carved out of red sandstone and has held up better than the other temples I've seen.  I have to admit I was a little let down by the visit.  It's quite small really.  There's not much to it.  But the thing that kind of wrecked it for me was having been to Ubud in Bali, where almost every building has gorgeous carvings around the doors and windows, pretty much along the same Hindu themes.  
Of course the carvings at Banteay Srei are a thousand years old!  That does make a difference, but it's sort of an intellectual difference. 
Plus it was really really hot!
But the next place we went (another good half hour drive) was one of my favorite places I've seen.  It's known as Kbal Spean and it's not a temple, but a river way up on a mountain side where a thousand years ago carvings were made in the river bed and on big rocks on the river banks, including 1000 lingams (phalluses).  This was all done to make the water flowing down to Angkor fertile and holy.  
I'd actually seen this in a DVD at my hotel, and it was recommended to me, otherwise I might have given up on the incredibly long and steep climb to get there.
No one had actually mentioned a climb.  It was 1800 meters actually.  They'd posted signs every 100 meters, which might have been encouraging?  I'm not sure they really had that effect on me.  I almost never sweat, but it was brutally hot and humid and my shirt was drenched by the time I got there.
And there was most definitely a "there" to get to.  Thankfully there was a wonderful english speaking guide just waiting for me.  I would have missed a lot, or most of it really, without his help.
The lingams in the water were amazing.  1000 is a lot of them!  They went on and on down the stream bed.  Our tour ended at the base of a wonderful waterfall where I stripped down to my shorts and bathed.  It was wonderful!
Of course it's always pretty grand bathing next to a waterfall.  Especially a tropical waterfall when it's super hot.  But for the real deal, make sure the water is flowing over 1000 lingams.  Unless you're trying not to get pregnant!
The spine rattling trip back was grand.  School kids in uniforms on bikes, people in their stilted house compounds, rows of women stirring huge woks making palm sugar on the side of the road, big white cows, endless rice fields, jungle and weird farm vehicles called 'buffalos' pulling wagons loaded with firewood, bags of rice, whole families.  
I feel like I finally 'get' Cambodia now.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Inconvenienced Caused Is Regretted

Okay, if you don't want to read my tales of woe, just scroll down to the photos below.......
I've made some really bad decisions here in Cambodia, starting with getting the time of my arrival wrong by two hours!  I walked out of the airport, after a real circus act of getting the visa and all, and there were about 25 drivers holding signs, but not one with my name on it.
The first mistake was I should have just paid $7 for a taxi ride.  Instead I let the hotel know (via email) and ended up waiting anxiously for over an hour and a half!  So stupid!  Part of the reason I had to wait so long was the idiot driver they sent went to a different airport building.  One where no one was arriving at all.  He apparently just sat there for almost an hour until I finally got through to hotel again (very spotty internet) and said "WTF?".
I also made a mistake choosing this hotel.  I found that out right away.  It's way the hell down a dirt street that leads to a rubble street.  The tuk tuks here are like wagons that hitch onto underpowered 125cc motorcycles.  They look really quaint, but their suspension is terrible.  That was another mistake, not taking time to go pee when the driver finally showed up.  My poor bladder was really put to it!
So the hotel is fancy, but the staff are very unprofessional!  Some want to engage you in conversations, or show you every detail of the DVD player in the room.  They're sweet, and really proud of the place, but I had to use the toilet and it took forever to get the dude out of my room!
I picked a place that I knew to be out of the way (not expecting the rugged Baja 500 to get there) because I'd heard that downtown Siem Reap was a bit of a zoo.  But last night I took a very bumpy tuk tuk ride over to the "Pub Street" and discovered it's my kind of zoo.  I was enchanted by the big, luxurious open are restaurants, the mostly closed off streets, the whole feel of the place.  I've never seen anything like it.  Although I did get hassled by one or two pesky tuk tuk drivers who were sure I wanted to go whoring.  Actually at least ten of them offered to take me to sexy girls for sexy massage, The last guy was just awful.  They all would come up and say it all sneaky-like, psssssst, you like sexy girl massage?
What I really wish I'd done (thought of this later) is pretended to be very hard of hearing and shouted out "Sorry, hard of hearing, ARE YOU OFFERING TO TAKE ME TO SEE PROSTITUTES?  ARE THESE GIRLS DOING IT OUT OF THEIR OWN FREE WILL?  ISN'T THE HIV RATE 40% HERE?".  I think that would have done the trick very nicely.
Aside from that bit, i loved walking around, even into the Night Market where the vendors have a bad reputation of being very aggressive.  I didn't see or experience that at all.  I also had a real (non-sexy) massage for a mere $3!  And it was really really good!  I gave the girl a $2 tip which I think is pretty big here (?),   After temple touring all day, which included climbing and descending countless very steep steps, that massage saved me from big trouble today.
I had a really awesome pizza for dinner.  Maybe because I was starving by then it seemed like one of the best pizzas ever.  And that leads me to my really big
I had the runs in Chiang Mai and fasted, took all my probiotics, ate bland foods like you're supposed to.  I was good.  And it worked.  It was mostly cleared up by the time I left.  Key word mostly.
So my first meal in Siem Reap?  A bowl of Tom Yum soup.  Very spicy.  Way more spicy than I expected.  Ow.  The next day, near the end of temple hopping, my driver took me to some roadside place and I had greasy, mildly spicy noodles.  There was no Western food on the menu.  I should have just left.  Then pizza to finish it off and I was up at 3am with the most terrible runs and was up all night and all morning.  It's been awful.  I got so dehydrated at one point I was starting to hallucinate a bit (nice ones though) but asked the hotel manager to get me some special rehydration salts, probiotics and a fresh coconut.  I'm feeling a lot better, but missed a whole day here.  
In Chiang Mai it was so easy to get yogurt and sticky rice and such.  Here not so much.  I may have to lay low again tomorrow.  I hope not.  I want to see the temples!  But that's my story, sad but true....
Oh yeah, I did spend 8 hours yesterday at Angkor Wat and other temples.  Here's some photos.
Sunrise over Angkor Wat.  This is THE photo people come here for.  Here are the people:
What a mob scene! People from all over the world come here, but I'd guess that the majority of the tourists were Chinese, Japanese and Korean.  An easy trip for them.
This place is HUGE.  And gorgeous.
And there are monkeys!  Just like in Bali.
And miles of carvings.  I tagged along with a tour group and the guide was showing us what the carvings were about.  Basically Hindu tales with lots of gods and demons.  There are stones lying around, here and at all the temples, and what you come to notice is that all of those stones have carvings on them!  It's overwhelming.  
This is the South Gate which leads to another famous temple Bayon.  The gateway was pretty narrow but accommodated tour buses and elephants with passengers.
This is one the bridge leading to the South Gate.  It was lined with big statues on both sides.  And lots of jammed up traffic!
Bayon is famous for these Buddha faces looking out in four directions.  They are all over the place.  It's in much funkier shape than Angkor Wat, even though it was build 80 years later.  Apparently Angkor Wat got all the primo stone and Bayon got stuck with inferior building materials.  Sheesh.  It's only been like 800 years and the place is falling apart!
This just about sums it up for me today.
Hopefully I'll be back out there soon, getting more photos.  But in the meantime, I've got about 70 all together on my Flickr page: SE Asia 2013:
You gotta go to the second page, about halfway down to see Cambodia.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I Fed a Hippo!

What a day I've had.  The Chiang Mai Zoo was crazy.  It's spread out over 200 acres and most of it steep hills.  I can't believe how much walking and climbing I did.  Thank god I was able to get a good massage tonight, or I probably wouldn't be able to walk tomorrow.
So the first real exhibit (I'm not counting the flamingos) was the hippo family.  There was a big old male, two mammas and a little 3 month old baby!  You could buy a little basket of cut up carrot or yams for 10 baht and feed them.
And by that I mean drop the chunks of stuff in their huge open maws.  I actually patted one on it's muzzle (but it was too slimy to want to do that again).  Can you imagine a situation like this in the US?  I'm not using a zoom lens here.  I could literally have stuck my hand (or whole arm) in the hippos mouth!
This was the high point of the whole zoo for me, and I came back before I left.  The baby was hanging out under water and only came up once in a while for a quick breath.  So damn cute.
Then the whole family came out to stand on the bank.  I took about a million photos.  
The next stop was feeding giraffes!  Holy shit!  Once again I walked up and couldn't believe what I was seeing.  So freaking awesome.  I fed them something like very long green beans, though bananas were also on offer.  They have super long, agile tongues that actually would wrap around the bean and grab it.  There were two of them and they were both so beautiful.  
They have this velvety pelt.  And such goofy yet intelligent faces.  And of course they are truly enormous. Both of them were a bit skittish, but I managed to touch the female's nose.  This was so awesome!
Of course there were droves of other animals--the giant panda, lots of kinds of monkeys, an entire aquarium, birds galore including ostriches, an otter, penguins, an asian bear and many many Thai school children.  
The kids were my least favorite critter, mainly because there were hundreds of them jabbering excitedly and making an awful din.  Worse, they were being guided by adults with bullhorns who blasted out information, jokes and directions all at top volume.  I encountered them first at the big cats exhibits.  There was a lion, jaguar and tiger and the awful racket of 150 school kids with the blaring adults seemed to be driving them frantic.  Well not the lion.  He wasn't moving.  Maybe he was stunned?
Fortunately we went in separate directions and I didn't have to endure them after that.  Seriously freaky.  
The aquarium featured a tube you walk through and the fish swim around and over you.  It was pretty cool I guess.  It was here that I met Chen, a tourist from Beijing about my age.  I offered to take his photo with the fish behind him and after that we were fast friends.  It was really good to have a buddy going through the ginormous compound.  Kept me going really.
I enjoyed watching these monks watching the panda. One of them had an iPad and was taking photos or video with it.
I'm happy to say that the elephants I saw seemed to be treated well enough.  Some of them were being used to give rides to tourists, but there you go.  It takes a LOT of food to keep them and they have to earn their keep.  Actually I paid to feed the hippos, the giraffes and this elephant.  All of them earning their keep I guess.
Speaking of feeding, I was operating on a small plate of sticky rice and mango for breakfast.  Not a lot of ballast.  So Chen and I stopped for lunch and I had two young coconuts, slurping down the juice and eating the soft slippery innards.  Doesn't seem like much but it kept me on my feet somehow.
Near the end of the long long slog, we came across the orangutang.  It has a huge compound and was ambling down toward the front, toward us.  I thought I knew what they looked like, but this one at any rate was different.  It was very big and heavy and its hair was super long.  It had such a weird way of 'walking' and they finally sat down to nibble on some grass.  I'm certain it was aware of us (it was just Chen and I for quite a while) but it didn't really react at all.  It seemed totally meditative.
We actually stayed until 5pm and the park seemed to be shutting down!  Chen offered me a ride back on his scooter.  At first I declined, feeling it would be too dangerous.  But then, this guy lives in Beijing. I'm certain the traffic there is much much worse!  So he gave me a wild ride back and I lived to tell the tale. 
For dinner I went to that really gorgeous restaurant I've posted photos of.  Despite my fascination with the place, I've never eaten there before and this was my last chance.  I had some sort of Pad Thai, not spicy, and it was incredible.  That place was hopping, I tell you.  I counted at least 8 waiters too.  
After dinner I wanted a massage but was feeling too full.  So I walked a few blocks to my favorite Wat, the teak one where the monks were launching the lanterns.  
There I was treated to another beautiful sight....about 30 saffron robed young monks were in the Wat, being led through some kind of chanting.  It was beautiful to see and moving to hear.  To be honest it was a bit overwhelmingly wonderful. 
And yes, those are two temple dogs soaking in the vibes...
Then a really gentle (thank god) massage, and here I am at the Peppermint Coffee House blogging it all over more sticky rice and mango (not as good as Kajana's I must say).  Back to my room soon to pack  for Siem Reap.  I'm feeling a bit sad really.  The first few days here I was caught up in a 'been there done that' sort of feeling.  I think it came with the jet lag.  That's all gone now and I know I'll really miss this place and all the people I've seen over the years...the cafe folks, the massage people, the laundry lady, the drivers, even my guest house hosts.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Last Day in Chiang Mai

So it's my last day here in Chiang Mai.  It's overcast and cool.  Last night's rain was pretty spectacular.  I don't think I've ever heard it rain so hard anywhere.
So here are a few more random photos from yesterday's outings.  I still had my rented bike and went down to the Wororot market and then across the river.  I also went to parts of the old town I'd never been to before and got totally lost.  So much of Chiang Mai is "same same" with all the guest houses, cafes, shops and all.  But then you'll come across a new temple that's really spectacular.  
I actually took this photo to help me locate my bike when it was time to find it.  It's extremely confusing around this area.  The streets are definitely NOT in a grid.  As my mom used to say, it's like they got a bunch of goats drunk and everywhere the goats went they put in a road.
It's also heavily traffick'd here!  Crazy.
The ground floor of the market proper is always amazing.  This is where Thai people shop for food.  Years ago I asked one of the vendors about this bowl of green glop she was stirring.  She laughed and said "not for you, sir!  Not for you!".  But that said, there are an incredible array of nuts, spices, dried fruits-including varieties I'd never seen before, noodles, teas, and of course french fried meal worms.
It's not just food though.  There are a number of stalls selling religious supplies.  These statues were about ten to twelve inches high and cast out of metal.  Way too heavy to bring one home!
I liked this warrior with the witch's hat, sword across his knees.  Like so much here it's hard to even guess what it's all about.
I came across this flower market facing the riverside.  I stopped and bought one of the jasmine rose garlands.  It's really meant to adorn a shrine or Buddha, I think, but I have it in my room and it smells lovely.  I got the smaller one, fourth from the left.  It was 30 Baht.
There's a neat little street on the other side of the river.  Lots of cute or swanky restaurants with river frontage.  We ate at one of them with Joyce when we first came almost 8 years ago.  They really are beautiful at night.  I came across this winged elephant along there.  First one I remember seeing here.
I hope you like this graffiti, because I actually went to some trouble to circle back around on my bike to take the photo.  By 'some trouble' I guess I mean almost getting killed doing a stupid maneuver in heavy traffic.
One temple I happened upon had a pretty big labyrinth all set up for Loy Krathong.  At the very center were two wax museumish life size replicas of old monks, sitting cross legged on a platform.  I found this a bit creepy, but the Thai lady behind me saluted them reverentially.
I was feeling a bit peaked by this time and once I was in, I wasn't sure if this was really a labyrinth or a freaking maze!  Luckily for me I was tall enough to see over the bamboo walls.
Right after I got back from dinner, the skies opened up and it rained cats and dogs and pandas.  The Kavil Guesthouse has a metal awning out front and the sound was astonishing.  I sat on the couch for a long time enjoying it.
So I've got this big plan to head off to the Chiang Mai Zoo.  I've seen enough Wats for now, and done enough shopping, and I can really eat much, so I'm looking for a diversion.  I'm fully prepared to be saddened by the experience.  The Thai aren't well renowned for their treatment of animals, and in general i find zoos depressing.  But I'm going for it anyway.  They have a pretty cool sounding aquarium, and 3 giant pandas (of course being Thailand you have to pay extra to see them).
I'll let you know how it goes.