November 28, 2006

pai in the sky

Once arrived in Chiang Mai I decided to immediately get further from the city. Bangkok and the long train ride convinced me. I went to the bus station and got on the next bus to Pai, a winding 4 hour journey. The bus was maybe meant to seat about 30 people but they overbooked and we had about 45 people plus and all our stuff. Some people were sitting in the aisle and some actually stood the entire way. I was sitting next to a window with a Thai girl about 12 or 13 next to me. I slept against the window and she slept on my shoulder. I didn't sleep the whole way though, it was nearly impossible to anyways with all the windy roads pushing and pulling us back and forth across the seat. Our bus driver was a kind soul who stopped to pick up every one on the side of the street who needed a ride. By the time we nearly arrived we had about ten extras from when we started. I say nearly because a few kilometers before we did arrive the bus got a flat. We drove in on it until the first mechanic shop and then I walked the rest of the way.

Pai is a lazy little river town with beautiful surroundings and people and wonderful food, where every day is like a Sunday afternoon. It was good to stop for a while and relax free from the daily travels to and from, a different bed every night, trains, buses, boats, heavy backpack, no sleep. I've been staying at the coziest guesthouse with A-frame rooms for 100 baht per night (US$2.50), hammocks and pillows, campfires and stories, parties and music and many many eccentric guests from the world over. Never a dull moment. Around the area are many rice fields, hills and trees, waterfalls, temples, elephants, a hot springs, a swimming pool and a gorgeous canyon that was deserted when I visited-- only me and the red dirt and hot sun. Beautiful! I've also learned how to ride a motorbike since I've been here. It's quite easy but I've just never done it before. In Thailand no drivers license is necessary (I think mine expired about a year ago) and I think you have to be at least eight years old to ride. (Don't worry Mom, I've now made it out of Thailand uninjured.) The huge misspelled signs intended to curb the foreign accident rate made me smile, "Please remember, your drive on the left".

One of my most magical moments in Pai happened in the middle of the night when the stars were jumping out of the sky and the crickets were chirping and almost everyone else was sleeping. A small group from the guesthouse went on a hike, led by PO the owner, in the dark to find the perfect spot to release a small paper hot air balloon. According to Thai beliefs, releasing the balloon is symbolic of releasing everything bad you carry with you-- feelings, thoughts, intentions-- and then starting new with a clear mind. We walked on and on carrying with us the fragile paper balloon, amazingly not ruining it stumbling along in the dark. We kept going, hearing "almost there" about every five minutes but never seeming to get there. We came to a small river that had to be waded through and then shortly after we arrived in a field where the stars shone even brighter and it was perfect. The lights of Pai nowhere near, only the stars and the sound of the bugs and our own voices. We sat in a circle and took a few minutes of silence to think of all we wanted to release before we lit the balloon and sent it away. Without speaking, PO lit the bottom of the balloon and it began to fill up with hot air. We remained in a circle each of holding with our fingertips the edge of the balloon until it was ready to be released. We held on lightly until the balloon took of on it's own into the night sky. It was beautiful, it looked like a giant jellyfish swimming in the glowing plankton of stars. We watched until all that remained was a small burning dot, one more star, and then it was gone along with everything we sent up with it.

November 26, 2006

on a train on a train all day all night

Back going north again sitting on the sunny side of the train, no where else to sit, skin sticking to the seats, sweat falling in drops down the back of my legs, the large windows all open letting in a breeze and a view. Women and men walked up and down the aisle selling drinks, beer, noodles, fruit and chanting a never ending mantra of their product name and price. Not knowing Thai, I never knew what they were selling until they came right to my seat and I could look in their basket. Too hot to eat anyways though.

All day the train moved on making periodical stops at cities along the way and I moved with it. Past more flooding, it seemed to never end, houses underwater, nearly the tracks underwater at some parts. A man sitting across from me offered me some rice and told me that crocodiles were seen swimming through houses around the area we were passing through. There is such an acceptance with tragedy here that I'm not used to. Or at least acceptance is how I perceive it, maybe it's not. But people aren't going wild with grief everywhere, mourning the loss of their property and land for everyone to see. People shrug and move on and eat and sleep and laugh because really, what else can you do? Everyone seems calm and lets the path of life take it's course. Such enlightened sweet simple people doing everything with a smile and really meaning it.

So I read and looked out the window at the fields and trees and underwater trees and water and sometimes a temple. And the little girl in the seat on the other side of the window sat with her arms resting on the window seal and her chin on her hands, the wind blowing in her face the entire way. I noticed a faint rainbow out the opposite window and pointed it out to my new friend. The moving sunset was a beautiful change of scenery and then the train car was dark.

Right after sunset the train made it's last stop in Phitsanoluk and I bought a ticket for the night train to Chiang Mai. The man sitting across from me invited me to his house for the time between trains to relax from the long journey (and many hours to go still to Chiang Mai!). He told me he was a business professor and his wife and daughter live in Bangkok. Every weekend he takes the long train back and forth to visit. Crazy to me it seems but her job took her to Bangkok and he still had his job in Phitsanoluk and besides didn't like Bangkok anyways. Ht his house he gave me a sweet roll and some coffee and we talked about our families and shared pictures and then it was time to go. He came with me back to the train station and saw me off for the rest of my journey. Before he left he found someone else that was going on the next train to help me out if I needed anything.

The train was over an hour late and I went to the night market nearby and bought a pineapple- banana-orange fruit shake and some rice to take with me on the train if it ever showed up. It did and I got a seat to myself and after I ate my dinner I fell asleep across three seats. Some time later a train attendant woke me up. It was dark outside and everyone was filing out of the train car. That wasn't so bad, I thought, we're here already! But we weren't, they were just moving us to a different car. One that was packed full of half-awake and some asleep people and bags and boxes. After some shuffling I found a seat opposite three young boys clad in bright orange doing their obligatory monk training. For the next few hours I was in a half-sleep state until finally the sun came up and shortly after we pulled in to the final stop: Chiang Mai. Finally!

November 23, 2006

Bad Monkeys

I took the train north from Ayuthaya towards Chiang Mai and made a morning stopover at Lobpuri, "the city with the monkeys", as most Thai people I talked to referred to it as. During the day the monkeys all hang out around the Phra Prang Sam Yod shrine and that's where I headed. I walked in carrying a water bottle and the woman at the gate took it from me and handed me a stick. "Monkey take your water," she said. I also got a bag of sunflower seeds to feed the little critters. I gave a few seeds to one of the first ones that approached me. He ate them and then greedily grabbed at the rest of the bag, spilling half it's contents on the ground. Bad monkey. I walked around and couldn't believe how many monkeys were all in one place crawling everywhere waiting to assault people who think they're cute.

I kneeled down to feed a cute little baby one some seeds (they are cute) and just when I was oohing and awwing a big one (from the feel of it) jumped on my back and I suddenly realized why we were given sticks (but I couldn't bring myself to use it). They must have sensed my confusion and bewilderment because just then another one ran over and jumped onto my arm. So Monkey #1 is sitting on my neck putting his little hands on my head, Monkey #2 is now dangling from my arm as I swing it back and forth, then #3 another cute little guy starts crawling up my leg and put his tiny little hand in my pocket trying to get to my camera (smart little monkeys!). No one else is around and I'm sort of turning around trying to shake them off hoping they don't bite me or claw me or whatever else they do in defense. I finally get them off and now I have a much better understanding of the nature of monkeys. Bad bad monkeys.

November 22, 2006

Ruins and floods of Ayuthaya

From Bangkok I caught a bus north the the flooded old capital city of Ayuthaya. I checked in to a guesthouse as the only guest in an upstairs room where almost every other room had fish swimming around beneath the beds. It was hot, even hotter than Bangkok I think, and it was hard to walk around in midday without feeling lethargic from the heat. There was a vegetarian market directly across from the guesthouse and I walked among the yellow flags that meant only vegetarian food was being served, simmering pots and meat-free dishes. I bought a small plastic bag filled with pumpkin curry and ate it right away wishing I had a larger appetite to try another different soup or vegetable dish. I went on to the other parts of the market selling everything from crispy bugs, pigs heads and fruit to clothes, kitchen supplies and watches and everything in between. Ayuthaya is surrounded by rivers and in the middle of the town there are no signs of the floods, or none that I saw. But once you get to the rivers almost every building and house on either side are partially underwater as with the guesthouse.

At the guesthouse that first night I had the best green curry I've ever had, lots of fresh lightly cooked vegetables and spicy. In it there were these small slightly bitter and crunchy green vegetables the size and shape of marbles that someone told me were eggplants, sweet basil, cauliflower, long beans, mmmm so good. When I went to bed that night the sounds from the karaoke place next door were drifting up to my room until closing time.

The next couple days I explored the city by foot, by bicycle and by boat. There are many temples and temple ruins to see and some that weren't accessible because of the flooding. It was interesting and amazing to walk around structures that were built thousands of years before and wonder how much longer they would exist. It amazed me just as much though to see how the everyone in Ayuthaya was living with the problems that the floods had brought. At the time I was there I think the water level had been at the same level for the previous two weeks. Many people were left homeless, businesses were shut, farmers became fishermen, makeshift shelters were set up holding lifelong possessions. People sat around smiling in these shelters or sleeping in the middle of the day, without a home without a job anymore, as I rode my bike around and into the rivers of the streets. When it got too deep to ride I parked my bike and walked knee-deep, thigh-deep down the streets past the man sharing a meal from the same bowl with a baby pig, past a squirrel in a cage (a pet?), and towards a temple that I would have to swim to to see.

Boys walking down the street in Ayuthaya.

My last afternoon I took a boat around on the rivers surrounding the city to visit some of the temples that were inaccessible otherwise. Besides seeing the temples the flooding damage was also much more evident from the river boat. At sunset we were in the boat in front of Wat Chaiwattanaram. As the sun was setting it started to rain and it was beautiful with the sunset reflecting off the raindrop splashes in the river. Goodbye Ayuthaya.

Sunset at Wat Chaiwatthanaram

November 14, 2006

Thailand Part 1

After the hike I caught a flight to Bangkok and arrived after midnight to the big crazy city that was still very much alive. I walked down Khao San Rd with my big backpack and searched for a guesthouse amidst the dreaded people, drunk boys and street food vendors. I found the place and immediately put my pajamas on, brushed my teeth and got in bed, feeling like I was in a different world. The cardboard-thin walls were covered in graffiti. "Why bother", written above the lock and, "don't worry no one's watching you...we promise", right above my pillow. Plus some anti-Bush sentiment and several poems and quotes. The room was only 100 baht (around US$2.50) and despite the drab ambiance I slept well.

That was my introduction to Thailand and it's been going uphill from there. Bangkok was different than any place in Thailand I've been to since. I liked it but it was strange being in a city with so many people and so little "real" contact with anyone. Many of the Thais talked to me but most were trying to sell something or take me to silk shops and souvenir shops in their tuk-tuk so they could collect petrol coupons. Traveling alone and being in the mountains or small towns and having little or no conversation is quite different from literally being surrounded with people and only having a small amount of superficial contact. I went out every day and saw the sights: many temples, markets, shopping and street food. I rediscovered fruit (Korea is not a fruit lover's paradise) and nearly every day since I have at least one fresh fruit juice or shake. My favorite one was a pineapple, banana and passion fruit shake...a tropical explosion in my mouth. I could live on them.

It looks innocent but this one almost made me cry. So spicy.

The food is delicious and damn spicy. I ask for spicy and they smile and then giggle and bring me water when I'm turning red, sweating and blowing my nose after the first two bites. But I like it that way. The kind of spicy that gets you a bit high. The chili releases endorphins and it's sends you flying and it's painful but you can't stop eating. You could call it Thai food Zen meditation: while you're eating there is nothing else but the food and the fire in your mouth.

Sticky rice and mango. Heaven.

So the food is excellent, the people are for the most part very gentle and friendly and the landscape is amazing, both in the north and south. I've been in Thailand a month now, I've traveled around quite a bit and have done and seen a lot that I can't even begin to put into words. I hope to update soon in more detail but for now I can just say that Thailand is good.

November 09, 2006

Mt. Kinabalu: 4095 m (13,450 ft)

The last stop for me in Malaysia was in Sabah at Mt. Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in southeast Asia. I encountered some obstacles in getting a bed on the mountain beforehand and showed up without a reservation having been told it would not be possible for me to climb because there were no beds available. When I showed up there were beds (or at least one bed) and it was possible. It's unfortunate though that in order to climb Kinabalu you must run the gauntlet through the never- ending bureaucratic process fronted by makeup-wearing (but smiley) asthmatic girls who have never before even climbed the mountain that pays their wages. I'm climbing a mountain not filing my taxes. Okay, I'm finished now.

To climb the mountain you must hire a guide for the duration. I joined a group of two other climbers, John from Colorado and Richard from Sweden, and our guide, Hansnin, who has climbed the mountain (and only this mountain) some 200 times. Climbing Kinabalu typically takes two days-- the first day we hike up to the camp halfway up and the second day we wake up early to make the summit for sunrise and then back down.

The first day we started at base camp at 1500 m and hiked up to Laban Rata hut at 3300 m. It was uphill all the way and in the last kilometer I really started to feel the effects of the altitude in my shortness of breath. The weather was perfect for hiking and when would stop to rest we would even get a bit cold, especially with our sweat-soaked shirts being cooled down by the chilly air. It was great to make it to Laban Rata and our hiking group and a few others sat around in the warmed room and talked about the next day. Because of the altitude I was feeling a bit dizzy and I lost feeling in my fingertips but other than that I felt good after the first part of the climb.

We watched the sunset and then had instant noodles and a chocolate bar for dinner. I took a hot shower and it was the best shower I've had in weeks, no joke. The water pressure was good and the water was actually hot (the first hot shower I've had in Malaysia), which was great since it was quite cold in the cabin. We had to get up at 2:30 am so we tried to get to sleep early to be prepared for the next day. It was cold once the sun went down and I put a hot water bottle in my bed to warm it up. The water bottle worked to warm up my bed but still I could not fall asleep, I kept twisting and turning all night but nothing would work and it went on all night. There were mosquitoes buzzing around and then I heard the rain start.

I must have slept a little because I was asleep when the alarm went off at 2:30 am but it felt like I hadn't slept at all. Richard decided to stay behind because of the rain but John, Hansnin and I took off. Once we started the rain was really only a fine mist and after not too long it stopped all together. Getting up to the top from Laban Rata was the toughest part of the hike. Some 200 m were almost vertical rock with rope to help. It was also pitch dark out and the rocks were slippery from the rain. The altitude was taking effect and it started to get very cold during the last hour. It felt like I couldn't suck in enough air to satisfy my lungs so I would stop every few meters and then after a few deep breaths keep moving on. Hansnin and I made it to the top in 3 hours, right before sunrise. John went on ahead and was the second one to the top (which meant he had to wait in the frigid cold for an hour before the sun came up). It was freezing at the top and I wasn't wearing a coat. The sun came up behind the mountains and the clouds rolled in forming a fluffy blanket below us. I sat at the top in a crevice trying to avoid the wind, shivering and not feeling my hands but watching the sunrise made the entire climb and the cold worth it. It was actually nice to feel the cold after so long without. But 45 minutes was enough.

After the sunrise show was over we went back down to Laban Rata for a breakfast before going all the way down to base camp. After breakfast I was completely drained wishing there was a gondola waiting to take me down. My tiredness fortunately evolved into energy and John and I nearly ran down the entire mountain wanting to be finished. I went so fast that I couldn't feel my feet but when we did stop to rest they started throbbing. So we didn't stop much and were down fast; I wanted to collapse when I got to the end. But we did it!