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Monday, October 18, 2010
We're off to Thailand! My (Juliana's) best college girlfriend (Emily) is getting married on the Thai island of Koh Samui on August 16. After many months of saying it was too expensive, we bit the bullet and decided to go. It's my first time in a non-English based country (I have been around north america and europe but not asia), and Ty's first time out of the country at all (not counting Canada). We are excited to travel together, especially for so long, but both nervous about being on the other side of the world and not speaking the language most of all. We are stretching the trip into 2 weeks: 1 week in the northern part of Thailand in Chiang Mai (second largest city and "capital" of the north), then 4 days on the island for the wedding, a day of traveling by boat and train up to Ayutthaya (UNESCO World Heritage Site), 2 days there in the ruins, then just a short day in Bangkok before we fly home. We've gotten our shots, our passports, our humid-weather-travel clothes, and a lot of anticipation built up!
We left Davis on Friday evening and were in transit until Sunday evening. We have lost 12 hours do to the time change, and it's the opposite time of day as it is back home (14 hours ahead). We have been breathing conditioned air (in cars, planes, airports, and more cars) for 2 days straight. After 2 days of traveling - SFO to Hong Kong (our 11:30pm light is delayed a couple hours, then a 12 hour flight, then 3 hour layover first thing in the morning in HK), Hong Kong to Bangkok (3 hour flight, then 4 hour layover in the airport), Bangkok to Chiang Mai (1.5 hour flight and short taxi ride, thank god!) - we arrived at our loding, Mountain View Guest House, and debated whether to collapse or try to make it to the night market.
(Ty trying to stretch out and sleep after a long night in extra uncomfortable airplane seats)
(we're happy as this is the last leg of our long journey. We've been in these clothes for 2.5 days! Ew!)
(Our first glimpse of the green hills of northern thailand, and the end of all this travel!)
(our great guest house, recommended by lorraine, a welcome site!)
(our modest but fantastic room)
(the view from our deck - the striped coverings protect our guest house patio and breakfast area from the daily rain. The roof of a temple is in the background. You can see a temple from our other window as well).
We went to the night market, although exhausted, because it’s the more authentic of the Chiang Mai markets, within walking distance of our hotel, and only happens on Sunday nights. Our friend Lorraine, our guide to all things to do in Northern Thailand, said we could not miss it. Who are we to argue? Plus, we have no sense of time anymore, so it could be the middle of the day for us!
The market was just blocks away, and we found it easily - already the first of many things it turned out we didn't need to worry about! At first we only saw little plastic tschotskes but further in there were more interesting things for sale – still touristy but more fun: artwork, carved teak, string lights, clothes, bags, jewelry, umbrellas, food.
(markets are set up right in the middle of town, closing streets and fronting sacred temples)
We ate good street food and avoided the fried insects. No stomach worries from that, although my stomach is overwhelmed in general. I am struggling with all of the pungent smells – fish sauce is everywhere. Even cilantro and basil can get to me, as well as all the diesel fumes. Anyhow, the market was lively, colorful, and full of other people - tourists and locals.
We saw our first temple, which was really beautiful at night, and an interesting contrast to the market vendors right in front of it. Everyone bikes in their wares and their stands. We walked several blocks from our hotel to the market and back, which made us feel like we were getting the lay of the land, at least near our hotel.
(this temple was open later than usual, perhaps due to the market)
The next morning it was all so different we still felt lost! There is no building code here – electrical cords running through puddles, gutters spilling out with no down spouts, all sorts of tripping hazards in the roads, sidewalks changing height, width, location at whim, all kinds of bolts/chords/posts/etc sticking up in the middle of the walkway. You walk down the street differently – after a few blocks you don't have to pay as much attention to your feet, but you are aware of yourself and your surroundings in a way that is different than at home.
It is very annoying to not be able to drink the water. No ice, no fruit, a hassle to brush teeth, and with the humidity, we have to buy a lot of bottled water to stay hydrated – which means more money and wastefulness. We do have a kettle in our room so we are saving bottles to refill with boiled water. We also aren't allowed to flush any TP! It goes in a waste basket by the toilet - this is going to take some getting used to!
(crazy sidewalks that wouldn't fly in the US!)
(there are definitely no ADA laws here...in fact, while we saw beggars without legs, we never saw a wheelchair)
We bled baht today. We tried to avoid the tourist-traps but as tourists, well, we were trapped. Even when you are not on a tour, everywhere you go is set up for the tour buses, and you have a pretty similar experience.
We started the day with banana pancakes and ginger tea (awesome!) at our hotel on the lovely little patio, and since the songthaews were already booked, we got a private taxi for the day. This turned out to be the best choice -although expensive, it saved me a lot of stomach problems between the diesel and the winding roads! We spent most of the day touring Mae Sa valley, which is beautiful and lush and full of touristy things to do.
Ty's only goal for this trip is to touch a tiger, and today was our day. We were prepared to have to turn our morals off for the event. It turned out the animals seem to be treated well – we heard they were sedated in some places but didn't seem to be here to us. They do sleep a lot during the day anyhow.
(this is the half of the tiger you get to interact with, since the other half looks like the picture below...)
While it isn't necessarily a good thing to keep wild animals captive, they are somewhat domesticated- bred and raised at the place, and then retired to zoos after a few years of public life. Or so they tell us...but their cages and enclosures were clean, decently sized (similar to small zoos'), and they seem to rotate who gets bothered by the public and who gets a day off.
(Ty getting to pet his favorite animal, the big kitty)
Since they are pet and handled by the public and keepers from 4 weeks old and onward, they don't seem at all bothered (obviously, or we wouldn't be here to tell about it), and the handlers played and interacted with the animals even outside of their work stations. Compared to the sad snake farm we visited later, the tigers have it pretty good.
(who's making a better tiger face, me or the tiger?)
(at the end of this video,I point to the tiger's foot. Right after, he sat up - I was sure he was going to eat me for touching his foot on accident - but actually he just wanted to scratch his ear. You can see him start to sit up at the end of the video. The trainers had a good laugh at my jump out of his way!).
So we pet, snuggled, and otherwise dorkily got our fix of tigers. We started with the big guys – 23 months and huge, and mostly sleeping. Then we went to see the little guys- 6 months old and somewhat teenagerish. Super cute and more squeezable with their baby fat. They were more interactive and you could get much closer to them than the big boys (who we could only pet on the hind quarters).
(this one is around 5-6 months old)
(triplets - 2 boys and the girl is in the back)
(they were very sleepy - it was hot!)
Later we went to a snake farm and watched a 'show' which involved handlers harassing snakes to make them look scary and try to bite. It was really sad. They threw them around quite a bit – one was even swung in big circles by the tail to scare the audience. I thought about leaving it was so sad. We humans forget that even the most dangerous animals are mostly pretty boring during the day. Big cats, venomous snakes – they mostly want to mind their own business, and have to be provoked to be “exciting.”
(kissing the cobra)
The cobras were awesome though – and not harassed nearly as much since they could fight back. We sat in the front row, women behind us were screaming and bouncing around from the back row – lame! We did get to see some new species and snuggle up with a python, as well as get some relatively-close up shots of cobras after the show.
(definitely a venomous snake...Ty with 3 cobras)
(the handlers don't know we can do this at home too, so they are very excited and trying to look "tough" for this "brave" moment.)
(veteran snake handler)
The orchid farm was small but beautiful, and the orchids smelled amazing. Ty has a great picture of me making a face when I was trying to smell a flower and it went up my nose. :) By this time it was really hot and we started drooping from the humidity. Our driver, Mr. Boi, told us it was especially hot today- although he might have just been nice – it’s hard to know anything for sure as a tourist.
Finally, we went to the hill tribe area, something like a co-op of various tribes living together and selling their wares. This was almost as sad as the snake farm – except it was people on display. They were kind and made a point to talk to us – some did just hawk wares but others tried to speak with us in their limited English.
The high points were an older man teaching us to shoot his bow and arrows (similar to the kid’s version with rubber bands), and we both actually had decent shots – he was very kind. The other high point was watching some little kids playing around – they were maybe 4 years old and lived there. not realizing yet that there was any other way to live. The boy was showing off how tough he was by overturning all of the stools and tables, grunting and pulling the floor mats over his head to play a form of hide and seek. One of the girls pranced around in little plastic high heels, another had on a Disney princess dress. Apparently only the adults have to wear traditional garb.
(Ty learning the bow game - the targer is just behind the corn)
(hill tribe children passing time and looking cute)
The Karan longneck practice of having their women don heavy brass rings, which compress their collar bones and make their necks look longer, is highly criticized. Not only is it difficult for the women (they can't go for more than 10 or 15 minutes without the rings as their necks can no longer support the weight of their head), and traditionally sometimes used to oppress women (women caught in adultery would have their rings removed, which causes them to die from asphyxiation when they can no longer hold their head up); human rights groups are concerned that the practice, which was mostly abandoned, is being reintroduced for the sake of getting tourist money. The women are now curiosities that bring in money for the tribes. This definitely seemed to be the case here - all of the tribes felt "on display" and were certainly not in their natural social situations, being piled on top of each other and separated from their home groups.
Watching the children and the Karen mothers taking care of their little ones, I was struck at how universally human we all are. (The Karen are the hill tribe known for wearing bronze rings around the women’s neck, elongating them and giving them the nickname “long necks”). We all laugh at our children, play games, pretend to be nice to strangers, snack, sleep, get bored – whether we are tourists or living in a fake traditional village selling our people's cultural knock-offs to survive.
(A Karan long neck with rings is in this photo if you look closely)
We were really ready for a good shower and nap by around 3pm, so we returned to the hotel early. For dinner we walked to 'The Writers Club' in the middle of the old city. It was nice but not exciting – although I could stomach Thai food, which was nice. Supposedly Friday and Sunday nights here actual local expat writers converge, but it was so tiny it was hard to imagine much of a scene here. We watched geckos fight to the death (or several foot plunge) on the restaurant sign – they aren't as cute anymore!
(an all out gecko war is happening on this restaurant sign)
(best food we had in Thailand, yet so simple: ripe bananas stewed in sweet coconut milk!)
On the way home we felt brave enough to make a large loop back on new streets. Chiang Mai actually feels more accessible at night – the traffic and noise are much less intense, and many of the buildings and temples are lovely and lit up. The side streets are quiet in a safe and peaceful sort of way – at least in the old city. The weather is cooler and all of the stray dogs and cats come out to wander the streets – it’s a nice thing here though. The strays are relatively clean, well fed, and uninterested in humans, and everywhere!
(noticing some serious code violations on the way home. This is an outlet for the night market vendors, left hanging without any junction box on the sidewalk. At least they covered it with a bag to protect it from the rain?)
(Thai people are small, but not this small! The only choice around this phone booth is to step into the busy street, which has no shoulder area)
(awesome giant snail!)
Sunday, October 17, 2010
The first was more of a complex in the woods outside of town, and quite amazing. We rode our first songthaew out there, and a tuk tuk back – and I happily discovered my stomach can handle both! Riding in both are great experiences – in the songthaew the back is open so you can watch the traffic coming upon you with zero regard to the lanes or lights. (Traffic here is nothing like the rumors about asian traffic, but it is certainly different than American traffic! As best I can tell, the lane markers are indicators for how to cue up at a stoplight – the rest of the time they are unobserved. The lights themselves are observed in large intersections but not small. There aren't rules but everyone is aware of the flow of traffic and it works – as long as you look out for you, and I look out for me, we won't crash!). In the tuk tuk, you can see more of what is passing by on the sides. And it’s just fun to be the smallest, slowest, huff-puffingest vehicle on a busy street!
(view from the back of a songthaew - sans traffic)
(the experience of riding in a tuk tuk)
The first temple, Wat Umong, was surreal – set in the tropical forest, away from town, with the only noises being the crickets, chickens, sweeping brooms (apparently it was sweep-the-complex day) and later some broadcast soothing wisdom for the monks in thai (although strangly in a woman’s voice).
We decided sweeping an outdoor complex set under a forest was more of a spiritual discipline than anything productive. No sooner had the beautiful and tidy little piles of swept leaves been picked up, then the walkways were speckled with little orange leaves again.
(a rare leaf-free moment at the forest wat. good job monks!)
The site of monks in orange robes methodically sweeping was almost like a dance – and the rhythmic shhh-shhh of the brooms was very soothing – especially after days of airports and cities.
(in the back of this picture is a tuk tuk)
The trees were beautiful, and many were wrapped in the monks' orange cloth, with bits of wisdom painted in thai on the cloth. Some were translated into English as well – buddhist proverbs like “the rich man is regarded and the wise man is revered” and “the mad dog hates water and the sex craved man hates dharma”.
(pathway through the peaceful monastery)
(a good Thai proverb for Ty)
The complex includes a large old stupa (monument), a beautiful staircase lined with dragons, a library and monks quarters.
There is also a series of caves – while inside you can visit a buddha (american-looking pilgrims were there all in white with a thai religious guide, praying), and we also heard monks singing somewhere deeper inside the caves while we were inside. There is always light as they are open on both ends, so it was more secluded than scary.
We encountered at least 8 species of butterflies, including a pair doing a long and beautiful (although apparently unsuccessful) mating dance. We found a large pond full of carp, catfish, turtles, and some new species of fish. Thais come here to rest, visit, and feed the fish - which means there are also a lot of pigeons and stray dogs lingering around. It all sounds very urban but was quite beautiful and appropriate where we were. Of course, other people's vermin look quaint when you are traveling!
(the pond at the wat is large, and the aeration system is run by pedaling bikes!)
(pigeons and carp being fed at the wat's pond)
We spent several hours here, it was so calm and peaceful. I realized one of the culture shocks I was struggling with is the lack of a break from the visual 'noise.' There is no where empty to rest your eyes here – every inch of space is in use, and usually in multiple ways! It was restorative to me to be somewhere natural and serene and with a more limited color palette!