Saturday, May 31, 2008

Kuala Lampur

After leaving the Perhentians, I made a mad dash for Kuala Lampur, capital of Malaysia, and departure point for my flight to Bali. After covering 40km along the coast adjacent to the Perhentians, in search of a bus or train ticket, I found every seat on the national carriers to be sold out, as it was a holiday. But, at the last minute, I located a private company heading to KL, and hopped a night bus, arriving at 5 the next morning. The journey was pleasant, with twilight stops in desolate, cafes, where buses which would disembark colums of sleepy passengers to drink tea and eat Malay burgers. It made for a Malaysian version of the famous Edward Hopper painting, "Nighthawks."

I arrived in KL early the next morning, at 5 AM, and ate a South Indian breakfast at the only place that was open, a little diner tucked away under a skyscraper. Indian food is actually quite readily available because of a large minority of Indian Malaysians (I should note that Malaysia in general is an ethnically diverse country, with ~50% Malays, ~20% Chinese, ~10% Indians and a smattering of tribal groups), and we were often mistaken for Indian Malaysians.

Once the sun came up, I made my way to the Petronas towers, where I spent the day, reading, enjoying an art gallery, perusing the numerous cuisines in the food court, and enjoying the gleaming Asian modernity of KL.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Backpacker Culture and the Perhentian Islands

It's been a while, as the last two weeks have involved quite a bit of travel. From Khao Sok National Park, Naj and I made a last minute decision to attend some time in Malaysia to our trip. In particular, we wanted to visit the Perhentian Islands, a paradisical setting ~20 km of the coast of Northeast Malaysia. We hopped an early morning bus through Southern Thailand, and traveled through an area of the country for which the US State Department has actually issued a travel warning. In brief, Southern Thailand sees a slow transition from Thai culture and Buddhist religion, to Malay Muslim culture. In truth, the region probably should have been part of Malaysia, but as is so often the case in colonial history, the British did not include in Malaysia when carving out the latter. And so, since 2004, a shadowy insurgency has taken place, with the major players, and their motives unclear. It's likely part separatism, part terrorism, and part simple criminality. Whatever the motivation, thousands of innocents have been killed in a number of bomb blasts, and the ensuing government crackdown. Currently, the area is under martial rule, which is very evident. Every 30 minutes or so, we were stopped at a roadblock, where miliary personnel would peer through the windows, checking each passenger. Of course, seeing Naj and I, two bearded, Muslim-looking men, there gaze would linger with us, until the driver would explain we were simply idiot-tourist from India. I also had a Mexican-style mariachi hat I had bought, which by it's sheer absurdity served to defuse any doubt as to our harmlessness.

We made it out of Thailand just fine though, and walked across the border to Malaysia, spending the night in the coastal town of Kota Bahru. Later the next morning, we departed for the Perhentians.

The appeal of the Perhentians is two-fold. The obvious reason to visit is that they're simply gorgeous; neither features any paved roads, and electricity is only available for short periods of the night, preserving some degree of desert island atmosphere. Moreover, to move from one beach to the next, you have to take a water taxi, as the islands are clothed in thick jungle. Add to the isolation electric blue water, teeming with coral, fish and turtles, and you more or less have paradise. But the second facet of the Perhentians lies in the backpacking community one finds there.

I realize I should probably discuss backpacking culture somewhat, both to ground my experiences on the Perhentians, as well as on this trip. My earliest experiences with backpackers did not leave a favorable impression. As a young boy, I visited North India, and I remember the sight of mangy, European travelers hefting giant packs around ancient ruins as they peered out from under greasy bandanas. I regarded them with the same uneasy trepidation I reserved for stray dogs. 10 years later, and I find myself in their shoes.

Backpacking is simple in terms of details. Buy a large pack, fit in your toiletries, maybe 3 or 4 sets of clothes, a good pair of shoes, and little else. Then choose a destination where whatever money you've saved will stretch the longest (e.g. SE Asia), and travel for as long as you possibly can. And people do. I've met more than a dozen people who are traveling for one year. 6 months is average, and 1 month is a short hop.

Backpacking, and its accompanying mode of travel is not about vacation either. It entails putting yourself in less-than-comfortable situations, traveling as locals do, staying in grotty places, and eating street food. As such, it can actually be incredibly tiring. But it is also incredibly eye-opening. The benefit is two-fold. It is a departure from one's own routine, as well as exposure to radically different cultures. On this trip, I have learned to ride a motorbike, to enjoy a cold shower and how to play a didgeridoo.

As for an itinerary, probably the greatest beauty of an extended trip is the sheer freedom. To plan a trip down to the day in advance is inane. Rather, you might pick a few countries, a few historical cultural sites (e.g. Angkor Wat and the Grand Palace) or a few activities (e.g. surfing and motorcycling), and string those together over a few months. But the real delight is waking up, deciding you want to move, opening a map, randomly pointing a location, and thinking "There....that's where I go next." And it really can be that random. We heard about the Perhentians while in N. Thailand, and that's all it took to decide we would go.

Finally, backpacking in places that are hotspots for this style of travel means that an easy fraternity is always available. Moreover, it's not that you make friends because you're forced to. I think the selection bias inherent in deciding to make a long term trip ensures that backpacker trails are populated largely by interesting, laid-back, open minded people. In Bangkok, I spent my first two days with a gregarious French Canadian. In Chiang Mai, I drank whisky with an English expat. In Ko Phangan, I swam with New Zealanders. And in the Perhentians, I shared my room first with a Swedish girl (strictly platonic, we just needed to save money), and then with a Norwegian man. So there really is no need to be a lonely traveler. In fact, if you travel alone, you actually have the freedom to choose when to be alone, and when to buddy up for a days, or even weeks with another traveler(s).

And therein lies the second attraction of the Perhentians. They were only "discovered" by backpackers in the last 10 years, and are only now being slowly targeted for large-scale commerical development. For now, they offer a cheerful community in the middle of paradise. Staying on the beach just four days, we got to know four Norwegians who shared a snorkel trip with us, as well as myriad other characters. The beach was only 300m long, and by the end of the trip, we could reconize and even name a good number of the other travelers there. If I went to dinner alone, I usually ended up eating at someone elses table, having made new friends.

As for what we actually did on the Perhentians:

The islands are famed for their snorkeling and we spent many hours exploring reefs in the vicinity. The sea life was astounding! I swam with sharks, turtles, and countless fish. Some of the finned residents of the reef were reminiscent of South Beach drag queens, improbably shaped and dressed in neon colors. Also, I found Nemo. There were lots of clownfish, which have a charming habit of swimming up to you when you approached their sea anemone residences (I was greeted several times by entire families of clownfish when I hovered near an anemone).

When not snorkeling, I was usually busy playing beach volleyball or soccer with other travelers, and in the evenings, the entire community would congregate at one central bar, directly on the beach, and while away the hours to dance music until 3 or 4 AM. The bar was particularly fun, as almost every night, the moon was out, and you could spot thunderheads flashing in the distance while Europeans, Canadians and Aussies would get their dance on at the beach.

Oh, and of course, the seafood was brilliant. Every night, I had barbecued marlin, tuna, barracuda, squid or something similarly enticing.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Thank You!

To everyone who took the time to call or email, thanks so much! I haven't even gotten a chance to read my messages yet (internet is very expensive outside the major cities and towns), but I'll be in touch soon ;)

Waking up to Gibbon calls

From KPN, we traveled to Khao Sok National Park, one of Thailand's natural wonders. Located midway between the Andaman and Gulf coasts, Khao Sok is an impenetrable rainforest that is home to guars, leopards, tigers, monkeys, and ~150 species of birds. Characterized by massive limestone karsts that are carpeted in jungle it's most dramatic feature is Cheow Lan lake, created in the 1980's when the Khlong Saeng river was dammed to provide energy to the region. The result is an other-worldly landscape, in which limestone peaks dressed in emerald jungle rise from serene turqouise waters to scrape monsoon clouds.

We spent one day in a small tourist village outside the park, waiting out heavy rains while exploring the area with an informal guide at our guest house, a deaf, but somehow communicative Thai who showed us nearby caves and nature trails, all while happily smoking marijuana at every stop; we initially assumed he had an outlandish speech impediment (he could only moan and grunt), because he would repeatedly make phone calls in front of us. Later, we learned that he did this simply for kicks. He couldn't hear a word anyone was saying on the other end, he just liked the idea of calling them. But he was a great guide and the highlight of the day was bathing in a waterfall (as good as it sounds).

The next day, we made our way into Khao Sok with a different guide, a short, squat Thai with a pesudo-handlebar mustache. From the dam, we took a longtail boat out to a raft-house, our accommodation for the night. The raft house was a floating groupt of huts, flanking a larger dining hut, with bathrooms reachable by planks connecting the floating hamlet to shore. Every time another longtail went by, we found the entire set of huts and dining room rocking in the wake.

Rustic as it sounds, the setting made for one of the most achingly beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. The raft house looked out onto a broad cove of aquamarine water set against a treacherously steep karst mountain of tropical rainforest. Better yet, we were the only guests that night, so it was just us and a a very colorful group of Thais who worked on the boat. The boat staff were a raucous cast who paid us little attention except to make fun of us, and spent most of the evening getting drunk and high. They enjoyed a sort of roughshod, sexist bon amie, with the men referring to one another as "Sexy Man" or "Handsome Boy" (most were anything but ;) while harassing the two constantly giggling female cooks on the boat. They took to calling my bearded cousin Osama Bin Laden, and tried to tip our canoe whenever we made the mistake of getting close to where they were swimming.

In the afternoon, we took a sweaty hike into impossibly thick, dripping rainforest. Our guide was actually a little drunk, having just finished a Sansom bucket of his two minutes previously, but we made it back in one piece. While the hike was fun, we actually saw very little wildlife, as the canopy is home to most of the rainforest's diversity. However, we heard an abundance, birdsong, and monkey calls backdropped by the steady drone of cicadas and frog croaks.

The evening was just as gorgeous, with a full moon lighting up the entire bay. Naj and I sat listening to one of the boatsmen sing mournal Thai love ballads in the moonlight, a little too romantic for Muslim cousins to enjoy comfortably together (as many of my friends know, when it comes to my family, they think that incest is best). I drifted off to sleep later, hearing the occasional coo of an owl over the lapping of water at the bottom of my hut.

In the morning, I woke to the staccato whale song of gibbons calling across the lake; gibbons sounds totally unlike other monkeys, emitting extremely loud coos as they call to each other high in the tree trops. Their calls were only amplified by the steep ridges of the bay, and so the morning was anything but peaceful. Our guide took us out in a longtail boat, from which we saw a band of gibbons fighting with a group of longtail langurs for position in a fruit tree. The gibbons being smaller, lost, and one by one, we saw gibbons crash into the canopy below the fruit tree, akin to something out of a 1980's video game.

As the morning wore on, a storm rolled in, and we saw the most spectacular scenery yet, as columns of rain enveloped the karst mountains and dappled the lake.

Later a hike into a cave, and fresh fish for lunch more or less concluded our time in the park. A little sad, we made our way back to the village on the outskirts of the forest, where I'm writing this now.

However, tomorrow, a whole new country! At the last minute, we decided to spend sometime in Malaysia, so tomorrow, we make our way down to the border. But it won't be the same, waking up without gibbon calls.....

A 36 hour birthday

It's been a while since my last post; since, I spent a lazy two days in Bangkok, whiling away my time lazing about my hostel with friends, and shopping for pirated DVDs at MBK center, Bankok's budget mall of choice. From Bangkok, we made our way down to Ko Phan Ngan, the country's most famous backpacker island. A once quiet paradise, KPN has been transformed into a crazed party island, infamous for its monthly full moon parties, essentially beach front raves that draw anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 travelers and Thais to the island. With my 23rd year imminent, I felt the need to get stupid, and headed for the epicenter of the party Hat Rin beach. After an uncomfortable night on a train seat (virtually spooning an oversized 6'6 Canadian man who took up his entire seat and half of mine; needless to say, I was little spoon), and a day's passage through the faceless coastal town of Surat Thani, I joined my cousin Naj on Hat Rin beach (he'd chosen to take a flight). Hat Rin was reckoned to once be the most beautiful beach on the island, but it has been transformed into a theme parkey ghetto of burger joints and bars sprawling up and out from the water. It's still attractive by any measure, but is anything but tranquil.

I took a nap shortly after arriving, and woke up at 9 PM, a few hours before I turned 23. I had intended to take it easy, perhaps having a drink before turning in, but little did I know that it would be a good 12 hours before I got back to my beach hut. Naj and I headed to the beach where we met up with, Sebastian, a gregarious Swiss traveler he had met the day before. At night, the beach lights up with dozens of little drink stalls crammed between numerous waterfronts clubs and bars; local Thais peddlers with the crowds of tourists sipping from Sansom buckets (a bucket with a heady, cheap, and decidedly unhealthy mix of Red Bull, Sansom whisky and Coke). The evening was quiet, until a taxi pulled up, offering free rides to a pool party on another beach. Our trio hopped on, and minutes later, we were in the midst of a frattish orgy of drunk Canadians. 6 Sansom buckets, and 5 hours later, I was still there, chatting on the beach with an eccentric woman from Tennessee; it was strictly platonic, and I was mainly interested in her life story (grew up in a racist hick town, but had set out to see the world, saw India over 6 months, and now doing Thailand). It was a fun conversation, punctuated only by the moans of a stark naked couple making love a few feet over (no joke...after a while, such scenes are common place on Ko Phangan). It was now 4 AM, and Tennessee was ready to turn in, so we parted ways. No sooner did she walk off, I realized I had no idea where the hell I was. My thinking still hazy from the night's libations, I began to aimlessly wander dark streets littered with Thai prostitutes; I passed a man haggling with TWO prostitutes, an absurd scene that I could do little more than drunkenly knit my eyebrows at. 15 minutes later, only more lost, I found a prostitute of my own, but only to ask for directions (they were the only people still awake on that part of the island). Sheepishly I was led by the hand some ways before realizing she fully intended to do business, at which point I politely disentangled myself and walked the other way. It did little good. She started chasing me, with her pimp approaching from behind in a pickup truck heavy with his ward. Paranoid from the alcohol, I broke into a full run, and hid behind a resort bungalow, my labored breathing masked by the sounds of yet another couple fornicating in their hammock. Peaking out past the couple, I made sure my assailant had disappeared, and continued in the direction she had initially pointed to Hat Rin beach. I was shocked to find out she was right, and made my way their. I had assumed the night was over, but upon reaching the beach, I found the occupants of the hut next to mine, two friendly Germans and a New Zealander, amidst a haze of Thai prostitutes (I was to learn that the rejects of the night's trade make their way to Hat Rin beach to cruise the few remaining drunks). With my newfound friends I spent the final hours of nights trying to dance while harangued by the local sex workers. Eventually, we found ourselves sitting on the beach, watching the sun come up, having made two more friends, a pair of Brits who were sitting off the tail end of a mushroom trip. A swim, breakfast with the New Zealander, and a stumble back to the hut concluded the night at 9 AM.

But the first day of my 23rd year wasn't quite over. 3 hours later, I was awake again, swimming and playing soccer on the beach; as day turned to night, I found my hut neighbors, and from 7 PM onwards, the party was on again, this time beginning at our huts, with a small ensemble of guitarists, a maracca, and the New Zealander playing a didgeridoo. Later, we headed to the beach en masse, where we celebrated till I passed out from sheer exhaustion at one in the morning.

The next day, the hedonistic charm that had characterized my Hat Rin experience till then quickly dissolved. An uneventful gave way to another night, but this time, I chose to stay sober, and quickly discovered Hat Rin for what it is, a vapid orgy of self-indulgence. It wasn't simply being sober either; the full moon partyers had just begun to show up, and instead of a relatively sedate beach front crowd, there was a rowdy group of approximately one thousand people on the beach. I saw disgusting things that night; my German friends, who had been very charming till then, spent the night in a stupor induced by a mix of valium and alcohol. One was so wasted, he spent most of the night pursuing a lady-boy (I warned him repeatedly, but he was convinced she was a woman, and spent most of the night trying to sweet talk him). I found the other German the next morning, blindly being led by a sex worker, in spite of having a girlfriend of three years waiting for him at home. My English friends sat about the beach, flagging down drug peddlers, and snorting MDMA out of their cupped palms. Worst of all, as morning arrived to reveal drunken slobs passed out on the beach, I spotted a Thai prostitute with her eyes rolled back in her head, tottering about, head rolling lazily on her neck. She turned to me, and snarled, emitting a guttural, rabid gurgle, as blood from a undressed wound poured down her leg. Deflecting her hellish aspect, I returned to my hut and packed my things. It was a good birthday, but KPN, and Hat Rin beach in particular, turned out be a truly revolting destination. It was populated by the worst kind of travelers, those who care little about the customs, and culture of the country they are in.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Thai Contexts

I realize that I have written virtually nothing regarding Thai culture, politics and the like, which I regard as a bit of failure on my part (after all, travel is about deconstructing the mythologies and ideologies we create about exotic foreign lands into tangible human experiences). To that end, some broad impressions, based anecdotally and on reading (subject to extreme bias ;), follow:

Thai People:
I thought the tag-line "Land of a thousands smiles" was some hoaky selling point, but it isn't. Wherever you go in Thailand, you're greeted by broad, warm smiles. Thai people are particularly interesting for an Asian race. They're fun-loving and relatively lazy, so forget the stereotype of the driven Asian doctor/engineer/i-banker etc. These people like to party and have a good time.

Some interesting snippets: Racism is well and alive in Thailand. Although I can't make a blanket statement, the Chinese minority, 15% of the population, in Thailand isn't loved all round. A big part of the reason might be their rampant financial success. Many businessess are owned by ethnic Chinese, and Bangkok features its own Chinatown. Thais tried to block Chinese dominance politically, by passing laws that required Thai heritage for property ownership in certain instances, but the Chinese bypassed the law quite simply; they intermarried with Thais, giving rise to a significant number of Chinese-Thais.

On a separate note, Thais have a very apparent color-caste system, in which lighter is better, and European features attractive (many of the pop stars and entertainers are of mixed Euro/American-Thai heritage). Skin whitening products are advertised even more visibly than in India!

Thai Politics:
Incredibly curious to say the least. I had no idea before I visited, but Thailand is something of a constitutional monarchy. While the king isn't the designated leader of Thailand, he wields ENORMOUS influence; he is incredibly popular, enjoying broad support, in good part because he seems to be a leader with needs of the people at heart (he sponsors numerous development projects around the country, and exerts considerable sway on the country's political course; he's had prime ministers dismissed after disapproving speeches). However, somewhat ominously, public criticism of the king is not tolerated, and can be punishable by law. To add to the mix, while the king is massively popular, his son is regarded as a complete wanker (it doesn't help that he's featured in his own sex tape).

Even more colorfully, this country doesn't seem to have elections; instead, they have coups, if I'm correct, more than ten in the 20th century. However, they have been largely peaceful, perhaps in good part thanks to the stabilizing force of the monarchy (an expat living here told me he thought there would be civil war when the king dies).

The economy:
Don't know much about this yet, but I can comment that tourism is the biggest industry and you can tell by the sheer number of people visiting even in the low season.

Sex Industry:
Yes, it's as visible as you might be led to believe. Hardly a day has passed in which I haven't been offered a chance to roll in the hay with a Thai girl, and you constantly see white men with Thai women (interestingly, not all are old and fat; many are young and attractive white men, which is a bit puzzling). What's really interesting about the sex industry is its cultural origins. Contrary to popular belief, 95% of the industry is devoted to Thai men. Polygamy was an accepted part of Thai society till the 1930s when it was outlawed. However, the practice was simply diverted, with "minor" wives being replaced by visits to brothels (estimates are that 2/5ths of the male population visits sex workers at least twice a month). It amounts to a staggering 3% of the national economy, with most of the sex workers being sourced from the poor, rural northeastern region of Isaan. On the note of Thai sexuality, even more interesting is the presence of katoeys, or lady-boys. Very visible, and often gorgeous, lady-boys are not exclusively sex workers, and some anthropoligists have postulated that they fit the criteria of a third gender within Thai society. Refreshingly, homosexuality is widely tolerated tolerated in Thailand, and while flamboyancey is not encouraged, most Thais would think it low to reject a relative or friend based on their sexual orientation.

Rural-Urban divide:
46% of the population still lives in rural settings, and rural/urban Thais are almost like two different races. My rural host, Buen-Choi, would find Bangkok as alien as any foreign country.

It would seem that Thais love keeping pets. Dogs are the most obvious, and seem to be very pampered (the strays are well-nourished, and actual pets are morbidly obese). Cats and fish are popular as well, with the occasional rabbit, hamsters, and even sugar-glider thrown in for good measure. I still haven't figured out what thin line demarcates pets from food, apart from ornamental value.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Back in Bangkok

We finished the loop on Sunday, and I've been back in Bangkok since Monday AM, taking a break on my way south to the tropical beaches of south Thailand.

The last two days of the loop were as spectacular as the first. After Mae Hong Son, we made our way to Pai, a hippy new-agey town bisected by a wandering river in a valley. Pai is a great place to have your chakras aligned over a cup of ocea butter, wheatgrass-infused, fair trade organic, buddhist monk-grown tea. The town is populated by sets of dreadlocked, moonshiney Thais interspersed with strung-out, druggie hippies. We stayed in little bamboo huts by the river, where I passed the night reading "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac (it seemed too perfect a book to not read on a trip like this).

Rising late the next day, we embarked on the last day of the loop, which was also possibly the most fun riding. As we climbed into the mountains near Pai, clouds gathered and the sky muttered thunder. Drizzle felly idly, until the monsoon unzipped its fly, and started pissing rain. Not Minnesota-nice, sweet summer rain, but fat, pregnant-with-twins rain drops. Slicing through it felt like climbing into needles, cold speed, adrenalin rushing, a happy to be alive kind of ride. Looking like tropical fish in neon orange ponchos, we swam home to safe harbor, riding past curtains of rain from behind which lurking mountains occasionaly peered like peeping toms.

On our way home, we made a stop at a hot springs site famous for a geyser which belches sulphurous warm water. Unlike other hot springs site I've seen in northern Thailand where taking a bath in the water requires having it piped into a jacuzzi and mixed with cold water (the hot spring water is ~100 degree C when it comes out), this hot spring spawned a warm creek, which rambles through jungle before emerging in a clearing where it forms three deepish pools. Here you can choose your preferred temperature, and bathe in sight of mist covered mountains. We did exactly that, enjoying the contrast of air spiced by the cool Thai monsoon, and the warmth of the hot springs, all amdist an absolutely deserted valley. To the add the ambience, the only other visitors that ever showed up were a band of Buddhist monks on a road trip; they bathed in the pool above us, bartering snippets of their English for snippets of our Thai, while laughing at me skid all over the algae covered rocks surrounding the springs.

It was a magical end to a magical trip as Naj and I were discussing, when my spacy travel buddy realized he had lost the key to his motorbike. After a fruitless one hour search, we gave it up for lost, and made our way home on a single bike through the vanishing day. It was a mad ride in the dark, pelted by an endless parade of insects before we arrived in Chiang Mai. The next morning, we rode back out with a spare key picked up from the rental shop, and retrieved Naj's bike.

The same night, I hopped a train to Bangkok, and the present moment. Next stop, tropical beach, and after that, tropical rainforest ;)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Mae Hong Son Loop

The week has been incredible thus far, and I'm just processing all that has happened.

After my last post, Sunday morning, I had intended to take the day easy. But as usual, I hopped on my bike to head for lunch, and soon, I found myself motoring through the steep mountain forests of Doi Suthep, the largest mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. It was a wet, rainy ride, that only got wetter as I ascended into the clouds that shrouded the mountain. Catching glimpses of the city far below as I ascended curves steeped in clouds made for an atmospheric afternoon.

My cousin Naj arrived on Monday morning, via a flight from Bangkok. Naj and I met only a few months ago, but got along easily, and since we had both been planning on traveling, it was a natural choice to make this trip together. Immediately after he arrived, we got another motor bike, and headed out on a day trip, to the Mae Sa valley, a pretty area of gentle rolling hills 50km west of Chiang Mai. To unwind, we enjoyed Thai massages from two little old ladies back in the city; I was amazed by how strong these women were, as neither could've weighed more than 90lbs. Easily, the best massage I've ever had (Naj was so mellowed out, he fell down the steps on our way out).

Chiang Mai Day Trips

Tuesday morning, we shelved our larger packs in favor of mini-packs, and hit the road to Mae Hong Song. The Mae Hong Song Loop is a legendary 600km motorcycle ride through Thailand's most rugged landscapes. 80% of Mae Hong Son province is on a 45 degree incline, and by the time our journey is complete, we will have navigated almost 2000 hairpin bends (many also at 45 degree inclines/declines). Needless to say, it's been a wild ride.

Tuesday afternoon, we cruised into Doi Inthanon national park, a sprawling mountain reserve that is home to over 300 bird species, and Doi Inthanon, a specatuclar peak overlooking the region. Lunch by a waterfall was followed by a two hour hike around the summit, which included cutting through a cloud forest (again, we spent a good deal of time inside monsoon clouds). Our day went long, and we found ourselves racing the fading daylight to Mae Chaem, a village where we intended to stay for the night. Little did we know what was in store for the night.

On our way to Mae Chaem, we paused to take some photos of the sunset splashing brilliant hues across a peaceful farming valley. While doing so, a Thai man, in a dirty white t-shirt, and worn jeans, motored up to us on his bike, rattling off something in Thai. Puzzled, Naj and I exchanged quizzical glances; finally, he started miming "barn," and "sleep." I figured he was a tout trying to earn commission by taking us to a guest house, but thought, "What the hell, let's give it a try." We followed him through a tiny hamlet, on to increasingly rougher roads. Anxious thoughts crossed my mind....would there be a gang of Thai thugs waiting for us around the next corner? Was I being completely naive following him? It was getting dark, and we were well beyond the point where I could find my way back to the main road.

Our fears were misplaced, and we were to happen on one of the most embarrassingly warm acts of random kindness I've ever experienced. We followed our random host, Buen-Choi, as I would learn, to his ramshackle barn, where he insisted we stay the night. Later, I relaxed, but still assumed he was trying to earn a buck. I only realized that he was giving freely of his time, energy, and home, when he sat us down in the midst of the family, and served us dinner. Buen-choi had two adorable kids, a daughter of about eight, and a son of three, in addition to his elderly parents, and a brother my age. Amongst this cast of country Thais, he sat us down, and he fed us dinner, serving us in the only bowl he owned.

Dinner was interesting, consisting of a spicy dish of rubbery texture, and a vegetable curry, complemented by sticky rice. I ate blankly, stunned by the randomness of it all, watching Buen-choi's son play with a bucket full of pet frogs. It took about twenty minutes before it clicked. The frogs weren't pets....they were dinner, the rubbery dish.

As we ate, it became apparent that Buen-choi knew very little English, so I broke out my Thai phrase book, and started a stuttering conversation in phrase book Thai. One of the first things I figured out, flushing with embarrassment when I did, was that he refused to accept any money, for the dinner or the stay. He was doing it purely out of kindness. Later, I learned how old he was (thirty), the names of his kids (which I've forgotten), what his mother was making (she was in the back spinning cotton for blankets), and that he had a brother.

After dinner, we took family photos (we would later make prints for the family), and our host took us from the main house, where his parents and children slept, to the "barn" (an elevated wooden house where we would spend the night). Buen-choi made us instant coffee, boiling water over a wood fire, and we shared freshly rolled tobacco cigars while continuing a broken conversation. My phrase book turned out to be hilariously bizarre, as the largest section is devoted to "romance." A sample exchange in the phrase book:

Person 1: "That girl is very cute"
Person 2: "That's not a girl. He's a lady-boy."
Person 1: "He's very cute just the same"

even better yet:

Person 1: "Does that woman have a boyfriend...."
Person 2: "I don't know! Why do you ask?"
Person 1: "I suspect that he's handsome. I'm sure that he is tall and thin"
Person 2: "No. He's fatter than an elephant."

best of all:

Person 1: "Why didn't you kiss her?
Person 2: "Because I kissed the lady boy that was sitting next to her"
Person 1: "Why did you kiss him"
Person 2: "Because he was cuter than the girl" (frighteningly true in some cases)

Using the "romance" section, we learned that Buen-choi's wife had been cheating on him, and had run off with another man to Chiang Mai. It was heartbreakingly funny to see him mime "jealous," "lonely" and "I want to shoot him."

After coffee, both of us were practically passing out (it was only 9:30), so we politely took our leave of Buen-choi's company, and retreated to our "room" (We slept in the opposite corner of the room from Buen-choi and his brother). The night was unlike any other, the darkness all encompassing, penetrated only by the pinpoint glow of amorous fireflies and the melodic croak of tokays (alarmingly large, ~35cm, but harmless lizards).

In the morning, after an invigoratingly cold bucket shower in a corner of the barn, we ate breakfast in town, assembled a small care package for Buen-choi (whisky, cigarettes, candy for his kids, and a huge pack of instant coffee), and set off on our way. The man left our lives as quietly as he entered them, but I will never forget meeting him; easily one of the most humbling acts of random kindness I've ever experienced, rendered particularly significant by his poverty.

From Mae Chaem, we embarked on a hair-raising, bone-rattling ride to Mae La Noi, 120km away. Our journey took us on roads that coursed through mountains and valleys, and many times, over sheer precipices where mountains gave way to clouds. In Mae La Noi, we stayed in a sprawling country villa, the only place we could find in the tiny town (not actually a common stop on the loop).

Yesterday, we made the ride from Mae La Noi, to Mae Hong Son, the capital city of the same province, another crazy journey, at times, replete with hairpin turns and speeding trucks, but mostly, just deserted country roads winding past life-changing scenery.

The trip is roughly half over, but what a trip it has been! The sheer liberation of a motorcycle paired with the landscape of Mae Hong Son....a perfect complement, the travel equivalent of wine and cheese. It's reputation as a classic ride is richly deserved. Today, we ride to the hippy, new-agey town of Pai, for our last night. Tomorrow, we wake up before dawn, to see the sun rise over clouds from the mountains around just keeps getting better.

Mae Hong Son Loop Photos

Saturday, May 3, 2008


I added a ton of photos today, including to older posts ;)

Dhamma is for lovers

Chiang Mai is an airy city of 250,000 people, Thailand's second city in terms of tourism. It's somewhat scenic being flanked by mountains on one side, but heavily touristed, with a massive number of western restaurants serving banana pancakes and pizza. The vast majority of tourists head to Chiang Mai for hill-tribe trekking. Northern Thailand has a substantial population (a few hundred thousands) of fourth world peoples, so called because they are not naturalized Thai citizens, but supposedly live a relatively pre-modern life as subsistence agriculturalists in the highlands, isolated from outside influence. Western trekkers typically take 2-4 day treks to see these tribes in their "natural habitat." However, I don't plan to do so. My impression is that while it might have been authentic thirty years ago, it's an industry now, and there must be, literally, around a few hundred thousand trekkers who pass through each year. As such, I've repeatedly heard from locals that many of the hill-tribes are now paid to stay put, continuing their traditional way of life. I can just imagine it, a bunch of hill tribe people, lounging around in denims, watching TV, get a call that a tour group is coming, and throw on their traditional clothes, and hide the TV.

Regardless of whether the "ethno-tourism" based out of Chiang Mai is authentic or not, the highland villages of farmers in the North, are no less "ethnic" or Thai. As such, I've rented a little 125cc motorcycle, and tomorrow, I head out to do the Mae Hong Son loop, a 600k journey through some of the North's most stunning mountains and valleys. I went on a sample ride outside of Chiang Mai yesterday, to the San Kamphaeng hot springs area. Snaking past glowing green rice paddies, and small mountains, I got my first taste of rural Thai life, replete with little flocks of chickens darting across narrow roads, and warm smiles of farmer's looking up from their fields at the clueless farang rolling by. I ended the day, strictly platonically, in a steam bath with three Japanese men. Water piped from the hot springs outside proved a wonderful respite from a beautiful, but cold and rainy day spent pelted by the Thai monsoon on my bike.

Speaking of warm smiles, I got a lot more from the Thais at my guesthouse, who helped me learn how to ride a semi-automatic Honda dream motorbike. When they weren't scrabbling out of my way as I rolled the throttle too far, jumping around the courtyard, they were rolling with laughter at the circus show taking place. Even though I much more confident riding now, they still smirk and keep their distance when I ride into the guesthouse.

Meeting locals like the Thais at my guesthouse has been one of the highlights in Chiang Mai. After spending so much time with other travelers in Bangkok (mainly CSers and a French-Canadian buddy I made at the hostel), I decided to avoid other travelers here. They're perfectly charming, but I felt like I was missing out on experiencing more Thai culture. I lucked out the other day, at a Buddhist Wat (wat = temple). A monk spotted me from his lunch table, and invited me to eat. I was a little stunned, since I figured he must be bored mindless by tourists, but over the course of the meal, I learned that he had lived in Madras, studying Buddhist philosophy there. He was enjoying the chance to reminisce about India, and I was happy to oblige. When I was leaving, I spotted a giant photo of him on the wall of the wat, and I mentioned that he seemed popular. He replied most casually, "No, I'm just the senior monk of the wat." You've got to love the kindness of strangers.

The other highlight was meeting a British expat during a sleepless night. Unable to sleep, I wandered out to the main strip of bars at 2:30 AM, and sat down for a red label whisky next to what I initially took to be a sex tourist, since he was with a Thai woman. However, over the course of two hours, I got to know Phil and his Thai wife, Nui (or Pi Nui to me, i.e. "Big sister Nui). Phil had met Nui 5 years previously when her motorcycle broke down, and now, they're married. It was fascinating get a window into the expat world in Chiang Mai, as there are a significant number of farangs who live here year round.

That's it for now. Today, I relax before heading on a five day motorcycle tour through Mae Hong Son.

Train Journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

After four days in the mad, steaming bustle of Bangkok, the quiet train journey to Chiang Mai was tonic. Thai trains are not altogether different from Indian trains. I rode second class, which has far more room than Indian second class, and larger, open windows (no glass, or mesh, just open); they're also much more sedate, with no vendors loudly announcing the sale of hot tea, or the violent stink of human waste.

I shared my compartment with an adorable Thai family, two kids headed to spend some time with grandma and grandpa up north. My iPod and a box of chocolate pocky sticks ensure I had two buddies for the duration of the journey.

The countryside outside of Bangkok quickly turned scenic, and the landscape slowly changed from the tropical plains to deciduous forest under the setting sun, until night time found us speeding past forests that looked wraith-like in the inky black of night.

Dawn close to Chiang Mai was nothing short of glorious.

Conveyor Belt Sushi

People are going to start thinking that all I do is eat here, but my last dining experience in Bangkok was probably also the most fun. It actually wasn't even Thai food. Ever since I was 16, I've always wanted to eat at a Japanese conveyor belt restaurant, which I first saw on the BBC. Basically, it's a budget buffet style place, with one big catch: you get your food off a conveyor belt that circulates past every seat in the restaurant. The chef continually makes items, and then places them on the belt, for customers to pick up as they please. As for payment, items are grouped into categories, and each price category has a plate color corresponding to it. At the end of the meal, the hostess tallies up your plates, by color and count, and bills you accordingly.

I found such a place 2 hours before I left, and checked in for a delightful lunch. As soon as I sat down, I realized I had no idea what I was doing. For one, there was practically no sushi on the belt; it was mostly slices of raw meat and fish. Puzzled, I was about top pick up a plate and start eating it uncooked when I spotted my neighbors doing differently; they both had bowls of steaming soup placed on burners in front of them. I thought this was an option, but it was actually the main course. The burners heated the soup to a boil, and you cooked your own food. I overcooked my first slice of meat, but after I got the hang of it, I had a blast, fancying myself a little chef, throwing together clams, beef, bizarre looking mushrooms and some leafy greens.

Later, I moved onto sushi. Actually, I had to wait to move on to sushi. The thing I was to realize was that at a conveyor restaurant, you're at the mercy of the tastes of everyone to your right. In this case, the Japanese guy to my immediate right had a hankering for sushi. For the first twenty minutes, every time a sushi plate emerged hopefully from the little conveyor belt opening, I waited optimistically for it to come my way, but to no avail. The man to my left snagged every piece until he had finally gorged himself, and then I had my turn. Moral of the story: the best seat in a conveyor belt restaurant is the one at the start.