This post marks my departure from Japan and a return to travel for me. That means that I won’t have the opportunity to waste endless hours scouring the Internet for all things photographically interesting. Instead, I will now shift back into travel writing mode (and I hope that’s at least somewhat interesting).
My upcoming plans are vague and mutable, but here’s the gist: I will be leaving Japan on July 1st and heading back to Thailand. My return ticket takes me to Bangkok where I will spend a little time photographing the city. When I first swept through the metropolis, I took a stroll up and down Khao San Road, and that was about it before heading off to other parts of Thailand (and many people have said I made a wise choice).
But, I will have at least a week or two to spend in Bangkok and/or nearby destinations inside Thailand. That may turn into a month depending on how much I’m enjoying myself.
When my Thailand fun is finished, the plan is to head down to Australia. The cheapest entry point is Darwin – one of the most Northern cites in the country. I’ve been told that there’s not much good reason to stay in Darwin, so I expect to quickly buy a ticket out of Dullsville (if that’s what it turns out to be).
But that’s where the planning ends. I mean, I don’t even have a guidebook for Australia yet. I just know that soon after arriving in the country, I will likely be putting that working holiday visa of mine to use with whatever job I can find. Prices down under are going to come as a shock to my stretched budget, so I expect to be temping/fruit picking/working construction/dreaming of a photography job/whatever work I can find sooner than later.
I aim to keep posting fun stories and adventures on a regular basis, so I hope you’ll come back and keep up with me.
I now spend a lot more time in front of a computer than I do behind a lens or in front of some wonderful spectacle. And for now, I have no complaints. By July, my feet may regain their usual itchiness and I will be eager to hit the road once more. But for now, I’m happy to stay off them for a while.
The next couple of months will be spent recharging my batteries after the three months of constant movement, reconnecting with friends in Japan, and making all my pretty pictures that much prettier (and of course, sharing them with you).
So, now that I’m here in Japan and temporarily resuming something akin to a normal life, my travel adventure tales may be a little less frequent. Of course, bizarre sights, sounds and times abound in Japan, so I’m bound to find myself getting into some kind of fun. Already the treasured, ephemeral cherry blossoms have swept through Ichinoseki and are now drifting to the ground like snowflakes, but not before I photographed them and joined a hanami (cherry blossom viewing party) party with friends old and new. The blossoms couldn’t escape me this year! Already I have regained my private rock star status in the city’s best karaoke joint. Already I have been bewildered and enchanted by this strange country and this quaint city that is still so foreign and yet so familiar.
But until I find myself being tackled by kids, climbing a mountain, or appearing on morning TV, I may actually turn this blog of mine into less of a travel journal and more of a… well… blog.
When taking breaks from processing photos, the Internet is of course, my number one distraction, so from time to time, I’ll pass along some of better material that has left me feeling not exceptionally guilty about my procrastination.
And without further ado, the talked about story of the weekend is Steven Colbert’s appearance at the White House Correspondents dinner. Dishing out scathing and hilarious commentary on George Bush is one thing. Doing it to his face is another. And for that, Mr. Colbert gets my official Big Cajones of the Day Award.
Video of the roasting is available in three parts through YouTube:
Bathed in the orange glow of the electric heater, George and I look around the room. George’s gaze darts a little more frantically because George is Sarah’s fish. He’s fat and has bug eyes. He’s a black goldfish that can take more punishment than most aquatic house pets. I suspect, right now, he is having similar thoughts to me: ‘Someone turn up the heat.’
Though, George being the hardy fellow he is, he’s probably used to this temperature. Not me. I mean, only a couple days ago, I was sweating out 40 degree days. This 30 degree shift down has me recalling all too vividly my winter in Japan and cursing the architects who did not have the foresight to install insulation or central heating in these Japanese apartments.
I know this really isn’t cold, but you have to think relatively here. 40 degrees down to 10 is shrinks a lot of mercury (among other things). Give me a week and I’ll be back to asserting my Canadian mastery over all things cold. With ice cubes down my pants, I’ll be hunting for some frozen poles I can lick. But for now, I’m going to shiver under my blanket and recall to myself that other than this delay in the Japanese spring, everything is pretty much perfect.
I’ve only made a quick sojourn from the apartment today, but while walking those familiar streets, I couldn’t help giggling to myself, ‘I’m in Japan again!’ while a huge grin preceded each of my footsteps.
The weirdest country I’ve to which I’ve ever been, this place is re-revealing it’s odd contradictions and making me recall why leaving here those many months ago was a mistake. But I’m not attempting to live in the past here. I feel, instead like I’m caught somewhere between past, present and future. It’s both like I never left and my whole life is ahead of me.
But like many of Japan’s mysteries, I have decided not to delve too deeply. It’s not a land that reveals its secrets easily. Instead, I will just go with the flow and bypass these strange temporal eddies.
Soon, George and I will greet Sarah’s return from a day at work and succumb to her pressure to watch American Idol. I like to pretend watching that show causes me some mortal wound so that perhaps I can curry some favour. But, it’s really Sarah that should be thanked for allowing me the chance to come back here to Japan. Maybe tonight I won’t make any jesting complaints. I can’t speak for George though. I think he really hates that show.
I’m about to say au revoir to Thailand (I don’t know how to say it in Thai, so I’ll with French, not because of any French tradition in Thailand, but because I’ll be seeing this country again in a couple months).
When I return from Japan, I plan to stay at least a little while in Bangkok because I saw nothing of the city while I was there. People seem to either love the place or loathe it, but I really don’t know it enough to tell you either way. I also figure that having spent this amount of time in Thailand, I should have at least a few photos of its capital city. As it stands, I didn’t take a single shot while I was here.
Yesterday, I spent the entire day relaxing after my bus journey from Chiang Mai. I wound up in a hostel that had a TV in the room for the first time in a long time and the bulk of my day was spent with a steady stream of movies.
You can’t blame me for relaxing a bit because my trip to Bangkok was a little bit stressful. I had been expecting to take a bus from Chiang Mai on the 17th in the morning. I would wake early and 12 hours later, I would arrive in Bangkok in the evening. The day before, I looked at my ticket and something told me to double check the time.
I hopped over to the guesthouse where I originally bought the ticket and made my query. The woman who sold me the ticket replied with shock. ‘Oh no! We don’t have buses in the morning!’ To which I responded, ‘Huh?’ It said 5:30 am right on the receipt. But apparently, while writing, accuracy of any kind was not on her agenda. She should have been writing 6:30 pm.
So, the bus for which I was now booked was departing at 6:30 pm and would arrive in Bangkok at 6:30 am. My flight is at 8:25 so I would be cutting it far too close. Frazzled, I enquired about my options and with a previously unknown efficiency, the woman called up the bus company and managed to get me a seat on the next bus that evening. (Thank you to whoever it was that cancelled! Much appreciated!)
I hurriedly packed and got myself some dinner before I was whisked off to the bus leaving an audible ‘Whew!’ in my wake.
Now, I’m freezing in this terminal’s overzealous air conditioning and trying to prepare for the even worse cold I’m told awaits me in Japan. Spring is arriving late this year. On the plus side, that means the cherry blossoms should not quite have bloomed yet in Iwate. And since the sakura are just about the most beautiful thing in the world (or so the Japanese would have you believe), I’m in luck. Last year, through irritating scheduling coincidences, I missed their full force. This year, I should be fortunate enough to stroll through their flowery midst.
Though by no means is this what I’m most anticipating in Japan. Seeing my friends there again is going to be great. I’m giddy at the excitement of gathering up as many people as possible and heading to karaoke (though my voice is a little shot after the mirthful yelling of Songkran). I may already have a karaoke date scheduled this Friday, so I better rest up the old pipes. I’m just thrilled I’ll get the chance to see these good friends again in the place where our friendships grew.
And for those following along, get ready for a deluge of photos. While travelling, I haven’t had the chance to upload much new material, but for the next couple months, the bulk of my time will be spent preparing images for my site and my agencies. First up will be photos from Songkran because I met so many people there who want to see my photos. But after that, I’m flexible. If you have any requests from any of the places I’ve been, drop me a line and I’ll throw it towards the top of the queue.
UPDATE: Photos of the Songkran Water Fights are now available in the gallery.
Technically, it’s only the second day of the Songkran festival and already I’m worn out. This morning, I’m debating whether to partake in the water-tossing festivities or to attempt to photograph them again. The former is more fun; the later may serve me better in the long run. Either way, either today or tomorrow, I’ll be donning some form of aqua weapon and taking to the streets.
It takes a lot of mental energy for me to photograph the water fights. You have to have eyes on the back of your head because wielding a camera is no guarantee that you won’t turn into a target. I’ve wrapped mine in a special water-resistant bag, but that’s only water resistant, not waterproof. A good shot from a bucket and I suspect the protection I’ve provided would be worth little.
But I managed to get a few fun shots yesterday. The early morning saw a procession of monks at the Tha Pae Gate where hundreds of worshippers filled the alms bowls well past overflowing. Next was the Miss Songkran beauty contest where ladies donning umbrellas slowly strolled the stage in their high-rise heels and synthetic smiles.
Afterwards, I wandered a while and took photos of the water fights. I tended to stick to the more sedate areas of combat where I could better protect my gear. As I walked from site to site, I was forced plead with assailants to make only the lower half of my body their target. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes not, but so far, my camera still works.
A lot of people seem to respect that a camera is a bit of an expensive item and that getting it wet would be a bad idea. It’s actually a greater percentage of Thais who are willing to avoid shooting my camera than it is the foreign tourists. With them, I can plead in English to watch out for my camera. More than once people have replied, ‘You’re going to get wet anyway!’ while they proceed to do their worst. Well, idiot, it’s only because of people like you that your statement is true. The majority of people are willing to give me a little slack from the water torture if I play along a little and present them with, say, my ass to get wet instead of my camera.
While shooting, the police attempted to close off a couple of ridiculously congested roads so that the parade of Buddha images could make their way toward Phra Sing temple. I briefly gained access to the city wall’s ramparts thanks to a friendly tourist policeman and was able to witness the chaos from the safety of an elevated viewpoint. Many of the city’s temple’s Buddhas are removed from their usual positions and mounted on a car to have the revelers douse them with herb-scented purifying water as they passed. Traditional dancers, drummers and ethnic groups mixed with ladyboys in the procession and everyone got a generous helping moisture.
I quickly ambled over to Phra Sing where I got to see the laborious process of re-mounting the heavy Buddha image back in its place using a complicated set of lifts and manpower. As soon as it was back in its watchful position in front of the Wat, worshippers flocked to it to drench the image.
The long procession continued and the entrance to Phra Sing made a good vantage point. The water tossing was under control there to an extent and the crowds were actually navigable so I could easily get the best vantage points.
I soon found myself a bit exhausted from the whole day and headed back to my guesthouse knowing I had a couple more days of similar excitement.
But all this makes me sound like I’m obsessed about the safety of my camera and refuse to have any fun. Not true. Yesterday was a great time and I made more than a few friends willing to protect me in exchange for some photos later (since they were too scared to bring their cameras with them). I just hope I’m able to sort out who’s who later when I process and send out images.
More fun than the enjoyment of shooting in the water fights was participating in them. Two days ago, before the festival even officially began, there was already madness in the streets. Arming myself with a water pistol (whose life was a short few hours of functionality – the people selling these cheap plastic trinkets must be making a fortune) I headed to the moat and proceeded to get soaked and to soak.
I went straight for the busiest section of road I could find and noted to myself that this is exactly how I imagine anarchy would look. Lining each side of the road were assailants. Behind one group was the moat with its never ending supply of muddy water (I’m trying not to imagine how much of it I have and will swallow over these few days) and on the other side, bars and pubs sent hoses out into buckets to arm the partiers. In the middle were the cars, tuk-tuks, trucks, motorcycles and bikes all playing the role of moving target.
The trucks usually carried a band of assassins with barrels of water feeding their weapons and thus they weren’t defenseless. The scooters and motorbikes may have been the most appealing targets for many – they had no way of retaliating. Some were almost knocked off their bikes by forceful bucket blasts.
Screaming girls received faces full of water from aggressive bucket wielding men. If they had the means, they would respond by delivering a face full of ice water (one of the more potent weapons in the combat). People were tossed into the moat. Ladyboys donned bikinis and competed admirably in the perpetual wet t-shirt contest surrounding them. When the traffic slowed, roadside warriors would turn against each other to continue the fun. Mischievous gunmen ambushed drivers foolish enough to leave even a crack of their window open. Buckets of water flew into the open-backed sawngthaew buses (pickup trucks converted to buses).
And all the while, joyous screaming and laughter.
There were those few not interested in the celebration. A few locals hope in futility to stay dry, but when an errand draws them out of their house, they, in vain, try to ward of the water with a dirty look or two. There was the ridiculous foreigner riding a scooter down the busiest stretch of the busiest road who flipped me the bird after I shot his already-soaked body. No use playing the victim in these circumstances, friend.
No, it’s best to don a smile whether you’re riding a motorbike, donning a camera, or just trying to cross the street. There’s no use pretending you won’t get wet. No, they’ll find you. So you might as well enjoy the brief respite from the 40-degree heat. Because the only loser in a water fight, is the one who stays dry.
And now for the news of the day.
First up is an article I just had published with travelphotographers.net. If you’re interested on what it’s like to do some travel photography in Northern Taiwan, check it out. There’s a small batch of my photos as well for anyone who’s hoping to see some new ones.
Secondly, I’m heading back to Japan! Yay! While in Bangkok, Sarah and I hunted down a relatively cheap flight up to Tokyo, so I’ll be heading back to Iwate. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that every time I talk to a Japanese person and tell them I lived in Iwate, they laugh, but it’s a fact. They’re probably right to do so, but the place still has a hold on my heart.
I’ll be going for a couple months and any time I’m not visiting friends, I will be working tirelessly on processing photos. I’m actually quite eager for the change of pace – it will feel nice to wake up somewhere and not have to wonder where I will be sleeping that night. And I have thousands of photos that need processing, so the down time will be well spent.
Meanwhile, here in Chiang Mai, I’ve been keeping incredibly busy with the Poi Sang Long festival during which new novice monks are colourfully dressed and praraded around town. For three whole days, their feet are not allowed to touch the ground (I still haven’t figured out what they do to go to the toilet, but I don’t really want to find out that bad).
I’ve been spending a bunch of time at Wat Pa Pao, the epicenter of the festivities. I was also lucky enough to hitch a ride with the caravan of novices getting a tour of the city’s temples. Hanging precariously off the back of a pickup truck, a band played music and led the boys from temple to temple where they disembarked the trucks and danced up a storm on the backs of their families. If I get a chance, I’ll write a bit more about it later.
Combine these parties with the rest of the city’s novices being ordained and I won’t be surprised if I get a blister on my shutter finger.
I’m sleepy. And that’s okay by me. I’m allowed to be sleepy and a bit lazy for one more day before Sarah heads off to Cambodia. After that, I’ll probably be going back to my usual frenetic pace (though, I’ve grown a bit used to these chilled-out days and it might be hard to go back). Sipping fruit shakes and reading in a café in Chiang Mai isn’t such a bad life, but neither is a life spent tracking down good photos all day (well, for me anyway).
We have just returned from Wat Prahai Doi Suthep where we actually did do a bit of sightseeing today. It took us a while to get there because this lazy Sunday also happens to be election day in Thailand and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people moving about in the city, tourists (for whatever reason) and locals alike. We had hopped in a bus, but the driver wouldn’t leave until he had seven or eight fares. We waited a while and were joined by an Argentinean couple, but no one else seemed interested in heading up the mountain. Eventually, we had to bargain with the driver to take us up for a higher fee than we should have been paying. Another penny lost, but it wasn’t so bad.
The temple itself was gorgeous. On top of a long series of steps flanked by two naga (dragons) whose bodies formed the banister all the way up, the temple complex stood with what might have been an impressive view of Chiang Mai had the haze not been so thick. As it was, walking up to the railing at the edge of the small cliff looked like you were approaching the end of the world.
Inside the main courtyard of the temple, the highlight is certainly the huge gold stupa/chedi that towers and gleams over the complex. It’s surrounded by gold Buddha statues of varying sizes, metal umbrellas and shiny marble floors. Monks blessed visitors inside a couple of enclosed temples, worshippers knelt on the hot ground and tourists snapped away.
Yesterday, while Sarah went off to her cooking class, I had the fortune of witnessing the ordination of the new monks at one of the city’s largest temples, Phra Sing. I won’t go into the details, but it involved a lot of parading in an out of the main temple in order for the monks to pray, receive gifts and supplies for their new life and to talk with and say goodbye to their families. As with the alms-giving ceremony in Luang Prabang, the graphic image presented by a row of monks made for a striking visual.
I even got to see the rare (and somewhat unfortunate) event of a couple monks coming to blows. Yup. Monk fist fight. I didn’t exactly see what started it, but it was immediately after the new novices had completed their group photo. As they were walking off, a couple of them were talking. Probably trash talking. One of them must have made one too many ‘yo momma’ jokes and the other came out swinging. He threw a few inaccurate haymakers before being subdued. I guess he hadn’t yet internalized the ‘no violence’ precept that novice monks are supposed to follow. It was, after all, his first day, so I guess we can forgive him.
After the group photo, the boys were herded into waiting tour buses and shown around town. Perhaps they have already seen more of Chiang Mai than Sarah and I. Perhaps not. But I think we will have had a more relaxing time than them. After all, we don’t have to wake up at 4:00 am every morning – I think our time in Chiang Mai comes out on top for that fact alone.
Though, it’s not like we’ve seen and done nothing here. There was, of course, Sarah’s cooking class. We also saw heaps of people engaged in perhaps the coolest sport on earth: Sepak Takraw (imagine three-a-side volleyball where you can’t use your hands but you can do flying bicycle kicks played in the dimensions of a badminton court). We went out to the handicraft villages where we spent our day with pushy salespeople. We temple hopped. We’ve eaten like war rationing had just ended. We saw Thai boxing and markets. We went to the movies a lot. Okay, so that last one’s not a typical Chiang Mai tourist event, but really, it’s so cheap here, how could we not?
No, we’ve had a fantastic time here. If for nothing else but for all the laughing we’ve done – even if we didn’t see a thing, it would have been great.
It’s easy to get behind on my journal when I have someone to talk to each night. When I would normally be writing, I now have Sarah to chat with until the wee hours, so my updates have been lagging. It has been great to have some steady company though, so I’m afraid I have no regrets in getting behind.
At the same time, the relentless pace I typically assign myself in a given day has slowed. Sarah’s not exactly willing to trudge behind me for successive days of 12-hour photo excursions, so with only a couple of days as exceptions, I have treated my time in Thailand with her as my vacation from traveling. We wake up slowly and forsake the sunlight in favour of debating whether turning up the air con means to make the room colder or hotter. Once outside the room, we have often spent more time hunting down a good meal or the best fruit shakes in town than blasting from sight to sight and trying to cram as much travelling into the day as possible.
There have been, however, a couple of days that stand as exceptions. First, in Ayuthaya, a town not too far north of Bangkok where impressive temple ruins and modern wats rise above the modern city’s low lying architecture. Hopping on bicycles, we ignored the oppressive heat (for a while) and toured some gorgeous sights. I was pleased that even after seeing a place like Angkor Wat, the temples here still captured my imagination.
In the late afternoon, we took a boat ride around the island formed by the converging rivers and explored even more temples. When we arrived back at our hotel, the sun was just beginning to set, so Sarah exhorted me to bike off by myself to catch the last rays of day and then to take photos when the temples were lit up at night. I dodged the stares of security guards while I tried to get as close as I could to the illuminated temples. Similarly, I dodged the punches of Thailand’s brattiest kid who decided I would be his plaything while I was waiting for the temples to light up.
That long day was followed by a relatively peaceful days trip up to Sukothai where the bike riding and temple hopping was repeated. Another expansive collection of ruined temples coaxed us from the shade and we explored the former Thai capital’s ruins. Happily, both Ayuthaya and Sukkothai were not bustling with tourists like the now-overrun Angkor area and the days were peaceful and not spent waiting for a tour group stop crowding a narrow passageway.
Now in Chinag Mai, Sarah and I have had a lovely time chilling out, exploring the Sunday night market, going to Muay Thai boxing, and doing more chilling out.
Muay Thai was one of the highlights for me. The dim Thapae arena is a regular host to nights of fights heavily marketed to tourists. Though marketed in this way, the fights themselves seemed quite authentic. I spent most of my time at ringside trying to rise to the challenge of shooting a sport I had never even seen live before let along photograph while marveling at the spectacle and occasionally getting showered by a splatter of sweat from a recently-punched boxer.
Happily, Sarah ran into one of her best friends Hannah who is also traveling in Southeast Asia. They were planning to meet in Cambodia in a week, but managed to cross paths at the boxing match so now the two of them could chat and ignore the fact that grown men were surrounding them and yelling at young boys to kick each other in the neck.
When I say young boys, I mean it. One of the matches featured a couple of boys who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, but they may have been as young as 10. It was simultaneously disturbing and impressive. The crowd of gambling Thais at ringside were excitedly cheering them on and they shouted in unison whenever one of these kids made a strike. A chorus of yells went up each time a knee hit its target. And plenty knees did hit their targets. Each of these boys probably could have kicked my ass. They displayed remarkable skill for their age and seeing them duel was like watching them turn into men before your very eyes. But at the same time, they were just boys, and the crowd was furiously calling for each of them to pound the hell out of the other.
The other matches weren’t quite as disturbing since the combatants were mostly above the age of consent. As a photographer, it was a decidedly challenging sport to shoo, but it was good fun trying to rise to that challenge. Not surprisingly, the last bout of the night was easiest to shoot since it was just a demonstration match where each fighter took turns landing his most furious blows on the other. They sent each other flying in exaggerated arcs to the canvas after unleashing crushing kicks to the side. The best part was that Sarah and Hannah both thought it was real and was the best fight of the night. They were truly disappointed when I told them it was all fake.
So, from ancient, ruined cities to boys trying to knee each other in the face, Thailand has so far offered a diverse experience. Time to go see what else it has in store for us.
Sunburn bloody sunburn. Well, it’s not really bloody. That would mean I should be in the hospital I suppose. No, just pink. My first (and possibly last) trip to the beach on this trip has resulted in a nice coating of pink on my back.
After leaving Luang Prabang, I have arrived in Thailand where, after getting into my hotel, one of my first acts was to head back to the airport to pick up Sarah who will be accompanying me for the next couple weeks through Thailand. We spent the next couple days bumming around in Bangkok, drinking yummy fruit shakes, making fun of hippies (really, that was just me) and having a fun time while trying to dodge the heat.
Since we were in Thailand, we felt somewhat obligated to head south and visit an island. Without a lot of thought into the matter, we chose Phuket. Looked nice enough. Why not? So, a quick flight and we checked into a nice little hostel, cranked our air conditioning and started planning a day at the beach.
(A side note: I have only had air con once so far on this trip – in Taman Negara and I only got it there because it was the only room I could find at all – so having Sarah, whose Japanese winter has not yet ended, here is a bit of a blessing for me. I can happily splurge on the AC and have the excuse that it’s for her sake.)
We boarded a bus and headed to Karon beach where we found ourselves some beach chairs to call home base. The clear sun had heated the air and sand and the blue water was by far the most inviting place for us to be.
We splashed and played in the relatively calm waters for a good couple of hours, laughing the whole time, merrily ignoring that tremendously hot ball of fusing atoms beaming down upon us. When we emerged, giddy from the water, we started probing around our exposed skin to discover that we had miscalculated the strength of our sunscreen.
Sarah put it well, ‘In this day and age, there’s really no excuse to get a sunburn.’ But somehow, we both did it. We had applied Sarah’s SPF 30 cream when we left the hotel. In between then and waiting for the bus, the ride to the beach, lunch, staking out our beach spot and loads of watery frolicking, the protection had substantially diminished and our skin silently soaked up the UV rays. Add to that the sun sensitivity we both seem to be experiencing at the hands of our anti-malarial tablets and the results are predictable. We sheepishly packed up our things and left the beach knowing we would be in for a few days of vaguely resembling lobsters.
But we didn’t head back to Phuket town and our hostel immediately. Oh no. When you know that you are within walking distance of a Dinosaur-themed mini golf course and you are me, your day is not finished. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been rotating on a barbecue spit for a few hours, you’re going to putt some balls!
And truly, this course was excellent. My traveling companion Sam in Singapore had urged me to seek out a fantastic sounding venue for our new favourite sport when we had been denied the opportunity to go there on his last night in the city, but I was never able to find it’s location. So, in his honour, I made damn sure I was not going to miss a mini golf course that featured a smoking volcano, an animatronic T-rex and a series of Triceratops droppings that took the place of course obstacles.
The match was hard fought, but I managed to beat the gracefully-losing Sarah by a few strokes and I now have a two-game undefeated streak going (you cling to such victories when your favourite basketball team is the perennially underachieving Toronto Raptors). I consoled Sarah that there was no shame in losing to the best.
Once we got back to the hotel, we nursed our wounded skin and proceeded to rest for the next couple of days. We sported skin-covering long shirts and went shopping and to the movies (V for Vendetta was good fun by the way) or watched the hostels DVDs while not thinking about words like ‘ultraviolet’ and ‘stupid tourist.’
Really, my shoulders still hurt a few days after the fact, but I still wouldn’t trade in the fun we had in the ocean. But I may regret that decision because tomorrow, I actually have to don my pack for a whole day.
We’re now in Ayuthaya, a small city North of Bangkok where ruins a plenty await our exploration tomorrow. I’ll certainly be bringing my cameras along for the day since I took almost no photos in Phuket. The only photos I shot were a couple of Sarah and I in the hotel. I felt like I had to take at least one photo while on the island, so all I have is a close up of the two of is in front of our hotel room’s blue walls. Good thing the memories will last a while.
Dear Luang Prabang,
I’m coming back. I hope you’ll have me.
What a wonderful time I’ve had here. This has been one of my favourite places I have ever visited. Within days of being here, I felt like I was a part of a community.
On my second or third day here, I found myself hanging out in the room of a couple novice monks in the area. One of them was attending English class later that day and invited me to attend. I was soon reprising my role of assistant teacher. The class ended with some of the girls of the class requesting a song in English from me. I don’t know if this is a common request for their teachers or not, but being the fan of karaoke that I am, I obliged.
In the interests of fairness, however, I requested a song from them in return. I decided to just go with the Canadian national anthem so that they could reply with an anthem from Laos. They opted for Luang Prabang’s city song instead. After merrily exchanging melodies, they had made a new friend and I had made twelve. I guess perhaps the exchange wasn’t fair after all. But, equality be damned – I’m not giving any of them back.
Teaching English has made up a good portion of my visit. Almost every one of the novice monks is eager to chat with passing foreigners so that they might practice their English. Much like the monks at Angkor, they put themselves in spots where they have a good chance of catching the attention of a tourist. They sit near the entrances of the many monasteries in the city and either study or chat until they can catch the attention of a passer by with a quick ‘Sabaidee’ (‘How are you?’ in Laos). They’ll launch into as many questions as the foreigner is willing to answer and will cheerfully answer any queries in return just so they can get a better hold on a language that may one day provide them a stable income.
I have stocked up on so many excellent memories while here – too many to share. But, since I would like to note a few, I’ll revert to my point-form recollections to try to allow me to go to bed at a decent hour.
– The cheeky boys at Wat Sop have to be my favourites. I’ve spent a good amount of time there and had a blast talking to them all. I had already once sat in at the chanting at another temple when I was invited to sit with them at Wat Sop. At the first temple, each monk reverently went through the ritual and there was only one moment of giggling when every monk simultaneously forgot their place in the chant.
But, here at Wat Sop, the boys were chatting with each other, occasionally taking leave of their position to step outside, and writing text messages on their cell phones. The second time I sat with them, the abbot of the monastery lectured for them a good half hour after the chanting about their recent conduct, but that didn’t seem to have any effect on them. The next day, they were back to their old ways.
Their worst habit was their flirtatiousness. Not with me of course, but practically every girl that passed received particularly enthusiastic exhortations to come practice English with them. Some of the girls, unfortunately, didn’t have much knowledge about the customs and precepts the monks must follow, one of with is that they are not to touch members of the opposite sex. Handing anything to them is forbidden for women (that’s why they accept their morning alms in the bowls at their side, not in their hands) and even sitting next to them is pretty much off limits.
It fell to me a couple times to try to educate a girl or two about these taboos because the novices themselves are far too eager to push the limits of what they can get away with. Some of them strictly follow the rules and vanish when a woman appears, but at this temple, the troublemakers are plentiful. Once the rules are known, it’s usually okay and English practice/flirting continues.
For some reason, at this temple, I happen to have the nickname, Mr. Paracetamol. I’m not sure if it’s because I gave them a headache or because I was medicine for their ills. I’ll go with the latter since they seem to like me. They’re a charming bunch really.
One of the boys, (who gave me my nickname) got his own nickname from me: De (pronounced like the French de with an exaggerated d sound). A woman who had also spent some time with these young men said his previous nickname was ‘canned fish’ (his favourite food) but when he tried to explain that to her, it came out as catfish. Being an English teacher herself, she had him exaggerate the d sound at the end of ‘canned.’ Whenever he did so, he stuck his neck out like a pigeon walking along. So, I just shortened his nickname for him. I hope that it sticks and he will forever remember how to pronounce that sound.
– The flare and love for language that some of the novices have is ridiculous. I met one monk who happened to the son of a doctor from China. He had the fortune to travel and study in a few countries in Southeast Asia. What was most remarkable about him, however, was his level of English. It was as good as anyone I had met in Laos. But what was astonishing was that he claimed to have learned English in the span of two months. He locked himself in a room and did nothing but study English.
He also happened to speak Chinese (Cantonese, if I recall correctly), Laos, Thai, two or three Laos dialects, Japanese, French, and he was learning something else (I can’t even remember everything he speaks let alone remember that many languages). By the way, he was 18.
Obviously, he is an exceptional example, but the rest of the monks were tremendously eager to learn. They sponged up as much of any language as they could and helped each other learn at every turn.
– I made a couple worthwhile excursions outside of town to the Kuang Si waterfalls and to the Pak Ou caves. The former consisted of a series of impressive waterfalls where bikini-clad beauties and dirty hippies alike frolicked in the turquoise pools at the base. The latter is a cave about 29km up the Mekong river where Buddha statues no longer needed or wanted by the areas temples have been discarded. A miniature forest of Buddhas sits placidly in the darkened caves. I wish I could have spent more time there, but I only had a half hour. I’ll have to go back sometime.
– Today I almost got run over by the motorcade of the King of Cambodia. Well, not really run over, but it makes for a good introduction. Really, I just had to step to the side while his motorcade passed as he went to visit Wat Xieng Thong.
A good 20 vehicles passed including numerous police motorbikes, a media crew and an ambulance. Once inside, enough handlers surrounded him that you’d think he was liable to turn into the incredible Hulk and start smashing temples. A couple of doctors in lab coats trailed behind this healthy looking man and rounded out the strangeness of the scene. The kind himself seemed like he would be an incredibly friendly guy. He was all smiles and seemed extremely reverential in the temple. He was also more than happy to shoot smiles and waves to the onlookers who had been shooed to the side by security. I snapped off a few shots of him in a moment that will probably be as close as I will ever come to being a part of the paparazzi.
– Speaking of the paparazzi, stupid photographers really irritate me.
Every morning, the monks and novices of the monasteries in Luang Prabang sling a bowl over their shoulder and walk in precession down the street to receive alms from the locals and these days, from tourists as well. Without making the walk each day, the monks will have no food – they depend on the generosity of others to be able to survive.
It’s a genuinely humbling scene, but a beautiful one. The robed monks become an orange river slowly flowing down the street. It’s no surprise that the spectacle attracts photographers. The city is well aware of the tourist attraction the precession has become and they have posted signs all around town asking for the cooperation of the spectators so that the sacred spirit of the ritual might be preserved.
But a couple days ago, I saw a photographer do his best to break as many of those guidelines as possible. He was obviously a pro (or a very spirited and experienced amateur). Two cameras and the camera vest (even though it didn’t seem to contain much of any use) gave him away.
Since he was probably a pro, I would have expected him to maybe try to respect the ceremony a little more than he did. Among the guidelines he broke included standing in the way of the monks as they passed, using flash right in their faces and standing above them as they walked by (he got on a chair to try to get a different angle of the scene). I watched him get right up in the faces of the people there and fire off his flash and hardly move out of the way at all when a monk was trying to proceed along the path. I suspect if he had been a woman, he would have run up to the monks and rubbed his boobs in their faces just to finish off the list of don’ts.
It’s photographers like him who make my job harder. No wonder there is a lot of distrust of photographers around the world – a lot of obnoxious jerks have blazed trails that every subsequent traveler has to navigate.
Maybe he got some good shots from his insensitive technique. Maybe his flash did a better job of capturing the scene than my high ISO settings. Maybe he got a good angle from standing on a chair. But I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be the photographer who makes himself into an arrogant fool to get a shot (I mean really, I look silly enough with my two cameras around my neck). I mean, isn’t part of the challenge of getting a good shot to do it while respecting your subject and the people around you?
– Luang Prabang itself has been a wonderful break from the pace of the rest of Southeast Asia. The pushiness of the Vietnamese wore on me after a while, so being here and being able to brush off an offer for transport or goods with a simple ‘no thanks’ was a relief. The streets are almost devoid of traffic and what little there is doesn’t believe in the all-powerful horn like the Vietnamese. The result is a relative silence that makes my thoughts sound loud after being drowned out by Vietnam’s din.
The people are friendly, the food is good (though I’ve been hanging out at the Indian restaurant a lot to give myself a break from fried vegetables), the weather is pleasant even in the middle of summer and the prices are cheap. I could easily see myself living here a while if the opportunity ever arose. I truly do want to come back here and use it as a base to explore a bit more of the country. As it stands Laos may be one of the least touristed areas in Southeast Asia, but Luang Prabang is very much on the tourist trail. I would love to get out to the areas where the rut is not quite so deep. With the pace at which this place is developing, I better get back here soon.
I know it’s been a while. Sorry about that. But i have a good excuse.
You see, I write all my journals on my laptop before posting them online. That’s why a couple weeks worth of writing will suddenly appear en masse – that means I’ve found a good Internet cafe where I can plug in my Powerbook.
Unfortunately, right now, that Powerbook doesn’t really like working. Sick of its job, it has decided to take a bit of a leave of absence and now won’t start up unless I boot in safe mode. And even then, it still takes a good ten minutes.
Since I’ve tried every solution I know with no results, the next step is for me to wipe the hard drive and hope that I don’t have a disk problem. Everything’s backed up, so I’m not going to lose any photos. And once everything is somewhat fixed, I should be able to update this page to give some details about my time in Vietnam.
For now, I will bid you fond greetings and some apologies for my e-absence from Laos. Luang Pranbang is a fine place and I hope i will be able to tell you a bit about it soon!
This is the journal entry where my parents start to worry about me in earnest. They shouldn’t though – I didn’t break any bones and other than a minor bruise or two, some muddy clothes were the major results of my first (and hopefully last) motorbike accident. My driver wasn’t hurt either. And the bike wasn’t damaged as far as I know, so really, it was the mud that won the contest between riders and road.
By the end of my second day in Sapa, I had tired of the relentless barrage of hard sell tactics by the local women, particularly those of the Black Hmong tribe. Following you everywhere with endless supplies of useless souvenir garbage no one would want to buy if their arms weren’t twisted to the breaking point by these women. I acknowledge that some of the embroidery is fine work and the effort involved in creating it is phenomenal, but it has little practical value and ornamentally, it would be out of place in most wardrobes or interior design schemes.
The penetration of the tourist trail into the area has fostered this ubiquitous entrepreneurship. At the same time, it’s tourists who started paying people for each photo they took and thus another cottage industry was born. The result is that few people in the area are willing to have their photo taken without some exchange taking place first. Usually, they are interested in selling you one of their many handicrafts and afterwards, they will let you snap a shot of them. But other than that, finding a willing subject is ridiculously difficult. With my supply of purchased bracelets growing while my wallet shrank, I decided to try to get off the tourist trail a little bit and see if I might have better luck with a tribe who hadn’t had so much contact with the Western world and its rampant capitalism.
The plan was to hop on the back of a rented motorbike with my guide and spend about an hour meandering down the mountains into the valley where a lovely village full of warm and gracious people would greet us.
Plans started going awry when the clouds covering Sapa extended much further into the valley than we had expected. The mists had moistened the road and my guide was letting out frightened sounds that indicated clearly she wasn’t an experienced driver. You know that stereotype about bad female Asian drivers? Well, she was giving it credence as we weaved along the slippery street.
I optimistically continued on with the ride, but continued my firm grip on the back of the bike despite my freezing fingers. The cold of Sapa’s heights was also migrating downhill and with it, my spirits. I kept having visions of the bike slipping out from under us and my leg being trapped, crushed beneath.
Mercifully, we stopped briefly at a boarding school where kids from the local tribes come to learn Vietnamese. I played with the kids for a while who were more than happy to see their own images on the display of my camera. Yes, some of the young kids were the exception to the rule of prohibited photography.
Strength briefly renewed, We left the misty, run-down school and continued the downward road. But the fear returned when the paved road ended and we hit the mud that would lead us the rest of the way down. Deep, slippery ruts proved to be far too much for my guide to negotiate and so I often found myself hopping off the bike when the way became too difficult. The bike then got pushed down through the mud and we re-boarded the bike when the way seemed safe enough.
This made for some slow going. And the whole ride was terrifying. When we hit the dirt road, there was not a single moment where I was not on my guard, ready to have my body thrown down the steep cliff beside us (as ready as one can be for that prospect at least).
A kilometre or two of this sluggish, frightening journey, we nearly fell off the bike and only our panicked legs planted into the mud saved us from toppling into the brown, pasty road. I had been imploring my guide to put an end to the madness and have us walk the rest of the way and this scare finally seemed to get through to her – she was in over her head.
We parked the bike at a roadside stand and left it with an old tribal woman then started trudging through the slippery mud. Walking wasn’t much quicker. Each step sent us sprawling sideways on the verge of splaying and falling headfirst into a slide down the hill. Only having slid about 50 metres of the way from the bike, my guide had convinced herself she could manage the rest of the ride. I have no idea what gave her that impression, but somehow, she managed to convince me to give it another go.
Everything told me not to do it: Her nervous yelps every time the bike threatened to escape her clutches. The low visibility. The incredulous looks of passers by who seemed confused that we had defied gravity up to this point. But still, I hopped on and said I was ready to go.
We probably made it about 100 metres. We were slowly negotiating a turn and the ruts were not so deep that we had to walk. But before I could determine what the horrified yelping from the front of the bike meant, I was sprawled face first on to of the bike and my guide was beside it with one leg underneath. Shocked, I had no idea what I was doing there. In the middle of my internal assessment of whether or not I had been hurt, she starts barking at me to move from my position. I had no idea what was going on, I rolled to the side and she freed herself from her spot.
I stood, covered in mud and continued my self-diagnosis. I was standing, so that was a good sign. My arms and fingers seemed to work though my wrists hurt a little. A couple other small but insignificant pains. Nope. I was all right. My guide was standing and seemed okay. I asked and she was fine.
The fall wasn’t really that hard, so I didn’t suspect anything would be wrong with the bike, but I was finished with the thing. I was ready to turn around and start walking the 18 or so kilometres back to Sapa while trying to hitch a ride that would get me there in time to catch the bus to Lao Cai so I could make my overnight train.
I turned to look uphill and a convoy of Vietnam War-era military jeeps was heading down the mountain. This could only mean one thing. Tourists! I had never been so happy to see a tour group in my life. They stopped when they saw our overturned bike and before they had finished offering a ride, I was on board. My guide wanted to walk the rest of the way down after she had parked the bike at the side of the road, but I didn’t really care about anything but being on four wheels instead of two at that point.
This group of German tourists seemed pretty confused to have me in their midst, but I happily rode the rest of the way down with them hardly saying a word and inspecting my mud-covered clothes. Even these extra durable jeeps were having a tough time navigating the slippery roads, but I seemed to fatalistically accept each slide we took. If I was going to die today, the best I could hope for was not to suffer much. I exaggerate, of course, but any ride would have seemed peaceful after that bike.
We reached the town in the valley and the German tour guide started speaking to his charge while I stood there wondering what the rest of the day had in store for me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to spend the night in this village and try to find a way back the next day, catching another train, or if I was somehow going to find my way back to Sapa for dinnertime.
I just decided to pull out my camera and try to have some fun for an hour. Just on hour. I’ll explore the town a little and see what I can see. Just on hour, then I’ll figure out what to do with myself.
No sooner had I made this decision than my guide wandered down the path. Incomprehensibly fleet of foot was this little Vietnamese girl. She soon led me off to her cousin’s home where we ate lunch. She then sent me off for a while alone in the village where I soon discovered that the people here weren’t exceptionally more friendly than anywhere else in the valley. In fact, higher up, the people will be more friendly to you in the hopes of selling you something.
In Ban Ho, I was just invisible. Invisible of course until I asked to take a photo. At that point, I was waved off by every single person I encountered except for one happy farmer who was happily sawing some bamboo. It was again only the kids that wanted to have anything to do with me. Them and the dogs roaming the town. Kids and dogs – the only folks out there who seemed to understand that I’m actually a pretty good guy.
My favourite kids were the ones who invited me into their modest wood house for a game of pool. More to the point, we were just smacking a few billiard balls around. These youngsters (maybe around six to nine years old) had enough trouble seeing over the crooked, worn table let alone accurately aiming a pool cue. But they didn’t care. They were elated whenever I managed to hit a shot (pure luck on this ridiculously off-kilter table). We laughed and giggled with each other then they happily shook my hand when we parted. Their only English was ‘Hello’ and ‘Bye bye,’ but we got along famously.
Unfortunately, one of the nearby residents had to try to spoil the encounter by trying to get me to give him money for playing pool with the kids. I thought maybe it should have been the other way around – after all, I was playing babysitter for a good while there. I shook my head and wondered to where the spirit of sharing disappeared.
I know these people are impoverished, but I have been in far poorer places and there, generosity reigned. So many people in Ghana, for example, were ready to part with everything they had, even though they had next to nothing.
Until a dozen years ago, I’m not sure that the people in this valley were unhappy in their ways. They had not changed their lifestyle for hundreds of years, so perhaps they were content. But I think perhaps the outside world changed that. I’m not going to try to formulate a theory about what happened here to cultivate the area’s changed demands – I really don’t know the history well enough – but I’m almost certain that ten years ago, my experience here would have been entirely different. Perhaps it would have been less comfortable, but I’m almost certain it would have been more rewarding.
After meeting up with my guide again, she told me we would be able to get a ride back with the German tourists at 3:30. That left plenty of time to get the bike and head back to Sapa. But at 3:00, I was just about to make my first friends in the area (I had been playing with some kids and the adults seemed to be warming up to me) my guide came around the corner and suggested we start climbing the mountain. The German group had not yet returned and she was sure there wouldn’t be enough time to get back unless we started off now.
The next hour or so was a power trek up steep and slippery slopes. Lacking traction on my worn-out shoes and lacking breath in my unacclimatized lungs, I sweat my way up the mountain. My guide bounded up the hill with unexpected energy and repeatedly committed one of the cardinal sins of leading a trek – she let the last person get out of sight. Good thing I never twisted that bad ankle of mine or anything. Of course, along the way, with my camera packed up, I passed a plethora of gorgeous, photogenic people. But that’s just me deluding myself into thinking that they would have allowed me to photograph them.
Covered in sweat we reached the bike and renewed the hop on hop off dance that described the last few kilometers of our ride. We finally reached the paved road and since the mists had abated, the rest of the ride wasn’t quite as treacherous.
Back at the hotel, I did my best to stay warm until the bus was set to take a group of us to Lao Cai.
After all that, I would still happily return to the area. It’s a gorgeous place to be. If I’m lucky enough to return, I will most definitely come during the summer to avoid the cold and bad weather. I would also like to be able to stay for a longer period and not do it as part of a tour. If I stayed for a couple weeks and was able to meet more of the people, there would be much more of a tendency for them to know that I wasn’t there to buy their goods. So, the vendors would be more likely to leave me alone and those interested in having a making a connection would be the ones that approached.
I know this because of a French couple I met on my second day. They were a week into their 12-day stay and were just talking with everyone. They had quickly insinuated themselves into the community. And I managed to make a few friends too in my short time there. There was a group of four girls who were cute as could be and spoke good English. They were happy to talk for a couple hours and only once in a while reverted to their habit of asking, ‘You buy?’
So, Sapa, until next time. I hope maybe you can find a bit more of what you probably used to be in that time (unless you prefer it this way).
I haven’t been drunk in years. Check that, up until this afternoon, I hadn’t been drunk in years. It just doesn’t really agree with me. I don’t even normally touch the stuff. But today, that was not an option.
My guide, knowing I was a photographer, decided to take me to a wedding that was happening in the area. The morning saw us take a jeep out to the villages and then walk through some stunning countryside. Along the way, we were hounded at every turn by the girls and women of the local tribes who were hoping to sell their handicrafts to the area’s ever-multiplying tourists. Each of them was a sight to behold with all of their tribes’ traditional clothing wrapping them in a picturesque package. Just beautiful
Unfortunately, the area has been touristed enough that you’re only going to get a non-candid photo of them by paying them. At least that was my experience – I talked to a couple girls later who had no trouble whatsoever taking shots of the girls that had been following them the whole day. I might have been a bit unlucky I guess. I only got some willing participants after I bought a couple of small items off a woman here or there.
After walking for most of the morning through the mud and the terraced rice fields, we arrived at the wedding. Gathering only what I thought I might need for shooting the wedding, I headed off from the small house where I would eventually have lunch.
The wedding was being held at a nearby house whose front yard area had been covered in a tarp. Underneath, dozens of locals had gathered and were happily sharing celebratory meals. I was soon ushered to a table and offered some food. Rice was about the only thing I could eat, but the folks who had brought me in quickly changed their tune and decided to give me a drink.
Of course, I told them I don’t drink. It was like I had just punched the bride in the face. Shocked, the man holding my eventual glass insisted that it was bad luck for the couple to say something like ‘I don’t drink.’ Before I knew it, one of my hands was filled with a shot of rice whiskey and the glass was being driven towards my mouth. I figured I could probably stand to down one shot and I wouldn’t be too affected by it.
But no sooner than I had finished grimacing at the taste, my other hand was now holding another glass. ‘Two! Two!’ was the refrain being yelped at me by this pusher and I probably would have cursed the couple forever or gotten kicked out of the place if I hadn’t downed the second shot.
Now, keep in mind that even when I did drink, years ago, I was by no means a heavyweight. A lot of 12 year olds probably could have given me a run for my money or even put me under the table. Considering that I haven’t had a drink in years, I was sure that two shots would be plenty for me and I would feel the effects soon enough.
But of course, two was not the end of things for me. Some slight of hand had either refilled my glasses or they had been replaced with fresh drinks and I was once again being exhorted to down them both. At this point I figured I might as well roll with it as best I could.
I pleaded with the man foisting these drinks on me, ‘Please, promise me that these are the last two I will have to drink.’ I got his promise and thought that four would be somewhere within my upper limit. The nasty stuff was swallowed and stood back relieved that I was finished with the ordeal – I thought I would just have to prepare myself for the oncoming buzz.
‘Two more when you meet the groom!’
And with that I was guided to the groom. By this time, I’m already feeling more than buzzed. In fact, this stuff went straight to my head. So, I can’t even really remember what the groom looked like so much. He was wearing a light blue shirt and looked to be in his mid thirties from what I recall, but if I bump into him tomorrow, I’ll have no idea.
Continuing in the spirit if being a good sport, I threw back the groom’s shots. Immediately after each of them he stuffed small rice cakes into my mouth. They dulled the taste of the shot at least.
Now that they had had their fun getting the foreigner tanked, they lead me over to a chair where I started playing with some dog. I only remember this because I looked at my photos and I have a blurry shot of my hand petting some four-legged friend. In fact, I have a bunch of shots that document the experience for me. Apparently, I took a bunch of shots of the families and then wandered through the kitchen.
Someone then took me back to the house where I had left my bag and sat me in a chair where I continued taking photos, this time of someone’s relatively nondescript back yard. Soon, I was being approached by yet another woman selling her wares. We talked for a good long while and eventually, we agreed on a price for an item I can’t mention here because it will likely end up as a gift for someone.
But soon after making the purchase, she and I became best friends. She was obviously okay with me taking a bunch of photos of her. Fortunately, before I had started drinking, I had set up my camera so that even a drunk idiot could take a decent shot with it. Remarkably, some of my shots of this woman didn’t turn out too badly. My photos from inside the wedding, however, were an absolute mess. The light was far too low for me to try anything when sober, but with drunk and shaky hands, I ended up with a series of blurry nonsense.
After a nice lunch, I briefly visited some kids at a nearby farm then returned to collect my things. Upon sitting down and resting briefly, the home’s owner decided she wanted to get in on the action of getting folks pissed. She wouldn’t let any of us leave until we had all had a few more shots of rice whiskey. My guide and her friends were attempting to replace the drinks with water when she wasn’t looking, but she would have none of it. Nothing got past her and she wasn’t satisfied until I had finished off another three shots. That made for a total of nine in just over an hour for me.
Oddly enough, though I did indeed get more than buzzed, my head started to clear remarkably quickly. While walking along, I could actually feel lucidity returning to me with each step. I’m not sure why, but the booze seemed to be gone from my system a couple hours after the whole affair. Since it’s been so long, I don’t recall how long it’s supposed to take for my head to clear, but I do seem to recall waking up still tipsy once or twice. So I’m thinking my recovery time was pretty unusual for me.
Happily, that should translate to no hangover for me since I’m now feeling totally normal as I write this before going to bed.
I just hope there aren’t any more weddings in the area tomorrow.
What on earth am I doing in a two-star hotel? I wasn’t expecting this.
I’ve arrived in Sapa and I have some time in my lovely room before I’m to go off for some hiking in the area’s cloudy hills. But I wasn’t expecting to be staying the nicest hotel in some time for me. Go figure. I didn’t even really know if I would be doing a homestay or what. I mean, I have a fireplace. No wood, but there is a fireplace here.
And, happily enough, I have this cozy room all to myself. I’m the only one who has booked this particular tour, so I’m all by myself this whole time – just my guide to keep me company. I’m feeling a bit spoiled at this point.
The train ride here wasn’t too bad. I actually managed to sleep on what was, surprisingly, my first overnight train ride. I shared a cabin with a French family and had to try to practice a language I haven’t really studied in 13 years. My comprehension is great, but my speaking could use some work. But overall, we understood each other.
Now I’m just sitting here wondering if perhaps I’m going to be carried along through these chilly mountains in keeping with the spirit of what feels like some luxurious accommodation.
I just spent most of the day wandering around the old quarter of Hanoi taking portraits of all the interesting faces around here. Most of the people seem to work right out in the street so you see everyone from carpenters to smiths to vendors to seamstresses all working out on the sidewalk. All the while the incessant river of honking scooters were whizzing past and doing their best to drown out all the noises of work.
Yesterday I played a game with a couple of Swedish girls to see how long we could last without hearing a horn blast. The record was eight seconds. Not so impressive.
These two were a part of the Halong Bay trip I took. Halong Bay is one of the star attractions in northern Vietnam with its hundreds of limestone islands jutting high above the blue waters of the bay. Grey cliffs tower over the junk boats that meander through the peaks while calm waters slowly erode the bases.
Two days one night on a nice junk out in the hundreds of islands made for a good time, but the weather could have been better. Though it wasn’t raining, the fog and haze made for what could optimistically only be described as ‘atmospheric’ photos.
A nice group of folks helped make the trip fun and a boat of far higher quality than my last nautical ride made for a better time on board. Last time I spent a night on a boat was in the Galapagos Islands on a small boat named the Yolita. I had a great time there thanks to some incredible sights, but the boat itself wasn’t exactly the lap of luxury. So, it was nice to have my expectations dramatically exceeded with this ride.
The highlight of the trip was definitely the caves we visited. Translated to English, apparently the name means ‘Surprising Cave.’ The huge limestone cavern was fantastic. I had never really been inside a cave like that before, so I just thought it was magical. I didn’t want to leave the multicoloured stalactites and stalagmites, but our tour guide rushed us through. We also took a trip to Titov Island where we hiked up to the top of the limestone peak for a panoramic view of the foggy bay.
The next day before the bulk of my shipmates disembarked to continue their trip on Cat Ba island, we sailed through a floating village and past the symbol of Halong Bay: The Two Cocks. These two small limestone islands supposedly look like a couple of roosters fighting each other. They looked like the sails of a boat to me, but to each his own.
My next stop is the hills around Sapa where I’ll be doing a few days of trekking around the hill tribes of the area.
Yeah, I couldn’t resist the title even though it’s evening here.
I’m currently in Hanoi. Not staying at the Hilton here (I’ve heard it’s not so great). It’s a pretty intense city. A bit of a sensory overload and I know a thing or two about that. It’s all a bit surprising to me since most of the images I have of this country come from Platoon or Apocalypse Now. I half expect to see someone from the Sheen family around the next bend…
I’m staying in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and that’s all I’ve seen since arriving last night. It was raining today so I didn’t explore too much – just wandered around the area. All the French colonial buildings are so thin they look like a slight tremor would send them tumbling to the ground. And beneath all those buildings lay cramped streets jam packed with scooters. Scooters whose horns blare incessantly. I can’t really even fathom what this place would be like without all the traffic. As soon as I start trying to imagine it, a horn will ring in my ear from a couple feet away and jolt me back into reality.
All these scooters fight for space on the roads while on the sidewalks women in bamboo hats carry baskets of vegetables slung over a board on their shoulders. Internet cafes cast a glow across the streets onto ancient men fronting ancient shops full of anything you can imagine (often ancient looking junk). It’s like old and new met up and decided to get in a streetfight
The people have generally been really friendly and welcoming. A lot of that is from the hope of getting some tourist dollars, but I’ve met a bunch of people who seem to me happy just sharing a laugh with me and not trying to sell me a tour.
I’m still trying to figure out what to see while I’m here, but I know I’ll be staying in North Vietnam – just not enough time to go all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City. I might make it as far as Hoi An before turning back up to Hanoi. Halng Bay and Sapa are on the itinerary,but I’m not sure when or in what order I will be making those trips.
Tormorrow the weather is supposed to be better than today’s constant drizzle, so hopefully that will afford me the opportunity to do a bit more exploring.
Lastly, I know I haven’t mentioned anything about Singapore here, but I’ll get to it. Just like I did with this wee blog, I might cull some content from emails sent to friends and family – that should make the job a bit quicker. So, sorry if you end up reading something that sounds familiar.
Update: I now have Photos of Thaipusam 2006 available here.
Thaipusam was completely amazing. Seriously. I don’t know where to begin – it was one of the most intense, incredible sights/events I’ve ever witnessed and I can’t imagine too much that would top it in terms of sheer craziness. Terrible and terrifying, beautiful and sublime, Thaipusam was incomparably intense and fantastic.
But, I’m bloody exhausted from it. I got up at 3:30am and was supposed to leave at 4, but another guy who was supposed to come along failed to set an alarm, so we left at 4:30. He’s another photographer, so that explains him being a wanker – most photographers are. I’m the exception. Go on, try to disagree with me, I dare you!
So I got out there about 5. Already the place was seriously hopping. There’s a procession from a temple inside town and I know there were already revellers at the caves the day before, so there’s plenty of Hindu piecing going on through the night. A bunch of people stop at a nearby village where they get themselves pierced and go into their trances.
I started snapping photos straight away even though it was still dark. Some of the tranced-out weirdos didn’t want their photos taken, but it was impossible to know which ones, so I just went for it and got yelled at a couple times. There was one time when one guy in a trance didn’t like my camera flash. He got away from his handlers and stormed up to me with a furious bluster and an intense stare in his eyes then bumped his chest into mine. I just stood my ground while he got in my face before his handlers retrieved him apologetically.
When I mention the handlers, they really do seem like animal handlers at times. The guys who have gone into trances are pretty wild sometimes. The little posse that surrounds them makes sure that they stay in the procession and they clear out room for when they guys start freaking out.
There were, of course, plenty of guys with hooks a plenty through their skin. There were a few different kinds of revelers. Some of them had the hooks through their back and were then roped or chained to another guy who was pulling on them and holding onto them as they struggled forward. Others had a whole bunch of offerings hooked into them like apples, oranges, limes, flowers, small containers of milk and so on.
Then there were the guys that had, for lack of a better word, headdresses. But that’s a really misleading term. Basically, these guys had a metal hip-belt bolted around them and shoulder pads that supported an enormous, tiered construction that featured Hindu icons, peacock feathers or large religious images. The things had both a diameter and a height of two or three metres.
All of the headdresses had chains with hooks leading down that, it goes without saying, got hooked into the reveler. These dudes would also dance around and spin and if you weren�t careful, you’d get a Hindu god upside the head as they spun around.
A bunch of folks also had their cheeks pieced all the way through or their tongues were skewered.
So they all progressed towards the Batu Caves and eventually all got up all 274 steps. The back-stretching devotees had to unhook before they went through the entry arch at the base of the steps though. I can just see their handlers pulling them too hard and causing an avalanche of revelers, hooks and offerings. The headdress bearers, however, had to carry that stuff up the steps. Didn’t look fun.
Once at the top, a lot of the people with lots of offerings would bless devotees. I think that when they were in a trance they were supposed to be in more direct communication with a god and thus that much more holy. (By the way, this whole affair has truly exposed my ignorance of Hindu culture � it has been a long time since Religious Studies 205 and I should really brush up.) The still punked-out headdress bearers often spoke in tongues, yelped or grunted instead of using real words.
I watched one guy blessing a bunch of devotees and I remember one older woman getting blessed and she was just so genuinely moved. She started crying and it was somehow rather beautiful.
I was watching one guy get his dozens of oranges unhooked and he was giving them to onlookers. I got a big orange from this absolute beast of a man. He was enormous and never flinched for a second while getting unhooked. He would give out an orange, grunt loudly and wave off the recipient. He was also wielding an enormous club-like object which made the scene that much better. ‘You take orange! You leave now! AAAGRGH!’
A bunch of the dudes, when they got unhooked or unpierced, freaked out a bit (often the tongue or cheek piercings that did it). Some passed out. Some had fits. Some fell to the ground screaming and clawing at the floor.
After they were through with their fit, they took a while to settle down then they were back to normal and joking around with their friends.
Thousands of people were also buying offerings in plastic bags for the monkeys that live at the caves. All these bags were getting tossed to the critters who were climbing down from ridiculous heights to get them. These bags added to the litter everywhere. The base of the cliffs were especially filthy. And so much of it was styrofoam containers full of food scraps.
Toward the end of the day, I went over to the village where they do the piercings and watched some of them up close. They don’t bleed! I don’t know how it happens, but they don’t. Sometimes there was a tiny amount of blood when they got unhooked, but they quickly smeared ash on the hole and there was hardly a drop to be found.
I watched one of the headdress guys get hooked in and a guy carrying around 60-70 apples get his fruit on. I also saw one of the back-hook guys get one of his done. That was the most unsettling because those hooks were a lot bigger: about the size of a straw around plus they were considerably longer than the small fish hook-sized offering hooks. He had already started pulling at his ropes when his handlers saw that one hook had fallen out, so they held the guy down from his straining and hooked it back in. That was the only time I felt a little uneasy about the piercing stuff.
I saw a woman with hair that was more than 10 feet long. She was probably just over five feet tall and probably over 80 years old. The hair went down to her feet, then looped back up a couple feet, then went back down again. I don’t think it had been washed in decades. I think birds could have made a comfortable home in there. Like emus.
Really, I saw so much wacky weirdness I can’t really even process it. It was such a sensory overload.
I ended up staying until past 7 at night, so that was a really long day for me. Then I had a birthday thing to go to with some folks I met in Taman Negara, so I’m still pooped now. I’m also surprisingly stiff from the day’s continuous walking and my feet don’t like me much anymore.
As for photos, I took more than 1000. When I put them onto the computer this morning, the total was 1048. That’s easily a daily new record for me. I haven’t looked at them yet, but there better be at least one or two winners in there.
I genuinely can’t imagine many scenes that would surpass Thaipusam in terms of intensity and sensory overload. I’m so glad I scheduled my itinerary around it even though that has caused some roundabout routes for my trip. It was well worth an extra trip here. But if I’m ever lucky enough to catch it again, maybe I won’t spend 14 hours straight there and wind up feeling like I was among the revelers.
How much sweat is a human being capable of producing in an hour? I really think I might have hit my maximum today and I wasn’t even hiking quickly.
With many of the travelling companions I accompanied yesterday already gone to KL, I had today mostly to myself and decided to head up to the highest hill in near Kuala Tahan. Knowing full well that the jungle’s humidity would soon have me exhausting the limited water supply I could carry, I slowed my pace down considerably. Apparently it wasn’t enough as I soon found every item of clothing I was wearing had grown darker with the sweat pouring from my pores.
By the time I had reached to top of a hill that really wasn’t immense by any standards, I had already consumed my litre-and-a-half bottle of water. I felt fine though – just wet. And the views from the top were well worth a dripping brow. A couple of different viewpoints had windows through the trees where the surrounding jungle and hills were visible making for a unique perspective on the park.
As for the wildlife I saw today, the bulk of it appeared before I had even reached the main trails. While strolling through the chalets on the way to the trailhead, a long-tailed macaque danced along the rooftops and stalked one of the housekeepers from a distance. When the housekeeper went inside and temporarily left her cart of supplies unprotected, the monkey jumped down and started rifling through the towels and plastic bags.
I have no idea what it was looking for and it didn’t seem too concerned with my approach. I was telling it that it probably wasn’t supposed to be there and waving it away, but apparently it didn’t speak English. As soon as the housekeeper saw the scene, she started shouting in Malay and shooed off the mischievous monkey.
On a weird side note to this minor episode, I was just looking at my photos of this monkey and noticed something I didn’t when I was watching him. It appears to have a length of electrical wire tied around its neck. I don’t know if perhaps it was trapped at some point but escaped or if it happens to have skills as an electrician, but that’s definitely something you don’t see on all the monkeys around here. Odd.
I then headed towards the Tahan Hide which is just off the main pathway through the chalets to check out the area we had visited last night in the dark. I was just curious to see the scene in the light of day. The path to this, the most accessible of the park’s hides, is a raised wooden walkway and while I was wandering to the hide, I noticed movement up ahead. I stopped and armed my long lens to see if I could figure out what was trotting under and beside the walkway.
From underneath the boards appeared a small wild boar. Blissfully unaware of my presence, it marched a set course that happened to take it directly beneath my feet. I could have spit on it if I wanted. But since that’s not really my thing, I let it pass. It was then unable to continue under the boards due to a felled tree blocking his path so it jumped up onto the log and spotted me not more than a couple metres away. Startled as could be it scurried off towards the chalets. I followed at a distance until it disappeared around a couple bends and possibly back into the woods.
It looks like paying the big money and staying in the fancy rooms on the other side of the river might be worth it to have all the animals sauntering around outside your door.
The jungle walk last night was good fun. Our guide from the Orang Asli tour earlier in the day, Aris, took four of us off into the darkened jungle.
We first visited the Tahan hide where a number of eyes peered back at us in the distance and the darkness. Those gleaming eyes belonged to a group of Sambar Deer who were drinking from the small pool in the middle of the clearing. Aris’s flashlight lit up the small deer so we could see them going about their business. They eventually wandered off into the surrounding jungle.
We did the same. The half moon lit our way as we ambled past the trees and untold night creatures. Along the way, we saw small scorpions, spiders, crickets, enormous, brightly coloured grasshoppers, and my favourite, walking sticks. If ever I am going to get a pet bug, I think a walking stick is the way to go. They have some of the cleverest camouflage in nature – even when looking directly at them, you can hardly differentiate between them and the surrounding twigs.
Other encounters included one of the girls, Katy, getting buzzed by a bat in the darkness. None of us saw it, but we’ll take her word for it.
Our last animal encounter of the evening came as we had re-entered the rows of chalets near the park entrance. We had just passed one of the many animal crossing signs on the grounds of the resort and this one happened to be a ‘Snake Crossing’ sign. Just as Jenny had finished inquiring about the truthfulness of the signs and convincing herself that they were just playful additions to the d’cor, we stopped in our tracks. Dead ahead on the path was a small snake coiled and looking a little bit angry.
Aris warned us to give it a wide berth and while he may have been playing up the danger for dramatic effect, the thing did seem genuinely interested in getting a nibble of Aris’s ankle as he passed. Taking no chances, the rest of our small group stepped through the plants to the side (where I’m sure plenty more snakes were hiding).
This little night adventure was, of course, a great time, but I think the light from the half moon made it a little less intimidating than the similar walk I took in Peru. There, the blackness and the huge life of the jungle was just out of reach and ready to swallow you whole whenever it pleased. Here in Taman Negara, the moonlight kept the trees slightly at bay and you didn’t feel the forest encroaching into your space quite so invasively. The sounds of the forest here were also not as varied as in the Amazon.
There, it seemed like every creature ever to walk, hop, slither, crawl or fly was represented by the surrounding buzz. Here, the orchestra had fewer instruments. Truly both were beautiful, but I think I liked the intricacies of Peru’s jungle music. But, perhaps nothing will ever surpass my first jungle experience only because it was my first.
Either way, I’ll gladly try to put myself in the position where I get to do it again because each time is so haunting.
There it is again: the skin. The small, dark pellets of dying skin that balls up and sticks to your hand each time I wipe the sweat from my brow. Yup, I’m out of the mountains and now in the jungle.
But that’s no real worry since the jungle is a fine place to be. Close to the river’s edge and the town, the trails are well-worn and obvious so there’s no worry about getting lost for the amateur trekker, but if your cup of tea is a nine-day romp through thick underbrush, that’s a viable option (and surprisingly cheap too).
If I were feeling a bit more rugged and had more time, I would consider that option. As it is, more of Southeast Asia beckons. But possibly more importantly, I don’t feel like I have to prove my hardiness by subjecting myself to the jungle’s mysteries. While I’m sure I might come away with some wonderful photos, I think I may save such treks for when someone is actually paying me to go.
But even without entering deep into the jungle, there are plenty fun times to be had. On the bus over here from the Cameron Highlands, I met a good group of folks and we’ve banded together to make the wee journeys together. This morning, we ascended into the branches of the tall trees to walk along a lovely canopy swinging through the air. Much like the one I visited while in Ghana, this one was built out of metal ladders and wooden planks. The two members of our group with a fear of heights managed the trip successfully, but there was a bit of a worry that Katy wasn’t going to even make one step onto the suspended walkway when she came close to hyperventilating at its start.
Unlike the walkway in Ghana, this trip was not plagued by a monstrous tropical downpour. While the rain in Africa looked spectacular as it poured down and streaked past you to reach a forest floor hidden somewhere far below, I have to say I prefer taking my time in the nicer weather. Since there is so much wood surrounding me, I shall knock on some to hope that the drier climate prevails.
This afternoon’s trip was to another Orang Asli village. These people followed similar customs to the folks in the Cameron Highlands, but there were obvious differences. This village looked substantially less permanent than the one in the highlands. I suspect the conditions here are a bit more unfriendly – the jungle here seems more eager to consume the things of man than it does in the mountains. Also, I think there had been appropriation of more modern conveniences by the highlands’ people – t-shirts were present in both locations, but here, there seemed to be a smaller percentage of the village donning DKNY clothes.
We also learned a couple of tricks of theirs like how they start fires as well as the assembly of the blowpipe and darts. When I tried my hand at the blowpipe this time, I fared considerably better. I won’t be picking off monkeys in the trees anytime soon, but at least all my shots stuck in the target this time. Our joker of a guide intentionally misdirected my second shot when he exhorted me to aim higher than what would have been a straight and true shot. No bull’s eye for me.
I’m now killing a bit of time before I head off to do a night walk in the jungle. When I did the same sort of walk in Peru, I was overwhelmed by the sense of the life that’s surrounding you. It felt like the jungle could consume you at any point – that this mass of living breathing forest was very much allowing you to trod its soil and if it didn’t want you there, it could take you away. The constant sounds and mysterious noises from the dark are as intimidating as could be and even if we hadn’t seen any wildlife, it would have been very much worthwhile just to feel that force surrounding you.
I’m looking forward to what the world’s oldest rainforest has to whisper in the dark.
In the Cameron Highlands, you’re never far from a hilltop. So it’s not so remarkable that I’m currently typing from the top of a wee hill here at Father’s Guest House. The cool breeze is still a refreshing change after the heat of the rest of Southeast Asia. The nights have even managed to force me into an extra layer of clothes.
I’m not constantly dripping in sweat and I don’t have to endlessly replenish fluids. When I scratch my neck, my fingernails don’t immediately return in a blackened state from the filthy skin desperately trying to escape my overheated body. That equatorial sun still can take a toll, but at least I don’t feel like I’m being baked in the process.
It’s almost like a pleasant spring day. Everyday. You could make cloud watching into a sport here. The wind sweeps puffy shapes through the air so rapidly you get rained on before you see the cloud that’s pelting you. But the rain is rarely anything to fret about – it too is brushed away by the wind in a few minutes.
I’ve spent the last few days wandering about the area both on my own and with a couple of tours in Land Rovers. My first full day here, I hopped on a bus and proceeded to wait for almost an hour before it went anywhere – I spent that time trying not to listen to an old man next to me babble on about who knows what to himself. And when I say babble, I mean practically shout. Of course, he was speaking some foreign language I didn’t recognize, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t saying anything coherent.
Once the bus had actually started moving, I found myself at the Kea Farms, a group of farms where just about anything that can be grown is indeed grown there. Vegetables, flowers, cacti, fruit, and any other plant you could fit in a car is on sale there in a series of nurseries to make any gardener envious. In addition to the plants, there is a honey bee farm and a butterfly garden. The bees were as friendly as bees get and buzzed around the nearby flowers. The butterflies were plentiful and docile which lead me to learn a valuable lesson.
The lesson is this: having your macro lens is more important than having clean underwear. I made the terrible error of leaving my macro lens in Kuala Lumpur. I’m really not sure what I was thinking there. I mean, the butterflies of the Cameron Highlands and the other creepy crawlies I’ve seen here beg for this lens! To say nothing of what I might see when I arrive in Taman Negara in just over a day. I truly failed myself there since my other lenses couldn’t really capture the images I could have with the macro. When in KL, I reasoned that I could fit a couple pairs of underwear into the space occupied by the lens. But really, if I had just worn my raincoat around my waist instead of cramming it into my tiny bag, all this wouldn’t have been an issue. Oh well.
After the butterfly farm and my irritation with my lack of foresight, I consoled myself with fresh strawberry juice at a farm where you can pick your own berries. I followed that up with a strawberry milkshake. Yum. They just take a huge scoop of strawberries fresh from the vines and blend them all up in front of you to delicious perfection. So good I was compelled to get another one the next day.
The late afternoons and evenings here have largely been occupied by the movies that are always being shown in the common area here at the guesthouse, so that’s been nice and relaxing. Yesterday I saw Crash (very good) and, for the first time since I lived in Japan, the tail end of Lost in Translation. After living there, the movie is that much better – they got so many good details in there.
A couple days ago, I was scheduled for a full-day tour of the area, but it turned into a half-day when the main road through the highlands was closed down for Malaysia’s answer to the Tour de France: the Tour de Langkawi. Cyclists were climbing the area’s mountains in what must be one of the more difficult legs of the race while locals congregated along the roadsides to cheer on the riders.
With my strawberry milkshake in hand, I watched the race with a couple of nice girls from England who have become good companions here in the highlands. All the while, we wondered why anyone would really go out of their way to come watch cycling unless they knew someone in the race.
It progressed like this: Wait for almost two hours. Watch the leader pass. Cheer. Wait for a couple minutes. Watch second and third place go past. Cheer. Wait five minutes. Watch a pack of riders pass. Cheer (and watch the locals cheer extra hard for the Malaysian riders). Wait some more. Repeat. Not much to it. Perhaps if body checking was allowed, or there were obstacles in the way, or, the truly Canadian solution: put the cyclists on ice, give them sticks and make the chase around a rubber disc. Bike hockey! It could be huge.
The morning that day was a little more entertaining. We started by taking in some nice views of the area’s tea plantations before visiting the tea factory. It was surprisingly more interesting than I had expected. Too bad much of the information I learned has already left my head so I won’t be able to sip tea and pompously prattle on about the tea making process in a British accent. Because I do accents so well…
The Land Rover then wound it’s way up the highest peak in the region where we took in the views from a lookout tower and tried not to get blown off the side of the mountain by the gusts.
A short way down the mountain, we stopped once more and our guides detailed the various potential uses of the area’s plants. I now know how to kill a person by using various poisons. My particular favourite is the one that will make a person have a heart attack six months after they have ingested the plant. Don’t cross me folks.
Our trek through the mossy forest was next. Pants covered in mud, we dodged the low branches and tripped over roots while searching for pitcher plants and other wewird and wonderful flora. The pitcher plant is one of the few carnivorous plants in the world. It has a small receptacle where water collects then is mixed into a sweet juice that attracts insects. The hapless creatures drop in, sip some of the nectar, get drunk and quickly find it hard to get out of the slippery petals.
I was supposed to be making a visit to a village of the Orang Asli (meaning ‘original people’) in the area in the afternoon but thanks to the area’s Lance Armstrongs, that wasn’t possible. So, I have decided to stay up here in the cool for an extra day.
This morning was that village visit. The Land Rover made good use of its suspension on the ride there and back on some of the bumpiest roads I have ever experienced. In fact, I can’t recall bouncing around in a car much more than here.
Before hitting the village, we checked out some local vegetable and flower farms where the relatively rare ‘dancing lady’ flowers were growing. They now have their dancing lady moniker after enough people snickered at their former epithet: ‘the golden shower.’
Once at the village, we first visited a nearby waterfall and checked out the poisonous spiders spinning huge webs across our path. At the village, we sampled the Orang Asli’s tea and tried their tapioca. This recharged us for when we learned how to use a blowpipe. I don’t know how long I would last as an Orang Asli hunter – I only tried a couple times, but my first shot was well off the mark. My second was straight and true, but failed to stick into the target. Had I been truly hunting, my prey would have gotten little more than a tickle before scurrying off. Good thing I’m a vegetarian.
We briefly wandered about the village where bamboo houses stand a meter or two off the ground to keep from flooding and rotting. Unfortunately, most of the children were off at school or hiding in some other place. The couple that did show their faces were cute as could be and got a big kick out of seeing their image on my digital camera. Maybe I’ll have better luck and get to interact with a few more people if I get to visit another such village in Taman Negara.
Now, here in the middle of the afternoon, I now have enough time to do some thorough relaxing up in the cool air. I’ll have to make the most of it before I head to the sea level heat.
Lonely Planet calls Georgetown, the old-town heart of the island of Penang off the northwestern coast of peninsular Malaysia, ‘a fabulous city and a highlight of any itinerary.’ I don’t think they really visited this place.
If I were in the guidebook business and had to write an entry for Georgetown, it would probably go something like this: ‘This rat-infested hellhole is filled with the most unfriendly, unwelcoming, unhelpful people you may ever meet. But the garbage strewn through the streets has a stench that’s unbeatable!’
Yeah, Penang kinda sucks.
I will except Kek Lok Si temple from the above description. The hillside Buddhist temple is the largest in Malaysia and it is definitely worth a visit if you already happen to be stuck here. An enormous bronze Bodhisattva statue and a towering pagoda are a couple of the highlights here. Also, at dusk, for the Chinese New Year, the whole temple was illuminated by gaudy lights wired to every corner of every building. Remember Clark Griswald’s Christmas lights in ‘Christmas Vacation’? It was a lot like that except with a bigger area to set aglow.
One last highlight of the temple for me was the vegetarian restaurant at its base. Yum. I went for a late lunch and I had hoped to time it so that I could visit for dinner again, but I left it too long and they were closed upon my second arrival. How disappointing.
But that has been the least of my disappointments with this city. Here’s an example: As I was setting out for my trip to Penang Hill, I had to wait about an hour for a bus to arrive. During that time, I counted 12 rats. Big deal right? Well it is for me. Up until yesterday, I had only ever seen a couple rats in my life (that weren’t in cages) and one of those times was only a couple weeks ago in Kuala Lumpur.
You see, my home province of Alberta has a no-rat policy. That’s right, you can’t find a wild rat in Alberta. And I love the place for it. In fact, you never hear an Albertan say, ‘Boy I wish I had seen a rat in streets today.’ It just doesn’t happen.
So, having only seen a couple of them in my lifetime, I have not yet been desensitized to their pestilent shapes slinking through city streets. A dozen of the disgusting vermin was a bit much of an introduction for me.
Perhaps, however, it was the rotting meat smeared across the pavement that was drawing them to the area of the bus stop. Ah, fetid mystery meat. Is there any nose that doesn’t love your stink? Well, yes as a matter of fact there is: mine. Too bad there’s not much escaping it here.
Okay that’s all fine and good. I can deal with some dirt, some pests and perhaps the odd bit of expired food. These are experiences one has to occasionally accept while travelling.
What gets me here are the people. With the exception of a couple of people, most notably the happy and helpful dude at the hostel next door to mine, everyone here is a dick. Flash someone a smile and it returns to you as a grimace. Walk past someone in the street and they will either stare right through you or glare unwaveringly in your direction like they want to start a fight with you (and a couple days ago, nothing would have given me more satisfaction than to beat one of these rude bastards to a pulp).
Say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ and you will be ignored – forget about hearing it back. This spirit of brotherly malevolence even extends to the kids. In just about every city I have visited, a wave or a smile to a passing kid yields some kind of smile or wave in response, perhaps a ‘hello’ or, if they are shy, a cute withdrawal to a parent’s protective arms. Nope, not here. Instead, they look back at you with eyes that say, ‘Why the hell are you here? You’re not wanted.’
Direct conversation with the locals is pointless. After a whole day of dealing with the rudeness ubiquitous in this city, I went to try to find some dinner. I landed at some Mexican place where I sat down and a couple minutes later had the chef come out and literally shout at me, ‘What do you want?’ Well, a menu would have been a good start, but apparently that was too much to ask. I went and got one for myself. I glanced it over and asked if I could get a vegetable fajita. I got yelled at again, ‘No vegetable! Only beef!’ It was like the soup nazi had started a Mexican joint in Penang. Sick of this wretch, I tossed down the menu and left without uttering the words I wanted to.
I don’t know, this really doesn’t sound so bad when I look at what I’ve written, but I think I might not be conveying just how rude every person’s gesture was towards me. It was relentless and by the end of the day, I had to restrain myself when some pimp muttered something at me as I passed by. I ignored him as I hadn’t even understood what he said. Then he made it more clear, ‘Pussy pussy?’
I stopped in my tracks and turned back to him and I genuinely felt like getting violent with him. Straw that broke the camel’s back I suppose – my sense of humour about the whole day was finished.
Rather than berate him with the invective I wanted to about how he should probably consider getting a real job instead of sexually exploiting some young girl, I gave him my best stinkeye and moved on. I doubt I’ll be changing the course of this guy’s life through heated debate, so I chose not to fight that battle.
Probably just one of those days. Soaring heat and incessant impropriety got me down and I had had enough. I’m now trying to roll with the punches. It should be easier since I’m leaving here tomorrow. I’m finding myself a bit more able to laugh of the overtly rude talk of people who should be helpful, by just dismissing it with a simple, ‘Bloody’ Penang…’ and carrying on.
Quite the place.
I’m sitting in the Siem Reap airport feeling exhausted after my week of adventuring in the temples of Angkor. I cannot possibly hope to chronicle each of my many experiences here, so I’ll resort, once again, to the point form highlight/random thought list.
– At the top of the list would have to be my trip to Bakong temple in the Roluos group South East of Siem Reap. Starting early, I go there just as the light was starting to reveal the site. But, the temple itself wasn’t the highlight.
The first highlight was the kids at the school just outside the temple. At first they were shy, but then they realized I could be a source of amusement for them. When I took photos of a couple of them, they all crowded in to try to get in front of my lens. They were always happy to point out their own images on my little view screen once I showed them the photos I had taken. I think, also, they were content just to get away from their sweeping and cleaning duties for a moment before they had to sit through class for the rest of the day.
I wandered the temple for a little while watching some local kids shake nuts from a tree then headed back towards the entrance when I saw the kids were in recess. I thought I might go pester them again. Instead, as I glanced at the monastery to the North of the entrance, I saw an orange-clad monk practically posing in the doorway.
When I excitedly approached with camera in hand, he didn’t move from his perfect spot and let me take the photo. I was then invited to go inside the pagoda. An older monk and a former monk guided me inside. The former monk spoke good English and served as my guide.
As I was looking around the pagoda, I must have mentioned that I had been an English teacher in Japan last year because I was promptly ushered into the classroom where and English lesson was just finishing up. After talking with a few of the students, I ended up in front of the blackboard (or in this case, blue board) where we practiced pronunciation together – something I think a lot of folks in Cambodia could use (I’ll probably never know why they don’t pronounce the ‘ch’ at the end of lunch).
After class, I was free to roam the grounds of the monastery and snap some photos along the way.
When finished, I had taken some of my favourite photos of the trip so far and possibly one of my favourite photos I have ever taken. I look forward to sharing them with you.
– Other more bite-sized memories: I talked with a bunch of different monks at Angkor Wat and yesterday, I was invited into the room of one monk at a pagoda in Siem Reap. They offered me lunch, but they needed it a lot more than I did. Monk life doesn’t sound especially easy. And one of them was telling me that the corruption that runs rampant through Cambodian society even pervades the monasteries. I couldn’t quite figure out how it manifested itself there as the language barrier got in the way, but it was disconcerting to hear that no place seems to be immune to corruption in this country.
– A couple days ago, I visited Beng Mealea, an 80km ride from Siem Reap. This temple has been overrun by the surrounding forest. It makes Ta Prohm look like a well-manicured garden. You might as well don a fedora and a bullwhip out there while a John Williams score plays in the background – Indiana Jones would have had a good time here.
Climbing around fallen towers and gazing at the vines chocking the stones was fantastic. The tourist buses tend not to come out this far (yet), so, for much of the time, I had the place to myself. If I could insert a written version of the Indiana Jones theme song, I would do it here. Just imagine it okay?
The only drawback to going to Beng Mealea for me was that I had to haggle like a pro with my driver to get a fair price out there. It took me more than 25 minutes and the infamous walking-away-because-you haven’t-met-my-final-price move before he agreed to my price. Ugh.
I hate bargaining, but I think he had been getting more than he fair share the whole week, so I decided to put my foot down this time. I know bargaining is supposed to be a cultural glue – it bonds people by forcing them into communication – but I ended up irritated by the whole affair and I think my driver was pissed that he didn’t get more cash off me. I don’t think any bonds were strengthened there.
– A few days ago, I had a free afternoon, so I decided to go out to the lake South of town to see the floating village there. After bobbing over some terrible roads, it was nice to bob in the water as my boat driver took us out to the largest lake in Cambodia.
Along the way, the river is lined with the floating houses of a group of villagers who make their homes here. Floating hospitals, shops, karaoke bars, billiard halls, schools, and my personal favourite, a floating basketball court, all peacefully sat along the river.
I was treated to a gorgeous sunset as we entered the lake. I was able to watch it from a floating museum/restaurant where kids would paddle up to its sides in boats or large buckets to pose and joke around for the camera for money. I guess when you live on a lake and have little but a big bucket and a paddle, you have to do what you have to do.
– Landmines are the most ridiculously shortsighted weapon ever devised. So you’re in a battle and you want to blow up some people and you plant some mines. Well, if you happen to win that battle, you still lose because now the territory you’ve won is a death trap. That’s thinkin’.
– For those out there in the world thinking of making the trip to Angkor, I would do it sooner than later. The tourist industry is just going to pick up here. It’s one of the few things Cambodia has had going for it for some time, so I suspect that the government is going to keep pushing it to generate as much revenue as it can. That means temples will be choked with tourists and roads clogged with buses. As rewarding as the temples are even with the current tourist presence, they would have been just about perfect without the throngs to dodge. So get going. Now!
My daily schedule here in Siem Reap, Cambodia doesn’t allow me much, if any time for keeping up to date with my journal. I’m up early then off to the temples right away. I get home after sunset and have to spend most of the time before bed trying (and failing) not to get too far behind on emails, finding food, transferring photos to my computer and scrubbing the dust from my every pore in the cold shower.
So, in an effort to keep things moving here, I’ve decided to do some bullet-point journaling. Just some things that stood out in the last few days and I had time to note before I have to go to sleep.
– One of the highlights, strangely enough for me, is a moment for which I have no photos. Two days ago, I met and started talking with a couple of young Buddhist monks. After chatting for a while, I did end up taking some photos of them. But, the best part was, they invited me to go visit them at their pagoda the following day. When I arrived there, we continued our conversations from the previous day and I was also invited into one of their rooms. It just felt so special to be able to be invited into the room of a monk in Cambodia. I don’t know too many folks with that experience under their belt.
– Angkor Wat really is worth the trip to Cambodia. It’s a phenomenal place. I’ve been on all three days now. Once for sunrise and twice for sunset. Each time has been wonderful. Today, I met a couple more monks and chatted with them for a while. The monks here I’ve talked to have been about the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. I guess that’s to be expected really. After all, they’re enlightened. I exchanged addresses with one of them so that I could send them a print of one of the photos I took. He also asked for my phone number and I could only give them my parents’ number due to my present homelessness. I explained that I wouldn’t be home for a long time, but he really wanted it. So, mom and dad, if you get a call from a guy with a thick Cambodian accent saying he met me at Angkor Wat, you know the story. Just chat with him a while so he can practice his English okay?
– Visiting a temple called Preah Khan this morning, I had the chance to explore the virtually deserted place for a couple of hours while the sun slowly crept up over the trees. This was what I was hoping for here in Angkor. The birds and bugs rang through the surrounding forest and the stones emanated echoes of that ubiquitous life. Certain places felt haunted. In others, I felt like I was Indiana Jones and the next bend would reveal some long-lost treasure.
– The above was possible because the busloads of tourists had not yet arrived. Now, I love a lot of Japanese individuals, but put them in a group and their collective number is overwhelming. Paths are chocked with people. Silence is shattered. The sense of adventure is lost. When you’re surrounded by middle aged Japanese people, it’s hard to feel like an explorer. I’m no more entitled to be here than any of the individuals in their groups, but I’d like to think that my presence here doesn’t substantially affect the experiences of others in a negative way. One friend of mine called Siem Reap ‘Cambodia Disneyland.’ Just so long as they don’t install any roller coasters soon.
– Siem Reap is the dust capitol of the world. I have never been so filthy in my life.
– Pol Pot was a horrible, horrible person.
– My driver really likes my money and drives a hard bargain. I hope with all the cash he’s taking from me, he buys a helmet for his future passengers on his motorbike. I guess not having a helmet on makes my scooter high fives a bit more feasible though. You need to be able to have good eye contact with the high five recipient before you can really deliver, otherwise, some unsuspecting foreign tuk-tuk passenger would probably get pretty shocked by some hand extending in their direction as a scooter passes them.
I’m alive and well in Cambodia, but one thing that means is that I won’t be updating my blog for a while. The connections here aren’t exactly lightning fast and I’m probably more likely to find a polar bear here than wireless access.Besides, is anyone reading this thing anyway (besides my mom).
So i will keep writing on my trusty laptop and update my journal en masse probably when I get back to Malaysia.
Back in another airport. I think waiting for flights is going to be come my de facto journaling time. This time I’m waiting for my flight to Kuala Lumpur where I will make a triumphant return with lungs free of unwanted liquid.
Yesterday, I got in a few last sights in Taipei before I had to head back to the hostel for an early night. I started off by getting lost on the way to the Hsahai City God Temple. I eventually got some help and found the tiny place that wasn’t really much to look at, but they did have a lot of good information there about the customs enacted by each temple goer.
The temple was right in the midst of the Dihua street market where candies galore were being peddled to throngs of shoppers. Enough free samples were being handed out that you could probably wander the market a couple times and you’d end up with a free meal. A free meal with a lot of sugar in it, but a free meal nonetheless. The place was packed full of people and I couldn’t help wondering why all these people weren’t at work on a Monday morning.
After the market, I went to check out the Grand Hotel. This impressive structure is a huge building in a traditional Chinese design. Up on a hill, it overlooks the hazy city and must have some fantastic views on clear days from its upper floors. A little out of my price range though.
Last, I stopped at the Xingtian temple. You’d think I’d be sick of temples by now, but they don’t seem to get old to me. Each has something new to offer and there is always some new photographic challenge to try to overcome, so it’s always a pleasure. Here, old women in blue robes wandered the grounds and tended to the visitors. These helpful smurfs were often found reading texts or blessing the patrons of the temple.
I trudged back to my hostel and prepared myself to leave this fine country. I wish I had more time here – there are plenty more sights I would have liked to explore. The biggest downside of this island is the cost. It’s not as bad as Japan, but some of the prices are going to look like a king’s ransom once I get to Southeast Asia.
But, the positives outweighed the negatives. I think the biggest upside to Taiwan is its people. My experiences with them were always fantastic. They were always friendly and even when the language barrier got in the way, they were willing to help in any way they could. I can only hope to meet such gracious people as I continue on my trip.