lolamatopoeia: (inconceivable!)
After hearing a few stories about the slow boat ride from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang (Laos), Bianca and I decided to take the overnight bus to Laos instead ... only to find out that we should have gone on the slow boat instead because it could be a heck of a lot of fun and a great opportunity for meeting people. Maybe next time ..? In any case, we made our decision and the overnight bus wasn't too bad. The tuk tuk driver who took us to the bus station was very sweet and when he found out that we were headed to Laos and we asked if he had ever been to his neighbouring country, he sighed and said 'no', but that maybe some day he would be able to go to Laos. It really hit home for me then: the privilege that I have in travelling like this.

Our bus took 12 hours, overnight to Udon Thani near the border to Laos. I didn't sleep a wink. I had my headphones on and my eyes were burning but I could not sleep the entire time. Other than paranoia I can't even full explain why I couldn't sleep. Once we got to Udon Thani, a tuk tuk overcharged us in a trip to the bus station to Vientiane where we were swarmed by taxi drivers who tried to overcharge us for our trip. We found out that we could not go directly to Vientiane but instead had to got to Nom Kai to get visas at the Friendship Bridge. The border was quite a bit of chaos, waiting outside in crowded line ups, all of us huddled on the ground with our belongings as they kept our passports behind a sliding window for hours. We got our visas though and everything was fine. I was just panicked for a good while there for what turned out to be no reason (as usual).

The bonus of the day though was that we got to meet a girl from France who had been living and teaching French in Vientiane for four months. She's just signed a contract to teach in Luang Prabang for a year. We also met Lisa, who has been in Thailand now for seven years. She has started her own organization to help and educate Burmese refugees in Thailand. This woman amazed me. She doesn't make any money doing what she is doing, relying entirely on donations from around the world and cash advances on her credit card. She does amazing work and workshops with kids that have been through such horrible things, things I can't even imagine. She has done all of this on her own. She came to Thailand after helping refugees in India for a few years. She came to Thailand and saw a problem and decided that she needed to do something about it. She didn't just hope that someone else who do it, like so many of us would (including myself). She is doing it herself. She is truly inspirational. The organization she runs is called the Thai Freedom House. Check it out if you can.

Our final bus ride up to Vang Vieng, a town we were told that we had to visit, was pretty much the best bus ride ever. An old man, originally from Vietnam, spoke to us in French and offered to share his food with us. Another man delayed the bus for nearly an hour loading it full of boxes of roofing tiles. The tiles filled the storage under the bus, filled the back of the bus, lined the isles, and was tucked under our seats. It was hilarious. Everyone on the bus was friendly and kind and we had a great time. The best part was the absolutely unforgettable views we were treated to along the way. I was hypnotized by the sights I saw and could not believe my eyes - misty mountains completely green with clouds lining their tops, winding red dirt roads through jungle, cows and water buffalo on the road stopping traffic, bamboo huts on stilts and palm trees and french inspired architecture and barenaked children, and ... I just gasped and smiled the whole time. I closed my eyes to soak it all in but would quickly open them in case I missed something.

We got to Vang Vieng in the dark and found a great guesthouse. After such a magical bus ride through the mountains, we were disappointed though to find that the town we're staying in is full of more tourists - mainly very young boorish and belligerent brits drinking and smashing bottles in the streets - than locals. This place is indescribably beautiful. It's such a shame. I will try to take as many pictures as I can, but I am telling you that this is so far the most beautiful place that I have ever seen and no pictures or description I can give here will do it justice. It's just a shame about the silly tourists.
lolamatopoeia: (show me yours!)
On our last day in Chiang Mai, we went on a full day guided tour of six different hill tribes in Thailand. I felt severely uncomfortable and awful about the experience. I felt exploitative and intrusive and almost sick about the whole thing. We were with a group of other tourist people who preferred not to speak English around us. I'm not sure. I don't think I spoke a word through most of the day either. I really didn't know what to say.

Everyone in the group took as many pictures as they could throughout the day - posing with the impoverished people, giving the thumbs up or peace signs in their photos with dilapidated houses and livestock. I felt horrible just being there. I took only a few pictures and just of the landscape and a bit of the livestock. It just felt so wrong. No matter how many people told me it was OK, it just felt wrong.

I bought a handmade scarf from a lady from the Karen Long Neck tribe, the first group we visited, because I could actually see them making the scarves right there in front of us and I knew the money went directly to them. I felt alright about that, but the rest just made me feel awful. We were driven from village to village and asked or begged to buy things at each stop.

I had troubles pin pointing it all until I started to voice some of my concerns to Bianca who agreed and added that what was troubling was that because there are people like us who are interested in seeing these tribes authentically then it becomes this kind of awful touristy thing to do where we just swarm in to these villages in our air conditioned vans and take pictures as souvenirs to post on the internet and buy trinkets to collect dust back home holy run on sentence. The whole thing was just gross. These people are poor and desperate and its awful that they've become reliant on tourists now rather than the actual fruits of their labours.

The rest of the day followed a fairly similar path - after the hill tribes we went to a popular ancient cave. It was well adorned and packed with tourists and opportunities to buy more things. I've been to caves before - like when Tudor and I went to some caves in Virginia and were given a detailed introduction to the history of the cave and the types of formations and the scientific reasons that we could not touch the formations or stray from the path. There were certain lights in the caves and different procedures they took to preserve the caves for generations to come. In Thailand, we were given no such introduction or instructions - we were just shown the beautiful gilded images that had been set up artificially, the names that some people had given the formations, and were shown the 'formation' of a Buddha that someone had carved from the rock. Fluorescent lights guided our way along the rounded path that a group of children decided to forgo to instead climb atop the formations to have their pictures taken.

The caves were just another example of the problems that Bianca and I have been experiencing with Thailand, but just most particularly on that day. It just seems that the focus is on tourism and making money off of something rather than education and preservation. I know that's a terrible generalization, but it was just our observation and experience there. I've got to find ways that I can help, at least in some small way through a donation or something, in the future.

On a much happier note, our day ended excellently since in wandering the night market we ran into the American and Australian group we had met in the back of the truck the day before. Apparently the Brazilians in the truck were a millionaire and his girlfriend who bought them drinks all night after we got out of the truck. They said it had been quite the night but that they had needed the whole day to recover. We chatted for a while in the street until we succumbed to a plastic table and a few beer towers on the street.

Why do we always have to meet the most amazing people on our last day in a city? Meghan and Tony are a couple originally from Seattle and have just spent a year in Australia. They decided to leave their jobs together and travel around and discover the world for as long as they can. They're a pretty fun and friendly couple and I'm hoping we'll meet up again. I didn't exactly get Tim's, the charming Australian that Meghan and Tony met in transit to Thailand, story. I'm afraid I was probably too busy telling my own story after I had a few beers in me. Tim's great though. He's travelling on his own at the moment, just coming from Cambodia where he travelled with his girlfriend for a few weeks. It would be great to meet up again during this trip. He's got the kind of personality where you feel as though you've known the person for years even if it's only a few moments on a street in Thailand. I'm meeting so many people like this on this trip. It's hard for me to get used to saying goodbyes. I can't get over how really great people are in this world.
lolamatopoeia: (show me yours!)
Today I learned that travelling in the back of a truck up and down a winding mountain road when the driver has a lead foot, especially around sharp corners, will induce motion sickness in even the strongest stomach. I almost never get motion sickness but I swear I turned green in the back of that truck up to Doi Suthep and back. I had to throw up in my mouth a few times just to avoid public puking at a big touristy temple place. No one likes a puker.

Doi Suthep was beautiful. We were told that if you don't go to Doi Suthep, you haven't really seen Chiang Mai. It's this series of gilded temples on top of a mountain where you can overlook the entire city. A pretty magical sight. It was a very busy touristy place though, like many of the beautiful sights here. I know that it was something I had to see, and it really was amazing and majestic, that temple at the side of mountain, but I have a fair amount of difficulty with religious sites. I can't quite pinpoint what it is that makes me feel so uncomfortable about these places. Maybe it's because the religion I was closest to, although I wasn't raised religiously, was protestant and anabaptist. This is what I have known as religion. I was raised to believe that it's not the building - the temple, the wat, the church, the cathedral - that matters. You can practice your religion anywhere, at any time, and any site could be your church and your gathering place to worship. Faith and holiness is not in the building but in the way you live your life. I can accept that other religions don't work this way at all and that some truly believe that their buildings are holy sites that need to be adorned and worshipped and revered, but I ... I just don't get it sometimes. It also just feels wrong for me to be in such a place taking pictures to illustrate how beautiful it is when I have no personal connection to the site. I'm not quite sure what to do about this yet, or how to process it but I've got one heck of a lot more holy sites to see before the end of this trip so I hope that I'll find a way to reconcile things for myself soon.

Just as I'd been given a slight recovery from a vomit inducing descent from the mountain, we switched drivers at the zoo to get us to the neighbourhood recommended to us for some artsy crafts and such. Two more groups of people joined us in the back of the truck at the zoo - a painfully attractive couple from Brazil and a fun group of two Americans and their friend from Australia. The Brazilian girl slightly grated on us through the drive - complaining about how the drivers in Thailand don't speak English and yelling at and treating our driver like he was an idiot. She was kind and sweet and fun with us though. The other group seemed much more our speed - very friendly and personable and interesting to talk with. We had to leap out of the truck before we knew it though, mid conversation it seemed, and we didn't get a chance to catch their names. They told us where they were staying and offered us to join them on their three day trek and then they were off. We're finding a lot of moments like that on this trip. There are just so many great people out there in the world. I keep reminding myself about what Sam, in Bangkok, said as we left - 'Remember, you'll always meet someone at least twice in your life'.
lolamatopoeia: (sideview)
After several days of non stop action, Bianca and I decided we needed a good relaxing day. We got up fairly late and walked around a bit to find a great massage in the streets where every other building offers massages. We found a gem though - a group for the conservation of Thai massage run by a collective of blind masseuses. It was fantastic. Painful, but fantastic.

We had to change into wrap around pants - I found this out after hopping onto the bed in my skirt and inducing a giggle fit from my elderly masseuse when she felt my bare legs. It was nice because we were in a very quiet and cold dark room with just the daylight coming through the windows. I was massaged first by the elderly woman and then by a younger man. Both were highly skilled and excellent (at least I believe so).

If you've never had a Thai massage before - and I hadn't - you've got to know that it's not like your average North American massage. It kind of really fucking hurts. I mean, I think that it's supposed to hurt a bit, but goddamn it. I could not stop whincing and moaning and twitching in pain as they pressed down in series of slow pulses on my muscles and pressure points and joints. They would give sympathetic sighs and apologies and 'tsk tsk' sounds in reply to my painful moans but it wouldn't stop the hurting. I suppose that I have a lot more tension in my muscles that I expected. That surprised me.

I think that I will need another massage somewhere along this trip (and I mean, for 4 dollars an hour, why wouldn't I?) but, to be honest, I'm a little scared to go through that kind of pain again.

It was something special though. What was even more special was when Bianca's masseuse answered her cell phone in the middle of her massage. Oh, and then when I unashamedly got undressed and redressed into my skirt in the corner, Bianca had to remind me that not all of them are fully blind, y'know.

After our massages we both loose and relaxed and decided to set down our things and chill out in a cafe for a while. We drank cup after cup of cold thai milk tea and coffee and ate Ritz crackers at the Coffee Bull where the decorations are dog themed and staff were pleasant and relaxed and the man who made our drinks spent his down time watching instructional fishing videos on youtube. It was a good afternoon.
lolamatopoeia: (dancey pants)
It was a crazy day full of new experiences. I've come to the conclusion that no pictures or video could truly capture my experience here. I had some assistance coming to this conclusion today after my camera ran out of batteries at the first stop of the day.

Tony, our guide, picked us up at 8:30AM and we were driven in the back of a truck with a group of people from Denmark, Sweden, and a writer from Canada and his friend, a Thai pilot. Our first stop was an orchid farm. This place was somewhat similar to a butterfly conservation area in Ontario but much more serene and a thousand times more beautiful. I took a few pictures and then my battery ran out. Believe me, though, it was beautiful.

After the orchid farm we were driven quite a way into the mountains to ride elephants in the rainforest/jungle. We drove through several villages with people pushing their carts and pulling along water buffalo and then - elephants! The first time we wizzed by by the backside of one walking along the roadside my jaw must have dropped to the floor of the truck. An amazing sight.

The elephant ride itself though, I am still feeling conflicted about. There were a group of elephants rounded up to a platform and we were hurriedly led to the platform and plopped, two at a time, atop an elephant and sent off. There was no introduction or connection made. I didn't even get to see the elephant's face until we bought a picture of us riding it at the end for 100 baht. All that I wanted to do was play with and interact with the elephants. Hopefully we'll have another opportunity to do something more touchy feely, and ethical, in Laos. Hopefully. It's not that there was anything particularly wrong with how they were treated - it's just how it's done here, but the way our mahoot kept yelling and the metal jabbing hook at the end of a stick that he used to pull and guide and sometimes hit our elephant with made me very uncomfortable. I was reassured that they have thick skin and they're ok, but I saw blood on one of the elephants ears as I watched her, at eye level on the podium, unload another group of tourists. I pet her head and nearly cried. Her eyes were so sad.

I just want to play with the elephants and care for them and know they're cared for and loved. They are such beautiful and magical creatures. I'm desperately going to seek something we can do on this trip with the elephants that is more about conservation and care rather than entertainment.

In any case, the views we enjoyed on the ride were breathtaking. I've seen so many pictures of Asia with the tree covered misty mountains and the elephants and cows and bison and carts and rice fields and straw hats and colourful linens and all of this iconic beauty I'm seeing, it's hard to believe that I'm actually seeing it now.

After the slightly traumatic elephant ride, we went on a power trek through the rainforest. We trekked and trekked in some of the most lush and gorgeous forest. I was literally soaked and dripping with sweat by the time we made it to our hut for lunch (noodles wrapped in banana leaves). The end of our second leg of trekking brought us to a waterfall. Yeah, a waterfall. We were encouraged to jump right in and jump we all did. It was a great way to refresh from hiking. We just stood under one of the falls and allowed ourselves to be pummeled in the back with the force of the water. There are pictures somewhere and I look bad but hey, I'm in a waterfall!

We next trekked to the launch point for white water rafting. White water rafting was fun and scary in the right combination. The nice Danish girls in front of us kind of ticked me off a little when they would freak out and throw their hands up and stop paddling when we got to the rapids. I felt a little Mom-ish. I've got to stop that.

The next portion - the bamboo rafting - came immediately after the white water rafting bit and was probably the least enjoyable for me. We had been cold and wet for a good two or three hours at this point and they had shoved so many people on our raft that we were submerged a good foot or two into the mirkiness. It's likely just because I'm so OCD about my sensitive lady parts, but all that I kept thinking was "crotch infection, crotch infection" and that I needed to get the f out of my wet suit and into a hot shower. Enough with the bitching though - we bamboo rafted down the river through the mountains and through the reeds and it was one of the most beautiful experiences ever. It was just so goddamn beautiful. I've got to find another word for beautiful. I love Thailand.

Douglas, the writer from Saskatoon that we met on this trip is staying in Thailand to finish his second novel. I've decided that that, or at least something like it, is going to have to be me some day. I think that it would be a pretty excellent goal. I love Asia so far. I can't believe that I was so terrified of this place before I left.
lolamatopoeia: (mozflash)
We went to a Thai Cooking course on our first day in Chiang Mai, July 7th. It was an all day course run by Siam Rice Cooking School. It was pretty fantastic. For around twenty bucks we learned how to make around eight different Thai dishes ... and then we got to eat all of them.

We were in a group with some great people. They were mainly from the UK, with one older couple from Hawaii who came to Thailand to get their dental work done cheaply. One of the couples from the UK were in the midst of an eight month round the world tour together. They just came from South America. Another group of girls were also on an eight month tour but halfway through already. They started in Australia and have worked their way up. It was amazing though how much the one girl's personality just grated the hell out of me almost instantly, despite the perspective you would expect one to have gained from four months of travel. Her colonialist sense of entitlement annoyed me and she struck me as someone whose travels will never improve her personality or convince her that she doesn't need a full face of makeup and fancy clothes when backpacking. It's hard for me to explain, but I was just filled with a big urge to smack her.

We wer guided by a man named Pot (sp?) who picked us up at our guesthouse and drove us to the local market wher he showed us all of the fresh ingredients that we were going to be using in our dishes that day. It was wonderful, and I don't like using that word too much. We got to choose our dishes and later cook them in an outdoor, picturesque, cooking garden kitchen like thing. We cooked a soup, a noodle dish, prepared a salad, made a stir fry, a curry of our choice, and a dessert.

While making the soup, Pot asked if we liked spicy food and when I responded with "yes" since I hadn't experienced anything really spicy since coming here he made sure I had a total of 14 chilis in my soup. Apparently "european spicy" is anywhere between 6-10 chilis (most people put in about 2-6). Yeah, it was spicy ... but so freaking GOOD. I loved it. I didn't know that my tolerance for spice could be so high, especially here. I even earned some respect from Pot (who usually has 30 chilis in his soup) later as he chose to eat some of my soup from my bowl when he was hungry and needed some spice later on. It was delicious, but I had to take my time eating it. I think that the silly British girls though I was trying to show off at some point and got their noses up about it but I honestly just really like spicy food.

In any case, I think that I will need to have coconut milk and chilis with all of my foods from now on. It was incredible food and I was so stuffed. Also, sticky rice is the most awesome food in the world - and now I know how to prepare it.

We even got certificates.

On the way back to the guesthouse our group in the cab got treated to a video of Pot's synched to pop music of 90s north america girls in bikinis stripping. Yeah. It was the wierdest and coolest and just wtf things to see to end the day. We could not stop laughing, especially when the nipples started coming out.

We were rolled out the car and Bianca and I came back to the guesthouse to catch up on journals and photos and watch traffic go by and listen to techno beats being pumped out of the speakers at our guesthouse cafe. The movie Anaconda was being played on the cafes video screen. This trip is all too bizarre and amazing at the same time.
lolamatopoeia: (sideview)
It is around 5:30pm on a Tuesday here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Bianca and I flew into town, from Bangkok, late last night. We were driven home by an amazingly kind Thai couple we met in the airport. They sell Amway and are practicing English. We sat together on the plane and talked and they offered to drive us to the guesthouse. We weren't sure if we could trust strangers in strange countries, but they were just plain old fantastic people.

I am sitting in the cafe portion of our guesthouse this evening now listening to techno beats and motorbikes wizzing by. Cockroaches travel by my feet and fellow backpackers consult their Lonely Planet guides while they drink their coca cola. I am beginning to feel more and more comfortable with this backpackers life, oddly enough. I never thought that I could be in a place like Thailand and actually start to like Thailand.The trick is, according to travellers I've met, is not to think about it too much - to just let things happen and don't analyse things, just do it. I'm starting to actually relax a lot more and I'm letting my guard down more and more. I'm just enjoying moments for what they are. I hope these qualities will carry on with me when I'm back home at the end of this.

I am, however, starting to understand the perpetual heartbreak particular to travellers. We have met amazing people so far in the only six days we have travelled and it has been heartbreaking having to say goodby to each and every one of them.

We said goodbye to Rej, a hilarious and fun girl from England who shares a birthday with me. She left her job in HR in London to travel through Asia by herself before attempting to start a new life for herself in Australia. We spent two days and nights travelling around Bangkok with her. She left for Sydney two days ago. I hated saying goodbye to her but I hope she's doing well and I admire her independence and strength.

We also met two great girls from Germany, Samantha and Franzi, who just finished training in the hospitality industry and want to start new lives in Australia as well. Australia must be some sort of mecca for travellers. They will be travelling all around Thailand for a month before going to Sydney. They were such wonderful and fun and strong girls, and I really admire them. They were fantastic, well travelled, and confident. It was great to spend time with them and explore the city together.

I also met Casper, a recently graduated journalism student from Holland who is travelling all around the world by himself. He has fantastic stories as well as amazing perspective and sensitivity. He talked me through some of my fears on my rough day in Bangkok (scroll down for that one) and reassured me that things will genuinely be alright if you just trust it and don't analyse things too much. I will change, I just have to let it happen and don't analyse it. We hope to meet up with him again here in Chiang Mai before he heads south. Hopefully we can also meet up when he visits Canada one day on his journey.

I met Seth on our last night in Bangkok. He came in to the guest house with a French man late at night. He's originally from Pennsylvania and has gone to school in the Carolinas and is travelling around Asia on his own after coming off of an exchange in Australia. We (Bianca, Franzi, Samantha, Seth and me) explored the sky train transit system in Bangkok together yesterday. It was a great way to see the city on our last day (and Seth's first day). I only wish that we could have spent more time with him - he studied fine art in school and has a charming personality that makes him easy to talk to and get along with.

I love these people. I wish that I could take all of them and shove them in my pocket for the rest of the trip (and life) but I know that they all have their own journeys to tend to. Missing all of them at once though feels like a dull ache. I didn't think that I could feel so attached to people in such little time. It's just that people have been amazing me so much on this trip. I know that we will meet other great people along the way. We are, after all, only six days into our journey with another nearly 50 days left. I can, thankfully, finally understand what other travellers have meant when they tell me that its the people they meet along the way that makes the trip most memorable and affecting. The people make the difference. It is absolutely true. This trip is makingme fall in love with people all over again.

I can only hope that I can pick up some of the good qualities of all of the fantastic people I am meeting along the way, and that they will remember me as well.
lolamatopoeia: (Default)
I was right. You were right. Yesterday was so much better than the day before. Thank you all for your suggestions. All is well with the world. I am in Chiang Mai now where I was woken up by what sounded like car alarms but was actually wildlife. I can see mountains from my window at our new guesthouse. I already miss the friends I made in Bangkok. I'll update with more later.
lolamatopoeia: (Default)
So things are OK. I'm adjusting. Being away from my everyday situation has really thrown me into myself and I think that the reason I'm having a bit of a rough go emotionally at the moment (don't worry, no breakdowns yet at all) is that I'm getting down to the root of my problems. I'm discovering patterns in my behaviour that I need to get ahold of and it's tough to realize and tough to change but this is something I need to go through and I need to do. I need this. The trouble I am having is that I think that I am, or I want to be, a much more adventurous person than I am. Also, I'm not an assertive person and, as the old Thai man feeding the turtle in the fountain at the Grand Palace (at Wat Pho) told me yesterday - I have to let what comes out of my mouth match what is in my heart. Good words. I am seeing great things and meeting wonderful people, but really this is a lot of a personal and emotional journey for me and I can only hope that the freaking out inside my head all of the time will go away and I will come back home a stronger, calmer, kinder, and wiser person.

I will update more with stories on what I am actually doing here eventually, although I am thinking that those may have to be backlogged from my journal entries, but for now here's a picture of the view from my room at Cozy Bangkok:

The view


We stay here for two more nights and then we are headed to Chiang Mai for Monday. That should be excellent and I'm really looking forward to moving on. Bangkok has been excellent, but it is a big city and it is crowded and chaotic and I know that we can travel much more cheaply in other cities. I keep having anxiety about money because it seems to be flying out of my hands, although in reality I only spent the equivalent of about 40 dollars yesterday - and that was an expensive day when I bought a memory card for my camera, we went on a boat ride, and we saw the reclining buddha at the palace. Today we went to MBK, a large shopping centre, and I bought an extra tunic for 6 dollars. So yeah, it's good but I think we can do cheaper.

Also, the best way to describe the atmosphere so far in Bangkok has been smells in interchangeable wafts of incense and urine or garbage or delicious food and the sounds of Thai yelling and motorbikes and soft music and barking stray dogs who shit in the street. It's a beautiful and terrifying city.

We're saying goodbye to Rej tonight - an amazing girl from England who has been travelling through Thailand on her own before she starts a new life in Australia. She leaves in the morning and it'll be sad to see her go. She's a great girl and I can only hope we'll stay in touch. We've met such great people and I'm really looking forward to the new people we'll meet and the new things we'll see. I'll just be glad to be moving on from Bangkok because the rest of the trip should be fairly smooth sailing. I'll be in touch.

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