Sunday, May 31, 2009

Caving by Candlelight

Inside the caveIt took the ten of us about fifteen minutes to get from where we had landed the longboat, across some rice fields, up slippery rocks to the small entrance of the cave marked only by candle wax a few feet away. Nobody told me we would be praying, so when the group of college students and their professor knelt down in the mud, it was a split second before the one who had invited me yanked me by down by my elbow to join them. After the prayer, several students took candles and one of them turned to me and said, haltingly, “Takes shoes off. It is alive.”

Communism doesn't like religion, but the Lao communist regime realized it just couldn't eradicate Buddhism. I'd heard several ancient religious practices and even some forms of folk magic were still outlawed but widely practiced in Laos, if somewhat quietly. All I'd been told about the excursion up to this point was that the class was going to a cave before going back to Luang Prabang, and would I like to come. But after the prayer, the candles, and this statement, I was starting to wonder if I'd stumbled across a clandestine spiritual ceremony.

I hadn't. The guy's English wasn't very good; when he said 'alive', I thought I caught a 'd' at the end, so I asked him to repeat. “Alived?” he said, “You will alived?” and he made a sliding motion with his hands. “Slide?” I asked. “Yes, aslide!” he said. So that's how I got from thinking I was taking off my shoes off to enter a living holy place to realizing I was told to take my shoes off to get a better footing on slippery rocks. Alive, alived, aslide, slidey, slippery. I wonder how many lost in translation moments like that I've missed.

I thought the candles might still have some spiritual significance, but it turns out they were just using them to mark the path on the way back so as not to get lost. Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs, pyro style. Also about as effective, given they'd mostly burned out by the time we came back to the entrance. But the prayer before entering... I still didn't have an explanation for that. And I didn't even get a guess until later.

This all started when I was swinging in a hammock above the mud-colored Nam Khan river overlooking the mountains. The hammock was set up in front of the little bungalow I'd rented out in the tiny town of Muong Ngoi, with a population might have broken three digits and electricity from generators between 6:30pm and 10:30pm. I'd just come back from a walk with the jungle on one side of the muddy path and rice fields and water buffalo on the other. I forget if I was reading or writing in the hammock when a 20-year-old Lao guy shyly walked up my stairs and asked in broken English if he was disturbing me. He asked for help with a few English words, and then we got to talking. After he told me about the usual ages for people to get married in Laos (18-25 in towns, 13 or a bit older in the country, often with kids of their own by the age of 15!) he invited me first to dinner with him, his class, their professor (who looked young enough to be part of the class himself), and their tour guide, and then to share a ride with them back to Luang Prabang the next day, with a visit to a local cave on the way.

The dinner was served in the bungalow place's attached restaurant, Nicksa's (don't worry Firefly fans, no Russian accents or torture chambers involved), and it was served family style, with a gigantic tub of sticky rice everyone wolfed down by the fistful (one told me very proudly that everything in Laos is eaten with sticky rice), several plates of small whole fish that were bitten off just above the tail, heads and all, and then some thin spicy omelets and stir-fried veggies. Didn't have a thing on the amazing pumpkin curry I discovered there earlier, but eating with the class was a lot of fun. I got to try some of the infamous Lao Lao-- rice whiskey, surprisingly smooth, given all the horror stories. Also tried some Beerlao, didn't like it much, and used a guitar somebody handed me as an excuse to fend off an increasingly insistent tour guide who really wanted someone to get drunk with him (“I play even worse when drunk, trust me”).

Then came a cute hunt for a bar. Have you ever seen a bunch of city kids go out looking for nightlife in a country town with only one 50 yard long street and no power after 10:30pm? That mission goes exactly how you'd expect it to. The class was mostly girls and right before giving up, they all got scared back into their bungalows by a light evening drizzle. I ended up playing cards and munching on mangosteens by candle light with a couple Israeli backpackers and a zookeeper from the San Diego Wild Animal Park on vacation, but that's another story.

Anyway, the next day I was with the class in the cave, checking it all out by the light of candles we were carrying and placing as we went. Also by the light of several digital cameras' flashbulbs that seemed to go off every few seconds. As we grabbed stalagmites and a couple stalactites we could reach, I had a flashback to a stern warning I got in New Zealand caves about not touching any of the rocks-- they could break and you'd be destroying something that took thousands of years to make. Whoops.

There were no glow worms around here, but we still saw some really strange and cool natural rock formations after crawling through tiny hidden tunnels and skirting around big underground pools. There were a few bruises, and I'm pretty sure I learned by example how to swear a lot in Lao. None of them spoke very much English, so I didn't get much background information, or even the name of the hidden cave. But it was worth it just to experience caving by the light of candles.

That was this morning. This evening, after a boat ride, a bus ride, saying goodbye to all of them, checking back into my old room in Luang Prabang, and going back to one of the market vegetarian buffets, I met a theme park engineer from Ottawa with a heavily bandaged hand. He told me he'd fallen and sliced his hand open on a sharp rock and gotten five stitches. I asked for the story. It happened near Nang Kieuw, a bigger town not far from Muong Ngoi. “It was just a couple days ago,” he said, “you know all those caves around there where the people used to hide back when the US was bombing the place?”

Of course. The prayer outside the cave. I don't know for certain, but there's a good bet that we'd been paying respects to those who had either died during the semi-secret US bombing raids during the Vietnam war, or those who had survived, thanks to the cave. The areas further east of here in particular are filled with bomb craters, and even worse, bombs and mines that haven't exploded. They call it “unexploded ordinance” or UXO. It claims lives every year, and at the current cleanup rate, they'll still be removing it for about a century from now.

As a young American, it's a weird experience traveling around a place that you start to recognize from slightly faded war photos and episodes of M*A*S*H. With the gray skies of the rainy season, the muddy water, and the general lack of anything red or orange in the natural scenery, the whole place looks like a living faded photograph. It must be even weirder for those back home reading about me going to all these places so many Americans killed and died in so publicly not all that long ago. But even after all that destruction, some of it still ongoing through the UXO accidents, I've yet to hear a single bad word about Americans here. It's early yet, but I even met one older Lao man with a baseball cap that said USA in big letters.

I've been lots of places where the American government has done terrible things to the local people. But I've never before been somewhere where a lot of teen and twenty-something American guys were killing and dying, drafted against their will. Guys not that much different from me-- just born a few decades earlier. These next couple weeks might be a little intense.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009


Last post I said the worst personal scrape for a reason. Looking back, I've been in situations that were much worse for the people around me. State of emergency flooding, road destruction, etc. This time, I was the only one hit, nobody around me has had any problems as a result.

Here are the events as best as I can reconstruct them. The critical part is guesswork, and seems far-fetched, but it's the least far-fetched explanation I've got.

I left Pai and took a bus to Chiang Mai, and then from there to another town named (confusingly enough) Chiang Rai. That was as close as I could get to the Lao border, I'd be catching a slow boat the next morning around 11am from the other side that would take two days on the Mekong river to get me to the city of Luang Prabang.

As I looked around the main street of Chiang Rai, four Thai guys sitting around got my attention and and told me they had a bed available for 90 Thai baht. The current exchange rate runs something along the lines of 100 Thai baht equaling $3 US. Even by Thai standards, this was a great deal. They showed me the clean and spacious four bed room, assuring me that since it was low season, I'd have it all to myself. When I saw that the last person in the guest registry had checked out four days before, I believed them. It all seemed a bit too good to be true.

Usually when something is too good to be true, it is. Here's a little background information that will seem completely unrelated, at first. I wear a passport pouch. It's a zippered two-pocket money-belt that goes around my waist and tucks into my pants, out of sight. I use it to keep a few essentials: my passport and international vaccine certification, my usb thumb drives with all my photos, and a stash of cash in the back pocket, my US drivers license, my ATM and credit card, a list of phone numbers,  and an anti-diarrhea pill in the front pocket. There are only three places this pouch normally exists: tucked in my pants, hung up next to me in the shower, or stashed under my pillow when I sleep.

Back to the story. I went to bed that night in Chiang Rai, sticking my passport pouch under my pillow as usual. I slept. While I slept, one of the four or more guys working for the hotel used one of the three other keys to the room, saw my pouch sticking out from under the pillow, removed my credit card and ATM card from the front pocket, and left. I woke up and noticed my pouch sticking out from the pillow, but thought nothing of it-- I sometimes toss around in my sleep, moving my pillow with me, uncovering the pouch. No big deal.

I took a bus and tuk-tuk to the border and got nailed with the surprise overstay charge. I was out of baht at this point, the slow boat was leaving soon, and the money changers were a lot closer than the ATMs. So I changed a $20 out of my pouch's back pocket to pay the rest of the bill. $35 and a passport-sized photo later on the other side of the border, and I was legally in Laos with a 30-day (I checked) visa. I swapped my Thai baht for Lao kip, bought a baguette sandwich, and paid most of my ticket on the slow boat, but found I didn't have quite enough kip. So I walked uphill to an ATM, opened the front pouch pocket for my debit card, and got the shock of my trip.

I kept cool, went into the bank, changed $40 more into kip to pay for the rest of my ticket and started making a couple calls- first to my parents in case I couldn't get through to my card companies, then to my card companies themselves. I got one card on hold but the other wouldn't let me talk to anyone because they were closed for memorial day. I bargained with the sandwich makers for a deal on five short, plain baguettes and headed for my boat.

I tallied up my usable assets. After the overstay charge and visa fee, my US stash was running low. I'd decided I wanted to sit on my dollars and euros as long as possible in case of a medical emergency, and use my kip until it ran out. I had a 10 euro bill in my bag, $49 US left in my pouch, and most of $15 in Lao kip in my wallet. It wasn't much, but I'd make it work.

I kept my mind off things by playing cards up front with two traveling couples. I didn't mention my situation. I'm not sure why I didn't. Pride, I guess. But I did quietly accept whatever little offer of food they had shared around. An Oreo here, a few Pringles there. Aside from that, I was going back and munching on my bread and water.

We made land and the touts just didn't understand my problem when I told them their price for a room was nearly half my kip. I was white, therefore I had limitless money. All the other white people getting off my boat seemed to have limitless money. All the other white people before them did too. What made me any different? I did manage to get a room for a fifth of my kip supply, finished my bread, and went to sleep, the cracks in the walls providing a nice breeze when the electricity to my fan was shut off for the night.

I bought a bunch of bananas on the way on to the boat. By about noon, midway through more card games, someone offered me another banana, the mere thought of which made me a bit nauseous. I ate it anyway. I was offered a spoonful of fried rice people were sharing and some crackers to supplement it all before we got to Luang Prabang at sundown. This time, the room rates had gone up.

I'm used to being accosted a every other doorway by someone trying to sell me something. But it's a very different experience when you are walking through a third-world city trying to sell you everything they've got and you can't afford any of it; when the nightly rate of a room is more of the local currency than you possess and you know you can't get any more. Everything around you, goods, services, and even the cheapest junk food sold out of the back of a garage is a reminder that you don't have enough money to live. I sat down on the sidewalk when I found an open wifi connection, messaged all the couchsurfing people I could find in the area, and got messages to my family to tell them I was okay, which I mostly was. I was still sitting on US and Euro cash to pay for medical expenses, so if I could just make the kip stretch for a few days...

I managed to find a room about the size of a closet and, after a long argument, bargain the rate down even further. I didn't feel hungry, but I was starting to feel physically weak, and I knew that five short baguettes and a bunch of bananas weren't enough for a 6' 165lbs guy to run on for almost 48 hours. I asked around from and found an outdoor stall next to a temple selling a buffet- one plate for 5,000 kip (meaning I'd be spending only a third of my kip rather than over half). I ate half of it and started feeling a bit ill-- my body figuring out that it could start complaining about the food situation-- but shoveled the rest down anyway, listening to more backpackers talking about where they could get drinks that night and what purchases looked good at the night market.

It's hard to exaggerate how frivolous people with a lot of money look to people without any. I've lived a life of privilege-- I'm a white American with married parents who make enough to have sent me through private schools my entire life. I do know what it's like watching people who are a lot wealthier than I am, but this was different. Back then, I could be amazed by the things rich people did, but I knew I had my affordable lifestyle to go back to. I've never before wondered if I could count the days I could afford eat and sleep on one hand. None of the people around me were really any different from how I would have been normally. But when I didn't have the money to consider the purchases they were turning up their nose at, they looked like they were from another planet. They all seemed very rich, spoiled, and callous to their surroundings. And if any of them looked at me, they just thought I was one of them.

Fortunately, things are now working out for me. My parents sent me some cash a lot earlier than I expected possible via western union. I walked out with my cash in hand, bought a nice chicken sandwich, kept an eye open along the way at the local crafts for sale, and settled back at the restaurant with wifi to get the word home that I'd gotten my cash. The scariest thing about all this is not what it was like to have so little, but how quickly I seem to be forgetting now that I have money again.

This afternoon I wandered into a book swap that offered a one to one swap as long as you donated 20,000 kip to the local orphanage. Normally I object to paying for a book swap, as that kind of defeats the purpose, but since this was for a good cause rather than profit, I went in. I started talking to the proprietor, an Australian lady who had been working the orphanage for about six years, and she told me she was expecting to have 168 mouths to feed this year for the upcoming holidays-- a jump from last year of 140-- and that next year at this time there could be 200-400 more than that. Whole villages were dying out and starving due to drought and disease.

She had a lot to say that gave me a lot to think about. Even at my worst, I'd had bread one day and fruit the next. Probably more than many of these kids got for weeks, and that was me at my worst within less than two days. What was even more discouraging though, was talking to her about how corrupt and unhelpful the foreign aid and NGO system was at addressing the problem. I spent about half an hour listening to her explain why the vast majority of NGOs didn't actually help to address the local problems. Stories of how one would do things like invest 55 million dollars into building dairy farms in an area of people who don't like milk and have never run dairies. Then they forgot to provide tankers to transport milk from the shiny new farms to the shiny new processing factory because they were out of money. The people couldn't process the milk, didn't like it anyway, so they did the sensible thing and used the cows for beef and let the dairy equipment rot. 55 million dollars, nothing is solved and everybody's blaming everyone else. This was one of many examples she gave from NGOs with some very big names.

The only things that really helped, as she put it, were small projects by individuals that lasted for a long time. As in ten years or more. And she pointed out that these projects have little to no administrative costs, and don't ask for volunteers (just get her on the subject of third world orphanages, volunteers, and pedophilia risks-- would you allow random volunteers off the street in a first-world nursery?). Her example was a woman who moved down from the states and worked at setting up libraries around the area, teaching kids various things, with a lot of success (after a stint with photography, her students were winning international photography awards). She didn't really need donations. She didn't have much overhead. She just worked all day, every day, six days a week for six years, and she's still at it.

That's a lot of food for thought for three days.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pai in the Sky?

I can't do this last week justice in one post. I have a good story to tell about one place, and another completely different story of how I found myself in the worst personal scrape I've been caught in this trip. That post will come later.

I originally came to northwestern Thailand do some trekking. My friend from JYA, Jason, did an episode based on what a fantastic experience he had trekking in this area. One of the features of the local treks is to support some of the local tribal villages-- part of your trek fees kick back to them, and in return, you get to spend a night there, learning about the local culture.

I got two really enthusiastic recommendations for a town in the area called Pai. So I took a couple buses over switchbacks to get there and looked around. After comparing prices for treks, I had a drink at a place called The Good Life, whose menu opened with a little blurb beginning “You might not believe it, but the (soon to be) health food empire you see today started with a modest tea shop and restaurant in Pai...” I walked around the walls lined with racks of wheat-grass plants to the swings hanging from the ceiling being used for chairs. Where the walls weren't covered with artwork or wheat-grass, they were covered in bookshelves. I pulled down a few titles, including a guidebook to Laos, and sat down next to a couple who were wearing matching, loose, bright colored, hemp outfits, discussing natural food supplements while being served tea. The man brushed his blond dreadlocks aside and peered suspiciously over his massive beard at his honey and murmured that he 'really hoped it was local, organic honey.' I struck up a conversation with them-- It turned out the man had been to Laos. When I found this out, I asked if he had any advice. He turned to me (he hadn't made eye contact with me until this point) and said,

“Love. Just... open yourself to love all around you. Be... love.”

I thanked him, paused, and said I'd actually meant advice about traveling Laos. He trailed off and the woman took over from there, but she's never been, and I don't remember her response exactly. I mostly remember them getting sidetracked soon afterwards into discussing differences in how their respective kamboocha tea batches came out after brewing.

My guidebook entry for Pai, Thailand starts with the sentence, “The hippie trail is alive and well.” I'd come to Pai learn about local culture. I stayed to learn about local culture. It's just, somewhere early on, I changed my mind about which local culture to learn about.

I slept in my own cabin. To get there, I had to cross a small river over a wooden bridge. It looked really cool, but it felt like (and inspired as much confidence as) crossing over something made out of Ritz crackers. I spent my time in town hanging out at the Good Life and exploring the surrounding areas. I got a motorbike for three dollars a day and not much more than that for gas and insurance. I went on an amazing hike through the jungle to waterfall that involved hopping from rock to slippery rock to cross a creek at least fifty times over. I took a private tai chi lesson while watching the sunset in exchange for helping the teacher with his website. But the main thing I'll take away from Pai were the nights I spent at a little place called Edible Jazz.

Two out of the three nights I got there just as the barkeep was trying, in vain, to shut the place down. The problem was his clientele was having too much fun. The first night we had guitars out, a melodica (a tiny plastic keyboard with a hose and mouthpiece you blow into to create sound) egg rattles, and bongos while we sang and drummed on tables. The second I refereed an educated, and intense debate between an 87-year-old British WWII veteran with an American accent and a British 25(?)-year-old who ended every few sentences with the phrase “and that's why I'm a Nationalist.” The veteran had some amazing stories and was clearly very with it for his age. He had also told me confidently the night before that he spoke dog. Both of them were up yelling (the nationalist doing most of the yelling) and arguing well past 3 am. I think the poor barkeep had been subtly trying to kick us out for two hours at that point.

I was having a good time making friends and enjoying Pai, but I just kind of had the itch to get out. That's one I've learned to pay attention to, and it's a good thing I did-- what I thought was a 30-day visa waiver in Thailand turned out to be a 15-day waiver. Paying more than two days of overstay charges would have landed me in very serious trouble. Much more serious than I realized I was actually in at the time.

But that's for the next post.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Traveling Thailand for Some Reason

I left Bangkok in a train that brought back a few memories. This shot was taken out of a wide open door while the train is clearly in motion. Just like the ones I rode in India back in 2006. It wasn't the only throwback experience I had. A man sat opposite my seat, smiled and nodded, and pulled out a few napkins to dry his hands. He then balled them up and threw them out the open window. I frowned, raised an eyebrow and made a throwing motion out the window --do you always do that. He chuckled and shrugged --that's how it works here, kid. I didn't return the smile but looked elsewhere. It wasn't until an hour later when he pulled out his badge, hat, and jacket to go on duty that I realized I'd come close to trying to tell off a police officer. Sound familiar?

So I arrived in Chiang Mai without ending up in custody of the law, though someone had to gesture at me to stop walking when the morning national anthem was played in the train station at 8am. Everybody else was frozen, staring dead ahead. I knew it was sign of respect, but to me it looked like all those scenes in sci-fi movies where cyborgs are receiving radio reprogramming or something. A British girl I'd met on the train turned to me quietly and asked something about it seeming just the tiniest bit like brainwashing. No idea what to say to that in the face of the protests happening in Bangkok a few weeks ago.

We checked out a handful of the city's 300+ Buddhist temples, and on the way asked about a famous night market we'd been hearing about. The guy we asked told us it was full of tourists and that people from Chiang Mai called it the “Tourist Market.” But then he proceeded to try to sell us on another market he was clearly getting paid to promote, so I thought he might be having us on.

He wasn't. I checked out the market tonight. This is what I found. Not only that, but this was the second Starbucks I'd seen in about three blocks. I hadn't seen two that close together since being back home in Seattle.

I left and headed into town where all the local action was happening: The Chiang Mai Inthakin Festival. It's a week long celebration that started tonight to invoke the blessing of peace. It's one of the biggest ones to hit the city every year. Tons of stalls selling food and ceremonial flowers, carnival games for the kids, a traditional dance on stage, and a huge variety of blessings happening left and right.

Now, I want to point out something here for other travelers. There's been a good show of interest in travel tips, so we'll start here. This isn't a practical tip so much as food for thought. When you start traveling, especially if you're doing budget travel, a lot of people you meet are going to be very vocally taking a lot of pride in Not Being Tourists and Not Doing Touristy Things. This sounds fantastic, and you too will be tempted to focus on this. It's not a terrible plan, but it's flawed. Here's how:

Let's say you have the aim of Not Being a Tourist and you're where I am, in Chiang Mai, tonight. You see the night market, see the tourists, the Starbucks, the golden arches, etc. etc. and you think “Bah! Tourist Crud!” and scram. You may very well end up at the festival, find yourself in something much less touristy than the night market pat yourself on the back, and hang around. Awesome.

However, if you had come to the festival first, you would have seen, what? Western carnival games, a stage with traditional dancing labeled in English, the odd tourist couple taking pictures, and people trying to sell you stuff. Your reaction? You guessed it: “Bah! Tourist Crud!” and you would have left, looked around for an “authentic” experience, eaten at a deserted restaurant from a cook who really wished he could be at the festival right then, then you would go back to your hostel, pat yourself on the back and go to bed.

See the problem? Yes, you have successfully evaded Tourism. You have also missed out on one of the city's biggest cultural celebrations of the year. Well done.

My point is not that you should accept being a tourist. Far from it. My point is that when you think about your travel philosophy, you're going to have a much better experience if you define it what you are looking for, rather that what you're trying to avoid. If you base your philosophy on a thing you don't like, that thing is what your philosophy becomes totally dependent on. The same travelers who take so much pride in going “off the beaten path” have to put twice as much effort into finding that beaten path, just so they can stay away from it. Most of the time, they don't even succeed in doing that.

It's just like the story my friend Peter told about his public middle school: in 7th grade, the cool thing to do was to try to be “different.” Being different meant wearing black. Funnily enough, everyone started wearing black, and as much as they all talked about being different, nobody actually was. You'll find this a lot in “off the beaten path” travel: a lot of people taking pride in being different, even though they're all doing the same thing.

If you base you philosophy on what you are for rather than what you're against, you're going to be a lot more successful. It works in politics (they call it pro-choice vs pro-life for a reason), it works in middle school (suddenly the kid wearing what he wants is different from everybody and therefore cool), and it works in travel.

My problem with tourism and being a tourist is that the tourist industry sells you what sells, not what's really unique to a place. But I don't deal with this by avoiding tourism, I deal with it by trying my hardest to find the unique stuff. Sometimes those things are as touristy as they get. Just take Machu Picchu. Or the Galapagos. These are some of the biggest tourism centers of the world. But they still have what I'm looking for.

If you really are stuck in thinking about not being a tourist, try thinking about what it is about tourism specifically that bothers you. There's a lot there to pick from. Maybe you're worried about the damage it does to the environment. Maybe you're worried about the effects on traditional ways of life in other cultures. Or maybe you just don't like corny stuff and are more interested in seeing what's happening in a place rather than what's there. Instead of just avoiding tourism, seek out environmental opportunities, or cultural ones. Or travel with an aim to finding a specific local scene, be it arts, politics, nightlife, you name it. If you define what you're looking for by what it is, rather than what it's not, you'll have a much easier time identifying it once you've found it. And once you've found it, that's when the fun really starts.

Here's my example. Today I went to something call the Tiger Kingdom. Scattered around South East Asia are monasteries and organizations that let you go into a tiger's enclosure and have your picture taken. Cute, except that the majority of these places drug and/or chain the poor tigers into submission. So I asked around and chose the place that looked like it had the best record, providing consistent feedback from visitors who saw no chains, said that the tigers were “frisky and active,” and had a vet checking in on them every week. I went to check it out.

I spent my morning with two seven-month-old male active, playful tigers.

My high school creative writing teacher would wring my neck if I put in all the superlatives and adjectives I want to throw in here. All I'll say is that it was just like how I imagined it would be, which is exactly what I came for.

I have to say I was a little worried by how lethargic the full-grown adults in the neighboring enclosures were. I know they're cats and that they sleep a lot, but I had to wonder about the claims of “no sedation.” Also, as a former zoo employee, the enclosures were smaller than I would've liked, and mostly made of cement. More annoyingly, I saw this as a fantastic opportunity wasted, to promote awareness about preserving an endangered species.

So I decided to drop a few hints. The Tiger Kingdom's public email has now been subscribed to a couple mailing lists-- including WWF and the Save the Tiger Fund. I sent a little email myself with the suggestion of raising the rates and donating a good chunk of the increase to one of those charities. It's amazing how environmentally conscious businesses become when they realize it can help them turn a profit.

Did that make a difference? Maybe, maybe not, but I'm willing to bet it was more likely to do so than the people who decided to do nothing about the place. Touristy? Oh yeah, about as touristy as it possible. But I got to spend an amazing part of my morning up close and personal with tigers. I still have tiger fur on my shirt. The photos still make me squirm because it was just that cool.

I don't expect everyone to agree with what I did, or say that they'd do what I did, but I hope it gives you an idea of what I'm talking about when I say travel searching for what you want, not for what you don't want. I hope that idea makes your travels more enjoyable and rewarding. More tips to come.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Intro to Thailand

I was just invited to a Thai wedding. That took me.... I think it's been a week since I crossed the Thai-Malay border. I just have to borrow some clothing. Might be trickier than you'd expect, given that I'm about a foot taller than the average guy around here. Took a multiple day search across three cities just to find a pair of socks that fit me. Wish me luck.

Thailand is full of tourists, especially in the south where all the famous tropical islands are. It may be the other side of the world for us Americans, but it's only five hours time difference from much of Europe and it's practically in Australia's backyard, not to mention the rest of Asia, looking for a sunny island beach. English may not be an official language, but so far I've only learned how to say two things in Thai, and I barely ever end up using either. Almost everyone I deal with speaks English.

It's a country with a lot of pride. That's fair, it has a lot to be proud of, but it mostly comes though through direct nationalism. At 8:00am and 6:00pm the national anthem is played in public, and all Thais must stand, with their arms at their sides. Before any movie, there is a similar part in the previews, where the audience is asked to stand for respect to the king, and a montage of of footage of his majesty is played, once again, to sounds of the national anthem. You'll find the words “Long Live the King” in English all over. I bet if you could read the Thai alphabet, you'd find it in even more places.

There's a strange attitude towards us farang, as foreigners are called around here. I went to a market today in Bangkok that had a menu in Thai posted with forty numbered items. Next to it was a sign that said “English Menu: Pad Thai, 30 baht.” The only translated dish. I think that might tell you a little bit.

I'll sign off from there. If you want the story of what I've been up to for the last week, it's all in the pictures' captions. Like why there's a cat sleeping in a refrigerator-- the captions explain everything. So...

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A question for you (yes, you).

This friendly piece of advice brought to you by a sign on Phi Phi Island, off the west coast of Thailand.

As long as we're talking advice, I want to take a reader's poll here. How interested would you be in reading tips on backpacking and international travel in this or another blog? I figure I've got a few I could share at this point if anyone would find them interesting.

I know a good chunk of you don't have the time to travel and are mostly reading this for the stories, but I've had a bunch of people I've chatted with online blurt out "So I checked ticket prices to fly to _____ and..." So if enough you people are actually thinking of doing a little independent backpacking travel somewhere and want some tips from someone who's been to healthy chunk of six out of seven continents (yes Philip, I've unarguably been to six by now, though not all on this trip), this might become a place for that as well. If you want it to be.

Of course if there's not that much interest, I'm still happy to give personal advice to anyone seeking it-- just send me an email.

What do you think?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Submission for a Day

I think that, as a writer, I've gotten too fond of the shock opening. You know, the one where my first sentence is one that gives away the middle or ending but has the nice effect of leaving you with the same feeling I have at the time: usually, "Joel, what the heck have you gotten yourself into this time?" this story would be a great opportunity to do just that. But I don't want to give away the ending yet. So I'll start at something like the beginning.

I was in the city of Kuala Terengganu yesterday morning. I wanted to go to Penang. I asked at the bus stop, and was told that the next bus wasn't leaving until 9 pm.

Terengganu is not a big town. There's a coast with some docks, a small, sleepy Chinatown area, and the usual assortment of shops, restaurants, internet cafes, etc. lining the streets. It's one of those developing world towns that's made about 5 degrees hotter by mostly being covered in dark pavement, making midday walks in anything but the shade feel a bit like a Native American sweat bath, minus any spiritual benefits.

I had about nine hours. I could wander around aimlessly exploring. I could hole up in the bus station with the latest book I'd swapped. My book was a little short for nine hours though, and after about two hours of wandering, I knew I hadn't seen all of town, but I wasn't exactly feeling inspired. That's when I got an idea.

Malaysia is a Muslim country. It guarantees freedom of religion, and there is a significant Chinese Buddhist minority (thus all the Chinatown districts). But it is majority Muslim, especially here on the east coast.

I felt like I should know more about Islam that I did. I've been reading an epic poem a good friend of mine has been writing on Facebook about Abraham and Sarah, so the subject's been on my mind. To get to know the country a little bit better, I thought it might be a good idea to get to know Islam a little better.

I found the town mosque, the one you can see in the picture above, and walked up the entrance. I checked if it was okay for me to enter wearing shorts. I was told politely that it wasn't. I could have given it up there, but I'd spotted a hotel nearby. A quick trip to the men's room and I was in long pants. I took off my shoes and socks, and quietly walked inside. I thought maybe I'd find an English Koran and do a little reading.

No luck. There were plenty of books around the open whitewashed inside, but I could hardly find any in Malay, let alone in English. Everything was in Arabic, most without a transliteration. So I thought maybe I'd say hello to someone official. No luck there either-- everyone in there (all men) were scattered across the floor, praying. Not something I wanted to interrupt. So I resorted to the obvious solution. If I can't come to them, let them come to me. A tall white guy with a massive backpack wandering aimlessly around the middle of a mosque was sure to get somebody's attention.

Sure enough, after a lap or two around the room browsing books, a man in a skullcap with blue eyes shuffled my way and quietly asked if I was a Muslim. I said no, I had come to learn about Islam. He seemed a bit surprised, then directed me to the tourist office to ask after the local "Islam department." He emphasized many times that I needed to find the "right people" to find the "right information." right when I thought he was going to politely ask me to leave, he summoned two friends, talked with them quietly in Malay.

I went outside with one in what looked like a security uniform. The original man thanked me with a wide, warm smile and a two handed handshake, saying "may God bless you." I was invited to sit under a gazebo and wait-- the Imam would see me in about half an hour. One or two people who spoke a little English tried making small talk. Then I was invited to lunch.

We went to a local place across the street, where I was served rice, chicken and some veggies on a sheet of wax paper over newsprint. I was the only one they gave a fork and spoon. I didn't use them, I amused the men eating with us by eating the way they did, with the right hand. This is harder than it sounds. They asked me about my parents. I told them what they did for a living and where they were living. Then they asked if they knew I was converting to Islam. I tried to clarify that I wasn't planning on converting, I was just there to learn. They seemed unconvinced, but stayed quite warm and friendly. They told me that their branch of Islam was one that was more "polite" than others. they had to do things a "certain way." They also said that they emphasized thinking before talking. I told them about where I was from, more about my family. They seemed very impressed and surprised when I told them that my Father is Jewish. At the end, they wouldn't let me pay for my food. When I protested, they made a lesson about Islam out of it: "When you give, God gives back 100 times."

I was shown into the Imam's office. A young man who must have been the Imam himself asked me a question in Malay. Then he told me, in perfect English, that he didn't speak English, then invited me, again in perfect English, to sit down. The man in uniform came back. I sat on a couch for about ten minutes while they talked in Malay and made a few phone calls. After they were done, they got my attention and beckoned me outside yet again.

Next thing I knew I was riding in a car to an office, where I was directed to a cubicle with someone who looked much more like a stereotypical Imam, who was not unfriendly, but didn't smile either. I introduced myself and stated my purpose.

"So you are just looking for information about Islam."

I said yes, and that I hadn't really expected to be in the office, I had originally just planned on reading a bit.

"You're not here to embrace Islam?"

I hesitated, and finally said that I hadn't come with that purpose in mind. He nodded, left his desk, and came back with a few pamphlets, and a large English Koran. The pamphlets were free, he said, but the Koran was the only English one he had, so they would need it back. He asked where I was staying. For some reason, I didn't tell him about the bus that night. I hadn't bought a ticket yet after all. I just said I'd only gotten in town that day and didn't have a place. I asked if i could just borrow the book for a few hours and return it later. He thought for a moment and said "Maybe you'd better stay here for a night in our hostel."

A phone call later and he was leading me next door. I asked him about the place and he said that it was a place for Muslim converts. Not wanting to create any false impressions, I again emphasized that "if I were to convert to Islam, it would not be tomorrow." He said that was fine.

"There are a couple other converts staying there at the moment, one is Chinese, one is Indian. They are a bit... well, please do not judge Islam by them."

With this mysterious warning, he led me inside and to a room. The place was empty for the moment. He bade me good day, and left. I stood standing there for a minute, Koran in hand, in the middle of hostel for converts to Islam that I'd been invited to stay in by the local Imam for free.

This would be the "what the heck have you gotten into now" moment.

The roommates who I was not supposed to judge Islam by were an old Indian man whose tongue seemed a bit short, like it had lost a chunk in front, and the fattest man I had ever seen shirtless, who seemed to have difficulty opening one of his eyes. After greeting me, the first thing they wanted me to do was go to the office and beg for money. That was the arrangement, they said. They complained bitterly that the office never gave them enough money for food. I refused, they'd been more than generous enough to me already. After that The fat man spent most of the time scratching himself while the old man went on, as casual conversation, to slander Mexicans for being "dirty" and black Americans for being "lazy and arrogant," always asking for money while doing nothing in return. I gritted my teeth to stop from pointing out that that was exactly what he had been doing himself just a minute ago and merely told him I didn't agree with his views and pointed out that I had much more experience with both Mexicans and Americans of any race than he did.

I put up with it long enough to be somewhat polite before going back to my room for some reading. For all the initial unpleasantness though, they were both quite warm and generous with me. They cooked dinner, invited me to eat with them. The old man spoke the best English. He told me a couple interesting stories from about Malaysia under British rule. The only real communication I got from the fat man was when he was popping some pills out of foil: he got my attention, pointed to the pills, held a limp forefinger in front of his crotch and straightened it, cackling conspiratorially.

I helped with the dishes and then decided to go to bed early. I found in the morning that they had made breakfast for me as well and set it aside so I could sleep a bit longer. It's always a strange experience when someone you don't particularly like does something especially kind for you. I made sure to thank them before I left.

I do feel like I've learned more about Islam, but not from the books (or my charming convert roommates). It was the whole experience that led up to my being offered a day's food, transport, and lodging for nothing. The pamphlets were informative about the attitudes towards prayer, and I did learn some interesting things about the Muslim ideology from the Koran, but only about as much as I would've learned about Christianity by reading most of Genesis and then random bits of Numbers and Mark. The sections on how to treat women were a bit... intimidating, but I'm pretty sure there are similar things in the bible for dealing with people who do things like wearing cotton. My overall impression is one of generosity and the extra little bit of pride I've found that goes with almost all religions. For something that's so often portrayed as alien in American media, it all felt pretty familiar.

I'm not going to add pictures for this entry. The only one's I've taken during this story are an out of focus one of the car ride and a candid shot of the larger roommate (which I don't think you want to see) but I will add a couple more for the last entry of my time on Kapas island.

With any luck, I'll be heading to Thailand within the next couple days, and will be beginning a famous backpacker trail I've been hearing stories about since I was in India two and a half years ago. We'll see if the hype is justified soon.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Smells like Burning

I've been busy this week. Right now, I'm sitting on an island off the east coast of Malaysia. I'm sticking to the shade even though I'd really like to be out in the warm, clear blue water again. The problem is that, yesterday, I read the big “Super Water/Sweat-proof” on the front of my sunscreen bottle, but not the fine print on the back that says “re-apply frequently, especially after exposure to water/sweat.” A couple hours of swimming and floating around in an inner-tube later, and now going more than five minutes without a wet rolled up shirt on my shoulders doesn't feel so good.

I'll have to skip a few stories to get from where I left off to here. Well, before where I left off. I will say the note from my last post wasn't the result of any exciting heroics. I didn't save anyone or anything that I'm aware of. I didn't even realize I was being of any "assistance" until after the fact. I just happened to be curious and standing somewhere at the right (wrong?) time.

I arrived in the Singapore airport to find free wireless, the most sincerely helpful staff I've seen at a info desk, efficient and high tech immigration process (including an infrared camera to check body temp for swine flu), and a delicious S$3 laksa soup waiting for dinner. I was smitten, and I hadn't even left the building I'd flown into yet. I took the cleanest and fanciest subway I have ever seen to a neighborhood called “Little India”, I wandered into the first hostel I saw which was clean, comfortable and with a good atmosphere, provided free internet and breakfast to boot, and charged less than I've paid for a hostel in at least a week. I wandered out with a pack of other travelers where we grabbed masala dhosas, well after midnight, with all the stuff I'd forgotten I loved to have with them back in India, without any worry of whether the food or water was safe to eat.

The next day, I talked to one of my old college roommates, who referred me to an article about Singapore back in 1993 called “Disneyland with the Death Penalty.”* The author, William Gibson, is a specialist in the "cyberpunk" branch of sci-fi, stories that are often set in a dystopia. He finds some good fodder for just that in this town. Two of the most serious accusations, to my mind at least, were the excessive "paternal" government control of the town, and something he called a “lack of creativity.”

I kept my eyes open after reading that. I will dispute a few things. First of all, I did see litter, chewed gum included, on the streets. Just less than most cities. Secondly, over the last 16 or so years, the arts has really taken root. At least it's advertised everywhere, not just shows but full fledged academies as well. But... there was definitely a bit of an edge to some of the things that didn't seem to be showing up in the local papers. I didn't check a bookstore for conspicuously missing titles. But the place just had bits of a slightly odd hand behind it. Like a public sign explaining what you can do in a public field of grass, that all caution should be used, please, thank you. Things like that. One of the most interesting examples was not a sign of control but little yellow signup forms for a government-backed “Kindness Campaign.” Pretty much exactly what it sounds like, a promotion of acts of kindness, complete with plastic five-foot high smiling tiger-lion-cartoon-thing statues cheerfully holding signs with little suggestions about how to be more kind, scattered around the city. If I wrote dystopias for a living, that would creep the hell out of me too.

Cut to the part that earned me a thank you note from the Singapore Police. Around 12:30 am, I came back to my hostel from a night zoo, and noticed, about a block up the street, a small, very neat, and deliberate fire. It was about a foot tall, neatly made of wood and possibly bricks, a good distance from anything flammable. I thought that was kind of strange, so I took a picture of it. But nobody else in the street seemed to take any notice, so I went back inside. I got online and started chatting with friends. A couple hours later, loud popping noises started outside. Then the came the sirens. I abruptly cut all conversations off and ducked out.

A minivan up the road had erupted into flames. As the fire trucks came, I realized that it was burning just a few feet from where I'd seen the earlier fire. The one I took a photo of. A photo on a digital camera, meaning that, embedded in the picture file's metadata would be a timestamp.

I got the attention of one of the officers and said I had something they might want to see. After taking my name and hostel details, they asked me to wait around for a few minutes. Fifteen or so later, they asked to see the pic. Yes, I took the photo. No, I didn't see who started the original fire. No, I don't know, I took the shot, went inside, and then next thing I saw outside was the van in flames when the police arrived. Yes, let me check... 12:46 am. Yes, I had a USB cable, but it was in my dorm. Yes, I could wait around a bit longer, was it all right if I went back into my hostel for a bit? Yes, I could be back out in 15 minutes.

I ended up emailing it to an address they gave me. I've posted the reply in my last post. I still don't know what exactly happened if it was more than just really dumb/unfortunate parking job after a fire set for... well I don't know what reason. I haven't been able to find anything in the news, and I haven't emailed the officer again to ask. I may never know.

I've couchsurfed my way to Melaka, Malaysia with the owner of a Chinese Tea shop. Aside from visiting some very impressive mosques and Buddhist temples, I got to debate politics and compare theories on philanthropy and organized methods for making the world a better place over a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Also tried a hot dog so spicy that accidentally wiping sweat off my brow left me temporarily blind-- very strong chili oil dripping into my eyes. Ow. Still, earned a round of applause from onlookers. They told me later that they usually split one of those among five of them, otherwise it's just too much. Figures they'd tell me that after I ate the whole thing.

Next, I made a long, sweaty journey from there up to the east coast via the capital, Kuala Lumpur. I spent enough time to swing by a market for a cheap pair of sunglasses (I was the guy's first customer of the day, traditionally good luck for merchants around here, opening the bargaining to even lower prices) and to peek at one of the bigger mosques in town, then up to Palau Kapas, a quiet tropical island with hot sun, warm water, near-white sand and almost no people aside from a few staying with me in The Captain's Longhouse (Including of course, the “Captain” himself, who's told us all he's cooking for us tonight. I made a name for myself by sitting down in front of the used piano that I'm told arrived just a day before I did. There's jungle trails to explore today. And that's what I'm going to run off to do right now.

*If you're curious, the article is here.  It's about 7 pages long, and worth the read if you're at all interested in Singapore.
Check out this entry's Photos.

Friday, May 1, 2009

24 hours into my stay in Asia...
date: Sat, May 2, 2009 at 4:46 AM
subject: Re: picture

Dear Joel,

Thank you for your prompt response, and your assistance at the
scene of the fire. The photo will be forwarded to the Investigation Officer
in charge of the case. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Singapore, and have a
pleasant onward journey to Melaka!

Thanks and Warmest Regards
ASP Justin Wong
Team Leader 'D'
Rochor Neighbourhood Police Centre
Central Police Division


This wasn't exactly how I expected my visit to start. I think I'll leave my usual picture out of the post this time. I don't have the time to make it a proper post anyway. All will be explained later.