Sunday, February 10, 2008

Thailand: From Bangkok to Luang Prabang, Laos

Wednesday January 30th Bangkok, Thailand
We arrived to Bangkok yesterday morning at 4:00am. The bus we took was a ten hour overnight bus that was supposed to arrive at 5:00am but the driver was driving like a maniac. I was completely lifted out of my seat a few times due to the poor roads and velocity at which the bus would hit the dips and bumps causing me to wake up throughout the ride. We checked into the Novotel Siam Square when we got there and went back to sleep until 10am. For lunch, we went to Jim Thompson's old house where I had sweet and sour snapper and a fresh greens salad. I was so happy to eat a normal meal, something that I haven't done in quite sometime due to the lack of selection. Many places where we've been in the South just offer noodles or soup dishes. Jim Thompson was an American architect that moved to Thailand after WWII where he started a silk company. He mysteriously disappeared in the Cameron Highlands where he was never heard from again. Last night we met up for an Italian dinner with out new friend John, an American guy we met in Khao Sok who's working for the WWF in Laos. After the dinner, Cary and I went to see the movie Eastern Promises, the most violent movie I've ever seen. It was a good movie but entirely way too bloody.
This morning we went to get our visas at the Vietnamese embassy. It was pouring rain outside and we were soaked my the time we got there. The streets here are poorly designed and maintained and everything just flooded even though it only rained for a couple of hours. The visas cost more than we were expecting, about $80 each. We have to go back to pick them up tomorrow or Friday. The entrance to the embassy was completely flooded. We had to walk through what looked like a small pond just to get inside. When we left, we saw dozens of roaches crawling all over the walls which we almost backed up into. That would've been disgusting and I of course was completely freaked out.

February 5th Chiang Mai, Thailand
We arrived to Chiang Mai two days ago and decided to spend the day walking around the city. At one of the many temples here, we met a Thai man who is a driver. We had been looking into tours for the next day, all of which seemed really expensive. One of my friends who has spent several months in Thailand recommended that we get a driver here for the day. His prices seemed fair, just $9 each for the whole day, he had a nice car, was polite, and well dressed. He offered to drive us to the elephants where we would see a show and then ride them through the forest for an hour, see the long neck women from the Karen tribe, and take us to the tribal museum among other things. We asked him how much the entry fees would be for all of those places but he said he didn't know. I figured it would be cheaper than the tour that was going to cost around $40 per person since we'd be buying our tickets directly at the places instead of through a travel agency as we would've had to do otherwise since the places are far from the city. So, Cary and I agreed and he picked us up at 8:30am yesterday at our hotel. At first everything seemed fine but, when we arrived to the elephant center, we were told that the ticket would be even more than it would've been for a tour with everything included. We realized that we had made a mistake but there was nothing we could do. At the center, we saw an elephant show where the elephants were extremely skilled. They could play the harmonica in unison, kick a soccer ball in the goal, and paint pictures among other things. They were really cute and I hope they are treated well. I'm not big on zoos or animals in captivity but I had never seen what elephants were capable of like I did yesterday. They are brilliant animals. After the show, we went for an ox cart ride. I think the oxes or something smelled so bad that I could hardly tolerate it and the wooden cart in which we were riding seemed that it would collapse into pieces at any moment. However, the scenery was pretty once I got past the smell and I don't think I had ever seen oxes in person before. We got dropped off at what was supposedly a Lisu tribal village but I honestly think it could've been Thai people dressed like up them in order to make money off of the tourist appeal. I'm not sure but, it was very touristy, I didn't like the feel of it and everyone working there kept hounding us to buy things. From there, an elephant came to pick us up and Cary and I rode in the seat together on the elephants back. There was a Thai guy riding on the elephants head somehow directing him where to go. We were so high up there and we had to really hold on to the bar in order to keep from falling out of the seat at some points. We rode the elephant for about 40 minutes maybe, we even rode through to little rivers with him. He was trying to eat along the way just like a horse and while we were crossing the river he sucked up water through his truck and was blowing it out all over the place. Lucky for us, he blew it in front of him and not directly up in the air where it would've fallen all over us. After the ride we had lunch, which wasn't anything memorable. From there, we proceeded to the river where we took a little bamboo raft down the river for about 30 minutes. The water was low so two Korean men guided the raft with bamboo sticks that they used to push off from the bottom. After the raft ride, our driver, Long, picked us up and told us that he would take us to see the Long Neck Women of the Karen tribe. Then, he told us that it would cost 500 baht each ($15) to go and see them. I wasn't under the impression that we would have to pay prices like that and we were so frustrated. Cary and I then realized that Long had lied to us the day before when he said he didn't know the prices. We had already paid too much for the elephant center and although the it was fun, it was very touristy. We didn't want to pay $15 more, which is a lot of money here, just to see people put on display as a tourist attraction. I wouldn't have any problem buying something from the women, or donating money to education or a good cause for them, but the idea of paying a fee just to see what a Long Neck Woman looks like didn't sit well with me or Cary. I would think that they would want to share their culture with people and be proud of who they are. To me, the idea was just as absurd as an American char foreigner, you have to pay money to come into my neighborhood for a walk. We told Long that we would skip the Long Neck Women and just go to the tribal museum, which was free, before heading back to town. That's when he said, "You don't want to go shopping?" We said no and he said, "Oh, but you should see the handicrafts that are made here." We said we'd go look at them but that we weren't going to buy anything. The tribal museum was nice and informative with translations of everything in English. There was also a room dedicated to the King, Rama the 9th, and his works with the various indigenous groups of Thailand. I will talk more later about the king but there is some serious propaganda all throughout Thailand that reminded me of that large fallen statue of Saddam Hussein that I saw on TV right after the US entered the country. It's intense to say the least and I wouldn't dare say anything in public against the king. People have been jailed for it. After the museum, Long dropped us off at a store where they make precious gems. I didn't want to go but he seemed really eager for us to visit the place. We looked around as two people were watching over us like hawks trying to persuade us to buy something, which of course, we didn't. Then, he took us to one more store across the street that sold carpets and souvenirs and Cary and I had a talk while we were inside. We said that we were going to tell him that we wanted to go back to the city and drop us off at a restaurant there so we could eat dinner. We had to have a plan because Long was persistent about us visiting the places. So we told him and he said, "Just two more stores." We told him again that we didn't want to go and made it clear, but he repeated his words again. He told us that the stores we visit give him gas money and that it didn't matter if we bought something or not, but that we went there to look a bit. He basically wasn't going to take us back and we weren't about to fight him on it, although, maybe we should have demanded to go back or not get back in the car. He drug us to the next store where Cary and I walked through in less than 5 minutes and then we went back to the car. Long wasn't there. We waited outside for about 10 minutes before he came back out and told us that we had to stay in the store for 10 to 15 minutes and pretend to look at things or else he wouldn't get his money. I was so pissed off by that point and really couldn't have cared less whether or not they paid him gas money because he had lied to us, and then drug us around on a shopping trip that we didn't want to go on. Then, he took us to a place and said we had to stay in there for 10 to 15 minutes and then he would take us back to the city. We went into the empty store where a man greeted us and asked us what he could do for us. Cary and I just looked at each other not knowing what to say because we realized that the man was a tailor and there was nothing to look at. The entire thing was so ridiculous. We basically had to look at books and pick out patterns and pretend to be interested in buying stuff or else this man wasn't going to take us back to the city. It was such an uncomfortable situation. I thought for sure that Cary or I would tell the man what was going on with our driver but for some reason, neither of us said anything. After that store we said, "OK, now take us back, we did the two stores." But then, he came back at us with an offer to lower our fee for the day by 100 baht if we went to one more store. I told him for a 150 baht discount we'd go. But honestly, the whole thing was crazy. We were so annoyed by the end of the day that all we wanted to do was leave Thailand. We went to the last store where an Indian man tried to sell us carpets yet again. When we were in there we saw other tourists in the same position as us. I heard a woman say, "But I don't even like carpets!" It seemed that their driver had put them through the same ordeal. I heard so much hype about Thailand before coming here but it honestly hasn't met my expectations.

February 7th Chiang Kong, Thailand
Today we took a mini-bus for about 6 hours to this city that's on the border with Laos. Tomorrow we will wake up early to start our two day slow boat trip on the Mekong River. We will cross the border tomorrow and then we will arrive to Luang Prabang the next day, Saturday. I've heard great things about the city so I'm really looking forward to it. It'll be a nice change to get out of Thailand and hopefully away from the masses of tourists. Today on the bus I was reading a book by Isabel Allende in Spanish. The girl sitting next to me saw my book and at the next rest stop came up to me and asked me in Spanish if I was from Spain. It turned out that she was from Barcelona but is living in Belgium at the moment working in a Spanish library there. We talked for a long time about many things and it was nice to meet a Spanish speaker along the way.
As for Thailand's king, Rama the 9th, it is my understanding that his sister apparently died about a month ago and the whole country has been in mourning ever since. There are billboards of her picture all over the place. It seems that there are just as many of her as there are of the king himself. A Thai woman told me that when his sister died that the whole country had to dress in only black and white clothes for 7 days. When we went to the Grand Palace in Bangkok where the King lives, I saw dozens of older women dressed in black and white going to a restricted area of the palace to pay their respects to his sister at a lying in state ceremony. Apparently it's been going on for the past month and people keep coming. Someone told me that it could go on for 100 days before they cremate the body. I guess 100 days is standard for someone in the royal family. I don't understand how they can preserve a body for that long though.

Sunday February 10th Luang Prabang, Laos
I am so happy to be in Laos. I already love it and think it might be my favorite place even though we just got here last night. For the past two days we were taking a slow boat down the Mekong River in order to travel from Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos. It was the craziest boat ride of my life. On Friday, we traveled for 6 hours in a boat with about 100 other people. They tried to pack it even fuller but so many people were complaining about the amount of people and the fact that there were many other empty boats just sitting at the docks so, they finally allowed many of the people to switch to the other boat. I met a Chilean rock group that has been traveling around Asia for a year. There were 4 guys and 1 girl. I was so surprised to meet Chileans over here but I recognized them immediately by their accent. They were moved to the other boat that I wasn't on so I never saw them after the departure; however, I was told by some friends that they continued to sing and play songs for hours on that boat. I sat in a plastic chair for the 6 hours which seemed to me to be a lot more comfortable than the floor where Cary was seated or the uncomfortable wooden benches. The trip was OK, not the greatest, but the scenery was nice although, it never really changed much. I sat next to Vicky and Marie, two British girls we met in the van from Chiang Mai who are traveling together for about 3 months. The annoying thing about the boat ride was that it turned into a party boat as soon as we got on. They were selling endless amounts of beer, of which they finally sold out of and people were smoking all over the place. There was one really annoying smoker in particular, a European guy with a mullet. I don't know where he was from but he was a chain smoker for sure. He just kept smoking one cigarette after the next and my allergies were going crazy. There was no way for me to escape the smoke because people were smoking everywhere. Then half way into the trip two Lao guys with a rifle boarder out boat which made everyone a little nervous since they came out of no where. They immediately went to the front of the boat where they stayed for the remainder of the trip. As we arrived to the little village where we had to spend the night, we realized that they were most likely there to protect us and our things. Cary was standing at the front of the boat as we pulled up to the beach and one villager immediately tried to board our boat in order to rob us. One of the guys at the front of the boat kicked the man and yelled something at him and when he wasn't dissuaded, he pulled out a pistol which got the point across. I was shocked when Cary told me what had happened because I didn't see any of it but, we had been warned when we left Thailand that people might try to rob our things there in that village. As soon as I got of the boat, I almost fell over with my heavy backpack because we had to walk up a steep hill covered in sand. A little Lao boy grabbed my arm trying to help me up but as soon as he saw I was OK he started making motions with his hand so that I would give him things from my bag. I felt sorry for the boy that he had learned at such a young age to act in such a way. We quickly found a hotel since it was starting to get dark and ended up staying in the same place as Vicky and Marie. As soon as we accepted the room, the guy who worked there and showed us the room who also happened to be the son of the hotel owner asked us if we wanted marijuana. We said no and closed our door. I had never been offered drugs like that by a random person before and wondered if his mother knew about his little business. That night the lights went off at 10:30pm because the village is so small that it is run on generators that get turned off at night. The next day, we met at the boat at 8:30am to finish the remainder of the trip, a boat ride that would last for 9 hours. Cary wanted to take the other boat so that's what we did. Unfortunately, the mullet man ended up sitting right next to me and smoked the whole day yet again. What a surprise! He was ashing his cigarettes all over the place and many times the ashes landed on me. I said something to him twice but he didn't seem to care. I was so angry. One time the ashes even landed on my lips. It was so disgusting and I felt so sick from all the smoke. I actually have a sinus infection now, mostly like because of the mullet man and one of his friends. I sat in the front of the boat yesterday because I thought it would be nice to be able to stretch out there since there were no plastics chairs on that boat and I didn't want to sit on a bench. It was great until the boat made a stop soon after we left and let about 30 to 40 more Lao people on their boat with their massive bags of rice, motorcycles, and who knows what else. Everyone decided to pile their things into the front where I was sitting. We looked like a boat of fleeing immigrants. One woman who decided to practically take a nap on top of my legs had no respect for personal space. Half of the people who got on our boat didn't have shoes and she was one of them. After she finally sat up from her nap she kept rubbing her dirty feet all over me and my things. It was such a miserable boat ride. The boat finally stopped again and some of the people got off with their things but the majority stayed on and even more people got on at that stop. Two young monks who were probably only 18 years old got on the boat and sat next to me. People kind of cleared out for them, I assume out of respect, so I had a little more room after they got on. The foot lady however, continued to put her feet wherever she pleased and one of the monks even moved a bit in an attempt to avoid her touching him. To top all of this off, we saw a speed boat crash that we stopped at in order to rescue the people from the accident. Cary and I had read in our guide books not to take the speed boats because they often crash into rocks. I really can't even believe they have speed boats because there are so many rocks throughout the river and you can see small rapids along the way. I was so thankful that we had read about that in our book or else maybe we would've taken a speed boat as well. The people were only slightly injured and they all got onto our boat with their wet things that the driver was able to cut out of their boat. I didn't see the wreck happen but some people on our boat saw the whole thing. I guess they just hit a rock and the whole thing went up in the air and back down leaving only the tip of the boat sticking out of the water. When we pulled up to the accident many people started to take pictures which is a horrible thing to do. Two of the girls who were in the accident yelled at our boat to stop taking pictures and then when the people continued with the pictures they started to flick us off and yell obscenities. There was one guy on our boat who was the most obnoxious of all with the pictures. I think he was Italian but I'm not sure. He was jumping all over the boat getting in people's way trying to take pictures of every square inch of the trip. It was annoying and uncalled for. It was a crowed boat and he made the whole trip worse by stepping into people's space. Unfortunately he was on my boat both days. He would put the camera in the Lao people's faces and take their pictures as if they were some kind of an exhibit. At the end of the trip when I couldn't take anymore of the mullet man, I went to the back of the boat to stand up for the last hour when I met two more Chilean guys. I had heard them come onto the boat at one of the earlier stops and knew they were Chileans immediately when I heard one say the word, "Jeuvon," an overused Chilean slang word that means man. They were from Santiago and had been traveling around Asia for the past 3 months. I was so happy when we finally got off the boat at 6:00pm last night. What a disastrous boat ride! We tried to find a place to stay but almost everywhere was booked full so, after checking at about seven different places we just decided to stay at the first place that had a room for us. It's a nice hotel. It's actually brand new so it doesn't even have a name yet and we have no mirror in our room since they haven't arrived yet. It's really nice though and everything is clean since it's so new. It's within out budget but we may move to a cheaper place tomorrow. I guess we're going to see how we feel in the morning. It's kind of a pain to move since we just got settled in there.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Southern Thailand

Friday January 25th
Today we went on a longboat snorkeling tour of the Phi Phi islands. We
stopped at about 6 different places including Monkey Island and Phi
Phi Ley, the most beautiful island of them all. We met up at about
10:30am to pick out our fins and in order to do so, we were taken to
this place that appeared to be an outdoor market, garbage
disposal/discarded items area, and housing all in one. There were
babies playing on the dirty floor and some of the people were
showering in the bathrooms of their businesses. I honestly can't
imagine living like many of these people do on a daily basis. It was
so dirty. Someone had left their food sitting there on the floor in a
bowl open in the heat of the day. I don't know how they don't get food
poisoning all the time. On our way to the boat we saw a dead rat
washed up on the beach. It was rolling over and over with the movement
of the waves. It was pretty disgusting. Between the dumpster rats I
had at my apartment in Korea, the Kuala Lumpur rats that almost ran
right into me, and this dead water logged rat, I don't think I've ever
seen as many rats as I have in the past year. We got in the boat and
headed to our first location with about 14 other people and as soon as
we jumped in the water we were all attacked by sea lice. My body was
stinging and burning all over the place. Most of us including me had
no idea what it was until a Brazilian guy in the boat told us. I've
never had a problem with sea lice before but they continued to attack
us all throughout the day though not as bad as they did on our first
stop. A fried rice and fruit lunch was included in our snorkeling
trip. It seemed pretty tasty until I saw an eggshell in mine. I picked
it out and kept on eating until I started to feel something extra
crunchy in my mouth. I guess I hadn't found all of the eggshell that
must have accidentally made it's way into my food. Needless to say, I
didn't completely finish my lunch today so I was starving when I got
back to the island at 6:00 tonight. Monkey island wasn't anything that
magnificent but it was filled with monkeys that had become all too
comfortable with human contact. One of them saw a British guy from our
boat eating corn on the cob and went straight to him like he was on a
mission. The guy just threw the corn down on the ground because it
looked like the monkey was going to take it from him either way,
willing or not. Another money went straight for someone's bag full of
bananas and proceeded to clean the bag out completely just helping
himself to the food. Many people were feeding and petting the monkeys
while trying to take pictures with them which is obviously not the
smartest or best thing to do. I wonder how many tourist have been bit
like that and I sure wouldn't want to get bit by a monkey all the way
out here in the middle of no where. After Monkey Island we went to Phi
Phi Ley, the sister island to Ko Phi Phi which is preserved as a
national park. There is no development there and I found it to be much
more beautiful than Ko Phi Phi. That is where they filmed the movie
The Beach. I was also told that part of Pirates of the Caribbean was
filmed in one of the caves there, although I'm not sure about that.
I'll have to look into that later when I have more time. The coral
seems to be dying in many places around here and was much more
brilliant and plentiful in Ko Lipe, our first stop in Thailand. I was
told by many people in Lipe that it was the best island in Thailand
since it's so undeveloped and I think I'm starting to understand why
now. Everything here in Ko Phi Phi was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami
and while they are still in the process of rebuilding, they don't have
the resources to do it as it should be done. People are still living
in little shacks and the place is packed with tourists. I don't mind a
place being developed but when the buildings look dirty and run down
it really ruins the beauty of a place. After we came back from our
snorkeling trip, we went to eat calzones for dinner. They were so
delicious and it was such a relief to eat something different for a
change. All of the restaurants that we have been to in Thailand thus
far seem to serve pretty much the same thing. While I absolutely love
Thai food, I don't want to eat the same thing three times a day for
the next month while I'm here. I'm looking forward to Bangkok on
Tuesday where I'm sure we will have more variety to choose from. On
another note, there are these really strange tattoo shops here where
you lay down on a cushion on the floor out in the open and a tattooed
Thai guy will give you a tat with a bamboo stick. I've never seen
anything like it and the tourists here seem to give them plenty of
business. The strangest thing is that it's all out in the open for
anyone to see. I would think that the tattoo artist could become
easily distracted by the people passing by and looking in. Tomorrow
we're going to Khao Sok, a national park that's north of here where
we'll hopefully get to see the largest flower in the world and do some
hiking. First we have to take a boat for an hour and a half to get off
the island and from there we'll take an hour and a half bus ride.

Saturday January 26th Ko Phi Phi to Khao Sok
Today we woke up early to get the 9:00am boat that went from Ko Phi Phi to Krabi. From there we had to take a minibus for a few hours in order to get to Khao Sok. We woke up with a mosquito infestation in our room since our window didn't have a screen on it. It's scorching hot here and Cary and I agreed to take a room with just a fan and no AC since it's about 200 baht cheaper, that's about seven dollars. If it was solely up to me I'd probably have taken the AC room but since we're in this together concessions must be made. It's only bearable if we sleep with the fan on and the windows open. The mosquitoes were everywhere, in our bags, sheets, clothes. I got bit a little bit but Cary had bites all over her. The hotel was a friendly, clean, family run place so I had no complaints other than that. We've been staying in places with no AC and cold showers everywhere we go. I really miss the feeling of not being sticky all the time and look forward to the cold shower at the end of everyday. We got on the boat this morning and were so happy because the cabin was air conditioned. I hadn't felt AC for so long since we left Singapore almost two weeks ago. I am really looking forward to our stay in the Novotel in Bangkok where we will have a beautiful air conditioned and hot water room for four nights.
We ran into Gemka, our Dutch friend who we met several days ago on Railay Beach near Krabi, on our minibus today. We had met while we were rock climbing there and it was a surprise to see her on the same bus as us. She apparently got food poisoning the same day that Cary and I did on Railay beach. Another Canadian girl in the bus with us got food poisoning as well in Tonsai a nearby island. I think we got sick because of the sewage system there. It was a beautiful place but there were bags of sitting garbage all over the place. The day that we got sick, last Tuesday, we were supposed to go kayaking with 8 people and all 8 people canceled because of food poisoning. I have been so nervous about eating after that experience.
Tonight we're staying in the cheapest room we've been able to find our whole time in Thailand. It's 400 baht a night, which is about $13 I think. The woman who runs the place is very friendly and we're going on a tour with guides from our hotel tomorrow. We're going to take longboats out on the lake and I'm not sure what else but it's my understanding that taking a guide to the lake is somewhat necessary. We will hike the other days on our own. The place we're staying in is a bungalow on stilts about 8 feet up with a hammock and two chairs on the patio. We have hot water and a mosquito net to cover our bed since we'll have to sleep with our doors and windows open. We saw a large lizard on our patio today while we were out there reading.
The fan in the room blows right in my face and I took a nap this afternoon so my sinus are starting to bother me. After our nap, the woman's nephew who works at our hotel took us to see some monkeys on a mountain. I got some great pictures of them. We also saw a Buddhist temple there. In it was a casket with a dead person that the nephew told us was Buddha. It obviously isn't but it seems that maybe the people around here believe that. Who knows. He told me that the body was 200 years old and when I got close to it I could really smell it. The body was covered in a dark red ash that I'm sure was some sort of fungus and all was visible through a glass window on the top of the casket. It was pretty disgusting.

January 27 Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Today we woke up to go on an all day tour of the Khao Sok National Park that was organized by our hotel. We left at 9:00am and got back around 6:30pm. The tour started with breakfast at our hotel and then we continued on to the park in a pick up truck, a ride that lasted about an hour. The park must be massive because one of the entrances is right near our hotel yet, we had to drive an hour to get to the entrance that took us to the docks where we took a small boat out on the lake. Three other people went with us on the tour, a young couple who are dentists from Germany, and a young English guy named Stephen that's traveling for nine months in Asia. We had two highly amusing guides, one of which was trying to put the moves on Cary by attempting to hold her hand later on in the day while we were trekking though the cave. We rode in the boat for about an hour until we arrived to a floating hotel/restaurant where we had lunch. It was pretty cool how they had the whole thing set up. I'm not quite sure how they had it anchored down there but the huts were made out of wood. After lunch we started a three hour hike that ended at a cave. I was not prepared for what we did today in the cave and have to admit it was one of the coolest things I've ever done. Basically this cave has a river running through it and was filled with a plenitude of massive spiders the size of my hand, squeaking bats hanging from the roof, some crabs, and fish. No one warned us that we would be practically swimming through the cave and climbing over the rocks until we reached the other end. I'm so glad we did it but there were many points were I found myself hyperventilating as we wadded in the freezing water that at one point went up to my neck. There were rocks and stones everywhere so walking through the water was extremely difficult without twisting an ankle. I had to hold onto the rocks in order to keep from completely falling in and was so afraid that I'd grab onto one of the mammoth spiders. It was absolutely amazing. After we finished the trek through the cave which took about an hour I'd guess, our guide told us that eight people died about three months ago doing the same thing. I guess their guides were negligent and took them during the rainy season. The river apparently filled up the crevices that we managed to get through today drowning the people. There were two survivors in that accident. I can see how the whole thing is pretty dangerous and am sure that anything like what we did would not be permitted in national parks in the US. My tennis shoes and clothes were soaked afterwards and I'm hoping that my shoes will dry in time for our early morning hike tomorrow. It's our last day in the park so we want to make the most of it. We're planning about an eight hour/ten mile hike for tomorrow and then we're going to take the night bus to Bangkok. That will be a ten hour bus ride. Today we saw many interesting insects. We saw a beautiful moth that was bigger than my hand just sitting on one of the bathroom floors. I got a great picture of it that I'll post later. On the way to the cave we saw a rainbow colored chameleon which I held in my hands, some interesting bus with a really long pointy nose, and tonight a toad that probably weighed more than five pounds. I saw the toad in the hotel where we're staying and the guy that works there picked him up. I thought it'd be cool to take a picture with me holding it so I picked it up as well for a few pictures. He was making some strange croaking noises while his was in my hand. On my last picture with him he peed all over me. It wasn't just some small amount either considering it was such a large toad. It was about the same amount that a human would go. It went all over my leather flip flops, legs, and feet and the guy that worked there had to get a mop to clean up the pool it left on the floor. It was so disgusting but of course everyone that saw it died laughing, especially the Thai people. It was pretty funny I guess but it would've been funnier if it wasn't me.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Singapore and Malaysia

Monday January 7th Seoul, South Korea
My last day in Korea was a stressful one. I spent the day rushing around to close my account, transfer money, and buy last minute things so I didn't have much time for packing or spending time with friends. If it hadn't been for my Korean friend Jung Hee, maybe I would've have gotten everything done that I needed to do that day. She and I met up in the morning and she helped me to exchange my new Canon camera that was broken from the start. Later we had Kalbi (Korean BBQ) together for lunch. That evening after buying DEET insect repellent just before the doctor's office closed, I met several of my friends for food and drinks in Itaewon and then went back home to pack. I was really sad to say goodbye to them and at that moment realize that it was a good thing. Though my time in Korea had been difficult, the last four months were very positive ones for me. I stayed up all night packing and arranging my things for Dustin to send home and didn't sleep at all not even for 5 minutes. My American friend Cara took picked me up from the Hyatt Hotel near Dustin's apartment and took me to the airport. It was a huge help for me because my flight was at 9:00am on January 8th. When we got to the airport I checked in and then she left. Before passing through immigration they realized that I had overstayed my visa by 1 day so they sent me to another room where I had to sign some papers. I didn't have to pay any fees but the whole thing didn't seem right to me because my company had told me that I could stay in Korea until that date without any problems with my visa. I barely made my flight but luckily I was one of the last ones on the plane. As I left Korea I had the strangest feeling. I felt as if the whole past 14 months there had been a dream. For so long I had wanted to leave but by the end I was adjusted to the life there. When the plane took off I realized just how isolated and far away the country was and wondered if I would ever go back to see the friends I had made there.

Tuesday January 8th Singapore
When I got to Singapore 6 hours later I was a little nervous at first because of all the strict laws I had heard about. For example, chewing gum is illegal everywhere and you can get a large fine for eating and drinking in the metro. However, I immediately felt comfortable upon leaving the airport security area because my Sri Lankan friend Ruchi who I had met in Korea asked one of his Singaporean friends Liew (who he had met in Korea) to meet me at the airport. I had no idea that she would be waiting for me there at the exit but when I walked out she looked at me and said, "Are you Lindsay?" I said yes and she took me to show me where I could exchange my money and went with me on the subway to show me how to get to the hotel. It was so kind of her, a total stranger, to come to the airport between school and work just to meet me. It was a shock as well as a relief for me to see all of the ethnic diversity after the time I had spent in Korea, a culturally insular society. No one could recognize that I wasn't a native there in Singapore whereas in Korea I was always "the foreigner." I took the metro to our hotel, the Novotel located in Clarke Quay. My friend Ruchi was coming in that night on a later flight, as was Cary, so I walked around town and saw the Parliament building while waiting for them to come. In the process of asking around to find an internet cafe, I met a German brother and sister, Sebastian and Linschie, in the streets who invited me to have a drink with them. They were some of the kindest Germans I have ever met. She was doing a 6 month internship there, while he was there visiting her. We had 1 drink in the Clarke Quay area and then I headed back to my hotel to meet Cary. She was there waiting for me when I got back and we went for some dinner and then went to sleep.

Wednesday January 9th Singapore
On Wednesday morning, we met my friend Ruchi at the hotel. I was shocked when we got into a cab and saw a strange man sitting in front of me on the right side of the car. I said to Cary. Where is Ruchi and was wondering what that man was doing there. Then Ruchi turned around from the front left and I realized that I was confused because the drive on the left side of the road here and drivers sit on the right side. I was really confused at first since I wasn't expecting it and had never been to a country where they drive on the left. From there we went to the Singapore Zoo, which came highly recommended by some friends and is one of the nicest I have seen. I was quite impressed by it's upkeep and jungle like atmosphere. We saw a Pygmy Hippopotamus, white tigers, and I got to pet a wallaby. Ruchi's German friend Philip (who he had also met in Korea) met up with us at the zoo. From there, we headed to Little India to get some questionable chicken and mutton curry that fortunately didn't have any undesirable consequences. We ate it on the traditional Indian silver metal plates and then headed back to the hotel to rest for a bit before meeting up with my new German friends for drinks at 7:00. We met at the Swissotel, which has one of the best views in town and went up to the 70th Floor where I enjoyed a Lycheetini, a martini made from the lychee fruit. We later moved to the famous Raffles Hotel across the street where the Singapore Sling was invented. Cary and I split one since we weren't so sure we would like it, but it was pretty good.

Thursday January 10th Singapore
On Thursday we woke up and went to China Town to buy a used cell phone so that we could have one in case of emergencies or to call local places. After that we went to a hawker center called Lau Pa Sat. A hawker center is a place where you can buy all different types of food at cheap prices. We had a Chinese noodle dish called Ban Mian with dried fish flakes all over it to add some crunch. To drink, I had fresh kiwi juice. There was one restaurant that really stood out to me above all others, it was a restaurant called Pig's Organ Soup and Kway Chap. It rained a lot during our afternoons in Singapore so although we were planning to go to the national museum that day, we didn't make it due to the fact that we were waiting for the rain to slow down. Later, we went to a place that does waxing. My friend Cara, a Florida girl that I met in Korea, had recommended it along with many other places in Singapore since she had lived there for a year. For dinner we met up with Ruchi one last time and went at a restaurant in Clarke Quay called Jumbo's. We ate chili crab, a well known local dish which consists of a giant crab doused in sweet chili sauce. It was delicious but messy. Along with the crab we had garlic broccoli, which I think was the best broccoli of my life, and some sweet buns that we used to sop up the chili sauce. After dinner I said my last goodbye to a friend that I had met in Korea, and Ruchi headed for the airport to go back to Sri Lanka. I felt sad because I knew that after that point it would be difficult to find people who could understand and share in my Korea experience.

Friday January 11th Malacca, Malaysia
Cary and I woke up early to take a four hour bus ride to Malacca, a small colonial coastal city in Malaysia. We weren't planning on going there originally but my friend Cara recommended it, so we took her advise and went. She had told me to avoid a city on the border called Johor Bahru due to terrorist activities that take place there so we did as she said and went straight to Malacca. Malaysia is a very interesting country. This is the first time I have been in an officially Islamic country which seemed intimidating at first. When we got of the bus at the terminal I saw women with their heads covered, yet they were driving cars. I found that somewhat surprising. When we arrived I needed to use the bathroom at the terminal. I found it strange that everyone was taking off their shoes to go in. Just as I was about to do the same, I realized that it wasn't the bathroom. I was about to walking in the prayer room. I was so relieved that I realized before it was too late and found the bathroom right around the corner. The bathrooms in Malaysia had been quite a challenge for me and Cary. They are in the ground so you have to squat to use them and although there was something similar in Korea, these are more difficult to use because they are smaller. Also, there is a hose and bucket in every bathroom which we still haven't figured out exactly what they're used for but, we have our theories. Malaysia is a very ethnically diverse country. There are Indians, Chinese, Malays, and an indigenous people called the Orang Asli. Although the country is officially Islamic, people are free to practice whatever religion they choose. There are Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus all living peacefully amongst each other. Islam isn't as strict here as it is in the many Islamic countries either. You can see women working in all sectors of labor. It's strange to see the diversity of clothes as well. While the Islamic women cover up everything but their faces, you can find other women dressed in tank tops and mini skirts.
Malacca turned out to be a great city to start out in. The people were all very friendly and the food was great. I ate mildly spicy Baba Nonya dish called called beef rendang for my first lunch in Malaysia and loved it. Baba Nonya is a mix of Indian and Chinese cuisine. There is mostly Indian and Chinese food here in Malaysia due to the large influence of the the two cultures. We stayed in a nice quite hotel called Hotel Puri, also something that Cara had recommended. Once a colonial mansion, it has been converted into a cozy little hotel that offers a wonderful spa service, something that I indulged myself in later that day.
After lunch, we walked around Chinatown which was near our hotel and saw the oldest Buddhist temple in Malaysia where we saw a monk meditating.....

Saturday January 12th Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
We arrived to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capitol on Saturday, January 12th. It was a two hour bus ride. Our first day there was kind of a downer for us. We had problems finding a decent hotel and ended up staying in a backpackers hostel that was recommended in her book in China Town. I'm still in awe as to how that place ever made it into any book. It didn't seem so bad when we said ok to it but then we realized that the toilet tank was leaking and looked like it was about the explode, the window wouldn't shut completely, the hallways smelled like a dog kennel, and the man working at the desk had long painted finger nails. We both immediately regretted our decision to stay there and so started to look for other hotels so that we could switch to a better one the next day. Let me say that after our experience in that hotel, I will not be trying to save every little penny when it comes to our accommodations. That day we went to Central Market to get some lunch and later when to the KLCC district to look for hotels. It was a much better area of town and we found a good one for the next night. We didn't get much accomplished that day since it was raining a lot and we were looking for hotels. That night, when we returned to our hostel, I had one of the worst street experiences of my life. The streets were deserted and garbage was everywhere. It was strewn about the streets. I'm guessing that the next day was garbage day, which brought out massive amounts of large cockroaches and gutter rats. One almost ran right into us. I was screaming and jumping all over the place and the worst part was that we were lost for over an hour trying to find the hostel. Once we finally convinced a cab driver to take us there (no one wanted to take us since they wouldn't make enough money since we were already so close to it) we found it with difficulty. Even he had problems finding it with the address. I didn't sleep that well that night and woke up the the sound of squeaking bathroom pipes at 3:00am. The sink faucet wouldn't shut off so I had to get up and turn it on a little more to get the squeaking to stop. The next morning when we woke up we killed about four roaches that had been hiding out under our bags. I was so disgusted and we made a decision to stay in better places from then on out.

Sunday January 13th Kuala Lumpur
We left the Roach Inn Hostel as soon as we possibly could and dropped off our bags at our new hotel. From there we went to the Petronas Twin Towers, the largest twin towers in the world and the second largest architectural structure in the world to this day. It used to be the largest until 2004 when the Taipei Tower beat it out for first place. Kuala Lumpur is an architectural wonder. Islam has a heavy impact on the building style there and the result is breathtaking. We had to wait in line at the Petronas Towers just to get tickets to go up into the sky bridge located on the 41st. The building has 88 floors in all but tourist are only allowed up to the 41st where there is a bridge connecting the two buildings. Once we got to the ticket counter at 9:45am, we were given two tickets to go up at 12:45. While we were waiting to go up we ate in the food court that was located in the upper scale mall and had a typical Malaysian dish called Curry Laksa. I had never heard of it before my trip but I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope to eat it again one day. Although I've been up higher and seen better views, the Petronas Towers were the most beautiful skyscrapers that I have ever seen without a doubt. After the towers we asked a taxi to drop us off at the National Mosque, but instead somehow ended up at the National Museum and didn't realize it until our driver was already gone. We decided to see it since we were already there. After the museum we finally made our way over to the Mosque where we had to take our shoes off at the entrance and put on purple robes that covered our body and hair. Only our face was showing. My hood kept falling off of me which was kind of nerve racking since I didn't want anyone to get upset at me for showing my hair. It was a beautiful building and reminded me of the time I was in El Alhambra in Granada, Spain. We weren't allowed to go inside of the actual prayer room since we're not Muslim but we could see inside of it and take pictures and watch the Muslims as they prayed.

Monday January 14th Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
We woke up early to get an 8:30am bus to the Cameron Highlands. It was a four hour bus ride so we arrived with enough time to still get a hike in. We saw a little monkey in the trees and heard many of them calling to each other. The path was kind of overgrown which made it difficult at times but it was an enjoyable time. After our hike we headed back into town to get some dinner. Cameron Highlands is made up of three little cities of which, we're staying in Tanah Rata. With a population of 2,000 there's not much so do here besides hike.

Tuesday January 15th Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Right now I am sitting in an internet room filled with adolescents screaming and laughing at each other while playing computer games and some twenty year old Muslims also laughing so loud that I am wishing I had ear plugs. I have to say that my impression of Muslims has changed somewhat since I've been here. I always thought that the women who covered their heads were quiet and reserved but I am listening to and looking at this Muslim woman sitting next to me and seeing how she is sitting between her boyfriend's legs and I have to say I am somewhat shocked. Our guide mentioned today that many women cover their heads because it's fashionable but I'm not sure what to believe about that.

Today we did a group tour which included a trip to the Boh Tea Estate where we learned about and saw first hand the process of making tea. The tea fields were a sight to see and our guide was filled with endless knowledge. We also took a hike through the mossy forest, which was one of the wettest forests I've been in. Our guide told us that it's that way year round because we're up in the clouds at 6.600 feet. We saw a insect eating flower that they call a Monkey Cup, eucalyptus plants, tiger plants, and large fern trees. Tomorrow we're headed off to go to Thailand for the next month.