Sunday, July 30, 2006

Onwards to Myanmar..yup, that's Burma to you old fogey's out there!

July 31st. Hmmnnn.... a dubious night's sleep after arriving back from the Elephant Sanctuary on a euphoric high to my skanky guest house; only to find that my lovely guest house owner (thought we had a great connection???) had a) completely forgotten about me, my reservation and my back pack which was locked in her office - she wasn't even there! And b) when she did get back - about an hour later .. she didn't even have a room for me!! There's a long story about a bumbly old man in stripy pyjamas who was kind enough to let me in the locked gate to the guest house but then i realised this meant i couldn't get out, so i was stuck in there, waiting around for the silly woman to return! The man was a wee bitty strange, talking away to me in some version of French, I think ..it was just weird but anyway. Sorry... as usual my digression is ridiculous!

S0 - starting fresh today, I bored my friend Florian, with my thousands of elephant photies that i was so excited by. Poor boy - he tried to escape but really, he had no chance! Florian was still in Chiang Mai contemplating his Golden Triangle tour - which is, of course, the famous, and by now, just a tad over-touristy, spot where you can see Thailand, Myanmar and Laos at once..not to be confused with IndoChina - the crossroads of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia! So I said "hey, I'm not doing a cheesy trek around here to fake tourist villages where the poor ethnic tribes aren't even from here - come with me to Burma and we will go for a wee hike.. it'll be an adventure and hey, there won't be any tourists - a big change from Thailand"... and so like a poor lamb to the slaughter, he so innocently agreed.......and then it all went downhill (nah - just added that bit for dramatic flair). Quick note - as I was leaving Chiang Mai, saw a monk sitting quietly having a cup of coffee, reading a book entitl√ęd "Good Karma - and how to create it!" Hmmnn.. interesting choice for a monk.. thought they would know all those things anyway!

August 1st. Headed off to Chiang Rai, a mere 3 1/2 hrs away to start our quest to Myanmar. Arrived in town and tried to find the famousHill Tribe Museum - so famous we got seven completely different sets of directions from seven very helpful people - none of which led us to the elusive museum! Why do people always feel the need to give an answer when "I don't know" is just fine! Stayed at Bens Guest house - check out the puppy - too tiny and too cute! Had a funky night at the Teepee Bar - very wierd place with only Florian and I there as paying guests. Everyone else drinking and dancing around were either owners, those who worked there, or pals of pals....quite strange but interesting too!

August 2nd. AAh the museum! Eventually found it and it was definitely worth visiting. So much information explaining about responsible tourism. For example, the poor women of the Long Necked Karen tribe that tourists love to photo, aren't even from Thailand; they are bused in from Burma 'cos they look good in photos for tourists. They don't get any money, just food and lodgings... and recently have wanted to stop wearing the many, metal hoops around their necks but cos of the tourist demand, they are not allowed to, by the business man who "owns" them! Also read alot about opium being such a big problem in Myanmar aka Burma, currently the biggest producer in the world!

Took bus from Chiang Rai to the incredibly touristy town of Mae Sai on the northern border of Thailand where alot of people go to extend their Thai visas beyond the thirty days everyone gets (why? i ask myself when there are so many other fab places to visit!). Interesting process going through Myanmar immigration... they keep your passport while you are in the country and you get an immigration travel pass - they like to keep an eye on you wherever you are in the country. Took a while but no probs getting in .. and so a little bit about Myanmar!

Famous for jade, opium and Aung San Suu Kyi (the jailed human rights activist), going to Myanmar is like going back in time at least 50 years. The town across the border - literally about a 5 minute walk from Mae Sai, is called Tachilek. Immediately you see the differences - which is so weird 'cos Thailand is only 1km behind you at this point.. but the faces are more Indian and Chinese ... men wear skirt-like longyi, women and kids blot thanaka (powdered bark make up) on their faces to help lighten their skin, pools of betel juice congeal on the pavements...its amazing how quickly things change!

Myanmar is an interesting country in South East Asia. Europe and the US have installed sanctions against the current military regime here since May 2003 when activist, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested for the third time. However strong trade with China, India, Thailand and Singapore have replaced old partners in new business investments - so they don't really care!' There are far fewer tourists who travel here compared to the other South East Asian countries.... this was true even of Tachilek just over the border.. seemed immediately to be poorer than Thailand, and as far as we could see, we were the only tourists here. Pottered around and just enjoyed the town and smiled and practiced a bit of Burmese "min gala ba" means hello. Had dinner then back to guest house early - Myanmar has a curfew of 9pm - well, not really for foreigners but you dont want to be the only ones on the street so early night tonight!

August 3rd. Off we headed on the local bus from Tachilek to the town of Shen Tung. This was after our 6:30am stop at immigration to pick up 27 pieces of paper that we gave to the driver had to provide to different check points along the way so the government knew where we were! Long, hot bus journey on local bus...packed with people...everyone seemed quite curious about us, especially Florian who in his own admission is a big man - about 6 ft 4 and has a wee bit of a tummy (please, he has blessed this description - you all know how i feel about fattist comments!.. in fact some people kept coming up and patting his tummy..a tad disconcerting i would find, but Florian is an easy going soul so didn't bother too much about it!). The music videos were so awful you can't imagine - this moustached perverted looking guy was either lusting after young beauties, who in the real world wouldn't give him the time of day, or hanging out caressing his mother at home - very weird indeed but people seemed enraptured by them!

So after 4 /2 hours we got off at what we realized was Shen Tung... hmmn not quite how the guide books describe it... But it was actually a cute wee town, ok more like a village, and we got a tuk tuk to Harry's Trekking. Phew - and its actually there! Nice place - we are def the only tourists here.. went out for a potter and then had dinner by the lake....chatted to the guide at the hotel about our day trek tomorrow...for some strange reason in Burma lots of people are wearing US Army tops and jackets.. all fakes i think but still interesting fashion choice. So we start at 8am and walk for about 6-8 hours tomorrow visiting two key tribes - the Akha and the Aung tribes - very excited.

August 4th. Breakfast at 7am then we were off....First stop local market to pick up bits and pieces for the tribes. We put our foot down and said we didn't want to give candy so we bought paracetemol (strong medicine for the tribes folks according to our guide, Francis!), pens and paper and unsweetened crackers...sounds boring but no point giving them candy, just rots their teeth. Have been to tons of markets now but still love them - so vibrant and colourful, and the smells and sounds .. great! The countryside here is amazing - so green and lush, lots of rice fiels, very idyllic looking. Reminds me alot of Vietnam. Once we stopped, it was off on our first leg as we walked for over an hour to the village which belonged to the Aung tribe. Per Francis, who is half Akha and half Lesa (and speaks over 7 languages!), the village has 23 families and lots of children - which we did see for ourselves. This tribe are known to be less educated and live a more simple, rustic life than some of the other tribes. The people were really lovely; a bit reticent at first but curiosity took over any other feelings as they checked us out and realized we were friendly! Francis only takes these tours once or twice a month so its nice that you dont feel like you are part of the same gravy tourist train like in Chiang Mai.....or that you are taking advantage of these people (well, at least not as much as the regular tours!).

Nothing fake here - the villages are gorgeous. We met the shamen and his wife (who looked really ill! - can't he help fix her i thought with his special powers?). The whole village came out and watched us as we chatted to them... amazing faces. Little girl couldnt be more than six years old carrying her little sister around on her hip..

Then headed to meet the chief of the village - real character who promptly gave us some tea from glasses that clearly hadnt been cleaned in about 6 years (and tried to sell me his handbag... Was a bit nervous - should i buy it - he was the chief after all?

We said goodbye then headed off for some more hiking to the next village - this time a different tribe, the Akhas. We went to the church first. Akhas are traditionally animastic (worship the land and the sky) but many have become Catholic and there were pictures of the new Pope everywhere in their huts!).....they only get a priest to say mass about three times a year but the pastor does his bit in the meantime! We went into the village; quite small only 9 families live here. We met the pastor and his wife and they put on an incredible lunch for us - and what a lunch! Pork skins deep fried with chilli, pork intestines, stir fried pork, yup lotsa pork but really delicious. And babycorn, so many vegetable dishes and sticky rice and bananas. What a feast! The Akha people are much more ornamental in their dress than the Aung tribe, especially with the womens headdressess, which they made me try on. Quite heavy but beautiful! The head dresses tell the stories of the womens lives .. some of them are really ornate! So after lunch the ladies brought out a ton of scarves, jewellry and other bits and bobs for us to look at.. and of course i bought a bunch of things. So many they gave me my own bracelet free! How sweet they were - ok i know i spent money but come on, still lovely of them! And its not going to break the bank at around $8 for 5 bracelets and a scarf (and i didnt even bargain!). They all laughed cos i tried to buy a piece from each of the ladies...

After a very long goodbye; sorry to leave them as they had been so kind... we headed off down the mountain via some crazy bamboo fields (check out Florian and Francis) and a beautiful waterfall. Well, beautiful apart from the tons of litter all around it!

Across lush, green rice fields we walked, eventually back at the car to take us back to Harry's Trekking (did i mention that Harry is no more sadly; when i asked Francis the first time, I thought he had gone out for a bit, but no, Francis clarified he had died last year i think so alas, Harry is no more, but his ideal just keeps on trekking!). Oh yes, as we were driving back and Florian and I were waxing lyrical about our incredible day and the people we met and how wonderful and beautiful life was and how lucky we were.. this perfect moment was suddenly ruined by our driver "hawking" up half a lung and spitting it out a good 20 feet - pretty good shot actually! Oh well, so much for our special moment! Teehee.

Back to the ranch, then out for dinner along the waterfront again! Lovely Chinese restaurant where the owner was ridiculously accomodating to us; super nice people in Myanmar! Have really loved my very short time here and would love to come back and explore Myanmar more!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It's off to Chiang Mai to give a few elephants a bath or two!

July 25th - 31st. Taking the overnight train tonight to Chiang Mai - and phew, thank goodness it was nothing like my Sapa trip! In fact, almost felt like being on the Orient Express. Met Katherine, a fab girl from Liverpool so we chatted the night away, and made plans to meet up after she had finished her trek.

Hilarious morning as I sat in the cafe car of the train having breakfast, and talking to the crew. Realised after a while that only Katherine and I were passengers, everyone else was crew, with most folks getting their food delivered to their sleeper! Apparantly there was a dance carriage on the train last night, oops how did i manage to miss that! Talked with the manager - wow, he loved his 80's hits i have to say, in fact everyone in the carriage sang and danced away that morning - talk about being happy in your work!

Arrived in Chiang Mai and took a saangthaw (2 seater type of tuk-tuk but a bit bigger) to my guest house...then went for a potter. Met a new found friend, Florian, a classical opera singer from Vienna, so we went out for a look around town together and then visited yet another wat (oops do i sound a wee bit watted- out...)? They are all so gorgeous and a big part of each town you visit, but there are quite alot of them i have to say! We checked out Wat Phra Singh, which was really beautiful and we arrived, just as lots of the monks were coming out of prayer time..have to say their orange robes really do work well with the golds and reds of many of the buildings...(ahem, my fashion note for the day!).

July 28th. Up and at 'em today - its my Thai cookery course - a staple activity here in Chiang Mai, but I'm quite excited as it is at the local organic farm and some friends i met ('member Pat and Carolien!) highly recommended it so yellow curry, tom yam soup - here I come! Great group - 6 couples and me surprise surprise but we had a fab laugh together! Started off at the local market, gotta love these places for great photo opps! Then on to the farm with our fabulous teacher, Su! Very funny girl and happy to make fun of the daft tourists and their low tolerance for spicy food. Note to self - when using really fresh chillis no need to overdo it - one of my curry dishes was blow-your-mouth-off hot! Really lovely as we walked around the organic garden picking our veggies - do you like our sun hats? Then it was down to business. We made so much food - all really delicious and really easy. Don't worry folks - i have the recipe book so I'll definitely be trying them out on you when i get back! After my civilized day out, I headed back into town and met up with Katherine where we had a mini-pub crawl around town....lets just say another one (or two) of those lovely 'bucket" drinks was involved. What is wrong with a glass, people!

July 29th. Yippeee - i know i always sound excited when i do something new, but this was what i was waiting for - my 2 days as an elephant helper had arrived! Incredible time - don't know where to start except to say that I took way, way, way, too many pictures (dont worry, I won't make you all sit through them (about 400 elephant shots maybe...) but you couldn't help snapping. These creatures are just so majestic and gorgeous - and so human too, the more you hang out with them. Michelle, an Australian woman who lives at the sanctuary took us through the background of the park, and what Lek, this tiny wee Thai woman, has been through in order to save 32 elephants (so far) from awful situations. I could go on and on about this experience. It was really amazing. Not only did we feed the elephants (those trunks are mad, with over 70% of the animals sensitivity there)..but we jumped in the water and washed them - which they really like apparantly. However, contrary to popular belief, they don't like to be patted, it does nothing for them. So many stories to tell here. The elephants themselves. Lily; a drug addict who had two owners; one used her during the day for trekking with tourists, the other at night for illegal logging so she was pumped full of amphetimines to keep going. Jokia, already blind in one eye, who wouldn't get up 'cos she was so grief stricken when she miscarried, so her owner blinded her in her other eye to punish her! So now she is completely blind, but has a great wee pal, Maeperm, who never leaves her side and keeps her in the know as to what is going on!

And then there is Lek. What a woman. Very low key and hands on with all the "mahouts" aka trainers or individual handlers for each elephant. Ostracized by her family, all of whom work in the trekking/tourism business, she has spent her whole life trying to save these beautiful creatures from terrible lives. Never mind the fact she is on a government hit list...for trying to disrupt the multi-million dollar tourism industry here. Things have gotten a little better for her since recently being highlighted as one of the top 25 influential women in Asia but who knows what will happen in the future as she continues to raise awareness about this issue! There are now only 2,500 elephants left in Thailand, and because more and more tourists visit, and part of the Chiang Mai experience is to trek and ride an elephant (which i have to say i really wanted to do but now i just couldnt after hearing some of these stories)...then the elephants are being trained earlier and earlier, and they die sooner because they are being worked harder; so its not really the smartest strategy as Thailand will very soon run out of elephants and indeed, there is plenty of smuggling going on between Myanmar, and Malaysia right now, to get more elephants for tourism in Thailand. Hey - i certainly dont mean to come across as a boring non-fun person, but once you see these animals you really feel bad about how they are treated (of course we know people do worse things to each other, but every little bit of good helps, right?). Now i sound like a cross between Pollyanna and Debbie Downer (a character from Saturday Night Live who ruins everyone's good times!). Sorry! Check out the sanctuary at www.elephantnaturepark.org. Oh yes, also met some very interesting people here! (and i just love my flower shot so thats why its here). But more about the elephants - day 2 we took them for a walk into the forest, so cool. But so weird walking right next to a giant creature with the biggest feet you have ever seen! Too funny when we had a wee traffic jam as they stopped to eat and eat and eat - you have no idea how much food these animals pack away.. something like 150 kilos a day (hmmn not sure if that is right..) but its a lotta food anyway. Oh yes and we saw the trees tied with material, blessed by monks so that none of the local logging people will cut them down. Lek went to see the head monk in Chiang Mai and not only did he bless all the material, he and all the monks from the surrounding wats came to the sanctuary and helped tie them around the trees themselves! Of course, there are those cynics who said it won't take long for the owners to bring in Christian or secular workers who dont care about Buddhist blessed trees, but for now at least, there has been no more logging in and around the sanctuary! So what can i say - clearly this has been an incredible few days that everyone should be lucky enough to experience....elephants, you just gotta love them!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Bangkok - a go go (plus a few day trips thrown in)!!

July 15th. Arrived in Bangkok around midday. First impressions..hmmn, honestly, not that great! Maybe I'm biased about Vietnam. I know people talk about it being loud, dirty and crazy busy, but Bangkok is a whole, different kind of crazy.....For a start, the people in the airport were all really grumpy (or maybe it was just to me?)! I'll try not to make too many comparisons, but even if Vietnamese people want something from you, or don't understand you - they always do it with a smile - hhmnn definitely not the same here!

So a little about the city. With a population of 6 million, Bangkok is definitely a go-go kind of place! An intriguing mixture of ancient wats (temples) and giant, space age shopping malls, trendy cafes and tons of local people manning street stalls, the city is in constant flux. Oh yes, and did I mention the mad tuk-tuks! There are millions of them....the drivers always there with a smile..."you need tuk tuk, missy........where you go, i take you there". There is a mode of transportation to get you anywhere you want - tuk tuk, bus, taxi and of course the fabulous Skytrain that the city is so proud of! Quick historical aside folks - the name Bangkok, established in 1782, is really only the name for the smaller village within the city limits. Thai people call their capital "Krung Thep" or City of Angels a much shortened version of the very official and very long tongue twister of "Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit" - wow! Don't try and say that if you have had a pina colada or two....ok, don't try and say it even if you are stone cold sober. Way too hard for us "farangs" - yup, slightly different name here for us tourists -"falangs" in Vietnam. "Farangs" in Thailand ....such scinitillating info eh!

I decided as I hadn't been here before I'd have to check out the famous "Khao San road". Definitely an experience, let me tell you. And quite wierd too. As well as lots of skinny young things looking to see and be seen around here (and tons of families with small children too strangely enough!), there are more 7/11's here than I have EVER seen in Boston. Boots too, and Tescos supermarkets - this isn't Asia, is it!!!

Anyway, later that night I met up with Kirrily and Laura (two Aussie pals from Hanoi) for some Bangkok fun! We had dinner a-la street cart, as you do here (not bad either!), a few drinkies in a "real" bar then headed over to where we were all staying - in Soi Rambutrri - and had a "bucket", yes, very ladylike but that's what you do when you have a drinkie from a "combi-van" that parks in the lane and sets up shop for the night. Deeelicious! Then we jumped in a tuk-tuk for a real Bangkok experience - Patpong night market! Pretty fab i have to say... got alot of good tips from the girls on how best to bargain here. We had some dry runs then they left me to it.. hmmn def getting better but still wimpy! Oh well. Patpong is also pretty well known for its "red light" district although things are now much more sanitized than in years past....

July 16th and 17th. Spent a day or two toodling around town. You can't go far without seeing people with yellow tops on! Everyone wears yellow on Mondays - it's the day the King was born and everyone really loves him (especially in this, his 60th year on the throne). Visited the Grand Palace and let me tell you, it was pretty Grand (almost Disneyesque to be honest! - and impossible to capture all of it in one shot in case you were wondering!). It's the former royal residence and today is only used for special ceremonial events such as Coronation Day. So over the top its ridiculous but also pretty impressive! There is even a miniature version of the famous temples of Ankor Wat there! Crazy stuff.

After that i popped into Wat Po, the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok, dating back to the 16th century. The BIG and i mean BIG attraction here is the reclining Buddha, stunning in size at 46m long and 15m high with over 108 different characters in its feet alone! (which you may have noticed i didn't manage to fit into the pic - oops!). Don't ya love statistics!!

June 18th. Today i visited the famous Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. Hmmn definitely a wee problem with truth in advertising here... at least with the pics you see beforehand...not quite as picturesque as you would like, in fact a complete tourist trap; the funniest thing being the constant traffic jams in the water....oh well, wouldn't know unless i visited right, but lets just say the floating markets on the Mekong Delta in Vietnam are WAY better (I know, comparing again,,, sorry!).

July 19th - 22nd. Headed off to Kanchanaburi today for a few days away from the madness of Bangkok. Met a lovely girl on the bus traveling with her school group through Thailand for a month and had a great chat with her about her World Challenge project - hi Vinisha, hope the budget wasn't maxed out too much at the end of your trip! And so to Kanchanaburi itself. Although this new locale is a really pretty place where people come to relax and chill out, one of the key reason tourists visit is to do with its tragic past as the site of a WWII prisoner of war camp and its also where you find the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai It's shocking to think that more than 100,000 men lost their lives here building the Death Railway. It was supposed to take 5 years; yet the POW's were forced to build it in less than 16 months. There are a number of museums and cemetaries here commemorating the loss of life, definitely lots of sad memories here, not at all trivialized by idiot tourists getting their photos taken across the tracks or sitting on the Death Railway train. I mean, come on!!! Pathetic!

Next day i visited the famous and quite beautiful Erawan National Park and hiked up through all seven tiered waterfalls to the top one - definitely ready for a swim after that! Hot, hot, hot today but met two lovely Dutch pals - Esther and Jorun - so had a great time with them; even saw monkeys, including a mum and baby - so cute! Ahh....good times, and then I had to head back to the big smoke. Oh well, just hanging around Bangkok long enough to get my visas processed for Cambodia, Laos and India then I'll be skedadaling off up north.

And so to another day out. How much can I pack in, I hear you say! Well, quite alot actually! Jumped on the local train to Ayuthaya, the former Thai capital and now a city filled to the brim with holy ruins. There are more wats here than you know what to do with - Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Phra Ram, Wat Phra Mahathat and of course Wat Yai Chai Mongkon....ok I'm not entirely sure which one is which to be honest but they were all really impressive....and yet another scorching day folks. So much for the rainy season, the weather has been amazing in Thailand since i got here! Quick aside - Lonely Planet had mentioned there are a ton of ways to get around town and see the sights - from bike, tuk-tuk, taxi and then there would be the elephant ride. Now I didn't really think i'd see it but check it out.. big dumb tourists lolling around town on these majestic creatures (really!)...Anyway, apart from this blip on the landscape, thoroughly enjoyed my time here. Back to Bangkok to pick up my passport then I'm off to Chiang Mai.....to cooking classes, helping elephants, shopping in more night markets.....and so much more, I'm sure!