Friday, January 25, 2008

Chang Mai, Thailand

We flew from Bangkok to the northern city of Chang Mai where we spent a few days hiking, taking a massage course and visiting a temple.

Our two day hike started off at a waterfall.

We were able to walk up it because the eroding limestone gave the ground a sandpaper like texture.

The purpose of this hike, however, was to visit hill tribes. These groups come from other countries and have left their homelands in search of more hospitable climates or more abundant resources among a variety of other reasons. We started off taking lunch with the Lahu, originally from southern China and Burma. The Lahu weren't wearing traditional garb or weaving, in fact some were even chatting on cell phones. They clearly weren't making any pretenses about living the same way they had for centuries or being unaffected by the modern world. Fortunately though not many tourists visit the village and thus it has retained much of its rustic charm.

We left the Lahu and hiked for a few hours before arriving in a Karen village. Although this tribe is native to Thailand and Burma, they speak neither Thai nor Burmese.

The Karen village was similar to the Lahu village in that it did not seem to be affected by tourism. Some of the older tribesmen still wore traditional clothes although these had completely vanished among younger generations. We spent the night on the floor of a Karen family's bamboo hut. Pictured below: our hosts.

Many people visiting these tribes feel compelled to help them out somehow. This "help" usually comes in the form of donations of one sort or another and unfortunately often has a long run, negative impact on the tribe. The two most common donations, money and candy, incentivize parents to make their children beg rather than going to school and lead to rotting teeth, respectively. Aware of the possible negative consequences of donations but still wanting to help, we decided to bring some school supplies.

The children were all too happy to take them.

The second day, we visited a number of other tribal villages. Unfortunately these were crawling with tourists who had noticeably affected the tribes. Far be it from me to criticize the tribes who are simply trying to make a buck. However, watching satellite TV at night is hardly something I associate with tribal traditions.

The real treat, however, was hiking between these tourist traps.

The bucolic hillsides of northern Thailand abound with photo opportunities.

One of the most popular reasons for visiting Chang Mai is to take a Thai massage course. Unfortunately we didn't have time for one of the longer and more intensive courses, so we learned some basics in one day.

We had a few hours before our flight out of Chang Mai and decided to check out Wat Phra Singh.

Wat Phra Singh, established in 1345, is widely acknowledged as the most impressive of Chang Mai's nearly 300 temples.

The ornate and elaborate interior decorations contrast with the traditional, if not unspectacular, exterior.

On a separate note, January 25th, the day we left Chang Mai, marked day 83 of our journey so far and thus the exact midway point of the trip.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bangkok, Thailand

Though we were in Bangkok for four days, we really only spent two sightseeing. We spent the two down days fending off a stomach bug, sending some gear home and figuring out some logistics issues. The other two days though were packed with water taxis, Wat Pho, China Town, Muay Thai boxing, Thai cooking class, and Jim Thompson's house.

Bangkok, like Venice, is built around a series of canals, or khlong, that crisscross city. Since these are mostly straight compared to the labyrinthine road system, watercraft have always offered a compelling alternative to overland transportation. As a result a highly efficient and inexpensive ferry system developed alongside, if not before, the rest of the city's more traditional public transportation options. We took the public ferries many times, including to Wat Pho. Pictured below is a private water taxi on Chao Phraya River.

Pictured below: Modern Thai homes built on the khlongs.

Wat Pho is the oldest, largest, and most famous Buddhist temple, or wat, in Bangkok. It is home to a 46 meter long, gold plated, reclining Buddha.

Wat Pho has traditionally served as a monastery, a school for medicine, and is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of Thai massage. Pictured below are some of the ornately decorated shrines in the Wat Pho complex.

After visiting Wat Pho, we tried to visit the Grand Palace, adjacent to the temple complex. The Grand Palace was the former home of Thai kings but now is used only for royal ceremonies. Unfortunately just such a ceremony was taking place the day we tried to visit and the palace was closed to visitors.

Fortunately there is never a shortage of things to do in Bangkok so we headed to Chinatown for lunch. Ellie and I recalled our favorite Chinese foods as we meandered through stores covered with Chinese writing and filled wit h the inexplicably ubiquitous waving cat. We also toured the nearby Thieves Market that, like many other markets we've seen, is filled with counterfeit watches, clothes, and designer bags.

That evening we visited the Ratchadamnoen Boxing stadium to watch a few rounds of Muay Thai boxing, Thailand's official sport. We arrived early and found the best view from the cheap seats section. Later we woul d find out that this happened to be the gamblers area - which goes a long way to explaining the riotous background noise in this video.

We spent the next morning in cooking class learning how to prepare traditional Thai dishes like pad thai and tom yam soup.

Filled with delicious food and confident in our culinary abilities, we left cooking class and headed for Jim Thompson's House. The home, designed by Thompson, features a prominent garden and a large collection of regional paintings and statues.

Thompson, born in Greenville, Delaware, led an exceptional life as an architect turned CIA agent turned international silk mogul. In 1967 he went on a walk while traveling in Malaysia and never returned. His unexplained disappearance is, perhaps, the regions greatest unsolved mystery and still the subject of much speculation.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Temples of Angkor: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Between the 9th and 13th centuries AD, Kmher kings in Cambodia ruled an empire from Burma to Vietnam. The seat of this great empire was known as Angkor and boasted a population of more than one million people. During this period the kings built many grand temples and palaces to themselves, their parents and mostly to their ability to outdo their predecessors. In 1431 AD the Thais invaded the Angkor and the Cambodians moved the capital to Phnom Penh. Today the closest city to Angkor is Siem Reap - we stayed there for a few evenings while exploring the ruins during the days.

A few statues on the bridge crossing the moat into Angkor Thom, the last capital city in Angkor. These devas (gods) are attempting to churn the Ocean of Milk to extract the elixir of immortality.

A gate into Angkor Thom - two rows of Devas (pictured above) flank the road leading into the city.

Mysterious faces atop the Bayon temple located in the center of Angkor Thom.

My favorite temple was, by far, was Ta Prohm. Originally built in 1186 AD as a monastery or university, the temple is currently in a state of disrepair and features a number of prominent trees growing out of walls and buildings.

More serpentine roots in Ta Prohm.

A few more temples in Angkor Thom.

Iconic pink sandstone and intricate carvings at Banteay Srei, 25 km north and east of the main Angkor complex.

The best preserved and most well known of all the temples in the Angkor complex is, Angkor Wat. Many visitors mistakenly refer to the entire group of temples in Angkor as Angkor Wat when that term refers to the specific temple pictured below.

An unfortunately cloudy shot of Angkor Wat from the air.

Another shot of Angkor Wat from the air, showing the moat surrounding the temple.

Angkor Wat is known, among many reasons, for the bas-relief carvings adorning many of its walls. The picture below shows King Rama's Monkey Army engaged in furious combat.

The backside of Angkor Wat.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia is an intriguing and exotic place, we found this out quickly in our first hour in the Phnom Penh. Walking out of our guest house, I was surprised to find an elephant strolling down the street followed by some saffron colored monks.

Shortly thereafter, we walked past a gas station. Since there are very few real gas stations in Cambodia, most motorcycle drivers buy their gasoline in one liter beverage bottles from stands on the side of the road.

Finally, we walked past a food market where a number of vendors were selling bugs - grub worms, crickets, beetles, and tarantulas. These are a very normal part of the Cambodian diet and reflect a period of time where resources were scarce and people ate anything they could just to get by.

Of course, when in Rome...

In case you were wondering, they taste a bit like soft shelled crab.

Not all Cambodian cuisine is so strange, most are stir fried or curried meats and vegetables. The national dish, amok, a coconut and lemon grass curried fish served in a banana leaf.

We left Phnom Penh by boat, headed for Siem Reap. The six hour trip follows the Tonle Sap river north to the eponymous lake - Siem Reap is on the north side.

We passed a number of bamboo shacks and fishing villages along the river.

The lake, however, was so large that we couldn't see anything but water for the last three hours.

Choeung Ek, Tuol Sleng, and the Landmine Museum

Though nearly 30 years have passed since Vietnamese troops ousted Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from power, Cambodia is still struggling to recover. Experts estimate that between 1.7 and 2.3 million people died as the direct result of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Pol Pot's goal, to make Cambodia into a peasant dominated Marxist society, involved the torture and execution of not only foreigners, intellectuals, and government officials but also their families and friends. These policies resulted in the almost complete decimation of Cambodia's human and physical capital base. Today, the country struggles to cope with insufficient infrastructure and a dearth of teachers. Unfortunately these problems will likely increase with the country's booming population, 40 percent of which are less than 15 years old and lack any education or skills.

Our first stop in Phnom Penh was the Choeung Ek killing fields - though there were many other execution sites around the country, Choeung Ek is believed to be the largest. Khmer Rouge soldiers executed about 17,000 civilians here during Pol Pot's four year genocidal regime. Walking around the site is a morbid experience as clothing and bone fragments still stick up from the soil. Nearly 8,000 skeletons have been disinterred from 89 of 129 mass graves on the site and the remains are housed inside a gleaming white stupa.

Our next stop was the Tuol Sleng Prison. The Khmer Rouge tortured between 17,000 and 20,000 people here that were accused of betraying the revolution. The site, a former high school, was named S-21 for Security Prison 21. The prisoners, if they weren't killed during interrogation, were invariably shipped to Choeung Ek afterwards to be executed.

Signs on the prison walls ask visitors to be quiet but they are unnecessary, the records of the atrocities committed there command silence.

If there was one bright spot among the many awful things we saw in Cambodia, it was Aki Ra, founder of the Cambodian Land Mine Museum Relief Fund. As a child, Aki's parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge who then forced him to become a child soldier and plant land mines. Later when Vietnamese forces took over Cambodia they forced him to lay land mines for them. After the Paris peace conference in 1989 Aki was able to leave the army and began clearing land mines with little more than a long handled hoe and a screwdriver.

In the years since, Aki's efforts have expanded to helping child victims of land mines with the support of a museum and international donations. The museum houses some 50,000 land mines, bombs, and mortars that Aki has cleared.
Though Aki's efforts are noteworthy, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Experts estimate that there are still more than 4 million land mines in Cambodia and each year they kill or wound hundreds, mostly children.

Friday, January 4, 2008


The best thing about Vietnam, hands down, has been the food - really good, cheap food. A baguette sandwich with pork and vegetables costs only 30 cents and a full dinner with drinks can be as little as three dollars. My favorites have been baguette sandwiches from street vendors and a cook-it-yourself beef meal served with a hot plate (pictured below).

We flew into Hanoi and spent a few days there before heading north to Halong Bay then south to Nha Trang before coming north to Hoi An. The first thing you will notice in Hanoi, like the rest of Vietnam, is that scooters make up 95% of the traffic. Since these are smaller and more agile than the large automobiles that make up most of the traffic in the US, traffic behaves much differently here than it does there. Rather than making a mad dash across the street as you might in America, the safest way to cross in Vietnam is to wade slowly into the street and let the motorbikes pass around you. This is generally how the drivers deal with each other as well. Most intersections do not have stop signs or stop lights so the drivers simply make their way slowly through in no particular order. It is not unusual to see traffic moving simultaneously in four directions through the same intersection.

Hoan Kiem Lake lies right in the center of Hanoi - and in the center of Hoan Kiem Lake is Tortoise Tower (pictured below) and Ngoc Son Temple. In the 18th century, a Confucian master built the temple to honor a 13th century general. Sometime in between those two dates someone built Tortoise Tower to honor the tortoise who allegedly swallowed the general's sword.

We walked by St Joseph Cathedral many times as it was about two blocks away from our hotel. When the Nguyen King handed Hanoi over to the French in 1886, they promptly destroyed Bao Thien pagoda and built the cathedral in its place. The cathedral was modeled after Notre Dame and I suspect the neon lights on the nativity scene were modeled after Vegas.

We also visited the Hoa Loa prison which lies a few blocks further south of the cathedral. French colonists built the prison 1904 to hold mostly native Vietnamese political prisoners. Later, the Vietnamese used the prison to hold American POWs, including John McCain and James Stockdale, who ironically named it the Hanoi Hilton. Conditions in the prison at all times seemed at best terrible and it is a stark reminder of the awful things that people are capable of doing. I am neither inclined nor qualified to write anything more.

The Temple of Literature was built in 1070 as a Confucian Temple. Six years later the first National University in Vietnam was formed within the temple to educate members of the Elite. Graduate's names were etched in stone steles that sit on top of turtles.

The temple features a number of bonsai trees,

also a few interesting dragons adorning the roofs,

prominent reflecting pools,

and most importantly a giant drum.

From Hanoi we headed north to Ha Long Bay where we celebrated New Years Eve on a boat. Trying to leave the dock was a bit of an adventure as most boats were triple parked or more and we were far inside. The boats surrounding us wouldn't move to let us leave because they didn't want to lose their spot. When the boats looking for a spot realized that we were leaving they tried to force their way into our space - but we hadn't left yet. After 45 minutes playing bumper boats we cleared the commotion by the docks it was not long before we were completely surrounded by Ha Long Bay's iconic karst islands.

Ha Long Bay is a park and the islands are protected territory - people are not allowed to live on them. Many people have managed to skirt the rules and live in the area in floating villages.

Most of these people make a living as fishermen.

Some however make a rowing around selling snacks and drinks to the many tourist boats in the area.

Along the way we stopped in Surprise Cave.

and stopped for a photo-op.

Went kayaking.

And jumped off the boat - even though it was a little cold.

We passed the evening by playing cards and celebrating New Years in every time zone leading up to ours - we even continued this the next day for New Years in the western hemisphere. A few calls from family and loved ones were very welcome. The weather was crummy the first day but cleared up for a beautiful sunrise on the second.

We stopped in Hanoi just long enough to book train tickets to the beach town of Nha Trang. We were lucky enough to get the last two sleeper bunks on an overnight train leaving the next afternoon. A few days on the beach and in a boat were a great break from the rigorous sightseeing we've been doing.

We caught an overnight, sleeper bus from Nha Trang north to Hoi An, a town known for its Old Town area but, more importantly, its tailors.

Hoi An

As home to one of the largest harbors in Southeast Asia, Hoi An was a prominent trading town in the 16th and 17th centuries. As a result, some of the buildings preserved in the Old Town area have a distinctly European feel. This street(pictured below)in Old Town is home to a number lantern makers.

We couldn't spend a few days in Hoi An without visiting My Son, a Hindu temple built in the 4th century.

The site, now in ruins, was where the Champa dynasty held religious ceremonies and also served as a burial ground for royalty and national heros.

We spent a few hours wandering around the complex admiring the intricate details that have somehow survived 1,600 years in the middle of a very humid jungle.

My Son

On the boat ride home we passed a couple fishing. This two man operation was typical of the fishermen we had seen in Nha Trang and Halong Bay - one person steers and the other casts a net over and over again, all day, every day.

We spent our last day in Hoi An filling up on baguette sandwiches, making some last minute alterations to our new clothes and perusing the local market for souvenirs. We took a somewhat perilous cab ride early the next morning to the Da Nang Airport where we left for Cambodia.