View from the hill!

View from the hill!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The other Bali

When you think of Bali you probably think of tropical beaches lined with luxury beach beach resorts and bungalows. But as you know by now, I like to see the local side of the countries I travel to and my Balinese experience is no exception. I arrived in Denpansar, Bali last night at 1am and was greeted by a smiling local named Eky. He is a couch surfer and offered me a bed in his families home. It sounded a bit too good to be true own private bedroom in a house with 6 people (a family of 5 plus one maid) and to top it off he would even use his dad's car to pick me up at the airport. Well things weren't quite so simple. Eky was not able to use his fathers car so instead picked me up on his motorbike. This would have not been a problem, I have ridden motorbikes on many occasions over the past few weeks. However, we had a 45 minute trek to his house and I had my massive backpack weighing a whopping 20 kg and then my small backpack plus another bag. As I tried to balance on the back of the speeding motorbike I thought for sure I would tip off the back of the bike from the weight of my backpack. After a very uncomfortable ride we finally made it to Eky's house at 2 am.

I would be staying in his little sisters room which was covered in toys and has a large Barak Obama poster on the wall (strange!). The room was fine but the bathroom took some getting used to. The "peeing room" was out in the backyard. After walking through the dog zone- where there three caged dogs tried there best to break out of their crates to attack, i found the hole in the ground that was the "peeing room" not the most ideal situation for late night bathroom trips. The "shower room" consists of a large pot type thing (looks like a large flower pot) filled with cold water. The idea is that you splash water out of the pot and on to your body. I think I will hold off as long as possible before using that facility!

This morning I woke up and my host had gone to the market at 6am, so now I am hanging out with Eky's teenage brothers and all his friends. They dont speak a word of English, so it has been an interesting day. Eky is supposed to return around 5pm. This must be one massive trip to the market! I think tomorrow I will splurge and go for that Bungalow on the beach!

Long Overdue

Sorry for the lack of posts these past few weeks. I cannot believe it is already April 1st...only 22 more days until I will be back in Baltimore.

Over the past month I have traveled through the landlocked and impoverished nation of Laos (one of the poorest nations in the world), taken buses down the entire coast of Vietnam deep into the Mekong Delta, explored the futuristic city of Singapor and now have just arrived in Bali. Needless to say I have a lot to write about and alot to catch you all up on. I will start with the most recent and over the next few days work backwards. I am not sure how much internet I will have while in Bali over the next 10 days but I will try my best to catch up!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Elephant Naure Park

Elephants are everywhere in Thailand; statues of this masive creature fill temples and palaces, elephant necklaces are sold on the street as a symbol of good luck and wisdom and highway billboards use elephants to advertise sales. The Asian Elephant has been a cultural icon of Thailand since the ancient days. However, elephants also seem to lie at the heart of one of the biggest contradictions in the world. While they are highly worshipped and immensely well thought of, they are also tortured and abused. Amidst the elephant rides, elephant shows where elephants play soccer and paint lovely pictures and even elephants begging on the busy city streets lies a true elephant sanctuary- The Elephant Nature Park (

A visit to this elephant sanctuary was highly recommended (thank you Meredith!) and I am truly thankful that I got to spend the day in the park. Before hearing about the park I would have most likely done the traditional elephant trek that so many tourists do. I thought it sounded cool: hiking, elephant riding, river rafting and even helping to bath the elephants. When you think about the sheer size of an elephant it seems like it would be no problem to sit on their back for a couple of hours as they take you for a ride through the hills of Thailand. I had even heard that elephants liked to work, so for all I knew they really enjoyed their "job." However, what most do not know is the torture and abuse that every one of these performing and working elephants must endure.

Every domesticated elephant in Thailand goes through the same torturous process so that they will obey their mahouts instruction and be able to be in such close and constant human contact. The ancient tradition called the pha-jaan has been used for decades to "break" the elephants and make them obedient. Basically the young elephants are put in a small cage and for weeks they are starved, sleep deprived and tortured using sticks with nails on the ends. They are constantly beaten and poked. Elephants are very senstive creatures, both physically and emotionally, and they are also very social creatures often staying with their family their entire life and mourning when a family member dies, so the separation expereinced during the pha-jaan cerimony is extremly devestating for them.

Lek, the founder of the Elephant Nature Park believes in providing a home to these endangered animals as well as contributing to their welfare and development. Currently the park has 35 elephants ranging in age from 2-80 and all of whom are either disabled, orphans, blind and/or rescued. The park is run soley off of contributions and volunteers and it costs about $300,000 a year to run. On any given day there are 50 vounteers there, they stay for either one or two weeks and help to prepare the elephants food, clean the park, help with the medical needs of the elephants and various other tasks as needed. I went for a one day visit. I got to meet each of the 35 elephants, helped with the morning and afternoon feedings, bathed the elephants in the river and watched a documentary on the park and the condition of the Asian elephant throughout Thailand. Hearing the stories of these elephants was truly life changing and I would strongly recommend anyone coming to Thailand in the near future to make a visit to the park. For now, you can read about some of the elphants stories here: (my favorite is Jokia who I had the pleasure of feeding!).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pad Thai??

One of the things I was most looking forward to about this trip was the delicious Thai food. I had heard stories of getting gigantic bowls of pad thai and green curry for as little as a dollar from the food stalls lining every street. But one bowl of thai noodles later and those dreams of delicious thai feasts were long gone. Apparently my Federal Hill favorite, Thai Arroy had mislead me on the true tastes of Thailand.

I think a large part of the problem is the manner in which this food is presented. When walking through Bangkok every few feet you are greeted with a skinned pigs head or chicken legs on display at a food stall. The animal hanging above the chef is indicative of what is being served. Call me crazy, but staring straight into the eyes of a skinned pig does not make me crave some fried pork and noodles. Likewise looking on at the chicken feet and neck does not make me salvate for chicken and rice. Another issue for me is the excessive use of shrimp, shrimp paste, shirmp sauce and any thing else with the name shirmp in it. I hate shrimp. My first bowl of pad thai (which was actually harder to find than one would expect- oily rice and chicken or pork and noodles are more common among the street stalls) was an exceptionally disappointing expereince. I was massively hungover (common theme in Bangkok) and so excited to finally find the pad thai food stall I had been searching for for days. When it came out of the wok and onto my plate I was thrilled, it looked just like Thai Arroys. However after my first bite, containing what I thought was shredded carrots, I wanted to vomit. Those little orange bits that I thought were carrots had eyeballs staring at me, they were miniature dried shrimp. Ew.

I was not yet ready to give up on my dreams of delicious Thai feast, I thought maybe I just needed to get out of Bangkok and far far away from street stalls. I thought the Thai Farm Cooking School in Chiang Mai would be just what I needed to understand and love the true tastes of Thailand.

After arriving in Chiang Mai the first thing I did was book into the Thai Farm class. Unlike the dozens of other cooking classes offered in the city this one took you far outside of the city walls to the school's organic farm. After being picked up from my hotel my group stopped at a local market for a briefing on some of the ingredients we would be using throughout the day. We learned about the different types of rice, cocconut milk and spices that make up the root of Thai cooking. Next it was time to head into the country. After passing through numerous rice fields being harvested we turned onto a small dirt road and arrived at the Thai Organic Farm. We were able to select a type of chili paste to create then 4 dishes to prepare. I chose yellow curry, coconut milk soup, chicken with cashew nuts, pad thai noodles and mango with sticky rice. We began by making our own chili paste with the mortar and pestel. This noisy and tiring task proved why so many people go the easy route and simply buy the prepared packet!

Next up was our tour of the farm. This was the part of our day that really set this school apart from the others. Through an hour long tour of the property we learned all about the unique fruits, vegetables and herbs that form the foundation of Thai cooking. And I learned alot....those nasty little pea looking things that were in my green curry are actually bitter eggplant. And the large leaves that I thought were basil and meant to be eaten are actually kaffir lime leaves only meant to add flavor. We were able to taste long beans and rose apples stright out of the garden. After a day of picking, cooking and tasting really fresh thai food I have come to have a much better appreciation of the flavors and styles of cooking. And now I know what true Thai Pad Thai should taste like and I know to ask for it with NO shrimp! We were given a cook book with the recipes to all of our creations so I plan to test out my skils once I get home, do you think the Sunday dinner crowd can handle a menu of Kaeng Phed Gai, Tom Yam Kung and Pad Si-Ew? ?

Here a Wat, There a Wat

One of the top thing on all tourists lists when visiting Bangkok is to head up the river to Rattanakosin, the historical and cultural heart of the city. After several attempts to get to this site of the old royal city I finally made it there on my last day (previous attempts were spoiled by mean tuk tuk drivers and massive hangovers). I had been told the best way to get to these sites was by boat, up the Chao Phraya river. I of course did not want to take the easy way (aka the tourist boat) so it was a bit tricky trying to figure out where the commuter ferry departed from and which direction I needed to go. However, once on the boat I pleased to find out I only had to pay 14 baht (about 40 cents) and was able to ride the boat all day long with as many stops on the east bank as I pleased.

Although the river itself is not particuarly scenic, the long tail boats and well known landmarks we passed on the way (sights such as the famed Oriental Hotel and Wat Arun) made for an enjoyable 45 minute ride to my destinaion, Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace. I got the palace early before both the heat and crowds were too unbearable. I knew to dress conservatively so thought capri pants and a t-shirt would do the trick, but I was ankles allowed. Luckily I packed my sarong just in case. Looking stylish in my tenis shoes, sarong, backpack and guuide book in hand I was ready for a day of Wat visits (F.Y.I. wat=temple in Thai).

The first step into Wat Phra Kaeo, also known as Temple of the Golden Buddah, transports you into a world of incredible golden spires and extravagent pavilions guarded by all sorts of be-jeweled mythological creatures and the site simply takes your breath away. Instead of rushing directly to the bot or meeting hall (which holds the emerald buddah) I took some time to walk around the grounds and explore the dozen or so other buildings. It was almost overwhleming to be surrounding by so many incredible buildings, unlike anything I had ever seen before. The mix of colors and textures, everything from pastel painted ceramic and porcelains to shimmering gold stupa's, made the outer grounds of the wat even more fascinating to me than the Emerald Buddah himself. However, it is important to point out that the Emerald Buddah is the most holy and powerful statue and a symbol to the Thai people of the power, divinity and enlightenment of their country. And the wat in which he rests is the most significant religious structure in Thailand. Whithin the grounds of Wat Phra Kaeo is the grand palace, another rather impressive building which combines both Western and Thai styles but it looses some of its allure after viewing the exquisite carvings and decoration of the Wat.

My next stop was Wat Pho, also known as Temple of the Reclining Buddah. This temple is the oldest and largest temple complex in Bangkok. The reclining Buddah himsef is of course the main attraction, and at 150 feet long he is hard to miss. It is almost hard to appreciate his size because the building that holds him is so small, it is almost impossible to get a photo of him because of the lack of space. The massive buddah who is laying on his side with his head propped on his elbow represents his moment of enlightenment, when he entered nirvana- not when he entered a deep sleep which it may seem at first!

One of my favorite features of Wat Pho were the many statues of Indian hermits in yoga positions which occupied the Wats surrounding grounds. These statues helped to guide students in the correct postures for meditation and other relaxation techniques. Wat Pho's College of Traditional Medicine was the first in the ountry to teach Thai massage and is still used for instruction. The Wat has a very relaxing atmosphere with the yoga statues, relaxing music, calming lotus flowers and thai massage taking place all around you it would be easy to sit on a bench here for hours as busy Bangkok rushes past outside the walls of the Wat.

After my Wat visits I wandered to Pak Khlong Market (known for its beautiful and colorful fruit and flower displays) and then China Town with a lunch stop in Little India. Running low on energy and time I did not make it to the kings official residence, Chitralada Palace, but i did make it over to Dusit Park where I saw another impressive Wat as well as the Royal Plaza and Throne Hall (all surrounding his residence and surrounded by guards with massive machine guns).

All in all it was a busy wat full day and I was ready for a good night sleep...on my first night train in Asia!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Scammed in Bangkok

Thai's are very friendly people, I noticed this within minutes of arriving in Bangkok. The downfall of being in such a friendly city is that sometimes it is hard to determine if the warm smiles and small talk are disguising an ulterior motive.

I am embarrassed to admit that I was caught in 2 scams in the short time I was in Bangkok! Here are the 2 scenereo's:

The first occurred within minutes of arriving in the city center. I had taken a bus to Kho San Rd. and when I found that many guest houses were full I decided to walk to a Hosteling International property not far away. This hostel was full too. At this point I had decided to just try to hold off on finding a bed untill I heard back from Bill with whether or not I could definitely stay with him so I thought I would kill some time by checking out some local attractions, more specifically some near by temples.

A nice little man was walking beside me and started a rather normal conversation (I usually hear this same exact conversation about 4 times a day):
Nice Smiling Man: "Wow, you are so tall."
Me: "Yes, Yes....6 feet"
NSM: "From Holland? Germany? Sweeden?"
Me: "No, No from the US!"
NSM: "Oh wow, so tall!"
So, this didnt seem like much out of the ordinary. Soon the man started telling me about how he was a teacher just down the road. Then he asked what I had planned for the day and I told him I was going to checkout some temples. And this is where I should have known....he says "Oh, no temples closed today. It's Buddist holiday so being used for prayer. Don't open till 5pm."

Well shit, I had just arrived so how was I supposed to know any better. He then sat down with me and wrote out an entire itinerary of what I should do instead. I thought he was so kind to spend the time to do this. I didnt really understand everything he was telling me, but it involved seeing a festival that was happening because of this holiday, going to a street lined with custom tailors and then stopping by the tourist office. He was so enthusiastic and excited for me to go on this day long adventure. He even got me my first tuk tuk and told me how to track down an "official" tuk tuk.

Once inside the 3 wheeled motorized scooter (which is named from the sound it makes) the driver was extremly friendly. He took me to a very small temple, where I could only look inside because there were indeed some monks in there praying. So, I was assured that the little smiling man must be right, it did appear to be a holiday. Next up the driver took me to a tailor. I kept telling him I didnt really want to go bc afterall I hadn't changed my clothes (or even brushed my teeth) in 3 days because I had come straight from the airport and the longest fligt in history. He said if I just went inside for a few minutes he would get free gas. AHAAAA, so he gets free gasoline from taking me to this stupid tailor. But I went along with it because the driver was so nice, I thought I would do him a favor and get him some gas. After 10 minutes of pretending to be interested in getting a custom made suite (this would be of interest to me in a) I had more money and b) I had a job!) I went back to the tuk tuk. Next up he dropped me at the TAT (Thailand Authority of Tourism). Here some girl tried to get me to book a trip to Chiang Mai with her. I was getting more and more annoyed with how much time I was wasting on this little tuk tuk trip and just wishing I could get to this festival they spoke of.

When I got back to my driver he quickly turned from friendly little man to very nasty tuk tuk driver. He said this "festival" (which I think was made up the entire time) was too far and I had to take a taxi. I said that wasn't an option and I wanted him to take me to a main road. He started yelling at me to get out and walk. He refused to point to where we were on a map so as he drove away I was completely lost and feeling defeated. I then had to track down a taxi and get them to take me to the nearest train staion. Not the best way to spend my first 2 hours in Bangkok.

Scenerio #2:
My second day in Bangkok started with a trip to the Vietnam Embassy. I needed to get my Vietnam Visa and thought Bangkokwould be the easiest place to do this. After finding the embassy it was already after 10 am and I needed to go back at 3:30 to pick up my passport/visa. Seeing as I had such a limited amount of time I thought I would just go check out some of the local shopping spots. First stop was Siam Square. This is a huge commercial shopping district. The streets around the square are lined with trendy boutiques and street stalls with young college students and wanna be designers selling their pieces. Then there are also several malls, including the upscale Siam Paragon (which even has a Mercedes dealership inside) and the huge MBK, sort of like a market but inside. After spending almost an hour inside MBK I was thoroughly overwhelmed. It is a lot to take in for all of your senses- the smell of Thai food wafting through the air, the shound of Thai's yelling their promotions and trying to lure you to their store, the sight of hundreds of stalls selling everything from knock off purses to dried fish and insects, the feel of hundreds of sweaty bodies brushed up against you as you try to make your way through the 6 floors. After this I decided to go outside to get some fresh air and figure out where to go next. Soon enough a nice little lady started taking to me. I had my map in my had so she asked what I was looking for. I told her the name of the next shopping area I was going to find and also mentioned that I needed to go to the train station to buy my ticket to Chaing Mai. And she said "Oh, no they close for lunch. Mall close for 2 hours mid-day. You would be better to go to the temples today." She had awhole speel about why i should do the temples, because they would be too crowded on the weekends, etc., etc. I was pretty determined not to go to the temples, no matter what she told me. But next thing I knew she was calling me a tuk tuk and showing me on the map where I needed to go to get my train ticket. I thought I just needed to go to the train station but she said no, it was better to go to the office. I have no idea why I listened to her (maybe I was still in a haze from the mall craziness I had just expereinced) anyhow, here I was back in another tuk tuk not really sure where he was taking me. And sure enough we showed up at another TAT office. UGH. But I thought maybe they do sell tickets here and I can just get it here and be done with it. Wrong. They were really mean and since I only needed the train ticket to Chiang Mai and not a whole tour package they refused to sell me a ticket. When I got back out to the tuk tuk, guess what.....he had suddenly transformed into a nasty tuk tuk driver just like the day before. Refusing to drive me ot the train station, he left me out on the street. So once again I found myself lost and looking for a taxi to the train station.

Well, it may have taken me 2 times to finally learn this common Thai scam but you can be sure it will never happen to me again. As soon as my backpack arrived later that day I was reading my Lonely Planet book and sure enough this common scam was the first thing listed in the"Dangers &Annoyance" section!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

3 flights, 20 hours in the air, 15 hours in the airport and 2 days later I have finally arrived in Bangkok. Getting here was a bit difficult thanks to snow, ice, mechanical problems, missed connections and lost luggage but I made it in one piece so am thankful for that!

Lonely Planet's description of Bangkok pretty much sums up my last 3 days...
"This high-energy city loves neon and noise, chaos and concrete, fashion and the future. Although it's constantly on the move, everyone is stuck in a traffic jam somewhere within a mountain range of skyscrapers and soot-stained apartment towers. And past the ringing mobile phones and blaring pop music is an old fashioned village napping in the shade of a narrow soi (lane). It's an urban connoisseur's dream come true with the past, present and future jammed into a humid pressure cooker. Because it's a revolving door for travel throughout the region, you'll be confused and challenged when you first arrive, relieved and pampered when you return, and slightly sentimental when you depart for the last time."
Upon arriving at the Bangkok Airport I had no bag, no guide book and no plan. My first task was to make my way into the city and find a place to stay. After putting out several couch surfing requests none of the people I reached out to were able to host me. I didn't stress too much about not having a bed to sleep in because I knew there would be plenty of hostels and guesthouses and I figured it wouldn't be too difficult to find a place. However, after wandering up the backpacker haven Khao San Road I quickly learned that making a reservation may have been a good idea. The first few guesthouses were full and before I headed further up the road I decided to stop in an internet cafe to check my email. I was pleased to see an email from a friend of a friend, Bill, who lives in Bangkok and offered me his guest bedroom. He sent over his address and miraculously I found it without too much difficulty (I was quite impressed with my navigation skills seeing as I was on the opposite side of town and had to take a tuk tuk, taxi, subway and sky train to get there!). I could not have asked for a better place to begin my SE Asia trip than Bill's gorgeous apartment. It was also convenient seeing as though I would be without my backpack for 2 full days, so staying with Bill meant I did not have to go out and buy all new toiletries.

After a short nap I joined Bill and his friends for dinner. On the walk over he explained that he was embarrassed to be taking me to this place for dinner but told me the food was awesome. It wasn't until we walked in the doors that I realized why he was embarrassed, he took me to a strip club for dinner! Soi Cowboy is a single lane strip of 30 bars comprising one of 3 red light districts in the city. The bar we went to had 5 naked girls up on stage dancing as we ate our delicious ham and cheese sandwiches. Bill knows the owner, an American guy who cooks up one of the best Western meals in the city. For only 200 baht (about $6) we got a massive sandwich with home cured ham and swiss, potato salad, deviled eggs, and a bowl of bean soup. After dinner we headed to a sports bar and played some pool before going to Soi 33, known for it's "girlie bars." These are basically bars where men go to pick up a woman for the night, scantily clad girls dance and serve drinks as they butter up their prospects for the night. I guess I should mention that this was Bill's best friend's last weekend in Thailand. He had lived here for 2 years and works with Bill at United Aid and is moving on to his next assignment in Sudan. So needless to say the weekend was filled with drunken farewells and girlie bars! It was definitely an interesting welcome into Thailand....but I loved every minute of it!