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!