Tuesday, April 13, 2010

THAILAND

Thailand was to me a cornucopia type of place. A mixed bag if you will.

First, a little history for all you remaining history buffs out there:
It is believed that the first Thais migrated from China. No small wonder there. They settled along the river valleys and formed small farming communities that eventually fell to,yet again, the expansion of the Khmer Empire that started out in Cambodia. This gives one the perspective of just how vast this ancient empire once was. The southern part of Thailand(since Thailand is so huge) was originally ruled by the Srivijaya empire that was originally from the island of Sumatra, Indonesia which is a quick boatride across the Andaman Sea to the west of southern Thailand. By the 13th and 14th century Thailand began to achieve independence and emerged as Sukhothai(meanign "Rising Happiness"); considered the first Thai kingdom. They began to chip away at the crumbling empire of the Angkor which we all well versed on now due to our former expert travel documenting. :) The third Sukhothai king, Ramkhamhaeng, is credited for developing a Thai writing system as well as building Angkor-style temples that defined early Thai art. This kingdom sprawled from the south all the way up to the north via the mighty Mekong river even into what is now Myanmar(Burma) and is regarded as the cultural and artistic kernel of the modern state of Thailand. In comes a new guy in 1350 named Prince U Thong who overthrows the Sukhothai power and establishes his own in its place. Prince U was more posh than his predecessors. He made Thailand a more cosmopolitan place on the Asian route and this courted many European nations in seach of new hip places to colonize. This new guy and his empire managed to thwart foreign takeover attempts for 400 years, even the pesty French regime,until a successful invasion by the Burmese in 1765 that outsted the early monarchy and eliminated it once and for all. The Thais eventually rebuilt their capital into present day Bangkok, established by the Chakri dynasty, which continues to occupy the royal palace today. As western imperialism marched across the globe, King Mongkut in 1851-68 and his son as his successor,King Chulalongkorn, in 1868-1910 successfully steered the country into modern day Thailand without becoming a colonial vassal. In return for the country's continued independence, Chulalongkorn returned huge tracts of land in Laos and Cambodia to French-controlled Indochina- an unprecedented territorial loss in Thai history. Not so smart a move in retrospect it would seem.

In 1932 a peaceful coup converted the country into a constitutional monarchy, loosely based on the British model. Nearly half a century of chaos followed in its wake and that is where Thailand is still today. There is political chaos going on in this country as I write this blogpost. Sadly,there is a ton of censorship in the US on foreign countries but all you have to do is watch the BBC news tomorrow and you will see firsthand the political turmoil that is going on in Thailand right now. These are not happy people. They are looking for a better life and are blaming the gov't for sitting on their ass and doing nothing about it. Fastforward to today. There has been serious rioting going on in Bangkok almost every day for the past month or so. 20 plus rioters have been either shot and killed or beaten these past few weeks. These people are dead serious and are willling to die for their cause. It is quite moving to be here and witness this movement firsthand. And to think that we were in Bangkok about a month ago walking down the very streets that the riots are happening on right now and narrowly escaped being caught up in this spectacle. Gives me a very vast appeciation and closeness for life in Southeast Asia.

During the 1990's, Thailand was one of the so-called Tiger economies roaring ahead with one of the world's highest growth rates at the time. It was posed to join the ranks of Hong Kong,Singapore and other Tiger nations at the time but the unabated growth soon imploded sending Thailand and its neighbors into a regional currency crisis in 1997. The freewheeling days came to an end and the country entered a 3 year recession. The IMF agreed to bail them out if they followed very strict rules that any country would say no to if they had other options. They agreed to the terms. Remarkably, Thailand made progress in the following years but the heavily tourist dependent country took a double sucker punch TKO with the outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003 and the bird flu in 2004 and then as if that wasn't enough the devasting tsunami that pounded the Andaman coast on Dec. 26th, 2004 set them back even further. Talk about when it rains it pours. Wow! Now, they are just trying to recouperate from all the punches they have taken all the while being ruled by a government that has apparently fallen asleep at the wheel.

And now for the fun stuff.

CHANG MAI:
We started our journey in the north and headed south. Chang Mai is a place where you can soak up the intellectual atmosphere of Thailand's northern capital city of culture, learn how to cook exquisite Thia food and meditate or get an infamous Thai massage. To Thai people, Chang Mai is a national symbol. The main part is surrounded by a moat(a sort of water levy system) that goes around the town in a square fashion. As Katie already mentioned, Thailand is the first place in our journey through SEA that showed highly visible signs of westernization(i.e. we saw our first starbucks!) So while Thailand is at full throttle to welcome westernization, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam are all a bit reluctant to follow suit due to reasons I have already mentioned. Chang Mai was a very hip place to hang out. Lots of good restaurants, and a great city vibe and the locals were extra nice to us. Especially the lady that managed our guesthouse. I think she fell in love with Katie as I was pretty much non-existent and invisible most of the time we were around her. At one point she even suggested that I take a hike so she and Katie could go shopping and spend the day together. Talk about a bash to the ole ego! So while in Chang Mai we did a lot of activities as Katie mentioned. The 6 mile trek was a @#$^%#$^ to walk - pardon my french. The elephant trek was a mixed bag of feelings. It was nice to be on top of such a majestic animal who was kind enough to give us a ride through the forest to our Bamboo rafts that were waiting for us at the river. On the other hand, to see a local mistreat such a graceful animal was very hard to stomach. I will most likely never ride on an elephant again. The bamboo rafting was especially fun mostly because it was such a challenge to keep it afloat and going in the right direction. As katie said, I did most of the work. At one point I traded places with the thai guy in the back who was acting as our rudder because he took to many breaks and tired out too fast. I soon realized why he tired out so fast. Being the rudder on an bamboo raft is like trying to steer a 50 ton ship with a paddle. After about 30 min of acting as the replacement rudder I soon was fired from my position by the captain of the raft in the front because I apparent did not follow his commands very well on when to steer left and right. What do you expect from someone who does not understand Thai??? I think I did a great job on my own, thank you very much!!! And then, after I relenquished my position in the back the captain preceeded to run us right into a giant rock as he was steering us through some rapids. It felt like we ran into an iceberg. I flew completely off the raft into the river, lost my bamboo pole/paddle, and almost busted my head open on the very rock he ran us into. Now I say to you, who is the one who should have gotten fired from their spot?? Anyway, in the end it was a very challenging and fun activity. And I think Katie was sitting in the front looking pretty most of the time maybe even reading her book while we slaved on the raft for her. At one point she may even have been issuing her own commands like. "Oh, look out there is a rock here, a rock there. Good job of paddling, keep up the good work guys, yawn, yawn!) Just kidding babe. You were right. There were too many bamboo poles in the water and not enough room for everyone on the raft to help. And you did offer many times to give me a break. Thanks for that. :P

So as Katie mentioned, before the rafting we ended up in a small village in the forest after that ridiculously long trek where we would sleep for the night in,yes, bamboo huts. I have come to develop a great appreciation for bamboo due to my journeys is southeast asia.Bamboo, in case you haven't figured it out yet is the quenticential necessary resource for life in Thai backlands for village people. It is such a fascinating tree/shrub or whatever it is. Without bamboo, life in SEA would be much more difficult or practically impossible. Not only is bamboo used as a main building material for houses, boats, baskets, rope, etc. but it is also served in food as it is also edible. The ultimate survival piece! Prety cool, eh? I have had a few soups with bamboo shoots in them and I must say that it is quite flavorful as well. Just thought I would share my thoughts with everyone on the "essence of bamboo".

After the long trek, we had a very tasty Thai dinner that the local village cook made for us and sat next to a fire that night and sang campsongs we knew and listened to the locals sing Thai campsongs that we didn't know. At one point our bamboo boat captain pulled out what can only be described as Thai moonshine and started to pass it around the campfire. I decided to brave it and test it out. It tasted nothing like what I expected but it was indeed a potent potient so I only had one swig. I think our boat captain was a little dismayed as I think he was expecting us to drink it up that night and be merry with him but we had an early morning the next day. In the end, they were all nice guys and were very entertaining and made it fun the whole way.

As Katie mentioned, aside from all that we also did some ziplining in these ridiculously tall trees while in Chang Mai. It was the best time! I felt a little like Tarzan flying through those trees. Lots and lots of fun!

I really enjoyed Chang Mai. It was a very cool place that was a welcome break from the heavily traveled tourist trap commercialized kind of areas that we were getting tired of.

BANGKOK:
Bangkok is a world in and of its own. Wow, what an exotic place! It is really quite hard to describe this place and do any justice. As I said earlier, Thailand was to me a sort of cornucopia kind of place and Bangkok was a big reason why it was. I guess the best way to describe it is Chang Mai is like combining Yosemite with say some place like Santa Fe while Bangkok is a place that might feel like Las Vegas combined with Los Angeles. Lots of freaks everywhere on the streets and everything you could imagine and not imagine is going on there. Bangkok is a city that is always on the move. Ancient temples in the shadows of space age shopping malls, soaring skyscrapers towering over tumbledown hovels, ubercool cafes surrounded by simple street stalls. Bangkok felt as if it was a portal to the past, present, and future. Like being on the starship enterprise portal and echoing the words: Energize!

What a major mental trip this place was! I won't give you the details of what we saw there(it would take far too many pages)but I will tell you that it was quite fascinating to see the "creatures" that inhabit this town. If there were ever a place where the word unisex applied as a universal term, it is in Bangkok. I actually liked Bangkok. It is a very big city with a positive vibe. It kinda felt like being in NYC for those of you who know what it feels like to hang out in the big apple. It is a party town for sure. Lots of bars line the main streets with live bands every night that you can listen to by just pulling up a chair on the street in front of the bars. Really cool atmosphere. The talent is questionable, but atleast they make it fun. We met Katie's friend Rob from Luang Prabang there and hung out for a few days, hit some bars, did some shopping and did a ton of people watching. It was lots of fun!

Ko Phan Gan(affectionately a.k.a Turtleteer Island):

Ahh, and finally we get to the volunteer section of our travels through Thailand. Again, this was another big influence in the cornucopia basket I got while visiting Thailand. We spent almost 2 weeks volunteering on this island. Our arrival was a sign of things to come. We arrived on what they call a longtail boat. Basically, a very old beaten up wooden can that has a tarp and a very long propeler shaft. Not exactly kosher. As soon as we arrived you could feel the heat. For whatever reason, the heat was twice as intense here than anywhere else in southern Thailand. Maybe it was because we were exactly on the equator and the intense sun was directly over us all day long? Not sure. Either way, it was Africa kind of hot there! Almost unbearable at times. So as the story goes, the boat dumped us in what can only be described as "the mud flats". As soon as you step off the boat you sink into mud that goes up to your ankles. Strap the 50 lb backpack on and you sink another 4 inches. And it was scorching hot mud! The sun had basically melted it to mush. Not what either of us was expecting on arrival. But, we quickly adjusted to our new world. You pretty much had to.

The beaches were splendid! So prestine and uninhabited just as you would expect on a remote isolated island. It was kind of like being on a Club Med type of beach. You know the kind of beach that you would pay a gazillion more $$$ for just to have it all to yourself with no other tourists in your way. Lot's of endless beachline just to lose yourself in and let the mind just wonder. That's kinda what it felt like.

We stayed in a small village nestled near the middle of the island. This is a village that was pummeled by the Tsunami in 2004. It had been rebuilt thanks in large part to the Lions Club and was aptly named the Lyon Village. So the way the accomodations worked is the local villagers were asked to house the volunteers during our time of stay. This was for two reasons by my best guess; 1) As we were told it was to help educate the locals on why we were there in the first place so they would stop eating the turtle eggs as they have been passed down by generations as a delicacy. This seemed to be helping a little bit as they atleast knew that the turtles were in danger of extinction with our presence. Not sure if they cared much about it though. Hard to tell since we did not speak their language. 2) Most likely, my guess, is that it helped push down the costs of turtle project. Volunteers used to stay in a resort on the other side of the island but my guess is this must have become too pricey.

Not much was spoken between the volunteers and the locals as none of them knew how to speak english. Your basic hi,bye,goodnight,it's really hot was about all that went back and forth. As for the living quarters, they were hideous! It was the worst living arrangements for us on the entire trip, even surpassed the worse places that we stayed in while traveling in India. Whew! But, this was expected as we were pretty much told that this is how it would be. Even armed with this knowledge prior to arrival, it was still a little harder to bear than I expected. I think the one thing I will never forget is learning how to use a squat toilet. It was a humiliating experience by western standards. It took me around a week to finally figure it out. Let's just say that flexibility is very key and leave it at that.

As for the voluteering, it was a mixed experience. I left with a new found appreciation for Thai Reggae. We made some good friends in the process which was nice but the volunteer aspect fell short of our expecations. We specifically planned the dates so that we would be there during hatchling season so we could see some little turtles and help them on their way to the ocean.Unfortunately, even though it was high turtle season we did not get to help any to sea. There were about 9 to 10 nests in the area at the time of our arrival. Even so, none of the nests produced any hatchlings that we were able to witness. This was very disappointing to both of us for many reasons that need not be mentioned. We did camp out by one nest one of the nights each of us taking our turn at watch during the night in high hopes that we would see some cuties crawling out in the middle of the night to brave the sea but to no avail. In the end, we were happy to come away with a totally different kind of experience on our trip from the usual stuff we had been doing prior to volunteering.

I walked away from that place with many mixed feelings, too hard to describe in short words. Either way, I will always have a new found respect for sea turtles and their habitat that they are trying so hard to survive in and how humanity has done nothing but desecrate their environment and does not even give a damn that all these turtles may someday be gone! The same applies to our rain forests, oceans, air quality,and the entire food chain. How very sad it is to see the effects of what we do as a species to this earth. So arrogant, blind, short-sided and narrow-minded of us to just assume that life will go on as expected and that the next generation will probably have to deal with it as we basically ruin everything in nature that we touch. Ignorance is bliss! Maybe someday all of humanity will wake up,unite,and realize that mother nature will some day take all these things away from us if we don't do something about it now. I sure hope so!!! especially after what I have learned on this trip, not just on turtleteer island.

Ko Samui:

After our extended goodwill efforts on turtleteer island we decided to relax a bit on a very touristy island off of the east coast of southern Thailand(the other side.) So we basically just stayed at a resort for a couple of days and hit the pool, washed a ton of clothes, took a hot shower for the first time in 2 weeks, and checked emails as there was no internet to speak of on turtleteer island at all. I also blogged a bit while I had some downtime since as you might have noticed we had not been able to do so since we were exiled for a while.

Ko Samui was not an original destination for us. Just a stop off to our true destination, Ko Tao. Ko Samui was really kind of lame. It is a place for families to take their children and basically stay at a lame resort for weeks doing nothing but sunbathing and drinking way over-priced drinks and paying way too much for a room there. No backpackers haven was to be found and with that hardly any backpackers even go to this island. I think I may have seen 2 or 3 probably doing the same thing we were doing. Taking a quick break to recharge the batteries before heading somewhere else. Pretty boring stuff.

Ko Tao:

Slightly to the north of Ko Samui is Ko Tao. Ko Tao actually means Turtly Island, not to be confused with Turtleteer Island. Ko Tao was way cool for me! This is the diving mecca of southern Thailand. I had been waiting with anticipation for this island to come up on the itinerary for quite some time. Finally, I got to dive in pristine waters and what great diving it was! I saw some of the most fascinating sea life and was able to put my newly found diving skills to the test. I must say that I am now an expert diver for my level. :) I was even awarded a badge of honor on dive day 3. Why do you ask? Well let me tell you, because I came face to face with a huge Trigger Fish that decided to attack my flipper. The badge was awarded to me not because I braved the attack but because I did not panic and waste all my air in the process. I was told I handled it like a pro.:) Hence, the badge of honor. In addition, I was also told by many dive instructors at our dive shop that they were jealous of me. Why you ask? Well let me tell you why, because it is apparently a right of passage to becoming a so-called master diver during the course of training to become an instructor there. So, I basically lapped a few guys without even trying. Rad!! Hehe!!

For Katie it would not be as cool an island as it was for me as she decided not to participate in the diving activities there as she doesn't really care for it too much. So for her it was kind of a bore to be here except when we did stuff together. As for me, I dove a total of 6 times and had lots of fun doing it. I made alot of new dive friends in the process as well. Other notable things we did on Ko Tao island: We met up with a friend we had met way back in Vietnam that happened to be on the same trail as we were at this point. Funny how when traveling in SEA that paths seem to cross more often than expected with people you meet along the way. So we hung out at the local bars at night, had some very tasty bbq shrimp,fish,squid and reasonably priced drinks, sat beachside on cozy cots lined with tiki lamps that were all laid out just a few feet from the waves crashing at our feet. This island was totally a backpacker haven. Backpackers from across the globe all gathered in one tiny part of the world, it seemed. So much fun! The bars/restaurants were all nestled along the beachside where you could watch an amazing sunset after a great day of diving and then have a few drinks and maybe even a little dancing and tell eachother about our great dive day and what we saw and also exchange travel stories. Simpy the best!

Katie and I were able to do some things together. We did some really awesome snokeling together as well as some totally rad cliff diving off of an 18 meter platform. It was a rush to jump off of rocks into the crashing waves below. Ko Tao was totally my kind of island. This island was the highlight of my entire trip up to this point. I could have stayed there for a month and not even notice it. I caught some cool pics and videos that I will try to post later.

On to Indonesia. See you there. :)

1 comments:

Anonymous,  April 29, 2010 at 6:40 PM  

Nice..sounds fun! Too bad about the no show of the turtles during the night watch!

Pat

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