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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Loving Thai Loving Villages

Hello hello! Once again, sorry for the delay- I'm doing my best to get back onto my weekend update routine, but I guess weekends away for me mean more interesting posts for you. So this past weekend was probably tops so far for my trip, and honestly up there in most memorable experiences of my life. I'll do my best to describe it all, but I'm warning you ahead of time, one of the themes for this post is going to be my inability to articulate just how spectacular and special everything that I was experiencing was. So I guess you'll just have to hop on a plane to northern Thailand at some point to experience it all for yourself!

Alright so let's get going- Since I last wrote, Aaron (from Georgetown) asked Dustin and me if we would be interested in a weekend trip to a little town called Mae Hong Son. The town is close to the Burma border, about an 8 hour drive northwest of Chiang Mai. I hesitated for a while, mostly because originally I had been planning on taking a day trip to Doi Inthanon (the highest peak in Thailand) with some people in the house, but when that fell through I decided to just go ahead and join up with Aaron. It was a very last minute decision (Friday afternoon when he was plannning on leaving Saturday morning) and funny enough his mom (who is visiting here in Chiang Mai) had decided to come along as well, so we had a nice little group for our adventure. To be honest, I actually wasn't expecting much of an adventure going in- I had heard that there's really not much in Mae Hong Son, but that it's mostly just a very beautiful town in the rural north, great for just a relaxed weekend and a change of scenery. I had no complaints with just hanging out surrounded by some scenic mountains for a weekend, so I booked my plane ticket (we weren't about to make that 8 hour drive, especially with only 2 days available for our trip) and met Aaron and his mom at the airport Saturday morning for our 1/2 hour flight.

So once we landed (it was literally one of those trips where you went up and and came straight back down), we caught a tuk tuk to try to find a place to stay for the night. We tried out one place that we had read aobut in Lonely Planet, which turned out to be beautiful- set off the road for a ways, it was basically a little community of rustic bunga lows set into the wooded hillside. The bungalows themselves were each uniquely decorated and really quite charming, each with its own balcony overlooking the hillside, but since it was so isolated and we only had such a short time we decided against it (plus, most of the cabins had nothing covering the windows, and even though the place did have mosquito nets, we figured this was just asking for trouble in the middle of the forest in the rural north of Thailand). So after deciding against this place (and actually a second place as well), we finally said goodbye to our poor tuk-tuk driver and settled in to our third try- it actually worked out really well, air conditioned with TVs, right on the lake in the middle of town, and all for a pretty cheap price. Plus, it was just about 20 yards from the main road in Mae Hong Son- just to give you some perspective, when I say the main road, I don't mean the biggest and busiest road among several hoppin streeets, I mean the only main road in this town. Of course, it's not a town in Thailand if it doesn't have at least three 7-11's (which are always nice to step into for a quick break from the heat), but after this one street the rest of Mae Hong Son was basically just straight up run-down/impoverished dwellings on tiny side streets, which were often unpaved (or too small to even call them 'streets'- basically just walking paths to get through the clusters of huts). Anyways, the main road did have a decent selection of restaurants and small shops selling ethnic Burmese crafts. So once we checked into our guesthouse and put our bags down and everything, we headed out to a place for lunch (another Lonely Planet pick- we were sold on the descriptions of Burmese and Thai food and organic Burmese coffee hand-picked in the border villages). Lunch turned out to be quite interesting and really the source of the best parts of the weekend, but I'll leave you hanging on that one for a bit and talk about the rest of our Saturday first.

So after lunch we basically did a bit more walking around...actually, now that I think about it, it was a whole lot more walking around. We started with a stroll around the lake in the center of town, stopping at a couple of Burmese-style temples along the way. I know peope tend to get "templed out" fairly quickly in Chiang Mai, and I'm no longer stopping to stare when I pass one every 50 feet or so walking around the city, but when I do take the time to stop and take them in each one turns out to be spectacular (and always a lot of fun to photograph). These were no different, especially with the neighboring lake and mountainous backdrop, and it was cool to see some slightly different architecture with a more Burmese-influenced design.

The rest of the lake wasn't really much, but nice to walk around for a relaxing stroll- it's not too often that I get to just go for a walk, just for the sake of walking, so it was pretty relaxing. After a pit-stop at an upstairs restaurant overlooking the lake for some smoothies, we headed out to do a bit more exploring of the town, but as we had been warned there really wasn't a whole lot of exploring left to do. We started down one road that seemed promising but ended up just meeting back with the one main road previously discussed. Anyways, we finally made our way to what had been our original destination, Doi Kong Mu. Doi Kong Mu is very similar to Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, basically a Buddhist wat built up on a mountain with spectacular views. I actually ended up liking Doi Kong Mu better than Doi Suthep, despite the epic climb to the top (it was quite a steep walk, and with the heat I was not a pretty site by the time we reached the wat). It's a Shan-built temple (one of the Burmese ethnic groups I've mentioned) about 1500 meters above the city, and unlike Doi Suthep we were treated to an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding area (more like 270 I guess but still, an upgrade). I also found the view itself to be a bit more scenic- we were basically looking down at the tiny town (which, again for perspective, we found from our vantage point was shorter in length than the airport runway). Unlike the sprawling Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son is basically completely surrounded by moutains, so from the top it looked like we were looking at a miniature city inside of a big bowl.

Oh one funny thing that happened while hanging out at the top- I ended up making friends with a dog who lived at the temple (might be kinda gross, but I couldn't help myself- she was a beautiful dog and I felt bad when Aaron ignored her, so I had to at least acknowledge her and give her a little scratch on the head). She ended up hopping straight up onto the bench where I was sitting, and just sorta sat with me looking out at the view together. This was too cute, but the funniest part was that after a few minutes of scratching her head, I got up to walk around some more and she jumped down and followed me all around! Not at all in an annoying street dog way, just trotting along by my side looking around like she was exploring too. Then, when we decided to make our way back down the mountain, she again followed me, and stayed with me the entire way down the mountain! Again, never the type of timidly stalking from behind like she's hoping for some scraps or anything, but confidently and playfully taking the lead right in front of me, jumping on and off the wall they had along the side of the path and basically just enjoying the company. Too funny, but unfortunately we parted ways at the base (and I tried to find the closest place to wash my hands haha).

This was basically our event for the day, but one more random funny occurence from dinner- Of course after our hike up the mountain we were starving and decided to go back to our smoothie restaurant for dinner. We ordered our food, they brought Aaron's fairly quickly, but after a while of conversation we realized that it was taking an unusually long time for them to bring the food for Aaron's mom and me (seriously, it was bizarre how long it took, especially since I had just ordered some pad thai- you'd think they'd like have that stuff pre-made here). Aaron went down to check on the food and it turns out that they had literally forgotten about our meals. The funniest thing is, we were the only customers in the restaurant, so it's not like the staff was crazy busy with other peoples' orders- they were lounging on the street just people watching, and literally forgot about our order. Once I got some food in my stomach I thought it was kinda hilarious (partly because the staff found it rather hilarious too), but imagine that happening in the States? I've been warned plenty about 'Thai time' and everything, but I thought this just epitomized the Thai way of life.

Alright quick background before getting into Sunday- rewind back to Saturday's lunch. We happened to strike up some small talk with a couple of westerners sitting at the table next to us, who, as it turned out, were living in Mae Hong Son for a while (one was a huge Swedish guy who claimed that he used to be a "city guy" but found Chiang Mai too overwhelming for him- I was quite curious what his idea of being a "city guy" was if his tolerance for urban life peaked with Chiang Mai...). Anyways, I asked them for any recommendations for a weekend activity and they suggested trying to take a day trip to a small village further north called Mae Aw. They said it was a cool little Chinese village buried along the Thai-Burma border, and after reading rave reviews in Lonely Planet about the drive out there alone, we were sold. After shopping around a bit to find someone who would drive us out there, we finally found a little old guy who gave us a good price for a private air-con van and promised to be our personal tour guide throughout the day. I told Aaron and his mom right after we booked him that I was getting good vibes from this guy, and he really played such a huge role in making Sunday one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

After an early start, we piled into the van at 8:30 on Sunday and started off on our adventure. The van itself was great because I got a whole row to myself, so I was literally bouncing back and forth from one window seat to the next to try to catch as much of the scenery along the drive as possible. Honestly, the car ride itself and the accompanying scenery was one of the best parts of the day- I'm just disapointed that I don't have more picutres of some of the amazing landscapes we passed along the way (either we were going too fast and the pictures would blur, or I would miss the opening in the trees or roadside bushes in the delay between when I pressed the button and when the picture would actually take). Throughout the whole ride, we were passing stretches of rice fields in the absolute middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by stretches of mountains that you would expect more in Switzerland than in Thailand, with groups of villagers out working in their big circular hats like something straight out of National Geographic. One of the coolest feelings for me was just thinking of how really remote we actually were- I'm talking about villages and areas that are almost a two hour drive north of a tiny town which itself is an 8 hour drive north of Chiang Mai. In fact, until just a few years ago, it would have taken 8 hours to travel where we went in just about in hour, because the road still had not been paved. I pass by some rice paddies and farmers on my way to work everyday in Chiang Mai (after all, Chiang Mai is about as remote as you can get and still legally be called a "city") but out where we were on Sunda, there were no neighboring highways, no 7-11's, not even any sense of a 'town'- there were generally just a handful or less of simple bamboo huts overlooking the rice fields on the closest hillside. Like I said, I know I'm going to be completely unable to describe just how breathtaking it was to drive through all this for a couple of hours, but all I kept thinking was "now I've seen Thailand". Looking back on the rest of my time here, I realized that as cool as my experiences had been, I really hadn't seen the heart of Thailand- In some sense, Chiang Mai and Bangkok are the cultural centers of Thailand, and I don't mean to downplay the richness of Chiang Mai's history, culture and spirit. But this weekend made me realize that it was the people in these villages and the surrounding countryside they call home, both literally untouched by the modern world, that give the country its mystique, that are the fountains for any and all culture you see in Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Basically, you get the sense driving through this area that it all starts there. Hopefully I'm not beating a dead horse, but the whole scene was just more genuinely "untouched" than anything I've ever experienced- It seemed almost fictional, like I was stepping back in time, and yet I got a powerful feeling that it was the most "real" place I've ever visited. And all this was just the start of our day...

So after driving for about 45 minutes, we reached our first stop- a post card-perfect (the most perfect of picture-perfect scenes) waterfall called Nam Tok Pha Sua (pretty sure we were at this one, but it might have been called something else). Anyways, the falls were incredible-all the more powerful being in the middle of the rainy season, and completely tucked away in an opening in the jungle- is it weird that it reminded me of something out of Peter Pan? Not sure why I got that image, but part of me was expecting some mermaids to pop out of the pool below the falls while we were there...The one thing I was disapointed about was that the path to the bottom/base of the falls was blocked because the rainy season had made the water so powerful and dangerous (but hey I guess I can't complain because this just made the view from the top all the more scenic).

So after spending a short while taking in the falls, we got back in the van and again continued on our spectacular drive. One section of the drive after the falls included an extremely steep climb through some very windy roads, and of course no street lights or anything like that - basically not a road I would care to experience at night, especially during the rainy season. At one point we were so high that we were above the clouds (my ears even started to pop). After another 45 minutes or so we puled off the paved road and drove a bit down a dirt road into a tiny little village (again, just a cluster of the tiny one-room bamboo huts, thatched roofs, no electricity, etc.). After a couple of minutes, we got out of the van to walk for a bit because the road was so muddy and slippery that the van couldnt even get up a tiny little slope. So after walking for just about 10 minutes through a narrow clearing (during which I received a private lesson from our tour guide about the "king of opium" who used to live in that village and the glory days when opium was just grown along the side of this path and 100% free for any one who wanted it) we came to a wooden sign with "Thailand" painted in white on its front. I was a bit confused at first until I looked just behind the sign and saw a similar sign, this one with "Myanmar" painted in white. Yes, we were officially at the Thai-Burma boder! Unfortunately, we couldn't see any Burmese villages or anything on the other side, but we were treated to yet another breathtaking view of endless mountains from our vantage point on top of somewhat of a ridge running along this mountain. It was almost nice that the view wasn't corrupted by villages- it gave the experience a very powerful feeling as I couldn't help but think of the vastness of the country that lay before me. Just as we were arriving at the border, two Burmese women were crossing over with baskets of goods. It was interesting to see the surprised looks they gave us, which made me wonder when the last time they had seen a Westerner was, if ever. We got the soldier who was guarding the post to let us cross the border, though we werent't allowed to walk too far (basically had to stay in sight, which mean within about 20 yards or so). Still, it was very cool to say I was officially in Burma. In any case, it likely would have taken quite some time to reach anything of note- our guide told me that the two women we saw likely came from the closest village on the Burmese side, which would have been about an hour's walk through the mountains (it's hard to exagerate how isolaetd these people are).

So after a little photo opp on the Burma side of the border, we walked along the ridge for a few minutes before our guide led us up a small slope to what looked like some sort of camp. We noticed a stretch of 3-foot ditches along the perimeter of the ridge, and when we saw some sandbags and overhead cover scattered along the perimeter we realized we were at some sort of military outpost. I honestly thought it was abandoned- there were a few little bamboo huts, again with just one tiny room and a very low roof (obviously meant exclusively for sleeping), and a few open-sided structures with thatched roofs. But after a few minutes of walking around looking at the view, a Thai soldier came out from one of the huts and started chatting with us. His name was Ooan (sp?) a middle aged guy who spoke pretty decent English after starting off with some small talk, we were soon talking all about his family (he had a son my same age at university), about how he received his university diploma from the princess of Thailand, even about how he met his wife at university. He brought out his camera and was showing us pictures of all of this, of his family, his graduation, and I got a kick out of the fact that pretty soon he was asking for to take some pictures with us. He even introduced us to his commanding officer- the whole thing was just another amazing experience- who knew I would be hanging out with these Thai soldiers at their camp on the Burma border for the better part of an hour on a random Sunday morning!

So once we finally left the army camp, we walked down a hand-made mud "stair case" through a bit of fields, and finally got to the Chinese village of Mae Aw. It turned out that we didn't really see a ton of the village but it was interesting to see all the lanterns and decorations with Chinese writings. It was also cool to learn a bit about the village from our guide (another personal lesson)- Mae Aw was started by some Chinese renegade fighters who fled China and started this village as a sort of military outpost. Apparently its one of the last remaining KNT settlements, and for a while was used as a supply center to smuggle basic goods to the opium king I mentioned before. More recently, Taiwan expressed its interest in getting the village and the people to join its population (I guess Taiwan was trying to boost its population, but why look to Thailand? If I'm remembering correctly, I feel like there was some other country nearby with a bit of a people surplus...). Anyways, the Mae Aw people rejected the offer and chose instead to remain a part of Thailand- actually, it's Thai name (Ban Rak Thai) literally means "Thai Loving Village". Our one fun little activity in the village was going for a free tea-tasting session (basically the same concept as wine-tasting)...the cool thing was that on the drive in, we had literally seen women out in the field picking the tea leaves that we were now drinking.

Alright this feels like an epic entry already, but nearing the end (I think...). So after we left the tea tasting/Mae Aw, we got back in the van, drove through some more (never-ending) breathtaking scenery, and finally arrived at a tiny little village of Shan ethnicity, where I guess our guide was fairly familiar with the villagers. I was shocked at the opportunity to see something like this- in Mae Aw they had at least had electricity (though only as of the last 3 years or so, and still no running water), but pulling into this village we were back in "complete isolation" land. Right when our van pulled up we were immediately greeted by two tiny children who came up to stare, their faces and clothes smudged with dirt- it was the type of sight that gives you sort of a pit in your stomach, and yet they seemed healthy, well-fed (big plus about Thailand being a rice-surplus country, there seems to be very little starvation, though of course plenty of poverty), and there was something beautiful about their curiosity. But again, this seemed like a village straight out of National Geographic- I saw a couple little 5 year-old girls carrying infants on their backs, back-pack style, and my guide was telling me how polygamy is still common (one of the leaders of the village had three wives, aged 62, 42, and 22)...One of the most amazing parts of the day (really one of the most special experiences of my life) was getting invited into the house of a 97 year old couple. They literally looked like they would crumble to pieces if you touched them (I was actually extremely annoyed with myself a few hours later when I accidentally deleted my one great picture of the old man, but at least I still have one of the woman). Aaron and his mom chose not to come into the couple's home for whatever reason, which really was too bad they missed out on this. Their home was a tiny one room hut, easily smaller than my 1st year college dorm room, with a very low roof. There was a pile of produce in one corner, and a small stone structure acting as a sort of stove with a big pan sitting on top and an open fire underneath- there was something really awful-looking in the pan, with flies swarming all around it, but I came to find out that it was food for their pigs. In another corner, there was an open smoldering fire, over which hung some vegetables and small skewers of meat that they were smoking. The combined open fire and wood burning stove gave the room the smell of one of those old colonial re-enactment houses from Williamsburg or Old Saybrook. I tried to converse with the woman a bit in Thai, but it didn't really go too far. The amazing thing was as we were leaving, she gave me and my guide each a small stalk of corn on the cob. It was such a simple gesture, and yet was so moving, especially after seeing how she lived and considering how much it must have meant to her to even give that corn away. My guide kept insisting that it was a sign of respect, that it meant she really respected me, and while part of me kept thinking that it was just him being a flattering tour guide, he seemed so genuine and actually moved himself that I was quite ready to believe him - overall it was an incredibly special experience, exactly the type of experience I had dreamed about having coming into Thailand, but never though it would actually happen.

Anyways, after we visited with these people, we walked for a while through the rest of this village and basically just saw how the rest of the people lived. While some people had two story bamboo homes, there was literally no electricity in the entire village, no running water (their "showers" were basically large buckets of water with small pales to scoop the water and pour it over themselves). After walking for a pretty long time we came to a slightly more upscale village (but only very slightly, still the small bamboo huts and thatched roofs, still no running water), but it seemed like a few of the huts were available for tourists to rent. I met another man and spoke to him for a bit about picutres he had of the King and Queen visitng the village and receiving gifts from all the villagers, and about how he had personally grown, picked, ground, and prepared his specialty coffee for the royals. So we continued this epic walk until we reached a stunning lake at the end of town. We took in the view for a bit, and then walked even more around the entire lake. The whole surrounding area and walking path was covered with woods, and dense jungle just beyond that. Most of my time on this walk was spent listening to my guide about the importance of getting back to nature, and how it is impossible to find air that fresh anywhere in the industrialized world- quite true, and there was, in fact, a palpable difference from the air in Chiang Mai.

Alright, so I'm just about spent with all this writing- long story about getting some pictures up on this post, but I'm feeling a bit lazy with that right now and I can't explain how much of a pain it is to post them on here, so if I don't change my mind soon and publish this without pictures, I apologize but prommise there's a decent amount up on Webshots and hope you'll take a look at them there (though like I said, the pictures don't even capture half of the beauty of it all). Hopefully you enjoyed reading the post as much as I enjoyed writing it, even if it does lack the normal illustrations. In other news, I'm officially less than one month away from my return to the States, so that's exciting!

Till next time,

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Operation Dumbo Ride

Hi everyone! Sorry for the delay in getting this posted again, but I figured since last week's post was in the middle of the week as well, it wouldn't seem as long of a wait.

So once again, we've had a bit of turnover in the volunteer house this week. Naomi and Kiera left to travel around down south in the islands for a bit before heading back to Ireland. Pretty hard to believe that it's already been a month since those two arrived at the house. We've had four more volunteers move in to the house since I last wrote, so just meeting and getting to know everyone has kept me busy these last few days. NoMi (I think that's how you spell it...pronounced NoMy) was the first to arrive last Wednesday. She's another Australian, and get this- she's a circus performer with Cirque Du Soleil, has performed all over the world including in Ireland, France, even India for a year. She does all of the aerial acrobatic stuff (trapeze, all the crazy swinging from ropes/sheets, etc.)...she tried to convince me to go bungee-jumping, but let's be real, she's coming from a slightly different perspective as essentially a professional bungee jumper...So the other international arrival is an engineering student from Ireland named Dermot. Some of you faithful readers may be asking "He's back???"- Well, you are remembering correctly- a previous volunteer in the house was also named Dermot, and was also from Ireland. Raise your hand if you have ever met anyone named Dermot before...how about living with two in one summer? Turns out that this new Dermot is now my roommate- a bit of a bummer that I had to give up my solo room, but he's a very cool guy and easy to room with (I did reserve the bottom bunk before he arrived, though...I'll compromise on a lot of things, but immediate proximity to a fan at night is not one of them...). The other two newbies are both American, Eva from New Jersey (goes to Princeton) and Jean from Boston (goes to Hampshire College). Again, both very nice, very artistic and creative personalities which is a lot of fun, and it was nice to have a couple more Americans in the house for the 4th of July (more on that in a bit...I'll go through my weekend chronologically). Anyways, it's quite interesting to meet such a diverse group of people, and I'm learning a lot from it. No Mi, for example, has studied all sorts of crazy things like Chinese massage/medicine, eye analysis, star interpretation, etc. Some of the stuff is questionable ("are you really going to tell me that pressing this spot on a pregnant woman's ankle will lead to birth defects?") but it's all really fascinating.

So Friday night we had a fun group dinner with the whole CCT crew at a Melting Pot-style Thai restaurant. We basically cooked everything in boiling water/broth in a big clay bowl, and just threw in everything from vegetables, tofu, mushrooms, to chicken, beef, shrimp, fish, etc. to make one big stew. My clay pot was doing a little Leaning Tower of Pisa action, which had me a bit nervous with the flaming coals underneath and the boiling water inside, but luckily I managed to keep it under control. After a chill night following dinner, I got up Saturday and decided to head out to a place called Tiger Kingdom. It's almost a zoo-type of attraction, but mostly holds tigers (hence the name, but it's got a few lion cubs and some random parrots flying around). The only person I could get to go with me from the house was Jean, which was a bummer for the rest of the house because it really was such a fun and unusual experience. The deal with Tiger Kingdom is that you can go into the cages and actually play with the baby tiger cubs, and snuggle up with the big adult tigers (they encourage you to not get too playful with the big boys, and you sorta lose any sense of playfulness when you're next to paws that big...). Anyways, we started out with the little baby tiger cubs. I'm pretty sure they were only a few months old, so they were just like the size of a puppy, and actually had more dog-like personalities than cat-like. They were extremely playful and happy, some were pretty mischievous. You can see in this picture to the right that the little guy tried to taste my hand. At one point, I was playing with one little guy when another came over and they started all-out wrestling on my lap...it was really cute but I was trying to keep my hands and feet away from their teeth and paws...Actually, right before we were about to leave the baby tigers to go visit the big ones, a guy working their came over and was talking to me as the tigers were wrestling on my lap- he kept saying "look at how they go straight for the neck! And do you see how padded their paws are? That's for stalking their pray silently- they're natural-born killers!"...Thanks, mister- funny you mention that, cause I'm just headed out to put my face next to the teeth and claws of a full-grown version of these "natural born killers..."

So yeah, after that little play group, we headed over to the cage with the big tigers. To be completely honest, they weren't as much fun as the little ones. Some people have since told me that they think they might drug the tigers up before letting people in, and as much as I would like to think it's not true, I guess it's entirely possible. They were sorta just lying there, though they were awake and alert, and even liked to get their bellies rubbed. It was a bit sad seeing these huge beasts (these "natural born killers") locked up in these cages, and as nice as the facilities were, and as well-taken care of as they seemed, there was just something not right with it. With my deepest apologies to PETA, though, I have to say I was nevertheless still extremely glad I went. They are absolutely gorgeous creatures, and seriously, how cute do the tigers always look in zoos? And yes, they are as comfortable and as snuggly as they look.

Can we all take a second to notice my proud representation of the 'red, white, and blue' on our glorious nation's birthday? The colors were poorly represented among the other American volunteers on Saturday, despite my encouraging, so I can only hope that everyone reading this put on a better performance, wherever you were (the red and white combo on your awkward farmer's tan doesn't count...).

Look at that transition into Saturday night...So of course I've been waiting to indulge in some good ol' American folly for quite some time. We got a whole group from the house to come out to this stadium in Chiang Mai where the American Consulate was hosting a 4th of July party for Americans and guests, complete with raffle prizes, carnival games, and of course, water-melon eating contests (ps. I was one number away from winning a free trip to anywhere in the U.S.)...Of course, I made a bee-line for the hotdog stand. Unfortunately the only burgers available were courtesy of McDonalds, but they did have some amazing BBQ ribs. Also, they felt a need to feature a musical playlist consisting entirely of serious country music- we're talking deep south. Do we try to promote these stereotypes abroad?
Oh well, still fun jamming out to "Achey Breaky Heart". So the night was beautiful until literally two minutes before the fireworks were supposed to start...How typical is that, the rain came just in time for the one part of the night where you had to stare straight up into the sky. But hey, I got to see fireworks on the fourth of July while in Chiang Mai, which is something I was not expecting to be able to do before coming over here.

So Sunday I continued with the animal theme of the weekend. I didn't get my fill of elephants during my whitewater rafting day a couple of weeks ago, so Katie and I decided to do a whole day of elphant riding/education. We got up early for our full day adventure (got picked up before 8:30 am), and drove about an hour outside the city to a park/center out in the mountains where they kept and trained elephants. We started the day off with a bit of a hike through some rice fields to where they actually kept the elephants, and were issued our sweet "elephant-blues" as they call them- you can check out this latest Thai fashion in any of the accompanying elephant pics (just wait till you get to the pics after they issued us our jungle hats). Once in our uniforms, we started on getting aquainted with all the elephants (basically fed them lots of bananas to try to make friends). We then got a bit of a crash course in training/controlling elephants. The awesome thing about this place/day was that we each got our own elephant for the day, we rode them bareback (on their necks, legs up behind their ears, just like actual mahouts) which was so much more legit than riding on a little platform on the elephant's back like I did a couple of weeks ago. Since we had our own elephants, and were basically on our own in terms of controlling the elephant throughout our afternoon jungle trek, the morning was spent getting acquainted with the elephants and learning the different commands. It actually was an amazing feeling being able to control such a huge creature- granted, I only had the basics down, and my man Ham Moon (my ride for the day) was not particularly obedient, but hey I now officially know how to make an elephant go forward, backwards, turn left, right, and stop. I even know how to get them to lift their front leg up for me to use as a step to climb on top of its neck. But yeah, I'm pretty sure they gave me the difficult elephant, not sure if it was on purpose or not. No one else's elephant seemed particularly interested in all the bamboo and leaves on the sides of the path through the jungle, but my guy couldn't stop. One funny thing, though- the guy leading us through the jungle told me that all of the females in the camp refused to mate with Ham Moon- they would all kick him whenever he got close. After a few hours of tugging him off bamboo shoots, I could kinda see why. I'm sure he's that obnoxious guy in the camp who would hit on anything with a trunk (PS Ham Moon is the one with the tusks in the pictures). Anyways, we finished off the day with a nice bath for the elephants in a pond they had back at the camp- obviously we were getting wet, but it was all good after getting caught in a straight up monsoon for the previous couple of hours in the jungle. It actually made the trip a bit more interesting (again, these elephants were navigating some crazy dificult terrain down very narrow, very steep, very slippery paths, over big rocks and everything), and made for some really beautiful views of the rain coming down in this jungle valley. Despite my sore legs and a few extra mosquito bites (I think the malaria risk is only slightly higher in the jungle...), I really was so glad I decided to go back and spend a whole day with elephants. It was such a cool experience having my own elephant for the day, learning to control him myself, etc. And I really can't say too much about how amazing these animals are- there was one really old mahout at the camp who had been working with his elephant for so long that sometimes he would just sleep on the elephant's trunk at night, and the elephant would just stand there and hold him up for the night.

Alright, So I guess that's about it for this week. Time to head back home (in the rain of course- which ps is getting a bit old- it was cute at first I guess, but since Sunday it absolutely poured for literally 48 hours straight. I've never seen anything like it). Oh well, I guess I'm getting an authentic experience? So plans for this weekend are still a bit up in the air, but hopefully I'll be back next week with some more fun stories/pics. Hope you all had a fun 4th of July!


Monday, June 29, 2009

Sanook Samui

Hey everyone! So I guess it's been a while since I last wrote (relatively, at least)- missed you guys. You probably didn't even recognize my blog- hope I didn't throw you all off too much with the curve-ball color scheme. But hey, it's a summer of change...

So before I get into last week, this happens to be a big week for me. Saturday, of course, is the big 7-4 (I'll be heading over to the American Consulate here in Chiang Mai for some hot dogs, fireworks, and watermelon-eating contests). Friday actually marks the half-way point of my time here in Thailand, which is kinda crazy. And today marks my tenth visit to this coffee shop, meaning I just got a free banana smoothie. Nice.

Ok, so just after I wrote last week, Molly and Ari arrived for their stay in Chiang Mai. I had a really amazing time with them the whole week- it was a pretty strange feeling though, having a conversation about Hall High and West Hartford with other people in Chiang Mai. Monday night we went out for some legit northern Thai food and headed to the jazz bar I talked about a couple of weeks ago for some live music. Tuesday was actually a very interesting night- we went out to the Night Bazaar area (and then actually back to the jazz bar for their 'Open Jam' night)- the cool thing though was that we went out with a guy they had met in Bangkok who had been an interrogator in the U.S. military. One of the most fascinating people I've ever met- he had some amazing stories from his time in Iraq. Molly and Ari had told me ahead of time about him and his incredible ability to read a person through their subtlest body language, which made me pretty much self-conscious about every time I blinked, flinched, averted my eyes, etc. Of course this just made blink, flinch, and avert my eyes more...he probably thought I had ties to the Iraqi insurgency...

Anyways, Thursday we had a really fun night out at a club called "Warm Up"- warming up for our weekend of warming up on the beach (sorry, too lame?). It was kinda Liz's last night (last night that I would see her) so we had the whole house + CCT crew out. Anyways, to sum up the night, the next morning in the Chiang Mai airport we had this random Thai guy come up and sit down next to us. He said something we didn't understand and received awkward looks for it, and then said "I met you last night! Did you finish the bottle?"...You know it's a good night when...

Anyways, so rewind to Friday morning, meeting Molly and Ari to go to the airport. Molly informs me about Michael Jackson's death. There's plenty being said about that already, but real quick: regardless of how creepy he got in his later years, the guy is an absolute legend and a once-in-a-lifetime talent. His "Dangerous" album was actually the first CD I ever owned.

Ok, so moment you've all been waiting for- finally arrived in Ko Samui after waiting for it all week, and it truly lived up to expectations. First of all, our guest house ("Penzy Guest House") was perfect- half of my Friday on the beach was spent just looking forward to sleeping in an air-conditioned room. I'm usually pretty easily amused anyways, but I was so pumped just for the simple pleasure of sleeping under a comforter. The house was pretty much right across the street from the beach, so between the ridiculous location and my short weekend there, I actually didn't really get to see a whole lot of the island. Friday afternoon, though, I went on a wicked long walk down the beach and found that where it looked like the beach ended from our original spot, it actually just curved around into another cove and just kept going. I actually wanted to keep exploring even further (I had walked for probably an hour and a half one direction) but storm clouds started coming in, and yeah, I was an hour and a half's walk from the guest house. That picture to the left is of the storm clouds coming in- pretty wild actually there was just this distinct divide between perfectly clear skies to the left of that crazy puffy cloud, and dark thunder clouds to the right.

We actually were very fortunate, though, in terms of the weather. Unfortunately it rained during all three nights (the worst on Saturday night, of course the night when we wanted to go out the most), but the days were perfectly clear the whole weekend. The only real bummer about this weather pattern was that it effectively killed any sunset photo opps. But I did get (what I think are) some pretty cool pics of crazy storm clouds. Speaking of Saturday and rain, we tried to go out that night to a reggae bar where we heard had live music and was supposed to be one of the hotspots on the island. But because of the downpour (we drove through several main roads that were flooded under 6 inches of water), we ended up being the only 3 people on the dance floor, dancing awkwardly to Shaggy (even the band had stopped playing). At least I had room to bust out my breakdancing?

So yeah, I pretty much laid out on the beach all day, every day. Actually, believe it or not, I even managed to not really get sun-burnt. It wasn't too impressive though- I'd say I got tanner, but probably not straight up tan. It's progress though. Anyways, there were some cool-looking tours that I would have liked to try out had I had more time, but a whole weekend on the beach was just what the doctor ordered. And the beach really was spectacular. Bleach-white and pillow-soft sand, and water like liquid glass. No waves, which of course are a ton of fun, but no complaints with being able to see the ocean floor standing in 3 foot water. Actually, the water stayed really shallow for a surprisingly long time, and even had some little sandbars scattered down the beach, so that I would have to go pretty far out just to get into water that was waist-deep. With some of my pictures, where it looks like they're taken from the middle of the ocean, I was likely standing in water that was barely knee-deep (at high-tide)

I actually was looking forward to getting back to Chiang Mai in one respect- to get away from all the taxi drivers/tailors/ anyone selling anything in Ko Samui. Tailors or guys working at restaurants along the main road would literally step in front of me and physically try to stop me as we were walking down the sidewalk to try to get me to buy a suit or a lobster or a ticket to a muay thai fight. No, friend, I don't want to buy a three-piece suit at midnight, nor do I want the Thai seafood at your restaurant after you just saw me sidestep 3 guys offering me the same thing at their restaurants. But you, Mr. Taxi Driver- I get weaker than Odysseus with your sirenically incessant calls of "taxi?! taxi?!".

Sorry, random rant, but overall it was an amazing weekend. This little guy in the picture to the right pretty much sums up my weekend/vision of the dream life.

So Monday was a bit rough; woke up at 4am to catch my flight back to Chiang Mai (which this time included a straight up sprint to my connecting gate in Bangkok, Home Alone style), and headed straight to work when I got back to Chiang Mai. But on the subject of work, we started up the Burmese intern program since I last wrote, contrary to what I was expecting. We have 7 really cool interns this summer in the office. They come from 6 different ethnic groups and regions of Burma, which makes for some really interesting and diverse cultural perspectives. They have varying levels of English, but with the exception of one (who does the translating) they pretty much range from very basic to very very basic. It's all good though, we get by with the translator and who knows, they might pick up some more by the end of the summer. Anyways, last week we started out light and basically talked about some cultural/pop cultural issues. I gave a presentation on music and dance in America (the day before Michael Jackson died) so got the go-ahead to basically search through Youtube videos last Thursday morning. It's actually pretty funny to hear the things that they are interested in learning about America- they were fascinated by the concept of online dating, and apparently there's some myth floating around Burma that Americans don't really like to wear clothes. Sometimes I feel like I'm just on an episode of Mythbusters...

This week we've gotten into some more substantive topics (to be continued next week- the Burmese interns are leaving tomorrow for some training sessions). Anyways, they're fascinated by the U.S. Constitution, the Revolution, etc. (which is of course understandable- consider hearing the story of the American Revolution if you were in such an oppressed nation on the verge of revolution itself). It's also been pretty amazing just talking to them outside of our little daily lessons- one girl (who speaks better English than most) was telling me how she found out about HREIB through these underground pro-democracy groups that she used to attend in Burma, about how she wants to go back home to teach her community the human rights and pro-democracy lessons she learns this summer, and how she has friends who are currently in jail just for printing pro-democracy pamphlets (in response to my question of how dangerous it would be for her to hold such lessons in her community).

Anyways, I'll have more updates after this weekend- hope everyone back home has a great 4th of July! I'm getting off now to try to do a little research for my senior thesis- just got an email a couple days ago saying that we need a 5 page proposal and a thesis advisor 3 weeks into the school year, after I've been thinking this whole time that we had till spring to find a topic to write on. Any other PPL folk as surprised by this, or was I just out of the loop?

Pop gan mai =)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thailand, Huck-Finn Style

Alright, so I promised you all that this week's post would be more fun than last week's. I came through on my promise of more photos, and hopefully that correlates to more fun for you all. So for starters, nothing really too eventful at work yet- Dustin left to Bangkok for half of last week and all of this coming week, so we're probably going to hold off on the Burmese intern plan that I mentioned last week. Friday was a big day, though, for the Burmese community. It was Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday, so there were various events going on around the city largely in honor of her, but also as an opportunity to raise awareness about the situation in Burma. This turned out to be a nice little break from work for me on Friday afternoon- Terry and I left the office around noon and headed over to Chiang Mai University where they were having a series of panel speakers and open discussion about Burma and Suu Kyi. The talks were pretty interesting- going in I didn't think of the likelihood that everyone would be speaking Thai, but the University hooked us up U.N.-style and gave English speakers headphones with a live translation. The only problem was it got a bit awkward when the speakers would make a funny comment here and there, because I would chuckle a minute after everyone else had by the time the translator finally got to the comment, and the speaker had usually moved on to the less-funny topics of burning villages and arbitrary imprisonment...Anyways, one kinda cool part about the afternoon was that I got to meet the three English-speaking panelists: Parliament members from Singapore and Malaysia, and a Congresswoman from the Phillipines (sorry Adrian, can't remember her name). Very interesting to hear them talk, but at the same time a bit frustrating because a lot of their time was spent skirting the issue of taking direct action. When talking doesn't work with Burma...why not try more talking?

Anyways, after the talks, Terry and I headed over to Tha Pae gate where the Burmese community had organized food, music performances, and speakers to celebrate and demonstrate for Suu Kyi. It was a pretty cool scene- didn't stay too long, to be honest, but I did stick around long enough to see the re-enactment of the American swimming across the lake (moat) to Suu Kyi's house. I thought it was interesting that they made it almost comical- I guess maybe making fun of the American(s) specifically, maybe because it was a birthday celebration after all and they didn't want to make it too somber, but the humorous mood of the whole thing did just sort of strike me.

So Friday night I got home and randomly decided with the Irish girls to take on a three-part adventure on Saturday- I'll take you through the day one adventure at a time- basically yesterday was the highlight of my trip so far.

We woke pretty early Saturday morning and got picked up by the company we booked with. After about an hour and a half drive out into the middle of nowhere in the Thailand jungle, we got dropped off at a river bank and got suited up for the first part of our day- a 10k mountain bike ride. I guess it wasn't your crazy intense mountain bike ride where we were like hopping over logs and cliffs, but there were mountains (hills at least) and we were on bikes, so...As you can see from the pictures though, we were cruising through some gorgeous dirt roads along the Mae Kaeng river. Not gonna lie, I was huffing and puffing a bit after a few of the hills (plus, let me tell you, after a month or more of the rainy season, those 'roads' were not helpin me out at all) but all in all it was good to get a bit of a workout, and it was really great to just be back on a bike feeling like you're in the middle of nowhere- highly recommended, even if it means just taking a trip to the Bugbee woods...

Alright so, we finally got off the bikes, sweaty and gross (and a bit sore), and headed down to the launching site for our next event: elephant riding! Yes, I finally had my first experience with elephants in Thailand. They really are amazing creatures. First of all, you can't really get a sense of their size from just seeing them from afar in a zoo or something. These beasts are seriously massive. Actually, Kiera and Naomi's ride was especially massive- they got the Hummer of the group, I got the Porsche. Once again, we had about an hour-long trip through unbelievable terrain along the river banks. One of the things I was most amazed about with these animals was how they were so...nimble (for lack of a better word). Seriously, we were climbing up some pretty steep, very narrow, and very slippery paths, and these elephants never missed a step. I'm talkin about up-hill paths that are no wider than the elephant's foot (singular) and are straight up mud (again, after a month or so of the Thai rainy season). Kinda random, but really impressive. The other striking thing is how much of a personality these elephants had. One of them was pretty stubborn and kept wanting to eat leaves and branches and other elephant delicacies from the side of the paths. We actually had (prepare yourselves) a little baby elephant walking along next to us the whole time (no one was riding him, he just came along for the company I guess) and as would be expected he was the cutest thing ever. At one point he was carrying a branch in his trunk and just kept smacking the ground with it as he walked along. Cuteness factor peaked when we stopped to let the elephants have a water break at the river, and the baby elephant looked up at me and kinda started tapping me with its trunk to say hello. Side note about the elephants- Naomi had been taking pictures of me on my elephant, but somehow all the pictures she took yesterday got wiped from her camera. Hopefully she'll figure it out, but otherwise I'll have pictures of me on an elephant later in the summer after my next elephant riding experience. Anways, amazing, amazing time, but still not the best part of the day...

Got off the elephants (not as sweaty but a little more sore) and had about a half-hour of the bumpiest ride I've ever taken (basically in one of those songthaew-type of trucks) up-river to our lunch spot. Mingled with a group of Polish and Scottish tourists for a bit, had some lunch and delicious fruit, and got a little training sesh for the day's main event: white water rafting. Yes, I was extremely extremely excited. I've been wanting to go white water rafting for as long as I can remember. This was really an amazing introduction to the sport- luckily no injuries or mishaps, but thrilling enough to make me really want to do it again (perhaps the Colorado River on my trip out west?) A lot of the rapids we were riding were level 4 (out of 6)- the brochure said levels 4 and 5, but to be honest I kinda doubt any of the rapids we were doing were level 5, but who knows. Our timing was perfect- the company is actually shutting down the rafting after next week because the rainy season is making the waters too rough, so we squeezed it in just in time for peak excitement (actually, the company's name was Peak Adventures...so...there ya go). Our total distance travelled was over 10k on the river, so we were out there for a good amount of time- another good workout, this time for my arms/back- to be honest the position you have to sit in is a bit awkward/uncomfortable, but the whole experience is so active and exciting because you have the skipper in the back yelling to you for when to row, when to hold on, when to "get in" (for the most intense rapids), etc. I was sitting in the front seat the whole time, which was the wettest and the most fun. We actually ended up swimming in the river for a few minutes at one calm part- tried not to think about what could be brushing up against my legs in the brown river in the Asian jungle, but it was nice to cool off a bit. Again, really an amazing amazing experience- completely lived up to all the hype (that had built up in my own mind...) and is another highly recommended activity if you haven't already experienced it and ever get the opportunity.

So I think I'll leave it there for this week- short and hopefully sweet. Molly and Ari get here tomorrow which I am super psyched about. Ko Samui next weekend, which I am super super psyched about- next week I should for sure return with some more fun pics and stories (but you all might have to wait until after next weekend- I know I'm throwin a monkey wrench into the whole Saturday-Saturday routine). A couple of random things real quick though- I put the link to my webshots in the 'About Me' section on the side of the page for easier access- some more pics are up, and the album is new and improved with captions for all the pictures that are currently in it. But for some reason, webshots refuses to actually upload all the photos that it says it has uploaded. Still working on this- I promise I have a bunch more photos of everything I'm doing than what's actually up on webshots, but for now at least you got a sampling.

Hoping to balance out this awkward farmer's tan I got going next week,