Monday, December 29

Day 123-Chiang Rai

Staying out for a long while, one can lose sense of time, what day it is, or in this climate, even what month it is. I have been dramatically reminded, however, that it is News Years week, and all of Thailand is on the move. Hordes of Thai, particularly the young, are explosively evacuating the big cities, headed for their rural homes, only to migrate en masse back to Bangkok at the end of this week. The result has been a series of disappointments at the bus station, where I am told that all buses are full, and must wait 4 or 5 hours until a seats can be found. Not so bad, but the bus station is often 4 or 5 kilometers from the city center and is hardly a fun place to while away the morning.

Unpredictable availability notwithstanding, the buses have been reasonable comfortable, on time, and notably... cheap! I have traveled since Bangkok, 1000 kilometers, for less than fifteen dollars, and I have arrived (with minutes to spare, as nearly all accomodations were taken) in this positively jewel of a city. Walking the streets as the daylight faded, I happened upon Wat Phra Kaew, an impressive complex of temples where the infamous Emerald Bhudda once resided, saffron clad monks gathering for the evening round of sonorous chants. Down the lane the night market was getting underway, lined with long rows of colorful vegetables and vendors of aromatic street food. A few blocks beyond, the many massage parlors are found, some offering "porn massage", perhaps that explains why every foriegn male seems to be in the company of some local lady. I, however, am too busy for such shenanigans, as I frantically concoct schemes to continue north tomorrow, across the Mekong River, where Laos awaits.

It is nearly month's end, and here are the stats for this, the southern portion of my journey to Southeast Asia:

Distance traveled: 4390 miles Degrees of latitude: 25
Days spent: 28 Countries visited: 4
UNESCO sites: 4 Other cool places: 12
Dollars per day: 61 - still on budget!

Thursday, December 25

Day 119-Ayuthaya

In order to arrive at here, the World Heritage City of Siam, I have spent some part of each of the last three days on the train. This is the ancient capital of the emerging Thai nation, 700 years ago it was a vast complex of Khmer style temples, courtyards and palaces. The journey of 1700 kilometers began inauspiciously, with the breakdown of the arriving engine while still in Malaysia. We were ferried into Thailand by minibus, in time to intersect with the northbound train, though many opted to complete the journey by bus, a quicker but awake-all-night option. I prefer to stick with the plan, and enjoyed greatly the slow ride through the night.

Arising early, I was greeted by the tropical landscape of the Isthmus of Kra, a lowland of palm trees and rice paddies, sparsely populated but rich with bird life. Huge flocks of black faced ibis wheeled and collided above the fields in various stages of flooding, where many avocet, herons and egrets were searching for their breakfast. Though I stopped over in Bangkok, embarking again in the morning saw a continuation of the wetlands, vast marshes of cattail and rush, the palms now given way to scraggly deciduous bushes, looking forlorn and gray for their seasonal loss of leaves.

Forlorn is perhaps just my own projection, for last night, Christmas Eve, was for me the most difficult of this trip. As mentioned in the previous post, I have been succombing to a treacherous foe of this single traveler-jealosy. As I spy other travelers, I am quick to compare and compete, sizing them up in my mind, finding faults and at times seething in envy that I do not have some young devoted chick tagging along as so many of them do. I don't expect anyone to understand this, I barely do myself, and I am left to find solace in the words of the Tao de Ching, an appropriate study as I make my way north to China. It instructs that I am not merely a separate part of the world I am viewing, in conflict and contention, rather that every living being is just another face, another expression, of the great Unknown, the Tao. Contemplating this, I can release that persistent nagging self-awareness, and can instead pass the day gliding with the ibis over the green fields, complete in simplicity and abundance.

Monday, December 22

Day 116-Georgetown

My trip might easily have been cut short this week, though today I am comfortably stationed in yet another World Heritage city. This colorful and vibrant port town, known as Pinang to the locals, affords me my last chance to enjoy the tri-cultural foods, sites, and personalities that make this place special. Tomorrow I will board an overnight train that will take me 1500 km to Thailand's capital city. But to elaborate on the trails and trials of this week.

Coming from the big city hustle of KL, I was ready for some time spent in nature. Situated between the two coast of peninsular Malaysia, lie the Cameron Highlands, a vast stretch of mountainous jungle, long ago cleared to create the fertile farmlands that provide the fruits, vegetables, and flowers for the people of this nation. It's commercial and tourist center is Tanah Rata, and it is there I made arrangements to take a tour of the local environs. We would take a drive to an aboriginal village of the Asli Orang, practice our blowpipe hunting, and then make the walk into the jungle to visit the renowned rafflesia, the worlds largest "flower".

My participation was in doubt as I boarded the van that morning, for it was packed to the gills with a honeymoon couple from Ireland, a foursome from "down under" and, my least favorite company, a gang of tourist from Holland, reeking of stale beer and cigarettes, all achatter in there unpleasant Germanic tongue. But having paid, I was determined to reap my reward. Our projected hike would be doubled in length, for the recent heavy rains had rendered the 4 wheel drive road impassable. Needless to say the track was ankle deep in mud, and steep in places, but I managed to keep up with the young and experienced Aussies. The poorly dressed and hungover Dutch team lagged behind and my misplaced sense of superiority grew by the minute.

As we neared the endpoint of the trek, in the vicinity of this elusive "flower" (actually a type of mushroom, though you would never know by looking at it), we were halted by our guide, warning us that we must cross the river on a treacherous log bridge, and to be very careful. In my enthusiasm I had been racing ahead, and as I began the traverse of the logs I noticed that traction was more than sufficient for an old hand like me, I certainly did not need to use the handrail, and virtually danced my way across. Until that last step. In a flash I was tumbling into the river a few feet below, knocking profoundly both shins, and managing to catch in both hands the broken spike of a branch that would have made quite an impression on my breastbone. I quickly regained the bridge and assured those watching that I was alright. In fact, I acquired only a golf ball bump on the shin, and a spider of equal size on my neck (quickly removed). Hopefully more lasting, is my realization of the Biblical warning that "pride goeth before the fall". The perils of travel are, for me, more often in my own mind.

Friday, December 19

Day 113-Kuala Lumpur

I think I have discovered my new favorite city!, and I am bound to use an excess of superlatives when describing KL, as she is known to the locals. It is a very walkable city, with distinct neighborhoods like Chinatown, where one finds the typical onslaught of street activity (including a most unappealing red-light alley), or the Golden Triangle, were business, fashion and entertainment each hold court. There I encountered a stretch of food stall the extent of a small university, and endless array of any imaginable fruit, vegetable or animal parts cooked and seasoned to please.
Above the street loom characteristic landmarks, like the Menara Kuala Lumpur, the worlds 4th highest communications tower, with a viewing deck 800 ft above the clamour, and the stunningly gorgeous Petronas Towers, the world highest until 2004, but to me the most beautiful structure of the modern age. Outside of town lie some notable sights as well. I employed three different forms of public transport, monorail, lightrail, and public bus to arrive at Batu Caves, a splendid Hindu holy site, guarded over by a 130 ft golden Murgha statue (again, the worlds tallest). Endless streams of devoutees climbed the 272 steps to the cave entrance, only to be greeted by ravaging hordes of jungle monkeys. I sensed that each of us was held to varying degrees in an uneasy terror. Later I passed on the worlds largest covered aviary, instead opting to visit the soothing and colorful butterfly garden.
These escapades were acheived not without a price however. The 90 degree day was bright under the equatorial sun, so every misstep took its toll. It took a good half hour to locate the bus stop to the caves, and I ambled an hour out of my way before finding the cool of the butterflys. One might expect to do better by asking directions, but as an example of how that can go, I had earlier asked the owner of my hostel if he could direct me to the train station. Very proudly and with enthusiasm he assured me that he could, and proceeded to explain that I simply walk out his door, turn right to the main road, and then, well, he wasn't so sure, I would have to ask someone on the street. That was good for about 50 of the 2000 meters I would need, and I am sure he noted my disgust as I plunged, trusty guidebook in hand, into the steamy morning.

Tuesday, December 16

Day 110-Melaka

If pressed to describe this day in a few words, I would enthusiastically answer "a sensory feast". Beginning with rage for having poorly chosen a greedy taxi driver to the bus stop, my senses were soon calmed by the plush and opulent seats on the bus, as large as any in business class and fully reclinable. Border clearance into Malaysia was as smooth as oriental silk, despite my customary gut butterflys. Once onto the mainland, we rocketed down the modern freeway, every surrounding unpaved surface bursting with vegetation, the landscape a splash of the many shades of green. As far as the eye could see were spread the feathery olive crowns of oil palms, the gloomy understory guarding carpets of seafoam ferns and grasses. Intermittent stands of bamboo and multi-storied jungle disrupted the plantations, and beyond lie hills of virgin rain forest.

A few hours later we arrive in Melaka, a port city on the strait separating the mainland from the island of Sumatra. As such, it was for centuries a center of trade between India and China, resulting in an extremely rich blend of pan Asian cultures. Walking the busy streets was an olfactory assault. Within a hundred feet I would pass by shops redolent of incense, machine oil, indian curries, insecticide or chinese herbs. The whole infused with a bass note of that unforgettable sour durian. I find shops brimming with multicolored saris, swimming with the scarlet and gold of Chinese temple supplies, or quietly displaying the muted tones of antique colonial age furniture and paintings. No wonder this city has recently been named a UNESCO world heritage site.

As evening fell, I joined a chatty Australian couple for a beer. Sitting at a quayside bar, enjoying the cooling ocean breeze, we listened in on conversations in Tamil, Cantonese, Hindi, Dutch, Mandarin, Malay to name the obvious (of course we could scarcely discern one from the other).
Playing on the bar radio was a suprising delightful assortment of Christmas carols in rich chorale arrangements and we laughed to imagine that neither they nor the many other patrons had ever seen, much less made, a frosty snowman! As our appetite grew, we selected from countless options a Korean restaurant, and enjoyed our meal of noodles, fermented vegetables, roasted beef, and omelettes. After, we were invited to a most unusual treat, that of soaking our weary feet in a pool of hundreds of tiny fish, which find their sustenence from nibbling and sucking every nook and cranny of our immersed appendages. A truly unique sensation to end an incredible day!

Friday, December 12

Day 106-Padangbai

Aside from the occasional solitary bushwalk, which-due to the possibility of snakes, dogs, military cordons, angry landowners, quicksand or other unseen pitfalls-would better be made in the company of a local, there has been precious little physical adventure on this trip. Nonetheless, it has been a journey of cultural discovery, and this is particularly true for my time in Bali.

I have spent the last few day traversing the countryside by taxi and minibus, touring the rather unassuming temples, gazing out across vast stretches of verdant rice paddy, or simple sitting bayside as the local seacraft go about their business. Through it all I have been privilidged to absorb a small amount of the culture of joy and gratitude that so fully pervades daily life on this island. A fine example of this are the many morning offerings made to this god or that, (remember Bali is of Hindu persuasion) so carefully and neatly constructed of folded palm leaf, fresh blossoms, bits of rice or cooked food, maybe part of a clove cigarette. They are placed with considerable style and grace in places of import, the gateway to the family compound, the hood of the car, and certainly on or about the family shrine.

It is all so neat and tidy and obviously pertinent, it leaves me to wonder if I should not begin such a practice. For all its splendor, Bali has left me feeling a bit fat and lazy, too much beer, ice cream and comfort. And so tomorrow I must pick up the pack anew and head to yet further places of cultural and physical surprise, and I am certain that I could use the help of the gods to make my path a smooth one.

Tuesday, December 9

Day 103-Ubud

It is my hope that over the weeks you have not wasted energy in envy of my sojourn, it is never as great as one might imagine-except for now! In this touristed but still sleepy town below the flanks of volcanic Mt. Agung, Bali's tallest mountain, it is said that ones expected visit will extend from days to weeks, and I quickly saw why. Imagine Boulder, Colorado in a lush and flowery tropical setting. Walking the main street one encounters, among the many local temples and shrines, galleries presenting the most stunning and artfully constructed collections of woodcarvings, fabrics, and paintings. When that has becoming overwhelming, simply step into one of the many cafes or restaurants and enjoy organic juices, vegetarian stirfrys, or American style baked goods. I honestly believe that I have been dining for the last few days at what must be the hippest restaurant on the planet, (at 3 bucks a meal) and the presence of the many world travelers I have met there supports my claim.

Evidence of the superlative talents of these island people is not restricted to the visual or culinary arts, however. Last night I witnessed a music and dance show that must rank among the most complex and delightful human expressions ever concieved. I know that I am prone to hyperbole, but how else will I convey the depth of the jaw dropping awe that I felt when that first dancer came on stage to meet her 20 piece gamelan orchestra. Amidst the synchronous clamour of hundreds of brass bells and chimes, and many drums, she proceeded to tell some ancient tale using precise postures, intricate hand gestures and the most captivating facial expressions. The costumes were equally ornate, as was the temple setting with its many carved freizes, depicting Balinese versions of Hindu dieties. I can imagine no greater spectacle, except perhaps for Monkey chant concert that will be tonight's entertainment!

Saturday, December 6

Day 100-Kuta Beach

At 5 degrees below the equator, the Indonesian island of Bali enjoys a consistent weather pattern-Hot! and humid. But it is the strong overhead sun that saps ones ambition, leaving one seeking the cool of a pool or an AC room rather than strolling the blistering streets and beaches. And so it is that I have allowed my days to be filled with lounging, reading, napping and enjoying numerous beers in various shady glens, surrounded by gardens of plumeria, hibiscus, bouganvilla and a host of other unknown flowers.

In the months past, I have barrelled across Europe at breakneck speed, spending nights in cramped dormitories, bussed to the farthest outreaches of rural Turkey, and flirted on the edges of uncertainty while arranging my own transport and accomodations in unpredictable India. In a word, I was a Traveler. Here in Bali, I must redefine myself and become what I most despise, a Tourist, if only for a while. Amidst the masses of young Aussie girls, couples on honeymoon, or sunburned strolling families, I am an anomoly. A solo traveler is cool and confidently hip, a solo tourist is...well, a bit pathetic. The charm of fine dining or a day at the spa wears thin quickly for the soloist, but there is one course of relief.

The Balinese locals are without doubt the friendliest people I have ever met. Along with the incessant "hello, how are you?", I was greeted by name no less than a half dozen times today, and I have been here less than 2 days. They do not seem overly concerned with hustling me into their shops, rather are just looking to pass some time, their smiles flowing freely and easily across their perfect teeth. And while I do hope to travel the extent of this small island over the course of the next ten days, more importantly, I wish to absorb some of that sense of self contentment that I am witnessing among these people. Despite the plethora of exotic handicrafts to be purchased here, that would be the best possible souvenir.

Wednesday, December 3

Day 97-Singapore

Coming from the crazy din of the outskirts of Delhi, dry, dusty, teeming with traffic, it feels as if I have been transported across the universe. Arriving at the Changi airport I sensed immediately that this place could not be more different. Customs and Immigration took all of 3 minutes, the shuttle bus was prompt and inexpensive, the streets spotlessly clean with well mannered traffic, placidly weaving its way through green gardens of lush tropical plants tucked into every corner not occupied by some ultra-modern high rise. Arriving at my hotel, I immediately hit the streets, wandering across block after block of foodstalls packed with people enjoying the smell of frying meat and garlic, myself too timid to sample the common fare. As I penetrated deeper into the center, I passed by enormous commercial towers, each filled with outlet shops selling electronic goods, toilet fixtures, and whatever else one might need. Seems that in Singapore all one might do here is shop and eat!

I have come to this island nation unexpectedly due to the political meltdown taking place in Bangkok, which was the intended hub for my travels in Southeast Asia. My last several days have been spent online researching flights to and visa requirements for various countries in the region, and after much scrambling I think I have come up with a plan for the next seven weeks, possibly better than the original. My crowning achievement of late was the acquistion of a visa to Vietnam, bypassing travel agents and going straight to the embassy. For all my efforts, after taxi fares and fees, I think I saved about 20 bucks!

Business completed, I treated myself today to a visit to the Jurong Bird Park, an outdoor collection of 8500 birds of more than 600 species. Amidst the tropical foliage, along streams and around ponds, I was delighted to visit up close and personal with birds from all over the world, from the goofy barn owl and ridiculous ostrich, to the splendid scarlet ibis and pink flamigo. I sat scolded among flocks of parrots and parakeets, lories and lorikeets. Spoonbills, pelicans, hornbills and toucans all stretched their necks to get a piece of me. Exhausted from the long walk, the heat and the humidity, I jumped the metro back into the city, finding a different kind of peace in that oh so available Tiger beer.