countin' the days

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Taxation Without Representation

I arrived in Washington DC last week on the day of a huge snowstorm. Everyone on the plane seemed highly concerned, but no, not me -- I landed in the Capital with a huge, silly grin on my face and a genuinely giddy attitude about the whole affair. Come on, it's snow! It's beautiful! I haven't seen any snow at all for 2 years! My old housemate (and soon-to-be LA resident) Kevin picked me up at the airport, and whisked me away to the blue house with the purple door in Columbia Heights, where I spent the evening hugging other housemates, building a snowman, drinking wine, and watching Project Runway. What an arrival!

The following 10 days have been par for the DC course: visiting favorite bars, reuniting with my DC homies, stopping in at Busboys & Poets for free drinks, attending lively social gatherings, drinking Baileys & hot chocolate and Yuenglings, and lots & lots of dancing. The weekend was packed full of events, the first of which was a Latke party at my old place. This is a yearly Hanukkah tradition, where hundreds of little potato pancakes get fried up, leaving the house and its residents smelling distinctly like fried food for quite some time, and lots of random & not-so-random people come over to eat the food and start a dance party in the dining room.

Naturally, the morning after brought your typical Saturday brunch, cooked up by me & Annie and served promptly around 2pm once everyone dragged themselves out of bed, just in time to eat but somehow conveniently missing out on the cooking part. The next night saw another party, this one for a non-profit called GirlsRock DC that Annie is helping out with. She, of course, went all out with the costume (it was a "hair party"). While she played hostess, Wes & I held up the fort outside; until he got a rather lesbian-like haircut early in the morning (in all fairness, all the other clients that evening were lesbians) and for a mix of odd reasons eventually we all decided it'd be best to get the hell out of there. It was a rather strange affair, but for $5 I got to both help out a good cause and drink a bottomless cup of beer. Not bad.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

J Tree!

After all these years of living only 135 miles away, I finally made it out to Joshua Tree National Park (or, affectionately, J Tree). I had no idea it was so close to L.A., and what's more, I had no idea how frickin' awesome that place is.

I spent 6 months in Asia this year, and -- as my previous blog posts have made obvious -- a good deal of that time was spent rock climbing. By the time I left a few weeks ago, I had finally crossed over that painful beginner threshold, feeling pretty good about actually being able to climb rocks. Now, this is no way means that I actually know what I'm doing, but rather, that I can figure some stuff out and make it up the rock. Which, after many days of struggling up routes, counts as a huge accomplishment to me.

J Tree is a whole different story from what I'd gotten used to in Asia. The rock in Asia is mostly limestone, and the routes are bolted for sport climbing. J Tree is trad(itional) climbing on towers of quartz monzonite, with lots and lots of crack.(Crack climbing, that is.) You have to learn how to jam your hands, fingers, even entire arms & legs into cracks to make it up the routes. I also had to learn the fine art of taping up my knuckles & fingers to avoid leaving pieces of flesh attached to the rock. Also, unlike Asia, it was damn cold. Winter in J Tree brings low temperatures and high desert winds, with the rock itself sometimes getting so cold that it chills your hands to the bone. This was an entirely new experience from climbing limestone in Thailand in my bathing suit, reaching for the chalk bag every few moves because I was so drenched in sweat from the sticky humidity that I could barely stay attached to the holds.

Fortunately, I was out there with my homies Charley & Tatiana -- yes, the folks who appeared in my blog sometime back in May when we met up with them in Thailand for a couple weeks of killer Ton Sai climbing. They were full of helpful info about how to deal with the gnarly cracks, and answered my many questions about how those funky-looking pieces of trad gear actually work.

All in all, it was a total blast. The weather was perfect, the climbing partners were fun, the routes were challenging and always rewarding. My climbing is rapidly turning into a full-blown addiction and I'm loving it.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Well, I decided to make some radical changes to the set of various travel itinerary options I've had in front of me for a while, and at the moment find myself -- brace yourself, it may come as a shock -- celebrating Thanksgiving with my American family in that city of superhighways, boob jobs, and taco stands that happens to be my hometown. That's right folks, I'm spending the holidays in Los Angeles.

Here's how it all went down. I had been trying to make a decision about what to do next in this journey for quite some time. I'd been juggling with a string of ideas, but eventually decided it sounded best to head over to right-next-door India to do some serious yoga. And, I had to leave Thailand. My visa was running out with no chance of renewal, so I hopped on a flight down to Kuala Lumpur thinking I would rush and get my Indian visa there, and hurry off to a yoga program I'd found that started 10 days later. Then, the time came to go get my visa and I just didn't go.

After many weeks of indecision and confusion, I finally got to grips with the fact that I was not ready to be doing this. I'd been pressuring myself into a decision that I was mentally and emotionally unprepared for, and on top of feeling pretty lost about my life in general, was just straight up burned out. And Buddha knows, the worst place to head off to by yourself when you're feeling tired and worn, is India. At the same time, I was more or less hating Kuala Lumpur and feeling increasingly bored and restless by the day.

So I jumped on down to Bali. I spent two weeks there with the specific purpose of trying to screw my head back on a little, do as much yoga as I could manage, and try to figure out what the right next move would be. It became clear very quickly that I was ready to leave Asia. And the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that spending time around family and friends was just the thing I needed. And now, here I am.

Everyone likes to ask me if I'm in "shock." But, this is the third big international trip I've returned from straight to LA, so the shock of American flags and immigration officers, of the cultural excesses and obscene traffic jams, of everyone's general unfriendliness and not receiving smiles in return from strangers... that's all American stuff I was prepared for. I spent my last week in Bali trying to mentally prepare myself to peacefully handle these kinds of things.

That being said, I have been completely knocked to the floor in shock about other things I was entirely unprepared for:

1) The price of gasoline ($3.50/gallon)
2) Bumper stickers that say "Give War A Chance"
3) The percentage of cars in dense traffic jams that have only one person in them (90%?)
4) Billboards
5) TV commercials with smiling upper class white women spinning in circles holding onto a good dozen shopping bags
6) Women at bars in LA dressed like complete and total whores (now, I realize I'm coming from a string of conservative, heavily religious countries where this kind of thing doesn't happen; but this does not change the fact that women in LA dress and act like they work at a strip club)
7) Actually hearing Bush's voice on the radio or TV

But, I'm doing alright. Truth be told, it's been really nice to hug my family and hear my favorite people's voices on the phone. Eating Mexican food and watching 'South Park' hasn't been so bad either. I don't know what's next for me, that's what I'm here to figure out. But the journey's not over, I'm just taking a much-needed break. And it is Thanksgiving after all... an appropriate time to look back at the last year of my life with gratitude and awe, and at the same time give thanks for having this place to come back to.

Monday, October 29, 2007

... Do It!

It's been a long time since my last post, but for good reason: upon arrival back in Thailand, I headed straight for Chiang Mai, a fantastic Northern Thai city and longtime favorite with expats and weary backpackers like myself. And there I stayed for the better part of the last month. Chiang Mai is the kind of place that sneaks up on you. At first, it seems like a fairly busy Thai city, full of motorbikes and shops and markets. But within days, you find yourself awfully comfortable... wowed at the gorgeous wats hiding in every block, smiling at your new tuk-tuk driver friends on the corner, shaking your booty to the live music going on all over town, and practically in love with the lady who makes your out-of-this-world som tam every night at the market for 20 baht. Not to mention, paying only $1.75 a night to stay in a room up on the rooftop of the best guesthouse in town, with hammocks lined up right outside your door.

There's also absolutely fantastic climbing just outside of town, at the Crazy Horse Buttress. I spent a good two weeks alone heading out to this crag with Joe and various climber friends we met along the way, steadily improving my own climbing ability and helping teach a few new friends the ropes (literally). We'd heard a lot about this crag from climber friends in Ton Sai, but it far surpassed both of our expectations. In addition to having loads of great, fun routes on high quality rock, the area itself was exceptionally well-maintained, complete with manicured trails, signs, route & crag information, and comfortable belay areas. I've never seen anything like it! In Chiang Mai, we met back up with two friends from our Laos trek, Taylor & Brandon, and brought them out to the crag to teach them how to get up the rock. We also made sure to take plenty of rest time away from the rock, playing games of 98, asshole, and drinking buckets of booze at the reggae bars.

Due to the arrival of two lovely ladies from my Davis days -- Jen & Caitlin -- I left the North of Thailand for one last hurrah amongst the limestone cliffs of Railay. This was my third visit of the year, but my only one not centered around climbing everyday. Fortunately, there were no lack of ways in which to spend my time with the girls, and our days & nights were full of wine drinking on the beach, beer drinking in bamboo bars, watching Jen completely rock out her first day of climbing ever, eating delicious Thai food, and talking sh... errr... catching up. Caitlin's friend Brooke, currently a resident of Bangkok, also joined us on this excursion along with her new interest Jeff, and the three of us spent many an hour enjoying playing the role of the intoxicated, not-so-subtle, raucous cupid. This is where Jen also christened the theme of the trip (and the title of this posting): DO IT! Such an apt phrase for so many reasons... but, I've also discovered, a good little mantra to repeat to yourself when trying to make decisions while traveling.

This week down in the south taught me an important lesson: nothing is ever the same as you remember it. And especially true for Thailand is: things change mighty fast. Railay, only 2 months after my last visit, was full of tourists and steadily increasing. Worse still, my beloved Ton Sai was not only full of tourists -- a strange thing to see after spending 10 days there with about 10 other people -- but my one and only Chill Out Bar had been torn down (gasp!) and moved to a big, totally non-chill-out structure next door. Farewell to the beautiful longtail boat/driftwood/treehouse/lost-at-sea Chill Out Bar of the past. Then, after saying a somewhat bittersweet goodbye to Krabi, I stopped over at Koh Lanta. I'd spent a week on this little island on my last trip to Thailand, nearly 2 years ago. I was horrified to discover that the quaint, quiet little travel haven that used to be Koh Lanta was quite literally bulldozed, and in its place are piles of rubbish, construction sites, concrete buildings, frighteningly overpriced bungalows, and bad vibes. Bummertown.

So, after a few moments of consideration, I turned around and headed back up north to spend my final week in Thailand back in Chiang Mai. Jen & Caitlin were cruising that way anyway, so I had a good excuse to go back (as if I needed one). Once again, I spent a pleasant week eating, climbing, partying, and chilling in the lovely Northern capital of the lovely Asian country that I love so much. And I don't care what all the stuck-up so-called backpackers have to say lately about Thailand becoming too touristy; it's still wonderful Thailand, full of Thai people, Thai food, and Thai culture. Sadly, it's also full of Thai immigration laws that don't allow a foreigner like myself to acquire more than 3 months per year of free 30-day visas, so I had to leave and can't go back for a while. And it's okay, because it's time to move on anyway. Time to just... you guessed it... DO IT.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

So Much To Say

My final big adventure in Laos -- if you don't count the ride to the Thai border when the bus fishtailed on the muddy, unfinished, winding mountain road -- was a 4-day ecotrek through the jungle-covered hills of Northern Laos to visit three different hilltribe villages. It was probably the best thing I've done on the whole trip.

We had the great fortune to meet our trekking partners on the bus ride out of Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha: 2 fellow Californians, and a French couple. We all visited the local ecotourism project office, decided on our 4-day adventure for the amazing price of only $58, and set off. Together with our very cool & knowledgable guides, we made up a fun little group of nine. There is no doubt in my mind that the incredibly great vibe maintained throughout the trip had everything to do with the incredibly great people that made up our group.

Hiking through the various jungle ecosystems was stellar, especially when we passed through towering bamboo forests, stopped for a rest at cold mountain streams, ate delicious homecooked Lao cuisine for lunch, or caught a view of the surrounding hills through a clearing in the jungle thicket. But it paled in comparison to the beautiful villages we arrived at after hiking all day.

In Northern Laos, the ethnic minorities make up the majority of the population, and the many different tribes fall into 4 different ethnic groups. We had the pleasure of visiting three of those four: the Hmong, Lanten, and Khmu. Each day we stopped at a different village, where we would spend the afternoon walking around making friends with the locals and learning about their tribe, followed by a scrumptious dinner cooked by the villagers. Each night, the village chief joined us for dinner and a back-and-forth question & answer session. Via the translations offered by our guides, we were able to ask questions about village life, traditional customs & dress, and their feelings about local tourism. The chiefs had many questions for us as well, but the pressing one was always the same: Are you married? If not, when will you be?

There were so many amazing things that happened in the villages, it would be impossible to try and list them all here. But perhaps the most amazing part of the journey was the trek itself and what it represents to the locals we visited. This trek is part of an ecotourism project, started only two years ago in Laos, that aims to provide community-based tourism that preserves, respects, and benefits both the environment and the villages and their traditional way of life. ( All of the villages were offered the choice of hosting tourists or not, and all are partners in the project, and receive profits from our visit. The very basic accomodation we stayed in was built by the villagers in the local style, so that we would be part of the village itself, rather than playing the role of disconnected observers with cameras in hand.

All three of the village chiefs raved about the project and how beneficial it has been for the villagers. One chief said "Before the tourists came, life was very hard. Now, life is not so hard anymore." Another pointed out the visible positive changes the tourism revenue has brought, such as tin roofs (rather than rattan which needs to be replaced every 3 years), new schools, and ever-growing libraries for the children. They all mentioned how respectful and lovely the tourists had been, and along with bringing some money into the village, people like us had also brought many smiles and friendly faces.

In the Khmu village on our last night -- during a game of team karaoke instigated by our guide Coom Seng (team USA sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game") -- the village chief improvised a deeply beautiful melody in his Khmu dialect. The translation spoke for itself: "Before, when the foreigners came, they brought war and everyone was sad. Now, the tourists come and they bring peace, everyone gets along, and everyone is happy."

But with all good things come a little bad. There was only one real downside to this journey: leeches. These little bloodsuckers flourish in the floors of the bamboo forests we hiked right through, especially in the rainy season. Unlike the stereotypical image of huge, slug-like, swamp-dwelling creatures I had in my mind, these leeches were tiny and frighteningly sneaky! But a small price to pay for such an amazing experience.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Luang Days

Luang Prabang is Laos' former royal capital, and during French colonial rule was a favorite spot of colonalists looking to escape their duties and live the good life. These days it's an expat haven, and it's easy to see why. The city has a feel all its own, blending supreme peacefulness with an often hip & artsy vibe. It's located right on the banks of Mekong River, where it meets up with another river, the Nam Kha. The whole entire city was deemed as a prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to its purely unique blend of French colonial & Laos architecture, its lush gardens and abundant coconut trees, and it's 32 gorgeous wats (temples), all of which have managed to hold up remarkably well despite Laos' recent disastrous history that seemed to destroy nearly everything in sight except this city.

One of the best things to do in Luang Prabang is wander around checking out the temples, which seem to pop out of every corner. Each one is a little different from the other, but distinctly Lao. Wat Xieng Thong was particularly impressive, and it was easy to spend an hour there in awe of its beauty. All the walls are covered in gold
paintings, diligently executed to depict scenes of both Buddhist legends and village life. Hundreds of Buddha statues dwelled on the insides, some reclining, some smiling, some meditating; some are only an inch-high, while the biggest is about 10 meters tall. Even more remarkable were the colored glass mosaics shining on the outside of the buildings, where artisans painstakingly constructed everything from trees, to farming and fishing scenes, to elephants, lions, tiger, cattle, and birds.

Every night from 5pm on, eight blocks of the town are closed off and a handicraft market is set up. I have never, in all of my travels, seen a craft market so spectacular. The sheer size of it is staggering, with women setting up their stalls on both sides of each block, right up next to one another. Walking the whole thing takes about 45 minutes (I do this pretty much every night), and is a visual overload of rainbow colors and staggeringly beautiful patterns. The variety of items available is equally amazing, ranging from silk scarves to quilts, handbags to fisherman pants, silver jewelry to slippers. But the real kicker is the exceptional quality of the items; I have seen plenty of handicrafts all over the world, but none so well-made as these.

And there's the food. Because of the French, every morning I consume a delicious fresh baguette, with or without eggs depending on how gross they do or do not sound. In addition to finding yet more stands to devour som tam (papaya salad a la Laos) and Lao noodle soup for under a dollar, there is a completely vegetarian buffet available for only $.50! Every night I load up with locally-grown bamboo shoots, tofu with mung beans, fried noodles, peanut cucumber salad, squash, green beans, and whatever else can be piled onto the small mountain that is my plate. Accommodation is running me about $1.50 a night, so if I manage to avoid spending money at the craft market, I can get by on around $4 a day!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Rolling Down the River

Things are different out here in Laos. Time just moves a little slower, I think, or maybe there's just something in the air that makes everything super chill. And no, I don't mean THAT certain something, because the cops seems to be after every trace of skunk in the air. I've never been to a more relaxed country than this one, and that's saying a lot after visiting Indonesia and Malaysia! I have to say it's not quite as cheap as I'd heard, mostly due to the erroneous "fees" and overcharging of tourists that runs rampant, but it's still pretty easy to stay under $10/day. Plus, being the experienced backpacker that I now am, there are ways around these sorts of things.

For example, there is always (always!) a local bus, even when everyone insists that there isn't just so you will pay twice as much for their fancy, special, elite, VIP, I'm-a-far-too-important-white-tourist-who-can't-deal-with-no-air-con buses. Getting out of Vientiane to the village of Vang Vieng was a little tricky at first, but as soon as we arrived at the bus station, we found a local bus and off we went. This was the very first ride I'd ever taken where a motorbike was granted passenger status, and rode among us cheapies inside the bus. The ride turned out to be quite lovely; who needs air con anyway when both doors of the bus are flung wide open?

We made it to Vang Vieng in under 5 hours (woo hoo!), and there I stayed for the next week. Despite its very serious downsides -- way too much concrete, dozens of bars playing "Friends" reruns on maximum volume all at the same time, loads of British wankers drunkenly stumbling around the town, its somewhat strange resemblance to Bangkok's Koh San Road at night -- I found plenty to enjoy. It's a prety small town nustled in amongst absolutely epic limestone karsts with a sizeable river offshoot of the Mekong running through it. We snagged a "luxury" bungalow down on the river, for us a seemingy outrageous splurge at $5/night, blissfully away from the raging stupidity of the main drag. To clarify, the definition of luxury is: a newly built bungalow, towels provided (real towels that don't smell like mold!), a functional and level porch, plenty of floor space to put down all of my shit, something hung on the wall as an actual decoration, and a very clean bathroom with hot water!

Vang Vieng is also home to Laos' famous tubing adventure. You rent a tube for $4, get tuk-tuked up the river 3km, and spend the next however many hours floating downstream. All along the way are makeshift bamboo bars on the river's edge, which you paddle over to and subsequently buy and drink as many $1 Beer Laos as you may need. But that's not all. Almost every single bar has a huge trapezee that you swing out on and then drop into the river below. It is so, so, so, much fun!!! I haven't been on a trapezee since I was a kid, and I can't say I've ever been on one DRUNK, let along swinging from 15 meters up and dropping into the river! I was pretty freaked out at first, but became a full-blown addict once I got over my fears and clung for dear life to that trapezee! Joe left his Chacos at the Last Bar, so we went tubing again the next day and had a completely sober but equally fantastic time. (Sadly, in the effort of not completely destroying my camera, I do not have any of my own photos of this adventure... however, I've stolen some from the internet to illustrate how awesome this was!)

When we weren't lounging around with the butterflies at the bungalow or nursing our tubing hangovers, we would cruise across a bridge, down the road, over some fences, and through the rice paddies to reach a climbing crag! That's right, I was back on the rocks again. There were about 8 bolted routes, of which we climbed 4, and all of them had sweeping views of the peaks and valleys below. I even managed to cruise up a 6a+, twice, and totally loved it. I am happy to say that Laos is both the fourth Asian country I've visited, AND the fourth Asian country I've rock climbed in! And, just for the record, it's officially the 20th country I've been to in my life! (not including the US of A of course)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

How Now, Pow Wow, No More Mao, Laos

Last stop in Thailand was Nong Khai, a peaceful little town right on the banks of the Mekong. Since I'd extended my stay in Khorat a little bit, I had literally one day left to explore the place before my one-month tourist visa was up for Thailand. After playing an unusually active tourist role in the last few days, and enjoying the heck out of it, I decided why not see what kind of things little Nong Khai has to offer. It turned out to have one of the strangest tourist attractions I've ever seen: a park filled with several dozen absolutely ginormous Hindu and Buddhist sculptures. And it was awesome! I'm still not quite sure what the point was, other than to exhibit the oh-so-much-larger-than-life qualities of Asia's most revered deities. I was cool with the gigantic smiling Buddha, but it was pretty frightening to see Shiva 3 stories up surrounded by 7 huge angry serpent heads... glad I wasn't on any substances for that excursion.

The next day I caught a bus across the Mekong and, pow!: welcome to Laos. The border was pretty mellow, but slightly frustrating. I ended up paying for my Laos visa in Thai Baht because I didn't have any American dollars on me, and then walked 5 feet and saw an exchange bureau where I easily could have bought some dollars and saved myself 10 bucks. Thanks for letting me know, Sneaky Immigration Man. After getting my passport stamped, I was warmly welcomed into Laos once again by the Entry Fee booth, kindly requesting that I dish out yet some more Baht before officially crossing over. Quite the exercise in patience, but I've come to learn that every border crossing has its share of demons, and this one wasn't so bad. Thankfully we dodged the tuk-tuk drivers and caught a $.70 bus to Laos' capital city of Vientiane immediately...

In case you're reading this and wondering 'Where is Laos?', well you're not the only one. Here's the rundown. It's Southeast Asia's least visited country, and famous for being one of the most bombed nations on the PLANET. Hard to believe, considering its neighbors are China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand... Officially, it's the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, having arrived there are decades of disgraceful French colonial control, shameful carpet bombings by the US during the Vietnam War, and frightening communist revolutions and civil uprisings. The history is a sad and depressing one, but Laos (silent 's' ... you can thank the French for adding it on) is a beautiful place with fantastic people. The vibe is so relaxed, and I'm still kicking it in Vientiane. It's Laos' biggest city but, to me, barely feels like a city at all. So far I've managed only to visit one lovely old Wat (temple) and tramp around in the mud of the delightful shantytown everything market, and -- you guessed it -- eat my way through the vegetarian delights of the city.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Real Deal

Suffered through my first overnight train trip getting from Suratthani to Bangkok, and surprisingly there wasn't much suffering involved. The second class cabin was a little cramped to say the least, and the fans provided didn't do much to keep the air cool, but I made it through the night OK and woke up to find myself squinting at the morning sun in the middle of Bangkok. Fortunately, I stayed in Bangkok for exactly 15 minutes and caught yet another train straight out of there. That ride involved quite a bit more suffering. It was brutally hot in the third class cabin, and the ride seemed neverending as the train police shuffled us around to different seats (in the same cabin...?) and some senile old Thai man puked out of a nearby window.

The destination, Khorat, turned out to be a surprisingly fresh breath of air. Quite unexpectedly, Thailand's second largest city has turned out to be a very likeable town. It's full of plenty to see and do, and overflowing with charming Thai people and delicious Thai food. But it's also the kind of place where tourists don't matter so much and aren't catered to; it's all about the Thais here. Hardly anyone speaks English, which has been great for both practicing my disasterous Thai phrases and providing the locals with some comedy. There are permanent markets set up in sidewalks with Thai ladies sitting at makeshift wooden tables selling every conceivable fruit, veggie, and animal flesh I could dream of. Dozens of sewing machines are set up in a row on the other side of the street every other day to mend and create clothing. The night markets are completely free of tourist souvenirs and are instead full of T-shirts with ripped-off and/or nonsensical English slogans on them, the kind of clothes Thais seem to love most. Oh, if I only had a Baht for every time I've seen a shirt that either made no sense at all or, unbeknownst to its owner, was shockingly inappropriate...

Obviously, most of my time has been spent eating, eating, and eating some more. It's significantly more challenging to be a vegetarian here, as the local dishes all contain a whole lot of duck tail, chicken feet, pig ears, cow liver, and other frightening animal body parts I would rather not be able to recognize. But, markets abound, full of vegetables I could never dream of, as do food stands hawking nearly flammable renditions of papaya salad (som tum).

Aside from stuffing my face and chuckling with Thai ladies at my perfectly shitty Thai language abilities (hey - I can count to 99!), I've taken day trips to two different sites nearby. In general, I've been pretty burned out on the whole sightseeing thing lately, but these places were just begging to be explored. Each are temple and shrine complexes originally built by the Angkor Empire in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries and later converted by the Thais into Buddhist temples. My first outing was to Prasat Phanom Rung, which has been extremely well-restored and sits atop an extinct volcano with superb views of the countryside all around. It took a long bus ride and some serious negotiating with a motorbike driver to get there, but it was worth it. The restoration has really cleaned up and brought out the elaborate designs carved into sandstone walls, pillars, and blocks. Some of it is even hilariously risque; as a new friend from Bangkok said of this photo: "not so nice! ha ha ha!" There also happened to be some kind of celebration going on, with guys playing out-of-tune trumpets, ringing bells, tying white strings across buildings, and lovely Thai ladies dressing up... though I couldn't tell if it was Buddhist, Hindu, or some mixture of both.

Today I hit up the other nearby attraction, another Angkor temple complex in the town of Phimai. This one was way easier to get to, and despite what I'd read, a lot more interesting. Phimai is in ruins, ie no one has paid for the restoration yet, but it is a much larger complex and has a much more impressive 28 meter-tall shrine tower. Tourists are free to roam all over the ruins, which can get pretty tricky as the sandstone and laterite they used to build these things has endured some serious weathering. But around every corner are gems to be discovered: smiling Buddhas, intricate carvings, gravity-defying arrangements of sandstone blocks, strangely Roman-esque pillars, and guardian spirits. In fact, today I learned that Singha is not just the name of my least-favorite Thai beer, but is also an ancient guardian protector that symbolizes heaven. So there, Chang!

All in all, the last five days have been the most "real" Thailand I've ever experienced. It's been blissful wandering around the less-trodden paths out here in Northeast Thailand, far away from the obnoxious farangs (that's us white folk) and the Tourist Trail that claims so much of this country. I've even had the pleasure of seeing the Thais themselves play tourist at the temple ruins. We make new Thai friends everywhere, and get pretty stoked when random Thais of all ages stop to say hello or wave at us from passing buses. Whether it's been cramming into 3rd class trains and buses, walking down city streets, checking in at the hotel, eating at food stalls, bargaining at the night bazaar, gaping at the obscene cell phone displays in the mall, or chatting with American-loving tuk-tuk drivers named Mr Cookie, it's been nothing but huge giant Thai smiles and great Thai vibes.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Som Tam in Paradise

My first week back in the island paradise of Koh Phangan was spent at The Sanctuary, a little haven of peacefulness on an isolated stretch of east coast beach. I went a little over budget for a few days as I filled up my time with yoga classes and delicious vegetarian cuisine from their lovely but painfully overpriced restaurant. On the day of the full moon party, I attempted to leave the Sanctuary, to go to another beach and skip out on what I'd known to be the stupid debauchery of the full moon party. However, the boat to the next beach sped on by without picking me up, a clear sign that I was not going anywhere that day. Instead, I decided to go to the party with some of my new friends and ended up having one of the most fun nights of this entire trip. I boogied my behind off for about 10 hours, even staying to drink a final beer and dance to the Stones as the sun came up. Gotta love when fate works out like that...

Next stop was the insanely beautiful beach of Thong Nai Pan Yai. It's the kind of beach you dream about but think might not really exist. Most of the days were nice and leisurely, with hours on end spent lounging in the shady white sand or swinging in the pink tye dye hammock on my porch. Occasionally some Chang drinking occured, when it was just too hot and sunny NOT to have a cold beer, or when the tunes from the Funky Buddha Bar called us to come and dance. But far and away the highlight was wandering the little Thai village, and eating. A lot. We were spoilt for choice as far as delicious low-key Thai Mama cooking goes, but managed to find the gem among gems: Som's. Som cooked us unbelievable Thai meals 3 times a days, and I can now safely say hers is my favorite Thai restaurant in the whole world. Mmmmmmmmmm.....

Friday, August 24, 2007

Time Keeps on Slippin'

I'm back in Thailand, for my third go-round, and somehow it's the end of August. How did that happen? I've got two months left in Southeast Asia, and have clocked over three as of now. Time just keeps on moving faster... In any case, here's what I've been up to since Indo:

I hopped a flight to Kuala Lumpur, and found myself once again pleased to be back in lovely Malaysia. It was a little eerie coming from Indonesia to the 6-lane highways of Malaysia, where as we drove down the road in a huge air-conditioned bus I could have sworn I was glancing out at the high-rises and strip malls of Orange County. But, KL itself was not so bad. Fortunately, there was a great place to go climbing right outside of town at a tourist area called the Batu Caves. We skipped the sightseeing and headed for the rock, and spent 2 days climbing some great routes, escaping the heat, and continuing to meet fabulous locals. But a week in KL was more than enough.

Next stop was the Cameron Highlands, a beautiful outpost of jungled hills, vibrant tea plantations, fruit and vegetable farms, flower gardens, and supremely cool weather. I skipped out on the package tours and did one myself, taking local transport to the next town up, and walking all day through tea plantations, strawberry farms, and browsing colorful veggie stands. Though the Highlands are famous for their strawberries, I found they didn't hold a candle to California's... but still I enjoyed my fair share of strawberry ice cream and organic ripe ones. Afterwards, I took a 3-hour hike through beautiful jungle, and made it back just in time for a giant meal of incredible Indian food. I found the Highlands a little too touristy but beautiful nonetheless, and it was easy to overlook the giant tourbuses in favor of the gorgeous rolling hills. In any case, after careful consideration of my options and finances, I decided it was time to get back to Thailand.

Once again, I got into Thailand and headed straight for the rocks in Ton Sai. I was stoked to find I've improved a lot as a climber, and had fun trying things I couldn't dream of doing 3 months ago. Sweet! It was also the very, very LOW season, so we found a bungalow for about $3 a night and plenty of quiet time. I missed some of my old Ton Sai buddies, but found a new crew of great kids to chill and climb with. The weather was insanely rainy, but was strangely a blessing -- no more days of brutal humidity and ruthless mosquitos. I AM still covered in mosquito bites, and bruises on my knees, but things definitely improved for the better.

And now, I'm back to Koh Phangan, one of my favorite islands in the world, to do a little howling at the full moon and lots of yoga.