Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Juggling, Tea Festival, and Tha Ton's many Buddhas

As Joseph said before he kayak accidentally flipped over spilling him into Lago de Atitlan (I would also accidentally follow only moments later), “This is what traveling is all about.”

Today was like that.

After a chilly night in Mae Salong (temperature dropped to around 50 degrees and without heat, you simply bundle up in multiple blankets and sweaters), I woke to the sound of the morning market. Looking out my window, the sky was just starting to light up and sun slowly peeking over the mountains in the horizon. I hastily got washed and made my way partially up the hill for a better view of the sunrise.
The morning market by now was in full swing. While small, it had a very nice feel, local, authentic, devoid of tourists and normal fanfare surrounding tourist oriented markets. You could watch people from the local tribes – Akhan, Luisa, and Lahu – trading, selling and purchasing goods much as they had done for decades, probably centuries. I bought a few bracelets as souvenirs and decided to collect them from any place that held a special place during my travels.

I left the market and returned to my guesthouse (which was essentially just a family’s home, where they rented out one room). The main host was playing guitar, and he had two guitars so we jammed and chatted for a little bit. After he left, a couple cute kids watched and listened as I played, and I decided this was a good time to introduce a little juggling in the fray. When I first started juggling, their faces simply lit up, entranced, and then giggling with joy. For the next hour or so, I juggled for the kids, trying to teach them the basics. They brought their parents and relatives, and the common area of the house had become quite a lively area. The best is always slowly building the relationship with the kids, where they might be a little shy at first, nervous around this strange “farang” (white man) in their house, until they loosen up and became relaxed, fighting with each other for a spot on my lap.

The kids had to leave for school, and I headed to the local tea festival. Initially, I had been worried when I arrived at Mae Salong because most of the guesthouses were full (I thought it might be flooded by tourists). It was flooded, but in a different way. Rather than Western tourists, it was mostly Thai tourists and mostly from surrounding villages for the annual several day long tea festival. It was still pretty early at that time, so I visited a nearby wat overlooking the valley. On the way back, the festival was in full swing. Dozens of food, tea, and souvenir stands. Various dance groups began to perform on the fairly large stage. I saw dances from the various nearby villages – Akhan, Luisa, Lahu, and one or two more. And amazingly, I was the only white face in the crowd.

Around noon, I needed to head to my next destination Tha Ton, so I found the minibus down to the Tha Ton bus station. The ride cut along the ridge of the mountain, sweeping around the curves with gorgeous views of the surrounding valleys. At the bottom, the overcrowded bus to Tha Ton was heading off, so I tossed my bag on top and grabbed onto the back of the bus or really pick-up truck. After a pretty ride, I found myself at Tha Ton.

Tha Ton is another really pretty town. Mostly one street, Burmese Shan refugees make up a substantial portion of the population due to Tha Ton’s proximity to Myanmar (and due to the outgoing violence against the Shan in Myanmar). Tha Ton is basically cut in half by the Maekong River, with a pretty bridge connecting the two sides, and towering mountains forming the background on either side. The main attraction is the various temples and Buddha statues on the mountain. In 9 stages, you walk or drive up the hill visiting the various sites. And they are definitely worth visiting. Probably even more spectacular than Mae Salong, the various statues are massive and ornate – the glimmering white sitting Buddha, the golden Buddha with dragons surrounding him, the massive multicolored stupa overlooking the valley and Maekong (with multiple levels and overlooks inside), and the famous standing Buddha (with its back turned towards Myanmar).

I spent the afternoon exploring the various sites, and returned to the stupa to watch the sunset.

All in all, it was a great day.

Tomorrow I head to either Chiang Mai or Phitsanoluk for New Years. I’m not sure which yet.

(PS. I'm starting to realize I blog in spurts... I'll have to work on being more regular with my posts)

Mae Salong

Following Chiang Rai, I took an early bus out to Mae Salong. I had to change at a tiny town, Ban Basang, to a pick-up truck turn taxi for the ride up the mountain. Mae Salong is built along the spine of the mountain. It’s basically one main street with a few houses, shops, restaurants, and guesthouses along the side. On the peak behind Mae Salong, there’s a large pagoda and temple overlooking the surrounding mountains and plains. I made the climb in the early afternoon after grabbing lunch in a Yunnan noodle shop (Mae Salong was actually founded by Chiang Kai-Shek after his nationalist army was driven from China and took shelter there; hence, it still retains a strong Chinese influence and often is seen as more Yunnan in its stylings than Thai).

Offering close to a 360 panorama, the view from Wat Santikeree was spectacular. Possibly even better than the buddha’s footprint near Krabi.

All in all, I really like Mae Salong. It’s largely devoid of tourists. The town is small and quaint, and people are friendly (including the nice Akhan woman at the guesthouse, peering over my shoulder as I type away on my mini-computer). The scenery is spectacular, and the chilly air (and it’s actually chilly up here, making me glad I’ve been carrying my fleece around) is a welcome relief.

Tomorrow I head to Tha Ton, another village town around the Golden Triangle (the area bordering Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma – I’ll be referring to it as Myanmar for most of my blogs because I need to get used to calling it that since I’m going there in about a week.. probably not good to accidentally call it Burma once I get there). The Wat Tha Ton is supposed to be excellent, with the massive standing Buddha on top of the mountain (largely the reason I’m going there).

Random thought at dinner, I think it’s interesting how geography and politics go together. You usually find mountains or rivers near the borders of countries. The Golden Triangle being the perfect examples, but you can also look at the Karen areas of Myanmar bordering Thailand, or the Shan areas further north, or the Kauchin areas of Myanmar bordering China (again mountains). The Malaysia-Thailand border also becomes mountainous all of sudden, and Singapore, of course, is cut off by water. Similar examples abound throughout the world, and the reasoning is fairly straight-forward, mountains form a natural defensive wall; they serve as markers to the legacies and histories of war and conflict, the ebb and flow of borders, settling on the most naturally defensive areas.

Chiang Rai - land of a thousand smiles... or a thousand tourists

So for a bit, I thought Chiang Rai wasn’t too touristy. I had just arrived by bus from Chiang Mai, passing some gorgeous temples and beautiful scenery along the way. I found a nice, isolated guesthouse (Ya House), where I got a second floor bungalow seemingly entirely made of straw and bamboo and offering the prospect of hot showers. After settling in, I made my way down to the river and came across several wats along the way, where the monks were just performing the final ceremony to close down for the evening. One of the temples had a pretty green backlight illuminating the emerald Buddha inside. Returning from the river, I walked past a nice night market and grabbed some duck-rice for dinner at a street corner. Nearby, the ornate, golden clock tower glimmered in the early evening light.

At that time, I preferred Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai. Tourists were few and far between. There was a lively night life removed from the lady bars and nightclubs on the main strip in Chiang Mai, and street food was common. I took my chance and continued on to the reportedly “tourist-centered” Night Bazaar. At first, it seemed fine. A wide variety of stalls and venders, similar to the night bazaar in Chiang Mai, flood the streets. There were also two stages for performances. One being worrisome, given that it had “Night Bazaar” in Thai, English and French (a warning if there ever is one). The first few acts were fine. A couple musicians, a dance, and then a group of pretty Thai woman took the stage, dressed in fancy, flowery outfits, then began to dance and lip-synch to a song… in English, about Thailand being the land of smiles and where all your dreams come true. So much for my illusions about it not being too touristy.

After the song, I made my way back to my bungalow. In all though, I really liked Chiang Rai. While the night bazaar is very touristy centered, it’s quite easy to get away from it to a decent day market and night market, which still seem to be focused on the locals and haven’t been inundated with Western tourists. Many of the wats in Chiang Rai are also quite pretty, and I preferred some of them to even the best that Chiang Mai had to offer. The new White Temple in particular was amazing.

Monday, December 22, 2008


While walking along one of the main canals in Bangkok, I discovered a little known gem - Bangkok's juggling club. Actually, I don't know if it's official or anything, but a group of Thai jugglers meet pretty regularly at this small park near the canal. They're also joined by a decent amount of expats living in Thailand, a Belgium guy, one Japanese, and a Spaniard. Some of them were quite good, especially the Thai jugglers who are actually professional here. It was awesome doing the 10-club feed again, some nice runs at 7-singles, and teaching them the rotating Y-pattern. Oh, the joys of juggling...

land of queues

I went to get my visa for Thailand extended. And I can't help but comment on how inefficient the whole system was. First, you queue at the information desk to find out what to do. Then you get a form to fill out and queue for the line where there's actually space to fill it out. Then you queue to get back to the information desk to be told you need to photocopy some pages of your passport, so you can go queue at the photocopy store across the street, all so that you can finally queue again at the information desk to get your official number in the official "queue" for turning in your paperwork.

Oh and of course once you turn in your paper work, you get another number to queue for picking up your passport.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I just arrived in Phang-Nga. I wasn’t certain I would come here. I heard it was really nice but it’s a little out of my way to Bangkok. Still, I decided it was worth a detour, and so far it hasn’t disappointed. The town is basically set on one main street. On either side, there are souring cliffs and karsts cutting up from the plains. I made plans to do a tour of the nearby national park and a visit to the stilt village of Ko Panyi. This afternoon I made my way to a couple temples and then Tapan Cave (?) and Dragon Temple. The whole town is completely devoid of tourists (or rather western tourists), which is a nice break from the tourism central of Ko Phi Phi and Ao Nang. Prang-Nga seems to draw more local tourists visiting the rather ill-kept “places of the interest”.

Anyway, Tapan Cave and Dragon Temple were awesome. Similar to Haw Par Village, Dragon Temple featured morbid figurines of punishment in the afterlife. Such as:

To top it off, a pack of gibbons had taken over the area, hanging out the massive distorted statues, and the place was eerily quiet. There was also a small temple at the top of a cliff that offered some excellent views of the surrounding area.

Other photos:
Full moon rising over the mountain at the river town outside of Taman Negara

Petronas Towers at night:

Petronas Towers from KL or Menara Tower:

Reflection of Kaula Lumpur skyline:

Ton Sai and Pranang

So I arrived at Ton Sai yesterday. Ton Sai is the backpackers beach (basically cheaper and grudgier) in the area, and I actually like the scenery more. The setting is cozier, with massive imposing cliffs surrounding the beach (which is admittedly worse for swimming and sun-bathing, neither of which I particularly cared about). I found a cheap private bungalow in the back of the forest behind the beach. The bungalow is mostly wood and bamboo, and setting is perfect. The woods are filled with birds and animals; the nights quiet and still, except for the sounds of nature.

Ton Sai also has the advantage of being close to Rai Lei and Pranang, two of the nicest beaches in the area (Pranang is actually ranked by many as the second nicest beach in the world). Before visiting Pranang, I took a fairly steep hike and climb up to viewpoint over Rai Lei, and then another climb to this absolutely marvelous lagoon. The trail plunges straight down into this beautifully quiet and cool canyon, insolated from the sounds and chaos of the outside world. The canyon continued down to a crystal clear lagoon, surrounded by massive cliffs on all sides, with stalagmites hanging off the cliff faces.

After the lagoon, I made my way to Pranang for the sunset and some juggling. The beach definitely did not disappoint. Limestone islands rise out from the ocean, soaring cliffs with stalagmites form an auditorium-like setting, and crystal clear waters top it off. On one side of the beach, you can explore several caves. One of them leads into a pitch black chamber, where you feel your way through a small opening until a glimmer of light reveals the way out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I decided to be a tourist for a day. After basically three weeks of backpacking, long train and bus rides, hiking through rainforests, and staying in some dingy $2-$3 a night dorms, I found a nice private room at Ao Nang beach in southern Thailand, off the Andaman Coast. Windows with screens (absolute luxury), so I didn't have to choose between stuffy hot air and mozzies harassing me during the night. Functioning, warmish showers. Basically the stuff of dreams, and well worth the $12 I spent on it. The scenery itself is quite spectacular. I took a longboat ride from the main town of Krabi after my morning hike to Wat Tham Suea. Wat Tham Suea is a massive Buddhist temple. The main part of the visit is climbing up one of the karsts to see the "buddha's footprint". I had done the Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur, and much is made of the 237 odd steps you have to climb. Not to be outdone, you need to scale 1,239 steps to reach the buddha's footprint. But the view was pretty impressive, offering a 360 panorama of the surrounding karsts, mountains, and plains. And since ithasn't been really discovered by the tourist circuit (or people are discouraged by the number of steps), it was nice and quiet up at top.

So the longboat ride was also wonderful. You see fields of limestones karsts, cut through sparkling blue-ish green waters, and ride pass imposing cliffs, at times reaching through the water like bony fingers. My ride the next day would be even better. My tourist activity for the journey so far was an expensive speedboat tour of the surrounding islands, primarily Ko Phi Phi, Banana Islands, Monkey Island, and then a stop-over at Maya Beach (where the movie "The Beach" was filmed). The tour also slipped in three snorkeling stops, a couple of gorgeous alcoves, and a half decent buffer lunch. All for the exorbitant price of 900 baht, or around $25.

Rhys hanging off the back of the speedboat with me:

Maya Beach:

An alcove:

Today I head to Ton Sai, near Rai Lei beach to do some hikes, and then I'm off to Phang-Nga park and Bangkok.

Couple other random tidbits on my trip: Food tourism is awesome. In Singapore, I feasted at hawker centers. Basically Singapore's government decided to clean up the streets and moved all the street food into food or hawker centers. So in one food center, you'll have 30-40 amazing street food venders and feast for practically nothing. I got some kway toew (flat noodles) with oysters, a soup, half a duck and noodles, for around $5. And then when I got to Thailand, this is what they did to my food:

Ok so that was actually intentional. Pad Thai here is unbelievable. I had two massive orders last night... for about $2.

Haw Par Villa in Singapore... creep and morbid. The figurines depict some of the punishments in hell. Of course disobeying your parents gives you about the same amount of punishment as killing someone. Tells you something about Chinese culture. Some other highlights include the fireflies at Kuala Selangor. It's amazing watching the trees blinking with thousands of fireflies. I also spent a night there. It's kinda a dive, but there's a decent hike to one of the bukits (hills), where you can watch swarms of monkeys and get views of the Malacca Straits.