Friday, December 31, 2010

Hard on the Heart

"Leave all your love and your longing behind;
You can't carry them with you if you want to survive."
(Florence & the Machine)

When we were traveling around Thailand, we met two German girls who had traveled for two months in India. One remarked that, whileamazing, it was also "hard on the heart." While I'm sure India might be much worse, Cambodia was very hard onmy heart--it is one of the poorest countries in the world.It's also a beautiful country: we spent several days in Siem Reap, while not my favorite city in the world, Angkor Wat was really amazing.

Despite the insane amounts of tourists (Chinese and Korean and Australian and Japanese and...) sunrise at Angkor Wat was a breath taking experience...I felt like Aladdin looking at the Taj Mahal from him humble abode.I also liked a temple called Na Phrom, that had been overtaken by trees. The guidebook said something about this temple showing the "awesome power and fecundity" of the jungle, and it's true. It reminded me how much I love ruins and archaeology: it just boggles my mind how much history is in these stones. I liked just sitting on some of them and soaking it in, imagining the lives that had gone by these very rocks and woods.
The ruins were awesome, the people, not so much. Not just the tourists (although they were difficult, but also amusing: one time a group of young Chinese guys surrounded me, each wanting an individual picture with me. One was particularly scandalized when I was taller than him, and made me stand a few steps down. I felt kind of beautiful, haha); the locals too. Constantly being swindled, begged for money, yelled at, called "hey lady" and seeing the many victims of the still-present landmines was hard. It was even harder to see all of this surrounded by such beauty.
After Angkor Wat and the downright stress of Siem Reap (which for me was made worse by a persistent cough, an unfortunate experience with couch surfing i.e. the floor and a nasty cockroach-ridded bathroom along with a puking roommate, being lectured by little kids on how much money I have, and the constant threat of being ripped off) we set off for a rural province called Ratanakri.
While very impoverished, it was so beautiful--we saw waterfalls, elephants, mountains and crater lakes, all marred by the Red Dust of Ratanakri (which still is present in my pack, somehow) and the little kids with distended stomachs on the side of the roads. Although it was also more exciting by the fact that we got lost while navigating our own little...wait for it...motorcycle! I made Courtney drive; she has experience from her 4-wheelers at home, and I can barely handle my mountain bike so I thought it would be safer.

Travel around Cambodia was always an adventure: one time, my pack got soaked in fish sauce, leaving me with wet spots in the exact place where pit stains would be; my cousin's packed got completely covered in the Red Dust; we were constantly being shuffled from bus to bus; on one bus every time we moved the other passengers (all Cambodians) laughed hysterically and got a huge kick out of watching us eat the weird food they offered; at a bus stop we watched a slave monkey; another bus stop we ate rice out of strange tubes and played with little girls whose teeth had rotted out (my heart still breaks). Don't even get me started on the bathrooms we had to endure.
After some time spent in Kratie, watching the most beautiful sunsets on the Mekong, and another day in Phnom Penh, we sailed down the Mekong towards Vietnam.

Cambodia was the most stressful time of the trip; it was heartbreaking, and I went through a small personal crisis brought on by (my new favorite book) Three Cups of Tea. As an English major, I know the best books will make you laugh, cry, and cause an existential crisis, or at least make you think--and this book sure did. So I think the poverty I saw was even worse in my eyes after that.
Unlike most of the other countries I've visited, I didn't feel much of an emotional wrench when I left Cambodia. The food was okay, the people, while friendly, were still scarred by the recent Khmer Rouge, as was the landscape. Even Angkor Wat was not immune to the Khmer Rouge, and as a result much of it was irreversibly damaged.
Seeing the scars of such a recent war also kind of woke me up, and visiting Vietnam would do the same thing. Living in the Western United States, all of that seems so far away--civil wars, wars fighting for freedom, lost boys...

I know poverty and all that exists in the United States, but it was startling there. People all over the world are still fighting for our freedom while we stress about what college to go to. It's very illuminating, and let's just say I was VERY grateful this Thanksgiving! (Which incidentally took place while we were in Cambodia--and I managed to get both my siblings, both my parents, and our pets on the web cam via skype!)
I sound like I've never travelled before; I'm not even sure Cambodia is the poorest country I've been to. The other countries certainly had their issues; Thailand is still being inunduated by protesters, as was Peru and Ecuador while I was there. And Vietnam, while generally peaceful, is communist, which seems to enhance corruption in the state (you'll read more about that later, aren't you excited?).
Looking back, I was kind of glad to see the end of Cambodia--Vietnam, despite the troubles with our visa (we were only given a two-week visa rather than the standard 30-day; thanks to being too trustworthy and getting ripped off), felt like a fresh start.
Stay tuned for our Vietnamese adventures!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

ABCs of Thailand

**Disclaimer: The idea for this clever little blog did NOT, in fact, spring from my own brain, but from here**

Here's a little list (I'm slightly addicted to lists) of random observations I made during our adventures in Thailand, starting with "A" and moving on down the list. Some letters I was more enthusiastic about; others, I just could not think of ANYTHING, such as with "q," predictably. I hope you enjoy, I certainly enjoyed writing it!

ANIMALS: the stray animals will break your heart.

BIRTHDAYS, BUCKET SHOWERS, and BAI NAI: the day you were
born is much more important than the date, i.e. they celebrate on the day of the week you were born at that particular time of year, like the second Tuesday in November and whatnot. we experienced the infamous bucket showers while staying with Liz...not bad, especially on hot days! But definitely gave an involuntary squeal every time the first bucket was poured over the head. finally, as a greeting, Tha
is will say, "Bai nai?" meaning, "where are you going?" It's kind of like our, "what's up?"

COLOR-CODES: every day of the week has a different color. at some schools, the kid's uniform shirt must match the day of the week that color happens to be!

DIVING, DRAGONFLIES and DANCING: aw, I love diving. The dragonflies are red. And traditional dancing is awesome, and so hard! My hands do not bend that far--when the girls are babies, they will have their hands soaked in warm water and pushed back, and then when they're in lessons, the hands are taped back to achieve the best curve.

ELEPHANTS and EGGS: I love elephants, they are SO CUTE, and we finally saw a baby one on our last day in Chiang Mai! As for eggs, in our friend Megan's village, a group of Christian missionaries live nearby, and on Easter, they went around handing out Easter eggs. In Thailand, if someone hands you an entire egg, it means they never want to see you again. Hence, the Christians had a lot of apologizing to do!

FANTA, and FIELD TRIPS: Orange Fanta is somehow better when you're abroad. Field trips are not the to-do they are in the states; the teacher merely grabs the kids and you can wander around for as long as you wish. No permission slips, no nothing!

GENEROSITY and GEEKS: The Thais are some of the most generous people on the planet. Although they do have this weird custom of geeks: every married person probably has a geek, i.e. mistress, on the side, and this is perfectly acceptable and the entire village will know, although it's not completely advertised.

HITCHHIKING, HAIR and HUMIDITY: Hitchhiking, will not encouraged when you're alone, is fun in a group; and as previously discussed, the generous nature of the Thais always had them rearranging their truck for us and refusing any sort of compensation! My hair, as you can imagine, reacted very badly to the humidity, as did my skin...I loved Thailand and most of SE Asia, but I honestly don't know how people survive the humidity!!

INDIGO: As in dye. It's beautiful! We were given the opportunity to try it out, and it smells super funky, but kind of good. It's made of a local plant, so it's all organic. The fabric ends up any shade between dark green and deep blue!

JANKY: A word I say all the time now, thanks to my cuz.

KING, KHANOMS, and KARAOKE: Everyone in Thailand loves their king. Every day, in public places, his anthem is played, and every house has a least one picture of the king inside, if not multiple. Even when you go to the movies, you'll watch a short film and hear the anthem prior. Khanoms are any kind of snack, usually something sweet, that is customarily brought when you visit anyone, like a hostess gift. And finally, karaoke is a huge pastime and you will do it everywhere: parties, camping, etc.

LANGUAGES and LA: Within Thailand, they have several dialects of Thai, as mentioned, my Thai name was in the northern dialect. Everyone in the north speaks this dialect, as well as the national version of Thai. "La" means handsome, and I used it all the time as it's accompanied with a fun hand gesture.

MONKS, MILKING OUT, MASSAGES, MOLES and MAI BEN RAI: Monks, wearing their customary bright orange outfits, are everywhere and I love them! Breasts in Thailand are called "mountains of milk," I got told often that I was "milking out." In addition to our sketchy massage in Pai, we got a much nicer on in Chiang Mai, although I'm still not exactly flexible, and it was occasionally excruciating. The back-cracking and usage of tiger balm is quite nice, though. We also got a foot massage from fishys...our feet were so soft afterwards although it tickled so much!! Moles, especially with long, nasty hair growing out of them, are a status symbol, a sign of wisdom, so the old men especially prize them. They are nothing but GROSS in my mind. Finally, "mai ben rai" is the Thai equivalent of "no worries!" and can be an answer to anything.

NIGHT MARKETS and NICKNAMES: Night markets in Thailand are the best! The best stuff, the best haggling, the best atmosphere. Everyone has a nickname in Thailand that usually sounds nothing like their five-syllable-long given name. For example, Liz's roommate's full name is Haittaratt, and her nickname is Lyette. I guess they both have "t's"...

OVALTINE: iced. it's the best.

PANTS, PAD THAI, PAYING and POMEGRANATES: fisherman pants, which I always thought were weird, are ubiquitous and quite comfy, and are cute! Pad thai is AMAZING, and I love that it never tastes quite the same. Old people always pay--wahoo, and pomegranates rock here: they're white-pink on the outside and sweet on the inside.

RICE and ROACHES: SO MANY KINDS OF RICE!!! Sticky rice, purple rice, plain white rice, dessert rice...the list goes on. Can't say I'm a huge fan of rice, but sticky rice is pretty good! Especially when mixed with coconut milk. And Thailand, unfortunately, introduced me to cockroaches. The most memorable experience was an overnight bus infested with them...somehow Court and I both slept on that bus. But, EW.

SUGAR, SNAILS, SUWAI, STREET FOOD, SPIRIT HOUSES and SCAMS: Even my sweet tooth could not handle the excessive sweetness present in many Thai dishes and snacks. At one point, Liz's bathroom was overrun by the BIGGEST snails I have ever seen. "Suwai" means beautiful, and it was definitely one of my ten go-to words, although I figured out near the end of our trip that using it in a different tone means something like fu-ugly...street food can be delicious and terrifying and disgusting, and we had all of those experiences and more with street food. Spirit houses are one of my favorite Buddhist traditions. You build someone a spirit house when they die, and every day for a year you light the incense on the house and give them offerings, to ease their transition between lives. Finally, scamming is an unfortunate part of life in Southeast Asia, and it's not always easy to catch--the borders are the worst!!

TUK-TUKS, THAI-NAPPING, and TRAFFIC: tuk-tuks are ubiquitous and can be cool but are mostly annoying. but hey, when you're in need of a ride at 4 a.m., they rock. As previously discussed in the blog, Thai-napping is rampant and is always crazy! We also got 'Nam-napped (more on that later). And TRAFFIC in Asia is a WHOLE different organism than traffic anywhere else. I thought South America was crazy, but Asia was a whole different ball game. Unlike in the states, it's better to NOT look both ways. Never let 'em see you sweat!

WAI-ING, WHITENESS and WATS: By far my favorite Thai custom is wai-ing, where you fold your hands like you're praying and bow your head to people. Different placement of the hands is required for monks, elders, etc, but I pretty much wai-ed everyone like a monk. Whiteness is sort of like tanning here: everyone wants to be paler, and they have tons of whitening products (even for the armpits, as I made the mistake of buying whitening deoderant...). Although unlike most of our tanning products (except actual tanning and maybe the chemicals in spray-tanning) the whitening products contain bleach. So if you use them continually, you end up a funny grey color. everyone called us beautiful, mostly because of our skin, but hey, I wasn't complaining! FINALLY, wats. Wats--temples--are everywhere and are crazy decadent. All are curly-cued and gold-tinged and some are insane, but either way, you'll find one on every other corner!

YEARS: Last notice: years. The Thais go by the Buddhist timeline, beginning with the year that Buddha achieved enlightenment (I think, although I've had several different bits of information about this) and therefore the year is 2553.

WELL. Wasn't this fun? Wishing you all a fantastic New Year and Christmas!!!! xxx

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Send Those Wishes Into the Sky (Or Down the River)

"As we push away we pray
We will see a better day."
(last two lines of the Loi Krathong song)

The festival of Loi Krathong (pronounced roy gratone, sort of) finally came! Ever since my brother went when he was in Thailand I was looking forward to this event. And what a weekend it was...
We got into the Loi Krathong spirit pretty quickly after saying goodbye to Liz's village and all of her lovely neighbors (the goodbye consisted of some laughter and pointing as I hoofed my stubbornly CROOKED backpack-Court calls is "the Worm"- after the little red trucks they use as taxis, and cramming myself into the most crowded one ever for an hour, but hey) as the Loi Krathong song was playing over and over at the bus station in Phrae. It's a nice song, but imagine hearing 'Jingle Bells' over and get the picture.
Our pilgrimage to Chiang Mai, reputedly the best city in Thailand to see the festival, went well, although the 4 hour bus ride seemed much longer as my bladder was threatening to explode (don't you love my intimate details??). Then, after dropping our stuff off at the Green Tulip-to date, the cleanest and nicest hostal we've seen in Southeast Asia-we wandered off to see the town.
Chiang Mai is such a NICE city. Rivers and moats, malls and markets, parks and wats. Bookstores up the wazoo.

Our first day in Chiang Mai, the highlight (for me) was some Western food in the form of Pizza Hut and HARRY POTTER 7! Part One. It was fun to go to a movie in Thailand-there is a little video/song at the beginning dedicated to the king, and everyone stands up in respect.

On Saturday, Loi Krathong truly began! The day included bagels, a nice Thai massage (with TIGER BALM!!-more on this later) and a massuese that was actually trained in the art of massage, and our own little Thanksgiving feast. We, meaning me, Liz, Megan, and Court, also had our own little Thanksgiving celebration, which included a whole host of farang food, such as falafel, burritos, Subway, salsa, Coke, and salad. Not much traditional Thanksgiving food, but the sandwiches WERE turkey, and remains one of the best Thanksgivings on my record, anyway (despite the fact that we almost burned down the hostal with our "mood lighting" least we were on the roof and caught it quickly, eh?) The rooftop of Green Tulip was also the PERFECT place to get our first glimpse of the amazing lanterns lighting up the sky as part of the festival.

Loi Krathong, in case you aren't in the know, traditionally began as a festival honoring the river goddess. Basically, you make a little banana boat (the krathong) and fill it with flowers and candles and bits of yourself, i.e. fingernails and hair, to send away the bad spirits that you may be plagued with. Then you light the candle and send it down the river! The rest of the festival, the spectacular part, evolved in the places that don't have a river: giant lanterns lit up and send into the sky with wishes for the next year. I think the idea of the lanterns/boats is BEAUTIFUL and I fully intend to steal at least the lantern idea for my wedding or retirement party or something (so be warned).

After our lovely little Thanksgiving celebration, we headed out onto the town to see the festival and send up a lantern of our own! The festival, we soon discovered, is like 4th of July on crack, mixed with a street festival and Valentine's Day (you're supposed to send your boat down the river with your lover). The 4th of July part was the insane fireworks that were exploding everywhere, and as Thailand is a little lax on who can light the fireworks (although they were especially on guard when a farang had a firework in their hand, I noticed) and where they can be lit, it was slightly terrifying, with them shooting in ALL directions!

I soon decided that Loi Krathong is one of the HIGHLIGHTS of our trip. It's terrifying, yes, but beautiful, majestic, inspiring, crazy, brilliant...I could go on (I won't, though, I'm sure I already broke several grammar rules, and the fact that I don't know which ones tells you just what kind of English major I was). From a distance, the lanterns looked like fireflies, or the enchanted ceiling in Hogwarts, or aliens taking over the planet. But no, just millions of wishes being sent up into the sky!

After traversing the crowd, getting caught in the middle of a parade, we made it down to the river, the center of festivities. After fighting our way through, and taking pictures of the many lanterns and the crowds and the fireworks, we bought our own lantern and headed onto a rickety dock to light it off.
It was harder than we thought-it took awhile to get it lit (of course, a friendly Thai person produced his extra lighter and gave us a hand) and after you light it, you have to hold it for awhile so it gets sufficient heat to prevent crashing and burning (we saw a lot of those, and some that got stuck in trees, or on houses...makes you wonder how many fires happen during that weekend!!). Being the crazy farangs we are, we didn't quite hold it long enough--it got really HOT--and it careened through the crowd, causing a few men to grab their women and dive out of harms way. But it went up! Nobody got hit! And we watched it go waaaaay up into the sky, holding our wishes for a better day :).

The rest of the night consisted of some dancing, although my skillz were not up to their usual level as I was ill with the bastard cold (that would, to my dismay, last for another two weeks, but at that point I just sounded like a man with a cough). It was still great to get out though! And it was fun to head back to our dorm, meet people, and sway on the roof in awe at the bee-you-tiful lanterns.

The next day, Loi Krathong continued, although the day was somewhat bittersweet as it was our last day :( with Liz and Megan! The lanterns were still beautiful, though, and Liz and Meg took us to an awesome night market where I spent waaaaay too much money, but mostly on gifts, so I don't feel SO bad :). We also went to dinner at this salad place with amazing carrot dressing...hear that, Mom? Salad! Carrots! I'm eating like a grown-up! (Not counting the Oreos...)
Sunday was fairly low-key as I was now having trouble breathing in addition to the throat-0n-fire, but still, I loved Chiang Mai!
After wrenching goodbyes to Liz and Megan (well, Megan. Liz snuck out at 5 a.m.) we spent another few days in Chiang Mai. That Monday was apparently THE day for Loi Krathong, which we'd hear about every other day that weekend, but it WAS! The streets were all closed off, the parade was somehow still continuing at around midnight when we finally headed home, and the crowds were INSANE.
Court and I bought our own little boat for the river and put a bit of hair in it, and braved the fiery shores (Court literally got her hair caught on fire from a firework--scariest moment of my life possibly--and we both narrowly avoided several close calls to our faces and other precious parts) to send it down the river! Our candle didn't really stay lit all that long...but I still like to pretend that the river goddess is blessin' us anyway:).
That evening, we watched the plethora of lanterns from our peaceful (well, peaceful except for the occasional dynamite blasts) rooftop and imagined all of the wishes, thought of our own wishes, sat there in awe.
A better day may indeed be heading our way...but it's going to be pretty hard to beat that festival! :)