Friday, February 19, 2010

Troubles carried away with the khom fai

On the second night in Phuket, I noticed some glowing red lights in the sky, slowly creeping through the upper atmosphere.  I wondered if they were UFOs, or even satellites that could be seen from earth since the sky was so clear.  They were neither.  They are khom fai, or fire lanterns, that people in Phuket lit  and send off to carry their troubles and bad luck away.  The Thai release the khom fai into the night sky to mark special occasions (this one for Chinese New Year).  We noticed them for two nights and on the third night saw a family selling them on the sidewalk near the beach.  How could we not participate in this beautiful traditional Thai practice especially when we were ready to get rid of the bad luck that has surrounded our adoption and that of the 19 other children?

We paid the darling child who was helping her parents sell them, and followed the family down to the beach.  The mom helped Nick get it ready for launch.  It was made of tissue paper and a little bamboo as support with a ring of what looked like condensed newspaper.  Nick took a lighter and lit the ring in several places.  Much like a hot air balloon, as the fire intensified, the lantern filled with hot carbon monoxide, making it expand and ready for take off.





We bowed our heads and prayed before Nick let go of the lantern, and off went our troubles and bad luck into the tropical Thai night.  A light breeze made it take off quickly.  We watched it for probably 10-15 minutes, and I'm sure it was several hundred feet in the air and traveled a few miles before the orange glow flickered out, disintegrating the entire lantern.  Ironically, the wind carried it southeast of us - in the direction of Vietnam.





Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fun with Signs

At Buddhist temples you cannot point your feet toward the image of Buddha, so you have to sit with your legs crossed, backward or sideways.



Some extravagant “No smoking” and “No drinking” signs at the White Temple in Chiang Rai. 

 
 


A tip for the best position to smoke opium.  Who knew?  Sounds absolutely painful to me. They also used a carved stone as their pillow in this position, but I guess if your high on opium, you don’t care.



A practical sign here.  Phuket and some of surrounding islands were hit hard by the 2004 Tsunami.


Headed South

From Chiang Rai we traveled to Phuket, an island in southern Thailand.  It was mostly a travel day stopping in Bangkok for a couple hours before our transfer flight.  Nick ate some kind of candy that he said tasted like feet, but I opted not to try it.

Flying into Phuket was a bit unnerving, we watched the beautiful bluegreen waters of the Andaman Sea/Indian Ocean from the plane when I saw the short runway in the distance.  We had to make a very sharp left turn to hit the runway and it looked like we might land in the ocean.  It had nothing on some of the runways in San Diego, LaGuardia and Boston where you feel like you could land in the water.

It took us an hour and a half to drive from the airport to the hotel, but we made it safe and sound.  The water is as clear as any oceanwater I’ve ever seen, is delightfully warm, and must have a very high salt content.  Well, either that or I have gained a bunch of fat since I was last in salt water.  I’m incredibly buoyant in the water and have just floated for minutes at a time.  We’ve just been vegging for the last two days on the beach.  Luckily, we have 50 spf sunscreen and with the exception of a couple of missed spots on Nick’s arm and hand, are thus far unscathed from burnt skin.  It’s a big worry since we’re just a few hundred miles from the equator.

Where few Westerns have gone before

Day 4 in Northern Thailand included a trip that was truly an once-in-a-lifetime experience – visiting Myanmar and Laos
During our first stop, while still in Thailand, Nick conquered yet another of his fears – monkeys.  On the way to the Burmese-Thai border, there is a small area where monkeys roam the mountainside.  There is a monastery there and the monks have fed the monkeys who live there for years, and now anyone can go to the base of the mountain and do the same.  The monkeys are called macaques, and look like monkeys you’ve seen in the zoo – tan fur and pink faces.  They’re fairly tame, and will take bananas right from your hand.

 
  



Nick was incredibly freaked out by them, but decided he had to overcome his fear of a monkey ripping out his throat.  He stuck with giving a banana to a baby, just in case.


Then, on to the Burmese border and the town of Tchileik.  It was a very unique experience walking across a bridge and into an extremely foreign country, one that’s not super keen on Americans, either.  The people in the marketplace, and even the border guards didn’t mind us, but I’m guessing that if the government in Yangoon knew, they wouldn’t be too pleased.  Tchileik itself wasn’t particularly interesting. We walked around the market there, but didn’t find anything too spectacular.  At least nothing that we couldn’t find in China – lots of counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags and sunglasses.  And, several young children tried to sell Nick some fake Viagra and even Cialis.


After finishing in the market, we took a Tuk Tuk (motorbike taxi) up to a village where the women who wear the big brass rings around their necks live (long necks).  I didn’t realize it, but Pamela told us the women are not allowed to leave their village.  The government “takes care” of them, and likewise they cannot leave.  The women were all dressed in beautiful traditional clothing and headdresses.  Once again, I found a toddler or two that I wanted to take with me.
 
  

It’s said that the long necked women don’t really have long necks – it’s just that their shoulders are pushed down extremely low because of the weight of the rings.  I don’t know if I buy that because the 70-year old woman we met looked like her neck was at least twice as long as mine. 

The tale of the long necks said that long ago when tigers frequently roamed the area, there were cases of women who were eaten by tigers because they bit their necks.  So, starting at age 5 the women of the village were to wear the brass rings to stop the tiger bites.

Now, it’s their “choice” of whether or not they want to wear the rings.

As darling as these people were, Nick and I had very mixed feelings about traipsing about their village.  We did buy some of their handicrafts and tickets to enter their village, but we did feel like we were exploiting them a little bit.  The people of Myanmar cannot leave their country; they cannot get passports.  The only way that many of them get out is crossing the river at the border of Thailand (not like crossing the Rio Grande, though – in some places I don’t think the river is more than 50 feet wide and you could wade across). So, I’m hoping that some of the money we spent went into their pockets.

Nick wanted to try Myanmar beer, so our Tuk Tuk driver stopped at a roadside shop and grabbed a can with a straw.  It was not good.

We then made our way to the Golden Triangle – where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at the mouths of the Mekong and Nam Sai rivers.  And, the former hotbed of opium production. 

We took another short long boat ride over to a small island community in Laos.  The Laotian people are similar to Thais in that they are very sweet and smiling.  Immediately upon setting foot on land, Pamela drug us up to something she said we had to try…

 
 


The Laotians make snake whisky, complete with cobra inside.  We opted to pass on the cobra, tiger penis and chick whisky.  Nick tried turtle whisky and I had a slight taste of ginseng whisky.   Not good.  So, we tried Laos beer and it wasn’t too bad (Thai beer – Singha is quite good).

We walked around the darling outside market that had a bunch of opium and drug-related antiques.  The porcelain tobacco bongs were actually really cool as were some of their purses and bags.  I had to drag myself away.

After crossing back into Thailand, we stopped in the Hall of Opium to learn all about the agriculture of poppies and making opium.  It was good for 10-minutes and then I was bored.

Back to our hotel and another amazing, amazing day.

Wild Ride, part two

The next two days we again had some wild rides, but it wasn’t the result of crazy cabbies dodging motorbikes and pretending they were driving in the Indianapolis 500 (though perhaps the one Mario Andretti-wanna-be wanted to give us a taste of our home roots)

On Friday, we met our next tour guide, Pamela (her English name, which she told us she picked because she wanted big boobs like Pamela Anderson…I’m not kidding.  That should tell you a little bit about her fun-loving attitude, though.  She was darling).  Anyway, we drove out to the Rouk River for a 45-minute ride in a flat-bottomed long boat.  We passed fishermen and others who were trolling the bottom of the riverbed for colorful stones which they could sell to nurseries for people to use in their gardens – and that’s what they do every day, in the nice weather like we had, the rainy season, and the 100+-degree heat.



Our docking point was one of the truly amazing sights I’ve ever seen – an elephant camp along the banks of the river.  One of the local tribes, the Karen, run the camp and give elephant rides to tourists to make money for their village.  Our boat docked and we were immediately greeted by the wonderful smiles of the Karen people, but there was a catch.  They wanted us to take a photo with one of their beloved pets for 200 baht (about US $6).  I was intrigued, but nervous.  I am an animal lover to an extreme level, but even this pushed my limits a bit – it was a 99 lbs. 10 ft. python.  



I hate snakes.  And, when I say “hate” what I really mean is that they terrify me.  I get goosebumps at the thought of them.  Picture Indiana Jones freaking out at all the snakes in the pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark and you get the idea of how I’d react to a small, harmless garter snake.  But when else am I going to get to get a photo with a PYTHON in a controlled environment with three of her handlers close by in case she decided to have me for breakfast?  I was in.  Of course, I thought her handlers would hold her and I would just stand by one looking cute.  No, they hoisted her on to me, wrapping her around my waist and putting her neck in my hand.  I kept thinking her next move would be to bite my face off, but she was compliant.  Nick was much more wary as I think he may hate snakes more than me, but he too, conquered his fear and the two of us held her while shaking in our shoes and getting our picture taken.  If I weren’t such an animal advocate, I would’ve thought she would make an incredible purse and matching set of shoes…her patterns and coloring were gorgeous, and she wasn’t slimy or scaly at all.  Her skin was very supple and smooth.

OK, enough fear conquering, it was time to play with the elephants.  



We were first greeted by a darling youngster, Gypsy, who danced for us.  She charmed us so quickly that we ran and bought her bananas and sugar cane to eat.  Amazing to feed an elephant. They use their trunks to grab the food front your hand and put it in their mouths.  True vegetarians, they can eat whole watermelons, pineapple and even coconuts.



We were then escorted over to meet our mahout (elephant trainer and guide), and climbed up stairs to the area where we were to get on our elephant, Star.  Having Star as our guide, was very appropriate, as that was my horse’s name (disclaimer:  I didn’t name her) when I was young.  And, she and Star has similar stubborn personalities, too, so I felt like it was meant to be.  Getting our balance in the seat on her back took a minute or two, but then we were on our way for an hour-long trek through the jungle and down a river (that was a bit freaky, but Star was perfect).  It was truly an amazing experience riding an elephant down a dirt path and walking past the Karen tribe huts. The poverty is great, unlike anything you would ever seen in the Western world, but people genuinely seemed happy and their gentle smiles and waves greeted us as we made our way through their village.

 
 


After a brief shopping stint, buying some scarves, pillowcases and an amazing blanket from the local tribeswomen, who hand make their scarves and other things on looms, we met up with our driver and were on to the next destination – lunch in yet a more remote tribal village.

I can be pretty picky when it comes to food, particularly when I am in a third world country and they don’t always adhere to Health Department codes or regulations.  Throw all that out the window when you are hungry and don’t want to offend your hostess.



Pamela had assured Nick that we would be fine, as she takes weak-stomached Westerners to this village restaurant all the time.  After that, we were all in.

We had some incredibly spicy Tom Yum Gai soup – coconut milk, lemongrass and curry soup with mushrooms and chicken.  Mind you, this was preservative-free chicken, as told by the skinny, skinny thighs floating in the soup.  I passed on the chicken because I am sure that the poor fowl had been alive just a few hours before.

We also had some wonderful noodles and vegetables and a few cans of Thai beer, which is really cheap and really good.  I like it because it tastes more like water than lager.

I waited to see if our lunch was going to reek havoc on my digestive system, but all was clear.  Whew…

We then walked up a hill to a waterfall.  It was actually a little lame, but Nick and I got in to our waist anyway.  It was freezing, and I was a little nervous about what kind of parasitic creature or bacteria may be lurking in its depths, but we did it anyway.



On our way back to our hotel, we stopped in at another local village that was getting ready to celebrate the Lunar New Year (many years ago some Chinese settled in this part of Thailand and they still hold on to some of those traditions).  Pamela often takes her travelers to this Lahu village and they know her well, but it was quite difficult to see the extreme poverty.  They lived in huts that were built on stilts about 3 feet in the air.  Under the huts, they kept their mountain pigs and chickens.  Darling barefoot children roamed the dirt paths and smiled at us.  It was all I could do not to pluck one up and take him home with me.  It felt a little strange wandering through this village, so obviously out of place and trying to be very respectful of their life.

We were met by the leader of the tribe, a handsome young man, who invited us to spend the night with the tribe so that we could partake in their celebration.  We graciously declined, but we were amazed by their warmth to strangers. 

In preparation for their party, they were taking colorful ribbons and putting them into a huge stalk of bamboo and invited us to help them.

 

Some other photos from our short stint in Bangkok.


  
Scenes from our bike ride through Chiang Rai
 
 
 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Quick update - more coming soon

Hoping to post more over the next few days and get some photos up.  We've been out and about from morning til late afternoon the last few days with lots and lots to report.  Seems that yours truly, as always in a hectic rush to get out the door, forgot the cord that goes between the camera and the computer.  So, haven't been able to download any photos yet.  But, we're currently in transit between Chiang Rai (very north) and Phuket (very south, beaches) at the airport and I was able to quickly get online and we were able to buy a card reader.

If the reader works (always a crap shoot with buying technology-oriented products in a foreign country and the sketchy skills of me and Nick), I should get some stuff up later.

For now, I will just say that so far, this has been one of the most amazing trips we've ever been on and we are now in love with the country and people of Thailand.  Let's hope that the beaches of Phuket keep that honest.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Thailand rocks...so far

We have had an AMAZING two days in Thailand, and hope that it continues.  Two separate postings and I hope to have some photos uploaded later today or tomorrow.  Working on the computer in the library at the fabulous resort we're staying at in Northern Thailand on the border of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma).

Two Wild Rides
We flew from Shanghai to Bangkok yesterday and then had a 6 hour layover before our flight to Chiang Rai, so we decided to go into Bangkok and see a few sights.  We went to the Grand Palace, which was one of the most opulent and wonderous sights I've ever seen - much of it was gold-foilded with brilliant colors in mosiacs.  Spectacular.   I still need to do some reading on exactly what we saw, but it's basically the former residence of the King of Thailand, along with a Buddhist temple and outlying buildings of note.  Thailand is still a monarchy and photos of the king are everywhere. 

It was about 95 degrees and Nick and I almost melted.  But, still a good two-hour jaunt away from the confines of the airport.  On the cab ride back to the airport, our car broke down!  Luckily, we were only a few hundred feet from the terminal.  We were going to hoof it, but another cabbie stopped to take us the rest of the way.  It was truly an Amazing Race moment. 

We landed in Chiang Rai about 8pm last night, and weren't sure how to get a cab.  Some friendly Thai directed us back into the airport to have our luggage re-security screened, which we thought quite odd.  Then they took us to a window where we paid our fare and were met by our driver.  (So, I guess they don't think you'll blow up a plane with a bomb in your luggage, but perhaps you'll strike a smaller target like a taxi).  Anyway, he walked us out to the parking lot and we put our bags not in a taxi, but in his car.  He was super friendly and chatty, buy this man drove like a complete maniac, and there were several times on the 35km ride where I thought you'd be reading about a terrible accident involving two Americans.  I think there were times when we had to have been doing 90 mph.  Another Amazing Race moment, though.  Nick and I were certain that having this guy as a driver during a leg of the Amazing Race would've been a great thing.  He would've left everyone else in the dust.

We did finally arrive safely at our hotel which is on the side of a mountain and unlike any place I've ever been.  We'll have to take some video or photos and post them.  It is incredible. 

Day 1 at the Top of Thailand.
We awoke this morning to the sun rising over the mountains, the sound of geese honking, some other wild birds or animals making noises, and some small deer grazing on the hillside viewable from our patio.  Today was our day of biking around the area.  Our guide met us at 830 and we drove back into town for a 35 km bike ride through rice paddies, small villages, up hills and down.  It was phenomenal.  Truly one of the best vacation excursions we've ever done.  Bee, our guide, was wonderful. 

At one point we stopped at a crematorim (it looked like a very small little country church) and he told us that most Thai are cremated.  Some are done at the crematorium, and others are burnt outdoors, just like you'd burn leaves or have a big pit barbecue (we even saw the area where this is still done).  Then he walked us over to show us where some of the ashes and pieces of bone are thrown.  Lovely.

We kept riding, had a small snack of wonderful Thai fruits, including a tiny pinapple called poulet (yes, like chicken in French) and something like a jicama.

Rode some more until we saw a baby water buffalo (in the field to our right).  We stopped a moment to watch him, when all of a sudden, we see three adult water buffalo charging through the field on our left.  Luckily, there was some barbed wire fencing we were able to use as a barricade, but it was unnecessary because the herd went around the fence through an opening and straight to the baby.  It was a little freaky, though.  And, they even stopped to apologize and let us take their picture.

We topped off by getting a traditional Thai massage.  Holy crap.  My body was bent and twisted in directions that I didn't know it would go, and the massage therapist walked on me, sat on my back and stretched me farther than I thought my muscles would allow.  But, I feel great right now.

All for now, but a very, very good day.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Happy New Year!

Chinese New Year is Saturday, and with it, the migration of more 500 million people going on holiday or visiting family.  I guess this year it's more like 500,000,002 because Nick and I will be traveling to Thailand on Wednesday for a week.  Imagine the entire population of North America traveling via train, planes and automobiles all at the same time.

Since they take a week to celebrate, we will be around for some of the festivities, but apparently, it's good to leave because fireworks are going off at all hours during the week.

It's the Year of the Tiger, and I need to find out more about what that means and post it later. 

Some New Year's decorations down the street from us.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fish

Two funny quickies about fish this week.

First one:  Nick interviewed an intern this week who's name is: Xu (pronounced "shoe").  And, all through his conversation with Xu, Nick was accidentally calling him Yu, which means fish.  Poor guy.  Another one of those crazy Chinese language mix ups.

Second:  We went to lunch today at a traditional Chinese restaurant.  We were happy to see a Chinese American restaurant favorite on the menu: Kung Pow Chicken (haven't seen that anywhere yet).  But, when we asked the waiter for it, he said they didn't have any.  So, we chose the Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish instead.  The Sweet and Sour dishes here are typically wonderful.  Not as syrupy sweet as what's served in the U.S., and it doesn't glow in the dark.  So, we were sitting there enjoying our green tea (even Nick's drinking it now), when out comes the waiter with a plastic grocery bag with something in it.  He presents it to Nick and says, "Fish, OK?"  Nick looked in and said "yes", and all I could see was the bag, which had a recently departed fish in it.  My stomach turned over, but as we say, "oh well, we're in China."

Actually, once the cooks had their way with it, the fish was delicious.

And, on a non-fish related note, I was able to use my limited, but growing Mandarin skills to ask some vendors if they sold a 220 volt to 110 volt converter today.  Had to ask four different shops, but finally found one that should work.  And, more than anything, I was thrilled that they knew what I was talking about!

Monday, February 1, 2010

On Cloud Nine

As many of your know, I am afraid of heights.  And, typically, my acrophobic tendencies don't allow me to go more than a couple of stories before my toes start to curl and my heart starts to palpitate.  Well, I blew that all to heck on Friday night.  Some friends invited us to dinner with them on the "other" side of Shanghai (there are two sides to Shanghai separated by the Huangpu River - Puxi and Pudong.  We live in Puxi.)  Pudong is the side of the river that has some of the iconic images of the Pearl Tower, and some massively tall buildings. 

We arrived early for our dinner which was on the 56th floor, but we decided to go up to have a drink at the bar, Cloud Nine, on the 87th floor.  And, I needed that drink after being up so high.  I think it helped that it was dark out, but I still felt a little vertigo and I don't think it was from the ginger gimlet I was drinking.



Still, the views were incredible, and I only wished they put non-reflective glass in the windows for my pictures.



Today, my negotiating skills were once again put to the test at an amazing antique market down in Old Town.  They had some beautiful pieces of jade, bronzes, pottery and other trinkets, but our experience was somewhat marred by a lot of smoking in the building, even though there were non-smoking signs all over the place.  And, the building was like a class system.  The first floor sellers had their wares in permanent stalls, the second and third floors were a combination of stalls and tables with items and the fourth floor people laid out their goods on a towel or blanket.



And, the constant sound of people coughing up phlegm.  One guy even did it practically in my face.  I couldn't have been more than a foot from him and he hocked up a loogie unphased that I was standing so close.

I finally got to go in a Everything's 2RMB shop, too.  And, there is a reason everything's only $0.30 - it's all crap.  I mean, how many backscratchers does one need anyway?



My Chinese has gotten fairly good, and that helps with the negotiating - they don't just automatically see me as a laowai (foreigner) here on vacation when I start asking for prices in Chinese.  I negotiated a few things at more than 40 percent off; I've heard that 30 percent is typical.  Wermeister genes, activated.

And, to top off the weekend, Nick and I met our new cat.   He is a darling orange tabby with rust stripes.  We're still thinking up a cute Chinese name for him (we wanted to call him Chairman Meow, but it doesn't roll off the tongue very well).  We will pick him up from his foster home once we get back from vacation in a couple of weeks.  It was love at first purr.  Can't wait to get him!