November in a Nutshell / Thailand photos
Oct 31, 2003
|Once we left Indonesia behind, it was apparent that we had arrived in the land of Buddha. We saw Sitting Buddha, Standing Buddha, Reclining Buddha, Sleeping Buddha, Meditating Buddha, Fat Buddha, Anorexic-Like Buddha, Bronze Buddha, Emerald Buddha, Red, Black and Marble Buddhas, and even a rock formation in a cave that represented Dead Buddha. Then there were temples ... new temples, old temples, big temples, small temples, sandstone temples, brick temples, marble temples, gold and gem-encrusted temples. Okay, after a month of this I'm definitely Buddha and templed out! (Note to readers: please don't interpret this as a criticism of anyone's religious beliefs as that's not my intention. It's just my way of expressing my observations in a humorous fashion)
Unlike the previous two months where we spent all our time in one country, albeit on different islands with their own unique cultures and customs, November was a month of arranging travel visas and getting passports stamped in three different countries: Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar. "Same same but different" is a widely used phrase in Thailand, and it quite nicely describes the people and cultures of the countries we visited.
After Indonesia, Thailand seemed a real traveler's paradise and was like taking one giant step forward in time from where we had been. Not only did Thailand have beautiful temples and palaces, great beaches, a plentiful supply of monks to gawk at, and GREAT FOOD, but we could also go anywhere from Bangkok (easily, quickly and relatively cheaply) and we could buy anything there as well ... and I mean "anything"! But along with conveniences came tons of tourists, and I often wondered how much of the charming Thai culture has changed over time as a result.
Now, as much as I didn't enjoy the hordes of tourists in Thailand, I will admit that there were plenty of ways to amuse ourselves and we had a great time there. Like arriving in Bangkok the evening of October 31 ... street parties were in full swing and we just thought people always dressed weird in Bangkok until we realized it was Halloween! We spent a number of days touring around Bangkok, thoroughly enjoyed it, but we quickly became tired of the big city hustle and noise so off we went to Kanchanaburi.
Still used to traveling in Indonesia, we expected it would take a whole day to get there, but we arrived in Kanchanaburi in less than 3 hours ... unbelievable! Not knowing what to do with the rest of the day, we finally decided to just spend the time sampling local beer (same same but different to Indonesian beer).
So, you haven't heard of Kanchanaburi? Well, if you've heard of the "Bridge Over the River Kwai" then you've heard of Kanchanaburi, as this is where the actual bridge is and where the POW camp was located during the war. We wandered through the cemeteries and war museums - a sad reminder of what the POW's lived and died through under Japanese rule while building the Thai-Burmese railway.
We went trekking one day, on elephant of course, and I even got to sit in the "driver's seat" for a while. Thankfully Jumbo seemed to be on autopilot as I was more focused on just staying onboard my awkward perch. We also took a train ride along the actual tracks built during the war, including over "The Bridge" (although I think today's bridge is only a recreation and also in a different location from the original). But best of all was when I got to pet a couple of full grown Bengal tigers without losing a limb, and then was invited to take one of them for a walk with the monk who operates this Old Macdonald Farm animal sanctuary in his monastery. A double cool experience since I've developed a weird fixation for monks lately!
Our next trip was to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, arriving in time for the Loi Kratong Festival, another huge Full Moon celebration with parades, fireworks, rice paper balloons, firecrackers, and kratongs. We even made our own kratongs (slices of bamboo trunk decorated with bamboo leaves, flowers, candles, sparklers and incense) that we floated down the river, which is supposed to bring good luck. We also did a trek north of Chiang Mai up by the Burmese border to visit hill tribe villages, including the Long-Necked Karin tribe women. Their brass rings and elongated necks are quite an unusual sight; terribly uncomfortable I'm sure, although of course they don't complain. Finally, more fun was in store when JP & I donned aprons and took a one-day Thai cooking class.
JP's departure was fast approaching and I was planning to visit Cambodia after he left, but once he heard my plans he pleaded and begged to come along, and since I hate to see a grown man cry I eventually broke down ... so off to Cambodia we went.
Cambodia has become a popular tourist destination now that the Khmer Rouge guerrillas no longer control the land, and with the "supposed" removal of land mines. The border crossing was like entering a demilitarized zone (except for the casinos which seemed terribly out of place), and once again we stepped back in time. Gone were the fancy cars, nice roads and conveniences of Thailand, replaced by human-power carts, cars that should have retired decades ago, and dirt roads so dusty and deeply rutted that you could have hidden an elephant in some places. These were by far the worst roads I've seen, and after traveling in Indonesia that's saying a lot! But unlike the roads, the Cambodian people were wonderful warm and friendly. Tourism-relating businesses and even some 5-star resorts are sprouting up, providing opportunity for at least some people to establish a better standard of living, which is still meager at best. Sadly, we saw at least 5 amputees per day - a quick reminder of the ravages of war.
We traveled to Siem Reap to see the ancient temple ruins of Angkor, where there are over 100 temples (Buddhist & Hindu), some dating back to the 9th century. Mostly overgrown by jungle vegetation and neglected over the years, Angkor became somewhat of a "lost city" and was only rediscovered in the early 1900's. Some temples are remarkably well preserved with amazing design, frescos and ornate carvings still intact. One can only wonder at the craftsmanship and technique used to construct these buildings so many years ago.
Since the temples are quite spread out, we hired a guide & drivers (paying $6 per day each) and toured from temple to temple on the back of some motorcycles for a few days. My driver was lovely, quite a chatterbox, and I was lucky to receive a ton of information from him on life in Cambodia.
The middle of November arrived and JP, my travel partner for the past 2.5 months, headed homewards from Bangkok to Oregon USA. He was an awesome travel companion, we had a great time together, and I was really sorry to see him go. To appropriately mourn his departure, I felt that some beach time and R&R was required, so the next thing you know I was sitting on a deck chair on Ko Samet Island with warm waves lapping at my toes. Yes, a great way to recharge the batteries before heading off, on my own this time, to Myanmar.
Myanmar (formerly Burma) is reputed to be "one of the world's least western-influenced countries", and continues to receive international scrutiny because of tight government control and human rights issues. It's even newer on the tourist trail than Cambodia, with many regions still off limits to tourists. If Thailand was like taking a giant step forward, then Myanmar was like taking a giant double-flip backwards in time. Yes, this was definitely the place to get away from the trappings of tourism.
Okay, I'll admit it, I absolutely fell in love with Myanmar and its people. The country was beautiful and filled with some of the most amazing temples and Buddhas. Sure, the streets were dirty and accommodation and transport was challenging, but the people were so friendly, always with a quick smile and greeting as I went by, and openly curious of this fair haired/skinned person. Thanks to another chatty rickshaw driver/guide (I seem to be blessed with them!), I also received a lot of information about life in Myanmar, which continues to be very controlled by the government. Citizens are forbidden to talk politics with foreigners, and before Sein Tun (my guide) would make even the slightest comment about government or living conditions, he'd do the old double-check over his shoulders and his voice would drop to a whisper ... very dramatic, just like an old spy movie!
The ancient temple ruins at Bagan are mainly what put Myanmar on the tourist map. They are known as one of the true wonders of Asia. The Angkor temples in Cambodia were perhaps more ornate and interesting in design, but Bagan temples were equally impressive as many were covered with gold and jewels and filled with Buddhas. Bagan temples were also quite spread out around the countryside, but this time I rented a bicycle and transported myself around to the various temples that I wanted to see.
I also visited Mandalay, the former capital city of Myanmar, complete with moated Grand Palace and many impressive Buddhas and temples. Mahamuni Temple in Mandalay, Shwedagon Temple in Yangon, and Gold Rock Temple at Kyaiktiyo are the 3 most sacred Buddhist sites in Myanmar ... and I saw them all. But my personal favorite was the Gold Rock, a mini-temple perched on top of a gold-leafed boulder which is awkwardly balanced on the edge of a cliff at the top of a mountain.
I took an overnight bus from Yangon to get to the Gold Rock, the only tourist with a bus-full of locals, then from where the bus drops you off you have to take a "truck taxi" up the mountain for an hour, then get out and (big surprise) steadily hike uphill for another hour. The truck taxi was the funniest ... it was basically the open box of a big truck with narrow wooden planks for seating. As we were twisting our way up and down the mountain, I kept thinking of what the newspaper headlines would read should anything happened to us ... "Single Vehicle Accident, 52 People Injured". And I thought they packed people into public transport in Indonesia!
I really hated to leave Myanmar, but the clock was ticking, it was the beginning of December, and I was scheduled to move on to India.
Flights from Myanmar to India included a crazy overnight stay in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We were still "in transit" and so didn't clear customs into Bangladesh; instead they collected our passports at the airport (yikes, and even worse - no receipt provided!) and after seeing their absolutely chaotic system for distributing hotel and transport vouchers, I feared I'd never see my passport again. The hotel was abysmal but likely one of the best in town. The streets of Dhaka were noisy and crowded, but I was most fascinated with the local women who dressed in multiple layers of thick clothes and veils making their features totally indistinguishable.
Same same but different applies here in India as well, although perhaps everything seems to be punched up a few notches. There is more poverty & begging, more people, and more vendors trying to take money from gullible tourists. But there are also beautiful palaces, saris and turbans of bright bold colors, and also elephants, monkeys, cows and camels wandering along the streets.
I spent a few days in Delhi where I had the pleasure of meeting and staying with the family of my dear friend, Anita Sahel. Anita, your family is great, they've been wonderfully generous and I want them to adopt me, okay? Only having a short time in India, I decided to do a whirlwind tour of Rajasthan, starting with a trip to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. From there I went to Jaipur, nicknamed the "Pink City" as all walls within the old city are painted pink. Next stop was Pushkar, a lovely small city where locals come on pilgrimage to bathe in the holy waters of Pushkar Lake, and with a wonderful shopping bazaar just out the front door of my hotel. And now I'm in Udaipur, my favorite place so far, with beautiful water palaces, and perhaps placed on the tourist map because the James Bond movie, Octopussy, was filmed here.
By the way, days are warm here but the mornings and evenings are cool ... I guess it's just a little reminder of what's in store for me when I arrive back home in Canada!