23 October 2015

Hold This Millipede For Me, Won't You?

I've just arrived back in Bangkok after a wonderful two days near Pak Chong, where a friend and I explored Khao Yai National Park, a monsoon forest and a Unesco World Heritage Site. In fact, I'm sitting in a massage chair getting my first-ever pedicure in preparation to return to the U.S. tomorrow. Let me settle back (ah, my cuticles) and tell you about all the poisonous animals we held.

Gwen and I went on two tours with our Guesthouse, which were fantastic. We made friends with travelers from the UK, Belgium, and Holland. We rode around the park on benches in the bed of a pick-up truck, pulling over suddenly and witnessing our driver sprinting down the road, diving into the long grass, and coming out with a venomous snake balanced on a stick. We constantly marvelled at the staff's ability to spot wildlife from a moving vehicle. We explored a huge cave where Buddhist monks go to meditate, which happened to be chock full of bats and various poisonous insects and spiders. Our guide took particular pleasure in grabbing our hands and gently placing animals on them, instructing us to keep very still, and proceeding to give a short lecture on how easily they could kill us if we scared them. It was like nothing you would see in the U.S., and it was terrifyingly fabulous, although I did have a stab of regret at not purchasing travel insurance.

After our death-defying tour of the cave, we went to the base of a mountain to watch millions of bats fly out for the evening hunt. Our driver, recognizing the fleeting nature of animal-watching, told us to run down the dark trail to the viewing area. Halfway down the trail, our flashlights suddenly illuminated our guide holding another snake dangling on a stick. "Look!" he cried. "A viper!  No, don't look!  See the bats!  I will save the snake!"

We finished the evening with a swim in a natural spring and headed out again the next morning to spot wild elephants (a rarity, occurring not once but twice) and gibbons and trekking through the forest wearing a rainbow of ponchos in a downpour. It was my first experience with both leech socks and leeches, the latter thankfully being spotted on the ground and not on my sock.

The adventure was over quickly, and I've been surprised at how emotional it's been. I realized that I've finally reached the end of my graduation list, all the internships and moves and tests that took place after the ceremony that made me insist that graduate school wasn't truly finished yet. I realized on a swing at the guesthouse that the moment has finally come that marks the end of an era and the beginning of my working life. It feels momentous and alarming, and I feel at the moment like I want to keep backpacking in Asia forever, but it's time to come home. I'm so glad I went on this trip, and I have high hopes for continued international travel, particularly in Thailand. For now, though, it's time to start applying what I learned in school. Until next time, Asia!  I will be back.

20 October 2015

When Things Go Wrong

I've shared a lot of my adventures in Asia, but I've deliberately left out some of the rougher patches. It's a lot more fun to talk about seeing elephants than the four hours we and I stood in line to get our Thai visas, packed in like sardines in 100-degree heat and slowly fighting our way through the mob to the front of the room with our 50-pound bags. In fact, I swore not to talk about that experience ever again. Whoops.  At any rate, I've decided that I share a few lessons learned on the road, so I'm not glamorizing my travels too much.

I've had a few terrible nights here. The first was when an earthquake hit at 3:45 a.m. in Taipei when we were asleep in an 8th-floor apartment. I staggered to my phone and saw an email from a travel buddy that her work might not let her make the trip after all. I stayed up the rest of the night watching CNN and replanning the trip, unable to shake my anxiety that another earthquake would topple the building. I was used to quakes in California but didn't know whether the apartment had been built according to safety standards. In the end, it was fine.

Another unhappy night began when I flew from Tokyo to Taiwan before departing for Cambodia the next morning. My friend had a similar layover, and we were planning to meet up and sleep in the airport. However, upon arrival in Taiwan I was ushered through tonget my visa, pick up my checked bags, and go through customs before checking in for my next flight. I was suddenly in the arrival hall at 23:00 with three heavy bags, unable to call or locate my friend and clearly not allowed to sleep where I stood. I desperately wanted to sleep before my day in Cambodia the next day, and the departure hall was closed until morning.  At 12:30 I gave up on messaging my friend, who was clearly safely ensconced in the terminal, and joined a young family in booking hotel rooms and taxis from a man closing his hotel kiosk. It cost $100 including taxi rides, a huge amount for one person in Taiwan, but I paid it and hopped in the shares taxi. Six hours later I was back at the airport.

This experience taught me a lesson. Sometimes plans you felt sure of will fail, and I am an adult who has to figure out a solution. I can't expect someone else to jump in and explain everything. Sometimes, you just have to bite the bullet and get yourself a hotel room.  I feel that at these moments of panic in the middle of the night, I've come into my adulthood in a new way. I can do what needs to be done, make  unhappy decisions under pressure. While it might have been really stressful, I think those moments are among the most valuable of the trip as they taught me how self-sufficient I am. Hopefully my last few days in Thailand will be smooth sailing, but there are always wrinkles that come up when you travel in a foreign country, and I feel like I'm ready for them.

17 October 2015

My Feud with the Princess

Yesterday I spent the day at Elephant Nature Haven outside of Kanchanaburi, feeding and bathing the elephants after their romp in a mud pit. We also prepared rice balls for their breakfast, made of rice, tamarind, salt, wheat germ, and banana. I smacked a little as well, and it was very salty. It was a great day, but I'll have to refer you to my Facebook video for more. It's better to see it than to talk about it. 

I arrived back in Kanchanaburi at 16:00, still dripping a little from my dip in the river, to rush into the Death Railroad Museum and the Memorial Cemetery before they closed at 17:00. My ride told me casually that he couldn't drop me off in front of the museum because the Thai princess was about to visit. I walked past a bunch of small children with flags to the museum, where I was turned away by smiling Thai police. I shrugged it off and ran to the cemetery, which is never closed, only to be turned laughingly away by more police. Now, as cool as it was to be in the same vicinity as the princess, I was starting to get a bit miffed about losing my only chance to see the Allied WWII history of Kanchanaburi. After all, I might have a relative buried there, I told myself. I might have come to Asia just to see the grave!  Burning with this imagined slight, I stood behind a five-foot hedge and read some grave markers until another officer chased me off, smiling again. As I took one last look at the cemetery, I saw a group surrounding a figure in pink that was walking through the cemetery. 

Given that I wouldn't expect to see the Lincoln Memorial if President Obama was there, the lack of security around the princess's visit made me feel like it wasn't that big a deal. However, upon reflection and discussion with my teacher in my cooking class today, I feel excitement about adding Princess Sirindhorn to my list of sighted world leaders, which also includes the Swedish king and queen, as well as Laura Bush and George's arm. 

Overcoming these trifling setbacks, I managed to get into the museum when it opened this morning before heading off to a Thai cooking class, which may have been the highlight of my entire trip. I can now make four authentic dishes, and I will leave it to you to invite me to your house for a potluck to find out which ones. Let's just say I'm well-fed and on my way back to Bangkok for a week!

15 October 2015

Raft Over the River Kwai

Hello from Kanchanaburi, Thailand!  I'm staying here for two nights to visit an elephant sanctuary and to squeeze in some WWII history. As you may know better than I, this area of the river Kwai (pronounced like "square" without the "s", actually with a different name but renamed after the book came out) witnessed a lot of brutality from Japanese soldiers toward Allied POWs and others. I am hoping to go to a museum on the subject on Saturday, which would make me much more informed, but I did manage to run from my guesthouse at sunset to see the bridge. It was very difficult to feel the solemnity of the bridge, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives to build (to my knowledge). The area was jam-packed with Chinese tourists and souvenir shops, but I'm hoping to go back in the morning to avoid this. 

By the way, when I said "guesthouse", you should know to what I was referring. I did not mean a fancy resort like the one I'd just left. The room where I'm staying is called a "raft room", which means it's a thatched duplex cabin literally on a raft on the river.  Strangely, it has wifi. It's got a completely gorgeous view of the sunset, and I'm sure that this is one stay I won't be forgetting anytime soon.  I didn't comprehend this fully until a speedboat went past and we bobbed quite a lot. I hear karaoke boats frequent this area, and although it would be hilarious to spy on one, I am hoping for a good night's sleep tonight. 

Why am I interested in a good night's sleep, you ask?  Well, apart from obvious reasons (I AM SEEING ELEPHANTS TOMORROW), I had a little awakening experience last night. I'd had a gorgeous day. Swimming on Ko Samet was everything I could hope or dream. I would sink into the water and feel like life just couldn't get any better.  On my last evening, it started lightly raining, making the water sound like someone was sprinkling huge amounts of glitter onto its surface.  A Thai tween and her mom Sam near me, laughing, and the girl decided instantly that we were friends and kept looking at me and grinning hugely.  It was great.  

Then it was night, and I lay in my gorgeous resort room, basking unconsciously in the A/C, when I was awakened at 4:30 a.m. by a rustling noise. Not a big deal, I decided. The A/C was on, after all. The rustling got louder. It was definitely coming from the plastic bag where I'd put the takeout container that had contained my dinner, and it wasn't the vent. I lay frozen. It got even louder. I decided that from the noise level, a rat must have gotten into my room. I lay in the dark in shock, considering my options. The hotel didn't open its front desk until 7:00, and I had no broom-like apparatus. I decided there was nothing for it but to stay safe in my bed and ignore the noise until the rat went on its way. 

This is where I tell you that I'm pooping fiery water these days. I know, I'm sorry, but I just think you should know. It paints a more complete picture of travel. Now that we've gotten that out (ha), I can tell you that I was forced to sneak past the bag three times, that I did not in fact go back to sleep, and that in the end I blasted ABBA and the (accused) rat stayed hidden and quiet in the bag while I packed and left. I told the guy at the desk in an undertone when I left, and he nodded nonchalantly and checked my room number. I got much the same reaction last month when I changed hostels in Tokyo after a bedbug sighting, but I know that they ran around cleaning in a frenzy when I hauled my stuff out. I suspect it was the same in this case. I didn't want some poor hotel maid to pick up the bag and get the surprise of her life!

That is, if there was a rat at all. Who knows?  I am taking malaria pills and traveling alone. Anything can happen. Let's just hope that somehow this raft is more isolated (large splashes from outside) than the resort!  At any rate, tomorrow, elephants!

09 October 2015

Angkor Wat Now?

Rachel and I are about to head off on our third day of exploring temples by tuk-tuk before catching the bus to Bangkok tomorrow. It's the most remarkable experience, seeing these temples. We took Lonely Planet's advice (like all the other Americans here, whom we run into at good-cause cupcake shops and yoga cafes) and started with the smallest temples first, leaving the heavy hitters for today. This strategy has been perfect. We are astonished by everything we see. 

My overarching sentiment about these temples is that someone is going to come running over at any moment, likely blowing a whistle, and yank me off of the crumbling ruin that I'm climbing. However, this does not happen. Somehow, we are permitted to climb in and out of ancient windows, to sit in the edge of balustrades. I climbed a set of terrifyingly steep, high stairs yesterday that would be considered a huge liability in the U.S., apart from other considerations. I then stood next to the ruins of a stone elephant at the top of (what I would call) a parapet, looking out over the huge temple and keeping fastidiously away from the edge. This is no country for old men. Or Americans, I guess. 

My least favorite part of the trip continues to be the high prices and constant stream of sales pitches from vendors and tuk-tuk drivers, in part due to my discomfort with my limited knowledge of how much my small purchase would be a large financial boon to them. My favorite part of the trip is the fleeting instant of interaction it allows me to have with the locals we pass in our tuk-tuk. I have seen:
-A man feeding a turtle
-A constant parade of families of four balanced on one motorbike
-Children swimming naked in a pond in the rain
-Countless mothers rocking with their children in hammocks 
-A tiny motorbike carrying two to three times its size of twig brooms, uncovered fish, or hot dogs
-Children playing with a tire, a toy truck, a vine swing, or the dirt

Seeing children playing as we drive past brings me back to a place where we're all the same, and it's what I think about at the end of a day here. Being surrounded by six-year-olds selling you postcards feels so uncomfortable and alien, but seeing kids playing in an unguarded moment feels universal. A fellow tourist icing her sprained ankle at a cafe yesterday told us just before the proprietor helped her to her tuk-tuk, "These are really such kind people. Very kind people."  I just need to find the window to look in and see it. 

07 October 2015

All Phnom Penhed In

Japan has given way in my travels to Cambodia, and I am on a bus to Siem Reap with my friend Rachel after spending two days in Phnom Penh. I'd heard mixed things about Phnom Penh, in particular that it's had a rise in crime in recent years (particularly theft from tourists), so I want sure what to expect. On our first afternoon, I was completely overwhelmed. The remorks (motorbikes with carts attached) driving in lanes for opposite traffic, the constant calling of drivers and the massive overcharging that we were too inexperienced to haggle down were all components of a completely different world than the ones I've experienced so far, particularly after staying in Tokyo for just under a week. 

However, yesterday we rose with the sun and went to the prison museum and the Killing Fields, both of which are just mind-blowing.  If you don't know, these are locations where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed the entire population of Phnom Penh in 1975-9.  I knew little about Cambodian history before coming, and looking around thinking that every resident of the city I saw would have been taken to these locations had it been 40 years ago was impossible to imagine. Our guide at the prison museum had been thirteen at the time and lost her father and brother. Of the thousands taken to the prison, only seven survived, and only two are alive now. We met them both in the courtyard. It's striking to think that very few of the perpetrators have been imprisoned, and some may still be living in the city. 

In the afternoon we ate lunch at a cafe that donates to a Cambodian children's fund, where I had delicious fish amok, a traditional Cambodian stew of lemongrass and coconut milk.  We hired a remork and explored the Russian market, where I had my first successful bargaining experience over a pair of elephant tank tops (2/$4). I'm sure an experienced bargainer could have paid far less, but the small victory buoyed my spirits for the rest of the day and helped me leave the city on a better note. 

Now we are on a lovely air-conditioned bus with wifi, heading to see the temples of Siem Reap for three days. I am hoping to rent bikes and to avoid rain as much as possible. Wish me luck!

02 October 2015

Smart Americans Prove Themselves Again!

It was a sunny afternoon in Hirosaki, Japan, and Laura-chan and I were heading to Owani for my first onsen (Japanese bath house) experience. Laura had heard from friends that this onsen was amazing and right next to the train station. With joy in our hearts, we alighted from the train to see a grocery store in the distance, surrounded by houses. "Never fear!" we said, "We'll soon find it!"

Forty minutes later, I was sweating like a pig* under my raincoat that I wore to cover my sleeveless tank top, which marked me as a foreigner.  (I know what you're thinking, and you're right: with my raincoat on, I looked exactly like the typical resident of Owani.  It's these little tricks that help you blend in when in foreign countries.  I like to think I'm educating you as you share my exploits.) Anyway, we had walked through town, Laura had called her friends and gotten their voicemails, and we were reduced to begging for directions from a nice middle-aged female checker at a grocery store. She assured us it was two minutes away, "right by the train station".  Following her (unlabeled) map, we charged up a hill and confusedly onto the terrace of a shrine. Realizing our mistake when we saw a priest in the entryway, we turned and charged back down the hill before he could ask us why we had towels. 

Finally, we passed an older woman in her garden, who walked us back down the hill and pointed us across a bridge, assuring us that it was very close, and "right next to the train station".  We were laughing about the encounter two minutes later when a car abruptly veered in front of us and stopped, with the gardening woman jumping out to usher us inside and her son (?) driving. One minute later we arrived at the onsen, which was indeed located right by the (other line's) train station. We thanked our rescuers and  proceeded to wash all our worries (and my pig sweat*) away. Another day, a success!

*Do pigs really sweat that much?  Can anyone explain this?

01 October 2015

Setting: Evening, Alone, Lost in Tokyo

Apropos of nothing, I am restarting this blog (first a study-abroad blog, then a grad school blog before I realized I wasn't allowed to write about anyone I worked with). I've been traveling through Taiwan and Japan for the past month, and I will attempt to catch up on immortalizing my best stories. 

Tonight I attempted to find a dog cafe, got lost in Tokyo's largest metro station, and spent three hours there.  The station is so big that I walked for a good thirty minutes without finding the platform I was looking for or recognizing anything.  I'm misleading you a bit; I saw a sign for a local government building with free views of the skyline and did that, but it was only an escalator ride up from the station.  Afterwards I tried to find the line to take me to another sightseeing spot, got lost again, tried to find a sushi restaurant in the station, couldn't, and eventually staggered into a different sushi restaurant, sweaty and slightly panic-stricken. Not to say that I didn't have fun!  In the midst of the chaos of the station, I saw lots of vendors and hundreds of people weaving around each other seamlessly, all seemingly omniscient to the workings of the subway system. 

When I arrived at the sushi restaurant, a small shop with a bar encircling two sushi chefs, all ten patrons stared at me with obvious surprise. I pulled up a chair and managed to finagle a menu and some tea. The other patrons would, without warning, call out the rolls they wanted, with the chefs keeping up.  I felt acutely aware of my inability to perform this maneuver, but eventually drew enough sympathy from the younger chef to receive help ordering.  As one often feels when unable to communicate, I was positive that the two chefs were laughing about my order (not unpleasantly), prompting me to order an entire eel in order to show them my serious nature. I realized some deep feelings that I have been harboring for a long time: I LOVE unagi. It is hereby my favorite food. 

Following dinner, a common scene occurred on the metro heading home. I exited a kiosk at one line, entered another, realized I had wanted the first one, and tried to exit, with the kiosk prompting me to seek assistance. I couldn't agree more. The employee nodded uncomprehendingly at my explanation and swiped my card, instructing me, "Don't touch" [the card to the kiosk]. I did him one better and rammed my knee into the kiosk on the way out, which we both had a hearty laugh over, during which I ran. 

Tokyo is a wonderful city, clean and safe and possessing the UNESCO World Heritage acknowledgement for FOOD. That's right, Japanese food is on the Intangible World Heritage list, which means it's time for another round of karaage. Later!