Monday, August 12, 2013

This land is Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand-- This will probably the last post we will have while actually abroad, unless we are so bored on our excruciatingly long journey home (Chiang Mai-Bangkok-Tokyo-Dulles-our car in Alexandria-drive to the Burgh!). We are now in our 9th and final hotel, the Maninarakorn of Chiang Mai, just a 10 minute walk or so outside the Old City.

Thailand is pretty nuts. Well, we thought that Cambodia would be just a palate cleanser between the sophistication of Japan and the refinement of Thailand. Not so. Bangkok was like a much bigger, louder, crazier version of Siem Reap. Behind the five star skyscrapers and fancy new Skytrain, Bangkok is very much a third world metropolis. Traffic and exhaust fumes everywhere, and a concentration of people like we haven't seen...ok, maybe like in Osaka. We found Bangkok to be very far from Thailand's charming reputation. So much so that at one point, I was sure that the title of this post would be "a survival guide to Bangkok."

Grand Palace, Bangkok

After a couple of days (including my birthday where EVERYTHING went wrong), we finally hit a groove, but our mistakes along the way were long and somewhat painful. We found that any Thai in Bangkok who could speak English was in some way trying to scam us. We got double and triple charged for taxis, creepy men tried to sell us things on the street, no one would help with directions, but by far the worst was trying to book the overnight train to Chiang Mai.

Wat Arun, view from the hotel!
We got to the station, exhausted from a 90min trek through construction in Chinatown, to find that we were getting the "last two" tickets to Chiang Mai from Bangkok on Saturday night (this was on Thursday). These seats, of course, were on opposite sides of the train, not air conditioned and not in the sleeper cars. From there, some teenage girls in "uniform" brought us up to the travel agency where they magically found us 2 sleeper bunks, but after a dog and pony show, told us the price was doubled. We would have happily paid the $50 per ticket from the counter downstairs, but they "had to call the travel agency" and "make special arrangements" in order to get us our tickets. Mysteriously, they needed to do this for the other 20 or so tourists in their crammed office as well.

The fancy Sleeper Car.
Clearly their company buys up all the train tickets immediately and sells them at jacked up prices. That, though shady, we understand is business, but the false regret and corruption we encountered were what bothered us. The crookedness spanned top to bottom, from the ticket takers to the police to these teenage girls with colored contacts and long painted nails "booking tickets" on their cell phones. They kept us captive for over an hour, but we did finally get our tickets to the sleeper bunks...Of course the train ride was a rocky sixteen and a half hours crawling at what we later figured out to be 26mph. Man!
View of jungle from the train.

Ultimately, the highs certainly have outweighed the lows in Thailand as we got to enjoy a drag show with all the Thai "ladyboys," see all the famous wats, taste the delicious foods, meander the sprawling flower markets and even spend all day today with a troop of rescued elephants.
They wouldn't listen to our commands, but were very friendly.

Betz enjoying a ride on Superman.
We have to say, though I'm not sure why were were expecting something different, Thailand is not what we thought it would be. The parts we saw anyway are much grittier, louder and less friendly than expected. "Land of 1,000 Smiles" yeah, right. Perhaps we are getting weary or perhaps we aren't feeling as well. This Thai food is delicious, but it packs quite a punch (note that we never got sick in Japan-not even a little). We've have indeed enjoyed our time here, but find it to be exhausting and are looking forward to coming home- to the good old USA!

Friday, August 9, 2013


Bangkok, Thailand-- So, we find ourselves at the end of another week of our journey which is fast approaching its end. This week we found ourselves in Cambodia and here in Bangkok and I must say that it is VERY different from Japan.

Pari, our tuk tuk driver.
Wow. Cambodia, as expected, was pretty underdeveloped. We stayed in Siem Reap, the "city" a few km from Angkor Wat. Stepping off our tiny prop plane, it was evident we were entering the third world. Our 20 yr old tuk tuk driver from the hotel (who reminded me of a young Muhammad Ali), Pari, met us at the airport. All smiles, he welcomed us to the Kingdom of Cambodia, propped up our bags on the seat and ushered us onto the golden upholstery of his back seat. And away we went, zipping through the dusty red streets of Siem Reap, dodging and weaving around bikes, minibuses, motorcycles, other tuk tuk, pedestrians, cows, chickens and even some real cars. It was a speeding frenzy as no one really payed any attention to the lanes (in either direction) or traffic rules. Pari was clearly a pro, cutting through gas stations and zipping around other tuk tuks with a wink and a smile. He was probably showing off that he had two prized American clients in the back who were overpaying way too much for the fare. Before we knew it, we were at the hotel and we had agreed to a $5 excursion to see the sunset over "the lake" with Pari later that day.
Typical Street in Siem Reap

What we didn't know about the little sunset cruise was that it was actually going to be four and a half hours and that we would also have to pay $50 in ticket fees to get into the lake. At 4:00pm we returned to find Pari waiting for us, all smiles as usual. We raced away into the chaos once again, kicking up more red dust. After a while, about 20 min. or so, Betz and I looked at each other clearly thinking the same thought: "where the hell are we going?" We had turned off the main road a while back and now were winding through some small streets lined with trees and lean-to shacks that were lacking in every modern amenity except television. Wild dogs, cats, cows and chickens roamed freely across the streets and Pari would nonchalantly weave around them and zoom off. Then we realized that we were totally reliant on this guy who we didn't know, in a third world country where the average household income is less than $5000 a year. Every minute felt like five as we pushed farther into the abyss, away from the "civilization" of Siem Reap. The only reason not to panic was that Pari was an official tuk tuk driver from the hotel. When we were about 45min in, we came to the gate of the lake where we were asked to pay $25 per person to enter. After discussing it with each other, we decided not to turn around and pay the tourism fee and continue the journey to see the sunset. Pari felt very guilty. He came off as goofy, oafish, airheaded, genuine and likeable. We didn't think he was trying to take advantage of us, rather he just neglected to tell us about the entry fee. Oh well, we had come this far...
We continued down the bumpiest narrow dirt road that was elevated above the rice fields on either side when we were confronted by a herd of about 300 cattle coming the opposite way. Pari drove right into them, pushing them aside with his hands when necessary. Finally we made it to our boat!
So happy to get a beer for the boat ride!

We were the only ones on the little stream going out to the lake at that point and we would occasionally pass other tourist boats returning. Every time the drivers would be smiling and the tourists had this horrific look on their faces. We laughed, knowing full well that they had the same experience as us. Instead of feeling taken, we decided to shrug it off and do our best to enjoy the sunset. Betz and I felt so lucky to have each other for this harrowing tale that oddly the bumpy ride somehow felt romantic.
The boat wound for half an hour downstream before we saw the first structure. It was a secondary school that was perched on the bank on 25 foot tall wooden stilts. Then more structures, houses, also dozens of feet up. Soon, we were riding through an entire floating village. Naked children were jumping in the water (which was a gross milky brown color) and full grown men were washing up and brushing their teeth. This shrimper colony was teeming with people who were playing, laughing and preparing for the end of the day. Though the Cambodian people are poor, these certainly appeared happy.
Sunset on the lake. Sigh.

We finally reached the lake, which was huge, water at every horizon, with the sun hovering in the west. We were apparently very lucky to have seen such a beautiful sunset because during the rainy season it is a rarity. Our captain tethered us to a floating bush and we watched the sky change to a warm orange as the sun went behind a low cloud. We enjoyed the moment of peace despite the Khmer radio in the background (Pa Woo do my bum krang du!), knowing our 2 hour return journey awaited us.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sayonara, Sawahdeekup

Hiroshima, Japan-- Goodbye Japan! Wow, what a country. Sitting in the small yet comfortable Hiroshima airport, Betz and I have a couple hours to reflect on the whirlwind that was the last two weeks. We have visited Tokyo, Mt. Fuji, Hakone, Kawaguchiko, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Miyajima, yet I feel like I barely know the country at all. In fact, coming here has raised more questions about the people and culture than it has answered.

The tori at Miyajima

First, I should say that I have the utmost respect for Japan. It amazes us to see how orderly, controlled, caring and considerate the people here are (with the possible exception of Osaka, which we found to be a giant urban mess, full of electronic stores and anime porn shops). They wait in line, offer help with directions unsolicited, step aside to let foreigners go first, smile to strangers and say "arigato gozaymas" everywhere- meaning thank you very much. Japanese seem to be hyper aware of their surroundings and of others. Rarely do they touch each other, even on crowded subways. They walk (and drive) on the left side of the street, never bumping into each other. Though they rarely seem outwardly happy, we haven't seen anyone mad at all. They are respectful and reserved. They speak in low voices and obey rules regarding cleanliness and quiet hours. When we stayed in ryokan, the lower help (cleaning service usually) would hide behind curtains or plants when they saw us coming. They are efficient and smart and always looking for ways to lend a helping hand.
Low tide, we walked right through it.

The country as a whole is a bit harder to quantify. There seem to be a bunch of contradictions here that we just couldn't solve in two weeks. We found that much of Japan's reputation holds true, however the manifestations are completely different from the image in my mind's eye before I came. The ultramodernism, honor code, cleanliness, efficiency, historic culture, consumerism, kitschiness, kinship with nature, Zen, fashion, gender roles, and spirit of Japan all hold true to their stereotypes. Yet, when walking down the street of a typical Japanese city, you could imagine it being anywhere in the world.
Perhaps it is the after effects of WWII, which left Japan completely bombed out, but the wonderful traits that Japanese culture are steeped in fail to produce a cohesive and beautiful urban form (except Hiroshima which is beautiful). The Japanese attention to EVERY detail seems somehow fails to miss the big picture on a citywide scale. Streets often are so narrow, treeless, and filled with wires, that they feel more like American back alleyways (they usually don't even have sidewalks). The central cores of the cities establish very little hierarchy and are often unimportant, leaving the image of the city to be piecemeal--again focusing on a specific shrine or rail station. Kyoto was the prime example of this, with its myriad beautiful temples on the outskirts and virtually nothing of value in the central city. I have learned a lot about architecture and space here, yet very little about urbanism.

There are other apparent contradictions as well. The Japanese are obsessively clean, yet finding a public garbage can be difficult--which makes having so much packaging seem suspect. The use of parasols to block the sun and rain is ubiquitous, yet finding a tree-lined street is a rarity. When we went to the fireworks show, millions of people waited patiently for five or six hours to reserve spots that weren't even within view of the fireworks. There is such a minimalist approach, yet consumerism is so over-the-top that we often found ourselves overwhelmed. There are many gardens and parks, but no benches to sit and enjoy them. And of course the whole sex culture is baffling, with everyone seeming so conservative yet prostitution / anime sex joints are found everywhere, mingled among restaurants and libraries and electronic goods stores.
Overall, we have enjoyed our time in Japan immensely and would recommend a visit to most anyone-- so long as you are open to sitting on the floor, taking your shoes off everywhere and don't mind trying bizarre food. We found keeping kosher challenging, but not overwhelming. I can say easily that the cultural barrier is much less hard to navigate here than it was in China--and the experiences make the trip well worth it.
So, sayonara Japan. You have been great. Up next is a quick 2 days in Cambodia before landing in Thailand. Sawahdeekup (hello in Thai), we look forward to discovering your many cultural experiences.
Mmmm. Maple cakes with red beans!