Truth by Travel

Jun 29

Glory at the Great Barrier Reef…….6.30

I won’t say much because the pictures do not need me to distract from their beauty. My Great Barrier Reef experience started off rocky. Being the only solo traveler on the boat brought about an unforeseen consequence. When it came time to sign a waiver form, I noticed there was a space for a witness’s signature. Immediately, I asked the person to my right to sign. He feigned a failure to speak English and slumped away. Next I asked the the man to my right, who flat out refused. At this point I laughed. Seriously, how hard could be it be to get someone to sign as my witness? Before I had time to ask a third person, the collector of the forms made an announcement stating that I was alone and needed someone to sign my form. Multiple people came up right away, but the whole ordeal was a bit off-putting. In addition to that, the seas were rough, so many people ended up getting sick. Half of the leisure portion ended up being an exercise in dodging vomit. Thankfully, I had no issue on that front. My initial assumption was that the Great Barrier Reef viewing zone would be close to shore. This ended up not being the case, as we traveled for nearly 3 hours to get to our destination. It is breathtaking. Enough words; check out the pictures (I took 500, so if you want to see more, let me know). And if you are wondering how I captured the photos, I rented a high-resolution under water camera from a local dive shop. A few people gave my large, waterproof box a strange look as I hopped on the boat, but when the ten cameras available for rent went to the first ten people onboard, my box became precious cargo.

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I had the fortune, or misfortune, of seeing the only shark of the day. Accurately estimating its length is difficult due to the distance I was away, but if I had to, I’d say six to eight feet.

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Although it appears as though I made friends, this group of people from China, who were on a couples retreat and had zero interest in talking with me, insisted that I join in their photo sessions. I assume this was because of my height or skin color. At the end of the cruise, during one of the photo ops, I decided to get a picture on my phone with them just to remember how strange the interaction was — granted, something similar happened to me in Cambodia.

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Jun 28

Dorms in Darwin and Coffee in Cairns…..6.29

This post will be brief. Australia is filled with amazing cities, but Darwin is not one of them. It is a stopover town for good reason. Outside of a few beautiful beaches and jungles, the best part of Darwin is leaving. There is a strong presence of aboriginals in the city. Much like Native Americans in the States, they’ve been disenfranchised and marginalized over the past few hundred years, leading to host of behavioral problems. A high percentage wind up being alcoholics.While I was enjoying my customary McDonald’s meal, I watched this guy march into an electronics store and walk out with new pair of headphones. Not surprisingly, local crime rights are very high. Sadly, it appears that much of their money goes toward booze. 

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I stumbled upon this beach located just outside of the city center. It didn’t seem too popular, then again, nothing in Darwin did.

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As luck would have it, I also located my first micro-brewed stout since leaving the States. It is actually wasn’t from a micro-brewery, but at the time, I convinced myself otherwise. Compared to what we could get a place like Founder’s or Dark Horse back in Michigan, this beer was weak in flavor and body. Still, having not had anything remotely dark in months, it felt wonderful to not be drinking watered down bud light. The two nights I was in Darwin I strolled along the beach pictured above, nursing one or two of these Coopers Brewery beers. 

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I stayed at one of the largest hostels in the world in Darwin, housing over 600 people; it also happens to be one of the largest party hostels in the world. Being that I naturally awake between 5:00 and 5:30 am, I had the chance to witness the festivities on both ends of my day. When I would attempt to go to bed, with earplugs and a pillow over my head to deafen some of the noise, kids would be running up and down the halls banging on the walls as if it were a dorm. I say kids because most of the people staying at the hostel were between the ages of 18 and 22, coming primarily from the UK. Hoards of construction jobs are available in Darwin so many young folk make the trip in pursuit of work. They pay very well too - somewhere between $30 and $35 USD per hour. As best as I could tell, all that money goes directly back into lodging and booze, but I guess that is the intention with which the party apt visitor arrive.

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To cook a meal in a functional kitchen did wonders for my spirit. It felt absolutely amazing to have a knife and pan back in my hands, cooking Auzzie lamb and mixed vegetables. The stove had a high-powered burner with an amazing hood, so I ramped the heat up with no concern about smoke. Needless to say, I had no problem getting a proper sear.  

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Cairns too is not a great city to visit in and of itself. Just like Darwin, it is a poorly designed tourist trap. That said, check my next post for what brings people to Cairns — and it is not there coffee shops. However, coffee shops remain as a major hallmark of my trip. The variance from cafe to cafe is so great, with factors such as location, temperature, WIFI, bathrooms, vibe, quality of coffee/tea, food, chairs, and a host of other variables altering the experience. The more time I spend in coffee shops, which is usually a couple hours each morning, the more perceptible I come to these details. For instance, the place I am in right now has a window perch perfectly situated for people watching. That factor alone makes me want to come back here tomorrow. Cruze Cafe in Cairns, Australia had what might be the most diverse coffee selection I have ever seen in my life. Over 20 countries were represented in their bean selection. Like I’ve said before, coming into this trip, my background in coffee was literally zilch. I’m not a connoisseur, but I’m starting to figure a few things out.

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What possessed to order this 10 USD indulgently ridiculous drink is beyond me. There is a reason it was called the maniac; it should have come with a straight jacket. Its contents included 3 shots of expresso from Colombia, 3 scoops of homemade ice cream, half of a Belgium chocolate bar, half a cup of whole cream, and whip cream on top. By the time the caffeine and sugar came into full force, I was having all sorts of wild ideas. One of which I actually followed through on, and that was to go for a run. I haven’t ran unless out of necessity in years. In my jeans and layered long-sleeve shirts, I took off. My back-pack loaded up with my computer and other odds and ends rattled around, but it didn’t stop me. I must have jogged for a good two miles before I stopped. As with any good artificial high, the crash was equally as brilliant. When I got back to my hostel I spent the next couple unwinding. I melted into the couch like ice-cream on a summer’s day. The rest of my afternoon was shot, but damn, that was a memorable drink.

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This was my favorite view in Darwin; it’s the airport at departure. Relief is a feeling I’ve experienced many times on my journey. Put this photo in the relief category.

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Oh, and if you are curious about the prices in Australia, here are a few examples. The conversion rate is about .94 cents US to 1 Australian Dollar. Wine made and bottled in OZ is significantly cheaper to buy in the US compared to its land of origin. Fruits and vegetables are wildly expensive too. The container of blueberries pictured below is of a non-organic small box. Back home, this would usually be 4 USD.

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Jun 26

Bouncing back in Bali……6.27

My quest for the perfect pizza continues. Though I haven’t mentioned it, I’ve tried pizza, of some sort, in every single country I’ve visited. In addition to this, I’ve had McDonald’s at every major stop. It’s amazing how much the fast food giant’s menu can range from place to place, but how similar the food tastes regardless of its name or contents.

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For many years I’ve dreamt of making a simple silver ring. Where this urge derived from, I know not, but it was strong, and has now been fulfilled. Out of sheer luck, in Ubud, I found an incredible silversmith who taught a beginner’s class. By the end of the day I had no issue creating my own hand-made piece of jewelry. The final product is not shown because I want it to be a surprise. All I can say is that a much hard work and effort went into its creation.

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Dogs hold a special place in the hearts of the Balinese. Unlike the Vietnamese, who would prefer have their canines on a plate, the inhabitants of Bali let the dogs roam the streets freely. Because of this, the dogs become quite street smart, and with holes like this one be completely common, they’d better develop their abilities to navigate the streets quickly — so too must tourists. In the darkness I nearly found myself victim to one of Bali’s infamous sidewalk sinkholes. 

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I had a huge laugh at this dog’s actions. From behind, he stealthily approached a lady carrying a bag of food, snatched it from her hands, and ran away. Once at a safe distance from the scene of the crime, maybe 100 yards away, he decided to take a second to rip the bag open to check its contents. All the while he was vigilant to ensure he was not pursued. No question about it, this wasn’t his first rodeo.

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I don’t like being suspicious of others, but this is what you’re up against on a daily basis. Haha. It’s worth a laugh, until you get ripped off.

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In the wake of my illness, one of my friends strongly recommended I head to Ubud because of the health promoting foods and workshops; he was dead on. Bali Buddha Bakery offered freshly baked organic pastries, muffins, bagels, etc. each morning. It was incredible. My routine was to stop by first thing in the morning and last thing before bed — breakfast and dessert led to the joyous state of carb overload. By the end of the week, both my spirits and immunity were lifted. 

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These monkeys can be a mischievous bunch. In my short visit to Sacred Monkey Village I saw numerous acts of discretion, my favorite of which being this little monkey below snatching someone’s camera from her hands and then running away. That’s the risk you run when you jam a lens in this little guy’s face hoping for a photo op. I also saw a monkey attempt to unzip an unsuspecting visitor’s backpack, as well as a group of monkeys accost a person who pulled out a candy bar for what was originally his enjoyment, but that soon become the enjoyment of the monkeys. 

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Here is something I can get onboard with — a little back-scratch.

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Monkeying around appears to be the main hobby of the monkeys. These two fellows wrestled for entire duration of my time viewing them, and that had to be a good ten minutes. I found their varying styles and tactics amusing. One of the participants would run away, then hide behind a rock, only to pop out and hop on the back of his foe — quite humorous.

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All of the monkeys surrounding this guy showed him great respect. I can see why; he had to be twice the size of the average male. 

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Anomali Coffee became my go-to cafe in Ubud. Their tea and coffee were excellent. I did have one complaint; the place never opened on time, and the workers didn’t seem to care one bit about a waiting patron. The term “Balinese time” became evident to me over the course of the week. This photo was snapped at 7:18 am. According to the sign outside of the building, opening time should have been at 7:00 am. Even twenty minutes after the supposed launch time, the two baristas were happy to crack jokes and enjoy the finishing pulls of their cigarettes. I sat on the curb in wonderment. Maybe they have it right?

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Southeast Asia taught me a valuable lesson: Never take anything for granted — not even hot or cold water!

If you are looking for a non-alcoholic drink that is reasonably healthy and entirely too tasty, give this a whirl:

- organic jasmine green tea

- 4 muddled strawberries

- handful of muddled mint

- teaspoon of sugar

- teaspoon of honey

- squeeze of lime

- run the mix through a loose strainer

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Jun 24

So you want to backpack?

Let me start this off with a preface: the fact I’ve been able to carve out an extended period of time to travel makes me incredibly fortunate. This post in not intended to display ingratitude. I’m privileged to have been afforded the opportunity to see the other side of the world. 

With all that said, this is what a day in the life of a backpacker can look like, especially if you are tired, sick, and irresponsible. It is a tangental rambling, but it reflects my emotional status during a given moment. Usually writings of this sort are captured in my personal journal, where they remain for later examination. It may be of interest to see an example of a discursive, spontaneous entry. Little is edited, resulting in unpredictability of tense and person. However, some minor adjustments had to be made for the sake of coherence. 

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It’s 5:00 am, and I am awake — again. Whether this was perturbed by the crowing roosters or one of my German bunkmate’s rogue, unusually annoying alarm, I’m unsure. Either way, both my capacity for sleeping with noise and returning to sleep after be awoken is ever-diminishing, and as such, so too is my total time spent with my eyes closed. Commensurate with this, I’m noticing a reduction in my overall tolerance for life. At this point in the game, the accumulation effect is taking hold.

On this morning, two more outcomes, which have become standards, hold true. My hands and ankles have been demolished by bugs. I look like I spent an evening on the Nile during rainy season covered in powdered sugar. I reek too; historically, I don’t sweat or smell much, that is until Southeast Asia. The oppressive heat and lack of AC have made my entire essence resemble the fragrance of an odiferous locker room. By now, I’m comfortable with the discomfort of my own stench.

Per usual, the first thing I do in the morning is pee. My hostel doesn’t have a toilets in the dormitory room, so I have to walk across the courtyard, where snakes and other rodents lurk. And, I say this in all seriousness. A day prior, the owner killed a snake smack-dab in the middle of the courtyard I am traversing. Rats the size of small cats slowly creep away as they sense my presence. 

Prior to embarking on my restroom journey, I first must locate some form of visual aid — either contacts or glasses, and a source of light. In SEA, at a questionable hostel, lighting is a scarce luxury. As luck would have it, my contact case slipped off of the bed and now rests under the creaky bunk. I locate my headlamp, crawl out of my bed, and get onto my hands and knees. I squeeze my body flat and stretch my arms under the bed to reach the case, or more accurately, feel for the case, being that I can hardly see anything due to a combination of darkness, cob-webs, and my own blindness. Having the vision of a geriatric patient has shown itself to be more burdensome while traveling in comparison to when I was back home. This isn’t working well and I’m making far too much noise. Hell, it is barely past 5:00 am. Most of my roommates fell asleep in past few hours. Why am I already awake?

Generally, glasses serve as my backup form of sight enhancement. But being that I sat on them yesterday, successfully ripping the bow from the frame, that option ceases to exist. Fine, I’ll go by feel to the bathroom. If there is something to which I am accustomed, using my limbs as a mobility cane in the dark is it. I step outside and am immediately struck by a sensation I detest. Wetness on the ground. Excellent. It poured last night. Now my one remaining pair of clean socks is soaked. I am neurotic about my socks; no question about it. Of the idiosyncratic preferences to make my list of snobbery, socks, along with tea and butter, hold the top spots. Usually this would never occur because I wear shoes everywhere. To my misfortune, the hostel requires that all shoes be left at the front gate. I despise this rule.

In crossing the treacherous courtyard, my level of emoitional distress is high. Poor sleep, isolation, illness, general wear-and tear, and a lack of hydration have collided; it’s not pleasant. Additionally, my angst toward snakes is heightened. I know very well that wetness brings them from their hiding places. Having the Fansipan run-in occur one month prior isn’t doing anything to aid my nerves. Oh well. I’m happy to be able to use the pisser. Once I get to bathroom, the urge to number 2 hits — another good way to begin the day. I squat down and take a seat. Excellent! More wetness. I’ve just sat in a puddle of piss. That’s fine; it’s not like it is the first or last time. To be honest, at this point of my trip, it isn’t even that disgusting. Hell, it might even be mine. I hardly care. My situation is improving; I’ve cleared myself and feel a pleasurable sense of relief. Regular movements in Southeast Asia are events worthy of celebration.

As my hands work around the dark stall in search of TP, I come to the realization that there isn’t any. Not a big deal, I’ll grab some from one of the three other stalls. Of course, none of these stalls has TP either. Cool. I’ll see if the sink has paper towels. Nope. Again. No issue. I’ll just prairie-dog back to my room for my reserve TP. Maybe my level of tolerance towards life isn’t that low. Once in the room, I squat down underneath the upper bunk. Boom! I nail my head on the bunk. This is a routine happening. Being over 6 feet tall in Southeast Asia is sentence for constant head-bangings. I locate my TP and make my way back to the bathroom. At this point, my socks are so wet, it no longer matters. What the hell am I doing with my life? The question echoes over and over again. Moment-to-moment emotional swings are the norm under the duress of wet socks, exhaustion, and a dirty butt.

The night before, I attempted to extend my hostel stay for another evening. Management was out of the office when I visited, and recovering from Bali Belly left me with little energy to invest in hunting for a staff member elsewhere; meanwhile, with my three hour WIFI limit reached, I decided to take care of the lodging in the morning, either face-to-face or via the internet. Never take WIFI for granted.

Wonderful! The internet isn’t working from my room. Like I said: Never take WIFI for granted. Now back in the lounge area, I’m careful to place my laptop under a blanket so it stays dry. The blanket had to be pirated from a back closet. Why does everything require such damn stealthy resourcefulness? The signal is weak, allowing for painfully slow web searches. This might rival dial-up.

Impossible! The hostel is showing as having no availability. I scamper across the courtyard to the management’s office, hoping to locate assistance. A sign is up; no availability, back at 10:00 am. Wonderful. Check out is at 10:00 am. This isn’t the Mariott, precluding a call to the front desk for late check-out from being a solution. I decide to pack my crap and make a move. It’s a blink decision, as so many are while backpacking. Back at room, quietly I begin stuffing my scattered belongings. All of the roommates are still asleep, so I strive to be extra courteous, but I am getting frustrated. Alternative options run through my mind. On-the-fly problem-solving is also a skill absolutely necessary when hopping from around Asia, particularly if you plan to act, from time to time, with impunity and irresponsibility. I could wait with my bags at the office in hopes that an opening arose from cancellation. But, at this point of the trip, I’m sick of making wagers. I’ll stick with my blink decision. I seek, long-for, and crave certainty and routine. It is time to take matters into my own hands. Once my bag is jammed shut, and at this point, due to the nature of my pack-job, the seams are about to bust, down at the exit, I slide my shoes over my wet feet, which creates one of the most disturbing sensations on earth, and take off in search of a coffee shop from which I can locate a new hostel bed. Before getting out of the gate, I have one more problem to navigate. The gate is dead-bolted to a point just wide enough to allow a person to pass, but my overly stuffed bag won’t fit. I have to toss it over the gate and slide sideways through the tight opening. Mud covers the outside of my bag. I hate having dirt on my shiny blue Osprey. The time now is just before 6:00 am. Not that it is new, but I’m operating again with under five hours of sleep. Extra vigilance is necessary as bad decisions happen under the blanket of fatigue. 

And why would any coffee shop open at 6:00 am? After trying a dozen or so coffee shops, 7:00 am appears to be the first opening. Even Starbucks, my WIFI savior of Orient, isn’t open until 8:00 am. This seems like madness. With an hour to wait, I choose to sit on the beach and make a journal entry. No more than ten minutes pass before a torrential downpour comes from nowhere. I zip my bag up, grab my journal, water bottle, and other crap I have spread out, and take cover under a tree. This keeps me drive for next five minutes before the water starts leaking through the branches. Next call; I’ll make a run for the resort only a few hundred yards in the distance. AC in Asia may be the sweetest commodity of all, but not when you’re soaking wet. For the first time in nearly a week, I get a frigid blast of manufactured air. It washes over my wet body causing instantaneous chills. Thankfully the security is accepting of my presence, allowing me to hang out in the lobby until the rain passes. When 7:00 am strikes, I head to the nearest open coffee shop. Most of Sanur, the area of Bali I’m in, doesn’t serve tea. This place is no different. I order an overpriced coffee, costing almost 3 usd. Laptop out. Internet searching, searching, searching……excuse me, is your WIFI working here? “Uhhhmmm. No. Sorry!” Great, so now I’m stuck with an overpriced cup of coffee and no internet, and therefore, no hostel. I quickly down the cup of java before visiting the neighboring coffee shop. There things begin smooth out. I get a cup of green tea, albeit terrible in quality, accompanied by a solid Internet connection. The skies part as I find a hostel right next to my original digs with availability. Checking in is a breeze, and to my great pleasure, a bottom bunk just opened up. All is well in the world.

Here is the bottom line: backpacking has it ups and downs, good days and bad days. It is filled with nuisances, encumbrances, inconveniences, and general discomfort. If you want to visit the sea, you have to ride the waves.

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My writing, in its rawest form, is what you’ve just read. As you’ve inferred, I was unbelievably frustrated. I posted this to show the trials and tribulations one goes through while traveling. And those impediments, given isolation, seem to grow exponentially in magnitude. For me, when backpacking with a companion, the daily mess of happenings can be laughed off, or dismissed as coming with the territory, but when alone, the experience becomes realer, more serious, and too closely connected to my own solitude. 

When I complete this trip, in my summation post, I’ll include a bit more on this topic. 

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Oh, and if it is of any interest, here is a list of items I’ve lost or had stolen on the trip. Whatever form of misery I experience without these conveniences is largely self-inflicted, as most of what is missing is due to my own carelessness. 

Items missing:

1) iPhone - left in Cambodian cab. Realized moments after the fact and contacted driver. Too late; he sold it

2) Sunglasses - fell off on Fansipan. Now residing in a ravine with poisonous snakes and village people

3) Eye glasses - sat on and crushed, so technically, they aren’t lost

4) Two contact cases - probably in the laundry machine in Thailand

5) Mac Charger - left in wall in Sapa

6) Converter - left in the wall in Sapa

7) Socks - brought 12 socks, now down to 5. I have no clue what is going on with this. It’s one of the great mysteries of my trip

8) Sandals - carabinered them to my bag like an idiot — lost during flight.

9) Carabiner - went with sandals

10) Space Pen - uncertain, but I think it is sitting on an Air Asia plane

11) Sunscreen - Mekong River kayak incident

12) Steroidal Cream - Mekong River kayak incident

13) Hat - fell out of pocket while running through a rainstorm in Singapore 

14) Android power cord - unsure, but I believe it is in a coffee shop in Bali

15) Cargo shorts - eaten by laundry machine

16) 280 USD - dropped 200 USD at customs in Bangkok after having not slept in a day and being rushed through an interrogation. Lost 80 USD at a 7/11 in Bali after opening my bill-fold only to have everything, including my passport, hit the floor. Locals were nice enough to assist me in picking up my belongings, but there was a hefty service fee.

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Best wishes, and thank you for reading — Chris

Jun 22

Bali Belly…….6.22

Mahi-mahi, fresh off of the boat, at a cost of 4 usd is a deal hard to beat. When I say fresh off of the boat, I mean that. The fish were unloaded from a small vessel before my eyes, then skinned and filleted on the dock. Some days fresh snapper was also available. The first picture is mahi-mahi and the second is snapper. The views came free of charge. 

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I took a restorative yoga class at a studio constructed almost completely from bamboo. According to the owner, it is the “greenest” yoga center in the world. Practically everything is renewable, reused, and recycled. Hearing the waves crash along the beach created a natural sense of calmness and tranquility. Every now and again that peacefulness was disrupted by the sacred cow, Angelique. I rested in the hammocks after class, but ended up leaving only a few minutes later, not because of the mooing or stench of cow dung, but because Angelique continually crept closer and closer to me, gnawing on grass as she went. I was afraid my feet might be mistaken for the grass if I stayed longer. 

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The process of hand-making noodles has fascinated me for quite some time. Before coming on this trip, I went through a pasta making phase that lasted a solid six months. Although the Italian method for noodle creation is tried and true, so too is the Chinese process, but it involves far more skill and effort. After becoming friendly with the owner at a just-opened traditional Chinese noodle restaurant in Sanur, Bali, I convinced him that it would be a good idea to allow me to spend time in the kitchen tossing noodles alongside the head chef. My teacher, who arrived from China only a month prior, spoke not a single word of English. Via a whole bunch of hand gesturing, marked most notably by his consistent head shake and growl of disapproval, he provided enough guidance to take me from hardly being able to hold the dough to forming what, at least to some extant, resembled traditional Chinese noodles. It’s a full-fledged workout. To make noodles for a single dish takes approximately ten minutes; that doesn’t count the 40 minutes needed to hand-kneed the dough beforehand. Being that I botched the first four or five batches, by the time I finished one of acceptable quality, I had a sweat rolling down my face. Just like with many activities in life, the master noodle maker appeared effortless during the ordeal, but once I got behind the driver’s wheel, I learned why it takes years to become proficient at the art.

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Bali is notorious for its sketchy food. In honor of this, food poisoning is given the honorary title of Bali Belly. According to many ex-pats, it is a right of passage. I’ve tempted fate time and again in Asia, eating food from practically every street vendor possible, in addition to many other questionable dining decisions, from the beating heart of a snake to the fetus of a chicken to the brains of a cow, little has fallen outside of my eating purview. Finally, my recklessness caught up with me. A simple meal of chicken leg and curry rice turned out to be my kryptonite. Of all the stomach illnesses I can remember having in my life, none was as violent as the nasty hand of Bali Belly I was dealt at the Big Pineapple Backpackers Hostel. I spent close to eight hours uncontrollably emitting seemingly everything that resided inside my body. At times, I had simultaneous deliverance. Once my emission phase was over, I crawled back to bed.

A kind person from Argentina attempted to provide me with aid in the form of drink and food, but anything that entered my body met immediate rejection. It got to the point where I searched for the contact information of my travel insurance, only to give up on account of weakness. Had I found the number, I’m not sure I’d still be on this trip right now.

After spending 24 hours in bed, I finally regained enough strength to make it to 7/11 to purchase a banana and Sprite. It took every last bit of energy to walk a few hundred yards. It’s amazing what dehydration and fatigue created by vomiting can do to one’s body. Without hardly any sleep, liquid, or nutrition, I deteriorated by mentally and physically. 

Here are the two places of my misery. The first is the awful cot where I groaned and moaned in the relentless heat of Bali. The second is the toilet that became both my best friend and worst enemy.

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As much as I am not a pool or beach person, I recovered over the course of two days at a local resort. Apparently I looked enough like a proper guest to not get harassed by security like most of the backpackers attempting to squat there did. A daily pineapple/orange juice and plate of fruits aided in my recovery greatly. The tan line you see on my feet is from when I got severely burnt on the Mekong River over a month ago. When I take my socks off, people usually do a double-take. 

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Jun 15

Shopping in Singapore…….6.15

I’ve refrained from buying any items, other than out of necessity, for the duration of this trip — up until Singapore. One of my weak spots, fine tea, presented itself in too overt of a way as to be avoided. On its higher end, tea is marketed to affluent, prissy Easterners. And when I say on the high end, I’m referring to tea that is more valuable than gold, on the order of three or four grand an ounce. Now I obviously would never indulge myself in anything that outrageous, but I do enjoy tasty, organic tea. During a quick stroll through the heart of downtown Singapore, I saw no fewer than ten tea establishments. Unlike back home, a tea shop in Singapore is dedicated solely to tea. Not a coffee bean, herb, or juice is present in the space. Hell. Water is even hard to come by. After doing my homework as to which locations were the most reputable, I chose two to visit. And yes, it is a visit. You don’t just stroll in and stroll out. Upon entering, you are assigned a tea expert, who then describes in detail the various types of tea, including everything — history, origin, flavor, pairings — as well as how they are to be prepared. Samples are then served. Thirty minutes into the process, after seeing more and more price tags, I realized this could become expensive quickly. But, I remained resolute in how much I was willing to spend. In choosing a tea, my tea expert went through at least a dozen characteristics and qualities, basing the selection on my preferences and reactions. An example of this came in scent. Having smelled approximately thirty pu-erh varieties, the tea guru identified exactly which notes I preferred. One by one, she continued to narrow down the options until she felt confident in what suited my liking. Then the taste test began. Of the remaining four that made it through the scent test, my winner was chosen — a six year-old variety from the Yunnan region of China. Given the price tag of 20 usd an ounce, I only purchased two ounces. Going through a traditional tea choosing ceremony is an experience that will not soon escape my memory.image

For dinner, I devoured eight of grilled King Prawns. Within seconds of hand-selecting your seafood, the item hit the charcoal grill and was served moments later. Singapore is a very expensive place as a rule, but these prawns, at a dollar a piece, were a deal. 

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I snapped this picture at 6 am while walking to the Metro. The sky looked ominous, and it proved to be an accurate representation of future weather. Five minutes later, a short, but torrential downpour struck. Thankfully, I was snuggly tucked onto the metro. 

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This is the center of the business district in Singapore. When you get there at 6:30 am on a Sunday, it’s completely dead. Three hours later, the area was totally packed. 

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Some of the old architecture in Singapore gives an unexpectedly cozy feel to the town. Skyscrapers are beginning to encroach on this area, but for the time being, it acts as a serenely comforting part of town. Four major tea shops are located in this strip, including the one from which I purchased my tea.

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Ahh. The first organic green tea I’ve drank in well over a month. 

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Just like every other city in Asia, trinkets are available in all places at all hours. Come night time, this street is packed with tourists. It never ceases to amaze me how much junk is being bought at any given moment. Key chains, shoes, hats, pictures, bracelets, toys — you name it — if it can be packaged and sold in mass quantities, it is available here.

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Again, I’m not much for modern architecture, but most tourist make quite a fuss about Marina Bay Sands compound. I do have to admit it is an impressive structure to see in person. Still, I wouldn’t fly across the world to stay and gamble here like a couple I met from NYC.  

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Guess what is inside??????? A giant shopping mall!!!!!!!!!

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Here is the view from the top. Drinks at the bar were close to 30 USD. Thankfully, I slipped by without making a purchase.

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I may not being staying at a Rtiz-Carlton, but that doesn’t mean I should refrain from using the facilities. The best, and I mean BEST juice of my life was had here - an orange/pineapple/mango blend freshly squeezed that day.

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One of the local delicacies I discovered in China Town, not the touristy one, but the place were recent landing Chinese people live is frog soup. The process: you pick out one of these gigantic four-legged creatures from the tank, pay ten bucks, get laughed at by locals for having no clue what is going on, crouch down to sit on a stool made for a midget, and wait for the sizzling-soup to be served. Had it not been so damn hot, I imagine it would have been delicious. I think that the frog was lightly fried, though it was difficult to detect given all the other items thrown in the blistering cauldron. This I’m fairly certain was the hottest dish I have ever been served, and that is saying something when considering all of the hot food I’ve been served in the past ten weeks. Even after buying a cold water and filling the bowl to the brim, the soup was still unbearably hot. Not helping was the fact the broth sat in a cast-iron container wrapped in ceramic. Heat could only escape from one direction. Unfortunately, it was over 100 degrees out, so it was escaping very quickly. Finally, I had to grit my teeth and eat through the burn. Once agin, the locals laughed at me as I blew and blew and blew before taking even the smallest spoonful of soup. In the end, for my efforts, I was rewarded with the roof of my mouth being completely fried. Thankfully, the pain was short-lived. Most of the skin peeled off the next morning. 

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Singapore’s primary airport isn’t as new as Kuala Lumpur’s, or as all inclusive as Hong Kong’s, but it gets the nod in my book as the best overall airport I’ve seen in Asia. The layout in its entirety is well-conceived. My favorite part, the snooze lounge, is ingenious. From food delivery to WIFI to relaxing music to charging stations, it has everything you can you could want in a relaxation zone. When flying frequently, the small things add up. 

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Jun 11

Milling around Malaysia……6.11

Kuala Lumpur is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. This is exemplified by its stratified religious population, diverse cuisines, omnipresent construction, and horrifically designed road system. Of all the places I’ve been thus far, KL requires the fewest steps to move from a slum occupied by Hindus to affluent high-rises owned by millionaire Muslim oil lords. The good news in this is that the mixture of culinary preferences creates a place ripe with eating choices to fit any traveler’s budget.. Here is an example of traditional Malay food. As has become common on my travels, when allowing the waiter/ress to choose my food, fried dishes often follow. I do have to say that the corn and shrimp fritters on the right were excellent. The level of crunchiness was just right, meaning the oil was fresh and hot; this is in opposition with many other of my experiences. 

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Every now and again, McDonald’s is an unavoidable urge. Curry, rice, and chili peppers take a toll on the eating psyche. I find the best way to cleanse the pallet is with a bacon cheeseburger or a spicy chicken sandwich. Disappointedly, even the quality at the Golden Arch is inferior in Asia compared with that of back home. Whatever that strange chemical is that provides the texture to the bread in the States, the one that the FDA is considering banning, is missing. Granted, you’re less likely to have an ear grow out of your ass, but you are going to miss the doughy consistency of the sandwich. Additionally, what passes for mayonnaise in Asia is a far cry from what we view it as in the West. It’s pretty simple — egg yolk, oil, mustard, lemon juice, and a touch of salt. Come on Malaysia. 

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No McDonald’s meal is complete is without a little ice-cream cone. Soft serve is done right here. Then again, it’d be a task to botch this one.

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Displays of different ends of the religious spectrum are on display in Malaysia. Over half the population is Muslim, so seeing women in full burkas, beards, and mosques is a frequent occurrence. It’s a wonder women can move around in the sweltering heat. When this photo was taken, the temperature was over 100. My t-shirt and shorts were soaked almost immediately upon stepping outside. 

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The Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world between 1998 and 2004. In person, they appear as you might expect — imposing, shiny, and enormous. Outside of that, I can’t think of anything extremely noteworthy about their appearance. Assuming you’ve seen Sears/Willis Tower or something near to it in height, and you’re not an architecture buff, this isn’t overly impressive. 

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Two primary markets are open nearly 24/7 in KL. The first photo is of the Central Market. Items for sale range from food to ceramics to jewerly, even snakes are on sale. The Night Market is pictured second. Residing in the center of China Town, it plays host to thousands of visitors every evening. The photo below as taken at an optimal time, as hardly a second goes by when walkers aren’t shoulder-to-shoulder.

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It’s tough to tell the age of Asians, especially older one. Even more difficult is telling the age of an elderly man who barks at his customers while slinging batter around with no regard for passer-bys. The first time I walked by this stand, which produces a crepe-like dessert, a flying dollop of batter grazed my shoulder. Crossing his stand is an exercise in body control. In the five minutes I stood waiting for my order, he hit no fewer than 20 people. One lady, a Western tourist, tried reprimanding him for the mishap. Clearly he’d been through this before, as he dismissed her without a second thought. 

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Here is a late entry from Hanoi. Having already hit nearly all of the top-ranked coffee stops in the capital city, one place remained on the connoisseur’s tour - Cafe Mai. With their famous “poop” coffee. Yes. That is right, it’s all in the poop. As legend has it, back in the 19th century, colonial Europeans settled into northern Vietnam. Being the hoarders that they were, locals were denied the right to have any of the fresh coffee beans harvested from select parts of the forest. To gather their beans, natives picked up beans off of the ground. In doing so, they encountered a problem. Besides being incredibly time-consuming, the beans had to extracted from civet excrement. This little guy below is a civet, and apparently he is the key to great tasting coffee. 

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At about 4 bucks a cup, the coffee is pricey. In my opinion, it isn’t very good either. Of all the brews I’ve had in SEA, which at this time must number close to 100, this was the least appealing. Bitterness, bitterness, and some odd flavor, maybe that of crap, were the most detectable flavor notes. No amount of condensed milk could lessen the brute force of its pungency either. I added at least two tablespoons of sweetened condensed, with little impact to the taste. 

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Jun 05

Sucking Wind in Sapa…..6.5

It all began with a challenge, a challenge from me, to me. Prior to embarking on my Asian excursion, I compiled a list of goals, one of which being to complete a physical trial. Had I been asked what this challenge might look like 10 weeks ago, I might have guessed surfing or adventure kayaking. But in Sapa, I discovered what appeared to be the perfect opportunity — mountain climbing. Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina, was but 30 minutes from my hotel; it was a chance I couldn’t pass up. Though it only stands at 10,400 feet, this gives very little indication of the difficulties that occurred during the story I’m about to retell.

Before tackling Fansipan, I had to find a guide with whom to accompany me. Options are plentiful in town, until you throw down the gauntlet: I want to make it to the top and back in a single day. Upon hearing this, nearly every tour operator suddenly loses the ability to speak English, and begins pushing a 3-day Fansipan package. If I was going to tackle this test, it was going to happen in a single day. Based on my research, I knew that it would be grueling, but could be done. Most people who go up in one day, and make it to top, take approximately 7 hours to hit the peak, leaving 5 hours to get down before darkness begins to set in. Seven tour companies later, I finally found one with a guide willing to meet my request. That evening, while stocking up on M&Ms and bananas for the next day, I purchased two knock-off trekking poles. Utilizing my now refined negotiation skills, the poles only set me back 7 usd. As I was to find out the next day, those seven dollars were unbelievably well spent.

At 6 am sharp, my guide picked me up on his tricked-out motorbike. By the time we made arrived at the starting gate, purchased permits, and arranged our packs, it was 7 am.  

I took a deep breath, mentally gathering myself for what I knew would be a tiring day. The conditions were going to add to the misery. Fog, rain, and winds were at unseasonably high levels. As I would soon find out, visibility at points would be under 10 feet; every rock would be covered with moisture and green slime; winds would reach 40 miles per hour.

No exaggeration, my guide set the initial pace at a mild jog. This would be fine if we were running through the park, but this was a climb up hills, through rivers, and over slippery rocks. I thought that he might be joking, proving the point that he could soar if need be, but no, this was the pace he intended to carry up the mountain. Though I took the biggest steps afforded by long legs, I had to power-walk to prevent falling behind. I knew immediately that this was not sustainable. Later I found out, at twenty-one years old, my guide is the reigning Fansipan speed-climber from his village, and competed last year in the challenge of the villages. He was the runner-up, and as he later told me, intended to finish number one this year. I attempted to signal, yell, motion — whatever I could — to get him to slow down. My efforts fell on deaf ears. Had my I had my wits about me, I would have set my own pace. Being that I am a novice to climbing, and was having trouble finding the proper route up mountain faces, I felt as though I needed him near me. If he wasn’t going to slow down, I was going to speed up.

Slightly over an hour into the trek, we stopped for our first break. Every muscle in my body ached from the strenuous pace. I was covered from head to toe in sweat. At our chosen resting spot, the only other person to be climbing Fansipan in a single day was having a morning snack. After exchanging pleasantries, I learned he worked as a guide at Mount Everest. This year, five of the sherpas on his team were killed by a major avalanche. He physically removed one of the bodies from the scene. In an effort to distance himself from the tragedy, he was traveling through SEA. When I asked him for any words of advice before I carried forward, he, seeing my level of fatigue, recommended that I slow the pace. I told him that my guide wouldn’t listen, so he hollered to his guide to have a word with my trailblazing leader. Following the discussion, I walked away optimistic that the speed would drop to a more reasonable pace.

You will notice that in the pictures that follow, I look very happy. Let me assure you, these smiles took every last bit of will power to muster. On the inside, I was kicking myself for having been so stubborn and short-sighted as to trust a young, brash imp to lead me up Fansipan in a day.

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Another hour into the ordeal, and our breakneck pace hadn’t slowed a bit. In fact, it may have increased. By now, I started to fall well behind. Each time I did, my guide would get to the cusp of being out of sight, wait for me to progress back into range, and then take off again. He was relentless. As we passed the halfway point, where one of the base camps sits, I seriously considered calling it a day. My body knew what I was doing was not wise, but my mind would not listen.

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At the three hour mark, we hit a flat, jungly area. This was a welcomed change in scenery, especially because the ground lent itself to easy traversing. And then it happened. Out of nowhere, my guide stopped, took the large bamboo stick he had been carrying all morning, and threw it at unknown object. Mind you, at this time, I was but a few meters behind him (notice I’m using metric language now :)), but had yet to see what caused the raucous. 

The target object wound up being none other than the most dastardly looking snake I haver ever laid eyes upon. Below is a picture of braided krait, nicknamed the two-step snake during the Vietnam War. Why? Because once bitten, you get two steps before you’re dead. Anyone who knows me is well aware of my hatred of snakes. That’s in part why I felt little remorse for the killing a King Cobra, and then eating its beating heart. It left one fewer legless, loathsome, cold-blooded creature to disrupt my life. Surprisingly, my visceral reaction to this guy wasn’t all that strong, especially considering the nearness of mortal danger. I think that my physical and emotional reserves were so drained, I became completely indifferent to life, and with that, my own safety.

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The snake reacted slowly to being hit by the bamboo stick. It slowly slithered away, seemingly indifferent to the strike. I breathed a sigh of relief; however, the brush with danger left my guide in a state of panic. Fifty meters beyond the ordeal, he stopped, and began acting very strangely. He vehemently motioned for me to lead the way. Increasingly, his actions became erratic. I noticed that his breathing, which didn’t appear to change at all during the climb, became short and labored. We talked for a few minutes, or more appropriately, interacted for a few minutes, given the remedial nature of his English. This is when I learned that a braided krait had recently killed his uncle. His massively disturbed state of mind now made more sense.

Whether or not he was petrified, there was still a task to complete; we needed to reach the top, and get back home safely. The first step to accomplishing this mission remained nearly an hour away. For a few minutes, at the urging of my “leader,” I led the way, but that ended up being a hubris-filled attempt on my part. With the rocks being as slippery as ice, and the need to establish foot and hand holds becoming more and more important, I was useless in the lead spot. It took some coaxing, but my guide finally relinquished, and retook the pace-setting position.

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Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the peak was mine. In just under 4 hours, we had gone from motorbike to the top, 14 kilometers in total. It doesn’t sound overly daunting, but I can ensure you, with no training, this was a trying experience. 

At the top, my nerves started to activate. I realized that I was only halfway through the day, though I was well over halfway through my energy reserves. Calories and hydration were not an issue, as I devoured peanut M&Ms, bananas, and water the whole way up, but my muscles, in addition to my mental fortitude, were fried. Knowing this made me anxieties redline. My guide wanted to relax at the top, leisurely enjoying his lunch. I implored him to hurry up so we could moving.

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The descent was dastardly. Each step taken required complete focus. If it weren’t for the two trekking poles I purchased, which could be the best expenditure of my life, I may still be wandering in the hills of northern Vietnam. Because of our lighting-quick race to the top, I knew that I had more time to burn on the way down, and burn it I did. With my legs wobbling, the last event I needed to transpire was a fall. For this reason, I moved with painstaking care. Of course, that did not prevent falls from happening. I am unsure of how many times I wiped out, but the one I recall vividly left me feet from dropping 6 or 7 meters onto a pile of rocks. Had not been for a sapling that held strong, the drop would have been inevitable. Each tedious step wore my faculties down bit-by-bit. Rain continued to be a hindrance throughout the day. I was soaked to the brim, and not a single rock missed out on the moisture. Five and half hours beyond the summit, and two broken trekking poles later, on level ground I fell flat on my face; that’s how exhausted I was. With the bike in my visual range, a final hurdle loomed. An enormous male water buffalo blocked the path, and he had no intention of moving. My guide, who finally proved his worth, resorted to making a god-awful screeching sound and throwing rocks at him. The buffalo stared at us eye-to-eye, and out of nowhere, took off rapidly for the jungle, clearing our path to home base. 

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All said, I traversed 28 kilometers (17.3 miles), mostly up and down large boulders and rivers, in just under 10 hours. Our break-time totaled 20 minutes. Given the proper training, equipment, and pace, this climb is completely manageable. But, with no training, little equipment, and a shitty guide who wants to run you into the ground, the challenge is immense.

Here is the little worm who nearly pushed me to a place of destruction. Had I had my wits about me, I probably would have shoved him off of the side of the cliff.

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I learned a valuable lesson on this day. Never again will I attempt to summit any sizable peak without proper training, equipment, and guidance, especially if I am located in a remote part of Vietnam.. 

To the victor go the spoils. Pat and I indulged in a dinner of bison belly, pig cheek, pig snout, and pig ear, along with fresh trout sushi rolls to “celebrate” the conclusion of my climb. We cheers to the now extinct ascent of Mount FancyPants (our form of disparagement).

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Jun 01

Serenity in Sapa……6.2

Of all the sights I have viewed on this trip, Heaven’s Gate is the most scenic of them all. There are two viable ways of catching a glimpse of this majestic highpoint — pay for a motorbike taxi or rent a motorbike. While in SEA, I’ve been incredibly reluctant to drive a motorbike, and for good reason. Backpacking towns are filled with young, white people limping around on crutches. Why are these travelers injured? Motorbike accidents. Keeping the systematic harmony of the Vietnamese driving orchestra is extremely hard. As I’ve mentioned in posts prior, adventure has a method for forced extraction from one’s place of comfort. That force in this instance came in the way of peer pressure, economics, and the urge for excitement. Pat and I haggled a solid price - 5 usd per bike for the day, and we didn’t have to turn over any information, which we saw as a being the best part of the bargain. Literally, zero record of our relationships to the bikes existed; we could have zoomed off to Hanoi without anyone’s knowledge. 

When I sat on the bike, I had not a clue what to do. Pat had to instruct, word-for-word, my next steps. He told me to kick the stand up; put the key in the ignition; turn the key; hold the break; hit the starter button; and so on. This goes to show the level of proficiency needed to rent a motorbike in SEA, and is probably why so many of the aforementioned Westerners wind up in collisions. Moments later I shot off, and moments after that, I came to a screeching halt. Figuring out the gas and breaks was going to take some time. After some trial and error, I figured out how to us the gas and breaks, but struggled to get down the turning portion, which becomes rather important. 

We zipped around town to raise my comfort levels. Turning remained a big tissue - especially right. Left turns presented no problem, but each time we turned right, I cut wide angles, which resulted in me being on the wrong side of the road — a lot. Now, in the States, this would present an enormous problem. A semi or large truck would more than likely smoke the oncoming scooter. In Vietnam, through years of practice, drivers are adept at avoiding idiot drivers like me, even when their in the wrong lane. One particular incident scared the hell out of me. As usual, I was taking a wide right turn, and an approaching bike, unlike all the others I’d encountered, refused to move for me. Granted, this was my fault completely; I was in his lane. But still, he chose to play a game of chicken with me, assuming I’d get out of his way. Had I been able to, I would have, but it was one of those sharp right turns. At the last possible second he swerved, and blasted his horn in anger. Immediately I made Pat pull over. I told him that I was leaving my bike behind, and we were riding together through Heaven’s Gate together. We a few words of coaxing, Pat made me realize that it was time  to buck-up, and get back on the bike. And I am so glad that I did.

With the limits testing beyond us, a wave a confidence soared over me. On the open road, the bike become much easier to handle. Each turn I took without error bolstered my confidence. Fewer than 30 minutes prior, I nearly wrecked in the middle of town. Now, I was setting the pace, cruising along the side of Heaven’s Gate. The best way feeling I can use to describe sitting atop this point is one of serene stillness. In all of my life, I’ve never seen such raw beautify matched against glorious blue skies. image

If you look closely, the road winds through the valley. As we descended, the air became distinctively cooler, but the views remained breathtakingly gorgeous. Going full throttle down a railless road in the mountains of Vietnam is an experience I will not soon forget. 

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Due to the light, I didn’t capture any photos that do this waterfall justice. Pat and I stumbled upon it while one our biking adventure. That is the joy of cruising along with no final destination in sight. Gems pop up out of nowhere.

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Our morning coffee spot provided a slightly different vantage point than what we’d grown accustom to in Hanoi. The table sat right next to two large windows, so the fresh air, along with the caffeinated coffee, acted as our morning greeting.

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Also on our motorbike trip through Sapa, Pat and I stopped by three villages. Rice farming is a way of life for the locals. It’s amazing; some of the shacks barely had running water, and lacked plumbing, yet a TV and dish remained ever-present. The omnipresence of that damn box never ceases to amaze me. From Cambodian jungles to Thai animal preserves to the Vietnamese mountains, all people seem to have a TV.

From the road above, the rice paddy farms form intriguing geometric shapes. 

May 30

Hard Sale in Ha Long Bay…..5.31

Ha Long Bay is an area of majestic beauty. Formed from over 500 million years of environmental factors, including glacial expansion and compression, each limestone formation carries it own unique character . Nearly 2,000 monolithic islands and isthmuses are packed tightly into a surprisingly small area, resulting in the creation of countless configurations and arrangements, many of which are named by the local tribes. The first picture below is called sleeping giant. It’s hard to distinguish how the name derived; I guess the locals have quite an imagination.

The entire area surround Ha Long Bay is super-touristy, but when you bring magnificent geological beauty in combination with incredibly cheap prices, this is to be expected. Below are the photos taken on my cruise through the Bay.

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Cat Ba island is largest of the inhabited islands in Ha Long Bay. As much as I enjoyed the picturesque surrounding, after a few hours, the constant bombardment of peddlers and merchants became overwhelming. At every turn, a new salesperson grabbed my arm or blared a deafeningly loud sales message in my ear.

The night sky from Cat Ba Island produced the most spectacular sunset I have seen in my entire life, and I’m comfortable putting that superlative on my statement. As the sun fell over the mini-mountains, a glorious hue of red, orange, and yellow melded together to produce these heaven-esque images. The photos are unedited.

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With the winds too strong to rock climb in Ha Long Bay, Pat and I took off by motorbike in search of a rather hidden cave in the middle of the island. Going into the viewing, we had zero clue what to expect. We hardly knew where the cave was, let alone what resided inside. On the sandy shoulder of the road, near a small, indistinguishable sign, stood a man claiming to be a tour guide. Without fail we always turn down guides because more often than not they end up speaking poor English and offer little insight. After a quick debate, Pat and I realized that we did not even know how to access the cave, and the price the guide requested, 3 usd, was not much of a cost if the investment ended up being a flop. This photo is from the entrance of the cave, which is recessed into the jungle a few hundred yards off of the road.

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Our guide, who may or may not have been convinced of the conclusion of the Vietnam War, ended up being excellent. He knew every single detail regarding the history of the cave. To our surprise, upon entering the cave, we found the entire cavity had been engineered into a bomb-proof headquarters for Vietnamese military leadership during the War. Room after room served very specific purposes. The one in which our guide is pictured was a weapons cache storage area, and the one below that was a wash room. Other spaces included in the labyrinth were a workout room, a pool, a surgical room, and a movie theater. Mind you, the titles given to these rooms are a stretch, but our guide was beaming with pride as he retold the story of how the facility functioned during the war. The final picture is of Pat and me at the exit. Just as with the entrance, it is incredibly discreet.

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It doesn’t get much fresher than seafood directly from Ha Long Bay. Prices were quite reasonable, with the combined cost of these three dishes totaling 18 usd. Of all the options available, the squid looked most appealing, and proved to be incredibly tasty. 

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May 29

Heart in Hanoi…..5.29

In keeping with the try-new-things mantra, while in Hanoi, Pat and I decided to give the traditional delicacy a whirl. What does giving the local delicacy entail? First comes identifying what the local delicacy is. In the case of northern Vietnam, this means snake. Next comes locating where an authentic snake eating experience can be had. After consulting multiple local sources, both from our hostel and from neighboring hotels, we picked a restaurant and made arrangements for transportation. 

The initial reaction I had upon arrival at the destination was one of concern and uncertainty. Our cabbie took us to what appeared to be a deserted, seedy area. Immediately I questioned whether or not embarking on this snake-eating project was a good decision. We meandered our way through decrepit buildings and found ourselves at the entrance of gigantic restaurant that appeared to be something out of ghost town. But, the presence of snakes in cages surrounding the perimeter of the lobby ensured us that we were in the right place. When this far outside of town, language barriers exacerbate themselves. After much hand-motion and the fortuitous find of a local who spoke both Vietnamese and English, we finalized our transaction. For $50 USD, we would be treated to ten course snake feast, including the most revered parts of the snake: bile, blood, and heart.

Moments after agreeing to the deal our waiter brought us downstairs to watch the butchering procedure. Now, for $50 USD, this wasn’t any snake; this was a King Cobra. In SEA, the King Cobra is considered the Royals Royce of snakes. The scene began when a young man, no older than twenty, pulled the snake from the cage, pinned its head down with a hand and a foot, and proceeded to slice the snake’s fangs out with a machete. Once this was finished, he requested that we hold the snake. Being that I’m far from fond of snakes, I vehemently abstained. Pat, realizing that during the excision process one of the fangs could have been missed, also chose to not hold the snake. Next, a second staff member entered to severe the snakes head from body. With one quick blow it was over. Utilizing a deft touch that only experience brings, the snake chef began the task of dissection. The first extraction, heart, came with a sense of urgency. To receive its full medicinal powers, the heart must be consumed directly after slaughter. Being that food is one of my passions, and the snake eating adventure was my wish, Pat insisted that I be given the most honorable part of the snake, its still beating heart. Seconds later, the pumping heart was on a plate in front me. I took a swig of water, a deep breath, and prepared for the moment of truth. With a purposeful gulp I downed the pulsating organ in one swallow. As it made its way down my esophagus, I could feel its final movements in my body. One more swallow and the snake and I were heart-to-heart. Next up, the bile and blood. To make the taste more tolerable, the bodily fluids are mixed with rice wine. The customary way to consume them is via a shot, so that is what we did. Whether it was the alcohol, blood, or bile, something had us feeling very warm and fuzzy. Neither the bile nor the blood left an offensive flavor in my mouth. Actually, I found the bile mixed with rice wine to be possess quite a nice taste, though slightly bitter. The blood was less enjoyable, with its primary flavor note being metallic in nature.  

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The ceremony now behind us, we prepared for the meal itself. Consuming ten courses of snake is an overwhelming task. Preparations ranged from fried snake rolls to snake stir-fry to snake soup. We even had a snake infused dessert. By the fifth or sixth course, I’d had enough of the legless reptile to last a lifetime. Pat and I decided that we’d eat as much as our stomachs would possibly allow, so we pushed forward, consuming nearly every last bit of King Cobra. The next day, we both woke up feeling strangely lethargic and generally ill. Thankfully we had the perfect answer to anyone who asked the question: “you don’t look so hot this morning.” Ya, maybe that’s because my dinner last night consisted of ten rounds of King Cobra!

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What ketchup is to the States chili sauce is to SEA. It’s common to see Heinz Chili Sauce on the table at restaurants in Vietnam. Though I love the spicy condiment, the mass-produced version is a viscous, sugar laden disaster. The homemade variety is generally comprised of fish sauce, sugar, chills, garlic, shallot, and vinegar (lime, kumquat, etc.). Of all the culinary exposure I’ve had in SEA, this is the one I’m most likely to incorporate into my cooking back home. 

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Bun Bo Nam Bo came at the recommendation of the Anthony Bourdain. Pat and I spent a solid hour looking for the restaurant, which, come to find out, was only two minutes from our hostel. For those familiar with pho, bun bo is the comparative dish in the north of Vietnam. As with pho, it’s comprised of broth, noodles, meat, and a few vegetables. One of the primary difference is in the broth. Whereas pho generally has a light, refreshing broth, Bun Bo has a richer, spicier, heavier variety. If given a choice, I prefer bun bo.

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Hanoi presented the perfect setting to indulge in another street food tour. Though not as notable as my experiences in Saigon or Bangkok, I did have the opportunity to eat fresh grubs and try egg coffee. The grubs were not as bad you might expect — gritty with nutty, bean-like flavor. Egg coffee is the upstage morning drink in Hanoi. I found it too frothy and flavorless for my liking. Nothing beats traditional Vietnamese java (with sweetened condensed milk). 

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Cong Caphe has become an instrumental piece of our morning regime. The building is set to the Vietnam War area, with memorabilia from the time period crowding the concrete walls. One visit acts like a tour through history, but what keeps us coming back again and again is their bold brew and reliable internet connection. 

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Lam is the oldest coffee shop in Hanoi. Though I was unable to find out exactly how old the cafe is, being that the city itself is a 1000 years old gives me an indication that it is probably older than any establishment in the States. When Pat and I rolled in early on a Saturday morning, the looks from all the locals gave us a clear indication of what they were thinking. We were weren’t in a tourist friendly hang-out. In any event, we chose to setup shop and enjoy a Vietnamese coffee. The beverage was as thick as motor oil, and gave a rocket-fueled launch to our day. 

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According to many travelers, a traditional water puppet show is a must-see in Hanoi. I want the hour of my life spent there back. The event took place in the most crammed, hot, dirty theater imaginable. And when the show finally began, not a word of English was spoken. Essentially, it was a large bathtub with puppets popping in and out of water, matched to arrhythmic music and Vietnamese words. 

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Traffic in SEA remains insane. Watching the vehicles juke and jive between on the streets and sidewalks is a sight to behold. Not once did I see an accident in Hanoi. Maybe there is a method to their madness.

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May 23

Lessons Learned in Laos……5.23

From spectacular wooded mountains to the powerful Mekong River, Laos is a country known for its natural beauty and untainted culture. In an effort to see as much of this landscape as possible, and the people who inhabit it, my short-term traveling companion, Pat, and I decided to embark on an eighteen kilometer kayaking trip down the Mekong. When choosing to take on adventure like this, many unknowns are at play. In hopes of ensuring that our day was as safe as possible, we enlisted the guidance of one of the better known tour companies in Luang Prabang (LP). Of the kayaking options on offer, we requested the one that was most scenic with some level of challenge. Because dry season is concluding, the water levels are low, so calculating which package would give us the best of both worlds seemed to confuse even our tour operator. In the end, we opted for what was billed as the least challenging of the choices, but the one that ensured spectacular views.

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Our day started out perfectly. Only minutes after embarking down the river, we were treated to an authentic local’s experience. Men fished using hand-lines, women cleaned clothes in the murky water, and children played tag on the banks. This is real life in Laos — no act, no show. Seeing a herd of water buffalos taking a dip to cool off, or rice farmers clearing fields were scenes we saw again and again. The only hiccup in our day, up until this point, came in the way of the relentlessly oppressive sun. As you can see in the photos, I wore my customary long-sleeve shirt with pants. I also had on my Gilligan’s Island bucket hat, which makes me look like one of the bigger doofuses in SEA. The upside to that is I usually avoid sunburn. Pat, who is fair-skinned, began to turn as red as a tomato only an hour into the day. No level of sunscreen could protect him from the scorching rays. The only parts of my body that suffered from the burning fireball above were my hands and feet. When it was over, my ankles were thoroughly fried.

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About halfway through the adventure, we pulled aside to have lunch. In a somewhat serious way, our guide informed us that the single trying stretch was ten minutes ahead. He proceeded to use a stick to sketch out the game plan for how we would tackle this “challenge.” Based on what we had seen up unto this point, it seemed fair to assume that what lurked ahead was but few harmless waves of white water. As we approached the “danger zone,” I showed my level of concern in the photo below.

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The first movement in this stretch, according to our guide, required us to hug the left side of the river. As soon as we passed the jetty to our right, we were to paddle as hard as we could in that direction to avoid crashing into a large boulder. Once we got to he right after hugging the left side of the river, the kayak needed to be pointed straight down river to take on the waterfall. That was our plan, but as plans go in SEA, ours worked out a bit differently. The first maneuver seemed to be going well; we managed to make our way down the first set of rapids, which actually were white water rapids, without a hiccup. We vigorously paddled to right side of the river in hopes of aligning our kayak perpendicular with the waterfall. During this effort, the back-end of our rickety vessel began to swing forward. This left us parallel to the waterfall at a distance of only fifteen yards away from the drop. With decision-making time limited, we opted to go with the momentum and keep the back-end swinging forward. If all worked out correctly, our kayak would once again be perpendicular to fall, just going backwards. This is viable solution in whitewater rafting; why wouldn’t it apply to kayaking?

My memories are as follows: the head of the kayak is facing directly away from the falls — a good sign. My body begins to slide back in the kayak as the we reach the drop. For a moment in time, we are stuck, my eyes left staring directly at the clouds. It feels like minutes are going by; why are we moving? The next scene is a bit of a blur. I crash into the water, and thrash violently in an attempt to breach the surface. My mind panics. I’ve been under way too long; what the hell is going on? The more I flail, the more oxygen I expend, but I’m going nowhere. Finally, my left hand grabs hold of an object, and I yank with all my might to free myself. That object turned out to be Pat’s life jacket. The next thing I know, the current is dragging me downstream at a swift pace. Like the guide instructed, I curl up into a tight ball and prepare to play pinball with the rocks. At this point, I’m gasping for air, both from fear and from being held under water for what felt like an eternity. A few hundred meters down the river, after banging into a series of stone bumpers, I finally bottom out on a sandy shoreline. With my wind slowly coming back, and few deep breaths taken, I hop back in the water and doggy-paddle back out to our kayak. Pat and I look at another and shake our heads, acknowledging that we have just cheated serious harm.

Lesson learned: when a guide in Luang Prabang pulls to the river’s bank and draws a map using a stick and few rocks, you are in for some serious whitewater. 

The sweet feeling of accomplishment and relief.

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Here are my poor wheels at the end of the day. This picture doesn’t do it justice. A week later, my feet and ankles peeled like dry paint.

Lesson learned: five hours of direct sunlight, even to a only a few inches of skin, is unbelievably painful.

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Now there is an authentic smile. If there is one thing that always makes me happy in this world, it is a puppy. This little one is in training to become the hostel pet. Lana took an immediate liking to me.

Lesson learned: if you show love to a puppy in a Laotian hostel, don’t expect that puppy to leave you alone. Lana spent half of night whimpering and scratching at the door.

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Views from atop the temple at Mount Phousi were spectacular. For $2.00 and five minutes of effort, the best panoramic in a LP can be had. Looking down at the mighty Mekong from this height definitely gives a whole new perspective to the river that only a day prior almost swallowed me whole.

Lesson learned: a five minute uphill walk can offer some the most spectacular views in all of Laos. Don’t be lazy like many of the tourist in LP; climb to the top.

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These bamboo bridges are all over SEA. The sturdiness is questionable in my opinion, especially when gaping holes are littered throughout the bottom, but it served its purpose.

Lesson learned: bridge crossings aren’t free; I paid 1 USD to cross this one.

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Kuang Si Falls is the most popular attraction in Luang Prabang. The primary fall is huge, but I failed to take any good pictures of it. The small falls and subsequent pools are equally breathtaking.

Lesson learned: though the waters appear beautiful, be mindful of the ever present fish nipping at your heels. The first few bites are bearable, but just wait until one of the big guys gets ahold of your toe.

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These Asian Black Bears, which are indigenous to the area, were rescued from captivity and now live in a sanctuary within Kuang Si Falls. It surprised me that animals this well-insulated evolved to live in such a hot climate. The bear in the picture below could hardly catch his breath; he looked positively miserable.

Lesson learned: bears can survive for extended periods in 100+ degree heat.

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It’s funny; I usually dislike staged photos, but this is rather characteristic of my trip. Contemplative thought in the beautiful scenery of SEA.

Lesson learned: although staged photo generally appear as just that — staged — some can accurately represent a space in time.

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May 19

Tigers in Thailand…..5.19

I debated whether or not to visit the tiger sanctuary for quite some time. Everything in this world is natural in the sense that it derives from nature, including plastic. With that concept aside, Tiger Kingdom feels about as unnatural as Wholesome Bread. After having made the decision to visit the cats, I tried to get a good rest knowing the day would be a long one. I lucked into having a group of non-stop partying Scottish roommates, so the wake up call came at 6 am when they arrived home from the bars. I left the hostel at 7 am, and was the first person waiting for the gates to open at 9 am. Once there, I was presented with multiple package options, ranging from a visit with fully grown tigers, to a visit with baby tigers, to a variety session, which included tigers of all sizes. As harsh as it may sound, I have little compassion for those who are attacked while fooling around with caged predators. I’ve felt strongly about this for quite some time. If you confine a wild beast to inorganic and psychological unhealthy space, and then poke and prod at it all day, I think that we should expect nothing less than for the animal to act on its instincts. And if this is the species is on the brink of extinction, and this is its last refuge, then maybe we should accept that this is its fate, whether the cause be from our selfishly thoughtless actions or from nature’s greater hand. Anyhow, for the above reason, I chose not enter the arena of the fully grown tigers, as it would reach of level of hypocrisy far beyond my standard breach of personal ethics. Although the 75 lbs baby tigers possessed the potential to do damage, I felt significantly safer entering their space. In addition to this, the small guys and girls appeared to be lively and free of sedative influence. The behemoth tigers, weighing over 400 lbs, had to have been drugged. This, in combination with years of harsh behavioral training, left the cats as shells of their former selves. Fear emanated from their every movement; the trainers would hit them with bamboo rod each time they stepped out of line. It was unsettling knowing that my funds supported this treatment, and frankly, the habitat center as a whole, but that is a whole other conversation.

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Even with the dissonance I felt about the whole ordeal, I have to admit that playing with the 3-4 month old tigers was very enjoyable. They were lively and fun-spirited. As much as my guide would allow, I rough-housed with the energetic cubs.

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This girl was by far the most playful of the bunch. At the end of my time in the pen, I was given the chance to feed her a bottle. During the feeding, I looked down at her, and in that moment, again recognized the strength and speed of this cub. Normally, we connote innocence and vulnerability with infants, but this baby animal had the potential to inflict significant harm on me. 

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Take note of my crotch. I am starting to see a reoccurring theme — me with a hole in my pants. That hole is now the size of softball. At this pace, by the time I make it home, it should be as big as a frisbee. 

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This was the first of my numerous cuddle sessions at the sanctuary. The cats are so accustomed to being around humans that sprawling out on top of them presents no problem. I couldn’t help but envision what would happen to me if this was attempted in the Savanna.

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In this photo, the play session became a little more realistic. Every few minutes, the cubs would get too aggressive, and take a crack at latching onto my hand. The second this happened, the trainer would step in and reprimand the ill-behaving, by the sanctuary standards, cub. To my surprise and happiness, the trainers appeared to use little force; instead, they opted to grab the tigers by the snout or scruff. The bamboo beatings must be reserved for an older age.

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Fishing has always been one of my loves. While in the land of the giant catfish, it would be negligent of me to not have taken a crack at fishing for these brutes. Using stale bread and rotting cat food as a lure, I fished from shore for about six hours. To begin, the guide wanted to test my casting abilities. When I told him that I knew how to fish, he looked at me with great skepticism. To prove the point, I let him cast one of the other rods first, and then I casted mine 20 feet beyond his. By the end of the day, the guide adopted my knot-tying technique and use of a left-handed reel. Below, in the 3rd and 4th photos, I’m holding a monster, which weighed over 45 lbs. By the day’s end, I caught a dozen Mekong catfish, most weighing between 15 and 25 lbs. 

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I’ve been craving a properly prepared burger for over a month. Based on much research and many reviews, I thought I’d located my chance at having one in Chiang Mai. The eating escapade ended up being disastrous. For starters, the time from order to consumption was over an hour. The worst part of that wait was the fact that griddle was literally 5 feet in front of me. I could have hopped the counter and grilled 100 burgers in the time it took 3 line cooks to prepare 10 burgers. Unlike back at home, I couldn’t express my disappointment verbally because the workers spoke zero English, and I couldn’t cast a vote of dissatisfaction with a tip because tips aren’t expected, so I was at the mercy of the experience. The low point of the whole ordeal happened when the burger finally arrived; it was terrible. Just like every other burger I’ve tried in SEA, it possessed a distinct flavor of curry and kaffir leaf. Also, its hue was ashy gray. The rosy red color we love back home is nonexistent in SEA. 

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Mangosteens are one of my top treats in SEA. Known for their health promoting properties, they possess a sweet, juicy, meaty flesh. I can run through a dozen or so without thinking twice. Watch out for the massive pit inside!

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Of all the splendid dishes in northern Thailand, Khao Soi gets my nod at the top of the heap. It’s milky, yet savory coconut curry base matches perfectly with the hand made egg noodles and freshly peeled shrimp. To complete the dish, crispy noodles are added, with a squeeze of lime juice. The balance between richness, sweetness, and savoriness is a delicate one to maintain, but this combination does it.image

The gates of Chaing Mai, which served as a defensive border around the city’s center, are over 500 years old. Recently refurbished, they provide an element of old world feel to the city. Being that they outline the city in a square configuration, even when lost, recalibrating one’s location is made incredibly easy.

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May 14

Earthquake in Northern Thailand…..5.15

In hopes of providing a little structure to my travels, as well as learning something new, I enrolled in a Thai massage course in Chiang Mai. From 8 am to 4 pm each day for a week I worked with instructors to learn the art of giving a proper Northern Thailand massage. The head teacher emphasized this point over and over: Thai massage is always done with clothes on! If the clothes are off, it is not Thai massage. On my final day of class, we all were required to complete a test covering the 62 positions of taught during the week. 

Back in the States, three years ago, I took a Thai massage course in Big Sur California. The instructor of the workshop helped found this school in Chiang Mai. To complete the introductory course was to fulfill a long-standing goal of mine. 

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Each morning our group was required to attend a Chi Gong session in the local park. The movements are hokey, but it is a great way to warm the body up for a day filled with maneuvering in uncomfortable and unfamiliar positions. Our leader was 68 years old. Even so, he was significantly more fit and dexterous in the movements than anyone else in the class. 

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While completing the pressure portion of my final examination, with all of the massage therapists watching, I ripped this hole in the my pants. Thankfully, I’m accustomed to such events happening.image

On my first day of class, just as we were concluding for the day, the ground began to move beneath my feet. And when I say move beneath my feet, I literally mean that the building began to shake and rumble. My first thought was that a gas line or something of the sort had erupted. Then I heard one my classmates yell, “everyone outside — earthquake!” Having the earth tremble is an unsettling, but fascinating experience. It’s as though the thing we trust most, the ground on which we stand, decides that for a moment it wants to remind us how small we are, and how in control it is. As I hurried out of the building, I slipped on the freshly polished floor and smacked my hip and elbow on the ground. Here is a picture of my side the following morning. image

Some serious damage occurred in the towns outlying Chiang Mai.

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My struggle to find a palatable dessert is over for the time being. The lack options for sweets in Chiang Mai is mortifying. Thankfully, I found a street vendor who makes a great banana-chocolate crepe. It’s the best dessert I’ve found thus far, and if it seems like a sad replacement for banana’s foster or a chocolate sundae, it’s because it is. When you reach the point of desperation that I have, any morsel of sweetness, including a few lines of cheap chocolate, makes the tastebuds dance with glee. 

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This is as traditional as Thai street food gets. For about 75 cents, finding a bowl of noodles and meat, assuming you aren’t in the touristy area, is easy. I ate my lunch at this restaurant each day during my week of Thai massage courses. The dining table doubled as the owner’s living room table, and the food was prepared in the household kitchen. That is about as local as food gets.image

It took me a few days to locate my go-to restaurant in Chiang Mai, but I found it. Cooking Love offers a diverse menu of authentic Thai food at a reasonable price. On the left is the spicy rice and pork mash, and on the left is spicy mango and shrimp salad. When the Thai’s say that something is spicy, that is not to be taken lightly. I love the heat, but I’ve seen numerous Westerners order a dish only to squirm in discomfort after a single bite. image

My strange, or maybe more aptly named disgusting, food tour continued in Chiang Mai with the trial of durian. Overall, I’d describe the eating experience as mildly offensive and relatively indescribable, and therefore, something I recommend everyone try if presented with the chance. The texture is tricky to describe. Think of the mush of an overcooked carrot, with a slightly creamy component of custard, crossed with the sinewy characteristic of onion. As for the smell, I’d describe it an amalgamation of rotten vomit, poop, onion, and honey — imagine putting a pound of sugar and two onions in a dirty gym bag for a week. Consuming the fruit is not unbearable, but also not something that I would do for pleasure. image

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Here are two more dishes I frequently eat in Chiang Mai. The first is spicy papaya salad with shrimp and octopus, and the second is young coconut chicken curry served in a coconut. image

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I found a coffee shop that has the most incredible chocolate macchiatio. For a nominal fee, the barista will turn the foam on top into an image of your choosing. In this photo the artist is recreating a self-photo of a patron’s boyfriend.image

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May 09

Elephants in Chiang Mai….5.9

If elephants are your thing, Chiang Mai is the place to be. At first, I was reluctant to visit an elephant sanctuary, mainly because I’d heard that the animals were neglected and abused. With some heavy research under my belt, I located a family run operation that claimed to treat the elephants as though they were part of the family. The cost was greater than some of the other options, but I think it was worth the extra money; the animals looked to be treated with great care and respect.

My trip started with the minivan ride from hell. Our driver arrived at my hostel 15 minutes late, and appeared uncomfortable with the fact that we were behind schedule. I do not exaggerate one iota when I say that he proceeded to drive 120 kmp at a distance of 5-10 feet away from the car in front of us. Instead of going around the slower cars, which, in his defense should have been in one of the lanes to the left being that the Thais drive on the opposite side of the road as we do, my driver tailed the cars relentlessly. An hour later, the roller-coaster ride was over, but my nerves were thoroughly rattled, and the fun hadn’t even begun.

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Once we arrived at the elephant sanctuary, the first step was to be trained in elephant lingo. We learned 10 phrases in Thai. Each of us had to repeat the directives aloud individually. My ear for foreign language is bad, and apparently it is especially bad for Thai. The tour guides laughed and laughed  when I repeated the commands. With our language learning session complete, we trekked into the jungle to meet the elephants. To familiarize ourselves with the pleasant giants, we were instructed to first feed our chosen friend a bushel of bananas, and then to hug his trunk (mine was a male). Feeding occurs throughout the entire day, as elephants eat close to 1/3 of their body weight daily. It is so true though; the minute we presented bananas, the elephants were swinging their trunks in joyous anticipation. 

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In this picture, I tried to hang on while the elephant swung his trunk away from me. First lesson learned: elephants do what they want to do, and there isn’t much that can be done to stop them.

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If you ever wondered what it was like to have two 10,000 pound animals simultaneously grope your neck with slobbery, stinky trunks, take a look at the pictures below. I’d add details, but I think the photos speak for themselves.

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Activities like elephant riding frequently attract couples. Of the 16 participants, only two of us came solo. That left me and a 6’5” traveler from the UK as riding companions. In choosing which pair gets which elephant, the guides explained to me later that they assess the size and seeming confidence of the duo. Well, apparently my teammate and I won the confidence and size lotto. And our treat for this victory — the largest elephant with the lead position. To decide which of us would take the front first, we flipped a coin. Of course I lost that flip, so I wound up taking the reigns, or more literally, the ears, to begin. No matter how much I shouted broken Thai, or pulled the elephant’s ears as I was instructed, he didn’t respond. At that point I decided to sit back and enjoy the ride. The only person the elephant would listen to was the handler walking by our side, but even that was arbitrary. When he wanted to stray off of the path to have a nibble of grass, that is what he did. At the end of the path, we reached what seemed like a small cliff. My assumption was that we’d turn back and walk the same direction from which we came. Nope. In a death defying feat, the elephant slid and shuffled down the hill. It took every last bit of groin pressure and grip strength to refrain from falling over. My riding teammate had to hold my shirt, back, arms, and neck to avoid tumbling off. Hitting the bottom of the muddy hill allowed us both to breath a sigh of relief, that is until we crossed a small river moments later. Once the elephant reached the water, he stopped for a moment, filled his trunk with dark, muddy water, turned back, and super-soaked us. If it weren’t for the stench, I’d call it a refreshing moment.

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The trek through the jungle lasted about an hour, at which point we reached another river. Here we bathed the elephants. All seemed fine with this, until the elephants decided it is time to roll-over. When that happens, there is about a five second window to save oneself from being smashed. I’m not sure who or what was dirtiest at this point — me, the elephant, or the water. 

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First off, I had no clue that elephants could swim. I only learned this when the beasts began recklessly marching toward the pond shown in the picture below. Only an hour prior, we bathed the elephants in a nearby river, so I gathered this would be the same deal, just in a different place. My riding compadre and I crashed into the scum-filled pond, as the elephant seemingly plunged feet below the surface. We held the rope around his neck for dear life, awaiting his return to surface. He shot up like a bobber having been yanked from below the surface; by the time he rose for a breath, we were both off center, which left us struggling to find a balancing point, having a small rope as our only anchor to the slippery behemoth. Being that my swimming proficiency isn’t great, I was petrified. One of my goals on this trip was to practice swimming; this wasn’t my idea of a first lesson. I recall thinking to myself, if I am to drown on this trip, I will be damned if it happens in some skanky man-made pond. As we exited the water, I felt massive sense of relief. My entire body shook from both physical and emotional exhaustion.

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As the day neared its end, one of the local guides, who spoke very little English, yelled, “snake!!!” As opposed to fleeing from the location like all of the tourists, every guide converged with machetes in hand. Although they didn’t come out with a snake, which is considered a delicacy in northern Thailand, they brought out an entire honeycomb, with bees still swarming. The fresh honey was deliciously sweet, and came at a perfect time, as I had just expended all of my glucose reserves in the swimming event. 

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The elephants absolute favorite treat, referred to as “candy” by the guides, is sugar cane. As strange as it may sound, cutting down these sinewy trees was the highlight of my day. I badgered the lead tour guide into letting me use his machete, which for someone who lives the lifestyle of a native, is akin to lending a person back home lending out a car. His machete was dangerously sharp. Once I figured out how to shave the razor-edged leaves off of the sugar tree, I went to town. All of the group members were tasked with cutting down 10 trees. Most of the girls didn’t want to incur any cuts from the sharp leaves, so I had the chance to chop down as many as I wanted. When it was all said and down, I downed over 40 trees. Having done this, I felt incredibly confident in abilities. I challenged our guide to a speed contest; he used one of the small, dull machetes, and I used his. It took me 45 seconds to complete the process, and it took him only 30. I guess when you have over a decade of practice, the tool doesn’t matter as much as the operator. In total, though my arms appeared as though they’d been through a barbwire fence and my previously injured shoulder burned, I had an absolute blast. 

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To close the day, each participant was given the chance to swing in a seat created by two elephants trunks. The ease with which these guys (both were males) lifted me up was incredible - completely effortless. 

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A day of elephant riding sure can wear a person out. To refill the body, I had one of my favorite meals since being in Thailand. For an appetizer, I began with grilled squid, followed by an incredibly authentic gyro, and concluded with hand-rolled sushi. Finding a great gyro in Chiang Mai displays the versatility of the street food on offer. It costs only 1.50 USD, and was made to order by a guy who relocated to Thailand from Greece last year. He even brought over his own culture to recreate his mother’s greek yogurt recipe. Sushi is so cheap here. Each piece can be purchased individually for 20 to 30 cents; this allows for the trying of any number of different combinations. 

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