Adventures in Asia 2008

my travels through India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

Archive for March, 2008

Whirlwind Tour of Northeast Thailand

Posted by maudholma on 24 March 2008

S and I have spent the past week traveling through the northeast of Thailand, which is a world away from Bangkok and our AC/swimming pool hotel! We started off by going to Khao Yai National Park, not too far from the capital. Having decided to give camping in the jungle a miss, we stayed in a small town called Pak Chong (about a 20 minute drive away) and spent one day in the park, hiking to a waterfall that was used in the movie The Beach. Unfortunately, we saw no lions or tigers on the way but did spot something resembling a bear climbing down a tree and a hornbill which was so big that it sounded like a plane was flying over us when the bird flapped its wings! Because we were stood up by our new French “friends”who we’d agreed to go back to town with and didn’t want to pay for a taxi ourselves, S and I decided to hitch-hike back to Pak Chong instead. After two different rides on the back of someone’s pick up truck (the second time with 6 other people and what seemed like all their worldly possessions), we were dropped off by the motorway which was, incidentally, not where we wanted to end up in the dark… We then decided to walk the rest of the way, until a woman stopped to ask if we needed help and informed us that we had about 5 km more to go. Before we knew it, she had offered to give us a ride back and all 3 of us were cruising along on her little moped!

The following morning we had possibly the best Thai massage ever and then undid most of the womens’ pushing, pulling, and stretching by dragging our backpacks from one bus to another… We then spent a few days relaxing in a small town on the Mekong river, where there wasn’t much to do other than eat mangoes (about 1 kg each per day), have massages, read, play Yahtzee, and relax. From there we had another day of bus hopping which was made much more enjoyable by the fact that we spent an hour standing on the back of a songthaew (a southeast Asian “bus” which consists of a pick up truck with a roof and seats in the back), something which we have seen people do and have both been hoping we’d get to experience. When you travel, it’s all about the little things… Which are generally better when you’re not entirely sure whether they’re legal or not!

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Sawat Dee from Bangkok!

Posted by maudholma on 17 March 2008

Despite feeling sad about leaving India, I quickly perked up on our Jet Airways flight to Bangkok: we had a menu from which we could pick our food, we drank red wine, we watched TV and made our own music playlists on our personalized entertainment systems. The only downside was that the flight only lasted 2.5 hours!

Although it was over 2 years since I last came here, Khao San Road – the backpackers’ area – hasn’t changed much, if at all. You can still get your hair braided, drink buckets of Sang Som and Coke for about 4€/£2.50, buy everything from t-shirts to pad thai or watch “girly ping pong shows” (which apparently involve meters of fabric but neither darts nor ping pong balls, or so I’ve been told). During our first few days here, S and I tried to get used to the humidity while doing some sightseeing. We spent most of the time sweating and dreaming about the next AC bus we could get on. On Saturday we visited Chatuchak Weekend Market, where you can buy just about anything imaginable at one of the nearly 8000 stalls. After a 7 hour shopping marathon – mainly shoes, clothes, and accessories – I had spent about 20€/£12. Even though Thailand is by no means expensive (see the previous sentence), it’s amazing how money conscious and cheap you become when you’re traveling. Especially having just been to India, where it’s normal to haggle down most prices by at least 30%, it was a shock to only get about 5% off here. I have a feeling I may get thrown out of Topshop when I’m back in London!

For the past 2 days we’ve been treating ourselves, staying at a hotel where we have our own bathroom, hot water, TV, and AC. Most of what we’ve seen of Bangkok during this time has been the view from the rooftop pool… The plan for tonight: dinner at our favorite street kitchen and a mango shake, followed by a movie in our room and some Finnish candy, courtesy of the parentals. Tusen tack!

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I ♥ India & Nepal!

Posted by maudholma on 10 March 2008

Day 1: S&M arrive in Mumbai, dressed in clean clothes but nevertheless feeling a little dirty after 7 hours on a plane. They can’t wait to take a shower at their hotel, and recoil in horror at the cockroach living in their cold water shower! During the following few days, S&M marvel at Indians eating with their hands, literally shoveling food into their mouths. They laugh at their first visit to a “hole in the floor” toilet but realize that they are lucky – they actually saw someone urinating in the street! A week later, they take a 13 hour train ride to Goa. Lying on uncomfortably padded, 80 cm wide berths and unprepared for the cool night air, S&M consider themselves to be real travelers when they arrive the morning after, slightly tired after sleeping for only 8 hours.

Day 71(ish): S&M arrive in Kolkata after an 8 hour train ride followed by a 17 hour bus journey. Not having showered for 5 days on account of the cold, rain, and hail in Darjeeling, coupled with a lack of hot or indeed running water in their hostel bathroom. They are dressed in their one “cold weather” outfit which has stood them in good stead for the better part of a month, but in which they now look more like the homeless (wo)man peeing in the street than the perfectly manicured tourists paying $270 to stay at the Oberoi Grand. Considering the 35°C outside, S&M are living proof that girls do sweat, not just perspire. However, they are delighted to realize that they no longer need to wear their down jackets (S’ is losing feathers at an alarming rate while M’s has turned from white to grey) or sleep with hats and tights on. The previous night’s dinner was preceded by a visit to a “hole in the floor” toilet, in which the lack of a hole was compensated for by a slightly sloping floor. During the following 10 minutes, S&M frantically shoveled rice and curry into their mouths, washed their dirty right hands, paid, and hopped back into their 1 m wide double sleeper bed, where they slept uncomfortably for 4 hours.

But just to clarify: Even at my coldest, dirtiest, sweatiest, and most tired, I have LOVED both India and Nepal! Food poisoning, theft, sleeping on luggage shelves, buying winter clothes, wearing winter clothes, sleeping in winter clothes, strikes and road closures, and torrential rain were most definitely not on my “to do” list when we came. But even though most of these moments weren’t a joy to experience, the majority of them are funny in retrospect, and all have made our trip so far in their own ways. It’s undoubtedly true that you see a misery here which is unimaginable and indescribable and which would never be allowed to exist in the West. The flipside is a warmth, kindness, generosity, and spirit which is almost equally difficult to describe and unimaginable to a Westerner. As much as I hope that development helps both India and Nepal, I hope that it doesn’t destroy what makes these countries so special and charming – the corner shops, the bargaining, the rickshaws, the cows, the funny signs and menus, the smiles, a rich culture, a genuine and interested people, and of course the food and drink. Because masala nuts wouldn’t taste as good if the man selling them hadn’t blown on them to get rid of the peanut skins. Samosas wouldn’t be as savory if they weren’t fried in day old oil. Fresh fruit juices wouldn’t be as refreshing if they weren’t served in glasses which had only been rinsed in a bucket since the last time they were used. Paneer egg rolls wouldn’t taste the same if they weren’t wrapped by the guy handling the money. Banana lassis wouldn’t be as sweet if they didn’t contain a few flies. And that’s what I’ve loved most about India and Nepal – all the things that would never happen at home!

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Political Hotpotatoes

Posted by maudholma on 2 March 2008

Filling in a few forms, a passport-size photo, 30 USD in cash, some stamps in our passports, and a scribble in a log-book was all it took to get a visa on arrival at the Nepalese border. A direct bus to Kathmandu was harder to find, owing to the roads being closed due to strikes in the south of the country. If you had asked me a week ago what I knew of Nepalese politics I would have been hard-pressed to come up with anything more detailed than “The Maoists don’t like the King”. In fact, since the Maoist insurgency in 2006, a majority of the political unrest has stemmed from the ethnic Madheshi community in the southern plains pressing for autonomy and representation before the elections in April 2008. Which, in a landlocked country covered by mountains whose major highway runs east-west through the region in question, means that strikes have the power to cripple the entire country. Or make 2 Finnish girls’ trips to and from Kathmandu that much trickier; we spent 15 hours on a nightbus, saved only by our iPods, masala nuts, and the 2 Nepalese soldiers we sat next to.

Of our 7 days in Nepal, we spent 4 and a bit trekking in the Kathmandu valley, while hoping that the roads would be open by the time we returned. “There have been talks for 12 days now, but maybe soon they will come to some agreement” we were told by people who didn’t seem to think that “soon” would, in fact, come very soon. While keeping our fingers crossed, we climed nearly 6000 steps, countless more hills, walked about 75 km, and reached an altitude of 3000 m. Along the way, I acquired 3 blisters (S beat me by 2), a sunburn which is now peeling, a few unimpressive pictures which do no justice to the beautiful mountains and hills covered with terraces of fields that we saw, and a new friend in the form of a Bhutanese monk living in a monastery on a hillside.

S and I followed our own Colonel von Trapp (a smallish Nepalese version with a feathery moustache, named Tirta), running through valleys and hills “alive with the sound of music…” while worrying about how much further we would be forced to walk on account of buses not running due to Maoist agitation in the countryside. More pressing was the shortage of, among other things, petrol, the evidence of which we experienced whenever we traveled anywhere. On the way to the beginning of our trek, we discovered that you can fit 30 people onto a minivan designed for about 15 and in that way run half the normal service. On our way back to Kathmandu, we not only had elbows in our faces but also a few pairs of feet dangling from the roof, not to mention an extremely agile ticket inspector who jumped from the roof onto the bus while it was moving. Armed policemen guarded deserted petrol stations surrounded by barbed wire while people were lined up by the side of the road with petrol canisters (all tied to a long rope, to prevent people from cutting) for hours on end for their 5 litres or less.

When we returned to Kathmandu, we visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Durbar Square, where we went to see Kumari, the 11 year-old “living goddess” who appears at her window from time to time. Instead of the shy, graceful girl S and I were expecting, a surly, chubster wearing too much make-up and reminescent of Vicky Pollard stuck her head through a window for 30 seconds before disappearing. I half expected her to start saying “Yeah but not but yeah but…” Disappointed by what should surely have been the experience of a lifetime, S and I returned to our hotel, fearing that we would be told the talks had failed and that we would have to spend 36-48 hours traveling to Darjeeling. Against all odds, (maybe seeing Kumari did have some effect after all – apparently even a glimpse of her brings good fortune) the “Breaking News” on the TV screen in the reception had nothing to do with the Colgate commercial that was playing, but signalled that a deal had been struck and that the roads had opened.

We were so happy to have avoided a hellish trip back to India that the 1 hour delay and 1.5 hours of traffic jams leading out of Kathmandu seemed a small price to pay. When we subsequently spent 4 hours going down a narrow mountain road at 100 km/h in the dark, our driver not thinking anything of overtaking 3 trucks at a time, breaks screeching, and the suspension pushed to the limit by the poor condition of the roads, the Kumari magic was clearly still working, since we arrived at the borded alive the following morning.

From one set of politically motivated strikes to another, albeit slightly smaller. We had to take a Jeep from a place near the border up to Darjeeling since the buses weren’t running. I have yet to figure out exactly what has been going on, but from what I can tell, it has to do with the Gorkha movement in the northeastern part of India. “The Ghorkas don’t like the Indian government”. Or something like that.

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