Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Teh lemon ais

This was the first beverage I spotted at our 'Tourist Guesthouse' in Georgetown, Malaysia.

Our trip from Hat Yai, Thailand to Penang, Malaysia was fairly easy as far as border crossings go. From the Tollway, Malaysia looks disorientingly like the United States: a divided highway with rest stops?! But the palm plantations and the people scootering in the shoulder give Malaysia away.

Georgetown's architecture is good-looking, old but not in ruin, colonial with a splash of China thrown in. I am not sure I have ever been to a former British colony before... except New England, I guess, but somehow South America and Southeast Asia seem different. One difference with our colonial heritage is that Thais and Malays drive on the 'wrong' side of the road, which makes me wonder if they drive on the wrong side of the road all the way over to India. Myanmar, Bangladesh, I am looking at you and I do not want to look right.

Malaysia's clame to fame seems to be its melting pot of cultures: Little India, Chinatown, Indonesia influences, Muslim food and culture, and of course, Malay dishes. We just ate some delicious streetside Indian food: a little okra, sneak some fish in there, some chicken covered in red sauce, a splash of curry or two thrown in for good measure, all on a giant mound of rice, garnished with some cucumber, and chased with a ginger beer.

Might I add that it is nice to be in a country that uses a familiar alphabet again? Viet Nam didn't count because they use so many different symbols above the letters that things don't sound anything like they look. At least here we can read street signs and we might stand a small chance of not slaughtering the languange.

Malaysia, so far so good. At the immigration desk, there was a poster that stated: "Malaysia - Truly Asia," which I thought was a little risky. Was does that make everybody else around here, hm? But perhaps with its blend of cultures, Malaysia is greater than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Isthmus of Kra!

So Thailand is actually much more enjoyable after you get off those godforsaken islands. In fairness I am reading 'Robinson Crusoe' right now, so maybe I am just prejudiced toward "Islands of Despair." Thankfully I was able to catch a ferry before I had to start shooting goats and fending off cannibals. Anyways, we are now in Krabi on The Isthmus of KRA. Sounds like something out of 'Lord of the Rings,' doesn't it?

We just had an epically fun day of motorscootering. We scooted up to the Tiger Cave Temple and saw some monks in the cliff dwellings. We also saw some sort of monitor lizard running off into the woods and some more tropical squirrels. And monkeys! which was actually scary because they can steal things from you. We also saw a dead cat in a dumpster, which was not so cool. Then we hiked up a 1200 steps to see another Buddha footprint and the site was supposed to be really sacred but Thai kids were up there hanging out singing along to their Thai pop from their cellphones. I was also stung by a bee, perhaps sent by Buddha to punish my exasperation with his footprints.

Next we scootered up to a Khao Panom Benja National Park and started off on a 'nature trail' that went straight up the side of a mountain. I don't think I would classify that as a nature trail, but it ended at a sweet waterfall. During the hike, another sort of monitor lizard was surprised out of his sunbathing revelry and scurried last minute over my foot, which made me scream. Then I walked headfirst into the web of the largest spider I think I have ever seen. It's legspan was the size of my fist... luckily it did not end up on my face. I am not sure why all the bad things happened to me today.

And I almost forgot! On the way back from the National Park there was a turn-off for a cave. We scooted down a dirt path through palm and rubber plantations, honking at cows, swerving around elephant poo, when a lady flagged us down. She rented out headlamps for the cave. We borrowed two and she explained to us how it would go: 'walk up the steps to a small opening, crawl through to a small cave, then follow the arrows to a larger cave.' So far so good, right? Then she said, 'Don't worry about the bats.' John said, 'The what?' 'The bats,' she repeated while flapping her arms, 'you know, like batman? but they are ok. It's Thailand, it's ok.' The hike went like she said and I am glad she warned us because there were alot bats in that cave, but it was the most interesting caving experience I have had outside of Mount Saint Helen's lava tube hike. Basically you crawl into this cave with arrows as your only guide and decaying wooden staircases and elevated walkways are the only thing between you and murky cave water at times. Stalagtites and stalagmites and weird cave molds grow all over the place. Unfortunately, most caves that I have visited are completely lit up, which seems to defeat the thrilling purpose of caving.

We had petrol to burn so we scootered down to Ao Nang's beaches, but it was dark by the time we arrived and as it turns out, there isn't much to see or do at a beach in the dark unless you have the means to build a bonfire, which we did not. Luckily there was a night market happening nearby and we ate some chicken skewers (passed on the chicken heart) and a custard-apple. On the way back we debated the best defensive driving tactics for stray dogs in the road at night... but luckily we arrived safely back in Krabi.

We just gorged ourselves on foods at Krabi's weekend night market: fried onion and peanut dumplings, seafoods served on a bamboo-half, homemade rice sausage, baked quail eggs, fried ice cream, and a banana 'pancake,' which, we have finally learned, is more like a crepe. Who knew Krabi was a good place to spend a Saturday night?

So I take back what I said about Thailand. The Andaman coast is very nice.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Faranglandia

You know, Thailand is really beautiful and if you have a stressful job that earns you some good money, you should go. You should go if you don't have that, either, because as a traveler, for the most part, Thailand offers a good bang for your buck, especially if you have that stressful job but it doesn't earn you good money. Then you'd probably have to blow off some steam, and Thailand is a good place to get away from it all (distance-wise that is), or at least to take a vacation that includes powdery white sand, hypercolor fish, and jewelry colored water.

You could probably get about 50% of the experience in your own city, wherever that may be. Visit the hip/college neighborhood, eat some ethnic food, go to the store and buy a cheap rice beer and drink it while its really cold. That's about half of the experience. Really.

The other half of the experience is to take all that (including all the people at those places with you) and to pick them up and plop them on an island with powdery white sand, hypercolor fish, and jewelry colored water. Sprinkle in a couple of restaurants that each dish out every sort of food known to man (not well, mind you- envisions signs on the front of the restaurant that say- Italian, Pizza, Meditaranean, English, French, German, Chinese, and Thai- yes Thai is usually last), and motorbikes and you have the experience.

The reason I'm writing about this, is that the Ko Samui archipelago has probably been the biggest cultural shock I've experienced while traveling, and that's because its so western. Coming from Vietnam, the laid back pace was very unexpected, especially in Bangkok.

Farang is what the Thais call white people.

Welcome to The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world, aka Bangkok

We flew into Bangkok about a week ago and were blown away by the abundance of delicious street food and creative sidewalk sale fashions. Bangkok is a very modern city. Every once in awhile you can spot an old wooden remnant hidden in the shadow of a Vegas-style hotel. Bangkok's public transportation and mall selection is more diverse and classy than San Francisco's: brand-new-looking Skytrain monorails, squeaky clean subways, neon pink cabs (though prices are still negotiable) and a phenomenon that has not yet reached SF: VIP movie theater seating that combines luxury clubbing table service with lazy boy cinema.

Even the trains are classy. We caught a train down to Surat Thani en route to the ferry to Koh Samui and Thai trains put China's to shame. Fold down beds luxuriously wide that convert into comfortable chairs. People selling ice cold cans of beer for a dollar. Windows that open. What more could you ask for from a sleeper train?

We have worked our way up the Samui archipelago. Although palm-studded white sand blue water beaches are beautiful, Koh Samui seemed disappointingly overdeveloped. Koh Phangan was better, but we missed the half moon party and left before the black moon party and didn't want to stick around for the real deal Full moon party so it seemed like it wasn't quite reaching it's full potential. A beach community waiting in the trough for the next monstrous wave of tourists to come crashing down on its shores. We just arrived on Koh Tao and it seems to come the closest to a remote island paradise, but I feel like all the cultural awareness and worldliness I have gained over the past two months in China, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam have been blasted away in one short week of bucket cocktail, white sand beaches and tourist overload.

Soon we will escape to the west coast, which may or may not be different. Soon enough we will take a one-way visa run to Malaysia because we actually want to go to Malaysia rather than go there just to renew our visas so that we can come back to Thailand... I can see how this would be a good place for a relaxing tropical vacation. but I am here to learn.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Robinson Crusoe on Internet Island

It's raining outside, a monsoon, really. Poor drainage in Hanoi has resulted in the burial of the majority of the city's streets, knee deep in water, barring access to the sites on today's tourist itinerary. Hence we've sought shelter in an urban cave, visible only by the red and white "internet" sign protruding from the waterfall pouring around it. The urban jungle has sought refuge with us in our dry hideaway; Vietnamese kids passing the downpour screaming over the drone of the large fan and booming rainfall to each other as they discuss tactics and collaborate on their games of World of Warcraft. Creamy crooning Vietnamese pop singers (really dramatic stuff) permeate the windy interior of our Internet Hovel.

The rain has subsided for the moment and the other refugees from the weather have filtered out. I suppose its about time for us to do the same and seek a way off this island. We must find the Temple of Literature, which lies somewhere beyond the sea of poor drainage!

Vietnamese Wonder

We are currently in Ha Noi, waiting out a monsoon that is flooding the city. I am trying to ignore the ten-year old kid yelling next to me as he plays some sort of world of warcraft with his friends across the store. But that is not the point of this post. Prior to arriving here, we swung by Ninh Binh, Cat Ba Island, and Halong Bay. We finally got over our fear of scootering to take in northern Viet Nam's incredible scenery.





Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Vietnamese waterpark

In Nha Trang there is a waterpark on the beach, which kind of makes sense and kind of doesn't. For example, why would you go to a waterpark when the beach is right there, but on the other hand, maybe you are tired of swimming in salty water? Well, we were sold on the idea because we weren't too fond of the beach in Nha Trang. We missed the informality and affordability of Sihanoukville. We also wanted to go to the waterpark in order to see how the Vietnamese like their waterparks and because it cost a dollar. The experience was quite different from your average American waterpark.

First of all, no one was there. It was the emptiest waterpark I have ever seen. So it seemed like the whole 'waterpark on the beach' idea was not working out for them. Second of all, nothing was functioning. So these two items may have been related. The lazy river was not so lazy because there was no current and you had to paddle in order to move. The wave pool was still as glass. The diving board in another pool was missing. The zip line was not so zippy and even when loaded with two children stopped somewhere in the middle of the pool. There were about ten concession stands, but only one girl to staff them, who told us the only thing she sold was vanilla or chocolate ice cream. That's it. Another guy who may or may not have worked for the waterpark let us out through a gate to the restaurant next door to buy beers, but there were no lounge chairs because Vietnamese people don't like to get tan. It is an amazing phenomenon of 'you want what you don't have' that tourists sit on beach chairs in the sun in the heat of day and get tan, whereas locals cover every sqaure inch of swim with fabric or stay in the shade and then they pour from the city onto the beaches as soon as the sun goes down.

The one functioning thing at the waterpark were the slides. Well, two out of three were working. The one really fun inner tube slide that was very casually supervised. The five local children that were in the park were having a great time piling onto tubes and sliding down together. It made me wish the staff at American waterparks were more relaxed. Traveling in South America and Southeast Asia makes me wish the U.S. was less litigious because there are so many fun things we are prevented from doing because Americans are so concerned about getting sued. For example, yesterday we rented a scooter and scooted around the limestone karsts and rice paddies near Ninh Binh. In the U.S. I think you would need a license to do that. Today we ate pho on the street corner in Haiphong, but in the U.S. you would probably need some sort of permit to sell street food. Many sidewalks are tiled, which John with his civil engineering expertise says would not be permitted for handicap reasons. Children scoot around town standing between their parents' legs or squished between two adults, which would definitely not be allowed, but yet nothing bad really happens as a result of a lack of regulation. People trip. Traffic accidents happen. Tourists get food poisoning. But overall the scale tips in the favor of less paranoia.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Vietnamese Shasta

As some of you know, for the past two summers I have rented a houseboat on Lake Shasta, maintaining a long standing tradition of some Beavers. This summer I hope to make an appearance on the boat, even though I get back from Hong Kong several days before and classes start at Berkeley several days after. My desire to houseboat was reinvigorated today when John and I went on Mama Linh's Island Tour, off the coast of Nha Trang. We snorkeled, we drank bad wine while floating in inner tubes, we fruit partied, we drank beers, and we watched several fellow boaters from around the world pulled "on stage" for a post-lunch "song and dance entertainment programme." Fortunately for us, the guides considered United States and Canada "same same as" England. Somehow Australia was not so lucky.

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Then Korea was selected, by far the best showing in the dance category:

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Spain escaped on account of being "same same as" Italy, but the Italian guy who sang didn't seem to know the "Italian" song they were playing and the video is not worth uploading, but this Chinese girl was a natural:

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But who could compete with Miss Viet Nam:

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And of course, none of this would have been possible without the band: