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Sunday, 31 March 2013

"The further one goes, the less one knows." - Lao Tzu


Thailand is often referred to as the Land of Smiles. It is a country with beautiful people, diverse landscape, and delicious food! When I first landed in Bangkok after my morning flight from Jakarta, I headed to the taxi stand outside of the Suvarnabhumi Airport. Each time I travel I like to do as much research on the country as I can - especially when I'm going to be traveling by myself. I had read on many forums to be weary of the Taxi drivers in Bangkok as they like to take advantage of tourists. Well, my first experience with a taxi in Bangkok couldn't have been more accurate to what I had read. All taxi vehicles have a large sign that say "Meter". It is actually the law that they use their meters when driving, but many drivers try to be sneaky and charge their customer a steep rate. The second I got in my taxi, I noticed the driver had a small towel laying over top of the meter with a Buddha statue sitting on top. I left the car door open and one leg outside of the vehicle so he couldn't speed off with me inside. I politely said "Meter please" to which he ignored me. I repeated again in a firmer voice. He ignored me again. At that point I said "No meter? Bye bye!" This was when he decided it was acceptable to scream at me and say "YES METER, YES!!" as he ripped off the towel and turned on the meter. After that I decided to head to 7/11 and buy a bag of chocolate. From then on I started bribing my drivers by handing a chocolate as soon as I entered the taxi. As I would hand them the chocolate, I would politely point to the meter and smile. This seemed to bring out the smile they're so well known for and assured me a meter rate and a safe drive!  

Finally at my hotel and out of Jakarta for a 9 day tour of Thailand! I had prepared to travel the country alone and had my binder full of maps, hotel info, tours, currency conversions, etc. Coincidentally a friend of mine from the Netherlands who also lives in Jakarta was in Bangkok at the same time on a business trip. We were able to meet up and have a fun filled weekend enjoying the sites and marveling at the ability to walk around the city without the risk of being run over - like in Jakarta! Each time I leave Jakarta I'm reminded how wonderful it is to be able to use sidewalks, walk to cafes, be in the fresh air (well maybe not so fresh in Bangkok), and be surrounded by trees, benches and sidewalk shops. These are things I look so forward to having again when I return home and when I move to Milan! 

     After enjoying the ability to walk around the city, visiting some markets and taking a few Tuk Tuk
rides, we headed to a Ladyboy show. Thailand is famous for their Ladyboys and Bangkok has many shows throughout the city. The Ladyboys range from quite manly looking figures with hair extensions and breast implants, to beautiful women who look like they could be models. I found myself questioning every woman I saw in the city thinking - "I wonder if she's a ladyboy??". The show we attended was a bit on the lame side, but still pretty hilarious. The ladyboys performed songs and dances - everything from Rhianna to Elvis. It was much like a resort show in the Caribbean. 

The next day we did a long 10 hour tour in the areas surrounding Bangkok. We started the morning on a bus ride to the countryside where we boarded a rowboat and headed to the colourful
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. With the sun beating down, extreme humidity, smells of spices, meats and fruits, marketers yelling to make sales and splashes from boats bumping into one another it became a bit of a sensory overload. It was certainly a unique experience and it combined two of my favourite things (boating and shopping) - but it's definitely not something I would care to do on a regular basis! Men and women sat in their own boats that were filled with everything from fancy shoes and knock off designer purses - to souveniors -  to beer and fish. When you see something you want, you wave over and the person in charge of rowing your boat does their best to fight through the crowd of boats to reach your destination.

The next stop was a Cobra show. I can't say this is something I would recommend doing. It felt a bit abusive to the snakes. Snake trainers came out and performed tricks like fighting a cobra, catching a jumping snake in their mouth, milking the venom out of the cobra (pretty much right over our heads), and swinging snakes bodies over the audience. At one point they rolled out a cage with a mongoose and dropped a cobra inside and let them fight for a few minutes. Although they didn't make them fight to the death, it seemed pretty unnecessary and cruel. 

After a stop at a wooden carvings furniture shop and a few hours of driving, we reached Tiger Temple. Another place I wouldn't recommend visiting. I had seen Tiger Temple on the Discovery Channel a few years ago and it was somewhere I had always wanted to visit. It is considered a sanctuary and it is run by Monks and volunteers. I can't say I was impressed! Upon entering you stand in a line and wait your turn to "visit" the tigers. There are about ten tigers chained to the ground completely passed out (sedated??!). A guide (not friendly whatsoever) comes over, grabs your hand, takes your camera and quickly escorts you to each tiger. My guide didn't say a word. She pointed at me to sit down next to the tiger, snapped a photo, and moved me to the next. It was all over within 3 minutes. I actually couldn't believe how pathetic it was and how sad it seemed for the tigers. I saw one monk, sitting to the side wearing aviators and smoking. I imagined him later to pull out a wad of cash and count the dollars he had made off of us naive tourists willing to pay for such a depressing experience. It all seemed way too crooked!

The final stop of this tour was to the Bridge on the River Kwai. This bridge was constructed during World War II. The Japanese used Allied prisoners of war to construct a railway that went from Thailand to Burma. Many people died during the construction due to such despicable conditions. This railway is now known as "Death Railway". The bridge was crawling in tourists and had souvenir stalls all around it. I know tourism is a major part of Thailand's economy, but it still seemed a bit wrong to be selling picture frames and magnets at a spot where so many had suffered and died. I imagined what it would be like if somewhere like Dachau Concentration Camp decided to set up gift shops and souvenir booths all over the grounds. How would people respond to that?

After an interesting few days in Bangkok, it was time to pack up and catch another flight. This time I would be heading to Northern Thailand.

This was one of my favourite areas of Thailand and possibly one of my favourites I've seen in S.E Asia. The quiet(ish) streets of Chiang Mai, surrounded with gardens, parks, trees, fountains, and friendly people kind of reminded me of home - at least what the Asian version of home would be anyway. I spent two days in this beautiful area of Thailand and wished I had longer. On my first full day in this region I made sure to jam pack as much as I could. I visited the beautiful Wat Rong Khun. This is a contemporary Buddhist temple that is purely white and silver. Much like traveling Europe, once you see so many Cathedrals, they all start to blur together - as do the temples here in Asia. However, this white temple in so unique and different that it's really quite fascinating. It almost seems as if it's a Halloween haunted house with the ghoulish heads hanging from trees, the hands reaching from the ground as if trying to claw out of their graves, and the inside has bright colourful murals with images of Spiderman and other superheros. There is even a painting of a demon with Bin Laden in one eye and George Bush in the other! The outside of the temple is completely white to symbolize purity and cleanliness. The bathrooms are completely made of gold. The artist apparently believed that gold is used for people who want to perform dirty deeds!

After visiting the temple and a stop at the Chiang Rai natural hot springs, I headed to the Golden Triangle and hopped in a boat to sail along the Mekong River. The Mekong flows through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Once aboard the boat, we sailed up the river to view where the border of Burma and Thailand meet. Unfortunately due to time restrictions and visa purposes, I was unable to enter Burma. I did however, sail into the Island of Don Sao in Laos. Once we entered into Laos and had a quick briefing about making sure to avoid all of the drugs that would be offered to us as this is the Opium capital of Asia, we headed to the markets and had our passports stamped. Our group was warned that receiving this stamp can make it difficult in the Thai airports as security often wants to do a thorough check on tourists who visit this opium region. After a tour of the markets, my tour guide proceeded to tell our group that the men could follow him to try a shot of whiskey (they would have a choice between: snake (cobra), Scorpion, Banana, or Armadillo - meaning all of these things were being soaked into the whiskey). He then told the women we could follow "to watch"..."if you're brave enough". Well, as much as I'm not a whiskey fan (especially with a dead snake in it) what I'm not a fan of even more is being told I can't do something because I'm a girl! So, I walked right over with the group of Asian men and I downed a shot of cobra whiskey! The cold I had been battling for the past four days suddenly seemed to clear right up!

After a boat ride back to Thailand, a traditional Thai lunch and some shopping at the Burma border, we ended the day with a drive into the base of the mountains where we visited three hill tribes. The first tribe was the Karon Long Neck Hill tribe. This tribe originates from Burma and fled to Northern Thailand after political turmoil in their country. The women in this tribe wear gold rings around their neck to symbolize beauty. The more rings around the neck they have, the more beautiful they are considered. Even the young girls (some as young as three) were wearing these. One elder in the tribe had thirty rings around her neck. Their two neighbouring tribes are the Akha (originating from China) and Yao hill tribes. They all share a village in this location.

The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is a rescue and rehabilitation sanctuary for elephants and other animals. It promotes a natural environment for the animals and ensures the safety and well being of the animals who live there. The park currently has 34 elephants, over 400 rescued dogs and several dozen rescued water buffalo.
Of course anyone who visits Thailand automatically thinks about these beautiful giant creatures that roam the lands. We all want to come face to face with these animals and go for an elephant ride through the jungle.
It's the tourist thing to do! It only makes sense that we associate elephants with Thailand. There isn't a corner you can turn in this country without seeing some form of elephant- be it a statue, a painting, carving, or the real thing roaming the streets of Bangkok. Elephants are considered sacred animals in this land, yet what most of us don't know is how these poor elephants are treated. It all seems quite hypocritical.
The majority of elephants in Thailand who are owned by tourist companies or private owners are certainly not treated the way any living creature should be treated. Many elephants throughout the country go through weeks, months and even years of abuse so that they become submissive to their owners. The very elephant that you pay to ride while on vacation in Thailand may have went through torture in order for it to be tame and calm enough for  you to ride it. Babies are often taken from their mothers and are locked up so they are unable to move at all. Men gather around and beat them with sticks, nails and other weapons. They stab them, punch them and beat them until they are so broken that they can do nothing to fight back. They are often stabbed and blinded if they try to fight back. Many suffer broken bones and hips or get infections from their wounds. This method of training elephants is an ancient ritual done by villagers and even medicine men. Although they view these giant creatures as sacred, they believe that by beating them they can use them for tourism. Obviously the concept of positive reinforcement hasn't crossed their minds!!?
Wild elephants are now protected by the government in Thailand as the numbers continue to drop each year. There are currently only an estimated 5000 wild elephants in the country. Although these wild ones may be protected, the ones being abused have no protection or rights. If an elephant is owned, it is considered livestock and can be treated however the owner wishes.
The Elephant Nature Park has done an amazing job rescuing abused elephants and placing them in a loving and safe environment. As a visitor to the park you are no longer a tourist, but a volunteer helping wherever help is needed. My day at this park was rewarding in so many ways. I may not have done the typical riding the elephant through the jungle, but I did get to bathe, feed and help put medication on several elephants. I snuggled up close with a big ol' lady that has broken hips and has to drag her back legs in order to walk, I washed the dirt and grime from an elephant who has a skin infection and I helped bathe an elephant that has a poor digestive system. I fed an elephant who had been blinded by it's owner.
The elephant was very depressed and sick and had stopped listening to the owner. The owner took sharp sticks and jabbed the elephant's eyes until she was blind. Each elephant has a story that could break your heart into a million pieces. To make it even more heartbreaking, elephants are much like humans in that they never forget the hard times they have been through. This causes a lot of stress, anxiety and nightmares for the elephants - which means the workers at this park have to be very careful in building a trusting relationship with these animals.
I am grateful that my experience with elephants in Thailand was so positive. Prior to this visit, I had no idea how elephants were treated and abused throughout the country. Of course not all tourist places you visit will have elephants that are abused, but after my day at the park I will encourage anyone who goes to Thailand to make sure they do their research prior to visiting an elephant show or taking an elephant ride.

From Chiang Mai I flew to the Southern part of Thailand and arrived in Phuket. From the airport I drove even further South and ended up in Kata. Flashback to my life in the Bahamas! White sand, clear waters, blue skies and constant sunshine. The only thing that could have made my time in Phuket more perfect would have to been to experience it with others. Traveling alone is rewarding in many ways, but it can definitely get lonely at times. My days in Phuket were filled with tanning on the beach, floating in the ocean, eating fresh sea food and island hopping. I took a boat tour to the Phi Phi Islands, did some snorkeling, visited Maya Bay (where the movie "The Beach" was filmed), made a visit to monkey Island (a beach with vicious monkeys running around), and met some other fun tourists! As beautiful as Phuket is with the turquoise water and tall, lush green mountains rising out of the sea, it's definitely overrun with tourists and I have to say the the Islands in the Caribbean still remain my favourite beach destination as far as anywhere I've traveled around the Globe.

My trip came to and end on a late night three hour flight back to Jakarta. I sat down next to a Thai woman who was just a few years older than myself. She had that friendly Thai smile that is so common throughout the country. Like usual, upon take off, my sneezing attack began. She leaned over and gave me a box of tissue. We then began chatting and she asked how I enjoyed my time in Phuket. I asked if she was from Phuket and she told me she had lived there her whole life. We chatted and chatted and I then asked her if she was there when the Tsunami in 2004 hit. She went quiet for a moment and then began to recall the events that occurred that day. Listening to her story was one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever heard. Her strength as she went through each detail of the morning of the tsunami shocked me. She explained to me that she was 23 years old at the time, and earlier that year her and her parents had taken a loan from the bank to start their own travel agency shop for tourists. They had built it near the beach and were doing really well. Everything changed on the morning of the 26th of December, 2004. Her and her parents woke up and headed to their shop. Her Mom and Dad dropped her off at the shop and drove down further to park the car. She had just entered her shop and opened the windows when she saw the wave coming. She said at the time she couldn't comprehend what it was or what was going on but she has the instinct to run uphill toward the highway. The wave hit her. She survived. She spent three days looking for her parents and finally found their bodies. She had lost her family and her business. The banks only gave Thai people three months before they had to start paying back their loans again. She had lost everything and couldn't possibly pay her debt so she was forced to sell her family home. She now had nothing. She explained how many locals in Phuket got together, shared what little money they had and shared their resources to rebuild as quickly as possible. People who were once wealthy business owners now had nothing and had to work for others. The people of Phuket showed their resilience and rebuilt and welcomed tourists back just weeks later. She told me that she became so angry and depressed that she was hospitalized and didn't speak for two years. She went through the last almost decade of her life and told me how she found strength again. Her story is inspiring. The little things I complain about in my life are so insignificant in comparison to what this woman has gone through.
One thing she said that really stuck out was how thankful she was that the tsunami hit at a fairly early hour. She said had it have been a few hours later more tourists would have been on the beach and many more people would have died. I couldn't believe considering she lost her family, that she would be thinking something like that. What an incredible person! We then shared a taxi and I heard all about her life. She travels a lot, just like me! We came to realize how similar we are in a lot of ways. I couldn't help but feel sad for how much love I have in my life and how she has no family. It definitely made me miss my family and reminded me how incredibly lucky I am!

I've been so fortunate in my somewhat short life to see as many places as I have. But what always amazes me more than the beauty of the land, are the people that I meet! No matter what country I'm in, what the culture is like, what religion dominates the population, or what daily struggles the people face, I always come across friendly and hospitable people who welcome me into their lives! What a beautiful world we live in!!!
My favourite quote:
“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear.” 
― Gene Roddenberry

Next post: Read about my time in Vietnam.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Enjoying S.E Asia, despite the daily challenges

March brings me to month nine in my Indonesian adventure. The past eight months have been an experience unlike any other. Jakarta isn't exactly the easiest city to get along with. In fact, a recent article I read voted Jakarta as the second worst city in the world to live in as an expat. Between the pollution, ridiculous traffic, unclean water and food, language barrier and cultural differences, I can easily say my frustration level has become higher than ever before. But, with any negative usually comes a positive. The pollution has made me appreciate Canada's beauty and cleanliness on a whole new level. Every annoying taxi ride I take sitting in traffic makes me appreciate that I live and work in the same building. The water and food issues have made me more aware of my health and I now take greater measures in keeping myself safe and healthy. The language and cultural differences can be frustrating at times. But, I remind myself that I have chosen to leave home and come here. I chose to be part of a culture unlike my own, so I do my best to embrace it and try not to complain (too much). I've been trying to learn to become more patient and not take things so personally. One major cultural difference here is that Indonesians (and other Asian cultures) are very honest. What may be considered horribly rude to say at home, isn't seen that way by locals here. In this culture pointing out someone's flaws such as weight gain or a skin breakout isn't meant to hurt your feelings. It's just people stating a fact like they would about the weather ("Hey, today it's raining." or "Hey, today you look fatter.") It can be extremely challenging not to take these types of things personally and not to want to throw an insult right back at them. As shocking as it might be to have someone call you out on something you're already self conscious of, that same person is most likely the first person to also give you a compliment ("Hey, you look so beautiful today.") Canadians have a reputation of being too nice at times (always apologizing, saying thank you to everyone, smiling too much)... maybe this is why it's difficult to hear such honesty at times. Perhaps we're too politically correct overall, but personally I prefer a statement like "Oh your new hair cut is very different" to "Oh your new hair cut is so funny looking". Most Canadians try so hard never to insult someone. I'm definitely learning to accept statements of all types living here. I just hope this extreme honesty isn't a souvenir I bring home, otherwise I may not be too popular when I return to Canada!

Despite the challenges, there is so much beauty and excitement all around me. It is easy to let the daily frustrations take over, but I've done my best to challenge myself to enjoy my time here and embrace it for all that it is. One very simple way to keep myself looking at the positives is to simply take a look outside my window. This city is full of poverty, illness and inequalities. Due to the pollution, traffic and perhaps risk of being unsafe, it's rare to be able to take a walk outside. Last month we had weeks of rain. Finally, one Sunday the sun was shining and it just looked beautiful outside. I convinced a friend to take a walk through the slums with me. At first we weren't quite sure what to expect. These people live in shacks made out of any materials they can find. I was nervous people may look at me (the "bule") and be annoyed that some privileged westerner is walking around their neighbourhood. Instead, the experience was so positive. The people were proud to have us walking through. When they saw my camera, they asked me to take their photos - while they grinned ear to ear. One man wanted to show me his bike that he was fixing. A group of small children ran up to me giggling and bouncing all around as if Mickey Mouse had just walked into their home. A woman smiled and nodded at me as she stood holding her baby. These people certainly weren't annoyed with me for being there at all. They were happy to have a visitor walk through and admire them. This small walk is a memory I hold on to on days where I feel the frustrations taking over. Here are people who literally have next to nothing, yet they smile as if they have everything they could ever need and want. I don't think I have too much to complain about in my life. Living in Jakarta can definitely be a humbling experience when you see all of the challenges the people here are faced with, yet they have a resilience that is truly incredible.

While Jakarta may not exactly be the greatest tourist destination, Indonesia has some pretty magnificent places to visit. A few weeks ago a few staff members and myself decided to escape Jakarta for the weekend and visit Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta is about an hour flight from Jakarta and is an art and cultural hub of Indonesia. We decided in order to see and learn the most we could in a short time, we would book a tour. I've mentioned in previous posts how amazingly cheap things are in this country. We were able to get a two day tour, admission to all of the sites, one night stay in a hotel, transportation and all meals for around $100. 
Our guide picked us up at the airport in the very early morning (we left our apartment around 3:30am). We started the weekend off with an early morning visit to the Prambanan Temple which is a Hindu temple that was built in the 9th century. Walking up to the site was amazing. The grounds consist of several temples all neighbouring each other. In 2006 this area was hit with a very deadly earthquake. Almost 6000 people were killed and over 1.5 million were left homeless. Prambanan temple was damaged quite badly during this quake. Because of this many of the temples are not structurally sound so certain areas were forbidden to enter - while a hard hat was necessary to wear in others. These beautiful temples that are a World Heritage Site suddenly became the second most popular tourist attraction after a bus load of teenage schools girls arrived and spotted the two female "bules". Robyn and I quickly became the centre of attention. Indonesians LOVE taking photos, and for Indonesians who are from smaller villages or remote locations, seeing a Westerner is apparently quite a big deal. We were soon swarmed and had girls fighting over who got to stand next to us in the picture. I even had one girl point both her fingers in my face to make a pose as if I was some statue. At that point, we had enough and were missing out on our tour. We kindly told them we had to leave, but they insisted on following us. A similiar event happened to me in Bali when I was traveling alone. However, that time it was a bus load of school boys who were obssessed with calling me any Westerner with blonde hair they could think of (I was Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, etc). 

After visiting Prambanan we went to another smaller temple which was in a big beautiful field. In the field was "The Tree of Life". The tree had Tarzan style branches that we could swing from. It was so nice to be in a green space as that is such a rarity in Jakarta. Our next stop was my favourite part of the trip. We went tubing in Pendul Cave. I had told my class I was doing this activity prior to my trip. They all became distressed and told me not to because pythons live in those waters and they will eat me. Sooo, needless to say I had to get the tour guide to assure us that there were no pythons in the water. There were however, countless numbers of bats dangling from the caves ceiling and flying around swooping over our heads. The further we floated into the cave, the darker it became. The only light we had was the flashlight our tour guide was holding and the flashes of our camera. It was amazing to see glimpses of hundreds of bats nestled together every time we took a photo. After a pretty spectacular tube ride and a refreshing swim, it was time to continue our day. We stopped and had a traditional lunch outside where we sat on the floor and enjoyed fish, rice, and lots of other foods that I refer to as mystery meats (I don't ask, because I would rather not know what horrifying thing I am eating).

After a nice supper out and an enjoyable walk through antique shops, we finally called it a night and prepared ourselves for another early morning wake up call. We left our hotel around 4am and drove quite a distance into the lush rainforest to reach Borobudur Temple where we would soon watch the sunrise. I slept for most of the drive but at one point was awoken to two large, intimidating men banging on our van yelling something at the driver. He and the tour guide both looked worried and they sped off. Soon we entered an area that was completely smoked out. It looked as if we were driving into early morning fog, but it was actually smoke from a nearby volcano!

We finally reached Borobudur and began our climb to the top of the temple. It was still dark, so we had to bring flashlights. Once we reached the top we sat and eagerly awaited the sunrise. As the sun appeared in the distance and painted the sky with shades of pinks and reds, we suddenly realized just how beautiful this area is. Not only were we sitting at the near top of one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world (built in the 9th century), but we were also surrounded by rainforest, mountains and volcanoes. Here on the outskirts of a city that is 99% Muslim, was a sacred temple that still attracts so many people everyday.

Our day continued with more siteseeing; visits to a batik factory, batik art warehouse, silver factory, leather shop, puppet designer, delicious lunch, a bird market, and a tour of the Sultan's Palace and the Sultan's Water Castle - both beautiful! We also rode traditional modes of transportation. The Becak is a common way for people to get around in Yogyakarta and each one has a unique painting on it's side.

After a fantastic weekend getaway, it was time to prepare for our school's Chinese New Year celebration and my upcoming Birthday weekend away. One thing I love about teaching in an International school is getting to celebrate holidays and cultural differences from around the world. In January we celebrated Australia Day with a fun staff social after school. I also attended an Australian Day party that the New Zealand/Australian social group of Jakarta hosted. It was nice to meet lots of expats and enjoy traditional Aussie and Kiwi treats in a beautiful home owned by a member of the group.

For my 27th Birthday two of my friends came along with me to Singapore for a girl's weekend. We treated ourselves to a nice hotel and enjoyed lots of delicious meals out, walking around in a clean beautiful city, a night of dancing and a day of playing in the rain like kids and enjoying all of the sites that Singapore has to offer.

My time in Jakarta seems to be flying by. When I moved to Indonesia I had every intention of staying here for two years. However, this past week I received possibly the most exciting news ever! I've been offered a teaching position at an International School in Italy - my dream place to live! I cannot turn down this amazing opportunity so I now begin my countdown to Italy and prepare for my goodbye to Indonesia. My goal is to soak in every aspect of the culture and my surroundings that I possibly can, before leaving in June. In a few weeks I will head to Thailand to spend my term break. Once I return I plan to really get to know Jakarta by doing more site seeing in the city!

Stay tuned to hear about my time in Thailand - including a day at Elephant School!