Sunday, July 31, 2011

Day 63 - Pattaya Sleazefest

After arriving at the train station in the morning, I took the subway and skytrain to the Bangkok International Airport to meet with my CS Friend, who arrived from Ho Chi Minh City. We took a charter bus from the airport to Pattaya to start our week-long journey together.

I didn't really know what to expect from Pattaya, but I knew that it was known for its seedy establishments as well as its beaches. Quang was in contact with a couchsurfer, who we called for advice on where to get a cheap hotel room. We ended up taking a songthaew to the center of Pattaya beach, and I soon made up my mind that this wasn't a place I would want to stay for too long. All I saw were bars, hotels, condos, and shopping malls lined up along the main street. This was definitely a tourist vacation getaway.

After settling into our hotel room, we walked to the beach, passing by the plethora of bars, including “go-go” bars where girls and ladyboys performed different acts in front of paying customers. Prostitution is illegal in the country, but is condoned and so easily accessable. The beach was not at all impressive compared to some of the other places I'd visited. The sand and water were dirty and there was only a small patch of sand between the sidewalk and the ocean. Cramped beach chairs and umbrellas lined the coast, and fat, old, hairy, and pink-sunburned sexpats were scattered throughout.

Quang and I sat on the beach for a while and purchased some of the street food from the vendors walking around. We had some mussels, fried shrimp, and baby crabs. I noticed that there were a lot of Russians and Indians on vacation here. I wonder why they choose to vacation here. It seems like it'd be quite the trek to get from Russia to Pattaya...

Afterwards, Quang and I decided to meet with his couchsurfing friend, who owned a condo near our hotel. I had some reservations about meeting him because I wasn't the one who was initially in contact with him, and I wasn't able to make my own assumptions or conclusions about him based on pictures, or profile views, or even interaction through the website. He also didn't have any references on his page. The only contact I had with him was through the phone, and he sounded older than Quang said he claimed to be on the website. After seeing his picture on the website, I finally decided it would be OK to meet with him. I tweeted the location that I would be on twitter just in case something happened to us.

We went to the 26th floor of his condo and took some pictures of the incredible views of the city. Afterwards, we met with him, and upon first view of him, we noticed that he did not look the same as the picture on his profile. He was supposed to be a 28 year old blonde-haired, fit Canadian. Instead, he was hefty, bald, and looked to be much older. I mentioned this to him, and he acted surprised that I thought he looked different. I was very cautious, with my senses heightened when we walked in. The door to his condo remained open the whole time, and we talked on his balcony, where I stayed closer to the room than the railing.

He was very friendly and seemed very willing to show us around on our trip through Pattaya. He suggested we take motorbikes to the countryside or take a boat to the nearby islands. There was something very odd about him though, and soon afterwards, we found out why.

In talking more about our plans tonight, he suggested that we take a tour of the “Walking Street” which is the main tourist draw at night. It's a street closed off to cars at night, lined with “Go-Go” Bars. He told us we could have any girl we wanted there for 500 baht or even free because we were young, and it was hard to find younger tourists in the area, and asked us what we wanted to see or do here. Both of us declined his offer for us to find girls for the night, but we said we would like to see what the street was all about.

We talked about couchsurfing in general and he finally told us the truth about his identity. He had two previous profiles that were both shut down due to complaints by females and he said he had to use his cousin's identity to create this third profile. The reason for these complaints? He told us stories that he would use the website to genuinely show people around the city, but also to hook up with girls, who he would try to get to sleep in bed with him instead of the couch if they happened to be surfing at his place. If they were staying for long periods of time, he would insituate that they should sleep with him because he “wouldn't be able to bring home other girls” if they were sleeping over. Sleaze....

We ended up at Walking Street where I was able to ask him some more questions about his views of the Thai women here, and the reasons why he was in the city for so long. All his answers were appaulling, degrading, and chauvinistic, and I knew this should be a sign that I shouldn't be in this city much longer. It's sad really, the way the city has developed to become a sort of playground for dirty, old men.

While this isn't fool-proof, I think there are certain things you should look for when viewing a CS profile and meeting them:

1) Make sure they have a good number of references and/or actual friends
2) Get a sense of who they are from their photos
3) Read their profile to see if you can sense that something isn't right
4) Read into the interaction you have with them through the website
5) Talk to them on the phone when you get there, and if they sound like a dirty, old man, then ABORT.

Pattaya Beach

Pattaya at Night

Walking Street

Friday, July 29, 2011

Day 62 - Last Day in Chiang Mai

Spent another lazy day in Chiang Mai before taking a night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Met up with my CS friend and we had lunch at Huan Penh again - this time not on a completely empty stomach, so I ordered one dish instead of three. For dinner, I went back to Aroon-Rai again to get some curry with sticky rice.

Arrived at the train station to head to Bangkok around 8pm. Even though I didn't manage to get a sleeper train out of the city, the sitting trains were spacious, and not even half-full. Most of the travelers had two seats to themselves, and I managed to sleep curled up on both seats through the night. I love Thailand transportation!

Day 61 - Lazy Day in Chiang Mai

It would be my last full day in Chiang Mai, so I decided that I would probably just lounge around in my hotel and watch a couple of bootleg DVDs (Horrible Bosses and Bad Teacher) that I purchased at the night bazaar last night.

Plans to stay over at a Couch Surfer's home fell through, but I ended up meeting up with another traveler who was in Chiang Mai for about a month. He was from India, but was in Chiang Mai traveling but also trying to market his own business of being a relaxation, yoga, reiki, meditation master. We talked a little about his work, but I didn't know too much about all these different types of therapy/life coaching/relaxation/spiritual techniques.

We had some lunch at a vegetarian restaurant and talked a little about his yoga expertise. There were pictures of him in some insanely flexible yoga poses, and he explained that it was a lot less about being flexible and more about channeling energy to get to those positions.

We watched Horrible Bosses before heading out for dinner and some bar-hopping in a backpacker area. Went to a live Jazz and Reggae Bar and danced a little. I saw this one ex-pat for the third time in 3 days...once at a Jazz Bar, once at the post office, and now, at this Reggae bar. She was full of energy and dancing the whole night. I wonder what her story is...

East Wall Entrance (Tapae Gate) to the Old City

Crispy Morning Glory Salad

Live Jazz Music

Day 60 - Motorbiking in Chiang Mai

I decided to rent the motorbike for another day since it is just so convenient to have one while in this city. I didn't have any real set plans on what to do for the day, but figured I would somehow stumble on exciting things to see.

I went to a restaurant recommended by my new CS friend. It was called Huan Penh and served authentic Northern Thai dishes. I was so hungry (eyes bigger than my stomach) and ordered three different plates. The dishes were small enough, and I almost finished everything!

Near the restaurant was another Wat, Wat Phra Sing that I visited. About a hundred or so slippers lined the steps to the entrance of the Wat and inside, the temple was filled with monks chanting and meditating. It was such an incredible sight to see.

I looked over my Thailand guidebook to see what the nearest cities were, because I wanted to just drive around and cover a decent amount of the highway. I drove to a couple cities about 10km outside of Chiang Mai called Bo Sang and San Kamphaeng. The cities is known for it's handicraft villages, which made various items like umbrellas, silverware, lacquerware, and teak furniture. It was slightly raining on my way back to Chiang Mai, but going 60kmph, it was painful, as the rain hit my face and body.

At the end of the night, I headed to the Night Bazaar to check out the merchandise again, before taking another drive around the city, this time getting lost and stuck on a superhighway about 1km outside of Chiang Mai. I was stopped by the Thai police at a random checkpoint probably because I stood out by my unnatural driving. They helped me find my way back luckily and didn't give me any trouble...

Huan Penh - Kao Soy, Kanom Jen, and Northern Style Pork Sausages

Wat Phra Sing

Wat Phra Sing

Bo Sang Umbrellas

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Day 59 – Getting Spiritual in Chiang Mai

Taking advice from other travelers, I decided to rent a motorbike and head to Doi Suthep, a forested mountain 1,601m tall and 16km from Chiang Mai. At the top of the mountain sits Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the most famous temples in Northern Thailand. It took a while to get there because I kept getting lost, using a map given to me and asking locals how to get there. Many of the streets in Chiang Mai are one-way streets, and people drive on the left side of the road, so I was a little nervous about getting around. There definitely were a couple times when I found myself on the right side of the road, before quickly realizing that I was about to kill myself....

I found myself lost at the Chiang Mai University, but thankfully, most of the people there spoke English and I was able to drive through the campus and onto a main road, quite close to the bottom of the mountain.

At the bottom of the temple was a 304-step staircase with nagas (dragons) on the sides used as handrails. Once at the top, I had to take off my shoes to enter. The temple was beautiful, with a gold-plated stupa right in the center, similar to what I had seen at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The temple itself was not very big, was grand nonetheless because of the shiny gold shining brightly against the sunlight. I purchased some incense, a yellow candle, a stick of garlic, and a lotus flower as offerings to Buddha. I'm not too sure what the stick of garlic is used for, but I stuck it next to the burning incense...

On the outside of the temple were temple bells that people ring for good luck. There were also scenic views of all of Chiang Mai near the back of the temple. One unique monument that normally isn't seen at typical temples was the White Elephant Monument, which represented a white elephant that marched up the mountain, turned three times, and died. This was a signal to the king at the time to build a temple on top of the mountain.

Heading down the mountain, I stopped by a national park and took a mini hike through one of the trails, following signs written in Thai, in hopes that it would lead me somewhere interesting. I saw a small waterfall and ended up at another scenic view of Chiang Mai. I took another route down, where I met with a Thai man who happened to walk up the mountain, pray to Buddha, and walk back down. It took him 2.5 hours to get to the top. He said he was doing this, asking Buddha to grant his wishes in exchange for him walking up and down the mountain.

Afterwards, I biked back to the Old City in Chiang Mai and stopped at a bunch of temples. There are so many temples here, that you would expect to see at least one for every block you walked down. One of my favorites was Wat Chedi Luang, which had a main temple where I was able to see a group of monks meditating and chanting. In the back was another older temple that resembled something you would see at Angkor Wat. The entire area was so peaceful, and my experience was probably enhanced because it was overcast and the breeze was perfect at that time at dusk.

At the end of the night, I had dinner at an Anthony Bourdain recommended restaurant that served North Thailand Curries called Aroon Rai, and met up with a Couchsurfer at a Jazz Bar where there was a jam session that night. The bar was a mixture of Expats and locals, and I got some great advice on where to get some good food in Chaing Mai. I'm definitely going to check it out tomorrow.

Wat Chedi Luang

Steps to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Ringing Bells for Good Luck

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Wat Phantao

Wat Phantao

Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Day 58 - Muy Thai Boxing in Chiang Mai

Went to the bus station to catch a ride to Chiang Mai. There were two bus terminals in Chiang Rai, so I had to take a tuk-tuk to get to the correct one. I took the first class bus, which was a double decker with a bathroom. The seats were pretty spacious, although there was a problem with the A/C condensation dripping on the two people sitting in front of me. We took the whole bus trip trying to figure out how to keep the water from dripping onto them. It was sad...and I hope they asked for their money back!

The entire bus ride was abour 3 hours, which was not bad at all. Once there, I took a motorbike to the Night Market area to look for a hotel. Settled on a guesthouse with a fan (no A/C!) in a room that resembled a 12 year old's room. It was nice, since there was an actual theme...unlike some of the other hotels I'd been to.

Walked around after settling in, and went to the Wat Buppharam where I took some pictures of the temples and stupas. I was approached by a Buddhist Monk, who brought me into the Thunjai Buddha Temple and he asked me to pray with him and wish Buddha for things I wanted. He wrapped a rod of string that was wrapped around a golden lotus (?) around my neck and I held the two strings in my hand as I prayed, and he held the strings as well and chanted a Buddhist Meditation prayer for me. It was an interesting experience as I'd never done this before. He also took a bunch of incense and dipped it in water and splashed me numerous times with it. I'm not sure what this procedure is called. At the end of the chanting, he gave me a bracelet and said to wear it for a year as it would be used as protection. He was a very jolly monk and was very encouraging and optimistic about my life. He said it was my lucky day... I thanked him and made a donation, feeling a little more confident and hopefully safe on my journey.

Afterwards, I went to the Wat Saenfang before closing and saw monks meditating and chanting in the temple. I sat for a good 5-10 minutes trying to meditate as well, unknown if I was actually successful. It was difficult to clear my head as I just continued to talk to myself in my mind... it was like I was an only child talking to myself.

Went into the night searching for the night bazaar. There was everything you could imagine to purchase there. I bought some food and got a foot massage for about $2.50 before heading to my first Muy Thai boxing match! I got front ringside seats and it was really exciting to see the fighting. It's brutal as they can use their legs and knees to kick anywhere...without padding, and the only padding is on the hands (except for the last fight, which was bare hands fighting). There was a women's fight and an international fight with a guy from France (although it looked fixed). Also, there was a filler blind boxing match and topless ladyboy dancing as well... Many of the Thai Ladyboys have already had their operations, so there were real breasts on display... I wonder if it is affordable in this country, compared to the United States? I'd think it would be a very expensive and timely process to get a sex-change in the states...

I found Disney at Wat Buppharam

Wat Buppharam

Thunjai Buddha Temple

Wat Saenfang

Pre-Fight Dancing Ritual

Day 57 - The WORST Bus Ride Ever

The bus wasn't so bad, and the A/C was working quite well...but I think Laos buses are notorious for being very cramped... They call these buses “VIP” buses, but they are really just a step up from the regular buses. There is very little leg space and the seats are pretty narrow. I couldn't imagine what a tall European must feel when he rides this type of bus...

Anyways, it didn't rain too much, but the roads were very underdeveloped, so I had the same problem Agoes did...The bus felt like it was going to tip over evertime it tried to go through some of the potholes in the dirt roads. We also stopped about 20 times throughout the night to grab food, fix the bus, or just stop for pee breaks. Some of the time, we were riding the bus going 5 mph probably for safety reasons when we were going uphill or through the darkness. It was almost impossible to sleep through most of the night...and this was supposed to be a 12 hour bus ride...It ended up being 16 hours...............

Experiencing this makes me worried about my travels to Burma. I think the roads are going to be even less the rides will be even worse... We'll just have to see when I go in August.

When we arrived at Huay Xi, we took tuk tuks to Lao Immigration, before taking boats to the other side of the river to Thai Customs. Afterwards, we had to take another public bus to Chiang Rai, which would be another 2 hours...I dreaded this because the buses looked worse than the VIP buses...but the ride was actually nice, thanks to the roads being very smooth and the open windows that provided a nice breeze.

The city is pretty small, and there isn't much that I see in the guidebook that really interests me, so I decided that I would book a ticket out of this town and into Chiang Mai early the next morning. I checked out the food market to grab dinner and saw some bugs on sale...I asked if I could try the cricket, and tasted it...but wouldn't even think of buying a plate FULL of them to eat...

Tuk-Tuk Ride in Huay Xi

Bus Ride to Chiang Rai

Dinner at the Street Market in Chiang Rai

Insects for Dinner

Monday, July 25, 2011

Day 56 - Bathing Elephants

It was difficult to sleep at night at the lodge because the electricity kept going out, and I was used to the white noise from the fan to put me to sleep. There were lots of insects making noises since we were in the middle of the forest, and the geckos especially made funny sounds that woke me, along with the rats crawling on the roof. I tried to light the citronella coils, but they would go out after 10 minutes. I slept in the net bedding, which is also hard for me to do. The last time I slept in one was at a homestay where I ended up getting a ton of bites on my feet.

Luckily when I woke up, there weren't too many new bites. We headed to the forest to walk our elephants to the river so that we could wash them. We had to share elephants because there weren't enough, and I rode behind someone, which is a lot scarier because there is less to grab onto than if you were in the front.

We got to the river and I was able to switch elephants. We rode them into the river and used brushes to help clean the dirt off their skin and hair. My elephant kept submerging herself completely underwater and I got soaked because of it. It was fun, and of course the mahouts made sure to have them splash water on all of us while we were cleaning them. While I was washing my elephant, I noticed some red marks near her ear that I suspected was blood, but when I washed it, nothing came out, so it was like a stain on her ear...It was probably due to the mahouts using their hooks to stab them when they weren't behaving... I'm not sure what I think about this. Reading the pahmplet, they tried to reassure us that the mahouts only used it when necessary, and for the safety of everyone around them, and for the safety of the elephant herself...and that elephants are just like humans, and sometimes we can react to things in irrational or dangerous ways...It doesn't seem like the mahouts use their weapons ONLY under these circumstances, but I don't know enough to really decide...

After the bathing session, we packed and headed back to the village to grab breakfast before getting transported back to Luang Prabang. Agoes told me that his bus ride to Thailand was horrible and it was impossible to get sleep because the bus felt like it was going to tip over every minute that it tried to get over the muddy dirt roads... I planned on getting a flight to Chiang Mai, but flights were booked for 3 days, so I had to take the bus today... With no hotel room, I had to plan my day so that I could be fresh and clean for the bus ride at 7PM...

I decided to get my laundry done, chill around a bar with wifi, and go to a sauna so that I could use their showers to wash before leaving the town. I rented a bike to do all this, and everything bad just happened in the span of around 2 hours! Some parts of the bicycle fell off while I was riding it...The sauna was a bad idea, because even though I got to shower afterwards, I continued to sweat for the next hour...and when I picked up my laundry, it wasn't ready, and I had to pick it all up semi-wet still... Hopefully the bus ride will be better than what Agoes said since it doesn't seem to be raining as much as when he left...