Saturday, March 28, 2009

Wat Pho

You have to take your shoes off to enter Wat Pho.

The edge of the concrete, when your bare feet hit it, is hot from the sun, but stepping into the shade and the marble floor you feel coolness take over. The reclining Buddha, at more than 100 feet long, stretches toward brilliant sunlight at the other end of the building.


Mostly it's tourists here to walk through Wat Pho, but there are plenty of Thais, too, who place sticks of incense in pots and kneel in front of the statue and drop small coins in a line of buckets along the back wall. The sounds of coins dropping into the buckets is strangely beautiful.

Wat Pho is a small respite from Bangkok, a frenetic city of sound and light. It's hot here -- 99 yesterday -- so hot that we've both felt sick at times while walking. There's respite from the heat only in air conditioning -- the low at night barely dips below 80.


Bangkok is the first real place we've been to on this trip that we have visisted before. We spent a week here in 2002 and several more days in 2003. For travlers like us it's an indespensible pit stop where you can pick up visas and restock on supplies while enjoying 90 cent beers and 10 cent sticks of grilled chicken and $4 hour-long massages. Seriously.

We planned about four months in Southeast Asia on this trip -- two months to see places we had not seen, like Philippines and parts of Indonesia, and two months to see where we could go cheaply. Bangkok is likely one of the world's great centers for cheap airfare. Travel agents in and around the backpacker haunt of Banglamphu advertise dirt cheap fares to all corners of the globe. One I saw yesterday was a series of one-way flights from Bangkok to: two cities in India, one in Kyrgyz, one in Jordan, two in Africa and one in Europe -- for US$699!


We had big plans for cheap flights in these two months, but as with many things once you start to look at specifics your range of choices dwindles. A number of things are complicating onward travel to destinations we had in mind. For example, one-entry visas for Americans to China are now $200; consular officials for Myanmar, a military dictatorship, now require visa applicants to submit to an in-person interview and are explicitly denying entrance to journalists, even those on vacation (interesting to note as so many are predicting the end of newspapers that even the presence of a journalist in some countries, presumably because they report truth, sends some countries into titters); and while comparatively cheap, airfare to some destinations we had in mind, like Bhutan and Mongolia, is still prohibitively expensive.


We have picked up some deals, however. Tonight we leave on a Cathay Pacific flight to Sri Lanka, an island nation off the south coast of India once called Ceylon. We got a quote for the flight on Thursday for a Sunday flight and had to scramble to get a guidebook and figure out how long we want to spend there. Two weeks seems a compromise between seeing the island's incredible sights and putting up with its, ahem, "eccentricities." And for about the same price -- US$200 round trip -- we have tickets for Taipei, too. We still have four weeks in May we need to figure out what to do with -- despite the visa cost, we are still contemplating China. And maybe by then we will have dreamed up other places to go to.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The King of Kohs

I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn how much time we spend hunkered down in motel rooms, out of sight from the world we are supposed to be seeing.

While it's not like we spend days at a time hugging the a/c and watching BBC, we do have a strong need at times for seclusion, quiet and privacy. Even though we are comfortable in most of the places we visit, there is still a lot to put up with, even in great places. You just need to escape it all for a few hours a day.

(Koh Samui)


We've now crossed into southern Thailand, from Malaysia. This is, by my reckoning, close to the furthest we will get from home. Even though it felt like we began to travel 'toward home' once we left Australia and passed the six month mark, we in fact kept going further away until recently. We have also crossed definitively into the Norhtern Hemisphere after more than seven months in the South -- though we will head back into the Southern Hemisphere in June.

We are now more than eight months into the trip, and less than four months from our return. It seems strange that for such a wide ranging trip we keep going to new places. With the exception of a brief layover in Panama, we did not visit any place that we have been to before until just a few days ago, when we landed in Kuala Lumpur and headed north on the E1 through Butterworth and Hat Yai, Thailand.

The past five days leading up to that were a blur of travel. It took two full days to get out of the highlands of north Luzon to the airport at Clark, a few hours north of Manila. We then spent the better part of the day flying (thanks, Air Asia) from Clark to Kuala Lumpur and getting downtown (another flat tire on the bus). Then it was a full day getting to Hat Yai and another eight hours taking a bus and ferry to Koh Samui.

(Koh Tao)


Koh Samui! Long derided by hardcore backpackers for its luxury and ease, Samui is a sort of island paradise where you barely lift a finger and someone rushes to bring you a beer and get started on a one-hour foot massage.

Samui is just what we needed after travel through Brunei, Philippines and, especially, Malaysia. The restaurants have menus, the hotel rooms are clean, women don't raise hackles by wearing shorts, and the food is very very good.

We got a beach front bungalow for about $15 and spent our days in the water and in the shade. At night the beach restaurants set up tables with candles in the sand and grilled seafood. We walked past them into the frenetic center of town to eat at the night markets.

(Surat Thani, Thailand)


From Samui we headed north on a boat past cloud capped Koh Phanang to Koh Tao. We walked off the boat into a narrow warren of sandy streets. We checked in at hotels down the strip and came to the last one. It was obviously too nice for us but the manager made a deal so we got a very nice bungalow for $17 a night. We can wade out from the restaurant and white sandy beach into the warm Gulf of Thailand waters. We took a day long boat tour of the island yesterday, stopping along the way to snorkle in the clear warm waters. Lots of fish and even a few friendly sharks.

It's amazing how some countries will go out of their way to discourage tourism. Paraguay, a country with absolutely nothing going for it, requires tourists to get a visa before they enter. Brazil requires one of the world's most expensive visas and a private interview and actually wanted to see a bank statement to prove our financial solvency. Kenya runs a country so dangerous it's a significant achievement to get from the airport to your hotel without being robbed. Bangladesh -- another country with zero reason to visit -- allows squatters to live in their border posts.

(Koh Samui)


For decades, Thailand has been a haven for tourists and travelers. It's cheap, it's a great value, it's safe, and there's a lot to do. It's so nice, in fact, many travelers who come here never seem to leave.

Thailand used to grant, for free, a one-month stay upon arrival at any border post or airport. But a month was not enough time to stay in paradise, so the ever-clever Thais came up with a way around it. It's called the visa run. For a few dollars, travelers with about-to-expire visas board a bus, are handed a beer, and make a beeline for the nearest border. They walk through immigration and get their exit stamp then walk around the building and get an entrance stamp -- they don't even necessarily enter the adjoining country. Then you're good to go for another month.

Only someone in Bangkok saw this as a problem that needed a solution. The solution? People entering by land are given a 14-day stay. Did immigration officials strike some deal with travel agents? Who would dream up such an absurd plan?

Thailand might be popular with travelers, but the tide can turn. Just a few months ago, anti-government demonstrators forced the closure of both of Bangkok's airports for two weeks, stranding hundreds of thousands of fliers. Airlines responded by busing passengers to the nearest available airports -- in some cases in adjacent countries -- and flying out of there. Bad news for Thailand: not only did they lose out on millions of dollars of airport taxes and fees, but 30 percent of the flights that temporarily moved out of Bangkok during the demonstrations have yet to return. An article in yesterday's Bangkok Post estimated it could take 10 years to rebuild the lost traffic. If you're a government official in Thailand counting on tourist revenue, now is the time to start worrying.

So, unless we move to extend our visa (and that's good only for a week) we'll be out of Thailand within 10 days or so. We were planning to use Bangkok as a cheap hub for short trips -- to places like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Taiwan. We'll still do that, but the trips may be broken up due to visa constraints. In the meantime, our visa run will likely be to Laos, where I'd like to return to to see more of Vientiane and visit the Plain of Jars.

We are also watching events in Madagascar, where we will be in mid-June. Long an island of unrest and controversy, the country has been in a low level civil war since December, when the 35-year-old deposed mayor of the capital -- a former DJ -- declared himself to be president. A pretty tight fracas erupted in January and shows no sign of calming down. Last week the president handed over power to the military, which subsequently allied itself with the mayor. Meanwhile, cities have divided into pro and anti-government factions and blocked roads leading to rival cities. The State Department issued a travel warning last week. It's a mess.

Our flight there is nonrefundable. We would enter Madagascar from Mauritius and fly out to Dubai via Mauritius. Our options are to just forget the Air Madagascar return flight and stay three weeks on Mauritius as opposed to one -- possibly sailing to Reunion Island -- or trying to move up the Emirates flight from Mauritius to Dubai -- with a connection on to Tunis -- and doing a short round-trip flight out of Dubai, like to Jordan or Cairo. Better than a roundtrip out of Dubai would be a crossborder hop to Oman. In any case, Airtreks, whom we bought the tickets from, is very slow to give us any information, so all that is on hold now ...

In the meantime, it'll be lots of islands and relaxing and enjoying Thailand while it's still good.

Beer Updates:

Not a lot of beer drinking the past few months, but here are some standouts:

San Miguel Light -- very very light, and further lightened by the fact it's often served with ice cubes

San Miguel -- not too shabby for one of the world's cheapest beers

Red Horse Stallion -- a true third world beer -- skunky (and cheaper than SM)

Chang -- less skunky than RHS and not bad for the price

Singha -- King of Thai Beers

Book Updates:

Robert Penn Warren -- All the King's Men -- great
Lawrence Durrell -- Mountolive -- soso
Saul Bellow -- Humboldt's Gift -- BORING!
Santo Clauro -- Molvania: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry -- brilliant
Ernest Hemingway -- For Whom the Bell Tolls -- good
J.D. Salinger -- The Catcher in the Rye -- beautiful
Isaac Bashevis Singer -- The Manor -- nice
Pearl s. Buck -- A House Divided -- OK
Heinrich Boll -- The Lost Honour of Katharine Blum -- over my head

Monday, March 16, 2009

Rice Dreams

They've got religion around here.


And stuffed jeepneys.


And homes in the most unlikely places.


And one of the world's most beautiful villages.


And rice terraces -- another UN World Heritage Site.


Which we hiked down to.


And across.


And around.


And back up again.


We didn't spend the night.


Ten days gone in the Philippines and we are off tomorrow. Back to Malaysia, but the peninsula this time, not Borneo. Making a beeline for Thailand -- we need some good food.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Where Am I?

A lot of the time lately I've been waking up in the middle of the night and I have to think to be sure where I am. Laying in bed, the darkness is the same, the errant barking dogs the same, the hum of the fan or air conditioner the same, the thinness of the mattress is the same. Only I am different, because I am always somewhere new.

We've been in the Philippines for about a week now. We landed at Clark Air Base at sunset and walked off the plane into a sea of humidity, stink, heat and smog. Clark is an old American air field now doing duty as a commercial airport popular with budget airlines. We got some recommendations from the helpful info desk at the airport and took a taxi to the Clarkton Hotel. The Clarkton is a respectable place and even has a fancy new wing. Still, it was full of American and German men here to meet women, many of whom cruised the bar and pool at night while Laura and I innocently paddled around in the deep end. The hotel had a club featuring hourly 'heritage dancers' -- girls in bikinis.

From Clark we headed north to Vigan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Vigan was one of the few Philippine cities to escape WW2 bombing; it's historic core is thick with cobblestone streets, horsedrawn carriages, 16th century churches and old mansions.


From Vigan we wanted to head west, to Bontoc, which stands in the heart of the north Luzon highlands. From Vigan there are two ways to get there -- the conventional and very long way or the unconventional shortcut. A guy at the bus station actually mapped it out for us: catch a 7:30 bus from Vigan south to a crossroads, get out and take a bus to Cervantes, and then catch another bus to Bontoc. If it all went well, we could be there by 2 p.m.

It didn't go well. We got to the crossroads no problem, but then waited 45 minutes for the Cervantes bus to fill up. When it did leave it followed one of the most hairraising roads I've ever been on -- we went from sea level to 4,000 feet and most of the way back to sea level in the span of 20 miles. Along the way were fragrant pine forests and tiny villages. In one village girls were marching around the playground, some holding flags and some playing huge xylophones.

Cervantes was a small town but seemed quiet even by small town standards. Notably, there was no bus to go to Bontoc. After some asking around I found out why: the bridge a mile or two out of town has been dismantled, and vehicles could not make it across the river. Now we were stuck. We took a motorized tricycle to the bridge and walkd across its rickety span.


On the other side we waited and caught a ride in a gravel truck taking stones from the river. Almost right away the truck got a flat. Then, carrying a few tons of rock, it climbed 2,000 vertical feet over 6 miles at a pretty steady 4 mph. It dumped its load and we hopped into a Toyota, whose driver was picking people up randomly across the mountains and acting like a shared taxi. That got us to the main road, where we waited a few minutes for a real bus, which got us to Bontoc by 5 p.m. Fun!

At dinner that night we met a Canadian man and his Khmer wife who had a rented car. They picked us up the next morning and we went to Sagada, another 2,000 feet up. Sagada is quiet and calm and surrounded by pine forests. We hiked to a hill with hanging coffins -- much like those in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi -- and hiked into a cave with coffins stacked at its entrance.


Then we had one of the best coffees of the trip before heading back to Bontoc. In the afternoon I walked to a nearby rice field and met Mary, a local who talked my ear off and asked very detailled questions about American fiscal policy. When I asked to take her picture she said, 'No, because I am ugly.'


In the morning we caught a jeepney up the mountain. Of all the forms of transportation in the world, the jeepney is surely among the most unique. Modelled after an American service Jeep, they are made of stainless steel but wildly colorful. The bed is about 16 feet long and has two rows of benches. A lot of people get stuffed into these things.


Our jeepney was stuffed with Laura and I and about a dozen women headed up the mountain to their rice fields. They were all old, wrinkled and chatty. Some of the older ones had tattoos up and down their arms worn to ward off disease -- like smallpox, we were told. Others wore homemade jewelry and headbands made out of snake skeletons which are meant to discourage lightning strikes.

The mountains around Bontoc are known for their terraced rice fields. A handful are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We rode the jeepney until it hit fields and hiked up for an hour. Along the way boys working in the forest pointed out which trail to take. We hiked higher and higher; they hiked down with enormous loads of fresh-cut pine on their shoulders. From the top the high country of Luzon spread out in four directions. The rice terraces hopped and skipped down the mountain in a cascade of color.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

"C'mon Kids, It's Vomit Time!" and "Texas Chainsaw Death Cage Match -- Molvania: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry vs. Lonely Planet"


There are some things you see and experience while traveling which will foverever remain complete mysteries. One of those is peoples' propensity toward vomiting.

It's an all-too-common scene while bussing and boating around the third world (and even the second and first). Laura thinks it's because many locals just don't spend that much time on busses or boats and tend to get carsick and seasick quite easily. I don't know what causes it, but I can tell you what happens: Outside of the U.S. and Europe, almost any where you go, as soon as the bus pulls away from the station, or the boat from port, people start to throw up. Who? Men, women, children, the young and old, the healthy and weak -- in short, anyone with a gastrointestinal system.

(Lambir Hills)


On our last trip around the world, in 2002-03, we experienced some spectacular displays of technicolor vomiting. One of the most sustained and intense was on a boat crossing rough waters between the South Island of New Zealand and an offshore island called Stewart. One of the most memorable was on a bus ride across the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. It was summer, it was hot. The locals refused to let anyone open the windows, except to hurl out of them. One woman in the seat in front of us actually held her toddler out fo the window while the kid puked, and then put herself half out of the window while she puked.

This trip has seen no shortage of eruptive vomiting, either. One great time was on a bus across the Andes in Peru. It was night, so it was hard to see the action, but you could hear it clear enough, all right. We actually held our carryon bags in our laps for fear that vomit was sloshing up and down the aisle. Another was in Ecudaor. They had bags in all the seats when you got on the bus. I thought it was for trash. It was for vomit. The bags filled up pretty quickly. And then, it being Ecuador, everyone rolled down their windows and threw the bags out onto the highway shoulder.

(Lambir Hills)


But just yesterday we had the most vivid vomiting to date. We took a small speedboat from Bandar Seri Bagawam, the capital of Brunei, to an island called Pulau Labuan, just off the north Borneo coast in Malaysia. That was not a big deal, but when we boarded a slightly larger boat to head to mainland Borneo, and headed across topsy turvey South China Seas, the action got rolling.

I was sitting next to Laura on the bottom level of the front of the boat. The sun was coming in the window and pounding Laura, so I moved to an open seat across the aisle so Laura could move where I was sitting, into the shade. My new seatmate was a nice young woman who offered me something to eat once I got settled -- it looked like some sort of beancurd donut which is popular with the locals down here.

When the boat pulled out of the harbor and into open ocean the swells started to get pretty big. It doesn't bother me that much but you could tell some people did not like it. Then this young kid who was working as a sort of steward on our level came around saying "Plastic? Plastic?" He was holding up small black plastic bags, which are used either for trash or to vomit into. He held some in front of me. "Oh no," I started to say. "I don't need any" but just then he reached across me and the girl next to me took a fistfull. Then she grabbed another fistfull and said something to the boy, who came back with a trash can and set it between her and me. I started to say, "Oh no, we are fu--" when the girl put her face into the bag and began a sort of screaming vomit. For the remainder of the boat ride -- almost two hours -- she unloaded an incredible amount of vomit into those plastic bags. She would fill one up and drop it in the trash can, and I would hand her some toilet paper, and she would wipe her mouth, and then I'd hand her a fresh bag, and she'd commence to fill it up. It was really pretty incredible. I've never seen anyone puke that much before.



Meanwhile, Laura had her own problems -- though her immediate area remained puke-free. The guy in front of her reclined his broken seat as far as it would go -- nearly horizontal, which meant he was practically laying in her lap -- and stretched his bare feet on to the wall in front of him, and proceeded for the entire boat ride to do this sort of unrelenting tuberculosis projectile coughing. Meanwhile, the boat steward kept on putting these scratched pirated DVDs into the onboard entertainment system, and it was all these ultraviolent movies, and somehow, through all of this, the guy behind her managed to fall asleep and do this enormous chunky moist snore until right before we pulled into Kota Kinabalu. Laura, who is bothered by these things more than I am, said when she got off the boat, "I've lost my edge. I can't handle that any more."

What a boat ride.




Mostly on this book we've limited our reading to Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners, but we both deviated from this just once and have just finished "Molvania: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry."

This is a new guidebook to Molvania, a small country most people did not know existed. It's sandwiched between Slovakia, Poland and Germany and, we learned, is the home of whooping cough and is Europe's leading beetroot producer. It's national dog is the lovable Molvanian Sneezing Hound.

This travel guide gives you insightful tips on seeing the country and enjoying its many sights. It starts out right away with good information.

"Despite being one of the smallest countries in Europe, Molvania has much to offer. Panoramic scenery, magnificent neoclassical architecture and centuries of devotion to fine culture are, admittedly, all in short supply. But the intrepid traveler will still find plenty to enjoy ... like in the south, where visitors can share a glass of locally brewed garlic brandy while watching a traditionally dressed peasant laborer beat his mule."

(Bandar Seri Begawam, Brunei)


It has helpful information on the local currency. To wit: there are a lot of counterfeit dollar bills out there. Look for the ones with smudged ink and misspelled words as these are most likely to be authentic.

And then there's good info on using pbones. The country code is 372. Numbers for the capital, Lutenblag, having seven digits do not require an additional area code. Six-digit numbers require the area code 2. Eight-digit numbers beginning with 09 generally involve pre-recoded messages of a largely sexual nature.

Naturally, the traveler will want to know where in Molvania to stay. This guide tells you about all the best hotels, like the Rojal Palatz Hotjl "which, as its name suggests, is built directly opposite a particle board factory ... Prices are understandably high, although you will save by booking a room during the winter off-season when the hotel is closed."

Also in Luteblbalg is the famous Revolving Restaurant, though "due to intermittent power supply the restuarant does tend to revolve rather slowly (a full rotation can take up to six months)."

(BSB, Brunei)


The upcountry town of Sjerezo "has a well developed transport sytem involving trams, trolley buses, trains and light rail. Due to a beaurocratic oversight, however, these various modes of public transports all cover the same short section of road."

Headed to beautiful Lake Vjaza? "For a road crossing a flat plain, the main highway features a suprising number of tight curves and hair-pin bends, a result of having been designed by undergraduate engineering students. If you don't have a car remember that buses leave Lutenblag twice weekly and are towed back at the end of each month."

If you like this info in this book, you might want to check out the other offerings by this guide book company -- Let's Go Bongoswango and Survival Guide to Moustaschistan.

Ah, OK. Molvania does not actually exist, but the guide to Molvania is real -- only it's fiction. The fictional guidebook is brilliant, and seems to have been done both as cheeky entertainment and to take a stab at Lonely Planet.

Lonely Planet. I've travelled to something like 70 countries now, and have taken a Lonely Planet with me to almost all of them. It's a pretty incredible guide book service. They do two things very well: they focus on providing information to low budget travlers and they give detailled information on how to do complicated travel independently.

There are oodles of guidebooks out there, but it seems like most of them cover the same dozen or so countries people have always gone to and will always go to -- Austria, France, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand. Lonely Planet does all those and more. I think they have literally published travel information on every country in the world, and done so with detailled accuracy. I mean, I don't think Brandt has done a travel guide to Honduras. Lonely Planet has and you can find hotels in obscure cities and learn how to catch the bus to even more obscure cities.

For all its brilliant writing, Lonely Planet does two things wrong, and I think they do them wrong on purpose.

First of all, they get prices wrong all the time. Now, figuring costs is difficult. Many countries they cover have ridiculous inflation rates. And many currencies rise and fall and not just in correlation to major currenties, which may rise and fall independently (like the dollar). Also, due to the time it takes to research, publish and sell a guide, the info in a brand new book may still be two years old by the time you get it. But so many prices are so far off base that I have begun to suspect that Lonely Planet purposefully underestimates prices in order to make their books more appealing to the bulk of its customer base -- shoestring travelers.

The second thing Lonely Planet does is talk up a region's beauties while ignoring its uglies, because no one wants to go somewhere someone else is calling ugly. This is more irritating, perhaps, that price deflation. Time and time again Lonely Planet wil wax on and on about a city's charms only for us to arrive and find that those charms are buried under mounds of smoking trash, or obscured by a thick haze of pollution, or hidden by aggressive touts. In some cases, the oblivion to a city's ugliness borders on insane.

And so here I am with my latest Lonely Planet purchase: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. This book is the company's flagship guide and was the first guide that Lonely Planet ever put out. Now in its 14th edition, it is almost 1000 pages long.

In it is an incredible amount of detailed information. I can find exactly how to catch a local bus to the long distance bus terminal, and know which end of town to stay on to be close to restaurants and museums. I know where restaurants are, when museums open, and which borders have crooked officials. This sort of information given to such diverse countries has, I believe, actually changed tourism worldwide and made the previously inaccessible now very accessible.

And yet, the more I read the more I think of Molvania. Does fiction imitate nonfiction? Or is it the other way around? Molvania is funny because it imitates reality. Lonely Planet is not funny because it often ignores it. Here are some Lonely Planet entries in our guide. You decide:

"The rooms aren't as appealing as the exterior and are mostly the standard, windowless variety."

"One of the town's better options, the New Caspian is run by a nice couple and rooms have TV and mould-free bathroms. Don't confuse it with its less appealing namesake on Jubilee Street."

"Our pick!" 100 Cintra Street -- Housed in a sometimes operating museum in a semi-restored mansion, this is by far Penang's most atmospheric budget option. You get a very thin mattress on a wooden platform with a fan and a mosquito net for that Eastern colonial experience. Dorm beds are on an open landing and have absolutely no privacy."

"These large bungalows were under renovation at the time of writing but even the old ones look good. Little English is spoeken, half naked kids run around the garden with a few stray chickens and rice is served for breakfast."

"Floors give way underfoot and the beds are lumpy but the place is spotless."

"Ths in-room cable TV is nice, as long as you're happy watching the same programme as the hotel staff in the lobby."