Friday, January 15, 2010

Let's Rewind Thailand

I couldn't write from Thailand because we decided to pack light and not bring our computers. We weren't sure what kind of accommodation we'd be in for with the bike tour. Turns out we stayed in super chi-chi hotels. Total luxury.

Every morning, we'd head out on the bikes. The paved roads in the countryside are gorgeous and smooth and have a generous shoulder. It's perfect for cycling, as is the weather. We passed tons of rice fields with the jagged Chang Dao mountain range as a backdrop. Really, now. It was perfect.

Lunch was always a stop at a roadside noodle shop. They look kind of dirty but the food on the plate (about $1) always tasted like the most amazing thing I'd ever eaten. Literally. The flavours boggle the brain.

Sometimes we'd stop for a snack, too. One memorable stop involved lots of rice with coconut milk steamed in these little banana leaves folded into pockets. Delicious AND cute. My kind of snack. At one point we also stopped for grilled rat meat. The rat man wasn't there, though (TOO BAD). We kept moving.

Oh, did I mention that Heather Graham was staying at our resort on New Year's Eve? She sat at the table next to us during meals. Isaac and I didn't want to tell our guides about Heather because I thought it was cool that nobody was recognizing her, even the Americans. Only Isaac. He was constantly freaked out that Tom, our cringe-worthy American guide, might say something to embarrass us in front of Heather. It was highly amusing. I've never seen him like this. Isaac cares the least about celebrities of any person I know but he was the one who spotted her, not me. She is a total hippie and gorgeous.

On New Year's Eve we lit fire balloons, which are made of tissue paper and wire. They're basically hot air balloons the size of a sofa cushion. You light them and think of all your bad luck and worries being attached to them. It feels amazing when you let go and watch them rise high into the sky. You can actually visualize your bad feelings just floating away. I really want to do this at home but am afraid I would set Joe and Marge's house on fire.

After our highly civilized bike tour, we went south and so did our standards. We started staying in cheaper rooms (uh, will you believe $8?) which made me wonder, What are we? Are we adults or not? Backpackers or not? $8 room kind of people or not?

As we went further south, we hit a few beach towns, one of which is really a giant European retirement home. In Hua Hin, Isaac had a few shirts custom made by Mr Raju, a fascinating man who is Nepalese but was born in Burma, leaving Burma to set up shop making shirts for Scandinavian retirees. His young male relative, a refugee from Burma, worked the door, getting Isaac's attention (he's a pretty good little sales guy). He's 16 but looks 12 and wears impeccable tailored clothing and flip flops. His father died which is why Mr. Raju took him in and is teaching him the biz.

At first, Thailand seems like a traveler's paradise. After scratching the surface, some of the sadness and poverty become all too apparent. We saw people literally lying in the gutter in Bangkok, garbage and dirt in their hair, a mother covered in scabs with two small children. Even on the bike tour, we went to a Cayanne village, the Cayanne women being famous for being "long-neck" with the brass rings around their neck. Our tour guide told us that these Burmese refugees keep the money they get from selling handicrafts and that while some villages are run by Bangkok bosses, the one we were going to wasn't exploitative. After reading this, however, I cried and wished I hadn't gone at all. It's not about making a few pennies from handicrafts at this point. I felt so terrible. It's hard to be a responsible tourist when you leave the planning to your guide, which is what I took away from the awful experience.

Also, I learned to trust my gut. At first, at the Cayanne village, the colours dazzle. The smiling women with their elaborate outfits are alluring. But the young girls weaving all looked miserable and I knew it. As we left, Isaac and I mused about how wrong it was that they weren't in school and how we never would have ended up there had a tour guide not taken us. I shouldn't have left our ethics and comfort level up to the discretion of my guide.

Well, that is a super-fast overview of our two weeks in Thailand. Overall it was an incredible trip but there are only so many giant cockroach sightings you can take, you know?

Now here I am in Jeju, where it is warming up a little. I'm in a PC-bang ("PC room") where kids sit in a darkened room with no windows (baby casino?) and play Starcraft. It's smoky in here and the kids sit at computers in rows and all I can hear around me is shooting, explosions and war sounds. It's hilarious. The kids are so sweet and docile but they are totally sitting there figuring out how to explode armies. The girl next to me looks just like me but younger and cuter, with big glasses and an immaculate mushroom cut, and is killing a ton of aliens with a pack of smokes by her side.

Isaac is back at our hotel, convalescing (he has a cold!). I am going to go take him some tea now. Bye!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Day One on the Rock, Jeju Island

We just did a whirlwind tour of Thailand. It began with luxury hotels and cycling the gorgeous countryside and ended with a mad dash through oppressively smoggy Bangkok, taking a taxi (stuck in traffic), then Skytrain, then bus (stuck in traffic somewhere else) then tuk-tuk, then running to grab our bags at our hotel and make our flight.

We went from being slimy with sweat all day (I know, you hate me for complaining about heat, right?) to arriving in Korea which is experiencing the coldest weather and biggest snowfall they've ever experienced in their recorded history (so there, we're in the same boat).

Jeju Island is deadsville right now and it makes sense. It's normally a play paradise for Koreans on vacation. This isn't exactly vacation-inducing weather. Isaac has a cold. Boo!

We have to go find him some soondooboo or anything in a bowl that's hot and bubbling. My fingers are so freezing it's hard to type. It is also hard to blog with Isaac leaning over my shoulder the entire time (right, Isey?).

So in other words, I know I haven't written much but there's more to come. I'm not lying, Andrea!

Friday, January 01, 2010

Northern Thailand Says Hello

You think you know how to ride a bike until you try and ride 150 km. Then, you realize, that you're an elephant with a paintbrush, picturing Michelangelo. Clumsy analogy but guess what? We saw elephants with paintbrushes!*

We are in northern Thailand right now and will continue on our last day of cycling tomorrow towards the Myanmar border. It's gorgeous and warm during the day and very chilly at night. We rode around mountainous terrain in the searing afternoon heat and when we'd do a hairpin turn, frigid mountain air would blast us after the turn. Can you imagine anything so amazing? The first time I felt it, I was shocked.

Today we also went to Fang Hot Springs (love the town name, "Fang") where the water is so hot, Thais just boil their eggs in it. Well, they soak in it too, as evidenced by the fact that we couldn't get a private bath because the line was too long. That's ok! We just soaked our feet in the outside pool with some old guys and a little kid running around in his underwear. A hot water soak is good on the feet after a long day. Well, anything besides your own sweaty socks is good on the feet after a long day.

We've done so much I can't believe I'm writing about sweaty socks but I feel slightly rushed as our time is up on the computer. Gotta run! Sa wat dee bee mai kah! Happy New Year!

*I promise photos at a later date. Pinky swear.