Thursday, April 17, 2014

Chiang Rai, Thailand: "The White Temple"

It was a late September afternoon, and Bri and I found ourselves crowded into a white rusted van bumping along the back-roads of the Northern Thai country side. We had just spent several days in Chiang Mai, which offered some intriguing adventure opportunities, as well as a healthy dose of Muay Thai Boxing, naturally. The idea was to cross the border in northern Thailand in the small river-side city of Chiang Khong, then take the slow boat down the Mekong River all the way to Luang Prabang, Laos. That's precisely what we did, and it was quite the experience. However, what I want to write about today is a temple that we stopped at on the way to Chiang Khong - one that I'll never forget.

After spending a year in South Korea and visiting Japan a few times, I'd certainly had my fill of temples. It's not to say that I was "bored" of temples by any means, but more than I had seen hundreds upon hundreds, and so I generally had a hankering for something unique.

We chose this particular route to Laos with the understanding that we would be able to visit "The White Temple." We had heard about this temple from a traveller we had met in Vietnam only weeks earlier. Officially, the temple is known as Wat Rong Khun, but among many travellers and foreigners it's known as the White Temple. This temple was made by the well-known Thai visual artist Chalermchai Kostitpipat not so long ago (1997). He blends together Buddhism, imagination, and surrealism while using the temple as his vehicle.

We arrived to a light rain, and the white of the temple marvelously contrasted the stormy skies above. Immediately, I was taken aback, and I likely would be again if I had the chance to visit sometime in the future. As you cross the bridge towards the temple, suffering hands reach out towards you. Demons and guardians adorn the bridge's rails, along with silvered dragon scales. Symbolic heads hang from trees nearby. The list goes on, and the detail is just astonishing. During my year and half in Asia, it's possible that I saw a thousand temples or more, but none were like this.

Everything catches your attention.

Not to get decidedly metaphorical, as I'm fairly wont to do as an English major and travel writer, but this temple is full of symbolism and metaphors. All good surrealism should be, it seems. Perhaps the most prominent symbol or metaphor for me was the notion of crossing a difficult path to find meaning and, to some extent, enlightenment. The initial bridge presents itself as something any reasonable person should turn around and run from, but only in crossing in it can you discover the temple's true meaning and beauty. So to in life.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

15 Interesting Facts About Countries Around the World

At times, my endless curiosity perpetuates itself in peculiar ways. For example, one fine afternoon I spent my time (and some would argue wasted) searching the internet for intriguing and obscure facts that I hadn't yet encountered about countries around the world. I found myself scratching my chin in wonder and nodding my head in understanding at what I now knew, that I didn't know only moments before. I thought that I would make this post if only to afford you the same opportunity. Exciting, right? These are facts that I came across from a number of resources and I'm fairly sure they're accurate, but if they don't happen to be completely and utterly accurate for some odd reason or another, don't barrage me with long-winded, aggressive emails.

Without further adieu, here are 15 facts that I thought were too interesting not to be shared.

1) With a population of overweight people that far exceeds that of the United States, the small island in the Southern Pacific known as Nauru statistically has the most overweight populous on the planet. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that prior to being called the Republic of Nauru, it was called "Pleasant Island." 



Nauru, in all its splendor. (source)


2) Australia is the only continent in the world to have no active volcanoes.


3) One of the official anthems of the micro-nation of Ladonia is the sound of a stone thrown into water. 


4) All of China is on Beijing time despite geographically spanning over 5 time zones. 


5) Here's one for the homeland that I knew but felt I had to include. At 1896 km, Canada's Yonge Street is the longest street in the world. 


6) With enormous expanses of forest, Russia produces the most oxygen for human consumption on the planet. 



The Great Vasyugan Mire, Siberia (source)



7) New Zealand was the first nation to give women the right to vote in 1893 - a move that was followed two years later by its neighbour Australia. 


8) Kudos to India who has never invaded a country in its entire history. 


9) Abkhazia is the most recent country to declare independence, which happened on August 26th, 2008. 





10) I cannot blame them in the slightest, but Switzerland consumes the most chocolate per year with approximately 10 kilos a year per person. Hey, they're known for their chocolate, right? 


11) If you count overseas territories, then it is actually France that covers the most time zones with a whopping 12. 


12) With over 60% of all lakes in the world (over three million in total), Canada has the most lakes on the planet. Luckily, I've been able to swim in a few of them. 




13) The first ever Olympic medal for Ireland was won in 1924 in the category of painting. Yes, painting. The category doesn't exist anymore, of course, but in that time John Butler Yeats won for his painting "The Liffey Swim," located below. 





14) Looking for a spouse? Singapore has the highest ratio of millionaires in the world.


15) With 45 of 80 seats taken by women, it is the nation of Rwanda which has the highest percentage of women in parliament. 


As always, thanks for stopping by. Hope to see you again soon, anonymous yet appreciated internet user.



Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Photo-essay: Enamoured, Ecuador

I was driving home on the congested Toronto highway today when my mind drifted towards the vibrant colours of Ecuador. Before me stood kilometers of dusty cars, winter worn pot-holed roads, and cold weather that has beaten down a population of otherwise cheery folks...for months on end.

I thought, maybe I'll glance at a photo or two when I get home, it's been a while. Then I thought, maybe I'll post a "photo-essay," seeing as I've never truly done that on my blog before. So, here it is. This is my story of Ecuador in photographs. And, if a picture is worth a thousand words, than this is the fastest I've written 20,000 words in my life.

Quito's Madonna on El Panecillo Hill

Mt. Chimborazo

Cathedral of Quito

Chimborazo Province


Lakes of Ozogoche


Sheering sheep alongside the Sumak Awana Women's Group


Home sweet home in Pacaritombo

Quality time with one of Ecuador's famous guinea pigs near Mt. Chimborazo

Chimborazo Province

Chimborazo Province

San Miguel

Chimborazo Province

Building with the Maestro - San Miguel

An array of Ecuadorian delights

Getting stitched up in Riobamba after an old sink collapsed on me at a Hacienda called Tortorillas


Hasta Luego.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Banaue, Philippines - Ancient Engineering

I'm not sure what the feeling is or where it comes from, but sometimes I wake up and I have an overwhelming urge to write - something...anything. I was considering breaking out my quill and parchment (neither of which I have) and writing a manifesto of sorts (I'm not entirely sure what a manifesto even is), but then I thought to myself, " have a blog that you've been neglecting for about a year, why not write there?" And here I find myself, one hour later, more excited than a person reasonably should be on a Sunday afternoon. I'll tell you, this writing thing ain't so bad.

Firstly, I want thank myself for taking such diligent notes throughout my Southeast Asian travels. I guess that's a tad self-indulgent, but really. At times, it was a little bit of a thankless and monotonous sort of task, but it's certainly worth it in hindsight. Well done, Chris from 2012. There are many places that I haven't written about that I have desire to write about, but there is one place in particular where I felt it was long overdue. That place is none other than the famed Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines.

Thumbs up for rice terraces

Located in the province of Ifugao, the Banaue Rice Terraces were apparently largely built by hand approximately 2000 years ago. They are still used today for farming, and I imagine they've remained just about as impressive as they were in their infancy. I remember feeling consistently baffled at the sheer breadth of the terraces, not to mention what an engineering feat this is. I also remember being positive that Bri and I had made the right choice in taking the long, trying bus ride north of Manila. (Note: The Banaue Rice Terraces is what the region is called, and consists of many different terraces that I'll reference such as Ifugao, Batad etc.)

We left Manila well fed and in good spirits after staying at our friend Dante's house. We had met him in Korea through friends, and I think it's fair to say that his family showed us some of the most incredible hospitality known to man. I still have the urge to send Dante and his family thank you cards every day - they were just that amazing. Simply put, they made Manila for Bri and me. Anyway, I'll have to write about all that good stuff another time. We got on a freezing night bus around midnight, and tried to catch some sleep on the way to Baguio. At this point, sitting upright in cold, questionable buses didn't deter me all that much from catching a few minutes sleep. I have become rather well versed in sleeping under uncomfortable and peculiar circumstances over the years.

We arrived in Baguio as the sun was rising, and walked to the bus station, which was really just an open garage covered in oil slicks and emanating smells I hadn't yet realized existed. Throwing our belongings into a cramped van, we took off for Banaue. The views  - incredible,  the drive - treacherous. There were 11 people in the van, and 5 people puked at some point during the ride. That should give you some indication as to just how winding the roads were. But, like I said, the views were all kinds of breathtaking.

Banaue is just about as nestled into the hills as a town can be. It has a population of 20,000 or so, and it feels like most of that population is busy servicing the tourist demands of people looking to view the terraces, specifically the Batad Rice Terraces. We ended up staying at Uyami's Greenview Lodge. Now, I probably wouldn't recommend it, but it did the trick. Our room was, um, cozy we'll say, and I seem to recall that the lights weren't always functional and the lack of hot water was conducive to waking up abruptly in the morning, ready for the day. Hey, I'm not picky. I never have been, and I sincerely hope I never lose that attitude. Because, in truth, it's not all that fun to write about being pampered at one five star resort or another. That's clearly why we stayed in some places with an awful lot of character along the way (emphasis on awful). It had nothing to do with our budget and dwindling savings, of that you can be sure.

We hopped into the back of yet another jeepney, which struggled mightily on rugged back roads that are a staple of the more rural areas of the Philippines. I still actually prefer these roads to the well-paved roads complete with deadlock traffic that Manila is famous for. Apparently, the Batad Rice Terraces are more impressive around March (when they're a little greener), but I was in awe during my August visit. The day was primarily spent hiking around the terraces, complete with a stop (and freezing cold swim) at the Tappia Waterfalls.

There were about eight of us in all who went on the hike, and I don't think anyone was let down in the slightest. Truthfully, it was (and remains) one of the highlights of any travelling I've ever done. Period. I'm writing this quite a bit of time after the fact, but these images remain with me, with astonishing clarity.

Back in Banaue, I spent the day or so that I had left just walking and observing, which is one of the most enjoyable ways you can experience a destination as far as I'm concerned. The Batad "ampitheatre" (picture 4 of the grouping above) is world famous, but the Ifugao Terraces that surround Banaue are equally incredible, at least in my humble opinion. So, I walked from one viewpoint to another, listening to music, writing, taking photos, pondering, wandering.

 As much as I adore the grandiose views of sprawling scenery, I have certainly come to appreciate the views that you won't find in a travel brochure. I'm talking about scenes that speak volumes about how you experienced the place and not just what you experienced. I was walking down one road in particular where I spoke to a little girl for a moment. As I walked away, I decided to take a farewell picture to maybe get one last smile from her. With the sun beaming overhead, she just stood there and gave me this quizzical glance. These are the things I want to remember.

Every time you visit a place, you take some of it with you, and shed off a layer of ignorance. I think that's why I'm so deeply invested in travel, as a way of life and experiencing the world. The Banaue Rice Terraces in particular have definitely stayed with me, as did much of my time in the Philippines. In the end, we boarded another cold, dark night bus, and allowed Banaue to become an everlasting memory.