Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Musing on the Mekong: From Thailand to Laos

As of late, I seem to be perpetually prefacing my blog posts with one reason or another as to why I'm not continuing the chronology of my Southeast Asian travels, but instead diverting into one creative affair or another. Well I will preface this post by kindly noting that there won't be any more prefacing of the like. I'm going to start writing my posts on particular aspects of my travels that I want to talk about, and not be confined to telling my travel stories, in their entirety, chronologically, and all that hullabaloo (Here I'd like to take a small detour and give myself a writer's high-five for finally incorporating the word "hullabaloo" into a post). The moral in this somewhat rambling story is that, moving forward, I'll write about whatever I'm in the mood to write about. Perhaps that is not at all that shocking considering it's my blog after all. Eventually, I hope that all my travels will make an appearance in their own right, and maybe they will, or maybe not. Either way, I'll enjoy writing it, and I can only ask that, as a reader, you will might do the same.

Today - I'll be writing about slow boating down the Mekong River.

Bri and I embarked on a minibus after four fantastic days in Chiang Mai that was heading as north as north gets in Thailand. That ultimately left us holed up in Chiang Khong. We situated ourselves in a hotel, then made a haphazard arrangement to meet friends around 9 and do a little wandering of the city, which was more of a riverside town in all actuality. The lot of us did in fact meet and head to a whiskey bar owned by a Belgian man where we proceeded to play Jenga. You know, just your run of the mill sort of night in Thailand. The night wound down as all nights do, and we awoke in the morning to cross the murky waters where we'd be able to get our Laos visas. We threw our travel packs in the front of the the narrow, suspect watercraft, and set sail.

We arrived alive on the opposing shores, got our visas in order, then caught a tuk-tuk to the port of departure, which was more or less a muddy shore with an outpouring of restaurants to capitalize on the tourist dollar. We sat down in one of these restaurants where I bought an entire pineapple for a dollar, and ultimately consumed it for breakfast - It was sweeter than my first lollipop. I gazed out upon the waters, wondering which foreboding craft would become our vessel for the following few days. The options, as pictured below, were not awe-inspiring, but they were intriguing.

The good news about waiting to find out which ship we would be spending most of the following few days upon is that all the ships before us were in a similar, noble sort of disrepair. Also, these ships were truly as advertised. You simply can't get much slower than these slow boats. And, in our case, this was a welcome turn of events. There is something to be said for having time, lots of time, to think about what you've seen in previous cities and where you are embarking to. That is, of course, if your boat doesn't sink. On the first day we would be riding down the Mekong and stopping at nightfall in a little known village called Pakbeng. Bri and I had made close friends thus far with Amelia and Jorg, who were really some of the finest people we met, hailing from beautiful New Zealand. If you're reading this Amelia and Jorg - I kindly send my love. We sat near the back of the boat, which isn't the wisest call if you don't want to be bombarded by the loudest motor you've ever heard in your life. It was the type of motor that I imagine has been fixed hundreds of times by crafty hands in villages all along the Mekong. I'm fairly sure the interior was populated with old car seats, which worked out surprisingly well.

I spent most of the day with my headphones on gazing out the window at sights that I hadn't yet witnessed in my life. There was something entrancing and alluring about the Mekong river, with its deep brownish hue. I watched children playing on the muddy shores, the hills which seemed to surround us, and even spent some time on the front of the ship alongside Jorg, taking it all in. I had a deep appreciation for all that I was seeing, and still do.

We continued to coast through the waters and ended up, as I mentioned previously, in a small village called Pakbeng. As we departed from the boat, we were greeted by throngs of eager hotel and hostel owners who wanted our business. Jorg, Amelia, Bri and I decided to head to one of these properties with a few American pals we had met along the way. The room was only about 10 dollars for the two of us, so the price was absolutely right. It was essentially a bed in the middle of a room, with a mosquito net around it, and let's not forget about the giant, alarming spiders. I didn't get a very clear picture of the spider, but the image below should illustrate what sincere terror it could spark in a person.

Spiders aside, it was such a pleasant place to spend the night. We all gathered on the large porch which possessed a marvelous vantage point of the Mekong River, and sipped on some beer from Laos, which was imaginatively called Beerlao. As far as Southeast Asian beer goes, it was fairly good actually. This is a feat as Southeast Asia, generally speaking, is known more for its beer prices than its beer.

In the morning, the sun shone through our window with unusual force and we awoke. We grabbed our packs and made the ten minute walk or so back to the boat. We had another day of slow boating ahead of us before we made it to Luang Prabang, a city I didn't yet know would become one of my favourites. The boat was waiting by the shore, as the low clouds drifted downwards on the rich hillsides, and a smile crept across my face.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Vilnius, Lithuania: The Valiant Vandals of Vilnius

At this very moment, I'm feeling like simply recapping a trip I took in the past wouldn't do justice to the creative mood in which I find myself. This creative mood seems to be present quite a lot recently - I wonder if I should be worried. I don't want to delve into a grand historical narrative, nor do I want to get into the political idiosyncrasies of any particular city. I want to write, for the sake of writing, about a place that I haven't written about in the past. The place I've chosen is Vilnius, Lithuania and not for its history or architecture, but for its art. I suppose that's a fitting thing to write about while in a creative mood, wouldn't you think?

Walking the streets of Vilnius can seem like an artistic endeavor in its own right, it's as poetic and quaint a city as any in Eastern Europe. It's the little known, petite sized capital of Lithuania, and it frequently misses the typical tourist list for anyone's "summer in Europe." I grabbed a bus from dreary Riga Bus Terminal with two friends I had met there, and before I knew it I was in Vilnius, departing from the bus, with a heavy backpack on my shoulders, and a hint of a general direction. We were walking towards a hostel that we all knew was somewhere in the Old Town, a UNESCO heritage sight in its own right.

Vilnius is quirky and unconventional in the most intriguing of ways. It's a city that seems to say, "So, we were occupied by the Germans and the Russians in the past, but where are they now?" The city's art screams this ethos.

Although, it would be unfair to suggest that this city is rebelling against their past, as opposed to celebrating their bright future. Or maybe it's neither. Maybe it's a city that has been aching to express itself for so long that a burst of culture was inevitable with the arrival of autonomy and independence (Lithuania achieved independence from the Soviet Union in September of 1991). Part of this expression is no doubt a deep appreciation for humour, or perhaps a concerted rebellion to the cold, somber life that once existed under Russian rule. I found myself constantly stopping along the road, examining humorous, eccentric art that was strewn about, far from the famed Old Town.

Even the crosswalks, likely organized by the municipal government, had a humorous edge to them.

But not all of the artistic expression seemed geared towards garnering a laugh. There were entire areas that seemed to use art as their pillar, to establish and maintain their very essence.

So why did I highlight Vilnius as a beacon for artistic expression of all the cities I've been to? That's a good question, and the answer is probably not black and white. Vilnius felt like a city that was dying to be heard, needed to be heard, and most importantly deserved to be heard. In all fairness, I actually decided to go to Vilnius because I didn't yet know anybody who had been. I saw the architecture, the cobble-stoned streets, and the classic Eastern European Old Town.  I tasted the greasy, delectable food priced to enlarge your waist line. I heard the cars and pedestrians that rummaged around the city. But I discovered the city through its art

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Significant Slumbers (Part One)

I have been lucky enough to sleep in some hilarious and bizarre places. I think we should go ahead and make that my epitaph. I'm not even necessarily referring to an experience at an eccentric hotel, but more a place that while you're falling asleep you think to yourself, "There is simply no way that I'll ever forget this." Usually we associate "unforgettable travel moments" with an astonishing view, or a meal that delights our senses, but for one reason or another I can recall the following random assortment of places I've slept with unusual clarity. I don't think I often reflect too much upon my sleeping arrangements while travelling, thus today I'm going to devote a blog wholly to obscure places I've rested my head over the years while on the road. This post will be a light-hearted affair, so please, put on your finest smile. Here, dear friends, is the first list of places I've slept over the years that allow me to put on my finest smile. I've decided to make a series out of this, so this shall be part one, including 5 destinations:

1) Stavanger, Norway - 2010 - The Prius/Tent on the Fjord

The year was 2010 and the country was Norway. If you've read even a hint of my blog, then you'd likely understand how very much I love this fine country, but I digress. Rumblings of a road trip began one night over a few beers, and eventually these rumblings became a reality. Neil, Grant, Thevishka and myself decided we would rent a car in Oslo and drive that bad boy all the way Stavanger, which is no small feat (Oslo --> Stavanger). The idea was to spend some time around Norway's picturesque fjords and do some extensive hiking on snow capped mountains. That we did, but along the way we slept in a few noteworthy arrangements. One night, we pitched a tent on the edge of a fjord and woke up to a sight that made me wonder if I should ever leave that very spot. I recall another night when the four of us slept in our miniscule Prius in a park in Stavanger. The funniest part of sleeping in the Prius, at least for me, was that apparently in the middle of the night I jolted my leg from the passenger seat and created a sizable crack in the windshield. Insurance saves the day, once again.

 2) Koh Tao, Thailand - 2012 - The Overnight Ferry 

The overnight ferry from Koh Tao to Suratthani is one of those things that you shouldn't tell your mother about until after you've arrived safely in your destination. Mom, if you're reading this, then I believe you'll be finding out now - love you! This wasn't the type of boat that inspired a whole lot of confidence from the outside, and even less from the inside. Essentially, the inside was a large room that had an array of blue, potentially dirty, makeshift mattresses that you could sleep on. More or less, it was shoulder-to-shoulder sleeping, regardless if the person next to you was a stranger or not. Honestly, it was cost-effective and not that bad at all, except for the powerful, anonymous waves that rocked the boat throughout the night. I'll be writing more about my experiences in Koh Tao later, so I'll leave it at that. The bottom line is that Bri and I made it safe and sound to our eventual destination of Krabi, and now we've got an interesting story to look back upon.

 3) Ha Long Bay, Vietnam - 2012 - A Versatile Vessel

I have actually written a post on Ha Long Bay previously, but I kept it fairly short and concise as I was on the road at the time. What I didn't elaborate on too heavily was the sleeping arrangements that Bri and I afforded ourselves for a few days. We had a cozy little room on the ship that we could call our own. The window we had brought in surges of fresh air off the water, and the views were spectacular. This very window wasn't altogether that many feet above the water, which made it all the more intimate. We spent several days on this tiny vessel, and loved every minute of it. It helped that we were cruising through Ha Long Bay, one of the natural wonders of the world.

 4) Hong Kong, China - 2009 - One Bed Fits All

This was the last stop on an extensive China trip that included a whole host of cities, so our pockets weren't necessarily bulging if you know what I mean. To add to this, we arrived in Hong Kong from Zhuhai during a typhoon, so we needed to find a place to stay as soon as we got to the bus terminal to get out of the storm. Mike, Lawrence, and I stumbled upon a hotel that was exorbitantly pricey, seeing as it was Hong Kong and all. We bargained with the receptionist (actually Lawrence did because he was the only one who spoke Mandarin), and managed to get a room that was the size of the closet and featured two single beds that could barely sleep a cat comfortably. The solution? We accepted our circumstances and put the beds together and slept across them like peas in a pod. That was a hilarious night then, and it still gives me a chuckle when I think about it.

Yes, I was younger and fatter in 2009. I also noticed that.

5) South Korea - 2011-2012 - Ondol Floors

When travelling around South Korea, it seemed that Bri and I spent a fair portion of time sleeping on those glorious ondol floors. I've explained them before in my blog, but they're essentially a Korean method of heating floors. It's not uncommon to find a hotel room with a pleasant, heated floor with no mattress at all, but rather a selection of blankets and pillows. One of these blankets tends to go under you (as it has a little more structure to it), while the other goes over. In the winter they get fantastically toasty, and in the summer they do the job as well. Whether it was on Seonyudo Island,  in Taebaeksan, or at the Mud Festival, I always appreciated this kind of sleeping experience, which you just can't find in Toronto. Not to mention, the room is devoid of any beds or clutter, so you can have large social gatherings, then bring out the "beds" when it's time to sleep. The Koreans are efficient with their use of space, of that I am sure.

There's a saying that goes, "there is no hope for a civilization which starts each day to the sound of an alarm clock." I agree wholeheartedly with that, and I'm fairly sure that's also the theme of the new Newfoundland and Labrador tourism commercial. Anyway, I think a civilization is equally hopeless when its people are desperately intent to be confined to the same, comfortable bed each and every night. I understand individuals can get homesick, but that's a much better affliction than never leaving your home in the first place. I won't try to come to some grandiose, literary conclusion in a post where I'm merely taking about places I've rested my head over the years, but if you're going to take something from this, then it is this - live a little. When you fall asleep in a foreign land, in a foreign place, you also tend to wake up there, and there is nothing better than waking up and thinking, "what city am I in again?"

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bangkok, Thailand: Palaces, Portraits, and Panoramic Views

From the ancient wonders of Cambodia's Angkor Archaeological Park, we suddenly found ourselves in the depths of another large, crowded Asian metropolis. I suppose it wasn't exactly "suddenly," but more a concerted effort of lengthy, budget transportation that eventually took us where we needed to go. That, in a nutshell, is the name of the game when it comes to transportation in Southeast Asia.

We arrived with Tory and 'Lil whom we had met previously in Phnom Penh, and checked into Lub d Bangkok Siam Square (A trendy hostel with everything you need, and seriously friendly staff). I should mention that Bri and I didn't see as much of Bangkok as we would have liked because we had a lot of administrative jargon to deal with - namely visits to reliable post offices, purchasing some goods we couldn't get elsewhere, and a visit to a quality international hospital to make sure my somewhat persistent headaches weren't the result of some horrid illness I was yet unaware of. That being said, what we did see in Bangkok was certainly of interest. Although, I'm not the biggest fan of this city, and I can think of at least 10 other cities I visited during my travels in Asia that I appreciated more. Nonetheless, Bangkok is Bangkok, and I don't regret visiting this city in any way. Some parts of the city impressed me to no end, and other parts of the city were less than spectacular. Spectacular or not, my eyes were always busy.

Rush hour in the lively Siam District

The Grand Palace was by far the most intriguing part of Bangkok for me, and arguably one of the more memorable sights of my whole trip where architecture is concerned. Constructed in the 18th century, the Grand Palace is a complex of buildings that quietly, yet assertively, conveys the fact that Thailand indeed has a storied history which includes a little wealth. Getting into the actual complex, we were confronted with a classic Bangkok scam - an individual wearing a "badge" of sorts claimed to be an officer and told us that the complex was closed for prayer, but we were welcome to accompany him on a three hour tour until it re-opened. We were well aware of the fact that Bangkok is saturated with scams and "scammers", so we avoided that situation, but I imagine many give in - it sounds plausible enough. The Grand Palace is full of dazzling buildings and intricate carvings kept in immaculate condition. The whole place seemed to be glowing of its own accord, which worked well for us as the weather was quite dismal. Take a peek for yourself:

Wat Saket is a quiet Buddhist temple in the Pom Prap Sattru Phai District of Bangkok (one of 50 districts), but the crown of this temple is actually Phu Khao Thong, which means Golden Mountain, and that's what most tourists know it by. The Golden Mountain is actually a result of a failed project to build an enormous chedi or stupa. King Rama IV picked up where King Rama III had left off and built a scaled down version of the original plan, and it has ultimately become one of the icons of the city. The top of the Golden Mountain is fittingly known for the large golden pinnacle of this chedi (check out the second picture below this text if you're a tad confused by all that). Bri and I walked to the top, and appreciated the tranquility and the surrounding panoramic views of Bangkok.

We ventured down to visit Bangkok's China Town, which is noted as one of Bangkok's oldest areas. It looked to be a fairly standard China Town in my opinion, but there was one place in particular we were searching for - Wat Traimit.  Wat Traimit houses the world's largest solid gold statue, and it looks every bit as magnificent as it sounds. This golden Buddha seems to have been forged sometime in the 13th or 14th century, and was actually plastered over to prevent it from being stolen (likely by Burmese invaders in the 18th century). In a funny turn of events, it appears the Thai rulers completely forgot that this enormous gold Buddha had been plastered over. Believe it or not, the presence of the gold underneath was not found again until 1955 when it allegedly fell while being moved and part of the plaster fell off. This story blows me away. Imagine if the largest gold statue in the world still lay dormant under plaster, its presence completely ignored.

Tory, Lil, Bri, and I rendezvoused again in this spirited city to grab a little dinner. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that we bought extraordinarily over-priced drinks at a swanky rooftop establishment. The Centurio Red Sky Lounge wasn't too far from our hostel and Siam Square, but it offers some of the finest views of the city. That's not too shocking as the restaurant is perched on the 55th floor of a skyscraper. We split a bottle of wine, took note of the suave surroundings of the restaurant, took a few photos, and appreciated the slew of modern buildings.

Honourable Mentions

The first thing I want to honourably mention so to speak is Khao San Road. This is the famous road for partying in Bangkok and it's known world wide as a hub for all things illegal. Bri and I combed the street and stopped off for beers in several establishments. We stopped everywhere from an underground jazz lounge to a rooftop rock bar while street vendors lined the road preying on hungry, drunken tourists. Nonetheless, I didn't think it was overly unique, although it was definitely overpriced. Fun? Yes. Extraordinary? Not particularly. In many ways, I found Siem Reap's Pub Street to be equally as fun, even though it's much less renowned.

This was an honourable mention for me that I'm sure isn't entirely too universal. Bri and I stopped off at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre (in Siam District) one fine afternoon to explore some of the shops in there. We ended up getting our portraits done for a whopping 5 dollars each, and it was absolutely worth it. So, for me this is an honourable mention. Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of Bri's portrait, but here's what mine ended up looking like. 

When I left Bangkok, I wrote this is my trusty journal, "Au revoir, Bangkok! It's been...um...not sure!" That's pretty well how I still feel - I'm just not sure. I look at photos of the Grand Palace and think to myself that there are few things more beautiful, then I quickly recall the incessant smog, smuggling, heckling, and scams that plague Bangkok. It strikes me as a first world city with second and third world problems. The truth is that I don't mind a city that's dirty in the slightest, but Bangkok redefines the word dirty, trust me. I don't love this city, and I don't hate this city, and perhaps I should be content with that. Would I go back? Yes, I would. Would I enjoy it? That's an entirely other question. There's a lot I haven't seen in Bangkok, which isn't usually the case when I leave a city. Perhaps many of the joys of this city remain dormant for me, kindly awaiting my likely return.