Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Temple Trip

I've been traveling long enough that I should know better.  I've lost my luggage before, but it hasn't happened in a long time, and never when time was limited, so I guess I was lulled into a false sense of security.  When I left Mandalay, I put pretty much everything into my checked suitcase and carried light in my backpack.  So, when I got to Siem Reap and my suitcase did not, it wasn't exactly the best day ever.  I had no clean clothes.  I had no toiletries.  I had no sunscreen and no hat.  Basically I was screwed, and it sucked.  It would have been okay if Bangkok Airways had brought my luggage that evening, but in actual fact it was almost 1 the next day when my luggage finally did arrive.  Live and learn, I guess, but Cambodia was a rough leg of the trip thanks to that start.
I arranged with one of the drivers from Shadow of Angkor Guesthouse to take me around to the temples.  The first morning was another early roll-out...we left at 5:30 in order to be out at Angkor Wat before sunrise.  And then we got to Angkor Wat and I saw the hordes of tourists and I developed a new philosophy on sunrises, and it goes something like this: Fuck the sunrise.  Of course it would have been ridiculous to turn around and go back, so I asked him if we could go somewhere else to see the sunrise, and he took me to Sa Srang,  It was once a royal bathing pond, and it made for a nice sunrise, since there were almost no tourists.
Another nice thing about Sa Srang is its proximity to Ta Prohm.  From what I'd read about the Angkor group, this was the temple I was most interested in seeing.  I was fascinated by the way nature had pretty much raised her middle finger here regarding what humanity built up.  You can see the devastation of time in most of the Angkor temples, but Ta Prohm has really been wrecked; trees started growing and basically just strong-armed their way through the place, roots pushing between the blocks of stone and taking it over.  Walking through its wildness in the post-dawn glow, nearly alone, I could almost imagine myself as an archaeologist-adventurer.  And although other parts of the Angkor group were nice - gorgeous, or impressive - I think Ta Prohm really was my favorite because of that untamed feeling it had.
When I was finished imagining myself as Lara Croft, we went on to Angkor Thom, which is actually the largest complex in the Angkor group, since it was not just a temple, but rather a city, where the sacred and the profane walked together.  My driver urged me to have breakfast, so I stopped for some fried rice.  I wasn't particularly hungry, since it was so hot, and didn't get my appetite back until I returned to Thailand, but the coke I drank with it did me a world of good.  Then I started exploring Angkor Thom with the Bayon, followed by Ta Phuon, and took pictures of the terraces of the elephants and the Leper King before calling it a day.  I explained that I needed to go back to the guesthouse so I didn't get sunburned, and since he had to get up even earlier than I did, I think he was glad to oblige me.  We made a plan for the next day, and I settled in to wait on my luggage.
At 7:30 the next day we headed out to see #2 on my list: Banteay Srei, which is considered the jewel of Khmer art.  It's way the hell out of the city, and I told myself that maybe it wouldn't be too crowded.  This was a lie.  As we puttered down the road we were passed by bus after bus of Chinese tourists.  I remember a time when Japanese tourists with big cameras were the traveler's bane, but those days are long gone.  I had to maneuver around groups of 20-30 people, all listening raptly to their guides and taking tons of pictures.  The carvings on this temple were totally worth it, though.  I wished we were allowed to get closer to the central buildings, though, because the carvings were really spectacular.
After a couple of other temples I finally made my way to Angkor Wat in the afternoon.  I asked my guide when it would be the least crowded, and he said that people start to thin out around 11, and that they get busier again around 3, leading up to sunset.  We got there maybe around 12:30, and it was immediately apparent to me why there are fewer people in the middle of the day: it is hot as hell.  All I'd eaten that day was a cherry coke and a banana and I still wasn't hungry, but I allowed myself to be persuaded in favor of, "Cool drinks, madam?" and sat at the "Harry Potter" stall, which should have been numbered 9 3/4, but was disappointingly #5.

When I finished my drink and the afternoon's entertainment of watching tourists beseiged by 5-year old touts, I moved on to visiting Angkor Wat in earnest.  Unlike its brother and sister temples, Angkor Wat was never abandoned, so you're seeing the temple as it has always been, minus expected wear and tear.  It's the largest religious structure in the world (by which I assume they mean the entire complex rather than just the temple proper), and it's a doozy.  The temple has three levels to it, the third of which you access by some pretty steep stairs.  As I stewed in my own juices under the roasting sun, I asked myself if I really needed to climb up there.  I'd seen lots of carvings and appreciated the architecture just fine from where I was, right?

In the end I decided I would regret it if I didn't climb up there, and I was right.  The view of the grounds was stunning.  The temple itself was stunning.  It wasn't swarmed with tourists, and the climb down wasn't bad, although I recommend doing it backwards (your feet fit better that way).  I sat up there for a while and just took it all in.

As I was gearing up for the trip, I came across some comparisons between Angkor and Bagan on WikiTravel.  They were quite poetic and also accurate, but missed out on what I thought was the real difference between the two - while both are tourist sites, the Bagan temples are used by actual spiritual seekers.  Maybe it was my imagination, or maybe my passive-aggressive loathing for Tourists, but I think there's something about taking your shoes off that makes a place special, that inclines you to feel more.  Don't get me wrong, I liked them both and wouldn't have wanted to miss either, but there was just something breathtaking about Bagan.  

Sunday, December 28, 2014

All that Glitters...

They say that all that glitters is not gold.  As an art teacher I've got enough experience with glitter (which never, ever goes away) to know the truth of this saying.  However, I also know that nothing has quite the same glow to it that gold does.  And across Mandalay and heck, let's go ahead and say it - all across Myanmar - you will see gold glittering.
Enough gold to draw the attention of a dragon (AAGH!  HOW EXCITED AM I TO SEE THE FIVE ARMIES IN THE NEXT DAY OR SO WITH DOUGIE-POO?!?)  Kristen had a philosophical disagreement with all this gold, but who am I to judge...I belong to a temple-building religion and they don't come cheap.  On my final day in Myanmar I decided I needed to visit one more of these temples, because at the Mahamuni Pagoda, they did a special ceremony every morning - the washing of the Buddha's face.
My driver from the day before told me he would pick me up at 4am to take me there.  It's funny that I keep getting up early - traveling is not exactly a relaxing time for me like it is for other people.  We got to the pagoda around 4:30, where he had me wait to be let in by the gate, where people were selling flowers and snacks to give as offerings during the ceremony.  There were plenty of mosquitoes and they all seemed to think my ankles were a great place to grab a snack.  At 5 they opened the gates and let us in.  My feet (bare for the last time!) were struggling after I spent a good long while wandering around on them the previous night, so I did not hot-tail it down the corridors where vendors would be hawking their wares in a matter of hours, but I was close enough to the front of the pack that I got to sit in the women's enclosure (behind, of course, the men's section, but since I could still see just fine we'll let it pass.

After sitting for another half hour (in which more mosquitoes dined on my sweet, sweet blood), the ceremony finally started.  The monks opened the room where the statue waited and set up a scaffold just in front of the Buddha's chest, then brought in offerings of flower arrangements, which they set up on the scaffold.  Helpers in white robes came in and mixed up the liquid that they used to wash the gold and removed the flowers so that the monk could climb up.  Three sheets of saffron silk were draped around the statue's shoulders, reminding me of a bib, especially with all the food offerings that people had bought, but I attempted to squelch this thought.  Finally, the bucket of suds was passed up and the monk began to bathe the Buddha, gently rubbing the wet sponge over his glowing visage.  The water which ran down and dripped from his chin was caught by the cloth, preserving the gold which covered his chest.  When the Buddha was clean (or as clean as you can be without scrubbing behind those big ol' ears), the monk dried and polished his face, using two or three different cloths to buff the statue until it had a countenance like lightning.

I finally got up and unfolded my legs, stepping out of the little sitting area.  I returned past the shops, some of which were beginning to open, until I made it back out to my taxi.  As we drove back through the pre-dawn streets, I couldn't help but notice who was out at this hour - monks and pilgrims - and contrasted it with the saying I tried to remember about how drunks and whores are the only ones out before dawn.  Meanwhile I was growling with hunger.  I'm so accustomed to the cold that in these suddenly hot climates I haven't had much of an appetite.  However, there's nothing like rolling out at 4 in the morning to make you remember you haven't eaten much since yesterday afternoon.

After winding down post-python the previous day, I decided to go out for a walk and find the Shan noodle shop that Kristen had taken me to the night before.  She and her friends knew the best places for food, and the Shan noodles were no exception, so I wandered over in the general direction and eventually found it for an encore (with the yogurt she introduced me to for dessert).  I decided to go ahead and see the Moustache Brothers show that night, which didn't start til 8:30, but I thought I might just wander til then.  Eventually my feet let my brain know this was an idiotic idea, so I went back to the hotel and chilled for a couple of hours before walking over.

The Moustache Brothers are fairly well-known for their political satire.  Two of the three served prison time for telling jokes in a country that didn't find them funny.  I may not be a great student of history, but I wanted to understand Myanmar better, so I chose to go to their show instead of the puppet show, which I'd been considering.  When I got to the house where they perform, I was greeted warmly by Lu Maw and his niece, Par Par Lay's daughter.  The night's show could more easily have been the Moustache Sisters, since Lu Maw was the only one of the original performers that night - the rest of the ensemble was largely his wife, his granddaughter, his sister.  Par Par Lay died in 2013, and the third brother, their cousin Lu Zaw, was absent.  After the show, I talked to some French people who were looking for a taxi at the same time as me, and they asked what I thought.  I told them I enjoyed it, and then they started talking about how hard it was to understand him and that they weren't sure if it was right for such a serious subject.  Which I guess I can understand, but the fact that he can maintain a sense of humor after all his family had been through instead of being bitter and angry is remarkable to me.  If I'd been going to see a kickass comedy routine, I probably would have been disappointed.  Lu Maw had some good jokes, but I could feel the absence of his brothers...he was one man doing the job of three.  What happened instead was that I got to feel something, a part of history, a subversive agent against corruption, a memorial to a moment in time.

I was going to share a taxi with them, but beyond the fact that they didn't get it, they just stood there waiting when no one was coming, and I'd rather at least be walking in the right direction, so that's what I did.  After about 3 blocks Par Par Lay's daughter rode up and asked if I needed a taxi - the vocation she had chosen rather than comedy.  I was thrilled to have a ride, to get back that much of the sleep I needed before the next morning's early roll out but also to contribute a little more.  Someone on TripAdvisor was disgruntled with the fact that the family sold their services after the show, as if it was a scam, but I was ecstatic.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Snakes and Bridges

Today is a difficult day.  I just realized that I've never spent Christmas alone.  I've been away from home, but I've always been with a friend - the singles from church one year, the Evil One another, and Curly Sue on the last.  It's enough that even without a rough start in Cambodia, where I'm writing this from, I'd be having a hard time.  However, I have to remember that a difficult day in which I get to see Angkor Wat is better than an easy one a lot of other places.  So there.
I've gotta take you back to Myanmar for two more posts, so don't get lost.  It was only during my third day in Mandalay that the city started to reorganize itself into something cohesive in my mind.  On one hand, it's sort of disappointing that it took so long for it to feel approachable to me, but on the other, it means that I have reasons to come back, if I run out of other places to go to.  I mean, I missed the world's largest book!  For a book lover like me, that's pretty much sacrilege!

I asked the staff at the Royal Pearl Hotel to book a driver to take me to the Snake Pagoda.  I like to check in with Atlas Obscura occasionally because they tend to have more interesting sites pegged than TripAdvisor, and this was no exception.  The world's biggest book and a teak temple can't really compare to the story of this temple outside Mandalay in a little village called Paleik.  Bonus: almost NO foreign tourists and nobody asked me to pay $10 for photo privileges (which they do at Mandalay Hill and other sites).
Here's the story:  apparently one day the snakes - Burmese Pythons, of course - just showed up.  The monks who ran the temple tried to take them back out into the wild, but they came back.  They took this as a sign of divine favor and kept them.  These aren't the original snakes - the Burmese Python lives about 30 years in the wild - but after the original snakes died (and were stuffed...they are in the pagoda and look kind of creepy...) patrons donated new snakes, and the beat goes on.
The hotel staff I talked to told me to plan on leaving around 9, so that I would be there for the snakes' "shower."  Each day the snakes are brought from the Buddha statue they normally wind themselves around to a tub, with about 6 inches of water in it, filled with flower petals.  A silver bowl with offerings in it floats on the water, although I'm not sure what that's all about...maybe the snakes bless the money that way?  Anyways.  They spend some time undulating through the water, and if they don't climb out on their own, their handler brings them out, and rinses them down before drying them off and feeding them scrambled eggs (obviously not cooked ones...raw milk and eggs).  Visitors can help by pouring the mixture down the snakes throats from a silver pitcher.  Based on how the handler had to hold their mouths open, I'm guessing they'd rather be feeding themselves, but otherwise they seem well cared for.
After hiring a driver but before actually setting out, I looked at a map and determined that I could probably combine my trip to the snake temple with a visit to U Bein Bridge.  Kristen had been trying to organize it for sunset the previous day, but it didn't happen.  I asked my driver if it would be okay, and he said he'd take me.  U Bein Bridge is the world's longest teak bridge.  It looks rickety as all get out, but seemed sturdy enough once I was walking on it.
One end of the bridge is tourist central, lots of stalls set up selling schlock to the sightseers, but the majority of traffic was locals.  The other side of the bridge lets you out by one of the universities, so I guess that could have something to do with it.  Although I'm sure the sunset is nice out there with all that water, I'm kind of glad I saw it during the daytime; fewer tourists.  Although I'm glad the tourists come here, because I got some awesome souvenirs - a teak relief carving, a painting of the bridge, and a hair pin thing made of - get this - watermelon seeds.  Along the way my driver pointed out the Moustache Brothers and I ended up with a huge question...did I go to see them, or the puppets that evening??? 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Monkey-See, Monkey-Do

My phone has been acting weirder and weirder, and the weird thing it did yesterday was not save the photos it took, the result of which is a post without pics.  Totally old school.  I'm kind of okay with this, since yesterday was the kind of day that photos can't really show you about.  UPDATE:  I figured out what happened.  My phone - which I named Kyu-Jun because it's as big a pain in the ass as the other Korean I know with that name - decided that day that it was the first of January, 2000, so the photos were not where I expected them to be.  I'm adding them now, at the beginning of February.

I got into the Mandalay airport at around 9 a.m.  It struck me on my way through to Bagan as about 20 years behind the times - I got a hand-written ticket and boarding pass, for crying out loud.  Since I hadn't made prior arrangements to be picked up I marched past the touts looking for the taxi queue...only to find there was no taxi queue.  So I turned to ask the one who'd followed me how much a ride to my hotel in the city center would cost.  All the other touts descended on me to tell me how much their services cost, which basically got them yelled at for their trouble, since I couldn't hear the one I was actually asking.  It wasn't exactly a great start.

The drive into the city was nice - between fields being threshed by hand - and then we got to the city proper.  I don't know what I was expecting Mandalay to be like.  Quaint old buildings, perhaps, maybe kind of like Kathmandu?  Whatever it was, it was wrong.  Mandalay is teeming, crazy traffic, a million motorbikes, loud noise, a feeling of decay in some buildings while others are shiny and new.  Brand new streets that have been covered with sand that shop owners have to wet down each morning to keep the dust from blowing onto their wares.  It was kind of an overload.

As I mentioned a few days ago, my friend Kristen was back in Mandalay, and I called her after I got settled at the hotel.  She made arrangements with some friends to come pick me up and go on an adventure.  I'm pretty sure without her I would have had a dismal opinion of Mandalay, because I really didn't want to go back out into that.  I probably would have anyway, since the internet was so slow in the hotel (in all of Mandalay, it turns out - it takes a lot to make me think Shanghai internet is fast, but you've managed it, Mandalay!), but I wouldn't have been in the proper mental state to enjoy it.

She introduced me to Wayan, Jess, and Robin, with whom I'd be riding, and then we set off for lunch.  I was a little nervous about being a passenger on a motorbike.  I haven't done it since I was probably 8 years old, and then it was either Shaggy or my Dad driving.  I kept an eye on Kristen to see what she was doing, and as a result I neither fell off nor gave Robin the impression that he was carting around a Burmese python.  We drove a short distance and had a ton of food.  Burmese food shares a lot in common with cuisine throughout the region - spicy and saucy, but with more oil than maybe other places.  We all had a good laugh when Robin ordered us mutton, since I'd just mentioned that Mongolian food was basically mutton, mutton and noodles, or mutton in dumplings, but this mutton was tender and hardly muttony at all.

Then we rolled out of Mandalay proper for a little hike.  We drove past a lot of construction - the Chinese on the move - and through small villages.  We even got to see the parade of offerings - including young boys and girls, cleaned and dressed in new finery - going out for a donation ceremony.  Kristen later explained that families give everything to the monasteries - there is gold everywhere while the people starve - and this means that when there's no food for one of the kids, they may enter the monastery or nunnery, which will at least guarantee them two meals a day.  It's kind of strange, seeing so many monks.  I've seen them in Mongolia and other countries, of course, but never so many.  Never so many young.
Eventually we made our way past small pagodas and a series of statues of monks trailing down the mountainside to the "monkey temple."  The place was absolutely infested with monkeys.  My new buddies had told me we were going to see monkeys, and I thought, "Oh goody."  Except not really, because I'm always afraid I'll end up with one of the vermin on my head.  They're essentially small children, but with fewer manners and more fleas.  However, they are photogenic little bastards, and I took photos and even a video, which my phone ate in its sleep.  We biked up the mountain a little further before turning back to do the essential Mandalay afternoon thing - hit a tea shop.

Tea shops actually have a plethora of refreshing beverages.  Jess started talking about avocado juice long before we got there (which made me think, "Avocado juice???")  I followed Kristen in getting a strawberry juice, and the five of us sat talking across from the palace moat, sipping on some delicious drinks as the afternoon wore down.
On the way up: a spread-eagled eagle.  Kristen is the kind you can take outrageous pictures with.
Finally, seeing the sun start to change color, Kristen asked her friends to drive us to Mandalay Hill, which she had informed me we were GOING to hike to see the sunset.  She forgot to mention until we were actually taking off our shoes that we were going to be doing it barefoot.  Along the way to the top pagodas are scattered, and since you can't walk in a pagoda with shoes, you go without.  Luckily it was not a terribly strenuous hike, although I did huff and puff along the way (which is not enough to put off the locals who had been told to go there and practice their English).  You could tell when you got closer to the top, because the architecture got more opulent and the souvenir stands more frequent.  My favorite purchase was three ink paintings by a local artist, for which I paid a grand total of five dollars.  In fact, the entire Myanmar portion of my trip has been ridiculously cheap.  I spent $350 during the seven days I was there.  I'm a pretty high-roller when I'm on vacation, so that's kind of crazy.

Finally...FINALLY...we got to the top of the hill, just in time for the sun to go down and the concentration of tourists to hit its peak.  The monks and other English students that we'd managed to politely put off had found other, juicier prey - older men and women from other parts of the globe, who must have been thrilled to be chatting with a monk.  The sun was blood red and the whole city was on fire.  We could see everything, and Kristen explained parts of the city to me as we walked around the top of the hill.  Once the sun had disappeared and some of the tourists had left, we joined the throng trickling down the hill.  We made lots of stops for souvenirs, and eventually found ourselves wondering why we were the only people walking down through the dark in our dirty, bare feet.  The answer, of course, was that we were travelers, not tourists, and travelers take the long hike, while tourists drive to the top.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Barefoot in Bagan

(alternate title: I wonder when my last tetanus shot was*...)
When I announced that I was going to Myanmar during my Christmas vacation, Engrish's input was solid.  She'd been to Bagan, a city that had about a billion pagodas, and encouraged me to do the same.  My first instinct to visit Myanmar came from my feisty little friend Kristen, who had lived in Mandalay for a year and would be returning in time to see me when I got there.  She had posted photos, a long long time ago, of herself doing wacky things with pagodas in the background, and I decided this was where Engrish was talking about.
A long time ago when I went to Egypt with Belynda, we did the only logical thing to do and got up at the buttcrack of dawn to go see the sites of Luxor.  This meant that we beat the heat (yes, it is still hot in November in Egypt) and a lot of the tourists.  I used the same tack with Bagan.  The dudes at the fabulous Bagan Umbra Hotel (officially 3 star, but 5 star in my books - great service, comfy, awesome pool) told me breakfast began at 6 the next morning, which gave me plenty of time to scarf down some eggs and roll out.  I rented a bicycle for the day (the second day I rented a scooter, because while I am in shape, the shape I happen to be in is round), and only got about a couple of blocks away before I had to stop and play photographer.  Another couple of blocks and the sun started to rise, so of course I pedaled to the nearest pagoda to take some photos of everything washed with golden light.

I just happened to pick a pagoda that had access to the upper levels.  Not all of them do - many are getting close to a thousand years old, and protecting them is a priority - but I saw other tourists up there and started trying to figure out how to get up there.  It turned out you have to climb up tall, narrow stone stairs, barefoot...

...oh yes, did I mention the bare feet?  Because in whatever kind of Buddhism this is, we don't wear shoes or socks inside.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy going sans socks and shoes, but it's not like going into Seoul's Mormon temple, back in the day where they had us take our shoes off, and we walked on plush, pristine carpet.  The pagodas are open to all elements - heaven only knows what I was stepping on at any given moment.

The bare feet were not even the scary part, though.  The scary part was coming back down.  I'm not claustrophobic or acrophobic, and those were facts that I had to keep telling myself on the way down.  "I'm not scared of heights.  I'm not scared of small spaces.  This is fine.  I'm not going to fall."

Well, I made it out, and moved on.  Some people might tell you if you've seen one pagoda, you've seen them all.  While I can agree that there is a certain similarity, especially between the smaller ones, if you are really looking (as might someone who has a camera attached to her face, for example), you'll see how individual each one is.  Some have lost most of their details, while others are stunningly well-preserved.  Some have much of their paintings intact.  Some may not be impressive by themselves, but are grouped together with many other pagodas, or their surroundings makes them stand out.  And at least one has bats...when I realized that's what that sound was, and that was the source of the various fluids on the floor, I refused to go any further.  If you're the kind of person who likes knowledge, learning about their history probably helps.  Dougie-Poo suggested this to me.  Since I like to see and feel my way around, I printed a barebones amount of information off Wikitravel, glued it into the Book, and then totally ignored most of it.  That's just how I roll.

Sadly, I didn't stay out on the bike very long.  This thing happened called "Eating lots of fruit and coconut product."  I'll tell you that coconut is a natural laxative and leave it at that.  Once I got back to the hotel, I decided I needed lunch and a nice relaxing afternoon, and didn't go out again til the evening.  I took a horse cart to the palace, where they are putting on a dramatic interpretation of Bagan's history.  Since there's not much else to see in Bagan in the evening (or, really, at all, besides pagodas) I dropped some money on a ticket, and wandered around nearby, waiting for the show to start.  The sun went down, which means a neat thing happened - I got to see the pagodas in a new light (see what I did there?)  Actually, they look pretty lit up at night, but I'm thanking my lucky stars it was just a nice, tasteful glow...now that I'm in Mandalay I've seen atrocities committed with LED lights that I can't even.  I just can't.
Finally it was time for the show to go on.  I was hoping for something fabulous.  The ads make it look just marvelous.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the dancing, and it was alright...but oh good grief, it was just ridiculously camp.  And the voice acting just hurt - it was so fake.  Not that you can't make that work.  As a Mormon, I know that it can - I've seen the Nauvoo pageant.  But they should've had an LDS consultant on this one.  If you're going to go cheesy, make it that good French shit.

*In 2004, unless I'm mistaken.  We had to have one for Anasazi.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Day Tripper

I'm not a big believer in guided tours.  At best, they're the most expedient way of getting from point A to point B.  At worst, they're misinformative and don't give you enough time to see the things you really want to see.  However, (as I've said before) sometimes they are the only way to see what you really want to see, so I found myself getting in a minibus with 12 other foreigners Wednesday morning, bound for Chiang Rai.

I did not care about seeing the hot spring along the way.  You know I love hot springs, probably more than a lot of you, but a quick foot soak doesn't begin to cut it for me.  I had a look around at all the shops, used the loo, and ate a banana pancake (because someone didn't have time for breakfast) but it wasn't doing it for me.

I was similarly unimpressed with the Myanmar border and the Golden Triangle, a place on the Mekong River where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos meet up.  I've crossed land borders before and I saw Israel on the other side of the Dead Sea, and besides, I was going to Myanmar the next day.  Those two stops were two hours of my life I would have rather spent differently.

The Black House, on the other hand, was an interesting surprise.
Thawan Duchanee, the recently deceased Thai artist, designed the place as an interpretation of hell (this is even more interesting when you realize that his teacher was Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed the real reason I signed up for this tour).  There are actually a lot of buildings on the grounds, all of them painted black with red tiles on the roof and filled with all sorts of pointy bits.  It also has a lot of dead animals.  Like, a LOT.  Supposedly the all died of natural causes, but still.  I have a dog skull given to me by Fire Marshall on my desk - I teach Georgia O'Keeffe, it works - and it still makes me a little squeamish if I think about it too much.  The buffalo horns, crocodile skin, and even elephant skeleton definitely help you to feel like you've landed yourself in hell...as do the carvings on the doors of human-ish creatures with a stranger assortment of penises than you'll find in a Korean bathhouse...

There were two things I actually went into this tour for - hill tribes and the White Temple.  Sadly, we didn't spend too much time with either or them.  On our way to the Myanmar border, we turned off onto a dirt road, which we followed a way between rice paddies.  Up here the bright red clay used to be poppy country, although Thailand was successful in promoting other crops.  The people we visited are the Kayan Lahwi, and were originally from Burma (which I've been calling Myanmar because that's what it is now), but many now hold Thai passports.  For a variety of reasons the practice is fading out, but we still saw plenty of children wearing them.
I probably don't think as hard as I should about things before I do them - Heaven knows it's something my Dad's complained about for a good three decades.  At lunch (which we finally got to eat around 3 o'clock!) I was talking with some of the other women on the tour, one of whom hadn't gone to see the Kayan in protest to the fact that they were somewhat exploited.  I can see what she's saying, although I don't know what the truth is.  Are they happy to be a tourist attraction?  Do they have choice in their lives?  I'm not sure.  I tried to be respectful, and I made sure to buy some of their handicrafts.  Whether or not that's enough, I'm not sure, but I'm still glad I got to see them.
And that, good friends, brings me to the absolute highlight of my tour: Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple.  (By the way, if you were wondering, no, this is not the order we did things in - just the arbitrary way I'm writing about it).  I'd seen pictures of the White Temple before and thought it was just about the most amazing thing I'd ever seen.  And then I got there and got to actually see it.
Wat Rong Khun is Chalermchai Kositpipat's interpretation of the rebirth cycle, including Heaven and Hell.  The amount of detail on this monster is just unbelievable.  The front of the temple has this installation, which seems like a pond, but has no water, just about a billion grasping hands.  Around the sides of the pond are a variety of demonic creatures gnawing on whatever they got, 'cause demons don't give a ----.  You go over the bridge leading to the actual temple, and find yourself in a much calmer place, closer to enlightenment.

Pictures aren't allowed in the interior of the temple itself, which continues the external themes in a much more colorful way.  It was damaged earlier this year by an earthquake, but fortunately was open and in the process of restoration.  It was interesting to see the artists working on repairing the murals inside the temple.  I was particularly intrigued by the Hell portion, which was on the side with the door you enter through, as it had a variety of pop culture icons - a Minion, Neo from the Matrix, Superman, and Ben Ten, among others that I can't remember now.  I think I could have spent all day there, but I only had thirty minutes.

All that said, I think the best moment came when we were on our way back to Chiang Mai.  Night was fallen and it was dark as we hurried back along the roads, when we passed a typical, Northern Thai temple.  It was not lit up, but all the mirrors used to decorate it were catching light from everywhere - street lights, car lights, moon light.  As we zoomed past, it sparkled, like a mirage, like fragments of a dream.  And this is the worst thing about tours: the fact that you can't just demand that they stop the car, let you get out and take a look, take a photo - there are 11 other passengers (not counting the guide's sister who had her hands all over the driver, ewww) who are ready to get back to their hotel for the night.  Bummer.  But if I'm lucky when I get back to Chiang Mai on the 28th I'll be able to track down one to shoot.  There's certainly enough that I should find one if I persist...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ohhhh Maiiiii!

Well, my brain demanded it, demanded that instead of going to bed early like I probably should, I get started writing about my trip.  When I bought my tablet netbook thing I justified it by telling myself how easy it would be to bring on trips and I'd never need an internet cafe again!  Well, it hasn't exactly worked out that way.  Here I am on this trip, and while I should have been updating faithfully - the computer is all systems go, I have the right memory card, blah blah blah - I have another piece of writing I've been working on, and that's been like pulling teeth.  So.  Ahem.  On with the blogging.
Monday night I finally made it to Chiang Mai.  It was not exactly the smoothest...well, I guess I can't call it a start since I'd already been out of Mongolia three days at that point.  I didn't arrive on a good note, I guess.  The flight was delayed about a half hour and when my luggage FINALLY appeared on the carousel, I was done.  Brand-new Carlos Ruiz-Zafon book in hand, I grabbed it and rushed off to get a cab to the guesthouse I was staying at for the first night.  He took me to the place Dougie-Poo had suggested, a guesthouse he'd stayed at way back in the day called Julie's.  I'd emailed ahead of time and they said they had a single room with shared bathroom available.  However, when I got there, that was not the case.  The guy I'd talked to said I should have contacted them in advance, that they didn't check their email that often, and although I was livid that they made it MY fault in spite of the fact that they had a room that morning (not to mention the fact that they told a single woman to go wandering looking for different digs at 11 at night), there was not much I could do except go to their next-door competitor, JJ Guesthouse, where - once I managed to drag someone out of sleep long enough to ask - they were happy to put me up.  It was only when I was settling unto my room that I realized I'd left Marina, my brand new book, behind at some point.  Damn.

When I finally got up and started wandering the old city, I found Chiang Mai very much to my liking.  It doesn't have that unmanageable, hectic feel to it that Bangkok does; it's much more laid back.  I wandered around in a loop from JJ's, stopping into temples and keeping an eye out for someplace to eat.  Eventually I made my way back to where I started and sat down to eat basically everything on the menu at the Mickeybunny cafe, which had smelled appealing when I first got going.  While I ate ALL THE FOODS! I spent some time trying to figure out where I was going until 3, when I was set to meet Dougie-Poo, and eventually made a plan to get out of the city the next day.  Dougie-Poo and his wife were still working (like pretty much everyone in education except us), and I decided if I wanted to get out of the city for a day - and I kind of did - that it would be better to do it the next day rather than waiting until I came back through, when they were off work.  I saw a few more temples, then came back to the guesthouse, booked the next day's trip, and caught a tuk-tuk to Dara Academy, where I met up with my friends.
Dougie-Poo and I worked together back in Korea.  He's been living in Chiang Mai for about a billion years, minus a couple of stints in Korea to save money.  As we talked that evening, we both agreed that there was something about GDA - I've seen more of the people I worked with there since leaving than I have anywhere else, although that could just be the Stockholm Syndrome working its magic.  At any rate, Dougie-Poo and his lovely wife were gracious enough to put me up and feed me and take me back to the guesthouse at oh-dark-hundred the next day, and I'm looking forward to seeing them for realz when I get back to Chiang Mai on the 28th.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Grub Club: Silk Road Reboot

This is the last grub club post I need to do before I'm totally caught up and can let the vacay blogging begin.  I'm pretty sure that it was Champ who picked Azurro for us to try that night, but when Blondie got there (ahead of us - Engrish, Champ, Lil' Miss Catwalk, and I all had meetings that went way too late), they were closed, and the general consensus was that we'd try Silk Road again.
The closed down in the last half year or so to remodel, and some of us hadn't been there since (Champ and Lil' Miss Catwalk had, and I think that's why they decided to go there instead of some other good choices...they were hoping for a win).  Some of the food was delicious.
Since it's been a freaking long time since this all happened I can't actually tell you about all the dishes.  People were generally quite satisfied with what they'd ordered, and we liked the ambiance in general, although it was kind of cold, especially in the bathroom, which you actually kind of needed a coat to use.
I went for the pulled pork sandwich.  I'm a sucker for a good pulled pork, but this one was just so-so.  I mean, don't get me wrong, it's better than noodles and mutton, but it didn't give me that euphoric feeling of invinicibility that I sometimes get from really good food (ask me about my trip to On the Border and Krispy Kreme last Sunday in Seoul...mmmm...)  At any rate the overall impression was that they'd improved since our original visit and that we'd go again.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you've probably already got a good idea of the fact that I am not a luxury traveler.  I have a hierarchy of traveling needs when booking hotels:
1. Safety
2. Cost
3. Cleanliness
4. Convenience
Here's the thing - why would I spend a hundred dollars on a posh hotel when I could stay five nights in a basic guesthouse for the same price?  It doesn't add up.  And people who talk about "pampering" themselves make me cringe.  I hate that word - I'm not a big baby.  I prefer the term indulge.

Well, my hierarchy of traveling needs led me to choose to indulge on this, my day in Bangkok en route to Chiang Mai.  I've done Khao San Road - in a former, non-blogging life with my friend Curly Sue - and while it's a fun place, I chose to go all out with a night in the Swissotel.  It's possible that it was because the idea of staying here appealed to the blood of Swiss ancestors flowing through my veins...but it's more likely due to the fact that the Chao Mae Tuptim shrine is in their parking lot.
Either way, I was delighted with my choice to indulge when I got in from the airport last night at 11:30 (thank you, delayed flight).  The room was impeccable, the bed was softer than my own, the towels were fluffy, and the internet was fast.  After a shower and a nightcap of coke (which I did NOT drink out of the can like a barbarian for the first time in forever, and it actually tasted fine), I got to sleep.  This morning I decided to splash out on their breakfast buffet.  It was not included in the price of my room, but what the hell did I care?  I am on va.  Ca.  Tion.  I am choosing to indulge.
After breakfast I wandered through the lush green grounds on the way back to the shrine.  It's a little hard to find but here's a good video on YouTube that shows you how to get there from the lobby of the hotel.  It's quite small compared to some of the other shrines I've been to - I'd make a joke about how this is Asia, but then, the other two were in Korea and Japan...
The little house is meant to hold the spirit of Chao Mae Tuptim, which may or may not have something to do with a large ficus tree in the shrine.  The details on the sign were vague, and had only the barest allusion to the huge wooden penises strewn about.
I was particularly intrigued by the lingams sitting between the tiny, doll-like shrine attendants.  I know enough about Hindu symbolism to recognize Shiva's schlong.  I've always connected Thailand with Buddhism, which has its roots in Hinduism, admittedly, but apparently there are still a fair number of believers in Thailand, mostly in the cities.  I thought about bringing an offering, but couldn't convince myself to hit InsaDONG (where I've seen phalli for sale before) yesterday, and only thought of the candle I brought back from the Kanamara Matsuri when I was on the flight here from Korea.
The Chao Mae Tuptim shrine may not be the biggest penis shrine I've been to, but we all know it's not the size that matters, but how you use it, right?  In this case, I used it for a good excuse to stay at a posh hotel.  I'm going to need to go check out in a minute, but I have the rest of the day to laze by their pool, which is beautiful and with all the trees has plenty of shade for us vampiric ginger types.  Indulge?  Indeed.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Grub Club: The Town

Thanks to my superb procrastinating skills and the fact that school strangely seems to just keep getting hellabusier, I'm sitting here in the Sunae Starbucks writing you about a meal I enjoyed over a month ago.  For those of you who haven't just picked up on the fact that there are no Starbucks in Mongolia, Sunae is in Bundang, South Korea, my old digs, yo.  I got in at around 9 last night, took the bus over roads so smooth they seem as though they shouldn't exist down to the 'Dang and walked through a night that can barely be called chilly to the sauna that has become "mine," got all clean, and slept (sorta...there's a limit to how much actual sleep one can get staying in a sauna, but I pretended for about six hours, at any rate).  This morning I enjoyed a stroll through the clean morning air and ate breakfast at Macca's before deciding I needed a frappuccino (mostly because McDonald's was too cold).  When I finish this post, Imma go find myself a pay phone and see if I can rouse my Dark Lord and Master.  Life is good.
But back to Mongolia.  Just a little to the west of the circus, beyond Tsuki House but before you get to Merkuri, is a little gem of a restaurant called The Town.  Engrish had read good reviews of it on UB Foodies, and we actually tried to go before, but they were closed for a private party.  This time, though, we had great success.
Engrish got pretty high marks for this one.  The soups were soupy, the salads, saladry.  If my high school AP Lit teacher, Drim, was reading this one, she could use her "Bullshit!" stamp about now.  The food was delicious, but c'mon guys - it's been like a month since we ate there, and since I don't often eat soups or salads, and we're not all sharesies like we were back in the day, I've got nothin'.
I can tell you about this one, though, because it was mine.  I decided to throw caution to the wind and try their burrito, with amazing results.  I'm not sure about the salad that came with it.  It was fresh and tasty, but had a slight sweetness to it that didn't jive with my expectations for a suitable side to go with my burrito.  However, the burrito itself was fantastic!  The flavors were spot on, and the side of salsa was nice and spicy!
The ambience was nice - it had a sort of European cafe feel - but I didn't give it super high marks in that category.  The lighting could be better - I was sitting in the hot seat, as it were, and felt like I was being interrogated over the course of my dinner.  However, for that burrito, I kind of feel like it was worth it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Grub Club: London Pub

Yeah, yeah, I know I've been derelict in my duties.  Blame it on my Season and the fact that I haven't done anything very exciting lately - other than teaching, fundraising, and getting creative with the occasional morning announcement.  The changing of the guard, so to speak, has been harder on me this year than it has in many years, so even though it only got properly cold (and I mean that as a Mongolian now instead of someone from America's Heartland) this last week, I've been up and down for a couple of months now.  But time keeps marching on, so we've only got two weeks left til Christmas break, and I'm pretty sure eventually I'll make it out on the other side into spring.

TL; DR:  I'm depressed because it's winter, but eventually I'll get over it.

Two weeks ago was supposed to be Engrish's pick, but she had to keep up her celebrity status by visiting with friends from the UK.  Blondie, Champ, Lil' Miss Catwalk and I responded by visiting the UK via London Pub.  We've been there before, a few times by now, and originally it was one of Blondie's picks, back when we were trying and failing to get started again.  It's one of the better choices that opened up in Buddha Vista up here on the hill last spring.
That first time (and every time since) I ordered the...chicken sandwich thingy.  Sorry, I don't remember what it's actually called.  Succulent and savory, it's only flaw is the grilled outside.  I'm not a big fan of overly crunchy bread unless it's a crouton, but my chicken sammich is deeeelish.
Champ went for a burger.  For some reason, some sandwiches come with fries and others come with those Lincoln-log potatoes.  Apparently they still tasted good, but were too much potato for me. 
And these were definitely too much!  Who purposely orders something like this?  My friends, that's who.  These are the jacket potatoes.  They seem exactly like something the British would come up with.
Finally, there was Blondie's pizza.  I'm always wary of pub pizza, particularly in Mongolia where we don't understand that spam is not pepperoni.  However, Blondie's margherita pizza had a light tender crust and was just oozing with cheese - in short, it was a little slice of Italy.