Saturday, October 26, 2013

slow boat up the mekong

At the Laos boarder (after we crossed the border on a long boat across the Mekong from Thailand to Laos) we jumped directly onto a slow boat that would take us down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. It is supposedly a rite of passage for any South East Asian backpacker - so we had to do it.

Yes mom, they still have Farang Badges in Laos
We decided to take the slow boat rather than the fast boat, even though the slow boat would take two whole days and the fast boat only six hours, because we've heard very very bad things about the fast boat, and we saw what they were talking about right away. They're eight-person boats where you have to wear helmets and hunker down with your knees to your chest and not move for six hours. Apparently quite a few people have died in the frequent crashes. So yeah, slow boat it was.

We'd heard varying things about the condition of the boats, but ours wasn't bad. The first day we actually had a table to set our stuff on which was quite nice.

It's like boat roulette. Which one is ours?
We sat across from a French couple that we befriended and made the trip much more enjoyable. Good conversation has a way of doing that.

Arnaud and Julie. I think Julie is asleep, not just avoiding the picture. (Sorry for the weird pic, Julie!)

The sun was setting over the Mekong as we ended our first day on the river. The village we stayed in the first night seems to exist solely for the river boats to make their stop on the two day trip to Luang Prabang from the Thai boarder.

The hotel we stayed was right on the river and we had quite the view from the restaurant. Though, even while on the river, work still needs to be done.

Elephants taking their morning bath.
The second day had many more locals on the boat as we made our way into Luang Prabang, the second largest city in Laos. This made it a much tighter fit as locals brought aboard all of their goods to bring to the big city.

Laos's version of dick in a box... cock in a basket. (In other words, somebody brought a rooster on the boat. One guy also had a gigantic bag of grub worms all the Lao people were fascinated with--apparently they're a delicacy.)

The river itself is not that beautiful. It's pretty muddy. But the surrounding mountains were dramatic and gorgeous.
It turned out to be a fine trip, but we were pretty ready to get off the boat once we got there.

Friday, October 25, 2013

white temple of chiang rai

This is our last post in Thailand. We were taking a bus to the boarder to cross over to Laos but along the way, unbeknownst to us, we stopped at the famous contemporary unconventional Buddhist temple, Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai. It's especially appropriate for us to be posting about it so near to Halloween. You'll see why...

It's a very new Wat (1997) - in fact, it's still being completed - and is one artist's commentary on Buddhism. It was definitely the strangest and most elaborate Wat we had ever seen, with pop culture references all over it.

Heads are hung all over the complex depicting of souls who have not yet overcome cravings and haven't reached Buddha's abode... well obviously these guys are going to have a hard time reaching enlightenment.

The detail was amazing. It was a place you felt you could look around for hours and keep seeing new things. But since we only had twenty minutes, we did a flurry of pictures and jumped back into the bus on our way to Laos.

Death watching over the souls trapped in Hell. You can't see detail that well in this picture, but all those are hands reaching up, and bones, and some kind of spiky vines holding them all down. Really beautiful and creepy.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

little cats of thailand

I had to call this 'little' cats of Thailand since our previous post was of the large cats of Thailand. As everyone knows, both of us are semi-obsessed with cats. So as we traveled through Thailand, we met and took many pictures of cats. Now that we are leaving the country, we thought it was a good time to show them all.

The first picture we took in Thailand was of a cat who greeted us on Kho San Road. 

In Had Rin we stayed at a place that had many cats and this one was our favorite. We called him Tiny 2 in honor of how much he looked like our cat Tiny (but even smaller). He actually had a brother who was Tiny 3 but he was much less friendly so we didn't get to pet him.

Another one of the friendly cats at our place in Had Rin we called Bitey because he loved getting petted and then when you stopped, he tried to bite you. We learned very quickly not to start petting him... it wouldn't end well.

Once we moved up to Thong Sala we only had one cat who lived at our place but she was a nice one. We called her Ann, after the lady who was staying at the place with us who found her and convinced the lady who owned the place to keep her. While we where there, she ate poison meant for rats and had to be rushed to the hospital... but she came through it nicely and continued to be the sweetest cat in Thailand. She came into our bungalow most nights and "certified" it clear of rats and lizards for us.

This cat lived outside of our place in Ao Nang and was a mean bugger. We never petted him and it was probably for the best. He ruled the area with an iron fist.

In Bangkok there was a whole family of cats who lived in one of the popular ex-pat bars on Soi Rambuttri road, the Gecko. You would get drunk, they would play... a perfect combination.

Walking somewhere in Chiang Mai we ran across this girl walking a cat who was as large as her. We had to take a picture.

I know this next one isn't a cat, but he was the fattest dog we had ever seen. We were eating at a restaurant in Chiang Mai and this was the owner's dog. We knew were all the scraps went. 

tiger kingdom, chiang mai

As a birthday present to Andrew, Maggie's parents got them a trip to the Tiger Kingdom outside of Chiang Mai. It's a place where they not only raise tigers, but let Farang get into the cages with them and pet them. This place is further proof that there are no lawyers in Thailand. 

There are different packages you can purchase that allow you to pet the different sizes of tigers: extra small (1 - 3 months), small (3 months - 1 year), medium (1 - 2 years) and large (2 - 3 years). Over 3 years they feel the tigers are too dangerous for people to pet... good to know they at least draw the line somewhere. They say that if you are under 5 feet tall, you should be careful because the tigers might think you are food and you definitely need to be careful with infants... but still you saw toddlers trotting around inside the cage with ten foot long tigers licking their lips. And really the only thing keeping a tiger from mauling you is the handlers and their little sticks they whack the tigers with if they are looking at you a little to intently.

Really thought, it is a once in a life time experience where you not only sit there gawking at these huge majestic beasts like you would at a zoo, but then you get to go in the cage with them a pet them or as the handlers like to tell you to do, lay on them. 

The extra-small really are cute. They are like really big housecats.

There are a few rules. Don't touch their heads and don't approach them from the front and the two biggest ones. Both of these rules are to stop the tigers from thinking that you want to play with them and trust me... you don't want to play with them. Even the extra small tigers are quite the large creatures that could easily take off a hand with a quick bite. The large guys...well I have a feeling they could disembowel you before you could tell them, "bad tiger."

The little guy sitting on the floor by Andrew in the righthand picture is the only tiger who really growled and seemed upset all day. He didn't like the littler one in the background looking at him, I guess.

Small tigers

Medium tigers

These tigers really just act like normal house cats: sleep, snuggle, purr, eat, play, repeat.

That's right, pay attention to whatever is over there... and not me.

As they would say in Thailand: Maggie making joy with tiger.
(His huge tail had just smacked her in the face in the second picture.)

Our new home security system. Or: The World's Most Awkward Prom Photo, with Tiger.
Yes that hole in the cage is large enough to stick your entire arm through (and there's certainly no one there to tell you not to) and yes those tigers are fighting.

Eenie, meenie, miney, moe. Catch a tiger by his toe...
If he hollers, let it go for god's sake.

They had one Lion at the reserve just to show the tigers, who was the real king of the jungle. This guy was a year and a half old, and he was already HUGE. (We didn't get to pet him, but we were really this far away. All that was between us and him was a chain link fence.)

The lion letting all the tigers know he is the boss.

Monday, October 21, 2013

meditation retreat at doi suthep temple

One of the things we wanted to do while in Thailand was attend a meditation retreat. We were planning on visiting the famous Wat on the hill that overlooked Chiang Mai (Doi Suthep Temple) and then found out that it had one of the more popular meditation retreats - so instead of visiting, we stayed for a couple of days (4 nights and 5 days to be exact).

The entrance to the temple.

Inside the actual temple. Thailand loves its umbrellas.

The roof of one of the many side temples around the complex.
When we arrived we walked around the temple complex while we waited for the retreat to start in earnest. It was very beautiful and had a great view overlooking Chiang Mai.

The actual meditation retreat took place in an area below the temple complex that was solely devoted to meditating Farang (tourists in Thai). It was a really nice complex with guys' and girls' dorms, a temple just for us, and a multistory building where there was a classroom, dinning hall and meditation room (that neither of us ever used, because it was ugly, and look how beautiful everything else was!). The surroundings were quite beautiful as well with lots of jungle everywhere you looked.

One of the dorm rooms we stayed in.

The path that ran next to our dorms leading up to the temple.

The temple that was just for us meditating Farang.

The inside of the temple where we spent most of our time meditating.

The most scenic place to wash your dishes in the world.

Just another crazy night spent chanting Buddhist sutras.

We had read that when we arrived at the retreat we would have to take a bunch of vows that we wouldn't kill, lust after things and a bunch of other stuff, but really, when we arrived all the teacher told us not to do was talk, read, write and for the girls, wear makeup. It didn't seem too hard but the not talking for four days was a little more than we could take, so, after the first day, when we really did try to keep our interactions to charades ("I'll meet you here at 11 for lunch." "You have my toothbrush in your backpack." "Oh my God there's soup broth we're allowed to eat, which is sort of like food!") we would sneak off back up to the main temple and whisper-talk. This was doubly hilarious because we were in our meditation clothes, so all the normal tourists would do double-takes when they saw us walking around. We had more than a few talk to us about it--it was like we were a walking advertisement for the retreat.

Maggie pretending she's not playing hooky up at the Temple.

Andrew ringing the bells while playing hooky,

All and all we kept to the rules most of the time and in the end, enjoyed the experience. We got kind of sick of the food and it soured us on Thai food in general for a little while, and we learned that if you're a big gross spider or any other type of creepy crawly, move to a Buddhist temple because they won't kill you. But besides that it was a good time and we learned a lot about our inner self. We also have endless inside jokes from the morning Dhrama talks given by our Buddhist teacher.

Maggie's Account of the Retreat:

It's ironic that I've been putting off blogging this, because during the meditation retreat all I could do was write this post in my head. It was one of the things I had the most trouble silencing--the need to put everything down on paper inside my mind. Maybe it's a writer thing? When we had a thought creep in while meditating, we were supposed to silence it by cutting it off with a refrain of "thinking, thinking, thinking…" or something similar in our heads. I started saying, "narrating, narrating, narrating." (Maybe it should have been "blogging, blogging, blogging."...)

It's amazing all the places your mind goes when it's not supposed to. (One of those places was to Cameron Diaz's sweater sets in My Best Friend's Wedding. Another was to playing Boggle before heading off on a seventh grade camping trip in Bear Canyon. And to the Loch Ness Monster.) You realize how much room there really is in your head when you're trying your best to keep it empty. Just like you realize how much time there is in a day when you're not allowed to fill it.

Our first day at the retreat, we were shown to our rooms at 2:30. We were supposed to settle in, get in our meditation outfits, and have our first meeting with the Teacher (the monk in charge of the farang) at 4. We'd already been told not to talk, read, write, use computers…we pretty much weren't supposed to do anything for the next four and a half days but meditate. So I left Andrew and headed to my spare little room in the girls' dorm. Everything was so quiet. And so still. And I immediately wanted to get on the internet, or pull out a book, or do some work. I kept reaching for my bag, involuntarily, for a snack, if nothing else. But that was forbidden, too. So I did none of those things. I washed my face, changed into my meditation clothes. Sat on my bed for a while. Walked around the room, and up and down the balcony, admiring the scenery. Tested out the meditation cushions in my room in various configurations. Stretched out my ankles for the lotus position. At that point, I figured it must be almost time for the 4 PM meeting. I checked my watch.

It was 2:37.

It did get easier over our few days there to just be. When I'd done three straight hours of meditating and couldn't stand the thought of doing it any more, but lunch wasn't for another hour, just being was all I had to do. After all, I'd already cleaned my room and made my bed and taken a shower when I was bored earlier in the day. (By lunchtime, which was at 11am, we'd already been up for six hours.) Technically, you weren't really even supposed to actively think about much. Certainly while I was meditating, and even while sitting around in my room, I shouldn't have been thinking about my writing, or about whether the Laos border was open on weekends. I really shouldn't have been thinking about how, if we ever buy a house, I want it to have a big porch, like the one in the guesthouse in Chiang Mai… (Future, future, future.) And in those times, all I could think about what how much I could be getting done.

And don't even get me started on the food. Food is so psychological. Even though we weren't allowed to eat after noon, ever, I wasn't really hungry. They fed us plenty. (The food didn't particularly sit well with either of us, but that's another story…) It was just the fact of not being allowed to eat that killed me. Even if my stomach wasn't growling at dinnertime, food was ALL I could think about. There was a girl at the retreat we thought might be French, and she didn't ever come to meals, and Andrew and I discussed at least once a day kicking down her door and demanding the baguettes she must have hidden in there. (One important Buddhist tenant is Loving Kindness toward all creatures. We decided this wouldn't be very Loving Kindness of us.)

But that didn't mean I couldn't dream. Delicious meals we'd had just days ago. (Pizza at the American restaurant in Chiang Mai…YUM.) Random foods I hadn't thought of in years. (Einstein's bagels, with honey-cinnamon cream cheese. Subpar Little Caesar's pizza, with green chile we added ourselves. The fish sticks we ate when we were little.) We'd read some accounts of the meditation retreat before we left, and one girl said she had no appetite for anything but rice and vegetables when she left. Well, that wasn't true for us. We stumbled off our taxi from the retreat and straight into the first restaurant we could find, and ordered bacon and french fries and soda. We would have ordered twice as much if we weren't so tired of Thai food at this point. So what does that tell me about food? I don't know, really. That depriving yourself doesn't work, because you'll soon be stuffing burgers in your mouth?

The retreat wasn't all coveting things we couldn't have. I did learn to clear my mind far more than I'd ever been able to before, even when it was spinning like crazy, and I hope I'll be able to keep it up. We sat around with dozens of other farang and listened to sunrise lectures on how to live our lives well. We spent sunset chanting, I think mostly about how great Buddha is, but I'm not sure. (Teacher told us that the point of chanting is to more easily clear the mind, because the chanting gives it something to focus on. I can see that.) All in all, I can say we learned a lot at the retreat.

But I can't say we were sad to get back to real life. We stayed in a real hotel with a soft bed and an actual bathtub for two days when we got back. That's how much we missed the civilized world. I think we might have gone crazy if we were there for 21 days like some of our fellow meditators were. But if given the choice, yes, I'd definitely do it again.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

a dinner of "america, fuck yea"

We had both been getting a little tired of Thai food all the time and were beginning to crave American food (we had been out of the US for 3 months at this point). We decided to take Maggie's parents up on their generous offer to have a meal on them so went searching for a restaurant that took credit card (harder than you might think). What we found was a place run by an American called the Duke's. It was named for John Wayne so we thought, you can''t get much more American than that - just what we were looking for.

It didn't let us down either. Their beer selection wasn't large but Andrew was happy beyond belief when he found out they had Rogue Mocha Porter, one of his favorite dark bears. It was the first dark beer he had drank since Sprecher in Lake Geneva. And Maggie got a little carafe of wine, after pretty much not drinking wine at all the whole time we've been in Thailand. I know--the two of us without dark beer or wine? Perish the thought!

For an appetizer we ordered something we had both been craving: nachos. They were cheesy, covered in salsa, had a layer of beans below them, were sprinkled with jalapenos and had a large dab of sour cream on top- what else could you want?

Another American standard we had been craving was pizza. But not just any pizza, the Hawaiian Barbeque from Papa Johns, which is a fall staple for us on Saturdays during college football season. So for dinner, we simulated it as best we could, and it delivered.

After an entirely wonderful meal we remembered another part of American cuisine we had forgot about... eating yourself sick. American food is just so good and they give you so much of it, it's an inevitability that you are going to do it. We just make too damn good of food not to. (Confession: this was probably three times as much food as we'd eaten in one sitting in months. We had to take half the pizza home, but it made just as delicious of a breakfast the next morning!) (Also, sidenote from Maggie: how weird is it that eating until you feel sick is a good thing in our culture? Very weird. And definitely a cultural difference to here, where we haven't eaten this much in forever! But we couldn't help it this particular night. We truly sat there drinking and eating and saying "YUM. YUUUUMMMM." over and over again.)