Saturday, February 5, 2011

Welcome To India!

Greetings from India! The last few days have been travel and then a wonderful welcome to India! I am now with Hunter and Sazzy, friends from Seattle, and staying with Sazzy's family for the wedding of his cousin Daovar! So as usual let me start where I left off last time, and catch up to where I am now:

Brendan and Ryan were about to hop on a bus to head back south for more birding, so it was time to say our goodbyes. It's been great to get to travel with more friends from Seattle so far from home and there is a chance I'll see Brendan again out here, but who knows. Either way we had a great time together and would have spent more time with each other had schedules not been so different.

I had initially planned on waking up early and doing a 4 hour yoga class, yoga being something I've always wanted to try. However as I mentioned last time, my stomach was still upset and I was not feeling well enough for 4 hours of body-contorting (and stomach squeezing) yoga. Instead, I went back to Fluid Pool and did some quality relaxing. At the pool I did a number of laps, laid out in the sun, ate a chicken pesto sandwich, met some more girls from London and then took off to check out of my room, return the moto and get back into town to catch my ride to Chaing Mai.

Let me just say Pai has been one of my favorite places in Thailand, and I'd recommend it to absolutely anyone.

Back in town, I caught a mini-bus to Chaing Mai, which was a somewhat uncomfortable hour and a half ride. There, we waited an hour or so before being shuttled to the overnight bus that would take us all the way to Bangkok. The bus ride was the usual deal, only this one was more uncomfortable than most I think. Around 1:30am we finally stopped for a 'dinner' stop, and arrived in Bangkok on Khaosan shortly after 6am, on schedule. I only slept three hours all night.

I had no interest in being back in Bangkok or back on Khaosan Road again, all I wanted to do was find a decent room with wifi, and lay around all day. I began my search and it was surprisingly difficult. I went to a number of places that simply had no rooms open, and then many more that didn't have wifi. I found one a few blocks away eventually, and exploded all over the room. I was exhausted, so I laid in bed, downloading movies and chatting with friends online. In the afternoon I ventured out for some errands and food, then returned to lay back down, shower and save so I'd look fresh for my flight the next morning.

That night I went out for a late dinner, and wound up with one of the better dishes I've eaten here in Thailand, a good way to end my time here. I walked around briefly, bought some Thai fisherman pants (the best!) and returned to my room to do some writing and pack my bag for the flight the next morning.

I guess this would also be the time to reflect for a moment on Thailand, and I only have the obvious to state: It has been fantastic. I've been in the country for just over five weeks, and loved every moment of it. There has been so much to see, the people have been friendly, and it has also been extremely easy. I'd recommend it to anyone.

I had a 9am flight to catch so I took a shuttle from my hotel at about 6am to be at airport early enough to go through the often tedious international flight procedure. Everything went smoothly, and I was left with plenty of time to kill in the airport, eating absurdly overpriced airport food to use up my last few bits of Thai baht.

When I got on the airplane, an Air India flight, I had my first real contact with Indian people, and it didn't start off well. I looked at my seat and was excited to see I had gotten the window seat I requested. Happy to be able to look out the window, both at my last views of Thailand and a view coming into India, I walked down the isle to my seat, only to find an old lady sitting in it. I politely said “Excuse me, I think you are in my seat.” She however was not swayed, and told me a bit rudely that I could sit in the isle seat. This went back and forth until I gave up, and sat down in the isle, pissed off at some old lady. Not a great introduction to Indian people, haha...

After a 5 hour flight, I landed in Delhi, went through immigration, wanted half an hour for my bag to come out, and then was greeted by Sazzy and Hunter, more Seattle friends! We hopped a taxi from the airport to Sazzy's grandfathers place where the two of them had spent the night, then went off for lunch, my first of many many delicious meals here.

After putting my bags down, we headed out to the markets, in search of a few things. Sazzy was looking for a SIM card for his phone, Hunter was looking for a few things for friends, and I was really just looking around at this new country. Early impressions: in the city at least, it's crowded, busy and dirty. In a lot of ways it's not dissimilar to the other large cities I've been in, Manila and Bangkok, but it certainly has it's own very distinct flavor.

It was at this point Hunter experienced his own little taste of India. A shoe shiner ran up to him and pointed out some poop on his shoe, offering to clean it of course. He immediately took his shoe off and started working on it, not replying when Hunter asked the price. Once the shoes were cleaned, the man said that would cost 1,500 rupees (~$33)! It was obvious he had gotten a partner to drop the poop on Hunters shoe when he wasn't looking, and was running a little scam on obviously green tourists. He was still holding Hunters shoe, and in the end Hunter paid him 500 rupees to get his shoe back, a still absurd amount of money! A few minutes later we talked to another shoe shiner near an area where people were also doing ear cleaning, and was told it should cost 20 rupees, and were still later told by an Indian that they get it done for 5 rupees! Oh well, every traveler has to be ripped off once, haha...

A little later, we headed off to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, the most important Sikh religious site in the city. After removing our shoes and covering our heads, we entered, sitting briefly to listen to the music and chanting, which I found very beautiful. On the way out we ate a bite of ceremonial food (forget the name) and went to the pool that accompanies the temple to look around and take a few photos. The whole place and experience was very fun. The architecture is very different from the Buddhist religious sites I've been at for the last two months, but equally interesting, and this was much ore of a functioning religious site rather than such as tourist attraction as the sites I visited in Cambodia and Thailand.

Shortly afterward, we moved to another family members household, one of the countless aunts and uncles Sazzy has around here. There, Hunter and I were greeted by what seemed like an endless stream of family members whose names I can't possibly keep track of. The house is tall three story masonry building, with a very busy street on one side, and slums on the back side which I'd like to explore. Welcome to India!

As is typical, food was everywhere and offered until you were ready to burst. I already mentioned it, but the food is just amazing. I haven't had a lot of Indian food back in the states but I've always enjoyed it, but now I absolutely love it. Every meal is a feast, and everything, and I mean everything, is good. The hospitality of Sazzys family thus far has been wonderful, and is a very different and exciting way to experience a country, much different from what I have been doing thus far as a “normal” tourist on my trip up to this point.

Sazzy, Hunter, me and one of Sazzy's uncles goofing off at the house with decorations for the wedding. This, like every night so far has been a whirlwind of family, food and late nights. A ton of fun.

The next day we found ourselves in Gurgaon, a sort of suburb outside of Delhi. This compound is owned by Sazzy's family, and is where three different immediate families live. It is a cool old building, a maze of rooms, court yards, stairs and doors. Like the other house, out front is a business or two, a very busy street, and fields and some slums on the sides.

In the afternoon, we all piled into the car and headed off to Sultanpur National Park, amazing bird sanctuary on the edge of town. And I though I was done with birding after leaving Brendan behind!

I'd never seen so many birds in one place! It was packed with storks, flamingos, spoonbills, eagles, parrots and much more. After spending a few days in the forest ot Thailand just catching glimpses of birds with Brendan and Ryan, this simply blew me away. Trees were full of huge birds, the sky was dotted with birds circling overhead, and the air was filled with seemingly dozens of different calls. Or visit was short however, I wish I was with Brendan and his spotting scope, because I could have spent all day there!

In the evening, we headed off to the mall in search of traditional Indian cloths for the wedding. Weddings are a VERY big deal here in India, and the family is being so kind to us, naturally we want to do everything we can to play along and look the part. We each ended up getting traditional Kurtas, and are excited to wear them at the ceremony, I love playing dress up!

Well, that's it for now. Being with the family, we don't have a lot of downtime, and when we do we are usually mobbed my the kids, so it's hard to get writing done. Also, we don't really have internet access, so the blog will be a bit slow for the next few days. That doesn't mean I'm not out doing things though, it's crazy fun out here and the wedding ceremony is just getting into full swing! After the wedding, we will be taking a train down south (not sure where right now) and I hope to report back then. Until next time, take care everyone, and talk to you later!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Thailand, India Here I Come!

Welcome back to Pai! The last few days have been a ton of fun, between the motos, elephants, hiking, caves, carnival and more we have been busy in this laid-back little town.

Planning on a hike of a few hours to a Mae Yen Waterfall and plenty of stops to observe birds and the other wonderful natural life around us, we woke up at about 6:30am and got an early start. Since we hadn't really planned ahead, we ate breakfast (I had instant noodles and yogurt) and bought lunch from the 7-11, possibly the only place open at the time. It was junk food but better than nothing. Watching the sun come up in the valley was very pretty, although a bit cool when riding our motos to the trail head.

For Brendan and Ryan, the birds were the primary focus of this trip, complimented by the beautiful scenery we walked through. We would frequently stop after a quick glance or call of a bird, to get a better look with the binoculars, and of course saw a number of new species. Much of the early part of the trail, which crossed the stream over and over again, had been turned into shade agriculture land by the locals so it wasn't truly wild, but there were still plenty of interesting jungle tid-bits to keep us all amused.

The easiest life-form to observe was no doubt the insects, and we saw plenty. One of the stranger things we witnessed was a seeming plague of daddy-long-legs that literally covered entire plants. At one point, when we were quiet we could listen to the armies of them walking and rustling the leaves on the ground, magical! We also saw cool looking crab-spiders, butterflies, dragonflies and more.

After 5 hours of stop-start hiking, we arrived at a fantastic waterfall. At maybe 50 feet from top to bottom and with a lovely pool at the base, it was a perfect place to eat our less than perfect 7-11 lunches. I had picked a pre-made sandwich because the packaging said “This sandwich is Delicious we want you to try this sandwich.” I was sold! Lunch was quick because we were a little worried about getting caught in the dark, given our slow pace to observe.

On the way back, we took a slightly different route, straight down the roughest part of the stream. This was some of the most beautiful scenery I've seen on my trip this far. It is one of those things pictures (especially my quick point-and-shoot shots) can never truly do justice to. This particular scene, upon arriving I thought to myself “This is exactly how I pictured the jungle in my head.” The light filtering through the trees, the water, the rocks, ferns, vines hanging from trees, it was perfect.

Every time we got just a little farther down this stretch of flip-flop punishing “trail” it just got better and better. On the way, we ran into a monk leading a group of novice up the trail, and Brendan gave the old man a hand climbing up a section of trail, right before also helping some strangers dog up the rock. We ended up making much better time on the way back as a result of fewer stops, and returned to our guesthouse satisfied and tired from a good day.

The next morning we slept in and moved slowly. Brendan and I went out in search of... I forget what, and we ended up wandering the grounds of the carnival that had been blasting music for the whole valley to hear until long into the morning. One of those little differences between the states and Asia seems to be that events are far less concerned with disrupting neighbors, or in this case entire towns. Maybe it is because people have a stronger sense of community and want others to have a good time? Maybe it's because people are less sensitive with such 'annoyances'. I don't know, but I like it.

In the afternoon we took a short moto ride to Pai Canyon to watch the sunset. Pai Canyon is a unique series of narrow and tall rock spines with trails on top of them. We did a short loop trail and then sat back at the viewpoint for the sun to go down. While waiting on a bench, someone called out my name. A bit surprised, I looked up and saw Erica, a girl I'd met on Railay Beach while rock climbing two weeks earlier, and her new traveling companion Veronica, both from the London area. The group of us got to chatting, and ended up agreeing to go elephant riding together the next morning. After a slightly uninspiring sunset to be honest, we headed back to base camp to plan our next move.

By 9pm, the carnival was in full swing, and I have never seen such a sea of motos! The area was packed full of food venders, games, rides, used clothing, new clothing, and assorted home goods. Apparently the carnival is a popular place to buy kitchen utensils, who knew? We walked around the grounds (which took about 10 minutes moving slowly) looking at the different booths and games (the dunk tank had a particularly large crowd) on offer. They even had a kiddie roller-coaster, the kind of creepy looking, slightly rusty...

Pause! At the moment I am listening to a drum-solo from the carnival down the hill, this party just doesn't stop, it's on day 5!

...Ok, back to business. The 20 baht roller-coaster was the kind of thing you wouldn't let your kids on back in the States, but naturally I had to give it a try. I give it a C-.

Brendan had never seen the beer towers before coming to Thailand (and I hadn't seen one before arriving in SE-Asia) so naturally we had to have one. This particular tower seemed to hold a surprisingly small amount of beer and ended up being a terrible value on the scale of drink prices. Oh well.

At the stage we did witness one of the funniest scenes I've observed on this trip. The tables were probably 40 feet from the stage, so there was plenty of room for people to stand up front and watch the band. I guess that is a western way of thinking because instead of a crowd at the foot of the stage like you would see back home, the whole area was empty except for two exceptionally drunk Thai guys dancing like cripples and ogling the scantly clad female singer on stage. Maybe the other Thai's (and the event was almost entirely Thai) were just embarrassed by these two in front and didn't want to associate with them in any way, but no one dared enter the front of the stage. Instead, masses of mostly young guys crowded along one edge of the space, none venturing to go within 30 feet of the stage or the drunk guys. I was about to go up and try and coax others into the center, when the female singer was replaced with a male, and I realized my chances of success had just gotten dramatically lower so I gave up.

In the morning Brendan, Ryan and I went into town and met up with Erica and Victoria in search of an outfit that does elephant trekking. Our guesthouse recommended a place called Joys and we went to check it out. The hour and a half ride including playing in the river and 'trekking' s 400 baht each, which we thought was good, but they told us that they couldn't take us out because the elephants were tired or something. We then went across the street to Toms, which I understand is the one mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide. As a result, prices were 700 baht! We kept walking, and ended up at Duangs which was only 350! Something I've learned out here is that everyone offers the exact same packages, save for some little details. Despite this, prices can be all over the map so in nearly all cases it seems that going with the cheapest is usually the best option. After a short wait a truck came to pick us up and took us to the edge of town where the elephants were waiting at Noi's Elephant Camp.

At the elephants, we ended up with Erica and Victoria on one and Brendan, Ryan and I on the other, with the leader riding on the neck/head. Both elephants were female, and 40 years old. And aet me just say elephants are wide. Very wide. Straddling one is a rather painful stretch, and riding with just a blanket between you and the animal doesn't offer a lot of shock absorption, we were all sore the next day!

After a few minutes of walking down the road and through a resort, we walked into the small river that goes through the valley. This spot has obviously been made wider and deeper for just this activity. On the leaders command, the elephants would spray us with water from it's trunk, and then dump us off it's back into the river.

This was the main attraction, what can essentially be called 'bucking elephant riding.' The controller would have us get on its back, and with his commands would get the elephant to shake us off, while we tried as hard as possible to hang on! It was a blast, and while I thought I did pretty well in hanging on, I was certainly no match for this huge and fantastic creature. I wanted to get the elephant to pick me up and throw me with its trunk, but the controller didn't understand what I was asking, haha. I had originally thought elephant riding was too touristy and corny, but I'm glad we did it, the river was a blast.

Once we were done playing in the water we did what I guess would count as the 'trekking' part. All it really turned out to be was walking down the river for a bit through farmers fields. Truth is, riding an elephant bareback is awfully uncomfortable, and the extra walking we did as the 'trekking and river' package wasn't worth a whole lot to me, I say just get your kicks from the river and walking to and from it. Once we returned to the camp, we disembarked and all talked about how much fun it was.

With the rest of the day free, I decided to head to the pool for some relaxing, a few laps in the pool and some stretching on the yoga platform. That night we ran into a continuing problem, finding a good bar to hang out and meet some people. Like so many places here in Thailand, despite all the tourists, there is an overabundance of service. Maybe we were just looking in all the wrong places, but it seemed like due to the high numbers of bars, each only had a handful of people in them. I don't know what it is, but here and in Chaing Mai, the nightlife has been difficult to track down. We ended up watching Superbad at the common area back at the base.

The next day, we were headed to Tham Lod, a large cave complex about 50km away. What that meant was an hour and a half moto ride up the the valley and over the pass. Without a doubt, having your own moto is the best way to see the countryside. This particular trip took us through so much beautiful forest and small scale terraced farmland it was hard not to keep stopping just to look around at what we were in the middle of. That said, speed was the name of the game for me and I took that little 110cc scooter screaming to the top at nearly full throttle. This two lane provincial highway is actually in very good condition, and well marked, so it made such things possible. Basically it's just one of those excellent driving roads.

More of the wonderful scenery that greeted us on our ride.

Once we had reached our destination we pealed ourselves off the moto seats and up to the ticket booth. For 150 baht we got a tiny old lady with a towel wrapped around here head and a keroseen lantern in her hand. We also paid 300 baht to ride a bamboo raft through the river that flows through the cave. It later turned out none of this was necessary, and we could have done it much cheaper. Oh well.

The cave is another of those wonderful Thai-limestone treasures. Our bamboo raft was pushed and pulled by an old man wading in the water, and at a time or two he seemed to struggle with our three 'big white person bodies.' The main cave had a number of smaller caverns and the old woman walked us through them with her lantern, pointing out different features.

Also in this cave are artifacts from an old tribe. There are a number of these long wooden coffins, a painting on the wall, other pieces of wood and pottery shards deep into the cave which are estimated to be 2500-3000 years old. Whoever they were, they must have been small because those things were narrow!

The other feature of this cave is the fact that tens of thousands of swifts nest in it every night, and at about 6pm the swarm starts. It was very cool to watch this massive swarm of birds entering the cave, and not only did we see an owl fly through it all, we watched a hawk catch one of the sparrows out of the air and fly away with it! By about 6:45pm it was essentially over, and a few at a time bats started to trickle out It was already dark and cold enough, so we headed back down the trail to our motos for the ride home.

It was a good thing we had already done this road in the light and knew what to expect, because this thing is intense! Like I already said, the road is in very good shape, and every corner is well market so it made it pretty easy to handle. As before I went about as fast as I possibly could on the way home and had a blast. At this time, the most dangerous things on the essentially empty roads is the possibility of animals. All I ended up seeing was two cats and a few frogs, of which I think I accidentally ran over one. Now I'm sure someone is going to say how unsafe it was, and true, there was an element of danger in it, but I knew what I could do and what the bike could do, and I did a pretty good job of staying within the limits. This is the kind of ride that even on a scooter, makes you want to buy a bike.... This ride has defiantly been one of the highlights of the trip so far.

Now is the time for transition, getting ready to leave Thailand behind and heading to Delhi, India! The schedule is as follows: On the 31st, take a 1.5 hour mini-bus from Pai back to Chaing Mai. Have a two and a half hour wait, then a 12-hour overnight bus from Chaing Mai to Bangkok and back on Khaosan road at 6AM again. I am really sick of that place but it is such a transportation hub it is the only way to go. I then have 24 hours to kill, before catching a shuttle to the airport at 6am, where I board my 5 hour flight to India. It's going to be long, boring and uncomfortable, and this time it seems the gods of backpacking are a little bit against me: I've had a stomach ache for two days and the 'digestive issues' have started. If it continues, this could be very uncomfortable, if it gets worse, it could be downright terrible. I'm not horribly worried but still, cross your fingers!