Saturday, August 15, 2009

Who to Trust?

Due to the global economic crisis the drop in tourists had substantially affected this little town. The desperation for business had created aggressive behavior among the tour guides to the point of bad mouthing each other and sometimes violence.

I first spoke with Lily, the owner of our guesthouse, and she was explaining the different treks, a two and three day hike. The price for a guide, food, and accommodation was $10US per person a day. She also told me that the government would take 30% for taxes, they would keep 20%, and 50% of the money would go directly to the villages we would visit. This was very inspirational, but I still wanted to check around before making a commitment.

Before I left to walk around Lily began to tell me that they were the only non-government business in the town. She said that the owner of the guesthouse next door was in the army and used the business to launder drugs. She also told me that there were military training camps all over the area from Kalaw to Inle Lake and I would need a guide to avoid possible military trouble. In addition, her guide (her husband Robin), knew all the different dialects/languages and would be able to talk with the villagers and translate for me.

Feeling good about getting the down low on Kalaw I wondered around for a bit and eventually found a nice place for dinner, Sam’s, to think about the trek. I asked if they had any rum and they brought the whole bottle. I only wanted one drink and didn’t want to pay for a whole bottle until I notice the price was 1800 Kyat! That’s about $1.80US for a whole bottle of RUM!

Finally, I decided to go on the trek with Robin the next day when I noticed a huge map of the treks and villages on one of the wall and began studying it. Close by was an elderly man, who I learned was Sam, enjoying his tea. I introduced myself and we started to chat about the area and trekking. As I spoke about what Lily told me and how I was happy that 50% of the money would go to the villagers Sam’s face was in shock.

Sam proceeded to tell me that he had lived in Kalaw for 20 years and knew all the villages, never had he heard of Lily giving money to any of them. Also, there would be no way to sustain a business on 20%. Furthermore, there were no military training camps around and the province was completely open to tourists. This of course was distressing, how did I know if Sam himself wasn’t lying. Who should I trust? I asked Sam these very questions.

Sam told me that I should ask around to verify all the information and not just take his word for it. He also stated that he had nothing to hide and it would be fine if I told Lily about our discussion. In the end Sam said that he could answer any question I had about trekking for free and I should make my own decision about who to trust.

So I kept asking Sam lots of questions about his family, his life in Kalaw, and learned a lot about the man. Sam came to Kalaw a bit over 20 years ago and it took him that long to finish one of his goals of building a school for one of the nearby villages. The schools in the remote villages only went up to 5th grade so Sam’s son-in-law, who grew up in one of these villages, asked if Sam could build housing for the kids who wanted to continue their education in Kalaw. Sam agreed and only asked for the parents to provide rice and firewood for their child to help with costs. Each child also had to have the blessing of their parents and head monk of the village.

In addition to owning a restaurant Sam also ran a travel agency with guides speaking several languages. He explained the 3 day trek would cost $10US per person a day and $13US for the boat ride at the end of the trip. Besides a guide and private cook, they would provide all the meals and accommodation. About 20% would go to the villagers and the rest would cover costs and profit.

One of Sam’s interesting stories was about his first time as a tour guide. Young Sam had a group of Japanese tourists who asked so many detailed questions about everything which he didn’t know that answers. This experience caused Sam to lose face and feel shame of his ignorance about his surroundings. From that point on Sam determined to learn everything about everything and acquired a comprehensive knowledge of his surroundings. He also passed this philosophy on to his guides, making sure they all have a thorough knowledge of the region to explain to their clients.


My time and money was soon running out in Myanmar. I had to determine where to spend my last week. One thought was to take a boat to the West Coast, but the rainy seasons stormy weather in the ocean deterred that idea. Not to mention that they run the boats till they literally fall apart and boat sinking’s have occurred with some frequency. Then I heard about a three day trek from a small village, Kalaw, to Inle Lake in the Northern Country.
Since the government owned the railway I chose to take a private overnight bus (20K Kyat ~ $20US). Make sure you get a seat up front or you will be bouncing up and down on these older buses. This applies to every developing country. The bus terminal was near the airport so we had to get a cab, which should be about 5K Kyat. It was a maze at the sprawled out bus terminal so just ask your cab driver to help you find your bus and you’ll be fine.

In the early morning when it was still dark the bus conductor shook me and asked for my destination. I told him Kalaw and he said something to the effect that we were there. So I got off the bus and look around to get my bearings. I asked again if we were in Kalaw and the guy nodded yes and pointed in a direction down the road. Eventually I got some answers and found out that the bus passed my stop and Kalaw was 6 miles away. Rather than waiting around for a couple of hours for bus services I decided to walk and start my trekking early.

It turned out to be a nice walk as the rising sun lit the beautiful morning sky. Soon I found my guesthouse, The Golden Lily, listed in the Lonely Planet. The owners were nice enough at first, but we’ll get into that later. Kalaw was a cute little town more and more backpackers were visiting to trek through the beautiful landscape to Inle Lake.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Myanmar's Other Side

Myanmar was a country with many contradictions and just plain weirdness. There was a person who had law degree from London selling street food, a cab driver with an MBA trying to earn more than the $10US rent for the cab, and people watching the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) on the street. Everyday you would see hundreds of people eating on little plastic kids tables and chairs on the sidewalks watching TV blasting the sound till midnight and then the streets would be dead silent and empty.

Due to the strict laws and severe punishment in Myanmar walking the streets in the middle of the night was very safe. I also heard a bunch of stories about foreigners losing their purse, iphone, and what not in cabs or other places to have everything returned to them. Of course this was mostly due to the fact that the people were mostly scared in getting caught as many foreigners do get watched by the military government.

Nonetheless, one of the most bizarre and funny thing was a place called Power Light. Imagine a dinner show with a huge stage. Now add in a Miss America pageant, without the judges, and you have Power Light. Alright, let me add some foundation info. (my personal theory). Due to the religious culture there were no public displays of affection between opposite sexes. So from this heavy suppression of kissing or even simple handholding men would normally find other outlets such as strip clubs. However, the military government does not allow strip clubs so the culture developed in a way where Power Light became their version of a naughty club. One of my Guesthouse mates told me about Power Light and decided to take me and another traveler to check it out on evening.

Let me take you through our night out at Power Light. Once we arrived we ordered some food and drinks before the show began. On stage there were three girls dressed in workout gear dancing to a routine you’d see in any US high school dance team. Then all the girls came out one at a time in provocative dress, normal for the rest of the world, and each took turns singing. Meanwhile all the men were gawking at the women drinking, eating, and buying the girls presents.

To show the women affection the men could buy “gifts” which included big fluffy colorful boas, hats, bouquets of flowers, etc. The girls and the club would get a percentage of the money spent, and this is how the girls would make money. On a good night a girl could make upwards of $300US a night. For a country where the average monthly salary is about $50/month is was big money.

The rest of the show consisted of each girl coming out alone to sing, more dancing, and other combinations of the same thing. Of course throughout the entire show the girl’s faces were solid stone, like the emotionless models you see walking down a catwalk. However at one point the DJ, a man, came on stage with his guitar to sing and people bought HIM gifts too! It was hilarious, but he was a good singer I have to admit. And if I had some extra money, I would have bought him a hat.

To us, the rest of the world, this Power Light would be viewed as almost wholesome. For the people of Myanmar it was a seedy underbelly of their culture that the majority of the population didn’t know about.

Yangon Slideshow!


Coming to Yangon you quickly recognize a country that has both Indian and Chinese cultures merged into one. It was really weird and cool at the same time.

One of the first things I discovered was that the entire country of Myanmar had no ATM’s! This was a big problem because I only had some cash and my bankcards. Fortunately, I found one hotel, the Sedona, which would give cash advances on credit cards. My bankcard was also a credit card so I was able to get money through my account on top of the Sedona’s 7.6% fee, ouch.

I also learned that there were three exchange rates. If you changed money at the airport you would receive about 450 kyat per $1US. The official exchange rate was roughly 5 kyat per $1US. Or you could exchange your money on the street for about 1100 kyat per $1US, you do the math. Every other person on the street would ask if you want to exchange money or you could go the safer route and ask your guesthouse.
Another downer that I expected was the internet to be horribly slow and censored. True enough, exactly how I predicted. Obviously, I was able to bypass the security with my geniusness (is that even a word?), but I just couldn’t make the internet go any faster. Surprisingly, I was able to catch some random wifi at my guesthouse, whenever the city’s electricity was operating.

Similar to India, Myanmar had scheduled power outages, and unscheduled blackouts. In Yangon the scheduled electricity time was usually from 5pm – 6am, but these times changed throughout the year.

Soon I started to meet more local expats and even caught up with Curt and Cathy. One of my first social gatherings was at the British Club during a fundraiser for Cyclone Nargis. It was a British Quiz with a dozen sections that lasted four hours. They really took their quizzes seriously. I met another nice couple, Anne and Michael, who were from Finland and Michael worked for an NGO. At the end of the night they invited me to a BBQ the next day and mentioned they had a pool. Now it had been insanely humid/hot since I landed and I was missing BBQ’s big time, so I were so ecstatic when they invited me. Anne and Michael had a beautiful place and it was so nice to be at a family function goofing off with kids.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Where to Go Next?

During one of my braver nights out I met an American couple, Curt and Cathy, who were living in Myanmar. Apparently, Myanmar had a ten day water festival that was even more out of control than Thailand. They had flown to Bangkok’s Songkran because it was more subdued and needed a break. I was astonished to this bit of news. They also told me that the people in Myanmar were incredibly nice and English teachers were paid the most among Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

I was at the end of my funds and needed to find a job or go back home, so I then decided to take a chance on Myanmar.

Naturally, there was the dilemma of going to a country run by an oppressive military government. Nonetheless, I was resolute to stay away from anything government owned and support only individual businesses. Being a poor backpacker this was my normal traveling method anyway. I could hardly afford or wanted to buy one of the expensive tour packages, which the government would get a fat commission. Thus I bought my ticket and took off to Yangon.

Big Night Out

Luckily, Sina and Matthias arrived to Bangkok right after and soon I had a mini gang soaking all the dry people we could find. At the end of one night we found a local club with a live band playing Ska music. Sina soon because tired and went home leaving Matthias and I to dance with the other people on the bench seats near the front. I was having a great time meeting people and listening to the music when I turned and saw Matthias being held by a couple of people. I quickly saw blood on the bottom of his foot and took a closer look. Then I saw what I was afraid of, a huge gash that would require stitches. Matthias foot was completely covered in blood and everyone started to give me paper napkins to help stop the bleeding. With the help of three other guys, I carried Matthias out of the club to the street and caught a tuk tuk to the hospital.

When I got to the operating room I had flashbacks of my time volunteering at Harborview Medical Center. When the doctor started to clean Matthias’s foot I noticed that there was another huge gash that I didn’t even noticed because of all the blood. Luckily Matthias was a bit drunk and in shock when they began the slow painful process of 15 stitches. For some reason they did every stitch separately, tying them up one by one. When it was all finished one of the nurses handed us Matthias’s flip flop and asked if I wanted to keep it. I had previously thought that Matthias stepped on broken glass barefoot somehow. We both looked at the flip flop and saw two huge pieces of glass from a broken beer bottle imbedded straight through it. We politely said no thank you and left.

I later found out that Matthias had to stay in Bangkok for the following ten days to make sure there was no infection and have his bandages changed daily. Sina was not a happy camper. Then when the stitches finally came off the wounds re-tore and Matthias had to stay in Bangkok another 10 days. This was really bad luck since they were planning on heading down to the southern Thai Islands, which was Sina’s dream. I was just glad I wasn’t there when Sina found out the news.

Songkran in Bangkok Slideshow!


Returning to Bangkok was a lot more simple than getting to Siem Reap. The only downfall in a land crossing to Thailand was that you only get a 15 day visa as opposed to 30 days if you fly in. I also later found out that Thailand was giving free visas for 90 days or more till June, 2009 because of the lack of tourism. From the border I took the train the rest of the way. It was only ~$1US for a six hour trip. Or you could pay $8US for a minivan and get to Bangkok in four hours. I had lots of time and it was nicer to take the windowless train to see the countryside. When I arrived in Bangkok I learned that Songkran was starting the next day.

Songkran was Thailand’s three day New Year where the entire country had a huge water fight. It gets so crazy that people on mopeds, and sometimes cars, get into accidents as buckets of water are splashed on them from all directions. Khao San Rd. was packed with people holding a Supersoakers in one hand and a beer in the other. It was every kids dream except 99% of the crowd were adults.

Unfortunately there was no escape from the madness. My hotel was in the dead center of all the action in the tourist area and as soon as I stepped outside I was drenched without mercy. I then proceeded to stay in my air-conditioned room with wifi for the majority of the time. During the middle of the celebration there were violent protests in the downtown town area (~3km away). I was completely oblivious to the entire situation along with the rest of the tourists until an announcement was made on the streets loud speakers for everyone to disperse.

Sure it died down on Khao San Rd., for about four hours, and then everything picked up again like nothing happened. Meanwhile things were much different outside my tourist bubble, the protests continued till the next day and at one point there was car with hundreds of bullet holes at the end of my road. It was later reported that it was an assassination attempt on some Media Mogul with government ties. After all the commotion stopped the government extended Songkran to compensate for the disruption. It then became even more intense…

Returning to Bangkok Slideshow!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Saying Goodbye

I had planned to stay in contact with Leng and the orphanage with the hope that one day I would come back. In addition, I wanted to make a website for ODA, procure donations, art supplies, and anything else I could do. However, I was still worried about the downturn of tourism because of the upcoming rainy season and global recession. I knew the lack of sustainable income may possibly mean no food for the family and decided to cut my travels and donate a large portion of my funds.

There’s a lot more information about the orphanage on the website I created. I’m not a Webmaster so if anyone wants to help out or have any suggestions please let me know. Here are the websites, they are a long way from being finished:



Angkor Temples Slideshow!

Sight Seeing

During the last week I was there, I had to wrap things up and made sure everything would continue smoothly in my absence. Leng felt obligated to repay me back and asked if he could take me on a personal tour of the Angkor Temples along with another volunteer. I hadn’t seen any sites in Cambodia so naturally I said yes. The Temples were amazing, but it was a long day of site seeing. One of the cool things I loved and learned about the temples were that they made some of the doors shorter on purpose so you would have to bow your head upon entering.

Orphans Disabled Arts Association Slideshow!

Art Exhibition Opening

The Art Exhibition Opening was a huge success and we collected over $200US in sales and donations. The kids were ecstatic because it meant that they would have money for the Cambodian New Year. Also, for many of them it was their first time in the town of Siem Reap, which is only 15km away.

Orphans & Disabled Arts Association

I was getting antsy for some volunteer work and heard about a café called The Singing Tree that doubled as a pseudo community center. The owner’s name was Michael and he created this oasis based on his time in Byron Bay, Australia. It was a wonderful outdoor café and soon I met some people seeking volunteers for a local orphanage.

Orphans & Disabled Arts Association (ODA) was a grassroots NGO founded by Leng Touch in 2003. He was an orphan himself because of the Khmer Rouge and decided to commit his life to helping other orphans. Him and his wife ran a residential orphanage of about 15 kids. This just meant that they lived with the children. Another uniqueness about this orphanage was that even though the children technically were adoptable it rarely ever happened and they were more like a big family.

Leng was an accomplished artist and valued education for the children above all else. He even taught them different types of Art and the children were amazing artists. One of the many issues they faced was that the sole income of the orphanage was the paintings Leng sold to the tourists. It took about $13US/day to feel everyone. On top of food he had to then budget the money for other basic necessities like coal for cooking, diesel for the generator (there was no electricity out there), and other things. This was definitely the grassroots NGO I were looking for to help.

I began by renting bicycles to ride the 15Km out to the orphanage everyday. Unfortunately for me the only time to go there was the hottest part of the day. In spite of this, every time I rode to the orphanage all the kids were so happy that they greeted me with the traditional prayer and bow. As I started to get organized I began meeting other people and planned an art exhibition for the children’s paintings.

There was a lot to do in two weeks, but I was determined to make it a success. I concentrated on the documentation and computer stuff. Also, Michael at the Singing Tree Café had agreed to have the Art Exhibition and make it a permanent one.

Here are the websites I created for ODA:



Siem Reap Slideshow!

Mini Khao San Rd.

Bar Street was the main tourist drag for Siem Reap and it was so reminiscent of Khao San Rd. in Bangkok. It was like a mini version and you could tell that in the years to come the whole area would become a complete clone. The good part was that all the restaurants/bars were in a two block radius and the prices were like happy hour in the US (~$2-4US). Also, there were many expat owners of these places so you had authentic cuisines like French, Italian, Thai, Japanese, etc.

Looking around you could see the vast potential for growth and in fact new paved roads are being created as fast as possible. Furthermore, I read that Cambodia made a huge deal with foreign investors to revamp their train system to allow passengers. Currently, the trains are only for freight. I predict that as soon as the infrastructure has been finished there will be rapid changes for Cambodia and it will be the next hot spot for commercial tourism. This of course could be both good and bad.

Children's Puppet Parade in Siem Ream Slideshow!

Siem Reap

When I arrived in Siem Reap the first thing I noticed was the brand new KFC on one of the main roads. As far as I could tell it was the only western fast food chain around and very out of place in this poor country. I eventually found my way to my new digs, Number 9 Guesthouse. I later got a good deal for the room, $4US/day, and bicycles, $6US/week. The family was super nice and made the best banana shakes.


Batambang turned out to be just another small town with nothing interesting to see. Just outside of the town though you could do some day treks and visit a winery. Apparently, the women running it learned how to make wine from her brother who was living in Italy and brought the technique to Cambodia. I was just surprised that Cambodia had a winery. There’s also suppose to be a bamboo train where if another train is coming from the opposite direction everyone gets off, they disassemble the train, and then reassemble it after the other train has passed.

I just ended up walking around town and had planned to take the boat up to Siem Reap to meet up with Fiona. Sadly, the water was low and the $15US trip would have taken 11 hours. Thus I opted for the five hour bus ride ($8US).

The Mother of All Cluster F@#@'s

I soon came upon a traffic jam, so I all got out to investigate. I saw over a hundred cars jammed up on my side and the same on the other side of the commotion and in the middle was what I like to call The Mother of All Cluster F@#$’s.

Imagine a huge eighteen wheeler semi truck stuck in the mud and tilted over about 40 degrees because of the soft ground, only to be supported by three huge wooden log beams. That was part of the blocked road path. Then there was another part you could go through, but it was a big dip down and then up in the mud and water holes. A small truck had already tried to go through it unsuccessfully. There was a huge crowd all around trying to figure out what to do. Then another small truck came barreling through between the two other vehicles and got stuck himself! Later another guy with a winch and a bigger truck tried to pull the recent brainiac.

Meanwhile other geniuses couldn’t wait and took matters into their own hands. Now picture one side of the road with a steep downward hill and the other side with a small plateau covered with trees and a hut. So these geniuses drove up the grassy hill through the trees, slowly around the hut on the edge, straight down the other side, and then had to cross a little creek. The first car made it, but the second car got stuck and everyone laughed. I really really wished I had a photo of all of this to show.

My first impressions of Cambodians were that they didn’t seem to think ahead. They just went for it and dealt with the outcome later. At least that was what I saw in their driving skills.

After about two hours people helped push the car through the creek only to have another car get stuck. The guy with the winch managed to pull the other truck through and then plowed through himself to the other side, but then someone else tried and got stuck. Finally a huge CAT with a giant scooper came and I thought it would fill up the holes and make a proper path for all the cars… nope. I’m not sure what it was doing, but it developed mechanical problems and had to be taken away.

Eventually, the plateau was cleared and my driver decided to take chance to go the opposite way. Luckily he succeeded and I were on my way again.

Thai-Cambodia land border crossing scams

I had read and heard about bus scams and all the headaches of crossing the main Thai-Cambodia border by land. I heard one recent story of some people who crossed the border and everyone got ripped off.

Apparently, the bus driver tricked the people in doing all their visa application at a stop about 5 minutes before the border. Then he took the applications and money (1,300 Baht, ~ $37US) before they got back on the bus and told them he would take care of the visa for them. Now the actual cost of the Cambodia visa was $20US for 30days. When they arrived at the border the driver then told them there were no ATM’s in Siem Reap so they should change their money now. He took them to an ATM and then to a money exchanger, where I’m sure he got a nice commission. I’m sure you can guess that there were many ATM’s all over Siem Reap.

So I decided to take a less traveled border crossing at Psar Pruhm to Cambodia. Everything was exactly how the guidebook described it would be, down to the “extra” fee the customs agent would ask for. At first the customs officer asked for 1000 Baht (~$20US) and I just reacted by blurting out, “What? No way!” I guess I should have been more docile considering he had the power to deny me entry. Then he said a lower price and that’s when I knew I could bargain. So I negotiated a bit and I finally entered Cambodia. I then had to get a ride on a moped to the nearest town, Pailin. Then I was attacked by a bunch of taxi drivers and got into one waiting for it to fill up before I could go. Normally, taxis will take four passengers in the back and two passengers in the front plus the driver. Some tourists prefer to buy the two seats in the front to have a more comfortable ride on the dirt roads. Currently only some of the major highways had paved roads. Even the cities had dirt roads.

Koh Chang Slideshow!

Koh Chang

My first activity was renting a moped for 200 Baht (~$5.50US) to see the whole island. It was so fun and I really wanted to see some waterfalls, but they said the water level was very low during that time. Only the West side of the island was developed, but as I drove around I could see construction of several resorts on the East part of the island. When I drove at night I could see tons of bars and a few were just huge clusters of bars filled with “professional” women entertaining men and waiting for new ones.

My second activity was an elephant trek for a few hours. I debated on whether or not to do this, but then I read the money went to the preservation of these Asian Elephants. Unfortunately I got booked to a different group. The one I wanted was at the very north of the island. If you come here, make sure you don’t do the same mistake.

On my final day I took a boat and went snorkeling around a few different islands. The snorkeling was okay; I thought the southern Thai islands were better and less crowded. When I arrived at one destination I counted just over ten boats, each filled with at least 60 people. That kinda ruined it for me, but I did meet a group of nice travelers from all over and they invited me to dinner.

When I regrouped after cleaning up they all asked me if I knew of a good place to eat. I could only recommend the one local place I went to, it was very small, but they were all up to it. When I arrived the women was so grateful to me for bringing her so much business that she kept thanking me and told me that she would give me more food next time. Music to my ears, too bad I was leaving the next day.

Travel Plan

After speaking with several backpackers I had decided to make a loop of the SE Asian countries from Thailand to Cambodia, Vietnam, up to North Vietnam, cut across to Laos, and back to Northern Thailand, snaking my way down to Indonesia.

Bangkok was burning HOT so I wanted to hit a beach before Cambodia. Thus, I headed down to Koh Chang, a large island with lots of activities, including paintballing, near the border to Cambodia. From Koh Chang you could also head to other smaller and more expensive islands. I managed to find a cool hut on the White Sand Beach area and started to check out the scene. After looking at all my options I finally settle on snorkeling, an elephant trek, and renting a moped for a day.


One of the greatest things on this trip was that I got a chance to see one of my best friends, Kevin, from high school. He’s been working for USAID in Manila and had a chance to fly to Bangkok while I was still there. The last time I saw him was years and years ago, but I stayed in contact via email and phone as I try to do with all my friends. Plus, I finally got the chance to see his lovely fiancée, Sharon. Naturally, he was able to rile me up in two seconds and I was going to give him a good old fashion nuggy (put him in a headlock and rub his head hard with my knuckles), but he had lost most of his hair for me to do it properly.:P Just kidding Kev.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Bangkok Slideshow!

Bangkok Tips

One of the few bad things to watch out for were the tuk tuks (auto-rickshaws) and taxi drivers around the tourist areas. Tuk tuk’s invariably charged too much and it was cheaper and easier to take an AC metered taxi. All taxis are required by law to use the meter, but lots of them try to bargain for a high set price. To get across town from Khao San Rd should only cost you around 80-100Baht (~$2.25-3US). Even during high peak rush hour sitting in a taxi for an hour only cost us about 500 Baht (~$14US).

Another bad thing was of course the sex tourism that you saw everywhere. The working girls were very good in making even the most boring, dull, moronic, and imbecile of a guy feel like a king. It was comical to watch as these guys were trying to teach the Thai women how to play pool, not realizing that the women were experts from being there everyday. Nevertheless, the stroking of the male ego continued and the fantasy was sustained.

Oh, another bizarre thing about Thailand is that you will see a zillion 7-11’s. It’s like the Starbucks of Thailand, one on every corner.

Khao San Rd.

Khao San Rd. was insane, like a circus of souvenirs and food with neon lights filling up the sky above. There were so many yummy food carts, outdoor restaurants/bars, and souvenirs to buy my brain couldn’t process them all. I decided that the Thai’s were the masters of souvenirs. They had to coolest and nicest stuff that any tourists would want to buy. From jewelry, clothing, bamboo tattoos, fake tattoos, hair extensions done on the street, an array of massages, copied DVD’s, to music CD’s all for a fraction of the cost back home. It was great and glutinous all at the same time.

The first night I was out I met some new travelers. The first one was a guy from Eastern Europe living in Germany. He was so funny and happy to be in Thailand for the first time. He wore these bright parachute pants, red t-shirt with some silly saying, some tourist necklaces, and had a bag full of trinkets that he bought that night. As I were talking a women dressed in old traditional Thai outfit decked out with all sorts of souvenirs to buy ask if I wanted to buy anything as she stroked a wooden frog making frog noises (lets call her frog lady). I said no thank you, but she persisted with other things and the guy eventually caved and bought one thing. Over the course of one hour more frog ladies came and each time the guy bought something, sometimes many things. Well, once one of the frog ladies sold a bunch to him she told her friends and then it was insane. The guy couldn’t say no and ended up with another big bag full of souvenirs, many were duplicates. His excuse was that everything was so cheap and they were mostly gifts for friends. I just laughed, but he was having such a good time and had a good energy about him that made everyone around him happy.

The second guy was an American teaching English in South Korea and it was his first time and first night in Thailand as well. As the night went on he got progressively drunk and funnier. His story was hilarious, but too raunchy to write about on this wholesome blog. You’ll just have to email us directly for the whole story. It ended with him still being drunk when he caught his cab to the airport. He was only in Bangkok for the weekend to renew his South Korean visa.


I was in Thailand once before on the small, but beautiful island called Koh Phi Phi for a week and have been eager to get back ever since. As I rolled into Bangkok (about 500 Baht (~$14US) via taxi including tolls or 150 Baht (~$4US) via shuttle bus) I was so happy! I mean I like India, but the constant hacking in the morning, spitting everywhere, and garbage thrown all over the place got to me after a while. Bangkok had none of that; it was pristine with its cleanness, high towers, and no spitting… heaven.

I went straight to the main tourist road called Khao San Rd. and found a place in the middle. Of course the place across the road, Khao San Inn, had a free pool on the roof with a nice view, which was constantly booked and didn’t take any reservations. For a double room with a fan Khao San Inn was only 400 Baht (~ $11US), during the high season.

Women Travelers

More than a few women travelers have asked us how safe it is to travel in countries like India, having heard bad stories. Let me just say it’s like traveling in your own country, where you know basic things like don’t go down a dark alleys alone, or wear proper clothing at temples or very religious areas, or follow what other people are doing till you get the hang of things. I was asked by a woman from Mexico City how safe India was for a woman traveling alone. She heard bad things and it stopped her from going. The funny thing was that I heard that Mexico City was one of the dangerous cities in the world. It’s all about false perceptions and focused rumors on only the worst cases.

I haven’t traveled the entire world… yet… but I feel that generally, people are inherently good and helpful, especially in the poorer areas. Also, women travelers I’ve met feel safer in Asian countries than most Western ones due to the nature of the Asian culture.

There are many good websites for women traveling alone if you google them. Most of them have lots of wonderful information, including how to avoid misunderstandings of unwanted male attention.

Journey Woman - A great website for women run by women. It has lots of travel tips and advice specifically for women.

Staring in India

One of the more awkward cultural differences that travelers have a difficult time getting use to is the constant nonstop staring from everyone. People staring at you or what you are doing is really nothing to take offense from, it’s only curiosity. With a billion plus population and no privacy, India’s culture has grown into a country where staring is not considered rude, but a part of life. You will see many other people staring at others because they are simply interested in what’s happening, nothing more.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Decisions Decisions

I eventually wanted to make my way to Thailand, but had a couple of ideas in mind on how to get there. The first was by land, but crossing the Myanmar border proved to be expensive as the only way was via tour company buses because of the strict government restrictions on the roads.

The other option I was thinking about was going to the Andaman Islands and then to Thailand. I heard from other travelers that the Andaman Islands had the nicest beaches and diving of ALL of SE Asia. You could take a three day boat to the island or fly, but there was no way to head to Thailand from there. You had to return to India (obviously the past fighting with Thailand over the Andaman Islands has led to it’s limited access). In the end, the cheapest way was to fly directly to Bangkok.

At the airport I bumped into the German couple, Sina and Matthias, again who were also headed towards Bangkok. Having a feeling I would see them again I exchanged emails. As my plane took off I was thinking about one of the great quotes in the book, Shantaram. The quote said that India was the heart, the Italy, of SE Asia. The people are romantics and will do anything in the name of love.


My expectation of Kolkata was chaos and super over crowdedness. I was wrong. Ya, there were lots of people and cars, but I think Delhi was more chaotic. One big difference was that there were almost no auto-rickshaws, mainly big yellow taxis.

I only had three days in Kolkata before my visa expired (India starts your visa when you apply for it, so it’s better to get it at the country you’re in just before you go) so I checked out Mother Theresa’s House. I really wanted to look into some volunteer work, even if it was for a few days. I found out that there were several different houses you could volunteer for any amount of time. Some of the different houses were people who were dying, disabled children, disabled women, etc. As they were explaining the different houses and what I to do there I soon realized that it would have been more harmful than good to just volunteer for three days. I mean the resources they would have to use to train me just for three days would have been better spent on the people at the houses. Thus, I opted to volunteer another time when I had more time in Kolkata.

The Mother Theresa also had advice on giving to beggars, don’t. They said that ones on the tourist street are run by the mob. If you do give food, make sure you open it first or they will just return the food to the store to get the money. Also, some children beggars are not really destitute, they go to school and have a house, but try their luck to see how much they can get. And some of the women beggars hire children or babies from the local slums so they can get more pity/money. In essence, giving anything to beggars encourages that behavior and undermines the work of NGO’s who are qualified to help. If you want to give money, it would be more useful to give to those NGO’s.

Varanasi Slideshow!


My time in India was ending soon because of my visa so I decided to head back up North.

Varanasi is famous for burning the dead by the Ganges River. Hundreds of thousands of Indians make pilgrimages every year to perform ceremonies and to cleanse themselves in the river. It was okay. You can take a nice walk down a path that runs along the Ganges and there’s a maze of alley shops, but I wouldn’t spend more than a couple days there.

I did bump into some other travelers I saw in Palolem Beach, but it’s common to see the same people since most backpackers travel in the same direction or hotspots. I also met a new German couple, Sina (as in Xena the Princess Warrior as she hates to be called) and Matthias, at the train station on my way to Kolkata. Little did I know it wasn’t the last time I would see them.

Traveling as I look

Alright, let’s start with my ethnic background, Japanese and Chinese, born in Okinawa, Japan on a US Airforce base as a US citizen. This particular mix has given me a unique look in which I have been able to pass for other ethnic groups. Then there’s my body type, I’ll admit a bit bigger than your typical Asian.

On this trip it really started in Nepal when people thought I was Nepalese and started to speak to me in the local language. Then when I got to Pokhara, Tibetans thought I was one of them. Even the Mongolians in the hills started to speak to me, and when I didn’t turn to answer my guide told them I was from the US.

So does my look give me any advantages while traveling? Depends on your point of view I guess. Sure, I can walk around and people will assume I’m just a local and touts won’t hassle me. However, as soon as I open my mouth everyone asks me where I’m from, but sometimes I feel that I still get a better deal when negotiating a price. Many poorer countries have two different prices for tourists and locals and I can definitely get the local price for admission to sights if I wanted (I don’t because the money goes to support the beautiful landmarks I’ve visited).

Of course the one thing I can’t hide is my size and people almost always comment on it. Even when I’ve dropped twenty pounds and lost all my muscle I’ve gotten comments from guys in Nepal and India about my body. One time this Nepalese guy was checking me out as I was trying to get directions from him (uncomfortable). At the end of the conversation he ask the typical “where are you from” question and then told me I had a beautiful body (can you see my eyes rolling?). Yes I was a bit nervous and promptly left. Though in countries like Nepal and India where men hold hands and show other public displays of affection it wasn’t abnormal, even for a straight man.

I’m not sure what exactly I’m trying to say here, maybe it’s more like a thought for the day.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kovalam Beach Slideshow!

Kovalam Beach

Kovalam was a nicer and smaller version of Palolem Beach. I soon found a nice place with a balcony and a vegetarian/vegan restaurant below, negotiating a good deal for two weeks. Then I found a great yoga instructor named, Saju, who gave an awesome deal for his yoga classes. Thus began my personal yoga retreat program I created for myself along with eating only vegetarian foods. For the most part I don’t usually eat meat when I’m traveling because I don’t trust it and the meat is generally not so good.

I decided to keep up with the four hours of yoga and two meals a day, just minus the chanting… Hare krisna hare rama, hare krishna hare rama ,om navah shivia.

In yoga class there was this woman, Connie, who did the scorpion for a few seconds and I thought it was incredible. Even so, after a few days I tried the scorpion myself and managed a second or two, with assistance of course. For the first week my body ached all over nonstop.

By the end of my time in Kovalam, I had improved dramatically. To my surprise I was able to do so much more than I had ever expected. The highlight was that I was able to hold my scorpion for over a minute! Connie was naturally jealous and cursed me every chance she got. No hard feelings Connie, sure it took you a whole month to do a few seconds while it took me a few days, but who really notices those things?:)

It was a really good time, I felt so healthy and fit.:P

Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram Slideshow!

Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram

Once I got to Trivandrum I had to take a two hour bus ride to the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram set in Neyyar Dam National Park. When I finally arrived it seemed really unorganized and the people were not very helpful. It was just my personal first impression shared by other travelers I met there. Granted the Ashram runs mainly on volunteers and sometimes things can get crazy.

The Ashram was beautiful and huge. The daily MANDATORY schedule was:

0520 hrs WAKE UP BELL
0600 hrs SATSANG
0730 hrs TEA TIME
0800 hrs ASANA CLASS
1000 hrs BRUNCH
1100 hrs KARMA YOGA
1230 hrs COACHING CLASS (optional)
1330 hrs TEA TIME
1400 hrs LECTURE
1600 hrs ASANA CLASS
1800 hrs DINNER
2000 hrs SATSANG
2200 hrs LIGHTS OUT!

I decided to pay for first three nights to get a feel for the place before I committed the full two weeks. As I was walking to my dorm room I heard a group of people chanting away, which sent that, “oh brother” thought into my head. I’m not much for chanting or meditation, but I was willing to give it a try. After the first day I was ready to leave…

It wasn’t the simple small meals only twice a day or getting up before dawn everyday or doing yoga four hours a day, but the singing/meditating for four hours each day that killed me. I had to escape!

So, I suffered the two extra days that I already paid for and headed back to Trivandrum. I was hoping to find a decent place to stay and maybe find a yoga studio. No luck on either, thus I took an auto-rickshaw to Kovalam Beach the following day.

Stow Away

At the Varkala train station I ran into some locals I met earlier, when all of a sudden my train came at the far end of the tracks. Then the locals told me to hurry and jumped down to catch the train. I had no tickets yet, but they said it was okay, so I though I could buy them on the train. Subsequently I followed and ran across the tracks to hop on the train instead of going the proper long way around. My local friend had to go to another compartment and left me. Then I saw a few train conductors sitting together chatting and tried to purchase a ticket, but they neither spoke any English or cared if I had tickets making it my first stow away train ride!

Varkala Slideshow!

Varkala Beach

As I entered deeper into Kerala you really notice some culture differences within India. South India in general is more laid back and you see more women walking about. Mumbai of course is the most cosmopolitan city of India and has adopted many western cultures. Though in Kerala it seemed that women had more rights/respect and the literacy rate for both men and women were the highest.

My final super long bus ride landed me in Varkala Beach. I spoke with some fellow travelers who had been here many years ago and like everything else, it changed a lot. From almost nothing to completely developed for tourism. Other backpackers liked Varkala, but I was a little burnt out on beach towns and not very impressed.

Varkala was set on a cliff along the coast so if you wanted to get to the main beach you had to walk all the way down to the water. I only stayed there for a few days because I had scheduled a two week yoga retreat down south. That’s right you heard me, Yoga Retreat.

Alleppey Slideshow!


Another bus ride landed me in Alleppey, famous for the houseboats you could rent and slowly visit the lush greenery of Kerala. I decided to take an offer from one of the touts at the bus station who had pictures of the place. Of course if it wasn’t nice, I would have just gone to another place. However, when I arrived at my place it was shockingly nice and huge! I was shown my upstairs rooms and I do mean plural. First I had a living room, bedroom, a changing room, bathroom, and a gigantic balcony completely furnished all for the wonderful price of $5US/night.

In essence, the place was a new two-story house rented out to business executives and my room was normally $75US/night. Thank you global economic downfall.

On the bus I met a nice Swedish couple, Klara and Sven, who were also traveling the world and stayed at my fabulous digs. I ended up joining them for a canoe ride through the canals for the day. I was still interested in renting a houseboat and hoped to find some directly to make a more reasonable deal than the $200US+ packages from the tour agencies. Then all of a sudden I passed a row of hundreds of docked houseboats just waiting for some customers.:) Although the idea of a houseboat soon became pointless since I pretty much canoed the same paths and then some.

Ft. Cochin Slideshow!

Ft. Cochin

Ft. Cochin was a nice quiet little town on the peninsula with no real beach. Although, on the island just north of it had a beach. You could take a ferry across, but then it was a 15km trek. So I had the wonderful idea of finding an auto-rickshaw driver and making a deal. So for looking at 6 shops (no buying) I got a free round trip ride to the beach for the day.:P

Lost in India...

After a few days I took the train to Ft. Cochin. Unfortunately, I missed my stop and the next stop was at least another hour or more away. As I got the lowdown from the local passengers the train made a temporary stop to wait for the oncoming train to pass.

Basically, I was about 500 meters from a small village where I could potentially take a bus back to Ft Cochin or wait till the next the next stop and find my way back.
Easy choice right? Well, did I forget to mention that the train was a bit high off the ground, I was surrounded by trees, didn’t know when the train was going to take off again, and there was just a trail to an unfamiliar village to possibly take a bus.

Eventually, I jumped off the train and dragged my bags to the side of the tracks. As I started to walk another backpacker had missed his stop too and asked me where I were headed. He then jumped off to join me and soon the train was gone. It was all easy after that. I met a few locals who didn’t speak any English, but they managed to help us find the bus stop for Ft. Cochin.

Bangalore Slideshow!


From Hospet, I took an overnight bus to Bangalore. Again, the no stopping for bathroom breaks or food was a little annoying. However, this bus had single and double beds making for a pleasant ride.

Bangalore was just another city and uninteresting. The only comical thing was when an auto-rickshaw driver approached me and offered to show me the sights for 10 rupees. Right away I knew it was a scam to take me to shops so he could get a commission. I declined the “generous” offer, and then he offered to take me back to my hotel afterwards. I kept declining and he kept trying to convince me. Soon, he fest up and told me that he would give me some money for each shop I went to. The more I declined, the better the deal got. If I didn’t have other things to do I probably would have taken his final offer.

Hampi Slideshow!


My next stop was Hampi, via bus. One of the new things I learned about local buses is that they don’t make stops for eating or the bathroom. This included bus rides that last 10 hours long. So you make due, run to the bathroom when the bus picks up more people, or grab a quick bite to eat when the bus stops for gas.

When I finally reached my stop, Hospet, I was again inundated by touts offering rides the rest of the way to Hampi. One weird thing was that one of the touts recognized me from Palolem Beach, which was three weeks and one state over ago. Stalker alert! Anyway, a bunch of other backpackers and I took auto-rickshaws and arrived in Hampi in the dark. Now to get to the better area for lodging you had to cross a small river. However, the boats stop ferrying people at 6pm and we got there at 8pm. So one of the auto-rickshaw drivers called up some of his buddies and soon I saw two little floating things appear in the water to carry us across.

Now imagine two giant umbrellas made of bamboo turned upside-down… that was my ride! It was so funny, to properly balance everyone we had to stack our backpacks in the middle and sit on the rim. But wait there’s more! If you bothered to look down in the “boat” you could see water slowly seeping through. Luckily it was a short 5 minute trip across.

Once on the other side, I found a super nice guesthouse called Mama’s, run by a sweet family. Their son, Sandeep, offered yoga lessons every morning, which I had planned on attending. Everyday I really planned to do some yoga, and everyday I managed to miss the 8am session. Big fat slacker, I know.

The rocks around Hampi were amazing, it reminded me of the Australian outback. Also, bouldering there is supposed to be one of the best in the world. I would have shown off a little, but I didn’t have my bouldering shoes with me.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Gorkana Slideshow!

During one night some of my new friends came across this malnourished, almost dead, puppy they found on the beach. In spite of this, over the course of a week we managed to plump up little Shapoo, his new name. Apparently, Hindu religion forbids direct killing of animals so they cut a small wound behind the ear of a dog and it ends up dying because it can’t lick it to heal so the wound gets infected or bleeds the dog to death.


My next stop was Gorkana, a few hours by train costing me less than one US dollar. The train system in India is the cheapest way to travel and you can book your tickets online.

Once off the train I got hit with tons of touts offering rides to town. Eventually, I made my way to the slow small religious quiet town of Gorkana and started to walk up the beach. Soon, I came upon a nice little place with very simple huts made of bamboo and dirt floors. In the front was the tiny shack restaurant that served great food with a decent size menu that had nothing over $1US. From my hut you could hear the huge crashing of the ocean waves when I went to sleep and watch the gorgeous sunset every night eating dinner at the front restaurant chatting to other travelers.

Gorkana Beach was considerably less developed than Palolem. You could walk the entire length of the beach in a couple of hours and see only a handful of places offering huts. Many Indians also traveled to Gorkana to bath in the sea and cleanse themselves because the towns religious significance.

Just south of Gorkana Beach was Paradise and Om Beach. You could get to both by boat or walk along the cliffs. Om Beach could also be accessed by auto-rickshaw. Originally, I had planned to stay on Om Beach, but after taking day trips to both beaches I was very happy with the place I found.

Om Beach had a bit more huts, but uninteresting. Paradise Beach was even more developed and overpriced. So much so, that some people I met walked all the way back to town (about 30 mins through rocks and the beating hot sun) to eat their meals. Granted, it’s all cheap, but if you’re traveling for a long time, you try to save where you can.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Happy New Year!

The New Year’s Eve came pretty quickly as more tourists came to Palolem to celebrate the New Year. But I was told it never truly got crowded like it had been the previous years due to the combination of the recent Mumbai attacks and global recession.

Anyway, my Aussie hut neighbors had some friends (Kelly and Jack) who came to visit. From where you may ask? Well, Northcote, Melbourne of course, is there any other part of Australia? I only say this because every Australian I met was from this exact suburb in Melbourne. I did, however, managed to meet a girl named Allie from Seattle, Washington. YES! Her and her friends were on holidays from doing volunteer work with kids in Bangalore. Pretty cool. Well, as evening came upon us, the Aussie’s and I headed to an open restaurant bar on the beach to sing karaoke. Actually, I just watched. Big chicken I know. Every sing person sang a few songs, which shamed so much, but my chicken’ness was still stronger.

The night ended with lots of fireworks and dancing. Unfortunately, the military police were not very friendly that night and harassed the tourists to get off the beach. Well, there were over two hundred people trying to get off the beach and into the safe haven of Café Del Mar (the most popular bar/restaurant), but apparently it wasn’t fast enough for the police. So the police started to shove and hit some of the tourists with their batons to move them along, which ended with one couple being arrested and taken away. Crazy.

Merry Christmas!

As Christmas approached I was busy decorating my hut and planning a little party with my other hut neighbors. Mostly there were Aussies, they’re everywhere! Like a disease… but not deadly and lots of fun.:P My Aussie neighbors were from Northcote, Melbourne (Rene, Bickies, and Noodle). Then there were two Swedish families who were very funny with their traditional Christmas dance.

Okay, picture two families, adults and their children, all dancing around a tree singing in Swedish making bunny ears and tails hoping around. We were all laughing and then they told us it was a song about a FROG who had no ears and tail! Then I just laughed even more. It was a fun night and the Swedish families were hilarious. Unfortunately, they had to leave the next day and we wouldn’t be celebrating New Years with them.

Delhi and Goa Slideshow!