Travel


One World, One Dream
This sign, the motto of the 2008 Olympics, is at the Great Wall, just outside of Beijing. This photo was taken in late June, on our way out of China. In today’s paper, an athlete competing in Beijing said, “Eerie how the sun never comes out all day.” Eerie indeed.

Affixiated Lara
Lara’s having a hard time breathing at the Wall.

Pretty Great
In this shot, the sign is in the upper right corner. It’s sad.

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We recently arrived in Beijing, a city busily getting ready to hold the Olympics in less than two months. To walk the streets of Beijing, or even look out the window, one has to ask how Olympic athletes will possibly compete here. It’s not possible to convey how polluted Beijing is in words. If Chengdu’s atmosphere resembled skim milk, Beijing is more akin to mushroom soup. One can see about a block or two, then the city recedes in the mysterious mists of smog. It’s like the early morning fog of California, but it never burns off.

Beijing Smog
Beijing, mid-day.

Beijing Streets
Modern Beijing.

It’s a wonder the government was able to convince the Olympic committee to hold the Olympics here. What would really infuriate me if I were a Beijinger, is the fact that for the Olympics, the government will stop the polluting industry, and restrict automobile traffic, so the air will be relatively clean. Then, once the Olympics are over, it’s back to pollution-as-usual. Lara and I discussed living in Beijing as embodying the frog-in-hot-water analogy. If the water, or air pollution, increases slowly enough, the frogs, or people, don’t notice. Until it’s too late.

Beijing Food Market
Beijing food market.

Food Market workers
Food market workers.

Bored Food Worker
Bored food worker.

Beijing is more hip than Chengdu. It is less socially conservative. People stare less here, or even notice our presence. The pollution is the first thing one notices, and it’s hard to get past.

We went to the Great Wall, or the Long Wall, as it’s known in Chinese. It’s pretty great. But again, the wall is overshadowed by the haze of pollution. One can barely see the wall itself.

Great Wall

Great Wall II

Great Wall III

Smog Wall

Steep

Wall Climb II

The most notable thing about our visit to the Great Wall was what happened after we climbed it. We sat down next to a group of people that looked like they were from Afghanistan, and had some coffee. We sat talking, while a women from Canada approached this group and they all started talking. Before you know it they were discussing Barack Obama and Bush. We soon figured out they were from Pakistan. They turned to us and said, We are against the policies, not the people. It was a big delegation, and a couple of them came and sat next to us, and began talking politics, explaining that Pakistan didn’t have problems with the Taliban until Bush and Mush (Musharraf) began with “their war policies.” He said they favored dialogue over war. He then introduced one of the members of the delegation as Musharraf’s brother, a “legitimate leader because he was elected.” Obviously Musharraf and his brother have some differences.

Yesterday we saw Mao’s body, under a red hammer and sickle flag, on display next to Tiananmen Square. Today we visited the Summer Palace. Tomorrow morning we leave for Portland. Our time in China has come to an end. Check back soon for final photos and some final thoughts on our ten months in Asia.

We spent a weekend in Chongqing several weeks ago, and on the way home our Chinese traveling companions wanted to stop off to see what they described as an 800 year old Buddhist statue. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good Buddha statue as much as the next guy. But we’ve seen a lot of them in our ten months in Asia, and I was not feeling particularly enthusiastic about driving three hours out of our way to see another one. Boy, was I wrong. I was expecting yet another larger than life representation of Shakyamuni. Instead we got Dazu, the pinnacle of Chinese rock carving art, representing a blending of Tantric Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian influences as expressed in hundreds of images.

These carvings date from the 9th to the 13th century. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The photos do not really do justice to the enormity of this project. To see it in 360 degree imaging, go here.

Enjoy!

Scale
To get a sense of the scale of this, on the bottom left is the sidewalk.

Two Dudes

Scary Dudes

Three Wise Men

Sword Man

Hell Realm

Bird Man

Wheel of Life

Quan Yin

From Trang we headed down to Pak Bara and caught a boat to Ko Tarutao Marine National Park. No doubt modeled in part on the US Park system, with its manicured lawns and proper signage, this was a sleepy little area off the tourist routes. We spent the better part of a week there, mostly hanging out on the beach and going on little excursions. One afternoon we went snorkeling, although the stories we heard from our boat driver were more interesting than anything we saw in the water, as it was plenty murky. He made us Nescafe on board before we dived in the ocean. Another day we trekked through the jungle, then climbed up a rocky river bed to get to a waterfall where we could swim. The water was cold but felt good. It was clear and we could dive in off the surrounding rocks. We met a Korean women there who lives in Beijing and works for Greenpeace.

Turns out Greenpeace has sixty people in their Beijing office and actually does direct actions in China, which our new friend told us makes life there occasionally dicey. She described the precarious life of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) in China, and how the Chinese had just shut one down, which addresses social and environmental issues, to send a message to all the rest. We talked about which activists are still in jail and how strictly environmental organizations have an easier time than those which also address social issues.

Our five days in Tarutao were our Grande Finale, after which we headed back to Bangkok so Audrey could catch her flight home. We stayed with an old friend from New York City who is now a very successful architect living and designing buildings in Bangkok. Lara and I had four days after this before our flight back to China, so we headed out to an island called Ko Si Chang where Westerners rarely go. The boat there and back was filled almost completely with Thais, in sharp contrast to many boats in Thailand which predominantly carry Europeans. We had two nights here, spending one afternoon at a Buddhist center, the Tham Yai Prik Monastery, where we were able to meditate in a cave and get a tour by a Thai nun who spoke French. She was married and living in Paris, but felt drawn back to Thailand and a Buddhist life. She was very calm and happy and spent a good deal of time with us, even making us lunch.

They had little teaching pavilions, roofed structures with seats and photos and text in Thai and English wrapping around the inside of the structure, concerning basic Buddhist thought. There was a real emphasis on impermanence and the inevitability of death. Among other things she showed us human remains, a decomposing body in a little building, kept there to remind us of our impermanent state. We sat in this building, about ‘10 x ‘5 in diameter, and talked, while she took the body’s arm and modeled her own, showing how this would be her some day. They had pieces of wood on top of the body, which she’d pick up, saying, “See, no difference.” They had mats rolled up in the room in case one wanted to sleep there. Everyone at the monetary was very kind, including the many dogs which happily followed us around on our tour. After spending the better part of the afternoon there, we left a donation and walked down the road. We flew out of Bangkok back to China two days later.

___________

What follow is a fairly chronological photo essay of our trip to Thailand. We’re now back in China, which experienced their worst winter in over fifty years while we were away. It’s cold and damp here. We can see our breath indoors and steam rises from the toilet when I pee. Looking at these photos reminds me of what it’s like to be warm.

There are some new photos from Thailand in the Signs page as well, thanks to my Ghost Poster back in Portland.

Reclining Buddha
The Reclining Buddha, the largest in the world, at Wat Pho in Bangkok. This image depicts the Buddha just before he died.

Rilay
Railay

longboatmotor
The most common form of water transport in Thailand is the longboat. This motor is the type that makes them go.

Greenplanet
The longboat driver for an afternoon Four Island Tour organized by a group ironically called Green Planet.

Sunkenships
Sunken ships in harbor in Krabi.

RedBoat
Thai fishing boat.

Mistymountains
Mountains surrounding Chiaw Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park. This was on the way to trek in the jungle and visit the cave.

Splitthesky
Chiaw Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park.

Standalone
Chiaw Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park.

Jungle
The jungle of Khao Sok National Park.

Cave Entrance
The Cave entrance.

MistymountainsII
Misty Mountains: Chiaw Lan Lake.

Riverboats
Chiaw Lan Lake.

boatmoorings
Boat moorings, Chiaw Lan Lake.

PhiPhiView
The view of Phi Phi (pronounced Pee Pee): “Excuse me, which boat do we get to Phi Phi in?”

PHIPHI
The secluded beach on Phi Phi. To the left is the Funky Bongo.

rockybeach
Ko Tarutao Marine National Park.

The Beach
The beach at Ko Tarutao.

Waterfall
An hours trek through the jungle and up a riverbed got us to this waterfall and swimming hole: clear water and fish!

sunset
Sunset on Ko Tarutao beach.

trashmonkey
Almost every morning at Ko Tarutao National Park the monkeys come through raiding all the trash cans. This Trash Monkey scored some chips.

Modern Bangkok
Modern Bangkok from a water taxi.

BangkokRiver
Bangkok.

TheKing
One of thousands of the larger-than-life pictures of the King you’ll find all over Thailand. No comment.

TempleofDawn
The Temple of Dawn, downtown Bangkok.

rickshaw
The most badass Rickshaw I’ve seen in Asia next to those of Punjab, India. These are all over the island of Ko Si Chang.

Tham Yai Prik Monastery
Tham Yai Prik Monastery, Ko Si Chang.

We left Bangkok after a few days of taking in the various monumental and ornate wats (temples) and palaces.  One of our favorite activities in sprawling Bangkok was traversing the city scape via water taxi, boats which carry both Thais and tourists along a major river which snakes through the center of the city.  This is a very calming and meditative means of transportation, one I’d imagine the average Thai worker coming home from their job couldn’t help but appreciate. 

We headed north via train 12 hours to Chiang Mai.  Although very tourist-centered, Chiang Mai is more run down and humble than Bangkok.    We had to negotiate with Tuk Tuk (motorized rickshaw) drivers over the exorbitant fares they wanted to charge to take us moderate distances, plus arguing against their attempts to take us to various tailors they get kickbacks from to deliver us to their shops.  Subsequently, as usual, we spent a lot of time walking.   It was hot and lazy in Chiang Mai, and I enjoyed wandering through the city’s streets, checking out the wats,  which were not as spectacular and glitzy as those of Bangkok.  Without the crowds of Bangkok the wats seemed more human and less on display.  We explored little restaurants off the tourist path, eating a Thai version of hot pot and a jungle curry.  Our last day there I got ill for the first time in Asia, ironically after eating at a fairly fancy restaurant overlooking the city, which took us half an hour walking up a hill to get to after we refused to pay the extra 100 baht the Tuk Tuk driver insisted upon to actually take us the full distance.  I spent the night moving between the bed and the toilet, moving very slowly the next day until we got on a train back to Bangkok.

Back in Bangkok we paid 1000 baht to watch Muay Thai (kickboxing) fights.  At an exchange rate of roughly 30 baht to the dollar, this made for an expensive evening. Most of the fighters were teenagers, weighing around 100 pounds.  A couple of the fighters exhibited skills beyond knee strikes, kicks, and punches and were quite exciting to watch.  These guys had obviously been training for more than a couple of years. Of equal interest to what was going on in the ring was the frenzied betting going on all around us, with men winning thousands of baht per fight.  We stayed for seven fights, getting our fill after several hours.

Our friend Audrey from Portland arrived the next day and we took another train south to Surat.  We spent less than 12 hours there, mostly sleeping, and got a ride to the rain-forest of Khao Sok National Park with the owner of the hotel we stayed at.

Khao Sok has the remains of a 160 million year old rain-forest.  This was the jungle interior part of our trip.  We took long boats deep into the jungle ala Apocalypse Now, then trekked in even deeper.  Our Thai guides had mischievous smiles upon arriving at a cave complex, where the three of us and four Germans were led deeper and deeper into a dark, wet, huge cave crawling with water and life.  Several of us had headlamps which followed our gaze around the cave’s interior as we sloshed through ankle deep water in flip flops.  The guides advised us we would encounter chest-high water, but we didn’t know if this was real or hyperbole. 

Looking up towards the ceiling of the cave’s interior, we could see hundreds and hundreds of bats dangling from their feet, hanging upside down, twitching either from being disturbed by our lights or as part of their natural physiologic processes.  The cave was pitch black, as evidenced anytime one of us strayed far from the lights.  We crawled over boulders and through rocky crevices, encountering spiders as big as our hands.  Half way through we came across a spring, which soon turned into a stream and eventually a narrow, quite powerful river.  Climbing down between the rocks, sure enough, we were soon immersed chest high in strong currents of water, navigating through the darkness in a journey which didn’t come to any quick or tidy conclusions.  At one point we had to swim along the length of a gushing river squeezed between narrow rocks in the direction of the only way out.  I had to be careful not to submerge the battery attached by two wires to the headlamp I was wearing.  After close to an hour we finally saw the hint of daylight in the distance and soon returned to the heat of the jungle. It felt exhilarating to make it through the cave complex, seeing a world one seldom encounters, navigating the darkness to emerge on the other side.  At times it felt crazy to even be in there, Whose idea was this?  Upon exiting back into the light, we sat and drank water and laughed about what we had just been through.

In 1932 Thailand went from being a Monarchy to being a Constitutional Monarchy.  There’s a monument to this transition dubbed, prematurely, the “democracy monument” in Bangkok.  It was here, in 1973, that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest the very lack of democracy in Thailand and the control by the military.  The military opened fire on the pro-democracy demonstrators and at least 75 were killed near the monument.  It was partly in response to this kind of oppression that many students headed south to the jungles of the rain-forest to gather and organize against the government.  Khao Sok National Park was a prime location for students and communist insurgents to hide out in during the 1970s. 

From the interior’s rain-forest we headed towards what most foreigners know Thailand for, namely the beaches.  We spent a night in Krabi, a sleepy little town with an awesome food night market, and a veritable Clown Navy of colorful fishing and transport boats.  At the night market we had Phad Thai, which was quite good, made by Muslims at a small cart.  From Krabi we took a longboat to Railay, a beach recommended to us for its beauty.

We found an affordable place to stay at the top of a hundred stairs.  Railay is where we got in the water and lay on the beach for the first time.  In Railay we went snorkeling, diving off a boat into water filled with myriad multi-colored fish.  The water is warm and embracing.  We visited surrounding islands, swimming and exploring beaches.

Unfortunately, Railay was clogged with tourists by the thousands.  It was far too dense with European, Australian, and US tourists to really be very enjoyable, and everything there is outrageously expensive.  The tourist circuit in Thailand is about as expensive as New York City, although Thailand is more affordable off the beaten path.  Railay was not always a tourist haven.  The area around Railay once sheltered pirates who used its extensive beaches and inlands to hide out in and plan attacks. 

From Railay we took a boat a couple of hours further south to the Island of Phi Phi (pronounced Pee Pee), part of which was made famous by the controversial filming there of The Beach.  Upon landing in Phi Phi it appeared as bad if not worse than Railay in terms of base commercialism, but some advanced research led us to a fairly secluded little beach where we found an affordable place to stay.  We ended up spending three nights there, lying on the beach, snorkeling, playing cards, writing and reading.  There was hardly anyone else there, and the people that worked there were very kind.  The only way back was by long boat, or an hour hike through the jungle.

Phi Phi was largely wiped out by the tsunami three years ago, and its rapid redevelopment is haunted by this recent cataclysm.  Many businesses and small shops give thanks in their advertising for the international support given in the destruction’s aftermath.  One day we hiked 1,000 feet practically straight up and over a bluff back to town to get some supplies, check email, make some phone calls, and arrange the next stage of our trip. 

Sadly, we had to leave. After a couple of boat rides, two ferries and a mini-bus we are now in a little working-class town called Trang on our way to islands further south.

From One-Party Dictatorship to Post-Coup Constitutional Monarchy, here we are in beautiful Thailand.  As you may know, Thailand had a coup just over a year ago to oust an allegedly corrupt Prime Minister who also happened to favor the rural poor, possibly as part of his own political maneuvering.  With him in exile, a political party favorable to his cause recently won elections here, and the Supreme Court is currently sorting out various alleged election irregularities which may either deny the party a governing majority in the parliament, ban them outright, or hand them the keys to power.

Although the military is currently largely in control, Thailand is anything but a country under martial law.  Although in our week here we’ve been limited to Bangkok, the capital, and Chiang Mai, the largest city in the North, we haven’t seen any overt military presence in the streets, with the notable exception of air-force jet flyovers that woke us up one morning. 

Of course we haven’t been to the South, where 40,000 police and soldiers are suppressing an insurgency by members of the Muslim population, and bombings and drive-by shootings are an almost daily occurrence.  Thailand is 90% Buddhist, and some in the Muslim minority feel mistreated, although no organization has yet emerged to identify a list of demands or put forward any kind of ideology.

While the constitutional side of Thai government is sorted out, the Monarchy is going through their own changes, as the King’s sister recently died.  There are pictures of the King everywhere you  go, and his sister has now joined him in poster-sized tributes.  Our first night here we walked out of our hotel in bustling Bangkok to completely still traffic and everyone on the sidewalks also standing still.  Knowing something strange was happening we were soon informed that the King was coming and we should stand and wait.  Sure enough motorcycle police with their lights flashing and a convoy of SUVs suddenly appeared, speeding down the road surrounding a very regal looking car with Thai flags flapping from each side of the hood.

Despite being ruled by a King and being at the tail end of their 18th Coup (although the first in 15 years), Thailand feels much more free and open than China.  The modern has not bulldozed the past the way it has in China.  Ironically, the Cultural Revolution layed waste to any potential cultural opposition to the emergence of blatant consumerism.  Thais seem not to have lost their connection to their own history, the way people in China have.   The old and the new are better integrated here and, quite frankly, Thais are a lot cooler than people in China. 

People here smile, with a warmth and sincerity one doesn’t encounter in China, or most places in the West for that matter.  In a way similar to India, there is a real sense of benevolence here.  It may sound ridiculous, but the mere fact that cars stop for pedestrians is striking after four months in China where that never happens.

So this is our Winter break.  Chinese New Year is February 7th – the Year of the Rat is upon us.  Classes don’t start for a month, so Lara and I are here, with a potential visit to India in the works.  The sun is out every day, it’s in the ’90s, and we’re very happy.  Thailand feels a lot closer to our home in Portland, both because the people here are more like home, and because we feel more like ourselves.

I know it’s cruel to post a Blog about Thailand and not include any pictures, but that’s what I’ve done.  Once we work out some technical issues, photos will be forthcoming.

The following are photos from Kangding, a town of 20,000 whose electricity is completely provided by the hydroelectric power of a local dam. Although the political border of Tibet is further West, this really is where Tibet begins. Here you’ll find young Tibetans hanging around town, monks in maroon and yellow robs asking for alms, Chinese looking to drive you to the many surrounding scenic areas, and a good number of police, not to mention surveillance cameras. This is a place for backpackers going trekking, and once was a center of the tea trade, with tea brought in from Chengdu in exchange for Tibetan wool. We visited two monasteries, both of which have army bases next to them, and took a cable car up a mountain overlooking town. There are several Tibetan restaurants in town, and Tibetan script is everywhere. There are also huge Tibetan Buddhist icons carved into the surrounding mountain sides.

Kangding Mountains

Mountains and towers

Kangding Valley

Kangding from Above

Monestary

Monestary II

Backpackers Hostel

Pony

Monestary Entrance

Entranceway

Courtyard

Stupa

Buddhist Icons

2nd Monestary

Monestary and Mountains

Motorcycle Club
This is a motorcycle Club that passed through town. They all had little red flags with their clubs insignia on it. In addition to a lot of motorcycles in the countryside, we also saw quite a few hardcore bicyclists riding long distance on the winding, treacherous mountain side highway.

ShowerTolietCombo
This is the bathroom of one of the hotels we stayed in. It featured the old shower/toliet combo