Antidote to Boredom

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Southern Thailand - March 4, 07 - March 21, 07

Beaches Beaches and more Beaches!!! I went to 5 islands (Ko Tao, Ko Phangan, Railey, Ko Phi Phi, Phuket) and 8 beaches (Sairee Beach, Ao Chalaklum, Haad Rin, Railay beach, Ton Sai beach, Haad Yao, Maya Beach, Patong beach).

The highlight of the trip would have to be diving in Ko Tao (video from one of the dives will be available shortly) and the half moon party in Ko Phangan. Everything else was great too, but mostly the same routine everyday... get up, go to the beach, read for a while.. go float in the water.. come out and sit in a hammock... grab lunch... repeat until dark.. then enjoy night life.. (yes, I can't believe I got tired of it.. but after weeks of just doing this.. I'm ready for something new.

Monday, March 12, 2007

10 Day Meditation Retreat - Feb 28, 07 - March 4, 07

Okay, so if you're clever you figured out that I didn't last the 10 days of the meditation retreat. I was done in 5 and no, it wasn't cause I achieved nirvana... IT WAS HARD! We were not allowed to talk, read, write... we had to get up at 4 am.. and go to bed at 9:30 pm... we were given breakfast at 8.. and lunch at 12:30... at 6 pm, we were given tea. THAT's IT! no dinner... Surprisingly, this wasn't the hard part.. the hard part was sleeping. We had a concrete bed and a wooden pillow (and of course, no fan). I know what you're thinking... WOODEN PILLOW! here are a couple of pictures...

So what did we do from 4 am to 9:30 pm? We meditated :) The first couple of days were cool as it was new. We had various monks teach us about Buddhism, and meditation practices. The one we were doing is anapanasati. Ana/Pana means inside/outside and sati means mindfulness. So the practice was breathing in and out with mindfulness. Essentially, we would sit and watch our breathing... we were not supposed to think of anything.. or drift off.. or fall asleep (I did a couple of times). Then there was also walking meditation where we would walk mindfully. This was basically very slow walking where you were aware of each of your movements... lift your leg, move it forward.. press it in the ground.. lift the other leg etc... This was a good break from the sitting meditation but I found it to be less effective. There was also one hour of chanting meditation... this was basically "singing" Buddhist hymns. It was helpful because it was the only time I could hear my own voice!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Cambodia - Feb 18, 07 - Feb 26, 07

Cambodia was a relatively short trip for me. I wish I had spent a few more days there, but I think I hit the main points in the city. I crossed in from Laos at Dong Crawlow, Cambodia and continued on to Stung Treng. After lunch and a lot of haggling, I got in a cab and went to Ban Lung... this was 4 hours in the back of a camry with 3 other people on a dirt road... the bumpiest, and most uncomfortable ride yet... at least on the boat from Huay Xai, I could get up and walk around. After spending a day at Ban Lung, I went to the capital city on Phnom Penh and a few days later went on to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. I experienced different things in all three cities and they all deserve a mention.

Ban Lung
This whole part of Cambodia doesn't have any paved roads. Everything is red dirt and I can just imagine the mess that it becomes in the rainy seasons (yes, there are two). In the morning, we rented some dirt bikes and went to the crater lake... it was massive.. and clean.. and virtually people-free. It was like having a giant swimming pool all to myself... and the 3 other guys I went with ... The afternoon was less enjoyable as we biked around looking for waterfalls... we saw a few, but in the dry season, they aren't nearly as impressive as the books would make you believe. The worst part about it was that we had to bike in the dirt all day long. While this was fun in the beginning, getting dirty and covered in dirt after every stop was a bit annoying.

Phnom Penh
My first day here was very pleasant. I went around the city and among other things saw the National Museum and the Royal Palace with the Silver Pagoda... the Silver Pagoda is a room with 5000 tiles, each made from 1KG of silver... so that's 5 tons of silver... This was a truly breath-taking site.

My second day there was the most shocking day of the whole trip thus far. In the morning I went to Toul Sleng Museum which was one of the hundreds of places used by the Khmer Rouge to torture people (They called is s21). One of the most disturbing things is that the S21 used to be a school... and now it had turned into a place where intellectuals (among others) were tortured because they weren't peasants...
History Lesson / List of alarming facts (Disclaimer: this is based on my understanding of the events, so if I'm wrong, kindly point it out to me)
  • Pol Pot, or leader number 1 as was called was the leader of the Khmer Rouge which ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979.
  • Pol Pot was a follower of Mao and was supported at various times by the Chinese, Thais, Americans and others...
  • Khmer Rouge wished to create a peasant based economy where everyone was just working the farms... no need for intellectuals such as doctors, artists, scientists, engineers etc... either you were in the army or you were farming.. farming 15-16 hours a day...
  • They eliminated currency along with everyone who had the potential of refusing him... the whole country was isolated from the world and there was only one weekly flight to Beijing.
  • Most of the soldiers in the army were young boys under 15 as it was easy to mind-wash them
  • Between 1-3 million people were killed in 4 years
  • Vietnamese came to the rescue and "removed" the Khmer Rouge from power
  • Pol Pot was still alive until 1998 and died of natural causes... obviously the Khmers (same as Cambodians) are pissed that he was not brought to justice
  • No one has been prosecuted for these atrocious crimes... and sadly no one in the global community seems to care

In the afternoon, I went to the Killing Fields, which is where thousands of people were killed and buried after they were tortured at S21. They estimate about 20,000 men, women and children have been buried there. They have dug up about 8000 bodies and displayed their skulls. You can clearly see how some of them were just hit on the back of the head / neck so as not to waste any bullets... I was planning on spending the whole afternoon here, but after about 40 minutes, I just HAD to leave... I went back to my guest house and just sat in my room fr 5 hours. Overall, a very sad day :(

Siem Reap / Angkor
This is where its gets a bit confusing... Angkor is the name of the famous temple (Angkor Wat) and the name of the city, Angkor Tham... and the name of the general area around the walls of the city where all the old temples are...

Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world. It was built at the height of the Khmer regime (800 years ago) and still stands today! It was an awesome thing to see! There are carvings around all the walls that depict the Mahabharata, Ramayana and some other stuff... they still exist today! This really made me think about the security and precaution that is taken by museums to save paintings and artifacts... the work at Angkor was left out in the open... open to rain and the sun and for the jungle to develop so thick that it actually took exploration to find it... and a lot of the art is still breath taking to look at! Also, a cool thing about Angkor Wat is that is has a moat... not just a regular old moat... but a huge one! It is speculated that it once held the water supply for a city of over 1 million people!! (also, it took maybe 10 minutes to cross it and enter the actual temple)

okay, internet cafe closing... will write more later... in the mean time, look at all the pictures

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Laos - Feb 6, 07 - Feb Feb 17, 07

I spent a little under 2 weeks in Laos, crossing in from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos. This trip had its highs and lows... it was hectic at times, and very relaxing at times... One of the cooler things was the variety of transportation I got to use... I went from Huay Xai to Laung Prabaung by boat (2 days... 8 hours each day), from there to Vang Vieng by mini-bus, from there to Vientiene by kayaking and tuk tuk and from there to Don Det (Si Phon Don) by a VIP bus and a boat. The main highlights were the 2 days in the boat, tubing/kayaking in Vang Vieng and doing nothing in Don Det!

Huay Xai -> Laung Prabaung
This was an awesome boat ride... well, I think that's putting it a bit strongly... but the views were breathtaking... and I got to talk to a lot of nice/different people (we were stuck on a boat for 2 days... maybe you just had to be nice or you would get thrown overboard :). Okay, now the not so nice things... First, we had to get to the boat at 8 am to get good seats. Second, the good seat was a 6 inch wide wooden bench. The boat left at 11, and reached port in Pak Beng at 6. So that was really 10 hours on the boat. Day 2 was better, we only had to wait 2 hours before the boat left. Overall, I'm glad I did it and would recommend it (maybe just cause I'm mean) but I wouldn't do it a second time.

In case you are wondering, did I have a choice, yes.. I could have taken the speed boat.. but.. and I quote the lonely planet on this one "Life jackets and crash helmets should be provided (and are sometimes needed)... Fatalities are not uncommon"
Tubing / Kayaking

Don Det

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Northern Thailand - Jan 22, 07 - Feb 5, 07

The first couple of weeks I spent in Northern Thailand: Bangkok, Ayuthuya, Sukhothai, Chaing Mai and my favorite, Pai. Major highlights from Thailand were the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the ruins in Ayuthuya/Sukhothai and chilling by the river in Pai.

Grand Palace/Royal Family
The Grand Palace in Bangkok is really worth a visit. It is covered in gold and priceless art. It is immaculately kept and continually renovated. What is even better is that it is actually functional and houses many government offices there. Around the courtyard, there are pictures that tell the story of Ramayana (the Thai version... which is still pretty similar to the Indian version which I'm used to). For those who don't know what Ramayana is, its one of the great epics from India... given that its an epic you can imagine how long and complex the story is... and the fact that all major events are drawn out makes it really cool.

One of the truly cool things about Thailand is love and respect for the King and Queen shared by all locals. All over the country there are huge posters/monuments of the royal family which people walk by and drop money in. They are often bigger than the Buddha statues (and there are some ridiculously big Buddha statues made of gold, bronze and emeralds) and you never hear anything bad being said about them. This attitude towards the royal family is truly unique and very much in contrast to the its neighbors. For example, the royal family in Laos had to go into hiding after the revolution and no one has seen or heard from them in 20 years... What makes this situation even more peculiar is that the current king doesn't seem to have any outrageously great accomplishments under his belt... he's not a conquering hero or a brave charismatic leader... and yet, people love him... a real mystery for me.

Ruins in Ayuthuya/Sukhothai
I really enjoyed visiting all the old ruins in the two ancient capitals of Thailand: Ayuthuya and Sukhothai. They have palaces and temples that date back to the 1100s... and they were gorgeous. I need to work in some pictures here...

Chillin in Pai
Pai is a fantastic place north of Chiang Mai. It is a little quiet place by the river and I loved it from the minute I got there. I had an excellent bungalow by the river... and there was a hammock! I spent days just sitting by the river, drinking beer :) and chatting with fellow tourists. During the day time, I rented a motorcycle ... well, it was really a moped, and yes, it was pink... but it was awesome. We biked 47 km to go see some caves which were absolutely huge! They had a column (formed when a stalactite and stalagmite meets) which was 20 m (60 ft) long!! This must have taken centuries to build. The next day we went to a spa and chilled in the hot springs for a couple of hours.

After that.. I did a 3 day hike through the jungle... having done my Nepal hike, I figured that this would be pretty easy compared to the mighty Himalayas.. but I was wrong! This was hiking right through the jungle.. we were bushwhacking for the first day and I must have slipped and fell at least 20 times... fun times :) That day we stayed with the Lisu people (hill tribe). It was especially cool cause someone in the tribe had just had a son and so they were all celebrating (drinking rice whiskey and slaughtering a pig). No I didn't see the pig get slaughtered, but there was definately lots of pork to go around. After this feast we left for a relatively easy day of hiking.. the funniest thing was that our guide had taken one too many shots of whiskey and after about an hour, he stopped.. said "break time" and just passed out on the ground... we started walking again 30 mins later... that night, we stayed in a bamboo forest... our "hut" was made of bamboo, we ate in bamboo dishes.. we cooked rice in bamboo.. used bamboo for fire .. you get the picture... The third day was a short hike and then in the back of the truck for a lift back to the village.
-- Jay Akkad