Thursday, February 28, 2013

Beautiful Ubud

Ubud, a town with a rich cultural past, sits in central-southern Bali, an outrageously beautiful island in the Indonesian archipelago. But it’s hot here. And I mean Hot. I don’t know if it’s because we’re closer to the equator, but the same sunscreen that worked in Thailand is ineffective here, and both Mark and I have been burned and scorched and suffered the effects of heat and sunstroke a couple of times.

Long a hotbed of cultural activity, Ubud has been attracting writers, artists, and musicians long before Elizabeth Gilbert set her love-lorn feet here. Ubud is also a hotbed of health, wellness, and spiritual living, with vegetarian, vegan, and raw eateries, spiritual healers, meditation centers, and a plethora of yoga studios. So yes, basically, it’s my heaven (if it didn’t feel like 42 degrees…). I found a studio with an affordable week pass, and have been going to a variety of yoga classes, and because of all the ex-pats here, all the classes are in English (unlike the one I took recently in Bangkok that was entirely in Thai… that was interesting!). And due to the heat and humidity, every class is like a hot yoga class, which can be challenging.

The streets bustle but feel intimate with flowering Frangipani trees leaning over lovely, moss-covered stone walls, interrupted occasionally by mammoth banyan trees, narrow laneways, and decorative gates leading to temples or homes. Both temples and homes are open air compounds with thick, thatched-roof shrines, towers, and platforms, and statues of Ganesh, Buddha, and other deities. Homes are beautifully and intricately designed, with hibiscus- and orchid-lined pathways leading to the various rooms, buildings, and sitting platforms. The scent of incense is heavy in the air, while bright orange marigold petals and little squares of green banana leaf dot the ground from the many daily offerings to the Balinese Hindu gods. Terraced rice fields sit on the edge of town, and in the distance you can see the imposing, hazy silhouette of volcanoes. Yes, I think I’m smitten with Bali.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bangkok to Bali

Approved visa (!!!!) and passport back in hand, we jumped on a plane and headed south, past the equator, to Bali. Before we were allowed to get our boarding pass however, we were told we had to book an outward flight (overland travel is not accepted), so we had to dash to the airport internet cafe, pay $3 for 20 minutes, and book a flight out of Indonesia, before even getting there. Frustrating, because we wanted to keep things flexible, but that's apparently not allowed.

When we arrive in a new place I try to update our map, and it's always as I'm plotting the route we took and adding a pin that it strikes me as ridiculously absurd that I'm here. That dot on the map? We were there. That was us. There. Here.

Sometimes this all feels very normal, and we get caught up in the day to day sights and sounds and frustrations, and there is a realness to it that makes it seem regular, and that it's not out of the ordinary to be buying grilled scallops from a canal boat in Thailand. People do this everyday! I've never done it before, but I'm doing it now!

But flying so fast and so far across oceans and islands and landing in a new, faraway place jolted me anew to how incredibly lucky I am, we are, to be here. My eyes can't open wide enough to take in all the new sights and my heart can hardly stand how happy I am. I am so grateful to all the people who helped make this possible. To all the phenomenally amazing friends and family who encouraged us, and for taking care of things at home for us so we can do this: thank you so much, it literally means the world to me. You are the best. The. Best. I am the luckiest girl in the world.

Flying over Malaysia

Beautiful painting in the airport in Kuala Lumpur

Incredible clouds

Land! Indonesia!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Amphawa, the Venice of Thailand

After Kanchanaburi we still had a few more days before we had to head back to Bangkok, so we looked up some other nearby destinations. Amphawa, known for its floating market sounded intriguing, and was accessible by local (read: cheap) transit. We had rented a moto to make it easier getting back and forth from town to our guesthouse, and on the morning we left for Amphawa, Mark drove us and our backpacks on the bike. We spent several minutes strategizing how to arrange the packs on, around, and/or between us, and settled on Mark wearing my backpack backwards and leaning it forward over the console, and me wearing Mark’s pack—the “waist” straps buckled around my legs—doing my best not to tip backwards.

Friday, February 22, 2013


After submitting my Indian visa application, we looked up some places where we could hang out for a little while, that weren't too far from Bangkok, and weren't too expensive to get to. So we went to the Victory Monument where all the mini-buses are, and you walk the gauntlet of ticket sellers stating your destination, and are ushered into "offices" to get your ticket. We passed on one because they wanted to charge us for our bags, and moved onto another, dodgier place with no "baggage fees," but it did reek (and I mean reek) of urine. You get what you pay--or don't pay--for?

Anyway! On to Kanchanaburi where we passed several lovely days at a homestay outside the town. Far enough outside the town that we had to take the local bus (ie. "just go out to the highway and flag it down" which in reality meant "wait by the roadside for about an hour or more and then flail your arms at the bus barreling down the highway at 100 then chase after it in flip flops..." We did this. Twice.) back into town to see the bridge on the River Kwai and get some groceries.

Our homestay was within walking distance of the village of Nong Bua which sits along the River Kwai, where the locals come around sunset, after the worst of the heat has passed, to play and swim in the current. We rented life jackets and had fun trying to swim against the current and perfect our cannonballs (since trying to dive with a life jacket is the quickest way to a face full of water. I had forgotten about this.). At the same time, the restaurants transition their seating areas from tables under the trees to mats and low tables on the banks of the river. Walking back after a nice, cheap riverside dinner one of the evenings, a very kind woman pulled over and offered us a ride home on her moto, because she was worried about us walking the road with all the stray dogs -- that was our first experience as three on a moto. It's cozy, that's for sure!

We ventured north one of the days to Erawan Falls, a series of cascades and turquoise ponds (not unlike Kuang Si Falls outside Luang Prabang), spread out over a lengthy hike up the valley. You can swim at almost every level, but if you stop moving at any point, you become a feast for the fish! You saw how I reacted to the fish spa in Siem Reap, and that was under controlled (and intentional) circumstances. I didn't like the nibbling, let's just say that. Unfortunately our camera ran out of batteries about halfway, which is too bad, because each level was so unique and picturesque. Oh well, you'll just have to google it.

And, bonus: our homestay had a DVD player, so we finally got to watch the bootlegged DVDs we got in Vietnam! (Moonrise Kingdom and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) Yay for movie nights!

Giganto palm tree.

Local kids jumping from the tree into the river.

Floating on the River Kwai. The current is swift!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Back in Bangkok...

What's that? Weren't we just here a few weeks ago? Yes, yes we were. And weren't we en route to Malaysia? Yes, also true. But the lure of Bangkok just keeps pulling us back, and we can't get enough. Plus, it's the only place where I can get an Indian visa, because, due to a change in plans, the one I got just before leaving Canada is set to expire before I plan on leaving India. Serves me right for my overzealous overplanning. But I'd heard that is was easier to apply for an Indian visa from your home country, and boy, they weren't kidding.

But! It's allowed us to see some new places in Bangkok, like copy shops and print shops and various waiting areas. Also, the visa office was beside another mall (seriously, how can Bangkok support so many malls?!) and had a cheap movie theatre, so we got to see Bruce Willis prove that he's never too old to kick some ass. So it wasn't all a loss.

But actually, the whole thing has been quite frustrating, and those who know me or have ever hiked with me know how much I hate doubling back, so the fact that we were here just 18 days ago is acutely irritating. But at that point, we were operating under the (apparently foolhardy) assumption that Kuala Lumpur or Singapore could issue Indian visas to foreign nationals. Not so.

So, it's a bit of a detour, but after successfully submitting the application we're going to explore some nearby destinations (not sure where yet), and after 6 to 8 business days, we'll be back to our regularly scheduled program. Fingers crossed that my application gets accepted!

Fresh off a 16-hour night train and ready to spend the day at the visa office. You betcha.

Ah, Bangkok. Land of sacred temples and sacred 7-11s.

Amazing mural in progress.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Koh Lanta

When we weren't trying to walk dogs on Koh Lanta, we were enjoying sunsets and beach combing and zipping around on a moto. You know, just regular nine-to-five stuff...

Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lanta Animal Welfare

As with the elephants living at Elephant Nature Park (ENP) north of Chiang Mai, the dogs and cats who pass through the doors of Lanta Animal Welfare (LAW) on Koh Lanta have experienced injustices that no animal should ever experience.

If there's one thing we've all learned from watching The Price Is Right, other than guessing an item's worth within a dollar, is how to control the pet population: have your pets spayed or neutered. That's all well and good back home where animals generally are pets, and people often have the time, money, and inclination, but on Koh Lanta most of the cats and dogs are not pets, and the prevailing local sentiment is that dogs are filth and should be eradicated. It's common practice for animals to be drowned, knifed, and have hot oil poured over them. As well, locals put out little piles of "bait" food that's laced with poison and fish hooks. And these aren't just once or twice occurrences. It happens every day. And there is no penalty for it.

Walking around the centre and hearing story after story of this, I had a very hard time understanding how there could be a value system where such torture of animals is ok. But that's my value system talking.

Thankfully Junie Kovacs created Lanta Animal Welfare to rescue and rehabilitate injured animals, and offers free sterilization, rabies vaccines, as well as education to the local community about how and why to care for animals. She also operates a local cooking school and restaurant, Time For Lime, where all profits go to support LAW. Her goal is to sterilize all the dogs on the island, and to date, she's sterilized about 80% of the population. All the animals are also up for adoption, because the bottom line is, they're not safe until they get off the island.

I recommend a visit to LAW to everyone, to see the amazing work that's taking place, and the extraordinary commitment and passion of the volunteers. You can volunteer here for a month or more, or drop by for a tour, and to walk the dogs and cuddle the cats. After a tour, we opted to take some dogs for a walk. We went out with a lovely couple from England who had been on the same tour, and we had a great chat, when I wasn't lagging behind trying to convince my dog, Belle, not to go in every culvert or roll around in every tasty smelling garbage pile... Belle dragged me (I'm clearly not so good at this dog walking thing...) into a restaurant on the beach where he refused to do anything but sit there and charm the dining patrons (who were compelled to visit LAW after their meal).

My dog, Belle, sitting on the floor of the beachside restaurant. This is where we spent most of our "walk."

Mark with Dok Dek, me with Belle.

For the purposes of this photo, we switched dogs, because Belle and Dok Dek refused to move...

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Baby on beach becomes instant celebrity. Couple plunge feet first into marriage. Scandal and drama in the Monkey World!

We took a longtail from Krabi to Railay for the day, where we watched some rockclimbing, and relaxed on the beach and took in some random spectacles.

The tide was rising quickly on Phra Nang beach, and as the beach disappeared, more and more tourists appeared, quickly making it crowded. I was relaxing with my book when a commotion rose above the din and I sat up to see my towel neighbour surrounded by a throng of tourists who were absolutely (and invasively) enamored with her naked little baby, and had formed a semi-circle around them so they could take photos, make noises, and jingle things in his face. This went on for several minutes, until eventually the crowd reluctantly left the baby to his confusion over what had just occurred  But then the baby found a shell and all was forgotten.

Not long after this, we noticed a bride and groom standing in full attire on a cliff just off the beach, directly in front of a “Don’t Jump” sign, where they proceeded, to loud hoots and cheers from the growing crowd, to jump into the water. We’re not sure if that was the wedding ceremony, or if they’d married earlier and this was a trash-the-dress situation.

Grabbed some lunch from one of the many longtails moored off the beach – we figure this is the way around the “no soliciting” signs posted around – then napped and relaxed under the trees until the worst of the heat had passed (this never actually happened, it was still blazing when we left the shelter of the trees later that afternoon). 

The path that links Phra Nang beach and East Railay beach snakes along the very edge of one of the karsts where the dripping stalactites overhang it. There are lots of Macaques here, hanging out and entertaining tourists just by being their regular monkey selves. We watched an episode of Monkey Povich where several males were fighting over one of the more promiscuous females; later that same episode they were waiting for the results of the paternity test to settle who the true Monkey Daddy was. Drama in the monkey world!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mountains and jungles and monkeys, oh my!

It’s impossible to describe how intensely amazing Khao Sok is, but I will try. It’s the type of landscape you imagine seeing on a BBC program narrated by David Attenborough. We spent a night in a floating rafthouse on Cheow Lan Lake, a turquoise man-made lake in the National Park, and spent our time blissfully swimming in fresh water, gawking at the massive limestone cliffs and mountains, admiring the lush jungle watching for monkeys, and looking at the stars.

We went on an evening “safari” in the longtail, and we had barely gone around the point when we spotted several Spectacled Langurs jumping along the shore and then climbing some vines before they disappeared into the jungle. Then moments later we saw a wild boar! The rest of the safari was a bust for indigenous fauna, but did prove to be an interesting opportunity to observe the courting rituals between the twenty-year-olds on the boat. (The noise level of which may be the reason why there were no other wildlife spottings… argh.)

The second day, after rising early to watch the incredible sunrise, we went on a cave and jungle hike. On the way there, a prehistoric looking Hornbill lifted off and flapped slowly above our heads. Amazing. The jungle was thick with bamboo, twisting vines, and incredibly tall trees with massive flanged trunks that rose well above the canopy. We traversed several small streams, and some hikers picked up temporary leech friends. Our guides made some face paint by rubbing some river rocks together, and painted us all with our tribal markings. I think we were the Cat Clan. Or at least we all looked like Halloween Cats…

Our jungle trek brought us to Nam Talu Cave. We hadn’t gone far into this bat-filled cave, just far enough that we’d lost all natural light, before one of the guides paused to allow everyone to gather, then cast his headlamp toward the wall beside our heads where there was a massive spider, at least 6 inches across (the kind of spider that when you ask me about it in five years, I’ll say “it was a good foot across, she was!”); and then he cast his light down on the rocks by our nearly-bare feet where there was an even bigger spider! And then to the cave floor where he illuminated what appeared to be hundreds of spiders which he said were actually a type of cricket. We hiked over rocks and waded through increasingly deep water, past stalagmites and under stalactites, and as you steadied yourself you could feel the smooth walls pock-marked by the various geological forces. Incredible.

The cave narrowed sharply at one point, funneling the water into a series of forceful waterfalls, and the only way forward was over the falls. To say the very least: it was tricky. Compared to that, wading/swimming through neck-high water seemed easy. But we all felt like champs after about an hour when we finally saw daylight again. Had we not been in a group, I never would have entered that cave, but there’s safety in numbers, right?

We bookended our rafthouse stay at a bungalow near the park entrance where we could hear Gibbons calling to each other, their distinctive hoots and howls unmistakable. We also saw a big scorpion on the path, which one of the owners restrained with a popsicle stick and a cleaver, so that he could cut off its stinger and move it to a quieter location in the garden. Jungle life is intense!

Morning view from the bungalows at Smilie's.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Maximum occupancy, maximum shmoccupancy.

We rose early in Thongsala—almost as early as when we got up to watch the alms procession in Luang Prabang—to walk to the pier to catch the 7am ferry back to mainland; a 3-hour trip that felt like 20 minutes, thanks to the magical anti-nausea time portal. To a bus, to a transfer station for an “hour” wait, to a van, to another bus station. We had just finished taking the last bag out of the van when the driver, after a quick chat on his cell, whistled and announced hurriedly that we were to get back on the same van. “Bus left. We chase.” Seriously?! Awesome! Let’s DO this! My visions of a thrilling, high speed van chase didn’t amount to much, however—there was some swerving, but he hardly honked or anything!—and we caught up to the big bus in just a few kilometres.

Our big, Khao Sok-bound bus acted like a commuter bus and stopped every few minutes to pick up passengers from the roadside, and of course, when I thought all the seats were filled and we were going to finally get on the road, we just kept picking up more people who had to stand in the aisles, until my view was limited to the narrow strip of window between the curtains on my right, and the heavily deodorized armpit of the man in the aisle on my left. (Though not good with heavy scents, I admit that it was preferable to the alternative.) Other than taking the sharp curves at full speed, the rest of the drive was relatively uneventful.

Will the transportation be more “civilized” in Malaysia? Gosh, I hope not. You can’t make up stories like this! (Or this. Oh, good times.) Oh, and though I haven’t technically shared my seat yet with livestock, the baggage area on one of our previous buses did have a few totes of baby chicks. We could hear them cheeping. Transit adventures abound!

Mauve-y sunrise in Thongsala

The view of mainland from inside the ferry (the windows get wet because it's real splashy up top!)

High speed van chase!

The view from our Smiley Bungalows just outside the entrance to Khao Sok National Park

Friday, February 8, 2013


After a blissful week at the north end of the island, we headed back to the pier town, Thongsala, for a couple of nights, mostly just to facilitate the early morning ferry. We found a cheap bungalow steps from the beach, and since we were on the west side of the island, we got to watch the sunset (at Bottle Beach, the sun sets over the mountain about an hour and a half before actual sunset). While we were watching, a cute puppy came up, and absconded with Mark's flip flop! It was a bit of an effort to get it back, involving me chasing him down, trying (in vain) to distract him, and eventually just having to pick him up, and then he dropped it. Phew! To replace those flip flops would have cost, like 3 bucks, so I'm really glad we got them back.

The following morning I went to a yoga class at the nearby Siam Healing Centre. The studio was gorgeous! Open to the air on three sides, a beautiful blend of warm woods and concrete. The breeze blew through, and on one side we overlooked a field with palm trees (and some power lines on the otherside, but never mind those! look back to the palm trees!). Being in Thailand, I was not expecting a Russian teacher, nor was she, or the other student, also Russian, expecting me. But it was a really great class, and nice not to have to hike 5k to get there!

After class Mark and I got a few things to eat at the food stall area in the centre of town. There was a vendor selling 50 different kinds of fruit shakes. We went for combo #42: mango, beet, lime. Major yum.

Then we rented a moto and zipped up the west coast to visit a few beaches (Haad Salad and Koh Ma) to Chaloklum, and back on the main road where we ran out of gas... We've been consistently putting in too much gas, so we thought for sure we'd be fine. Yeah, we were wrong. But luckily it was a very short walk to one of the many roadside stalls selling gas in old olive oil bottles. And Mark did a stellar job of keeping to the left side of the road. We only got it wrong once, and only for a few seconds. No Phangan tattoos for us!

Sneaky puppy!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bottle Beach

We’ve been relaxing for about a week on Koh Phangan, the island world-renowned for its Full Moon Parties (and Half Moon Parties, and probably also Three-Sixteenth Moon Parties). That happens at the south end of the island. We're tucked up at the north end at Bottle Beach, far away from the revelers, in a fairly secluded bay that you can only get to by boat. Well, there is also a road that leads here from the east, but it’s not well connected to the main road, and it’s rutted and washed out in places, loose sand and gravel in others, and extremely steep everywhere else. We hiked it to get to the next beach, and watched anxiously as a few people on motorbikes sized up the slope to go down, and those that didn’t abort entirely were basically in a slow, controlled skid all the way to the bottom.* Or you could hike the grueling, also steep trail through the jungle to the next beach to the west, Chaloklum Bay, but that takes 2 hours.** So, boat-only access.

By a boat that is enough to make one afraid of being in boats. At least on the day we took it. Our longboat bounced and crashed over the waves (memories of leaving Lazy Beach…), taking on a lot of water… It was scary. To me, anyway. Or maybe it was the cumulative exhaustion from the previous 17 hours of travel: 12-hour night-train from Bangkok, 1-hour bus to ferry pier, 3.5 hour ferry from Surat Thani, 20-minute taxi to Chaloklum, 20-minute longboat to Bottle Beach.

Ok, now that we’re here, let’s never leave.

Backpacking. It's a rough life...

Monday, February 4, 2013

The open road

“The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here to-day, up and off to somewhere else to-morrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing!”
 said Toad to Rat and Mole in The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, 1908

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Island living...

All these long walks on the beach are starting to chafe my feet. Feel sorry for me? Yeah, me neither.

Bottle Beach. Koh Phangan.