Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Take 6: Back to Bangkok: Let's be tourists!

Post Christmas bliss in Kanchanaburi, we found ourselves back in Bangkok for one last day. Since we were conned out of our touristy experience at the Grand Palace our first day for what may be an even more touristy experience of being conned and going to jewelry stores, we thought we should actually make it to the number one tourist destinations: Wat Phra Kaew and The Grand Palace.

This is the view from the outside, with the big 'ol white walls around it. There are guards at the entrances, but the real ones don't try to pawn you off to two shady tuk tuk drivers. They can't say anything, actually. Just stand and look bad-ass with their big guns.
We passed the big statue of the elephants this time, so I had to get an 'up close and personal' picture.
This is after Gopika had gotten her cool, free, rent-a-sarong and before we payed the ridiculous 15 bucks to enter the temple and grounds. Oh, and yes, those neon orange pants are another sweet purchase I made at the Lumphini market. Fisherman's pants turned out to be quite the commodity - so much so that I couldn't even talk the salesperson down. BUT, they turned out to be far less functional than I had hoped, what with the slits up to the waist and long bottoms that I was constantly stepping on.
The three famous stupas, done in a typical Ratanakosin architecture style, when the grounds were consecrated in 1782 for the first year of Bangkok rule. The grounds are 94.5 hectares large, have over 100 builidings, and reflect ofer 200 years of royal history and architectural experimentation. BUT, we really didn't get to see all a that, because most of the rooms are used exlusively by the king for certain ceremonial occasions. WE LOVE THE KING!
Scary or sweet?
Stupa Sarah!
I couldn't get over how "Grand" everything was (quite appropriate, indeed). All the intricate details, small "gems", gold painting... it was just incredible.

Aesthetic landscaping committee did a nice job on the flower pots.
One of the buildings had these extensive murals of the Ramakian (which is the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana). It was originally painted during Rama I's reign (1782-1809), but as you can see it's continually restored.
The Grand Palace
Wat Phra Kaew, aka Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This is the shrine to the Emerald Buddha, which we couldn't take pictures of inside. We had to wait in a big line to get inside, and it was packed with hot, sweaty, foreigners like ourselves, but it was pretty cool to see the elevated green Buddha all done up in royal robes (for the appropriate season, of course).
Moving on...

Respect! for the Grand Palace guards!
The Grand Palace Ticket was also good for two other "attractions" in the Bangkok area. We hadn't heard of either, but the travel agent had said the mansion was beautiful. So, we hitched a tuk tuk to the far away location. It was pretty, but ehhhhh... it was really far away... pretty sure that ticket is just a way to get more back into the economy through transportation costs.
Anyway, after we had pretty mindlessly listened to a tour on a mansion I can't even remember the significance of, we came back into our area of Bangkok for a late lunch. I was all proud I had a place in mind, compliments Lonely Planet - cheap, ma and pa shop, short on decorations big on taste, right on the river! So we walked, and walked and walked some more...
Turns out the place shut down a year ago. But, we did get to see the river, and a big bridge, and ate at a decent place down the street.
To finish off the night, before we got on our first big foreigner commuting bus of the trip, Gopika brought in a little Japanese tradition in Thailand. While traditions of Christmas in America carry many customs for many individuals and families, there are but two Japanese Christmas customs. The first is Daiku, or Beehtoven's Ninth Symphony. Apparently, this is performed all over the place. The second, more relevant, tradition is the Christmas Cake. All families enjoy Christmas with a cake that has been purchased (probably due to the lack of OVENS in Japanese homes). Anyway, this worked out great, since the nearby 7/11 had a fresh stock of cakes in store - Gopika selected a delightful Pooh bear cake that we could all share with mini spoons. Awwww, eating Pooh for Christmas, how sweet!
I also planned ahead, and brought my Santa PEZ dispenser to celebrate and share with!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Take 5: Trekking by elephant and by foot

In addition to riding in tuk-tuks, elephant riding is something "everybody does" in Thailand. I really had no interest in it and was skeptical before I came, wondering how humane the treatment of elephants were. Frank made the comparison to riding horses recreationally in the States. I like riding horses, and know that the corals and stables we've been always been to have proved that the owners treat the horses with the upmost respect and love. So, I was swayed to being open to the experience, but was still weary.
Like horses to Americans, elephants have historically worked alongside Thais on farms and in the jungle . Elephants were the superweapons of Southeast Asian armies before tanks and big guns were invented. Today the elephant is still one of the most powerful symbols in Thai culture.
But, as I presumed, the elephant population (domesticated and wild) in Thailand is dwindling. The Asian elephant is considered an endangered species. Although there are laws mandated to protect the elephant (i.e. illegal to log using elephants, elphants must be at least 3 years old before training and released back into the wild again at 61 years old), the laws are sometimes ignored, domesticated elephants are neglected, mistreated or abandoned by owners, and the destruction of forests and ivory-trade poaching are jeopardizing the wild elephant population.

My first run-in with elephants was in Ayuthya, where we saw a disgustingly high number of elephants cramped and chained into a tiny coral, swaying their heads in the same mindless manner. Next to that was a group of 3 elephants spray painted blue with flashy hats on, gearing up for some show... and a big group of tourists snapping pictures. It was horrible to watch.
Kanchanaburi was much further north and in an area where elephant trekking is more humane (supposedly) and the provides a much needed income in eco-tourism. It was part of our packaged deal, so I gave it a whirl.

If I look extremely uncomfortable, it's because I was. I just felt really weird the whole time. And, although it was labeled "elephant trekking", I hardly think you can consider riding on a clearly worn path within a border of maybe 500 square km of concrete walls can be counted.

This was where they led us to the edge of the river and had the elephant turn around so they could take a picture of us, and then ask $20 for it at the end (I didn't get it).

Oh the life of a mahout (elephant caretaker)!
I did spot a magnificent blue bird on the "trek" and got to touch and feel the elephants tough, dry skin, which was cool. But, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy to get off the poor guy. A few of the girls wanted to bathe with the elephants... I did not. So, Gopika and I decided to make friends with some of the kids that lived there and play volleyball with some of the mahouts.
This kiddo had his tough face on for-ev-er...
But with Gopika's charm, he warmed up!
Then his friend came over and wanted to show me how cool he was by doing the splits. I could only show him how inferior I was... not even close!
This was our volleball court. Guess who stood out like sore thumbs as the two worst volleyball players alive? Yep! That'd be me and Gopika. I felt really bad for the guy on our team, but they were all super nice. They always ran to get the ball when it went out of bounds into the ravines, and only threw elephant poo on our side of the court once. The game ended abruptly when a little girl was walking through the court and got beamed in the head and knocked down to the ground. Gopika and I gave her Japanese candy and a Canadian pin to try to cheer her up. Not sure if it worked.
One of the guys spoke really fluent English, and we learned that the family has been living here for a few generations. His grandparents fled there from Burma and they've been training elephants ever since. Cool guy.
Next place Yut took us was the "dangerous bend" in the Death Railway. I forget why it was so dangerous, but I remember it saying that in the pamphlet. We walked from one side to the other. It was pretty.
There was a weird cave on the side of the cliff with a Buddha and benches inside of it. No idea when or how this was formed.
We kept trying to take all these really artistic shots on the "original railway", but we just ended up getting oil and dirt on our clothes that was impossible to wash out.
Our tour guide, Yut, was the coolest. He stopped at several "interest points" as he carted us around. I saw tons of sugarcane plantations and tons of some other kind of plantation that I didn't recognize. He told me it was taro and said he'd stop later on to show me this below:
He showed me the taro up close and explained that it was very popular in this region. It's apparently very similar to potatoes (which as you know, I now have a deep interest in!).
This was an ex-drug lord's house. Drugs would be smuggled in from Burma and brought here to be distributed. After a few too many shady assassinations went down here, the Thai government seized it... or so we were told.
For lunch, we were heading up to the lookout point for the Thai army on the border of Thailand and Burma. It was a pretty high, and steep location, which is why the truck with 12 people couldn't quite hack it all the way up. The first solution was to make Chris, Richard, and Hung push while laughing and taking pictures... but when that didn't work, we all got out to help. When we finally made it up to the top, I saw this adorable pup and it's mutt mommy! Awwww, right next to the shooting barricade.
This is one of the houses the soldiers live in. I think there are 6 guys that live up there. They only go into town once a week or something. They're pretty self sufficient and have most food up on the mountain (plants, chickens, etc). The soldiers rotate and have to live there for 8 month shifts.
This is our tour guide, Yut. He's showing me the "burn off your mouth pepper", which I consumed about a week later somewhat accidentally. It really did feel like my mouth was burning off - thanks for the head's up Yut!
Nature's symmetry never ceases to amaze me.
The entrance to the Thai Army camp.
Another description on this tour was that we would "trek" to the Thailand/Mynmar border. From our lunch army base, it was maybe a 15 minute flat walk. This is what it looked like when we got there. Kiiiind of anti-climactic. Since we rarely knew exactly what we were doing or what to expect (pretty much my life here in Japan as well), I was thinking this was it, and was feeling pretty disappointed. But I was wrong! We ended up taking a couple hour hike up and down through a bamboo forest.
And I even made a few more friends.
This was about the point in the trek where the Chinese girls on our hike took off their jelly shoes and walked in socks. Neither sandals, shoes, or socks were gripping too well here.
I loved it though! THIS is definitely my cup of tea:)
This guy, Richard, was kind of a jerk but also pretty hillarious. He was a 60-something year old world traveler originally from Slovakia or something. I think everyone was equally surprised the chain smoker made it through the hike, but all the more power to him! This picture was taken right after he had been found by our soldier taking a ciggy break on the trail, and his sunglasses had also just broken. He went on a 5 minute rage about cheap Mexican products.

We made it out!
Once we got out of the jungle, we headed to the road to be picked up by Yut. We all had our bamboo walking sticks in hand and I was on a high from the hike. Smiling just remembering it! We were all pretty hot, sweaty, and dirrrrrty after that, so a dip in a secluded waterfall was just the ticket. Although, I don't really know how much cleaner we got. Frank was convinced things with tails were swimming in unmentionable places. I was just happy to rinse off, no matter what the medium.
And after getting all "cleaned off", we were back in the truck with the dusty roads.
By the end of the day, we were beat...

and verrrry dirty!
And it was clearly worth it!

Were I to do this trip again, I would definitely spend more time up in these beautiful forests trekking, days on end. I don't know exactly what it is, but all the nature, fresh air, wildlife, sunsets, physical hiking and adventure of not knowing where you're going is exhilirating! Frank and I tried our hardest to squeeze in a camping trip or another day of trekking in, but once you're down in the islands during peak traveling season on a time schedule, it's next to impossible to make it happen. Next time, next time...