A Travellerspoint blog

Bangkok

Khao San Road, The Floating Market & The Tiger Temple

"We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world."

A very good friend of mine from my days at Jasper Park Lodge was traveling through Thailand with her boyfriend and had informed me that she was going to be passing through Bangkok soon after my arrival. Having it been several years since we last saw each other, I caught a (thankfully air-conditioned) shuttle bus to Bangkok, off to experience Thailand’s “city of angels” for the very first time.

I had been instructed, once I reached Ekkamai station, to either catch the 511 bus to Khao San Road or hail a cab. After no one was able to tell me where I would catch said bus, I walked to the road to hail a cab and enter the frenzy that is Bangkok’s traffic. I was hailed down by an ancient Thai man in an old, rickety cab that would not have passed for street legal in any other part of the world. Being as no other cabs were in sight and I was anxious to get to my guesthouse and meet Brandy, I hopped in, clicked on my seatbelt, and mentally prepared myself for the haphazard, maniacal driving that I had experienced so far in Chachoengsao. Instead, as a hilarious alternative to the speeding cars and bikes around us, this little pink cab could barely move. Several times I saw passing drivers give us incredulous looks, as if they couldn’t believe anyone could move so slowly. I had to stifle my laughter several times as the little car struggled over small hills and I half expected it to simply stop working in the middle of the street.

I quickly lost all traces of amusement, however, when it became evident that this cab driver had no clue where he was going. Khao San Road is THE backpacker road in Bangkok, and I was disgruntled that he had told me he knew the way there when he clearly was lost. Despite his constant reassurances in very broken English, there was still an incident where he stopped to ask another cab driver the way and proceeded to drive down a street that was absolutely not a road - which became apparent as tourists and locals alike had to jump out of the way. Not only that, but his constant encouragements for me to go to Chang Mai (about 12 hours North of Bangkok) became extremely real when he tried to drop me off at the station where the train to Chang Mai was. I’m sure the relief was evident on my face when we finally found my guesthouse and I was free of the little rambling cab with its little rambling driver forever.

When I met up with Brandy and Brent, we celebrated our reunion at a little vegetarian restaurant down the street from our guesthouses. (So far, being a vegetarian in Thailand has proved to be quite a challenge. They put fish sauce on everything and generally seem appalled at the very idea of not being able to eat meat. I had encountered this kind of reaction in New Zealand as well, but the language barrier made everything a little harder this time around.) We spent the afternoon and evening on Khao San road, taking it all in. Brandy informed me that our mutual friend Ross, who she had just seen in Koh Tao, had described Bangkok in one simple sentence - “it’s just so much STUFF” – and he was completely right. The roads are lined with vendors selling knock off designer sunglasses and clothing, souvenirs, “street meat” (complete with flies), Pad Thai, beer, tailor made suits, and just about everything else you would expect to find. Thais and foreigners alike flood the streets, haggling with vendors about prices and flaunting their wares to their friends. We found a stall that advertised a trip to the Floating Market, which we were interested in seeing, as well as a Buddhist temple that was inhabited by tigers. Thoroughly excited at the prospect of seeing my favorite animals in real life, we booked the day tour, had some dinner and a few drinks, and prepared for the early morning bus.

The Floating Market

The first stop on our day tour was the Bangkok Floating Market. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the title – Thais in long boats bearing different wares float serenely down the canals, speaking to friends as they pass and making sales to the tourists passing by either on the sides of the canal or on the little boats commandeered by a Thai man wielding a large stick for steering purposes. The Market, while interesting, was fairly uneventful, although I did hold a 10-foot reticulated python and had my first experience with a public toilet. I won’t go into too much detail about Thai public toilets, but it’s important to know most of them are BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper) and are merely porcelain holes in the ground. I’m sure my leg muscles will be able to handle any amount of squats after this trip! I bought some delicious pineapple from a boat vendor, but Brandy was displeased when she discovered that what she thought was mango was actually durian – a fruit so stinky it is banned in most hotels and public areas.

The Cobra Show

After the Floating Market we were loaded onto a speed boat that took us through the canals, depositing us at a fairly dubious looking location where we were informed that we could go in, pay an extra 200 baht, and watch some men fight and kill some cobras. Opting not to support this appalling bit of animal cruelty, we sat and waited for the rest of the group – but not before catching a glimpse of the so-called “snake farm” that was the setting for the show. Beautiful, 20-foot long pythons were crammed into small glass cages that contained nothing but a hollow log for partial concealment; beyond this was a chain link cage that could not have been larger than a king sized bed, which housed a 7-foot crocodile. Feeling depressed and indignant about the living conditions of these animals, we were nervous about what we would find when we reached what we were really looking forward to: the tigers.

The River Kwai

After a quick lunch, we were driven to our next destination: the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, which was built from 1942-1943 by 180, 000 Asian laborers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war. The bridge is 415 km and spans from Bangkok, Thailand, to Rangoon, Burma. The living and working conditions of the forced laborers who built the bridge led to the deaths of 90,000 Asian laborers and 16,000 Allied prisoners of war. Stories of the horrors, starvations, and sickness led to a book being written and later, a movie was released that won seven Academy Awards, including best picture.

The Tiger Temple

We had been notified that due to the tigers living in a temple with Buddhist monks, we would be required to dress in a way that would be appropriate for that environment, which meant long pants and shirts. Normally there would be no complaints, but it was 40 degrees and we were essentially in the middle of a desert. Nonetheless, we donned our more humble clothing and excitedly trekked down into “Tiger Canyon”, where we were met with the sight of 12 fully grown, beautiful Bengal tigers.

I don’t think I have ever felt such a sense of confliction as I did when I was at the Temple. On one hand, I was able to give a tiger a belly rub and I really enjoyed just being in the presence of those gorgeous animals – the stupidly big smile on my face in every single picture is enough evidence of that – and being as tigers are an endangered species whose numbers are quickly dwindling, I know it is important for them to be in spaces where they are safe from poachers and habitat loss. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the tigers were being completely exploited for tourism purposes. I think that, for being called a Tiger “Temple”, the lack of monks or any discernable temple was a little worrying. The employees said that the money you pay to get in or get “professional” pictures taken with the tigers all goes back into taking care of the tigers, and I sincerely hope it does. I think it was just the sight of the tigers lying with chains around their necks while endless lines of tourists patted and posed with them that troubled me. I realize that many conservation projects are extremely under funded, and maybe inviting tourism is the best way to get the vital funds that these projects need in order to be successful. Inner conflicts aside, I was still beyond happy that I was able to meet my favorite animal, and I have been looking into different tiger conservation projects for volunteering purposes ever since.

All together, Bangkok was a giant, rambling, messy, overwhelming city that, while an integral experience to any Thailand trip, made me thankful that I live in a non-tourism driven part of Thailand. After two days I was ready to pay my 59 baht and head back home.

Posted by bgriffs 10:17 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Chachoengsao

First Impressions of Thailand

“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.”

Just before midnight on April 10th, 2012, I disembarked a plane, passed through customs and collected my luggage, all the while dealing with the mixture of excitement and anxiety that had been possessing me since I boarded my first plane at 7 am the previous day. A new country, a new adventure; a new opportunity to pursue my greatest passion. On April 10th, 2012, I took my first steps in Thailand, where I would be spending the next year of my life as an English teacher.

The city of my placement, Chachoengsao (pronounced cha-chen-sao), is approximately two hours from Bangkok – and it couldn’t be more different. Chachoengsao is, in every sense of the word, “real” Thailand – there are no back packer hostels inviting tourism into this part of the country, very little English is spoken and the sight of a Farang (white person) causes quite a stir amongst the locals. Thailand is known as the “land of smiles”, and this absolutely holds true here in Chachoengsao. Everywhere we go we are met with curious stares, wide smiles, and excitement.

Three days after my arrival was the Thai festival called Songkran, a three-day, country-wide celebration of the new year. Originally, Songkran’s main focus was spiritual and religious; it was a time for paying visits and respects to elders, for making resolutions, and for cleansing and renewal. The tradition of pouring water over someone was a sign of respect, because it had been first poured over the Buddha statues. Nowadays, however, the festival has evolved into a full on water fight, complete with buckets of ice cold water, water guns, hoses, and every other means of soaking someone you could think of. Pick up trucks with their beds full of dancing Thais slowly parade through the streets, inviting an onslaught of watery attacks. Also weaving throughout the throngs of people are those who are bearing buckets of a chalky paste, which they are only too happy to rub on your face, smiling widely all the while.

The only problem I could see with the Songkran festivities was the danger to motorcyclists. As we took the bikes to different locations to partake in Songkran, we were constantly enduring an assault of water and chalk being thrown or smeared on us while driving, causing both distraction and visibility problems. Driving in Thailand is already quite an ordeal: the roads are packed with cars, motor bikes, and trucks all weaving around each other, showing no regard for speed limits or safety. Trying to cross a road as a pedestrian, even at a crosswalk, involves a certain combination of skill, timing, and bravery bordering on recklessness. After a few trial runs involving near misses, you manage to develop a system that will sometimes involve you standing in the middle of the road while you wait for an opportunity to sprint over the last lane to safety.

Living in Chachoengsao has been like nothing I have experienced in my life so far. The city is filled with markets, roadside restaurants offering spicy, delicious Pad Thai, friendly locals, and millions of street dogs. I often find small geckos in my apartment, where they happily take care of any spiders or flies that decide to hang about, and we enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. I have gotten used to the bats nest on the top floor, the extremely thick humidity, and the large cockroaches that scuttle about (although finding one in my hair is definitely up there in the most upsetting moments in my life). I have made my peace with the fact that I cannot drink the water and am therefore forced into buying several bottles of water a day, which are sadly not recycled (they only recycle glass) and the fact that Thai people think absolutely nothing of giving you a very frank appraisal of your looks. I will be living here until February 2013, which will be giving me ample opportunity to travel around Thailand and South East Asia when I am on my school breaks. I look forward to the daily challenges I will be facing, to learning Thai, and to starting my new job. Two weeks in, I am in love with this country and it’s people. Sa-wat-dee-ka, Thailand!

Posted by bgriffs 03:08 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Coming Home

last thoughts

It is only after we have spent countless nights in different beds scattered amongst a country, on friend’s couches, in airports and tents, always in strange cities, that we really appreciate how good it is to be able to call someplace home. It is only after we have lugged a heavy backpack up and down flights of stairs, up hills, and across roads can we appreciate how good it is to unpack for more than a few nights. After we have resigned ourselves to the fact that this particular journey has reached its end and we are on the last plane home, that we can realize that going home is not defeat, it is recuperation for the next adventure. I feel no disappointment about heading home like I originally thought I would; my previous statements of “I’m never coming home!” now seem childish and misguided, because home is somewhere I am always meant to go. I can travel to the farthest reaches of this earth and I will always find a warm bed waiting for me when I return, either in a blaze of triumph or with my tail tucked between my legs. Those who feel that they have failed when they return from a journey fail to comprehend that the end of one adventure means the buildup to the beginning of another.

Every experience teaches you something that you can take on your next travels; every lesson you learn can be applied in any other country you venture to. This trip to New Zealand has taught me a lot, not only about traveling but also about myself. I came to this country in the company of a great friend and I left it alone; I have learned that I prefer traveling in the company of others to traveling solo. I have attempted occupations that I would normally never do; by doing this I have learned that I can be pushed beyond my limitations and comfort zone to try new things. I may not like them, I may not succeed – but it is important to try. I now know that I will never be a telemarketer, a farmer, or door-to-door fundraiser. I have stayed in hostel rooms with 7 strangers and totally alone - it is hard to say which makes me feel more lonesome. I have learned the hard way that traveling does not always go smoothly, it is not always flawless, it has its ups and downs; this has helped me learn to manage stress easier and not to be discouraged by the things I cannot change. I have discovered that I enjoy the anticipation of being on the move and despise not being in control of my own destiny; I hate waiting for things to happen and would rather be out making them happen. I have met people easy to forget and others, impossible. They were the reason that this trip became what it was. I have cried out of sadness, frustration, and happiness. I have felt moments of desperation and despair, and moments of pure elation and joy. I have woken up with a smile on my face for days at a time. I have been excited at the prospect of moving on, trying something new, and venturing forth; alternately, I have been disappointed at results and regretted decisions, but I know that is all part of the experience. I have grown to appreciate my parents an unbelievable amount, due mostly to their continuing love and support, but also because I have never fully appreciated the burden of laundry, cooking, and grocery shopping on a regular basis. I have learned (in many instances, a little too late) the importance of budgeting and saving money. Basically, I have learned so many lessons on this trip that I will retain for the rest of my life and put to use on future travels. With these lessons and a million stories, I go home a changed person. However, no trip is ever a completely solo mission; there are many people that must be acknowledged, and it is about time they were:

To Mom, Dad & Ryan, thank you so much for continuing to support me on this journey even when things got a little crazy. Thank you for giving me good advice and sending me your love and positive energy from home. Thank you for the emails checking in on me and for reminding me you love me even when I wasn’t being the best daughter or sister. Thank you for being my cheering section and my coaches, all in one.

To Erika, my travel companion, thank you for the millions of great times we shared on this trip. I was sad to see you go home, but I still am so stoked we got to do this together. I don’t think I’ll ever forget home sweet home, as much as I would like to…thanks for making me laugh even during the worst of it. I hope you never have to stay in a place with unidentifiable light fuzz again.

To Alex, my wonderful boyfriend who I was lucky enough to meet on this trip, thank you for everything you did for me, for being the best souvenir I could ask for, for your travel advice and expertise, and for always managing to make me smile.

To Virjoe, Mark, and Will, my Queenstown flatties, thanks for being my big brothers away from home. You guys were my family for the better part of this trip and I hope I will see you again soon!

To Alyssa and Nick, my adoptive parents of Nelson, thank you for letting a homeless drifter crash on your couch and overstay her welcome. You guys were awesome to me about everything … Nick, I’m sorry that Alyssa and I can’t cook.

To everyone I met on this trip who gave me a place to stay, bought me a drink, gave me a job, gave me travel advice, or was kind or helpful to me in general, thank you for making this experience what it was.

And lastly, to everyone who followed this blog for the duration of my trip, thank you for caring what I did and listening to what I had to say. Thank you for being with me every step of the way.

So, until the next time I pack up my backpack and hop a plane, just remember:

Not all those who wander are lost.

Posted by bgriffs 13:45 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Byron Bay

Everyone I knew who had previously been to Byron Bay had assured me that I was going to love it there, and they were not mistaken. I was immediately pleased with the atmosphere and feel of the place. I am generally not someone who is inclined to enjoy hostels, but the Arts Factory Lodge where I was staying was an exception to the rule. It’s situated about 5 minutes outside of the town centre and has its own spa, brewery, restaurant, and movie theatre. The dorm rooms are in teepees as well as regular rooms, and there are island huts surrounding a green swamp in the centre of the outdoors area. There is a pool and a hot tub for guests, though the beach is a 10 minute walk away. Eastern water dragons run through the rocks and up trees, tiny geckos are found nestled in corners, and hideous brush turkeys stalk around like they own the place. One night I came home to find a possum sitting on the entrance to the teepee. The hostel has a very obvious hippie vibe to it: many of its patrons have dreadlocks and there are drum circles every few days. You can make your own didgeridoo for $100 and there are daily lessons on how to play one. It just has an awesome atmosphere and I decided that it was somewhere I would like to stay a while. Jess, another friend from Jasper, arrived the same night we did and after she decided the same, Garett purchased a tent and we moved into the “Jungle”, which is a little city of tents from long term residents that is slightly separated from the rest of the hostel. I started doing work for accommodation so that we could avoid paying the campsite fees and we settled into our tent life pretty happily.

After one night in the tent we realized something: it wasn’t called the Jungle for no reason. The birds that lived in the trees of the Arts Factory were the loudest alarm clocks you could imagine, many of them making noises that are extremely unpleasant and repetitive. This combined with the occasional turkey brushing up the side of the tent made sure we were never asleep past 8 a.m. Something would rustle beside you as you walked up the path and a lizard would pop out, see you, freeze, and wait till you were a safe distance away before moving again. We got used to the bugs pretty quickly because there was nothing overly frightening besides spiders (though in Australia, you’re never really sure what can kill you) but received a small fright one morning when Jess happened to look up in the campsite bathroom and see a green python sleeping in the rafters. Despite the constant presence of the brush turkeys – my least favorite thing about Australia – we started to really enjoy our simple life.

Almost every day the sun was so hot by 10 a.m. that you would break a sweat just walking somewhere. We spent most days at the beach, working on our tans or braving the cold salty waters of the ocean. We rented boogie boards and spent an afternoon being thrown about by the powerful waves, almost losing our bathing suit bottoms and laughing in spite of the salt water in our mouths. When Garett received a job offer back in Sydney and left us, we still felt the need to text him and rub it in that we were enjoying the beach and doing nothing while he was back in the city (good friends, I know). We decided to hike up to the Cape Byron lighthouse because it is one of those things you simply have to see, and were rewarded for climbing up the endless stairs to the top when we saw a pod of dolphins swimming in the waters below. Today is April 16th and I have been here for 10 awesome, beautiful days. Byron Bay has quickly become one of my favorite places to be. On the 21st I will be heading back to Sydney until my flight leaves on the 24th. It is so weird to think that I will have been gone for 6 months by the time I return, and even stranger to think my traveling days are done for a little while as I return to the real world. Until then though, I am going to enjoy my last week in Australia. If you need me, I’ll be at the beach.

Posted by bgriffs 18:18 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Sydney & Newcastle

I arrived in Sydney at 8 am, tired from my sleepless airport experience but excited to be in a new country. I immediately headed to the hostel that Garett, my friend from Jasper, was staying at, badly in need of a shower and somewhere to put down my backpack. The hostel was in a less than desirable area of Sydney called King’s Cross, which was the sort of place where people sleep in doorways with newspapers as blankets and several strip clubs line the streets. I was not too perturbed by this because the hostel was rather acceptable (except for the occasional cockroach sighting) and very reasonably priced. After I had checked in and showered, Garett became my tour guide and we walked around Sydney. I soon found that I felt the same way I did about Auckland: it’s a city like any other, just with beaches and huge groups of fruit bats that swoop about at night and make a terrible ruckus. I also spotted my first Australian spider, which was about the size of my hand, dangling seemingly innocently from a tree. I gave it a wide berth and decided I enjoyed the wild cockatoos much more. We wandered the streets, took the obligatory photos of the Opera House, and I came to the conclusion that Sydney wasn’t the kind of place I think of when I think Australia… I suppose the lack of koalas and frolicking kangaroos contributed to that. I decided that a weekend there would be enough for me until I had to return for my flight home. The weekend passed enjoyably, and I was excited to see what else Australia had in store.

I had decided that after Sydney I was going to head to Newcastle to see my friends Shannon and Dan who were driving through Australia in a camper van, something I definitely want to do when I come back to see more of the country. Garett decided to accompany me because he had been in Sydney for 2 ½ weeks and had had enough of it. So we boarded a train with a few friends we had made the night before and headed north to Newcastle. Newcastle is a surf town about 3 hours out of Sydney and I immediately liked it more than the place I had just left; it is a laid-back town where the waters are dotted with surfers trying to catch the best wave and everything closes weirdly early. We decided to check out the wildlife sanctuary that was just outside of town, and after a highly overwhelming bus ride where everyone gave us different instructions on when to get off the bus, I had my first Australian wildlife experience. The koalas snoozed in trees while wallabies hopped around and colorful birds looked imperiously down on the other creatures. The occasional wild pigeon flew around and you had to wonder if he felt dowdy and self-conscious compared to the other more beautiful birds. Lizards were stretched out lazily on logs and would survey you with general disinterest. The emus seemed interested in you only until they realized you aren’t going to feed them, then cold-shouldered you. The kangaroos hop about and give you the occasional curious glance before continuing on their way, and the wombats, being nocturnal, lay sleeping on their backs like the largest hamsters you have ever seen.

We met up with Shannon and Dan and had a long-overdue catching up session over an amazing dinner. They informed us that they were going to head inland to the Hunter Valley region, famous for the wineries which populate it. They offered for us to join, but we decided to continue on our desired path up the east coast and onto Byron Bay, the place I was most excited to see on this condensed trip. We had to figure out the best way to get there, so Shannon and Dan deposited us in a Mcdonald’s (they have free WiFi there) and we ended up spending four hours there due to the torrential downpour happening outside. Our train wasn’t going to leave till 6:30 that night, so we weren’t inclined to brave the storm just yet. I have yet to step foot in a Mcdonald’s after that: I don’t ever want to spend that much time in one again. The journey to Byron was going to take us 12 hours, 9 of which were spent on an overnight train and the last 3 on a bus. We arrived in Byron Bay at 6 a.m. in the rain, exhausted and needing sleep. We found the way to the hostel and they graciously allowed us to check in early – I think they could see how tired and haggard we looked. They put us in a dorm that was in a teepee, of all things, and sleep came immediately.

Posted by bgriffs 18:17 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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