December 20, 2008

As I write this I'm on the last leg of my journey, a phenomenally long flight from Hong Kong to JFK. In the excitement that has been the past two weeks of my life I seemed to forget to find time to blog. I figured I would use this entry to give the high lights of my two week post-Sri Lanka Asian tour.

My Dad organized probably, if not definitely, the best vacation I have ever been on in my life. I got to see parts of the world that had never even crossed my mind before and now I'm sure I will remember them fondly for my whole life. I don't think I can fit all of the experiences into a blog so I'll make a list of the top three most amazing experiences and the top three funniest moments.

The Top 3 most amazing experiences:

3. The White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

 I think that if I hadn't taken Buddhism class and then spent three and a half months in a Buddhist country this temple would have been nothing more than a pretty sight, and by the way it was pretty. One of Thailand's top artists Chaloemchai Khositphiphat was commissioned to design this temple. The temple was an immaculate nearly blinding white highlighted with mirrored glass to make it shine even more. The temple was the artist's vision of a Buddhist heaven. To get in you pass over the tormented souls reaching up and cross a bridge to finally enter. When inside the temple, there was a giant painting covering the wall that faced the Buddha statue. You weren't allowed to take a picture and I doubt my words can do this painting justice but I can swear that in all of the Buddhist countries there is no other depiction like that one. At the very top there was the Buddha seated on a lotus flower on top of a skull. It was very punk rock. The closer to eye level you got the more unique the painting got. There was a complex web with life like paintings of Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, a Star Wars battle ship, Super Man, some demons licking oil off a pump and other things that you would never pair up with the Buddha. Our guide looked at us and asked if we knew what the artist was trying to convey, and only because of all my time engulfed in Buddhism was I able to point to the pious Buddhist depicted in a small bubble in the corner floating up and say it's the worldly distractions that keep you locked in samsara and away from enlightenment. The guide said I was right but he didn't seem that impressed he knew I had been in Sri Lanka for a semester and if I hadn't known the answer to that question I probably should have been embarrassed. The temple is a must see for anyone who has the slightest interest in Buddhism or impressive art for that matter. Though pictures are probably easy to come across online, so the trip to Thailand may not be necessary.  

2. The Floating Village, Siem Reap, Cambodia

When my Dad and I climbed into a boat somewhere in Cambodia I was a little bit dazed from all the travel and I had no idea what was going on. Low and behold I'm about to see one of the most interesting ways a human could live. A few minutes from the dock and we are in this muddy looking water and I turn to my Dad, who hates crocodiles, and whisper, "You know this looks like a place that is covered in crocodiles." He got mad and later we would find out I was right.

Shortly after noticing that this was a likely crocodile hotspot we hit what looked like a fleet of boats from the distance, and as we get closer I saw that they were actually houses built out of old boats or on top of floating bamboo rafts. The houses were modest usually only containing one room with a few hammocks to sleep on. I figured that only a few fishermen could spend their whole lives in a river. I was very wrong; the population of the floating village is about 6,000 people. Not only do they live on the river but the village has its own floating school out in the middle of the river. When we passed it I got to see two grade school boys engaged in a fist fight, in school, in the river. I can hardly stand on a boat and they were so steady after being raised in the water they could even fight; it was wild. Then we got to a floating market which was my favorite part. The market was relatively huge and it was held up by bamboo and then built with wooden planks, it was loaded with tourists and I couldn't understand how it was holding up. As soon as we walk in there was a fence, I looked down, and the wood was cut down into a hole that was filled with crocodiles. The owners of the shop leave food there to attract crocodiles and then they sell them to be eaten or maybe used to make wallets I don't know. Inside they sold enormous live fish, stuff I had never seen before not even in an aquarium and of course they had caught it all in the river. After being in the market I made a mental note not to go in the water and then on our way out I marveled again at all the villagers who would carelessly dive out of their house and into the water. I never thought I would go to Cambodia but if ever in Asia its worth making the trip there for the village, not to mention the amazing ancient temples in Angkor Wat.  1. Mahout training, Chaing Rai Thailand  I rode an elephant as a little kid and I rode one in Sri Lanka or at least I thought I had but then I had Mahout training and realized I hadn't even come close. We were at the Golden Triangle, yes where the CIA had worked to shut down the opium trade back in the day, at the four seasons tent. Naturally, I could not afford to stay there as a college kid but I got pretty lucky and I have to say after being there if I had to save my whole life to go back and do it again it would be well worth it.

The tents have something like 50 elephants all rescued and well cared for. I know I was shocked to know that the Four Seasons was active in animal conservation but I was happily surprised. What they do is they take you down and you get to meet six adult elephants, well that is after you've eaten your breakfast and maybe thrown some bananas to the baby elephants that come to the restaurant to eat with you. You get to pick an elephant you like, mine was a no brainer she was wild, loud and never stayed still; kind of like me. Her name was Dancing Girl and for me it was love at first sight. She tolerated me because I kept the bananas flowing. Dancing Girl was definitely the matriarch, if elephants have matriarchs.

First thing they make you do is get on the elephant in the stable or wherever it is where they live with the man who is actually their mahout, which is like a trainer. The elephant lies down and you hop on by grabbing a rope while all the mahouts kind of shove you on. That wasn't so hard but then I learned it's the last time you get on or off like that. Then you scooch up to the elephants neck, lock your knees in behind her ears and drive with your feet. After the morning training class we came back in the afternoon and we were now expected to get on and off the elephant by jumping on or sliding off the head, and no it doesn't hurt them I asked a million question because I was so worried about hurting the elephant. Oh and by the way at this point all the ropes are gone it’s just you and the elephant; very jungle style. Then the elephant and you have a bath, take a walk through the jungle and end up in the river. It was an amazing experience.    Now to the follies of my Asian adventures/bonding time with my Dad.

Funniest moments:

3. My Broken Bike

My Dad, a guide, and I were mountain biking in Chaing Mai, Thailand, on our way to white water rafting. Neither my Dad nor I had been on a bike in at least a decade, yet that didn't stop us from pretending we knew what we were doing. I was going way faster than my Dad which clearly offended him so he speed up and past me, which in turn offended me, so I tried to pass him to prove I was the better biker and in the middle of my sprint past my Dad I kicked the petal and the metal thing that holds it off
the bike.

The best part was that I had broken the bike in the middle of nowhere Thailand and the guide couldn't get cell service to call the driver to come for us. He blatantly pretended to fix the bike and told us to go ahead and that he would take my bike and catch up with us. My Dad used this as an opportunity to prove he was faster and took off, however, I knew how well I broke that bike and I knew it wasn't getting put back together that quickly. I stayed with the guide and in thirty seconds it fell off again. I told the guide to take the bike and find the driver and that I would walk the broken one till they came back for me. This seems like a great plan till I find myself in a pack of dogs. There are some viscous dogs in Asia, if my previous blogs didn't make that clear. I'm trying to walk by them without looking at them in hopes they'll go away when these men started screaming which caused me to jump and the petal to bang loudly on the road which was enough for the dogs to leave. The men who were construction workers came rushing over at the sight of my broken bike gesturing that they would help. I didn't speak a word of their language and they didn't speak a word of mine so my refusal was not understood and my bike was beaten with a knife in an attempt to reattach the petal until my guide returned cracking up at the situation I had found myself in. It was just one of those moments when things were so far out of my control I was laughing by myself in the background. 

2. My Dad Falls of the Elephant

The elephants took us to the Mekong River on the border of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand to take a quick dip. The Mahouts had hoped on the back of the elephants to urge them to get us wet. They were commanding the elephants to dunk which is funny because my elephant paid no attention to the command and just let me watch as my Dad's elephant dunked him. All of a sudden the elephant dunked a little too quickly and I watched my Dad soar off the elephant and into the water. I was in tears laughing until I noticed everyone else was panicking. Three of the Mahouts dove in the water after him. My Mahout looked conflicted as he had confided in me earlier that he didn't know how to swim. My Mahout jumped onto the back of my Dad's vacant elephant so as to help out as much as he could. My Dad was fine so I continued laughing and eventually Dancing Girl got bored so in the midst of the commotion she left the river and took me for a walk. The people swore that no one ever fell off before, somehow I think that isn't true.

1. Culture Shock from Sri Lanka to Hong Kong

I got to Hong Kong which I should mention is fashion city in what I think is my best if not least soiled outfit left from Sri Lanka. I can actually hear the jaws drop as I enter the hotel. I allegedly look homeless and everyone else is rocking Armani and what not. We try and get lunch where with one look at me the hostess said, "We have a dress code."

I was really hungry and apparently if I wanted to eat first I had to go shopping. This meant I had to go shopping at designer stores which I had never done in my life and also they were stocked with clothes that had a size 4 as an extra large. I figured clothes would eventually happen and they did but shoes were the real frontier. I was embarrassed to tell my shoe size at one store so my Dad asked while I was in the dressing room. I can hear the girls cracking up as they tell him no. Eventually, and with huge amounts of effort I put an outfit together and was admitted to the various fancy restaurants that plague Hong Kong.

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