Thursday, June 07, 2007

Land of Smiles

I'm 11 days into my trip to Southeast Asia. I've written and erased this sentence several times now. . . I don't know what to say. I'm not really sure how to begin, but due to Kerri and Alex's pleas for me to write a new blog, I feel compeled to do it.

The best place to start is the beginning, which would be Beijing. I meet up with Katalin, my partner in crime on this trip. Our train left for Xiamen (a smallish port city in Southeastern China) around noon on Monday, June 28th. In our car, and probably the entire train, we were the only foreigners.
We had 31 hours to kill and I filled most of my time by looking out the window. As we headed south everything changed-lush green trees took the place of the dry, brown scenery of the north. Instead of mountains, there were terraced rice patties. We were in a sleeper car (pictured above) which allowed us to lay down whenever we wanted. A few hours before our arrival in Xiamen the train unexpectedly stopped. I had the misfortune of looking out the window at this moment. I don't know if how appropriate is to explain what I saw. It was undoubtedly the most horrific thing I've ever seen. A woman used our train to take her own life. It seemed surreal, unbelieveable. But what was more tragic was how the people around us reacted-with complete indifference. One old woman laughed as Katalin cried. It was the worst possible way to begin a vacation, but it made taking some time away from China seem like a blessing.

We arrived in Xiamen at 7pm on the 29th. It was a great relief to get off the train and Xiamen did a lot to lift my spirits. Our guesthouse was on a small island, free of vehicles, just off shore of the main city. We took the ferry over and marveled at the beauty of it. The island was once settled by Europeans and the entire place was full European architecture (see picture below), a nice break from the dirty highrises of Beijing.

After one night in Xiamen we were off to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, for a mere $60. We arrived a little before midnight and the heat and humidity was suffocating. I have never experienced anything like it, and I assure you it is not pleasant. Once we got to our guesthouse, we hit up the nearby 7/11 for some foreign snacks (although there wasn't much exciting besides finding Coke Zero). The 7/11 is to Thailand what Starbucks is to America, there's no escaping it even if you try.
We spent the next two days sweating our asses off, occassionally stopping in the nearest mall or 7/11 to indulge in the wonder known as central air-conditioning. We were unable to visit any temples because we were inappropriately dressed, only sleeved shirts and pants are allowed in Bangkok temples. It's such an unfair custom in a country that is always repressingly hot! We did manage to eat lots of delicious street food. . .sweet rice and banana wrapped in banana leaves, exotic fruits, pork sausage filled with glass noodles, and puffy fried balls of seafood. It tastes better than it sounds!

Before we had time to settle into the city, it was time to move on to the next. We traveled by train to Ayutthaya, a city about 40 miles north of Bangkok. We found a charming tek style guesthouse next to the river that surrounds the town. Then we rented some bikes and explored the city center, which is filled with ancient temple ruins (below). Since we are traveling during low season, we've often had the luck of being the only people exploring the sites. We did spot a few other tourists, some of which traveled for temple to temple via elephant.

June 4th. . .we moved on again, this time to Sukhothai. A city also known for it's ancient temple ruins. We made the mistake of buying third class train tickets on a rather slow train. It took over 5 hot, sweaty, hours to travel about 150 miles. We vowed from that point on to only take air-conditioned modes of transport! The next morning was filled with more bike riding and temple exploring. I definitely was starting to feel a bit like Lara Craft or Indiana Jones. But the feeling didn't last long as we had to get moving to the next city-Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is loved by Thais; it is known as the country's cultural center. I can understand why, it's filled with fun things to satisfy anybody: bars, restaurants, temples, spas, cooking schools, and Thai boxing centers. We opted for spas and cooking. The first day in town we went for Royal Thai massages ($8, one hour. I love this country!!) The second day we took an all day cooking course ($24) to learn how to prepare several Thai dishes (pictured below). I can happily say that I did not burn anything or chop off any fingers and all my food tasted delicious!

That brings us to today. This morning we took a 25 minute flight to Mae Hong Son, a very small town (only 6000 people) in Northern Thailand near the Burmese border. Had we traveled by bus it would take nearly 8 hours because the town is in the middle of the mountains. We were able to explore the whole city by foot, but the real fun begins tomorrow. We are going on a trek to the nearby Karen village. The Karen are an ethnic minority originally from Burma, though many are living in Thailand as refugees. They are very famous because the Karen women wear gold coils around their neck, thus lengthening it. I'm living in an issue of National Geographic!