"Words have no wings, but they can travel a thousand miles" (Korean Proverb)

Welcome to Flying Words, Jon and Aileen's blog of our adventures in South Korea! We will be in South Korea for a year, starting in mid-July, teaching English in a private school. We just graduated from college this past May, and are looking forward to having some adventures before continuing our education. 
We started this blog to keep all our family and friends updated and to share our photos and stories. We hope this is entertaining for you! We will miss you all, and are very thankful to have the internet to keep us in touch. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Building a Nation

Laos. What can I say? It's quiet. It's rural. Even Vientiane, the capital city, has a sleepy provincial feel. No big buildings. No commercial center, besides the outdoor markets. It's very French-influenced---many signs in Lao/French, instead of English, many French bakeries and cafes, which I love. It's a cute place.
But look around a little more, and you see the story of what's really going on here. Laos has long been poor, underdeveloped and war-torn, most recently when the US bombed continuously basically the whole country during the Vietnam War, trying to route out Viet Cong troops. Now, Laos is governed by the one-party socialist rule of the Lao Peoples' Revolutionary Party. So far, I've been in an autocracy (Singapore), a Muslim state (Malaysia), a constitutional monarchy (Thailand), and now a one-party communist state, which is really what I'll be in the rest of my trip.
What you notice here, though, is not the political system. It's the physical manifestation of the foreign aid we hear so much about in our developed countries. Everywhere you see signs that proclaim one piece of infrastructure or another a joint venture between Laos and some other country. Basically, "This road was sponsored by Japan," or "Lao telecom company, brought to you by Australia." I saw a community hospital built with French aid. The city buses all have "Japan Official Development Agency" on their sides. The main street is lined with offices like the French Agency for Development, and the Asian Development Bank. The state-run English newspaper I read yesterday was full of articles like "EU opens 10 new schools in rural province," "UN implements Climate Change Initiative" and articles celebrating Laos' partnerships with other Asian countries. Walking down the street you see vans emblazened with the UN's, UNICEF's, and other international organizations' and NGOs like Save the Children's logos.
At the bar I went to last night, I talked to a man who was, according to him, one of the two actually qualified electricians in Laos. He's from the UK. The other, who was also in the bar, was French. This man told me, "If a rural village anywhere in Laos wants electricity, I'm the one they call." He wasn't there for any altruistic purpose, though. He was there because he's an electrician, and there's plenty of work here and it's cheap to live. He said to me, "If you travel enough, you'll realize that 90% of the people in the world live the same, they get up, go to work, go to bed. Their political system doesn't matter to them."
I met a few more Westerners, and one man from Uganda, who had all been living here for years, working, filling the gap that exists because very few Lao have higher education or even technical training. Thus the school I saw being built today, a school of health sciences, sponsored by the World Bank's Development Fund. And I did see a USAID (US Agency for International Development) logo, sponsoring the Lao telecom system along with Australia and Japan, both countries that are all over everything. It's nice to see those development dollars at work. It gives a face to all those figures and political arguments you hear. And it reinforces my belief that the money is well worth it. It's fascinating to see a nation being built like this, to see the infrastructure projects and cooperation it takes to develop an economy, step by step, one road, one bus, one hospital at a time.

Bye-bye, Jon! :(

After Chiang Mai, we took the train down the Bangkok, stopping for a day in Sukothai, a small city with a beautiful complex of ruins. In Bangkok, we stayed at a hostel on Khao San Road and did a little exploring, mostly killing time. I feel like I've been to Bangkok so many times, and after Chiang Mai, it was too busy and noisy and smoggy. So we did the usual. Walked around, ate a little. I looked for a new book, but they were so stupidly expensive. Tattered used books, in bookstores with huge inventories, for the same price as a new book in the States. No way. I'm not that desperate.

Our last day together, Monday, we got sweet herbal massages and then headed to the nicer area of Bangkok, to check out their modern malls and "where the cool kids hang out" (my words). The malls were quite fancy...designer stores, beautiful design. Clearly, we didn't do any shopping. We did, though, see Night at the Museum 2 on the IMAX. I loved the movie, but it suddenly cut out about 5-10 minutes before the end. I think. The movie just stopped. Everyone waited for awhile, then nobody said anything, so we left. Going to the movies in Thailand is interesting, since before the movie, everyone has to stand up while the national anthem is played, to the backdrop of a video-montage of Thais helping each other, always with a portait of the king featured prominently.

All too soon, it was time to head to the train station. We picked up our backpacks and some takeout for dinner, then took a tuk-tuk to the station. After we'd organized everything (Jon took some stuff back to the States for me), we ate and then it was time for me to get on my train. I was headed to Nong Kai, Thailand, which is the border crossing for Vientiane in Laos. Jon was flying home that night, since he'd come to about the end of the money he could spend on this trip. We said our sad goodbyes as the train pulled away from the station. I won't see him for at least 3 months. I was pretty sad on the train, but determined to have a great rest of my trip. Thanks to Skype, we can talk online a good deal. We both need to know that we can get along fine on our own, and in the end I know it'll make us stronger as a couple.

Anyway, enough of that. More adventures to come from my end....

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

High Rollers

Welcome to Chiang Mai, a mountainous city in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is at a crossroads, both historically (trace routes between China, Burma, India, Southern Thailand and Malaysia) and currently-- a jumping off point for many adventure-seeking travelers who flock to the mountains to trek, white-water raft, rock climb, and basically any activity that involves jungle. Then there're the tourists who come here to shop. Chiang Mai is the source for much of Thai products, like silk, wood work, laquerware, gems...basically anything you'd want to buy in Thailand. Chaing Mai is also surrounded by varying hilltribe villages...a great number of ethnic tribal minorities who also make handicrafts and whose villages can serve as tourist destinations. Because of the variety of travellers who stop here, Chiang Mai is full of guesthouses/hostels as well as nice hotels, lots of cute cafes and restaurants and some fancy ones, too. And lots of tailors. But we'll get to that in a little bit.

When Jon and I first got here, it was hot. Severely hot. We had just gotten off the train after a lovely overnight trip in sleeper cars, which make me feel like I'm back in the forts I used to make out of my bottom bunk of my bunk bed growing up. We took a tuk-tuk into town but somwhere along the way we heard about a guesthouse that had a pool. After walking around in the Old City looking for a cheap guesthouse that we liked (I felt like Goldilocks...nothing felt quite right), we relented and went to the place with the pool. It's still cheap, by almost any standard--a double room for $12 a night-- but it's still a little more than the cheapest dorm beds here--$3/night. But it has a pool! And it's nice, and cute. It has a nice patio area, and lots of cool Thai furnature/decor.
That night, we rented motorbikes again, for the next 48 hours. The next morning, we got up and headed out of town towards a mountain that supposedly had a temple, a palace and a Hmong village on it. The road was nice, shady and curvy. The temple was alright...it had an amazing view of the city, and was at the top of a huge flight of stairs. It was very gold and shiny, a little ostentatious for my tastes. I like the stone, older temples more. The kind of Thai temples that are covered in gold and ornamentation don't give me the same peaceful feeling I get from some of the older ones, and most of the Korean Buddhist temples I went to.
The palace was a flop--you had to be wearing long pants (who wears long pants in Thailand in the summer?!) and covered shoulders, or you could rent clothes, and plus paying an entrance fee. So we continued down an increasingly bumpy and potholed road to the Hmong village.
The Hmong are an ethnic tribal group, originating from Burma and Laos, who live in the mountains for Thailand. They are most known (at least to me) as the tribe of the people in the book "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," a book both Jon and I had to read for an intro to Sociology course (great book, by the way). The book is about a Hmong family who moves to California as refugees, and whose young daughter gets epislepsy. It's about the contrast between the family's conception of the illness, and life in general, and how it contrasts with the doctors' and everyone else around them. In the village, I could really see how completely different it is from urban America, and I could sympathize with the characters in the book. The village was beautiful, tucked away in the mountains that were topped with whispy clouds.
After the village, we had a picnic with some supplies we had brought from town. It was great...we had found a real bakery, so I had real wheat bread for the first time in a long time, and we found snap peas and green beans at a local market, along with mangoes, and had bought cheese and pepperoni at a local grocery store. It was a delicious lunch.
That night we went to the movie theater and saw Angels and Demons. I liked it a lot. I won't say much about it, for those of you who haven't seen it. But I will say that watching a movie in Thailand is interesting, because after the previews and before the movie, they play the national anthem (everyone must stand up) while showing a montage of pretty much propaganda pictures of happy Thais and the King and Queen helping people and just generally being cool.
Yesterday, we ate lunch in a restaurant run by the Department of Corrections as a vocational training center at the women's detention center. It was delicious, and it was nice to feel like we were contributing something to the local community. Then, in the mid-afternoon when it was starting to rain, we decided to visit the tailor's shop next to the guesthouse, just to get some quotes.
Anyone who's travelled in Asia knows that tailor's shops are all over, and usually cheap and fast, but I never really thought about going to one. I couldn't think of a reason to buy custom-made clothes. But then I kept seeing really pretty dresses in the windows, and I got to thinking. I'm going to law school next year, I'll have to dress up sometimes. And I always have a hard time finding professional clothes that look good that I can afford. So, we looked at pictures and asked about prices at a few places, and finally found a good shop.
Well. I ended up ordering 2 suit jackets, 2 pairs of pants, one skirt and one beautiful silk dress, all for $250. And I mean nice material, and custom made. I am sooo excited! I figured, a nice suit will cost at least that much, not to mention 2 and a dress. Since I'm going to law school, I"ll need those clothes.
And they are GORGEOUS! We picked them up Thursday night, and I am so excited! Too bad I have to ship them home and not see them again for 2 months. The dress is soooo nice, and I feel like a princess...actually, I feel like a grown-up ready to attend cocktail parties and benefits...now I just need a cocktail party or a benefit. Hmmm....
While in Chiang Mai, we also took a cooking course. It was a great investment. The class was small...Jon and I and 4 other girls from our guesthouse were in a group together. First, we went to a local market, where our teacher told us all about the various herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables involved in Thai cooking. Then he bought the ingredients we needed for the day, and some fruit for us to try back at the school. The fruit was crazy--looks like some kind of cartoon space fruit. I don't think I could have even imagined some of it.
Back at the school, he explained about how to make the different kinds of rice...normal, sticky, jasmine...and then we started cooking. We had selected 6 dishes at first, one out of the three choices in each category (curry paste/curry dish, soup, stir-fry, appetizer, and desert). There were 2 other groups in different rooms, and for each dish we would go to the corresponding room to learn and cook, then come back to our original group to eat after each dish.
Everything we made was sooo good! Jon and I made sure to chose different dishes so we could maximize the dishes we learned and the dishes we ate! I made chicken cashew stir-fry, coconut chicken soup, spring rolls, green curry paste, green curry chicken and veggies, and sticky rice with mango. The final products were some of the best Thai food I'd had (not to say much for myself...its all in the fresh ingredients and the teaching.) We all got a recipe book with all the dishes plus some, and a nice ingredient guide and a substitution guide if you can't find some of the herbs and spices. Mmmm. I'm hungry just thinking about it. Can't wait to get home and cook!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Motorbikes rock! Except when it rains...

Ahhh..... Finally, we made it up to Thailand and out of the stupid cities. Kanchaniburi is a very small city with a large tourism industry because of its situation on the banks of the River Kwai and its proximity to a certain infamous Bridge over said river. Of course, most of you know I'm not a big war-history nut. No, we're in K-buri because we heard from some travellers we met in Melaka that there is a huge, beautiful 7-tiered waterfall that you can swim in every tier of. With wild versions of those fish I wrote about earlier that eat your dead skin.

Jon and I took a trishaw from the bus station to a hostel we found in our trusy Loney Planet travel guide. A trishaw is a bicycle with a bench in the back, decorated quite colorfully. It was misting when we got there, and we felt so bad for the man who pedalled us and our 2 heavy backpacks those 5K that we tipped him the same amount as our fare was. Before you judge me for making this man pedal us for our own enjoyment, we were hassled right off the bus by a million trishaw people.

We got a room on a floating part of the guesthouse...basically a floating trailer partitioned into little rooms. It was beautiful...we could see down the river and the limestone mountains behind, jutting up into the mist. That night, we walked down the river and found floating restaurants that loaded up with people, then got towed across the river to float on the other side. Of course, we couldn't figure out how to get on them, so we just ate ice cream sundaes at a place we found on dry land.

The next day, we headed to the waterfalls. We had decided that it would be best to rent motorbikes from one of the myriad of places renting them along the street lined with guesthouses, since the local bus dropped you off a few kilometers from the park entrance and wasn't a whole lot cheaper, anyway. The motorbikes were a lot of fun. I was scared at first (the people renting them were a little nervous about me driving one and made me practice down a side street) but I quickly got the hang of it, and remembered to drive on the left side of the road (Southeast Asian traffic drives on the left).

We then proceeded to drive 60K down a nicely paved and mostly empty road through the countryside, across rivers and into the mountains. On the way, we passed farms, little wooden houses, herds of skinny tan cows walking down the side of the road (and sometimes laying in it) followed by men carrying slingshots, water buffalo wallowing in the mud, and a few signs that warned of elephant crossings but no elephants.

Then we got to the waterfalls. They are in a national park, up a short trail from the parking lot. It''s really a river with a bunch of waterfalls, big and small, wide and narrow, so it's full of a million pools to swim in. The water was a clear light blue, and you could easily see the schools of fish swimming around. And there were some good-sized fish in them.

We had brought sandwiches from a place in town, and I especially was excited to eat them because I had tuna on whole wheat bread. I hadn''t really had whole-wheat bread since I left home, besides a loaf or two from Costco in Korea that wasn't quite great. I was so eager to swim, though, that I only ate half of one, then left my things and went into the water, perilously ignoring the "Beware of Monkeys" and "Don't let monkey steal your belonging" signs. Well, as soon as we had been in the water for 5 minutes, a monkey decended from a tree, took one look at my bag of sandwiches, grabbed it and climbed up a tree. Oops. It ate almost all of the sandwich, dropping a few pieces and then the styrofoam container. At least I could pick up the garbage, since I felt bad for potentially polluting that lovely park. Later, another monkey came and ate the dropped pieces in plain view, and I got some cool pictures of a monkey eating my lunch. That and the story make up for the loss of food, and from then on we were careful with our things, tying them to roots and securing the bags, but the monkeys were only interested when they could smell food nearby.

The waterfalls were amazing. They weren't too crowded, mostly Thai families. The little fish would nibble on your feet, and the big fish weren't really too bothered by our presence...Jon was able to touch some by swimming up to them. We could go behind the waterfalls into little caves, and jump off rocks into the crystal clear water.

At about 3:30, we headed back to the motorbikes. The park closed at 4, and it was getting a little cloudy. Rain was treatening. As it was, we made it about halfway back before it started to pour. We took shelter, with another foreign couple on motorbikes who happened to stop there too, under a little hut by the side of the road, and then in a little store/restaurant where the owners spoke absolutely no English. We played cards and had some sodas, and waited for the rain to die down. It did after about an hour, but it still sprinkled on us the whole way back. 26 kilometers later, we were back in K-buri and soaked to the bone. But it was definately worth it.

Blah Buses!

Last time I wrote, I was waiting for a train. Well, it got delayed. The woman at the information desk wrote down "19:00"for the new time, then we confirmed with her and someone else. So, we went to eat dinner and came back at a little before 6. When we went to the information desk to check to progress of the train, the same woman looked at our tickets and said "Train came. Left. 19 oclock" and looked at us and the clock like we were idiots. I said "Yeah, you said 19 oclock. It's only 18:00 now!"She just kept saying 19:00. So we told her that we needed new tickets, and it wasn't our fault so we weren't paying more. So she told the guy at the ticket window, but then we went to get tickets on the next train. There were only sleeper cars available (hello? We asked for sleeper cars earlier and were told there were none!) but they tried to make us pay the difference. So, we went around the stupid booth to the info lady and tried to make it clear that we wouldn't pay the difference. Then we just gave up, figured they wouldn't listen, and just wanted to get on the train. So, literally 3 minutes later, we went back to the ticket window and the guy (with no indication of recognizing us) said everything was sold out. Ah!!

We didn't want to stay in that stupid border city anymore, especially since Thailand only gives you 15 days if you enter by land (30 by plane...stupid. Sorry I can't afford to fly everywhere I go.), so we walked around in search of a bus. Good thing there are multiple ticket-booking places on every block in Hat Yai since no one actually goes there on purpose, just in transit. We finally found a bus for the same price as the sleeper trains would have been, and took it a hour later to Bangkok. When we arrived in Bangkok we just stayed at the bus station we started in and got a bus to Kanchanaburi, our next destination. 3 hours later, and utterly sick of buses, we arrived to Kanchanaburi, a small city in the central-western region of Thailand.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Best $3 I Ever Spent

So, I know I said we'd be train-ing it up to Bangkok. The plan was to take the bus from the Cameron Highlands to Ipoh, the closest city with a train station. Then we would take the 11:30 pm train from Ipoh to Hat Yai in Thailand, stay there during the day, then catch another overnight train from Hat Yai to Bangkok. Well.
We got to Ipoh in the pouring rain, took a taxi to the train station, just to find out that the train we wanted only ran on Thurs-Saturday. This was on a Monday. Even though the LED screen was announcing the train, and nothing on the schedule we had indicated that fact.
So, we decided to try to take a bus to Hat Yai. We got in a taxi, asked the driver to take us to the bus station, but then after asking us where we wanted a bus to, he dropped us off in front of the ticket office of a private bus company that went to Hat Yai...and that he probably got a commission from to drop people at. We figured we'd just check out the price, since there were 2 other bus company offices within sight. The man at the counter was an older Chinese man who spoke very little English. He mostly grunted. He gave us a price and a time-- 45 Ringett, or about $15, and the bus left at 1 am. We had heard that most buses left at about that time, but when we showed signs of wanting to check other places, the guy told us there were only 2 seats left, despite the fact hat he had the passenger roster out on the table, open to a map of the seats, which were half empty. So, we left to check the other places.
One of the offices was closed. The other was inhabited by a Chinese mother and her two children. They told us the details-- 45 Ringitt, 12:45 am-- and we decided to buy the tickets. But first, we had to exchange money. Then we ran into our next problem. We didn't have quite enough Ringit, because the rate in the Cameron Highlands was way lower than normal, so we figured we'd wait until we got into Ipoh. Well, by the time we got there, all the exchange places were closed. No problem, we'll just use an ATM. Well, none of the ATMs took foreign cards. None. I tried 4 different banks' ATMs. Luckily, we convinced the bus company to take Korean won (a little more than the price of the bus tickets, for their trouble) and exchange it in the morning.
So, that was about 7pm. We had almost 6 hours to kill, and the sun was about to set. Ipoh is a small city, with no tourist attractions. We were hungry, so the first step was to find food. A few blocks from the bus company office was an outdoor hawker center-type place. There were plastic tables and chairs outside on a patio, and multiple food stands inside. The food was cheap, and good, and there were lots of cheap juices and iced coffees.
After eating, we figured this was as good a place as any to spend 5 hours. So, we did. Talking, eating and drinking a little here and there, and playing an epic 3 hours of gin rummy, our usual. That pack of cards has saved us lots of boredom over the past year. It was a nice cafe, full of locals even at midnight on a Monday.
Finally, we got to the bus company and waited for the last 30 minutes with other passengers, including 2 Thai monks and 3 Irish girls who were grossly scantily dressed and smoked all the time. The bus turned out to be not as nice as we had hoped. The seats were alright in themselves, but we were in the back row and our seats didn't recline like all the others, and then the guy in front of Jon reclined his to the point that it was touching Jon's legs. The bus was hot despite the A/C vents, and we bounced around a lot in the back. We took a long stop at a rest stop, and then we got to the Thai border an hour before the border control opened, so we sat on the bus there in line with other buses for an hour. After clearing customs on both sides, it was only an hour and a half until we got to Hat Yai.
When we got to Hat Yai we were exhausted, but determined to quickly exchange money and buy train tickets for that night. But, the banks didn't open until 8:30, and it was only 7am. At the train station, we found out that all the sleeper train cars were booked, but there were second-class seats in an A/C car, which are much more comfortable than the buses.
Then Jon had a brilliant idea-- see if a hostel would rent us a room just for the afternoon, until we could take the 2:30 train. We were exhausted, and just wanted a place to put our stuff and take a nap. Luckily, we found a place, with the help of the Lonely Planet travel guide, that let us have a room for the day for about $6 total. Split between the two of us, it was the best $3 I'd ever spent. After the banks opened, we changed money, and bought plane tickets, I took a lovely 2-hour nap.
We ate lunch, then headed back to the hostel to pack things up, and over to the train station for the 2:30 train. Or so we thought. Turns out we had read out tickets wrong, and the train wasn't until 4:30. Added onto that, the train that was supposed to come at 2:18 we found out was delayed until 4:30, so who knows about ours. They told us to check back at 4. So now I'm killing time in an internet cafe, watching Without a Trace and blogging a really long entry. :)
Oh, one more unrelated comment. We were talking to another foreign guy at the train station, which is how we found out about the late train, and he told us a story we'd heard before from other travelers. Thailand only gives 15-day visas to tourists entering by land, while they give 30-day visas when you fly in. Strange to begin with. But we've heard from some people, people who dress like hippies, who maybe have tatoos and don't look like rich tourists, that they get a lot of trouble coming into Thailand. This man we talked to specifically was told straight up to show him 20,000 baht (about $800) to prove that he had enough money to travel in Thailand. Who would spend that much money for 2 weeks in Thailand I have no idea. Finally, he took out 10,000 from an ATM, and showed the border official. It wasn't enough. The man insisted on seeing an airplane ticket, or other proof of onward travel. That was totally unneccessary, and not within the Thai visa rules. The man finally let the traveler through, but not until demanding a 1000 baht bribe...about $40. We've heard similar stories from other people who look less wealthy than the average tourist. It's such discrimination, and arbitrary. The man we talked to at the train station said he had been traveling for a while, through Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand a few times before, and Nepal. Lots of flights, he has credit cards with money, but he couldn't get through without a bribe, mostly because of how he looks.
Well, that's all I've got for today. Wish us luck on the train tonight, and getting to Kanchanaburi to chill by the River Kwai and swim in some sweet waterfalls.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

I held a scorpion! (and Jon was too scared to)

So we've spent the last few days in the Cameron Highlands, a mountainous region of Malaysia known for its jungles and tea plantations. And strawberries. We stayed in a small town, mostly a tourist base for tours of the jungle and surrounding area. It's a nice hostel...off the main street, so almost in the jungle.
Yesterday we went on a full-day tour that included jungle trekking, a visit to a native village, a trip to a tea plantation, a butterfly farm and a strawberry farm. It was a long day, but it was great.
Jon and I walked into town at about 8:30 am, ordered some Indian bread and banana smoothies to go, loaded into a waiting Jeep with 5 other people and our guide, and started off into the jungle. After a 45-minute ride through stunning jungle mountains, and then 20 minutes of off-roading through the jungle, we got out and started to hike. Our destination: 2 giant flowers. A hike just to see 2 flowers, you ask? Well, these aren't just any flowers. They're about 70 cm wide...or 2 1/2 feet, and they only bloom for six days. They smell yucky, and are pretty rare. The natives used to feed them, cooked, to women who had just given birth, to stop the bleeding, minimize scarring, etc etc. Now they're protected, so there are more of them, but no so many. Our guide met us at the flowers, and we followed a native guide through the forest. He walked pretty fast, and spoke no English other than "Let's go!" and "I don't speak English." After 45 minutes of a brisk walk through the jungle, we arrived, covered in sweat and exhausted, at the flowers.
The flowers were amazing. They're actually a fungus, and grow on the ground out of buds that look like giant pink and green cabbages. The flowers are a pink-red color, and smell gross. They attract lots of flies, who swarm around the spiky inside. These flowers look to me like cartoon flowers-- they have huge petals, and just give them impression of a child's thick-lined drawing.
After the flowers, we went for a swim in a nearby pool fed by a waterfall. The water was wonderfully cold after that hot hike. Then we went back to the Jeep, and down to a native village. The village was a collection of maybe 5 houses that had been moved near the highway after the government said they could get schools and more regular doctor's visits if they came out of the jungle. Now the kids go to school until they're 12, when they finish primary school. The closest secondary school is about an hour's drive away, and there's no public transportation that passes the village. The children marry when they're 15 or 16, and have 3 or 4 kids by the time they're in their mid-20s.
The men in the village either work seasonal jobs, or work with the tours in the area as guides. They farm some, and set traps in the jungle. We were there to see a demonstration of blow-gun hunting. It was really cool...the blow-gun is a long, straight, hollow piece of bamboo. A man from the village showed us how to shoot it, and then we all got a chance to try to shoot a leaf pinned to some styrofoam about 20-30 meters away. Jon hit the leaf the first time. I completely missed the whole board the first time, but the second time I hit the leaf.
The tea plantation was beautiful. Tea bushes carpeted the rolling mountains, and the factory had a cafe that overlooked the whole thing, with walls made totally of glass and a deck that jutted over the tea bushes. We had a quick factory tour, then a light lunch in the cafe. I had a pot of Earl Grey with Tangerine tea that was quite good, and a pretty good tuna sandwich.
I wasn't very excited about the butterfly farm...I had been to butterfly gardens before, and they're all the same. Well, this one had the addition of a large collection of yucky bugs, from Rhinocerus Beetles to tarantulas to scorpions, and the man who worked there let us hold most of them. And by let, I mean sometimes forced. But it was really interesting. I even held a scorpion!! He promised us it was safe, and he was holding a lot. Afterwards, he explained that the scorpion, since it stings with its tail, can't sting you if you hold it. The tail can only flip up to the area over its body, so it can only get you it your hand is over its back, or if you step on it. We also got to hold these really lazy geckos, called cat-eyed geckos, who sleep most of the day and move like they're in slow-motion. They were sooo cute!
The butterflies were alright...what you can expect. Pretty butterflies. Flowers. The strawberry farm was interesting, since the strawberries and the other things that they grew there (various types of lettuce, parsley) were all grow hydroponically. That means they're grown in either pots or pipes hanging above the ground. Their roots grow either in the water, like the lettuce, or in the air once they outgrow the pots, like the strawberries. Water is pumped through them instead of onto them, saving water that usually gets lost in soil seepage and evaportation. The water is also reinforced with nutrients to help them grow, so they don't need fertilizer. Plus, since they're hanging, they save space. There can be more plants closer together, and other plants can grow on a bottom layer. For example, the parsely was growing below the strawberries.
Anyway, enough agricultural lessons. The strawberries were delicious! Jon and I shared a strawberry milkshake, and a bowl of strawberries and cream. Yum!
Today we're leaving the jungle to start our journey into Thailand. Today we take a bus to Ipoh, the closest train station, and catch the night train to Hat Yai in Thailand. We'll get there tomorrow morning, then take another night train to Bangkok. We'll be in Bangkok for a day or so, go west for a few days to Kanchanaburi to go to a seven-tiered waterfall (you can swim in every tier!) then another overnight train to Chang Mai for Saturday morning. Aye. I'm tired already!

Saturday, May 9, 2009


We left Kuala Lumpur this morning for the Cameron Highlands. My impression of KL (as everyone calls it) are mixed. I saw some beautiful sights there-- mostly mosques and old Islamic architecture-- but other than the outstanding buildings it was a pretty ugly city. There is, however, a gorgeous park in the city, called the Lake Gardens, with a huge bird center. The bird place is under a huge net, so there are just birds flying around. There are all kinds of birds, from small songbirds to giant white pelicans and vivd peacocks, just wandering and flying around. I got some great pictures! (I'll put them up later, I swear :) )

But what struck me most about KL was the pervasiveness of Islam into every part of the city. From the halal certifications on all the restaurant doors (halal means 'allowed' in Islam...basically it means that the food served there is certified acceptable to eat according to Muslim guidelines) to the mystic call to prayer heard 5 times a day wafting from minarets to the Arabic on every sign. By far, the most obvious and notable sign of the Muslim nature of most of the country is the women wearing various forms of head and bodyu covering.

I would say 75-80% of the women and teenage girls in KL wear at least a headscarf and long pants, usually a long-sleeved shirt, to cover themselves because of their belief in Islam and their adherence to its mores, as well as because of their culture. I saw a good number of women who went even further, from full-body dresses with headscares that were bright, colorful and patterned, to the same in black, to full body covering with a veil over the head that allowed just an inch-tall slit for the eyes, all in black. Though in most cases, the latter seemed to be tourists from somewhere in the Middle East, since they were visiting tourist sites, and often the men would wear traditional dress as well, and carried a map.

It's hard to know how to react to this. I know that it is, for the most part, none of my business, but Islam has really interested me in the past few years, and I've heard, read and seen so many conflicting things about this controversial issue. The veil/headscarf can be seen as a symbol of repression, or of religious devotion. And I'm sure that it can be both, depending on the circumstance and whether or not the woman in question has a choice about wearing the headscarf etc. I, for one, can't see how they do it...it's so hot in KL! I know I don't have to have an opinion on this topic, but since I was confronted with the situation, I didn't know what to make of it. Especially the full-body eye-slit covering. One of the women I saw wearing that was at the bird park with her husband, who was wearing shorts and a t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off. It seemed...I don't know... a little hypocritical, the contrast between the two of them. But then again, who's to say that she didn't choose what she was wearing. But if she chose, was it really a choice, or did family and societal pressures force her into a decision?

While I walked around KL in shorts and a t-shirt, I didn't get as many stares as I thought I might. There were lots of tourists dressed like more or worse, and a sizeable ethnic Chinese population that weren't covered. I did, though, at times, get the feeling men were ignoring me. There were a few times at restaurants when they wouldn't look at me, and kind of ignored what I had said...I had to ask a few times. And I got some looks from women, including the woman in the bird park with the eye-slit garb (sorry, I don't know the technical words for the different coverings, and since the words vary by region I wouldn't know what to call them, anyway). They weren't necesarily bad looks. Just curiousity, I think, the same way I was looking at them.

By the way, I did wear an approximation of the full-body covering once, when we went inside the National Mosque, which is gorgeous. Upon entry, Jon and I were both given full-length lilac-colored robes with hoods that tied in the front (Jon was wearing shorts, and men have to have long pants). It felt like I was in a cult. And I was really really hot.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Howard the Hostel owner.

I used to ask myself what I would be like to take a dart and throw it at a map - then pick up my things and head to where ever it landed. Although my trip now isn't much like my ideal journey of my youth, it has been one hell of an adventure.  

Only two weeks ago I was working full time in South Korea teaching English to over worked, extremely exhausted children. My girlfriend and I woke up to the typical sounds of horns on the main road in Seoshin-dong (Jeonju, South Korea). By then the sun had already reached the 10:00 position and the window sweat had evaporated. I could look out the window down the road to the SK gas station. It was busy with its Thursday morning visitors and the mountain in the distant looked a beautiful bright green of newly grown buds of spring. It was a rather typical morning. We took our time eating brunch, walking to school and preparing for class.  
Then I was presented with the most interesting situation - deportation. Who would have known that work visa's are to be issued by the city one intends to work in. Finally after a week of interrogation we were told to leave the country. As it turns out we were not officially deported, it would look bad on the country, so instead we had an exit order to leave the country in 20 days.  
And now, here I am in the hot, humid but otherwise gorgeous city of Malacca (aka Melaka). The city is beautiful, and the owner of this hostel is wonderful. His name is Howard. He is probably in his late 30's or early 40's. He's a long distant biker, without the build, and his personality is something of an energetic child with the curiosity of a kitten, all mixed into one really kind man. His hair looks as confused as the construction of the city It is wire like and shoots in all directions.  
If you've seen Malacca, then you know what I mean. Buildings are constructed around old housing. Rather than tearing down and building up, they simply add walls and turn the outside walls into indoor rooms. There are modern buildings up against ancient ones, incomplete concrete pours and re barb hanging out everywhere. This pretty much sums up Howard, the biker, the tour guide, party friend, the hostel owner.  
So, here I am... sitting at the Hostel in Malacca. Wishing I had a dart and a map - but this is good, real good. Instead of a dart I have Aileen (who made the trip plans well before I was kicked out of Korea.) Now, I'm just tagging along on this epic adventure of hers. I guess she's the metaphorical dart and the Lonely planet my map.

~ Jon

Monkeys and Mosques in Melaka

I woke up this morning to the sound of melodic Arabic floating out of tinny speakers. Yes, folks, there is a mosque across the street from my hostel , and so I heard the dawn call to prayer. It was cool, though it took me a minute to realize what it was.

We came here-- to Melaka, Malaysia-- last night after a bus ride from Singapore. Our last day in Singapore was nice...we tried to go to Sentosa, a beachy island off the coast, but took the wrong bus. We ended up instead at a nice park, and chilled there, ate, of course, and then headed to the bus station, backpacks and bags of take-out Indian food on our backs/in our hands. The bus ride was nice. There was an 8-year-old Indian-Malaysian girl in the seat in front of me that spent 2 hours talking to us, but she was fun, and once the sun set, she passed out asleep. And so did we.
But not before I saw groups of monkeys hanging out on the side of the road. They were cute! :)

It was dark when we got here, and we had somewhat confusing directions to the hostel, but map in hand, and aided by three very nice local women on our local bus, made it to Ringo's Foyer Guesthouse, our home for these two days. It's a nice place...hot (fans but no AC)...the owner is really chill. He offered to lend us money for dinner since we hadn't changed much money yet, but we ended up having just enough.

This morning, we got up and headed to the central area of Melaka. Melaka is an old port city, that was booming in the 13 and 1400s, and was then colonized by the Portugues, then the Dutch, both of whom contributed to its decline. By the time the British were done with it, it was a wasteland, but now it's been built back up to the 'glory of the past.' It's beautiful, with lots of European influence on the architecture but still distinctly tropical and Asian.

After exploring the historic areas, we found something we'd been looking for almost since we got to Korea...doctor fish! For those of you who don't know what these are, they are little fish that nibble all the dead skin off your feet. You just sit and dangle your feet into the water, and they go crazy. We spent 45 minutes with our feet in a pool of fish, and came out with miraculously healed feet. I had callouses all over my feet that I've had for years, and they're gone! It's amazing...I'm definitely a convert, and will look for this everywhere I go! It feels really cool too...it just tickles.

We've decided that we've seen all we need to see here...it was beautiful, but it's small, and very walkable, which is nice after Singapore. So, on to Kuala Lumphur tomorrow!!

Monday, May 4, 2009


Sorry, couldn't think of a more creative title for this :)

Singapore is really awesome, so far. It's basically a city-state of melded Indian, Chinese, Malay and colonial influences. We're staying at a hostel in Little India, which I love. The food is great and cheap, and the neighborhood is very vibrant. It smells good, it's colorful and it's full of music and people talking.

Today we explored Little India and Chinatown, which are really nice, especially since they are full of really well-preserved old buildings, storefronts from the times people came here as immigrants and migrant labor. They're very colorful and have intricate designs on the doors and windows. Singapore has done a good job of preserving its historic buildings and places.

In Chinatown, we ate at a hawker center (a cross between a foodcourt and a row of street food stalls) that we had seen on Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations. If you haven't seen it, its a great travel food show. Anyway, he ate at this hawker center...chicken rice, specifically, from a stand we found but that happened to be closed for the day. But, we still ate chicken rice. It's a deceptively simple-seeming dish-- boiled chicken and steamed white rice, but they're both cooked with wonderful spices and seasonings, and come with sauces to put on. It was yummy!

Singapore can be a little expensive, though. After Chinatown, we headed towards the Botanical Gardens, which happen to be located on the other side of the fancy, designer part of town. I'm talking about beautiful new buildings, every designer you've ever heard of and many you haven't, huge tree-lined boulevards, fancy hotels and gourmet restaurants. Of course, Jon and I walked right through all of that, avoiding any tempation for overpriced snacks (a coffee at McDonalds costs $4!).

The Botanical Gardens were beautiful. The grounds are sprawling and nicely managed. Not too much mentionable, though. Your standard Botanical Gardens.

After that, we took a bus back into the city. We ended up at City Hall, a beautiful old building with a nice big cricket pitch in front of it, which happened to be in use. So, Jon and I watched a game of cricket, which I'd never seen before. We still couldn't quite figure out what was going on, but it was fun.

Anyway, the rest of the evening was spent walking in the parks along the river, and then in Chinatown snacking, as usual. But, I have to go now, because we're going to get dinner here in Little India...mmmm curries for $1!!

More Singapore tomorrow, then bus to Melaka, Malaysia at 5pm...

talk to you later!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Looking back...and forward

So, I'm sitting here in this (really nice and free) internet cafe in Incheon Airport, waiting to leave Korea. I'm been thinking a lot lately about this whole experience, and about right before we came, when we were so excited to start this new adventure in a completely foreign place.

And Korea definitely is completely foreign. A friend recently asked me to describe Korea in one word, and I said "bizzare." It's fascinating, because on the surface it can seem similar to the West-- developed, technologically advanced-- but there are so many differences that go so deep into every part of the culture. Like I said, its fascinating, but also bizzare because everything seems to be twisted, the opposite of what you expect. That can be frustrating at times, but also sometimes wonderful. I'm always interested to see which things some cultures/societies/countries do really well, and what things they just haven't solved quite yet. Because its always different wherever you go.

What are my favorite things about Korea? Well, I love that half of the country is Buddhist, a religion that I'm very interested in. On that note, I also love that it seems, at least, that there is minimal tension between the Buddhist half and the Christian half. But that's my completely baseless observation. l

I love going to temples, which are gorgeous and peaceful retreats from hectic Korean city life. I love how their public transportation system...buses and trains...works so well. You can go anywhere from anywhere, and usually comfortably and always cheaply. I love the mountains and the coastline here. I love how you don't have to wait in lines anywhere...just take a number like at the butcher counter and sit down. At the bank, the post office, the doctor's office...everywhere the lines are usually so annoying. I love some of the food... just not all. I partially love that everyone works so hard to better themselves, but it does sometimes go too far.

As for what I don't like, I think I've done enough dwelling on that in the past nine months. It hasn't all been bad....in fact I've had a lot of fun and I don't regret for a minute coming. But I did get depressed, and I did hate my job.

Well, they're calling our plane.

Talk you from Singapore!!!