Tuesday, August 14, 2012

My SE Asia Solo Trip! (Part 1: Thailand)

HI! I am back!! And, definitely a more relaxed and tanned version of my previous self. :) My solo trip was, in short, unforgettable. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I think I am going to write down something about this experience, so you can either hang along for the ride, or just skip the next couple of blog posts and come back once school starts up.

Originally, I had planned my trip as such: I would fly into and out of Singapore, because to there the flights were the cheapest from Berlin. (Around 900 USD round trip.) I would spend about a month in between, because any less than that, it simply wouldn't be worth it going so far, and any more it would just be cruel and unusual to Geoff. I had hoped to meet up with some friends in SE Asia, considering that I knew people who are living in Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. As it turned out though, flights through South Korea and Taiwan would add too much cost to my trip, so I decided to keep it local and travel only by train and busses in parts of the contiguous SE Asia. The week before my trip (after the in-laws finished their recent visit), I laid out a very rough itinerary as such:

Singapore --> Phuket --> Chiangmai --> Bangkok --> Hanoi (including Halong Bay) --> Hue (maybe) --> Hoi An --> Ho Chi Minh City --> Kuala Lumpur --> Singapore

I say it is a rough itinerary, because even after brief researching, I already realized that it would be ambitious to cover so much distance in a month, especially because the only legs I would plan to fly were from Bangkok --> Hanoi and from Ho Chi Minh City --> Kuala Lumpur. Both intra-Asia flights were determined by the fact that I didn't want to spend more time going through Laos and getting another tourist visa. (Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand do not require advance visa for U.S. citizens, and I already mentioned in a previous post that I had gone through the process of getting a Vietnamese visa in Berlin.) But, as my trip rolled on and I learned to pace myself, I found to my delight that it was actually indeed possible to go through all of those spots in a month (even though it is admittedly rushed)!

Some logistics first, for those of you who might consider traveling / "backpacking" through SE Asia in the future and would have limited time to do so: I figured out quickly that if time is an issue, then I needed to think ahead always one city in advance. As soon as I got into a new location, I would spend the next morning buying train or bus tickets for leaving that city. Even though this sounds like a hassle, this is a good idea because often those train/bus tickets would sell out a day in advance, and this way you can be sure that you're not wasting time idling in a city when you already wish to move on. It also helps you to plan concretely how many full days you will actually have in the current city, in order to book tours or to plan/extend your lodging. Also, I know that extended travelers tend to feel OK with rolling up to a new place with no hostel yet booked, but I found it easier to just always book a hostel bed for the next city, the last day prior to leaving the current one. It saves you headache and you'd have better luck taking public transit (saves some money) instead of haggling with motorbike taxis, if you already know exactly where you are going and roughly how to get there.

Now, the fun stuff. I'll try to highlight the best of each country, starting with Thailand. Keeping in mind that I only spent a little over a week in Thailand, so I only saw the most touristy parts of the country, I thought that the Thai backpacker scene was amazing. The country has a lot to offer, from the beaches and islands in the South to metropolitan Bangkok to the jungles in the North. I was fortunate to meet a lot of good people when I stayed in Phuket (even though most of them partied way harder than me), and even met up with a friend from Klingenstein who just happened to be traveling through Phuket at the same time!

One day trip I took in Phuket to Phang Nga ("James Bond") island was particularly memorable; it was super relaxing to float through low caves in a sea kayak, and the caves were so low that we had to actually lie down and the local kayaker pushed gently against the top of the caves in order to get us through!

And, the same day we also visited a "Sleeping Buddha" temple, located inside a cave. Outside the temple there were tons of monkeys just hanging out, waiting to be fed by tourists! I didn't feed them, but it was fun to watch the kids do it.

It was a lovely experience, and I wished that I had more days to spend checking out the local beaches. The only thing that bothered me tremendously about Phuket was that the sex tourism there (or at least in Patong beach, where I stayed) was ubiquitous. There is a street filled with bars where every table inside most of the bars had several prostitutes waiting to pick up clients, and everywhere you turned you could see foreigners hugging local prostitutes walking off into the night; the sheer prevalence is indicative of how tourism is harming the country and how there are many serious social problems in Thailand that lie just beneath their smiles.

I think I should mention that in order to get to Thailand, I had taken a train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (about 7 hours), followed by a bus from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai (about 11 hours), followed by a minibus from Hat Yai to Phuket (about 4 or 5 hours), followed by a tuk tuk from central Phuket to my hostel (about 30 minutes). Altogether, including waiting time, I think it was about 27 hours, and it was my first experience with such a long commute by road. We also had to get off the bus at the border of Malaysia and Thailand and hold all of our luggage while waiting in line for immigration/customs at about 5am. Pretty grungy experience, if you ask me. They did make toilet stops after about 6 hours on the bus, and the toilets are squatter toilets that you flush by hand using scooped water from a nearby bucket. My first experience flushing toilets by hand! (I think this is still eons more advanced/developed than the toilets we had in Panama though, where the whole island village shared two "toilets" that were just holes cut out of a piece of wood that hovers over the ocean.)

Anyway, I thought I should mention this because again between Phuket and Chiangmai, I had to take a bus. I think altogether it was about 27 hours between Phuket and Chiangmai, with only 1 or 2 hours of layover in Bangkok. Good thing I had a friend (Chilean girl whom I had met in Phuket) to keep me company during the first leg, and anyway I slept for most of it. But, in hindsight, I wish I had taken the train, because another traveler I met later on told me that the Thai trains are awesome because you get to sit between train cars and hang your feet over the edge, while the train passes through tunnels and over bridges.

Chiangmai was everything I had imagined it would be. I stayed in the "old city", which is the center of the current Chiangmai, surrounded by a moat that can still be seen today. It's the first time I've seen a moat! I was pretty excited, especially because you can still see parts of the old gate. In the city, there are a few temples, and my favorite one is one of the lesser famous ones, because it has a big Buddha outside! I also feel fondly for Buddhas in general, since my mom is a pretty devout Buddhist and we grew up with Buddha statues around the house. The Thai Buddhist temples are interesting; they have a triple-roof very traditional to their culture. I also learned that Thai men/boys are obligated to serve as monks sometime during their lives, the same way other cultures have obligatory military service.

In Chiangmai, you have a lot of choices of things to do. Many tourists I've met do a multi-day trek that takes them through the jungle, through some traditional villages, and then lets them ride an elephant. I did some talking to other backpackers and then some internet research, and I think a problem with these treks is that they are both harmful to the villagers and the elephants. Basically, one of the popular villages to visit is a long-necked village where women wear necklaces that elongate their necks. There are some people who say that this traditional practice is very cruel because if the ladies remove those rings, they would asphyxiate because their neck muscles are not strong enough to support their elongated necks. So, they basically wear them as shackles and stay in the village for all their lives. Other people say this is not true and that they can still survive without the rings, but in any case I find the practice oppressive and I find it pretty horrible that they're continuing the practice on little girls mostly because they can earn income from the tourist visits. So, instead of going to a village like this, I went to see a traditional Thai dance show at the cultural center. It was pretty great. My favorite parts of the Thai cultural show were the long-nailed dances and when the kids came out to do a synchronized sticks dance. Even young kids were stepping in rhythm as the sticks clapped open and close at a syncopated rhythm. It was so neat! It was clearly a game that they play from a very young age.

I also went to an elephant farm in Chiangmai that specializes in rescuing elephants. As it turns out, it costs 1 million Thai Bahts (about 25000 USD) to rescue/purchase one elephant, and each elephant eats between 300 and 400 kg of food per day. The elephant farm I went to was called Baanchan Elephant Farm, and although I had some skepticism prior to going there, after asking them some questions and watching them interact lovingly with the elephants all day (more importantly, watching how the elephants are loving towards their caretakers), I was very impressed with their sincerety in helping to rescue working elephants. There, you hang out and feed/bathe the elephants for the morning, and then you only go on a very short bare-backed walk on the elephants on their property. You don't sit on chairs (which are harmful for the elephants because they're very heavy), and the elephants don't work 8 hours a day carrying people the way trek elephants do. As I said, I had been pretty skeptical going in, but in the end I was so glad that I had this experience!!

The next day was my last in Chiangmai, and one of the girls at my hostel had recommended me to go to the Tiger Kingdom. Again, this place is a bit controversial because their tigers are so well-behaved that people say it is because they are drugged. But, I have to say that when I was in there with the tigers, they were very playful and alert, not like they were drugged at all. They are well-behaved, as I can tell, because their trainers were there luring them with a piece of wood as their biting toy, and they're constantly drawn to their trainers and the toy. Anyway, I read that in this place, after the tigers turn something like 22 months old, they get sent away into zoos, which is quite sad. After I interacted with these beautiful animals, it really makes you think that human beings are bastards for hunting and caging them in the first place. (As you probably already know, they are endangered and the ones bred in captivity can never be restored to the wild. So, it's really a catch 22 and a depressing predicament for these regal animals.)

But, anyway, here was me patting a tiger that was I think 14 months old. He's still a baby, actually, not nearly fully grown in size, even though he looks pretty big already. They like it when you pat their tummies, like dogs do. So, when you touch their backs, they tend to roll over for more tummy affection!

After Chiangmai, I went to Bangkok for just a day. I didn't even have time there to catch a cabaret show, which I really had wanted to do. (The Bangkok shows are, of course, world famous. There are even these "Ping Pong shows" in which you can see objects like turtles, birds, and razor blades come out of the nether regions of the performers. But, anyway, I didn't see any of the shows during my brief stay in Bangkok.) I did go check out a traditional Sunday floating market in Bangkok, called Taling Chan, which serves up fresh seafood made in boats. This is not the touristy floating market because it only opens on Sundays; although I did see some tourists there, there weren't many. There were tons of locals sitting on the floor around low tables and eating the grilled fish there, however.

I had taken the public bus to the market, and it was a really neat experience. I noticed that monks not only did not have to pay fare for busses, but they also have a reserved seat in the front of the bus, probably due to their highly revered status. On my bus, there were two monks, sitting one behind the other (and the people who were sitting there previously let them have those seats when they got on). At some point, when the first monk got off, the second monk actually moved up to take the head seat. It's a sign that that seat is special for them, I think. The ride to the market took about 2 hours because of traffic, but on the way back it only took 30 minutes. If you go to Bangkok, I would highly recommend making a visit to Taling Chan Floating Market.

Overall, I think Thai people are quite nice, especially in Chiangmai. In the south, I also met a family of Thai people who offered me safety advice (because they were concerned that I could be kidnapped, "like what happens sometimes to Thai girls if they travel alone"...) and offered to give me assistance over the phone if I ever found myself needing a translator. There are a lot of people who want to make a few extra bucks off of tourists though, and that gets old fast. But, it was definitely a great first experience of being on my own, and by the end of my trip in Thailand I felt like I could talk to anybody at the drop of a hat, and I had fully conquered my fears of traveling alone.

Next: On to Vietnam!

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