Thursday, February 26, 2009

I'll Leave You With Some T-Shirts For the Road

Until I can update in Laos or beyond, I'll leave you with some other t-shirt gems I found out here. There were others but I wasn't able to take any photos of them.

Challenge Time!

It's been just over a month since we arrived in Thailand and every moment hasn't been filled with fabulous activities. Matt has been doing a lot of studying for the LSAT, which he will be taking in June. I've been doing some reading and basically just relaxing. However, this means we have plenty of time to goof off, which is why we decided to take the "Pepsi Challenge" the other day! We did a blindfolded taste test of 3 colas- Coke, Pepsi and "Big Cola". I've always been partial to Coke so this was the moment of truth. Do I really prefer Coke or is it all in my head?

Well, to reassure the masses, I have an extremely discerning cola palette and not only was my favorite pick Coke but I was also able to correctly identify and rank the other colas as well. Matt, well, he was not so successful. Yes, right now we do have too much time on our hands but starting tomorrow that is going to change since we are getting on a very early bus and heading into Laos to start the next leg of our trip! This means that I may be a bit sporadic on updating the blog but I will do my best. Stay tuned and leave me some comments so I know that you're reading!

Also in the Neighbourhood

It's a quaint place that Ali and Byrun live in- you have the dogs and then there are also semi-wild chickens and roosters roaming around. We also pass by this clever security fence every time we go somewhere. Broken glass? Really?

Real Slumdogs

Something that I don't love about Thailand is all the pathetic and hideous dogs here. I really feel bad for the poor animals who are often homeless and abandoned but I do have to say, I don't have any burning desires to scoop them up and rescue them. See what I mean? Thankfully none of the dogs seem to be aggressive around here. This folks, is why Bob Barker always begs everyone to spay and neuter their pets.

A Monk's Birthday Party

Another cool person that we met through Ali and Byrun is a sweet monk named Rongsan (though the 'r' is pronounced like an 'l'). Ali has been giving him free English lessons for a little while now and promised to take him for lunch for his birthday. We picked him up just after 10 am from the temple where he lives. I don't have any experience with monks, other than occasionally seeing them walk around in Korea. Before we left Ali filled me in with the protocol- do not touch him because monks are not allowed to touch women, he's vegetarian but does eat seafood, and he eats his last meal of the day before noon. Interesting.

This was a bit sticky as most restaurants don't open until 11 am for lunch. We toyed with the idea of stopping in the little Khon Kaen museum and then abandoned that when we saw that admission was 90 baht/person. Instead we took a little stroll around the lake until it was time to go to the restaurant.

The first restaurant we chose was vetoed by Rongsan because it sold beer and seemed too much like a bar. He was worried about who would see him there. We went to a place nearby and had an excellent vegetarian lunch. There was two kinds of soup, fried rice, fish, an amazing tofu dish, raw oyesters and of course ice cream for dessert. It was quite the feast. Rongsan is an interesting person and has been a monk for 10 years now. He's studying sociology at university right now and doesn't plan on being a monk forever. It's such a strange dichotomy- he renounced and gave up all his belongings and has to rely on the kindness of others but at the same time he has a cell phone and uses the internet and studies at university.

Rongsan actually came by for an English lesson later in the afternoon and when it was over I came out and we chatted about all sorts of things. Ali and Byrun teased me a lot about that later saying that I was probably the most excitement he's had in awhile. The temple isn't exactly teaming with women near his age (Rongsan is 34). Poor guy. Haha. It was extremely cool sharing his birthday with him and maybe we'll get a chance to see him again before we leave Asia.

Gimchi and Engrish in Thailand!

It's almost like being back in Seoul! The gimchi was even homemade by some Korean students' family member here in Khon Kaen. Ali and Byrun both have Korean pupils. It was quite delicious since we'd been missing gimchi. And here's one of the funny t-shirts I've seen in Thailand.

Swimming Lesson in Khon Kaen

After a week in Bangkok we headed back to Khon Kaen to finish out the month visiting Ali and Byrun. During our time here we were able to meet lots of their new friends. When we were covering classes for Ali, I had a chance to teach a couple of sweet teenage girls named Am and Miw. We hit it off because I am silly and have some knowledge of Korean and Korean pop music. Therefore, they were delighted to show us around their town, which isn't far from Khon Kaen. As a matter of fact, they skipped school on a Friday afternoon and Miw got her brother to drive them around in his truck. Things are really different in Thailand.

First we followed them to the Wat Phra Bat Phu Phan Kham, which is a temple that has a huge white Buddha that seems to be floating over the hillside and overlooking the Ubolrat Dam. There is a long set of stairs leading up the hill to the temple. It's deceivingly far away. I mean, it looks like it's really far away and then you climb and climb and finally you get over a little bump and realize it's even farther away than you thought. As always, it was a scorchingly hot day but that didn't stop Matt from challenging Am (the more devious and brave of the two girls) to a race to the Buddha. I have to say, he was kicking her butt. Then he sat down and it seemed like he was just waiting for the rest of us to catch up. It turned out that he was almost going to puke and passout from heat exhaustion. Oops. So the girls and Byrun hurried to the top while I sat with him and then returned with fresh water. Don't worry, he was okay.

When we got to the temple there was a spectacular view of the dam. The girls grabbed me and brought me inside of the temple to show me how to pray and give respect to Buddha. It was really interesting and I felt priviledged to be there with them. First we crouched down and bowed 3 times to the Buddha. Then we gave a small monetary offering and then we choose some flowers from a basket and some candles. Next we brought the flowers and bundle of candles over to a different altar, set it down in a pile of other such things, prayed and bowed another 3 times. The last thing we did was go to the back of the temple where they had small containers filled with sticks. You are supposed to shake the container until one stick falls out of it. The stick has a number on it and that number corresponds to a fortune. My stick had a 10 on it and I have no idea what my fortune said and the girls have limited English. What I gleaned was "It is good" and I'm not going to die. Excellent.

After the temple experience we went over for our lunch and swimming lesson. This was the main "purpose" of our meeting. Neither of the girls know how to swim and I'm no Michael Phelps but I did take lessons for a long time. I was told that most Thai people don't know how to swim. I think it might be because of what they wear when they decide to go swimming. Both girls changed into shorts and t-shirts before getting in the water. And it took a lot of convincing to get them in (especially Miw who isn't as adventurous). I guess they are scandalized by our Western bathing suits so Matt kept his shirt on and I wore a pair of shorts and a tank top over my bathing suit.

I don't think we taught them much of anything but they were happy to be there and impressed with our swimming skills. They also ordered one of the most amazing lunches I've ever had. There was a platter heaping with prawns, a huge pot of rice, another huge pot filled with tom yum soup, a big plate of som tum salad and a grilled fish. There was so much food I didn't think we had a hope of eating it all but somehow we managed.

While we were swimming we noticed that a fire had broken out on the hillside! We were concerned about it and kept looking at it and commenting on it but none of our Thai friends seemed very interested. Later when we were driving home we noticed that the fire was getting close to a school. As far as I know everything was all right. Byrun wanted to get a closer look at it so we hired a banana boat to take us on a ride. We had seen him giving really crazy, rough rides to squealing Thai children, dumping them in the lake multiple times. We weren't looking for that sort of ride, especially since Am and Miw were not comfortable in water that came to their chest. We had them tell him explicitly- we want to ride over to see the fire, no capsizing or you don't get paid. He complied and it was a lot of fun. It was a great day and I really like those girls. Now they frequently instant message me. So cute!

It's Mambo Time!

A trip to Bangkok just wouldn't be the same without seeing one ladyboy show. Mary felt that way too and so on her last night in Thailand the four of us sought out a show. We ended up at the Mambo Theater. We were kind of early so we went to an Irish pub beside the theater for some dinner and drinks. There we met one of the drunkest Frenchmen I've ever seen. He was very chatty and friendly and insisted on buying us a bottle of wine. Mary, being the wine expert, chose one on the fly and it ended up being the most expensive bottle on the menu. Oops! It was almost 3000 baht. He actually tried to buy us a second bottle but we didn't take him up on it. It would have been taking advantage.

The show was a lot like you would expect. Lots of lip syncing to pop music (but of many languages- Thai, English, Chinese), over the top sets and fabulous costumes dripping with sequins and feathers. Each ticket came with a complimentary drink so we got to watch the show and sip a small glass of beer. My favorite part was when the "Destiny's Child" group came out. I also liked the big, fat ladyboy, even though it's cliche. After the show we paid to get a picture taken with one of the performers. They tried to hustle us for as much money as they could get but we only gave them a couple bucks. It was an experience to remember, that's for sure!

Dusit Zoo

Matt always says that it's telling cultural experience to visit a zoo in a foreign country. We went to a couple in Korea, decided against going to the one in China (reading the internet horror stories about people pouring cola down polar bear's throats was enough for me) and so when we felt like we'd seen enough temples we thought we'd give the Dusit Zoo a try.

Looking at the map it didn't seem like it would be that hard to get their on our own. It also looked like we could take a pleasant stroll through a park on the way. As it turns out, that park is heavy duty royal property with only one entrance (on the other side of where we were coming from), surrounded by armed guards and a moat. It looked pretty enough as we walked along the side of it. We noticed that the moat was filled with turtles! And then we spotted a freaky monitor lizard and that was the end of the dilly dally walking we were doing beside the moat. It was time to pick up the pace so I could get away from the monitor lizard.

Finally we arrived at the zoo and bought our tickets. The Dusit Zoo is pretty nice and most of the facilities are adequate for the animals. I think it helps that Thailand is mostly warm (so they don't need to build a lot of inside enclosures for the animals) and has access to lots of cheap, fresh fruit to feed many of the animals. One of the more interesting features was the bomb shelter that they built there during WWII. Strange.

This zoo has a great selection of elephants and monkeys, in particular. They also have a lot of reptiles but I started to get creeped out and so I made Matt hurry through that part. I think I was remembering the time in Korea where I foolishly let them put a snake around my neck. Anyway, just like Korea, things were much more hands on, or at least they had the potential to be hands on. Some man was reaching in and picking turtles up so Matt decided to give it a shot. He used hand sanitizer afterward and offered some to the man who looked at him like he was crazy.

They had a lot of posters up about not sticking your hands in the crocodile cages and a number of posters with instructions of what to do if someone was bitten by a snake. None of these posters reassured me, in fact, they made me more nervous that people had been mauled by the reptiles in the past. I felt really bad for this crocodile though. Look closely at the picture. Someone had thrown a coin into it's mouth!

Sometimes people watching can be more interesting though. We were enjoying the lake when we noticed this woman feeding a monitor lizard chicken! What the heck, lady!?! You know, your kid could be next. She fed it for awhile and then her husband came back with even more chicken so they could continue feeding the thing. And check out the footwear that this other woman had chosen for a day of walking through a huge zoo. I just don't get it. If you're looking for more zany pictures of animals and people at the Dusit Zoo then head over here.

Wat Pho and The Grand Palace

We had to spend a day exploring the Wat Pho and Grand Palace which are conveniently located across the street from each other. The best way to get there is to find your way to the river and jump on the ferry. Really easy to find.

First we went to the Wat Pho, which is famous for it's giant reclining Buddha. This Buddha is 46 meters long and 15 meters high. The feet are really interesting because they are covered with different patterns made of mother of pearl. I've seen a lot of temples and a lot of Buddhas in Asia and this one was pretty darn impressive. This wat is currently under construction- they are replacing the tiles on the roof. In fact, you can donate to the cause and "buy" a tile. They let you write a message on it. We're cheap and we didn't do this but we did look at all the tiles that other people had written on.

Next we decided to go to the Grand Palace. We'd heard repeatedly that there were tons of scammers all around it and not to listen to anyone saying that the Palace is closed for one reason or another. Even knowing this, we were both taken aback when we were approached. You see, the Grand Palace is surrounded by a massive white stone fence. It stretches forever and has lots of mini openings all around it. It's hard to tell where the main gate is or if you are at the main gate already. And the scammers look like they work there. They speak English, they are helpful and well dressed. They might even be wearing some sort of badge or identification. One guy stopped us and said that the Palace was closed for a ceremony for a short while but would reopen to the public at 1:30pm. We were actually almost convinced. He took our map and was asking us questions like, "Have you been to Wat Pho?", "What about the National Museum?" and seemed so kind and helpful. Then he tried to get us in a cab to go to some "Happy Buddha Temple" and we knew it was a scam. We thanked him and kept walking. We were approached by a less convincing guy but by that point we weren't even acknowledging him. We walked around the big white walls until we found the obvious main gate where they were letting everyone in. Bottom line: this place is open everyday of the year and even if there is a special royal event happening, most of the palace will still be open to visitors. Don't be fooled.

Once we were inside the Grand Palace (and the Wat Phra Kaew which is connected) we were amazed by all the gold everywhere. It's a stunning set of buildings and there is a lot of Hindu imagery- lots of Hanuman and Rama images, basically lots of scenes out of the Ramayana. It was really clear how closely the two religions are tied in their folklore. We saw the Emerald Buddha within the Wat Phra Kaew. Cute story about that- apparently it used to be covered with clay and then one day a monk noticed that some of the clay had chipped off. They uncovered the Buddha, which is actually made of jade, but thought it was made of emerald, thus it's name. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take pictures of it but the Wat Phra Kaew was a really peaceful place to sit. As always, we took lots of pictures that you can see here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jim Thompson House

It turned out that Jim Thompson House was just down the street from our motel. We wandered over there but decided against buying tickets to go inside the actual house. Instead we just enjoying the garden and little art gallery. I'm not that interested in the history of the silk industry anyway. The garden was just amazing though! Especially the MASSIVE sting ray in one of the ponds and the other pond full of huge koi that would suck on your hand if you were brave/crazy enough to stick it in.