Monday, January 30, 2006
Khao Sok National Park
Mem took me to the airport and I asked her about her business. She does retail sales of childrens toys and clothing. The items come from trips to Hong Kong and China to buy merchandise which she then resells in two malls. With two employees she is the kind of businesswoman our President would be proud of. She told me things were moving slowly and sales were down but she didn't know why.
At the airport I was pulled aside going through the luggage scanning. I had a pair of scissors Lonely Planet suggested I pack in my medical kit. So much for my pair of scissors. Thankfully they didn't decide I was a terrorist.
The terminal for the discount airline was under the regular terminal. A bus took us out to our plane (with an unannounced gate change - at least in english). When we landed in Surat Thani I went to the information desk to inquire about a bus out to Khao Sok. The last one left at 3:00pm so I had no choice but to take a cab for 1200 baat. Now in the USA that wouldn't be a large fair for a 90 minute trip but in this economy it's pricey. At least I'd get door to door service. My driver didn't speak much english or wasn't chatty so I had a quiet ride.
Khao Sok Rain Forest Resort is nestled next to a stream with trees covering most of it. What was most noticable immediately was the noise from all the different creatures living there. My room was pretty basic and the bathroom had a pool of water in the corner with the sink on the floor which my socks discovered before I did. All the faucets were leaking. No hot water. But for a couple of days it would be fine.
I walked over to the visitor's center for the park and looked at the displays. The ranger at the visitor center talked me into taking a trip the next day to see a rare flower that blooms this time of year. Outside there were several large groups of children who must be here as part of a school field trip or something camping out in the park.
When I returned to the resort, I relaxed in my room then walked down for some food at their lodge. Like much here, everything is open to the air, no windows or screens. When I had registered, I mentioned wanted to go to the large lake here and tour it. At first I was told that I couldn't do it because four people had to sign up. Now one couple wanted to go and if I would make the third person, we'd all be able to go. I hesitated having already made a commitment to see the rare flower but since I hadn't put any money down, and the trip to see the flower would go without me, I decided to accept and go to the lake.
The next morning I woke up very early. At first light, I decided to take a walk in the park before breakfast. The children ran by me in three groups singing out like little undisciplined marine recruits. At the park gate a uniformed person stopped me and told me I'd need a ticket. As I hadn't brought any money, I walked back and got some. This only allowed me to have a short walk before returning for breakfast. Our trip would leave at 8:00am.
Our guide introduced himself to me as I was eating my khoa phat (fried rice) as Tigerman. The couple who would be my traveling companions were an older German couple, Ingor and Karen.
After an hour pick up ride we arrived at the lake. It is an artificial lake created when a river was damned in the 1980s for hydroelectric power. We parked and got into a long boat with a huge engine in the back that had a long drive shaft to a propellor in the water. As we left the dock I could see in the distance beautiful limestone sheer cliffs. (Check back here in the future for a link to spectacular pictures I took) The weather was comfortable, the sun not yet too hot, and my camera was hard at work trying to capture the scenery.
We docked at a series of floating huts. One tour allows you to stay overnight in these huts. We stopped here for swimming and kayaking and lunch before continuing on our journey, hiking up to a cave we'd trek through. At breakfast, a couple of young women had told me that I'd have to swim through part of the cave. This put me off a little since I was wearing my brand new hiking shoes. The idea of getting them soaked didn't appeal to me. As we ate our lunch (more fried rice with an egg on top), I thought about how I'd deal with this situation, perhaps taking my shoes off and tying them together on my head.
Our long boat took us to the trail head and dropped us off. Soon we were at a stream we'd need to cross. I started to take my shoes off and Tigerman said that that would be silly since we'd be crossing streams numerous times and be spending lots of time in the water in the cave. So into the water I plunged hoping that this wouldn't be the end of my shoes. After we forded the stream about the tenth time I realized protecting my shoes from water was never an option.
When we got to the cave entrance we rested. Tigerman and the German couple all had headlamps. Tigerman handed me a dim flashlight. Into the watery darkness we disappeared as we entered the cave. Walking through total darkness in water up to your waist when you can't see where you are stepping is quite an experience. I kept pretty close to Tigerman so I could follow his steps and figure out how to survive this adventure. Thankfully there were some ropes in the most difficult sections. At one point I was up to my neck holding on the the side of the cave with one hand while trying to keep the flashlight dry in the other. (Tigerman had suggested I hold it in my teeth but my mouth wasn't big enough)
I had debated whether to take my camera on this part or not. Tigerman offered to wrap it up in a plastic bag. When I saw the kind of bag he used, I was regretful but realized at this point I had no choice. As it turned out he never let his pack touch the water. In fact as we were going through the cave he started singing in Thai. At first I wondered why but realized it might have been to keep us from being afriad and keep our spirits up. The caving wasn't easy at all but we managed to get to a drier part of the cave and Tigerman returned my camera to me safe and sound. I was glad I had brought it in for there were toads, big spiders, bats and stalagmites and tites to photograph. After about 45 minutes underground, light was visible in the distance - a welcome sight.
The trek back to the boat was down hill but required fording those streams again. My feet had been wet now for about three hours and I wondered if they'd ever dry out again. Not just wet but slogging through mud. We saw some very old trees and interesting plants and insects that Tigerman would surprise us with. By the time we got back to our boat, I was exhausted and ready for rest. We motored back to the dock for rest and another swim. By the time we returned to the resort at about 5:30pm I was beat but happy I'd taken the trip. The extensiveness of the trip made me realize that I really didn't need to stay for another couple of days, I could leave tomorrow.
As we were trekking I'd been thinking about my trip to Suan Mouk. A retreat would be starting tomorrow night and this might be an ideal way to visit. Spend a day of retreat time there Feb 1st so I could get an immersion experience. I asked about getting back and discovered the manager of the resort was a devotee of Buddhadasa. He pointed to the picture of a monk on the wall I'd noticed but didn't recognize.
The next morning I tried again for a hike in the park. This time I got there at 6:30am and got a good start. The morning was foggy and the trees were dripping. Who should I discover ahead of me on the trail but Ingor. We greeted each other but didn't talk - don't think his english is that good as his wife talked more to me (but not much). a little further down the trail, I encountered Tigerman and a couple I saw him talking to the night before. Excitedly they told me that they had been out all night on a trek that should have ended at 11pm. An elephant had come down to feed on a narrow part of the trail and wouldn't let them pass. Elephants are know to kill people in this area so even fearless Tigerman ran at top speed with the elephant reared ut as they approached it. So they had had to spend the night in the jungle. I'm glad I missed this adventure.
As I continued down the trail I was more alert since I too might encounter these wild elephants. I found a steaming pile of elephant dung and smashed banana plants they'd been eating. Thankfully I didn't encounter one. I followed the trail up a ways until it got quite narrow and slippery. As I didn't have the right clothes and I wanted to get back to catch the bus, I turned around, but not before snapping some good pictures, particularly interesting was a little bird I encountered that let me get quite close to it.
I rushed through breakfast, packed and sat on the back of a motorcycle to get out to the road to catch my bus. Who should be out there waiting but the German couple. We chatted a few minutes and then my bus came. I had to rush across the street as I was standing on the wrong side. The bus bearly paused for me to hop on the back before speeding down the road. The cost back to Surat Thani was 60 baat. Much cheaper than 1200.
This bus was the basic transportation in the region. All the windows and doors were open. I think I was the only non-Thai person on board. I sat near the back door that had extra space in front of the seat for luggage and packages that people deposited in front of me as they got on. An attractive young woman got on and sat next to me. A man with a child had been sitting next to me for a while but moved to another seat behind me. The woman started dozing off and her shoulder gently brushed my shoulder. I suppose this is no big deal when you ride the bus all the time and perhaps in a culture that has more touching. But for me I found it stimulating. Her head started to fall onto my shoulder which was even more stimulating. As I was headed to a meditation retreat I reflected on the amazing ability of the mind to create something out of nothing.
We approached a station and I hopped off the bus. I thought I'd just gotten off at the bus station but where I had stopped was actually the train station. I found out there was a train to Chaiya in a couple of hours so I found an internet cafe and had some lunch. It is amazing to be half way round the world and still be able to keep in touch by email. Perhaps I could be here more often and keep my other responsibilities going.
That's all for now.
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Wat'ing, Enjoying Nature and Chinese New Year
My hosts, Tor and Mem, graciously took me sightseeing Saturday. The trip was an exercise in letting go as I didn't know where we were going or what I'd see. That was just fine since that is a theme for my trip - working with what comes up in the moment and enjoying whatever arises.
Our first destination was the Marble Temple (Wat Benchamabopit Dusitwanaram) in central Bangkok. This temple is often not open to visitors but we were fortunate to arrive as a monk had just been ordained. I was able to go inside and take pictures of the spectacular Buddha as well as the monk (will add links later). In the bordering buildings there were many statues of the Buddha reflecting the different styles found all over Asia. Mem encouraged me to notice the differences in the faces of the different Buddhas that varies by region.
As we were about to leave, several women approached us with clear plastic bags of live eels. Tor bought one and went down to a small canal with his 4 year old daughter. They opened the bag and let the fish go. This act of non-killing produces merit.
Our next stop was Wat Trimitr, or the temple of the 5.5 ton solid gold Buddha. Very impressive to look at as it is huge. It had been hidden in plaster during a time that the area was invaded and conquered. What was under the plaster was only discovered in th 1950's. Imagine the feeling that discoverer had! A monk was sitting in front of the Buddha and Tor and Mem encouraged me to come up and sit in front of him. He blessed us by dipping a round broom in a pot of water and then spraying our heads with water. He then gave each of us a string braclet for good luck. They have quite the ritual operation in these temples. People light candles outside the temple and burn bundles of incense for merit too. Another practice is taking a lotus blossom, dipping it in water and touching the top of one's head then offering it to the Buddha. Donations are expected for all these rituals.
Mem and their daughter went to visit her mother who lives nearby. Tor and I headed off to see Wat Po, the temple of the enormous reclining Buddha. After visiting and purchasing a roof tile that I put my name on that will be used to renovate the temple's roof (more merit for me!) we decided to get traditional Thai massages. These are offered at a school on the temple grounds, 300 baat for 1 hour (about $8.00). This massage was quite medicinal and somewhat painful - but helpful as I could feel the release of energy in my legs and body. Recommend it!
We picked up Mem and two children, returning home with food blessed for the Chinese New Year. Tor and I decided to go to a beautiful park near by. I took lots of pictures.
As this was Chinese New Year, we went into Chinatown and had a delicious dinner of abalone, crab, prawn fruit salad, and dim sum.
Sunday his here and I'm off to Surat Thani to visit a rain forest park (Khao Sok) for a few days then travel to Buddhadasa's monastery Suan Mouk, and enjoy the beach at Ban Krut before returning to Bangkok. Stay tuned for more adventure!
Friday, January 27, 2006
First Tourist Visits
Had a delightful dinner with Tan and Jod last night at a Chinese seafood restaurant. The food was delicious (satay, grilled squid, green sprouts (???), and sea bass. What was interesting was the number of service people at the restaurant. The custom is to have a drink tray next to your table and someone tends your drinks from this tray all during the time you are at your table. So far the food is agreeing with me - even the hot pepper (prit) in moderation.
I reserved two nights at the Mandarin Hotel but didn't have any plans beyond that date for a place to sleep. We checked to see if I could stay another night and this wasn't possible. This weekend is Chinese New Year so all the hotels are probably booked up as it is one of the big celebrations of the year. So Tan arranged for me to stay with her brother, Tor, at his home.
After returning to my room I realized that I now needed to start making some firmer plans. I stayed up late into the night looking at places to visit in the south and finally realized I don't have enough time to go out and visit any islands on this trip if I want to visit Suan Mouk Monestary of Buddhadasa and the pristine rainforest park Khao Sok and get to a beach for a couple of days.
I woke up at 5:00am this morning thinking my alarm had gone off which I had set for 7:00am. Given I was awake, I meditated for about an hour and then got dressed and went down for the excellent breakfast buffet the hotel offers.
I checked out and Tan picked me up around 10:00am. We traveled over to The Grand Palace to take a tour. We hired a guide for 500 baat who helped us learn some things that Tan didn't know. The place is an architectural marvel as the link above will show you. Our guide recommended a restaurant outside the grounds that we found very good and very inexpensive. We ordered chicken wings. What we got was a pale comparison to the Buffalo variety but the sauce reminded me of Buffalo wing sauce (red pepper sauce). The wings here are like fat toothpicks with a little skin and meat.
Our next visit was to Vimanmek, the world's largest golden teakwood mansion built for Rama V in 1900. The furnishings are primarily Victorian in flavor with lots of rooms displaying china (seven tea services in seven different colors - one for each day of the week), silverware, the first shower in Thailand, medicine boxes, period furniture, and much more
After this we traveled again to pick up Tan's daughter at the large 7 story mall across from the Catholic school she attends, one of the finest in the city. Between slow traffic and looking for parking we must have spent 3 hours on the road covering only maybe 20-30 miles of driving. The traffic here is very very slow and congested with many, many motorcycles weaving in and out of the lanes.
We spent another hour getting to Tor and Mem's house where I'll spend the night. They helped me make my airline reservations for the trip south on Sunday. We had a delightful meal in a small local restaurant finishing our meal at about 10:00pm.
Tomorrow, Chinese New Year to enjoy and some more sites to take in. Time for some sleep!
Thursday, January 26, 2006
Finally in Bangkok!
I'm sitting at Alan Oliver's computer at the World Buddhist University after having lunch with T.N. Vivek, a fellow here who does spiritual tourism, with some time to reflect on my travels.
I've been traveling to get here since early Monday morning. My travels began in a snowstorm which gave me doubt about getting here. We were able to get out of Albany after the plane was de-iced for an hour. Unfortunately that meant I missed my connection in Chicago so I had to wait seven hours for that connection. More time to read up about Thailand and learn more Thai from my language book.
I spent Monday night with my sister who celebrated her birthday. Unfortunately the delay in my flight messed up having a birthday celebration together but we had a nice visit. The next morning she took me to LAX where I caught my United flight to Tokyo then to Bangkok. Fortunately for both flights I didn't have anyone next to me on the 747.
I hadn't realized that flying to Tokyo the plane takes a path that goes over Alaska. The ice floes out the window were very beautiful. The flight to Bangkok at night came in over Da Nang, Vietnam. I was struck by how dark the landscape was compared to flying at night over the USA with all the streetlights.
By the time I landed in Bangkok, I was relieved to stop flying. I'd been in the air for almost 23 hours since Monday morning. After clearing immigration and customs, I splurged on a cab just to get to my hotel and unwind finally falling asleep around 2:00am
This morning I was up at 8:00am to take a lukewarm shower and thankfully not feeling too jet lagged. I enjoyed a delicious breakfast buffet at the hotel and got online to send my wife an email to let her know I'd arrived safely. 30 minutes for 150 baat (about 4 dollars)
Since I'd come in at night I had no idea where I was so I spoke with a friendly young man selling tours to locate the hotel on my map. Once oriented, I started walking the streets to get a feel for the place. Immediately the heat, the air pollution and the noise of all the traffic attacked my senses as I walked out onto the street. So many motorbikes whizzing by, lots of pedestrians out even though the day was still young. Food vendors lining the street with delicious looking and mysterious foods roasting over grills.
I feel like I'm on sensory overload as every direction I look I see a language I can't even pronounce, people I don't recognize, small shops crowded together crammed full of merchandise. I walk past the campus for a university.
I stop at an information kiosk to get a map and immediately have a older woman talking to me on the street wanting to get to know me. She gets me to tell her I'd like to buy a suit and she leads me to a shop. Once in the shop the salesman go to work on me. Suddenly I'm being pressured to make a commitment. As I back away they come after me. The $150 suit is now down to $30 dollars. How to say no politely - not easy.
The skytrain is the public transit destination I'm seeking to get to the World Buddhist University to meet T.N. Vivek. I'm delighted to discover a portion of it that has a walkway under the skytrain so I can be above the noise and commotion of the street yet have a good view all around me and be out of the hot sun.
Well, that's all for now. What a delight to finally be here and begin planning some adventures with Vivek!