24 March 2007

smoke....hash......what you want?

My first night in Kathmandu was a bit surreal. Having secured a room at the Tibet Guest House in Chhetrapati, I ventured over to Thamel (right next door) where lots of tourist shops are. Just like all of the other tourist towns…..this one has it's streets lined with shops selling gifts and clothes. One big difference here however, is that North Face & Mountain Hardware are the knock off's of choice. And they are good. I mean really good knock off's. Shop after shop of 'high end' mountain gear going for about 5 – 10 % of the real stuff. One has to be careful….not just of the shop owners, but of the streets. Sidewalks are a luxury that these side streets don't have. Walking takes place….near the edge of the road, sometimes in the middle of the road. Some roads are really only wide enough for one car, but that doesn't stop 2 way traffic. Motorbikes just weave through the crowd beeping their horn giving you those precious 2 seconds before you're impaled by a rear view mirror and dragged through the streets of Kathmandu.
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When it was close to dinner time I cracked open my trusty Lonely Planet and searched for a good place to grab some grub. Making a mental note of a few good picks, I headed out and made my way through traffic. K-Too's it was called. Supposed to be one of the best steak houses in town. We shall see about that. I found K-Too's but all of the lights were off. Must have been an off night….it was 7:15 or so and the streets were flooded with people, it should have been open. Not to be discouraged I found the second choice on my list. Closed. Finally I just wandered around and looked for people eating. I ended up at a Mexican joint on the third floor. Ordered a couple of chicken enchiladas as a well traveled fellow from New Zealand sat next to me and well over an hour later we got our meals. You might be wondering why every where was closed and my meal took so long. I should also mention that as I was walking around there were large groups of Maoists walking through the streets waving their red flag and making a bunch of noise in some sort of protest. I also noticed that upon leaving the airport, then entranced was surrounded by barbwire and sandbags accompanied by fully armed guards keeping watch. In addition to that there was a heavy police presence around town with vans full of military or police, some wearing riot gear. Even with all of this heavy show of force, everything that I saw was relatively peaceful. But why was everything closing. Turns out that there was a protest by a lot of the hotel and business workers in the form of a strike yesterday because a prominent business owner was kidnapped and being extorted for money by the Maoists. Not to be outdone, the Maoists had to flex their muscles and show their force, claiming that they didn't have anything to do with the kidnapping. However when this happens…..business don't want to take a risk and figure that business is better for them if they close……or just employees don't show up at work thus leaving the kitchen understaffed and a couple of enchiladas taking over an hour to cook. When I finally left the Mexican place about 9:15, I got to the bottom of the stairs to find a metal gate locking me in. The guard on the other side saw me approaching, unlocked the gate and let me pass spilling out into the street. Only the street didn't seem like the right street, everything was different. This experience felt like I got off the wrong floor on an elevator. Everything looked similar, but ALL the store fronts had somehow transformed over dinner into metal garage doors with 3 or more locks keeping them secure. I asked someone I passed on the street, which was a challenge because the streets that were packed mere hours earlier were now almost a ghost town. Curfew……it was in effect and everyone had to get indoors, and early too…..the Maoists were out and about. 
 
 
Nepali politics are at an interesting place. The once upon a time King was over thrown, but he still has his seat. The catch is this. Rule of the country has gone over to the "government" (i.e. multiple parties that aren't in agreement on much except that they don't want a king any more) and the King was striped of his power, budget and most of his land. So now he's still there with not much more than his title and his face on the money….for now. This is the complete antithesis of Thailand where you can find pictures of their king on just about any and every corner, taxi cab, restaurant, you name it….they LOVE their King. The same can not be said in Nepal. Things are a bit different here. They wanted to make sure that people didn't confuse them with their neighbor India, so they made the time zones different. You may know that the time zone in India is 30 minutes off the rest of the world. Well Nepal is 15 minutes off from that. An odd experience when resetting your watch at the airport….I heard many times over 'WHAT time is it???' 
 
 
After spending a few days traveling around and walking the streets, it's safe to say that I have never in my life been asked if I wanted 'smoke', 'hash', 'pot', etc….over and over again so many times in such a short period. I would have to say I'm approaching the 50+ mark and I've only been here 3 days.
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I went to Pashupatinath yesterday. This is the holy temple where they cremate those who pass on. While non-Hindu's are not allowed inside the temple, we are allowed to watch the cremation process. When an elderly family member dies, the task is bestowed upon the son or younger family member who knows how to cremate a body to do so. There are 7 funeral pyres that sit next to a river that runs along side the temple. These pyres, if that is the correct word for it, are large, flat stone platforms about 12 feet by 12 feet. Wood is stacked up and the bodies are place on the wood and then surrounded by more wood. All of this mind you is going on in the wide open with kids playing and teenage girls flirting with teenage boy on the other side of the river. Even the occasional tourist from the far side will stop with their guide, stand on the steps with their backs to people being cremated and get their photo taken. I can not see what anyone would do with this photo, but to my surprise it's not frowned upon, at least not openly. Regardless…..I chose not to take pictures of this. I did photograph the site, but no one being cremated. The process is an interesting one as it takes about 3 hours to burn a body, the entire time being tended to by a family member. When all that remains are ashes, they are pushed into the river below which leads to India and a holy place. A very interesting experience indeed. Something else that added to the area were all of the monkeys running around. A bit out of place…..but it did at a certain element to the atmosphere. That and the occasional UN chopper passing over head. That is something that truly gives you pause and forces you to ask yourself……where am I again?
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After this I ventured over to the big boudha. It's pretty much just that…..a very very large bouda. I could even see it from the plane when we were taking off. You are allowed to walk up on it almost to the top. While there I saw my old motorcycle….that I thought had long ago been discontinued. Maybe in the US…but not here…..
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20 March 2007

Night train to Bangkok....

Two weeks in Thailand. It's a place that I've always wanted to go to and have never had the chance. Realizing that several friends have made the journey, some many times over, I asked around for some advice and decided to sign up for an organized tour. I would meet up with a group in Bangkok and spend 7 days traveling through Northern Thailand searching out the treasures of the north. Our journey began meeting up with our leader who goes by the nick name "Bom". 'Please don't yell out for me in a crowded market' he says……probably good advice. Along with Bom I'm joined by 8 others, a couple on their honeymoon from Canberra, Australia, Toby & Amber, Chika from Japan, Deb from Sydney, Liz & Katrina from London (traveling separately) and Jay & Cary from LA. All of us get along great and it seems like a good crew. Our first stop would be in Sukhothai after a 5 hour train ride. The Number 4 guest house was a good introduction to northern Thailand, situated not far from town, it was an easy walk and we were away from the hustle and bustle of the night markets which had every kind of vendor you could imagine. On our way to the ancient temples we worked our way through the different bikes & trikes and scooters converted to anything and everything including an ice cream truck! Just down the road from the No. 4 was a tobacco grower and we happened to be driving by as they were getting the crop ready to be dried. During our stay we were able to cycle through the ancient ruins and see many, many Buddhas, large & small.
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From Sukhothai we ventured via bus to Lampang. Near Lampang is the elephant conservation center and hospital where more than 50 elephants are available for a show as well as rides. All of our group did both. The ride was an interesting sensation. It started with a walk through a small pond and then up the side of a Thai mountain. While each beast had a handler that was 'guiding' us up the paths, the animals had a mind of their own and each took their own varying paths up the side of the mountain stopping at regular intervals for a snack, much to the dismay of the handlers. Eventually we all met up on the other side and were brought past the week old baby elephant. At the conclusion of our ride we were able to view the show which was both a display of the massive power that these animals have by tossing full sized trees around like they were match sticks, as well as a demonstration of their agility while balancing on a log or beating a drum using their trunk, even painting.
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Our group had perfect timing. The second day in Lampang was Elephant Day. An annual event where Thailand's favorite animal gets to kick back, have a day off, and pig out on all their favorites. The conservation center setup elephant sized table after table filled with bamboo sticks, watermelon, pineapples, oranges and bananas. We had a front row seat as these monsters gorged themselves. Actually…..when I say front row seat, what I really mean is that we were able to walk within the elephants as they fed. This would have NEVER happened in America or else where for that matter, but we were literally walking between them making sure that a small side step by one of these behemoths didn't end up crushing a foot or worse. Constantly looking from side to side and behind I ran through snapping picture after picture until all the food was gone. It was exciting just to be in their presence and fortunately for me they were much more interested in their food then the silly human running around them with a camera.
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Our next stop was at the hospital where we saw one with an infected leg and a baby that had stepped on a landmine and lost a good part of one leg. One detraction from the trip however was the smog. On our way to Chiang Mai, the government declared it a disaster area with the smog level reaching 250. It was oppressive. I've never experience smog like that, even in LA. Half of the locals were riding around with masks like there was a bad SARS epidemic afoot. The entire group was looking for AC and something to do indoors, but when presented with the option to hop on a bamboo raft and head down a river, we all jumped on board and took to the challenge. I think the guides had more fun than we did as they stepped on each others rafts trying to dump the other and his passengers off. It wasn't all bad considering how hot it was. All in all our trip to the north was a great way to see Thailand and the true culture. After a 13 hour night train to Bangkok I was off again to Phuket to see what the south and the beaches had to offer.
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Talking about spending a week on the beaches with my friend Erica from Brisbane, she just couldn't resist the temptation and hopped a cheap flight to Phuket so the two of us could run around and see what trouble we could get into. Being a flight attendant had it's privileges. Staying in the Tsunami safe Hilltop Hotel, we had a great view of the town and the bay at Patong Beach on the west coast. Being a bit crowded we ran up and down the coast checking out other little villages and much less crowded, nicer beaches on our scooter. 
 
 
A few weeks ago I had swapped a few e-mails with Dennis, an old co-worker who spent 2 years or so living in Thailand and has now relocated to Shanghai. When mentioning to him that I was running around like crazy on a scooter he replied back….'Watch out for those things! I've had 4 accidents in 2 years….fortunately nothing serious.' I chuckled as I read it see how that was easily possible even for the best rider as people here are crazy on these things. Well…..you can add me to that statistic, and fortunately for me and Erica, it was only minor leaving me with more bruises on my pride than anything else. I'm just glad that I took the brunt of the ground and not my passenger. Riding away from it with nothing wrong with the bike and a few scrapes that could be tended to with some Neosporin and a band-aid……I started riding a lot slower and giving more room to the kamikaze Thai and worse….the visiting tourist like myself who 'hit the gas and go!'
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All in all Thailand is a wonderful place and cheap if you want it to be. I bought a custom tailored suit, 3 tailored shirts and a tie for $115. Not bad…..and all made in 2 days. I'm sure if I bargained a little more I could have gotten it for $100…..but I'm ok with splurging a little. 
 
 
Next stop…..Katmandu an then Delhi Should start to get interesting from here folks!!!!! BTW….I'm still looking for someone to join me on my venture from Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia. Any takers? It's only 2 weeks in April……..you know you want to!!!