Seven Months on the Road

Another milestone! As of March 29, 2012, we’ve been on the road for seven months.

We celebrated this auspicious occasion (while Ken recovered from a bout of food poisoning in India), by taking the plunge: we booked our flights back to Milwaukee for our summer travel break.

We will depart Beijing the morning of June 5, 2012, and 20-odd hours later we’ll be in Milwaukee. With India taking a toll on us- and China looming on the horizon- it felt good to see good ol’ MKE on an airline ticket.

The Homeland

Things certainly look different to us today than they did seven months ago. In each of the eight countries we’ve visited, we’ve met wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) people, eaten fantastic (and not-so-fantastic) food, and probably gotten ripped off at some point (whether we knew it or not).

When I realize where we’ve been and what we’ve done in ‘just’ seven months, I know it’s been worth it. Every now and then, when things get bumpy and our patience is tested, I turn to Karen and say, “Sure beats working.” And although travel is work, blazing our own path for these many months has been truly eye-opening.

OK, ready for the Next Stop…


Bangkok Rain

In Bangkok, a simple moment of joy.

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Upward Mobility

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That’s how you say it. Scores of minivans are parked around Bangkok’s Victory Monument, and I’m trying to find the one going there. It doesn’t help that I’m saying EYE-yoo-TIE-yah. I get more confused stares than usual, until someone corrects my pronunciation and tells me that the van I want is 180 degrees around the roundabout (in other words, as far away as possible).

Beginning in 1350, Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam. And an impressive capital it was, ornate temples and palaces in a well-situated port location. Siam’s army beat back attack after attack, until that fateful day in 1767 when the Burmese finally put a win in their column. The Siamese slunk off to establish a new capital in Bangkok, while the Burmese celebrated by looting the city of most of its treasures. The temples stood in ruins for a couple centuries until restoration work began and UNESCO heritage status was bestowed.

What captured my imagination was an exhibit at the Museum of Siam: an interactive map that highlighted the parallels between Ayutthaya (the old capital) and Bangkok (the new capital). Perhaps Ayutthaya could show me what Bangkok would look like, if it hadn’t been paved over and choked with cars and rickshaws.

The minivan dropped me off at a busy intersection, where I evaded the legions of tuk-tuk drivers offering me a ride, opting instead to walk down the main street toward the Historical Park. Just as the heat was getting the best of me, I spotted a woman renting bikes on a lonely street corner- I grabbed her last ride and cycled into the park.

Indeed, I got my glimpse into the past, without the crowds and noise and pollution of the big city. While the heat did wear me out after a while, I toured several wats at a leisurely pace. Many of the ruins have not been completely restored, which is fine by me- I like to marvel at the textures of worn rock and cracked brick.


Thailand’s Elephants: The Good, The Bad and The Very Ugly

I knew I didn’t want to ride an elephant. We saw that mess near Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Tourists, sometimes 3-4 people at a time, sitting on a chair, perched on top of an elephant’s back, being lumbered about a temple. I had read accounts of elephants being chained, abused and forced to work while obviously suffering. I wanted to stay far away from that.

So I was very interested when I saw a poster for an elephant sanctuary outside of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. A place where elephants go to retire. A place whose tag line is, “We work for elephants, not elephants for us.” I wanted to learn more about Elephant’s World.

Elephant’s World was founded by a Thai veterinarian named Dr. Samart Prasitthiphon. He saw the great need for elephant sanctuaries in his country and started his own. It has been running for nearly 5 years, able to support itself on his money, donations and volunteers. Of course it has branched out into the tourist market to earn funds. Sometimes adding a tourist element to these sanctuaries can feel exploitative for the animals, yet I felt they found a good balance. You decide, based on our experience.

We paid US$50 per person and spent over 7 hours at the sanctuary. On arrival we were given a release to sign and told the rules by English-speaking volunteers. While there are Thai people on staff, many cannot speak English well enough, so the volunteers’ work is very important. We went to work right away, hand feeding the elephants and getting a close look at their giant beauty.

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The sanctuary currently has 9 elephants, 3 of which no longer have any teeth. Typically a wild elephant changes its teeth 6 times within its life. If they make it all the way to the final falling out of teeth, they die of starvation. The 3 at the sanctuary get by on a diet of soft fruit and a rice ball concoction that we helped make for them later in the day.

Our day included cleaning up after the elephants, preparing the rice balls for the toothless ones, cutting down banana trees for those who could rip their food up like tree chippers, eating our own lunch, watching the elephants get vet care, joining them on a river bath and scrubbing their tough, bristly skin.

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When not involved in eating, bathing or walking activities, the elephants are chained to trees. While this practice is frowned upon by animal rights groups and is hard for us to see, the sanctuary does not have a fence to keep the animals in. It is costly to let the elephants loose, because they get into nearby farmers’ fields and start munching the crops. So until the sanctuary can raise the funds for a fence, the elephants will be chained.

We were always under the watchful eye of the volunteers and the mahouts. Mahouts are elephant handlers, usually men, who have been trained in elephant care and manipulation, for lack of a better word. They give commands to the animals and know what to do, should one get out of line. Most of the mahouts at this sanctuary are Burmese, many of them under the age of 20 years old. Along with the mahouts, there are a few paid staff members, including a vet. They have 2 to 4 volunteers, acting as tour guides and doing the work for the elephants when no tourists are visiting. Interested in volunteering for a month? Believe me, I was tempted. Elephant’s World also has dogs, cats, dairy calves, water buffalo. The newest arrivals are a flock of ducks who were rescued from the Bangkok floods of late 2011.

While visiting and talking at length with the volunteers, we met Thomas Taylor. He had spent the last three years in Thailand working at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, a huge wildlife sanctuary about 2 hours south of Bangkok. He gave me his contact information so I could learn more about visiting WFFT and maybe plan some volunteering there. Then a funny thing happened.

While viewing their website, I started to read about a terrible event unfolding. The short of the long story was that WFFT and Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai were starting to speak out about wild elephant killings by poachers and cover-ups by the Department of National Parks. The DNP was retaliating against the parks that spoke out through arrests and animal confiscations. It’s a harrowing story, filled with corruption and way too much Thai pride (considered “saving face”). The biggest sufferers are the innocent animals. Many of whom who had been rescued from abusive environments and healed. They have been taken and most likely put back into abusive environments. Although no one from the organizations knows where the animals are. See, the raids were conducted by about 100 people, 30 of them armed. The DNP was not playing fair and not willing to share any information. The sad fight continues. Donations are surely needed, and more importantly, an international outcry about this situation and how animals are treated here. Thailand is a hub for the illegal trade of wild animals and animal parts. And the illegal gathering of animals for use in tourism. It’s huge money for them. Until more people get very vocal, this may never stop. Both organizations are on Facebook and would appreciate your Like.

I have decided to keep the rest of my wildlife viewing in Thailand within nature. While I am delighted that elephants and other animals have a restful place to call home, I wonder if my actions are exploitative. What is the best solution to caring for our wild and unwanted animals when our world is full of people in such dire need? I wish I had the perfect answer.


Bridge on the River Kwai- er, Khware- well actually Mae Klong

All right, I’ll admit it. The only reason that Kanchanaburi, Thailand was on our radar was because of a movie, Bridge on the River Kwai. Just the famous name of the movie, actually, since we’ve never seen the film. But what the hey, we’ve toured Lord of the Rings locations in New Zealand and watched The Killing Fields while in Cambodia. A fictional movie can provide an entry point into real places and events.

And I do mean “fictional”. Bridge on the River Kwai, the novel, is based on real events, but gets everything about them pretty much wrong. The characters are twisted mashups of real people, and the bridge- the one in the title- wasn’t even on the River Kwai. It was on the next river over, the Mae Klong. The movie was made in 1957, the title became famous and Thailand had a problem: busloads of tourists were showing up asking for the wrong river. Thai officials took a novel approach: they renamed the river so it matched the movie. That section of the river is now called the Khwae Yai, the “big tributary”. Oh yeah, and it’s pronounced “kware”, not “kwie”.

Glad we got that out of the way. After a dusty train ride from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, we spent a few days delving into this area’s World War II history. It centers around construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway. In 1942, Japanese forces were kicking butt in Southeast Asia, surprising the Allies with spectacular victories like the fall of Singapore.

Thailand saw the writing on the wartime wall and agreed to let Japan do what it wanted in Thailand. What it wanted was a way to move supplies to Burma without those pesky Allied submarines blowing them up. The answer: a railway.

It would become known as the Death Railway. Japan created a huge workforce by putting over 60,000 prisoners of war to work alongside 180,000 Asian laborers (the romusha) lured by phony contracts. Teams cleared some of the most inhospitable land in Thailand under brutal conditions. Even as they faced starvation and sickness, they were pushed to work faster and finish the line sooner. Ultimately, roughly 12,800 Allied POWs and 90,000 laborers died during the undertaking.

All hail the King at the entrance to Hellfire Pass

At the Hellfire Pass Memorial, we delved into the details at a small museum, and then went to see for ourselves.

See that channel cut through the rock? It was cleared by hand power- a little dynamite to loosen the rock, and then nothing but picks and shovels. The hellish sight of laborers working all night by torchlight give this area its name. Remnants of the old railroad ties can still be seen in the ground.

On a side note, here’s something we’ve seen at a few other historical sites, and it bothers me: just before I snapped this photo…

…this girl did her best swimsuit model pose… on a railway built by slaves, tens of thousands of whom died. Am I being too sensitive here?

Anyway, while most visitors take a short walk through Hellfire Pass, Karen and I opted for the “long walk”, an hourlong hike along the old railway route. They give you a radio at the visitor’s center to keep in touch with you, which I thought was awfully considerate of them. With an audio tour guiding us, we passed through more rocky crevices and saw the former locations of trestle bridges.

The sun beat down on us. Bugs swarmed over us. Hard to complain when you’ve got plenty of water and a radio, though. What the hell was it like to work here in 1943?

And that brings us to the bridge. That famous bridge.

The Red Army invades. That caption is funnier if these are Chinese tourists, so let's assume they are.
More gleeful posing

This was one of the few metal bridges over the river, making it a prime target for Allied bombings. Sure enough, in 1945, Allied planes swooped in and destroyed portions of the bridge. Today, only the curved sections are original; the squared-off sections were built by the Japanese as part of their war reparations.

This hyper-realistic diorama truly captures the pathos of the bridge bombing. Or not.
In the pre-CNN era, you found out wars were over by MAIL

Oddly, this little town with this little bridge is a hive of tourist activity. Does a 55-year-old movie starring Alec Guinness still have that much sway?! Is this the only site of historical significance in central Thailand?! It’s possible to ride the train over the bridge- most passengers are tourists, although a few locals seem to use it for actual transportation.

Besides a couple of museums (one better than the other), there’s a market selling everything from skewers of mystery meat to jade jewelry, and the tour buses just keep coming.

Sausages on the River Kwai
Caught in the act! Karen pets stray dogs by the bridge. This is the kind of thing that gives our travel doc nightmares (Karen managed to survive).
Karen chats with local students who practiced their English with us

Is this how Iraq will be in fifty years? A scale model of Fallujah in a heavily air-conditioned building, surrounded by postcard racks and Pepsi logos?

My last stop in town was the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, where the remains of Allied soldiers lie. It’s an oasis in this dusty, noisy city, and I finally got a chance to reflect on the individuals who perished here. Reading the messages on headstone after headstone, I found myself getting choked up.

I guess I can thank David Lean for getting our butts up here, to “accidentally” learn about the moving history of the Death Railway, Hellfire Pass and the bridge over the River Khware.

Sunset from the train

Bangkok vs. Bangkok

I wanted to love Bangkok. I wanted to marvel at an ancient city wrapped in a modern city- historic temples with a monorail cruising by. The only thing keeping me from loving Bangkok was… Bangkok. (I’m resisting the urge to make a reference to the not-so-complimentary ’80s hit song here.)

Historic temples? They’ve got ’em. Golden Buddhas? Plenty of those too. But along the way, Bangkok will throw every possible obstacle to enjoyment in your way.

We did not arrive on a high note. Back in Siem Reap, we booked a bus ticket through to Bangkok- our first land border crossing of the trip. Once we entered Thailand, things started to go a little haywire: we were stuffed into a hot minivan, plunged into Bangkok rush hour, and unceremoniously dropped off on the side of a street… with no idea where we were and no Baht in our wallets.

Um, excuse me, where the hell are we?

No problem for us seasoned travelers, though. All it took was an ATM, a taxi ride, free wi-fi, pensive head scratching, intensive map reading, and extensive luggage rolling to get us to our hotel.

Dawn of a new day. The sun pierces the smoggy haze. The temples beckon. We could hear them beckoning- we just couldn’t get to them. Bangkok has a a sleek, easy-to-use metro system, but it doesn’t cover large areas of the old city. Understandable- I’m glad they didn’t demolish Wat Pho to make room for the tracks- but inconvenient. Yes, there are taxis (expensive), tuk-tuks (scammy) and buses (hard to figure out). Luckily, we discovered the hidden gem of Bangkok transport: the canals.

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Finally, we were in the old city, ready to delve into the history of Bangkok. We were dropped off right next to a tourist information kiosk, so we asked for a city map and were handed one by the world’s grumpiest tourist liaison- really, of all the applicants for the job, she was the best choice?

An older man spotted us looking at our map and pointed out our present location, suggesting that we head down the street to see a large Buddha statue. My faith in humanity restored, I said to Karen, “How nice of him.” She patted me on the head and detailed for me the many scams she had read about the night before. The old man was perpetrating Thai Scam #23: a friendly passerby suggests something you should see- perhaps this is the only day this spectacular attraction is open this month- and steers you to a friendly tuk-tuk driver who then gouges you on the price OR takes you to a jade shop where, stranded, you are forced to by some jewelry. My faith in humanity deflated, we walked on.

Never fear, we did finally get to the good stuff. Wat Arun. The Royal Palace. The Reclining Buddha (mentioned in that song… resisting temptation to make reference). Here are some visual highlights:

I saw all that over the course of a few days (after the first day, Karen retreated to cooler activities, like ice skating). During those days, I walked a lot, sweated a lot, drank gallons of water, rode a local bus for a long time, sat in a cab for a long time, and generally wondered how anyone gets anything done in this town.

One night (or week) in Bangkok makes a hard man humble. There, I did it. Now I feel better.


Next Stop: Thailand

We’re making a run for the border! Well, how about a slow walk…

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Cambodia… It’s Always Something

Karen’s thoughts upon leaving Cambodia:

Cambodia was the first country where we embraced the language. While we did not get too far, here is what we learned.

1 through 10: mouy, pee, bey, bourn, pram, pram mouy, pram pee, pram bey, pram bourn, dawp

Hello: suesaday!

Thank you very much: acoon tran

Bill/check please: ketloy

How much: Klie pull man

Delicious: chinya

Khmer definitely has sounds that are tricky for the American mouth, yet I would be delighted to go back and learn more. It would have been so nice to have spoken more to the very friendly people of this country.

And friendly they are! (Except for the two women who kind of attacked us, yet we think there was some mental illness there.) With Cambodians being so torn apart by 30 years of civil war, you would think they would be wary of everyone. Yet as our past videos have shown, strangers reached out to us many times.

Everybody wants to help the Cambodians. This country is crawling with NGOs. There are many schools and orphanages created by Westerners trying to save the day. The government is beginning to make it harder to establish these outside groups, so thankfully the Khmer people are starting their own NGOs. Two that impressed us were the Land Mine Museum and Savong School.

Another outside NGO that knocked our socks off was Kantha Bopha hospitals, created by an eccentric Swiss doctor. He has an interesting name, Beat Richner, and an interesting history. His organization has opened five children’s hospitals in Phnom Pehn and Siem Reap. Cambodian children commonly die from dengue fever, malaria and tuberculosis, and by treating cases early the hospitals have saved upwards of 12 million lives. The work of these hospitals is bringing free and very modern health care to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. And only 10% of the operating budget comes from the Cambodian government. The rest is private donations.

Beat + his cello = Beatocello. That's his stage name, and he gives concerts twice a week to raise money for the hospitals.

The Cambodian government doesn’t do much to help its people. Like so much of the rest of the developing world, this country is run by corruption. Wanna be a police officer? Gotta pay up front. Don’t earn enough working as a police officer? Gotta get bribe money. Like the time the police asked for $1000 dollars to cover up the death of a guest at one of our guesthouses. They said it would help to keep things quiet. $1000 was paid and yet hundreds of people lined the street to see where the foreigner had died. (He was an alcoholic and basically killed himself with an overdose of booze and pills.) Such a nice police force.

With rampant corruption and few standards for justice, many small villages work with the village chief to settle disputes. We met a man who had recently won custody of his 3 year-old son. In the initial divorce, the son was given to the mother. The mother was useless and the child was being abused by his grandmother. The father wanted him back. So he negotiated with the village chief and family members. The trade? A motorbike. The father gave over a motorbike, which was deemed the same value as his son. Interesting justice, yet everyone is satisfied in the end and the child is living a better life, so it worked this time.

Poverty reigns in this country,where 80% of the population live at or below the poverty line. Imagine eating on a dollar a day. That’s some rice, a couple eggs, some veggies and spices. Many people have no running water or electricity. If they do have it, it’s expensive. Electricity costs nearly 10 times more in Cambodia than it does in Australia. Garbage pick-up does not exist in most of the country, so people burn their garbage every day. The pollution to the air and lungs is intense. It’s a pretty wild-looking place, yet so many Cambodians smile and keep moving along. Their Buddhist faith may help them in this regard.

Monks earn no money, so many mornings the monks go begging for money and food. It’s good karma to help them, so locals offer what they can and the monks offer a prayer on the spot. In rural areas where it may be harder for people to come to the pagoda to worship, monks may be pushed around in a cart attached to a motorbike. The monk proclaims the good word through his microphone and speaker or bullhorn, and other monks follow behind to collect alms.

Cambodians care little about day-to-day beauty. Stylish clothes mean nothing… it’s about character. We found an interesting form of fashion, especially in rural areas: the patterned, 2-piece pajama set. All the ladies were wearing them.

Pajamas at the market
Pajamas on the ferry
Pajamas in motion

An ex-pat in Phnom Pehn noticed this and tried an interesting experiment. What would happen if she wore pajamas? Check out her blog for the answer.

Being a tourist in Cambodia is not always easy. Eating at restaurants drove us particularly crazy. Once you are seated, the server hands you a menu, usually about 12 pages long, listing every dish and drink under the sun. Then he or she stands there and…. waits. We tried many times to shoo them away, yet we never learned how to say, “Please come back in a few minutes” in Khmer. These Cambodians are fairly patient. They will wait all day if need be. After placing your order, it’s a crapshoot when the food will arrive, and you are guaranteed to never receive all the food at once. Multiple times one of us had finished our meal before the other one was even served. Yes, the Cambodian work ethic is very different. I guess most chefs can only cook one dish at a time? And, a bit humorously, your food will travel from Westerner table to Westerner table until they find the person who ordered it. They don’t seem to number the tables and we barangs must all look the same to them.

Yes, in Cambodia… it’s always something. So when these somethings come up, it’s best not to “lose face” and get angry. Count to ten in Khmer and relax. The number one thing you can count on is the beautiful, genuine smile of most of the people.


Moto madness

It’s funny how quickly I got used to the tangle of traffic in Cambodia (just keep walking/driving forward purposefully and you won’t get killed). But I never stopped marveling at the motorbikes.

At first, I raised an eyebrow when I saw two adults and a child crammed onto a moto, but that’s nothing. Traveling in Cambodian cities and on the dusty highways in between, I’ve seen 2 adults/2 kids, 2 adults/3 kids, and the pièce de résistance, 3 adults/2 kids (one child held aloft, since there wasn’t any room left on the seat). Most drivers wear helmets; passengers almost never do.

It turns out that just about anything can be transported on two wheels: CRT TVs, ladders, bicycles and most startlingly, live pigs in bamboo tubes and live birds hanging from their legs, their beaks inches from the ground as the moto speeds along.

Of course I have photos. These guys go by quickly, so forgive the varying quality of these photos and video screen grabs. What I managed to capture is just a fraction of what we saw.