Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

You can contact us at werkingwells (at) gmail . com

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Where are they now??

Here’s your geo-quiz for the day. Yesterday we landed on the largest island in the world, it’s also a continent and a country. It was populated by a bunch of prisoners (some whose crime was no worse than stealing a dozen cucumber plants) that England didn’t want to deal with, but they were not the first people on the land. The native wildlife consists of mammals with pouches, the 10 most poisonous snakes in the world, and a warm-blooded animal who lays eggs. Guessed it? Fair dinkum mate, we’re down under in Sydney Australia!

After three and a half months in Asia, we’re ready to immerse ourselves in a more familiar culture and, more importantly, understand (hopefully) the locals’ speech and read the signs. We will be enjoying Oz’s temperate summer climate for a month, with the plans to stay on the east coast and visit Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and points in between. Around New Year’s we will fly over to New Zealand for a family reunion with both sets of our parents. At the end of January our hope is to travel back north to Asia and visit Vietnam and Cambodia, then take a previously booked flight from Bangkok to Mumbai (Bombay) India. Of course things may change, especially if borders start being sealed as a result of the bird flu, but that’s the plan for today.

Singapore: Dodging a Spanking in the Nanny State

The following will cost you dearly in Singapore:
Littering : $100 fine
Urinating in public:$500
Not wearing your seat belt in a car $120
Chewing gum: only for medicinal purposes, you just have to write your name and identity card number down for the pharmacist and then you are licensed to chew.
Dangerous Dogs: not allowed
Poppyseeds: not allowed
Trafficking in Drugs: execution

It’s kind of easy to scoff at Singapore’s paternalistic attitude, coming from the U.S., where we believe that we have the freedom and rights to do such minor things as chew gum and make poppyseed bagels, and that general good manners ensure that people aren’t spitting on the ground (then again maybe not), but after traveling through some of the dirtier parts of the world, we initially thought, maybe Singapore’s sterile nature isn’t too bad, especially for anal folks like us who store our food in labeled matching Tupperware containers.

Singapore is a city, a state and a country, all tidily packaged on an island smaller than the state of Connecticut. Its influences are Chinese, Indian, British, and Malay, but it’s a country that’s intent on out-modernizing and outclassing the rest of the world.

While in Singapore, we spent hours at the Asian Civilizations Museum, which nicely summed up our past three months of travel, as we looked at many of the artifacts, some from China, Tibet, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. We bought traditional Indian outfits, the salawar kameez, which is a loose pair of pants, tunic and scarf. We ate banana leaf curry (way too hot for me),

had our fortunes “told” by a parrot,

and once again sought out aircon, for we are not mad dogs or Englishmen and prefer to stay out of the mid-day sun. Singapore is the closest we’ve gotten to the equator, and the temperatures never vary much throughout the year. You basically have steaming sultry hot and steaming hot, the difference being the locals wear fewer clothes in the sultry weather, since for them just steaming hot is “winter.”

We enjoyed an afternoon on Sentosa Island with our friend Emma (who survived the raft ride with us in Chiang Mai), and had a satisfying meal in Holland Village. Before leaving Singapore, we had to experience high tea in the Tiffin Room at Raffles,

where we could re-live the glory days of the British empire while tiny birds flew around the lobby.

With all the rules and regulations (we knew we could be fined if we didn’t flush a public toilet), we were starting to feel some teenage rebellion coming on. Do we dare jump the queue for a taxi? Risk a caning should we decide to disobey a traffic sign? Perhaps, but we know there are serious consequences to playing naughty in Singapore, and we loath any budget lodging that comes with a bed bolted in the wall, and bars on the window. Best to get out of town while we were ahead.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Singapore: Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to our American friends and family. Many of you are probably just getting up, sticking the turkey in the oven and perhaps a log in the fireplace. We are feeling a bit homesick on this most American of holidays after sweating through the strangest Thanksgiving buffet we've ever encountered. It's about 95 degrees here, the hotel is playing Christmas carols, and we've just eaten some pretty pathetic turkey and stuffing. We did continue our family tradition of eating dessert first, but we had a hard time accepting the tempura, Japanese octopus salad, sashimi, Chinese black chicken soup, seafood fettuccini, crayfish, dragon fruit, mango and something beige and sticky described as "Asian pudding" as a truly satisfactory Thanksgiving dinner. But it beats Thanksgiving 1990 when I (Loey) was riding on a train by myself in Austria and had nothing to eat all day but Mars Bars.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Kuala Lumpur Malaysia: Truly Asia

There’s a commercial on TV right now that shows verdant jungles, orangutans, sandy beaches, the Petronas towers and the many faces of Malaysia. Dylan and I have been caught singing its jingle, “Malaysia, truly Asia” many times while here in Kuala Lumpur. (The word Malaysia is pronounced not harshly with a z sound at the end, but softly like sss of a snake. That’s why it rhymes so well with Asia). That pretty much sums up some of the Malaysia we’ve seen.

No word describes Malaysia better for me than crossroads. All of Asia, as well as Europe and the Middle East, seems to have stopped here and left their mark. There are Muslim, Chinese, Indian and British influences that permeate this country. For example, on one day we had mendi henna tattoos done by a Malay man,

wandered through a Hindu temple that venerated one of the many goddesses of India, walked across the street from there to find the most incredible Chinese temple we’ve seen (which is saying a lot since we saw a lot of them in our month on the mainland)

and soaked in our hotel pool while overlooking a mosque while prayer calls filled the air for the Muslim faithful.

Kuala Lumpur, about the size of Portland, is the capital of this small country, and has captured us with its exoticism. It’s the first Muslim country we have been to and even though we have stopped turning our heads when we see women dressed in traditional headscarves,

we still did a 180 last night when we walked into our hotel and saw four men from the Persian Gulf wearing the full-on robes, kalifas and goatees of Saudi aristocracy.

Although we knew and still know very little about this country, we’re struck by the seeming tolerance and relative peace in a country that has so much religious and cultural diversity. Hindus and Muslims are killing each other in Kashmir over religious ideology, Thai Buddhists and Muslims are in conflict in the southern states of Thailand, and I won’t even start to dig into what is happening in the Middle East. But here we’ve seen little evidence of conflict (though again, we are here such a short time and have had such little contact with locals that we are definitely not getting the entire picture). The stores at the Suria KLCC mall have Christmas decorations (interestingly there are no signs promoting Christmas or Christmas sales), so perhaps the common denominator here is the quest for economic growth evidenced by KL’s mega modern skyline of buildings dedicated to commerce.

In front of the Petronas Towers, the highest twin towers in the world

Friday, November 18, 2005

Phuket Thailand: Loi Krathong

Happy New Year from Thailand! As in most Asian countries, the new year traditionally begins in Thailand at the start of a new moon. For the Thais, the moon that signals the new year is when the rice harvest is in, the works stops and they can party. This usually falls in November, an earlier time than for the Chinese or Vietnamese whose new year usually begins in February.

In Thailand they celebrate the new year in the most beautiful manner, by floating krathongs (pronounced kra-TAWNG) on the water and sending their prayers and wishes with them. A krathong is a lotus-shaped vessel that is made with a banana tree stem, covered with palm fronds and decorated with orchids. They carry a candle, three joss sticks, a few coins, and a piece of the bearer’s hair or fingernails to ensure that the gods know who wants the wish.

Loey and Dylan showing off the krathongs they made

The Thais say if the candle burns down and the krathong is still floating your wish will come true. I certainly hope so, since mine successfully launched, because I wished for a continued safe journey. Although I’m not certain, my guess is that Dylan probably wished for a rat.

Phuket Thailand: Just another day on the beach

Dylan follows her new friend around.....

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Phuket Thailand: The Ethics and Risks of Travel

After spending an inordinate amount of time in Asia’s largest cities (Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Bangkok) we really wanted to get somewhere uncrowded with stretches of white sandy beach, swaying palm trees, and blissful quiet.

We found that here in Phuket, Thailand’s largest island and premier beach resort area. Normally Phuket would be anything but uncrowded and quiet, it’s usually kind of like Maui on steroids, especially in November, the beginning of the high season, so why does it feel so abandoned?

On December 26th, 2004, just eleven short months ago, an earthquake struck in the depths of the Indian Ocean and created a tsunami in the Andaman Sea which killed over 10,000 people in Thailand alone. As the world’s largest natural disaster, the tsunami’s death toll is somewhere around 350,000 (for Thailand, Indonesia, India & Africa) but that doesn’t account for the many missing. (In fact, upon arrival at Phuket, our taxi driver said that there are 7000 undocumented workers and travelers who disappeared, but who are not acknowledged by the Thai government. Many of these workers were young westerners who overstayed their visas, and tried to drop off the radar, or illegal immigrants from poorer countries working in the service industry, or “sea gypsies.”)

Phuket was the hardest hit area in Thailand, and I’m sure you remember scenes on the news of resorts where the waves came from the beach flooding the lobby and pushing boats and cars hundreds of meters inland. But here’s the thing about TV. It’s not going to show you the parts of the city, town, or island, that escaped unscathed when the disaster hit. They are going to show you the worst. The ten blocks around the World Trade Center, the ballrooms of the three hotels that were bombed this week in Amman, the resorts that had tsunami waves wreak havoc. And so our minds, primed for generalities, think “Ahh, that must mean all of New York, Jordan or Phuket are places that might kill me, I’d better not go there.” The reality is, even here in Phuket there were entire areas untouched by the tsunami and the infrastructure is sound and business can go on as usual. Well, for an island whose main economy is based on tourism, there was a second cruel blow after losing a home, a friend and/or a family member. Losing the tourist, the source of their livelihood. Understandably, watching the horror which happened that morning, and imagining being a tourist at that time here, I would want to be anywhere but here.

Our questions to ourselves while traveling are: Is it disrespectful to come here? Would it be dancing on the graves of others to have a holiday here? Is the area truly able to handle visitors? How’s the infrastructure? Is the water potable, or has enough been destroyed that we are putting ourselves through a secondary danger of disease? Are we gawkers to the tragedy, even eleven months later? All questions to consider carefully. Then we read about the people who are unable to pay their bills because they are laid off from their jobs, or they sit all day alone at their small stand waiting for the tourist to come along and buy a drink or two, watching their income go from US$20 a day to $2 after the tsunami.

Perhaps it was not only the mission to bring our money to support Phuket that brought us here, but also the ease with which we could get a flight (as opposed to battling the traffic to go to Pattaya or Hua Hin) and the deal we could get on Asiaroooms for our lodging, at the Dusit Laguna Resort that made it a relatively easy decision to visit.

Of course we are not here to encourage people who would never want to travel to come to a place that they would fear. And we’re not trying to win any hardy-traveler “points” in coming here (that would be impossible at this hotel, with the ice-cold towels they give you, the fragrant tropical flowers set on your bed at night, and the gourmet dining that’s offered), but if your inclination is to see the world outside your front door, don’t make your judgments on a place from a 10 minute loop on CNN. It’s their job to make the world dangerous and scary. It’s our job to see what it’s really like.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Chiang Mai, Thailand: A Recipe for Pad Thai

We’ve been spending some more mellow time for the past few days, replaying our ordeal on the raft while getting Thai massages and taking cooking courses. We took two days of classes at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery school and learned how to make ten different and delicious Thai mainstays. And since we each made our own servings, Loey and Dylan had the special treat of being able to eat Thai food that wasn’t incredibly spicy or filled with coriander/cilantro. Here, then, is a good recipe for pad thai. We found that it’s really easy to make, and you can get it on every street corner here.

Pad Thai (Thai fried noodles), serves 2

10 oz. (300g) fresh rice noodles (or dried noodles, soaked in water for 10-15 minutes)
3 Tbsp (45ml) oil (not olive or sesame!)
1 Tbsp (5g) garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp (5g) small dried shrimps (yuck, I like the fresh shrimp!)
½ cup (3 oz, 80g) extra-firm tofu, diced (much more firm than what you normally get in the US)
6 Tbsp (90ml) water or chicken stock
2 eggs, beaten
3 Tbsp (45g) roasted peanuts, chopped
¼ cup (1 oz, 20g) green onions, cut into 1 inch/2cm pieces
1 cup (2 oz, 60 g) bean sprouts
2 limes cut into wedges
3 Tbsp (30g) sugar
3 Tbsp (45ml) Thai fish sauce (the darker, all-anchovy kind)
1 Tbsp (15 ml) soy sauce
2 Tbsp (30ml) tamarind juice (or tamarind paste dissolved in water)
2 Tbsp (30ml) Thai oyster sauce (milder than the Chinese version)
Chili powder to taste

Make sauce by combining the sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind juice, oyster sauce and chili powder. Chop up and prepare everything you need, since you won’t have time while everything is cooking.

Put oil in a wok and put on high heat. Put in tofu and cook until firm, then add garlic and shrimp and cook until it smells good (don’t burn the garlic!). Add rice noodles and keep stirring for a few seconds to heat them. Add water/stock and cook until noodles are soft. Then turn down heat and add sauce ingredients and stir well. Add peanuts, green onions and sprouts (add fresh shrimp now, if desired, and cook until pink), then tip the wok and push everything to one side. Add a bit more oil and pour in the beaten egg and fry until dry on top. Then tilt the wok upright and combine everything. Turn off the heat, squeeze lime over the top, and serve.

As an aside for anyone coming to Chiang Mai, Emma, our friend from the raft trip, found a much better elephant experience. The Elephant Nature Park seems to be the most humane and involved in conservation of any of the camps around here. we just wish that we’d gone there instead of on the trip we’d taken.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Chiang Mai Thailand: A recipe for disaster

One of our favorite TV shows is The Amazing Race. Our friends Ronda and Mark got us hooked on it, and it’s really great for vagabonds like ourselves to watch people race around the world doing all sorts of interesting challenges and wondering all the while, as they fall into rivers and get lost, how can they be so stupid?

Well, add in some jet lag, extreme weather, an unfamiliar language and hard physical challenges and the most hardy traveler can be humbled, which sums up our own adventures yesterday in northern Thailand.

The morning started bright and early for us, when we met up with Emma, a British expat from Singapore who we’d met the previous day on the bus to the Maesa elephant camp, and our tour guide Ay. The goal: to ride an elephant. We had all agreed that the previous day’s excursion was too tame and touristy, as we chafed at the wearing the groove that is the beaten path. So to have a little more adventure we signed up for what we thought was a pretty straightforward tour: ride an elephant, hike to a village, raft a river, the stuff of every traveler’s dream in Thailand.

After an hour’s ride south of Chiang Mai in a van packed with our guide, the driver, a French couple, a Canadian and the four of us, we were dropped off at a turnoff on the edge of a narrow twisty road. This is where we were to get out and hike for 45 minutes to a Hmong village. It didn’t sound too bad on paper, but this was a steep hike--up a muddy mountain trail no less--in Thailand’s sad excuse for fall weather, with the mercury well over 30 deg C (in the mid-90’s Fahrenheit). At one point we had to cross a hanging bridge suspended by a couple of cables and slats of bamboo, one that would give Indiana Jones reason to pause, and there was no comfort seeing the remains of the previous bridge dangling from the neighboring trees.

I asked our guide if we would see any animals.
“Just birds and snakes” was her reply.
“Oh god,” I told her. “I HATE snakes!”
“But Thais thinks it’s good luck to see a snake,” she insisted.
“I’ve already seen a snake here in Thailand,” I told her, “and so I think I have enough luck, so please, scare the snakes away, okay?”
Somehow I think she didn’t seem convinced, and I thought I could hear her calling out for the snakes under her breath.
When we’d signed up for this trip the previous day, I had asked the woman registering us if there were snakes out there. Yeah, I know, dumb question, but I had to open my mouth.
“Oh, no snakey out there,” she said. “And if you do see a snake your guide will eat them.”
I’m wondering if she shared that information with Ay.

We managed to dodge the snakes, and 45 minutes later we stumbled into the village huffing and puffing and practically passing out from the heat and the steep climb only to find ourselves in a small clearing with 6 to 9 “houses.” We had climbed up here for this? Sadly, most of the people between the ages of 10 and 40 were gone--it seems they have real jobs in the city--and the only ones left were tiny babies and old women, needlepointing traditional Hmong designs and hawking them to the farang tourists. The chickens running around under our feet outnumbered the villagers, and I was wondering whether it was possible to pick up bird flu from the dirt blowing around. After buying a couple hand-embroidered pillow cases, we hiked back to the main road to meet the elephants.

At the elephant camp we climbed up a ladder to a rickety platform and hopped on our elephant, who had a bit of a motivation issue. She was recalcitrant and seemed to view us as a burden that kept her from what she really wanted to do: eat, drink, scratch her bum, and create more dung for the paper manufacturing industry. It was an hour-long slog through mud as the driver kept knocking her on the head to get her to move. I was tempted to tell him to knock it off, but since he could speak no English, what would come out would only be unintelligible rantings from yet another tourist. Plus I didn’t want to be stranded on her for hours, and I think the only way to get back to the platform was for him to knock her. Elephants are really amazing animals; they are so huge, yet incredibly graceful. Their weight is distributed so well on their humongous feet that they put less pressure on the ground than a human. They could also amble up and down trails steeper than the ones we’d hiked earlier, with us hanging onto the seat worrying that it would slide off or that we would slide out. The elephant ride was truly the highlight of our day.

I’m not sure what compelled us to do the raft ride. It sounded kind of fun, a lazy spin down a river, with a guide to steer the way, and it was part of the standard tour. Perhaps we should have been clued in by the guide jerry-rigging the raft to make room for the four of us, but this raft was a dud. The guide was also a dud and the trip was the most frightening thing we have done on this journey. We realize that travel entails some sorts of risks. From the moment you walk out the door, there’s always the risk of “something bad” happening, but we have felt relatively safe except for twice on this trip where we thought we might die. The first time was on the taxi ride from Lhasa to the Gongkor airport. The second was on the river.

It started bad and quickly went to worse. As the four of us stepped onto the raft, it sunk enough so that Emma, Dylan and I had water up to our waists. (Andy and the “driver”--I have to use this term loosely given his abilities--were standing.) Ay shot a picture of us. Before getting on I asked her if any of the rafts tip over.
“Oh, when the river is high they do” she said.
“And when it’s like this?” I asked.
“No, no tips. Sometimes people fall,” she replied.
“Well, that’s a relief,” I said.
“Yeah, but you have to worry about the crocodiles and snakes,” she mumbled.
“Right, you’re just trying to freak me out,” I said.
There was no reply.

There are a few things you need to know about this trip. One, we use the term raft very literally here. This was not a cute euphemism for a fully functional boat. This was literally 10 long poles of bamboo strapped together with old rubber from motor scooter tires. That’s it. No pontoons, safety belts or bars or anything that would ensure that it would float. Second, there is no such thing as a life vest here in Asia. No seatbelts in cars, no life vests on boats, and no safety caps on medicines. That would be considered a luxury. Third, I’m a really bad swimmer. Sadly, after many years and countless dollars my parents spent on swimming lessons, I can still only do a doggie paddle.

The ride was to last an hour, but within minutes I knew this was a bad idea. As the guide pushed the raft downstream with his bamboo pole, we started to tip. Dylan sat to my right, and we tipped in that direction. I was hanging on with her for dear life, but I knew my grip wouldn’t be enough to keep her on if the whole thing went over. She was submerged to her armpits and promptly told me she hated this. The raft righted, but we were still a on a raft that was floating under the water and not on top. For twenty minutes, we were like this. The raft would rock to one side, Andy and the driver would shift their weight and Dylan and I kept getting dipped in. Floating by elephants grazing at the side of the river didn’t make the trip any better, and it quickly got worse.

In front of us a raft of Thai kids had lost one of their poles and were not navigating down the river well. They had no driver and were clearly inexperienced and it would be no time at all before they were dumped in the water. It was a freak occurrence, but we could see their raft spin around and block the part of the river for which we were heading. We crashed into them, and that’s when Dylan started screaming. The driver jumped into the water and held onto the raft so it wouldn’t take us further and a couple of the kids helped us off it to the shore. Dylan was terrified, sobbing and wailing while I was trying to get her to calm down and Andy was yelling at me to get off the raft, NOW!!! Emma was able to get off first and help us off. Finally they got our raft over the lodged one, and got us back on. Dylan and I were clinging to each other, freezing cold, terrified that the raft would continue to tip and eventually overturn, and cursing the fact that we were on this ride.

At one point we had to portage, while the driver took the raft over some small falls. Dylan didn’t want to get back on, and neither did I, but there was no other way out. We didn’t have shoes on, so climbing up over the bank and however far we would have to walk to get to the road did not seem feasible. We continued down and passed a group of Thais who kept yelling to us that the ride was about 5 minutes from being done. Never trust a local when they tell you it’s only 5 minutes: this ride was going on for another half hour. But soon we saw our guide happily snapping pictures of us as we went by.

If you look at the picture Ay took, you can see Dylan sobbing, Emma muttering about how bloody inconvenient this was that they gave us such a bad raft and me yelling, “We want off. Get us off this goddamn raft NOW!!!” Ay finally heard us and yelled to the driver who pushed the raft over to the side. Crying and quite shaken we stumbled up to the van and told Ay that this trip was terrible, dangerous and foolhardy. We shared our adventures with the others (I’m not sure how much the French couple understood), and the Canadian, a guy who seems used to traveling rough, said that he thought he too had signed up for a fun lazy trip down the river, but that in his opinion the whole thing kind of sucked. Guess he didn’t have the best time on his raft either.

While on the river I was mostly terrified and in survival mode--just get us out of here alive. But after coming through it, I realized how stupid we were to even risk taking Dylan on it. She could have fallen off, I could have lost my grip, she could have hit her head on the rocks or worse, drown. I’m not sure what we were thinking, or if we were thinking at all, but am thanking the gods above that we made it through.

Later that night, after we had cleaned up, we joined Emma for dinner and drinks, shaking our heads over the entire folly of the river trip, and congratulating ourselves for surviving.

An interesting footnote: Before leaving Portland, I asked my friend Ruby who’s psychic what the trip would hold in store for us. She said that it would be wonderful, that we would be coming back changed for the better, and that it would be the most incredible thing that we would do in our life. She personally and psychically encouraged me, yet had a couple of warnings. Ruby had said “Your time in Thailand will be OK, except watch out for rivers.” All right Ruby, we’re listening!

Chiang Mai Thailand: Supporting the locals

The artist was a bit of a prima donna if you ask me. Her work was juvenile at best--a small bouquet of flowers that a 3 year old could have painted--but given her curtseys and bows after painting, you’d think she was a regular Mary Cassat. Perhaps she was cheeky because she not only was a professional painter, but also a seasoned soccer player. Those with multiple talents really can grate on the nerves of us mere mortals. Suffice it to say, I didn’t buy one of the works we saw her paint. I was still feeling a bit miffed that she had fingered me for a banana after trying to give me her friend’s sweaty hat, and didn’t want to encourage her behavior. But I did spring for a frame, created from paper made with her dung no less. I knew if I left without buying something she created, my welcome upon returning wouldn’t last long because, as well all know, an elephant never forgets.

Dylan witha 6-week-old elephant at Mae Sa elephant camp near Chiang Mai