Friday, March 13, 2009

South Asia: Chapter one

"Alright, Lisa. Smarten up. It's halfway through frikkin March and you STILL have not written anything about your travels through South East Asia in February on your blog. Your family and friends have been very patient with you so far, but I'm pretty sure they will get their virtual torches and pitchforks out soon if you don't get off your lazy butt and starting writing!"

My conscience may have a point.

There are many perks to living and working in South Korea: free rent, tasty foods (most of the time...), a great expat community and mountain ranges far as the eye can see. And if you are one of the fortunate folks to have a contract with the public school system, the greatest perk is undoubtably the five weeks of vacation time written into your contract. If your school is nice (like mine) you'll get more vacation than this, but you aren't technically supposed to leave the country except for vacation time as indicated in your contract. Four of the five weeks in the contract are allocated to Febuary while schools are on their winter "break" (which includes January for the lucky folks). Myself and four other Canuck gals working in SK decided this opportunity to travel was not to be wasted. We found ourselves planning to spend our 26 days in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam in a whirlwind cross-country adventure sure to be the trip of a lifetime.

My travelmates were Amanda, Jennifer, and Ali who all live in Suncheon with me, and our friend Susan, who is working in Wando. Of the five of us, I was the least travelled. I had never been anywhere besides Canada and few of the northern states of the USA. I hadn't even seen the ocean! Well, technically I guess I saw it when I was in NYC, but I don't feel like Manhattan harbour really counts. So I did a whole lot of prep, like picking up a copy of Lonely Planet's "South East Asia on a Shoestring" two days before departure and sewing shut a large whole in my $30 backpack at 3 AM the night before departure.

Side note: My cat Mokah was looked after by my good friends Stephen and Jodie while I was away. While I was very grateful to them for this, Mokah was less gracious, and after about a week of destruction and noise in their apartment, she was moved back to my place where Jodie and Stephen visited her frequently. Our seperation and reunion were much more emotional for me than I had expected them to be. Strange the way your heart becomes attached. The poor schmoe's out there who have tried to date me know well that I can be a cold-hearted wench when I should be filled with affection. My friends and parents can vouch for the fact that I often keep people, including those I love most, at arms length when my emotions are running high. And for some reason, this crazy little furball has got my heart. I cried like a baby when I got home to her.

Korean Air Flight KE667 was right on time and delivered us to the Chiang Mai airport in northern Thailand at 12:30 AM on February 1st. Our taxi successfully dropped us off at the hostel we were booked into, but when we arrived we found the office locked and no employees to be found. We soon discovered that the hostel thought we were arriving at 1PM on Sunday, not 1AM. We were SOL in the middle of the night in Chiang Mai city with no map in a part of town low on hotels and taxis. Ali had kept her eyes open on the drive from the airport (thankfully) and remembered seeing an upscale hotel down the alley from where we'd been dropped off. We gratefully crashed there for our first night in Thailand at $12 each.

Eating my continental breakfast of fresh fruit and toast on the patio the next morning and staring at the hotel's beautiful gardens, it hits me: I'm in Thailand. Not thinking about it, not talking about it. I'm here. We found ourselves falling quickly in love with Thailand during our first day in Chiang Mai. The heat, the vegetation, the friendly people (who speak English without fear or hesistation!) and the food, oh my goodness the food! After getting Suze, Ali and Jennifer booked in for their overnight at Elephant Nature Park (Amanda and I had already booked our 1 week stay), we hired a guy named Beer to show us around a few of the local Temples. All five us piled into his tiny toyota sedan (Amanda and Jennifer shared the front bucket seat) and sped up a winding moutain road for 30 minutes to see Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai's most famous Temple which overlooks the city from the north. The steps leading to the temple were lined with vendors selling souvenirs, jewellry, fresh fruit, and anything else that might fetch a price. The main stairway had railings made of dragon scales. We paid a donation of 30 baht (approx $1 CDN) to enter the temple. I let the pictures do the talking:

We removed our shoes and were given scarves to cover bare shoulder and low necklines. Beer was indespensible as he explained the offerings of insense, flowers and money and prayers made by the local Thai people, and showed us how to participate in a monk's blessing and show respect inside the temple rooms. After the monk blessed us with holy water, a white string was tied around our wrists, the threads has been blessed to give us protection and good luck and we are instructed not to take it off for three days. There were bells everwhere (rung for good luck) as well as dogs sleeping throughout the complex who were cared for by the monks. Children played music and danced for donations to their schools. The scenic lookout reveals a smoggy Chiang Mai and some beautiful mountainside vegetation. On the way back to the city, Beer tells us that the other temple we want to see inside the old city is closed today for the Sunday Market, and just as our guidebooks predicted, instead takes us to a silk factory. We are given a demonstration of how silk is traditionally made from start to finish and then have to walk through the large store to exit. It was cool to see, but we knew the real reason we were there was that Beer would collect a comission for taking us there, becuase the owners are hoping we'll spend our money in the overpriced shop. He also tried to detour us to a tailor shop but we tell him we're tired (which we are) and are ready to head back to our hotel. Once we get back to hotel Suze, Amanda and I decide we want to check out the Sunday Market inside the old city, and we make plans to meet Ali and Jennifer for dinner at Riverside restaurant.

Chiang Mai's old city is surrounded by a moat and some ruins of the old walls and gates still remain, the most famous of which is Thai Pae gate, which is also the entrance to the popular Sunday market. It was a blur of colours, sounds and lights. It was the best shopping we found the entire time we were in Thailand and I quickly found myself snapping up jewelry, bags and clothing, unable to avoid being sucked in by the price. I also found myself enjoying bartering with vendors. We were also bumped into by a pretty convincing pick-pocket who took a nasty spill into us from behind, and after we helped him up, he hobbled along with his cane and then did the same thing to a wealthy white couple about 60 feet ahead of us. Thankfully we didn't keep anything worth snatching in our pockets.

We hopped in a tuk-tuk, a 3-wheeled motorized vehicle with a bench seat in the back, and headed to Riverside to meet the girls for dinner on a boat. It was delicious food and lovely view of the riverside night life. Our hotel was nicely situated within the city's night market district, so we did some more shopping before calling it a night. Jennifer and I also enjoyed 1/2 hour foot massages for about 3 bucks each. We went to sleep excited to head to Elephant Nature Park the next morning.

To be continued....

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