Trekking & Karaoke? Yeah it happens…

One of the first things I was told to do while I was in Northern Thailand was to go on what they call a “hilltribe trek,” which as I’m sure you can figure out, is a backpacking trip through the forest/jungle where you visit various settlements of people, usually in the middle of nowhere.

I traveled to Pai straight from Chiang Mai, where I had celebrated Songkran, Thailand’s new years, which is a countrywide water fight, yes I said water fight, with super soakers and trash cans full of water being dumped on innocent passerbys (I’m not sure I ever had the chance to write about Songkran, but you better believe I will make sure I get that chance soon! Followed with MANY pictures of this once in a lifetime – or if you want, every year – event).

Anyways, I digressed, Songkran can do that to you, but I took a bus from Chiang Mai to Pai and when I landed in this very small town, I went straight to sign up for one of these treks.  The only one I found was a 2 day, 1 night trek, which was a bit disappointing for me because I wanted a serious, grueling, arduous backpacking trip through the wilderness, but I took what I could get (I later had a trek like this in Laos, and honestly, could have done without the “grueling” and “arduous” part, although it was a fun experience…more on that later).

IMG_9425As we set out on our trek, we happened across a village that was celebrating a wedding.  I wrote about the experience I had at the ceremony here.   While the ceremony was happening, there was a party going on right outside (I guess in Thailand the party starts even before the bride and groom have said their vows).  The party consisted of free-flowing Beer Chiang and a computer hooked up to a couple microphones for, you guessed it, karaoke.

Did I ever think that I would be karaoking on my first hilltribe trek?  Definitely not.  Was I a big karaokier (not even sure if that’s a word) myself? Not really.  Was I going to sing?  You bet.

IMG_9426I can’t really remember how we chose songs.  I have a faint memory that they had a short list of songs to pick from.  But nonetheless, I chose “My heart will go on” by Celine Dion.  I mean, that was the obvious choice, right?

Well, lets say, I wasn’t the star of my Pai debut.  The man to my right, not sure what his name was, definitely rocked the Titanic ballad harder than I did.  But I sure tried.  He got so into it, I had to reciprocate.

I mean here I was, in the middle of the wilderness of Northern Thailand, probably a few hours walking distance from any “city”, on the biggest adventure of my life, all by myself (other than all the other people around me, but all by myself in the sense that I knew no one), and I was singing “My Heart Will Go On” at a random couple’s wedding.

Epic.

This definitely goes down in my book as the most memorable karaoke experience I think I’ll ever have…unless I’m in a duet with the actual Celine Dion, whereas in that case, that might win.

But right now, this is definitely it.

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First Impressions: Chiang Mai

Alright, I’m going to be a little biased here.  I arrived to Chiang Mai when it is at its best, the New Year’s Festival called Songkran.  If you’re in Thailand for this holiday, it is said that Chiang Mai is the place to be.

And I believe it.

The old city of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a moat.  This moat is then used to refill countless and countless buckets and waterguns, which are then used to soak and re-soak every single person in the city.  And I mean every single person.  Businessmen, shopkeepers, mothers, infants, monks, even policemen are dripping water by 10 o’clock in the morning.  I can’t imagine being anywhere else for this holiday! 

It was an endless supply of water.

But more about the holiday later.  I want to talk a little bit about the city.  Or at least what I saw of it.

Most of the shops were closed.  And by most, I mean at least 95% of them.  Everyone was out “playing Songkran.”  But I liked the way the city was structured.  It was definitely walkable and I got to stroll down the Sunday Market (which was going on a Friday because of the massive amounts of people inundating the city, and I mean literally inundating) and was tempted to buy anything and everything once again.

It seemed like a pretty laid back place with a lot of character.  My couchsurfing host showed me all of his favorite restaurants.  And yes, he could only show me them, because their owners were out spraying people with hoses, but needless to say, I heard there were some good restaurants.  And I’m sure there are a lot of great temples and museums to see there, but I was a little caught up.

So my first impressions of Chiang Mai are a little skewed.  I thought the city was the greatest place on Earth, but I might have to revisit it away from all the mayhem. 

Instead of exploring the city, I was captivated by the Thai culture on this amazing holiday!

The Bangkok Protests – A Firsthand Account

I arrived into Bangkok from Bali only to be greeted by social unrest.  The red shirts had been protesting the government for a few weeks now and were now taking over the city.  All of the malls were closed.  Streets were blocked.  They were causing the city of Bangkok to go a little slower than usual. 

I was staying with my friend in the Sukumvit area between the Phloen Chit and Nana stations.  I didn’t really have any trouble getting over there, but I noticed the sea of red shirts on the streets and the barriers that had been haphazardly placed along the roads.  We successfully avoided the mayhem on Friday, but during a quick run to Subway for lunch, we were thrown into the middle of it all.

The police closing in on the Red Shirts

The Subway is located right next to the Nana station, right where a group of redshirts had blockaded the road.  We were just minding our own business, ordering our footlongs, when we looked out the window and saw lines of policemen marching towards the protesters.  It was an insane sight.  They were all in unison, full gear, shields ready.

The doors to the Subway were quickly barricaded and the Open sign was changed to close.  Worried we were going to miss the action, we scarfed down our sandwiches and headed outside, only to watch the tail-ends of the policemen go.  Well that was quick!

A group of Red Shirts heading over to the Phloen Chit Station

That was only the beginning.

We hung around there for awhile, listening to the cheering and laughter, and then decided to head down to the Phloen Chit station to follow the crowds of redshirts on motorcycles and in the backs of trucks.

That’s when it got good. 

The police side of the stand-off

We arrived at the station to witness a standoff between the protesters and a slew of police.  There was about 10 meters between the two, a few cameramen and journalists in the middle, and redshirts lining the streets.  It was a crazy feeling being right in the middle of the warring entities!  The police were standing their ground and the redshirts were posted right across from them, but there wasn’t much animosity in the air.  People were laughing and goofing around.  We also found this again with the police when we moved further down the street.  They were lounging about, playing cards, texting, napping, and chatting away.  There was no sense of urgency and no inclination of violence. 

The Red Shirt side of the barricade

There were negotiations going on between the lines and a man came on a loudspeaker, spoke for awhile in Thai and we started hearing cheering.  A few moments later, large trucks split the lines and whisked away the police forces. 

A retreat!

Laying down, texting, chatting are just a few of the relaxing activities the police did during the stand-off

It was such a cool sight watching the red shirts scream and hoot as they watched the police trucks retreating.  The policemen were smiling and laughing as well (probably happy that they didn’t have to sit there much longer!) and I actually caught a red shirt handing a red bandana to a policeman in the truck (the name watermelon is given to army and policemen who are secretly supporting the red shirt cause, green on the outside, red on the inside).

A woman handing out drinks to the thirsty policemen

After the retreat, we decided to head home, only to hear of violence erupting on Khao San Road only hours later.  We were shocked.  We had felt no sense of danger whatsoever, but that is the scary thing about protests, they can take an ugly turn within moments (maybe we shouldn’t have hung around so long!).

An Ascent into Darkness – Climbing Mt. Batur

One of the must do activities, or so I’ve heard, in Bali is to climb one of the few volcanoes.  And when you do this climb is quite different than any other hike you have done before. 

You begin your ascent at 4 AM in the morning.  Yes, you are in complete darkness, with no promise of light until you are at the top.  This is no easy feat.

Especially since I haven’t worked out in almost a year (thank you Southeast Asia!).

My friend Stephanie and I began our trip to Mount Batur (there are also a few other volcanoes, but this one seems to be the more popular one, I think its because its an “easier” climb and its shorter than the others) at 2 AM from Kuta Beach.  We attempted to nap on the way up to the volcano, but struggled to gain some extra shut eye before our adventure up the mountain.

We arrived at the base and met our guide, Pon, who ended up being the best guide ever, but more on that later.  For awhile, it was pretty flat.  We had no idea what the terrain looked like around us or ahead of us. 

And then we hit the mountain…

We made it!

I felt like I was going straight up…all the time…with no end.  Holding the extremely small flashlight I was given, I carefully maneuvered the rocks and hoped that I didn’t fall, which I didn’t, but definitely came close once or twice!  It felt so great to be breaking a sweat (well, Southeast Asia makes me sweat all the time, but this sweat wasn’t from heat!), but I had to put the hood up on my sweatshirt because the breeze was making me cold.  I had to take many breaks and after a great deal of huffing and puffing, we made it to the top and we were the first ones there! 

With our awesome guide

We felt extremely accomplished and it had only taken us a little over an hour when it is supposed to take an hour and a half or so.  We soon were freezing because our completely sweat drenched bodies were now feeling the cold of the mountain top and we were eager for the sun to rise.  Our adrenaline must have kicked in as well because we were soon laughing and making jokes and might have been “those girls” at the top, but we didn’t care, we just climbed a volcano!

The beautiful sunrise

Soon enough, the sun peeked out from behind the mountains, and although it was quite cloudy, it was still definitely worth it.  We enjoyed the sunrise and then took a quick walk around the crater, but didn’t get too close because a Swedish man had fallen in only a few days earlier.  I’m not exactly sure how he fell in, he had to have been doing something pretty stupid to lose his balance, but who knows (the Grand Canyon has roughly 10 photography related deaths a year so I’m not entirely surprised)!

The peaceful scenery

On the way down (which sometimes is harder than the way up!), it was really fun to actually see what we missed in the morning!  The mountainside was covered in black lava rocks from previous eruptions, (oh and by the way this volcano is still active, yeah it could have blown at any second) and the views were amazing!

Our guide apparently loved us as well and gave us our very own Mt. Batur Trekking Guide shirts!!  You can’t buy those!  We were ecstatic!!

Climbing Mt. Batur at night has been one of my favorite activities yet on my travels! 

The amazing view!

Riding Giants – Learning How to Surf in Bali

 I’m from California.  Meaning its pretty much implied that I know how to surf.

Well I don’t.

The surfboard looks like its going to knock me over, which it did, multiple times...

I’ve tried to learn multiple times, but my stubbornness and fear of being underwater stood in my way.  Plus the water in California is freezing and the waves are slightly out of my range.

Thus, I made it my mission to finally stand up on a surfboard in Bali.

My friend Stephanie, who was only a little bit more experienced than I, and I rented a board for the day on Kuta Beach.  She set out first because my nerves were getting the best of me and came back twenty minutes later after being ruled by the small waves, which didn’t give me much confidence.

Paddling out only to get rocked moments later

I paddled out, trying to remember what I had been taught six years earlier.  Well, it didn’t work because I completely wiped out over and over and over again.  Discouraged, I waded out of the water only to find that one of the fins had come off!  There is no way that it should have fallen off that fast!

I grabbed the guy that had sold us the board and brought him over to see the damage.  I told him that it should not have fallen off after twenty minutes in the water and he just kept saying, “I see you.  I see you.  You in the water.  You cannot stand up.  You just fall.  You cannot stand up!”  I told him that I was aware I could not stand up, but he still repeated, “You in the water!  You cannot stand up!  You need lessons!  I show you!”

I'm almost standing! I'm pretty sure I got there and then plummetted promptly

I ignored him, he eventually walked away, and we were stuck with a board with only one fin, which didn’t really bother us because we couldn’t stand up anyways.

But we pressed on.

And later that day, after an incident of my shoulder sublexing yet again, I am pleased to say I stood up…for about 2 seconds.  But nonetheless, I stood up and a couple days later when we rented a board again, it became a little bit easier.  And by a little bit, I mean I still wiped out 75% of the time. 

I'm so excited that I stood up for the first time!

Actually, make that 85%, but I was ok with that.

I conquered the waves of Bali!  Now onto the icy waters of the Pacific.

First Impressions: Kuta

The last popular beach I’ve been to was Patong Beach on Phuket.  It was jam packed with crazy backpackers, expensive lounge chairs, and barely any beach space.    I have always tried to avoid “the place to be” on an island.  I like to get off the beaten path and find a nice quiet place to just chill out and enjoy the beach.

But I get a different feel from Kuta.  Yes, there are tons of people.  Yes, its crowded and yes, it has a McDonalds.  But its not as crowded as I expected.  The beach is long and spread out and I don’t feel claustrophobic while soaking up the sun in the sand.

Although, its quite hard to take a quick cat nap.  “Sarong, Sarong,” “Ice Cream,” and “Anana, Mango, Cold Drink” are heard every other minute and their sellers like to linger, just in case you change your mind.

There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, with a hawker center right on the beach that is delicious and has nasi goreng to pizza to falafel, surfboards line the sand, the sun is always shining (well almost always, I got stuck in a juice bar for an hour trying to wait out a freak storm) and a Bintang beer is always easily attainable.

The streets of Kuta - A far cry from the streets of Ko Tao or Ko Jum!

Lazy Lovina

The beautiful black sand beaches of Lovina

After thouroughly exploring Ubud, we headed up to the quiet beach town of Lovina.  And when I say quiet, I definitely mean quiet.  There was barely anyone there.  We seemed to be one of maybe four or five people staying in our hotel, which was off of the main street of town, but still it was a pretty nice place.  I went for a walk on the beach when we arrived and pretty much had the place to myself!  It reminded me of the good ole’ days on Ko Jum.  I could walk for miles and barely see one person. The sand was also black, which I had never seen before, and although I didn’t go into the water (it was extremely murky and definitely uninviting) it was an absolutely beautiful sight.  There were beautiful clouds, boats speckled the water, and the beach seemed to stretch on forever. 

One of the statues at the temple near our hotel

At night, we walked down to the main stretch of town and it literally felt deserted.  We asked where all the people were and the answer we received was that June and July were Lovina’s busy season, definitely not April.  There were rows of cute little restaurants, each with one or two people in them, and shops full of sarongs and trinkets, but that’s about it.  We ate at a great little Italian restaurant and then decided to head back since the nightlife wasn’t too hopping. 

The Banjar Hot Springs near Lovina

Our last day in Lovina was unfortunately cloudy for the most part, which discouraged me because I of course wanted to work on my tan!  It was a lazy morning and then we rented motorbikes (with drivers of course) to the Banjar Hot Springs.  I was expecting this grandiose and intricate collection of pools, but what I got was one big pool with a couple on the side and the smell of eggs filling the air.  The hot spring was nice and warm and I spent some time in the water, but it honestly wasn’t anything too special.  I was hoping to hike around in the hills surrounding the hot springs, but there was no direct access from the area.  Supposedly there are some trails around, but we were unable to find them.  

I can see that Lovina is an up in coming place.  Construction sites for nice hotels, bungalows, and apartment buildings line the quiet beach and people will be filling the sand and water in no time.  I’m glad I got to see it when it was quiet and relaxing and free of drunk travelers doing stupid things!