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!

Exploring Ubud and Beyond

Ubud is full of artistic culture and creativity, but its also surrounded by some beautiful scenery.  Lonely Planet provides some wonderful walking tours around the town and we decided to embark on a couple of them on different days.

That monkey is sticking his tongue out at me!

On our first full day in Ubud, we followed the “Monkey Forest & Penestanan Walking Tour” through the rice terraces behind Ubud.  The tour began with a walk through the monkey forest, which is infested with conniving and mischievous monkeys ready to pounce at your first wrong move.  They seemed to be interested in cameras, although I was successful in keeping mine hidden somehow, and I saw countless people with monkeys clinging to their shorts or trying to climb on their backs (I was extremely lucky to not have had to experience this, although one made a lunge for Matt’s shorts , which he skillfully eluded).  The Monkey Forest was peaceful, green and I could barely see the sky it was so lush.

The rice fields directly around Ubud

After thoroughly exploring the forest, we exited the opposite side and made our way through the small towns of Ubud suburbia, finally making it to the rice terraces.  The Lonely Planet guided us through the rice terraces where we were supposed to exit on to the main road.  Well after some wandering around in the mud and the muck of the rice paddies, we finally heard the road, but weren’t exactly sure how to get there.  I made a comment how I bet we’ll end up in someone’s backyard (because we practically were already in one walking through the rice fields) and sure enough, a few minutes later, we happened across an extremely surprised lady doing housework.  She kindly led us through her yard and pointed us to the street, which led us back to the main town.

His crazy fingers!

Later that night, we attended a Traditional Balinese dance at the Ubud Palace.  It was absolutely incredible and completely different than anything else.  The way their fingers and hands gracefully twitched to the music and the way their eyes moved side to side with the beat made it one of the most unique dances I have ever seen.  The costumes were gorgeous and I never wanted it to end!  I’m hoping that they have something like this in the Los Angeles area so that I can go again when I get home!

The rice terraces by the river

Our next adventure was what Lonely Planet liked to call the Penestanan & Sayan Walking Tour.  It was quoted to take about six hours so we definitely had to mentally prepare for this one.  We found ourselves wandering around a small town looking for the “small road” that would bring us to the rice terraces and then on to the jungle/river.  We walked around aimlessly for a short while when a cute old man approached us stating he knew the way (it reminded me a little bit of Jafar when he dressed up as an old man and told Aladdin about the Cave of Wonders, yeah I’m a dork, I know).  As soon as he led us down the path, he was talking about the compensation he was going to receive for this valiant task.  I went from saying this was a cute little old man to what the heck jerk!  We found our way past the rice terraces and to the river, after once again receiving help from a tip-wanting “friendly” Indonesian.

The beautiful river banks

We trudged along the beautiful banks of the river watching river rafters brave the rapids and scaling rocks and foliage.  At the end of the trail, we found ourselves faced with a gate blocking the path.  There were drops on either side of this gate and all the rope and chicken wire made it clear that the resident was through with travelers meandering through his yard. Yet, there was no way we were going to turn around and walk all the way back (it had taken us a good hour and half at least to get to this point).  I figured out how to open the gate and we sneaked on through, gladly not running into the fellow and a little nervous that he was going to pull out a shotgun of some sort. About forty minutes and an incredibly exorbitant amount of stairs later, we made it back to the street and after a delicious lunch, we stumbled back into Ubud.

The amazing Jatileuwih rice terraces

The next day we hired a car to take us up to the rice terraces of Jatileuwih.  They have been nominated for UNESCO status and there’s a very good reason for that.  I have never seen more green in my life.  My eyes were on complete green overload.  I’m used to beautiful beaches and forests, but I’ve never seen anything like this: Rows and rows of rice terraces with a backdrop of a volcano-like mountain surrounded by blue sky and fluffy clouds.  We took a good two hours or so to make our way through the terraces successfully reaching the bottom and witnessing phenomenal views.  Although my feet were completely under water at times making me slip all over the place, it was one of the best and most unique hikes I’ve ever done.   Our driver also followed us on our trek and explained the rice growing process to us, which we had been wondering about ever since we saw our first rice terrace in Ubud.  It was an amazing day and definitely worth the two hour drive north.

Ubud was absolutely unbelievable.  I know I could have spent weeks there just exploring all the shops and art galleries!  What a perfect place for me!

A City on Water – Kompong Khleang

I definitely needed a break from the temples today and decided to take an excursion to one of the floating villages.  A few couchsurfers and I got the tip from a local couchsurfer telling us not to go to the nearby village of Chong Khneas, telling us that it was solely developed for tourists and a complete trap.  Thus, we headed out to the distant Kompong Khleang 35 km away from Siem Reap.

Look how high those stilts are!!

The tuk tuk drive out to the village was peaceful and we saw a lot of the countryside.  The road into the town was a tough dirt road, which ended up being our downfall later that evening.  The houses that lined the path were all on stilts to protect themselves during the wet season.  I was impressed by the height, probably 5-6 meters tall, but nothing compared to those along the river bank, which towered almost 10 meters.

A couple of the children who hounded me for 1000 riel

We were told that a boat should be $15 and when we were quoted the price of $20 each (utterly ridiculous!) we decided to take a walk through the village to get them to reconsider their offer.  I was hounded by the adorable children asking me for 1000 riel, 1000 riel, 1000 riel.  I fell in love with them right away and I was actually disappointed I didn’t have any riel with me, although that probably wouldn’t have been the best idea to cultivate their ideas that tourists should give them money.  I loved the feel of the little town, there was even a little ice cream cart going around.  All the houses were hoisted up on huge stilts, townies were lazing around, and life in the village seemed to be pretty good. 

On the river heading to the floating village

After much negotiation, we lowered the price to $35 for the entire boat and were soon puttering down the river towards the Tonlé Sap lake.   There were so many great photographic opportunities along the river, many boats passing, pigs playing around in the mud, children splashing in the water, and field workers coming home from a hard days work.

About 20 minutes later, we were faced with the opening to the huge lake and soon enough encountered the floating village for the first time.   

A cluster of homes in the floating village

What an incredible way to live!  Taking a boat to the market.  To see your friends.  To have dinner.  Pretty much, taking a boat to do anything.  We spotted pigs, dogs, and chickens hanging on these large house boats.  Some houses were bigger than others.  Some were by themselves while others were located in clusters.  Live moved around just like it would on land.

Watching the sunset from our boat

We passed through the village and decided to take a break to watch the sunset.  It was crazy.  The ocean and the sky melded into one and it literally looked like we were at the edge of the earth.  It was a really eerie feeling.  Not know what was out there and the toxic green water of the lake made us wonder what was beneath us as well.  It was pretty cloudy so the sunset wasn’t too dramatic, but it was still an incredibly peaceful setting to be in.  Chilling in a lake, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in a floating village, in Cambodia somewhere.  Who would have thought I would be here??

A closeup of one of the floating houses

We got a little more up close and personal view of the village on the way back and actually stopped a store to get some fuel.  Unfortunately, it was getting dark and I was unable to use a shutterspeed fast enough to counteract the movement of the boat (I don’t like using flash in these situations because I believe that it is intrusive) so I didn’t get as many up close shots as I would have liked.

We made it back to the village and were soon on our way back to Siem Reap.  Or so we thought.  A few minutes down the road our driver pulled over and told us to get out.  Panic rushed through my body as I thought he was going to leave us in the pitch darkness, in the middle of nowhere, and no way to get back, but then I remembered, we hadn’t paid him yet, so there was no way he would leave.  He pointed to his tire and we noticed it was completely flat.  Great.

About an hour and a half later, and after I intently watched the way they attempted to fix this tire, first by sewing, then some weird goop like substance, then a patch, and ultimately just changing out the tire completely, we were on our way back to Siem Reap again.  While we were waiting, we had stopped in a small area of town where the boys were viciously playing around whipping a wet towel at each other.  Boys will be boys anywhere in the world.  I stayed far away for I wanted no part in that and wished I could have meandered around a bit more, but alas the town had barely any electricity, and wandering around would surely get me lost.

It was an absolutely amazing experience, although I would have loved to spend more time on the lake weaving through the houses and checking out everything they had there, but then again, I wouldn’t want someone sneaking through my backyard.

Temples of Angkor – Day 2

Since my first day at the historic temples of Angkor went amazingly, I was extremely eager to start the second day.  So eager, that I agreed to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and get an early morning start to catch the sunrise at Pre Rup.  I figured, I’m here, why waste time sleeping, right? Right.  I dragged myself out of bed and met up with three couchsurfers and a tuk tuk driver ready to take us to the faraway temple of Banteay Srei. 

The sunrise at Pre Rup

Honestly, the sunset wasn’t too dramatic.  There has been a constant haze around and the sun didn’t appear until the temple was almost completely lit.  The warm sunlight brought out the orange in the walls and statues of Pre Rup and it was definitely worth it to get an early start on the day.  We experienced more history and culture before most people get out of bed in the morning!

Banteay Srei

One of the many beautiful carvings at Banteay Srei

Built in the 10th century, Banteay Srei, or the “Citadel of the Women,” is known for its unique red sandstone and intricate carvings, which were breathtaking and I have to say it was one of my favorite temples so far.  Seeing it in the morning light really brought out contours and beautiful redness of all the carvings.  There were also some distinctive statues in the main temple which were crosses between monkeys, birds, or lions with humans, something that I hadn’t seen yet.   It’s great to see new things from temple to temple because I think it would get a bit repetitive and “temple fatigue” would set in a little quicker. 

After a peaceful walk through the woods around the temple and a delicious omelet for breakfast, we jumped back into the tuk tuk and headed to Banteay Samre, which was perfect timing, because we just missed the hordes of people coming into Banteay Srei. 

Banteay Samre

The Sun and the Moon carving at Banteay Samre

I really enjoyed this temple.  It was extremely compact, but it was covered in wall carvings.  There were lots of little corridors and places to climb and explore and we actually almost had the place to ourselves. 

I love that we are able to climb all over ancient ruins.  You would never see that in the States!  I get to scale stairs that are crumbling as I write this and its such an amazing feeling.  Imagining what it was like in its heyday.  All the people bustling around.  The cities of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom must have been madhouses!

One of the elephant statues at Eastern Mebon

Next, we shot over to Eastern Mebon, where we got a quick look at some large elephant statues, which we haven’t seen anywhere else.  They seemed to be in pretty good shape too, which was surprising.  Everywhere else, you see the lions faces smashed in, they have only three feet, or no head, but the elephants were solid and seemed untouched.   

We decided to power through our day so we could end by threeish, so we headed right over to Ta Som.  The temple wasn’t anything too special, but it did have a lot of great carvings, dilapidated statues, and rubble to climb around on. 

The unique Preah Neak Poan was right down the road and offered us something slightly different to look at. 

Preah Neak Poan

The island at Preah Neak Poan

The temple was formally an island and is said to represent the Himilayan lake of Anavatapta, a lake known for its miraculous healing powers.  It was a circular monument (the island) surrounded by a large square with four smaller squares surrounding it.  It would have been wonderful to see this in the wet season (like a lot of the temples and things to do in Siem Reap!), but imagining the water was good enough. 

Preah Khan

Life among the ruins of Preah Khan

Our last stop of the day was at Preah Khan, an enormous complex that seemed to keep going forever!  It had trees growing through the walls, rubble in every room, stone blocks of rubble everywhere, and of course, amazing carvings.  Those ancient Khmers really knew how to carve stone and the fact the all these carvings are still here today just blows my mind.  Most of these carvings are older than America.  Actually, scratch that.  All of these carvings are older than the U.S.  So incredible. 

Another amazing day at the temples completed!  I’m definitely up for a break tomorrow though!