December 2008


A Kuang Si waterfall, near Luang Prabang

A Kuang Si waterfall, near Luang Prabang

Finally a few photos, I’ll post more within the next few days I hope…

Got back into Bangkok this morning after a 3 day ride around the Bolevan Plateau in Lao and crossing back into Thailand. Ironically, I got hit with a stomach bug on the last day of my ride, though the real stomach problems luckily didn’t kick in until I’d made it into the regional hub of Ubon Ratchatani, where I hunkered down in a relatively swanky hotel and slept (and antibiotic’d) my way back to health. Oh well, I’d made it through all these other travels without a hitch, so no complaints. I spent a day in Ubon and then got on a night train back into Bangkok and am getting ready to fly off to Tokyo early tomorrow AM. Hard to believe that almost 2 months have gone by…

The road dropping off of the 1000-1500 meter-tall Bolevan Plateau, which dropped me through the clouds.

The road descending off of the 1000-1500 meter-tall Bolevan Plateau, which dropped me through the clouds and towards Pakxe in Laos.

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Hey All,
A quick update from a slow internet connection in a fairly remote and beautiful part of Laos. I’m at Tadlo, a beautiful little traveller’s outpost in Southern Laos for day. It’s a town built around a few waterfalls and with a nice little group of international travellers. Today to celebrate Christmas in traditional Grieshop style, I swam in two of the waterfalls (including a natural waterslide) and watched an elephant have a bath! Pretty great, but I do miss my family and friends and wish I could enjoy that part of the holidays.
Before this, I spent a few days in Vientienne, the Laotian Capital, then took an overnight sleeper bus (a first) south through the country to the city where I’ll cross back into Thailand in a few days to start my Eastward trip back to Vancouver. I’m doing a little couple-hundred km bike loop up onto this very pretty plateau, where the coffee in Lao is grown and where there are plentiful waterfalls and really friendly, mellow people (like everywhere in Laos, but maybe even more so…). I fly to Japan on the 30th, so the trip is almost over. I’ll try to post some photos from the past several weeks when I get back into Bangkok and have my computer back. I hope all are having a great holiday with family and friends. Virtual bear hugs to all.

Don’t really have time/energy to post a whole lot right now, but a brief update. I have biked 5 days so far and not biked 4, all of it has all been pretty great. i biked from Chiang Mai (Thailand) to the Laotian border over three days including beautiful scenery, no-tell motels, thai transvestites, thai breakdancing competitions, free massages and bananas. i’ll have to elaborate on that in a bit…

i crossed the Mekong into Laos and stayed a night in the little Border town (Huay Xai) from which I caught the ‘slow boat’ (as opposed to the deathtrap speedboats that do the trip in half the time…) down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, Laos over 2 days. The boat ride was incredibly relaxing and beautiful and not the dodgy backpacker sardine-can i’d heard it could be. I met some very nice Dutch, Australian, American and Bulgarian folk and watched the mellow riverbank flow by.

I then spent 2 relaxing days in Luang Prabang, which is a UNESCO Heritage city and very scenic and well-put-together. I happened into a guest house run by a Laotian who’d been evacuated with his family to the US when he was very young and had returned to run the business after 27 years in Madison, Wisconsin! Weird thing getting to talk to your Laotian host when he has a Wisconsin accent and quotes Judas Priest lyrics… Great guy and a really nice place if you’re visiting… I went to some stellar waterfalls with some of the Dutch folks I met and had 2 days supporting the Laos Red Cross by paying for massages and saunas at their facility there – tough work but someone’s got to do it…).

The ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Viene, where I am now, was nothing short of epic. The first day ended up being 130 km and something like 3000 m (2 miles) of climbing. The road is mostly in good shape, in absolutely amazing and beautiful terrain and quite remote – I’d say I saw another vehicle every 5-10 minutes on average! Brutal climbs with me riding 8 or 9 km/hour (~5-6 mph) for hours at a time and then descending a mountain range only to repeat the climb… I made a bad tactical move of pushing for a further town (they are pretty far apart, and most of them don’t have any place for a traveler to sleep…). Luckily for me, a slow-moving logging truck happened by just before the last set of ascents, and I skitched a ride for most of the next 30 km, arriving into the town just after dark – with legs pretty thoroughly toasted. Today’s ride was just incredible, with climbs and descents along-side massive limestone/karst cliffs and meandering rivers.

One of the best things in Laos has been the kids. In pretty much every little village (and these are generally just a clustering of bamboo and a few masonry buildings huddled along the road) there are anywhere from a few to dozens of the cutest little Lao kids yelling out to me, ‘Sah Bai Dee!’ (Hello) or various english phrases they’ve picked up (Hello! Bye Bye! Thank You! Okay! I love you!) and sometimes running along side and giving me high-fives. Adults show differing degrees of interest, from big smiles to blank stares, and the reaction varies from village to village. In some, I feel like I’ve just won the Tour d’ Lao. It’s pretty incredible. Today as I sat in the shade of a Restaurant sign on my way into this town, trying to figure out where I was going to stay, two little boys came over to check me out. They proceeded to chatter away at me for a good 10-15 minutes, uproarously laughing when I made funny elephant noises and posing for photos. Youthful ambassadors and examples to for us all.

Tomorrow I head further south towards the Mekong again and the Lao capital of Vientienne. I expect more heroes’ welcomes. I also think I’ll probably eat some rice noodles along the way…

I hope all are well and having a peaceful and happy holiday!

So, as a brief update after India… The pics will have to be in a later post…

The flight into Kuala Lumpur and train ride up into Thailand wasn’t horrible, but wasn’t necessarily worth the 3-4 days. Kuala Lumpur seemed like a pretty cool city in the 8 hours I spent walking around there – Sean, I did enjoy some tasty food, though I’m sure I hardly saw the tip of the iceberg. Malaysia is a very interesting mix of cultures it seems, all wrapped in a somewhat restrictive (at least for women) wrapper. The rest of the trip largely revolved around the border between Malaysia and Thailand. Border towns tend to be somewhat-scuzzy and not necessarily places to relax in and the pair of Khota Bharu (Malaysia) and Sungai Kolok (Thailand) were pretty much as you’d expect. The ‘Jungle Line’ Train I took through eastern Malaysia was quite picturesque, but unfortunately I took it on a Malay National Holiday (I was told akin to Christmas…) so the train was absolutely packed. I bought a ‘standing room only’ ticket, and ended up snagging a spot in the canteen car from which I hardly budged for the 14 or so hours of the trip… I was pretty definitely the only non-Malay on the train, but people were mostly pretty nice. I ended up having a fun little conversation with 3 Malay school kids, who practiced their english on me, taught me Malay for ‘crazy cousins’ and gave me candy and cookies. Kids are great everywhere, they are like the universal ambassadors. Keeping that child-like openness is an important thing to strive for…

Anyhow, that put me at the border, where I crashed in a fairly swanky hotel and tried to recuperate from a few days of minimal sleep and lots of travel. The next day I made a run for the border, which started out pleasantly enough (the Malay side was nicely organized and ran smoothly), but the Thai Passport control area was basically a mob scene, with 5 ‘lines’ that were basically people pushing forward both to get to the desks and also to get under cover and out of the rain (it’s Monsoon season in Malaysia and S. Thailand I found out). I dove in, and probably elbowed a few women in headscarves in the process (I received my share as well, don’t worry) and in an hour or so I progressed the 15 feet necessary to get my passport stamped – and was on my way, onto a motor-cycle taxi in a torrential downpour to get a train ticket to Bangkok. No trains that day…

So, I’m camping out on the other side of the border in Sungai Kolok, in search of a hotel with a hot shower. I end up at ‘The Plaza’ – which I can assure you, is not run by the same management as its sister in NYC… The ‘concierge’ or guy who shows me the room and speaks the most english is actually a ‘pimp’, because after he brings me up to my room (and comments on how strong I am), he starts asking if I have a Thai ‘dahling’ or if I’d like one. Then he starts listing prices, and turns on the ‘adult’ channel on the TV (no hot shower, but a TV with a bonus…) to show me what he’s talking about… Classy joint for sure. Anyhow, I found other ways to while away my time in Sungoi Kolok. I ate some food, read, got a haircut (high and tight, brought me back to my 17 year old look… that’s what you get when the barber doesn’t know what you’re saying and vice versa…).

Anyhow, 24 hours after arriving, my time in SK drew to a close and I hopped an overnight train to Bangkok. Pretty nice overall.

Bangkok was a rapid 7 hour stop which included: getting a train ticket to Chiang Mai, dropping off my computer and extra stuff at a storage place, renting a bike, riding the rental bike to a bike shop to accessorize it (riding bike in bangkok rushhour = crazy…), winning a 25% off coupon for my accessories (sweet!), meeting up with Kiko the spaniard at the bike store and riding over to the train station to have some thai food (Kiko’s first) over Spanish conversation before hopping the overnight train to Chiang Mai. Good stuff.

Chiang Mai has been pretty mellow. Walking around, checking out the multitude of Wats (Buddhist Temples), eating. Yesterday I had a nice long chat with a Buddhist monk and a novice in the courtyard of one of the town’s main Wats, which was fun – they were very appreciative of the chance to practice their english and I shoulda asked to take a photo, but didn’t. I think I dropped one of my guidebooks there, so went back today and had a singularly uninspiring interaction with another monk who seemed to be a haughty, spoiled rich kid (he had a Canon digital SLR camera and kept badly quoting poetry)… I’m mostly over my head cold and tomorrow I head out on the bike trip. I ran into 2 dutch couples at a bike shop today who gave me some pointers to guest houses along the way and told me about what a great time they’ve had on their previous trips, how nice people are and what a great place it is to bike so i’m excited to get out there on the road…

The trip I’m planning is Chiang Mai -> Chiang Rai -> Lao Border ->River boat to Luang Prabang -> Ride to Vientienne -> Ride down the Mekong to somewhere along the Thai border and eventually back to Bangkok. Sound half-baked? Yup. Should be fun though.

I hope to get more pics up soon. And maybe an annotated map at some point…

So now to sum up my India experience in one measly posting. Good thing I have a 4-hour layover in the Chennai Airport to work on it… This will be part journal entry, part meditation and part travelogue, so if you actually read this and aren’t liking a paragraph, maybe just skip to the next to find something more to your liking, or just take a peek at the pics…

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My experience in India has been in some senses just as I expected: completely overwhelming, befuddling, momentarily infuriating, often inspiring and always thought-provoking. It’s been a bunch of stuff I haven’t expected at all as well. With the uncertainties in my travel schedule (the troubles in Thailand, mostly) I considered re-organizing my trip to spend more time traveling around India but decided that the chill and easy-going environment in Thailand and other parts of SE Asia better suited my plans for a relaxing and relatively low-stress trip (though I still have some challenge in mind, more on that in a bit). However I’m definitely intrigued by my little peek at India and like I’ll definitely be drawn back here to see more of it during my lifetime.

From India and Malaysia

First off, I have to give big thanks to my gracious hosts and friends in Delhi: former-friend-of-friend, now-friend and inspirational dude Tak who gave me a comfortable and homey place to lay my head and showed me around town in a way only an experienced Delhi resident could; Conor and Rebecca are amazing travel and work and exploration partners; and their current host Suparna very graciously opened up her home to me when I crash landed in Delhi late at night a few weeks ago. I’m continually thrilled and thankful for the people I have had the good fortune to meet and learn from in my recent travels – I’m a lucky guy. Ok, on to India…

I have mostly stayed in Delhi during my time in India, with a few side trips outside the city. Delhi is in every sense a mega-city. The population is somewhere around 16 million people and the city has air pollution like I’ve never experienced. It truly puts how good we have it in most of North America and Europe in terms of all aspect of infrastructure and public health into perspective. On an annual average basis, air pollution levels in Delhi are something like 10-20 times worse than standards allow in the US (and most places – even really dirty areas like LA and Houston and-I-can’t-think-of-any-other-place-like-maybe-somewhere-in-the-rustbelt hover a little above the standards. In more accessible (if disgusting) terms, every day was a black-booger day for me in Delhi… I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been studying this stuff, but the experience really is oppressive and the impacts obvious. It’s all I could do to keep myself from calculating the minutes ticking off my life expectancy. On the other hand, the levels of poverty, lack of housing (people sleep on the streets _everywhere_), child welfare programs (the kids on the street are heart-wrenching), education, sanitation, etc. etc. make the air pollution -as everywhere- just one in long list of problems waiting to be worked on. Making sense of or progress on any of these problems seems daunting to say the least, but it’s an important reminder to me that these things move in increments and that there’s only dynamic.

I suppose something about India that really struck me hard both in my explorations of cultural and historical sites and also in thinking about issues of ‘development’ (which almost sounds like a dirty word to me by now, but I’ll use for brevity) is the heavy weight and presence of History here. Maybe it’s because there is relatively so little historical continuity in the US (the ‘way things are’ for most of us – with important exceptions of course- can only be traced back a generation or at most century or two) or it’s just striking because this is such a vastly different and new-to-me culture, but the weight and influence of the past and the established order (or disorder in some cases?) seems absolutely pervasive here. And since I firmly believe that ‘context is everything’ it makes thinking about things like air pollution and climate change that are supposedly ‘technical’ issues without considering these aspects to be kinda ludicrous. I already probably thought that, but this trip (all of it) has made it tangible and has given me the slightest inkling of some of the aspects involved in these problems which are frankly quite daunting and humbling; to think that I may in any small way be able to contribute to solutions to such problems seems crazy, but I’ll still try… It makes me really grateful and excited that I’m doing work in an inter-disciplinary setting where this complexity is recognized and appreciated. The importance of transferring some of the progress and helping avoid some of the mistakes more-developed nations have made/are making is clear. How that might be done not as much… The conference I attended in Bangkok showed me one way in progress may be made – through the exchange of ideas and capability in an open, international setting, but how these kind of things get put into play is still largely mysterious to me…

Anyhow, some India stories:

As shown in the previous photo set, Rebecca and I explored the labyrinthine alleys of Chandni Chowk (thanks for the pointer Subu), and she and Conor and I visited the Jama Masjid and climbed one of its massive towers for a view of Delhi and it’s haze (ok, ok, enough air pollution).

Tak took me on a range of late-night adventures in Delhi, largely seemingly built around the procurement of Delhi’s finest ‘street meats’. I really never felt threatened while in Delhi, even late at night. That said, I probably wouldn’t have ventured out quite as much without Tak’s company and assurance that he’d never had any problems.

We went to Karim’s, a (rightly) famous curry joint back in an alley in Old Delhi for some incredible mutton curry, kebabs and an almond chicken dish which was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. After feasting, we went on a late night stroll around Old Delhi looking for the outlines of the havelis (old mansion-like estates) that were divided, built-upon and destroyed in the slow transformation of Old Delhi from the realm of the elite to the rambling maze of alleys, shops and residences that it is today. We also happened across a 2-century-old Masjid (Muslim temple) built atop one of these old buildings, supposedly by the wife of a famous musician, which the night watchman let us in to see (wandering with an adventurous Hindi-speaker has huge perks…). We also happened across a nearly half-city-block-square gathering of marigold venders who’d presumably brought their wares into the city to outfit the multitude of weddings happening in this favorable season.

A night or two later, we took another late-night jaunt to a BBQ joint in Nizamuddin (a historically Muslim area near his house) which is just a concrete slab that serves as an auto-tire shop during the day but makes tasty, tasty kebabs and biryani (flavored rice) and amazing rotis for the late-night crowd. On the night we were there they couldn’t serve at tables because the municipal elections were the next day, but we took it to go and sat on some steps and feasted. The kebabs were so tender that they were almost creamy and were made with a recipe supposedly developed for a king with bad teeth. From here, we went strolling and ended up at a Sufi shrine at around midnight. The tomb of a famous Sufi saint Nizamuddin is one of the holiest sites in the Islamic world and a big source of religious pilgrims. It is also a pilgrimage site for destitute people begging alms because of Nizamuddin’s and Sufi’s dedication to giving to those in need, and was probably the most extreme exposure to poverty I had during my trip. I could write a whole other entry on my mental processing this exposure, and Tak and I had an interesting conversation on the internal conflicts that grip you in it. I’m still digesting it. This visit was incidentally on the evening of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

For Thanksgiving, Tak got Conor, Rebecca and I invited to a Thanksgiving potluck on a rooftop in a nearby neighborhood in Delhi. What can I say? All the traditions: turkey, mashed potatoes (I made half of ‘em), stuffing, cranberry sauce, beer, wine, tequila (?), drunken Australian shadow puppets (??), the Irish penguin shuffle (???). Ok, maybe not so traditional, but a good time was had by all (see the slideshow above for evidence) and I got to meet some really interesting people. If any of you are looking for a ski holiday in Kashmir, let me know, I met just the people to hook you up…

From India and Malaysia

A final jaunt with Tak was a late-night bike ride throughout Delhi – we figured we probably covered 20 to 30 miles between 9 pm and around 1 am and I got to see a bunch of the big tourist areas (India Gate, Connaught Place, the backpacker’s neighborhood) astride Tak’s Surly Crosscheck. This also involved a visit to a late night kebab joint and some heavy-duty (Indians and Irish both love their butter – something I learned on this trip) veggie curries. I loooove riding my bike in the city! Great fun! (and I won’t mention the air pollution!) This reminded me (How did I forget? I don’t know.) that a bicycle really is my favorite way to travel, so I’ve reworked the plans a little bit so that now I’m planning on doing around 2-3 weeks of bike touring in Northern Thailand, Laos and maybe Vietnam… I’ll have to keep y’all posted on that.

Peter (a guy I met at the conference in Bangkok and then met up with again with in Ko Samet in Thailand. He was passing through Delhi (where he’d lived for a year as a young teenager) so we met up and went to Humayun’s Tomb, an amazing site and an architectural precursor to the Taj Mahal (which I didn’t quite make on this trip…). Peter’s a Vancouverite, so I made a Canadian friend in Thailand and India!

From India and Malaysia

This past weekend, Conor and Rebecca and I took a trip around 200 km north of Delhi to a town on the Ganges in the foothills of the Himalayas called Rishikesh, which is sort of a new-age / yoga magnet in India. It’s a beautiful setting and we had a nice relaxing time (in clean air!), did some yoga, made a fairly strenuous hike up one of the mountains to a Hindu shrine (but didn’t quite make it for lack of day light) and did some gift shopping. From Rishikesh, we took a taxi down to Roorkee, which is a site of an Indian Institute of Technology campus (IIT-R) where Conor and I went to visit with some potential collaborators and I gave an impromptu research talk to some (hopefully) interested researchers. The IIT campus was the first technical college built by the English in India and has a beautiful campus and placid feel, the people there were great hosts and we had some interesting conversations.

From India and Malaysia

A bit of excitement on the way to Rishikesh in a bus. We pulled up to a traffic jam in a small village and all of the sudden saw a bunch of guys running across the field next to the road with guns and started hearing gunfire right near the bus. The three of us ducked our heads and started moving towards the aisle, a tad freaked out. But a guy sitting next to us assured us that everyone outside the bus was smiling and laughing, so we shouldn’t worry. We then saw them carrying some other guy in gunny sack. Practical joke? Police training? Not sure, but a few days after the Mumbai attacks it was enough to get us jumpy…

From India and Malaysia

POST-SCRIPT (from Chiang Mai, Thailand where I’m finally getting a chance to post this): Upon reflection, some of my writings/observations about my time in India seem a bit trite and maybe naive. But, I’ll let it stay as is and if you’ve gotten this far, and have comments/criticisms/counterpoints, please don’t be shy…

Hey all,
A quick update. I opted not to fly back into Bangkok (though I had an option to fly into a military base 150 km east of the city) and instead I’m flying into Kuala Lumpur in a few hours and taking a train up into Thailand. I had a nice 4 hour train journey in India (I’ll write about stuff in more detail when I get a second…) which inspired this journey – I’m aiming for the ‘Jungle Train’… No, not a dancefloor move, it’s a train along the eastern part of the Malay Isthmus. Don’t know much more than that except that I’ll have some layovers here and there so I’ll see some of Malaysia?

The plan after that is to head up to Bangkok, immediately north into Thailand and hopefully rent a bicycle for a 2 week tour up there… That’s the plan anyway.

I hope all are well.
I’ll try to get some words and pics up soon.