M.A. Van Wey Travel & Photo


Climbing Ruins in Ayutthaya
November 30, 2009, 3:41 pm
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Just 2 hours north of Bangkok by train, the ancient capital city of Ayutthaya sits in a hot, dusty valley with two major rivers flowing through it.  In fact the city proper is actually an island between these two rivers with only a handful of bridges and ferries crossing over them.  There’s almost 700 years of history in this city, Thailand’s old capital fortress, and the ruins and restored temples share this story with anyone curious enough to venture inside.  It was sacked and looted so many times by Burma and Laos that by the 18th century the king was fed up and moved shop down to Bangkok.   Thankfully there is still plenty left to look at and photograph, including some absolutely stunning wats and chedi’s (stupas).

We stayed here only 2 nights and 3 days, although as a tourist it isn’t really practical to spend much longer.  Temples and ruins, like I mentioned, are the prime attractions here and after looking at 20 or 30 it’s time to move on.  The city itself, however, is vibrant and bustling and has much to offer the traveler who’s interested in more than the history of the area.  Our first day we explored most of the city proper on foot, covering a dozen kilometers and a dozen temples in an afternoon.  Most of the temples here were built of brick and a mortar covering.  As we explored their ruins, the structures ranged from massive piles of brick to perfectly preserved steeples and arches and domes.  We wandered in and out of different crumbling landscapes, stumbling upon herds of grazing cattle, couples sleeping in the shade of the chedis, street dogs patrolling their territories, and other hidden treasures of the unknown.  Towards the end of the day we found ourselves walking into an elephant camp, where around two dozen elephants and their riders hung out, waiting to give rides to tourists through the city ruins.  Instead of riding them, we contented ourselves to loitering with them and taking photos.

The following day we rented bikes to take us to the outer reaches of the city and its most impressive temples.  Navigating the chaos of Thailand’s streets is daunting on a bicycle.  There is a distinct hierarchy in place on the road, with the most fragile and destructible at the bottom of the totem pole.  Essentially, the more vulnerable you are, the more attentive you must be (if you value your life).  Bikes are just pedestrians moving precariously closer to traffic in a seated position.  Nevertheless, we survived and had a blast.  One temple we visited on the outskirts of town was pretty in its own right, but what fascinated me the most by it was a tree out back.  It was a Bodhi tree, with a massive, twisting, tentacle-like trunk completely encompassing a small chedi and a statue on it.  All you can see of the statue is its face barely emerging from the roots.  Another temple even further from town was equally rewarding to visit.  The temple was a massive stone chedi about 60 meters tall with a small complex of ruins surrounding it.  Cows and horses were tied strategically to trees around the temple such that they could graze sections of the lawn, creating a living lawn mowing and fertilizing system.  Because of the strict value of all life in the Buddhist tradition, temples are often safe havens and refuges for all kinds of neglected animals, from horses to dogs to chickens and everything in between.  Whenever we visit a temple, there is inevitably some adorable puppy or kitten that claws at my heart strings when I see them.  This time there were 3 puppies, barely 6 weeks old, that decided my arm was interesting and all started licking it in unison.

One of the last temples we saw in Ayutthaya was unique in that it belonged to a sect of Buddhist nuns.  The order of monks in the Theravada Buddhist tradition is male oriented, and while women were explicitly included in the teachings of Buddha, they face many challenges as nuns such as funding for their temples.  This temple is specifically renowned for its hundreds of Buddha statues that are wrapped in saffron scarves, creating a mystical and colorful atmosphere throughout the complex.  We ditched our bike at the gate and spent the last slivers of daylight exploring the crumbling relics before making the trip back home to our guest house.  It was around this time that Jennifer got hit with her first dose of Delhi Belly, aka Montezuma’s Revenge, aka food poisoning, so we peddled home fast.  At one point we managed to get ourselves onto an expressway with barely any shoulder to bike on, then again we found ourselves on another major thoroughfare on the wrong side of the road.  It was a miracle we made it back alive through the dark, but all I had to do was keep up with Jennifer as she tore through the city like a bat out of hell.  Later that night her stomach was feeling better…

The last day in Ayutthaya was pleasantly lazy and spent mostly in the shade for a change.  We arranged an overnight sleeper train to the north of Thailand that night and loitered in one of the few backpacker cafes along a quiet side street in town.  Tony’s Place as it was called, was run by a flamboyantly gay Thai who was everywhere when you didn’t need anything and nowhere in sight when you did.  The slow service allowed us to take in some good people watching however.  Later in the afternoon, as our departure to Chiang Mai in the North was approaching, we moved all our gear to the train station and had some dinner.  After sitting down and ordering some food, we noticed a gentleman sitting next to us munching contentedly on a bag of indiscernible contents.  He noticed us watching him with inquisitive eyes, so he turned around and pulled out a monstrous barbequed grasshopper and offered one to each of us.  The taste was mild, like a dusty stale cracker, and the crunchy texture was like biting into a huge sunflower seed with the shell and all.  I’m sure I made a horrible face as I choked it down, yet he still offered me more.  After Jennifer nearly gagged eating hers, he understood.  It was worth trying, but never to be repeated.

The train pulled in about 30 minutes late, which is a miracle by Thai train standards.  We purchased a couple liters of cheap beer and a bag full of snacks for the 13 hour trip, hopped on, found our beds, and began the next leg of our journey through Thailand.

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Steamy Bangkok Days
November 23, 2009, 3:28 pm
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We arrived in Bangkok around the second of November, but not without some serious difficulties. To keep a long and dreadfully complicated story short, we had troubles getting tickets together to Thailand from Seoul, and even after we had our tickets we had more trouble. I was temporarily detained by customs officials in China as I made my connection to Thailand, putting my passport (and my background) through the wringer. When I landed there in Gwangzhou, I thought we were descending into a dense bank of fog. Alas, it was pollution, some of the worst I’ve seen in my life. I was glad they didn’t detain me too long and sent me on my way to the gate (with an escort). Jennifer’s flight the next day was delayed and eventually cancelled due to a blizzard in Beijing, so she had the pleasure of spending the night at the airport with 150 other stranded travelers while the airline officials kept them in the dark. But eventually we made it to Thailand.

Bangkok Skyling from Lumphini Park

We spent about a week in Bangkok, or Bangers, or BKK …whatever you want to call it. The city is really nothing like any place I’ve been before. The air is buzzing with energy and commotion (or maybe that’s the sound of the tuk-tuk’s blasting through the streets); you can feel the chaos and commerce of its people settling on your skin as you walk through the humid, sticky air (or maybe that’s the pollution). It’s hard to love it or hate it, or maybe it’s easy to do both. The city stretches over a large area of land mostly on the east side of the Chao Phraya River, with no definitive center or end. There are old historical districts and even older ones, districts with sky scrapers, a massive and sprawling Chinatown, temple districts, canal districts, trendy ones, sketchy ones, and everything in between. A subway, a sky train, a network of buses, taxis, motorcycle taxis, and tuk-tuks connect the endless neighborhoods of this schizophrenic city. We preferred the subway and taxis for most of our stay; the tuk-tuk drivers love to rip off tourists that haven’t hardened their haggling skills yet, and the motorcycle taxis are fun but also require a heavy handed method of bargaining.

The heat and humidity took a while to get used to here. It seems that the value of a room in a hotel or guest house is determined by its cooling capacity. Rooms without a fan are practically given away, but most rooms have at least a fan to push around that evil, hot air. Those with air-conditioning are quite a bit more expensive. The shock of leaving one of those air-conditioned rooms into the hot Thai air wasn’t worth it, so we’ve saved a few baht by staying in the fan rooms. We started our tour of Bangkok exploring the temples and palaces in the old town. A dense cluster of incredibly ornate Buddhist “wats”, royal imperial buildings and structures, and statues of Buddha’s, kings, Bodhisatvas, demons, and Thai figures sits in the older part of Bangkok near the Chao Phraya. Wat Pho, one of the biggest Buddhist temples in Bangkok, also holds one of the largest Buddha figures. A massive brick-mason Buddha painted gold lays in a reclined position over 20 meters long, the pose being Buddha’s last before entering Nirvana. On the bottom of his feet are intricate mother-of-pearl inlayed patterns depicting various holy figures and symbols.
Next to Wat Pho is the sprawling Royal Palace, 100 acres of more ornate temples and buildings built so dense they’re practically on top of each other. Another important Buddha figure sits in a temple here, the jade Buddha. It has an incredible history, being moved around Thailand and Southeast Asia for the last 700 years or more, but a quick search on Wikipedia will explain more of its impressive story.

The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho

Temples of the Royal Palace

Day after day we cruised around the city exploring temples and sites, getting to them by tuk-tuk, taxi, foot, and river boat. Eventually though, we were templed out. To mix things up, we spent a night in one of the many red-light districts of Bangkok, Nana Plaza on Sukhumvit Road. Instead of watching monks and admiring Thai Buddhist architecture, we sat at a bar watching the human Discovery Channel unfold in front of us. We staked out a perfect spot at an alley side bar, ordered some Leo beer, and entertained ourselves by staring shamelessly at the sex trade foreplay: sixty year old European men buying and charming twenty year old Thai girls, boy-girls sashaying around the street showing off their estrogen-charged bodies, and everything in between. We met a couple Finish guys equally as intrigued by the meat market and spent the night into the wee hours drinking Thai whisky with them. One of the highlights of the night was a kebab from a neighboring street at about 1am, the best kebab I’ve ever had in my life. While we only spent one night on Sukhumvit Road, it was an incredibly interesting and eclectic place. The sex trade and ping-pong shows centered around Nana Plaza, but the street covered much more territory. There was a North-African/Middle-Eastern quarter where we got the kebab, where street cafes spilled onto the street serving sweet mint tea and hookahs but no alcohol. Other neighboring alleys catered to other desires, the boy-girls and their admirers. It seemed that Sukhumvit was a little microcosm of greater Bangkok with all its diversity and weirdness compressed into a 2 kilometer stretch of road.

The sights and smells and sounds and overwhelming intensity of Bangkok eventually drove us to leave. Our plans were as fluid as the bottled water we guzzled by the gallon every day; we formed and changed them continuously without ever rushing or pressing ourselves to move too fast. However, we were ready to escape the pace of the big city so we bought ourselves train tickets to the former capital city of Ayutthaya, about 2 hours north of Bangkok. Here, the crumbling ruins of 700 years of Thai royalty and temples were interspersed among the still vibrant and active city. It was an incredible few days we spent here, and many more paragraphs of blogging…



Photo Shoot: Chinatown, Bangkok
November 16, 2009, 1:53 pm
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Some highlights from a recent trek into the urban jungle of Bangkok’s Chinatown.  An incredibly dense, vibrant, and confusing part of central Bangkok not far from the guest house we were staying at during our stay in the city.  By far the largest Chinatown I’ve come across, ever.  The streets were narrow and winding, with markets and vendors spilling out from dark alleyways into the roads.  Took-Took’s and motorbikes still managed to squeeze through these narrow passages, parting the crowds of pedestrians at the last second.



From San Francisco to Seoul
November 9, 2009, 9:13 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The adventure unfolds at the international terminal of SFO, a special place for me with so many fond memories attached to those departure gates, the excitement of every new journey energizing the otherwise sterile halls.  My girlfriend and I decided on a change of direction in our lives, a move to somewhere new doing something completely different.  I had been “looking for work” for about 6 months after getting laid off from an environmental consulting firm in Seattle, and Jennifer had been working in the food industry and in a bakery for the last couple years in Boulder.   Somehow the idea of teaching English abroad became the dominant one, and after several months of consideration and debate, and then preparation, we found ourselves at the airport.  Our tickets were for Seoul, South Korea.  However, this was only a short stop-over before our final destination, the Kingdom of Siam…Thailaind.  How we came to choose Thailand over Japan, Korea, Taiwan, or even countries closer in South America….I’m still working that one out in my head.

We arrived in Seoul in the evening, but my brother, an English teacher in a suburb just southeast of Seoul, was still hard at work with his evening classes.  A bus took us to his neighborhood and we started exploring the urban landscape of South Korea.  A mix of apartment and office buildings towered over incredibly bright, busy streets full of food carts, shoppers, drinkers, and smokers.  Neon signs and billboards plastered every free inch of space on the sides of the building; trucks were driving by shouting either advertisements or political slogans over bullhorns, creating a surreal Blade Runner-like environment.

The suburbs of Seoul are not anything like those of the US.  These are dense, urban fingers that spread out from the city like eels sliding between cracks in coral, searching for the valleys wide enough to support them.  The massive network of subway tunnels extends nearly forty miles outside the city, connecting these suburbs to the city proper and other neighboring valleys.  The urban landscape here is unlike anything I’ve seen or experienced before.  There’s more than just concrete jungle here though, and after spending a few days at my brother’s apartment, I went looking for it.  In fact it was right next door.  The margin between dense urban development and beautifully preserved natural landscapes is striking.  So far that I’ve seen, there isn’t that same kind of suburban sprawl in Korea, where dense cities ooze into tract homes which ooze into trailer parks and more tract homes.  Here in Bundang, you can emerge from the subway in the midst of an urban metropolis, walk 10 or 15 minutes west or east and you find yourself at a trailhead.  Buddhist temples, burial mounds, shrines, and exercise equipment pepper the woods and add an element of archeology to the hike.  Jennifer and I took every opportunity to explore the parks and trails around the valley and came across some fascinating places.  A massive mountain fortress from the 15’th century (or somewhere around that time) with ramparts, temples, turrets, and endless trails within.  A lake with a giant bungee platform in the middle and a “book theme-park” along the shore.  A complete weight-lifting and aerobics gym in the middle of the woods full of feral rabbits.  Korea is different.

 

While staying with my brother and his girlfriend in Korea, we slowly recovered from our jet lag and acclimatized to the spicy and incredibly alcoholic nature of Korean meals.  Korean food is good and very healthy but sometimes you pay for it, especially after too much kimchi.  I actually love kimchi, and frequently I do eat too much…But then some parts of Korean culture are all about excess, like drinking!  I’m used to expressing these opinions in person so I apologize if it offends…but alcoholism is practically institutionalized here.  Police will actually put traffic cones around your body if you pass out in the street after too much soju, rather than embarrassing you by waking you up.  Business deals are made around massive quantities of booze, beer advertisements directly target young teenagers, and the industry of hang-over cures is thriving.  But don’t get caught smoking a reefer or you’re in big trouble.  One of the most satisfying combinations of food and drink here is beer and fried chicken.  In fact, it was the best fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life.  Apparently Korea has perfected the art, and combined with one of their cheap lagers…it’s heaven.

Jennifer and I managed to avoid drinking every night, but a few hangovers during our stay here were inevitable.  For the most part we kept it very mellow for our 1 ½ weeks in Korea.  The water-heated floors in my brother’s apartment, combined with our jet lag, made it very difficult to wake up before 11am.  A lazy stroll through the streets to a Dunkin Donuts for coffee and breakfast at noon was usually how we started the day.  We had the pleasure of attending a military air show just a short walk from our neighborhood, where we watched everything from Apache gunships to the American Thunderbirds and the Korean Black Eagles.  We even saw a demonstration flight of the Airbus A380, a massive double-decker jetliner bigger than the 747, which will supposedly be flying commercially soon.  A trip into Seoul proper took us to some of the old palaces and temples, as well as one favorite tea house of mine that has little chirping finches flying around the room.  Otherwise we satisfied ourselves with hiking, walking around the neighborhood eating, or hanging out with my brother and his girlfriend playing video games, watching movies, or going out for drinks.

Besides having a relaxing visit with my brother, another reason for stopping in Korea was to check out the prospects for teaching jobs.  Should our attempts at finding employment in Thailand fail or we change our minds, Korea is another great market for English teachers and it sounded like the options here are quite a bit more financially rewarding.  Our time here was both informative and relaxing, and it was great to see my brother in the midst of his Korean life.  It’s strange coming 7000 miles across an ocean to a country so unfamiliar and finding your family integrating into its culture and ways.  I’m hoping once Jennifer and I settle in Thailand or wherever we end up, that we can offer the same hospitality and guidance to friends and family that Andy and Marissa offered to us in Korea.  Many thanks, and I’ll keep everyone posted as our time in Thailand unfolds.