Monday, 26 March 2012

Bali - Beauty At Its Best

Too many package tour tourists, jaded locals, aggressive touts, less than idyllic beaches, did we really want to go to Bali?  We almost gave it a miss but a last minute decision to go while we are so close was one of the best decisions we have made on the entire trip. We all loved it and would go back in a heart beat.

The combination of things Bali has to offer came at a perfect time for us.  For starters, the infrastructure is well developed making things in a nutshell, easy.  We are at a point in our trip where we are liking easy very much.  We would prefer to test our endurance through athletic pursuits rather than dealing with transportation or lodging nightmares.  The island of Bali is pretty compact and in spite of a little traffic congestion it is easy to get from A to B in a couple of hours rather than a couple of days.  It is also easy to find great restaurants and lodgings, cheap street eats, cool coffee shops and just about any of the comforts of home that you might want.  When you combine these niceties with great beaches, terraced rice fields, an abundance of lushness, a unique culture and people that seem to radiate with kindness you start to understand what the hype over Bali is about.

Can a place that offers all of this still be interesting or do all the conveniences and the hype somehow take away from the local culture?  It did not seem to from what we could tell, well maybe in Kuta but not in Sanur where we spent most of our time.

Bali is but one of the thousands of islands that make up the country of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation.  In spite of swimming in a sea of Muslim influence Bali is Hindu, intensly so.  We have not been anywhere that the influence of the culture and religion seems so thoroughly entrenched in day to day life.  We could literally not walk down the street or the beach without stepping over colorful offerings and incense left for the Gods.  As we ran on the beach in the morning we saw women and men kneeling at the oceans' edge presenting their morning offerings to the Gods.  We saw parades of people making their way to temples laden with plates of beautifully decorated fruits and flowers and dressed in their lace and finery, religious ceremonies obviously being tightly woven into the fabric of everyday life. 

The most significant ceremonial tradition we witnessed was that of Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, a day of silence.  The entire island stops, no cars, no lights or flights, no telecommunications (no kidding).  It is actually against the law to leave the house or to even be on the street or the beach. The only people working are the guards patrolling the streets to ensure no one goes out and a few people in the hospitality industry at the hotels.  The day of silence and reflection comes after an evening of revelry where huge paper mache demonic figures (ogoh ogohs) representing evil spirits are paraded wildly through the streets.  After the parade the ogoh ogohs are burned and the community is then deemed cleansed of evil spirits and ready for the new year.  We counted ourselves fortunate to be there at such a significant time and to witness how an entire island could come to such a unified and complete stop. 

Yes, Bali and the Balinese are different.  We had heard this before but we were skeptical.  We aren’t any more.  The island's roads are busy and they don't seem much different from other busy places but we found by staying relatively still and keeping off the roads we got a much better feel for the place.  We enjoyed where we were and were happy to establish some relationships with lovely locals who were as warm and friendly as anyone we have met on the trip.  We spent our days running on the beach, riding our rented single speeders along the beach walk, playing in the water, snorkeling, learning how to stand up paddle board in the surf and even braving the waves with real deal surf boards.  The torrential downpours that seemed to start and stop at random provided welcome relief from the heat.  The boys loved the rain and when it would start they would rush out and play in it without a care.

The stand up paddle boarding was not always "stand up".  We had lots of fun just playing around and hanging out in the warm water.

The kids picked up the sport without any trouble at all.  It was like they were pros from the get go....

We did do a bit of exploring as we travelled to Ubud as well as to various spots along the coast.  We had been expecting to love Ubud, the “cultural” capital that we had heard so much about.  We have to admit to being rather disappointed.  We found the streets irritatingly busy and not at all pleasant for strolling.  The traffic combined with aggressive touts asking us if we needed transport every five inches led us to cut our trip to Ubud short. We sure enjoyed the Monkey Forest but the rest of the city was a bit of a let down.  We were not unhappy to get back to the quietness of Sanur.

Tanah Lot, Temple in The Sea was lovely...

Our time in Bali went far too fast.  We had originally planned to travel to some other islands in the area but the weather played havoc with our plans. The ferries were not running regularly and we didn’t want to take the chance of getting stranded on a fairly deserted island.  This may have worked out for the best as staying in one place for a while left us feeling more relaxed than we have in weeks.  Unfortunately Eric got sick (Bali Belly) and that put a damper on the last few days of our stay but otherwise Bali was a big hit.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Singapore, Sleek and Slick

We took a very painless flight from Chiang Mai to Singapore where we spent three days enjoying the cleanest and most efficient city we have visited since leaving Canada.  Everything in Singapore seems to run without a hitch.  The high standard of living is clearly evident with uber expensive vehicles and boutiques being commonplace and shopping reportedly being the most popular pastime of Singaporeans.  High standards do, however, come with price tags and it was a bit of a shock to go from paying 50 cents a beer to being asked to fork out close to $10 for one. 

There are not a ton of specific cultural sites in Singapore but that worked for us as we have to admit we are getting a little “sited” out.  We enjoyed strolling in China town, Little India, the Civic district, Orchard Road, Clarkes Quay and Marina Bay.  For us Singapore was really a place to soak up the big city atmosphere, people watch in a clean and comfortable environment and perhaps most importantly, get a little taste of “America” with a visit to Sentosa Island and Universal Studios.  

Meet Singapore's Merlion, half lion half mermaid....

Universal Studios was almost exactly like the one in California.

The boys must have gone on the roller coaster at least 10 times.  It was apparently the best coaster ever!

It may have been the lack of beer as we were too cheap to indulge or maybe it was the fact that we didn’t really enjoy all being crammed into a shoebox of a room in a hostel with no windows and paying out the nose for it but whatever it was, as cool as Singapore is, we were glad our time there wasn’t longer.  We were happy to board yet another Air Asia flight and to be whisked off to Indonesia, next stop, Bali.....

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Choices of Chiang Mai

We didn’t turn around and run away from Chiang Mai as if it was a house on fire.  There was a lot to enjoy in the area in spite of the bad air and visibility and we did stick around long enough to sample the offerings and we had a blast in the process.

Tiger Kingdom

After a fair bit of discussion we decided to give this attraction a go.  While we don’t agree with the principle of animals in captivity the reviews that we read about Tiger Kingdom were predominately positive. It seemed there was a lot of agreement that the animals were well cared for and content.  The temptation of actually getting up close and personal with Tigers, which is what you get to do at Tiger Kingdom, was too great.  Eric was hesitant as he has pretty strong feelings regarding big animals in small spaces but in the end we convinced him that this was a once in a blue moon opportunity that we were all going to seize.

At Tiger Kingdom man mingles with beast on a regular basis.  In fact the tigers here grow up with people and in doing so become pretty tame and receptive to human contact.  In a nut shell, you pay a fairly hefty sum to spend about 20 minutes in a cage with a tiger!  You get to choose the age of the cat you want to get close to. 

I went first to meet some baby tigers.  They were soft and oh so very very cute!  It sure seemed as though they enjoyed the attention.

The bros went second to meet some adolescent tigers.  These teenagers still seemed pretty big and beastly to us. Some of these guys were playful and others were content to rest and to be “stroked”.

Rob met the real deal…eye to eye with these massive cats was according to Rob very cool in deed.  Most of the big cats were active and Rob had an incredible time watching them roam around and play with the trainers.

Elephant Show

We had enjoyed spending a day in Luang Prabang at an Elephant Sanctaury and riding the elephants  was a thrill.  In Chiang Mai we decided to take in a show.  The elephants in the sanctuaries and in the shows are animals that have previously been used as working animals, mostly in logging camps.  Elephants have a long history throughout Asia and not all of that history is easy to learn about as it includes abuse and poor working conditions.  Although some people disagree with training the elephants to entertain others are adamant that the elephants are far better off in their new homes then they were in the logging camps and that they are actually more content learning new things.  We were very impressed with what we saw as the elephants seemed very healthy and even happy.

The show was amazing and the pictures can’t capture it.  The intelligence that these gentle giants must possess to do what they can do is incredible.  In addition to marching, playing instruments, basketball and soccer they paint beautiful pictures - for goodness sake!

 He shoots.....
But he doesn't score as a save is made!

Snake Show

OK – maybe sounds a bit on the tacky side but we were driving past and the boys thought why not?   It was pretty cool.

Hill Tribe Villages

One of the highlights of our trip has been trekking through the hill tribe villages in Northern Vietnam where we felt we really did get a tiny glimpse of a way of life that has existed for centuries.  Our experience with the hill tribes in Northern Thailand was completely different from our experience in Vietnam. We enjoyed it but for very different reasons.

In an attempt to combat the terrible conditions and the poverty faced by many ethnic minority tribes in Thailand the Thai Royal Family has set up what basically amounts to staged hill tribe tourist villages. Hill tribe people can choose to move to these villages and carry on a fairly traditional way of life, traditional in some respects and not at all so in others.  They work the land in the same way that they have done so for centuries.  They make their crafts, dress traditionally and maintain cultural practices.  When crops fail, however, the Royal Family steps in to help. When profits from crafts amount to little the Royal Family helps.  When people are ill they receive medical attention.  They no longer need to rely on the sale of opium to make a living. In exchange for aid they live in villages that have been made into tourist attractions and they must get used to having outsiders from all over the globe, cameras in hand, trek through their communities, their backyards and in some cases even through their homes.  While it does have more than a bit of a human zoo feel to it, it is also evident that the hill tribe people who have chosen to forgo their nomadic ways and live in these somewhat artificial villages are not subject to the widespread and devastating poverty that is the affliction of many tribal groups. 

There is no ideal solution in terms of creating equality between mainstream society and marginalized ethnic minorities and turning the life of the marginalized into a tourist attraction is far from ideal.  It did, however, seem to us, to be a better solution than doing nothing.  Most of the people we interacted with seemed very proud of their culture and eager to share and answer our questions.  Unlike villages in Vietnam and elsewhere in Thailand there were no outward signs of poverty.

Cooking Class

The food in Thailand has in our opinion been the best!  Without all of the fresh ingredients we don’t expect to be able to duplicate the explosion of flavours that we seem to experience with every Thai meal that we have but we thought perhaps with a Thai cooking class we could get closer.  Our class started with a trip to a local market where we learned about the ingredients behind the dishes.  Once we had done the shopping we were off to measure, cut , chop, mix and then of course taste.  We could not quite believe that we had actually made what we were tasting, it was fantastic.  Now we just need the fresh market ingredients, the instructor and the commitment to cook together as a family and we might be set to replicate the fun and the tastes at home!

Muay Thai – Thai Boxing

Watching men, women, boys and girls punch, kick, grapple and head butt each other does not sound like much of a cultural event but Muay Thai is Thailand’s incredibly popular national sport and we thought we should spend a little time at the ringside to see what it might be all about.   The sport has a rich history dating back to ancient battlefields where Siamese/ Thai armies reigned supreme.  Just about every night stadiums across Thailand are filled with spectators eager to watch and to bet on Muay Thai.  The “stadium” that we went to was not much more than a dingy warehouse with a ring in the middle surrounded by moldy plastic table and chairs with makeshift bars set up on the periphery.  All this accompanied with the pungent smells of liniment oils mixed with sweat and cigarettes….and we paid what for this??

When the first opponents came out we were a little shocked and I had to do my best to stay in my seat rather than to make a bee line for the exit.  These “fighters” were likely younger than our kids.  They may have been 11 or 12 years old.  Before the actual fight they performed a traditional dance that is apparently done to honor their trainers.  As the dance went on the intensity built  and I started to feel a little better thinking these kids may not really be going to fight. Perhaps they would just dance?

I was wrong of course and when the fighting started I was even more torn over whether to stay or go.  It is one thing to pay and see adults pounding on each other in the name of sport but it is quite another thing to pay to see kids do it.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the kids were truly there of their own free will and I also had to wonder if proper care was taken to ensure no harm was being done.  Were we unknowingly contributing to something nasty?

Fortunately as the matches went on the age of the competitors increased. The increasing severity of the kicks and blows was still, however, not enough to capture Eric's attention.  We were not too upset that he enjoyed his book more than the Muay Thai....

I can’t say that any of us would make a habit out of attending Muay Thai and I can’t say I would encourage my kids to learn this art (?) but at least now we have a better idea of what it’s all about.  The skill and fitness level of competitors is pretty darn impressive even if you don’t really like what they are doing.

Hanging with the Gibbons

The boys took a half a day to swing through the jungle and look for gibbons at a tree top adventure park.  There were no gibbons to be seen but the zip lining was great fun.

The White Temple, Wat Rong Khun & The Golden Triangle

I headed out on my own for a day tour to Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle and the White Temple.

The White Temple or Wat Rong Khun was beautiful but it undoubtedly felt much more like a tourist attraction than an actual temple.  The artist built the temple entirely in white to represent the purity of Buddha.  The mirrored glass mosaics embedded in the white plaster makes it twinkle and creates quite a magical energy.  The glass is meant to represent Buddha’s wisdom shining over earth.  

The guardian deity below is but one that greets visitors as they cross the bridge to enter the temple.

Check out the whiskey bottle inserted in the demon’s head below. There are strange and unique displays of things like this scattered throughout the grounds.  I couldn't find out exactly what they are all meant to represent, something about helping to release human passions. 

The Golden Triangle

The area where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand come together is referred to as the Golden Triangle.  If China were just a few miles closer it may have been called the Golden Square.   Opium production and export were once a mainstay of the economy here and although the opium trade has dwindled there is no doubt that crops are still planted and that the potent substance still crosses these borders on a regular basis.  In deed Myanmar is known to be the world’s second largest producer of opium.  When you combine this with its status as the second largest producer of methamphetamines the country claims the title of being the largest narcotic state in the world.  The revenue that comes from illicit substances surpasses all of the country’s other exports and likely reaches the coffers of nearly all government officials.   As Myanmar opens up to the world it will be very interesting to see how the military regime might handle the pressures that the international community will undoubtedly exert in an attempt to change the situation.

The border of Thailand and Myanmar was far busier than other border crossings we have experienced.  A bustling market extended into alleyways and lined both sides of the road approaching the border.  When we had planned our visit to Northern Thailand we had been thinking that we might take time to explore Myanmar as well, however since all of the fires from the burning season were making the air quality so bad we decided against it. 

When we get back to Victoria we won't be missing all of the garbage that seems to be lurking in nooks and crannies just about everywhere.  

More Hill Tribe Villages...

The day trip to Chiang Mai also included a stop at another Hill Tribe Village.  This village was obviously on the itinerary of many day tours.  When we had visited the site closer the Chiang Mai we were the only tourists there but this place was quite crowded. I did not seem to see as many smiling faces amongst the villagers and I had to wonder if they were a little weary of the attention and intrusion being imposed on them.  

The "Long Necks" or Karons believe that the rings they wear over various body parts are beautiful.  They never take them off and apparently they don't do any damage and are not uncomfortable!  I can't imagine going for a run or a swim with huge pieces of metal constricting my throat and weighing me down....but then again I don't think exercises like swimming or running are priorities for many tribal women.