Friday, July 19, 2013

Airport thoughts

As I sit here at a coffee shop in the Taipei airport, waiting to embark on the third leg of my 30 hour plane journey, a journey ending in Jakarta,  a mix of thoughts are swirling through my mind. For one, I am a foreigner; unaware of their language, customs, or religions, I sit alone in the cafe watching the interactions of the people. I have always found places of transit - airports, train stations, bus terminals - to be incredibly romantic. There is something beautiful in the loneliness of these places, especially in the dark hours of the night. Within the walls of the airport, the lives of people from all different walks of life intersect, if only for a short period of time. Although they cross paths briefly, they have been brought there for different purposes: some are traveling for business, others for pleasure, and some even for love. People are waiting anxiously to be reunited with loved ones, others are leaving home, and some lonely travelers, like me, are traveling for the sole purpose of getting lost. Surrounded by a chaotic mixture of words that I do not understand, I am a foreigner. This feeling of being a foreigner in an unknown land, waking up in a country where not a single person knows your name, is freedom to me. Freedom to let go of all the labels that identify us back home - a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend, a student - here across the world without any deadlines or friends, I am just me. That is one of my favourite things about traveling alone; when you let go of all your usual identifications, you learn to define yourself in an entire new way. You learn things about yourself that the comforts of home can never teach you. You learn to rely on other things than language to get around - you learn how to speak the language of the world. 



Tuesday, July 16, 2013

S.E. Asia here I come!! (again!)

"The essence of pleasure is spontaneity"

I cannot agree more with these words, as I do not think there is a single thing in this world that is as exhilarating, yet equally terrifying, as booking a last minute plane ticket to one of the most exotic destinations in the world. Today I booked my flight to.....(drumroll please)....INDONESIA! Wanna know the craziest part? It leaves in 2 days. Yepppp, you read that right. I don't know if there's anybody crazy enough to book a 30 hour flight across the world with only 48 hours to prepare - but I guess I am that person! 

For 3 weeks, I will make my way down Indonesia, an archipelagic country in South East Asia made up of over 17,000 individual islands (!!!!!!), starting in the capital city of Jakarta, and ending in the beautiful island of Bali. 

As always, there is an omnipresent fear amidst all my excitement - but it's a good fear; a fear of the unknown. Not knowing what I'm about to embark on is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and it's what I live for. Although there are a million negative thoughts racing through my mind (What if something bad happens?! What if my belongings get stolen?! What if I get hurt?!), I know that letting these thoughts dwindle for too long can be poisonous in themselves. 

Sometimes jumping into the unknown turns out to be the best decision of your life. 

I gotta start packing!!! 





Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Laos

There are no words to describe the beauty that is Laos. This small country nestled in the heart of indochina is without a doubt the least developed country that I have been to in my life - but the lack of economic development also means that it's breathtaking scenery and mountainous landscapes remain largely untouched. Entering Laos was like stepping back in time (80% of the Laotian population still practices subsistence agriculture). Recently, however, tourism has begun to grow in the region, making it a new "hot spot" for backpackers, largely for its relaxed lifestyle and for retaining a sense of "original" Asia, a sense which has been lost in other areas infiltrated by mass tourism.

The past week in this country has been incredible; from riding an elephant to tubing down a party river, Laos has enveloped me in its warm embrace, and it is heartbreaking to have to say goodbye. After disembarking from the slow boat in Pak Beng, we spent one night in this small village perched high on the banks of the Mekong river. Although it consists of only one main road, we managed (as always) to make our own fun by partying all night at the only bar in the entire rural village, Hive Bar.


Getting off the slow boat in Pak Beng, Laos

Pak Ou cave temple 

Pak Ou cave temple in Laos 

Thousands of Buddhas at the Pak Ou cave temple 

For the next couple of days, we made our way through the picturesque village of Luang Prabang. As an introduction to this UNESCO listed heritage site, we biked around the town, stopping a couple of times along the way to visit temples and to sample some of the local delicacies. Along the river, we stopped at a little makeshift stand selling SNAKE whisky. Yes, you read that right. The whisky is made by fermenting snakes in a bottle. Apparently, the Laotians believe it gives them strength and virility. I, on the other hand, think that all I got from it was a horrible after taste and a crazy headache for the ride back. After the effects of the snake whiskey had worn off, me Kristian, Dave and Aidan went to hike up Mount Phou Si, a 100m-high hill in the centre of Luang Prabang. Bordered on one side by the Mekong river and on the other side by the Nam Khan River, it is a local religious site housing several Buddhist shrines. The hike is by no means hard - but factor in a steep hill, 100 degree heat and 100% humidity, and it becomes one of the most arduous tasks in the world. Finally at the top though, you will be rewarded with one of the most breathtaking views - the sight of the orange-topped buildings, of the lush green forests and of the life-sourcing rivers makes the hike worth all the while.




Snake whiskey - as gross as it sounds
Our happy faces quickly turned sour after that shot

A man grilling dog by the river in Luang Prabang 

Biking through Luang Prabang

A buddhist shrine on the way to the top of Mount Phou Si 
The Breathtaking view of Luang Prabang 

Drenched in sweat from the hike 


Dave, me, Aidan and Kristian at the top of Mount Phou Si, Luang Prabang 

A rainbow over Luang Prabang! 

The next day was probably one of the most memorable days of my life. First, we woke up at 4:00 am to witness - and take part in! - the daily tradition of giving alms to the monks. Since monks do not make any money to buy food, they rely solely on the generous donations of the villagers. This white rice consists of their only meal throughout the day. After, we went to the Kuang Si waterfalls, where we spent a couple of hours jumping from the top of the falls, swinging from trees, and enjoying the crystal clear waters of the natural pools. As if the day couldn't get any better, in the afternoon, we went to ride elephants!! This has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. Seeing these majestic animals was one of the highlights of my trip so far - and getting to ride on it's bare back through the jungle was unreal! At night, we were all exhausted and completely in awe of the amazing day we just had (is this real life???) Of course, we had to finish off the perfect day with some beers at Utopia - literally, a backpacker heaven.

 Waking up at dusk 



 Giving alms to the young monks in Luang Prabang





 Franciska feeding the elephant bananas


 Kuang Si Falls







Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mighty Mekong

As I am writing this, I am crossing the Mekong river on a two day boat journey from Thailand to Laos. The beauty of the Mekong and the untouched land around it is absolutely breathtaking. Cruising down this giant river spanning most of Southeast Asia is like a dream - nothing but forest and water ahead for what seems like an eternity.

 Mighty Mekong 
Cruising down the Mekong


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Magical Fairytale : Chiang Rai

Today we travelled through a landscape of rice paddies to Chiang Rai, a quiet town in the far northern part of Thailand. Chiang Rai is known as the "Gateway to the Golden Triangle" - the meeting point between Thailand, Burma and Laos.

Right before entering Chiang Rai, we visited Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple - which is one of (if not the most) unconventional modern Buddhist temples in the world. An artist-turned-architecht named Chalermchai Kositpipat began constructing the temple in 1996, and because the construction is entirely funded by him, the government does not have any say in the design of the temple - inside or out. The result is definitely one-of-a-kind, and sometimes a little wacko.

From the outside, the temple looks magical with its completely white fa├žade, signifying the purity of the Buddha. The architecture looks like something out of a fairytale, with intricate details and sculptures depicting different spirits. Water fronts the temple to separate heaven from earth, with a beautiful bridge connecting the two. Some say that the water represents the obstacles that man must surpass in order to reach the nirvana offered in the temple.

 Wat Rong Khun



 Would you believe me if I said this is the bathroom? Because it is. The whole thing. 

When you look a little closer though, the fairytale turns into a nightmare - there are disembodied heads dangling from trees, pleading hands of men suffering in hell emerging out of the earth, and various depictions of the devil.

 Dangling heads outside the temple

Then, as you walk inside the temple, you will be completely awestruck by the giant mural covering the walls; it looks like the masterpiece of a prodigal artist gone insane (think Van Gogh on crack perhaps). An elaborate mural has been created, regrouping the most random and peculiar collection of people and popular characters. And when I say random, I mean random: Michael Jackson, George Bush, Osama Bin Laden, Kung Fu Panda, the Hulk, Batman, and a couple of Angry Birds all find their own spot on the walls (umm...what?!)
Avatar, Transformers and the Matrix -- Wat Rong Khun White Palace, Chiang Rai, Thailand
(not my picture) 

The entire back wall of the monastery is dedicated to a painting of a giant red demon with George Bush in one eye, and Osama Bin Laden in the other. Inside the mouth of the demon is a scene depicting the fall of the Twin Towers.

After visting the temple, we made our way to into the surrounding mountains of Chiang Rai where we learnt about the Hilltribe peoples who live in this land. Over 100 years ago, Hilltribe peoples migrated south from China into what is now northern Thailand. The 6 major tribes still remaining in northern Thailand are the Hmong, Yao, Akha, Lisu, Lahu and the Karen (long-neck peoples). Each tribe is distinct, with its own culture, religion, language, art, and dress.



Me posing with girls who are a part of the Karen long-neck tribe

Thailand has been amazing - from the South all the way to the North - and I'm so sad to be leaving this beautiful country tomorrow. But on a positive note, I'll be crossing the Mekong to get to LAOS! See you soon ;)