Monday, April 28, 2008

kanchanaburi my heart

Oh, is that title a winner.

So Khoa San road in Bangkok was a perfect break from traveling. It's a bit like Navy Pier in Chicago: touristy, totally unauthentic, and relatively expensive. Like the street vendors' pad thai was $0.90. Highway robbery, right?

Khoa San is unquestionably convenient for a westerner, but it's not very Thai, you know? One day was plenty. Off to the train station: to Kanchanaburi! Why Kanchanaburi? Because I'm making my way to a hephalump rescue, and Kanchanaburi is the closest town. And I kinda like riding the rails. You really get to see a country from a train. Some beautiful sights:

A wat (wats are a dime a dozen in Thailand, like squirrels or something; I just happened to snap a decent shot of this one)

A public park

River life

So I get to Kanchanaburi, and have several options for guesthouses (read: hostels). One is called the Jolly Frog. Now, I'm the BULLFROG, and this is the Jolly Frog, so, I mean, obviously, it's got my name all over it. A single room is $2.50 a night. But, wait, what's that? Down the list at $5 a night was a "rafthouse." Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. I love water THIIIIIIIIIIS much, and... [checks pocket]... I can afford $5 a night. Here's the view from my aquadigs:

WOWZER! My pad floats on the Kwai River in western Thailand. River Kwai? Like Bridge on the River Kwai? One and the same. The bridge, built by British POWs during WWII and made famous by the '57 film, is about a half mile upriver.

Kanchanaburi is dripping with WWII history, so I rented a bike ($1 per day) and pedaled to all the tiny memorials, museums, and sights. I got lots of stares and smiles and toots on the way; Thai adults aren't that tall in the first place, and this was a kids' bike. The POW cemetary is truly moving, it's simple, small, sincere, and kept immaculately clean. It's the cleanest place I've seen in Thailand.

And parts of the Death Railway are still in use. Here's a pass (that's the Kwai river on the right, obviously). The inner rails are the originals laid down by slave workers and POWs, at Japan's one meter gauge. The outer rails are the new ones. (The train only comes three times a day, so I wasn't in much danger).

After a long day of history, I think I earned myself a coconut shake (30 cents) and my first ever professional massage ($4 for an hour). Had such a good time that first day I decided to call Phot, who runs Hephalumps & Friends, and told him I'm going to spend another day and a half here.

Took a trip up to Erawan National Park, which was beautiful! (Until it rained for hours and then the water was all brown and muddy, but shhhhh...)

I don't know if the fish are hungry or territorial, but they like to nip.

Super secret lizard trick. At dusk, turn on an outside light, like the bathroom light (um, that's an outside light when you're paying $5 a night). Wait 20 minutes. See, little bugs are attracted to light, and lizards are attracted to little bugs. I got at least 6 lizards last night:

Um, what else?

Some of Kanchanaburi's WWII sights are on the tour bus trail. I don't really need to take pictures of the famous bridge on the River Kwai (wanna see it? the internet has more photos than I can take). But I do like taking pictures of people taking pictures.

Maybe one day I'll be at such a tourist attraction that I can take pictures of people taking pictures of people taking pictures. Or if someone were taking a picture of me taking pictures... that might get recursive.

Anyway, tonight I'm meeting this German couple for dinner, then I'll probably sneak in another massage and coconut shake. Tomorrow morning, Phot's picking me up and we'll be on our way to his hephalump rescue. They have no internet (or power, for that matter), so I'm signing off for a little while.

Much love, as always.

Friday, April 25, 2008

the summit of glorious anonymity

The signs here in Bangkok crack me up. A couple have ended with "we're welcome." One "decayed" door "beg my pardon" for not working. My favorite so far:

Why would anyone take the stairs when the escalator can deliver you to the summit of glorious anonymity.

I don't know either. It was in front of a tailor.

But wait, wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. The story left off at leaving KL to head to the Perhentian Islands. Well, I got to the Perhentians eventually, and on the ferry from the mainland to the small island (1 hour, $9), met Rachel. The ferry was a picturesque morning ride, by the way.

Rachel'd be my travel-mate during the Perhentian stay, along with the pair of Amelies I met at the restaurant. Here's Amelie d'Orleans laughing at Amelie de Paris yelling at me:

That photo really wasn't worth putting up, but I already did. Anyway, my place was pretty minimal (and that fan only works when they have electricity, which is from 6:30pm 'til midnight). The squat toilets are down the path, as is the "shower."

But here's the view from my porch:

And I just stepped onto the beach:

I'm actually not one for lying on the beach, but I do love the animals you find near islands. I didn't take underwater photos, 'cause the last time I took electronics on a dive I needed to get a new phone. But there were lots of lizards.

Big giant lizards

Pretty medium-sized lizards

Courting little lizards (that's the male claiming his lady)

Sand crabs - so hard to get a photo; they're so skittish! (and justifies that ill opinion / that makes thee startle / at me...)


Spiders the size of my palm!

On the other side of the island, there was a jetty being built. The workers were 16-23 year old village kids from the mainland.

I walked out and said hi, and they were about to take a swim. "Join us" says one in broken English, so in I go. It was a blast. I'm the first Westerner Sabri's ever swam with. The view was gorgeous. You could see schools of little fish, and two baby marlin were chasing them. And the sunset? Just perfect.

There was also an adorable French kid I found. He didn't understand that my French is awful, so I'd talk to him and then he'd fire back in hundred-mile-an-hour francaise. I didn't catch a word, but was he cute.

Though the island wasn't always fun and games. It was 104 degrees during the day and ridiculously buggy in the evening and you can see how hard and discrete the rain was. I took this photo after that rain passed over us:

Okay, here's where the story gets pretty neat. Leaving Perhentian. I want to head up to Bangkok, so let's do this. How do I get there? No idea. Better set the alarm early.

Here's a trick: if you're supposed to get off a bus at Khota Baru (wherever that is), even if you know the stop you're at is something else, ask the driver if it's Khota Baru. Do this twice. Then, when you get to Khota Baru, the driver will be sure to let you know.

Water taxi - 5 min - $0.70
"Ferry" - 50 min - $9.80
Bus to Khota Baru - 2 hours - $1.30
Bus to Rantau Panjang - 1 hour - $1.30
Walk across Malaysia/Thai border
Bike sidecar to train station - 15 min - $3 (I overpaid. Oh well.)

Okay, now I'm in Thailand (booyah!), it's 1:30pm, and I'm soaking and gross because it poured on us in the water taxi and ferry, and the ride was super splashy. So I'm soaked in salt water and fresh water. But I'm in Thailand. And I'm feeling mighty proud/confident. I know, kinda cheesy, but it's true. Okay, train station.

"A ticket to Bangkok."
"Computer no working, come back half hour."
--do dee do--
"Ticket to Bangkok."
"Only 3rd class left."
"How much?"
"290 baht" ($10)
"How long?"
"17 hour"

17 hours in 3rd class and I'm soaking wet and kinda miserable, but damnit, I'm getting to Bangkok. So it's about 2pm, but somehow the 11:30am to Bangkok is still in the station, so I'm gonna jump on board. Um, there are military everywhere. Somewhere between an Israeli airport and GIs in Iraq. I mean 30-50% of the people in the station are wearing camos and boots and kevlar and stuff. Woah. I'd love to have photos of the scene, but the military weren't so keen on posing. (Seriously, one saw my camera and had me put it away.)

I get on the train, but these military are kinda creeping me out. Every time the train stops, food vendors hop on and walk the aisles, but so do trios of military: all kevlar and helmets, one with a radio, two with guns as big as my leg. These trios keep patroling. I see a Westerner in the next car.
"Hey man, kinda heavy military presence, huh?"
"Well, we're in a war zone."

So I (accidentally?) traveled through Thailand's south-east provinces, where Militant Islamic seperatists are trying to make their own state. I know Mom and Pop are gonna poo bricks, but that was kinda neat. I lived.

I chatted with the guy a bit. He's from Holland. I'm from America. "Oh yeah? Who won Pennsylvania?" Why are foreigners more connected to our politics than half of us? Why am I in a 3rd class car through a war zone with salty wet clothes? Where's my bag? Still locked to the railing. Good.

Got into Bangkok station, still damp and salty from the ocean and rain (it's been over a day!), in desperate need of a shower, and having eaten only a granola bar in the last day. Taxi! Take me to Khao San road, please. He speaks no English. He tries to sell me the buddha hanging from his rear view. Here, Khoa San road. Okay, out I go. Doesn't look very touristy. Long story short, some helpful elderly shopkeeper ladies and I play a long game of charades and map-pointing, and it turns out I'm on something that sounds just like Khoa San road. Long sigh...

Another taxi, and can it be? Valhalla! The first hostel I find, $12 a night. I could shop around, but I don't even care. A cold shower never felt so good. My meal? Ambrosia! The air conditioning in this internet cafe? Perfect!

I feel like a million bucks! The summit of glorious anonymity! Jake flag: planted!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

the spacebardoesn'twork

Tinyblog update, becauseI have a trainto catch andthisspacebar super sucks. Also, I can't putpicturesup fromthis computerand without somephotos, what'sthe point? I'llbe brief (maybe...), and give fullupdatewith photosand whatnot later. Longstoryshort:

Iwent from KL toPalau Perhentian Kecil (overnightbus), where I spentafew days on thebeach, diving, havingSnickers shakes, andchattingwith Amelied'Orleans, Amelie de Paris, andRachel. Left the island thismorningand ferry-bus-bus'd to the Thai border, where I have justcrossedand am takinga 17 hour train to Bangkok soon.HopefullyI'll get to Kanchanaburi in a fewdaysand head to an elephantrescue from there.

Ifyou think this is hardto read, try Thai! Gobbledeegook. (slur unintended)

Feelingconfident and sticky. Soooosticky.WhenI get home,shower and icecream for sure.

I wasthe first foreigner Sabri hasever swam with. Lots offun.

lifeat home - baseline 7 of 10, fun moments are 9 of 10.
lifehere - basline 4? of 10, fun moments are 10s forsure. Bigtens.

Baseline willincreaseas Igetbetterat traveling (alreadyhas some), andfunmoments morecommonas I relaxandappreciatemore (already do).


Friday, April 18, 2008

i'm alive

The the head flight attendant guy, who has a thick Chinese accent and starts all his announcements with "good evening ladies and gentleman, boys and girls..." like a ringmaster, announces that we'll be touching down in Taipei shortly.

TAIPEI?! Why are we going to Taipei? I'm not supposed to be going to Taipei. I want to know why we're going to Taipei. Minor freakout.

Apparently my ticket was issued way back when LA to KL was nonstop. That's no longer the case. Taipei to KL is another 4h40m. Boooooo.

Here's my flight to Taipei:

I'm in the clouds!*

Ooooh, land! And it's pretty, with clouds rolling through black green valleys. I like this.

Wooowwwww, this place is gorgeous! Lookit that river!


KL from the air? Meh.

Anyway, eventually I make it to Kuala Lumpur (KL), and find my way to Elma's. I'm staying at Elma's place; in the photo below, that couch is my bed. We met online. Very normal. She's the matriarch in the photo on the wall, with her 7 children, 2 daughter-in-laws, and 1 grandchild. Elma's one of 14 children. Her father had 3 wives.

Thoughts on getting off the train in downtown KL, in chronological order:
First thought - KL is a very Muslim city.
Second thought - KL is way more Chinese than I expected.
Third thought - Okay, where am I? [checks map: heart of Chinatown]
Fourth thought - I'm an idiot.

At home 6'2" is kinda tall, but here... yeesh. White people are also rare; I stick out hard. Touts are minimal, but they're there (their). Got here yesterday, and the scammers were ready:

This guy came up to me, maybe 50 years old, speaking excellent English, very friendly. I needed to find an internet cafe, and this guy spoke English, so I bite. C'mon Jake, innocent until proven (you know where this is going, but really, that was my thought). He asks me where I'm from, and points me towards an internet cafe. We're walking the same direction, so I say hi. His daughter's going to go to USCD. A woman comes out of nowhere on my right: "Say, you should meet our daughter! Where are you staying tonight?"

So that sucks. I don't want to spend my whole trip as a mark. Maybe I'll learn to avoid/ignore it automatically, the way I don't even see meat options on menus anymore. Anyway, got to the internet cafe, where I am right now. Plunked down $2 for 3 hours here.

3 hours?! What are you doing for 3 hours online?

You have no idea how hard it's raining. I've never heard such loud rain. Animals are lining up in twos, I swear. This happens every afternoon, from about 3-6 or so. Internet cafes are indoors and have a/c. The rain is so loud and constant it sounds like construction.

Oh, I'm kinda a travel superhero. 11 hour time difference, no jet lag. I went to sleep at 10pm, awoke at 7am. And BootsnAll travel forum has, after fiery orations and vitriolic debates, bestowed upon me the honor of "Most Valuable New Member of March 2008." I'd like to thank the Academy...

Obviously this is a long blog post. It's still raining buckets.

* - Tell the truth, I was thinking: lookit how the clouds stratify! So neat! Like when you mix oil and water, and let them settle, and drop a raisin in, and it floats on the boundary? It's neat to see that there are different kinds of clouds, with different densities, and each floats on its respective layer of air. And obviously then the atmostphere has such a density gradient. I wonder if the gradient is smooth and continuous, or with discrete... anyway.

Clouds also follow coastlines, which is neat to see from the air:

And for a bonus, here are the Philippines:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

planes are not my forte

I'm not scared of them. I'm just stupid.

I leave for the airport in 3 hours. Some stories, all true:

* I've shown up to the airport to find I booked my tickets the wrong way (Chicago -> Berkeley -> Chicago is no way to visit home from school...)

* I've shown up to the airport to find my flight wasn't that day.

* My mom told me I'd better get tickets home for Thanksgiving before they get too expensive. About 2.5 weeks before Turkey Day, I booked my tickets and they were downright cheap. Jake one, Mom zero! Tuesday before I came home, I was chatting with the folks: "See you Thursday!"
folks - "Why are we seeing you Thursday?"
me - "Um, because it's Thanksgiving."
folks - "Thanksgiving's next weekend."
me - "Ut oh."
(Whatever. Makes up for the time we were all going to meet in Portland for Thanksgiving, and my family never showed up. Very funny.)

* I've missed flights that were correctly booked. (If you've never missed a flight, you've spent too much time in the airport.)

* I've done everything right and got to the airport on time, but then fell asleep at the gate. Ever wake up in an empty terminal? I have twice. It stinks. Why didn't anybody wake me?!

So, this should be an adventure.

I'm antsy and a little nervous, of course, but I'm excited as hell. This trip has been in the works since February of 2007, and it starts IN THREE HOURS!!!

Goodbye beautiful Chicago! Hello monsoons!

That weather forecast is for real.

This will be quite the adventure. I love you all.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

holy hot weather, batman!

Average monthly highs, in Farenheit:

June ......80............70..........101........93
July .......84............70............94........93

Wowza. Those are averages! So apparently India is hot. And you can't drink the water. And I'm supposed to avoid ice. Terrrrrrrific.

I'm a little worried about the heat. BBC has a little column titled "discomfort from heat and humidity" for India. The June and July listings say "extreme." And I have 154 anti-malarial pills I'm supposed to be taking, but if I'm in India in June (and I will be), and the average daily high is 101, that means some days it'll be what, 110? Will the pills melt? I'm kinda serious.

In other news, I officially left my job at UChicago, and have moved out of 915 Lytle, where Cam has upgraded roommates from Jake-the-friend to Leah-the-fiancee. So I'm now unemployed and living with my parents, but shhhhhh.

I've decided to attend UW-Seattle. Here's the line I'm using to answer the standard question: "I want to study how smaller evolutionary units combine to form larger units. Like: how do your individual cells cooperate to form you?" The research goes by a bunch of names: evolutionary game theory, network theory, levels of selection theory, evolution of cooperation, etc. A couple neat snippets, if you're interested:
Gaia hypothesis - as David Grinspoon put it: "life doesn't happen on a planet, it happens to a planet."
iterated prisoner's dilemma - defection is always better than cooperation, and yet...
viruses show tragedy of the commons - not just ivory tower nonsense, this stuff is for real

Also, I like squirrels. Especially squirrels who like me because I have bread.

Animals love you if you feed them. It's always a little knock to the ego to go into Shedd's Caribbean Reef for maintenance (when you don't have a food bucket); none of the animals pay any attention to you. All along, it's not me they've loved! Those callous fishies, so capricious with my tender heart...