Southeast Asia Part V: Southern Thailand, the Final Chapter

And at long last, the saga of our 2017 Asian adventure comes to an end.  I was intimidated at the prospect of first writing these entries, but I hope I’ve properly gotten across just how amazing southeast Asia really is. This was easily one of the most unbelievable trips my wife and I have ever been on, and we can’t wait to go back one day.

Before I get started, some catchup:

Southeast Asia Part I: Thailand

Southeast Asia Part II: Thailand

Southeast Asia Part III: Laos

Southeast Asia Part IV: Cambodia

So, after our travels in Cambodia, and with less than a few weeks left in our trip, we boarded a flight right to Phuket, the most famous island in Southern Thailand. Phuket is definitely the Los Angeles of Thailand. It’s huge, constantly moving, with a myriad of events taking place in any direction the eyes can see.

It’s highly commercialized, of course, far more than the rest of Thailand. It’s definitely a carnival, but still worth seeing, if only for the mesmerizing beaches.

From there, we then escaped to the shores of Ko Yao Noi. This remote little island, which has a 90% Muslim population, is one of the most amazing and beautiful places in Thailand. It’s quiet, simple, rural, with very little going on, and that’s the beauty of it. Veronica and I spent our time there riding around the island on a scooter, laying on hammocks at the beach, and loving the peacefulness of it all.

And of course, there’s always excellent coffee if you know where to find it. The scene pictured below, again on Ko Yao Noi, definitely qualifies for an updated list of Top Coffee Moments™. (you veteran readers of this blog will remember these Coffee Moments, as well as your top ones!)

Nicholas Conley coffee Ko Yao Noi Thailand

We felt so at home at Ko Yao Noi that it was heartbreaking to leave, but there were still adventures ahead. Most importantly, scuba diving off the coast of Ko Phi Phi.

This was my first time ever scuba diving, and I absolutely loved it. I have to admit, the first few moments were terrifying, but once I’d adjusted — thanks to the calm, relaxed training of my instructor —  it easily become one of the most fantastic experiences I’ve ever had. While I’d often imagined what scuba diving might be like — who hasn’t dreamed up seeing the mesmerizing coral reefs and sea creatures up close? — I’d never imagined the experience would be so calm and meditative. The focus on breathing, exhaling and inhaling at a slow and steady pace, puts one in a mental state very similar to meditation or yoga. Combine this with the unbelievable thrill of seeing blue starfish, moray eels, mountain ranges of coral, swimming through schools of fish, and even seeing a blacktip shark(!)… and, well, the whole thing was unforgettable.

Luckily, the ship had an underwater camera man on board.

 

After a few more days soaking up the sun, islands, and more, our time in Thailand finally came to an end. We finished the trip by heading back to Bangkok for our last few days, where we ate our final dinner at a restaurant with a fantastic view of the city, reminiscing on everything we’d seen and done.

And now, we come full circle, back to where I began — writing about the time period in which we first came back, which is when I started writing this series, and which now seems so long ago.

thai-southern-scuba1

Thank you, all of you, who’ve continued reading this series from the beginning until now. After over a month of southeast Asia posts, next week will begin something new. As for what it is, who knows? We never know what stories the future holds for us.

Southeast Asia, Part IV: Cambodia

Southeast Asia Part I: Thailand

Southeast Asia Part II: Thailand

Southeast Asia Part III: Laos

The Kingdom of Cambodia is a country with many deep, significant differences from both Laos and Thailand, and a feel all its own. Once the center of the ancient Khmer Empire,  Cambodia spent much of the latter half of the twentieth century embroiled in bloody warfare, military coups, occupations, and so on, and some hints of these scars still show. Cambodia also  still suffers from widespread poverty, higher crime rates, child labor, and governmental corruption. There’s a visibly unfair disparity between classes, a noticeably wide gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots” of society, with many people visibly struggling just to get by.

It’s a very raw country, but also one filled with much beauty, wonderful people, and fascinating centuries of history that show in every ancient temple, wall, and tree. It’s unlike anywhere else, and you can see how much the culture and the people has fought to survive against numerous hardships, and how strong they are.

Cambodia

Cambodia is absolutely a place worth visiting, but it’s definitely one for the experienced traveler. It’s not as easy or simple as getting around Thailand, and things are certainly more rugged, but there are lots of experiences to have. The people here are strong, resilient, the centuries of history pervade every corner, and the land itself is something unique.

Admittedly, we were only in Cambodia for a short time, so outside of Siem Reap, there’s still much of the country we didn’t get the chance to see on this trip — areas which may have their own individual feel, tone, and so on. But in any case, we began our trip by exploring Siem Reap itself, and the surrounding area.

The next day, we took a tuk-tuk to see one of Cambodia’s floating villages. In the wet season, these villages are literally right on the water. In the dry season, which is when we were visiting, they are simply elevated, as you can see below:

Finally, we did the big thing that most visitors to Cambodia do: we went to see Angkor Wat. This ancient temple complex, famously depicted on the Cambodian national flag, is truly a wonder to behold.

Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in the 12th century in dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu. The sheer size and scale of Angkor Wat is truly unbelievable. You can’t properly capture it in photos, though we tried the best we could.

Other than Angkor Wat, there are many other temples around Siem Reap, each one quite remarkable. One of our favorites turned out to be Ta Prohm, a temple that has been overtaken by trees. It’s quite a dazzling, otherworldly sight; the trees are like alien creatures that have proven their dominance over man, by crawling over and entrapping these ancient walls. Amazing stuff.

Cambodia was quite different from Laos and Thailand, but that difference certainly made it stand out. It’s a place where history meets the present day. For those of us who have been born and raised in the world’s more privileged and “developed” countries, it’s really important to go to places like Cambodia — places which have struggled and survived through numerous traumatic events, and where people today experience hardships, poverty, and economic inequality on a level that few of us could even imagine. Without question, I’ll remember Cambodia for the rest of my life.

After that, we then flew back to Thailand, where we began the final leg of our journey: southern Thailand, which is a totally different land than the north. Next time up, it’s Southeast Asia Part V: The Final Chapter!

Huay Xai, Laos

Southeast Asia, Part III: Laos

Southeast Asia Part I

Southeast Asia Part II

Laos is similar to Thailand in many respects, but also quite different. Laos is calmer, quieter, more peaceful. It’s also much more rural, less developed. Laos is a country too often overlooked on many people’s trips to Southeast Asia, and it ended up being one of the highlights of our adventure.

After crossing the Friendship Bridge and going through immigration, we spent the rest of our first day in the village of Huay Xai, right on the Mekong River. Our plan was to then embark on the two-day slow boat cruise up to Luang Prabang, but since the boat left the next morning, we spent the rest of the day in Huay Xai. I’m glad it happened this way, because it ended up being a wonderful place to spend some time.

Huay Xai is small, quiet, and there isn’t much going on as far as activities, but don’t let that deter you from going there, and staying for a bit; if anything, it would have been nice to spend even longer there. The village is right across the river from Thailand, and while it’s definitely a border-town-in-the-way-that-border-towns-are-always-border-towns, it’s also wonderfully real, honest, and down to earth. There’s a lot of warmth to be found in Huay Xai, if you know where to look for it.

We ate dinner at the Dauww Village, a guest house and restaurant that doubles as the base of operations for the Kajsiab Intiative, an organization which provides women from Lao villages with a shop to sell their handmade products. Kadsiab also takes on interns from the local mountain villages, letting them work for the restaurant, and providing a place of shelter for any villagers in need, or for families of patients at the hospital. Visitors to the restaurant are also greeted with a pamphlet describing the many tribes in Laos, and the various cultures, in great detail. You can learn more about the Dauww Village here.

Unsurprisingly, the Dauww Village is a truly fantastic place. Immediately upon approaching, the stairs were covered with playing children. As the night went on, and we enjoyed a homemade pizza with some Beerlao, the families gathered around the firepit and hung out, traded jokes with one another, played instruments, and so on. These sorts of multicultural experiences are the thing that makes traveling so important. Cultural exchange. Human capital, instead of cold capitalism. Next time we make it out to Huay Xai, we’ll definitely want to stay at the Dauww Village for longer.

Huay Xai, Laos

The next morning, we set sail on the slow boat, a long wooden vessel that would be our bus for the next two days. The slow boat is the perfect illustration of both the wonder and the hilarity that intertwine themselves when one embarks on these journeys into other countries. While one might picture a luxurious affair, the reality is that the slow boat’s seats are actually just re-purposed car seats, and the boat itself was so overbooked and crowded that the next day, the passengers were split into two boats.

Don’t let this deter you: it’s a one of a kind experience, that every traveler should absolutely embark on. Seriously, it’s a blast. Everyone’s in it together. After a few hours of absorbing the jungle scenery around you, the musicians on board start playing, you start enjoying a Beerlao or two, and you end up with more stories than you could ever count.

What was additionally interesting to see is the way that the slow boat stopped every now and again at these tiny Lao villages in the middle of the jungle, where it would pick up a family, or a few individuals, and bring them to their destination further down the Mekong River. Very cool experience.

The boat docked at the town of Pakbeng for the first night, where we got dinner, got drinks at the “Happy Bar,” and then crashed, in order to get up early the next morning. The next day on the boat was similar to the first, though a further sense of peacefulness began to truly sink in. There’s something magical about having those hours of time to be alone with your thoughts, in a sense; able to journal, think, watch nature around you.

Finally, we stopped in Luang Prabang, where we spent the rest of our time in Laos. Luang Prabang is the cultural capitol of the country, though not the official capitol, and it’s certainly a city that everyone should take a chance to see. It’s small and more rural, like Laos itself, but possesses a certain unique charm that’s hard to describe. The art, culture, and surroundings are unmistakably Lao, in a way where when you are there, you know you’re not anywhere else in the world.

Of course, we had to stop and get coffee along the way, as is often the case when a certain coffee-obsessed writer goes traveling. The drink in the following image is called a Gibraltar, made with rice milk. Highly recommended.

Nicholas Conley Laos coffee Luang Prabang

 

We also went up to the Kuang Si waterfall, a place of such unmistakable beauty and such dazzling waters that it feels like a different world.

Our time in Laos was truly a highlight of the whole trip, in a huge way, but since we had other stops to make, it eventually had to come to an end. After that, we picked up a plane ticket to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we would soon see the magnificent sights of Angkor Wat.

 

 

Some Thoughts on the End of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine

 

Quick note, I’ll be getting back to my Southeast Asia stories next week! But in the meantime, a pause: 

It’s crazy to look back and realize that it has been 17 years since the first X-Men movie came out. I still remember sitting in that theater, so nervous that they were going to get it wrong. Like any kid of my generation, I was obsessed with superheroes, and the X-Men were always near the top of my favorites list. And in particular, I loved Wolverine; the gruff loner of the team, the outsider who never quite fit in.

These days, there are multiple superhero films released every year, and characters as out there as Groot and Doctor Strange are featured on T-shirts, posters, and billboards all around the world. But back in 2000, superhero movies were a rare oddity, and when they did come out, it rarely turned out well.

x-men-1

So yes, I remember sitting in that movie theater back in 2000, totally nervous, feeling certain that this was going to be the only X-Men movie that ever got made, and just as certain that they were going to ruin Wolverine. The commercials had marketed the movie as more of a horror-like suspense than a sci-fi film, the costumes were all black leather, and the actor that they’d cast as Logan was some unknown Australian guy who was way too tall, too friendly, not angry enough.

And then the movie started… and there he was. This beaten, tired, reckless guy in a cage fight, wandering from place to place, not knowing who he was or where he came from. The impossible had happened, and somehow, a four-colored comic book character with six razor sharp claws had just been brought to life.

Wolverine Hugh Jackman

From that first moment, that first scene in the bar, it was clear that Hugh Jackman owned this role. And he never stopped owning it. Jackman made Wolverine into a household name, redefining the character for an entire generation of fans. And then, instead of stopping after a couple movies, he continued playing the character for almost 20 years, a legacy almost unheard of in any major franchise. Even more amazingly, his passion for the character only became stronger over time. From then and until now, Jackman was Wolverine. He’s made that role his own, arguably more than any other superhero actor to date.

Sure, Christian Bale was amazing as Batman. Robert Downey Jr. has brought Iron Man from a B-list favorite into the poster boy of Marvel Comics. Tobey Maguire was perfect for Peter Parker. But honestly, I don’t think there’s ever been another actor who has been this dedicated to a superhero role, starring in so many different films, and even playing such a key role in the writing of the character as the series went on.

Hugh Jackman Wolverine Logan

 

What Hugh Jackman — and the director, Bryan Singer — understood about Wolverine, that could have been so easily screwed up, was that the fundamental appeal of the character is his humanity, and the constantly wavering contrast between the good man buried within him and the rabid animal that he was brainwashed to be.

Another creative team may have simply painted Logan as the X-Men’s cranky outsider with a bad temperament, or maybe the supporting character who is simply the badass of the team with all the best one-liners. Jackman’s take, instead, is to always show the vulnerability in those eyes — the eyes of a man who lost his memory, his past, and everyone he’s ever loved — while also not shying away from the brutality; this is a guy who has spent his time beating people in cages, who can fly into a rage and skewer soldiers on his blades, but who at the same time can fall in love, protect children from harm, and even learn to believe in some idealistic dream preached to him by an old bald guy in a wheelchair.

Wolverine may be a killer, but he’s not supposed to be cold. Jackman understood the character’s inherent warmth, and that’s how he was able to embody Wolverine so successfully.

Hugh Jackman Logan Wolverine

It’s surreal to think that when Logan comes out, in just a few days, we’ll never see Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine again. From a creative perspective, I admire his decision to end the story now, while he’s ahead. Too often, these giant sci-fi vehicles just roll on and on without any closure; while there’s no doubt that the X-Men franchise will continue for years to come, this movie will at least allow fans to say a true goodbye to the character who first made the X-Men movies so popular to begin with.

When we look back on classic adventure characters in film, we always associate them with the actors who defined those characters as well. Harrison Ford was Indiana Jones. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Terminator. Carrie Fisher was Leia. Bruce Willis was John McClane. And I think, in the future, when we look back on Wolverine, we’ll always remember the way that Hugh Jackman held out those claws, forever etching his place in cinematic history.

Next time: The journey through Laos, I promise! 

Chiang Mai Elephants

Southeast Asia, Part II: Elephants, and the Road to Laos

In the last blog entry, I detailed the first part of our trip to Thailand, where we went up from Bangkok, passed through the city of monkeys, explored a little of Chiang Mai and then spent some time in the beautiful hippie village of Pai.

Chiang Rai Thailand rice fields

After our time in Pai, we hitched a ride back down to Chiang Mai. One of the things that we wanted to do in our time was Thailand was see elephants, but when it comes to elephants, it’s highly important to do your research first, and make sure that what one goes to is an elephant sanctuary: there are numerous abusive elephant camps throughout the country, where the elephants are tortured with bullhooks, chains, and more. In addition, what many people don’t realize is that “elephant riding” is terrible for the elephants themselves; the weight of a human being puts a tremendous strain on an elephant’s spine, which is only multiplied when a heavy saddle is also weighing them down. Basically, elephants should never have to carry humans.

This is why it’s important to not fund these elephant-riding places with tourist dollars, and to instead give that money to the elephant sanctuaries. These sanctuaries work to provide better care to the elephants, better lives, more freedom, no torture, and NO RIDING. In addition, sanctuaries use their revenue to buy elephants away from the riding camps, thus freeing these animals from their abusers.

In the sanctuary we went to, it was clear right away that the workers truly care for the elephants, and are devoted to the cause of better elephant treatment in Thailand. In the sanctuary, we had the opportunity to walk with the elephants, feed them, bathe them in the river, and generally just spend time with them. Elephants are one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet, and it shows; they are more majestic than I could ever have realized beforehand. Looking into their eyes, one sees the soul of a noble creature that deserves respect, compassion, and honor.

Pictures? Yes, of course!

After the elephant sanctuary, we went back to Chiang Mai and spent a few more days enjoying the sights, spending time with new friends, and finally getting ready for our trip to Laos.

On the way to Laos, we made a pit stop in Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai is arguably most famous for its bizarre and beautiful White Temple, but we didn’t get the chance to stop in and see it, since we had to hit the road to Laos the next morning. We did get the chance to go to the night market, and indulge in these crunchy grasshoppers. Quite an interesting snack:

Chiang Rai grasshoppers

The next morning, we caught the early morning bus to Chiang Khong, a Thai town on the border —and then, we crossed the Friendship Bridge into Laos, and entered the village of Huay Xai.

In the next blog, I’ll delve into the details of our slow boat ride down the Mekong River, Luang Prabang, and more. Stay tuned!

 

 

Lopburi Thailand

Southeast Asia, Part 1: Bangkok, Lopburi, Chiang Mai, and Pai

Hello, hello!

I’m happy to announce that after a fantastic month out in southeast Asia, my wife Veronica and I have made it back home to the United States. Apologies for the long pause in blogging — perhaps the longest pause since I first started this blog in 2012! — but don’t worry, now that I’m back, the blog schedule will return to normal.

So yes, traveling: perhaps the most beautiful thing about traveling, really, isn’t what you see while you’re away, but what you bring back with you when you come home.

Lopburi Thailand

When one dives into other cultures headfirst, takes the time to understand them, to open oneself to the ways that other lands, peoples, and societies work, you find that there is no perfect society, no “best country on Earth,” no excuse for exceptionalism. Every place has its positives and negatives. Every culture has evolved into what it is for a reason, and the enhanced possibilities for cultural exchange is one of the best features of today’s world.

Traveling, experiencing other cultures, understanding other cultures, is the cure for such toxins as bigotry, prejudice, and ignorance. Because when you see why people are the way they are, it pulls back the ridiculousness of being judgmental, the inanity of putting up walls and pretending that one’s way is the best way, or the only way. In today’s times, an understanding of other cultures is exactly what we need if we want to move forward, instead of stepping back.

It’s good to be home. Flying back into New York City, even for just a stopover, and seeing the skyscrapers is always a delight. But it was just as amazing to spend an entire month immersed in southeast Asia, from Thailand to Laos to Cambodia, and back to Thailand again. There were so many experiences that I’ll never forget, so many new lessons that will stick with me, so much inspiration.

Thailand Phuket

Though I love writing, and I love traveling, writing travel posts is a bit of a struggle for me, primarily because it’s a form of writing that’s so different from what I usually do. Normally, when I write a piece, I try to take on a big issue and zoom in on one aspect of it, as intensely as I can: when I review a film, for instance, I focus on my interpretation of the story’s deeper meaning, instead of analyzing every single piece of the production itself. With writing about travel, however, I feel a desire to go through the entire trip, piece by piece, because the overall picture is so important, but this leaves less time to delve into the smaller details, which are often the ones with the most impact.

But it’s good to challenge oneself, and since traveling and writing are both such huge parts of who I am, I’m going to do my best. So, in this post, I’ll try to strike a compromise, break it into a few posts, and we’ll see how I do.

Nicholas Conley Bangkok Thailand

Onward:

Naturally, like most trips to Thailand, our journey began in Bangkok after a long 20+ hour transit via Air China, with a brief stopover in China itself. Bangkok is an enormous city, but a mesmerizing one. On later reflection, I realized that what makes Bangkok special is how unique it is, in that while wandering its streets, you really know where you are. Though many capital cities are now so internationalized that they could be anywhere in the world, Bangkok is always distinctively Bangkok.

And what does one do in Bangkok? Well, besides eating scorpions, as pictured above, there’s also countless food stalls serving utterly delicious pad Thai — which would go on to become a near-daily meal throughout the month. I also consumed quite a number of bottles of Chang, as well as fruit shakes made with no artificial syrup, no milk, nothing but the fruits themselves. Walking the streets of Bangkok really is an experience in and of itself, no doubt, and the culture truly is wonderful to interact with: Buddhism is enormous throughout all of Thailand, and the many positive, peaceful, worldly philosophies inherent to Buddhism have really permeated the land, and are a huge part of what makes it such an enjoyable country to visit.

A few days later we hitched the train to the ancient city of Ayutthaya, once the capital of Siam, the ruins of which are now an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lots of amazing sights to see, all of which makes a person realize what a tiny piece of history we live in today.

Ayutthaya Thailand

After Ayutthaya, we then hopped back on the train and went down to Lopburi, which you readers will recognize from my last post.

Honestly, the time we spent in Lopburi is something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. The main reason, of course, is the monkeys. Lopburi is a town completely overrun with crab-eating macaques, and after spending time with these guys, it’s impossible not to fall in love with them.

Thailand Lopburi

Not remotely shy, the monkeys can be seen climbing the telephone wires, hopping on cars, scurrying across rooftops, crowding up sidewalks, and if you happen to be carrying food, they have no problem jumping on top of you and snatching it right out of your hands. Though the monkeys wander all over the old town, they actually “live” in Prang Sam Yot, a former Khmer temple. Lopburi itself would be a fun town to spend time in, even without the monkeys, but the little guys are so impossible not to love, that Veronica and I really spent hours and hours just enjoying their company.

Something I really appreciated about the monkeys in Lopburi is their freedom; the city is theirs, just as much as it belongs to the people. The monkeys are free to roam as much as they wish, enjoying their lives, while interacting with people if and when they choose to, instead of being caged up or forced into being pets. Lopburi is a really unique city, and we enjoyed every minute of our time there.

Lopburi Thailand

After wrapping up our time in Lopburi, we took an overnight train to Chiang Mai, met up with an old friend who just happened to be in Thailand at the time, and then finished the night at a reggae bar. This ended up being an excellent preview for our next location: Pai, a legendary little hippie village in the mountains, that just so happens to have plenty of Thai rastas, reggae bars, arts, crafts, yoga, music shows, and all sorts of creative events.

They often say that people go to Pai and never come back, and it’s easy to see why. Nestled deep in the mountains, overlooked by the giant white Buddha, Pai is not just a beautiful place because of its overwhelming sights: it’s a beautiful place because of the people, art, and creative culture there.

We spent almost week in Pai. The first night was in a bungalow, and then we spent the rest of the time staying with new friends, renting mopeds and exploring the mountains, hot springs, and Pai Canyon, a breathtaking vista with perilous cliff drops, narrow ledges, and no guardrails.

All in all, what I can say is this: if we were to live in Thailand, I suspect that we’d probably make our home up in Pai.

Thailand Pai

And for now, we’ll take a break in the narrative; this seems like a good pause before we enter the next chapter. Coming up in my next blog post: an elephant sanctuary, the road to Laos, and Laos itself!

 

Meanwhile, in Thailand…

Hello back there! Just stopping in briefly to say hi; will do a full report after I get back, but in the meantime, we’re having an amazing time out here in Thailand.

The photo below was taken while hanging around in Lopburi, Thailand’s city of monkeys. And when I say city of monkeys, I truly mean a city where the monkeys have taken over — chilling out on the sidewalk, hopping onto people’s cars, crawling on the telephone wires, stealing people’s sunglasses, they’re everywhere. Needless to say, it’s a lot of fun.

tmonkeys

 

We’re now up in the mountains of Pai, and then headed further north!