Monthly Archives: January 2009

Journey To Ko Tao

Ko Samui was obviously pretty and fun-

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But after three nights we decided to move on.  Chaweng beach is a bit too overdeveloped for my idea of tropical paradise, and I’d heard great things about nearby Ko Tao so we decided to set our sights there.

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A view of the ferry terminal on Ko Samui, while waiting for our boat to arrive that was nearly an hour late. (This isn’t Japan after all!) Which I found pretty typical for Thailand, stray mutt and all as there are a lot of them about.

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Finally the ferry arrived and we started the two hour journey towards Ko Tao, stopping briefly at Ko Phangan in between. (In case you can’t tell yet, “Ko” is island in Thai!) At Ko Phangan several workers from various diving resorts got on and started courting us for our business- diving is the thing to do in Ko Tao, you see- and we settled on Big Buddha’s which is on one of the more remote beaches on the south of the island.  For a four day dive course we get free accomodation and all that jazz for about $250, not a bad deal at all!

When we arrived at Ko Tao I liked it right off- the island is a mere seven by two kilometers so quite easy to manage, and it felt like “real” Thailand to me.  You know, sitting in the back of a pickup while your driver passes more sharply than you’d like, dirt roads the last stretch of the way, your typical petrol stand-

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Clearly, the world has become more interesting!  Here’s where we ended up at Big Buddha’s-

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Frankly the entire thing feels like I have regressed in life and gone back to summer camp- the room could be straight out of there, there’s a set program every day, etc- except with fewer rules and more alcohol.  And learning how to dive!

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This is our instructor, Jasper, who we hope can dive better than draw as we’re entrusting our lives to him and all. (We also have a guy named Goose in our group who’s learning how to be an instructor, so lucked out with one-on-one instruction!) We’re going into the pool this afternoon and doing five dives in the ocean over the next three days, which is super-exciting.  We even get to start late on Super Bowl Monday (ie the game is early morning here- Go Steelers!) and a bunch of us are already planning to wake up to see it.

So life is good- nice beach, nice people, nice island.  We’ll check in later once we’re adept at floating underwater, but until then here is a picture of the moon and Venus at sunset-

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Ko Samui

To start things off, allow me to introduce you to Judit-

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Judit is my Hungarian cousin who joined me here in Thailand for two weeks during her university break.  The second I heard she was coming I got very excited as, well, you would be excited if your cousin was Judit and you spent your childhood summers living like sisters.

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And, of course, this is me.  We’re standing on Chaweng beach in Ko Samui, which is the longest beach on the third largest island in Thailand, respectively.  We flew down here once Judit arrived in Bangkok, as it’s considered one of the loveliest islands in Thailand and an hourlong flight was more appealing than a 16-hour bus+boat ride.

And I must say, this place is quite nice-

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We spent pretty much all of yesterday sitting on the beach and getting patchy sunburns in the random places we forgot to apply sunscreen.  I must say this didn’t stop a few guys from trying their luck, leading to my theory that guys try their luck exponentially more when there are two pretty young ladies to try luck with!

Another interesting thing about Judit is how, of course, we speak Hungarian.  As I haven’t spoken it for years except with my mother and grandmother it’s interesting to dust off my vocabulary- Judit however is nice and informs me that it’s not that I have an accent or anything, but rather I’m slower to string my words together than a native speaker.  Good analysis… It should be noted of course that there are other Hungarians in our hotel but they’ve been so involved in their world they haven’t stopped to listen that maybe other people around them speak their language and know what they’re saying.  I’m tempted to shout loudly “beszej egy kicsit hangosabb, nem hallotam pontosan!” (“talk a little louder, I didn’t quite hear you!”) to get their attention, which would freak them out as Hungarians abroad universally assume no one knows what they’re saying, but haven’t yet.

Anyway, more pictures!

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There are a lot of strays and non-stray dogs on the island, and this particular one apparently sleeps in front of our room every night.  As in, yes, that is our door, but the mutt doesn’t wake up when we go in so it’s all good.

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And last but not least, a picture from our revelry last night!  Chaweng beach has both a crowded main street running parallel to the beach and places on the beach itself- drinking on the beach is far more appealing, so we came to this hopping place last night for our dollar beers.  Because, you know, if you’re not partying on a beach where you’re able to recline like a Roman you’re doing it wrong!

Ok, I have more pictures, but this Internet cafe isn’t good at even rotating them so the ones taken vertically will have to wait.  And tomorrow we’re headed for Ko Tao, another nearby idyllic island famous for its snorkelling and diving, so we’ll see what we find there.  Cheers!

Pattaya

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I got to Bangkok around midnight on the morning of the 23rd, and promptly got into a cab to head to Pattaya.  Pattaya is a town an hour and a half south of the Bangkok airport that caters more towards families nowadays (and traditionally towards single men, or at least ones forgetting they’re single) so I doubt I would have headed there on my own.  As it stands, however, my parents bought their house from a guy who owns a hotel in Pattaya, and they surprised me with a few nights stay there for my birthday.

It was my 23rd birthday and it took place on the 23rd, for anyone who didn’t know that detail.  I remember in my much younger days (you know, the ones where you don’t think you’ll make it to high school) what a shame it was that I would be too old to think of something cool to do on such a momentous numerical event, so I hope my young self would find Thailand acceptable!  Picture of the pool-

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And picture of my birthday dinner- pad thai with fried egg, and giant drink fashioned from a pineapple to continue the “drinking from giant fruits” theme I mentioned earlier with the coconut (hey, you’re supposed to be careful of what you eat around here anyway!).

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As for what I did in Pattaya, well, I took up the life of the resident minor eccentric in the hotel due to my alone-ness and non-German-ness (pretty much everyone in this hotel is, to the point that that’s the first language posted) which I relished by asking myself each morning “ok, Yvette what do you want to do today?”  It’s funny how long something like this can take getting used to because traveling with others ends up being a long set of compromises on what you will be doing (not necessarily a bad thing, but it happens nonetheless) whereas if I just wanted to sit by the pool drinking beer no one was going to argue.  Which I did a good amount of frankly, once I discovered even the expensive poolside beers were 100 baht with tip (about US $2.80).  Now if only I could convince the old fat German guys that sharing a lobster’s color (red or brown) is not attractive, nor are Speedos…

When the poolside got boring all you need to do is go out onto the street and hop onto a songthaew-

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What is a songthaew, you ask?  It is, in short, a pickup truck that has been converted into a miniature bus- you wave to the driver when you want to get on, and buzz and pay 10 baht when you want to get off.  Totally great around here because it’s so hot the breeze  is greatly appreciated!  Here’s another view so you get the idea-

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Of course, when they start getting full some of the guys will stand and cling to the back, as they think it’s very macho.

It’s interesting just how quickly you get used to the traffic around here, by the way (or at least I did)- constant bustle of cars, trucks, songathaews, and motorcycles in a neverending stream.  To cross the street involves the most aggressive jaywalking skills you’ve ever had in that you just walk into the street when you detect a gap you start crossing, and traffic will just move around you.  After Japan where everyone patiently waits at the zebra and only crosses when there’s a signal, no matter how long the wait, it’s quite a cacophony.

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Picture of Pattaya beach with Thai children playing in the surf, where the beach is hardly removed at all from the bustling street.  This beach is interesting- you can rent a chair for next to nothing on it, where you will immediately be harassed by a neverending stream of vendors selling everything from prawns to purses to pinapples to popsicles.  And those are just the “p”s! (B had a good list too- bananas to beaded bags to birds trapped in wooden cages.)

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A much more quiet beach- now this is more like it!  Actually this is the island of Ko Long, an hour’s boat ride out from bustling Pattaya, where I went on a snorkeling daytrip.  Such a lovely reef, swarming with schools of glittering fish of all sizes and even baby barracuda!  I can hardly wait for the waters of southern Thailand, which are said to be even more spectacular…

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Chilling on the boat, starving for lunch because being out on the water makes you really, really hungry.  But luckily unlike plane food boat food is pretty good stuff, so starvation was averted.  It helps that Thai food is just awesome, of course…

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… But I confess I’m not really in the mood to try everything around here.  I saw these in the store while buying my Thai cell phone, and really?  Seaweed-flavored potato chips?!

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Another food item I wasn’t thinking I would get behind soon (though to be fair, I’m more likely to try than the first one).  Man, those corn sundaes sure hit the spot!

image126And last but not least, a bit of orientation for those wondering where I am.  New York City is listed as 16,827km away- even Melbourne, Australia was a few hundred kms closer, meaning I have never been so far from home.

So that’s Thailand so far.  My first impressions of the place are while it’s busy and obviously more impoverished it’s not an “oh my goodness this is impossible, I am never leaving my room” reaction, but rather one of “hey, this is different and interesting and fun!  What other drinks can I get served in a fruit husk?”  I can’t wait to see more of Thailand and see how this initial reaction holds up!

The Art of Doing Nothing

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I have been in Thailand a few days and man, you would be amazed at how time consuming doing nothing can be!  I need to go do some more of that in a bit, but to not leave you hanging here’s a picture of me enjoying a coconut on the beach- they chop it right in front of you and give you a straw and spoon to finish the thing off, all for less than a dollar.  Ah, life.

Summary of Japan

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Japan is a marvelous country which I really enjoyed getting a taste of. This is obvious I’m sure, but I am very happy that the first stop in my trip went so well!

  • The best thing, of course, have been the people. And I don’t just mean people like Sasha or Guillame or the Akazawas. Rather, Japanese people have built themselves a marvelous country where everyone is beyond polite and industrious (which I know is the stereotype, but you don’t quite grasp this until you are immersed in it yourself). Japan has a quiet confidence about it that I’ve only encountered before in the United States- this feeling about how much an individual can impact the world- so that was neat to see.

  • My welcome dinner after arriving in Japan, as well as my last one. Actually, anything with Japanese food involved is a marvelous thing- even the fast food joints specialize in a bowl of ramen or rice with some sort of topping, which is novel and delicious. I never saw one fat person while I was in Japan, and I attribute this to what would happen if your default fast food was as healthy as the Japanese kind!

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  • Going around Tokyo with Sasha

  • The shinkansen, aka bullet train, aka the ultimate example of where the mode of transportation is the attraction. I am still in love with the marvelous efficiency and wonder of this system where you can set your watch by the train keeping to the schedule so immaculately and travel faster than 200 kph, faster than you’ve ever gone before on land! I wish we could build one in the US, though I’m sure we’d mess it up somehow.

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  • Karaoke the second night- Sasha did Show Me The Meaning of Feeling Lonely, two Japanese songs, The World Is Not Enough, and a few others I’m embarassed to admit I didn’t recognize. My contributions were Suddenly I See, Flathead, I Will, Oops I Did It Again, You Belong to Me, and we did a duet for both Let It Be and It’s My Life.

  • Japanese strawberries are, it turns out, beyond awesome

  • The street in Kyoto with the geisha, as well as The Golden Temple and the hillside shrine with Guillaume

  • My little room in the ryokan

  • Getting to see Hiroshima

  • Last but not least, receiving an email from Case that my degree was conferred January 16th and I am an alumnus! Hooray! So I suppose I’m technically lying now whenever I list myself as a student on immigration forms, but “homeless and unemployed” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Lowlights:

  • Culture shock: Well, it was going to happen, particularly with sensory overload like the kind you get in Tokyo (my saving grace was having Sasha, I would have been much more lost and confused without him). I tackled this one by recognizing it for what it was, making a point to read my English newspaper, and knowing when it was time to take a night in in Kyoto.

  • Internet Issues: It turns out there is no wireless network in Japan like you expect as a matter of course in the US, but rather networks are pretty much universally encrypted. I find this rather odd for a nation that’s supposed to be so far ahead of us, as free wireless is sooo nice! We’ll see if South East Asia is any better, as it would be nice to upload pictures and text directly to the web.

  • The lack of ATMs for forgeiners in the country- make sure you have enough cash because if you don’t it can be problematic very quickly if you don’t.

  • A really irritating blister on the back of my left foot from walking, which got to nice size over the course of the week even when bandaged up…
  • And, well, I very unfortunately lost my hat in Tokyo on my last day (ok lost implies I don’t know where it is, but I know it probably fell out of my jacket when my coat was checked at dinner). Nooooo! Though to be totally fair, it is way way way too hot for such a hat in Thailand, so there would have been no real point. So life will go on, perhaps with pictures of me in my sunhat…

“Rest in peace. We will not commit the same mistake again.”

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Trip Journal for January 21, 2009- Hiroshima:

When I first realized I would be going to Japan I went onto the wonderful Wikitravel to see what there is to see, and my eye stopped on the list of major cities at Hiroshima. Somehow the Japan I think of doesn’t connect to the first atomic bomb, but once I saw it I knew I was going to go, if only for a few hours. I don’t know if others can understand this compelling feeling but I just finished a major in physics, minor in history, and Hiroshima is where the idols of my discipline became Death, the destroyer of worlds, and changed history forever. I had to see it.

As it turns out the train runs the distance from Kyoto to Hiroshima in an hour and a half, with a brief stopover in Osaka, so instead of heading straight back to Tokyo I made a side trip to Hiroshima. I must say the scenery made it worth it- this part of Japan has even more numerous ragged mountains than the Tokyo-Kyoto stretch- and Hiroshima station was in the middle of a bustling city not at all different from any other Japanese city. Somehow it was hard to believe it was the same city that had been destroyed by an atomic blast just 62 years earlier.

A quick taxi ride later landed me at the southern part of the Hiroshima Peace Park, next to the museum. I actually think calling it a park doesn’t seem quite the right word, though, as it wasn’t a park like any other I’d been to- it was quite shushed for the middle of the city, no one was engaging in recreational activities, and a mother scolded her little boy for making too much noise. There were several signs admonishing people how it was illegal to peddle or litter here, and considering there were more security guards than I’d seen anywhere else in the country I’m sure they meant it.

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I headed north. Most of the park is just a grassy area with various memorials to the victims of the atomic blast- the children’s memorial with thousands of paper cranes folded by children from around the world, the flame in the middle of the reflecting pool which will never go out until all the atomic bombs in the world are destroyed, the mmorial for victims allowing for quiet meditation. All was quiet save some foraging pigeons and a group of schoolchildren, who were busy proving that no matter where you are in the world at least half the kids in the field trip aren’t actually paying attention.

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But what held my attention most was the A-Bomb Dome, located on the northernmost tip of the park just across the river. I caught sight of it upon leaving the victims’ memorial and walked over, a bit amazed to see that famous symbol in front of my eyes. I learned later that in fact there was controversy for years over whether to preserve it, some arguing that the building was too unsound and brought back memories too painful, but I’m glad they did.

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And because it was rebuilt I walked across the Aioi bridge that the crew of the Enola Gay used to aim the bomb. I stopped for a few moments in the middle to peer into the sky, imagining what it would have been like to stand there as the air around me caught fire.

image108My last stop was the museum dedicated to discussing the atomic blasts, partly because I was curious as to how the Japanese describe the event and partly to see the artifacts that survived. A few that made deep impressions were the watches that stopped precisely at 8:15 when the bomb fell, hundreds of tiny glass boxes that fused together, the countless tattered clothes reduced to less than rags, a lunch tin with food inside that had turned to charcoal, and the shadow of a man in stone who had been sitting waiting for a bank to open. There were some gruesome pictures too of course, people whose skin was falling off, with burns where their clothes had been, a boy whose hair was shorn and skin burned where his hat ended, a girl whose face was so disfigured from burns I couldn’t believe it was a girl until I read the description. I can’t say I dwelled on these for long.

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As for the Japanese description of things, it was pretty much the same as what I’d learned in my American school. There was no shirking away from Japan’s war crimes at the time, with mentions of “mistaken national policy” and mentions of the use of Korean slave labor and the treatment of American POWs, as well as explanations as to why the Americans decided to drop the bomb. In fact, the only real anti-Americanism on this topic I noticed was in the guestbook encouraging people to share their impressions, though all such comments were from Europeans (to be fair, I couldn’t read the comments in Japanese).

I am now sitting on the shinkansen speeding back to Tokyo while I’m writing all this down, as it was certainly sobering to see but I’m glad I did. I have spent most of my time today thinking about proliferation and how to get rid of nuclear weapons. I don’t pretend to have an answer to all the tough questions except to say it’s complicated, and how much I resent my 10th grade history teacher for making us write an essay on if dropping the bomb was a good or bad thing while saying we had to choose a side. I’m sure he was just trying to get out of having to read wishy-washy essays, but something like this is not so simple as yes or no, and I don’t see what is so wrong with recognizing that.

I do sincerely believe that people are fundamentally good, and that love and happiness are our most basic emotions because fear and hate stem from not wanting to lose what we have. And most of my trip so far has been nothing but an affirmation of this fundamental kindness in people so it is hard to reconcile things like war and atomic bombs with that- the odd idea that people can be capable of both such beautiful dreams and terrible nightmares. It wasn’t too long ago, when my grandmother was about my age today, and yet such war and destruction seems so far removed from our consciousness.image99

Kyoto

In some senses I approached going to Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, with less preparation than I sometimes do picking where I should go to lunch. I had no guidebook, didn’t know a soul, and didn’t know where I was staying, but sorted the latter out quickly at the train station’s tourist information office. They found me a nice ryokan, aka Japanese style hotel, for about 3,000 yen (~30USD) a night- not bad at all considering their dorm beds started at 2,500 yen! It was a great room for that price too, particularly for an expensive place like Japan, thanks to the low season-

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Shuffling about in slippers and robe suited me well, I must say, although I never got over feeling like I was camping out on the floor during my time there. And I don’t know if you can tell here, but the picture in the room was deliberately angled so you could see it from the futon on the floor which I thought was a great touch!

It was afternoon before I was settled, so I spent the last hours of daylight heading towards Gion, the old district most famous for geisha, some of whom still practice in Kyoto. It was a pretty long walk but was interesting because you’d keep stumbling across old temples in the middle of modern Kyoto-

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My favorite example of this- I was walking down the street wondering how I’d know when I’d reached something interesting when I found this tucked between two buildings. The street was lined with little wooden shops leading up to the pagoda, which supposedly holds remains of the holy Buddha inside.

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Geisha! They were at the top of the stone-lined street above, getting their photographs taken by an official photographer for something or another. As there aren’t many of them left I was really excited to see them- plus I confess I loved reading Memoirs of a Geisha and was happy to note things about their attire described in the book, right down to how the white paint should look on the back of a geisha’s neck.

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A typical street in Gion, lined with endlessly lovely wooden houses. Kyoto is full of them. Heaven help them during the next earthquake.

All too soon the sun set and I called it an early night, tired from culture shock and walking and everything else. (It was all I could do to watch a movie so I wouldn’t fall asleep before 8pm!) But then I lucked out the next morning by running into this guy-image77This is Guillaume. He is a French Canadian I saw at the Kyoto Metro station looking just as confused as me regarding how to buy a ticket, so we combined forces for the day so we could be confused together. And trust me, he was such great company I don’t think we ever stopped talking the whole time.

And this is why I travel, by the way. So I can talk about how I spent my time exploring ancient temples in Kyoto with a charming French Canadian.

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The Golden Pavilion, which Sasha insisted I see in Kyoto. I must say he was right as the whole area was beyond lovely- each detail carefully thought out so the aesthetics of the temple complex were perfect no matter how you viewed it.

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After the Golden Pavilion Guillaume and I wandered a bit, and our wanderings took us to the top of a forested hill with an amazing view of Kyoto.
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Guillaume acting like an idiot at the shrine at the top of said hill. (For those who don’t know, it is impossible for Asians to pose for a picture without flashing a peace sign.) What was amazing about finding this place was how there was no one there save ourselves- compared to the Golden Pavilion which was thronging with tourists! What an amazing place Kyoto is…

image85Another view of the shrine, looking down from the top of the steps.

It should be noted that the difference between shrines and temples in Japan is that “temple” is Buddhist and “shrine” is Shinto- you can tell the difference because temples tend to have darker colors while shrines have bright ones (like the orange fence here). But interestingly enough Japanese people don’t really care about what they are, to the point where when my host Mr. Akazawa passingly mentioned their family is Buddhist it caused my 30-year-old second cousin to exclaim “we are?!”

Japanese also just traditionally get married as a Buddhist and have your funeral with Shinto rights, no matter what your specific religion is. All in all, I rather like this idea.image88Last but not least, a shot of Kyoto Tower at night. And I must say, I liked Kyoto. It is much more manageable a city than Tokyo was and thus helped me feel like I could manage my way around Japan. You know, just in time to leave, but hopefully the beginnings of travel-savvyness won’t be lost too quickly!