Friday, March 29, 2013

Mae Sot, Thailand

The beautiful grounds of the Picturebook Guesthouse in Mae Sot.
Picturebook at night.
The camp hall at the Umpiem Burmese refugee camp near Mae Sot.
We attended the graduation of the students in the English Immersion Program at the camp.
Part of the refugee camp and the surrounding mountains.
A typical classroom in the camp.
Illegal border crossing between Thailand and Burma.
Greg, Sandy and Rochelle took us to this amazing restaurant. The designers literally took pieces of the jungle and transplanted them here. 
Waterfalls and jungley stuff at the restaurant.
Even the bathrooms were all jungled out.
The amazing Ro, Sandy and Greg were warm and gracious hosts.  They definitely made us want to come back and see them again soon.
Sometimes when you are traveling there are these side trips that seem like they will be a lot of work, and when you are short on time or money, you wonder if they will be worth it. We have finally figured out that when we follow our gut and persevere we are more richly rewarded than we could have expected.

We really wanted to visit Matt's friend and old co-worker Rochelle in the town where she had been working for the past 3 years. It would take a day there and back, and we didn't know what else there was to see or do in the town. We decided that it's always fun to visit old friends in new places, and how often do you get a local's tour from someone who shares your history and knows your reference points?

Mae Sot is a small city on the border of Burma. It's home to multiple burmese refugee camps, many Burmese migrant workers, and a healthy NGO population. It is a potential overland entry to Burma (right now only for a day trip but maybe longer in the future) via the Friendship bridge. It's also a bustling illegal crossing (by boats or inner tubes) under the watchful eyes of the Thai military.

Rochelle recommended a great guesthouse ( where the rooms are decorated by local artists and we enjoyed AC, cable TV and a comfy bed. The first night Ro and her two colleagues, Greg and Sandy took us out for a delicious Burmese meal. Over dinner they told us about their previous work with World Education in the refugee camps, and about stepping out to start their own NGO, Point B Design and Training. I don't want to paraphrase, so this is what they are planning in (what I hope is) their own words:

Point B Design + Training has been created to respond rapidly and flexibly to needs in Burma/Myanmar. 
More than 60 years of military rule in Burma/Myanmar has eroded both the capacity for critical analysis and the confidence to propose solutions that are mutually agreed upon by both the government and local communities. 
Over the last 14 years, the founders of Point B have developed trainings, tools and processes to empower educators, community mobilizers, community organizations and leaders to deliver innovative solutions within a complex and changing environment. 
Point B is focused on developing education systems and community governance in Burma/Myanmar through the following methods:• Develop master trainers who can lead change and facilitate action within schools and communities. • Use an interdisciplinary approach that brings together education, business, design-thinking, health and science to enhance local capacity and performance.• Tackle social issues and use prototyping to discover new solutions.• Create new platforms for collaboration between diverse social, ethnic, gender and political groups.
Early the next morning we took a long winding drive up to Umpiem, one of the Burmese refugee camps in the mountains. It's usually hard to get visitor passes to the camp, but since it was a special occasion (the English Immersion Program's graduation day) we were able to get through the gate. Umpiem has been in existence since 2000, and, according to The Border Consortium, has 17,000 residents (with an additional 10,000 having been resettled from the camp to date). The camp was described to us as one of the more picturesque refugee camps, and it certainly was. Thatch roofs spread across deep valleys, bamboo huts with decorative weaving and interesting architectural elements (balconies with built in seats!?!). It's enough to make you forget the history of people forced from their homes by violent conflict, living on meager rations and confined to a 1/3 sq mile camp all day, every day. The public buildings bear the reminders of all the aid camps like this require, "provided by US Aid", "donated by Australia aid" etc. There is hope that with peace and stability in Burma people could start to go home, but as Greg explained, people have every reason to remain very-cautiously optimistic.

After camp we saw a couple of the migrant children's schools, watched people making the illegal crossing to and from Burma by river, and stopped by PuzzleBox art studio. Sein Sein Lin is a Burmese artist who helped design all of the rooms at our guesthouse, does gorgeous watercolors and teaches art and ceramics to local kids. I was more than happy to buy some Puzzlebox jewelry and art from our guesthouse store, but regret I didn't get a copy of the children's book illustrated by Sein Sein Lin and written by Rochelle.

We finished our tour by visiting the Mae Tao Clinic, a health clinic run for displaced Burmese by a Burmese doctor, Dr. Cynthia. The clinic and hospital wards were admittedly basic, hospital beds with wooden planks kind of basic (no air cushion pressure ulcer prevention here!) with outdoor toilets/bathing areas. It's hard to see and not make judgements based on western values, especially without knowing how their health outcomes measure up. Once again I am reminded of how soft most of us in the west have become.

Later that night we all went to dinner at this insane restaurant. The owners imported a substantial chunk of the jungle onto the grounds of the restaurant, complete with massive trees, all kinds of orchids, and limestone boulders. Small ponds and several waterfalls surrounded us as we ate very good Thai food. The real draw of the place is the jungle atmosphere. It was pretty over the top in a sort of Disney way, but done tastefully. Honestly, I wouldn't mind living there. 

The generosity and hospitality that Rochelle, Greg and Sandy showed us while in Mae Sot was wonderful and humbling. They are super passionate about their work in the face of daunting challenges. We wish them the best of luck and look forward to following their progress in Point B Design + Training. Hopefully we can see it firsthand in Burma in the near future. 

- Bree + Matt

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Koh Jum / Railay, Thailand

Landing in Krabi.
School girls taking the long tail ferry home. 
Heading into the islands. 
We were welcomed to Koh Jum with a gorgeous sunset.
Boat life!
Going over the dive plan with our instructor. 
We're ready!
Checking for his buddy....
Our third dive site on Ko Phi Phi Ley. 
Looking for sharks.
Buddy is right here!
Shrimp curry in a young coconut with pineapple fried rice. Someone's doing the tropical thing right.
Tonsai Beach, Railay, Krabi. 

We got a special visit from our good friend, the awesome Daniel Bellury. We met up in Bangkok, drank a bunch and then headed for Koh Jum. The three of us flew down to Krabi and took a long tail boat over to the island. Koh Jum was written up as one of the lesser-developed islands on the Andaman Sea side of Southern Thailand. And it was just that. The western side was dotted with bungalow resorts. We opted to stay at the cheap at Bo Daeng. It was, um, basic. But the food was good, the beer was cold and cheap and we were right on the beach, so we couldn't really complain. Though we did complain a little amongst ourselves about the clientele - a group of hippie-types that you couldn't cast any better. There were the Spanish circus kids who howled all the time; the know-it-all, very opinionated Calgarain; the Thai-Canadian loner who took a job working at the bungalows; and an 'original' hippie from Oregon. But it was all good, we had a job to do: get our PADI Open Water Certification.

Our first day was spent relaxing and swimming. But then we hit the books, or rather the water. Daniel and I spent all day in the pool at Koh Jum Divers doing our 'confined water' sessions. Then the following day we took a boat over to Bida Nok and Bida Noi for our first two open water dives. It was insane. We went over the skills required and then went diving. We saw all kinds of brightly-colored tropical fish, a moray eel, a Hawksbill turtle, a sea snake, pufferfish and boxfish. All of these while swimming along in an amazing coral reef.

The following day Bree joined us as we headed to Koh Phi Phi Ley (made famous in the the movie The Beach). The diving again was incredible. Saw more of the above mentioned fish, plus a Green Turtle, a few squid, and almost sharks. Our instructor saw two but we just missed them. I don't want to talk about that.

Our dive instructor, Vera, an Irish girl, was great. While she was laid-back and patient with us, she also made sure that we were retaining all the knowledge. She claimed that we were great students, which may be true, but I know I still have a lot to learn. Believe me, I am very eager to continue. Diving is one of the most surreal, dream-like things I have ever done, and I am so happy I finally took the time to get my certification.

After we finished the PADI course, we headed up to Railey, and specifically to Tonsai Beach. More breathtaking landscape. We had to take a trek through the jungle to reach Tonsai but it was well worth it. The beach features massive limestone karst formations jetting up from the crystal-clear turquoise sea. We only had a day there, but again it was totally worth it.

Back in Bangkok for a night. Daniel unfortunately had to leave. And unfortunately lost his new iPhone. We played some more cards and drank some more beers before he had to get a few hours sleep and head to the airport. It was great to have him join our expedition for a week. And now we're divers!

- Matt

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Bangkok, Thailand

Street noodles and beer on Khao San Rd.
Oh you know, Tuesday night is all. 
Matt was trying to talk to this kid but he no interest in chatting, just ready to unload his wilted roses. It was 3 am.
Loved hanging out at this street-side bar, made from a converted VW van. 
We love used book stores around the world. Matt especially loves finding obscure sci-fi paperbacks. It's a fetish.

Bangkok  is a cat town. We love it. 
We stumbled on some real Muay Thai. Cultural experience, check!
Waiting for the teams to line up.
Israel vs Spain, men.
Matt took a few too many pictures of the sign girls, I think. 

Thailand vs Japan, ladies. 
Drunk kids riding home in a tuk tuk.
Not so drunk kids heading out in the tuk tuk

Wat Arun in the fading light of day.

Our flight arrived in Bangkok shortly after 2am. Apparently late arrivals are the norm here, the guidebook even warns you not to fret too much about it. Our guesthouse was a small place and the instructions were to head to Khao San road, and get out at the Burger King. From there it's an easy walk down an alley. These instructions were discussed with the taxi driver, and he took a long hard look at the map (which had roads in Thai). As we neared our intersection the driver starts stopping to ask every 'working girl' if she (or he) knew our hotel. There were a lot of working girls, and no one knew the place. We tried to get him to take us to the crossroad as planned, but he apparently thought he could get us closer. We finally got out at the Burger King on Khao San road and walked the 3 minutes to our guest house (I was trying not to think he had deliberately driven around for 15 minutes for the extra baht). Unfortunately the place was closed. Locked up and dark. We went next door and took a room for a little less than the place we had booked online (we should have known you can roll up to Khao San at 3am without a reservation and be fine). We stepped out to the street for a beer (with ice) at one of the temporary bars that set up every night in the closed storefronts. We shared some street noodles, watched the little kids hawking flowers and then went home. As we headed through our guest house's "mixed use" ground floor, past the bar girls paying 5 baht to use the toilet, towards the rickety stairs draped in laundry, a girl asked us if we knew where we were going. 3 hours in Bangkok and we felt like we'd been here a week.

We've been joking for weeks, months maybe about our next 'promise land', where we can buy the things we've been missing, have good Internet, basically live the easy life. Bangkok has turned out to be just that. As happened in Kathmandu and Bangalore, when things are easy, we get complacent. We are happy to get out of the hotel by noon and feel pretty accomplished if we see one sight, or more likely, try a new street food vendor or new brand of beer. Maybe big cities make us feel like we're at home? Bangkok is also the start of a new phase in our trip and we really had a lot of planning to do on arrival.

After much discussion and soul searching we have decided to leave Burma off the itinerary for this trip. If we had more time or more money, or hadn't been on the road for almost 6 months already, it might be different. We spoke to a bunch of travelers who had been there recently and they unanimously say it is expensive to travel and difficult. People have told us the tour groups are already there, but the infrastructure is not. Demand is higher than supply, and guest houses are asking exorbitant rates for less that stellar accommodation. People love it, but at this point we would have to choose just Burma, or Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The people who have found it comfortable think of 20-30$ a night as cheap, but 15$ is the top end of our hotel range these days. I know that the magazines and web sites all say we have to "do it now before its too late". I'm hoping we can give the locals a little time to open more guest houses, maybe forge a backpacker circuit. Maybe it will go the way of Bhutan and we will be priced out completely, that is unfortunately the risk we have to take. We are disappointed as Burma was at the top of our list when we set out on this trip, but once again I refer to Lao Tzu, "A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving" (it's my mantra).

- Bree

Monday, March 11, 2013

So Long and Thanks for All the Trains

Leaving India felt like when a really good friend moves thousands of miles away (I'm looking at you Erin and Petra, and Karen and Monica… hmm, maybe there's a pattern…). Kind of empty, excited for future adventures and aware that the friend is always there, just farther away. But still sad and maybe a little lonely. We are excited about coming back to India, and knowing we can stay for a shorter period and see less, now that we've done the sweeping 2.5 month overview. There were parts of India that were hard and tiring. But all real travel is tiring, thats why not everyone does it, and it doesn't count as a "vacation". In fact, travelers we talked to expressed appreciation for any vacation from their vacation they could get.

I read a lot of newspapers in India and can't even begin to understand the political and social workings. I'm not sure that all Indians understand how everything works. But I'm actually OK with that. I read recently a quote by an India writer that said something to the effect of (I'm paraphrasing): India is in no way a "developing" nation, there are years of advanced civilization there, it's just currently in an advanced state of decay. I love that sentiment. Of course there is shiny newness coating the decay, sometimes built soundly on top, but other times just thinly masking what's underneath.

You see all of humanity on Indian railways (I'm sure someone famous also said that). When we set out on this big train journey through Siberia and China and Tibet I always knew that India was our penultimate goal. It more than lived up to the hype. Last time I took the train from North to South with a few dozen Canadian and Indian youths, riding the whole time in sleeper class. We were too young and enamored with our journey to notice any discomfort (including the 20 hour diversion due to flooding). This time we travelled AC 2nd and 3rd class (usually whichever had the shortest wait list). I told myself that 16 years later we had earned cushier travels. We shared the AC classes with more upwardly mobile Indians, those more likely to speak English and less likely to spend the night staring at us. We met lots of European (but few American or Canadian) tourists and traded plans and tips. We watched as young Indian men shoved their way into the unreserved second class, hanging 3 deep out of the door (hopefully they were not headed for any tunnels). It took a couple trips but I was soon brave enough to start buying the dishwater chai that sells for 18 cents again. I've heard Indians deplore its quality but agree that it is a quintessential train experience. One of my most lasting memories of the last trip is waking up to "chai, chai, chai, kapi,kapi kapi, chai, chai, chai"

In all, we traversed the entire length - north to south - of the subcontinent. As well as many side trips, diversions and indirect traveling. Some of the trains were late. Many hours late. But aside from that, we always felt safe, the trips were fun and they got us where we wanted to go. So, thanks India Railways. See you again soon. That goes for India as a whole.

- Bree

Indians waiting for our train to pass.

Cholera vaccinations at the train station. Today was a school day, but yesterday they vaccinated 200 kids.

The easy-to-understand India Railway system.
Matt poses in the jail-cell of our cabin, a poster in the train station, and Bree gets comfortable in another of our cabins.
The train waitlists in India are so game-like that there is a website that allows people to predict whether you'll bet a seat or not.