Erica and Matt Chua: The Experience that is Khao San Road

Khao San Road is the gateway to Southeast Asia, which means this is the first stop for many young and often inexperienced travelers planning a trip to the region.  It has almost a spring break type atmosphere and just about anything goes, before I go into detail about “anything” lets take a quick look at history. According to wikitravel  the word khao san itself means milled rice and is an attribution to the historical role of this street in the rice trade. The first business to open on Khao San Road was a small hotel aimed at serving civil servants from the provinces who came to Bangkok on business. The hotel was followed by Sor Thambhakdi, a shop selling monks’ accessories. Four similar businesses moved in after, and Khao San became known as a “religious road”.  Let me tell you that the only religious thing about Khao San Road anymore is how people drink religiously when they visit.  Nonetheless, Khao San Road is a must-see in Bangkok.  You might not choose to stay at one of the  cheap guesthouses in the middle of the action, but you may want to do one of the following:

Top Ten Things to do on Khao San Road

1. Drink, I’m not condoning binge drinking here, but this is definitely the place to grab a local Chang beer or a bucket.   A bucket is just that a sand-pale style bucket filled with liquor it’s typically whiskey (the local Sang Som) and Coke,  but you can pick your poison.

2. Stay awake, Khao San Road never sleeps so you can visit anytime day or night.  The morning is the quietest and at night everything comes alive.  Once the bars close by 2:00 am or so, the patrons will flood the street moving the party outside.

3. People Watch, this goes hand-in hand with staying awake as night offers the best people watching.  Herds of young backpackers roam the streets intermingled with street vendors, lady boys and tuk tuk drivers.  It’s hard not to stare at all the crazy characters hanging out.

4. Buy Art, there are some very talented artists that sell their paintings and photographs on the side of the street, it is definitely worth checking out.  Remember to bargain and you could take home a fantastic painting for under $20.

5. Shop, Khao San Road is the bohemian capital of Bangkok, so if you are looking for patchwork skirts, a buddha t-shirt or want to get a singing bowl you will find it on Khao San. Make sure you bargain because all the vendors are willing to “make good price for you.”

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Erica and Matt Chua: The Experience that is Khao San Road

Erica and Matt Chua: The Love Saga of Sapa

 

The saga of Sapa begins in the small hill tribe villages, whose civilizations have yet to reap the benefits of modernization.  They have recently been inundated with tourists, however many of the traditions of the Black H’mong and Red Dao people persist.  In particular the traditions that dictate love hold strong and the courtships of very young villagers are short and arranged, but I learned from our young trekking guide Coo that it is a little more complicated than that.

At first glance Coo looked like the twelve year old daughter of one of the travelers in her bright pink, rhinestone studded jacket talking on her cell phone.  Upon closer examination I could here that she was clearly speaking in a foreign tongue, wearing a traditional skirt and had long, silky black hair to her knees.  As we began our trek I hurriedly caught up to Coo as I had lots of questions for her, much to my pleasure she was happy to chat and eager to share her life with me.  We became fast friends.

She was only sixteen years old, but clearly wise beyond her years.  She had gone to school up until high school as her family could no longer afford to send her and she could contribute more by supporting her family as a trekking guide.  It was clear that her dreams lie in Hanoi where she could get a proper education and have some independence before she married at 25 rather than fourteen like many of her peers that by sixteen already had one or two children.  She was rare in the villages surrounding Sapa with her hopes of delaying marriage and going to school, but the constant Western influence of trekking tourists surely swayed her opinions.

As told by Coo the traditional path to marriage in many of the small villages surrounding Sapa started with a “kidnapping” of the fourteen year old soon-to-be-wife to their future husbands home to meet his family and gain their approval.  A dowry was arranged for the girl, which often included a combination of money, animals and textiles.  The steps that followed were quick, starting with the new wife taking up residence in her husband’s family’s home and then quickly moving into child bearing and child rearing. Love may or may not ever be part of the equation at any step in the process.  Her feelings on the subject were clear, fourteen was much too young to marry.

The more we talked the more complex it got; for those of her friends that didn’t have a traditional path to marriage they risked being kidnapped and sold just over the border into China.  With China’s strict laws on having just one child, many people abandon girls in hopes of having a boy.  This has created an abundance of boys with no prospects for marriage.  Girls in Sapa may also be considered a burden or embarrassment to their families because they were not married off.  All of this is slowly changing and Coo is an example of that, but she was still saddened when she spoke of friends that had disappeared, presumably to China.

All of this sixteen year old drama was interrupted frequently by her cell phone buzzing, which indicated another incoming text message.  One from a Singaporean she had guided on a trek a few months ago and another from a local boy telling her he loved her and wanted to get married.  All of this made me a little more suspicious of her dramatic love stories, she may be wise beyond her years, but she is still “sweet sixteen.”  All of my conversatios with Coo led to one clear conclusion, village love is certainly much different from courtships and weddings at home.

Erica and Matt Chua: Monkey Business

When taking photos one thing always distracts me: monkeys.  As soon as they arrive on the scene I watch them carefully to ensure that the crafty primates don’t steal my things.  Beyond that my attention is attracted to them because of their facial expressions, behavior and physics-defying leaps.  I can’t help but snap a few photos of them, but when time comes to put things together for LivingIF I can’t find a way to work monkey photos into it.  Today though it’s time for monkey business, here are a few of my favorite monkey photos and where you can meet these crafty creatures on your own.

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INDONESIA

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In the archipelago of Indonesia you will find monkeys of all shapes, sizes and colors.  City dwellers are wise to human’s ways, raiding fruit stalls and harassing house pets while the jungles are home to a wide variety that will be as interested in you as you are in them.  Ubud, Bali’s Sacred Monkey Forest is home to beautiful, but pesky monkeys that know humans as an easy source of food.

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The wise elderly monkeys sit atop temples watching people pass.
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The young scurry around to get food from tourists.  This happens one of two ways: the people give it willingly or the monkey scares them into dropping it.
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The very young nestle in the safety of their parents.
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INDIA

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Like the people of India, the monkeys are often forced to interact with hoards of people in sprawling cities.  They have learned many tricks such as raiding rooftop gardens and kitchens.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Monkey Business

Erica and Matt Chua: 36 Hours in Bangkok

 

My disclaimer on 36 hours in Bangkok is that no sane person should ever attempt to see Bangkok in 36 hours.  You certainly won’t be able to get through the aggressive timeline that I lay out below even if there was no traffic, heat or throngs of tourists to deal with.  That being said book a few extra days to see this remarkable city and learn the in’s and out’s of the city’s mass transit system because bypassing it will immediately change the way you feel about this Asian metropolis.  In fact if you really take the time to enjoy Bangkok you will find quiet wat’s off the beaten path and tree lined neighborhoods that provide a much needed respite from the chaotic city that surrounds you.

Friday

5 p.m.
1) RELEASE THE BIRDS

Visit Wat Indrawiharn and the 32 meter (over 100 feet) standing Buddha, which is the largest Buddha in the world.  To get your weekend off to a good start you can release birds, which is supposed to increase ones positive karma in this life thus leading to a better life in the next incarnation.

6:30 p.m.
2) GOLDEN MOUNT AT THE GOLDEN HOUR

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Erica and Matt Chua: 36 Hours in Bangkok

Erica and Matt Chua: 10 Minute Trip Planning

Traveling around the world is not one trip; rather it is a collection of many small trips.  Each country we visit brings unique challenges, especially arranging visas and transportation.  Given our travel experience, we can usually nail the logistics down in 10-20 minutes.  Here are the most important aspects we’ve learned in planning a trip to another country and pointers that you can put to use for your next adventure.

These steps are in order; they should be followed in this order, because the steps are dependent on each other.

WHERE TO GO

Obviously, you need to know the country or region you want to visit.  When we were doing some advance trip planning we ran into a challenge, which I will use as an example; getting to Patagonia in the right time of the year, from Europe, without paying visa fees.

VISAS

First and foremost, do you need a visa?  Is there a fee to enter the country?  We are budget travelers, we avoid these fees whenever possible.  To figure this out, I google “US citizen visiting [insert country name]” and look for the US State Department website, specifically the “Entry/Exit Requirements for US Citizens” section.  Also useful is Project Visa.  I avoid visa service websites, they try to steer you towards paying them.  If you are a citizen of another country, you should check your State Department equivalent.

OUR EXAMPLE: We will be visiting Brazil, but won’t have time to get a visa prior to our arrival in South America.  I checked to make sure we could get the visa while traveling (read: not only in our home country).  Chile and Argentina charge $120 for American citizens to enter their country…or so it seems.  This fee is only charged at airports, probably only Santiago and Buenos Aires, therefore to gain entry to these countries for free, you have to enter via land.  I have traveled overland between the two countries more than a dozen times, never having to pay.

OK, so we want to get to Chilean or Argentine Patagonia as quickly as we can from Europe.  What are our choices?  Looking at Google maps, the land borders are: Brazil (already ruled out), Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay or Paraguay.  Knowing we are flying from Europe, we need a major airport, major airports are generally in wealthy, commercial countries, making Peru and Uruguay the targets (no visa fees, good transport to Chile and Argentina).

Returning to Chile from my first date with LOCAVORista, I took a bus from Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile.  It was a grueling 56 hour ride…and Santiago is only halfway to Patagonia.  Even being a lovesick adolescent, I promised myself to never take that bus again, therefore, Peru is out.  That leaves Uruguay.  Checking out the US State Department page, I see there are no visa fees or needs for me to enter Uruguay.  Even better, it’s major airport, Montevideo, is a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires.

The more entry points that you have, the better deal you can get on flights.  In this case, due to visas and fees, our options were pretty limited.  Obviously planning around visiting one country is much simpler.

WEATHER

After knowing the visa situation, the most important thing to know is when to go.  Figure out what exactly you want to do, and what months are best.  January is summer in Chile, the best time to go to Patagonia, but the worst time to go skiing there.

I get this information from Wikitravel or, if I have it, Lonely Planet.

GETTING THERE CHEAPLY

This takes a little practice to get the hang of, but try it a couple times, it could save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars over several flights.

Figure out all cities that you could possibly leave from and arrive in.  Is there a reasonably short bus or train ride you could take?  For example, if you wanted to go to Paris, the cheapest could be to fly into London, Amsterdam or Brussels, then take the train to Paris.  The transport from another city is irrelevant for a moment.  Write down all the possible locations you could fly to/from.  Write departure and arrival country vertically on a piece of paper.

OUR EXAMPLE: even though I know my target is Montevideo, I am going to check prices for Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Sao Paulo, and Montevideo.  If the ticket price to Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Santiago are the same, it is cheaper to go to Montevideo, but it is possible there will be a fare sale and if flying to Buenos Aires or Santiago is $120 or more cheaper, per person, it is worth paying the high visa fee.

Go to www.kayak.com and type in each possible departure city, one at a time, and write the three-letter airport code for each city down.  If there is a code for the city, versus a specific airport, use that.  For example, “LON” is “London, England-All Airport” so you can search Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick and London City with one code.

SOME POINTERS:

  • If you want to visit Australia, you will probably go to Melbourne and Sydney.  If you are flexible in timing, switching the order you visit each may save you big money.
  • If you want to visit the East Coast of the USA, there are inexpensive buses connecting many of the major cities including the “Chinatown” buses between New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
  • If you want to visit Disney World you could always fly to Jacksonville or Miami and drive.  (And who doesn’t want to go to Disney World?  Random aside: My senior year of high school I went to LA to visit colleges.  My mother had a meeting the day I was supposed to visit USC…I never actually made it to USC, I went to Disneyland instead.)
  • If you want to visit South East Asia, you should look to fly to SIN (Singapore), BKK (Bangkok), or KUL (Kuala Lumpur).  From any of these you can get discount airline tickets or buses around the region.

Here’s the greatest thing about KAYAK.com: the ability to search for up to four departure and arrival cities at once!  Put in each three-letter airport code, followed by a comma.  Chose your travel dates and click “My dates are flexible” to see the range of prices you could pay.  Click search.

If you get a pop-up to set a “price alert” do it!  This allows you to watch the price for your itinerary, you can even set an alert based on price such as “flights from Minneapolis to Mexico for under $300”  Anytime a fare falls below this, you’ll get an email!  Seemingly at random, a link will appear in the left sidebar that says “Get a price alert”, allowing you to set it up.

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Erica and Matt Chua: 10 Minute Trip Planning

Erica and Matt Chua: Can Americans Enjoy Cricket?

At Valley Forge George Washington participated in a cricket game with his troops.  This may have marked the highpoint of cricket in what would become the USA, but why is this so?  Can’t Americans enjoy cricket?  How does it compare to watching baseball?  We attended the T20 World Cup of Cricket in Sri Lanka to find out and offer the ultimate comparison…

As for excitement value, cricket matches baseball in dullness.  Both sports excel in offering vies of people standing around.  Better yet, just like baseball, you don’t have to worry about blinking…you won’t miss anything if you do…

EXCITEMENT WINNER: Draw, both of these sports are better in highlights than live.

What makes slow sports enjoyable?  Beer.  Cricket doesn’t fail the spectators, offering beers for $0.92 each.  Referring to this handy 2012 MLB beer price guide I see that the average beer at a baseball game costs $6.17.  To adjust for size, on a per ounce basis, cricket’s beer costs $0.12 per ounce versus the MLB average of $0.41.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Can Americans Enjoy Cricket?

Erica and Matt Chua: A Wedding to Remember

I love weddings, so when we got the invitation to attend our friend’s Indonesian wedding we couldn’t pass up the opportunity, considering we would be in Asia anyway.  We arrived in Jakarta happy to see the familiar faces of friends Adrianne and Tom.  However, with all the details of an Indonesian wedding, they were busy much of the time with rehearsals and last minute preparation.  Lucky for us we were welcome to tag along for a first-hand cultural experience, one I couldn’t resist.

All the planning paid off, as the three-day event was beautiful, steeped in tradition and symbolism; providing a crash course in all things Javanese.  The bride and groom and the groom’s family, whom live in Jakarta were incredible hosts.  The extravaganza started with a welcome dinner where the guests were given gifts, swords for the men and jewelry for the women.  The flavorful food, amicable guests and delicious food set the tone for the next two days.

Siraman: Bathing Ceremony

Tom and Adrianne anxiously awaiting the bathing ceremony to begin, cleansing them in preparation for marriage

The festivities got under way on day two with a traditional bathing ceremony known as Siraman.  This ceremony is meant to cleanse the bride and groom both physically and spiritually to prepare them for the bond of marriage.  With Adrianne and Tom dressed in traditional Javanese batik and draped in jasmine flowers, which smelled lovely. Nine family members are chosen to pour ladles of water over their heads.  The water used in the ceremony is collected from different sites of familial importance making the ceremony very specific to the bride and groom.  I couldn’t resist snapping pictures of the surprised expressions resulting from cold water being poured over their heads.

Tom and Adrianne being cleansed during the bathing ceremony

Ijab: Signing of Wedding Documents

The wedding day itself consisted of two consecutive ceremonies, the first of which is the Ijab, the official signing of documents.  The bride and groom, father-of-the-bride, witnesses and the Imam (religious officiate) are all seated at a table for the transaction between the bride’s father and her future husband.  Much of this ceremony was just between the families as dowry was discussed and everyone exchanged handshakes.  Lucky for Tom, Adrianne excepted his dowry and did not ask for more even when prodded jokingly by the Imam.  It was fascinating to watch and culminated with the signing of the marriage documents and exchange of rings, similar to a ceremony in the U.S. without any official declaration or kiss.

The signing of the official wedding documents known as Ijab takes place at a table with the family, imam and witnesses

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Erica and Matt Chua: A Wedding to Remember

Erica and Matt Chua: He Said/She Said: Budget Travel Gripes

After spending nearly three years on the road, we look back on all that we put up with to save a dollar. Were all the long bus rides and sleeping at airports worth it to keep the expenses in check?

HE SAID…

You’ll never hear me claim that there is a better way to travel than budget travel.  Getting as close to the locals’ spending as possible is the best way to understand how their life is…and isn’t that why to travel?  Not only the experiences, but also the differences between experiences in different places are enlightening. Exposing yourself to where the locals eat, stay and play will teach you more about a place than a tour ever would.

If I wanted something easy and comfortable I’d try to have that at home, not in some distant land.  Why would I put my money towards temporary comfort instead of investing in permanent comfort?  At home I want the most comfortable things possible, but on the road I want the most locally authentic experiences possible.

This does create some problems though.  It’s caused us to end up in some places where I was deathly allergic to things.  It’s led us to some pretty dirty places.  It’s made us terribly sick.  The romantic idea of living like a local is much better than it is in reality.

Here is one great example.  We thought we had scored a great deal on a place to stay in Seoul, in a student building, on AirBnB.  The listing made it clear that it could sleep two, evenings were quiet times, and there was free rice.  They had me at the price, but I fell in love with the idea of free rice.  See the photo above?  That’s how we slept for three nights.  On the fourth day I ran into the building manager, the same person who had checked us in, and he asked how we were sleeping.  I responded that we were doing fine.  Then he asked the key question, “would you like another mattress?”  Why yes we would!  How had he failed to mention this earlier, such as when the two of us checked in?

The funny situations like this one are the good, bad and learning of budget travel.  I would never experience this at the Ritz…

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SHE SAID…

Budget travel is not for everyone.  It is not a vacation complete with private beach bungalows and drinks with little umbrellas.  It is hard work, long bus rides, cold showers and beds with no pillows.  It is the path we chose for many reasons, first and foremost to save money and travel longer, but also to live a little bit more like the locals.

This trip was never about just seeing the world, it was about experiencing it.  Which meant dining where the locals did, taking the long bus rides and lower class transport.  Some of my most fond memories are from the crazy things we did to save a few bucks.  But, there are a few things that I just didn’t like about budget travel:

Ordering food from right to left, when price is your main concern I often found myself reading the menu from right to left- look at price first.  Several times I passed up the item I really wanted for something more affordable.

Cold showers, I got pretty tired of trying to get the soap to lather while showering with the glacial water on offer at many of our budget hostels and hotels.  Hot water is a luxury when your trying to stay on budget.  Along those same lines I hated that space was also a luxury, bathrooms in most places we stayed would have the shower right over the toilet and everything in the bathroom would be soaked.

Overnight buses were the bane of my existence, especially in South America where averaged one overnight bus every 10 days.  Not only did you get a terrible nights sleep, but you had to worry about your stuff getting stolen, which happened to us on an overnight bus in Bolivia.

These three things may have saved us a considerable amount of cash, but I’m glad that there is no overnight bus in my future or terrible two dollar meal around the corner.  Ultimately these were small sacrifices to fund our 37 country tour and I would do them again in a heartbeat, but life is better with hot showers!

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: Game on, Hawking!!

jyb_musings

Smarty pants astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has joined Facebook and said in his first post “I have always wondered what makes the universe exist. Time and space may forever be a mystery, but that has not stopped my pursuit.”

Oh brother. Whatever.

Well, you know Mr Hawking, you may be the smartest man alive but a lot of us on Facebook have some pretty brilliant moments ourselves. I am upping my scientific and intellectual Facebook game. Be forewarned. And remember, it’s OK to hate the player but don’t hate the game? Feel me? You are no longer in the ivory tower on Facebook. You are now on the street. And it’s about to get real.

So, for starters, you aren’t the only one on Facebook who wonders about what makes the universe exist and about space and time and stuff like that. I think about them too. Not all at the same time. But I think about them sometimes. And think about many other complicated sciencey things too.

When I am on an airplane I like to look out the window at the clouds and think to myself, “Let’s see. There are three kinds of clouds. Stratus, cumulus, and one other.” See? You are probably already realizing we are a lot more alike than you originally thought. That’s OK. That will happen to you a lot on here. Keep an open mind on Facebook. Ok? That’s important for everybody — but especially for guys like us.

10580031_10154805192810515_2724657550179636568_nOh…and after I think about the different types of clouds, I’m not done. I keep going. I saw this one recently (see below) I keep staring at the cloud formations until it comes to me, using my vast imagination (again like you) and I figure out what the cloud shape reminds me of. This one reminds me of a puppy dog.

I am interested, Mr Hawking, to find out if your mind works this way too and if you agree the cloud looks a lot like a little puppy dog? Cutie, huh?!

Anyway, congrats for joining Facebook. This may be the most exciting and surprising intellectual journey of your life. And I suspect — if you give it a chance–you will finally get some answers to all your questions about the universe.

Jason Atkinson: A Klamath Update

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