Large crowds are a weird beast that cause very mixed feelings in me. I remember being at concerts and enjoying the feeling of being in a crowd. The people around me all seemed happy and the music connected everybody no matter what background they had. I remember being at trade fairs and feeling annoyed by the masses that were pushing me along. And I once had the bad luck of crossing paths with hundreds of soccer fans in a train station who were on their way home from a game. Their team had lost and they were looking for somebody to give them a reason to start a fight. That was one of my scarier crowd experiences. Nevertheless, I always knew what was going on around me and could behave accordingly. That was not the case when we found ourselves in a festival at Inle Lake in Myanmar. I still don’t understand everything that went on around me that day. But to be fair, the confusion started long before we got to the temple where the festival took place.
We arrived at Nyaungshwe after a long night on the bus. The videos of praying monks had shouted at us from the tiny screens along the bus’s center isle until late at night and also woke us up early. It wasn’t until later that I realized that people really start the day early in Myanmar. Whenever we had to catch an early bus or ferry, people were already up and about in the streets at 5am. The bus couldn’t make it into the narrow streets of Nyaungshwe and we were loaded onto a small pickup truck for the last few miles of the trip. One of the guys who were operating the pickup truck told us that we were lucky because we got to Inle Lake during the last two days of a big festival that takes place once a year. The manager of the hotel we were staying at also asked us right away if we wanted to go to the festival the following day. He was organizing the trip for another couple and there were still two free spots in the boat. We were happy to take the offer since it sounded like an uncomplicated way to see the festival and sharing the boat made it cheaper. The manager stopped by at our room with the other couple a bit later and we all agreed to meet the next morning. Unfortunately the other couple didn’t understand the conversation and went out to organize another boat trip to the festival. I was confused when they showed up at the hotel with the boat owner that they had found. It took me a while to figure out that this was not the same boat that the hotel had arranged for us. But eventually we got it all worked out and were looking forward to the festival.
We got up before dawn the next morning and met with the boat owner at the jetty. He put us on the four chairs that were lined up in his boat. The boat looked like an oversized canoe with an engine in the back. Then a kid who was maybe 15 years old took over the boat and the owner disappeared. This was a surprise as he had told about all the places that he was going to take us when we had met the day before. The first stop was at a gas station just a few hundred yards down the river. It happened to us on a few trips that the driver of a boat or sometimes even a bus would go and get fuel after he got paid for the trip. Afterwards we continued our trip up the river and into the lake. The river was already busy at this time of day. A number of boats were also heading towards the festival. The locals were sharing these boats with at least ten people while there were only between one to four tourists in a boat. At least the same number of boats was heading towards Nyaungshwe. These boats were carrying everything from fruits and vegetables to stones and mortar. Inle Lake is surrounded by hills and the sun just started to move over the crest and break through the clouds as we got out on the lake. Here people were already working. They were fishing and harvesting sea grass from their boats.
We reached the little town where the temple was located about an hour later. Our guide parked the boat and took us on through a maze of small trail past simple wood houses and merchant stalls until we ended up on the river bank across from the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. The pagoda was located at the intersection of two waterways. A crowd had gathered right next to the temple but other than that things were still relatively quiet on land. This was not the case on the water where the three police officers in their canoe were half-heartedly trying to organize the constant stream of boats that were bringing in more and more people. However, the police men came to life the moment that the first official guests arrived. Now they were blowing their whistles and making sure that all other traffic got out of the way. Everybody seemed to be waiting for these officials to arrive. Some of them were monks who were easy to spot because of their red robes. Others were wearing military uniforms or festive dresses and were accompanied by guards. I felt like a participant at a medieval fair where the crowd is waiting for the members of the royal family to arrive in their carriages. Everybody around us was cheerful. Little kids, who were not steady on their feet yet, were playing next to us. Women were moving through the crowd trying to sell pigeon eggs. They were carrying the eggs on big plates which they balanced on their heads. A boat had stopped across from the temple. On it traditional music was coming out of speakers and the women were performing dances.
After a couple of hours the grounds around the intersection were filled with people and also most of the official guests who were seated in a special area next to the temple entrance had arrived. At this point long traditional boats that were rowed by approximately fifty men each started the parade. They had the shape of very long canoes and were decorated with colorful flags, umbrellas, flowers and leaves. The men were rowing these boats in the old Inle fashion which means that they were standing upright with a long paddle next to them in the water. They held the paddle with the arm that was closer to the water, wrap the outside leg around it and use that leg to push the paddle through the water. We had seen that method used by some of the fishermen earlier but I was amazed to at how fast the boats got when the men were paddling as a team.
The parade was long. Whenever I thought that this had to be the last boat a new crew came paddling down into the intersection, quickly took the decorations down and lined up along the side of the waterway that lead out of town. Finally two heavily decorated boats made their appearance. One was significantly bigger than the other but both had a statue of a golden chicken head at the bow, a golden chicken tail at the stern and were carrying a little golden temple in the middle. The boats both stopped in front of the (land based) temple and the passengers made their way over the red carpet into the building. Nothing happened for a while but then a few of the officials reappeared from the temple and everybody’s attention shifted from the temple over to one of the waterways. The crowd started to cheer as the first two of the long canoes came racing down the lane towards the intersection. The crews had barely time to get the boats out of the way before the next pair was rushing towards the finish line. After a few races our guide appeared to have also seen enough and we made our way through the crowd towards our boat. We were able to leave the town on back channels which bypassed the main festival area. Even here the waterways and bridges were crowded but once we got out of the town and continued our tour of Inle Lake things got a lot quieter. The main fascination of the event was that we never knew what was supposed to happen and were always surprised and confused by the colorful and festive acts of the ceremony that kept unfolding in front of us. Thinking about it now, that does remind me a bit of the first baseball game I attended a few years ago.
Since watching the Indiana Jones movies I always wanted to go to Central America and visit temples in the jungle. I hadn’t expected that I would find the most amazing temples in Southeast Asia. I had expected all temples in this part of the world to be like the Buddhist ones with the long pointy roofs and gold ornaments. I had, of course, heard about Angkor Wat but hadn’t realized that the old Khmer temples looked as if they were straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Therefore visiting the Angkor complex wasn’t that high on my list of places to go. But it is a World Heritage Site and a friend of ours had recommended that we go there before the many visitors take a toll on its beauty. I’m very happy that we took his advice. The trip to Siem Reap, which led us through the country side of Thailand and Cambodia, was already amazing. Siem Reap turned out to be a nice little town and the Cambodian people were very open and friendly. After spending a day exploring the town, we rented bicycles from our hostel and rode down the long, straight road that leads to the Angkor Temple complex. The street is surrounded by the jungle with big trees lining its side. We had a late start, but the shade of the trees made for a pleasant ride despite the late morning heat. When the trees opened up for the first time we found ourselves at the moat that surrounds the Angkor Wat temple. We found a parking spot for the bikes and took the stone bridge over the moat to the first cloister ring. The temple grounds weren’t very busy since most people seemed to be already eating lunch at one of the little restaurants across from the temple. Storm clouds were moving in as we were getting deeper into the temple grounds and even more people left the premises. Seeing the temple for the first time is already breath taking. But it wasn’t until we crossed from the first ring over to the center of the temple that I started to grasp the dimensions of this building.
We walked through the dark corridors, discovering more and more corners of the building. By the time we climbed to the highest point of the temple where the sanctum is located it was pouring down and lightning was flashing across the sky. I couldn’t have wished for a more impressive atmosphere. We were stuck in one of the greatest temples in the world and had it almost to ourselves due to the weather. But I only realized how lucky we had been when the sun came back out a little later and the hordes of tourists returned.
We got back on our bicycles and continued to the Angkor Thom complex. This was the last capital city of the Khmer empire and home to a large number of temples. We rode through the south gate of the old city wall with the monkeys watching us from its top. From there it was only a short ride to the Bayon temple located in the old city center and the elephant terrace. But after walking up and down the many stairs inside of Angkor Wat we decided that we should call it a day and explore these temples another time.
After a recovery day we were back on our semi-trusted bicycles and cruising down the roads towards the Angkor complex. This time, the Ta Prohm temple was at the top of my to-see list. Nature is in the process of claiming the temple area back. Giant trees grow out of and over the temple walls, their roots holding the stones with a firm grip. Seeing the dimensions and thinking about the time scales on which the processes of construction and destruction of this temple take place is truly impressive.
We continued exploring and climbed a few more temples. The last one was the Bayon temple that we had ridden our bikes around previously. The top of the temple is covered in faces that are carved into the stone. We walked through a short corridor and ended up in the sanctum. The room was dark except for a few candles that were burning below a Buddha statue and a small column of light that entered the room from a hole at the top of the ceiling. Before our eyes had completely adjusted two people had moved us into the center of the room and motioned for us to sit down. They prayed for us and put red bracelets on our wrists.
Afterwards we headed back towards Siem Reap. This time we weren’t as lucky with the weather as a couple of days earlier. We had just cleared on of the old Angkor Thom city gates when it started to pour. Everybody tried to get to a dry spot. Busses, tuck-tucks and scooters flew by us. But after the initial rush, things calmed down and it was fun riding through the warm summer rain as we had the road almost to ourselves. At least until we got to the outskirts of Siem Reap. This was where things got interesting. It wasn’t raining that hard any more but the road was disappearing in big puddles of brown water. Traffic was heavy and we had to share the road not only with the usual amount of scooters and bicycles but also with trucks and buses. This, together with the creative driving style of the locals, made for more than one surprise before we could finally take a turn onto a less busy road. But we got to our hotel safely and a hot shower later the ride didn’t seem that scary anymore.
One of the things that I enjoy about traveling is the chance to experience other cultures. However, I think it’s easy to forget how confusing navigating other cultural norms can be. As a result, every once in a while we think that it’s a good idea to take the easy option, and book transportation or a tour through a travel agency (often within a hostel). Even though we had pledged to stay away from tours after our debacle with our very long day visiting Chaing Rai and soaking wet, 45-minute visit to Laos, we have had trouble following through. The most common error seems to be our inability to stay off the tourist buses.
For example, our journey from Krabi, in Southern Thailand, to Bangkok took place on one of these tourist buses. When we purchased the bus ticket, we were told that we would be picked up from the hostel, driven two hours in an AC mini-van to Surat Thani, at which point we would eat dinner and board the night bus that would take us into Bangkok. What actually happened was that we were picked up from the hostel by an AC van. We drove around Krabi for 30 minutes picking up other unsuspecting tourists and running errands with the driver such as stopping while he took care of some banking. After driving around town, we got dropped off in a mosquito infested cluster of tables a few miles out of town. These tables were of course accompanied by various booths selling food and drinks and we were told we would wait about thirty minutes for our bus there. So we sat, and waited expectantly as darkness fell and the 30 minutes turned into 2 hours. When the bus finally arrived, we watched as they took out flashlights and started investigating the wheels on one side of the bus. Shortly thereafter we were on the bus; still curious as to if this bus was in fact going to make it all the way to Bangkok. However, about two hours later we reached the outskirts of Surat Thani and pulled over to a curb. We were herded off the bus and onto a slightly nicer bus that then drove us all the way to Bangkok. While no night bus is ever the most comfortable, this was the first night bus that woke us up at 1am by turning on all the lights and blasting music. Apparently, this was our dinner stop, as the bus pulled into what was some sort of outdoor restaurant at the side of the road. After dinner, there weren’t any further interruptions until we arrived in Bangkok just after sunrise. As in Surat Thani, the bus pulled over to a curb and dropped us off into the midst of many eager taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. Having no idea where in the city we were, we were forced to negotiate a price to be brought to our hotel (using the meter was unheard of and unacceptable, evidently).
While each tourist bus has its own deviations from the above example, the general theme involves the buses taking significantly longer than necessary and ends with us being dropped off at a curb into a herd of pushy taxi-drivers. Understandably, when M and I wanted to travel from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia a few days later, we were eager to avoid another tourist bus. To do this, we changed tactics and took a train from Bangkok to the Cambodia boarder. We bought our tickets, paying a whole $3, and boarded the train at 6am. As the train slowly made its way from the city center we passed through shanty towns, street food vendors, nicer suburban houses and more shanty towns. Through these glimpses into everyday life of the people living in Bangkok we saw a different side of the city than had been apparent on our walking journeys through the streets.
Just as fascinating were the happenings within the train. Every few minutes more people would clamber into the third class cars, sometimes at stations, but frequently at what appeared to be random stops along the way. At one station a family climbed in with five huge plastic bags almost bursting at the seams. Eventually they had hoisted the bags onto the luggage racks and stuffed them under the seats. Shortly after, a conductor came through to punch the tickets. He proceeded to point at the bags after which more pointing and discussion ensued. Through the gesturing, it became evident that there should only be one bag per person. Suddenly a pink 100 Baht bill appeared and was quickly stuffed into the conductor’s pocket. Our section of the train fell silence silent again as he continued down the isle punching tickets.
A short while later, more people crammed into the train carrying several fans that were then added to the precariously full rack above the seats. As the train continued to fill, M and I were grateful to have boarded at the first stop and gotten seats by the window. And then suddenly, everyone was moving towards the back of the train and our car emptied out with the exception of half a dozen people and all of the stuff that had been brought onto the train. M and I looked around, trying to figure out if we had missed some sort of cue, and then saw that there were two policemen walking down the aisle towards us. Neither of them seemed interested in seeing our tickets so we returned to looking out the window and watching the farming landscapes that had come into view.
After the majority of the people cleared out of our section of train, the locals that were left decided it was time to start talking to us. One woman made it clear she wanted to know if we spoke Thai. M shook his head no, and she gave him a disbelieving look so I told her “thank you” in Thai. She laughed and rambled on in Thai for a few minutes. The man across the aisle then interrupted and started showing all sorts of jewels to M. M shook his head, and tried to make it clear he wasn’t planning on buying any jewels, at which point the mad tried to give M some sort of stone along with a slip of paper that presumably had his phone number on it. We’re still not sure of his intentions, but M declined.
Eventually the 6 hour train journey came to an end, and we got off and started to navigate through crossing the border. Crossing borders in these countries is not as straight forward as you might think. We spent a considerable amount of time declining offers of “help” and other various scams that you can read about online. Eventually we found our way to the official visa office and each paid the official $30 for a visa, plus the 100 Baht (roughly $3) that was being collected by the 10 or so customs officials standing between us and our visas. With our visas in hand we made our way through a long line and eventually crossed the border, where we were supposed to catch a free government bus to the bus station where we could then catch another bus into Siem Reap. We assume that this is where we made our error. As I recall, we followed the signs to the free bus, and were pointed towards a bus by a few men, but we have now come to the conclusion that it was likely the wrong bus. However, as expected, we did board a bus, which took us to another bus station. However, from then on we had clearly, once again, ended up on the tourist bus. We bought our tickets into Siem Reap, in US dollars, receiving a two dollar bill back from the bus company as change. M immediately started laughing as he thought we were being scammed because clearly there was no way that there were two dollar bills. Once I convinced him that, in fact, there was such a thing he ranted about the fact that he had to travel to Cambodia in order to see one for the first time. Shortly later we were herded onto the bus. However, the bus didn’t leave until every last seat was filled with tourists, about two hours later. We then proceeded to drive slowly into Siem Reap, stopping at the driver’s Uncle’s restaurant for dinner. Once we arrived in Siem Reap, we were dropped off into yet another mob of motorbike and tuk-tuk drivers waiting to take the exhausted tourists into town.
I couldn’t feel my fingers. They were just too cold. I looked at how they were fitting into the pocket of the rock face that I was slowly moving up, trusted the grip and pulled myself up. I had started climbing a few months earlier and this was my first lead climb. This was in southern California and I wasn’t supposed to have to deal with cold! Except that it was early December and we were climbing at 7000 feet elevation close to Big Bear Lakes (Holcomb Valley Pinnacles -HVP). This was my favorite climbing area and one of my favorite climbs. It seems that for many climbers, including myself, the spot where they climb outside for the first time stays their favorite one. With all the great climbing places in California and Utah I was able to add many more to my list of best crags. None ever threatened to push HVP from the throne. However, that was before we went climbing on Raileh.
Some of our friends had raved to us about the climbing in southern Thailand, especially on Raileh and Tonsai Beach. This resulted in us going back and forth about what kind of climbing gear we should take along on our trip. If we wanted to do some serious climbing we should bring our own gear. You can’t climb near your limit when the tiny voice in your head is wondering how many falls the rental rope might have already taken. But even just taking the basic equipment would add another bag that we would have to haul around with us. We had a long debate that included the options of sending things by mail or leaving them with friends in Bangkok. In the end we decided to only take our climbing shoes along and to just see what the rental places would be like.
Already on Kho Phi Phi I was fascinated with the large rock faces that seemed to come straight out of the water. But these cliffs had nothing on the walls we found on Raileh. Giant stalactites were growing out of the roofs on these walls and little stalagmites were forming on the ground in some places. I expected the rock to be wet and slippery and was pleasantly surprised when it felt rough and had lots of grip. There was no question that these rock formations needed to be climbed. After checking out a few climbing shops and talking to the people working there, we decided to hire a guide for an afternoon. I felt lame hiring a guide but in retrospect I’m very happy that we did. He tested at which level we were climbing and took us straight to the best routes for us. This way we got to do many more climbs than had we gone by ourselves. We also didn’t have to worry about routes with non-titanium bolts that corrode quickly in this climate and of which there are still a few around.
One of the most amazing climbs was going up a stalactite. To start you had to jump to the first hold and climb over a little ledge at the base of the giant structure. From there, numerous positive holds on the face and cracks between the small stalactites that sit on top of the big structure made for very entertaining climbing. On a second long route the guide and J convinced me to take the camera along. Again it was nice to have somebody along who knew the climbs and could judge if it was reasonable for me to take a camera up with me or if the likelihood of falling was too high. I was still reluctant to take the camera along but (of course) the other two were right and it was an easy enough climb.
Half a day of climbing was all it took to completely exhaust us since we are both not in the best shape at the moment. We had a great time and it felt good to be worn out. Raileh is definitely one of the best places I have climbed. It is definitely a better climbing spot than HVP when judged objectively. However, I have too many good memories attached to HVP and it is still my favorite crag. So it seems like my theory holds up so far. But I’ll keep trying new spots in order to test it more!
This is what I had expected Singapore to be like. I was walking along the Limmat River in the old part of Zurich, Switzerland, and realized why I had been disappointed by our visit to Singapore in the previous week. Don’t get me wrong, Singapore is an amazing city, but so many people had told me that it was one of the cleanest and most organized cities they had been to. Well, I guess they hadn’t been to Zurich. Zurich is living up to the Swiss cliché of being organized, punctual, clean and polite.
I was walking the still familiar streets and enjoying a break from the fabulous chaos that is Southeast Asia. However, I was still very confused that cars stopped for me at the crosswalks. It was late Tuesday morning and I was on my way to meet a friend for lunch. I had lived in this city for a while during my PhD and a few of my friends were still around. This gave me the opportunity to settle into the time zone and adjust to the environment for a couple of days before I had a job interview.
Yeah, the main reason to come to Zurich wasn’t to catch up with friends or go hiking in the Alps. I had applied for this job a while ago and got invited to interview right around the time when we were leaving on our Southeast Asia adventure. Of course, the date for the interview was right in the middle of the time frame that we intended to be travelling. For one of my previous job interviews I had gotten the advice: ‘If they ask you to jump, you only ask how high’! Thus, the date was set. The open position was at one of my favorite employers and in a location that offers a great quality of life for me. Thus turning it down wasn’t an option either. That meant that it would have a significant impact on our travel itinerary. Little did I know how much it would influence our trip. At first, I mainly thought about the added complications of travelling to Zurich. I had to pick a city close to where we might be at that time and book flights. Unfortunately I had no idea where that might be. J suggested that I should fly out of Singapore since I was also trying to set up a business meeting there. That way I could combine the two things that needed fixed dates and it ended up determining the rough schedule of our trip through Malaysia and Singapore.
However, the preparation for the interview had an even more significant impact on our trip. In the beginning I only worked a couple of hours each morning. But especially in the last few weeks before my departure to Switzerland, I spent more and more time designing the slides for the presentations and trying to come up with all possible angles for questions. By the time we arrived in Singapore I was basically working normal hours. But applying for jobs is a job in itself and having the time for it as well as being removed from my normal work environment was very beneficial. Furthermore J was a great reviewer and improved the quality of my presentations tremendously. [J’s note: I didn’t make him write that!!]
The days that I spent in Zurich before the interview went by quickly. I met more friends, visited the cafes and bars I used to frequent and worked more on my presentations. By the time I went into the first interview event I felt like I was well prepared and, what was maybe even more important, like I belonged in that place. One of the presentations was public and two friends of mine attended it. It’s always nice to have supportive faces in the audience. This is something I also take advantage of when giving talks. I focus on those people in the audience who seem supportive of what I’m saying. Things went well. The two interview days seemed to fly by with many interesting discussions and I left with the impression that I had done a good job. The rest is going to depend on factors outside of my control.
The day after the interview I went on a hike with my parents who had decided to use the opportunity to see me for a weekend trip to Zurich. We had a great time and it was especially nice of them to stop by since I don’t get to see them that often these days. They dropped me off at the airport after breakfast on Sunday and I started on my two day journey to meet J in the islands of southern Thailand. On the way I spent a night in Singapore, which seemed even nicer now that I was more relaxed.
It will be a while before I hear back about the outcome of the interview. I knew that going in. Nevertheless the first two weeks were tough. I checked emails every time that I had access to an internet connection. But I’ve calmed down about it. It still crosses my mind regularly. But I’m no longer excited every time I check my emails. For the time being I assume that I won’t get an offer and continue to look for jobs… …and to travel of course.
“What do you mean ‘it stretches your forearms’?!” asked my bewildered yoga teacher. He had been working with me in vain for days trying to get me to perform the yoga pose in a way that was useful and wouldn’t injure me with repetition. Apparently “downward facing dog” is supposed to be a hamstring stretch. The only modified pose that both my yoga teacher and I could agree on was most certainly a forearm stretch.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the worst physical condition of my life. One of my goals for taking time off from work and traveling was to regain some sort of health in my life through eating healthier food and exercising more. What I hadn’t fully appreciated, until this moment, was how poor your health could get by simply sitting in front of a computer for hours upon hours a day for weeks on end. One consequence of typing (and presumably climbing regularly, however far in the past), apparently, is that your forearms become the tightest muscles in your body. It also results in some humorous failures at performing what I’ve been told are basic yoga poses.
I spent six days and five nights in Paradise as part of a 10 class yoga retreat while M was at his interview. Luckily, they were offering some serious discounts due to it being the rainy season. I wasn’t concerned about the rain in the slightest since we hadn’t had any trouble with the rainy season so far. In fact, we had some of the best diving conditions in any season according to the diving guides on Koh Phi Phi! However, my luck was about to change. I arrived at the dock for the boat in the heaviest downpour I had seen on our trip. I hurried from the taxi to the small shelter to buy my ticket to the island. To my great surprise, I only had to wait 10 minutes before boarding a “speed boat” to the island.
While the boat may have been an oversized speed boat, it didn’t move particularly fast. It also wasn’t particularly dry as there was water coming in everywhere through the seams of the plastic surrounding the seating area. After a damp two-hour boat ride I arrived at the pier on Koh Yao Noi. As usual, finding a taxi was easy. Unlike usual, there would be no bargaining with the taxi drivers to bring the price of the ride across the island down, and I soon found out why. It was still pouring as the taxi left the paved road and we started weaving through the juggle. The dirt road we were now on frequently resembled a stream bed as water rushed downhill. We drove past rubber tree plantations, and slid down muddy and wet roads with incredible skill on my driver’s part. We finally reached Paradise, where, as the name rainy season suggests, it was still raining.
Even with the rain it was easy to see that the resort was beautiful. I was thrilled, if only for the simple reason that the shower and toilet were separate! In most of the bathrooms of the cheap guesthouses and hostels where we had been staying, there weren’t any shower curtains, and the shower would inevitably make everything else within the bathroom wet. Not only were the shower and toilet separate but there was also a Jacuzzi in my bathroom! Paradise indeed!
During my first few yoga classes I was the only student, allowing significant time with the instructor to attempt to work on my posture. After the first few classes, a couple more people joined, and it felt more like the retreat that I had expected. While I had high hopes of becoming an expert yogi by the end of the retreat, my biggest success was to finally touch my toes. Since I was doing yoga twice a day, the days quickly passed, and I soon found myself on a boat back to the mainland of Krabi, where I was to meet up with M after his interview.