Sunday, February 22, 2009

Welcome to the Jungle

This weekend, we went up to Doi Suthep National Forest and spent 3 days relaxing in beautiful surroundings.

On our way up to the forest, which is about an hour and a half NE of Chiang Mai, we stopped at a reservoir to take our swim test. I was mildly apprehensive, as the last time I'd any particular distance was the summer I started at Hamilton and took their swim test! However, I managed to swim the 300m across the lake and trod water for fifteen minutes with little difficulty. We then played around in the water, jousting and capsizing one another with paddleboards and generally goobing around in the water.

We then continued onward, driving in multiple vans to breathtaking Doi Suthep. We had reserved a large area for the weekend, nestled between two waterfalls and surrounded by dense jungle as far as the eye could see. We had four spacious cabins, as well as a 'salla' in which to cook and congregate, so we weren't exactly roughing it!

We spent the weekend getting to know one another better and spending time with the staff of ISDSI. I spent many hours playing volleyball, 'adventuring' down the river with Ajaan Mark's daughter, Lydia, and playing countless games of frisbee. We went up to the larger waterfall, Mork Fa, on several occastion and whiled away the hours playing somewhat belligerent games of frisbee beneath the refreshing rumble of the churning waterfall. In the evenings, we had spectacular bonfires, which the Forest Service rangers kindly set up for us each day. We played several rounds of Birdie on a Perch, but Melissa, Ben and I couldn't muster enough support for an epic game of capture the flag! But we relaxed by the fire well into the night, with many of us singing along to songs played on the guitar Pi Dana had brought along. On the last night, we spent a long time singing Irish folk songs, as Ajaan Mark and Pi Dana play in an Irish band together, here in Chiang Mai!! There were many exuberant rounds of 'What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor.....'

We were particularly excited by our meals on the retreat, as there was a seemingly endless supply of bread, Nutella and peanut butter!(I haven't had bread since leaving the US and have been craving it on a near daily basis!) We even had Thai style Oreos, that taste mildly of coffee, which we naturally smothered in PB and Nutella!

On our final morning, we went for a great hike through the jungle, led by a local guide from the Park Service. He showed us hot the villagers harvest bamboo sustainably for their firewood and how they gather mealworms from within the bamboo's trunk. We saw wild mulberry trees and tried sour berries which make you think that water tastes really sweet. I almost fell over in shock upon seeing a spider, vivid yellow and as big as the palm of my hand. We learned about the 'hell tree,' which adulterous men in Buddhist villages are sometimes forced to climb. We also inspected the deep grooves of a gnarled up tree, whence the poison of darts originates.

By the end of the weekend, we were loathe to leave, but excited to know that we'll be living in such wilderness in only three more weeks! Until then, I just need to work out how to speak Thai (not an easy task, I swear!)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Bruised Elbows and Dirty Socks

(transcribed from the fabulous wee notebook)

Wow. I just got back from an AMAZING day of rock climbing. We all piled into 2 rot dangs (our beloved red buses, run by the mafia) and drove 45 minutes out of Chiang Mai to a place called Crazy Horse. It's known by this name because at the top of the cliffs, there is a rock formation which look somewhat like a horse. (I couldn't see the resemblance... maybe you will?) We got there at about 9 and split into two groups (the Tigers and the Monkeys, each complete with team cheers and hand signals!) We then split up and headed out to different parts of the cliffs.

Our group, the Tigers, headed over to some of the easier routes to get warmed up and started ascending with a great deal of enthusiasm. I've only ever climbed on indoor walls, so I was particularly excited to clamber up my first real rock. My friend Ben and I were sharing shoes (there were limited numbers of various sizes) so I started out just belaying him as he raced up the wall with incredible finesse. I wasn't quite so suave in my climb, but I was really excited that I made it to the top. There were some really tricky parts, including avoiding bees nests, but I let out our team's roar when I made it to the top! The French climbers who were further down the cliffs gave us quite strange looks as we let out growls and roars all the way up!!

(starting the climb)

(treacherous bees' nests)

After a few gorgeous climbs up the rocks (the views from the top were absolutely amazing,) we headed back down to the basecamp to have ourselves a quintessential Thai lunch of fried rice and spicy chicken! Pi Aaron (one of the trip leaders) and John (a NOLS leader we recruited a week ago) were with our group and regailed us with hilarious stories of Critical Mass and John's attempts to become a Mai Thai pro!

Then, after lunch, we headed up to the caves in the cliff for an exciting afternoon of spelunking! We began by hiking pretty high up to reach the caves, before climbing a small cliff to reach the mouth of the caves. From this point, we each began a Tyrolean Traverse across the gorge of the cave. A Tyrolean Traverse is somehwat like a zipline, but using caribeners, rather than a zipline device. Once we traversed about 100m we switched over onto a new belay device and rappeled down another 100m!! (A rappel is when you lower yourself down on a self-controlled belay device, generally through thin air. Awesome!) Once we had lowered ourselves down, we found ourselves in a stunning cave, with beautiful sunlight pouring in from a hole far above where we'd entered the cave. We hung out for about an hour, waiting for everyone to make it across, and then hiked onward to another cave. In this cave, we talked about the formations of caves and stalactites, and paid respect to the Buddha who lives in the cave. This cave is a haven for traveling monks, so there were lots of candles and rings of stones, from where they stayed to rest.

By the end of all this, we were pretty filthy, so we were quite a bedraggled bunch as we headed back to ISDSI in our rot dang. Our host parents then picked us up and we headed back home for a very Thai weekend!!!

(I'll add some pictures to this as soon as I can find a camera cable to upload my pictures! You'll be able to get a better idea of how amazing the climbing was!)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mealworms and Meatballs

The other day we went on an interesting scavenger hunt at Kat Luang, a huge market in Chiang Mai. We were paired off and given a list of things to find. It sounded like a fairly simple task, until we were handed the list and realized that it was entirely written in Thai. Though it was transliterated into the Roman alphabet, we had absolutely no idea what we were looking for, given our severely limited grasp of Thai. 

Nevertheless, Ally and I set off with confidence and began searching for the various items, some of which we were instructed to taste and describe. Luckily, we learned how to ask 'yu ti nai?' (where is....?) in class this morning, so we were able to ask some of the vendors how to find some of the items. (Though we managed to mispronounce almost everything, as we don't really have a great grasp of Thai tones yet.) As we worked out way through the list of items we were to find, we soon found out that our teachers intended for us to try some of the more 'exotic' offerings of Chiang Mai cuisine. We tried deep fried mealworms, deep fried pate, honey balls and a spicy local sausage. They weren't the most delicious foods I've tried thus far in Thailand, but I'm glad I've tried them at least.

As if one excursion to the market in search of bizarre foods wasn't enough for the day, my mae took me to the Night Market that evening, in Mae Lim (the village where we live.) My mae bought me a rose for Valentine's Day, even though it wasn't actually the day. (Apparently they actually celebrate Valentine's Day here!) The market is really amazing - so many people seem to hang out there on a Friday night. I was amazed at the variety of snacks available on sticks. We saw BBQ chicken, pork, garlic cloves, fish, honey balls, sliced fruit, grilled chilies, pig knuckles and even grilled squid, all skewered onto bamboo! We bought what I thought were sausages on sticks, but when we got home I discovered that they're actually intestines stuffed with rice. I've become quite familiar with this process of stuffing intestines, actually, as my mae makes her own spicy sausages to sell at the market. She threads a washed intestine on to the end of a sliced soda bottle and then uses it to stuff chopped pork into the entrails. It was rather disconcerting at first, especially as I was eating at the time, but they sell for quite a bit at the market, so it makes sense to make your own.

Last weekend, we went to the bulk market in the city and I got to see the butcher's who sell such offal. It was quite shocking to see lunch, livers and hearts laid out on ice, but the severed pig's head beside them nearly made me vomit! But the need to be rip roi (appropriate) held me back and I managed to keep it together by wandering over to the vegetable vendor across the street.

We go to the market fairly often, as my mae (pronounced mehh - smile when you say it) makes food everyday which we package up for her to sell at the market. I have yet to go with her to sell things at the market, but when we go to buy things, I ride on the back of her scooter, which is both thrilling and nerve wracking. Thai drivers are INSANE and drive all over the place, with little regard for lanes or turning signals or even helmets for that matter. Luckily, my mae is a fairly conservative driver, so we wear helmets and rarely come close to colliding with one of the surging army of vehicles which traverse Chiang Mai's freeways.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


(notes transcribed from my wonderful little book of everything)

I have a poor impression of LA. From above, it appeared to be a sprawling tumor, engulfing all the land the eye could see and bedecked in an array of flourescent lights. On the ground, the sparkling facade proved to be a labyrinth of concrete, tarmac and stalling cars. Arriving in an empty terminal, I wandered about aimlessly, trying to work out which terminal to go to or where to collect my boarding pass. (The enthusiastic, though unfortunately useless, ticket agent in Albuquerque had been unable to describe to me the process of locating the US airways ticketing desk in LA.) So, I wandered about the lazy terminal, looking for some clue as to how to change terminals. All I found was a California Pizza Kitchen, and tempting though it was, I decided to find my way to the right place before allowing myself some dinner! So, after guiltily giving my only quarter to some young boys collecting to prevent gang violence, I found my way on to a shuttle bus. Obviously, there were no seats left on the bus, so I sat hunched in the luggage rack as we creeped through the hellish traffic. As per the bus driver's instructions, I got off at terminal 1, only to find that my US air flight was actually run by Asiana arlines. With this valuable information, I was soon misdirected to terminals 3, 7 and 6 before getting to the international departures terminal and getting in a 40 minute long queue to collect my boarding pass. If hell is on earth, it's at LAX.

I am in the midst of a somewhat surreal experience. I am sitting in a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in the Seoul airport and just paid 3,800 of I'm not sure which currency, I'm ashamed to say, for a cup of coffee. Nevertheless, this is a distinct improvement over the glamourous, but deserted, waiting lounge I've been puttering about in for the past hour. Airports are strange when empty. But it was nice to have an entire waiting area to myself. (A serious improvement over the lack of seating in LA.) Airports are quite strange when empty. Though, I have to say, Seoul certainly has style. I'm currently 'reading' Vogue in Korean (the 80s are big here) and looking out toward the Botega Veneta and Pucci stores. I'm supping this coffee slowly, as I fear it might be the last I consume in quite some time. It could use a spot more sugar though. Right, time to attempt to fanagle more sugar in Korean.

I may be regretting having chosen such a humis climate to study in. It's been 2 minutes in the airport and I feel disgusting. (Not having showered since Wednesday morning might have something to do with it, though.) I'm standing in limbo, between the plane I just left and the customs desk, trying to locate my lost luggage. (I have to clear customs with it, but I am guessing it's been left in LA, confirming my suspicion that LAX is, indeed, an unmentioned realm of the Inferno.) I have been assured by the Thai airways ticketing agent that my bag is not 'lost', as it is in the system - they just don't know where it is.

Ew. I have seen the grossest thing ever. A portly man with a shaved head. Not so bad, you'd think. But as he turned away, I saw a grotesque fold of skin on the back of his scalp, from which protruded a stomach-churning bristle of bushy black hair. Gross.

Why on earth are UGGs popular in Thailand? I've seen 7 pairs without moving from my seat.