Monday, November 28, 2005

Not very long ago in a land far, far away...

Here are some random thoughts, observations and experiences in no particular order. I kept meaning to put all this into a more coherent whole and fill in the many gaps but life's too short so here is what I have...
I mentioned to a local traveller how uniformly, exceptionally dire the roadside culinary experience is in Australia. With a sort of apologetic shrug he explained 'We're an ex-Britsh colony, what do you expect!?'. I haven't thought of it that way. Good point there mate!

Fraser Island is Australia's second largest island. It also holds the distinction of being the world's largest sand island. Essentially a 150km long sandbar with no paved roads, it is a great place for a 4x4 off-road adventure! With my previous sand driving experience limited to a semi-controlled sideways slide through an unexpected patch of deep sand on a shortcut through Death Valley a few years back, this was going to be fun! The first test of driving skill came earlier than expected. I got stuck in deep sand before I even boarded the ferry to the island. And then immediately again after getting off. Clearly there was something I was doing wrong. Fortunately in both cases I regained traction with just a little rocking back and forth. After discovering that the secret to success it to never stop in deep sand the next few days were a breeze. There are essentially two kinds of roads on the island. And I'm using the word 'roads' very loosely here. First, there is the beach. Wider then the widest highway at low tide and unpassable in places at high tide, the eastern shores '75 Mile Beach', a national highway with an 85km/h speed limit, is a blast. With no lanes traffic is very much freeform with a mix of mindless beachgoers, drunk fisherman, small planes landing and taking off, deep stream run-offs and countless opportunities for playing chicken with oncoming traffic, providing hours of fun against a backdrop alternating between bald sand dunes and cliffs covered in lush vegetation all to the gentle rythm of the ocean surf. And then there are the inland tracks. Imagine riding a rodeo bull down a bobsled track, for hours at a time. I'll give you two tips. Bolt down anything you don't want to hit you on the head as you amaze yourself time and time again how much abuse the suspension of your vehicle can take. And don't attempt it on a full stomach...

I stopped at a small noodle shop on the way from the airport and found that the water taps in the sink in the restroom only work after you've flushed the toilet. The only logical conclusion that I could draw from this was that the Japanese don't wash their hands before they eat. I was sure to remember this next time a friendly local offers to share her chopsticks with me. It also didn’t fit with the image of the Japanese that I had in my mind. I was therefore greatly relieved when upon sitting down at my table I was given a small plastic bag containing a wet towel to clean my hands. Ah, the Japanese efficiency, that’s better!
It was with great disappointment that I found that the average, young, Japanese female in knee-high boots, a short skirt and a funny hat, in essence the fashion here, speaks little more English than my in-car navigation system. This, combined with my just having acquired, but not yet studied, a basic phrasebook, was really a fairly serious roadblock to meaningful communication, nevermind being in any way helpful in solving my immediate problems. Some three weeks into my trip as I passed a group of young girls at a stroll garden in Nikko I noticed that one of them had a leaf caught in her hair. I casually remarked on this to her and to my great surprise she replied in fluent English. Well, it turns out she and her friends were Chinese on a day-trip from Tokyo where they're studying Japanese. Another time I was sitting in a coffee bar in the entertainment district of Tokyo when I overheard a girl at the next table practicing her English. She and her sister were Korean. I'm not making this stuff up! In Japan, if she looks Asian but replies in English, she's probably a turist...
A couple last minute itinerary changes and I ran out of cash in the somewhat out of the way town of Ise. I tried my cards in a half dozen ATMs, first in roadside stores, then in every bank I could find, with no luck. It was time for a new approach. I walked into the biggest of the bank buildings and in a loud voice asked if anyone here speaks English. The large open plan room fell silent and some twenty pairs of mostly female and clearly startled eyes looked up at me from above their desks. It then occurred to me that perhaps I raised my voice just a tad much and not wanting to add getting arrested for accidentally holding up a bank to my list of adventures, I stopped playing with my knife, slowly pulled my left hand out of the pant pocket and, now clearly unarmed, beamed them all back a goofy smile. I could see that they started breathing again and I even got a few faint smiles back. But no reply. However, it appeared that I was in fact understood as suddenly a burst of chatter ensued and a short hushed phone conversation later a young woman in a pin-stripe suit appeared out of a room in the back to deal with the rude barbarian in front. She spoke very good English but no, she did not know where there was an ATM that would allow me to withdraw cash from an overseas account but she would try and find out. Over the next twenty minutes I waited while the crisis management team at the bank scrambled to find a gaijin-friendly ATM. At one point there were four people shouting a visual description of my bank card into their phones. Eventually the woman came back carrying a humongous taped together sheet of paper that turned out to be a photocopied street level map of the central part of town. Not only did the map show every building and traffic light, it left enough space for you to draw in the rooms and doors. She apologized for the wait and explained that she does not know for sure but they think that maybe a machine at another bank would work to which she marked directions on this here map. I was doubtful but thanked her profusely for her efforts. As I left she bowed and wished me good luck. The deeply concerned expression on her face told me she thought I would need every bit of it. Because of the scale of the map, streets that looked like major thoroughfares were barely wide enough for two cars to pass and despite being able to visually locate the bank building from a few blocks away it took me a while to navigate the narrow and mostly one way streets to the right building. The machine inside didn't accept my cards. By now over two hours have passed since I started my search and I was getting hungry. I went back to my car and with great sadness carefully unwrapped a perfectly crisp ten thousand yen note, nary a crease on it, that I was saving as a souvenir and went to lunch...
After observing me for a few minutes a suited Japanese gentlemen seemed somewhat perplexed that I'm photographing the girls instead of the exquisite cars and bikes on display at one of the world's premier motor shows. I explained that we have lots of Japanese cars and bikes in America, but very few cute Japanese girls. His big smile told me that now he understood perfectly!

Day 113: 'Latest zombie fashion'

Kuala Lumpur Asia Fashion Week, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Day 112: 'Majestic'

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Day 111: 'Your nails are fine, now get on with it!'

Dancer, Cultural Show, Malaysia Turist Center, Kuala Lumpur

Day 110: Wat Arun

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Day 109: Mister! You want fried banana mister? Only 20 baht mister!'

Floating Market, Damnoen Saduak, Thailand

Oh, go on then...

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Day 108: 'Shy'

Young girl from the Kayen 'long-neck' tribe in a traditional dress, Ban Huay Pu Keng, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

This is the middle of the three daughters of the woman in whose house I stayed. Her mother told me that she is always very shy around foreigners. This is the closest I could get to a smile from her...

November 22nd, Huay Pu Keng Village, Thailand

The village, some 190 heads strong, has no road (access is by boat only), no electricity (except for a diesel generator for special occasions and a solar panel to charge batteries) and only the most elementary plumbing. It is inhabited by people of two tribes famous for the unusual customs of their women, the 'long-neck' Kayen and the 'big-ear' Kayew. The women of the first tribe wear brass coils around their necks. They start at the age of 5 with a 1kg coil and increase the weight of the coil by 1kg every few years up to 6kg. The weight and eventually the length of the coil pushes the shoulders down deforming their bone structure as they grow, causing them to appear as if they have unusually long necks. They never take the coils off except when changing to a longer, heavier coil. The women of the other tribe force increasingly larger rings into their pierced ear-lobes. They also start at the age of 5 increasing the diameter of the rings over time with the largest ring exceeding two inches in diameter. There are three villages in the Mae Hong Son vicinity inhabited by the two tribes and most tourists stop for a quick picture in one of them before moving on. I was fortunate enough to visit all three, eventually spending two days and two nights living in the smallest one. At first sight the tribes would appear to be better off than others in the area being heavily visited by tourists doing the Mae Hong Son loop. When you talk to the villagers you find out what the guide books don't tell you. The Kayen are refugees from Burma and are essentially living under indefinite house arrest. They're not allowed to work in Thailand other than to produce and sell their simple crafts in their villages. The Thai government will not issue them with identity cards and they're not allowed to travel. This is enforced by the many military and police checkpoints in the ares (my car was inspected several times). No-one I spoke to has ever been further than the town of Mae Hong Son, only 15km away. Still, their situation is much better than that of the Kayen living in refugee camps (off limits to visitors) and those still living under persecution in Burma. They are extremely proud of their tradition and who they are and do the best with what they have. I was most impressed with their little school where all the children are taught and speak four languages: Kayen, Burmese, Thai and English. Living in the village, even for such a short time, was a beautiful experience and I am forever grateful to the people of Keyen for their hospitality.

Day 107: 'At work'

Woman from the Kayen 'long-neck' tribe in a traditional dress, Ban Huay Pu Keng, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Day 106: 'My, what big ears you have!'

Little girl from the Kayew 'Big-ear' tribe in a traditional dress, Ban Huay Pu Keng, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Day 105: 'Waitress! When I said 'bring me a couple long-necks!', this isn't quite what I had in mind...'

Mother and daughter from the Kayen 'long-neck' tribe in traditional dresses, Ban Huay Sua Tao, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Day 104: 'Umbrellas'

Bo Sang, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Day 103: 'Guardians'

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Day 102: 'A whole lot of love'

Heart shaped krathongs (floats), Loy Krathong Festival, Sukhotai Historical Park, Thailand

Loy Krathong is a traditional Thai festival celebrated annually on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month. By moonlight, people light the candles and sticks of incense on their floats, make a wish and launch them on canals, rivers and even small ponds. It is believed that the custom originated in the old city of Sukhothai, the first Thai capital, now a historical park and still the site of the grandest of celebrations.

As darkness fell the launching of the floats began. To my amazement, an army of kids, mostly boys, would try and fish out the floats as soon as their owners walked away. After dunking the still burning incense sticks they would carry the float back to their mothers’ stalls where they would immediately be put up for resale. As I stood there watching a particularly skilled little boy use a stick tied to the end of a string of ribbons going after the most impressive krathongs furthest away from the edge of the pond, a little Thai girl launched her simple float just next to me. I could see her concentrate as she made her wish and strain as she pushed the float as far away as she could. She was quickly whisked her away by her parents, likely to spare her the disappointment of seeing her float recycled. And I just stood there and puffed my chest and frowned at any little brat who as much as looked in the direction of that float until it was too far for them to reach. Whatever the little girl’s wish, I hope it comes true…

Day 101: 'Touch-up'

Performer, Loy Krathong Festival, Sukhothai Historical Park, Thailand

I spied two young girls touching up their makeup in amongst the ruins of an old wat (temple) getting ready for the evening show. I started taking picture, they started giggling. The more they giggled, the more touching up their makeup needed, the more pictures I took, the more they giggled…

November 12th, Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Leeches suck.

Day 100: 'Light snack'

Fried grubs, Loy Krathong Festival, Sukhothai Historical Park, Thailand

This is just one of about a dozen different varieties of 'finger food' that was available from the many stalls at the festival. I did confirm that Thais, mostly children, actually purchase and voluntarily consume these before indulging myself. In fact, most stalls sold out of all but the nastiest looking critters every night. The vendors offered free samples to farangs and took great delight in watching them grimace is disgust as they declined. Armed with a can of local beer to cleanse the palate I took on every challenge and even purchased a bag containing a sampling of each at the stall with the greatest selection. The two varieties of grubs offered were definitely my favorite, a sort of delicate, crispy but juicy French fries. I was a little apprehensive of the grasshoppers after noticing the dozens of barbs on their legs but upon sensing my hesitation one of the vendors, clearly impressed by my unflinching performance on the grubs, showed me a little mercy and explained that the rear legs should be removed before consumption. And then there were the beetles and the roaches. With some specimens getting on close to three inches long I limited myself to one of each and to everyone’s great amusement visibly cringed before biting. It’s hard to say what they taste like, they’re mostly just crunchy with the shells getting in between your teeth. Bring a toothpick...

Day 99: 'A walk in the park'

Asian Elephants, Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

It’s one thing seeing elephants standing around bored in a zoo and another entirely hearing them in the wild crashing through the rainforest or seeing them destroy a tree only feet away from where you are standing. I was upgraded from small SUV to a monster truck only thinly disguised as a full size SUV that would make any redneck proud (notwithstanding that it was made in Japan) and yet I doubt that its cab would provide much protection should the sound of the camera shutter tick one of them off. That’s assuming I could even make it back to my vehicle before the elephants got to me…

Day 98: 'No Feed Monkey! Monkey small, teeth big!'

Pig-tailed Macaque, Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

I'm actually not being fair. I've met more Thais who spoke decent basic English in my first four days in Thailand than I've met Japanese in the four weeks that I spent in Japan. Obviously foreign tourism is a much bigger part of the economy and a knowledge of English a much greater business advantage here...

Friday, November 11, 2005

Day 97: 'Tileand'

Chao Fa (roof finials), Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Day 96: 'Must… Not… Smile…'

Guard, Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

Day 95: 'It's mine, all mine!'

Golden Chedi, Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok, Thailand

Day 94: 'If he's so tough, why didn't he make the impression after the concrete had set?'

Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong, China

Day 93: Symphony Of Lights

Symphony Of Lights, Hong Kong, China

Day 92: 'Kawaii!'

Mother and daughter in traditional kimonos, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan

Day 91: 'Bright Lights, Big City'

Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

Friday, November 04, 2005

Day 90: 'They're coming...'

'Maman', Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, Japan

Day 89: 'Make go fast! Can't make go fast? Make look go fast!'

Shinkansen (Bullet Train), Tokyo, Japan

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Day 88: 'Go Team Suzuki!'

Tokyo Motor Show, Tokyo, Japan

Oh yeah, there were cool cars and bikes too! ;)

Day 87: 'Hot Tuna'

High quality frozen tuna on a warehouse floor, auctioned off and ready for pick up, Tsukiji Wholesale Market, Tokyo, Japan

Day 86: 'Rainbow Bridge, Sans Rainbow'

Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo, Japan

Day 85: 'I'll race you down!'

First Irohazaka Slope, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan

Day 84: 'Wait for me!'

Street Art, Taiyuin Mausoleum, Nikko, Japan

Day 83: 'Gold on Black'

Yomeimon Gate, Toshogu Shrine, Nikko, Japan

Day 82: 'Fall Canvas'

Shoyo-en Garden, Rinnoji Temple, Nikko, Japan