Thursday, January 30, 2014

A tribe called Karen

We are back in Chiang Mai after two nights and three days in the hills.  We walked on the outskirts of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand, passing from village to village.  Those were the hardest beds I think I have ever slept on.  But our hosts, the Karen people (pronounced Kaah-ren) don't seem to mind them too much.

They speak a language that sounds quite different from Thai.  Thanks for example is ta-bluh, and not korp kun as in Thai.  Our guide, Date, told us many of them fled from neighboring Myanmar and found refuge in the hills where they now grow rice for subsistence and gerber daisies, passion fruit, and strawberries for sale to the market. 

I guess there is something quintessential about village life everywhere; dogs that bark with the chickens at dawn, smoke and fires at evening, and nice stars at night.  It can almost feel like being at any other farming town, except here the women all wear bright pinks and purples in patterns I would call clashing.  The million uses of bamboo (silverware, cups, walls, firewood, string, bridges, rafts, beams, spits) all on display, and the food spicy and sour. 

As we walked through the jungle, all the plants initially looked the same.  Then, time after time, Date would rip a leaf off a vine or pull a root out of the ground and give it to us to taste, telling us about its medicinal and culinary uses.  He would tell us, "this is the spot where Communists used to hide; this tree was very small then he was young and now he is so big; here is the spirit house where people sacrifice a chicken for the river they have dammed."  Our porter, a 62 year old man, walked the entire time wearing a jacket and rubber boots, never once shedding a layer, while we in our synthetic tee shirts dripped at times with sweat.  I don't know how he did it.

Driving back to Chiang Mai, I felt time speeding up.  Land rushed past the window and I could no longer pay attention to each plant or each house.  Not going to lie; the soft beds feel really nice.  But I will miss the stars.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bangkok, City of 1000 Smells

We arrived in Bangkok late in the evening, far later than the bus company had published. The sun had already faded away into the grey murkiness that surrounded the city - a dull scarlet orb that gradually yielded to the enfolding haze. We were left in a public square thronged with street vendors and billboards and windows that peered deeper and deeper out of the inky darkness above us.

More powerful than the darkness, though, were the smells. Alleys vomited the debris of markets onto the square, busses and tuk tuks left ephemeral trails of diesel dust,  food carts served their wares over trickles of brackish liquid, and beyond that the subtle scents of river and flowers melted into the background. Curry and car exhaust, incense and fetid water and jasmine, frying meat and cook fires and motor oil and bread pierced by acrid, human odors.

My stomach had not enjoyed the last day in Cambodia and probably left me excessively sensitive to such things, but my main memory of Bangkok is of an overwhelmingly and unpleasantly odorous city. I am glad we only spent one night there before heading off to adventure in Thailand's northern hill country.

(Post by Josh)


All three countries we have visited so far have Buddhist temples, monks, and certain observances.  But Buddhism does not really feel the same in any of them.

In Japan, the temples looked like slight alterations of Shinto shrines; a threshold gate, a sacred altar with statues, and those really familiar Japanese roofs.  In Cambodia, they look like a stand of shiny little golden tinsel trees in front of stone Buddha statues, wearing a gold cloth apron.  In Thailand, they look like a golden Buddha statue standing inside mini royal palace. 

In Japan, the monks wore in white.  In Cambodia, orange with a parasol and in barefeet   In Thailand, also orange (we saw one with sandals and orange socks).  The Bangkok subway even has a sticker depicting the four kinds of people you should give up your seat to:  the elderly, disabled, pregnant, and monks.

Buddhism, for a religion that is built on giving up desire and not forcing yourself on others, seems somewhat pushy in Cambodia.  Lots of Angkor temples have statues inside with caretakers encouraging you to take their incense and pray.  It may or may not have been just a way to make money.  Japan's temples were far less aggressive with their sales pitch.  Thailand's Buddhist temples remain to be experienced.  But I don't know how much we will get to see of these, since we are off to the northern hills.  For the next three days we will be bamboo rafting and riding elephants and staying in villages north of Chiang Mai.  Back to the blog from Myanmar, most likely.  Josh's Angkor Wat posts are awaiting better internet so we can post pictures.  Stay tuned.

(Post by Hammad)

Thursday, January 23, 2014


We have already spent two days in the temples around Angkor Wat and have found so much to share.  I will let Josh be the one to relay those adventures.  For now, I want to talk about water.

A great deal of the world's people are without access to clean water.  That is obviously different than saying, access to water at all.  All of the places we have been thus far has been blessed with abundant water.  But is it drinkable?  Here in Cambodia, we have heard that tap water is OK to drink only in Phnom Penh, the capital.  Now that we are in Siem Reap, we can't rely on the tap.

No problem, just give us a lake!

Here, Josh is sterilizing that lake water by draining it through a cloth and then agitating it with an ultraviolet light wand for 90 seconds.  It is really hard to believe, but it works.  The light apparently breaks down the DNA of all biological matter in the water.  All that cholera and giardia is still alive, but no longer capable of reproduction.  And so it goes into our stomachs inert, and maybe even nutritious?  We have drank water from faucets, wells, and this lovely Angkor Thom reflecting pool that has carvings depicting all the life flowing in it.

Water marks the seasonal shifts here, from wet to dry.  Seeing all the houses on stilts makes me wonder what it looks like when it is all flooded during the rainy season (our summer).  We are definitely lucky to be exploring the temples during the dry season, when roads are clear and the temperatures pleasant.  But I am also glad the rainy season exists, since it provides abundant water and keeps Cambodia incredibly fertile.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


I have eaten scorpion, snails, and crickets, but none compare to this.  Tarantula!

Roasted, covered in salt and tangy spices, and served with tangy spider sauce.  We really enjoyed the legs; crispy and with a surprising amount of meat in there.  The abdomen packs an eggy surprise.

Ok enough pretending like that was easy.  It took several minutes for us to get over the creepy crawly feeling.  But it really was worth it in this case because the things were so good.  It was mostly the preparation.  I wouldn't trust any old roasted tarantula.  But at Romdeng restaurant, they do it right.  The place is run by a nonprofit.  It is staffed by former street youth who are being given a new chance.  It was really adorable to watch the waiters in training, as they nervously shifted the napkins around on the table trying to find the right place for them.

Cambodia is awesome so far.  Knowing a little Khmer goes a long way.  I can make the little girls laugh when I say hello.  And Josh is slowly letting go of Japanese phrases in favor of nasally ones like som toh (sorry) and chingaang (yummy).  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Okonomiyaki? Ok.

Leaving Kyoto to go to Osaka was like leaving a museum to go to a Chuck E. Cheese.  Kyoto = temple, gardens, and lots of history.  Osaka = food and wacky modern buildings.  We only decided to come to Osaka because it was on the way to the airport.  But we don't regret it one bit.

Our first night at the hostel, we asked the front desk for a place to eat a local specialty.  They led us to a hole in the wall serving Okonomiyaki.  The name means something like, "whatever you want."  But that is not very helpful or creative.  They were described to us as pizza.  I think they should be called Grillcakes.  Flour, cabbage, sauce, and toppings, made to order.

The owner of the place was surprised and happy to have foreigners in his shop.  He pulled out his English menus and we pointed at the toppings we wanted.  He made the Okonomiyaki in front of us, frying the batter on the griddle like a pancake, throwing on the squid, shrimp, mayo, and seaweed, and flipping them skillfully.

They were amazing!  A crusty escape in a land of squishy noodles and rice.  The fun part is you get to eat them off a little griddle on the middle of your table.  We got a little plate and a trowel each, and hacked off steaming mouthfuls. Every bite was fresh as the first.

If you're in Osaka, look up Chitose restaurant near Shin-Imamiya station.  The owner got to talking with us while we ate.  He told us that he heard the United States is very cold.  He saw on TV a story where an American prisoner escaped, and then decided to run back to jail because warmth felt better than freedom.  I think I missed that news story.  But Japan has felt pretty cold too, for this American, and now it's time to soak up some warmth in Cambodia.  See you tomorrow, Phnomh Penh!

Thursday, January 16, 2014


While entering the Fushimi Inari (fox) shrine in Kyoto, Josh stopped to wash his hands in the purifying fountain.  I chose not to, because my gloved hands were just barely warm.  And so we entered, one unclean and one pure, to check out the stone foxes and the sacred items they guarded.

About two minutes in, the foxes let me have it.  I got the hiccups like you wouldn't believe.  Loud, relentless.  I was barking and croaking.  And they did not go away for about half an hour!  It did not help that I was also trying to catch my breath; the shrine is a long uphill path.  A gorgeous one, at that, layered with torii gates so dense they form a tunnel.

But there's nothing like the hiccups to suck the reverence out of a peaceful moment.  If only I had just washed my hands.  Sorry, Inari.


Here are some things we found in Japan that may fool you.

Cherry blossoms?  How lovely.  But wait, it's winter.  Those are not blossoms.  In fact they are wishes.  Thousands of wishes left by visitors to this shrine in Kyoto, handwritten on pink paper and tied to the branches.

You probably guessed correctly that those are mochi on the right.  But did you think that was a sweet potato on the left?  Guess again.  That is an ice cream sandwich.  Really.

And this zen garden installation is not simply a perfect conic section.  It is Mount Fuji.  See?  I told you he was iconic.

Monday, January 13, 2014

That was lucky

Ancient road number 2: the Nakasendo Highway.  Like the Tokaido Highway from our last post, this was an important road linking Tokyo and Kyoto back in the days when Tokyo was called Edo.  Unlike the Tokaido Highway, the Nakasendo Highway is a fair bit north in the area known as the Japan Alps.  Thus snowy.   The trail was treacherously icy at points.  One clever old man on the trail had wrapped twine around his shoes to increase traction.  We just repeatedly wiped out for 8 kilometers.  But it felt awesome to consider that we were walking the path that feudal Japanese lords would follow to visit the capital from the provinces.

The story of our getting here is yet another testament to how gracious Japanese people can be.  We arrived in the sleepy mountain outpost of Tsumago by bus at 6pm without a place to stay.  The sun had set and no signs were in English.  It was freezing, and there would be no more buses until the next morning.  From the narrow street, every house, restaurant, and potential hotel had the same dormant exterior.  We briefly considered sleeping under an awning somewhere.  Fortunately fate led us past a man walking his shiba inu at night and smelling vaguely of sake.  It took a while with our limited knowledge of each other's languages, but he made some phone calls for us and found a lady willing to lodge us at her Ryokan (old style inn).  Her cedar-wood onsen (hot tub) was incredibly relaxing and her breakfast was delightful: salmon, egg, miso-rice wraps, pickles and sweet beans and, most bizarrely "sticky potatoes."  Imagine raw potato hash embedded in a spittle-like foam.  If you ever come to Tsumago, look her up:  it is called the Daikichi Inn.

Tsumago is about halfway between Nagoya and Matsumoto, the latter being an awesome place to find yourself randomly on the second Sunday in January.  We had no idea when we arrived that it would be the weekend of the Candy Festival.  But the candy was nowhere near as impressive as the teams of people carrying shrines on their shoulders and bouncing around the town.  There was squid on a stick and Taiko drumming and then it all culminated in an epic tug of war contest to commemorate an ancient feud between two local warlords.  It was pretty sweet.  (har har)

Saturday, January 11, 2014


Ancient road number one: the Tokaido Highway.  A cedar-lined path on the old road to Tokyo during the Edo period.  Now it links two small towns on the banks of Lake Ashinoko, itself a volcanic crater sitting at 950 meters above sea level, in the shadow of Mt. Fuji.

I hadn't realized how absolutely and utterly iconic Mt. Fuji is.  He is such an icon that all you need to represent him in print is a trapezoid, top half white and bottom half blue.  Apparently shrouded in clouds most of the time, he made a full appearance for us this wintry morning.  It was hard not catch the infectious Japanese giddiness at seeing him. 

He hasn't erupted since 1740 something but he's still got excellent underground activity bubbling.  We smelled the highly sulfurous gases coming from a bubbling source at the popular viewing spot of Owakudani.  And then we ate five boiled eggs cooked in that very same bubbling source.  The shells turned black in the water.  We cracked them, peeled them, and ate them with salt while staring at the (lonely/noble/humongous/secretive) icon that would soon be cloaked in clouds again.


Day 1 of Japan, and I have already embarrassed myself.  Thank goodness the Japanese are gracious and helpful.  In the large food mart section of a major department store, I noticed a store selling unusual biscuit things.  What were they like, I wondered.  Soft and beany?  Dry and crumbly?  Fortunately, there was a plate on the counter with a sticker marked "sample" and there was one for the taking!  So I grabbed it, hoping that it was not tooo rude to take the last sample.  The thing resisted when I tried splitting it in half to share with Josh.  Bwa ha ha more for me!  I chomped on it.  Hard.  But it didn't give.  Wow, I thought.  This is a terrible cookie.  Stale as rubber, or maybe it's a special cookie that I don't know how to eat.  Then the man behind the counter came up to me reaching out his hand and saying something I could not understand, but if I had to guess, it was probably, "whoawhoa so sorry but that is made of plastic."  I returned the "sample" to him and walked away as fast as I could.  Because only a curious baby or a Gaijin would do that, and I wished I was the baby.

Monday, January 6, 2014


No India!!!  I was not able to get a visa in time.  The holdup?  A completed "certificate of renunciation" from the Embassy of Pakistan.  I was born in Pakistan, and even though I have been a US citizen for over a decade, India requires that I prove my lack of connection in official paperwork.  This renunciation certificate thing is pending with Islamabad.  Lord knows how long it's going to take.  At this point we cut our losses and we're rethinking the itinerary in Asia.  Maybe more time in Myanmar or maybe a side trip to Mongolia?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Last visas

What a relief!  The Uzbekistan visa finally arrived in the mail today.  One more left--India.  Josh got his India visa in three days.  Mine has been pending for two months!  It may take begging and cajoling but hopefully I can convince them to forgive my Pakistani origins and stamp the page I need before I leave on Tuesday.