Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chiang Mai & Kuala Lumpur

Getting this close to an elephant in an open space, not a zoo, was like a dream. But I was wide awake. It happened at northern Thailand's Elephant Nature Park, "an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center." Better name? Elephant heaven.

Some of these elephants limp on a foot mangled by a landmine. A number are blind due to--get this--tourist flashbulbs in zoos and circuses. Many have other problems as a result of being "broken" in order to be ridden. This is a brutal practice. Nothing like breaking a horse. It involves ripping the babies away from their mothers, beating them, inducing pain in a variety of ways... Google it, if you can stomach it. Now that I'm aware, I would never ride an elephant.
We got in the water with them!
I did, however, caress a few that are used to humans. And it was divine. Elephants are walking paradoxes: Gentle giants. Rough skin, tender heart. We have a lot to learn from them--for example, not demonizing one group for the abject behavior of a few.

Most of the mahouts who work with elephants are born into mahout families. The control of elephants through abuse is a tradition. And a vocation. Elephant Nature Park re-trains mahouts and gives them jobs. These guys do a ton of work around the park (along with armies of volunteers), and can even build relationships with the unruly bulls tourists are not allowed to get near. The mahouts learn how to use food, not pain, to coerce the animals to move to the watering hole or feeding platform.

I swear these sweet beasts are thrilled to be living on this beautiful property. They smile. They playfully throw dirt into the air. They roll in the mud and prance in the river. Finally, they are free. No more cages, no more abuse, no more isolation, no more chains.

We got to the elephants from Chiang Mai, a groovy, ex-pat friendly, yoga-fied city filled with beautiful parks, temples, and street food galore. My former SJSU student, Sarah, now lives and teaches there. She landed in Chiang Mai after a year of travel throughout India and S.E. Asia. We have in common the travel-the-world-and-write gene.

Hanging with Sarah at a temple.

Chiang Mai street food

Sunday market...hard to see the wares it was so crowded.
Evidence of Chinese New Year in Chiang Mai.
As much as I enjoyed exploring the city, I was having island withdrawals. A little city goes a long way. And there was more to come: Kuala Lumpur, or KL, for the last few days before we had to wing back to Nanning.

Speaking of wings...our first KL stop was the Bird Park--a public aviary that was much groovier than I'd imagined such a place could be.

Someone wants my coconut.
I'm not a fan of seeing birds in cages, so what a delight to experience free-rangers of all shapes, colors and sizes.
Thousands of birds in the trees, walking along the grounds, floating in the various bodies of water.  A few were in pens, notably the ostriches. When we got close to feed them through a slice in the fence, the fierce way they grabbed the greens, coupled with their I-could-slice-you-up clawed feet, made it clear why they couldn't be running around terrorizing tourists. Ideally they would be out on the range in Africa terrorizing the lizards they eat.

KL has a hop-on, hop-off bus. Pay one price and you can tour around the city, lingering wherever you like and climbing back on when the next bus comes every 30 minutes. We checked out Chinatown (not worth your time unless you want to buy a fake brand-name watch or shirt), Little India (lots of color, nice vibe), the Petronas Towers (the tallest twin towers in the world), and a lot of other interesting architecture.




Our hotel was just a couple of blocks from a massive night street food scene. We waded through thousands of people, checking out stalls and open air restaurants with gargantuan menus representing food of many SE Asian nations. My favorite treat: deep fried banana.

We were also close to a pub street that, at night, rolled back its sidewalks to Vegas-esque pandemonium. We found a street corner cafĂ© and enjoyed floating on a local trio's sweet three-part harmonies. Our last night we stumbled across, of all things, a fantastic German restaurant. Eating a luscious salad and potato pancakes, soaked in a magical ambiance, I had a feeling we could be in anywhere in the world. Every so often that surreal feeling of transcending time and space envelopes me while traveling. In this case it was aided by a German beer the size of a toddler.

I write this four weeks later, buried in my second semester of teaching in China. Whether or not we will stay here for another year is central to our conversations these days. The university has sent me a contract and is nudging me to sign it. I have yet to take up my pen.

This trip reinforced for me what I love best about travel: experiencing new things. That may sound self-evident. But it took me into my fifth decade to live the nomadic existence I always dreamed of. I'm not sure I'm ready to stay in one place longer than a year. A zillion possibilities are swirling about, shining like the universe's bling.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Koh Phangan and Koh Tao: Thailand, Part 1 (and a little more of China, too)

Happy New Year
It's surreal to be in China with all that is happening in the U.S. Places of worship being burned? Refugees targeted? Immigrants banned? Russian intrigue? White nationalism? Whose country are we talking about?
I'm concerned about my friends who are complaining about physical illness as a result of the barrage of news. Don't make yourselves sick, you compassionate badasses and change-makers. We need you. As Krista Tippett writes in Becoming Wise, "We create transformative, resilient new realities by becoming transformed, resilient people."
And please don't apologize on social media for posting positive things. Life is multi-faceted. If we're going to be the change we want to see, we also need to be the light we want to see.
All of this makes me ultra-aware of how privileged I am to be able to travel freely. When the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) break occurred, we hit the road with Tina (our Chinese "daughter") her friend Rose, our colleague Michele, and her husband, Joshua. As usual, everywhere we went, people wanted to take pictures with us. But Joshua--a Ugandan reggae artist--was the real star, especially with young guys who thought he was the coolest ever.

we real cool
A 4-hour bus ride from Nanning took us to Detian waterfall, billed as the fourth largest transnational waterfall. In the picture below, the left part of the falls is in Vietnam, and the right in China.

On the boat ride, we got close enough to feel the spray.
The next day we explored Tongling Grand Canyon, which felt like Pirates of the Caribbean, complete with multicolored lighting--proof that "cheesy" and "sublime" don't have to cancel each other out.

When we emerged from the cave, we faced a stunning sight: one of the tallest waterfalls in Asia.
And we hiked around the back of it.
After this two-day excursion, we did a quick turnaround at our apartment and headed out for a month to Thailand, by way of Malaysia. Flying through Kuala Lumpur turned out to be about half the price of a direct flight to Bangkok. Work it right, and Air Asia is so inexpensive; we spent only $300 on five flights.

First stop: Koh Phangan, a Thai island. Hard to argue with a place that looks like this:

To say it's stunning is to understate. As much as I enjoyed (for the most part) my semester teaching, I found it exhausting. This island was the perfect antidote. Dave's college buddy, Mark, met us there. It's a thrill to watch Mark's renaissance. He suffered from a major medical trauma, and has now bounced back and is living large. You can see in his eyes and hear in his ebullient patter a joie de vivre laced with his signature wit. We got right in the swing with lots of good island food...

Mark with a whole snapper.
and drink...
Yes, you can find shroom shakes in a place well-known for its raging Full Moon parties.
We also got to meet in the flesh Brian, one of my many Facebook pals. Currently living on Koh Phangan, he's a traveler and writer, too--and one of those great conversationalists who knows something about everything.

Brian ferrying me around on the island's most popular transport.
We didn't have much on our agenda other than a little exploring, cheap beach massages, yoga, and swimming. That is, until Mark roped us into checking out another part of the island for a dance party--in a place called "Eden," no less. A DJ, Mark is a music connoisseur, always in search of an inspired scene.

To get to Eden, you go by way Sanctuary. (Clearly, the names of these places are intended to lull you there--but they aren't misnomers.) There's no riding a motorbike to get to this part of the island; you must hop on a long tail boat. All able-bodied brawn is enlisted in helping shove it off the sand and into the waves.

Sanctuary is a spa resort with a beautiful open-air restaurant nestled in the rocky face of a cliff. We ate some of their delicious raw food specialties, watching the sunset. Mark chatted up a woman who was there from New York for a five-day cleanse. When he offered her some of his "happy fungus" shake, she eagerly broke her fast with a chug.

We made our way to Eden, shakily clambering up rocks along a crumbling path, our only light source my phone. A heroic ascent and descent revealed the scene of Mark's dreams: electronica on a cliff, waves roiling below, the dance floor lit up with psychedelic lights and a wide array of dancers, eccentric in movement and dress. We boogied for hours. My high came not from substances but this wild life. It was like dancing on another planet.

A few days later, we headed by inter-island ferry to Koh Tao. With lots of macho, tatted diver dudes walking around and a more touristy vibe, Koh Tao has a rougher edge. But soon I found a beautiful yoga studio nestled in the rainforest and a great place to have breakfast afterward, my feet in the sand.

Dave hung out underwater with a turtle while I did yoga.
And we enjoyed street food galore.

But the real sweet spot of Koh Tao is its world-class snorkeling. Mark treated us to a private boat for a full day, just the three of us with two Thai guys who knew all the great spots. It was heartening to see so much magnificent healthy coral and huge schools of multicolored fish.

Mark and me
Our pimped-up ride.
After two weeks, I wasn't ready to say goodbye to the islands. So I said "hasta luego"--as we had a plane to catch to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand--which I will share about soon.

In the meantime, I send my love to my friends in America and abroad. These are critical, historical times. As the Indigo Girls sing:

"If the world is night, shine my life like a light."

Koh Tao sunset