Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A day in Ubud

I'm staying in Ubud, which is in the interior region of the island of Bali. I'm not much of a beach person anyway, so staying in this area, which is more known for its plethora of shops selling wooden carvings, silver, and paintings, is definitely the way to go for me. As I learned, I'm also close by the Monkey Forest, as I'm staying in a place called Adi Cottages on Monkey Forest Road. A note on my lodgings: it isn't for everyone. There are tiny ants crawling around in the bathroom, which has a somewhat used-looking tub, and I'm not sure when the last time was they cleaned behind the toilet, even though they likely have cleaned the toilet itself. After staying in all the chain hotels for work, I'm used to a higher standard, but then I remembered back in the day when I was living in Mexico, a few ants in a local hotel never bothered me then, so it's really nothing I should be complaining about. There are just a few, and they seem to contain themselves to the bathroom, for whatever reason, so as long as they're not in my bed, I'm not too concerned. Besides, they provide water and a decent breakfast of either nasi goreng (fried rice) or eggs and toast. It's humble, but it suffices, and I'm not unhappy to be so near the Monkey Forest, about a 10 minute walk down the street from where my hotel is. I can't wait to post those photos. Of course, my camera battery just had to die halfway through my little walk inside the forest, so I had to rely on my phone for the rest of it, but I managed to get some decent ones.

Anyway, before I get too far into the Monkey Forest, I should describe my little walk up and down the street. I walked along Monkey Forest Road for a while and continued to be solicited by people trying to offer taxi services, massages, or simply their products. I've been really good at controlling myself and not buying anything. There are some really beautiful things here, but some of them are difficult to transport, and some are actually similar to things I can find in India or Pakistan, like silk scarves and pillow cases, and some are just plain undesirable. I started noticing that a lot of the places selling wooden carvings were selling carved phalluses. There was one with tiny legs on it, even. Most of them were key chains, but some looked like they were meant to be displayed on a shelf. Freud would have been in his glory; my clinical psych prof said Freud's office had a display case that was filled with such things, phallic symbols and fertility gods and such. In any case, I'm not sure if the culture here is obsessed with such things or if they think that westerners are, but I can't see why anyone would buy these items other than as a gag gift because they're not even symbolic in any religious sort of way. I decided to take a turn down a street and ended up on Karma Street. The road was quiet, and I actually saw locals there, not just tourists (though there were many of those, too), and there seemed to be many temples along the way. The road ended in a big tourist street market, though. I did relent and buy some silver bangles, mainly because they reminded me of some Indian ones that my parents gave me that I can't now find for the life of me through several moves. They weren't expensive, about $15, so I didn't feel overly guilty. I got myself out of there because there were also a few beggars there, since there were so many tourists, and all of those things combined mean it's not a place I want to be in. Although the temperature here doesn't feel overwhelming, after walking around for a while I had become quite hot, so I stopped at an air-conditioned café for some local coffee and ended up meeting a couple from Seattle, the husband having gone to university at McGill, which I thought I was neat. They were the ones that told me where to find the Monkey Forest, though I would have asked at my hotel if I hadn't found it, but then it gave me impetus to get my butt in gear and get a move-on rather than wiling away the afternoon checking Facebook in the café.

One thing I can say is that the street I'm on is an interesting mix of old and new. Aside from all the artisan vendors, there are a number of places selling Polo Ralph Lauren shirts (maybe fake ones, I don't know) and surf gear, and many are built underneath/within what are old houses made of stone and beautifully carved with the intricacy of Indonesian design, dragons, gods, gargoyles, all detailed with scales and feathers and patterned ridge-poles and crown molding (if that's what it's called on the outside of a building--I'm no architect expert).

Down to the Monkey Forest. The couple told me that there are tons of monkeys there. They were not kidding! I don't know what kind of monkeys these are, but there really are a lot of them. Almost everywhere you look, you'll see one, in trees, on the stone walkway around the forest, on fences. There are signs saying not to touch them and letting you know what to do in the event that one tries to touch you or jumps on you. You're just supposed to ignore it until it goes away. They don't tell you what to do in the even that one wants to attack you. I was trying to get a good shot of one in the trees eating what appeared to be a potato or perhaps a sweet potato, and this other monkey jumped out of a tree and tried to grab my bag (which I always carry messenger style, so he couldn't have got it). I tried to back away, but he stood there showing his teeth and hissed a little, which I took to be an aggressive maneuver, and I stepped back slowly to get away from him. I was indeed standing near a pile of those potatoes, so he probably thought I some sort of threat to his food supply. He watched me for a while backing away, and I watched him, too, not daring to turn my back while walking away lest he run up from behind and attack. Don' know what to say the monkey won' do! You have to see that video to understand my reference, although when I did the search on YouTube to see if that video clip exists, it turns out this song is originally by Harry Belafonte. I'm assuming his version is not nearly as silly as the Animaniacs version ;o)

I seem to be very prolific these days, with all my entries here. I suppose it's partly boredom since there isn't much else to do in my room, but I also usually don't get as much chance to tell my stories as they happen, or at least within the same day or two of my experiences. I think I'm also just tired and would rather not stuff too much into one day, opting for a light adventure or two and then relaxing in the evenings. I'm hoping, my dear readers, that you'll forgive me for it!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Quick addendum

A friend posted the best blog entry yesterday, entitled Date a Girl Who Travels. I've often felt like sometimes men might find me unstable or unreliable because I'm moving around all the time. I'd add to this girl's entry that sometimes we just have no reason to be home more often than we are. I mean, my job forces me to travel; that's why I took it, but I wouldn't want to do it if I actually had a reason not to travel so much. I don't care where home becomes. I'm as comfortable in Central London as I am here in Bali--though I'm not a fan of the small ants in my bathroom! If you're a wandering nomad as I am, read it and share it with others of our species. I think it will speak to you.

Good morning, Bali!

After a marathon 4.5 week venture in Southeast Asia for work, I was finally able to take some time off for a little vacation. As I was ending my trip in Jakarta (where normally it falls at the beginning of my work trips to the region), I decided it was high time I get myself to Bali.

I arrived to sunshine and what I thought was very hot weather, but as I was waiting for my driver to get the vehicle at the airport, I felt a pleasantly cool breeze, which must have been coming off the ocean. It made me wish I were staying near the beach after all, just for that breeze, but I hoped that the interior parts wouldn't be too much hotter; the island isn't that big, relatively speaking.

I'm staying in Ubud, and what I didn't know it's more than an hour's drive from the airport in Denpasar. So much for Google maps assistance! By the time I reached my hotel, the rain had begun to pour like an angry monsoon. In fact it was raining so heavily that I couldn't even check in properly. The hotel doesn't have any sort of covered area for vehicles, so we had to run out in the rain to get to the lobby, and then they had me wait there (as the breakfast is there as well) at at a table and have tea until the rain lightened enough to bring out my bags. The area was outdoors but covered, and I enjoyed sipping tea in the cool air. I think I waited over half an hour, but there wasn't a whole lot of difference. Eventually they just decided they would have to tough it out. At least there is free wi-fi here, so I've been able to do this blog updating, especially helpful when the TV only has channels in Bahasa Indonesian, which is surprising since this area is so touristy.

Having said that, this is a far cry from Jakarta, which is filled with malls containing all the stores we have at home, as well as tons of designer stores we don't have at home because no one can afford to shop in them. Here, there are a lot of stores selling local handicrafts, paintings, wood carvings, things like that. It's quite a pretty area, what I've seen so far. I only really went out for a bit last night to get some food as I hadn't any time for lunch yesterday, and I wasn't able to get anything while it was raining. There were pretty much only tourists on the street, and all kinds of people soliciting passersby for taxis, food, and massages. I'm a little put off by the massage offers, though. I mean, someone is standing in almost an alleyway asking you if you'd like a massage; it makes me wonder what kind of a place it is. Not that I'll go for one at a reputable place either, but if I were ever tempted, I would definitely not go for an alleyway massage!

Having come down with a bit of a cold, I'm not going to overdo it for myself. I'll go out for a bit today and see things by daylight and then book some sort of tour for myself tomorrow so I can see some of the cultural and historical sites here. Then I come home.

Life After Bangkok

I figured there's no sense in writing blog entries for every country I went to this time around because in most cases, I didn't do much. Brunei, there was no time, as was the case last year, and we didn't even go to another city for work this time, which means I had no photos from the vehicle window either. In Malaysia, I didn't do a whole lot. I did get to spend a couple of evenings out having supper in Kota Kinabalu (generally called KK) this time, so I did get to appreciate that a little. Friends from work and I went walking out in the market and decided to have fresh seafood from the market for supper. I have great pictures of all kinds of fascinating fish and seafood. I hope to post those soon!

Other than that, I did have a bit of free time in Singapore. I met one of the most delightful people, who works at the Canadian High Commission. He's one of the Trade Commissioners (and his identity shall remain hidden or else I'll have to kill, really it's just because I don't feel comfortable posting people's names here unless I have their permission), and he has lived in Singapore for so long that he is a local hire at the CHC. So I thought he would have good advice about interesting things to do, and I was not disappointed. On one evening, I went with another work friend to Arab Street. I had never heard of this place before, and I was so sad that I hadn't known about it before. Most of the restaurants there appear to be Turkish, actually, and not Arab, but even still, there are a variety of excellent places to eat yummy food from all those regions, and if you're into shisha, there's no lack of places to smoke it. We didn't get there early enough to do any shopping; apparently the market there is really interesting, and I noticed there were lots of rug stores, so it would have been nice to wander through it, but you can't win `em all. In any case, we ate at one of the Turkish places, and I had some of the most delicious lamb. I have no idea what they used in the marinade, but it was really tasty. My friend and I both loved this area. As for me, it appeals to my inner Bohemian, and perhaps I enjoyed being somewhere for a while where a lot of people (shop and restaurant owners) actually look like me. I think if I ever live in Singapore, I will probably spend a lot of time there.

The next day, I had some hours before heading to the airport for Medan (where I did absolutely nothing because there is so little to do), I went to Haw Par Villa. For those of you that have been following my blog since I first started my travel writing in 2006, you'll know by now that I have a bit of a penchant for the weird and wacky. Haw Par Villa is right up my alley for this reason. There is no point in my writing too much about it because the pictures will really speak for themselves. You'll see the link and know what this place is all about. The only comment I can say about it is that I felt it was really funny that they would describe and explain all the Chinese mythology scenes that were depicted, but when it came to other sculptures and representations, there was no explanation. Again, the photos will explain everything. Sometimes there just aren't words...

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Does it surprise you that I'm in Southeast Asia again?

But at least I got to go to a new place this time, Bangkok. Before I get to that, just one thing I'd like to point out. While quickly skimming through my last entry, I noticed that the word "flight" was hyperlinked, but not by me. I hovered over it and learned that Surf Canyon has somehow flagged it. I really dislike Surf Canyon because it's popping up all over the place when I search for things and especially browse online catalogues when I'm considering making a purchase, so I just wanted you as my readers to know that I disapprove of this link, don't know how to get rid of it, and highly resent its presence on my blog. I won't even get any cash from advertising it, so please don't support it!

Anyway, Bangkok. I had mixed feelings about going to Bangkok and being in Thailand generally. It seems like such a touristy place, and by now, you must know how much I'm not a tourist--or at least how much I don't want to be a tourist. Secondly, a colleague and friend of mine who lived in Southeast Asia for about 4 years said he'd leave Thailand any day for Malaysia. To him, Thailand is the place where you find the dirtiest and most decrepit aspects of life, whereas you can go to Malaysia, get the same beaches, same cheap prices, and it's so much cleaner and safer, aside from the fact that most everyone in the cities tends to speak English. In addition, other colleagues of mine told me that when they go to Bangkok (as white males), they will be approached by random people on the street and asked if they would like to purchase the services of a young woman, man, or "lady boy" as they call the transgendered ones there. How disturbing!

I didn't know what to really expect when I went to Thailand, and I didn't really know what to make of it while I was there or even after, now that I've heard these crazy stories. Again, there are reasons why being me, having a universal face, is sometimes an advantage because I feel like I can blend in so much more easily and don't get noticed as much. In any case, why I was disturbed when I was there is that I saw so many older white guys with their cute, tiny Asian (likely Thai) wives, and I wasn't sure what to make of that either. One of the same colleagues that told me about getting approached by strangers for services told me that in some cases, it's probably mutually beneficial because the woman probably gets taken care of really well, and the guy probably even makes enough money to help support her family somewhat, and the guy in turn gets a cute wife. I'm entirely sure that is the case for many of those guys and have no contention with that, but I also wonder how many of the other ones are just creepy old guys who couldn't find a woman at home because they're creepy!! And it's not like you can tell the difference just by looking at them, most of the time, so I just didn't want to think about it.

I just couldn't stop thinking about how much the sex industry is so big there. Even on some taxi windows (photos forthcoming!), there was a sign indicating that the drivers would know where to take you if you wanted such services. It would disturb me less if I thought people in that industry truly wanted to be there, but many of them have been trafficked, and many feel desperate and like they have no choice.

On the lighter side of things, however, the organisers of the education fair I was there to do invited us to dine at a place called Cabbages and Condoms. It seemed like such an inappropriate venue until I learned more about the place and who started it. The guy's name is Mechai Viravaidya, and you'll come to learn more about his charitable work and what he has done for Thailand, given its sex trade, if you have a chance to read the links. No sense in me writing that info here since it's already better explained elsewhere.

Moreover, I had one day to myself to explore Bangkok because it was in between my school visit day there and the fair. At one of the school counsellor's suggestions, I went to Chatuchak (a.k.a. Jatujak or JJ) Market in the morning, but generally I found it a little disappointing. While there were definitely Thai people there, it was mostly designed for the tourist, selling items that you could find in almost any market in another Southeast Asian country, and in some cases a Latin American country, in my experience. There were some unique and interesting things, though. One was their art gallery section that featured the works of local artists. I would have loved to buy one or two pieces but couldn't find any salespeople for the life of me. I love to support local artists, though. There was also a store or two selling teas and spices, so I bought some saffron, cinnamon, and tom yum soup paste. The former two items are much more expensive in Canada, so I thought I'd bring home a bit for myself.

According to an online Lonely Planet web site, Wat Pho (pronounced something like wot poh) was supposed to be walking distance from JJ. I thought I would go there since it has one of the largest reclining Buddhas in Asia, and as I had missed that one in Penang a couple of years ago when I didn't realise it was inside the beautiful Burmese temple I kept walking around, I thought I should try to catch this one! I happened upon a tourist info centre near the market and asked them for directions, and they told me if I started walking then, I'd get there by midnight at the earliest! So much for Lonely Planet! They suggested I take the bus, so I crossed the street to the bus stop and waited for a while, but as I was already hot and sticky and didn't see a bus come for 10 minutes, I decided to take a cab over and flagged down one of the ubiquitous hot pink ones that brighten Bangkok streets. It happened to be a female driver, too. I love that because you don't see it very often. I've had female taxi drivers now in Mexico, Malaysia, and Thailand. Anyway, tangent is done...

Minutes before I arrived at this place, monsoon-like rain came gushing down. Since I was in regular clothes (as opposed to being dressed up), I wasn't overly concerned, and I had to wash my hair that night anyway, but the problem was my feet. I was wearing my sandals, which are leather and which were expensive, a price I paid because they were the only sandals I had found that fit my even more expensive orthotics. Now, work covers my orthotics, but that doesn't mean I want to ruin the leather insoles that the molded part is attached to. I stood under cover at the entrance to the temple for a good 10-15 minutes. Eventually, the rain seemed to let up a bit, and then I decided I'd just take my shoes off and carry them around in a plastic bag I didn't need that I had some stuff in from the market. You have to take your shoes off to go inside the temple, anyway. I rolled up my pants, removed my shoes, and walked around in light rain and puddles, and had a marvellous time. It was refreshing, cooled me down, and appeared to be quite safe as the grounds looked really clean. This temple is actually an active one where there are monks residing there, and I even came across an open door where young boys apprenticing for monk-hood were learning to play traditional songs on just as traditional instruments. I tried to get it on video, at least for a minute, but I can't remember now if I got it or not. I seem to recall having some issues with pressing a wrong button or something. Again I digress. I did finally get to see the reclining Buddha, and I correctly guessed that it would be inside the temple, not outdoors!

Wat Pho itself is also surrounded by other temples and the national palace as well as a beautiful national theatre, but I didn't get a chance to see or photograph those, unfortunately. I caught a cab back to my hotel after grabbing some fresh fruit punch to re-hydrate, and sadly, the cab couldn't take me all the way there. We only got about halfway after 1.5 hours, and because Bangkok traffic is notoriously thick, he suggested that he drive me to the nearest train station, and I take the train the rest of the way back because it would be faster. I agreed, so that's what I did! I had already taken the train out to JJ in the morning anyway, so I was familiar with what I needed to do and which stop I needed to get off at. The traffic really was crazy!

Anyway, I will likely get my photos up after I get back home, but I finally have some decent free time and thought I would post some stories here. The pretext to this is that there also isn't a very good selection of TV stations here in my hotel in Singapore, so I don't have much competition for distractions! ;o) Readers, aren't you happy I value you so much? Tee hee!