Friday, August 24, 2018

Tuk-Tuk, Looks Like Rain

In the US, “Asians are VERY bad drivers” is a pretty widely-used stereotype. In college my friends and I would tease our Chinese friend about said stereotype because he’d gotten more traffic tickets in his 3 years of school than the rest of us combined had ever gotten. In the past three weeks of traveling through Southeast Asia I have changed my mind about Asian drivers. They are the BEST drivers in the world, and I will go to the mats with anyone who says otherwise!

My first daylight exposure to the roadways of Bangkok was a very trying experience. Imagine playing Frogger, but if Frogger had ADD. Frogger knows he should keep hopping his little green butt safely from log-to-log, but there are just SO MANY other frogs, and really fast colorful logs that drive on the other side of the road, and stands of delicious smelling food EVERYWHERE. Thats the best way I can describe crossing the street. I’ve adopted the philosophy “treat every street crossing like it’s your last because you might get smashed by a rogue motorbike and die at any one.”

Traffic laws in basically every city we’ve visited are more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule. 
Rule: Drive in the left lane.
Practice: Drive in the left lane most of the time. But just kind of hang out in the middle unless there is oncoming traffic. 

Rule: Use your turn signal to pass someone
Practice: When you’re getting close just honk the horn a few times to let them know you want to be in front. Usually the other driver will move into the right lane or the shoulder so you can continue driving straight on in the left lane. 

Rule: Yield to pedestrians. 
Practice: If pedestrian A is crossing the street at 3km/h, and pedestrian B is crossing the street at 4km/h how fast does motorbike A have to take the corner to avoid hitting both pedestrian... Meh. They’ll just move. Probably. 

We booked a tour to take us from Pai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos from a tour agency.  For $53 this tour included a 9 hour minibus (11-seat van) ride, the 14 hour slow-boat ride down the Mekong River, one night of accommodation, and 3 meals. Not even half way through our minibus ride the two vans park on the shoulder of a highway and  the drivers start speaking very animatedly with each other. Our driver tells us that 2 people from our van will be moving into the other vehicle and a passenger from that van will be joining ours. When a man that could have been the life-cast for one of the grumpy-old-muppet men walks into our van he is very displeased. He’d made the other driver so mad with his complaining and back-seat driving that the driver kicked him out! When he took his seat in our van asks us “This driver doesn’t cross the double yellow line too, does he?” To which we responded “uuuhhhh... yeah. He does. Literally every driver does.” Angry-muppet-man then starts muttering “It’s not gonna be my life... That guy drives like a maniac!.. bloody stay in your lane...*tsk* *angry huff* *tsk”.!

If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia and you aren’t prepared for some white-knuckle car-rides you’re going to have a poor time. Most cities are very densely populated, and that doesn’t take into account the throngs of tourists. The fastest way to get anywhere is by motorbike. In some of the larger cities there are even taxi motorbikes that you hop on the back of. The second fastest mode-of-travel would be the tuk-tuk. (For those in the audience who aren’t familiar with the tuk-tuk refer to the attached picture.) The tuk-tuk drivers are generally fearless, and if you don’t think you’re going to die once per ride than you’ve never ridden in a tuk-tuk. The downside is that they’re more expensive and basically brand you as a tourist. There are also A LOT of tuk-tuk drivers so they’re always trying to get your business. (After this trip I’ll have nightmares of zombie-spiders saying “hello, lady! You need tuk-tuk? Royal temple, city tour, night market? Hello, lady! You need tuk-tuk?”) Finally the taxi. Cheap(ish) and reliable, a taxi will get you pretty much anywhere you need to go... just a tad more slowly. But they’re air-conditioned, so it’s not a hassle. 

So back to the paragraph #1 stereotype. The yearly death-toll of traffic related accidents in Thailand is 4% of ALL deaths. That is an insanely high number, but it should absolutely be higher. How anyone can drive here without being distracted is beyond belief... I’ve literally seen a person riding an elephant on the highway and not a single vehicle showed to gawk. I think everyone in the US are the worst drivers and we all just need to start taking our DMV tests in Bangkok. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

One Foot, Two Foot, My Foot, Thai Foot

If you have issues with feet, you’re not alone, so does the entire country of Thailand.

The primary religion of the country is Buddhism and as a nation Thailand is unapologetically devout. The monarchy has a history of its kings spending time as novice monks; Rama IV (who ruled from 1851-1868) spent nearly 30 years as a monk before he ascended to the throne. Among the general population it is customary for boys over the age of 12 to spend time as novice monks. The coach and all but one of the boys from the soccer... sorry... the football team that was rescued just completed a week as novitiate monks to honor the Thai Navy SEAL who died aiding their rescue. 

As of today I’ve been in Thailand for over a week and I’ve never been more than a 15 minute walk from a temple or shrine. At this very moment I can see The White Buddha of Wat Phra That Mae Yen from the patio of my hostel. (I can also hear Single Ladies blaring from the kitchens; whether that adds or subtracts from the spiritual reflection is up to you)

“Mandy. This is interesting and all, but you were talking about feet...focus”  I’m getting there, Geesh! 

It is considered very disrespectful to wear shoes inside a Buddhist temple, any google search will tell you this.  Your feet are considered to be the lowest, dirtiest part of a person; pointing your sole at another person or at an image of the buddha is essentially giving them a big ‘ole middle finger. (Seeing my first person flash a sole in a traffic jam was a pretty interesting sight, let me tell you***) At the smaller temples we’ve visited there will just be a sign telling to you take your shoes off. At the more significant temples, such as the temple of the emerald Buddha (the most holy place in Thailand) there are guards checking that you’re dressed appropriately and not wearing shoes. (Temple dress code: no tight clothing, no holes in your pants, no exposed midriffs, no low necklines, and your shoulders and knees must be covered. No shoes! No exceptions.) I’ve never spent so much time barefoot in public. I used to worry about someone stealing my shoes, but then I realized that no Thai person is going to fit into my big-ass shoes! 

After days of walking all over Bangkok and Chaing Mai, and a full 6 hours of hiking around a botanical garden I decided to treat myself to a foot massage. (In Chaing Mai you’ll see a massage parlor as often as you’d see a Dollar General back home.) For an hour long “Reflexology Thai foot massage” I paid the equivalent of $6.00; I figured even a bad foot massage is worth $6.00 if it lasts for an hour!

My friend and I walked into a perfectly normal looking massage parlor. A perfectly friendly woman greats us and led us upstairs. We walked into the room where our massages were to take place and there were 6 cots on the ground with a curtain around each one. There were already 3 people in the room in the process of being massaged. The woman directed me to a cot, gave me a pillow and asked me to lay down. Not wanting to be a rabble-rouser I did as she asked. These are just a few of the things I thought in the 15 minutes I waited for my massage to begin: 

“This.... was unexpected. I might have made a mistake. I probably should have read what a Thai massage was before I paid for one.”

“If I was gonna design a room to harvest people’s organs it would probably look like this”

“Laying down for a foot massage... that’s normal, right?
Then the masseur came in he was carrying what can only be described as a tool bag that made metal clinking noises when he set it down.

“Ooookaaaaayy..... I’m not sure what all of those are for. What is he going to do down there? This was a massage right? ARE my organs going to get harvested?! WHAT IF THEY’RE PUMPING GAS THROUGH THE A/C TO KNOCK US OUT AND I ACTUALLY GET MY ORGANS HARVESTED?!?!” .... “ okay. No more watching Criminal Minds.”

The foot massage was actually more of a leg AND foot massage, which began a whole new spiraling chain of thoughts: 

“I wish I’d have remembered to shave my legs since I’ve been in Thailand...”

“Oh go! I’ve been hiking all day and my feet are so dirty! I have regrets!”

“OH MY GOD! My toe is all purple and pealing from the wart shot I got before I left! What have I done to this man?!”

About this time the leg massage was really getting going. I’m pretty sure dude was using his elbows to work my calves and I don’t even care. It hurt SO GOOD!

All-in-all I spent about 5 of my 60 minutes trying to figure out where to look, another 20 worrying about the fact that I have the feet of a cave troll and the rest was quite enjoyable. That being said... I’ve never been so glad not to know Thai; giving my dude the freedom to talk about my hobbit feet with the other masseurs in the room was the least I could do. 

***That was totally a lie. I just wanted to see if you’d believe me. I’ve never seen a Thai person wave a foot around in a traffic jam, be reasonable!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

With Nothing But The Clothes On My Back

The first leg of the journey begins in Thailand. Estimated travel time: 25 hours. Estimated length of stay: 30 days.

Imagine, if you will, that you're an impulsive twenty-something on the cusp of a quarter-life crisis...what would you do in that situation? Buy a house? Get a puppy? Or maybe your imaginings of this situation include children and you plan a big trip to Disney World. Now imagine that impulsive action goes horribly, HORRIBLY wrong. (If your thing was the trip to Disney, stop imagining... I can tell you what happens. It ends with sick, sunburnt, travel-weary children who suddenly don't like the $40 chicken tenders served by Princess Jasmine. Oh, and those jam-hand little buttheads are also going to be TERRIFIED of every character they see, thus ensuring not a single Christmas card worth photo.)

Since I just so happen to be an impulsive twenty-something on the cusp of a quarter-life crisis I don't have to imagine "my thing". I decided quit my job, backpack across Asia and Europe before going back to school. (I know, it seems terribly "Eat. Pray. Love."). Since I also happen to be an overly trusting individual with terrible luck, I don't have to imagine my thing going horribly wrong....

The most important part of backpacking across Asia an Europe is, arguably, the backpack. A few years ago I invested in one that I've taken on several trips. It is the perfect sized bag; it is large enough for the essentials of a back-country camping trip, but small enough to use as a carry-on during flights. After spending weeks thinking about packing (but only 15 minutes actually doing it) I was totally confident that I had everything I needed to begin my grand adventure.

Per the standard precautions of an international flight I arrived at the airport two hours early. Security was a breeze, I found my gate with no problem, and I got one of the comfortable seats next to an outlet. So far, so good.

When flying internationally with only a carry-on it is VITAL to be one of the first to board so they don't make you check your bag. I was literally the first person in line, that's how diligent I was. Then they finally called for zone two to board I basically ran to the desk, I'm fairly certain some of the college kids laughed at me, but joke's on them because I was going to get to keep my stuff with me.

I scanned my ticket and passport and that was when it all started going wrong.

*obnoxious beeping noise from the computer*
Delta agent: "I need to see your passport again..."(looks at passport, looks back at computer) "Oh. You have a one-way flight to Thailand with a connection in China. I need to see your Thai and Chinese Visas, please."

Me: "I'm not staying in Thailand long enough to require a visa, and I've only got a connecting flight in China, I don't need a visa... "

Delta agent: "If you can't prove you're leaving (motions for the person behind me to start moving forward) Thai customs might not let you into the country. As for China, I need you to step to the side while I look that up."(starts scanning other people through) "

My internal monologue: *no. No. NO! Stop letting all those bags through!*

Delta agent: (scans more people through) "okay,'re connecting through (scans more people through) Shanghai... (He takes a phone call) excuse me a moment...(he grabs the microphone) ATTENTION DELTA PASSENGERS. THE OVERHEAD STORAGE BINS ARE NOW FULL. ANY REMAINING CARRY-ON ITEMS WILL NEED TO BE CHECKED. THEY WILL BE AVAILABLE TO YOU AT YOUR FINAL DESTINATION." (Scans the rest of the people through)

My internal monologue: "* imagines myself on my knees gesturing both fists toward the sky* NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!"

Delta agent: "So it looks like you'll be fine in China. Enjoy your flight, and thanks for flying Delta"
Me: "........................... Thanks."

***25 hours of flying, worrying about my bag, watching movies, worrying about my bag, doing something that can only barely be considered sleep, and worrying about my bag.***

I disembarked the plane at 12:15am, but I didn't get through immigration until after 1:30am. Customs didn't give a fat-guy's fart about my one-way ticket, there were jut a TON of people arriving!

My internal monologue: " I hope that delta guy accidentally puts a red sock in the wash with all of his whites. That'll show him."

When I finally got to the appropriate baggage carrousel all of the unclaimed bags had been stacked and were being guarded by an airport official. After a quick scan I don't notice my bright orange pack. Little miss Lord of the Bags asks to see my checked bag receipt and immediately sends me to the baggage office.

My internal monologue: " this can't be happening. This is a nightmare. Maybe they just put backpacks in here because they are easy to steal.... That is totally a thing a major airport would take the time to do."

Good news: The line in the baggage office wasn't very long. Bad news: my bag was left at the Shanghai airport. Okay news: the nice baggage man assured me that it would be delivered to my hostel at 1:00 the following day.**

My internal monologue: " Yep. This sounds about right. I go through all of that trouble to get my clothes back (I accidentally donated about 90% of my clothes before I left. I got them back, but it was a process, let me tell you!) only to lose them in China!"

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I found myself washing my underwear in the bathroom sink of a Thai hostel at 3:45 in the morning. Because if the universe is going to force me to wear the same outfit for the rest of my life I'm going to do it right!

** My bag actually arrived at 7:00pm the following night, but, as Jimmy Buffet would agree it was probably 1:00 somewhere .