these here are the tales of...

Belarus (2) Canada (7) China (2) creative (4) Czech (5) dance (4) design (1) Egypt (3) Estonia (3) family (10) festivals (2) health (6) Indonesia (1) inspiration (14) Japan (2) Korea (1) language (11) Lithuania (1) London (2) nature (24) philosophy (6) photos (8) politics (5) roadtrip (4) studies (8) sustainability (8) Taiwan (38) teaching (5) Thailand (9) Turkey (2) video (3) wisdom (3) workie (2) yummm (6)

HOME - an amazingly beautiful wake up wall to what our planet is facing

HOME - an amazingly beautiful wake up wall to what our planet is facing

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Whenever I've paused to examine them, I've always found life's building blocks -- relationships, habits, my image, lifestyle choices, even reactions and perceptions -- to be determined early on in their existence. After a few trial runs, which are played out largely unconsciously as they join the flow of time, hereafter and forevermore there is a lot of solidified, predetermined aspects to what will transpire, or rather how I will behave in any given situation.

I meet a new person, we talk about this or that, or perhaps have very little to say to each other, and already the course of our interaction is set for... well... maybe the remainder of our lives. I get a haircut, style it a certain way and it's a likely gamble it'll look very similar until a radically creative moment or an inspiration for a new 'do.

Some people who know me well enough are likely to observe that this sounds bogus and very little of my life stays the same. I change locales and so jobs, homes, phone numbers and social circles more often than the US government declares a new terrorist-harboring enemy. Well, these observers would be right. But isn't that just another habit of mine that's ingrained and likely to persist until I (or some higher powers via a mediating event in my life) will decide to take root in something more lasting?

The truth is, I'm great at beginnings. I ooze with good ideas and awesome visions and can rally myself into wild and new experiences when others are too comfortable in their familiar setting to toss it all away on a whim. I start projects, learn the basics of a musical instrument, find my "dream job"... But then the excitement peters out and like a New Year's resolution, the new thing becomes the old thing that falls by the wayside as another opportunity glistens on the horizon. I'm the same with writing a first draft and then feeling a mix of boredom and fear about settling down to the refinement of my prose towards a higher destiny. Often, I just can't be bothered.

So with this in mind I dedicated a full 7 days to a juice cleanse. About 10 brave fabulous souls (Rich included) bonded in this experience. We began our mornings with yoga, drank juices and whole food supplements 5 times a day and convened in the evenings to meditate and discuss the process, with frequent trips to the loo flushing toxins out of our spring-cleaning bodies.

I am a huge believer in the philosophy that our body, mind and spirit are very closely interwoven. As I took a break from the comfort and distraction of food and worked harder than ever in my asana practice, I held on closely to a hopeful vision that some of my solid ways of thinking and being are becoming more flexible and shifting towards a spontaneous happy freedom of embracing each moment as it unfolds.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A word about Politics...

It seems our visit to Thailand has coincided with a flurry of political unrest and restructuring of government.

On our first evening here, I read an email from my Dad who checked into advisories for travelling Canadians and found out there had been demonstrations and several airports closed by protesters entirely unhappy with their Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. Amazingly, we had seen a complete lack of any out-of-the-norm events or behaviour while extensively touring Bangkok that day. That same week, a state of emergency was declared in the capital after one man was killed in clashes between pro- and anti-Government protesters. Also members of the latter group had barricaded themselves inside Government House. At this point we had already travelled north, but I think it would've hardly mattered - except for newscasts and parental warnings, everywhere we went it was business as usual.

Making a point of following the events, we found out that General Anupong Paojinda appointed by the PM to oversee the country during the state of emergency politely refused to follow his orders as he was certain that the army's involvement would only escalate the situation. Newspapers hinted that the General also sided with the anti-government group's (People's Alliance for Democracy) position that the Prime Minister "bought his election by duping poor, ill-educated, often rural voters and that he should therefore resign." Mr. Samak continued to experience high government officials refusing to follow his instructions, although a few promised to support him unfalteringly.

Last week his downfall climaxed when Mr. Samak hosted a cooking show, which was reason enough for the constitutional court to force his resignation, as it is forbidden for a Thai PM to be involved in business. Mr. Samak was re-nominated for the position, but three days later even his party withdrew its support. His newly voted-in successor Somchai Wongsawat is from the same (People's Power) political party and is a 61-year-old judge who is considered to be a conciliator by some. However, protesters continue to express their disapproval as Mr. Somchai is married to the sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 coup amid corruption allegations and is believed to have a puppet-master influence over his followers.

Whew... enough excitement on that scene... Our recent stay near villages in Northern Thailand also turned up some pretty disturbing bits of history. There are dozens of hilltribes in Thailand, Laos, Burma and Vietnam and to the unassuming traveller they seem like peoples who have maintained their traditional ways, sell wonderful handicrafts and are sometimes used as a tourist gimmick. But shady details float up about refugee camps whose inhabitants cannot leave, tribes without land ownership or other rights, suppression of indigenous culture with tactics ranging from intimidation to outright genocide and Christian missionaries who inundate the young with their dogma and agenda, stripping local customs, language and healing practices for all the usual excuses of it equating to devil-worship while they bring higher learning. That certainly made me think twice about ever donating to World Vision Youth. I won't even go into the opium and heroin trade history fueled by aggressive power struggles of Shan and KMT army factions, as frankly I don't know enough about it.

The world seems such a troubled place and even in this wonderful country underneath the surface not all is calm and well.

On a lighter note, the Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej is currently the world's longest-reigning head-of-state and a highly revered figure to the Thai people. Some interesting Wikipedia facts about the Thai king: he is one of the richest men today, has funded over 3,000 development projects, born in US and mainly educated in Switzerland, he is an accomplished musician, artist, and sailor and I've been told up to 20% of the country's population wear yellow on Mondays symbolizing their devotion and this figure quadruples during his birthday celebrations. Although he is a constitutional monarch with no formal political role, he is "regarded as a key to Thailand's stability and in his six decades on the throne has stilled bloody uprisings, weathered military coups and has reigned through scores of governments, democratic and dictatorial." Long live the wise king and may his people prosper!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Tea, fish and water, water, water...

Another action-packed day for the AnafunaRichsta intrepid duo! Despite a night of tossing and turning, no thanks to funny-shaped pillows, we were up just past 6am to catch the Morning Market of Mae Hong Son. Our guidebook said it’s a good place to spot hilltribe peoples and although everyone looked fairly ordinary to me, we poked through friendly stands of produce and crafts and had a fabulous local breakfast of noodles, savoury custard and about a dozen spoonfuls of various spices and sauces all mixed together and eaten in Thai style: using a fork, or in this case chopsticks, to place the food on a spoon – which is the only cutlery sanctioned to enter the mouth.

Next we rented a motorbike for the unbeatable price of $5 for 24 hours and set off for the hills. Our first destination was in fact the end of the line of a mountain highway that snakes up and north from Mae Hong Son. Its final reach is to the village of Ban Rak Thai, settled by refugees from the Yunnan province of China. Nowadays they peacefully grow 40 kinds of tea around a small lake and that’s just where we passed a breezy rest stop, sipping on oolong, dew and ginseng teas from tiny china cups decorated with cartoon elephants and cats.

Winding our way back down the mountain, Rich impulsively turned into the Maehongson Bamboo Complex, which was a green sanctuary of lush plants, bridges of bamboo lashed with rope and meandering paths leading nowhere fast. A flock of colourful chickens and roosters led us to a tiny museum visually praising the many uses of bamboo such as furniture, hats, baskets and the like.

Lunch stop at Pha Seau falls. We've been looking for waterfalls for days and this one was gorgeous! Three chutes of water toppling over an 8-storey precipice of black rock. As if to emphasize the power of the water element, the skies opened up in a short mid-day burst. Back on our motor steed, glimpses of mist rising from rain-kissed mountains dazzled us through the trees.

Just as we were packing away our ponchos, the rain snuck up again. We donned the cheap plastic covers and in minutes were whizzing through a true “shower”, raindrops stinging our faces as we sped on in search of the Fish Cave. Taking a wrong turn, we played charades through sheets of water with a Thai family safely dry in their house, trying to act out “fish cave” for directions. They finally lit up at my Winona Ryder’s impression of aquarium dwellers from “Reality Bites.” We sped and parked just as the last drops faded away.

The Fish Cave is another tranquil spot where a few sub-species of carp grow to impressively large size thanks to tourists feeding them bags of stale veggies sold by smart local entrepreneurs and the fact that these fish are considered incarnations of gods and so entirely off-limit to being caught or [gasp] eaten.

Home past emerald green rice paddies, stopping for photos. With all the rain to feed them, no wonder they’re such a brilliant green!

Our plan for a sunset view from a hilltop temple was washed down the drains with the wildest torrential downpour we’ve seen yet! Luckily we were indoors gobbling down a spicy Thai soup specialty when the rains returned. It was kinda exhilarating watching all that wetness descend from the sky! The best part is even when we get wet here, it’s still quite warm and hardly uncomfortable, giving us all the more reason to play with Miss Nature herself.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Caving and Scaling

On a whim we decided to leave the highway well travelled and after a 9km motorbike taxi ride from Soppong have landed at Cave Lodge, lured by its rustic bamboo lodgings, proximity to a dozen caves and opportunities for traditional weaving and cooking classes.

Day 1
We arrive in the afternoon, check into a wee little room most of which is a bed with a mosquito net and set out, map in hand, to see the twilight “bird show” outside of the area’s main cave. By the riverside we find sheets of drying mud peeling from the sandy soil below and a pretty grasshopper with blue wings.

The river flows through Tham Lod (meaning “through cave”) and must be navigated on a bamboo raft. We opt for the DIY overland option, traversing the hill, which is in essence the cave’s curved back. Climbing the red clay path, leaves the size of dinner plates litter our way and in the steeper parts steps are hewn into the earth.

A sign announces a temple and beside our path a stone stairway leads to a wooden door in the rock wall above – meditation caves for the monks. We continue past emerald rice fields and suddenly meet the river flowing out of the yawning mouth of the cave. Above us hundreds of black fork-tailed swifts are weaving a complicated dance in the air, their calls and flap of wings rivalling the river’s constant gurgle.

Inside thousands more birds are wheeling to and from their small nests. Apparently they navigate by bouncing sound off the inside surfaces, but if any should collide and fall into the river, its carp inhabitants will gobble up a bird in minutes! The walls and ceiling are sculpted by water’s erosion and subsequent deposit of limestone particles. As we walk further in, the darkness and stench of bird droppings grow and by the time we’re climbing the ladder to the viewing platform I’m slightly dizzy and imagining unsavoury creatures slithering at us from the shadows, but my determination for pictures bravely perseveres.

Back out in the clean air the storm that’s been calling from nearby finally breaks over us and thunder rolls for long seconds as if a heavy iron vase was dropped down some stairs. We retrace our steps, grateful for our 80-cent plastic rain ponchos, through the forest and past the Shan village houses, many of whose shingles are layers and layers of large leaves sewn together with long grass.

By 8:30pm our lodge grows still and we both dream incredibly bizarre stories as frogs and insects call to each other in the raindrop-filled night.

Day 2
The morning is gorgeous and hot. We strike out for Big Knob, a huge rocky outcrop dominating the landscape. At the last moment we’re informed there is no particular path up to the top, rather we must find our own way. We start off following a well-trampled line, but soon it’s only narrow animal trails until we lose even those in the lush vegetation and basically clamber up as best we can. I state my astonishment at repeatedly finding myself on hikes I would probably entirely avoid if I knew what I was getting into. Rich totally loves the adventure.

The clear path-animal trails-guesswork scrambling cycle is repeated many times until we rest near the top. Off to one side a steady cowbell announces just how it’s all another day’s work for the locals. On the incline above us I hear crashes through the brush. Big Foot? We did see some undefined footprints in the mud earlier on. As I’m looking up towards the sound, the ridge’s trees are swaying and suddenly a brown shape swings through the foliage. Monkeys!!! Suddenly we are like kids, elated at this gift of an encounter. We watch for a few minutes, my sucky attitude forgotten. Once they are beyond our sight, I’m perfectly happy to soldier on up for the chance to see something more.

No matter how quietly we attempt to ascend, I’m sure we are announcing our presence to them like a steady broadcast. At the top the only life are hidden chirping birds and insects, but we find ourselves amidst a scattering of black boulders, worn away to whimsical shapes and seeming like a perfect setting for an ape tribe to hold their secret meetings, à la Jungle Book Mowgli stories.

The sky rumbles again and starts to pour. Time to descend. We scamper past snails with spiky shells, an unsettlingly long curled-up millipede, spiders and webs of various designs, a few stick insects and beetles and butterflies and ants, a tree well and a rock flashing us the biggest lopsided grin from the hollows on its face. Walking back through the village with its laundry flying like prayer flags from house railings, our mud-caked legs and shoes coax a smile from each local we pass on the way.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand is cooler and much rainier than the South. Aaah, Vancouver prepared me for this. In fact, it’s a nice change from the unrelenting heat of Bangkok and I’m getting to use my layers for the first time since Czech Land.

Chiang Mai was the first stop on our tour. Our main reason for coming here was to research its Thai massage schools, as it’s pretty much the country’s headquarters on the subject and we will commit ourselves to a comprehensive program that will prepare us to practise and even teach professionally. It’s really between two schools – the fun and lively Institute of Massage Training or the more formal and serious Thai Massage College. Either way, we have some months to decide as we are planning to come back in April after a stint of teaching English to plump up the ol’ bank accounts.

In Chiang Mai’s old quarter (ringed by a moat with spouting fountains), you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a guesthouse, Internet café, restaurant, food stall, Thai massage spa, laundry service or motorbike rental shop. It’s a backpacker’s haven and a high proportion of the city’s population are travellers and ex-pats. One wonderful side effect of this has been a flourishing vegetarian trend on restaurant menus. There’s suddenly an abundance of dishes besides Phad Thai that I can order and thoroughly enjoy! Mmm… The ex-pat culture also brought a number of used book stores, yoga studios and there’s even a welcome group for anyone looking to make Chiang Mai their home. I think we’re going to enjoy our extended stay here.

In the meantime, we’ve pushed further north. Hearing much (from encouraging to lamenting) about the town of Pai we came to see for ourselves. Here the backpackers seem to number at least a third of the population. I can barely imagine what it’ll be like once the season picks up. However, guesthouses and food are cheap, people are friendly and we’ve taken the opportunity to meet our first elephant.

This is Pa Nuat who’s reached a ripe wise age of 35, loves fruit, peanuts and sugarcane stalks and is well taken care of by her conscientious owner Chitty.

Thailand seems to be a dog country. Sure, people also keep cats, chickens, cows and even elephants. (Surprisingly, I’ve only seen one pig and heard another couple from behind a fence… Somehow suspicious for a culture that consumes pork at nearly every meal… Perhaps they are going extinct…) But back to the pooches. They are everywhere, usually in packs of 2-4, inevitably lounging smack in the middle of the road where vehicles have to swerve or lay on the horn to get a right of way. Rich figures it’s the local form of canine machismo, a sort of lazy courtship display, the dogs’ version of leather-jacket-wearin’ cigarette-danglin’ casually-leanin’ rebel without a cause. It says to any female in sight: “Hey Baby, did you see that truck get out of my way? That’s right, you know what I’m talkin’ about.” And so forth.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Temples, temples everywhere...

The ornate gates and many-tiered roofs with leaping flames, the demon guardians, the sumptuously gleaming decor, the Buddha images and the subtle donation boxes: all these comprise a temple and are incredulously frequent, which I suppose is a sure sign that we've arrived in South East Asia. Would you believe that in the old walled city section of Chiang Mai a humble 1800m by 2000m in area there are no less than twenty two individual temples?? But I am getting ahead of myself...

90-95% of Thai people subscribe to Theravada Buddhism beliefs and philosophy. The remaining are Mahayana Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, etc. Needless to say, images of the Lord Buddha are numerous if not all that varied, but there are certainly all kinds of other deities worshipped throughout the land. Several Hindu gods boast shrines, Brahma the Creator's Erawan shrine in Bangkok, for example, is said to be the fastest of all to grant a wish. Erawan in fact means elephant, and these are permanently married to Thai culture, art and symbolism and so it's no surprise that Lord Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles, is also ubiquitous on altars and in relic shops.

Miniature shrines or temples called spirit houses are placed beside every home and building. This is a hold-over from the times of belief in animistic spirits, which are much more unpredictable and moody than their major-religion counterparts, and must be supplicated in order to assure their benevolent mood. The spirit houses are abodes for those spirits who were displaced by the construction of a man-made structure. Apparently to properly honour the spirits, any improvement or renovation of the human dwelling must be matched accordingly in the spirit house.

Our first real tour of the temples began at the Grand Palace in Bangkok - once the royal residence and now the recipient of an endless stream of foreigners and Thais. All spend their visit gazing in wonder at the lavish wealth and detail on every surface of the many structures such as stupas, halls, sculptures, carvings, even a replica of Angkor Wat. The main attraction within this multitude of masterpieces is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, not so grand in itself but housing the country's most revered statue of the Buddha -- 45cm tall and clothed in garments changed for each of the rainy, hot and cool seasons.

Next was Wat Pho, one of the oldest and largest temples in Bangkok, the site of Thailand's first university and the birthplace of instruction in Thai massage. The complex is home to over a thousand Buddha images collected mainly from ruined temples of the former capitals Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. The most famous of the images is the Reclining Buddha, illustrating the sage's passing into nirvana. The gold-plated statue is 46m long and 15m high. The feet alone are 3m each in height and inlaid with mother-of-pearl in the design of 108 auspicious characteristics of the true Buddha.

After five days in the Thai capital, we boarded a 12-hour train to Chiang Mai, the second biggest city and mecca for studying the ancient healing form of Thai massage. We chose to travel in the daytime to catch the countryside rolling by. Our departure from Bangkok was alongside slummy dwellings and scary, dirty water... then masses of uniformed schoolchildren milling about on a break. Right out of the city, the emerald green of rice paddies dominated the landscape, often with scores of storks and occasionally relatives of the water buffalo in the flooded low plains. Palms of various shapes and sizes and trees so overgrown with leaves and vines they looked like green creatures ambling beside the train. Now and then a farmer trod along with his small herd of cows, lean and of the type whose hyde hangs down from their bodies. Mountainous hills sprang up from the earth and guided us north, their dark grey shapes sometimes to the west and sometimes to the east of our rambling carriage, and when they moved in I was amazed at the lush cover of plants and foliage all along their sides.

Every settlement boasted at least one temple and then suddenly I looked up and yelped in surprise at an enormous golden Buddha statue seated on a temple roof several kilometres away. We saw his twin sheltered in a temple courtyard further along the track, and then a third gleaming giant figure, this one high up on a mountain side, adding his mysterious Mona Lisa expression to the Land of Smiles.