Getting Lost, Wax Monks and the Philosophy of Travel

    Why do we Travel?  —  For me personally there are two main reasons why the thoughts of adventuring to faraway, exotic lands occupies an unreasonable amount of my time. The first one is the idea that simple routine tasks when performed in a different culture/language become adventures in themselves. One of my top inspirations, the legendary Bill Bryson understands this: “To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” The second reason is because I think traveling is hands down the best education out there. Put yourself alone in a foreign city with no understanding of the language, culture or where to go and see how much you will learn about the world and yourself! From the wise words of Mohammed, “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have traveled.” The following story is just the introduction to one of the most raw, incredible, spur of the moment adventures that defines why I love to travel. Here’s the tale…

The northern most province in Thailand and bordering the intriguing country of Burma, the city of Chang Rai was the destination of a long weekend holiday for “Teacher’s Day.” After another bus ride similar to spending 3 hours riding the tea-cup ride at Disneyland with a hangover, Jessy and I arrived in the heart of a night Bazaar. No accommodation booked yet, but we decided to sit down for some food and beers to warm-up as it was actually quite chilly up in the mountains of Chang Rai. As we sat down to watch some traditional Thai dance moves on stage, a couple at the picnic table next to ours asked us to join them. It was a 30 something aged Swedish dude with his Thai girlfriend of a couple months. She was quite intoxicated and couldn’t stop telling Jessy how beautiful she was while constantly stroking her hair. The Swede spoke decent English and I knew one word in Swedish “Skal” which meant cheers, so we got along drinking beers and chatting about travels. I felt like I was doing sit-ups throughout the entire conversation as the Thai girl was absolutely hilarious making me laugh to the point of almost obtaining a six pack. She was telling us that she was the “runt of the litter” in her family, because she was born very premature and the youngest of 8 sisters and a brother. I thought she was just joking around until she stood up and was literally 4′ 6″ at best. This was funny because her Swedish boyfriend was clearly of massive Nordic Viking heritage. We called a guesthouse around midnight, which they weren’t particularly happy about, and grabbed a tuk-tuk to the room.

After a pretty solid nights rest in a gorgeous teak, wooden house, we rented a motorbike to explore the area. We heard about a fabled all white temple that resembled something out of a fairytale and set out to discover it. Despite this temple being one of the most popular things to see in the area, we had quite a time trying to find it. No signs pointing to the temple’s location, so our primary strategy was to just pull over and ask random Thai farmers, construction workers and shop owners how to get there. Unfortunately none of them really spoke a word of English and I didn’t know the name of the temple so it was quite challenging. I knew the words Wat (temple) and Si Kow (White) in Thai and saying this while pointing in random directions with a shoulder shrug was how I hoped to gain some direction. At one point we pulled over to an older boy walking on the side of the road and asked him for help. I don’t know if it was our white skin or my shiny golden hair, but when he looked at us his eyes penetrated my soul with a look of deranged fear and no words were spoken for an uncomfortably long amount of time. We decided to leave him be and thought that he may have been autistic. Eventually a shop owner’s eyes lit up when we spoke English to him and he said “my baby speak English” with a look of pride comparable to having your son win the Superbowl and be elected president in the same moment. Confused as to how a baby would help us, he took us to his house where his 14 year old son gave us good directions.

Bleach white dotted with silver reflective mirrors, this temple was truly incredible. In front of this heavenly looking temple curved two massive elephant tusks forming an entrance. Two pits on either side depicted some sort of hell with arms, skulls and other body parts reaching towards you. Inside the temple was a monk sitting on a cushion meditating. We literally spent 15 minutes or so trying to determine whether this monk was real or a wax sculpture. He was freakishly still and not once during our uninterrupted jaw dropped staring did he so much as flinch or show any signs of breathing. Hearing other tourists say they heard he was real was the only evidence we saw of that being true. To this day I will never be sure whether it was a real monk in the deepest state of meditation imaginable or not. Near the exit to the temple were large colorful murals depicting the apocalypse. However these paintings were clearly made with tourists in mind as they showed ridiculous scenes of Superman and “Neo” from the Matrix intermingled with Armageddon style situations. One section was a monster whose arms were gas pumps smashing into the twin towers with a plane also heading towards them. As we departed my mind was consumed with wondering whether this temple was constructed purely for tourism, or if it ever truly served as a religious monument at some point in time. We hopped on the motorbike and headed north towards Burma, not knowing that the next few days would become one of the best adventures we’d ever had….

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A Levitating Monk Told me the US Apocalypse will be in 2014

Up to this point my blog posts have been primarily centered around partying and hangovers, but today I’d like to dive into something with a little more substance.  The town in Thailand which I lived and taught English was called Lampang in theNorthwest mountain region. On my days off from school my favorite activity was to choose a random road and venture out with my motorbike in search of nothing in particular. One Friday, Jessy (a fellow American teacher at my school) and I set off on one of these motorbike wanderings. Cruising some random dirt roads around the outskirts of our town we noticed a massive white Buddha statue halfway up a mountain in the distance. We made it our mission to find it. After being lost for quite some time we eventually came to an uphill road that led right to the Buddha. It was an extremely steep incline and Jessy was on the back of my motorbike, so when I downshifted to get some more power the bike popped into a massive wheelie for nearly 5 seconds going up the hill. Luckily the bike didn’t flip over backwards as she could have been very hurt! After the wheelie she opted to walk the rest of the way to the statue… The Buddha was about 2-3 stories high consisting of Siddhartha in a Samadhi meditation pose, sitting on top of a 7-headed snake which formed a throne for him. An amazing view back on our city from the statue, we both felt very positive energy coming from the area. As you can imagine our wheelie incident was rather loud so we felt bad when we saw a group of monks and students meditating under the statue. As the class slowly departed, a monk in brown robes as well as a woman and man in all white remained. They approached us and in broken English asked “Where are you from?” They all spoke a very limited amount of English, but we managed to communicate using the minimal Thai I knew combined with pigeon English and hand gestures. He started trying to discuss Buddhism with me, which I had recently become interested in as I found the religion to closely resemble my own personal philosophies. The monk’s name was Jo and he had been a monk for one year, studying in Burma. The following conversation with Jo and the other Buddhist teachers was very difficulty due to the language barrier so it’s somewhat my personal interpretation of what they tried to teach me.

    The man in white was 40 years old and said he had been practicing Buddhism for 6 years. He claimed he was able to levitate and that he had successfully opened his 3rd eye through deep meditation. He said he was able to communicate psychically with the other monk and possessed the ability to visualize an aerial view of anywhere on earth during meditation. His example was that he could see what someone was doing in Washington D.C. at anytime. He also said that he recently was able to see into the future during a deep meditation session and wanted to provide me with some insight on the future of my homeland. In 2014, he could see a massive meteor shower “like the Deep Impact movie” destroying the US and actually sinking the country under water. He keptreferring to Citi Group, GE and the NYSE acting out them all going down. I’m not sure if he was symbolizing a stock market crash or an actual physical destruction of those headquarters from the meteors. He said these events will render the US dollar worthless so money will no longer be important to us. The surviving Americans will be forced to relocate to other lands and 20% would come to SE Asia. The other monk showed me this ancient looking tapestry depicting all the world’s religions. Not really sure what he was explaining with this, but he kept emphasizing the importance of the 3rd eye and the unimportance of money. He pulled a US $1 bill out of his robe and pointed to the pyramid symbolizing the 3rdeye on the back, saying most Americans don’t even know what this is. He gave me a book written in Thai showing the best positions in which to meditate and although I tried to explain I couldn’t read it he insisted I keep it. On the cover was an extremely old and skinny monk who had apparently achieved such a high level of meditation he was once able to transform his body into protons and neutrons and teleport from Thailand to an area near the border of France and Switzerland. He then started ranting about how violent America was and how we are killing and destroying ourselves. I began to take offense to the harsh negative attitude towards my country, however he did make a good point that Thailand focuses on peace and the US seems to invite war. Jo took interest in me and told me to return to the statue if I wanted to learn more about meditation.

I am quite skeptical over the world ending predication as well as human’s ability to levitate, teleport and communicate psychically. However, I do think that meditation opens new pathways of thought and most of us in Western countries have no conception of enlightenment or its value. Considering most humans only use 30% of their brains, maybe through deep meditation we can start to access these other parts, and perhaps some of these “miracles” monks proclaim they can do may be more possible then we think… If you are interested in this type of stuff do some research on the Buddha Boy. A 15 year old kid who meditated for 11 months without moving, no food or water. A large portion of this he was being recorded for a Discovery documentary. Some say he’s the next Buddha some say it’s all an elaborate hoax, read up and decide for yourself….

Leave you with a Quote: “Never think too much about where you want to be and forget where you are.”


Full Moon Parties, Buckets and Ethics…

Is Traveling Good for the World?

This is a question I often toy with in my head whilst I’m exploring new places. Especially in traveling to cheaper places like Southeast Asia. How does our behavior and the money we spend effect the host country? Never more have I contemplated this issue more than the morning after the Full Moon Party in Ko Phangan, an island of Thailand.

If you’ve never heard of the Full Moon Party in Thailand do some research because I’ve done my fair share of partying all over the world and this event blows everything else I’ve seen out of the water. Picture a wide stretch of secluded beach surrounded by jungle mountains on a remote island in the Gulf of Thailand. Now add about 30,000 twenty something year olds, house music that bumps across the entire island, buckets full of hard alcohol (literally), readily available drugs, and everyone with a “this will be the greatest party on earth mindset”. The beach is lined with small bamboo stands selling “buckets” which cost next to nothing and contain a fifth of hard alcohol, a can of redbull and a can of soda. You pour it all in the bucket and suck them down from long straws with your friends. The stands all have really common, traditional western names on them like “Alex” or “Chris”. The idea is that when you are quite inebriated and you see some funny Thai family selling booze out of a stand with your name on it you will almost always go to that stand rather than the numerous others selling the same products. Just when everyone’s booze consumption is at an all time high they bring out activities such as massive flaming jump ropes and extremely sketchy fireworks that often explode far to close to the wild dancing masses. One of the craziest parts is that so many people have completely passed out it literally looks like the Battle of Normandy, with bodies strewn face down all along the beach and people just dancing right on top of them. As the sun rises the music continues to bump and everyone who is still conscious have no intention of letting up. Hazy memories of bleary-eyed dancing with Israeli girls is all you (or me) really recall from the last few hours as you trek back to your bungalow in bare feet, as someone most definitely stole your sandals at some point during the party. As you lie in bed with bleeding feet, your heartbeat continues to bump to the bass of the music that will seemingly never end until you eventually pass out.  FULL MOON TOTAL

In the late afternoon when everyone on the island arises once again, they’ve set up restaurant lounges near the beach where they serve American food and play American TV shows such as Friends and The Simpsons so hungover people can just lay there all day. In no way is this a cultural experience nor a reflection of Thai culture, but it is a really good time!! But how does this effect those living on the island who are not interested in monumental debauchery every night? Thai culture is one of the most peaceful, kind and conservative I’ve come across so what impression are we giving the Thai’s when we come to their land just for cheap thrills? Clearly we are pumping loads of cash into their economy, but is the sacrifice worth the reward? Give me some feedback, what do you think?

The Worst Bus Ride Ever: Hangovers and Forest Fires

The most legendary adventure partner on earth is named Chad (that’s him on the left drinking whiskey straight out of the bottle with a dead snake in it!!). He and I took 6 weeks to backpack through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. On the topic of hangovers, Chad reminded me of an adventure during this trip that makes simple Changovers seem like a Sunday afternoon in the park by comparison. It all started in Luang Prabang, Laos a “mystical” mist filled mountain town just off the Mekong River. After a few days of enjoying this beautiful, slow-paced paradise, we decided to take a mini-bus through the mountains to a town that everyone who visits Laos must see, called Vang Vieng. Here’s the tale….

We woke up a bit late, still tipsy from the night before, with the guesthouse owner banging on the door because our mini-bus came early. Couldn’t manage to get our things together in time so the bus left to pick up some other travelers and came back for us. Not a great start to a long ride as everyone clearly disliked us because we delayed the bus. Luckily this bus only drove us to a bus station where we got onto a new mini-bus that wasn’t full of passengers glaring at us with hateful eyes. Another bonus was we saw a group of three cute British chicks at a waterfall the day before, but never got a chance to chat with them. Fate placed them on this bus with us which made us very happy (partially as we were still a bit boozy…). Despite having great convo with the British chicks, my body began to take a wicked turn to Hangover Land. Although I had been previously warned by a friend to “ABSOLUTELY NEVER BE HUNGOVER FOR THE BUS RIDE FROM LUANG PRABANG TO VANG VIENG”, it happened anyway. All I can say is that it was honestly the best advice ever given to me, as what came next was too awful to even put in words. I was in the very back of the extremely hot, cramped little mini-bus for 5 hours on the most windy, bumpy roads you could possibly imagine. Being violently shaken, I literally had to hold back from throwing up while pressing my face against the glass trying to get my mouth as close to the tiny back window vent as possible, desperately trying to suck in fresh air. Impossible to sleep as my face was being smashed into the window every 10 seconds by a new bump and the mini-bus going top speed on the sketchiest road ever, brief chats with the hot British chicks were the only thing that kept me alive.

Just when I thought the world couldn’t get any worse we noticed a MASSIVE plume of smoke coming from the valley which we were entering. As we drove closer we could see that it was a huge forest fire and as this was the only road, our options were to drive through the fire or return 5 hours (which we probably didn’t have the gas for anyway). Starting to get closer to the fire we could see it was burning on both sides of the road getting dangerously close to engulfing the entire road. A local farmer came up and exchanged some Laotian words with our driver and kept shaking his head. The driver decided to slowly approach to see if the road was on fire yet. Thick smoke began surrounding the mini-bus, and pieces of ash started raining down upon us. The driver slowly moved forward to the point where flames were right near the mini-bus then decided to STOP!? All the passengers started to get very nervous and yelling at the zero English speaking driver to just speed through the smoke as the flames were nearing our vehicle!! He continued to sit as flames got closer and closer and I literally felt like I was in a movie for the most horrible experience on earth.

032811_1825_TheWorstBus3So hungover that I could barely speak, my thoughts were consumed with thinking the end of Alex and Chad was rapidly approaching. Eventually he stepped on it and accelerated through the smoke. Waiting for the explosion I eventually opened my eyes to see that we’d come out the other side of the fire, still hungover but alive nonetheless. We finally arrived in Vang Vieng, grabbed a guesthouse with the hot British chicks and celebrated being alive. The madness that is Vang Vieng, Laos I will save for another story, but to sum it up there’s a river that you float a tube down with an epic mountain backdrop, dotted with bamboo bars offering free Lao Lao shots, crazy rope swings and zip lines.

The Crew that Survived!

Beer is Cheaper than Water. A Gift or a Curse?

So I recently returned from a 5 day trip to Boston for St. Patty’s Day. Just to give you an idea of how the trip went, on our 10:30am flight to Boston our beautiful and amazing flight attendant took a liking to my crew and provided us with free Heinekens and Jack Daniels for the entirety of the flight. The trip was legendary to say the least, but it was definitely filled with extreme highs and lows. My 3 other friends and I were staying in a one bedroom apartment with my buddy and his girlfriend, so we were forced to alternate between the couch and floor. Let’s just say after a full day of walking the city, consuming copious amount of Guinness and dancing to bagpipes, waking up on the floor with a killer hangover isn’t the most awesome position to be in. What’s ironic about this situation is that in addition to being a technical video producing extraordinaire, I also co-own and run a Hangover Helpers business in my hometown. Funny enough the business is designed to relieve persons in the exact same situation I was in all weekend, by providing breakfast burritos, Gatorades and cleaning your house so your entire day is not spent in a miserable state of being. If you haven’t heard of it check out our Hangover Helpers website. Anyway, similar to my last entry my coping strategy with a bad situation is just to remind myself of a time when I was in far worse condition. Here’s the tale…

Thailand is hot, really, really hot. I’m a London born kid who grew up in the mild Colorado weather, so extreme heat is not something I’m familiar with. Now I’m sure most are familiar with the symptoms of a hangover; dry mouth, pounding headache, queasy stomach and an overall sense of misery. Now combine extreme temperatures with a wicked hangover and you’ve got yourselves into what some might argue is a dimension of hell. To top this off there’s a strange phenomenon in Thailand that might seem like heaven to some, but is actually a gift and a curse. Beer is cheaper than water…. Drinking the tap water isn’t something you should do unless you appreciate frequent and long trips to the squatty potty (eastern style toilet that’s basically a hole in the ground). So this often presents one in a situation where its more economical to drink beer. Sounds like fun right? Not necessarily… The most common beer in Thailand is called Chang (elephant). It claims a fairly strong 6.4% alcohol content, however most locals will tell you that in reality it actually ranges between 6% – 10% depending on the batch. In addition, the beer most commonly comes in 640ml bottles which is roughly 2 standard 12oz beers. Now here’s the kicker, Chang Beer uses formaldehyde as a preservative! If anyone has taken a high school anatomy class they can immediately recognize the awfully pungent smell of this awful chemical. I can’t be sure whether it’s the formaldehyde, alcohol content or some mystery ingredient but the morning after effects of consuming Chang are an experience I wish not even on my enemies. The experience is far superior and cannot be classified in the same realm as a hangover, hence the term CHANGOVER. As if this wasn’t enough there’s another phenomenon that contributes to the most wretched mornings imaginable and no joke developed into my worst fear in Thailand. Picture a 100 degree day, drinking Chang and walking around a city. After sightseeing you meet some hilarious travelers and go drink beers and discuss adventures. You’ve explored the city’s nightlife, but over indulged a bit in your Chang consumption so you go to your guesthouse for some shut eye. Because your bed was only $5 it contains no air conditioning or fan for that matter. As you wake up in a massive pool of sweat, with a horrid Changover your overheated brain starts forming a thought more terrifying than playing water polo against a pack of Great White Sharks… There’s no water in your room!! It’s not as if you can merely drag your body out of your room and go lay your head in the sink for a few minutes. You must not only trek back out into the heat in search of it, but when you finally locate someone who sells this rare coveted liquid you will have to haggle them to get a fair price, and most likely the crafty Thai person will recognize your Changover state and drain every baht (Thai Currency) you possess! Please heed my advice, if you choose to indulge in the demon commonly known as Chang Beer, please have a large bottle of water laying next to your pillow BEFORE you venture out….

Dengue Fever, Malaria and Software

I am not a software developer. Never have been and never will be. I’m as computer literate as your average joe, no more no less. However, my job requires me to not only learn some very technical software, but create videos for others to learn how to use it. As you can probably imagine this often puts me in situations where I’m visualizing my computer being punted off the roof of my office in frustration with not understanding an error. Even more to my dismay is that when I ask the various computer science interns in my office what I’ve spent the entire day trying to figure out, they identify and fix my problems within minutes. It often feels as if I ask them “My shoes keeps falling off, what should I do?” and they respond “Maybe you should tie them.” I’ve developed a way off countering my software frustrations by visualizing past experiences in which I was in a much worse situation. Right now I’m picturing a time where I mysteriously encountered a horrible jungle sickness in a small town in the mountains of Thailand. Here’s the tale…

It all started with a weekend trip to a small mountain town in the mountains of Northwest Thailand called Pai. A fellow English teacher and I crammed into a bus and winded up the mountains for the King’s Birthday Holiday. As soon as we arrived we realized we made a huge mistake by not booking a room because it seemed that all of Thailand had also decided to come visit this town for the holiday. Having ventured too far and it being too late to return home we ventured off to every hotel, hostel and guesthouse in the city begging people to let us sleep anywhere. Eventually we realized that everyone telling us “city fully booked” wasn’t a joke. With no tent or sleeping bags we started to become a bit unnerved with what we were supposed to do. This wasn’t the beach, this was the mountains of Thailand we couldn’t just sleep outside on the ground. We decided to just start asking random people if we could sleep with them. Now this may sound a bit crazy, but we were fresh out of options and Thai people are the kindest and most friendly people I’ve ever come across. We started asking restaurant staff if they had any spare place in their home where we could sleep. Funny enough after not too long a Thai lady working in a restaurant felt bad for us and set us up a small kids tent in the garden of the restaurant with a few sleeping bags. (Keep in mind the massive language barrier during this process with sign language as the major form of communication).

The next morning both my friend and I awoke in our tent barely able to move and unable to keep anything in our stomachs. Now picture this, we were not in the woods where we could relieve ourselves in private nor did we have a bathroom. We were right next to the main walking street of the city, so where were we supposed to conceal our stomach ailments that were not limited to throwing up? No more detail is necessary here, but let’s just say it was absolutely horrible. Luckily it was Sunday so hopefully a guesthouse had freed up, the only hard part was that I was literally incapacitated and could barely stand without being sick. Eventually I used all the power in my body to man up and hobble around the town in search for a guesthouse, all the while cursing myself because I forgot my Malaria pills that weekend and there were mosquitoes everywhere. In addition, I had a cousin who was bit by a mosquito in Thailand, developed hemorrhagic dengue fever and had to be emergency evacuated out of the country her condition was so bad. Trying to keep my head straight I eventually found somewhere where we could stay, trekked back to the tent to get my friend who was in the same, possibly worse condition then laid down. I laid cocooned in a blanket for nearly 24 more hours in a cold sweat. As the symptoms began to let up, we saw a spiritual healing place outside our guesthouse. Thinking it worth a shot we drank some of their tea and slowly returned to normal human beings.