On a small island of Thailand exists a festival that can only be described as mind-blowing. The name is the Vegetarian Festival of Phuket where the locals conduct a ceremony to cleanse themselves. The festival lasts for nine days and the locals abstain from sex, alcohol and meat throughout the entire thing. During that time a ceremony is conducted where some of the participants invoke the ‘Nine Emperor’ gods within themselves. In order to prove they are acting as mediums for these gods they perform acts of mutilation upon themselves without showing signs of pain. They walk across exploding firecrackers and pierce parts of their body with large knives, skewers and other household items all the while appearing to be completely possessed. Without any prior knowledge of this wild spectacle and during my very first week in Asia, I found myself amongst the locals staring through clouds of smoke from the firecrackers bursting all around me. Overloaded by feelings of wonder, confusion, and discomfort I squeezed through the crowds of exotic people, attempting to photograph some of the madness. The experience was surreal to a level I had never felt before and although photos are never a substitute for the real thing I present to you the Phuket Vegetarian Festival in one sentence per picture style. (***WARNING*** These photos are not for the squeamish or feint of heart!!)
Wearing mostly white, carrying spirit houses over streets of firecrackers.
Invoked by gods making them invincible to pain.
And causing them to bear no scars from these self-inflicted wounds.
No matter what your belief system, this behavior makes you wonder.
Could it be true?
Would people do this if they didn’t truly believe in it?
It’s impossible to ever really know.
But what does it matter anyway, it’s an incredible thing to see!
First Class on the Mekong
If you want to get to know someone, I mean really, really get to know someone then go traveling with them. When you spend every waking moment with someone day in and day out for an extended period of time you’ve pressed far beyond a normal friendship. It’s like some sort of unromantic, dysfunctional marriage, where you’re pretty much stuck with someone for better or worse until the end of your journey. There’s a point in the journey when you realize that your bond has permanently grown closer than your average friendship and it’s what I like to call the “Dude, when’s the last time you used the bathroom” phase. This is what occurs when you subconsciously begin to take on your travel partners problems as your own. Adventuring in the third world already provides many situations of discomfort, fear and confusion, nothing is worse than compounding these negative emotions with a complaining travel buddy. This means that anything affecting your travel buddy, from slight hunger to traveler’s diarrhea you must work as a team to solve.
With Thailand behind us we cruised in a slowboat across the river to Houxaiy, Laos. Obtained a visa and settled into a smelly, little guesthouse. Laos only has one beer “BeerLao” which is surprisingly better than the beer in Thailand. Consuming some questionable spring rolls and BeerLao’s we tried to enjoy some beautiful scenery through a swarm of nats. The plan was to book a two day slowboat down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang, Laos. We entered a shop to book tickets to find the shop keeper sleeping and some kids running around. The kids struggled to awake the owner who eventually sat up with great difficulty and said he was too drunk then went back to sleep. Spellbound with our first impressions of Laotian customer service, we eventually found a shop with people sober enough to book us a spot on the boat. Comparable to the customer service was the quality of shopping bags in Laos. Shortly after purchasing a bottle of Laos Whiskey the bag just gave out causing an explosion of glass and whiskey all over my sandaled feet. Annoyed for a split second as this was our entertainment for the lengthy boat ride the next day, but then realized the entire bottle cost just over a dollar, so bought a new one. Woke up early feeling great despite the dumpy room, only to find my travel buddy Chad in an uncomfortable state of being. Didn’t realize it until later, but this was the moment where Chad and I moved from friends to travel buddies, for a problem I would normally make jokes about if I was at home made me genuinely concerned. “Dude, I’m still constipated and I think I might have pink-eye” said the legendary adventurer. This level of sharing is normally saved for family and although we couldn’t figure out a way to help the problem, the fact that Chad’s bowel movement schedule was on my mind has to mean something.
Our seats for 11 hours
Told to show up to the boat around 8:30am and when we did, we discovered the 7 hour boat ride did not depart until 12:30. The old, rickety boat was full of small, wooden benches that looked punishing to the behind for the now 11 hour journey. Up front there were a few chairs that resembled a “Fast and the Furious” style car seat. As people trickled in and settled onto the benches we had a brief feeling of Laotian royalty until we were kicked out to the First Class seats and now had the worst pick of the benches. Terrific scenery we ambled down the river drinking whiskey and chatting to some English and Canadian chicks. As day one on the boat came to an end we arrived in Pakbeng a small Laotian village only accessible by boat that marked the halfway point tp Luang Prabang. Got off the boat and climbed up some rocks to enter this tiny village. BeerLao was being advertised everywhere, and we booked a room with two Canadian girls in a ghetto little guesthouse. Grabbed some dinner and BeerLao’s with the Canuks, the power went out halfway through the meal and we had to eat with candles. Now I genuinely love Canadian people, but these chicks annoyed me to an unbearable level. They tried to make it seem like Canadian’s were God’s gift to this earth and American’s were a curse from the devil. Listening to these prideful Canadians tell us how much more open-minded and friendly their countrymen were all the while saying they don’t like people from America was astonishingly ironic.
Beautiful Mekong River
Drowning myself in BeerLao to keep from saying something that would make our sharing a room with these chicks an unpleasant experience we managed to escape and strolled down the only road in the town. We stumbled upon an awesome local fiesta where people were eating, drinking and dancing to a live band under a tent. Purchased some warm beers and mixed right in dancing with some old Laotian women. Had a blast listening to the funny Laos style Karaoke music watching all the backpackers from the boat dancing and mingling with the extremely friendly locals. The combination of the remote village combined with the money being pumped in from a literal boat load of backpackers every couple of days made for a really interesting and fun place. Chad and I joked about staying in Pakbeng and living for awhile selling beer to tourists. Honestly, I was down…
“My name is Alex. So what else do you need to know? Stuff about my family, or where I’m from? None of that matters. Not once you cross the ocean and cut yourself loose, looking for something more beautiful, something more exciting and yes, I admit, something more dangerous. So after eighteen hours in the back of an airplane, three dumb movies, two plastic meals, six beers and absolutely no sleep, I finally touch down; in Bangkok.” (Adaptation of the first line in the movie The Beach.)
In this story I’m going back to the beginning. The first time I stepped foot into the mysteries of the orient. After the longest air travel experience of my life amassing a whopping total of just over 30 hours in flight time and layovers flying from Denver -> Los Angeles -> Tokyo -> Bangkok, I had finally arrived. Unfortunately this wasn’t even the end of the journey as I still needed to fly south to Phuket, an island in the Andaman Sea where I was to receive training to become an English teacher. However with the 30 hours under my belt and another 10 hour overnight layover in Bangkok I opted to find a bed for the night. Anyone whose ever stepped foot in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport can most certainly attest to this, but that place is absolutely nuts. With my blond hair, blue eyes and tan resistant English white skin I might have well been screaming “I’m not from around here, come try and scam me!!!” Delirious and confused from countless hours of the impossible task of attempting to contort my body into a comfortable sleeping position in an airline seat, I exited customs and quite literally became a magnet to Thai people. For a split second I felt like Justin Bieber at a girl scout convention, as flocks of people locked eyes with me and quickly B-lined towards me so they could be the first person to talk with me. At first trying to be respectful, I eventually realized that if I gave the time to politely answer each Thai person trying to sell me tuk-tuks, suits, hotels and massages, I would probably miss my flight 10 hours from now. After unsuccessfully trying to locate a hotel within the airport I eventually gave in to an extremely persistent Thai guy who was dressed in a suit with an airport badge. He told me not listen to anyone else as they would rip me off, but he was official and worked for the airport. Looking the part I decided to follow him as he said he would give me a cheap deal on a hotel room just 2 minutes from the airport, and provide free transport there and back for my flight in the morning. Not really thinking straight I was ushered into an unmarked taxi, speeding through crazy traffic in the middle of the night. Slightly uneasy being alone in some random guys car that didn’t speak one word of English, the 2 minutes quickly turned into over a half hour of driving. With no way to communicate with the driver I just went along with it tightly gripping my backpack and preparing myself for a fast-paced exit if things started going sour. As the taxi pulled off the highway, we entered a series of neon lit alleyways with what appeared to be some sort of brothels aligning the streets. To my dismay we stopped in one of these alleys outside of a dumpy looking motel. The driver just pointed to the front desk and although I attempted to tell him to take me someplace that didn’t look like I would be kidnapped in my sleep, he didn’t understand. The Thai guys has smiles on their faces, but I could sense I was being taking advantage of when asked to pay 1,000 baht for a room. To be completely honest I did not even know the exchange rate yet and all I had was a credit card, but I really had no other option. After I paid I was taken into a room that was surprisingly nicer than I had expected with air conditiong and my own bathroom. Glad there was a deadbolt, I finally laid down in this strange smelling new world to take it all in. Just as my eyes were closing for the night I was startled by a phone call in my room. I picked up the phone and the front desk guy kept saying “mistake, mistake you need pay more money.” Mystified and confused I just played the dumb tourist card, hung up and hoped they would leave me alone. Minutes later pounding on my door and a Thai guy yelling for me to open it. In a delusional, exhausted state of shock I opened my door and the Thai guy led me back to the front desk. They told me they made a mistake and I actually owe 1,000 more baht or I had to leave. I asked how I could leave and they acted out walking. When I inquired why the sudden increase their only response was “mistake.” I seriously contemplated leaving and briefly inspected the dark alleyways surrounding the hotel. Realizing that money is never worth endangering my life, I eventually agreed to pay the outrageous doubling in price and finally get some sleep. Crashing hard I woke up to my first daylight in Thailand where I was provided a free ride back to the airport for my next flight. I never did see the airport offical again and accepted that I had been scammed my very first night in Thailand. When I arrived at the airport I quickly found out the exchange rate and realized 1,000 baht is equivalent to $30 US. So all in all my scam really only cost me $60 which is probably cheaper than a hotel of the same quality back home. The definition of adventure is: An unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.Being scammed and slightly scared during my first night fits into this definition so I accepted it as a learning experience and eagerly awaited my arrival to the island.
A light tingling sensation begins near the junction of your head and neck. As it slowly trickles south down your spine, your senses are heightened and time seems to slow down. The annoying hum of the motorbike engine and your soar butt immediately become problems of the past as your mind enters an intoxicated delirium of bliss. As the seconds pass like hours and you return to a normal state of being you realize that moments like this are what make this life worth living. This is why you ventured half way around the world subjecting yourself to a plethora of discomforts and placing strain on your bank accounts and relationships. You never know when a moment like this will occur and it is not something than can be forcefully obtained. Only during a journey where you really put yourself out there and let yourself loose can a moment of this magnitude enter and change your life forever.
“And me, I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for, cause it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something, and if you find that moment… it lasts forever…” (A quote from Richard in “The Beach.” My favorite book of all time, by Alex Garland. It’s phenomenal and if you have any interest in backpacking or Thailand I urge you to read it!)
So when was my moment? In all my travels I’ve only had a handful, but this one in particular sticks out above the rest. With a stolen map, our motorbike nearly running out of gas, and being lost for hours in a completely unknown world, the day had been quite long and stressful. With evening rapidly approaching we decided to stay the night in this small mountain village as we really had no other option. High in elevation this was the coldest I’d felt in Thailand so I was thankful when my numb hands finally brought the motorbike to a halt in front of a guesthouse. Situated on the tallest peak in the area Doi Maesalong was nothing short of spectacular. A huge temple looming high above the city seemed to be watching over it, and we realized that no matter how tired and hungry we were we must make it to this temple before the sun sets. Opting against the 700 stairs leading from the town to the temple we abused our motorbike once again ascending the narrow, winding mountain path. A slight mist resting atop the green, rolling mountains extending in every direction, time began to stand still. As I felt the slow moving chill down my spine my senses were overwhelmed,and we could barely speak to each other as pulled up to the temple. It’s extremely difficult to put a situation like this into words, but with the landscape and journey leading up to it the moment was nothing short of surreal. Clearly westerners were not frequent visitors to the area as Thai people taking in the view insisted on including us in all their pictures. The two temples at the top both were very different from any I’d seen in Thailand before, and we learned the village and temples were created by Chinese people fleeing their homeland. However, aside from a beautiful emerald Buddha inside, the temples were rather empty and plain considering the difficulty to build these structures in such a unique location. As the sun began to set we took a detour down a dirt road to try and catch the view from another angle. The forest cleared into a huge Chinese graveyard on a steep mountain slope. Very unique and colorful tombs dotted the landscape so we hopped off and decided to walk around a bit. Now I’m not a believer in ghosts by any means, but during my graveyard walkabout I genuinely had a very heavy and haunting feeling as if I was unwelcome in this place. I told Jessy about it and she confirmed the same feeling so we left the area as quickly as possible and returned to the guesthouse. After some warm curry and tea on an awesome bamboo balcony I purchased a bottle of Sangsom (Thai Rum) partially because I lacked adequate clothing for the cold mountain weather and turns out it was the eve of my 23rd birthday. Sipping on some rum to stay warm and wandering about there wasn’t any sort of nightlife in this tiny place. We heard of a morning market at 5am the next day, so very out of character for me I went to bed around 8:30pm on my birthday. With the plan of hiking up to the temple to watch the sunrise in the morning I drifted off to the only TV channel in English, showing a terrible movie about cars that had minds of their own and killed people. Tired and content I eventually crashed with the strange and comforting feeling that this would probably the first time I woke up on my birthday without a hangover, since my discovery of alcohol.
The “dudes don’t ask for directions” attitude cannot be applied to international travel. For those of us interested in places outside the cushy maps of a Lonely Planet guidebook, word of mouth is often the best and only way to discover the unknown. For me personally these interactions with locals are some of the most hilarious and interesting moments during an adventure. You never know what will come out of asking a simple question to a stranger. I’ve been invited to dinner, been offered rides and even taken out to drink beers just from a brief interaction. When you’re traveling never be too focused on the end destination and disregard the journey. From the insightful tongue of Robert M. Pirsing, “To live for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”
Continuing on from my last entry… With the white temple in our rear view we set off toward Maesai, the most northern city in Thailand which serves as a major border crossing/trading hub with Myanmar (Burma). With a decent map from the guesthouse we decided to take a quick detour to what looked like a nearby mountain village called Doi Maesalong. After a few hours of pretty intense mountain driving, we began climbing elevation at a rapid pace. No picture could capture the surreal landscapes of sun-kissed farming villages, dotting the slopes of big green mountains as far as the eye could see. With a passenger on the back, maneuvering my bike up and down very narrow and steep switch backs was quite the challenge. Luckily I already had a few months of treacherous Thai traffic navigation under my belt so I was ready for it. As we passed many poverty stricken communities hanging on the sides of mountains we realized that none of these tiny villages had electricity, running water or even adequate shelter. If there has ever been a moment to capture a photograph so unique that National Geographic would be begging to hire me this was it, so we pulled over to snap some pictures. As we ventured into a village dangling on the side of a mountain two young Thai men passed by on an old motorbike and flashed us the warm, signature Thai smile. We couldn’t help but think how friendly they seemed even though they had so little. As I walked back to the motorbike that had been within plain sight the entire time, I found Jessy quite distraught. In our eagerness to take pictures she had left our map and an IPod in her helmet on the back of the bike, and both had already been stolen! Blown away by the speed and craftiness of the thieves we decided to test fate and enter the village to find the perpetrators. As we carefully navigated through the aluminum and wood shacks there was no one to be found. Taking the IPod seems to me a fairly normal act, but what perplexed and slightly worried me was why the smiling bandits took our map!?
With no idea where to go we continued on for a couple more hours slowly climbing and descending mountain after mountain. With the afternoon upon us I realized the motorbike was steadily running out of gas. The entire day of cruising the rural, jungle filled mountains had not shown us anything remotely close to a gas station so we began to worry what we were going to do. Not only that, but we had no clue where we were going. Here’s a rough idea of my thought process at the time “Where are we? This motorbikes rented and they have my passport can’t leave it… but can’t hitchhike with it…. is it safe to sleep in the jungle… would a farmer let me siphon some gas… oh man this is not good…” Consumed by a new sense of urgency the road turned into a very steep incline and the bike started making noises signaling that it was done for the day. Just cresting the hill the road flattened out and I coasted in neutral past some ferocious street dogs. In the distance a sign said guesthouse and my worries dissipated. An old Thai woman spoke a little English and told us we could purchase some gas just up the street. She treated us to some delicious cherries and Chinese tea allowing us to rest our soar behinds. Three old ladies (one being literally the oldest living person I’ve seen in my life) were sowing blankets, staring at the two strange white people who had frantically entered their village. We thanked the women and puttered the bike to a shop that sold gas out of an old barrel.
Still with no map, but a new air of confidence we continue on our journey. Cruising along trying to guess where to go we saw a large upscale resort nestled in the valley below us. We decided to cruise down and try to get directions. Strangely enough NO ONE spoke any English at this secret hidden hotel, but we were able to obtain a terrible map showing only the major highways in the area (we were on tiny mountain back roads). The map was virtually useless and as we cruised on for some time Jessy and I began to bicker about where we were going as daylight was nearing an end. Driving through the mountains of Thailand as the sun sets sounds like a beautiful experience, but I can assure you its quite the opposite. The most frustrating aspect of Thailand is at dusk when you are riding a motorbike. Unless you are fortunate enough to have a helmet with a glass face protector (not common on rentals) then you will be subject to what I like to call the “sunset mosquito blinding phenomenon.” These pesky little bugs never seem to come out during the day when I’m wearing sunglasses, but the MOMENT it becomes just dark enough to where I take them off, my eyes are bombarded with insects aiming to bury themselves in my corneas… The initial sting of contact is bad, but pulling over and attempting to dig these critters out of the corner of your eyes is utterly horrible! Doing my best to open my eyes as little as possible while driving the motorbike we eventually arrived in a village with a couple signs in English and knew we had reached our destination.
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….