Monday, August 21, 2017

The Lighter Side of Police Corruption in Bangkok, Thailand

My very pregnant friend, craving fruit in a way that only the pregnant can, managed to convince her husband to take her to market on the back of his motorbike. 
Somehow deciding that their sole helmet should be worn by the driver, the choice in judgement was heavily questioned by the policeman who pulled them over. 
Amenable and apologetic, they paid the fine of 300 baht directly to the policemen, as is the Thai custom.

Thai policeman
Continuing onwards, they realized upon arrival that they had no money left to spend. 
Lacking bank cards, instead of returning home, they went back the short distance to the policeman, nicely approached him, and asked if they could get a rebate on the bribe so that they could afford some fruit. 
He pulled 100 baht out of his pocket, and handed it to them with a smile. 

Even corrupt police are friendly in Thailand. 

 video: differences in police forces around the world

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Kilim Geo-Forest Park on Langkawi Island, Malaysia

the park sign as sign from the ocean
Langkawi Island, an island till covered by tropical rainforest off the coast of Malaysia. The locals are mellow, the island Islamic, and though slightly off the beaten off, if you're a nature lover it's well worth the visit as the island has much natural beauty as well as protected regions, and one the biggest attractions is Kilim Geo-Forest Park.
Take a slow (and fast) boat with a guide down the river and see the mangrove jungle for yourself. From the bat caves (hard to get any decent photos) to the monkeys you might see playing and feeding along the forest.
Check the video below, and then the photos, of what you're liable to find here in a pleasant half day excursion.
Videothe sights and animals of Kilim Geo-Forest Park (see the monkey?)

archer fish- they actually shoot water from there mouths to knock insect out of the air so they can feed
Shoe island- Langkawai, Malaysia. See it? See it???
the spectacular scenery

monitor lizard
an eagle, the symbol of Langkawi flying overhead
the dense, and smelly, mangrove forest up close
slightly common macaque monkey handling a crab it caught

baby faced rock- lock left and bottom jutting out

more rare species of monkey- would blend in perfectly if not for the white faces

monkey up close- has muscles

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Look, Taste, + Feel of Odessa Ukraine

My overnight train pulls into the station at 6:10 AM. I offer a surly cab driver more than he can refuse, though he does initially until I make the offer to someone else.
The farther from the city center my taxi takes me, the more run down the roads, the cars, and the buildings become. The architecture swiftly morphs into pure Communist Vomit, and my hostel/hotel, while getting a decent location rating online, is out in the middle of nowhere, the streets a maze of windy, twisty passageways all alike.The cabbie has troubles finding my lodgings, irritating this unhappy man even more than usual.

I get dropped off in an impoverished neighborhood. No one speaks any English. and I'm no better at reading Cyrillic. There's no reception at the hostel, and no one to let me in. I explore the surroundings in the meantime, the breeze blessing me with the fragrance of raw sewage as stray dogs eye the unusual foreigner walking their neighborhood with interest. There is little if any beauty to be found in this rapidly decaying concrete jungle. Eventually I ask someone to call me a cab, which arrives a good 40 minutes later. I ride back to the center of town, switching hostels.
It's much nicer downtown, although I'm certain that the poverty I witnessed in the outskirts is how most Ukrainians live.
Restaurants catering to foreigners abound, and the architecture in this part of town is largely pre-Soviet, and therefore quite beautiful. A large church acts as my geographical marker, and the surrounding square has children's rides draw which draw me in like the Pied Piper.
"Get off the trampoline!!" yells a woman in Ukrainian, translatable merely via voice tone and body language, "50 kilos maximum."  
Get OFF the trampoline Rich! But I'm not "on it"
Odessa Communist Market
I meet a tall Russian girl , Anna (20), her father ex-KGB. Should be interesting to hang out with. We bring with us Claus, a Danish giant, to insure our safety I assume. Anna wants to go to a flea market. Normally the idea of shopping makes me nauseous but this market is exceptionally cool, a sort of outdoor mini-museum to Communist Times.
Lady selling her wares at Odessa Communist market
I find a plethora of World War II Nazi Germany and Soviet Medals. I pick up an Iron Cross, "Is it real?" I ask the seller, with Anna translating.
"Yeah, yeah, real of course."
Everything about it says it's brand new ... "It doesn't look real," I retort, "The paint, the colors are too fresh."
"No no. Real. Old. Real."
"Okay, you want real?" he calls over to a neighbor vendor, "Oksana, this guy wants real. Show him real."
It ain't easy trusting people out here.
And that goes for me too apparently. Now, I am trying to purchase a cute little backpack for my Goddaughter. The old lady offers it to me for 20 grivnas ($2.50.) All I have are 200 grivna ($25) bills, the largest denomination in the Ukraine. I offer her one, immediately she shies away, telling me she has no change.
Anna tells me the lady is a pensioner, and her income is $100 a month, which she augments by selling her superfluous items on the street. The woman is worried that she'll get stuck with a fake bill, which are common in the Ukraine, and be out 25% of her monthly income.
Eventually she makes change for me.

Just Ain't No Debating
While Claus and I see eye to eye on many subjects, our female companion views the world "differently." We attempt to engage Anna in a discussion about her beliefs that women should largely be subservient to their men, killing is not such a big deal, and that democracy is "unnecessary." While it's interesting to see such a different model of the world, a completely foreign reality, she's also very rigid in her beliefs, Claus and I wave the off-white flag of truce pretty quickly. We're not changing her mind. Change after ossifying Communism, is difficult here in the former Eastern Bloc.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Exhilarating Flight of the Gibbon- the #1 Recommendation of Thailand

a small waterfall in the Thai jungle
There are certain moments in life that we remember with fondness forever. Near the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai is a one of the world's longest ziplines, Flight of the Gibbon.
The natural beauty of old growth forest viewed from high above the ground combined with the exhilaration as you speed, almost flying above the canopy, has the necessary ingredients to create such a memory. 

check out the below video to see why it might be so memorable for you.
Video: Flight of the Gibbon

a zip line sprung between trees in the jungle
By participating, you are helping to preserve the nature surrounding, as the locals profit from keeping the rainforest in tact. To boot you will likely be able to see wild gibbons frolicking in the trees which comprise their territory.
mist coming up from the jungle
zip-lining from tree to tall tree
I cannot recommend this zip line enough. If I could tell you to do just one thing in all of Thailand, Flight of the Gibbon would be it!
the misty forest
the jungle
The waterfall below you can go to after you finish zip-lining. Enjoy your time in the gorgeous greenery.
waterfall at the end of the tour
waterfall of the Thai jungle

Monday, July 3, 2017

Your Two Week Vacation Itinerary for Thailand

Having lived in abroad in Thailand I get many requests for itineraries and advice. Wanting to help my friends (and friends of friends of friends) I have spent umpteen amount of time on the subject, and thus merely wish to write my recommendations here once that will benefit the broader internet.

Here is the first question I want to annihilate: "I'm planing on coming to for 8 days, what should I do?"
A: The minimum amount of time you want to spend is two weeks if you're traveling from America. Coming here for less is a total waste. The expense of the plane tickets, the 24 hour journey from door to door each way, the jet-lag, and then the time returning to the airports when moving around the country, you'll feel positively cheated if you spend less time here.

With that in mind, here is your two week recommended itinerary, with three weeks being preferable.

Day 1- Fly to Bangkok

It might say your flight is 19 hours, it's still 24 hours door to door when you include traveling to the airport, immigration, bags, and getting to your hotel.

Day 2, 3, 4- Bangkok

Getting around in a taxi during rush hour (or worse- rain storm + rush hour) can be murder. You'll want to use the BTS Skytrain when possible. That said, taxis are cheap and efficient, but if you get unlucky, the taxi will take you for a ride.

It really doesn't matter what order you do these in, but I have grouped things together that are Close to one another to minimize the amount of time you spend taxiing about.

1. Silom District--
a) Lumpini Park- see the famed Monitor Lizards casually meandering around the Park as you stroll around Bangkok's most famous green space.
b) Snake Show- Walk over to Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute for the snake show where you'll see ultra-skilled/ brave handlers avoiding strikes from King Cobras. There are also a variety of snakes in cages as well as an accompanying museum. You can also witness venom extraction while you are there. Check the times of the shows here.

recommended restaurants in area: Beirut (Lebanese), Eat Me (fancy Western fare)
Night life: Maggie Choos (famous/ popular bar), Patpong (as Borat would say, "Sexy time.")

2.  Downtown/ Suhkumvit
a) Terminal 21 Food Court- the cheapest food court in one of Thailand's fanciest malls. You could easily eat lunch here for $2 a person, and $5 will positively stuff you. It will give you an idea of how cheaply you can live in Thailand. On the 5th floor.
b) Lavana Spa - There are millions of places to get massages in Bangkok, and most are cheaper, but Lavana Spa is one of the nicest and most professional.
c) Soi Cowboy- probably Bangkok's most famous adult entertainment areas, take a walk along the street and check out the bars. It's an ... experience.

Recommended restaurants: Charcoal Grill (Indian, fancy, excellent,) Marriott Breakfast Buffet (Thong Lo Soi 57. Really high quality, $20 a person, well worth it if you are hungry)

3. Khaosan Road Area (full day)
a) Wat Pho Reclining Buddha- a number one attraction on many Bangkok lists, the Golden Buddha is nearby as well.
b) Bangkok Flower Market - put a smile on the face of your honey buying some freshly cut stems directly from the wholesalers while taking in the rainbow of colors. Best in the evening.
c) Khaosan Road- If you're a backpacker you might stay here. Most alive at night, as long as you're in the area you might as well see it in case someone asks.
d) Grand Palace-  Built in 1782, and home to the Thai King for the last 150 years, the architecture and detail here is really exquisite. It currently has a shrine to the late Thai King who passed in 2016.
e) Taling Chan Floating Market- retains a local Thai flavor despite being a tourist favorite. You'll gain a first-hand appreciation of how some Thais live as you traverse the canals.

Recommended restaurants: Ethos (vegetarian) with a great apple crumble desert. Cheap. Right by Khaosan.

Days 5, 6, 7- Krabi 

Fly in the morning from Don Muang Airport to Krabi, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful places in the world with stunning tropical forest covered cliffs jutting up from an utterly tranquil ocean.

Day 5- Railey Beach area
Get a place to stay in Ao Nang (40 minute taxi ride from Krabi airport,) check in, go to the pier and buy a round trip ticket (10 minutes) for Railey Beach, one of the jewels of Thailand. Make sure to walk around to Phra Nang Beach which I consider even prettier and go for a swim. If you want, there is a climbing school nearby and you can with the assistance of instructors safely attempt to ascend some of the cliffs described earlier. At night purchase tours for the next two days for ...

Day 6- The Islands Tour
You'll get on a boat in the morning destined for several islands off the Thai coast, with the final stop being either James Bond Island or Koh Phi Phi. Both are spectacular and you'll be given the chance to snorkel in warm, crystal waters. It's a highly enjoyable trip and you'll return with photos that will be the envy of many.
You also could rent a private boat and go to Hong Island before the tourists flood the beaches. Some of these islands (Hong amongst them) are Stunning.

Day 7- The Emerald Pool
Choose between climbing to the top of a cliff where a cool Buddhist temple awaits, or take a ride on an elephant. Then head through the jungle on a short walk to the emerald pool which is quite spectacular. Cool off in her waters.

Days 8, 9, 10 - Phuket or Koh Samui 

Phuket is Thailand's largest and most famous island. You can get there by car from Krabi, it will be about the same amount of time as flying when all is said and done.
Frankly I'd prefer you to go to Koh Chang or Koh Kood, but they are so much harder to get to, and you're the one who only budgeted two weeks, so Phuket is the logical choice. There are lots of things to do on the island, and really all I can recommend is that you avoid Patong Beach, which is just a big brothel.

If you chose to spend the time on Koh Samui, you can still fly there from Krabi and spend a day on Koh Phangan which you can reach by boat from Samui.  

Days 10, 11, 13 - Chiang Mai 

Day 11 - Fly to Chiang Mai, check into your hotel, then spend a few hours at Wat Phra Singh Temple, a gorgeous Buddhist Monastery up the mountain which is well worth seeing. Then come back, grab some food and make sure to book an excursion for-

Day 12- Flight of The Gibbon **** (#1 recommendation for Thailand)
the jungle of Flight of the Gibbon, you can see one of the platforms
the northern Thai jungle
Easily the best zip-lining experience I have ever been on. Experience the heart of the jungle zipping from tree to tree. Exhilarating, beautiful, and you're likely to see wild gibbons. Simply the best thing you can do in Thailand. That said it's not cheap (in excess of $100 a person) but it honestly is well worth the money, and it helps preserve the forests as they are. It's a majority of the day.

Day 13- if you wish to spend an extra day here, then go to the Elephant Nature Park- worth the experience.
Avoid the Tiger Kingdom though. Waste of time and money.

Chiang Mai notes- when I first went in 2007 the night market was awesome, with a lot of cool local crafts and art. Today, it's almost all Chinese factory made trinkets and super-crowded. You can find cheap Thai handi-crafts outside the city if you seek them out.
If you wish to spend an extra day/ something else to do, Thai cooking classes are quite popular, or if you're adventurous then do the mountain biking experience. (both bookable with any local tour company)
Make sure to try khao soi soup while you're here, it is a staple of northern Thailand.

Day 14- Fly Home
Fly directly to BKK airport (Not Don Muang serviced by Air Asia) and allow a little time to connect to your flight as you'll have to go through immigration. It will cost you a few dollars more to fly into BKK but you'll more than save that in taxi fare and time avoiding Bangkok's infamous traffic.
Fly home and enjoy the jetlag.

Notes: if you are a nature lover and have extra time I highly recommend a trip to Erawan National Park and the more hidden Maekhamin Waterfall + National Park. This is nature in SE Asia at it's best, and you can swim in the pools around the falls. A lot of fun. They aren't the easiest to get to, but well worth it.
Enjoy your trip. Have a comment/suggestion enter it below!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Cherry Blossom is in Full Bloom- Stunning photos of Japanese Sakura

Each year the sakura (cherry blossom) is celebrated in Japan, a tradition dating back thousands of years, signaling the beginning of spring, a time of renewal and optimism. Their short lived bloom, representative of the fleeting beauty of life.

cherry blossom in full bloom
Groups of people gather round the budding trees to eat, drink, and socialize with another, an occasion known as "hanami." In a culture where interaction is generally stilted, especially amongst those unfamiliar, the sakura acts as a bridge of engagement.
Yes, and when they are they are stunning

To stand in the midst of sakura; one's mind disappears into the gaps of thought as focus shifts to the delicate beauty around you. 
An electric feeling of awe might infuse your heart and spirit from this meditative experience. 
cherry trees in Kyoto with temples in the background
If you seek a moment's inspiration, might I suggest visiting Japan in early April- the season of the Sakura.
it's early spring, and other trees are barren- which makes the bright pink stand out
cherry blossoms at night lit up in Kyoto
Philosopher's path in Kyoto
colors which help counter the grey skies on Kyoto streets
the beauty of cherry blossoms up close
cherry trees on the river bank at the base of the mountains surrounding Kyoto

Video: cherry blossoms in Nara Park
beautiful girl under weeping cherry blossoms
The sakura has special significance for me as it is amidst them, the branches from the tree inches above our boat, that I asked this beautiful girl to marry me. The answer was yes. It's easy to get inspired.
Most canals in Kyoto have blooming cherry trees at the start of April
a cherry tree weeps over Japanese graves
a stellar tree in a Kyoto park
my pretty girl whom I love so much
brilliant colors of Japan in the early spring

a weeping cherry tree in full bloom over a rock garden
pink cotton candy under a blooming cherry

Also, check out the South Korean version of Sakura season at my friend Mike's blog. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Are Japanese the Most Polite People on Earth? Omotenashi is the Answer

Chidorigafuchi park/ Moat- cherry blossom season Tokyo
Unrequested help at the Store
We've read you can purchase tickets to the Nippon Professional Baseball League at 7-11. The clerk doesn't understand a word we utter, but a younger Japanese woman behind us responds affirmatively with one word of broken English, "Yes," then leads us by the hand upstairs to the automated kiosk. But does she stop there? Noooooooooo, this is Japan, thus she navigates us through the hieroglyphics, translating as she punches the buttons for us, insuring we get our exact desires. About seven minutes later, we have tickets for tomorrow's Tokyo Giants game.
(Editor's note: "Noooooooooo" is almost always sarcastically negative, not this time)

Based on her blushful, embarrassed reaction to my thanks, I'm concerned If I tried to tip her she might suffer a heart attack. Not wanting to be arrested for murder, I decide to save some money.
The likelihood of a complete stranger overhearing you, and volunteering to spend 7 minutes of their lives performing the identical task in the city of Los Angeles- approaches zero (mathematically speaking.)

The Taxi
uniformed white gloved Japanese taxi driver
The taxi door automatically swings open, the immaculately dressed driver's pressed uniform includes white gloves. Deferential and accommodating, he respectfully bows his head and thanks you after receiving his exact fare. While Japanese find tipping confusing/uncomfortable, failure to tip an American cabbie will often result in him spitting swear words into your face.

Make it Seen
At a Kyoto Temple, I drop my wife's sweater to free my hands to take a photo. After several shooting angles we walk away, leaving it on the ground; ten minutes later she feels a chill. I race back up the trail, scanning the ground, huffing and puffing, doubting I'll find it. To my surprise it's in the most visible place imaginable, nearly eye level on the gate!
Someone picked it up, and intentionally put it in a location the poor sap who lost it would be most likely to see it. Talk about thoughtful. Time and time again, similar occurrences play out.

Sparkling Streets
The streets of Tokyo are as clean as Singapore's, but unlike the harsh penalties used by the SE Asian island nation to discourage litter, Japanese are taught early and often to pick-up after themselves; littering laws are unnecessary.

Deeply embedded into Japanese culture is "omotenashi-" exquisite politeness with a desire to maintain harmony and avoid conflict.
The needs of an individual are subservient to those of the group/ society at large. No one will push you out the way or cut in front of you. Japanese never brag, especially about themselves. You'll rarely, if ever, witness a public disagreement. No one will rev their Harleys in the middle of the night (please commit hari-kari if you do;) as such behavior is simply at odds with the culture.
While other cultures are of the world are quickly becoming homogenized, Japan remains an island of propriety and self-sacrifice in an ever rising sea of selfish deuchebaggery. When it comes to politeness and hospitality, the land of the rising sun wins the gold, and it's not even close. Take a bow, Japan. 
Video: My omotenashi- honoring Japanese deer ancestors

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Maekhamin Waterfall + National Park- the Hidden Jewel of Thailand

welcome to Maekhamin Waterfall

A couple hours away from Erawan Falls, lies Maekhamin Waterfalls. Again, for nature lovers, this is a must visit, but has the advantage of being far less crowded than Erawan. Rent a car and get there, it's stunning and gorgeous, and dip off in the pools. 
There is little to any English spoken in the area, and there are no ATM's so make sure you bring enough cash. That said, the area is cheap and inexpensive, and is a great experience. 
Watch the video below and sift through the photos to get an idea of the area's beauty. Enjoy! :)

Maekhamin Waterfall- all levels of the falls: National of park Thailand

small waterfalls at the upper levels of Maekhamin
a gentle flow down
  the thick jungle around the Maekhamin Falls
the thick jungle around the Maekhamin Falls
large funnel web spiders wait for you if you misstep in the SE Asian jungle
large funnel web spiders wait for you if you misstep in the SE Asian jungle
Ellie sits on a branch cooling her feet in the water below
Maekhamin Falls
Maekhamin Falls
so beautiful here
light blue water of the Thai Jungle
the water looks like a mirage- such gorgeous colors
mesmerizing and gorgeous
mesmerizing and gorgeous
a great swimming hole :)
a great swimming hole :)
if the mosquitoes attack, dive into the water
if the mosquitoes attack, dive into the water
under the jungle canopy
under the jungle canopy
gorgeous ey?
Love this place
The sun sets over a large lake nearby