Monday, October 28, 2013

Swimming With the Elephants (No seriously)

Waterfall Fun in Laos and Swimming with Elephants

Trying not to fall off coming out of the water...
Ho Tantor - Bundolo!! as Tarzan would have said. Had one of the most incredible experiences ever today with one of the most magnificent creatures we share this planet with - Elephants!! When the day started, I had no idea how amazing this experience would turn out to be. I thought just riding in the Howda or Saddle on an Elephant would be the coolest thing ever... but it got even better!! I asked the Mahout if I could ride right on the Elephant's back at some point and part way along he got off and let me slide into the driver's seat so to speak.  Of course he still has complete control but you are just riding around up there without a lot to hold on to. It's not exactly a smooth ride and it often feels like you're just going to flop off. I kept wondering how cats land on all fours and could I replicate the feat if I got dumped off somehow. Speculating whether I'd end up like a wad of gum squished on the bottom of his foot. Would he just want to scrape me off?
In the process of standing upright on the Elephant's back.  Gotta get that balance just right..
Where's the steering wheel?
Standing in the falls
Sort of like water-skiing.... well not at all actually. Very fun however you look at it.
I thought we would be feeding and then just helping to bath these beautiful creatures, but bath-time has never been so much fun. Maybe I was just the pool toy for the Elephant. The Mahout gave me some treats and at times while I was riding around in the water with my new giant buddy, she would reach her trunk back and I would feed her some Elephant goodies. They looked like figs, but not 100% sure what they were. The Elephants loved em though. Their trunks are just incredibly dexterous and sensitive. You can reach out with a banana for example and they precisely and carefully take it from your hand. So delicate - tender even.
Feeding time with banana treats after the forest ride. Swimming and bath after this...
The Waterfalls. Empty before bath and swim time. The color of the water was incredible.
I have to catch a plane later today for the next leg to Siem Reap in Cambodia so will keep this shorter than I would prefer. I'll try and add some more detail later, but really wanted to get this out there so I can share how much fun I had and how wonderful these animals truly are. So many things to describe like the texture of their skin, the prickly hairs at the top of their head, what it feels like when they sneeze in your face in the water, the feeling you get when you look right into their eyes. So much wonderful energy there. At least that's how it felt to me. I hope I can do something like this again later in my journey. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

2 Days on the Mekong River

2 Days on the Mekong River Going Into Laos

Nearing the end close to Luang Prabang in Laos
The trip from Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand took almost 3 days including 2 on a boat and overnights  on the Lao side of the border and Pakbeng halfway. The Mekong is a big powerful river that flows faster than I would have thought. There are rapids to be sure, but not the big spectacular kind with piles of foaming whitewater, instead just a lot of volume.
Crossing the Thai/Laos frontier at HouayXiao
Bus ride from Chiang Rai took around 3 hours on a very rainy day. Sat at the back with the door wide open and watched the scenery go by. The fresh air was actually very nice. Got my Lao visa for about $35 USD and went up the hill for accommodations and food. HouayXiao is small and pretty impoverished, but not unlike a lot of little border towns.
Sunset at HouayXiao. and the Mekong River 
Next day they told everyone to be at the office for the ride to the boat launch, but we didn't actually cast off til around noon on another very wet day. There were scads of people including tourists and locals all jammed on the very long narrow boat. Nice to meet and talk with people from all over the globe again. One of the truly great things about traveling.
Suburban Housing - Mekong River Style
Some It's hard to imagine how muddy the Mekong is and how much debris is floating around on it. Lots of sticks and logs like you would expect during runoff and the wet season, but a lot of human detritus as well. We didn't see a lot of human habitation on this section, but the effects of using the river to play trash collector is pretty profound.
Cave and tour boats closer to Luang Prabeng
We got into Pakbeng just around dark and all ran up the hill to book accomodation in the limited quantities available. At least they said limited. I doubt anyone was left out in cold (figure of speech) that night. Next day we all got back into a similar but also slightly different boat and finished the trip in 7 more hours. I think everyone was very happy to get off the boat and out of the cramped quarters. Include me in that contingent. Luang Prabeng is very nice - tranquil and scenic, but I'll write more about that later. For now I'll leave you with one or two more images.

  Next: Luang Prabeng...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Feet Eaten Alive!! (and other miscellany)

Most Deadly - Fish or Feet??

Pirhana Feed at OK Corral
Okay well eaten yes, but not in the way Piraña would. You pay a small amount to stick your feet into a fish tank filled with about a billion little tiny fish and they just swarm the ol' tootsies, devouring any dead skin and cleaning up. Not that my feet need cleaning of course. :-) It's sort of like Nature's own pedicure imported from the Amazon or wherever these little suckers come from. It feels part ticklish and part like a very very mild electric current. If you've ever used a Tens unit on lowest setting, you probably know what what the sensation is like.

It's all terribly civilized. You sit with your feets in the tank and they bring you tea while you watch, read or chat. You can do your hands too, but I didn't really feel the need. My fear of course was that I'd stick my feet in and all the fish would end up floating upside down in the tank from the effects of toxic shock or something. Good news is they all survived and so did I.

This is the famed golden Clock Tower in Chiang Rai. Lit up and very beautiful at night. Hard to get a shot without a trillion cars or scooters in the frame though. Apparently it's against the law here to have a break in the traffic at all (kidding of course). It just seems rare no matter what the time of day or night.

Yesterday I sent most of my climbing gear (except shoes and harness) south to Krabi (Thailand) so I don't have to carry all the extra weight and bulk for the jaunt through Laos and Cambodia the next few weeks. It feels like I'm carrying a house around on my back here. So much junk. In reality it's all needed, but man it feels like I overpacked sometimes. We're still in the monsoon season here so it's raining most every day, but thankfully not all day most of the time. Should be coming to the tail end of it though.

I hope it's dry for climbing in Thakhet, Laos next week though. Would suck to go all that way and get skunked because of rain. It's a long way in too. The crags there look amazing with some huge roof pitches that are within the realm of possibility even for me with my fingers turned to wimpy noodles from lack of climbing the last month or so. Yoga has helped other fitness, but mostly flexibility and the pushing muscles. It doesn't do a lot for pulling muscles and finger strength. Will be fun to see what the effects are though. Tomorrow I leave for the 2 day boat ride down the Mekong River that ends at Luang Prabang. Some time there and then to Vang Vieng, Vientiane and Thakhet.

Me at the Chiang Rai Night Market with a wine cooler in hand. You wouldn't believe all the cool, mostly hand-made artisan stuff available there. The prices are very very cheap and quite frankly if it wasn't for the fact that my pack is stuffed full, I'd probably be buying all kinds of stuff. Shipping home is a little more expensive than I originally thought, so I'll have to use that option sparingly. I sent about 10 pounds of climbing gear to S. Thailand for a about a quarter the price I sent just one textbook and two shirts home.

Above: Beautiful handcrafted wooden wine bottle holder in the shape of a hand for about $14 as an example. Don't be fooled by the Heineken beer bottle. It's waaaaaayyy bigger than your standard 12 ouncer. These are ubiquitous in Thailand. Sort of giant Chernobyl beer bottles. Order one and get five more for free right in the same bottle haha. Okay - tomorrow is the trip to Laos. Be safe.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Tuk-Tuks and Thai Transport

Daytona on the Streets of Thailand

3-Wheel Craziness and Cheap (mostly) Transport 
What do you get when you cross an Ice-Cream Wagon with a Crazed Weasel on Nitrous Oxide and put Dale Earnhart's insane brother behind the wheel?? Well you get the ubiquitous Tuk-Tuk found just about everywhere cheap short haul passenger transport is in demand in Thai cities.  Did I say cheap?? Well mostly yes so long as you negotiate and agree on a price before you get in and speed off into the sunset. Like a lot of places where foreigners bring money and dozy notions that ignore the universal law of "Let's Fleece the Tourists", you can either get a great cheap ride or a surprise price tag. Nothing astronomical mind you, just a little efficient vacuum job on your wallet.

You'll probably pay more than the locals however careful you are or how you bargain, but at least it'll be a little less uneven. Taxis are not exempt from this either by the way. Make sure you have them drop the meter or agree on a price beforehand there too. That won't stop the odd one from claiming the price on the meter isn't the "real" price and adding a few Baht, but at least then you'll have solid grounds for a little creative negotiation. Don't get me wrong, not much here is expensive by N. American standards, so you won't end up wearing a barrel out on the street somewhere regardless.

Tuk-Tuks come in a few other flavors than the more popular 2-seater (well, sitting platform) model. You can get these other contraptions that seat 4, 6 or sometimes more. Like a van that shrank in the wash. Above is the slightly larger version, but still about 14 tons short of the colossal Ram Trucks that infest N. American motorways. A lot of drivers decorate the hell out of there little 3-Wheelers and the Bling can be amazing. Brake lights and other bright Christmas lighting is positioned right behind the driver and in your face so you'll know exactly when they are braking (seldom) or performing nutty traffic heroics. If things are going too slow in your direction, best tactics apparently dictate driving down the wrong side if the road bobbing and weaving around stopped cars and oncoming traffic. No seat-belts allowed so hang on tight kiddies. Gonna be a bumpy ride. Oddly enough, I feel safe riding around in them despite what what we would consider driving insanity. These guys are good.

Above: Drive through snack stand Bangkok style. I'm sitting in a Tuk-Tuk waiting for the light to change while here and there these masked dudes just meander down the middle of the road selling whatever snacks they have in the bag. People buying them so I figure they must be decent. In order to simulate the almost impossible to hear, piss-poor sound quality found in all N. American drive-throughs, the ingenious solution here is to hide behind a thick mask in 400 decibel traffic. Gotta love the solution. Of course the real reason is that the clouds of car exhaust must be absolutely choking to work in. Can't imagine doing that every day. Must be like smoking 40 packs of cigarettes a day. Tough job.

View from the backseat. I need to get some kind of action shots or videos of these guys tearing through traffic like total maniacs. It looks almost lazy and tranquil here. Don't believe it. Forgot to mention that the power plants on these little doogers must be some kind of atomic powered lawn-mower engines on steroids. Sounds like them, but waaaaayyyy louder and my lawnmower never did Warp 5 down the street either. 

Wait a sec,  here come a few scooters...

Lest you think pedestrians are safe on the sidewalks of Bangkok, think again. Motorbikes seem to think they are splendid places to bypass snarled traffic out on the streets. This is a very common sight and it's really nutty when they blaze through sidewalks crowded with vendors stalls, buyers and other assorted pedestrians. Gotta pay attention walking around there. Smaller places like Chiang-Rai are much less exciting from that perspective thank goodness. 

Some tourist Noob sitting in the back of a Tuk-Tuk - wind in his hair, bugs in his teeth and car exhaust in his eyeballs. Shoulda worn shades...  Enough for now. Gotta get ready for next leg of trip in Laos. See you next post...

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Ashram Thoughts and Pics

More from Yoga Teacher Training in Northern Thailand 

A lot has happened the past few days and I will get into more detail about that later. I am still processing much of it so premature to make any kind of editorial or personal comment at this point. First I want to show a few more pictures I took around the Ashram and explain a little about each. The days at the Ashram are very long and intensive so most of the last few posts didn't include much or any explanation.

Sunrise From the Mountain Top
Two days a week, we do a silent meditation walk for morning Satsang rather than sitting in the dark Ashram hall, nice as it is. Sitting cross-legged on the floor for so many hours is hard on the body, so the walks are a wonderful change. Besides, everywhere you go is beautiful, unique and amazing.

Chanting on the Villa Roof
The Clan Elder who actually owns the Ashram, adjoining resort and all the land around graciously invited the whole class to hike up to her personal home (villa) at the very top of the mountain and take in the sunrise from the roof. So all 80 or so of us hiked the long steep road in the predawn hours and plunked down on her roof. She is pretty tiny and and elderly, but also extremely spry and personable. She made the hike up right beside us and at the same pace. I think she's a pretty amazing person and she seems to do a lot for the people in her charge.

Javier, Alex and I (Olivier behind the camera)

Doing a headstand (Sirsasana) on the roof.
Lilly Pads in the Pond. 
Really everywhere you looked up there was incredible. The atmospheric perspective lent it all a surreal quality, like it was painted that way just to demonstrate the effect. My poor photo skills with an iPhone just can't do it justice.

So despite some really great experiences and friends from all over the world. I have decided to discontinue my yoga teacher training for the time being and have left the Ashram. This was a very hard decision for me as I have quite a bit invested in it at this point. I have learned to do yoga poses (asanas) that I could only dream of before coming here, but overall, I found the experience with this particular organization not to be what I was expecting, looking for, or comfortable with. My decision was not based on the long hours or physical aspects at all, but rather on a strong discomfort with their philosophy, what they were selling and how they were selling it. Four hours asana and teaching practice per day out of 17+ total hours was not a good ratio in my opinion. I am not sure at this point whether.

I can say that all the people there that spoke English (from many countries around the world) all felt pretty much exactly the same way I do. I also know that someone else made the same decision I did for the same reasons and also left today. I'm sure it's the right place for many many people, but not for me and I am comfortable with this decision. I will look elsewhere and continue my training at another time and place. Unfortunate, but that is life. I do have a tremendous sense of gratitude for all the wonderful people I have met and become friends with as well as the staff there, despite my overall experience and decision to leave. So now on to my next location and adventure.

Stay tuned for more soon...

Friday, October 11, 2013

Day Off in Chiang-Rai

Day Off in Chiang-Rai

We finished the first week of training and since Fridays are the day off here, a bunch of us jumped on a shuttle and toddled off to Chiang-Rai for the day. When I say day off, I really mean part of a day. We still have 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours training so we're actually 4 hours less a day. Oh yeah, have to be back for dinner at 6 pm and the shuttle doesn't leave til 11am. Oh yeah, did I mention it's a one hour drive each way?? Okay so we get about 36 seconds in town haha.

Nonetheless, you've never seen a happier group of campers in your life. We had about 8 people in my group and everyone from everywhere. Big big smiles the whole time. We all had a Thai massage at the same time which was total fun. Like a row of sausages getting worked over by an efficient squadron of middle aged Thai women who filed in from nowhere after we all changed into the outfits they gave us to wear. They're like hospital scrubs only the pants have a size 120 waist. Too big even for e Sumo. Technique as we found out is to wrap the waist and then bring ties around from the back to the front. Then a standard bow tie. No worries. The little mattress gizmos are lined on the floor with little hospital screens in between. Looks like a bad operating theater. So I figure we're all going to wake up in an ice filled bathtub missing a kidney (kidding) or get the same basic massage. It was fabulous. For only 200 Baht (a little more than $6) we had an amazing hour massage. Incredible.

I needed to buy a new tank top so I could rotate in clean versions for asana practice. It's too hot here to practice in a t-shirt. It just gets soggy and some of the poses either stick too much or not enough. I found a good one and also bought a very cool pair of Thai pants/shorts I can use for practice or walking around later. They roll easily to different lengths and are super comfortable. I'll have to post pics when I have some.

In the back of the multi-person Tuk-Tuk

I forgot to mention that Alex downstairs stepped on a scorpion in the dark last night when he went for a midnight pee. Maybe I better take a flashlight next time. I don't want to experience that very badly. He was lucky he didn't get stung. Anyway, mealtime is over and I have to get back to it now.

No scorpion pics but here are some giant beetles in the mall on display
More Later...

More Pics from the Ashram

More Pics from the Ashram

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Views from the Ashram

Views from the Ashram

This one is going to be a little short on prose due to time constraints, but hopefully I can post some pics of the first few days here at the Ashram. This place is so beautiful and it's amazing watching the sun come up as you go through morning satsang and training.

Pre-Dawn from the practice floor


Crew making a thatched roof hut next door

My dorm room
Gotta run for now...

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Yoga Teacher Training in Chiang-Rai Thailand

Yoga Teacher Training Begins - Day 1 of a Month

First let me apologize for the coming month as I go through Yoga Teacher Training here in the very top NW corner of Thailand where the border intersects with Laos and Burma (Myanmar).  In case you didn't know, this is the where the notorious Golden Triangle is or at least where it used to be. Where drug-lords grew, opium, smuggled it and fought with government forces for decades. Long lawless and dangerous to visit, it is now peaceful and tourist friendly.

I flew in from Bangkok to Chiang-Rai yesterday and then took a shuttle ride into the mountains. Hard to describe how beautiful and amazing it is here. Long views of the valley and perched on the side and top of a commanding hill. The Jungle is just alive and totally verdant. It breathes. If you listen carefully you can hear distinct rhythms in the sounds it makes. There are also rhythms within the rhythms building into crescendos and then beginning again. Pic below is the reflection in the window of my room from the veranda. Views of the valley beyond are magnificent.

Reflection in the window of my cottage/room.

The veranda on my cottage. Amazing views of the valley beyond

Coy pond - some sizable lunkers lurking around in there.

Looking out on the valley beyond from the terrace complex in the resort part
Training starts today, but yesterday I was able to stay in the luxury resort lower down the hill and partake in some things I won't for the next month. Like my own amazing room/cottage, a dip in the Infinity Pool, coffee and a cocktail in the super cool little bar. This morning I moved into a small dorm room with 4 other guys from various countries. Room is comfortable but quarters are tight and I haven't lived in dorm style for a long long while. Will likely take some adjusting and I hope nobody snores haha. No mosquito nets here either so not sure how that is going to work out. We'll find out tonight I guess. I'll wear liberal does of bug juice and consider the situation.

View from the amazing Infinity Pool - very refreshing in the heat too
The practice area at the Ashram is this wonderful covered outdoor platform/temple sort of structure. It's where we'll be spending the vast majority of the time. Sorry I don't have pics yet, but will what I can do as soon as I can. Meanwhile here are a few more..

Some of the stuff you find in the jungle. Guessing WWII vintage, but who knows.
Place is full of wonderful little details, flowers, plants, sculptures etc.

Lots of other cool stuff to show and tell about, but running a little short of time. I will post as much as I can as often as I can, but again, it's going to be very challenging to accomplish during the training period so will see. Replies and comments may be a little tardy as well.

Still need a name for my fuzzy little mascot here...