Pairadise

27 Dec

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It has been over 9 weeks since I arrived in Pai. It is almost futile to describe the depth of love I have for my surroundings. The river, mountains, waterfalls, and people, all glisten brightly under the sunny blue heavens. Common Grounds, the hostel where I work, is more than just a guesthouse; it has become a community of likeminded travelers. In many ways, I am like a bystander at a parade; the people come and stay and then go on with their adventures. The unfortunate aspect of my circumstance as a bystander is that the wonderful interactions that I have built with many of our guests, although forever lasting, seems too short.

Seldom in life do you meet someone who brings infinite joy and memories. In just over 2 months, I have been blessed with many of these bonds but the first of these, and the one who had the greatest impact on my time here so far is a Scotsman by the name of John. On my second day in “Pairadise”, I was asked by the owner of Edible Jazz, a local bar and venue, to play an hour set. When I arrived to soundcheck, John was sitting on a chair on the stage struggling to tune his guitar. I offered him a hand and we began making small talk. After a few minutes, he asked if I would support him while he sang a few tunes. Eager to make friends and play music, I agreed. Having never heard him sing, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I often feel spoiled because I grew up surrounded by such inspiring musical masterminds, and the unfortunate truth is, quality players few and far between. So, in short, I was not expecting much from the redheaded Highlander.

Suddenly, my world was turned upside down… His emotions and power seemed to pour effortlessly from his soul. After the gig, I looked at him straight and demanded that we meet in the next days to work on some tunes.

The rest is history… Within 1 week, we were gigging nighty around town. Our relative success in such a short amount of time is a factor of both his incredible talent as a singer and the support from the people around us. By our 8th week, we had dozens of tunes, a full band, and a strong, almost cult following to boot.

Just 3 days ago, John left Pai to pursue a new life in Paris. Although I know his absence in my life is only temporary, it was immensely difficult to say goodbye to such a passionate, loving being.

Fortunately, in the last several weeks, two close friends, Tyger and Alex from back home have arrived and along with Common Grounds’ founder Mitch, his girlfriend Fai, and other long term “Pairates” I feel as if I have a great family to pass the days with.

The Life of Pai

29 Oct

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Although I absolutely fell in love with Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau, it was nice to finally come to a city without skyscrapers. Chiang Mai is the unofficial capital of North Thailand and a charming ancient city with a sizable backpacker/expat population.

I was picked up by an old friend from the airport and for three days, we explored the decorative wats (temples) and culinary treasures that Chiang Mai had to offer. It was great to ride motorcycles around the narrow streets and take in the authentic Thai atmosphere.

Although, Chiang Mai is rapidly expanding, it seems that its charm has remained intact. My friend and his girlfriend planted my Thai roots and most importantly, introduced me to the country’s best culinary delights. In fact, as soon as I was picked up from the airport, we visited what seemed to be a random, small Thai house with a crude outside kitchen. My friend ordered Som Tom, a salad made of grated green papaya, spicy crushed chilies, tomatoes, and citrus juice served with a side of sticky rice. My mind was blown! I fell in love with the simple, yet complex flavored dish. Other highlights include Khow Soy, a coconut curry soup, and Ladna, a sloppy pork stew served with crispy noodles. I knew immediately, from the excellent food alone, that I was going to love my time here.

On my third day, I boarded a bus to my final destination Pai, a sleepy yet magical town in the middle of the mountainous north. Since the 70s, Pai has been attracting free souls on the backpackers circuit. The town of some 5000 has two traffic lights, four 7/11s, and dozens, if not hundreds, of bars. There is live music being played every night and everyone seems to be friendly. The best way to imagine the town is to think of a permanent music and arts festival. Pai is not a place, its a way of life… man.

King Kong

29 Oct

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Once a sleepy, rural bay on the South China Sea, the landscape that is now Hong Kong has been radically altered as a result of nearly 150 years of colonial British rule. Nowhere in the world can you find such an eclectic mix of new and old. The skyline is unsurpassed and is reason enough for visiting this beautiful metropolis. Hong Kong’s history is equally as fascinating.

When the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, his route undermined the rivaling Muslim world and made the riches of the East available to Europe’s upper class. Silks, spices, and teas, all luxuries that were available during Roman times, were considerably more rare as a result of the dwindling relationship between Christendom and Muslim controlled overland trade-routes. The Portuguese, with their superior naval technology, kept stretching further eastward and set up ports in Goa, Melaka, and eventually Macau.

Other European powers saw the need to compete with the Portuguese and began setting up their own colonies and trading companies. Tea, which began as a simple luxury, turned into a national addiction in Britain. In order to gain access to the lucrative plant, the British had to first compete with the other colonial “superpowers” – the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, French, and British all raced to colonize and take advantage of Asia’s culinary treasures.

When Britain finally began direct trade with China, the Qing Emperor only accepted silver as payment for tea. As a result, the British silver stock quickly drained and Parliament saw a need to take action. They decided to send two delegates directly to the Emperor with chests full of Western treasures, inventions, and art. The Emperor replied by saying the Chinese possessed all thing in life, and had little use for the meaningless, crude Western objects that have been sent as a bribe.

The British traders devised another plan, one that would ultimately devastate the Chinese. The British began importing opium produced in India. The Chinese population quickly became addicted and traded their lives away for it. The Emperor realized what was happening and demanded that the Canton soldiers destroy all the opium.

When the British found out that their imports had been burned and tossed to sea, they demanded payment and retribution. It is unclear who shot first but in 1839 the situation escalated and the First Opium War began. 3 years later, the Chinese were forced to sign the unfair Treaty of Nanjing, which gave the British Empire unrestricted access to trade in five of the largest Chinese ports and also gave them the land that comprises present day Hong Kong island.

By the mid 1850s, the Chinese government realized the unfairness of the treaty and once again war broke out. 4 years later, the humiliated and defeated Chinese were forced to hand over the province of Kowloon, just opposite of Hong Kong Island.

The British invested heavily in the port city and by the 20th century, due to its strategic location and low taxes, it became an international hub of commerce. The main feature of the island is Victoria Peak, which towers above the skyline and offers an unforgettable view.

In the 1980s, the British and Chinese held talks which led to the handing over of Hong Kong and in 1997, it was officially reunited with the mainland under the motto, “one country, two systems.”

They say you can leave Hong Kong, but Hong Kong will never leave you, and it is true; I will never forget the pearl of Canton.

Jungle Love

18 Oct

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I left Korea just as the autumn colors started to paint the treetops and have begun my long journey westward. I do not intend on updating this blog as frequently as when I was in Korea but I will do my best.

My first stop was the bustling Malaysian metropolis Kuala Lumpur. Nessled in a jungle valley, this hodgepodge of fascinating cultures has everything and more to offer. When I first arrived, the relative silence of my 6 hour flight came to an immediate halt. The first thing I noticed after walking outside the terminal is how hot Malaysia is. Its as if I stepped back in time to Korea’s monsoon season. Weather aside, the commute from the airport to KL Sentral was relatively straight forward and cheap. The 1 hour drive into the city is beautiful and at first glance, one could not imagine a city existing around such lush tropical rain forests and vivid green mountains.

The first night, I decided to take it easy and take a walk to KL’s heavenly centerpiece, the Petronas Towers. At one time the massive arabesque towers were the tallest buildings in the world and the skybridge connecting the two remains the tallest. Growing up, I always wanted to see the towers in person because of the movie “Entrapment” with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones, but nothing prepares you for the real thing.

Malaysia is 65% Muslim and the towers show the country’s pride in Arabic geometric patterns, balancing simplicity and intricacy. Surrounding the towers is a beautiful park with dozens of other skyscrapers in the distance. Standing at the base of the towers and gazing at the architectural wonders surrounding me, I thought what a nice trick Malaysia has played. You would think they were the wealthiest of countries if you never left the park. A few hundred meters outside the park area or “Golden Triangle” as it is called leaves you in the grittier, more authentic parts of KL.

Connecting the Golden Triangle to the rest of the city is something that every country should adopt – a simple over-street covered walkway that undoubtely alleviates traffic congestion caused by pedestrians and ensures that no accidents take place. The walkway stretches all the way to the area where my hostel was located, Bukit Bintang. Bukit Bintang is a popular area for backpackers and locals alike. The mixture of cheap curry houses, fun pubs, and 5 star malls pretty much defines modern Malaysia.

My first full day in KL was really special. I boarded the train to the Batu Caves and immediately became friends with a group of people my age who hailed from the four corners of the earth. There were Italians, Argentinians, Algerians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Slovenians, and Pakistanis. All of them were flown to KL to attend a youth business startup convention and I was so lucky to get to spend the day with such an interesting mix of individuals.

We arrived at the Batu Caves and were completely take aback by the beautiful karst landscape. The caves were discovered in the 1830s by a Frenchman and quickly adopted by the local Tamil population as a Hindu shrine. Huge idols guard the entrance and pilgrims come with gifts of flowers and fruits to leave at the feet of the statues. After being mesmerized by the Batu Caves, we headed to the Masjid Negara, the national mosque of Malaysia. A volunteer there gave us a wonderful explanation about the design of the mosque and answered many of our questions. The mosque has the capacity to hold 14,000 worshippers and its architecture has elements that reflect the holy trinity of Malaysian pride – religion, the state, and their environment.

Being a Muslim country comes with its advantages and disadvantages for the budget traveler. The fusion of Middle Eastern cuisine with that of Southeast Asia is a definite plus. The only real downside is the exorbitant price of alcohol. A bottle of Tiger from the nearest 7/11 will set you back at least 12 Ringgits ($4) and in a pub, its hard to find a pint for less than 20 Ringgits. Although the prices are high, the low cost of delicious high-quality food subsidizes any travelers budget. A pile of chicken lemak (sweet and spicy Malaysian curry), rice, and veggies costs a mere 6-10 Ringgits ($2-3). A bag full of fresh exotic fruits will cost you less than $1. So drink up travelers, because food is cheap!

One thing every traveler needs to do is experience the view on the top of Trader’s Hotel’s Skybar. Rated as one of the world’s best rooftop bars, this place has it all. The view of the Petronas Towers is unmatched and if you come before 7pm you can go swimming while downing some relatively decent priced cocktails. Another great establishment, De Green Ocean, is located in the back alleys of Bukit Bintang. Beer served in towers are a must for any group and the Malay band was fantastic. I had the pleasure of playing a set with them and scored our entire group of 20 free shots of tequila.

After 5 days in KL, I decided to wake up early and take the bus to Singapore. The bus ride was comfortable and took about 6 hours. I disembarked and booked a hostel in the heart of Little India, one of Singapore’s many ethnic neighborhoods. I have always heard that Singapore is spotless but I now know this is not the case. Little India was filthy yet incredibly charming. The colorful colonial style promenades that lined the streets were packed full with Tamil eateries, silk shops, and music stores. It was also the month long Hindu celebration of Deepavali and at night the streets came alive with colorful lights and impromptu performances.

I took the Singapore subway a few stops down to the Marina and was blown away by the skyline. From the durian-shaped Esplandes theaters to the futuristic Sands hotel, the bay looked like something out of Star Wars. I could have licked the ground, it was so clean. I walked around the colonial riverside and marveled at the mix of pre-WWII British architecture and towering skyscrapers.

The next day I headed to Sentosa, a small island off the coast of Singapore’s financial heart. Connected by a beautiful wooden boardwalk, the island is mainly filled with beach resorts and amusement parks. Being on a budget, I just took a stroll.

Afterwards, I headed to Chinatown to grab some food. The large Buddhist temple that houses the relics of Buddha’s teeth was empty so I decided to explore it before the rush of tourists came. When I left I saw a small sign on the wall that read “Veggie Donation Lunch Downstairs” so I thought I would check it out. There were dozens of Chinese devotees eating away; I was a sore thumb among a sea of Asians. I approached the food counter and asked a man what they had. He simply pointed at the donation box and started scooping food onto my plate. I saw the lady in front of me pay 3 Singapore Dollars ($3) so I followed her lead and did the same. I have never been more happy with a meal in my life. The explosion of authentic Chinese flavors put my senses in overload. Who said Singapore has to be expensive? Well… at least with food. Alcohol is more expensive than its northern neighbor and arguably more expensive then in the U.K. not because of religion but because of Singapore’s high “sin tax”. I decided to stay sober and opted for feasting on the endless culinary options. I ate at small Tamil restaurants often and for around $4, I got several curries, rice, roti, and naan all served on an ecofriendly banana leaf.

Next stop, Hong Kong and Macau!

Gallery

The Final Countdown

7 Oct

My time here is quickly coming to an end, but the Asian adventure has just begun…

 

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In and around Siem Reap

23 Sep

 

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Chusok

14 Sep