Thailand Extreme (Part 2 of 2)

Map of Thailand Travels

My Travels in Thailand

I began my travels in Thailand by flying to Chiang Mai from Sydney on the now-tarnished Malaysia Airlines, which I thought was a pretty damn good airline, but then again, my plane landed on, well, land. As a nervous flyer (despite having a mom who was a professional flight attendant in her younger years, and a dad who was an amateur pilot), I’m incredibly grateful to have returned safely to the US.

At the end of my last post I was in Sukhothai, the ancient capital of Thailand, the third dot on the map above.

My intention was next to visit a rural spiritual community in the center of Thailand near the border with Laos. (“Laos,” you should know, is actually pronounced “Lao.” I have no idea why it’s spelled “Laos” except to make English speakers feel like idiots when they finally have a reason to say it.)

I left Sukhothai on a bus bound for Phu Ruea, the town closest to the spiritual community, whose name I couldn’t (and still can’t) pronounce correctly – don’t even bother to try – leading to several unproductive conversations with ticket salespeople and bus attendants. Fortunately in Sukhothai someone had written the name out in Thai for me, so eventually I wised up and just showed the slip of paper to people.

The first part of the bus trip ended in Lomsak, a moderate-sized, undistinguished city. In Lomsak I briefly had an experience I’d only ever heard about: that of being a minor celebrity, possibly because so few farangs end up there. A young man on the bus approached me and told me he was dying to go to America and become a singer. At the station, a couple girls came up and wanted to talk to me. A policeman came by and checked my ticket to make sure I knew where I was going. Phu Ruea, dude!

My bus from Sukhothai was late in arriving – surprise – so I missed my transfer bus to Phu Ruea and had to wait several hours for the next one. Here’s a 90-second tour of the bus station that I made with all my extra free time:

I wanted to wait at a coffee shop with WiFi, but the taxi driver couldn’t speak enough English to understand where I wanted to go. Fortunately, she found someone who could, and together they figured it out. Thank you! The coffee shop was just a little shack on the highway where the owner and his family almost certainly lived. When it was time for me to return to the station, the proprietor left his 12-year-old son in charge of the shop and drove me back. I assumed he was providing a taxi service, so I offered him some money, but he wouldn’t take it.

What kindness and generosity I found in Lomsak!

A Focus on Permaculture

That night I finally reached Phu Ruea and the spiritual community (the name of which I will not reveal for reasons you will presently learn). The community was not Buddhist, but nevertheless seemed like a good fit for my needs. It would provide a quiet atmosphere where I could meditate, get some work done on my laptop, and be fed three square and healthy meals each day. In fact, I found it to be a pretty busy and noisy place (with a bunch of spiritual seekers and their little kids), so I got more work done than meditation, but that was alright. I met some interesting folks there, and like the previous meditation community I’d visited, the residents were all farangs along with some Thai employees. Here’s a little girl from Germany who was visiting with her mom:

Kailash Akhara 3

In fact, I stayed for two weeks. I would have left for Bangkok after a week or so, but was warned away by my friend Jamie as the political situation was particularly volatile, with shootings and grenades going off – suffice it to say that tourism is down significantly in Thailand this year.

This spiritual community, like the one I’d visited near Chiang Rai, has a strong permaculture focus. If you don’t know what permaculture is, let Wikipedia help. In my opinion, permaculture will be a lifesaver as our global industrial energy and food system winds down due to the inability of our debt-based financial system to operate when economic growth is no longer a given, along with associated energy and other resource shortages. Oh, and then there’s climate change. But these are topics for a different day, aren’t they?

YJ, a resident who was in charge of the community’s gardens and orchards, revealed the shocking truth of how she’s learned about gardening and permaculture:

Here she tells me about the tilapia and catfish in the community’s pond:

The community’s goat pen was fun to see:

More about the permaculture aspects of the goat pen:

Rain barrels help the community get through Thailand’s six-month-long dry season:

Finally, YJ showed me the “chicken tractor”:

The Saddest Day

The saddest day of my entire trip occurred a few days after I arrived at the community. The pond was filled with local Thai kids who had a standing invitation to come over to swim each Saturday. There were about 15 kids playing and splashing around. I was about a hundred meters away, talking with Mahatma, an American guy and permanent community resident. Suddenly we noticed a boy no older than 10 being lifted out of the pond on someone’s shoulder. We ran over and found that he wasn’t breathing, so Mahatma started to give him CPR. Soon, two more community residents, both with nursing experience, arrived. The boy started to breathe, coughed up some water, and then stopped breathing again. Finally, it was decided to rush him off to the local clinic in the community’s pickup, with the nurses continuing to give him CPR.

We all prayed, or at least I did. He made it to the clinic alive, but died there. I was later told the clinic had botched the job, but who really knows? I was upset that the community didn’t seem to have enough safety measures in place (such as a trained lifeguard) to prevent such an occurrence. But that also speaks to my culture; Thais (and this particular Western community, enveloped as it was by the Thai culture) don’t place nearly as much emphasis on individual safety as we do (which, I have to say, isn’t all bad).

Two profound ironies: the boy’s nickname was “Boat.” And he’d had an older brother who had died – also by drowning.

The next day a group of Buddhist monks arrived and performed a service at the pond.

A theme of this blog has been impermanence, and this event was yet another reminder of it. I certainly hadn’t planned that my visit to this community would include watching a 10-year old boy fight for his life and lose. But shitty things happen. People die – in sad, as-yet-mysterious (Flight 370), or unusual ways. About the latter: in Thailand, hundreds of people die each year from falling coconuts! Which seems like a pretty good way to go – a little rustling from above, and then Konk!

This event had the potential to lead to the community’s demise, but I learned that the boy’s mother requested, and received, a payout, probably in lieu of bringing a lawsuit. A wise decision for the community, whether it was at fault or not – apparently farangs almost never win in Thai courts. The exchange of money after such an event seemed a little gauche to my Western sensibilities, but then again, I was in a poor, rural area in a still-developing country, so it was also understandable.

Bangkok

After two weeks at the community, the political protests in Bangkok had calmed down, so I took a bus to the Big City and spent the remainder of my trip with my dear friend Jamie, whom I met in grad school at Indiana University years ago.

Here I am with my buddy Ronald on Khao San Road, Bangkok’s backpacker hangout, which, like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, seems to be famous mainly for being famous:

On Khao San Road with Ronald McDonald

Jamie is a superstar teacher on the international school circuit, and has taught fourth grade in Bangkok for several years. Still, she had plenty of time to hang out. One day we went to see Bangkok’s Chinatown. Take our entertaining mini-tour:

That day also happened to be a big Buddhist holiday. So we went to a local wat (temple), which was jam-packed with laypeople:

A Cool Day in a Hot Country

Another day I visited Bangkok’s Wat Pho, which prides itself on having one of the largest reclining Buddha statues in the world. It was pretty dark inside so I couldn’t get a good shot, but here’s a photo from the web that offers some perspective.

That same day, I had one of the best experiences of my entire trip. I visited Wat Mahathat, one of the few Buddhist temples with an active meditation center. I asked if I could interview a monk, and was told I could speak with Ajahn (Teacher) Suphat, an elder monk and international meditation teacher.

Ajahn Suphat is in his 70s, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He’d become a “novice” monk as a teenager, disrobed at age 30 to get married, raised two children with his wife, and then re-robed in his 50s. I didn’t ask what that entailed for his wife, though if nothing else, Ajahn Suphat was following in the footsteps of the Buddha himself, who left his wife and young son behind on his quest for enlightenment.

I sat down, and after a few minutes, Ajahn Suphat appeared and asked if I’d eaten lunch. I hadn’t, but he insisted I do so: “You must have some of my food.” I realized that “my food” meant the food that had been given to him that morning by the local community. (Monks walk the streets each morning to receive their daily meal from the laypeople.) He sat me down and left for about 20 minutes while I experienced a monk’s meal. What an honor! Here’s a blurry photo:

Meal Offered to Me by Ajahn Supat

When Ajahn Suphat reappeared he took me to a quiet room where I was able to record him talking about various topics related to Buddhism and meditation. Most of the topics I was already well-informed about, but I was curious to know how he would teach. In keeping with our theme, here he tells me about annica (also known as anitya) – impermanence – as well as anatta (no-self) and dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness), the so-called “three marks of existence” according to Buddhism:

After the interview he insisted on a photo:

Doug and Ajahn Supat (and Younger Monk) 5

Angkor Wat

Jamie had always wanted to visit Angkor Wat, the World Heritage site, which is both an ancient city and set of temples deep in the Cambodian jungle. So we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia for a long weekend.

At our hotel, a sign certified that the hotel staff were licensed to “exploit places”:

License of Exploitation Places

What a relief!

Cambodia isn’t as developed as Thailand. Just about anywhere you go in Thailand you’re not more than a few blocks from a 7-11 (for better or worse, Thailand is the most convenient country I’ve ever visited – whatever you need always seems to be nearby). But Siem Reap, at first blush a charming city that soon lost its luster, could only muster a 6-11:

6-11 Store in Siem Reap

Despite that limitation, Siem Reap’s “Pub Street” was pretty cool:

Pub Street

We spent a long and very hot day at Angkor Wat, about 10 kilometers from Siem Reap, though we were told it was possible to spend three days and still not see everything. By the way, “Angkor Wat” refers both to the entire complex of ancient cities and temples and to a specific (and the largest) temple. In fact, we were told that the Angkor Wat temple is the largest religious structure on the planet.

Our tuk tuk driver first took us to some of the smaller temples:

Here’s some of what we saw:

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A doorway (unfortunately without a stairway) to heaven:

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Here’s a temple that’s famous for the trees that are taking it over:

Tree Takes Over Temple 1

Finally, late in the day, we came to the main Angkor Wat temple:

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In inimitable 4th-grade teacher style, Jamie explains more about the meaning of “temple”:

Angkor Wat:

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The grounds were immense:

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Hindu in origin (with Buddhist elements added later), the temples had astonishingly intricate artwork:

Angkor Wat 4

Angkor Wat 3

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There were some hard choices to make along the way:

Possibility of Visit

Some of the stairs revealed acrophobic tendencies in myself and quite a few other tourists:

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Doug 3

Doug 1

Naturally, there was also something cheesy for the masses:

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The immensity of it all:

Immensity of Angkor Wat with Jamie

 

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As we were leaving, we spied a group of novice monks:

Monks 1

 

Doug and Jamie 3

Back in Bangkok

Later, back in Bangkok, Jamie took me to an incredible restaurant, where I had the best Thai food of my entire stay in the country. Here’s Jamie giving a tour of our meal:

…which ended with…

Don’t miss this final video, where Jamie and I share deep thoughts about the musical preferences of the Thai people:

My trip around the world – three continents, nine countries, twelve amazing cities – was coming to an end. It was time to pack my bags…

Leaving Thailand 3

…and be off to Bangkok Airport for the 30-hour journey home – Bangkok to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Chicago, Chicago to Indianapolis, and the shuttle to Bloomington.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog more than I’ve enjoyed writing it — writing is hard work!

See you on the road!

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Thailand Extreme (Part 1 of 2)

At the end of my last post I was spending the holidays in Sydney. On December 30 I flew from Sydney to Thailand – Chiang Mai, Thailand, to be exact, in the north of the country  – backtracking, as you can see on the map:

Map

In preparing for this über-self-indulgent journey, I was sure I’d be astounded and amazed – by Europe in particular. While Europe was indeed special (some countries more than others), I have to give the honor of the most interesting country on my trip to Thailand.

Chiang Mai

The old city of Chiang Mai is about one mile square, with walls delineating the perimeter:

City Wall 2

Just outside the walls is a moat:

Moat 3

New Year’s Eve

On New Year’s Eve I took a walk to find out how Thailand celebrates the holiday. Looking up at the sky I noticed the most impossibly brilliant stars. Then I realized they were moving! Soon enough I figured out that they were paper lanterns – hundreds of them. Thais believe that the lanterns are symbolic of their worries floating away:

CM Paper Lanterns on New Year's Eve 1

I found some kids lighting and launching one:

Lighting a Paper Lantern 2

Lighting a Paper Lantern 3

Lighting a Paper Lantern 4

While Thailand observes the Western New Year, technically the country uses the Buddhist calendar. This is the year 2557, which can be seen on official forms and signs everywhere. Fortunately Thailand has acceded to using Western months and days, so confusion is relatively minimal. Here’s a sign for an event that happened last year:

Sukhothai 20

Massage

One of the best things about Thailand is that massage shops are ubiquitous and cheap. In most places you can get an hour-long standard Thai massage for 200-300 baht (that’s $6-$9).

In Chiang Mai, I had a massage at the Women’s Correctional Institution. The inmates are taught massage so they’ll possess a money-making skill upon their release (do we offer that to prisoners in America?). They also receive 100% of all massage fees, so they can build up a nest egg.

Good cause, and good massage too.

Bhubing Palace and Doi Suthep

I went to the King of Thailand’s winter palace, Bhubing, with John, a guy from Los Angeles that I connected with via Couchsurfing (and a lifesaver who brought groceries to my hotel when I fell violently ill after the above massage). We went with John’s friend Ning:

Bhuping Palace (John with Ning 2)

That is one big leaf. Here’s John and me:

Bhuping Palace (with John 3)

John is the epitome of spontaneity, like many travelers I’ve met along the way. One day he read about a town in Vietnam, and practically the next day he was on his way there. Eventually he wound up in Thailand. His next stop is Guatemala.

Flower gardens:

Bhuping Palace 12

Bhuping Palace 19

Ning in front of a grove of Giant Bamboo:

Bhuping Palace Giant Bamboo 2

An ornately-carved dead tree trunk:

Carved Tree Trunk at Bhuping Palace 2

A Buddhist shrine on the palace grounds:

Doug at Bhuping Palace 2

On the way back to Chiang Mai, we stopped at Doi Suthep, one of the most famous and well-visited temples in Thailand:

Doi Suthep 1

Doug at Doi Suthep 2

Wat Doi Suthep 9

Wat Doi Suthep 8

Wat Doi Suthep 12

An enterprising parent dressed up their cute little girl in order to rake in some cash:

Wat Doi Suthep 19

Transportation

The best way to get around most cities in Thailand is by songthaew (“songtow”) or “tuk tuk.” A songthaew is a pickup truck modified to hold about 8 passengers on two seats in the back. In Chiang Mai, the songthaews are color-coded depending on their route. Here’s a red one, which will go wherever you want to go, if you can convince the driver it’s worth his while to take you there:

Street 5

Looking out the back of a songthaew:

From Songthaew 6

A fellow passenger:

From Songthaew 11

Tuk tuks are modified motorcycles. They are essentially mini-taxis that are better used for short distances, since they’re loud, smoky, slow, and more expensive – $3 to go two miles vs. $1-2 for a songthaew.

Tuk Tuk 1

Yet one still needs to walk. Unfortunately, being a pedestrian in Thailand is nothing short of a nightmare. Unlike, say, pedestrian-friendly California, where vehicles will almost always stop for you, even if you’re not at a crosswalk, in Thailand vehicles have the absolute right-of-way. And the bigger it is, the more right-of-way it has. Thais also drive on the left, like the English, which adds an additional element of danger. Drivers weave between lanes, crosswalks are few and far between (and drivers often ignore them anyway), sidewalks are often non-existent so you’re forced to walk on the road, and even if there is a sidewalk and you think you’re safe, motorcycles will sometimes ride on the sidewalk! On top of all this, there is next to no police enforcement of traffic laws, though I doubt such laws exist. While there’s much to love about Thailand, there are some things I don’t love, and the lack of road safety is #1.

Survival as a pedestrian here therefore requires constant vigilance and “defensive walking.” If you come to the Land of Smiles, watch out! They will be smiling as they run you over.

The King

It’s said that the King of Thailand is truly beloved by the people, though the elected government is currently experiencing immense turmoil, and there is even talk of impending civil war. You can see a photograph of the King literally every block or two on most major streets. Here’s a monument on a Chiang Mai boulevard:

King 3

Due to strict lese majeste laws, though, say something bad about the King and you may wind up at the “Bangkok Hilton.”

The Mall

Chiang Mai had one of the best malls I’ve ever visited, with dozens of interesting stores, and this being Thailand, reasonable prices as well. Thais are well-known for liking fun, and this dentist office inside the mall has taken advantage of that fact:

Just for Fun Clinic 1

Do you need some fun?

The Fighters

Muay Thai is Thailand’s martial art, a form of boxing that allows the use of knees and elbows to pound opponents into submission. I’d never been to any kind of boxing or martial arts match before, but decided to check one out for the cultural experience. The first fight of the evening was between two boys who couldn’t have been older than 12. Watch these little Buddhists pulverize each other:

The most entertaining fight had five blindfolded guys swinging their arms and legs wildly, only occasionally making contact, and sometimes falling down. It was pretty funny:

The Monks

Had enough violence? I visited several “wats” (Buddhist temples) in Chiang Mai, and spoke at length to two different monks about Buddhist philosophy and the experience of being a monk. Here is a brief part of my interview with Ole, a friendly young monk who lives at Wat Chedi Luang:

Here’s the temple at Ole’s wat:

Wat Chedi Luang 2

A huge semi-pyramidal structure at the wat:

Wat Chedi Luang 6

Wat Chedi Luang 8

Wat Chedi Luang 9

The Buddha peers out at the top:

Wat Chedi Luang 10

Wires

Thailand has major issues with its overhead wiring:

Thailand Electrical Wiring (web photo)

Stray wires often hang down over sidewalks, and it was hard not to wonder if they might be “live,” waiting for a stupid person to walk right into them. Zap! You’re out. Maybe not, but I wasn’t interested in trying to disprove my hypothesis.

Street Markets

Thailand has awesome street markets:

Street Market 12

The Little Band That Could (my name for them): a four-person band that plays lined up in the middle of the market:

Street Market 10

Need a ball of pork? You know you do.

Street Market 1

Sunset in Chiang Mai:

Sunset 1

This is beautiful Thailand.

Chiang Rai

After two weeks in Chiang Mai, I took a bus north to Chiang Rai, a small city near the border with Laos. I spent five days at the New Life Foundation, in the countryside just outside Chiang Rai. New Life is a “mindful recovery community” where people (all Westerners, or as the Thais call us, farangs) come to practice meditation and yoga to heal from burnout, depression, and addictions. Here’s what the Foundation (and rural Thailand generally) looks like in the dry season, which lasts for most of the winter:

New Life Foundation 1

New Life Foundation 15

Most of the residents and volunteers at New Life were from Europe (it was founded by two Belgian guys). Here’s Maria, a volunteer from Germany:

Maria (from Germany) at New Life 1 (rotated)

After New Life Foundation, I spent a week in a very cold hotel in Chiang Rai. (This winter has been cooler than normal in northern Thailand and there’s no heating in most hotels, since the temperature rarely dips below the low to mid 50s in any season.) It must have gotten down to 55 degrees F. at times in my room.  I’m sure those of you who have suffered through this winter in the Northern Hemisphere care deeply about this.

Through Couchsurfing I met a friendly young Korean woman who wants to open a restaurant in the city, and her friend, a Russian guy whom I’d coincidentally chatted with online down in Chiang Mai about playing badminton, though we never actually met. Then we did meet, randomly, in Chiang Rai. Small world of travelers!

In Chiang Rai I successfully connected with a Thai college student to play badminton and also got a tour of a Thai university campus.

Chiang Rai is famous for its White Temple, an artistic work-in-progress, the inside of which includes small painted images of Superman, Batman, and Michael Jackson:

White Temple 1

White Temple 5

For me the White Temple was more of a kitschy tourist attraction than a real Buddhist temple. I preferred Chiang Rai’s beautiful and lush Wat Phra Kaew:

Wat Phra Kaew Temple 6

Sukhothai

There was only so much to do in Chiang Rai. For the first time on my entire trip, the morning I checked out of my hotel I didn’t have a plan. All I knew is that I had to get on a bus and go somewhere. (Such spontaneity, as many of you know, is unlike me.) But a decision had to be made, so I decided to head south to Sukhothai, the ancient 13th century capital of Thailand, now a bunch of beautiful ruins. The bus was due to leave Chiang Rai 30 minutes hence, and a taxi couldn’t make it to my hotel in time to take me to the bus station. The hotel owners, a friendly Thai couple who spoke excellent English, offered to take me there.

Like walking in Thailand, taking a bus is a pretty courageous thing to do. Thailand has one of the highest road accident rates in the world, and there are numerous bus accidents every year, like the one that plunged off a bridge two months ago, killing almost everyone. Fortunately my bus driver was mellow and attentive.

Then there’s the matter of the police. The police don’t seem to ever enforce traffic laws in Thailand, as noted. But we were stopped three different times at police checkpoints. At each checkpoint, the same three young Thai men were escorted off the bus and patted down (for drugs?). This was disquieting at the very least and also seemed like a rude interruption to the bus’s schedule (wouldn’t stopping us once have been enough? can’t the Thai police communicate with each other?). I was ignored until the last checkpoint, when I was asked to produce my passport.

Finally, far behind schedule, we arrived in Sukhothai. I stayed at a well-run guest house where I met a bunch of interesting Europeans:  French, German and Swiss. I’ve met way more Europeans in Thailand than I did in Europe.

The next morning I took an open air kind-of-truck-thingie to the ruins of Old Sukhothai. Here’s what it looked like:

In Old Sukhothai $1 got me a bicycle for the day to tour the old city:

Sukhothai 6

Sukhothai 15 (with me) (rotated)

Here’s the entrance to Sukhothai’s “foresty” site (this one’s for you, Jake):

Foresty Site 1

It’s easy to make fun of the Thais’ command of English. Meanwhile, the average Thai knows more English vocabulary than I’ll probably ever know of Thai. Thai is easy to learn in some ways, as the grammar is much simpler than most European languages. But it’s also a tonal language in which how you say a word changes its meaning. For example, you can say the word mai five different ways (which can’t be differentiated by the untrained ear) and mean five different things:  mile, new, not, wood, and “no?”

The highlight of Sukhothai was Wat Saphin Hin, which is on top of a steep hill and holds an immense Buddha:

Wat Saphan Hin 1

Far outside the old city’s walls and moat, where most tourists apparently don’t bother to go, I was the only one there that morning, which made it all the more special. From the bottom of the hill you can see the Buddha in the distance:

Wat Saphan Hin 4 (rotated)

Getting closer:

Wat Saphan Hin 10

Turning around to see the hill I climbed and the countryside beyond:

Wat Saphan Hin 9 (looking down from)

In front of the Buddha. For perspective, the sitting Buddha at the lower left is human-sized:

Wat Saphan Hin 12

Wat Saphan Hin 17 (2)

Wat Si Chum held an even bigger Buddha:

Wat Si Chum 4

Wat Si Chum 20 (rotated)

Check out his hands:

Wat Si Chum 25 (1)

I saw many Thais bowing and praying to the Buddha:

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Some Thai boys walking around the old city (notice the Buddha in the background):

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Here’s a brief narrated video from Sukhothai (apologies for the non-sophisticated camerawork):

After a long day at ancient Sukhothai, I returned to New Sukhothai. This time, a monk sat next to the driver. As far as I can tell, monks pretty much get a free pass for anything (food, rides, etc.):

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Here’s a final brief video from Sukhothai, reflecting on the Buddha’s famous teaching of impermanence:

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Puppies, Kittens, and Dead Civilizations

It’s been awhile since my last post, but this middle part of my journey has been less eventful (which isn’t to say you shouldn’t savor every last word of this post), and has provided an opportunity to recover from the rigors of constantly being on the move. Last post I had just bumpily arrived in Rome on Ryanair. This map shows my entire European itinerary (but doesn’t show my current location, Sydney, Australia, which is so far away that I’d need a really big map to include it**):Map

**Which reminds me of a joke by comedian Steven Wright. Spoken in a dry monotone:

“I have a map of the United States. It’s actual size. It says one mile equals one mile. People ask me where I live and I say E-5. Last summer I folded it.”

(This WordPress theme doesn’t make it obvious, but most of the underlines in this blog, like “Steven Wright” above, are links.)

ROME

I spent about 10 days in Rome. Unfortunately, the last 6-7 days (and for about 10 days after leaving) I was quite ill. But before getting sick and laying low in a comfortable yet not inexpensive Rome apartment, I managed to see quite a bit, including the overhyped Coliseum (the Amphitheatre in Nimes, France is nearly as big and much better preserved), Palatine Hill (home of the Roman emperors), and the Forum, the epicenter of Roman power.

But first, I saw the amazing Pantheon, perhaps the best-preserved building of ancient Rome (thanks to the Church, which started using it in about the 7th century):

Pantheon (not my pic)

The inscription M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT means “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.”

The highlight on Palatine Hill was the House of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, after whom the month of August is named. I stood in a small room with still-vibrant mosaics which Augustus himself must have laid eyes upon:

:House of Augustus

This kind of connection to people in different times and places is, for me, one of the most incredible things about traveling.

The Roman Forum was astonishing. If you don’t know much about Ancient Rome, the Forum was the epicenter of Roman political power. Imagine walking amidst the ruins of Washington D.C. two thousand years from now. It’s like that.

While overhyped, the Coliseum was moving. I did “tonglen” (Tibetan Buddhist compassion meditation) for the immense suffering inflicted on the thousands of human beings and animals there for the Romans’ entertainment.

MOUNTAINS OF NORTHERN ITALY

After getting sick with the worst stomach bug I’ve ever had, followed by a stubborn sinus infection, I took a train north, to a little town called Sestola, in the Apennine Mountains southwest of Bologna, Italy. Here I spent 10 days with a lovely British couple, Ali and Mike:

Mike & Ali 7

Ali and Mike hold small meditation retreats at their home/retreat center and occasionally host like-minded people like me. I was their only guest. Their Italian farmhouse was built over 200 years ago:

Ali & Mike's 8

On my last day there, winter arrived:

Ali & Mike's 17

If you’re in southern Europe and looking for a quiet getaway or meditation retreat, I highly recommend Ali and Mike’s Apennine Retreat.

EPHESUS, TURKEY

From Bologna, I flew to Turkey on the country’s low-cost airline, Pegasus (no more Ryanair for me). My destination was Izmir, a large city on the west coast of Turkey, which is a short train ride from Selcuk, a small town which itself is the launching point for nearby Ephesus, perhaps the best-preserved Greco-Roman city in the Mediterranean.

Here’s what a train station in Turkey looks like:

Train Station at Izmir Airport 3

Turkey is, of course, a Muslim country. This means that five times a day, the local mosques blare out a call to prayer over their loudspeakers. One evening I was taking a stroll after dark through Selcuk, and I recorded this beautiful and haunting call to prayer (hear the echo through the streets and hills?).

Before heading off to Ephesus, I stopped by the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only a 10-minute walk from my hostel.

Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Artemis’ temple, and not much remains:

Temple of Artemis 6

A lonely, reconstructed column:

Temple of Artemis 2

The Temple area did have, however, a man-hawking-guidebooks-who-wouldn’t-leave-me-alone-until-I-bought-some-postcards-from-him (welcome to Turkey!), and … puppies!  (Feline lovers, please be patient, as you’ll soon see the cutest kitty picture ever taken, below.)

Puppies @ Temple of Artemis 3

Check out this über-cute video!

Ephesus was graceful, poignant. There’s nothing like seeing the ruins of an ancient city to remind you of the Buddhist truth of impermanence.

The Radiant Buddha said:
Regard this fleeting world like this:
Like stars fading and vanishing at dawn,
like bubbles on a fast moving stream,
like morning dewdrops evaporating on blades of grass,
like a candle flame flickering in a strong wind,
echoes, mirages, phantoms, hallucinations,
and like a dream.

As we are convinced that America, and industrial civilization, will last forever, so must the citizens of Ephesus have been convinced that their city and civilization was eternal. But…

Ephesus 6

Ephesus 4

Ephesus Boulevard 1

The stadium:

Ephesus Stadium 7

They lived well, all those centuries ago, as these mosaics in the homes of Ephesus demonstrate:

Ephesus Terrace House 6 (rotated)

Ephesus Terrace House 8

The incredible, recently-restored Library at Ephesus:

Ephesus Library 7

Doug at Ephesus Library 1

And now, the cats. Ephesus is home to ostensibly hundreds of cats. So dignified were they that I came to think they were former citizens of the ancient city who could not bear to leave, and chose to be reborn here. The consul:

Ephesus Cat 3

Ephesus Cat 7

A senator:

Ephesus Cat 10

And in the Ephesus men’s room:

Ephesus Cats 13

ISTANBUL

From Ephesus it was on to Istanbul. I stayed in the old city, where most of the main tourist attractions are.

Turkey has some of the most interesting, flavorful tea I’ve ever had. My favorite was cinnamon tea, both spicy and sweet, amazing!  (Not sure if this link provides exactly the same recipe, but it’s probably close.)

Here’s the famous Blue Mosque, from the rooftop of my hotel, where I had breakfast each morning:

Blue Mosque (from my hotel) 2

From the breakfast room at the top of my hotel I could look out upon the Sea of Marmara, below. Just to the left of this photo is the Bosporus Strait, which divides Istanbul, and is also the boundary between Europe and Asia (Istanbul itself is split between the two continents):

Sea of Marmara (from Hotel Room) 3

AUSTRALIA

Australian Flag

Even in southern Europe it was starting to get cold, and being a cold weather wimp, I decided to head for my next destination, Sydney, two weeks early. Sydney is where my brother Mike and sister-in-law Jill live, and they’ve generously provided me a comfortable place to chill out for a few weeks. I’ve been watching episodes of the newer (much better) version of Battlestar Galactica, going to the beach, beating my brother and niece at the occasional game of Scrabble (I’m going to get in trouble for making that public), and studying Thai in preparation for my final destinations, Thailand and (briefly) Cambodia.

The timing of my arrival in Australia was perfect as I got to attend the December (that’s June to you) wedding of my niece Meg and her now-husband Andrew:

Meg and Andrew

From a Sydney ferry I looked out on the infinity of the southern Pacific Ocean which brought Captain Cook to these shores in 1770:

The Southern Pacific Ocean

Saw a thunderhead taking shape over Sydney:

Sydney Thunderhead

On a walk in the Australian bush with my brother, I saw aboriginal rock carvings that were thousands of years old (or maybe they were done yesterday by some surfer dude, who knows?):

Aboriginal Rock Carving 3

And most importantly, to prove to you that I have actually been in Sydney, here is the iconic Empire State Building:

Opera House 1

Meg destroying my brother and me at canasta:

Playing Canasta with Mike & Meg (December 2013 in Australia)

Through a local Sydney group that meets to discuss the teachings of Adyashanti, my Zen teacher, I made the acquaintance of Paola, a pretty Italian lady who came to Australia about 10 years ago:

Paola in Sydney

It took coming to Australia to get to know an Italian. Go figure. There are definite advantages to knowing an Italian. For one, Paola has taught me how to eat pasta correctly. I didn’t know there was a correct way!

One thing I’ve learned on this trip is the importance of knowing some of the local language before arrival. I enjoyed Rome less for not knowing a lick of Italian. So I’ve been learning some Thai, and practicing a little Australian as well.

On that note, สวัสดี and g’day mates. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

P.S. This WordPress theme doesn’t make it obvious, but if you’d like to leave a comment (or read others’ comments), click on “Leave a Comment” at the beginning of this post.

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Two Months In…

I’m finishing my first post in a Travelodge near the airport in Valencia, Spain. Tomorrow I’m flying on Ryanair, Europe’s cheapest and most loathed airline, to Rome.

“A man was sitting in the bar at Heathrow Terminal 3 and noticed a really beautiful woman sitting next to him. He thought to himself: ‘Wow, she’s so gorgeous she must be an air hostess. I wonder which airline she works for.’ Hoping to pick her up, he leaned towards her and uttered the Delta Airline slogan, ‘Love to fly and it shows?’ She gave him a blank, confused stare and he immediately thought to himself: ‘Well, she obviously doesn’t work for Delta.’ A moment later, another slogan popped into his head, so he leaned towards her again and said, ‘Something special in the air?’ She gave him the same confused look, and he mentally kicked himself, while scratching Singapore Airlines off the list. He thought ‘Perhaps she works for Thai Airways…’ and said, ‘Smooth as silk?’ This time the woman turned to him and said, ‘What the fuck do you want?’ The man smiled, slumped back in his chair, and said, ‘Ahhhhh, Ryanair!'”

LONDON

September 7th:  Five hours off the plane, I took a tour of Parliament, and got to stand in the benches of the House of Commons and House of Lords. Then I stood in front of Parliament looking like Rick Steves.*

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*Prolific author of Europe Through the Back Door series.

If you’ve never been to London, a typical street looks like this:

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I didn’t spend much time in London, since I was there for a month in ’96. So that’s it for London. Here’s where I’ve been since:

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Does it seem a little random? I’m traveling flexibly in Europe. All I know is that on December 11th, I’m flying from Istanbul to Sydney.

PARIS

If you’ve never been to Paris, everything they say is true. It’s incredible.

I’ve been to two cemeteries so far. Why? For the famous dead people, of course. Cemeteries in Europe far out-class any cemetery I’ve seen in the US. The first one was Père Lachaise in Paris, the resting place of Frederic Chopin, whose music makes the piano the great instrument that it is:

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Jim Morrison, who died in Paris, is just down the path from Chopin:

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They weren’t going to let him in until Jim’s friends told the cemetery keeper: He was a writer.

I saw lots of other stuff in Paris, but skipped the Louvre: Image

Can you tell which painting that is way off in the distance?

Well, I have no regrets. I’ve been learning that, for me at least, it’s better to see fewer attractions (and cities) rather than killing myself trying to see it all. Besides, my first priority on this trip is meeting people and experiencing different languages, cultures and countries, rather than doing the usual tourist thing.

Inspired by Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Workweek, I’ve spent some serious time on my trip studying French and Spanish. French is a beautiful language, for sure, but it can also be plain cute: Image

Don’t you just want to pick these words up and hug them and tell them everything is going to be all right?

PROVENCE ET NIMES

After Paris I took the train south to Provence. Here’s a house on a hilltop village:

Shutters 2 in Saignon, France

Enough about Provence. Read a book about it.

Next I moved on to Nimes, France. (Yes, I know this is going fast!) I decided to go to Nimes after reading that it had some of the best-preserved Roman ruins anywhere. It’s true! You’re walking down an ordinary street in Nimes, and what do you see at the end?Image

It’s the best-preserved Roman amphitheater anywhere. At least according to the Nimes tourist office:

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Nimes also has an exquisite Roman temple. It has stood relatively untouched for 2,000 years, mainly because the residents of Nimes always found new ways to put it to use:

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The front:

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People traveling to France, especially Paris, often feel intimidated hearing the many stories of French rudeness to tourists (especially in restaurants). I was intimidated. But actually I found Parisians to be pretty nice overall. And in the south of France, people were incredible. One day I couldn’t quite figure out the ticket machine at the tram station. I went into a nearby mini-mart. The store attendant got up, left the store empty, and walked with me across the street to show me how to do it. Would the average 7-Eleven clerk in the US do the same?

Another day I was trying to find a certain coiffeur (barber) in the labyrinth of streets that is Nimes. I walked into a church and asked for assistance. The eager-to-help caretaker spent a good 10-15 minutes with me, took me back into a little office, scrounged around for a phone book with a map, and eventually found the street I needed.

MONTPELLIER

After Nimes, it was a short train ride to Montpellier, a college town just a few miles inland from the Mediterranean. In Montpellier I finally realized the value of traveling slowly. I stayed for 10 days, studied French with a tutor, Raphael, almost every day, and had a blast hanging out at a bar a couple times with Raphael and some French and Spanish people he’d met on Couchsurfing (Raphael was new to Montpellier too). Here’s Raphael:

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Raphael grew up in France, but his parents are from Portugal. He speaks French, Portuguese, and Spanish … and his English isn’t bad either.

In Montpellier I stayed in a “homestay” with a Romanian woman who also spoke multiple languages. Homestays are one of many interesting ways to find lodging in Europe. Other options include French “gites”, couchsurfing, housesitting, hostelling, home-based B&Bs and even monastery stays. Most of these make it much easier to meet locals and fellow travelers than staying in a Hilton would. I don’t know why people bother with hotels. Ever since London and Paris – where I couldn’t find a couch for the life of me – I’ve been staying in inexpensive homestays and doing some free couchsurfing.

Here’s Montpellier’s L’Opera Comedie, situated at one end of a huge plaza, the Place de la Comédie:

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The outdoor nightlife and ambience of Montpellier – in fact every place I’ve seen so far in Europe – puts America to shame:

Montpellier Nightlife 1

Damn that’s romantic.

VIENNA

After 10 days in Montpellier, it was time to move on. I chose to take a night train to Vienna. Being a classically-trained musician, Vienna was a city I had to see.

I had a great conversation with two really cool Swiss kids (one of whom spoke the dying language of Romansch, the least-known of the four official languages of Switzerland), but then they got off the train, and I had a six-person compartment to myself as the train rumbled through the Alps. I lay down on three seats and somehow managed to sleep. I was awoken by a loud “Morgen!” (“morning!”) as a bunch of commuter ladies entered the compartment on the outskirts of Vienna early the next morning. Ooops … time to sit up and take only one seat … not three.

I don’t recommend night trains.

I was excited to be in Vienna, but unfortunately, Vienna sucked. The dreary weather had something to do with it. But the museums weren’t very good either. For example, one of Vienna’s official museums is Beethoven’s two-room “apartment.” Not until the end of the tour is there a sign saying that recent research suggests that Beethoven probably never even lived there. WTF?

Vienna’s central cemetery was nice, though. Here’s me placing a flower on Beethoven’s grave (one of my childhood heroes – yes, I was a classical music nerd):

Beethoven and Doug (Flower)

Like the cemetery in Paris, Vienna’s has numerous stunning, heart-rending sculptures:

Vienna Cemetery 4

After a few days in Vienna, I was ready to move on. I’d been planning to go to Italy next, but I just wasn’t feeling the Italy vibe. Where was I going to go? Then, my Couchsurfing host, Florian, told me about:

The Adventure Generator for Spontaneous People

Check it out, it’s cool. By using the Adventure Generator, and clicking the blue button, “Take Me Wherever,” I found I could get a cheap flight to …

SPAIN!

Incredibly, the very next day I found myself on a plane from Vienna to Malaga, Spain, the southernmost big city in Europe, where it was going to be sunny and 80 degrees (as opposed to mostly cloudy and 58).

Malaga is a pretty ugly resort city on the Mediterranean. The street performers, though, were incredible. Here’s my favorite, The Bullfighter. First, the bull:

The Bullfighter 6 (Malaga)

Cutest bull ever, huh? Now the bullfighter:

The Bullfighter 7 (Malaga)

If you drop a coin in his hat, The Bullfighter begins to lunge:

The Bullfighter 0 (Malaga) 2

A few minutes after this was taken, he had a huge crowd around him. Comic genius, I tell you.

If following nuns is your thing, you’ll find plenty of them in Spain. I followed these nuns for awhile to make sure they weren’t up to no good:

Nuns, All Black

After a couple of days in Malaga, I took a train to Seville (Sevilla), considered one of Spain’s must-see cities.

After two and a half weeks in Spain, I’ve decided that the Spanish are some of the warmest and friendliest people I’ve ever met. I had a blast with my host in Sevilla, Eva:

Eva in Sevilla 1

Eva is a lawyer, but the funniest and most relaxed one I’ve ever met. She specializes in labor law. The economic crisis in Spain (50% of people under 25 unemployed) undoubtedly keeps her busy.

Via the cool European car-sharing site, BlaBlaCar, I found Raul, who gave me a ride from Seville to my next city, Granada. Raul has been unemployed for quite awhile. He has excellent musical taste and we talked in broken Spanish and English about flamenco, Brazilian music, and African music, while listening to same. He’d been in Seville looking for work, but was going back home:

Raul (Driver to Granada)

The Spanish aren’t very happy about the crisis:

Graffiti in Granada 2

Seville was great. I’d heard that the Seville Cathedral was considered the largest cathedral in the world. And indeed, inside, just steps away from the tomb of Christopher Columbus, was this sign:

Sevilla Guiness Book

If you can’t read it, it says that Guinness has certified that the Seville Cathedral “is the cathedral with the largest area.”

Cathedral size matters.

I saw an incredible flamenco show in Sevilla. Here’s a video from the Museo de Flamenco, featuring the same singer and one of the same dancers that I saw. You won’t regret watching the whole thing; it gets very intense:

After Seville, I was planning to go to Salamanca, way up north. Salamanca, a university town, is supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. But the day before I was going to leave, I checked the weather forecast, and it looked like I’d be going back to Vienna! I decided to stay in Andalusia (the area in the south of Spain where I was, known for its sunny, warm climate). Specifically, I decided to go to Granada, not too far from Seville.

If you ever go to Spain, you must go to Granada. I didn’t take this photo, but the city really is this beautiful:

Alhambra (not by me) 2

I walked the Albaycin (the old Moorish quarter) with Caroline, a Granada native whom I met on Couchsurfing:

Carolina (Granada)

Here’s what a typical house in the Albaycin looks like (not my photo):

4962943-Typical_house_at_Albaicin_Granada (1)

That’s the story so far. I wish I could say that traveling around the world is an automatic guarantee of James Bond-style high adventure.** Since I’m a mellow guy, it’s not. But I can’t complain. Traveling by itself is magic enough, I think, because each day there’s something new, and you see the world again as through the eyes of a child. Traveling can get you lost in the world, and isn’t getting lost – forgetting our “self” – the experience we are all seeking? Traveling is by turns enervating, stimulating, tedious, overwhelming, and engrossing. Everyone with the itch should do it. It’s well-known that the things people regret most on their deathbeds aren’t the things they did, but the things they didn’t do. I waited 48 years to take this journey…maybe you won’t wait so long to take your own?

**If you need a fix of James Bond-like travel thrills, read this incredible true story by Wandering Earl, a “permanent nomad” (it concludes with a nice Buddhist moral). Seriously, you have to read it.

Postscript: The Ryanair flight to Rome this morning was uneventful except at touchdown. It was by far the roughest landing I’ve ever experienced, and just after the wheels connected with Mother Earth I swear the plane seemed to veer slightly. But the pilots managed to keep control and in a few moments everything returned to normal. I turned to the glum Italian man next to me, and then the grinning one across the aisle, and we just stared at each other, thankful to be alive. Then they shook their heads as only Italians can do … Ryanair.

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