a tale of 3 countries

i write this entry just as my tan skin has almost faded to the whiteness it was before i left on my grand adventure, but my memories will not soon fade as easily. so much happened on my six week foray into the world of southeast asia that it will be difficult to paint an ample picture in mere writing. this will serve as a simple appetizer, though, and the rest of the "meal" will come later when i can actually relay the true sentiments of the stories to you in person. i promise that there is much more than what is written here . . .

while not the central destination of the trip, our 2, strike that, 3 nights in beijing proved to set the tone for the rest of the trip. for this reason, a few stories must be told from this short "layover" of sorts. first, the 14 hour train ride. i had taken this train many times before. you see, to get anywhere from tongliao you must take at least a 14 hour overnight train and this almost always means taking it to beijing. well, i was expecting this train ride to be just like every other one - smoky, dirty, slightly uncomfortable, but not too uncomfortable to sleep. in order to save money, i chose to buy a ticket for the top bunk in the sleeper car. while this is only around $2 cheaper, i figured i could use every spare dollar i had. bad idea, clay. i guess that it is a nice commodity to have heaters in train cars when you are riding it through the siberian grasslands of inner mongolia. this becomes near suicidal, however, when the heaters are turned on to the "surface of the sun" setting. we all know heat rises, so there is me on the top bunk, heaters full-blast, continuous puffs of dry heat momentarily drying my sweat-drenched, near-naked body. this coupled with my chinese "friend" in the bunk below me grinding his teeth all night (a sound not unlike 100 fingernails on a chalkboard) made for a very deliriously light and intermittent sleep. feeling as if we had been on a 2 week bender, mike and i dragged ourselves onto and off the subway and finally to our hostel. two nights in the hostel, bar-hopping, shopping, visiting with friends, etc. etc we were ready to head down to hong kong on our 24 hour long train ride. being near the beginning of the chinese new year holiday, however, we severely underestimated the time it would take to actually get on said train. we had our tickets. we were at the train station 15 mins before our train left. the crowd, however, that had assembled resembled, well, for lack of a better analogy . . .a cluster-fuck. pushing, prodding, starting near-riot conditions, we finally got through the door . . . 3 mintues after our train had left. $100 down the drain and one more night in beijing. we promptly called our friends and invited ourselves over to crash at their place. missing our train proved to be one of the best things that happened, however - not to mention that it infused our vacation with a sense of reckless abandon and carefree attitude about silly things like flight times and train departures. who needs to worry about useless things like that? slightly hungover and a little more humble, we boarded a plane to guangzhou the next afternoon.

one night in guangzhou. nothing interesting of note. big city. lots of people. in china. that's about it. the airport is pretty nice, though (and that's saying something in china).

the next afternoon we boarded an express train to hong kong. it was almost as if i had taken a 20 hour flight to a different part of the world as i stepped off at the train station in kowloon. it was warm, the sun was shining, people weren't spitting everywhere, the cars ran quietly . . . and were clean. an easy taxi ride to hong kong island and we were at our hostel which was right in the middle of causeway bay - one of the main shopping areas of hong kong. mrs. lin, the owner of our little guesthouse was all business. she took our passports, recorded the information, gave us a map and pointed out all of the important places (e.g. ATM's, subways stops, etc), took our money, issued us a receipt, and then told us that she didn't want to see us for the rest of our time there. "okay, no problem mrs. lin. really, it's okay, we understand. really, you don't have to raise your voice to get your point across. alright, we won't bother you." aren't hostels just so much more fun than 5 star hotels? we met up with our friend justin from BC and he proceeded to show us around like a professional tour guide. he knew all the hot nightspots, the best sights to see, where to eat (not to mention we got to ride around in his new car). our days were spent waking up around 10, going to see some sights, meeting justin around 5 when he woke up, and then hanging out with him and his friends for the rest of the night. the cash ran freely, but we figured that this was the last place we were going to be doing any heavy-spending. ahhhh, how we were wrong. cue the bus to xiamen and flight to bangkok.

our days in hong kong already seeming to be a distant memory as we entered mainland china again by bus to catch a plane in xiamen. i'm sure xiamen is a very nice place, but we were only there long enough to disembark a bus, board a taxi, disembark the taxi, and then board a plane. within one day, i had traveled from a special administrative region, to another country, and finally to another country. we were finally in thailand and after being the victims of a little taxi scam at the airport, we were finally on khao san road in the heart of the banglamphu region of bangkok. as we slid out of the sweaty taxi into the even sweatier air, the scene before us was almost otherworldly (or at least something from a movie). very attractive people speaking a menagerie of languages in various states of undress could be seen wandering/stumbling/sleeping on the street. this was truly the backpacker's haven that i had read so much about. it was a little after 1 AM and we still did not have a place to stay. wandering from guesthouse to guesthouse all the while dodging and hopping over passed out foreign revilers, we finally found a room at what seemed to be a lice infested motel of the pay-by-the-hour kind. we were so tired, however, that the bedsheets that hadn't been changed since mao tse-tung was the leader of china nor the various paraphernalia of questionable uses on the floor didn't bother us at the time. i passed out and woke up the next morning in a pool of my own sweat. i was finally REALLY in thailand. the next few days were filled with sightseeing and getting oriented. we took a boat cruise through the canals at night, went to clubs, parties, after-parties, after-after-parties. an expected duration of stay of 5 days became 8. i even went to a backstreet boys concert with a friend i made there. he had VIP tickets with all of his friends and invited me to go. yes, i saw the backstreet boys live in bangkok. they were pathetic; i couldn't have been happier. the whole time it felt like we would be there forever and that we would never continue on our adventure, but reality soon caught up with us (as did our party fatigue) and we realized that it was time to get out while we still could. we hopped a bus to chiang mai in the north of thailand.

the bus that conveyed us to chiang mai could only have been the tour bus for "the golden girls". pink, ruffled curtains, pink blankets, pink ruffled pillows . . . you get the picture. we were traveling in style with our "girls". chiang mai proved to be the respite we needed. clean air, quiet, relaxation, beautiful temples, $2 massages. we needed to regain our energy for the next leg of our trip which would take us to the south of thailand and the islands of ko samui and ko phangan. it was not all rest, though. being in the mountains of thailand, a mountain trek was only appropriate. we rode elephants, bamboo rafted down a river, and visited some native village populations in the hills (a.k.a hill tribes). the laid-back atmosphere of thailand permeated every experience in this mountain paradise.

due to the "fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants" philosophy on this trip, we did not book tickets to get to the south of thailand until 2 days before we wanted to leave. this presented us with the problem of both being able to get on the same flight. the decision was made that i would go first in the morning and find us a place to stay and then mike would come on the next plane in the afternoon. so, i rose on the morning of departure, arrived at the airport, fell asleep on the airplane and woke up in paradise. the ko samui airport was a mere cluster of bamboo huts all open to the air. after some haggling, i found a taxi that would take me where i wanted to go. i asked around about beach bungalows all along the beach until i found one that would accommodate 2 people and wasn't horribly dirty. i had about 5 hours before mike was supposed to arrive on the island, so i proceeded to get some fresh seafood, lie on the beach, get a thai massage (again $2) while watching the sun set, and then shower and go to a restaurant on the beach that just happened to be presenting a free traditional thai dance show. oh, i had also made friends with my thai masseuse and she had invited me to come to a club with her that night. once mike got in, the three of us headed off to the club (all three of us on her motorcycle . . . the following picture explains all). fun was had by all. the following day, with my head pounding and my veins still pumping with thai whiskey i rolled onto the beach to nurse myself back to health. after some hours in the sun, mike and i reconvened and decided that ko samui was "so touristy" and thus needed to proceed on to ko phangan. we did not leave, however, without experiencing the traditional art of "muay thai" or thai boxing. this was one of the most interesting sights i saw in thailand. each opponent did a personalized dance before he was to begin the fight. this dance is to pay respect to the other team's teacher as well as to ask for luck in his fight. these dances were very elaborate and were accompanied by traditional instruments. there were 8 different fights the night that we went with fighters ranging in age from around 7 years old to 25 years, old. i was enthralled the entire time. waking the next morning, we boarded the ferry to ko phangan and left ko samui well behind us. when i thought i had stepped into paradise on ko samui, i was obviously naive to the fact that ko samui was merely the "purgatory" outside the gates of paradise. ko phangan seemed nearly unspoiled. with few paved roads and a much more "homegrown" atmosphere, this became a place that i could easily never leave. movies played on TVs in the worldly restaurants that abounded, mats were set up on the beach at night for people to enjoy their drinks on, and during the day you could lie on the beach without another person around for nearly 500 meters. this was truly paradise. well, until i fell off of a motorcylce and put a hole to the bone in my knee. you see, mike and i thought that it would be a great idea to rent motorcycles to explore the far reaches of the island. we had not realized, however, that unpaved mountain roads are not conducive to amateur motorcylce riding. after falling twice myself and employing the aid of a very nice thai guy, mike then proceeded to follow suit. the motorcycles sat outside our bungalow for the rest of our time there . . . un-ridden. our brief stay on ko phangan was ceremoniously ended with a drunken night on the beach. on ko phangan, the island of the world famous "full moon parties", the "thing to do" is to buy a bucket (which consists of one bottle of alcohol and then two bottles of some other mixer all poured into a beach bucket) and then share it with 2 or 3 other friends. well, mike and i decided to share one between the two of us . . . i only remember having a round of affirmations with mike and then dancing by myself in a beachside bar. there will always be a place in my heart for ko phangan.

from here i traveled to cambodia and vietnam. my reflections on these two countries will have to wait until my next entry, however, as i feel it only appropriate to write about them separately from my adventures in hong kong and thailand. i also felt it only appropriate to describe the level of partying that was had in hong kong and thailand in order to juxtapose it against the completely different types of adventures i had in cambodia and vietnam. i leave you with this expectation of new stories in the next entry.