Monday, November 19, 2007

Part 3: The Bangkok and its cars

Note: This is the third part of three. Scroll down and start reading at part 1 then make your way back up the page. Also, you will notice photos in this post which have nothing to do with it. They are from the Bangkok trip, I promise... just not that relevant to the post.

Sometimes to make myself feel really far away from the states, I turn on Seattle's KUOW and listen to NPR. Interspersed through the Broadcast are traffic reports. It is fun in the morning to listen to afternoon traffic in Seattle. "You are stop and go on the bridges and will find yourself in a real mess on the ship canal bridge." I sit back, remember the days when traffic seemed important to me, think of Chiang Mai traffic, and then feel like I'm living someplace far away from what is familiar. Not that Chiang Mai doesn't have traffic, but when you commute around on a little 125cc scooter, traffic doesn't seem to matter too much. Most the drivers here leave a space between the curb and themselves which creates an unofficial but still relied on extra lane that all motorcycle drivers use to zip up through the traffic. In fact one of the hardest things to get used to when I was back in states this summer was not being able to zig zag through traffic even when I was on Megan's motorcycle. The ethic just isn't there in the states, but here... anything goes.

[Me and a hand made metal alms bowl maker] After leaving Hong Kong, I had three days planned in Bangkok. We met up with Megan at the Suvurnambuhmi (pronounced Suvrumbum) airport in Bangkok and then attempted to hop in taxis to take us to our hotel in the heart of town. Or at least in the heart of the part of town where we needed to be. The four of us couldn't all fit into one taxi, at least without a major argument from the taxi liason that one must use in order to get a taxi at the airport. Josh and Kat got into one. Megan and I into another and off we went down the express way paying tolls as we pass them but at least cruising.
Then we got off the tollway.
A dead stop.
[The yellow flag is The King's flag, the other flag is the Thai flag, and I'm hiding in the shade looking at Bangkok below] In America, most traffic lights are timed and automated, and for the most part we wait around for 3-5 minutes at the very most for the light to change and then get some movement. In Thailand, computers are expensive and police are cheap. Every intersection has a cop sitting in a little booth who manually switches the lights whenever he sees fit. This could work quite well if there was any coordination between intersections, but as far as I can tell. There is not. So what happens are major, and I mean 1-2 km long lines behind lights as the cop lets one (usually of four) direction of traffic go at a time and tries to wait for it to clear out.
[Cool mother of pearl door] I have literally sat at the front of a line waiting for the light to change for 15 minutes. Now imagine being at the back of that line. Now imagine you are in Bangkok (in Chiang Mai we don't have that many lights) and you have to go through 10 of these intersections.

Welcome to Bangkok. After one hour of sitting in a taxi (at least it was air conditioned) and moving about 10 blocks, Megan and I decided it might be better if we just walked to the hotel. However, the taxi driver wouldn't let us out of the taxi without paying a 150 baht (about 30% of the fair) fine because he knew that he was going to have to sit in this traffic for another 1-2 hours, because for some reason, it is impossible to turn off the street he was on (which is true- don't know why you can't but once you are on some of the roads, there is no way off for a long while- this could explain another source of the traffic) We payed our fine, got out, and dodged mayhem on the road (a familiar Thailand kind of mayhem with beggars, food stalls, t-shirt shops, stray dogs, hookers, and random building built into the sidewalk). But this was better than the traffic as it hadn't moved an inch for the whole time we walked beside it. As far as I know, that poor taxi driver is still on that street trying to get off.

Welcome again to Bangkok.

[Bangkok, the ultimate test for the ultimate man] Bangkok is a great town with lots going on and plenty to see and do. But here is my overwhelming impression of Bangkok (as a visitor who was staying downtown): Getting around in Bangkok sucks. It is almost completely crippling. Walking around is no good because there are no emissions controls and half the cars are detuned to allow huge amount of unburnt fuel (experienced as huge plumes of smoke coming out of tailpipes) and feature no mufflers. Riding in taxis is no good for the reasons stated above. Tuk-tuks are all dishonest and have completely killed their own market by never taking you where you want to go. There is a sky-train and a subway line, but these only go to a few places and you have to take a taxi from the stops anyway. There are motorcycle taxis which have the ability to weave through traffic at high speed, but they have the ability to weave through traffic at high speed which isn't the safest way to go. Besides, they end up driving down the sidewalk half the time and I don't want to give money to support that. So there you have it.
As a local, I'm sure you learn to plan and deal with the traffic, but as a visitor, I'm not quite sure I enjoyed it too much.

That said, Megan and I did some cool stuff. We went to an insanely huge market that features jeans, bags, puppies, fish, shirts. fighting cocks, and lots of food. This market is about 1km square and goes on and on and on. [A long reclining buddha] We went to a nice giant reclining buddha and adjoining temple. We payed 18 dollars (a godly sum in thailand) to go see a movie, but here is what you get: A private pre-movie lounge with a bartender who thinks a martini is 1/2 vodka and 1/2 vermouth (the lounge was nice though), a movie theater with only 50 seats all of which are electric reclining leather lazy boy style recliners, and attendant who unfolds your blanket and fluffs your pillow, and an amazing screen and sound system. This is high life movie watching. [Cats and a statue, the start of Megan's critter pics] We went to the Bed Super Club and drank amongst Thai celebrities. Climbed at enormous outdoor climbing wall that wobbled when you were at the top and where they just switched all the lights when it was time to go. We ate some good food. And we hung with good company.

I can't say I love Bangkok, I can't say I hate it. But I will say that I am not dying to get back there anytime soon.

When I finally came home to Chiang Mai after all my travels to Macau, Hong Kong, and Bangkok all of which have extremely different feels, it felt good to be back in a city that is just the right size, with just the right amount of craziness, and extremely friendly people.
Chiang Mai feels like home and that feels good. I have to admit that it is going to be very difficult to find a place to live that I could like more than here. I sort of hope that I do tire of this place by June because that is when we are leaving, but I'll worry about that when I need to. Like in June. For now, I will continue to live my life day by day and enjoy the present. Life is good and I really have nothing to worry about... except trying to heal my shoulder.

[Dog clothes for sale at the market. Now that it is cold season- meaning it gets down to 60 at night- all the dogs wear clothes]

[Critters at the market]

[Megan's favorite puppy at the market]

Part 2: Hong Kong from awe to professional

How do you describe the shock that a country bumpkin like me gets when arriving in city like Hong Kong. Let me describe my six days of amazement in Hong Kong.

Day 1: Friday Night. We take a boat over which drops you off in a big mall. It is night time. There are lots of white people everywhere and there are lots of Hong Kong people everywhere. There are lots of people. We are met by Josh's friend, Kevin, who when sized up for a first impression, sports a stylish bleached out spiky hair cut, dresses formally cause he just got off his finance job, is obviously not at all fazed by the ultra cosmopolitan whiz around him, but still sports a bit of an air of climberness in the way he hold himself relaxed and quite open. We follow him around the mall, end up at a long taxi line and eventually jump into the one of what must be 100,000 taxis driving around Hong Kong. Up the hill we go, zig zagging up concrete canyons, my nose stuck to the window as 30 story building is followed by 50 story building is followed by 43 story building and so one for a good while. We step out into the cool night in front of yet another tall building which looks unimpressive from the outside. Up the elevator to the 10th floor, through a door and into an ultramodern swank bachelor pad with white couches, oriental rugs, nice artwork, and a very chic kitchen.

[Kat on the boat to Tung Lung] Day 2: Time to go climbing. I didn't know it too much before, but Hong Kong isn't just a big city. It is a very narrow (and tall) big city with "mountains" (read hills) surrounding it. Hong Kong is actually a series of islands with the majority of the city built up on small sections of two of them. The cool thing is, the city stops abruptly and then it is wonderful wooded hills. And it has climbing. Lots of it. This link is built by a Hong Kong climber Stuart. We managed to hook up with him and climb two days while we visited. Very friendly and has created a great community in Hong Kong.
[Hiking to the crag] On this day, the plan was to go to Tung Lung Island and climb at the Technical Wall. Hong Kong has this wonderful mix of organized cosmopolitan city with rustic Asian chaos. We took the escalator down the hill (more on this later) hopped a taxi in front of starbucks, went on the modern freeway along the water, and then jumped on a little chinese ferry/ fishing boat for a 30 minute ride out to the island. A very nice ride with views of the modern skyline and sleepy islands. Off the boat, hike a path for 15 minutes, stop at a ramshackle hut for dumplings and lemon tea, then hike another 10 minutes back down to the water to Hong Kong's premier sport climbing and social scene. [At the crag] The cool thing is, this crag is right on the sea cliffs with waves smashing up against the cliffs. Every minute or so there is a massive explosion of water no further than 2 meters behind you. Very exciting. We climbed on very compact Volcanic Tuff for the better part of the day. Fun routes for sure although my shoulder was bugging me from some yoga I had done a week earlier and this kept me from climbing as hard as I would have liked. Oh well.
Hiked out, took the boat back home. Went out to some chinese food. Yummy.

Day 3: Off to Tsuen Wan boulders. Another surreal place with boulders hovering over the suburbs of Hong Kong. Only suburb here means 30 story buildings back to back. Sharp rock, but cool problems although I couldn't climb too much cause my shoulder was really hurting me. Everyone else cranked though. However, the setting was just so very nice that it felt great to be out with friends doing cool stuff. In this photo, you see Me, Kat, Kevin (blond hair), Stuart, and Indie the dog.
O.k. I like dogs. In fact, being with Megan has given me a love of all things animals and for the most part, I get along splendidly with almost all critters. Indie is the exception. Call it wisdom, or call it humor, but Indie doesn't get along with Americans. Brits- no problem. Hong Kong folks- no problem. Americans- now we have a problem. I spent a better part of two days trying to get this dog to like me. His tail would be up and wagging as he stood around the crag letting people pet him and give him snuggles, but when I come within a foot of him, the tail drops, the ears flatten, and jowls lift up. I back up, the tail goes back up. He would let me pet him, but he sure didn't like it. I tried offering him food, give him gentle pets, petting him when his owner Stuart was close by but nothing worked. Same thing with Josh and same thing with another American in the posse. He broke my heart.

[Fish in a bucket]
Day 4: Tourist Day. I was told one thing I had to do while in Hong Kong was hike up The Peak. The Peak is the hill right behind Hong Kong. The city stops and the forest starts and it is all very lovely. The beta I had was to take the escalators up to the top. And then turn right (or was it left) and find your way up.
A brief note about "The Escalators." Hong Kong is very dense. It is on a steep hill. There are a few small roads that wind their way up. However, they don't seem to have much traffic which seems strange since there must be roughly 1-2 million people that live on the central hill. Why is this? Because some genius figured out that Hong Kong could install a whole series of escalators that go down the hill in the morning and up the hill the rest of the time. Want to go up a few flights? No problem. Want to take the whole thing? No problem. Elevated walkways over most of the street mean that there is no backup waiting to get across roads. What a great way to move people around. Just picture yourself grabbing your coffee and Hom Bow in the morning, hopping on the escalator and riding it down to work in the morning. This is the greatest thing ever.

So... after some struggle, Josh, Kat and I made our way up the peak to the Peak tower. There is a shopping mall near the summit. A few escalator rides up to top of the mall and there is a look out which one must pay an addition 3 dollars to go see. I was feeling cheap and wanted to spend the money on coffee instead so I didn't go, but Josh and Kat went up. I waited downstairs for a while. Waited a little longer. Sat around for a while. Watched the water fountain and then finally saw the two of them coming out of the mall looking pretty cute together. I asked them how it was and they looked a little awkward. Finally Kat tells me that while they were up there, Josh asked her to marry him and that now she doesn't feel like Kat anymore but like she is living in a dream. It felt great to be around them. The energy was quite exciting. [Minutes after the big moment]
The rest of the day was spent checking out touristy things, eating noodles and going to Mong Kok, the Chinese part of town for dinner and climbing anchor hardware. Below are a bunch of photos of the area.

[Did he choose the right career?]

[Look closely at the text- this whole district was a "paradise"]

[crab fried in garlic and chilis... and beer]

[I liked the glove on the post. I was trying to take this photo and the guy who owns the shop also thought that it was funny that there was a glove on the post. He came over, moved it around a bit and started yelling at everyone and laughing]

[Of course, we had to have champagne that night]

Day 5: Wake up. Pack up the backpacks with climbing gear. Take the escalators down to the financial center. Dodge people in suits. Get on the subway. Ride it under the water through the city and get off, where else, a shopping mall. Funny story here. Josh and I really wanted coffee when we got off the subway and looked all around for a coffee stand. After searching and searching, we realized that only place to get a cup was at the McCafe. This is what is it called and you know what, the coffee was pretty good.
We jumped in a taxi which took us to the base of Lion Peak. After a very sweaty 45 minute walk up Lion Peak, we arrived at Lion Rock. A very nice 60-80 meter high chunk of granite on top of Lion Peak. Great climbing with an amazing view of Hong Kong.
We finish climbing reverse the commute back into town, again dodging people in suits and arrive at Kevin's in time for some yummy chinese food at this little dumpling place.

Day 6: Another tourist day. This time alone. I listened to my Jimmy Jim (code word for ipod shuffle) and walked all over the place. I think the greatest thing was seeing the candy mall (there are malls for everything- radio controlled cars, guns, shoes, cooking supplies)... no wait. [Plastic bowls with fresh fish. One of these kept jumping out of his bowl. I tried hard to capture it but missed the shot before he was cut in half by a large knife] The greatest thing was going into the wrong bathroom at the huge public park. It was the man's room all right, but it also had a secondary mission as the bathroom to "tap your feet in" when you are in the stall. I was checked out like a library book while visiting this local haunt.

And then on the 7th day, we left Hong Kong. We took the boat back to Macau which now felt very sleepy. Took a taxi to the airport. Had 3 mimes help us with our luggage (Macau just has too much money- they hire mimes to help you at the airport). And jumped a plane for good old Bangkok.

Good bye civilization, hello bedlam.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Part 1: Where is Macau Anyway and Why Was I There

A trip seemed in order. Having been in Thailand for about a month with almost no job and not whole lot of direction, I needed to do something to kick start my life again. Megan had a break in late October and she was planning on going to Cambodia but for whatever reason, I just wasn't that interested in going to Cambodia right now.
Then I heard about the right trip. A friend of mine, Muad, has been training for the last 5 months to compete in difficulty climbing at the Asian Indoor Games in Macau. Macau you say? Now here is a city that I have heard of... I think... but seems like a place I might want to go. [Inside the Ventian Casino] So what is Macau? My first guess was that it is somewhere in SE Asia, but up to about 3 weeks ago, that is about as much as I could have told you. Well, since you are obviously curious now I will tell you that it is a 1 hour boat ride away from Hong Kong and is an island just off the coast of Southern China. It was colonized by the Portuguese way back when (in fact I think it was the first place to be colonized in Asia) and still holds a lot of European charm mixed with a touch of Chinese chaos. It would still be a nice lazy fishing city with a little commerce if it weren't for the fact that in 1980 it was opened up to gambling. Now it is a quaint Euro/Asia city with a major dosage of Las Vegas thrown right in the middle. It actually earns more gambling revenue than any other gambling city in the entire world, Las Vegas included. Because the international climbing community is small, and because there is a great community developed in Macau/ Hong Kong, I hooked up with a Macau climber, Christine, who works as a flight attendant for the private jet owned by the Venetian in Macau. Christine told me that the guy who owns The Venetian makes more money in one year from just his one property in Macau than all three of his properties in Vegas combined. And these aren't small properties. I was told by someone in Hong Kong (none of this is verifiable) that the Venetian Macau is the largest building (I'm guessing floor space) in the world. The Sands Casino in Macau payed for itself, it actually payed off the entire building, after it was open for only one year. The who city is nuts and you can damn well believe that it is going to grow like you have never seen in the coming years. There is a lot of money to made by taking poor sucker's money. Anybody want to open a Casino with me?

[Muad and Kat watching the speed climbing competition] Besides walking around town and pretty much digging the mixes of cultures, eating killer chinese noodles, fantastic portuguese clams, and wowing at the absolutely over-the-top architecture of the Casinos, I spent a lot of time at the Macau University for Science and Technology. More specifically at their brand new gym which holds a brand new 18 meter massively overhanging modular climbing wall. Pretty cool structure and one I would have like to climb on except that I couldn't because the Asia Indoor Games had their climbing comp going on. This is kind of like the olympics except that it is just for Asian countries. Competitors came from Iran, Indonesia, Mongolia, Korea, Khazikstan, and Thailand to name a few. It felt cool to sit between the Iranian team and the Malysian team rooting on a climber from Japan. Muad didn't do too well, he fell off low on the first round because his hand slipped of a hold as he was trying to do a hand/ foot match. [Muad on the comp route} He really shouldn't have fallen, but it was just one of those things that happens when you are climbing. You never know when you can just slip off. However it was fun to watch a comp and see the different abilities of these guys trying to onsite some pretty cool routes.

Then it was off to Hong Kong