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Bahamas

Sivananda Yoga Retreat - Paradise Island

sunny 21 °C

Back in Paradise at the Sivananda Yoga Retreat… (I'm currently writing this blog entry from back home and it is a bit of a challenge to get back into the mindset, but here goes…)

First and foremost, I must admit that none of these pictures were taken during my RTW trip. I didn't take my camera out a single time while in the Bahamas this December, so the pictures are either from my trip in 2008 or from my TTC earlier in 2010.

So after a quick stay in Seattle, I arrived for 11 days of relaxing at the Yoga Retreat. Normally, they ask a few quick questions at customs, but as the guy could see that I'd already been there twice in 2010, he just stamped my passport and waved me through. From there, leisurely taxi ride to Mermaid dock where I got to take a boat across to Paradise Island.

Getting onto the boat, seeing the beautiful blue waters of the bay and Paradise bridge, it felt like I was home at my home away from home in the Bahamas and a smile crept over my face.

I stayed in a tent hut, which is basically a large tent in which they set up up a bed with a mattress, as well as some furniture and electricity which can be used for a lamp as well as to recharge computers, cell phones etc…

After checking into my tent, I made a b-line directly to the beach and just stood there ten minutes getting my feet wet and staring at that beautiful horizon of blues. It was good to be back. After that, I headed back, noticing that they'd finally fixed the beach platform and headed to the kitchen to see some familiar faces - and ended up volunteering for a while to prepare the evening meal. I would return several following afternoons as it somehow felt right to be there. It was great to see Radha again as well as see other familiar and new faces.

The next day, I started off with a morning yoga session on the beach platform given by Shanti. I hadn't had a proper asana class since I left India. It was great to have a good proper yoga class with other people given by a good teacher. The wonderful view onto the beach and the sounds of the waves breaking on the beach didn't hurt either!

Later in the day, I went for a swim. Unfortunately, the water was rather turbid making it difficult to do any interesting snorkelling and of course, it was colder than it had been in May. What I didn't realize then was this was going to be one of my only two swims the whole time I was there as the weather took a turn for the very windy and cold by Bahamian standards with 30 mile/hour winds and temperatures falling as low 12C at night.

So… I spent most of my time there reading in the mornings after asana classes and helping out in the kitchen in the afternoons. While there, I got to hear a few evening concerts given by Karnamrita Dasi. It was great to chill in a familiar and relaxing place. I loved just walking up and down the beach. It was blissful!

I also took an introductory course of Thaï Yoga Massage. This was a bit of a mixed experience as on the one hand, it was only 3 days long, for a total of 12 hours which is very short and I felt the course wasn't very detailed as a result - not to mention it occasionally flew in contradiction to what I'd learned at Wat Po in Bangkok, home and birthplace of Thaï massage, but on the other hand, led to people being able to give competent massage after only 12 hours.

But as most things, my time in the Bahamas came to an end and I flew back to Kingston to see my family and friends I hadn't seen in 6 months.
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Posted by CVMB2010 11:32 Archived in Bahamas Tagged beach bahamas yoga paradise_island Comments (0)

USA (or America as non-Canadians seem to call it…)

LAX, SEA and CLT

all seasons in one day 14 °C

==Cold==

After 14:30 in my Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Los Angeles, I was happy to get out of the airplane. It was a good flight, mind you. Firstly, it is not everyday that they offer you lobster in economy class (not that that is what I ate, though…), but also, Seat Guru was quite right about the extra spacious economy seats. On Thai Airways' Airbus A340-500 used for the BKK to LAX flights, they have 36'' seat pitch, ie 36'' between an identical part of the seat in front or behind. This compared to what appears to be an industry average of 32'' for most intercontinental flights with 34'' being the longest I found anywhere else, with good old Swiss, Lufthansa and Air Canada using anything between 31'' and 33''. Those few extra inches meant that I could place my fist (as an example of the space - not my usual posture) between my knees and the seat in front, rather than the usual scenario where I spend the whole flight with my knees pressing against the seat in front. Luxury! I do have to admit that I enquired as to the cost of being bumped up to Premium Economy on the flight. In this case, it would have been about 30000 baht or 1000$. A bit much for 14.5 hours. Another fortunate turn of events for me (not Thai Airways) was that only half of the seats in economy were booked, so I actually got a window and aisle seat and managed, somehow, to lie down in this constricted space and got about 4-5 hours sleep, which is a first for me on a flight.

I also figured it was the last time for me to watch a Thai movie. It was a romantic drama that was rather entertaining.

Anyhow, back to Los Angeles, and the cold. It was 14C. I cruised through customs (not that there was any reason I wouldn't) and then got to wait 45 minutes in a t-shirt and cotton pants for a shuttle to the hotel I'd booked for the night. 45 minutes, when you are tired, cold and jet-lagged is one of those things that feels a little bit like eternity… Anyhow, the hotel, a Travelodge, though nothing extraordinary, permitted me to have about 4 hours sleep despite the fact that 19:20 in LAX was 10:20 in the morning of the next day in Bangkok.

The first thing that struck me in the hotel room as I was trying to get organized was that I didn't need to get a bottle of water. Potable water from a tap! It had been a while and it felt rather odd to fill a glass from a faucet and drink it and brush my teeth without using bottled water. I hadn't been able to do that since I left Switzerland (perhaps I could have in Istanbul, but I didn't try - you certainly didn't want to try that in India and most of South East Asia).

Another odd fact for me in the US is my reaction to it. No clear idea why but the US was pretty much the only place in my trip where I didn't feel safe (ok, there was also one neighbourhood I walked through in Cairo that was fairly dicey…). I'm not sure where that comes from. Perhaps from watching too many American TV shows growing up? Perhaps from the level of criminality? The fact that you can be detained for an indeterminate amount of time by "officers of the law" (DHS) on the arbitrary suspicion that you are a terrorist? Perhaps the fact that somebody could trip on your bag at the airport leaving you with an inordinately large legal bill? Not sure what it comes from, but I had the same initial reaction when I visited California a couple of years ago. It usually dissipates after a day or so… Sort of the same thing like swimming in shark infested waters (you stop thinking about it - No, I didn't mean that there was any similarity between said sharks and Americans in case you were wondering…)

Seattle

I want to start by thanking my friends Simon and Stacie for welcoming me to Seattle. It was great to see them again!

I was also greeted by the cold in Seattle, but I was expecting it, and oddly it didn't feel quite as cold as California. Two or three t-shirts covered by my kiwi rain coat were sufficient to keep me mostly warm. (ok, I should point out that I keep referencing the cold, because with the exception of 2 days in England where the weather was below 20C, I've pretty much been living in 20C+, 30C+ and even 40C+ weather since May… In Bangkok, the whole week before I left, it was 34C without factoring in humidity (with humidity, it was 41C)… So yes, I've become fairly sensitive to cold!) On the first day, I got to visit Alki Beach which is nice, but apparently too cold to swim, at least in the Winter. I then got to see Pioneer's Square briefly and an old gas factory that had a nice view onto the Seattle skyline. I also got to see locks where, if you are there at the right time of year, which is basically anytime but now, you get to see salmon heading either up or down the river.

Ferry seen from Alki Beach
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I'm not sure I could handle the weather in Seattle. It can be both sunny and raining at the same time just a short distance off. Also, the weather changes so much that if there are clouds over what you want to take a picture of, you sometimes only need to wait ten minutes for the clouds to be gone, and another 10 to return. But I must say that the light in Seattle is quite magical. I can imagine it is possible to take some wonderful pictures here, just because of the light.

Another pleasant surprise with Seattle was that they seem to have a good food culture. For example, good produce at the Pike Place Market. I particularly enjoyed the dried sour cherries either straight or in their chocolate-cabernet coating… as well as desiccated vegetable chips that were cut thickly enough that you could really taste the vegetable with minimal oil and salt. As well as a good selection of restaurants where attention to quality is present.

I enjoyed Pike Market and got to have a good apricot stuffed croissant at a French bakery that had nice pastries. I didn't realize at the time that the Starbucks next door was the original and first Starbucks… I wanted to go back and give it a try, not that I'm a Starbucks fan (though I should point out that I'm currently sitting at the Starbucks at Atlantis as I type this, though mostly to warm up, as it is cold with 19C and 30 mile winds outside… So much for heating up in the Bahamas ;-)

Pike Place Market
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The following day, I visited the Space Needle, and revisited Pioneer's Square to visit the Underground city. Basically, at the turn of the century, Seattle burned down thanks to a clumsy worker who spilled glue on oil and started a fire that spread to the city's supply of dynamite and other combustibles… Anyhow, the idea was that as the city of Seattle had many recurring problems, such as exploding toilets (you had to be able to make a mad dash away from a toilet when you flushed as the 4 inch pipes from higher up the hill would also be pressured from the incoming high tides, leading to "water spouts" up to 4 feet high coming from the toilets in most of the lower and mid-city. That and they had parts of the streets that would sink up to 8 feet down and be large enough for a wagon to be parked in… So anyhow, they decided to rebuild the city about 15 feet higher, the problem is that this work would take several months, and the shop owners decided to rebuild their shops because they wanted to open immediately. So they built shops, and as time went by, the streets were raised with dirt about 15' higher than the entrance of the shops.

Pioneer's Square
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Weather change... ten minutes before...
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Ten minutes later...
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The first Starbucks...
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Space Needle
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Entered this building through its second floor window at street level and got to see its ground floor under the sidewalks...
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Simons' building in Pioneer Square
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This implied that for a time, you had to take a ladder down from the street into the shops. Not to mention people falling in. Seattle had their own AA program. It was the one step program where people having imbibed too much would fall from the roads and injure themselves or die. Colourful history for a city with a colourful set of founders… Crooks, thieves and prostitutes, basically. Anyhow, without going through the whole history of Seattle's founding, I recommend the Underground City tour in Seattle. You get to walk under the current sidewalks to the base of shops where people today actually enter through the second floor. You get to see remnants from a time past, including the original entrances of shops, see pieces of the original pot-holed streets, and the infamous "water" (sewage) spouting crappers… A good way to spend 90 minutes or so and so rich in information.

That same night, I took a 22:20 flight to Charlotte North Carolina. The flight lasted 4:40 minutes and I didn't get to fall asleep as I wasn't reassured by the very loud cracking noises coming the the exit I was seated right next to. The bulkhead would crack loudly every few minutes with the changing altitude and whenever we struck turbulence. Not particularly reassuring! Anyhow, as the flight landed at 3am Seattle time or 6am Eastern time, I decided to simply stay up and have an "American Breakfast" in "America". I walked around the airport and watched a couple of movies to pass the time.

I also thought that I was really tired of taking the plane and decided to count how many flights I'd been on since the beginning of the year. I realized that if I include my initial trip to the Bahamas as well as my trip there for the TTC, I've gone through 33 take-offs and landings… And by the time I get back to Montreal, I'll have had 35 take-offs and hopefully as many successful landings. Not bad for somebody who doesn't particularly like flying and I'm glad to think that after I get back to Canada, I won't be taking an airplane for a couple of months. Calculating the times, I will have spent 91 hours or so if I include the two trips to the Bahamas or 77 hours or three days if I just look at my round the world trip. Nuts, really!

Posted by CVMB2010 09:56 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Thailand again...

Koh Phi Phi, Bangkok and Ayutthaya

sunny 34 °C

Koh Phi Phi

The Beach… Really?

So I decided that I should take a little time to visit the islands in the south of Thailand as Thailand has a reputation for having a disproportionately large amount of the world's nicest beaches. Now I admit upfront that that will be a tough sell for me as I am particularly fond of Paradise Beach in the Bahamas… To me, it is the perfect beach.

But with a partially open mind, I left for Phuket which is one of the access points to the islands, getting there with the excellent, moderately cheap Bangkok Airways. Bangkok Airways may not be the cheapest (Air Asia probably is) but I like the quality of the service and the fact that the airplanes are quite a bit younger than I am which is not necessarily the case of all of the cheap asian airlines…

So arriving in Phuket under a brilliant blue sky, I was a little discouraged to realize that my hostel smelled a bit of sewers. I thought I'd made a bad choice till I walked around the streets to discover that all of the old town of Phuket carries that aroma. Needless to say that I wasn't super impressed with Phuket, but then apparently I was in the wrong part of it as Patong is supposed to be the area to see. Patong is basically a series of resorts on a nice beach.

The next morning, I left by ferry, sitting on the deck of the ferry for the 90 minute ride to Koh Phi Phi Don. It was a rather beautiful and dreamy trip which is probably why I forgot to apply sunblock. Suffice it to say that when you spend 90 minutes sitting in the sun in the half lotus position, you get a funny looking sunburn! And what a sunburn it was! (oops!)

When the ferry set into port, I was impressed by the blue of the water, the beauty of the island. As I met a representative from my hotel, the Phi Phi Viewpoint Resort who was there to show me the way and cart my backpack, we set off into the jungle - or should I say the jungle of boutiques, shops, restaurants, clubs and stands. Hmm… Interesting.

Upon arriving at the hotel, I was greeted by the nice climb up to my bungalow. It was one of the bungalows that survived the tsunami of 2004 when most of Koh Phi Phi was wiped out. You can see several "tsunami shelters" and signs to them all over the island. Anyhow, the view from the bungalow was magnificent!

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After checking in, applying loads of sunblock quite a bit too late, I set out for a swim at the beach. The beach is in a nice sheltered bay which at high tide makes for nice relaxed bathing. The problem is that I tend to get bored at beaches unless there are lots of things to see underwater. As the tides have a very high impact on the water level in this area, there is basically no underwater life anywhere in the bay as it spends several hours a day dry. And just laying on a beach works for me for about 15 minutes until I get bored.

For those who have seen me on Paradise Beach you'll probably understand why if I'm at the beach, I'm typically in the water snorkelling, not on the beach sunning myself. To each their own…

Anyhow, following a recommendation from the staff of the hotel, I set off to find the Calamero restaurant which made an excellent panang curry. This was a bit of an exception as many of the restaurants cater to westerners with western food. Want a burger? What pasta? Want pizza? Most of the places serve this food. I don't have anything against western food (I'm eating pizza as I write this…) but with such excellent typical Thai food it is a shame not to eat it more often and the Thai food was unfortunately a small assortment on the last pages of the menus in most places.

That evening, I went for a massage in the hotel's parlour which was in a big round solarium with 8 massage beds in it. Once again, great to have a massage, but having someone press down on sunburnt legs… Not quite as great…

That night, I went to bed hoping that the hotel receptionist was wrong in warning me of the noise in the evenings, but sure enough, there was constant loud music from 22:00 till 4am every night. What surprises me is as the sound made it through my earplugs, I can only imagine how loud it must have been on the beach.

Anyhow, the next morning, the weather had taken a definite turn for the worst (and this wouldn't change the whole time I was there except for one morning and was forecast to be like that for the week following my departure…). I hiked up to the top of the mountain under the rain the first morning to admire the view from 3 different viewpoints. Once again, the islands was beautiful, but simply overcrowded and I discovered upon returning to Bangkok that it is referred to as one of the "party islands". I returned to the viewpoints 3 mornings as the view was nice and the 300 or so steps plus climb was a good exercise in preparation for returning to the Bahamas...

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Koh Phi Phi Leh in the distance...
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Due to the rain, I spent a quiet day in the bungalow resting and catching up with some sleep during the day (which I wasn't really getting at night with the noise). The next day, I hiked up to the viewpoint during a brief sunny moment to take some pictures and then signed up for an island tour on long boat. The boat would take me around Koh Phi Phi Don (the island I was on) as well as to Koh Phi Phi Leh, the island that was used to film the movie "The Beach" and that is uninhabited.

We got to visit Monkey Beach though the monkeys were absent and then continued on to Bamboo Island which was rather beautiful. On the way back, the waves became a little more pronounced such that our speed between the islands was fairly slow. We stopped off at Shark Point, a point where you are "guaranteed to see sharks" and with the other people on the boat, through myself over board for snorkelling. This was the best snorkelling I would see during my whole stay at Koh Phi Phi. The visibility was good at about 20m and there were lots a fish and decent coral. No sharks, mind you, but I can't say that I mind that too much. Or if a shark saw me, I never saw it.

Monkey Beach
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Bamboo Island
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Then onto Koh Phi Phi Leh which is beautiful. We went to a bay where there was a single boat with people snorkelling and then carried onto Maya Bay, the bay used in the film the Beach. All of the bays on Koh Phi Phi Leh have very very small entrances but are huge from the inside. It really is surprising to enter them.

Maya bay is once again beautiful, but overcrowded. Sigh!… But certainly worth seeing if you are in the area (by this I include the Phuket and or Koh Lanta area which is supposed to be a more peaceful island).

On the way back, I got soaked both by rain and by the wind blowing the "side wake" of the boat into the boat. It was a blast and I really enjoyed the impromptu salty shower!

Koh Phi Phi Leh
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Shark Point - great snorkelling but I didn't see any sharks...
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Koh Phi Phi Leh
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Maya Bay
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The next day, I bummed around Koh Phi Phi Don as once again, the weather wasn't good and decided to return to Bangkok the next day. A note of interest, there are tons of tattoo shops in Koh Phi Phi (as well as dive shops and massage parlours). You always see people getting tattoos, so it seems to be quite a successful business in Koh Phi Phi.

Bangkok

Upon returning to Bangkok, I was greeted by the sun.

Bangkok has been the place I've stayed the longest on this trip (approx 30 days) and I've become very fond of it. I could even consider living here someday should the opportunity present itself. I certainly hope to return someday.

I decided that to familiar myself more with Bangkok, I would walk from Silom to Siam Square. I spent part of the morning reading Sun Tzu's Art of War on my iPhone while sitting in Lumphini park visited by several very large (as long as I am) lizards. I then proceeded to visit the campus of Chulalonkorn University on the way to Siam Square.

I also spent a few days looking around different neighbourhoods and sampling lots and lots of food. The spices finally got the best of my and I started to develop heartburn on my last days there. Sigh! Extraordinary food that I'll miss… I do hope to be able to find all relevant ingredients in Montreal to make my own.

Giant lizard in Lumphini park and view from Lumphini park
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Ayutthaya

A couple of days before leaving, I decided to visit Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam. I particularly enjoyed the Bang Pa-In palace on the outskirts of Ayutthaya as well as a few of the Buddhist temples in Ayutthaya.

Bang Pa-In Palace
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Tomb of Rama 10
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Then it was time to get some last little souvenirs (food mostly…) and gifts for my nieces and then packing. So this morning, I checked out of my home away from home in Thailand, the Silom Lub.D hostel. It really is a boutique hostel and is unique as to its cleanliness, space and quality. I will miss it and the staff!

Now I get to look forward to a 15h40 flight to Los Angeles… Yikes, that is a long flight!

Posted by CVMB2010 22:44 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Bangkok

-Take 2-

semi-overcast 32 °C

Bangkok - Take 2

After my very quick hop through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, I returned to Bangkok with the goal of taking a thai massage course. Where better to take it than in Bangkok at the renowned Wat Po massage school?

But before getting on the topic of my massage school at Wat Po, a few more things about Bangkok.

Cooking

While in Bangkok during my first stay I took two cooking classes. I learned to make both green and panang curries, papaya salads, kum yam goong soup, fried rice and a variety of deserts. The nice thing with Thai cooking is the balance of the flavours where aromas, though well blended, are not meant to be discreet. Most dishes are heavily perfumed in a good way. For example, the typical aromas you find in some dishes are the combination of chilies, kefir lime leaves, lemongrass and galangal. Add to this fish sauce, palm sugar, coconut cream or milk as well as fresh basil leaves and the perfume seems to me to be pretty close to perfection. Then you can add vegetables, meat or fish and you are ready to go.

Of course, the ratio of these flavours - hot, sweet, sour, salted - varies depending on the dish, such that with the kun yam goong - spicy shrimp soup, the heat of the chilies typically dominates, but you still get the kefir lime leave flavours, the lemongrass, galangal etc… In this case, it is heat first, then sour then salted then sweet. In the green papaya salads, the chilies also dominate (even in the pied farang variety (spiced for a foreigner or textually spiced for the French)) but then you will likely have sweetness before sourness. And so on… After two weeks on Thai food, I got a little sick of it, but at this point, after my second two week stay, I'm just crazy about it and look forward to reproducing some of these recipes back home!

Some of the dishes I prepared (pictures taken with an iPhone...):
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Massage course

So one morning, I took the Skytrain to the Sathorn Chao Phraya ferry stop, then took the 30 minute or so scenic ferry ride up the Chao Phraya to Ratakanosin, the neighbourhood containing the Grand Palace, and several Wats (temples) including Wat Po where my massage course was to be taken. I inquired about the course and decided that I would start it one of the two next days, but would try to find a room at Khao San road so I wouldn't have to deal with a total transit time of 45-60 minutes every morning and evening.

Well… Khao San road is not for me! I'm so glad that upon my first arrival in Bangkok I went to Silom (the business district) instead. Khao San road is chaotic, noisy and even a little dirty. It is also overcrowded with backpackers. Now I may be a backpacker as well (though I think flashpacker applies to me more readily with a quarter of the weight of my travel gear being computer and photo gear…) but after a while, you get a little tired of the younger generation of backpackers bragging about where they've been, how long they have been traveling, how drunk they got and how cheaply they got everything. Also, and this may be particular to me, but you get a little tired of meeting new people incessantly, where the relationship goes through the "where are you from?" "Where have you been?" "Where are you going?" "How much did you pay for xyz?" "… I drank soooo much when I was in ABC…" There is nothing wrong with the typical backpacker, but it is also nice to have some more involved discussions on occasion. I was fortunate to meet some nice people with whom to have some interesting discussions in and around Silom. Anyhow, I visited two rooms that were a reasonable rate at Khao San road and they were pretty bad. It might have been bad luck or I may simply have been spoiled from spending too much time at Lub D on Decho road, which is really a wonderful hostel.

So I decided to stay in Silom and deal with the transit. Not knowing which day I would start, I was debating on starting the next day depending on what time I got up. (Very!…) Fortuitously, the next morning, I got up early enough to make it on time to class. There were 7 of us; a guy from the UK who'd been living in Asia for several years, a girl from Korea who was hoping to open a massage or wellness centre in Korea, a girl from France who worked seasonally in spas, another girl from France who has her own plans of what to do with the massage certification, a woman from Seattle who was already a massage therapist and a thai woman living in Japan. We were led to a room where we watched a brief movie about the history of Wat Po massage and the school. We then got a brief explanation of how the course would be conducted. We would start by getting a demonstration of the whole massage followed by practicing step 1 for the first day, then the next day, steps 1, 2 and 3, then the following day, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 and then a little under two days to practice the whole 80-90 or so postures in order and learn them by heart for the exam.

Now the whole concept of the course is hands on (pun intended). On day one, I became the model for the first section where they drew lines on my arms and legs with a marker (I must have looked funny on the ferry back to Silom). They basically demonstrate the sequence on a student while you are imitating them on another student. And so on swapping turns at giving and receiving massage. It is a pretty sweet deal when you think of it because you spend 3 hours a day giving a massage, but also about 3 hours a day receiving a massage. This can be a mixed blessing though, as when you are beginning you don't know how much pressure to apply. On day 2 some of us had bruises and by day 4, before starting a sequence we'd typically ask our partner to not press hard. You also learn that some parts of the body are more sensitive to pressure than others, for example, calves tend to be the one spot that is markedly sensitive on everybody and requires proper dosing of pressure.

It was also a little stressful because just before learning a sequence properly, a new section would be added. In my case, the last massage I gave before the exam the day of the exam, I left out 6 steps in section 5 and had to pop open the manual to figure it out. Fortunately, it all snapped into place during the exam. Apparently, to not forget, you have to practice the 2 hour sequence at least once daily. I'm afraid the next time I give the massage, I'll have to pop out the manual to make sure I haven't forgotten too much...

On the positive side, thai massage can be great for many things from relieving stress to improving flexibility. To my general surprise, at the end of the 3rd day of the course, I sat in a perfect (for me) full lotus pose and was able to do it on both sides. Even during my yoga teacher's training course, I could only do the lotus on one side and then with considerable discomfort in my left knee. No more. No pain, no tension, it just worked even though I hadn't been doing much yoga in recent days. The next morning, I couldn't do the full lotus, but by the end of the day I could again. Guess I need a thai massage every morning ;-)

We were a good group and would enjoy lunch together in local restaurants.

Siam Square and Chinatown

Bangkok has several very different neighbourhoods such that you can find a bit of everything in this city. That is why when people tell me they don't like Bangkok, I'm a little surprised.

One evening after class I accompanied one of my classmates to visit Siam Square and get food there. I really wasn't expecting to find a really nice modern and rich shopping centre (Siam Paragon) with a wonderful huge food court with great food as well as a gourmet grocery store with luxury products from all over the world including gruyere cheese (at 60$/kg though…), Frey chocolate (I didn't even realize they exported that stuff…). They also have an indoor BMW and Bentley dealership and a cinema including an IMAX. I really enjoyed seeing (and tasting) the selection of asian food products for sale. A foodie? Who me? :-) We had some good sashimi and I had a great time.

A couple of days later, we also visited Chinatown. As you'd expect of a Chinatown, fairly chaotic with all kinds of exotic products for sale in cramped back-alleys as well as shops selling both in bulk and detail. Also, some of the streets seemed to have themes, with a street with hordes of gold jewellery shops.

Loi Krathong Festival

That same evening was the Loi Krathong festival. It takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month or typically November in the western calendar. Loi means to float and a Krathong is a float made of a section of banana tree trunk that has been decorated with elaborately folded banana leaf, flowers and includes incense and candles. The idea being to light the incense and candle, make a wish and release the Krathong into the Chao Phraya or other rivers, lakes and ponds. This is quite a celebration for the Thais and there were many well lit boats on the Chao Phraya as well as fireworks. Loi Krathong also coincides with the Yi Peng festival where lots of khom loi or floating (flying in this case) lanterns are launched into the sky. A magical evening!

Posted by CVMB2010 02:00 Archived in Thailand Tagged bangkok cooking massage loi_krathong Comments (0)

Laos PDR

Luang Prabang

sunny 27 °C

Laos - PDR (Please don't rush!)

Writing a blog is sure easier when your mind isn't 9439 kilometres away… But here goes anyhow.

The beginning of my stay in Laos reminded me of my last day in Croatia - lots of things went wrong. Nothing serious, mind you, but it took me a while to find my balance and enjoy it here.

I'd booked a pickup with the hostel where I was planning on staying. I arrive at the airport, get my visa (noting Canadian as my "race"… What exactly was I supposed to answer?!? Odd question…) and pick up my luggage. My lift was nowhere to be found. Laos PDR stands for Laos People's Democratic Republic, but if you look in the guide books, they'll typically refer to it as Laos Please Don't Rush. I waited for about a half an hour and then decided to take a taxi to the hostel as the taxis were there and I had no idea how long I was expected to wait…

I get to the hostel to find out that the driver was there, but that he had a sign with the wrong name on it. The hostel manager seemed to be implying that as the staff had gone to get me, I should pay them, but in my mind, if the service isn't rendered, I don't see why I should pay. Anyhow, I grab a look at the the dorm I'd booked for 3.5$ a night and go back to the reception to ask if they have a room (the dorms were pretty bad - one of which was just a line of 8 mattresses on the floor side by side. The rooms are 4.5$. Though not great, the room is perfectly acceptable so I book it for a night. I should point out that the hostel had 2 toilets, though one was out of order, leaving one for 25 people. It also has a shower - outside next to the building which is a curtained off area giving onto the street. Hmm… I should also point out that in most of the guesthouses in Asia, the bathroom really is. I mean this in the sense that there is no tub or stall for a shower but rather the whole room is at a slight incline with a drain in the corner so when you take a shower, you get the whole floor wet. With 25 people sharing the one toilet/shower floor in a place where you are supposed to take your shoes off indoors… Well, walking on a dirty wet floor in a bathroom is rather gross…

Anyhow, I go out for an excellent meal which was basically the Laos version of a chinese barbecue (or fondue) with the ring over coal in the centre of the table, some Lao Lao (illegal rice whisky - though I'm assuming this was the legal gov't brand) and a couple of Beer Laos (excellent).

I return to the hostel and go to bed. In the middle of the night, around 1pm, I get up to go to the bathroom (what can I say… my ADH was inhibited (=too much beer!)) to find out that someone had locked the door from the inside upon exiting it and there was no way to get in. I look into the out-of-order toilet and use it. When I flush, it fills to the rim and doesn't overflow (phew!) but doesn't drain either (which is why it has the out of order sign on it). Upon returning to bed, I hear loud snoring from the dorm above. So glad I didn't stay there…

Next morning, around 8am, the door to the unique functioning toilet has still not been unlocked but as several other people have decided to use the out-of-order toilet which can't be flushed at this point as it won't drain, the lobby of the hostel smells rather bad… Ah! The joys of budget travels in Asia. I say this, though, but I've had some wonderful accommodations for 6.5$ a night (and even decent accommodations for 2.10$) and mediocre accommodations for 3-4 times that much. Luck of the draw I guess. So I decide to move into a guest house. What can I say, I'm no longer 18 and do appreciate some comforts in life… (though to be fair, the staff of the hostel were nice and I went with a tour with them later in the day to the Kuang Si waterfalls after having checked out and it was really good. They were also on the honour system for beer and drinks which was nice…)

So I move to a new guesthouse, Villa Shiyada, one of the first I find. I ask to be shown a room. It is quite nice and very quiet. I ask the price (30$ a night - ouch!) but say that I'll take it (I was willing to do anything to not stay another night in the previous hostel). I think the girl at the reception liked me, as at several occasions, after I agree to an initial price, she would offer me a rebate. For example, the 30$ became 25$ a night. Then when I checked out, she offered me a rebate on the breakfast I had at the hotel the last morning.

Later in the day, I visited the Kuang Si falls which were really beautiful. On the segment of it that I visited I counted about 11 pools with waterfalls between them. Peaceful spot, though fairly full of tourists, but less so that at the Erawan falls I visited in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. These were much nicer! It was possible to find a pool and swim alone. With the sunlight shining down into the the pools through the tree canopy, it really looked like the the pools were generating there own pale blue light. Fantastic. Nicest falls I've ever seen, to be honest! Got to visit it with three other people from the first hostel I stayed at, two of which were blokes from Liverpool. I must say I really like the rather strong Liverpudlian accent. Have for years…

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Got a Laos massage later that day by a fellow that was really good at… Thai massage. I can't say that I noticed any difference between his massage and the one I received numerous times in Thailand. Anyhow, it was nice, vigorous and cheap.

I decided to spend the next day looking around Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is a nice town at the point where the Nam Khan and the Mekong meet. It has a hill in the centre with one of the numerous buddhist temples in the town. It sort of feels a bit like a resort, but without the ocean or any serious mountains in the immediate area. By this I mean, there are lots of tourists and lots of people willing to sell services to the tourists - good restaurants, good hotels etc… That being said, it is still worth a serious look - specifically the old town which is a Unesco World Heritage site. There are also several beautiful temples.

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Food wise, they also have a green papaya salad, but they add the little eggplants that I haven't seen outside of Asia. They are smaller than grapes! They also make good fish on a stick, or rather fish between a stick, which is convenient, as you can peel away the fish fillet part from the parts of the fish that you don't eat and those parts stay stuck between the two sticks. Very convenient and really fresh fish!

By the time I arrived in Luang Prabang, I was worn out from my speed run around Hanoi and Siem Reap, so I also spent a considerable amount of time just chilling. It is a nice place, but next time I go back to Laos, I intend to see more of it, and specifically more of the countryside.

Posted by CVMB2010 07:05 Archived in Laos Tagged laos luang_prabang Comments (0)

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