Friday, January 29, 2010

Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan

Succumbing to the whims of the masse, I joined a group of about 50 of my classmates to attend the Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, Thailand.
If you're an early 30's workaholic, the Full Moon Party sounds like a semi-touristy of cultural experience and a great opportunity to enjoy a night out doors on the beach. But, if you're an early-20's overweight-substance-abusing-Australian, you'll know that the Full Moon Party is a chance to meet up with all of your friends and do things that you wouldn't think of telling your mother about.

The first clue that this is a soulless night of mayhem is the plethora of booths selling alcoholic drinks in buckets.
Fortunately, I was surrounded by many friends whose interests were closer to my own, which meant the fun was not entirely lost. One nice thing about traveling in a group this size is that you can rent out entire restaurants for your own purpose.
And when it comes to a night of fun on the beach, you can make your own party.
Of course, I didn't need to come all the way to Thailand to enjoy the company of my classmates. Then again, they don't have sunrises like this in Singapore.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Hong Kong, at last

Using Singapore as a base for travel in Asia over the last six months has been wonderful. It's a beautiful city and I always love coming back to it because it is i) first world (has potable water and I can eat street vendor food) ii) safe (I can walk almost anywhere at any time without feeling at risk), and iii) easy (accessible for foreigners). This sets it apart from most of the nearby destinations that I have visited. It is truly remarkable how different a neighbours can be, and Singapore has set a fine example of the advancements that can be achieved through of a relentless pursuit of economic development through i) fighting corruption, and ii) enforcing rules (setting the stage to establish steadfast institutions that invite market development).

Thanks to subsidized housing, the government ensures that all citizens have access to affordably put a roof over their heads. A favourable tax regime has attracted expats and businesses from around the globe to set up shop in this island nation. By comparison to its neighbours, please in Singapore are living well.

Of course, this prosperity has come at an expense. I have heard some people liken the perfection that has become Singapore as 'sterile'. True, the nation's subsidized housing may not be showing up in any architectural digests (admittedly, this is changing with new developments). And, the arts scene in the city makes Calgary look like a wonderland (January's inaugural fringe festival was a respectable start).

I have also heard many criticisms of the 'ruthless conviction' with which the government has charged ahead to impose rules and change since it split from Malaysia. If you try to engage a taxi driver in a discussion on politics you'll see him squirm in his seat in fear that you are out for a sound byte that might incriminate him. The 'big brother' paranoia permeates almost every facet of Singapore life, if you have your ear open to it.

I might be forgiven in thinking that these are the necessary evils of economic development in the region. But wait...there's Hong Kong. I knew Hong Kong by reputation as a commerce centre for the region. Like Singapore, Hong Kong has been shaped by its roots as a British colony. And even more than Singapore, Hong Kong has established itself as the charter city for development. I don't know the intricacies of how the economy evolved here, but it was quickly obvious that this is no Singapore.

Prosperity? check. Safety? check. Accessibility? check. Sterility? nope!

The thing that struck me first when we landed in Hong Kong was how 'imperfect' it is. Sidewalk at an angle. A little bit of litter on the street. Moss on the walls.

Imperfection is beautiful.

I guess that the place just feels 'lived in'. And it's nice. It's like Europe. In Asia. And, yet, it somehow feels more asian than Singapore. I can't explain it, really.

A walk around our hotel took us to an inner city botanical garden that showcased a wide range of primates and generated an echoy 'ooooo oooo aaaa aaaaa' that resonated in the surrounding blocks.
The climate in Hong Kong is a bit cooler than Singapore, which made it nice to walk around. I've heard the heat can be oppressive in the summer - but, in January, it's perfect for a few Canadians, a Brit, an Austrian and a Slovenian to do some exploring on foot. It feels nice to be somewhere with seasons!
As you might expect from a densely populated island, the transit system is well developed. We found these 'add value' machines in the subway. I couldn't help but reflect on how I was always trying to add value in my old job. Too bad that I didn't have a machine to help me out! (side note: no idea what these kids in the picture are doing).
By night, we took a lovely harbour cruse to check out the city lights and make our way to a dinner spot across the water. Super cheesy tourist thing to do - but it was absolutely lovely (if a bit chilly).
The dining in Hong Kong was incredible. Affordable and top shelf. The separation between expat hangouts and local hangouts is notable (and somewhat takes away from the experience), but we tried our hand at both and were not disappointed. If you are planning to spend some time in Asia, Hong Kong is worth a visit. It's a nice example of how a place can move forward, while maintaining its character.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Before I set out on this wild and wonderful year of 'education', I took the time to renew my passport (well in advance of the otherwise scheduled timeline for replacement). I wanted to ensure that I had adequate flexibility to travel - space for visas being a key driver.
I get excited every time I go to a new country and collect a stamp. Some places have an ink stamp. Others have a paper stamp like the one you might put on a postcard home. Others still give you an entire page stamp. (Side note: There seems to be an inverse relationship between the size of the stamp and GDP per capita for the issuing nation). Whatever the mark, it's exciting every time. It's more fun than the sticker collection that I had as a kid.
My American friend, Liz, has even had new pages sewn in her passport - TWICE! It almost looks like the passport is fake, since it is stuffed with so many visas and has straddled a change in passport design, such that the pages that are sewn in look very different than those that were included in the original passport. What a beautiful souvenir.

I've found myself browsing through my own passport, wondering what it will look like by the end of the year. Wondering what adventures are in store for me. As I was preparing my French visa application in anticipation of my move there in two months, I had reason to take another joyful flip through my passport. What I discovered is that my brand new passport had only a couple of blank pages remaining. With a few trips lined up over the coming two months, and an entire page required for the french visa that will need to last me until at least the end of July, that spelled a need to visit the Canadian embassy.

Sadly, the Canadian passport office will not simply sew in new pages. I will need to get a brand new passport (not so easy when you're not in Canada!) and start my collection from scratch. Again.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Myanmar - Finale

Leaving Inle Lake was difficult. Not only because we wanted more time to explore, but because we knew that the next stop was Yangon; a place in which we had already fruitlessly turned almost every stone in search of inspiration. There was just one more thing to see in Yangon, the Shwe Dagon temple. The main attraction. The ‘dessert’ that our tour organizer had saved for last.
Out front, we were treated to an impromptu hooligan caneball match, which was an exciting distraction.
Indeed, the temple was interesting, even to a non-Buddhist. The sheer goldness of it was hard to ignore. But, after Bagan and Inle Lake, it was hard to really appreciate its glory. I felt for our guide, who tried hard to make our tour exciting, knowing full well that we had just come from a grand tour of the inland. And just when we thought the sightseeing was finished, we were invited to check out the Burmese nightlife. As you might expect, things are done a little differently here. We went to a place called Power Light, which fits somewhere along the spectrum between karaoke bar and strip club. Hired women come out and sing, sometimes also dancing (conservatively, of course…often in that grade 7 style). Men show their approval by buying things to decorate the ladies with – mostly garlands. Sometimes the garlands pile so high that it becomes awkward for the girl to sing or dance. It is possible to tell how popular a girl is by the quantity and quality of the garlands she is strutting by the end of her song. Not surprisingly, it turns out, many of the girls that become well endowed end up ‘working overtime’.
It was an interesting end to this crazy trip. This is a place of contradictions. Gold everywhere, and people living with nothing. Rule takers and rule breakers. Peace loving buddhists and an aggressive militant regime.
Apparently there are promises of an election sometime this year, though nobody seems to know when or if they will happen. This is a country ready for change. It seems that Aung San Suu Kyi’s virtual endorsement of travel in the region has begun to open things up. Elections might be a window for full fledged tourism in the near future, in which case, this place is about to undergo tremendous change. There are certainly signs that this could be positive for the people living here; however, I’m not sure they are ready for rapid change on that scale.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Water Village, Flaming Pink Tassles and One legged Fishermen

This trip just keeps getting better. From Mandalay, we headed to Inle Lake, an outrageously beautiful body of water that is the setting for a number of traditional settlements. Starting with the market, we enjoyed an intimate look at the way in which the people in the region live. This beats any try-hard-city-slicker farmers market that I've ever seen. It's the real deal.

Even monks enjoy dvd's and music. Tasty...Though there is clearly a tourism industry here, it feels a less disturbed by it than, say, Bagan and Mandalay. Accessibility seems to be the key reason (it certainly isn't a matter of virtue). We had to take a one hour journey on a long boat to get to our lakeside hotel, which was another 45 minutes by boat from the 'main attraction'; an entire community built on the water. Stilted homes. Floating gardens.
The community depends heavily on fishing and, in fact, is known for its unique fishing style. The fisherman use one leg to paddle and steer the boat, meanwhile using both hands to handle the fishing net.
There are a few religious sites located in the village, including a temple that is home to a family of jumping cats. I hadn't realized that cats could be trained so well to do tricks.

A visit to another village, located nearby on the lakeside, made us wish that we had more time here. Hiking and trekking opportunities abound from here, but we were only able to enjoy a taste. There was a local fair taking place, which meant a lot of excitement and carnival-style games, including gambling (which is illegal). The main game here is like a giant manual slot machine (pictures werent allowed, otherwise I'd have a whole slideshow!). Three gigantic dice about the size of milk crates, resting on a flat board that is at a 60 degree angle, suspended by a long stick that is held by a person who releases the dice (one by one). It seems so primitive, yet even we (who have been to vegas) were captivated.

Our short hike took us past 1045 stupas on a hill. Had we not already been to Bagan, this might have been more interesting. It seems a shame that it is so easy to start to take these impressive things for granted. Then again, by now, the things we are appreciating the most are the people and the way of life here. It just seems so peaceful. Like these kids playing in their island yard. It's hard to tell from the picture, but one of the kids is wearing gummy fangs. We were passing by in a boat and just wanted to jump out and play along. Looked like so much fun.

Our hotel was presenting a cultural show. One of the stars of the show was a giant pink deer - the sort that has two guys underneath it, operating the movement of the legs, body and head. This one was special because it could pick up a candle with its mouth and light it. Impressive. And then they brought out the fireworks. Given that we were dining in a wooden house on a lake, this gave me the same sort of uneasy feeling that I had a few years ago when Erik's uncle Gary was pouring gasoline on the fire at our campsite in Kananaskis. but we watched with interest anyway think that it might have been my North American. When he knocked one of the over and then tried to correct it with his foot, flaming pink tassles seemed inevitable. But, thankfully, they quickly got it under control.

We spent two nights here, but could have done more. Sunsets continue to inspire. The first night.

and then the second.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Mandalay and the Moustache Brothers

We caught an early flight to Mandalay and arrived in time to watch 1000 monks having lunch at one of the larger monasteries in the city. And can you believe it, we saw yet another few friends from school. Seems that Burma is the place to be right now.

We visited a 1.2km long teak bridge that was built in 1849 and generally explored the area surrounding the city. The Royal Palace is in the middle of the city, surrounded by a moat and then a brick wall that is 2 metres thick and 2 kilometres long on each side. Sounds safe, but not so much. The palace itself has been rebuilt as the original was destroyed through a combination of fires and war. In any class, it's clear that protecting the palace, and the country, is now of paramount importance. The sign outside explains the 'people's desire'...
Another of the city's attractions is the Golden buddha. It gains 6 pounds per year on account of the gold leaf that people bring and press on to the statue. Must have more gold... Some monks approached us and asked if they could take a picture, which was kind of funny.
Our pursuit of the perfect sunset continued in Mandalay. This time we caught it from a temple on a hill overlooking the city.
We met up with two of the other INSEAD groups that are coincidentally here in Mandalay at the same time as us. Dinner was an adventure as we grabbed some local food at a restaurant whose menus made you want to take a shower after you touched them. Miraculously, none of us are feeling sick yet. (if you can't tell, I'm struggling a bit with the food here).

Then we it a comedy show put on by the infamous Moustache brothers. In 1996 after telling politically charged jokes about Myanmar generals at an Independence Day celebration at Aung San Suu Kyi's compound in Yangon, two of the performers were arrested and sentenced to seven years hard labour. After protest from the international community (Rob Reiner and Bill Maher), the two were released after 5 years.

They perform in the private and for foreigners only (our guide would not even drop us off at the place). For our show, the place was packed with about 16 people. Since the power supply is so unreliable, they have several back up solutions to provide light and sound. When one supply cuts out, a red light bulb flashes on, accompanied by an alarm. The first time this happened, I think that I just about had a heart attack.
As if we didn't have enough adventure for the night, the eight of us packed in/on a tiny blue mazda truck to get home. You'll note that there is not sitting room for 8.

Bagan part deux

We were lucky to find someone today that was willing to talk about life here and learned an interesting fact that, in my opinion, is quite revealing in terms of the economic barriers to wealth creation in this country. The central bank has a history of implementing tactics such as making the 50,000 note (US$50 equivalent) illegal, on the justification that the only ones that hold them are corrupt officials. A great equalizer, I suppose, but doesn't inspire confidence in the currency. Perhaps that is one reason why trust and the bank system are two things that don't go together here. If we think that we have problems in North America, think again. People don't even use banks here.

There are other differences too. Like the Thanaka paste that people (mostly women) put on their faces. You'd be hard pressed to find a woman here without it. It's made from ground bark and applied to the cheeks to protect from the sun and also to look nice. To a westerner, it's a bit freaky at first. But, after a few days, we are basically used to it. Stopped to look at some wall paintings and ran into a few friends from school. That makes the fourth time I have come across someone that I know from school during this trip.

We stopped at a farm and watched how sesame and peanut oil being made the old fashioned way - with an ox and a gigantic morter and pestle.
At the same place, we also saw how palm wine is made - a two day home brew process using a distilling process that resembled the Liebig condenser that we made in grade school science class.
We saw a man on the street with an owl. Apparently they are easy to catch during the day since they are sleeping. (that's not hunting!). It seems that the main purpose of this is to get westerners to pay them money to release the owls. The main event of the day was a visit to a temple on top of a dormant volcano. We could drive most of the way to the top, bu then climbed over 700 steps to reach the top. Normally this would be a piece of cake, but these particular stairs were infested with mangey and aggressive monkeys. To make matters worse, the monkey-pee-covered-stairs were apparently part of the temple, which meant that we had to be barefoot as we climbed them.
Little monk kids fooling around.
There was a payphone in one part of the temple.
We also checked out a weaving factory/sweatshop. Hard to believe this stuff is still done by hand!
Another spectacular sunset. From the top of a temple.

From my hotel room.