Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Off to Myanmar expect Radio Silence

Well, I am off to Myanmar in just a few hours. I doubt there will be much internet access there, especially to blog sites, so I do not expect to be able to post any entries until I return to Thailand around February 12.

I have been in Bangkok for a couple of weeks but have not posted much about my time here! That will change after I return ;-) I did meet several times with Andy of hobotraveler.com and his personality is truly larger than life, more on that later ;-)

Today, I met my travel partner, Elena, for the first time. Previously, we had only communicated over the internet starting way back in August -- Elena had been interested in finding a travel partner to Myanmar instead of traveling alone and the timing of our visit matched perfectly.

There have been a lot of protests in Myanmar recently and so internet access is severely limited there. I had heard that they are rejecting one in five visa applicants (if they even suspect your visit is press-related you are rejected) so I was relieved that I got a proper tourist visa without any problems. So if I do not break radio silence for awhile please do not be concerned.

Myanmar is a country where time has stood still. There are virtually no ATMs there or locations where credit cards are accepted. One needs to enter the country with a pile of US dollars and that is how much you will be able to spend because there is really no easy way to access outside funds there. Even the local currency cannot be used in many places and can only be exchanged for a fair rate at local markets with US dollars. But this is part of what makes Myanmar so interesting -- it is a chance to see a place in the world as it was fifty years ago. And the temples built on the plains near Bagan almost a millenium ago rival Cambodia's Angkor Wat as the greatest ruins of southeast Asia.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Future of travel: sharing information?

The US and Canada share their complete criminal databases with each other -- Canada pulls up a complete background check on every border crossing. Is this the future of cross-border travel?

"Going to Canada? Check your past. Visitors with minor criminal records turned back at border "
Article link: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/02/23/NEVIUS.TMP

Going to Canada? Check your past
Visitors with minor criminal records turned back at border

There was a time not long ago when a trip across the border from the United States to Canada was accomplished with a wink and a wave of a driver's license. Those days are over.

Take the case of 55-year-old Lake Tahoe resident Greg Felsch. Stopped at the border in Vancouver this month at the start of a planned five-day ski trip, he was sent back to the United States because of a DUI conviction seven years ago. Not that he had any idea what was going on when he was told at customs: "Your next stop is immigration.''

Felsch was ushered into a room. "There must have been 75 people in line," he says. "We were there for three hours. One woman was in tears. A guy was sent back for having a medical marijuana card. I felt like a felon with an ankle bracelet.''

Or ask the well-to-do East Bay couple who flew to British Columbia this month for an eight-day ski vacation at the famed Whistler Chateau, where rooms run to $500 a night. They'd made the trip many times, but were surprised at the border to be told that the husband would have to report to "secondary'' immigration.

There, in a room he estimates was filled with 60 other concerned travelers, he was told he was "a person who was inadmissible to Canada.'' The problem? A conviction for marijuana possession.

Canadian Government link (which confirms the surprising information in this article):

How hard is it to learn a new language?

Here is an interesting link on how long it takes to acquire fluency in particular foreign languages for native English speakers with a good aptitude for language acquisition:


If you go to the link, they carefully define fluency levels. It appears that there are three classes of languages when analyzed as to how difficult it is to learn to both speak and read them for a native English speaker. The easiest class of languages (mostly romance languages) takes about 600 hours to achieve fluency. The second class of languages takes about 1100 hours and the third class of languages takes about 2200 hours.

Thai, like the majority of languages, falls into the second class. However, it has an asterisk next to it, meaning that it is a bit more difficult than most languages in the second class. But it is not nearly as difficult as Mandarin, Korean, or Japanese, for instance.

So, according to this chart, it takes about twice as many hours to achieve fluency in Thai as it does to achieve fluency in a romance language.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Goodbye Dave!

Well, Dave and I had a great time in Thailand and Malaysia. Unfortunately, all good things must (?) come to an end so Dave flew home on Friday from Bangkok to return to the good old USA after five weeks of travel together. Dave called me from the airport and said he had had the trip of a lifetime. And it really was!

Like good software engineers, here we are carefully studying the documentation before entering the temple: A little sweat in this picture taken in warm Thailand. It takes a typical person 5 to 7 days to accomodate themselves to a hot climate. Among other things, after your body adjusts your sweat will contain less salt. Dave called me from Northern California after his return to the USA and mentioned how cold it felt there and was surprised at how much his body had adjusted to the warmer temperatures in Thailand and Malaysia.

Thanks, Dave, for all the great friendship and memories!

The Oracle and the Shaman

During our time in Chiang Mai both Billy and Don had great advice for us on almost every aspect of Thai culture and living abroad -- the kind of detailed, worldy advice you just can't get from a book. When Dave and I would be discussing things later, we noticed that we kept referring back to their advice. At one point, we started referring to Billy as the "Oracle" and Don as the "Shaman."

Here I am receiving some words of wisdom from the Oracle on USA tax residency issues over Mexican food. This took place during a weekly ex-pat luncheon that takes place in Chiang Mai.

Here is the Shaman during a nice dinner out with the gang. OK, maybe his advice was a little erratic after a few glasses of wine ;-) We had walked to this local family restaurant but it was closed. We knocked on the door and they recognized Don and they opened the restaurant up just for us. The food was wonderful!
Here I am holding one of the Shaman's sacred implements during one of our chat discussions in the foyer outside of his guesthouse room:
Thanks to the Oracle and the Shaman for all the great advice!

Working out again

I have started working out again. When I left the US for this trip, I was in top running condition. But, for various reasons, it is hard for me to go running while I am traveling from place to place and especially if I am traveling with someone else. I can't run within two hours of eating, I need to find a mostly traffic free and safe path to run, I can't run when it is too hot, I need to shower and change afterwards, etc.

But when I settle into a routine at one location, I can usually find a proper place to run and fit it into my schedule. I found a great location in Chiang Mai and my fitness really improved after running about five or six times. Here in Bangkok I found a nearby asphalt track to run on that is over a kilometer in circumference and I went running there earlier. Although it is much warmer in Bangkok, I can still get a good workout here.

I tend to run in the very late afternoon or early evening time before it gets dark. It has cooled down a bit by then. I think most Thais run in the early morning. In fact, at the asphalt track in Bangkok I saw perhaps a thousand Thais out and about but not one other person running besides myself. And when I run I basically work out at top speed -- my race times are not much faster than my workout times -- and I am much bigger than the average Thai male. So I think when the Thais see this Westerner running lap after lap at top speed in the late afternoon heat they are thinking that perhaps he is a bit loco.

New Year's Eve in Chiang Mai

We spent New Year's Eve in beautiful Chiang Mai. We started the evening off with a wonderful dinner at Pom Pui Italian restaurant, eating under the stars (almost all Thai restaurants are open air). Here are Dao, Don, Travis, and Dave:
Then we walked over to Taepa Gate which is like a super-mini-Times-Square. The atmosphere there was wonderful!

The sky was filled with these "fire balloons" and naturally we had to join in on the action:
Then we strategically located ourselves on the second floor of a Starbucks overlooking the action. They had a patio where we could see everything. There were fireworks bursting in the air; everyone was excited but well behaved and it was a wonderful experience!!
By the end of the evening we were a bit tired but happy that 2008 was upon us:
One year ago I never dreamed that I would be seeing in 2008 in Thailand in perfect weather with both familiar and new friends. 2007 was a huge year of transition for me: quitting my job, moving from the Bay Area, taking a long trip abroad . . . what a year 2007 was! I thank God everyday for the many blessings in my life.

Institutionalized piracy

Southeast Asia is a place where you can "get things." One of these things is pirated movies and software. We found an entire mini-mall in Chiang Mai pretty much dedicated to pirated goods. In fact, there are several malls there like this:
You can walk the aisles of these stores and get expensive software packages for an average of about 100 baht each:

Have you downloaded a trial version of software that expired? Don't worry, these gurus will make it work permanently for a very low price. Do you have an illegal copy of Windows? Yes, that's right, there is "Windows Legitimizer" available for a small fee.

You can purchase a CD of music for about 10 baht (US 30 cents) and 7 baht per CD in quantity. There are huge English and Thai language printouts which list virtually any music you could want and from these books you can assemble a portfolio of music to be burned on CDs. Any movie you can think of is a bargain on DVD. Whatever they don't have will be prepared for you by tomorrow.

Felling guilty yet? Don't worry, even the monks are doing it ;-)

Of course, trademarks are not protected as well here, either. This one is from Malaysia:

But this image from Bangkok shows that even McDonald's is changing a little with the times:
Dispensing with the humor, this really is bad for Thailand's economy in the long run. It reduces their chances to participate in the information revolution. And there is not much legitimate stuff for sale here -- it is not even available. So Thailand's appeal as a target market for movies, music, and software is vastly reduced.

It reminds me of this exchange from the Shawshank Redemption, a movie about a man who was incarcerated after being falsely accused of killing his wife and her lover. In this exchange, two prisoners discuss a much older prisoner who has spent so much time there that he would not be able to survive in the real world:

RED: Heywood, enough. Ain't nothing wrong with Brooksie. He's just institutionalized, that's all.

HEYWOOD: Institutionalized, my ass.

RED: Man's been here fifty years. This place is all he knows. In here, he's an important man, an educated man. A librarian. Out there, he's nothing but a used-up old con with arthritis in both hands. Couldn't even get a library card if he applied. You see what I'm saying?

FLOYD: Red, I do believe you're talking out of your ass.

RED: Believe what you want. These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. After long enough, you get so you depend on 'em. That's "institutionalized."

JIGGER: Shit. I could never get that way.

ERNIE: Say that when you been inside as long as Brooks has.

Thailand is completely dependent on piracy to supply movies, music, and software to consumers -- it has become legitimized and institutionalized -- and that dependency will hurt it in the long run.

I am in Bangkok now. Here on Khao San Road I can get a diploma from any university I want, a press pass, a student ID, a Driver's License, etc. Hmmm, I am thinking that a press pass and a student ID for hostel discounts (Professor Travis) might just do the trick for me . . .

Monday, January 7, 2008

Some random Chiang Mai memories

Well, Dave and I are leaving Chiang Mai for Bangkok tomorrow but we will never forget our wonderful time here.

What makes Thailand so special is the warm people here. We have experienced such kindness that I am at a loss to describe our experience in words. So I wanted to just post some random memories here.

Elephant preserve

Dave and I visited an elephant preserve about an hour's drive outside of Chiang Mai. There was an interesting show showcasing some of the advanced elephant training. But, of course, what we really came for was a chance to ride an elephant!

Along the ride you are given the opportunity to buy some food and feed it to the elephants. We bought some bananas and some sugarcane. The elephant eats a whole bundle of bananas in one bite, banana skin and all. The sugar cane is as hard as a wood log and the elephant eats about six at once in one quite loud chomp! I was pretty hungry that morning, and what is not shown here is me sneaking a few of the bananas for myself before feeding them to our trusty elephant.

Cooking school

One of my goals in Chiang Mai was to get the professional help that others have told me my cooking so desperately needs ;-) So Dave and I decided to attend all day classes at Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School the day before and the day after Christmas. We prepared about five different Thai dishes each day and then ate them all. So a warning to all friends and family -- be prepared for beta testing of my Thai cooking skills when I return to the USA!

The first part of the course involved a trip to the market (about one kilometer up the road) to purchase our ingredients. I wish I could also send you the smells and sounds but pictures will have to suffice!

Each person is given the recipes for all the Thai meals that the school teaches, even the meals you are not preparing on a given day. Each dish is demonstrated in a classroom by the teacher.

And then we all run to our individual cooking workstations to prepare the meal ourselves before the preparation steps fade from our feeble cooking-challenged minds:

On the first day of class, we were being shown how to prepare a particular curry dish. As the teacher was cooking the curry paste in the wok, the mist of the spicy curry began to fill the air. In the classroom, eyes were swelling, noses were sniffling, and there was coughing because those fumes can get strong. The instructor could hear what was happening and he suddenly looked up and spread his arms and said, "Welcome to Thailand!"

OK, now it is time to eat my own cooking, no time to pose for a picture, I am hungry!!!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Life is easy on the road

I really have not shared that much logistical information about traveling since I posted my original equipment list since my family and friends seemed more concerned that I was not kidnapped or hopelessly lost in a strange country.

But I thought some readers would be interested about laundry on the road. When I first started this trip, I imagined that I would be doing a lot of laundry by hand. And I do, in fact, carry a bit of laundry soap, a universal drain plug, and a tiny clothesline. But, for the most part, I have not done any laundry since I left the USA four months ago.

In most developing countries, you can get your laundry done for about one dollar per kilogram (2.2 pounds). Hey, I would pay several times that. One of my first items of business when I change locations is to identify the nearest laundry!

So I just put my dirty laundry into a plastic bag and drop it off a couple of times a week and I come back the next day and pick up my freshly washed (and often ironed) clothes. My average cost for this is probably around 50 cents per day. Gotta love it (1 dollar = 33 baht)

Another thing that is difficult for travelers in developed countries like the USA is the expense and trouble of transportation. Taxis are expensive and sometimes difficult to find. Renting a car is a major hassle and cost -- especially when you consider insurance. But in developing countries you just walk out to the road and quickly flag a tuk tuk or taxi.

This morning I needed to extend my permission to stay in Thailand stamp in my passport so I had to visit the immigration office which is located on the other side of town. I just walked out of my guesthouse room and instantly got a taxi. When I was finished and ready to leave I instantly got a tuk tuk. I paid about US $5 for the round trip. And it was much more convenient than having to park a car, etc. since I do not even know my way around well enough to quickly find these places whereas the locals know exactly where things are located.

Today I went out to lunch with Billy and Akaisha. We walked about 100 meters to a local restaurant and had a delicious meal for about 35 baht per person (about 1 US dollar). It hardly pays to cook for yourself when such inexpensive and delicious food is so readily available. Life is easy here.

Dave and I are flying to Bangkok tomorrow, Tuesday the 8th of January. It will be tough to leave Chiang Mai!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Making new friends in Chiang Mai

Dave and I have made some wonderful new friends here in Chiang Mai. We met Yui and Dao at an expat luncheon within 36 hours of our arrival. They have showed us all around Chiang Mai! We could not have met two nicer ladies. There is no way that I can cover all of the places that we have visited together in this blog. We will never forget our time together here.

Here we are posing together one evening enjoying some live music together:
We visited a Thai farm owned by Dao's family.

Here we are at one of the buffets we all went to together. From left to right we have Travis, Yui, Dave, Dao, Maurice, Billy, Akaisha, and Don (more on Don later! ;-). By the way, this buffet was amazing (Western, Chinese, Thai) and the cost was about US $5 for all you can eat.

Here are Dao and I overlooking the city:

A retire early board meeting shot ;-) :

This is the first Christmas that I have ever spent apart from my family. But this year was still special as we all attended an orphanage fundraiser together. The School for Life is located a few kilometers outside of Chiang Mai and it was fun to meet some of the kids!

Other friends Ploy (center) and Dao (right, same name as our Dao) also joined us at the orphange:
Later in the week, we celebrated Yui's birthday together. Happy Birthday, Yui!!