A Little Time in the Big City: Bangkok, Thailand

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The Reclining Buddha.

Bangkok was, for the most part, a place I passed through to reach other cities in Thailand and Cambodia.  For my two weeks of travel, I chose to only fly in and out of Bangkok (the most inexpensive flight into the region from Jakarta), and to use buses (to and from Siem Reap) and trains (to and from Chiang Mai) for the rest of my travel.  Though buses and trains are slower, there are a much more environmentally friendly option.  When traveling in Indonesia, because it is a country of islands, I usually have to fly.  When presented with other transportation options, I of course took them.

I had considered spending more time in Bangkok, but many familiar with the region told me that Bangkok was essentially the equivalent of Jakarta.  Because any trip I take is usually to escape Jakarta, I decided to only give myself one day in Bangkok, to see some of the main tourist attractions, before moving on.  Later on, I had a morning to explore a bit of Jakarta again, prior to boarding my afternoon flight back to Jakarta.

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You find these shrines with pictures of the king around every corner in Thailand.

I have to note, that I do not agree with the assessment that Bangkok is just like Jakarta.  I can certainly see the similarities: both are large, crowded, SouthEast Asian mega-cities, accosting the senses at every turn with the honking of horns, the smell of street food, and the chatter of throngs of predominantly friendly faces.  However, I found Bangkok generally far less polluted, far more organized, and far less traffic-y than Jakarta.  Talking to the folks who ran the various hostels I stayed in, they claimed the city owed these differences largely to the MRT, the underground system in Bangkok, which they said drastically changed the city, and for the better.  Jakarta is currently building its own underground, and I can only hope its completion has a similar effect.

I began my full day in Bangkok by visiting the National Museum.  Much of the museum was closed during my visit, as they were restoring many of the rooms and exhibits.  (This was a bit of a bummer for me, but I really don’t want to complain, because I think the upkeep of historical sites and places like museums is so important.)  The exhibits that were open were quite impressive, and the many of the placards with longer explanations gave good insight into the history of Thailand and the larger region.  I do think it is better to have some understanding of Thai history and culture before going to the National Museum, as it doesn’t necessarily always act as an introduction, per say, but even with my own very basic understanding of Thailand I was able to learn a lot from spending time there.  The museum is also on the grounds of what used to be a viceroy’s residence, and so the buildings and grounds themselves are truly incredible.

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The National Museum.

My next stop was to the Grand Palace, which was an overwhelming and magnificent stop.  It is a somewhat large complex, and it was quite crowded when I went.  (I do think this was in large part due to the recent passing of the Thai king, as many Thai citizens, dressed in black mourning clothes, were coming to pay their respects.)  Every surface of the elegant and intricate buildings of the Grand Palace was covered with colorful, complex tiling, and I spent my time there mostly trying to decide if it was better to stand back and try to take in a building as a whole, or to get up close and personal with the details.  I certainly did not have time to do either thoroughly, as I am certain it would take days to truly explore the Grand Palace and all its wonders.

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The Grand Palace.

I ended my day of Exploring Bangkok at Wat Pho (the full name of which is Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn, so I can see why people shortened it), the royal temple probably most famous for the Reclining Buddha (Phra Buddha Saiwas).  This was my favorite stop in all of Bangkok.  I am not sure if it is because I was there in the heat of the afternoon (I confess I spent a lot of time seeking out shade during my visit to Wat Pho), or if the temple is generally less crowded than the other tourist attractions in the area, but I found Wat Pho to be quite peaceful, a word I rarely find myself able to use in such a large city.  It was humbling to stand before the Reclining Buddha, which is somehow so much larger in real life than in pictures.  And I was especially fond of The Great Pagodas of the Four Kings (Phra Maha Chedi Si Rajakarn), as I found the almost-simplicity of their structures, combined with the beautiful pastel tiling decorating their surface to be a calming sort of beautiful.

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Wat Pho.  The Great Pagodas of the Four Kinds are in the photo on the far left.  The smaller pagodas around Wat Pho seem to echo their style.

On my last day in Thailand, I visited the Temple of the Golden Buddha, as it was within walking distance of my hostel.  It was an impressive temple, but I was even more intrigued by the two museum exhibits you could opt to visit as part of your tour, which gave insights into the history of the Chinese-Thai citizens of Bangkok, as well as the process of how the Golden Buddha was created, found, and transferred to its current location.  It was certainly a wonderful place to spend my last morning in Thailand.

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Temple of the Golden Buddha.

Of course, in between visits to austere temples and palaces, I wandered the main streets and back streets of the areas of Bangkok in which I found myself, hoping I would not get lost (and usually getting lost anyway), and eating excessive amounts of delicious Thai food.  While I am glad that I spent most of my time in smaller cities, I am also glad that I took the time to visit Bangkok, and see a little of what this city has to offer.

I Came for Elephants, But Got So Much More than I Bargained For: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Similarly to the way I ended up in Siem Reap in large part because I wanted to see Ankor, I ended up in Chiang Mai due to its being the base for the and elephant park, which I very much wanted to visit.  But while I only needed one day for my plan to visit the elephants, I gave myself three days in Chiang Mai, as I knew it would offer so much more.  I traveled to and from Chiang Mai via train, taking in beautiful views of endless rice paddies while we were closer to Bangkok, and basking in the majesty of the mountains, the foothills of the Himalayas, when we were closer to Chiang Mai.

My first day in Chiang Mai I got up bright and early to join a cooking class at Asia Scenic Cooking School.  I had initially planned only signing up for a half-day course, so that I could use the remainder of my day to explore the city, but upon perusing the website, I became so enraptured with the concept and the self-descriptions of the women who run the operation that I decided to go for the whole day.  It was well worth it.  The day included a trip to the market, a tour of the gardens at the farm, and a full course meal (we each made six dishes of our choosing).  There was only one other person who joined the full-day course on the farm that day, a retiree from Paris names Marie who was planning on setting down in Chiang Mai.  Though her English was limited and I only know a few basic greetings in French, we shared enough kitchen vocabulary that we could share our joy of cooking.  Our teacher, Gassby, was humorous and patient, and simply lovely.  I thoroughly enjoyed spending the day with the two of them.

IMG_2297As a bonus, because there were only two of us in the course (there can sometimes be up to fifteen), we were able to head back to town a bit early, giving me plenty of time to rest, grab and early dinner at a café, and head to one of Chiang Mai’s many night markets.   The Anusarn Market was very close to where I was staying, in the Grace Hotel (yes, I did ultimately choose my hotel based on its name), and it was a good introduction to the Chiang Mai market scene, as it was much calmer and less overwhelming than some of the other markets I visited later on.

My second day in Chiang Mai I spent most of my day in the company of elephants.  Since coming to South East Asia as an English Teaching Assistant in Indonesia, I have wanted to spend some time up close and personal with these incredible creatures.  However, many of the parks in the region for elephants are not ethical at all, and in many cases, abuse the elephants.  I wanted to avoid being a part of that, and so I did careful research regarding the options I had, and eventually concluded that the best option for me was the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai.  The Elephant Nature Park rescues elephants at risk of being put down from the tourism and logging industries, and allows them to live out their lives in the peace of the sanctuary.  Almost all of the elephants are female (males are extremely expensive to house, and the park unfortunately cannot afford to do so), and most of them are much older, with the oldest elephant estimated at being over 90 years old.  Some of the elephants have given birth, so there are a few babies running around as well.  Because so many of the elephants were rescued after spending their whole lives being mistreated, many of them have broken limbs, missing ears, or are blind.  But because each elephant is assigned a mahout to ensure the animal’s well-being, the staff of the park believe that they can all live full lives, despite the disabilities they may have.  As visitors, we were able to assist with the feeding and bathing of the elephants, and learned the ins-and-outs of elephant care, depending on an elephant’s needs.  It was such a privilege to spend a day learning more about the elephant, in the very presence of such amazing animals.

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That night was the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai, which was by far the most crowded market I visited during my stay.  The street was absolutely packed with tourists and locals, but the handicrafts present were well worth the visit.

I also treated myself to a proper Thai massage that evening.  Prior to coming to Indonesia, the very thought of a massage made me extremely uncomfortable (I’m not overly fond of being touched by strangers), but I have slowly become accustomed to them, and I do find a Thai-style massage quite helpful after extensive travel.  After so much time on buses and trains, I decided my body was in need of some help, and opted for my massage while in Chiang Mai.  I went to a place called Lila Massage, which, in addition to offering one of the best massages I have ever had, trains female inmates in the art of massage and offers them employment upon release, something I find really wonderful and admirable.

My final day in Chiang Mai was dedicated to temples.  In Chiang Mai, there is a wall around the older part of the city, and I had found a list of temples within the walls that were worth visiting.

IMG_2275I started at Wat Phra Singh, a beautiful temple on the other side of town from where I was staying, and apparently the most popular temple to visit within city limits.  I almost failed to pay for my entry at this lovely temple, as I must have missed a sign somewhere for the ticket booth, and no one caught on that I wasn’t supposed to be where I was.  I did eventually find a ticket booth, however, and had a good laugh with the woman selling me the tickets, who understood enough English to get my jokes about how “I promise I’m not trying to be a criminal.”

 

IMG_2309Wat Phan Tao was probably my favorite of the more popular temples to visit.  An older, more unassuming temple built of teak wood, it was certainly not as shiny and colorful as some of the other temples I visited, but I loved it all the more for its humble simplicity.

Wat Chedi Luang is right next to Wat Phan Tao, and it is an impressive temple that includes massive ruins of a much older potion of the temple.  But what made my time at Chedi Luang so memorable was that the temple offers daily Monk Chats, in which you can sit with a monk and ask questions about Buddhism, the daily life of a monk, and even Thai culture.   I joined a larger group, and though I did not ask any questions myself, I learned a lot from listening to the varied questions others had, and the monk’s responses.

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IMG_2388Wat Chiang Man is supposedly the oldest temple in town, and it was in a slightly different section of Old Town than the other temples.  It was small and simple, and best known for older glass and bronze statues of the Buddha, encased in a shrine.

There was one temple that I visited which was not on any list, but which caught my eye nonetheless.  Wat Buppharam was very close to where I was staying, and I passed its entrance several times searching for supper or on my way to the markets.  Wat Buppharam attracted my attention because at the front of the temple there was a Donald Duck statue, something I found quite peculiar.  I decided to try to take a peek, and on finding that there was a ticket booth for tourists (I try to avoid imposing on temples that are not already set up for tourism, although I am sure I would be welcome), headed on in.  Wat Buppharam has some of the most detailed and interesting statues I had seen yet at a temple, and the few plaques I could find spoke of royal connections to the temple.  What I did not find, however, was any explanation as to why there was a Donald Duck statue outside the temple.  That remains a mystery.

On my final night in Chiang Mai I went to the daily Night Market.  The bottom floor of one of the buildings had some truly beautiful artwork, though I couldn’t bring myself to buy any, as I could not devise a way to bring them home without them breaking.  But I loved perusing the pieces and admiring the artist’s creativity.

And then, all too soon, it was time to board the train back to Bangkok, bidding Chiang Mai goodbye.  In many ways, I wish I had given myself more time there, to better explore the city and the surrounding areas, but I suppose this just means I will need to visit Chiang Mai again someday.

 

Food and Fabrics and Traditional Dance: Siem Reap, Cambodia

I’ll be honest: I chose Siem Reap as the city I would visit in Cambodia because I wanted to visit Ankor Wat.  But I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who only goes to the city for the ancient temples, without experiencing anything of the culture that is still very much alive.  I gave myself a few extra days in Siem Reap, and planned the three days in which I was at the temples so that I only needed to be at the Ankor Complex in the morning, and could then explore Siem Reap in the afternoon.

Traditional Cambodian or Khmer Culture was very much at risk of being destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, but it is slowly making a comeback, and many claim that Siem Reap is the center for the revitalization of the arts and handicrafts for which Cambodia is so famous.  I was thankful that I was able to explore so much without needing to go to another city.

I love to explore fabrics in the various places I visit, and this led me to Artisans Ankor, which, while also a higher-end shop, is also a workshop and training center for handicrafts and arts.  Local Cambodians from the surrounding villages are brought to the training center and educated in the arts of metal work, stone carving, and weaving, among others.  Artisans Ankor also has a silk farm, to which it offers daily free tours.  It was fascinating to see the silk-making process from beginning to end, and our guide and the women weaving were terribly patient as we asked endless questions.

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I was also interested in seeing traditional Cambodian dance, and was able to see two shows during my time there.  Temple Bar, in the more touristy part of Siem Reap, offers free dance performances on their second floor every night, so long as you order food or drink.  Bars are not usually my cup of tea, and I tend to avoid them, especially when traveling alone, but I made the exception in this case, and I am glad I did, as the performance was quite good, and we were able to meet the dancers afterwards.  In between numbers we were able to hear the dance music from the bar below, which made for an interesting contrast with the performance, but I embraced it as part of the experience.

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I went to another performance later on at a restaurant near my hostel.  This time, the performers were children from a local NGO, Krousar Thmey/Nouvelle Famille, which seeks to provide education opportunities for children with hearing and seeing impairments, as well as low-income children from surrounding villages.  The performance began with shadow puppetry, which was very similar to the wayang I am more familiar with in Indonesia[1].  The children were incredibly talented, and the people running the show even let us take a peek at the behind-the-scenes.  The shadow puppetry was followed by several dance numbers, which were especially amazing to see as one of the dance troops was made up of children who were all deaf or hearing impaired, which meant they followed the signing of one of their teachers in order to keep time.  It was truly a privilege to see such talent.

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The performance with Krousar Thmey was made even better by happening to meet an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) alumni from my first cohort that day.  She was also traveling in Southeast Asia, and my last day in Siem Reap happened to be her first day.  It was absolutely wonderful to catch up with her, reminisce about our time as ETAs together, and share this new experience in Cambodia.

I spent many of my evenings wandering the streets and markets of Siem Reap, admiring the handicrafts and, of course, eating the delicious food.  Because I loved all of the food that I tried so much, I also took a cooking course at Le Tigre de Papier, during which I learning how to make Cambodian-style fired spring rolls and Cambodian curry.  I can’t wait to see if I can replicate the recipes at home with my family.

I truly am glad that I took a little more time in Siem Reap, to explore all the city had to offer.  In truth, I probably could have spent more time there.  But eventually it was time to board a bus back to Thailand, and I had to bid farewell and give a heartfelt aw kohn (thank you) to Siem Reap and Cambodia.

[1] It was actually fascinating to me just how similar the traditional performing arts in Cambodia were to those in Indonesia: not only was there shadow puppetry, but the dances were also very similar in form and costume.  This probably shouldn’t be so surprising, as both countries are part of the Southeast Asia Region, which has a long, shared history.  The Srivijaya Kingdom, for example, covered much of Java and Sumatra, as well as parts of what is now Thailand, and also extended its influence over parts of modern Laos and Cambodia (if what I have read it correct).  That Indonesia was once a majority Hindu and Buddhist land, and much of mainland Southeast Asia remains so, is also most likely a reason why these cultures are similar.

Exploring Ankor

I have wanted to see the temples of Ankor for a long time.  Magazine articles celebrating the sheer volume of temples in the complex and the smallest of details in individual temples captured my imagination, and I hoped that someday I might be able to witness their magic in person.  If you had told my younger self that I would be merely twenty-five when I would have the opportunity to do so, I wouldn’t have believed you, but as the fates would have it, I was blessed to be able to travel for two weeks in Thailand and Cambodia after my most recent grant in Indonesia, and my sole stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap, with the intention of finally seeing the temples and other structures of Ankor up close and personal.

My exploration of the temples actually began the days before I visited the complex, when I went to the Ankor Museum in Siem Reap.  I opted for the audio tour, and spent hours exploring the artifacts in the museum and listening to details of Ankor’s history.  The audio tour also drew my attention to details in the artifacts: markings that meant the statue had once been adorned with jewelry, and subtle differences in the forms of certain carvings that might give some idea as to when exactly the carving was made.  Armed with this information, I felt much more prepared to take in the wonders of Ankor.

So I bought a three-day pass[1], and began my journey.

Day One

My first day was my quietest day at the temple.  I rented a bike from my hostel, and headed around the edge of the main complex (a route known as the grand tour) to see some of the smaller temples.  I ended up biking almost thirty miles that day, so I must say that biking around this portion of Ankor is not for the faint of heart.  But though I definitely needed to stretch my muscles the next day, I wouldn’t have chosen another mode of transportation for this part of the trip.  Taking the bike slowed me down, and I was able to appreciate not only the temples, but also the long stretches of jungle, with monkeys resting on the side of the road and birdsong echoing through the trees.   On a remorque (the Cambodian word for tuk-tuk), much of this is missed.  And while by midday it was quite hot, in the early morning the air is cool and fresh, and after living in the polluted city of Jakarta for a year, I so appreciated this immensely.

I was able to visit four temples on my first day.  The first was Pre Rup, which was completely deserted when I arrived (most tourists start at the larger temples and only reach the smaller temples by midday).  Climbing up a temple in the early morning, with not another soul in sight, is truly a magical experience.  I also visited Neak Pean, a tiny temple floating in the middle of four pools, and Ta Som, a small temple tucked into the jungle, its entrance so easy to miss if you are not moving slowly.

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Pre Rup, Neak Pean, and Ta Som.  

My favorite temple on my first day, and possible my favorite temple overall (it is so hard to choose), was Preah Khan.  The temple has seemingly endless corridors, parts of which are in excellent condition due to reconstruction, and parts of which are crumbling and slowly being reclaimed by the jungle.  I spent hours wandering around the ruins, trying to take it all in, finding surprises around every corner.

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Preah Khan. 

Day Two

I decided to hire a remorque (or more specifically, a moto-remorque) for my second day at the temples, because I wanted to visit one of the temples that was farther out, and I knew I wouldn’t quite have the energy to go by bike.  This was my first remorque ride since coming to Cambodia, which was exciting, but what really made the ride special was the driver, who spoke English well enough that we were able to strike up a conversation about the changes Ankor had undergone since tourism started taking off, the recent elections around Cambodia, and the art of growing up on farms on opposite sides of the world.

I started by day at Banteay Srei, a smaller monastery farther out from the main complex.  The temple itself is unassuming, but Banteay Srei is famous for its extraordinarily detailed carvings, which truly are a sight to see.

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Banteay Srei.

My driver next took me to Ta Phrom, one of the more famous temples of Ankor, for the way the jungle is slowly overtaking the structure.  It truly was a beautiful place, and a reminder that nature does not care for even the most impressive of mankind’s creations, and will always take back what it hers.  It was also the busiest temple I visited that day, because it is one of the more popular sites to visit.  The contrast was palatable between Ta Phrom, covered in tourists, and the other smaller, quieter temples I had seen.  But it was still wonderful to visit.

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Ta Phrom.

Next we stopped at a few other smaller temples.  Thommanom and Chau Say Thevoda sit right across from one another, and are surprisingly still relatively intact.  Ta Keo towers towards the sky in a pyramid-like shape, but its walls are surprisingly bare.  According to my driver, its carvings were apparently taken by various countries to be placed in museums: because it is a smaller temple, it was not seen as being as important to preserve as some of the larger temples in the complex.  Ta Keo is what is left over after displays of beautiful carvings are put together at museums.

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Ta Keo, Thommanom, and Chau Say Thevoda.  

I ended my second day at Ankor Wat, probably the main attraction at the Ankor complex.  Ankor Wat is incredible, and has everything someone interested in ancient temples could dream of: the temple itself is massive, and almost completely restored to its former glory through reconstruction.  The carvings within the temple are beautifully detailed: the Churning of the Sea of Milk is simply amazing, and I spent quite a bit of time walking up and down its lengths.  I went during midday, which meant the site was relatively quiet, as most tourists were eating lunch, and I was thankful to feel as though I could explore this temple at the pace I chose, rather than being pushed forward by large tours.  Because the temple was relatively deserted, my quiet footsteps echoed down the corridors of the temple, and it was easy to feel as though I had been transported back in time, and that I might meet King Suryavarman II and his train around any corner.  A storm approached as I was ending my visit to Ankor Wat, which only made the temple all the more majestic.

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Ankor Wat.

Day Three

My final day at Ankor began with sunrise at Ankor Wat.  The temple was packed with other tourists, but that didn’t stop the sunrise from being absolutely incredible.

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Ankor Wat at sunrise.  

I then spent the better part of the morning exploring the Ankor Thom complex, including the famous Bayon, with its many smiling enigmatic faces, Baphuon, Phimeankas, Terrace of the Leper Kings, Terrace of the Elephants, and Prasats Suor Prat, which most tourists just passed on by, but which were actually quite lovely to walk among.  Even hundreds of years after it’s fall, Ankor Thom remains an impressive city, and I cannot imagine what it would have been like in its prime.

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A few of the sites within Ankor Thom: Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeankas, and the Terrace of the Elephants.

I ended my time at Ankor with a brief visit to Banteay Kdei, another monastery, and with a refreshing coconut by Sras Srang, an incredible reflecting pool.

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Two views of Banteay Kdei (left and right) and Sras Srang (center).

The sky was blue and the clouds a perfect work of art (the weather had been blessedly clear during my visit to Ankor), and I enjoyed just sitting by the water, reflecting on all I had seen during my three days at Ankor.  It’s still a little unbelievable that I had the privilege to see such a place, and I am incredibly thankful that I could do so.

 

[1] A lot of people planning to visit the region have asked me which ticket they should get, and while everyone has different goals for their travel, I can say that I was really happy with my choice.  I would spend my mornings at the temples, returning to Siem Reap around one or two o’clock, and then exploring the city.  This allowed me to more fully take in the sites, and not feel overwhelmed by temples.  And throughout the three days I explore Ankor, I was able to visit seventeen separate sites (if you count the structures within Ankor Thom separately), which, for the price of 62 U.S. dollars, seems to be a fair deal to me.

Third Time’s a Charm: I Finally Made it to Borneo

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You don’t get blue skies like this in Jakarta.  

Ever since I first became an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Indonesia, I have wanted to go on the riverboat tour in Tanjung Puting National Park to see the orangutans of Kalimantan (the name for the Indonesian potion of Borneo).  Typhoid led to my deciding not to go on the trip during my first grant, and last year because of a broken plane my trip to the jungles of Kalimantan turned into a completely unexpected but equally wonderful trip to Solo with two other stranded ETAs.  I was hoping against hope that this year I might finally make it to Borneo, an island I had not had a chance to visit at all during my time as an ETA.

And finally, the little bit of luck I keep in my back pocket came through.  My housemate had family visit recently, and one of the places they wanted to visit while here was Tanjung Puting.  When she asked me if I wanted to accompany them, I jumped at the chance.

The trip was magical.

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Shout out to our wonderful guide, Rini, and to Caitlin and Liane, wonderful travel companions.  (Photo credit to Caitlin.)  

We were greeted at the airport by our absolutely lovely guide, Rini, and immediately whisked away to our boat, where we met our lively crew and the adorable cook’s son, whom Reni put right in my lap as we pulled away from the dock.

Having not escaped the smog of Jakarta in over a month, I was overjoyed to find that I could already breathe so much more easily.  And while we thought that we would merely stay on the boat our first day, we actually went almost directly to our first orangutan feeding.

Seeing an orang hutan (orangutan, or literally jungle person) gently passing from tree to tree above our heads was simply surreal.  During my time in Indonesia, I have come across smaller primates, and my mind can wrap itself around their existence in the pohon (trees).  But orangutans are so much larger, that I found myself convinced that at any moment the branches would break and they would come crashing down onto the jungle floor.  But they never did.

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Just a few of the orang hutan we saw on our trip.

We went to three feedings during our trip.  Many of the orangutans that come to the feedings were what the guides called semi-liar (semi-wild), as they are the offspring of rehabilitated orangutans.  We saw mothers with babies, adolescent males, single adult females, and even the occasional older male.  Not matter how many orang hutan came our way, we never grew bored, but stayed enraptured by the privilege of bearing witness to such amazing creatures.

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You can see in this photo how the water changes from natural black to a polluted brown.  

I was also incredibly impressed by the conservation education present at each station.  There were explanations of the dangers of the palm industry, especially regarding the slash and burn techniques that pose such a threat to the jungles of the area and that were a major cause of the horrible haze of smoke in 2015.  Animal trafficking was also heavily discussed at many of the stations.  All throughout the trip, I was impressed by how conscious of these issues our crew were, and how eager they were to make us aware of mankind’s negative effect on the area.  When we came to a fork in the river, for example, they were quick to point out where the water changed from the deep black that was natural, to a muddy, polluted brown, caused by a gold mine farther up river.

Orangutans weren’t the only animals we came across on our trip.  We saw several other primates as well: long-tailed macaques, gibbons, and monyet belanda (Dutch monkeys, also known as proboscis monkeys).  A family of babi hutan (jungle pigs, or wild boars) came to one of the feeding stations and fed on the bananas that fell from the platform, and we even saw a crocodile one night, lurking in the reeds alongside our boat.  Our first night Rini also invited us on a night trek, and we came across all sorts of creepy crawlies, including a tarantula.

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From left to right: long-tailed macaques, a gibbon, and monyet belanda.

While on our night trek, we also came across a glowing fungus, which I had never heard of before and was completely fascinated by.  The ranger guiding us through the forest asked us to turn off our flashlights, and while I was a bit hesitant in doing so, I was so glad he had us do so.  Once the lights had dimmed, we could see the fungus all around us, like tiny bits of galaxy peeking through the leaves.

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Our captain (left) was clearly too cool for our selfie, and the first mate (right) was very shy but extremely sweet. (Photo credit to Caitlin.)

As impressive as this celestial fungus was, the actual night skies were perhaps the most beautiful part of the trip.  The milky way was draped above our heads as we ate a candlelit dinner on the deck of the boat, and I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw stars shining so bright.

The time to leave the boat came all too soon: none of us were ready to leave.  But our adventures in Kalimantan were not over just yet, as we still had a day in Pankalanbun before flying back to Jakarta.

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Don’t get on this raja‘s bad side.  He may point at you.

After first stopping at a place where we could buy local fabrics, Reni took us to Istana Kuning (Yellow Palace), where the raja (king) and his family lived and ruled until Indonesia became an Independent Republic.  The palace was filled with fun relics from the legacy of the raja, including a painting of one king who supposedly had a black tongue that created wounds when he licked people, and who always gestured to people with his thumb because he could cause someone to fall ill simply by pointing at them with his index finger.

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One of the teams competing at the bird calling competition.  (Photo credit to Caitlin.) 

Lunch was delicious ikan bakar (grilled fish), and as we drove through the city on out tour, Reni happened to notice a banner at the entrance of the local army base, which announced that a bird competition was happening that day.  No one was entirely sure what this entailed, so we stopped to check it out.  It turns out it was a competition for pet songbirds, in which the burung (birds) were judged by how frequently they sang.  I had certainly never seen anything like it.  Reni did worry that many of the songbirds had most likely been taken from the jungle, and I’m sure she was right.   It was yet another reminder of how mankind’s interests tend to so negatively shape our planet.

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Teaching some adorable little boys how to say “th.”  (Photo credit to Caitlin.) 

Our tour ended with a visit to an English Community, where we were able to spend a little time with a group of seven- to eleven-year-olds, who gathered each week to study English together.  The group was run entirely by volunteers, and the course was free for the children who joined.  I loved the opportunity to work with young people again, even only for a brief moment, and it was a joy to meet the people running the program.  And after having gained so much from our experience in the area, I was glad we had the opportunity to give something back, however small.

It took me almost three full years in Indonesia to finally visit Kalimantan, but it was well worth the wait.  I can’t wait for the opportunity to return, and learn more about this beautiful place.


Caitlin, who took some of the wonderful selfies and other people pictures that I used in this blog, also wrote about out trip to Tanjung Puting, as well as her other adventures in Indonesia.  You can find her blog here.

Elephants at Weddings and Monkeys at Pizza Parties: A Holiday in Sri Lanka

Through a combination of not being permitted to enter the classroom during exams and the extended break Indonesian high schools have in between semesters, ETAs end up with a lot of free time during the month of December.  While during last year’s grant I stayed in Indonesia and hopped along Bali, Flores, and Komodo, this year I headed out of the country that has become my temporary home, and headed to Sri Lanka for ten days, in part to attend a friend’s wedding, in part to explore an entirely new place I’m only lucky enough to be able to visit because I’m on this side of the world.

After having lived in Southeast Asia for a little over a year now, there was much in Sri Lanka that felt familiar—the bustling traffic, the winding mountain roads lacking guardrails more often than is comfortable, the way the steam from the road smells after rain—but there was no denying that this was not Indonesia, and I loved trying to tease out just what makes this incredible country tick during my short time there.  The tuk-tuks selling bread, the signs in three languages, the puppies playing in the street… I soaked it all in.

 

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A sign with all three recognized languages of Sri Lanka: Singalese, Tamil, and English; a mountain road; a tuk-tuk selling delicious sweet bread.

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country, and there were temples of all shapes and sizes to be seen whenever we made our way around a turn in the trusty van that took us everywhere.  While we were in Kandy, we were even able to tour Sri Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This temple houses a tooth of the Buddha, and is one of the most significant temples in all of Sri Lanka.  At one point, Kandy was the capital of Sri Lanka, and the king ruled from a palace very close to the temple; though the capital is now Colombo, the new president of Sri Lanka must still give a speech from one of the balconies, recognizing the cultural significance of Kandy and the temple itself.  We visited Sri Dalada Maligawa the night of the full moon[1], which is a Buddhist holiday, and so the temple was overflowing with people, from tourists carrying cameras to believers carrying offerings of flowers.  Being there on such a night was so, so special.

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The interior of Sri Dalada Maligawa; the exterior of the same with the full moon; a small village shrine

 

Sri Lanka boasts the some of the greatest consecrated biodiversity on the planet, second only to Costa Rica, and this was evident wherever we turned.  Tiny lizards, giant lizards, birds of every shape and size and color (including the peacock that decided the perfect place to attract peahens was right outside of our hotel room)… it was all there.

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A monitor lizard; a less intimidating reptile; and a peacock. (Oh my!)

One of the friends with whom I was visiting in Sri Lanka studies the behavioral patterns of various monkeys (to grossly oversimplify the brilliance in which she regularly engages), so it was always particularly special when we came across some primates.   With her help we were able to far better understand what we were seeing than we would have been able to on our own.

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A macaque; an elusive bear monkey; another macaque who I swear is just yawning

 

The flora, of course, was every bit as beautiful and varied as the wildlife.   I really don’t think that I will ever get past just how different, and somehow the same, the jungle is from the forests back home in Central New York.

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beautiful flower; nutmeg; king coconut tree

Nowhere was this diversity made more apparent than at Horton Plains, a national park in the central-ish part of Sri Lanka.  The plains reminded me far more of the hills of Scotland than they did anything I might have expected from Southern Asia (but then, I should know better than to make any assumptions, because the world will always prove to me just how little I know).  They day we hiked in the park itself it was raining steadily and the mist was so thick you practically had to swim through it, but that only added to the mystery and beauty of the place.  Part of the Horton Plains trek is a place called World’s End, a huge cliff with a 2,854 foot (870 meter) drop.  On a clear day, World’s End promises beautiful vistas, but honestly I was almost thankful for the fog when we finally reached it, because standing on the edge of a precipice and seeing nothing but cloud is exactly what I would picture the edge of the earth to feel like.  There was the solid but slippery ground beneath my feet, and then… nothing but white.

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Horton Plains: rolling grasslands; Baker’s Falls; World’s End

And while we spent plenty of time in the jungle, we also spent a considerable time at the beach.  One of our stops was in Mirissa, in the southernmost part of the island.  There were rocks to climb on, fish to chase, coconuts to sip from, and endless sunshine to soak in.

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Many ocean views from Mirissa

The architecture of Sri Lanka offers a powerful story as well: while there is plenty of Sri Lankan architecture to be seen, the mark of colonialism is strong as well.  Nowhere was this more obvious than in Galle, a fort close to Mirissa.  Originally built by the Portuguese in 1588, it was maintained by the Dutch from 1649 until the British took it over in 1796, and the British maintained control until Sri Lanka’s independence.  I have never felt fully comfortable with the strength of colonialism’s presence in South and Southeast Asia, whether in the form of looming buildings or in the more dangerous ways it subtly but powerfully has changed entire cultures and mindsets.  But Galle is an undeniable reminder of our world’s history that should not be forgotten.

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Architecture from the Galle Fort

Of course, the real reason I went was for my friends’ wedding, and that in and of itself was marvelous.  It was full of traditions: the two families lighting a lamp together, breaking a coconut to predict the success of the marriage (if it breaks perfectly in half, the marriage is said to be lucky—fortunately for my friends, it did), the singing and the chanting.  The wedding party entered via a procession that was truly grand, with an elephant in the lead and traditional Kandian dancers leading all of the people in their wedding finery.  I am sure I will never again attend a wedding quite like this one, and I cannot reiterate enough just how blessed I felt to be there.

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Most of the pictures I have of the wedding on my own camera are of the elephant.  But that’s still pretty cool, yeah?

And, really, the best part of the trip was the people along for the ride.  There were friends from university, and family members of my friends’ from the U.S. and from Sri Lanka.  Everyone was wonderful.  We giggled in the back seats of vans, walked silently through forests, and splashed one another mercilessly in the sea.  My friend’s family graciously took us everywhere, and gave us insights into every place that we saw which we probably never would have learned from a more traditional tour.  Sri Lanka was amazing, but it would not have been quite as unforgettable if the people I created these memories with had not been there.

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Love these goof-balls.  Every one.  

My time in Sri Lanka was far too short, and I can only hope that someday I might be able to return, hopefully alongside folks just as wonderful.

 

[1] This was the night of the 24th, which meant it was a holiday for at least three major religions this year: Christmas Eve for Christians, Mohammad’s birthday for Muslims, and the full moon for Buddhists.