Wednesday, December 21, 2011

floating lotus flowers

On the first of November, the bungalow we were staying in put up a glimmering gold-metallic banner with red letters spelling out "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" in both Thai and English. A few other shops and restaurants hung the same sign, but unlike our bungalow, they cut off the part which read "Merry Christmas".

Either way, a New Years sign seems a bit untimely in the month of November, unless you're following the Thai lunar calendar. Because, if you did, the decor wouldn't seem out of place at all.  Actually, it would be strange not to see it.

What I was looking forward to was not the Thai New Year, but what preceded it: Loi Kathrong, a festival to pay respects and ask forgiveness to the goddess of water, Pra Mae Khongkha. It occurs the night of the full moon on the 12th lunar month. It also happens to coincide with the annual floodings, which seems fitting.

In some parts of Thailand, the holiday is also celebrated on the same day as Yi Peng, the lantern festival. Millions of paper lanterns are lit and float gracefully across the sky.  Sadly, due to the protected rainforest on Koh Chang, the Yi Peng celebration was prohibited.  So instead of lighting up the sky, we lit up the waters with slices of banana trees covered in banana leaves to resemble a lotus flower. 

After attending a festival in a nearby city with its staged plays, street markets selling everything from clothing to fried cockroaches, games for children, and stations to receive blessings from monks, we went back to the pier in our little village of Bang Bao and made our wishes for the new year before lighting the candles and letting our kathrong float off into the ocean.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Forest monks

One afternoon, thirteen of us crammed into an open air taxi; which appeared to me like a smaller, cleaner and more modern version of a dala dala. We were told we were going to visit a special Buddhist monastery, one with meditating monks - the only of their kind on the island. For an hour and a half we drove up hills, around corners, and through highly touristic villages, all the while trying not to jab an elbow in the face of the person sitting next to us. We only later found out that the monastery is located a mere 10 kilometers east of Bang Bao. But due to a number of mountainous hills, no road was ever created to connect the two locations. Instead, those in Bang Bao have to drive the entire perimeter of the island to reach the monastery. On our return, we opted for a boat ride instead.

The monastery is located on top of one of the aforementioned mountainous hills, surrounded by trees. It houses four small sleeping huts set on stilts (one of which being the resting place of one or two deceased monks in a coffin hanging off the underbelly of the hut),
an unpretentious temple,
a few other one-roomed buildings and places of worship. The four living monks spend most of their days sitting in meditation, or walking along a prayer path in order to release pent up energy.

The local is quite beautiful, not to mention peaceful.  Yet, I don't see how the monks manage it.  I'd be bored in minutes... (I can't manage to meditate for more than 10 minutes, none-the-less years).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Isn't it, like, an unwritten rule or something?

As touristic as it is, you really can't visit Thailand without riding (and swimming with) an elephant. It may even be borderline compulsory.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

no inhibitions

With rare exceptions, I don't mind making a fool of myself.  I'll try new things (as long as it's not compromising to my health, such as eating monkey brains or jumping out of an airplane without a parachute or something).  I'll ask to join in on things, like a Thai karaoke session, held in an open garage, if it looks fun enough.  After all, the worst that could happen is that I'd look like a fool while receiving a rejection, or in this case, while singing a song in a language I can't understand.

Then again, I didn't hear any complaints, and everyone was enjoying themselves despite the music.  Plus, they even asked us to come back the next day.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay

For two weeks I lived in a fisherman's village.  Roads are wooden docks which branch off one main dock, houses are built on stilts which sit over the water, and a long cement pier leads to a beautiful, non-functioning, lighthouse. There are 4 restaurants, a handful of souvenir shops, a couple bars, an internet cafe/bakery/coffee shop, numerous massage spots, and a 7eleven at the village entrance.

Generally, I wouldn't take a 10 hour flight, a near 6 hour bus ride, an hour long ferry, topped off with another 40 minute long bus ride to reach a remote fisherman's village at the southern most tip of a island in Thailand, where I would confine myself for the following 14 days.  But this wasn't any given trip.

Months before, I came across a workshop to learn a few techniques in Thai Yoga Massage.  The 5 hour workshop flew by, and I found myself eager to learn more.   The thought of taking lessons to be certified intrigued me, but the thought of taking lessons in Thailand had me sold.  That was really all it took for me to make the long journey to the little village of Bang Bao.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Thailand I didn't see

Days before my trip, various colleagues came to me and asked if I was still going due to the floods.  I'd smile and say that I'm bringing my swimming suit just in case. It amazed me how nervous they were... but then again, I avoided all news-related articles on Thailand.  Because, had I seen this before I left, I might have gotten nervous myself.

(From the moment I flew into Bangkok until the moment I flew out from it, I didn't see any flooding.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A rude awakening

It feels like a dream.  If it weren't for my photographic evidence, I might believe a dream is all it really was. A dream that I was abruptly woken up from.  One I wish I could return to by rolling over and shutting my eyes as tightly as I can.  But every dream must come to an end at some point... and it's only the flashbacks that I can hold on to.  The ones that make me escape my reality for a split second and feel the warmth of the sun glowing on my skin once again.

Monday morning as we were taxing into our gate, just before 6:00, the pilot announced over the intercom, "... and the current temperature is 2 degrees."  (Celsius, that is - otherwise I would have died).  I had just left near 90 degree Fahrenheit weather for temperatures in the 30's.  A thick gray mist loomed outside.  I garnered all the courage I could to step out of the plane.

Two hours after we landed I was home and showered, but barely awake. At that point I had been up for over 30 hours, and I was beyond exhausted. But I made my way to work.  Because that's what you do when you've used up every possible vacation day (all 5 weeks of it).

I biked in the cold, bundled in a hat, scarf, mittens, coat and boots.  My eyes were so tired, my vision was blurred.  The gray mist didn't help.  But I arrived in one piece, although a bit drained.  I turned on my laptop to find more work waiting for me than I could have ever imagined.  I was overwhelmed. I wanted to close my eyes and pretend I was still in Koh Chang, Thailand. Right then my manager walked in.  She took one look at me and said, "I'm so sorry you had to come back to this."  The word "this" encompassed more in my mind than what she was implying, and my exhaustion overtook my emotions.  So I cried.  And then through my tears I laughed in embarrassment.

That was Monday.  Today is now Sunday.  There is still a thick fog covering the city.  The weather has warmed up a bit, but the sun has barely made an appearance since I've arrived. So I hang on to the flashes of memories which feel more like a distant dream, and I feel better.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."

It's a funny thing, taste buds... at least mine anyway.  A little over two weeks ago I left the land of bland food and sat down to an in-flight meal thinking, "mmm... this tastes good."  But throughout the 14 days following that flight, I was presented with a splendor of heavenly, mouth watering creations - each dish better than the rest. On my return flight, I could barely eat half of the food on the tray the steward offered me. My very first meal back home was at my company's canteen (cafeteria).  Not only did the price of the 2.50 Euro hot dog seem astronomical, it was barely edible, and nearly vomit inducing. (And that was even the best item offered).

Clearly, Thailand tainted my tongue.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Old Amsterdam

Sometimes you come across gems so good, you just can't wait to share them. 

Amsterdam, 1949.  Few things have changed since then.  The only notable ones being the houses-turned-factories are now houses again, and bridge tolls are no longer collected the same way they were 62 years ago.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Although videographer may not be in my repertoire, I could add non-commissioned wedding photographer to it,... all thanks to owning a professional grade camera for my travels.

Not bad for someone who just had laser eye corrective surgery and still sees blurry.  (Three cheers for auto-focus!)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

ride home

On rare beautiful days, there's nothing I love more than biking home from work. We've had a few of them lately, rare beautiful days that is, and it struck me that I may want to capture one on video.  You know, in case those rare beautiful days becomes even more rare before I finally skip on out of here.

So, for your viewing pleasure, I give you: My Ride Home.

(Be advised: I fully acknowledge that the title of videographer is not in my repertoire.  I have not now, nor will I, probably, ever profess it to be.  Secondly, although my bicycle is wicked awesome, it isn't fully equipped with wicked awesome shock absorbers... so pardon the bumps).

Sunday, October 9, 2011

cultural differences

And this is just another thing that sets the Dutch workplace apart from the American one.

"All:  In the light of Customer service week, we are organising a happy hour this afternoon (starting 15:30 to ----?) in the Kitchen area at D1. There will be refreshements (bier en frisdrank) and some chips to go with the drinks. Hope you can make it." 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

population 270,000

Legend has it, Jason, the Greek hero, slew a dragon where present day Ljubljana now resides. So it is said, there were many dragons in the Slavic region in those days - most of which were not in the least bit friendly. Today, however, four dragons sit atop a bridge as protectors of the city.  Ljubljana couldn't be in safer hands.

The capital city is the smallest I may have ever visited. But that might be due to the outdoorsy Slovenian mentality, and their desire to be as close as they can to nature.  The city itself is surrounded by mulitple parks. The old town is pedestrian only, with an occasional bike, and it provides the most charming atmosphere with its outdoor cafes lining the river Ljubljanica. Even its supermarkets were the most visually appealing places.  The store wall shelving was made from mahogany wood, the doors were painted with a rich color of red, and the whole feel was reminiscent of a late 1800's general store, with a shop employee standing behind a counter ready to wrap up whatever you request.

On summer evenings, the air is filled with the music. You can easily spend hours walking from one street to the other in persuit of the best band, which is no easy feat. And eating a deliciously massive ice cream cone, from a botique parlor called Cacao, makes the experience all the more enjoyable.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bats and all

Slovenia tourism websites boast of two "must-see" caves.

The Postonja caves are quotedly referred to, by a fellow traveller, as being "just like Gringotts, minus the goblins."  And who wouldn't like to feel like they've stepped into a Harry Potter film?  An open air train carries its passengers through the extensive caving system for a ten minute ride before the hour long tour on foot. It is the longest accessably available cave system in the world, measuring 5.3 kilometers (3.3 miles) long. Since the caves are relatively close to Ljubliana, along with multiple tour operators offering packages to Postonja and its nearby castle, the caves are infiltrated with visitors.

The Skocjan caves are a UNESCO World Heritage site and are ranked among the most important caves in the world. Earliest records of the caves date back to 2nd century B.C., and is believed to have been inhabited as early as 3,000 B.C.  Its distinguishing factor is the Reka river which flows right through it. The biggest stalagmite is 15 meters (45 feet) high and 250,000 years old.  Up until recently, tourist would have to scale the cave walls, sometimes as high as 140 meters (460 feet) above the cavern floor. It is also rumored that the Greek god, Hades, lived there.

Since I wanted to visit one of them, I was left with a choice:  Gringotts or the underworld. The decision was easy.  I chose hell.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Soteska Vintgar

Five beautiful miles outside of Bled is Vintgar Gorge.  The ravine was discovered in 1891 and by 1893 the nearly impassible area was made more accessible to visitors.  In 2011 there is no better Sunday stroll than the one leading to, through and returning from Vintgar.

Friday, September 23, 2011

night water rafting

Once a year, when the moon is full and at its highest in the sky, rafts are carried down the river bank for a ride of a lifetime.

I happened to be one of those people, helping to hold the raft above my head while making it down a rocky slope to the waters edge.  As I stop to think about it, it's become a tradition of sorts to do something over my birthday holiday that I wouldn't normally do.  It started during the "Mommy and Me" trip by hangliding over the Swiss Alps.  Then it continued with glacier walking in Norway.  That was followed up by jumping off a 30 foot cliff in Africa, which felt more like I was plunging to my death. So it was only fitting for the stars to have aligned in such a degree that I would arrive in Bled on the exact day of the annual midnight rafting trip.

There is an entirely new perspective to rafting down the rapids when the world around you is in various shades of gray.  I was in awe that the scenery could remain stunning, even devoid of color.  With 8 rafts in the river, our pace was a lot slower than it would have been otherwise.  But to liven up the lulls, we had water fights with neighboring rafts, walked along the circumference of the raft while holding onto the ores as not to fall, made massive amounts of noise while passing campsites, and some people took involuntary dips in the water. To top off the event, as we neared the end of our rafting tour, we were treated to a beautiful fireworks display.

And now, the trip is just another item to check off the list of things I never knew I wanted to do but did anyway.  An awesome item at that.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

the land where fairytales are made

Thirty miles north of the capital city of Ljublijana, Lake Bled attracts people from all around the globe.  It was a picture of that idilic location I saw two years ago which tugged at my heart and gave me the desire to visit its country.

Half way around the lake's four mile circumference, I sat at the shore and absorbed the views. A long haired man slowly paddled his kayak behind a pair of swimmers, gliding across the crystal clear waters to the island set in the middle of the lake. It is a small island, lush with grenery, and home to a 14th century gothic chapel.  It is that chapel which draws people to the alpine village of Bled. The bell from the old church chimed - dong, dong - slowly, but determinedly by a tourist with a wish.  That's what the little island's church bell does, they say, grants wishes.

Every Saturday wedding parties will fill the pletna boats, Slovenia's version of a gondola and the traditional way to reach the island, so the groom can carry his new bride up the 99 stairs to the chapel for a wish of their own to be fulfilled.

High up on the cliffs, keeping watch over the entire lake, sits Bled castle. Being first made mention of in the year 1011 AD, it is the oldest castle in all of Slovenia.  A small walk through the woods brings you to to a wooden staircase leading up to the castle doors.  At night, each step is illuminated, adding to the enchanted feel of the surroundings.

It is no wonder why Lake Bled is called the Disneyland of Slovenia.

Monday, September 12, 2011


In the end, I chose to be alone.  And this is why: