A Travellerspoint blog

Heaven and Hell

Chiang Mai and Chaing Rai, Thailand

Chiang Mai is a mountainous town tucked away in the Northwestern corner of Thailand. It is close to the borders of both Laos and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and is famous for its beautiful geography, temperate climate and the wonderful wildlife that inhabit the area. My first stop was to a beautiful refuge for the mighty Asian elephants located just 40 miles outside the city.

In 1989, Thailand passed legislation to ban logging in order to prevent further deforestation. Many elephants were employed in this industry to haul logs from one location to the other and were put out of work as a result of these laws. Some were taken and forced to beg on the streets to appease their owners whereas others were outright abandoned. The Elephant Nature Park was established by Sangduen "Lek" Chailert in 1996 as a sanctuary for abused and abandoned elephants. The sanctuary started out with just two elephants but is now home to over forty resident pachyderms.

The first elephant that I worked with at the park had been one of the first rescued by Lek. This elephant's calf had fallen down a steep bank and died rather young. Depressed and distraught, she refused to work for her owner at the time. The owner was angered by her insolence and stuck a rod into her eye which effectively blinded her.

We gathered the food needed for breakfast, and she slowly sauntered to our position to commence feeding. As I picked up each banana bunch, I had to touch her trunk softly to indicate that I was going to hand her food since the incident left her with severely limited sight. When she felt my touch, I extended the bananas so that she could grasp them with her trunk and place them in her mouth.

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Time for breakfast

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Gently placing the bananas in her trunk

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Smiling at the success of the handoff

After breakfast, we took a journey to the pen to see the newest arrival to the herd. Baby Navaan was born on October 28th, 2012 and weighed 213 pounds (97 kilograms). When he was born, the entire heard trumpeted in unison to celebrate the birth; a common practice in elephant communities. The staff had only rescued the mother 9 months prior and had no idea that she was pregnant until she began to have contractions (elephant pregnancies last between 18 and 24 months). The baby seemed happy and healthy and is only being kept in the pen so that he is not trampled by his older kinsmen. Once he is large enough, he will be allowed to roam with the others in the 2,000 acre open space of the sanctuary.

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The two-month-old calf, Navaan

As we observed the new edition interact with his mother, I noticed that one of the elephants was seemingly tossing dirt at me. I asked our guide if I had somehow offended the creature, and she reassured me by saying that it was actually throwing dirt onto its own back. Elephants do this for many reasons including a way to keep cool in the afternoon heat and protect themselves from mosquitoes.

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Adding a layer

We had lunch and then put on our swim trunks so that we could go bathe their trunks. We splashed water on them (and a little on each other) as they patiently stood by. Once they had had enough, they trotted off seemingly to dry themselves in the hot afternoon soon. We found them only five minutes later playing joyfully in a puddle of mud. Although I don't have children yet, this is probably the frustration that comes with trying to clean a slightly rambunctious child.

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A family of elephants migrating to take a dip in the river

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Getting clean

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Drying Off

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...And then getting dirty again

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A good end to the day

The next day was tailored a bit more towards my adrenaline side. Those of you who have followed me before know that I have a slight penchant towards the physically extreme (for those of you who haven't seen the In Vivo film, Check it out here). While this trip has been fantastic so far, it wouldn't be complete without at least one activity where I needed to sign a death and dismemberment waiver.

A van arrived at my hostel early in the morning and took me and 8 other individuals to the Flight of the Gibbon Zip-line adventure in the mountains of Chiang Mai. While the gibbons were sparse to say the least, the flights were definitely plentiful.

My guide for the day was a slightly unhinged and hilarious man named Cash. He would often shake the line as we went through the jungle and crack jokes to make those afraid of heights feel a bit more at ease. There were 18 zip-lines throughout the course with the longest measuring over 2,400 feet in length. This last zip-line is the longest in Asia and shot me through the jungle with dizzying speed (video below).

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Ready to go

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Hooking up to the first platform

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has nothing on me

The 2400 Foot Monster

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A nice view from the top

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Me with the man in black

On the third day, I hired a car to take me on the three and a half hour journey North to the town of Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai is a sleepy hamlet that has recently gained fame as the site of Wat Rong Khun (translated as "The White Temple"). In 1997, famed Thai architect Chalermchai Kositpipat decided that he wanted to give something back to his place of birth and embarked on a mission to build a new age Buddhist Temple in Chiang Rai. He has labored on the structure tirelessly and has taken on 67 disciples to assist in the completion of his vision. This temple is still very much a work in progress with an estimated completion date of 2070.

The edifice is purely white with small reflective pieces used to accentuate the elaborate statues. As I approached the temple, I noticed a small bridge that I needed to cross over before I arrived at the main structure. Underneath the bridge were dozens of arms reaching up from a pit which is meant to symbolize hell. As the artist puts it, "to reach heaven, you need to pass suffering." The image was powerful, but it would not prepare me for the darker images that I would see later that day.

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At first glance

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The exhibition of suffering

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From the depths of hell

Once I passed over the bridge, I was flanked by two angels that guard the entrance to the temple itself. I gently removed my shoes to enter the temple and marveled at the incredible interior as I walked inside.

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True serenity

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And incomparable beauty

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Entering the temple

The interior was nothing short of otherworldly. However, I began to notice odd quirks that distinguished it from the more ancient temples within the country. The mural within the shrine has been under construction for over three years. A large Buddha image is surrounded by tiny figures from American pop-culture including: Michael Jackson; Bumble Bee from Transformers; Leonidas from 300; Neo from the Matrix and a picture of an Angry Bird next to a collapsing World Trade Center. Other oddities include a Predator writhing in agony as well as a few peculiar traffic cones just outside the main hall.

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No pictures are allowed inside, but I managed to capture this blurry photo. You can see Neo to the upper left, the speeder used by Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, Episode I; Bumble Bee from the movie, Transformers and one of the dragon-like creatures from Avatar.

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More like prey

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Not your average traffic cone

The project has cost the architect over 10 million US dollars since its inception in 1997. He raises money through the sale of prints of his paintings as well as pendants. After a pendant is purchased, the buyer writes the name and birth date of the person he/she wishes to bring luck and hangs it on special trees within the temple grounds. This ritual is a common practice among native Thais, and there are literally thousands of these pendants hanging throughout the park.

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One of the pendant trees

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Hanging the newest pendant

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Dedicated to Danielle Davis, born nearly 26 years ago

Just 15 miles up the road from the White Temple sits a structure in stark contrast, Black House. Whereas the White Temple emphasizes purity and heavenly ideals, Black House is filled with items highlighting death and suffering. As I approached the first massive black pagoda, I literally felt like I was walking into hell. The entrance hall was barren aside from a few possessions carefully arranged within the cavernous interior. The most imposing piece was a massive table that is over a hundred feet long that straddles the front and back entrances. At the heads of this table sat massive chairs make of tusks and horns from various animals. The table itself was adorned with numerous table runners made out of snake skin and still containing the heads of the vanquished creatures. The periphery contained numerous massive wooden pillars which depicted animals in their final moments of life with skins carefully strung across them.

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The infamous and imposing Black House

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The door to hell

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The chair of a fallen angel

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A table runner complete with snake head

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Not optimized for comfort

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Heads of dragons

Beyond this entrance hall sat numerous other pagodas in the same signature black coloration. The most disturbing was a pagoda enclosing a table seemingly set for meals. Turtle shells rested where the plates normally were placed, and the centerpiece was a likeness of a man who was near death from overwhelming hunger. The chairs surrounding the table were in the same sadistic style as the main entry hall, and I could just stare in morbid fascination at the sites that were laid before me.

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Elephant bones carefully placed

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Cryptic signs pointing to nowhere

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Carving out the sky

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A demonic table set

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An ironic center piece for a feast

As I walked through the grounds with my visibly shaken tour guide, she whispered to me that the artist was sitting near the main pagoda talking to a few other visitors. I decided I wanted to pay my respects to this man, and I ventured over to meet him. As I approached, I became more scared of the figure that sat before me.

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The master of his domain

"May I take your picture?" I sheepishly asked, not fully sure he understood English.

"It would be my pleasure," he gently responded.

I fumbled with the camera, but eventually took his picture all the same. "Where are you from?" He asked me with an affable smile.

"Los Angeles, California," I responded, eyes pointed towards the ground.

"I have a house in Pasadena, but I decided that I wanted to be among my things if the world did in fact end on December 21st," he mused.

We exchanged smiles, and I began asking him questions about his career, his current work, the 36 year labor that was before me, and the inspiration to start it all.

"In my twenties, I was inspired by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. I was later inspired by Francis Bacon and other thinkers in that period. But one day I was talking to Jackson Pollack, and I suddenly didn't care what anyone else thought. In my forties, I became enlightened, and I just created what was in my heart," he said with a peaceful smile.

I thanked him for his time and bowed in reverence as I took my leave. I entered the car and began to think about what I had seen for the long ride back to Chiang Mai. I had seemingly witnessed heaven and hell, and I reflected a considerable amount about my own mortality. I struggled to determine why a man would create something so frightening and simultaneously be so at peace with the work. Was it an outlet for his inner demons, or was it just acceptance that death was as much a part of the world as living?

Where the White Temple brought inner peace and childlike fascination, the Black House brought turmoil and fear of the unknown. I don't know if I will ever truly understand the magnitude of what I witnessed today, but I know that I am deeply grateful for the lessons that this experience afforded. It's off to the Southern peninsula and the island of Phuket, more to come soon...

Posted by mbeymer 05:10 Archived in Thailand

From Angkor Wat to Pol Pot

Siem Reap, Cambodia

DISCLAIMER: My goal with these entries is to give you accurate insights into the places that I have been fortunate enough to explore. Sometimes these accounts are not easy to read, but they depict my reflections in a raw and honest manner. Please note that this post contains disturbing history and pictures that may be difficult for some to view. However, I encourage you to view this post in its entirety as it contains important history and possible ways we can make our future brighter than our past.

When I arrived in Siem Reap, I was met at the airport by a lovely Cambodian man who simply introduced himself as Mr. Jim. Mr. Jim was tasked with taking me from the airport to the hostel which was a somewhat perilous journey for the uninitiated such as myself. Although the highway is only one lane in each direction, the locals have implemented a three-lane system in each direction with rampant precarious passing. The best way I can describe it is a constant game of chicken...but on a freeway.

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The talented Mr. Jim

When I finally arrived at the hostel, I thanked god for retaining all of my appendages and began to formulate the details of my plan for this stop in the journey. The main purpose of my trip to Cambodia was to visit the ruins of the ancient Angkor empire. I have been fascinated by this kingdom ever since I read a brilliant account given by Jared Diamond in his book, “Collapse.” The kingdom was founded by King Jayavarman II in 802 CE and was finally sacked by the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya (see previous blog post for history of Ayutthaya) in 1431. Research was recently published showing that it was in fact the largest urban center in preindustrial times with the civilization covering over 1,000 square kilometers (Evans et al., 2007).

The Angkor kings invested a considerable amount in an extremely sophisticated irrigation system that spanned the empire. When the population finally exceeded its carrying capacity, the water table fell below the line of irrigation system and critical parts of the kingdom were deprived of water resources. This resource shortage was instrumental in the eventual victory of the Ayutthayan empire over the Angkor empire. Following the fall, the population migrated to Longvek. The grounds of Angkor would lay untouched until French explorers discovered the massive kingdom in the late 19th century.

I set off to explore the ruins with Mr. Jim at the wheel after I had unpacked and gathered the necessary gear. He first took me to the Banteay Srey temple at the Northeastern end of the former empire, and we worked our way through the numerous sites in the fallen civilization. I was impressed by the intricate stone carvings that adorned the doorways, pillars and wall panels in each of the sites.

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The road to Angkor

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Beautiful Masonry

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The massive stairs at Pre Rup

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The smiling faces of Bayon

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Bathed in sunlight

One of my favorite sites was Ta Prohm, a former monastery and university formed under King Jayavarman VII. This temple is unique because many massive trees have grown through the ruins with the roots artistically covering the base structures. This site is also renowned for its appearance in the movie “Tomb Raider” with Angelina Jolie.

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Masonry at Ta Prohm

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"Over"-growth

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In the shadows

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A view unobstructed

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On closer inspection

Mr. Jim took me to a lovely traditional Khmer restaurant when I decided I finally needed a break. I had a delicious mild green curry with spinach served nicely in a coconut.

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Eating a delicious traditional Khmer dish

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...And apparently making a friend in the process

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Two Cambodian girls playing outside

When I finally felt refueled, I headed out to my last stop on my Angkor trek - the famed Angkor Wat. This was the main temple of the civilization, and the massive size of the structure is nothing short of impressive. I was able to explore the structure a bit before sunset and found countless sandstone murals throughout the edifice.

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A view from afar

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Serpent guarding the temple

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From the inside of the complex

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The sun starting to fade

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It wasn't exactly an easy walk down

When the sun was about to clock out for the day, I hurried outside of the structure so that I could get a few shots in the remaining light. I positioned myself just to the right of the temple and got a few great shots as the sky shifted through the spectrum.

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It was just a bit humid

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Angkor in all its majesty

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The silhouettes of Angkor

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The sun making its final descent

I was also fortunate enough to learn a considerable amount of contemporary history during my time in Cambodia. To give myself a break from the temples, I visited the local War Museum which was staffed by former soldiers in the conflict between Cambodia and the Khmer Rogue.

In 1970, the United States feared that an underground Marxist uprising would soon allow Cambodia to fall into the hands of Communists. As a prevention tactic, they supported and financed a coup d'etat of the ruling government by General Lon Nol. The general successfully drove the Communists to the North, but financing from China allowed the Communists led by Pol Pot to take the capital in 1975. Pol Pot began a process of "social re-engineering" which placed people from urban areas into forced labor camps in the countryside. It is currently estimated that during the 15 year war, Pol Pot was instrumental in over one million people dying from torture, starvation or disease. Pol Pot's Khmer Rogue and Vietnamese army (composed of forces from the United States, Vietnam and Cambodia) laid over 16 million mines during the conflict.

My guide at the museum was a former soldier named Sonh, who had lost his left leg to a mine during the war. He said that there were between 4 to 6 million mines still left in the country. You read that correct - 4 to 6 MILLION. We talked at length, and he recommended that I visit a museum in the North end of town to learn more about the clean-up effort.

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Different forms of ordinance that have been unearthed by the Cambodian Government

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My guide at the Military Museum who was brave enough to share his story

The Siem Reap Landmine Museum details the efforts of Cambodian activist Aki Ra and his organization, Landmine Relief Fund, to demine Cambodia. Aki Ra was a former child soldier who was given a gun at the age of 10 and forced to fight as a child soldier for the Khmer Rogue. He was also forced to lay mines (also known as ordinance) and became an expert at working with numerous types of explosives. He would later defect to Vietnam and fight against the Khmer Rogue until the war ended. In 1993, Aki Ra joined the United Nations in their efforts to demine Cambodia. He would later start his own organization which has cleared over 50,000 pieces of ordinance since its founding. In 2010, Aki Ra was honored at the CNN heroes banquet for his efforts and accomplishments in landmine disposal and removal.

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Arriving at the museum

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Munitions disposed by Aki Ra and his team

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Warning sign found in front of numerous fields in the rural areas of Cambodia

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Another warning sign but tailored to children; an overwhelming number of landmine victim are small boys

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Speaks for itself

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CNN Heroes Award presented to Aki Ra in 2010

When I arrived at the museum, I was admittedly a bit surprised to be greeted by a cordial American wearing Vietnam-era BDUs. He introduced himself as Bill Morse and began to tell me his story. He had been in the Vietnam war and had heard about the efforts of Aki Ra from a friend back in the United States. He was so inspired by his story that he flew to Cambodia to meet Aki Ra. He told Aki Ra that he would help the demining efforts in whatever way he could and began to raise money for the organization in the US. He grew such an affinity for the cause that he and his wife decided to move to Cambodia to assist full time in 2010.

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My guide at the museum, Bill Morse

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Bill and his wife, Jill

My visit to these museums profoundly affected me. It reinforced my belief that war is an awful thing where many innocent civilians and combatants die for causes that are often unclear. However, there are still many people in this world dedicated to ensuring that atrocities like these are prevented in future generations. Cambodia has one of the highest amputee rates in the world as a legacy of this awful war with an estimated 40,000 amputees living throughout the country. There are unfortunately new casualties every month from these destructive devices (see story below), and I applaud the efforts of organizations like these to prevent further casualties from occurring.

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From October 2012

It is easy to quickly regress from a desire for activism to despair when I experience things like this. Although I know I cannot help this cause directly at this time, I decided that I could show my support through a $50 donation to their mission. I urge you to be unconventional this Christmas and give someone a gift by making a donation in their name to a cause that you support. Whether its the Landmine Relief Fund or another NGO, individuals fighting for those less fortunate work tirelessly to make the world a better place. Whether it's $5 or $10,000, your contribution could make someone's holidays just a little brighter and could even save a life.

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Posted by mbeymer 08:08 Archived in Cambodia

Towering Temples

Bangkok, Thailand

sunny 93 °F

Flying halfway around the world usually induces a considerable amount of jet lag for most travelers which can last for the first few days of a trip. I found out that the advantage of being immensely sleep deprived following final examinations was the cure for such an affliction. As the plane took off from Los Angeles International Airport, I gently closed my eyes only to awake in my layover stop of Shanghai. I collected my belongings still half-asleep and trudged off the plane to my transfer flight for Bangkok. As I yawned compulsively in the line for the passport control, I heard a voice which seemed vaguely familiar in my groggy state. I turned my head to investigate and found none other than my friend Wendy of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. We exchanged queer glances immediately followed by surprised looks and caught up in the Shanghai airport before my next flight. It's not often that I run into friends in Shanghai, but it was nice to see a friendly face so early in the journey.

I arrived at my hostel in the middle of the night without issue and promptly passed out once more. By the time I woke up, I had slept a total of 14 hours. Jet lagged? Nope. I called Danielle to let her know that I was safe and set out to explore the tiny hovel of Bangkok. I found the Thai capital quite beautiful and extremely easy to get around. I rode their very modern Sky Train and took in the sights the city had to offer followed by a short jaunt on a river taxi. When I felt that I had enough comfort with the basic layout of the city and mass transit system, I set off to my first scheduled event at the Asiathique Bazaar. The facility is only six months old and very much resembles the Farmer's Market Shopping Mall nestled in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. It has an extensive food market, high-end shops and is also the new home to the famous Calypso Lady Boy Cabaret.

Lady Boys are simply transgender male to female (MTF) persons who are stage performers in Thailand. Transgender persons have long been treated as equals in Thai culture, and in this respect, Thailand is very socially advanced over other nations. The transgender population is near and dear to my heart, and I thought that seeing this show would be a perfect introduction to Thai culture.

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The Ferris wheel and clock tower at the new Asiathique Bazaar in Bangkok

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Good advice

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The Calypso Theater

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I think they meant "passion" fruit...

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And all that jazz

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Last serenade

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Preparing for the finale

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A stately exit

The show itself resembled the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with Willie (played by Kate Capshaw) emerging from the smoke to perform a grandiose lip-syncing spectacle. The show lasted about an hour and a half and ended with a rendition of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" with the entire cast dressed in Christmas apparel. While  the show was entertaining at many points, it was underwhelming overall. I was a victim of my own high expectations, but I was glad that I got to see it.

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Emulating Ms. Capshaw

The next day I met up with a tour group at the River City Pier to explore Thailand's second capital of Ayutthaya. I learned a tremendous amount from our guide, Paul, about Thai history and the reign of its various kings. Ayutthaya was established as the capital of Thailand in 1350 and remained as such until the Burmese sacked the kingdom in 1767. The capital was subsequently moved to Bangkok, and the palace and its surrounding area would be neglected for almost 100 years. In the mid-19th century, the King decided that he wanted to refurbish the palace as a summer home to host various guests and dignitaries. He built Roman and Danish like structures among the already existing Chinese and Thai structures to create one of the most beautiful and architecturally-diverse grounds that these young eyes have ever seen. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

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A lighthouse in the Sri Lanken style with Roman figures

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A Thai pagoda

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Chinese interior work

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In praise of shadows

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A view from the top of the lighthouse

Our next stop was a temple that was burned down by the Burmese in the 18th century called Wat Mahathat. Unlike the previous temple, the ground still lay in ruins and no refurbishment had taken place other than markers designating it as a historical site. Most of the Buddha statues had been decapitated some time ago. I inquired as to why they had been decapitated and Paul informed me that Buddha heads from this era actually command a high price from antique dealers.

This site is also famous for a Buddha head that is strangely encircled by a tree. Legend has it that a robber took a head from grounds and as he was escaping, he was frightened off by someone or something which caused him to drop the head. Many years later, a tree and its roots started to grow and completely encased the head during its growth.

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One of the only Buddha statues left intact

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At the ruins

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The mysterious Buddha head

Our last stop for the day was Wat Phra Si Sanphet also in the capital of Ayutthaya. This site is famous for the three pagodas that house the remains of the 8th, 9th and 10th kings of Thailand (from right to left). Pagodas are typically built as monuments to Lord Buddha and contain either a strand of hair or piece of bone from Buddha, but the 10th king decided he wanted to build a pagoda specifically to house his ashes, and he also did so for his father (the 9th king) and grandfather (the 10th king).

This was also the site where a gold plated Buddha was looted by the Burmese some 500 years ago. The gold was melted down and extracted from the temple and taken back to Burma. In 1956, the Burmese leader officially apologized for its atrocities against the Thai people and donated 200 million baht (or about 9 million dollars in 1956 U.S. currency) to restore the temple that was looted by his ancestors. A beautiful likeness of Lord Buddha now sits in the temple and defies explanation.

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The tomb of kings

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With a sepia setting

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The restored Buddha at Wat Phra Si Sanphet

We returned on a nice cruise along the river, and I took my exhausted body to receive my first Thai massage. A nice woman named Ohm contorted my body in about every position imaginable. As the massage progressed, it felt like I was in a fight with a large mammal and was losing badly. When the pain, err pleasure, was over, I stepped outside only to feel like all of the tenseness in my body had been washed away and that every muscle was completely relaxed. It gave new meaning to the phrase - No pain, no gain!

My last day in Bangkok was spent exploring the famous Grand Palace and the Reclining Buddha. I don't really know how to described the Grand Palace. I can only really say that it was the most impressive man-made structure I have ever seen in my life. I paid for the audio tour but could not focus on the narration because of the immense beauty in craftsmanship that surrounded me at every turn. I was completely in awe of what I saw and as I write this to you, I still cannot shed the look of amazement from my face.

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Mythical demon guardians

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The entrance to the Grand Palace with a statue of the father of Thai medicine

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Beautiful stone statue

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Incredible beauty

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Intricate detail

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Beautiful coloration

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The Royal Pantheon

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Chedi honoring King Rama I father

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Beautiful mural depicting a scene from the Ramakien epic

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Pillars at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha

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Watchful gatekeeper

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Appreciating the grandeur

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The tops of pagodas

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For Danielle

After I absorbed the impressive spectacle that was The Grand Palace, and I headed over to Wat Pho (no, not the soup) which houses the immense Reclining Buddha. The Reclining Buddha was stunning, but it paled in comparison to the grounds of the Grand Palace. This statue is over 150 feet long and rests in a temple just south of the Grand Palace.

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The simple yet elegant entrance to Wat Pho

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Close-up of the reclining Buddha

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The full 160 foot image of Buddha

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Pictures of Hanuman's army

When I decided I was templed-out for the day, I returned to my hostel to get ready for the Muay Thai Kick Boxing match at Lumphini stadium. Lumphini stadium is the most famous stadium in the world for Thai Kick Boxing. The best matches are slated for Tuesday evenings, and I had a ringside seat for a 10 match card that included a title fight. The crowd was raucous, and the matches were phenomenal. The fighters boxed for five rounds at three minutes a round. A four piece traditional Thai band played during each round as the crowd wildly made wagers with the bookies spread throughout the stadium. I smiled as I watched the matches thinking about the lady boy show, the amazing temples I had seen and the spectacle of top-tier boxing. I had finally made it to Asia.

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The famous Lumphini Stadium

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Squaring off for the title bout

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Landing a hit

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The family section cheering on their fighter

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Final Round

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New champion posing with his belt

Off to visit the ancient Angkor civilization in Cambodia, more to come soon...

Posted by mbeymer 21:01 Archived in Thailand

Muito Obrigado

A time for reflection

Johnny Cash - "Hurt" (Click Here)

When I was preparing to leave USAID, I had a lot of fellow employees ask, "So what did you learn?"

I gave rather poorly crafted answers because I simply did not know. I had been in a different environment for so long that I had not had adequate time to gain perspective on everything that had transpired. This entry is meant to discuss what I took away from the experience and thank those who showed me the door to becoming a more complete human being.

Before I left for sub-Saharan Africa, I was in a spiraling state of self-destruction. I was constantly worried about the future and how I would cope with the obstacles ahead. Over the course of my stay in Mozambique, I had a plethora of obstacles. I dealt with each one successfully and began to gather confidence that I could indeed tackle tough challenges. This slowly eroded my fear of the future and allowed me to be more at peace with myself and the world around me. I now realize that my previous state of perpetual worry was because I didn't believe in myself. I couldn't see my true capabilities and, as a result, I pushed away many of the ones I loved. Unfortunately, this newfound confidence in my abilities quickly grew out of control and ultimately led to my downfall.

From the start of the year, I had played with fire. I had driven at break neck speeds across the United States and not been caught, successfully kicked out an unruly tenant with empty threats, challenged corrupt cops to shoot me, and placed myself within striking distance of some of the world's most dangerous animals. At each attempt, I had walked away unscathed. The more I tested the odds and won, the more hubris filled my veins. The more I succeeded, the more brash my moves became.

This newfound confidence became a drug. With each high, I searched progressively for more dangerous situations to put myself into and test the limits even further. I began to feel untouchable, and then it all came crashing down. In the ashes of the fallout, I realized that I had neglected those I loved because of my selfishness and hurt them because of my pride. I had taken those in my life for granted and lost the one person that meant everything to me. I looked into the mirror and a villain stared back - I had become the antithesis of what I wanted to be.

This endowed me with a sense of humility and understanding. In my past life, I had rarely sympathized with the poor decisions of others before because I didn't understand how such egregious missteps could be taken. Once I had tested dangerous territory and finally lost, I was able to identify with my own humanity and therefore that of those around me. I had tarnished my honor, and was left with empathy. I was finally able to do something that was near impossible for me to do before - forgive.

These lessons were learned over a long and tumultuous road, but I feel that I have grown exponentially in the aftermath of these events. I can only hope that this understanding for myself and the world around me is not a transient one. These reflections are a deeper glimpse into the question asked by my colleagues at my departure. It is far from complete, but I am okay with that. I hope that I gain even more perspective on who I have become, but I am letting the universe show me the way for now. Thank you to...

Tara

Tara


Maria, Ana and Madalena

Maria, Ana and Madalena


Gledisse

Gledisse


Cassie

Cassie


Della and Sereen

Della and Sereen


Marta

Marta


Branca

Branca


Tia Cherry

Tia Cherry


Mary Ellen

Mary Ellen


The boys

The boys


And Susanna

And Susanna

You have all made my experience incredible, and I thank each of you for sharing a part of your journey with me.

Posted by mbeymer 14:04 Archived in Mozambique

Outside the Wire

Kruger National Park, South Africa

Kruger National Park is a transfrontier reserve straddling the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. It is reputed to be one of the best game parks in the world, and it did not disappoint. Susanna and I left Maputo on Friday, put up with the normal border hullabullo, and arrived at the Berg en Dal Rest Camp on the Southern edge of the park just before dark.

Susanna did some research and found that the early morning and evening game drives were highly recommended. These canopy vehicles take about 9 people out for 3 hours at a time to different sections of the park. They are organized at the days' end and beginning in order to spot animals at their most active times. The advantage of these rides over guided walks is that the animals supposedly see vehicles as just another animal. The human scent is overpowered by the smell of gasoline, and due to the traffic in the park, the animals have become rather accustomed to and unafraid of vehicles. As long as you stay in the car, they are more or less apathetic to your presence.

The first night drive was definitely exciting. The guide gave a disclaimer about how we might not see anything and that all of the sightings were largely dependent on luck. After 15 minutes of driving, we heard a lot of noise by the side of the road and shined the spot light to more clearly witness the commotion. A pack of about ten rhinos were trotting through the grass right next to the road and were within about 20 feet of the vehicle. I considered this my first true sighting in the wild of one of the “Big 5.” The other four of this group include the leopard, lion, cape buffalo, and elephant.

After about an hour without any more sightings, our driver was flagged down by another truck that was approaching from the opposite direction. They pulled up side by side, exchanged a few words in a local dialect, and then our driver suddenly peeled out. The car had been racing down a network of gravel and dirt roads for about thirty minutes when I heard Susanna gasp. We came to a screeching halt and observed the fruits of our conquest. Sitting just off the side of the road were a male lion and his lioness. We stared in amazement, and they just looked at us quizzically and resumed relaxation. Within 5 minutes of our arrival, the male stood up to proposition the female. He approached her from behind and commenced with his mating attempt only to receive a series of growls from his mate which I took as an indication of rejection. After all, I am very familiar with this concept and the opposite sex! Once we had our fill, we traveled back the same way and actually stumbled across another lion pair. The male lion also attempted to mount his female companion, and his quest was a bit more successful than that of his peer. After the deed had been done, the male lion slowly sauntered up to the side of his companion, sat down and gently placed his paw on hers in a display of affection. I had made it to the bush.

Impala Lily

Impala Lily


The Picanto was apparently also terrified of the animals

The Picanto was apparently also terrified of the animals


The Berg en Dal rest camp

The Berg en Dal rest camp


Lions relaxing

Lions relaxing


"So what do you want to do?"

"So what do you want to do?"


Answers that question...

Answers that question...

We got up early the next morning and went on another game drive which was very different from the first. We saw a pack of elephants, a few giraffes and cape buffalo from a distance. The best part was the end of the drive when one of my fellow passengers used his binoculars to spot a leopard having an early morning snack from the bough of a nearby tree. We were not able to get that close, but we jockeyed for position with the other motorists, and I was able to get a few good shots.

The early morning game drive

The early morning game drive


Grazing elephant

Grazing elephant


Balancing leopard

Balancing leopard


Observing from a safe distance

Observing from a safe distance


Alert giraffe

Alert giraffe


Strike a pose

Strike a pose

We got back to Berg En Dal and migrated with our faithful Kia Picanto to Lower Sabie at the Eastern edge of the park. Our accommodations at this camp were much more luxurious as we occupied a beautiful chalet on the banks of a river full of hippos and crocodiles. The night game drive was initially uneventful. We saw a few cape buffalo here and a few hyena there, but there was nothing substantial. Towards the end of the drive, everyone in the truck collectively gasped as our roaming spot lights came upon one of the rarest animals in the park – the African Wild Dog. There are less than 2,000 of these in the world, and the park estimates to only have about 250. If a visitor sees one, they are considered incredibly lucky. We were fortunate enough to come across a pack of 5!

They were relaxing by the road, and like the lions, did not rise to meet us when the truck came a halt. We watched them for about 30 minutes play with one another and scamper about. As we got ready to leave, one saw a jackal in the distance and started off in hot pursuit. Although these dogs look benign, they have been known to take down both antelope and impala. After we saw these dogs, I knew that I would be satisfied with the trip even if I didn’t see another animal for the rest of my time in the park.

My slice of heaven

My slice of heaven


Cape buffalo (with awesome hair style)

Cape buffalo (with awesome hair style)


We have contact!

We have contact!


The African Wild Dog

The African Wild Dog


Lean and fierce

Lean and fierce

Susanna dropped me off at Skukuza in the central part of the park the next day and we said our goodbyes. She headed back to Maputo, and I prepared to go off deeper into the bush for my upcoming wilderness trail. We saw a lot of cool animals on the way including a pack of about 50 baboons with their newborns and a few street savvy giraffes with some not so aware drivers.

Chacma baboon and child

Chacma baboon and child


Animal crossing

Animal crossing


Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey


Southern Ground Hornbill

Southern Ground Hornbill


The "noble" male kudu

The "noble" male kudu

The wilderness trail was completely different from the previous game rides that I had taken. We were taken by two guides to a camp about an hour’s drive. The camp was definitely Spartan in that it only had 4 A-frame huts and a very modest kitchen and dining area. The area was surrounded by an electric fence to keep the surrounding animals from any late night snack searching. We sat around a small camp fire, and one of our guides told us what the next few days would have in store.

We got up at about 5 AM and set out when the first rays of sun shot across the horizon. Our two leaders, rifles in hand, opened the fence and one by one we stepped outside the wire. I was nervous at first because I had a car to protect me before. Now, I had to pray that the guides were great shots if we came across anything daunting. We had been hiking for about 3 hours when the guide alerted us that he had spotted an elephant and we were going to go in for a closer look. He informed us that elephants have a great sense of smell, but they don’t see very well. He reasoned that if we moved downwind and then approached it, we would be able to get relatively close before it felt threatened. I got within 30 feet of the noble animal before it seemed to notice me. It starred at me inquisitively and I looked back with equal curiosity. It was initially terrifying because of the sheer size of the animal and my defenselessness, but I eventually relaxed and was able to marvel at the fact that I was standing so close to such an amazing creature.

A few hours later we saw vultures circling overhead, and the guide gathered us around and indicated that there might have been a kill. Lions typically eat about once every 3 days, depending on the size of the pride, so it is a rare event if one actually got to witness a feast. We used the flock in the sky as our compass and found lion tracks on the way, but the lions had departed by the time we arrived. Lions have an excellent olfactory system, and we were told that it is rare to even get close to them on foot. Despite their reputation for ferocity towards humans, they actually tend to run at the sight of humans unless they feel that their young are being threatened. So we didn’t see any lions on foot, but it was a thrilling chase.

The next day was a lot of walking without a lot of sightings. We were walking up a fairly steep grade single file when the person in front of me stopped abruptly. I looked up a bit disoriented and saw the guide frantically motioning with his arm to move in the opposite direction. Still confused, I looked passed the guide and saw a white rhino about 20 feet ahead examining our moves. He had been eating and was not entertained by our sudden arrival. We retreated quickly and periodically looked back to observe his movements. The rhino decided we weren’t worth his time, and he resumed his meal.

E.J. talking about the giant land snail

E.J. talking about the giant land snail


Phillip and I

Phillip and I


The elephant we surprised

The elephant we surprised


Tracking lions

Tracking lions


Picked clean

Picked clean


Grazing

Grazing


A rhino like the one we ambushed

A rhino like the one we ambushed

The walking trek provided me with a lot of time for reflection. I realized a lot about myself, and I was finally able to process some of the events that had transpired in the past two and a half months. I reflected on who I was when I had arrived and what I had now become. I knew that my life had been affected, but I didn’t realize the profundity of the effect until I had that time in the bush to walk and contemplate. And then, before I knew it, I was out of Africa.

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Untitled

Posted by mbeymer 22:29 Archived in South Africa

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