Sunday, October 25, 2009

Phuket, Thailand - Day 199 : Paradise for some

We have been in Phuket for a little under 2 weeks and our little slice of paradise has come with its fair share of problems.

It's surprising that an island the size of Singapore has little to no public transportation of any kind. There is a taxi and tuk-tuk mafia that gets away with charging over $3 for a 1km ride.

Late one night our taxi driver refused to drop us at our villa, suggesting we walk the last 200 meters along an unlit dirt road. I stood firm, refusing to pay him the predetermined fare unless he kept his end of the bargain - to drop us at the villa. An argument ensued, which ended with the driver threatening to attack T. We paid the amount knowing fully well that going to the local police wouldn't have helped.

It's distressing to see 60 something Caucasian males with young Thai women. I just finished reading Sex Slaves - The Trafficking of Women in Asia and and I know better than to blindly judge both the men and these young women. Yet I can’t help but loathe the need for these septuagenarians to feel virile.

All the sex tourism and arrogant taxi drivers apart, Isaac and I have been at the beach everyday while T takes a diving course. Naiharn Beach is secluded little cove on the southern tip of Phuket island with none of the tacky banana boats and jet skis. But what makes it even more perfect is a little fresh water inlet that flows from a nearby abandoned quarry into the ocean - making a perfectly calm and shallow pool for children to splash around in.

On the approach road to Naiharn beach there is a spanking new and cheerful little children’s playground nestled under tall shady trees. Perfect spot to share "i scream" with Isaac in the afternoons when the sun is overhead and the heat gets unbearable.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Siam Reap, Cambodia - Day 172 : Delayed postings

It's been almost 6 weeks since I posted my last blog. For those who check in regularly, I apologise for the infrequency. In the past 46 days, we have traveled across North Korea, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam and Thailand. Some might say we are "on holiday" but truth be told our waking hours are spent parenting and when Isaac does fall asleep we are racing to keep up with travel logistics or packing to catch our next train.

We made it safely to Cambodia after an 'interesting' border crossing at the Thai border and spent the last few days in Siam Reap taking in the sights of Angkor Wat. Tomorrow we have another early start, this time a 6 hour boat ride south along Tonle Sap lake to Phnom Penh.

Stay tuned, I hope to fill in the blanks soon.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Bloomberg segment aired!

Bloomberg TV ran this segment on our travels as part of a larger series marking the collapse of Lehman. This was recorded about 2 weeks ago during our stop in Hong Kong.We are amazed at how fast broadcast news can travel. T already has several enquiries in his LinkedIn account for possible meetings in Vietnam in the next few days. Hopefully this will translate into a job soon. I particularly like what T said - "Never waste a crisis." Of course we keep talking of how addictive this lifestyle has become and the possibility of extending our journey to the Pacific Islands. If we had a choice we would keep doing this and not settle into a job just yet :)

Copyright issues prevent me from posting the video directly on this blog. Jump to the Bloomberg page here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pyongyang, North Korea: Day 126 - Entering a time warp

Everyone on the Air Koryo flight is a little on edge and there is barely any of the usual pre-boarding chaos that ensues before take-off. Clearly, everyone has taken the pre-tour orientation seriously.

Last evening, at the Koryo Tours office briefing in Beijing we have been instructed on dos and don'ts while in North Korea. Don't fold anything that may have the image of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong-il; This includes in-flight magazines, brochures, books and posters. Don't take pictures of North Korean citizens or monuments without first asking permission from the official tour guides. Don't venture away from the tour group. North Korea is to be referred to as 'DPRK' - the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Do not question their version of history. "And above all", we are told, "show the greatest respect for the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and the Eternal President Kim Il Sung". We are reminded over and over again that it isn't a free country.

At Pyongyang airport, we are greeted by the smiling portrait of Kim Il Sung perched atop a one storey structure, an image that will be ubiquitous for the next 4 days. We are asked to deposit our cell phones at immigration and laptops are subject to a great deal of scrutiny. Once outside, our group of 19 is assigned to 3 official guides - Ms. Song Sim, Mr.'O' and Mr. Kim who seem casual, eager to please and surprisingly very chatty.
En route to the hotel, we stop at the Arch of Triumph built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan that ended in 1945. They proudly claim that it is higher than the one in Paris. But everyone in the tour group seems more interested in getting a glimpse of street life - whatever little there is of it.

A lot of old trolley buses and perhaps 2 or 3 vans on the entire road. There is absolutely no visible signs of commerce - no neon signage, no advertisements and no billboards. There is a clinical emptiness to everything, as if the uniform gray buildings lining the streets are just a stage set.

We check into the 40 something storey Yanggakdo Hotel located on a little island in the middle of the city. We joke that it's like Alcatraz - virtually impossible to escape from. No kidding, tourists can roam the island but we aren't allowed to venture out of it. The city's premiere 5 star hotel is decorated like a 1960's motel but we love the vistas of the city at dusk.By evening the city looks straight out of a science fiction novel. The imposing Ryugyŏng Hotel pierces through the skyline dwarfing everything around it. The city stays lit till 10pm but then abruptly plunges into complete darkness for the rest of the night.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Beijing-Pyongyang - Day 125: Headed to the least understood country

Tomorrow we leave for North Korea - an alien communist country that has fascinated my husband for years. It's a peculiar travel destination and perhaps a little dangerous, but a once in a lifetime opportunity at venturing into a secluded and secretive country that lets in only a handful of tourists every year.

US citizens are currently only permitted to travel to the DPRK (North Korea) when the mass games are held which is from August 10th until the end of September this year. The Mass Games involves over 100,000 performers and is the largest choreographed human spectacle.

We will be traveling with Koryo Tours - a UK based tour group that has been taking tourists in since 1982. They are considered experts on DPRK, have hosted friendship football matches and produced the first travel program on North Korea. The team at Koryo have been very supportive of letting us travel with Isaac and assuaged any fear that we had about his safety.

To prep for our trip, we watched 'A State of Mind' - a documentary that follows two North Korean schoolgirls and their families in the lead up to the Mass Games. Here's a clip of the trailer -

More when we come back.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Beijing, China- Day 119 : A place to call home

Ever since we left India on May 6th, we haven't stayed in any one city for more than 5 nights. So it has been a welcome break to finally have an apartment in Beijing for 2 whole weeks. Its given us the opportunity to explore and appreciate this immense city without rushing ourselves. Immersing ourselves in Beijing has already helped Isaac pick up more Chinese than I have, and is constantly saying "Ni-hao"(Hello) and "Shaeshae"(Thank you).

Perhaps most disappointing has been the extent of urban pollution which Beijing got such a bad rap for during the Olympics. We haven't seen a blue sky and the city is always clouded under a gray smog. Pollution apart, Beijing has blown me away with not just its palatial temples and palaces but also its new urban identity. Anyone who visits will agree the metro and bus systems are among the best in the world and its futuristic skyscrapers are architectural marvels.

I will be posting more pictures on my FB album in a few days. In the meantime here's a video of Isaac at the Lama Temple -

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Datong, China- Day 108-110: Dealing with excessive attention

Since arriving at Datong - a north eastern town in China, we have been overwhelmed with the attention that Isaac gets. We thought Turkey was excessive but Datong hits the ball out of the park. T and I are trying our best to politely ask people to stop taking pictures of Isaac. On our last day in Datong we were stalked by a hotel guest who insisted on gifting Isaac 1000 RMB ($146) which eventually led to an intervention by the hotel staff.

The picture above was taken when we went to laundromat to enquire about laundry services. In a few minutes we were surrounded by 12 or 15 locals staring and running after Isaac.

Datong is a coal mining town that ranks as one of the most polluted cities in China. Our main incentive to stop in Datong (enroute to Beijing) was to see the Yungang Grottoes - a collection of shallow caves with over 50,000 carved images and statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas which are over a 1000 years old. Apparently they closely resemble the Buddha statues that have been destroyed in Iraq.

About a 2 hours drive away is the Hanging Temple built into a steep cliff face near Mount Heng which dates to the 4th century. They were built above groundlevel so as to avoid being washed away in floods common at the time. At first glance the monastery looks precarious but were told that the horizontal beams that support the structure have been inserted deep into the rocks and the vertical beams (that look like they are holding up the temple) are merely decorative.

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