Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jacque Cousteau-ing in Thailand, part 1

So, I made it out of Hanoi, and into Bangkok, then took a flight down the Trang Province in southwestern Thailand. In all my travels, this is absolutely one of the most beautiful places one earth. Or, I should say, one of the most beautiful beaches on earth. Beaches and deserts are my two most favorite places on earth. The desert in the Northwest of the US is amazing in its pristine solitude, rugged landscape, and breathtaking colors. The beaches of the Andaman Sea, which is the area between Burma, western Thailand, and western Malaysia are stunning. The water is amazing. Even in the “winter” its 84F, and crystal clear. I've seen my fair share of tropical beaches, and let me tell you so far, this takes the cake. And the crème de la crème are the islands off the coast. When swimming you can see clearly down to fifty to sixty feet below. The sea life is stunning in it's variety of colors and forms. Every single creature you see is a shade of neon. I really didn't think it was possible that these colors existed outside of bad fashion. I did my best to get some underwater footage of this actually.

How you ask? Did I spend $500 for an underwater camera? NO! I spent $15 on a camera dry bag (basically a glorified ziploc bag) designed to keep cameras waterproof up to ten meters (30 ft). I also don't have a camera, so as usual as I use my cellphone for my camera/computer/email/texts/maps/gps/video/everything. Let me tell you, smartphones are probably the coolest invention since the computer itself, especially if you are always traveling or live out of a suitcase, as I do. The footage is pretty clear, but lets say my underwater filming skills need to be improved. I'll post the edited version on YouTube, so stay tuned.

So, I arrived in Trang Province, a little known tourist destination (a thing that is becoming very rare in Thailand, there's few places you can go in this country where there isn't a flood of Russian and Australian tourists) and hopped a boat to the island of Koh Mok, about 2 miles off the mainland. This was ok, the lodging was cheap ($13/night for a clean room with a fan no AC) I found a real basic room with an outside bathroom -no hot water, but you don't really need it when the weather is a constant 85F, and it's a two minute walk through the jungle to the beach.

I decided to go here to do some diving, as this area is world renowned for it's diving. There's few places in the world where you can see for about 60ft in any direction underwater. And the coral life is amazing. Also, on the way to the beach, you are likely to run into the pack of wild monkeys which roam the islands, as I did one day. I scared them as much as they scared me. A word about monkeys. Monkeys are really cute. And they are really human like in their ways. But just like humans, they can be dangerous and unpredictable. Most monkeys are tiny, and if worse came to worse, you could fight one off depending on how good of a fighter you are. But these monkeys were pretty big. The biggest was about the size of a full grown rottweiler. Like most wild animals, they'll leave you alone, unless you present them with food, then they can become a bit aggressive. I was going to toss one a banana I found, but as it rose up and approached me fearlessly, I decided to just toss the banana a safe distance away. He took it, gave me a weird little eye shrug, then followed his troops back into the trees.

I spent a few days on the slightly touristy island of Ko Muk. But honestly, as I'm traveling along, and still dealing with some heartache, the last thing I wanted to be surrounded by was a bunch of happy in love, beautiful and rich tourists. I almost always prefer wilderness or small local communities to the touristy places, but when I'm feeling lonely, especially so.

So, I hooked up with a dive company here, and we went out to the island of Koh Rok, I'll be posting pictures on my picassa account soon. It's breathtaking. But it's very isolated. Once you get there (a two hour boat ride), you're on your own to get back, as boats don't come by too often. Well, they do, but they are tourist day trip boats that only stay for two hours, and if you wanted a ride back with them, they charge an arm and a leg, as you are literally a captive audience. The island is national park, and there is no development allowed, which is a godsend. The only lodging available are tents that you can rent from the park for $10 a night. However, for tent camping, it's pretty luxurious. There are bathrooms with showers and toilets (no hot water of course), and a small restaurant which serves up mediocre, but expensive due to transportation costs, Thai food.

But the place is truly like paradise lost. Thailand as a nation, has their tourism run like clockwork. There is literally no place in Thailand, where you can't find someone who speaks English and is willing to help you, at most for a small fee. In Vietnam, you're on your own, so you better be prepared for anything. But traveling Thailand is easy. There's never any 'roughing' by real traveler standards involved. Thailand is where you should go if you want to visit S.E. Asia, but don't want to end up in the 'crazy Asia' situations I end up in.

I spent the first day diving in the most beautiful water I have ever seen. On the day I saw two of the most amazing sea creatures, a six foot long manta ray, and a hawkbill sea turtle, that we swam with for a while. Sea turtles are one of the most peaceful creatures I have ever seen. They swim very slowly and gracefully, they literally look like a slow moving, gigantic bird. The Ray that we saw was amazing too. They move in such graceful, and yet spooky ways. They literally look like a ghost floating through the sea. Their big black eyes keep an eye on you, and it's a special feeling as you meet their alien eyes. You can see they mean you no harm, and in fact, you get the feeling they see you as something below their concern. They acknowledge you, then write you off as no threat and continue their slow, graceful glide. They're two of the most interesting creatures I've seen in my life, in land and out of land.

We also saw plenty of moray eels too. They look frightening though. They are constantly opening their fang lined mouths and scanning their area, waiting to snatch anything that comes to close. But even they are not aggressive. Morays don't really move. They stay in their little nook, with only their head sticking out. You can go fairly near them, and they won't attack. In fact, they tend to avoid you. The only people who get bit by a moray are the ones who accidentally poke their hands into a dark crevasse, and the eel, feeling attacked, defends itself with a bite. As long as you don't poke them, they won't do anything to you.

But this is the way of aquatic life. If you are not the specific animal the creature hunts, they will almost never make an aggressive action toward you, always preferring retreat. My theory is that since the creatures of the ocean have around 1 billion years to evolve their various defense systems longer than we land animals have, every single creature in the ocean has a highly sophisticated system of attack and defense/camouflage. The most insane types of camouflage are underwater, with creatures that look like either nothing, or something completely different than what they are.

Anyway, sea creatures operate upon the same psychological principals of nations with nuclear weapons. Everyone involved knows they are a badass, and they also know their enemies are as badass as they are, so much of the ocean life is at an uneasy truce. A shark doesn't want to fuck with an eel, a school of smaller fish isn't too worried about a shark because due to their group camouflage and distraction techniques, they know that only 1% of their school will end up as a victim to the shark. As such, the odds are very good that the little fish will live. Two dead out of 300 is a pretty small sacrifice in any battle, land or sea. This is because as land animals, especially mammals have only had a few millions years to develop defenses and attacks, sea creatures have had BILLIONS of years to perfect the art of offense and defense.

With evolution, I don't see the need for any grand creator. Life abhors a vacuum. If there is some small opening in the food chain, it will be filled almost instantly by another creature whose unique abilities happen to provide a perfect match for the situation. If you create poison to kill every single type of bacteria, by the random combination of genetic traits, there will always be one or two of the bacteria that is resistant, then once 99.9% of the competitors disappear, that .01% has free range over all the other resources which have been freed by the death of their competition.

I know this might sound freaky or dangerous to those who haven't dove before but the biggest misconception about the ocean life is that it's out to get you. Now, all my life, I have had a huge phobia about sea creatures, because they look scary, and they all have ways of seriously injuring or killing you. Both things are true, however, what you don't realize until you're underwater with them is they have no intention to bother you. If you approach 99% of sea creatures, their first action is to move away from you. Unless you are their prey animal, they want absolutely nothing to do with you. Even sharks.

The only time sharks attack people is when they confuse surf boards for seals, or flapping feet for an injured fish. Scuba divers, rarely, maybe never, get attacked, because underwater, you move and look like a fish, a big frigging fish. So they generally scatter when you show up. The only really dangerous animals are the ones that are slow moving and that you step on or bump into. They're not aggressive at all, but by their nature, are extremely defensive. Things like spiky sea urchins, rock fish, jellyfish, sting rays, coral snakes, and stone fish. None of these creatures will ever attack you. The only way people get hurt is when you literally step on them or bump into them, and they are too slow moving to avoid you. As long as you are aware of your surroundings thoughs, these dangers are easily avoided.

As a side note, I did almost fall victim to two of these creatures, within a period of 15 minutes. I was snorkeling back to the beach, and was in quite shallow water, maybe one foot deep. I could have walked, but honestly, I am very afraid of stepping on these creatures. Maybe even phobic. So, I was floating with my mask on to the beach, to get as close to the clear sand as I could before putting my feet down. Right before I did, I saw a rock that looked just a little different. I stopped to get a better look. And the rock had eyes. This is a stonefish. A stonefish is one of the WORST things to step on in the ocean.

My friend Dave stepped on one, and had to be hospitalized for two days. Stonefish are really slow and awkward, so their only defense against being eaten is to sit and look like a rock, but be covered in poisoned spines for anything that tries to eat it. I missed stepping on it be about 7 niches. Also, there is a chance you can die immediately from their sting if you are allergic. Most don't though, you just suffer excruciating pain for a about a week until the poison wares off. Thats assuming you are on an island that has some rudimentary medical care. This island did not, it was a 5 hour boat ride to the next place that did. However, I was safe, so I sat observing this amazing yet deadly creature. And it is truly a marvel of evolution. It was evolved to perfectly look like a moss covered rock. Literally the only way you can tell is by noticing, as I had, that some spots on it didn't match the surrounding rock.

So, I gave the beast a wide berth, and continued to the shore. Thinking I was safe, I stood up and began wading in. A moment later, a juvenile sting ray burst out of the sand away from me, less than two feet away. Rays are not aggressive at all, but they aren't very aware of their surroundings, so they are easily surprised. And if they sting you, there's little chance of death, again, unless you're allergic, but it will hurt like hell for while. The Crocodile Hunter guy just got really unlucky, as the sting that hit him pierced his heart. Nothing to be done about that. Anywhere else, he would have just been hurt but fine overall. The good news is that these creatures only inhabit warm waters, and the more good news is that if you are wearing water sandals or scuba booties, you will be mostly safe from their stings. As such, my next purchase is aqua booties.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

International Man of History in the Lost Temples of Cambodia!

So, this holiday season, I decided to go have a Holiday in Cambodia ('where the people dress in black', thanks Dead Kennedys). I hadn't been to Cambodia before, and heard it was nice and cheap, so off I go for my two week holiday break. I flew from Hanoi to Bangkok, spent a night there, then took the morning train to the Cambodian border. For some reason, flying into Cambodia is more than twice as expensive as flying to Bangkok, although it's closer. You can get from Bangkok to Siam Reap in Cambodia, but it takes a full day of travel by public transit.

So, I took the train to the border, and while on train, I met some young twenty two year old backpackers (this seems to be the only type of backpackers unfortunately), and we crossed the border together. The border used to be pretty strict between the two countries, but not so much right now. During the Khmer Rouge era, Cambodia had some border wars with Thailand, which are mostly cooled off now, except in the northern provinces, where there's still an occasional shot fired back and forth. We split a minibus ride from the border to Siam Reap, as Cambodia has no functioning railway. In fact, there's a lot of things that Cambodia has non-functioning.

A little background on Cambodia: in the 70's a guy named Pol Pot had the great idea to overthrow the Western friendly government by starting another Glorious Revolution, of the naïve and bloody type that South East Asia is so famous for. His idea was to get rid of all the Western educated elite of Cambodian society and bring everything back to an idealized agrarian farming society, where everyone is equal and no one is taken advantage of by the spoiled, unproductive elite class of society. Well, as you probably heard, that didn't work out so well. Take this as a warning next time some hippy is trying to convince you we should all go back being anarchist organic farmers. They tried it here, and it left them dirt poor, corrupt, and in chaos.

Basically, they rounded up anyone who wasn't a farmer or worker and massacred them. This lasted a few years until their neighbor, Vietnam, got worried about the unrest spreading into their own country, and worried about the ethnic Vietnamese that were still stuck there. So, just a few years after fighting off the Americans, the Viets attacked Cambodia to get rid of Khmer Rouge. They did, very quickly and successfully, as the Vietnamese army was far superior to the rag-tag Khmer Rouge, and they were quite adept at jungle warfare. Only a few months after they attacked, the Vietnamese captured the capital city of Phnom Phen, and cleared the Khmer Rouge out. They set up a new government that was friendly to Vietnam, then left. The end.

Except that it wasn't. The Khmer Rouge just fled into the jungles where they kept waging a guerrilla war for the next 20 years, until due to shrinking numbers and support, they surrendered in 1998. When I was there, they were just beginning the trials of the Khmer Rouge, 15 years later. The current government is a 'democracy', but is in reality the standard Southeast Asia crony capitalist state, with a minority of extremely wealthy buying and selling the country as they see fit, and the average farmer has no land rights if a resort developer wants his land, including even building resorts of 'protected' wilderness reserves.

Twenty years of civil war left Cambodia as one of the poorest Southeast Asian nations, with basically no infrastructure. Until recently the roads in the country were little more than bombed out tracks, and still, many thousand land mines lay active and waiting for some poor villager to stumble upon them. Not to mention our great 'diplomat' and war criminal Henry Kissinger and his secret bombing campaign of Cambodia dropped more bombs there and in Laos than were dropped in the total of World War II. Lots of them are still unexploded, and there are plenty of signs warning you to stay on the trail for fear of mines. You see a lot of amputees in Cambodia.

Cambodia itself is like a more scenic, less developed and drier version of Vietnam. The air is far less humid, and they actually have sunshine there, whereas Vietnam skies are permanently gray, save a few rare days. The land in Vietnam is strange, basically every inch of land that can be farmed, is. Rice paddies cover EVERYTHING, and what is not a rice paddy is an impassable limestone mountain that juts vertically up. Cambodia seemed a lot more like a savannah, a lot of tall grass fields with some lovely trees reaching into the sky, and mountain forests. Most of the land in Cambodia is undeveloped.

Anyway, we arrived in Siam Reap, home of the ancient Angkor culture, famous for their massive city-temples which lay hidden in the jungles until the late 1800's, when the French stumbled upon them. The Angkor culture flourished from around 800AD to around 1200AD, then they collapsed into jungle covered obscurity. The reasons for their collapse were unknown for a long time. Archaeologists recently figured it out though. Like almost every other civilization collapse, this one was caused by environmental ruin. Americans, take no notice of the following, because of course, it couldn't happen to America, God loves us too much to allow our glorious empire to collapse for the same reason every other one collapsed.

The story goes like this: building a glorious empire requires a LOT of resources. For us, it's been cheap gas and land, for the Angkorians, it was cheap labor and an abundant agricultural land. The Angkorian kings got to the point where labor was specialized enough that not everyone had to be a farmer. So after conquering a bunch of land, they decided to build monuments to their own glory. Totally unlike our McMansions and SUVs. In fact, they convinced the locals that they weren't just kings, they were god-kings. And if you were a farmer living in a bamboo hut, when you saw one of their enormous stone temples that dwarfed everything you had ever seen in your life, it was pretty easy to believe. Then the next god king, after the original one, had to prove himself to be an even more powerful god-king by building an even bigger and more impressive temple to himself. And so on, and so on, until about 400 years later, when the area for hundreds of miles around was deforested, due to using the trees for building the temples, housing the workers, growing crops, and fuel. Bah, not a big deal, only stupid tree huggers should care about trees anyway, right? Wrong, forests main benefit to humans is that they provide a natural filtration system for water before it reaches rivers and lakes. So, the workers have to expend more and more energy to get the wood and stone which were so vital to their culture, unlike our billion dollar a day wars to extract a diminishing return of petrol, of course.

Quickly, their drinking and fishing water became too polluted with mud and silt. So drinking water becomes more scarce, fishing is finished, and there's no more forest to hunt animals, and the top soil in which crops grow has been washed away by the rains, as there's no tree roots to keep it in place and renew it. Then, collapse, the god-kings are finished, the jungle reclaims it's place, and the Cambodians go back to being simple farmers.

Siam Reap the city isn't much to write about, just your typical shambling, developing world collection of grand hotels and shanties. The first day we took a Cambodian tuk-tuk, which is different than a Thai tuk-tuk. A Thai one is a purpose built three wheeled pickup truck/motorcycle thing than runs on propane. The Cambodian version is much more ghetto. It's just a 110cc motorbike with a two wheeled carriage hitched to it. Anyway, we (I had buddied up with a young French guy) spent 4 days exploring the monumental ruins of the Angkor civilization, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. I'll be posting photos of all the ruins shortly, but let me just say, they are absolutely the coolest thing I have seen in Asia. The temple civilization covers around 100 sq. miles and contains about 25 temple complexes. Angkor Wat while the most famous, is actually the least impressive of them all. The far more beautiful and interesting ones were Angkor Thom and Beng Melea.

Angkor Thom is basically a collection of massive pyramids (photos coming soon), dedicated to mostly Hindu dieties, although several god-kings switched back and forth between Hinduism and Buddhism, Buddhism is the current religion, but in the Angkor period, they were mostly Hindus. I was really surprised that Indian civilization had spread all the to even Vietnam. In the south of 'Nam, they also had a stint of Hindu culture called the Chams. The temples do have a decent amount of tourists (I was there probably in the most peak season, Christmas time), but less then most famous places in Europe by far, so the crowds didn't detract much from the awe and mystery. The absolute best thing I saw was Beng Melea though.

To get to the Beng Melea temple, you have to take a two hour ride by tuk-tuk (about 40 miles away), which eliminates the majority of tourists. When we entered, there was probably less the 24 tourists. The great thing about Beng Melea though is that they have a nice little walkway you can tour the temple on, but you are also free to wander off, and start climbing and exploring amongst the ruins. That was actually one of the coolest things I have done in my life, and I think that's saying a lot for a guy like me. While most of the other temples have been somewhat restored, Beng Melea was left to the jungle and ruin. Few buildings remain completely standing, most of the walls have toppled down over the years, and the jungle has grown over the whole thing. It felt like I was living an Indiana Jones movie, crawling through abandoned passageways and up massive temples walls with huge blocks of stone strewn everywhere. The whole time we were exploring, we saw not a single other person. It was great. Very much like the movie/game Tomb Raider, unfortunately minus Angelina Jolie.