Dave Sohigian

9Jan/070

Busking in Sydney

Almost 20 years ago Dave spent some time in Australia and one of his fond memories is of busking (street performing) at Circular Quay (pronounced "key") in Sydney. Circular Quay is located on the harbor between the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.
Caleb, Meta and Anna near the Opera House in SydneyView from the train at Circular Quay in Sydney
It is where you can catch a ferry to other parts of the harbour, like the famous Manly Beach.
Manly beach on a Sunday
There is also a train and bus station located at Circular Quay - so it is a very busy area. This makes it ideal for busking, although it can be quite loud.
Twenty years ago you could just set up on the street and do a show, as long as you did not create too much of a nuisance. Today, because there are so many buskers, you have to get a license from the city and audition any dangerous items that you want to use in the show. Dave did an audition with the machetes when we first arrived in Sydney and we got our license just last week. The entire family is on the license, but we expected only Dave and Caleb to perform down on the Quay.
We went down on a sunny weekday and found that there was already a line for doing shows on one location. We were fourth in line for a spot on the west side of the Quay - a difficult "pitch" (as a performing location is known) because it is in the sun during the day. It was a warm and windy day which added to the difficulty in keeping a crowd. We did manage to gather a crowd for a show and had a fun time doing it.
Caleb and Dave doing a show on Circular Quay
Caleb also did some "walk-by" on the same side of the Quay. He would put his hat out in front of him while he juggled or unicycled - or both.
Caleb Busking on Circular QuayCaleb Unicycling on Circular Quay with Opera House in backgroundCaleb Busking on Circular Quay
Here is a little quiz: who is more likely to be successful, a scripted 20 minute Vaudeville show featuring a loud 40-year old juggler and his son OR a cute 10 -year old quietly doing solo juggling and unicycling?
Yep, you got it, the 10-year old. Caleb made over $40 doing walk-by for a short time while our take from the hat in our show was $14. If it weren't for child labor laws we would probably just have him spend the rest of our time in Australia out on the street to finance our trip.

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11Jan/073

Last of Australia

Our time in Australia is almost over - it has been a great part of our trip but we are also ready to move on to Thailand. When we originally planned for 9 months on the road it made sense to spend more than 2 months in Australia, mainly because the weather is so nice this time of year. Now that we are heading home after less than 6 months we want to get on to more foreign cultures.

Over the last two weeks in Sydney we have had some great adventures. We have been staying in Elizabeth Bay, which is right off the Sydney Harbour. It is very close to downtown Sydney as well as the famous backpacker area, Kings Cross. We can see the harbour from our apartment - we were even able to see the New Year's Fireworks from the balcony. You can see the location on Google Maps or, for the more geeky, you can use the attached KML file to fly to the location in Google Earth.
Meta, Anna and Caleb get Cozy before the Fireworks

We also sold the car that we purchased when we arrived in Sydney - it turned out to be easier to sell than we had thought. We had help buying the car back in November from Brad's friend Ali and it was Ali's brother Mohammed that helped in selling the car. Mohammed's father-in-law crashed his car a while back and needed a car quickly (he had relatives in town). So he was willing to buy the car as-is for a reasonable amount. After checking the car out he and Mohammed and another friend of theirs went off to get the cash. They came back later and we sat in the car parked in front of the apartment to count it.

Now think about that scene for a minute: Four Middle Eastern looking fellows in a car counting out a fairly large sum of cash. I joked that it looked like a drug deal and Mohammed's friend said it looked more like a terrorist thing. I said that if a cop stopped by (we were parked illegally) it might be better to say "tourist" rather than "terrorist". Enunciation can be important in these situations. It all went down fine and the money is now deposited in our offshore account.

In some ways the risk of some unfortunate travel accident was higher while passing money around in that car than it has been when facing carpet pythons and deadly spiders here in Australia. Many things have changed in Australia since Dave last visited, but the vague sense of racism has not. Ali and his family are Lebanese and there were riots between the whites and Lebanese here in Sydney a year ago. They were entirely racially motivated. Unlike in the US, where calling someone an American means they are a citizen, if you say someone is "Australian" here what you mean is that they are white. The cultures still stay separate to a great degree. There are some benefits to this - third or fourth generation immigrants keep their language and culture. But it does preserve a sense of separateness and it makes it easy to blame problems on the "undesirables" that are entering the country.

They have been debating recently whether an influx of refugees from Lebanon about thirty years ago is the cause of their current problems with racial tensions in Sydney. We have seen several articles about it in the paper because they released some secret documents (which by law are held for 30 years) from the government about the decision to let the refugees in. There are arguments about whether those refugees represented an "undesirable" population that eventually led to today's situation. For an outsider it appears pretty hypocritical: Australia was a nation founded by "undesirables"; both the convicts and their wardens, who were often considered worse than the convicts themselves. We have got plenty of this type of hypocrisy back home as well, but it is easier to see it as an outsider.

The influence that is doing much more damage, in our opinion, is American modern culture. We have found that most Australians seem to agree with this assessment, but it does not mean they have any idea how to stop or change it. Australia is becoming more like America every day from what we see and hear, but another course is difficult to find.

Next Stop: Thailand

We will fly to Bangkok on the 15th of January. Dave's cousin, Rachel, and her partner Jenny will be arriving in Bangkok on the 16th of January. They are starting a world traveling trip as well (with their infant son, Oren) and thought Thailand would be a good place to kick it off. They will move on to Croatia next where they will buy a boat to travel in. Our families get along well and Rachel and Jenny are experienced travelers. They have friends in Bangkok and we hope to see them after we have both settled in a bit. It will be fantastic to see family after being away for a few months. Anyone else want to make a trip to Thailand over the next month or two? The weather will be nice!

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20Jan/070

Special Thanks for Australian Helpers!

We had a fantastic time in Australia and there are so many people that helped us along the way. We just want to say "Thank you" to every one of you and especially to a few below that made our trip that much smoother.
Our angel in Sydney was Brad Colwell, who picked us up at the airport, let us crash at his pad for 10 days, loaned us his car, gave us advice and let us tap into his vast network of friends locally. We don't know how we would have managed Sydney without Brad!
Caleb, Anna and Brad in Sydney
One person Brad put us in touch with was his friend Ali, who helped us buy the car pictured below. Then his brother Mohammed helped us sell the thing hassle free. Thanks, guys!
Ali with the car he helped us buy

In Thora we "WWOOF'd" (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) at two places. The first was with Bob, Kathy and Darryl at Sunrise. We had two comfortable rooms and they generously shared meals and conversation with us for two weeks. Thanks Bob, Kathy and Darryl!

Darryl:
Caleb on the con with Darryl
Bob and Kathy:
Kathy and Bob at Bellingen Market
We also stayed with Anna's kindergarten teacher, Carol, and did gardening work while there. Thank you Carol, for your warmth and hospitality.

Anna, Meta and Carol doing some bead work

Christoff, who helped us tremendously while we were renting Kimberlee's place:
Christoff
Stephan for letting us stay with him (and his kids) at Kimberlee's place:
Stephan, Jerrah and Anna
The kids teachers, Gail and Pete (we only have a picture of Pete):
Dave, Caleb and Pete
Richard and Anke for the lovely dinner and the advice on Egypt:
Anke, Richard and Meta getting ready for dinner
There were many other friendly faces and helpful people on our travels and there are sure to be many more. We expect "travel karma" to hit soon after we return to our place in Portland - you are all welcome there any time.
Next Stop: Bangkok!

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21Jan/070

Sydney to Bangkok

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A 9 hour flight to Bangkok went incredibly quickly - the kids are becoming seasoned fliers and do well even on these long flights.
Anna and Caleb on the flight to Bangkok
After a night at the Holiday Inn (a very nice hotel we got through Priceline) we went to one of the major attractions in Bangkok - The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, home of the famous "Emerald Buddha"
The complex is huge and located in the older part of Bangkok. Every part of the Wat was ornately decorated.
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And the scale was epic:
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But even with tourists on all sides it still managed to retain holy and even serene corners:
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The Emerald Buddhas was particularly striking (sorry, no photos allowed). Housed inside a huge building and sitting atop an enormous and ornate altar it is the most holy relic to Buddha in Thailand.

The walls of the temple are adorned with picture stories of the life of Buddha:
(this photo is from outside the temple)
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We sat solemnly in front of the Emerald Buddha admiring the beauty of the temple and observing the effect on the worshippers present. It was a powerful place and even the kids enjoyed the visit.
The grand palace is in the same complex - it is the palace of hte king of Thailand. They were changing the guard when we arrived [4010] which the kids watched with great interest:
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Next we were scheduled to go across the river to meet with our friend Miss Jean at Wa Run. Ms. Jean was Anna's Parent/Child teacher back in Portland several years back and she is now living in Bangkok teaching English. Wat Arun is another famous temple in Bangkok but to get there we had to take our first Tuk-tuk ride.
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Tuk-tuk's are found in every city in Thailand - they are 3 wheeled motor bikes with room for passengers in back. They are called tuk-tuk's for the sound their two-stroke engines make. Going from a first world country where we had a large, safe car with seat belts, air bags and a car seat for Anna to being piled in the back of an open air 3 wheeled motor cycle piloted through hair raising traffic was quite a transition. We survived our first ride and are now quite comfortable jumping into a tuk-tuk for a ride around town.
to get across the river we also had to take a ferry, but they were only running every 30 minutes because of a national holiday (they normally run every five minutes). We were approached by the captain of a "long tail boat" who wanted to take us across the river for 400 baht ($12 US) - a ridiculous amount for a five minute ride that would cost 5 baht per head on the ferry. This was our first experience with haggling. We decided to wait for ht ferry and the long tail boat captain steadily lowered his price down to 200 baht, but we still refused. Eventually he decided that he needed to go across the river anyways and he offered us a ride for free, which we accepted (although we did tip him once we got across).
Long tail boats are long and thin with a massive V8 engine attached to a long drive shaft (the "long tail") with a propeller on the end. The driver steers by using a lever on the other end that moves the moter and drive shaft on a pivot. They can go very fast, but this with little need for speed.
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On the other side we arrived at Wat Arun (in the background in the photo above) - another famous Bangkok temple. We met Miss Jean and her friend Melissa to tour the temple. It was an amazing contrast to Wa Phra Kaew - Wat Arun is large but entirely decorate with broken pieces of china. The interior of the Temple is not accessible.
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After the temple we went back across the river on a ferry and had lunch on the street - $5 to feed the whole family with delicious Thai soups and fried bananas or mango sticky rice for dessert.
The next day we were off to Chiang Mai, about 400 miles north of Bangkok. A day or two in Bangkok can tire the most seasoned traveller and we were ready for a move to the country.

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30Jan/071

Chiang Mai is located about 400 miles north of Bangkok, away from the sprawl of the city. We flew here on Januar 17th and stayed at a local guest house while we started our search for longer term accommodations. We planned to stay in Chiang Mai for about 6 weeks, leaving the first week of March.

Why Chiang Mai? Because we had heard it was a nice small town, friendly to foreigners ("Farangs" as they are known in Thai) and because our travel agent from Portland, Chad Ellingson, now lives in Chiang Mai.

Chad grew up in Corvallis and now live in Thailand most of the year. He teaches English at the University and knows the local scene, speaks some Thai and looks good in a helmet

The Chad on moped in chiang MaiThe Chad on Moped

On our first full day in Chiang Mai he took us to a wonderful waterfall near the city.

CIMG4098Family at waterfall in Chiang MaiChad, Anna, Caleb and Dave at waterfall in Chiang Mai

Chad demonstrated that the waterfall was not only beautiful, but also great for recreation when you jump off the rocks next to it into the pool below

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or slide down the rocks into the pool

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It looked so fun that Dave decided to give it a try (see video of Dave sliding ).

Caleb also thought about doing the slide. He sat at the top and thought

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and thought

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and thought

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and thought and then decided to push off (see video of Caleb Sliding ). It was a brave choice and a rite of passage for Caleb.

Anna had fun in the cool water as well, using bags to move water around into little pools

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The next day we found a place to stay - a nice condo outside of the city (we are not exactly roughing it). We are starting to settle into a routine, travelling around town by Santheaw

Back of a Sangtheaw in Chiang Mai

and tuk-tuk

Tuk Tuks in Chiang Mai

We often go to the markets at night

Meta, Anna and Caleb at the night marketHill Tribe woman gives the family the shakedown at the night Market

Where you can buy anything from knockoff sunglasses and watches (see anything you recognize, Robby?)

CIMG4449 Recognize any of these, Rob?

to fruit

Fruit stand at Chiang Mai Night Market

to little dogs

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and getting foot massages

Group Reflexology in Chiang Mai

Food is another big part of our experience in Thailand so far. We have found a great Thai restaurant close to our apartment. Jen and Nok 4142 cook up amazing meals and put up with our horrendous Thai skills. The meals below are Thai Omelet, Phad Thai, and Phad Saew.

Thai OmlettePhad Thai in Chiang MaiPhad Saew in Chiang Mai - less than $1 US

And many other amazing dishes, too many to name...

CIMG4435,CIMG4431,CIMG4430, Mixed Veges in Chiang Mai

Most dishes are about 25 to 30 bhat (the US dollar is worth around 34 bhat right now).

Elephants!

After settling into our place, we decided to take a 1 day package tour to see the elephants North of Chiang Mai. The tour started early with a trip to an orchid farm

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and then it was on to the elephant camp for the tourist show. The show was both amazing and ridiculous. The elephants were huge

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and incredibly well trained

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They demonstrated how they were able to move timber

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which was once the full time job of these elephants and their trainers (called "manhouts") not long ago. In fact, when the government put a stop to the deforestation of the jungle, the elephants were put out of work (think "Mike Mulligan and The Steam Shovel") and ended up heading to the cities to beg on the street (imagine an elephant and manhout sitting on street corner in Bangkok). The Thais are tolerant people, but I suspect that the elephant dung to to be a bit much and someone figured out that tourists will pay good money to see the elephants perform.

Their skills went far beyond moving timber. They have learned to useful ability to hula hoop

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play instruments

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paint (they were not Michelangelo, but then he did not have to paint with his nose)

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and play soccer

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Fortunately they were not able to juggle, so Dave and Caleb still have job security.

We fed the elephants after the show

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and then it was time for an ox cart ride

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past some lovely rice fields

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on our way to the elephant platform, where we were loaded on to the back of two elephants

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and made our way down the trail.

Caleb and Dave were on a big male elephant (lets call him "Jumbo")

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while Anna and Meta rode a smaller female (let's call her "Bitsy")

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the ride was comfortable, although a little shaky (see video of elephant ride ) and eventually we got down to the river, where the elephants went in for a dip.

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It turned out that Jumbo was a bit ornery - when we came to the stands selling bananas for feed, he would reach into the buckets and steal bananas. He got a pretty sound thrashing for this behaviour (from the manhout), but clearly he like the bananas more than he minded the manhout's stick.

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Next it was on to the river on a bamboo raft

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which Anna had the chance to pilot

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As if all that was not enough for one day, we headed north by car for a visit to a Hill tribe, known as the Long Neck People. We are not sure where their name came from, but perhaps someone will figure it out and let us know...

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The Karen Long Neck Tribe come from Myanmar (Burma) and are one of several indegenous people who live in Northern Thailand. They place bands around the neck of women, starting at a young age, to lengthen their necks. The longer the neck the more beauty they are thought to have.

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They make their living through weaving beautiful cloths.

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We enjoyed our visit to these calm and quiet people and we were glad to know that the money that we contributed went to their welfare (they are refugees from Burma where they are often persecuted).

The 'Do, Part Two

Dave had been getting tired of his roots showing on his platinum blond hair:

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So it was time to do something about it. Bleaching constantly is expensive and the fumes are noxious. So he went the cheaper route of getting it buzzed off:

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for a whole new look

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Caleb decided he was also tire of his long locks in this warm climate:

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and chose to follow Dad's lead:

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resulting in a new look as well

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Oh yeah, and if you ever want to take a Tuk-Tuk ride around Chiang Mai and you see this guy pull up:

Crazy Tuk Tuk Driver in Chiang Mai

You might want to think twice (see videos (one and two ) of our crazy ride).

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16Feb/071

A Day in the Life in Chiang Mai

Although there are many days days where we go on exciting adventures here in Chiang Mai, a majority of our time has been spent at a fairly leisurely pace.
We start the day around 8 or 9 AM when Dave heads downstairs to the a restaurant right outside our condo. There he asks for "Kow Pat Gai, neung" and "Kow blow, neung" and "Kor Klap baan", which means "one order of chicken fried rice, one order of steamed rice and make it to go". Or something close to that. The cook, Cha Ming (nickname "lek" for small) is there from the early hours in the morning to late at night. Dave quickly checks mail at the local Internet/gaming spot and heads back to the condo.
By 11 AM everyone is up and about and we clean the place up a bit before heading downstairs. Depending on the hour we might head to Sukothai Restaurant (just a few doors down) where Jang and Nok cook up something delicious.
If we are feeling motivated we may head to Thae Pae Gate which is the backpacker part of town. The American University Alumni building has a small English library there and we check out books for the kids and ourselves. We might also go to a bookstore or a Western style restaurant or a travel agent to arrange a tour. A foot massage for the gang or a visit to a Wat (temple) might also be in order (Dave always drags us into every Wat that we pass, much to the kids chagrin).
Wat Nong Kham in Chiang MaiWat Ou Sai Kham in Chiang Mai
Once it is afternoon we will head back to our place by Tuk-Tuk or Sangtheaw. Dinner at Sukothai is fantastic and we try not to miss it. Dessert is some sweet Rotte (sweet crepe, Muslim style) and we often hang around and practice some Thai and English with the locals. The pace is laid back and comfortable.
Learning Thai
One of the fun ("sanook" in Thai) challenges in Thailand has been learning the language. We have two phrasebooks and a great set of audio CD's (from our friend Chad) to help in our efforts. We also get lots of help from the locals who are very forgiving and supportive. Dave likes to record phrases spoken by the locals on our camera so we can listen to them later.
Thai is a fairly simple language grammatically, but difficult in terms of pronunciation. Like Chinese, they have different tones for different meanings. For example, the word "mai" can be pronounce with a mid, high, falling, low or rising tone and have various meanings ("mile", "wood", "not", "new" and "silk" respectively). Context can be helpful for many words, but many are not so simple. For example, the word for "near" is "glai" with a falling tone, while the word for "far" is "glai" with a mid-tone. Dave recorded this example (courtesy of our friend Jang). See if you can tell the difference.
The Thai's often laugh at our pronunciations, but they are not laughing at us. In Thailand it is considered polite to laugh when someone makes a mistake because it lightens the mood and avoids embarrassment (the opposite in the US). Conversations are often full of laughter for us. It is amazing how small an error in tone can lead to puzzled looks. If we mispronounce a phrase or word the Thai's will often repeat the correct pronunciation for us (and we often think "but that is EXACTLY what I already said!").
For now we have mastered some of the basics like Hello and Goodbye, thank you, Can you make it cheaper?, counting and finding the toilets. It is also useful to understand the phrase "Where are you from?" and "How old are you?". Thais like to know your age (not just for the kids) because age helps in determining how to address you in conversation.
We are getting along well, all things considered, and can manage to get around town, haggle at the market and meet new friends in Thailand.

Phra (Monks)

One of the most prevalent features in Thailand are the Buddhist monks ("Phra" in Thai). You see them all over the place; at the temples
Novice Monks at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang MaiMonk watching Calebs magic tricks
eating with locals
Monk chatting with Thais
washing a car (no idea why)
Monk cleaning a car
taking care of business
Monk at ATM
Like most foreigners we have been curious about the monks since we arrived in Thailand. We had a good introduction when some monks came to our condo to bless the building.
They come at least once a year to bless the building and it's inhabitants. The residents, in turn, give offerings of food and useful items to the monks.
Making Merit at Riverside CondoMaking Merit at Riverside Condo
It gave us an opportunity to hear the monks chant prayers and to be blessed by the monks as well.
Monks at the Riverside CondosMonks at the Riverside CondosMonks at the Riverside Condos
After the prayers the monks sat down to a meal provide by the condo association.
Monks at the Riverside Condos
After the monks ate we all sat down for a meal as well. It was great to get a bit of Thai Buddhist culture delivered right our doorstep. Amazing.

We found an even more personal way to connect with the monks through a unique program called "Monk Chat".
Monk Chats while Anna puts on lipstick
On most afternoons, foreigners can speak to monks at a local temple, Wat Suan Dok. The program is set up so that monks can improve their English skills and introduce tourist to Thai Buddhist Culture.
We showed up at Wat Suan Dok at 5PM (Meta had attended a Thai cooking class earlier in the day), just when the monk chat was to begin. The Temple is a large working temple just outside of town.
Inside one of the buildings they had set up tables for the monks to sit at along with several foreigners. We started our chat with a novice monk who came from the country to become a monk. His name (or probably nickname) was "Gan" and his English was good. We asked him several questions about how he came to become a monk and about Buddhism in general. He also shared many insights about cultural practices (and taboos) surrounding monks in Thailand. Gan is shown below cutting the hair of one of the foreigners that attended the monk chat (Samir from Slovenia, who had long dreadlocks before this picture):
Gan gives Sam a haircut
The kids got bored with the philosophical talk pretty quickly and they ended up hanging out with some other monks while we chatted. Caleb started to demonstrate magic and juggling. The monks joined in on the juggling.
Monk with Juggling BallCaleb and Gabe Juggling
And they were more than happy to pose for picture with us
The Gang with Gabe and another Monk
One of the monks, named Gabe (another nickname - given by a foreigner in this case) took a liking to the kids and addressed them as his brother and sister. He spoke English very well and asked that we come back again for the monk chat in the future. He said that Caleb should stay and become a monk
Gabe and Caleb

Umbrella Factory
We met a nice family here and they offered to take us to Bo Sang where there is an Umbrella Factory. Tong Bai, her husband, Sumate, and their Son, Balm, live near Chiang Mai. Tong Bai is a nurse and she works across the street from our Condo (that is how we met). Sumate is a Captain in the Army and Balm is 11 years old
. Tong Bai, Sumate and Balm with our familyTong Bai, Sumate, Balm, Caleb and Anna
Bo Sang is about 5 miles from town and we went there in their shiny new SUV (the first time we have seen seat belts in a few weeks!)
The factory has a tour of the umbrella making process which is all done by hand. The process starts with making the paper.
Umbrella Factory
Then cutting the spokes by hand.
Umbrella Factory
Then they put pieces together and they paint the surface.
Umbrella Factory PaintingUmbrella FactoryUmbrella Factory PaintingUmbrella Factory Painting
The artists who paint the umbrellas for the tour are willing to put acrylic designs on anything: Wallets, clothes, bags etc..
The kids both got patterns on their wallets and Dave got an elephant on his shoulder bag.
Dave's Bag in progressElephant Design on Daves BagCaleb's Wallet
Afterwards we went to a nice Thai dinner in Chaing Mai. Tong Bai and family have offered for us to join them again on another trip in the future (perhaps to a Hot Spring).

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20Feb/071

Final itinerary

We have our flight plans set up now for all the flights until we return:

  • February 28, Chiang Mai to Bangkok on Nok Air Flight 8319 Depart 5:55 PM Arrive 7:00 PM
  • March 1st, Bangkok to Cairo on EgyptAir Flight 961 Depart 12:45 AM Arrive 5:45 AM
  • March 20th, Cairo to London on EgyptAir Flight 777 Depart 09:30 AM Arrive 12:35 PM
  • March 24th, London to New York on Virgin Flight 009 Depart 4:00 PM Arrive 7:55 PM
  • March 27th, New York to Portland on Alaska Airlines Flights 11/2493 Depart 7:40 AM Arrive 2:15 PM

We will send another update soon. We are preparing to head to Egypt in another week, and as part of those preparations I have sent a message to a guide in Egypt (who we knew through an Aussie friend). The guide speaks English quite well, but only reads/writes arabic. So I got the smart idea of using an online translation service (http://www.systranbox.com/systran/box) to translate our rather simple message from:

Mohammed,
We will be arriving on March 1st into Cairo. We will tour Cairo for a couple days and then we would like to go to the desert. We will call you when we arrive in Cairo to plan our travel.
Thanks,

Dave

Into:

محمّد ،

نحن كنت سنصل في مارس - آذار [1ست] داخل قاهرة. نحن سنجول قاهرة لزوج أيام وبعد ذلك أحبّ نحن أن يذهب إلى الصحراء. نحن سندعو أنت عندما يصل نحن في قاهرة أن يخطّط سفرنا.

شكور ،

[دف]

I sent off the message, rather pleased with the results. Then I decided to take the Arabic and translate it back into English, just to see how accurate that would be. Here is what came out...

Mohammed,

We was will arrive in practiced - March [1[st]] inside mighty. We [snjwl] mighty sticking of days and afterwards that loved we to the desert goes to. We will call you when we arrive in mighty to trip plans our.

Thanks,

[tambourine]

I am not sure if we will have a guide in Egypt after this message! My favorite part is how it translated my name into [tambourine]. At least it got Mohammed right.

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21Feb/070

Trekking

A trip to Northern Thailand would not be complete without a trek to the mountains; so, we signed up for a two day trek to Chiang Dao, about 80 Kms north of Chiang Mai. It sounded easy enough: on the first day we would hike for about 3 hours, ride elephants for a bit and then camp in a village. The second day we would hike for an hour and then go white-water rafting on the Maetang River. We brought two small backpacks (one for Dave and the other for Meta) packed with clothes, water and a few toys. Unlike our trip to the Elephant Camp a few weeks back (in an air-con van) we rode in a pick-up truck (called a "Sangtheaw") with 10 other foreigners packed in. We first stopped at an elephant camp to take an hour-long ride through the forest. CIMG5149
This time we were able to ride on the elephant's neck's (while the manhout shouted commands from behind).
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Dave took a go on the neck first
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and then Caleb gave it a try as well
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Anna even got to do it, although she rode behind our German companion, Stephan:
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Caleb described the experience as "Scratchy, but lots of fun".
Afterwards we hit the trail and it immediately became clear that the steep climbs and long downhills of the trail were going to be a challenge.
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Dave ended up carrying both packs and our young guide carried Anna at least 2/3rd of the way on the first day
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The trails were steep and the footing unstable, making the hike both physically and mentally difficult. Nobody whines (okay, maybe a little) and we make our way along the dusty trail (it s the dry season here) drinking lots of water as we went. About halfway we came to a cave that sometimes had small bats (they were out during our visit)
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After 3-4 hours we arrived in the hill tribe camp, which was a welcome sight
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We were filthy from the trail.
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We were given our own cabin to sleep in (very nice!)
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and Dave was offered some Thai whisky by the village men. We washed our feet (there was running water and a shower in the village) and sat down to dinner with the other travellers (2 Germans, 3 Danes, 2 Swiss and an Irishman).
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The Irishman, Adrian, who was on his 11 month of travelling regaled us with stories of his travels (including time in the Amazon Jungles). He also talked about how lucky he had been - he had a scar on his head from where his Uncle had backed a trailer over him a the age of 4 and another where a farmer had driven over his foot at the age of 6. I got the feeling that when the Irish say "Lucky" they really mean "Lucky to be alive".
That night the guides played some music around a campfire and we stayed up for a bit chatting after the kids fell asleep.
After a night of somewhat restless sleep, we hike for an hour along a fairly treacherous downhill trail
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to a small waterfall.
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Then lunch was provided at a small house/restaurant. Then it was a short drive to the white water drop in point
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The kids loved the rafting even though the river was rather low.
The day ended with a reckless drive at 100+ KPH into Chiang Mai (a real nail-biter). We were all tired and glad to get back to our comfy apartment, but proud that we had made it through!

We've Got Class

Chiang Mai is considered by many to be the cultural center of Thailand. As such, there are plenty of ways for farang (foreigners) to get educated int he Thai way of living. Meta has taken a Thai cooking class where she learned to make Red Curry, Phad Thai, Papaya Salad, Sticky rice with coconut milk, Tom Yum Gai and Cashew Chicken. Dave took a similar course and learned to make some of the same dishes, and how to clear the kitchen in a hurry: CIMG5433CIMG5450
We have also been taking private Thai language lessons once a week with an excellent tutor named Gaew. An example conversation between Gaew and Dave is attached: it is too inane to deserve translation.
Caleb took some lessons in card magic from a great Thai magician, named Robin, that we met here. It was not exactly a cultural thing, but it was a great opportunity for him.
Caleb learns from Robin
There are many more options for classes in Chiang Mai: Traditional Thai massage, Thai Kick Boxing (aka "Muay Thai"), jewelry-making, dress-making and, most intriguing to us, meditation. Meta decided to take a five-day meditation course at Wat Doi Suthep,
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located 15 Kms from the city. She is staying at the temple during the course.
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Each day she wakes up at 4 AM (!), attends morning prayers, has breakfast and then meditates a bunch. She is not allowed to eat after lunch and is expected to sleep for no more than 6 hours a night: no-one ever said that enlightenment was easy. The monks will provide room and board during her stay and, in the Buddhist tradition, there is not charge for course; Donations are accepted.
If Meta survives the experience, Dave will take a 3 day version of the course. He had considered taking Muay Thai classes instead, but his Fight Club days are over it seems. A mid-life crisis should included a search for enlightenment, not a beating.

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12Mar/070

Cairo Is…

Cairo is full-on. It is not a city that you love OR hate: it is a city you love AND hate. We had read something to this affect in our guidebook before we arrived, but it only took two short days for us to fully agree with the sentiment. We arrived at 6:15 AM into Cairo after a 10 hour red-eye. Our friend from Portland, Hassan, had offered for his brother Nader to meet us in the airport, but since he lives 3 hours away in Alexandrya we felt it was too much to ask. We did not have a hotel lined up, or any specific transport from the airport; a sure sign that we are becoming more confident travelers.
We were met at the gate by taxi and limo drivers. Since we did not have a mobile phone (our Thai SIM card did not work in Egypt) a driver called the hotel we wanted and confirmed that rooms were available. When we arrived we found it too small and less than inviting; Lonely Planet was not on the spot for this particular hotel. We had the driver take us to another hotel, The Cosmopolitan, that was close by. The driver charged us 30 Egyptian Pounds ($5 US) for what turned out to be a ridiculously short drive and he conveniently did not have any change for the 50 Pound note I gave him (my smallest bill at the time). The Cosmopolitan was nice, and we decided to stay, but it fairly expensive at $75 USD for a double with an extra bed.
After a short rest we went out to find and Internet Cafe and do a little exploring. The traffic near our hotel was typical of Cairo: loud, fast and chaotic. Dodging cars to find our way to the Internet Cafe, we were met by a friendly young Egyptian man who spoke English well (with a bit of a Scottish accent of all things). His name was "Tiger" and invited us to check out his family business which was just around the corner.
We had been warned about "Touts" who pick up tourists and invite them to see wares in a nearby store where they get a healthy commission. But were jet-lagged and more than a little naive. So we went into Tiger's family business - a perfume shop. The pitch, delivered by Tiger's brother, Mohammed, started with tea and a discussion about the quality of the perfumes.
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Mohammed had lived in the US for 7 years and his English was very good. He got into things quickly, putting on the hard sell for his perfumes. Like most tourists, we did not really need, or want, any perfume but it seemed too late by that point. We ended up with two bottles: one sandalwood and one lotus flower. The were likely watered-down versions of the pure essence and cost us around $35 USD. It was our first experience with the hard sell in Cairo: the next came the following day after a visit to the Egyptian Museum.
We had spent the morning touring the treasures of Tutankhamen and the other Pharaohs of Egypt.
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Afterwards we planned to head home for a nap before taking on the pyramids. On the way to our hotel we ran into a friendly man named Ali
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who said he was on his way home from his work at a nearby hotel. He lived in Giza (the suburb where the pyramids are located) and would be happy to accompany us out to the area. He regaled us with stories of his family (5 daughters and 1 son) while we had lunch together an waited for the bus. It was a Muslim holiday (Friday) and the buses were not running very often, so we opted for a cab. Meta became suspicious of Ali's hospitality pretty quickly; Dave, sadly, was still pretty naive. The proverbial "Straw that broke the camel's back" was when we arrived at the stables of his "friend" Mahmoud who could arrange a full tour of the pyramids by camel and horse. Meta decided she had seen enough and walked out. Eventually we came to an agreement on a tour, but it was an emotional and aggravating experience.
In retrospect Ali was certainly a tout, although it may have just been a side job that he carried out after work. He got a free meal, ride home and probably a kickback from the stables. But he also provided a service: keeping other touts away, explaining the culture of Egypt and entertaining us with stories. He also took us to a reputable stable that is rated high in the Lonely Planet guide.
The touts also provided an important lesson - one on assertiveness. The Egyptian people are friendly, perhaps even more so than the Thai people, but there are a few that make their living off of selling stuff to tourists. Some are unscrupulous, while others are actually worth the extra cost. In almost all cases you can say "la, Shukran" (no, thanks) and walk away at any time. And that was the hard lesson of our two days in Cairo: how to say "No!" and walk away. It was a lesson that would serve us well later in our trip.

To the Pyramids!
For all the trouble getting to Giza there was a big payoff: seeing the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World. The first glimpses of the pyramids started while crossing the Nile in the southern part of Cairo
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and then again as we slowly approached the Giza Plateau.
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We entered the busy suburb and walked down back alleys with horses racing by
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Then it was onto the two camels and two horses provided by the stables to make our way into the desert. We entered through a small gap in the fence that surrounds the pyramids
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and began a steady pace towards the middle pyramid.
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Arriving at the middle pyramid
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we dismounted and stared at the amazing structure
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We went into the middle pyramid, which required walking nearly doubled over through the long sloping passage, until we came to the burial chamber at the heart of the pyramid (no photos allowed).
We came back out
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, remounted
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and made our way to the temple of the Sphinx
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Then it was off to a viewpoint where we could see all three pyramids and take the obligatory photos
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Finally we made our way off to a high bluff to watch the sunset.
By this point Anna had ridden every one of our mounts: both camels, all the horses (including the main guide's horse) and even the little the little donkey that the other guide was riding. But she was not fully satisfied until she actually got a ride on our guide:
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We collected rocks on the bluff and ate Koshari (an Egyptian pasta dish) while the sun set over the desert.
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A final ride back to the stables and a long taxi ride home ended our day. We were in bed by 7 PM. It was a ridiculously long day, but in the end everyone was smiling:
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12Mar/070

Welcome to Egypt!

After the challenges of Cairo we were ready for a break. Our friend from Portland, Hassan, had suggested that we should visit his family in Alexandrya. Since it was only two hours from Cairo by train it seemed like it would be a good choice for our next stop.
On the train we met a major in the Egyptian army who chatted with us for a bit. When we mentioned Thailand he frowned and said he had been there and did not like it. He said that the people there were unfriendly, especially the women. We tried to relate our experience of the Thai people, but he was adamant; the Thais wee mean-spirited and impolite. It took a while for us to figure out that he had only been to Bangkok and was probably in uniform when he went. Anyone familiar with Bangkok could see his experience would probably be less than stellar, but he chose base his view of the whole country on his interaction with a few people. It was a strong reminder to us to not base our view of Egypt on our interactions with a few touts in Cairo. Alexandrya would give us the chance to see the real Egypt.
We arrived in Alexandrya at 4 PM, and Nader was there to pick us up at the train station. Nader is the classic vision of a young Mediterranean Arab: tall, dark and handsome.
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His shoulders were broad from years as a competitive swimmer (#3 in Egypt in the crawl, #1 in the breast stroke) and Nader loved anything to do with the water (skiing, diving, surfing, fishing, windsurfing, sailing, etc...) and he loved his home-town of Alexandrya.
Nader thoughtfully dropped us off at our hotel for a rest before dinner. We were staying at a suite at the Corillan Hotel, a small boutique hotel in the center of town. Although he room had some street noise, the view of the sea was spectacular.
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With two adjoining rooms, private bath and breakfast included, it was one of the nicest places we had stayed on our trip so far (and only $37 US/day!)
The next morning we went to Fort Quaitley which dominates the view from the harbour. The fort is over 600 years old and was built to defend the port. It was build from the ruins of the Pharos, a massive lighthouse that was one of the Wonders of the Ancient world. The Pharos was knocked down by an earthquake 17 centuries after it was erected, and the fort was built from it's remains.
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The kids had a great time at the fort and it seemed that every Egyptian were met asked where we were from and said "WELCOME to Egypt!". this included many children that followed us around the fort and the young people who took photos together with the kids.
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This felt much closer to the real Egypt than our Cairo experience. Alexandrya is not covered with Western tourists and there are not any touts looking for cash.
We met up with Nader in the afternoon to got to the famous Bibliotecha Alexandrya. This amazing library was completed 3 years a got and was designed to put Alexandrya back on the cultural map vs. Cairo. It is an incredible structure: 7 floors both above and below ground level. It includes a planetarium/Omnimax and has room for over 8 million books. There are two large children's libraries with tons of books in English.
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After the Bibliotecha we went to Nader's part of town to have some drinks on the beach. This was the beach where Nader learned to swim, with some help from his brother Hassan. Actually Hassan helped by throwing him into the water and shouting "Swim!". Nader was 3 years old at the time and apparently it worked.
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The following day was a real treat: a nice dinner at Nader's favorite restaurant, followed by a visit to meet his family. Nader is the younges of 5 kids; his sisters are in Alexandrya while his brothers (including our friend Hassan) are in Portland. His Mother welcomed us into their home, treated us to a mango smoothie, and spoke to us about our travels (with Nader doing translation into Arabic). We felt so welcomed and were really touched by our visit.
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The next morning it was time to say goodbye to Alexandrya and Nader. We stopped by a lovely Mosque
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and Nader took us to the train station. It was really sad to say goodbye and Dave said to Nader, "You love Alexandrya, and now we love Alexandrya too". Nader really had been our Arabian knight, giving our whole family a sense of comfort, welcome and safety that was missing from our Cairo experience. We hope to see him again soon in Portland if he comes to visit his brothers, Hassan and Ahkmed.
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Although were were sad to leave, we also knew that by the end of the day we would be far from the city in an oasis in the massive Western Desert. It was time for a safari, Egyptian style.

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