Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Quick Story

Before I post on Cambodia...

I came down with a nasty little head cold on Monday. Today I went to the convenience store next to my apartment to buy some Powerade. It was kind of late, I was feeling really terrible, my nose was running, I was feverish and I was in junky sick-clothes. I got to the checkout where an old man muttered to the cashier in Korean, "Look, she is beautiful!" to which I said, "Thank you. I understand Korean." To which the old man's face lit up and he started saying (border-line shouting) in English, "Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful!" as I left the store.

Only in Korea - perhaps really only in small towns like mine - can a little old man (1) call someone looking like I did "beautiful" and (2) make my evening.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Kuala Lumpur

What is Kuala Lumpur? I had no idea what to expect, especially coming from a remote island off the coast of Thailand. Reminder, it was down to Dave, Wescott and me as Kate and Halas returned to their respective homes.

Kuala Lumpur was the most interesting place in terms of ethnic diversity. I was completely amazed. Equal numbers of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist religions living in perfect harmony, without batting an eye to the others' existences. Kuala Lumpur is a place where you can walk from Little India to China Town to Metropolis within 30 minutes. Women dressed in full hijabs (full-length Muslim robe) walking with someone in a mini skirt. It seemed like I was the only one phased by this stark contrast. It was also the closest I felt to America since last July. But I'll get to that later.

Malaysia is a Muslim country, and Kuala Lumpur is all about the oil. Everyone speaks perfect English. It's the default common ground between all of the diversity. We went to two super malls during our two days there. Including one that had a Borders bookstore. There were McDonald's every 200 meters. (and, with the Lunar New Year right around the corner, McDonald's was promoting a New Year "Prosperity Burger." As the Dave's said, "How could you not have a 'Prosperity Burger!?'") I even saw an Ace Hardware!

Needless to say, KL kind of made me homesick. For America. Not Korea.

Our first adventure was to the Batu Caves. Batu Caves are limestone caves that contain important Hindu places of worship. It's one of the largest Hindu shrines outside of India.

The most famous event is Thaipusam (which fell on Jan. 29, a week before we got there). Thaipusam attracts over 1 million Hindu worshipers for this one day event where worshipers show their religious commitment. Thaipusam is infamous for self-abuse such as pulling a wagon via hooks attached to your skin or driving a small rod from one cheek to the other and carrying things on each protruding point. Just do a Google Image search for "Thaipusam" and you'll see what I mean.

Needless to say, the caves were a little trashed when we got there, so we were a little disappointed.

After the caves, we went to super mall #1 to kill time before going to Petronas towers - the tallest twin towers in the world. It was cool, as far as tall buildings go. You don't actually go to the top, but to the skybridge on the 40th floor. There was a 3D movie about Petronas company and how they're the leaders in humanitarian efforts around the world and how they do no wrong. There was also a museum about how Petronas operates in Earth-friendly ways. They're propaganda was a little much. The Dave's and I felt like we were in a James Bond movie, at the headquarters of Petronas - the bad guy. :)

The last day we went to Merdeka Square, the place where Malaysia declared their independence. It was nice. Very pretty. We wandered through China Town and Little India and then hit up super mall #2. After, the Dave's had to get back to the airport to go to Korea. I wasn't leaving until early the next morning. So we said our goodbyes. There I was. All alone in Kuala Lumpur, getting ready to make my way to Cambodia the next morning.

Classic Jumping Picture (Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur)

At 5:30 AM on the train speeding for the airport (where I would need to catch a cab to the smaller airport to make my 7 AM flight) I kind of did a double take. I honestly couldn't believe that me, a shy little girl from a quaint Chicago suburb, was making my way to Cambodia from Kuala Lumpur. A year ago, I was probably studying or doing something trivial along those lines in Des Moines, Iowa. It's scary and invigorating how life twists and turns and just sort of takes you with it. That kind of volatility makes me feel so out of control and so ... free. Like a luck of the draw. Anyways. Onto Cambodia!

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Okay, here come the updates. (Hopefully). I drug around a small journal during my trip, writing my blog entries along the way. I'm going to post by country adventure along with a few pictures. Hopefully I'll have time to make a picture/video thing later with all of the countries. We'll see. I'll have more time on Monday (this weekend is Chinese New Year, so I'll be busy with my host family with that).

Anyways, here you go! Enjoy!


People: David Libardoni ("Dave"), David Halas ("Halas"), David Wescott ("Wescott"), Kate and Beans (Me)

After 17 hours of traveling, I arrived in Phuket, Thailand to meet up with my friends. Phuket is unlike anything I'd ever seen. Bars line every square inch of the street and prostitutes outnumber female tourists. Before the trip, I read, "The Road of Lost Innocence" by Somaly Mam (highly recommend it!), an autobiography about a Cambodian woman sold into sexual slavery at the age of 12, escaped and now works to save sex workers. So seeing the blatant prostitution was really kind of hard for me. The book made my experience in Phuket very real. It was hard, but I tried to focus on my friends. Being here with them, being free from life.

After 2 hours of sleep that night, we woke up early to make our way to Koh Yao Island - about 40 minutes by ferry off the coast of Thailand - where we would have our kayaking adventure. Still reeling from the 17 hours of travel, a night in Phuket and 2 hours of sleep, I felt numb. Too exhausted to feel tired.

The car that picked us up was one of those cattle pick-ups. The one with a cage over the bed, benches lining the sides. We all climbed up and bounced along to the docks. I tried to take in as much of Phuket as I could. It reminded me of Mexico, but with a crazy language and way more Europeans. I would come to conclude that Thailand is the Mexico of eastern Europe and Australia.

From the port, we took a ferry Koh Yao, where we met Run, our tour guide.

Run was our guide for the week. He would take us everywhere, entertain us and feed us. He was perfect. Born and raised on the island, Run was 29 years young, had a wife and two toddlers. He was a tour guide when there were tourists or a rubber farmer or fisherman when there weren't. Despite his family and his jobs, he was carefree and unconditionally happy.

Here was our first conversation with Run:
Halas: I'm David (all of us exchanging hidden smiles with each other)
Run: Dave. Hi!
Dave: I'm also David (giggling from us)
Run: (Wide-eyed) Oh! Same! (oh...just wait, Run)
Wescott: (Chuckling) And I'm also David.
Run: (Rocking back, laughing and searching all of our faces for a sign of some kind of joke) Oh! You're Dave, too!?

To say the least, Run never had problems remembering the guys. He remembered Kate just fine, but was rightfully confused by me. I introduced myself as "Amy" but everyone called me "Beans." He probably spent the whole week confused. I only remember him calling on me once, and that was on the last day. We were tossing a Frisbee when he called out "Bin!" I got the idea. He was close enough.

Our fearless leader, Run

On the ferry, we asked Run if our hotel was close to the beach. Run paused, gave an islander look of contemplation, before saying, "Yes. Sort of. There is a road, but when you cross it, the beach is near."

Technicalities. We literally had to cross a small 2-lane road and take two steps more to wind up on the beach. The ocean was barely 200 meters from our hotel, depending on the tide. But, to a man that has friends living in stilt huts in the ocean, our hotel was "sort of" near the beach.

By 11 AM, we were loading into another cattle-car to go kayak. Our driver for the week, Moot, would turn out too be the social king of the island. We rarely saw him without a bottle of beer. Standing at 5-feet on a tall day and weighing barely 100-pounds, Moot could out-drink us all. It was rumored that - having the social power he had - Moot could walk into any convenience store on the island, grab a beer and walk out, only paying a smile. That's right. Our driver was the village drinker. And we loved him.

Our limo. Moot is in the blue shirt and hat. There's a better picture of him later.

We transferred from truck to boat, our kayaks glistening in the sun. Our boat driver, Mr. Wa, reminded me of a retired clown. Heavily built, barefoot, bald, probably in his early 40's and missing his two front teeth. He usually wore a floppy straw hat and he was always smiling his big, toothless smile. Sadly, he was the one person I don't have a picture of. :( We, too, loved him and his boat.

Our favorite Mr. Wa story: After kayaking, Run and Mr. Wa were loading the kayaks onto Mr. Wa's boat. Once done, they headed back to their posts. Only, suddenly!, Kate's kayak came untied and fell into the water before Run or Mr. Wa could grab it. No big deal, someone just has to jump in a grab the rope. Well, our fearless Mr. Wa, without any hesitation, dramatically dived into the ocean - only pausing to tear off his floppy straw hat. We were utterly shocked at the lightening fast reactions of this gentle giant. It became the joke that Mr. Wa was selected as our boatman because, in his interview, he said he would never leave a kayak behind.

We spent about 2-3 hours kayaking. My kayak was white (like me, being the only one in my group not yet browned by the sun). For comedic sake, I named my kayak "Moonbeam." As Wescott said, "You would name a kayak "Moonbeam."

I was mostly kidding about the name from the get-go, but, oddly enough, it stuck. For the rest of the trip, I would hear, "Uh, I don't like the way Moonbeam is angled in that mangrove forest," seconds before my poor kayaking skills got me lodged between a rock and a hard place (literally).

I loved Moonbeam.

Me and Moonbeam

Kayaking isn't as hard as I thought it would be. And I actually was fairly decent at managing Moonbeam through tight spots and strong currents. It felt great to be out in the golden sun pouring my strength into the oar. For me, kayaking was a lot like running: mechanical, methodical and consistent. And you all know how much I like running.

The first day, Run took us on a gentle course around a rock island. We stopped midway to swing on vines from rock ledge to water. It was really fun, swinging like Tarzan. We had lunch on a beach on a random island. We were the only ones there. We ended up napping on the beach, exhaustion catching up to us, after lunch. Then headed back for beach volleyball with locals and dinner. I was asleep by 9:30 PM. I was pooped.

I took the next day off to recover while the Dave's and Kate kayaked (I slept 15 hours! Yikes!). Run was great enough to give me a motorbike, so I spent the afternoon roaming the island in search of beaches (of which there were many). Isn't it odd? I've never been on a motor-anything before Korea. But in Korea I have a moped. And here I was, in Thailand, on and motorbike (bigger than a moped, smaller than at motorcycle).

Day 3 was spent mountain biking. We saw some incredible stuff as Run led us through back yards, grazing land and little villages on the island. The ride finished with us zooming down a mountain, in the forest on a dirt-rock path. I thought I was going to wrap myself around a tree on several occasions. But, it was thrilling. The adrenaline was pumping for the rest of the day. We finished up with a trip to an inhabited island where we had a bonfire and some beer under a full moon. We kayaked back to the island around 9PM, had some dinner and went to bed.

Day 4 we kayaked around some islands to a private lagoon. We pulled into a cave, got out and crawled through a little hole out the other side of the cave to find a completely secluded lagoon. Jeeze, Run. You are a lucky man to have this in your backyard.

Day 5 we kayaked to Monkey Land. It was an area of shallow water surrounding an island crawling with cute little monkeys. Run brought some bananas, so we had a good time playing around with them. Curious little guys. To make sure you didn't have anymore bananas, they crawled on your kayak and peered inside. You know, just in case we were hiding bananas by our toes.

By the time he got to my kayak, he was thirsty. So, naturally, he bit a huge hole into one of my water bottles and licked out the water.

We finished the day by attending the "Full Moon Party." (even though the full moon was several days ago). I'm sure it was fun, but we were so tired we ended up calling it a day quite early and heading home to bed. Knowing, with great sadness, that tomorrow was our last day.

Day 6 we kayaked a little and then had to say our goodbyes to Run, Moot and Mr. Wa. Kate was pretty sick by this point, so she was glad to be heading back to Korea. Halas went back to the States (Halas is Dave's friend from high school/college) and Dave + Wescott + Me headed to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a few days. Isn't it shocking how such an incredible adventure can just end? But, as I'm learning here in Korea, everything ends.

Actually, the end was something from a corny teen movie. We were saying goodbye to Moot and Run at the docks and asked Run to give a tip and our goodbyes to Mr. Wa for us. Run gave us his classic Islander look and said, "Oh, there is Mr. Wa now." Sure enough, even though Mr. Wa dropped us off on the other side of the island, there he was, messing with some ropes in his boat. And, as we all turned to look, he looked up from his work and gave us a final wave and toothless grin (under his floppy straw hat). Ha. Small island, I guess.

Group shot at the dock. Moot is the shorty next to me, Run is behind Moot.
Dave, Wescott, Run/Moot, me, Kate, Halas

One country down, two more to go. I had a fantastic time in Thailand. Words barely can describe. Here are some scenery pictures:

From the beach in front of our bungalows

Taken from "Amy's Beach" - my favorite beach find on Day 2

Shot of the gang after a volleyball game

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

One country down, two to go

Hi everyone!

Just wanted to send you a little shout-out from Kuala Lumpur. I just landed here after a six-day kayaking adventure on a remote island off of the coast of Phukett, Thailand. Somewhere between speeding down the rocky path of a mountain on a bike to feeding a banana to a monkey sitting a foot away from me on my kayak, I realized that I'm a very very lucky girl.

I promise to post more about my trip when I get back to Korea (11 February), so stay tuned and get excited!

Preview/Summary of Thailand activities: Kayaking (of course...lots of it), exploring tiny, people-free beaches, cliff jumping, playing volleyball with island locals, incredible sunrises, sunsets and moonlit nights, monkeys, mountain biking, boating, thai food and good times with my great friends.

In store for the future: Two days of sight seeing in Kuala Lumpur, four days of sight seeing in Cambodia (Angkor Wat and Siem Reap).

Life is good.