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Happy, happier, happiest festival on the planet

17 Apr

This weekend came with the kind of moments that, decades later, will still make me laugh out loud. Teemed with all the excitement and wonder and adrenalin of an eight-year old child, we took to the streets of Chiang Mai to splash water and celebrate Thailand’s annual Songkran festival.

Songkran is a three-day New Year celebration in mid-April, the hottest time of the year, that also takes place in Cambodia, Laos and Burma. In Thailand, reportedly the wettest of them all, the city-wide water fights are celebrated with the most gusto and ease in northern Chiang Mai thanks to its old city moat.

The intensity and joy of this celebration is hard to grasp. Thousands upon thousands of children aged five to sixty-five fling water at everyone in sight for three full days. And, as the buckets of water are emptied on top of a stranger’s head, it’s accompanied by a cheerful sawatdi pi mai (Happy New Year) or suk san wan songkran (Happy Songkran).

Blissful drenching in other words.

Traditionally the water thrown on strangers was water recaptured after it had been poured over Buddha statues for cleansing. Today’s fusion of old traditions and joyful celebration was at its most evident in the parading of Buddhas through Chiang Mai on the first day of Songkran. For hours people lined up to watch the procession and squirt water at the Buddhas with water guns.

Rumours have it that elderly people still walk around and gently pour “blessed water” on passers-by to wash away the past year’s misfortunes. But the only ones I met not going for the full-fledged drenching were the ones whose buckets were filled with ice water. Yes, that’s right. A block of ice that had been melted in a bucket. Armed with such ruthful treats, they only needed a lovely little cup to send shivers down someone’s spine.

Icy cold water was however the least of our concerns. It was the moat water we were told to worry about. Though the local authorities drain and refill the moat before the festival, you would still want to keep your mouth firmly shut in between the bursts of laughter. With the moat water, Songkran also illustrated the illusion of choice. As locals in “Songkran shirts”, floral print Hawaiian shirts, lowered their buckets into the polluted canal, you either stayed and waited for the moat water shower or walked out of their reach and into the slow-moving traffic. But there, on top of each roof-less pick-up truck was a delighted Thai family with a massive barrel of water and multiple buckets, splashing everyone in sight.

A piece of advice: The red pick-up trucks that function as taxis in Chiang Mai may be cheap, but they leave you as sitting ducks during Songkran. People posted along the road will be delighted to get up from their lawn chairs with their garden hose as your truck comes to a halt. Most will however take the greatest pleasure in splashing buckets of ice water at you. Yesterday, our merciless ten-year old opponents had time to go and refill their buckets before the light went green. But today. Today we set out armed with 50 water balloons each as well as each our single-barreled 5500 pressure purple and orange water gun. Don’t get mad, get even!

Natti, whom I know from our hotel, said Songkran is getting increasingly wilder. While local teenagers play their part, the main reason is the influx of young tourists. Most of us are a welcome addition. “Falang [foreigners] liven it up”, Natti told me at the end of yet another drenched day. “Many Thai people will come up to you and just gently pour some water on you with a small cup, and say ‘Happy New Year’. But then! Falang!” At this point she put together her hands as if shooting with a machine gun. “KABOSH!! KABOSH!!” Natti laughed, “makes it much more fun!”.

But some people take it too far.

This morning, Natti’s colleague Von called me over to her desk at the tour agency of our hotel to show me a photo. Two young male tourists doing Songkran Borat-style with their shorts half-way down their bums and thongs pulled up as suspenders. In no need of seeing hairy butt cracks, I remember the disdain of my own when spotting the two yesterday. Now, local media in Chiang Mai were running a story on disrespectful falang.

“And look at this”, Von showed me a longer text chunk in Thai. I could only make out the figures 22.20. Reportedly, falang had been at it with the water fights until someone called the police to shut them down. Thai people let the festival wind down around seven each day to make it possible for people to walk around safely and dryly at night time. Tapping her computer, Von shook her head. “You know, people come home from work or dinner around that time. That’s not fun”.

So. Join in, but don’t be a bully in the playground.

And now, here are a few photos for your enjoyment:


What’s in a backpack? Who cares, just get a small one!

10 Apr

The best advice I can give to anyone starting a long-term travel is to go for a tiny backpack. And I mean tiny. My brother laughed when he saw mine. “That is smaller than my gym bag!”

But, contrary to my brother, I wasn't going to carry mine for twenty minutes. I was going to carry mine for months.

Here I am with my backpack in Phnom Penh.

And here they are, half crushed under 75 litre backpacks, barely able to move. And, I admit, there I was as well - casting pitying looks and taking a photo in all my smugness.

Size matters

If you are currently planning and dreaming, you are inevitably googling what backpack to bring. A myriad of blogs will give you long lists of criteria you should check. But as long as your backpack – that is if you are a girl – are designed for women, the material is somewhat water-resistant and it has some useful outside pockets, you're good to go. The only question remaining though is whether you will be able to carry it.

As someone who has previously lugged around a 50 litre backpack, I can confidently say that a smaller backpack is the way to go. I have yet to meet a traveller – be it in Europe, South America or Asia – who wish their backpack was larger. The reality, is of course, you do not need much.

Our smug 28 litre backpacks invariably attract envy. Half apologetic, fellow travellers will look at their 75 litre backpacks and say they simply didn't know…it is their first time travelling…they didn't know bed linens were always provided…yes, they could probably chuck away half their stuff…and if they were to do it again, they would choose smaller backpacks.

Why a smaller backpack is a better backpack

Comfort: Given today's 40C in Chiang Mai, I am going to start with the obvious. When you buy your backpack, picture yourself wearing it in a sauna – walking around – for an hour. Then go for the smaller one. A larger backpack also means that you will sweat more as you carry it around, thus you need more clothes, and there you have your vicious circle. And those red lines on top of your shoulders after carrying your backpack around? A 7 kilo, 28 litre backpack will not give you those.

Cost and time: A small backpack will fit overhead on planes, which saves you both money and time. On buses, a small backpack will fit under the seat in front of you. That leaves one less backpack underneath the bus for someone to pilfer through or one less massive backpack on top of your lap for the journey. A small backpack will also enable you to use all means of local transport. As an example, in Vietnam a minibus with no luggage compartment will often take you from your hostel to the bus station. Large backpacks simply won't fit.

Safety: In my opinion, the largest benefit is safety. With a seven kilo backpack, you can easily walk away from situations where you are at unease or feel unsafe. Also, you do not create the situations in the first place. When I travelled with a 50 litre backpack, I would invariably have to agree with another traveller that one would watch the backpacks while the other would go off to check hotels for availability or whatever it was that we needed to figure out.

So, what can you fit?

If you are currently in the planning phase, you are most likely also googling what to have in your backpack. Over Christmas, when I was deep into these online packing lists, Kay, my Thai sister-in-law shook her head. “Why do you buy stuff here? Just buy it all in Thailand!”.

She was right. If I could travel back in time, I would set out with two sets of clothes and buy the rest in Asia. It is bound to be cheaper and it will also be fitted to the climate. Once there, also keep in mind that you can have your laundry done for a dollar a kilo or do it for free yourself whenever needed.

Still not convinced? Ok. To give you an idea of what a 28 litre rucksack may fit, here is a rough overview of what I carry around. (I also use the standard packing trick of rolling each item and placing them into categorised bags)

  • One long-sleeved sweater, four vests, four t-shirts
  • Two pairs of trousers (one to make me feel normal, one lightweight to wear in temples during the day)
  • One city shorts and one sports shorts
  • Two bikinis, lots of underwear
  • One sarong / beach towel / dress / skirt / pillow / scarf
  • One cotton dress
  • Microfiber travel towel
  • Emergency kit (staples are antiseptic wipes, band aids, immodium, antihistamines and malaria tablets)
  • Toiletries and make-up
  • Trainers (which fit in the rucksack's outside pocket)
  • Ipad mini with keyboard, Kindle (packs 269 books!), camera and cables
  • Silk cushion cover, a small flashlight, padlock
  • I also have a small triangular shoulder bag for valuables that I can carry in front of me. This also doubles as my daypack. (I always smile when I see my large backpack being used as a daypack by other travellers).

Of course, we are largely sticking to a warm climate. If you travel around the world, you will need to carry around also warmer, and inevitably bulkier, clothes. But, even if you intend to travel through different climates you will undoubtedly stay in one region and thus one climate for a longer period of time. Most likely you can easily turn around or update your wardrobe whenever you reach a new region and new weather conditions. There really is no need to lug around the fleece jackets you bought in Peru when you reach Laos.

And as Kay reminded me, “A t-shirt costs one dollar in the market in Thailand. Just buy as you go. If it's worn out, you replace it. And if you get sick of it, you chuck it away and get a new one”.


A vacation from our vacation

5 Apr

Right, so, the problem with long-term travel is that you get tired. Hard to imagine when you are still dreaming and planning your trip, but you get tired of constant change. Three months in and we needed a break. So, reasonably, we took a vacation.

We are currently in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Our seven days here, the time needed to apply for an Indian visa, have turned into three weeks.

Already on our second day back, happily drunk on friendly people, some of the best food in the world and the relaxed vibe in the walled inner city, my boyfriend began questioning our previous travels.

“Oh Kari, why did we ever leave this place?”

We spent the next few days digesting this.

Can you get tired of travel?

Yes. It turns out, long-term travel is not a series of short vacations strung together. After carrying our entire world on our backs for close to three months we needed to stay put for a while. We needed a week or two away from Wikitravel, Tripadvisor and nights spent emailing potential hotels and making travel arrangements.

Our original plan was to do this in India. But, the weekend before we were to pick up our visas in Chiang Mai, we decided to splurge. In 37C sweltering heat, what we needed was a pool. A BIG pool. So we headed to the ECO Resort Chiang Mai. But there, sitting on the edge of the olympic sized swimming pool was Phil from Oxford, calling our luxurious hang-out “silly cheap”.

Luxury on the cheap?

Within seven minutes of talking with Phil, my illusions of being a well-ripened traveller burst. Talking with Phil was like having someone feed champagne, chocolate covered strawberries and Christmas presents through a tight travel budget.

Here he was, doing exactly what we did at a fraction of the cost. We refused to admit how much we were paying when he said “Four pounds! Can you believe it!?” And it continued. Our favourite green curry had set us back a tiny 75 baht. Phil of course took us to his favourite 45 baht curry place. Our tuk tuk ride from town cost 150 baht. Inevitably, Phil laughed at the driver's suggested price until he charmed his way down to a 60 baht fare.

And as the days passed in paradise, sipping a fantastic iced cappuccino for 35 baht on a sun bed, Phil was unknowingly and tirelessly promoting his retirement hangout. I half suspected he was trying, in his blatant niceness, to get a gang of us together so he would have more people to play Uno with.

Because the ECO Resort Chiang Mai is like the sequel to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Thailand-style. Elderly Europeans have taken up residence in old school buildings posing as hotel rooms. Walking past trees heavy with mango and jackfruit on their way to the pool, these post 60s heros appear to have outsourced their retirement to somewhere cheaper and attractively exotic. Though, the appeal of being truly idle is not lost on the below 60s either..

And now Songkran was coming up

Meanwhile, the Indian Holi Festival, where people throw coloured powder at each other, had just passed. And now Songkran, the mother of all water fights, was coming up in Thailand. In mid-April, the hottest time of the year, the entire country stops for three days (normally ends up being a five-day event) for a giant water fight. Reportedly, it is a week where it is okay to chase a granny with a water gun, ambush a stranger in a tuk tuk with a bucket of water or simply climb on top of a pick-up truck and splash water at anyone you drive past.

Surely we could not manage to just miss out on two of the best festivals in the world? But it would mean three weeks in Chiang Mai…

But then, Phil returned one day from an afternoon away from the pool and triumphantly stated, “Oh, I found a place today where they have really nice noodle soup for three baht. THREE baht – that is like seven cents!”

While he laughed, my boyfriend and I looked at each other. What can I say? Well, he said it first.

You know, we could just stay…?

And apparently there is a way to keep up with the travel-savvy Joneses. Simply ask yourself:

What would Phil do?

Well, the first thing Phil would do would be to move out of the overpriced 'double room' to a 'shared dorm', which turned out to sleep only two persons anyway and be a dorm only in the name. He would also know of the deal on the hotel's own website. Check a box for a minimum four day stay and end up staying for two weeks next to a 25 metre swimming pool during one of the greatest festivals in the world for what two nights at a dingy hotel in Europe would cost.

A life of leisure at a bargain price?

It really was a no brainer. We were staying put.

Pool hours between eight to six!

Luxury travel is having the time to read, read and read.

It's summer in Thailand. So warm, even the dogs have given up.

One of the many temples in the inner city of Chiang Mai.

A monk and his robe.

A woman getting decent.

Although in the mountains, it is still around 40 degrees in Chiang Mai now.

Heaven never helps the man who will not act. Sounds like the saying for this year!



Our afternoon with a monk

29 Mar

Wouldn’t it be great if you could spend an afternoon with a monk? A monk who said “ask me anything”?

Well. That is possible now in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The monks here have set up their own chatting club with tourists. Three times a week, you can go by Wat (temple) Susan Dok and speak with young monks together with other people who have left their swimming pools behind for some more culturally valid stuff. But if you have the time, you can always stroll through the city and look for small paper notes with 'Monk's Chat' posted outside some of the smaller temples.

For us, it was Wednesday this week that our trip in Thailand became one of culturally joyous fulfilment.

Phra Kiattisak, a cheerful 26-year old man who has been a monk for the last ten, was keen to practice his English. For me and my boyfriend Dominic, it was an afternoon of smiling to each other, either thinking “I can't believe we are doing this” or “I can't believe you just asked that”.

Phra: Most tourists ask about my daily life. In the morning, I wake up at 5am and I go out to get alms.

He points to the street, visible through the temple gates.

Me: Is it just Thai people or do tourists also give alms?

Phra: Yes, tourists too. In the morning, falang. You have to be out at six to participate.

Dominic: What kind of food can we give you?

Phra: Anything.

Dominic: Anything, so we could give you McDonalds? A happy meal?

Phra, laughs: Yes, but no alcohol.

Dominic: And what do people normally give you?

Phra: Sticky rice. Thai curry.

Dominic: If you see someone with Thai curry and you would rather have that, can you skip the guy with sticky rice?

Phra, with a laugh: No, cannot choose.

Me: And after the alms?

Phra: Go back to temple and eat breakfast. Save some for lunch. That is the last meal of the day. After, I normally go to university. But now, I live in the temple. Do you want to see?

Phra takes us to the main room of the small temple. Opposite the altar and a long line of monk's seat, a makeshift wall of bamboo shield a room about eight square metres. A thin mat is laid out on the floor, a brown thick piece of cloth hangs over his bed.

Me, pointing to the cloth: What is that for?

Phra: For meditation…and for mosquitos.

Me: Do you share the room with any of the other monks?

Phra: Only me.

Dominic: So what else do you do?

Phra: I sleep, I read, I garden..and…

My boyfriend fills the pause that follows.

Dominic:.. and talk to tourists!

Phra, laughs: Sometimes.

Dominic: Do you like tourists coming here and asking questions?

Phra: Yes, good for my English.

Dominc: Do you like Western food?

Phra, with an answer that will please my Thai sister in law Kay: I don't know about Western food. I know it's just bread.

Me: Did you have a girlfriend before becoming a monk?

Phra, with a laugh: No, I a lonely man.

Me: What did your parents say when you became a monk?

Phra: My parents want. They want that I be a monk because they believe if I be a monk I can develop in my life, in everything in my life”.

Me: Was it a big change for you to become a monk?

Phra, after a minute: I think it is not big choice in my life. Because maybe, I am Buddhist and be a monk is one duty for religion.

Dominic: And what about your robe? Do you always wear that?

Phra:If I stay in temple, I can wear this. It is just a cloth to protect my body.

He takes off the long saffron shawl and shows us an orange vest and trousers.

Phra: But, in ceremony, I have the…

He puts the long piece of cloth back on.

Phra: If I go out, I also cover…It is hot.

Dominic: Why do you shave your head?

Me: And your eyebrows?

Phra: For save money for buy shampoo.

Dominic and I both laugh.

Dominic: And what about foreigners? Can they become monks?

Phra: If foreigner would like to be monk, he should train with senior monk for one or three months to prepare mind and body. Because to be monk has to chant in Bali language.

Me: What was the most difficult when you first became a monk?

Phra: For meditation, to train mind. Because the mind is like a monkey.

Dominic, disbelievingly: A monkey??

I scribble down monk comedy gold on my notepad as quickly I can.

Phra: Because if you have to meditate you just breath in and out and your mind concentrate and you breath in and out. If you concentrate, your mind is thinking a lot, 'to your hometown, your girlfriend, boyfriend', it is difficult to learn to control.

Dominic: So, what is the best and the worst with being a monk?

Phra: The best is how to be good man and is the highest of the Buddhism, enlightenment. And the worst for monk is four things. If monks do, you must stop the monk. One, you don't know about the enlightenment but you tell another one that you know about the enlightenment. Two, you have sex with human. Three, stealing, stealing money, everything. The last…” he trails off. “We have 227 principles we must follow”.

Dominic: Are you going to continue to be a monk or can you stop?

Phra, firmly: I can stop.

Me: Are you planning on stopping?

Phra: If I graduate with study. Still studying at university, last year. I study philosophy of religions.

We are back in the garden, where Phra and three other monks planted flowers when we first came by this morning. A poster saying “Free WiFi” is laid out on the table.

Me, holding up the poster: Do you use the Internet?

Phra nods.

Me: And facebook?

Phra nods again.

Me: Can we become friends on facebook?

Phra: Yes, ok.

Yes, the excitement is clearly on my side. Phra replies in the same tone of voice as when he explained his morning ritual. But a monk friend is a monk friend.

Me, helpfully: So can we do it now?

He checks the wifi on the computer.

Phra: I don't think open wifi.

But we are in luck and soon Phra is showing us one of his facebook albums.

Phra: Last week I came back from walking in meditation. We walked 178 kilometres. Over 15 days.

And there it is. An album filled with photos of robed-clad monks in a long procession. The monks have tagged themselves.

Me: So how long have you been on facebook?

Phra: Two to three years.

Me: Are all the monks on facebook?

Phra shakes his head. A chat window pops up on his screen.

Me: And do you use it to chat with your parents?

Phra: No, they don't know about modern technology. They are farmers.

Me: How often do you use facebook?

Phra: If I go to university. And if there is wifi in the temple.

Phra: Where are you going next?

Dominic: India.

Phra: I would like to go to India. That is where my Buddha was born.

The world may be even smaller than we thought.