Asian Explorations

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to post much after I wrote about my time in Nepal.  After my trek to Everest, I decided to continue my travels throughout other parts of Asia.  While they were not hiking specific travels, and there’s not much story to this post,  I’d like to share some observations, impressions, and thoughts here on my blog.

Nepal

You all already know a lot about my trek to Everest from Everest:  The Emotions and Everest:  The Trip and Recreational Impressions.  While I’ve done a lot since then (and not had time to blog about it), the trek has absolutely stood up as the highlight of all my travels.  But there were other things I found interesting about Nepal as well.

In Travel Woes, I mentioned that I spent some time in the hospital in the city of Pokhara.  I thought Pokhara was a wonderful city and a welcome break from the dusty, loud, and polluted Kathmandu.  Pokhara is surrounded by much more forest, offers much easier access to nature, and is much quieter than Kathmandu despite being the second largest city in Nepal.  I really liked it.  It is a regular outdoors person’s paradise, offering excellent access to mountains and a lake.  It seems like any sport is possible from Pokhara, whether it be trekking, boating, fishing, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, bungee jumping, etc.  I recommend it as a base for anyone planning an all out action sports adventure in Nepal.

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reggae in Kathmandu

One thing I also really liked about Nepal was its musicality.  It seemed like almost half the population was carrying around musical instruments.  There seemed to be live music almost everywhere each night, easy to get a fix.  What was interesting to me was how frequently I heard popular western music being played, whether by live bands or coming through a stereo.  I regularly heard current American pop music, including Maroon 5, Coldplay, Jason Mraz, and of course…Nickelback (whom I should clarify, is Canadian).  Throwbacks to the 90’s were often as well, including bands such as Oasis, etc.  However, what is a music scene without tribute to the classics, and a lot of what I heard was The Beatles and Bob Marley.  However, I feel the band I heard the most of in Nepal was in fact Dire Straits.  I love Dire Straits, so I was absolutely ecstatic. However, if you would have told me before going that Dire Straits would be the band I heard most, I would have never believed you.

One thing that was especially surprising but was of note was the abundance of Jon Krakauer books for sale…everywhere!  Of course, Jon Krakauer has written one of the most well known works on Everest, but most of his other writings were available as well.  Krakauer books were almost impossible to avoid in Nepal.

Lastly, the least important thing I took notice of, but something that interested me, was household broom design.  Brooms in Nepal are made from some kind of straw, bound together, but they don’t have long broom handles.  This forces the user to bend almost all the way over in order to use it.  I don’t think I saw a broom handle once in all of Nepal, and I’m curious as to why they haven’t caught on, as it just seems a bit more ergonomical, and I’m sure the people are aware of their existence.

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Nepali broom

India

You already read about my frustrations securing and Indian visa in Travel Woes.  Well, my ride on a rickety, old, pink bus from Kathmandu was quite the overnight adventure involving no storage space for luggage, lots of beeping, confusion over directions, and a person sitting next to me who had a very different conception of personal space.  However, I made it to Darjeeling, India, my destination, just fine.  I spent a night there, before heading just south to Kurseong and transfering to a homestay at Makaibari Tea Estate for 3 nights.  Our host was named Passang and his family roots were actually from Nepal rather than India, and he didn’t in fact work on the tea estate but was rather a trekking guide in Sikkim and West Bengal, India and also Nepal.  Naturally, we had a lot to talk about.  He was a fascinating person with whom to talk, and I learned a lot about local flora and fauna, wild edibles, and local recipes.

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In the Tea Fields w/ The King

But more so, upon arriving at Makaibari, my trip to India became a week long exploration into the world of tea.  At Makaibari, we hung out with the estate owner Rajah Banerjee.  Rajah, which means “king,” is one of India’s foremost experts on organic, biodynamic agriculture and permaculture.  He uses his expertise to grow and produce some of the finest teas in the world.  He was kind enough to lead me and my friend on a long walk through acres and acres of tea fields and forest, sharing knowledge, experience, and stories along the way.  Talking with Rajah was a whirlwind, as he moves a million miles per hour juggling multiple interactions and responsibilities seemingly without breaking a sweat, with a genuine sense of kindness and conscientiousness.  However, his upbeat temperament was balanced by the absolute beauty and tranquility of his tea estate, boasting beautiful views, streams, biodiversity, and sounds.  A few hours walking through the tea garden seemed like minutes.  I’ll count that one as a hike.

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Tasting with Singtom Tea

After a few days at Makaibari, it was south to the city of Kolkata.  Here, we linked up with the Chariman family, the owners of Singtom Tea.  They were gracious enough to show us around the city of Kolkata, pointing out places of historic and architectural significance.  Most fun for me, however, was joining them for an elaborate tea tasting at their company office.  We tasted an incredible array of Darjeeling and Assam teas, dissecting colors, aroma, flavor, and mouth feel for each.  Throw in a few good meals together, and it was a short but good time in Kolkata with the great company of fascinating individuals.

As I said, my time in India was mostly spent on tea.  In just a week, I learned more about tea than I ever knew before.  As someone who is generally interested in beverage (you’ve already seen how much I write about beer), it was genuinely interesting to dive deep into a new beverage.  I’ve been drinking tea for years, but never really took the time to study it.  I was fortuntate to drink some of the finest teas in the world, including first flush darjeelings, white teas, and blends.  I absolutely loved it.

Cambodia

It’s just a quick flight from the Indian subcontinent to southeast Asia, and for me, that came next.  I arrived in Bangkok with the intention of staying in Thailand for a month.  However, plans always get turned upside down.  In a somewhat spontaneous series of events, I ended up in Cambodia for 10 days.

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What’s a visit to Cambodia without a stop at the legendary Angkor Wat temple complex?  Incomplete.  Siem Reap and Angkor Wat were my first stops.  We went to Angkor Wat for sunrise, which is the classic way to do it, and the sun rises over the backside of the temple.  While of course a sunrise is always nice, I felt the main advantage to this was getting to see the temples before the heat of the midday sun kicked in.  There is a whole complex of temples in this area, and you could probably spend the rest of your life visiting each one.  I simply focused on three of the most famous ones, and I was still exploring them for six hours.  The ones I visited were Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm.  All three were absolutely magnificent, standing strong after decades and decades of existence.  They all featured slightly different construction and design, and are true marvels of human construction.

After the short stint in Siem Reap, it was on to the capital city of Phnom Penh.  For me, this was a short stay, but an impactful one.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of this city, finding it similarly loud and polluted to Kathmandu, but I stayed just long enough to learn a sobering story that is all too common of mankind, yet goes all too often unknown.  I am talking of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian genocide of the 1970’s.  I visited both the S21 Prison Museum inside the city, and the Killing Fields, just outside the city.  I’ll spare the gory details of the genocide, I believe using that word says enough.  I will say this however:  I’ve never been to Auschswitz or any of the WWII Holocaust sites, but I imagine my experience was similar to visiting those.  Visiting locations of the Cambodian genocide educated me on harsh realities of history and conjured up images that I wish the human mind was incapable of perceiving.  I have visited countless American Civil War battlefields and historic sites in my life, and I fundamentally believe it was was one of the most disgusting conflicts in history, but I have not once felt so sad and troubled leaving a Civil War battlefield as I did leaving the sites associated with the Khmer Rouge.

Moving on to happier places and times, however, I got out of the city (as I tend to do), and headed south close to the coast to the city of Kampot.  I fell in love with Kampot and ended up staying a total of six days.  I loved the size of the city, it’s location near the mouth of the Preak Tuek Cheu River close to the Gulf of Thailand, and also near the mountainous Bokor National Park.  It offered a perfect blend of serenity and nightlife, opportunities for physical exertion and relaxation, and time spent in mountains or sea.  I connected quickly and deeply with a group of people I met here, and we succeeded in having a great time, each day filled with adventure, sun and nature, laughs…and maybe a few beers.

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fun with motorbikes outside Kampot

Thailand

Thailand was incredibly fun and offered an array of experiences.  When I returned to Thailand after Cambodia, I was joined by my brother Owen, and he stayed with me for two weeks.  His roommate from college lives in Chiang Mai, so we met up with her as well!  She was an excellent host who pointed us in the right direction for fun.

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One of our first stops in Thailand was the North Gate Jazz Bar in Chiang Mai.  This bar offers live music every night, but focuses mostly on jazz.  Their open mic nights are less of an open mic and more of a kickass jam, and the energy is infectious.  I visited multiple times over the course of my stay, and it’s a must for anyone visiting Chiang Mai.  On another night, we visited one of the many local stadiums to take in a Muay Thai fight.  It was my first time attending a fight of any kind, in any country.  While martial arts and boxing are forms of sport I respect, to them I have hardly been exposed outside of mainstream films.

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Muay Thai

To witness a fight in real life was to experience the true strength and endurance of these athletes.  It was a great event.  They say some fights in the touristy areas can be staged or of far worse quality.  I can’t say for sure about ours, but there seemed to be some serious punches being thrown and each fighter seemed absolutely gassed after their fights.  Quite the experience, as far as I’m concerned.    While we made the most of our nights at the jazz bar and Muay Thai fights, we also made the most of our days.  Some fun places to visit outside of Chiang Mai are the “Grand Canyon” for swimming and cliff jumping, and Sticky Waterfalls.  Sticky Waterfalls is a falls that contains a high level of a calcium.  The calcium gets deposited on the rocks underneath, and creates a very rough and “sticky” surface.  It in fact is possible to walk up and down the steep waterfall with just your feet and sometimes hands, no ropes needed or fear of slipping, it’s that grippy!  A fun time for sure.  We also took our motorbikes up into Doi Suthep National Park to take a hike deep into the park along unmarked trails to find a few waterfalls.  We met a few other travelers along the way and ended up hiking with them and formed a bit of a friendship with them.  A great hike on what seemed a mostly rarely traveled trail, as most people seem to go no farther than the Wat (temple) at Doi Suthep.

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But following along with the theme of any blog post that involves my brother, we had to chase some surf.  Our time in Chiang Mai was actually split by a midweek trip by plane down to the island of Phuket.  On Phuket, we tried to avoid the big crowds of Patong and Phuket town and instead search for surf.  We took a motorbike from where we were staying in Kamala along the coast scoping waves all the way down to the lighthouse at the southernmost tip of the island.  On our way back, we found a good day of surf in Kata Beach where we rented boards and played in the waves.  A fun day of sun and surf resolved at a magnificent bar in the hills just east of Patong overlooking the city lights and the sea of Andaman as the sun set directly in view.  Wassa Homemade Bar is a must visit for anyone staying on Phuket.

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Homemade Wassa Bar

Thailand really snuck up on me.  I found little pockets of Chiang Mai and places like the small and slow town of Kamala that really made me happy.

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Japan

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Japanese countryside in Niigata

Immediately following Thailand I flew over to Japan.  I must admit, while I’m generally interested in visiting most places, Japan was not really near the top of my list prior to my travels.  A job opportunity fell into my lap due to connections with my time at Camp Walt Whitman, and I decided to run with it, and that’s why I went to Japan.  However, more so than any other country in Asia, Japan stole my heart and I could not be more grateful for my time there.  Upon arriving in Tokyo, there was no time for me to waste in the city, and I made my way that same afternoon by train to the mountainous countryside of Tsunan in the Niigata Prefecture.  After spending so much time in highly different and foreign environments, Japan was surprisingly comfortable to me.  The mountains and forests of Japan are not that dissimilar to those of the eastern United States, featuring mixed and dense forest.  I immediately felt comfortable in those forests, getting to work as “Hike Master” at a summer camp.  The forest was incredibly alive in Japan.  One could hear the buzzing of insects at all times.  Snakes, frogs, and even larger wildlife like boar were common sightings.  There was an incredible energy about the forest, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  Only Great Smoky Mountains National Park comes close in my experience.   My first project was to build and maintain a new hiking trail.  It was a monumental task that I completed mostly with hand tools and resulted in a expansive rash from poisonous plants all over my body.  My second was to start designing hikes and overnight trips.  I spent the rest of the summer guiding these hikes and overnight trips.  All of this work was totally worth it, as Japan provided me with so many rewards.

One event that particularly stands out was taking campers on a night time hike up the mountain to watch the Perseid meteor shower.  It was incredible to lay down and watch meteor after meteor as campers and counselors, kids and adults alike “oohed” and “aahed” at each one.  I will never forget it.

img_0426My time spent working forged incredible friendships, exposed me to many aspects of the Japanese language, and introduced me to traditional Japanese baths.  It allowed me spend a little more time in one place than previously on my travels, which I appreciated.  It also allowed me share my passion of hiking with others, and dedicating myself to instructing and hopefully inspiring others felt good after some travels that were mostly self serving.  My free time in Japan included an extra innings baseball game in Tokyo, a hike along Sawtooth Mountain in Chiba, a day spent at Hayama Beach where the Emperor vacations, and plenty of time sipping some of the finest whiskies from the worlds newest whisky frontier.

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Hayama

Overall, Japan was my favorite place I visited in Asia, and I hope to return in the near future.  I plan to do everything in my power to be able.

What Have I Learned?

img_0190I learned A LOT during my travels in Asia.  First of all, straight up, I have learned to appreciate the Clean Air Act, emissions tests, and catalytic converters more than ever.  While the majority of my time in Asia was magical, there were a few locations I visited that were so noticeably polluted, I could feel airborne toxins drifting down my esophagus into my lungs.  For while, I got used to wearing a mask over my face, very common in many areas of Asia but almost never seen in the USA.  While there are places that smell less fresh than others in the USA, I feel I was exposed to more pollutants than ever in some places in Asia.

I visited many dramatic and incredible landscapes while in Asia.  I immersed myself in them through my favorite activity:  hiking.  From the barren landscapes of rock and ice high in the Himalayas to the tropical forests of Thailand to the familiar forests of Japan, I saw it all.  Despite how beautiful all of these places are, I realized how compelled I still am by the North American landscape.  Despite the romantic nature of international travel and foreign landscapes that can be hard to overcome, I still love the American landscape, its vastness and variation, most.  This is not to take away from what other countries have to offer, but America has a plethora of resources and natural environments that are incredibly beautiful.  Take New England and the southwest and compare them and they may as well be two different countries.  I cannot get over my love of the North American landscape, our public lands, and unparalleled wilderness ethic.  My travels introduced me to many new loves, but also reaffirmed my love of home.

I also learned how much I appreciate anonymity.  The fact of the matter is, as a white person, in most places in Asia, I stuck out like a sore thumb.  Folks would come up to me, and others, constantly asking for a buck or for me to buy something.  It’s totally fine, I know it comes with he territory of travel and I respect the hustle of those trying to make a living for themselves or their families.  With that being said, I will admit that it gets tiresome after a while, when you want to be able to walk down the street for a meal without being solicited or shouted at for some reason.  After a while, I was craving the anonymity I can find the United States, where I can move about freely without bother.  If I could get women to fight over me like taxi drivers in third world countries, I’d be a happy man.

Another thing I noted during my travels, of personal interest to me, is how frequently I saw the face of Bob Marley in almost any and all locations.  In a continent across the world from where he lived, Bob Marley is clearly recognizable.  I saw his face on posters, in graffiti, on walls, on trucks, everywhere, more than any local politicians, American politicians, actors, authors, etc.  A close second belongs to Che Guevara.  I think this is a testament to the breadth of Bob Marley’s impact across the world.  He sent a worldwide message through his music, resonating with people of all races and economic classes.  I didn’t expect that, and it was cool to know that if nothing else, I had a connection to all people through the love of Bob Marley and his music.

My explorations in Asia were fun, exciting, eye opening, and sometimes tough.  I made some incredible friends, some of whom I’ve seen upon my return to the USA and through visits to Canada.  Many others I’ve kept in touch.  The sun has not set on my time in Asia, as a return in the imminent future is definitely high on my to-do list, particularly for Nepal and Japan.

Namaste.

 

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