backpacker, backpacking, Southeast Asia, Thailand, travel, Uncategorized

Why Do All the Backpackers in Southeast Asia Wear Elephant Pants?

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It’s pretty easy to identify a Southeast Asia backpacker. Just look at their pants and ask yourself: 1) Are they flowy? 2) Are they embellished with elephants?

Elephant pants. A solid 99.9% of backpackers sport ‘em. You know you’re in Southeast Asia when a gaggle of gap year gals stride past, elephant pants of the rainbow illuminating their eager steps. That purple pair she’s got on is positively stellar, oh how it makes her brown skin glow! And, that chic wisely chose the blue; can’t go wrong with a classic navy.

Indeed, these harem-style trousers are a favorite among maidens and gentlemen alike. Men, I bet that soft, linen fabric offers the comfort and coverage your precious bits deserve. Ladies, pair your pants with a solid crop top, hit the town at night, listen to that Thai band covering Wonderwall and BOOM. How easy is it to drop it low in a pair of elephant pants? You’ll be the envy of every girl on the dance floor.

I lost my elephant pants v card on good ol’ Khao San Road, the beating heart of the elephant pants empire. Fly into Bangkok for the first time, all glossy eyed and rosy cheeked as you stare at the city sights and breathe in all those pungent city smells; the gentle smack of lips evaporating in the humid air as Thai men hang languidly from tuk tuks and murmur “ping pong show *Pop pop*.”

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Fabrizio Manese models “Cabernet ting tong” from the exclusive 2016 collection

The drab streets are splashed with the vibrant hues of elephant pants stacked like rainbow sprinkle hot cakes; thick mounds just begging to be rubbed against a face, to hug waists, tickle thighs and wedge between butt cracks. They are one of your first and most memorable purchases in SE Asia and with them, you’ll tread upon the banana pancake path invincible.

So what’s the deal with these pants? Why is everyone wearing them? Well amigos, it’s not just about the comfort or cheap price. The spiritual essence behind these mystical pants is profound.

If you take the leap and pull on a pair, you’ll instantly find yourself hurtling down an electric brain tunnel deep within your subconscious. You will transform into a Southeast Asia backpacker. You might even get a bamboo tattoo, don a man bun, or pierce your right nostril. Even after you return home, pulling on THE pants brings you back to exotic lands and fantastic adventures. With them, you can escape reality anytime, anywhere.

Can you hear the jovial chattering of the hostel common room? Do you smell the woody roast of the free instant coffee; feel the crumble of a crispy Laos baguette or hear the sizzle of those golden eyed eggs? It’s that final shot of Lao Lao and that frothy chug of Saigon; that one bus that broke down in the middle of nowhere or when you slept in the airport. It’s the steamy night with that person you met on the beach…you almost lost your elephant pants in the dark, but you crawled through the sand in desperation until you were reunited.

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Ask any elephant pants extraordinaire and they will justify the magic. Did they save your legs during a sketchy motorbike spill? Did you meet the love of your life because you both connected over the fact that you were wearing the same pants? Maybe they warmed your extremities during a freak cold night in North Vietnam or you found your missing passport in the pants pocket. It’s not a coincidence that shit worked out. Those pants possess the blessings of ancient mammoths and the incorruptible spells of Asian warlocks threaded in every stitch.

They allow you to somewhat comfortably twist into any demanded position on an overnight sleeper, they check off the culturally conservative box when visiting temples, and those things hide dirt, sweat and swamp ass like a champ.

It becomes your inseparable security blankie, comforting you when wanderings get tough. The elephants are never grumpy, they always want to drink with you and they like the prickly feel of your unshaven legs. When you gotta spring up at 5am to catch that train in Myanmar, them elephants will be there, grinning at you, ready to conquer and destroy. They aren’t just pants. They are the ultimate wing-man and the best (and cheapest) travel buddy you will ever pick up on your journey through Southeast Asia.

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adventure, backpacker, backpacking, Southeast Asia, Thailand, travel, Uncategorized

Khao Sok Trekking Wild and Untamed

When I came across Social Print Studio’s beautiful photo books and metal prints, it reminded me of a trip I took to Khao Sok National Park in Thailand last year. The pictures in this post represent some of my most cherished memories from my travels through Southeast Asia, especially when I escaped the city for the pristine jungles of Thailand.

“It’s a magic mushroom,” said Mr. Toi. There were two on the hard ground at the mouth of the cave. The brown skinned Thai guide split one into three sections and gave one piece to the other guide- a quiet, old Thai man, one to Cam- the Brit backpacker and the last piece to me. The other mushroom, he plopped into his mouth. We swallowed our pieces, he rolled a cigarette, and then we headed back into the wildlife sanctuary just North of Khao Sok National Park.

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This was my last day in the park and our small group was on our final trek, following trails that Mr. Toi had developed himself since roaming the jungles of Khao Sok as a child.

We ducked beneath thick branches, passed towering trees and splashed through clear, cool streams. We could not stop moving, or else the leeches would get to us. Cam chose to trek in white chucks. The fabric sides were soon stained scarlet with blood from the sucking parasites that had managed to sneak into his socks and in between his toes where the skin was soft and warm.

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“It was remote and wild and flush with danger and unexpected twists, but we were ready for it; we were hungry for it.”- My favorite shot taken at the mouth of the jungle of Khao Sok in Jan. 2015

I slid into a low squat, arching my back, and in one deft movement slunk under a thick twisting  vine. My breath was quick, but steady. I felt the shifting terrain below my feet and the moist humidity that lay trapped below the canopy of trees. Mr. Toi was ahead of me, dewy skin and a rag tied upon his head. He stopped and we all stopped. He looked and he listened. We all looked and we listened. It had become a regular part of our trip, an essential activity for understanding the jungle.

On my first day in the wildlife sanctuary of Khao Sok, Mr. Toi had taken me for an evening ride in his long tail boat. The water was glass as the sun set and turned the blue land indigo. The boat engine sputtered to silence. To me, we were just floating in the middle of a giant lake surrounded by massive limestone formations. I turned to say something, but he stopped me and taught me my first lesson.

“Ssh. If you listen, you can hear the jungle.”

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So, I listened.

The cushion of tree tops flowed unevenly over the landscape, a vibrant green spill that hid this obsidian water world. The deafening silence was just a blanket that shielded the active life within. I heard a soft flap and rustle of branches, and I turned quietly to witness a great horn bill take flight into the orange of a heat drunk sun. Twigs snapped and broke somewhere deep in the foliage; perhaps it was an endangered tapir snuffling about for snacks. The shrill whoops that sliced the silence was that of the gibbons, calling to each other from one part of the sweeping jungle to another.

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We did this often during our big trek, stopping to listen to the jungle, to hear what it had to tell us. There was an animal over there or the staunch stench of guano signaled a cave over here. The babbling stream followed us, a crystalline snake that we met every now and then to cool our feet, pull sticky leeches from our calves and to suck coca leaves for energy.

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It was tough work. We weren’t in the actual national park, so we did not see any other people. It was remote and wild and flush with danger and unexpected twists, but we were ready for it; we were hungry for it. The two days of our stay before the trek, Mr. Toi had been preparing Cam and I by letting us explore on our own and living how the people of Khao Sok live.

He taught us not to be afraid of the jungle.

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We lived in floating bamboo huts that rested upon the calm water with no connection to the land or city. Here, transportation is accomplished via boat, there is no internet, electricity is only available for a short time period by use of a generator, and bathing is done in the lake itself.

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The mornings began with a breakfast of fresh caught fish, rice and vegetables, then, swimming and exploring in kayaks. Cam went off with one of the old fishermen in his skinny boat, poles in hand. Later we tagged along to help set up fishing nets. As the moon and stars took over the black sky, the Thai fishermen, Mr. Toi, Cam and I sat on the bamboo rafts, legs folded. With tobacco stained teeth, the Thai men rolled one cigarette after another and passed around a bottle of rice whiskey. An old Thai woman sat quietly against the hut wall behind us. They could not understand our language nor we theirs, but we coexisted together and shared tipsy laughs late into the night.

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And so, as our trek continued, we witnessed the entirety of the jungle with all of our senses. Every bug bite, scratch and droplet of sweat was a part of it. The sounds and the smells gave life to it. The abandonment of everything human and the acceptance of everything animalistic is what we morphed into.

We stumbled upon the skull of a bear in a cave. Mr. Toi said that it had come here to die, that it had been very large and old. The hard yellow bone was picked clean, the smooth angles and eye sockets intact. The jungle had allowed the bear to live a long, prosperous life and so, the bear had given its final breath to the jungle in return; had given its meat and organs to the others. The bear had fulfilled its duty to continue the circle of life and the jungle was pleased.

Its skull would not decompose into the soil. Instead, it would be brought back to the raft houses to be put on display. The great bear would not be forgotten; he would become a symbol of the sacred life in Khao Sok.

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adventure, backpacking, Southeast Asia, Thailand, travel, Uncategorized

The Ghost Ship of Koh Chang

It was unlike any abandoned place I’d ever explored. Despite being completely deserted and open, everything was clean and in its place.  Nothing was trashed or overgrown and graffiti wasn’t sprayed across the crisp wood walls.

But, something didn’t feel right. A heavy foreboding hung in the warm air.

It was like gazing at a historic battlefield. The wildflowers and green rolling hills are lovely, but at one time, it cradled the blood and bones of hundreds. IMG_4266The rain is sporadic and the humid air cooled by soft breeze on  Koh Chang. My best friend Desiree and I had been staying on Lonely beach for a couple of days and quickly became rooted to life on this quiet island in the Gulf of Thailand. It’s one of those places that feeds your sins in a way that renders not an ounce of guilt or regret.

An island of secrets and hushed whispers, this is a tropical paradise where the moon is worshiped with howls; where the poi dancers aren’t local entertainers, but sorcerers of orange heat and blue magic, scorched skin and ember eyes. They watch like a predator watches its prey; arrogant grins as they paint the night sky with swirling flames. On Koh Chang, you dance with the devil late into the night and never leave.10357816_10101372539516852_1542511673168511861_nDes and I had stumbled upon a bizarre discovery while exploring the island on scooters one day. A dirt road had brought us to a deserted beach and bay. It was a picture out of a luxury travel magazine, complete with a wide stretch of crunchy pink sand and mop-topped palms. A small inlet had been cut out of the bay to make an aquatic parking space. It’s inhabitant was a monstrous floating cruise ship. We pulled over and stared at the curious thing for awhile. We had stumbled upon a flying saucer of the sea, crash landed upon the island of Koh Chang.

It looked as if the abandoned ship had been turned into a floating hotel of horrors. The afternoon storm clouds rolled in, bringing out the black slime that blanketed its drab white walls like leprosy. The towering body was pock-marked with dozens of dark cabin room windows. I rested my eyes upon each pane, half expecting a ghostly face to stare at us from one of them.

But no one else was here on this beach. This pristine beach scarred by this  spooky vessel. Only the lonely palms swayed like dancing slaves around its dominating figure as the wind began to pick up.IMG_4268The quiet stillness was not expected and the air smelled of old wood. An unfamiliar electricity clung to the hairs of our bodies. The decor was dated yet modest, dusty yet protected from the harsh tropical weather due to the ship’s dense exterior. A reception desk greeted us and long narrow hallways ran down either side. The corridors were dark save for a milky bright light at the end of each outstretched hall; cabin doors casting shadows in the eerie interbreeding of light and dark.

We ascended the staircase to a higher deck with cat-like steps, pretending to be invisible to whoever was watching from the shadows. We stepped into one of the hallways that tunneled the length of the room like a stretched spine, and the unearthly feeling intensified. I shook the brass knob of one locked door after another, daring one to open, and said suddenly, “Let’s go back downstairs.”

Below the initial reception area we had entered through, there was a room. It was dirty and the bowels of the ship had been breached by the air here. Windows were salt slicked and a depressed moan seemed to echo as the wind shook its bones and black waves stung its hull. We decided it was time to leave.1549215_10101372534057792_3197797350221788827_nAs we headed towards our escape, what stood out in magnificent splendor was the most divine Spirit House I had ever seen.

Spirit Houses are found throughout Southeast Asia. In Thailand, you will see them perched outside any and every establishment, from the most prominent skyscraper in Bangkok to the small village or the forests and mountains. These ornate structures resembling houses or temples represent the ancient spirit worship and rituals that have survived for centuries. The purpose of a Spirit House it to  provide shelter and appease spirits that have remained on the earth, in a particular place.

A Brahm priest skilled in astrology, chanting and Hindu rituals is the master of this age old tradition. They also communicate with the spirits. The Brahm priest uses his wisdom to choose the proper location, cardinal position, height, and color of a spirit house. The overall construction and the offerings of various foods, drinks, statues and the burning of incense reflect the whims of the spirit that has been invited to stay.

This particular Spirit House stood boldly on a sturdy dias, placed in its own quiet nook of the ship. Shimmering with brilliant mosaic glass pieces and slick gold paint, the grand palace glowed; picking up any trace of sunlight and reflecting the intricate details of the palace roof and windows.It was a valiant shield lifted against the discomfort of this bizarre ship. There were neat glasses of water with straws and plates of sweet smelling blossoms and snacks. Not a speck of dust was found on the spirit house, in fact, it looked as if it was the one object in this place that radiated life and color.

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An example of a Spirit House/Desiree Jomant

 

When we arrived back at Lonely Beach, Desiree and I couldn’t stop thinking about that creepy ship. The few locals we asked seemed reluctant to speak about it. As Des Googled furiously on her phone, I asked the Thai  woman whom we had rented the scooters some questions. Why was such a beautiful beach so desolate, why the ship?

She didn’t smile and there was a slight trace of fear in her voice.

“People have died there. Someone jumped from the roof and the hotel closed,” she murmured, as her eyes darted and she busied her hands. “It only opens during high season if every other hotel on the island is full.”

Note: We were told that there had been deaths, but I couldn’t find any sources to back up the claim. Regardless, this place is scary and weird. If you enjoy exploring abandoned places- the ghost ship and its beautiful hidden beach will captivate you.

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backpacking, expat, Southeast Asia, travel, Uncategorized

Teaching English Online: The Pros and Cons

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“You get to work while you travel, meet other digital nomads and work comfortably from home when you don’t feel like going anywhere”

There’s a new way to make money while traveling (or from home) and it’s taking the world of learning English by storm: online English classes.

I first heard about teaching English online from a fellow traveler while backpacking through Cambodia in 2014. I was already making money as a freelance writer, but was curious about other means of income so I could continue to trek the big bad world and never ever EVER go back home.

There are loads of opportunities to work abroad, from volunteering to teaching at a school, manual labor and freelance work. Teaching English online was one avenue I had yet to encounter, and by golly did it strike my fancy. I completed my TEFL certification in a jiffy and dove into the online job hunt.

For the past six months I have been teaching for two online English programs and can say that it has been a rewarding and at times, a frustrating journey. Here are my pros and cons of teaching English online.

Pro: You can work from ANYWHERE

…..that has a stable internet connection. I have been working for two Asian based companies while living in Thailand and jet setting around Southeast Asia. I have worked from home, friends homes, internet cafes, hostels and co working spaces. You get to work while you travel, meet other digital nomads and work comfortably from home when you don’t feel like going anywhere.

Con: Tech issues

This is probably the biggest frustration of online teaching. Depending on your location, the company’s location, the student’s location, the internet speed and even the weather, you never know what tech problems can pop up. This can cause cancelled classes, which in turn means you don’t get paid.

Each company has their own set of policies when it comes to tech issues, I mean, it can’t be helped and s*** happens. But, it can still be mentally draining when you complete a heartfelt grammar sermon, then find out your students heard absolutely none of it…or you can’t hear them. Then, the student complaints ensue.

Pro: Make your own schedule

With the two companies I work for, the teachers get to make their own schedule each week by filling in their availability on a registration calendar. This is superb! I can choose when I want off and whether I want to teach eight classes one day or just two the next…or none if I so desire.

Con: TIME ZONES and unpredictable classes

You can find yourself working late at night or early in the morning depending on time zone differences and usually there are peak times of the day when you are more guaranteed to get classes filled. Also, students cancel or don’t show up. This happens from time to time and can affect the number of classes you get paid for (generally you are paid per class). That is why I recommend not relying solely on online teaching for income. Use it to supplement!

Pro: You get to interact with people from all over the world & exchange culture via the interwebs

This one is my favorite. Besides the moola part. Once again, depending on the company, you will be teaching a broad range of demographics. I lead English conversation with Vietnamese adults that, for the most part, have a basis of English knowledge. I talk with housewives, engineers, doctors and students. I hear about their lives, traditions, customs and perspectives on issues such as sexism, marriage/divorce, family, travel and school. As a westerner, the discussions can be passionate, eye-opening and emotional. Not only do you teach them, but they teach you.

Con: Timed Classes

This is just one of those unavoidable thangs. The classes I teach are both under an hour long, and it is imperative that teachers stick to the time limit. If you have back-to-back classes scheduled, timed classes can get stressful depending on a) the student’s level of English knowledge (you may have to work longer on a lesson with lower level students) b) sometimes students (adults in particular) can be quite the chatterbugs c) those lovely tech issues I mentioned earlier. You may find yourself having no breaks and rushing through lessons.

Pro: The Money is Real

You will find a plethora of online teaching companies spouting benefits that sound too good to be true. Well, be careful and research the company beforehand, because I have heard of some online teaching opportunities that aren’t legitimate. With that being said, there are the one’s that really, truly are legitimate. With online teaching you may not make as much as you would teaching at a physical school, and they are generally contract jobs, so don’t expect health benefits. But, if you are looking to continue your travels, make your own schedule and despise cubicles, then this is a wonderful way to supplement your income. Overall, I approve and recommend it.

Some more tidbits from my own personal experience:

  • There can be bonuses offered
  • I was hired with a TEFL certificate and zero teaching experience. You may or may not need one (once again, depends on the company)
  • I don’t make any lesson plans
  • They train you

Read about How I Started Teaching English Online With Zero Experience

 

SEE TEFL in Chiang Mai, Thailand

adventure, backpacker, backpacking, Southeast Asia, Thailand, travel, travel memoir, Uncategorized

Chasing the Sun in Phu Chi Fa

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There is a quaint, quiet corner of northeast Thailand where the mountains rejoice at the awakening of the sun. They stretch with glistening green peaks past a creamy sea of clouds in sleepy greeting each and every morning.

My boyfriend, Joram, and I decided to rent motorbikes and head to Phu Chi Fa mountain and forest park located at the east edge of the Thoeng District, Chiang Rai Province, just bordering Laos. We embarked on the trip for one sole purpose: to witness Phu Chi Fa’s famed sunrise.

My phone blinks 5am and the clammy cold stings my skin, goosebumps prickling along the nape of my neck. It is still dark as we shiver together under a thick blanket and wait. When you are on top of the world, plans no longer matter, time stands still and you are simply humble. Engulfed in the freshest air of the land, where the poisonous creeping fingers of pollution fail to reach, and where giant black masses rise silently on all sides and the city lights of Laos are faint specks of stardust sucked into the loins of the earth below, you realize something. You realize just how small we as humans are on this fantastic planet, and that to think we have control of everything is pointless and unnecessary.

Despite the early morning chill, I suck in as much of the pure oxygen as I can muster. Up here, my allergies from the burning haze of Thailand have vanished. I feel cleansed as the sun begins its ascent, cutting gold and pink straits across the eastern heavens. I let the breath out steadily, and I am a child dancing in a candyland of strawberry milk streams, golden caramel coins and overflowing puffs and curls of lavender cotton candy.

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Witnessing the Phu Chi Fa sunrise is a travel delight that is out of the way for most backpackers, and it is a treat that is earned. She makes you work for it, but it is well worth the effort. By motorbike, the roads are for the most part smooth and free of potholes, until you start the final steep ascent to the actual park. If you are a lover of curves and flying down hillsides, then this ride is a dream come true. Let go of your inhibitions and soar as the crisp mountain air awakens and exhilarates your senses. Extraordinary views await you at every beck and bend.

It is all coffee plantations and rice terraces, green corn and cabbage fields and small mountain villages that will take you away from crowded, dirty cities. The people here live the simple life of a Thailand stuck in a past time. Naked children splash in giant buckets of cool water. Lazy mountain dogs with gleaming coats wallow in the road, lying just out of reach of dangerous wheels. The stares are shy and curious. The toothless smiles are friendly and genuine. For me, this is what Thailand is all about.

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Getting started

The best time to visit is during the high season starting around November. One-way, the trip takes about 3-4 hours depending on speed and rest stops. Joram and I rented manual bikes in Chiang Rai. Prices range from 100- 200 baht per day, and I wouldn’t pay anymore than that. Once you start on the highway from Chiang Rai, the route is easy and enjoyable, taking you out of the congestion and into the pristine countryside. From the highway, you begin to climb into the mountains, steadily pushing up and then rolling down the never ending hills. What I liked most about the drive was the lack of traffic. There are no tourist buses careening around curves like madmen. It allows you to soak up everything the drive has to offer without being on edge or getting punched in the face by nasty plumes of exhaust smoke.

Gasoline

Fill up before you go, of course. Once in the mountains, there are no gas stations, but you can find old fashioned petrol pumps at random general stores in the villages. If you run into bike trouble, there are a couple of shops to be found. Joram experienced a flat tire at one point, but luckily the misfortune struck just a few meters from a lonely shack laden with rusted half-built motorbikes, old tires and mysterious scrap parts. The old Thai farmer fixed up the flat in a jiffy while we played with the the farm puppies and waited.

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What to bring

It gets chilly in Phu Chi Fa. Bring a jacket, socks, pants and sturdy shoes for climbing.

Take it easy

If you are expecting reggae bars and late night backpacker parties, then you will be disappointed. It’s peaceful up here, in fact, we only saw one other small group of foreigners. The majority of visitors are Thai. The small stretch of shops next to the park consist of a handful of guesthouses, camping spots, a couple of restaurants, general stores and souvenir shops.

Joram and I arrived in the evening time and secured a camping spot nestled amongst coffee bushes brimming with pale red berries on a hillside terrace overlooking the mountains and valleys. It is easy to find camping spots since the village is so small. All equipment, bedding and individual fire pits are offered for 500 baht a night. There are showers and toilets available to campers as well. Eat cheap Thai food in town and warm up with some hot Jasmine tea, then sit by the fire and become hypnotized by millions of shimmering stars. It’s so dark and clear on top of Phu Chi Fa, that you can glimpse the wondrous Milky Way spilling over the edges of an indigo sky. To not speak, to not think and to instead just watch; you become part of the mountain and helpless to her wild whims. All of a sudden, a white fire comet streaks across a soundless horizon, illuminating the sky for a brief second, then leaving you to stare in awe while massive rust brown Hercules moths flit on paper wings, playing in their star-dappled darkness.

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The sunrise

Set your alarm for 5:00 am the next morning for sunrise. When the time comes, hop on your bike and head up the park entrance road. It is steep and dark, so use every precaution. Don’t fret about navigation, you will see the signs and parking lot to leave your bike. Then, it’s another steep trek by foot up to the tippy top of Phu Chi Fa mountain. Grab a spot and wait for the sunrise to transform the land and your life.

The best way to begin your day….

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backpacking, Buddhism, Ruins, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, travel

Sri Lanka: The Tale of Sigiriya Rock

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Once upon a time, a powerful Sinhalese king felt a sudden pang of anxiety. He couldn’t understand why, because he had everything any man could desire. With his fervent will to survive and insatiable thirst for power, he had single handedly assassinated his father, King Dhatusena, chased off his brother, Mogallan- the rightful heir to the throne, and he had taken the island country of Sri Lanka as his own.

But, his acts were shrouded in evil, and when you are evil- you become anxious and you become paranoid. It is a curse, because though you succeed, you are haunted by your black acts and they gnaw at your brain like toxic parasites until you lose your beautiful mind. He knew his brother was still alive; he knew Mogallan would be back for revenge.

King Kassapa I took a quiet moment out of his royal life in the traditional Sri Lankan capital, Anuradhapura, and he thought about his exotic land, the pearl of the Indian Ocean.

Kings come and kings go on this chameleon island, leaving behind a fantastic history, with colors as deep and ever-changing as a mood ring. But, this king, he was determined. He was intelligent and imaginative. He did not believe his rule would end, as if he would ever let such a ridiculous fate come to be.

And so, he gathered his most trusted advisers, engineers and mathematicians, and he began to plan. He would move the capital city to the jungles of central Sri Lanka, to a sturdy rock. Brown, calloused hands lifting and sifting, pulling and pushing, climbing and hammering  and painting under the hot Ceylon sun. Sigiriya Rock would became a sacred haven, a dazzling pleasure palace and intrepid fortress unlike any the world had ever seen.

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My friend Pazi from Hiking Sri Lanka and I had just hopped off the local bus on our way to climb Sigiriya, or Lion Rock. It was a sweltering November day as we embarked through the central Matale District near the town of Dambulla to explore this World UNESCO Heritage site. What a mind boggling place. We stopped for a coconut and I peeped above the thick foliage to where the great rock painted the sky. You can see the damn thing from miles around- a trapped beast dominating the relentless jungle from North, East, South and West. Its skin is flushed copper and milk, its granite spine protruding into pristine blue.

But, what really sets Sigiriya Rock apart from any place in the world, is the tale of its legacy: the horrors and grandeur events it witnessed centuries ago. There is a certain eeriness here; deep rooted, dark wisps of betrayal and murder, the stench of greed and the lingering remnants of arrogance and unspeakable wealth.

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Towering, steep sides and a long, flat top allow for the perfect fortified chamber, and Kassapa I knew this. He moved the Sri Lankan capital from Anuradhapura in 477 CE and turned the monstrous plateau into a seemingly impenetrable kingdom. It was meticulously planned and laid out. When you arrive, you notice the long, rectangular pools, filled with white and purple lotus. Green mossy steps and gardens welcome visitors, with the Lion Rock looming ahead. Walk the path through the West side of the capital city, past crumbling columns, temples and withered water gardens; where bustling markets and shops once stood in another time.

Then, you begin to climb the rock, step by step, and you run your fingers along the cool granite surface and imagine what it was like to call this stunning place home.

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“Here, I will feel infinite peace,” the nervous king reassured himself. And he focused his deep seeded anxiety into creating an architectural masterpiece. Day in and day out, this lonely rock in the middle of the jungle was turned into a bustling metropolis, a marvel that would stand the test of time. Artists clung to the rock’s sides, illuminating the drab walls with bright frescoes of wanton feminine faces, supple breasts and soft stares meant only for you. Painted hands extend, cradling tropical flowers and fruits, beckoning visitors through rock corridors to the mirror wall. It is slathered in thick coats of polished white plaster that shimmer so brightly, the king can see his reflection as he navigates the deep cut paths and steps of his spectacular abode.

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Climbing still, Pazi and I are halfway up to the palace. We stop in front of a crooked grand staircase, flanked by two massive feline paws. It is the entrance to the top, where the royals lived and played with all of Sri Lanka spread for miles around them. This is an infamous gateway. This side of the rock had been carved into the shape of an enormous lion. Visitors climbed up the stairs into the gaping jaws, and through the cat’s throat to reach the magnificent plateau. Now, only the paws remain.

Finally, we reach the top. Pulling myself onto the rock’s flat shelf, I stand and gaze about. You can see clear across the country for 360 degrees.

“From here, I can see any advancing attack,” thought the King, a smug smile on his arrogant face. He turned and surveyed his new palace. Deep, long baths filled with clean water and elaborate rooms and gardens covered the flat plateau. The city below was an ant hill overshadowed by large, deadly boulders teetering on cliff edges. They were strategically placed and held up by thick logs, ready to be released upon the enemy at any moment. Despite the tropical heat, a light breeze calmed the king, and he was a god on top of the world.

One boulder still remains in place, perched and waiting
One boulder still remains in place, perched and waiting

Pazi and I spent some time on top of Sigiriya. The baths are still there, filled with green water. A band of monkeys scampered amongst the palace ruins. A few of the babies dove in and out of the biggest pool while protective mothers watched from the water’s edge. I had no idea that monkeys could swim so well. They were jungle mermaids, diving deep and disappearing beneath the emerald murk before resurfacing seconds later in a different spot.

“You know, they haven’t figured out the source of the water, or how it gets up here,” said Pazi. “In fact, only part of the ruins have been dug up. There is still a lot of land that needs to be dug and ruins that need to be discovered.”

I shook my head as I gazed out past the plains and wild jungle into distant cities, my imagination bursting at the seams. How can such a small island be packed with so much history, ancient tales, sacred hideaways and mysterious secrets?

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A scream so shrill it could turn blood to dust and shrivel veins erupted deep from the throat of King Kassapa’s battle elephant. It was 495 CE, and Mogallan had indeed returned with a vengeance. Amidst the throes of a bloody battle for the throne, King Kassapa made a decision that would change his fate. Taking matters into his own hands, he urged his elephant in a much different charge than his army had anticipated. Confused and perceiving the impulsive move as a retreat, the King’s army abandoned him, and Sigiriya was in the clutches of his brother, the rightful King of Sri Lanka. Kassapa would never admit defeat, his pride was too great. Unsheathing his pointed dagger, he held the glinting blade up to the sun, and in one fluid movement, slashed his own throat.

*This historical information in this post is taken from the Chulavamsa, a Sri Lankan historical account compiled by Buddhist monks, which covers the 4th century to 1815.

backpacking, chicken, cooking, eating, expat, food, Southeast Asia, Thai food, Thailand, travel

The Chicken Place

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A plate clatters to the floor, clanging, banging, startling….everyone stops their work to glance at the mild ruckus. The older Thai woman behind the counter with kind eyes and a warm smile makes eye contact with me, and we both burst into a fit of giggles.

I’ve been living in Chiang Rai, Thailand for over a week now, and eating at- what I call- the chicken place has become part of my daily routine. Here, no one speaks English, except for me and my farang friends. But the language barrier doesn’t matter. The family that runs the restaurant- Mr. Art’s- know us, chattering away in Thai. I nod in agreement, pretending to understand, wanting so badly to understand.

Every morning, I savor the 15 minute walk from my tiny studio apartment to have breakfast and coffee. The heat is starting to creep as I pass the highway, and beads of sweat cluster on my forehead and lip. On the bridge, I stop, as usual, to enjoy the spectacular view.

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The Kok River is all amber glass and sheen, draped with a lush backdrop studded with never-ending rows of slumping limestone mountains. An enormous white Buddha statue sits peacefully above the peaks, the stone giants bow down respectively from North, East, South and West.

This is home.

Upon arrival at Mr. Art’s, they know my usual order of chicken, rice and hot espresso, and no longer serve my chicken with the skin on it. They’ve noticed that I always peel off the tender strips before digging in.

Service is quick. I sip ice cold water after my hot walk as a plastic plate is laid gently before me. My eyes, nose and mouth are met with a mound of steaming white rice, topped with thick strips of white-meat chicken, encompassed with neat cucumber crisps. A pink bowl of fresh chicken broth accompanies the dish.

But, I eye the brown ceramic bowl before me. There is one on each table. The lid comes off and the rich aroma overwhelms my nostrils. A homemade sauce consisting of chunky ginger, diced chilli peppers and a sweet and spicy medley of flavors creates the most addicting condiment my taste buds have ever savored.

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“Always fresh. Cook with no MSG,” chef and owner, the one and only, Mr. Art explains enthusiastically to me in broken English.

I’ve never seen such passion for food, and Art’s dedication and love for his restaurant is obvious. The little chicken place on the dusty outskirts of Chiang Rai is constantly busy. Helped by his wife, aunts, mother, father, brother and  daughter- it is one big happy family affair.

All work together doing whatever it takes to keep customers satisfied and the business running smoothly. But, at the same time, smiling and joking with each other, cherishing each day they share together and with their customers.

Belly full of chicken, rice and ginger, I enjoy a pot of jasmine tea and observe the family in the light of a busy new day. I watch with a smile as Art takes a minute from putting together delivery meals to kiss his small son or the women chuckle together as they prepare meals. Art’s young daughter always runs up to us with menus, eager to practice her English with my friend Ale and I.

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“Special menu… red curry,” Art whispers shyly, sliding over a small sampling of pork marinated in a delectable blend of coconut milk and bright, red spices. Every day there’s something new he lets us try, free of charge. He simply loves cooking and wants others to enjoy it as much as he does.

Not only is the food delicious, but it’s the heart-warming atmosphere Art and his family have created that keeps me coming back. Their positive attitude and genuine kindness is the perfect start to my day, and I always look forward to it. They don’t treat you like a customer- they make you feel as if you’re part of the family.

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Mr. Art’s is open early each morning from 7am to 3pm, with fresh, tasty Thai food and impeccable service that has made it a popular dining choice for locals.

A small sized dish of chicken and rice- their specialty, costs a mere 30 baht. Other chicken and pork dishes are offered, changing daily. They also serve yummy bubble teas and fresh, strong coffee. This is a must try spot when visiting Chiang Rai if you want to get away from the typical tourist joints. I’ll see you there 🙂

Bon Apetit!