Saturday, September 15, 2012

Suan Nai Dum... THIS PLACE IS THE $#%!

A few weeks ago, the Thai teachers in the English Department at my school invited me to their end of the year weekend retreat.  We left early Saturday morning for Koh Pitok, a small island off the east coast of the Chumpon province.  It was supposed to be about an hour and a half drive to the coast.  The Thai teachers told me that on the way, we would stop at a beautiful garden called Suan Nai Dum (Garden of Uncle Black).  I had no idea what to expect... garden?  Boorrrring.  Right?  WRONG.  It turned out to be the highlight of the weekend, even better than the island we were heading to.  Suan Nai Dum is, quite literally, the shit!
Brittany was there too and she already wrote about Suan Nai Dum as an article for our company's website.  I'm going to be lazy and use her article as a "guest post" here on my own blog...  
Enter Britt...
Our recent visit to Suan Nai Dum convinced me that Thai culture is more full of toilet humor than I ever conceived. Otherwise, how would this statue – a giant, giant pile of poop – be possible?
Like Shelby wrote, Suan Nai Dum is a rather interesting rest stop in Chumpon, on Highway 41.  More than just a beautiful garden, it was also “proclaimed by the Ministry of Public Health to be a Thai public toilet learning centre, which is regularly visited by students and organizations,” according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
All of the toilets are fully-functioning and they’re creatively constructed into various venues, like the Sky Toilet (360 degree views!), Tarzan and Jane toilets, a Pig Butthole toilet (?!), and the toilet that was voted Toilet of the Year 2006 – certified by someone who has the awesome job of being a Toilet Ambassador.
sky toilet
sign for the treehouse-style "Tarzan Toilet"
Though the toilets were certainly amazing, I also found myself drawn to the informative and lighthearted signs (which were, of course, posted on toilet seat lids).  These offered some insight into Thai language, which “has countless of idioms and proverbs [sic] linked to the word ‘shit’ for teaching morals to children.”  These are some seriously golden nuggets of wisdom (khee – said in a falling tone – means excrement):
  • Fon tok khee moo lai (ฝนตกขี้หมูไหล): bad people meet together
  • Khi moo raa khee maa hang (ขี้หมูราขี้หมาแห้ง):  not useful, nonsense (don’t split hairs)
  • Hen khee dee gwaa sai (เห็นขี้ดีกว่าไส้): lit. to see shit as better than entrails/family (blood is thicker than water)
  • Gin bon ruan khee rot lang ka (กินบนเรือนขี้รดบนหลังคา): lit. eat in the house, shit on the roof (to bite the hand that feeds you) [source / source]
  • Gum khee dee gwaa gum tod (กําขี้ดีกวากําตด): lit. grabbing shit is better than grabbing farts (having something is better than having nothing) [source]
  • Maa khee mai mee krai yok hahng (หมาขี้ไมมีใครยกหาง): lit. nobody lifts the dog’s tail when it shits (self praise is not recommended). [source]
  • Hen chaang khee khee dtaam chaang (เห็นช้างขี้ ขี้ตาม): don’t try to shit as large as an elephant’s shit (curb your lifestyle to match your means) [source]
Those last three are my personal favorites.  Thai language also has some good euphemisms for using the bathroom, including “go to the paddy,” “go to the dock,” and “go to the jungle.”  This sitealso mentions, “If you are a woman and you bpai det dork mai (‘go to pick flowers’)you might actually be going to the loo, while the equivalent for men is bpai ying gratai (‘go to shoot rabbits’), expressions which no doubt have their origins in the fields.”
If you listen for it, you’ll hear the word “khee” used a lot.  Yes, it’s a waste product (as in feces), but it could also be snot, (khee muuk), cigarette ash (khee boo ree), or even eraser shavings (khee yaang lohp).  When “khee” is placed in front of adjectives, it’s an idiomatic prefix implying a negative personality trait – all of which is detailed on this page.  For example:
Some of my Mathayom girls actually come up to me quite often and say “bpuaat khee” (ปวดขี้) – which I’m pretty sure translates to “I’m dying to crap.”   Not entirely sure if this is polite or not, or if they just think I can’t understand them.
As you can see in the sign above, Suan Nai Dum also offers a taste of Buddhist philosophy.  A sign near the entrance to the garden explains:
The amazing distinctive “Thai Toilet” reflects Thais’ philosophy of life through their positive and creative thinking about toilets. They appreciate the significance of toilets as “the place for disposing both physical and mental sufferings.”
Another sign, describing the Underworld Toilet, notes:
This place is located beneath a volcano where it is believed to be the hottest abyss of hell. Remarkably, the atmosphere inside the toilet is pleasantly cool. This help to reinforce the message that “the surroundings cannot bring happiness, if your mind is unhappy”, or as a Buddha Proverb says, “Heaven exists in our soul, while Hell exists in our mind.”
Our whole visit to Suan Nai Dum was unexpectedly hilarious and memorable, and it reminded me how much I like Thai peoples’ easygoing and lighthearted way of looking at life.  We never would have encountered this magical place had we not been with Thai people, traveling like Thais do.
So next time someone tells you that you’re going to a garden with amazing toilets, don’t be skeptical! You could be going to Suan Nai Dum … or, if you’re in Korea, you might just be visiting Mr. Toilet’s toilet theme park.
..."squat pots" are a Westerner's worst enemy.
At the gift shop... poop-themed tea sets, salt &pepper shakers, you name it...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Return to Kathmandu!

random Buddhist procession passing by in Lukla
          I woke up with a headache but for the first time in a long time it wasn't because of the elevation. This time I had chhaang to thank.  Chhaang (not to be confused with the Thai beer of the same pronunciation) is the local Sherpa brew-- it literally means "nectar of gods". The previous night my friends and I had a few too many celebration drinks and now it was time to get on an airplane back to Kathmandu. We were able to move our flight up so that we wouldn't have to wait around in Lukla for another day. After breakfast, I packed up my belongings and paid the bill at our lodge. The four of us made the short walk over to the airport, eager to get off the mountain.
          I should've known as I walked up to the Tara Air counter that there would be bad news. Even though the weather in Lukla was clear and calm, so was not the case at our destination and our flight-- the last flight of the day-- had been canceled. The airline rep pushed back our reservations to the second flight out the following morning.  This is exactly what happened when we began the trip, trying to get from Kathmandu to Lukla.
who needs 3-D glasses when you've got beer goggles?
          Frustrated, we checked in to at a hotel across the street. I killed the rest of the afternoon in a small internet cafe/ coffee house that had a huge TV playing movies. They sold Budweiser tallboys-- the first I'd seen anywhere in Asia-- and I took full advantage. I sprawled out, taking up the long couch in the common area, and drank beer while watching Tron 2 on the big screen. It was in 3-D, but I didn't have the glasses. By my third Bud tallboy I was able to see the missing third dimension.
          The next morning I woke up with fingers crossed. Luckily, the weather was great and everything went as according to scheduled. At 7:30 am, we boarded our flight out of Lukla back to Kathmandu. I was excited and a bit nervous as the plane set for a brief pause at the top of the runway-- then it made it's charge. We rapidly approached the end of the runway. In Lukla, when the runway ends... so does the ground. If the plane doesn't have enough speed to take off, it will go face first off the edge of the runway (and mountain), plummeting  into the valley below. We charged for 100 yards and just before we reached the edge of the cliff, our pilots pulled up and we took flight. As we soared through the Himalayas like a badass terodactyl, I soaked in the last views of the magnificent mountain tops peaking through the clouds.  (Watch my video of the sweet takeoff below...)

           Once we were in Kathmandu we cabbed it to the backpacker district of Thamel where we'd stayed before. My friends and I checked back in to Traveler's Home, one of the best guesthouses I've ever stayed at in all of my travels. They greeted us with hugs and congratulations and quickly opened up two rooms for us. I took a much-needed hot shower and happily changed out of my awful trekking clothes.
back at Traveller's Home (Thamel-Kathmandu, Nepal)
           My first stop was the barber shop. I got a haircut and a shave for the first time in over a month. Finally... clean. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around Thamel, doing some light shopping-- a few souvenirs and gifts. As we walked, shop owners through buckets of water on the dirty streets to keep the dust down. Relentless honking from the city traffic made me anxious. It had only been a few hours and I already missed the mountains and their quiet. My friends and I decided to get out of Kathmandu immediately and we booked bus tickets to Pokhara for early the next morning.
           Pokhara is known as Nepal's second city.  It's a small lake-side town sitting at the foot of the Annapurna mountain range. I looked forward to getting some rest and relaxation and sitting lakeside with a beer in hand for a few days. Pokhara seemed to be just what I needed.
the chaos that is Kathmandu

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

EBC TREK: Back to Lukla (Days 10-13)

DAY 10: Gorak Shep to Dingboche

          We began the return trip by hiking back to Dingboche. We made a quick pit-stop in Lobuche, but only for as long as was necessary. About half-way back to Dingboche (from Lobuche), the wind suddenly picked up, there was an instant drop in temperature, and thick clouds rolled in right on top of us-- all this accompanied by a light snowfall. After almost getting lost in the fog, we finally arrived back at Dingboche-- two hours after we'd planned.  
          This time we stayed at a guesthouse recommended to Leanne by a Sherpa-dude that she met in Gorak Shep (Moonlight- 200 NRS/night). It was infinitely better than the guesthouse we stayed in the last time we were here. Everything was new and clean and it was run by a friendly family staff. The common room was actually warm (that yak dung stove actually worked) and each bedroom had it's own bathroom. For us this was luxury accommodation for $2.25 USD/night! I ate Indian food-- Daal Baat-- for dinner and they gave me free refills. Then, the Sherpa-dude that ran the guesthouse sat us down for a pretty incredible story.

          He told us of how his son had summited Everest seven times-- once, he summited twice in one week-- before his was 27 years-old. On one expedition he and another Sherpa saved the wife and daughter of a rich client going to the summit. To repay his thanks for saving his family, the millionaire flew the two Sherpas to the U.S. where he owns a watch company (Kobold watches). The thankful millionaire put the two Sherpas up and paid all expenses for 10 months as they trained and learned everything there is to know about watch-making. Now, the two Sherpas run the Kobold factory in Kathmandu, make more money than they could've dreamed of before, and they never again have to risk their lives in the mountains. Pretty sweet story.  

DAY 11: Dingboche to Tengboche

          For the first time in a long time I woke up feeling pretty refreshed. We had an early start and the weather on the trial was great all day. As we continued to drop in elevation the change was noticeable. By the time we reached the treeline (about half-way back to Tengboche) I felt much more energized, clear, breathing was easier, and I was even to get down to a short-sleeve T.
Baby Himalayan Goatcowsheephorseyakdog...
AKA... the Remus.
          On a hillside I noticed what I first thought was yak that had strayed from home. He was stumbling and making strange noises and I got closer I decided that it was more likely a super-hybrid of a goat-cow-sheep-horse-yak-dog. This may be what many people have witnessed as the legendary yeti or abominable snowman. I call him by a new name... the Remus-monster.
"YETI SKULL" at a Buddhist monastery
          The second half of the day's trek was much longer than any of us had remembered and the ascent at the end was seriously steep. When we had set out on our return trip I thought, “Well, it's all downhill from here... literally!” Wrong. I guess I never noticed all the downhill sections of the trek on our way up to Base Camp. When you're walking downhill it's easy and there's no reason to remember that specific section of the hike. However, on the way back, alllll those descents are now ascents and there's no way around them. By the time we reached Tengboche we were all beat. We checked in once again at the Bakery where Mike and I mashed chicken burgers and fries (No more Sherpa stew!), apple pie, for two much-needed and well-deserved beers. 

DAY 12: Tengboche to Monju

          We got started at 9 am and the first task was to tackle the mountain that Tengboche sits atop of. Luckily, this time we were going down. Still, it was steep and rocky and five steps into the descent, Brittany fell on her ass- not off to a happy start. Mike went ahead and I walked with Britt and Leanne. It took Mike only 45 minutes to get down and it ended up taking the three of us closer to an hour and a half. We rendezvoused at the bottom of the mountain and Mike decided to go ahead again, at a faster pace, and meet us at Namche Bazaar.
Doin work!
          Slowly but surely we went up and down over peaks and through valleys and finally we arrived back at Namche and met Mike at the Everest Bakery. We ate (I usually don't support veggie-burgers, but this place did it right), rested, and got back on the trail for the final leg to Monju ( or Monzu). It took about 45 minutes to descend from Namche but other than the uneven terrain it was fairly easy.  Together, we crossed the suspension bridge that I remembered so vividly from the first half of the trek and we pressed on at a good pace to Monju. Just as it was getting dark we checked in at Mt. Kailash (guesthouse) and sprang (700 NRS/ $7.85 USD) for a room with a bathroom and a hot shower.
          The day's trek was supposed to take about four hours, instead it took closer to seven. I let Britt take the first shower and I laid on the bed resting from the long day. This hot shower added an extra 200 NRS to the cost of the room, but I didn't care. I deserved it. When Britt finished I walked into the bathroom eager to get clean and warm with the hot water. Unfortunately, she used all of the gas for the heater and I was sprayed with ice water. At least it woke me up.

FINAL DAY of trekking- DAY 13: Monju to Lukla

          Everyone was up and ready to go in a good mood. We ate breakfast at Mt. Kailash and enjoyed the deck-view overlooking the river not too far below. It started out as a beautiful day and the weather was perfect. I was still sick but felt much better and was really enjoying hiking again. The lower altitude was so much better to hike in. There's thicker oxygen to breath and birds to listen to. Once again below the tree line, you trade the dusty landscape for waterfalls and rhododendrons. The scenery is sightly and the weather is enjoyable.
          We made a pit-stop in Pakding and ate some steamed momos for the last time. We filled our water bottles and started out on the final leg of our two-week ultra-trek and... rain. Everyone had rain gear except for Mike who wrapped himself in blue plastic and looked like a Smurf-wizard. I didn't mind the rain. I actually enjoyed it. Thick fog and clouds rolled in to accompany the rain and swallowed us whole. It felt like we were on the path to Moridor.  Good thing the Smurf-wizard was there to protect us.
          We hobbled along the cobble stone path, over a couple more bridges and conquered the closing ascent of our trek. At the edge of town in Lukla, we passed through the archway that signified our start, and now our finish.
crossing the finish line...  VICTORY!


Monday, September 3, 2012

EBC TREK: Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp (Day 9)

          The day that I'd been waiting and working for had finally come and all I felt like doing was sleeping. The previous day's scramble up Kala Patthar had pushed me to my limits and I was now laying in bed feeling worse than ever before during the trek. I had a fever. I couldn't breathe through my nose. My throat felt like it was swollen shut and every cough felt like it was tearing it open. I finally gave in and started taking the Diamox to help subside the symptoms of the mountain sickness since we wouldn't be going any higher in elevation after Base Camp. Mike and the others asked if I wanted to take a rest day but I just wanted to get it over with. Nut up or shut up. 

Everest Base Camp

          The hike to Base Camp takes about 6 ½ hours roundtrip. Unless you bring your own tent there's no lodging or accommodation at base camp. We didn't bring tents so we kept our rooms in Gorak Shep another night. The plan was to trek out to the Khumbu Glacier upon which Base Camp sits, walk around, take pictures of the camp and the icefall, and then head back to Gorak Shep before the sun went down.
          Once we started walking I felt a little better. The trek out there was pretty easy-- walking along rocky ridges with a few gradual ups and downs. Whatever mercy the terrain showed the cold made up for. It makes sense that the farthest point in our journey would also be the coldest.
By the time we reached Base Camp I had tons of good pictures. There were some great shots of Base Camp still in the distance and a few of both the the glacier and icefall. Still, the best views of were from Kala Patthar the day before. In fact, because of it's location you can't actually see Everest from Base Camp. Even so, there was plenty to take in.
Khumbu, baby.  Glacier chillin.
          I walked into Base Camp and I could hear creaking and cracking of the blue glacier below my feet. I'd made it to the finish line. I'd reached my goal. This was it. 5,364 meters in elevation. 17,598 feet. EVEREST BASE CAMP... and all I wanted to do was take a picture and get back to my room in Gorak Shep and go to bed. As terrible as I felt, I tried to appreciate the moment.
          When you reach Base Camp, there's a boulder covered in graffiti-- decorated with prayer flags and the signatures of those that made it this far. In the background, a blanket of white lay speckled with the orange and yellow of so many trekkers' tents. My friends and I waited for other groups to finish and then took our turn taking pictures next to the makeshift monument. Leanne had a plan the whole trip to take a picture at Base Camp in her bikini and she had every intention of following through. Despite the freezing cold, she stripped down and posed in her two-piece only to get sternly yelled at by several Sherpas for “disrespecting the mountain”. 
          Leanne and Mike wanted to stay at Base Camp a little longer to walk around and check it out. Britt and I were satisfied with what we'd seen and done and decided to head back. The wind picked up and it was long, cold trudge back to Gorak Shep. We arrived just as the sun was falling behind the mountains. Garlic soup and lemon tea was my victory meal. After dinner I fell into my bed exhausted and accomplished. After nine long days I'd reached my goal but the journey was far from over-- I still I had to go all the way back.
Arriving at Base Camp... more tents beyond the ridge but not much to it.

rep the Naptown jersey.  yeeeahh buddy.