Criss Crossing the Equator

It’s November 4 around 8pm and I’m in my room on the Khao San Road in Bangkok. Now to be honest, I’m not really a fan of the Khao San area. It may have been a chilled hangout for the hippie travelers back in the day, but now it’s quite the gong show each night, each restaurant blasting its music they think westerners want to hear be it reggae, classic rock, pop or trap, combined with food stalls, buckets of any combination of booze, spontaneous ladyboy lap dances (whether the tourist knows or not), and smells of smoke, sweat and college.

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So why am I here? Well, I’m not here for my own personal pleasure, that’s for sure. Been there, done that when I was as young as most of the revelers around here are. No, this time around I am leading a tour group around South East Asia on my own custom tour. And you know, each person has just got to experience the vibes of Khao San at least once if they are to go to Bangkok. There really isn’t many other places like it..

I’ll tell you what..When I was last here in 2013 for the SongKran (Thai New Year), there were tens of thousands of people were all blasting each other with water guns and buckets full of water. I along with 90 other couchsurfers from 15 countries went out in full force each day and I got to say, that was pretty fun.

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But besides my rants about the vortex that is Khao San, Bangkok has been a pleasant visit. Went to the Royal Palace again, yet this time around it was quite saturated with swarms of Chinese tour groups. The Chinese are really venturing out and with lessening travel restrictions and more disposable incomes, it will be a matter of time before they will traverse everywhere it seems. Look out for big white buses..china1

I don’t really have an issue with Chinese tour groups, as long as they respect the local lands they visit. Everybody is expanding their horizons in their own way.. I must say though, my last trip to the Palace in Bangkok with hardly anyone there in 2011 felt a bit more of an authentic experience as opposed to feeling like I was leaving a baseball game.

Bali….

Prior to my arrival in the BKK, I spent the better part of 2 weeks visiting friends in Bali. For me, this was the first time on the fabled island, even though I had several opportunities to visit in the past when I visited Indonesia. To be honest, all the travelers tales about Bali made me feel that the island had lost a bit of the original charm it once had due to over saturation of tourism.

And well…I just avoided places like Kuta, because, the photos paint a good enough picture on Google images for me to know that it’s not my cup of tea, ever.

But in the end, Bali was a unique experience, although I have to say I had some unrealistic expectations. And I try not to have expectations, but it seems  subconsciously I had some for this land..

Expectations such as seeing vast open rice fields, serene settings for miles, little traffic in some parts, a small pleasant island really… Sure Kuta was partied out, but Ubud and other parts? They were still unspoiled in my mind… I pictured the beautiful scene in the movie Baraka showing a local carrying fruit on her head walking on the rice terraces.

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I had an idea Ubud was a special sanctuary of a place, attracting conscious spirits around the world, where people chilled in organic cafes, practiced meditation and walked around the countryside from place to place. It sure seemed as such when I was considering renting villas a couple years back there.. But what those photos and films failed to show was the businesses, the shops, the traffic and the burning of trash.

And as I drove into the area of central Bali for the first time, feeling it was a bit of a pilgrimage of sorts, I was not met with the open fields and serenity… But rather was met like how the rest of large cities in Java are. Narrow roads with endless shops. This time it was a bit more spiritual with the selling of glittering Ganeshes and Buddhas, glamorizing the spiritual factor.

As the drive was happening, there were hardly any vast natural settings, as it was all occupied by some form of business, and to be honest I got a bit emotional and needed to have my friend pull over the car, while I contemplated what the hell happened to this beautiful island and to shift my subconscious expectations to the reality.

It bums me out to see any country that holds a beautiful place in their hands, and then allow it to be sold off to the highest bidder with little or no regulations and fail to consider the long term effects all these businesses and merchants will have on the environment and the culture of a place. Sure, everyone would like to make a living, but not at the expense of spoiling a special place. It’s more important than ever to protect the beautiful parts of the planet.

As travelers, we all hear the stories of the old days from those who went before us, traveling in the 80’s, the 70’s, 60’s and before that to the 30’s and the centuries before.

These lands and cultures were unique, open, and fairly preserved. Life was a bit more simpler then and people connected in a slow way.uuuSometimes I wish I lived in those days…

The reality is that Bali the paradise island is a short flight from many countries including Australia, China and India. And this land sees  some 2.7 million visitors a year coming for all sorts of reasons whether they want to rest, party, surf, eat, pray or love. There also are more and more Indonesians coming from Java, Borneo and the rest of the country coming to make it on the island too where the opportunities are greater.

Yet in the midst of the craziness, the traditions still exist. The rice is still grown, the incense and flowers are still given to honor the spirits (along with candies, cigarettes and rice, because you know the spirits like that too), the children still sing songs and the prayers are still prayed. It just happens in the evolving context of a bustling tourism market. And if you really wanted to find some peaceful place, you can. It will take some effort to get there though..

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I had fun in Bali. I saw some good friends, ate some good Mie Goreng, Bakso, and Ayam amongst all other Indo foods. I channeled the my Dutch-Indo heritage (my family lived in Indonesia for a long time before WWII), and I got to attend the 12th Annual Ubud Writers Festival, where I got to connect with amazing authors including Pulitzer prize winner Michael Chabon and also Jono Lineen, who walked 2700km in the Himalayas and managed hospitals in war zones for Doctors without Borders (MSF). Lots of amazing authors and people there..Program-Launch-Concept-2

I got to witness poetry slams from Indonesians, Australians and Americans, witness ceremonies from the indigenous tribes of North Borneo talking story and honoring the spirits on what was Halloween night, and watch the sunset while the surfers caught their finals waves of the day.

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And I’ll be back there in 5 days with members of my tour group.

Tomorrow I will depart the 10 million strong city of Bangkok and fly away to the exotic lands of Cambodia to visit again what I consider one of the most special human made monuments in the world: Angkor.

I hope the Chinese haven’t discovered it yet…

Good night all, I’m off to meet some couchsurfers at a local pub, talk some travel stories with locals and travelers alike.

Thanks for reading as always~~~More posts to come during this time..

Bali traveler

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2 thoughts on “Criss Crossing the Equator

  1. Shaun, Your old prof/mentor here: Responding to your received card from Bali and Bangkok, sent 11-11 and arrived here 12-12: Amazing snailmail, friend! So glad to see that your forever NGO work takes you back to the land of spirits and beaches, and more! I hear the din of Chinese tourism, there and everywhere. I live in Irvine, China, as you recall!
    Great photos of yin-yang selfies! Oops, me the anthropologist… Life here continues unabashedly academic for another year–I know I’ve been saying “retreat” for so long it now sounds like an echo; but, hey, I’m still having fun and students (kids, really now) still for some oddity of a reason, like me! One more. One more. Period. We travel to Spain this coming summer, our 4th in Europe proper to balance our very own yang with the yin of Motherlands, having had our fill of the Orient and elsewhere, as you know. Spain is my bloodline’s motherland, so we hope to get some ‘roots’ experiences in Catalonia and the southern coast before venturing into the heartlands around Madrid and then Salamanca. We’ll do Barcelona, Malaga area, Cordoba, Granada, Sevilla, Toledo, Salamanca, perhaps one-two towns in between. Twenty three days. Second time in. Please send me your email as I keep losing it! Must be the age, the eyes, or the lack of ability to multitask as before. Wait. Maybe it’s just e-overload! All the best for the Holidays and Blessings on your forevermore travel diary! Love your note. Love your posts. My Love from Cali, Vino the Elder

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