Into the Wild, Thai Style Part 1

Cheow Lan Lake, southern Thailand

It seemed like a good idea at the time….

A two-night, three-day birding tour in southern Thailand didn’t seem so crazy. We’d hire a guide, he’d take us to birding areas that we couldn’t reach on our own. A boat. Oh, yes, there’d be a boat, as our targeted area was centred on a large man-made lake where the water was the only way to travel. And floating bungalows. That should be a lark—imagine, sleeping in bamboo huts actually on the lake.

And so, in all innocence, we left behind the comfort of our hotel in Phuket pre-dawn to climb sleepily into Ike’s SUV.

Let me pause for a moment to speak, with fondness and with reverence, of Ike. I can honestly say I have never met a more personable character in my travels. Having struggled for two weeks in Thailand to be understood (my fault, not anyone else’s, as I speak no Thai), I was happily gobsmacked at Ike’s perfect command of English, to the point where I had to stop myself continually (and idiotically) remarking on it. Not only did he express himself better than a good number of my acquaintances back home, but his birding skills far surpassed ours. Often during the weekend, we would be listening to a cacophony of sound arising from the jungle, and he would suddenly cup his ear, point, and announce “great hornbill!” And by gum, if we stilled our ragged breathing and tuned out everything else, we, too, could hear the distant, soft hoot. Then, more times than not, just to prove that he wasn’t just making things up, we’d see the tiny but unmistakable silhouette of a great hornbill sail off across the horizon. Add to his virtues a ready sense of humor and a genuine kindness, and you have a good picture of him.

We were not Ike’s typical bird tour clients. Although you can’t exactly call us novices, as we’ve been birding for something like 18 years, we’re more like developmentally challenged bird tourists. We enjoy going to places where birds hang out, we like seeing the birds, I like to snap photos, but finding rarities is not a high priority. On this particular trip, for various reasons, we were almost completely unprepared. Serious twitchers* arrive at their destinations with a list of target species, having thoroughly studied their intended prey, and well versed in juvenile plumage, alternate color morphs, and vocalizations. We had a dogeared field guide borrowed from the library and some binoculars. We had no idea which species were rare and which were commonplace. We were like children, oohing and ahhing at the pretty birds when Ike pointed them out, nodding appreciatively when he gave us the names. In short, we were pathetic. Ike took this in stride.

Back in the SUV, sun just starting to peek over the horizon on the first day. Ike had described the itinerary thus: “The trip will begin with a drive to Sri Phang Nga, birding at the park, afternoon birding in a different location, then a drive to the lake. First day on the lake, we’ll go for birds around the eastern lower tributaries and then the last day we’ll move to another substation deep in the heart of the sanctuary to search for the rare species. On the last day, we’ll drive back to Phuket after lunch.”

On that first afternoon, we were thrilled to see our first pitta. Pittas are small, (generally) brilliantly coloured birds that skulk in the dark underbrush and are so legendarily difficult to see that one fellow spent a year travelling around the world on a quest to spot all 34 species of Pitta (see “Calidris reads: Costa Rica–The Jewel Hunter). This particular bird—a Malayan banded pitta—had been somewhat acclimatized to humans by the simple expedient of someone putting out meal worms in the same place in the jungle at the same time every day. Even shy birds aren’t stupid and this one obliged by showing itself just long enough for me to snap some photos. As far as we were concerned, this “twitch”* already made the trip a success.

We motored across the magnificence of the lake in a traditional Thai longtail boat, awestruck by the vertical green walls that thrust out of the water around us, hills and islands in rank after rank disappearing into the distance. There is no development on the shores of this lake, which is preserved as a park, thanks to the revered Thai king who spearheaded the creation of the reservoir. We occasionally passed another boat, usually full of other tourists.

Grey-headed fish eagles, ospreys, and white-bellied sea eagles flew by or perched on tree snags poking out of the water. A wild elephant drank and splashed on the shore.

We turned around yet another headland and spotted our accommodations for the night—the aforementioned floating bungalows. All the buildings of the camp are joined together by floating wooden walkways cobbled together from old bits of logs and lumber, many of which are half-submerged and/or rock alarmingly when you walk on them.

Lunch was a typical Thai spread of baked fish, rice, veg, and fruit served up in the—you guessed it—floating diner.

After a heavenly swim in the lake, we were laying down for a siesta when Ike called us out excitedly: “Ice cream!” Although it seemed like it must be a heat-induced hallucination, sure enough, as we tumbled out of our hut and hurried down the walkway, which rebounded wildly with every step, we spotted the last thing we expected to find in this castaway location: a beaming man scooping ice cream from a big tub in his wooden boat. Apparently, he makes a daily run of several hours to bring the treat out to the camp. How he kept it frozen, I have no idea. You could have any flavour you wanted, as long as it was vanilla. And although I’m usually a chocolate gal, I can tell you, I’ve never tasted anything more welcome than that plain vanilla ice cream, eaten on a floating dock on a steaming hot afternoon in a remote part of a jungle-shrouded lake in Thailand.

*Twitcher: A birdwatcher whose main goal is to collect sightings of rare birds, i.e., “twitches.”

Ike is Ike Suriwong, The Phuket Birder.

Why, United Airlines, Why?

On our travel nightmare journey from Vancouver to Cancun, our United Airlines flight departure from YVR was delayed by two hours due to wildfire smoke at our stopover, San Francisco.

Let me make it clear, I don’t fault UA for this. The smoke was “an act of God.” The issue is, how did UA handle this emergency?

We made up about an hour en route, but still arrived an hour late at SFO. The flight crew assured us that all flights in/out of SFO were being delayed, so we might still make our connecting UA flight to Cancun. We were told to “check the flights board” to see if our flight had gone, and if it had, we should then talk to a customer service rep.

Of course, our flight had indeed departed (without the 13 of us who were all delayed from that one flight. Hmmm…13…I wonder?) so we went in search of a customer service rep. We found two United Airlines “service” desks, both unstaffed, and tried two UA “service” phones, both dead lines.

We finally approached a UA employee at one of the gate check-ins, who told us where to find an open service booth.

Question 1: Since our connecting flight had long since departed, why wasn’t that info passed to the flight crew to pass to us on the plane so we wouldn’t waste time trying to find our flight on the board? I have seen similar situations where a flight delay caused a number of passengers to miss a connecting flight, and the airline sent a rep to meet the plane, collect the affected passengers and escort them to wherever they needed to go next to resolve their flight issue. Why didn’t UA do that?

Question 2: Since dozens of UA flights were being delayed that evening and thousands of passengers rerouted, why wasn’t every service desk and every service phone in operation?

We finally locate the one open service booth and, naturally, there’s a long line-up, so we settle down to wait. 30 minutes later, we finally get to the head of the line. The harried UA rep asks “Are there only two of you?” We nod. He sends us to another booth down the terminal, where we wait again.

Question 3: Why didn’t the first service booth just have a sign or a rep stationed at the line to direct people immediately to the other booth, so we wouldn’t waste 30 minutes waiting in that line?

At the second booth, we are told that we have been rebooked via Houston on a flight that is boarding NOW. Really? We’re already rebooked, but you couldn’t have told us that back on the plane, an hour ago?

“Run!” says the rep helpfully.

Indeed, as we arrive at the gate, boarding is in its final stages. The surly rep at this gate snaps that the flight is full and we won’t get on. So why did the last rep send us here?

Two minutes later, she recants and we have boarding passes. Hooray! But when we find our seats (in separate rows), it is clear that both our seats were likely originally left empty because they are located next to Really Big People, who are not thrilled to discover that two last-minute passengers are about to take away their extra space.

As I wedge myself apologetically in the center seat of the very last row (read: no seat recline), the man on my other side smiles…and coughs. And coughs. And coughs.

Which leads to the topic of a future blog…”Mexican Health Care for Tourists.”

Valladolid on Parade

Colourful ladies parading along the colonial streets of Valladolid. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Revolution Day is when Mexicans celebrate the beginning of their revolution in 1910, and in the city of Valladolid, the occasion is marked by a popular parade through the colonial streets. Valladolid has a particularly close connection with the start of the Mexican Revolution, as described in this Yucatan Today article:

“On June 4…the insurrection began which attacked the town of Valladolid, Yucatán. The insurgents’ army was made up of laborers from the neighboring haciendas….The federal government retaliated by sending a battalion of 600 soldiers….After three assaults by the federal troops, dozens of bodies of the revolutionaries and soldiers remained scattered through the streets of Valladolid, in the first tragic episode of what would…become the beginning of a new era for Mexico.”

Since we were in the area close to the date and I was eager to see the celebration, we duly strolled out from our hotel in the cool early morning to take up a position along the route. We were pretty well the only non-locals in attendance. The parade was not well publicized to outsiders and even our helpful hotel manager downplayed it as “just a local event.” “Mainly school kids,” he said.

Perfect, I thought. There’s nothing more fun to watch than young folks on show. Whether they react to the spotlight with eye-rolling  and goofiness or a serious sense of responsibility, it all makes for good entertainment.

I wasn’t disappointed. The ages of the youngsters ranged from primary school to university, and they included tumblers, dancers, musicians, rope twirlers, and flag wavers, as well as many, many lovely girls done up in regional costumes with artfully crafted hair and make-up, who looked hot and stressed until they saw my camera and then broke into radiant smiles as they posed. I found the children dressed up as revolutionary heroes particularly hilarious and poignant, with their gigantic fake moustaches falling off and their toy guns clutched to their chests.

The last hour of the parade consisted solely of hundreds upon hundreds of medical students from various disciplines—presumably from a local specialized post-secondary institution—marching in perfect step. I wondered how Canadian student doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, paramedics, dentists, hygienists, etc would respond if they were asked to turn up for marching practice just to prepare for a holiday parade. Somehow, I don’t think it would fly.

As I watched them troop past in their work garb, it occurred to me that possibly many of them were the first in their families to achieve post-secondary status and that there were likely a lot of proud parents in the crowd overjoyed to see their son or daughter with such a secure and prestigious future assured. Maybe that was the point of them marching: they represent the hope of the community as it moves forward into a high-tech, white-collar world.

There was a small military presence, with a guard marching before and after the main parade and a few military vehicles on display, but their best contribution consisted of army athletes demonstrating various sports, including jumping through hoops. Strange but interesting.

My only disappointment was the lack of horses. I waited through the entire three hours, saying “There has to be horses! How can you have a parade without horses?!” Sadly, the horses—only about six of them—came at the very end, just before the final military escort. I thought it was a striking difference between this Mexican event and the equine parade we attended in Costa Rica a few years ago (see “Heaven for Horse Lovers”), where they featured nothing but hundreds of horses for four hours.

On the up side, we once again experienced the unexpected kindness of strangers when we were standing streetside waiting for the parade. Many of the residents had come out from their homes to watch (the parade, not us), bringing chairs with them so they could settle in for the long haul. One lady saw us standing and went back inside for two more chairs to offer to us. Gracias, señora, for your very thoughtful and friendly act.

 

 

 

 

Update: Gringo Trails blog

It appears that someone wrote a novel that may or may not be loosely based around the story of the Thai beach featured in Gringo Trails, the documentary I discussed in an earlier blog (Gringo Trails: Asking hard questions about travel). The book is titled The Beach, and it’s by Alex Garland.

I also discovered that the book was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Of course, the book came out in 1998 and the movie in 2000. Goes to show how up-to-the-minute I am.

If anyone has read the book or seen the movie, I’d love to know how the fiction reflects the reality. Also, whether either of them are worth searching out.

Knot Spots: Good News for Bug Eaters

Image source: https://allyouneedisbiology.wordpress.com/tag/edible-insects/

Spotted: CFIA Food Safety Testing Bulletin

If your idea of a tasty treat is chowing down on some nice, crunchy grubs, you’re in luck. A recent study by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency testing for Salmonella and E. coli in edible insect products from online retailers and Canadian retailers didn’t find those harmful microorganisms in yummy products such as dried whole insects, insect powder, and insect-containing snacks (e.g., chips, crackers, and cookies).

According to the 2018-10-03 CFIA Food Safety Testing Bulletin, the presence or absence of Salmonella and E. coli “is an indicator of the overall sanitation conditions throughout the food production chain….Salmonella spp. and generic E. coli were not found in any of the samples analysed and therefore it appears that the edible insects have been produced under sanitary conditions.”

Whew! That’s a load off my mind. I mean, unsanitary bugs, eeee, yuck! Who needs ‘em?!

Travellers to Canada can now indulge in local culinary delights such as Nanaimo Bugs, Cricket Poutine, and Cedar-planked Salmon Flies* with no qualms whatsoever.

Note that while the Canadian study does not indicate the safety of eating bugs elsewhere, the bulletin does state: “…most of the popular edible insects around the world have a history of safe use for human consumption.”

Read about the study on the CFIA website.

*Actually, no, I made those up.

The Long and Winding Road

So you like long walks in the countryside, right? How about a really long walk in the countryside? Like, say, 800 km across two countries?

If that sounds like a walk in the park, how about trying it with a stroller and a toddler? Or maybe you’d like to do it with chronic pain in your feet and knees? And don’t forget your heavy backpack.

Walking the Camino: Six ways to Santiago is a documentary about six characters who each find their own reason for a journey along the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. And as the subtitle suggests, old or young, woman or man, of whatever nationality, each finds his or her own “way” of surviving the trek.

Whether they are Christian believers, wanderers who are searching for some meaning in their lives, or dilettantes who take up the pilgrim’s staff (or in this modern day, walking poles) on a whim, they all walk under the same rain storms, sleep in the same crowded hostels, suffer with similar blisters, and share the same basic needs at the end of each day: food, rest, shelter, companionship. Reducing life to this simple level for the space of 30 or so days makes them comrades in arms, each of them reluctant to see the pilgrimage come to its close.

One theme that emerges is how all of the walkers end up “shedding” something. Some drop physical belongings that begin to seem extraneous (and weighty). Some leave behind anger or sadness or their own expectations of themselves and others. Some find important things like the generosity of strangers or romantic love. But all seem to end up feeling “lighter.”

I don’t want to give away too much of the stories, because, as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, but you can add into the mix some beautiful footage of the landscapes along the way, enticing enough to make even a creaky body such as myself contemplate the pleasures of such an epic walk.

For a different view of the Camino, check out “10 Reasons Why El Camino Sucks.”

Calidris Reads: U.S. Virgin Islands

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Night of the Silent Drums

The true and gripping tale of
the St John, Virgin Island slave rebellion

 

John Lorenzo Anderson

Read for: U.S. Virgin Islands

3 knots Recommended

 

First sentence: “In the hush before this moonlit tropic dawn not even the gecko stirs.”

Have you ever heard of the slave rebellion that took place in 1733 on the tiny Caribbean island now called St John? Neither had I until I found this nonfiction book. It is not a happy or pleasant story, but it details the horrific place of slavery in the history of this seemingly idyllic island. Probably not what you want to read while relaxing on the beach; maybe tackle it before you go as a bit of background history to the sugar-mill ruins that are scattered around the Virgin Islands.

Yucatan Birds and Builders

Rancho Encantado.

I’ve never been to Mexico, which seems amazing to me, considering how far I’ve travelled around the world. But lovely Mexico—just a relatively short trip away—just never made it to the top of my A list. I’m not sure why.

Earlier this year, however, I finally started putting two and two and two together and realized that Mexico’s Yucatan is not only accessible, but allows me to combine several of my interests in one trip. Birds, of course (578 species, including 7 endemics), but also pre-Columbian architecture (over 4,400 Mayan sites alone; phew!), local culture, road tripping, and swimming. Add to that cheap flights via the uber-popular beach town of Cancun and reasonably good infrastructure throughout the region and you have a pretty attractive package.

We’ll spend our first few days on the laid-back, hopefully sargassum-free beaches of Isla Mujeres doing absolutely nothing. A ferry ride back to the mainland to pick up our rental car and we’ll head down the coast to the region of Tulum, where we’ll have a couple of nights at La Selva Mariposa. The attraction here is the natural rock swimming pools on the property. We have a couple of birding sites planned plus the possibility of a visit to the Tulum or Muyil sites, but I suspect those pools will lure us into spending time at the bed and breakfast.

We then head northwest to Valladolid, which we’ll use as a base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza and enjoy the festivities surrounding Revolution Day. Our accommodations here will be Casa Hamaca. Driving north, we’ll visit the ruins at Ek Balam en route to the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula. We’ll stay one night in Rio Lagartos and take a dawn birding tour via boat with Ria Maya Birding Lodge. Apparently, flamingos congregate in this area and I hope to get photos of the pink waders.

The colonial capital city of Merida will be our home for six nights, staying at the Hotel Luz en Yucatan. I’m looking forward to exploring what sounds like a charming city with tons of culture and entertainment, much of it free. If the city pales, we can always take a trip north to a beach or find a local cenote.

Back on the road to ruin(s), we’ll drive south to Uxmal (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). As with most of the Mayan sites, there should be decent birding on the site in addition to the ruins. We’ll sleep at the appropriately named Flycatcher Inn.

I was keen to visit the port of Campeche (one more UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the Yucatan west coast and walk the old city walls that were built to keep out pirates, so we’ve booked a couple of nights at the Casa Mazejuwi. We may also take in the nearby Mayan site at Edzna.

Next, we’ll take a long plunge south with a 5.5 hour drive to complete our “grand slam” of World Heritage Sites with Palenque. Here, we’ve opted for an Airbnb room at Villas Adriana. If time permits, we’ll check out Cascada de las Golondrinas, a pair of nearby waterfalls that look enticing. The jungle surrounding Palenque should yield some different birds, as this will be the southernmost point of our journey.

Back up north in the little town of Xpujil, we’ll stay in the Chicanna Ecovillage Resort while we explore the area around Calakmul (you guessed it, another UNESCO Site). One of the more intriguing attractions is the famed bat cave, where every evening millions of bats fly out for their evening feed.

We then finish up our loop through the Yucatan with a couple of lazy days at the Rancho Encantado on Bacalar Lake (yup, the website photos got me on this one), and a final night within easy drive of the Cancun airport at Jolie Jungle (despite the obviously fake Photoshopped shots on their website).

That’s a lot of ground to cover, but we have several weeks and plan to drive no more than 4 hours per day on most days. With this basic structure in place, I can relax and enjoy each day as it comes, knowing exactly where we will lay our heads each night.

Hmm…why does this shot seem Photoshopped to me?

Knot Spots: Bangkok’s Chocolate Buffet

 

Heaven, I’m in Heaven….

Spotted: Sukhothai Hotel, Bangkok

Generally, I’m not much of a foodie. “Fill my tummy and don’t make me sick” is usually all I hope for from travel meals.

Chocolate, however, is another thing altogether. I will go significantly out of my way to track down a new chocolate experience. The chocolate buffet in Bangkok did not disappoint, featuring a variety of tasty non-chocolate savouries as well as a staggering array of chocolate-based cakes, pastries, confections, and drinks. I snapped this photo of the “tasting trolley,” which offers only pure chocolate in its many varieties, from single-source darks to premium whites and every shade in between. A polite gentleman stands in attendance to dish out as many and as much of each as you might desire. Or he will blend your choices into custom-made hot chocolate.

Here’s the tragedy: having stuffed myself shamelessly on the other options, I actually could not try one bite off the trolley. I stared at it with unbridled lust while the nice gentleman stood poised with his spoon, ready to serve, and I couldn’t do it. I knew that if I indulged in “just one little bite,” like the man in the Monty Python sketch I would explode. Not a pretty picture.

On the up side, I now have a very good reason to return to Bangkok someday.

One afternoon in Otavalo, Ecuador

Face painting for charity

One sunny day, we sat in Otavalo’s main square. We saw people wander past, families, couples holding hands, young men in groups, laughing loudly, wearing t-shirts and hoodies, phones in hand. Young women in twos or threes, jeans skin-tight, careful make-up, arms linked. Women in traditional dress carried children slung in shawls on their backs. All the old people were tiny, nearly dwarf sized.

The Ecuadoran Red Cross was raising funds by offering face-painting for donations. We watched the artist spend a good half-hour decorating a little girl’s face while her mother waited patiently nearby. I asked permission to take a photo and the mother smiled and gestured: Go ahead.

An elderly woman in traditional clothing begged for coins. When Mark gave her a couple of dollars, she smiled broadly and launched into a long speech in Quichua that seemed to be a mix of gratitude and blessings heaped on our heads. She had only a few teeth and those were rotten and rooted at wild angles. She shook his hand and shook my hand. Then she reached over, stroked his cheek, and touched the skin on his hand. She began talking to me, saying I don’t know what. She pinched the sleeve of his black jacket and shook her head. It seemed to me that her gestures encompassed his jacket, his face, Heaven, and his skin.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but was she telling us that he should not wear black, that it made him look sad and pale? Of course, he WAS sad and pale. As she spoke and gesticulated, I wanted so much to grab my camera and take photos of her amazing wrinkled face, but it just didn’t seem respectful.

After a few minutes of this one-way conversation, she wandered off, her small figure quickly out of sight in the colourful crowd.

Market sellers

Young senorita in traditional dress