A Travellerspoint blog

January 2012

Life outside the bucket

Going to school 6 hrs/day while I "vacation" in Chang Mai

sunny 75 °F

I've been practicing and studying hard these last 3 weeks. The Thai Massage School of Chang Mai is teaching me how to master using my hands, fingers, heels, elbows, arms, knees and feet to work on the energy, or Sen Sib, lines of the body. It's a full body workout for the masseur and the recipient!

WIth all that daily physical exertion, living life in Chang Mai has been a welcome change of pace. I have enjoyed waking up to an alarm and having a set schedule everyday. I even unpacked my trusty backpack and stored it out of sight under my bed. I'm not forced to wear dirty clothing that has been rolled up into a ball and jammed into the bottom of my bag. I've had the luxury of a cup of coffee and a hot shower every day. I've even snuck the afternoon power nap back into my life. Slowing down has made me a little homesick and anxious (in a good way) to return to NYC. I'm ready to jump back into over scheduled business mode! It's going to be difficult to prep myself mentally to hit the road with my overzealous, I don't need to eat or sleep, run around for 10hrs a day, sidekick, Micah. I'm going to have to put myself through a mini boot camp to get my brain and body back into shape so I can rejoin the whirlpool we call our Bucketbath. I'm also feeling a little anxiety over trekking through India and Nepal now that my big toenail has officially fallen off (remember that trek at Kawah Ijen, Indonesia?). Stay tuned for another Joanie breakdown video. It's an emotional masterpiece waiting to happen.

No sense in worrying over that now. I'm too busy geeking out over my studies at the moment. In addition to learning how to give relaxing 2 hr massages, I'm also learning how to treat chronic ailments, aches and pains such as: constipation, headaches, neck stiffness, menstrual cramps, anxiety and a long list of others. I had no idea Thai Massage had such healing properties. My roommate, and fellow NY'er, is also studying here with a master in Chang Mai. It's been fun to work on one another, exchange information, and swap "guess what I did at school today?" stories. We're also working on a new business venture once we get back to NYC. Sparkes Wellness meets Motivated Nutrition!

I can't wait to get home and share all of this new knowledge and test out my skills on each and every one of you! Chronic constipation anyone? I got this! Book your massage now!

$30/ 30min, $50/1hr, $75/1.5hrs

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I'm going to continue to enjoy my clean clothes, hot showers and afternoon naps as Micah sprints his way through Bangladesh over the next two weeks. (He's scheduled to fly out of Myanmar tomorrow.) I'm cheering him on. Perhaps he'll wear himself out and I'll be able to talk him into afternoon naps by the time we reunite!

Here are a few photos from my "vacation".

Sporting my Thai Massage scrubs

Sporting my Thai Massage scrubs

Wat in the old city of Chang Mai

Wat in the old city of Chang Mai

Thai Cooking class

Thai Cooking class

Elephant trek

Elephant trek

Sparkes Wellness and Motivated Nutrition

Sparkes Wellness and Motivated Nutrition

Posted by bucketbath 08:05 Archived in Thailand Tagged food indonesia travel india trekking thailand backpack new york bed house fun life school mai packing nyc neck bath relaxation hot dirt power chang thai nepal clean pictures energy breakdown showers bangladesh business massage rescue bucket exercise running clothing prep masterpiece wellness ijen nap study sen workout masseur healing whirlpool anxiety bootcamp mental jogging sprinting cheering geek heartaches stiffness cramps roommate sib masterthai Comments (6)

Running for Ruin

A Run Through Mrauk U's Dusty Villages and 16th Century Temples

Monks, draped in saffron robes, with razor-shaved heads illumined liquid gold by the late afternoon’s honeydew beams, collected evening alms amidst clouds of woody, pungent smoke wafting from the village’s cooking fires.

Here in Mrauk U, a small town in western Myanmar, monks are as woven into the city’s fabric as the 16th century temples scattered amidst its rice fields and thatch-hut villages.

Arriving here requires patience and perseverance; and five days: a 15-hour overnight bus through jolting, roller-coaster mountain roads from Yangon to Thaunggok. An 11-hour high-speed ferry from Thaunggok to Sittwe - a fishing town on the Gulf of Bengal - after waiting 2 days for the ferry’s departure. Then a 5-hour slow ferry up the Kaladan River from Sittwe to Mrauk U, past parched fields of rice and breast-shaped mounds of rice straw capped with gleaming chrome nipples, that required a day’s wait to catch.

After disembarking from the jetty in Mrauk U, sorting out accommodations and a quick walk through the town, I needed a fix. So I threw on my running gear and headed out. Not before penning the path - on a hand drawn map given to tourists – of my planned run.

I ran south, feeling the energy build, my pace uncontrollable in sprinting fits, loping over bumpy, rocky roads. Groups of children in their green and white uniforms shouted “hello” as I raced by.

Villagers stood on the sides of the dirt road, betel-stained lips and teeth, some smoking long, green Burmese cigars, loitering, talking. Most stopped to stare as I passed, smiling: “minglah bah (hello)” and “tata (good bye)”.

I continued straight, looking for my turn but unsure where, so I pulled out the map and asked a villager, “Where is Laymyethna Paya (temple)?” But the map, only in English combined with my jumbled pronunciation, proved useless. The reply: a confused stare.

I cut right at the next intersection and continued, watching the afternoon’s shadows thicken like mascara on a lover’s eyelash.

Young girls smiled and darted their eyes away as I passed. Elderly monks walked by, barefoot and supported by canes, their faces carved with years of hardship yet buoyed by meditation’s peace.

Past stilted, low-slung huts with thatched roofs rustling in the breeze. At times I could see inside, a man or child sitting quietly.

Past the Dukkanthein Paya, an imposing, fortress-like temple built in 1571 and whose labyrinthine interior walls are carved with images of Buddha and farmers, merchants, athletes, from 16th century Mrauk U.

Nearby, young monks, shirtless and ribbed with sweat, lifted logs and sifted sand as they repaired the gravel road leading to their monastery.

Who would of thought: a meditative road crew?

Map in hand, I kept running, having no idea where the road led, but knew where I wanted to be. Like all travel: you’re never truly lost if you have a destination in mind.

Then I arrived at the Sakyamanaung Paya, whose 280-foot spire erupts from its octagonal base into the now, oceanic blue sky. I asked a young woman, standing in the temple’s shadow where was Shwetaung Paya, a golden temple perched high on a hill overlooking Mrauk U.

I followed her directions, unsure if I understood, down a narrow rocky dirt path, a bamboo fence on my right, on my left, a steep hill spilled into jungle. Three young monks played stick ball in the middle of the path and I hopped out of their way to avoid getting smacked. Ahead, the path dead-ended into a sunbaked field skirted by a dusty paved road.

Left or right?

Back to the map, now rumpled from sweat. I went left, past women with faces painted white, balancing mounds of cauliflower on their heads, passing men on bikes wearing lungees (a male skirt), toward the temple, but not the one I needed.

I was going the wrong way.

So I turned around, the waning sun blindingly ahead until I reached a road I’d explored earlier in the day. I wasn’t ready to finish running so continued straight, up crumbling stone steps and through the ruins of a 15th century palace, its floors overgrown with grass and dimpled from incomplete excavations.

Up ahead my guesthouse loomed so I turned left, passing loitering trishaw (bicycle taxi) and motorbike drivers arguing, smoking, spitting. Through a street with clouds of smoke and dust mangling the air, over two arched, rickety bridges made of salvaged 4x8s.

Cutting right at the next intersection, smiles and young children yelling “bye bye,” the only English words they seem to know here. Right through the heart of Mrauk U, its bustling thoroughfare with merchants, jewelers (who also serve as the town banks), mechanics, beer gardens (they love their beer in Myanmar). Past the town market, over a bridge whose span covers a dead, trash-strewn river.

A bit further and I was finished, panting outside my guest house with the sun quickly fading, tired and sweaty, from blazing through Mrauk U’s dusty streets.

Check out the run stats here!

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And don't forget to pre-book your authentic Thai massage for April!

$30/ 30min, $50/1hr, $75/1.5hrs

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Posted by bucketbath 07:27 Archived in Myanmar Tagged temple ruins u myanmar stupa running sweat jogging mrauk paya Comments (2)

Burmese Sweat

Staying out of trouble while jogging in Yangon, Myanmar

Crumbling buildings, stained with ages of soot and mold, sag under the weight of their colonial past and the present’s dictatorial rule.

The Burmese walk the streets with deathly-pallid faces, painted with a powdered sun block to fend off the scorching sun. Their teeth and lips often stained blood red from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant.

I arrived in Myanmar’s capital Yangon on Saturday to explore this misunderstood and demonized country, expecting to feel like I’m in the North Korea of SE Asia. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find the people warm, inquisitive and friendly. I cannot walk down a street without receiving a “hi” or smile.

At times it feels like life here is freer than in China since the Burmese government has less resources to truly constrict its people. With that said though, the government continues to subjugate the minority populations and enslave people in forced labor camps.

Everything I read said photography taking photos is risky – you can’t photograph government or military buildings (I wish I could have photographed the baby-faced soldier guarding a hotel armed with a bazooka), any infrastructure (train stations, bridges, etc.) and who knows what else.

Huge swaths of the country remain off limits to foreigners and even parts Yangon (Rangoon of old), the reason I was afraid I’d run into trouble during yesterday’s morning jog.

I stepped onto the betel-spit stained street, busses and taxis belching fumes into the morning’s chilly air. No motorbikes ply Yangon’s bumpy roads since a government ban went into effect a few years ago.

I headed south, then onto Strand Road, full of forlorn buildings, which parallels the murky Yangon River and hidden from view by the port’s towering, chalky white perimeter wall.

Past the bustling ferry jetty with vendors hawking fruit, razors, and vegetables. Crowds of loiterers crouched, drinking tea or eating breakfasts of noodles or rice.

Further down, men and women stood in lines, awaiting admission to the port and begin their workday.

I ran until the port ended and low-slung government buildings crouched behind barbed wire fences.

Nearby a line of parked gasoline tankers, some vehicles from the 60s or 70s with chunky front grills, waited outside a fuel depot.

People crooked their necks, scowled, smiled, laughed, pointed as I ran by. But fear curdled my gut: would I end up where I shouldn’t be?

I always carry a passport photocopy when running just in case of injury – but here in Myanmar it was my insurance card Uncle Sam’s got my back should something bad happen.

I kept running along the river, patches of shadows cooled the blazing sun until a man waved his hand in warning to turn around – up ahead was a barbed wire gate with soldiers patrolling.

I backtracked, ran down a dusty street, past a few police posts, ignoring them (and they ignored me) and found the bridge I’d earlier missed.

You’ve seen Boston or Tampa’s iconic suspension bridges, the ones that look like tipped modernist harps. Yangon has it’s own, the Pazundaung Mahabandoola Bridge, except it’s squatter and painted camouflage green. I bolted across, past 2 military garrisons surrounded by sand bags and barbed wire, over the Pazundaung Canal’s churning current into Dawbon, a suburb of Yangon.

Saffron robed monks walked down the street collecting alms and offering blessings.

I continued on the busy road with pickup trucks full of passengers crammed onto their beds and hanging off the back, to the Thaketa Bridge and back into Yangon. As I ran, I hopped around on the sidewalk, as if playing four square, to avoid the cracks and gaping holes.

The streets were dusty, red earth blew through the air. At times I pulled my shirt over my nose to avoid the grit and scrum of Yangon life. Past the police station, a red-bricked colonial-era building with dark windows and surrounded by two barbed and electrified fences.

Past Sule Paya, a 2000 year golden temple in the middle of a clogged traffic circle whose name means “the stupa where a Sacred Hair Relic is enshrined” and that might house one of Buddha’s hairs.

Past streets buzzing with vendors selling watches, tools. sweets. Past men wearing plaid lungees (a male dress), women in colorful hijabs.

Overhead the colonnaded buildings stood stoically, a silent witness to the travails that have befallen this country: war, oppression, dictatorship, poverty.

Maybe after Hillary Clinton’s visit here last month, things will change and life will improve. Maybe the fear I felt exploring the city’s streets, that the Burmese must feel and at times roils in protest (that the government violently suppresses) will ebb, leaving behind a people, a country, a nation ready for a better future.

Check out the map of the run below (and don’t forget to click satellite view).

Click here!

YangonRun.jpg

And don't forget to pre-book your authentic Thai massage for April!

$30/ 30min, $50/1hr, $75/1.5hrs

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Posted by bucketbath 07:03 Archived in Myanmar Tagged street travel square burma dirt smile asia myanmar running four betel jogging lungeel Comments (6)

Falling in love in Laos

A circus dream comes true

Most children aspire to be doctors, teachers, or policemen. Micah’s pint sized dream was to be a long haul, big rig, truck driver so he could sleep in the cab. Mine was to attend clown college and join the circus. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than living a train riding, vagabonding life with 100’s of people and animals sporting heavily made up faces and sequins. At the moment, we’ve both got the vagabonding down. Sadly, Micah may leave me behind if I start trying to paint his face before his morning run. I haven’t bedazzled my backpack yet but am one step closer after taking a 2 day mahout (elephant driver) training course near Luang Prabang, Laos.

The Elephant Village in Laos cares for around 16 elephants, all female, that have been rescued from the logging industry, with a vet on staff and a mahout for each elephant.

For Micah's photos click HERE

Micah and I arrived at the village around 10am, greeted by a cheerful guide and an endless supply of coffee and tea. Our guides poor English in combination with the generous hospitality made partaking in the bottomless rations sound more like a demand than an offer. “You will now drink some coffee or tea.” After gulping our obligatory intake of caffeine, we jumped right into our mahout education. A sign next to the training station informed us: never approach an elephant from behind or from the left side; never pull their ears, never tease them with food; never hug their trunks, and the age old important rule of "an elephant never forgets" so don't screw up. They were the elemental basics that I wished someone would have taught my grade school taunters. (My nickname was Dumbo growing up. For the record my ears aren’t big, they just stick out.) We learned the vital command words: Go:“Pie”, Stop: "How”, along with some other less important ones like, lift up your foot so I can climb on you, turn left, turn right- all of which I have forgotten. What more do you really need than stop and go while driving an elephant? It's not like people aren't going to move out of your way.

No one was too anxious to take a test run so I quickly sprung my hand into the air as the first rider of our group. I gripped the top of the right ear as instructed and my dancer instincts kicked in as I stepped onto the offered tree trunk sized leg with my right foot and hoisted my left leg into a near split to get it up and over the elephant. I was ecstatic to discover that my new powerful commands were actually successful in driving this beautiful, massive, giant around the yard. And when the ride was finished, I was unfazed by the elephant burns on my arms and legs after sliding down its rough, leathery skin.

After everyone took a turn, we paired up to take the "ladies" on a trek. Micah must have sensed my excitement because he didn’t hesitate when I asked if I could ride on the head as he rode in the Howdah (elephant seat) with our mahout. My glee soon turned to terror as we started down the riverbank's 50-degree incline to the water. The elephant’s rocky pathway was no more than 4 ft wide and she carefully maneuvered every step as I peered cautiously over the top of her head. Elephants are known to have impeccable balance, but you would never believe that from the view point atop of one. We trekked through the river, back up the bank, and through a small village full of curious, elephant-frightened little faces peering at us from behind trees. We ended back at camp where we were presented with an all you can eat lunch buffet.

After lunch, we met up with another mahout training group as they finished the elephants daily river bath. I watched in horror (I’m not a fan of water), as the professional mahouts belted out commands they hadn’t taught us. Ones that apparently meant splash your rider with water using your trunk and dunk yourself repeatedly so your rider gets soaked. I prayed that I didn’t end up with the one elephant, named Mae Uak, who loved to go under water and sit. The poor rider on her back spent the bath sitting shoulder high in the freezing river, completely helpless as the professional mahout stood high and dry, laughing on Mae Uak's back.

The newly soaked riders said goodbye to the elephants at the riverbank and we were scooped up by the mahouts to trek them into the jungle for the evening. I was the first to get picked up and didn’t think anything of it until my mahout guide started telling me he had many friends married to beautiful American girls like myself. Then I was fired a round of questions: “How old are you? Are you married? How strong is your boyfriend?” I asked him if he knew Casanova and when he said no, I told him to look it up. It was his new name. Micah later rolled his eyes at my naivete in not realizing what was happening as soon as “Casanova” singled me out. (Un)Lucky for me, those were our mahout pairings for the second day as well.

Once in the jungle, the elephants mozied off to rest and play for the day and we were ferried away on a slowly leaking motorboat to some nearby waterfalls. Our day ended with dinner, drinks, and a few rounds of cards. Micah and I were exhausted from all the excitement and ready to call it a night by 10pm.

Joanie scooping water out of our boat

Joanie scooping water out of our boat

Ending our Mahout training day at Tad Sae Waterfalls

Ending our Mahout training day at Tad Sae Waterfalls

The next morning, we were out the door by 8am to walk into the jungle. Casanova was cheerfully waiting to hoist me up. Once atop, I discovered that the elephant was caked in mud and no longer smelled of the candy appled, popcorned circus dreams from the day before. She stank like…elephant. It was our turn to administer a much needed, icy river bath. The group the day before had the benefit of the hot midday sun. We on the other hand, were welcomed by a chilly morning breeze. I dreadfully lead my elephant into the freezing water, armed with a scrubbing brush and soon found myself sitting shoulder high in the water, shrieking, “I’ve got her! I’m on the dunking elephant!” Shivering in the cold water, I helplessly sat like the training mahout we all pitied the day before. Every once in awhile, Mae Uak would surface and I would frantically scrub as much of her course skin as possible before dunking back under. The only part of her that could be seen was the tip of her trunk bobbing like a periscope out of water.

20 min later, the baths were over and we stood on the shore, shivering, soaked, and wearing the perfume of pre-washed elephant. Correction, I was soaked. Everyone else was only mildly wet from the waist down. We waved goodbye to the girls and hurried off to hot showers and breakfast.

With our mahout training complete, we sat at the top of the river bank enjoying breakfast and admiring the elephants as they gracefully and sure footedly guided the next round of trainees down the incline at the beginning of their first trek. I was in love and made the declaration that I would one day purchase an elephant for the reserve.

But first thing's first. I must bedazzle my backpack.

You can check out information on the reserve HERE. Don't forget to read Mae Uak's BIO. Her name translates into "Seated at the Buffet" as she is known to be perpetually hungry-something we both have in common!

Joanie learning to mount an elephant

Joanie learning to mount an elephant

Micah mounting an elephant.

Micah mounting an elephant.

Descending into the river

Descending into the river

Testing out our new Mahout commands

Testing out our new Mahout commands

Elephant LOVE

Elephant LOVE

Posted by bucketbath 05:34 Archived in Laos Tagged elephant village river laos bath truck riding dream buffet training reserve rescue mahout driver wash clown splurge howdah bathe Comments (7)

Cambodian Hoedown

A video from Angkor Wat

And don't forget to pre-book your authentic Thai massage for April!

$30/ 30min, $50/1hr, $75/1.5hrs

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Posted by bucketbath 06:43 Archived in Cambodia Tagged people trees temple travel ruins cambodia thailand indian new map fun burma angkor ta wat funny roots trip thai myanmar reap pictures siem silly massage bucket moving brochure prong lara croft jones rambo slapstick Comments (4)

The Mysterious Adventures of Vietnam

Coming to a theater near you

I FINALLY pulled together our footage from Vietnam. It includes everything from kayaking in Halong Bay to motorbiking past rice fields, sledding down sand dunes and hanging out with reclining Buddhas.

Movies from Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia are on the top priority list before Micah carts the computer (my sturdy imovie making machine) off to Myanmar with him while I take my Thai massage course in Chang Mai.

Enjoy our travels through Vietnam!

Posted by bucketbath 05:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged travel vietnam rice laos house kayaking na sand buddha bay stream thai halong photography ferry dunes pictures reclining massage crazy imovie trangh paddies Comments (3)

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