Meet the Parents


164_6445-4.JPGWe met my parents Suvarnabhumi Airport, in Bangkok, today. After the Valentines Day rush (my Dad is in the flower business), my parents hopped on a redeye to Bangkok. Besides coming to visit us, they’re celebrating an early thirtieth wedding anniversary (real one is in June) and its my mom’s long awaited return to Bangkok and Thailand, where she taught English for two years, thirty years ago. For Joylani and I, it’ll be awesome to see and spend time with them. Additionally, it’ll be a bit of a break from the backpacker life for us, since they’re treating us to a couple weeks of travel. Needless to say, their standards are bit higher than ours, so we’ll be rolling in style for the next couple of weeks. Although they are some of the last people we saw (July, in Paris), it’s been nearly seven months since we’ve seen them. It was great to see them today, although they were both understandably tired. We had a nice lunch and then my Dad crashed for the night. We walked around with my Mom a bit before taking the SkyTrain over to Siam Square. It was interesting to hear her perspective on the city, which so far is: most of the city looks much the same, but there weren’t skyscrapers everywhere and its way more commercialized now. After our little excursion, we headed back to the hotel, where my Mom stayed for the rest of the night. With my parents catching up on jet lag, Joylani and I enjoyed our unbelievable hotel room at the Oriental, which may warrant its own post at some point. Like nearly every night for the past seven months, we went out for dinner and I followed Joylani around a market for a while, while she looked at clothes (Joylani asks that I clarify the “every night” refers to going out to eat, not following her around shopping :) . Now back at the hotel, we’ll enjoy the night and look forward to hanging out with my rested parents tomorrow.

postnote: as the photo of the day can attest, the view from our current room is substantially better than its been in awhile…

Back in Thailand



joylani 130pxI’ve discovered the joys of chicken sticks, sticky rice, and baby tigers. We came to Kanchanaburi for a few days before heading back to Bangkok to meet Matt’s parents. While the WWII museums have been interesting, my highlight was playing with baby tigers. I opted to not take pictures with the big ones because they wouldn’t let Matt and I go in together, was hot from standing in line, and frustrated from a few things, one of whom was a fat and hairy tourist who refused to be a civilized person and wait in line. (It wasn’t like India where the way is do what you can to get served because there is no line. There was obviously a line.) After Matt was done with the big cats, we decided to walk around the compound instead of waiting in the parking lot for our truck to leave. This was a great decision. We saw a couple staff helping visitors hold baby tigers. We walked up, just to watch, but then got offered a cub.


It filled my arms; being a tiger, the size of the cub was more like a puppy than a cat. It was so much fun to look into their sweet little faces, more curious than ferocious. After taking turns holding the cubs, we were ushered to an enclosed area since the big tigers were being brought up the hill to their normal cages. This meant we had 20 wonderful minutes to play with the cubs. There were only about 15 other visitors in their with us. We sat in a circle on the ground and let the tigers walk around. One climbed into my lap, followed by his brother.


(it’s a little blurry because it was dusk and we couldn’t use the flash and they kept moving)

Luckily for me, they seemed to like it there and stayed for a while. One took a liking, er licking, to Matt’s knee. A lady commented on how he must be an animal lover, “They [the animals] can just sense these things.” For those of you who know Matt, you know what an animal lover he is…


The cub finds Matt’s knee…



After the big tigers were back in their cages, it was feeding time for the other animals. Bunches of bananas and veggies were strewn about the path, and heard of boars, buffalos, and other funny creatures came stampeding from around the compound to get a bite to eat.


It was a little tricky walking back out to the parking lot, but luckily we made it ok. I don’t really know how ethical/realistic the whole place is, particularly with the tigers. I mean, with so much human contact since birth, I don’t see how any of the tigers could be released back into the wild. There is no “back,” they were raised in captivity and allowed to play with tourists for goodness sakes. The admission fees are supposedly going to fund building of better tiger facilities though, so we’ll see what happens in the future. Any animal activists out there have any thoughts on this?

And no one says anything about the boars. What about releasing them back to the wild? (The story on the boars is that the monks cared for an injured boar, and after it was released it returned a few days later…with its whole family! They must like getting all those bananas. It’s got to be hard for a boar to get bananas in the wild.) I mean, when I get food I like, its hard for me to go back to the wild too…I mean back on the road. You see, the other wonderful thing we’ve been enjoying for the last few days are these flavorful bbq chicken sticks from a stall the rolls up right outside our soi in front of 7-11. I’ve seen similar stalls in Bangkok and all, but I never really thought they looked too appetizing before. Until I got a whiff of un-polluted bbq aroma. We bought a bag our first day here, and each day after (except for one day when she ran out before we got there…)


Feasting on our favorites: bbq chicken, sticky rice, beer, REALLY yummy crunchy wafer cookies, and deliciously juicy oranges. I think I had a coke too. Thank goodness for 7-11 and street food.

Valentine’s Day with Tigers


164_6445-4.JPGYesterday was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We visited Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery, also known as the Tiger Temple. What began as caring for an injured boar, led to the monastery welcoming all sorts of local animals. In 1999, they accepted a tiger cub which was saved from being stuffed. Since then, several tigers that have been intercepted from poachers have been brought for sanctuary. Today the temple houses many full-grown tigers and they are bred for eventual reentry into the wild. In the afternoons, the tigers are let out of their enclosures for their “exercise time.” Their collars were attached to chains several meters long, so they didn’t look to be getting much exercise, but they sat around for all the tourists. The place was definitely a tourist trap with high prices and lots of special things you could pay extra for. Nonetheless, its not everyday that you get to touch tigers, so we stood in an incredibly long line for our turn to get near the tigers and take some photos. The tigers have several-meter long chains and all tourists are guided around the area as only one person is allowed around near a tiger at a time. I was still quite a bit anxious about being next, much less touching tigers many times my size and weight. They were pretty docile though, which probably accounts for the rumor on the backpacker circuit that the animals are doped (the monastery says they have been brought up by humans since they were kittens, so they’re used to human contact). I did hear there was once an “incident” between a tiger and a water buffalo at the monastery though. Some of the tigers were enormous and touching them was intimidating. Their thin and short coat of fur wasn’t at all what I was expecting.


As we were leaving, Joylani and I decided to explore a bit more and discovered a couple staff members letting about a dozen tourists play with two eight-week-old tiger cubs. Right after we got there, they closed off the area as nobody is allowed in any open areas while the grown tigers are walked back to their enclosures. So it was just us and few others to play with the cubs. For twenty or thirty minutes, we sat in a circle and let the cubs walk around. We were told not to keep the cubs and let them walk where they want, which worked out for us, because they walked to Joylani’s lap and loved it there. They stayed with her, not wanting to leave. One did bite my hand, which didn’t really hurt since their jaws aren’t all that strong yet. The other licked my knee for a few minutes, between gnawing it and trying to get its jaws around it. So I guess besides seeing tigers, I can joke that I’ve been bit by one too now :) In all seriousness, seeing and touching the tigers was a real highlight.


what you don’t see in the other pics is the five million volunteers escorting us…

The Death Railway


164_6445-4.JPGWe’ve visited three WWII museums in the past 24 hours. Kind of a lot considering Kanchanaburi is a relatively small place. Not so many considering that tens of thousands of people died under the Japanese Imperial Army here between 1942 and 1945. Kanchanaburi is famous for the being the site of the bridge made famous in the movie “Bridge over the River Kwai.” More important than the bridge, Kanchanaburi was the headquarters and an important stop along the Thailand-Burma railway, today known as the Death Railway. Burma was the only theater that the Allies lost during the war (the others being the Pacific, Western Front, Eastern Front, and North Africa) and consequently its rarely taught in schools. Therefore, I’ll provide some historical background as always :) Although Americans are familiar with Pearl Harbor, it was just a small part of a much larger Japanese surprise offensive. On that same day, the Japanese attacked and overran British, French, and Australian colonial forces across Asia and the Pacific, from Hong Kong all the way down to Singapore. With East Asia under their control for ten years already, they took the whole of South East Asia within two months. By February, Japan had consolidated power from Indonesia to Burma. In those days, Burma was part of the British India, so Japan began moving troops to the Burmese front in order to launch a fresh offensive against the British into India, and also to cut the supply chain of Allied war materials to resistance forces throughout China (which went via Burma as the Himalayas were too big a transportation barrier). Also, the Japanese began shipping raw materials from Burma to industrial centers for processing. So Japan was shipping troops to Burma and raw materials on the way back.

Despite having conquered all of SEA, Japan’s ships were extremely vulnerable as they passed through the Malacca Straits. It is the only place for ships to pass from the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand and even today oil tankers are frequently attacked by pirates here. Anyways, American subs were sinking Japanese ships at an alarming rate in the Straits. So Japan planned to build a railway from Burma to Thailand, a railway that could deploy troops to the front and materials all the way to Bangkok. The British had once considered such a project, but abandoned it for being unfeasible. With its recent victories, Japan now had tens of thousands of Allied POWs and hundreds of thousands of Thais, Malays, and Tamils at its disposal. In 1942, Japan began shipping prisoners to camps throughout Burma and Thailand. In all, 61,000 Allied troops worked on the railway. An estimated 200,000 Asians were also conscripted to work. The museums we visited dealt with the hells that the POWs had to live through. The Japanese were slave drivers in their rush to complete the railway. I obviously cannot communicate in one post all the information that the museum conveyed, but it was horrific. Many of the photos we saw showed the POWs as little more than skeletons, their bodies wasted away from malaria, cholera, dysentery, and simple malnutrition. Latrines overflowed, barracks were incomplete, medical care was absent, and the little food was rotten and maggot-filled. The stories of sadistic Japanese guards beating prisoners, using various torture methods, and murdering men for the slightest offenses are saddening. Of the over 60,000 POWs that worked on the railroad, over 15,000 died, mostly British, Dutch, and Australians (only 131 Americans died). Records of Asian workers’ deaths were not kept, but it is estimated to be around 100,000 (although I never really trust estimates that happen to be convenient big round numbers). The museums all had war relics from both sides, stories from both sides, and gifts from each side. Back to the bridge, the famous “Bridge over the River Kwai” was just one of 8 steel bridges along the rail line. The Allies bombed it, using a new technology called Azon, which were the first radio-controlled bombs. Not so well known is the fact that when the Japanese saw the bombers coming, they ordered all the nearby POWs onto the bridge in hopes that a bombing would be averted. Dozens of men died when the bomb hit and locals said the river turned red with blood.


the bridge today

We visited the bridge which is a tourist attraction now, although two trains a day still cross it (Thailand repaired the bridge following the war). Its such a peaceful place now. We also visited an Allied POW cemetery honoring and holding the bodies of thousands who perished building the railway. In the past month or so, we’ve seen the atrocities of three wars and its all very sobering. Learning about the US’ Secret War in Lao, seeing the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and now remembering the inhumanity of World War II. Although depressing, I am thankful to be learning about all these things. These events need to be learned and remembered. Perhaps I cannot prevent them when they occur in the future, but I feel that they provide me more and more insight into mankind.

Just wondering


joylani 130pxSo we’ve been blogging for a bit now, and perhaps you’ve gotten to know us and the places we’ve been a little [more]. But I was just wondering…who reads this thing anyways? Our stats show more than six people have looked at it, so I know that it’s not just our parents and two web-saavy grandmas…

If you can, send us an email ( or comment on this post and let us know a little about one of YOUR favorite places to go, or about some of the fun things to do in your hometown. I’ll put together a post of responses…assuming I get any. Come on—audience participation!!! Yay!

(Upcoming post will not have any personal info unless you want it included. And if you don’t want your response included, just let me know.)

Phnom Penh to Kanchanaburi

164_6445-4.JPGYesterday was one of our longer days. We departed Phnom Penh on a bus for the border at 6:30am. We spent 2 hours getting from one side of the border to the other, helped in no part by each of our aptitude for picking the slowest line. Then it was another five hours to Bangkok and another one hour on a city bus and trying to find a room in booked-up Banglamphu. For those of you counting at home, that’s 14 hours of sitting on buses and 2 hours of standing in immigration lines. Once again, arriving in Bangkok was a shock after coming from the third world. Even though its only been two months, I’d forgotten that Khao San is an enclave of thousands of white tourists, barely a Thai in sight. Besides that shock, it was nice to eat street food without worrying about getting sick and never be more than a half block away from 7-Eleven (for all our snacking needs). This morning, we ate our favorite breakfast, mango and sticky rice along with some buns from 7-Eleven, at a park overlooking the Chao Phraya. Then it was off to the bus station to WWII-history-rich Kanchanaburi. It took us a long 4 hours to get here, but its nice so far. We checked in to Jolly Frog Backpackers, which seems like a backpacker resort if you can imagine one. The food around town is pretty good. Plus, it’s a mellow place, but its got all the conveniences of modernity. It’s a chill place, but I think it has enough to occupy us until we return to Bangkok.


joylani 130pxLeaving Cambodia I note a different feeling inside. Excited about what lies behead, yet I am feeling more attached [than with the other countries] as we leave. This is most likely attributable to the human side of things and the fact that I’ve connected more here than anywhere else. We’ve had local involvement; and been privileged to hear personal stories of people we met. I’ve been given the gift to be able to have thought about things in a new way as a result of visiting here. And it makes it harder to leave as there is so much more to think about and so many things that could be done.

Hope for the NGO


joylani 130pxComing into this trip, Matt and I both had a generally negative view towards NGOs and government aid programs. (Matt more so than I as he is more business minded.) Sure, they have good intentions, but we’ve seen a fair share of brand new UN Land Cruisers and other nice digs, as well as heard stories and witnessed for ourselves what we consider misused and/or inefficient uses of grant monies both at home and abroad. One of our favorite authors, Paul Theroux’s cynical take on aid in Africa in his book Dark Star Safari didn’t help add any positive feelings towards international aid either. It’s not that we are turned off by the idea of aid, rather, how it is managed and the effects can be disappointing. So it has been refreshing to hear some success stories—such as that new cases of HIV/AIDS has been dropping in recent years due to extensive education campaigns, some funded by the US. This was great to hear in particular as many of the orphans have lost one or more parents to the virus. Meeting individuals (kids who might otherwise have had no place to go) is a reminder that, despite the fact that things could be managed better or that we as Westerners could be more careful and critical when choosing organizations to donate through, aid organizations, domestic and international, do make a difference. Even if it is just making a small dent in a sea of needs, like the starfish story: it made a difference to that one.

On another note, aside from the NGO, what are practical ways regular people can help out abroad? Cynically, perhaps not all “regular” people are qualified to “volunteer” abroad—that is, if you really want to make an impact on someone besides yourself. Bring some skills with you…or at least a chunk of time to get involved. Short visits such as ours seem to be welcomed, but I think longer visits have the potential to bring about lasting benefits to the organization and kids. Long-term volunteers have time to get to know the kids and help with specific things, such as a tough subject at school (or providing supplements to the usual curriculum), personal hygiene, or dealing with grief. Lengthier visits (at least a few months as opposed to a couple weeks) paired with language skills, preparation and materials, professional skills—especially in the medical fields, and administrative experience (for help with office organization, computer skills, and perhaps coordinating an outreach project—like working a deal with a local optician to organize eye checks and buy glasses for people who need them) can help make profound impacts. No doubt, the kids love visitors and attention from people who aren’t their peers, but, if you want to help, give yourself a chance to think beyond a weeklong visit to play with kids.

Side notes on charity

Ok, I don’t know what genius coined the unfortunate Christian phrase “to love on [someone]” as in to help out in loving and charitable manner, but if you find yourself saying it, have you ever thought about how stupid you sound? Think about it, why the heck do you need to add “on” to the sentence? “Love” is a verb itself and doesn’t need to come with an “on” after it. In the context I’ve heard it used “to love on” isn’t exactly the same as “to get your groove on.” So really, drop the “on.” You sound like an idiot.

A final pet peeve of mine is World Vision’s “Operation Christmas Child.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Shoe boxes are a nice idea, but a poor use of resources. Have you ever done one? How much did it cost to put the box together? How much time did you spend doing so? How much did you have to pay for the fee to have the box sent to the hands of a waiting child. Well let’s see: $10 gifts, at least one hour of you time for shopping and wrapping (assuming you make at least $15/hr, that’s around $20 (post-tax) for an hour of overtime, obviously a lot more for those of you in the $20-50 range), and at least $7 just to get the box to the kid. So for $30-40 you can send a kid a box with some pens, stickers, maybe a shirt or something. Ok. What if instead of digging out an old shoe box (don’t tell me that you’ve justified buying yourself a new pair of shoes so that you’ll have a box…) and spending time and money at Target buying things that we’re made abroad anyways, and then paying a shipping and handling fee so that World Vision can deliver the gift—what if instead of that you take the time you would have spent doing the above and worked overtime (overtime since that’s the same time you will be using to buy the gift, etc.) and then combine your overtime pay with all the funds you would have spent on the gift and combine THAT with the money all 49 other people at your church or work or where ever is doing a “shoebox drive” and put all the money together. Connect with another group doing the same thing. Send a competent person abroad with a contact of people in need. Let that person buy gifts for the children in their own country and distribute them. This eliminates the costs of the middleman (World Vision), generates a little business for local businesses rather than a discount retailer in the US where each item costs more than it would abroad, eliminates the shipping (and resultant pollution), and on top of all that, the most important thing is that (at least in theory) more kids will have been able to benefit from the modified operation shoebox because the same resources would have been used more efficiently and therefore could be stretched further. Thoughts? I know some of you probably have a different opinion on this one. I go back and forth sometimes (going back to the idea at the beginning of the post that something is better than nothing), but it just seems that at a certain point it makes sense to get more efficient and effective. But who knows. Maybe Operation Christmas Child helps out beyond each gift box, maybe it generates publicity and more donations for other projects, and hopefully not too much of that money is going to new SUVs. :)

TV Bugs

joylani 130pxWe’ve spent the last several days in Phnom Penh finishing up our volunteering with New Hope Orphanage. Aside from the actually volunteering, our stay in Phnom Penh has been unique in that we developed a little bit of a routine, visiting the orphanage in the morning, errands, lunch and internet in the afternoon before heading back to the orphanage for a couple more hours, dinner, and usually a little TV before going to bed. The TV has been an added treat for us, particularly with all the recent campaign coverage. There are just a handful of English channels spread amongst dozens of Khmer, Thai, and Chinese language channels. We quickly memorized what channel is where to avoid surfing through all the channels to find what we want. Our most watched stations are: CNBC (of course), CNN, National Geographic, and Discovery. After too many nights at 89 F in our room on the 7th floor of the hotel, Matt and I decided to switch to an AC room for our last night. In addition to the coolness of AC, there’s also less stairs as our room is now on the 4th floor. Apparently, the room switch also came with a change in the TV hook-up. “I don’t like this, all the channels are different,” lamented Matt as he searched for our top stations. After a few more seconds of channel surfing he seemed to have come to terms with the TV change as he exclaimed, “They get Bloomburg in this room??! Where the heck were we all these other nights!”

Parting Words for Cambodia

164_6445-4.JPGOn our walk back from dinner tonight, Joylani commented how she’d like to come back to Cambodia sometime and stay for longer, perhaps to volunteer long-term. She added that Phnom Penh’s not the nicest city in the world- it doesn’t really have any parks and its really hot (at least in February)- but we’ve enjoyed it. And I have to agree. As far as niceness goes, neither Phnom Penh nor Cambodia as a whole wins any beauty pageants, but there’s something about it. It’s not beautiful, its still in that ugly developing stage between undeveloped and modern, and its kind of a crazy place. Yet, the people are friendly, seem genuinely warm, and it’s an easy place to live and get around. I kind of thrive on chaotic environments, so that was nice too. Unlike most countries we’ve visited, in Cambodia we only really stayed in four places for any amount of time. Regardless, I feel like we’ve seen a lot of things, from the lakes and waterfalls of Ban Lung to the indescribable wonders of Angkor to the realities of a rural orphanage, and finally to the capital teeming with life. The good food, great value accommodations, and the Khmer people have made Cambodia my favorite SEA country thus far. It’s been a good time and seems like its gone too fast. Perhaps the best measure of how much one likes a place is how I feel now: there’s nothing left to see or do, but I’m not yet ready to leave. If we weren’t meeting my parents in Bangkok in a few days, perhaps we would stay a while longer. That’s irrelevant though, as we’re heading for the Thai border tomorrow and will try to make it to Bangkok by tomorrow night. Returning to Thailand will be bittersweet though. We’re looking forward to seeing my parents and there’s still plenty for us to see and do in Thailand, but Thailand just isn’t as different (relative to home) and thus not as interesting as Lao and Cambodia have been. The past month and a half in Lao and Cambodia has been fun and I’m going to miss it.