Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Unknown Caller

Running along the sea shore
Walking through the green boulevard in the fore
Sleeping on the cozy bed
And while eating my daily bread
A ‘smart’ phone held in my hand
Waiting for it to vibrate and sing a song
Always giving a chintzy thrill
While some times dreading it’s shrill
Curious of who it might be
Cautious of what it could mean
Hoping for the best
But fearing the worst
Emotions bundled in a core
‘The distance’ causing it to manifest multifold
Ingenious and smart is what they say
But nothing could tell what the call exemplify
However smart it might be
It cannot beat the uncertainty.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tiger Tiger burning bright, In the temple of Thailand!

One of the good things about reading or researching on a country/place that you plan to visit is that you don’t miss on the best things that the place has to offer. My research on Thailand led me to what eventually turned out to be once in a lifetime experience - a visit to the ‘Tiger Temple’ at Kanchanaburi near Bangkok, Thailand, and playing with Tigers there.

The entire Thailand trip was built around this event. I had almost four and half days there to spend and the only thing I was really looking forward to was touching a tiger. I had spent so much of time and money back in India going on treks, wild-life camps and nature resorts to catch a glimpse a tiger in full flow that I had almost given up on seeing one. So when this opportunity was available I grabbed it and booked a day trip to the ‘Tiger Temple’.

This temple is located about 2.5 hours drive from Bangkok and I had a booked a Taxi and a guide for the whole trip. The guide was about 3 years younger to me and was once a volunteer to this temple too. It was very nice to hear her life’s journey, which was quite interesting and was an excellent way to spend those hours on the road. She herself was quite a traveler having spent few months in and around Europe. She had also travelled around Thailand a lot and that helped me get a good perspective of the country, its history and its current state of affairs. She had come back to her hometown to be with her ailing mother and thus completing a full circle in her life.

As we neared our destination she gave me a brief introduction on the temple. She also gave me a list of things that I am not supposed to do when I was in the company of the tigers. All set and done these animals were ‘wild animals’ and one can never be able to predict their behavior. So it was imperative to follow all the instructions bombarded on you. But the more I listened to her the more scared I was getting. From things like not standing or walking directly in front of the tiger to not showing one’s back to any tiger around I was asked to follow many instructions. Also, I was told it was considered sacred by the monks if you get hurt and blood is spilled by a tiger and in such a scenario you would have to stay in the temple for few days. That scared me even more as I saw it as a mechanism to make sure you don’t go out of the temple until you are recovered completely.

The temple in itself was never started as a Tiger temple. It was more of an abode to the Buddhists monks. But one day some villagers not knowing what to do with an injured tiger (after getting caught in a poachers trap) asked these monks to take care of it and they agreed. And so a journey began from 1 to 91 tigers now. Tigers were sent to this place from various places and soon the tigers started breeding there (which shows that the tigers must be quite happy as they apparently don’t breed unless they are happy!). I would term their facility to be better than any of the breeding program as I myself saw about 20 cubs. And this was without any effort in the direction of making these tigers breed…

On the way we (myself and my guide) stopped at a supermarket to buy some food for giving alms to the monks and that’s how my day started at the temple. I had left my hostel at around 5 AM and had reached the temple around 7.30AM. There were already a group of 10 people waiting for the monks. Once the formality of giving alms was done all of us were ushered in to the temple were we met the cubs. It was feeding time and all of us got a chance to feed the cubs, played with them and cuddled them. The whole experience was too exciting to be described in words. The first half an hour with these cubs were the scariest. Imagine someone who is scared of dogs playing with Tiger cubs! But things started improving once I gained more confidence in the volunteers there..:) (Because I had no confidence in the behavior of the tigers there..:))

By this time the monks had finished their prayers, we had breakfast with them. We were then led to a Tiger shelter where we bathed and washed few full grown tigers. I even fed one of them with Chicken. I was dead scared that the tiger would eat my hand but thankfully the hand is intact and I am typing my experience here..:)

We then moved inside a huge den that had a pond. Either the tigers should be outside the enclosed territory and we inside or the tigers inside and we outside…But in this case both we and the tigers were inside. Again, we were all asked to strictly follow the rules that were stated earlier else we were told we would be either thrown out by the volunteers or be eaten by the tigers. It was not funny in the beginning but later found the experience to be really awesome. It was great to play with them in the pool and the presence of volunteers there really helped, as they knew how to take care of these tigers when situation went out of hand. It was not just the tigers (which like all animals the play sometimes slowly turned into fights) but the people there who sometime in their over zeal didn’t follow the instructions endangering not only themselves but others around.

At the end of the trip we walked two fully grown tigers back to their den and had photographs taken with them. All along the way we were asked to never show our back to them and never go in front of them. Both the tigers marked their territory along the way and they apparently do that daily!

After a heavy lunch my guide took me to the “Bridge on the river kwai”. The bridge in itself was not too big or long but the circumstances under which it was built made it special and once again I got a very good history lesson from her. By the time I landed back at my hostel it was late evening. The rest of the trip comprised of visiting The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho - The oldest and largest temple (housing the reclining Buddha), Wat Arun - Temple of Dawn, the famous floating markets of Bangkok and of-course the beaches of Pattaya.

I had never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would play with tigers, feed them, pet them and walk them and be alive at the end of it to tell the tale. But here I am doing exactly that and it makes me feel really good and special that I could do all this. Overall it was such a great experience that the rest of my trip became a mere footnote in my post.

Some snaps can be found here...

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

In Vietnam!

As a kid the first time I had heard about Vietnam was when I saw a movie on how American soldiers had fought a ‘brave and moral’ war at Vietnam. Though physically and technologically superior, they couldn’t defeat the peasants for more than 10 years. Later on, I read so many articles and stories on the war that Vietnam as a country always intrigued me. There was always this desire to visit the country and compare my ‘so called imagination of Vietnam’ to what in reality it is. So last weekend I took a trip to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City or HCM (as it’s now known)…

The day before I was to leave for Saigon I converted 100 SGD (Singapore Dollar) to Vietnamese currency and I got in return 1.4 Million VND (Vietnamese Dong). I had become a millionaire in an instant. Holding couple of 500,000 notes made it a unique experience. But the feeling was nothing compared to the experience I would later have in Vietnam. Four days in this beautiful country was really revealing. The best part of the experience had been the people there. I haven’t met more hospitable and friendly people anywhere in my travels till now. I was even invited by the youth hostel owner to have dinner at home on April 30th, which happened to be their reunification or Independence Day. I found people to be really sweet and friendly. Their hospitality made me decide to come back here again very soon.

Saigon as a city is the centre of the economic growth for Vietnam. So you can see a lot of immigrants there. The city houses about 9 million people and most of them are immigrants from southern parts of Vietnam migrating for work and better prospects. A motorbike is the most common means of transport for them and there are about 3.5 Million of them in the city. Most often than not buying a motorbike is a huge investment for the people there (the cheapest one being about $1000), but still you can see thousands of them on the street every second zipping by and chocking the roads. One can see that most of the so called economic growth is happening in the city and the countryside is still mostly underdeveloped. Agriculture is the occupation of most people in Vietnam, but slowly quite a few people are trying to migrate to the cities.

Majority of people, as expected, are unhappy with the way things are run there. Complaints range from lack of education, poverty, corruption to lack of employment opportunities. I met this gentleman who happens to be a marketing agent and apparently earns 7.5 Million VND but can barely survive in the city. The next generation is highly dissatisfied as most want to go abroad for work but their lack of fluency in English language is a big hindrance. So you can see loads of English teaching institutes trying to make the dreams of these youngsters come true. But they have a long way to go. I took part in one of the communication seminars held at the hostel I was staying and the eagerness with which they were listening to me was just too much to bear. All they wanted to was talk and converse as much as possible in those couple of hours to get a hang of Oral English. And at the end of it I had this sinking feeling of not being able to help them in the way I perhaps could have. So I again conducted another session the next day. But it was still disheartening because in the end many will definitely find it difficult to go to the next stage in their career/education, but I hope this perseverance of theirs will help the future generations. Also all this interest, hopefully will soon translate into the changes required in their education system.

I also found the people staying in the hostel there to be more friendly than others and made quite a few friends (maybe because of the general prevailing friendly atmosphere in Vietnam..:)). It was quite interesting to learn about their lives and how they had spent the last few months traveling. Some had taken a career break while others were managing to survive by working at a new country every few months that they traveled to…Hope we keep in touch.

Coming back to the city - the Ho Chi Minh City in itself had been at the centre of Vietnam War, mainly because the Americans had made it their base fighting the guerrilla fighters few kilometers from there. It was also housing the President of Southern Vietnam that the Americans were supporting (apparently more of a puppet). So, one can easily see the significance of this city in the war and the best place to get the complete history of the war and its effects is the ‘War Memorial Museum’. Though almost completely one sided and mainly bashes the US, it gives quite a picture of the war and is definitely worth a visit. One can also visit the Independence/Reunification Palace and take the English tour to give you another leap into the history books. One can see the multi-level war bunkers and the Presidents war rooms even now.

The best tour though would be the Cu Chi Tunnels about 60Km from HCM City. A tour to this place is a must to understand the life of the guerrilla fighters. The way they used to live in those three level tunnels is mindboggling. The way these tunnels were dug, the designs behind them, the strategy of war etc is something no book/article can explain better than the experience of being there. A 100meter of that Tunnel took me 15 minutes to navigate and I was completely drenched in sweat at the end of it. The experience gave me cramps for 2 days. I wonder how they used to do it every night (day time they used to stay put inside the tunnels as there was continuous American bombardment of bombs). The whole journey through the tunnels gives you a good experience of what life would have been to those people at that time and makes you think of all the things that had happened there in the area just 35 years back.

One of the unforgettable experiences for me at the tunnels was me firing an AK47 for the first time. It was really something. The force of the bullet and its corresponding counter reaction on the gun makes you almost fall back the first time. Holding it correctly on your shoulders really helps you balance. But still I kept wondering how those malnourished and under-weight people managed to use these weapons against the marching Americans.

A Vietnam trip isn’t complete without going to the countryside. Visiting the Mekong Delta gives one somewhat a realistic picture of the real Vietnam (or the majority of it). A bus ride and then a boat ride from HCM city will take you there. From traditional honey and toffee making to canal rides and folk music, each one was more exciting than the other.

At the end of four days at Vietnam all I could think of was when I would be back to this country. It didn’t help that my experience of teaching English to some of them left more of a hole or void than the satisfaction of helping them out. Will definitely want to meet these sweet people again very soon and maybe stay for longer to give something in return for their hospitality.

Some snaps can be found here...