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Prague

Day 1

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I took a lot of pictures in Prague, so I’ll let them do most of the talking.

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The first day I walked all around the south and west of the city for 5 or 6 hours and enjoyed some beautiful views and the breathtaking sunset above.

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A modern cathedral supposedly built to resemble Noah's arc

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A renowned Czech graffiti artist, the Czech Banksy if you will, put sculptures of babies crawling up this retro space-age looking radio tower.

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Sculpture on Charles Bridge, the oldest bridge in the Czech Republic

Day 2

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Day 2 I took a 3 hour long tour that was mildly interesting but met a couple of cool fellow travelers.

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In the peacock palace!

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After the tour I walked around for the rest of the day and saw the castle complex with its spired cathedral.

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I also had a lovely walk through the castle gardens where I was pleased to find that every tree of note had a sign detailing its origins and common characteristics. The arborist in me was overjoyed.

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Future fig trees!

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Returning to my very low-key hostel that night I met two Canadians, an American who currently lives in Boston, and an Australian.

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I hit it off especially well with the Aussie and the fellow Bostonian as we searched in vain through the wet and rain to find a beer garden supposedly open late into the night.

Day 3

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On the third day I walked around with my newly made Aussie friend and hit up a monastery brewery where we had what we both agreed was the best beer in the Czech Republic. After making my way around the country for 2 weeks trying my fair share of beer, I feel like that’s actually saying something.

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Wannabe Eiffel tower

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Brewing diagram from the incredible Monastery brewery on the hill

After the monastery, we walked to the island that the penguins below are pointing to. We stumbled upon a rope obstacle course there and of course took a thirty minute break from being tourists to act like fools while inventing all manner of crazy ways to traverse it while little children scattered out of our path. 

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Penguins to infiniti

That night I hit the town with the Boston girl (who’s actually writing a guide of sorts for Harvard where she’s currently studying). I didn’t mind accompanying her to a few bars–all for the sake of her guide writing efforts of course 🙂 — in the up-and-coming Žižkov neighborhood where the hostel was located.

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Nothing makes an American in Prague smile like a well made burger

Now I’m in Berlin which to be honest I wasn’t super excited about visiting (I found a cheap flight from here to London). But I’m quickly becoming a fan of its quirky international cosmopolitan feel. Perhaps there’s something for me in Germany after all.

A relaxing respite

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The south Bohemian jewel of Česky Krumlov felt like an anomaly to me after a week of biking through tiny Czech towns, encountering almost no native English speakers. After a week of conversing primarily in very basic English, it was comforting but also a slight shock to run into a cast of Americans in this tiny hamlet tucked into the hills of South Bohemia. Four days there gave me the time to reflect and feel a little more grounded in spite of my recent nomadism.

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My favorite fish pond in all of Česky Krumlov

I had some great talks with one of the owners of a hostel I stayed in who hailed all the way from LA. She had lived what sounded like a more nomadic, untraditional life so her reflections were extremely helpful in processing what I envision for myself in the next decade of living.

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Skippy playing guitar and singing beautifully

I felt quickly at ease in the city and could have easily spent a week or more there. I passed hours at the above pond hidden in the back of the castle gardens, observing the narratives of multiple duck families. I took daily swims in the swift river that coils back and forth around the town center, making it feel like an island and providing countless riverside strolling opportunities.

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I also decided to hike up a nearby mountain on a whim my last day and was rewarded with beautiful views of the city below as well as all the countryside I had traversed on my last day of biking.

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Although with each passing day I long more and more for the comfort and familiarity of home, the incredible freedom I enjoy is not lost on me. Rarely am I able and inclined to pursue any fanciful whim I might have on such a regular basis as this trip has allowed me. That is one of the joys of travel that bring me to these farflung places time and again. I’m almost at the end of my 3 day stay in Prague and then just a couple more weeks before I jet back home. Do I sound travel weary? 🙂

A good one to go out on

So I meant to post the following entry 5 days ago right after arriving in Česky Krumlov but I just realized that it never uploaded. Here it finally is:

Ahhhh… I write to you dear readers from the comfortable and relaxing river terrace of my hostel in Česky Krumlov. This has been quite a day though. This morning I awoke to discover that the courtyard of the hostel where I was staying (and my beautiful bike in said courtyard) was inaccessible. So after an hour of waiting for someone to arrive I took matters into my own hands and essentially broke into the courtyard and wrestled my back through a window. I’m pretty sure if I ever choose a life of crime, I have the necessary skills.

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Bike just after being smuggled through the window

I was rewarded for my breaking and exiting by a scenic riverside ride to the coolest castle I’ve seen so far.

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And as you know, I’ve seen a lot of castles. I don’t really have any facts to give you about this castle because the only tour was in Czech. I can say that it was awesome though.

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Like Disneyland awesome. There was also a really great gallery in the old church next to the castle with some cool modern art as well as an impressive collection of gothic art.

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Modern

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Not modern

I then decided to do a pretty big loop and go see Holašovice, a UNESCO world heritage site due to it’s 13th century farm buildings that have been continuously in use and show the typical 19th century South Bohemiam architecture (there are the facts).

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At this point I realized I was running a bit behind. I had told my hostel I’d arrive around 5pm but it was already 415 and I had chosen a very hilly (mountainous might be a better word) route to Česky Krumlov. To get to Holašovice I had spent about 45 minutes to go 15km straight into a very strong wind that despite my yelling and cursing would not subside. So I was pretty spent already.

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Luckily I was quickly welcomed back into the dense windproof cover of the woods. With beautiful views of rolling valleys.

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Unluckily rolling valleys also means an obscene amount of hills. Hills followed by quick exhilarating descents and then… MORE HILLS. So yeah the point is there were a lot of hills. But the forest was beautiful.

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And I actually did bike up a mountain so I had a ridiculously fun and satisfying conclusion to my bike tour/entrance into Česky Krumlov.

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View of the city on my way down into it

The hostel where I’m staying tonight is run by two of the coolest people I’ve ever met in a hostel. One is from LA and described the city as “that really cool friend you have who doesn’t talk much and you always tell your other friends ‘I promise she’s really cool once you get to know her.’ You just have to spend a LONG time getting to know her.” They recommended an awesome vegetarian restaurant to me where I had a delicious veggie curry with this wonderful view.

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It really is a beautiful city, not too big, tons of old pretty buildings, a CASTLE, all surrounded by water. I’ve already requested to extend my stay here by one night. I don’t think Prague will mind. And check out the graffiti I found.

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Best narration for a selfie I've seen yet

Also, total mileage for those interested:

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357--Shabam!

Okay thanks for reading about the bike trip. If I do anything else interesting on my travels I’ll write another post or two. Peace!

Out of the highlands and into the fish ponds

Today was the most challenging day so far, both physically and mentally. I expected that by Day 5 my quads would have hardened into steel and soreness would be a thing if the past. But alas, I woke up this morning feeling my most sore. Luckily the first half of the day was a smooth and easy 30km over primarily flat terrain past some beautiful fish ponds.

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The largest fish pond in the CR

The region around Třeboň is known for its massive and plentiful ponds full of carp. As my host from Slavonice informed me, carp from this region is considered a Czech specialty. Although she prefers sea fish, she did say she ate carp once a year at Christmas which is the traditional Czech Xmas meal… how straaaaaange.

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Vytek fish pond

The ponds were lovely though and apparently some of the dams creating the ponds date back to the 16th century.

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Typical fish pond dam

There were super informative signs all along my route which I of course had to stop and read.

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The one above told me the types an percentages of trees in this region’s forests.

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My favorite fish pond of the day

After a pretty relaxed hour and a half of actual riding time, I reached what was supposed to be my destination for the day, the charming town of Třeboň. The town was awesome with parks galore, lakes all around, a castle with peacocks, and a brewery dating back to the 14th century.

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Male peacock courting female peacock in castle courtyard

Unfortunately none of my couchsurfing requests bore fruit and the campsite I was counting on as a backup was all full. So after exploring around Třeboň for a bit and grabbing a couple delicious beers at the brewery, I got my butt in gear and set off towards Česky Budějovice.

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Awesome Regent brewery in Třeboň

I said today was challenging because at 3pm I still had another 30km to ride to a city where I had no definite sleeping arrangements. Luckily the journey only took another hour and a half. After a very strenuous first hour of uphill climbs and straightaways with the wind buffeting against me, I crested the most glorious hill of my life whereupon I was rewarded with a view of Budějovice splayed out below me just waiting for me to glide down into its ruffled streets. I took no pictures because I was in high speed racer mode flying down the mountain. Thankfully all my accommodation worries were assuaged when the tourist info people called up a hostel I’d found and informed me they were NOT all full.

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Very pretty town hall/tourist info center

Now I’m just chilling in the lovely town square, people-watching, next to a large and legubrious group of Chinese tourists.

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And I forgot to mention that Budějovice (Budvar in German) is actually home to the original Budweiser (“from Budvar” in German [2/3 of the town actually speaks German as their mother tongue]). Apparently the American Budweiser developed a beer using a similar but watered down recipe as the original then tried to sue the original for copyright infringement. How very American… Needless to say, I have some beer to try tonight :).

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Czech Canada

Biking today, I felt like I was transported to another country, maybe even another continent, maybe even… Canada? Strange as it may sound, the region I biked through today is called Czech Canada.

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It was hands down the most beautiful day of riding so far. I chose to leave behind the well-marked Prague-Vienna Greenway and went through the depths of the spruce forests that make this region so enchanting.

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I even managed to stumble upon a bison ranch, which was bizarre but idyllic.

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They had some interesting Native American wood carved sculptures and teepees scattered around. I saw no signs and didn’t stick around long enough to ask anyone so the origins of these anachronistic items will remain a mystery.

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After I emerged from the woods I biked through farmlands with ponds and lakes around every turn. The one above was particularly peaceful and I spent a nice moment lapping up the tranquil surroundings.

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Unfortunately I was unable to find a couchsurfing host for the night so I’m staying in a hostel that turned out to be surprisingly well situated right next to the castle.

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The castle rotunda just beside the hostel

I also want to mention my awesome hosts last night. Tomáš and Marushka were two very open and laid back individuals with a lovely home and family.

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Marushka in their beautiful garden

They’re both involved with a nonprofit based in Slavonice called the Center for the Future that works on landscaping projects trying to bridge the historic and cultural divide between the Czech Republic and Austria.

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Poster showing a project the center is working on

And it just so happened that when I showed up to their home, they were in the middle of a meeting with the owners of the nonprofit, two Coloradans named John and Pam. Such strange coincidences seem to be the norm with couchsurfing and I really love that about it.

Castles and Bunkers

Today I really felt like I hit my stride biking wise. Although my legs and butt bones were both very sore, I felt delightfully comfortable on my shining  steed.

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I got a relaxed 1030am start from the campground where the lake was as placid as ever.

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By 11 I had covered almost 15km and reached my first sight of the day, the awesome ruins of the Cornštein (tsorn-shtine) Castle.

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Luckily this castle I could visit on my own, so I spent half an hour exploring every nook and cranny, then set off again.

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Not long after, I passed another awesome looking castle Hrad Bitov,  but alas it was too far out of my way.

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I climbed my way back out of the river valley and linked back up with the Prague-Vienna Greenway path which I’ve been following for most of the trip.

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The rest of the day’s riding took me through some gorgeous rolling fields dotted with bunkers that formed the Maginot line, built before WW2 to defend against a German invasion.

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They’re literally all over the place. I must have passed one every 200 meters or so for the last 20km of my ride.

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All of that work was for nothing though, as they were never put to use. Hitler ended up bypassing the entire defence network.

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This one was so close I couldn’t resist the urge to go in and poke around a bit.

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It was a tiny, oppressive little space with holes just big enough for the barrel of a gun.

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After a pretty relaxed 50km total of riding I rolled into my destination for the night, the charming town of Slavonice.

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It’s best known for its architecture that includes beautiful facades with detailed depictions and ornate vaults dating back to the renaissance.

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Now I’m heading off to my host for the night, a janitor who is building an off-road motocross course and has helped developed part of the off-road cycling paths around Slavonice.

Through valleys and borders

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After spending a relaxing evening in Znojmo with my hosts and their super friendly pets, I set off on day 2 of biking. Most of my ride was spent in or near the Podyji (poh-dee-yee) National Park, the smallest park in the Czech Republic. The park covers the Czech side of the Dyji river and so most of the day involved lots of descents and climbs as I danced in and out of the river valley. I loved being in the park though because the forests remind me of the Smokies a bit.

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I skirted the ridge of the park for 20 or so kilometers before venturing in towards the ruins of an old castle.

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Unfortunately you could only visit by paying for a guided tour and the next one was scheduled 30 minutes after my arrival. After biking for another 10-15 kilometers I again dove down into the park, but not before passing a sight where remnants of the iron curtain still stand.

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I was surprised to read that while 600+ Czechs died during the soviet occupation, trying to escape, over 2000 guards died due to suicide, fighting, or electrocution (apparently the fence was pumped with over 10,000 volts of electricity). After passing the fence I coasted down a very long descent to…

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Hardegg castle on the Austrian side of the Dyji river

Austria!! I’d been seeing how close I was to it on the map the whole first day and since I’ve never actually been there, I was eager to cross over. As soon as I did I realized that I speak even less German than Czech. Luckily everyone I passed was speaking Czech anyways.

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I ventured up to the castle and after learning it cost a prohibitive 8 euros to get in (everyone does say Austria is expensive) I snapped a few photos and retreated back to the more backpacker friendly (read: cheap) side of the river.

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Hooray for the Cešká Republika!

On the way out of the park I passed an awesome viewpoint with incredible views down onto the Austrian side.

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AND I went to a restaurant where I finally had a chance to try the halušky bryndza I’ve been hearing about since northern Slovakia.

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It’s kind of like the central European version of gnocchi, topped with sheep’s cheese and sour cream. Finally after 15 more kilometers I reached my destination of the day, Vranov nad Dyji.

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It’s a beautiful town on a bend of the river known for the castle that sits perched above it. It was a pretty breathtaking sight to come upon.

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Tonight I’m staying in a cabin in a campsite on a lake near Vranov where I can swim, do laundry, and watch a volleyball tournament (?). Huzzah!

After a long hiatus… Biking in the Czech Republic

I should begin by saying that the previous 2 1/2 weeks traveling with my sister was hands down one of the best traveling experiences of my life. It was a perfect check up to make sure that we were maturing properly and capable of really enjoying each other’s company for a long period of time. I’m happy to report that we are.

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Hitchhiking to Poland!

It was sad when she left from Olomouc but luckily our incredibly cool host there Pavel (our favorite of the trip by far) invited me to stay an extra night. As you would expect with the co-owner of one of the most popular up and coming breweries in Olomouc, it was a night full of good beer, good company, and good conversation.

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With Pavel and friend in Vertigo bar

The next day I stopped into the brewery again to pick up a couple bottles of his beer as a gift for my next host, and snapped a few shots of the brewing process.

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Fermenting beer! And I cleaned that tank fyi.

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One of the brewers hard at work.

But then it was off to Brno for a day on my way south to Mikulov, where I rented my bike. Brno was nice with a big castle and nice parks. But it was the tiny southern Czech town of Mikulov (population: 8000) that truly enchanted me.

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Jan drinking one of his many delicious teas

That was probably partially due to my awesome couchsurfing host Jan who was one of the coolest, cookiest guys I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in a while. He’s training to be a shiatsu masseuse and was very knowledgeable about all things relating to far-eastern religion and medecine. He also invited me to his weekly English club where I met three of his friends, all interested in English (and really good at speaking it!) and willing to tell me all about their town and Czech culture in general.

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The beautiful town of Mikulov in the background.

Today I finally set off on my biking expedition. The rolling fields with red flowers made for very idyllic scenery. Some of the prettiest I’ve seen on my trip.

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After biking for 60km or so, I stopped at a very inviting wine cellar/hotel. The jovial Deni gave me a tour of his 200-year old cellar complete with tastings of some of his fresh and delicious wines.

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I told him I wanted to buy a bottle for my couchsurfing hosts this evening so he took a freshly filled bottle, put the label on it, wrapped it up and gave it to me. And I mean gave it to me. When I tried to pay he refused and told me it was a gift. I was flabbergasted but grateful and continued on my way.

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Finally after 75km of biking, I arrived at my destination for the night, Znojmo.

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It was a tiring but very successful first day of biking. Tonight is Night of the Churches all over this region so I should have some fun events to look forward to.

A Timely Departure from Hat Yai

So as a blogger, I’ll be the first to say, I really haven’t been “good.” It’s been over a week or two since my last post. As a traveler, however, I can only hope I’ve been “better.” It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. Especially so since receiving a few unmistakable signs from vendors that I’m not welcome. First of all, I must say that this feeling of not being welcome couldn’t be farther from the case in almost every interaction I’d had before coming to Hat Yai. This city, for some reason, seems to bring out the worst in a lot of people. As I wrote that last sentence, I paused, looked up and received a beaming smile from the cashier in the cafe I’m sitting in who just a few minutes ago taught me the proper way to order a black coffee in Thai, so keep in mind that it’s all relative and I am still in Thailand, land of smiles. It’s odd though because in the 3 days that I’ve been in Hat Yai I’ve been shooed off by 3 different vendors. One, I listened to, the other two I didn’t, one of which later warmed up to me, and the other at least sold me a delicious product without trying to overcharge me (as far as I know, which isn’t very far).

I can only assume that the curt response I get from some vendors here is due to the city’s role as a hub for big shot business travelers from Southeast Asia and some international corporations who don’t make it a big concern to try to get to know the locals. It’s also apparently a pretty big hub for Malaysian males crossing the border (80km south) to look for cheap prostitutes. Not the most glamorous reputation for a city to have.

For all that, I must say that the vast majority of interactions that I’ve had in Hat Yai have been overwhelmingly positive ones. Free banana muffins from a bakery, Thai lessons from numerous different sources, a fruit vendor mobilizing the entire street corner to find out the location of a restaurant I’d heard about (totally worth the search). These are the kinds of things that I really don’t see too often in the states. I also really don’t take too many risks with people in the states. Maybe because I have so many safety nets built up around me back in the states that there aren’t as many times when it’s necessary to go out on a limb and risk rejection from a total stranger. Just now, when I was writing in my journal though, I decided the payoff or even the possibility of a payoff is worth it. Sometimes it gets damn difficult and I start to wonder why I find it so important to try so hard with people. But really that’s the main reason I’m here. Yeah, I’m here to figure stuff out about myself, how I function completely on my own in challenging situations, the immense joy and excitement I get from being completely in control of where I go, what I do, who I interact with. But those interactions are basically the bread and butter of my time here. Sometimes it’s nice to be alone, doing my own thing, dependent on no one, but then something happens that makes me realize that I need someone’s help. Sobering–always. Meaningful–usually. Educational–depends on my state of mind.

What I’m seeing so far is that it’s awesome to be able to function on my own, to get things done, to plan something and make it happen, to drift aimlessly and find something spectacular. I’m also seeing that it’s extremely important to be able to scrap this state of mind in a moment’s notice as soon as it starts getting in the way of me enjoying life.

Alright, I guess that’ll wrap it up for this long overdue post. In case you didn’t divine from the title of this post, tomorrow morning I leave for Malaysia since the day after tomorrow my Thai visa expires. I’m headed to a city called Georgetown, on Penang island. The entire city has been declared a world heritage site by Unesco due to its awesome architecture and harmonious blend of multiple cultures. Check it out here. Needless to say, I’m excited. While there, I’ll be getting a 60 day tourist visa to Thailand so that if I choose to stay for a while–volunteering or working or what-have-you–I won’t need to worry about another visa run.

Also I’ve decided to just start a flickr photofeed and upload all of my photos there instead of picking and choosing only a few to display on my blog. I have too many! So here’s the link for that. http://www.flickr.com/photos/68675438@N08/

If you scroll down to the very bottom of the page, you can choose to subscribe to it and get notified when I upload new stuff, which has been pretty regularly.

-Austin out

First Impressions (Korea and Railay, Thailand)

This is my third draft of this post due to me taking too long to finish it and losing it every time I lose internet. So I’m just going to power through this one.

Due to a scheduling delay on the part of AirChina–which Liz and I discovered are quite prone to scheduling delays–I was lucky enough to be able to spend 2 and a half days in Seoul, South Korea with my sis who’d already been there for a few days. The first night was spent in a spa in the airport, which was actually pretty cool. I had the option of swimming in a giant jacuzzi for my morning bath, but I declined due to my strong desire to get out of the airport and into the actual city in Seoul. I was, of course, well rewarded.

South Korea was a very nice intro to my travels as it offered a definitive break from the culture of the States, while still being more than adequately developed. A few surprising things about Seoul: a lot of the streets remind me of the futuristic world from Bladerunner, Seoulians (that’s obviously incorrect) absolutely love coffee, Seoul might be one of the most organized places I’ve yet to visit.

Bladerunner all the way

 

For reasons that I can’t quite put a finger on however, Seoul also struck me as cold, a bit subdued, and rather detached. It was as you can hopefully tell from the pictures an incredible city in its layout, architecture and content. Maybe it was the perpetual fog/smog or the surprisingly cold weather–for some reason I had it in my mind that South applied to it’s absolute and not just relative latitude–or maybe the diligently polite people, but I rarely got a warm fuzzy feeling in this city when I wasn’t drinking some delicious hot tea or a nice hot espresso. I’d like to make it clear that his subjective account is by no means a judgement on the city and I really did enjoy my time there immensely. I’ve even begun toying around with the idea of tacking Korean onto my dream list of languages to study–the alphabet, Hangeul, is one of the most interesting I’ve encountered and I encourage you to look into it.

National Folk Museum where I learned all about Hangeul and other minutia of Korean life and history

The feeling I’ve received over and over in Thailand, on the other hand, could not be more different. Today I decided that if ever during my travels I start feeling down or dejected for some reason or other, I’ll just go for a stroll, make eye-contact with the first Thai person I see and use their jubilant smile, inevitably contagious, to boost my spirits. It’s amazing how smiley the vast majority of people I’ve encountered in Thailand have been. I say smiley because of course I have no idea if they’re actually happy or not. My studies in social psychology, however, would lead me to believe that they are (fun fact: the very act of smiling improves your mood). On top of smiley, the people I’ve met here have also been out-of-their-way helpful towards Liz and I.

We flew into Phuket then went as direct as possible (an unofficial taxi and a long tail boat) to a beautiful section of beaches known as Railay.

A view of the beach we stayed on from a look out spot on a cliff

We stayed in this idyllic area for four days and while there I got to do a little bouldering (the area is world famous for rock climbing), Liz and I ran on the beach, explored some islands off shore in kayaks and swam in the ocean, always such a delight.

Our lovely but sparse lodging

Taken by my friend Manu from India who educated me about his country as well as relating some Hindu tales

I’ve been taking a lot of pictures lately and I’d hate not to share them with all of you, which is the main reason why I persevered through losing the first two drafts.

Liz and I are now staying at a delightful guesthouse in a bigger town inland called Krabi. Cross your fingers for a new post soon. All the best from Thailand

-Austin out