Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What to pack

I want to share my experience regarding clothing and equipment on a backpacking trip. This opinion is based on traveling in east and south east Asia, and is obviously not applicable for other parts in the world.

First of all, one doesn't need much, and it is very easy to overpack. Please resist the temptation to be prepared for all possible circumstances. It doesn't make sense to carry an item for months just to use it once or twice. There is usually a workaround that one can figure out on the spot. Also, as long as a person is not for weeks in the bushes, there will always be a store somewhere nearby to purchase an item if really needed. In particular, south east Asia is very backpacker friendly, and it is easy to get one's hands on backpacker equipment.

The convenience and freedom of having a small portable backpack is definitely worth giving up the all-around carefree package. It is just great to take all your stuff on a flight as carry-on luggage, and to fit the backpack under the seat of a bus or train. This removes a lot of hassle during the trip, and other independent travelers with big, heavy backpacks will envy you for that.

My goal to travel light led to a smaller backpack of 38 liters to constrain myself and not taking too much unnecessary stuff with me. Good decision, but I actually could have gone even lighter. Some items were only used a few times, which doesn't justify to carry them around for the entire trip. I feel pity for the people who carry 80+ liters backpacks on their back plus a loaded daypack in the front. If someone stays in warm south east Asia, this is completely overkill in my opinion.

You have seen me on the photos wearing most of the time the same clothes. This is the "downside" of traveling light; there is not much room for being vain. With only four shirts, it is always easy to make a decision about what to wear. ;) The key is to just have a few items, but those should be of high quality.

For example, I decided on Merino wool as the fabric for my shirts. Merino is a breed of sheep prized for its wool, which has amazing properties such as regulating the body temperature, retaining warmth when wet, containing antibacterial wool grease, and it is one of the softest types of wool available. On top of that, due to its capacity to absorb a significant amount of moisture, Merino wool reduces the opportunity for odors to develop. I can wear my shirts for days while sweating a lot without becoming a stink bomb.

Here's a short list of the essentials:

  • Backpacks from Osprey are pretty awesome and highly recommended.
  • Merino wool clothing. I've got my shirts and sweater from the company Ibex.
  • Pants with zipper side pocket for money and important documents such as passport and credit card. My choice was one short and one long pant from Patagonia.
  • Shoes is a tough decision, but I was really happy with my Merrell Barefoot footwear plus the obligatory flip flops (used more than 50% of the time).
  • To keep things in my backpack organized, I use packing cubes from Eagle Creek.
  • A travel sheet is a must if one plans on staying in cheaper accommodations. The Cocoon CoolMax Travel Sheet is very comfy and keeps bedbugs away.
  • Few pair of socks and underwear. Not too many, one can always wash. Choose a good fabric, so that it can be worn multiple days (and no white colors).
  • Small travel towel. Many places provide towels, so don't worry too much about it.
  • Medical and wash kit. Keep it down to the essentials. Things can be bought along the way.
  • Electronics! Laptop, tablet and smartphone are a must for me. I'd rather forgo something else to keep these items. For instance, my offline map app saved me a couple of times. Wifi coverage in Asia is excellent. There is always a place nearby that connects one to the internet.
  • Don't forget the camera. I only have a simple point-and-shoot that takes actually pretty good photos. However, I could imagine to bring a better camera on the next trip.
  • A headlamp.

There are a few things that are nice-to-haves, but not really needed. I barely use my water bottle; instead I buy bottled water at one of the countless shops along the way. My rain jacket is a really nice one, but I used it maybe twice. Not worth the space. If it rains, buy a cheap rain coat from the shop for less than a dollar. Also, I love my Mountain Hardwear vest, but unfortunately I don't need it. Bring one sweater, that's enough. I brought many little items such as spare batteries, detergent, travel pillow etc. Not needed, leave all this stuff at home. However, don't forget ear plugs, and I also have an eye-mask (prefer to sleep in the dark).

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Exploring a new world

My plan was to have at least a little bit of beach time on the trip. Nha Trang in Vietnam was rather disappointing in terms of beach and water activities, and I didn't check out Cambodia's coastline. So, the winner was Thailand, and I decided on the tiny island Ko Tao near by Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. One of the ideas was to just hang out and relax, but I figured this would have been too boring. Therefore, I signed up for a diving course, and this was so much fun that I not only got my open water license, but the advanced one as well.

Ko Tao is located near the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand, and there is a ferry service from the mainland city Chumphon that takes less than two hours. The island has an area of only 21 square kilometers (8 sq mi), is less developed than its neighbors, and the 1,300 inhabitants live almost exclusively from tourism. People (mostly backpackers) visit the island particularly for scuba diving and snorkeling. There is not much else to do except hitting the bars and restaurants after a day in the water. However, the island is beautiful and time flies by pretty quickly. Most of the dive instructors came for vacation to Ko Tao and just stayed there.

I chose the school Big Blue to learn diving. Great choice! Everything was perfect. Good people, well organized, and a lot of fun. Before you get the real deal in the ocean, one starts in the pool and has to learn theory as well. There is even an exam; I definitely didn't expect to study on this trip. ;) Once all this foreplay is over, it is finally time to enter another world. It is amazing! Spending time in the underwater world was a fantastic new experience, and I can highly recommend it. One also recognizes how fragile this ecosystem actually is, and divers are only guests who need to treat the environment with great respect (something we should also do on land). In the advanced course, we did a few extras such as navigation, deep water (30 meters), wreck and night diving. So, I am now prepared for other dive spots in the world. Can't wait!

If you have the time (25 minutes) and motivation, watch this video from our last dive for the open water license. Includes some great underwater pictures among others (turn on the sound). Oh by the way, my dive buddy was Sam, she took the same dive course. It is unbelievable that I met her and Liam again in Ko Tao. The last time we saw each other was when we partied at "Angkor What?" in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The last night in Ko Tao with folks I have met at Big Blue. Judith and Thorsten, a couple from Germany, were in the same dive course. They are on a two years around the world trip visiting each continent including Antarctica. I am jealous. Joe is American, but he lives currently in Kabul working at the Afghan U.S. embassy. One meets so many interesting people when traveling; I am going to miss that. We went to MOOV, a place that suddenly turned into a big party with live music and a bunch of people. Afterwards we checked out Baby Rasta, a funky reggae bar. The next morning I said goodbye to Ko Tao with a little headache. Worth it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The SOLD Project

The main reason to travel to the Chiang Rai area in Thailand was a short-term volunteer service at the non-profit organization "The SOLD Project". Its goal is to prevent child prostitution through education by providing scholarships and resources to children at risk. I learned about this organization from an ex-classmate at Santa Clara University. He initiated the contact to the president Rachel Goble, and I applied for a volunteer service.

The sex industry is widespread in South East Asia, and in particular Thailand is well-known as an international sex-tourism destination. The country has gained a reputation among sex tourists since the Vietnam War when prostitutes were catered to soldiers and foreigners. However, Thailand's entertainment places such as go-go bars or massage parlors shouldn't be seen as something solely for foreigners. There is an even more active domestic sex industry, and over 90% of the people visiting prostitutes are Thai men. Although, prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, it is often protected by local officials with commercial interest in these establishments.

There are often economic motivations for engaging in prostitution, and the main underlying risk factors are poverty, low education and lack of opportunities. A majority of the prostitutes, many of them are still underage girls, come from impoverished villages in the northern part of Thailand. For them, sex work is one of the highest paying jobs they can ever get, and women often choose (not always voluntarily) this path to support their families back home. The SOLD Project works on increasing the opportunities for children from poor areas by providing funds for their education and other resources to keep them away from the industry's temptations.

My specific job at the organization's resources center was to fix the computers. I indicated my computer skills in the application, and this was an area where support was needed. The kids use these computers to do research, play games, or watch videos. I updated the software, fixed hardware problems and removed viruses (one computer had over 700 of them). Also, at the end Nathan (the local volunteer coordinator) and I did a short presentation on computer viruses and internet security to raise awareness for using computers appropriately.

Reducing prostitution is a fight over the long-term. It probably can never be entirely defeated, but this doesn't mean to give up. Many children can be helped by improving their level of education and hence opportunities, so they don't need to engage in prostitution to earn a decent income. I believe SOLD's method of prevention is a good approach and really makes a difference in the children's lives. The organization just turned five years old and is still in its infancy. The team has many more ideas, and I am confident in its bold ambitions.

The resource center in the Chiang Rai province provides a safe haven for the children. A new building with more classroom space is currently under construction, but unfortunately put on hold because funds dried up. Tawee, the local director, regularly informs university students about the organization's work. It is not allowed to show photos from the kids on a blog site, so you just see me working on the computers. ;)

Please watch the following video about the SOLD Project. It gives you a better understanding of the problems the organization is addressing, and how it is achieving its goals. Visit also the website for more information.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai

Thailand is the next destination, and I start to explore the country from the north. Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and located 700 km (435 mi) north of Bangkok. It is surrounded by high mountains and lush countryside. The city's importance comes from its close proximity to the Ping River and major trading routes. Until the 1920s, the city could only be reached by a long river journey or elephant trek; this isolation helped keep the city's distinctive charm intact. However, in recent years, Chiang Mai has become an increasingly modern city attracting over five million visitors each year as well as people who want to escape polluted Bangkok. I really liked the laid-back atmosphere, easy-going people, cooler temperatures and green surrounding of the city.

There are more than 300 temples in Chiang Mai and its outskirts, and of course, I visited some of them. But I also have to admit that temple sightseeing becomes less and less attractive. I have seen so many temples in the last three months, and at the end, they are usually not completely different. Therefore, temples don't really surprise me anymore, and I start to feel signs of fatigues in terms of seeing them. I guess someone from Asia would feel the same after seeing dozens of churches in Europe. Nonetheless, I still go to the main ones in a city.

Thailand is a richer country compared to its neighbors Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. This is immediately felt. The country has a much better infrastructure, less pushy sales people crowding the streets, and regular taxis replace many of the Tuk Tuks (although they are still around). It is also a magnet for travelers from all over the world. Thailand is an exotic yet safe place, and it provides vacation opportunities for every budget. Hence, tourism is a significant factor in the economy; approximately 25 million people visit Thailand each year, and counting.

The area around Chiang Mai is well-known for elephant camps. Forests once completely covered the Northern Thailand landscape (unfortunately not anymore), and elephants were used to drag felled trees away for processing. However, those times are over since the banning of tree logging, and camps have been established to help protect the numerous elephants in the area. These camps mainly rely on donations and tourist dollars to keep running. I have experienced many times on my trip how badly animals are often treated in developing countries; therefore, I did some research to find a camp that doesn't fall in this category. I had a good feeling about his camp, but I have to be honest, one never knows what happens after the tourists are gone.

Chiang Rai is the northernmost large city, and it is the main commercial centre serving the Golden Triangle border region of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Chiang Rai is a good base for anyone who wants to hike in the area or visit one of the various hill tribes. The main purpose of my trip to Chiang Rai was a different one, and I will write about it in the next blog post. Nevertheless, I have visited again a temple :), but this one was quite different. The White Temple is a unique modern temple that was designed and built by artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat starting in 1998 (it is still far from completion). It looks different not only from the outside, but also the inside. The paintings show characters such as Superman, Spiderman or Michael Jackson as well as the burning twin towers in New York City illustrating the evil in the world. Very fascinating. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photos inside the temple.