By , August 13, 2015 2:38 am
The word electronics can roughly be translated into the Bhutanese language of Sharshopka as either ‘pohk pah’ – meaning broken – or ‘poht baela’ – meaning will break easily. Meet our latest casualty, the one month old 1100 watt purple hairdryer. As you can expect, it follows a long tradition of electronics that have met their demise at our house in Bhutan over the past year and a half. The list is long, including electric heaters, kettles, fans, portable hard-drives, projectors, cameras, computers and printers. The ways in which these electronics have met their demise is equally diverse including corrosion, mould, ants, drops, shorts and lightning strikes.
R.I.P. Purple Hairdryer

R.I.P. Purple Hairdryer

Our poor, late hairdryer was afflicted with a condition most commonly known as ‘tempting the fates’. Oh, it all played out exactly as you’re thinking it did. Actually, it makes me wonder why I’m bothering to write this, as what follows is truly going to be the most predictable and thus the least entertaining thing I’ve ever committed to print – digital or otherwise. Still, It’s been more than a year since I’ve written anything, and I need to start somewhere… It was a hot and humid morning. The birds were chirping peacefully outside, and the night bugs had given up on their nightly attempts to break through the mosquito net that’s draped haphazardly over the bed. My consciousness was slowly shifting between the states of sleep and wakefulness, a process that takes me well over an hour these days – sometimes two. The process had started some time ago with the dozen or so different alarms that Ashley’s cell phone pounded out back-to-back. Ever so subtlety, I recognize the hum of the hairdryer, and it’s rhythmic sound lulls me back towards sleep again. If you know anything about medicine, and this is cause for concern, please tell me. It’s no joke. I really can’t get up in the mornings. I’m awoken more fully a few minutes later by the sound of Ashley’s voice. I have no idea how long she’s been talking to herself nor what she’s saying, but I’m faintly aware that the hairdryer has stopped. Eventually, my brain catches up to my ears and I realize that she’s not just talking to herself, but to me. “Sorry, what?” I question. “I was just saying what a great purchase this hairdryer has been. It's nice going to work with dry hair in the mornings.” She says this as she preens in front of our small mirror. “That’s good…, I guess.” “I’m really happy with this hairdryer, it may be the best thing we’ve ever purchased in Bhutan. It’s lasted almost a month already. Much longer than most things we buy.” “That’s true,” I agree. “Somehow they only seem to bring up junk from India. It was probably worth spending extra and getting the Thailand model. Maybe it’ll last for ever.” And that was that. Fate was sealed, and there was nothing to be done about it. Neither one of us had had the forethought to ‘touch wood’. A jinx can be a powerful thing, and as you already know, this morning the purple hairdryer warmed itself for the last time, puffed a bit of smoke, and settled into it’s cold afterlife.

What next?

I suppose that remains to be seen. My first thought was to simply open it up and fix it. This is the land of reincarnation after all, could not I breathe some life back into this simple appliance. Alas, I was beat before I began. There is a single inset screw holding the chassis together. A hex head screw. It’s a little hard to describe the feeling of being beat by a screw whose matching driver should be readily available, but I’ll try anyways. There are virtually no tools here. At least not in the East of Bhutan where Ashley and I are stationed. Entire houses are built using mud, rocks, and a locally made cross between a knife and a machete called a ‘patung’. After living here for a year and a half, I was finally able to procure my first tool of any kind just a few weeks ago. Not the ‘patung’ I really want, but a $5 set of screwdrivers containing two sizes of Phillips, and two flats. I’ve tried to borrow similar screwdrivers before, but they just don’t exist here. Tools are neither owned nor sold. The process of acquiring my screwdrivers involved finding someone who was going to the Indian side of the border town, Sandrup Jongkhar, and asking them to go shopping for me. In general, for most shopping trips, I’d have to estimate the cost of what I wanted in advance and send enough money to cover the purchase. If I underestimated, I’d have try again with the next person who headed South. If they couldn't find it, I'd have to try again next time. If the shop was sold out, next time. Going myself would simplify things greatly, but alas I lack the appropriate visas – both on the Indian and Bhutanese sides. Another option, that I’ve used when ordering electronic parts, is online shopping. Typical shipping charges begin at about $80CAD, and delivery times range from about 3 weeks to 3 months. Also from experience, not all shipped boxes arrive. This makes ordering online a bit impractical in this case. I know that there are a few Chinese companies that will ship internationally for free, but the long delivery times and probability of not receiving anything at all still exist. And the problems don’t stop there. If I do manage to open it up, there’s a chance that the damage will not be visibly obvious. Then I’ll need to test it electrically. Inevitably, that will require the use of a multi-meter. So, a second trip to India or another bout of online shopping. Even after receiving a multi-meter, I will only then be able to identify the damaged part. Replacing it will once again require the use of online shopping or convincing an India going friend to do some shopping for me. By my estimation, a DIY rebirth of this hairdryer will take about 9 months. My parents are probably thinking I should be working on something else that takes 9 months instead. Okay, I’m being melodramatic. Most likely, I can send the hairdryer itself to India for repairs, where all of the parts and tools will be readily available. I’ll just need to arrange someone to drop it off and someone else to pick it up. In the worst case, we’ll be back in Thimphu this winter, and Ashley can replace it with a new model then. She’s already gone 16 of the last 17 months without dry hair in the mornings, another 5 won’t hurt. So to sum up, we’re still living in Bhutan; we love it here. Our electronics are breaking at a rapid pace. Everything we need is available locally. Everything else is difficult to get. This includes the aforementioned electronics and tools, but also simple things like eggs, vegetables, cheese and fruit. That’s not to say we are not eating, but to say we have a current selection of cucumber and potatoes from which to choose from. Selection varies throughout the year. I’ll be the first to say, we’ve done a terrible job of blogging while in Bhutan. Somehow I just lost interest in it. I’d kind of like to pick up the game a bit if anyone is still interested in reading my ramblings, but I don’t know where to start. I also make no promises. Notwithstanding, if you have any burning questions ask in a comment and maybe I’ll drag the response out into a full blown post, or not.
By , May 5, 2014 9:29 pm
Wife-sick. This is the term that my colleagues have jokingly been using in place of the more traditional term "homesick" when referring to me. I've been living in Western Bhutan these past 5 weeks, while Ashley has been living in Eastern Bhutan. I know what you are thinking - Bhutan's small, what's the big deal? And to this I must reply, "six hours in a car on a Canadian highway is equal to a 3 day journey in Bhutan." Now that I'm employed - oh, did I forget to mention that? - and Ashley's working every day of the week but Sundays, visiting has just not been an option. Okay, "employment" is probably too strong of a word. I've been masquerading as a grade 7 English teacher since arriving in Chamgang (a small community just up the hill from the country's capital, Thimphu). I'm not exactly employed, because I'm neither receiving remuneration, nor am I qualified to be a teacher (strictly based on an educational requirement of a bachelor's degree in education). On the flip side, I sort of am like a real teacher in that I have regularly scheduled classes, I teach lessons based on the curriculum, I give and mark assignments along with tests, and I generally perform the roll of a classroom teacher. Officially though, I fall loosely under the title of guest speaker. Why on earth have I agreed to do this, you ask? The story starts way back when Ashley and I first found out about this wonderful opportunity through the BCF (Bhutan Canada Foundation). We had been searching on-line for ESL jobs after becoming enlightened to the fact that we just weren't ready to go home and resume the "traditional Canadian lifestyle". The goal was not to find Ashley a job so I could loaf around while she brought home the bacon, though that has been a somewhat pleasant side-effect, but to find a teaching job for the both of us. True, I don't have a teaching degree, but in many countries being a native English speaker with any kind of bachelor's degree is enough. Anyways, we fell in love with the idea of Bhutan and ruled out all of the other teaching destinations that we had been looking at. After some time, Ashley secured herself a job, and I postponed my dream of teaching in favour of becoming a "house husband". After a long application process, which we've talked about before, we finally arrived in Bhutan. It was here that I met a certain Mr. Matt, an incumbent teacher with an interesting predicament. Long story short, his wife was expecting a baby. The delivery was planned to take place in Australia, close to family, and he was actively looking to recruit a "native English speaking house husband" as a substitute teacher. Substitue teaching is not a common part of the Bhutanese education system, and without my involvement Matt's classes would have been covered by a variety of teachers and staff. Having a single teacher would be a vast improvement over the ad-hoc replacement that was expected. Just then, a thought ran through my head - wouldn't it be great to try out being a teacher for a month or two without a long term commitment. It would sure beat moving to someplace like Korea only to find out, one month into a year long contract, that teaching just isn't my cup of tea. As the saying goes, "How do you know [if you'll like something], if you don't try?" So I said, "yes!" and here I am. So now I am a teacher. Just like my mother, and loving wife. And you know what? I quite like it. The staff have been super welcoming. The children seem more than happy to have me here. Practically everyone in town calls me Sir, though that moniker is given to all male teachers in the country so I shouldn't let it go to my head. Beyond that, I'm happy to be here. Teaching is rewarding work. I don't think I could have guessed how rewarding before trying it, and I don't think it's possible to describe to someone whose never been at the head of a classroom before, so I won't go into much more detail. Just keep in mind that I like teaching very much. My transition to Chamgang has been made easy by virtue of the fact that I'm living in Bhutan. If I need anything, someone is willing to help me out. This includes cooking for me, guiding me up the mountains for weekend hikes, providing me with fresh un-pasturized milk - you Canadians with your draconian dairy laws are really missing out - and farm fresh eggs, rides into Thimphu, and just hanging out. The last item here is actually the most important one. Being board is seen as a terrible thing here. There's such a sense of community that nobody can stand to see me sitting alone, at home, by myself. I'm invited out to play sports (football, basketball, footsal, and volleyball) on a daily basis despite my lack skill. The truth is, living and teaching here is very easy for me. It's not all roses, of course. If I wanted to, I could lament about the lack of internet access, the squat toilets, and the fact that I have to boil my water before I can drink it. I could also talk about all of the school related problems such as long tedious meetings in a language I don't understand, having to witness student humiliation as a form of discipline, students bullying and teasing each other and all the rest. But to me, these things are so minor compared to the positive elements of Bhutan living and school life that I could just as well not mention them. That brings me back to the beginning. Wife-sickness. If Ashley were here with me, I think I'd be quite happy teaching for as long as they would allow me to. But as it stands, my tenure as teacher is coming to an end. It'll be with mixed emotions that I leave my post, both sad to leave my new home and school in Chamgang while at the same time I'll be overwhelmingly filled with joy at the thought of returning to Ashley in Nangkor. In any case, my time here is nearly up. My substitution job will finish, and my wife-sickness will soon be over. At least now I know that I enjoy teaching. There is a chance that this knowledge could open up a future lifestyle for Ashley and I. Could we permanently become nomadic teachers? Or even better, could we be lucky enough to both land long term teaching jobs in the same village in Bhutan? Who knows, but possibilities are better than no possibilities. image
By , March 29, 2014 1:26 am

Note from Ashley: After a month and a half of living in and falling in love with Nangkor, Mike has returned to the capital, Thimphu, to try a new adventure.  He will be substitute teaching for about the next two months for a fellow BCF teacher that is on leave.  I, of course, am still in Nangkor teaching at the higher secondary school.  This marks the first time that we have spent more than a week apart in the 11 years we've been together.

I've now traveled to and from Thimphu in the west and our village, Nangkor, in the east. Looking at numbers, it would appear to be no big deal. As the crow flies, we are only talking about 400 km, with a grand total of only 600 and some kilometres if you take into account all the curves in the road.

But, it is a bit of a big deal. The highway is a partially paved, cliff-skirting, mountain climbing, twisting, single lane roadway. There are no speed limit postings but, in a way, that makes sense. There's just no need for them. I've heard tales of drivers who have gone as fast as 50km/hr, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime top speed, reached for mere seconds. The majority of traffic seems to move somewhere between the speed of walking and about 30 km/hr - not including stops for road construction, of course (the road is being widened so this post stands the chance of becoming an outdated relic in the near future).

With that perspective, I can now tell you that our trip from Thimphu to Nangkor took us a total of five days. In fairness, we were making a lot of stops, as we had 16 new teachers, not including ourselves, to drop off along the way. I'm also happy to report that I've just beat my previous record in the reverse direction. Only four days this time!

Hitching

Truth be told, I don't do much hitchhiking. I'm usually happy enough to take a bus (except in Canada where it's cheaper to drive a rental car). But, Bhutan is special. It's unlike any other country I've visited, in a very good way. For one, there's virtually no violent crime. Second, people are friendly and helpful. Nearly every passerby stops to ask where I'm going even when I'm not trying to hitch a ride, and there's nearly a 100% chance that any car passing will stop to pick me up if they have the space to squeeze me in. Third, I have those 16 teachers scattered along the road who can give me a place to spend the night. Considering this, hitchhiking seemed like the best possible mode of travel available to me.

First Stop - Khaling

Easy as pi. I started out at 8:30AM. Before I had taken my 100th step along the road I was comfortably seated inside a vehicle. The driver took me up the hill to Pemagatshel Dzong. From there I waited only 10 minutes before a gypsum truck pulled over and took me to the highway junction. I'd already come a good distance considering it was just time for lunch. I sat by the road and consumed some of my travel snacks. Like magic, just as I finished my last bite of cracker, I had my next ride. It was the blood truck headed to Mongar Hospital with fresh donations. The driver spoke incredibly good English. We chatted about Canada, Bhutan, Sharshopka, the hospital, the guy who got an arrow in the eye during Losar, trekking, and Buddhism all the way to Khaling. I could have kept going all the way to Mongar, but I had already planned to visit my friends Brett and Angie for the night. Here's what's crazy though. None of the drivers would accept a single cent from me despite the fact that I offered. Even more, the driver headed to Mongar exchanged phone numbers with me and bought me tea and lunch before saying goodbye.

It was great catching up with Brett and Angie. Brett the chef, cooked a nice meal and shared some of his private scotch reserve with me. Not to mention the rare gift of brewed coffee. A resounding success for the first day.

Second Stop - Kilkhar, Mongar

Mongar is not that far from Khaling, so I had a leisurely morning and started a little later than the day before. It was nearly 10:30 by the time I hiked up to the highway. I was a little eager to stretch my legs, so I started walking. I had made it less than 1km before a mechanical engineer picked me up. He works for the Bhutan Power Corporation and was on his way home. We had a lot to talk about, as I'm also an engineer, and I too used to work for a power corporation. The time flew by, and before I knew it I was standing right outside Paul's house, where I spent the night.

I was rather lucky to arrive the day that I did. Paul was invited out to a birthday party, and I was asked to come with. I got to meet a good portion of the staff that Paul works with - who, of course, ensured that I was well-fed and watered. We sang and danced until the middle of the night to a mix of traditional Bhutanese songs, western dance songs, and the chicken dance (which was a smash hit amongst both children and adults)!

At the party, I was told that hitching a ride between Mongar and Bumtang would be nearly impossible. Partly because I wanted to leave Sunday morning, and there would be little to no traffic, and partly because I'd be going up the mountain. Assuming that I could only find a ride part way, I'd have to be prepared for the cold. Which I wasn't.

It turns out the bus is reasonably cheep 615Nu ($12CAD), so I didn't fight the advice. I had to get up early, which was a bit of a feat after the wild night before, but I managed to get there in time to purchase the last ticket to Thimphu.

Day 3 - Chumey

It took 9 hours on the bus to reach Jakar in Bumtang. During the day, I met a wood carver from Mongar who is planning to start work on a monastery alter in Pemagatshel soon. We exchanged phone numbers so that I could see his work once he got started. His English was very good and he helped me to communicate with the driver. My intention was not to spend the night at the hotel where the bus had stopped, but to press on to Chumey and visit the Diver family for the night. This entailed a morning pickup on the highway from the bus driver.

As luck had it, the Divers were in Jakar shopping, so it was easy enough to meet up with them and share a cab back to their house. Again, it was nice to share a good meal and conversation. In the morning, I received some homemade bread for the road, which I found a real treat, and the bus picked me up as planned.

Day 4 - Thimphu

My friend the wood carver wasn't on the bus today, He wasn't planning to go past Bumthang. I was a little worried that I wouldn't have anyone to talk to the whole day, but I needn't have been. The lady who I had been sitting beside all 9 hours the day before greeted me with a few simple words in English when I was picked up in the morning and it didn't take long before we were conversing in a mix of Sharshopska and English. She taught me some new words, and we were able to tell each other about our families and their various jobs.

During a lunch stop, I randomly met an agriculture officer who is working on a project near Chamgang, the village that I'm relocating to. Again we exchanged phone numbers and promises of meeting again.

There was a little excitement on the bus when a taxi driver passed us, stopped on the middle of the road in front of us, then got out and began yelling at our bus driver. I have no idea what it was about, but it did escalate to fisticuffs. At one point, the taxi driver jumped into the bus seat and let go of the brake. There was a moment of panic while everyone scrambled to get off the bus, and the men outside manhandled the taxi driver to the ground.

Shortly after, the whole ordeal just kind of ended. The taxi driver got back into his taxi and sped off into the sunset. I'm still baffled as to what it was all about. I don't think I've witnessed someone raise their voice in this country, let alone fight. It's hard to describe how out of place the whole thing seemed.

Anyway, I had a pretty good time hitching and bussing my way around Bhutan. On my way back towards Nangkor, I intend to do it again. Perhaps with more hitching and less bussing. I'd share some photos, but my internet just isn't good enough to do it right now. Stay tuned for when I find a free wifi connection.

By , January 20, 2014 5:22 am
This summer, we visited several parks on the East Coast of Canada. Each of those parks seemed to offer one or more coastal trails. One thing they all had in common was a cliff-side passage. Those cliffs, more often than not, boasted a sheer drop-off of 30 feet or more. The landing wouldn't be soft either. More than likely there would be some sharp, jagged boulders to greet you at the bottom, and enough surf to ensure your hopes of rescue were nil. There's no doubt that you wouldn't be walking away from a drop over the edge. Most of the time, these trails were a well-worn rut. Grasses and wild flowers grew tall on either side of those dusty paths. Proof that nary a soul stepped off that well-walked track. On occasion, those coastal cliff trails would pass dangerously close to the cliff edge they traced. Undoubtedly, this closeness would be marked by a sturdy fence and a brightly coloured sign stating in both official languages - DANGER - DO NOT CROSS - EROSION. Okay, there's nothing unexpected about a sign and fence protecting the thousands of trail walkers that pass by each summer. But there is something unseemly, odd, and profound about the fact that each and every well-worn trail continued on past each and every guardian sign to the crumbling cliff edge. The first time we saw it, I remember remarking to Ashley something about how the idiots who jumped the fence and wore that path deserved whatever welcome the rocks and wave below decided to give them. Why am I telling you this?  Because I proverbially jumped that fence today in Bangkok. For those that haven't been following the news, the Thais are staging a number of protests in the capital city. Some of those protests have turned violent over the past few days, marked by drive-by shootings and grenade tosses into the protesting crowds. People on the street, the Thai government, and the Canadian government have all warned us against travelling near these demonstration sites. And we would have too, had it not been for my self-disabling electronics.
A quote from Ashley's personal facebook page: Two days before we left home, my netbook gave up the ghost. When we got home from replacing it, one of the USB ports in Mike's laptop went kaput. And a flash drive called it quits. Since arriving in Bangkok, my purse strap gave way and Mike's favourite (and most expensive) SLR camera lens conked out. This must be the universe's way of telling us we don't need so much stuff. I sure hope it's done, because I'm out of idioms that mean broken.
Last night, my wide angle camera lens bit the bullet. It seems to have suffered some sort of electrical malfunction. This is my favourite lens. The producer of such photos as these: Tomorrow morning, we leave on a jet plane to our host country for the next year, Bhutan. Bhutan is famous for a lot of things: picturesque landscapes, colourful dress, chili peppers, and gross national happiness. However cheap camera equipment is not on that list. That left me exactly today to replace my favourite lens, preferably with a used and affordable one. After a bit of google searching, I found exactly what I needed in the Foto File store located in Bangkok's MBK mall. The very same MBK mall that's been playing host to a protest site since the 13th of January. It's also nearby the Hua Chang Bridge where a shooting incident left two injured in the early hours of the 15th of January. I also found this map which identifies the protest sites and violent clashes which may be of interest to you if you are currently in Bangkok, or arriving soon. View Protest Sites during Bangkok Shutdown in January 2014 in a larger map So, like the good idiot I am, I dragged Ashley through the barricades, bag searches, vendors, news vans, and into the mall. I got a good story, some poor photos, a new camera lense, and a brief period of racing heart syndrome. Gladly, I can report that we made it in and out completely unscathed. I feel just like one of the fence hoppers I mentioned above. I sure hope that they all made it out unscathed too.
Merchandising

Merchandising

Protesters on Stage

Protesters on Stage

Barricade

Barricade

Protest Tents

Protest Tents

P.S. Don't tell my mom.
By , January 18, 2014 8:39 pm
Thailand today encompasses most of the old kingdom of Siam. Siam, of course,  is famous for both Siamese Twins and Siamese Cats. Oddly enough, we didn't spot either of them on this visit. In it's heyday (1500's to 1767) Siam's capital city, Ayutthaya, was a splendorous trade hub. Foreign nations were invited to set up their own villages outside the capital, facilitating a great amount of trade. Once compared in both size and wealth to Paris and termed the Invincible City, Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese in 1767, bringing an end to the kingdom of Siam. Today, Ayutthaya is famous for two things: its collection of stone ruins in various states of collapse and its rabid dogs.

Rabid Dogs

The rabid dogs are real. I was bit by one. I suppose I can't say with a certainty that the thing was rabid, but I'm pretty sure. Basically, Ashley and I were walking on the sidewalk one evening when we encountered three dogs adjacent to the sidewalk. Two of them were barking and growling, while the third seemed to be in a deep slumber. Just to be safe, we decided to give them a wide berth as we walked past. Our efforts seemed to appease the barkers, who quieted down as we walked past. If their body language were put to words, it'd say something like "That's right chump, you've got nothing. Go home and cry to mamma." Just as I relaxed (dogs always seem to  make me nervous. I think it comes from my childhood job as paper delivery boy), the sleeper jumped up, ran towards me and bit my leg. No growl, snort, or bark. Just a lightning fast dash and a bite. It seemed that's all he wanted to accomplish, and he backed off as soon as I turned towards him. The bite itself didn't really hurt but the skin was broken.

Just a scratch really

That night, Ashley suggested that the dog might have  been rabid. Of course, I didn't believe her. The dog wasn't foaming from the mouth and it had a relatively wimpy bite. I figured it was more likely that the poor thing was just suffering from a little doggy nightmare and bit me in its sleep without realizing what it was doing. Ashley didn't give up though. She brought Google to her aid and started quoting me a bunch of internet facts, which she may or may not have made up on the spot.
"Gee, did you know that if you are infected by rabies, it can take up to seven years to show symptoms?" "Look here, It says that if left untreated rabies is 100% fatal, and it has to be treated within 1 week of an exposure if you already have your shots." "Did you know that it's impossible to tell if a dog has rabies just by looking at it? Not all infected animals foam at the mouths." "This says that as many as 85% of all dogs in Ayutthaya may be infected with rabies." "Rabid dog bites look the same as non-rabid dog bites. If you see signs of infection it's already too late."
You get the picture. After three days of this, I eventually caved in and agreed to seek treatment in Chiang Mai. An experience that I can only describe as eye-openingly pleasant. I saw a doctor within minutes of entering the hospital (who, to my annoyance, said that I absolutely needed the shots - making me have to deal with Ashley's "I told-you-so's for the next couple of days). I received my first booster shot from the nurse a few minutes after that. Best of all, the cost of the vaccine was fairly minimal. In total, for two shots of rabies vaccine and the doctor's consultation, we paid 2,115 Bhat ($72.93CAD). Looking back at the rabies vaccines we received in Canada before we left on this trip (which I'm now glad we did) I noticed that the same thing would have cost us $490CAD. Much cheaper in Thailand!

Getting Around

We used bicycles for transport exclusively in this city. It's really flat, and the streets are in good condition with little traffic. There's plenty of rental shops that offer very reasonable rates in the hotel district, so finding a bike was a cinch. I managed to have the misfortune of renting a cycle with a flat tire one day, and did have to walk a bit. Fortunately, there were plenty of repair shops on our route, and they all gladly filled my tire with air without charge so my walking time was reduced to a minimum.  Just don't forget the sunscreen.

Stone Buildings

AKA ruins. There's not really much for me to say. Especially now, about one year after visiting them. Fortunately, I snapped some photos and they haven't forgotten a thing. Enjoy.
By , November 11, 2013 8:09 pm

But first... A few words on our 80 day holiday

Thanks for letting us take such a long holiday. If you've been following us for a while, then you'd catch my lie if I said this is the first break we've had since this blog started 1070 days ago. So I'll come clean and admit that we've taken blogging holidays before, and guess what... we'll do it again. You'll forgive our absence though, won't you dear reader? The important thing now is that we're back to writing.  So let's just pick things up where we left of in Thailand, and speak no more about it. Okay? No! I guess that's fair, we have been offline for quite a while. And yes, to you our life probably seems like it is a big holiday. I should have known that you'd have some questions about just what it is that a travel blogger does when they go on holiday. And you're right, it's only fair that I tell you.
  1. We stopped travelling. Not permanently, but for a while. We spent some time crashing in our friends' and families' spare bedrooms, socializing, and otherwise trying to catch up with people we haven't seen since we left home a couple of years ago.
  2. We started working. Actually, Ashley started working. She managed to get her name on the substitute teaching list. Me... I've spent most of my time developing 100% whole grain bread recipes. I've been harbouring a dream of one day starting a bakery, so I figured I should spend a little time baking. Technically I'm not allowed to count it as work because I didn't make any money doing it.
  3. About 3 months into living at home we got really bored. Not to mention the school year ended, and neither of us were making any money working anymore. So we went back to "work" traveling and blogging. We spent two months this summer road tripping through Eastern Canada. We'll get around to posting some pics and stories one day. But you'll have to wait. We're going to keep with our generally chronological post order and finally finish writing about our time in South East Asia first.
  4. We finished up our road trip by mid September and ended up back home again. This time we're taking advantage of my sister's spare bedroom. Thanks, sis, we appreciate it.
  5. Working again. Ashley's landed a temporary teaching contract that lasts until we head to Bhutan in January. I kept on baking for a while and spent some time learning to program with Python. I've been toying with making some online income programming for a while, so I figured I could spend some time developing my programming skills. Then I became real bored and mopey. In the end I had no choice but to go out and get a real job to occupy myself. For those that are curious, I'm working with a home builder doing residential construction.
So that's it, a travel blogger's holiday is a lot like everyone else's regular life. And just like you, I can only take so much time on holiday before I really want to go back to my regular day job. So here we are.

10 day Thai Silent Meditation Retreat (Mike's Thoughts)

If you didn't read our 80 day old introduction to this retreat, you really should. I'm not going to re-hash all that was already said. Consider it prerequisite reading. First up, I enjoyed the retreat. A lot. Like a lot, a lot. Which is odd, as I was sort of teetering on not going before it started. I mean after reading the rules and the daily schedule for the retreat I was probably thinking along the same lines as you. Why would anyone want to do this? To be honest, it sounded a bit like torture. Obviously, the reality was far different. The day the retreat ended I was really feeling good. I felt like I had learned enough to write several doctorate theses in the fields of psychology, philosophy, and religion. At the time, I was so excited to write this blog post that I whipped out my laptop and wrote and wrote and wrote. I even did up a couple of graphical conceptual models to help describe the various parts of the brain and how they interact to form what is commonly referred to as human consciousness. Then, I started talking about my experiences with some of the other people from the retreat, including Ashley. I was expecting to be preaching to the choir so to speak, but what I learned is that not a single person agreed with me or experienced anything similar. Needless to say, I took a cold hard second look at all the universal truth I'd uncovered during my 10 days, and came to the realization that there was nothing universal about it. It is incredibly profound, it is incredibly useful, but it only has relevance or meaning to just one person... myself. As a result, I've chosen to spare you from all the preachy jibber jabber and leave it to you to go to a retreat like this one and find your own truths if you so desire. What you'll get here are my more superficial thoughts on the whole thing.

Food

Suan Mokkh - Meal Hall

Suan Mokkh - Meal Hall

The food was delicious and healthy. The diet included plenty of whole grains (rice) and balanced proportions of vegetables, starches, and proteins. I've noticed since becoming vegetarian that eating balanced meals with whole grains is the difference between feeling fantastic and feeling lethargic. This was good food, and if you want to become vegetarian yourself one day, I'd suggest modelling your diet after these meals. On the flip side, the meals were fairly repetitive, keeping with the Buddhist philosophy that you really shouldn't be looking forward to you next meal. In fact there is a meal time reading that emphasizes how you should only eat to stay alive, not for pleasure. None the less, the food tasted good to me. Even if it was the substantially the same day after day. Naturally, I didn't mind the lack of meat being served either.

Meal Frequency

Only eating twice (or once) a day didn't really do much for me. After lunch I routinely felt sick and bloated from having just eaten an entire days worth of food in one sitting. The point of it is to help your meditation by keeping your mind off of your stomach, but I found it had the opposite effect.

Mindfulness

The goal is meditation, and meditation requires concentration. Unfortunately, as I found out in a hurry, if you haven't practised meditation before, you're probably incapable of concentrating even for a little while. Left to its own devices, the brain spends it's waking hours in constant thought. It'll think about everything you see, smell, hear, touch, and taste. It'll also worry about the future, and re-live memories of the past. And it does these things weather you want it to or not. The solution is what the Buddhists call mindfulness or what we might call "living in the now". Basically, you actively pay attention to something boring, like your breath, and ignore everything else. Over time, your brain will slow down it's constant thought chatter and start paying attention to it too. Over the 10 days, by trying actively to not think about anything, or remember anything, or worry about anything, or feel anything, I gained the level of mastery over my brain to actually stop it from doing those things. Believe it or not, as a result I really don't get stressed or worried about anything anymore. Unless I let myself that is. That's part of the reason I could go 80 days without writing a blog post and not really feel all too bad about it.

Studying the Brain

Once I got the hang of slowing my brain down by concentrating on boring stuff, I started to analyze how my brain was working. When I got to the point that I was only having one or two thoughts a minute, I was able to reflect on where each thought came from and why I had that thought. I could also study my gut reaction, and my emotional response. It's when I started doing this that I really started to get into the subject matter that I thought could fuel a productive career as a humanities academic. To me, this was the most rewarding part of the whole meditation retreat. I came into contact with myself, and I began to figure myself out. This is the reward that trumps all of the hardships of the retreat.

Meditation

Suan Mokkh

Suan Mokkh Meditation Hall

Of course, there was a lot of meditation time. I thought that sitting on the ground cross-legged for several hours a day would be unbearably painful for my stiff knees, and it was. So I didn't. I spent most of my time propped up on a wooden box, or several pillows. After that, I really didn't have any comfort problems. It took about 4 days before I had any success with my meditation at all, but once I figured it out, I was able to fall into a deep meditation within about 15 minutes of starting. For me the secret was keeping from moving any muscles - twitching a finger, straightening my back, flexing a leg muscle, any slight movement aside from breathing would set me back to square one. Describing meditation is difficult, and likely one of those things that varies person by person. Please don't expect that it'll be the same for you as it was for me. In my opinion, meditation is basically about tricking your brain into falling asleep while remaining conscious. I know that doesn't make much sense, but try to imagine that the part of your brain that does the thinking and the part that does the remembering are separate pieces. Normally they both fall asleep at about the same time, so you don't remember much of it. When you are meditating however, your brain falls into different levels of slumber but you remember everything. Strangely, the first two levels of meditation for me were marked by a feeling of intense pleasure or desire, followed by a feeling of intense satisfaction. It's these two feelings that make up the Buddhist teachings on the cycle of want, living in the now, and suffering. After experiencing it, I get it, but there's no way to explain it to you. It's one of those things you just have to experience and get for yourself. Level 3 of meditation felt a lot like daydreaming Level 4 was similar to what you might experience when you come out of a very deep, vivid, and realistic dream/nightmare suddenly in the middle of the night. Level 5 contained nothing but brain inactivity and slumber. That was pretty much it for me. If you are trying to connect to the teachings of Buddha, I imagine that the actual meditation will be very important for you. For me, I found the analytic studying of my brain while being awake and mindful much more revealing and interesting than what I could study while meditating.

Stone Beds

The wooden pillows and concrete mattresses were uncomfortable, but I slept like a rock, and woke up refreshed every morning. There's something to it. I thought it'd be worse than it was.

The Gardens

Defiantly a highlight. I spent a lot of hours looking at exotic plants, watching fish, birds, and ants. It's about as stimulating of an environment as you could want, and really highlights the pure enjoyment you can get from nature if you can get your brain to pay attention to it.

Buddhist Teachings

Suan Mokkh

The Dharma talks were fairly light, and mostly tuned towards the purpose of the retreat: Meditation. I enjoyed them, as they broke up the day, and gave a bit of cultural insight that I wouldn't get hanging out on a beach. Probably the most interesting thing to me was the differences between this school of Buddhism and others. Even within Thailand. Apparently, the ancient language of Pali that the Buddha wrote in, has a very limited vocabulary and can be translated to mean many different things. For example, here they believe that the Buddha was teaching that to want is suffering, and that allowing yourself to want leads to a cycle of more wanting and more suffering. Therefore you should not allow yourself to want so you can break the cycle and end suffering. This same teaching, is often translated by others to mean that life is suffering, and life is made up of many deaths (reincarnation). Therefore you should try to become enlightened so that you can end your cycle of reincarnation and end suffering (i.e. die for good). Hugely different ideas, translated from the same words. Like I said, interesting.

Mosquitoes

Really, really, really bad. But only when the sun was rising and setting. The rest of the time they were fine. I didn't wear any mosquito repellent, but that was probably a mistake. Did I mention you're not allowed to kill them?  So when they bite you are supposed do nothing. On average, it seemed to take about 2 minutes for them to get their fill and fly off.

Yoga

There were yoga classes every morning. This is an adaptation for westerners, as actual Buddhist teachings require no exercise whatsoever.  I understand the rule to some degree, as exercise does stir up the mind, and that's not good for meditation. Nonetheless, I was glad to have a little yoga time every day.

Silence

This is what makes it all work. Even though you are in a retreat with 100 other people, it really feels like it's just you. All alone. With nothing but your own thoughts for company. This is why it works.

Separation of the sexes

It was tough being in the retreat with Ashley and not being able to talk to her or sit beside her at meal time. We agreed ahead of time not to talk to each other at all and to try to take a break from each other as if we really were there alone. We cheated a bit, not by talking, but by leaving flowers for each other. It's hard to say which would be better - to be at the retreat at the same time like we did, or to go separately. At least the way we did it, I didn't have to think about what a great time Ashley would be having on the beach while I was waking up at dawn and watching mosquitoes sip at my blood.

10 days

The length seemed about right. It wasn't really until day 4 that I seemed to get anywhere, so I wouldn't bother with a shorter retreat. By day 10, I seemed to have enough figured out that I wanted a break. For me, 10 days was perfect and I'm glad it wasn't a day longer or a day shorter.
By , August 16, 2013 7:16 am
While my most poignant memories of Phnom Penh are of the genocide museum and killing fields, there were a few more things that the city had to offer.

Royal Palace

The royal palace of Cambodia is still the main residence of the monarchy. You can visit the grounds, but many of the buildings are off limits. The gardens are beautiful, and the buildings are nice. The famed silver pagoda is here, housing two marvels. A giant golden Buddha figure, and a floor covered entirely in silver tiles. I found them both a bit of a let down. The tile floor was almost entirely covered in carpet, leaving only hints of its silvery greatness showing. Likewise, the gold and jewel encrusted buddha was locked behind a glass display case which was so dirty, you could hardly see any shine at all.

The Cultural Centre Performances

These theatrical performances show you insights into the traditions, beliefs, and culture of the Khmer people. They are a spectacle including English translations, costumes, and live music. I really enjoyed the performance we attended which talked about the various rituals traditionally performed at birth, marriage, sickness, and death. More than just a source of entertainment, the Cultural Centre also acts as a school, teaching traditional dramatic and musical arts to a new generation. These traditional artistic elements were almost completely lost during the time of the Khmer Rouge, as an estimated 90% of artists were killed in the genocide. Much of their preservation to the present day can be attributed to this organization.

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