Friday, February 15, 2013

Building the Human Brochure

Everywhere we went in Canberra had these signs - they really pulled out
the stops to make us feel welcome.

The first stop for everyone during the October
Human Brochure weekend - the Australian
War Memorial.
If you're reading this blog, it's likely because you have a love of travel, whether you're a digital nomad or pack all your explorations into two weeks per year. But what motivates you to look at a map, point to a spot and say "I want to go there!"? If you're anything like me, tourism board ads and brochures probably don't even cross your mind in response to that question. Often, what makes me want to visit a specific place is what I hear from other people - and what I do once I'm there draws heavily from suggestions from Twitter, blogs and travel forums. I may occasionally visit a tourism board's website looking for information, but I can't remember a time I've actually been prompted to stay or eat somewhere or take part in an activity based on one.

Australian Capital Tourism is out to change all that.

Canberra, Australia's capital and the capital city of the Australian Capital Territory, is celebrating its centenary this year, and ACTourism is determined to take advantage of the opportunity to change the city's staid reputation. (If you're not from Australia, you're probably wondering where Canberra is and why you've never heard of it - it's a few hours' drive southwest of Sydney and has an unfortunate reputation for being full of boring politicians, windy days and little else. If you're from Australia, quit sniggering!)

Getting some basic mountain biking instructions from former
professional mountain cyclist Jarrod Rando.
Photo credit: Australian Capital Tourism
I'd always planned to make it to Canberra before leaving Australia but assumed I'd just make a quick daytrip, visit Parliament and wander around a little, then head back to Sydney, tick Canberra off my list and never think about it again. Then, in early September, Brooke Schoenman of Brooke vs. the World and Her Packing List posted a link on Facebook to an application for something called "the Human Brochure." Intrigued by the name, I clicked through.

Fast-forward to the last weekend in October and I was shrieking as I flew (okay, half-flew, half-wobbled) over a series of "rollers" at the ACT's Stromlo Forest Park on a mountain bike, laughing with delight at the sound and feel of a cheetah's purr at the National Zoo & Aquarium, and chatting with a park ranger on the way up to Tidbinbilla's Gibraltar Peak. And, it must be said, making a complete glutton of myself at some of Canberra's best restaurants.

One of my favorite experiences of the weekend - petting Shassa,
a playful, middle-aged cheetah with a purr like a freight train,
at Canberra's National Zoo & Aquarium.
Not an altogether unusual itinerary for me (minus the being spoiled in a nice hotel part), but the premise behind it was: I was in Canberra for the weekend as one of "500 humans" brought to the city from all around Australia to experience the variety of activities it has to offer and share my experience via social media. ACTourism put together four activity streams - Food & Wine, Family Fun, Arts & Culture, and Adventure, which was the stream I took part in.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Canberra, given its rather dull reputation, but I had a blast and would love to go back. The one big takeaway of the weekend, for me, was that Canberra is actually teeming with fun, historical, delicious, and interesting things to do, depending on what you're looking for. One of my fellow Adventurers, Anthony (@bloodytourist), put it best when he tweeted halfway through the weekend, "So far, I can't comprehend for the life of me why #Canberra has a bad rep. I could fill weeks." The variety of available things to do in Australia's capital will be especially diverse this year, when each month is packed with centenary celebrations.

The Sloe Kid - sloe gin, reposado tequila, mandarin, & lime,
a delicious start to dinner at Canberra hot-spot Soju Girl.
Aside from the great activities put together for the Adventure stream, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I couldn't get over the sheer brilliance of the idea of the Human Brochure. Created and executed by the wonderful team at The Works, this is a tourism campaign that takes the whole concept to another level. They aren't advertising Canberra, they're giving 500 people a semi-personalized overview of what the city has to offer and asking each of those 500 people to share their activities, reactions, and opinions with their friends and networks, essentially creating 500 different - and again, personalized - mini ad-campaigns. Considering that each of the "500 humans" selected from more than 31,000 applicants has something like a 45% higher-than-average social media reach, that's both gutsy and smart.

I was thrilled to take part in building the Human Brochure, and I hope to see similar campaigns start to take place worldwide. I had a fabulous time, and I enjoyed sharing my experience as it happened - it's what I do anyway when I travel, but doing so with the idea of encouraging people to visit an underrated destination with a lot to offer added to the fun. I don't know what kind of impact Canberra tourism has seen or will see from this, but I know another campaign like this one would make me sit up and take notice of all the area had to offer and the experiences the people participating in it had.

On the way up to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve's Gibraltar Peak.
Photo credit: Australian Capital Tourism
And the Human Brochure is only half done! 250 of us tweeted, Instagrammed, foursquared, Facebooked, and blogged our way through the first weekend in October, and the remaining 250 humans are beginning to arrive in Canberra as we speak, preparing to do the same this weekend. Check out my #humanbrochure stream, then watch the full stream to follow along as this weekend's humans experience all that Canberra has to offer. You just might find a reason - or a handful! - to visit Australia's capital city yourself.

The trip written about in this post was paid for by Australian Capital Tourism, at no cost - other than the occasional latte and the risk of sore fingers from tweeting so much - to me. Accommodation, meals, activities, and transport within Canberra were provided; I received reimbursement for the cost of transport to and from Canberra. All opinions, however, are my own.

Gratuitous cute-Aussie-wildlife photo - I've never seen so many kangaroos
in one place in the wild as at Tidbinbilla. And who can resist a cute roo
and her little joey?
Photo credit: Australian Capital Tourism
During the (very few!) hours we weren't out adventuring,
the staff of Canberra's Mantra on Northbourne went above
and beyond to be sure the Adventure stream was comfortable,
supplying us with welcome snacks, a lovely breakfast spread,
and snacks, water, and hats for our trip to Tidbinbilla.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Day the Kawarau River Punched Me in the Face

Kawarau Bridge, the birthplace of commercial bungy.

In Queenstown, NZ, the question of greeting in hostel common rooms isn't the usual "So, how long are you staying?" or "Where are you from?" Instead, without fail, it's "What are you doing tomorrow?"

I loved Queenstown from the moment I drove into it, more in spite of its adrenaline-junky status than because of it. It comes closer to picture-perfect than any other town I've seen, and its gorgeous setting certainly doesn't hurt, with stunning views and a staggering range of outdoor adventures on offer.

Queenstown was the last stop on the solo portion of my road trip around New Zealand and I'd already done most of my thrill-seeking for the trip; the only thing left was bungy-jumping. If I had a bucket list, bungy would not be on it - as I've said before, I am not an adrenaline junky. But Queenstown is the birthplace of commercial bungy and if I was ever going to hurl myself off a ledge with no more support than a glorified rubber band, I figured there was probably no better place for it than where it all began. In the interest both of budgeting and not giving myself a chance to back out, I booked my non-refundable jump date online well before I arrived in New Zealand.

Still laughing - I hadn't actually looked down yet.
Photo credit: AJ Hackett Bungy
I had chosen to jump from Kawarau Bridge, the original commercial jump site, operated by AJ Hackett Bungy. At 43 meters (~141 feet), Kawarau is the shortest of AJ Hackett's drops on offer in Queenstown, and I was feeling pretty cavalier about the whole thing as I boarded the bus for the 20-minute drive to the jump site. (After all, I'd jumped out of a plane barely three days earlier. Clearly, this would be a piece of cake.)

Upon arrival, I tightened my sandals and pulled off my watch and earrings, laughing at the "I Was Too Chicken" shirts on display in the gift shop. In a brilliant flash of self-preservation, I decided I didn't want to wait around watching people jump first, I just wanted to do it. I was second in line out on the bridge, joking with the British guy behind me while I climbed down onto the back part of the ledge to have my legs wrapped and secured.

I told the guys operating the jump that I wanted to touch the water (the options are bungy over it, touch it, or get dunked), and waddled forward when they told me to. Distracted by the guy telling me to look at various cameras, I didn't actually look down until they were resetting one that hadn't gone off the first time. All of a sudden, my heart leapt into my throat. I was supposed to voluntarily hurl myself into all that thin air, when every instinct was screaming to back up - very quickly - onto safer ground? I gulped.

Not a bad jump, actually. I was terrified I wasn't
going to get far enough from the platform.
Photo credit: AJ Hackett Bungy
The reset camera flashed, and the operator, thoroughly unimpressed by the feat of sheer insanity he was about to witness, began to count down from five. Much, much faster than I thought he should be counting. Jittery thoughts rushed through my brain. How am I supposed to do this? Who in their right mind is actually capable of jumping off a ledge? This is freaking terrifying. As he reached "three," one thing became clear: If I don't go when he says "one," I'm never going to get off of this thing.

I took a deep breath, braced myself and, as he finished the countdown (" Bungy!"), threw myself forward, arms outstretched.

There was a split second of weightlessness, of absolute freedom, and then I abruptly realized that my stomach was still on the ledge, while the rest of me was hurtling downward, much too quickly.

The water of the Kawarau River, rushing up at me, was a gorgeous color and I stretched my hands toward it, not wanting to miss my shot to dip my fingers in. Except, I realized, my brain still moving at warp speed, that a whole lot more than my hands was about to get wet. I quickly clamped my mouth, open from shrieking on the way down, tightly shut, but didn't manage to get my eyes closed before I was submerged in that gorgeous blue, the color forever imprinted on my brain as it swirled around me.

I surfaced almost before I'd had a chance to register the freezing temperature of the water and bounced around like a yo-yo (somehow also managing to spin myself around in dizzying circles) until the retrieval raft got close enough to reel me in. I lay on the bottom as they untangled me and floated us to the stairs, laughing as I stared back up at the bridge.
Soaking wet, but safely down.
Photo credit: AJ Hackett Bung

I waited partway up the stairs to watch Ryan, the British guy who'd been on the same bus and behind me in line on the bridge, jump. Still shaking, we laughed our way back up to the viewing platform, comparing notes. He'd asked to get dunked and, somehow, was only wet to mid-torso, while I was soaked to mid-thigh. Someone must have misheard or miscalculated something somewhere! But it had been an adventure, and I had done it. (Although what that said about my sanity, I wasn't quite sure.)

Safely back on my own two feet! (With crazy hair, courtesy of my
impromptu dunking.)
Safely back on the viewing platform, I watched some of the other jumpers and was very glad I hadn't taken the time to do so before jumping myself - it was positively terrifying to watch. Waiting for the bus back into town, we all swapped photos and brandished our "Bungy Jumper" t-shirts. My head was starting to ache, but I put it down to the cold water and too much post-jump shivering, which was more in reaction to the jump than the temperature of the water.

Back at the hostel, I told my "accidental dunking" story and called my parents to let them know I'd survived my last crazy stunt of the trip, before making my way back to my room. I'd braced my pack at the foot of my bunk, against a full-length mirror; glancing into it as I pulled out dry clothes, I gasped. No wonder I had a headache, the skin underneath my left eye was swollen and the lid was starting to bruise! Since I hadn't asked to be dunked, I hadn't tucked my chin the way you're supposed to and my face had slapped the water as I went in, giving me my first-ever black eye.

Despite the black eye (which I walked around feeling self-conscious about for the following week), I'm glad I took the plunge, so to speak. Bungy-jumping was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I have no desire to repeat but definitely wouldn't have wanted to miss. And it's certainly the most extreme - and unique - travel misadventure I've ever had. After all, how many people do you know who've been punched in the face by a river?

The hand-over-the-mouth, what-was-I-thinking?! moment when I first look down is priceless. (Also evidence that I had completely forgotten I'd bought a photo/video package with my booking. Oops.)
Video credit: AJ Hackett Bungy

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: The Joy of Freefall

Being spun in 360s, at 120mph, by the photographer holding onto my hand.
Photo credit: Skydive Abel Tasman photographer, Evan
I am not an adrenaline junky. Sure, I've been set bouncing off the ceiling by a runner's high and shrieked at the top of my lungs on a few roller coasters, but I've never been the type to do anything in search of an adrenaline rush. So when I planned a tandem skydive from 16,500 feet and a 43-meter (~141 feet) bungy jump into my trip to New Zealand at the end of last year, it was more because I was curious about the experiences than because I was in search of a thrill.

Each of these experiences deserves its own post (with video!) down the road, but they had something in common that blew me away: freefall. I don't know what I expected freefall to be like but "amazing" wasn't a word I expected to use after the fact. So it surprised me when I did, over and over and over again.

Freefalling out of a plane and freefalling after hurling yourself off a ledge are two very different sensations but - for me, anyway - they both involved an element of pure, undiluted joy that took me completely by surprise. You can see it on my face in the photo above: we were less than 15 seconds out of the plane, hurtling toward the ground twice as fast as a car on a highway, spinning in the air over the very northern edge of New Zealand's South Island...and I couldn't have been happier. For 75 seconds, I was soaring above the earth (plummeting toward it, actually, but it felt more like flying), air rushing past my face and roaring in my ears. Few things have ever felt so wonderful.

Bungy-jumping is both much faster and, in my opinion, much scarier than sky-diving, but you still get just a split second of that soaring sensation before you realize you've left your stomach on the platform and are now hurtling downward at a worrisome rate of speed. The picture below captures that instant, and I love being able to look at it and remember what it felt like to be caught between earth and sky, seemingly weightless, just for a few moments.

Just after launching myself off the bungy platform at Kawarau Bridge, right before gravity set in.
Photo credit: AJ Hackett Bungy

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Swimming with the Dusky Dolphins of Kaikoura

The Dusky Dolphins of Kaikoura
The horn sounds, you slip into the water, lower your head and are stunned by the effort it takes to breathe. Two layers of 7mm-thick neoprene, plus the flap of the wetsuit hood, combined with a water temperature of about 50°F and the unnatural feel of breathing through a tube is something of a shock to the system. You force yourself to calm down, slow your breathing and start kicking away from the boat.

Within about a minute, your body has adjusted and you're breathing more or less normally again, so you start making noise, as instructed; since Michael Bublé's "Haven't Met You Yet" is the first thing that comes to mind, you sing it into your snorkel (or rather, you sing the notes and leave the words at "doo doo doo de da doo doo doo," since trying to sing the actual lyrics would be completely incomprehensible with a hollow piece of rubber and plastic in your mouth).

Less than sixty seconds later, a sleek arc in shades of grey bullets past and it's all you can do to keep your singing from turning into a squeal of excitement. You sing a bit louder and the grey bullet comes back. You follow it and suddenly you're swimming in a tight circle in the chilly South Pacific, trying to keep pace with a curious Dusky Dolphin who's come to investigate this unfamiliar squawking.

This is what a Dolphin Encounter with Encounter Kaikoura is all about and it is, in a word, amazing.

Part of Kaikoura's coastline and a pair of dolphins.
Before you ever set foot on a boat, Encounter Kaikoura is very clear about what its Dolphin Encounter is meant to be: an opportunity to interact with wild animals in their own environment, on their terms. Tracy, the tour leader and Pete, the bus driver and boat captain, know the habits of Kaikoura's Dusky Dolphins and know both where to look and what to look for, but it's made very clear that this isn't a Sea World exhibit and nothing is guaranteed, although every effort to get you into the water and interacting with dolphins will be made.

Since I was heading over toward Abel Tasman National Park the same day, I opted for the 5:30am tour, a summer-only option. It's a great time of day, Tracy told us, because the dolphins are heading back toward land after a night of hunting and like to get together and socialize, which means they're usually grouped into fairly large pods. We started seeing dolphins swimming and leaping within about 10 minutes of leaving Kaikoura's South Bay, all heading in the same direction. Roughly 10 minutes later, we were all lined up along the back of the boat, hoods, masks and snorkels in place, ready to slip into the water at Pete’s signal.

Several of the dolphins swimming in front of the boat on the
way back to shore.

Keeping track of time underwater is never easy, but I’d estimate I spent about 45 minutes in the water, and I was rarely out of the company of at least one dolphin for more than a minute at a time. The visibility was terrible (the dolphins were virtually invisible until they were less than five meters away, startling a laugh out of me more than once when they suddenly appeared in front of, next to or beneath me), the water was freezing, the thick wetsuits and hoods were horribly awkward…and I couldn’t stop smiling.

After the first several minutes, I started to notice the dolphins’ individual markings and recognized one in particular that kept coming back – he or she had a starburst-shaped marking or scar just in front of his or her blowhole and seemed to like Sara Bareilles’ “King of Anything.” I repeated the same four or five songs throughout my time in the water and within a few lines of starting that one, I’d usually find myself swimming in human-paced circles with the dolphin with the starburst marking.

One of the mother and calf pairs that came to see the humans.
Some of the dolphins were both more interested in and more sensitive to humans than others and would swim slowly enough that I could keep up for a bit, while others would bullet past, whirl in a circle so quick that I couldn’t finish half of one in the same time, then zoom back out to sea. Tracy told us later that there had been something like 200 in the whole pod, but they mostly swam in pairs or groups of half a dozen or so.

Several times, I found myself in the midst of half a dozen dolphins at once, swimming in a circle of flashing grey and silver as I did my best to keep singing, rather than break into delighted laughter. I even circled briefly with a mother and a calf no more than three months old, feeling vaguely like a zoo exhibit but ecstatic at the sight of the baby, not quite yet as graceful as its mother.

The dolphins are incredibly playful and liked to leap alongside the boat.
Every moment was a dream come true. The dolphins were enchanting – wild, but willing to share their habitat and fearlessly curious of the strange, awkward creatures who’d descended into their world. They kept slightly less than an arm’s length away, watching us with wise eyes. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I’ll relive the beauty of the memories for the rest of my life, always with just a little disbelief that I really did once swim with dolphins.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday Snapshot: Sunrise in the Outback

Sunrise at Uluru-Kata Tjuta Park, 15 June 2011
Sunrise has been vying for position as my favorite time of day since I was 17. On a spring trip to France in our junior year of high school, two friends and I decided that getting up to watch the sun rise over the Baie des Anges in Nice was the perfect way to celebrate our first full day in the country. Neglecting to consider how much further north than Southern California France is, we arrived on the beach shortly after 5am, nearly two hours before sunrise. We walked the length of the Promenade des Anglais and continued partway around the headland at the eastern end of the bay. I snapped pictures of every infinitesimal lightening of the eastern sky. Jet-lagged and sleepy-eyed, we yawned, more than once. In the end, it was worth every chilly moment. Not because the sunrise itself was a particularly spectacular one, but because it just felt like the perfect way to have started the day and our time in France.

In the nine and a half years since that April morning, I've watched sunrises from planes to various destinations, on my way to class during Washington, DC winters and while sitting on the steps of a stone library at Angkor Wat. I spent nearly three of those years seeing four or five sunrises a week as I put in the necessary miles to keep up my marathon training. Watching the sun sneak above the horizon as I paced along, puffing out fog into the frozen winter landscape or inhaling what felt like half a river from air weighted with summer humidity, came to be a comfortable part of my routine. I can't remember a day that's started with the sun that turned out to be a bad one.

With grad school keeping me up later and homework eating up a lot of the time I used to use for running, I've fallen out of the habit of watching the sunrise this year but didn't think much of it until my trip to the Northern Territory this June.

My tour left Alice Springs shortly after 6am on June 14th - which meant it was still dark, since June is winter here in Australia. It doesn't take long to leave the town of Alice Springs behind and move into empty Outback, which was where we were when the sun began to peek over the horizon. The ghostly shapes of scrub brush and the occasional desert oak became clearer and color seeped into the landscape by degrees. By the time we stopped at our first roadhouse of the day, my breath had caught in my throat a dozen times at the beauty of the Outback at dawn. The early morning air seemed gilded around the edges, rays of sunlight dancing over the red earth and teasing out depths of color that seemed impossible in the full light of day. I soaked in as much of the scenery as I could, feeling more peaceful than I had in weeks.

At Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park the next day, we watched the sun rise over both Uluru and the "many heads" of the Kata Tjuta. Sunset at Uluru the night before had been a great experience, but it was watching streams of light flow across the horizon, pouring color back into the landscape and glinting off the frost that had formed during the night that took my breath away. Watching the silhouettes of the Kata Tjuta lighten as the sun crept higher into the sky, I couldn't help but smile.

I had one more Outback sunrise that week, watching the early morning light break over the top of Kings Canyon as we made our way up the Rim Walk's "Heart Attack Hill," then chase the shadows from the trail. As the canyon walls absorbed the first of the sun's rays and reflected them back in rich shades of red and brown, I paused to catch my breath in the slowly warming air, drawing in the feeling that's what I love best about sunrise: the twin sensations of peace and possibility that accompany the start of each new day.

Color seeping back into the landscape as the sun creeps up to illuminate the "many heads" of the Kata Tjuta.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wandering Angkor Wat

I dragged myself out of bed well before dawn, blearily noting the silence outside my window. It seemed even the neighboring rooster, who'd spent more than an hour crowing the previous afternoon, was still asleep. I, however, had better things to do: this was my day to visit Angkor Wat.
In addition to being a reliable driver, Mr. Thorn
was a good sport and agreed to pose for me.
After a hurried breakfast, I greeted Mr. Thorn, who'd picked me up at the Siem Reap airport the day before, hopped in the back of his tuk-tuk and off we went. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply as we tore down dirt roads in the dark. The pre-dawn air was lovely, the omnipresent Cambodian dust tamped down by an overnight rain and the sweltering heat of the Southeast Asian sun still an hour or two beyond the horizon.

The noisy confusion and fluorescent lights at the entrance to Angkor Archaeological Park jolted me halfway back to reality as I purchased my ticket, and I climbed back into the tuk-tuk a little more alert. I watched the fog that hovered above the surface of the moat running parallel to the road, guiding us toward the entrance to Angkor Wat itself as the nighttime shadows began to lift, nudged back by the first fingers of dawn creeping over the landscape.

The sun peeking through a momentary
break in the clouds over Angkor Wat.
Wading through the masses of tourists and salespeople, I eventually settled down on the steps of one of the libraries that flank the main causeway, watching light slowly seep into the sky around Angkor's unmistakable triple silhouette. A bank of clouds from the night's rain lingered, hovering above and behind the temple, and it quickly became apparent that it wasn't going to clear before the sun was well into the sky. The photographers around me grumbled about missing a typically stunning Angkor Wat sunrise but I was oddly unperturbed, content to absorb the feeling of being nearly 9,000 miles from home, standing in the midst of a complex ordered built by a 12th-century king.

As the sun crept higher in the sky and deeper into the cloud bank, I made my way into the enclosure around the temple itself, marveling at the beauty of the bas-relief devatas guarding it and their apsara cousins, seemingly poised to begin a dance. After a climb up dauntingly steep steps with a railing so rickety I felt safer not holding onto it, I wandered one of the towers as the sun burned through the remaining clouds, sending hazy light spreading over the city surrounding the temple as sunbeams found their way through gaps in the sandstone to dance over the carvings lining the tower corridors.

A trio of apsaras at the base of one of the towers, with another tower at left.
The view from the stairs up to one of the towers (complete with rickety railing!)
Sunlight slowly seeping into the tower corridors.
The view over one of the tower balconies, with the Angkor balloon just visible among the treetops.
The South Gate entrance to Angkor Thom and
the Bayon. The statues lining the road are
fascinating - gods on the left, asuras (demons)
on the right.
I could happily have spent all morning in that one small corner of the 150-some-odd square mile complex that is the archaeological park, but I eventually pulled myself away to find Mr. Thorn and make our way to Angkor Thom and the Bayon.

The Bayon was perhaps my favorite of the sites I visited at Angkor, although it was also the most crowded. The serene smiles of the huge faces carved into the stone make for a peaceful setting, and I curled up in as quiet a spot as I could find to write some postcards before moving onto Angkor Thom city itself.

The Terrace of the Elephants, the South Gate entrance and parts of the Preah Pithu Group aside, Angkor Thom city itself was my least favorite part of the day and didn't have as much of an impact on me as the other sites I visited, but I'm still glad I took some time to wander through one of the major sites in the archaeological park.

One of the side corridors leading off from the main entryway
into the Bayon.
One of the Bayon's many face towers.
My favorite of the face towers - I wrote my postcards sitting near this guy.
When I arrived at Ta Prohm, the last site I visited, I felt as if I had stepped into some sort of Eden. The shade from the surrounding jungle and the cool morning air retained by the stone protected most of the complex from the sweltering midday heat. Despite being another of Angkor's most popular sites and full of camera-wielding tourists, Ta Prohm seemed to instill a sense of awe in most of its visitors and the hush that filled the temple was a welcome change from the chaos of Angkor Thom. With its crumbling corridors and overgrown doorways, it was easy to wander Ta Prohm wrapped in a sense of solitude, absorbing the feeling of peace that seemed to float through the air. As I climbed back into Mr. Thorn's tuk-tuk, I faced backward to watch first the temple and then the jungle treetops for as long as I could before turning around to watch the dusty road as we headed back to the vibrant, noisy reality of Siem Reap.

The last photo I got before my camera battery died, taken by a kind French couple who waited for or asked numerous other tourists to step out of one side or the other of the frame to get the perfect shot.
N.B.: My camera battery gave up its battle with the Cambodian heat not long after I arrived at the Bayon, which is why there are no photos of Angkor Thom city or Ta Prohm. (Advice: take a spare or two! This was the only place on my Thailand-Cambodia trip that I could have used one.) I was a little disappointed not to be able to photograph Ta Prohm for myself, but there's no lack of stunning photos of nearly every part of Angkor Archaeological Park available in books, prints and online. One thing that surprised me a little was the lack of English-speaking tourists, at least that I heard. The few fellow tourists I spoke with, either to take their photo or ask them to take mine, were French-speaking, although most tourists I encountered in nearby Siem Reap were native English speakers.

While planning this trip, I debated for a long time over whether or not to include this small piece of Cambodia and Angkor Wat on my itinerary, since it meant a harried beginning to my trip, but I'm very glad I decided to go. Thai temples are lovely, but I got a lot more out of my day among the stones at Angkor than I did my afternoon amidst the opulence of Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How Southeast Asia Broke My Internal Thermostat

It didn't actually rain the afternoon this was taken, so I'm
assuming that's mostly smog in the sky behind Wat Phra Kaew's
impressive ornamentation, not clouds - either way, it did a great job
of keeping Bangkok predictably hot and sticky.
I am not a hot weather person. Growing up in the temperate climate of Southern California, I was spoiled by summers that maxed out at about 27ºC and winters where temperatures of less than 10ºC were shocking. After an uncomfortable season or two on the U.S.' East Coast in college, I adapted to winters involving below-freezing temperatures without much trouble. I even, to some degree, learned to enjoy the cold that made spring seem all the sweeter once it finally arrived. Extreme heat, however, I stayed as far away from as possible. If I had a choice between bundling into a coat and baking in a tank top, I'd almost always choose the former - or the latter with a heavy dose of air-conditioning.

So while planning my April jaunt to Southeast Asia earlier this year, I expected to be pretty darn uncomfortable throughout the majority of my trip. April is the region's hottest month, meaning there are few places where the high is likely to be below 30ºC (or, really, more like 33°) and nighttime lows don't bring much relief.

On the evening of my arrival, I stepped out of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport shortly after 11pm and, rather than the cool ocean breeze I'd left behind in Sydney, felt the sticky Thai heat creep under my skin. After spending five summers in swampy Washington, DC, I'm no stranger to the unpleasant combination of intense heat and sky-high humidity, but there's a pervasiveness to the Thai atmosphere that's unlike anything I'd experienced before: the air has weight, substance and pushes back against your every movement. Slow down, it says, you're not going anywhere in a hurry, so just relax and go with the flow. Mai pen rai - no worries! (The only thing in the entire country that seems to be immune to this is Bangkok traffic.)

By the time I got into the taxi that would take me to my hostel near Siam Square, every inch of my skin was coated with a fine sheen of sweat that felt like it had been there since the day I was born. I walked into my hostel room and whimpered when I saw the request not to set the thermostat any lower than 23ºC - as hot as I was, 20º sounded like it might, possibly, after several hours, be cool enough. But I'd come to Southeast Asia wanting to experience it as it is (as much as possible for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed farang), so I set the thermostat for the prescribed 23º and eventually cooled off enough to fall asleep.

In sticky Bangkok, it's the little things - like
a 20-baht fan and a cold Diet Coke - that keep
you comfortable.
I split the next day between the overwhelming sprawl of Chatuchak Weekend Market and Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha, and realized a couple of hours in that, oddly enough, the heat wasn't that bad. It was still sweltering and the lack of a breeze made it more so, but at some point it had stopped bothering me. Maybe it was that I'd slowed my pace to a leisurely stroll or that I'd purchased a hand-held fan from a vendor at Chatuchak for 20 baht (quite possibly the best roughly 65 cents I've ever spent) that helped stir the air around my face. Whatever it was, by the end of the day I was pleased to conclude that, while 36°C with 95% humidity would never make my list of favorite weather conditions, neither was it going to bother me too much for the next two weeks. (In the interest of full disclosure: I still spent the day covered in sweat and gulping copious amounts of water, but I wasn't unhappy about it. Although knowing I had an air-conditioned hostel to go back to at the end of the day might have helped with that.)

It wasn't yet 8am, but the heat was enough to
have already drained half my battery. (At least,
I assume it was the heat and not the repeated
attempts at getting a photo with both me and
Angkor Wat in it...)
Several days later I had crossed the border into Cambodia, where the intensity of the sun made Bangkok look like a nice, shady park in comparison. To me, Siem Reap didn't feel as sticky as Bangkok had, but it was several degrees hotter and lacked Bangkok's thick smog to cut the beating of the sun's rays. The clearest indication of the difference came during my one and only day at Angkor Wat. Throughout my time in Thailand, as long as I charged my camera battery each night, I didn't have a problem; in Cambodia, the heat was so intense that my battery started sputtering three hours after I arrived at Angkor and died less than an hour after that. (Angkor Wat tip: Take extra camera batteries!) I spent the little time I had in Siem Reap sweaty and flushed, but - just like in Bangkok - didn't really care.

After Siem Reap, I headed back into Thailand, this time North to Chiang Mai, where the first day of Songkran was winding down as I arrived. For those of you who are unfamiliar with your Theravada Buddhist holidays, Songkran is the Thai festival that celebrates the Lunar New Year in mid-April. The rituals surrounding the New Year have to do with the bathing of living spaces, Buddha images and monks and making merit or paying tribute to elders...but for all intents and purposes, what it's really become is a nation-wide water fight lasting from one to three days (or more!), depending on where you are. And, as most of the travel blogosphere will tell you, Chiang Mai is the place to be for Songkran.

Songkran-enforced cool. I think I've left
water parks drier than this. (If you're not
seeing any wet spots, it's because there
aren't any dry ones!)
What does all of this Songkran business have to do with the heat, you ask? Well, when I say water fight, I mean an all-out assault with water guns, hoses, buckets and bowls, being sprayed, thrown at or dumped on you by everyone on the street, from children barely big enough to walk to their grandparents. Let's just say that, whatever the weather, it's not hard to stay cool during Songkran, especially if you happen to be in Chiang Mai. (It's also a ridiculous amount of fun, but that's for another post.)

One thing I did notice about my reaction to the heat while I was in Chiang Mai was that I was no longer wishing I could set the air-conditioning down to 20°, as I had that first night in Bangkok. In fact, I often found myself setting it at 25°, or even shutting it off altogether. The same was true when I reached Koh Lanta, one of the Southern islands on the Andaman Sea side. The humidity there was especially brutal, so I kept the air-conditioning on at night to cut through it and set the fan on low to keep the air moving around the bed and blow the few mosquitoes that found their way into my bungalow away, but I found myself setting the thermostat to 25° or higher and still needing to bundle into my sweater to sleep. What was happening to me?!

Back in Sydney, I arrived toward the end of April to find that it had been raining for a week and would continue for most of the next. It wasn't particularly cold, but I was freezing. I wore layers of sweats and two pairs of socks. I huddled in bed at night, shivering until I warmed up enough to fall asleep. I drank copious amounts of tea and coffee, clutching at the mug until every remnant of warmth had faded. When the temperature dropped to 15° at night - a temperature I had greeted with a sigh of relief in Tasmania when my visit coincided with Sydney's 40°+ February heat wave - I whimpered and briefly considered adding a third pair of socks. After a month of this, I decided it was official: Thailand and Cambodia had smashed my internal thermostat to pieces. In two weeks of steamy weather, Southeast Asia had not only overridden my lifelong aversion to temperatures above 24° degrees, it had me longing for them.

While I've gotten a bit better in the three months since my return (read: I don't start staring wistfully at the heater until it drops to 22°, rather than 25°), I still find myself craving heat at temperatures I used to think were ideal and sighing in relief when I step into the bright Sydney sun, rather than looking for a patch of shade. I imagine that I'll continue to shift back toward "normal" until I'm once again grumbling at 30° temperatures, but it may be a while. Or maybe I should just head back to Thailand or Siem this point, I'm getting kind of sick of wearing two pairs of socks.