Living in Bangkok is a wild experience. This city is massive, and the noise of traffic is inescapable. However, unlike some of the big cities I've visited in the West, Bangkok is also approachable on a human level. Maybe it's because of all of the street vendors selling food and clothing. Maybe it's because of the laid-back attitudes of many Thai people. Maybe it's because of all the potted plants. In any case, there is always a chance of running into someone or something interesting and new here.
One day about a month ago, I took off on foot for the Tesco, a supermarket chain that is big in Europe and Asia. I got lost and ended up under a bridge, by a food vendor. I bought dinner and sat down next to some Thais playing a form of checkers. They immediately invited me to play and insisted that I keep playing. After 45 minutes, I pulled out a chess set which I bought in Budapest in the hopes of playing with people throughout my travels. They went wild. We barely spoke to each other, but we quickly became friends. Now, every Thursday, I have about 90 minutes of chess and checkers with some motorcycle taxi drivers under a bridge in Bangkok. Last week, I introduced them to Led Zeppelin and the Doors during a thunderstorm. It's pretty much everything that I could ever want.
It's also pretty remarkable that chess and checkers are played on different sides of the world – although the rules are different here. Thai chess is much slower, and many of the pieces can't move more than one tile at a time. As it turns out, though, chess actually came from this side of the world, in nearby India, over 1500 years ago. From India, the game traveled to Persia, and from there, Arabs took it to Europe, where it grew and changed into what we know today. However, as I've discovered, there are many different ways to play chess.
This past weekend, I went to Khao Yai National Park, which is located about 80 miles north of Bangkok. The park is heavily forested, with over 80% of the land covered by trees. And what trees they are! Numerous species call Khao Yai home, and many come with fantastic shapes and life strategies. Because there are so many plants in the jungle, plants often battle for sunlight. In Khao Yai, a number of plants, such as rattan, creep up from the ground and wrap themselves around bigger trees. That way, they can climb up to the light as quickly as possible. However, one side effect of this growth pattern is that the forest is very dense. It's almost impossible to walk anywhere without running into tangled plants! And with giant ants, spiders, leeches, monkeys, and even elephants, the park isn't always a welcoming place.
In fact, Khao Yai has only two trails that can be walked on without a guide. I discovered this after crashing through the forest (and falling through a rotten bridge) for several hours. Being in the park was a truly amazing experience. One got the sense that humans were pretty weak, after all. It got me thinking about the purpose of a national park.
During my first day in the park, I met some Thai college students who quickly invited me to live with them. During my second, I met a ranger and his family, who did the same. The ranger, Mr. Mung, said that about half of the rangers in the park spend all of their time protecting and preserving the park's natural areas, while the other half help visitors. While Khao Yai is Thailand's oldest national park, it's only been around for about 40 years. In many ways, people are still creating the park, and so far, they've put preservation above accessibility.
National Parks have a history that stretches back over 100 years. The world's first national park, Yellowstone, was founded in 1872 in the United States. Since then, thousands of parks have been established all over the world. However, there is still no clear definition of what a park is. At first, national parks were established "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Later on, many people believed that parks were important places for the protection of natural areas, and that people should keep out of many of these places. Today, many researchers view national parks as laboratories, places where we can discover how the natural world works, and try to figure out how we affect it as well. Still, no one is really sure what the most important thing about a national park is.
I've visited a number of American national parks, and many are very developed, with some areas that are just as crowded as Disneyland. It was interesting to be in a place where it wasn't even possible to walk in a straight line, let alone camp in "the wild." The next few years will be very interesting for Khao Yai. If I ever come back, will I find neatly groomed trails? Or will I find myself stumbling through the jungle once more? Only time will tell.
This past weekend, I left Bangkok for the island of Ko Si Chang, which sits about 40 miles away in the Gulf of Thailand. After a five-hour journey, I arrived at the ferry with minutes to spare. Thailand is still a developing country, and its population has more than doubled over the last 30 years. As a result, traffic is very bad. However, once we got to the ferry, all the road noise melted away.
For thousands of years, Thailand has been a center of trade. Because most of the region's inland areas were heavily forested and filled with tigers, snakes, elephants, and bugs of all kinds, people lived by the ocean. Massive port cities developed, and goods from China, India, and even the Mediterranean came and went. Today, many giant ships use the channel between Ko Si Chang and the mainland as a rest stop. There must have been 50 or 60 within view from the shore. As the ferry wove through giant floating islands of steel, I couldn't help but think of Burning Man, an American festival I'm missing out on this year.
Ko Si Chang is a small island, and not nearly as busy as many of Thailand's attractions. My friends and I were some of the only white people there, which was nice for a change. We rented motorbikes and spent our days hiking, visiting temples, and eating fresh seafood.
Thailand is a Buddhist country, and everywhere you go, you're sure to find beautiful temples and shrines. Buddhism came from India about 2500 years ago. and it is an atheist religion, which means that while Buddhists have their own rituals and beliefs about the world, they do not believe in a god. However, in all other ways, they are very similar to many of the world's great religions. They have monasteries, artworks, and revered texts. They preach about not killing, recognizing the connections between beings, and controlling desire. Buddhism in Thailand is slightly different than other countries. Here, monks can leave monasteries whenever they want to. There is a custom for Thai men to be ordained a monk for 3 months, and live in a monastery, beg for food, and study the Dharma, or Buddhist beliefs. Then, they go back into society.
When you get away from the big cities, Thailand is very peaceful. My time on Ko Si Chang was a welcome relief from life in Bangkok.
I've arrived in Bangkok for the next stage of my 9-month journey. Bangkok is the capital of Thailand, a country in South East Asia that borders Vietnam. Thailand has a very long and proud history, and it's one of the few countries in this part of the world to not be colonized. It is considered to be part of the developing world, which means that the country is growing fast, and that in some areas, like public health, there are still many problems. However, there is also much wealth in Bangkok, and it is a comfortable city by most standards.
The first weekend that I was here, I decided to join some friends from California on a trip to a national park. The park's named is Khao Sam Roi Yot, and it is located right on the coastline. When we arrived at the hotel, I went to swim, only to find hundreds of jellyfish floating through the water! After a few hours, during which we enjoyed fresh, spicy seafood, we got to the national park.
Khao Sam Roi Yot means "mountain with 300 peaks." The landscape is beautiful, with limestone cliffs covered in dense green vegetation, which included some familiar plants, like palm trees and cactuses. The mountains there are limestone, and many years ago, the region was underwater.
One of the most amazing things to see at the national park is the Phraya Nakhon Cave, which is a short walk from one of the park's main beaches. As my friends and I began our climb up to the cave mouth, it started to pour – really pour. Within a few minutes we were completely drenched. Luckily, it was also very warm, maybe 80 degrees Fahrenheit, so the water was enjoyable.
Soon, we found the cave opening, a gaping cavern at least 40 feet high and maybe 60 wide. The cave has two main chambers, and both have large openings in the ceiling, so light streams down and plants can grow within. Looking up as the rain cascaded through the cave opening felt like standing inside of a waterfall.
The main chamber of Phraya Nakhon Cave is special for the Thai people because it has been visited by many kings. Over 100 years ago, a small throne was built inside the cave. Constructed with traditional Thai aesthetics, it looks similar to a shrine or temple.
The cave also has many stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. These are formed when water makes its way through rock and drips down to the floor. As it drips, calcite, a mineral substance in limestone, comes with it, and over thousands of years, a stalagmite forms on the ground. Limestone has these substances because it is made up of the skeletons of coral and other sea creatures, many of them millions of years old.
On one of my last European adventures, I found myself at the base of the Alps in a small Austrian town called Pffarwerfen. A roaring river rushed through the valley as steep meadows rose up all around. Meanwhile, massive stone peaks towered above, covered in clouds. Expecting a beautiful three days of hikes through the grass, I lifted my pack and started up the mountain.
The next day, I hit the first Alpine lodge. I also hit the first fork in the trail, and decided to keep going up. Instead of spending the next two days walking through meadows at 1500 meters (about 4, 750 feet, almost a mile) above sea level, I shot up to 2900 meters and the top of the mountain range. As you climb up a mountain, it's always interesting to see how the plants change. First, there are lots of trees, then, more grass, and finally, just rock. The point where the trees stop growing is called the treeline.
When I got to the top of the mountain, I was surprised to find a huge lodge right on the peak. The lodge fit over 30 people, and it had a restaurant as well. Beautiful oak all throughout the interior, as well as electricity, flushing toilets, and a number of solar panels, made me feel right at home. The lodge was called Matrashaus, and it's part of a long tradition of mountain lodges that stretches across central Europe.
Matrashaus was built in 1898. It's open during the warm months of the year, and on weekends, it's often very busy. As it turns out, Matrashaus is only one of several hundred Austrian lodges, some of which are little more than a room with a stove. There is a great tradition of trekking through the mountains, and thanks to the lodges, people don't have to bring their tents and sleeping bags with them – just some clothing, food, and water. However, some of the lodges can be a bit pricey for a student (30 dollars for a night, with breakfast included), so I ended up camping on a glacier, which was an adventure on its own.
I'm writing this travel log a bit behind schedule. Last Sunday, I hitch hiked from Prague to Germany. Hitch hiking is when you stand by the side of the road in a safe area (gas stations are also good places), and ask people if they can give you a ride. It was my first time hitch hiking, and it was an interesting experience. Lots of people in Europe and America used to hitch hike, but today, it is far less common. Many Europeans today are worried about immigration, and they are less likely to trust strangers. Still, there are many generous people around, and I made some new friends.
I eventually ended up camping in a forest outside of the German city of Dachau with three French students. We had many interesting conversations about life in Europe and America, and we talked about everything from religion to politics. During the day, we visited the concentration camp memorial site in Dachau.
During World War II, Germany was led by a very powerful man named Hitler. Hitler was able to unite people all over the country, and he made them believe that they could rule the world. One of the ways that he united people, however, was by finding groups of people to hate. Hitler blamed many of Germany's problems on Jews, as well as homosexuals, communists, and others. During the war, German soldiers hunted down millions of innocent people and put them in concentration camps such as Dachau.
At Dachau, tens of thousands of people were forced to spend all day working, in sun and in snow. Those who could not work were killed. Over the course of the war, huge numbers also caught terrible diseases, while others suffered as experimental subjects for German scientists. The guards at Dachau often went out of their way to make sure that life was miserable for the prisoners. By the end, over 40,000 people died at Dachau.
People have found many ways to remember the things that happened at Dachau. Some have created art that expresses parts of their experience in the camp. The memorial site has a very impressive sculpture by the artist Nandor Gild that caught my eye. It is a very powerful work, and it fit the site well. At the base, there is a simple message: Never Again.
This past week, I visited family in Moravia, which is a farming region in eastern Czech Republic. Fields of green border forests and sloping hills, with many a fruit tree lining roads and villages in this sleepy part of the country. However, Moravia wasn't always sleepy. It is the site of one of the greatest battles in European history, which took place during the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon was a French Emperor who led a huge army through most of Europe, killing hundreds of thousands of people. In Moravia, his army met the forces of the Austrian and Russian Empires at the Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805.
Napoleon commanded an army of over 500,000 men. His soldiers fought with muskets, bayonets, pistols, and cannon. Ordering an army that big to march must have been a huge challenge. Just think about all of the food that everyone would need to eat!
Still, Napoleon was a very smart commander, and his army moved over 600 miles in 8 weeks, all walking. He finally got to Moravia in November. Everyday people, many of them poor, were forced to give the army food, money, and other supplies. Finally, the army reached the place that Napoleon wanted to fight.
The Battle of Austerlitz was long, one of the bloodiest in history. Napoleon's army took on the combined forces of Austria and Russia, which tried to break through and surround him. In the end, the French won a huge victory.
Today, people remember the wars every year on Napoleon's birthday. Some dress as French, Austrian, or Russian soldiers and re-enact the battle, which means act it out just like it happened (but without real weapons). Many Moravians have found artifacts from the armies, like pistols or clothing, in their backyard.
This past weekend, I went to a music festival in eastern Czech Republic. The festival, called Colours of Ostrava, had everything from music to theater to poetry to lectures on Russia, Europe, and freedom. It was an amazing experience, with many different opportunities to learn about and explore Czech culture. One of the most interesting things about the festival, though, was the location.
Giant steel towers stood hundreds of feet above the stages, while huge buildings made of metal and brick, streaked with rust, spoke of the area's early days as a coal town. The festival took place in Dolni Vitkovice, a 200-year old coal plant where many of the city's people used to work. The factory once ran all day and all night, with giant machines turning coal into fuel, called coke. Coke was made when workers shoveled black, dirty coal into giant ovens, where temperatures usually went over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the ovens were so hot, bad parts of the coal, like tiny bits of water, were burned off.
Once the coal was burned down, or refined, into coke, the coke was then used as fuel in a blast furnace, a type of very powerful oven. Blast furnaces are used to make iron, which is then used in buildings. The plant at Dolni Vitkovice once produced 300,000 tons of foundry iron every year.
Then, the plant went out of business. Luckily, though, it has been protected by local people. Some areas are now used for meetings, concerts, and other events. Today, the biggest storage tank has been turned into a concert hall that seats 1,500 people. A science academy has also been built on the property.
In many places around the world, old factories are left to crumble away. It was very interesting to see how Ostrava's people transformed their old coal plant. Today, the site is a European Cultural Heritage Site, and guided tours are available throughout the year.
After spending some time in Prague, I decided to head out to a castle that I remembered from my childhood: Karlstejn. This massive fortress towers over the surrounding countryside, perched high on a hill. It is named after Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, one of the Czech Republic's most famous historical figures. The castle is an imposing sight, with tall white walls and a blue stone roof that challenges all who see it. While parts of the castle were taken during different sieges over the years (a siege is when one army surrounds another and tries to defeat it through both fighting and starvation), the tall keep never fell to an invader.
While some castles are filled with beautiful decorations, they are all built with battle in mind. Karlstejn Castle has walls that are 30 feet thick in some places to keep out invaders. Its highest tower stretches up over 175 feet into the sky. Meanwhile, the well is over 200 feet deep. A watch was kept around-the-clock to make sure that no one surprised the castle garrison with an attack. Living in a castle was not fun, but it was very safe. Walking through Karlstejn, I imagined what it might have been like to live there. The stone walls must get very cold in winter.
The castle is now almost 700 years old. It was first built in 1348 in order to protect the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire and the Bohemian kingdom. Over the years, more and more fortifications were added to the castle. Inside, the king and his retinue lived in safety. Beautiful decorations filled a good deal of the rooms. Charles IV was a devout Catholic, and like many rulers at the time, he spent huge amounts of money on the castle's chapels. His own private chapel area is filled with gold, silver, an jewels, as well as incredible paintings of great saints.
More on Karlstejn
I've been traveling in the Czech Republic for the last two weeks. This country is filled with forests, castles, cathedrals, rivers, and a very interesting culture. Prague, the capital, sits along the Rive Vltava. There are many legends about this place, some old, and some new. Next time I might write about some of the legends surrounding Prague. This time, I want to tell you about a real-life hero that walked the streets of Prague more than 70 years ago. His name was Sir Nicholas Winston.
Sir Nicholas Winston was a British clerk who came to Prague in 1938 to help his friend, who worked with Jewish refugees. Refugees are people running away from a disaster. The disaster that thousands of Czech and German Jews were running from was Nazi Germany. Nazis believed that they were better than all other people, and that some people, like Jews, should be killed. They did many terrible things, and started the Second World War.
Sir Nicholas Winston knew that the Nazis would come to Prague soon, and he started trying to help save Jewish children in the city. He set up an office where parents could come in with their stories. Then, he organized families in Britain, making sure that the children he saved would have a home. Raising money for hundreds of children, getting planes and trains figured out, and working with slow government offices was hard work, but Sir Winston knew that he had to do it.
By the end of a year, Sir Winston had saved 669 children. Many children and families who stayed behind died during the war. Sir Nicholas was a humble man, and he never spoke about what he did. It was only when his wife discovered lists of children and their families that people found out. Today, many of' Winston's children' are grandparents. They owe their lives to him.
On July 1, 2015, Sir Nicholas Winston passed away. He was 105 years old! Memorials were held all over the world. I attended one in Prague, where people spoke of his example, and how we might learn from his bravery, dedication, and humility even today.
In 1988, Sir Nicholas Winston met some of the people he saved on a BBC program. Here is a brief excerpt:
Adam De Gree
I am a senior in college, studying philosophy, and am visiting family in the Czech Republic and travelling and studying in Europe and Asia.