Living in a country, as opposed to travelling through it, is a form of travel I have long felt missing in my repertoire. My career, after all, has too often involved the ticking off of unique experiences, and then running off to the next destination. After a frenetic 6-month research period in Australia to write my next book, and with my daughter only starting kindergarten at the year-end, it felt like the perfect opportunity to live in a place I've always loved, and in places I've yet to explore. We started with six weeks in Chiang Mai.
I first visited the city 2005, and fell in love with it. Unlike the congested, polluted mess that is Bangkok, Chiang Mai was friendly, peaceful and calm, beaming with golden temples, cheap eats, and guesthouses. I returned a few years later to film an episode of Word Travels, and always thought: “If I had to live anywhere in Asia for a while, this would be the place.” With my family and Amy, our own travelling Mary Poppins-assistant in tow, we found a semi-detached house outside of the Old Town on Air Bnb, and prepared to settle into the neighbourhood. The Thai – at least those outside of heavy tourist zones - are just unbelievably, remarkably, authentically warm and gentle people. They love children. They smile a lot. They are 95% Buddhist. We weren’t off the plane for five minutes and felt reassured by the welcoming nature of the culture. . Our house was at the end of a soi, an alley, off a busy road. Everything was so different, so anything-goes, so jarring, so unlike Australia. Like most Thai houses, ours didn’t have much of a kitchen (a gas burner, a fridge, some basic cutlery and utensils). Like most Thai houses, we wouldn’t be able to flush toilet paper down the toilet. The beds were rock hard, the furniture basic, the shower pressure almost non-existent. A rooster crowed directly across from us all through the night (more on the rooster later). There was blessed air conditioning in the bedrooms, and just a fan downstairs. Mosquitoes and flies patrolled the windows and the wonky screen door. Inside the place was clean, but a little rough around the edges, softened each Monday when the cleaner would come and leave it spotless. When we arrived, my wife looked at me like I was a madman for bringing us here. But at least we wouldn’t have to unpack after a few days, and at least we didn’t have anything in particular to do. We could just be.
It took us about 10 days to get our bearings, to navigate the wild discrepancies between tourist/rich Thai prices, and local/poor Thai prices. After our careful budget in Australia, we leaned heavily towards to the latter. All that beef in Australia disappeared from the menu in Northern Thailand (unless we wanted to pay $50 for a steak in a fancy mall restaurant). Up here, they love pork, pork and smelly fish, rice, pork and rice, and lots of chicken. Prices for food in the big Tesco supermarket were significantly more expensive than Australia. We splurged on olive oil. Cheap plastic toys from China were triple the price.
In fact, everything was more expensive than I anticipated. In the decade since I last visited, Chiang Mai has become a haven for an estimated 3000- 5000 digital nomads – people who can work from anywhere - and Chiang Mai is as good as an anywhere as you’d want to be. A military coup that took place a few years ago in Thailand must be good for business and tourism because the sheer number of visitors and new hotels within Old Town was staggering. Every shop was a guesthouse or tour operator, a massage parlour or restaurant. While we might see one or two westerners wandering about our neighbourhood, once we crossed the old walls into Old Town, gringos were everywhere, still wearing the baggy elephant-imprint pants one can only wear in Thailand without looking ridiculous. At first, we wondered if we made a mistake booking a place so removed from the thick of Old Town, but quickly came to appreciate it. Because we did indeed get to know the community, who embraced us after a couple weeks when they realized we were not the typical transient visitors. We slotted into a lifestyle that was more than just visiting temples, going to overpriced bars and eating pad thai. Although we definitely visited temples and ate pad thai.
Temples and Mobikes
Getting around was affordable and easy, something we really only appreciated when we arrived in Bangkok, where getting around was difficult and comparatively expensive. Mobike, Chiang Mai’s public bicycle system, allowed us to rent bikes with handy baskets in the front, seemingly perfectly designed for the kids to sit up front. Solar powered and blue-tooth operated through a phone app, the bikes could be left anywhere, so we basically just “borrowed” a few to use and permanently kept them outside our heavy sliding green gate. It cost 10 baht (about 50c) for a half hour, although I got a 200 baht ($10) unlimited use for 90 days pass. My fondest memories of Chiang Mai are riding the streets with Raquel or Gali in the basket, stopping at temples, waving to locals. Chiang Mai is mostly flat, and the Mobikes – at least the orange ones we used and not the wonky silver ones – were super comfortable. We never saw any other kids in the baskets, and neither had anyone else, which is why Gali and Raquel were instant rock stars on the Mobikes. Smiles and laughs and waves came from every direction. For further distances, Grab Taxis is the local Uber, and they eliminated the constant haggle and rip off with tuk tuk drivers and taxi drivers. The fare was always fair, and the drivers gave us no nonsense. What a game changer! We took a few tuk tuks, more for the experience, but between the Mobikes and Grab, we could get around wherever we needed to go. On the last week, I hired a scooter, which was super fun, even if we had to wear a helmet primarily to avoid the bribes we’d have to pay at roadblocks (only foreigners get stopped if they don’t have a helmet). Our underpowered bike didn’t make it up every hill, but we had a fun day lunching by a river, feeling the jungle breeze, and braking for elephants. Raquel only fell asleep twice, on the scooter, in heavy traffic. Raquel and I took a bigger bike for a 90-minute ride to the beautiful Sticky Waterfalls. It was quite the adventure I hope she somehow remembers, racing 100 km/hr through the jungles of Northern Thailand, seated between my legs.
One the ladies
“Hi-low Lay-dees!” The local Thai ladies were besotted with the kids, especially Gali. We never got their names and would not be able to remember or pronounce them if we did, so we just called them “the ladies.” On our street, upstairs in an old wooden house was an old lady always sewing. She always smiled and waved, and raced downstairs one day to give the kids handmade Thai clothes. We printed out a picture of her and the kids to say thanks. When we said goodbye, she gave the kids teary hugs and some wooden Buddhas. On our corner was the “chicken fried rice ladies”, working in their gritty local eatery a tourist wouldn’t go near. We must have waved and greeted to them at least six times a day. They made us the fine and tasty chicken fried rice that we ate a couple times a week. Then there was the Thai Ice Tea lady, although we all had our favourite Thai tea lady. The Plastic Lady, who provided us with plastic bins and knick knacks and spoke some English. The Pad Thai ladies, another place tourists wouldn’t blink at but made a great 30 baht ($1.50) pad thai. The Market Ladies, the Fruit Lady, the Temple Lady (above) who always cried when she saw the kids, the Pancake Lady, the Ice Cream Lady. We did cook at home a fair amount and realized how much we miss an oven when we don’t have one. We made do with pasta and deep friend chicken and eggs and toast in the morning, although usually had to watch out for the geckos jumping out of the toaster. My wife took a Thai cooking class and came home to make a fantastic Tom Yum soup. It was often more expensive to buy the ingredients than just grab a pad thai. Without eating pork or stinky fish, it says much about Thai cooking that we ate chicken/rice/noodles in some configuration for 6 weeks without getting tired of it. There was a local vegetable market - more friendly ladies - around the corner, along with a Tesco Express and 7-11 (a mini supermarket), and it all amounted to a situation that became dependably convenient – something we again only appreciated when we left Chiang Mai.
Pity the fool who messes with this 5 year-old
Also around the corner was a gritty local Muay Thai gym – Thai kickboxing. We paid the friendly manager Ratana to give Raquel private lessons on Thursday nights. Ratana and her pretty daughter loved Raquel, who cut the cutest curly-haired figure sparring among sweaty fighters. She learned to keep her fists up, kick, punch and elbow, and survive the massive mosquitoes attacking the gym in the early evening. Ratana took lots of videos, she thought Raquel was just amazing. We hoped the lessons would help burn off some of her energy so there wouldn’t be a prize fight trying to get her to sleep that night.
Although we tried hard not to be tourists, of course we did a few touristy things. Art in Paradise is an interactive art museum that blew us away, putting us in the picture with dinosaurs and masterpieces. The kids loved the Elephant Poo Poo Park, where dung is sustainably converted into paper (it's a lot more interesting than it sounds, and in case you're wondering, doesn't smell at all). We visited a massive waterpark called Tube Trek, the Saturday Night Market, which was so much better than the overcrowded Sunday Night Market. The Ginger Farm, where Gali fell into a muddy trench. He had more luck at the Buak Hard Public Park, which had the only decent playground we could find. Of course there were all the amazing temples, and we had a beautiful moment with an elephant on the road without visiting an expensive and dubiously elephant park. We made friends with wonderful locals and expats (and their kids), celebrated birthdays. Along with the rest of the world, we anxiously watched the dramatic rescue of the schoolboys from a cave located a few hours drive away. We joined hundred of Israelis every Friday night for a Chabad feast, and enjoyed the spectacle of the FIFA World Cup in Russia, washed down with tall bottles of cold Singha beer.
Next door was a Burmese family who prepared rounded fish balls over burning charcoal, the smell of which reliably wafted through the windows each afternoon. Each night, and often during the day, the loud roosters would get started. If they didn’t keep us awake, they invaded our dreams. We spent long nights lying in semi-sleep thinking about how much we’d love to kill those damn birds. I suppose it was revenge for the sheer amount of chicken we ate every day.
Making paper with elephant poo
Art in Paradise
We brake for elephants
The smell of the camphor/citronella mosquito spray. The ants that would snake from the ceiling to the garbage bin in the kitchen. The kids writing with chalk on the patio outside before the daily late afternoon tropical rain would wash their scribbles away. Amy’s ongoing saga with the dodgy dentists of Chiang Mai. The manual washing machine we didn’t use in the back, and the communal washing machines we did down the road. The modern malls and dragon fruit. The homemade ice-lollies with the plastic we bought from the Plastic Lady. To say nothing of Chiang Mai itself, with its bustling markets, and shiny golden Buddhist temples, orange robed monks, crazy traffic, and pungent fish-sauce fragrances. The kids couldn’t enjoy our $15 hour-long massages in the dark but innocent backrooms off the strip next to the Doo Dee Bar, but they sure chomped down the surprisingly good biltong we managed to find, made by a Dutchman, and delivered to our front gate.
We could only appreciate how comfortable we’d become in Chiang Mai when we bid our farewells and arrived in Bangkok for 2 weeks. Our first Air Bnb was such an epic disaster we had to evacuate it after a few hours (with a small refund, thanks Air Bnb). Our second last-minute emergency lodging was called the Paradise Sukhumvit, which was as far from Paradise as you can imagine. Our third attempt was modern and clean and on the 29th floor of a condo in Thonglor, which is where you want to be in sticky, smoggy Bangkok, away from the insane traffic and noise and mayhem. A big city means less smiles, and more issues getting around to do anything. The disparity between expensive “normal” restaurants and cheap street food, between normal Thai and rich Thai/expat, is bewildering and excessive. The traffic can often jam you into a single intersection for 15 minutes. Grab Taxi is double the price here because you’re hardly moving. It’s enough to make you want to lock yourself up in a tower with a swimming pool and air conditioning and hardly venture outside. We did take a couple crazy river boats and visited some of the bigger temples, hooked up an amazing indoor play area in a ritzy mall where a hand bag costs more than several month’s wages. Still, Bangkok offered up some wonderful and vivid moments: riding the loud riverboats up the narrow canals (always preferable to the frustrating gridlock in the back of a taxi). The incredible temples and time well spent in the wonderful condo infinity pool above the snarling traffic on Petchaburi Road; a play date with a family from Vancouver; Raquel conquering the monkey bars for the first time in Lumpini Park, seeing a movie where the audience must stand and sing tribute to the King (I'd say more about the King, but in Thailand that can get you arrested).
Bangkok, oriental city...
We hope Chiang Mai is only the beginning of the amazing experiences to come in Bali and Vietnam (and a side trip to Singapore to see our old dear friends), as opposed to the pinnacle of our Asian adventure. Because if I reminisce about it so fondly after being away from the city for less than a week, memory will likely grow positively and brighter as the months and years pass. My family spent 6 weeks in Thailand. Not travelled in, but lived. It was a culture shock, it was full of big challenges, unforgettable and wonderful moments, lovely people, and everything we hoped it would be. Next up: Bali.
I was chatting with a friend today about the idea of Going Back. Back to a place you’ve visited before, back to a place you really loved in the past hoping that it will redeliver the magic you found the first time round. It was a pertinent conversation, as we both found ourselves back in a place we had visited, individually, over a decade prior. This month, I’m working and living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a city I first discovered as a backpacker on my first big world adventure. I found the south islands of Thailand to be overhyped, over-trafficked, and too full of package tourists showing scant regard or respect for their hosts. Chiang Mai, by contrast, was relaxed and peaceful, bursting with authentic Thai hospitality, and exotic golden temples, tall mountains and bustling markets. Better than another overcrowded beach any day. I connected with a dozen other backpackers from around the world and we quickly formed a wonderful group, continuing onwards together into Laos. And so, when it came time to choose somewhere in Asia to live and work for 6 weeks after our great big Australian adventure, Chiang Mai felt like a no-brainer. It was time to go back.
Much has changed. Chiang Mai is busier and more expensive. Travel writers like myself have raved about it so much that there’s little surprise every house in the moat-surrounded Old Town is either a guesthouse, a restaurant, a tour operator, or massage parlour. The classic $3 Thai Massage is now $10, the classic $2 beer can be as much as $8 in a bar, there are so many more cars on the road, the air pollution February to April is among the worst in the world. With cheap rent, great food and high speed internet – certainly faster and more reliable than anything I encountered in Australia – it’s little surprise that thousands of digital nomads live here too. As someone who can work with nothing other than a laptop and a stable internet connection, that includes me, at least for a short while.
We found an Air Bnb in a neighbourhood to the south of Old Town, in a dusty road surrounded by Thai and Burmese. Every day, we wave to the old lady stitching clothing for the market (she ran downstairs one day to give Raquel and Gali some handmade clothes). We yell “Sawatdee!” to the waving ladies at the authentic Thai eatery on the corner, and take Raquel on Thursdays for her private Muay Thai class on the main street (they love her to bits!) After the first 2 weeks, locals realized we were not transient tourists, embraced us, and I cannot emphasis how lovely it is to be living here as opposed to travelling. Of course, the kids come with plenty of challenges too, but we knew that going in.
And so, this will forever be my new cherished memory of Chiang Mai, a new layer of paint over my previous romanticised memory of solo backpacking. Ask me about Chiang Mai, and I will tell you about the convenience of Grab Taxis and exploring temples with my daughter seated in the bicycle basket of our communal Mobike rental. I will tell you about the crowded Saturday night market where you need a few visits to discover everything, or exploring the Ginger Farm, and the innovative Art in Paradise, the Elephant Poo Poo Paper Park, the Tube Trek Water Park, and other exceptionally kid-friendly activities. No more bars and parties. No more dreadful Chang beer hangovers. No more chance romantic encounters. There are also no more cooking classes or elephant sanctuaries, which I covered during my second visit while filming an episode of Word Travels. Much like the amazing Pixar flick Inside Out, those memory balls have been stored, and new memory balls have taken their place. This is the price of Going Back.
Too often we hope to recapture something special we felt the first time round, a folly that always accompanies any attempt to relive the past. Things change, places change, we change. Better, perhaps, to try something new and appreciate what was. Or revisit a place knowing full well and with eyes wide open that in the process, you’ll probably be erasing its previous experience. I was telling my friend that, during the filming of my TV show, I had the opportunity to go just about anywhere. I revisited several countries – Bolivia, New Zealand, Thailand, Nicaragua – because I knew particular adventures I had discovered as a backpacker would make great TV episodes. Little did I know that by repeating those adventures I was in fact robbing myself of what made them so special in the first place – the fact that they were new and different. Some places and activities really should stay once-in-a-lifetime. Instead I should have used the opportunity to visit new countries and discover new adventures. Another regret, like everyone else, I have a few. That concludes my rant about Going Back. Travelling with my family and embarking on new life adventures, it’s better instead to just enjoy the process of Moving Forward.
As we've established, I usually travel with a small bottle of hot sauce. When applied liberally, it can save any meal (even boiled cabbage in Siberia, although you might need more than one bottle). Fortunately, there are some destinations where carrying my hot sauce is completely unnecessary. These are the places where the Mighty Chilli roams free, and pity the fool traveller who shows it disrespect.
The Thai’s don’t cook. They paint a masterpiece on your palate, with colours of sweet, salty, sour and spice. The chilli in question is known locally as “mouse droppings”, since it is small and shrivelled. Thailand’s famous red curry is made with these dried, crushed chillis. Yellow curry, the least spicy, is made with spices like turmeric. The most spicy is green curry, with the potent seeds left in. The Thai chilli realizes its full potential in tom yum soup, combined with lime, fish sauce, ginger and lemongrass. When the ingredients are mixed just right, it will make you salivate just thinking about it for years to come (as I am doing just typing this).
A good, strong Indian curry will make your eyeballs sweat. Traditionally, the spiciest Indian dish is the vindaloo, inspired by Portuguese visitors but perfected in India with a variety of chillies and peppers. I find that drinking lightly carbonated Indian beer soothes an extra hot vindaloo’s burn to something almost bearable. But I’d still place a roll of toilet paper in the fridge before you go to bed, for it is well known that strong curries always burn twice.
The African birds-eye chilli was spread around the world by Portuguese seafarers, and for good reason. Known as peri peri, the small birds-eye releases a chemical that has been proven to trigger a sort of culinary buzz. You can’t get addicted, but after years of craving a steady fix, I believe I’ve come pretty close. You can also chase the peri-peri burn in Portugal, Brazil, and at a top notch South African franchise called Nandos Chicken worldwide.
Lets hit the bayou with a little fixin’ of some of Louisiana’s finest. Tabasco brand pepper sauce is found around the world, and “blackened Cajun” rub has become a staple in many fish restaurants. But the USA seems to have excelled in the manufacture and marketing of outrageous sauces, with quirky names like Satan’s Blood and Blair’s Mega Death Sauce. One of the world’s spiciest dishes was traced to a shrimp cocktail in Indianapolis (heavy on the horseradish), while one restaurant in Chicago insists diners sign a waiver before sampling its XXX Hot Wings. American food scientists have extracted the capsaicin compound that gives chilli peppers its kick. It’s more a weapon than a food group.
The best fish I’ve ever had was on the Jamaican south coast, spiced with the wonderful Caribbean concoction popularly known as jerk. Fish or meat is dry rubbed with a mixture of scallions, nutmeg, garlic, herbs, and the secret ingredient, the Scotch Bonnet Pepper. Closely related to the habanero, the most fierce of household chillies, the Scotch Pepper is small and unassuming, like a nuclear bomb in a suitcase. When combined in the right combination, it creates a jerk sensation, a mouth-watering blend of heat and taste.
Chinese cuisine is not afraid to use chillies, but the region most famous for its culinary heat is the Szechuan Province. Perhaps its most famous dish is the hot pot, whereby different ingredients are added to a pot until everything is just right. A locally grown “flower” pepper adds the heat the region is famous for.
Jalapeno peppers are renowned the world over, although on the Scoville Scale they barely register. Consider it has a rating of just 2500 to 8000, while the habanero lies somewhere between 100,000 and 350,000. Mexicans tamed the habanero, a monster of a pepper, now used in most gimmicky hot sauces. Fortunately it is used in Mexican kitchens sparingly, where moles (sauces) are prepared with that special combination of tomato, cilantro, lime, pepper, and sometimes chocolate.
SIDE NOTE: The World’s Spiciest Dish
Phaal curry is made from various peppers, but there’s only one you should worry about. The bhut jolokia, aka the nala jokolia, aka the ghost pepper, aka you-have-to-be-out-of- your-mind-to-eat-this-pepper pepper. It’s been certified by the Guinness Book of Records as being the strongest pepper known to man, with a Scoville rating of over 1,000,000! The thick Phaal curry is served in India and Pakistan, to diners who will shortly lose all communication with their oral cavity.
Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland. There can be only one.
Have you ever been travelling somewhere and suddenly thought: “This looks familiar!” That’s because it is, as Hollywood location scouts scan the world for places that look just as dramatic on film as they do for tourists on the ground. Here’s seven of the best:
I love those offbeat romantic English comedies, a guilty pleasure on long-haul flights. I also see if I can pick out the locations used, like the big wedding scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral, filmed at the St Bartholomew the Great Church in London. Snowdonia, a national park in northern Wales, has served as Camelot in First Knight (starring Richard Gere) and is also seen in James Bond’s From Russia With Love. The historic manor of Chatsworth can be seen in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, as well as The Duchess (starring Kiera Knightley) and the 2010 production of The Wolfman, with Anthony Hopkins. The Highlander, a classic fantasy film, had locations including Eilean Donan Castle and Glencoe, a beautiful part of the Scottish highlands. Back to Hugh Grant, Notting Hill is a popular area of London, and hosts the boisterous annual Notting Hill Carnival.
Whenever the scene calls for a thick jungle, you can bet there’s a producer on the plane to Hawaii’s oldest island, Kauai. Remember that scene in Jurassic Park as the helicopter approaches a dramatic coastline, and lands right by a waterfall? Helicopter tours over the Na Poli coastline are hugely popular, and Island Helicopters even land right by the waterfall, now known as Jurassic Falls, just like the movie. You can swing on the same rope as Indiana Jones (in Raiders of the Lost Ark) right into Huleia River., or swim in the Fountain of the Youth as featured in Pirates of the Caribbean. Tropic Thunder, Hook, Outbreak, Lord of the Flies - if you think Wailua Falls look right out of Fantasty Island, that’s because they are.
Although it was inspired by the Philippines, The Beach, a hit book and movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio, was set and filmed in Thailand. Tourists flock to Phi Phi Leh to see this celluloid paradise for themselves, including the iconic beach of Hat Maya. There are daily ferries from popular resort towns of Phuket and Krabi. While in Phuket, you might recognize scenes from Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, and you can also take a boat out to James Bond Island, also known as Phang Nga Bay, as featured in the Man with the Golden Gun. More recently, the Hangover II used Bangkok as an able substitute for Las Vegas.
Hobbit tours in New Zealand
The Lord of the Rings trilogy put the Kiwi film industry on the map. The South Island, around the tourist mecca of Queenstown, was a perfect choice for Middle Earth. There are daily tours from Queenstown to over 20 locations featured in the movie, such as the Lothlorien Woods (Paradise Glenorchy), Rivendell (Lake Manapouri) and the Ford of Bruinen (Arrow River) where Arwen summoned a flood to dispel of the RIngwraiths. Fantasy fans might also recognize locations in the Milford Sound, and Kingston Beach on Lake Wakatipu, as featured in the movie Wolverine. There is also the Cook Strait, which was used for the ocean scenes in the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. As for the film’s Skull Island, it was none other than Lyall Bay near the capital of Wellington.
Paris inspires lovers, and filmmakers too. The list of films set or filmed in Paris is a long one. Amongst my favourites are The Bourne Identity, mostly filmed in Paris and Prague. You will recognize the Gare Du Nord, one of the busiest train stations in Europe, the Hotel Regina opposite the Louvre, the Jardin des Tuileries, La Grande Arche de la Défense in the business district, and the Pont des Arts, where Bourne disappears into the credits. Before Sunrise, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, is a love letter to the city, as our two lovers discover the city and each other. They walk through the Sorbonne, along the Seine, on the Promenade Plantée, above the old Viaduc des Arts. As they tuck behind the Notre Dame at Quai de la Tournelle, it’s no wonder they didn’t bump into Jason Bourne, who was featured in the same spot in the Bourne Identity. Paris, je t'aime is a beautiful romantic comedy that will inspire travellers, but avoid From Paris with Love, a John Travolta disaster doing no favours for the tourism industry!
This North African country has not hosted many Hollywood movies, but the few that it has have been illustrious. Tunis doubled as Cairo in the Oscar-winning English Patient, along with Sfax on the coast. More famously, Tunisia doubled for Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine in the first Star Wars movie. There actually is a place in Tunisia called Tatooine, but the scenes were actually filmed in Matmata, where people have been living in sandstone caves for centuries. A huge salt flat called Chott el Jerid allowed Skywalker to gaze longingly at two suns, while visitors flock to nearby Sidi Bouhel, now known as Star Wars Canyon, where R2D2 was captured. The series returned to Tunisia for its Tatooine scenes in The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Scenes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian were filmed in the Ribat monastery at Monastir. Indiana Jones pops up again, with the “Egyptian” desert scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark actually filmed around the Tunisian UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kairouan.
Vancouver gets a familiar sci-fi makeover
Vancouver has the third largest film and television industry in North America, and the city often doubles for other locations. Simon Fraser University has been seen in Underworld 4 Spy Game, the X Files and Battlestar Gallactica. The Lions Gate Bridge makes a cameo in Tron: Legacy. The Fantastic Four flew into North Vancouver’s Pier 97, while X-Men: The Last Stand invaded Lynn Canyon Park and its popular local hiking trails. Chinatown doubled for San Francisco in Romeo Must Die, and the apocalyptic future in iRobot. Even the airport gets some screen time. YVR has been featured in Final Destination, Fantastic Four, The Killing, and Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. More recently, the smash hit Deadpool did something unusual for Hollywood. They filmed in Vancouver, and didn't pretend it was something else.
Fantasy, science fiction and spy movies gravitate to the Czech Republic, so don’t be surprised if some of the scenery looks familiar. Alien vs Predator, The Brothers Grimm, Hellboy, Von Helsing, Mission Impossible, XXX and From Hell were all filmed in locations around Prague.. Casino Royale was filmed at Barrandov Studios as well as in Karlovy Vary. The Bourne Identity pops up again, as Prague doubles for Zurich. Still on Matt Damon, the creepy Bone Church of Kutna Hora made an appearance in the Brothers Grimm, as did Kačina Castle and Kost Castle. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the winter park scene was filmed amongst the odd sandstone formations at Adrspach National Park on the Czech Republic-Poland border.
Originally published on Sympatico.ca
Crawling along at the speed of a meat grinder, tensions flaring, congestion worse than chronic nasal flu. What can you say about gridlock? Its sheer waste of time is enough to make you sell your car and take the bus, except the bus is crammed with people, and its stuck in traffic too.
Fortunately, there is some solace, a soothing balm to comfort you the next time you find yourself in a traffic nightmare. Simply put: No matter how bad it gets, at least you don’t have to put up with the daily chaos in the cities below:
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Together with 20 million people living in greater Sao Paulo, comes the fact that there are nearly 8 million cars on the road. Every time I take a taxi from the airport, I’m boggled by the gridlock, and the deft manoeuvres drivers will perform to get out of them. Sao Paulo holds the world record for the worst traffic jam, when it was reported in May 2008 that over a quarter of all streets within the city were completely backed up. The wealthy elite has found a solution however. Sao Paulo holds the largest fleet of helicopters in the world.
Anyone who has visited Cairo will tell you about the pyramids, but first they’ll tell you about the traffic. It runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and operates according to local rules of madness that include few street lights, no-lane roundabouts, and on-the-fly rules and customs. For example: If you do see a green light, it’s a mistake to believe it means “go”. The same with stopping for “red”. Locals say the trick is to make use of every space you can see, stopping only if that space is already filled, by say, a donkey cart. Somehow it works, but I pity the North American tourist who rents a car and dares to enter the fray.
Los Angeles, USA
Compared to Cairo, it's easier to navigate the vast highways of LA, although during rush hour, don’t plan on driving much. Such is the state of LA traffic, it often becomes a character in movies and TV shows, and the internet is rife with Youtube clips of people losing their marbles behind the wheel. According the American Highway Users Alliance, the US-101 highway, intersecting with the I-405, is the worst bottleneck highway in the United States, with 318,000 cars passing through daily, resulting in an estimated 27 million hours of annual delay. I don’t know how they figured that out exactly, but I’ve been stuck on the 101 and the 405, and if I can’t claim back those lost hours of my life, I guess nobody can either.
I defer to my notes, recorded on arrival in Mumbai for the first time. “Taxi driver has severe tic. Keeps snapping his head and twitching violently. Car is small and rusted. Narrowly avoid collision with cow, bus, three children, dog, motorbike, rickshaw, and a one-legged beggar – all at first intersection. Unbelievable chaos. Driver might have rigor mortis. See and feel: deep potholes, police, magazine sellers, scooters transporting family of five, trucks with loose butane tanks hanging out the back, flea markets with real fleas, holy men, bicycles, random trees in the tarmac, garbage, babies. Too much stimulation. Close eyes. Pray for safe arrival."
Traffic and the pollution it spawns were major challenges for organizers of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. They tried an odd-even scheme to clear roads of the city’s notorious traffic – rotating which cars were permitted to drive according to their license plate numbers. Crafty locals switched up cars or even bought a second car just to get around it. Locals could finally see what a blue sky looked like from their bumper-to-bumper transits, but the restrictions did not work over the long term - Beijing's air pollution continues to plague the city.
While the price of gas continues to rise the world over, in Venezuela, a litre will cost you pennies. As the world's 5th largest exporter, Venezuela has some of the cheapest gas around. But the government hasn’t offered the infrastructure to handle the subsequent explosion in car ownership, as vehicles cram onto shoddy highways and line up on potholed side streets. Road rage and violent shootouts have become common enough for the state to issue psychological advice on how to deal with the gridlock. These include reading a book, listening to music, and keeping your gun holstered.
12 million people call Bangkok home, and they all seemed to want to go to exactly to the same place I did. It didn’t take me long to forego the charms of a three-wheeled tuk-tuk for a blissfully air-conditioned and far less noisy taxi. Besides, neither tuk-tuk nor taxi was going anywhere fast, and sitting back in the taxi, I didn’t have to chew exhaust fumes and shower in sweat. It’s easy enough to get around Bangkok mind you, if you’re not in too big a rush. Just avoid rush hour, which unfortunately extends into most of the day.
Levelled by bombs during World War II, greater Tokyo evolved without much urban planning, sprawling out from the city centre into the world’s most populous metro, housing an incredible 35 million people. Even with the most extensive urban subway in the world to service it, the result is incredible road congestion, with few bypasses or highways to funnel drivers in and out the city. The Tokyo Traffic Control centre works 24 hours a day and has the power to manage traffic lights, working with typical Japanese efficiency to limit traffic jams using some 17,000 vehicle detectors. Still, the traffic remains fierce, so it’s best to navigate the spaghetti-lines of the subway below.
With his towering height, Max was always going to attract attention. Born in 1962, many people claim he might be the tallest male in all of Thailand - even after so many years of hope and pain, all the ups and downs of a rolling jungle hill. His adventures begin in the jungles of the north, where he is born into a poor family of festival performers. Max’s earliest memories paint loud parades, holidays and weddings, covered in bright robes to greet friendly smiles. But, like many others in the region, once he came of age, Max was sent to work. To put food in his mouth, he found work at a logging camp, where tough men would work long hours in scorching temperatures and torrential rain, clearing and cutting down thick jungles for wood. Here, Max developed a thick-skinned approach to life that would see him through many more hardships. Conditions were terrible, but soon enough another opportunity came his way, this time in the form of the exploding tourism industry.
Help was needed to accommodate and transport the ever-increasing number of tourists heading to the region. Unlike trees in the forests, Max discovered that tourists don’t break and splinter when they fall – they shout and scream and complain and threaten to sue. He was never a social creature, never one to roll over to those he didn’t respect. Simply put, he was stubborn, arrogant with youth and drunk on strength. One unfortunate day, a group of sunburned Englishmen pushed him too far, and he reacted violently, his intentions merely to scare, but his actions clumsy. The tourists got a few bumps, the authorities got involved, and Big Max, Big Clumsy Aloof Max, was locked away for the minor offence.
Refusing to remain chained up for long, he used his wits and power to escape, heading deep into the forest. Here, he would rely on the lessons learned from his youth, how to forage for food and berries, find shelter. Under the stars, he made raids into the fields of a nearby village, drank from their irrigation systems. Survival was possible, but the villagers soon discovered this new unwelcome stranger, and called in the monks to help. They coaxed Max out the jungle and into the temple, offering him a spiritual life, in keeping with their strict Buddhist practices. This quiet life, of meditation and thought, pacified him for a while. Although there was some peace here, there was also not enough food to support his giant personality, enclosed after so many months in the forest. His weight dropped dramatically, his skin flapping on his giant frame like the canvas of a tent.
Max felt trapped, restless, hungry. Villagers could see that the temple was too small to keep him tied down for too long, and demanded the monks release him instead. He was put in a truck, and sent away to the city. And so a new adventure began, as Max entered a strange new world, the biggest city with the brightest lights of all, Bangkok.
With no food and no place to stay, Max ends up on the streets, begging for scraps, living in parking lots and scrimmaging in garbage scraps. This concrete jungle is not like any jungle he has ever known. The constant noise vibrates in his skull, making him tired, irritable, unable to sleep. The lights burn his eyes like pin pricks, the choking pollution gripping his lungs, slashing his throat. His stomach rotting with whatever he can find to put it into it, the days and nights pass in blurs of screams and punches, a blend of violent animal instincts and docile submission. He was dying, and then he was almost killed. Wandering the streets one night, dazed by lack of sleep, an 18-wheel truck clips him on the side of the highway, dragging him underneath its wheels for a few meters before coming to a halt. Miraculously, he survives, but his right front leg has snapped in half.
Throughout his turbulent life, strangers had come to his aid, appearing like angels in a dream, briefly holding back the demons of reality. It is these strangers who help Max recover, regain his strength, feeding him what little there is to go around, putting his leg in a makeshift wooden splint. After a few weeks, he is able to limp again, and all wonder: was it his size or spirit that helped him survive the accident? And, in hushed tones, would he have been better off dead? What is there for him to look forward to? More begging? More angels, more demons? Luck finds him first, in the form of a tribal family who take pity on this homeless giant, bringing him back to the jungle where he can work for his food, instead of slowly dying on the streets of Bangkok. A warm, kind woman named Lek finds him second, horrified by his physical condition, and the sad story of his life. Lek Chailert had just started a refuge for the homeless, the hurt, the sick and the poor, and with the cooperation of the tribal family, takes Max under her care.
Five years later, Max has recovered his strength, his weight, his pride. He stands tall, dignified, like a political prisoner being released respectfully into the offices of power. His right leg will always be bent, making him walk slowly, thoughtfully, with purpose and esteem. Others at the camp regard him highly, revering his experience and the wisdom he has learned from it. Gentle with the babies, popular with the ladies, here he resides as an elder statesman, an example of how we can all conquer our adversity, temper our demons, and believe in hope. Max is still weary of the few tourists who visit the Nature Park. His memory is as fresh as that of an elephant.
Max is just one of the dozens of elephants supported through donations at the Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand. This unique wildlife reserve protects, rehabilitates and houses elephants rescued from abusive conditions such as elephant camps, illegal logging, and street begging. For more information, visit their website: www.elephantnaturefoundation.org.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.