Where tourists are a novelty

As professional photographers, Tony and Debbie Woods spend a lot of time behind a camera lens, but on a recent visit to China and Thailand they had many requests to step in front of one.



As professional photographers, Tony and Debbie Woods spend a lot of time behind a camera lens, but on a recent visit to China and Thailand they had many requests to step in front of one.

On their very first day in China while touring the capital city of Beijing, a complete stranger asked if he could take a picture of Tony. As they travelled in more rural areas of China with their daughter and son-in-law, who are living in the country, the requests for photos increased.

It was a fascinating experience for the Lacombe couple to travel in a less westernized part of the world and experience the culture and sites.

The journey began in Beijing, where they spent several days touring the most significant sites in the area, including Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall. Of these, the highlight was definitely the chance to hike the Great Wall of China.

“The Great Wall is amazing and it was definitely the highlight of this region of China for us,” said Debbie. “As you walk along, you are awed by the physical demands it must have taken to construct this divide along a mountain ridge at the Chinese border. The wall stretches for 7,350 km and we hiked only 10 of them. By the eighth kilometre, my legs were burning and shaking. According to my GPS, the elevation changed around 300 metres along the way. Our hike ended with an excruciating climb up what seemed like hundreds of steps. It definitely felt like an accomplishment to hike the Great Wall of China. Tony actually recorded the trek so that he could map it with Google Earth when he got home.”

From Beijing, they travelled inland to Chengdu to spend some time in the area where their daughter Leah and son-in-law Colin are living.

In Beijing, they had been approached a few times and asked if people could take their photographs but in Chengdu, photo requests became a common occurrence.

“They don’t get very many western tourists in Chengdu, so I guess we were a bit of a novelty,” explained Tony.

“For us, the visit to Chengdu was an opportunity to see what it is like to live in China. Leah and Colin are studying the Tibetan language in Chengdu and they live near the university in an area where a lot of Tibetans live. We stayed at their apartment, toured the sites of the area and ate at local restaurants with them. We didn’t feel like tourists anymore — well except for the photo thing.”

Dining in China was always an adventure and Tony and Debbie tried a wide variety of foods they had never imagined eating prior to their visit. The average meal out cost between $2 and $4 per person.

“We got a chance to eat all sorts of Chinese ethnic foods in Chengdu and even though we were a little nervous sometimes, we never got sick,” Tony said. “We ate noodles at a Hui Muslim restaurant that was no larger than a single car garage. While we were eating, they actually secured the countertop with a rusty nail.

“We also dined at Sichuan and Tibetan restaurants. The Sichuan food is spicier than Chinese food served in Beijing. Debbie discovered that Chinese beer helps the spicy Sichuan food go down.

“The Tibetan food is more of a meat and potato style of food. The meal consisted of yak meat soup, potato and yak meat dumplings called momos, and yak meat pie. We also had a Tibetan barley beer, which had a cider taste to it. Deb likes Tibetan beer too.”

After touring several sites in the Chengdu area, including a giant panda research facility, local parks and religious sites, the couple flew back to Beijing and then to Bangkok, where they began an 11-night journey through Thailand.

They were amazed by how vastly different the people of Thailand are from the people they had met in China.

“The Thai people have a fascinating culture,” said Debbie. “Most of the population is Buddhist and we spent a full day touring some of the Buddhist temples. Our guide Mindy was fantastic. She told us a great deal about Buddhism and Thai culture.”

One of the highlights of their stop in Bangkok was a visit to the floating market, which proved to be an excellent place to get photos of locals selling wares from their boats, as they have done for centuries.

“Even though tourism is down in Thailand, the floating market was packed with venders and patrons,” said Debbie. “The food at the market smelled so good and we got some really great photos there.”

The next destination was Chiang Rai in northern Thailand and the highlight of the visit was actually a tour that hadn’t been prearranged. When they arrived at the airport, their driver Lin suggested a visit to a Buddhist temple located in a cave. The journey involved a 20-minute boat ride to the cave, an elephant ride, and then another boat ride to a remote village.

“The cave was filled with bats and the smell was horrible,” described Tony. “There was a giant Buddha inside the cave that had originally been placed there to protect it from invaders who would have destroyed it. There were 10 monks who lived inside the cave, too. It was hard to imagine living there.”

They really enjoyed the elephant ride and touring the village was an eye-opener for the couple.

“We visited another hill tribe village on a tour the following day, but this first village was by far the poorest,” said Debbie. “It was heart-wrenching to see their poverty. Our guide gave them some clothes and food and other things. These villagers had originally been involved in the opium trade and now they are a forgotten people.”

The next day, they toured another Hill Tribe village and then travelled to Mae Sai and the Golden Triangle. The Hill Tribe people were poor, but they were more fortunate than the tribe they had visited the first day.

“They are still very poor, some live in bamboo huts and some live in small houses,” explained Tony. “They have come to learn that tourists bring money, so you need to pay 10 baht if you would like to take their picture or you can take their picture for free if you buy goods from them.

“The children flocked around us trying to sell us their crafted bracelets. Lin arranged a photo opportunity of the kids if we bought them a noodle lunch. This was met with excitement and it only cost 20 baht, or 70 cents. It felt good to know that the children profited from the money.”

The final stop of the day was a visit to the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle represents the point where the Thailand, Burma and Laos borders meet. The word “Golden” represents the wealth or opportunities that where available when the opium trade was at its peak.

“We had an opportunity to stop and visit the Opium Museum, but our hearts had difficulty paying money to see the history of the use of opium after seeing how the children are still suffering today from yesterday’s dealings,” said Debbie.

The final leg of their Asian journey was a three-day visit to the beach resort area of Phuket, where they spent time enjoying the sun and surf on Patong Beach.

This was followed by an overnight stay in Hong Kong that allowed them to see some of the sights of that spectacular Asian city.

Visiting Asia was an incredible experience for the Lacombe couple and one that they had never imagined undertaking.

“It was wonderful to travel with our daughter and son-in-law and see where they are living and studying in China,” said Tony.

“The chance to visit Thailand at the same time really opened our eyes to the diversity of the cultures in that part of the world. It’s a trip we’d definitely recommend to others.”

Want more?

l To see more images and hear more about Tony and Debbie’s adventures in China and Thailand, check out their Asia blog on their website: www.phototd.com

If you go:

l Tony and Debbie arranged their own touring while in China, but the flights and the Thailand portion of the trip were arranged through Tourcan Vacations. An 11-night Amazing Thailand Tour of Bangkok, Chiang Rai, and Phuket will cost about $2,500 per person. The tour includes return air from Calgary or Edmonton with Cathay Pacific, accommodations, some meals, guided tours and transportation within Thailand. A free stop in Hong Kong is allowed and those wishing to visit mainland China can purchase an add-on fare.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, T4R1M9.