01/12/13

Border Patrol

P1030144Despite the fact that I am fairly well traveled (28 countries), I haven’t crossed that many borders. Well, not borders that felt like borders, anyway—the sort where a guard leans into your car and peers at you intently, or where you line up in front of desk and hand over your passport while trying to look as innocent as possible. Most of my border crossing has been in Europe where things are now so casual it’s virtually impossible to find someone to stamp your passport.

I went to college in Canada, so I’ve crossed that border a dozen or so times (and make no mistake, the Canadian border guards are not all smiles). I’ve walked across the Mexican border near Bisbee, Arizona. The guard on the South African/Swazi border checked our passports, then tried to sell us some lace. I’m pretty sure I had to show my passport to take a ferry from Argentina to Uruguay, but it was very casual.

So it was with a great deal of excitement that I got up at 6:30am to wait for the minibus (read: van) that would take us to Cambodia. Just before our van arrived a van from a different company picked up a British couple that had also been staying at our hotel. We did not expect to see them again, but we ran into them on the ferry from Koh Chang, at the first gas station we stopped at, at the Cambodian border, and at Angkor Wat. (They were also memorable for their attire. Despite the fact that this is a very modest part of the world where women are not even allowed into parts of Angkor Wat without their shoulders covered, this woman was wearing a “dress” that managed to show off her bra from at least three different angles.)

Anyway, when we got into the van the driver, who spoke no English but managed to convey a lot through pointing, asked me and Isaure to sit in the front seat. She can get car sick so I sat in the middle seat, which was so elevated I had to slouch down to see properly out the windshield. A number of Buddhist talismans hung from the rearview mirror (plastic saffron carnations, etc). He needed them—he drove extremely aggressively (and I’m from Boston!) If there were ever another vehicle in front of him, he would drive up until their bumpers were practically touching, then pass it. We spent almost half the ride in the wrong lane. (To be clear, I didn’t feel that he was a dangerous driver at all—just one with no patience. But I have since learned from experience that he was a very typical driver for this part of the world.)

The van had no storage space so the driver piled everyone’s suitcases on the first seat—the one directly behind me and Isaure. My seat had no headrest, so the top suitcase had nothing but gravity keeping it from decapitating me. All the way to the ferry, Isaure had one hand on its front and Khalid held onto its back. (Do I have great friends or what?) Once we were safely on the ferry, the driver rearranged the suitcases so they were more secure.

We saw lots of people with visible motorbike injuries on the ferry (scraped legs, limps), making me happy I’d stuck to my guns and refused to ride one. (It is the primary method of transportation in Southeast Asia, but I know someone who was in a terrible motorcycle accident that changed his personality and gave him epilepsy, so I have always vowed never to get on one. I can definitely see the appeal, though—it’s a really easy way to get around, and it does look like fun. But it’s not for me.)

The drive to the border, while long, was actually pretty pleasant. Rural Thailand is very pretty—lots of interesting mountains in the distance, as well as some stretches of farmland that reminded me of the rural Midwest (with different foliage, of course). But I could definitely see why many of the Thais we met had moved to touristy areas like Koh Chang—it didn’t look like there would be a lot of money in the sort of farming we saw. We also drove by a lot of military checkpoints (often rotaries with little guard booths in the center), which surprised me—but then I really don’t know anything about Thai politics.

At lunch time we arrived at a dubious-looking restaurant near the border, where our driver handed us over to a very friendly guy who spoke excellent English. He gave us all forms to fill out for our Cambodian visas, then collected the forms, our photos, the visa fee, and our passports.

Handing your passport to a random stranger at a shady roadside eatery in a developing country is not the most confidence-inspiring act. But it all worked out—within half an hour or so he was back.

We all piled into a different van to go to the border. He parked the van behind a building, then started handing out our passports. Our group was very diverse—two Americans (me and Khalid), one French person (Isaure), four South Africans, two Russians, a Canadian, and a Swede. I was surprised to see that despite all the fuss over photos, there is no photo on my visa. So I guess my picture is now in a Cambodian database somewhere.)

We had to carry all our things a short distance to Thai customs. We queued up in the lines for foreigners and admired the “Happy New Year” decorations sparkling over the images of the royal family at the front of the room. The lines went pretty fast and soon we were on the other side, which we figured must be no man’s land. When our guide reappeared to lead us to Cambodian customs I was very surprised to see that we were actually already in Poipet. We walked by multiple casinos before we arrived at customs, so as far as I could see there was nothing stopping us from disappearing into the crowd without a visa. From what I could see Poipet was very dirty (trash everywhere) and seemed quite poor. I was clutching my bags very tightly since Shaun (the Welsh owner of our last accommodations) had told us that the border was full of pickpockets, particularly children)—but no one came near us. The line to go through customs was very, very long. (Not because there were so many people in it—but because it was so slow. The Cambodian customs agents had a very good incentive to keep it that way—for 300 baht ($10) you can bribe your way out of waiting in it.) It was so hot that I was actually sweating through the front of my shirt. The smell (sewage) did not help things much. But despite all that, I found it to be a fun adventure. We got to know the only other two people from our group who did not bribe their way out of the line pretty well—Chad (the Canadian) and Oscar (the Swede). Chad, who is about 25, works for a small airline that has partnerships that allow him to fly very cheaply. Oscar, who is about 20 and looks like he should be a playing Selena Gomez’ love interest on a Disney Channel show, plans to be a carpenter.

When we finally made it through customs we piled into yet another bus, which took us to the city’s bus terminal. There, we could change money at the official government booth, where our guide assured us they would give us fair rates. He explained that in Cambodia, even though the official currency is the riel, the real currency is the U.S. dollar. They use riel for everything that costs less than a dollar, like spare change, and dollars for everything else. There are 4000 riel to a dollar (which made seeing my bank balance at ATMs fun—I am so rich in Cambodia!)

At the bus terminal we climbed into yet another van. I ended up at the very back, next to the suitcases, with Isaure right in front of me. Right in front of her was an empty space with no seats. After all of us tourists had found seats, the driver put a cooler into the empty space and two (or was it three?) Cambodians squeezed onto the seat. When Isaure expressed dismay that they had to sit that way, one of them replied with a laugh, “You’re paying, and we’re riding for free, so of course they treat us like shit!” He told us his name was Jacey.

As we drove out of Poipet and into the countryside, the view began to improve. The landscape was beautiful—flat as far as the eye could see, but punctuated with trees and tall grass. As the sun went down, we were struck by the fact that almost every house had blue lights in the yard the size and shape of light sabers. We asked Jacey what they were and he said they were to attract crickets and lizards.

As we arrived in Siem Reap (13 hours after we had left Koh Chang), Jacey revealed that he had a tuk-tuk and asked if he could drive us to Angkor Wat. We gladly accepted. He offered to drive us to our hotel for free since he would be getting so much work the following day (but we gave him money anyway). Oscar decided to come with us, since our hotel was so cheap ($7 each for our own rooms) and he hadn’t booked anything, so the four of us and all our bags piled into the same tiny tuk-tuk. Since we probably weighed more than 600 pounds, we were genuinely concerned going around corners, but we made it in one piece.

Unfortunately, when we got to the hotel the three rooms we had been promised were not available—they told us that some westerners had damaged the toilets over New Year’s! Instead of having our own rooms, the four of us were going to have to share a tiny room with two bunk beds and a very dubious en suite bathroom. The only saving grace was that they were only charging us $3.50 per person. Given that I could barely stand, I was so tired, I didn’t really care where we slept.

And that is the story of how we got to Cambodia. And if you’ve read all this, you can properly sympathize with long slogs.

01/7/13

I Spy

421075_10151231910256025_1353687566_n[1]This morning we slept in. Isaure and I didn’t emerge from our room until 11, and by the time we had eaten and were ready to face the world, it was after noon. I was eager to head back into the jungle on the cliff, so we put on long pants and sneakers and climbed the extremely steep steps into the forest. Once again, we walked single file (since our first hike, our joke has been that Khalid should stay in the middle, because if either Isaure or I needed to be carried out, he could do it, but if he needed to be, we probably couldn’t do it together). Walking in the front always felt slightly dangerous (though not nearly as dangerous as it had in flip flops!) Every root could hide a cobra. (Not to mention all the snakes whose names I don’t know!)

At one point we reached a spot with a spectacular view of a cove, complete with black, heron-like birds. Through some trees I could see another spot that looked like it would have a good view. It meant going off the path, but only by about ten feet. I decided to go for it. I pushed vines aside—and got rewarded with a sprinkling of red ants. When I reached the other side, the view was not as great as I had hoped—and I suddenly felt very foolish. The grass was full of possible snake hiding places. I did not relax until I was back on the main path with Khalid and Isaure.

Eventually the path as such disappeared, and we found ourselves pushing our way down a wide, flat hillside that had either been cleared to be a road (and then become overgrown), or perhaps had been destroyed in flooding. When we reached the bottom, and the paved road that signaled civilization, I felt the pride of an explorer back from an expedition.

With that checked off, we decided to walk into the village. We could see it from our rooms—it was an elaborate collection of small buildings arranged on a sort of concrete dock over the water. It didn’t look far away but it did take us a solid fifteen minutes to get there by road (swimming would probably have been faster, but the water at this end of the island is not very clean).

It was fascinating to walk through the shops, “floating” as they were above the water. A narrow sort of hallway served a road between them. Walking down it, you could turn to the left and see a shop with Koh Chang t-shirts, and to the right and see a seafood restaurant. Also present were groceries, a small hotel, jewelry stores, a clinic, and a bar. In many places you could look down and see water. Eventually the shops ended and it became a real dock with large boats and a lighthouse.

As we walked back from the village we discussed whether we had taken out enough cash at the ATM. We were pretty sure we had enough to pay our tab at the restaurant and rent some kayaks that afternoon—but then I remembered that we would need 1200 baht each to pay for our Cambodia visas. (Shaun, the owner of Cliff Cottage, had told us that everyone would try to cheat us at the border, including our Thai guides. He told us to insist on the 1200 baht price and threaten to call their boss, whose name he gave us. I figured this conversation would not go as well if we did not actually have 1200 baht to give them.) In the heat, none of us felt like turning around and walking back to the village, so we decided to kayak back.

We rented two kayaks (I was the goody two shoes who took a life jacket) and portaged them down to the beach (how can plastic be so heavy?). Isaure and I led the way. Paddling to the village took no time, but we soon realized that there were not a lot of places to leave the kayak. We chose a very muddy-looking beach, but the tide was so low that we became stuck about 15 feet from the shore. I decided to get out and walk to the ATM, and Isaure lent me her sandals because unlike my flip flops, they were enclosed and therefore less likely to get lost in the mud. But we didn’t count on this mud. It was so strong that as it sucked my feet in I could feel the Velcro coming undone. One step was all I took before it became clear that I could not take another. It took almost all my strength to pull my feet out of the mud and climb back into the kayak.

Plan B was to find a ladder that I could use to climb into the village. The first one we saw seemed to go into a private residence, so that was out. The next already had several motorboats in front of it, so we wouldn’t be able to get the kayak close enough. Another seemed to be broken in half. Finally we found one that seemed sturdy. Isaure pulled up right in front of it and I pulled myself onto it, feeling very much like a spy. Like the cliff boardwalk, it was made of lots of different pieces of wood that seemed salvaged from other things. I tried not to think about what would happen if it broke.

When I reached the top I seemed to be in some sort of retreat—there were lots of decorative pillows strewn on a smooth wood floor. Soon I passed the proprietor—a man who sat behind a desk, fast asleep. I tiptoed toward the main passage and discovered that I was in a small hotel called the Paradise. I reached the hallway and tried to look casual. In my life jacket.

The ATMs were all on dry land, and it took another five minutes or so for me to reach them. I put my card in and asked for 5000 baht. The machine replied that it could only give me 2500. “Correct or incorrect?” It asked me. “Incorrect,” I replied, hoping that it would give me back my card, but instead it returned me to the screen that asked how much money I wanted. Once again, I told it 5000. It replied with the same message. This time I gave in and said “correct.” But then it repeated that it could only give me 2500. I tried pushing “cancel”—it just asked me which language I wanted to use. I began to fear that the ATM would not return my card, and I would keep Khalid and Isaure waiting for hours while I tried to find someone who could speak sufficient English to understand my problem and rescue my debit card. Fortunately, I discovered that if I pressed “cancel” twice it returned the card. I had better luck with another ATM, and soon I was hustling down the passage to the Paradise.

Which was locked.

I couldn’t believe my eyes—twos little door that had been wide open before were now locked across the wooden dock that led to the Paradise. I briefly wondered if Isaure would hear me if I called her name; I was only about 30 feet from her. But then I decided to try walking to the far end of the restaurant next door in the hopes that I could see her from there. I walked briskly passed the surprise manager (the place was empty at 4:00pm) to the edge of the room. There below me were Khalid and Isaure, bobbing in their kayaks. I explained the problem to them. Isaure said the owner of the Paradise had discovered them and seemed unhappy. “Did he say anything?” I asked. “He said: ‘why?’”

It was very frustrating to see them mere feet from me with no way of getting to them, short of jumping into polluted water that probably wasn’t deep enough to sustain the impact. But then they spotted another ladder, off the restaurant I was standing in. A boat was blocking it, but I asked the restaurant owner if I could use the ladder and she said yes. So I dropped my flip flops into the boat, climbed down the ladder, and crawled from the boat into the kayak, feeling very much like a conquering hero after a long battle.

After that we kayaked to a small beach on the other side of the village (when we kayaked under the concrete dock we attracted lots of happy attention from the locals). Then we headed back to Cliff Cottage to catch the tail end of the very pink sunset from a small pavilion with a thatched roof and cushions.

Now it’s time to pack everything up for our trip to Cambodia. Shaun said we should be very wary of the Cambodian children at the border who get very close to you and ask for money while expertly rifling through your pockets. I will have to arrange things carefully to make sure they don’t get anything I can’t live without.

Thailand has been magical. I’m so glad I’m coming back in a few weeks—it’s beautiful, safe, and everyone has been very friendly.

But I’m still looking forward to my next adventure.

 

01/7/13

Jungle Fever

398060_10151231626586025_915081573_n[1]Before I came to Thailand, the last time I saw an elephant outside of a zoo, it was standing in the middle of a road in Kruger National Park in South Africa, giving our Volkswagen a look that said, “Get out of my way or else.” Its meaning was so unmistakable that my friend Maggie, who was driving, immediately shifted into reverse and sped in the opposite direction.

At the time I wished there were a way to signal somehow to the elephant that we weren’t like the other humans—we weren’t interested in her tusks or in mounting her head on our wall. We just wanted to admire her (and perhaps, if she were willing, cuddle a bit.)

So when I read that in Thailand it was possible to ride elephants through the jungle and even go swimming with them in rivers, I was immediately sold.

It was only later, when I started reading that the elephants are often badly treated and that it is uncomfortable for them to carry people, especially on seats that have to be strapped onto them, that I started to have misgivings. I was hopeful that we could book something at a place with a reputation for being humane—a place where the elephants didn’t have to do tricks (at the place across from our guest house, we saw the elephants walking on their hind legs). Unfortunately, the place that our guide recommended was all booked up, so we were faced with a difficult decision: risk supporting a place that might not be as good to its elephants, or leave Thailand without interacting with any? We chose the former, but I have to say, I wish we hadn’t.

Overall our experience was pretty good—we arrived at the elephant farm and were immediately told to climb a platform to board the elephants, who were instantly standing below us, wearing seats that were about three feet wide. Isaure climbed easily onto the one we shared—I hesitated for a moment, eyeing the 10-foot drop in the space between the platform and our elephants back, but I made it. Khalid had a slightly smaller one that could only carry one person. The mahouts (elephant trainers) sat directly on the elephants’ heads, armed with a small scythe which ours fortunately never used except to cut down vines for the elephant to snack on. However, another mahout who was part of our group of about five elephants hit his elephant very hard, and repeatedly, on the temple a few minutes into the ride. The sound was cringe-worthy and I am pretty sure it drew blood (the next time I saw it I noticed purple patches on its forehead—Khalid and Isaure and I were not 100% sure if that purple stuff was blood or perhaps some sort of antiseptic. We tried to research the color of elephant blood but our internet access has been so spotty we didn’t get very far.)

After that it was hard to really enjoy the experience. Especially since the terrain was not particularly varied or interesting—most of the time it looked like your average deciduous forest, though we did walk through an interesting grove of rubber trees.

The highlight was when we arrived at a river and were told to climb off onto a tree house-platform so that we could swim with the elephants. All of us tourists (the three of us plus a couple of Austrians and some Koreans) stripped down to our bathing suits and climbed onto a big boulder beside the widest parts of the river. The mahouts took the seats off the elephants and let them into the river (the elephant which had been hit earlier was kept on a chain but allowed in the water). The mahouts encouraged us to go in, but most of us hesitated; in the water, the elephants were suddenly intimidating—it was plain to see that they could easily crush us if they wanted to. (I also couldn’t help but remember a brochure in my travel doctor’s office that warned of the horrible diseases you can contract from fresh water in the tropics.) Khalid jumped right in, and I decided I had better make the most of the experience and follow. I hate jumping into cold water so I picked a shallower spot and slid into the stream. The elephants did not seem terribly interested in killing me (or interested in me at all), so I approached them and began patting one on the back who was facing the other way. The mahouts encouraged me to climb onto its back. I pulled myself halfway up and enjoyed the sensation of feeling the sun on my back and cool water on my legs. But of course the elephant moved, sending me plunging back into the river. After a few minutes Khalid and I had had enough (especially since the water was rapidly filling with elephant dung) and we climbed out. We joked to Isaure (who had been snapping pictures from the boulder) that if Khalid and I got sick the next day and she didn’t, at least we would know why. But then she decided to carpe diem, so I filmed her laughing on an elephant’s back from the shore.

The rest of the walk was uneventful and mostly pleasant—but I couldn’t shake my feelings of guilt. The mahout would not be hitting the elephant if people like me didn’t want to interact with wild animals. What did I expect? How else do you get an animal of that size to submit to tiny humans? I made a mental note to make a big donation to an elephant sanctuary.

After the ride we fed some bananas to the elephants in their pens (including a mother and rather sickly looking baby), then were deposited back at our guest house. We were about to move down the island to Bang Bao Bay, a comparatively remote place, so we decided to take care of some errands while we were in town. We had some photos taken for our Cambodia visas, and booked seats on a bus to Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat). It’s an all-day bus ride, for which they are charging us 500 baht (there are 30 baht to a dollar.) It’s hard to understand why that is so cheap when the cabs on Koh Chang are so expensive. (Our cab to our new accommodations in Bang Bao Bay from Kai Bae, a drive of maybe 15 minutes, was 450 baht.)

Our new accommodations look very much like an American motel, with little rooms all in a row, facing the road, which borders the sea. It is much quieter than Kai Bae—it takes a good 15 minutes to walk to the village. The rooms are around a corner of the hillside from the reception area, which is basically a large verandah overlooking a rocky cove. Hammocks, tables, arm chairs, a swing, and a bar fill the open air room.

As soon as we checked in we noticed a path along the cliff opposite the reception area, and decided to check it out. The path was a homemade wooden boardwalk over the sea (there were patches where I had to steel myself to keep walking.) When we reached the end we were very surprised to find a deck with a small bar. Apparently it is open every day from 5pm-7pm, so you can have a cocktail and watch the sunset.

There were stone steps leading further up the cliff from the deck, so we decided to climb up (almost vertically) and see what was there. It turned out to be jungle—and much more jungly-jungle than we had trekked in with the elephants. Vines hung from every tree. Palm leaves littered the path. The feel was very tropical and, despite our proximity to our hotel, very remote.

Our mahout had told us there were cobras in Thailand, so as we walked we mused about what cobras ate (I seemed to remember that they like chicken)—and as a result got more and more anxious. Khalid and I were only wearing flip flops, and none of us were wearing long pants, so we felt pretty ill-equipped to tangle with snakes of any size. Right when I was feeling most nervous I heard a noise from my left that definitely was not made by the wind. And then another. For a minute I wondered if there were other hikers there. And then Isaure said: “Monkeys!” I looked up and saw two large monkeys high in the trees. Relief flooded over me—as well as excitement, since it was the first wild animal I’d seen in Thailand. Since the sun was setting and we were dressed like “stupid Americans,” as Khalid put it, we decided to come back the next day.

We had dinner on the verandah. I gave in and had my first hamburger since arriving in Thailand. It did not taste like a hamburger. But it did have a slice of ham on it. So there’s that.

Khalid and Isaure turned in, but I stayed up to FaceTime with my parents. It really is remarkable that you can see and talk to another person a world away without so much as a SIM card. I don’t even have a phone—I use my iPod Touch.

After that I found out that after the monkeys and the hammocks, the best thing about our new accommodations is the mattresses, which are in serious danger of putting the local masseurs out of business.

01/6/13

Koh Dependent

37090_10151231908331025_201867425_n[3]I’m not someone who enjoys going out of her comfort zone. Hemisphere, yes. Comfort zone, no. So trying new things (things I could be terrible at) always makes me a little nervous.

Yesterday I tried snorkeling for the first time. We took a power boat out to a little island off the coast of our little island, and were basically left to our own devices with a mask and some flippers. Fortunately, Khalid and Isaure had done it before so they could instruct me on what to do. When it came time to put my face in the water and breathe through the tube, I had a sudden flashback to my much-hated childhood swimming lessons. I loathed holding my breath and putting my face in the water in a pool whose shallow end was much too deep for me to touch the bottom. (Eventually I taught myself how to swim in a pond under less stressful circumstances.) But this time I put my face in the water with minimal hesitation and was rewarded with the remarkable sight of a world completely different to what I could see just a few inches above the surface. There were schools of striped zebra-like fish, a remarkable blue fish with neon green fins, and some yellow striped fish that reminded me a lot of Nemo. I was entranced—but after about 40 minutes I was ready to go back to Koh Chang. (There really weren’t very many varieties of fish.) Since our return was not forthcoming, I sat on the beach and admired the many beautiful pieces of coral that had washed ashore (someone—who?—has constructed elaborate coral decorations and hung them from the trees on the beach). I also peered into the absolutely inpenetrable jungle that hugged the beach. It was the sort of place you could easily live for 30 years without realizing that World War II was over.

After our snorkel we decided to try something different and take a taxi to another town. We hopped into the back of a passing truck and took it to the next beach north. Klong Prao. We were left at a crossroads between the main, busy road and a side road lined with tropical plants. We decided to follow the side road in the hope that it would lead us to the beach. Eventually, it did, but not before we had walked through a resort that Isaure’s guide described as Robinson Crusoe-esque (colorfully-painted huts of stilts in the middle of the forest). We sat on beachside swings and watched the sun begin to set. It was spectacular—pink as far as the eye could see, with a lone boat bobbing on the horizon. We decided to walk back along the beach towards the center of town.

As we strolled we passed increasingly fabulous-looking resorts. One had an open pavilion for massages right on the beach. Isaure and I decided that we couldn’t resist—especially since neither of us had ever had a traditional Thai massage. (Our massage in Chiang Mai was an oil massage.) For this one, we lay down (fully clothed!) and were covered in blankets. What followed was the most unusual massage I have ever had. Our masseuses began crawling on our backs, pushing and pulling on various limbs. Then I heard Isaure cry, “Carrie! She’s walking on my back!” Sure enough, in a moment my masseuse was walking on mine. (I actually really enjoyed that part. But I’m also glad that she probably weighed less than 100 pounds!) Unlike in American massages, where the masseur remains totally silent so you can relax, in Cambodia the masseurs talk to each other as if you weren’t there at all—joking, laughing, talking loudly. When we reached the halfway point and turned over, we decided to join in. Their English was not good by any means, but it was good enough to communicate. We learned that their names were Pa and Ta. Ta was from northern Thailand, near Chiang Mai, and moved to Koh Chang because “baby needed to eat.” (Her daughter is in high school and lives in the north with Ta’s parents.) Pa is from Cambodia and also moved to Koh Chang for the money. She has two kids. They were both very gregarious and very funny. They taught us how to say a number of things in Thai (including “good,” “my name is,” and “I love you,” which I told them was probably not going to come up in the next three days). They thought our names were very pretty–it amused me to hear them repeating “Carrie” reverently. When it was time to say goodbye we had to wake up Khalid, who was dozing on a lounge chair, to take a picture of all of us together. We gave them a big tip—hopefully it will enable them to go visit their families more often.

It was our last night in that part of the island (the following day we were moving to the remote southern tip), so I suggested we go to Porn’s, the restaurant I had admired from the beach that reminded me of “Swiss Family Robinson.” Everyone was game, so we hopped in another truck and went back through Kai Bae and over the hill to Porn’s.

Porn’s was just what I had hoped—multiple levels of tree house-like spaces with tables and chairs, and a bar. Soon after we arrived loud music began playing signaling the arrival of a fire dancer, who performed on the beach with flaming hoops and sticks. It was an impressive show. Later, we were sitting at our table, discussing our love lives when a waiter came by to clear the table. “Heartbreak? I know all about that,” he said, and proceeded to pull up a chair and discuss love with us. I won’t say his name in case his ex-girlfriend is reading this, because he is still in love with her even though they broke up years ago. But they are still friends, which he thinks is the only sensible way to do things. (“If you love someone, why wouldn’t you want to be friends? You get to see them. And they help you if they can and you help them if you can.”)

When we finally left (after midnight), we asked our new friend if he thought we could get a cab. He said no, and that we should walk. We debated walking along the street and taking our chances with drunk-driving motorbikers, and walking along the beach, which I was concerned about since when we had done the walk before there had been places where you had to get wet up to your waist and I wasn’t wearing my bathing suit. But fortunately the tide was out, so we walked back along the sand, our way lit by Isaure’s iPhone flashlight.

01/4/13

Koh Chang is not Harry Potter’s girlfriend.

429047_10151227234686025_699444845_n[1]The hardest thing about traveling in Thailand? Remembering not to brush your teeth with tap water. I still haven’t managed that once.

Otherwise, things continue to be pretty terrific.

We decided to take it easy on our last day in Chiang Mai. We had brunch at the Blue Diamond (one of the restaurants recommended by Isaure’s guide), which was lovely—tables in a small courtyard with a little river with amazingly expressive koi, and an onsite bakery. (We did have to listen to a very New Age American woman tell her friends about the city’s best health food stores and show off pictures of her most recent retreat. “That’s the cave I lived in. And that’s the ladder to the place where I meditated.”)

Then we went back to Monk Chat, where we met a very friendly guy named Jade. He became a monk because his family was very poor subsistence farmers (part of one of the local tribes, the Karen, which I told him was my mother’s name) and monks get a free education. He said that someday he would like to be a tour guide, so I told him all my ideas for Chiang Mai tours. Hopefully he will remember me when he gets rich and famous from my suggestions. He should—we’re now Facebook friends. (His request.) He and Khalid also had a nice chat about the relative price of iPhones. (Apparently an iPhone 5 is $900 in Thailand! Yikes!)

After that we decided to finally go for a swim in our hotel pool, since it was our last day and it seemed a shame not to use it. Then we had dinner at a canteen where our waiter asked us to help him locate an old friend of his who had lived in Sacramento 20 years ago. We told him we would do our best. Then we took a tuktuk to the night bazaar, which involved several buildings full of stands, as well as many lining the sidewalks. I bought myself a dress (I hadn’t brought any to Thailand because I couldn’t find anything that met all my qualifications (comfortable in tropical heat, would not get too wrinkled, and modest (I had read that though they would never say anything, Southeast Asians find the sight of women’s shoulders offensive, and I really didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable))). So of course the dress I ended up buying leaves the shoulders completely bare. But hey—it’s knee-length and otherwise quite demure. I also got a scarf and bracelet to dress up my (also modest and boring) other clothes. I negotiated for everything (but not very seriously—I have no interest in making anyone suffer over a couple of dollars).

Then we went back to the hotel and packed for our trip to Koh Chang. At 5:15 a.m. we took a cab to the airport. Two flights and several hours later, we landed in Trat at the most beautiful airport I have ever seen—thatched roof buildings, topiaries shaped like elephants. We arranged to take a minibus to our hotel (which included a ferry ride to the island). The views were gorgeous—turquoise water, and a coastline straight out of Bali Hai. The island itself was surprisingly large and very hilly. We drove through several villages (if that’s what you call them—they are basically collections of restaurants, stands selling beach toys, and 7-Elevens. Yes, those 7-Elevens.)

Our resort turned out to be a collection of small cabins facing a lawn—which bordered an elephant park. It was both delightful and disconcerting to find ourselves staring at elephants, who stared back. Khalid wasn’t feeling well so he lay down to rest, but Isaure and I immediately put on our swimsuits and got directions to the beach (“just go straight.”) Less than five minutes later, we were standing at the water’s edge, surveying a spectacular panorama of palm trees, sand, and the bluest water I had ever seen in person. Hoping that we weren’t breaking some sort of rule, we walked into the seaside resort (which was significantly more glamorous-looking than ours) and found a spot in the shade to leave our things before heading into the surf (if you can call it that if there are no waves…) It was probably 70 degrees; cooler than the Mediterranean I swam in last summer near Monaco, but a hell of a lot warmer than anywhere else I’ve ever been.

By this point we were hungry so we went to a little restaurant  at the end of the road from our hotel which had a view of the sea. While we ate we watched a baby elephant (one of our new neighbors) walk down the street with a man who held him gently by the earlobe. The baby then gave rides in the ocean.

I fell asleep at 6:00pm due to the early wake-up call, but when I woke up at 9:00 I realized that I hadn’t taken my malaria pill yet, and since I knew from experience that taking it on an empty stomach is a very bad idea, I had to go get something to eat. Isaure was already in her pajamas, so I had to make my first solo excursion since arriving in Thailand. Alas, all the elephants were already asleep (or maybe they had the night off?) so there was no one to witness my newfound independence. I ended up just going to a street vendor selling banana pancakes on the corner near our hotel (right next to the 7-Eleven!) They were delicious, and I remain, as far as I know, malaria-free.

 

01/2/13

Monk-ey Business

904_10151225221721025_511002157_n[1]Clearly, spending New Year’s Eve virtuously has paid off, because the first day of 2013 was terrific.

After breakfast we went to Monk Chat, where we found a very nice monk named Me sitting in the shade chatting with some Australians. (Don’t worry—we soon drove them away with our loud American questions.) Me (who was not exactly shy but so soft-spoken I had to lean as far forward as I could manage to hear him) told us that he had been a novice monk for six years. He just turned 20, so he’s now eligible to become a full-fledged monk. (We congratulated him.) One of the reasons he wants to learn English is to get a job if he leaves the monastery someday (this surprised me, but apparently it’s very common to be a monk for just a few years. He said his father and grandfather had done it). Me is from Chiang Mai and has never left the city. (Top on his bucket list: Japan.) I asked him questions about the wats; he said the reason there are so many is that each family built one on their property. When I replied that Chiang Mai must have been a very wealthy community, since they are so lavish, he said no, when they were first built they were very modest but they have been added to over the centuries.

After we said goodbye to Me we decided to fulfill one of my greatest wishes and go for a walk in the jungle. (I grew up watching “Swiss Family Robinson” over and over again and I could not wait to feel like I might have to wrestle a boa constrictor with my brother.) We decided to take a cab to a nearby national park. Isaure’s book said it contained a temple and very few tourists. As luck would have it, as soon as we left the grounds of the wat we happened upon a large taxi (basically a pick-up truck with a covered bed, two long benches for sitting, and an open back) with a sign that said it went to the temple. Negotiating took some time, since they were asking an exorbitant price ($30; our taxi from the airport had been $4) and saying they wanted to wait for us for half an hour. We explained that we wanted to spend a long time there—probably several hours—so maybe they could just drop us off and we could find our own way back. No, they would not do that, since traffic would be terrible since it was a holiday and it wouldn’t be worth it to just go one way. Ok, we said. If you want to wait for three hours or so for us, we will use you both ways.

Riding through the city was fun. We got some great smiles from a motorbike driver who was amused when Isaure took her photo. I was blown away by the beautiful grounds of Chiang Mai University—it was beautifully landscaped, with endless flower beds and even topiaries shaped like birds. Signs in Thai and English informed us that this was the engineering faculty or that was the hockey field. It was frankly much more attractive that the university I attended. Once we were through the campus, we began winding up a mountain road. Our driver stopped to allow us to admire the view of the city at an overlook where food trucks sold snacks and indigenous women sold bracelets. Weirdly, in the panorama of Chiang Mai we could not make out a single wat.

We climbed back into the truck and headed farther up the mountain. Up to this point there had been no traffic, so we thought that the reference to it had just been a line. But then we arrived at the “quiet” jungle temple.

It was pandemonium. There must have been hundreds (thousands?) of people there, and the cars to match. The street was lined with stalls selling crafts and food, and cars trying to park and motorbikes zipping up and down the street and people streaming in all directions. Our driver let us off and we pushed our way towards the steps to the temple. A few months before I stopped working I decided to stop taking the elevator at my office unless it was absolutely necessary. Thank goodness I did, because if I hadn’t had that training I don’t know how I would ever have scaled this massive staircase. (I just asked Isaure how high she thought it was and she said: “45 meters? 50? 70?”) It was lined with people raising money for various projects (most of which we could not understand because the signs were in Thai), more of the indigenous women and their depressingly cheap (1 baht!) bracelets, and some children in native dress whom we fervently hoped were in school when it wasn’t a national holiday.

At the top were even more people milling around on many terraces outside the temple itself, where they watched children in Thai costumes dance and took off their shoes in preparation for entering the temple itself. We doffed our shoes and headed up their stairs into what we thought was the temple, but was yet another courtyard. Many people were holding lotus flowers and walking slowly in a circle around an inner building. I entered a different building and knelt by the door to watch a monk use a small broom-like thing to sprinkle water on the crowd. He hit me in the face a couple of times, which I could only hope was an auspicious beginning to the new year. When I went outside Khalid pointed out a stack of laminated instructions which advised us to circle the temple three times to show respect. It was followed by a series of words that seemed to be Thai written with the Latin alphabet. Khalid said he thought we were supposed to say these words to ourselves as we walked. So I started walking. (I don’t think Isaure and Khalid made it around the full three times, but I figured at the beginning of a new year, I could use all the help I could get.)

After we finished admiring the temple we descended the staircase (giving 20 baht bills to multiple groups raising money). Isaure decided to buy some fried quail eggs from a vendor at the bottom who was cooking them in a cast iron dish with very small circular indentations. (The eggs were approximately 1 inch in circumference). She was also making coconut pancakes. At first I was very intimated by the idea of eating food from a street vendor that could give us both unfamiliar bacteria AND salmonella, but then I decided to be adventurous and joined her with both the eggs and the pancakes.

Next we decided to ask around to see if anyone could direct us to the nature trails we had read about. (Nature was all around us, of course, but only in the form of absolutely inpenetrable jungle.) While Isaure and I waited for Khalid to ask one of the ticket sellers, I noticed a sign that said something like “beware poisonous vestapods.” I pointed it out to Isaure, and an older monk who was standing in front of it watched with amusement as I indicated I didn’t know what “vestapods” were. He acted out dying. I nodded to show that I understood that part, then used my hands to act out a snake. He smiled and nodded vigorously. Terrific.

Nobody knew where the trails were so we returned to our driver. We tried to explain to him that we wanted to walk in nature but his English was basically non-existent. He even put me on the phone with someone he worked with who spoke English but even she couldn’t understand me. Finally we came to the understanding that he was familiar with a waterfall farther down the mountain. We didn’t have high hopes that it would be that interesting, but we figured it was better than nothing. It turned out to be just what we wanted—peaceful, natural, and with such jungle-appropriate features as vines and bamboo. We hiked for a bit upstream (taking care to make as much noise as possibly to scare away any poisonous vestapods). That side of the falls felt very much like walking in the woods in North America, since the trees were very tall and the brook could have been anywhere. Downstream had a very different vibe, with fewer tall trees and more green. We discovered a small grove where trees were circled with saffron ties, and a small altar was set up in the center, complete with food offerings. We followed the path further and found an overlook with a stunning view of the city.

At this point we figured that our driver had earned his $30 (it had been hours since we had left the city), so we let him drive us back to our hotel. Then we went out to dinner at the Writers Club, one of the many restaurants recommended in Isaure’s guides. It is also a hangout for local expat writers. I noticed signs encouraging Americans to register to vote and a case advertising books by local authors. By this point I was so tired that I was literally nodding off at the dinner table, but Isaure and Khalid managed to keep a lively conversation going until we finally made it back to the hotel and I crawled gratefully into bed.

 

12/31/12

Moral Pray Countdown

P1020602Greetings from the future! It is 2013 here already, and so far it is pretty great. I think you’re going to like it.

We spent the end of the year pampering ourselves. First we took our first tuk-tuk (cabs about the size of golf carts)  to a new part of town  for a western-style restaurant at a place Isaure had read about in her French guidebook. (It’s so wonderful having her here. Not only is she my personal paparazzo, she knows the best place to get a banana pancake.) Speaking of banana pancakes, fruit of any kind was very high on my doctor’s Do Not Eat If You Don’t Want to Spend Hours in the Bathroom List. But it is also basically my favorite food. In my one day in Chiang Mai I had bravely resisted smoothies, fruit salads, delicious-looking breakfast cakes, and the stall at the Sunday Market that sold tall cups full of absolutely gorgeous strawberries. But one look at this menu and I knew that resistance was futile. I got some French toast with a side of fruit salad, figuring that individual pieces of fruit I could at least rinse off with my bottled water. (Yes, it was a really weird thing to do and yes, I am sure our waitress will be talking about me at cocktail parties for years to come.)

After breakfast we decided to explore the neighborhood, which was really cute—narrow streets with lots of restaurants and guesthouses, so we walked around for a while, admiring flowering trees, exotic caged birds, and families on motorbikes. Highlights included an adorable little girl of about two sharing a motorbike sidecar with an equally adorable bulldog, and a woman at a market reaching into a barrel of fish, grabbing one, weighing it, and matter-of-factly bludgeoning it to death with a mallet. Since we were being indulgent and we were in Thailand, we decided to get massages. We picked a place that looked nice (through the window we could see a row of chaise lounges for people to recline on while they got pedicures) and chose options off the menu. Isaure and I both chose an hour-long traditional oil massage for $10. Now, I have had a lot of massages in the US, from a lot of different people, but this was definitely unique. They brought us to the top floor of the building and put us in individual curtained-off areas  and had us take off our clothes and leave the clothes in a little basket, which they then removed (presumably so they didn’t have to step over them in the narrow space).  Then once we were covered up they proceeded to sit on our feet and crawl up our backs (which actually felt really good). The one part that was slightly weird for me was when my masseuse began massaging my chest. And by my chest, I mean my chest. At the time I decided not to say anything and just experience the traditional massage all the way through, but I think in the future I would let them know up front that I’m not a fan of that. Or of having my stomach massaged. Especially when I’m so preoccupied all the time with whether or not it’s going to suddenly turn on me. After the massage we got pedicures (hey, aren’t you supposed to start the new year with a clean house? We thought that this was sort of along the same lines).

Then we decided to walk to the river, which we had yet to see (though we walked by the city’s moat every day). It was not the most pleasant walk—the neighborhood was not very pretty and we inhaled a lot of gas fumes—but eventually we did locate the (unremarkably, brown) river. We also saw the first person we had seen in Chiang Mai who appeared to be a beggar (though I can’t be sure since he was not begging, but lying facedown on the sidewalk beside his crutches, asleep). I have been amazed at the lack of panhandling in this city full of tourists. I can’t figure out if it’s because the city has somehow removed street people from the Old Quarter, or if it’s because the tourists make the town so prosperous that nobody needs to beg, or something in between.

Anyway, the highlight of our trip to the river was a visit to a tea house from Isaure’s book. It was a spectacular example of a colonial house, with beautiful woodwork and a flat-out beautiful back garden where you could have your tea. (Here I really went off the rails and had a fruit smoothie.)

By this time it was 5 o’clock, the time our Buddhism PhD student had told us that the walking meditation circle would begin, but we thought that it would probably last for a few hours at least, so we strolled back to town through a pedestrian market. Alas, when we finally reached the appropriate wat it was over. But another wat was having a “Moral Pray Countdown” at 11:30, so we added that to our agenda. Even though we had been to countless wats at this point (one thing I am very curious to find out is how on earth the city manages to support so many—each wat has several buildings and well-kept grounds, and you can often see the next one from the grounds of the one you’re standing in), we decided to explore the grounds. And I’m so glad we did because it turned out to be Chedi Luang, which is the most breathtaking temple I have ever seen. It is 80 meters tall and incredibly imposing. I’d describe it but I don’t think I could do it justice, so you’ll just have to look at the pictures!

While we were walking around Chedi Luang we spotted a sign for something called “Monk Chat.” No, it’s not a dating service; it’s a twice-daily opportunity to help the monks with their English and ask them questions about their lives. Which is now at the top of my must-do list. We decided to go into the main temple of the complex to look around. Like the wat with the money hanging from the ceiling, this one had narrow multicolored strips with all the signs of the Chinese zodiac. An older woman was selling them by the door. We asked her about them and she explained that you signed your name on the side and then hung it. We got one and each signed our names next to our animal, and then I took a long wooden pole and hung it in an empty spot. It felt like such a special thing to be a part of.

By this point we were exhausted (we had been up until 2:00 the night before, but the internet wasn’t working so I couldn’t post my blog entries, so I got up early and posted them), so we went back to the hotel for a nap. When Isaure and I were ready to go I went across the hall to make sure Khalid was ready, and he suggested I check out the view from his balcony. It took my breath away—the lanterns we had seen in the sky yesterday paled in comparison to the galaxy of lights there now. And the fireworks, which were being set off with almost equal abandon. (I should mention that the only reason we were in Chiang Mai for New Year’s was that the island we had wanted to be at was booked up. I had briefly googled to see what was going on in Chiang Mai for New Year’s, and I had read something like, “people gather for fireworks at the city gate.” So I was totally, totally unprepared for such an amazing sight.)

We hurried out of our hotel and pushed our way through the crowds towards the city gate. Watching the lanterns float up into the sky all around us, I said a little prayer that none of us would get burned. At the (very crowded) concert by the gate a beautiful woman was singing a Thai pop song. We listened for a while, then decided to go see what was happening at the Moral Pray Countdown.

Ten minutes later we had arrived back at the wat, now transformed by hundreds of candles flickering at a 15-foot wide makeshift altar in the side yard. Dozens of worshippers knelt on blankets they had spread on the dirt in front of it. We watched from a distance, beside the wat, but a Thai woman slid over to make space on the fence she was sitting on so I sat down beside her and copied the hand motions she was making. While the monk (we couldn’t see) was speaking over the loud speaker, she pointed her hands upward and bowed her head. When he stopped, she touched them to her face in what must be a sort of physical “amen.” After a few minutes of this a line of monks filed out and took seats among the candles. The speaking (all in Thai) continued. More fireworks went off and I glanced at the time; it was midnight. We gave each other discreet half-hugs since the monk was still talking (and a sign in front of the wat says “no hugging or kissing in the wat!”) Almost immediately after midnight the voice switched to English, and welcomed everyone and wished them a happy new year. He began listing some of the tenets of Buddhism, including remembering the past and reflecting on your mistakes, which sounded like very good ideas to me. We sat for a while and listened to him tell a parable about a boy who was so cruel to his mother that she jumped in a lake, but then he turned his life around and became good, so it is not too late for any of us.

With that happy thought, we went to a bar and danced the night away.

Yeah. 2013 is looking pretty good so far.

12/30/12

Wat’s Up, Doc?

406004_10151220836271025_1294180131_n[1]

Buddhism is a lot more fun than I thought it would be.

Of course, I didn’t think it would be much fun at all. Not that I had anything against Buddhism. It always seemed very nice and laid back. It would definitely win the prize for Major Religion Least Likely to Start the Next World War. And I am a big fan of saffron.

But I can’t meditate. At least, I couldn’t the last time I really tried, which was in high school when we were all required to do a sport, and one semester I did Tai Chi. (If you are going to require hundreds of people of all athletic abilities to do sports, you have to offer things like Tai Chi. Other sports I did include ballet, modern dance, and ultimate Frisbee.) While Tai Chi was certainly pleasant, I found it excruciatingly boring. (To answer your next question: no, I didn’t letter in it.)

Anyway, I don’t know if Buddhism is always fun or if some sort of festival is going on (I suspect the latter), but right now if you go to the largest temple in Chiang Mai a monk hands you a yellow carnation-like flower, some incense, and a lotus bud and says “happy New Year.” Dozens of fresh baht bills hang from the ceiling, and people are adding more with long poles. Every member of the kneeling congregation holds onto a piece of string from one ball. Outside, there is incense burning, gongs for tapping, a market with crafts, and a pulley system that raises a small bucket of water and then dumps it on the side of the temple. And no, I don’t know the reason for any of it.

It’s too bad—in Chiang Mai you can take Thai cooking classes, ride elephants, and go trekking in the jungle on an ATV, but I haven’t seen any classes or tours advertised that explain Thai Buddhism. And now I am really, really curious. I don’t know how many temples (wat) I went into today (ten?), but I wish I knew what to do (besides take off your shoes). I saw people genuflecting of course, and while I don’t feel comfortable going quite that far when I don’t believe, if there were some sort of other respectful gesture that people do in the direction of the Buddha I’d be happy to do that. At the first couple of temples I just walked around and admired the art (some have images on the walls that tell stories, much like stained glass windows), but when the monk handed me the flowers I decided to copy the worshippers I had seen. I kneeled at the front by the Buddha, pointed my hands upward and close to my face and prayed for good luck in the new year for my friends and family. Then I added my flowers and incense to the small pile. (Isaure then told me she had taken a picture for me to have in case I write my own “Eat, Pray, Love” book and need something for the middle section.)

My favorite wat was actually the first one we went to, a tiny one where we were the only tourists. While we were walking through the gardens a man approached us and introduced himself as a PhD student in Buddhism who was spending a few days in the city to pray. He talked to us for quite a while, telling us about how he had once been a very angry person, but that meditation changed him. He suggested that on New Year’s Eve we join a walking meditation circle at a large temple in the city. Even though I’m not crazy about meditating I loved the idea, because we had already seen the stage set up for the city’s New Year’s Eve party at the city gate, and it looked disappointingly western. This would at least be a truly Thai experience. (Incidentally, two different people came up to us and started chatting and neither of them tried to get us to buy a thing.)

Another uniquely Thai experience that we had today was lighting a paper lantern and watching it float into the night sky. (The lanterns are about three feet tall and rectangular, with paper on every side but the bottom, where there is a doughnut-shaped thing you light that provides the heat that makes it float.) At least, I’m not sure it’s uniquely Thai, but Khalid assures me that it’s “completely illegal” in the U.S. And we soon found out why—one group released their lantern before it had enough power to launch into the sky, and it hovered dangerously over the cars before lurching into some telephone wires, and bouncing into a tree. We all held our breath, and then cheered when it floated into the sky. Eventually all the lanterns became slightly-brighter-than-average stars in the distance.

The day’s other highlight was visiting the Sunday Market right when it opened. The sun was setting, and the vendors were setting up their stalls in the street. It was so nice to be able to walk side by side instead of in a row, always worried that a motorbike would appear out of nowhere (they drive on the left in Thailand, and that is not easy for Americans to get used to). I was truly impressed by the quality of goods they were selling—most were really attractive and well-made objects that I would be proud to give as a gift to anyone. And they were so cheap that despite our already full bags we could not resist buying presents.

Speaking of cheap: everything. Of course I had heard that things were very cheap, but everything I read on travel blogs sounded almost too good to be true. But it is! Our cab from the airport was $4. Our meals (at sit down restaurants, one of which was extremely elegant) were $1.50-$4.  Isaure bought me a beautiful handmade notebook to keep track of expenses (one of my obsessions) for a few cents. Burning the lantern (which could have burned down the city) cost less than $2.. I can see how people can live here for $20 a day (we went a little crazy and spent about $25).

 

 

12/30/12

Chiang, Chiang, Chiang

Khalid and I have breakfast in our hotel lobby

Khalid and I have breakfast in our hotel lobby

I don’t want to brag, but I do have some hidden talents. One that I have been exercising a lot lately could be modestly described as “sitting around in airports.” Why, yesterday alone I sat in Hong Kong. Then I sat in Bangkok. And then my friends Khalid and Isaure joined me, and we sat at the parking lot beside the airport in Chiang Mai together, for over an hour, at midnight, waiting for something resembling a taxi. And if I do say so myself, we did it with panache. When we finally pulled up to our hotel, we looked at each other nervously. “This can’t be right. It’s too… nice!” The five-story colonial building had balconies, a floral archway, a lobby/verandah with vines winding up the pillars, and a swimming pool. As soon as we got to the front desk I asked the receptionist to confirm the price, just to make sure there had been no mistake. (The last thing you want to find out at 1am after four flights and approximately 40 hours of travel that you booked the wrong hotel.) But no mistake—we were paying $12 a night for our rooms. (Isaure and I were sharing, so we were paying $6.) I’m not saying it’s perfect—the lighting in our room is neon, the bathroom is of the “stand in the middle of the room and shower” variety, and the mattresses are so hard I suspect that the hotel owners might be getting kickbacks from the local masseurs. But the location is terrific, and did I mention the pool? Alas, I won’t get to wait in an airport again until Wednesday. I guess I’ll just have to think of another way to impress people.