Sunday, March 30, 2014

Maecharim, Thailand

Home
Chiang Mai, Thailand:  19 March - 26 March
Nan, Thailand:  27 March
Maecharim, Thailand:  28 March - 30 March

On the move again, after a full week in Chiang Mai.  Despite its full-on tourist-town status, it did have gorgeous gilded temples and spectacular night markets.  As much as I despise these tourist-track stops (the banana pancake trail, after Alex Garland and Lonely Planet) they draw us in.  I think the elephant-pants trail would be a better name.  All the backpackers where elephant pants, and everyone sells them.  I looked for a pair for a while, and then stopped when I was unable to find a single design that did not incorporate elephants.  It’s difficult to feel cavalier about elephants as decor when I know about the pajaan.

Nevertheless, some things are easier if we’re not the only farangs in town.  We shopped, ate farang food as a break—my halfway marker.

But now we head back in the wild.  Almost everyone (that we have met and I have read about) heads north from here, through Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle and onto Huay Xai—or by bus direct to Luang Prabang, the next backpacker stop.  But we head east instead, into Nan province, the northern district that remains one of the least frequently visited areas of Thailand.  My parents are running a weeklong English camp at the school there, the school their time in Thailand helped build.

Although my visa soon expires, so we’ll only be able to stay a couple of days, I still wanted to see them and help in any way I can.  If I’m honest, though, I also had a selfish reason for wanting to come.  It’s been my failed intention all along to visit the sites where I lived as a child, and this is the first real chance I’ve had.  The apartments and complexes where I lived in Bangkok are being razed.

This house, though, is where we spent two quiet summers.  Living in a concrete house on mission grounds, bathing from the collected water dip bucket in the concrete bathroom with the drain on the floor, no electric after dark—where I read all of Sherlock Holmes.  Twice.

I feel like those precious summers meant more to me in some way, than other chunks of my childhood—inspiring me to live sustainably and ultralight as much as possible.  To cast off:  money, desire, other people’s expectations.  There, at this house, I collected an egg from a chicken in our backyard, and fried it, still warm.  Thence comes my love of farming as an avocation, my love of seeing where food comes from.

Also, maybe, my continued love of fried eggs.

So in coming here, to the mountains of Nan district, I want to come home.  Sometimes I’m this desperate wandering child, clutching any scrap of home around myself for warmth.  Maybe this is the closest thing I have to a home, the only building where I lived as a child that still exists.  A home where I still don’t belong.

The house is bedraggled and cobwebbed and padlocked, but it looks exactly right.  Smaller, maybe, as people always say on going back.  The backyard doesn’t possibly look big enough for chickens.

One night there Dad drives us up the rutted dirt road to the refugee camp that used to be here.  Lao refugees from the communists across the border.  My whole childhood I thought the people we moved here for were Cambodians, refugees from Pol Pot, but I never asked.  Most of the people here were Hmong, fighting with Americans against Lao guerrillas.  Many of them emigrated to the States.

The forest is hazy and brown, from all of the burning.  In hot season, the farmers burn the undergrowth.  I used to call this slash-and-burn agriculture, but there’s not so much slashing.  It just seems like a carbon-intensive and old-fashioned way to make biochar.

We see a bamboo hut, and speculate on its rental costs.  This is really the middle of nowhere.  No elephants in sight.

A photograph by Ron Jude -- read his interview here:  Set the woods on fire

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wax priest
I’ve been having a hard time writing about Thailand, in Thailand.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading, though.  Paul Theroux.  Erica Jenks Henry.  Graham Greene.  Emma Donoghue.  Somerset Maugham.  Here he is, explaining exactly the feeling I’ve been having in Buddhist temples and museums, since I was a little girl:
Rude paintings of scenes in the Master’s life hang from the eaves.  It is dark and solemn, but the Buddhas sit on their great lotus leaves in the gloaming like gods who have had their day, and now neglected, but indifferent to neglect, in their decaying grandeur continue to reflect on suffering.  The end of suffering, transitoriness and the eightfold path.  Their aloofness is almost terrifying.  You tread on tiptoe in order not to disturb their meditations and when you close behind you the carved doors and come out into the friendly day it is with a sigh of relief. —Maugham, Gentleman in the Parlor
I had that feeling again today, walking to the upstairs level of a teak museum.  At its center, on a pedestal, was a sculpted lifelike monk, with flesh-toned skin, maybe made of wax.  These statues have this austere serenity that makes me shiver.  I went back downstairs.

We’re in Chiang Mai, exploring temples and dodging tourists on bicycles.

In the last month our itinerary has been:

Khao Yai National Park, 8 Mar - 9 Mar
Pak Chong, 10 Mar
Udon Thani, 11 Mar
Nam Sohm, 12 Mar - 18 Mar
Udon Thani, 19 Mar
(overnight bus)
Chiang Mai, 20 Mar - today

So I’m a bit exhausted.  Or not.  It just feels like exhaustion, when I’m still on this elaborate bumming evasion.  When K. first asked me, ten years ago, what I wanted to be, I answered:  a bum.

And then today, in the museum where I was scared, we read about one of the forest monks, who spent 11 years “wandering.”  Just “wandering.”  We see them, sometimes, at the train station, these monks.  Toothless, in faded orange, leaving their stuffed brown bags on the bench to crouch and smoke cigarettes.  I love that just wandering alone can be some kind of virtue.  It’s a virtue I aspire to, and a virtue I tire of.

I tire of trying to write about it, too, when all my observations seem sour and Therouxian.  I love that Paul Salopek, one of my favorite five bloggers, says honest things like this, in a recent post:
I descended to camp in a foul mood. But as I came closer to the hissing gas stove, to the tarp spread on the sand, I heard my friends laughing. The presence of soldiers did not disturb them. They were telling stories, lying on their elbows, sipping tea. And within perhaps 30 steps, my mood reversed. My heart had turned over. These fellow travelers were my Saudi Arabia. Not the desert. I was glad we were together. Even our watchers. We all were journeying together, as we always do.
I love this story, I love his story, I love that he is traveling at the same time as I am, I love aspiring to be and write like him.  We are all journeying together, you at your desk, me in my barren hotel room, typing on our computers.  Just as humanity exoduses out of Africa, the journey that Salopek follows.  We met a Dutch guy the other night, going to an eight-day massage training in a hill tribe.  He said he loved backpackers.  He said we are a unique tribe.

Why do I twist my mouth at my own brethren?

Anyway.  These are the things I’m having a hard time writing about, although reading my sister’s compendium of fart jokes helps, and reading other writers who admit they fall behind, who admit that they are weak and have foul moods.  Good God do I have foul moods.  Travel is the worst kind of pressure cooker.

Salopek’s been falling behind, and he admits it:
There are more stories to tell. Older stories. They have been piling up at trailside for days. The final trek through Jordan. The looting of the sprawling necropolises there. The goat tunnel near Jericho. The young Bat Mitzvah girls dancing in leotards to hip-hop, like some misfired hallucination, in the sun-ironed wasteland outside of Bethlehem. The Israeli soldier-settler-painter who negotiated a “studio time truce” with Palestinian neighbors. And, of course, the first sight of Jerusalem—stone walls seen from a wooded hill, on a morning pale and clean as paper, as an eggshell, some 2.7 million footsteps away from Herto Bouri, Ethiopia.
I have more stories to tell, too, older stories.  Of course he has more excuses than I do, namely that he’s busy walking 21,000 miles, while fighting the flu.  And his stories are a lot more interesting than mine.  But he persists, and inspires me.

My sister, another of my favorite five bloggers, on her brilliant blog from (can it be?) seven years ago, the same that possesses the web’s most brilliant coprophiliac humor:
Now, before I decide I'm too tired to finish this blog and save it in some Word file where I will never end up finishing and posting it, because it will seem too embarrassing and awful when I reread it, I will just get this blasted thing up. Maybe one of these days I'll go back and post all those pieces of poop for you to get sick on.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Nam Sohm, Thailand

12 March – 18 March

K. and new friends
We're in the heart of Eesan, or so I hope. A place where only farang fans come. The husbands of the ex-bar girls. Maybe that is too false-hearted of me. Too ugly.

Although also true. We told a tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok that we were headed to Eesan to get away from farangs, and he said: but they're still there. “Fans” are there. “Fan” is the Thai word for intimate partner or spouse, a borrowed word from English. It's a fun word to use. Whenever I say that K. is my “fan” I feel like a celebrity.

So the town is chock-full of ancient decrepit boyfriends with cute perky Thai girls in braces. But I'm the only female traveler in town, and people seem shocked to see us—what brought you here? They ask. We don't get many tourists here. It only makes sense when I explain that my brother has a friend from here, and she told us to come visit her family. The only people that come here have a connection.

Which is exactly what we're looking for. Despite the fans, there is cultural wellbeing here, a sense of true authenticity. In short, it's the best week we've spent in all of Thailand (and that includes the week at the beach villa).

For one thing, the food. As always, the food. Prices are more or less standardized across Thailand, so a bowl of noodles or a simple dish over rice is always basically B30-40 ($1-1.2o), with the notable exception of tourist resorts and restaurants. But what is not standardized is quantity and quality. What B35 buys you at a city bus station, a half-full bowl of broth-heavy soup (albeit still delicious, arguably better than the best Thai food in the States), a bowl that leaves you needing to find a chicken skewer to fill up, is probably half of what B35 buys you here. Here, we go out for noodles and receive giant tureen-sized bowls chock-full of noodles and meat and bean sprouts and greens, more stew than soup. We almost can't finish them. Almost.

I'm actually able to have Thai conversations here, able to hang out with Thai people and cook and eat with them and do: what? Live a normal life, but in Thailand. People here are happy to see two goofy Americans drive by on a miniature bike (miniature only in comparison to our size), happy to smile and laugh and not try to overcharge us, thrilled at my attempts to speak Thai. They are thrilled just that we are here visiting—like the old Thailand, the Thailand from fifteen years ago, the Thailand I remember.

It's also a vague relief to have a break from these places where there are a ton of sights to see and attractions to visit (not that there aren't plenty of temples and waterfalls to visit here, too, that we're not getting to), because all the sightseeing begins to feel oppressive. Like a duty necessarily carried out, not something pleasurable. Nam Sohm just feels like normal Thai life in a normal Thai town, about the size of Mars Hill, the town where we go grocery shopping in Aroostook, and in the same pastoral landscape. The town is surrounded on all sides by rice farmers, the same way we're surrounded on all sides by potato farmers in Aroostook.

Somtahm with sehn, noodles, added
People here make sense to me. They live the same kind of life I do at “home.” I compare prices with them, finally able to communicate in something approaching comfort. Meat, dairy, and potatoes are unsurprisingly cheaper in the States. Things like shallots and limes—exotic ingredients in the States but necessities for Thai cooking—are cheaper here. We eat food that we've never eaten before, like green papaya salad (somtahm) with noodles mixed in, an all-in-one Lao dish that they only make in this province. It's delicious and spicy, a refreshing change from noodle soup and sticky rice.

One of the lizards we ate for dinner.  A bearded dragon, I think, like the ones they sell in American pet stores.  The boys in the neighborhood go fish for them, with bamboo poles and noosed ropes.
We eat lizards: skinned and dried in the sun and fried and then pounded in the mortar and pestle with herbs and spices into a kind of meat salad, like lahp. They tell us they eat snakes and scorpions and rats (not city rats, they explain with a shudder—ground rats from the forest—which is better if only mildly so). They'd eat them more, I guess, but they say they're harder to come by now, harder to find, that it's hard work to get them. Unlike the tourist areas of Thailand, where I feel wrung dry by touts, here I feel dazed by my own wealth. We go the market and buy 100 baht ($3) worth of chicken and pork and innard skewers to share, and the lady shoves in a whole handful extra. People behind us comment that we've already spent 100 baht, as if it's an unearthly extravagance. I feel guilty for my mild indulgences, my B10 yogurt drinks that are still half of what a big bag of market soup costs, enough to feed a whole family.

Lizards, cooked, as lahp
Here, on a budget, we live like kings. We found a teak house, three-bedroom, for B1500 a month. It doesn't seem possible, and yet it is. I dread going back to the reality of the tourist track with its crepe and falafel stands, all-you-can-drink specials, reggae bars, and dance clubs. I'm just happy. I'm trying to just let myself be happy, not obsess about how little we're doing or how little time we have left or much there is we could see.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Khao Yai National Park

8 March – 9 March

Our "tent"
This is the most half-assed camping we've ever done in our lives. And this where Thais are paying 1000 baht apiece for industrial-sized, industrial-strength, camouflage dome tents. We've been carrying around almost all of our Appalachian Trail camping gear for two months, an aluminum boy scout pan and alcohol stove, our Golite tarp and insect-repellant-impregnated sleeping bags and a sleeping pad. Finally, in Bangkok, we dumped almost all of the stuff in Bangkok, sick of the extra weight we'd probably never use. They have camping gear for rent at any National Park anyway, I rationalized. It never rains when it's not rainy season, K. rationalized.

We packed, instead, a tent-shaped mosquito net, which we'd been planning to hang inside our tarp as an additional layer of bug protection if we ever decided to camp. On the Pacific Crest Trail we barely used our tarp, there was so little rain. We just slept out in the open air, beneath the stars, guerilla-style, even at 10,000 feet, although everyone acted like we were crazy homeless people (and they were not so far from the truth). It's hot here, and there's no rain. So won't we be just as happy sleeping outside?

Our decision to finally come here to a National Park and camp was half-assed, too. We checked out of our hotel in Pak Chong, took the sohngtaeou to the park, and hitchhiked in, not exactly sure where we were going or if there was even camping available. As always, though, when we take things on faith they tend to work out magically and perfectly. We arrived at a sward of green grass, shaded by large trees, perfect for camping. There was no food, but we'd had the foresight of bringing fried rice in boxes (I've finally learned how to order Thai food to go).

I found a deserted clay barbecue, tossed over into a ditch, so even though we've been unable to buy alcohol for our pepsi-can stove (which K. is still carting around), and although fires aren't allowed, we'll be able to heat up water for ramen noodles. The only problem is embarrassment. When we hang our pitiful piece of mesh from a tree it is immediately clear to everyone just how clueless we are.

The big buck, and also visible are the National Park camoflaged tents
The rental tents are four-season and indestructible. The Thais that show up bring similar elaborate setups, indestructible, with mammoth plastic containers and free-standing foyers. Our tent is a completely transparent fabric curtain. We have no privacy and nowhere to change and no protection from the extremely wet dew. As we set up, we are stalked by an extremely unfriendly monkey, either a gibbon or a pink-tailed macaque.

Evil monkey, stalking our camp
He bares his teeth at us, makes attempts at our food. In the morning, after freezing all night—yes, camping in the mountains in Thailand with no waterproof barrier in a soaking wet bag-liner is cold—K. went to the bathroom, leaving me alone to protect our gear from the monkey with a big stick. I wasn't too worried, till he jumped to the tree from which our “tent” hangs. He's fascinated by us, somehow, maybe because he can see inside our tent, maybe because it hangs from a tree, one of his trees. He lifted the string from the tree and flicked. I waved my stick, ineffectively. He flicked the string again, and boom, our tent collapsed around me in my sleeping bag, shrouding me.

So we repacked everything in our bags and moved to the other side of the campground, where hopefully there are fewer, or at least less interested, monkeys.

I'm rather impressed by how wild everything is, how remote this feels, how natural, even though we're in a highly ranked attraction and Thailand's most-visited National Park. The services are well-kept and impressive, as is the rental gear. But if you squint, you could be in the middle of nowhere. I didn't expect so much wildness, so many animals. There have been monkeys and deer roaming the campground since we got here, something I don't remember at all from when I was a kid. Wild animals were few and far between then. Maybe it's a just testament to preservation, that whatever steps they've taken here have paid off in the last preservation.

Even if it means we quake in fear at the bared-teeth monkeys. I guess I understand the sturdy house-like tents, just meaning that the Thais think we're even crazier than I thought they would. Sometimes I crave the “crazy farang” label. It gives us an excuse for all of the insane things we do, gives us a refuge, even though we're crazy enough that most farangs would find us so.

Late the first night, a bit dazed from staring into the mini-barbecue fire, I walk to get water by myself. It's dusk, and there aren't many people at the campground. As I walk, I see shadows moving, off to my left. I stop and they stop. I think it must be an optical illusion, a trick of my imagination, light from the bathrooms striping my vision, but when I move again they move, too. They're small black humped animals, moving close to the ground but smoothly.

I chicken out and go back to our “camp,” back to the fire, hoping I'm not crazy. I say they looked like badgers or turtles, maybe skunks? But there are no skunks in Thailand. K. scoffs. How could something look like both a turtle and a rodent?

We go for a hike the second day to a waterfall and go swimming (breaking prohibition #82 given to us by our travel doctor: no swimming in fresh water!), leaving our gear at the head office. We don't get fed on by leeches or worms. We bask in the sun. I swear I've been here before, maybe even to this same waterfall, decades ago.

That night, K. sees my mystery animals, too, some kind of hedgehog or porcupine, humped black below with white quills on top, quills that graze the ground and seem to lift as we stare at them. So I'm not crazy. Just another brush with wildlife. (No photographs, unfortunately.)

The morning we leave, we have another crazy encounter. We're basking in the sun, all packed up, in no hurry to leave. I start videoing the deer, taking photographs of them, two young bucks with shaggy shedding fur. Then another one, a bigger older buck, comes forward, out of the woods. This is his turf; we've seen him already.

Unbelievably, almost in slow motion, so slowly that it doesn't quite seem possible, the old buck locks horn with the bigger younger one. The third buck gets out of the way. At first I think they're playing, helping each other shed. But no. It's slow as they grapple, both trying to aim the points of their horns in the other's eye. Most of the fight is impassive, immobile, as they stay locked, but then one gains purchase and aims at the other's exposed neck, and I note bloody fly-infested wounds from previous battles. As the battle increases in intensity, I start hearing squeaks of grief, of pain coming from the deer. It's shocking, in such a civilized campground. I have visions of watching a deer bleed out. But finally the younger deer surrenders and turns tail. The older one finds a tree and collapses against it, exhausted, nursing his wounds.

Bucks fighting, a lot more violent than it looks
As we leave, I see the younger deer come up again and challenge, and the fight begins again. We want to leave nature to itself, preserved, but it's always shocking in its violence. Its bloodiness. Nature, red in tooth and claw.

We hitch out, and I use my broken Thai to say that we're going all the way back to Pak Chong. We sit in the bed of a truck with a kid and a pregnant girl and two guys drinking beer and homemade whiskey, all out for the day to “pai teou,” to go and have a good time. We (and our backpacks) barely fit in the back of the truck with them, but they're so sweet and they're going all the way to Pak Chong, too. They take us as far as they can, stopping at the temple on the way to the park gate, and I go in with the driver, my first time at a Buddhist temple with an actual Buddhist, a temple that's not a tourist attraction but a working temple.

The pavilion is crowded with shoeless Thais burning incense and praying. I go closer to get a glimpse inside, and am shocked to see that the gilt statues of priests inside are all wearing gaudy, chintzy cowboy hats. Of all things. I don't have the nerve to go inside to see them close-up, nor to take a picture.

I ask, when we're tucked back into the truckbed, as well as I can: what's with the cowboy hats? My friend, the girl, when she understands says: they wear cowboy hats around here. As if that explains it.

This is what I love about Thailand, about travel, how it constantly shocks you with how inexplicably alien it is.

They drop us off less than a half-mile from our hotel, in the care of a barbecued-pork street vendor, so that the sohngtaeou into town doesn't charge us more than 10 baht (30 cents) to take us the rest of the way. How kind they are to us, and how good it feels to be veering away from the tourist trail, if only for this, these brief, thwarted connections with genuine, good-hearted Thai people.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Pak Chong, Thailand

Khao Yai National Park

When I arrived in Pak Chong, I was headed for the woods. Even though I only have a mosquito net to camp in. These are the relics of our ancestry as ultralight hikers—my GoLite backpack, which still reeks of thru-hiker stink, a sleeping pad as a frame, an alcohol stove stuffed into an aluminum pan. After the Appalachian Trail, we always know we can camp. Always walk.

Sometimes when the tuk-tuk drivers yell at me: you can't walk! It's too far!

I feel like saying: I walked 3000 miles! It's not too far!

That's something I'm capable of saying in Thai, although I'd have to convert to kilometers. So we're headed to Khao Yai National Park, home of nature trails and wild elephants. It's also another revisiting of a place from my childhood, the park where we used to come for holiday, renting a cabin with my best friend's family for a week during Christmas and hiking the “lambak” (difficult—doesn't it just sound difficult? I though that word was an English one for years) trails to waterfalls. We have pictures from the park, of us stripped of our shoes, wading in fresh-water streams (something my travel doctor told me never, never to do before I left). In one, I've laid out my socks to dry and they are completely covered in butterflies, swarming to drink up the moisture.

As we move farther north in Thailand I'm beginning to think my previous complaints about the busyness of the tourist trail are ridiculous. We bought our train ticket directly from Ayutthaya to Pak Chong, and we (as the last time) were the only farangs on the train. All of the rest of the Ayutthaya folk crossed the train tracks, in their tank tops, with giant suitcases, and caught the train back to Bangkok. We went east instead, and when we arrived in Pak Chong, there were only two other farangs on the platform.

I've been constantly amused at how tourists seem to hate each other. In the south, travelers wouldn't even meet each others' eyes. Thais were more friendly than fellow westerners, all of whom were in denial about other westerners being in their remote paradise. Here, though, as we're once again few, we're on the same side. A French couple at the station explained to us how to catch the sohngtaeou to the National Park, where the cheap hotel in town was, how much things costs.

It's ridiculous how far off the beaten track we are without even trying. Khao Yai National Park is number seven on Lonely Planet's list of Thailand's top attractions. And I feel like we're virtually alone, Thailand as it was fifteen years ago. Tonight we are staying at one of the Thai hotels I love so much, hanging out with salesman and truck drivers from Bangkok on the road.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Ayutthaya, Thailand

Ayutthaya palace grounds at dusk

2 March - 6 March 

We took the train directly from Nakhon Chai Si, a local bus to a commuter stop, and all the way to Ayutthaya effortlessly. We crossed on the ferry to the island and were met at the boat by PU—pee-you--proprietor of the PU Hotel. We had agreed to splurge for a nicer room, maybe one with hot water and cable, and so we paid a little bit extra because she promised a swimming pool. After checking in we found out that the wall-mounted fan didn't work, the floor fan didn't rotate, and the swimming pool was an extra 50B per person, when I'd specifically asked if it was extra during check-in.

Of course I never fight these things. I just take them and speak with my feet, by walking down the street to a deluxe place that still keeps shared-bathroom fan rooms for the backpackers. I need to make a rule to only stay in teak houses from now on. The problem is I also love the small-town concrete hotels designed for Thais, with condoms for sale in the lobby and squat toilets. But in those rooms the fans are industrial strength and always work.

Decor at a farang bar
So in Ayutthaya we were away from real Thailand and back to Disneyland—with a row of piano bars and jazz clubs in front of a row of guesthouses. Ayutthaya is a small town turned into a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like Georgetown, in Malaysia, and these cities have a way of growing on you despite their flaws. I understand why they are chosen, although after they are chosen their character changes into something strange and different. In this place elephants are force-marched down the street in orange regalia for the amusement of package tourists. Twenty-year-olds dance macarena in the streets. Elderly Thai men play Billy Joel songs in bad English at top volume late into the night. In a town sacred to Thais, the original home of the ancient capital, the fabled fourteenth-century city.

I am having a lot of problems with elephant rides after reading how they are habitually tortured into submission.
We wandered the white-hot streets at noon, dodging tuk-tuk touts and finding our way to the green center of the city, filled with shady parks and ruined temples. We're becoming better and better at figuring out our way around the tourists, though, and it's shocking to me how easy it can be to get away from the crowds. On our first day we found our way into the depths of a park surrounded by ruins, and sat on the grass in the shade. There were no people around. We could have been alone. And this in the number-two site recommended by Lonely Planet in all of Thailand.

So I complain about all of the tourists, and how Thailand is ruined, but it's really not true. It may be true in some areas, but there are always secret hiding places, and there will continue to be. As there are in the urban US, as there are anywhere. The secret is in believing they are there and finding them. Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “And for all of this, nature is never spent—there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” True that.

Ruined temples and birds

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Bangkok, Thailand


The Bangkok demonstration site.  Yes, we were told to stay away.  And no, we did not.
19 February – 1 March

You think of travelers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time. Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people's privacy--being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur, and in some well-hidden part of the traveler's personality is an unpickable knot of vanity, presumption, and mythomania bordering on the pathological.  
--Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
This is exactly how I'm feeling lately. Not that I don't still love the grit and chaos of travel, but more I feel its aimlessness, as if I don't know exactly what direction I'm supposed to be moving. We rested in Bangkok for more than a week because, well, Bangkok feels like home. Especially Siyan, our adopted neighborhood, home of Bluefin Guesthouse—which I'm sure doesn't need any more business, or I don't know if I want it to have any more business because it'll lose that magical quality it still possesses.

Three bowls of beef guaytaeou in Siyan

Siyan is an intersection of two roads, Nakhon Chai Si and Samsen, and the site of a vigorous and thriving day and night market, unpopulated by farangs. (Except for us.) When we arrived in Bangkok the first time, I asked in broken Thai: where's the market? I was expecting something grander, maybe, a tented pavilion with arches. Instead the market's laid out on the street, with almost anything one could want. Plastic utensils, smartphones, Thai flags, clothing, noodles in any incarnation. We spent most of the week hopping from one noodle cart to the next. One that just did beef—thin slices of rare meat just immersed in broth. Another with chicken—floating whole chicken legs and sliced breast.

Thailand is beginning to lose its strangeness. I begin to callous to its beauty, the way I do to a photograph hung on the wall. This afternoon I even went through my photographs of Maine, posted some I'd never bothered to before. It's a place that looks so alien and cold, so unfamiliar now. I'm not as stunned and grateful to be here anymore, and instead I just want to settle in, find a place where I can make friends, talk to the same people every day. Instead we push ourselves forward, out of the nest again, onto the next destination, at least for a little while more.

I loved Bangkok. I hated to leave. It'd take me a full year to eat myself up one side of that street and down the other, and in the meantime I'd get educations in Thai, food writing, cuisine, and how to take market photographs (a skill I have barely begun to attempt). It's terrifying asking people if you can take their picture. More and more I feel like true travel is to move, to stay in one place until I'm no longer a “farang,” just that weird American who lives down the block. But instead we move on.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Krabi, Thailand

1237 steps to the top of the Tiger Cave Temple

13 February – 18 February
The Tiger Cave Temple is the one thing I was sure I wanted to visit in Krabi. I think it's good for a traveler to give herself a rest now and then, especially from doing things at a breakneck pace. It is an exhausting business, jumping from boat to open-backed truck to bus, day after day, as many travelers must do, to keep to a rigid itinerary, or for fear that if they remain where they are they'll miss something essential in the future. So I took my time in Krabi, taking a full day to discuss my intended route to the temple with various Thais, including an iced-latte barista.

Conversations like these, in which I am generally trying to plumb the depths of an arcane and unknown public-transit system, allow me to experiment with a lot of new vocabulary. The barista said that the Tiger Cave is not generally crowded with farangs, especially if I avoided the weekend, but it was already Friday when I asked, and far too much of the afternoon had passed. Giving me an excuse to stay put. The next day I quizzed an open-backed truck (sohngtaeou) driver about the price. And Monday, we finally went.

No seatbelts.  The way this lady is looking at me is the way most people do when I whip out the camera.
In the meantime, I ate. Krabi, as it turns out, has a spectacular day market. I have recently posted some photographs of pleasant things I sampled. But I find myself effusing about them as I look at the pictures. The more time I spend in Thailand, the more I remember what a food culture it is.  Or maybe it's just the part of culture I appreciate most.

Bringing of food to the table is something that's celebrated. The soup vendors we go to our artists. They've mastered some of these arts—making perfect stock, for instance—and they get to spend their lives in service to that art. I find myself agreeing with Ira Sukrungruang: “[Thais] say there is no better cuisine on the planet, that no other country has a dish that can be salty, sour, sweet all at once...”

I'm also beginning to realize how distant many other tourists feel from the street food, how they feel unable to make themselves understood, or even where to begin, and what a gift that has been to us, both in terms of our budget and our cultural immersion. More often now we have the courage to stop and point at something and sample it, even when we've never tried it before, even when we have no idea how to eat. I say: tam yangai? How do we do it? And we're shown.


Eesan sausage, som tahm, and shrimp cakes
 
Eesan sausage: Sour and spicy and grainy with cartilagy chunks—Thailand is brilliant in fried pork fat. Things I'd normally consider gross dissolve in my mouth with toothsome deliciousness. I ate a whole bowl of guiteau with pork liver, and the gamey meatiness was almost delicious. I eat whole chunks of pork fat that melt like well-fried bacon. Chicken feet I still can't stomach.

Som tahm: green papaya salad, green papaya like green mango, eaten sour and as a vegetable not a fruit. A Thai national dish and I think the epitome of the flavor-combination rule. For somtahm you add lime, palm sugar, fish sauce, chili, and the fifth flavor too—bitter or umami—using crushed peanuts or garlic or baby shrimp pounded in a mortar. We are not brave or foolhardy enough to eat ours with pounded raw crab, shell included like shards of glass. Som tahm is one of the world's perfect foods.

Fried shrimp cakes
 
Fried shrimp cakes (tod mun goong): K's discovery. They are whole batter-fried clumps of shrimp, heads and all, fried so the whole thing is equally crunchy, head as delicious as tail. One thing I've had to learn to say in Thai: you can leave the heads on. It's a mystery  how we can eat things we'd never eat otherwise—fish is deep-fried this way, too, with edible bones. The only thing you can't eat with fish are chunks of spine.

Note the ubiquitous Seven bag
My perfect breakfast. Coconut bread and tropical fruit. I had intended to eat exactly this menu every morning, but coconut bread is harder to find than I expected, and tropical fruit more expensive. Nevertheless we are convincing ourselves to spend more money on fruit, and I am stunned as ever by how spectacular it is. Mangosteen's flavor is undescribable. Lamyai (longan) comes closest to pina colada. Dragonfruit taste like custard studded with grit. Rambutan taste of sunshine.

The point being that we made it to the Tiger Cave Temple. On Monday. It was worth the wait.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Koh Jum, Thailand


Landing at Moo Too Pier, Kho Jum
4 February – 12 February 

Making it to Kho Jum, I find it is just as crowded as the rest of Thailand. This island K. found online before we left Maine, an island not in Lonely Planet, with 150B bungalows, allegedly off of the beaten track. And then in Bangkok, during our first week, we met a Finn engaged to a Thai who lived on Kho Jum. We made plans to meet. We got our hopes up—authentic Thailand. Markets and street food and long stretches of empty beach.

Our Finnish friend told us that locals don't take the ferry, they take the taxi boat, so we knew that one existed and managed to get from Phun Phin all the way to Kho Jum in less than twelve hours—and all the way from Georgetown to Kho Jum in less than 24—a traveler's feat I remain proud of. We checked out of our hotel at eleven, had a leisurely breakfast of curry and fish, caught the local bus, and pulled into the bus station the minute before the government bus to Krabi was pulling out, just by luck, and took its last two places. Standing room only, at the front. The bus left within seconds, and we looked back to see the whole back half stuffed full of farangs, heading to Kho Phi Phi or Lanta or another island for their vacation. As, incidentally, are we.

What did one tourist say to the other tourist?

“Man, there are so many tourists here.”

Sometimes I feel like I am just a hypocrite, complaining about all of the travelers while being one myself. The fact remained that we were the last two farangs on a bus full of them, one of whom was hogging an entire seat with his baby backpack, the daypack that he wears on front like a Baby Bjorn while walking around town. I shot daggers and bad karma at him with my eyes. For a while I sat on the floor among the giant backpacks below knee level of standing and swaying Thai girls, the ones just going halfway, fanning their sweating foreheads as I tried to catch the breeze.

But unlike many travelers, we try to be respectful. We attempt to speak Thai and act and dress respectfully, failing often. Unlike the Italians at the back of the bus who started taking off their shirts (most were wearing bikinis beneath) and yelling at each other about how much Thailand sucked in Italian. A German in Kho Phayam told me, authoritatively, that Italian was the most beautiful language, and when I suggested Thai, he dismissed it as guttural and awful. I hear it as music. Anyone who thinks Italian is the most beautiful language should hear hungover college-age Italians yelling about how horrible Thailand is while standing in a 100-degree (38-degree Celsius) bus.

We took a sohngtaeuo to the taxi boat, effortlessly but expensively, catching what I thought was the last boat at 5:30pm. The guy at the bus station had told us 5. It's the boat our Finn friend told us the locals took, a boat with no farangs on it. The island appeared, dusty and numinous at sunset. We're the only travelers on the pier, and on the dusty taxi drive to our friend's restaurant we imagine we've finally found paradise. The restaurant I picture as a small local one, with a glass case and plastic chairs and cousins and nephews hanging around. I imagine I can learn Thai here, study.

Then we arrive and already elderly British and German couples are filling the place with $7-schnitzel orders. The island is full, we are informed. No bungalows anywhere. Even the mythical 150B and 200B ones, which exist on this island, are full. We taxi to one bungalow where she offers to let us sleep on the floor in her restaurant. We go to another and wake up the owner. He shows us a beautiful villa, made of bamboo and teak, up on the hill—but on the other side of the road from the beach. We take it, for 500B.

We ended up staying a week. I loved it—the teak bench on the bamboo porch, surrounded by rubber trees and garden and hibiscus. Although we are twelve minutes from the beach, and don't even get there every day, don't even swim every day. When we first arrived at Kho Phayam, our last island, we scoffed at Lonely Planet, which said the days of 200B beachfront bungalows are over. Already we'd found a 600B one, only three rows back, and 300B cheapies behind us. But the cheapies are always booked, and when they're not, they're concrete bunkers by the generator, facing away from the ocean. It's possible to stay for 200B on a Thai island, but you may be on the other side of the road.

I'm still complaining about expense. The fact is that many things here are more expensive now that in the States. Coffee, for one. Drinks. $1 in the US gets you a 20-ounce soda and free ice, or a bottomless soda at McDonald's. Here you pay $1 for a bottle and extra for ice. Water. For a while we were spending 160B a day on bottled water, because we can't drink tap water.

Maybe we could just be cutting back in Thailand on things like coffee and three meals a day, but instead it's increasingly clear that Thailand is no longer on the hippie trail. Seven-dollar meals are cheap for Danish pensioners or French retirees or Dutch families on a package tour. But for us, with no car, no fridge, no access to a market, and no cooking facilities—we find ourselves stranded. And also, while complaining about costs, I realize how cheap so many things still are. Why can't I just allow myself to enjoy the time?

We do, as much as possible. Long mornings laying in the hammock on the porch. Long walks on the beach after dark—better than taking the road. Finding a restaurant (even if farangified) that makes us khao dtom goong (rice soup with shrimp) and puts an egg in it, poached in broth. I'm trying to let costs go, as much as possible, not let it gnaw at me. Maybe it's the primary response of people returning to their homeland, shock at how much prices have gone up.

If it wasn't so malicious. I was proud of our 24-hour travel day until I realized we were over charged every step of it—5B on the local bus, 30B on the government bus, 40B by the sohngtaeuo, 20B by the boat, 20B by the taxi. Maybe not much, but it adds up--$4 a day. The farang tax, we call it. The consistent over-charging by Thais for travelers. We see things printed on menus in English, other listings in Thai. We watch the price paid by a Thai and then paid by a westerner. Often, as my Thai improves, I hear that the prices given in Thai are less.

I made friends with one restaurant owner here who is scrupulous in her prices to us, and we keep coming back to her, although her prices are also high. I ask her why so many people do it. Our Finnish friend sometimes thinks it's gouging, charging 65B for a coffee because one can. And then there's the contrast with the poverty. Why should I begrudge a coffee that costs $2.50 if the person making it is only making 500B a day? But it doesn't seem fair. I feel angry when I go to Starbucks at a service plaza in the States and buy an overpriced coffee, because it's overpriced. But it's fair. The price listed is charged to everyone, regardless of race. Taxes are the same.

It just doesn't feel like the Thailand of my youth. People have hardened, grown calloused against farangs. Have grown calloused to our money. It's not a surprise, considering how little respect we have, in general, towards Thai culture. It's like I want to convince Thai people I can be a human being.

I said, on our first night in Kho Jum: “I don't know if it's because my parents spoke better Thai, or because there were fewer farangs, or because it was fifteen years ago, but I don't remember being overcharged like this.”

K. said: “Probably all of those.”

It just leaves a sour taste in your mouth, like you're made constantly to feel stupid. This country is beautiful, its language, culture, food, and people exquisite—and instead of the “radiant hospitality” promised by guidebooks, the hospitality I remember—I feel this simmering racism.

It's hard to explain, because then it can seem like the entire experience has been negative. This exists, but these other layers exist, too, of beauty and kindness and generosity. I am as in love with the Thai language as ever, maybe more so. I learn something new from every Thai conversation. The landscape here is the one I belong in. The culture is alien and confusing, but almost all Thais are gracious, wonderful people.

The hardest ones are those we have to deal with most often, the ones directly on the tourist trail, bus drivers and boat drivers and guesthouse owners and travel agents. And understandably so, based on the farang behavior we've seen. In Bangkok a French couple yelled at the guesthouse owner for two hours because they'd taken a 200B taxi to his place for a reservation that didn't exist. He paid for their cab. The cleaning lady, gentle and kind, who did our laundry for almost nothing—stood by the desk, horrified. In Surat Thai, in the middle of the night, a British girl yelled at the entire railway station staff for a full hour, in English and incomprehensible Thai. “I want my f***ing bonnets!” she said. Evidently someone at the station had taken her motorcycle helmets, or she'd left them—it wasn't clear. He came back with them, eventually. On Kho Phayam, a French woman left a restaurant—little more than a streetside stand—when her green papaya salad didn't come soon enough. “I wait, and wait, and wait...” This at a stand where they had the cheapest food on the island, the entire place packed, and one person cooking.

It's incomprehensible to me. I feel a constant consciousness of being in a foreign culture, and attempt to act respectfully, knowing that all the while I'm trampling restrictions I know nothing about. So the least I can do is be polite.

Maybe the best part of Kho Jum was its limited internet access. Finally, a place free of wifi. Not exactly free, because the nicer resorts did have it, at glacial speeds, and there was one internet cafe in town. But I spent a week not worrying about it, lounging in the hammock, taking a break from the road. We thought about finding another bungalow, closer to the beach—one of the mythical 200B ones is opening up. But I think we'll leave. Maybe we're done with the islands. As much as I love the beach, I'm ready to go to the farthest corner of Thailand to see if there's any place left away from the crowd.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia


27 January – 3 February


Surat Thani train station, at one in the morning
Cleared into Malaysia on a ninety-day visa after taking the overnight train from Phun Phin. We paid for an extra night at the Queen Hotel so we could pack and relax until one in the morning, and then strolled to the train station and climbed into second-class berths immediately. The rest of the train was already sleeping so we had to creep in, find the right spots, cram our gear in somewhere, and clamber around other people's curtains as silently as possible. I went to sleep as soon as I convinced myself to dig my face mask and ear plugs from my backpack. They left the full overhead lights in the train car on all night long, which I found exasperating until I accepted that it was going to be on and tugged my face mask on snugly.

I slept well except for in the middle of the night when someone's cell phone, deep inside a suitcase, went off and I thought it was mine—exactly the same ring tone as my $5 Samsung tracfone that I carry around and use almost as an alarm clock—I was convinced it was mine and had no idea how I'd get it out of my backpack. I lay awake as it snoozed and tried to argue internally that those phones were as common as dirt in Asia, and chances were good it was someone else's. Sure enough, the next time it went off, I stuck my head out my curtain and confirmed it wasn't mine. Another farang was hissing down from her berth: wake him up! I don't know what happened; I fell back asleep till morning.

K. slept later than anyone else on the entire train, and I finally nudged him awake because I was worried about him sleeping through the border. I don't know if they would have ever woken up. They probably would have let him sleep through customs. I laid awake for a while, worrying, but everything was fine. We woke up in time to clear through and now we're in Malaysia.

It looks like Thailand but I always feel crossing borders changes the way things feel. There is more construction and factories on this side, also cliffs made of karst topped with temples that are beautiful. Containers moving through on long trains and big concrete stations half-completed and with no one using them. Already I miss the Thai stations with the giant photographs of King Bhumibol, and the careful little potted plants and hand-painted signs.

Already I feel how it's different here and if I'm honest I'm uncomfortable being in an Islamic country. The women covering their hair make me feel like a profligate slut for leaving mine uncovered. But then there are the farang girls on the platform in short-shorts or bikinis visible beneath their cut-out tank tops and I think: oh.

I don't think anyone is judging me. I am just a species apart, an alien.

I don't know how to explain how it makes me feel. Like somehow I need to change my behavior, that mine is immodest, even though I cloak my bosom in a modest scarf and wear skirts below my knees. I still wear makeup, earrings, pants, leave my shoulders bare. And more than that, I want the right to do those things. I don't want to live in a world where women feel obligated to change the way they dress. But already I live in that world. Women in our culture feel the need to cover their breasts in public, almost always. What if we thought bare breasts were modest but bare hair obscene? Who am I to decide?

Even though I love the Muslim girls, especially the ones with beaded veils bright as flowers, the ones that wear them over Beatles tee-shirts, leaving elbows bare! The ones that wear jeans and heels. The ones that flaunt their restrictions just subtly, keeping their hijab immaculately in place.

I've seen men in the pillbox hats and long black tunics, which gives me an odd twist, too. Boys wearing them, too, traveling with their fathers. What do they make of me? Do they notice the veiled girls in tee-shirts? Men with the long grizzly unshaven beards. I don't know how to handle it my own head, just my knowledge of their belief, a belief that I really don't understand at all.

My parents are missionaries, meaning that they evangelize people, try to convince them to change their beliefs. My own belief is much closer to Universalism, at least in that I believe the doctrines of heaven and hell are wildly unclear in scripture. I consider myself as tolerant as possible, and I believe there are Muslim feminists and Muslim mystics and Muslim reformers brilliant Muslim artists. Just because a person believes in Islam does not make that person a fanatic or a fundamentalist or an Islamist or a terrorist. Nevertheless, I worry that much of the world's existing Islamic infrastructure exists as an indoctrination system for oppression of women. As does much of Christianity, if I'm honest.

I spent a week traveling in Bangladesh almost fifteen years ago, during my last trip to Asia, and the thing I found most disturbing was the sheer lack of freedom women had, as evidenced by their absence. I saw 100 men to everyone one man as I saw. The women are kept in cages, the cages of their own homes. They just don't leave the house.

Clearly, things are better here. But I still feel more animosity, or just more curiosity, or maybe more lust, in the eyes of Malaysian men. In Thailand I can meet someone's eyes and smile, but here I have the sensation more of being stared at, of being observed. I find myself meeting men's eyes until they look away, one of the things I was taught never to do in Bangladesh. I don't like being stared at, just because I'm not wearing a hijab.

But it's the awareness of one belief system abutting another, and wondering about the contradictions between them. Malaysia in general, and Penang in particular, are famous for their blending of three distinct cultures: Muslim native Malays, Chinese, and Indians. So Malaysia has been doing this balancing act, of cultural blending, for a long time. The food is supposed to be where the big payoff is—Indian and Chinese and Malay all coming together in a magical mystery of flavors.

We took the ferry from the train station to Georgetown, the capital city of Pulau Penang, one of Malaysia's oldest cities and originally built by the British. It's a UNESCO world heritage site now, and this week is the week of Chinese New Year, although if I'm honest none of that is why we're here. We're here because of how easy it's supposed to be to get a sixty-day Thai visa using the services of a guesthouse. So we found ourselves an actual flophouse on Love Lane for 30 Malaysian ringgit a night—only 300 baht! The rooms are festooned with blackened spiderwebs and the common toilet is squat—but the showers are clean and the rooftop garden is luminous. The city is squalid and majestic simultaneously. Multi-million dollar restoration projects and boutique hotels above open sewage drains.

We spent most of the week looking for food. Looking for Penang's legendary hawker stalls, more specifically. There were so many things I was excited about eating: dim sum at a Chinese morning breakfast joint, char kway teaou, the genesis of pad Thai—Thailand's national dish actually stolen from the Chinese. Fried noodles of various kinds, combining the various culinary cultures of Malaysia into epic deliciousness.

I must admit that this trip and this blog is degenerating into the dark pit of foodieness. (See Simpsons foodie-blog song.) But I also must admit that Southeast Asia is inspiring the food blogger hidden deep in my heart. I want to photograph and post about every meal we eat, every stall I see. I guess I've never been that far from food writing anyway. The only travel shows we can agree on in the States are the ones that feature epic international eating: Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, mainly. So I'm thrilled that we ended up eating one of the stalls featured by Anthony Bourdain, unwittingly even.

The one food we kept eating because it seemed easy and we kept running into is nasi goreng, which I can only translate as rice and stuff. You get a plate of rice, and then you choose among the various dishes laid out in front of you. It can be done Chinese style with fried vegetables and scallion fritters and tofu and egg foo young. Or it can be done with Indian curried mutton and fish heads and stewed okra. The problem is knowing when to stop, because everything added to your plate costs at least an extra ringgit. K ended up with a giant 22MR pile with mutton and squid and bean sprouts biryani. I discovered that curry gravy was free and ended up with a soupy pile of rice when the guy gave me a ladle from every dish on the shelf.

We also ate: mee goreng, char kway teaou, kway teou soup, Chinese hot pot, fried noodles, fish sambal, samosas, chicken tandoori, mutton korma, naan, and lime juice with salted plums. And through all of it we found ourselves missing Thai food. Or at least the khrooang boong, the spice machine—the four-part condiment holder ubiquitous in Thailand, with its nam plaa phrick and nam sohm and peanuts and chili powder. People who don't like Thai food don't like how it beats people over the head with the intensity of each dish: every meal is sweet and sour and spicy and salty. Maybe my tongue has lost any notion of subtlety. But I believe the best food is a balance among all of those flavors, and Thais give eaters the respect of offering them the spice machine, so that all of these flavors can be adjusted according to their own taste.

An Australian friend said: yes, but you can taste the complexity in each dish, the subtlety of the flavor. Maybe Thai food has ruined me. Give me nahm plaa prick any day.

And then back on the train, the other half of the night, climbing into berths at 7:59 pm and being called awake back in Surat Thani, back to the Queen Hotel.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Phun Phin, Thailand

Queen Hotel
Things that are different about Thailand, after fifteen years away:
  1. More expensive, often three times as much.
  2. More Burmese immigrants. Often I speak to people, like the cleaning lady this morning, only to have them not understand me. At first I attributed this lack of understanding to my awful Thai, but as my Thai has improved, I realized it's because often these service people don't speak Thai themselves, at least not well. I confirmed this morning, after learning the Thai word for Burmese. Luckily I've begun practicing my Burmese, too—at least hello!
  3. More farangs. And more Thai antipathy towards farangs. This I understand, though. It feels almost like an invasion.
  4. Different motorcycles. Fewer of the little real bikes that could carry an entire family of five, and more 125cc mini-scooters, bikes we don't even have in the States. K. is entranced by all of them, especially the minibikes hooked up with race exhausts and chrome fittings and extended swing arms and shocks.
  5. More normal-sized people. Thailand used to be a land of extremely thin people, despite everyone eating five meals a day, in which my 5'10” curvy frame was exotic to the point of embarrassing. My height still is, but my size less so. I attribute this less to changed eating habits and more to increased income. Thailand is now exactly at the median income when compared to the world. It's a truly middle-class country. Hence the importation of laborers and the ability of Thais to vacation and eat well themselves. So I can come here and my income is stretched farther (as opposed to living in the wealthiest country in the world), but I'm still not at the level of the wealthy Thais with designer clothes and Mercedes who stay at the resorts beyond the reach of most backpacking travelers. With their increased size (which I don't attributed to bad health—see this research) has come an obsession with thinness—an insane amount of advertising space devoted to food and exercise products to help people lose weight (see this ad). It's rather sad.
  6. Smiles. K. said it to me early on: it certainly doesn't seem to be the Land of Smiles, which is what Thailand used to call itself. I protested angrily, but then I noticed he was right. People don't laugh and smile and hide their faces the way they used to. Although now I practice meeting people's eyes and smiling first, and they smile back. Much more frequently than the farangs, who refuse to make eye contact at all. It is hysterical to me: as if they refuse to acknowledge the presence of other westerners in their own personal Thai paradise.
  7. Waiing. The traditional Thai gesture of greeting where hands are brought together as if in prayer. I have this feeling that people used to do it a lot more. But now when they do it, it seems to carry more meaning. People do it formally, bringing their hands together carefully and with deliberation, and do it in a context when they want to express true respect. I've taken to using the wai to honor those Thais that don't overcharge me.

Things that are the same:
  1. Dogs. I had forgotten about the packs of mangy stray dogs roaming the streets at night. The dog fights you overhear, the way the dogs live and die naturally in a way that's disturbing to American sensibilities. We used to call them udder-belly dogs because of their distorted teats and that is exactly the same.
  2. Quantity of motorbikes. The bikes may be different, but there still the primary method of transportation.
  3. Plants and love for plants. Something I had completely forgotten. Every place we've stayed, no matter how decrepit, has had an extended and well-maintained garden of potted plants. It's amazing how familiar this feels now, and how completely I'd forgotten about it.
  4. Outdoor life. Thais spend almost all of their time outside. Houses have their entire fronts open to the street. Restaurants don't discriminate between tables set up inside and those on the sidewalk. Thai old men sit out on the sidewalks in front of their business and shoot the breeze. This habit is one I had not forgotten about—in fact it's one I have longed for and will continue to long for while in the States.
  5. Sanuk—the Thai word for enjoyment, fun, pleasure, happiness. It's more than that, though. It's an entire attitude towards life, that it exists to bring us joy. Eating food is something Thais do for fun, as is almost everything else they do. Maybe farangs are held apart from this joy a little bit more than they used to be, but it's just as present. It's what all of us are here for, hoping it rubs off a little bit.
  6. Food, and food prices. The food, thank God, is exactly the same, and just as delicious as ever. Everything I've ordered, that I've longed for these many years, has tasted perfectly as it should. And food prices, for noodles and rice from sidewalk restaurants or street vendors, are exactly the same, if not lower compared to everything else.
  7. Individualized businesses. Walmart has yet to invade Thailand. Everyone still has a business that is specifically designed for one thing, whatever that one thing may be: welding, pharmaceuticals, bicycle parts, plants, crazy clay pots, fish, priestly garments, flowers for spirit houses, etc. I'm still nervous about big box stores finding a foothold here, but K. thinks Thais couldn't accept it culturally, and I hope he's right. You go to the shoe store for shoes, the fish lady for fish, the curry vendor for curry. It also seems like a much healthier economic model: you figure out what you can sell and then you sell it and you and everyone in your family has a job and an income. We've relinquished this independence to Walmart.
  8. Landscape. My sister said, when she got back from Thailand last year: “Thailand's been here, waiting for us.” I held onto that promise as I prepared for this trip, and I believed her, but still doubted. The beautiful attention to tiny detail covered in grime and surrounded by a sea of plastic trash. Casuarinas and banana trees and mangoes covered in fruit. Temples in the distance. The streets look the same. Thailand has been here, waiting. It's changed, but not so much as to be unrecognizable. In fact, more's the same than is different.

Maybe not what you wanted today, a list. But I've been wanting to encapsulate my experience in this way. Tomorrow, at one AM, we head to Butterworth, Malaysia, by train to extend our visas. We can apply for sixty days from Georgetown, in Penang, so we're going to try. Then we can relax for K's last two months here, go to Eesan or find a good bungalow and settle in, instead of worrying about visas all the time. I'm nervous, though, too—finally I'm going to experience a culture and food and language that are as alien to me as they are to him.

We booked a second night at the Queen Hotel, in Phun Phin, on the outskirts of Surat Thani, even though we won't get to sleep here. This is the sleaziest joint that we've stayed at yet. Bloodstains on the wall, boogers on the mirror, smeared dust from the headboard on the sheets. And meticulous flowers outside. I don't understand. I'm sure, too, that the floors and sheets are bleached after every visitor, that certain parts of the room are habitually cleaned (because they're clean) but it never occurs to anyone to, say, clean the mirror, or scrub the blackened pipes in the bathroom.

The rose in front of our hotel (from behind the motorcycles in the previous photograph)
We take almost masochistic pride in the level of flea trap we're able to stay in (although we always check for actual fleas). The sleazier a place is, the more likely we are to book a second night. Maybe we should take more pride in finding a good place at a low price! But I think we also like the towns where the grotty hotels are located. Yesterday we walked up a hill and down a soi. We saw real people, hanging out together in front of their houses, chickens, dogs. One woman asked where we were going.

“Duan du,” I said—walking and looking.

“Ah!” she said. “Duan len.” Walking and playing.

Then we found a wat and walked in on priests wrapped in their orange evening garments, chests bare. Another woman said we couldn't go down another soi—I wasn't sure if it was because it didn't go anywhere or something more ominous. I had this feeling that even though we were a block from where the backpackers make their run from the bus to the train, farangs rarely made it up here. We walked back down the hill and didn't go back today. It's really not hard at all to get off the tourist track. It's just not where most tourists want to be. Including us, in many ways. I'd rather be at a beach. But if I had to sacrifice a beach to be in real Thailand, where I can learn new words from the girl at the Seven (Eleven), where we can try new street food every day (today: barbecued whole squid stuffed with its own eggs), and still get a room for $7.50—I guess I'd give up the beach.

The view towards the train station of Phun Phin, with the ubiquitous Seven