Friday, April 18, 2014

Nong Khai, Thailand

Mekong River

Nong Khai reminds me of Newburyport, a city built along the edge of a river.  Nong Khai nestles along the Mekong, which is wide and swift and deep.  It feels almost like a beach town without all that decadence.  Just barges laid out in the river as restaurants and bars, lights glimmering in reflection morning coffee on terraces looking out on slow-moving water.

All the good things about the beach minus the sand.  Here we hit songkran full blast and it bowled us over.  People who don’t understand songkran, the Thai water festival at the time of the lunar New Year, somehow don’t think it’s possible.  You go around with a super soaker and it’s okay to shoot cops and old ladies.  Cops and old ladies dump buckets of ice-cold water on your head in return.  You are soaked from head to toe, all the way to the inside of your underclothes.  You wander the streets and borrow buckets of water from families to heave at pickup trucks, their backs filled with entire families.  Thai families offer you food from their roadside dinners as you walk.

It’s a mind-bending experience, a beautiful celebration of the hottest point of the year, when all you want is to have water heaved at you.  After it was over, we walked past a lady watering her garden from her driveway.  I wish it was still songkran, I said.  Then I’d be able to be splashed by water every day.  We celebrated in and around the Mutmee Guesthouse, with a vibrant group of expatriates, a surprise in what I thought would be a backwater town—German-Turks and Filipinas and Brits and Guinea-Portugese travelers or “work vacationers” as they call themselves, people who had lived there for years sometimes, teaching or doing development work.

Here I watch, for the first time, the Buddha procession, where people splash Buddha statues and priests with flower-scented water.  Yes, even them.  Statue after statue parades down the street, some hundreds of years old, on the backs of pickup trucks or strapped to the tops of cars, decorated with flowers and garlands, with laughing prepubescent priests alongside, throwing water down on us as if it were rain.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Vientiane, Laos

Lao bus station
In Vientiane, the streets are white hot.  In all of Laos the streets are white hot.  On the tuk-tuk going to the bus someone splashes me with a bucket of water—my first songkran blessing.

We find at least a couple of street food stands with sohm tam—which in Lao is tam sohm—and we cower against the sun.  The hotel room we settle on is on the third floor and rising upwards is like going into Dante’s innermost pit of hell.  They have free water refills on the ground floor, which, comparatively, was all garden and cool tile.  But I rise with the heat, up one floor, and then the next, and then to our little box with open windows facing the sun.

The market is along the Mekong, mainly Lao clothes vendors and Lao teenagers holding hands.  I find one shirt I almost buy and should have, in retrospect.  It says BOSTON MBSESTCHBTETSS or something like that.  I would have rocked that shirt.

The hotel room is intolerable so we only spend one night and take another tuk-tuk to another bus station and ride it back across the Thai border, thus squandering our thirty-day $35 Lao travel visa.  Thais came across for the day just to buy big bags of baguette.  Lao bakers know how to bake real French baguette, Thailand barely sells bread.  Another effortless border crossing, although my heart always does clench a little as I meet the officer’s eyes.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Luang Prabang, Laos

The cool park at the top of the hill
Baguette in the white-hot sun.  Traipsing down the main street past French cafes and tour agents and elephant posters, trying to get to the temple or the museum or the cool park up the hill.  Food is horrifically overpriced, but the baguette stalls way down the gauntlet of pavement reflecting 120 degrees up at our faces, the sun beating a burnt patch on our faces and the top of our heads, are cheap.  I buy a hat to dodge the heat.  It’s only farangs out in this madness, girls in bikini tops and shirtless boys on motorbikes.

We have to buy eight bottles of water a day in order to stay hydrated, and they cost $1 apiece, and there’s no way to refill them.  Our budget goes down, my plastic guilt goes up.  We fill up an entire corner of our room with plastic bottles.  It’s also impossible not to buy them, as we’re sweating out the equivalent amount and often more—sometimes, often, I am dehydrated anyway.

Nevertheless:  drinks above the Mekong.  Climbing to the top of the hill and surveying the town from above, all the French red-clay roofs.  Walking one night way down to the tip of the peninsula and realize that it’s for really, really rich people, like $1000 a night rich people.  They can afford the water.  We can’t.

Our guesthouse has a terrace and we can sit out there at five pm and watch the monks begin to play music, a drum gonging the welcome and then everyone thronging to take their turn on instruments.  Priests in Luang Prabang are somehow more photogenic than the rest of Southeast Asia, teenaged boys from the provinces with black umbrellas and mismatched robes, chattering as they walk down the street together.  I understand why people try to take so many pictures of them, and I cannot bring myself to.  I try, nerveless, from behind.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Luang Prabang, Laos

Main street in Luang Prabang
So there’s this other thing that I’ve been thinking about, traveling in a foreign country, and that is money.  Maybe it makes sense that it’s what I’d start to think about, traveling through one of the world’s twentieth poorest countries.  A country that is the most bombed per capita in the world.  By the United States of America, my own government, in a “secret war” against communists.  The one on which Apocalypse Now was really based.

Or maybe I’m thinking about money because at our guesthouse room in Nan the other day, on satellite television, played a very faithful movie adaptation of the Ayn Rand classic, Atlas Shrugged.  A book that I last read when I was in these latitudes.  A book that kept me from believing in the concept of love until I was 22.

If you don’t know Atlas Shrugged, consider that Ron Paul named his son Rand after its author.  It’s a paean to capitalism, an exaltation of self-involved greed as the highest good for society.  Here’s the speech that I flipped to the movie, on my all-English-movie satellite station:
‘Oh, so you think money is the root of all evil?  Have you ever asked yourself what’s the root of money?  Money’s a tool that allows us to trade with one another.  Your goods for mine.  Your efforts for mine.  The keystone of civilization.  Having money is not the measure of a man.  What matters is how he got it.  If he produced it by creating value, then his money is a token of honor.  But if he’s taken it from those who produce, then there is no honor, and you’re simply a looter…’
    ‘Señor D’Anconia, we all know that money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak.’
    ‘What kind of strength are you talking about?  The power to create value, or the ability to manipulate?  To extort money in backroom deals, to exercise pull?  When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men.  Blood, whips, chains, or dollars, take your choice.  There is no other.’
This speech entranced me, before I realized what movie it came from, exactly the way Atlas Shrugged entranced me 28 years ago.  It’s a beautiful idea, and true, I think.  If money is produced by creating value, then it is honorable, with no moral pollution.  In the speech, he’s speaking to crony capitalists and government flunkies—comparing them unfavorably to himself (the scion of a copper mining family) and another dude that mines coal.  They’re both good guys, escaping an evil communist empire.

The problem comes, of course, when one realizes that creating value does not equal looting land.  Why do all of these brilliant creators have so much land anyway?  How is it valuable to take stuff out from beneath the ground?  How did they get this land?  Who does land belong to?  Who does its resources belong to?

Who knows, in the fictional universe of Ayn Rand.  But here, on this earth, I know.  The land belonged to Indians, who didn’t believe that land could be owned.  The idea when the invaders managed to make it understood, was obscene to them.  They believed it belonged to everyone, that is was sacred.

“The Inuit language has no difference between he or she, or between mankind and animal,” she adds. “They’re all equal.” —American Nations, Colin Woodard

But the Indians were killed at rates of ninety percent, a mass extinction event.  A genocide.  Then us, their successors, systematically stripped the land, above and below, of all its “value.”  We turned the value into money.  We created nothing except waste.

Even today, the reason certain people own vast stretches of land is that their fathers were wealthy, and their great-grandfather before them.  That their families have been wealthy for so long that they had original land grants.  My family and my family's family are the inheritors of all of the wealth of the New World--all that fur and wood and coal.  It’s the reason that I can still afford to pay someone to clean my bathroom here, as I stay in guesthouse after guesthouse.  I watch the housemothers sweep the floor, and I think about somehow our histories being different, that this is the exchange of resources between us.

Laotians, according to sources in Luang Prabang, also have no word for mine and yours.  The words are the same.  They believe, shockingly, that everything in their land belongs to everyone.  It’s a communist country, still.  Ha!  The Randians say.  And see how little value they create!  See how poor they are!

And then we realize that no.  They’re poor because of ten years of illegal, illicit, secret, and relentless bombing by the United States of America.  They’re poor because of the following twenty years of futile embargoes.  They’re poor because of the refuse of colonialism. And still their land is being used by those with money—Chinese building massive smog-shrouded power plants that we drove by. 

Which brings me, of course, to climate change.  The last two brilliant Atlas Shrugged capitalists are a train builder and a metal smelter, who builds the high-tech rails for the train tracks.  The original screeners of the movie, for the American Heritage foundation, had as their major criticism that trains as an effective method of transportation are unrealistic.  Never mind that Hank Rearden (one of characters who could be designated an actual value creator) has invented an ultralight ultra-strong super-metal.  Never mind that gas costs $42 a gallon (as it should).  Never mind that we already have the technology for mag-lev TGV (ultra-high-speed) trains that go 400 mph with virtually no friction, no drag on the rails, and a fraction of the energy that it takes us to drive anywhere.

So the movie treats a coal-miner as a hero and gas at $42 as an outrage.  But then also treats scientists and inventors as saviors.  Never mind the irony of the brilliant scientist working in his public university lab, the sole genius creator, funded by government grants. But those who hold to Ayn Rand’s doctrine (Rand Paul, for one) refuse to believe what scientists are clearly saying, and refuse to listen to the inventions that could save us.  They refuse to use the free market and entrepreneurial spirit, the best tools at our disposal, to solve the problem they don’t even admit exists.

I don’t know to explain it clearly, without using incendiary propaganda myself.  I want it laid out stark.  Carbon dioxide is a waste product from burning things that contain carbon.  It is causing climate to change, in ways that could murder billions of people, in ways that could cause a mass-extinction event, in ways that endanger civilization.  A free market only works if people are asked to pay the true price for things.  It is crony capitalism if a certain producer, a certain company, or a class of companies, do not have to pay for the disposal of their own waste.  For the results of their waste.  If we do not have to pay the true cost for what it costs for us to burn carbon.

If one is able to dump lead in a river, or avoid the expense of a septic system by shitting on a neighbor’s front lawn, that is not a free market.  That is a system where manipulation, chiefly of people’s minds through doubt and misdirection, is in power.  Not liberty.  Not creators of value.  Not even the all-powerful market.

The book itself is seductive propaganda.  It’s so beautiful to believe in a world where all anyone has to do is make money, and the poor magically disappear, taking care of themselves.  It’s like believing in Santa Claus. 

I read Ayn Rand’s books, and I read my grandfather’s book, The Labor of Love, back to back.  His, by a Greek self-published exegete, analyzing the epistles of Paul.  Hers with their seductive vision of pure humanism, desire for money.

But the truth is that humans are much more complex.  Desire for money is simply a twentieth century concept.

I met a bitcoin capitalist in Chiang Mai, a libertarian, a defender of “liberty.”  A denier of climate change, who believes the whole thing exists to siphon money from poor to rich.  And it will do that.  Everything does that.  But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen anyway, unless someone, poor or rich, decides to do something, from the best power within them.  He doesn’t down the evil of Monsanto, though—not the GMO crops themselves, which are fine—but the things they can now spray them with.  But what should we do about it, if Monsanto has the liberty to spray what it will?  If doing otherwise would inhibit its brilliant capitalist entrepreneurialism?

Liberty has many definitions.  American Nations, a book I read last year, continues to haunt me, in its argument that
"from the very start the country was divided by the northern states’ Germanic idea of “Freiheit” and the southern states’ Latin idea of “libertas.”  "Essentially, Freiheit (“freedom”) holds that all people are born free and equal before the law, that they all possess at least certain minimal rights that have to be mutually respected, and that they are capable of self-governance.  Conversely, libertas (“liberty”) holds that people are born into bondage, that liberties are granted as a privilege, that most people are not capable of self-governance, and that only a very few, governing elite can or should enjoy the full blessings of liberty."  --Daily Kos
Another Colin Woodard find is this quote, from Virginian John Randolph decades after the American Revolution. “I am an aristocrat.  I love liberty; I hate equality.”

I keep thinking that what I am is a communitarian like the Yankees in American Nations, whose governments built schools, churches, community centers, courthouses, grange halls. As if living in a Massachusetts town, a Commonwealth, was a place where the wealth was common—where if something would benefit everyone, it’s cost should be shared.  They believed in collective good.  They wrote laws to protect us from other people, from them murdering or raping or torturing us.  Those laws stand today.

Simply put, one does not have “liberty” to dump someone’s garbage in a place where it does other people harm.  As Benjamin Franklin said, my freedom stops at the end of somebody else’s nose.  And murder can be more subtle, if it comes as an invisible gas.  The example I use is piles of shit on a sidewalk.  In an ideal Massachusetts town they’d build a sewage treatment plant, pool their resources to clean it up.  But what if the shit weren’t brown but invisible?  What if it were floating all around us in the air?

Andrew Guzman says:  
If you push on someone who doesn't want to take action on climate change, the place they end up, if they're reasonable people, is exactly the question: why should we spend money now to solve this problem, instead of either spending money later when we're going to be richer, assuming economic growth continues, or just living with it later? So there are a lot of answers to that. The answer the human being makes is that the economic gains from this pollution—which is what it is, the greenhouse gas that we're putting in the atmosphere—are falling to us. We're getting the benefits.

The economically well-understood principle is that the cost of the thing should be tied to its use. That is, we will get better allocation of resources if the person who uses a resource has to pay for it, for its full cost. In this case, including this pollution. That suggests that we should have to pay for it when we use it.
But even money isn’t the root of all evil, according to the Bible.  The love of money is.  That’s what gospel said.  That’s what Christ said.

Ayn Rand addresses this too, in her own work, not in the shortened screenplay speech:
Did you say it’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil? To love a thing is to know and love its nature. To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men. It’s the person who would sell his soul for a nickel, who is loudest in proclaiming his hatred of money–and he has good reason to hate it. The lovers of money are willing to work for it. They know they are able to deserve it.
But I disagree.  I can love the best power within me without loving money.  My work comes from that best power inside of me no matter what our culture chooses to financially reward.  Never mind that even loving the best power within me, even love maybe, is a kind of desire.
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.  —John Rogers, Kung Fu Monkey
Or science tells us, in a recent Ted talk, that money as a motivational tool is a myth.  For factory work—repetitive, endless labor—money can work.  But for any kind of creativity monetary rewards actually depress performance.  And what are 21st-century problems if not problems that demand creativity?  Do these brilliant capitalists wanting us all to work from the “best power” within us want us to have factory jobs?  Or sweep floors?

Watch it if you don’t believe me.  Human beings aren’t driven by money after all.  We’re driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  We do worse with a profit motive.

Dan Pink:  Puzzle of Motivation

“Blood, whips, chains, or dollars, take your choice.” said D’Anconia.  “There is no other.”  But of course there’s another choice.  There's love, as an operating principle.  Autonomy, mastery, and purpose—all kinds of love:  of self, craft, calling.

We stood at the mouth of a Buddha cave in Luang Prabang today.  I crept inside, alone.  I didn’t want to bring my (10,000 kip) coffee inside, in its plastic bag, so I waited till I could leave it outside with K. and headed in alone.  Ever the revenant I am but still there’s this feeling of terror in heading inwards alone, this sense of going into a sacred space, into the holy of holies.  It’s terrifying.

I wrote this in my journal when I passed my first temple on this trip, on Kho Phayam: I had that same feeling of power from the statues, or silence, or quietness, or peace, or brooding strength--the feeling that made me panic as a teenager.  It's odd and unexpected.

But I can write about it now on a computer worth a piece of land in Laos.  This is one of the twentieth poorest countries in the world.  And still to hike to the top of the mountain cost us 20,000 kip.  And then there’s the amount of how much food costs, and how much my daily income corresponds to a person here and a person can go crazy.  Our water budget here is insane.  How much to just keep myself in water.

Still I feel poor here.  I am poor here.  Laos is bleeding us dry.

Buddha teaches us about money in that he teaches about suffering.  Do not desire money, is what he would say, as you should grasp after nothing.

The gatekeepers at the temple give us evil eyes to make sure we pay our $3.  At the top of the mountain is a simple stupa.  We go down into white-hot heat and dust.

What Buddha said doesn’t seem enough to me.  It’s not enough to desire nothing. I also need the Holy Ghost inside me.  Meditation and mindfulness are good for focusing on where the Holy Ghost needs me to be.  Yoga helps too.   My father preached a sermon in Maecherim about Jacob meeting the angel and wrestling him, about wrestling with that Spirit for your own name, for your own answers.  Money does not help me in that fight.  Nor does desire. 

I love money.  Help thou my love of money.  I try not to love money, but I do.  And I try not to desire, as Gautama taught, anything other than what is.  Lord I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.

I remember the prayer given to me every time I take the rail at St. Anne’s in Mars Hill:  This is my body, given for you.  I begin to take that literally.  This body, that I’m living in, is His body.  It’s given for me, my self.  A gift.

As is grace, as is forgiveness, as impossible as I find it to live inside of that place.  I love him, I love my partner, I love my self, and I love this broken world, and I try to make my way around it in love.  I love the life I’m living through.  Can’t I love it more than money?

Even today, though, the guy glares at us as he sweeps our room.  He’s the teenaged son, sent upstairs by his mother, in a spotless starched shirt and carefully ripped jeans.  He has to sweep our room of my hair, the room we stayed in for a week.  Somehow I have exchanged my money for this service, the ability to have him clean up for me.  I exchange the result of my best labor for his, and I hope he can work from the best power within him, too.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Hong Sa, Laos

Hazy skies above the Mekong in Luang Prabang
Nan, Thailand:  1 April - 2 April
Muang Ngoen, Laos:  3 April
Hong Sa, Laos:  4 April

I’m trying to write sixteen-sentence prose sonnets about the cities we’ve visited, as it seems to be all I can manage:

A Chinese power company town.  We drive through in a minivan, from one the border town to this middle-of-nowhere place, and asphalt roads and ATMS sprout up from nothing.  Off the main road are chickens and ducks and dust, ladies in patongs and bamboo.  But in Hong Sa are giant cooling towers looming above the road, a sky perpetually coated in haze.

I want to write about my experience of the place before doing my research.  Somehow I hope against hope that it is a good power plant, and not a bad one, but I fear.  Is it wrong of me to quantify power in that way?  If it were hydroelectric, or geothermal, or solar, or wind.  Even if it were nuclear, which I have come around to.  But somehow I think it is putting more carbon dioxide in the air.

I have this new idea to carry around an Onset Computers data logger and log the carbon dioxide everywhere.  Yes, it’s 400 ppm in Hawaii, until they lose their funding.  But what is it here?  In Laos in summer when they’re burning the trees?  As we go among the countryside the sky is gray, but I also see fires burning everywhere, smoke heading towards the sky.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Maecharim, Thailand

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.