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

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ranong, Thailand

City of Ranong from behind the Throne Hall
Resting for one day in Ranong and debating the merits of the Burma versus Malaysia border crossing. Already our visas expire after 30 days. Or really we have seven days left, but considering our pace it may take us that long to get to Malaysia. Burma is right here, but you can't travel from Kawthoung, the city on the other side, into Burma itself, and you only get fourteen days when you come back. Allegedly.

One of the things surprising about the tourist route is how difficult it is to get accurate information. We've heard the visa rule changed from 30 days back to fifteen, and then back again. I'm not even sure if the information on the government website is true, and I really think the only person who can tell you is the border agent sitting with a stamp and looking you in the face.

But Malaysia calls to me—the overnight train ride south will always be my first choice. Already I feel us becoming to comfortable in Ranong. It's so cheap here compared to the island. A 230B ($7) hotel room with a view. Forty-baht noodles at the day market, and today we found a curry vendor—30B a plate, just point and choose. We're eyeing the apartments on the upper balcony and contemplating prices.

A 230B hotel room.  The closest we've come to the opening scene of Apocalypse Now.
I wouldn't mind settling in one city for a while and getting to know people, immersing myself more in a real city's life. There are Thai lessons for 20B apiece once a week here, I learned from the Burmese teenager who mans the front desk. (And who does everything else around here, it seems. I saw him changing sheets today, and he works from dawn till all of the drunk farangs come home from the bars. They lock up the front at night, and ring to wake him up to get let in after 10pm.)

When we first got to town, sweaty and hot, I was carrying two backpacks, my big one and a daypack with my computer. I've since consolidated, because two backpacks is miserable, although everyone else seems to do it. I call it the “pregnant farang.” The technique of choice is to hoist the daypack over your shoulders but in front, like a Baby Bjorn, while you wear the big one in back. So we marched into Ranong, dodging the taxi touts with just a city map, while I did my best pregnant farang. We walked to the main guesthouse road, and by the time we deemed the first hotel unsafe we were snapping at each other. This hotel felt a relief, although mysteriously without amenities. I've since learned that it's normal for this tier of hotels to include no soap, no toilet paper, no shampoo, and a giant towel instead of a bedsheet or blanket with a night's stay. But at 230B for a fan room it's hard to go wrong. Ranong itself seemed grimy and loud—just a main street with narrow sidewalks and mysterious wares.

But I've since grown fond of it. Coming back from the island I breathed easier. Real Thailand again. Real noodle vendors and real shops with miniature yogurt drinks and red fanta. Real prices. Real people.

Real vegetables
Today it feels even more like that after an all-day trek around town. We ate in the market and then walked through its lower levels, where the massive bins of dried shrimp are, where the fresh fish market is, where Muslim ladies eyed my bare shoulders. Then we walked up the hill to the Throne Hall belonging to Rama V. After a walk through the gardens and up the stairs to the shrine above we finally found ourselves alone. Trails wound around the hills and through spirit trees to a water tower. Maybe getting off the tourist trail is as easy as stopping every once in a while. 

Gilded monks in a row (K's picture)
 More photographs on Flickr, again.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

En route from Ko Phayam to Ranong, Thailand

Ferry from Ko Phayam
 "I'm sitting in the passenger seat of a red Caprice Classic, a combination pimp-police car, a V8 with bad shocks, driving south for Christmas with my family.  As I write I'm in New Haven."

The above, scribbled in my notebook only one month ago today.  It's hard to believe.  Today, instead, I'm sitting in an old bus seat bolted to the floor of a ferry heading from Ko Phayam to shore.  We've been on the island six days, our first Thai island.  When we arrived via slow boat, the French girl behind looked out and said with her accent:  Wowww.  Welcome to paradize!

Pier at Ko Phayam--paradise?

Our first island.  In many ways she's right.  We rented a bungalow for 600 baht ($18) right off Aow Yai, the big beach.  There were bougainville and hibiscus and casuarinas and palms.  Acres of perfectly powdered white sand.  K. bought a hammock and we spent our evenings swaying and listening to surf.

Frilled hibiscus.  At our favorite chicken guy's place.
But we were also surrounded by swarms of farangs (foreigners).  Not a single Thai person, except for those bringing us overpriced food.  French, Germans, Austrians, Danes, Brits, Australians, Canadians, Scandinavians, Belgians, Finns, Japanese, etcetera.  Nary an American except us, not that it made any difference.

Then came sticker shock.  Our budget for these months is limited to say the least.  I budgeted conservatively because I knew that prices were low, and they are -- a substantial bowl of khao lak (although I'm unsure still on the Thai name, after asking multiple people), soup served with a big bowl of rice, still goes for 30 baht in Bangkok (less than a dollar) -- but on the island prices are quintupled.  And everything is geared for farangs.  I speak Thai to our servers, tell them that we like our food "peht peht samrahp cohn Thai" -- spicy as for a Thai.  And they say:  okay.  Would you like rice with that?  This in a country where the word for food is rice.  Where the item in question is listed on the menu as served with rice.  Where every meal includes rice.  Where they grind up roasted rice and use it as a flavoring for other food that you eat with rice.  Where a common greeting is:  have you eaten rice yet?  Yes.  We would like it as for a Thai.  We would like rice.

But I suppose it makes sense.  I saw a British girl eat a big bowl of curry with a spoon as if it were soup.  It's the equivalent of eating a bowl of spaghetti bolognese minus the noodles.  Another person ate somtahm, green papaya salad, as if it were a salad.  It's meant to be eaten with barbecued chicken and sticky rice as accompaniment, almost a garnish.  Eating it without rice is like eating a big bowl of relish.

Farangs.  Who can understand them?  Finally, after my parents came and rescued us for two days and treated us to vast heaps of whole fish and fruit and vegetables and seafood soup and big bowls of (200B!) rice, we found a good Thai place, on the day before we left.  Prices there were only jacked up 50 percent from the mainland.  They gave us three bowls of rice and made the somtahm as for a Thai person.  The guy said, in Thai, as he got ready to pound our green papaya in his mortar:  is this for the farang that speaks Thai?  The waitress said yes.  I called down to him in Thai:  this person likes it spicy spicy.  He smiled and nodded.  And added three more peppers.

Welcome to paradise.

Fishing boats at Ao Khao Kwai (Water Buffalo Bay)
Also, more photographs at Flickr.  Blogspot's interface is still way crappy--and I hate wasting Thailand time uploading.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Chumphon, Thailand

The guesthouse in Chumphon.  We're not staying in the thatch-roofed bungalow (although I wish we were).
After a week we moved from Bangkok to Hua Hin, four hours south by train. We rode third class on the ordinary train with Thais, going to have a good time for the weekend. We arrived without any place to stay although we'd heard the town was packed. Planning is not our forte, and besides which I have an idyllic belief in showing up to a place and going to the cheapest guesthouse listed in the Lonely Planet, a belief that so far has not paid off.

Hua Hin beach, with kites, beach umbrellas, and Thai flag--the horses are the same, though.  They had horses here when I was a kid.
So we wandered around the streets for a while, pouring sweat, carting backpacks that are far too heavy, and looking for one of the guesthouses that we'd seen online or in the Lonely Planet, or maybe one of the ones listed in the tourist map we got from the train station, or advertised on street corners. The dilemma with this method is that we almost always end up at whatever place we first stop. By the time I use my childish Thai to ask how much and trek upstairs to check the bedroom for bugs we're generally sold. So in Hua Hin we ended up at a colorless a/c hotel with a tiny balcony and free wifi.

Not so bad, really. One hotel room was pretty much the same as another, and we could see the Hilton and the ocean from our miniscule balcony. Hua Hin itself is a shock. I wanted to go there not just because of the romantic train journey from Bangkok but also because it's where I used to vacation with my family as a child—we stayed at a missionary guesthouse two miles south of town. We spent I-don't-know-how-many Christmases here, holidays, spring breaks. I almost had my sweet sixteen kiss on the beach here. Almost. The guidebook says it's popular with Thais who like to swim fully clothed, as it was once upon a time. That it's the “elegant alternative to seedy Pattaya.”

So I was shocked not just by the highrises and the streets thronged with farangs, but also the bars. At first I just thought it was spillover from Bangkok and the rest of the Thai island party scene, the frat-boy ethos we're trying to get away from. But then K. pointed out that every single bar had a girl draped over a couch in front of it, and I noticed that the vast majority of tourists were older European men with much younger beautiful Thai women.

So this is the Thailand of sex tourism, the Thailand of reputation, the Thailand that I hate that everyone knows, and I've never seen it demonstrated to me quite so dramatically. One night we went out for tom yum and the creepy old guy behind us was filming every move his (gorgeous, much younger, Thai) date made. They didn't talk. She looked at her cell phone. He kept filming her.

One night K. went out by himself and had a girl grab his wrist. She came down in price to 300 baht (we imagine because he's highly preferable to a fat octogenarian German). She said: “I give you all of me.” I even tried to talk to them in Thai when we went out, hoping that the cute girls behind the bar were just bartenders and nothing more. They said, rather ambiguously: “we come to Hua Hin for work.” What exactly does that mean?

After three days we'd finally started to find the Thai markets and street corners where Thais themselves go for their dinner—not the over-priced seafood restaurants marketed to foreigners—and we found the same 40-baht noodles from Bangkok. But Hua Hin itself was an education. Not the sleepy Thai town of my youth. I keep wanting to believe that it is something other than it seems: maybe both parties are just in need of companionship, a better life. Who am I to judge? But I know the stories—the northern villages where buyers troll for young Thai girls, convincing them to come to the city for a better life, where all they'll have to do is sell makeup, and send back money to their families. I want it not to be true, but there it is, laid out in front of me.

Thai vendor who cooked us our dinner this evening
So after three days we left. Another slow third-class train to another town farther south—Chumphon. The same sweaty trek from the train station towards an unknown destination. This time we ended at a homestay with a Thai artist who speaks English, found from a road sign, in a teak house on a quiet soi right down from the night market. Much more to our liking. At least the European men and their bargirls keep themselves to their own tourist ghettoes—but I'll keep remembering those girls. Beautiful, kind, gracious. I just keep asking myself: why? 
Pad Thai with fresh shrimp from a street vendor in Chumphon--40 baht ($1.21)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Bangkok, Thailand

We woke up to discover a turtle farm
My trip back home to the land of my youth began without many hitches. The forty-hour, three-leg, exhausting flight, yes, but then an effortless connection with the airport shuttle and a ride to an air-con room, much nicer than the $18 pricetag had led me to expect. The three-kilometer ride through the humid midnight had the air of dream, across concrete expressways, past where groups of men and groups of dogs collected on street corners. But all in all, everything looked the same—shockingly the same. The city seems cleaner, more grown-up, its corners spruced, but it still smells the same. The humid air is the same. The hint of eucalyptus and incense in the mornings.

We pulled back the curtains in the morning and discovered a snapping-turtle farm in our backyard—a room with a view! The baby turtles swarmed around their feeding troughs. Massive ones rose up, shadows below the bottle-green water. The algae is not filth, but the solid-looking scum that covers almost all of the water in Bangkok, the city that was once know as Venice of the east. The city is lined with canals, called khlongs, and water everywhere. The turtles can only be raised for food, I imagine, and as we took the train into the city the next day, after breakfast, we spotted more of them, many more, all the way into Bangkok.

The highlight so far has been the food, always the food. K always prefers the soups, and he's been doing a soup tour of street food—khao tom, or rice soup, the traditional breakfast soup, and tom yum, the sour soup with seafood, his favorite, and guiteau nam, the rice-noodle soup that is my favorite but with which he was less impressed, and twice tom laht moo, a soup I'd never tried before but is broth and a selection of meats served with rice. K prefers liver, stomach, and whatever is scariest looking. I went for a simple pork.

The guesthouse we had hoped to stay at was originally completely booked but an opening came up at the last minute for a full week. A full week, for $60, believe it or not. It's a fan room with a shared bathroom in a traditional teak house, on a soi(like an alley) surrounded on all sides by a cornucopia of street food, a street buffet: fruit and Chinese donuts and satay and fried chicken and fried noodles and noodles and rice and baked goods and coconut-cream pastries and smoothies and iced coffee and pad Thai and really anything you can imagine.

Unfortunately, here, surrounded by the treasures of Bangkok, I came down with a really horrible flu. It's the worst luck, really, but I have to be grateful that at least I'm in Bangkok, even though I spent three whole days in bed, coughing and unable to move, trying to motivate myself just to plug in my computer so I'd have some music to listen to. And we're staying in a fan room open to the afternoon sun, so I knew it was bad when my chills were so violent that I needed a winter hat and my sleeping bag and wool socks just to stay warm although it was probably 120 degrees inside. I went three days without eating, too, although surrounded by such a variety of options. Two days ago I visited the pharmacy and with my broken Thai explained my predicament. The pharmacist's drugs were effective and for the last two days I've actually been able to get about again, and enjoy a little of the city, although we didn't get to do any of the sightseeing I had planned—not a single temple or museum or market complex.

I'm trying not to mourn it, though. Chances are we'll be back through Bangkok. And although we barely left the guesthouse neighborhood, this little street corner has been a great welcome for us and practice for the Thailand to come. Tomorrow we're leaving for the southern beaches and relaxation, by river taxi and train. I'm hoping to see Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, in the dawn light. We're leaving Bangkok's sights unseen. But I'm trying to come to this country without a rigid itinerary, without a checklist of entertainments, to take the land as it comes. My impulse is still to go to everything in the guidebook, but maybe that's what this illness was here to teach me to relax, to let things go, to see what can be seen and let everything else be.

Breakfast the first day--khao tom