Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Krabi, Thailand

1237 steps to the top of the Tiger Cave Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Koh Jum, Thailand

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

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

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

What did one tourist say to the other tourist?

“Man, there are so many tourists here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

K. said: “Probably all of those.”

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 03, 2014

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

27 January – 3 February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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