Rain rain, so we’re going away

Well! Thanks for 3proxy.com, greetings from Yangon, where it has been raining for 3 days, and rain is forecast for the next 3 months or so. It’s a shame, because the giant puddles and general nasty conditions are stopping me from seeing what I can tell is a city I would love.

We arrived this morning at 8:30 am local time (we’re 11 1/2 hours ahead of NYC). The Yangon International Airport was as big as you’d expect….but ours was one of only two planes on the tarmac. The other was an Air Bagan plane – for domestic flights. But the wide empty tarmac was just the beginning of the rather spooky airport. I entered the arrivals hall expecting grit grime and dilapidation. Instead, I was greeted with sleek, modern steel and glass. And completely silence. No announcements. No bustle. No other passengers competing for a place in the immigration queue. Just a giant, Logan-worthy arrivals hall with a few sleepy foreigners and many sleepy Burmese. (As we were leaving the airport I checked the arrivals screen – the only flights I could see arriving today were from a few from Bangkok, one from Taipei and one from Singapore. )

I had been planning to stay at a “mid-range” hotel here, but at the luggage carousel we were greeted by Zin Minn from Motherland 2 guest house (a great cheapie option, according to Lonely Planet). He offered us free transport to the city, so we decided eff it – we’ll go with him. I’m glad we did. Zin (who’s sitting right next to me right now printing out welcome notes for tomorrow’s arriving guests) and the rest of the staff here are extremely friendly and helpful. They just helped us book a bus ticket to Kalaw for tomorrow. We had been planning to spend another day here, but the rain is awful and Marjan is not happy. (I’m starting to worry that she’s very negative and suspicious, which will make traveling with her – especially in this nutty place – quite difficult. I hope I’m wrong!) So anyway, we’re heading north to the cooler and hopefully drier hills.

I wish I had the time and capacity to write about my first impressions of Myanmar and Yangon, but I’m exhausted from the long day and I have to get up early tomorrow. I have a 18-hour bus ride to look forward to. My poor ass.

Hope all’s well with everyone out there. I’ll log on again when I can.

Slightly less manic

Boy, I guess I shouldn’t post stuff when I’m sleep-deprived, low blood-sugared, hot, and overstimulated.

So yeah, the diving was fantastic. Seth, my AOW instructor, was low-key, professional, but not blinded by some of PADI’s nonsense (those of you who are certified know what I mean). I also met Tom, the staff videographer. He just got certified (as a divemaster, as I recall) last year, and now he’s experimenting with a career as an underwater videographer. He eventually wants to “stop taking pictures of tourists,” as he puts it, and do more serious (and better-paid) work for Nat’l Geographic and the like.

So tempting.

As for my travel plans, I finally sorted out my flight home: I’m coming back June 12. I forget what time my flight lands, but (for those keeping track) it’s the same as the original flight – only the date changed. So the rest of my itin looks like this:

April 29-May 20: Myanmar
May 20-25: Siem Reap, Cambodia
May 25-June 11: Bali/Gili Islands, Indonesia
June 12: It’s looking like a few hops – Bali/Kuala Lumpur/Bangkok/Seoul/JFK. I’m trying to figure out something more sane!

Changing topics, today I spent the day running errands in Bangkok. I really disliked the city the first time I came (with DrC in ’98) and then when I arrived on this trip. But as I’ve spent time here it’s started to grow on me. I still wouldn’t want to live here, but it’s an intriguing place. Every kind of person and place is piled on top of each other, New York-style. Many people are on the make, but most are just going about their business. I think there’s a logic being applied here that I haven’t yet clued into. Bangkok seems to prefer chaos and complexity over simplicity. For example, public transport: there are like 15 different kinds of buses (all offering different conditions and following different rules), at least 3 different kinds of riverboat transport, plus taxis, tuk-tuks, saangtaws (hough fewer than in Chiang Mai), a metro, *and* the Skytrain. Getting around is a bewildering mess, but once you get used to it the chaos blends into the rest of the crowded, oppressive city.

Anyway…those are some random thoughts. I need to go grab a bite and a beer, pack, and get to sleep. We’re leaving for the airport at effing 4 am.

I think I’ll be able to log on from Burma. We’ll see!

One night in Bangkok

I know, I know. You’re thinking: “You just *had* to pull out the ‘One Night in Bangkok‘ thing, right?” Well sorry. I just got back up north, having spent the last 5 nights either sleeping in a coffin-like bunk on a dive boat or on a bus during a 12-hour overnight trip back north from Khao Lak. And when I finally checked into the dingy but cheap Rainbow Guesthouse and went to a nearby cafe for the first proper coffee in a WEEK, a leaky ceiling dripped into my mug. So PARDON ME for being sleepy and under-caffeinated.

I’d be cranky as hell except for the fact that I just went on 15 dives in 4 days. Everything is at it should be. The diving in the Andaman Sea was exactly as advertised: varied dive sites, varied aquatic life, and great people. I really wish I had an underwater housing for my camera so I could have taken some pics. A bunch of others did take photos, though, so I’m hoping to get a few. Stay tuned. But in the meantime: wow. Three different Manta rays (all at the same site on Koh Bon – two in one dive!), a couple of leopard sharks, a sea horse, a sea snake, and tons of moray eels, lionfish, angel fish, parrot fish, etc etc etc. (YOU Google ’em!) The variety was crazy. And in the middle of all this nutty diving I managed to finish my advanced open water course, too. Next PADI certification on my list: Rescue Diver.

The fantastic folks at Similan Diving Safari ran a perfect trip: it was tight and serious when it needed to be (safety, protecting the reef, etc.) but laid back and fun all other times. And only a little Bob Marley.

The food, cooked by these tiny Thai women in the tiny onboard kitchen, was amazing. The Thai “boat boys” did everything: from filling our air tanks to helping us on with our fins to mincing meat for the kitchen staff to attaching us to moorning lines. Everyone was always smiling and goofing around and having a good time. One noteworthy feature that I imagine keeps the Thai staff happy: The owner of the shop lets the Thais provide soda and beer for purchase, and they get 100% of the profits. You can imagine that most other shops would keep beer – a surefire profit center where divers are concerned – to themselves. Just one reason I felt good diving with them, and would absolutely do so again.

There were 21 customers, but enough dive guides so that the maximum # in a group was 4 customers/guide. Customers and staff were from the US, Canada, France, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Argentina, South Africa, Scotland, England, and one Australia/Singapore/various mix. I met an English woman who lives in Siem Reap, which is one of my destinations. So I’ll have a local connection when I get there. Yeah.

Another great tip I got from a few of the expat dive crew is to NOT go diving in Koh Tao. they say it’s tailored more for newbie divers, and that it’s crowded. So they’ve convinced me to go to Bali or the Gili Islands in Indonesia instead. Heh heh. Thank goodness for Air Asia, the low-cost airline. It won’t cost me any more money to go to Bali as it would to get to Koh Tao. Amazing! Plus, one more stamp in the old passport. (Thank god for the new pages I got put in.)

So anyway, during my one day in Bangkok before I head off for Burma tomorrow, I have to
1. finalize my flight home (gah)
2. buy a rain-cover for my bag (I forgot about rainy season in Burma)
3. upload all my pics and then back them up
4. buy more dollars (don’t ask – it’s too depressing)
5. investigate flghts to/from Bali

Lots to do.

the land of smiles?

In a few hours I leave for my dive trip. This morning I got my gear sorted out and met my instructor for the advanced open water diving course I’ll be taking. It’s funny – Stephan, the guy at the desk at Similan Diving, asked me where I was from. “New York,” I said (sorry Boston). “Oh!” he replied. “I’ll see if one of our American instructors is available.” Either it’s a language thing, or he thinks I’d be more comfortable with one of “my people.” (Of course, I originally got PADI certified in Spanish in Costa Rica, taught by a Colombian and an Argentinean. But that’s beside the point.) So my instructor is Seth, a native Vermonter.

Last night during dinner I experienced my first monsoon-like rain here. Dark clouds had rolled in over the hills in the late afternoon, and soon after the lightening started. I decided against an evening swim. I showered, went to dinner, and after I got my meal (spicy Thai salad with fish and prawn) a few drops started coming down. Everyone grabbed their plates and ran inside…and 2 minutes later the rain really started. It was like someone poured an enormous, bottomless bucket of water over Khao Lak. There was no space between the drops – or rather, the streams of water that fell from the sky. (I tried to take a photo, but it just doesn’t do it justice.) After I finished my salad I ordered (of all things) a Long Island Iced Tea (150 baht – around $3) to sip while waiting out the storm. I ended the night sitting on the covered balcony of my room, watching the lightening in the sky and sipping Sang Thip, ridiculous Thai whiskey that tastes a bit like Southern Comfort. Yuk, but still interesting.

I’m still trying to figure out Thai people. Some people are instantly and genuinely friendly, giving credence to the official Thai tag line as “The Land of Smiles.” But other people seem completely uninterested and sometimes even hostile – even outside of Bangkok (where you’d expect less openness). For instance, the entire staff at the Happy Lagoon acts put out and even annoyed by the guests. Ordering breakfast involves gesticulating wildly to the waiter (who is more interested in surfing the Net on the computer behind the desk). And this morning, as I was packing to leave, the maid came up, leaned on the door frame picking her nose, and said, “Checkout?” She clearly had the attitude that I was just an inconvenient object stopping her from finishing her cleaning early (I was in the last room). I told her I’d be out by the noon checkout time as a way to ensure that she wouldn’t stand there watching me pack. So she said something sarcastic-sounding to her fellow maids and dragged her feet away. As I said, many people are exactly opposite. But it’s annoying to feel like you’ve overpaid to stay at a guest house whose staff is also rude.

And then there’s this internet cafe, where the connection is painfully slow (I may not get to upload all my pics) and the proprietor shows you which computer to take using the “hostile point and glare” method.

But whatevahs. I’m going underwater! I’ll be back online from Bangkok on the 28th after taking an overnight 12-hour bus ride from here).

Stupid burn

Hello from Khao Lak. Finally – the sea, sand…and (due to my lazy application of sunscreen) a silly splotchy sun burn on one shoulder, down the back of one leg, and on one butt cheek.

It’s transition time between high season and low season here (the official change is May 1) so the place is pretty empty. *Everything* here is brand new, since this is part of the Thai coast that got hammered by the tsunami back in ’03. It seems that the tsunami also washed away all of the budget accommodation, because everything here is an effing resort. The cheapest room I could find was at the Happy Lagoon – 600 baht (a bit less than $20), which is outrageous. I must admit, the room is fairly nice (by cheapie standards) – it’s big, adequately fan-cooled, and has a small balcony out front. The grounds of the Happy Lagoon are sort of manicured jungle resort. Not my cup of tea, but at least it’s about 20 meters from the place I’ll be diving from….starting tomorrow! Can’t wait.

The other phenomenal feature of the HL is that the pillows are actually *soft* – not the rock-hard, 6-inch thick pieces of nonsense that people call pillows elsewhere. Sure, the bed is predictably rock-hard, but the pillow…ahhh, it’s the first comfortable night’s sleep I’ve had since I arrived.

Some other bits of observation:
* it seems to be the fashion for young people to wear Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong bracelets
* most monks walk barefoot (and bald, in their yellow or saffron robes), but some wear flip-flops (to match their robes!)
* for the most part, private transport is at extremes: either pathetic little motorbikes or huge-ass SUVs and trucks.
* that said, people treat their motorbikes as Americans treat SUVs: I saw a family of 5 on one bike. I’ve also seen two people and a medium-sized dog. it’s madness.
* it’s really hard to learn new Thai words because everything is translated rather than transliterated from Thai script. All I’ve mastered so far is hello (sawat dii ka) and thank you (kap kun ka).
* around the region it’s BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). This will become more extreme when I go to Myanmar next week.
* (a woman in the internet cafe just asked me what day it is. “Is it Friday?” she asked. Nope, it’s Tuesday.)
* instead of “the same as” Thais say “same same.” As in “that taxi same same like this one.”

And now I have to tell you a story that Chris, Howie’s friend, told me when I was still up in Pai. It seems that a western friend of his is married to a local Lisu woman. (Lisu are one of the hill tribes. Many Lisu and other tribes came to Thailand to escape discrimination (including forced labor) in neighboring Myanmar.) This guy called Chris for help because he couldn’t understand his wife – something about a long lost nephew. So Chris when to the house and heard the story: It seems that some old hunchbacked Lisu man was passing through town and told the guy’s sister-in-law about seeing a young Lisu man from Pai when he was in prison in Burma. The woman got all excited and showed him a photo of her son, who had disappeared a few years ago. “Yes, that’s him!” the old man said. He said he had been in a “submarine” prison (yes, that’s right – a vast underwater prison) run by the Burmese. He knows it was underwater because “sometimes the prisoners were allowed to go up to the surface” and I guess he saw water all around. The circumstances of this old man’s escape from this underwater prison evidently never came up. Fantastic story! But what probably really happened was: a few years ago the Thai government started a “war on drugs” and basically started rounding up suspects and their friends/associates and either incarcerating them without a trial or just executing them. (This is what Chris tells me.) Thousands of people – I imagine mostly minority hill tribes, who to be fair really are sometimes in the drug trade – just disappeared. Chris imagines the nephew was a casualty of the war on drugs, and the poor old man was just giving the family hope with his fantastical story as inducement for them to give him a meal. “These sorts of dramas happen all the time in Pai,” says Chris.

Bye Pai

Just came back from a day riding around the countryside on a motorbike for most of the day. Beautiful, but hot and exhausting. For lunch we went to Sipsongpanna, a place in the village of Wiang Nur that Chris, Howie’s friend, recommended. Deelicious Thai vegetarian food, if you ever get up this way (and if you can find it!).

Yesterday Marjan and I took a Thai cooking class at Pai Cookery School. The proprietor, Gaew, was extremely gracious, knowledgeable, and patient (especially when we decided we wanted to customize the menu a bit). The class included a trip to the local market, where she told us about Thai ingredients and dishes other than what we were making. The market sells everything from papaya to roasted cicadas and various other bugs. Which reminds me – I neglected to mention that I *tried* a roasted cicada during my trek last week. (I removed the head before eating – I couldn’t bear the eyeballs.) It was…salty and crunchy and I got little legs caught in my teeth. I shan’t eat them, unless I’m under great duress.

In the evening after class we met up with Chris. We tried to meet at a bar, but they were all closed last night – no place was allowed to sell alcohol (though the markets still sold bottles) because today is election day, and the government figures if people drank they wouldn’t get up to go to the polls. That’s a new one for me.

Anyway, instead we went to a local bakery and Chris told us about his 4 years living in Pai, and how much it’s changed. Definitely interesting to hear about the place from an adopted local!

So tomorrow morning I’m on a 7am mini bus back to Chiang Mai, then on a plane down to Phuket, where the nice people at Similan Diving Safaris are sending a taxi to pick me up and bring me to them in the town of Khao Lak, on the Andaman coast. They’re even going to help me find a guesthouse nearby for Monday & Tuesday nights. Then on Wednesday I’m off on a 4-day, 4-night dive trip on the M/V Dolphin Queen to the Similan Islands, Surin Islands, Koh Bon, and Richelieu Rock. YEAH.

Like a child…

Yesterday Marjan and I hired taxi to take us on a day trip to visit Mae Hong Son, the nearby capital of the province. During the hours-long ride along winding roads through the hills I had plenty of time to stare out the window and think. I realized that I’ve only been in Thailand for about 10 days, but it feels like 2 months. It’s like being a kid again, when Saturday afternoons are the main unit of measure, when a 3-hour car ride is broken down into 10-minute intervals of, “Are we there yet?”, when each day is a highly complex learning experience, and when 2 months – a summer – well, you can’t even fathom the concept of the end of summer when it has just begun. I guess the key is the lack of monotony. As a kid you’re constantly learning new things, partially because you lack experience and partially because you’re constantly changing and growing – as are your friends. When each moment may reveal some momentous insight, time slows down.

I remember when I moved back to New York from Hungary, I was struck by how *boring* New York had become. This city that had so enthralled me when I moved there back in the mid-90’s had turned mundane. After years of trying to (as they say) get the magic back, I realized my perspective had changed in a way I hadn’t realized. In Budapest, even after I became an old pro (more or less) and fell into routines of work/eat/drink/sleep, I was constantly learning new things. With my fairly broken Hungarian, any interaction was either a challenge or an opportunity for me to practice. Every trip DrC and I took out to the countryside, to visit his parents in Zanka or grandmother/aunts/cousins in Kecel or other places, I learned something new about the country or culture or DrC or…. But New York offered no such enveloping challenge. If I wanted to visit a new part of Brooklyn, I’d HopStop it, jump on the train, and go. Simple. No problems communicating. I knew what to expect in the local deli. I understood how the trains and buses worked.

But I digress. I suppose what I’m saying is that I thrive on being a foreigner, a stranger, on feeling pleasantly overwhelmed. If I don’t have constant, multi-faceted opportunities to learn new things and to figure things out, I get BORED. So here I am, thinking, “If I extended my trip by another 10 days, I could visit Siem Reap *and* parts of southern Cambodia. Hmmm…”