Waterworld

Greetings from Chiang Mai, where I spent the last 10 hours soaking, dripping wet.

When they said that people were crazy about Songkran here, they weren’t kidding. I arrived on the overnight train from Bangkok at around 8 am. I checked into a guest house and went for a wander. People were out in droves, setting up booths along one of the two main streets here – parallel to the eastern rim of the moat that surrounds the old town here. Everywhere you went, there were enormous water machine guns…or simple plastic buckets on sale. At around 10:30, it started – people lined up all along the moat, filling their soaking machines of choice with filthy water from the moat and spraying/pouring/throwing it at each other and anyone who passed by. By mid-afternoon the festival had reached a fever pitch. Cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, bicycles, and anything else on wheels cruised the roads along the moat, with everyone but the driver armed with some water-spewing device. They and the people who lined the streets proceeded to soak each other, nonstop, for the next 10 hours. I’ve never seen anything like it. Businesses shut down so that everyone could partake in the Great Soak. If you wandered away from the main festivities, the streets were practically deserted. Every single person in town was at Songkran.

I managed to take a few photos, though approaching the street with anything as fragile as a camera was at your own risk – I barely saved my camera from a giant bucket of water (I turned and took it on my back instead).

Despite the madness of the day (or because of it?) I met a Dutch woman who’s traveling through SE Asia for a *year*. Makes me feel like a chump. Anyway, I’m off to meet her for some delicious spicy Thai dinner. More l8r.

Bangkok is hot, loud and dirty

I arrived at the Suk 11 (heh heh) hostel in Bangkok at 2:30 am…early Thursday, I guess it was. It’s a quiet, teak, traditional-looking place tucked away down an alley next to a 7-11. The sleepy security guard had me register, wordlessly handed me a bottle of water, and pointed up a steep staircase. In the delirious state I was in after 24 hours of nonstop travel, I’m shocked I managed to find my room.

Sleeping in a real bed was pure luxury, but I had to get up fairly early to go get my visa to Myanmar. Despite what I thought were careful preparations, the process of applying took a lot longer than I thought – evidently the forms had changed somewhat, so I had to fill them all out again. Interestingly, the new forms required far less than the old ones – the old forms included a CV-like work history (to weed out the journalists, I suppose) and full travel details. I was extremely surprised at how polite, friendly, and helpful the officials were. They happily photocopied my passport for free (I was supposed to have brought a copy) and even provided paste to glue my passport photos onto the new forms. The whole experience, which took place in the usual bland, dreary bureaucratic setting, was a great contrast to my experiences in, say, Eastern Europe, where officials seemed to take malicious glee in torturing the form-filling challenged. But I’ll hold off on final impressions until I actually have my passport back with a visa attached. 3 pm today.

After applying for my visa, I went to the Hua Lamphong train station to buy a ticket on an overnight sleeper to Chiang Mai for tonight (Friday). Mid-April in Chiang Mai is a “dangerous” time – not only does the forecast say 105 degrees, but April 12 is the beginning of Songkran (Thai new year) festival, celebrated most vigorously in Chiang Mai and the highlight of which is The Pouring of Water Festival. Evidently, for the four days of Songkran youths patrol the streets with water guns (or just big vats of water) and soak anyone in their path. I guess if I go out I’ll have to leave my camera behind, or at least store everything in plastic bags.

After getting my train ticket I decided to wander around in nearby Chinatown, which is much like Chinatowns anyplace else: businesses selling cheap knock-offs and strange dried and fresh food spilling out onto narrow streets, forcing pedestrians off the sidewalks to dodge motorbikes, etc.

I normally have a great sense of direction, but it simply is out of order here in Bangkok. I can’t tell you how many times I had to stop, whip out a map or my guidebook, squint at the road signs, and try to figure out where I was and which direction I was going in. And every time I stopped, a tuk-tuk driver would come up to me to offer his services….usually leading to a conversation about wherever he could get a commission. One guy even tried to tell me that Chinatown was “all closed because holiday” so that he could take me to a shopping strip he knew.

After wandering about in Chinatown for a few hours I was very overheated – I’ve never needed a/c so bad. So I found my way back to the train station and hopped on the fairly new metro, which links to the awesome Skytrain – all with a/c, and all of which avoid the nightmare of Bangkok traffic – back to the Suk 11 for a cool shower and a nap. (I’m not quite over the jet lag.)

All told, I’m excited to get the hell out of Bangkok. Maybe under different circumstances I’d enjoy it more, but right now I want some peace!

The first 13 hours

Greetings from Incheon airport in Seoul, where the internet is nearly cheaper than water. Three bucks for an hour on the net and two bucks for a half-liter bottle of Evian.

My 13 hours on Korean Airlines from JFK were mostly spent watching movies. If you add it up, I may have seen them cheaper in the air than if I had seen them all at the Cineplex: Kite Runner, Juno, No Country For Old Men, and Becoming Jane (I was getting desperate). I actually did get about 45 minutes of sleep thanks to 2 Tylenol PM and Michele’s blow-up neck pillow thingie she lent me (thanks!). When I wasn’t watching a movie or knocked out in drooling sleep I did laps around the plane. Thank god for giant 747-400’s.

(There are nonstop announcements here, in Korean and English. The English sounds like pre-recorded snippets, such as “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please.” and “Korean airline flight…” and “…has been delayed.” The voice sounds exactly like the female machine voice on the 4-5-6 line – “The next stop…is…14th Street, Union Square.”)

Anyway, here I am. Despite my aching muscles and sleepy head, I’m in heaven. In fact, as soon as I got into the taxi on 1st Ave, my past year of micromanaged bullshit, humiliating condescension, and in the end, pathetic cowardice…it all just melted away.

On to Bangkok.

For those keeping track, here’s a preliminary itinerary:
Wednesday 4/9 arrive in Bangkok
Friday 4/11 train north to Chiang Mai

  • …hiking and whatnot in northern Thailand

Thursday 4/17 back to Bangkok to catch a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia

  • …tour temples of Angkor

Tuesday 4/22 back to Bangkok
Wednesday 4/23 to Rangoon, Burma (aka Myanmar)

  • …three weeks in Burma

Wednesday 5/14 to some island in southern Thailand via Bangkok

  • …three-ish weeks scuba diving

Friday, 6/6-ish back to the US!

I am here.

In the second grade, at the age of 8, I decided that some day I would visit Ghana.

Two years later, after winning a race with my fourth-grade classmate Steve Colbert (no, not that one) to see who could finish a map puzzle faster, I did myself one better. I decided that some day I would visit every country in the world.

In retrospect, these simple and possibly silly promises seem a bit childish. But they betray my deep-seated, instinctual need to travel.

My first trips alone were summers visiting relatives in Greece, where the other kids I met had strange habits (such as listening to awful Euro-pop). Later, on Greyhound and Beiber Tours buses between my hometown of Westwood, MA and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, I honed my people-watching skills and explored the mystery of my fellow bus patrons. But my road to travel addiction culminated during my first trip alone to Europe…after which I eschewed grad school in favor of moving to Budapest (and then back to NYC). Since then I’ve traveled throughout most of Europe, parts of Africa and Central America, and other scattered places in the world.

Along the way I discovered that for me, stepping off a plane or bus or train in a different place is narcotic. I’m in my element when I’m the slightly knowledgeable but mostly naive foreigner with absolutely no choice but to adapt and learn, quickly: the local language, currency, geography, customs, schemes, rhythms, politics. Travel is mind-blowing, soothing, overwhelming, exciting, frightening, thrilling, wondrous…. I could sit here in my New York apartment and rattle off ten thousand adjectives, but none would properly convey what I mean. It’s like trying to explain love.

So I guess this little blog is my attempt to show, not tell.