Enemy territory and the no-fly list

I’m in Ubud, Bali – deep in enemy territory.

On the surface it’s pleasant enough – rice fields, jungle, good eats, friendly Balinese. But it’s also the scene of the final, most sickening section of my nemesis: Eat Pray Love. And evidently, according to the Lonely Planet, since the publication of “that damned book” hordes of “women of a certain age” have been flocking here, hanging around in the local cafes, opening their chakras at the dozens of yoga classes on offer, picking through (from what I’ve seen so far) shockingly awful Balinese “art,” seeking the services of various “healers,” and generally hoping to meet their own rich, sexy Brazilian who will fuck them silly for a month and then marry them. Jeezis.

Ironically, as I write this I’m waiting for Miro, a rather cute German guy I met yesterday, to pick me up. We’re going to yoga together this morning at the Intuitive Flow yoga studio, situated on a hill overlooking rice paddies. I wanted to do some yoga anyway – all those days of sitting around doing nothing with Mike have taken their toll – but Miro says that this particular class is taught by a Balinese shaman. So of course I have to go. It’s research!

Adding to my EPL reenactment, Miro is currently studying cranio sacrotherapy – a new-agey, sort of energy-based healing technique that sounds like reiki to me. Ominously, he couldn’t really explain exactly what it is and how it works. I’m going to Google it later. In any event, I’m all set to have a mystical couple of days in his company.

But let’s go back to last week, when I was hundreds of kilometers to the east, diving Komodo aboard the Jaya. I had heard about the trip because my friend and ex-SJ mate Jeremy works as “cruise director” and primary dive guide on every second Jaya trip, which all leave from Gili T. So on June 21, at sunset, one Dutch and three Swiss women, an American guy, a young Russian couple, a totally New Yo-wak couple in their late 50’s, and I settled onto the deck of the Jaya, carefully guiding spoonfuls of vegetable soup into our mouths. The sea that first night was rough – we were all staggering around like, well, drunken sailors.

Despite the rough seas, that night and every night of the trip all of us slept on pleather mattresses on the covered deck. The cabins were hot, stuffy, cramped, noisy (mine was right next to the engine room) and smelly from exhaust fumes. Truly horrible. But sleeping on deck was as amazing as it sounds: moonlight reflected on open-sea waves, the sky painted with stars after moonfall, salty air (and occasional spray), and then waking up to the sun peering over the horizon.

I won’t talk much about the diving, since most of you don’t dive. I’ll just say that while it was indeed beautiful – the variety of healthy coral, the giant schools of fish – I was expecting more. I wanted to see something I hadn’t seen before (other than a pygmy seahorse, which I fully expected to and did see plenty of thanks to Jeremy’s pygmy obsession). I think Mabul/Sipadan has spoiled me. (To be fair, the current wasn’t as ripping as it should have been, given that the trip happened during a full moon. And no current means not as many sharks, not as much action. But still. No mantas for me either time we did the manta dive, on which the last trip saw *30* (though I did see one from afar at another dive site), no hunting sharks, no dolphins (OK, I wasn’t really expecting that), and not even many insane, rip-you-off-the-reef-or-plunge-you-to-100-meters currents that Komodo is famous for.) Heh heh. So much for not talking about diving.

Eff all that. Let’s go back to the deck of the Jaya. It’s the end of day 5 – the day I saw a manta at Batu Balong. After watching the boat boys, Harry and Dunker, wakeboard behind the dinghy at sunset, we ate a dinner of rice, veggies and fish. Ryan the American plugs his iPod into travel speakers, because the Swiss girls want to hear Tom Petty. We’ve all had a few arak-and-Sprites, or other intoxicants of choice. We’re moored for the night in the calm bay of some sparsely inhabited island in the Flores Sea, off the north coast of the Indonesian archipelago. In the moonlight I watch a half-dozen wild goats pick their way down a steep rocky slope to the cover of some scrub pines near the beach.

Where else would I ever want to be?

A few mornings earlier we visited Rinca, an island near Komodo where ironically it’s easier to see more Komodo dragons than on Komodo itself. And we did see plenty of these split-tongued reptilian creatures as they warmed themselves in the morning sun. Komodo dragons are dangerous. They will hunt animals many times their own 1/5-2 meter size, including wild buffalo. They are hunt-and-ambush predators with poisonous bites. The venom slowly kills the prey over a few days, during which the dragon follows the dying creature until it succumbs. The dragons then eat every part of the animal except the skull, including all other bones.

Our protection from these beasts were two adolescent boys from the park service carrying long sticks with a forked end, presumably to hold back a dragon should it attack one of us. And despite their age they took their job quite seriously, reprimanding us when we strayed from the path or got too close to a dragon in pursuit of the perfect picture.

Other land-based adventures included a Big Night Out pizza night in Labuan Bajo, the main town on the island of Flores; a visit to a lake with one of the simplest ecosystems on the planet, consisting of one species of fish which eats the one species of snail which eats the one kind of algae which lives off the decomposing bodies of dead fish and snails; and an impromptu visit to a more-remote village on another island.

The last was my favorite, as I somehow became the group guinea pig. During our 30-minute visit I was compelled to chew betel nut in various forms, sprinkle my tongue with some sort of white powder that I feared was cocaine but ended up tasting like baking powder, and stick a giant wad of chewing tobacco under my top lip. I was also asked if I wanted to buy a chicken. The woman who had offered me all these treats then invited me to sit next to her, laughed at my big butt and slapped my hips in delight, stole my sunglasses, and insisted on having her picture taken with me…while the village grandma stuck her hand into my shorts pocket to try to get at my mobile phone. Good times.

At the end of the trip, as Gili T came into view, we all said how weird it would be to come “back to reality.” Which got me thinking about levels of reality. We had just spent 8 days stuck with the same people on a not-giant boat, doing the same thing every day. It was like reality tv. The so-called reality we returned to was Gili T, a tropical party island with OK diving, no cars or motorbikes, and plenty of people willing to sell you weed or “fucking fresh magic mushrooms that will send you to the moon.” Not exactly mundane reality. The next day I would be going to Bali – a larger island with more people leading normal lives, but still connoting a holiday paradise. And then I booked my ticket to New York, for so long my reality but where the contours of a real life never solidified for me.

Not that I want to go, but can someone please tell me where reality is, and how to get there?

——————-

Oh – didn’t I mention that I’m coming to New York? Heh heh. For those who have not yet heard, I arrive in NYC on the evening of Sept 25, a day before my bro’s birthday. Never fear, fans of therangelife – I’m just coming for a visit, to meet my new niece or nephew (any day now!) and Sydney’s new brother, to drink martinis with the Guineys and wine with the grrrlz, to watch some effing Red Sox baseball with the Sue’s and their spouses…and to witness my eclipse-watching buddy and NASA astronaut Al Drew as he hurtles into space aboard the second-to-last Space Shuttle mission. Wow!

I’ll stay in the US for about two months. Then either to Central Asia (unless the region devolves into sectarian wars) or Central/South America. TBD.

In the meantime, on Monday I fly from Bali to Bangkok, where I’ll stay long enough to secure a visa to Vietnam. Then it’s Vietnam/Laos/maybe Cambodia for about three months. Then back to Bangkok to catch my flight on Kuwait Airways (should be interesting) to New York via Kuwait City and London. (I was thinking today that I booked a one-way ticket on Kuwait Airways. TSA no-fly watch list, here I come!)

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Sliding into home

I finally have a day off and some time and attention and energy to write about my trip to Thailand.

It starts with a sleep-deprived stream-of-consciousness from KL airport, which I find funny and random. Enjoy!

Feb 23

Back in KL airport again.

I’m sucking on grape Mentos in the unenthusiastically air conditioned food court, where the the enticing food posters (“Asian fusion!”) have nothing to do with the workaday, ready-to-eat fare on offer. I’m lazy and bloated on cheap, spicy food-court food.

Outside, idling airport buses spew exhaust in elephantine bursts. The chunky, turned-over earth around the landscaped flowers look like chicken rendang.

I’m achey from the early-morning taxi ride to the airport and the window seat that got me here from Borneo. My mind is cottony from last night’s beers and a short, listless sleep. “satu lagi!” calls my brain. Though I don’t know what it wants “one more” of.

I’ve got four hours to kill before my flight to Bangkok. Thank gawd for spider solitaire.

I’ve got the Olympics on my mind. I haven’t watched a second of coverage. “Single-minded focus,” I can hear Bob Costas’ voice intone. “Overcome adversity.”

Abruptly I’m transported back to primary school, during one of our periodic choral performances for our parents. “Give me a smile, with everything on it,” sings my consciousness, “And I’ll pass it on!”

Too little sleep, too much caffeine and sugar.

today

“We’re going home tomorrow,” I said to Mike about 10 days ago. We were sitting on my balcony in the Marina bungalows on Koh Lanta, Thailand. I rocked in my hammock and he squirmed on the less-comfy wooden chair chair as we played the last fierce games of our 240-game backgammon tournament.

I gasped. I had just referred to Semporna, Malaysia, as “home.”

A slip of the tongue. But indeed, I’m back “home” in Semporna.

Thailand was what I had hoped for. I spent the first few days in Bangkok hanging out with PC and Tat, Tat’s mom Angelika, and her cousin Joana. Our first day we took a longboat ride up the Chao Phraya River, taking in the hot, sticky filth of the polluted river and stopping for hours at a market. Tat, her cousin and mom shopped like crazy for tschotchy presents while PC and I sweated and chatted.

At lunch he and I had a rather intense 10-minute conversation about American politics. I haven’t had such a conversation in ages, and it felt good.

One night PC and I went to see a Muay Thai tournament – Thai kickboxing. We were accompanied by Shiva, Angelika’s Brazilian-embassy driver and a former Muay Thai competitor.

We whitefolk paid 1500 baht each for the farang (foreigner) tickets. Shiva paid 400 baht and had to talk his way into the near-empty farang section, explaining that he was our guide. Entry to the sections was strictly controlled by the same cagelike turnstiles you find at unmanned entries and exits to the subway. The sinister architecture continued in the stadium itself. Above us in the rafters, separated by floor-to ceiling metal fencing that called to mind the worst European football matches, sat the poorer locals. Ringside, below and separated from us by a concrete wall, sat lumpy white farang in khaki shorts and collared shirts, clutching ticket stubs arranged by their hotel concierges.

We sat in between, on wide concrete platform stairs that constituted the cheap farang seats. To our left, in the next section over, sat a huge crowd of betting locals – the expensive local seats. This crowd consisted mostly of middle-aged men with thick bulges of baht in their front pockets.

Before each fight the competitors entered the ring – always over the top rope, never between. They each wore a shiny, almost lamé cape, a ribboned crown, and a lei. Their shorts were short, satin and either blue or red. Together in the middle of the ring they performed a pre-fight ritual that seemed half-dancing and half-stretching. Eventually they retired to their corners, their trainers removed their cape, crown and lei, and the fight began. Each round was accompanied by a small band in the corner of the stadium, who beat drums, rang bells and rattled chimes in ritualistic beats.

Each fight lasts five three-minute rounds. The first two rounds are relatively slow, as the competitors try to discern each others’ weaknesses and score a few easy points. Likewise, the crowd is fairly silent during the early rounds, as they individually calculate odds and plan betting strategies.

The third round is the fulcrum, both numerically and practically. At bell-ring the hands of the betting crowd shoot up and start making elaborate gestures and signs, communicating odds, bet amounts and agreements using a language as complex and amusing to watch as that on an old stock-trading floor. If one competitor is clearly stronger than the other the betting is frenzied as the crowd tries to find a way to make *some* money off the fight. If it’s a close match, the fight becomes frenzied, as each competitor tries to gain the upper hand.

The fourth round is a more-intense version of the third, when the betting, cheering and fighting reaches its height. Underdogs might start to fight back, prompting their formerly silent fans to start cheering support – tentatively at first but taking on brashness with each connection of fist or foot. Panicked bettors begin desperately flailing at each other, trying to hedge their bets. Each blow is met with an appreciative roar from one section or another of the crowd.

The tone of the match is solidified during the final round. If it’s a blowout, the weaker fighter spends 90 seconds desperately trying to score points. If he’s unsuccessful, a sign from his trainer tells him to stop fighting and the competitors dance around each other in a mock spar for the last 90 seconds. It’s like running out the clock in the final seconds of an American football or basketball game.

But if the match is close, the final round is fierce yet careful to the closing bell, at which point both competitors raise their arms in mock-confident victory and are welcomed as champions in their respective corners. It’s only once the referee tallies the points from the three judges that a winner is festooned with a flower wreath and fistfuls of bills are peeled off and traded in the stands.

I loved it – The fluorescent-lit atmosphere, the elaborate ritual, the familiar rush of excitement from watching any sport.

I even liked it better than our entertainment the following night: the Calypso Cabaret, a ladyboy show featuring glitz, new tits and old packages bulging from polyester briefs.

The next day I flew south to meet Mike in Krabi. His flight landed before mine, so he bought two beers, set up the backgammon board on the floor of the arrivals hall, and waited. Alas, my flight was delayed two hours, so by the time I arrived the beers (plus a few more) were in his belly and the backgammon board tucked back into his luggage.

Never mind – we jumped into a taxi van for the two-hour ride to Lanta.

When we arrived we partook in the local intoxicants, went for a pork-laden dinner, and retired to my balcony with a few beers to play backgammon late into the night. That set the basic daily pattern for the next few weeks: wake up, get silly, go for breakfast, get silly, play backgammon, get silly, go for lunch, get silly, play backgammon, get silly, watch the sunset, go for drinks/dinner, get silly, play backgammon.

I could write more about Lanta, but I’m not feeling it at the moment. Suffice it to say that I gained about 10 pounds in bacon, cheese and sloth and left happy…and a winner (by just 2 games!) of the backgammon tourney.

Back in Bangkok, on my way home

Greetings from Bangkok, my 24-hour stopover on my way home. I’ve decided to spend the day in the cool confines of the various shopping centers and internet cafes near my hotel, in Siam Square, rather than brave the ridiculous heat and dirt of normal Bangkok. On this, my third time in Bangkok during this trip, this city is starting to grow on me. But the noise! The heat! The pollution! The crowds! It’s too much to bear before a 23-hour trip home. (Environmental note: The proprietor of the internet cafe is eating his lunch, smacking his lips remarkably loudly and sort of glaring at me. Thailand: The Land of Smiles!)

Since I’m on my way home, naturally I’m sort of reviewing my trip in my mind. It’s only been two months, but my days in Chiang Mai during the watery Songkran festival now seems like a lifetime ago. Yes, I’ve seen many things, had some crazy and fun experiences, met hundreds of people, and generally had the normal travel experience. But my mindset has changed dramatically as well. When I left New York I was feeling oppressed by the fairly basic life choices that I face: Where should I live? What should I do? But two months later I feel like I’ve gained some clarity – or at least some much-needed perspective, outside of the four narrow walls of Manhattan.  In a day or so, when I’m sitting comfortably in a yellow cab heading towards the city…it’s going to be strange to see the Manhattan skyline again. Either I’ll feel nostalgia and that I’m coming home, or I’ll feel oncoming oppression of being back in my “old life.” We’ll see!

But enough navel-gazing. It occurs to me that I haven’t written much about my time on Gili Trawangan. There isn’t a tremendous amount to write about my activities there: Basically it was wake up, dive, eat lunch, dive, watch the sunset, shower, eat/drink, sleep, repeat. It’s the people I met who made it great.

As I said, I dove with Blue Marlin, a fairly well-run dive shop/guest house/restaurant owned by Simon, a Brit with a Napoleon complex. The place was managed by a middle-aged couple: Peter, a blandly cheerful American, and his wife (can’t recall her name), a loud Dutch woman with the thick athleticism of a Bulgarian Olympic gymnast.  My fellow Rescue Diver student was Ginni Golden, an American from DC. Ginni works for an internet advertising agency, of all things. We bonded over stupid clients, internet egos, and neurotic/psychotic people we’ve had to manage (Hi Mark! Heh heh just kiddin’). She’s on a 3-month leave of absence, the lucky thing. She stayed on and is doing her Divemaster training right now.

I’ve already written a bit about Luis, our instructor. He’s been on Gili T for 8 months and plans to stay for the season – until around October. For the like 2 of you who know who I’m talking about: he reminds me a lot of Brian Thistle. He’s quietly smart in that he almost tries to hide his intelligence> As a teacher he’s calm, serious and thoughtful. When he’s done with Gili T he’s going to travel a bit and hopes to end up in Brazil, where he plans to open a guest house/restaurant.

Then there’s Nicola, or Nico (“NOT Nick or Nicolas!” Did I mention he’s very French?). Nico is a heavily tattooed, charming character who defies categorization. He’s approachable yet reserved, social yet secretive, carefree yet serious. He’s been on Gili T about the same amount of time as Luis. He’s trying to save up enough money to move on to Australia: If he gets enough by the end of the season, he’ll leave. If not, he’ll stay another year. But he’s anxious to move on. “I’m a traveler who dives,” he says, “not a diver who travels.” I have to admit, when I left I had a tiny crush on him. (On a Frenchman, can you believe it?) The last thing he said to me (after hugging me goodbye) was, “You smell very nice.” 

Yipes gotta run to check out of my hotel (noon checkout!). Probably more later. After all, I have nothing much else to do!

 

 

 

 

 

 

What the hell….? #2

Hello! I’m safe and sound, back in Bangkok. My flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia leaves at 15:15. I’m crouched over a pubic interrnett kiosk, paying 10 baht/20 mins to use the crappy keyboard, no seat, and a very low keyboad height. 50 eet away there’s a proper internet cafe that charges an outrageous 300 baht ($10!) per hour. I refuse to legitamize them by paying that, so I’m going t suffer throuugh it here. Plz excuse the typos.

I think I left off at the end of the first day of trekking. We stayed thhe first night in a family home in a Karen villge. As I said, wee arrived very early, and had time to walk around. But Ii was compleely wiped out from the fast pace and my sickness, which began to feel like the flu. So Marjan and I just lounged by a low table with tea and papaya, our backs propped up by 50-kilo sacks of rice. Marjan doesn’t like the tea and hates papaya (as well as bananas), and I felt nauseous, so we just watched the occasional fly land on the fruit and chatted. Eventually I got up the energy to take a…well, to wash up. The outdoor “shower” consisted of a plastic tub of water pumped from the well (two young girls gladly helped fill it) surrounded by a few slats of wood with large gaps in between. Lucky, I had bought a huge green plastic rain poncho in Chiang Mai, anticipating rainy season in Myanmar. I took off my clothes, put on the poncho, wrapped my large travel towel around me for good measure (anotherr clever purchase – thx for helping pickit out Michele!), slipped into my Tevas, and went out there. The slats were a good height for a hill triber – that is to say, just above my navel. So I bathed by squatting next to the plastic tub, using a smaller bucket to pour water over myself while still wearing the poncho. A local grandma clicked her tongue and shook her head at me, but the girls giggled with delight. Marjan took pics, which I’ll upload soon.

The cool water made me feel better, but when dinner was ready I still had no appetite. I picked at some rice. Too bad, as the huge chicken curry and tofu salad that Te made looked delicious.

We were in bed by 7:30, our alarms set for 6:30 breakfast and 7 am departure. Tthe 11 hours of sleep did me good, b/c I awoke feeling  thousand tiimes better – energetic even. Marjan, however, had caught what Ii had annd had a terribl day. the first day we had walked abbout 18 km, though a good portion was uphill. The second day we had to go 26 km. To make matters worse, it rained a good part of the day, causing the hard clay earth to morph into the goopy, heavy, sticky mud I described in a earlier post. Marjan (unlike me) was anti-imodium,so we had to stop extremely often for her to jump behind soe bushes. Sorry for the gross picture, but that’s how it was – me in my huge poncho and Marjan with an umbrella in one hand and her toilet paper in anotherr, slogging through thhe mud and rain. It souds awful, and Marjan was indeed pretty miserrble, but it was actually a lot of fun (in hindsight!).

OK can’t take this effing keyboard anymore. Nnext post from Cambodia!

 

 

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.

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!