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.