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…”

plans always change…

When I as planning my trip I didn’t realize that diving in the Andaman Sea basically ends in late April, because it’s the start of the monsoon season. So I’ve had to rearrange my plans a bit. I’m going down to Khao Lak, north of Phuket, on Monday (flying direct from Chiang Mai – yeah!) to go on a liveaboard for 4 days. I’m hoping to finish off my Advanced Open Water certification on the trip as well. After the trip I’m going to head back up to Bangkok to catch a later flight to Myanmar: now I’ll be there April 29-May 20. I have no idea what the internet connectivity situation will be there, so if you want to tell me anything, tell me before the 29th!

The good news with this change in schedule is that Marjan has changed *her* plans and is coming with me! It’ll be easier and cheaper – and, frankly, safer – to have a travel buddy, so I’m psyched.

Another interesting bit of news is that Howie wrote to say that he’s got a friend in Pai, so I’m trying to get in touch with him. Never underestimate the power of local knowledge.

Anyway, let me finish up the talk of the trek and talk about what I’ve been doing here in Pai. We woke up early the next morning, had some breakfast, and set off – up a 45-degree incline once again. Good morning! I admit that Greg took my pack again until things evened out. Egads. So after about an hour or so we arrived at a place for elephant riding. Now, I’m not a big fan of riding animals as tourism, but it was part of the deal. It was OK – I think the elephants were treated well, and the ride was fun. I even bravely agreed to get off the platform saddle thing and ride on his neck/back for a while….until the bristly hairs on his neck were too much for my thighs (damned shorts!). After about 90 minutes we arrived at our final adventure: bamboo rafts down the river. I have to say, this was my favorite part of the whole thing. Boom and Greg manned the bamboo poles that steered us, and Roberta, Allison and I just lounged in the sun and splashed our feet in the water. Ahhh.

At the end of the raft trip, we jumped back into our Saangtaw and rode back to Chiang Mai. When we arrived in the city, the traffic was so bad that we had to take our bags and make a run for it across the moat and down an alley to escape the water-throwers on our way back to Eagle House.

That night (Tuesday) I slept like a log…and then woke up at 6:30 am, in time to pack and meet Marjan at the bus station for the 9 am bus here, to Pai.

Well, the electricity here just went out (it does that occasionally) and then came back on. We’ve decided to give up on the internet and go have a bite. More tomorrow!

lazy days in Pai

Somehow it took me a week to let go and get into travel mode, but now I’m really locked in. I suppose with the bewilderment wrought by jet lag in Bangkok and then the madness of Songkran in Chiang Mai I wasn’t able to relax. But the cure for all that (besides time) is Pai – a place where I have no qualms whatsoever about doing absolutely, positively nothing for an entire day. Nothing, that is, beyond eating a bit, reading a bit, drinking a lot of water, wandering around…and uploading a shitload of photos.

So there’s no excuse for me to not write what I’ve been up to.

So, the trek. All 11 of us piled into a Saangtaw (basically a red pickup truck with benches attached to the bed, open sides, and a hard roof overhead) with our small rucksacks tied up on the roof and covered with plastic to protect them from (you guessed it) water. Since we were extremely easy targets for Songkran revelers, within minutes we were all soaked. We were kept well watered by buckets of water thrown by villagers along the road to our first stop – Mok Fa Waterfall. Since it’s the end of dry season here, the water didn’t so much fall as trickle. But there was still a nice cool pool to dip into.

Next it was back into our Saangtaw and up into more mountains, into a national park to see Pong Dued Geyser and have lunch. Then, finally, the trek began. After a short easy walk into the rain forest, real fun began. Hike up a 45-degree incline in 90-degree heat for 30 minutes. Good god, I’m out of shape. I made it for about 20 minutes (more or less – it seemed like 3 days) and then I really started struggling. So, to my neverending shame, Greg (the father from Montreal) insisted on taking my pack for me until we reached the top. I’m still mortified. But I made it.

The hike itself was at a fairly brisk, steady pace. Other than during brief rest & water breaks, we didn’t really stop to admire any views (there were few) or to look at/for flora or fauna. The first village we came to seemed to be more for a longer break. There was a Karen woman there selling water, soda and beer (!) out of a cooler, but that was about it. A few of us wandered around taking pictures, but things were pretty quiet.

After about 20 minutes we were off again for another 45 minutes or so, to the village where we would spend the night. Doh, our guide, is Karen. A woman who came from his village is married to a man in the village where we stayed….so that’s the connection. Though the description of the trek had promised a homestay, in fact we all stayed in a huge bungalow on the edge of the village. It was nice enough – 12 thin mattresses on the floor below mosquito nets, a large balcony area, and another room with a long table for our meals. After cooling down and washing up a bit in the river, I went for a wander around the village.

It’s dry season, so that lush green rainforest I was expecting to see in the surrounding hills is marred by large swaths of brown. The air was heavy with smoke from the “burn” that local farmers use to clear land. The Karen live in simple bamboo and teak huts on stilts, with chickens milling about and a pig tied up in each yard. Sprinkled throughout this traditional life are modern items, some of which are quite surprising. I saw motorbikes parked next to old wooden churns, modern backpacks hanging next to traditional woven skirts. Most huts had solar panels in the yard to generate electricity. Each house also had lovely planters hanging out front, filled with colorful flowers.

The Karen are semi-nomadic people who speak their own language and who don’t recognize themselves as Thai (or Laotian or Chinese, or from whatever country they live in). That said, I saw a few posters of the Thai king and queen – compulsory decor in every other Thai building – hanging on some of the huts. The people seemed reserved and aloof – I suppose they’re sick of farang (foreigners) like us parading through their village like it was an exhibit. But our Doh, our Karen guide, didn’t offer much information either – nothing about the people, the village, etc. Even logistical information about our trek was doled out sparingly, on a need-to-know basis.
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OK, time to get something to eat again. More later or tomorrow….

Hippyland, Thailand

If you’re wondering where all the hippies went after Jerry Garcia died, I found them here in Pai, Thailand.

Well, that’s a little unfair. Marjan (the Dutch woman I met in Chiang Mai) and I did, after all, *just* get here after a hot, cramped, torturous, and lovely 4-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai. So before I blurt out any more ill-informed opinions about Pai, why don’t I recount what I’ve been up to.

When I last left you, I was in Chiang Mai at the beginning of 3 straight days of being soaking wet whilst celebrating Songkran, which is the Thai new year. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s “other” city – they say that while it has a slightly more northern Thai feel (in terms of architecture, food, and ethnic groups), its smaller population and more laid-back attitude allows visitors to experience to real Thailand without the struggle that characterizes doing so in Bangkok. All that said, I still don’t really know what Chiang Mai is like, because the city was shut down and turned into Water World for Songkran.

My first night in CM (Saturday) I had stayed at The Royal Guest House, which is outside the old city. Sure, it had a small pool and internet on the premises. And for a mere 300 baht (around $9.75) I was given the privilege of walking up 5 flights of stairs to a run-down room with no air-con, no hot water, no towel and no toilet paper. Gah.

In the morning (Sunday) I tried to avoid the water wars by visiting various Wats (Buddhist temples) around town. Wat Phra Singh, the main temple in the old city, was surrounded by people selling food and drink to worshipers (or followers?) who spent the day picnicking, listening to talks by monks, and watching what appeared to be hilarious, aggressively amplified amateur theater played on a makeshift stage. I escaped the shrill actors’ voices by returning to the streets, where I was greeted with buckets of Songkran cheer. I wove down side streets back to my guest house to drop off my bag (so my stuff wouldn’t get soaked) and joined in the fun.

That night I switched guest houses to Eagle House 2, where for 200 baht ($6.50) I got similar conditions but without the 5 flights or the attitude. I chose it because it’s friendly, centrally located in the old city, and it has a good reputation for organized treks to visit hill tribes in the surrounding area. I neglected to realize that in this case “centrally located” meant “sounds like the crappy cover band at the bar next door is actually playing in your bathroom.” So I was serenaded by some Thai dude’s renditions of hits by The Grateful Dead, Oasis, Nirvana, The Allman Brothers, etc. until around 1:30 am. At least the music distracted me from the sagging bed frame.

So while I haven’t been tremendously successful in getting sleep, I have been having fun. On Monday I joined a 2-day, 1-night trek organized through Eagle House to visit some villages of the Karen tribe. There were 11 of us: our guide, named Doh (heh heh); Boom (really!), the schlepper/sherpa-like guy who carried our food; Allison, a Canadian living in Bangkok and teaching Thai children at an international school; Roberta and Greg, Allison’s parents visiting from Montreal; Sam and Lisa, a lovely couple from York, England, who were on month 10 of their year-long trip around the world (again, I feel like a travel-schmuck); Cami (from Texas) and Sara (from Ohio), friends who had just finished their TOEFL teaching certification in Phuket; and then Matt, an Aussie with a British passport (or Brit with an Aussie accent?) who was in the midst of an existential crisis. He regaled us (so to speak) with conspiracy-like theories about pharma companies and the Aussie government, his hatred of capitalism and greed, the true secrets of life (there are many) and many, many, many other things.

There’s a ton to write about the trek, but right now I’m starving so I’m off to grab a bite. Also, this internet cafe lets you upload photos, so I’m hoping to add a few thousand words’ worth later today.

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.