We spent the whole day today on the bus ride through the jungle to get to the Thai border. It was quite a hilly trip, on a major highway, and the rugged rainforest hills around us were interspersed with banana and coconut plantations, amoung other stranger fruits. After cramped airline seats, the reclinable spacious chairs seemed luxurious.
We hit our first major setback at the border, when our visas were stamped with only 15 days instead of the normal 30. It seems this is a recent change since the Bangkok airport fiasco, and we'd heard nothing of it. For our 45 days in SE Asia, we had planned on spending a good first part of it in Thailand working our way up to the north, before heading clockwise around Laos and Cambodia before flying out of Bangkok again. After some hasty consideration, we may now do the circle backward, as we need to exit Thailand before 3 Jan or risk large daily fines. It might be a good change after all, since we could visit Vietnam from Cambodia, the only border crossing where Vietnam allows a same-day visa application.
The bus landed us in Hat Yai not too far from the border. For those of you keeping track of the political unrest, this area has big separatist movement violence funded by Muslim terrorists, thankfully not against tourists. Don't worry, we're only staying the night, and by the time you read this we'll be on an island far, far away. The lady at the front desk offered us slices of a strange fruit dipped in chile and sugar granuals, and our inability to even say "Thank You" in Thai sent me diving into my SE Asia phrasebook. We took a long evening stroll around town, seeing virtually no other foreigners (who knows why) and finding a fish and fruit market not far away. To Rob's complete joy, he found his favorite Mandarins in season (and just 5 cents each). In fact, the people, the faces, the crowded fruit vendors on the sidewalk, the general atmosphere, and the strange yet identifiable fruits, made it seem not-unlike any Mayan market in the Yucatan. There are major cultural differences, of course, (that's why we are here), but our biggest challenge is our own tongue. We couldn't speak a word with the locals, and I resolved to bury my nose in my dictionary. Even the written alphabet is completely strange, with 80 different letters in scribbling that looks vaguely Arabic, with no spaces between words at all. A few signs also have converted words into the Roman Alphabet, but if we learn any of the language, it will just be the phonetic equivalent of the words...reading it could be harder than flying to Mars. For supper we found takeaway fried chicken, sticky rice, crispy fried onions and spicy sauce, which was delicious when mixed all together (and eaten with my fingers).
20-22 December - Rock Climbing in Hat Ton Sai beach, Railay, Thailand
So from Hat Yai we caught an early bus out of there (safely) and a couple hours later we were in Krabi. From there we found out that the boat we wanted to catch no longer left from Krabi, but from Ao Nang, on the other side of Railay. In our attempt to catch an infrequent city bus, a scooter taxi driver convinced us to ride with him instead, and (no joke) we piled the driver, both of us, our two backpacks, and two small daypacks all on one 250 cc scooter for the 10 mile ride. I literally laughed the whole way at the absurdity of it...it was a great way to start our time in Thailand. The driver dropped us off at the beach, and we caught a long-tail boat for Railay Beach. Long-tail boats are everywhere here, small wooden crafts that can hold about 10 people, ply through ocean waves, and still make a beach landing (although you jump in and out into knee deep water). They are named as such because the propeller is at the end of a very long pipe, run by what looks like a noisy car motor sitting exposed and balanced atop the pipe, all of it moved around by the driver to run in virtually any water depth. So the long-tail dropped us off at Hat Ton Sai beach, a little damp around the edges, and we wandered up a forest path past restaurants and bungalows, until we found a room for ourselves up the hill a bit at a place run by a British couple. Dropping our packs felt good, so we set off exploring. The West Coast of Thailand is a very rugged place...limestone cliffs rise dramatically from the sea, and are interspersed with beaches that feel hidden and far from everywhere. Hat Ton Sai beach had plenty of people wondering around, but the dense rainforest kept it from feeling overrun. To get to Railay, which was supposed to be a beautiful place for a sunset, we walked up and over a sweaty hot trail around a headland before dropping down to sea level again. Again, there were plenty of people around, and a small area of restaurants on the 100 meter strip that led between the East and West beaches, but it had a very relaxed air about it. The narrow isthmus widened into another gigantic group of cliffs, and we could also see several islands out in the huge bay. Sure enough, it was a beautiful place for a sunset! After another sweaty, dark walk back to Ton Sai, we made our way down to the beach, where we found a restaurant on the beach that had set up low, candlelit tables and cushions on the sand, and we ate grilled barracuda and chicken kebabs. The barracuda was the best fish that we had ever eaten, bar none.
Railay, and especially Ton Sai, is known as a rock climber's mecca. The cliffs surrounding the beachs are perfect for climbing, it seems, and climbers from all over the world come here to stay and do nothing but climb (well, and sun on the beach). The cliffs come right down to the sand at Ton Sai, with a slight overhang, and the challenging routes made for great spectator viewing. I could stand in the ocean and watch brilliant climbers monkeying their way up cliffs that looked impossible. So the next morning, I signed up for a half-day of climbing with a local guide, and we geared up and made our way to an easier section of rock on Railay. In getting there, I happily discovered that at low tide, it is possible to wade around the headland rocks, avoiding the 20 minute scramble up the mountain trail. The climbs were all well know by the guides, and while they had fixed bolts for attaching ropes, there were no ropes already there. So we brought one with us, and my guide, whose name was Pone (he pronounced mine Jone), would lead-climb a route while bringing the rope up with him, then attach it to the top so I could then safely (but never as easily) climb it. I had a great time and climbed until my fingers cramped up, and we walked back to Ton Sai. Rob was off for the day back in Ao Nang wandering the streets looking for postcards, so I offered as a tip to buy lunch for Pone. He brought me to the place where the workers eat, and we had fish soup and chicken curry with the mandatory rice. The food here is amazing and plentiful, and there are so many variations that it is hard to know really what to ask for, so I learned a little about the food from Pone, and tried out a few Thai words I had practiced as well. Then I made my way back to Railay to climb up to an overlook, where I could see both beaches, separated by just the narrow strip. Coming back down, I turned another way, and found myself on yet another beach that I hadn't know existed, and figured out the hard way that the only way home what I had already walked. My sandals and feet were rubbed raw from all the sand, so it was lucky that at just that moment, a group of people chartered a boat to go to TonSai....I gratefully hopped on the long tail with them, and was home in 5 minutes. Which gave me just enough time to rent a Kayak for 1/2 hour to watch the sunset from out in the bay. Whew! When Rob came back tired from his day of shopping, we were happy to see that the restaurant attached to our group of bungalows was open, and soon we were reclining on more cushions, eating bowls of curry, stew, and mixed vegatables over, you guessed it, mixed rice.
The climbing was so much fun that I did it again the next day, until my arms cramped up and my fingers went numb (it's a good hurt). This time there were several people climbing, and several guides, and our whole group long-tailed it over to Railay to climb. I even got to lead-climb an (easy) route just to practice the mechanics of how to do it. For lunch afterwards, Rob and I got grilled chicken and sticky rice to go, and brought it with us on a rented kayak out into the ocean. We paddled to a rocky island and ate lunch in the kayak in a small cliffed cave, watching crabs scuttle around the low-tide rocks. Then our senses almost left us, as we paddled even farther to the next group of islands, in the gentle but decent ocean swells. It took almost two hours of constant paddling to make it back home to Ton Sai, stopping for a quick swim by the rocky island, and finding a nest of snakes in the rocks just above the high tide mark! We made it home just as the sun was dipping into the ocean.
23 December - Krabi
We were up early waiting for a long-tail back to Ao Nang, regretfully leaving the peaceful Ton Sai beach. For breakfast we grabbed a to-go container of sticky rice flavored with a little coconut milk, with slices of mango on top. From Ao Nang, we jumped in a pickup taxi (permanent seats and a roof affixed to the back of yes, a pickup truck) and headed back to Krabi.
In the midst of all this our plans have changed again. At about the same time, we realized that Christmas was a busy time on the Thai islands (read: better to be there a different time), and that we couldn't get into Laos from Cambodia, due to more border crossing delays. So we are back to our original plan of heading around clockwise, without going to Vietnam at all. We will just have to do Northern Thailand a little faster, and we will made the trip back down to the Southern Islands when we come back around...we stilll want to learn how to dive! Hopefully this plan will work, and give us enough time for the circle.
In Krabi, we found a hotel, and a helpful travel agent across the street, and ended up staying a while. That first afternoon, Rob had a desire to go see a rainforest...so we rented a motor scooter and headed north out of town about 20 miles to Phanom Bencha National Park. On the way we picked up grilled chicken and catfish (on a stick), and ate them at the park with sticky rice. The park is know for its waterfalls, but we also wanted to see the forest itself, so we set off on a nature trail first, which soon went from a nice flat path to a steep, narrow mountain trail. In fact, in the dense forest, it was very hot, very humid, and very sticky...and a couple of kilometers seemed to take forever as the sweat dripped off our foreheads, and our pants and shirts were soaked. I was wondering why we ever had wanted to leave the nice beach and come sweat in the interior long before we were done. The trail ended up going up and over the waterfalls, but never really to them...and I was dreaming of jumping in the water just to cool off a little. We finally tripped and tumbled our sweaty way back down to the parking lot, and backtracked to the waterfall area, and I finally did jump in...fully clothed, just like the Thais. I was dry by the time we were halfway home on the scooter.
As we came into town near evening, we were whistled to a halt by a policeman (along with quite a few other people) who proceeded to take my scooter key and write me a fine for not wearing a helmet. We had been given one by the rental store, but since we only had one, it didn't seem fair, so we left it in the hotel room. Oops, bad idea...I had to stand in line for an hour to pay the $9 fine, and the policement processing them slowly had everyone fill out a form, show their license, pay the fine, and finally fish their keys back out of a whole bucket filled with them. I got the special treatment...I seemed to be the only foreigner in line...not only did I have to fill the form out, I had to go into the police station so they could translate it for me! After telling them my age and my parents names, I was allowed to get my keys and go.
24 December - Wat Monkeys?
We liked the bike so much, we kept it for another day for a Christmas Eve drive (after getting a second helmet and actually wearing them), this time heading out to the nearby Wat (Buddist Temple). Devout Thai males are expected to become monks twice in their lives...once for a few months in their pre-teens, and again during adulthood for who knows how long. I don't think there are any prerequisites...just a willingness to shave their heads, don an orange robe, and obey about 700 rules. There are women monks as well, albeit fewer in number, who also shave their heads and live at the Wats. It was quite an interesting area, and one of the highlights of the place seemed to be the gold buddha at an overlook at the top of the cliff...but since there were 1,227 steep stairs to climb up to the top (and after yesterday's sweat-a-thon), we choose to forgo the view and see what else could entertain us. We were quickly captivated by a whole tribe of monkeys who seemed to have residence at the Wat...I would guess there were 50 of them playing in the trees, scampering over the sacred Buddhas, eating bananas, and playing like trapeze artists on the cliffs, vines, and trees. We had a great time watching them and their antics.
The bike gave us a lot of freedom to go exploring, and we took a few detours on the way home, past forests and orchards. There were two main crops that we could see....both trees planted in row after row after row. The first turned out to be rubber trees...we stopped at a farm and inspected the small cups on the sides of trees, filled with whitish gue that was seeping down from where the bark had been peeled off the tree. The second, after some questioning of the locals, were palm trees, used to harvest Palm Oil...from the seeds, we think...although we saw someone with a 20 foot spear pruning the lower leaves from the trees and piling them between the rows. On the way home, we found a local market, where a friendly guy cooked us up our first banana pancake. It is something like a crepe, with an egg fried and mixed into it, then slices of banana. The whole thing is sort of rolled up and browned with butter, then condensed milk and a dribble of chocolate go on top, to be messily eaten with a small wooden stick. The whole thing sounded and looked disgusting, until I tried it...and it was delicious!
Of course, Christmas doesn't mean much in Thailand (it's not a national holiday) and at the most a few people were wrapping last-minute gifts outside a grocery store, and a few salespeople replied to our "Merry Christmas!" but that's about it. For supper we headed to the night market, and found a woman cooking fried rice in a wok, and sat down in her little eating area. We tried to order two plates of fried rice (it's supposed to be really good in Thailand), but instead we ended up with just one, and a plate of a dish called Pad Thai. Well, the Pad Thai turned out to be the best thing I have eaten yet on the trip. It's a mixture of rice noodles, tofu, peanuts, bean sprouts, and egg, all diced up really small and cooked in a wok, with great seasoning. All Thai dishes are supposed to have a balance of 4 flavors; spicy, tangy, sweet and salty...this one had it all. Usually on the tables are containers with fish sauce (salt), dried peppers (spicy), sugar, and sweet and sour sauce, so that each diner can perfectly blend the 4 tastes to their liking.
25 December - Snorkeling
Merry Christmas, everyone!
I've been asking myself...what should we do on Christmas Day?...for a while now. Well, it seems only proper, since it is summer and we are on the ocean, that we should take a snorkeling trip out to the islands. So we signed up for a speedboat tour out to Koh Phi Phi, which is supposed to be the best place to snorkel in Thailand. The islands are located in a huge bay between Krabi on the mainland, and Phuket (you may have heard of this famous resort town) on a long peninsula.
So a bus picked us up from our hotel, and collected many other people as well, then headed back to Ao Nang to the beach. There we were divided into our tour groups, and about 17 of us boarded a speedboat that looked like it should really only hold 10 people. After the guides changed a dead battery in the boat motor, we headed out for a 40 minute ride to the islands at full throttle. Rob and I were lucky (or unlucky) enough to sit in the front, and the surf was big enough to make the small boat jump over (and sometimes slam into) some pretty big waves. Our itinerary for the day included swimming and snorkeling at several different beaches and bays, I think about 6 of them. When we arrived at the first one, we were given 40 minutes on the beach, and we started to feel a little like sheep as we all trekked down to the swimming area. There were quite a few other speedboats (and tourists) already moored on the small island, and since we had arrived late, we got to see them all troop back to their boats when their 40 minutes were up. Our guide confinded in us when we returned, that all the boats there had the same itinerary for the day as we did. Sure enough, we all raced each other to the next spot, Viking Cave, where we were told that there were old drawings on the walls inside, but that we didn't have enough time to go in, but we could take a picture of the outside (which looked like nothing, espcially since it was cloudy). Then we all headed to what is now our favorite island, called Koh Phi Phi Leh. The cliffs rise straight out of the sea, and into a narrow cliffed bay that looked much like the Norway Fjords. Of course, there were tons of other boats making the same circle in and out of the place, and it started to feel like we were in a parade. It really begged the question....why all at the same time? Couldn't they get together and split up the times to make it feel a little less like rush hour in Bangkok?
Continuing around Koh Phi Phi Leh, we entered beautiful Maya Bay, which is the beach where Leonardo DiCaprio filmed the movie "The Beach". Once again, there were tons of speedboats and also long-tails filling the area (I counted 27 speedboats crowded with snorkeling-tour tourists), and we started to wonder if it was really worth it. After our half hour on the beach, we made our way to the rocks on the other side of the bay, and finally saw what all the fuss what about....snorkeling. The colorful color, the brightly colored fish, the warm ocean water...I donned my mask and didn't know where to look first. We had never seen coral before (Isla Mujeres just has a sandy bottom), and it was amazing...well worth enduring the crowded speedboats around us.
For lunch the boat brought us to Koh Phi Phi Don, the inhabited island just north of Leh. There we feasted on a range of Thai dishes, Rob's favorite being a soup filled with all sorts of different seafood, including octopus. Of course, about 300 people all ate at the same time, finished, and then we trooped back to our boats for another round of snorkeling on Don. I could have stayed and snorkeled all day...the coral was only a couple of feet below us at low tide, and I spread-eagles on the water surface and just studied the tiny fish, crabs, and other inhabitants. The clams were the most interesting...they were huge and somtimes bright blue, maybe up to a foot across, and they would open and close with the water currents...we made sure not to bump into anything, especially the spiky sea urchins.
Finally it was time to head back to Ao Nang. The weather had stayed cloudy all day, and finally a light warm rain was beginning to fall, and the ocean had some pretty big swells. It took almost an hour to get back, with rain pellets on our face, and the rolling surfs pounding our boat (and our backsides). It felt like riding a wooden rollercoaster for an hours...epecially when we could see a huge wave coming toward us, and then feeling the jolt on the boat. I held on in the front with both hands, and made sure to keep my tongue in my mouth, so my teeth clacking together wouldn't bite it. All in all, we were glad to get back to dry land, and finally back to a (cold) shower at the hotel. And the whole day, not one person wished us Merry Christmas...although we did see a few tourists wearing santa hats with their bikinis.
26 December - LONG Bus Ride
Due to an afternoon bus connection to Bangkok, we ended up spending one more day in Krabi, which gave us time to relax a little, explore the markets, and catch up on emails. And, we had accidentally deleted a whole day of pictures from our camera, mostly consisting of the the monkey pictures from the wat. So, we rented another scooter for a couple of hours and sped back out to the wat, mostly becuause watching the monkeys play in the trees was so entertaining! This time, we ended up seeing a whole bunch of baby monkeys, and they were really cute...Rob was able to capture his lost pictures and more besides.
I should mention before we move on from here, that we were staying at a Hotel called Area 51 in Krabi. It was located on a small side street, near the travel agent and internet store where we had booked our snorkeling tour and rented the scooters. Both of the women at the hotel and travel agency were extremely friendly and helpful and spoke very good English, and we almost couldn't walk out of the hotel and down the street without waving (and or talking) to both of them. It made our experience there very memorable, and it was beginning to feel almost like Tinum for us, in that our neighbors were always ready to stop and say hello. The lady at the hotel actually ran a radio station out of a corner of the place, and she and Rob chatted a bit about music as we passed in an out. In the afternoon of our last day, as the rain was pouring down, we waited in the lobby/bar for the taxi that would bring us to our overnight bus to Bangkok. It ended up being an hour and a half late because of boat delays of tourists arriving from Ko Phi Phi (we could imagine the swells on the bay today), so we had a nice long chat with our hotel friend. She was running the radio station at the same time, and told us that what she had been talking about on the radio today was the Tsunami. Turned out that this was the 4th Anniversary of the tsunami that had hit Thailand on December 26, 2004. She talked about people showing up to her hotel naked without any luggage, survivors who had lost everything in the waters, and how she had opened the hotel to everyone for free until things got back to normal. Although everything has been rebuilt and the damage isn't visible anymore, it hasn't been all that long, and there are plenty of memories still lingering of the event.
Finally our taxi arrived and brought us to a small bus station. There we loaded about 50 tourists on the double-decker bus, which gave us a clue that perhaps we hadn't gotten what we paid for...which was a VIP bus with comfortable reclining seats and leg room. Sure, the sticker on our ticket said VIP, but our seats were more cramped than an airplane. We stopped only twice the whole night, at small places that could barely handle a busload of hungry tourists. Our tour guide knew only a few words of English, and sounded like a Nazi soldier when he would come up the stairs and shout "Get off bus! 20 minute here, then leave!" I didn't sleep at all...I passed the slow night by reading an entire book. Too late, we read in our travel guide that we should never book bus tickets anywhere except at a government bus station, as private tour operators would often arrive late, not provide the level of comfort promised, rifle through bags placed under the bus, and even strand passengers at the short stops! We learned a hard lesson.
27 December- Monkeytown
Finally at 5:30 in the morning, they dropped us off on a side street in Bangkok and shouted "GET OFF BUS! Arrive Bangkok NOW!", with no bus station in sight and only a few taxis in view. We took a taxi (suprise) across town to the northern bus station, and with little ado, in another 20 minutes we were on a (government) bus headed 3 hours north to the town of Lopburi. For those of you interested, we will spend some time in Bangkok twice more, when we through again from the big circle and head back to the islands, and then when we fly out...so we'll see the city then.
For now, we are evaluating what we really want to do for our time in SE Asia...from what we have experienced with organized tours, we would like to stay away from them as much as possible. In northern Thailand, there are a lot of indiginous hill-tribes, with their own languages, food and customs. It is possible to take a guided trekking tour to visit one or two of them, but from what we have read, the fact that they HAVE guided tours to the "lost" villages means that it won't be quite as lost as you might think. Our guidebook just recommends renting a motorcycle and heading out to see what we can find...we've already done some of that, and enjoyed, so we'll probably try it again.
For today, we are resting in Lopburi before another long bus ride ride up to Chang Mai tomorrow...hopefully this time on a friendlier bus. Half the fun we have had so far is the food...Thais love to eat, and most of the time get their meals from roadside vendors. We have sampled quite a few of them ourselves, and each city seems to have a specialty that is worth finding. The difficulty lies in the fact that we can't read the signs above the vendors, and only by looking can we see what they are selling. They don't believe in menus much, either, because any restaurant is capable of cooking just about anything, and the locals just order their favorite meal for the whole table to share. That puts us at a disadvantage...but we are eating our way through it!
After finding an omlette stuffed with something that tasted something like Pad Thai (yum), we discovered the true lure of Lopburi...the ruins and the monkeys. There is a huge tribe of monkeys that hangs out at the ruins in the center of town, and at night they roost in the rooftops across town. There are probably 300 of them or more...enough to create quite a nuisance and also a be quite fascinating. They move around during the day, and huge packs of them can usually be seen hanging from electic wires, crawling up buildings, crossing streets oblivious of traffic, jumping in the back of pick-up trucks, and stealing purses from unwary hands. Luckily they haven't learned to jump on heads like the ones at the Straight of Gibraltar, or they would be uncontrollable. As it was...we followed them around town for serveral hours, and couldn't help laughing a lot at the absurdity of it. The locals seem to put up with them quite well, digging out a slingshot when they get into places that they shouldn't, and the whole town throws a feast just for the monkeys every year in February. They love peanuts, but won't eat a hot dog...it's a slightly strange feast.
Well, to add to our strange modes of transportation, we have now ridden on a bicycle taxi. At the bus station in Lopburi, we realized that the old town was 2 km away, and a man riding a bicycle pulling a covered seat behind him convinced us to ride with him. The seat was too narrow for both of us to sit beside each other, so I ended up half on Rob's leg, with our backpacks somehow fitting around us. Luckily the road was perfectly flat...and even at that, the one-speed rickety bike didn't go much faster than we could have walked it ourselves. I felt kind of embarrassed at making the guy work so hard, but I guess it's his chosen livelihood, and other Thais were also riding around in the carts...so ok. When we got to a hotel, the friendly guy at the desk told us we could have a room with a fan and cold water for $7, or air-conditioning and hot water for $12. That was a very difficult choice, as you can imagine... It felt great to take a hot shower!
28 December - Ah, a bus ride!
The next morning it was time to leave the monkeys and Lopburi, and chance our fates on another bus, this time purchased right at the local bus station. It would involve a switch of buses a short way down the road, and we ended up standing for a while on a really crowded local bus before getting dropped off at a place that looked like time had passed it by. Except for a couple of workers, the place was deserted...a few children were building a fort out of water-bottle boxes and a blanket out in the middle of waiting area. We had a two hour layover here, so we walked across an empty lot to a street restaurant with a little life, and by pointing, ended up with a grilled fish, sticky rice served in a wooden container, an assortment of spicy dips, and a plate of weird vegetables. It was as usual, very tasty, even the bite-sized eggplant. The 5 women working there giggled at us as we ate, (probably because sticking a fork in your mouth is a strange thing here), and we grinned back.
Finally it came time to board our 10 hour bus to Chiang Mai, and it was night and day (literally and figuratively) compared to our previous bus ride. Well, I can't say much about the leg room...but the bus wasn't full most of the time, so we had seats to ourselves and room to stretch out, so it didn't matter. It was still a local bus, and stopped along the way to switch passengers. Almost every time we stopped, the attendant (there were 4 workers on the bus, I think, the off-duty ones sleeping behind a curtain in the back) would come around and offer sealed water glasses and sometimes cookies. The water fit in a special hoop on the back of the seats, and with a straw poked through it, they never spilled. At about suppertime, we stopped for a while at a relaxed roadside restaurant, and found to our amazement, that the meals came free with our bus ticket! The whole experience was helped by the fact that it was a daytime ride...being forced to sleep overnight on a bus is always harder...but the difference was still clear. When it was time for us to arrive in Chiang Mai, the attendant came around and offered us fresh wipes and collected our blankets.
29 December - Chiang Mai
It was 11 at night when we checked into a hotel by the bus station, so we crashed first, and found our way into the city in the morning. Chiang Mai is a very large city (but not like Bangkok), but the pickup truck ride into the center took even longer because the traffic was intense. In the center is the old city, once guarded by a stone wall and/or a moat, but these days most often crisscrossed by traffic bridges. We found a hotel (ooh, more hot water) inside the old city and made reservations for 4 nights, because this is where we had decided to spend New Years. That first afternoon, we wandered around looking at Wats and trying to find the local day market, completely missing the street and going much farther than we intended. To get back home, we hopped on yet another form of transportation...a motorcycle adapted with 2 wheels on the back instead of one, with a wide covered seat that could fit 3 people, and another one next to the driver. The traffic gridlock made the trip home somewhat fumy, and slow, but better than walking in the heat. I found a good book when we got back to the hotel, but Rob headed back out to see the famed Chiang Mai Night Market. He came home hours later with a collection of small hand-crafted items to send to friends in Tinum, and a glowing description of the market that I would have to visit. The market runs every night of the year, rain or shine, holiday or no, so we could see it every night if we wanted.
30 December - Playing chicken on a rented scooter
There are tons of tours in Chiang Mai, for guided treks, elephant rides, bamboo raft trips, etc, all of them with the intention of visiting the "lost" hill-tribes. We eschewed all of the tours, and did as our guidebook suggested...just rent a bike and go. What the book forgot to say, though...was how huge the city was, and how nasty the traffic could get. Just getting to the post office on the scooter was a death-defying experience, and getting out of the city was something else. It felt something like riding a bicycle on a New York City street at rush hour. There were narrow lanes sometimes on the left of the streets just for scooters, but they were often filled with cars using them as temporary parking spaces. The traffic was bumper to bumper for almost an hour trying to get out of the city, and that didn't include scooters, of which there were thousands. It is common in stalled traffic for the two wheeled varieties to work their way between lines of cars, up to the front of the pack at the stoplights. I got pretty adept at doing it myself; missing car mirrors on both sides by mere inches, as Rob (probably) squeezed his eyes shut and hoped I wouldn't hit anything. Somehow, I didn't, on my 4-speed bike (no clutch, thank goodness), and we worked our way out to the open road, which was still clogged with cars. We finally got sick of the traffic, and ditched our intended destination (no hill-tribe could get too lost on this road) for a mountain trip instead.
Chiang Mai is very flat valley, but a small mountain sits just to the northwest of it, and our new road brought us around it, past all of the touristy elephant camps, orchid farms, and resorts that we were avoiding. But the road was beautiful, winding up and down around the hills, and at a roadside stand we ate a grilled fish that may have been a cross between a catfish and an eel, which Rob declared was almost as good as our gold standard...barracuda. So we made a whole circle, which took a few good hours of riding, visiting one village along the way. It seemed quite deserted in the afternoon sun, but ok, we saw one. Luckily for us, we are going to get much more lost than here, as we travel into mountainous Laos...this urbanized Thai area might seem like LA before we work our way out of SE Asia.
Our butts were completely flat before we got home again, and finding our way back into the city was a challenge in itself...the traffic snarls were still gridlocked, and there were no signs (that WE could read) pointing us to the old city. We found the river and somehow kept making turns until we found a road we recognized, and gratefully dropped off the scooter at the rental place with no broken pieces or bones. Rob was amazed at my driving...I was amazed to still be alive. Our own two feet will be good enough for the rest of our time in Chiang Mai!
And it was our feet that brought us to the Night Market, which we explored for hours without ever finding an end to it. There is a main building which is signposted "Night Bazaar", but it has escaped the confines and expanded to blocks and blocks of stalls lining the sidewalks, with huge vendor areas selling food and drinks and even more lighted stalls in an open parking lot. Many of the sidewalk vendors sell a never-ending variety of T-shirts, watches, belts, hats, backpacks, jewelry, and other mall-type wares. Much of it is actually made in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, or Vietnam, so it is possible to get authentic Brand-Name goods at very good prices...it is also possible to over-pay for knock-offs that look authentic. Either way, prices reflect the fact that everything has been manufactured close by...if you need a new wardrobe, then book yourself a trip to Thailand! When the T-shirts got boring, there were also many stalls selling hand-made crafts and fabrics, including hand-carved wooden reliefs and teak bowls. We found ourselves fascinated by a collection of artists in the main building, busy transforming simple photographs into accurate, beautiful charcoal drawings. They were easily each one of the best artists we had ever seen, and their displayed work on the walls was amazing.
List of things that cost $1:
1 hour on the internet
1 load of laundry
1 bowl of soup,
1 plate of Pad Thai
1 grilled chicken thigh and sticky rice
1 huge fruit shake
1 taxi ride (motorcycle, bicycle, or pickup) to just about anywhere in a city
1 tank of gas for our rented motorcycle
31 December - New Year's Eve
It turns out that this city is a good place to spend New Years...there is a Winter Festival at the main gate that goes on for a week surrounding year's end, and almost rivals the night market in terms of stalls and vendors. The stage was erected at the main old city gate, just a block or so from our hotel room, and every evening we could hear the Thai bands doing their best to play a variety of American and British songs until well into the night. Surrounding the stage was a huge row of food vendors side by side, offering every type of Thai food imaginable (and a few that weren't), plus sushi and who knows what else. It was a good place to get to know Thai food in an informal way...we could walk around and stare at all sorts of food, while unnoticeably jammed shoulder to shoulder with everyone else. Some of it looked delicious...but the octopus on a stick made me almost lose my lunch...yes, you could get anything you ever wanted...on a stick! The row became our nightly supper, and no we didn't eat octopus on a stick. I did learn an important food lesson...I ordered Pad Thai, and at first bite, it tasted sort of plain. Then I noticed a lime in the corner, and packets of sugar and ground chile, so I squeezed on the lime, dribbled some sugar and chile over the top, and voila, it tasted wonderful.
Since this is New Years Eve, it seems like a good time to mention that in Thailand, we are now in the year 2551, soon to be 2552. This is based on the birth of Buddha, although they use the same months as our calendar, and 2008 as well at times. In fact this region celebrates New Years three times a year...once for the Chinese in early February (yup, it's still the year of the rat), once on January 1st, and I'm not sure about the third date.
***This next section really doesn't belong on a particular day...it is just a compilation of what we have seen along the way***
So with all our travels in Thailand, we must have now seen, literally, a couple thousand pictures of the king (and sometimes the queen). The pictures are posted in houses, on streets, over streets, in shrines, etc, and in his photos you can follow him from young man to very old man, as he is now into his 80's. The only thing that doesn't change in the pictures is his pair of thick-rimmed glasses, which may have been with him since he took office back in the 1950's. That's right...at 62 years in office, he is officially the longest reigning monarch in the world, and his title is Rama IX. The Thais are very respectful towards him and his many images...this includes never pointing their feet towards his pictures, or stepping on money (yup, he's there too) or keeping it in one's shoe, or licking postage stamps (guess who). So the king has some sort of power over the country, but not much I guess, he's more of a figurehead than anything, judging from the number of coups the country has endured, the last one happening just a few weeks ago.
Thailand (and really the whole of SE Asia) is a confusing mix of cultures and religions, and it is hard even for experts (or the people themselves) to sort them out. Most Thais consider themselves Buddhists, and willingly give alms to the saffron-robed monks and visit the Wats. Some even believe that a previous king, Rama V, is worth praying to. But really the religion is a mix of three different ones, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism...called the triple religion. SE Asia is squeezed between India and China, and has during their history been conquered by both of them (and other nations) in ever-changing borders. The mix of religions derives from the conquerors, and today it is most noticeable in the Wats, and alongside everyone's houses as well. Spirit and ancestor worship is an important belief to the people, who think that the dead can affect the living for good or bad. For this reason, each home and business has a tiny house (shrine) on a pole out in the yard somewhere, sometimes with a ladder up to it, sometimes with offerings of food or flowers. The people believe that if they offer this space, the spirits will live in that house instead of the bigger house (they shudder at spirits coming in the house), but whatever the reason, almost every house has a this shrine somewhere around it.
Also out it front of their houses, usually spanning the small ditch alongside the road, is a thatch covered wooden structure, sometimes with a bare wood floor, sometimes with benches along the walls or a table in the middle. It is here that the people in the countryside gather in hot afternoons, to lounge in the shade or eat a communal meal. Sometimes an enterprising family operates a roadside stand from it, but mostly they are just a cool place to hang out.
The houses themselves have a lot in common with other hot climates....cement walls, big open windows, and corrugated tin roofs...reflecting the need to keep air moving. There is a good supply of wood here, but they don't seem to build many houses with it, I guess cement block is either cheaper or cooler.
One positive thing we've noticed here is a lack of insects....this is the dry season, so that may be a reason for it. We came prepared for the worst (and still might find it along the trip), with bug spray, permethrin, and anti-malaria pills. We started taking the malaria pills before arriving in Malaysia, and we will continue until the whole trip is over...many of the countries we will visit have the possibility of contracting malaria, which doesn't seem like much fun. Anti-malaria pills kind of have a bad rap, and ours come complete with a list of possible side-effects, of which we luckily only have the most common one. Yup, that's right, we suffer from vivid, full-color, realistic...dreams. It's really kind of weird...I dream so clearly that in the morning I can hardly believe it was a dream and not real-life. I think I will really miss them when we stop taking the malaria medicine.
***So, where was I? Oh, that’s right; it’s New Year’s Eve, and back to the timeline*** We took the day pretty slowly, in anticipation of staying up ‘til midnight (Rob thinks that’s pretty late). I played on the internet for a while while Rob snapped shots at Wats around the city. When we met back up, Rob confessed that he had gone to the women's prison and gotten a foot massage (yup, inmates make good masseuses). Well, he said that he had gone to check if they were open so we could come back together later, and just couldn't resist trying one. Massage parlors are everywhere in Thailand, and are patronized by both visitors and the locals, who consider them to be a necessary part of good health. We've read that Thai like deep muscle massages, and that Westerners sometimes ask for a lighter touch, to avoid a painful sensation. Rob can vouch for that, as he said he loved the foot massage but his calves were still numb from the pressure that she dug in with. Well, I had to try one as well, just to see what they were like, and Rob agreed willingly to go with me again. We walked around the corner to a local place, took off our shoes at the door, and asked for an hour back and shoulder massage. We laid down on mats next to each other, and I ended up with a small woman, while Rob found himself with a man. Maybe they always try to arrange it that way, who knows. All I really know is that I then endured an hour of pain. I wanted to see what a real massage would be like, so I didn't complain or ask for a change in the way that she did her massage...in retrospect that may have been a mistake. All I can say is that I was grateful when she finished massaging one muscle, and scared to wonder which one she would torture next. An hour is a long time, and regardless of what we asked for, the pair worked their way through our arms, legs, and feet as well...and at one point she was standing on the backs of my leg muscles, and leaning her weight on my back. I was really glad that I had freshly showered and put on clean clothes just minutes before arriving, because even fully clothed, there are no secrets from a masseuse that is willing to use knees and elbows to reach every muscle that ever existed. By the end of an hour, I could feel every muscle in my body, and I was wondering if I would have bruises on all of them by morning. Ouch. Rob reported afterward that his masseuse hadn't gone too hard, and that he actually enjoyed it. I would have to think twice before I would do that again...or at least I would ask for the wimpy western style version.
At suppertime, we finally wandered out into an already bustling New Year's scene. The street leading up to the stage had been closed to traffic, and the band was already playing a Thai tune (the Thai language sounds particularly good with pop music), and the crowds were gathering. Food didn’t look appetizing to me at the moment, but Rob found some noodles in the vendor stalls, and I sucked on a fruit shake. We wandered down to the night market, which was going strong, and the lure of shopping pulled us in…I left with a bag full of goodies to send home. We made it back to the main stage with an hour or so to kill before midnight, and looked around to see what happening. The most popular area seemed to be in front of a bar on the street; by virtue of a few hundred colorful balloons, it was the most festive looking place around, and many people were having their picture taken in front of the place.
This wasn’t Times Square by any means, but near the canal, we found our entertainment. Small groups of people were carefully unfolding small hot air balloons and setting them off over the streets. The were about 3 feet high and 2 feet wide, and seemed to be made of white tissue paper…I felt one and it seemed so thin it could never survive, much less avoid burning up. The paper was fastened to a circle of wire at the bottom, which supported several spokes holding a burning circle of…maybe rubber, who knows. A circle of people would light the candle, then hold on to the edges until the fire filled the balloon with enough gas to get it floating, then push it up and over the crowds. And somehow, the thin paper never ripped or burned, I don’t know why. We’d heard of setting these off down in southern Thailand over the ocean, but never seen any before. The wind that night was just perfect, and the floating candles went straight south over the stage, before hitting a higher pocket of air current and coming back north again. It looked exactly like the Milky Way should look, on a dark night in the country. There must have been thousands of candles hanging in the air above us, slowly making their way higher and higher until they flamed out. Once in a while we could see one falling back to earth, and around us were carcasses of balloons that hadn’t made it up at all, some floating in the canals, and others stuck, still burning, in the electric wires over the streets. Once in a while, burning gobs of goo would start fall from the center as the balloon rose, and I tried to not stand under them until they were safely higher. The overall effect was magical, but I’m sure that the next morning there would be plenty of burned out remains spread over the city, and maybe a few stray fires caused by them as well.
The candle lighters were still going strong at midnight, as was the band, and a hotel across the street got on a loudspeaker and counted down in English, to a few cheers. Fireworks went off in a few places around the city, but we weren’t in a great position to see them, and it seemed that was that. We were about ready to head back to the hotel when fireworks suddenly exploded right over the stage area…they must have had their clock set a few minutes slow.
Jan 1, 2009 – Time out
Well, I had been going to write (happily) that after two weeks of Thai food and sometimes dubious water sources, we had no signs of getting sick from it all. I now have to retract that statement, as I spent my first day of 2009 wishing that I hadn’t eaten whatever had made me sick. I also felt like a herd of elephants had tromped all over my back (or maybe just one Thai masseuse). Luckily the bug didn’t last too long, and by evening I managed to get down to the internet caf? for an hour as my “outing” for the day. Rob has intestines made of sterner stuff than mine, and was hardly affected. He wandered around for the day and made an excuse to take a nap, as well.
Jan 2 – Laos or Bust
Luckily I was feeling better, because it took another six hour bus ride to arrive at the Laos border town of Huay Xai . And since I’m writing about this almost a week later, I am having trouble even remembering what the bus ride was like…but from what we’ve encountered since that day, forgetting a bus ride is actually a relief…we’ve been on several since then that I don’t think I will soon forget…there’s a bit of foreshadowing for you. As was becoming a habit, the bus dropped us off several kilometers from where we really wanted to go (the tuk-tuks, or motorcycle taxis, need to earn their living as well, ya know!), but we eschewed a ride and took a slow walk through town to the Thailand-Laos border, on the Mekong River . The Mekong is an important source of fish, water, and travel in the region, but here it looked more like the muddy Missouri than the mighty Mississippi . After getting an exit stamp from the Thai side, we crossed the river on a boat that was about 40 feet long, but only about 4 feet wide. I was lucky not to take an accidental swim while attempting to balance my way over to the seats…and when we sat down, the reddish water was only inches away from me. A minute later, we had crossed and were filling out the paperwork for a Laos visa, and just before closing time, we made it into the country, and took a look around us.
Rob had commented several times that the towns in Thailand didn’t really look like what he had expected…it was a much more hip country than we had anticipated, even if it was still lagging way behind the development of Europe or the States. Seeing Laos made Thailand appear even more like a happening place…crossing the Mekong was just about like crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico, and the differences between the countries would become even more pronounced farther from the border. We walked up the incline into town and asked about the bus station, which (surprise) was 4, 5, or 6 km out of town, (depending on the source) but the locals were clear on the fact that it was closed for the day already. We found a hotel and splurged on a chicken pizza for supper. The owner of our hotel tried to convince us that we should take a boat trip up to our next destination, but two days on an open boat didn’t seem like a great idea, so we opted for the bus instead. Rumor had it that the road had been recently improved, and the trip would only take 4 hours instead of the normal 8. Well, we should have known better, but the hotel guy managed to convince Rob that his air-conditioned mini-bus (conveniently leaving ? hour before the regular slow bus), would get there in 3 hours, and would only cost a couple dollars more. We went ahead and bought our tickets, and….
***From here, detour to Laos and Cambodia before returning to the rest of the Thai story***