Sunday, April 15, 2007

Thailand

Ahhh, Thailand, where to begin? Perhaps at the beginning, pre-departure while still in Cairo. I took my three midterms as scheduled before I left, with, as I’ve discovered in the last few days, with a fair amount of success, and exited the campus on Tuesday with the sensation of on onerous yoke being lifted from my shoulders. Two weeks of freedom and relaxation, no worries, just fun. There was, I suppose, one final impediment barring my way from true bliss-a trip to the spa, which normally is a cause for great celebration, but this one involved a lot of waxing (during the procedure I realized that I have a ridiculously have pain threshold, which, I guess, can’t be a bad thing, right?) and a soothing pedicure. Afterwards, straggling back through the streets of Zamalek, I met up with two of my travel buddies, David and Colin, who laughed at my discomfort, which was now a mere specter of the previous apogee, and the three of us piled into a cab to visit the Indian restaurant in town, Kandahar, commencing the vacation with a bottle of wine, good company, and spicily scrumptious food. And then, it was back home to pack, which, in retrospect, involved far more clothing than necessary. My two suitcase options were either a fairly compact blue one or a much larger green one that had originally transported me to this arid land that I call home. Knowing that I would need clothes, shoes, accessories, and other products for two whole weeks for a variety of situations-mountain trekking, beach lazing, going out at night for food/drinks, city sightseeing, etc-I packed too much, I’ll confess, but I still think it was worth it. When I was done, I had the infamous giant green suitcase, which fell just under the weight limit of 50 pounds, my large wheelie carry-on that’s now visited four continents, and my small camera backpack that holds the essentials. I was traveling with some food, so I expected to free up some room for souvenirs, but I didn’t expect to buy quite as many scarves ;-)
Anyway, when Colin and David, who live in my tower, stopped by to pick me up in the morning, they literally gaped at my luggage quantity, but, perhaps foolishly, didn’t make me remove anything. Honestly, how could I have removed one of my four pairs of shoes/sandals, three swimsuits, five pairs of pants, 12 tank tops, plus a bunch more? We squeezed into a cab and drove to campus to pick Lesley up while she finished an exam and transferred into a yellow cab for the ride to the airport. Of course, we managed to find the smallest variety of cab known to man and really packed ourselves cozily inside with luggage on our laps. Check-in and the waiting process was uneventful, although I do detest the old terminal at the Cairo airport-not only does it reek like the sewer, but the facilities are inadequate and the food is rather deplorable. I bought a Cosmo to amuse myself and strolled around the terminal while waiting for the Etihad gate to open. As Etihad Airlines, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, had the cheapest flights to Bangkok, we chose them and were not entirely sure what to expect. However, upon boarding the plane, our decision seemed brilliant, as the plane was modern, clean, tastefully appointed, and, I feel, slightly more spacious than any American airline I’ve flown. The entire fleet is equipped with personal video monitors, adequately sized restrooms, and an international flight staff that is courteous and efficient. And the food! Even though the flight from Cairo to Abu Dhabi was under three hours, we were fed a full meal, and not your usual airline fare; no, we were presented with a real menu offering jasmine rice and rosemary chicken and smoked salmon and chocolate mousse and fresh fruit and free alcohol. Right after we boarded, the attendants came around and offered all of the passengers hot, lightly scented towels with which to refresh ourselves and small bottles of water. In other words, it far surpassed any airline I’ve ever flown in terms of service, facilities, and amenities, and, after lunch and a glass of wine, I conked out for the last hour in a blissful reverie.
We disembarked in Abu Dhabi and felt as if we’d entered the set to Star Trek, as the airport consists of pod-like terminals connected to a central command post full of tempting duty-free shops that we raided during our four hour layover. I sometimes forget how much I miss my Western comforts until I enter a world replete with them: electronics, candy, books, alcohol, cosmetics…not that I bought all of that stuff, but just being around it was slightly intoxicating. I, for one, stocked up on candy (a chocolate bunny for Easter and other stuff) and some make-up, bought some fruit, played some card games with my friends, read a bit, observed the antithical mélange of tank-top clad Europeans seated next to fully niqabbed women and men in spotless argent galabayas. Oh, the Arab world! We were to leave it for two whole weeks, and, frankly, we were looking forward to a reprieve from its repressive nature. Boarding the flight bound for Bangkok, we settled in, enjoyed the entertaining and vast movie collection available to guests, including a number of new releases, slumbered, read, watched, and wheedled the time away until touch down on Asian soil, a first for all of us.
Arriving in the first hours of dawn, we stumbled out of the plane, gathered our luggage, and went to argue with Thai Airways about an abrupt schedule change they had made to our itinerary that would have forced us to waste a night of our vacation in Bangkok rather than the beach. As we had no designs to spend two whole weeks in Bangkok, but were flying around the country a bit, we had all eventually managed to purchase a flexible airpass that allowed us to fly relatively cheaply from city to city. Settling down in the Thai Airways office, we learned that they could not remedy the schedule wrinkle as they had no other flights that would work to bring us from the Chiang Mai to Bangkok to the island of Ko Samui. Eventually, we decided to hope for a refund (still working on that) and booked one leg of the flight with another internal carrier, Bangkok Airways, which actually flies directly to the island without any ferry transfer involved. So, fairly weary of travel at that point, we checked into our flight, trudged to the gate, observed the first signs of a monarchial nation (Long Live the King plastered all over with images of him to complement the slogan), played a bit of Frisbee in the gate area with Colin’s hat, and finally boarded for the flight to Chiang Mai.
I had made the hotel reservations for Chiang Mai, and had booked an airport transfer through the hotel, and was praying that it all worked smoothly. We were relieved, walking out of the luggage area, to see someone holding a sign for Raura Schlcting; he greeted us with excellent English, led us out of the airport and into the sauna that is Thailand, and stowed our luggage (after commenting on the weightiness of my suitcase) for the short ride to the hotel in the heart of the city.
Perhaps here I should mention my first observations of Thailand. It is obviously located in southeast Asia, very near the equator, extremely hot and humid, Buddhist, and very cheap. It also experienced a military coup back in September, the ramifications from which are still being felt out, and has a bloody and active insurgency in the south between the Muslims and Buddhists. And then there’s the king, whose name evades me, but is adored by about everyone and has reigned for 60 years, the longest ruling period for a monarch in the world. Generally, Buddhism is a more accepting religion, at least in terms of behavior and dress, so I arrived and immediately stripped down to a tank top, and didn’t alter my dress style for the next twelve days, although I did occasionally change clothes (well, actually, I would often change them twice a day, but that’s beside the point, eh?). We arrived at the Chiang Mai Guest House, were fairly impressed by the outward façade, only a few years old, paid the bill and checked in and trudged up the stairs to our rooms on the fourth floor. Some poor porter lugged my suitcase up them…
We dove into the refreshing pool and basked in the tropical sunlight, tenable humidity, flowery redolence from the blossoming trees, and soft cooing of birds. Eventually, we got out, changed, and three of us wandered the town and drank in our first sip of Asia-the numerous wats, or temples, tucked behind walls along the streets; the mini spirit houses protecting many of the buildings; the ubiquity of 7-11s, the roaring tuk-tuks honking at you as the drive by, resembling nothing so much as motorcycle pulling a cart for passengers; the clean canals rippling with the reflection of verdant leafy palm trees and other flora; the markets set up in parking lots hawking all sorts of fascinating trinkets; the stands of street food wafting seductively appetizing aromas in our direction; the abundance of tailor and silk stores all profession swift and quality work; and, of course, Thai people. Having lived among Egyptians for the last 8 months, it was startling to be immersed in another entirely foreign culture of whose language we had no comprehension. In fact, we almost made it a point NOT to learn Thai and just relax and use gestures for communication. It worked quite well, although I slipped into Arabic far too often in conversations; it’s so easy for me, now, to use the Arabic phrase or word rather than the English one, and the blank stares I’d get from the many foreigners we met were a testament to my absurdity. But it’s fun ;-)
I had my first real Thai meal in a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that consisted of pad Thai and a fresh fruit smoothie. I was reluctant and a bit suspicious of Thai food at first, as most of it comes in sauces and includes noodles and I had no desire to get sick. But Lesley, bless her, assured me that wheat is not native to the region and the vast majority of food is gluten-free, although, of course, she couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t get sick. I was frustrated with my limited Cairo diet of chicken and rice, and hankering for the simmering aromas drifting through the restaurant, so I dug into my pad Thai with relish, thus beginning my love affair with Thai food. Sauces and noodles again, veggies and spices and stir-fried goodness all contained in one plate of food. Wandering back to the hotel, we set out a bit later in the evening for the night market, the Thai version of Khan El-Khalili with a brilliant infusion of hand-made crafts, cheap clothing, manufactured junk, and food. We enjoyed another tasty three dollar meal and explored the market a bit, poking into some stores but reserving our real shopping extravaganza for another day without jetlag looming over us. We returned to our hotel, sweaty and sticky even in the cool hours of the night, collapsed in the luxury of our air-con rooms, showered, and went to bed.
The night was shorter than desired, unfortunately, because we had booked a tour early the next morning to traverse the wilds around Chiang Mai. After breakfast (and real, honest-to-goodness pork bacon!!!) we piled into our van and headed into the mountains encroaching the city with their evening shadows, pausing briefly at an orchid farm and continuing on to the Long Neck village nestled in the hills. Although a bit touristy and full mainly of shops, I was fascinated by the large metal rings the women wore around their necks, once as protection from tigers but now serving only as an adherence to tradition and culture. As we watched, the women’s fingers deftly worked the looms set up in their shops, weaving beautiful cloth scarves out of unruly lengths of yarn (I bought a few ;-) Then we drove further into the mountains, switching from the van to a sturdy pick-up and joining a gaggle of highly tanned Swedes. At one point, we counted 17 people piled into the one vehicle, all of the tourists cramped into the back along benches and jostling one another over each rut and bump in the path. Overheated, sweaty, and a bit crowded, we all gripped each other or the sides of the vehicle as it careened around turns and threw us into our neighbors’ shoulders and sputtered up sudden rises and crashed into the underbrush lining the road. Eventually, we stopped, thankfully, ate a peaceful lunch on a hillside overlooking a river valley, and began to trek to a waterfall supposedly not too far away. Right before the hike was about to commence, Lesley and I decided to find a bathroom, i.e. secluded patch of forest, and found one on slanted rise near camp. As we were finishing our business, we heard movement from the camp and noticed everyone trudging in our direction. AHHH! Why do we always become immured in the path of near mortification? We completed the task and scurried forward to meet the group, accepting our bags from the boys who had brought ours along and ignored the simpers and chuckles, soon passing right over the spot of our labors.
As we penetrated deeper into the forest, I was grateful for the bug spray I had used to coat my body but regretted my decision to wear sandals along the rocky, slippery, and precipitous path leading us down into river valleys, up over cliffs, through thorny swathes of brush and moments of intense sunlight, along jagged trails of sharp rocks and crumbling cliffs plummeting into breathtaking valleys 100s of feet below, past vines and lianas and creepers that appear solid until you grab onto them for support and learn they are no more stable than your quaking heart watching the group march ahead. After what seemed like an eternity, and an unfortunate bout with a thorny plant I grabbed onto as I slid down a cliff (I’ve still got some of the thorns in my hand), I arrived about 5 minutes late at the waterfall, saw everyone else stripping down to their suits and standing at the edge, and, without a moment’s pause, wriggled out of my shorts (the sandals were already falling off) and plunged in. Oh glorious heaven! I can still feel the icy embrace of that water as it caressed my steaming skin and pulled its soft fingers through my tangled hair and massaged my sore feet with frigid kisses. Well, perhaps I should confess that I had also not brought a swimsuit, so I was swimming in my underwear and thin white tank top, but I’d never see the Swedes again and the other three were good enough friends, or so I reasoned as I floated on a bed of cold ecstasy. Most everyone eventually ventured in, but found it too cold for very long and clambered out. I took my time, diving under the thundering cascade of white water and froth that pooled dizzily around me and paddling around until I emerged wet and happy and temperate again. The air was so humid and hot that the chilled sensation I usually get from climbing out of cold water was replaced by a warm, sticky one. I reluctantly pulled on my shorts again and began the hike again, taking a different, and much gentler route back, so much so that I could keep up with my companions. We paused briefly at another village, kind of boring but interesting to observe how they live, and then headed for the elephant camp. This was, perhaps, the single most entertaining moment of my trip, particularly in observing the others.
Apparently, one of the elephants was ill, so we had to put three people on the back of one elephant, instead of the usual two. However, when I say I went elephant riding I am not referring to an image of myself gripping the beast’s back with my bare legs and shouting commands at it; rather, I invoke a picture of myself seated on a bench-like structure strapped to the elephant’s back with a mahout, or driver, seated on its head and directing its movement. While we milled around attempting to decide the seating arrangements, I clambered into one of the seats and waited for one of my friends to join me; the guide, however, had other plans and placed one of the Swedes with me, Carolyn, who turned out to be an excellent seatmate. My three friends were directed to another elephant, although David was placed on the elephant’s head in the position usually reserved for the driver while the true mahout walked on the ground. This was, you see, a bad idea, because, after the elephants began their slow shuffle up the mountain, rambling through the brush off the trail and itinerantly roving into the forest and munching down trees (the drivers, I soon learned, were less of conductors and more like suggestors), shouts and shrieks of pain emitted from around the corner where I knew the others’ elephant was. As we began to descend down hill and they came into view, I cast them a quizzical glance and couldn’t help but laugh to see Colin and Lesley half falling out of their seat and gripping the sides with white knuckles and David issuing moans of emasculation at every lumbering step the elephant took. I think that the real mahouts have a trick to riding the elephant that David just didn’t have, and the poor boy suffered because of it. The rest of us, though, were having a jolly good time, rubbing our feet along the stubbly, grey, leathery back of the creature and snapping pictures of the stunning valley and meandering river that we forded atop the great beasts. Louder complaints echoed from behind me, and I saw my friends’ elephant stop at the water’s edge, suck vast quantities of water into its trunk and spray first one side, than the other, and then raise its trunk and drench David directly. A bit later, I heard a collective “eww,” from behind and saw them wiping their legs of elephant snot while I swayed placidly forward through the trees aboard my trusty steed. Before I dismounted from my elephant onto the platform, I had the guide snap a photo of me in David’s position and found it quite comfortable. When I rejoined my companions, however, I found that any talk of enjoyment, amusement, or general pleasure was combated with sore groans, grunts of pain, talk of killing the elephant, and quite heated rancor toward the entire race of creatures.
So, I was probably fairly irksome on the way to our next destination, but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up, mentioning elephants in every other sentence. Then we donned helmets and life vests and climbed into inflatable rafts for my first white-water rafting experience, the Americans vs. the Swedes. Paddling vigorously toward the first rapids, our guide, in his five words of English, explained how to navigate the rocks: “Forward, back, stop, go, no!” Hmmm, needless to say, we beached ourselves on rocks more than a few times but still had great fun surging down the rapids and swimming in the river to, in David’s words, “wash the elephant snot from my legs.” At the end, we all stripped off our gear, took a final swim, dried off slightly, and piled back in for the ride home.
That night, we wandered around a bit searching for a restaurant and found one tucked away a bit and fairly empty despite the good food, although we soon learned why when the lounge singer began his repetoire. Perhaps at this point in my tale, if you’re still with me, I should mention one of the more sordid sides of Thailand, its prostitution industry. Thailand is indeed graced with stunning natural beauty-soaring cliffs, lush jungles, gorgeous beaches-and also beautiful women. Although, by many accounts, the majority of the prostitution industry is financed by Asian men themselves, certainly a sizable portion of it is also funded by foreigners looking for a few weeks of sexual pleasure, and the bars catering to foreign men are far more salient than those seemingly innocuous ones serving Thais. Even though we didn’t find the Chiang Mai red light district, we still observed plenty of prostitutes, some waiting in front of bars with a beckoning hand toward foreigners, but more arm in arm with their clients. Every time a white, usually middle-aged, foreign man walked by with a young, attractive Thai woman in tow, I couldn’t help but peg her as a prostitute. The men with them didn’t appear depraved or inimical or sadistic; they were the average male you see everyday in America: your boss, your neighbor, your best friend’s dad, or even your own family member, but, still they were exploiting Asian women in a quest to whet the appetites of their own sexual desires. And I wonder what the prostitute thinks-does she ever get tired of showing men around the same sites month after month, performing the same degrading acts for her clients, does she ever have any enjoyment from her career, or is it just a spiraling cycle of degradation and depression time after time? I can’t even imagine that life, and visiting these countries where one of the most lucrative careers for some women is prostitution makes me more grateful to be from America and the land of ‘opportunity,’ because, as cynical as we may be about America and politics, it takes one look at much of the rest of the world to realize we do have it pretty good.
But, back to my infinite narrative-after dinner, we went to a bar to play a game of pool, and I learned how atrocious I truly am at that sport, but I did get to witness Colin break the only glass object in the bar, a flower pot encased in a protective vase of wicker. Pinging the ball of the table, he launched it into the vase and, CRACK, the water started spilling out. After a good chuckle and a large tip, we left bemused. The other two professed weariness, but Colin and I were still, apparently, wired from jetlag or something, so we proceeded to the sketchiest and most fun bar I’ve visited on the rooftop of a hotel. In the semi-darkness of the narrow hallways we followed the signs up to the top floor where we removed our shoes, as instructed, climbed up the ladder, and emerged into the Chiang Mai night and black light glow of the thumping Euro techno bar and found a table and plopped down on the ground cushions with our drinks. That was a late night, with some wandering around the deserted streets of Chiang Mai before bed, but I still suffered myself to get up the next morning and gobble down a wonderfully porky and scrambled eggy breakfast before the tour at about 10.

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Lesley and I had cautioned the boys that the tour was mainly one giant shopping trip, but the still wanted to come, so we shrugged our shoulders and welcomed their company. I won’t describe in great detail all of the shops we visited, but the main system of the tour was a brief walk through the workshop where the products were being made and then a longer visit to the gallery where items were, of course, available for purchase. Our first stop was a silversmith’s, where Lesley and I both purchased jewelry, and then onto a woodcarver’s, umbrella maker’s, Celadon pottery maker’s, stop for a delicious lunch buffet, and then onto the silk store. And here I will pause, because I fell head-over-heels absolutely, divinely in love with Thai silk, and this store was the pinnacle of my silk passion, as I saw it manufactured from the tiny silk worms in their cocoons to the sorting into thread to the weaving into luscious fabrics and colors you only see at sunset or on the backs of tropical fish. There was the store, and I almost drooled as I strolled through room after room of dresses, scarves, skirts, shirts, sheets, robes, stuffed animals, accessories, etc. eventually cajoling myself to cease the orgasmic delight coursing through my veins and settle on what to buy. But what to buy? I tried on a few dresses, wasn’t enamored with them, settled on a sleek blue skirt, and then moved into the scarf area and marveled at the truly brilliant array of adroitly woven colors and patterns all clamoring for my attention. After much deliberation, I narrowed my selection down to 6 total, I think, maybe it was seven, I don’t like to put numbers to these things. I snatched an adorable stuffed silk elephant on the way to the cashiers, wanting to linger longer, but somewhat glad that I knew the boys were waiting for us to finish. I winced enough when I handed my credit card over the counter to the cashier, I really couldn’t have afforded to spend longer there; I may have tried to have a custom-made suit sewn…
After a quick stop at a jade maker’s, we were all ready for a swim back in the pool and headed home, resting by the pool area and admiring our purchases, well, at least Lesley and I did ;-) Using a tip from the front desk, we walked for a bit across the river to a wonderful waterfront restaurant, munched on some more great Thai food and savored the quality mixed drinks (they just can’t do alcohol well in Egypt) before making our final run to the night market where I only did slightly more damage with some very cheap silk scarf buying (in all of the shopping I did afterward, I never found scarves quite as nice as the ones at the Thai Silk Village in Chiang Mai) for presents and supplements to my wardrobe, purchases some cheap wrap-around skirts, a robe, and a few other little trinkets. Then, we all headed home laden down with bags but lighter wallets and crashed in the hotel, piling into the boys room to watch a cheesy horror flick before hitting the sack.
Our flight the next morning departed for Bangkok in mid-afternoon, so we spent the morning roving around the streets of Chiang Mai and absorbing a bit of culture before the mindless days on the beach. Entering our first wat, I was struck by the gildedness of the Buddha prominently placed at the end of the far wall and how glittery and shiny the accoutrements around him were. Murals upon the wall displayed various vignettes from, I suspect, his life, and also, in some cases, memorials to the monk to whom each temple was dedicated. Before entering each temple we removed our shoes and proceeded softly to the central shrine, all of which differed but retained a similar structure as the one before. The day happened to be excruciating hot, without a cool breeze to relieve the sweat from our brow, but we pushed doughtily on, entering several wats and enjoying their cool courtyards full of food vendors and worshippers and admiring the towering facades of the temples, with ornate carvings framing the roofs and dragons guarding the doorways. Eventually we ended up at the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, and impressively crumbling mountain of a temple dating back to, I want to say, the 7th century, with giant stone layers piled concentrically on top of the other surmounted by a large temple now inaccessible but ringed with giant elephant statues and protected from evil by menacing stone dragons at the base. At this point, we were melted pools of sweat, and did not relish the walk all of the way back to the hotel, so we split into two groups and took tuk-tuks back to the hotel. Unfortunately, I had absent-mindedly stuffed my cell phone into my pocket, and as I leaned back in the seat to catch a bit of breeze, it traitorously wiggled out, unknown to me at the time. The first afternoon of our arrival, Lesley and I had purchases Thai SIM cards for our phones so we could communicate with each other and the world back home, but, fate did not let this happy circumstance last.
Soon after I arrived at the hotel, I realized the phone was missing, and frantically retraced my steps, but it was lost and some lucky Thai man now is using my beautiful Sony Erickson. Alas, but I can’t dwell on the past for long, so I returned to our wonderful hotel, which was spotless, well-appointed, and quite cheap, used the pool shower to cool off (I’m shameless, I know ;-), and boarded our cab for the airport. The moment we four entered it, our eyes were drawn by an unseen and inexorable force to the Dairy Queen breathing freshness our way. “After we check in,” we all agreed, and soon were enjoying icy treats and air-con by the gate while waiting for the Thai Air flight to take off. Arriving in Bangkok with several hours to spare due to a long layover and delayed flight, we curled up in the cafeteria, enjoyed some decent Thai cuisine, and pined for the beach. After another unexpected delay, we finally boarded the plane for the hour or so flight to the island disembarked on the tarmac and inhaled the cool sea breeze and island perfume of greenery and flowers, gathering our luggage from the bamboo-supported luggage belt and haggling for a taxi to take us to our resort. At this point, the clock was nudging 11, and all we longed for was a refreshing dip in the ocean and a soft bed, but, as I spoke with the front desk staff, no record of the reservation I had made months ago appeared in their system. I showed them the printout of my confirmation and communication with the resort, but they still could find no trace of me in their system, mentioning something about the woman I spoke with, Susan, as no longer working there due to a drinking problem. Grrrr…Thankfully, the gods, or Buddha, or someone smiled benevolently down upon us, as the resort did have two rooms available to honor my non-existent reservation, and we deposited our luggage in them, switched on the air-con, changed into our suits, and took a midnight swim in the pool under the full moon. Washing off the seemingly interminable wait in the Bangkok airport, the dirt from Chiang Mai, and the stress of ALI, we paddled around exhilerated and excited for a week of utter indolence and indulgence.
And it was, indeed, all of that and more. Moonlight walks beneath a creamy moon and drifting clouds with the surf tickling your ankles; lounging in chairs under a tree arbor sipping the latest tropical drink and watching the waves undulate; rising at 11 and stumbling out of the room to order eggs and bacon and fresh fruit juice; navigating your way through the slightly rocky ocean floor to a patch of clear sand and bliss; and long strolls along the beach in the afternoon to the hidden coves and secretive recesses of the beach. Quite simply, we accomplished absolutely nothing in the way of productivity, and we wouldn’t have wanted that any other way.
Our resort was very beautiful, with ocean front property, a gorgeous pool, and a truly amazing chef. One night, we tried dining at a resort down the beach from us but returned disappointed and whetted our appetites at our own restaurant. Not only was the menu extensive and delicious, but it had Thai food, Western food, healthy food, and a remarkable selection of tropical drinks that we relatively inexpensive and oh so good. By the end of our stay, we estimated that we sampled at least 70% of the menu, which is quite a feat considering it spanned about 10 pages of culinary temptation. Of course, we had our favorites and ordered those far too much; I adored the chicken satay in an amazing peanut sauce, as well as the Pad Thai. Fresh fruit was also in abundance and made a delicious snack late afternoon under the waning shade of our tree bower.
For the first few days we lounged around the resort in a state of utter enervation, venturing once outside of the resort to buy some bottled water. The third night, however, the four of us and a British chick we’d met, Nikki, took a cab (actually, a covered pickup truck with seats in the back) to the main town on the island, Chaweng, found our way to a beachfront restaurant where we all enjoyed an excellent meal and a few drinks. Having ordered a Sex on the Beach, I was nonetheless surprised to find my drink served in a glass shaped quite salaciously like a woman’s body ;-) It was the beginning of a good night; we finished dinner, went wading in the ocean and then wandered back out onto the streets, stopping occasionally when we saw a promising store (usually, when I saw the store) or pharmacy to stock up on more lotion and aloe vera. Chaweng was…busy and commercial and chaotic and stench-filled and fascinating all at once. Open sewers ran along the streets, covered only by a grate, so at least one of us was prone to moan every time we passed over one, which was far, unfortunately, far too frequent. Very Westernized, there were stores, tour companies, restaurants, bars, and markets lining the streets, as well as prostitutes. Yes, whereas in Chiang Mai we had avoided the red light district, we rather stumbled into in Ko Samui. On the prowl for a decent bar (not an Irish pub filled with a wretched Thai band attempting to screech out Metallica) we turned down an interesting side street and found ourselves delving deeper into the world of the night than any of us had planned. All forms of circumspection or subtleness had vanished, replaced by girls dancing on poles on the tops of bars, girls lined up outside of bars with their pimps nearby, girls beckoning to men clearly attached to another woman; girls negotiating with potential clients; and girls leaving with those clients into the darkness. Lights blazed and pulsated, music screamed from the various establishments, colors flashed and threatened to overwhelm as we walked dazed through this false and tawdry world of skin, sex, and money. Some bars made no pretenses about their purpose: consisting of nothing more than a few stools, some liquor, and a dilapidated bar, they catered mainly to the interests of their male clients in the sordid search for Thai whores.
Eventually, we emerged from the district, looked at each other-wow!-and proceeded down the street until we found an interesting, non-sketchy place to play some pool, although Lesley and I were half-convinced it was a gay bar, due to the interactions between several of the clientele. Either way, we returned home somewhat gratefully to the serenity and solitude of our beach and resort, not having fully appreciated its sweeping green mountains or smooth gray monoliths of stone or stretch of white sand or dancing palm trees. That night, as I was about to shower, rather late, it must be said, I saw two antennaes, then a roach crawl around the corner of the shower. Ewww! I hate roaches with a passion, any other bug I can handle, but these guys just creep me out! I whimpered to Lesley, but she had been happily sleeping for awhile and was, understandably, not keen on rescuing me from the giant menace skittering through our room. I grabbed the closest thing I could find, bug repellent, and emptied half the bottle on the sucker, watching him writhe and twitch in his death throes before flushing him down the toilet. Ahh, but you think that’s the end of my roach woes; well, while I was showering soon after, with my eyes closed while scrubbing my hair, I felt something twitch on my foot and figured it was just some soap suds. But then I felt it proceed up my foot and onto my leg and I opened my eyes, half blind, to see another roach crawling up my leg. Yuk, yuk, yuk, yuk! I brushed him off and sent him back where he came from, down the drain, and shuddered in disgust, finishing the shower valiantly and crawling into bed defeated.
Like I said, our resort was quite nice, with clean rooms, glorious air-con, TV and cable (for news channels we got BBC World, Fox News, and PBS) tasteful décor, but occasional water malfunctions, as twice we went to use the bathroom and found the water not running. It always returned within half an hour, full blast and hot, and I suppose I’ve become more complacent, having lived in Egypt for so long, but I accepted the issue dutifully, knowing I was in a developing nation. To us, weary of the dirt and endless cement blocks of Cairo, Thailand seemed fresh and vernal, clean and luxurious, but we were in an impoverished nation all the same, probably just as poor, if not poorer, than Cairo. We saw it more in Bangkok, for in Ko Samui it was tucked discreetly behind long alleyways off the beaten path to hide it from tourists, but it was there nonetheless.


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Lounging away another day in paradise, we did finally decided to do something vaguely touristy-visit the phallic rocks! What, you say, are the phallic rocks? Well, named the grandfather and grandmother rocks, they depict, in quite accurate detail, the representations of the respective phalluses of the sexes. Basically, in cruder terms, there is a giant penis rock that stands majestically on the shore of the island and makes a popular picnic destination for Thais and foreigners alike. Perhaps you should observe my pictures to fully appreciate the image, and the shots of Colin and David mounting the female part of the duo to stand next to the giant phallus. The scenery around that area was fairly lovely, with waves crashing against the granite rocks and palm trees framing towering cliffs and sweeping shorelines. It was a worthwhile trip, especially for four Americans on spring break from Egypt and one British girl touring the region. After that, I needed to run back home and grab some money and take a quick shower, so Colin and I were climbing into the back of a taxi for the short ride back to our resort when we observed one of the piteous forms of prostitution-child prostitution. Well, at least we were fairly certain that what we observed was this, as a very young Thai girl sat on a motorcycle while a Western man clearly not related stopped into a store to buy some things. The melancholy and lugubrious expression on her face, to me, revealed her profession more so than her companion, for never have I seen a child appear quite so depressed and weary and old. It was disconcerting, to find such practices even in the family-friendly and tourist-friendly streets of Lamai, but then I remembered earlier that day, as the five of us were in a cab on the way to the phallus, a prostitute driving by on a motorcycle and flashing both David and Colin, who happened to be seated near the open back. Actually, I didn’t see, none of the girls did, but apparently she made that clucking sound audible only to male ears, and the concurrent reactions from both of them were sufficient evidence, at least to me, and I observed the woman speed away on her bike when she saw they weren’t interested.
Thailand was an experience, and an amazing one at that, but nowhere is true paradise, nowhere are you free from the shackles of humanity and suffering, whether you are in America, or France, or Jamaica, or Egypt, or Kenya, or Thailand. But, honestly, I was a college student on spring break discovering a lot about life, and I wasn’t terribly concerned with many of the social issues of Thailand. I’ve dealt with plenty of those in Egypt to last awhile. It was enough to wander around town in a short skirt and tank top, to walk down the beach in a bikini, to hold someone’s hand in public and not fear that the wrath of the morality police will befall you.
At some point, I can’t remember exactly which day, we three girls decided to take the kayak out at sunset to a dock rather far from shore. Of course, the boys were their incorrigible selves and laughed as we struggled, but soon found our rhythm, and reached the dock in time to swim a bit bidoon milaabis and climb back into the kayak, capsize a few times, and eventually seat ourselves. Then, we started kayaking toward shore but noticed our forward progress was not nearly as substantial as our backwards movement. Alright, so we’re not the strongest threesome in the world, but we should have been able to achieve some movement. After a few minutes of fruitless paddling, we drifted a bit and contemplated the fading light and far shore. Finally, I jumped out, assiduously avoiding the sharp rocks and coral sprouting from the chest deep water, and the other two followed, arriving slightly abashed, defeated, and lacerated back to shore just as the light leaked out of the sky, much to our male companions’ hooting.
When my slight sunburn had subsided into a gorgeous deep tan, I decided the time was ripe to discover the pliant wonders of a Thai massage, and thus wandered down the road a bit, with Colin for support, to visit the local massage parlor. Now, if any of you know anything about the reputation of Thailand, a massage parlor can offer services beyond just the platonic rubbing of skin, if you catch my meaning, but the one we visited was entirely reputable, if a little strange. All of the massages were performed on mattresses on the floor with a bit of space between each one for the masseuse to squeeze into and perform her magic. Having requested an oil massage, I was almost immediately stripped of all of my clothes except my underwear and laid on the bed belly down while the masseuse began to work my back with vigorous strokes and ample oil. By the time she had completed her exquisite torture of my body I lay limpidly on the ground in inordinate delight over the tingling in my muscles and finally moved when the singing in my body reduced itself to a gentle hum. Oh, God, that was amazing! While I waited for Colin to finish his, I drank a slow cup of tea and watched the various expressions on clients’ faces as they, too, were plied and stretched and yanked and caressed. And for the price of 10 dollars for an hour massage, I decided I could get accustomed to this treatment.
Our time on Ko Samui was fairly marvelous. Days lying supine on the beach, night exploring the town, getting occasionally separated from part of the group and finding random Australian BBQ spots with good wine and drunk owners ;-), shopping, eating, sleeping late without an alarm, and gazing off into the ocean in deep contemplation of the world around me. Well, perhaps that last bit was a bit clichéd, but Ko Samui was a destination I won’t soon forget.
On the last day we were to spend on the island, David and Lesley decided they were not quite prepared to separate from Ko Samui and thus voted to skip Bangkok altogether and spend a few more days in paradise. Colin and I, although consummately content lazing on the beach, were both ready for a change of scenery and the chance to see Bangkok, so, at 5 am on Easter, we loaded our, well, my, copious luggage into the taxi and headed to the ferry to catch a boat to the mainland because Thai Air doesn’t fly directly to the island. Rather monotonous, the ferry ride took a few hours of interminable waiting and catnaps atop our substantive pile of bags; Colin never becomes frustrated, but the closest he ever came to outright annoyance was when he had to lug my giant, heavy suitcase up and down the narrow stairs on the boat. I promised him that I would bring a smaller suitcase to Jordan ;-) Disembarking from the boat, we went to find a cab but were unpleasantly greeted with a sign advertising airport fares at 1600 Baht. That’s a lot of money, at 34 Baht to the dollar, even in Thailand, but we had no other choice and also didn’t realize the airport was over an hour from the port, so begrudgingly paid the money and dozed during the drive through the small towns and jungle.
Touching down in Bangkok, we picked up our luggage and took a cab to our new home for two nights, the ViengTai Hotel in the Banglapalou district. Originally the four of us were going to share a two bedroom, two bath suite, but we had called ahead and switched the reservation to a normal room, which was quite nice with full on air-con. After a much-deserved nap and snack of the chocolate bunny I’d purchased in the Abu Dhabi airport (a very holy observance of Easter, I know), we wandered around the area in the evening, inhaling the slightly sickening but also fairly appetizing aromas of street food and longing for the slices of fresh watermelon and pineapple being hawked at every corner. I soon succumbed to the temptation of a fresh fruit juice smoothie, and Colin caved soon after, eventually we wandered down the Khao San, a rather chaotic thoroughfare offering food, flesh, clothes, knickknacks, alcohol, and a good time to anyone bold enough to walk it. Well, walk it we did, several times in an attempt to orient ourselves, amused and slightly disturbed by the many offers of ping pong shows from sketchy touts along the street. For the uninitiated, a ping pong show features women doing just about everything with their vaginas except give birth, and that’s a fairly mild description. Need I say we brushed past them all? Anyway, we eventually grabbed some food at a small restaurant and observed the vagrants of humanity pass down the street in search of love or lust, who could tell? We meant to turn in early but got involved in an indelibly appropriate movie, The Passion of the Christ, and watched it until the boulder rolled away to reveal an empty tomb before submitting to slumber.
The next morning we determined to hit any of the sights furthest from the hotel first and leave the nearer ones for the next day. Armed with my Rough Guide, a pocketful of Bahts, and a total ignorance of the language and layout of the city, we made our way downtown to the Jim Thompson House, an oasis of calm and greenery a few blocks from the giant malls and fume-choked traffic arcades. I’ll forgive you if you don’t know who Jim Thompson is; I only learned about him through my guidebook but harbored a deep appreciation for his life’s work, which was dedicated to the reinvigoration of the Thai silk industry. Born in, I think, 1906, he moved to Thailand in the forties with the U.S. military but remained behind when the troops left, becoming a classic story of the ex-pat falling in love with a foreign land and adopting it as his own. Collecting various antiques and native crafts for his home, he also reinstituted the dying art of silk making and introduced it to the Western world through his costume designs for the movie the King and I. His fairly sprawling estate was truly peaceful and impeccably decorated, but a few quirks in his personality evinced themselves during his tour. For one, he divorced before he left for Thailand and never married, which isn’t that bizarre in and of itself, but he also kept chamber pots for little boys and girls in his house, which struck Colin and I as rather peculiar. Built on stilts to protect from flooding and tigers (at least traditionally) the house was a lovely juncture of East meets West, and we all followed the Thai tradition of removing our shoes at the front door as traditionally Thais take there meals on the ground and thus keep the floor immaculate.
From the Jim Thompson House we proceeded onto the main drag to find one of the gigantic shopping malls that was recommended in my guidebook as having several decent craft stores. Scurrying inside from the sudden rainstorm, having crossed over the street by a series of interconnecting walkways above the highway, I was truly awestruck by the size and beauty of the mall. It was huge, for one, and had one entire floor dedicated to food, just food, of every type and flavor imaginable, from bakeries to ice cream to Thai to burgers, and many floors dedicated to clothing, most designer, one to electronics and technology, and another to the cinema, etc. I found my craft store, well, actually silk store, raided the silk stock for the last time, and then went to find the patiently waiting Colin, who proposed one of the best ideas I’d heard in a long time-a movie. First of all, it was pouring outside, but, more importantly, this would be one of our only chances to view a real, uncensored movie until the States, and we were both a little weary of new experiences and sensory overload. So, we settled in with popcorn and pop in hand to watch the film Sunshine, a ‘great’ horror sci-fi flick about the sun dying and humanity attempting to crash a nuke into the sun to restart it. Before the movie began, however, we had to stand up and recognize the national anthem and maintain a straight face as chubby-faced little children angelically belted out their song while images of the king in his munificence flashed periodically across the screen. You can’t escape culture even in a theatre, and we had a old-fashioned good time in the cinema.
By that time, the rain has subsided, and we ventured out onto the streets to catch a tuk-tuk to an intriguing temple listed in the guide book. I’m glad I never considered the safety of a tuk-tuk as it slides through traffic and brushes against buses and cars alike, puttering out choking black fumes that rival even Cairo’s pollution. However, the driver took us to an entirely different temple than the one we’d requested, and we were mightily confused for a bit, but eventually decided to head back to the hotel, take a rest, and wander around the area some more.
Our vacation was nearly at its closure by the next morning, and we gobbled down one final meal of bacon and eggs and juicy watermelon before setting out for the Grand Palace, an expansive cluster of temples and palaces that once housed the royal family and is still used in official ceremonies and for worship. On the way there, however, we were several times accosted by Thai people claiming the palace was closed and then suggesting another temple to visit. I haven’t been living in Cairo for the last 8 months to be deterred by sketchy natives on the street. Politely fending them off, we eventually reached the front gates, which were open, and marched in, only to be stopped by guards who found my dress offensive. I had thought I could cover my shoulders with a scarf-if it’s good enough for the Catholics it’s good enough for the Buddhists, right?-but no, I had to borrow a shirt to cover my shoulders and look ridiculous for my time there. Oh, well, beauty isn’t everything…Besides, I soon forgot about what I looked like when we entered the first gate and saw the glittering, mosaiced temples soaring over our heads and the grim dragons and giant soldiers standing in eternal vigilance over the numerous temples and chedis littering the area. Foremost, perhaps, was the giant dollop of a golden chedi spiraling far into the heavens like a golden meringue, but equally impressive were the almost garishly colored palace building scattered throughout the giant complex. One of the most holy items in all of Thailand, the Emerald Buddha (although he’s actually made of jade and a few feet tall) is found in one of the temples there, and I left him an offering of my own when a can of pop I had began to spurt onto the floor. I discreetly took it outside to a garbage can and disposed of it while Colin rolled his eyes, with good reason, at the trail of pop slicking the floor. I guess it means I’ll be reincarnated as something much lower on the caste scale, maybe a White Sox fan or something ;-)
Anyway, by the time we finished touring the area, we were weary, sweaty, hot, disgusting, and thirsty, and so tuk-tuked back to the hotel, gulped down liquid and Pad Thai, and then pressed onwards to the temple we attempted to reach yesterday, this time achieving it by foot, avoiding the aggrevating scam artists outside, and finding our way to the amulet market in the back. Very non-touristy, without a single foreigner in sight, the market caters to Thais through the sale of tiny figurines and amulets and larger statues of Buddha and other holy characters. Needless to say, I purchased a rather beautiful, in my opinion, amulet for myself and Buddha statue for my mother before dragging myself, alongside Colin, back to the hotel, where we collapsed in the luxury of the air-con lobby and stared numbly ahead as our bodies slowly cooled down. Before we left for the airport, we each got a final massage from the hotel massage parlor (an excellent way to begin any sort of travel, if you ask me) and took a cab to the airport, where we eventually found our other two friends and boarded the plan for the flight home.

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1 comment:

Biker_Blogs said...

Great article. It is useful for all bikers planning to traveling acrose Thailand. I am a westerner considering taking a motorcycle tour into the Himalayas next summer with 10 of my riding buddis in the club BikerKiss.com. We would like to ride to Ladakh, India - the highest navigable road in the world on an organized tour on my Royal Enfield. Our main problem is we cant stand curry or most Indian food! On the other hand there are some fantastic Thailand/Laos/Burma tours available that look similarly spectacular. Your message tell us some important information about the travelling conditions.