Sunday, November 18, 2007

Day 17 “Time in a Coconut”

Today seemed as if were the most perfect day yet, sunny but not crazy hot, no rain, no beach sales men, just my husband and I enjoying life together. The sand-white and hot, the water-warm and shallow and the cocktails were cold and wet. We saw the real Thailand, naked in it’s natural beauty. Thai massages in the beach front spa opened the day and were followed by trips between the ocean and the pool and then back again. Thanks to the advice of my new sister-in-law and mother-in-law, we saw Thailand with open eyes. We giggled at everything but not enough to make people look. We existed in own little world as if we were the only ones there, and enjoyed the space. As evening neared, boats on the water made black silhouettes on the red-orange water colored sky.

Needing nourishment, and some non-swimming time, we went the only place we could. Our resort, where they had a large spread of food I wasn’t tired of eating. The thing that looked the best were the fresh kabobs made with large chunks of meat, onions, peppers, and a cob of corn; grilled over an open fire served with unlimited salad bar. We pointed out our kabobs, then pointed out our table and the waiter seemed to understand. The table we had chosen was right on the waters edge. It seemed that it had been a popular table and just turned because it lacked silverware. We didn’t care, someone would bring us some soon. None came and we overcome by hunger, so we picked with our fingers and joked about it. Sappy music played somewhere in the background, but it added to the high we were feeling off each other. I heard a few familiar notes and almost started to cry. After pointing out that it was Time in a Bottle: the first song we danced to at our wedding, we jumped into the sand and began to dance again. People around us watched with curiosity, but we didn’t care. If we could dance in front of our family perfectly, we surely could half ass it in front of strangers we would never see again. The magic was accented by a lightening storm in the distant sea. I don’t know it was the thunder or the magic between us, but the ground shook. The moment ended and left us crying tears of happiness. Back to our table, still with no silverware, we finished up the last of our salad. A guy that spoke no English delivered hot kabobs that smelled slightly of campfire. So asking about the silverware was out of the question. We just kept going, using our hands to eat our much deserved dinner; I mean that’s how to eat bbq right?

Thanks Catia!

Day 16 Thank God for Gelato

In our wandering around last night to find something to eat besides noodles and curry, we discovered a hidden trail up the back side of Phi Phi Don. The trail was labeled only as Island Lookout Point. We started up the steep steps and then doubled back because we lacked a flashlight and food in our bellies. So of course, it was fresh on Alex’s mind all through breakfast. He wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to go billy-goating on a beautiful island. I had my reserves, mostly because I was lazy and wanted another cocktail. But I made a deal, how about I go up part way, watch our day packs and you can take the camera all the way to the top. He wrinkled his face, but agreed saying he had the right to tease me about it all day. He disappeared up the sandy steps with a bounce, while I found entertainment in a new but used Stephen King novel.

The day was similar to yesterday, the heat just stuck to everything. Even sitting in the shade, doing nothing but reading a book, I must have lost almost a liter of sweat. I felt bad for Alex at the top of the ridge with not even a nalgene of water, but again, he asked for it. He reappeared just as I was starting to bite my lip from my book, looking like he had gone for a swim. Sweat just poured from every place possible as he asked for some water. He demanded beer and ice-cream too, but unfortunately, I forgot to pack those in the back pack.

We headed downhill, on mission, to cool Alex down enough not to get heat stroke. A lady dozing through the heat, advertised a cooler full of ice-cream at the front of her home. I thought Alex was going to dive in, but he was much more civil. Selecting the biggest one he could, and quickly grabbing for a few baht, I knew he would be okay. Later, lunch came early just to get out the heat. He still had beer on the brain, so he ordered the first one he recognized. I questioned the previous ice-cream floating in beer and he said it was okay.

Our ferry didn’t come for a few more hours, and it was close to 100 at nearly 100% humidity. I didn’t care what we did, as long as we could get out of the heat. Going back to the room with air conditioning was out because check out had come and gone. The beach was more less out because our suits were inside our bags, waiting to be shuttled to the ferry. So like any other traveler, we shopped in stores with air. Living in this overly hot climate, one would think that the locals would be more welcoming to idea of air, but sadly most couldn’t afford it. Over the past few days, we had frequented a coffee shop that sold Illy espresso. They had air, as well as my favorite coffee, so seemed like a great place to burn up the rest of the time at Phi Phi Don Island. There in the window, was a gelato freezer, full with swirl topped gelato and sugar cones pointing to the sky. Finally we had found an oasis of culture we could understand. Traveling to Europe last year, left us well versed in the ideas of café and gelato. The crème carmel and the blueberry yogurt were the best flavors we tried, but would have loved to try everything if I had a longer afternoon.

Day 15 …two lost souls living in a fish bowl

The heat of morning crept into the hotel before dawn broke. But we had a plan to retrieve our day of giggles we were promised. Upon arrival of the island, we saw the place was crawling with tourist directors and travel shops that could arrange anything. After breakfast, we chose the closest scalper to our hotel and booked a full day of snorkeling and fun. The day was already hot, and not wanting to over do it in the sun again, we went back to our room for a nap under the A.C.

The alarm rang too quickly but it made us happy. At the beach, a local pointed to a bucket of fins for us to find our size. Equipped with fins, goggles and a small waterproof day pack, we waded through the sea to get to the waiting boat. The boat then stopped shortly after it came to full speed. I had my doubts about it being a great snorkeling place as we hadn’t even gone past the harbor. The driver grabbed a few bananas while the boat slid ashore. And that’s when I got it. We were going to see the other natives of the Phi Phi Islands, monkeys. They were small, but they weighed a lot more than they should have. Tourists handed over ripe bananas and chunks of watermelon with glee on their faces. As did I, but with an underlying fear of getting rabies in a third world country with little medical assistance anywhere close. The boat began pulling back, and we said our goodbyes to the mild mannered primates.

We shortly came to our first dive spot. Bread went flying off the side of the boat to assure that we saw fish. We planted our butts right on the edge of the boat, pulled on our fins, adjusted our mask and then, SPLASH! The water was already 80 degrees, but it was a lot cooler than the air. Ready to view the world bellow, the salt water was blown from my snorkel tube as I secured it in my mouth. Breathe in, breathe out, nothing to this snorkeling stuff anyway…right? Eager and full of excitement, I lowered my face into the blue plains that surrounded us. Choke, cough, sputter, and then everything went black for a second. I could hear champagne bubbles in my ears, and had no orientation as to where the air might be. Fear turned into panic, which turned into more choking. Pulling my mask off, and swimming as hard as I could for the few inches I was actually under, I found air and a sense of calmness. Determined not to have another panic attack, I shook out my mask, again blew the salt water and practiced breathing above the water through the snorkel. Getting a hold of my self, I slowly lowered my head again.

Coral of all colors and reef fish greeted me with enthusiasm. Giant sea clams, held tight in a clamped position as angelfish suckled on their algae. Spiny black urchins reached for the sun and neon anemones danced as if they were in a trance. Black fish, red fish, and rainbow fish that could bite rocks swam around me faster and easier than I could swim around them, so I let them. I could feel small reef fish nibbling at the air bubbles trapped on my body, and I laughed because I knew I would nibble on one of them a little later. This pattern was repeated for five hours, until the hot sun decided that had put in a days worth of work. And with the changing of the solar guards, the engine was killed on the boat, so we could enjoy one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world.

Day 14, Phuket to P P Islasnds

Another early day, but we were determined not to over sleep again. We couldn’t, the ferryboat just would not wait. So we said good bye to Phuket, as we packed into a van of other tourist on the same ten step program. Being that we were just packed on top of each other, I was nervous about our luggage. A man of little English threw it up on the top of the van with little care, and then tied them down with a half assed attitude.

At the dock, we were color coded and tagged like cattle again. A director shouted “you go first line, first boat, you go other boat, you go there.” It was confusing, but we just followed the other cows with same stickers on their shirts. In the ferry it was more of the same. Over the loud speakers, a booming yet crackling voice demanded out instructions of what to do and where to go. No one could understand, so we all just stuck to our seats. Our itinerary said that we would be going snorkeling, so we were eager to get this part over with. More instructions rattled from the poor speakers with the same reaction: cattle in the headlights. When it seemed like hours had passed, we were instructed to get off the boat and transfer. We didn’t want to transfer, we had arrived at our destination, and were not ready to go on to the next part of our travels. After making a stink about what our itinerary said, finally someone got it and allowed us to stay. We were then directed to go meet our guide to the hotel. But what about the snorkeling? Had we missed something? I hoped not because I was in need of lunch, lunch that was to be provided on the day trip. No snorkeling, no lunch, just grab your bags and follow me please. Only 12:00, we couldn’t check in to our hotel for a few more hours. That’s when my low blood sugar combined with paying for a day that we didn’t get and all the confusion, made me foam at the mouth. We found lunch seaside, as well as too much sun and not enough water. I was glad to finally get into my room and wash off the sand and the frustration.

Day 13, Is your coconut chilled enough?

The leather back turtles that enchanted us before our journey will have to wait for another time. Making a conscious, executive decision about the impact tourism has had on all the wild life; we agreed that the turtles would be happier without us. Since the tsunami, tourism is booming, and with that goes everything selfish that humans do. The leather backs are changing their nesting grounds to more hazardous areas to avoid contact with continuing pop of a flash bulb, eating cigarette butts or taunting children. For each hotel, each restaurant, each person, the turtles suffer and the numbers drop.

This is not the first thing we have chosen not support in our way of being conscious people. Shark and stingray leather is sold on the street as if it were some piece of plastic, negotiating its worth between a few dollars. Maybe I am just a So Co person trained to view the world with open eyes, but these precious animals had a life. They are not food left to flap away on ice waiting to die or a posh wallet or belt with a fancy label. A life where the only purpose was to live long and breed with many, is now destroyed for the sake of tourism. Now as a result, our children’s children, will only know these creatures by the items we leave behind in our closets.

Forgoing the turtles, we went to Patong Beach. The heat was heavy and just as thick. Locals trying to make some money would approach my bed- that I was charged 100 baht to lie in- and try to sell anything. Most of it was the typical tourist garb, some food and sometimes a water sport adventure. This added to the sidewalk sales abrasively asking us to “take look, I make good price”, followed by the taxi drivers that only say one thing; “tuk tuk”. Between the “sarong, excuse me, sarong”, “you jet ski, only 1000 baht”, “excuse me, spring roll”, “Madame, you like try” it became less of a beach day and more of a lie there and watch the flea market day. All this denying the advertising called for a beverage, as my moth felt like sand. I sent for chilled coconuts with the tops whacked by machetes. Pull up the top, insert a straw that probably would go un-recycled, recline the bed and watch the sun say good night.

No internet and no coffee make me somethin something

We haven't forget about the posts, but it's hard to get internet on an island. About all we have is sand...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Day 12 RAIN, and lots of it

I turned to Alex with sleepy eyes and asked “what’s that noise?” hearing loud bangs and crashes, accompanied by what sounded like an old engine trying to start. Being the kind soul that he is, and wanting me to get as much sleep as I could, he left the bed to investigate. He answered back “RAIN, on a tin roof” while looking out the window. So with a free day ahead of us, we relaxed and waited for the rain to stop. In the hour or less that it took us to eat breakfast, over an inch of rain poured down. We returned to our room to catch up on our abandoned blog and some phone calls. Reading local news via the internet, we discovered this monsoon that come from China, was grounding local flights and causing localized flooding. Lunch time came, and tried to go, but the rain kept falling. The rain wouldn’t let up, and then it turned of. As if the “Happy Lady” downstairs figured she had enough, and went to the switch that was labeled –RAIN –on-off, and pushed it just like a TV button.

After finishing my post, we packed for the beach. There were a few puddles, but mostly the area was dry already, and the beach was full. Finally, I had a beach bed and a freshly cracked coconut.

Day 11 Pang Nga Bay turns into a “chili” night

A medium sized sea ferry sat waiting for us in the harbor as we over slept. The hotel phone rang out in the dark. When I finally figured out that it was real and not a dream, the “Happy Lady” that pointed us around Phuket yesterday, said something I didn’t understand. It sounded like “pick up 10:00” followed by something in Thai. Finding our watch, it was only 8:15 so maybe someone had arranged a wake-up call. But something didn’t sit right, so I sent Alex downstairs to figure it out. He burst back in the door just as fast as he had left saying “we’ve gotta GO”. Clothes, towels and beach gear whirled as we went running to meet a mini van full of other groggy tourists.

The ride out to sea was beautiful and ugly at the same time. Heavy rain clouds and thick fog hung out in the bay. In a way, it reminded me of home, but a lot hotter. Towering islands and rocks that appeared to be floating haunted the horizon. We arrived at the James Bond Island, were The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed, and again felt like cattle. Tourists were everywhere, some of them the disrespecting type, but most of them where shelling out money for souvies made in china. The island was just packed as full as it could be and there were more people coming ashore. Sea-taxis lined up with the edges of their boats touching. One would come in and sandwiching the taxi using the dock. Then tourist climbed over themselves, and the now empty taxi just to get ashore. I wish I could have appreciated the island more, but in truth, it really couldn’t be seen. Back onto our boat, where there was a sense of calmness. The crowds disappeared as the captain drove away.

Sea canoes hit the water with a slap, and natives jumped in the warm water just behind the canoes. We then were encouraged to go two by two into the awaiting canoes. I was impressed about the free style of the activity, as were not even required to wear life jackets. Our guide paddled us around showing us rock figures and sea caves. The caves had absolute darkness, but our guide knew where to go. In some areas, we laid back in the canoe to avoid a skull to rock collision. Beyond the caves, virgin salt-water lagoons rested.

Back to the main boat for a quick lunch of fresh fish and seafood. The wonderful ladies that spoke no English, cooking our meals, seemed to understand my shrimp allergy. They made me special dishes that were vegetarian instead. I wanted to tell them just how happy they had made me, but I didn’t know how. After lunch, there were more caves to be explored. And when the natives got tired of paddling us around, they took us ashore on uninhabited beach. The water was so warm and so clear it was like a dream. For a while, I wondered if I actually answered the phone for this day to begin. We made water angels in the breaking surf as the boat crew set up a game of soccer.

Later for dinner, Alex had an unforgettable experience. He chomped down on the second hottest chili in the world, mistaking it for a green been. His face became red and sweaty as he reached for something, anything to cool the pain. His ears began to ring and pop, and sweat dripped. I felt so bad knowing that pain myself and knowing that I couldn’t really do much. After finishing all the water we had on the table and his plain rice, the burn slowed. The normal antidotes for chili burn are not always easy to get. Milk and juice I have only seen at breakfast, sugar is not always on the table and bread is a special order. But he survived, if only to learn a lesson about being more careful while eating, and to not always trust what is on the plate.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Day 10 Rain into the Sea

After making us breakfast, the woman at the front desk, escorted us on a tour around the main island. Speaking little English, her generous laughter and pointing finger got the job done. At the Gibbon reserve, we discovered rehabilitated souls waiting to go back into the jungle. The rain is hot and sticky, making it uncomfortable to be outside. But the call of the trail summoned us with great power. No rain was going to stop us, even if it boiled. There was a waterfall whispering to us that we had never met. Light filled our eyes as we trekked over the mud and under branches, until we found what we were looking for.

Later the evening we appeared in a general honeymoon ad, as we walked barefoot along the shore at sunset. Carrying our shoes, in the hands that weren’t holding each other, we finally had enough space to feel totally comfortable. The bustling town of Patong, was overcame by a still quietness, broken only by small waves crashing on the beach. This mornings rain clouds made long shadows across the evening sky, and the sea become one with the heavens.

Day 9 Phuket (POO KET)

The water of the second story pool sparkled like a bed of sapphires. It was warmer than I expected but that only made it easier to go for an early morning swim. Stone elephants showered water from the edge, giving the illusion of rain. I could hear children playing in the larger pool downstairs, and was grateful that I didn’t have to share. Our flight to Phuket was in about two hours, but right now I could care less about time ticking away. As we boarded the plane, I thought of our friends The Hug and how I would probably never see them again.

Colored lights and strange circus like faces moved about as people in traditional Thai costumes collected our money. Black lights made the eyes and teeth glow on the unsuspecting tourist crowds. Cartoon characters accented the night as we were lead into the “World’s Grandest Buffet” area. This overly decorated hall could hold all of the people in my home town, probably with room to spare. Two hours until curtain time, and refusing to give in to the over priced carnival items, we walked around the grounds; in shock about how weird this new world was. The giant gong rang in front of the Elephant Palace, and we were lined up like cattle going to the slaughterhouse. Once inside, the gates to our seats wouldn’t open until the surrounding vendors had pulled more money out of naive pockets. The giant doors opened into a blackened theatrical stadium. The cast rode in on elephants, followed by a parade of towering lanterns, lotus flowers, swords and candles. Dancers in extravagant costumes made their way onto stage, as lasers bounced from wall to wall. Somehow, the cast of Cirque du Soleil had been briefed on Thai customs. Trapeze wires hung from the ceilings, and stages rose and fell right before our eyes, and harnessed dancers flew about. Explosions and smoke bombs accented certain points as a love story about the king unfolded. Chickens, goats, elephants, water buffalo and pigeons all knew their part and where to go, as rain poured from the ceiling. Flower petals and balloons showered the audience of over 1000 people as the lights came back on. And again we were lined up for vendors to continue ringing us out before we were allowed to leave.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Day eight, Back to The Hug

Ae and Pu-yan were happy to see us return and welcomed us onto back into their home. We were encouraged to finish watching Happy Feet with Pu-yan as Ae went to tell his wife that we were back. It was wonderful to watch a family go through their nightly routine as they invited foreign guests into their home. Similar to last time, were asked what we would like for dinner and to drink. So like anyone trying to fit in, we asked him what he wanted us to eat, after all, we were in his house. He recommended chicken curry over noodles and fried chicken with ingredients, and then a honey-pineapple smoothie to cut the spice. Then he allowed us the honor to enter his wife’s kitchen to learn the traditional ropes of their cuisine.

The kitchen was hot, a lot hotter than the luxury ones I had worked in at home. Sweat ran down my back, and then down my legs as I tried to find a place to stand where I would not be in the way. It was a tight fit to have all the equipment, the three of us plus the occasional staff member, and to actually turn out a product. But it was worth the heat in the cramped corner. The woman, known only as the wife, lit a large gas burner with a lighter with more confidence than I would have had. A blackened, well-seasoned wok then rested atop of the flame. Coconut oil, star anise and a strange pod entered the picture, and just before it reached its flash point, chicken that had been chopped previously went sizzling into the worlds hottest pan. Followed by large slices of ginger, a spoonful of chicken powder, a small spoon of sugar and two soy sauces. A few drops of water hit the pan with a loud noise and steam billowed into an already too hot kitchen. Extra firm tofu was tossed in to help stretch the dish out. Spoons were handed our way to check for seasoning. On approval, the contents of the pan were poured onto a clean plate, and garnished with spring onions and black pepper.

A new wok was already on the fire with oil starting to smoke. Just as before, chicken screamed out its last fight, as the coconut oil over came the small pieces. After confirming that we are in the “medium heat” bracket, a huge pile of red curry paste was scooped on the chicken. The paste was caramelized instantly. The toasting of this curry paste coated the humid air with a spicy oil and brought out smells I have never experienced. Some sugar, two soy sauces, black pepper, chicken powder and yellow curry powder marched into the pan as if they all knew their number. Water from a small tabletop pitcher coated all the ingredients, and again we were given spoons. The dish was hot and the curry was hotter, but it tasted like I had just licked the Night Bazaar from one end to the other. The flavors were powerful and the ingredients were simple. Fresh whole grain ramen noodles appeared, and went for a four minute swim in the bubbling curry. With the wok tipped sideways, this tantalizing mixture of chili, noodles and protein, went sliding into a large bowl, suitable for use on the table. Two mountains of jasmine rice, the traditional fork and spoon set, and the dishes made before us made their way to the table where our smoothies were waiting.

Somewhere between the fresh ingredients, the experience of the hot kitchen and the company of our new friends, we had the best dinner in all of Thailand. Ae started to set up his sound equipment so he could show off his talent. He covered some American songs including Stairway to Heaven, which he didn’t know the words to, among others. Like most musicians, on a live stage, he introduced his songs with stories of how they came to be. His English was broken but understandable. Then he said something ironic, considering where we were a few hours ago, but unforgettably chilling.

“This song for brother, he is one year more…” He then paused to think about the words and the situation. “I use condom… he did not. So one man more to HIV, lost this year. This is for brother, when it should have been me.”

Day eight, Are We There Yet?

7:00 am
Morning came too soon as we climbed into our personal chariot with a driver and a dry tour guide. With no coffee and unsettled breakfast of fried foods, we tried to prepare for the long journey. We were headed to the Golden Triangle. The place were opium, amongst other drugs, fueled the economy from the mafia and gangsters. Long boats would meet in no man’s land between Laos, Burma and Thailand and gold bars would be exchanged. The area was perfect for growing poppies for the opium trade, with a steady climate and rolling hills. Poppies were grown under maze that reached 2 meters into the sky to help disguise the crops. This was a day to be full adventure.
9:00 am
The morning commute is enough to irritate anyone. Combine that with no coffee, poor breakfast, and totally trusting your self to being driven around by two people you’ve never met is sure to leave one slightly on edge if not completely annoyed. We pulled into a hot spring packed with tourists sporting every style of camera. Sellers came out of nowhere selling silver and “wanna be” gems. Ladies with small baskets of eggs pushed their way into the foreigner’s faces saying 100 baht, 100 baht 100 baht- five minute. The idea was to buy her eggs, lower them into the hot spring and pull them up in five minutes for a soft boiled batch of eggs. Foreigners were lining up at this opportunity, but we could see it for what it really was. These people were squatting gypsies trying to get you to willingly spend your money, so they didn’t have to reach into your pockets and get it.
9:30 am
CAFÉ! We finally found coffee. This seamed to make the world right side up again
10:30 am
The coffee had run it’s course, but the driver was not done driving…I sat cross legged for a while, then I pulled my feet up into the car seat for reassurance. In the morning the driver had said about three hours travel time, so I kept my mouth shut. The road kept going on, and road signs that I couldn’t read much of, said something 95 km. The van tipped side to side as we slowly made our way down the windy mountain road. This rocking motion seemed to exaggerate the sensation I was experiencing. But felling powerless, I kept my mouth shut and my legs crossed.
12:00 pm
Our guide finally turned around and started to give some information, and history about the mission we were on. He talked of temples, opium and the Thai mafia. All I heard was my bladder screaming. The driver pulled into a parking lot next to some ancient ruins. As soon he opened the door, I ran for the first sign that said TOILET. A row of unisex squaty-podies lay in front of me. The first one was home to a mangy, wild dog. He looked hungry and like he had been in too many fights, fights that he might have started. I decided not to invade his space and ran for the next one.
12:15 pm
We had finally arrived at the ticket booth, for the boat ride around the Golden Triangle. Finally our grand adventure had arrived! We rode on a motorized long boat through the area where two rivers and three countries came together. There was a very small, broken patch of island in the center with weeds over a meter high. If the river had a tide, this spec of mud would be washed away forever. About half way around this mud patch, we found out that this, this was the Golden Triangle. I can see mud in the middle of the river fifteen miles from my house, why did I need to travel half way around the world, take a five hour car trip and climb in a old boat to see sand covered with weeds?
1:00 pm
The Burma border. This looked like any other market on any other street. There was a bridge that crossed a small river into Burma-that we not allowed to cross. Maybe I missed the point in the lesson about the Burma border, but I just didn’t get why we were here. It only made our drive home 45 minutes longer.
5:00 pm
We stopped at a roadside mini-market/hotel/restaurant for a few minutes to use the TOILET, and walk for a little bit. Both of us were shocked to learn the place was called Cabbage and Condoms, with a sign sporting rainbow colored animated condoms. I heard a trembling voice ask “where have they taken us?” as I laughed inside for my own uncomfortable reasons. Despite what it appeared to be, it was similar to a Face to Face program back home in the states; providing information about family planning and AIDS to a third world country that could benefit from both.
6:30 pm
Finally the hotel was in sight. I had never been so relieved to see a place that wasn’t really my home. The day required a shower, a change of atmosphere and some dinner. So we went back to The Hug, as promised.

Day seven, If we could run out of green pixels…

Deep into the jungle we drove, over dirt roads and under vegetation that competed against itself for soil and nutrients. The shapes and the greenery gave me a key into my imagination while driving on. I thought of the “creepers” that hung in every angle off the plane and the past pilot. Ralph and the other boys chanting “kill the pig” while dancing around the fire with animals on pikes followed. “Kill the Pig, Kill the pig!...” Mr. Thomas, my sophomore English teacher would be proud to know that making me read The Lord Of The Flies would actually have an impact on my life.

We arrived at the Elephant Camp and feared it would be yet another Disneyland type of attraction. To our surprise, there were no loud speakers, no cheesy audio tapes and nothing for sale looked that like it had arrived in a box labeled To: tourist or current sucker! All the people here were of the same tribe and functioned together, as a village, as they have done for decades. The men had their jobs, and the women had theirs. After bathing the elephants, watching the elephants teach us how they worked and a few parlor tricks; we were invited to experience them first hand. I fed a mother and new baby a bunch of bananas, and a bundle of sugar cane, that disappeared behind giant molars faster than I could blink. Now it was time for something I had been waiting to do for eight months. We get to ride the elephants, through the jungle up to the Hilltribe Village. On the way up the unmanicured trail we saw dueling dragonflies bigger than our hands. Somewhere between the parking lot and the village, we had stumbled into a Jurrassic time. The spiders were bigger than saucers, in webs that stretched to either side of the creek the elephants were using as a trail. The vegetation was dense and overgrown. And the creek swelled with the recent rain. But at this moment, ten feet high on the back of an elephant, I wasn’t afraid of the jungle. I let it console us in a green embrace.

The villagers were so eager to make a few baht for much needed supplies, and we were eager to help. A man sold us a hand carved elephant chime for only 100 bath (less than three US dollars). I almost wanted to buy two, and take only one, because his teeth appeared as to of not ever seen a dentist. After the elephant caravan, we stopped at the base of the mountain for an amazing lunch. No time to soak up what had just occurred, because there was a bamboo raft waiting for us at the shore of the Mae Ping River. Seated on a simple raft made with bamboo stocks and tied with grass; we took in all the beauty the jungle had to offer.

Day six, the Hug

The day started off like any other so far, standard breakfast and off to see more temples. The architecture is similar but the story changes with each one. Large murals depict the life and teachings of Buddha, as well as the kings and common folklore. Separation of church and state is almost unheard of, as most men are expected to learn most things from the monkhood. Which could be a double bladed sword while being a blessing on most levels.

After a morning of education we were on our own, free to find mischief. Finding only lunch at a place called Whole Earth instead, we were not disappointed.
The chicken coconut soup was powerfully strong with lemongrass, kefir and chilies. Peanut sauce coated a traditional green papaya salad, and chicken lay in a heaping pile of veggies with garlic and lemongrass.

Dinner was similar food and just as good, but by far the best experience we have had. The name of the restaurant was very mod, as if someone was stuck in their avocado kitchen thinking about the good times of the 70’s: The Hug. Functioning as a home and as place of business, as well as the occasional music stage, the place was busy but not with many people. A man presented himself as the owner, and waiter, then tried to filter through our English for something he understood. His daughter soon came into the picture, maybe five or six years of age, and was introduced in broken English. With our order in hand, off the man went to the kitchen. While the kid remained at the curbside table we had taken temporary residence at. She played basic games that required no English even though she spoke quite well. Music that had a familiar edge but somehow I had never heard before came from old speakers with testy wires. Some of the words were English, most in Thai, but it was beautiful. I had to own it. So the man who called himself Ae, ran to fetch an autographed copy. The food was wonderful and the atmosphere made us wiggle that we had found such a nice family to relate to half way around the world. I was sad for the dinner to end, and too full to order more to keep the moment going. We said our good byes with a promise to return before leaving Chaing Mai.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Day five, Bangkok to Chaing Mai

Colored glass, mirrors and gold leaf sparkled high into the sky, and jasmine, incense and candle wax scented the air as we were told the stories of the ancient kings. Tales with carvings of demons and monkeys in the forest transporting temples on their backs connected everything with a common flare. Kingdoms rose and fell under the supervision of Buddhism. And history was painted on the walls in over 400 frame-less murals for all to see, know and to understand. This was the tale of the Royal Palace and all its inhabitants. The temple containing the coveted Emerald Buddha was filled with riches and treasures beyond wonder. With all this in the physical life, how does one seek the enlightenment of nothingness on the way to nirvana?

Our last hours in Bangkok were full of exhaust and frustration as a graduation ceremony crowded the streets. After endless traffic another gem store was presented, that was never on the itinerary, so our guide could take a stab a some well needed commission. We made it to the airport feeling slightly used and irritated with our tardiness so near to our flight to Chaing Mai. Because of our guide's attempt to make a few baht, we had to deal with much unnecessary traffic and empty bellies. It seemed like the first boarding call was made just after we finished checking our bags. The chaos continued once we arrived with a room preserved in cigarette smoke. After changing rooms, we gave up after the air conditioner and three walls of electric circuit was blown. We needed food, and to get out the tourist spot light for a while. On the way to the night Bazaar, we found a cafe that reminded us of Denny's back home. The whole day was saved when lattes done perfectly were delivered to the table followed by big burgers and greasy fries. Finally, a sense of homestyle comfort.

"Free to explore Bangkok at own liesure"

In a world were everyone refers to you as “excuse me ma’am” it’s often difficult not to just to keep walking until you have a name. So that’s what we did, right into the spa. Lemongrass, orange peel, rose and herbs lingered in the air as our shoes were replaced with slippers. Tropical plants and candles seemed to pop out from the Zen poster that was our private room. I felt like kid on Christmas day about to receive something I had been begging for. On the surface, there was no way to tell that we were half way up in a major high rise in the middle of a Land of Smiles. Our feet were scrubbed from antique bowls and our robes were removed as we went into the steam room. With our bodies warmed through, we reentered into the world of royalty. Firm hands made their way from toe to crown, with attention to every muscle. The excess oil was washed away, and the angels with the dancing hands quietly vanished into their quarters. Two hours had passed since I had last looked at the time, but I didn’t care. Here I was dropped in a state of euphoria with the love of my life only thinking about how nice it was to finally relax.

Yesterday, Yo, our guide, had recommended to go downtown and visit the major shopping center. So we made our way to the sky train, but not before trying the roasted plantains I was still thinking about. Then the foul smelling durian fruit that had come with high recommendation and equal warning. In a land so foreign, everything in the mall seemed so familiar. With T-shirts of every color and style, cheap knock offs of fine European products and electronics farther than the eyes could see; it all became a blur. As this is our only day to experience Bangkok as a city, the tuk tuks, neon taxis and the Thai Baht cycloned around us with an unreal force. We found Jim Thompson's House of Silks just in time for the last English tour; and a gentle soul to drive us "home" during rush hour traffic for less money than it was worth. Of course our hotel was not the only stop, first were had to stop at a gem factory and then a silk shop so the driver could make an attempt at his commission from the locals. No time to rest, back off to the pool as the humid sun laid it self to rest on the western horizon. Wet just long enough to say we visited the pool in our hotel at least once, it was time to go again. The Night Bazaar was calling out our names and to our money, and into the fuchsia taxi we went.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Bangkok Day 3 Photos


Bangkok-Day 3

The day started with struggling to resist the green glow of a near by coffee chain. Awake before they were open, (imagine that) we walked around our block watching vendors set up their carts. The food from these small and self sufficient entrepreneurs is a thing of curiosity. The smells are foreign, and the ingredients are unpronounceable. But still I just want to grab a freshly grilled plantain or a fried piece of fish while the coconut oil drains from the crispy batter for a pre-dawn breakfast. With little knowledge of this enticing street food, and a mild fear of Montazuma's revenge, we trace our steps to the hotel. The French fare seems out of place, but at least it is familiar. Yesterday, the coffee was weak and sour-hence the discussion in the early hours to support something we both feel so strongly against. Faced with instant Nescafe in our room twenty-five floors up or the guys on the corner, we gave in to the iced grande such and such and then felt too guilty to talk about the rest of the day.

The sun appeared for most of the day, creating a sticky-sweaty sensation in places I would rather not talk about. Even at mid morning, it was already 80 degrees with almost 100% humidity. When my clothes touched my skin, it would leave behind a tell tale mark of perspiration. Prepared with SPF 50, large hats, and tinted shades, we heard our guide remarking "No one has died from the sun, no one had died from curry either". Warm rain kissed the end of the day, leaving behind a wet passionate mark on something that was already hot and steamy.

Driving around the area known as Ayutthaya, we visited a few major temples including the ancient ruins. Danced to the music of the monks, explored the tilted tower and ate lotus nuts and fried bananas. We played a Thia game to tell our fortune; to discover they were almost one of the same with each other's, as our paths intertwined. Buddhas in every position adorn every temple. My favorite one so far is the standing figure with his hand up to "stop". In a world of go-go-go, it is easy to forget what we are doing. So Stop, stop all war, hatred and abuse and let the beauty shine from within.

I had a personal moment while lighting three sticks of incense and making a wish to the reclining Buddha. As I pressed my hands together, bowed my head and incense to the mat, I felt the tip of an Ah Ha moment. Maybe Buddhism is something I should strive for- as I find myself agreeing with the teachings, and a religion without a deity. To believe in one's self is after all a godly power. I came up from the mat with tears and smiles, not really understanding either, but wanting more of both. Later we ate chicken curry conjured in the fires near hell, and soothed the heat with coconut gelly. Garnished with sweet-green rice paste noodles, coconut syrup and slippery seed pods that could have been mistaken for small eye balls- It resembled a dish fit for goolish night, but it was a dish not even the king could turn down.

Tomorrow is a day of adventure and exploring, with a hole in the itinerary, I'm not sure where mischief will find us. I can only hope to discover new ideas, flavors and sights.