Southeast Asia Thailand

Raw Mountain Vitality

Current Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Current  Weather: 95
°F (feels like 100°F)
Days Gone: 55
Days Remaining:161

I spent my last night in Mae Sot with new friends, enjoying a shared Seafood Hot Pot, cold beer, and eventually a bottle of Sangsom purchased from a (nearly) closed mini mart. For this reason, I did not take the 8:00 AM direct bus to Chiang Mai, but instead opted for a more reasonable departure time of 1:00 PM to Tak where I could catch a second bus onward to Chiang Mai. Walking to the bus station, after nearly two weeks in the same place, I felt once again the lightness that comes from carrying all my possessions on my back. Momentum works both ways; the longer one stays in a place the more difficult it can become to leave it behind. I had grown very comfortable in the tranquility that Mae Sot provided, but disturbing this pattern brought forth a new yet familiar energy. I was, once again, in motion.

Exiting Mae Sot was almost too easy; I glided through the checkpoints without a passport, and once without being questioned at all. Sometimes it is a great help to be the Farang with a beard. Due to the first bus actually being a small van, my bag was strapped to the roof. Exposed to the elements as it was, I had a mild panic attack when a slow drizzle started coating the twisted mountain roads. It was a hefty stroke of good fortune that my driver, in a moment of grave compassion, paused in his quest to pass every large vehicle on a blind turn to throw a canvas cover over my luggage. For this I am eternally grateful, as should you be, dear reader, for this very laptop would have been destroyed without question by the gentle precipitation.

After arriving in Chiang Mai, my first order of business (after securing a place to sleep) was to find some sustenance beyond a small bag of fried banana chips, the snack which had been my sole means of appetite mitigation since boarding the bus back in Mae Sot. I found my way, along with a traveling couple I met on the bus, to the local night market. Though it was a weeknight vendors and their customers bustled about, exchanging coins for deep fried meats, noodle soups, and rice dishes. I ordered, by smiling and pointing, some saucy looking pork and steamed rice. It was delivered to me wrapped in a rich green leaf shaped like a pyramid.  The total cost for this meal was 20 baht (60 cents).

I spent the following day wandering the city, which is old enough to have dozens of elaborate wats yet modern enough to warrant sightings of McDonald’s, Starbucks, and, I kid you not, a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses. My guest house is within the old city (the city center) which is enclosed within a large square brick-walled perimeter, outside of which is a moat-like river. In my wanderings, I discovered an amazing street food restaurant which opens at night in front of a Michelin shop. I have dined here twice now; once for their salty hot pans, which are delivered to the table still sizzling, and a second time for their fried eggless omelet. That is not the official name, this dish does not yet have an English translation. Trust me, I asked the owner. Imagine an omelet made with Thai offerings: chicken, onions, herbs, and a few other veggies – then replace the egg, which is holding is all together, with crispy fried battering. It comes out round like a pizza and about an inch thick on a bed of bean sprouts. Health-wise it probably ranks with a Big Mac, but it is far more savory. Both meals clock in at about 40 baht ($1.30).

After all this blatant consumption I was in major need of some physical activity – set to the tune of a 2-day trek into Chiang Mai’s nearby mountainous terrain. Day one involved a deadly 9km hike. The route was almost entirely uphill, weaving through humid, mosquito-infested jungles and over muddy streams. At one point a land slide forced our fellowship off the path. Sometimes the hard mud trail seemed ancient, pounded by generations of feet, while other times, due to recent rains, we blazed our own trail around marshy waters through tall grass stretching up to my shoulders. As we gained altitude, after a brief visit to a small waterfall, we began to use trails which cut through farmland and rice paddies. Our elevation began to afford us some incredible views, steeply rolling hills of farmlands and jungle. In the far distance, just on the horizon, we could see the grayish white blob of Chiang Mai. Finally, after miles of uphill battle we arrived at our destination: a small mountain village where we would stay the night.

When stuffing things into my small daypack for this overnight adventure, I made one fatal mistake. I forgot to pack a second shirt. By the time we arrived at the village, the white shirt I had on was soaked with an immeasurable amount of sweat. I was forced to dry it over the campfire later that night in hopes of making it suitable to wear again the next day. We enjoyed the cooler mountain temperatures, played cards, stretched our weary muscles, and helped ourselves to a massive feast prepared by our constantly laughing guide named Pot. We all stayed up talking around the campfire until retiring, one by one, to the wooden thatch-roofed structure that served as our dormitory for the night. I climbed under the mosquito net onto my thin mattress at around 1:00 AM. The mountain roosters began yodeling in raucous voices at exactly 5:19 AM. Needless to say, despite the exhausting day, I did not get a restful sleep that night.

The morning, which arrived three hours after the roosters thought it did, provided us with much needed coffee and tea. Breakfast consisted of toast and a hard-boiled egg. Then we began the downhill trek, starting on rice paddy trails overlooking the fog-splotched landscape and working our way down to a magnificent waterfall. By the time we made it to this waterfall, my shirt was once again infused with sweat. It was at this moment that the shirt was demoted to the role of towel. Back down among the heat of thick jungle foliage, the waterfall felt like shards of ice. This is to say it was refreshing and also served as a much needed shower.

The remainder of the day consisted of a hot lunch (Pad Thai), elephant riding, white-water rafting, and bamboo rafting. I had the honor of sitting in the front of the raft as we tore through the churning rapids and nearly capsized twice. For the bamboo rafting, I found myself sitting in the center of the raft, which was about the size of two doors stacked longways end to end. There were four of us in total on the raft including our “driver” who was armed with a long pole for steering. About three minutes into our journey, we encountered a bridge with a single stone support pillar standing in the center of the river. A choice had to be made: left or right? The river chose left but our driver chose right. We ended up turning entirely perpendicular to the current, heading right for the stone pillar. As I was sitting in the middle, just before we collided perfectly with the pillar, I threw my feet up to try to absorb the impact. I managed to stop myself, but the raft moved beneath me, shattering and being sucked beneath the water. We were all tossed overboard. One guy named Tim was pulled by the current along the bamboo shards and then off down the river. I grabbed onto a piece of bamboo caught on the pillar beneath the water’s surface and held on until rescue arrived (a guy in a rubber raft). I’m happy to say we all survived the raft destruction without a scratch, except for Tim, who had several.

Back in Chiang Mai we all managed to meet up later for drinks to watch the Brazil-Netherlands match. The Brazilian in our group was sad to see Holland claim the victory, but I can’t help but think it was Karma, as he was our raft driver.

Shout outs go to the people of Mae Sot: Haanee, Nick, and Ruth. Desmond and Chris, I’m still waiting to hear how the Fourth of July Friendship Bridge Concert went for Godzilla Versus Congenital Mega Colon. Sonal and Andrew, I’m glad we were on the same bus, it was great hanging and trekking in Chiang Mai. To all the rest of the trekking crew: Tim, best of luck with the house on Samui, Mark, hope your second night went well, Ichiro, keep traveling man, your energy is an inspiration, Felipe, thanks for crashing the raft, you have given me a great memory, Luis, Tania, and Angel, best of luck in all future travels to all! Oh, and to Pot, our amazing guide and chef!

Last thing consumed: Spicy Isaan Pork and a Pineapple Shake
Thought fragment: There was a point during the past week when I had seven meals in a row all consisting of rice. I also took a Thai cooking class and I’m now a wok-master. Lastly, I tried fish jerky, which has an interesting soft, cloth-like texture, but has nothing on beef jerky.

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Southeast Asia Thailand

How to Survive Bugs in Your Bed, Cereal

Current Location: Mae Sot, Thailand
Current  Weather: 82
°F (feels like 88°F) – Cool and fresh tonight thanks to recent rains!
Days Gone: 46
Days Remaining: 170

My first nights here I slept miraculously well, waking up refreshed just before the roosters began crowing. Last Friday, though, I was told my hostel room had been booked by another individual, and I was being kicked out. The hostel manager offered me a room in a separate building with a private bathroom for a cheaper price. The room looked fine, but the “pay-in-advance” request (and low initial price) was suspect. I soon discovered, through conversation with another traveler, that the room in question was home to a large family of bed bugs.

I moved to the guest house next door, where I found, much to my dismay, another room with a bug problem. Luckily, after mentioning this to the hostel owners, I was immediately moved to the master suite with air-conditioning for the night. This was mega luxurious and I slept fitfully in a queen size bed. The next night, I had moved back to the newly cleaned and supposedly debugged original room. At around 11 the bugs reappeared en masse. I had sprayed the bed with insect repellent as a precaution. Instead of repelling them, however, it merely killed them when they landed. The bed was covered with dozens of tiny bugs, of several different varieties. So I did what any reasonable person would do, considering the guest house staff had disappeared for the night and I had to be up at 7 AM to teach. I borrowed the key to the master suite from reception and slept there, waking up at 7 and vanishing without a trace. Upon further complaint of bugs, with the added visual of all the dead bugs on my bed, I was able to negotiate the master suite for the extent of my stay, for the same price, sans air-conditioning.

It has been a pretty comfortable week, though I’m sure much of that is a consequence of the relaxing nature of the city. When the days are filled with bike rides and teaching, and evenings are filled with exotic cuisine, good conversation, and the occasional Yoga class, it’s difficult not to sink into the slow-paced way of life. While I haven’t visited them yet, there is even a driving range (30 baht for a bucket of balls – US$1) and a public pool (30 baht entry – US$1).

Last Sunday I rode a bicycle to the Burma (Myanmar) border where you can see the Friendship Bridge joining Mae Sot, Thailand with Myawaddy, Burma. The bridge extends over a shallow valley and a river, the no-man’s land between the two countries. This is one of the locations where the Burmese consistently cross into Thailand. Even in broad daylight, under the watchful eyes of the camouflaged, assault-rifle wielding border security, Burmese make the short trip by inner tube. The border-market, like the rest of Mae Sot, is permeated with illegal Burmese running illegal shops, most paying stipends (read: bribes) to the local police. The most interesting entrepreneurs, however, are the Burmese standing in the no-man’s land, selling a myriad of taboo items. Bottles of alcohol, cartons of cigarettes, and even items for various types of sensual enhancement, ranging from the innocent Viagra all the way to some suspicious products supposedly imported from India, are all available at a bargain price. If a uniformed guard is in sight, the vendors simply pull their products back into the no man’s land and out of the officer’s legal jurisdiction.

In my last post I mentioned briefly my excitement at the prospect of eating cereal. My first two (small) boxes of cereal contained six individually wrapped packages. Both were delicious from my perspective, but I knew a better value could be found in buying a bigger box, one not plagued with the “packaged air” of individually wrapped bags. On day two of eating the biggest, cheapest box of cereal I could find at the Hong Long Mini Mart (Honey Stars), I found an ant halfway through eating my bowl. I didn’t think much of it, and scooped him overboard, writing it off as one of the small tragedies of living in jungle terrain. Then I saw a second ant, floating helplessly in my milk, trying to clutch at a nearby Honey Star. The numerical inconsistency of finding two ants in one bowl of cereal did not add up. I knew immediately that I had been sabotaged. I knew, without looking, that my box of cereal, despite being enclosed in an eight-times-overlapped plastic bag that was itself enclosed in a cardboard box, had been overrun with ants. Then I looked. Dozens of ants crawled around inside my cereal box. My cereal box. They crawled, oblivious to their brethren that I had consumed unknowingly minutes before. Disgusted, I threw it all away, and resigned myself to a breakfast of toast.  The paint-your-own Shrek toy that came in my cereal box mocked me with his smile. I felt betrayed, betrayed by promises of sweet, crunchy goodness molded into celestial shapes. By my calculations, I ate somewhere between six and fourteen ants that morning. This is the story of the most disgusting thing that has ever happened to me, third-world traveling or otherwise.

Teaching was rewarding, if hectic and exhausting, perhaps more so thanks to the third world environment. Classes were often, as mine once was, interrupted by a snake’s entering the room. The walls of the classrooms are simple thatch, with a five inch gap between the wall and the ground, making it easy for outdoor creatures to amble (or slither) in. The Burmese seem to have a unanimous and innate fear of snakes. I have been told that this is the case due to the lack of medical care they receive in Burma, and the obscurely high number of deaths by snakebite that occur as a result. At the time, I just tried to guide the snake back out of the room with a chair. In the later encounters I witnessed, the snake was mercilessly attacked with sticks and broom handles. 

Snakes weren’t the only distraction. Dogs wandered around the school as well, often curling up for a nap in the shade of the classrooms. When it rained, which was often once per day, the ceilings would leak and all the flies in the area would migrate indoors. The air would become thick with them, as if a black, windblown snowfall had materialized inside the classroom. The kitchen is attached to the front of grade six’s classroom. Because of this, the few days that I taught grade six immediately before lunch I taught from within a cloud of white smoke leaking from the kitchen behind me.

It was not all snakes and flies and sweat, however. Due to the fact that I speak neither Burmese nor Karen (kuh-ren; the regional dialect), I found myself engaging in a lot of Pictionary-style doodling on the white board as well as a sufficient amount of acting to define vocabulary words. My students were amazing. Despite what I perceived as fairly cumbersome learning conditions, they were incredibly polite, respectful, and attentive. Any time a student would walk past me outside of class, he or she would give a slight bow. They would stand to greet me when I entered the classroom and stand again at the end of class with a loud “Thank you, Teacher!”

At lunch I ate what the kids ate: a bowl of rice and potatoes topped with, on a good day, a scoop of greens and a chunk or two of beef. Once, though, lunch was just plain white rice with chunks of potato. Sometimes I would eat lunch with other teachers in the “office,” or with the students (who invited me into their boarding house) and have rudimentary, broken-English conversations. Other times I would take a chair out back and gaze at the farmlands sprawling into the distance, and mountains beyond them. There was always a good breeze out back, which was refreshing and prevented the ever-present flies from leaving the ground. When I left on my final day most of the students were outside, and all of them waved goodbye.

Shout outs go to Justin, who saved me from bed bugs and shared infinite conversations on film and literature. Lisa, who tolerated such conversations and sat through the 90 minutes of no-scoring in the USA-Algeria match. Patrick, the rare, fellow Kentuckian whose wife teaches a mean Yoga class. Chris, the British teacher who drinks on school nights. Tom, who seems to live only in the present, many thanks for the seafood restaurant recommendation and treating everyone to ice cream. Julia of Australia, and Cristoph of Madrid, who attended the Burmese cooking class with Lisa and I. Min Min, my Burmese motorbike driver who I learned to trust even when driving the wrong way down a highway and, as happened once, through a rainstorm. To the numerous fellow volunteers and aid workers I met briefly throughout my nearly two weeks here in Mae Sot, you are an inspiration. And finally, to my over one hundred students, I hope, if nothing else, your hunger for knowledge is never satiated.

Last thing consumed: Samosas, Pumpkin Curry, Malay Noodle Salad, and a Honey-Banana shake. All prepared, thanks to a Burmese cooking class, by me!
Thought fragment: Riding a bike through the quiet streets of Mae Sot at 11 PM on a Monday, just after a good rain, smelling the dampness of the air, and listening to fat drops tinging and thonking and tapping on parked cars, restaurant awnings, and tin roofs, creates a most musical and therapeutic trip to 7-Eleven. Also, I had a gecko poop on my head today.

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Southeast Asia Thailand

Monkopalypse Now

Current Location: Mae Sot, Thailand
Current  Weather: 91
°F (feels like 100°F)
Days Gone: 38
Days Remaining:178

The “bus station” in Ayutthaya is actually just an extra wide street that buses all happen to park on. There is no ticket stand or information booth or any apparent organization at all. Because most of the writing on the buses themselves is in Thai, finding one that said “Lopburi” proved impossible. So I questioned the nearest vendor by gesturing toward the buses and asking, “Lopburi?” He answered with, “Yes, Lopburi, green, green!” Armed with this new clue, I walked back among the buses searching for a green bus. Almost immediately I caught a glimpse of a green bus pulling away in between two other buses. Jogging along next to the green bus, I called up to the windows, “Lopburi?” A Thai woman seemed to nod so I jumped on just as the bus began picking up speed. I found a seat and asked a different Thai guy if this bus went to Lopburi. He nodded and said “Lopburi.” This is how I made it to the city of monkeys.

Immediately upon arrival a pedal-bike taxi fellow agreed to take me to the guesthouse I named for 20 baht. While I should have been suspicious, it was so cheap I agreed without attempting to haggle at all. He pedaled me about half a block down the road. I honestly could have walked to the destination faster. But, I play by the rules so he got his 20 baht. After settling in, I walked around searching for lunch. I saw a handful of monkeys scattered about over the course of a few city blocks. I remembering thinking, hey, cool, the monkeys really do roam the city. I had no idea the extent of the infestation until I got closer to the Phra Prang Sam Yod temple. The monkeys were everywhere. On power lines, in the streets, on the sidewalks, on parked vehicles. Monkeys. Old monkeys. Baby monkeys. Monkeys sleeping. Monkeys chilling. Monkeys dodging traffic. Monkeys trying to steal food. And, eventually, monkeys jumping on me.

Feel free to check out this public Facebook album loaded with some of the monkey shots I took in the city.

After a night in Lopburi, I headed further north via train to Phitsanulok. The city seemed both spread out and cramped at the same time. I was feeling a bit burnt out on going places just to see things, particularly ruins, temples, and perhaps even monkeys. I wanted to get my hands dirty. So I bailed on Phitsanulok as fast as possible and made my way to the town of Mae Sot, wedged up against the Thailand-Burma border. The city is full of Burmese refugees and has a smattering of NGOs attempting to provide humanitarian aid. I hoped someone here could use my help for a week or so. As it happens, after I arrived via some nauseatingly twisty roads, I found an English-speaking Burmese gentleman who knew of a school that was seeking English-speaking volunteers.

I met with the principal of Hway Ka Loke yesterday and agreed to help out in any way I could through next Friday. Hway Ka Loke is both a small school and boarding house for Burmese children, many of whom still have parents in Burma. I actually spent about five hours today actively teaching English in two different classes, trying to gauge how much English they already knew. Their skill levels are insanely varied, some seem nearly fluent, while some can barely muster a “Hello.” The ages in grade six, for example, range from 10 to 16 years old. Considering the wide range of ability, the nearly complete lack of resources, and the fact that I speak no Burmese, I am finding it quite a challenge. By “lack of resources,” I mean the classrooms are two walls and a ceiling, and I have a dry-erase board and marker. There are not even enough materials in circulation to ask the students to write anything. But, I’ll be doing my best over the course of the next week. While challenging, it’s pretty fun to walk into a classroom and have 38 Burmese kids stand up and say “Good Morning Teacher!”

Last thing consumed: Rice and grilled fish
Thought fragment: This guest house has a kitchen with a refrigerator. Being that I’m staying for at least eight more nights, I’m going to buy some cereal and milk. You have no idea how exciting this is for me.

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Southeast Asia Thailand

The Journey North

Current Location: Ayutthaya, Thailand
Current  Weather: 88
°F (feels like 97°F)
Days Gone: 33
Days Remaining:183

I am no longer suffering from Conjunctivitus, woohoo! I had a lot of people ask me before I left, “What happens if you get sick?” This is what happens: step 1: get meds, step 2: get better. It’s just like at home, only cheaper, faster, and without air-conditioning. Now, granted, if I get something serious like Japanese B Encephalitis I’ll be in a bit of trouble – but the odds are (very, very) heavily against it and, well, in the game of travel, everything comes down to odds and risk management. So, newly healthy, I abandoned Koh Phi Phi and took a night bus back to Bangkok. And so it was that I arrived in Thailand’s capital at 5 AM for the second time in a month. This time I was slightly less clueless. Instead of finding a guest house to grab a couple more hours of sleep, I just bought a 10 baht Red Bull from 7-Eleven and wandered the streets while I waited for the public bus station to open (to head on to Nakhon Pathom). I watched as Bangkok woke up with the sun, street vendors sleepily dragging their carts into position and firing up their grills and woks. I talked to several drunken travelers on Khao San Road at the end of their night and watched rats scurrying back into their daytime shadows. Then I went to the 24-hour Burger King and had breakfast.

Fast food chains cannot offer the cheapest food here. It actually costs a bit more to have a meal at a KFC or Subway than it would at a local open-air restaurant. So why do they stay in business? They do have a few very important things to offer that the local joints cannot. Burger King was clean, quiet, and cold. Along with my chicken sandwich, fries, and cola, they gave me peace and air-con and a clean table all to myself, all for the low price of 99 baht ($3). This was my first Southeast Asia fast-food experience, but I can already say it won’t be my last. A little bubble of calm and little taste of home, I never thought a McDonald’s could offer such respite.

Then the bubble popped and once I found myself on the road again, headed rapidly toward the bus station in a cab. On the way I saw a shoe in the middle lane of the interstate, then a helmeted man running toward it, traffic swerving around him, then finally a blue motorbike on it’s side. The chaos was back. At the bus station I was going down an escalator when suddenly I heard a sharp whistle blow behind me. I turned a saw a uniformed man with a whistle in his mouth just as an orchestrated song began playing over the loudspeakers. Everyone stopped moving. All motion ceased. Except for me on my escalator. Four Thais had just reached the bottom and now they stood motionless as I slowly lowered toward them. I guessed (and have now confirmed) that the tune playing was the National Anthem of Thailand and everyone was stopping to show observance. So once I reached the bottom I too stood motionless (and rather awkwardly) inches from the group of four. Before the last note had died, everyone began moving again as quickly as they had stopped.

So off I went, found my bus, and headed on to Nakhon Pathom, where it turned out there wasn’t much to do. Some quick local shopping with the newly cheapened prices of the mainland provided me with shampoo, my first little vat of Tiger Balm (40 baht), and a delightful product called Prickly Heat (12 baht). I checked out a local temple, then walked back to the bus stop to move on, again, to Kanchanaburi. A pedal-bike fellow took me to a guesthouse, and then I wandered around and ordered “matabah” from a street-food vendor. I cannot find anything about this dish anywhere online. It was like a thin lasagna, breaded and fried, and stuffed with, I think, cabbage and pork (among other things).While in Kanchanaburi I also visited Erawan Falls and climbed to the 7th tier, got attacked by monkeys (they totally flanked me), visited the River Kwai Bridge, and drank 10 baht (30 cent) rum and cokes. While at the bridge I had a Thai couple want to take a photo with me, apparently just because I was a white guy with a beard. I’ve seen this happen to people with giant afros, dreadlocks, or costumes, so I guess I just looked unique for Kanchanaburi. I politely obliged and am now smiling foolishly in two photos on a strangers camera, always to be remembered as “the white guy on the bridge that day.”

Next I caught a bus to Ayutthaya (via a connection in Suphanburi) and talked my way into a free room upgrade at a local guest house where I’m only paying 150 baht ($5) per night. I visited a local night market for dinner my first night and had a crunchy catfish salad in green mango with rice for 60 baht. Snake head was on the menu but I was too hungry to risk it, maybe next time though. Then I found an ice cream shop that had 10 baht (30 cent) cones in about 15 different flavors. Low cost desserts will likely be the bane of my health before any foreign infectious disease.

While in the ice cream shop a kid ran out screaming and crying. I realized it was the first truly upset child I had seen in the month that I’ve been here. It turns out something was seriously wrong, he hobbled to the street and puked several times. This is what it took to force him into a crying rage. Back home I might see a kid scream like this because he didn’t get a candy bar he wanted. It made me stop and think about how quickly Thai kids seem to grow up from a responsibility standpoint. The boy who brought me my rice at the night market couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, and he was already working late hours with his family.

I spent today bicycling around the city and checking out several temples and ruins leftover from the 1300s. The bike rental cost me 30 baht ($1) for the whole day. I also cycled through some open air markets, where I found I could actually buy live snakes and frogs along with the usual fruits, veggies, and seafood. I’ll probably leave and head further North to Lopburi tomorrow.

Shout outs go to Bobbie Ann of Canada and her drunken friends from Brazil and Colombia who I found wandering Khao San at 5:30 AM. The pedal-bike driver who took me to my next choice guesthouse for free when the first one was full. And Tony, who braved Ayutthaya traffic with me on bicycle to reach the various ruins dotting the city.

Last thing consumed: Cantaloupe and a glass-bottled Pepsi (10 baht + 10 baht = 60 cents)
Thought fragment: I had KFC for lunch today, but I ordered a spicy Thai dish and rice (65 baht / $2). The chicken included was indeed of KFC variety, it was an interesting blend of cultures.

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