Archive for March, 2007

Ko Samui

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

Leaving Bangkok, I hopped a flight to Surat Thani province and caught a ferry to Ko Samui. Sitting at the front of the boat, I and fellow travelers enjoyed the best seat in the house and watched the sun set over the course of the hour-and-a-half long ride.

I stayed at a great bungalow (replete with chickens, toads and geckos), located a short walk away from Lamai beach, which is a smaller version of Chaweng, but equally sleazy. The first day and a half a torrential downpour (announced by a typhoon in the distance; cool!) kept me sheltered and reading a novel; not a great way to start off the island visit, but forced relaxation isn’t so bad, no?

Ko Samui has been a mixed bag for me — my goal has been to meet fun young people and chill out on the beach. Instead, Lamai greeted me with sleazy go-go bars and offers of sexy massages. Staying away from the nightlife would have been fine had I not been alone (the secluded location of my guest house is perfectly intimate for couples), and meeting people among a sea of middle-aged couples simply wouldn’t happen here. I had better luck in Chaweng the following night, where I shared beers with a lovesick british guy, who had left his girlfriend in London to clear his head; it turns out that the phenomenon of twenty-something web developer escaping across the globe to find himself is an international one. We talked politics and lamented the overdeveloped atmosphere in town for a couple of hours; but when the local hookers began overzealously helping me in our connect four tournament (boy am i bad at that game) it was time to call it a night.

The following day, having had enough of the rip-offs, runarounds and general ineptitude of the local motor-taxi mafia (one guy let me off 2.5 km from where I’d tried to go, and nobody could point out where I was on the map.. it’s their fucking island!!), I opted to rent a 150cc scooter. Best decision I’d made thusfar, though someone please explain to me why the gear shift is exactly opposite the way it is on a motorbike?!

A note about driving in Thailand: there are very few rules, and those that exist are very much broken all the time. Mopeds, pedestrians and cars alike squeeze themselves into any opening they can, with no apparent road etiquette. It is the motorist equivalent of the little Chinese ladies with sharp elbows pushing their way onto the 31 Geary bus. There are several warnings in the guidebooks against renting a motorbike, and they are all warranted, especially for the inexperienced rider. The windy hills that make up island riding are very much like my morning commute up Franklin Street. But with more dogs. And gravel. And frogs and coconuts. Not to mention that they drive on the wrong side of the road to begin with.

Escaping the trappings of the more popular resort towns, I headed north to see the Big Buddha Statue (of 1972). Overlooking a bay, it serenely blesses the flightpath into the local airport. The town there, Bo Phut, had a much better feel to it (though admittedly still geared to westerners) — a two-street village with character and eateries, overlooking the water. Perhaps I will stay here next time.

I finally met up with my elementary-school friend Sonia and her boyfriend Sean in Chaweng. We caught up over drinks along the beach, enjoying the ridiculous farang scene. Now, the atmosphere is pleasant enough, but one is endlessly accosted by hawkers selling everything from the requisite bracelets to photos with cute baby monkeys, to paper lanterns which, once lit, fly off into the heavens. I’m certain this has some sort of meaning and tradition behind it, no doubt spiritual, but no explanation was offered; only the pricetag.

The worst offenders were a gang of 9 year-olds who walk the tables pressuring drunk westerners into 100-baht games of connect four. They succeed in getting you to play with their cuteness and puppy dog eyes, and quickly rob you blind. Surely they must hone their skills at the local connect four academy, before they hit puberty and learn Muay Thai (I reckon their quick wit at puzzle games must translate well into martial arts.) If ever there was a world-wide connect four championship these kids must get sponsorship.

I feel that there is more to the island than I have seen — besides the buffalo fights, coconut groves and Muay Thai fights, beyond the Starbucks air-con and Baskin Robbins ice cream headaches, there must be something deeper that keeps people here, or coming back (the proprietor of the Green Villa where I stayed, a Frenchman, has been here for three and a half years.) Alas, that something has eluded me. Most likely my own doing, I am a bit fed up with this place. Though I will probably give it another go one day, I am off to Ko Pha-Ngan with Sonia and Sean, who seem to share my sentiments.


Monday, March 19th, 2007

Bangkok is huge, noisy, polluted and really fucking hot. I kinda love it.

Yesterday I spent the day just walking around, getting my bearings. I’ve mostly traveled along Sukhumvit, taking advantage of the convenient SkyTrain system. I opted not to stay on backpacker mainstay Kao San road, and ended up in a much posher area. Along Sukhumvit Road are endless shopping centers, seemingly modeled after the ones in Japan. The scale of these, however, I have never seen before. I got seriously lost in one that blew me away: on the ground floor, a food court the likes of which you’ve got no idea (and bigger than any I saw in Osaka, for that matter) — foods from around the world, pastries and local fruits.. Upstairs were several floors-worth of shopping: everything from your typical western clothing to, i shit you not, car showrooms (including Lamborghini and Ferrari), appliances and electronics like nobody’s business… further upstairs were several language and culture learning centers, geared towards kids; next to that, a Yamaha music shop, in front of which was playing a teen-aged rock group (really talented, too.) After picking up some food and getting a local SIM card for my phone, i escaped (it only took me 20 minutes to figure out how the hell to get out of there.)

I expected the clientelle in these enormous shopping meccas to be all Farang, but to my surprise they seemed to be mostly Thai. I clearly know nothing about the wealth of the average Thai, but I was very surprised by the affluence I saw. To wit, directly next to these concrete behemoths, in the alleys I saw scenes of much greater poverty – between rust and concrete, clothesline glimpses of people’s lives. Bangkok is evidently changing at a very rapid pace.

I spent the afternoon and the following day visiting various Wats, palaces and other points of cultural interest. I know very little about Thai art history, but the various styles are all very beautiful, rich in color — gold leaf statues and wall coverings, elaborate masks and doll.. not to mention the enormous reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, which was truly spectacular, even to me šŸ˜‰ At Wat Pho I got an incredible massage at the traditional massage school located there.

Temporarily reinvigorated (not to mention contorted), I continued amassing a sunburn, visiting more tourist destinations, including the Grand Palace, where I met two very nice, intrepid and beautiful Polish girls. The sun’s effect by this point in the afternoon was taking its toll on me (and my ever-poor command of the Polish language), so I trekked on.

All templed-out (easy to do, very quickly), I managed to find the park near the water, where Capoeira Thailand holds an open roda on Sundays, per the recommendation of Iuna, from ABADA SF. I give these guys the biggest kudos possible, for they are a self-started group (one of two schools in Thailand, no less), and are super dedicated; one of the guys had even spent all morning making berimbaus from local wood and gourds (they sound great).

I managed not collapse in the intolerable heat, and we played until the sun set before going out for dinner and drinks. Perhaps it helps to have a shared interest, especially across language-barriers, but these are really some of the warmest people I’ve met in a while. I hope to play with them again next time I’m in Bangkok.

What next? Despite having walked miles on end, there is so much more for me to see in this city. However, my lungs need a break from the pollution, so I’ll be headed to Ko Samui tomorrow for some beach time.

Lots of plane time

Friday, March 16th, 2007

I love planes, and I am fascinated by airports. But right now I’m tired of all of that.

My last night on Maui I took a small capoeira class with Pedrita, of grupo Porto de Minas. As it turns out, she knows Edna Lima from New York (Mestranda Edna baptized me at my first batizado in 2005 in SF.) The class was all of 2 people, so it was low-key, which is just as well, since it’s really hot there and I hadn’t worked out in a little while.

The following day I flew to Honolulu and spent a night at an unmemorable hotel on Waikiki. I got some sun and sand time in, so I can’t complain; but it was really just a transit point and I didn’t get a chance to really see Honolulu (next time, right?) Early next morning I took a flight to Tokyo (9 hours), had a 4 hour layover in Narita (inari + sake + massage chair.. need i say more?), and then hopped a 7 hour flight to Bangkok.

And here I am at Big John’s guest house. I have no impressions of Thailand yet, and i’m exhausted. I just chatted with Justin, who claims it’s 11:30am in SF. I believe him, but my body clock doesn’t. I think it’s time to hit the sack.

Rainforests, snorkeling, and things in between

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

What is striking about Maui is how quickly and dramatically the scenery changes. The island is pretty small but juts two mountains out of the sea. Between its slopes you find everything from volcanic rock along the coasts, to dense, moist vegetation on West Maui. Sadly, I won’t have time on this trip to do a proper overnight in Hāna. Instead, we took a quick trip into Iao Valley State Park yesterday. Not much is accessible to the general public without trespassing, but the little we saw was definitely worth it.

Half way up the trail, local kids were taking tips for jumping from a 25 foot bridge into a shallow pool. I didn’t exactly want to break my ankle right before my flight out, so instead we opted to jump a shorter distance from a boulder. Despite it not being very extreme, it was pretty fun; not to mention that the cold water cut the afternoon humidity just right. Better than coffee.

On the way back to Kihei we hit a torrential storm. I’m surprised at how much I am enjoying rain here; I suppose it’s different than when it is accompanied by the cold cold breeze of the Bay Area. Here it is life-giving and, as has been the case with everything simple on my trip so far, life-affirming.

We left the western swath of rain behind as we approached our beach town, and hit the beach for the requisite beer, sunset and boogie boarding.

This morning we braved the threatening weather and drove south until the road turned to volcanic rock before dead-ending on the coast, at La Perouse Bay. Through a barbed-wire fence on the side of the road, we followed a wooded trail to the giant coast-side bed of craggly rock. The terrain, unsurprisingly, was lunar, cut with splotches of sand, occasional oases, and pools of varied sealife.

Taking care not to slip and split ourselves open, we hiked a mile or so before finding a small bay to snorkel in. Despite light rain and overcast clouds the water was clear, and we spent an hour swimming among a rainbow-variety of fish — from little puffy ones to long, skinny fuckers. The very best part was the giant sea turtle who had been napping in the area. Some five feet in length, it must have weighed several hundred pounds. Luckily, it didn’t mind too much being harrassed by our bevy of pallid mainlanders.


Monday, March 12th, 2007

I didn’t really imagine that I’d experience 20-30 degree windchills in Hawai’i, but I almost lost some extremities this morning.

The house managed to wake up at 2am to do the famous Haleakala volcano bike tour. A van brought us up to the summit by five in the morning or so, where we watched the sun rise and froze our respective bits off.

Despite the freeze, the view was spectacular. The summit is close to 10,000 feet, so vegetation is sparse, the landscape martian. The volcano is home to rare species such as the Haleakalā Silversword Plant, and Reagan-era Star Wars telescopes and lasers.

After being lent hazmat-esque windbreaker outfits, and given obligatory safety information, we started our 38-mile, winding ride down to the ocean. Along the way we periodically shed layers as we passed through several climates — from the deserted, freezing summit; descending into more temperate zones where there is actual vegetation and wildlife; through humid cloud cover into moist farmland, past cows and eucalyptus; down along Baldwin Road through Upcountry, past movie star residences; through paniolo towns (Maui reportedly had cowboys before Texas did!) and hippie towns; past burnt-down and harvested cane plantations and pineapple fields; down to the coastal town of Paia, where our journey ended.

Exhausted, we were bussed back to our neck of the woods in Kihei. Surpsingly, we rallied and spent the rest of the day at the beach. Not a bad way to end the day. Time for dinner.