Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

Songkran in Ayutthaya and Bangkok

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

It may be paranoia writing, but on the air-conditioned afternoon bus from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya, I realized that my morning’s exploration of temple ruins had left me with a film of evaporated sweat, and a slight but unpleasant odor. The lady next to me didn’t seem to appreciate this. I am actively working on not caring about such issues.

After a six-hour ride I was the only one to get off at Ayuttahya, the bus continuing on to Bangkok, and instead of a bus terminal, I was let off on the side of the highway a few kilometers from the town center. I must note, once again, the infuriating affairs of hiring transport in Thailand. When you don’t want a tuk-tuk, you are inevitably going to be approached by someone offering you a tour of the city or x-rated ping-pong show for a very good price. When you are half a block away from your accommodations you are accosted by scooter-taxis, offering to take you wherever you need to go. However, when you are in actual need of transport, especially when stranded, the drivers get coy and pretend to ignore you when you don’t agree to their quote. Despite my best efforts to negotiate a price, the scooter-taxi driver wouldn’t budge from his exorbitant 100 Baht fee, all for taking me and my overweight pack on a deathride on the highway.

Luckily, I managed to persuade a very nice couple to let me ride in the back of their pickup the six kilometers into town, refusing payment upon dropping me off. Easily finding a guest house for the night, I was struck at the eery quiet in the streets. Most shops were closed, and the streets lacked the nightlife typical of Thai towns. The city was gearing up for Songkran, Thailand’s multi-day New Year’s celebration.

Waking up the following morning I had an agenda consisting of seeing the vast and manicured ruins of this former Thai capital city. Camera in hand, and everything in my pack wrapped in plastic bags, I set out to brave the commencing celebrations. Songkran, as I understand it, originally was a New Year’s celebration where families would gather and pay respect to one another with blessings of water. Likewise, holy Buddha statues often get taken out of town wats and paraded through the streets to let people wash them.

Today, Songkran is much more of a party, in Chiang Mai lasting almost a week this year. In Ayutthaya I was quickly drenched by mobs of bandit children, commanding the streets, Rambo style, wielding plastic water guns seemingly too big for their small frames. Groups of teenagers pack pickup trucks and crawl the streets, engaging in a country-wide water fight. My guest house even ran hoses that pumped water from the adjacent river to soak passers-by. Add to all of this the tradition of patting strangers’ faces with paste, and the celebration quickly becomes a messy, wet affair.

I did manage to snap a few pictures of the ruins and other historical stuff — thankfully these grounds were off-limits to drenching. But the day was mostly spent getting into the spirit of things. In 95 degree heat, the water is refreshing; and once you let go of western trepidation about getting wet, it is really quite fun. There are floats, beauty pageants, masks, street food and alcohol: really all you could ask for on New Year’s.

After several good soakings and a filling meal, I decided to head down to Bangkok a day early, having seen as much as I reasonably could. Waiting for a train, I met a Anglo-Estonian couple whom I’d recognized from up in Chiang Mai — I’d seen them in costume, riding double-decker bicycles. Apparently, they’ve been traveling the region, playing old jazz tunes on guitars and saxophone. We even got to pass the time with an impromptu Capoeira game.

Arriving in Bangkok, and hoping to run into the musical couple later, I headed out into every agoraphobe’s nightmare: Songkran celebration on Kao San road. I had convinced myself to book a hotel in backpacker central, to experience things from a different perspective than my last stay in BKK. Little did I know at the time that this is Songkran central. Multiple streets filled with young revelers, where nobody is safe from a soak.

I invite you to look at some of the pictures of the crowds, and picture me among twice as many people, trying to navigate like flotsam in a nearly-frozen sea, wearing a giant backpack, trying hard to be zen about the experience. At a snail’s pace, going from waterbucket fight to street rock concert (if only I’d known the words the songs, I’d have moshed, too), some internal GPS-radar-compass thing kicked in. I took an alley shortcut, went around the bend, and lo and behold, found the hotel. I’ve never been more proud of myself.

Able to settle into more comfortable clothes, I soon joined the party, ice-cold water in hand, seeking revenge on any sniper who dared shoot first. Three days into it, I had enough of the whole thing about 2 days ago; but Songkran is actually a lot of fun. One simply has to resign oneself to being soaked and dirty for a while. Not a bad way to end my time here in Thailand.

Tomorrow morning I fly to Cambodia to meet up with an old friend, whose only warnings have been to expect a very different world from Thailand. I eagerly anticipate culture shock.


Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Worried about how my travel would be affected by upcoming Songkran celebrations, I left Chiang Mai a few days earlier than originally planned. I headed down to the bus station, where I’d been informed, much to my frustration a few days before, that one can’t book a bus in advance. Luckily, I was able to get a seat on the spot, leaving right away. I met a couple of American girls who are studying development for a few months in Thailand; they told me a little bit about rural communities trying to stop dam building, and homestays with protective Thai families.

A few hours later we found ourselves in Sukhothai, a small town on the River Yom, situated a dozen kilometers from historic old Sukhothai, capital of the Sukhothai kingdom centuries ago. The old town is now a historical park, a roughly three-kilometer-square rectangle, whose old city walls are overgrown. The many wats in this and adjacent parks are spread out over groomed parkland, and the best way to see them all is by bicycle. Spending several hours there, an inner child within me found glee in pedaling about, amongst old temple ruins, some with grand moats along their perimeters. Riding around, it is hard not to imagine what the city looked like inhabited, bustling with newfound independence from the Khmer empire. With images such as these I am reminded of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes, in exacting detail, the many varied cities within Genghis Khan’s kingdom, and the emotions they each evoke.

There is little more to see in this town, and its manageable size provided a welcome respite for my wallet. [I do have to second Lonely Planet’s recommendation of the Thai restaurant in town, where, seated among antiquities, you can sample various Thai herbal liquor remedies with your meal.] After a day here, it is time for me to catch an afternoon bus down to Ayutthaya, another important capital city in Thailand’s history.

Chiang Mai and Surrounds

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

People seem to have a love affair with Chiang Mai. My guidebook flatly asks if you’ve yet been asked about it by other travelers (“Have you been to Chiang Mai yet??”)

With high expectations I took a second overnight train (see previous entry) from Bangkok and headed north. My initial impressions of the town were that it is a typical, almost sleepy, Thai town. Medium in size, it has its share of traffic, especially around the central, older part of town, whose decaying, ancient walls and moat cause traffic flow to be circuitous.

It took me a few days of urban surfing to find the spots I’d been hoping to run across, but there they were, hidden behind dark alleys or sandwiched between expat bars. Chiang Mai may be an ancient and historic town, but what I realized is that it is the Thai equivalent of the Bay Area, filled with lively nightlife and hippie influence. There is a confluence of raggae bars where a few alleys meet, where lanky dreadlocked Thai musicians rock, and the odd wandering trumpet player drops in to jam. Daytime offers numerous Yoga studios and a huge number of vegetarian restaurants and book shops. In addition to the quotidian night market, weekly night markets take over entire streets, such as the one near my guest house. Block after block of people, food, wares and music, drove home my impressions that while this city seems to sleep much of the time, it really lives often, and with verve.

For me, these are the cherries on a city that already offers so much to see. One can easily lose a few days wandering the numerous temples in the area, and tourists flock here for trekking expeditions to the hills, where between lengthy hikes they have their choice of touristsploitation: elephant rides, meeting “hill tribe” people, etc.

Unsure of how I would spend my exploitation dollars in the days to come, I first opted to take a Thai cooking course. In the morning our class went to a local market to explore the offerings, picking up some fresh vegetables along the way. We spent the following several hours learning to prepare numerous dishes, with mine adjusted to be “jay” (vegetarian). After a full day of cooking and eating, I could barely finish the spring rolls and noodles I’d made for dinner, and passed out cold and early.

Renting a scooter, I set off to explore Doi Suthep, am impressive temple sitting three hundred steps up a hillside in the mountains some 15 km from the town center. They say that the view from there is impressive, and I had to settle for imagination, as the area has been battling a bad case of haze, caused by slash-and-burn fires in Thailand, Burma and Laos. Though not magnificent a day for a landscape, I welcomed the excursion, riding twisties half an hour up the mountain, chugging along as best a 125cc scooter can, and taking in what little I could see along the way.

After another day of chilling in the city I took a day trip to the Elephant Nature Camp, a sanctuary for abused elephants. It was started by a woman who is trying to change centuries-old traditions that break elephants using days of starvation, beating and torture. This has traditionally been done for the purposes of construction, but since Thailand abolished logging, elephants are now mainly used for entertainment, performing shows and offering rides to the general public, who is largely unaware of the barbaric practices that have tamed the large animals. With the volunteer slots booked up far in advance, I was unable to stay for more than one day at the camp. So, instead of getting to do lots of daily chores, I spent the day learning about the elephants’ tragic stories, feeding them fruits and vegetables at lunchtime, and bathing them a couple of times in the river.

It surely unnecessary for me to say that elephants are big, but you have no idea just how big they are until you see them laying on their sides in the river as you scrub their leathery skin with a tiny brush. For all the awkwardness that comes with their scale, they are as gentle and graceful as can possibly be. Most impressively is that despite their legendary memories, most are able to forgive the terrible episodes they have suffered in their lifetimes (and a couple are over seventy years of age!) I’m talking about traumas dealing with forced labor during pregnancy, broken spines due to [elephant] rape, being tied to a post (at a temple, no less) for two years, unable to move… that these clearly emotional (for they are emotive, and social) animals do not ambush all humans they encounter breaks my heart, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to briefly interact with them in the way I did — the center does not, unlike other elephant “camps”, offer rides or have them do tricks. It is their goal to have the elephants be, well, elephants; and our quirky tour guide spent much of the day telling us about their many many soap operas (he likes her, and this one is jealous, but they’re hanging out together anyway, after much coaxing………) It turns out that being an elephant is much like being on daytime TV, but with more bananas and dust baths.

My last day in Chiang Mai, I took a bus tour farther north, to the Golden Triangle. Now, I thought I’d signed up for a trek of some sort, but it turned out to be more of a tour of various shopping areas hours from Chiang Mai. Nevertheless, it was pretty cool to see where Thailand, Burma (err.. sorry.. Myanmar) and Laos meet, at the Mekhong River. Historically known for opium production, this spot is now a mooring where tourists to Thailand can take a boat trip to a tourist trap in Laos for thirty minutes to purchase cheap cigarettes. I opted not to spend the extra ten bucks to see that.

After lunch we went to the Thailand-Burma border crossing, where stall after stall sells all manner of jewelry, cheap knock-off watches and other Chinese imports. Actually, this is an important trade destination, which has for a long long time seen Burmese, Thais and Chinese from Yun Nan converge to trade wares.

Thankfully not staying here for long, we were soon shuttled to a less-than-authentic hill tribe village, where Karen, Akha and Lahu people (mostly women) sell their various scarves, hats, jewelry and opium pipes to tourists. If I sound cynical it is because I’m a little jaded at the whole hill-tribe/tourist situation. I am happy to have gotten to see people I would normally never see, and a certain curiosity was satisfied; but there is little authenticity to the experience. There is evidence that the women I met do actually live there (laundry, livestock, satellite dish), but it is clearly an experienced manufactured for tourist dollars; a little strip of Epcot in Northern Thailand, exactly as I expected. I did not go on an extended hike up in the mountains, but I understand that guided treks in the area make exactly the same photo-op pit stops, with the added bonus of sleeping under the same thatched roofs. Therefore, I must resign myself to the whole experience. I am very much a tourist in their land, and bring the promise of income to people do not even benefit from Thai citizenship. To their dismay, however, I did not purchase anything, despite their best puppy-dog eyes. They cursed me in languages I cannot begin to understand.

So, Chiang Mai.. it offers a quality of life that makes an extended stay tempting. It has a verve similar to Bangkok’s, with less bustle; it’s got endless eco-tourist and extreme-sports opportunities; it’s got a laid back atmosphere that I enjoyed very much. With my only complaint being lack of ocean, I will definitely come back some day to experience more of it, and hopefully head into Laos and Myanmar.

Now, with only a few days left of my stay in Thailand and huge New Year’s celebrations prepping throughout the country, I will start heading back south to Bangkok, with a couple of stops along the way.

Ko Tao

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

Taking a quick 2-hour catamaran ferry, I set off from Ko Pha-Ngan to Ko Tao, a small island known for its diving, snorkeling, and relaxing atmosphere.

Not having done SCUBA diving before I was quickly sold on the idea, and had an impressive list of shops to choose from. I had my pick-up truck taxi drop me off in the middle of the strip, a narrow road that parallels the beach. After walking around for ten minutes and viewing a couple of options, I settled on Scuba Junction. Not knowing what to look for in a diving school, I went with the recommendation of a couple who had just gotten their certification there, and my legs thanked me when I was able to drop my pack in the nearby bungalow. I’d made a good choice.

Originally, my plan was to check out Ko Tao for a few days before heading West to the Andaman Sea and visiting Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta. I ended up staying a week, so the other islands will have to wait until my next Thailand visit. The beach-front town of Sairee is everything I’d originally hoped for on the islands — a small community, basic accommodations, and good people.

I started my open-water course the very afternoon I arrived, and had the first bit of homework to do since graduating college. The next few days would consist of a morning classroom session (replete with boring videos), followed in the afternoon by a boat trip to one of the many dive sites in the area. Thankfully we did all of the basic exercises in the ocean, as opposed to a pool, so not a moment went by without seeing sea life. Diving is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and here I found myself in a paradise setting at bargain prices. As it turns out, the hardest part of diving is its core principle: breath control. After adjusting your weight and finding neutral buoyancy, you learn to control your body mostly by controlled inhalation and exhalation. Though the subtleties of breathing technique were yet to sink in, my group did pretty well in the water (especially compared to our instructor, Ben’s, previous few students), and we were able to do some shallow (9 meter) dives right away.

Over the next few days I would go on to complete the open-water course as well as the advanced diver course, which allows me to dive at 30 meters; this is, I am told, the perfect diving depth, though the one time i got that deep the visibility was pretty murky. Though the list of underwater creatures I saw ended up being pretty long, some highlights were angelfish, Titan Triggerfish (who are very aggressive, and even left a bite mark on one of poor Lyndon’s fins), Bluespotted Stingray, Moray Eel, crazy Sea Cucumbers (which, as it turns out, have legs and are really freaking cool), Butterflyfish, Clownfish (like Nemo), Parrotfish, lots of sea urchins, anemones… During a night dive, I saw coral spawning, in which their polyps bloom, and the rock-like formations turn into fluttering forests of activity. That night we also saw many barracuda, which are very gentle and smart. They use divers’ flashlights to their advantage, so whenever we came across one we would shine our lights on a fish and the barracuda would snap into it with unimaginable speed.

Most of the instructors at the school seem to be folks who came to the island and simply didn’t leave. Ben, from the UK, has been there for almost four years; less jaded, JP is from Quebec, quickly got his teaching certification and hasn’t left in almost a year. The list goes on, and I can now understand how people come and stay a while.. you give things up from the real-world and adopt a fresh lifestyle. Three times a day the school boards a boat, home of captain and teenage son, who accommodate divers for a few hours, seeing them in and out of the water and serving freshly sliced pineapple.

The afternoons better spent in the water or by the beach — my bungalow got to 99.5 °F one naptime; opening the doors and windows thankfully dropped it a few degrees, but the rooster with a retarted crow made it hard to sleep. Nevertheless, Sairee life is not difficult to get used to. The evenings are quieter than on Ko Pha-Ngan, but pack a good crowd at the few bars along the water. There I ran into Matt, the Brit I’d met on Ko Samui (who, incidentally, had told me to come here in the first place), as well as some British girls I’d met on Ko Pha-Ngan. Continuing the meme of friendly folks from the UK, I even met a good bunch on the ferry ride over, and would run into them daily until they left.

With the exhaustion of a day’s diving, it’s impressive that people actually make it out to drink at all, but they do. Though not every night was met with enough energy to party, my newfound diving friends (Daniel from Rome/London/USA, Daniel from Switzerland, space-cadet extraordinaire Romain from France, Lyndon from Alabama, and lovely Renate from Holland) and would find several occasions to celebrate dive course completions and such. After finishing their course, Renate and Jennifer found out the true power of the Sangsom Bucket; I do not envy their hangovers.

Leaving the island was a bittersweet afternoon, almost like the end of a very short summer camp. I had a fantastic time here, even if I didn’t get to see the rest of the island. Clutching my SSI dive certifications, and hoping to run into my new-found friends in the future, I hopped the ferry to Champhon, where Sebastian and I shared a train ride up to Bangkok. Sebastian, from Germany, spent a month in Thailand on a bicycle, and was ending his trip here. Though he was originally in my dive class, but had to take a two-day absence due to a stomach bug, but managed to get his certification before leaving. Since we both had a layover in Bangkok (his before flying home, mine before catching a train to Chiang Mai), we decided to spend a very tired morning in the city.

After grabbing some food and very necessary coffee in my favorite shopping mall (last time I wrote about it, I forgot to mention the Maserati showroom and 10,000 square meter aquarium), we took a tour of the Jim Thompson‘s house, a museum that used to be home to an American textile entrepreneur, who died under mysterious circumstances. After some last-minute tourist shopping on Sebastian’s part, I headed back to the train station.

The air conditioning on the train to Bangkok was broken and I’d woken up dehydrated and out of sorts. This, combined with a day’s worth of the capital city’s intolerable heat, had left me in a pensive daze. Hitting the road alone again after spending a few days with warm people and new friends is something I will learn to get used to. I hope this to be the case, anyway, as I fall asleep dirty and reminiscing, aboard my second night train in two days, on my way to Chiang Mai. At least the AC works this time.

Ko Pha-Ngan

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

Sweden has a population of about 9 million people. I’ve been told that about 300,000 of them come to Thailand every year. That’s 3 percent, and very impressive. I spent several days on Ko Pha-Ngan with mostly Swedes, the large majority of them beautiful, half-naked and dull. I have very quickly developed a disdain towards them (well, at least the ones here.) Though I highly recommend this phenomenon as beach-front eye candy (words would fail to describe the criminal and oft bordering-on-statutory material here — sorry, no pics), they turned out to be the most insular bunch I’ve seen thusfar. If I sound like a disgruntled, dirty old man, well.. I’m seeking a petty revenge towards Them (and am trying to make you jealous.) Apparently some people travel half a globe just to hang out with people from home. With the exception of a great couple I’d first met in Bangkok, my friendly smiles at Swedes have, by and large, been answered with a blank stare and a turn of the head; all these gross generalizations have been confirmed as practice by Erik, the friendly Swede, and Hella, a boisterous Norwegian who tells me that the Blonde Ones do nothing but complain while in paradise.

Ok. End of rant. I feel better: the Swedes may all be gorgeous, but they leave much to be desired. [I should mention the large population of Israelis. They at least seemed to properly enjoy the beach without pretense. Their female population was also beautiful, but very small compared to the men. Oh well.]

Luckily, Sonia and Sean shared a couple of days with me on the beach in Haad Rin, location of the infamous full-moon party, and center of young tourist life on the island. Haad Rin is the perfectly sized village as far as party destinations are concerned, and every night is an excuse for a celebration, full-moon or not; all over the island are signs, in fact, advertising all manner of party — full-moon, half-moon, black-moon, geisha-moon… waning-gibbous party, anyone?

Spending several debaucherous and sleepless nights here was the perfect antidote to the more mainstream Ko Samui. After a lazy afternoon on the beach, the tourist population generally enjoys dinner and a movie: most restaurants show bootlegs of American films, including screeners of current releases with hilarious engrish subtitles. Schedules are posted along with the menu, leading to the phenomenon of picking a restaurant for its entertainment, rather than food.

The evening usually continues at the numerous beach-front bars, where my Burner heart was warmed by excellent fire spinners. Free food, drinks were often given away for one reason or another (bar anniversary, hoop throwing contests..) and the infamous Buckets (a $10 sand pail of ice, thai whiskey or vodka, red bull or other mixer) are peddled late, and dance music is blasted well into the morning. As you can imagine, after a few buckets the party starts to lose control a bit. Late one night some guy (non-Thai) tried to steal a girl’s bag. Immediately he was thrown to the ground by half a dozen inebriated but sharp-eyed bartenders and locals. Dragged off the beach and into the alleyway, he would likely have been beaten to death had Sean not intervened, explaining that he was an American medic and he couldn’t let it go on. The kicking stopped, and while waiting for the police it was explained that the man had come to Haad Rin before and stolen passports and other valuables. In the end, Sean’s heroics diffused the situation and as a result we were offered free drinks. Of course.

Overall, Haad Rin has its charms. Between fresh fruit shakes on the beach, dogs sleeping in the middle of traffic, cheap sandwiches at 5 in the morning, winding, treacherous roads, barefootedness, coconut groves and jungle/beach parties, the small town feel of the town remains one of my favorite stops so far. If you expect a party atmosphere, you wouldn’t be disappointed; but though other spots on the small island offer yoga retreats and sleepy towns, and general peace and quiet. I fully expect to make my way back here some day.

Haad Rin, like all popular destinations in the area, is growing rapidly, and threatens to lose its summer-camp-esque atmosphere. To wit, I had to change hotels when I could get no sleep due to thumping techno till 5, then construction right next door at 8 in the morning. Indeed, it seems that the entire local economy and sleep schedule has begun to revolve around the demands placed by dance-craved Europeans. I just hope Starbucks doesn’t decide to drop in..

My final night I went to Half-Moon party in the middle of the jungle, where an open-air club was set up, and hundreds of people danced the night away. I decided to skip the full-moon party, happening in a few days, as the place apparently gets more crazy than it usually is (hard to believe.) After a late night pool-party and nightly beach dancing, I think I’m good. Besides, I think I’ve had my fill of euro-techno for a while, and hope to find a bit more substance at Burning Man in the fall.

Instead, I’m headed to Ko Tao for some SCUBA lessons and more beach laziness before heading up north.