I'm about to leave Chang Mai for Laos, and I'm finding it difficult, perhaps for the first time ever, to leave the guest house I've been in for the past 5 nights. What's so unique about it is that not only is it run by the family but the family lives here. 3 generations, all in the same complex. And when they say you're welcome under their roof, they really mean it - but they're not indiscriminate. I've watched them turn away prospective customers because they seemed creepy or rude, I've heard tales of guests being asked to leave because they were up partying too late into the night and woke the family, I've watched them go out of their way to accommodate people who are kind and open. The fact that this is their house lends a whole different perspective to the whole venture. The upshot for those of us staying here is that you really do feel at home - I felt safe, for once, leaving my pack in my room without a padlock on the door. I felt safe and comfortable at night, and therefore slept more soundly than I have since I arrived in Thailand. And I've been happy and felt cared for, which is a lot considering these people didn't know me at all just a week ago.
Probably my favorite thing about the whole family living together is the benefits reaped by the youngest generation. Numkin (which I'm probably misspelling) is a year and 8 months old, knows her ABCs in Thai and English, is played with by everyone - literally about 10 people, not including guests - and is just about the best behaved, happiest child I've ever seen. In almost a week, there's not been a single tantrum. I think about how we do things back home and this seems the much healthier option. Instead of a child being raised by one or two people part-time and the TV most of the time, this little girl spends virtually no time in front of the television, but a lot of time learning and playing and meeting people from all over the world.
Will, who's married to Dao (one of the daughters), is from Canada, and still acclimating to the Thai way of life. Sometimes it's funny - when he goes out with the guys, Dao isn't worried that he'll cheat on her, she's worried he'll be struck by lightning.
Really, I can't say enough good things about the past week. I'm definitely coming back to do the trekking and spend some more time - I've even started to learn to speak Thai, thanks to the staff (I teach them how to swear in English, they teach me how to be polite in Thai). Maybe we'll even come here for Christmas. I hear they have a hell of a party.
And now, off to the bus station.
The good news: Chang Mai is still lovely, and I've made some new friends here. I've also learned to make curry paste from scratch, as well as a whole bunch of other tasty things. Look out, Sunday Dinner crowd! And yes, Karen, you can eat most of it. No wheat or dairy in sight!
The bad news: my back is worse. I was supposed to be trekking yesterday, today and tomorrow, but I realized sometime Wednesday that there was no way I would be able to pull it off. It's been really rainy here - today's the first sunny day - and I could just see myself slipping and immobilizing myself, basically ruining the trip for everyone else. So instead, I've been reading, sleeping, getting Thai Massage (from blind therapists today - excellent!) and drinking with some locals and some travellers. I've even been invited to a wedding next week here in Chang Mai - Grant, who's Scottish, is marrying a lovely Thai woman whose name I forget. Then, they're moving back to Aberdeen. I'm thinking about coming back for the ceremony - depends on the weather in Lao and how my back is feeling.
So the rest of the plan is basically the same - I'll hop on a bus on Sunday morning and head up to Chang Kung, then across to Lao on Monday morning. I'll be in Luang Prabang by Tuesday noonish, and we'll have to play it by ear from there.
In other news, I almost completely forgot about Thanksgiving. Thanks a bunch to those who sent me email and SMS, and I hope you all ate way too much turkey for me. I think I might go and have a pizza (it's western, at least) to celebrate today.
We're going to the brewery on Saturday night. I'm wondering whether a splitting hangover is going to make the bus ride better or worse.....
Chang Mai is, so far, everything I had really hoped this leg of the journey would be. Nestled in the green-clad mountains of the North, the pace is much slower, the people much friendlier, and the foreigners much less, well, determined than in Bangkok. Even in the rain, it's beautiful. The Libra Guest House is by far the nicest - and the cheapest - place I've stayed so far, and the staff (who live here) may be the friendliest people in history. So my Chang Mai agenda is already full: today must be a day of rest and listening to the rain fall. Tomorrow, I see the city. Thursday-Saturday, a trek through the jungles, sleeping in Hill Tribe villages, river rafting, caving and hiking through the mountains. Sunday morning I take off to Chang Kung, and from there across into Lao, beginning with a 2 day slow boat trip down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, the ancient spiritual center of the country. Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? Just don't forget the mosquito repellent. And I'm awfully itchy today after my overnight train ride - I'm hoping I haven't picked up anything icky like fleas....
It's been a while since my last post, I know. Especially since internet access runs, oh, about $1 an hour here. Anyway, my excuse is that I've been a little out of sorts. No, none of my rule-breaking has caught up with me - I don't have dysentary or dengue fever or anything. I guess I've been having a little trouble adjusting - although not for any of the reasons I'd have expected.
When I said my goodbyes and got on the plane, I expected to get off in a place completely different from home. I expected to be challenged and insipired and exhilarated. Maybe I expected some deeper meaning to come and tap me on the shoulder, I'm not sure. But what I was not expecting is a city that is so very - well, Western. Don't get me wrong - the architecture's there, there are lots of Wats and only 2 churches, there are the shanties by the tracks and the food carts on the streets. But really, unless you go out of your way, you'll see as many Westerners as Thai. And when it comes to hanging out, the city is very segregated. I suppose I was bracing for a very different experience, and it's taken my stubborn mind this long to wrap itself around the reality.
I'm not complaining, mind you. I've met a couple of pretty good people and seen some really amazing things - but the overwhelming sense is that Bangkok is kind of a neutral zone, neither Western nor Asian, really, a giant airlock for those moving on into the hinterlands and a holding zone for those who just want the cheap partying and the pretty Asian women to take home. So, inspired (albeit differently) by the constant parade of auslander, I offer the following advice to my fellow travellers:
Ladies. Resist the urge to have your hair braided, extended or dreadlocked. I know lots of people do it. That doesn't mean they look cool. Neither will you. Unless you're Bo Derek circa 1978.
Gentlemen. It doesn't matter how hard to try to pass it off, if you're over 50 and paunchy, nobody - I repeat, nobody - is going to believe for one second that the lovely 18 year old at your side is hanging out with you because she genuinely enjoys your company.
Ladies. Whether you yourself happen to be Buddhist or not, Wats and temples are sacred to the people of this country. All the guide books politely suggest that you dress respectfully, as do the signs at the entry to these sites. Trust me, no matter how nice your ass is, a white thong under a skintight see-through bright green dress is not considered respectful in any country. We won't even talk about tasteful or appealing.
Everyone. I know that it's exhilarating to bargain for merchandise, especially since we all know that Westerners get charged different (and sometimes very different) prices than locals. However, please bear in mind that even at double the locals' price, that pair of pants is still only costing you $5. Does $.50 either way really matter that much?
Also to Everyone, although men seem to be the more common culprits here: just because you're 'backpacking' doesn't mean you have the right to stink the place up. Showers are provided at every guest house in the area. Please, I beg of you, use them!
Finally, I realize that some of you have done a fair amount of globetrotting in recent months or years. I realize that some of you have stories, advice and suggestions to share. I appreciate this, as I'm sure do the beneficiaries of your knowledge. But please, please, I beg of you, don't bellow about how the beer is cheaper at the place you were last week and how much of it you consumed before passing out in the gutter, or how the hookers offered to do you for free, or about how you got picked up by the police with an ounce of Thai stick in your pocket and they let you off with a warning. Seriously. You're a boob. Face it. Go take a shower.
Whew. Now that I've got that off my chest, I feel much better.
In other news, I did see the Grand Palace (which included the Monestary of the Emerald Buddha) and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (at Wat Pho) earlier this week. I must say I was floored. I don't think I've ever seen so much gold in one place - and the craftsmanship, the intricacy, in materials and shapes I'm not accustomed to seeing, was amazing. I'm used to carved stone and marble and stained glass, but an entire complex of solid gold and mosaic was much, much more than I'd bargained for.
That said, I'll take the Reclining Buddha over the Emerald Buddha for the more moving experience of the day. The Emerald Buddha is surrounded by so much finery and fanfare that it seems tiny - plus, it's placed way up high and surrounded by even more gold than anything else in the complex, which is saying something, believe me. The Reclining Buddha, on the other hand, is mammoth - something like 15 meters high and 45 long - and the room that contains it is only slightly larger than the figure, so you really feel its presence. It's absolutely staggering. I had one of those moments I've been longing for, the heart-stopping, jaw-dropping awestruck kind. Cathartic. Fabulous. Can't say enough good things about it. It even broke through my haze of malaise, a moment of clarity for which I was truly grateful.
And that's that, and more than enough for now, I'd say. Monday evening, I'm off to Chiang Mai, and from there to Laos. And now, I'm off to the Banana Leaf for a beer and some curry.... yum!
I haven't written anything in a few days, mostly because I've been trying to verbalize my thoughts for myself. I've done a good deal of sightseeing, been here almost a week, and I feel - well, odd. There are so many Westerners here that if it weren't for the heat and the street vendors I could be almost anywhere. Add to that the absolutely constant movement, and it's like being in New York or London or the city of your choice, in the touristy part of town, permanently.
This omnipresent tourism has an interesting, and somewhat disturbing, impact on my experience. I walk through my days in a haze, somehow subconsciously aware that the pace here dictates I keep moving, look at the temple for a minute, then keep walking. Don't stop, sit down, even stand in one place for too long or you'll be accosted by touts. The traffic, the milling throngs, everything points me toward speed, efficiency. The sheer number of tourists almost mandates an us-or-them mentality - it's not that people are unfriendly, it's just that there are too many of us to really pay attention to. What have you seen today? Have time for more? Move on to the next Wat - it's right next door, 100 more golden buddhas and 1000 more tourists and lots of Thai people who don't expect you to be pleasant or respectful and therefore deal with you brusquely, if at all. I guess that experience by the tracks was even more unusual than I thought.
I don't know what it is, really, that's bothering me most. I don't seem to be able to relax, find a place to be quiet and think. There's too much noise, too much traffic, too many people and yet nobody to talk to. Everyone seems to fall into 2 categories: tourists travelling in packs, in search of the next cheap Chang, or solo travellers stopping through as briefly as possible on the way to somewhere else. Maybe I should take a hint from the latter and move on sooner rather than later. I'm beginning to feel lonely, and in a city this big, with this many people in it, that's just not right.
To continue in the vein of losing the most irritating possible things, this time it's my soap. Along with my soap dish. Left in the shower yesterday morning. Grr!
And another successfully broken rule:
No local dairy. Presumably because they don't pasteurize. Nevertheless, I've had homemade yoghurt on two separate occasions now, and fresh milk every morning in my coffee, and have suffered no adverse effects.
(update) No fresh fruit that you didn't peel yourself. I defy anyone to peel a pineapple as quickly and efficiently as these people with the little carts of deliciousness. Plus, it looks good and tastes even better.
On today's agenda: the Grand Palace, Wat Pho. Maybe a nice Thai Massage. I'll keep you posted.
[author's note: this entry was corrupted and its original db entry lost. below are listed the comments originally posted on this entry.]
and remember some advice from our friend joe..
if a elephant approaches, do not ponder whether or not the elephant is God, or if you are God, or if God should get out of the way of God. Listen to the driver on top of God yelling at you to get out of the way.
well, love! seems the list of items im bringing builds by the day! as long as you dont lose, say, an elephant, it'll be ok. i bet you're just jonesin' for a hamburger and tater tots a la eric, eh? or maybe you're just eating some incredible tom yom soup and laughing. shit.
OK, so everybody's got a different idea of what the right precautions are to avoid general gastrointestinal distress around here. I am proud to say that I have chosen to disregard many of these snippets of advice, with (as yet) no adverse effects. Specifically, they say DON'T:
Drink anything with ice cubes. Clearly, they don't realize how hot it is here, or that the original recipe for Red Bull exists here and nowhere else. I've had about 4 Red Bulls with ice cubes, not to mention several iced coffees (both with chipped and cubed ice). Yummy, refreshing, and totally fine.
Eat at street carts. Best Pad Thai I've ever had.
Drink fresh squeezed juice. How they get juice that sweet and yummy out of those teensy weensy little oranges is totally beyond me, but mmmmmmm, it's so delicious.
More debunking of gastronomical restrictions ahead, I promise. Right now, it's time for a beer!
Fortified by a breakfast of banana pancakes (which are just as good as everyone says) and a lunch of street-cooked pad thai, I just might be able to work through my lack of sleep to get this out on the wire.
I had an extraordinary set of experiences yesterday. I wandered up to another neighborhood to check out a guest house that had come highly recommended, only to find it almost identical to the one where I am staying, slightly more expensive and much further out of the way. As I left, I ran into a fellow American who was walking in the same direction. His name is David. After a few blocks, I thought it only fair to point out that it being Sunday, the Indian embassy (his destination) would not likely be open. So he decided to come with me to the zoo. Which was also closed. And so the adventure began.
For lack of a better idea, and for my part with the general hope of catching some of the Gay Pride festivities in Lumpini Park, we kept walking east across the city, chatting about travel, politics, education, music distribution and whatever else came to mind. Our vague destination was Siam Square, the Times Square of Bangkok, where arctically air conditioned bars and cafes beckoned. Maybe it's the oppressive heat, but the city is a lot larger than it seems, and walking it is a daunting prospect, even for a die-hard like me. Overheating already as we neared the train tracks leading south towards the square, we saw what initially looked like a market had sprung up alongside. Deciding to check it out (it looked shaded, at least), we soon discovered that it was not a market at all, but a neighborhood. Kids ground dried chilies in enormous mortar and pestles, standing in the doorways of the tiny shacks that lined the way. Women washed laundry in aluminum tubs, dogs and cats and their progeny scampered about. The way was narrow, we were weaving through throngs of residents who smiled and greeted us as we passed by. Nobody asked us for money. At one point, we made a turn that would have led us to a dead end. A man stopped us and corrected our direction, saving us probably quite a long retracing of steps. We followed a group of neighborhood residents across a rail bridge, walking on the wood slats between the rails, looking through at the Khlong beneath. On the other side of the bridge, the pedestrian traffic thinned and we eventually cut back through a maze of Sois and out into the trafficked world. Not long after we were in Siam Square, sticking to our leather chairs and drinking Red Bull and tea.
It didn't strike me until much later how extraordinary this experience was. We must have walked at least half a mile, probably further, through this makeshift town, past some of the poorest people in the city, and not once did I feel the least bit threatened. Nobody glared, nobody shunned us. A few - mostly children - looked at us with curiosity, but most everyone treated us to a smile. Nobody asked us for money. Nobody tried to sell us anything. Directions were volunteered and were accurate. Where else would this happen? I remember my experiences in Jamaica, where walking a half mile along the road between my guest house and my friend's was an adventure in fear and diplomacy. I think about my office in the Chicago Loop, where every morning in the two blocks between the bus stop and the door I would be asked for money by no less than eight different people. These people here were clearly poor, but they didn't expect us to do anything about it. They saw us neither as threat nor opportunity, rather just passing curiosities, unusual visitors. To say it was refreshing is an understatement. To say it was moving may be trite but it's true. It's a memory that won't soon leave me.
On the way back to Banglamphu in the river taxi, we noticed that the banks of the Chao Praya river - land which in most western countries would be considered prime real estate - were largely lined with shanties of a different variety, more like floating shacks, some with the docks as their porches and all with the river as their garden. Laundry was hanging out to dry, pink towels and flowered dresses. I thought, the houses by the river should be big and bright. Breezes are best down here, next door to the Oriental and the Sheraton where the wealthy cool their heels in a world well beyond our means. But here are shanties, cobbled together, inches from collapse - and yet bedecked with richness of flowers. By the taxi stop, a pretty blue house, windows all flung wide, children swimming in front. One would almost think, "don't they know they're poor?" But that's not a fair question. Our poor is not theirs, and to judge them by it is to do them wrong.
Between the houses by the river and the shanties by the tracks, I think I'm beginning to understand something important about the way of life here. What we consider wealth - fast cars, lots of money, expensive whatever it is you like - isn't as important here - at least not to the people I saw yesterday. Sure, everyone wants a piece of the tourist action. Sure, every tout and orange juice vendor on the street will try to sell you what they've got. But I've only had 2 people ask me for handouts, and I'm in prime begging territory most of the time. The other side of life here is wealthy in community, in family, in a society that works together so that all can live as well as possible. They may not be rich, but they're not hungry either, or angry or afraid. They're smiling.
So who's poor now?
Inevitably, things get lost when you travel. This is a given. But who'd have thought I'd lose my toothbrush before I even got here?
I have arrived, which means I have officially embarked upon this adventure. After the longest flight ever - no, really, the *longest* flight - I got into Bangkok at 1 a.m. local time last night. It's now 4 p.m. and I've just finished a fabulous bowl of Tom Yum Gai, and am sweating away in an internet cafe off the Khao San Road.
I'm sure you're all hoping for erudite descriptions, but my head's still too chaotic to put such a thing to paper, so to speak. I'll be here for at least a week, maybe two, before I head off to Laos, and I'm sure in a few days my mind will have settled a bit. A few first impressions:
To try to explain what is different here is fruitless. Everything is different. Even the traffic sounds different. The people are lovely, and their language is music. The food is, as expected, out of this world. The streets are narrow and crowded and chaotic alternated with wide and crowded and chaotic. You go from concrete jungle to golden palace in five feet. Remember how I said I was going in search of culture shock? I feel sure I'll find it here.
Take care of yourselves and each other. More soon, promise.
Not trying to be pretentions with the French subject header - just seemed the most appropriate thing to say - until the next. I was going to write about the Peter Gabriel show (which was amazing). I was going to write a lot of things. Some of them would probably have been passable, most probably trite or otherwise inappropriate. But really, friends, this [92.9 MB mp3] says it for me. I'll miss you. I'll write. Promise.
See you next year.
I know I never posted pictures from Eric's birthday. Stop telling me about it. The reason I never posted them is because they are all either (a) so blurry it's impossible to tell what's going on, or (b) so oddly exposed that it looks like the restaurant is on fire, or (c) (and most commonly) both.
Last Saturday (the 9th) was my bon voyage fête, and as you can see by the photos at right it was neither serious nor sober, unless you count seriouly unsober as serious. Anyway, the festivities took place at the Gramercy (many, many thanks to Brad, Colin and Sandy for making it happen). If you haven't been yet, I recommend it highly - this despite the fact that it's in the old Lounge Ax space, for which reason I was initially sworn to hate it. It's beautiful and comfy and the food is great.
One thing about the Gramercy is that, despite the very danceable grooves, nobody moves. They stand around and stare at each other while trying to look cooler than whoever they're standing next to. Except for me and Eric. We reckon if there's space and music, why not get a groove on? The wedding party who were hovering like vultures, coveting our table, were not impressed.
The highlight of the evening (aside from me dancing in 4" spike heels) was the going away flower from Jeannine and Dave - a 3' tall orange silk rose. No, I'm not taking it with me. No, it was not a particularly practical gift. But it was goofy and it was fun, and my backpack is too full of useful stuff to fit anything else.
Anyway, to all those who couldn't make it for reasons of illness or prior engagements, you were missed. To those who said they'd be there and didn't show, well, I never liked you anyway. To those who were in attendance, thank you, I'll miss you. I love you.
It's been another fun-packed weekend - one more Halloween party on Saturday (thanks, Robin!), followed by Eric's birthday on Sunday. I'll post the birthday party pics tomorrow, but enjoy the Halloween shots now. A rundown of the costumes:
Groundskeeper Willie............... Eric
Professor Frink........................ Stephen
Commander Data.................... Coz
Margo Tennenbaum................. Corrie
That Tacky Club Couple............ Jeannine and Dave
The White Trash Cosmetologist.. Me
Yea verily, we were a sight to behold.
Today's photo post is the first in a series - people, places and things I'll miss while I'm gone. Although there are people in Chicago whom I consider friends that I sometimes don't see for a year at a time, somehow this upcoming seven months seems very long indeed. I vacillate between elated excitement and fear - not so much that I'll get blown up or arrested or something like that, more that I'll be lonely and unable to extract the meaning from this jouney that I had hoped to.
Leaving's like that.