Thursday, February 24, 2011

Just me, Buddha and the bats.

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

-Mel Brooks

Just me, Buddha and the bats.

It’s an easy bus connection from Ayuthaya via Suphanaburi, so why not spend a few days in Kanchanaburi, Thailand? The town’s fame is tied to it’s bridge, which happens to extend over the River Kwai. You may have come across a book or film related to the site where the Japanese operated a prisoner of war camp during World War Two, forcing thousands of allied soldiers into indentured servitude to build over 400 kilometers of rail line linking Thailand with Burma as a supply route. It’s known as the Death Railway. Over 100,000 men died in its sixteen month construction.

Having walked through multiple cemeteries of allied prisoners who perished amidst slave labor I remain perplexed by the aftermath. Not just with this particular atrocity of World War Two or the War itself, but with all large-scale armed conflicts. How is it that in such short measure all is forgiven, or at least largely pardoned? So it goes. Yet if there is any reason to hold a grudge this is it. Slavery so harsh it results in the loss of over 100,000 lives.

Who am I to talk. I drive a Honda.

I’ve partaken in every version of the Sony PlayStation video game console.

I’m a closet Pokemon fan.

Pearl Harbor? So it goes. Can you point me to the nearest sushi joint?

It’s an event that still brings crimson to the cheeks. My sister and I in an Arkansas national park several years ago exploring a cave. One that we didn’t just stumble across, but was quite well-traveled. Hell, we even bought a flashlight at park headquarters a short walk away. A circumstance that makes my conduct all the more shameful.

There were noises. Odd echoes coming from deep within the cave, maybe even a screech. Yes, definitely a screech. Survival instinct commanded screaming and running. Survive indeed. Having not made it more than fifty feet into the cavern it didn’t take more than a few seconds to resurface. Minutes later so did a family of four, of which included a boy who wasn’t old enough for organized education. Seemingly bored with the cave and it’s quarter mile length.

When I entered the Wat Tham Khao Pun, a Buddhist temple made up of an underground network of nine different caves outside of Kachanaburi, my intestines were knotted. I was alone. Just me and some Buddhist shrines, the statues’ eyes following my movement. Ducking and sucking in the stomach to make it through narrow passages, the deeper in the quieter the cavern became. Then silent, save for the dripping. The stalactites perspiring. The flutter of bats overhead. The beat-beat of a drum in the void, or maybe my heart. I can’t tell which.

A flying rodent whizzes by my neck.

Akin to a tree falling down in the forest, does one’s vocal chords make a sound when there is no one else around to hear the shriek?

A fellow hiker wasn’t so lucky in Erawan National Park, about 80 kilometers north of Kachaniburi. A new sign of maturity, I didn’t laugh. Not when it happened. Not as I witnessed the epic spill. A slide down a muddy hill by a farang female a bit heavy to be wearing that two-piece bikini. A ten foot drop in altitude  later she’s heels over head with mud coming out of her ears. Grunting and moaning and maybe we need to put this calf down. A significant other comes to her rescue as she’s digging her camera out of the muck and still, not even a snicker. Instead focusing on my serene surroundings, the tiered waterfalls exceedingly beautiful, sufficiently distracting. Fifteen minutes later the footage replays in the mind’s eye and during mid-stride a lunatic laugh erupts. Here it comes again as I type this, fit for the asylum.

Does one acquire negative karma when the object of one’s derision is unaware?

There’s a kink. It starts in the toes and ends somewhere in the vertebrae at the base of my skull. The result of a three hour bus ride from Kanchanaburi to Ratchaburi, followed by a 7 hour train trip from Ratchaburi to Chomphon, topped off with a 9 hour twisting and turning bus joggling from Chomphon to Phuket (pronounced ‘poo-get’, this is not an excuse to swear in front of your pastor). A day and a half of ass-comatose travel after factoring in waiting time at transport terminals. 3rd class all the way, sitting aside Thailand’s underprivileged, grateful for the pre-trip vaccinations. They want to give me an ‘American’ handshake when I’d much prefer the no-contact Thai wai.

“Please, allow me to show proper respect by utilizing your own customs.”

Apollo Eleven, you are now on the dark side of the moon. We’ve lost contact.

Time to break out the hand sanitizer.

Keep drifting.

Kwai River Bridge; you’re looking at 7 Academy Awards.

Erawan National Park, where people fall farther than the water does.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Elephants are sneaky bastards.

“Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you only have the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

-Bill Bryson, discussing traveling in Neither Here nor There

Elephants are sneaky bastards.

Going from a tourist haven like Chang Mai to a city like Phitsanulok, Thailand is like marrying a wife that cooked and cleaned but now stumbles through the day binge drinking. What a bitch. All the sudden the road signs don’t include English translations, public transportation is sparse, non-existent, the stores aren’t selling pasteurized milk. People stare. It’s as if I’m in a foreign land or something.

From Phitsanulok I took a day trip to Sukhothai, Thailand and biked around the historical park, the ‘old city’ regarded as home to the 1st Thai kingdom, an offshoot of the Khmer Empire, from the 13th century. 150 years later Ayuthaya, which I’m currently pedaling through, became the Thai capital, flourishing from 1350 to 1767, until it was eventually sacked by Burmese invaders. At one million strong Ayuthaya was supposedly the largest city in the world around the 17th century. Here I am, enthralled by structures over twice as old as measuring from the conception of my home country, mesmerized by a history I have no bloodline ties to. At least not this lifetime.

Upon returning to Phitsanulok from Sukhothai in the early evening I walk right into a parade. It erupts in front of me in the form of crashing symbols, a deafening drum beat, and dragons made out of paper mache. Then I find myself turning away. You won’t see this sort of stuff back in the States.

A child, he can’t be more than five years old, is standing on the shoulders of another. Making up the top of the human ladder. Five more men are below, each standing on the deltoids of the one underneath. It’s at least thirty feet of human. Don’t worry about the young boy on top. There’s an ambulance following the human ladder as the man on bottom begins inching forward. Then struts. Thirty feet of legs and torsos and arms swaying with each step, the crowd ooing and awing while I gnaw on my lower lip.

The child on top, he looks like he’d rather be anywhere else on the planet right now. Like he’d rather be cleaning toilets or getting prodded with a cattle rod or wading stingray infested waters. I’m at my empathetic best, sort of feeling how he’s feeling. Sort of tingling with the energy and excitement of the moment, but it’s all doused in anticipated dread. Hoping the moment doesn’t ignite.

Hey, at least an ambulance is on-site. That kind of makes it okay in a Third World sort of way.

Halfway into the spectacle the boy adopts a glassy look. As if he’s staring through everything in eyesight. Transporting his mind to another place, another time. As his feet return to asphalt he comes to, beaming with pride, and marches along with the other members in his troupe. Congratulations. You don’t have to suck your dinner through a hospital straw tonight.

As I’m checking out of the guesthouse in Phitsanulok the woman working the desk asks, “Can I go with you?”

I don’t understand.

“You go. I go with you.”

Umm, gulp.

“So, where we go?”

It’s time to do what I do best. Play the part of the village idiot. A method actor, I’m always in character. Shrugging, hands up, a quizzical grin. A new wrinkle to the role, I bring out the espanol. No comprende. A touch of Francais. Je ne comprends pas.

Real Time Travel Tip #2: When in doubt, pretend that English is a second or third language for you as well. That I naturally have a hard time pronouncing many English words finally works to my benefit. And finally, finally a semester each of Spanish and French in college pays off. It was about time I cashed in that dividend on those two million dollar textbooks.

In Thailand it’s all about naa , or ‘saving face.’ Most Asian people endeavor not to embarrass themselves or others. Great lengths will be taken to avoid confrontation. As an amateur to the culture this was my way of sidestepping potential humiliation.

Later, on the train ride to Ayuthaya, what I’m thinking is: why not? I’m not opposed to a traveling companion for a little while. Oh yeah. Because after ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ we’d sit in silence until the split. Wait, that’s about the extent of my social skills with English speakers anyway. Hey, conductor, how about hitting the reverse button?

Astronomers dropped the ball. There was no advanced warning of the solar eclipse experienced in the ancient city of Ayuthaya. Turning around and there’s a large, gray snake suspended a foot from my face. I’m staring at an elephant turned into a taxi. Not as large as its African brethren, the Asian variety can still weigh up to 12,000 pounds and this particular specimen is at least fifteen feet tall. While I don’t disguise my shock well, I do manage to recover before urination. A Thai ‘driver’ sits on the neck as two Caucasian tourists--the American variety can weigh upwards of an astonishing five hundred pounds--are being transported. It’s not the beast’s size, but his feet that truly impress. Such soft contact with the earth, pillows for soles, the elephant sashays off as I stomp in the other direction.

Sneaky bastard.

Keep drifting.

Phitsanulok parade





The blog just became x-rated

Sneaky bastards


Sunday, February 13, 2011

You won’t find geysers in the Doi Inthanon National Park itinerary unless you travel with me.

“I swims in the Tagus all across at once, and I rides on an ass or a mule, and swears Portuguese, and have got diarrhea and bites from the mosquitoes. But what of that? Comfort must not be expected by folks that go a pleasuring.”

-Lord Byron

You won’t find geysers in the Doi Inthanon National Park itinerary unless you travel with me.

So here's what is billed as the fish massage. The booths can be found throughout commercial areas in Chang Mai, Thailand. The customer puts his or her feet into an aquarium, which happens to be home to hundreds of minnows. It’s claimed these fish eat dead skin and detoxify the feet. You can’t really feel the fish nibbling away, only the water vibrations from their movement. Yet when you look down it appears as though your lower legs are being devoured. As far as being effective, I can’t say. My feet are hideous things. If there was improvement it was unnoticeable to my untrained eye; does one notice when ten thousand barrels of oil are rinsed from the gulf when the spill totals over one million? I felt sorry for the fish.

I felt absolutely pathetic after passing by a sixty pound beggar on my walk to dinner. Take note ladies, nothing is more slimming than losing a limb. With her one arm and one and a half legs the beggar’s weight matched her apparent age. Maybe a victim of an American landmine from long ago and here’s me, an American swine walking right past her, nose up, telling myself, “Don’t look down, don’t look down,” then proceeding to a restaurant and ordering not one but three entrees. Eating like the King of Thailand with overflowing plates of chicken fried rice and pad thai and steamed vegetables. A marathon of food to the point I have to pace myself. All for a mere 100 baht (about $3 USD). Feeling guilty with each bite, shame with each swallow. I resolve to put 20 baht in the beggar’s can--about sixty cents, I’m incredibly generous--as I make my way back, but alas, she’s left. Maybe limped off to more profitable streets. By now I’m so full of food there’s no room for disgrace.

But wait, I’m in the land of Karma. A place where actions, or inactions in my case, have consequences. So it came as no surprise that within a matter of hours after dinner my stool had the consistency of a Circle K slurpee. This was followed by a day of stomach gurgling as I trekked through Doi Inthanon National Park, hoping the geyser wouldn’t burst. As I stood at the highest point in Thailand (only about 2,500 meters above sea level) I was more concerned with what was going on below.

Don’t let me mislead you. Thai people may be poor, but there are far less homeless here than back home. In fact, aside from a limbless beggar here and there--they’re always missing at least one limb--I haven’t seen any people of the street. From what I’ve read, Thai people take care of their family to the point where if one member is beset with physical disability, mental infirmity, old age, financial hardship or all of the above, then the rest of the family, extended included, supports and cares for the needy member. It’s Social Security and Medicare Thai style.

A day or two prior to my stingy don’t-look-down debacle I found myself walking back to the guest house around midnight. Turning down a soi (side street), I nearly run over a small woman who’s wearing what could pass for a prom dress. It’s black and frilly and beautiful. Tight in all the places of interest to men. I then mispronounce the Thai word for ‘sorry’ in seven different variations. Her response, “Oooh, where you going?” Which is when I realize what I almost ran into was a tiny transvestite prostitute. Appealingly petite at first glance but as he/she moves towards the streetlight the halogen illuminates an obviously masculine jaw line and STDs oozing out of his/her pores. That’s not me being judgmental. That’s me taking note of the red bumps surrounding the corners of the mouth and a sickly, pallid tint to the eyes. “Me? I’m going to find the nearest food stall and cram-jam whatever the hell they’re hawking--dried fish, goat intestine, frog legs--down my throat to stave off the bile presently rising up it.”

Okay, that is me being judgmental. Remember that drifting, or traveling without prejudice, is an ideal. Mindful perfection that my farang mind is light years away from. See below.

In the past, some have described me as relatively patient. Emphasis on relative. Here, I’m just another hasty, needy farang. It took three attempts to get to Doi Inthanon National Park, only 60 kilometers outside of Chang Mai. The first time I went by bus and didn’t get off at the right stop. In the need for entertainment, that need to be preoccupied, my head was in a book. I overshot my destination by 100 kilometers. The second attempt I made it to Chom Thong, the nearest city outside the park, but was unwilling to wait for a guided taxi into the park, who wouldn’t leave until his sawngthaew (pickup truck converted into a taxi) was full. Instead of milling around for who knows how long I chose to walk. After two hours I realized that while the guidebook was correct in that the park entrance was only 8 kilometers from Chom Thong, the actual hiking trails would be another 30. I needn’t have relied on perseverance to get to the park if my mind were tuned to that of a Thai. Have you ever ridden a bus that stopped for a half hour at a food stall, mid-route, as the driver munched away drinking a Singha (Thai beer)?

This is me, a hasty, needy farang, grinding my teeth, chomping at the bit for a third try at Doi Inthanon as the bus driver chomps away on fried grasshoppers, whistling his favorite song. Hit Me Bay One More Time, by Britney Spears.

I currently find myself in Phitsanulok, Thailand just having returned from the open market. A three block affair of hogs’ heads, fried roaches the size of my hand, fish so fresh that they’re slaughtered on the spot, and everything in between. It’s an Andrew Zimmerman (host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods) wet dream. Perhaps tomorrow my small intestine will be more adventurous, although come to think of it he’s really at his most daring later in the week. Say around Thursday when I should be a couple provinces removed. Dang.

Keep drifting.

The Great Holy Relics Pagaoda of Nabhamethanidol - Nabhapolbhumisiri, built to commemorate the King’s and Queen’s sixtieth birthdays.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My life is in the capable hands of middle schoolchildren in Chang Mai, Thailand.

“Remember what Bilbo used to say: It’s dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings 

My life is in the capable hands of middle schoolchildren in Chang Mai, Thailand.

There was a testicular brushing by a large, gorilla-hairy, unjustifiably enthusiastic TSA agent. Which was followed by a hand between the glutes credit card swipe. Then a 14 hour flight from LAX to Taipei, Tawain. What do you know, of the four hundred plus passengers on the plane the only two Caucasians aboard were seated together; myself and a Canadian just dying to tell me how his recent stay in Florida summoned to mind America’s obesity epidemic. No wonder you guys are against universal healthcare, he explained, you’re going to have to pay for all those fat f***s. Yeah, well at least our biggest exports don’t include Celine Dion and breakfast syrup.

What? Listening to A New Day Has Come while eating maple-drenched pancakes is your preferred way to start the day? Fine. Take this then, you infuriatingly thin Canucks. Michael Moore’s made documentaries about your communist healthcare and low murder rates; you guys are so(ooo) uninterestingly utopian.

Yeah, you heard me.

But all that, it was a lifetime ago. Before I landed in Krung Thep (Bangkok), rode a sky train, a subway, and then an actual train into northern Thailand. Because after the plane landed I noticed a newspaper article about a flower festival in Chang Mai, complete with parade, floats and pageant. So I went.

In northern Krung Thep, during a four hour wait at the seedily dilapidated Bang Sue train station, there’s not another farang (white foreigner) within a couple kilometers, and a monk materializes aside me. Adorned in orange, we sit quietly for a few hours while I try to stare at him without looking like I’m staring at him. Before the train comes he rises abruptly and storms off, and I know what I’ve done. Read about it a hundred times before leaving. It’s my feet. The right one. After three hours of sitting I propped it on my knee. The bottom of my foot, it was pointing at the holy man. Aghast, I quickly restored the sole to concrete contact, but it was too late.

Buddha, forgive me.

In Thai culture feet are the lowest and ‘dirtiest’ part of the body. Toes should remain on the floor. Always. To point one’s open foot at another is highly offensive. Of all the people to insult, I aimed my callused rash ridden right sole at one of the robed. I’m certain that, in his infinite Buddhist compassion, this monk was able to pardon the cultural gaffe instead of harboring anger necessitating that he remain earthbound another lifetime or two.

Real-Time Travel Tip # 1: You’re going to offend others. Embrace it. And try to ensure your victim has spent a lifetime cultivating compassion. The liklihood of retaliation is diminished.

A thought: if I had only flipped the monk the bird and told him to f*** off it would have been a-okay. He may have even smiled at me. But here feet are the Hiroshima of insults. That’s the difference crossing an ocean makes.

After a twelve hour overnight train ride I followed this same monk on foot into Chang Mai at six a.m. The streets carrying an early morning mist, the air cool and brisk, the atmosphere East-Asian-ethereal.

Two hours later crossing the street becomes life-threatening. Imagine swarms of twelve year-olds maneuvering motorbikes around you as you extend a foot from the comfort of the sidewalk into a four-lane street. Thousands of pre-teen bees buzzing around tuk-tuks (three-wheeled taxi go-carts) and semi-trucks and you. The older bikers, they’re even worse. With experience comes expertise. Instead of avoiding you by feet it becomes inches. Anyone over forty only needs a half millimeter between their handlebars and your head.

This is me thinking I should have shelled out another twenty baht (about 60 cents) for additional incense and lotus offerings at the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Since when did one need Buddhist blessings to successfully cross the street?

Keep drifting.

The Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, in the hills hovering above Chang Mai, one of the most sacred northern sites.

A muay thai match, I watched in fascinated horror as two fourteen year-old girls (respectfully--with wais and pre-match dance) kicked the living crap out of each other for five rounds. Watching Thai boxing is like watching cobras dance with each other; an exotic mix of beauty and danger.

I couldn’t make this up. At the Wat Doi Suthep this photographer’s wearing a vest that reads: JESUS.

Friday, February 4, 2011

As if the worldwide web needed another travelblog.

“Listen: we are here on earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

 As if the worldwide web needed another Travelblog.

The initial vision was a monthly postcard to mom to let her know I’m still alive. A backpack, a swimsuit, a roll of toilet paper, and off I go. A one-way plane ride to Asia with less obligation than the family dog, who’s burdened with the sole task of not crapping on the carpet. No cell phone to ignore, no letter writing, and certainly no computer.

Then a laptop landed in my lap. A three-pound netbook with a request for an occasional trip update. A gift not from mom who I have no qualms upsetting and disappointing, but from a sensei who has my respect and admiration. I won’t pretend the request is repulsive or something I’m not eager to accommodate. I enjoy writing. It enables me to communicate with words I can’t pronounce. That anyone has even a mild interest in my vagabonding or is curious as to whether I’m still alive is baffling. Over the next several months I will do my best to entertain with stories of cultural gaffes and traveling blunders. My honesty has limits. Don’t expect anything akin to: ‘Hey, that Thai lady-boy would have fooled anyone.’ Some things are better left taken to the grave.

While I remain optimistic that this three-pound marvel I’m punching text into makes the return trip home, I should note that the Vegas line doesn’t look so good. Something similar to me not embarrassing myself at least once a day with Asian social etiquette. If the device is victim to theft, miscarriage or a tsunami I will try to make the occasional visit to a computer cafĂ©. Expect an entry or two a week, assuming I have wi-fi connection and something worth posting about. In the 21st century I expect the latter to be more problematic. By all means, comment if desired, but please direct personal I-miss-you messages (or I-hate-you messages for that matter) to e-mail or even, dare I say it, Facebook.

Keep drifting.

What struck me as an odd place to eat; an ad from Taipai, Taiwan