|Travelogue: Thailand 2000
The Asian Grocery Store Demystified
Teach Yourself Thai
Tim Cahill, A Wolverine is Eating My Leg (has nothing to do with Thailand, but was the book I was reading along the way.)
Saturday April 15, 2000
When we last left our intrepid traveler, he was desperately fleeing India. Through two pieces of luck I managed to get on sold-out flights and make it to Phuket, Thailand around noon on April 15. Sadly, I have just missed Song Kran, the Thai New Years, which ended here on the 14th (it is celebrated on different days in different parts of the country, and runs for different lengths of time. Here it is just 2 days, in Chiang Mai it lasts for two weeks!) The basic activity for Song Kran celebrations is throwing water on people, with foreigners and police officers being favorite targets. My friend Mike, who lives in Chiang Mai, dreads Song Kran, making a point of being out of the country during that time. I've never seen it, and it sounds like fun to me.
The weather is insanely hot, 92 degrees Fahrenheit with 70% humidity for a "heat factor" of 106. Ouch. I start dripping as soon as I walked outside. Occasionally torrential tropical downpours come down with a thunderous noise of water on roofs and pavements. The rainy season is almost upon us. It is really amazing hitting the atmosphere here. And I do mean "hitting". Walking out the door of the hotel it hits you in the chest like opening the door of a furnace. You donít just feel warmth; it smacks you with a palpable force.
I am again staying at the Sand Inn, though I am getting a bit tired of this place. Last year I wasnít all that happy with the Baan Sukhotai either. I think I will research new places to stay.
I donít have much to report. In prior travelogues I covered pretty much everything that I did during the first few days of this trip. Visited the markets, went to the beach, ate great food, and tried and tried to get over this cold that has been plaguing me since Prague.
So, without further ado we skip forward several days until...
Wednesday April 19, 2000
I am going to Krabi today to check it out. I got going a little later than I had planned, but it doesnít really matter. There are several ways to get to Krabi from Phuket: by car (either rental or hired), by boat, by private bus, or by public bus. I donít feel like dealing with driving and navigating myself, and hiring a private car sounds a bit extravagant. The Lonely Planet goes on at some length about how poor the service is on private busses, and that they are basically rip-offs for tourists. Besides which, both the bus and the boats leave at 7:30am and cost substantially more than the public bus service. Since I have plenty of time, and infinite faith in Lonely Planet (not), I've decided to take a tuk tuk to the bus station in Phuket Town, and the public bus from there. It is said to run every hour, so I can go whenever I want (gotta love that.) Anyway, I had planned on leaving at 10am, but didnít actually get packed and out till after 11am. The tuk tuk wanted 200 baht (US$5.30) to take me to the bus station, which is certainly a rip off but I just cant bring myself to haggle over such small prices, especially considering the cost of a similar trip in my home town (Seattle.) As soon as the tuk tuk rolled to a stop at the bus station a young kid in a fancy shirt with medals on the epaulets bounded up saying "Krabi. Krabi." I replied "Chai" (yes), whereupon he took my bags and put them on a nice looking big bus marked "Phuket - Phang Nga - Krabi." "Ticket on bus, 80 baht", the boy said. Being a bit thick I pointed at the ticket booth, whereupon an old woman said "no, ticket on bus." So, at 11:50am I found myself to be almost the only person on a nice big air-conditioned bus. The boy took my 80 baht, gave me a ticket, and left. And I sat.
Eventually a group of white robed, shaven headed, female monks (nuns?) got on and sat down. I tried to start a conversation, but only one of them spoke a little English, and my Thai is not sufficient for more than "hello, how are you, I am fine." In an effort to communicate, I pulled out a book that I had just bought, "The English Thai Dictionary: 3 in 1 English - Pronunciation - Thai", by Mike Simpson. This book turns out to be quite excellent! It contains a section of English words with translation into Thai script and transliterated Thai, then a section of Thai transliterations (so if you can try to look up Thai words by how they sound), then a section of Thai script with translation into English and Thai transliteration. This makes conversation with a Thai speaker feasible. It turns out that the nun sitting closest to me is learning to be a Thai language teacher, and she proceeded to take my dictionary and drill me on Thai pronunciation. It was very entertaining (especially for the Thais listening!)
Slowly the bus filled up. Finally around 1pm the driver got on and we pulled out. Looking back in the bus I realized that now every seat was full. I'm not sure if I had just missed a bus when I arrived and thus had to wait over an hour for the next one, or if they just wait until a bus is full then go. In either case, we were finally under way just as a light rain started falling.
The bus ride was basically uneventful, passing through town after town which all pretty much looked the same. We stopped dozens of times to pick up and drop off passengers, often at "bus stops" which were little more than wooden platforms in the middle of nowhere. Each time we stopped, the conductor boy with the epaulets would jump out from his perch in the stairwell to direct people on and off. One time in his hurry he stubbed his toe on a rock and fell down. Though he was bleeding from his toe and knee, he and the driver seemed to think that it was absolutely hysterical, and they both laughed about it for some time.
When the bus finally got to Krabi, it dropped me at a gas station at the side of the road. There were two white-painted Tuk Tuks marked "Krabi/Ao Nang". The cost for the 1/2 hour ride was 250 baht, making the grand total cost for the trip 530 baht (US$14) and requiring about 6 hours. I couldnít help wondering if maybe 2000 baht (US$53) for a private car wouldnít have been a good investment. After all, I paid that for a taxi ride from London Heathrow airport to the city last time I was in London! Oh well, I wasnít in a rush anyway, and the bus ride was kind of fun.
Earlier in Phuket I had read through all the listings in the Lonely Planet and had made a reservation at Peace Laguna Resort (telephone 075-637-345). Peace Laguna Resort is on a man-made pond, not on the beach, but it is just a short walk down the path to the ocean. The place is very quiet and tranquil, but the one-story bungalows have floor-to-ceiling windows in all directions. Thus, you either have to pull your blinds, and lose the view of the pond, or leave them open and have no privacy. I had a choice between a nice bungalow on the pond with two twin beds, or one further back with a queen bed. I chose the prime location. The rate was 1500 baht per day, which struck me as quite high for an out-of-the-way place off-season, but I didnít argue. I was a little bit annoyed that there was no telephone in the room, which I had been told I would have.
After getting checked in I walked up the dirt road from Peace Laguna to the main drag and then two doors down where a wonderful, beautiful, happy, smiling 8 year old little girl named Fand rented me a Honda Dream motor scooter for 125 baht per day. Her TEnglish (aka Thai-English) was delightful as she told me how to drive it: "No push this when push this or is jumping jumping!" (i.e. "if you put the bike in gear before you try to start it, it will leap forward.") And like that. If she lived in America, I'm sure she would be a TV star selling "Life" cereal.
Taking the path of least resistance I decided to have dinner at the Lagoon restaurant here at Peace Laguna. Unfortunately, the food wasnít very good. Not bad really, just not great. Hi ho. After dinner I took out the motor bike and had a look around. Ao Nang looks like a lot of little beachy places on Phuket - lots of little restaurants (with heavy emphasis on Italian and Swiss here), and an infinite number of places to book the same set of day trips; canoeing around various islands, island tour with swimming and snorkeling, elephant trek, jungle trek, etc. There were the few shops selling t-shirts and bathing suits, a couple mini-marts, and a couple small bars. I went out beyond town to the Luna Beach Bar, which was completely dead. Apparently there had been a big full-moon party the night before, but there was no one there tonight.
I learned something quite interesting about the Thai language and the letter "R" this evening. I had heard that Thai people can't say "R", but rather have a "liquid" sound that is half way between an English "R" and "L" sound. It turns out that this is only halfway right. It had been confusing me because I knew that there are words in which there is clearly an "R" sound, for example in "rambutan" (a fruit) and in the very common phrase "mai pen rai" (no problem/your welcome), the "R" is very clear. But "khrap" (the masculine polite ending word) is pronounced like "cup", and Krabi is pronounced "Kabi". I couldnít figure out why these words would be transliterated with an "R", if there weren't an "R" sound in them. It turns out that there is indeed the Thai letter "raw" in these words, which is the "R" sound. What happens is that just like old Bostonians who "Pak the cah in Havahd yahd", Thais either drop "R's" when they occur inside a word, or pronounce them like "L". Thus, "Krabi" becomes "Kabi", "khrap" becomes "cup", "aroy" (delicious) becomes "alloy", and "Andrew" becomes "And-lew". [Postscript: even this explanation isn't sufficient, as it turns out that there are differences from person to person, some of whom speak these words with a pronounced trilled "R". It appears to be a regional difference, but I am trying to find out if there are class, age, or educational differences as well.]
Thursday April 20, 2000
I started the day today with the free breakfast at the hotel. The western style buffet didnít look very good, so I ordered a "khao thom" (rice soup.) Surprisingly, that wasnít very good either. Clearly this just isn't a very good restaurant.
I went into the office with my laptop computer to use the phone there to dial up the internet. To my surprise and consternation they wouldnít let me! I could make a phone call for 8 baht per minute, but not with my machine. They couldnít or wouldnít explain why, and there was no way I could convince them that there wasnít any difference between using the phone or using the computer. It was very frustrating, particularly since Thais are usually so accommodating. Hi ho. Computer road warriors take note.
I decided on a road trip today to see some of the local sights. The traffic is sufficiently light that I had no problems taking the motor bike anywhere I wanted. My first stop is the Laying Buddha at Wat Sai Thai, tucked under a limestone overhang on route 4034. The most significant thing about it is how strikingly uninteresting it is! A total yawn. Oh well.
I have to digress at this point to comment on what I consider to be one particularly bad idea in Thai Buddhism. Apparently one cannot simply throw out anything that has been used as an offering to a Buddha image. When the flowers and food that have been offered to a Buddha statue or placed in a spirit house go bad, they are put under a banyan tree. The same goes for all such offerings. As a result, banyan trees tend to have piles of what I consider "trash" under them. Bottles, plastic toys, stuffed animals, books, papers, photographs, broken spirit houses, plastic flowers and scarves are mixed in with plastic bags of decaying food and piles of dead flowers. Anthropologically it is kind of interesting to see what kinds of things were previously offered to Buddha, but aesthetically it is pretty nasty.
Next stop: Susawnor ban laempho - fossilized gastropod beach. Unfortunately, most of the fossil beach is gone due to erosion. What is left isn't very interesting to the lay person, though I'm sure it is a "must see" for archaeology and geology buffs. The whole site is ringed with booths selling all manner of dead stupid trinkets. If you can think of something kitchy to make out a dead sea creature, someone here has done it. This is a popular Thai tourism destination, so there is the typical Thai litter everywhere - discarded plastic bags from food, bottles, paper, etc., etc. I love the Thais but sometimes I just want to wring their little eco-unconscious necks. I wish Buddha, Christ and Mohammed had added "love the earth and clean up after yourself" into their respective sermons.
While heading back down the road I passed the "Dawn of Happiness Bungalows". With a name like that I just had to stop in for a look. They provide real bungalows with fans, no air conditioning, and no showers (a bucket is provided in the bathroom to pour water over your head). Mosquito netting hangs over the bed. It is very peaceful, but very very rustic for 750 baht per night.
I buzzed my way down the road some 20 kilometers to Krabi town, a busy, hot, bustling, compact little town. Apparently there are interesting markets here in the mornings and at night. In the middle of the day it was just a typical Thai town. A little way outside of town Lonely Planet recommended Reuan Mai Restaurant, a Thai "garden restaurant" on Thanon Maharat. (Warning: "Maharat" has a dozen different transliterations depending on which map, guide, or street sign you are looking at. This makes navigation quite a challenge!) The food was very good, though the place was clearly very used to foreigners. I had a hard time convincing the waiter that I really did want my food spicy, and I really did want to order things that were not the typical Farang foods.
After lunch I headed back out on Thanon Maharat in the direction on my real goal, Wat Thon Sua (Tiger Cave.) Just as I came within sight of it, the sky became completely black, the wind picked up, and it started to rain. I realized that it was raining hard where Thon Sua was and the weather was headed my way. I made a very quick decision to turn around and try to outrun the storm. I mostly made it, getting hit with only a few huge raindrops before I got back to the hotel. I guess I'll see Thon Sua some other day.
Just after sunset I set out for the beach again, this time with swimsuit on. The evening is low tide at which time it is actually a considerably long walk out into the water just to get up to knee depth. When I had been walking straight out for about 5 minutes and could no longer see my towel on the beach, I decided to give up finding deeper water and just floated on my back with a scant 2 feet of sea beneath me. It was lovely looking up at the red and purple sky outlining the extraordinary limestone mountains and cliffs.
The sand here has a very curious texture to walk on. It is basically an inch or two of fine sand on top of a deep layer of crushed shells. The result is that as you walk, your footstep initially feels like walking on sand, but then you sink down and extra couple of millimeters with a subtle crunch as the under-layer gives way. It is an intriguing and alluring sensation. Another surprise on the beach was that every shell I picked up contained a tiny hermit crab. There were literally hundreds of them. Each and every discarded shell, no matter how small, had a resident crab.
As I sit here now on the porch of my bungalow looking out over the pond here at Peace Laguna, I feel an incredible wave of calmness wash over me - an amazing serenity and tranquility. The sky has suddenly lit up an extraordinary brilliant orange, some special afterglow of sunset, and at the same time it has started to rain, big, slow, warm drops. The sounds of insects singing in the trees mix with the patter of water on the roof and walkways. For moment this alone... for moment this alone... for this moment alone what? For this moment alone it is all worth it.
I went down to the main drag for dinner tonight, ending up at a restaurant on the waterfront called Blue Marine in the Ya Ya Plaza complex. It was not very good. The lack of good food here is surprising me, because it is so easy to find good restaurants in Phuket. Afterwards I tooled around for a while looking for signs of life, but there is very little going on around here now. I ended up back at the fun looking, but completely empty Luna Beach Bar around the far side of Ao Nang. The only people that were there were the Thai employees and an old Thai lady named Suny who was frying up banana fritters. She started feeding me fritters and chatting away. We had a lengthy heart to heart talk about god knows what. All I could really work out is that she is from Surathani, and had filled up the back of her pickup truck with mangoes and driven out here to Ao Nang to visit with her son and grand kids who have something or other to do with this bar.
Friday April 21, 2000
I got up bright and early today and went to Ao Nang Corner Travel (01-893-5732) to arrange a tour for the day. I had wanted to go on the sea canoe trip which was schedule to leave at 9am, but I was told that this morning it had already left at 8am due to the tides (it was about 8:05 when I was there). This was a bit annoying, but undaunted I went ahead and booked the Jungle trek, operated by A. P. Resort for 650 baht.
The A. P. Resort van came and picked me up at Peace Laguna at about 9:15am. I was the last of the guests on the trip and the van was full, so I jammed into the front seat with the driver, the tour guide and the driver's daughter. I had to wonder what they would have done if there had been more than one person in my group. All of the others on the tour were Europeans from Norway, Germany and Scotland. They were all quite a bit older than I.
Our first stop was in Krabi to buy fruit for our lunch, and then another stop to pick up our bag lunches. As an American, I am used to tours in which such details are handled before hand. It was no problem whatsoever, but certainly a diversion from what I would have expected. By this point we had already been in the van for some time, when the guide announced that we would now travel 80 kilometers to "hot water spring"; a trip of about 90 minutes. Ouch. But hey, mai pen rai. I asked the guide why we had to go so far; it turns out that there simply aren't any forests left that are any closer. They have all been cut down to create farmland and rubber plantations.
Sitting up front with the driver and guide was a great bonus for me as I got to practice my Thai and learned a lot of new words for the various plans and animals that we passed along the way. They were great guys and we had a lot of fun joking around. I suspected that some of the people further back in the van were getting jealous, but I was paying my dues in the form of cramped legs.
The hot water spring was just a 5 minute walk from where the van parked. It really was a hot water spring. We looked at each other with incredulity wondering why we would want to bathe in a hot water spring when the outside temperature was in the high 80's, but nonetheless we all got in. Just downstream from the spring ran a deep, cool river, which was a really refreshing contrast. To my surprise, the whole experience was pleasant and fun!
After the hot water spring, we got back in the car and drove about 30 minutes down a devastated dirt road to the trailhead of our real hike. There were more than a few spots where it looked like the van wouldnít make it over the ruts and ditches, but the driver did a great job and we made it through. Before starting the hike we had our lunch, which was pretty good chicken fried rice with a lot of different kinds of fresh fruit. The destination for the hike is "Crystal Pool", where we would be swimming. At the start of the hike I had a moment of panic as the guide asked the group if we would like to do an easy 15 minute walk up a jeep road to the pool, or a difficult 1.5 hour hike through the forest. Looking around at the group of relatively old people I was afraid that everyone would want to do the easy walk up the road. To my extreme pleasure the group was unanimous that we take the forest trail. As one German man put it "We came here to do a forest hike, lets do it." Hear, hear!
I have to say the walk was absolutely excellent! We saw salak fruit hanging on salak palms, a flower the guide called a "black orchid", amazing trees, vines and fungus, and the beautiful, bubbling, deep green "emerald pool." [Postscript: the flower that they called "black orchid" was extremely cool, but certainly not an orchid. Subsequent research has proven that it is actually Tacca Chantrieri, or "bat flower."] The guide seemed to know a fair bit about the forest and the walk was great. The day was very, very hot, but in the forest it felt a lot cooler. Eventually we reached Crystal Pool, were dozens of Thai people were playing in the thermal fed volcanic waters. The water was incredibly clear and very refreshing, though it smelled slightly of sulfur. If this were Germany, I'm sure someone would have set up a health spa here with pale people drinking tiny tin cups of this water. At one point a Thai woman who was picnicking with her kids leaned over and handed me a huge block of Thai-style rice-krispies treats. Wow, were they good! What a nice thing to do for a total stranger!
The final stop on the trip was Wat Thon Sua (Tiger Cave Temple), which I had failed to go to the other day. It was quite fascinating. At Thon Sua, monks climb to remote tiny rooms in the cliffs to meditate in isolation. The little rooms that they live in are really incredible to see. There are also amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations in the various caves where Buddha shrines have been set up. We walked for quite some way up and down staircases in the stone, into caves, and past enormous trees with huge buttressed root systems.
In the end the whole trip was quite excellent and far exceeded my expectations. When I had read the description of the trip including a "light walk in the forest" and "lots of opportunities for swimming", I was afraid that it was going to be very light weight. The actual trip, while not strenuous, was a great experience and a fine opportunity to see some Thai jungle.
Tonight I went for dinner at Hadsai Seafood Restaurant next to Luna Beach Bar. They served very good food, but played a CD of muzak the whole time. I hadn't heard some of these Muzak classics (Tie a Yellow Ribbon, Michelle Ma Belle, etc.) for quite some time.
Saturday April 22, 2000
This morning I had breakfast at Wanna's Place, because they had a sign out from advertising genuine "filter-coffee". I had the coffee, which was terrible, and an omelet which was very good. Here they were playing some kind of Thai Muzak, which was even less palatable than the US Muzak that had regaled me at dinner last night.
I didnít really feel like doing much today so for the first time I went down to the beach during the day. The beach here behind the Peace Laguna is very different during the day. First of all, there are people around. It has always seemed very empty in the evening. Now it wasnít at all crowded, but there were certainly people on the beach. Second, the tide is in, so rather than walking and walking to try to find deep water, you are in up to your chest just a few meters out. There are no beach chairs and you donít have the constant stream of hawkers that you find in Patong, but there are a couple of people selling beverages and massages here. Though the constant clamor and clatter of Patong is annoying, I do miss those nice beach chairs. The last major thing about this beach during the day is the constant drone of longboats. It turns out that the water in front of this beach is a major thoroughfare for longboats heading from Ao Nang to points unknown, and back again. I decided to get a massage on the beach, and found that the noise from the longboats was incessant. It reminded me very much of trying to have a nice quiet picnic on a beautiful day, but all the neighbors are mowing their lawns. Perhaps it was just bad because it is a Saturday. It is really a shame because the view from this beach is absolutely stunning. The water is pleasant, clear and warm. The limestone cliffs behind the beach are amazing, and the islands sticking straight up out of the bay tug at you with a mysterious call. Of course, it is the longboats answering that call which then sully the image.
After my massage I walked to the far end of the beach to a place called the "Last Café." I have to wonder if the Last Café is going to last, though, because they have a tiny menu, mostly consisting of European sandwiches. They have almost no Thai food on offer, so I left. Getting on my motor bike I road back along the main drag looking for something that I wanted to eat. Absolutely nothing looked appealing until I had made my way all the way to Hadsai Seafood Restaurant again. So, I went in and had an excellent bowl of Tom Kah Gai, and a dish of shrimps with cashew nuts, also yummy.
After lunch I headed out to the end of the road and then turned left, which took me to the beach that the Thai people go to at Hat Noppharat Thara. There were virtually no westerners there. It was a delightful place with lots of Thai only restaurants and food-hawker stalls, fantastic views of the islands, and zillions of tiny naked Thai children playing in the surf. It was cute as hell.
Coming back through town I ran into Suny selling her mangos from the back of her truck. We chatted for a while and she told me I should meet her for dinner at the restaurant tonight. I have no idea what she had in mind, but it sounds like fun.
This afternoon I researched a different hotel: Ocean Garden View Resort (121/1 Moo 2, Ao Nang, (075) 637-527). It is across the main road from where I am staying. Though not as attractive a setting as Peace Laguna, it is much newer with nicer rooms, better amenities, phones in the rooms and great views across to the water. The rooms are arranged up the hillside, and the ones with the best views are a bit of a hike. It is also a lot farther to get to the beach. Off-peak view rooms are 1800b per night. Since the beach here is noisy, and I keep going to the other side of Ao Nang for food and beaches anyway, perhaps I should try to find a place to stay over there (that isn't as high end as Krabi Resort.)
Around 7pm I headed back to Hadsai to meet Suny for dinner. I hadn't been able to figure out from her invitation if she wanted to make dinner for me or if she wanted to eat dinner at the restaurant there with me. As it turned out, when I got there her grandson's friend told me that she was back in town selling mangos. Typical Thai. I headed back to the main drag in town and found her there. She packed up and we went back to Hadsai where she ordered some fish dishes that weren't on the menu, then frowned disapprovingly when they weren't made the way she makes them. All in all it was a goofy evening as various of her children, grandchildren and friends came over, talked for a while, and left. During dinner Suny offered to drive me into Krabi tomorrow and show me where the express mini-bus to Phuket is. Though I had planned on taking a private car back to Phuket, this sounded like a better plan and I agreed.
About half way through dinner a classic tropical rain came pummeling down, which I waited out at the restaurant, then headed back to the hotel.
Sunday April 23, 2000
I went for a final swim at the distant Hat Noppharat Thara beach. The tide was in this morning, but even so I was able to walk through the bay to the nearest island. I could have swum it, but just for yuks I actually walked the whole way; the water never got above my chest. It was really interesting walking along next to one of these islands similar to those which I had canoed around last year.
It was quite a comedy of errors leaving Ao Nang today. My plan had been to get out around noon, and Suny had agreed to come get me at my hotel at 11:30am to take me into Krabi. However, when I went to return the motor bike it turned out that because this is low season the place that I rented from doesnít open until 3pm! Suny showed up and together we found someone who knew where the owners lived. Together this guy and I headed off on the motor bike down a long dirt road to a house lost somewhere out in rubber plantations. While I was there they tried to sell me the house next door (750000 baht), then drove me back out to the shop where I retrieved my passport from their safe.
Next Suny drove me into Krabi to the place where I could get a mini-van to Phuket. It turned out that the last one had left for the day, and furthermore they were the infamous mini-vans operated by the P. P. Family, about which Lonely Planet makes such devastatingly disparaging remarks! Next she took me to the regular bus terminal where there was a bus that was supposed to be an express that could take me to Phuket for 101 baht. But when I was all nicely settled in my seat, a conductor came on the bus and told me that I couldnít sit in the seat I was in, and I would have to sit on a tiny unpadded bench all the way in the back of the bus. There was no way I was going to spend the next 3+ hours cramped into a bench that wasnít even a seat. Well, to make a long story short I ended up back in Ao Nang at about 2pm and arranged for a private car to take me direct door-to-door for 1800 baht (US$48). I had some lunch and got going at about 3pm. The driver took some extremely funky routes that I never would have found, and the whole trip took a little over 3 1/2 hours. It would have been faster except that I donít think he knew Phuket well, driving us along the slow route that runs down the coast, instead of taking the new highway. I did get to see some parts of Phuket that I had not seen before though.
Monday April 24, 2000
It was a hot and overcast day today, though it never did manage to rain. I muddled about, having a couple of meals at the #6 restaurant, doing some reading and some writing.
When dinnertime finally rolled around I found that I had a hankering for red meat. I donít recall when I last had a steak, and perhaps part of the listlessness I've been feeling is attributable to that. With this in mind I headed off to The Buffalo restaurant, one of my friend Richard's favorites. There I had the Entrecote Tricolor, an entrecote of beef with three sauces. When my meal was served I realized that I had made the same mistake I made last time I was here; the Buffalo serves its meat extremely rare. As usual I had ordered mine medium-rare, but because this is The Buffalo, it came out ultra-rare. I sat and pondered the meal for a while recalling my prior visit when I had sent it back and it was returned completely hard-cooked well done. This time I ate the better done parts and left that which was still moo'ing on the plate. Aside from the fact that you can get a steak for a scant 400 baht (US$10.50), I'm still not sure why Richard likes this place.
Feeling unfulfilled by my Buffalo meal, I went off in search of my favorite desert, sticky rice with mango and coconut milk. Mmmmm, mmmm, good!
Went to the Safari (aka "Sah-fah-li") disco at about 11pm. I took a motorbike taxi there for 50 baht, found the place to be completely dead, and took a tuk tuk back for 100 baht. Of course, for 150 baht I could have rented a motor bike for a full day! At Safari the doorwoman swore to me that it would be totally hopping at midnight. Maybe so, I didnít feel like sitting for an hour to find out. Around 11:30 I went into the Shark Club, which had a pleasant crowd at 11:30 and was quite happening by midnight with a mixture of foreigners and locals.
Tuesday April 25, 2000
I stayed out a bit too late last night, feeling the effects of it this morning. Eventually I got going and rented myself a motor bike at the pub next door to the Sand Inn. I took a drive up the coast to Lamp Sing beach, which had been highly recommended by my friend Evette back home. Lamp Sing is located just north of Kamala beach, and south of Surin beach. It is a beautiful little cove, located down the cliffs from the road. When I got down the steep and eroded steps to the beach I was stunned to see how many people where there. For a small, out of the way beach Lamp Sing is very popular. Most of the people were European, especially Italian and French. There were a few Thais as well.
In addition to being quite a beautiful spot, Lamp Sing is especially nice because of the total lack of engine noise. Being down below the cliffs, the highway noise does not make it down, and there are neither jet skis nor longtail boats in the bay. It was very refreshing to be on a beach and hear only the crashing of the waves. The downside to Lamp Sing is those very waves. They were big punishing crasher waves which made swimming virtually impossible, and even body surfing and boogie boarding looked difficult because of the way the waves smashed the beach. Based on the info from my travel guides, it sounds like this is de rigeur for Lamp Sing in this season.
Wednesday April 26, 2000
The other day some folks told me about a spa at Green Valley Resort, so I hopped on the motor bike today to check it out. It turns out that Green Valley Resort is a small hotel complex just behind the main area of Patong beach on Na Nai road. They have a nice kidney shaped swimming pool, a hot steam sauna, some showers, and a couple people doing massage. I'd hardly call it a "spa", but I paid 80 baht, got a towel and a locker, and hung around at the pool all day, occasionally jumping into the sauna for a while. It was a very pleasant way to pass a day, and a nice change from the beach. In fact, I found it so peaceful that I've put Green View Resort on my list of places to potentially stay in the future. [Though the people at Sand Inn continue to be exceedingly nice, and I genuinely like them, the place is really run down and very noisy.] For those of you taking notes, Green Valley Resort is at 40/3-5 Na Nai Road, telephone 296-288. While I was there I talked for a while with an old English chap who also recommended checking out the Patong City Hotel. [Postscript: I subsequently had a look at the Patong City Hotel and found it to be pretty run down and ugly.]
The pool was mostly occupied by Thais, Frenchmen and a couple Spaniards. There were two small Thai boys, probably 8 or 9 years old, who were absolutely fascinated by the fact that I had chest hair ("khon"). They dogged me for quite a while diving under the water and pulling on the hairs on my chest, arms and legs. Clearly they did not have a bashful bone in their bodies. I soon became an integral part of their rough-housing, with them climbing all over me, splashing water at me, hanging off my arms and shoulders, dragging me out into the deep water then pretending they needed me to save them from drowning, and on and on until I was completely exhausted. I made a mental note to learn the term for "hey kids, knock it off, already," then collapsed on a waiting deck chair. (In truth it was a hell of a lot of fun, and quite charming.)
Thursday April 27, 2000
Walking down the street this morning, I saw a Thai man sweeping the street using two Thai brooms, one in each hand. He had a wonderful syncopated swinging movement that made this simple cleaning action beautiful. I am so glad that gas powered leaf blowers haven't shown up here yet. I'm sure they will some day; once one person gets one, everyone will have to have them, and then the mornings will all be filled with their screeching whine. For the time being, we can still enjoy a gentle swish-swish as the people sweep down their streets.
After an uneventful breakfast accompanied by BBC-TV at the Expat hotel, I returned to my beach hunting, this time heading south to Kata Noi. Kata Noi is a charming little beach with a steep drop off and big waves. The beachside resorts hang out flags indicating the safety of the waves; today's rating "Red: Do not swim." A few hardy souls were out in the water, but I only tempted fate up to my waist. Two minutes after I got there a light rain began to fall, so I took my cue for lunch and headed in to one of the non-differentiated restaurants all lined up in a row. The waitress called me over with the traditional "Hello, welcome, sit down pweeze. What you like, have everything!" "Everything?" I asked. "Have everything, what you like, have spaghetti bolognese, ooooh, very goose." So I ordered the spaghetti bolognese. Why not? Spaghetti on a beach in Thailand in the rain, makes sense to me. It was actually pretty good, and a nice change from a constant diet of Thai seafood.
The rain subsided to a mere drizzle as I finished my surreal lunch, so I went out and hired a really nice beach chair (thick padding with arms!) for 50 baht and hunkered down with my book under the camouflage colored beach umbrella. It is very reassuring to know that if you need to make a break for the jungle, your beach umbrella wont reveal your location to aerial surveillance!
Unfortunately, the cloud hanging over Kata Noi just sat and sat, drizzling away. Both to the north and south I could see sun, so eventually I gave up hoping that this cloud would move or burn off and got back on the Honda Dream in search of clearer weather to the north. Alas, as I cleared each headland, I found new clouds, till eventually I was back at Patong, where I packed it in and went back to the hotel to write.
Friday April 28, 2000
Continuing my tour of Phuket spas, today I made a return visit to the Hideaway Spa on Na Nai road. I had gone there for the full VIP treatment last year, which included one of the most painful massages of my life. This time I opted for the much less expensive budget spa experience, simply using the communal sauna, pool and deck chairs, and ordering a little food. It was a relaxing way to spend a day.
Saturday April 29, 2000
The people who work at the Sand Inn continue to be wonderful. They all treat me like an old friend, and it feels wonderful. But the hotel itself just isn't cutting it. As Patong has gotten bigger and noisier, Sand Inn's central location has become a less and less pleasant place to be. The hotel continues to feel more and more run down, noisy, and small. I donít think I will be staying here again. For a change, this morning I checked out and moved over to the Thara Patong Beach Resort, 170 Thaweewong Rd. 076-340-135 (email@example.com, www.tharapatong.com) at a rate of 1600 baht, US$42.25 for Deluxe Superior room (this is the low season rate, plus talked them down 100 baht). It would have cost less for a lower quality room, but the money we are talking is pretty damned small. The Thara Patong is twice the price of Sand Inn, but much more than twice as nice. The room is not fabulous by world-standards, but is pleasant and comfortable. Also, the place has a really nice kidney-shaped pool with deck chairs and a fun water slide ("children only", eh?) It is not on the beach, but is across Beach Road from the beach.
Today is one of those hot days where even in the shade I just sit and drip. The room wasnít quite ready when I arrived, so I sat out in a shady spot by the pool and watched the rivulets of perspiration run down my chest. I always find such weather astonishing.
#6 Restaurant on the beach (not to be confused with #6 Restaurant on 200 Year Road) has been very disappointing the last several times I've gone, and service has really gone down hill. They have a new waitress who doesnít speak any English, is sour-faced, and slow. So, I got a recommendation on Sabai Beach Restaurant, which turned out to be right next door to #6. It was pretty good. When the sky wasnít opening up with torrential rain, I spent the day at the beach.
This evening I watched "Millionaire Millennium" on TV in Thai. It is identical to "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in the USA - same format, same sets, same option to call a friend for help, same way the spotlights pan across the stage. The big difference is that in this case the winner only gets a million baht (about US$26,000). A far cry from US$1,000,000!
My friend Sergio from Scuba Cat was in town for one night between dive trips. We got together and went to an Italian restaurant called Da Maurizio, 223/2 Kalim Beach Rd, (076) 344-079 (firstname.lastname@example.org), right next to the well-known Baan Rim Pa restaurant. I was very impressed. Started with a rocket salad that was excellent! The freshest, best greens I have ever had in Thailand. For a main I had the Spaghetti Maurizio, which was spaghetti in a fine olive oil sauce with rock lobster, false caviar, and a host of lively seasonings. It was an excellent synthesis of traditional northern Italian cuisine with local Thai ingredients. Definitely on my list of places to eat in Phuket!
Sunday April 30, 2000
I was thinking of going to Surin beach today, but the weather was threatening. Indeed it was on again off again, rain, sun, rain, sun. I went to the beach across the street from the hotel and had a pleasant and relaxing day. The water was perfect for body surfing today, and I wore myself out playing superman in the waves.
I've been spending a lot of time playing pool (badly) at a bar here in Patong. Of course, if you want to use the table, you've got to drink. I'm really not much of a drinker, and I've gotten pretty tired of beers and whiskies. This afternoon I managed to find a dusty old bottle of Cassis at a small grocery shop on Beach road, so I bought it and brought it to the bar with me. I introduced everyone at the bar to the joys of Cassis and soda. If next year you find yourself in Patong and all the bars are offering Cassis and soda as the "Andrew Special", you'll know what happened.
Monday May 1, 2000
Another beautiful day in paradise, but I can already see the clouds starting to pour over the Andaman hills, preparing to deluge us again. Well, it is the rainy season. All in all it was an uneventful final day. Again I considered going up to Surin beach, but the variability of the weather made that seem unfruitful. In the end I spent some time at Patong beach, some time getting a massage on the beach, some time eating, some time sitting by the pool.
I finished up the day with a final meal of yummy curried crabs and shells, a couple of games of pool, and a good sleep.
Tonight the showers really hit hard. The sound of rain hitting the pool, pavement, and roofs was phenomenal. I love sleeping with the sound of rain. There was a thunderstorm that lasted for about 1/2 hour with a vigor that matched the rain. One bolt came terrifyingly close, with a light that lit up the room and seemed simultaneous with the thunder clap. A brilliant show.
Tuesday May 2, 2000
My driver this morning took the scenic route to the airport. It was still raining, but the drive was quite beautiful. Clouds gripping the summits of verdant hills, water buffalo chomping in the fields, traditional Thai houses on stilts sitting above flooded paddies. I am always amazed to see such scenes in Phuket, since most of what one sees here is either tourist oriented or big time farming.
Checking in at the Phuket airport was a little slow, but not a problem. Off to Bangkok in the downstairs business class section on a Boeing 747.
I am again staying at the excellent Sheraton Grand Sukhumvit. This time the taxi from the airport took a novel route, getting off the expressway at Khlong Toey (alternately spelled "Toui") instead of Sukhumvit. This saved the slow crawl up Shukhumvit and the complicated turn around to get to the Sheraton side of the street. Yee ha! Highly recommended route! On checkin they wanted to put me in an upgraded corner room, but it was on the 19th floor overlooking the SkyTrain. After some discussion they were able to find me a room on the nose-bleed floor 32 (one from the top) in a "Lake View" room. It is exactly the same style room that I was in last time (i.e. fantastic), but on an even higher floor and with a great view over Khlong Toey and the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly complex, with gardens and a lake. I hadn't even known that lake was there.
Bangkok is currently in the middle of a heat wave, with the high expected today to be 96 degrees Fahrenheit, and a heat index of 107. I can feel the heat through the double pane glass of my room, and from the window I have a commanding view of a huge thunderstorm moving this way. This room is a meteorologist's dream!
Bangkok continues to get cleaner. The sidewalks on Sukhumvit road are almost completely repaved with large concrete paving tiles; soon you will be able to walk down this street without wearing combat boots! They have also put wire fencing down the median strip with signs warning of 300 baht fines for J-walking. Can you beat that! No J-walking on Sukhumvit! What is happening to Bangkok?
I read about a restaurant called "Indigo" in Thai Airways Sawasdee magazine. It is on Thannon Convent a block down from Silom Road, across the street from Delaney's pub (6 Soi Convent, telephone 235-3268). It was a piece of cake taking the sky train from Asok station just outside the Sheraton. I started with an excellent salmon sashimi and then had a wonderfully spiced rack of lamb for a price that would make a Thai blush and a New Yorker laugh. Note that the prices for western dishes are 3 to 5 times those for the Thai specialties. The place was large, airy, and tastefully decorated. You can choose to sit inside or out in the garden. I sat upstairs inside looking down over the garden - the best of both worlds.
On the way back I got off the sky train at Siam Center and checked out the new and hip Fou Bar Model Café and Restaurant (264/4-6, 2nd floor, Siam Square soi 3, Rama 1 road, telephone 658-4040) for a great cup of coffee and people watching. It was not as crowded as I expected, but looks like a happening place.
While walking around Siam Square, I noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk with a pile of bamboo slices and some cans of spray paint. One of his arms was shriveled and deformed, the other had a stump for a hand. Yet somehow he was creating amazing grasshoppers, crickets, alligators and dragons from the bamboo strips, which he was selling for a few baht a piece. I couldnít help thinking about the United States, the richest nation on earth, which is now enjoying unheard of prosperity and almost zero unemployment. Yet with all its economic success, in any city in America you will find able bodied young men and women begging on the street because they do not want to work. As I bought several of this man's creations, I couldnít help thinking that I will be giving far fewer quarters to people on the street back home.
Wednesday May 3, 2000
I strongly recommend meeting Thai people. How you go about doing that is an exercise left to the reader. However you meet some Thais, sooner or later (probably sooner) they will invite you to go somewhere with them. I recommend that you accept. There are a few things to keep in mind though:
And thus it was that I spent the day with Nong, Ti and Fern, plus an ever changing cast of dozens, going to various places around Bangkok. It was wonderful. We ended up very late at night at Joking Star, a Thai comedy club somewhere in Bangkok. If you ever wanted to see a room full of Thai people laughing, this is the place for you. Of course, being the only farang in the place, and being seated directly next to the stage, I was an irresistible target for each of the comedians in turn. Thankfully, only one of them actually tried to drag me up on stage, giving up after a token effort. I've never had so much fun spending several hours without understanding a single word.
Thursday May 4, 2000
I made a return visit to Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Po today. It was insanely hot, and Wat Phra Kaew was unbearably crowded. Wat Po was an oasis of sanity after Wat Prhae Kew. I am becoming a lot more comfortable with Buddhist temples, enjoying bowing 3 times to the Buddha and putting token coins into wishing bowls.
Today was a day of transportation disasters. Going to Wat Phra Kaew my first taxi had broken air conditioning and then the engine broke down part way there. Next I got into a Tuk Tuk, and it broke down about 10 minutes later. The next Tuk Tuk actually made it the whole way. On the return trip I decided to take the public boat down the Chao Phraya to the SkyTrain, then the SkyTrain back to the hotel. The riverboat arrived a few minutes after I got to the dock, and a whole stream of people walked down the gangway to get on. As we were boarding, the captain blew his whistle and pulled out! The boat wasnít full or anything. A dozen of us were left standing on the doc bewildered. The next two boats went by without stopping. Finally after about a 1/2 hour wait, a boat arrived and we were able to board. You've never seen me jump on a boat so fast.
Friday May 5, 2000
When your Thai friends ask you if you would like to go to visit their parent's rice farm, the correct answer is "yes". Thus it was that my plans to go to Hua Hin went out the window and I made plans to go to Surin instead.
There are basically three ways to get to Surin from Bangkok. There are government buses that leave every 15 minutes throughout the day and take 9 hours, there is a train which leaves at 6am and takes 7 hours, and there is a flight to Buri Ram which takes 50 minutes. My Thai friends always take the bus or train, since the cost of the flight is prohibitive to them, and Thais donít seem to think much of 7 to 9 hours on a bus or train. The other cost associated with the flight is that you then have to pay for some kind of transportation from Buri Ram to Surin. They tried very hard to convince me to take the train, but I really didnít want to spend that much time in transport, and I also didnít want to get up that early in the morning (their plan was to stay up all night - something I would have considered 15 years ago!) Finally I convinced them that I had no problem paying for airfare for each of us at US$45 per person each way.
The flight to Buri Ram (also transliterated as Buriram and Buri Rum) was on a medium sized twin turbo-prop plane. It was pleasant and completely uneventful. In Surin we were met by family members with a hired pickup truck which drove us about 1.5 hours to their home, which turned out to be about 45 minutes past Surin. Though my friends refer to the place where they live as Surin, it is really Surin Province, and not Surin City. If this were the United States, it would probably be referred to as "unincorporated Surin county", or some such.
On the way to their home we stopped in the city of Surin to go to the market and pick up food for dinner that night. As in all Thai market places I was struck by how beautiful the fruits and vegetables were. For some reason I was thrown back in time to my memories of the market place in Port Blair, India, and reeled from the drastic comparison. The food stalls in the Indian markets had nothing but a few piles of rotting apples, bruised and overripe mangoes, possibly some unappetizing grapes. Everything was covered with flies, which the vendors did not bother to swish away. What is it about India that they are unable to get quality foods to their markets? What is it about Thailand that they are? The contrast is startling.
The house sits in a small farming community, down a long dirt road. It abuts the family's rice paddies, which are mostly dry and full of grass now. It is the end of the dry season, and the rains have not yet started. All around empty field beds of about 100 feet by 300 feet sit like reflecting ponds waiting to be filled. Only the paddy directly behind the house has water it in, making a home for the family's ducks. The sky is a perfect blue punctuated by fluffy white clouds. This is the real Thailand. Rice fields upon rice fields, all flat for miles and miles around, spotted with trees, communities and farm houses. Most of the houses are traditional Thai houses set on stilts. This one, and a few others, are modern Western style houses. Water buffaloes and cows graze in the dry fields, fertilizing them as they go. Chickens, dogs, and kids run across the roads. My mind is filled with questions that I donít know how to ask.
There is none of the pollution of Bangkok, though the paddy behind the house does have plastic bags and empty plastic bottles carelessly discarded in it. In this pastoral surrounding, I am extremely surprised to see that Thai families seem to think nothing of littering their own back yards.
After getting settled in at the house, we went out on motor bikes to some kind of local public building (perhaps a school), where there was a party going on. A local couple were getting married the next morning, and there was a community-wide pre-wedding party happening. We made small donations to the bride and groom's fund, then we were served a variety of dishes ranging from mild to mind-boggling and some absolutely insane local-brew whisky. Along the way various people came over to our table and talked for a while. I tried my best to figure out who to "wai" to and how. Wai-ing is a sign of respect and consists of holding the hands together (as in prayer) and bowing. If the person you are wai-ing is either older or more important than you are, you hold your hands together in front of your face. If they are younger or less important, you hold your hands lower, with the fingertips about lip height. You never ever wai a child (it is thought to shorten their life.) Sensing my discomfort, whenever someone important came over my friends would whisper to me "say sawasdi", which clued me to say hello and wai.
After a while at the party we took several bags of leftovers and headed home. On the motor bike ride home I realized that I had managed to get slightly drunk ("mao") at the party - woo hoo. This local whisky is not to be taken lightly. Back at the house we ate yet again, then packed it in for some much needed sleep. While falling off to sleep I couldnít help wondering about the insane amounts of food the Thai's seem to eat. Perhaps it is some kind of conspiracy to make me fat.
Saturday May 6, 2000
It's an early 8am start for me today, but I get the feeling everyone else on the farm has been awake for hours. I knew the plan for today was to drive a long way to see a beautiful Wat, but I didnít really learn the details until this morning when my hosts filled me in that this was an Ankor period Wat ruin located in Cambodia. "Cambodia!?! I can't go to Cambodia. I donít have a visa. And what about land mines and gorillas and all that?" "No problem, it is only a short walk into Cambodia." Came the reply. Of course, this is Thailand, so nothing is ever a problem. So I zippered my passport in my pocket, then added a couple hundred dollars in US currency in case I needed to bribe my way out of a Cambodian prison, and hopped in the pickup truck with 14 family, friends and neighbors.
We drove and drove through a seemingly endless landscape of rice paddies. It was all extremely beautiful and serene. The scenery was just like every southeast Asian movie set you've ever seen: Children bathing and playing in flooded rice paddies; everywhere water buffalo grazing or walking through the fields; men casting nets out into their paddies to catch catfish that somehow manage to live there; coconut palms and fruit trees heavy with fruit. The only difference between this and a movie is that you are actually in it - it is real and you are there. At one point my hosts became very excited when they saw some people planting rice in a paddy. Back at their home there still is not enough water to plant. The rains have not come yet, but you can tell that though it is back breaking labor, they are very eager plant their crop.
After we had been driving for quite a while, I saw a Pepsi truck at the side of the road. I suddenly realized that "Pepsi" was the first word of English I had seen in quite a while. For the whole time I have been in Thailand, I have been in places where street signs are in both Thai and English. Now I was far enough out that the English had disappeared and only the Thai remained.
The drive turned out to be three hours, and the destination was the remarkable ruins of Prasat Phra Wihan. Having driven so far, I was quite surprised when we pulled into the parking lot and found it full of other cars and many large tour busses. It is a very strange feeling to have driven 3 hours from nowhere through rural rice fields to find yourself at a destination that is clearly extremely popular. I was quite relieved when I realized that all of the tour busses were Thai, and the throngs of people were virtually 100% Asian.
Prasat Phra Wihan is 200km from Surin on the Thai-Cambodian border. Located in Ban Phum Sarong, Si Sa Ket province, on top of the Dong Rek mountain range, Prasat Phra Wihan should really be in Thailand, but was granted to Cambodia by the world court. Having visited it, I donít understand the court's decision, but I'm sure they must have had some reason. It turns out that given its location at the top of a set of high cliffs, it is extremely difficult to get to from Cambodia - you really have to go to Thailand to get to it. Admission fees for the site are being used to build a road from Cambodia so their citizens can get there more easily. The admission structure was kind of comical; it is 30 baht (about US $0.80) for Thais, but it is US$5.00 for foreigners, and the sign specifies payment in US dollars! Conveniently I had US dollars in my pocket, though I assume they would have accepted 400 baht if I hadn't had US currency.
Travellers to Prasat Phra Wihan do not need a visa, since it is basically impossible to get into any other part of Cambodia from the Wat. Just to make sure, there are guards at the borders of the Wat so you cant escape into Cambodia. Not that anyone with any sense would - there are active land mines in the forests around the wat, with some impressive signs warning of their presence. Nonetheless, I found myself extremely excited to be in Cambodia. Growing up, Cambodia was someplace far away that the United States was bombing the bejezus out of for no good reason; where there were tanks and land mines, Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge gorillas. In my mind it was a place that I could never go to. In college I had studied Angkor Wat, the most significant Angkor period temple located in Cambodia, and wondered if it would ever be safe for me to go there. So, to suddenly find myself on Cambodian soil with little or no fanfare was quite a thrill.
In addition to the philosophical excitement at being in this forbidden land of mystery, the ruins of the wat itself were quite dramatic. A long staircase of broken and twisted stones rose up from the "Kingdom of Cambodia" border gate, echoing the broken and twisted history of this nation. This was the first Angkor period ruin I have been privileged to see, and I found it breathtaking. Originally built by Khmer kings as a palace for the Hindu god Shiva, what remains is now dedicated as a Buddhist temple. Though a fair bit of it lies in ruins, the remaining carvings are wonderful, especially the tremendous carved lintels over all the doorways depicting the various incarnations of the Hindu pantheon.
In the center of the complex there was one quite intact building in which was housed a Buddhist shrine. Inside we lit candles, burned incense, and wai'ed three times to the Buddha. We then went over to two saffron robed monks sitting on one side. They shook water on us ("for lucky"), then one of the monks asked me in English where I was from. When I responded "America", he said "Ooooh, America, very good, but I no speak English... Speak French?" Boy was I startled! After gathering my wits for a moment I said "Un peu", and we were off. Never did I expect to have a conversation in French with a Buddhist monk in a Cambodian Angkor period Shivaite temple ruin. Wow. I've often thought that knowing Spanish would have helped me more in my travels, but French continues to pop up in the most unlikely of circumstances.
At the back of the temple is an open area leading up to a 550 meter cliff. At the bottom of the cliff as far as the eye can see lies the flat open "Lower Khmer Plain" of southeast Cambodia. The view is certainly spectacular and throngs of Thai tourists line up to take their photos there. I sat and pondered the nature of the universe from the edge of the cliff until my friends dragged me away.
After we descended from the temple and re-entered Thailand, we took a big cooler full of last night's left over rice and chicken from the truck and settled down at a group of picnic tables for lunch. To our leftovers we added a seemingly endless array of plates of food bought from the local food stalls. I have seen many a Thai family having such a lunch at various scenic locations around Thailand. This was my first opportunity to participate in one. The three hour drive back to the house was just as scenic as on the way out. When we got home I was quite ready for a nap.
I woke up several hours later to find the younger members of the family out in the back sitting on the platform that serves as a dining area, chopping up green mangos to make "Som Tam". Som Tam is prepared by chopping astringent-tasting green mangos into thin julienne strips, then dumping them into a large mortar with fish sauce, garlic cloves, a raw, marinated crab or two, various spices, and huge amounts of chili peppers. The whole mess is then pounded with a pestle for a while, then served up. The result is rather bitter, vinegary, and hot as hell. My friends served me a plate assuring me that they had made it very mild ("mai pet".) However, after a few bites they were all sucking air, sweating, waving their hands in front of their mouths and grabbing for cups of water. I was quite proud to have managed to choke down 4 forkfuls before my mouth begged my brain for mercy. (Yes, for Som Tam they use a fork, not a spoon. Donít ask me why.)
Later they decided that this would be the night to take me in to Surin to the local disco. And so it was that 11 of us climbed onto 5 motor bikes and screamed off into the night down tiny, unlit roads and into town. We had a great time cruising along together with nary another vehicle on the road. I would never have figured the route out on my own. In the end it took about 45 minutes to get there, by which time my butt was completely flat and my legs were buzzing. The place we stopped at was a disco named "Cola" (spelled in English). It was Saturday night and the place was hopping, though my hosts tell me that people here work 7 days a week and that Cola is packed 7 nights a week. They say that Saturday night is not a special night, but I'm not sure that it is true (or that we understood each other - never a certainty.)
Around 1am I suggested it was probably time to leave. I was getting quite tired from being up so long, and the extreme volume in the disco was getting to me. On the way we stopped at the marketplace in Surin for food. There is simply no way to have a social gathering in Thailand without having a meal somewhere in the process. The marketplace was amazingly busy at 1am with vendors setting up their shops and laying out their wares and people coming in to buy produce. Restaurants and food stalls were in full swing. Donít Thai people sleep?
When we finally got back to the house I was greeted by the most incredible panorama of stars and a spectacular moon. Without a light for miles around, the visibility was amazing. What a night!
Sunday May 7, 2000
We got up a little bit later this morning to head out to a couple more Khmer temple ruins. As usual we piled an improbable number of people into the pickup truck and headed out. As we were driving down the dirt road from the house, children came bounding out of houses and dove - seemingly head first - into the back of the pickup truck. We pulled over a few times, at one house a woman handed someone in the pickup a few coconuts, at another house a old woman got up from her spinning wheel, came over to the truck, and someone handed her some money. Why? I'm sure I'll never know. By the time we hit the main road there were at least 15 people in the truck. An hour and a half later we pulled into the parking lot at Prasat Muang Tam.
Prasat Muang Tam is one of several Khmer temple ruins all located near Nakhon Ratchasima. It is a relatively small temple, which has been substantially restored. Certainly it is in much better condition than Prasat Phra Wihan. After a short but pleasant stroll around Prasat Muang Tam, we headed off to the larger and much more significant Prasat Phnom Rung which is sited on top of a nearby hill ("Phnom" - as in Phnom Penh - is the Khmer word for "hill".)
Since it had been at least 2 hours since we had last eaten, before touring Prasat Phnom Rung we grabbed the cooler of rice and last night's leftovers and headed into the restaurant area. As usual the restaurant did not mind at all that we had brought our own rice, and as usual we ordered an amazing amount of food in addition to that which we had brought. As usual we managed to finish this huge feast, and as usual I was completely stunned. The total cost for this banquet for 15? A little over US$10.
Prasat Phnom Rung is quite large, extensively restored, and absolutely stunning. The 7-headed "naga" serpents that serve as balustrades are amazing, the quality of the original stone carvings is wonderful. The whole place is made of a beautiful reddish stone which lends it a very warm quality. The heat and humidity made some of the long staircases into major efforts, which in the end simply added to the total experience. In the central "prang" (tower) I got to see my first Shivaite "linga", which was damned interesting indeed. The carvings on the towers in the main courtyard were fantastic, causing me to spend a lot of time searching for the perfect angles for photographs to help remember this amazing place. [For some more great information on the attractions in Buri Ram province, check out Nanta Travel's Buri Ram province pages.]
After everyone was finished exploring the temple we headed back to the car for the drive home. Of course, since we hadn't eaten for over an hour we stopped at several booths to buy various snacks and fruits for the drive home. I'd hate to think that anyone in the party might go hungry!
After we got back to the house we headed back out again for a long motorbike ride to somewhere on the water. As usual, there were a lot of people there. The road was lined with a seemingly infinite number of undifferentiated lean-to's, each containing several sitting/eating/sleeping pallets and a small food preparation area. It turns out that these are actually restaurants, each offering a small selection of local foods. We got plates of tiny deep fried fish that are eaten whole and reminded me of slightly fishy potato chips. I skipped on the plates of fried grasshopper, stir fried krill, and spicy termite larvae.
I love Thai food in general, but Isan food is not to my taste. It is mostly mouth-numbingly spicy and often contains ingredients that a lifetime of western culture have taught me not to eat. This is a place that has historically been farmland, and generally quite poor. It is a place where, when a termite mound pops up in your back yard, you donít call the exterminators, instead you call Aunt Bee and ask her if she still has that excellent recipe for spicy termite larvae. If 100 years later you are now a somewhat more affluent farmer, it only means you donít have to wait for the termites to come to you, you can go to your favorite restaurant and get a steaming plate to order. To my distress, we took our leftovers home.
From far off across the fields we could see a major storm coming in, so we zipped home with extra speed. Just as we got back to the house the skies opened up with a fantastic electrical storm. Because it is so flat here, you can see the lightning lighting up the sky from far, far away. It was an amazing spectacle, though for some reason none of the rain actually reached us. The paddies will remain dry for another day. As the sun finishes setting, lightning bugs came out, setting their flashing in contrast with the flashes in the sky.
That night after dinner I was called into the living room where a whole group of relatives and neighbors were gathered. Each person took a piece of white string and dyed it yellow by dipping it in a bowl of strong-smelling yellow spices mixed with water. Then, by turns, each person tied a string around one of my wrists while several other people supported my arms. Why? "For lucky." It was a very touching ceremony.
Monday May 8, 2000
Got up bright and early this morning and headed downstairs for a cup of coffee. For breakfast I was presented with a bowl of rice and a plate of left over spicy termite larvae. While I hadn't quite been willing to eat it the night before, there was no amount of coffee in the world that could prepare me to eat that in the morning.
This morning they are taking me to a local Buddhist temple to get the monk to bless me. Why? "For lucky." The visit to the temple was quite interesting. We started the morning with the family chatting outside the temple with two monks who were carving something from a large section of tree trunk. They were working with chisels that looked to be as old as Buddhism itself, and carving quite slowly and carefully. Unfortunately, the language barrier kept me from finding out what they were carving.
Next we entered the temple proper, wai-ed three times to the Buddha, and then awaited the head monk. Eventually he came in, appearing both serene and cheerful at the same time. He sat down on an old office chair behind an old fashioned metal office desk which was cluttered with all manner of stuff. All around his chair were piles of ordinary looking objects; some pails, some bottles, candles, fruit, carvings. If he weren't wearing saffron robes, one might have mistaken him for a very disorganized office worker or a pack-rat bureaucrat. For quite a while he just sat there and chatted amicably with the family, talking mostly to the father. From the way people were laughing, it really seemed like the two were just telling each other jokes. I had no clue what was going on. With a series of slow, meticulous, yet fluid motions he took a cup from some unseen cupboard, picked up and opened a bottle of green Fanta soda and a bottle of Thai vitamins and mixed them together in the cup. I watched with curiosity and great expectations as he drank the mixture down then carefully put everything away again. Dumbfounded, I realized that he had simply been thirsty!
Eventually he got down to business. Taking a bucket of water from the family he lit three yellow candles and held them sideways, allowing the wax to drip into the water while chanting. By this time we had been seated on the tile floor for quite some time and my knees were starting to give out. I found myself quietly praying that we wouldnít have to sit that way until the entire candles had burned down. Mercifully he stopped when the candles were halfway melted and extinguished them in the water. He then took a staff of bamboo slivers, dipped it in the water, and splashed it over our heads several times. Finally he dipped the staff in the water (once for each of us) and whacked us with it. Apparently he smacked my friends on their heads, but instead hit me three times on the shoulder. Next he took a spool of white thread and cut pieces from it into which he tied a series of knots then tied them around our wrists. This completed the ceremony. After he left my friends all asked me if I was OK. When they heard him smack me three times, they assumed it was on my head and were worried about me. I assured them I was fine.
We left, taking the bucket of water with us. Back home my friends went around with the bucket of water splashing everyone in the neighborhood, sharing the good luck. We then got back into the pickup truck for the last time to drive back to Buri Ram airport. As usual children run out of houses and dove head first into the back of the truck. Our entourage is growing again. The wait at Buri Ram airport was pleasant and uneventful. There was a "Star Alliance Gold" check in line, but no one was manning it, so I was unable to show off my line-jumping talents.
The flight back to BKK was on another turbo-prop plane and was quite pleasant. I slept most of the way. Back at the Sheraton Grand Sukhumvit I am given a room that was identical to the last one, except this time on the very topmost 33rd floor with a city view. I think I like the lake view better, but being on the top floor is quite cool.
For dinner I went to Suda restaurant on Soi 14 and had an absolutely excellent Gang Daeng Gai (red curry chicken).
Tuesday May 9, 2000
This morning I started out with a very nice breakfast of Kao Thom at the restaurant on the first floor of the Sheraton. After packing up, I left my bags with the porters at the hotel and headed out for my final day in Bangkok. I've been wanting to buy my sister a birthday present and finally decided that she might like a bracelet of the famous Thai gold. The Thai's use gold jewelry as a form of banking, as is done in parts of India and the Middle East. Thai gold is sold by weight and is usually 96.5% pure. They will tell you that it is 24 carat gold, but it is in fact only 23 carats. Nonetheless, it is quite pure, very yellow, and very soft. The designs are usually relatively simple and require comparatively little skill to make, since the value for them is in the metal, not the workmanship. I have found that many of these simple designs are quite beautiful. For an interesting discussion of Thai gold, check out http://www.baanthai.com/magazin/golde.shtml
Probably the best place to find Thai gold in Bangkok (possibly in all of Thailand) is Yowarat road in Chinatown. There are literally dozens of gold shops in a several block stretch of Yowarat, and I wanted to find just the right piece for my sister. I went in and out of about 10 or 12 shops, finding almost the same wares at each place with just a few variations. After a while I stopped into one of the many anonymous storefront restaurants for a meal, then returned to one of the first gold shops I had gone into to re-examine a bracelet I had seen earlier. I finally settled on one that was basically a finely braided ring of gold wires. It was quite different from most of the pieces I had seen in Thailand, and had an appealing simple elegance to it.
That done I spent some time wandering around Chinatown and looking in windows. Eventually the heat and noise got the better of me. Chinatown is even more crowded and crazy than the rest of the Bangkok madness. I headed back to the familiar insanity of Sukhumvit road, and whiled away the last few hours eating and looking in various shops. I picked up my bags then headed to the airport for my flight back to the USA.
Because I am on a round-the-world ticket, I have to fly west from Bangkok to get to America. As a result I am going to fly to Frankfort (about 12 hours) then wait 6 hours, then fly to Washington D.C. That's a lot of flying! Every time I fly from Bangkok, I am in a completely different business class lounge. I donít understand how this happens. Anyway, the Thai Royal Executive lounge that I am in now is pretty poor by business class lounge standards. Small, hot, crowded. Hmmmm...
Flying to Frankfort I am in business class upstairs on a Thai Airways Boeing 747 300/400. I have to say that these are probably the least comfortable international business class seats I can recall flying in. They are quite narrow, extremely firm, and have very few adjustments that donít move well. Also there is no laptop power port. I wonder if it is possible to avoid specific planes with less-comfortable seats and still get where I want to go?
Usually in Frankfort I am flying Lufthansa, so I use the Lufthansa Senators lounge. This time I am flying United, so I am in the Red Carpet Club in concourse C. The shower facilities here are fantastic. It is so nice having a shower and shave between flights. The Red Carpet Club is a medium sized room, but mostly empty. The seats are fairly comfortable, thought there are no desks for working, and very few electrical outlets. Local phone calls are not free.
After a while I went out and wandered the airport, having a small lunch at the airport restaurant for 30dm, which is more than I would pay in Bangkok to feed 4 people. I bought some yummy chocolates, then went to the Lufthansa Senators lounge in terminal B, rather than returning to the Red Carpet Club in terminal C. The seats at the Senators lounge aren't as comfy as the Red Carpet Club seats, but they have nice desk work areas, and a wonderful relaxation room off to the side which no one ever uses. They have added a mechanical massager (free!) which I used for far too long while gorging on Belgian chocolates. The other benefit of the Senators Lounge is that there is food here. Not a lot, but far more than at the United lounge.
One more flight and I'll be back in the USA. Now I just have to decide if I am happy to be leaving Thailand, the land of smiles.
© 2000, Andrew Sigal
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