Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Three Weeks in Thailand

When it comes to travel in Asia, there are plenty of options. The most popular destination, however, seems to be Thailand. It's beautiful, it's inexpensive, and the people are friendly. Let's face it, when a country sees 11 million visitors a year, it's because they have something good to offer. This is primarily why I chose Thailand to make my first visit to the other side of the globe. The unbelievable $600 flight also had something to do with it. Fortunately, it lived up to its reputation. The islands were magical, the highlands were lush, and the cities were lively. On the other hand, Thailand also came with some disappointment - I just have to be honest, here. If you are looking for a little bit of a challenge in your travels, this isn't really the place. Sure, you can always walk in the other direction from Thailand's beaten path, but you will never be too far away from decades worth of commercial development and package tourism. In this little corner of Southeast Asia, everything is for sale, and they know you are coming. However, if you can get over the fact that there's a 7-11 on just about every corner, and blind yourself from the endless barrage of tourist agencies, you can still enjoy all that is pure and wonderful about this amazing country - and, let us not forget the food. The following entries chronicle my brief time spent in Thailand, and present what I hope will be useful information for other travelers. (map: www.shunya.net)

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Monday, October 31, 2005

October 8 - 9: Flying (Atlanta, Minneapolis, Tokyo, and Bangkok)

(1) It took roughly 24 hours to get from Atlanta to Bangkok, traveling through Minneapolis and Tokyo. Some may say that I really got screwed with my multi-destination flight, but the only ones who lost out on this deal were the good people at Northwest Airlines. My ticket only cost me a rediculous $620, roundtrip. That's pretty much unheard of when it comes to flying to the opposite end of the planet. The longest leg of this journey is from Minneapolis to Tokyo, clocking in at about 12 hours. My advise: grab an aisle seat and spend your waking hours walking around. Tokyo to Bangkok took us seven hours, but it wasn't so bad when you put it up against the previous flight. I finally arrived in Bangkok at 11:50pm on October 9th... I left on October 8th in the morning. (photo: http://lenta.ru)

(2) Joining me in Bangkok were two co-workers, traveling seperately, who wound up on my flight when the fare was jointly discovered on Northwest's website. We decided to spend that first and second night in the same hotel in Bangkok before going our separate ways. This, in retrospect, was a bad idea because we stayed at Majestic Suites in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok. The hotel was very nice, and that was the problem - it set the bar quite high for my future accomodations. However, Rich and Graham (left) had stayed at the hotel several times before on previous visits, and were correct in that it was clean and reasonable. Not only that, but I have to admit that it was pleasant to show up in a country at night after all that travel and have a decent bed waiting for you. A bite to eat at Food Land and a beer was about as much fun as I was able to muster on the 9th before turning in.

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

October 10: Bangkok

(1) The next morning, after hopping online and purchasing a flight to Phuket for the next day, I set out to do some exploring. The first thing I noticed was the strange proximity of the rich and the poor. Just walking down the street from my hotel to the skytrain, I could see giant high-rise buildings towering above what appeared to be a ramshakled village. According to one traveler, these may actually be temporary laborers' quarters - not permanant homes. Either way, it's still pretty bad. I suppose it's not that uncommon to see combined wealth and poverty in large cities, but I couldn't help but wonder what it does to the psyche of the people. Does it breed a feeling of empowerment for those looking down from their windows upon the metal roofs and boarded walls below? And does it belittle the inhabitants of these shacks, looking up to condos in the sky?

(2) Sukhumvit, seemingly the epicenter for Bangkok's sex tourism industry, does, however, offer something for the individual not looking for a good time, but, rather, just a good time. What it offers is a fantastic staging point for travel throughout the city, allowing easy access to both the subway and skytrain. Bangkok has terrible traffic, and unobstructed transportation is key. On my way over to the major tourist points of interest, I rode the skytrain to the Saphan Taksin stop along the Chao Phraya River, where I then picked up a water taxi. This is the quickest, cheapest, and most scenic way to get around town.

(3) Deboarding the water taxi at the N8 stop, I was able to walk, quickly, to Wat Pho in order to view the famous Reclining Buddha. It's big. From there, it's just a short walk over to the Grand Palace, which encompasses the holiest and most impressive temple in the country, Wat Phra Kaeo. To visit my final tourist stop for the day, before taking some time to just stroll around the back streets of the city, I ventured a little further away to Wat Rajnadda's massive amulet market - amulets are sacred neclaces, often depicting a miniature Buddha.

(4) Later that evening, I, along with Graham, Rich (in red), and Doug, a family friend who happened to be in Bangkok at the same time as me, hung out at Gulliver's Traveler's Tavern with the desk receptionists from our hotel. Though I had to be up early the next morning for a flight out of the big, bad city, Rich and Graham gave me and Doug the grand after-hours tour of the town.

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

October 11: Ko Lanta

(1) One of the nice things about being a short-timer, traveling for only three weeks, is that you can justify paying for more expensive (but faster) modes of transportation. On this morning, I took an 8am Asia Air flight to Phuket for about $30. Once I arrived on this popular island off the Andaman coast, I grabbed a mini-bus to Phuket Town where I spent a couple hours enjoying the last day of Ngan Kin Jeh, the annual vegetarian festival. While the food at Wat Jui Tui made the hurried travel worth the effort, I would miss the evening's ritualistic acts of self-mortification as I had already made the decision to continue on to Ko Lanta.

(2) A bus from Phuket Town to Krabi, and a mini-van from Krabi to Ko Lanta's Hat Khlong Dao, would turn out to be my biggest mistake of the trip. Prior research had inspired me to spend up to six days on this long, lazy island, basking in the sun and enjoying the late-night fish barbecues on the beach. However, this was the off season, and I quickly learned that I was one of just a handful of travelers on the island. While it was nice to have the entire stretch of sand to myself, I was bored stupid. From the beach outside my accomodations at Lanta Villa, I could see Ko Phi Phi out in the distant waters, teasing me through the ghostly haze. Later, I would learn from multiple backpackers that Phi Phi was the place to be. I had gambled on the chance of having something special on Ko Lanta, but found it less than exciting, at this time, for the solo traveler. However, for the happy couple looking for peace and quiet... welcome to paradise.

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Friday, October 28, 2005

October 12: Ko Lanta

(1) Attitude is key. I decided that I would only spend one more night on Ko Lanta, and would make the most out of my final day. The next order of business, then, was to rent a motorbike from Lanta Villa and see what else this island had to offer. After half an hour of figuring our how to actually ride the damn thing, I set off on the main road, traveling down along the island's eastern coast. On the way back, I ran out of gas. I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that I was reading Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A little girl approached me as I was pushing my motorbike up a hill, and offered to bring me a liter of fuel for 30 Baht. I handed her a 100 Baht bill and she ran off back to her home, leading me to believe that insult had just been added to inury. Several moments later, she came back down to the road, clad in her Muslim head-cover. Appropriately dressed to venture off into public, she sped off on her own motorbike as I sat with her family in their home. The kids were sprawled out on the floor watching a DVD while the mother fixed a torn fishing net for the father. The little girl soon returned with a plastic baggie filled with a pink-ish gasoline. She handed me my change and emptied the bag into my fuel tank. I tipped her for her generosity.

(2) One of my problems when I'm on the road is taking far too many photographs of sunsets. I'm addicted, and Ko Lanta was like crack cocaine. After my great day of traveling the road on my motorbike, feeling like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, this gorgeous, changing sky was a perfect way to cap my short stay on the island.

(3) There wasn't much nightlife on Ko Lanta while I was there, but I was fortunate enough to be able to hang out with the owners of The Laughing Leprechaun. A young, Irish guy and his lady run this small, but friendly tavern, and actually live there with their dog, Guinness. They had opened during the previous year, however things turned sour for business when the tsunami hit. The night I showed up in their bar was the first night they opened for the season.

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

October 13: Ko Samui

(1) Needing something that resembled nightlife, and hoping for the company of other travelers, I left Ko Lanta for guaranteed action on Ko Samui. Traveling by mini-vans to Surat Thani, I then boarded a ferry boat for the hour and a half ride over to the big island in the Gulf of Thailand. The sailing was pleasant, and the views were spectacular.

(2) Like I said, I can't stop taking photos of sunsets. It's a disease. I mean, seriously, look at this sky. With a luke-warm Chang Beer in my hand, I stood at the stern of the ferry and enjoyed every passing moment. Eventually, I started talking with a young, British couple on their four-month-long honeymoon. Having not planned for accomodation for the night, they decided to follow me to Charlie's Huts on Chaweng Beach. After my slow start in Ko Lanta, it finally felt like I was actually traveling. Though I wish I had started things out on Ko Phi Phi or Krabi, I was feeling too good to let my bad decision bother me. My goodness, just look at that sky.

(3) Charlie's Huts is one of those places that gets recommended often on the BootsnAll message boards. I went for the basic room... this is what I got. It wasn't the lack of a flush toilet that bothered me (notice the hand bucket on the floor), it was whatever was growing on the walls of the bathroom. I can only wonder who LW was, and what horrible disease ultimately led to his or her demise.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

October 14: Ko Samui

(1) There's a reason why Charlie's Huts is so highly regarded online by travelers - it's a beautiful, beachside property with tidy little huts. Of course, my hut (#24) wasn't worth a damn, but that was really my own fault. I was actually advised by somebody on the boards to go ahead and get the slightly upgraded room because there's nothing slight about the difference in quality. So, my first item of business on the 14th was going from the 350 Baht room to the 500 Baht room. Let me just say that, while C-11 wasn't anything ultra special, as far as I was concerned it was friggin' Xanadu.

(2) I decided to spend my first day on Samui doing absolutely nothing. With a perfect, white-sand beach just a few hundred feet from my hut, it was easy to wander over to the water's edge whenever I felt inspired to continue the process of turning myself into a bronze god. As you will find in all of Thailand, the beach outside Charlie's Huts is swarming with stray dogs like this guy. They're friendly, for certain, and their modus operandi seems not to be too different from that of the tourists. All these pups are really interested in is a nice, shady spot on the beach, and whatever leftovers you might be willing to part with.

(3) The big sport in Thailand is Thai boxing. When I arrived in Samui, I was inundated with advertising for this evening's event and convinced that this was going to be a great experience. When 9pm rolled around, I walked over to Chaweng Stadium to get in on the action. That's when something struck me. The ticket prices were outrageous, starting at about 800 Baht. It occured to me that this was not a price afordable to everyday Thais. Something didn't seem quite right. I hung around the stadium for a while, and noticed two other things. The first thing was that the stadium happened to be located in the same general area as Samui's go go bars - tourist central. I also noticed that all the announcements coming from within the stadium were in English only. If this was an authentic display of Thai boxing, wouldn't they offer both English and Thai? I concluded that this was just a scam to rake in tourist dollars, and left it alone. I would find my suspicion to be correct, as everyday on Samui brought the exact same advertising in the form of newly printed posters and recorded messages blasting from the loudspeakers on a constant barrage of trucks and boats: "Tonight! Tonight! Best match! Best match! World Champion! World Champion! Nine o'clock! Nine o'clock! Tonight! Tonight!" I would later learn that, even in Bangkok, where authentic fights can be seen on certain nights of the week, the tourists still pay a much higher ticket price from a separate foreigners' window. Thai's are able to purchase a discounted ticket because of a sports subsidy provided by the goverment.

(4) So, instead of watching Thai boxing, I ventured off to Soi Green Mango, a large, outdoor party plaza, where I threw back a bunch of Singha beers with some crazy British girls (by the way, to save money, purchase your drinks at the 7-11 next door). On the way home I decided to eat some street meat. This was a very, very bad idea. Immediately after biting into my beef on a stick, I could tell that I was going to be sick. Street food is very popular for travelers in Thailand, but I would be gun shy for the remainder of my trip.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

October 15: Ko Samui

(1) The next morning, feeling the effects of Singha Beer and bad street meat, I spent the bulk of my morning inside my hut clutching my stomach. It should be noted that none of the photos presented on this day are actually from the 15th - quite simply, I was in no mood for playing with my camera. Though I did manage some beach time and something that resembled a normal day, there isn't too much more to tell. Forget about bird flu... worry about the street meat.

(2) Since I have nothing better to show from this day of horror, I thought it might be nice to share a photograph of my new bathroom. Compare this glorious kingdom of heaven with the craphouse I had before, and you can clearly understand why paying the extra 150 Baht is worth it.

(3) My body was sore all day long, so I figured it might be worthwhile to get my first Thai massage. Somebody from the BootsnAll travel boards suggested that I try a place called Classic, commenting on the ginger tea served to you on their cozy veranda after your hour of muscular bliss. Well, that person could not have been more correct. When on Cheweng Beach, make sure you head over to Classic. This photo, taken a couple days later when I was feeling a little better, shows, not only the tea-time veranda, but also the fisherman's pants they give you to wear during your massage. I found these pants so comfortable that I ended up buying several pairs for myself and several more as gifts.

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Monday, October 24, 2005

October 16: Ko Samui

(1) The fact that I was still feeling rather sickly didn't really matter much due to the fact that it was pissing rain all day. A group of us, consisting of three Aussie girls, a British girl, two Canadian guys, another American, and me, made the best out of the bad weather by hanging out under the patio at Charlie's Huts playing some moronic card game called Spoons... which, in the absence of spoons, becamse Straws. October sort of marks the tail end of Thailand's rainy season, but this would be the only day during my entire trip where it just never stopped raining. On a few other days, storm clouds might roll in around four or five o'clock, rain for an hour or two, and then blow away. It was actually quite nice as it seemed to cool things down a bit. Overall, though, I would rate my vacation weather as spectacular.

(2) Me and one of the Aussie girls... Tropical Murphy's became our regular hangout, which is kind of sad when you consider that we had all traveled to Asia from somewhere far away, only to be sitting around in an Irish bar. However, we never spent the entire evening there, and it was a great place to watch a little English Premier League soccer before finding other entertainment for the night. This also worked out particularly well for me because, with my food poisoning and the rainy weather, I wasn't overly keen on venturing too far away from my hut.

(3) No comment.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

October 17: Ko Samui

(1) Feeling much better, but still not 100 percent, I decided I was healthy enough to rent motorbikes with the other American kid - a harmless redneck from South Carolina. We stopped, first, at a rather non-descript temple off the side of the road past Lamai Beach. Walking down toward the water from the Wat, we stumbled upon this little girl and her cat. She was just hanging out in this outdoor workshop among hundreds of monuments and statues being poured into casts, and happily allowed me to take her photograph.

(2) Our next destination was the Wang Sao Thong Waterfalls. Hiking in and about was mildly difficult at times, but overall it was a pleasant stroll through the jungle with a few natural points of interest. Hanging out on the beach all day, it was easy to forget that we were only spending our time on the very outskirts of this lush, tropical island. There was so much more to experience on Samui for the traveler who takes it upon himself to explore the areas outside Chaweng and Lamai Beach. Of course, I had my excuse... the dreaded street meat.

(3) On the return trip to Chaweng, we pulled over at another non-descript temple. Really, it's like visitng cathedrals and art galleries in Europe. After a while, the temples all start to look the same. However, at this particular Wat, we met a rather talkative Monk who encouraged us to hang out with him for a bit. In the end, he gave us bracelets and suggested that we take a few photographs. The (ahem) donation box is just outside the left edge of the photograph.

(4) Our last little visit on this motorbike journey was at a coastal land formation known simply as The Rocks. Locally famous for the two stone formations resembling male and female genitalia, most visitors walk away from The Rocks with a fancy postcard depicting this overwhelming proof that God has a warped sense of humor. I didn't need to buy a postcard because I have the brain of an eight-year-old and am quite capable of creating my own amusement. Very mature.

(5) Later that evening, feeling much better after another meal at the popular Ninja Crepes restuarant, I walked down the main strip looking for some nightlife. Just when you can't stomach any more Soi Green Mango (one night will do, thanks), you can always walk across the street and have a drink with Divas in Concert! Your best bet, however, is to venture over to Ark Bar, where Samui's most fun and relaxing nightlife takes place along the beach. Ark Bar is found among a gaggle of restaurants, resorts, and bars that provide comfortable mats and axe pillows on the sand for visitors to enjoy while they chill out next to the water. It was here that I ended up meeting some great travelers, played some pool late into the night, and avoided the annoyance of Samui's sex tourism.

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

October 18: Ko Pha Ngan

(1) As the night skies grow brighter with each passing date on the calendar, more and more travelers begin their migration to the Gulf of Thailand. The monthly Full Moon Party tradition on Ko Pha Ngan, just north of Ko Samui, has become one of the must-do events in Thailand, and on October 18th I was one of the thousands who descended on Hat Rin for the overnight festivities. It's good fun, but does this fancy sign not suggest that the Full Moon Party has sort of lost its original purity to the powers of mass-tourism?

(2) Several of us from Charlie's Huts, including these two Swedish girls, purchased travel deals from Samui to Ko Pha Ngan. All over the island, one can find any number of packages offering transportation between the two islands. However, the best deal seemed to be the one being offered by our own guest house. The package from Charlie's Huts cost 400 Baht, and included mini-van transport to and from the pier on Samui, and the 45-minute slow boat to and from Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. It was surprisingly organized, as one had to actually choose a departing time - I chose the 8:30pm boat to Ko Pha Ngan instead of the 9:30 or 10:30. In the morning, we were free to come home on either the 4am, 5am, or 6am ferry.

(3) When I first arrived on Ko Pha Ngan, things were very mellow. However, the bucket drinks were still flying off the shelves. The basic ingredients are ice, Coke or Sprite, a hip-flask bottle of Sangsom or Mekong, and a small can of a Red Bull-like product. Everything gets poured onto the ice, stirred around, and punctured with a handful of straws for sharing. From my experience, the best tasting bucket is one that uses Sprite and Sangsom. Others tend to taste like cough syrup.

(4) Some individuals claim that if you don't use drugs it's difficult to have a good time at the Full Moon Party. However, I found this to be quite an exageration. Plenty of us were just drinking our buckets and hanging out, free from drugs, having a terrific experience. So, if you prefer to remain drug-free, or even alcohol-free, fear not, for you can still enjoy the madness. That being said, let yourself go and dive into a bucket or four.

(5) I really wish that I had spent more time on Ko Pha Ngan. While it seems to be suffering from a similar explosion of tourism that has plagued Ko Samui, it manages to present a unique and endearing charm. On this night, late in the evening, the clouds parted just long enough for the celebrated full moon to reveal itself. I wonder how many people actually noticed.

(6) By three in the morning, I was pretty much spent. The casual group atmosphere that I enjoyed during the early stages of the night had dissolved into a more haphazard collection of individuals spaced out in their own little worlds. Hundreds, literally hundreds, of people were passed out on the sand from too many drugs, too much alcohol, or simply not enough sleep. I killed time waiting for the 5am ferry back to Samui by watching the talented fire-twirlers, and having a good laugh at the endless parade of BDMWD - Bad Decisions Made While Drunk. I've said it once, and I'll say it again - stupid humans.

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Friday, October 21, 2005

October 19: Chiang Mai

(1) Arriving back at Charlie's Huts from the Full Moon Party at around 6:30 in the morning, I felt it was best not to climb into bed and risk missing my 10:30am flight to Chiang Mai. Instead, I gave myself a brisk, oceanic slap in the face. Basically, at this hour, it was just me and the stray dogs out there. As a general rule, dogs are better than people, so this wasn't such a bad thing. After my peaceful swim, I packed up my things, had some breakfast at Ninja Crepes, and grabbed a cab over to the Samui airport.

(2) This is definitely one of the most unique airports I have ever seen. Peppered with tropical huts, the entire facility is open to the air, sort of like it came right out of Gilligan's Islands. Bangkok Airways actually owns the airport, so they have a nice monopoly on flights in and out of the island, and everything generally goes through Thailand's capital. Therefore, fares tend to be a little more expensive than usual. My flight cost me nearly $150. What I should have done, in retrospect, was taken one flight to Bangkok, and then a less expensive flight to Chiang Mai through another airline. But, whatever... at least Bangkok Airways knows how to take care of you. Every flight, even the short ones, came with a meal, and the terminals in both the Samui and Bangkok airports offered free food and internet access. That being said, their planes are a little outdated. Anyway, flying from Samui to Bangkok to Sukhothai to Chiang Mai, my entire travel time only took about four hours.

(3) Upon arriving in Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city, I could immediately feel a new sense of ease. The north is widely known to be slower, friendlier, and less expensive than Bangkok and the southern islands, and I was pleased that I had decided to alter my rough itinerary to spend some time here. The Tha Phae Gate district, centered between old town and new town, is arguably the best place to situate yourself for exploring the area, and home to countless guest houses, restuarants, bookshops, and bars. Based on several recommendations, I directed my airport taxi to Eagle House #2, and couldn't have been happier with my choice of lodging. Clean, friendly, and full of useful information, EH2 sits right in the heart of everything. Of course, a hot shower would have been nice as I hadn't had one since Ko Lanta. You get used to it.

(4) I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the area around Tha Phae Gate, eventually finding my way over to the famous night bazaar. It's a great place to waste away several hours, and only about a twenty minute walk from where I was staying. Later that night, after eating a rather unexciting meal at a restaurant called Kafe', I strolled over to an Aussie bar and mustered up enough energy to watch the Manchester United match before finally heading back to my room... the Full Moon Party had finally caught up with me.

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

October 20: Chiang Mai

(1) The first morning in a new travel city always feels great. You've moved on from the stress of actually getting there, taken things out of your backpack, and managed to get some sleep. So, when that bright morning light hits your eyes, you know that the day is yours for exploring. In Chiang Mai, I didn't have anything in particular that I wanted to see, but I had an incredible urge to just walk around. My first stop, after visiting a tailor, was Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai's second most impressive temple.

(2) No trip to the north would be complete without a visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the region's holiest and most impressive shrine. Perched atop a commanding hill on the outskirts of the city, this really isn't a walk-able excursion. So, I hired a "red truck" to take me to the top. Red trucks are, well, red trucks that act as taxis. The beds are covered and lined with bench seats, capable of picking up multiple passengers for multiple destinations. I was told it would cost 60 Baht to get to the top, several kilometers up a long, winding road. I agreed, and the driver took me as far as the zoo (this is how it works). I was to pay my first driver 20 Baht, and the next red truck driver 40 Baht. What ended up happening was that I sat in the back of my second ride for 45 minutes, alone, waiting for more passengers to arrive. The driver told me that they would not leave until they had ten people in the back to justify the 40 Baht price. So, I sat... and sat... and sat. If I wanted to go to the top by myself I would have to pay 400 Baht. Perhaps it was just travelers' stress, but I sort of blew an O-ring. Without getting into detail, this photograph from the back of the red truck reveals the last smiling you would see from me for a while as I totally lost my cool with the driver, and acted like a big jerk. Sometimes, in life and in travel, things don't work out as planned - you just have to laugh it off. I didn't. However, I did manage to sort things out in my head as I walked back to my guest house.

(3) Earlier in the evening, I ordered my best meal of the trip at a nearby restaurant called The Wall. Khao Soi, a soupy Burmese dish made with curry and coconut cream, noodles, and meat, is one of the most popular dishes in the north, and was made to perfection at this cozy little hangout on Thanon Ratchawithi. I explained to the Dutch owner how much I enjoyed the meal, and he brought out the chef so she could tell me more about the recipe. After dinner, I took a digestion stroll across the moat, stopping, first, at my tailor for a fitting, and then at Inter Bar to listen to the gravelly voiced owner sing and play guitar. Later, I walked back toward my end of town to the UN Irish Pub for trivia night. Upstairs, I met five Brits who let me join their team... we won a pitcher of beer for our third place performance.

(4) The worst little salesman in Chiang Mai. Apparently, Captain ADD was under the impression that he could improve his sales by punching me in the crotch. Yeah... peace, kid.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

October 21: Karen Hill-Tribe Village

(1) One of the most popular activities for travelers in the north is hill-tribe trekking through Thailand's lush jungles. Eagle House makes getting on board easy, as you can sign up for a single or multi-day package with Eagle House Trekking online or right at the front desk. I chose a two-day (one night) trip that began with a morning stop at a thriving market in Maemalai, where our guides gathered up fresh food for dinner. After about two hours of driving into the mountains, the first "activity" is riding an elephant. To be perfectly honest, this was sort of a touristy add-on that I could have done without. For starters, I'm fairly confident that the animals are treated rather inhumanely. In fact, I know they are... I saw the metal hook they use to dig into the elephant's ears to make it turn left or right. Sometimes they just whack it on the head, causing a hollow thok sound. It's horrible. But, besides that, you can't help but feel like a complete tourist jackass while being paraded around in a giant circle for an hour, stopping every ten minutes at a tree stand where some lady sells you bananas to feed Bobo. That being said, it's a great opportunity to get up close to these beautiful creatures. Here's me and the American couple from our three-person trekking group, starting out our adventure.

(2) After the elephants and a fried rice lunch in town, we set off on our trek through the jungle. The trails are easy to follow and only sporadically difficult to foot, for this is the beaten path off the beaten path. The foliage was lush and green, and the distant hills were impressive in the sunlight. Everything was quite peaceful and calm, actually, until we stumbled upon our first snake. It turned out to be a harmless green snake, but it still managed to scare the hell out of me when it slithered before our feet. Ban, our fearless leader, messed with it for a while before setting free into the bushes.

(3) Meet Ban and Somde. Ban, an English speaking Thai boxer who lived in Chiang Mai, was our guide and info man. Somde, his old friend from a neighboring village where he grew up, acted more like a sherpa, hauling in all of our food and supplies... which really wasn't much for such a short trip. Together, they were quite a pair. Constantly singing everywhere they went, Somde knew about three words to the chorus of popular English songs, but could mumble the rest rather well. "Welcome to the Hotel California! Mmmmppphphphph, mmmmhphphphphphpph!" At the midway point of our hike, we stopped for a swim at a waterfall... hence, the undies.

(4) We reached the Karen hill-tribe village, high on the mountain, late in the afternoon. Ban and Somde immediately began cooking our dinner while there was still sunlight, and I took some time to explore the web of dirt roads. I have to admit that it was rather strange and voyeuristic to be wandering around as just another westerner, paying to watch these simple people. Their lives were real, but my forced presence in their world seemed to detract from the authenticity of the experience. It was sort of like I could hear their thoughts. They were thinking, "Hello, rich tourist. Welcome to our a village. Feel free to take photos of me hanging my clothes and feeding the chickens. Hey, maybe someday I can visit your community and watch you mow the lawn." So, yes, it's a little bizarre to have paid money to observe people like they were in a human museum exhibit, but, at the same time, it was great having that chance to see a completely different way of life while standing in the middle of it.

(5) Takraw is sort of a fusion between soccer and volleyball, dating all the way back to the 15th century. Though it's recognized around the world, it's a game that is really only played in Asia. The rules are pretty basic. A hard, wicker ball is kicked (or headed) over a low net, as the player (three to a side) perform stunning, acrobatic moves to keep the ball in the air. We sat for a good half hour watching them play, mesmerized by the skill and creativity. We were also sort of stuck staring at this one guy's mangled leg... perhaps a takraw accident that never healed propperly.

(6) This simple, bamboo hut was our lodging for the night, and the family with whom we were staying provided us with heavy sheets, sleeping bags, hard pillows, and mosquito nets. We were in bed at some horribly early hour, but when you are in the middle of nowhere there isn't much reason to stay up late. Besides, for the villagers, work starts at sunrise. Despite the lack of any cushioning, we managed to sleep rather comfortably into the early hours of the morning. Fortunately, the bird-flu chickens outside kept their cock-a-doodle-doos to a minimum throughout the night.

(7) But, before sleep... after an amazing meal of curry tofu and sweet and sour veggies, we huddled around the campfire, kissing that mountain air we breathe. One of our hosts walked down into the main part of the village and grabbed us an old acoustic guitar so Ban and I could take turns playing songs for everybody. Somde was pleased that he could contribute the first two words from the chorus of Country Roads - which are "Country Roads..." - and we even attempted a little Bob Dylan with some flute accompaniment. Ban treated us to some traditional Thai songs that he learned growing up in his village.

(8) There was no electricity where we were staying, so the only light at night came from our fire. After all the commercialism of Samui, and the chaos of Thailand's two major cities, it was nice to finally be able to see the stars at night. Sometimes we forget how many great things we can observe in the sky until we have a chance to really look up and see it.

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