Wednesday, November 25, 2009

the best trip all year...

In the past year, I've traveled to the U.S., Egypt, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Thailand, and China... with trips planned for Laos and Vietnam...

But the one I'm on now is by far the best. Check out how I surprised my parents with a quick trip to Albany, Oregon for my new godson's baptism...



The thirty-two hour flight was definitely worth it.

happy thanksgiving...

ben

Monday, November 9, 2009

Bungalow heaven... the Maldives...

Early this summer, Qatar Airways had a promotion with their Qmiles frequent flier program… the cost of any ticket, when purchased with miles, would be reduced by half. Therefore, if you use your miles, you get two free tickets for the cost of one free ticket. The catch was that you only got the promotion if you have a certain credit card from a local bank… which thankfully I have.

So there I was with a stack of Qmiles, trying to decide where in the world I was going to go for almost nothing. I was thinking Italy, Japan, or even Moscow. But [NAME REMOVED] had other ideas. [NAME REMOVED] doesn’t have the credit card required to use the promotion… but wanted to take advantage of the promotion anyway. She wryly suggested that I buy two tickets for the end of summer to a very expensive destination to save a ton of cash; someplace that you normally wouldn’t go due to the price or availability. Her argument sounded reasonable and I bought two tickets to the Maldives.

Before moving to Doha, I had never heard of the Maldives. I couldn’t tell you on what side of the world it was located, or even what continent. But over here, the Maldives is a rare treat reserved for those that need a complete break from reality for a few days. It is spoken of in whisper only. People have gone and never returned. Think the Garden of Eden, Shangri-La, or Denham Springs.

In actuality, the Maldives is an island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean, off the southern tip of India. The Maldives isn’t just one island… it is one-thousand, one-hundred and ninety (1190) islands grouped together into 36 atolls spread across thousands of square miles of ocean. Most of these islands are large enough for one small resort hotel… and that’s it. The largest island is barely the size of our campus, much less large enough for 80,000 people.

After buying the plane tickets (free… except for the tax) we still had to choose rooms at one of the resorts. No problem… there’s only about 700 of them to choose from. [NAME REMOVED] put me in charge of this trip, and had two requests. One, we must have access to a scuba shop. She had spent some time this summer relearning how to dive in the scalding hot water of Qatar specifically for this trip. And second (and this was the big one)… she would only stay in an over-the-water-bungalow. Not on the beach… not near the water… she wanted OVER-the-water bungalow.

Let me say this… the Maldives is not cheap. It isn’t even close to moderately expensive. Some of these resorts charge over $1000 for shanty’s, then still charge you for breakfast. Why am I stating the expense of the Maldives… because most of you know that I am a cheap bastard. I don’t pay for quality; I pay the least amount I possibly can to get out alive. Over-the-water bungalows are not what I would normally look at. They are the most expensive room at every resort. They are very nice rooms that are built on stilts in the middle of the ocean. Look out any window, and you see only ocean. Very nice, and very expensive.

After spending a week frantically searching for a single bungalow that didn’t cost more than my car, I was finally able to find a special deal on a room at one of the larger resorts. No exchanges, no changes, no refunds offered of any sort for the rock bottom price of $350 a night. Egads… the regular price was $620 a night.

We departed for the Maldives the weekend after classes started in the middle of Ramadan… no possible better time to get away for a few days. A five hour flight later, and we descended into a vast blue field of ocean below us, dotted with myriads of small green specks of land. Off the plane we met up with our hotel rep to take us to the hotel, the Sheraton Full Moon Maldives. This meant boarding a large ocean speedboat for a twenty minute cruise. Our hotel was only a two island hop from the airport island. The resorts on the outskirts of the atolls are only reached by seaplane… of which there was a runway made of buoys in the water nearby.

On arrival at the resort, we were greeted by the staff standing at the private dock grinning wide and waving to us. I always hated that arrival technique. You can look on their faces and see that they are forcing those smiles with everything they got. Deep down, you know they are sizing us up on which ones will leave decent tips and which ones they may be able to get drunk and screw.
The hotel took up the entire island. Not even a kilometer long, it was only a fifteen minute walk from one end to the other. We were ferried to our room in a golf cart. The bungalow was accessed by footbridge, with about ten other bungalows grouped together about fifty feet off the western beach. As we entered the room, I knew I had picked a winner. A simple, elegant room with large windows that looked out onto an unobstructed view of the ocean… as blue and clear as the sky. Just outside the room was a cozy deck with steps leading directly into the shallow water. Looking over the banister we spotted fish and small rays skimming the coral below.
We encircled the island getting a lay of the land. Restaurants, pools, and cabanas dotted the lush walkways covered in exotic flowers and palms. At the eastern tip of the island was a long footbridge to a very small private island that housed the spa center. [NAME REMOVED] is a sucker for massages, and since I did such a good job in picking the resort, she signed us up for a full massage package. We each headed to our separate changing rooms to undress and traipsed our way to the massage room. She was wearing a flowing white terrycloth robe, while I was desperately trying to maneuver my robe into covering my junk. We laid back and let our two Swedish masseuses work out our kinks from the flight while we listed to the sound of the waves crashing upon the coral beach just meters away.

After the massage, as we were walking back to our room, a member of the hotel staff was standing in the path looking straight up into a tree. I asked what she was staring at when suddenly a large bat with about a four-foot wingspan fell from the tree and flew away. She explained that the island bats love to roost in the three banyan trees on the island. We spent the next while checking out the branches above our heads for more of the rats-with-wings.

We headed back to the dock area to arrange for a scuba trip the next morning. The Maldives is renowned for having some of the best scuba dive sites in the world, and we were not going to let the opportunity pass us by. Having signed up the next morning’s dive, we retired to the bungalow to relax on the deck with the four books we brought and to swim in the ocean to cool off. Every time we crossed the footbridge to the bungalow, we could always look down and spot ever more colorful and exotic fish just swimming under our door. We tried to eat Thai food at the resort, but the service was awful and it kind of ruined the meal. So we headed back to the room to order our desserts, and sat in the dark under the stars, listening to the rushing water being pulled by the tides until we fell asleep.

The next morning, we had an amazing breakfast buffet at the main restaurant, gorging ourselves on the three varieties of pork bacon at our disposal. One thing about living in a Muslim country… when you’re away… everyone eats as much bacon as humanly possible. We actually got lucky, considering the Maldives is also a Muslim country. Some of the tiny island resorts won’t serve pork… sucks to be them.

We went to the dive shop where they had all our gear ready to go. We boarded the boat with a couple from Turkey and headed offshore to Hudhuveli Reef. We got our gear on and took the plunge down. Since [NAME REMOVED] is a novice diver, we could only descend to 18 meters, but that was plenty deep to see amazing creatures. We had about 15meters of visibility (which is almost perfectly clear) so the colors of the corals and fish just popped! We spotted eels, starfish, and an abundance of fish so varied that afterwards I bought a fish identification guide, and still couldn’t find some of the species! The big moment of the dive was that we spotted a large sea turtle that was about my size. While we were following this turtle down the sloping sea floor, out in the dark distance came two large figures silently approaching. Next thing I see is two enormous manta rays swimming directly towards me… their delicate fins flapping like birds in slow motion. They turned and started to swim parallel to me, and for a briefest of moments my entire field of vision was taken in by the slight of these incredibly graceful creatures gliding just above the shell of the ancient sea turtle. And just as soon as they appeared, they dove straight down into the abyss, beyond the boundary of sunlight.

Sights like that are why I dive.

After we climbed back aboard the boat and got back to the island, we decided to sign up for the next day’s afternoon dive. It was just too amazing to pass up… no matter that it was the most expensive dive I had ever taken.

We spent the rest of the day reading on the deck and taking dips onto the coral reef. We had a great lunch of simple fish and chips, the best either of us had ever eaten; so good in fact that we ordered them again for dinner in the room. [NAME REMOVED] read while I was able to enjoy the college football kickoff games on ESPN International.

After breakfast we headed to the dock to join up with an island hopping excursion that [NAME REMOVED] really wanted to do. She originally suggested taking one of the seaplane tours since I had always wanted to ride in one. But after seeing the price of one of those trips, there was just no way in hell… my wishes have an upper expenditure limit on them.

We boarded a very large cruising boat and headed off to one of the local islands… no resorts, just a small island where the Maldivians live. It was a very rustic little town, with shopkeepers asking us to check out their wares and such. We walked around this small island, just checking out the local life when I came across a shady area under some trees that was pockmarked with holes from two to six inches across. I couldn’t figure out what they were until I tried to get a closer look… and realized that all the holes were wriggling. Gray and blue crabs were all hiding behind little piles of debris at the entrances to what I realized was their homes. Anytime I approached, they scuttled into their holes. I looked around and noticed that we were surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of these crabs. Every time I took a step, more eyes on stalks would turn towards me and disappear underground. Later, we saw several men catching small red crabs, probably only an inch in size, in a shallow pool. They were slapping the water to drive the miniature crabs into a net they had laid out on the sandy bottom.

We reboarded the boat and headed out into the open water, passing by island after island of resorts and hotels. Some of them didn’t have any land you could see… just large, three story homes on stilts at least a few kilometers from the nearest beachhead. We arrived at a large island resort with a secluded cove and beach area where we could snorkel and have a drink at the bar on the edge of pier. [NAME REMOVED] and I got our masks out and I went for a snorkel while she watched her camera.

As I was in the water, feeling the pull of the crashing waves nearby and watching some parrot fish bite chunks of coral off of rocks, I really felt at peace and calm. I was in the water, which is my favorite place to be, staring off at unicorn fish playfully whizzing back and forth just in front of my face. I headed to the long ladder off the end of the pier where I entered to let [NAME REMOVED] get a shot at seeing these amazing animals. A Japanese man was just ahead of me at the stairs and started to climb the algae covered green steps. Just as I was about to pull my head out of the water I looked through his legs going up the steps… and saw a six foot black-tipped reef shark about two feet in front of me.

I must say this… the ocean scares me to death. I am truly terrified about things that swim below my feet. How do I cope with this fear? I face it head on by learning how to scuba dive and try to enjoy the amazing ecosystem around me. But when you find yourself staring at a black-tipped reef shark that is quite a bit larger than you, and so close that I could have reached out and touched it… it makes you think about other… not-so-calm things.

Surprisingly, I didn’t scream with the snorkel in my mouth. I stared at the shark swimming past me, raised my head above the water and yelled out in a tone of more amazement than fear, “Holy shit!! There’s a shark right here!!” Before I finished the sentence, the Japanese man realized what I had said and was up those steps faster than any man had traveled before. I lingered at the base of the steps, just staring at the dorsal fin of the shark as it crested above the surface of the water, just like you imagine in your nightmares. And suddenly, it took off away from the pier and into deeper water.

I stood, stunned. I honestly couldn’t believe what I had just experienced. It was only later when I thought about it in bed that it struck me how close I came to an actual open-water shark… cool. I asked our boat driver about the shark and he said it was a friendly shark… no worry.

[NAME REMOVED] and I snorkeled for a while more, then shared some fruity rum drinks at the bar. Soon we were back onboard and headed back to our resort. We noshed on another round of fish and chips, and headed back to the dock to go scuba diving once again.

This time, it was just us and a cute blonde onboard the scuba boat. We got our gear ready and dove down into Banana Reef. Now, I have to state something that [NAME REMOVED] will not like.

[NAME REMOVED] is a very good scuba diver… but a terrible dive buddy. The three of us and our dive master all started to descend when the blonde panicked and sprinted back up to the surface. From twenty meters down I watched as she climbed back aboard the boat, so she was obviously not diving with us. Our dive master joined us, at which I had to race to find [NAME REMOVED] since she felt like swimming alone instead of hanging with her dive buddy.
We dove along the reef wall and swam through a narrow tunnel with the underwater currents pushing us through from behind. Once out of the tunnel, we were immediately caught in the current and pushed away from the tunnel exit. At this point, [NAME REMOVED] starts motioning that we are missing our fourth person… the blonde that had never descended more than five feet. Immediately, she takes off against the current and reenters the tunnel swimming out of view. I try to signal the dive master, but he was too far away to get my signs, and I have no idea where she is going. I’m stuck with having to burn way too much air fighting my way against the current and also reenter the tunnel. [NAME REMOVED] is frantically searching when I finally get a hold of her fin and try to signal to her that there was no fourth, just the three of us. She keeps signaling back that we’re missing someone. I think it was the fact that she could hear my yelling at her through my mask that she was wrong that convinced her otherwise. We join back up with the dive master, who at this point was frantically searching for us!

Unfortunately, even though I am a great swimmer and diver, my size prevents me from being very efficient through the water, and my exertion to catch [NAME REMOVED] burned up over half my air! Only fifteen minutes into a forty minute dive, and I was almost out of air! I had to use my dive master’s emergency regulator and breathe from his tank for the rest of the dive. The entire time I was underwater from then on was me cursing [NAME REMOVED] between my Darth Vader breath sounds.

It took her NINE MINUTES to realize that someone was missing. Nine minutes! When the dive was over and she tried to explain herself to both me and the dive master, I pointed out that a dive buddy is supposed to be in contact with their buddy at all times… not every nine minutes! With that, I have decided to never buddy with [NAME REMOVED] again. I may dive with her… but I’m sticking her with the dive master.

We headed back to the room to rest and enjoy our last night listening to the ocean. We went to the gift shop to pick up some trinkets for home and send postcards (hope everyone got them). As we were walking thru a narrow pathway with large shrubs and trees on either side, one of the native bats exploded out of a bush just in front of us and flew right between us… close enough to actually ruffle [NAME REMOVED]’s hair! I was hollering how cool that was while [NAME REMOVED] just kept walking forward without a single out-of-place breath. I couldn’t believe she was so calm until I saw a look on her face that screamed “I know what just happened, but I don’t want to speak of it until I have a chance to change my pants.”

We ordered a huge room service feast of seared local seafood and a monstrous chocolate dessert. After dinner, we simply laid back and watched the expanse of crystal clear stars sway overhead.

The next morning we had to wake up early to catch our flight. But before we left the room, I had to engage in at least one skinny dip from our room. Unfortunately, I failed to realize that the tide had rolled out, and as I fell into a perfect Nestea’ backwards splash, my bare ass was rubbed raw on a large patch of exposed coral.

We packed up (after rubbing a tube of Neosporin on my left ass cheek) and caught our boat ride back to the main island for our flight. It was a great trip… relaxing, exciting, and generally serene. For anyone who has a chance to make it there… do it. It is as far away from anything you can imagine. It is one hell of an amazing escape.

ben

Saturday, September 26, 2009

the summer of our discontent...

For most of you, the seasonal changes of fall have begun. The leaves are starting to change color and fall, college football games every Saturday morning, and the cool subtle breezes from the north have started to cool the air.

In Doha… it’s still fuckin’ hot. But at least it’s under 100°F at night now...

This summer was a little sour for me and most of the people I know over here. It started off fantastic with my trip to Thailand. But once I got back into town, there was a strange negativity in the air all summer. Much of it has to do with the heat and humidity that arrives mid-June, but there was much more than the punch-in-the-gut wall of heat. My employer was faced with some financial constraints brought upon by our benefactor, the Qatar Foundation. Limits were put into effect that caused our school and departments to tighten our belts and cut some spending. Of course, the first things to get cut were the little perks that we had all enjoyed sans consequence for several years. Free lunches, business class travel, and nearly unlimited mailing privileges were all dramatically cut. None of these things were promised to last forever, but when the things you take for granted are taken away… well… that’s when the shitstorm occurs.

People were pissed off… a little too much for my taste. Unfortunately, these episodes lowered the general morale of my coworkers and friends. Last summer, there were parties and poker games every weekend… not so much this year. Many of my friends were traveling, looking for any excuse to get out of Qatar for a vacation. In all… there wasn’t very much going on at all.

Thankfully, the boredom did allow me some free time to get in some research. I asked my Lil’ Boss if he had any systems that I could work on while we were waiting for some chemicals to arrive. He came up with a gem of a carbonyl-transition metal complex for me to study. After a week of trial and error, we came up with a research game plan and he let me loose with the lasers. I spent almost a full month measuring the displacement kinetics of chromium carbonyl complexes by photolyzing them with an ND:YAG laser and a rapid-scan IR spectrometer.

Kick-ass shit really…

I was able to get enough data with help from the new post-doc… let’s call him Ernie, to hopefully be published in a journal. The number of journal publications you have is how scientists measure their dicks. Top quality professors can have over a thousand publications. And just how many do I have??? Two. But both are quite awesome.

One really good piece of news to arrive this summer was the announcement that the research I performed last summer with Jeremy (see June 2008 entry) was finally published in the Journal of Inorganic Chemistry. So yes… I am officially a published scientist!! I’ve done tons of research before, but nothing that merited publication in a major journal. So if anyone wants a copy of “Displacement kinetics of η2 bound furan and 2,3-dihydrofuran from Mn and Cr centers: Evidence for the dearomatization of the furan ligand” just let me know and I’ll send you a copy along with a signed 8x10 glossy photo.

Strange thing about the publication announcement… I wasn’t on it. Now I did the work, and was told that I was the second author (first guy writes it, last guy pays for it, middle people do the grunt work). Problem is that according to the university rules, a teaching associate is not suppose to be doing research unless they are graduate students. Damn. Lil’ Boss pulls me aside about an hour before the email congratulating him (and not me) on his fine academic work to let me know that my name will be missing from the announcement. Oh well… as long as all of you know the truth… I’m fine with it. He did coat the medicine with some sugar though… he’s going to send me to the American Chemical Society conference in San Francisco next year to present a poster on the research we did this summer. Very cool…

Another piece of good news from the summer was that I got promoted to Chemistry Technical Laboratory Coordinator. Basically, I have the same job, I still have to teach the labs, but now I get to handle the ordering and general maintenance of the labs. Longer hours and more responsibility… but at least I got a nice pay bump out of it.

The semester began right at the start of Ramadan, so for the first month of school we all had to hide our coffees and waters inside of paper bags and scuttle off to our offices like hobos carrying around 40oz of Rocketfuel Malt Liquor under an overpass. The hardest part of Ramadan isn’t the minor restrictions of no eating, drinking, smoking, or sex in public (was that right?) but it’s the general crankiness of the Islamic staff. According to law, all Muslims only have to work six hours a day during Ramadan; which meant that most of our faculty and all of our staff were working short days right at the start of school… which made things difficult of those of us that had to pick up the slack. On top of that, a lot of students (and faculty) use fasting as an excuse as to act like assholes. Oh well… you get use to it. But come Easter they better be prepared for the raging asshole I’m going to be due to my overindulgence in Peeps and chocolate bunnies!

During Ramadan we were blessed by a return visit from Jeremy (once again, see June 2008). Of course this time… it was Dr. Jeremy! He defended his thesis right before the trip, so he was almost officially a doctor… he’ll make some Jewish man’s mother very proud! This time, he brought along grad student Ross to help out, and together with Ernie they were able to get almost none of their originally planned research completed. Sometimes, that is just how it works. You can plan and hypothesize all you want, but sometimes the shit just doesn’t work. We still had a great time though! We toured the new Museum of Islamic Art, ate some great late night Turkish meals, feasted on tajine style baby camel, and for the coup d’grace… got makeovers.

Actually, I took them in for haircuts and massages, but somehow they both ended up getting the scalp treatments and full facials… oops. My Hindi must be getting rusty. I had a great time with them both, and wish Jeremy best of luck as a post-doc in Virginia!There were some other happenings this summer, including a trip to the camel races and a totally awesome 80’s costume party. All of which will be discussed later… mainly since I can’t find the pictures for either of them.

Instead, I’ll just have to avail myself in telling the story of the two trips I took in September. The first one was a long weekend in the secluded islands of the Maldives. The second trip was a fast paced week touring one of the most fascinating places I have ever been… China!

ben


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Three Guys in Thai... Days Eight thru Ten...

Day Eight…

Back to the vacation grind...

We awoke early, again, and walked into the alleyway near the house for some breakfast duck. Hot, oily pieces of fried duck were mixed with vegetables and eggs for a quick treat. Flick needed to run a bunch of personal errands, i.e. he was sick of us, so Tex and I decided to act like tourists and visit the major landmarks of Bangkok.

The driver dropped us off at the royal palace of Thailand. An enormous wall almost a mile long on each of its sides greeted us, along with the army standing guard carrying their AK-47's. Through the main gate, Flick negotiated with a certified guide to take us thru the royal city and around Bangkok. Our guide, Pip (real name) spoke English, but decided not to talk very much to us. As we started the tour, the immense size of the compound was finally realized... this place was huge!

Large wooden buildings in the styles of Thailand, Cambodia, and China loomed over us decorated in ceramic flowers, gem-cut glass, and layer upon layer of gold leaf. Every structure told a story about the royal life; from the seven headed snakes found on the eaves, to the multitude of dancers holding up the palace walls. Everywhere we turned was rows of the Cambodian style of spires, all capped in gold and jewels. The color was amazing from the temples and homes; rainbows that had been born at a Home Depot.

In one temple was the Jade Buddha, a small statue on a fifty foot pedestal that was clothed in his golden summer clothes. They have to change the Buddha’s clothes for the three seasons of the year... winter, summer, and rainy. This was one of the few places that we couldn't take photographs... the Jade Buddha is one of the most sacred relics of Thailand.

One of the largest buildings in the complex looked like British Parliament with a strange roof. When I asked Pip, she told the story about how one of the former kings decided to leave Thailand and travel the world as a statesman and diplomat. During his travels, he met with the British, and brought many of their ideas, architecture, and customs to Thailand. The royal guards outside the main palace wore all white tunics and pith helmets, almost identical to the royal guards in London. The main palace was built using English design, but the king hated the drab roof. So he ordered that the roof be removed, and a traditional Thai roof be installed in its place... very cool.

There were landings for the king to mount his elephants and palantirs, mirrors in grand rooms that allowed the king's subjects to approach him while walking with their back turned towards him (since they weren't allowed to face the king). The Rama's favorite dogs carved out of marble, protecting the entranceways.

After touring the palace grounds, Pip walked us out of the palace and into a nearby market. We made our way thru the narrow alleys until we popped out from under the canopy and found ourselves looking at a large river, the Chao Phraya (The Lord). She took us to a small counter and calmly said, "1600 baht." Huh?? What the hell?? In no time, in all of Thailand, did we have to spend 1600 baht on anything... I could have bought a scooter for that much! I was on the phone with Flick at the time, and he said that Pip was paid 1000 baht for the whole day, so what was the 1600 baht for? Turns out, it was for a boat ride. We pretty much got robbed by pirates.

Tex and I loaded up into a longtail that pulled up next to our floating dock. Pip jumped aboard and sat in the front, and never said a word for the next hour as Tex and I were treated to a river tour. The river is intersected by many canals that meander through the city. Some of the homes bordering the river were grand estates with glass shards poured into the concrete to keep out the unwanted. But many of the homes were culled together from scrap wood, aluminum sheets, and lots of rope. All of these shacks were built on rotted stilts, held together with twine and two-by-fours. We could see rats scurrying about the water and sewer pipes that ran under the homes.

After an hour, we pulled up to a dock and walked into a small temple with multiple statues of one of the kings and his advisors. Pip walked away from us to pray at one of the statues. Next, she paid some money to a monk and received 120 single baht coins that she slowly dropped into the 120 copper bowls that encircled the room... one each for the 120 monks that have reached enlightenment. Pip spoke about one of the men depicted in a statue of a warrior that was so loyal to the king that when the king went mad and was killed by his advisors, the warrior demanded that he be killed too.

We took a 9 baht ferry ride (versus 1600!) back across the river to another large temple complex. We paid our dues, took off our shoes, and entered the large hall. Quickly, we realized this was no ordinary temple. Inside was a statue of the reclining Buddha that was 48 meters long, and 15 meters tall... the size of a gymnasium!

From here, we walked several kilometers back around the royal palace and ended up back where we started. Both Tex and I were extremely tired from walking through the intense heat and humidity, and were dying for the driver to pick us up. We walked amid the European tourists and souvenir barkers. We were finally picked up, and headed back to the house for a desperately needed shower and a foot soak. Noi was nice enough to run out and pick us up some orders of pad Thai noodles for lunch. After that, it was a napping afternoon.

Flick came back to the house for a quick change, and he headed out again. He suggested that we head out to a night market, but Tex and I were too exhausted to do much outdoor travel. Instead, we asked the driver to take us to the local mall for dinner and a movie; or at least good air conditioning.

We moseyed around and people watched for several hours, checking out the sales racks and discounts bin just like any other mall. We bought some cheap DVDs and Tex got himself some anti-sweat shirts... if you've seen the jungle pics, you probably understand why. We ate dinner at the mall of deep fried rice buns with sugar sauce (Thai donuts), sweet pork, and dim sum.

In one the stores, we were walking thru the electronics and kitchen section, wondering if we needed anything to take back with us. I started railing that in Doha, you can't always get the products that you necessarily want... but can always find something to make do with. I was a little angry that [NAME REMOVED] had to spend lots of her personal time, money, and luggage allowance to bring back a suitcase full of items that had been requested by our friends when she last went back to the states. "Why can't they just make do with what we have?" I questioned... then I had a eureka moment. "I wonder if they have crock pots here."

We don't have crock pots in Doha. And you can't bring them from the states, because they use too much power for our transformers. But they do have them in Bangkok! I went ahead and bought one for a gift for [NAME REMOVED], wondering if I should buy myself one. Tex laughed at my hypocrisy as we called the driver for a ride home.

Turns out, Tex laughed too soon. He called his wife, Lady Tex, and joked about my crock pot purchase. She responded, "Why didn't you get one, too?" Hah! We made plans to return to the mall later in the trip so Tex could get one for himself.

Day Nine...

We woke up real early, around 6am... have you ever had a vacation where you couldn't sleep late? The driver picked us up around seven for Flick to give us a tour of the old temples and former capitol of Thailand. We drove about an hour out of Bangkok to an area called Lopburi. Back when Thailand was part of Cambodia, the area capitol was placed here. A huge city with massive temples was built that spread for miles around. But the city was sacked and conquered by the Burmese on more than one occasion, and most of the city was destroyed. But there are still hundreds of structures laid out across the town; in open squares, in backyards, next to empty lots are ancient spires that no one dares to destroy.

We first went to the town of Lop Buri, to a tiny temple in honor of the Angel of Death. Now, a temple of doom sounds really cool, but it was just a tiny little temple surrounded by a small gate. The Angel of Death wasn't the cool part, but the servants of Death were definitely cool... macat monkeys. Lots and lots of monkeys...

In a tiny area about the size of a basketball court, two thousand monkeys call home! They were everywhere! Signs warned us about hiding your wallets and cameras, because the monkey will steal them for fun. Breeding season had just past and females were carrying newborns on their backs and stomachs while their young quietly suckled. Locals brought baskets full of bananas, eggs, and peas to feed the monkeys. The monkeys would instantly see if you were carrying food, and signal the others to rush towards you... waiting for the handout. One person dumped bags of four-ounce bottles of milk that the monkeys quickly peeled or punched open and drank down. Occasionally the larger and older monkeys would steal food from the upstart youngsters, and get into miniature fist-fights. We bought little bags of dried peas and sunflower seeds, and the monkeys would walk up and pick the seeds right out of our hands.

Strange thing, though. The small temple on top of a narrow flight of steps is completely open to the air, and throngs of people come to pray and give gifts of food and flowers to the Angel of Death. The room is filled to the brim with fruits, vegetables, and seeds... and the monkeys don't touch a single grape. They never, ever, enter the temple. No one stops them, and there is no door. The monkeys simple do not touch their master's Death's food. Eerie.

Suddenly, a series of bells rang out, and the monkeys bolted through the fence line into oncoming traffic. All cars stopped, and waited until all the monkeys had crossed two large intersections and a railroad. These are sacred animals here. Across the street, they started to climb storefronts, power lines, and traffic lights. They made their way to three ancient spire temples in the middle of the town. Now... here is where the trip gets really interesting...

Tex and I were standing outside of the three spires, while Flick had gone inside. We were feeding the monkeys the last of our seeds and peas, when two of them jumped onto Tex. It was quite funny, as he was both nervous about disease, but really wanted the photo op. After a few minutes, he wanted to get them off. Flick loudly yelled and shooed them off of Tex, but one of the monkeys was pissed off about having to leave his back. If you've seen Tex without a shirt on, like I have, then you'd know that the monkey probably thought he'd found King Kong. The small macat hissed violently atop a nearby column while Tex and I took more pictures.

Then, without warning, the pissed off monkey decided to take his revenge... It jumped about five feet through the air (Tex says it was twenty feet) and landed on Tex's head! He freaked out, then started to laugh at the situation... what Tex didn't realize was that the monkey had its teeth bared and was trying to eat his brain. Open mouthed, it scratched away at his scalp and shoulders trying to tear out a chunk of Tex.

You're probably thinking that I, in my bravest commando mode, swooped in to save my friend from the ravaging hoard of the servants of the Angel of Death... alas, no. Not me. Instead, I managed to take some great pictures while the mad monkey tried to render his juicier bits of flesh. Finally, I had enough and quietly stated "Tex... it's trying to bite you..."

Tex's grin, instantly remembering his lessons of biochemistry and epidemics, quickly faded. "Get it off!! Get it off!!" He started to spin to shake the monkey off his back (I can't believe I used that phrase) but it wasn't budging. I threw my bag at it, with no luck. Tex made one final tornado-like spinning whirl and tossed the monkey aside. Frantically, Tex hurried down the temple steps shouting "Fuck these monkeys!! Fuck 'em all!!" He scurried past more macats that were enjoying the show, and we used half a bottle of my hand disinfectant on his scalp and shoulder where the once cute, now diseased wild beasts, had tried to eat Tex Mex.

He grabbed the driver and made it clear that he wanted to leave... now. I felt a little bad for him. Not for taking pictures when I could have been helping him, but about his sudden about face considering the wildlife. The man who almost shat himself when seeing the monkeys at the start of the trip in Khao Yai was now offering the driver 100 baht for everyone he ran over. What a horrible descent into madness.

Still laughing hysterically over Tex's near assassination, we headed to a small palace that houses a museum to the former kings. Soldiers were training on the expansive grounds. Inside, we looked at the furnishings and costumes of the long dead king. Oddly, there was a large, Western-looking hoop dress arranged in the same room. Reading the translation, I finally realized what this dress was. It was a dress that belonged to Anna Leonowens... and this room was where she met Rama IV, King Monkut... yes, the same King of Siam and the British school teacher from “The King and I”.

We drove back towards Bangkok to visit the old city. We pulled into a floating restaurant on a barge in a nearby river. We ate soft bone fish and bowls of fried mushrooms and chilies. A group of Americans was sitting behind us, and they weren't having much luck in ordering, or even knowing how to pay. They noticed that Flick was speaking English, and asked for help. We began chatting about where they were going, where they were from, etc. Turns out, they were a group of FBI agents in Thailand to train their police force. They were probably the same agents that were called in to investigate the death of David Carradine... hope they return my handcuffs and wig...

Next up, we traveled to an ancient temple of gold, called Wat Chai Watthanaram This temple looks just like a small version of the enormous Cambodian temple Ankor Wat. Once, all the spires and temple walls were completely covered in gold. But this opulence came at a cost. When the Thai people went to war with the Burmese, they came in and destroyed much of the temple. There were hundreds of Buddha statues lining the walls, all of them beheaded and partially destroyed by the plundering Burmese. People still find small drops of gold in the nearby grounds from when they melted the gold off of the temple walls.

Flick told stories about the horrific fights that occurred on this site throughout history. Every time the Thais and Burmese fought, this temple was the most contested land in all of Southeast Asia. Hundreds of battles and thousands upon thousands of lives were lost on this small parcel of land. Wat Chai Watthanaram is the most cursed and haunted area in all of Thailand. No one dare digs into the soil, for fear that they may disturb the layers of bones from long dead soldiers just beneath their feet.

The three of us climbed the near vertical stairs of the central spire and let Tex set up his camera to get some good pics. As we balanced ourselves atop the ancient steps, Tex went to town taking photo after photo... glasses on, glasses off, smiling, not smiling, cool, smiling with glasses on, thumbs up... etc. Some Japanese tourists walked by, and I think even they snickered at how silly three fat guys wearing the same T-shirt looked nestled on those steps.

Just down the road was three more temple spires... the whole area is filled with them. This one was more of a public prayer place, with buses of tourists offloading in the parking lot. I did join them for a quick prayer to help my sore feet at a statue of the reclining Buddha. Flick took me through the procedure on how to correctly pray. I bought a lotus flower, some incense, a candle, and some gold leaf from monks sitting nearby. I lit the candle in an oil lamp, and placed it in a stand in front of the Buddha. Next, I lit the incense and gave the lotus flower to the Buddha, and asked that he help my sore foot. Then, I placed the gold leaf onto the foot of the Buddha where my own feet were killing me. After that, I circled the statue three times asking for his blessing. I felt a little foolish, not being Buddhist myself, but anything helps.

We drove around checking out many other temple sites in the areas. Some were beautiful, with rows upon row of multicolored Buddhas gracefully sitting around a central spire. One was bone white and enrobed in yellow silk, another encased in multicolored ceramic tiles. Some were big tourist traps with ice cream stands and postcards for sale. It was an odd assortment of serene beauty and Disneyland.

We were starting to get tired... after a while every temple began to look the same. While on the highway, Flick yelled for the driver to pull off the highway so that he could buy some local drink. Two people had a large pot of boiling sap from some unknown tree that was then cooled in ice to make a sweet, earthy juice... really good. We napped until we reached Flick's house, had some quick showers, and rested up for dinner with the family for our last night in Thailand.

Flick's parents joined us for dinner at an upscale mall that housed an enormous sushi restaurant. We ordered two huge boats of sashimi and nagiri, plus soups and dessert... great stuff. Afterwards, his parents left for home, and we headed into Bangkok to explore the night markets.

The night markets are huge flea markets that only operate at night. Visited by both locals and tourists alike, you can find just about anything you like... most of it cheap knockoffs for cheap prices. Thousands of stalls after stalls selling luggage, gifts, souvenirs, dirty T-shirts, wallets, etc. We spent four hours squeezing past the hanging lanterns and tables full of fake watches, haggling over prices of bronze and resin Buddhas and I Heat Bangkok T-shirts. I picked up a cool cigarette holder for myself, and gifts for the ladies. Flick teased us for our poor haggling skills... still not something I've ever gotten good at. In Doha, if you don't have the stones to haggle, you just say "best price?"... and that normally works. Not so well in Bangkok.

Even though the market seemed very busy, Flick said that it was almost empty. Turns out the recent coup and poor economy was keeping tourists away. Thankfully, that meant even better prices for us!

We ended the market in a massive open air seating area where we ate some noodles and had our last beers while a shitty cover band played nearby. At this point, it finally hit us that we were leaving the next day... and that our trip was almost finished. Just as we were soaking in our last remaining Bangkok experiences, we were slammed back into reality when the last food stall we saw was a falafel stand... a quick reminder that we were leaving Thailand behind, and heading back to Arabia.

A quick cab ride home with some sweet corn for a snack, and we started packing our bags.

Day Ten...

Slept in... about damn time. We spent most of the morning getting our bags packed and backing up our cameras. After a quick breakfast, we asked the driver to take us back to the mall. We ran inside, and Tex picked up his own crockpot. After looking at them some more, I decided to get myself another one. So between Tex and I, we have scuba equipment and three crockpots we have to somehow get back to Doha. We had to buy some duffel bags for all of our souvenirs... how touristy of us.

Later, we headed to the weekend flea market. Basically, it was the same thing as the night market, but much hotter. Packed with people, we again slipped between the myriad of stalls and storefronts. I ate some fresh coconut ice cream (made inside a coconut) to cool down. We shopped for the little items we still wanted, and then, reluctantly, headed back to Flick's.

With our new duffel bags in tow, Tex and I repacked all our gear, desperately trying to protect our crockpots. The rest of the afternoon was spent tidying up and getting ready to go. By late afternoon, we said our goodbyes. Flick's parents were wonderful to allow us to crash at their house, use their driver, eat their food, and use their maids and homes... thanks. We gave big tips to the driver and the maids for taking great care of us, said our goodbyes, and headed to the airport.

I know why people stay in Thailand... it is an amazing country. The beautiful landscapes were easily matched by the beauty and warmth of the people. We traveled from an enormous city, to a jungle park, to a serene coast... all within a few hours from each other. We had a great time in Thailand. We were three friends, traveling around, enjoying everything that came our way.

I know why people stay in Thailand. The food alone is reason enough to never leave. I’m coming back later this year to spend my Christmas holiday in Thailand. So if you don’t hear from me… at least you’ll know where I am.

Check out the full photos at http://s249.photobucket.com/albums/gg223/benji-of-arabia/.

Later…

ben

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Three Guys in Thai... Days Four thru Seven

Day Four...

As a special surprise to make Tex and I feel more like home, Noi decided to make us her version of breakfast tacos. What we were served was a spicy mix of eggs, pork, and herbs wrapped in homemade Indian kerala bread... flaky yet chewy. What a way to start the morning. We finished up with some fresh fruit, and headed to the airport. Flick's dad gave me two bags of durian chips to enjoy on the plane.

We arrived at the airport early and walked around to people watch. We boarded the small plane filled to the brim heading to Krabi. After a quick hour flight, we landed at the tiny airport, found the taxi van that Flick's dad had arranged, and drove half-an-hour to Ao Nang.

The countryside was stunning... solid thick green with vertical cliffs dotting the landscape covered in vines and lone trees. This area is known for its rock climbing... something our three fat asses couldn't do if we were fleeing jungle tigers.

Ao Nang is a small tourist town on the southern Peninsula of Thailand, across the bay from the more famous Phuket. The town was situated on a narrow road along the beachfront with one side filled with souvenir shops and restaurants. The beach was a narrow strip of sand with deep green-blue water stretching out to sea, with tall, narrow lone islands of sheer rock that looked like they were dropped in from above. The weather was very hot and humid, but the constant sea breeze took most of the stifle out of the air as it swayed the local palms.

We arrived at our hotel, a very nice open-air hotel just off the main strip on the beachfront. We checked in, and Flick checked out our rooms... and was pissed! Turns out that his parents had arranged the rooms, and we were supposed to get sea-view rooms... instead we got pool-view rooms. Well!... that just won't do!! So we were dragged thru room after room until Flick was satisfied with our rooms. We originally were going to share rooms, but since it was the start of the monsoon season (and the end of the tourist high season) we went ahead an each took a nice room with a view of the outstretched sea. The rooms were nice except for the fact that your room key was welded on to the card that activated the power in the room... including the air conditioners. We all quickly broke the solder and left the rooms as cool as we could get.

Once we got settled in, we took a thirty second walk from the hotel to a scooter rental. Everyone in Thailand... and I mean everyone... drives scooters and motorcycles. Cars are extremely expensive, while scooters are cheap, easy to maintain, and incredibly customizable. We saw scooters that had sidecar attachments that were used as cabs, hauling vegetables, carrying other bikes, and best of all... restaurants.

Anyway... we rented three kick-ass high-end scooters (Yamaha Nuovo MX's... if you want to know) for the astronomical price of four dollars a day... seriously. Four dollars. How much fun is that?

We had to give Tex a rundown on how to ride a scooter, since he had never driven any two-wheeled motorized vehicle ever. So we just had him put on his helmet, and we took off down the road. They were so much fun... everyone was zipping around us on their bikes. I quickly got the feel of it and was soon gunning it full speed down the beach, leaving the others in my wake. Tex was going all of 30 km/hour... his shoulders and neck tensed so tight you could see his veins from three lengths back. He was horribly scared at first, both by the ease at which he could fall directly onto the pavement (he kept putting his foot down on the road to balance) and by riding on the left side of the road. We thought he finally got the hang of it until he took a right hand turn directly into oncoming traffic! Three riders and a small truck had to veer out of his way until he quickly leaned left on found the correct side of the road... damn tourists!

We rode for a while along the beach and into the town, checking for dive shops and restaurants to visit later. We stopped in for seafood at a place next to the hotel for some pad thai and pineapple rice. We rode our hogs further on until the beach ended. There, we took off our sandals and finally got to dig our toes into the sand. Near this area is a secluded cove where the local boats, called longtails, were harbored. Longtails are long, narrow boats with large car engines salvaged from some beater or another on a rotating gimbal. Attached to the engine block is a long pipe axle, about twenty feet long, with a propeller at the end. To steer the boat, the driver moves both the axle and engine along multiple axis... this was he can navigate the shallow beaches and fishing lines laid out along the coast.

Later, we stopped in to a scuba shop and booked our trip for the next day. All of us are avid, if not capable, scuba divers and really wanted to dive in these waters. Flick headed to the hotel to try out his new fins and snorkel, while Tex and I took off Easy Rider style in search of trouble and ice cream.

After our sundaes, Tex pulled away from the curb with a little too much gusto (and belly fat) and pulled ahead of me, screaming something about his tire. I look down, and see that his outer tire is completely pulled away from the rim. I pulled up and made him stop and walk the bike back to the store where they patched up the tire in no time.

After a rest, we pulled out of the hotel at night and headed to a local tourist place down the road for dinner. Ao Nang was beautiful at night... the garish lights of the disco bars and stalls of T-shirts plus the loud music and bustle of scooters back and forth... all across the road from the pitch-black serenity of the seemingly endless sea...

We pulled into the restaurant and let Flick order a huge menagerie of local dishes. We ate BBQ mussels, whole steamed fish, fried squid in chilies, and a seafood chowder served out of a coconut. The dim red lights of the establishment lent it an odd mood... odder still was the sideways glances I was stealing of our waitstaff. I swore I thought that waitress had an Adam's apple... and I'm pretty sure that cute waitress just adjusted her balls...

Ladyboys!! We had caught a few glimpses of some during our trip, but here was a single restaurant full of ladyboys! For those who don't know what I'm talking about, a ladyboy is an Asian man who because of his sexuality, and generally feminine frame, decide to live their lives as women... both in style and dress. They are, for the most part, accepted as part of southeast Asia culture... and they are awesome! There was one who was about six feet tall and looked a lot like my dad in lipstick and rouge.

From there, we scooted over to a nearby bar and ordered some drinks. But suddenly, something strange happened... something that had probably never happened to anyone in our ragtag bunch...

Girls started to hit on us... and good looking ones at that.

Now at first, we thought they were possibly prostitutes looked for a good time. But it turned out to be something different, as Flick explained to us. In Thailand, there is a certain bar etiquette. When men sit at a bar, good looking ladies are hired to work for the bar. They will come up and start talking and flirting with you... it's their job to keep you happy and in the bar! After a while, the girls pulled out games of Connect Four and challenged us in bloodthirsty duels to the death. Turns out Tex is a master Connect Four player. After vanquishing most of the bar girls, we had to retire the game. At this point, Flick explained that if you are enjoying the girls' company, and if they like hanging out with you, it is customary to ask if you can buy them a drink; since the girls make a commission on how many drinks you buy for them. We bought a round of mai tai's in naked lady glasses and proceeded to dominate game after game of Jenga.

But it was a good system... they provided the fun and flirtation that everyone wants in a bar, and you provided the occasional cheap drink. We had a blast for a few hours as they told stories of stupid tourists driving scooters into the sea and showing off their tattoos of charms and marijuana leafs. We would have stayed longer, but we had to get up early for scuba diving, and needed our rest. So we left the bar, promising to return, and headed back to the hotel.

Day five...

We awoke early and ate breakfast at the buffet. I will never know why every other culture in the world classifies hot dogs as haute cuisine "sausages"... but they're not! When your sign says sausage omelets, I want Jimmy Dean... not Ballpark Franks in my eggs...

Our ride to the scuba dive was the back of a pickup truck outside of our hotel. We headed to the beach end where the longtails were pulled up onto the sand. Our gear was thrown into one, and we climbed in. The longtail pulled out of the harbor and into the open water for about ten minutes until we came to a large, two-story boat that was our dive boat. Climbing aboard were 15 others with their dive gear strapped down and wetsuits hanging up, waiting on us. As soon as we were aboard, the board roared to life and headed to the first dive site.

Upstairs, we met our dive master, who wasn't very good so his name isn't important. We went over our checklist and feasted on the local bananas (diving robs your body of potassium, leading to leg cramps... which is why you always eat bananas when diving). We headed downstairs where our dive master unpacked our rental gear and fitted us with the necessary weights and tanks. When all was ready, we all took our falls into the beautiful green-blue water right off of a vertical rock nestled in the middle of the sea... Kohsi Island. Actual translation... "island #4."

We emptied our BCDs, and headed down into the deep. In the first thirty seconds, I spotted a black banded sea snake... the most poisonous animal in the world! The visibility wasn't very good due to the swirling winds above and heavy plumes of plankton around us, but the dive was nice anyway. We spotted tons of neon green coral, lionfish, sea slugs, and vast schools of little barracuda. Watching a lionfish sail thru a school of barracuda reminded me of Star Wars... a lone Tie-Fighter cutting thru the rebel fighters. If that sounds odd, you have to remember that the regulators we use to breath are the sound-effect used for Darth Vader's breathing sounds... I always think of Star Wars when diving...

We dove for around 35 minutes (quick dive, but we're fat and use up air quickly) and climbed back aboard the boat. There we drank our fill of electrolytes and enjoyed a green curry over rice and more bananas. I started talking to some of the other people on board the boat. A group of twenty-something trust fund kids were spending the year on a conservation project counting corals and fish. They said it wasn't all fun though, tomorrow they had to fly to Cambodia and teach a class. "On what subject?" I asked. "Leadership" said the twenty-year-old that acted like he had never lead a cash register, much less had any experience on leadership.

On board were about six guys that worked for various dive shops around town; most of them were British or Swedes. I asked how they all got to work in Ao Nang, and the same story kept coming up. In a nutshell, all of them were either on vacation or working in the area... and just decided to stay. They all left their jobs, some their wives, and decided to live a simpler life here in Ao Nang. After their money ran out, it was either open a bar (which one guy said wouldn't be good for his alcoholism) or become dive masters. All these people, for some reason or another, had decided to stop following the rules of others, and would spend their lives enjoying life.

Let me be perfectly honest... I could do it. I know I could. Maybe not forever... but I could so be one of those people who disappear from the world to begin anew... I know I could. If I every go incommunicado... I'll be in Thailand.

After an hour's boat ride, we disembarked for our next dive site, Koh Talu... the stab hole. Two massive rocks perched in the sea with two long channels that cut between them (the stab holes) that we could dive thru. Unfortunately, right after we descended, I noticed a small air leak in my dive gauge. I tried to tighten it, and it became a massive leak. We kept going, but it shortened our dive by about ten minutes. Thankfully, we were able to see lobster, fragile coral fingers, a sea archer, and a rare spotted stingray. Very cool.

After surfacing, I kept swimming in the cool water until the other divers started to appear below me. We ate lunch aboard the boat of pancakes with fresh pineapple preserves. On the way back to shore, a summer storm came in and drenched the decks. But we stayed right on the edge of the storm... starboard was gray and pummeled with heavy rain, while port side was clear as day and sunny.

After dropping off our stuff at the hotel, we grabbed some noodles at one of the mobile restaurants I spoke of earlier. Let me set the scene. A scooter with a flimsy steel frame attached that has a cupboard, and a large cooking bowl with propane burner and tank attached. These were dotted everywhere we went. They would just pull up, and the lady on the bike would start cutting vegetables and heating the broth to cook the noodles. All these places were so good... never had sub-par noodles, ever. After lunch, we decided to split up for the day. Flick went about talking to the locals about places to eat, and rode his scooter all around town. Tex stayed on the strip and walked up and down looking for barkers that he could take down in a negotiation of best price for a Singha Beer T-shirt.

I got on my scooter and drove. I drove for hours, at least an hour out of town both ways. I found hidden beaches, little flea markets, beautiful temples and mosques, and simple scenes about rural Thai life. At one point I found myself driving up into the hills, and felt the temperature drop about fifteen degrees in two minutes. I gunned my Yamaha on a straightaway to find out the max speed... 101 km/hour, 104 km/hour down a hill with the wind at my back. I just let the wind blow thru my hair and filled my nostrils with the smells of the jungles, markets, and flowers that were around every corner. I am so buying myself a scooter wherever I live next. They're a death trap in Doha... but the next place, definitely.

I met up with Tex in town, and we headed to a scuba shop to fix his dive computer. Later, I went bargain shopping of my own in the souvenir shops. I saw Tex again, and we headed down an alleyway near our hotel. It was filled, both sides, with about twenty small bars, all empty. Suddenly, two girls came up behind us and wrapped their arms around our chests, pulling us into one for a drink. We obliged in a single beer, and headed to the hotel for dinner.

We met up with Flick, and went to a restaurant on the edge of town. Called Kruathara (After Tsunami), it was an amazing place ran by two aging midget sisters. We dug into piles of seafood: razorclams in chilies and noodles, BBQ conch, nameless fish, and bowls of mussels. Best part, we had baby conch that we pulled from the shells with small hooks and ate on the spot... so damn good. We followed it up with some tai tai ice cream and decided to go bar hopping.

We went into a store front on the main drag that opened up in the back into a secret circle of hoppin' bars! We walked around, ogling the exotic women dancing on the bars, calling out for us to come and join them. Many skipped the protocol all together and would dive into us, not letting go of our tender areas to get us to buy their overpriced drinks. Suddenly, the girls that had grabbed Tex and I earlier in the day saw us and convinced us to join them in their bar. Once again, we sat around playing Connect Four and Jenga (I think these are the only games in Thailand) while we watched barely dressed girls slank around strategically placed poles and mirrors... this was a good place to be.

We kept on bar hopping back to the alley by the hotel. This time, the groping was even more intense. It turns out that Thai women are turned on by folds of gut flesh and jiggling man-boobs... at least, that was what they were telling me. We walked the whole gauntlet of the alley only to finish up against a wall when Flick decides that the first bar was the best... so we had to walk all the way back thru the happy-handed women... shame. We sat down and challenged our ladies to Jenga while they wiped us down with cooling moist towelettes. Now that's service. Tex ended up getting lots of wasted attention because he whore his broken-down cowboy hat everywhere. It always ended up on some girls head, and we had to negotiate to get it back...

Later on, we ended up at the same bar from the previous night, where Flick and I held our own throughout the night. Tex left early... too much temptation for his weak constitution. I had a blast flirting with the bar ladies, and finished the night by showing off how petite they were by lifting some girls one-handed over my head. Hey!! They challenged me... and you never back down from a challenge with these women! A drunken scooter ride back to the hotel, and I was out like a light.

Day six...

I wasn't hung over... but I was really tired. You never realize it at first, but scuba diving two hours makes you feel like you've ran a marathon the next day. That, plus the booze and heat, and I was really feeling rundown. We took it easy that morning, and I got up for an early morning scooter ride. The wind had really picked up, and massive storm clouds were coming into the shore.

Flick had arranged for us to take a longtail out to some of the secluded private beaches on one of the tiny islands offshore for snorkeling. We met up with a local who was going to join us, but found out that the surf was too rough for the small longtails to operate safely. Oh well... instead we headed out to find good hangover food.

And did we find it! Along a small stretch of road were about twenty of the scooter-restaurants selling a variety of meals including pad thai, noodles, fried pork, fresh fruits, and sweets. I ordered some simple pad thai and sat on a tiny plastic stool just off the road for lunch.

The best pad thai noodles... ever. Ate three plates. To this day, I can taste the citrus, herbs, and spice of that simple yet profound chicken pad thai. The best single dish I ate in Thailand... $1 roadside pad thai. On top of that, Flick treated us to one of his favorite dishes. Coconut milk steamed into little cups that form a scalding hot custard sprinkled with sugar on top... not even funny how good those were. Only ate about ten...

Afterwards, we all headed to the hotel pool for some relaxation and the hair of the dog. We had mai tai's in whole pineapples and rum from coconuts at the swim-up bar. It was here that we had an odd conversation. I was asking what one of the girl's names were from last night, and Flick answered with their names... followed by what their names meant. Now, my name has some ancient meaning from Arabic or Judaic that amounts to "son of the right hand"... ie, "favorite son." Most of western names have some old meaning that is derived from, or was taken from some odd, dead, language. But the meanings of Thai names are not so subtle.

One girl's name sounded like comb with a g-.. gomb. Flick said it means "shrimp." I asked if it was a pet-name, because she was tiny, she's called a shrimp. "No," Flick stated, "her name is shrimp." Now this got me going. "So if I go into a restaurant and order of plate of gomb... they will bring me a plate of shrimp?" Turns out yes. The translations of other people were fish, sunshine, and raindrop. This was astounding to me! With the exception of people who name their kids after flowers and celebrity kids, who has names like this?! I challenged Flick that, if following the Thai language rules, I could say a sentence like "Me and Weedwacker are meeting up with Towel and Ashtray to pick up Backhair and his girlfriend, Catfish." At this point, I got the bartender to laugh out loud. And don't get me started on the pronunciation issues we had with Mai/My/Mie/Muh-i...

Tex laid by the pool and read, Flick went driving for hours outside of town, and I went up onto the balcony and napped. Later, we ate dinner at a Korean style place where we cooked our own meats over hot coals on a modified Bundt pan... allowing the dripping to make a delicious soup broth.

W were all dead tired at this point. The scuba diving, the booze, the late nights... it had finally taken its toll. Flick headed back to the hotel to rest, while Tex and I drove around town playing with his fancy camera, trying to get some night action shots of Ao Nang. We headed out to the end of the beach for some quiet shots, and I enjoyed just listening to the waves lapping up onto the sand, while the town lights flickered beyond the treeline. After riding around for a little while more watching the people walk up and down the drag, and feeling the humid sea air against my face one last time, I headed to the hotel to read on the balcony with the ocean view nearby.

Day seven...

Hotel breakfast and packing to leave. We couldn't help ourselves, and had one last go with the scooters. We went to one of the overlooks I had found earlier, and paid way too much to gaze upon some simple fossils in the rocks. I took Tex up into the hills area, and we tried to get ourselves lost, only to find that we had completely circled Ao Nang without even realizing it. At the end of the trip, it started to rain... and that really fuckin' hurts on a scooter! It was like God decided to pelt us with BB's!

We paid for the hotel, $200 for three night with drinks, breakfast, and airport taxi... not too shabby. Then we reluctantly turned in our scooters, shedding quiet tears for our mighty aluminum and fiberglass steeds. I still miss mine...

We picked up a taxi van and quietly rode back to Krabi. We had to adjust some luggage around because Tex's bag was too heavy. But we waited for our plane in the tiny airport and had a quick, almost empty, flight back to Bangkok. The driver picked us up and took us back to Flick's house. Flick had a dentist appointment, and wanted to see some of his local friends, so Tex and I decided to spend the day relaxing and napping in some very strong air conditioning. We went and walked along the road near the house that is filled with little shops and food stalls. Along the way we ate noodle soup and picked up backs of sweet dried banana chips, chicken and liver satay on bamboo sticks, steamed rice buns, and more noodle soup. The afternoon was spent reading, sorting our laundry, checking our email, and downloading photos onto our laptops.

That evening, Flick's mom had prepared a simple dinner of noodles with chicken gravy and mixed fruit. It was the first time that we saw Flick's parents dressed down and relaxed in our company. His dad had to pick up his plate and quickly leave because his evening soaps were on, and he just couldn't miss his stories.

We all went to bed fairly early, knowing that we had a long day of sightseeing in Bangkok tomorrow.

ben

Monday, June 15, 2009

Three Guys in Thai... Days One to Three...


For the record… before I even begin to tell you of my adventures through Thailand… when I left David Carradine in the hotel room, he was tied up and naked, but still breathing…

Whew… since that’s off my chest, I can begin regaling you about the ten days I spent with two friends traveling and eating our way thru Thailand.


Thailand is one of those places that everyone seems to go when their life needs a kick in the ass… lost my job, went to Thailand… wife left me, went to Thailand… wanted to try auto-erotic asphyxiation, went to Thai… Oops.

Too soon?

It seems that Thailand is a destination that allows people to leave themselves behind, and either come back a different person, or not come back at all. I once met someone in Houston who lived in Phuket for two years in his thirties. I asked if the move was for work, and he said “no… I just decided to stay.” I don’t know why people seem to feel that way about Thailand… why not Laos or Malaysia? I guess this was my chance to find out…

Day One...

We arrived in Bangkok early morning after a seven-and-a-half hour night flight. The traveling party consisted of myself, my friend Tex (of the broken Jeep story posted a few months ago), and Flick, my karate teacher and a Bangkok transplant. We were picked up in a bitchin’ custom van by Flick’s dad. We greeted him with the customary hands together under the chin, slight bow, and the formal Thai greeting, which when sounded phonetically sounds like “Sour D-Cup.”

Flick’s dad’s driver took us from the airport thru Bangkok to Flick’s family’s house in a suburb in the middle of the city. Bangkok surprised me… I was thinking along the lines of pagoda style temples surrounded by waterways and low-slu
ng buildings. Bangkok is not that city. It is huge, over ten million people that they can count, with high rises and sky scrapers for as far as the eye can see. In between the concrete towers were billboards the size of football fields looming over green tracts of land, with small canals meandering thru the city.

Flick’s house was amazing… a white-and-glass Falling Water. Extremely neo-modern design all bathed in egg-shell white and lit by huge open windows. Stunning. One problem though… we arrived just on the cusp of the rainy season, so the weather was really hot and humid… and it seems that most Thai people just don’t believe in air conditioning. We would have spent more time in the natural light of his kitchen, overlooking his father’s beloved koi pond, but it was too fucking hot in that house to step outside of our single air-conditioned bedroom! Thank god Flicks’s room had a built in massive air conditioner, or this trip may have ended real quick for Tex and I.

The house is located just behind a bustling street full o
f tucked away shops and restaurants. We put our things away, and went exploring. Tex had never been to a non-westernized country (non-Europe), so he was amazed at the variety of people and smells coming from the open doorways. I had told Flick that I was supposed to get my full beard trimmed before I left, but didn’t have time. So he suggested that I go with him to the haircutters he had been using since he was four. Sure, I said… they must be professional…

Mistake. Flick takes Tex and me inside, and explains in Thai that I want a trim and shave… or at least that’s what he said he told them. I lean back in the chair with my full Eric-the-Red beard intact, and Tex leans back next to me with his jaw line mini-beard (think the ugly Backstreet Boy) with goatee, wanting just a trim. My guy lathers my whole face up… I start to worry. I stop and motion to him that I just want a trim around the edges, gesticulating with my hands the area I want cut. He nods OK… and proceeds to take a razor straight down from my cheek to my jaw thru my thick and luxurious beard.

Damn. To make matters worse, I see him looking over at Tex’s face, and realize that he is copying his kicker-beard on me. Dammit. When he finishes, I look in the mirror at was once my own red badge of courage, and now it looks like I have a thin line of public hair leading from my jaw to my red Hitler-esque mustache. I guess I can’t complain. I paid the guy the equivalent of a dime for a shave… not realizing that Asian men don’t grow many beards unless they are masters of Kung Fu. I eased my pain with a Leo beer from the 7-11 and drank in the smells of the local noodle shops.

Flick’s maid, a cute Laotian named Noi, made us a breakfast of cooked rice and chicken porridge with a thousand year egg and fresh juice. If you want to know what a thousand year old egg tastes like, understand that it is a real egg that is fermented, then allowed to sit in ash and lime for several months… so leave it to your imagination. We each stole a nap, and awoke in the early afternoon. Flick’s mom had arranged for us to get some legit massages, so we took off.

Notice I wrote “legit." Thailand is kno
wn for its other massages… the ones that end in happy endings and money exchanges. Personally, I really wanted one of these massages… but considering I was traveling with a married man and someone with a girlfriend (and well yes… I have a girlfriend too… or at least I do until she finds out what I did on this trip…) we decided against it, for now.

We went to Let’s Relax, an upscale massage parlor in a high-rise overlooking the city. I snuggled up in a chair and allowed a middle-aged lady (oh please don’t offer me a happy ending!) to massage and scrape my feet for over an hour. While I giggled away the filing of my toes, my buddies decided to steal some extra sleep.

After the foot massage, we were taken to mats on the floor, sealed off from everyone else, and asked to change into some silken pants and shirts. The others didn’t have much of a problem with this request… but being a generally large man in a country full of Lilliputians, it took some work to pour myself into those pants. While we were getting ready for our next massage, I was jokingly showing off how tight the pants were when I ripped the entire crotch apart all the way down both legs. Not able to speak any Thai myself, I begged Flick to apologize for my huge thighs and offered to pay for the pants. Instead, I had to endure my massage with a towel over the rip as to not show off my wedding tackle to my massager.

I’m guessing she was pretty pissed off about the pants, because she proceeded to beat the living shit out of me for TWO HOUR
S! After the first fifteen minutes of near crying, I had Flick ask for a small towel that I rolled up and shoved into my mouth to prevent my screams/laughs/giggles from interrupting the other guests. It hurt so bad… but in a good way… but then it just hurt some more. I don’t know how massaging my bone marrow is supposed to help me, but she gave it her all. It ended with her beating me with a hot ball of herbs… can’t make this shit up.

After, we went to large, expensive mall where we were to dine at a famous Chinese restaurant. Flick’s mom had called ahead and arranged some of our dishes for us; including saving the dim sum that they serve at lunch. Besides the dim sum, we ate jellyfish salad, spring rolls, collard greens, Bangkok pheasant, and a whole roast suckling pig. For men that have not enjoyed the succulent deliciousness that is pork in many months, seeing a whole roast pig was heavenly. We only pulled off sections of the crispy skin to eat with strips of rice flour cake and sweet soy or plum sauce and cucumbers. Oh my God was that good!! After we had our fill of the skin, the cooks took the rest of the pork and made it into a crispy sweet and sour.

While reading this blog, you will notice that many of the experiences I will share will revolve around food… and for good reason. I love food… love it. I love food more than women… more than babies… more than dogs. I love eating what the locals eat, going to markets, and trying everything new on a menu. That in conjunction with the fact that we have limited dining options in Doha (and definitely no pork of any kind), made coming to Thailand, considered to be one of the top cuisines in the world, a major endeavor for me. At every meal we ate, I took a picture of the plates to remind myself later of the smells, textures, and spices I came across to share with you… and I plan to.

We walked around the mall, then across the street to the
open markets gawking at the women. I don’t know if it is their tiny skirts, petite bodies, or exotic looks… or maybe just the fact that none of us has seen any leg since moving to Doha… but the Thai women are beautiful! I could not get enough of them…

We headed back home on the monorail (gotta' love cities with monorails). While on the train, I laughed at the names of the train stops… half were dirty phrases in English. Places like Mo Chit, Phloen Chit, and Hot Ho. I was waiting to get off at Steaming Crap or Fuck Your Mother station… but no luck.

When we got off, it came down… bucketfuls of torrential rain. It rained harder than I have seen in two years. Loved it. I bought a chocolate gelato to celebrate the clouds opening up on us. I ate my gelato while Flick negotiated to cabs for the final leg home. Back at his house, I finished the evening with a huge bag of wasabi pistachios for a late night snack.

Day two…


When I awoke, I looked in the mirror and took a good, long look at the butch
ering Flick’s barber had done to my beard. One side was about a quarter inch think, the other side had a good two inches on it. I could not be photographed looking like this… so I borrowed Tex’s razor and shaved it off… leaving only an ugly goatee and some massive sideburns.

After coffee and tangeri
ne juice, we loaded up the van with Flick’s mom, one of her friends and Noi, and headed to the open air food market in Bangkok, near the royal palace. A massive open roof under which were several football fields worth of cooking meats, spicy soups, and rack upon rack of possibly edible items that I had never seen before.

And I ate everything…

Huge slabs of smoked and grilled pork bellies. Sweet pork pieces on bamboo sticks with sticky rice. Dim sums, steamed rice buns filled with BBQ pork. Huge tables of fresh fish, pools of lobsters and crabs. Little balls of tapioca steamed with noodles and beef. Grilled cuttlefish. Fresh coconut milk with thin slices of the flesh melting away. Mealy fish sausages and pork and egg tacos. Raw spring rolls with herbs. Tapioca pearls in coconut milk. Chicken and beef satay with peanut and chili sauce

Heaven.


Best part was that I finally got to eat the mythical fr
uit known as durian. Durian is known for one thing… its smell. It can only be described as rancid meat rubbed in sulfur, and then marinated in vomit inside of an old sock… it is really bad. But the fruit inside the noxious shell is incredible. It has the consistency and taste of thick banana custard! They said that if you eat too much it gives you mouth sores… fruit herpes. Flick’s mom said the normal way to eat durian is to finish it with sweet coconut rice and mangosteins… my other new favorite fruit... a deep purple husk with pearl white fruit inside… incredible.

We drove two hours northeast of Bangkok to a vacation house near the Khao Yai National Park (a World Heritage Site). On the way we saw large Buddha statues dotting the countryside. We pulled into some beautiful gardens with a large temple on the grounds. We were visiting a new temple that houses the largest statue of Luang Poo Suk, a famous monk that reached self-enlightenment.

Later, we went to damm
ed lake where there were about twenty lake-side restaurants lining the road. Men and women were standing out in the road trying to flag cars into their lots. We pulled into one (almost a shack) were they had ponds filled with blue prawns the size of large lobsters. Flick’s mom ordered us lunch and we were served split prawns, spicy wild boar, bony fishes, wild venison, and tempura fried morning glory… delicious food with a beautiful scene of a mountain lake next to us.

Next up was Flick’s house… another beautiful home in a setting overlooking the low mountains of the national park. Turns out Flick’s dad loves his koi, had yet another pond. The house sits on a small lake with a tiny plastic rowboat. I had give
it a go… turns out I’m a natural water creature… skimming across the lily pads and the lotus blossoms.

Later went out with Flick
for dinner. Went to a little dive place where his mom called ahead. All these little restaurants look like tin shacks, open air with no refrigeration. Ate another ten dishes… roasted pork, little fried whole fish we ate like potato chips, whole bony fish, friend collard green, rice, and their specialty, a whole fresh water just caught steamed fish. So damn good… and about six dollars for the lot.

That night we went to the national park to take a night spotlight trek. We drove thirty minutes into the park, swerving between piles of elephant shit up to the top visitor station on a pitch black road. Tickets for the spotlight tour were 50 baht each, but somehow we were suppose to fit ten people into the back of a tiny pickup truck, so we went ahead and bought all ten tickets for the four of us (driver came). After driving for forty minutes spotlighting nothing except for deer (deer… more deer… more deer), we came across a porcupine and even more deer… this time right next to the entrance of the visitor center.

Even though we weren’t seeing the wild tigers, Asiatic black bears, or herds of wild
elephants, I was enjoying the cool night air… at least until it started to pour down buckets on us. Huh… rain in a rainforest… who knew? Tex wasn’t enjoying it as much… he was so gung ho about seeing wild beasts that he went ahead and bought himself a whole jungle trek outfit… bandana, khaki shirt and zipoff pants. Those plus his cowboy hat and large camera slung over his shoulder, he looked like Marlon Perkins’ assistant from National of Omaha Insurance Presents. Thankfully, our luck was about to change…

We kept driving, and suddenly saw an elephant below the road. Our guide said that was really rare to see an elephant in the park near the roads. Then, we saw another large one, with four babies in tow!! Our guide quickly circled t
he truck, saying that the elephants are known to charge when threatened. We pulled out the cameras and zoom lenses and started snapping. The two big ones circled the kids to protect them. Then the driver yelled out and swung the spotlight down into the valley. Another elephant, a mid-sized teen was spotted clamoring up the hill, and he joined in for pics. After ten minutes, the herd walked off, and we went back to the visitor center. I asked Tex how he was enjoying the trek now… “Much better” he grinned.

On the way back to the house we stopped into a roadside shop for a bowl of pork noodles. Went back to Flick’s to get dried off, have a be
er, and relax. We finished the night eating an entire bushel of mangosteins and tangelos.

Day Three…


We woke early and ate breakfast outdoors… leftovers from our day in the op
en market… steamed buns, spring rolls, fried pork belly with tamarind paste and coffee. Flick really liked our guide from the night trek, and negotiated a price for him to give us a private trek thru the jungle. We headed back to the park early to beat the heat, and met up with our guide… let’s call him Jim.

While we were waiting to take off into the jungle, for the first time during our trip we saw westerners and Europeans in the park. We gave a lift to a Swedish couple who were spending a year traveling abroad… smelled like they had spent a year not bathin
g… damn he reeked! It was odd seeing Caucasians… Flick had taken us places only locals go, so we laughed when we pointed out the tourists… not realizing that everyone we had seen during the past three days were probably saying the same about us.

Looking around, I started seeing people wearing their pants tucked into their socks, and people with shorts wearing what looked like leg warmers. I asked Jim (any conversation from here on out with locals is being made with Flick translating… please assume Flick isn’t bullshitting me on what everyone said) what for…
poisonous snakes? Millipedes? Dangerous plants? “No” he said… “Leeches.”

Leeches… ugh. Only thing I know about leeches is from the movie Stand by Me. They’re big, suck your blood, and one always attaches itself on your dick.

We started into the jungle
from a small path. We were going to walk a four kilometer trek with some steps and paving stones in areas… jungle trekking for tourists. Let me make this clear though… this was not easy. It was non-stop ducking, weaving, jumping, balancing, and fending our way thru some incredibly nasty stuff… but it was amazing nonetheless…

Leafy green as far as you could see. Areas were absolutely thick with life; interwoven plants, bamboo, and trees, bugs of every kind running across our paths, mountain streams folding together into torrential rapids. We w
ould walk thru thick plants towering over us, and then straight into a vale with no life on the ground… smothered because the overhead canopy was so thick it blotted out the sun. The sounds of gibbons and long-tailed macats hollering and barking overhead mingled with the chirping of bugs and lizards.

We trekked in single file, always on the lookout for wildlife… Jim told us stories about one time an entire party of rangers including Jim was resting when a bull elephant came into their camp… ten feet away from charging
thru them, and they never heard a sound. He picked out pillbugs (rollie-pollies) that were the size of jawbreakers. He showed us elephant bugs, rare things that grow on the trunks of elephants then move to trees later in life. He also showed us tiger signs… since the park is a known tiger habitat. Several years earlier they had to track one down and kill it after it grabbed a child from the visitor area parking lot. Once they get a taste of human blood, they’re no longer afraid to hunt us.

Jim was really starting to freak me out.

On top of that, I was getting sp
ooked out by the leeches. Leeches are attracted by heat and vibration, so as we walked over them, I could see two-inch long worms rising up out of the ground wildly swinging their heads around in the hopes of being able to attach themselves to us. Since I was normally in the rear of the pack, I couldn’t help but keep staring down as the earth leapt up and wriggled as the others passed ahead of me. Tex got one stuck into his shin; Flick got one near his dick (told ya!). I was lucky enough to keep flicking them off me before I felt a pinch.

We passed several secluded waterfalls and rapids, aware that a croc was seen leering nearby. We had to balance on fallen trees to get over streams, and scurry over rocks. I took a small fall while clamoring down some mossy rocks. Tex too
k two falls, one pretty bad. He fell on his ass then started to slide down the side of a steep hill… all the while protecting his Japanese tourist camera! Not a scratch on the camera though… although his ass was solid mud.

After two hours, we all started to get tired, both from the walking and the intense heat and humidity with the rising sun. Thankfully, our path popped out at a rest area where we broke out the water and stripped down to look for leeches. The park rangers had a little souvenir shop set up where we all bought some matching awesome tiger shorts…

After cleaning up a little and trying to cool off, Jim said we had a little more trekking to do… I didn’t know why since our driver was sleeping in the van right in front of us. Turns out the area where we came out was the entrance to the best waterfall in th
e park. If you’ve seen the movie The Beach, you may recognize it. We headed down about 100 of the steepest steps ever and climbed over some rocks to get to the most beautiful sight of the entire trek. Two huge waterfalls were cascading into a secluded pool, with ancient boulders and shade trees to sit under and watch. It would have been the perfect ending to the trek… but I had to climb back up those steps… Dammit.

As we left the park, we took some scenic overview pics, and got overly excited over two monkeys sitting atop some cars… you’ll understand the overly exited part later in the blog. We gave Jim a big tip (about a month’s salary) for not getting us killed, an
d headed back into town.

On the way, we spotted some elephants chained up outside of a resort hotel. Tex had said that he always wanted to take a jungle trek riding an elephant… and here were tame elephants. The driver swung around, and Flick talked
with the hotel. We walked to the back of the hotel onto a ramp, and two full-size elephants came walking up the driveway.

Tex and Flick climbed aboard the bench on the first elephant, and I climbed aboard solo on the second. Our drivers headed down a narrow path and cut a swatch thru the dense jungle just behind the hotel. After a while, the elephant handlers jum
ped off and took our cameras while Tex and I slung down to sit on the elephants neck and slog thru a river. The ride was slow and relaxing, with the needle-like elephant hairs sticking up thru my pant legs.

We grabbed some basil fried rice on the way back to the house, and took quick showers to wash away the god-awful funk that permeated everything. Jungle trekking is not the most sanitary pursuits. We put all of our stinky clothes into a plastic bag, and noticed that Tex’s’ clothes still had leeches on them. Being the savvy
chemists that we are, we nuked the leeches with some mentholated body powder and were tied together for the maids to wash later. We got into the van and headed back into Bangkok. On the way we picked up some sweet corn, bamboo shoots, and fresh hominy at road side markets to snack on the way home… because it wouldn’t be a Thailand vacation without snacking every two hours.

After a few hours of relaxing, we got a treat to meet Flick’s sisters and nieces. We joined the family for dinner including chicken consommĂ©’ with feet and coxcomb, spicy blood
pudding and bamboo shoots with noodles. For dessert, dragon fruit and durian chips plus birthday cake for a three-year-old’s birthday. The kids were too damn cute...

After dinner, we packed up for our next day trip to Krabi and Ao Nang...

ben