Saturday, May 29, 2010

Seasons Greetings, Part 1...Thailand

I told Mom and Dad... that I would not be coming back to the states for Christmas. I told them that last year. They were supposed to join me in Switzerland or France for a snowy Christmas with skiing, roasted chestnuts, and European coffee. Instead, my sister decided to have another kid, so my plans had to be altered. So instead of the Swiss Alps and cocoa, I decided on dense marshes and cobra wine.

[NAME REMOVED] was looking for a travel partner for a trip she had wanted to take for some time. We booked a trip through a tour company called Intrepid Travels… a company that specializes in more rugged, backpacker, adventurous style of travel. Our trip… Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam… with a stopover in Malaysia. More specifically, Bangkok to Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong down the Mekong River with a stop in Pakbeng onto Luang Prabang then Vang Vieng onto Vientiane to Lak Sao then up to Hanoi to Han Lon Bay back to Hanoi then to Sapa back to Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur to Doha.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year indeed.

My Thai friend Flick had arranged to depart Doha at the same time as us, since his postdoc was finished and he was moving back to Bangkok. We arrived in the evening and met up with Flick’s dad and his driver and drove to his house. We pulled up to his beautiful house in a southern suburb of Bangkok and gave the greeting “Sa-wah-dee-cah” to Noi and the other housekeepers. His dad had prepared a major spread of fried fish, tom nom soup, special chili paste made with beetles (“for taste”), and finished off with tamerlol and my favorite stinky fruit… durian.

I tried to give [NAME REMOVED] a taste of Flick’s area with a walk around his neighborhood, but everything was closing shop… but you could still smell the frying pork in the air. Flick and his driver took us to our hotel, the Vietang near the Grand Palace… right off the famed backpacker district of Khao San Road (one block over). The room was very sparse and very warm, but very respectable for $40 a night.

The Khao San road is backpacker heaven. Filled with people from all over the world… hippies, dropouts, sexpats, trustfunders, and addicts alike. Western style restaurants mix with tattoo parlors and noodle carts. Women with dreadlocks wearing crocs were carrying their brood in slings; trying to bargain down the price of beaded sidebags. I’ve never seen so many hipsters with tribal arm tats. We took a walk around the road and back, taking in the cooking smells, music, and adventure waiting to happen… then we went to bed.

Neither of us slept very well, since the room was too warm and the beds were too stiff. Even worse was that [NAME REMOVED] was on a weird internal clock... having traveled to the U.S. only a week prior and a high-rise apartment fire only three days before. We slept in and met up with Flick around noon for lunch. He took us to his father’s favorite Chinese food where we ate family style of roasted pork skin and spicy soups, with plenty of pork and shrimp dim sum.

After lunch, we drove around different parts of Bangkok that I had not seen before. We stopped at the two pillars of the city, where some of the first inhabitants sacrificed themselves and are buried underneath… their spirits protecting the city. Next up was the famed food market from my previous travels. Walking into the mammoth open market filled with stalls after stalls of hanging pork and fresh fruit almost felt like love. I stuffed myself on pork on a stick, durian, exotic fruits and drinks alike. After some coconut ice cream with corn and green beans, we crossed the street into the massive flea market of Bangkok and crowded around for a while until our feet started to hurt. We decided to head back to hotel in time for our first meeting with the Intrepid tour group.

At an intersection on the way, the driver rolled down the window and signaled a lady who quickly ran over to the van. He purchased a few small white bags and passed them back to us. Inside were tiny battered bananas that were deep fried… warm, sweet and chewy. On the way back, I joked that our tour group was made up of mostly women… lucky me. [NAME REMOVED] rolled her eyes while I laughed. Out our window were two very bullish looking lesbians with pink streaks in their hair… I joked that with my luck, those would be the women on our tour.

While [NAME REMOVED] took a brief nap, Flick and I took in an hour long foot massage… passing out cold before they changed feet. Flick went walking around the street, while I woke up [NAME REMOVED] for a walk before our meeting began. The street was filled with vendors, and was riotous with energy. As we were walking, she saw a sign for a special type of massage… one where you let little fish nibble on your feet to exfoliate them. Eww. Pretty soon we saw several more of these fish tanks spotted around the street, and [NAME REMOVED] started to price out the treatments... mostly because she hates my feet. We were heading back to the hotel, unable to find Flick when he called out our name… his feet immersed into the tiny little piranha tank. His words, “at first, it feels really weird… but gets better.” [NAME REMOVED] was determined to try it…so it went on the list of things to do.

We met up with the group and its leader, Mai, in the hotel lobby. She was very quiet and a little disorganized, but the group of twelve listened intently as Mai explained our itinerary for the next 15 days. Nothing new about orientation, but the two gothish lesbians I spotted earlier… oh yeah… they’re on the tour. Turns out they’re a mother-daughter on their yearly vacation.
We took off with Flick for our final meal together at his favorite Vietnamese place. We were served gorgeous portions of twisting fried fish, spring rolls, pork balls in rice paper, and banana fritters with watermelon shakes. Flick was a great host (and has been twice for me). Big thanks to Flick… and I wish him luck from here on out as he begins his new life as Professor Flick.

Afterwards, we took a taxi back to Khao San, and walked the street again. First thing… getting our feet devoured by our aquatic friends. We headed back to the stall where Flick had his feet eaten. The lady running the place was a little too giddy to have us come in… mostly because she knew what was in store for us. After a quick foot wash, [NAME REMOVED] slid her feet into the tank, where the fish lunged on her toes like piranha on a cow carcass.

It was gruesome! She started frantically laughing, mouth agape in a mixture of fear, comedy, and hysterics. Her words, “it feels so WEIRD!!” I took the pictures as she tried not to shake the fish loose from her soles. A placard on the wall stated, “Please don’t step on me. Please stay still or you will scare me. Please do not put anything but your feet or hand into the tank… this is my home.”

Next up was me. As my feet hit the surface, it quickly felt like I was calf deep into a very fizzy soda… until you feel the ticklish sensation of the fish rooting around your feet. For the first five minutes, you just can’t stop laughing!! It simply tickles so much! Occasionally one would hit a really sensitive spot that would throw me into spasm, shaking the fish off for only a few seconds before they would descend right back onto my feet for a second helping. The manager took our picture for the scrapbook that we signed, “An experience that cannot be missed! Loved it… Ben and [NAME REMOVED]!” Definitely one of the strangest things I have ever felt… but you really must try it if you can… you should feel how smooth my feet are.

We spent some money buying souvenirs and Santa hats (since it was almost Christmas). [NAME REMOVED] once again proved herself a cold-hearted master of the haggle… negotiating 75% off our purchases. We finished the night with a Singha beer while listening to an awesome Thai singer cover Top 40 hits.

The next morning my back was really stiff from once again not sleeping that well. We awoke and got prepped for the first tour day. In the lobby we joined with the group after putting all of our stuff into one holding room. From there we walked to the Chao Phraya River and boarded a longtail for a tour of the traditional klongs, or waterways. After that was a tour of Wat Pho, followed by the Grand Palace. But since I have seen all of these places before, I will refer you to “Three Guys in Thai… Part Two”. One special item… we saw two very rare and endangered water monitor lizards… both about five feet long bathing in the sun. Giant lizards lounging on rocks just outside of homes… I guess that means I’ll never get Mom to visit me in Thailand.

One neat little item. As you enter the Grand Palace, tour guides come up and ask if you would like to hire them. I was joking to [NAME REMOVED] about my tour guide from my first trip, Kip, about how she would take off and pray at the temples while leaving Tex and me standing all alone. Suddenly, Kip jumps out and asks if I want a tour!! I cried out that she had been my guide before, and she seemed to remember me… how cool is that?

We took a tuk tuk back to the hotel, where we cooled off with a quick dip in the secluded hotel pool. A quick massage and some street noodles and roasted corn later, we met up with the group again. We all taxied together to the Hualampong train station to catch our 13-hour overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai. We noshed on Dunkin’ Donuts and waffles while waiting for the train. When it was time to depart, we crossed onto the platform and started suffocating on the dense black diesel exhaust that filled the station. Turns out that Thai trains aren’t nearly as clean or efficient as the ones in Europe. People were shoving into a kiosk for smokers, since it had the cleanest air. Our car was sparse, sitting across from one another on wide seats with our luggage racked above us. A simple dinner and conversation passed the time until the sleeping berths were unfolded. [NAME REMOVED] took the top bunk before me… she was scared I would break it and decimate her underneath. Everyone was sharing the bottom bunk playing cards and reading, and this closeness made a good recipe to get to know our travel mates.

We had a really good group of people. Besides Mai, we had two Swiss girls who were close friends and traveling partners. Then there were the Australian married teachers, both older but incredibly sweet and kind. Next up were the Australian newlyweds who were on a whirlwind month-long honeymoon. Of course the mother-daughter duo with matching pink stripes in their hair. And finally there was the other American, a well-traveled librarian and her Austrian “I work for Defense” buddy. All in all, a varied and incredibly fun group.

The train was very quiet except for the unexpected starts and stops that rattled everyone; making it almost impossible to sleep. Most of us were up and around thru the night… cozying up two people to a cot, talking about where we were from and discussing all of our travels. It turns out the tour group was filled with some serious travelers: Moscow, Cambodia, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and all parts of Europe in just the past year alone. During the night we pulled up to a platform in the middle of nowhere Thailand and a giant golden plaster monkey with huge golden balls greeted our train.

The next morning we all awoke, still very tired from our broken night of barely sleep. We ate our quick breakfast of fruit and eggs, and hurriedly unfastened our luggage from the racks while the porters stowed away our cots. The platform at Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city was barely larger than the one in College Station. We jumped off the platform and into the backs of awaiting mini trucks, and were whisked away thru the city.

Chiang Mai is quite large with 400,000 people, but it feels like one big neighborhood. A beautiful and near ancient wall stands inside of a moat that guards the old city. Our hotel was on the outskirts of the downtown, and the rooms were minimally furnished. But that was all we needed. Our tour quickly split into two groups for our separate excursions… six went elephant riding and bamboo rafting down a nearby mountain river, while my group jumped into the back of a truck for our half day of Thai cooking school.

The school was the Baan Thai Cooking School, a very popular one that is mentioned in all the guidebooks. A small house and restaurant awaited us down a back alley, and we were shown the cooking stations in the back of the house. Woks on gas burners were lined up, with a very low table in front of us with gorgeous plates of exotic fruits to try. We donned our aprons and head scarves and watched as our afro’d teacher explained the dishes we would be cooking.

We started off preparing our sticky rice for the dessert, since it needed a few hours of steaming. Our first full dish was something I had tried preparing before in Doha, the classic pad thai… or Thai fried noodles. We added some spices to the hot woks, followed by tofu, chicken, and an egg. Next up was the par cooked rice noodles and dried shrimps (that was the ingredient I keep missing), and finished it off with bean sprouts and green onion. It turned out delicious… just as good as the street vendor fared I have loved throughout Thailand. I was even praised by the teacher that it looked as if I had cooked before… right on. [NAME REMOVED] was reasonably skittish, since normally she starts a dish, almost destroys it beyond recognition, and begs me to step in to save the meal. She actually did really well, and made me proud… and just maybe I’ll be able to eat her food from now on.

After we crouched down on the floor to enjoy our meal, we got out the large mortar and pestles for our next dish, green papaya salad. I didn’t know that everything was crushed before served. Once again, it turned out great, even though I tried to show off for the instructor by adding multiple small chilies (called mouse shit chilies… seriously) and burning a hole through my bowel. Following that was a Thai chicken curry with fried noodle that was so simple it was disturbing.

Finally for dessert, we made sweet coconut sticky rice with mango and fried mung beans that were to die for. It was amazing how quickly we fully prepared these meals, and even more amazing how quickly we devoured them. I truly loved the experience, and will definitely try to do more cooking schools along the way.

Back at the hotel, we took a quick walk around the town, letting [NAME REMOVED] get her favorite green tea soy latte from Starbucks… soy not being something found in Doha. Hundreds of empty pushcarts lined the streets in preparation of the night market that was soon to come. [NAME REMOVED] went back for a nap to catch up on her sleep, while I checked the internet news.

At four, the group gathered together again and boarded our minibuses for a trip to a famous temple in the mountains. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is located high in the neighboring mountains, and the long, slow, meandering road took us high into the forest. We reached the top of the mountain where carts and stalls lined the entrance to the temple. The location for this temple was chosen when a rare white elephant carrying a monk into the mountain kept climbing higher and higher until it circled three times, laid down, and died… the elephant walk. The monk then started to build a temple on the site. Unfortunately, it meant climbing 306 steps to the top… stupid fucking monks…

I could have taken the tram, but that would have put me with the woman in our group with a bad ankle, and I didn’t want to be pitied. So with a deep breath and a prayer to all the gods, I started climbing the steep steps. The rails were one long dragon’s tail paneled with glistening painted tiles, and colored streamers and lanterns hung from the trees nearby. After six stops for rests, two bottles of water, and one defibrillation, I finally made it to the top and was pleased I had made the trek.

Atop the mountain was a glistening gilded spire surrounded by Buddha of all shapes and sizes. Monk were busy cleaning the areas and doing crafts as tourists and devotees alike bought incense and candles to pray. Slowly the late afternoon light started to fade, as we snapped photos of the golden Buddha’s and the twinkling Chiang Mai far below, the monks prepped themselves for their evening prayers. We silently sat outside of the main temple and listened as the monks began their low, guttural chants that carried across the valley below.

After sauntering the 306 steps back down, we boarded the vans for dinner. We headed to the night market and dined outside at one of the larger sit-down food markets. We gorged ourselves on green curry, tiger prawns, pineapple rice, pad thai, and tom yum soup.

With dinner filling our bellies, we walked it off by searching thru the night market. Stall after stalls of vendors selling souvenirs, clothing, jewelry and the like. I had a special task while shopping in that we decided that since our group would all be together for Christmas that we should have a Secret Santa. I pulled Trish, a mid-thirty goth girl with pink in her hair (turns out her spiky pink haired older partner is actually her mother… my mistake). I ended up buying her a multi-colored side bag that matched her shoes, along with a mortar and pestle to remind her of our cooking class. I was going to buy a neon glow-in-the-dark velvet painting of a Buddha… but [NAME REMOVED] said otherwise.

The next morning we awoke late for our group meeting to go over the itinerary for the next two days. We split up and boarded our minibuses for a day long travel to Chiang Rai and then Chiang Khong. We spent a few hours reading and chatting in the bus, headed straight north towards the Myanmar border. On the way we had a rest stop at a natural hot spring where we soaked our feet while buying up fried banana chips. A little while later we stopped and toured a small cashew factory, where we watched them pry open the nut from the fruit one by one. At this point we got into a little trouble… since they had an entire showroom dedicated to delicious multi-flavored coated cashews and macadamia nuts. I only bought bags of chocolate, sesame, and spice coated nuts with durian chips and roasted coconut… but that was all.

We re-boarded and spent another two hours in the van. The countryside quickly passed by our windows. Rice paddies with Thai people knee deep in the water checking on the fields. Hundreds of motorcycles passed our way; used for transporting people, families, and entire homes. We finally reached Chiang Rai where we visited the Hill Tribes Museum. Six tribes of people roam the northern mountains of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. Their bamboo tools and colorful beaded clothing were on display, along with a history of the opium trade in the famed Golden Triangle. Opium is still sometimes legally grown in the area, and definitely illegally grown. Laos is known for its “happy” food, where you can buy food from restaurants with as much opiate or methamphetamine in the pizza topping as you like. Of course the museum shares a building with the famed restaurant, “Condoms to Cabbages.” The proprietor wanted to spread the word of using condoms to stop the spread of disease, and opened the restaurant to help fund his project. Turns out both his endeavors have been extremely successful… and delicious!... the food, not the condoms.

A few minutes later we pulled up to the most trippy wat temple me, or anyone else, has ever seen. A young artist with the ego of a cult leader decided to build a special temple that he saw in a dream… most likely ecstasy induced. The Hidden Temple is anything but hidden… bone white with intricate mirrored scaling across its surface. Skulls radiate on top of the traffic cones at the entrance, and hands in not polite gestures reach out from the fountains. It is an acid heads nightmare come to reality. The inside of the temple is simple enough, with an eerie wax statue of a long dead monk at the foot of the Buddha. But along the back wall were small paintings of cult movie characters: Star Wars, the Predator, the Terminator, sumo wrestlers giving you the finger, Neo from The Matrix, cell phones, and graphic images of people fucking… never seen a temple with Spiderman in it…

On the way out past the skulls screaming out the dangers of drinking and smoking, we picked up a few small posters of the designer’s art. He is a very controversial figure in Thailand, as many see his temple, as beautiful as it is, as a mockery of conservative Thai Buddhist beliefs. Right when we were leaving, the artist actually showed up! Thai people were flocking around him asking him to sign their postcards and to get their picture taken with him. Turns out he is truly becoming more of a cult-like religious figure than just any other nutjob artist with a grudge against his dad. But we figured that while we were there, we might as well have him sign our stuff… never know when he’ll die…

Near the temple we had a simple lunch of noodles, and took off down the road. We drove thru the farm filled valleys and snaked our way thru the mountains headed northeast to the border town of Chiang Khong. While driving, I witnessed an amazing red sky of the sun setting against the daughter mountains of the Himalayas.

We arrived at our guesthouse in Chiang Khong, a small house/inn that was nestled on the banks of the Mekong River. The town is only about three streets long, and we waited for the other van with a beer until we could check into our room. We lucked out that the town was having a “Good Food Clean Food” festival just down the road. We walked to the town square where I feasted upon banana and coconut milk gelatin, fried pork, grilled cuttlefish and large steins of Singha beer. Women and girls from the local tribes danced in their bright costumes against a backdrop of a smiling dinner plate where a bad rock band had just finished their set. The whole square was filled with locals eating their home-style dishes, laughing and singing with the too loud music overhead. A few of us left to head back to the hotel, slightly buzzed from the Singha, and ended up buying sombreros from an old lady’s corner store. We got some strange looks from the locals, but enjoyed them nevertheless.

The next morning I awoke to the stunningly beautiful sunrise over the Mekong River. This river is the lifeblood of the region… the water highway of Laos, which was just across the river. The pink and purple sky gave way to the blue as the sun rose over our breakfast on the patio just over the water. The heat and humidity had given way to a see-your-breath cool morning. Everyone was dressed in their fleeces while I was laid back in shorts and a tee, taking in the crisp mountain air. We all reminisced about what we had done the previous night, and said our goodbyes to Thailand. Our luggage was stowed aboard a motorcycle sidecar, and we all piled into the back of a truck for the ferry across the river and into Laos.

The border crossing was only five minutes away, and five minutes after that we were all aboard a barren longtail for the two minute ride across the river. Upon landing, we met up with our Laotian guide, Mr. Wong. Due to the laws of Laos, only a Laotian may be guides on tours… so Mai took a back seat and acted like any other tourist.

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