21 January, 2013

Thailand: The final leg toward home (Monday)

We hadn't really thought too much about the implications of an 8am departing flight. On a Monday. It would be necessary to get to the airport early enough to account for traffic, and to deal with whatever insanity was at the airport. I don't remember much about the transit to the airport, other than that we felt frazzled by the early morning hour of departure. We must have left at 5:30 or 5:45am if i recall correctly. We made it to the airport, and then we got on the plane, after whatever routine one must go through at the airport. After boarding, we discovered that there was something wrong with the aircraft. I don't remember what it was, but it resulted in us sitting there for a long, long time. If I am not mistaken, we departed nearly three hours late. So, of course, the next question was, "How are we possibly going to make our connecting flight from Tokyo?!" There was a layover of about three hours, but it seemed iffy, at best, that we would be able to make our way to the next flight. So there was anxiety, for sure.

During the flight, there was pretty much no information about whether or not we would make the connection, but the flight attendants alluded to the fact that it was not looking promising. When we got to Tokyo, there was still no knowledge as to whether we could make our flight. We ran through the terminal, which I seem to recall was like half mile to get from where we were to where we needed to be. And then, much to our dismay, we had to go through a type of customs line, and it was a long, long line. We are trying to communicate to people that we are late for a flight, and others are in the same boat as us. We are all confused, and we all speak about half a dozen different languages. After much chaos, some Japanese airport staff come running through the terminal yelling for people who are flying on the ANA flight to Seattle. And everyone who is on that flight is being segregated and identified to gradually hurry them through. They're holding the plane for us. I guess there was a significant enough number of passengers going through to Seattle that they did hold the plane. But, boy, it was stressful.

The last leg, inside a Boeing 777, completing the last of my "I can't wait to someday fly on this aircraft" experiences. It wasn't that exciting. It's a long, long flight. As we approach Seattle, finally, we are descending, and then it becomes evident that we have made a 180 degree right turn, which would be normal for coming into SeaTac from the north. What we didn't expect, though, was a few minutes later, when we make another 90 degree turn. And another 90 degree turn. And another 90 degree turn. We are going around in circles. For about a half hour. When it gets to about an hour, the pilot comes on and says that there is a fog situation at the airfield and conditions are not acceptable for landing. If the fog doesn't clear soon, we will need to divert to Portland because we are running out of fuel. And, of course, this is exactly what happens. We go to Portland. Land. Refuel. And 2-3 hours after our intended arrival time, we finally are back in Seattle.

A long, long trip.

Much adventure.

Epilogue to come.

20 January, 2013

Thailand: Cooking & Happier Moments (Sunday)

The last day had in store for us one main activity - a cooking class. At the Silom Thai Cooking School, on Silom Road in the heart of Bangkok. It was truly one of the highlights of the trip. I don't recall how the day began, but I think we made our way over to where we needed to meet the others, and arrived early enough that we were quite hungry, or thirsty, or something. I have vague memories that we wanted to get there with time to spare, and then found our way into a restaurant that was completely empty, where we ordered some sort of fruit smoothies because we were very hungry or thirsty, or something. And they took a long time to make these smoothies. It took a very long time. Time was passing, and passing, and passing. And we needed to explain that we were in a hurry, and they found a way to clumsily provide us these beverages in takeout containers, but I don't think they were actually takeout containers - I don't remember well. Just that we were hurried, and we made our way back out to the corner where we met others. There were about 16 people in the class, in total. There were only a few Americans. And the rest of the people were from all over the place. Israel, Europe, Australia. All over.

There would be two teachers and the group would be divided in half. Our teacher was a very fabulous, petite Thai man, who had spent time living in San Francisco, was incredibly funny, and super-high energy. The first stop, immediately, was the open market, where we would select all of the ingredients that would be needed for the class. In addition to selecting the ingredients, the teachers educated us about the ingredients, their purpose, the flavors they provide, how to select them well, and many funny little tidbits. It was exciting, and created a levity that hadn't really been there on the trip for some time. We hadn't, other than the couple of dinners with Jakkie and Nu, had much interaction with others. And it was good to have it.

We made our way back from the market, and into the alley, and up the stairs of the building in which the class was held. We were given a bit of an overview of what we'd be doing. There are probably 20 different dishes that they teach at this school. On any given day, you will prepare 5-6 of these dishes, in courses. Learn, prepare, cook, eat, repeat. It's intense. A whirlwind, but you are doing it, and learning. We started off with preparing a curry paste using a mortar and pestle. Then we made a curry. Then we made a spicy Thai salad. Then we made a dish with fish cakes. Then we make a noodle dish. And there was a dessert too. Each course was bang-bang-bang, He teaches, explains, demonstrates. Then we repeat, go to our woks, and cook it. Eat it. Ten minutes later, back into the preparation room again.

The course probably lasted about three hours and I never wanted it to end. Some of the only photos of "The Two Of Us" from the trip came from that class, when others in the class were all taking pictures for each other. And we looked happy. On that day we looked happy. And it wasn't just an illusion. That was real. That was happiness. The intensity of the activity, jarring us from any of the stuck patterns, or any of the realities that weighed down on us. It all served to pull us back into the place where we were Together, and it didn't feel contrived.

That happens in relationships. Even when things are on the downward spiral, happiness can still be found. Because there was a reason you were drawn together. And underneath all practical matters, it can be found, if only for little windows of time.

I don't remember anything else about that day. I don't remember what we did after the class. I seem to remember we walked much of the way back, but I don't think we walked all of the way. I don't remember what we had for dinner. This was the last day in Thailand. The next day, we would wake up early, and hurry to the airport to begin the trip back.

When I think back on the trip, I will remember the photo of us doing the mortar and pestle together, sitting in the circle with the others, with big smiles on our faces. And perhaps, someday, it will be all that I'll remember about how I felt, with the sadness of feeling disconnected - and regret that I felt unable to stop the progression of that disconnect - falling away from memory.

Photographs have the power to preserve specifically what you want to remember.

19 January, 2013

Thailand: From Khao Lak to Bangkok (Saturday)

Our flight back to Bangkok was not until late in the day, but it would take a certain amount of time, I believe 90 minutes, to get back to the airport, and there was a need to be very certain that one leaves enough time to get there and check-in (we were warned, and it's a good thing, because the Phuket airport was pandemonium).

The morning, as well as the afternoon, of our last day in Khao Lak was marked by aimless ambling. We didn't really have much motivation to do anything too exploratory or touristy because of being so tired from the previous day. We knew we only had until about 2pm before we'd begin the ride back to the airport. We asked our German hosts if we could leave our bags in a safe place while we wandered around. Of course, the said yes, but made us feel uncomfortable about it at the same time, which was exactly par for the course, given our experiences with them during the days prior. So be it.

We wandered into the small sub-village of Khao Lak. I had that sort of sinking feeling one has when one knows they are passing by certain things for the last time. We didn't know what to do with ourselves. Even writing about it now, seven months later, brings up the feelings I had then. We ended up settling on going into a small shop that had beverages, and I think we ordered french fries, believe it or not, just so we could get out of the sun and sit somewhere cool. It was sweltering hot. They had wireless, if I remember correctly, so maybe we were checking some of our communications. We were passing time. Not really connected, not really enjoying ourselves, and mostly waiting for it to be time to move on to the next step in the itinerary. That's sad, looking back. This moment being all that we ever have, and we were squandering the moment, not enjoying it, not even tasting it, only waiting for the next moment, in the hopes that it would somehow be better than the present. More than any other time in the past 2 years, that week was the time that I most significantly lost my connection to my yoga practice. This isn't my yoga blog (you can find that at "The Feeble Yogi"), so I won't elaborate.

It was finally time to go to the airport, so we arranged a taxi and collected our belongings from the hotel. We said our final awkward goodbyes to our hosts. Then the long ride began. Our driver knew a fair amount of English. He was young, and drove a little bit less like a lunatic than most of our other drivers had. It's a pretty drive, and we were largely zoned out. It's been so long now, I cannot remember if we really talked much on the way. When we arrived at the airport, it was a madhouse. There was no apparent order. In order to get a boarding pass, one had to go through a long line, but it was not immediately clear where the line began. We thought we had arrived ridiculously early. But, upon seeing this line, we immediately realized that we might actually be late, rather than early. After standing in line for about 5-10 minutes, we realized we were not at the end of the line. We were at some sort of secondary spur of the line that was accidentally formed by a bunch of people who didn't understand where the line actually ended. So then we had to relocate to the real end of the line, which was now 30-50 people further back than it would have been had we discovered it immediately. It was long, and it was slow-moving. But sure enough, we eventually made it through, and made our way through security, and made it to the gate, where there was yet more waiting. I don't remember much about it, other than there was a delay, and nobody knew what they were doing, and the system they used for a queue was confusing with different rules than anyone could have figured out.

We made it back to Bangkok without much more excitement, other than that our taxi driver attempted to screw us over on the way back to the hotel by refusing to turn on his meter. This was getting really tiresome, but that's Bangkok for you. It was probably around 8pm or so when we finally reached the hotel. I believe we did venture out locally for food, but I don't really recall. Maybe we didn't. Maybe we were too tired. I can't possibly be expected to recall things from seven months ago.

I do recall that when we arrived at the hotel, we discovered that the room we had when we first stayed in Bangkok was actually the more modest room. This room was an amazing suite, incredibly luxurious. I knew that I had booked one room that was nicer than the other. But the first room had been so nice, I had assumed it was that one. Nope. Things got better. It's only too bad we weren't in happier spirits.

18 January, 2013

Thailand: Back for more of the good stuff (Friday - evening)

I have been remiss to complete this blog. It is now August, and I am looking at the history and seeing that I left an unfinished story. While I won't have the details to share due to my eroding memories, I would like to at least document the rough idea of how the rest of the itinerary went, for sake of posterity.

After the long day at the Similan Islands, we were both pretty tired. I recall returning to the hotel and crashing for some period of time, perhaps a couple of hours. The plan, all along, was to return to the restaurant that we loved so much, and see Jakkie and Nu one more time. Blue Mist is the name, as I mentioned previously. Used to be called Blue Dolphin and now it's Blue Mist. We were immediately greeted by our friends, who were both there because, in Thailand, where else would a small business owner be other than at their business? I don't remember the details, other than that it was another great meal, and that Jakkie and Nu, and perhaps Nu's girlfriend joined us at the table for a bit and we chatted about more things, all of which escape me now. I really wish I had written this back on January 19th when I could have told you everything that happened.

This was to be our final night in Khao Lak. It's back to Bangkok tomorrow for the final couple of days of the trip. As I write this, I look back with some regret, because the company really was great company. We were both lucky to be there together. But we were having a hard time appreciating it because of the barriers, mostly mine, which were in place. Looking back, I wish I had at least been nicer. There was a time in my life, "pre-yoga" (which actually ended some period of time before I actually started doing yoga), where I wouldn't have expected myself to be able to act with kindness under all circumstances. But I had been practicing whatever we like to call that thing that is "mindfulness" for over a year at that point, and I still was not willing or able to walk the line of compassion. I think the battle was actually with myself, and that's the battle where it's hardest for me to be compassionate. I was mad at myself for not being able to be something I was not ever going to be able to be. And Melissa got caught in the crossfire.

But this is about Thailand, so I will stop there.

Thailand: Surin Islands - More Risks! (Friday)

Friday morning, once again, we were for an early rise, and a quick breakfast, as we'd be picked up by a van to go snorkeling again. This was a different travel group, and to a different set of islands, the Surin Islands. These were the much awaited islands with the great tales of the most amazing snorkeling ever. The Surin Islands are quite a bit farther away than Similan Islands were. As such, the drive to even get to the point of entering the water was longer. We headed north. I believe we rode for 60-90 minutes in the van. There were a few stops in Khao Lak to pick up more people. Was it the Swedes? Germans? I cannot recall anymore. I know we rode in a van with Swedes who we (I) thought were Germans, and later we discovered we were wrong. Yes. It is coming back to me. This was the Swedes. The ride was long. And not particularly comfortable or enjoyable. And, as usual, riding in a vehicle in Thailand always feels like it might end in a fiery crash, since people will try to execute passing moves that seem perilous, at best. One would (like to) think that having a van full of tourists would be recipe for some degree of caution. But I just don't think the drivers perceive "risk" in the same way as I do. But I am also open to the possibility that I have an over-developed sense of danger.

After much riding, we finally arrived at the location from which we would launch. I have very little recollection of this. No, wait. It's coming back to me. It was another open-air place, and it was much quieter. There were nasty bathrooms around the back. There were some light snacks. This group seemed to have far more older tourists. People older than us, that is. I mean, at this point, I am probably nearly an older tourist myself. These were even older than us. There were no loud obnoxious French dudes. That was a saving grace. Although,  I will foreshadow by noting that, by the end of the day, I had been secretly fantasizing about how it would have been apropos for the French dudes to have been on this trip, rather than the one to the Similan Islands two days prior.

Eventually, it was time to go. We boarded the boat, and began to ride. It was a nice ride. It was clear it was going to be a longer ride, which we knew, but very clearly so, since it took us quite some time to even make our way completely out of the channels from which we launched and into the truly wide-open ocean. The ride was a little choppy, but it was a beautiful day. A few times we hit little bumps that caused water to come flying into the boat and some of the passengers got soaked. But heck, we're about to go snorkeling, so why should it be such a big deal to get wet.

It was like a 90 minute ride. That is a long time to ride in a speedboat, dancing around on the water. It's a long, long time to be sitting facing sideways without good back support. Our muscles were aching by the time we arrived at the destination. But we were there, so yippee. All is well.

Into the water we went, and we snorkeled.

And I've got to say...

It wasn't the best snorkeling I have ever done. It wasn't terrible. The coral was a bit healthier than what we saw at the Similan Islands. But this was no Hawaii. This was no Belize. And it has to make one wonder if it was ever that great? Or is the quality of the snorkeling in the Andaman being overly hyped to drive tourism. The story they tell now is that the tsunami messed things up. Perhaps that's true. My efforts to research this online didn't yield a whole lot of insight.

I got as much as I could out of it. We spent about an hour in the water, and then we returned to the boat, and went to a second location. Same deal. Fair quality snorkeling. I definitely saw some good stuff - there was no shortage of sea life. But I wasn't overwhelmed with the experience. Perhaps it says something about my mindset at that point on the trip. I don't know. I am inclined to believe it was a little bit of both.

After the second snorkel site, we went to one of the islands for lunch. And this was a real treat that we hadn't expected. There was a large shelter built of wood, with picnic tables inside. And we were served fresh Thai meal prepared for us, consisting of whole fish, a very spicy red curry (I mean *very* spicy), and a rice dish, and maybe one or two other things. And this food was fantastic. While we were dining, we had the good fortune to strike up a conversation with a young Swedish guy who was leading a tour group of Swedish people. He was fluent in English (of course), and we chatted a lot, and learned about him. He was nice, and it was a highlight of the trip.

We then, I believe, went to one more snorkeling site, which was (if it even happened?) not memorable enough for me to say anything other than the fact that I think we went to one more site. I don't even think I stayed in the water the full time on that last time because I was even starting to get cold. I imagine that the sunburn I was nursing probably played a factor in feeling cold in the water. But I also imagine that not seeing things that were amazing enough to warrant shivering also played a factor.

The final stop on our trip, one which I had some hesitation about even doing, was a visit to what was referred to as the Mokun Sea Gypsy village on one of the islands. And yes, it is as bad as it sounds, if not worse. This was what one might refer to as a "lowlight" of the vacation. The Mokun, it seems, were an indigenous people of these islands who lived entirely in boats at one point in the past. They did not live on land at all, or not much. They were, as the name implies, wandering sea people. For whatever reasons, and you can probably imagine several, the Thai government decided to make a concerted effort to "civilize" these people (i.e. force them to change their ways). The Mokun were given land and shelters built on stilts on a beach, and there is constant government presence, in the form of monitors or medical people, who are on site in the village. There is a satellite dish. They've been introduced to modern technologies. They are now wearing Western clothing, instead of nothing, or the clothing that native people would have worn. And they no longer live on the sea. We were brought through this "spectacle" to observe, as if it's some really neat circus site to witness. The Thai people who were in our tour group, leading the tour, did not act or speak with respect about these people. It was clear that they were thought of as lesser beings. When we landed, there were children begging and selling these small wooden boats that they either did or did not make. There was a woman who was clearly a very vocal villager. She seemed like she was insane, but I don't think she was. I think she was just so radically different of a human from what we know, that her behavior appeared "abnormal." She was communicating with the Thai people in what seemed like a fairly aggressive, hostile fashion. But to the tourists, she was not unfriendly. Melissa had a camera, and the woman wanted to see herself in the camera view. She looked at herself and she was very excited because I imagine, of course, that seeing herself is not a thing she has the luxury of doing at the frequency that we do. She was kind to us. But she was clearly leery of the Thai people.

As we were waiting to re-board the boat, I watched the behavior of the Thai people, and there was almost a kind of feeling like the Thai ridicule this culture, and there was a look of hatred and resignation on the faces of the Mokun people. Their culture is being strangled. But the Thai would say that they are doing this for the survival and well-being of the Mokun. You know the story. It's awfully familiar.

After this somewhat stomach turning experience, we were finally onto our finally leg of the day (actually, second from final, but we certainly weren't thinking about the tedium of the van ride back from the docks). We boarded the boat and began our 60 kilometer ride back to the mainland.

When we started the ride, there was a little bit of chop on the water, but nothing much to speak of. As the minutes passed, that little bit of chop gradually increased. And it continued to increase from there. Looking back, the Surin Islands were slowly shrinking into nothingness. There was no land whatsoever in sight in front of us. And underneath us, the ocean was growing in intensity. We were at least 30 minutes off land, and it was more than choppy. People in boat were not happy. People in the boat were starting to get splashed with ever-increasing torrents of water, each time we hit some chop. Sitting sideways, as we were, was fatiguing, especially after the long day.

But it wasn't over. It continued to increase. The islands behind us were nearly invisible, and I had the thought, "How bad would it need to be before the captain would decide to turn back?" Because we were getting to the point that, if conditions continued to deteriorate, VERY BAD THINGS could happen. I am not sure I could venture a guess, but I would say that we were easily hitting 6-10 foot swells, possibly larger. And the swells were severe enough that the speed of the boat was reduced from what had probably been 30-40 knots down to maybe 10 knots. We seemed to be barely moving.

And it got worse. One passenger, a young woman, became very ill and her friends were tending to her. We were not feeling ill, fortunately, but I was concerned. I didn't allow myself to devolve into panic or fear or what have you. But I was focused on an action plan. I recognized a few facts. (1) The conditions are poor. But, (2) The captain has not turned back, and the Thai people who are the guides are not behaving as if this is an emergency. (3) No matter what happens, I have snorkeling gear and a wetsuit. If, for some reason, the boat turns over, the most important thing is to not get knocked unconscious, and to not lose the snorkel gear and wetsuit. Because, with that gear, even in poor conditions, I could survive and help others for a longer time than without it. So I had an action plan in place.

The conditions had reached what could be referred to as their nadir at what was probably the halfway point between the start and finish. My action plan was firmly in mind, but I was still feeling like it could devolve into panic if unchecked. I finally caught the eye of one of the Thai guides, and I said to him, "We okay?" And he laughed and smiled, and said "Yes!" Part of me thought, "Well that's what he'd say if we were completely fucked, too," but I opted to not go down that route of thinking, but instead take it as the essential, faith-based reassurance that we were, in fact, okay.

And sure enough, 35 unhappy people survived unharmed, the seas calmed as we finally began approaching land, and became completely calm once we reentered the channels from which we came. The captain received a round of applause (though probably not from the vomiting woman).

The only thing left was the van ride back to the hotel, which was absolutely interminable. All I wanted to do was lie on a bed, and it was not to happen for another 90 minutes. And, of course, we were the last ones dropped off, after all the Swedes. It got to the point that I wanted to scream. But I held it together, and eventually we did make it back alive.

I have to say, thinking back, one should never underestimate the sheer awe and power of the ocean. There's this sense of infinity, and there's an ominous feeling of not knowing the depth and not knowing what it will do next. The conditions were changing on us without really much indication as to why, and we had no idea which direction things would change. I suppose the seasoned captain knows the ocean and can read it. I had no choice to operate on the faith that we were in hands that didn't want to be responsible for the death of 35 international tourists. But, compared to air travel, this was far more unsettling. In an airplane, there's a certain illusion of stability, perhaps because the "air" itself does not come equipped with a "character" capable of seeming malevolence.

Okay. Enough of that talk.

17 January, 2013

Thailand: Downtime is a necessary thing (Thursday)

There will be nowhere near the level of granularity in the details that I can offer about this and the remainder of the trip, as it now stands three months past. But I want to document it, partly because it was something I started, but also because it will stand as my memory going forward. Even though it may not be entirely accurate, it will eventually become truth, as I recall it. So here goes...

After the insane amount of activity on the previous days, including the long boat ride and long day of snorkeling, there was not really much energy to do anything. We knew that the next day would be another long snorkeling trip, and therefore there was not a whole lot of motivation to do anything too intense. And, if you're staying in Khao Lak, there are not options-a-plenty. I had read about, or heard about a park where we could do either walking or hiking. It would require a taxi to get there, and there just wasn't the motivation to do it.

When we got up, we had the standard morning breakfast, and then I believe we meandered in the general direction of the town, to see what was going on. There wasn't much going on. There was nothing going on. We were sunburned. Tired. Low energy. Not particularly thrilled with one another, if I recall correctly. We found our way to a pharmacy, which was amusing, because of the combination of having no idea what things were or, even more amusingly, finding things that we could not believe were sold over the counter without a prescription, and seeing that they cost next to nothing compared to what they cost in the States (e.g. prescription antibiotics that can be quite expensive back home, available for a dollar). I think we bought some type of skin something or other. I cannot remember.

We wandered further.

We saw that there was a restaurant that offered a cooking class. We got the information, as best as we could, with our limited ability to communicate. We contemplated that perhaps we would do the class on Saturday. But there wasn't a whole lot of enthusiasm around it. We were lethargic. We dragged our burnt bodies back to the hotel. I believe there was extended lounging in the room. Then, I think we made our way to a beachfront hotel's sitting area. The intention was to sit in the shade, and read. Someone came over and chastised us for not ordering a beverage from the hotel bar. So we did. Even in the shade, it was uncomfortable because the sun kept creeping back onto my burned legs. And the feeling of sand or even of a towel was not pleasant on my skin. I was wondering how I would stand going back into the sun the next day for more snorkeling. But there was some hope that good sunscreen would protect us. The so-called waterproof stuff we'd previously applied was useless, and probably washed away instantly. And it was exacerbated by my getting in and out of the water. I thought I had reapplied it, but I don't think it takes to the skin when the skin is wet with salt water. Must go on dry skin.

We read in the shade for a long time. Eventually, that was enough. We made our way back toward the hotel. I am certain we did not get another massage, because I cannot imagine having someone touch my skin on my legs.

There was a dip in the pool. Then into the room. And more lounging. On the one hand, it is easy to feel like it's a "wasted day," not having planned activities. But part of vacation is, factually speaking, accepting the need for downtime. And we also knew we needed to be "on" for the next day's activities.

For dinner, we managed to get our act together, and it was back to Green Pepper, the place that had been so good two nights past. We had already pretty much decided that Thursday would be a repeat at Green Pepper, and Friday would be a repeat at Blue Mist, with our new friends. We could have explored other places, but these two were truly worth revisiting.

So... back to Green Pepper. It was a little less crowded this time. I don't remember what we ordered. I would not be surprised, nor should you be, if I were to learn that I had ordered Panang Curry again. Because there's a really good chance I did. But at this point, who knows.

There was not much more to the evening past dinner. We didn't have the energy or the will for nightlife. So it was clearly a case of more lounging, followed by unconsciousness. The next morning would be another early one.

16 January, 2013

Thailand: New friends (Wednesday - Part 2)

When we arrived at the hotel, I decided to take a quick dip in the swimming pool, partly to unwind, but primarily to do a better job of getting all the salt off my body than would be possible in the shower (which was beyond weak - I forgot to mention that). This time, when I arrived at the pool, the Romanian guy was in the water again. He had an audience of about seven people, including the young American guy, and he was telling stories. Again, he was doing most of the talking, about the economy, European culture, blah, blah, blah. It became clear that he is a professor at McGill University, in Toronto (which, of course, according to him, is one of the top universities). Yes. That makes sense. He is a professor. Explains a lot.

I stayed in the water long enough to desalt myself (thanks Bruno, thanks Markus), and then went inside to take a real shower. By this point, it had become evident that the sunburn on the backs of my legs, and the backs of my upper arms (everywhere that was not covered by the wet suit) was quite significant. Not a little burn, but a lot of burn. The skin felt tight, and that was only a few hours after the exposure. Was thinking that it didn't bode well. The obvious culprit was "Thai SPF 50 Waterproof Sunblock." Do not believe anybody who tells you that they are waterproof, unless it's Banana Boat. You can believe them. Maybe the French dudes had been using Thai sunblock too? Who knows?

We showered, and started figuring out where we would have dinner. We knew that Wednesday was Thai Dinner Night with our hosts, so we had to get out of there as fast as possible, to avoid any potential awkwardness. I am exaggerating for dramatic effect. We didn't actually skulk about, but we did know that we'd not be dining at the resort. Trip Advisor had treated us well so far, so we did some research, and saw two restaurants in the Khao Lak area that had received ubiquitously positive reviews. One was named "Smile" and the other was "Blue Mist." After reading the reviews, we opted for the #2 rated restaurant, Blue Mist, because it actually looked more promising as an authentic Thai experience, rather than an all-purpose tourist restaurant (Smile had both a Thai and non-Thai menu, which seemed less promising, though the same was true at Green Pepper, which we liked). To get to Blue Mist, it was necessary to take a taxi, as it was about 5 miles up the road. This is where the currency/value of things in Thailand is odd. It cost us 300 BHT ($10) each way, to go 10 minutes in the taxi. But our entrees at dinner only cost 140 BHT, and even that was on the expensive side, because of the restaurant's proximity to upscale hotels and beach. It would be like taking an $80 taxi ride in Manhattan to order $35 entrees.

The taxi driver took us to the JW Hilton, which was the easiest landmark proximal to the hotel. I should mention that, when I say “taxi,” what I mean is a pickup truck with benches in the back and a covered bed. This was once again what my father would refer to as “not safe.” Despite that, we once again made it to our destination in one piece, though we were not really sure where our destination was. We assumed that the hotel would be able to tell us exactly where the restaurant was, but they weren’t sure. They told us to walk to the beach, and then look for it. Thanks. So we walked through the hotel, exited the back, and then began a long walk toward the beach. You would think that the hotel was “on the beach,” because it was shown on a map as being on the beach. But it turned out, the hotel was set back very far. Between the hotel and the beach was the hotel’s swimming pool, which went on forever and ever. It was shaped like what can only be described as a maze, with landscaping around it. Every time we turned a corner, there was more pool. All of it was contiguous, not separate pools. We walked, and walked, and walked. Eventually we reached the beach and turned right. It was a short walk from that point, and we discovered Blue Mist, which used to be called Blue Dolphin or Dolphin Bay, or Dolphin something else.

The restaurant was in a pair of thatched huts, raised on low stilts, about 5 feet off the ground, with wooden steps going up to each. There was a third thatched hut, set back farther, where the cooking took place. These buildings formed a U-shape, opening toward the ocean, and there were a few more tables in the open area of the “U.” It was so warm there, that even on the beach, at night, it was completely unnecessary to have any sort of protective clothing. We ordered our food. This, of course, included Panang Curry, and I think Melissa had a noodle dish, but neither us can remember what it was (because I have taken so long to write these entries… sigh). We also ordered a smoothie - I think it was banana, since those tend to be popular here. I am assuming that is just a function of being on a tropical resort, smoothies having become an automatic component of that experience.

The food was super-spicy, because I wielded the courage to order it 4 stars on the 4 star scale. It just seems like, when in Thailand, do as the Thai do. But it was absolutely amazing. The best Panang I have ever eaten (and I said that about 4 times on this trip). During dinner, the owner of the restaurant, Jakkie, came over to say hello to us. He was probably in his late 20s, or possibly early 30s. He spoke excellent English, probably the best of anyone we met during the trip. He chit-chatted with us about the food a bit, and we showered him with praises for how wonderful everything was. The meal was capped off with a mango sticky rice, which we had wisely mentioned at the beginning of our meal, because they managed to save their last order for us. 

When we were finishing up, Jakkie came over to talk to us some more, and told us that he wanted to send up a balloon for us. We didn't really know what he meant, but we figured it out, because we'd seen this before. It's a paper-like structure that has a candle or small lamp or something in the center of it. The wick is lit, and the heat eventually causes this object to rise and float away into the sky (probably collecting on some island in the South Pacific and causing endangered lizards to be strangled by it). the idea is that you release this balloon and you make a wish, and good luck will come to you. It felt like a special thing to be offered. Although a lot of these balloons were blowing into the night, it still is nice to be able to have that experience. Jakkie got the thing lit and then took a few photos of us with our phones, as we released it. I cannot remember what I wished for. We watched it rise into the sky. Then we talked with Jakkie some more. We didn't really want this experience to end, because it was the nicest of the whole trip. We talked about Thailand, and about the restaurant. Somehow, the subject moved to the tsunami that had severely hit this coast a few years earlier. When we asked Jakkie what he remembered about it, he told us that we had to talk to his friend, Nu, who was the tour booking guy who worked there. He called Nu over, who also spoke very good English, and was also in his mid 20s. And then an hour of our lives flew past us as we listened, rapt with interest, as Nu told us of his experience where he was nearly killed in the tsunami. He'd been working in the JW Hilton Hotel, which got belted, with no warning, by the full force of the tsunami, with water rising up to nearly the level of a three story building, before it began to recede. He was knocked unconscious, and cut severely all over his body by shattered glass (you could see the nick marks and scars on his body). He thought he was surely going to bleed to death. Many people were killed there. Many. And he was one of the luckier ones who was rushed to a hospital only because he had a friend who was able to get his care prioritized in terms of the very few vehicles that were able to get people in and out of there. He said he had been hospitalized for a month recovering after the tsunami. Nu was such a smiling, tall, handsome, mild-mannered guy, who told his story humbly, but without any hesitation about sharing. I felt so fortunate to be let into this truly personal experience of his life, that gave me such a deeper understanding for the culture and people. He said it took him a few years before he felt safe to be near the ocean again, but that he is now okay with it, obviously, being that he works right there on the beach again near the exact scene.

They called us a taxi back home at the end of the night. We rode back with what was either a German or Australian couple. I think she might have been German but living in Australia. But our minds were still spinning over the experience we'd just had.

Sleep came quickly.

Thailand: Similan Islands (Wednesday - Part 1)

We were to be picked up from our hotel at about 7:20am for a snorkeling trip to the Similan Islands, which are about 25 miles off the coast of Khao Lak, in the Andaman Sea. As such, we'd arranged for an early breakfast at the hotel. We arrived in the dining area around 6:45am, and we were greeted by Markus. Or maybe we were greeted by Bruno. I can't remember which. But what I do remember is that it was unclear from the menu whether we were allowed to order whatever we wanted, or if we could on choose a single item, each, from the menu. Melissa ordered first, and she asked for the bacon and eggs. Then she paused, and asked if she could also have a fruit plate. Whichever one of them took our order said "Okay" and left the table. We deduced that we must only be allowed to order a single item from the menu, and that he decided that she had ordered for both of us. It seemed weird that he didn't even look at me, but we were already expecting weird from them, so this was not a surprise.

Coffee arrived, and was very good. Then our eggs and bacon, and the fruit plate arrived, and both were very good. We shared, and reflected that perhaps it was for the best that we didn't eat a ton of food before going out on a boat all day, where there would not be much in the way of a bathroom facility. The time got to be around 7:20am and our ride had not arrived, which made me start to wonder how we could possibly really know that we were confirmed. When it came to 7:30am, I really began to wonder, and Markus suggested that we call the number on the voucher (what voucher? we have no voucher?). I went back to the room and found an email that had a telephone number and called, I was put on an extended hold by the man who answered, saying he would check the list to see if they were coming to pick me up. While I was on hold, Melissa came running back to the room, informing me that the driver had arrived. Upon coming back out, the driver asks to see my voucher. Seriously. Nobody said anything about vouchers. I had to go back to the room and get the laptop and show him the confirmation email, but it all turned out to be unnecessary because the guy who had put me on hold called the driver to confirm that we were waiting. Apparently, that counted as a voucher substitute.

We got into a van that looked as if it could hold between 10-12 people, and then we proceeded to pick up 9 other people. Initially, I thought they were all Germans, but they turned out to be a mix of Swedish and either German or Dutch. I learned on this trip that I think everyone is German. I couldn't even tell you what direction we went to get to the pier. Maybe it was north. Maybe it was south. Whatever the case, we apparently went to the "Khao Lak Jetty" for our departure.

When we arrived about a half hour later, there was a sign-in process with the agency that runs the actual trip on the boat. It seems that there are many different booking agencies that collect participants and then funnel them into one place that does the meat and potatoes end of the business. It makes sense, as it leaves it to someone else's hands to manage websites, collect money, disseminate information, and market the tours in a variety of different languages.

The area where we would wait was inside a small building that had an open front, with many tables inside, coffee (which we didn't drink), and the rather odd offering of white bread with a toaster and various jellies and butter. We had already eaten, so we didn't touch any of it. But it was the kind of white bread that makes Wonder look wholesome, so I am not sure we would have touched it anyway, unless we were beyond desperate. Shortly after we arrived, other groups of people started arriving in other vans. It was clear this would not be a small crowd heading out. In fact, it turned out to be enough people to fill two speedboats, each with between 20-30 people aboard. Among those others who arrived, and most notable, were a group of 8-10 French guys, all of whom appeared to be in their early twenties. And all of whom were completely insufferable. Loud, rowdy, macho, obnoxious, and a generally unpleasant spectacle for all. Each of them, with nary an exception, was sporting the aftermath of severe sunburn and molting, which was not surprising, because they were certainly far too cool to actually use sunblock. With only a couple of exceptions, they were all carrying more weight than healthy twenty-something guys should carry, and one could clearly envision what they'll resemble in ten or twenty years' time. I would say "Don't even get me started" but, clearly, I am already on a roll. Let me just tell you one more thing, and then I'll stop. One of the guys had shaved the pattern of a cross out of his lawn of chest hair, in a wide, four-inch (10 centimeter) swath. If they have the concept of frat-boys in France, these guys were it. Regarding all events of the day, it was evident that this Franco-People-Watching would be one of the highlights, like bad reality television.

About a half-hour passed, and the time had finally come to round everyone up and head to the boats. We had surmised that the two different color pieces of yarn that were given to people when they signed in would determine which boat we boarded. And it was clear that the Frenchies had the lime-green yarn just like we did. There would truly be no escaping them. One of the tour guides led everyone over to a station under a tree where they were handing out masks and snorkels, and providing some basic instructions. We didn't require this gear, because we had our own gear, including wet suits. The wet suits, in this climate, are primarily for sun protection, since the water was so warm. It is much easier to snorkel when you don't need to worry about the vast majority of the surface area of your body being burned. In hindsight, as you'll later hear, I wish we owned full-length wetsuits instead of the three-quarter length shorties that we currently have. Why bother exposing any skin at all? As the guide explained some of the instructions, most of the Frenchies were goofing off, and one of them was playing the role of English-to-French translator, though I would venture to guess that there were a total of perhaps 300-400 cerebral neurons firing in response to this information, from among the entire collection of them.

After the gear was dispensed, we started walking toward the dock, which was about 200 meters from the parking lot where we stood. I took that opportunity to ask the tour guide about how much time we would have to snorkel at the Similan Islands. We had been told earlier that it would be 45 minutes at one island and 45 minutes at another island, plus two other stops for lunch and beach. That was a little bit of a disappointment to me, because I had asked for details before booking, and it sounded like it would be possible to have upwards of 2-3 hours in the water. The guide could tell that we were relatively "serious" about the snorkeling, and he shared with us some more information. He said "The snorkeling at Similan is not good. No coral. Not many fish. Not good snorkeling. Good diving. Good snorkeling? Surin Islands? Similan Islands? Bad snorkeling. Good diving."

Um... great. So we are all getting on board a boat, having paid about $80 a head, to do some bad snorkeling on a dead reef? I thought it a bit weird that he elected to tell the two most serious snorkelers in the group that they should expect a lousy experience. I think he was trying to be helpful, but it could have created quite a letdown. I decided that I was not going to be let down by it, because what could we do? We were going to Similan Islands. And it was going to be whatever it was going to be. I'll say more about that in my other blog.

We all boarded the boat, and the 45-60 minute ride to Similan Islands was underway. The Frenchies had spread themselves out either near the bow of the boat, for more sun poisoning, or on the floor of the covered deck, while the rest of us sat on the benches along the sides and back of the boat. The ride was peaceful, but sitting facing sideways while a speedboat powers along can grow tiring after a little while, and it was a relief to finally arrive at the destination.

When we arrived, I am pretty sure that we were two of the first people in the water, of course, because I could not wait to get in there. I am not sure I have mentioned this earlier, but snorkeling is pretty much my favorite activity in the entire world, and I never cease to be amazed at the experience in the water. Being someone with a busy mind, it is a wonder to have discovered one activity where I find myself completely in the moment. As soon as we hit the water, and I looked down, I realized that it was a good thing that I had not become overly distraught about the warnings of poor snorkeling. The scene was good. Lots of fish, and plenty to see. The water was very clear, for the most part. We were close enough to the island that we could go right into the shallower water, where you are much closer to the fish, or stay in the deeper area where it was quickly 20-40 feet. The sea life at Similan was not that much different from what I have seen in Hawaii. Many of the same fish, though there were a few notable additions and subtractions from the bunch. Mostly in the form of different species from within broad categories that are similar between the two places. This primarily manifests as different color patterns on your butterflyfish, wrasses, parrotfish, surgeonfish, damselfish. While it was incredibly stimulating to see those new variations that I had never encountered before, it was equally interesting to see those that were exactly the same. A Bird Wrasse in the Andaman is the same as a Bird Wrasse in the Hawaiian Pacific. There are clearly some stories of evolution and adaptation there.

One thing we saw, which I have only once ever seen elsewhere, and was quite a treat, was an octopus. We were snorkeling in water that was probably 12-15 feet deep. I suddenly noticed the head of the octopus, a pinkish-purple. The head was about six inches in diameter, and the legs extended out maybe a couple of feet. As it swam, its body was this bright color, but then it landed on a head of coral (which did, indeed, appear mostly dead - that much was correct, regarding the coral health), and its body almost instantaneously shifted color to a tannish-gray. Then, when it took to swimming again, the color shifted instantly back to the bright color. How did it do that? Here's a pretty good video that demonstrates pretty much the behavior we observed, in a very similar-looking octopus.

I tend to be a good judge of time, even lost in an activity like snorkeling. It was quite evident that they allowed us a bit longer than the originally promised 45 minutes. We had closer to an hour in the water at this first stop. I was nearly the last one out of the water, though they didn't have to send a search party after me.

The next stop was one of the islands for lunch. The suggested activity was to relax, play on the beach, and wait about 30-45 minutes for the lunch to be served. The alternative option was to do more snorkeling around this island. Of course, this was my choice. The conditions were not very good, but there were still interesting fish to be seen, and it was definitely worth doing it. I spent as much time as possible in the water, and lunch was being served when I came out. Melissa had been waiting in line, and she got food for me. They were serving a variety of Thai dishes in a buffet style. We were surprised, again, that the food was excellent. I would have been satisfied with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a snorkeling trip. They also had plenty of fruit. I went a little bit overboard with the watermelon, since I have what one might call "a watermelon problem."

The post-lunch lounging on beach (in the shade) provided yet more opportunity for watching "Les Idiots" playing in the water. Just thought I'd mention that. 

Back on the boat to the next snorkeling site. Sparing you the details, it was similar in quality to the first one, the major difference being that I think Melissa got out of the water a little earlier this time, so I was on my own for a portion of it. After our 40 minutes at this location, our final stop was at one more island where there was a "big rock" that people could hike up to, and take pictures. It was about a 15 minute hike. Of course, once again, the alternative was "more snorkeling" around the island, and I chose that alternative. This was a very good location, actually, and I was glad to have snorkeled this one last spot, because I saw some things that I had not seen elsewhere. For one, there was a group of 5-6 "sea creatures" that were either cuttlefish or squid, I am still not sure which. They were swimming in a horizontal line, spaced apart from one another by a few feet. Someone subsequently told me that they were probably cuttlefish, because that is the type of relatively intelligent behavior one would expect from them. I also saw a strange variant of a common Hawaiian fish, the Yellow Tang. This one was very similar, but had black splotchy markings on its yellow body. I had never seen one like that before. It's also possible it was just a strange mating variation, or juvenile that was changing color. Who knows? Anyone?

When I got out of the water, I noticed that I had a little bit of sunburn on my legs, probably from the sunscreen washing off after so much time in the water. I had reapplied it after lunch, but it's hard to really know if you're doing a good job or not. We both were trying to stay in the shade at this point. It was probably around 3pm, but the sun was still very hot. 

Finally, we were back on the boat for the ride home. It was more tiring, and even less comfortable to sit in a speedboat on the way home, because the sun had fatigued us, and the swimming around does get the muscles a little bit tired. We were looking forward to returning home and relaxing. I had opted not to change out of my wet suit, which meant that I was damp and a little bit chilled, in spite of the sun. I didn't even take off my reef shoes, which were squishy with water, and also making my feet cold. I am often very stupid like that, and I am not really sure why. We arrived back at the dock probably a little past 5pm, and had the ride back to our hotel, which involved the drop-off of several other parties before us. I just wanted to be done, tired. 

It was a great day, but there comes that point where one is fantasizing about being horizontal. Of course, the French guys spent the entire ride back horizontal on the floor of the boat - lucky them. I had to get in one more dig.

15 January, 2013

Thailand: From Insanity to Tranquility (Tuesday)

Our flight was scheduled for noon, which set us up for a reasonably leisurely morning, though there was not a lot of time to spare, since they recommended leaving for the airport 2.5 hours before scheduled flight time, just in case traffic was bad. This turned out, in every case, to be a gross overestimation of required time, but I imagine the hotels would never want to give a bad suggestion in this area, leading to a guest missing a flight, so they err on extreme side of caution.

When we awoke, there was a note under our door, indicating we had a missed call/message the previous day. The call was apparently from our good friend, the tailor. First off, I didn’t want to deal with it right now. Second, I didn’t want to deal with it right now. So I didn’t. I figured I would call him back later, perhaps when we got to Khao Lak. Perhaps when we got back to Bangkok. Perhaps never?

It was a relief that our taxi driver seemed to be on the up-and-up, turning on his meter, no obvious shenanigans. Though, we were confused on the ride there because the highway system is extremely difficult to comprehend. First of all, the fact that cars drive on the opposite side of the road is endlessly disorienting to us. For instance, when you are in the far right lane, you are in the passing lane. I don’t think we would ever get used to that. In fact, we both commented to each other several times that we could not have imagined needing to drive in Bangkok. Forget it. The other big challenge, of course, is the fact that the road signs are almost entirely in Thai. This will be punctuated, occasionally, with maybe one sign that is in English, for the extremely urgent pieces of information, like “AIRPORT.” But my guess is that, if we were actually driving, those few messages would be insufficient to help one be in the correct lane to make such exits. When he finally took the exit for the airport, which, paradoxically seemed to be the exit toward the direction that did not say “Airport,” we drove for quite a ways on increasingly industrial, progressively more vacant roadways. Of course, we’re starting to wonder where the heck we are going. We knew that Don Mueang was “The Old Airport,” but not “The Abandoned Airport.” After about 5 more minutes, we are clearly in the vicinity of the airport, because there are parking garages, and signs for departures and arrivals, but no cars. The road continues all the way past and around the real estate that seemed like it might be the airport, then loops back and winds its way up some roads that were clearly designed by crazy people, illogical, inefficient. Finally, we emerge from this maze at the departures terminal, where there are suddenly lots of cars. Perhaps we were taken on the long way around to run up a little more meter? Who knows. It was only about 200 BHT to get there, so we weren’t going to sweat it. There is no other way to describe the inside of this airport than “clusterfuck.” There was a very short line, immediately upon entering, where your bag was x-rayed. This created the illusion of a streamlined process. But what really happens is that we were then dumped into a free-for-all long, winding, line, without any signs indicating where the end of the line was, for checking in to AirAsia.com. As an aside, I will note that, for some reason, it makes me uneasy that an airline has “.com” as part of its official name, actually painted on the side of the airplanes. Call me crazy, but I prefer that companies that fly airplanes have a foremost presence of the “physical world” and that their online presence is merely a supporting aspect. Seeing “.com” on the airplane somehow makes me think that maybe they hired the pilots via online signups. Like I said… call me crazy.

After standing in the insane line for 5 minutes, we realized we were not at the start of the insane line, and wandered and wove our way back to the real end of the line, which had probably doubled in its tail since we were standing in the wrong place. Others had to follow us, having made the same error. The only consolation was the fact that we were two hours early for the flight. We made it through security, and were happy to discover a Starbucks in the terminal. I think I have noted elsewhere that, while Starbucks may be a corporate evil of some form, they are also an oasis when traveling in remote places like Bangkok or Minneapolis, when you need coffee. It seems like we must have also hunted for some type of food, and I remember wandering around trying to find snacks. But I’m not sure we found anything. At the gate, with lots of time to spare, we were momentarily excited to discover that the terminal had “free wireless” internet. But, it turned out, the only people who could use it were those who were traveling on “Nok Airlines.” This airline paints their planes so they actually look like cartoon ducks, including a beak on the front of the aircraft. It’s not an actual beak protruding past the front of the aircraft, but a likeness of a beak on the existing nose of the aircraft. This instills even less confidence than having “.com” on the side of the plane, but maybe I’m crazy. I just want my aircraft to be taking itself seriously. So we had no internet. The airplane itself was quite nice, and not uncomfortable. Considering that Asians tend to be smaller than Westerners, it really says something that AirAsia(.com) provides more legroom than United Airlines. The recorded flight safety instructions were delivered in two voices: one was a very formal British sounding man. The other was a woman’s voice that kept wavering between sounding Australian and German (South African?). Odd. I don’t know. Why am I telling you this?

It’s a short flight. Barely an hour, so we were there quite quickly. The approach into Phuket International Airport was kind of pretty. The plane crosses over water first, the Gulf of Thailand. Then it crosses land, and eventually shoots out to the Andaman Sea to make a turn and come back in for landing. We could see the beautiful turquoise water below, while approaching the shoreline. Finding a taxi to Khao Lak, which is over an hour drive, was no problem. Though, once again, I made the foolish mistake of not having come equipped with an address for the driver (what made me think these drivers would know where everything was located). They don’t have GPS, usually, so the chances of them finding anything they don’t already know about is very slim. Our driver was a very friendly young guy, who knew quite a bit of English, and he stopped at a gas station part way there and called a friend who gave him directions to the hotel we were staying at, the Khao Lak Riverside Resort and Spa. The ride north from the airport took almost an hour and a half. He did drive fast, and reasonably recklessly. But, compared to Bangkok standards, and with the much sparser traffic in this area, the ride was relaxing and safe. Compared to Bangkok, again, the scenery was completely different. We passed fields, followed by forest, rural scenery, occasional small towns with shops and restaurants, animals in the fields. A much different view of Thailand than what we’d seen in the city. It was really like two separate vacations.

As we got nearer to our destination, it became evident that “Khao Lak” is spread out across a few separate towns over about an 8-10 mile span of the highway. All three of these towns will refer to themselves as Khao Lak, when it comes to tourist information you’ll find online. But only one of the three is Khao Lak proper (the southern-most one, I believe). There’s not much of a consequence of this, other than it means one needs to take a taxi for about 300 BHT ($10) if you want to visit either of the other two Khao Laks.
After branching off the highway (which is really just a 2-lane road) down a narrow side street, we started to feel like we were likely to get lost, but somehow the driver got us to our destination, stopping briefly to ask out the window to someone for further direction. We arrived at Khao Lak Riverside resort, and it was just like the pictures on Trip Advisor. A very European-style establishment, with a main building containing a common dining area, in an open-air environment, and then a separate building that contained what must have been maybe 16 units? I really have to share a picture with you, because I don’t think it will be possible to appreciate the place without seeing it.

We were greeted by one of the hosts, Markus, a German man who looked to be in his late 50s or early 60s, with a gray pony tail. I might as well show you a picture of him too.

He welcomed us, formally, and asked us the standard check-in questions, and where are we from, etc. When we told him, he noted that there were an unusually high number of Americans staying there at this time. It seems, from our subsequent info, that it was mostly Europeans staying there. Without much ado, he led us back to our room, and gave us a tour of the room and its amenities, including some suggestions and guidelines. Very formal. The room had lots of dark wood, which really was reminiscent of places I stayed in Germany. The doors were narrow, tall wooden doors, with small dark metal knobs. The “king-size” bed actually is comprised of two double beds adjacent within a single large frame. That was standard protocol in all the hotels I visited in Germany. We would repeatedly joke that we weren’t even staying in Thailand. We were staying in a German outpost on a Thai beach.

Markus also introduced us to his colleague, Bruno, another German. He was a little more laid back than Markus, but still I must say that I felt immediately slightly uneasy around both of them. For kicks, here’s a photo of Bruno, since I have decided now’s the time for photos of everyone (I’m just snatching these from the internet, violating all sorts of copyrights).

During check-in, we asked Markus if there were any restaurants he could recommend. This was the first of the strange awkwardness that would ultimately color our impression of the experience. His response was that he wasn’t really familiar with any of the restaurants in the area, except for what his guests tell him, but that he could recommend his wife’s Thai restaurant on the beach about 10 minutes away, and that they would happily take us there in their own private Tuk Tuk. So, there were two pieces of this which were strange. First, how can someone live in a small “village” and have no familiarity with the restaurants in the area? Second, although he said the only info he had was from his guests, he did not even hint at being willing to offer that information which his guests apparently give him. In other words, he wants his guests to eat at his wife’s restaurant. Seemed weird and rigid, but we actually decided to take him up on the offer, if for no other reason than it might have actually been great, as had all of our prior dining experiences. So we said yes and, after settling in with our bags briefly, we headed to the lobby and they arranged a ride up the road for us to the restaurant.

It was a 5 minute ride down a quiet, tree-lined road. We were greeted by two friendly dogs who ran out to the street, excited to see us. They were followed by a Thai woman, calling after the dogs, and apologizing to us for their behavior, which wasn’t really a problem at all. We deduced that this must be Markus’s wife. She brought us in to her restaurant, which consisted of a covered porch for dining, facing the beach, but set back quite a distance from the water. There was a main building where I guess the cooking took place. Almost immediately upon arrival, we noticed a tiny creature on the ground, against the wall of the house. At first it looked like a kitten, but it turned out to be a puppy, clearly from one of the dogs who greeted us. It was extremely young, maybe 6 weeks or so, and it could barely walk. There would be petting, but not yet. Must resist for now.

Having been in Thailand for a whopping 72 hours without getting ill, we both ordered Thai iced coffee. Still I don’t know why we were so confident. We also ordered Fried Spring Rolls, Red Curry, and Tom Ka Gai. The coffee arrived, and it was horrible. I most certainly could not be classified as “Thai” iced coffee. It could best be described as weak coffee ice, and a small amount of milk. Not a good sign. Next came the spring rolls which, you’ll be surprised to hear, were probably the best spring rolls I had eaten in my entire life, up to that point. So, at that point, we were in a state of mixed reviews, and unclear expectation of what would come next. Sure enough, what came next were two dishes that looked identical: (1) a bowl of orange, soup-like substance, the Tom Ka Gai, and (2) a bowl of orange, soup-like substance, the Red Curry. They both looked identical and had the exact same consistency. I have had curries in the past which have been on the “soupier” side. And those tend to be at places that don’t serve good curries. I thought it was acceptable, but if you went to a hospital cafeteria and received this, you’d probably have said “It’s pretty good for a hospital cafeteria.” I didn’t try the soup, but word on the street is that it was “not good.” I believe the exact quote was “This is not good.”

While we were eating, a group of four Americans, in their late 50s (or early 60s?) also arrived at the restaurant (they were sent here by Markus, too, of course). They were very friendly, and introduced themselves, and we chatted quite a bit. I think at least two of them were from Minneapolis. Apparently, this was their second time at the restaurant, because they’d been the previous day, and they absolutely loved it. Of course, our interpretation of that was “Minnesotans wouldn’t know good Thai food if they were being cooked into the dishes themselves.” One of the women, the friendliest one, acquired the puppy and was holding it for a good part of the meal. The puppy was just lying there in her arms sleeping. Eventually, she put the puppy down, at which time, I decided to take a turn with the puppy. It was so tiny, and it had clearly been weaned too soon, because it was attempting to suck on my finger. A good time was had by all.
One of the adult dogs started barking for whatever reason, the way dogs sometimes get the idea in their head that they must bark. Markus’s wife ran over and chastised the dog in a lengthy discussion in Thai. She made several mock-threatening gestures while yelling, playfully, at the dog, who had collapsed into the sand and was acting completely submissive. Everyone at the restaurant and the neighboring massage stand was laughing, because it was rather entertaining.

Eventually it became time to go. There was an option of walking back along the beach, which was tempting, but the tide was in pretty far, and we weren’t dressed for going waist deep, at that point. So we opted to walk along the road a little way, after which we identified another opportunity to go down toward the beach, which we took. We walked into the water, and it was like a bathtub. It had to have been around 82-84 degrees. It is said that the water in the Andaman doesn’t go much above 84 degrees, so this had to be that. I have not experienced ocean water warmer than this. Our trek back was through the hot sun. We may or may not have put on any sunblock, so we were walking back consciously aware that we didn’t want to spend too much time in the hot sun. There were people playing in the water, and lying on the sand. There were massage stands with people being massaged in the shade. There were beachfront cafes and bars with a few people here and there. After walking a little while, we started to realize that we didn’t really know where the turn was to head away from the beach to our hotel. It was set back from the shore quite a distance, and everything along the entire beach looked the same. As we wandered aimlessly, we passed by a massage stand, in thatched huts, and they called out to us “You want massage?!” What the hell… yes, we do. We requested, once again, the 30 minutes of foot/leg plus 30 minutes of shoulder and back. These massages were not as good as the ones in Bangkok, but you can never really complain about having someone massage you for roughly $10 an hour.

The sun was just beginning its earnest descent, as we were finishing up the massage. There was probably still another hour or so of light, but the clouds to the west made for early colors in the sky. We could see the light through the trees inland, and figured out where our hotel was. But it was not a straight shot to get there, because there were all sorts of obstacles: a dirt parking lot with motorbikes, a fence, a river, capsized boats, etc. We finally figured out where the actual path was, and then it was an easy enough 3 minute walk to the back of the hotel grounds.

I wanted to check out the swimming pool before commencing our evening activities, whatever those would turn out to be. The water in this pool was extremely warm, because it was fully exposed to the sunlight, and positioned in such a way that it would virtually never be in shadow of anything. I’m not sure it was as warm as the ocean, surprisingly, but it was more than warm enough. There were only two other people in the pool. One was an American in his twenties. The other was a middle-aged European man with a barrel chest, and scraggly hair. I couldn’t place his accent. It was something eastern. Romanian? Greek? Russian? Polish? I wasn’t really sure. He was telling stories, and the American was mostly listening. He was talking about the old days. Something about a rock club, and a DJ, and a sound system, and technical problems. And then it moved to discussing unemployment in Europe. And then it moved to discussing people and culture in general in Europe. He was doing 99% of the talking, and you could tell he enjoyed listening to himself pontificate. He spent a fair amount of time disparaging upon Romania, which threw me off a bit, because I think he may have actually been Romanian, and was trash-talking his own country. Otherwise, he was pretty racist.

After swimming around for a while, I got out. I think Melissa had been showering, or maybe she was by the pool watching it all. Yes, I think that’s what it was. But I don’t recall if she got in the pool this time or not. We took some pictures of the sunset, which I think I posted on Facebook, so I won’t post them again here. Apologies to the few random readers who stumble upon this and don’t have the photos available. Then I took some time-lapse photos of myself while waiting for her to shower. This is what weird people do when they have free time.

At some point that day, I can’t remember when, we had “Weird Encounter #2” with Markus. We went to the lobby and asked him if we could please have the English version of the hotel pamphlet with the guest information, since our room had been stocked with the German version. And there was some other issue that arose, where we needed to ask for Bruno’s help figuring out how to do something in the room, which ended up being obvious, and I think we figured it out. I don’t know. I pretty much just felt like an idiot every time I spoke with them. Asking for the English version of the info resulted in us getting a look like we are stupid, pain-in-the-neck Americans.

During whatever interactions we had, it was also mentioned that on a couple of nights, the hotel hosts a Thai dinner, for something like 500 BHT per person, or maybe even more. Might have been 650 BHT. That might not sound like much ($15-20) but it was wildly out of whack with the price of food at any or all restaurants we’d seen during our entire trip. Given that Markus had already, in a sense, “tourist-trapped” us into his wife’s crappy restaurant, we pretty much decided that we were not going to get “on board” with any more of his “recommendations.” I suspect that our avoidance of these dinners contributed to the generally cold reception we received from him, progressively more so each day.

So, for dinner, we wandered on foot into the nearest portion of the town, about a 10 minute walk along a couple of quiet roads. It was dark, but there were a fair number of streetlights. I think we’d brought a flashlight in case, but it wasn’t really required. As we passed by various shops, particularly the “fashion tailors,” we were accosted, albeit in friendly fashion, with the various shop owners beseeching us to come and let them fit us for something. Nope. Not gonna happen. We’d read online about the various restaurant options, and one that had sounded pretty good was called “Green Pepper,” so we sought it out, and found it without too much difficulty. It was another open-air restaurant with a large thatched roof. There was mostly covered dining, but some uncovered tables as well. It was crowded, which seemed to be a good sign.
We ordered our meals, which included some type of apple salad, Panang curry (of course), and I think she had some type of noodle dish. There were many different servers, and two of them had badges that said “trainee.” One of the trainees was a young girl who was probably only 14 or 15 years old. She was mostly wandering around cluelessly, and not really helping anyone. She smiled a lot, made mistakes, dropped things, and followed other servers around. After we ordered, about ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Then thirty. Nobody was coming to our table, and no food was arriving. The problem was there was a table of about 20 people, with 16 children, who had arrived probably just before us, and the kitchen was completely overwhelmed with their order. We (and others) had to wait until that entire party was served before any of our meals would be prepared. When it got to be close to 45 minutes, I guess enough of the staff had noticed that it was getting awkward. One of the servers who seemed to be in charge came over and apologized, and promised us rather frantically that our food would be coming very soon. We didn’t really care that much about the wait, other than because we were hungry. But it’s not like we were in a hurry to be anywhere.
After a little more delay, the food finally arrived, and it was, once again, amazing. We had half expected it to be mediocre, given the fact that they seemed to also cater to non-Thai cuisines (the menu was about 50% Thai dishes, and 50% more Western or German themed items like schnitzel). But it was really good and everyone there was extremely nice.

After dinner, we wandered around a tiny bit, part of the way along the section of road we hadn’t yet visited to see if there were any interesting shops. There really weren’t. Just a few quiet touristy stands selling the standard clothing, t-shirts, trinkets. We were tired and eventually walked back to the hotel.
I don’t even know if I stayed awake for 10 minutes before I was unconscious.

14 January, 2013

Thailand: Palaces and ping-pong (Monday)

We awoke with a plan to hit the Grand Palace as early as possible. Get there as fast as possible (taxi). See it. Then move on to something else. I don’t think we were jetlagged, but both of us had sore, tired backs from so much walking around the previous day. The hotel called a taxi for us (I don’t even recall what we did regarding food – in fact, we may have skipped breakfast). The taxi took us to the Grand Palace. But, as we arrive, something isn’t quite right. Because we’d been here yesterday, briefly, we had a vague lay of the land. The taxi was not dropping us at the main entrance. That’s weird. We get out of the taxi, and all we see around us is an entrance gate guarded by someone who looks like a guard, along with a rather seedy looking man who starts walking toward us as soon as we get out of the taxi. The man approaches and says “Temple is not open this morning! Close for special Buddhist monk ceremony! Temple open at noon!” We’re both thinking “What the fuck? When is the temple actually open?” But it doesn’t sound right. He starts telling us that what we should do is go with a Tuk Tuk driver (who happens to be sitting right there) and see Wat Arun (which we did actually want to see), plus several other stops along the river, via boat. And he tells us it will cost us 2400 BHT (that’s $80 US). We are 100% sure that this was complete bullshit, and we flatly said no. He continued debating with us, but it was really just a matter of finally walking away, which we were going to do. As we’re momentarily trapped in this discussion, a couple of Western tourists walk by and look at us, smile and shake their heads, which we both interpret as a warning that our suspicions were correct. Without much more meaningless conversation, we escape, and walk the 300 meters to the actual Grand Palace entrance. And, wouldn’t you know it? It’s open. Not closed for Buddhist monk ceremony. This sends off a flashback to the previous day, and we both realize that the story we were told about the temple being closed from 12-2pm the previous day was also a crock of shit. No matter what you want to do, they’ll start their scam by telling you that the thing you actually want is closed, for a little while. Since you are left with the vacuum of “What are we gonna do now?” it’s the perfect vulnerability to suggestions. Thus begins the tourist trap. We learned our (costly) lesson, and would (mostly) not get taken again.

I hope I don’t disappoint you too much when I start by telling you that the Grand Palace, and its associated campus, was really not all that interesting to me. Yes, the architecture was sort of cool. There were many beautiful tiled buildings and structures, with ornate patterns and colors. There were, again, many gold Buddha statues (or statues of other entities that I cannot identify). We went into the building that houses the famed “Emerald Buddha” (which is actually made of jade). It’s one of the smallest buddhas that we saw the entire trip, except for the ones you buy in the souvenir section (okay, I am exaggerating, but it was definitely underwhelming). And it was surrounded by a whole bunch of gold stuff, whose significance we didn’t understand, because I decided not to pay extra for the audio tour. Probably would have been a good idea to have tried to learn something, but I guess I just wasn’t in a learning frame of mind. Shame on me. We looked at a bunch of the more “temple-like” things, and then looked at some of the more “palace-like” things, between breaks of resting our low backs, which were both hurting. There were some spears and swords, which were not as impressive as what you’d see from medieval Europe or Roman times. There were some old rifles, which were not interesting in the least. Then, the parts of the palace buildings we were allowed to visit really had nothing of great significance or intrigue to view. The most interesting part of the experience, in truth, was watching the behavior of tourists from different parts of the world.

After a couple of hours, we’d both had enough of the palace, and food had become a priority. We decided to make our way in the same general direction, toward Khao San Road, as we had the previous day. Instead, we didn’t quite get our bearings correct, and ended up walking closer to the river, for a while, passing through a university campus. Finally, after asking directions, we realized we were closer to being on track than we thought, and again made it to the general vicinity of Khao San Road, starving. Rather than keep looking around, we stopped in the first crowded restaurant we could find. This one was an actually sit-down, indoor establishment, with a mixture of tourists and some locals. We both had Thai iced coffee, pretty much deciding to not worry about the ice anymore, which I know seems ridiculous but, for what it’s worth, I’ll fast forward and tell you that neither one of us got sick the entire trip. I had Phad Sie Eew, which was great. Melissa had Green Curry Fried Rice and it was good too. The food was very good. It’s true that we were starving, but it was still very good. We’d eaten nothing but good food so far. I would tell you the name of the restaurant, but it was only written in Thai, so I have no idea what it was called. There’s a chance I could spot it on a map, based the landmarks around there. It may or may not have been located on Soi Muban Sri Pramot, a little bit southeast of the Chaloem Maha Nakhon Expressway. If that helps you at all.

After lunch, we made our way, in the scorching heat, back to Khao San Road, to wander around and explore some more. It was less enticing this time, having seen it once before. Melissa vaguely shopped for gifts, but we weren’t really seeing much interesting, and my patience for it tanked pretty quickly. We wandered back through the backpackers’ village, down the winding semi-road, finding the stand where we’d bought the mango sticky rice the day before. More mango sticky rice, of course. We sat on a step in front of a nail shop, in semi-shade, eating the mango sticky rice. Hot. Maybe it was 2pm?

We’d had enough of the heat for now, and the idea of lounging by the pool at the hotel for a while seemed appealing. I guess we must have taken a taxi there, though I don’t recall the ride or even where we hailed the taxi from. The plan: yoga followed by swimming pool. We were going to do yoga together. But when we got there, Melissa had been hoping that I would “teach” a class for us. I was not willing to do it. I’ve done it before, at home, and actually enjoyed it. But I was being difficult. It was a combination of feeling strangely “shy” about doing it in a room where someone could have entered, along with just generally being in a jerky mood. That’s probably a topic for the other blog, but the two sentence version of it is that I was reasonably unpleasant to be around for the first several days of the trip. This has happened before when I’ve traveled. I don’t know if it’s, again, the handling of unvoiced anxiety coming out as edgy mood. Or if it’s something else. But I digress. Melissa sat by the pool in the sun, and I did yoga by myself. It was most of a Hatha series, about 50 minutes, with a few exclusions. This was the last time that I did yoga on the trip (just giving you advanced notice, so you don’t think that I was all disciplined and practicing every day – it would be nice to say I was, but I didn’t make time for it). After the yoga, there was the pool. Not warm, considering it is so hot in Bangkok. Perhaps they cool the water? Or perhaps it stays cooler because much of the pool is sheltered from the sun, even though it’s a partly-outdoor pool. It was probably about 75 degrees (that, to me, is cold). I swam some laps, and lamented (privately) the fact that my shoulder (the one that gives me trouble in yoga) gave me trouble swimming, straightaways. That had historically been an issue for me, but I always hope that these things might magically go away. No such luck.

It was becoming early evening, and we must have showered, and lounged around for a bit, before going to dinner. Though there are plenty of amazing street foods to choose from, we wanted to try an actual restaurant with a name that we could read and remember. That, of course, requires the likes of Yelp! or Trip Advisor. We searched somewhere on the internet, and found one named Taling Pling, recommended on a few different sites. Our constraints were that it a) had to be Thai food, b) we didn’t want a touristy location, and c) we didn’t want a hotel restaurant. So, we told the concierge that we’d like a taxi to Taling Pling, and he calls a taxi, and gives the driver directions. It is on Silom Soi 13. What that means is that, if you go down the main street named Silom, there will be a cross street, Soi 13. The restaurant should be on that street. The taxi driver hadn’t heard of the restaurant. He kept repeating the name over and over, as such: “Saling Ping… Saling Ping…” He didn’t speak much English, but he seemed to suggest that if he hadn’t heard of this place, it must not be very good. He asked if we wanted to go to a real restaurant, or something to that effect. At this point, we had already begun learning not to trust the taxi drivers, so we just said “Taling Pling.” We were riding down Silom, after what seemed like driving in circles and going the wrong direction (in fact, at first, we were sure he was taking us the wrong direction, but then it became evident that one way streets mandated looping around to head in the correct direction). He finds Soi 13 and turns down the road. There were a couple of restaurants at the top of the street. But not Taling Pling. He keeps driving, repeating aloud “Saling Ping… Saling Ping… Saling Ping…” as he drives 3 miles per hour on this street which has quickly become a shady looking street with no shops and not a soul to be seen. Both of us are getting suspicious now that we’re being played again. He gets to the end of the street and turns onto a main road, stops on the side, and says “No Saling Ping...” So what do we do now? It’s supposed to be here. He begins backing up on the main road, which would seem unsafe if this weren’t Bangkok, where everything the vehicles do is completely unsafe. Melissa wants an answer from me as to what we’re going to do, with one of the possibilities clearly being to get out and run for our lives, since perhaps this is not a good situation. I am inclined to sit and wait this one out and see what happens, which doesn’t please her, but she complies. He backs up further, and drives back up Soi 13, which seems pointless because there was clearly no Taling Pling or Saling Ping, or anything of the sort. He again drives 3 miles per hour. I’ve secretly decided that all he needs to do is get us back to Silom, and we’ll get out and devise a plan B. There are other restaurants around, for sure. As we arrive back at the top of Soi 13, Melissa looks up and sees a sign on the corner building that reads (in English!) “Taling Pling – new location – Soi 15.” On the one hand, this is great news, because it means we are alright, but it is a little disconcerting that there’s a message in English, because it probably means this is a tourist restaurant, not a place locals would go. He drove us the couple extra blocks to Soi 15, and there it is: what looks like an upscale small shopping mall with fashion clothing shops and other upscale Western stores. And there’s a sign that reads “Taling Pling Plaza #3” or something of that sort. Okay, that’s what it’s gonna be. We walked through the parking lot to the restaurant, which was definitely touristy looking, with a very modern, upscale interior. Seriously, the entire block, shops, restaurant, and all, looked like it was cut out of the Kirkland waterfront and plopped on the corner of a street in Downtown Bangkok. The tables around us were mostly occupied by Westerners. We thought we heard Australian accents, Scottish accents. The good news, if you can believe it, was that the food was excellent. Again. We had some sort of spicy beef dish as an appetizer. Melissa ordered some type of salad (her goal was to order something she’d never had before). I think I had Panang Curry again. I’d made a decision that I wanted to sample every Panang Curry that I could possibly find, so I would return from Thailand an expert in Panang. Whatever that means.

After dinner, we decided to walk for a bit, along Silom Road. After about 5-10 minutes of walking, we stumbled upon a night market on one of the side streets. We weren’t sure what it was, at first, but it was very, very big. So we decided to explore. As we approached, someone called out to us “You want watch ‘ping-pong show’?” And it suddenly became clear that we were at the infamous Patpong market. This is a seedy, bustling market full of deals, scams, and sex clubs. Every corner you turn, something is in your face, whether it be 12-year old exotic dancers, a Thai cover band playing Blondie’s “Heart of Glass" (perfectly, I should note), or an array of “knock-off” goods, in one of several hundred (or thousand) stalls. Walking through the market, one feels a simultaneous sense of overwhelm, curiosity, and disgust. We spent about a half-hour winding our way through the place, before we’d had enough. Maybe it was me that had enough, I’m not sure. At any rate, we left.

The final installment of the evening’s events was the always sketchy process of finding a taxi. First driver we saw refused to use his meter, so we ditched him. I believe we then found a driver who was willing to play by the rules, and made it home, tired.

Thus ends Round 1 of Bangkok. Tomorrow, we wake up and head to the airport (Don Mueang Airport) to fly Air Asia domestic flight to Phuket International Airport. I feel ready to move onward.