Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Me, Myself, and Thailand

I woke up the morning of my flight to Bangkok and realized I hadn't planned or booked anything for Thailand. I had been so used to traveling with people and figuring it out as we went, but here I was....going to a new country all alone. I hadn't read up on the culture, the currency, or how to get into the city from the airport. All of a sudden a wave of anxiety went through me. I whipped out the Lonely Planet and read up on everything on the flight in.

I think I was more nonchalant with Thailand because I had heard it was an easy country. They have been catering to tourism for decades and it was a comfortable destination for a lot of travelers. In fact, according to the guide book, it is a great country to start off your SE Asia journey. Exotic yet comfortable enough to get your barrings straight. Well....looks like I did SE Asia backwards then. I arrived to last country to visit in SE Asia.

It was actually a bit of a travelers high landing in a foreign country at 10pm with no accomodation. I hailed a cab and told him to take me to a popular backpacking strip in the city. I had heard a few horrors stories about cabs scamming you for more money, so I instantly wrote down all of his numbers and licensing information. My Grandmother Galant's adamant philosophy of "Trust No One" kicked in. Like I had been awhile since I was alone and I was a little more paranoid then usual.

But alas....I made it safely to the inner city. I walked around the streets for a bit pricing out different hotels. I had really lived it up in the Philippines with the Boyce's home and nice hotel in for some reason I decided to stay in a shit hole to bring me back down to "backpacker" status. For about $4 a night I found a room that was about the size of my closet at home and all it contained was a bed. No trashcan, no night table...nada. Just a bed with a bottom sheet on it. There was a communal bathroom downstairs that didn't look like it had been cleaned in a few weeks. I even did an experiment to prove the point to myself. I put a couple strands of my hair on the shower wall and it never moved during my 3 days of staying there. I knew that most of the nastiness on the walls had been there for quite some time. Needless to was gross and brought me back down to my dirty backpacking ways.

My first day in Bangkok was so refreshing. I was completely on my own in this very large and dynamic city. I spent hours walking the streets. There is a famous street called Khoa San Road, which is where all the backpackers hangout. It is a site in itself, with 100s of tourists walking around and vendors selling all sorts of crafts. Music is blaring from every bar and restaurant and you could get any type of food from around the world. There is a mix of hippies, backpackers, holiday goers, sex tourists, families, couples, and anyone else in between walking througout this area. I spent some time there sipping on fresh fruit smoothies and people watching. Near Khoa San Road there is this major holy area....its basically like the Vatican City, but for Thai Buddhists. A lot of people come here for there religious pilgrimage. In the sweltering heat, I wandered my way to the area. Apparently you can't have your legs showing within the temple walls, so I was given this thick sarong to wrap around my waiste. I already had pit sweat all the way down to my abdomin so you can imagine how thrilled I was to put more clothes on. I joined the mass crowds into the area and was overtaken with tall golden stupas in every direction. The design, architecture, colors, and statues are so different then that of the christian religions. If I wasn't so hot I could have spent a lot more time looking at everything. The most famous site in the area is the Emerald Buddha. There was a really long line coming outside of the temple to get a glance of the Buddha. I was starting to get in an ornery mood from the heat and crowds, but decided I better take a look at it since I was here. When I finally made it inside the temple I was overtaken by the site. The Buddha was not very large, which surprised me. But it was high above everyone pearing down over its believers. Surrounding the buddha was what seemed like 100s of golden statues and other Buddhas. For a few moments of time, I forgot about the sweat and the crowds and stared in amazement around me.

After the heat stroke that I almost had in the holy area, I decided to check out the shopping district and mega malls since they had airconditioning. I hopped in a tuk-tuk and had one of the neatest 40 minute rides. As we flew through the city streets we passed by schools, hospitals, and neighborhood districts. We weren't in the tourist part of town anymore and it was really neat to look down the ally ways and see the workings of daily life. One thing that really stuck out to me was the immense propaganda for the Thai Royal family. On every street corner and in each business there were pictures of the King and Queen. There are even stores where you can buy Royal Family parafanalia like lifesize cardboard figures. Thailand is a constitutional Monarchy and according to Wikapedia, The king has reigned for more than sixty-three years, making him the longest reigning Thai Monarch and the longest reigning current monarch in the world. It appears that the people really respect the Royal Family and it is really frowned upon to disgrace them. I read in the papers about an extreme activist being inprisoned for saying malicious remarks regarding the King. Here is a picture of a sign of the Queen overlooking a major intersection.

The shopping district was pretty impressive with modern mega malls and cinemaplexis. Coincidentaly I found my favorite make-up store, MAC, in one of the malls and I happend to be low on my concealer. MAC was right next to The Outback Steakhouse. I couldn't imagine eating at an Outback in Thailand with all of the good local food around. Another surprise was the Dairy Queen I stumbled across. I am not sure about you, but I pretty much thought there were only Dairy Queens in small rural Texas towns. so when I stumbled across one in the middle of Bangkok I had to indulge myself. I try to steer clear of the western food chains, but DAIRY QUEEN?? Seriously? Needless to say, the western culture had leaked in all around me.

Watching movies in foreign countries is a weird pleasure of mine because I like to see how their movie theatre experience is and it gives me a few hours that I can vegg out. The only English speaking movie at that time was one called The Orphan. I bought the ticket and then walked past a billboard for it to then realize it was a scary movie. Greeaaaatt....nothing like being alone and watching a horror film. So on the ticket was a seat number. There were only about 5 people in the theater, but the usher walked me to my correct seat number and motioned for me to sit down. The previews were absolutely hilarious. In between an American film preview, they would show a Japanese film preview. It was always these intense martial art fight scenes and then a moment of saddness and despair as they zeroed in on one of the characters dramatic eyes...BACK to the kung fu drop kicks....then slow, melodramatic music as one of the men dies. Symbols of the language were flying across the screen which I did not understand, but somehow I knew exactly what they were saying by the emotional faces. After the previews, a sign on the screen read "Please pay respects to your royal majesty". Everyone stood up in the theater. The Thai National Anthem started playing as a photo montage of the King was presented on the screen. I quickly stood up to pay my respects and not stick out like a stupid Farang...or (white tourist). Who could have imagined all the cultural experience in simply going to a movie. In between my travels through Bangkok, I managed to see not 1, but 4 movies :) and I ate Dairy Queen twice....shhhhh!

I had heard from a few travelers that a town in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, was a really good place to chill out for a few days. I bought a ticket for a 15 hour sleeper train in 2nd class. This meant there was no A/C, but I would have a fan. Now is probably a good time to bring you up on my latest bowel movement issues. I know...I know...some of you cringe when I bring up my bathroom situations, but it is amazing how big a part it is in traveling...well, at least my traveling anyhow. So my last few days in Laos and through my 2 weeks in Philippines I had been batteling constipation. I still can't decide which is worse, diahrea or constipation and I suppose it is all relative on the specific situation and/or location. But needless to say....a lot of food was going in me and not a lot was coming out. That always puzzles me. Well, for whatever reason...perhaps it was the spicy chicken soup I ate an hour beforehand, my stomach gave me a nice haunting rumble the moment I boarded the train and we departed the station. I immediatly chewed 3 pepto tablets and sent happy thoughts to my tummy convincing myself that mind over matter could solve this problem. The rumbles, which felt more like birthing contractions, came about every 4 minutes. I had even gotten to the point where I was counting the seconds on my watch to get me through each session. Sweat was running down my face and I knew there was going to be a date with the bathroom at some point along the journey. Finally, after about 3 hours of trying to remain calm, I made my way to the 2nd class bathroom. It, of course, was a squat toilet. I had gotten to a bad point of being sick and tried to do what I could to feel better. The "squatting" position wasn't working for me to well because being that far down sent a wave of nausia through me. In the midst of it all, we passed a street light and I saw the light come up from the hole I was peering down. Turns out the squat hole went right down onto the tracks.....I felt bad for whatever town we were passing through. Chills were going through my body and my stomach was hurting uncontrollably. I wanted so bad to lay on the ground and wait for the next round of contractions, but this was not the type of bathroom floor you could lay down on. I grabbed onto the "oh shit" handle that they had next to the hole since the train is constantly moving all over and hung there like dead weight. I started crying......I knew this moment would pass, but it was such an unfortunate situation that all I could do was cry and wimper to myself. After being in the bathroom for about an hour, I felt that the worst of it was over. I walked back outside and glanced at myself in the looked as if I had just taken a shower with my clothes on from all the sweat. Fortunetaly though, the rest of the train ride I was able to sleep...
It was Sunday when I arrived to Chiang Mai, and that is the day for its weekly night market. The town center was filled with vendors of all types. At the start of the market there was an announcement through city wide speakers and everyone stopped and became silent. Then the National Anthem began and I realized it was another "majesty respect" moment. I was beginning to get used to this custom. The market was really neat because it wasn't a market for tourists....but for the locals. Yes, there were other tourists around, but 95% were other Thais. They had everything from art work, jewelry, clothes, furniture, and foods. Behind the vendor stalls were rows and rows of chairs with people getting foot massages. For $2 I got a fantastic foot rub while watching the streams of people shopping in front of me. There were street perfomers of all kinds....musicians, mimes, and dancers. Some people were disabled or blind playing instruments. I noticed the locals giving them all money. It was a lovely first evening in Chiang Mai and I got a really good vibe for the city.
The next day I scouted out the town and found a yoga studio that had really good prices. I had been craving to excercise these past few months and decided this would be the perfect time for yoga. I took a yoga class each day I was there and it felt really good to do something positive for my body.
One night, I decided to buy a ticket to a Muay Thai fight. I am not really into violence and fighting, but this is a big part of the Thai culture and I wanted to see what it was all about. It actually turned out to be a really unique experience. There was this sense of spirituality and ceremonial practice that coincided with the seemed much more then just aggressive violence. Before each match, the fighter does what is called the Ram Muay ritual dance. It is like this aesthetic, dance-like ritual, which seemed to last about five minutes. There was a live band next to the ring that would play music during the ritual and fight. The tempo would change in accordance to what was happening in the ring. It was really awesome! There were a total of 8 fights which included fighters aged 11 to 30 something and even some woman as well. Each fighter had their own strategy and style....some fights started off intense from round 1 while others worked there way into it. I sat next to the bookies and was able to watch them gamble on each match. It was a very entertaining evening.
While in Chiang Mai I also decided to take a cooking course for a day. I know nothing about cooking, but surprisingly it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. We started out at an open market where my teacher, Boom, taught us about thai foods. We bought all of our fresh ingredients that we were going to cook with that day. We cooked up 8 courses and I learned all about the different sauces and vegetables. I can't wait to cook some of those things when I get back to Austin. The picture below is of me in cooking action....I almost singed the eyebrows off the girl next to me. Who wants to come over for dinner when I'm cooking????
There is this place called the Tiger Kingdom where you can go and play with live tigers. I had never been up close and personal with a tiger before so I fell into the tourist trap and paid a lot of money to hang out with them for 30 minutes. It was pretty cool and I got some neat photos, however, you always have to ask yourself how right the situation is that the tigers are being captive for tourist enjoyment. On a positive note, the area they were in was clean and roomy and all the tigers looked healthy. The trainers treated them kindly from what I could tell..... Then my tuk-tuk driver took me to a place called the "snake farm". Contrary to the tiger kingdom, this place would have had PETA up in arms. It was one of the weirdest yet entertaining experiences I have had in a long time. First of all, there were no other tourists there. Just me. There was this stadium type show room where they did snake performances. Before the show, I walked around the area to view weird exotic animals, reptiles, and birds locked in busted up cages. Finally, it was show time and since I was the only tourist there all eyes were on me. I sat down and watched in weird amazement as these Thai men taunted and flung deadly snakes around the room. The host of the show was this short little man who had the weirdest english accent. Almost like he studied english from a radio advertisement personality. He turned on some denomic techno music really loud and then after about 5 seconds he would turn the music down and say something like "snake is very poisonous". Then turn the music up loud, then turn it down again and say "snake can kill you", then music up again...down again... "5 hours from hospital we are" up and down.. "very very poisonous"....this went on throughout the entire show and I wasn't sure what was more entertaining....the snakes or the weird announcer guy. They definitely did some crazy stuff like kissing cobras on the back or catching the snakes with their teeth. It was weird.....very very weird. After the show my tuk-tuk driver asked me if I wanted to go see the monkey show, but I just told him to take me back to my guesthouse. I had seen enough bizarre animal stuff for one day.

I had been riding solo for a few days and I decided that it was time for some socializing. I decided to go to this bar that was famous for its live music. It's kind of funny, but one of the hardest things for me to do is to walk into a bar all alone and hang out. It's not like anyone is meeting me there or I know where I am or what I am is just me walking into a weird black hole of unknowningness. I get real self conscious, which is silly, but that is how I feel. Anyways, there I was drinking a beer and jamming out to some tunes while I looked around to everyone else in their groups having conversations. I scanned the room and found another girl chilling by herself as well. I sayed hi to her and asked her some stupid question about the band to start conversation. Turned out she was alone too so we started chatting it up. A group of french guys sat next to me to share my table and we started chatting as well. They bought tequila shots for everyone and that is when the party started. Before I knew it, I was on the dance floor hanging out with tons of people I hardly knew. The night went on and on and eventually I went to a lounge next door to sit down and drink some water. I ended up chatting with a group of local people. One was a lady boy who took the night off.....she/he was dressed as a man, but had the same mannerisms as a female. Normally she dresses as a woman, though. I also met a local Thai girl named Nine, we got along really well and we ended up hanging out for a few days as she showed me around the city. I went out not knowing any one, but had local friends by the end of the night.
Nine was 31 but looked a few years younger then that. She left her small village and poor family in her early 20s to move to the big city. She found a job and saved money and put herself through school. She spoke decent English and was very intelligent. She loves photography and is now studying to be a photographer. We had a lot of fun together and if I stayed in Chiang Mai longer I think we would have become good friends. One night she took me to go see her ex boyfriend's band play at this restaurant. When I met him, I was surprised to see that he was an older, chubby Australian man. It is very common for western men to live in SE ASia and have Asian girlfriends. Most of the time I pass it off as nasty men praying on beautiful young girls....and the girls simply looking for someone to take care of them financially. So when I saw that there was a similar situation with Nine, I decided to ask her some questions about it. First of all, as I mentioned before, Nine didn't seem to be the type that needed taking care of....she had an independent spirit about her. I asked her if she was attracted to Western men more then Thai men. She explained to me that she had more freedoms when she dated western men. In the Thai culture, there are a lot more limitations and cultural restrictions when dating. She explained that she was attracted to Thai men, but did not fancy the lifestyle that it would give her. Since she had left her village and done so much on her own, she enjoyed the "western" dating culture better. It made more sense to me....and as the night went on, I realized that the chubby older guy was actually really nice. And I could see how she enjoyed his endearing personality.

Chiang Mai was a great city. I enjoyed being on my own again, doing some yoga, and spending some time researching my future travels. I was pretty tempted to stay there for my entire duration of Thailand, but decided I better go check out one of the islands (since that is what Thailand is famous for). I figured one week relaxing in a bungalow would be good before heading to Nepal.

A few years back, my friend Brad spent a lot of time on the island of Ko Tao. He became really close to a Thai family that owns a resort there. I decided to go check out the resort and say hello to the family for him.

Ko Tao was the perfect place to chill out in for a bit. Most backpackers hit up some of the other "party" islands...and even though there is partying on Ko Tao, you are also able to just relax and take it easy.

The family that ran the resort was really excited when I mentioned that I knew Brad. He spent several months on the island and was able to develop a strong relationship with the people. Unfortunetaly, I was only going to be around for a few days and knew that I would not have the same experience as him.

Each morning I tried to go for a walk around the hills of the island to try and get some excercise. There was this killer hill that Brad told me he used to attempt to run up every day. I was amazed that he could run up this hill as I could hardly even walk up it without taking a break. It felt like it was a mile long and neverending up this mountain. I was also a little worried because in about a weeks time I would be hiking the Himalayas in Nepal....the fact that I could hardly "walk" up a hill freaked me out a bit. I did a lot of hiking in New Zealand and had really strong legs then, but that was about 6 months ago...and well....I'm not in as good of shape anymore. Anyways....enough about that.

I stayed in this really cute bungalow at the resort. I had a deck with a chair and would spend time reading and writing. About a minutes walk away and I was on the sandy beach and the resort was nice.

The only thing that was weird was that I was surrounded by lovebirds. Young couples everywhere were kissing and frolocking in the ocean. I seriously felt like I was in a movie because everyone was beautiful, tan, skinny, and in love. Meanwhile, I was this pudgy single girl laying on the beach in solitude writing in my journal like a freak! I had to chuckle about it from time to time.....and I told myself that someday I would come back. Yes, I would come back with my lover and I would be thin and tan and we would frolock in the waves at sunset. But this trip was not meant for that.....this time it was just me, myself, and Thailand :)

In a few days I will say goodbye to SE Asia. I learned so much about the history and culture of the countries that I visited. The food was AMAZING and the people were great. I would love to come back someday to see some of the areas I didn't get to this time.

I am really looking forward to Nepal though....the scenery, people, culture, and lifestyles are going to be like nothing I have ever seen before.

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