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Monthly Archives: August 2011

Ayutthaya, Part 1: The Lone Nerd

It’s been more than two weeks since my trip to Ayutthaya and I’m still talking about it—and not just because I’m currently typing this post. I took the trip somewhat on a whim and totally by myself, but it proved to be one of my finer times here. Although the time lacked some of the spark afforded by a travel buddy, I was relaxed and free. For two days, it was just me, my camera, and unholy amounts of sweat.

(The city is full of wats. Therefore, I assumed that one needed to wear clothes appropriate for wats: pants and covered shoulders. My ass melted in the 90-something degree heat as I watched jerk-off tourists saunter around in shorts)

Ayutthaya, once called Siam, was the capital of Thailand for four centuries until the Burmese came in the middle of the eighteenth century and showed the Thais who’s who. During that time, Ayutthaya flourished, both locally and internationally. Lavish and expansive architecture is everywhere, hinted at by impressive ruins. Also, there are numerous European records of the city, many of which compare it to Venice—both because of its grandeur and its situation among a pair of rivers, including the Chao Phraya. A handful of international communities and settlements still exist; the Portuguese settlement, the Japanese settlement, and a large population of Thai Muslims are all features of Ayutthaya. As a result, tasty food abounds (because who gives a shit about superficial stuff like culture and customs?). And while the Burmese melted much of the gold adorning Buddhist statues in the city while the Thais fled to present-day Bangkok, the remaining sights are breathtaking, even if somewhat denuded.

The weekend of August 12 was a long one, as we had Friday off for the queen’s birthday/ Mother’s Day. A bunch of friends went to Koh Samet, a nearby island with reportedly beautiful beaches, and the others were broke as a joke and/or sick. I wasn’t in the mood for either sand or Bang Na, so I opted for a solo venture to Ayutthaya. The plan had been to spend two full days and one night in the city, but I didn’t leave my apartment until 1:30 p.m. because of my hellish Chiang Mai and Pai post. (Technical difficulties can lick one.) Finally done with the post—which easily took six hours, net—I was in a ballsy cab that weaved and darted me to Victory Monument, where I took a sixty-baht minibus to Ayutthaya. The vehicle was cramped, but I spaced out to Frank Ocean’s nostalgia, ULTRA and Coltrane’s Lush Life. I don’t know why, but R&B and soul are turning out to be the best soundtracks to these long drives in Thailand. The two-hour ride was a long one, especially since I was alone, so the music was crucial.

The amended sign at the Ayutthaya Guesthouse

Once in town, I roamed aimlessly. This was my first trip alone, and I wasn’t about to waste it by having direction and shit. After some general strolling, I ended up at the Ayutthaya Guesthouse on Th Naresuan, Soi 2. It was a bare-bones place meant for your ass and little else. At two hundred baht a night, the price was right, but it would have been nice to have received a free towel and soap, as well a sheet for my bed. Oh well. At least they had a Western toilet. Room secured, I ate some tremendous pad thai goong—shrimp pad thai—before intrepidly trekking off again. Well, maybe not intrepidly, but definitely adverbly.

The closest thing I saw to a wat on Saturday.

I walked around U Thong Road, which circles the old city of Ayutthaya, until 7 p.m. I expected putz about and happen upon 1,000 wats, but had no such luck. Instead, I walked along the perimeter of a city circumscribed by a pair of rivers that merge to form a loop and watched people close shop. Before arriving, I figured a UNESCO World Heritage site—which Ayutthaya is—would have wats coming out of its wats. Once there, though, it dawned on me: “Of course there’s a fucking city here, asshole. It’s not like people leave a historical landmark uninhabited just so you can take some photos.”

Refusing to despair, I switched modes: time to check out the night market. I bought some shorts and shoelaces, relying on my haggling skills to knock down the prices. It’s consistently awesome to pleasantly surprise vendors by knowing Thai numbers well enough that they’ll knock the price even lower. I may be Suddenly Farang, but I’m not totally ignorant or dick-face farang.

Below are some shots from Saturday, including a collection of Ayutthaya’s colors that I adored.

The best part of Saturday, however, was the night. After dropping my stuff off in my room, taking a cold shower, and donning my new shorts, I went to at a nearby, open-air bar for food and a tall beer. My table faced the street of the bar and, behind me, a guy whose guitar proficiency well outweighed his English proficiency played hits by the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. I rested, graded, and listened—and became, accidentally, a bit drunk. Whoopsy.

Then it was back to Ayutthaya Guesthouse and another quick, cold shower before passing out. It needed to be an early night since I planned on having an early morning. I had shit to see, you know?

The sun woke me up around 7 a.m., after which I got ready and found a place with a fantastic breakfast. I ate a crêpe with fruit while sipping on good coffee and orange juice—pleasures rarely enjoyed since coming here. (I should note too, that I’ve lived here long enough where I don’t feel the need to absorb the country by staying limited to its food. I absolutely adore Thai food and often choose it over other options, but I have been here for more than three months and have many more ahead of me; it’d be silly to eat only Thai food.)

I must have screamed tourist: translucent skin-tone aside, I had a camera bag and, worst of all, bright orange Lonely Planet guide that I was studying to plan out my day. Such beacons, though, were the best things that could have happened to me: they attracted Wanchai, my beloved tuk tuk driver, right to my table. Before him, I planned on limiting my day to a few sights before heading back to Bang Na. Thanks to him, my day blew up with things to see—and in an organized way. For 500 baht, he took me around to some of the best wats and structures the city has to offer over the course of three hours. To boot, he spoke great English and surprised me with some pineapple. Naturally, I got his number at the end of the day and will use him again when—yes, when—I return.

I took 1,024 pictures between the two days, the bulk of which occurred on Sunday. (Thank you, autobracketing.) Below is a collection of my photos, organized—as best as I can recall—by location.

Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol

Wat Panan Choeng

Wat Chaiwatthanaram

Wat Phu Khao Thong

Wat Na Phramane
Here’s where I made friends with some of the local kids. They were hanging out outside of the temple and we shared our shitty language skills with each other. Thanks to the camera, few words were necessary.

Wat Lokayasutha

Wat Phra Sri Sanphet

Whew.

My day finished around 3 p.m. and was capped off by one of the best bowls of fried rice I’ve ever had. Lovely woman who operates the khao pad cart, I will marry you—just as soon as I make my way back to Ayutthaya as a shameless tourist. I do, after all, have a whole bunch of sights left to see, hopefully on the back of a bicycle.

P.S.: You may have wondered why this is Ayutthaya, Part 1. Well, Part 2 will feature the birth of my nascent acting career and a free cruise. Goddamn, I love this city.

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Posted by on August 31, 2011 in Happiness, Thailand

 

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Because of Thailand

Here’s that playlist I was bragging on in my post about Chiang Mai and Pai. Through grad school, I got really into making mixes: things the length of a CD-R revolving around a certain mood, occasion, or person. Here’s the trifecta. It’s called Because of Thailand and has a pretty laid-back feel to it, if not a little folky in some places. If you want to cop this ish, send me an e-mail.

  1. Glory             (The Acorn)
  2. Fine For Now             (Grizzly Bear)
  3. Furr            (Blitzen Trapper)
  4. Dirt            (WU LYF)
  5. Strangers            (The Duchess & the Duke)
  6. Blood Bank            (Bon Iver)
  7. Tree by the River            (Iron & Wine)
  8. Wild Eyes            (The Local Natives)
  9. Turn You On            (Joseph Arthur)
  10. I Was a Lover            (TV On The Radio)
  11. Want You Still ft. Kilo Kush            (The Jet Age of Tomorrow)
  12. No One’s Gonna Love You            (Cee Lo Green)
  13. Doomsday            (Elvis Perkins in Dearland)
  14. If It Wasn’t for Bad             (Elton John & Leon Russell)
  15. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea             (Neutral Milk Hotel)
  16. High Lonesome (The Gaslight Anthem)
  17. Hell or High Water             (William Elliott Whitmore)
  18. To the North             (Matthew and the Atlas)
  19. Awake My Body             (Alexander)
  20. A Minor Place             (Bonnie “Prince” Billy)
  21. I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down             (Elvis Costello)
  22. Wolly Wolly Gong             (tUnE-YarDs)

Cheers, lovers.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2011 in Mixtape

 

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Not the “Bachelorette,” but Chiang Mai and Pai

It has been a frustratingly busy several weeks. Among midterms, quizzes, and daily assignments, grading has been successfully punching me in the stomach. But, some of the work came from freelance copyediting for my uncle, which led to a pretty nice payday. Shwing.

Several weeks ago, on Thursday, 28 July, I got back from a fiveish-day trip to northern Thailand, namely Chiang Mai and Pai. If you watched the most recent season of The Bachelorette, they shot in Chiang Mai—or so I’m told. It’s where they, reportedly, filmed the human meat—er, contestants—riding elephants.

Chiang Mai

Leading up to my trip to Chiang Mai, I was super excited. I remember sitting on the beach in Koh Chang and buzzing about the upcoming trip north—even bragging to my friend about it. In fact, I think I bounced a little from anticipation at one point. Everything I heard about the city made me thing it was exactly what I was wanted out of a location: good, eclectic food; tons of music options; English-capable but not English-centric; and a slow, easygoing feel. Moreover, the city is situated near beautiful mountains and has a mix of old and new, as it was a central thoroughfare and trading post centuries ago. Inside the larger, new city is the remnants of the old city, complete with defensive walls. I even researched jobs at Chiang Mai University, which has an English program (presumably literature, my love, and not as a second language, my vehicle).

Thapet Gate

By the time I was on the van to Pai, I was pretty disappointed by Chiang Mai. I think it was more our fault than the city’s—my group and I tried to jam ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag while there—coupled with a collection of frustrating misfortunes. Nevertheless, I figure a warning is in order in case my ensuing tone isn’t ultra excited.

Pai, on the other hand, is in my top five favorite places on earth. But we need to get there first, don’t we?.

Chiang Mai is, at the least, a nine-and-a-half hour bus ride from Bangkok. Consequently, an overnight bus is the best option.

Get on. Read. iPod. Sleep. Get off.

The group—four people, including me—took an overnight bus on Saturday, 23 July, that left around 11:30 p.m. from Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus terminal and cost 615 baht. I read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin—a fucking excellent book that I recommend to everyone, ever—and vamped a forthcoming playlist, Because of Thailand, to perfection. Around 9 a.m., I woke up in Chiang Mai. Score one for my sleeping abilities.

Around 9:10 a.m., the frustrations began. I didn’t have enough money to cover breakfast, so I walked to an ATM associated with my bank. It was having “troubles communicating with bank. Try again later.” I walked to two more ATMS, one of which was another belonging to my bank. Both were having “troubles communicating with bank. Try again later.”

Bullshit.

There must have been some problem all-around, since my friends and other people on whom I spied were having the same issue. The ATMs weren’t back online until sometime around noon. Thankfully.

But, also, bullshit.

We found a recommended guesthouse, Malak House, which was a ten-minute walk from of Thapet Gate at the eastern end of the old city. Split with a friend, we paid 200 baht a night for perfectly bare-bones accommodations: cold shower, squatter toilet, and a near mattress-less bed. Honestly, I’m not complaining. As far as simplicity goes, the Malak House was a great place to stay. The owners spoke fairly good English and were incredibly helpful without being obnoxious. More importantly, its location was great: cafes, restaurants, food carts, sites, and everything else were within a short walk of Malak House.

Settled-in and understandably exhausted, the lot of us still wanted to absorb Chiang Mai. We knew we wouldn’t be in the city for long, so we had little choice but to drain it dry if we didn’t want to return disappointed (wakka wakka wakka, indeed). We did an aimless walking tour of a few wats and their contents.

At one—I believe it was Wat Bupparam—was a woman selling birds-to-be-released for forty baht. As a hangover from my (missed) vegetarian days, I hated seeing these birds in cages. Also, could you say no to her smile? Of course I bought a cage and released the three birds therein. Later, a friend told me that these birds are trained to return to a trainer so that they may be caged and sold again. Paint me duped.

Flight.

And we walked some more.

Flowers.

Monked.

By this day, 24 July, 2011, I had been in Thailand for more than two months without a Thai massage. Aside from the eight-week long class I took in undergrad and any friendly gestures from friends, I had also been without a massage for my 24 years on this planet.

Things needed to change.

Near Malak House was the Muan Parlor, a massage parlor with really cheap rates and a really talented masseuse. I’m pretty sure they gave me the biggest girl in the place to contort and kick my ass, all of which were entirely necessary and welcomed. I opted for the one-hour massage for 170 baht, knowing I’m hard-pressed to focus on anything for more than thirty minutes. After dim lights, a pair of over-sized pajamas, and a big-boned woman trying to rip my legs out, I left the Muan Parlor feeling like a brand new, if not slightly bent, human being. While I don’t think they’re not the mythic gift from the gods some people tout them to be, Thai massages are a great break from the tourist-stroll.

Next on the agenda was the Sunday market. Lonely Planet makes a big deal of the weekend night markets in Chiang Mai. Taking their often not-totally-misleading advice, we grabbed some roadies at the 7-11 and walked to the Sunday night market, conveniently located just inside Thapet Gate.

In short, swing-and-a-miss, Lonely Planet. The market was chock-full of the same, ultra touristy, tchotchke nonsense and totally bereft of redemptive street food. I had no intentions of actually buying anything; I merely wanted to walk amid a sea of human beings who were bartering, buying, selling, and capitalisming. The Sunday night market ended up being a bunch of farangs paying whatever was pitched to them. The place had no character, despite the roadies’ best efforts.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not even sure Thailand has an expression to cover ‘open container laws’, so drinks are drank.

We came back to the Malak House sometime around 11 p.m. and, as for myself, somewhat deflated. After a final nightcap on the guesthouse’s rooftop bar, we went to bed. After all, we were getting picked up for an all-day trek at 8 a.m.

The all-day trek that would firmly plant its foot on our throats, press, and twist—somewhat to my pleasure.

Monday was our friend’s birthday. The day prior, we scheduled a hike through some of Chiang Mai’s jungle-y mountains. The birthday girl is admittedly not-outdoorsy and had never been on a hike. By 9 a.m., we were off on our trek, led by our 19-year-old, nimble, and somewhat crazed tour guide, Tom.

Tom, the guide

It’d be ridiculous to describe the whole hike to you in minute detail. Basically, we were mobile from 9 a.m. until 4:30 or 5 p.m., two hours of which were spent hanging out in and around a tiny waterfall. In fact, it’s probably more appropriate to call the site an elevated waterroll.  The walk itself was grueling: a full day spent negotiating often-narrow footpaths wide enough to fit one and half humans across it—sometimes less—hoping you didn’t slip and eat shit down the side of a rocky mountain overlaid with jungle.

Actually, aforementioned shit eating almost happened about an hour into the hike. We were making our ways up and down a slippery fucking mud pit of slippery mud while holding onto a janky bamboo-handrail—a certifiable miracle in the middle of this jungle—when my friend lost her footing and almost fell down the side of the mountain, breaking every bone in her body and probably dying a couple times as well. If it weren’t for my ninja reflexes and paternal awareness of others’ safety, I’d have one fewer friend and one more memorial group on Facebook.

Unfortunately, my camera stayed necessarily buried during the entire walk because one hand on a camera was one fewer hand available to balance and save friends’ lives.

After three hours, we stopped at the waterroll: a chilly and welcomed respite from the trek. While we swam and shot the breeze, Tom foraged and cooked. We ended up eating instant noodles and cabbage out of bamboo cups with bamboo chopsticks: wild style. I think I ate two or three helpings simply because I could.

Tom's bridge to lunch.

Refreshing waterroll, up which I climbed.

Chef Tom

Tom’s foraging abilities didn’t end with noodles. Four times on the trip, he surprised us with fruit, both picked and found/maybe stolen. The fruit sucked most of the time—Tom had a difficult time distinguishing between ‘sweet’ and ‘bitter as a jockstrap’—but it was fun to have him pop out of nowhere with something to eat.

Tummies full, it was back to walking and not dying. After more jungle walking, we ended up navigating a wide expanse of rice fields. Here are the few remaining pictures I have from the trek. [pics of rice fields/ whole trek]

By the end of the hike, we were all exhausted. Most of us thought it was fun, however, despite the more treacherous aspects: Tom’s nimble and experienced self hauling ass like it was some kind of race; intermittent rain, especially at the end of the journey, making the already slippery fucking mud pits of slippery mud even worse. While I enjoyed the trek and appreciated the strain, our not-outdoorsy birthday girl didn’t mince words, “Fuck this fucking shit. I’m never going on a hike again.”

Remember when I said I didn’t think I could handle a two-hour massage? Times have changed, my friend; times have changed. After getting back to Chiang Mai proper and getting a little bit of food, I allowed Miss Big Bones at Muan Parlor to harass the shit out of me for two hours—and loved every second of it. Afterwards, the masseuses invited me outside to eat some fruit with them—not even kind of a euphemism—while my two friends finished their respective massages.

Motherfucking goddamn victory.

After some truly delicious Mexican food at Miguel’s, it was time for bed. Monday sucked the life out of me (also not a euphemism), but it was rewarding.

Tuesday began well enough. I found Nice Kitchen, a tremendous cafe place with delicious coffee and huge, reasonably priced breakfasts. Over a caffe americano, eggs, and a fruit place, I graded midterms and anticipated our 2 p.m. van to Pai. It was marvelous.

And then I lost my motherfucking ATM card.

While the others strolled around the old city, I frantically retraced my steps, looking for the debit card—with no success. I had just enough money to get back to my dorm, so I called my friends and told them I was heading back. To be honest, I wasn’t too bummed about the prospect of returning to Bang Na; Chiang Mai proved to be a letdown and truncating the trip was somewhat tempting. My good friend, however, told me she’d fund the rest of the vacation—an idea I hated for so many reasons, but one for which I owe her significantly more than baht. (The final tally was 2,923 baht, by the way.)

Pai, like I said, rocketed to my top-five list of favorite places. It’s tiny—the entire town can be walked in 20 – 30 minutes—but loaded with things I want. It was sleepy, full of food, and scenic. There were, lamentably, a few too many culturally irresponsible hippies—aren’t they all?—but Pai wouldn’t have been the same without this dirty presence. Actually, if I could somehow have the city extricated of its Haight-Ashbury tumor, I may return and never leave.

I had been warned by several people about the van to Pai: it’s impossibly winding; I’ll get sick; the drivers are nuts—so I was a little curious about what the journey had in store. Luckily, I didn’t vomit, but there were puke bags hooked on to the seat in front of me just in case.

Pai bus station

Three hours later, we were at the bus station in Pai, where we waited for our escort. While in Chiang Mai, I booked an excursion at Thom’s Pai Elephant Camp. Elephants are thing to do in the North, but they tend to run about 2500 baht in Chiang Mai, which is way too rich for my blood. My good friend, however, loves elephants; she even has an elephant-shaped birthmark on her hip that she insists is a tattoo. (Liar.) So, not riding elephants wasn’t an option. After we sussed out the situation and discovered that elephant tours in Pai cost less than half of those in Chiang Mai, she and I agreed that Thom’s would be the best choice—and we were effing right (if one can audaciously announce a ‘best’ without experiencing any others).

Thom—a welcoming, friendly, and helpful woman—picked us up and drove us twenty minutes south to the camp, a beautiful collection of guesthouses and rooms tucked away in a tiny, residential area.

That night—about which I will describe more below—we hung out with the mahouts, or elephant trainers, who invited us to chill out at their table. These dudes were bat-shit crazy, but in the good way. One was obsessed with hair and white, blonde women. As soon as we walked over, he put on a country music TV station and drooled over Taylor Swift. Then he started to joke about his name with the others. One was hahm yai while another was hahm lek: hahm big and hahm small. The mahouts were dudes, so it didn’t much insight to glean that they were talking about their dicks.

Vocabulary word scored.

The antics were fun, but the serene intensity of that night will stick with me for a long time. Forgive the upcoming cliché, but that night was the clearest sky I have ever seen. The stars actually provided illumination. I wish I had pictures, but without a tripod such shots would have been a mere cock tease. So I left my cock unteased and kept my camera away from my face, enjoying what was above.

Wednesday morning, we were going to walk with the mahouts at 6 a.m. as they went to gather the elephants and bring them back to camp to be fed and bathed before we jumped on them for the paid portion of the tour. I stupidly set my alarm way too early—5:15 a.m.—and violently swung at my phone when it went off. It was a little too violently, however, as I rotated myself off of the bed and my face onto the edge of the metal shelf ten inches away. I had a welt on my face for two days—and chagrin in my soul for three.

This was my first time on an elephant and I was rather surprised by their texture. The top part of the elephants—especially mine, 52-year-old Phanom—is covered in coarse, thick hair, which, coupled with their abrasive hides, took a couple layers of skin off of my inner thighs. Riding them is pretty difficult too, especially if you have a pair of dangly man-bits, which I have been rocking since I was born.

The crazy, Taylor Swift-loving mahout saw my discomfort and asked me, “OK?”

“My balls. Ow!”

The mahout gave me a quizzical look.

“MY BALLS HURT.”

“Back?” he  said while pointing to his lumbar.

“Hahm! Hahm yai!” I said while pointing to my dangly man-bits.

The mahouts loved the shit out of that and nearly fell off of their elephants. Dick jokes: transcend language.

The pain was well worth it, though.  Our ride was bisected by a romp in the water with the elephants, which had been trained to spray their riders and buck them off by shaking their massive heads. Trying to hang on was futile, so it became a game of who could hang on the longest. I beat out my mahout, who ended up in the river while I hung on to the animal, screaming, “Farang!” with my fist in the air.

On the way back, when everyone was on an elephant high on an elephant, I looked back and saw my elephant-loving friend loving her elephant, Pom Paem: she was tucked up on its head and behind its ears, bent over and hugging the creature. It was pretty great to see her so gleeful, and that image is probably my favorite of the excursion.

The group checked out of Thom’s and went into town for well deserved falafel, which was as good as I’ve ever head. The four then split in half; two wanted to return back to the dorms while me and the elephant-hugger wanted to stay.

After renting a room at Charlie’s Guesthouse, a centrally located and cheap place to stay in the middle of Pai, I took a long nap while friend read. We then took to the road for food—thanks to which I had my favorite meal in Thailand.

She and I sat on the sidewalk and ate roasted, salt-cured fish and khao niao. It started to fucking pour, so we sat and ate a little longer. It was tremendous.

Next? Beers and bed, of course.

As if Pai hadn’t been supplying enough superlatives, the best part of the entire trip was Thursday. We slept in—something I never do—and got breakfast before renting motorbikes. The first place from which we tried to rent denied us because we told them I had never driven one before: truth. The second place from which we tried to rent permitted us because we told them I had driven one before: lie.

I normally try to avoid lying, especially such gratuitous and silly ones, but how the hell am I ever supposed to ride a motorbike if each place requires me to have previously ridden one? I just needed to circumvent the law this one time.

Of course, I was a little reluctant hopping onto a two-wheeled motorized vehicle for the first time. And, of course, I almost crashed within my first ten minutes of being on the bike. But reluctance quickly turned to (somewhat responsible) comfort as my friend and I travelled farther away from town.

Again, I need to fall back on the trope of inexpressibility. I know motorbikes are hardly comparable to motorcycles, so spare me any patronization or condescension. Simply, it was amazing to get on something open to the world and with wheels, able to pull over at any moment to snap a photo or look at the horizon.

For two hours, we cruised around and explored some of the outer expanses of Pai, opening up a big-ass world of photo opportunities and memories. Thankfully, my friend enjoys interrupting the flow for photos more than I do.

I even found my dream bike, which was for sale, mockingly.

Wet dream, and currently my desktop image.

By 2:30 p.m., she and I were on our way back to Chiang Mai, giddier than children on Christmasbirthdayhalloweeneve.

I’m going back to Pai; you can bet your ass on that. Yesterday, I e-mailed a couple gyms there about training muay thai for a couple weeks in October when I have a break between semesters. I can’t imagine a better way to spend my time. Maybe I’ll even get some shots of the night sky.

Next: an overnight trip to Thailand’s former capital, Ayutthaya, and photos of things much, much, much older than myself.

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2011 in Happiness, Thailand

 

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