RSS

Author Archives: bnmd

Semester of Un-health

I’m sick again, but so goes the semester of un-health.

Medications taken since Laos

See, the meds that I’m taking to kill the second presumed parasite in my stomach have lowered my immune system, leaving me with a persistent cold. Or maybe it was the umpteenth round of Cipro that I ingested before the current anthelmintic and anti-infective pills that made me vulnerable. Or, most likely, the unholy union of all aforementioned medication paired up to double team me.

I never got sick in America. Once, I think, I got a bad cough, but it very well could have been that someone farted. Before Thailand, my immune system was my point of pride: “I may be nerdy, of average height, prematurely balding, moody, occasionally lispy, and pale—but at least I have my health,” I often thought. My stomach, which has been the most victimized here, was so regular in America that the Swiss often consulted it during watch production.

One year in Southeast Asia assessed my immune system, found it wanting, and pooped on it.

Going somewhere in the next two months. Doc says, "Shit no."

Some of the more tenured teachers warned, “When we got here, we began to fall apart. Couldn’t help it.” Nestled in my previously robust—untested?—health, I ignorantly treated their statement as something only normies experience. I was, after all, super human.

I was younger and more naïve—dumber—in those days.

Things have gotten so bad that I’ve stopped eating spicy food to allow my stomach to settle. Life without spicy food—especially in Thailand—is like a puppy without eyes.

The kicker? I don’t think Thailand’s once made me sick, which is startling. Never mind walking barefoot through murky soi-puddles, eating lukewarm street meat (I’m no longer a vegetarian), and utilizing sometimes-suspect butt hoses (I’ll explain later); I fucking live in this country. Odds are, if I were to get sick anywhere, it’d be here.

Laos and Cambodia scoff at such odds.

If I had to pinpoint my first stomach bug, I’d put it somewhere in Laos. I felt like a million baht after muay thai in Pai, but by the piss-drenched sleeper bus in Laos, I could barely make it five hours without an emergency trip to the bathroom. (An e-poo, as I’ve come to refer to them.)

Most days it was bearable. Others, I’d have to run to the loo three to six times a day. And, on the most specialest days, I’d writhe in bed in the middle of the night as something peppered my intestines with acid, dynamite, and acid dynamite.

After a couple months, three trips to two hospitals, and three rounds of various antibiotics, I had a colonoscopy at the beginning of January 2012. The antibiotics weren’t working, ruling out a run-of-the-mill stomach infection. (I never thought that I’d use “run-of-the-mill” to describe a stomach infection, but here we are.) With that ruled out, everything else was ruled in.

The whole process went smoothly, except I’m pretty sure I tried to attack someone during the procedure. There’s a hazy memory of trying to bash someone’s head while nurses pinned me back down. I don’t exactly remember—and I sure as hell didn’t ask—but I can’t imagine a half-drugged myself acting any other way. Have you seen the camera they use for the procedure? It fucking looks like one of the sentinels from The Matrix.

My travails aren’t the only notable ones. Indeed, my best friend seemed to live at the hospital this entire year. During the first semester, she toured a pair of hospitals to treat what she assumed was a sinus infection that was working its way down to her lungs: an annual or bi-annual routine, according to her. But the fucking sickness wouldn’t go away. The result: more hospitals, more pills, and more frustration at the consistent exhaustion that affected everything she did, or tried to do. The answer? More pills, etc.

More pills until they reportedly burned a hole in her throat—which seems extreme, until one realizes she had been taking Cipro, a kind of nuclear bomb for infections, for several months.

Thankfully, the doctors stopped trying to hone in on the issue and finally resolved the cause: mold. The white powder-fluff that would appear on her dark clothing within her armoire finally made more sense—as did the smell that would creep into one’s nose every so often.

She moved out of that room.

But in Malaysia, she got stung by a Portuguese man-of-war and was laid-out for days.

The colonoscopy, which proved my piping was flawless (I’ll spare you the photo evidence) allowed for the proper meds to be prescribed and my bowels were once again moving like a champ.

But at the end of March came Cambodia, and its suspiciously broken seals on water bottles and uncovered raw meat being delivered via the back of a wobbly motorbike puttering down a dirt road. Like me, the friend with mold poisoning ended up with a healthy dose of what-the-hell-is-in-my-stomach.

Back to most days, some days, and most specialest days.

Back to more medicine than I ever wanted to take in my life.

Back to paying for traveling with checks my ass is forced to cash.

Goddamn you, Laos and Cambodia.

Thailand: home sweet home.

Advertisements
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Love is Crap: Student (?)

The first class of the day had just ended. I needed second breakfast. Or water. Or second breakfast, water, and a cold shower. Compounding my early-morning exhaustion, Thailand’s unholy heat and humidity had begun its upswing, stifling any fond memories of the breezy and mild December that I held so dear. My teaching dress code—pants; dress shirt; tie—was nothing but the devil’s getup.

What’s more, and I was contending with the resurrection of a stomach bug. Prior to Thailand, I counted myself among the digestive ranks of cows. Since, however, I’ve proved nothing but a run-of-the-mill, uni-stomached human.

Plus, I probably hadn’t had any coffee before I began teaching. In short, Shit was fixin’ to be hairy.

As a consequence, I nearly bumped into a former student, Golf, as we were leaving our respective early-AM classes. He was one of my most fluent and enthusiastic students and never shied away from a conversation. Therefore, the little shit immediately interrogated me while my mind tried to focus on anything but my stomach.

Everything started according to script: “Good morning, teacher. How is your day, teacher? You go to get breakfast, teacher?”

Then the script was tossed and revelations were had.

“Teacher, you in love?”

“Golf—what?”

“You look like you in love. In your face.”

Well, now that you say it, my gut is either in knots because it needs food or because a colony of parasites is in there, reveling against my stomach lining.

(In hindsight, maybe it was both.)

“No, Golf—no love.”

“You sure? Your face look like in love.”

“Golf, I promise. No love. Actually, my stomach is very sick. I think I ate some bad food at the Burmese restaurant on campus.”

“Oh, like hurting and fire in stomach?”

“Very, very much so, Golf.”

“Oh.”

Golf paused, trying to figure out his next move. Expansive, complicated formulas were running through his head as he attempted to align and elucidate any possible cultural differences.

“Well, same-same face. Congratulations, teacher.”

Thank you, Golf.

Lovers? Poopers? How dare you distinguish the two.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

When I Knew I Was Elsewhere

My time in Thailand’s winding down; I’m mentally sorting the shit I’ll take from the shit I’ll leave behind, prioritizing and initiating remaining travel-destinations, and monitoring Kayak notifications for flights back to the US.

I’ve planned this much in advance two or three times in my entire life and, honestly, it makes me really uncomfortable, as if I’m wearing my pack backwards.

As it often goes, forethought has become accompanied by backthink (and, apparently, a love for neologisms). I still have more than two months before I return to the States, but I cannot help but reflect on what has been—not really in a halcyon or heavy way, but rather in a what-the-hell-just-happened way. Besides, the number of people who’ve insisted on my “adventure”—not scare quotes, but quote-quotes—have consequently sparked some kind of reflection.

At the top, at least for blog and self-amusement purposes, has been trying to determine the moment when I felt most foreign–incontrovertibly farang.

The language? Don’t be silly.

The height and size differences? More like a self-high five.

The poverty that screams from under a bridge or within a hut? That stabs more than isolates.

The ubiquitous trans-community? Nope; have you seen my Halloween costumes?

These things, along with many others, were expected to be different. For example, if you come to Thailand and don’t expect another language, I hate you. These differences, rather, are things around which one begins to adapt. They’re part of the list of things of things that one knows will probably be strange. They’re known unknowns.

What got me, rather, was an unknown unknown (or maybe an unknown known, but let’s leave that alone for these immediate purposes):

William Faulkner in Thailand.

From 15 – 16 December, I participated in the Third Annual International Conference on Linguistics and Communication in Bangkok. For two days, I got to nerd out and listen to academics (some alleged) do academic things. I miss grad school terribly sometimes, so an academic conference sounded great. Plus, giving a paper at an international conference probably wouldn’t hurt the C.V. if I ever decide to apply to PhD programs.

Fast forward to my paper, “’Smelling the Bright Cold’: Benjy’s Linguistic Synaesthesia in The Sound and the Fury.” (I should have said Semantic Synaesthesia, but whatever.) The actual reading of the paper somewhat flustered me; the original 30-minute allotment changed to 20 minutes when the conference started, but ended up being 15 minutes when I actually read the motherfucker. As a result, I had to go off-script to compress and wing the final 70% of the paper. So it goes.

But then came the questions.

Ten minutes into the conference, I realized I did not belong. Most other papers were about statistical analysis of phonemes, grammatical structures, and inter-language differences. Conversely, I read a book and blathered about it—even throwing in a subtle crack about love juices. Therefore, I wasn’t really expecting any questions—at most, maybe something generic from the panel chair—who’s supposed to read the panel members’ papers and have a question or two in her/his back pocket—about semantics.

Nope. Instead, I got one about the author.

Panel Chair: “So, I have a question. This author—“ (Pause)

Me: “William Faulkner?”

Panel Chair: “Yes, him. Is he a very unknown writer? Where could I find his books? a rare bookstore?”

Let me explain my relationship with Faulkner: at least one of his books has been on my Top-5-Books List since high school; I’ve written a paper about him at every macro-level of my education since high school, including my capstone for my MA, which took more than a year total to research, compose, recompose, and argue. He’s even had stints as my desktop image. I may be as familiar with him as I am with many members of my extended family.

What’s more, I come from America and a mostly conventionally American education system, with an emphasis on literature. To imply the rarity of William Faulkner, for me, is like asking, “Does everyone have these opposable thumbs? They’re crazy useful.”

Thank the gods above, below, without, and within that I’m quick on my feet and have a poker face like a dead person. After shrouding my shock with a veil of contrived contemplation, I fired off a quick answer about probably finding him in backpacker and English-language bookstores since he probably hasn’t been translated into most Southeast Asian languages.

True or not, a string of pearls pulled directly from my ass.

To be clear, my shock wasn’t because of Faulkner’s merits as an author and examiner of the/a human condition. I’m not nearly arrogant or closed-minded enough to think that any author, let alone one of my favorites, deserves such acclaim, particularly globally. Rather, yet somewhat related, I was taken back because of my presumptions about Faulkner’s proliferation. “Of course his name rattles around the ivory tower. I could walk into any physics department, drop his name, and expect a rant about the increasing speed of entropy as evidenced by the American South,” I used to think.

My problems, as you can see, began with ‘the’ ivory tower; there isn’t a ‘the’ anything—I think.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 19, 2012 in Uncategorized, Where else?

 

Tags: , , ,

Premature Ejaculator? No Worries in Kuala Lumpur

Lights of KL

I was barely into my first big beer before some guy sat down at my table.

“Hello,” he may have said—“may” because his accent was so thick it was almost opaque.

This situation was exactly what I didn’t want: some possibly drunk and/or stoned boner twisting my ear in English more broken than his teeth. Besides, my friend and I were momentarily burned out on each other and, to exacerbate things, Chinese New Year in Malaysia was thwarting most attempts made at travel and lodging. We just needed some street noodles and beers to unwind. But while she was in the bathroom (and I was criminally eating her noodles), this stick of a man slithered into the open seat.

His black shirt, hanging onto his body only slightly looser than his skin, was tucked into his black jeans, at the front of which was an obnoxious, silver belt-buckle.

I have no fucking idea what he and I talked about before my friend got back. I was so peeved and pissy that I barely mustered the good nature to proffer one-word answers to his awkward chatter. It was during one of my space-outs into the fluorescent-lit streets of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown that I saw my friend returning. I quickly shook my head to hint that she stay away, but she was already annoyed with me (seeing that I had eaten her noodles didn’t help—at all), so she plopped down at the table’s third seat. I braced for the terse conversation I was sure would follow.

Consequently, I also have no fucking idea when we all started to have a great time.

Lights of KL, and some broad

All of a sudden, the three of us were cracking up. David went from a unwelcome, Johnny-Cash-looking pain in the ass to the remedy for our travel malaise. We had bought ourselves a round and were laughing away as the wait staff sat and watched.

David insisted they were jealous. I’m still inclined to agree.

Petronas Towers

He was thrilled when he learned we’re English-language teachers. He told us about his English lessons; apparently, he was at the top of his class.

“That’s right! Number one!” he said.

But what he said was much less memorable than how he displayed ‘number one’.

Whenever he’d get excited and need to emphasize something’s supremacy, David employed a very specific motion: his left arm would lift, his arm perpendicular to the ground before his elbow would rise away from his body, and his loose fist would flutter before his gangly index finger rose from the shaky mess into a rigid, erect indication of what he meant.

(He made us promise to bring his gesture worldwide. Now that you know about the motion, consider yourself implicated.)

“Number one!”

Why was anything number one?

“It has P – O – W – E – RRRRRRRRRRRRRR,” according to David.

Fucking everything was number one to this guy: English; our beer; his English; his shit-awful cigarettes; our English. The man was nothing if not enthusiastic.

More to the point, my sexual prowess was tops too—at least until my friend told him I was a habitual premature ejaculator.

Cat Nap, and other puns

See, David refused to believe that we were anything less than bang buddies. It took us three minutes to talk him down from marriage:

“You married, no?”

“Nope.”

“No? Don’t lie.”

“David, we promise.”

“But she’s your wife, no?

“Nope.”

And so forth.

City of Street Art

When he heard “friends” numerous times, he finally settled on ‘special friends’. It seemed like a reasonable place to end the shenanigans. It also opened a window for a joke:

“Yea, but David, she has many special friends.”

I forgot that sarcasm doesn’t translate across languages so well—damn beers—and that my friend can give as good as she gets—damn beers. I just had to wait for the revenge.

My friend and I started to fabricate how we became special friends. It eventually came about that I was the artist for her back tattoo (a gorgeous cherry blossom, so I was flattered), and after those four hours getting tattooed in my chair, she was hooked.

“Four hours?!” David exclaimed. His excitement, barely containable, eventually exploded out of his left hand:

“Number one!”

Thus, the stage was set for my friend.

“Yea, but David, he lasts only two seconds,” she revealed, tipping her head to imply he think about this statement.

He didn’t need to think; his eyes, once proud, shot back to me with disbelief.

“Two seconds? No!”

I got too excited. I saw a hook, well baited: an opportunity to continue the laughs and general revelry, even if at my expense. I couldn’t keep it in. Without control, I quickly blurted:

“Yes, David. Two seconds.”

His jaw dropped. His shit-awful cigarette nearly ended up on his obnoxious belt buckle. Sure, I could get a pretty girl in four hours, but I was finished after two seconds.

“But David, I can have sex, like, twelve times a day.”

He seemed impressed, at least for a bit. Then, I think, he did the math:

2 seconds x 12 sex-romps = 24 seconds of sex-romps. That number’s still far south of stellar. David, much older than myself, knew he needed to proffer some wisdom.

“Two seconds no problem. You know what you do?”

I did not, and I needed to know.

He removed his shit-awful cigarette so he could stick his tongue.

“Lick,” he coyly whispered, pointing to his, apparently, most prized muscle.

Shit officially got weird.

After we three nearly pissed ourselves laughing, we got back to our basic patterns of discussion: being number one, what does and does not have POWERRRRRRRRRRRRRR, the virtues of speaking English (David was a full-on acolyte), and the reported special friendship between my friend and me.

Looking back at our trip to Malaysia, all events—the 9-hour bus ride with one pit stop at a flooded bathroom; the undulating verdure of the Cameron Highlands; the self-inflated, giant, German doucher who tried to ruin said undulation; the expensive but rejuvenating hotel at which we stayed there; jelly-pla stings and non-overreactions in Batu Ferringhi, Penang; tremendously helpful cabbies all over Penang; the silence of Georgetown on the night of Chinese New Year—pass through and/or recall the memory of David. He picked us up when we were down, and continued to hoist us when we needed a quick chuckle elsewhere.

Overcast with a chance of awkward

Until, at least, shit got too weird.

My friend and I were two or three big beers deep and David had arrived already half in some bag, so things devolved kind of quickly—as they are wont to do—after the premature ejaculation talk. We two travelers were hitting a wall as David’s pronunciation was coming up to its own. These two events would have been enough to warrant an exit, but the lack of David’s topics expedited the shit out of the process: he kept returning to cuming early and going down on a chick afterwards.

The conversation had clearly peaked. It was time for a quick cleanup and for us to collect our things so we could bounce. There would be no conversational cuddling after the fact.

Nevertheless, once back in our room, David’s shadow had already begun to cast itself:

“Hey, tonight: number one!” we said with fluttering fists and indicative index fingers.

Yup.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Happiness, Malaysia, Misadventure

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

“I Missed the Wedding?”: My Thai Christmas

To elaborate:

“Tor, what the hell do you mean they’re already married?”

“Man, they already married. Happen already.”

Tor, unable to escape his Thai accent, is in the habit of calling dudes ‘man’ with a quickly rising tone. It adds a certain idiosyncratic charm to the moniker, except when he tells you that you missed his sister getting married. At 6:30 p.m. on the day of her wedding. When you’ve been with Tor, his sister, and her family since 1 p.m.

The word already is normally translated from the similarly defined laew, except laew is reportedly used a lot more often in Thai than in English, so discerning exact past-tense time frames can be confusing.

Resting against the stand-up table, admiring the warmly-lit stage adorned with flowers and candles after further scanning the buffet for more vegetarian options—I had a mound of fruit and spring rolls in hand—I began to absorb what I had heretofore tried to choke with food: this was the motherfucking reception.

Kind of par for the course, really.

“Oh, that’s right. This is the engagement ceremony,” I said under my breath, simultaneously remembering my presence among the families.

At 12:57 p.m., I had run into the engagement ceremony at the Plaza Athenée in Ploen Chit, Bangkok. Thanks to traffic and a particularly slow-moving BTS train, I had to sprint from the sky train to the high-end hotel, thanking any and all Powers that I chose to wear a black, and therefore sweat concealing, shirt.

Luckily, the wedding was a wedding, so everything was running well behind schedule. I had to time to settle in as Tor performed last-minute duties and schmoozed with his family. I was told the wedding would be jam-packed with friends and family.

I’m no mathematician, but the seventy-ish other people there hardly packed the room, and certainly were not jammed.

As it goes here, traditionally, there’s an engagement ceremony sometime before the wedding itself. The couple is ‘engaged’ before the ceremony, but this event is a way to bring the two families together before the actual wedding—as well as maintain leftovers from the days of dowries.

(Please pardon the BlackBerry pictures)

This ceremony is pretty exclusively meant for the closest members of the families’ coteries. I, no matter how one sliced it, was neither close nor coterie.

They are family.

Indeed, my invitation to anything more than the reception was rather fortunate. Fortunate because my friend Tor is a damn sweetheart.

A general invitation to the reception was extended to all farang in Tor’s social circle: this wedding needed a party, and no one should be excluded from a party. The engagement ceremony and reported wedding, on the other hand, were another matter entirely. These two were by invitation only.

But this was a Christmas wedding and I planned on fishing for a Christmas miracle—or, you know, a Christmas invitation to a wedding.

Before the wedding, all of my friends were working on plans to go to a hotel for a lavish and entirely too-well stocked food and booze buffet. Their plan sounded great, but the buffet ended at 3 p.m.; I’ve been hungover before dinner and that shit blows. Besides, I hadn’t been to a wedding in six or so years, and I didn’t want my Christmas in Thailand to drunkenly pass me by.

Drunkenly pass me by before 8 p.m., at least.

The Christmas miracle proved easy.

“Yea man, come to engagement party,” Tor said.

Easy.

So there I stood, clutching Tor’s camera while a woman with a microphone, the planner, narrated the proceedings, seemingly down to the tiniest detail.

I felt like a dick in a yard.

The family was wonderful and hospitable and affable and charming. I thanked them endlessly for allowing me to come to the entire day’s events. They didn’t hesitate to shut me up and say, “Of course,” “No problem,”or“ It’s a pleasure to have you.”  They were nothing if not affirmingly delightful.

But still: dick in a yard.

Exhausted

The engagement ceremony went about ninety minutes too long. The gift-giving, picture-taking, and tireless MC made sure that the whole schedule would need to be adjusted.

People were getting antsy. They waited for the appropriate time to spill out for the coffee-and-snack break, but they nevertheless did spill out. Tor and I separated from the crowd, concocting what to do between now, 3:45 p.m., and the alleged wedding at 5:30 p.m.

In the end, we did what any two guys would do while waiting for a Bangkok wedding to recommence on Christmas Day.

Mexican food and beer.

Delicious

Three-quarters deep into my rice bowl and at the bottom of my Heineken, Tor looked at his watch.

“Shit man, almost 17:15.”

We hurried back to the hotel and sauntered into the large hall.

Motherfucker, this doesn’t look like where a wedding happens, I thought.

There was food laid at both ends of the long room. People, now approaching packed but not yet jammed, had their ties loosened and dresses shortened. The stage, which looked like a chode version of the letter T, had an eight-tier cake at the end and was topped by Ken and Barbie. On the room’s three screens was a looped video of the bride and groom: a campy narrative, set to music, of how the two doctors met and fell in love.

Tor and I still had time to shoot the shit before the other farangs arrived. We nursed watered-down whiskey and sodas—a Thai specialty—as he introduced me to members of the family.

Why not cut the cake like pirates?

I felt comfortable here. There were no (always acceptable and understood) sideways glances at my unexpected and maybe displaced farang body. Old ladies smiled and little kids didn’t give a shit. They were here for a wedding and I was of no consequence, except to be greeted and welcomed.

Tossing the bouquet

The groom rockin' out

At some point the other Americans showed up. At some point the whiskey and sodas got stronger or coordinated a bull rush. At some point there was a lot of group dancing—but only the farang group—to the only English-language song the band played. Don’t ask me what song. Before that, though, all of the old people had left. After that, though, a Thai man almost 100% fluent in English tried to right my vegetarian wrongs. He even used the word paradigm, albeit incorrectly. During this talk, he almost tipped backwards. I did my best not to register any notice. After those, my friends, who booked a room in the hotel, had two ice blocks that were used as decoration brought to their room. Somewhere there, I exchanged BlackBerry pins with Tor’s cousin whose name I remembered thanks to the pin. During this, we almost ran out of whiskey. At the end of the scare, Tor came in with four boxes of Johnny Walker Red. After refueling, there was a dance fest with the bride and groom. Towards the end, two of my friends had absconded—can one abscond if I’m too drunk to notice?—and worked the ice blocks into ice luges. After doing one, I faced a bottle and did a lot of drunk texting.

After it all, I was involved in a rolling brownout in the back of my cab, whose driver was asking for directions.

“I’m sorry. I’m a little drunk,” I told him in Thai.

That room, those hors-d’oeuvres, Barbie and Ken, belied what was to come.

Scanning the place, figuring out when I’d hear the I Dos I hadn’t heard in so long, I didn’t realize I hadn’t grasped it yet.

Don’t get me wrong: I was loving the food; I was loving the crowd; I was loving the couple’s music video; I knew I was about to love the whiskey and sodas that were to follow the one in my hand. But something was amiss. If nothing else, we were an hour passed the reported hour of the wedding.

“Tor, when do they get married?”

“Man, they married already.”

Did I miss something?

“Tor, what the hell do you mean they’re already married?”

“Man, they already married. Happen already.”

Nope.

Langauge barrier?

“What do you mean ‘married already’? Are they husband and wife yet?”

“Yea, man. That what I said.”

Nope.

Fucking with me?

“Tor, are you fucking with me?”

“No man, not fucking.”

Nope, although a direct object would have been comforting.

“How did we miss them getting married? Why did we get Mexican food if they were getting married?”

“Man, you can’t see that. After engagement, parents say, ‘Goodbye,’ and Oat and Pueng [groom and bride] go to their room together. They marry then.”

Oh.

“Oh.”

 
1 Comment

Posted by on January 16, 2012 in Happiness, Thailand

 

Tags: , , , ,

How to Write a Beach: Thailand’s Andaman Coast

It’s difficult to write about a beach vacation.

I’m not pompous enough to pretend that I can write anything, even if I am enough to write. Besides, nothing really happened; and when nothing really happens, shitty metaphors spill out in oily logorrhea. I’ve been on whiter sands, have enjoyed more soothing and impressive surf, and swum in bluer waters. The mere notion of evoking such platitudes is enough to kill the real beauty that the coastal areas of southern Thailand actually contain.

I mean, this is the area where moviemakers filmed The Beach, The Man with the Golden Gun, and Tomorrow Never Dies.

Because of the awful, deadly, and destructive floods in northern and central Thailand that began at the end of July and have been slow to subside, many schools and businesses in the area have been forced to temporarily—permanently, in some tragic cases—suspend operations. From Thursday, 27 October, until Sunday, 30 October, the city of Bangkok declared an impromptu holiday. All residents who were able to leave the city were strongly encouraged by the government to do so.

Resort areas, like Hua Hin and Koh Samet, became quickly filled as Thais and others left the city. Many expats even flew home, including two of my friends.

All of us had just returned from our inter-semester vacations and were exhausted and traveling and ready for work. The news that classes were postponed—eventually until 28 November—was deflating.

Of course, not everyone was able to leave—and certainly not to beaches. On November 20, the Associated Press reported that the death toll from the floods had passed 600.

A friend and I left for the beach on Saturday, 29 October. We ran ourselves into the ground island hopping (if such a statement can and should be made), a strategy that was pretty stupid in hindsight. We got back to our rooms in Bang Na on Sunday, 6 November.

Of course, plenty happened during that week. I filled two and a half pages in my notebook with day-by-day notes—more than my stint as an extra in a commercial received. One day, I traveled on a long-tail boat to two islands and two karsts—limestone formations that jut out of the water and high into the clear sky—snorkeling into schools of fish I’d seen only in Finding Nemo. Another day, I spent all but five hours in my bed—mainly sleeping—as my body battled some disruptive and evacuating twenty-four-hour bug.

I also, embarrassingly, left my camera behind and missed photos within the otherworldly Emerald Cave, reportedly a one-time treasure cache for pirates.

The highlight, though, was a couple hours spent on a rented motorbike with my friend. She and I wanted to explore past our little nook on Klong Khong Beach and maybe hunt down an alleged night market in the older area, on the east coast, of Koh Lanta.

There was no night market where we looked for one, but it didn’t matter. We continued to slowly make our way around the eastern and north-eastern coasts of the island. The night was chilly—especially for me, who was driving—the road was poorly maintained and riddled with potholes, and our motorbike’s headlight worked, tops, at fifty percent.

But the sea air was crisp and delicious and the stars lit the sky almost as much as the waxing moon.

There weren’t Norwegian and British flags; signs reading, “We speak Francais”; persistent vendors pushing trips to other islands; or scuba shops. This was Koh Lanta before many—non-Thai and Thai alike—realized the island’s beach paradises, particularly on the western shores.

Ramshackle wood and corrugated metal houses stood on sparsely vegetated plots of dirt. 7-11s and restaurants were less popular than mobile food-stalls fixed outside of these homes. One could drive for five kilometers before seeing another human. Streetlights illuminated ten meters every kilometer, if not less.

I did float around in the gentle Andaman Sea as well. Long-tail boats and rectangle limestone-mountains were the only things visible on the horizon.

I did announce, twice, “This is motherfucking delightful,” squatting chin-deep in azure waters and staring down a karst.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on November 22, 2011 in Thailand

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

See You Again, Vientiane

My eyes burned from the frequently wafted urine splashed out of the filled toilet and onto the floor. My brain was spinning from the rock-concert loud pop music that blared all night and mocked me and my dead iPod. My legs and back were stiff from the bus’s just-too-short sleeper seats. My spirit was cracking from all of the people verbally complaining about the same things about which I was mentally complaining.

And so we pulled into the ­­­­­­­­­­Talat Sao Bus Station in Vientiane, Laos’s capital, around 7 a.m.

The impetus for Vientiane (pronounced ‘vee-en-tee-ehn’ by Westerners and ‘wee-ehn chan’ by Southeast Asians) was due more to inertia and hope than excitement. Luang Prabang had sucked the life out of me and the two friends I had made—one of whom saved my foot—were in transit to Vietnam. They decided to forgo the rest of their trip in Laos, since the northern city deflated them as well.

My vacation still had plenty of time left, however, and Vientiane was on my itinerary. Laos needed redemption and I was ready for a city: something that wasn’t full of the alleged quiet charm of Luang Prabang. (Another swing and a miss, Lonely Planet.) I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do in the capital, but I knew I was going to do it.

After some recovery.

By 10 a.m., I was settled in my guesthouse—the friendly, clean, affordable, convenient, and highly recommended Mixay Guesthouse on ­­­­­­­­­Norkeokumman Road—and sitting down to comfort food: noodle soup from a street vendor and two cups coffee strong enough to cross an elephant’s eyes. My dSLR was left on my bed, right next to my burdensome and conspicuous pack, neither of which was desired for many hours. Instead, I was defined by two goals: a new book and a café. Within forty-five minutes of slurping the ends of my soup’s broth, I had bought David Mitchell’s latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and was sauntering into Scandinavian Bakery.

Yes, Scandinavian Bakery—in Vientiane; in Laos; in Southeast Asia; more than 5,200 miles from Copenhagen, Denmark, the most proximate Scandinavian city to Vientiane.

Allow me a knee-jerk defense of myself.

The bakery has the cheapest coffee in city, both air-conditioning and outdoor seating, and padded chairs as opposed to the generic, stack-able, plastic lawn chairs at any Laotian café. Moreover, the place was a ten-minute walk from my guesthouse, an appreciated quality in any location for a person—me—who gets lost while walking to the bathroom. Also, any and all comforts were welcome as I tried to refuel for the rest of my vacation.

Now allow me to unjerk my knee and say, “Shove it up your ass if you think I need to defend myself” (which I do, somewhat, maybe?).

I simply wasn’t in the mood to make a silly attempt at authenticity. I went to Scandinavian Bakery, ordered in broken Laos, and kicked off my shoes.

Afterwards, I ended up Noy’s Fruit Heaven, admittedly a home-run suggestion by Lonely Planet and exactly the place to continue Thousand Autumns. I kicked back with a star-fruit shake and plowed deeper into my book. I consumed both voraciously and appreciatively.

Five hours later, I had walked to the end of a night market and sat down at a small, family-run food vendor for dinner—eating slowly, as to watch the sun slowly sink into the Mekong.

You hear that, peninsula of Luang Prabang? Street food: totally faceless places with one burner and a tiny menu that rely more on the kip than the dollar or euro. Bastard, I chide you for the participation the rest of the world has had with you.

It was here, at dinner, where I began to see and feel the difference between Laos’s capital and Luang Prabang. Vientiane was a home; all of the markers were present: street food; ever-present language barriers for foreigners; people running for exercise; a playground; more Laotians in jeans than Caucasians in tank tops. Of course, the tourist aspects are needed. Additionally, I have no illusions about being nothing if not a tourist. But tourist money, while subsidizing the opening of doors and global-socioeconomic improvement, subsequently limits and strips the very situations of the places and people it otherwise elevates. In Vientiane, life felt like it happened around and along with tourist money, not because of it.

from China, with communism

Nevertheless, the influx of foreign money—even if not necessarily tourist money—was obvious and unavoidably recognized. I could not walk for more than thirty minutes without stubbing my toe on a waist-high monument recognizing the donation of a foreign nation, from China to France.

It quickly became apparent that Laos, or at least Vientiane, relies heavily on foreign money. According to the CIA World Factbook, my go-to resource for almost everything, foreign sources donated $586 million to the Laotian government in FY09/10.

And why not? The country is stunningly poor. Again, just take a look at the World Factbook: the country’s GDP (or the admittedly problematic PPP (purchasing power parity)-based GDP) ranks 135 globally at $15.69 billion, based on 2010 estimates. Compare that GDP to second-ranked America ($14.66 trillion), fifth-ranked India ($4.06 trillion), and eighty-third-ranked Kenya ($66.03 billion).

Another look: Laos’s per capita income was, according to 2010 estimates, $2,500, placing it at 181st. Qatar, the world’s reportedly richest nation per capita, sits at the top with an estimated $179,000. USA’s per capita income, eleventh, is figured around $47,200. Eighty-third-ranked Botswana is about $14,000. (For consistency, India came in at 162 at $3,500 and Kenya at 197 at $1,600. Such are frightening disparities in wealth.)

In a Reuters article about a budding China-Laos/ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) railway, the first sentence describes Laos as a “poor and landlocked Southeast Asian nation.”

According to a number of sources, though, things are on up, economically.

Returning to the nascent railway system, there are legitimate hopes that it will help to better connect Laos to other ASEAN communities and, most significantly, China. Laos’s deputy prime minister, Somsavat Lengsavad, told Reuters that he has high hopes for the railway, which is expected to open by 2014 or ’15. He sees it as part of a larger system of ventures:

“To free our country from the least developed status … our government has invested much in communication infrastructure development in order to complement both intra-ASEAN and ASEAN-China integration.”

Indeed, Laos has seen drastic economic improvement in recent years. According to Reuters, “Bilateral trade between China and Laos grew by more than half in 2009 to $751.8 million.” Remarkably, the World Factbook reports, “Economic growth [in Laos] has reduced official poverty rates from 46% in 1992 to 26% in 2010,” in part due to “high foreign investment.”

Unlike the parts of Luang Prabang that I saw, which were characterized mainly by travel agencies and restaurants—and therefore arguably geared more to accommodating foreigners than more varied purposes—the markers of Vientiane’s development were often regularly self-absorbed: parks; office complexes; less-Indochina-styled buildings; well-regulated traffic.

None of the above is to obscure that Vientiane, let alone Laos, is anything but poor. The deputy prime minister himself admitted “least developed status.” Indeed, the aforementioned monuments are constant reminders of the proliferation and influence of foreign investment and, significantly, gifts. The world outside of the major cities, of which I saw slivers from the windows of my unholy buses, did not to anything to bespeak urban existence: paved roads were often interrupted by wide dirt paths (and I traveled only between major cities—never off the very beaten path, where unexploded ordinances are still a deadly problem); collections of huts on stilts that have one site of electricity, if at all; people using buckets to bathe outdoors with a towel around their waists for privacy as traffic zips by on the road. As of 2010, an estimated three-fourths of the Laotian labor force was involved in agriculture, while those participating in industry and services was “not available,” according to the World Factbook. In the capital itself, I saw tiny shanty houses erected—or, maybe more appropriately, propped—against large corporate structures.

I decided to have one more full day in this city split between gentrified and developing-world poor, and I deemed it best to spend the bulk of it on a chauffeured tour of holy structures and other landmarks.

Much like I did in Ayutthaya, I hired a tuk-tuk to take me to a predetermined set of monuments without offering a proper, guided, descriptive tour. I loved my trip to Ayutthaya—the scenery was unreal, I started to settle into my dSLR, and I felt like I carpe diem’ed the whole place pretty well because of my chartered tuk-tuk—so making the same choice in Vientiane for 130,000 kip (about $16.30, or 502 THB) was easy.

The tour’s first stop was Pha That Luang, a massive golden stupa (the cone-looking things) within a larger religious and sovereign complex. It was erected in 1566 and, according to the 15th edition of Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, legend says sits very near the site where, as early as the the 3rd century B.C., Indian Buddhists built a different stupa to house a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone. All I know is the stupa, slightly tilted, blasts out of the otherwise flat ground and makes everything else within view seem slightly more or slightly less golden; I couldn’t decide.

Next was Patuxai, a simulacrum of the unmistakable Arc de Tripomphe in Paris, France and, amusingly, a gift from China. Laos’s version had its own charm, experienced mainly in the numerous, steep flights of stairs that led to a final, staircase that spiraled to the top of the monument and was the gateway to panoramic views of Laos’s capital, but which barely accommodated my Western body. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I left some layers of skin from my forehead on the back of one of the steps as I was descending and stood up a little too tall.

Hophrakeo was third and was pretty damn boring. The monument was next to the final stop, Wat Sisaket, so I have a feeling Hophrakeo offered some padding to a tour that would feel a little trim with only three sights. Cameras were not allowed inside, which was just as well since inside was a weird, tiny museum/repository of Buddhas tossed into a room.

As I said, the final destination was Wat Sisaket, It’s construction was completed in the beginning of the 19th century and is the city’s oldest surviving temple. This wat had a charm and warmth to which I hadn’t been accustomed with prior holy sites I’d visited: the proliferation of earth tones and burnt-red clay structures supported a reverent air without imposing immediately palpable awe. As I walked around the perimeter wall, snapping pictures of the varying, mid-sized Buddhas and tiny ones stacked in alcoves in the same walls, I gently slipped into Sisaket.

Instead of returning me to Mixay Guesthouse, I asked my tuk-tuk driver to drop me at Talat Sao, an overwhelmingly boring and bland market near a bus station named for the market. The near-mile walk back to my guesthouse, however, allowed for a leisurely exploration of the city, including a couple wrong left-turns and a glimpse of a house right off of a cover of a William Faulkner novel.

Southern Gothic? Indochinese relic?

For dinner, I ate at Taj Mahal, a wonderful Indian restaurant a couple streets away from Mixay, with a pair of guys I met at the guesthouse. The first, an affable, if not slightly forward, 39-year-old was in Laos to volunteer with children undergoing physical rehabilitation before he returned to Israel to apply for a medical license. The other, a 50-some-year-old Canadian looking for work, struck me as slightly off-kilter. He was in Southeast Asia to look for work as a carpenter, building furniture. He had already investigated jobs in Thailand and was beginning to worry a bit about job prospects.

He explained, “I’ve been in the region for about six months and just can’t find work.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Build furniture. I have a couple of spots scouted here, but I don’t know how they’ll pan out.”

I said, “Best of luck,” but thought—and tried my best not to say—“What the fucking what?”

Maybe he preferred the permanent warmth of the region to Canada’s snowy chill. Maybe he really likes the selection of woods in Southeast Asia. Maybe he’s finally tackling his list of dreams, which is topped by “itinerant carpenter.” Maybe he wants to live somewhere where Americans won’t regularly laugh at his distinctly Canadian ‘aboot’. I don’t know his past. What I do know is that I expected to meet a man who came to the region to be a carpenter as much as I expected to have a sea sprite sit on my face.

The following day was filled with filling time before my overnight bus back to Bangkok.

Originally, I wanted a train. Not only had I heard good things about the train between Vientiane and Bangkok, but buses had proved to eat, deeply, vulgar amounts of ass on this trip. However, the train was about 40% more expensive than the bus, and I wasn’t clear on my funds. Thus, I took a chance and opted for the bus.

Jackpot.

No loud music—or any music, for that matter. Comfortable seats. No puddles of piss. No smell of piss. Hell, no misplaced piss! Free dinner, vegetable fried rice, at a restaurant. Guidance with customs regulations and procedures at the border.

What more could a farang desire?

For one, the unexpected relief and glee once back on Thai soil.

In Laos, automobile traffic moves on the right side of the road; in Thailand, the left. Once the bus shifted lanes from the right to the left, I felt lighter and happier: I was back. You should have seen my smile when a lizard scurried out from behind a potted plant sitting at eye-level and surprised me while I was at a urinal.

Oh, and my feet—which garnered so much attention, from pitying tears to mocking laughs—had deflated to their regular, vein-y versions and were enjoying a healthy, uninfected scab.

Time to be back, bitches.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 12, 2011 in Laos

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,