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Category Archives: Thailand

“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

 

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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

 

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Pai II: Muay Thai and Motorbike Accidents

It’s rare that I handle a blog post while still in the midst of an experience. But I’m in my favorite café in Pai, carrot shake in hand, taking notes in my Moleskin (#stuffwhitepeoplelike) about my time here, and digesting 45 THB worth of strong coffee and jok, a traditional Thai meal reminiscent of porridge but loaded with a ton of fixin’s. In short, life, as it currently stands, is good. Besides, tonight I depart for Chiang Khong, a border town between Thailand and Laos, before bouncing into the latter for seven to ten days. So, while I may still be in the midst of an experience, it’s a good time to take a breather.

Besides, I just finished a grueling—and mainly enjoyable—week at a muay thai camp in Pai.

Muay thai, also sometimes called thai boxing, is a combat sport that combines striking with one’s fists, elbows, knees, and shins along with upright grappling, called the clinch. While definitely not the most popular sport it Thailand, it is still the national sport, and it seems like many males I’ve come across here have some, even rudimentary, knowledge of it. At its highest level, muay thai involves brutal ass-kicking, tremendous stamina, and impressive will-power. At every level, though, it encourages supportive and productive camaraderie.

On Thursday, September 29, I boarded an overnight bus to Chiang Mai with a new friend who’s set to live in Thailand until December 23. I considered myself lucky to have some company because I thought I’d be spending the next twenty-five days—my break between semesters—alone. I wanted to do a muay thai camp before I left Thailand, which precluded me from joining friends’ trips to Vietnam, Malaysia, or elsewhere. I don’t mind traveling alone—or at least I didn’t think I would—so I dived into planning and coordinating Pai and, afterwards, Laos. Needless to say, though, I welcomed the company, especially from someone as chatty, enthusiastic, and fun as her. She’s a great travel-buddy, as far as I’m concerned.

To take advantage, I of course fell asleep for the majority of the bus ride and left her to enjoy bus-ridden insomnia. Don’t blame me; I was exhausted from grading and packing frenzies. Besides, chivalry is dead.

From the bus, we hitched a van to Pai and arrived by 1 p.m., allowing me to partake in the afternoon training session. (Most gyms have two-a-days. The one at which I trained, Rose Gym, trains for two hours at 8 a.m. and again at 4 p.m.) Since I had a tiny bungalow at the camp, we found the friend a guesthouse and chowed down on a massive mess-plate of vegetarian food for 35 THB, including some of the best roasted pumpkin I’ve ever had.

Blow me.

When I called one of the gym’s proprietors to coordinate getting to the camp, I discovered some terrible news: the bridge that conveniently lead to the gym from town had been washed away after Myanmar lifted a dam to avoid flooding, causing waters to rush south into Pai. One of the main reasons I chose Rose Gym was because of that fucking bridge; it would have allowed me to easily enjoy Pai in between training sessions. Now the goddamn thing was gone and, upon recommendation, I needed to rent a motorbike. Shit.

The first day, though, I got a ride in a pickup from some lovely people associated with Rose Gym. There, I threw my shit in my bare-bones bungalow, changed, and got right to training.

Shower;

Pooper;

Sleeper.

Damn, son, it felt good to be back. I expected a hell of a time getting my body acclimated: I trained in muay thai for a year—more than two years ago—and have had only a smattering of training sessions since then. Plus, Pai is at one ass-end of the Himalayas, and I was worried about training at a higher altitude since I have a history of asthma, even if it’s been mainly dormant for the past eight or so years. Anyway, I did just fine. My stamina held—probably thanks to my irregular triathlon training—and the trainer and I immediately had a rapport, as I mostly understood how he held the pads. Of course, I was rusty as shit, but not so rusty as to be useless.

A fellow student, an Australian, generously took me back into town on his motorbike so I could meet up with my friend. She and I spent the night walking around Pai and bar hopping (but no booze for me). We stayed up pretty late talking about absolute bullshit, but thankful bullshit, since it meant I wasn’t talking to myself. I also had to sleep in her room, since I didn’t have a motorbike and walking to the camp was out of the question.

Why was it out of the question? On a bike, the camp is fifteen to twenty minutes away, half of which is along a very hilly mud/dirt path riddled with trenches. The trip fucking sucks on a motorbike, and would probably be just as bad—and slower—on foot.

I woke early so I could rent a motorbike and find my way to camp before the morning session. Here, I made two wise decisions: to rent for only one week and to buy insurance for 40-THB-extra a day.

“Does this insurance cover everything?” I asked the employee at the motorbike-rental place.

“Yes,” she assured me. Considering I had been on a motorized two-wheel vehicle only once before, I thought the insurance-for-everything was a smart move.

Suspicion confirmed.

Smart move, Suddenly Farang.

Around twenty or thirty minutes after I rented the bike, I motherfucking crashed it. I took a wrong left onto a wrong dirt road, turned around, and skidded from dirt to gravel—all on steep inclines. My touchy accelerator got the best of me and the back of my bike went right as I went left—and down. I opened up my left elbow and foot and scraped my left knee. Plus, I shattered the left side-view mirror and maybe cracked the front bumper.

Small, but it bled for weeks.

Again, smart move with the insurance, me.

All said, the wounds, however bloody, were pretty superficial; the crash was mainly a blow to my ego. However, the planned two weeks at the camp took a big hit: because of the scrapes, I could no longer kick, knee, or elbow with my left side without immediate searing pain.

The walk.

I treated the wounds with alcohol at least three times a day, but I was still worried about them, especially the one on my foot. As I said, the walk to and from the camp involved mostly mud—luckily, mainly dried dirt by the end of the week—which meant that four times a day (leaving and arriving from the camp after each training session), I dunked my open wound in mud.

Holy hell did I want that bridge.

The cuts stop oozing a day or two ago—five or six days after the accident—which is a good sign? It still hurts to walk, since the one on the foot is at the upper end, and thus stretches open with the first steps after a rest.

Most of all, though, I was pissed about training. I came to Rose to kick the ever-loving shit out things (and have this action returned), not to be forced to wear a shin guard and worry each time I cranked my left leg.

After the morning training, I was really discouraged and angered. I wanted to go back into town for much needed food, but it fucking began to rain, and the last thing I wanted was to deal with were those hills, freshly muddy. Instead, I did what any sensible angry person does: nap.

And I napped again after lunch, because life was just that paralyzingly boring.

Thus far, my choice to train in Pai was backfiring: in one day, I had as many naps as meals, was bleeding like a stuck pig, limping all over the place, and hating my requisite mode of transportation.

An appropriate fucking metaphor: a view from my bungalow.

After a few harried hours of consideration, I decided to do only one week at Rose instead of the planned two. There was no way my leg would be fine enough to kick as hard as I needed to in two weeks, and I was overly frustrated with my other conditions.

Thankfully, I found balanced contentment by the end of the week. But we’re not there yet.

A more complete view, metaphor.

Afternoon practice normally ended by 6:15 p.m., and the sun is pretty much set by 6:35 p.m. Consequently, I had to use the flashlight on my cell phone—the main perk when I bought it!—to navigate the five minute walk to my bike through somewhat-footpathed fields. I mentioned the stunningly clear Pai sky in my first post about town; the wonderful blackness was no different this time. Unlike before, though, I now had to find my way to my motorbike on foot in order to get into town—all in a blanket of goddamn utter darkness.

Once in town, though, things got better—as they tended to do while my friend was in Pai. She had signed up for a two-day mahout training course at Thom’s, per my recommendation, and wanted to relax after four hours on an elephant’s back. We ate and chilled with another student from Rose who was leaving for Chiang Mai the next day. We finally landed at Nancy Bar, an over-the-top reggae and weed themed bar with—as if it needs saying—a 100% relaxed atmosphere. I once again stayed with the friend—she was lodged at Thom’s, in the same bungalow I had—because driving back was wholly unappealing.  Besides, Sunday was my day off from training.

And what a day off it was.

The friend persuaded—well, slightly coerced—me to do another tour at Thom’s. I was pretty reluctant since I had done the walk once before and enjoyed it mainly because my best friend in Thailand was so affectively joyous. However, it was the elephant or be bored off of my balls, so I chose the elephant.

Smart move, Suddenly Farang.

Pom Paem

The two of us shared Pom Paem, the elephant that my elephant-loving friend spent her time loving my first time at Thom’s. This elephant is smaller than either that I rode, making this second experience much more comfortable—no ham problems. Additionally, the entire vibe was different: the tour was just me, my friend, the mahout, and Pom Paem; we didn’t have the large group that I had the first time. She and I just sat and bullshat, looking forward to the river and rodeo, which was exactly as fun as it was previously. The current was hella strong, though, so making one’s way back to Pom Paem after being thrown off felt like a light workout.

Soaked, giddy, and back at Thom’s, we ate lunch with two couples—one from England by way of Slovenia and one from Denmark—whom my friend had met the preceding day. The two couples are extensive travelers, and the Slovenian one was in the middle of a ten-month tour of Southeast Asia. I was impressed by their intrepidness, as they were set on not blazing through the region, but instead spending as much time in each country as they could, absorbing as much as possible. The pair has a pretty awesome blog, Rice Capades 2011 – 2012, as well. You should follow them as they make their ways through the region—and tear out toured countries from their Lonely Planet in the process.

Next: hot spring, nap, shower, and riding with my friend back into town on my motorbike. The same group met for dinner and headed to Ting Tong, another relaxed bar that also had couches and was showing some (reportedly) important soccer game.

Although I had completed only three training sessions, I was nevertheless fucking exhausted. Sunday, with all of its relaxed and subtle glee, was a complete rejuvenation.

From here on, I hit my stride with training. My energy levels remained mostly high and I was even put in charge of stretching. Also, two new trainees arrived on Monday—a Dutch girl and a Swiss guy—and stayed for three or four days. Both had a year-and-a-half of training under their belts, including short stints at camps in Thailand. The two were pretty good—definitely better than me—and the guy got me pretty good in two bouts of sparring. For better or worse, I was the only one who trained both sessions every day, so I think I milked the most out of the lead trainer, Lon—who had yet to be joined by Em, who didn’t arrive until Tuesday. 

Em and Lon

A watchful eye

The French friend left Monday afternoon, leaving me to my own devices. The Slovenian couple were in town for another day, however, so I met up with them while the guy was getting the eye of one of the elephant’s from Thom’s, Ot, tattooed on the inside of his left bicep. I met them for final hour of his two-and-a-half-hour session, and was blown away by the final product. After much shopping, they went to Cross Tattoo, whose artist and proprietor was finishing his fine arts degree—a qualification that was entirely evident in the final product.

I also hit my stride with life in Pai. I enjoyed old favorites—smoothies at Baan Pai Restaurant; falafel at Mama Falafel; coffee at Cake Go O @ Pai (where I spent too much time blogging and reading)—while exploring even more of the city. On a few occasions, I purposefully wandered off of the two or three main roads and into the surrounding area. Wandering like this in Pai is like driving ten minutes off the Vegas strip: shit changes. As a result, I discovered awesome and cheap noodle places, a small Vietnamese restaurant, and a carnival that seemed to pop up from nowhere. Much like the salted fish that my good friend and I discovered in Pai the first time I came, there is a surprising amount this town has to offer beyond conspicuous hippie hideaways, picturesque scenery, and waterfalls. Indeed, there is a Thailand up here.

Life, in between

In between training sessions, I didn’t do much of anything worth discussing. I plowed through, and loved, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, blogged, walked, drank coffee, opened William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury for the third time to begin research for a hopeful article, and ate and ate and ate. This final activity may have been the best part of the camp. I feel the healthiest I have in awhile (minus all of the lower-body pain), but I also ate my face off to ensure I had necessary energy stores for pad work. I even regularly indulged in sweets (well, baked goods and large amounts of roasted bananas), which is normally uncharacteristic of me.

During the week, my feelings on Pai wavered—typically in rhythm with how much my body hurt. Looking back at my Moleskin, there is an entire section beginning “*Less in love with Pai,” but which was later punctuated with the city’s better points in the page’s nearby margins. Yes, the city is sleepy and quiet and small, but that’s why I came. Yes, the city has way too many hippies and other farangs—so many that I’d wager the center of town has as many foreigners as Thais at some hours—but this presence has encouraged a wealth of food and drink choices, including outstanding vegetarian fare. Come to think of it, I think I’ve maintained a vegetarian diet since I arrived (save the occasional overdose of nam pla, or ‘fish sauce’, which I’ve also consciously avoided). In retrospect, Pai and Rose Gym are ideal places to train, as your mind and body stay focused while still being allowed to wander and relax. (Plus, Lon is awesome for someone who isn’t quite refined enough to get in the ring.) Someone shouldn’t come here if he/she wants to train and live it up, but definitely if he/she wants to train, do some personal work, and relax in between—and maybe explore less-trod paths.

Friday, October 7, was my last day of training—and training was training. For thirteen sessions, Lon was committed to making me better and ignored the fact that I was at Rose for merely a week and was not going to fight. Naturally, I wanted to say thank you, and figured buying Lon and Em dinner was as good a choice as any for someone living on the baht. The three of us, along with two other (new) trainees, enjoyed heaping plates of Thai food at Buffalo, a dusky outdoor bar/restaurant on the outskirts of the main part of Pai. Dinner was quiet, thanks to the language barrier, but it was good.

In between silences, I calculated a rough estimate of the work done during my thirteen sessions. Here are the estimates:

  • 8,000 reps on the jump rope
  • 780 right kicks
  • 520 left kicks
  • 390 elbows
  • 650 jabs
  • 500 crosses
  • 900 front kicks, both legs
  • 910 pushups
  • 1,625 reps of ab work
  • 13,000 swear words

I’m pretty sure I’m low-balling these numbers a bit, since I’m only calculating what was done on the pads and bags, and not during shadow boxing or warm-ups.

And Rose doesn’t even have organized morning-runs.

It’s crazy to think that some people do this—train twice a day—as a career. The main trainer, Lon, started muay thai when he was 8 years old. At the time of this blog, he was 22.

Friday was also when I stumbled across the carnival. The other four returned to the camp, burdened with morning practice. I chose to freely stroll after enjoying my first beer in a week—and quickly saw all of the same shit I had been seeing for nearly seven days. For a moment, I considered driving back to my bungalow—until, that is, I spotted what I thought was a muay thai ring two blocks away from one of Pai’s main roads.

Beyond curious, I decided to walk to it.

Muay thai ring, no. Tiny town-carnival with janky rides and enough sweets to give a dentist a stroke, yes.

Smart move, Suddenly Farang.

Enthused carny

I had just finished reading Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, which was good until the final quarter, and thoroughly enjoyed Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, so potentially creepy carnivals set in clearings have a weird, literary allure for me. Plus, they’re just kind of fun. I milled around with my point-and-shoot for a bit before being grabbed by a carny who demanded that I take photos of her and myself with her.

Later, while watching a pair of pétanque games, a clearly drunk guy pulled me over from my lonely spot on the grass, offered my whiskey (which I declined), and proceeded to talk to me in Thai while introducing me to his friends. In Thai, I kept saying, “I’m sorry. I don’t have Thai language”—verbiage which itself indicates a lack of proficiency—but Pipers whiskey and hospitality had taken over and he didn’t give damn, thankfully. I stayed for ten minutes or so, making the same hoots and hollers at good tosses, but decided to leave before things got too drunk. (I wasn’t drinking since I had to drive back to camp.)

I began the cruise back to my bungalow pretty elated. I had just capped off my week of training with a dinner with new friends, dug deeper in Pai to avoid its hippie caricature, and was now pretty comfortable on the motorbike, even on back roads. I had gone so far as to begin constructing mental sentences for this blog about how goddamn pro I was.

Until, you know, dharma upended my bike from between my legs as I proceeded cautiously down a steep hill.

Yup. I got into a second fucking accident. This time (I think), my bike went strangely over a rock or other unseen terrain, causing it to jerk forward and left just enough to twist the throttle under my braced right hand. The bike therefore accelerated out from under me and went straight and up. I was going downhill, so had been rearing back to compensate for gravity. I fell off and to the right.

The injuries weren’t nearly as bad this time (except those to the ego, which were exponentially larger), but I did fuck up my right leg a bit, which was already fucked up from so many kicks. After twenty minutes or so, the leg, from the top of the shin to the beginning of my toes, swelled up pretty good but with little to no pain. Dr. SF’s diagnosis: nothing broken. Prognosis: return the fucking motorbike.

Indeed, I counted myself really lucky: the awkward terrain could have easily created a fulcrum around which my leg could have broken, I could have had my dSLR with me, I could have had my netbook with me, or I could have left my helmet behind as my trainer encouraged me to do (but I wouldn’t have fucking dreamed of). Besides, I think my head slammed on the ground, so score one for me and helmet companies.

Accidents considered, I wasn’t afraid of the bike; I know traveling around Pai is unique because of the road conditions. But I also know when to throw in the towel and take a break—and the second accident, however mild, was enough of a signal for me. So I shit-canned my plans to cruise around to waterfalls and other sites in favor of working in my café, Café Go O @ Pai, and kicking back.

Smart move, Suddenly Farang.

Saturday morning, I got the photos of training I’d been putting off all week—and was blessed with proper lighting. Afterwards, my plan was to grab a so-called Vegetarian American Breakfast—a veggie omelet and toast—an idea I formulated to console myself as I fell asleep the night before with a throbbing right leg. Once in town, though, I scrapped that idea in favor of jok with coffee stronger than motor oil, the second best breakfast I’ve had in Thailand. Until then, I’d been eating and loving instant jok, but the sodium therein was making my teeth chatter. Now that I’ve had the real deal, though, I don’t know if I can ever go back.

For lunch, I had the aforementioned Vegetarian American Breakfast. It was more than twice as expensive as the jok and coffee, didn’t taste nearly as good, and, most importantly, reaffirmed what I and so many others have already discovered: eat local, dumbass.

Play it cool, boy. Real cool.

It’s Monday and I’m still in Pai. I have been super productive here and dived pretty deep into the street food. Plus, I had been hanging out with a South African guy I trained with for a couple days at the camp, so I haven’t been utterly alone and talking to myself. I just bought a minivan ticket to Chiang Khong and I don’t need to be back to work until October 24, so there’s still plenty of time to explore Laos.

As of now, I’m relaxed, industrious, and sated.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2011 in Happiness, Muay Thai, Thailand

 

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I Act: My Commercial

Thanatharee Cruise

It’s that time for another blog post. To be honest, I’m fairly embarrassed that I’ve waited this long to talk about something so blog-worthy: my debut on the small screen. Don’t jump out of your seat with excitement, though: I was recruited merely to be an extra in a commercial for a Thai cruise that travels up and down the Chao Phraya, the main river in Thailand around which much of the country has developed, between Bangkok and Ayutthaya.

Similarly, don’t think I’m playing down the experience: it was fucking awesome. I mean, I was hired to be background noise in a commercial, thereby (at least according to my initial presumption) needed to do jack shit in order to receive payment: three days and two nights on a small cruise boat with inclusive food and lodging as well as—and here’s the kicker—TWO free vouchers to return to the cruise to do it all over again, sans cameras. Yea, twist my arm.

My home for three days

Around 8:30 p.m. on August 24, a Wednesday, I received a call from my close friend who relayed the offer to me. She had few details, but the ones she did have were all I needed to make my decision: “Fuck yes. I’m in.”

Friday night—the night we were to leave—a big group of teachers went into Bangkok to grab some delicious Korean food before wading (I shit you not; we were wading. The rain was so bad that there was significant flooding, and using a cab was pointless because traffic was at a standstill) to the movie theater to see Cowboys and Aliens. Spoiler alert: it sucks donkey. I’ll skip any further synopsis or criticism and simply say that Cowboys and Aliens has no idea that its title means it’s supposed to be ironic.

The terrible movie behind me, I went for a couple drinks with the friend who recruited me for the commercial and her boyfriend. We were to be picked up at 3 a.m. by the production company, so around 10:30 p.m. we both figured there was no point sleeping; we might as well drink another beer or two and play more pool.

Dumb idea, if not enjoyably so.

Four and a half hours later, all six farangs (two chicks; four dicks) were packed in a van. All independently had the same idea and had stayed up all night. By about 5 a.m., we were still sitting in the production company—which was the size of a cobbler’s—looked at each other, and asked, “What the fuck were we thinking?” One guy was still kind of drunk and had to experience his hangover during the morning shoot.

(Look at me. “Morning shoot.” I’m already savvy with the lingo and the jargon and the whatnot.)

Pichit, one of the guys in charge, must have seen the glazed-over look in our eyes, because he eventually sent one of his assistants out to grab ten to fifteen canned iced coffees, three of which I proceeded to inject directly into my jugular.

I knew only the two chicks but the other five already knew each other, so I was slightly worried that I’d have to play odd-man-out sometimes. However, the three other dicks (and by dicks, I obviously still mean ‘humans equipped with man-junk’ and not anything pejorative) proved to be awesome people, and by the end of the weekend we were one big happy Thanatharee family.

After a few hours of sitting around, we finally hopped in a pair of minivans bound for Koh Kret, an island at the northern limits of Bangkok and within the Chao Phraya, which is totally swimmable from the mainland. Reportedly, the island is still fairly insular: it maintains much of its historically Mon tribal influences, including, and most importantly for Thanatharee’s concerns, its popular pottery.

It was here, on Koh Kret, that the farang actors became familiar with Pipit, our handler, for lack of a better description. Because of his quality English-skills and occasionally overwhelmingly overwhelming upbeat attitude, he was hired specifically to help out us whiteys. He ended up serving as another (meta)extra—the guide to our on-screen tour group—but his main role was to supply translation services (which were wondrously scrapped by the end), help out the actors in any way, and supply the same corny, scripted jokes all weekend. We wouldn’t have made it through the weekend without him.

Indeed, we were incredibly well tended to by everyone, especially when it came to food. I don’t know if they wanted to fatten us up for some reason, but every time we turned around there was fried rice, chips, sweets, water, soda, energy drinks, and/or coffee. I think the only times I spent money were for some sticky rice, a soy milk, and when a friend and I bought some Cokes for the crew on a particularly hot day.

Despite Pipit’s constant state of go, all of us were falling asleep on set.; in fact, a couple of the guys actually did. The lack of sleep was catching up to all of us (a pursuit that was to get significantly closer), but Daniel—the name of the lead character—had it the worst, and probably the best, of all.

The cruise’s full commercial, which comes in at over twenty-three minutes, is the story of Daniel, who somehow ends up with a group of enthusiastic, white tourists in Thailand (us, the extras). Daniel, on the other hand, is initially wholly unenthused and simply does not give a flying fuck. He walks around, at first, with his iPod pumping into his headphones while lagging behind the rest of us. Thanks to Thanatharee, the experiences it affords, and (of course) a bubbly girl, Daniel progressively comes to love the hell out of Thailand. Thus, Daniel is the core of the commercial—meaning the actor who plays him was regularly in front of the camera.

It was during the pottery scenes on Koh Kret that it became clear that Daniel had 400% more work than the rest of us, with bubbly girl having 200% more. While the extras, and sometimes bubbly girl, were able to escape from the lens, sit down, and relax, Daniel was doing take after take after re-take after re-take after take, all the while enduring solar-hot studio lighting. This real-life scene: Daniel alone, baking under the lights, was the story of the shoot.

Of course, Daniel also had the best experience. (To clarify, his real name is not Daniel.) Although his hours were much longer and expended energy much greater, he was able to do much from which the rest of us were excluded: make pottery,  forge a knife, play with tiny dolls, and put the finishing touches on a traditional drum.

Unloading at the blacksmith

Over all three days, the production schedule was packed. So, from pottery we went directly to a blacksmith who specialized in knives of all kinds. After we poured out of the van, we approached three workers hardening red-hot steel (I think it was steel) by hammering it in expert rhythm as another worker knowingly flipped the near-knife at precise moments. The place, thanks to the constant, hell-hot fire, caused me to break out in a sweat right away, which I barely noticed because of the impressive scene with the workers happening around the fire. Maybe because this is where my best photos were taken, but this part of the weekend was my second favorite.

Waiting patiently

Until we broke three of the blacksmith’s four hammers, that is.

One of the hammers--before we took control

The producer and director wanted a shot of the tour group hammering away after being shown the procedure by the lead blacksmith. However, there was one gigantic difference between the two processes: the presence of hot, soft steel between the cold, hard, steel podium and the powerfully descending hammers—and the lack thereof. Because we were slinging hard metal hammers onto the hard metal podium with no soft metal to absorb the blow, we three farangs broke seventy percent of the smith’s hammers. If you ever want to feel like a horrid asshole, fuck up the majority of a manual laborer in a developing country’s tools.

The pros

The newbs

The master at work

Directly after knives and hammer-breaking were some generic shots of us riding bicycles. Whatever; in my mind, all of this was just a prelude to a free phenomenal dinner—which was filmed—free beers, and free bed. The entire boat, which normally accommodates twelve but was well beyond capacity with the sixteen members of the crew, was serviced by a single, small kitchen and one chef, who had only one assistant. The staff, regardless of size, busted their asses to serve a tremendous spread of fried eggs, luscious rice, curries, and stir-fried vegetables. I probably ate about half of my body weight in delicious food, a pleasure interrupted only by the hordes—not an exaggeration—of mosquitoes that descended on the boat because it was docked and immobile.

The view

By the time I put my head on a pillow—around 11 p.m. or midnight—I had been awake since 6:30 p.m. the night before. This is, undoubtedly, the longest stretch I have ever stayed awake. I daresay I was near hallucination.

Victory.

Sunday, 6 a.m., let’s do it again.

Although every morning started with a shower and every night included another, they barely seemed to help. We were always running around and often in front of studio lights, meaning we were regularly encased a layer of dirt, grime, and sweat—not to mention the occasional stank. This filth was easily my least favorite part of the shoot, along with the ravenous horde of mosquitoes—but was a pretty fair trade for everything else, which was normally fantastic.

We had a hearty breakfast and left for what I can best describe as a juvenile-care center. The location housed 2,000 kids, ages 4 – 17, who had either no parents or whose parents were incapable of supporting them. We fed a group a large noodle lunch as they lined up and poured forward to receive large handfuls of noodles before moving onto the fixings.

Coming in from the rain

Waiting patiently

Hopeful doctor

The kids we served were mostly younger—about 4 – 13 years old. And they were remarkable. A handful was understandably shy, but the rest were playful and full of smiles. My favorites were the very young and/or small ones who wouldn’t continue after they received their noodles, but instead waited with their plates raised, silently asking for more a bigger serving. I must have given a few children amounts of noodles that were bigger than their heads. One girl who stood out was about 13 years old and told Pipit—who then told the farangs—that she wanted to be a doctor when she grows up. This girl probably has jack shit, but she refused to let anything keep her down.

Chowing down

The crux of this scene comes at the end, when a little girl—maybe 4 or 5 years old—tugs on Daniel’s shirt and implores him to open her box of chocolate milk. You assume his cold, disaffected heart begins to warm when he bends down, disengages with his iPod, helps her, and makes his first attempt at speaking Thai. The girl is impossibly adorable, so Daniel doesn’t stand a chance.

The first consideration for the pleading girl.

Unfortunately, involved at the heart of this moment is commercial exploitation. Call me bitter and cynical—because I do—but a small, beautiful, vulnerable-looking girl was chosen for a reason. There were plenty of kids there—tall; short; fat; injured; despondent; ebullient (fucking awesome word); male; female; ninja-type with a shaved head except for a braided ponytail who liked to linger at the periphery while climbing support structures—whom were passed over for the adorable (and entirely palpable) girl. Of course she was chosen, but I think the fact that she needed to be chosen irked me a bit.

This discomfort brings me to another gripe: the lack of black people in the commercial, particularly within the cast. When I met up with the rest of the actors and saw they were (and still are, obviously) all Caucasian, I thought, “Yup. Whites. Makes sense.” Thai culture relies heavily on skin color, as it is believed to indicate social status. Therefore, giving one’s self white skin is frighteningly popular. Any market of any size will have whitening agents, from straight-forward whitening cream to the very confusing whitening deodorants. Some of my students, in fact, cake so much white makeup on their faces—and often only their faces—that they look like mockeries of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

The skin-color thing, as far as I can tell, is significantly more class oriented than racial (not that the two can be perfectly partitioned), but it still results in racial discrimination, albeit for reasons of received, concealed, and maybe presumed notions of class. About halfway through the weekend, I learned that two black farangs we all know had been passed over as extras after their pictures were shown. “No, we don’t want them. We want people look like you,” the casting director reportedly said. For the rest of the shoot, I was terribly uncomfortable. To be sure, the people associated with both the cruise and the production company were absolutely wonderful. Consequently, I refuse to blame solely the people in charge of casting. Instead, such decisions point to larger cultural norms and expectations, and I do not support such one-dimensional condemnation. However, I do think the above observation is worth an aside, even if to only scratch the surface of skin color in Thailand in this blog.

Done with the support home, we hopped on the back of our bicycles (while on which we were chased by a fucking mean soi dog) and rode to a place that made traditional clay dolls. This part of the day was relaxing and boring, and less than nothing happened. Here, it began to amaze me how much sitting around took place during the shoot, especially for extras. Aside from the mandatory outfit changes—we had to account for three days—we didn’t do much of anything except eat, chat, and fill some B-roll.

The last scene filmed away from the boat took place at a drum manufacturer. We were here for fucking hours, and Daniel bore most of the workload, placing him again in front of the studio lights, which seemed to get hotter every time they were turned on. At this point, I was at the brink of utter exhaustion. Despite the massive amounts of food and exciting experiences, I just needed some damn sleep. As a result, I began to get a little punchy—and when I get a little punchy, I get a little incredibly vulgar. So when I was paired up with my friend to fill some B-roll with casual scenes of conversation and mirth, I resorted to describing depraved sex acts, punctuated with as much cursing as I could manage while still holding onto comprehensible syntax. By the time I saw the boom mic positioned right over our heads, it was too late: I was halfway through relaying the mechanics of a rusty trombone (Warning: do not Google ‘rusty trombone’ unless you promise to withhold judgment). Luckily, my prayers were answered when all footage on the B-roll was covered with a music track, and maybe served only as vague, quiet ambient. Whew.

Finished with the drums, it was back to the boat and dinner. I gorged on three servings of fried eggs, vegetables, and rice before moving onto beer. As if by some tacit agreement, almost all sixteen members of the crew proceeded to get shit hammered. We were all working hard(ish) and none of us were willing to allow free beer to go to waste. The whole night (d)evolved into intermittent dance parties, one guy army crawling around the deck of the boat, and  self-proclaimed Captain Jack Sparrow, the boat’s captain, facing a bottle of whiskey.

As it happens, the party began to die down and some farangs wound up on the upper deck of the Thanatharee. Five of us—one went to bed—discussed Thailand and the expected length of our stays. Myself and another new person said we only expected to stay a year before moving home/on, while the other three—whom have all been here for over a year and half—encouraged us to have more open minds. According to them, they didn’t fall in love with Thailand until after being here six months. We’ll see how I feel if/when I have the opportunity to renew my contract or consider another job, but their advice and, to a degree, browbeating made me take a new angle on Thailand, which was then proving to be more taxing than not.

Who the hell knows when I fell asleep? I remember only two things: stumbling to bed and waking up with swollen feet, on account of the mosquito army. Goddamnit.

Monday, despite beginning at 6 a.m., was nothing other than pleasant. Everyone moved slowly, nursing their hangovers and trying to energize themselves for the final day. One of the extras left early to resume her duties as a teacher, but the rest stayed. As I said, the day was easy: we biked a bit around U Thong, the main road in Ayutthaya, which circumscribes the center of the city and runs along the Chao Phraya, before spending the day lounging on the boat as it made its way down the Chao Phraya. This was our first and only chance to be on the boat as it cruised along, and it was wonderful. Plus, said lounging served double duty, since shots of which were exactly what the production crew wanted. The crew managed to turn utter laziness into consistent beauty.

Indeed, the talent and skill levels of the production crew were remarkable. Far from amateurs or charlatans, they were true professionals whose collective eye for film making was of the highest order. They had scouted all of the areas and directed us to make the most of the location, working the camera with intent precision. All of them busted their asses, and produced a visually stunning product in the end.

I have no idea when shooting concluded. 5 p.m.? 7 p.m.? Regardless, after respectful and relieved goodbyes, a van took us into Bangkok, where four of us ate at The Nine, a three-story mall devoted entirely to restaurants. Food wasn’t cheap, but I had spent maybe forty baht all weekend, so a splurge wasn’t wholly irresponsible. We sat around, chatted about the trip, and parted ways. Because it was so late, I slept at a friend’s who lives in the city, making it back to my campus by 8 a.m. for a 9 a.m. class, thankful I did my lesson plan days prior.

Here’s the final (stunning) product:

By the way, I’m writing this in a café in Pai, Thailand, aching from muay thai two-a-days, sleep deprivation, and a minor motorbike accident. But all of that is for another time.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2011 in Thailand, Where else?

 

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“menstruate = The blood red day”

For those keeping track, you’re probably still on the edges of your seats in anticipation of Ayutthaya, Part 2. Well, get comfortable, because my busy ass is busy. Time consumption and promised posts aside, my blog would be bereft if left without irregular posts about my students. I’m a farang because I’m an ajarn, after all.

Earlier, I addressed how I felt about teaching university students. To use a vocabulary word from the third fourth of the semester, I was—and still am, I think—a little anxious about the whole bestowing-knowledge thing. If there’s one person who perpetually lives in a cloud of brain fart that stifles the nostrils of edification, it’s this guy.

Thankfully, a lot of my students have yet to catch a whiff. In fact, my English 2 academic class melted my heart last week when half of them cornered me after class and said, “Teacher, you teach English 3 and 4? We want you for all Englishes!” They persisted even after I assured them that I’m significantly harder as the levels progress. That, readers, was a good afternoon. (In fact, it was my birthday.)

English 2 has been the most revelatory of my classes. Their English proficiency is the lowest of all of my classes, so the insight they give me into how Thai students perceive and construe English has been invaluable. They also bust their asses for me—at least most of the time. As opposed to my conversation classes, which meet only once a week, I see my English 2 students three times a week, which has permitted me to watch both them and myself develop as the semester has progressed.

But enough sappy, I’m-a-rewarded-teacher stuff. It’s time for the meat of this post, which are, rather, memorable trimmings from my first semester here.

I think that idioms and expressions are a crucial aspect of any language; understanding the inner workings of the semiotic structures of anything is an invaluable procedure that any serious language user—native or not—should pursue with appropriate levels of rigor. Also, it’s just fun to explain ‘to kill a bottle’ and ‘to play the field’ to 19- and 20-year-old English-language learners.

To get some creative juices flowing, I had my students invent their own expressions in English after playing a Jeopardy-style game introducing the concept. I asked for an expression or idiom, its part of speech, an explanation of its usage(s), and a sample sentence. Below are five of the better ones (unedited), where ‘better’ means the spectrum of what ‘better’ means.

1) big face (adj.): it means to show off

ex: The old woman has a big face when she merits in the temple because there are so many people.

—Poor people cannot use it.

—Rich people can use it.

 

2) Milk spill = the chest of woman.

When you see another woman’s chest             example: when the women wear the jerkin [jersey/ tank top, I later learned] and they are not be careful enough then the other people will see their chest easily

I heard the boy beside me talk about her milk spill. that sit opposite me.

 

3) Beam without collumn [sic] (n.)

— Meaning. Beam and collumn is a thing that is need to come together. And it can’t missing each other. So beam without collumn is like. When you missing something that is very important.

Situation – when you go or do something. But you forgot a something which is very important.

Example – That fisherman look like Beam without column. He forgot a rod.

 

4) Pick a flower – take a leak.

During a driving, when a woman want a toilet but cannot find. She’ll go to the glass [grass] inside [beside?] the road for take a leak. Her act is like she is picking flowers.

Example – While I’m driving, I saw Malee’s picking flowers inside road.

 

5) menstruate = The blood red day

ex. The blood red day is coming then I feel upset.

This idiom should use with the women because only women will have the menstrual period and the menstruation is red and all women will get upset so then the women have a menstruation we called the blood red day as women menstruate.

This last expression stunned me, and in an absolutely great way. Before she handed it in, the student asked me if this was a good answer. I told her it was excellent. Fine, it’s not an idiom and probably only slightly a metaphorically grey expression, but fuck, who cares? I loved her candor, enthusiasm, and originality. Besides, for 3.75% percent of a grade—the assignment was to fulfill their Special Project grade—I’ll happily give her credit for her gusto, even if she did miss the various intricacies and shades that go into an idiom. Fucking whatever. Way to go, student.

Tonight is a dinner out and a very reluctant good-bye: one of the first people I met here—a vet who took was always ready with friendly guidance—is off to America before a jaunt in Australia, which itself is a prelude to India. She will, quite obviously, be goddamn missed.

Here's to you.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2011 in ESL, Thailand

 

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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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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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