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Like a Laotian Jesus, I Walk on Piss

I had been on the road for only an hour, but I already needed to pee. Thankfully, I had opted for an allegedly tricked-out bus, replete with toilet. Since we had to be barefoot during the trip, I entered the bathroom sans shoes—and immediately felt small puddles. I really, really had to go, so I stifled my imagination right away. “Probably just some rogue sink-water,” I told myself.

The light in the bathroom wouldn’t turn on. I could make out the silver outline of the toilet, but not enough to ensure my own pee wouldn’t mix with the, ahem, rogue sink-water. I stepped out, grabbed my cell phone with the life-saving flashlight, and re-entered the bathroom.

Once illuminated, all chances of the rogue-sink-water explanation were pissed away: the toilet was filled to the brim with urine (hopefully only urine, since the sign on the door declared, “Please, no Excrement”) that was splashing around as the bus driver took mad, vertigo-inducing turns around unpaved switchbacks.

I had had enough. Fuck you; fuck you; fuck you, Luang Prabang.

I was finally leaving Luang Prabang, northern Laos’s most major city. I was on a bus that left at 8:30 p.m. and was headed south to Vientiane, the country’s capital. For the preceding five days, I had tried to make the most of my vacation and enjoy a city that, at best, earned my fleeting lukewarm reception. I tried my best to enjoy Luang Prabang, but the city was persistently frustrating. Using the money I had saved by staying at a cheap guesthouse, I decided to live large and buy tickets to a sleeper bus—which was equipped with near-bed-like chairs, dinner, and a bathroom (crucial since an onset of diarrhea)—for an extra 30,000 kip, or 120 baht. If nothing else, my overnight trip to Vientiane would be nice.Psych.

But let’s get to the bus first. It begins with a journey that, like most others here, involves an overnight something to somewhere.

Pai was painful to leave: good food; good relaxation; good sights. Alas, I knew I should go: I was on vacation and carpe diem, etc. At 8 p.m. on Monday, October 10, I boarded a minivan for the seven-hour trip to the border town, Chiang Khong, Thailand, and a trip across the Mekong River into Laos. The ride was fine—I listened to music, watched True Romance on my iPod, and stole interrupted bouts of sleep—but my left foot decided to swell. It now matched my right, which grew, I presume, when it was sprained after my second motorbike accident.

The minivan ticket included a three-hour nap, which I gobbled, at a guesthouse in Chiang Khong. Once across the river and visa nonsense aside, I grabbed a baguette sandwich—one of the more delightful remainders from Laos’s days as a French colony—and debated how to make the long trip to Luang Prabang: overnight bus or three days and two nights on a slowboat? Everyone with whom I became friends on the van was doing the slowboat, which, I read, is a popular option for people traveling south. But I wanted to get to Luang Prabang quickly and, for various reasons, the boat seemed much less desirable: time; money; comfort.

Looking at Laos

And so began the shittiness that quietly followed me around Laos.

Crossing the Mekong

Once in Laos and across customs, I bought a ticket for a VIP bus—which are differentiated from local buses by the presence of A/C, more comfortable seats, chance food, and a chance bathroom—and was ready to finally arrive in Luang Prabang. Once at the bus station, all passengers were informed that the VIP bus had broken down and we would be taking a local bus—information we received well after our tuk-tuk driver gathered our bus tickets and exchanged them at the window. Fine. Whatever. No biggie.

For the next thirteen hours, I sat on a cramped bus with a new mother asleep on my right arm as the bus raced around corners and challenged its dying transmission on dirt hills. The driver was an aggressive motherfucker. More pressing, however, was the status of my feet: I now had cankles and the wound on my left food was regularly oozing.

I arrived in Luang Prabang around 6 a.m. on Wednesday, October 12.

My first time in a commie-pinko country

Adjusting to the currency involved a steep learning curve. Laos uses the kip—but businesses and vendors also regularly accept baht and dollars, despite government directives—which has suffered such tremendous inflation that paying for things typically involves five digits. Budget rooms are typically 50,000 – 60,000 kip, sandwiches and coffee linger around 10,000 kip each, renting a bicycle for a day is 20,000 kip, and six doses of 400mg ibuprofen is 8,000 kip. Prices, compared to the dollar, are comparable to those in Thailand, but spending in thousands took some mental adjustment.

Luckily, I found a slightly grungy but super cheap guesthouse in a nice, central location: Paphai Guesthouse, which was in between the central road, Sisavangvong, and close to Kingkitsarat, the road that skirts the Nam Khan River—and began strolling.

The overwhelming majority of my time in Luang Prabang was spent on the peninsula, which juts into the meeting place of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. The third main road, Khem Khong, follows the Mekong. In hindsight, this limit contributed to my total lack of warmth towards Luang Prabang.

Simply stated, I didn’t like Luang Prabang because it didn’t feel like anyone lived there, but rather sold stuff to foreigners there. There was a disproportionate number of tourists to Laotians and the are of the city that I saw was disturbingly homogenous: French veneers that harkened back to Laos’s colonial days, pricey cafés, travel agencies, ritzy guesthouses, and shops full of stunning pewter wares that lost their luster when I saw the same goods outside of a convenience store. Indeed, the entire area appeared to function like a colonial veneer: pretty on the exterior, but too shallow to be scratched with any satisfaction.

Once, while in JoMa Bakery—a place that, in all fairness, thankfully makes no pretensions about being anything other than a Western-style transplant in Laos—I heard Bon Iver’s new album.

And then there was the time I helped carry two guys who weren’t breathing into a tuk-tuk.

Here’s a passage from an e-mail I wrote in the wake of the event:

“. . . I thought I carried two dead bodies two nights ago.I met up with a group of people I met at customs and there were two new guys. Around 2:30 a.m., they bought a gram of, what they believed to be, coke off of a tuk-tuk driver (all of whom deal). Around 3 a.m., they both go white and limp within 10mins of each other at a restaurant. The second guy mumbled, “–told us coke, but this isn’t like coke, man. I think was heroin?” So they both snorted half a G of heroin, possibly. If nothing else, it was the shittiest coke ever. Both turned ghost white and their lips went purple. Both were either not breathing and without a pulse or had the most minor of traces. I ended up helping carry both of them to a tuk-tuk bound for the hospital. Laos health care sucks for anything serious–you know, like an OD–so I doubted things worked out well for them.

“The next morning I was on my way to the hospital for some antibiotics for my foot and saw the group who went to the hospital coming out. It honestly took me 5 seconds before I believed it was them because I would have bet they died. The group told me both of the dudes’ hearts stopped a pair of times and they had to do CPR. They told me the hospital was shit–even showed me pics–and advised me not to go in. They said the nurses did shit and a doctor didn’t show up for 90 minutes after they arrived.”

This event, by the way, happened on my first night in Luang Prabang.

Fucking ridiculous.

How my feet looked for most of my time in Luang Prabang.

This excerpt brings me to another misfortune: my goddamn feet. Both were swollen and one was an open wound on the verge of festering. Additionally, my right shin was swollen from the second motorbike accident and repeatedly kicking the hell out of things at Rose Gym. As a result, I stayed away from the area’s beautiful waterfalls for fear of further infecting my foot, trekking for fear of exacerbating my injuries, and massages because my legs couldn’t stand a rigorous and violent Oriental-style massage.

I felt consistently thwarted in Luang Prabang. For one, the situation with my legs made even walking for long periods of time difficult. I wasn’t even able to do personal work to kill time because the 5,500-THB netbook I bought specifically for traveling broke sometime during my journey from Pai to Laos.

There wasn’t even a good selection of street food. I wandered and strolled—explored and meandered—and there was jack shit along the peninsula, just my grilled-banana lady, people with disgusting-looking fruit, a concentrated 100-yard-stretch of sandwich and coffee vendors, and fruit shakes. No fried rice, rare noodles, and little grilled meat (which isn’t on my menu, anyway). There were also plenty of tasty crèpe carts, but redundancy is not the spice of life.

But even when I attempted to maximize Luang Prabang and escape my hole of loathing and self-pity, the city laughed at me. Simple noodle places were hard to find, as the two I found were jammed in alleys between European-style restaurants. My first day there, I found a place to volunteer with little kids and teach English literacy. I picked up a brochure, but the map on it sucked so much that re-finding the place proved too difficult. Two different locals—a tuk-tuk driver and a cop—gave me two different sets of directions. For two days, I walked for forty-five minutes to attempt to find the place, but with no success either day.

I really did try to take advantage of Luang Prabang.

Not all was shit, though. I did eventually fall into a progressively comfortable routine. I read a lot at a beautiful, comfortable, and reasonably priced café near the end of the peninsula. I ate ungodly amounts of food, including delicious tofu sandwiches on warm baguettes and fruit shakes. And, every night at 7 p.m., I watched a movie in the upstairs lounge at L’Etranger Books & Tea; my line-up included Bad Teacher, Midnight in Paris, Slumdog Millionaire, and Hangover 2. I also took some awesome photos, if you’ll pardon some bragging, and was lucky enough to have my camera with me during the coincidental Bun Awk Phansa festival, which marked the end of the rainy season.

Unfortunately, I missed the part of the ceremony, after the parade, when participants cast their elaborate boats into the Mekong. The event was reportedly beautiful.

Luckily, I also met some friends along the way, including a pair of similarly-aged ladies—one from Scotland; the other from Australia—who had been bouncing around Southeast Asia for the past several months. We met each other at customs at Huay Xai, resulting in my twenty-four-hour nickname, Customs Guy. I met up with them most days, touring a wat, eating food, trying to catch the culmination of Bun Awk Phansa, drinking adult beverages, and general bull-shitting.

The couple from England-via-Slovenia, who I met in Pai, made some guest appearances in the city as well.

She saved my foot

The Scot is also, probably, single-handedly responsible for saving my foot. After making me terribly nervous our first night in Luang Prabang—“Barry, are you serious? That’s an open wound! And you have cankles! That’s not good. Do you want to keep your foot?”—she researched antibiotics with me and gave me Doxycycline to help kill the developing infection. High five, Scot.

Not luckily, they were having troubles of their own. The pair, along with a couple others, accompanied the two guys to the hospital and participated in the thirty minutes of CPR. After leaving the hospital, they were understandably shaken by the complete lack of reported health care in Laos, alleging the nurses were incompetent, the doctor didn’t show up for ninety minutes, and the building itself was dirty and minimally stocked. Moreover, the two got their laundry ruined—resulting in an argument with a stubborn laundry woman—and one sliced open her toe her last day in the city.

Beginning the climb

On the day of the laundry mishap, we were determined to turn our fortunes and explore some of the more cultural aspects of Luang Prabang. Consequently, we made a trip up Phu Si Hill and explored the hilltop wat complex, which also offered us a stunning view of the city. It was at the top of Phu Si Hill that I realized the actual size—grand, much grander than the tiny old city to which I limited myself—of Luang Prabang.

We definitely had fun, but the three of us also definitely did not love Luang Prabang. Thankfully, they’re coming to Bangkok for a week at the beginning of November, so maybe we can make up for our shittier experiences.

A view of Luang Prabang from Wat Phu Si

Oddly enough, by my last two days in Luang Prabang, I began to slightly and regularly appreciate the place. My café was a gift from heaven, the Indian food was good, and there were cool people about, like the German guy I met who had spent the last six months cycling—and busing where he needed—from Mongolia to Laos. The midnight curfew—which can be mocked with a trip to the bowling alley—was a drag, but it did make for cool interactions at the guesthouse, like the one I had with the cyclist.

He had no idea when he’d be done with his trip.

Stay away from colorful fonts, religion.

Personally, I got a lot of benefit from a solo trip to Xieng Thong, a wat at sleepy tip of the peninsula. The temple was only an extra ten- to fifteen-minute-walk from my choice café, but I didn’t make it down there until my final stretch of days. Ugly-as-hell sign aside, I’m just happy I spent the extra time and energy to get down there—and with my camera.

There was also the astounding, delectable, expansive, inexpensive, and varied half city-block of vegetarian mess-plate vendors. The city’s nightly market, the Hmong Night Market, was comprised of mostly the same shit: beautiful textiles, charming art, Beerlao t-shirts, and pewter wares. Needless to say, it became boring after the second day of perusal. However, down a small road off of the Hmong Night Market was a deep line of tables displaying mounds of freshly cooked vegetarian food. The price was 10,000 kip—about forty baht, or $1.30—per plate, and it was heaped with all six items I indicated from the vendor’s line-up. That, along with my Beerlao Dark, was an ideal final dinner in Luang Prabang.

Incomparable in Southeast Asia

Although I was getting into a rhythm, I knew I had exhausted Luang Prabang as much as I could. I had accepted the part of the city for what it was—a tourist town—and was afforded some peace of mind. However, a tourist town can be squeezed only so much before going dry.

It was Monday, October 17, and time to leave for Vientiane.

But before then, a walk through a sloshing puddle of piss and—did I mention?—Thai/Laotian pop music blasted through bus speakers, and felt reverberated in the walls, from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m.

Sleeper bus? My fucking scrotum it was.

I’d go back to Luang Prabang, but after I see everything else in the world.

At least I got to play with my camera. I also decided that Luang Prabang rarely looked better in color.

Gettin' out

I knew there was a reason I packed only my dad’s Minolta 50mm f/1.7 lens.

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Posted by on November 6, 2011 in Laos, Misadventure

 

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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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Saturday to Saturday, Shrimp Omelet to Jack & Ginger

Who knew that a perfect Saturday morning breakfast would be a shrimp omelet with a side of rice, sweet chili and fish sauces, and a salty lemonade? Not this guy. And yet here I am, two weeks later, bummed Zapp, the restaurant where I bought it, wasn’t open this morning.

That meal kicked off a wonderful week of mostly good class experiences, teacherly moments, an outdoor market, strange yet often reviving workouts, and a drunken resuscitation of my opinion of Bangkok.

The Saturday of the Omelet was otherwise highlighted by a trip to Chatuchak Market (also transliterated Jatujak and abbreviated JJ), which is self-reportedly the world’s largest weekend market. The venture was brief and hurried as the group was there to find only a specific item for a daddy’s birthday, but nonetheless pretty enjoyable. I even got to rock a sweet tank-top tan for a couple days because it was so sunny out.

I was broke as a joke, having only about THB 1,000 to my name—around $33—so the trip was mainly for the sensory experience rather than the shopping one, which was totally fine with me.

The crowd at Chatuchak

The thing is ginormous. According to the market’s Web site, the market spans twenty-seven acres (Wikipedia says thirty-five acres) and is subdivided into twenty-seven sections. To fill this expanse—and it is filled—are around 15,000 booths peddling everything from Big Lebowski t-shirts to traditional Thai wares to—or so I’ve heard—fucking crocodiles and baby tigers. Every weekend day, 200,000 people supposedly come to the market to check out the awesome Buddhist medallions and investigate if tigers really do hate cinnamon.

Street musicians

(For better or worse, the market has received some scrutiny over the years for the availability of illegally trafficked animals, which are often seized in Suvarnabhumi Airport. These reports, while probably accurate, should not taint the otherwise wholly enjoyable and differently wholly taintable aspects of JJ.)

Women working

Eat shit, Steve Martin.

From women tucked into a recessed shop or a dude killing it on the banjo, the market is full of sights and sounds. There is a main vein that runs through the entire place, off of which is a dizzying array of narrow covered paths that lead to more shops and vendors. You will get lost here, but you will probably love not knowing where you are. Finding the best price seems like a total waste of time, anyway, because haggling appears to be the general ethos of JJ—and another reason I really need to be studying Thai more diligently.

After my friend found the birthday gift for her father, our group of seven sat down for a much-needed beer before heading back to Bang Na. I traveled back knowing that I will be returning to JJ—and soon, as July is the month of birthdays for my family and I’d love to get them some fun Thai gifts.

The week of teaching went well enough. It had its ebb and flow, as does anything, so it oscillated between obnoxiously trying and appreciatedly rewarding. In particular, I taught my (mostly) sophomores how to write an essay. I had to rely on the standard four to five paragraph rubric taught (and handicapped) in high school around America, but I made sure to encourage the possibility of freedom within the schema—of being able to use the rubric for effective communication rather than a rote process. I even got to break out a trick taught to me by a high school history teacher who set me on my path as an expository and academic—i.e. not creative—writer. (You’re reading my blog; take that last statement as you will.) I’m currently grading an essay they wrote in class on Friday and I’m thoroughly happy with their ability to organize and explicate their arguments.

Things in the classroom are now past the easy and improvisable get-to-know-you stage; I’m lesson planning, grading, making decisions about grading, and doing all of the other rigmarole that goes into molding youngins’ minds. Shit’s getting real, son. Every day proves to be a large test run and reminds me that plenty of tuning is still needed. That being said, teaching is going better than I expected; all I need to do now is be better.

Once upon a time, I was a fatty. At thirteen years old, I weighed 210 pounds—and not good pounds, but solid A- or demi B-cup pounds. Come college, I invested in a pair of running shoes, bought Men’s Health magazine (sometimes trite but often very helpful), and get my ass in gear. I have no idea how to characterize or evaluate my fitness, but I can say I’m committed. Coming out here, I was a bit worried that it’d be difficult to work out. Luckily, the school’s weight room is equipped enough to get the job done, the stationary bikes work, there’s a lap pool (huzzah!), and I still have trusty running shoes. I’m able to keep up with my, albeit mild, triathlon training and get my skinny-boy swell on with the same kind of frequency that I’ve come to crave. My friends are varied enough, too, to satisfy a number of workout buddies: one for swimming and one for biking and lifting days. I prefer to habitually run alone when I’m not with my brother, but I’ve found a partner who wants to do some triathlons in the area and train together, which is goddamn fortunate for me.

The week was peppered with workouts, two of which stand out. The first, an outdoor group aerobics class, was on Monday. I just got done a heavy gym session when a group of my friends roped me away from grading and into an experimental aerobics class.

I’ve often made Jane-Fonda-workout jokes, but I hadn’t ever lived one until this class. From the outfits to the kicks to the syncopated dance steps, I felt almost naked without leg warmers and a unitard. Aerobic classes are for some people, but for Suddenly Farang, they certainly are not. I’m gonna keep that shit in my VHS drawer.

Contrastingly, Wednesday, I was reunited with my long-lost love, muay thai. I trained in it for only a year during college before an empty wallet, jujitsu, and grad school interfered. Of course, it’d be a waste of extended time in Thailand if I didn’t take up Thai boxing again. There’s a fantastic school near my campus, but until I get the feel of how to be a teacher better, I’m sticking to the free class offered on Wednesdays.

The class is led by X, a guy who works in the school’s gym but who has obviously trained somewhat. It runs for ninety minutes and is mostly geared towards conditioning, but for now it satisfies my cravings. This may sound strange, but there’s something redemptive about aching shins, red knuckles, and the musk of muay thai. (There is a musk. Trust me.)

A quiet Friday out was an appetizer for Saturday, or a much better-tasting Kok.

A huge group, which fluctuated between eight and twenty people went into the city for a twenty-fourth birthday party. Dinner was at Bongos, a place not actually called Bongos but simply deemed it by other farang teachers. The food was cheap and filling and the beer was cold. But you’d never go to Bongos for the fare. Instead, the vibe of the restaurant is tremendous. It feels like what Applebee’s and Rainforest Cafe try to capture in the US. The walls are either minimally stained wood or corrugated metal panels. Along them are collections of elementary school achievement trophies and old lanterns, which also light the place. The whole restaurant is tied together by shitty and mismatched tables. The food was OK, but it’s a great place to have a beer with friends.

Next was a stop-over in Baba, a nearby bar with hookah and outdoor seating. I met up with a really good friend and was introduced to her awesome boyfriend, both of whom made me incredibly happy. While I was gone, the group was growing and congealing, and after I returned we all went to Narz, a club to be seen and not reported.

But this is a blog, so we don’t have much of a choice, huh?

Narz is four stories, and each floor corresponds to a different theme. I only remember two themes: the trance room, which evokes ecstasy trips never had, and the hip-hop room, which is where we spent most of our time. Like any good club, the drinks were severely over-priced, the clientele was shit-hammered, and the only lighting came by way of strobes and lasers. I’m famously down for the occasional club, and Narz fit the bill to a T. It was also the first time I danced on a stage, onto which I was pulled by both friends and random locals. Everyone was there to have a good time—and it was contagious. It proved hard to care when the birthday girl jammed me with the cherry of her cigarette or spilled a Jack and Ginger on me. Maybe it’s because it was her birthday, but Narz was nothing but a fun.

We didn’t get home until after 3 a.m. via a cab that seated four but was jammed with six. By the time I went to bed, I was fucking drained—but completely content. It was a hell of a week.

P.S.: I’m getting used to the heat! The humidity is still kicking my asthmatic and sweaty ass, but I regularly go whole days with just the assistance of my fan and forsake the A/C. It’s definitely a conscious choice to keep the air off, but for me, there’s some silly piece of pride to be had in it. Maybe I can thank all of the banana cheese I’ve been eating.

Banana Cheese. Everyday.

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2011 in Happiness, Thailand

 

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