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“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.”

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2012 in Happiness, Thailand

 

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See You Again, Vientiane

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

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

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

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

After some recovery.

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

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

Allow me a knee-jerk defense of myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from China, with communism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southern Gothic? Indochinese relic?

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

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

“What do you want to do?”

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

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

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

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

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

Jackpot.

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

What more could a farang desire?

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

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

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

Time to be back, bitches.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2011 in Laos

 

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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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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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