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Thailand

 

Bangkok, Thailand - January 2003

Ilya Makedon

Jan. 7, 2003:  This will be the last entry typed in the US. I'm flying out of J.F.K. airport at 9 pm tomorrow. Probably leaving DC around noon. I got visas to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. I have about $700 for the two months. This will be the longest trip I've ever taken with the least amount of money available. It'll be a challenge, but I'm looking forward to it.  What I am definitely not looking forward to is the 28 hour flight from NYC to Bangkok after a 5 hour car ride and 4 hour airport stall time.

Jan. 8, 2003:  We made to to Bangkok this morning afternoon after I don't even know how long on the road. We watched the sunset in New York City. We didn't see the sunrise until we were in Hong Kong over 24 hours later. Our flight made 3 stops: Anchorage, Alaska; Taipei, Taiwan; Hong Kong, China. 2 of them were a total surprise for us.

Bangkok is nice so far. We expected to get hassled the same way we did in Cairo, but it didn't happen. There are fewer hasslers and touts here and they are a lot less annoying.

We rented a room in a guesthouse for 180B. It's kind of crappy but we needed a place to ditch our bags. Chebon needed to crash out too. Not me, though. Thanks to Liz I got a good night sleep on the plane. Now I'm running around looking.

Jan. 11, 2003:  We've been in Bangkok for a couple of days now. It's been fairly difficult for me. Everything is a struggle.  Finding good places to eat is a painful trial and error process. There is food everywhere, some of it is good, some of it is awful. When walking into a restaurant it's almost impossible to tell which it'll be. Things are further complicated by the fact that better restaurants' staff usually don't speak a word of English and the restaurants migrate. So if we find a good place on one night, there is no guarantee it'll be there the next afternoon.  The transportation has the potential to be trouble too, though we've been lucky. We've gotten on boats and busses not knowing where they'd take us and hoping for the best. We've made around OK so far..

In the evening we went to a dance night club on Kao San. There was some mediocre house music which turned into commercial American hip hop. The place was packed with young Thais and farangs [ed. note: foreigners] getting slashed. I actually got kicked out of the place because I wasn't drinking enough. I didn't leave, but picked up an empty beer bottle and held it for the rest of the night to look like I was drinking.

It was amazing, I felt exactly same there as I do at that kind of social occasions at home. Completely alienated, not able to enjoy being there. I sat around watching the people around me meet each other, have fun, talk, hook up. I didn't even try to join them.

As usual the experience left me feeling pretty crappy. I went home and read this book called Siddhartha that my friend recommended. It it the main character has similar problems being constantly unhappy. It seems that when he hits a low point saying the word Ohm helps him out. That word keeps popping up in my life. On the door of our guesthouse room somebody drew the symbol and wrote the word with a pen. I went to an Ohm festive in Canada a while back and had a good time. I have no idea what the word means. Maybe I should learn.  Anyway, besides the usual loneliness things are going well.

"Jan 13, 2003:   Things are going pretty good here. We've been running around exploring the city and learning the public transportation for the last couple of days. We also did some touristy sight seeing. Particularly we went to the Grand Palace and the wat attached to it. Though I'm usually not impressed by fancy tourist attractions, I was anticipating something special there. However, I had no idea what I was in for. That place is simply breath taking. I've never seen anything created by man that was even remotely so glamorous. Chebon and I spent over an hour going around trying to decipher the Ramayana murals around the walls of the wat. Though we couldn't understand a damn thing, Ramayana seems like quite an epic. If somebody made a movie out of it, Lord of The Rings would look totally pale in comparison! I actually made a friend here. I was sitting in a street restaurant minding my own business when this totally drunk girl sat next to me. I think she was trying to get me to ummm... hire her for the night. Then she started throwing up. I felt bad for her and stuck around to help her: gave her water and stuff. She appreciated that I didn't get angry and hit her. We're probably leaving Bangkok in the next couple of days. Most likely tomorrow. I'm not exactly sure where we're going, but it will probably be north. I like Bangkok with its constant noise and smoke, but I'm looking forward to tracking through jungle.

Jan 15, 2003:  Yesterday we took the journey North to Chang Mai. It involved an hour long city bus to the bus station, a 10 hour bus ride and a 20 minute tuk-tuk ride. We made it to the city at around 3 in the morning. It was kind of hard to find a place to stay because clerks at most of guest houses were asleep.

Today we explored the city. I like it and I think we'll stay in the area for a while. Chang Mai is a fairly large but it has a small town feel. We don't have to ride buses in smog for hours to get places like we did in Bangkok. Chang Mai is also somewhat cheaper.

Chang Mai has an interesting public transportation system. They have these pick up trucks with seats in the back that drive around the city. You flag them down, tell them your destination. The driver either agrees to take you or not. If he does, you pay a flat 10B fee and get in. The truck will weave around the city pickup and dropping people off for a while. Eventually it will get to somewhere near your destination and you can jump off. It took us a while to figure this one out.

Another interesting thing about Chang Mai is that is has about a gazillion trekking tour agencies. They all offer pretty much the same product for about the same price. The treks usually include elephant riding, bamboo rafting, spending a night or two in "primitive" hill tribes' villages, hiking, waterfall swimming and boiling eggs in hot springs.

So Chebon and I are going on one of those tomorrow morning. It'll be a 3 day, 2 night kind of deal that will include all of the above. It'll give us a nice introduction to living in the jungle and dealing with the hill tribes. Once we come back, we will probably stay in Chang Mai for a day or two and then set out on our own trekking tours. We'll hitchhike or catch public transport to national parks and explore them ourselves.  So there!

Jan 21 2003 We were planning on leaving Chiang Mai tomorrow, but we've been having a really good time. Therefore we will probably spend a few more days here. We've actually been making some Thai friends so we'll probably stick around to get to know them a little better. The other day we met two Thai girls in a bar. They go to school in Chiang Mai and speak English very well. They've been taking us to cool Thai hang outs and are a lot of fun to be around. They teach us Thai an we teach them English. Their names are Om and Nan. I like both of them a lot. 

Yesterday we hitched a ride from the temple with these really funny gay guys. Every time we said something they would have a flaming argument about the meaning of it in Thai. It had rather high entertainment value for a while. They ended up driving us around for a while. We went to another temple then to one of their houses then to a mall (which was really lame). They gave me their phone numbers. I'm not sure if I'm going to call them. I guess it could be cool to go to gay disco or something in Chang Mai. 

Today was interesting. In the morning we went to just roam around the city hoping to find something interesting. We heard drums, flutes and sounds of fun stuff going on over a wall. We found an entrance and went into the establishment, which turned out Chiang Mai Performance Arts University. We walked around looking at students practicing Thai dancing, drumming, martial arts. At one point a man came up to us and introduced himself as an instructor of drumming, swords and boxing (kickboxing). Then he introduced us to his master. He invited us to go watch a performance at a sports arena on the other side of the city. We agreed and got in the back of his truck. 

The back of his truck contained a drum set consisting of a huge base drum (about 1.5 meter in diameter) and 3 smaller ones. The big drum sounded so sweet. It sounded like rolling thunder. So there we were: 2 monks and 2 martial arts instructors crammed in the cabin of the truck with a Russian [ed. note: the Russian is the Russian-born author] and a Native American [ed. note: author's friend] making a racket with a drum set in the back driving across Chiang Mai to go to the stadium to watch a martial arts performance. 

The performance turned out to be practice run of the half time show of the boxing match that will take place this Saturday. At least that's what we thought it was, based on the broken English explanations we received. It consisted of about 300 kids dressed in Thai martial arts outfits doing loosely synchronized martial arts stuff. Then there was some military ceremony: flags, swords, jeeps, etc, etc. Later today Chebon and I are going to get pizza with Om and Nan. Oh, by the way, I am no longer telling anyone that I'm from America. That is because when I do the people either assume that I'm a complete idiot and there to just get ripped off or start asking questions like: "So what do you think of the third world?" I'm from Russia instead. 

Jan 20 2003 We had an interesting day today. In the early afternoon we headed out to Wat Doi Setup which is located on a big mountain about 20 Km outside of Chiang Mai. It is one of the more important temples in the region. I like to go to Buddhist places of worship because they usually have a really nice atmosphere that makes me somewhat content. There was this little building with a bunch of Buddhas, praying people and a monk giving blessings to those requesting it. There was also a big crowd of tourists peeking through the door and taking pictures. I was in the crowd. 

The monk pointed me out in the crowd and invited me to sit before him with a gesture. I didn't think that was addressed to me so I pretended to not notice. He caught my eyes and repeated the gesture. I came up to him, gave him, got on my knees and gave him a big wai. He asked me a couple of questions and said that he thinks I'll have a revelation in Thailand. Then he tied a little white string around my wrist. I thanked him, gave him another wai and was on my way. Being singled out of a big crowd like that was kind of weird and made me feel special. 

So we got back from the trekking tour last night. It had its moments but for the most part it was pretty lame. It felt like we were just fuel particles in Thai tourism machine. Chebon and I joined a group of 8 white people (mostly Aussies) and a Thai guide. The first thing we did was hot springs. It was a nice little park with a couple of hot springs made up to make cooking eggs easy. There were a couple of fake geysers too. The place was packed with school kids in their cute little uniforms. It was pretty lively, but not terribly exciting. Then we headed to elephant riding. That was by far the most lame part of the trip. Basically we sat in a couch mounted on top of elephant's back and the elephants walked up and down a hill nearby. It felt like a boring amusement park ride. The elephants seemed rather unhappy. They probably have to do the stupid walk with tourists on their back 10 times a day. The tusks of many of them were cut off and probably sold. While interacting with the animals after the ride was kind of curious, the whole experience was rather depressing. 

Then we drove a bit more and went hiking. We walked through the forest for a couple of hours until we got to the village where we spent the night. I wouldn't really call the forest jungle or rainforest. At least that was not what I imagined those thing to be. It actually resembled the nature back in the central Appalachians. Only there were lots of bamboo and some palm trees here and there. Staying in the village didn't really reveal any cultural insights. Despite that it was one of the more memorable parts of the trip. The highlights include watching the sunset over the mountains with clouds dragging over them. The breed of dogs that reside in the mountains are very interesting. They look and act much more agile and smart than any dogs I've ever seen. Smoking tobacco joints in banana leaf with the guy whose house we were staying in was nice. The village is a tea producing one, so there was some prime time green tea. 

The next day was nothing special. More walking through the forest, swimming in a cheesy little waterfall and that's about it. 

The next day we got into a truck and went to check out a cave with a giant Buddha inside. That was pretty. Then we went to this park that features a really beautiful spring. The water from that spring contains the minerals that create limestone (I think). It runs down a steep hill which is now covered in limestone. The cool thing is that the limestone is not slippery but rather has good friction. That enables people to climb up and down the waterfalls formed by the spring. That was fun. Apparently Thais love that spot. There were very many of them just playing in the water or sitting around eating noodles. As I was sitting in the sun trying to dry a bit, a family picnicking nearby invited me to join them. I agreed. I speak no Thai and they spoke no English. So they gave me food and whisky and asked me lots of questions. I drank whisky and ate food and nodded and smiled. 

Now we're back in Chiang Mai. We moved out of the luxurious place that we stayed in that had private bathroom, hot shower and stylish wallpaper. Now we stay in the dorm room with 6 Japanese guys, showers with giant roaches and a street that sounds like a race track 24 hours a day under the window. However, this place has a much better atmosphere and we are much happier. Not to mention we are saving a good amount of money. The biggest problem we have right now is that we can't find the fuel for our stove in Thailand. We need the stove so we can cook canned food to save money while in the city. We usually spend $2-3 on food per day. That is good considering that gets us 3 excellent meals. However, our funds are rather finite and I was to have some money left for scuba diving when we get to the beaches in the South. The weather here is beautiful. It's like a cool summer day in DC. Wearing T-shirt and long pants is especially comfortable during the day and night.  It gets a bit colder in the mountains at night.

Feb. 2, 2003:  Even though Chebon and I planned to stay in Northern Thai, which is known as Lanaa, for only a few days, this place does not seem to want to let us go. It looks like we'll be staying mostly in Pai for the rest of the trip. I got offered a "job" developing a simple website for a store that sells Akha handicrafts and food, expensive Chinese teas and tea sets, yoga lessons, guided trips from China to Ho Chi Minh city down Mekong river and a bunch of other stuff.  

Akha is a hill tribe whose villages are found in parts of Lanaa, Laos and Burma. Akhas are known for their elaborate dress and jewelry. Anyway, I'm not getting any money for the "job". But in exchange for my work, Chebon and I will be getting a room in a nice house in a village just outside Pai and two meals of top notch Akha food per day.  In addition we will hopefully make some friends for life among farangs [ed. note: foreigners] that have lived in Pai for years, Thais and Akhas.  

Our house is nice. It has paintings on walls and weird Asian junk everywhere: swords, straw hats, pictures, pillows. Right now we have four house mates: two farangs [foreigners] , Amber and Mike, (England and Canada, I think) and two Akhas. The two farangs [foreigners] are really cool. I haven't really got a chance to talk to the Akhas yet. I doubt they speak any English. In fact they probably don't speak much Thai either. I think they are going back to the village soon anyways. I had an eventful few days since my last journal entry. 

Chebon and I went back to Pai for a few days before the drum festival. In Pai we met a character named W.  W. used to be an American. He is a veteran of the American war in Korea and seems to be in his 50s. He spent the last few decades traveling all over the world, mostly Asia and Pacific Islands, farming, working, living, sometimes transporting large amounts of flowers across various borders. He is tall, and has long white hair and beard.  Now he seems to be settling in Pai. He is married to an Akha woman named Buti, who owns the handicraft store. They also rent the house
that Chebon and I live in. They also have a whole lot of land somewhere nearby. Their idea is to start a self contained community there, probably an Akha village of sorts.  W. is surrounded by many talented people who have many really good ideas about making money and having fun. I'm going to put together a website that tries to sell Akha jewelry and some of these ideas.  

Other than hanging out with W. we have an extremely busy and stressful schedule in Pai. We usually get up at around 4am and go to the market to get coffee. We can only catch the coffee man at the market early in the morning and his coffee is worth it. The coffee man is kind of a small time celebrity in Pai. After we drink coffee and eat sticky rice with coconut milk we sit around really bored till the sunrise.  Then we head to the hot spring and soak between the rocks for a while.  

After that, we get on the motorbike and go explore the jungle.  In the jungle we spend our time looking for hot springs and perfecting a sport we invented: bamboo diving. We find a bunch of giant bamboo growing near the river. We climb to the top of one of them. As we get closer to the top the bamboo bends and dips us into the water.  The challenge is to not break bamboo which can result in an uncontrolled decent.  

After we get done playing in the jungle, we head to W's for tea, smokes, playing music and hanging out. After W's we go to get some awesome Muslim pancakes from a vendor that we can only catch at night. Chebon and I think that he should be a small time celebrity too.  

After a couple of days in Pai we went back to Chang Mai and immediately went to the College of Dramatic Arts (CDA) to catch the bus to Lampang Lanaa culture festival. A bunch of kids from CDA were performing there and Acha Mongkoln invited us to come along. By the way, "Acha" means "teacher" in Thai.  Acha Mongkoln is what his students call him so Chebon and I do as well.  The festival in Lampang was fun. There was lots of traditional Lanaa music, fashion, food, dancing and a bit of fighting. Acha Mongkoln's students performed very well. 

Not many farangs go to Lampang even though it is supposedly one of the biggest cultural centers of Lanaa.  We were the only farangs in the crowds of 1000 or more on both days of the festival that we attended. Many Thais were very excited to see farangs taking interest in the culture. They smiled, said hello and gave us whisky.  Lately Thais have been making me drink whisky everywhere. The interaction usually proceeds as following. After I say hello to them in Thai they ask me a bunch of questions in Thai. In response I stare and smile. When they see that the conversation isn't going anywhere they whip out a glass and a couple of bottles and make this awful drink that Thais seem to love: ice, soda water and whiskey. They give me the glass and say: "Thai whisky! Aloy!" Aloy means delicious.  

After the festival we went back and stayed with Acha Mongkoln. There I meat one of his sons. He is 20 and is one of the top pro Thai boxers in Lanaa. He is also one of the nicest people I've met. He spent half of the night teaching me how to play various traditional musical instruments (he is really good at all of them) and even gave me one of his medals as a gift.  In the morning we went back to Lampang for another day of culture and drumming. The culture was nice, but the drumming was kind of disappointing.  Tomorrow afternoon we go back to Pai and probably going to stay there for a week or so. Tonight, I think we'll meet our Chang Mai friends for some drinks.

After spending a few days in Pai, a place which many people refer to as heaven, we are back in the northern capital Chang Mai for a couple of days. I think tomorrow morning we are going back to Pai for three days. Then we come back to Chang Mai. On Feb 1,2,3 we will go to a drumming festival in Lampang (about 2 hours south of Chang Mai) with Monkgoln, who teaches one of the competing drumming teams. After that we'll probably bolt to Lao PDR. We will make our ways South over the following weeks to get to the Full Moon party on the island of Ko Pa Ngan (or something) on Feb 16.

On the last night in Pai we decided to make an independent excursion into the jungle. We found out about a hot spring that was 7km away from the road. We decided to hike out there, camp and comeback. To make a long story short, the jungle kicked our butts. First thing that happened is we
got lost, then we had to do large amounts of bushwhacking with a dull machete that we borrowed from our guesthouse. Bushwhacking in the jungle is not fun! All the plants have super sharp thorns that often stay in the skin and hurt for days. Then we got wet, muddy, attacked by armies of
giant ants, etc, etc.

Our first jungle excursion was hard but a good time overall. Highlights include watching the sunset, exploring field irrigation canals and farmer paths through the woods, learning how to build a fire that we can cook on (no stoves for us still), swimming in a small river after trekking through sticker bushes in the heat for hours.  Despite all that we made it back to Pie in time to catch the bus to Chang Mai. 

The next day we went to Lampang with Mankgoln and his student Yutaro. Monkgoln is helping train the local district's drumming team. There were about 50 guys hanging out by a pavilion with 10 sets of drums (one giant drum and 3 smaller ones in each set). For each piece the group performed there would be up to 25 people drumming or beating the gongs.  Some of the drumming was wicked! A lot of the music they were playing was at around techno tempo. Much of it was very intense and aggressive (banging) and full of intricate rhythm patterns. I wish there were techno that sounded more like that. It was very inspiring.

Yutaro is a character that deserves a special mention. He is a skinny Japanese 21 year old that lives with Monkgoln studying Thai culture and fighting. He is one of the nicest, and gentlest people I've ever met. However, when I watch him dance with swords it is clear that he can make tossed salad out of 20 armed men without making a sound, breaking a sweat or looking ungraceful.

I spent the day playing with the drums, watching the dancers, learning sword dancing from Yutaro and trying to socialize with locals (mostly unsuccessfully due to the language burrier).

In the evening we went to a club here in Chang Mai. The place was packed with young Tha´s drinking, dancing, having fun. The music was super cheeze pop. Despite that there was no meat market feel at all. The vibe was actually rather good. There was about 1/3 male/female ratio at that club, which was nice too. Not bad for Monday night. There are a couple of dance spots like that in Chang Mai: excellent in every way, except the music, which is horrific.

When in Chang Mai, I try to spend as much time with Nan as possible. I enjoy her company a lot and know that soon it will be time to say good bye. Thinking about that makes me sad.

We left Chang Mai yesterday. We took the 3 hour bus to a town called Pai. We plan to stay there until Sunday and head back to Chang Mai. On Monday morning we are leaving to go to a drumming something or other in a wat (a Buddhist monastery] a couple of hours south of Chang Mai. We were invited there by a Thai culture and fighting instructor Monkgoln that we met at Chang Mai College Of The Dramatic Arts. That's the guy who drove us around the city in a truck full of drums. Yea, Monkgoln, is a character. He is in his fifties and teaches "Thai culture and fighting" which includes but is not limited to drumming, dancing, Ramayana and a deadly martial art called "Jing." He teaches lectures to large halls full of students, rocks it on the drums, is quick and precise when fighting. He's already taught some cool drum rhythms and fighting wisdom to me and Chebon. We're going to a wat where there is some big drumming get together. We might end up spending the night at the wat. That would be cool. Some of the monks are pretty cool cats. Now we're in Pai. This place is amazing. It is a small town in the mountains mostly populated by farangs (Thai for foreigners). The town is surrounded by hill tribe villages which currently farm garlic, soy and other very cool mountain plants. The town is a happy place. It is surrounded by gorgeous jungle mountains, clean rivers with waterfalls and, hot springs. The people is what makes it great. We've met some of the nicest, funniest and most interesting people from all over the world here. The town has a happening night life across the bouncy bamboo bridge from chilling by the fire listening to the frog. Everybody here: farangs, Thais and mountain folks seem to love this place and be happy. Most of farangs have been living here for months and have no idea when they are going to leave. We rented a motorbike (with insurance) and have been cruising around the area on the 100cc's of raw power.

Feb 11, 2003

I've been living in Pai for last week or so. I haven't been able to get any work on the Buti's website done because I need the cables for my camera from USA. I'm waiting to receive them. The whole cable epic has been really frustrating and the biggest source of distress.

Meanwhile there are apparently many people that need design work done for them in Pai. I've been approached by several. I designed a couple of flyers for this place called Cafe Del Doi. It is a very nice and expensive restaurant/bar on a top of a hill overlooking the valley. I got no money for that either, just lots of good food in good company.

One thing is clear, I can make comfortable living in Pai doing graphic design. I probably wouldn't drive a Mercedes, but would live in a good house, eat good food and work on average 2 hours a day. I mean I'm doing that already and I haven't even attempted to approach this as a business.

Other than spending a bit of time on the computer I've been entertaining myself with getting to know the local farangs [foreigners] and playing in the forests around here.

A couple of days ago Chebon and I and two of our friends Casy and Joy drove motorbikes to Sappang, which is an even smaller town Northwest of Pai. On the way there we had a little motorbike accident.

The motorbike that we rent is called Honda Dream. It has a minor design flaw: when the rear break pedal is pressed during a right turn it hits the ground, preventing breaking. That design flaw in combination with a steep decent, sharp curve and some gravel resulted in Chebon and me on the ground and our dream sliding underneath guardrail off the road. The Dream got caught in some bushes about 5 meters below the road.

Chebon ended up with a big bump and some scratches on his face. I ended up with some scratches and a deep gash in my elbow filled with dirt.

After taking a couple of minutes to make sure we were more or less ok, the 4 of us proceeded to pull the bike up to the road. That took about 15 minutes. Once the bike was on the road it would not start. We tried everything we could to get it going. A Thai guy stopped, got out his tools, took the bike apart, put it back together. The bike still wouldn't start.

Luckily we were near the top of a big mountain. So Chebon and I got on the bike a coasted to the bottom, about 5km. At the bottom Chebon popped the clutch in last desperate attempt to get the bike started and it did. We made it to Soppon on our power.

After spending half an hour looking for the hospital I had my elbow cleaned and stitched. I got 3 stitches and charged way too much for it (like almost $15!). The worst of all is that I didn't even get any real drugs! What the hell?

After we were done at the hospital we found a nice place to stay in an even smaller village about 9km from Sappang. The place is tucked deep in the mountains, surrounded by caves, hill tribe villages, clean rivers, the usual beautiful Thai stuff. We went hiking, caving, motor biking for the next two days.

Now, I'm back in Pai. The camera cable is in Bangkok. If I don't get that thing tomorrow I'm probably going to go crazy. Meanwhile, I'm going to try to get the hospital bill reimbursed by insurance.

Feb16, 2003

So we finished in Pai and made our way to Chang Khong, which is a border town with Laos. It turned out that Chebon's Thai visa expired several days ago and he has to pay a large fee to cross the border. Concurrently, his ATM card stopped working. So he dos not have enough cash. He's already been borrowing money from me for last couple of days. .

The last few days in Pai were a good time. I finished the website for Buti's shop. You can see it here http://www.angelfire.com/folk/willow1939/. There is still no text, but that's up to Willow to write and put it there.

Nan came and visited for a day and a half. It was really cool. Being with her really helps me understand many aspects of Lanna people. Eating a dinner with her and 4 Akhas was a great cultural experience. Just noticing the little differences in behaviors. Spending a couple of days having fun in Pai was a nice way to say goodbye.

After we go to Chong Kong we spent a few minutes haggling with tuk-tuk drivers for a fare to don't know where just as a formality. Then we started walking down the street. We came by a temple and saw a bunch of monks practicing chants inside. We walked in to say hello. In a minute we were surrounded by 20 or so 10-13 year olds monks with their English phrase books asking us questions. "What is your name?" "Where are you from?" "Does Lucy like to dance?"

We spent a few hours hanging out with them teaching them English. Lanna people can't get their R and L sounds straight to save their lives. In their language they use them interchangeably.  They taught us lots of Thai. Including a brief introduction into the alphabet and reading. Good lord! I could barely tell the difference between some of the letters. The names of couple of sets of 3 or 4 letters sounded exactly the same to me.  However, my Thai is getting a bit better. Yesterday I went to a diner and asked for two dishes of fried rice, asked how much they were, understood the answer and gave the right amount. All in Thai.  Haggling with tuk-tuk drivers partly in Thai has been helping me get lower fares too.

I put some pictures online: http://userpages.umbc.edu/~imaked1/travel

[Continued:  Countries - Laos]

 

[Previously see:  Countries - Thailand]

Feb 18, 2003

I crossed the border to Huai Xai and got a room. The next day I took a slow boat down the Meigkon to Luang Probang. I spent the next two days on the boat. The passenger section of the boat was filled with about 60 farags [foreigners] taking pictures and having deep conversations. I opted to sit on the floor of the engine room which was packed tribe people.

The boat docked for the night in a village and everybody had to find guesthouses. Later at night I ran into the crew of the boat on top of a huge dune by the river. There were 3 guys from my boat and a few other Meigkon sailors. I joined them by the fire. We sat around smoking joints. I got them to teach me some Laotian. Later I think they were trying to make fun of me. I just sat watching them launch out and trying to repeat what they say just to practice Laotian sounds. After that they invited me to sleep on the boat with them. I declined. 

Being buddies with the crew made the second day of the boat ride even nicer. They fed me really good Laotian food and rolled my joints. I spent the day hanging out the window or on the roof watching the mountains, rocks, villages and other boats go by. I also studied Laotian out of my notebook.

The boat is going to be in Loangprobang for a couple of days. Maybe I'll go visit the crew. They are fun to hang out with.

So far it's been impossible for me to get out of the tourist beaten track in Laos. Every place I've been to has been a tourist trap with super-inflated prices and impersonal locals. Luang Probang is the worst so far. It is absurdly expensive and overcrowded with tourists and hustlers. People I've encountered so far have had the "just buy the xxxx and get out of my face" kind of attitude.

I'm staying with a 40 (perhaps) year old plumber from Iceland that I met on the boat. We are splitting an absurdly expensive room. All the cheap guesthouses in Luang Probang are full.

Feb 20, 2003.

This morning I took a bus from Luang Proban to a small town about half way to Vientiene called Veng Vieng. It is similar to Pai in many ways. It is a town set in a scenic valley that was chosen by farangs [foreigners] as a good spot to hang out and relax.

There are amazingly beautiful mountains all around. And I'm not talking about big hills, I'm talking about sharp pinnacles piercing the clouds. There is a nice river. A popular pastime here is floating down it in a inner tube. There seems to be more tourists in this town than in Pai. There are half-naked people walking down the streets screaming, Japanese with their video cameras and elderly Americans. 

With some haggling, lodging here in Veng Vieng can be acquired much cheaper than anywhere else I've been. As a result I got a double with private hot shower for the same price that Chebon and I paid for a straw bungalow in Pai. Too bad I'm paying for the whole thing. Maybe I'll be able to find a roommate.

Yesterday in Loang Probang was a pretty good time. During the day I met a 14 year old girl named Yen. She turned out to be one of the more outgoing and fun people I have met in a long time. In the evening the main street of Loang Probang is closed to motor traffic and it becomes a night market with people selling stuff to tourists from blankets on the ground.  Yen sells Mong tribal handicrafts that she makes in the night market. She doesn't go to school. She seems satisfied with making and selling her pillow cases, purses, pants and little hats. She still manages to speak 5 or 6 languages and can probably read and write in 4 of them.  I bought her and a couple of her friends a some sticky rice and fish. We sat on their blankets, ate with our hands and talked for 3 hours or so. I learned some more Laotian and a bit of Mong languages. I taught some Russian. I got a whole bunch of presents from them. It was nice.

I watched hoards of tourist flow by and Mong women sell their junk to them for way too much money. It was so interesting to be on the other side of those carpets in the street.  At the end of the day about 20 of the women packed their things into a tuk-tuk, all climbed in and rode away screaming and laughing like they just finished the best day of their lives. I don't think I've ever seen so many people in a single tuk-tuk.

Yen is another person that I really would like to get to know better but will probably never see again. Letting people go has been by far the most difficult aspect of this trip. I just can't get used to it.

Today I spent the day biking around the VangVieng area. It's like a big playground. For each attraction I had to pay a small fee (about $0.50). I had to pay to cross bridges, go into a cave, climb a limestone pinnacle, swim in bright blue crystal clear creek, etc.

I notice many differences between Thai and Laotian people.  Laotians are much less friendly and much tougher about getting money out of me. They are more likely to lie and even steal. For example one time I ordered a dish in a restaurant and got a much cheaper dish. They tried to charge me for the more expansive dish. Didn't work.  People here seem a bit less happy. There are more crying kids and people arguing, things that I did not see in Thai almost at all.

Despite all that, the atmosphere here is still 10 times better than any other place I've been. The Laotians usually drop the stand offish shell after they get the few thousand kip and I speak a few Laotian phrases to them. They break out a big smile, start shaking my hand and so on.

I've been hanging out with a couple of Japanese kids that stay in my guest house. We actually were on the same boat from Huai Xai together and they remembered me. Tomorrow I think we might go to some other villages or go down the river on a tube. Another thing I want to do before I leave is kayaking. Supposedly, there is some white water around here even in the dry season. Weird.

The cuts from the motorbike accident are healing nicely. I got the stitches from the one on the elbow removed when I was in Loang Probang. I think I'm going to stop putting band aids on it tomorrow.

Going to a Laotian hospital was interesting. I was a little discouraged when I saw a huge crowd outside of it. However, I got serviced quickly and efficiently. I lay in the surgery room and watched the lizards run across the ceiling while the stitches were being removed.

xxx

Feb 26, 2003

I haven't written in while. I was in a bad mood for few days and then busy traveling. The days in the bad mood were spent in Vang Vieng. Chebon showed up at some point there. He was hanging out with a Canadian girl he met along the way, walking around the town wearing sunglasses and pretending not to notice me. He was in no hurry to return the significant amount of money he owes me.

I spent the couple of days hanging out there mostly by myself, which was kind of lame. I did go biking with a couple of Japanese kids named Youshiko and Yusay. They are pretty cool, but a bit too weak. I think they are recovering from some really serious drug issues. They paddled slow, got tired quickly and caring bikes across streams and throwing them over fences took forever.

[Ed Note:  Continued in Laos]

I spent the whole day today traveling on various busses, tuk-tuks and by foot. I spent about 15 hours on the road and feel like I could do another 15. Maybe I'm getting hard like that. Anyway, I'm now in Bangkok staying in a guesthouse near Ko San road.

Tomorrow my main mission is to get the cables from Fed Ex. The day after tomorrow at 9am I get on the plane and head for good ol' USA. 

Phuket, Thailand - May 2001

Captain Edward Caricato, USMC

[Editor's Note:  Capt. Caricato wrote the following letter during a six month deployment aboard the USS Boxer (similar to a miniature aircraft carrier).  He was the Executive Officer for a Marine field artilleery battery.  Prior to Thailand, they had been to Singapore.]

We left Thailand last week after four days of liberty. Unlike Hawaii or Singapore we did not have any training or work to do while we were there so after leaving the ship on the first day myself and my liberty buddy, Scott, got as far away as we could in a day and stayed there until we had to get back on the ship 4 days later which was, as you can imagine, not the easiest thing to do. In fact, I had serious intentions of calling Courtney (my wife) and telling her to empty the bank accounts, sell the truck and meet me in Bangkok.

We stayed on a small island on the southwest coast of Thailand called Phuket. It is kind of a resort island which caters mostly to tourists on holiday from Europe and Australia, however I met a number of American ex-patriots who, for various and interesting reasons, decided to make Thailand their new home.

As I stated in an earlier letter there are some general rules when traveling abroad that should prevent you from getting sick. You really shouldn't drink anything but bottled water or something from a sealed container, avoid ice fresh fruits and vegetables, any meat that is not extremely well done and pretty much anything from a street vendor. This is especially true in a place like Thailand. However, in our pursuit to go native we threw these rules out the window. I thoroughly enjoyed the Thai cuisine and indulged every chance I had.

We hooked up with some locals that took kind of acted as guides taking us to out of the way restaurants and drinking establishments. Every now and then at home, Courtney and I would go out for Thai food but after this trip, Thai food at home is closer to McDonalds than the types of things I ate here. Seafood is pretty much a staple and if it is real Thai food it is probably hot (spicy) enough to remove a couple layers of skin. I was in a bar one night and a kid was selling these mangos that were sliced up like flowers. With the mangos came a little pouch of what looked like granulated sugar which was to be put on the mango slices. I got some thinking that it would be a pretty good desert scooped some of the "sugar" with a slice of mango and went to town. Well, within about .05 seconds of it touching my mouth I lost all control of my body. I think I broke about 4 bottles, 2 bar stools and a table before I found something to put out the fire. The locals really got a kick out of my act and then really rubbed it in as they (kids between the age of 7 and 13) consumed this stuff with no problem.

Despite thoroughly confusing our digestive systems, Scott and I didn't really experience any significant illnesses associated with the stuff we were eating, half of which we didn't really want to know where it came from. However, we did find that consistent consumption of high volumes of Singha Beer over long periods of time greatly reduced the harmful effects of any foreign bacteria or germs in the food.

Our trip was not all eating and drinking though. We also had some suits made and did some pretty good souvenir shopping. It will definitely be a Thailand Christmas in the Caricato house this year.

The true highlight of our stop in Thailand was definitely the people we met. Like I said, there were a lot of Europeans on holiday there. We ended up hanging out with people from all over Europe including Norway, England, Denmark and Germany. The Europeans really know how to relax and have a good time. The tailor that made our suits was a real entrepreneur. He was about 29 but acted as the patriarch of his whole family. He owned and ran two tailor shops a clothing factory and several souvenir shops which were all run by his brothers and sisters. He and his family were from Nepal. By far the most interesting person we met was an American ex-patriot named Eric. In his previous life-he was a banker in Colorado and about thirteen years ago decided to move to Thailand. He currently owns and operates a small hotel and two restaurants on Phuket. This guy truly fit the bill, a real character out of a novel. He set us up right from the day we met him.

Overall, Thailand was a great stop. I highly recommend it to anyone that would ever have the chance to travel overseas. The only expensive thing about the trip would be airfare to and from. However, once you are there you can live like royalty for almost nothing compared to anywhere else in the world (including the U.S.). The exchange rate is about 44-48 BAHT to 1 U.S. Dollar. We stayed in a gorgeous resort hotel for $50 a night. You can also stay in smaller bungalows which are actually little tropical apartments on the beach for about $25 a night. A huge meal will cost you about $4 and a bottle of beer was a little less than $1. If you are just visiting you can rent a little taxi (tuk tuk) for an entire week for about $15. The driver will meet you whatever time you tell him in the morning and drive you wherever you want all day/night long and you pay him the full amount when you are done at the end of the week (just agree on a price up front). You can also rent mopeds for almost nothing or if you plan on staying, buy a brand new one for about $200-$400.

It was a great break, but it is back to work for now. No, this is not a government subsidized carnival cruise. In fact, one of the reasons we had so much fun is that was probably our last liberty for a couple months. [Continued:  Click on Countries - Bahrain]


 

Part of the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace near Bangkok, the Thai Pavilion is readily acknowledged as one of the finest examples  of classical Thai architecture.

 

 

 

 

Phuket, Thailand - August 2001

                                                        Captain Edward Caricato

[Previously:  From Countries - Jordan]

We pulled in for round two at Phuket, Thailand. Once again, my friend Scott and I did everything within in legal boundaries (for the most part) to have a good time and get away from the ship. The weather was perfect this time; not too hot or humid, and we split our time between a gorgeous, white sand beach and our favorite Thai bar. Believe it or not I did manage to fit something constructive in to that hectic schedule. I had a couple suits made in preparation for my job search that will be kicking off right after I return in September.

Once again the highlight of our stay was meeting all kinds of people from all over the world. The travel habits of different cultures never cease to amaze me. It is not uncommon for a person, young or old, to just pack a backpack and head off into the world for a month or two in a small group or even by them self. The Thai people themselves were incredibly hospitable as always. Coi, ("C" as she told us to call her) was the proprietor of our favorite bar, which was conveniently located right between our room and the beach. She was an older lady who kind of took to looking after Scott and me, reminding us to wear sun block and watch out for the crazy waves and currents in the ocean this time of year and make sure we were remembering to mix in a little solid food in our diet. She would also not serve us until she made sure our hands were clean and fingernails trimmed. It took us a minute or two to figure out what she was talking about the first time but after that we made sure we were o.k. before showing up because she checked every time.

Since our last trip, many of my Marines heard how much fun we had in that town so this trip they ventured down to the less crowded, more relaxed part of the island. Normally, Scott and I would try to avoid large populations of "our own" but it turned out to be a good deal. Like I said previously, I have a great group of guys and that carries over to liberty as well. They really know how to have a good time and it was a pleasure observing their antics. I had one group that decided they would try to blend in with the European crowd and decided to wear nothing but Speedos, sandals and sunglasses. It did not matter if they were at the beach, shopping or sitting in one of the bars. I had another Sergeant that basically ended up working for "C" behind the bar. By the end of the trip he would show up, go straight behind the bar and begin taking orders, making change, cleaning dishes etc. Nobody seemed to mind and he was happy to help out. There were also two that decided they would entertain the group of tourists, Marines and workers with their bar dancing abilities. It all sounds very juvenile or odd but there was an older British couple that would show up every night and pick up the tab for the Marines out of appreciation for the entertainment.

I have certainly done my share of complaining about the military lifestyle, especially over the last year and I am very ready to move on to the next stage of my life but this past week was the first time that I realized I am really going to miss some of these guys. Not so much the Officers I work with and for but the Corporals and Sergeants that I have grown up with in my battery. They are the ones that get the dirty work done and whenever I have looked good professionally it has been a direct result of their labors. It really is a great bunch of guys.

Enough of the sentimental stuff. Last night we passed back through the Straits of Malacca past Singapore and Malaysia and are now steaming through the South China Sea. We will sail right through the Philippine islands but unfortunately not get to stop there. The next stop will be the island of Guam where we are due to offload and wash all our vehicles and equipment in preparation for our return to the U.S.. After that there is only a brief stop in Hawaii and then back home! One of the more inspirational sights I get on a daily basis is when I go up to the flight deck to run in the morning. If I get up there early enough I can see that we are sailing right into the sunrise which means east, which means home.

                                  Phuket, Thailand - December 2000

A Post Card from 

Alisa Blitz/Seibert

The weather here has been perfect!  This is the ocean we look at from our hotel though we are on the sandy part of the lagoon, the rocks are out at the point.  Today we will play in the pool, go sailing and wind-surfing.  Bernice [grandmother] is taking a cooking class this afternoon.  Tomorrow Rich goes scuba diving and the kids and I go snorkeling in the Phi Phi Island reef!  [We will be in] Bangkok the next day.

 

Phuket, Thailand - November 2000.

A Post Card from

Alisa Blitz/Seibert

Happy Thanksgiving from sunny Phuket!  We are staying in a very classy resort with a big pool and waterslide!  Yesterday we went on a cruise touring Phang-Nga Bay.  We got out and toured the sea caves below this lime stone island by rubber raft.  We visited the Hongs (round sea level lagoon pools encompassed by these islands) via the caves.  There was a monkey in one of the hongs and Allie and Nick fed it fruit from the cruise buffet.

 

Phuket, Thailand - November 2000

An e-mail letter from

Richard Seibert

We are having a great time here in Thailand. We are at the airport leaving Phuket to go to Bangkok.  We will be in town for the Kings birthday, so we will see a great parade and all the festivities.

So far we have had a fantastic time and mom has been a real trooper. We have done the rainforest hike and the canoe trip through the caves of Phan-Nga Bay. We saw live fruit bats and a leopard shark while snorkeling at Phi Phi Island.

 

Nakorn Ratchasima, Thailand - 1999

Alisa Blitz/Seibert


I went to visit THIS [Pimai] today--it was built around 1,100 [AD] but has been rebuilt in sections by recent people. Thailand reminds me of San Diego, Bouganvilla grow on every street corner. The Thai people are very friendly. We ride "Tuc tucs" around town for $1.00 per lift (2 - 4 people).

 

 

Bangkok, Thailand - May 1995

Vicky Blitz

[Previous: Click on Countries - Singapore]

We had rooms in the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza Hotel and they were five star for sure. We had arranged to have dinner at a restaurant and what a surprise. There were no chairs. The tables were long to be able to seat perhaps twenty people. The tables were in a pit and one sat on the floor (on pads) and put your feet in the pit under the table. Getting seated wasn't so bad but getting up I needed a little help.

The meal was delicious but the entertainment was truly a Thai experience and I would not have wanted to miss it. The dancers were dressed in expensive costumes with a great deal of glitz and glitter and there was a story line involving an evil monkey king and a beautiful princess and how he chased her but couldn't catch her and she was saved by the hero. Then the monkey king, having lost the princess came into the audience to find a substitute and found my room mate, Tina. Everyone had a good laugh. Whatever the price of the ticket, it was worth it.

We were just the three of us on a non-escorted tour but we met our tour guide for the day who took us to visit the Grand Palace. All three of us were wearing slacks. Simone's were baggy and mine were flowing but Tina's were tight and the palace guards stopped her and made her wear a sort of wrap-around. Tina was a bit upset but Simone and I found it hilarious. Actually, the wrap-around skirt looked pretty good on her except that there were quite a few other tourists wearing the identical costume.

In addition to the Grand Palace which we only saw from the outside, we made a visit to the Emerald Buddha, which is really green jasper and, we were told, all in one piece. [See picture of "guard" statue outside of temple] It was unbearably hot and mid-morning I was already feeling sick from the heat.  Fortunately, we stopped at a gem store, run by the Thai government where we got drinks and saw a film on gems, while seated in a cool, air conditioned room. 

In the evening, we went out to a local spot for pizza...but not just ANY pizza. We had pizza with a Thai taste. Delicious, but, my goodness, have you ever heard of fish sauce topping? Even at 9:30 in the evening, walking back to our hotel, it was still too hot for me and I really was afraid I might have a heat stroke if we didn't get some relief.

The next day we booked ourselves onto a temple tour and went to Wat Trimiter, the Temple of the Golden Buddha. As the story goes, the Golden Buddha was stolen by the Burmese in one of their wars and for many years it was lost. Then in 1955, someone purchased a large plaster buddha and as the crain was lifting it, they dropped it and it broke open, revealing the Golden Buddha inside. They then realized what had happened. During the war, someone had plastered over the Golden Buddha to protect it, only to die in the war and there was no one left alive who remembered. Imagine how they must have felt to find out their actual purchase.

We had a lovely little guide named Poom and she was quite articulate. She also took us to see the famous Reclining Buddha, Wat Po Temple, which is so large and housed in such a small temple, one cannot get a picture of the whole thing. One can only get pictures of it's parts, as evidenced by this picture of the bottom of the Buddha's toes [notice tourist at the lower left taking a picture of the feet].

And lastly, we saw the Wat Benchamaborpit, the Marble Temple. But the thing that I enjoyed so much and found so awesome and are so much the Thai signature (to me) were the stupas. They are the pointed indented-cone-shaped structures that are everywhere in the area. Poom told us that they were actually tombs with royal family members buried in them. I include a picture here of the detail of the corner of the base of a stupa to show the tiny tiles which go to make up the patterns of the facade of a stupa being restored. 

After dinner I took a walk around and got pictures of things that caught my fancy, but I could only stay out briefly as the heat, car fumes, motorcycle noise, dust from construction, etc. were taking their toll on me. But I had to get this picture outside of our hotel. According to the Thai belief system, there are gods everywhere and in everything. So, any time you erect something like a house, or in this case, a hotel, you are displacing a god, and therefore you need to build that god a little temple for him to reside and then you are required to honor him on days set aside for just that purpose. [See picture of the God House in front of the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza Hotel.] I really like these people and the way they think. They have such great respect for all life. What a better place if everyone felt that way.

 

THINK GLOBALLY - ACT LOCALLY - PRAY FOR WORLD PEACE