So, what's it been like so far? Lots of firsts, re: having never been to Asia -- and then a fair number of parallels to Africa and Latin America. So, here goes.
It took nearly 24 hours to get here. Boarded a Japan Air Lines humungo jet from LAX replete with gorgeous and deferent Japanese flight attendants -- way much pretty good Japanese food, loads of movies and computer games for the 12 hour flight to Osaka. The next stretch, from Osaka to Bangkok featured flight attendants in pretty green outfits who pretty much let me
try to sleep on some of the unclaimed seats....
Arriving in Bangkok was only minimally chaotic. Found a money changer and was instructed to wait for an airport bus to take me over to Kao San Road (the backpacker center of Bangkok.) The bus, though cheap, made stops at every airport terminal before dropping me off on a street that perhaps best resembles Burning Man at night. Restaurants/bars blared out music with that
inimitable Burning Man beat and then the streets were crawling with travelers from everywhere. The streets were lined with cooks serving up pad thai, roasted corn, roasted chicken, etc. I explored several guest houses before settling on one that proved to be right on top of a disco, had no amenities other than a small towel, and despite a noisy fan, stayed hot all night. (I fully understood why the small bed had no bedding.)
The next morning I set out to relocate myself to the Royal Hotel, which has proved to be just what this jet-lagged doctor needed. Now I have a hot and cold shower/tub, plenty of towels, quiet air conditioning, a TV (several English language channels) and a huge breakfast buffet all for under $30/night.
I spent much of today just wandering..taking in whatever of Bangkok appeared to me. There were vendors selling everything from used watches, slightly battered cell phone cases, relic-looking pendants, to the innards of cell phones, a pistol, loads of lottery tickets (haven't figured that one out), and all kinds of delicious and not-so-delicious looking foods. Compared to the Nairobi street sales I witnessed several years ago, these seemed decidedly more high tech...and with more things of higher value.
There are some completely wasted beggars and street people but again hardly the Nairobi scene. Mostly it feels clean and safe. And unlike East Africa and New Guinea, street life gets hotter and more interesting at night. Kao San Road is loaded with backpacker oriented travel agents -- offering deals to the North, the South, the Beaches, the ruins. At this point I'm thinking of heading up to the ruins of Ayutthaya the day after tomorrow and then after wards go the Chiangmai.
Today I did experience my first (and possibly last) Thai massage. It was an absolutely unforgettable experience. The masseuse climbed all over my body -- beating her feet, elbows, hands into every tight spot she could find. Perhaps the most memorable moment was when I was lying on my back and she spread my legs apart and began banging her feet way into my inner thighs. She then started giggling about how we were both women. Apparently most of
her clients her men...
Gradually gaining a bit more perspective on things... The night before I wandered around the park outside my hotel and encountered lots of drunk and homeless people. Some wanted to talk -- and despite their inebriated efforts, they made very little sense. Later back in my hotel room I realized that in my allowing things to "just come to me" -- certainly the first things to arrive would be the world of the streets. In LA I've occasionally driven through downtown and witnessed (from the security of my car) the homeless scene which in my very limited sense of things looks MUCH more intense than that of Bangkok. Ultimately, it's places like Cuba (where I was last Spring) that really keep tabs on everyone so that lives like these don't happen.
Still the street dogs and cats of Bangkok have it pretty good, especially if they've managed to attach themselves to one of the beautiful temples. Then they get fed constantly by worshippers -- because they're holy beings!
So, yesterday morning I became more proactive about getting to know Bangkok and set out on a self-guided walking tour of some of the temples and parks. If you've never scene a Thai temple, it is a thing to behold. Tall gold spires, inlaid mosaic pieces, and gold Buddhas in all shapes and poses. The first one I came upon was the Grand Palace...and since it was so new to me I took pictures of everything -- every nook, every cat, every sleeping homeless person, every view, every buddha. And then I came upon a park where people of all sizes and ages were jogging, dancing and doing more calisthenics. Again, my shutter never stopped clicking away.
Eventually I made it over the Wat Pho -- an absolutely huge temple complex replete with a building-sized reclining Buddha and a massage school. After photographing the Buddha from all possible angles (including inspiring some of the other tourists to try more creative shots), I submitted to another Thai massage. I figured I needed more DATA before deciding that they weren't for me. This one was a bit more professional. The masseuse prayed before she touched me and then refrained from totally mounting me the way the other one did. Several hours later I noticed a couple of black and blue marks from all the pounding, and decided I've had it. Enough of submitting myself as a research object! While the idea of an $8/hour massage was pretty irresistible, the actual experience wasn't. Rather than "reading" my body for messages of what might be needed, instead they just run their routines.
Last night my hotel featured a kind of Thai amateur hour where singers of all ages and abilities got up and belted out Thai tunes. Some of the women were confidently sexy...others verged on timidity. Better than hanging with the homeless!
Did pay a well-deserved visit to the National Museum -- amazing dioramas of wars with gold fighting platforms mounted on elephants. And for a third world country, the museumology (?) was fantastic -- a major head and shoulders above anything I saw in Africa and New Guinea!
And then I did manage to fall for one of those traveler scams. Not hard. Not horrible, but it happened. I got offered a low-cost tuk tuk ride (open air golf cart) to see sites which were largely a tailor shop and a tour-booking bureau. I passed on the tailor shop -- though I suppose its quite a bargain to get a Thai tailor to personally create a suit or gown. I did by a train ticket and trek up to visit the "hill people" in the Chiang Mai area. Might not be the best deal -- but in any case, the next 6 days of my trip are planned! I'm going to Ayutthaya today to see the ruins of this ancient city then afterwards take an all-night sleeper up to Chiang Mai. The following day I do the three-day trek.
The day before I packed up my stuff and took a nice comfortable taxi ride over to the Bangkok train station and caught a local train up to Ayuttayah. The train was filled with local people eating snacks and chatting up a storm. And then there were some tourists squished in, too. After a warm ride of several hours in which I talked intermittently with a couple of Korean students on a self-guided tour, I stepped off at the Ayuttayah station. Stashed my bag for 25 cents and then found a place to rent a bike for the day for 75 cents. Next I was hauling the bike on an 8-cent water-taxi and then boom I was in the middle of Ayuttayah--a city of immense importance in the 13th and 14th centuries. Amidst the local world of markets, businesses, and institutes there are at least five significant archeological sites. Each an easy bike ride from the next. Slightly reminiscent of the Yucatan ruins -- I took what might be totally amazing pictures of rows of spires -- amidst puffy clouds -- views through little windows -- whole landscapes of temple upon temple. And of course those inimitable Buddhas -- some in perfect shape -- many damaged. And then the warning signs to not take pictures of Buddhas that don't have heads. The head is sacred...
Six hours later I'd burned up several rolls of film and the sun was setting. Wandered through a monastery with a bunch of young monks dressed in gold -- also saw a procession of elephants decked out the gold and red riding carriages. Eventually found my way back to the train station and caught an overnight sleeper train up to Chiang Mai. The train was overly air-conditioned and I proceeded to freeze --found socks and my one thin jacket for a slight bit of warmth--then curled into a ball and breathed as much hot air as I could under the one thin blanket that was supplied. At one point the train stopped because a car had been hit (it looked pretty mangled -- my sense is that the train was not at fault.)
Upon arrival in Chiang Mai I caught one of those inimitable tuk tuks over to the SP Hotel. It’s on a quiet street -- warm greeting. Met people from the trekking company --. The trek starts this morning -- goes out to a forest reserve to visit with the Hmong and Karen tribes. Apparently the Hmong are polygynous --who knows more DATA could appear.
Then last night a couple I met at the trek intro meeting invited me to join them for one of these totally tourist dinner/shows. For $10 I figured I couldn't go wrong. So suddenly I found myself at this huge complex with several hundred tourists (from India, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong) taking pictures of "traditional" dancers and eating tasty bits of delicious chicken, vegetables, fruits, etc. Afterwards fire works were set off and eight lanterns were set ablaze and released into the sky. Then I stepped aboard a minivan for a ride back to my hotel -- after depositing all the Indians at one of the poshest hotels I've ever seen the driver went around in many circles before finding my rather moderate digs.
Slept off the freezing (largely sleepless) train ride and I'm on my way to do some trekking.
So three days ago I selected a smattering of clothes and camera equipment, placed them in a small knapsack and stashed the rest away. Soon I found myself piled in with six other trekkers -- an MD and an engineer from Spain, a nursery school teacher and factory owner from Taiwan, and two internet entrepreneurs who live in Sacramento but are originally from Singapore and
Hawaii. We became an instant community as our Thai leaders led us up and down mountains -- along the edges of rice paddies, and into Karen tribe villages.
One of our first stops was a Buddhist temple, which was one of the most creative ones I've seen to date. One of the Buddha heads was embedded into a tree, others were purple and green creations, others (all separated by walking paths) created a cave-like feeling. I'm still at a loss for what it means to practice Buddhism in Thailand -- temples are so elaborate relative to Japanese style Zen practice. What does this mean? How might this affect worship? Considering that our trek leaders are just about pre-verbal when it comes to English words beyond "Good Morning, would you like some tea?" I suppose this will be one of my next research projects....
We stopped at several glorious waterfalls and went swimming. The currents were swift -- just intense enough to keep me from even a moment's daydreaming. And then there was the mud. Thick red overwhelming mud. Mud that splashes onto everything and clogs down even decent hiking boots. Today we were just reeking in mud!
We slept in simple guesthouses maintained by two different Karen tribe communities. The first tribe had running water, electricity, and TV satellite dishes. The second fetched water from a nearby river and lit candles when darkness fell. The villages were so reminiscent of ones I've visited in New Guinea, Africa and Mexico -- it took me just moments to feel the scene deeply in my bones. There were the requisite chickens (with super loud morning roosters), pigs, cows, and those inimitable third world dogs. All about 25-30 lbs. with short fur; big shepherds and fluffy poodles just don't fly in places like this. The houses here are all two levels -- On the lower level live the animals -- and then upstairs, covered by leaf-thatch roofs, are the humans. When I was 22 I lived in one of these villages in the Yucatan for several months -- returning now...they're almost like a "home" to me.
Despite their primal style living, the Karen have been messed with. Unlike most of Northern Thailand, they do not practice Buddhism, but rather Christianity. Apparently their traditional animistic practices were the subject of a major conversion effort by missionaries. And opium production which, was once a mainstay of these tribes has given way to Chrysanthemum
I left with many more questions than answers...our trek leaders were very sweet, but hardly worldly enough to begin to answer the questions that kept spinning in my head. They did, however, manage to cook us delightful Thai meals, show us special things about the plants we saw (one could be used to make a temporary jungle tattoo) and keep us laughing with their renditions of American songs like "Oh Susanna." My leader "Boo" even gave me a bit of a Thai massage (with the caveat that he could not pound my legs) before bed.
The last day we took a short elephant ride and then a quick river run in bamboo rafts. Apparently Asian elephants filled the niche of horses -- they can be easily ridden, corralled, etc. Quite unlike African ones... And the bamboo rafts were great -- we even did a nearly class 3 run -- I've done them plenty of times in inflatable rafts -- quite terrifying as we almost crashed into rocks!
Finally, we piled into a truck and headed back to Chiang Mai. Now, for those of you who don't know me well, it takes just minutes for me to turn green if I'm anywhere but in the front seat of any moving vehicle. Fortunately, the leaders took pity on me and led me ride next to the driver. On the last ride back towards town I secured my seat belt ... and some point along the way, made sure the driver had his snapped in, too. Just south of town the driver cut off another truck and suddenly our windshield crumbled to pieces and all the travelers in the back of the track crashed into each other. I was completely unscathed (the seatbelt saved me for sure)...and everyone else ended up in the emergency room. No serious looking injuries -- the worst looked like a swollen bump on the head.
I'm still a bit rattled by what I just witnessed. VERY GLAD to be completely in one piece.
So often when I've traveled I've gone to places with really difficult food -- like porridge bread and overcooked greens in Africa and non-stop sweet potatoes in New Guinea. Thailand...as you might imagine has been a totally other experience. And today I took a cooking class -- so hopefully when you drop by for a slide show, I'll fix some pad thai, green curry, red curry, sticky rice with mango, and green papaya salad and a delicious soup.
Anyway, the class which was taught in a well-organized cooking school so deconstructed Thai cooking that within minutes we were making these delicious concoctions with chili paste, lemon grass, mushrooms, tofu, shrimp and chicken. Since we live on the edge of Asian-LA, I imagine there being little difficulty in tracking down ingredients. The class made it much easier than real life -- where assistants did all the clean up, they gave each student measured amounts of ingredients and largely all we did was chop and stir fry. I loved it. The teacher was great, too with his very silly jokes. Thai humor is so in-your-face -- something akin to the mentality of about a sixth grader.
While I can't possibly impart all the secrets I learned here's just one: coconut milk is half way between coconut cream and coconut water. In fixing a curry one cooks the milk until the fat begins to separate and then adds curry paste. Additional amounts of coconut milk are added until a smooth warm sauce occurs.
And Thais seem to always have food on the brain. The markets are filled with tropical fruits, loads of vegetables, noodles, rice, and of course amazing flavorings. And at night all thoroughfares fill up with cook stands making soups, pad thais, etc.
So, I was looking over the scene in Chiang Mai -- could take another trek and visit some more Hill Tribes -- like the Karen women who wear hoops of gold rings around their necks and snap some gawky tourist photos OR I could explore sex tourism in Pattayah. I did, however, make one final effort to try to get some more solid data on the Hill Tribes by visiting the Hill Tribe Museum run by the University of Chiang Mai. It was way out of the way -- over a lake in a beautiful park. The exhibits were so so. Very basic ethnographic info on who which tribes are polygynous and which are not. Which are Christianized.. some tools...some clothing. A bit on how the Hmong suffered by joining with the US in fighting communism. Much on how the Thai King and Queen have bettered the lot of tribal peoples -- who were frequently refugees from Laos and Cambodia. And more on how Opium production has been replaced with legal cash crops like coffee and flowers. I left with still more questions -- spoke to one of the museum curators about jealousy and polygyny -- he appreciated my questions, but admitted he didn't have answers.
Then, I spent the next 20 or so hours travelling to Pattayah. This involved a sleeper train down to Bangkok -- not air conditioned, so this time I didn't freeze. It did take a while -- I was on a top bunk and at one point felt so woozy, I got down and just stood on the floor hoping for my stomach to settle. Once in Bangkok I caught a city bus across town to the Eastern Bus Station. Bangkok goes on forever. Despite the Bangkok I had seen when I first arrived, everything of what I saw this time was completely new. It was like if you took a bus from downtown LA to Santa Monica -- and were constantly dazzled by all the sub-city centers -- West Hollywood, Century City, Westwood, Westside Pavilion, etc. Anyway I stumbled into the bus station and caught an express air con bus into Pattayah. Despite that the bus was filled with locally residing Thais, my experience in Pattayah was not!
Upon arrival a sweet Thai woman helped me place a phone call to Eric (I remain clueless for how to distinguish the different bleeps on Thai phones) and within minutes I was spirited away into the world of American expats...and eventually sex tourism. Eric is Alex Lehr's best friend from high school who has for the last three years made Pattayah his home. He purchased a bar on a quiet side street and serves up beers and American snacks to a bunch of the American guys who live in or frequent Pattayah. It’s a profit-losing operation, but that's the idea. Mostly its about having a relaxing retirement..no reason to make a profit and draw Thai government attention to oneself. When I stepped inside I felt transported into another world. Suddenly I didn't need to speak slow broken English. And despite my reverence for Thai cooking, I readily inhaled a tuna fish sandwich and a couple of hours later, a cheeseburger.
Then, last night Eric invited me into the world of sex tourism. His Thai wife, decided not to join us, but he did stick to the rules of their marriage -- touching/fondling are okay, but no attachments ..no upstairs visits! On the surface Pattaya is a total mind fuck. Its loaded with American and European men who are here solo -- they play golf during the day -- and otherwise hang out --- and then in the night, their focus is the Thai young women. And it doesn't matter what the guy looks like -- he can be old, rumpled, and barely verbal, but to the Thai young women, he's a walking ATM machine. They don't appear to discriminate. We went to a total of five different clubs. The first was a beer bar run by an expat from Minnesota. About five Americans guys sat around talking, catching up on life – while meanwhile the Thai hostesses, hoped for a bit of action. Action in this context means, receiving a drink or if they're lucky an invitation to leave for a private visit. Here, the customer would have to pay the bar a fine --
of let's say 200 bat (about $5) to take the babe away. The women are largely in their late teens and early 20s -- each more charming and drop dead gorgeous than the next. Wonderfully playful and engaging. No boob jobs here, some were nearly flat chested...and carried themselves with complete charm and confidence. Most are from other provinces -- their typical stories are that they were abandoned by their Thai husbands -- needed money to raise their children -- Pattayah became their answer. They may retain 3 or more "permanent" expat husbands who drop in once or twice a year. Certainly marriage and immigration to the US /Europe are goals for many.
Next we went to a go go bar -- the girls were dancing in little g-string bikinis. Usually they're completely nude, but there had been a raid going on, so not tonight. Eric bought drinks for about 10 of them and he became king of the club. Suddenly they couldn't give him enough attention! Then we were off to an exotic show. Here (in a highly illegal club) a woman did various pussy tricks like blowing out candles and shooting darts via a bamboo stick. Next we went to another go go bar -- more popular than the first -- several Thai babes were doing participatory lap dances with the expats -- and quite a bit of nude dancing in the back. Then we landed at another beer bar and saw a stylish transvestite show.
By then Eric was plastered--the evening (with drinks for all the Thai babes, tips, etc.) cost as much as my 5-day Chiang Mai trek and hotel stay -- but the DATA made it totally priceless. Thank you Eric for a fabulous journey!
I'm taking refuge from a huge Bangkok down pour of rain in an Internet Cafe. The cafe cat is sitting in my lap considering purring, but meanwhile just gently digging its claws into my thighs.
More reflections on Pattayah. There are apparently 50 VFW (Veterans of Foreign War) outposts around the Pacific, largely featuring guys that first discovered the wonders of Asian women from being stationed in Korea and Viet Nam. And then when R & R happened they found themselves in places like Thailand and the Philippines. Think about it. 19 years old, limited exposure to women in the U.S. and boom Asian babes galore. Some of them got seriously hooked. And now they're here for life.
Eric came to Pattayah a couple of years ago with retirement $...others have lived here doing one business or another for 30+ years. All of them come here solo -- (they knew of no one who came here with their American sweetie) and readily hooked up with a Thai wife/concubine. Eric's strategy was to frequent the beer bars and chat up the various hostesses. If someone seemed
promising he'd pay the 200 bat ($5) fine and take her home for the night. Of course there would be sex. After a couple of months he hooked up with Saht who now lives with him full time. He not only supports her but also her son, his girlfriend, their 10 mos. old baby and whatever extended family needs help.
Several of the expats expound upon the freedom they experience in being in Thailand. One can smoke anywhere (and everywhere)...and many of them spend most of the day drunk. There is no such thing as traffic tickets or parking tickets and of course there are no leash laws for pet dogs. Health care is pretty inexpensive...and most of them claim that they'll stay in Thailand for the duration...
When I look over the bar scene questions arise. Is it possible to really be intimate with someone who can barely speak the same language? Are these relationships largely exchanges of Western money for access to beautiful young Thai women's bodies? Do these women actually like being sexual with these much older misshapen guys often with very limited social skills? Or is that an unfair question? Perhaps the promise of a financially more comfortable life with the possibility of immigrating to Europe or the U.S. is so alluring that they don't wallow in the luxury of being with a physically attractive man. Perhaps it’s only been Western women whose financial independence that allows them to be so selective...
From what I gather these Thai/American couples often socialize together -- with the guys drinking up a storm and the ladies chatting and eating hot Thai food. So ultimately social needs are met -- just not the same as a mono-cultural couple.
Then last night we went to one of Pattayah's huge transvestite stage shows. Tickets cost 500 bat ($12) each, which is well beyond the means of local Thais. Van loads of Korean tourists poured in and the stage overflowed with gorgeous dancers in great costumes and amazing sets.
Earlier that day I went swimming at the local beach. Being on the gulf coast the waves were pretty mild and the ocean plenty salty. Still it was beautiful. Perhaps the weirdest moment was when I saw two little Thai girls bathe their pussycat in the sea. It actually put up with such antics!
I'm back in Bangkok this evening...and I fly back to LA tomorrow morning!