It's a good town, full of good things and people. But we've just come here too damn much.
Yet it's been worth it. One of my best friends, Jeanette, has just come up from Brisbane, Australia for a holiday, so we've been hanging out last night and today. Today also meant that I FINALLY got to see the Grand Palace... even if I did also forget the camera. Again. 1 out of 2's not bad, I suppose.
Still, this is going to be our last night in Bangkok for a while.
8000+ stalls... Innumerable Fighting Fish... 1 cheese grater
After the Palace and Wat Po, we took the Chao Praya boat down to the Central Pier and the southernmost stop of the Skytrain. The boat ride is relaxing, the BTS air-con and quiet, and we rode to Mo Chit for the Chatuchak weekend market. LP says that there are around 8,762 stalls there. You can get anything you want. For example, a sign in front of one of the 20-some sections advertised "Fighting Cocks, Fighting Fish, Beautiful Chickens." Now where else can you find such a combo?
The only thing I found that I wanted though, was some really yummy coffee (for 30 cents a cup!) and a small cheese grater for 50 cents (20 baht). Go figah. Next time I'm in Thailand though, there will be a weekend devoted to this market.
Change of Plans
The holidays have been great. Over Christmas we got to talk to some of our rellies, and it's had both of us missing home, friends and fam. It's not quite as tough on me as it is on Claudia I head home in less than 2 weeks, after all, whereas she has 6 months to go.
Tonight Claudia was feeling kinda blah. Tomorrow we were going to go to Erawan Falls, but she's not been as keen on it. She wanted to go mainly so I could see it, as she loved the place when she was here with Stephanie. But we're in this trip together, and need to see both see what we want to see. So Erawan will just have to wait for another time. I wanted to see it mostly because of how much it seemed she wanted me too!
But where to go? And how to have some more adventure, especially to help her get back her travel zip-bang-groove? Thailand is easy, especially after the difficulties and travails of India. But we don't really have enough time to go to, say, Laos or Malaysia (though it's tempting).
So instead we're going to go east, and take our chances on some islands. Ko Chang, Ko Mak it's close to New Year so accommodation could be tight, but that's no reason not to go. This is travel, this is our trip. If we aren't going to take a few chances, then hell, we might as well be back home.
Besides, it's just time to get out of Bangkok. With every visit or transit day, we're probably been in Bangkok about 10-15 days since coming to Thailand. I like this city, but not that much. I don't even want to see Bangkok again, until it's time to fly out of it.
Here's to lovely beach, blue sky, warm sea, and rum by the bucket for 100 baht.
Now that's a happy bloody new year.
I made it out alive!!!
Oh my. I thought Chiang Mai's Night Market was fraught with retail danger, but I nearly met my match at Chatuchauk Market here in Bangkok. Luckily, I was shopping for Christmas presents so I wasn't so worried about buying stuff for myself. If I had wanted to though.... I could have blown through loads of coin. I was particularly open to spending because I was dehydrated and spacey from an evening out with Ant, his friend Jeanette and Jeanette's friend Alia.
But, I didn't. Whew.
Two presents down, two to go.
It's listed on the Cambodia Overland: Travelers' Reports.
Currently (as of the page's 26 Dec. update), our 2 cents are the third writeup on the page, under the heading "Overlanding on our own from Bangkok to Siem Reap (December 2003)"
It's about 9:30pm here in Bangkok, and Claudia and I are fighting with the phone system. We were hoping to each make a few fam holiday calls, but the phones don't like us. We haven't been able to get anything to work, on any phone we've seen!
The place we're staying at seems to have us sorted out, at last. Claudia's (hopefully) on the horn right now, and I'm looking up my dad's number so I can ring him.
Sheesh. But oh well. It's been a minor adventure, anyway. Merry Christmas, and for certain peeps out there, may the next jing-jing-jangle you hear be a phone ringing...
I may be in Bangkok, but I miss everyone. I wish I could come home for a few days and then come back again. :(
Ahh well. A quick trip to Koh Samet or Sangklaburi ought to cure that!
Finally, I am posting about Angkor Wat.
I've been sans connection or will to get to a computer for a while. After a few days at the temples of Angkor Wat, I needed some time to relax. It was a hectic few days.
Each day we would use a different form of transportation. The first day was on bicycle. I didn't mind the length of the trip (30k) and could have done more, but it was the gravel parts. I don't like feeling like I'm going to slide out everytime a bus or truck flies by. As Ant mentioned, we saw the temples of Bayon and Ta Phrom, which were top notch. Big creepy/serene heads and temples covered in massive trees. It amazes me how the trees would almost intentionally pick the tops of the temples to grow on. It was if they were determined to reclaim the land.
The second day was by moto-cart, which is basically a tuk-tuk/rickshaw. It's a motorbike attached to a wooden cart for passengers. Our driver Chet was kick ass. We visited more incredible temples and also went to the actualy Angkor Wat temple, with the five tall pyramid-like structures. After all the huge heads and trees on temples, I felt like Angkor Wat itself was not that impressive because it wasn't as eerie. It also might have been that as I climbed up the super steep steps, I looked down and got so dizzy from vertigo that I wobbled and almost fell off. That did put a damper on the place for me. I was hoping to not break my back by falling 25-30 feet while in Cambodia. I just should have not looked down.
After that traumatic experience, we hired motorbike drivers the next day. We each had a bike, but also a driver because tourists are not allowed to drive in Cambodia. My driver was a total chatterbox. Ant and I wanted to revisit some of the temples we had been to before because the light was soooo much better on the third day and I wanted to reshoot some stuff. Basically, this meant hitting each temple at a specific time during the day, when the light was best. This amused our drivers because we would wind up backtracking and going in circles. Our final stop was back to the main Angkor Wat temple. We had read in our guidebook that there was a bas-relief of heaven and hell that we missed on our previous visit the day before.
Heaven, as most heavens do, looked pretty sedate and serene. The people were all sitting in line, looking vaguely bored but not unhappy. Hell on the other hand was bumpin. Unfortunate souls were being eaten by monsters, sawed in half, or the finale, my favorite, nailed to the wall by many many stakes, Frankenstein-style.
As a a great ending to the temple extravaganza, we came back to the guesthouse for a short performance by the kids from a local orphanage. The kids were like little Gap/Benetton models they were so good looking.
As we left Cambodia, Ant and I were disappointed we only had 5-6 days to spend there and couldn't explore more. I was interested in seeing seedy Phnom Pehn and also other things like Pol Pot's hideous Killing Fields. Our journey back to Thailand was completely uneventful. The drive from Siem Reap to the border took less than 3 hours and we were back in Bangkok by 5:30pm. I'm really glad we went.
Today's our last day in Siem Reap. We're keeping it pretty chill. Claudia's at the hotel relaxing, and I bicycled into town to wander markets, scout out some shops and, of course, geek out. Last night over a can of Angkor beer we watched children from an orphanage perform traditional Khmer dances, and we toasted surviving 3 days of intense temple-touring. I think I'm finally ready to talk about all this... and will try to keep it kinda brief...
Earthwalkers rents bikes free to guests, so we snagged a couple and thought we'd be ballsy. Our little Siem Reap tourist pamphlet had a pretty spiffy suggested 3-day itinerary, so we followed that (for the most part):
Angkor Thom was the last and biggest capitol of the Angkor empire. There's a large wall and moat around it, and you enter and leave through gates with 4 heads, and a drive-up with a bunch of figures in a tug-of-war with a giant serpent (naga) on either side of you.
Out of these, Bayon, the Chapel of the Hospital and Ta Prohm were the faves. If you're familiar with Angkor photos of the towers with 4 faces on them, each face with the same eerie yet serene expression, that's Bayon. You walk through this sprawling, tight-corridored complex, with about 37 towers (so 148 faces) starting at you. Several altars remain, and people with incense accept offerings in exchange for you saying a prayer. I gave $1 and asked for Angelina Jolie to drop in like she does in the first Tomb Raider movie, but no luck.
The Chapel of the Hospital was a surprise. We were biking to Ta Keo when we saw something at the end of a turnoff, so we headed down to explore. Our pamphlet noted that "102 hospitals were built throughout the empire under Jayavarman VII [J.V. the 7th, as we dubbed him]. The hospital itself was probably constructed of perishable materials such as wood and bamboo, which has long since disappeared". All that remains now is the dirt road, some ruins, and a stone tower. Dense jungle surrounds it it's hard to believe that this used to be the middle of a hospital. The chapel was one of my faves because it was so secluded, and while right off the road, hardly anyone came to see it. There was a calm there, unlike the eeriness and buzz you get in the more-touristed temple areas.
Ta Prohm, though, was the winner of the day.
If you've seen the signature photos of Angkor, where massive trees grow on top of and through temples, you were most likely looking at Ta Prohm. The pamphlet says that it was "intentionally left partially unrestored". I'm glad. Walking through here, seeing these ruins, I could get all deep and note that sooner or later any city falls and nature takes back over, but I'll err on the side of eerie. We walked through what used to be a monastic complex so powerful that it controlled 3000 villages and required thousands and thousands of people just to keep it running. Now ceilings have fallen in, and huge trees, some upwards of 100 ft, crash through the walls or grow on top of temples, roots stretching down the sides.
The bike ride itself was pretty easy, flat terrain, paved once you're inside the temple complex. From our hotel, through the temples, and back again, we probably cycled about 30km, and we handled it fine. There is a kinda freaky gravel bit that runs for a few km between the ticket checkpoint and Angkor Wat; we didn't care for that, but managed. The gravel stretch did remind Claudia of the gravel road in China where she got a pretty nasty leg injury though. After riding this part twice, she wasn't too thrilled at my zeal for us choosing to ride bikes today. I don't blame her, but she did fine.
Today's our last day in Siem Reap. We're keeping it pretty chill, after 3 intense days of temple touring. Claudia's at the hotel relaxing, and I bicycled into town to wander markets, scout out some shops and, of course, geek out.
Downtown Siem Reap is surreal. Khmers walk, zip by on bikes, cycle, and honk through in cars. It's dusty. Mornings are cloudy and sleeve-cool, but midday still leaves you a bit sweaty under a newly emerged sun.
Yet trucks rip down the street, with a loudspeaker playing Jingle Bells. Yesterday our moto driver said that Christmas isn't even really celebrated here, naturally, since Cambodia's a Buddhist country. Perhaps it's for the tourists, or for the few Christians in Cambodia? I have no idea. But of all places I was expecting "holiday spirit", this was not one of them.
It's a strange yet pleasant surprise, and now I keep humming Christmas carols in my mind.
but what the hell.
I just finished reading a pretty freaky book called Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark of Heart of Guns, Girls & Ganja. This Israel-born American guy, Amit Gilboa, used to live in Vietnam and do loads of "visa runs" to Phnom Penh, and he got to know a lot of the expat crowd there. He published the book in 98 or 99, and a lot of things have changed, but here's a couple of factoids for you:
I won't even go into the prostitutes, or how you could shoot off military rocket launchers for $35 a go. Cambodia has some beautiful temples, but there's a lot of messed up stuff here too. Some improvement since the book's publication, but still, a lot of messed up stuff.
That about sums up the last 3 days. We've seen Angkor-this and Phnom-that, Ta-wotsit and Preah-thingjiggy. We're just shy of being "templed out", and for the last day of our 3-day Angkor pass, decided to just revisit a few faves.
Right now we're catching up email. More posts soon.
Angkor, though, lives up to everything you've heard about it. Our minds are officially blown.
In the meantime, here's some photos from a chap who's doing an exhibition in Phnom Penh right now:
(This tree-on-temple shot is my favorite, and it also shows how things change. Now at Ta Prohm, the tree is braced with ropes and scaffolding!)
"From all the people I've talked to," said Claudia, "everyone here is stoned all the time."
Eugene friends, take note and start packing.
In my hippy-haven home of Eugene, there's this awesome pizzeria called Pizza Research Institute. We always joke about going there for "hippy pizza" or, as a friend of my old boss Sean called it, "Asparagus and DOPE pizza." PRI's zza is great stuff, but you get a certain, well, buzz after eating it that makes you wonder if it really was oregano in the shaker jar.
Now, in Cambodia pot is illegal, just as it is in India, Thailand, the U.S., etc. According to our LP, while sooner or later the marijuana laws might start being enforced more strictly, the law is generally ignored and pot is everywhere. Some traditional Khmer (not the murdering bastards from the 70s, that's the Khmer Rouge; Khmer itself refers to Cambodian culture) dishes even call for pot as an ingredient.
Which has me wondering about all the pizza joints here.
Kristin, the manager at Earthwalkers guesthouse, gave us a very informative tourist pamphlet for Siem Reap that has a great list of restaurants and taverns. Just about all the pizzerias have names that are something hippyish or maybe drug-allusioned; perhaps Eugene expats have already landed here, forming the cornerstoned of Siem Reap pizza culture?
You tell me:
I bet you didn't know that Toyota Camrys were good for off roading. Neither did I, but I was technically on a "road" when I found out.
Ant and I are currently in Siem Reap, Cambodia. After much mental preparation of the hellish travel and immigration hassles, we arrived without a hitch. We were somewhat disappointed. I find that travel without some form of hassle is almost disappointing and unsatisfying now that India is behind me.
We caught the 7:30 bus from Bangkok to Aranthyaprathet and arrived around 12:30 in the PM. We expected hoards of people from the Khao San Rd to be lining up in front of us, making us wait hours for visas and exit/entry stamps. We expected tons of beggars/thieves/touts. Luckily, there were very few.
At the visa office there was no line. I filled out my form, included my pic, and slipped the US$20 note in to see if that would work as opposed to the 1000B one which is worth more like $27. The officer threw it back at me (instead of handing it), so I threw a 1000B note at him when he reached for it. That was it. The only "hassle" and that can barely be described as one. Less than five minutes later I was in possession of my passport with a Kingdom of Cambodia visa.
We then walked to the office where they stamp you in, the officer was polite and smiled as he handed me my passport back. Ditto for the other officer dude who was checking you actually got stamped as opposed to just walking in one door and out the other.
Off we went to the melee traffic circle where the taxi mafia lurk. We saw two westerners hovering near a Toyota Camry and I went over to ask if they were up for splitting the cost of the car. Turns out they were leaving Cambodia and had just come from Siem Reap. They said their driver was top-notch and made the 150-160km drive in three hours. I offered him 1000B which he promptly took, and off we went. There was no one to bother him or jump in and demand additional payment. About two minutes into the ride, our friendly driver joked that his last passengers paid him too much (1200B).
As it turns out, our driver was more than happy to have us as cover because he was driving around contraband- boxloads of Virginia Slims which our backpacks concealed. Being he was a friendly and polite guy, we teased him about it. He then stopped and unloaded his cargo and picked up some new stuff. It looked like pebbles in old liquor bottles and my imagination decided it looked like tar heroin! After two seconds, I realized this was highly unlikely because he was much too chill about it, and it would be heading into Cambodia, rather than Thailand, where it normally goes.
So off we went. The first 50km were no problem, just the usual swerving and overtaking of all vehicles, cycles, and dogs. Then, we hit the end of the "paved" road. That's when I realized the full capabilities of the Toyota Camry. Those cars can handle much more than they see on any western country's streets (with exception to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in NYC)! We bounced around on some major potholes and I was thrown all over the back seat. We crossed bridges held together by twigs. It was good fun. When we arrived at a rest stop, our friendly drived hosed down the car, and I realized for the first time that it was bright blue, not grey/silver!
Around two hours later, we arrived in Siem Reap. We were driven to our guesthouse of choice, Earthwalkers. I was attracted by the name when we were doing a bit of research on a great site:
Off our driver went and we'll probably call him when we need to get back to the border because he was easy going and reasonable. We checked in, discovered that Cambodian women are equally enamored of Anthony, and enjoyed much needed hot showers. We joined up with a few other guests and the manager Kristin for some food/drink at the Dead Fish Restaurant and called it a night.
My overall impression so far of Cambodia is definately positive. The people seem really friendly inspite of some really horrible history (Khmer Rouge/Pol Pot). It's a bit rough around the edges, but I like it. Tomorrow I'm sure I will be even more impressed when we begin our touring of Ankgor Wat.
We're in Cambodia now, but before blathering about that I wanted to get down some observations about the north of Thailand and how much I want to go back there sometime.
We stayed in Chiang Mai and Nan, but didn't see nearly enough of the surrounding area. The friendliness of these places was amazing; their compact size, too, also gave a comfy feel, yet in Chiang Mai especially there was plenty of energy and stuff to do. Nan felt more like a small American town from the 60s; there was a downtown, a market, shops, you name it; even down to the farming focus of the area, you easily put a bunch of small-town Americans in there and it would've taken on a Rockefeller feel.
There is so much left unseen though.
That's a short list, and what I can recall from off the top of my head. Put a map in front of me though, and ideas start pouring out... as well as plans... and a couple of laments for what we didn't get to this time, anyway.
Before leaving for Siem Reap, I dropped a group email to some family and friends (if you're reading this but didn't get the email, relax; I still love you. Really.) Here's what it said:
We left Chiang Mai barely on Saturday morning. Barely, because we loved the city. It's less intense and smaller than Bangkok, and that works for it well. Think of it as a Thai version of Portland or Edinburgh, and you'll probably understand why I wouldn't mind moving there for a year or so.
We're now in Bangkok for a day. Tomorrow we head east, to cross the border into Cambodia. From there, we should be able to snag a taxi and ride to Siem Reap, jump-off point for the famed Angkor Wat.
If you're curious about Cambodia, Angkor, and whether or not we're going to get blown up by land mines or shot by Khmers, please have a look at this site:
We've used it to research our Cambodia adventure, and it's quite informative and should set any queasy minds at ease.
In 8 days I'll be 26 years-old. I believe that means I'll be checking a new box when filling out the age-range part of survey questions. As to what else it might mean, well, I'll probably figure that out when I turn 27.
In less than 3 weeks though, I'll be returning to Eugene. It's hard to think about right now, since it means leaving sunny, warm, tropical Thailand to return to a home city reknown for its crappy, grey, cold, wet Januarys. Not a pleasing thought. Which is why I expect beer to be waiting for me ;-)
As to what else that might mean, well, I guess I'll have to start thinking about what I do with the next few months. Where I'll work (Teri!), what's going to happen as I try to do more writing (everyone I know!), and even, well, if I wind up jaunting to Asia again in April. But more on that another time.
As always, emails are great, they warm up my day like Thai coffee. (And yes, I'm actually writing people back, it just takes some time.) Please be patient, and thanks for the emails. They do mean a lot. If you have trouble writing to this address, try email@example.com and I'll talk to you soon.
Enjoy the holidays, and know I'll be thinking about you.
See you... in less than a month.
3 months in India & Thailand:
It's been almost a week since my last post and I feel guilty.
Ant's a prolific poster, I'm more of a "when stuff happens" sort of poster I guess. Stuff has been going on, but I've been a bit lazy and a bit under the weather to get too excited about anything lately.
We went from Chiang Mai, a city of shopping evil, to Nan, a town where nothing was going on. We arrived on a Saturday and when I tried at 6:30pm to go rent us a motorbike, the shop was already closed. Huh? THen, we went to the night market, which was closed by 8 PM. What gives in this town??
Nan did have some good points though. The style of the wats was visibly different and show the Lanna type of architecture, which was pretty funky. Dragons wrapped around whole buildings, loads of detail, and not as much mirror work. Ant and I also found a nifty little shop that is run for local craftsman and bought a few things.
The highlight of the trip had to be the night market on Sunday night. We got there around 7 and already people were starting to close up shop. It was the usual bananas, fish, eggs, oranges, waffles, meat, chicken heads, etc. I told Ant I was going to wander over in the banana section because the stench of the meat was bothering my queasy tummy (we've both had projectile vomit in the last few days). As I unsuccessfully tried to convince one of the banana sellers I didn't need a kilo of mini-bananas, only a half kilo (or less) I heard a sound I am getting mighty used to:
Squeals of laughter.
This is how I can usually find Anthony. Being a young cute farang, he gets more than a fair share of attention from the Thai ladies, who can be VERY forward. In fact, I often threaten to throw him to the Thai go-go dancers to get eaten alive when he's irked me. Anyway, even though I was half a football field away I could find exactly where he was from all the screaming and giggling.
I eventually wandered over to see Ant being oggled at over a bunch of chicken heads by a very excited group of Thai women. He was given a cup of Chang beer (an attempt to lower his inhibitions methinks) and I walk up right as he is chugging it down. I can't take this guy anywhere without him getting into trouble!! The ladies seem very disappointed at my appearance, and finally calm down a bit. I've broken up the party.
As we round the chicken head stalls, another guy (who had asked Ant if he was in need of a lady's lower bits) offers Ant a cup with some strong smelling pink liquid in it. It's some sort of moonshine drink and Ant downs it as his pimp friend points at me half heartedly and gives me a thumbs up. THANKS buddy.
We finally head back to the room and Ant is half in the bag and slightly giggly himself. We stopped on the way for ice cream on the way, and I craved peanut butter. (I have been wanting peanut butter since I saw a jar of it in Mel's apartment weeks ago.)
In the morning we got to our bus without a hitch, and got into Bangkok around 6:45pm, after 10+ hours of traveling. We broke down and went to get steaks at the Outback which was right near our hotel. By the time I got my much looked forward to steak (nearly moo-ing as well), I'm on to another craving. Figures. I suppose I'm just sick of soup, noddles and things on sticks all the time as food....
All is good, Bangkok is a great city, and today we are enjoying just being around town. Later we will be going to a club with Mel and the Bangkok crew. We won't be too crazy though because we leave super early for the adventure of getting our bums into Cambodia some time round midday. Wish us luck!!!
(Oh, and Steph, Angkor Wat is our reason for going through all the effort. If you've seen Tomb Raider, you've seen Angkor Wat. When I post about it, I'll put up some links to pics.)
We're taking an extra day in Chiang Mai to sort some things out. (And to make sure that Claudia is fully recovered from her hangover.)
Where do we go next? Okay, we got that: Nan (VIP, air-con bus, 211 baht/person. Not bad. We leave 7:30 a.m. tomorrow morning and should arrive around 1:30 p.m.)
When are we going to Cambodia? Probably within the next week. We've been researching whether we want to fly or overland. Flights are looking expensive though, and my budget cringes, whimpers and threatens lunacy at the thought of spending $300 on a flight. We'll probably overland it and brave the minimum 8-hour potholed, nausea-inducing, whiplash-causing bumpy back-of-a-pickup ride from the border to Siem Reap.
What about Cambodian visas? If you're trying to figure it out, here's the skinny:
What about the rest of my time here? First Nan, then perhaps a bit in Phitsanulok (the 2nd most important Buddha image in Thailand is there). Then probably Cambodia, perhaps over my birthday (Xmas Eve) and Christmas. We'll finish with an island (I'm not leaving Thailand without being on an island for a few days) and Kanchanaburi/ Erawan Falls.
Well, so far anyway. Who knows what will actually happen.
After cooking, the drinking.
After gobbling up our culinary experiments at cooking school, a few of us decided to meet up for a drink later. Claudia and I headed over to the Irish Pub. That's the name, not just the description. We hung out with Yespa (Danish and I hope I spelled your night right, mate!), Mark (English) and Nina (Spanish), drinking a few too many Singhas. Or at least, Claudia drank a couple too many... the poor dear's been hungover most of the day.
After getting her toast and water and juice, I headed out to see some of the wats she's been checking out while I've been ingesting far too much garlic. (Tis true; yesterday alone I think I ate about 20 cloves; Claudia can barely stand to be within 5 feet of me!) It was a nice midday walk through the Old City, and the wats, especially the earthquake-damaged Wat Chedi Luang, was stunning.
Over coffee at The Mint Coffee House, I also looked over our map of Thailand and tried to kick around our next moves. Tomorrow we're thinking of heading northeast to the not-too-visited city of Nan. It's a nice small place, and the surrounding country is supposed to be gorgeous. The tribes there are also reknowned for their textile work, so I'm sure we'll be haggling away.
I'm not sure what we're going to do next though. Time is ticking; I have less than a month to go, and I wish I had a year. I'm both trying to do as much as I can now, while also scheming to find ways to come back/ stay in Thailand. I like this country, and I like being in Asia why leave if I don't have to? Besides, do I really want to go back to Oregon in cold, wet, gray, dreary January? Perhaps not.
So that leaves a few weeks, and a lot of country and countries to make decisions about. We've decided that we'll probably nix Laos. I wanted to go, but short of just nipping into Vientiane for a day or two, there's just not time. If we decide to go to Loei, a nearby province and town in the northeast, maybe we will nip over for a bit, but I'm doubting it.
There's also Cambodia, Ayuttaya, an island, and Erawan Falls to try to get in.
We shall see.
But dammit I want more time.
Maybe I'll just have to make that happen.
When in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, it doesn't really matter what guidebook you have, just as long as you also pick up a Nancy Chandler Map. It's not uncommon for me and Claudia to leave the LP in the room, and just take Nancy with us. In doubt or wandering where we are? "Have a look at Nancy," we say, and all gets sorted out.
The maps are well-illustrated, accurate, informative, and quirky. They look like they were drawn with highlighters and written on with gel pens. Restaurants, guesthouses, wats, markets, shops, you name it the goods are all, well, highlighted for you. There are also close-up of major areas of town; the Chiang Mai map, for example, zooms in on the Old City and the Night Bazaar, and it also zooms out to show surrounding areas that make great jaunts.
Thailand has some damn good coffee you just have to know where to look. Also make sure you order the right thing; a lot of Thais, and too many farangs, get Nescafe. There's no need to do that; the real thing is grown in-country, and is much better (and usually cheaper) than the dried instant rot.
If in doubt, try out some Thai: kaafae thung is "bag coffee", "which refers to the traditional method of preparing a cup of coffee by filtering hot water through a bag-shaped cloth filter," says our trusty LP. You'll probably sound silly, but eventually you and your server will sort it out, and you'll gain a couple of points for attempting the language.
2 places that have the Claudia/Anthony seal of approval (2 shots up):
Be sure to try "Wawee" coffee as well delicious stuff. Enjoy.
For the past 2 days, I've been slicing, frying and eating... and eating... and eating some more. This has been the only time that Claudia's wanted to get something to eat, and I haven't. For my birthday (Christmas Eve) Claudia got me cooking lessons at the Baan Thai Cooking School really, a gift for her too, since she loves Asian food, especially Thai.
We chose the Baan Thai after seeing recommended in LP, and after a traveler in Sukhothai gave it good reviews as well. If you're interested in taking a cooking class in Chiang Mai, I highly recommend these guys; if you want to go a bit swisher, the Chiang Mai Cookery School is also the most well-known and has the biggest reputation. Walking around Chiang Mai, you'll see about as many cooking schools as you will see things-on-sticks vendors. Most of these classes are yet another offering at guesthouses trying to cash in more on their guests (in addition to the usual visa services, bus/train tickets, tours, treks, etc.). Screw that. Go to a dedicated school: you'll have smaller classes and better staff.
Don't eat breakfast.
Baan Thai's courses are 700 baht ($18US) a day. Even if you're on a tight budget, this can work out pretty well. During your 9:30a.m. - 4:30 p.m. "class", you'll be munching pretty much all day so no extra cost for meals later. When I went to sign up a class was going on; someone shouted out, "Do NOT each breakfast before coming here!" Everyone in the class nodded.
The teachers are as varied as the students. My first day, "Sam" taught us how to cook
In between prepping vegetables and tasting our latest experiments, Sam told us about his experiences in Thailand. Originally from Loei in the northeastern province of Isaan, Sam lived for a year in Derradun, India (near Claudia's favorite deep town of Rishikesh), where he went to boarding school. He also lived in San Francisco for 4 years, working at a Thai restaurant... but developing a taste for Mexican food. Back in CM, he's trying to gain more experience so he can go work in a Mexican restaurant. As you do.
For my second day, our teacher was "Chai". (Yes, spelled like the word for good ol' milky sugary Indian tea.) Chai's about my age, but from 13-21 he was a monk. Now he's studying English at university, so he's out of the monastery and probably won't be going back. At the end of the day we all had a Chang (30 baht, or 80 cents, for a small bottle), but Chai kept to his monastic commandment of no booze. More for us.
Today we learned how to make:
I have but one word: yum.
The cooking is great fun, and so is hanging out with all the other students. I've smashed garlic, pounded chilis and sliced lemongrass with Aussies, Spaniards, Yanks, Welsh, Swedes and English. They've been chefs, pensioners, Wall Street bankers, and just career (at least for now) travelers. They've all been a great laugh (and we're probably meeting up with some of them later).
Be warned, my friends: I plan to feed you full of prik kii noo... in English, "rat-shit chili".
Next time I cook, keep a glass of milk handy, and prepare to eat rat-shit!
So, that left me to my own device(s), shopping. To avoid the evils of retail "therapy," I've been hiking around to different wats (temple complexes) within the smallish city of Chiang Mai.
The most impressive of these wats has been Wat Chedi Luang. The complex had the ruins of the original wat which had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1545. This temple once housed the famous Emerald Buddha that now resides in Bangkok's Wat Phrae Kaeo. It was impressive ruined or not and what was left of the chedi was preserved by a Japanese and UNESCO sponsored project. In addition to restoring some of the brick and stucco work, the project restored these dudes.
Anyway, as I strolled around the complex, I noticed a sign that said "Monk Chat." This wat has a program where visitors and monks can sit down and chat about whatever they want. It helps the monks with their english skills and the visitors can learn about whatever they want. I thought it was a pretty gool idea but I couldn't think of anything interesting to ask them about, so I walked on by.
I also visited a teak wat, named Wat Phan Tao which was right next door. It was totally different, and much quieter. Wat Phra Singh and Wat Suan Dot were also on my itinerary. After seeing so many golden buddha images here and everywhere in THailand, I began to wonder what buddha really meant to Thais. Was he a god? Was he a teacher? If he's a teacher, why is everyone praying to him? Finally, I had a question for my monk chat.
Today, I strolled back to Wat Chedi Luang. I walked over to the monks sitting there, and unlike some of the older pissed off looking guys, these two were all smiles. One of the monks, a third year university student with massive brown eyes, was very excited to hear I was from New York. Apparently American accents are difficult for them because we speak so quickly so he was grateful for the brief practice. He told me he actually resides at another temple, but commutes to this one to practice his english. Sweet though he was, he needs the practice.
The other monk, a second year student, who resided in the Wat Chedi Luang complex, was much easier to understand. After the other guy saw his friend and took off on a motorbike, I posed my question about Buddha to him.
"Is Buddha a god or a teacher? I thought in his teachings he was adamant he was just a man, but all these temples have golden statues of him everywhere, and people are always praying to him," I said as slowly as I could.
"Buddha is a teacher, not a god," was about all I could understand on that direct topic. He got into explaining about how Buddhism derived some ideas from Hinduism, but has some major differences such as no caste system. All people are equal and it is their virtues that set them apart. Fair enough I thought.
After a few minutes of other chit-chat about where he's from (Chiang Rai, north of Chiang Mai), an explaination of offerings, etc, I took off before we had that weird uncomfortable silence. I came away happy that I had gotten an answer to half of my question. Maybe I will try again with another monk tomorrow.
For now though, I am off to get a traditional thai massage and contemplate my aching feet....
Where is Steph when I need her???
We arrived in Chiang Mai about 30 seconds behind schedule, which by any standard is pretty good. I had a good feeling about the place from the start. Ant and I had heard good things all around, but it all depended what you were in Chiang Mai for. Some people come for hilltribe treks, which I have mixed feelings about. I would feel weird (though definately interested) in visiting a tribal village just to see the women with the long necks. I'll be back through Chiang Mai, so I can figure out my feelings on this one at some other time.
Ant was interested in the Thai cooking schools, and I am MOST interested in the shopping!!!! I have a thing for material. I don't sew but I am constantly buying textiles in some form or another. I bought 4 meters of kickass blue Tibetan silk last year (for $8) and gave it to my sister who is now too nervous to make it into anything for fear of wrecking it. I can barely contain myself here. What I've figured out I'd do, it take all the goodies I've collected so far, and make em into snazzy looking wall hangings. I'll attach a wooden stick to the back and hang em like a huge calendar on a nail. Rock on.
However, there is the matter of all the kickass antiques as well. Last night we visited a shop called Below the Bo and they had all sorts of weird head hunter type stuff. One helmet/headgear type thing had a mini monkey skull with it's mouth in a scream with scary fur all around it. Ant found this one shop with some sort of animal skull cracked open to hold a metal bowl or bottle. Remember in Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom when the evil Kali priest forces Indi to drink the blood? Well, this looked like the bottle he drank it from, but scarier. I just kept thinking "KALI-MA!!!! ... KALI-MA!!!"
Ant seems to have been drawn into the melee and has been checking out old gurkha knives and random oriental swords. For someone who doesn't twitch about shopping, I had to hold his hand pretty tightly.
We spent the day/evening "looking" and only came away with 1 silver ring, 1 small amulet, 2 silk pillow cushion thingies, 1 book, and a handmade shirt all for less than $18. Today is the "shop" day because tomorrow Ant has cooking classes and I am not to be trusted on my own. :)
Hopefully, I won't put myself into too much of hole today!!! Where is Stephanie to beat down the shopping demon in me when I need her????
Holy Cow, the Holy Grail: Holy Cow!
At last. All yesterday Claudia and I were drooling over the shops in downtown Chiang Mai. Handicrafts, silk, clothes, lamps, you name it.
First rule of our next trip to Thailand: Bring more money. Lots more money.
Near the end of the day, we ducked into Gecko Bookshop, just off Tha Phae Road. We had just left another bookstore, and kinda peeved too. I had been writing down titles and authors in my little notebook, and the shopkeeper told me I wasn't allowed to write in the store. Er, right. Fine I just won't spend any money there, either.
The Gecko is a great little store, full of new and used books from fiction to guidebooks. There was a large poetry section, as well as the classics, and they also had an entire shelf of Tolkien. Not that Claudia and I were interested in Lord of the Rings, mind you ;-) They also had some of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels Claudia's not read any of those, and I think she's going to have to be indoctrinated.
And,above all, they had the holy grail: Holy Cow.
All through India, we could not find this book. We couldn't even find it in Bangkok, and short of Jim Thompson, Amelia Earhart and the definitive answer to who shot JFK, you can find anything in Bangkok!
Yet here, in a bookstore off a main road in Chiang Mai, we at least find it trade paperback, for 180 baht.
At last. Please excuse me, I have reading to do.
Place: Khao San Road, Bangkok
I don't know where you are or what you're up to Mike, but on the KSR the other day, I started thinking about you. I don't know why; suddenly it was like I was expecting to see you laughing at the crappy knock-off swords. We haven't talked in years, but I've been missing a good friend and wondering how you are. (And you know who you are: Tusculum, Port St. Lucie, Florida, Gainesville.)
Write me. We have beer to drink and kung fu movies to watch.
Ciao! (as I ride along pretending I'm on a Vespa)
After arriving at the No. 4 Guesthouse in Sukhothai (which rocks) the manager mentioned that the best way to get around town was by motorbike. It's basically a hair dryer with bicycle sized tires. It ROCKS!
As Ant munched on breakfast, I went down to the rental shop with my 200B and picked up a bike, the Honda Dream. The woman who runs the place gave me a 2 minute crash course in how to drive it. It's weird, a manual/auto hybrid. You shift, but there's no clutch.
I left the shop, and drove the 200 meters to the gas station (or petrol station, depending where you're from). I filled up the tank, and then couldn't get the thing started again. The attendant girl had to come over and kickstart it for me. How mortifying!!.
I merged onto the busy street as trucks and buses whizzed by. Now, not only am I driving a motorbike which I wasn't used to, but I had to remember to drive on the left hand side of the road. It's the right hand turns that are tricky... I kept thinking, "turn into the LEFT lane, not the right!!" over and over.
It figured that my first manouver just had to be a u-turn to get back to the guesthouse. I got around the median without dying, but then I didn't lean into the turn enough and wiped out on the curb. Granted, I was going like 5 km/hr, so it was no big deal. Luckily I didn't get scraped up. I picked the bike up and started again, determined to master it.
Eventually, I made it back to the guesthouse. Ant "warily" got on. I tried to start the bike with no luck and the cook had to come out and do the honors. As I attempted to drive down the dirt path, I was so shakey that I had to stop. The weight of two people on the bike reacted and felt so different than one! Not good. I got too nervous, and Ant had to take it off on his own, practice a bit, and pick me up. He did great, and not 10 minutes later we were off to Old Sukhothai. Or so I thought....
I read the directions to OS incorrectly and 15 kilometers later we were stopped in front of a police station. It seemed I had sent us in the direction of a waterfall, so we made the most of it and continued on. We arrived safely, and did a hike up to a so-so waterfall. In the rainy season it would have rocked, but it was a trickle when we were there. Regardless, it was a good hike and we needed the exercise.
After the waterfall, I hopped back in the driver's seat, which was a perfect time to do so. The road was deserted and I could get used to Ant's weight affecting my driving. We got back on the main road without dying, and stopped in a small strip of street stalls near a wat under construction. The locals would point and giggle, which is pretty standard here in Thailand. We wandered around the small market and saw everything from fish to rope to split open pig heads and snouts. Finally, we settled on a cook who made us some of the tastiest noodle and dumpling soup I have EVER had. Another woman sold us some spicey pork with rice in a banana leaf. Mmmmmm!!!! It was pretty cool being the only farangs (term for westerners) around.
We headed out to a small pottery village which was just down the road. Again, we were the only farangs and got giggles and friendly stares. The great thing about the pottery village was that it was off the main road and we got to see the average Thai houses and they weren't looking too shabby!!! I wouldn't mind living there at all.
Finally, we headed back to the guesthouse, and made it in one piece.
THe next day we went the right way to Old Sukhothai. Old Sukhothai was a maze of a historical park, with buddhas and wats all over the place. The Thais have good style, but they don't really know how to make their wats last. The ones we visited were only a few hundred years old and were already crumbling. The other great thing about the park was it had small roads that we could take the bike on. We had the usual kick start issues and it was embarassing to have total strangers come up to us to start the bike for us (because we couldn't), including one teenager in platform sandals.
We visited other places on the backroads including a wooden temple next to a canal. Right next to the temple was the biggest tree I have ever laid eyes on. Concrete supports had been installed to help it hold some of the weight. Monks yelled "hello" and called off their pack of mangy attack dogs. One woman on the way back even just yelled out "FARANG!!!!"
Another interesting stop was at Wat Tawet. Here was a complex that was built by a monk who had some wacky dreams. He created a garden of concrete morality tales and "karmatic retribution". My favorite was the drunk who was now being force fed boiling liquid while his insides fell out.
It was a great off the beaten path experience.
If you bought a Rough Guide for your trip, return it. If you can't return it... burn it.
Ah, guidebooks. Lonely Planet pioneered the guidebook industry, especially for budget/backpacker travel, and they're the biggest name. As such, they take a lot of flak. A lot of people try to do something different, say the Let's Go or the Rough Guide.
Before meeting up with Claudia, instead of snagging LP's Thailand book, I picked up the Rough Guide for Thailand.
We've been beyond unhappy with it. In India we used both an older LP India and the 2003 Let's Go India and Nepal, and were really pleased. Good maps, good organization, comprehensive info. RG? None of the above. Info is breezy; LP's SEA on a Shoestring has more intro info on Thailand than the RG does the LP covers every country in Southeast Asia! The maps are decent, I'll give the RG that. But the info is incomplete or not detailed enough. It seems more like a book you'd carry if you were on a package trip, and needed to supplement the itinerary.
Before leaving Sukhothai today, we ditched the RG Thailand, and got an LP Southeast Asia on a Shoestring and an LP Thailand instead. Already, we're much happier and we can actually figure out where to go and where to find things. It's nice.
I love branching out and trying the other books. But the best is the best, and LP still rules.
Today was a great day as well as the one that almost broke my back.
Ant and I left Mel's place early this morning around 7 or 7:30 AM figuring we should get to Sukhothai early. We read through our guidebook (Rough Guide is terrible) and it describes the North Bus Terminal as a "5 minute walk".
Well, it neglects to mention that it's directly behind the weekend market so we wandered around looking for it for 2 hours. Grrr... I nearly lost it and started screaming because I was so tired from being up late and getting up early. I felt like my pack weighed 50 pounds even though I left a bunch of stuff at Mel's in Bangkok. But then Ant grabbed us a cab and got us to the station really quickly. We bought out tickets, and were shortly on a comfy AC bus north. About 7 hours later we rolled into one KICK ASS town.
New Sukhothai is about 3 km from the bus terminal and we were able to bargain the rickshaw driver (a woman) down to the acceptable 20 baht, which the guesthouse mentioned. We arrived at No. 4 Guesthouse and were really surprised how cool it was. We have our own little bungalow which is really cute, for $4.60 a night (that's for both of us). We were greeted with a cut up watermelon and many smiles. It was exactly what I needed. We ordered up some TASTY food and a beer and relaxed on the couch/bed outside our bungalow.
Ant wanted to wander the Night Market so that's where we are now. And I am so glad we did. We sampled a bunch of different snacks. I had some chewy squid on a stick and we both had some chicken/fish balls. I also discovered a new flavor of Mirinda, LYCHEE!!!! MMMMmmm..... Oh, and we also sampled some dragon fruit. It looks like fruit designed for Japanese people obsessed with Hello Kitty. We saw some German people buying some durian fruit and I hoped to watch them eat it, but no such luck.
Tomorrow we rent a motorbike and head for Old Sukhothai. This should be an adventure.....
Claudia and I did our own thing today: she headed to the US Embassy to get more pages in her passport (and then shop), and I went to check out Jim Thompson's house and make attempt #3 on the Grand Palace.
At the outset, things looked good. I hopped the Skytrain, got off at the right stop for Jim's place... and promptly got myself lost. Claudia and my mom like to describe me as someone who couldn't find his way out of a paper bag. Unfortunately, they're right. Getting to the house should have been, literally, walk out of the station, walk a bit, make a right turn and then walk a couple hundred yards. Or not. I made 2 wrong turns, wound up on the wrong street 3 times, and only found the damn place by a security guard pointing me in the right direction. All told, I lost at least 30-45 minutes.
The house itself was worth it. Jim was a Yank who worked for the CIA back when it was the OSS. Stationed in Thailand, he loved the place, moved to downtown Bangkok permanently, and did quite well for himself. He started the modern Thai silk industry; the craft had been dying out in Thailand, as the people preferred the fabrics they were importing. Jim started a silk company, brought some samples to New York, and it started to take off in the US because they preferred fabrics they were importing. Then his company was commissioned to provide silk for all the costumes in the original Julie Andrews The King and I.
As you can imagine, he was set.
Jim made a little housing complex, complete with jungle-like garden, out of teak houses from Ayudhya that he had brought down and reassembled, and also maintained a large collection of Thai art, including paintings, pottery and religious statues.
The house is also raised one level, a very practical part of traditional Thai architecture as it protected the main house during floods. The walls were all dark wood. Buddha statues from Ayutthaya were in the study, the living room, and other parts of the house. I wanted to move in right then and there. The place hasn't been occupied for a few decades, but it's in excellent condition and should be quite livable.
Now, I might've gotten lost, but I fared better than Jim. On holiday in 1967, he went for a walk... and disappeared. No one knows what happened to him; if you guess that he's having a beer with Amelia Earhart and Ambrose Bierce, you're probably right. If you mention that he might be on CIA missions with Elvis, well, you could be on to something there too. I at least got back to the flat.
Without seeing the Grand Palace, though. I didn't finish checking out the house until 3... and the Palace closes at 3:30.
Great. Chalk one up for Anthony's sense of direction...
There were other places in the downtown area I thought about checking out, but at this point I could hardly find my way around the Skytrain station, and didn't feel like aimlessly wandering around lost for the rest of the afternoon. So I retreated.
Not every day goes well, I guess, but hopefully Sukhothai will see an improvement, though probably not in my sense of direction.
We're leaving Bangkok tomorrow, though I'd rather invade the palace first.
It's been a cool past few days, but today has been a horrid funk for me. Last night I was trying to sort out where else Claudia and I can go during my 5 weeks here. Thailand's much smaller than India, but it's a dense country. We could go just about anywhere, and probably find enough to keep us occupied for days.
This morning I ran some ideas past Claudia, and we worked them around and around for a while. She's much better at figuring this stuff out than I am. Planning is also really difficult right now, as we're on the cusp of 2 national holidays: Dec. 5 (Friday) is the King's birthday, so the whole of Thailand has a huge 3-day weekend coming up. Then, Dec. 10 (Wednesday) is Consitution Day, commemorating the kingdom's change from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
Usually when I plan, I just feel like I'm beating my head against a wall. I'd rather have a rough idea, and just take off. Trying to plan around 2 big holidays doesn't help!
Yet Claudia makes it all come together somehow. So we're planning to leave tomorrow and head straight to Sukhothai and then Chiang Mai. On the way back to Bangkok we'll probably catch Ayutthaya.
In the meantime, we've still managed to get up to a bit of mischief... with the exception of my attempts to invade the Grand Palace.
Today I meant to go to the Grand Palace after seeing Jim Thompson's house (attempt #3), but that didn't pan out either I'm lost in a paper bag, and just can't get around without getting myself lost for half the day. Bloody hell. When we come back through to Bangkok though, and as soon as I find my way out of this damn paper bag, I am going to see that damn palace!