On the last days of my trip, I treated myself to a few luxuries.

First, back in March, I got measured for a custom-made suit at Raja’s Tailors, on Sukhumvit Soi 4. Raja’s prides itself on their high-quality English and Italian fabrics and their 43 years of expertise in cutting great suits. Indeed, it seems that every member of the nearby US Embassy staff gets their suits made there. Raja’s has also been recently featured in Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Finally, signed photographs of Bob Hope, Bill Clinton, Bob Kerry, and other eminent figures hang on the wall, attesting to Raja’s slogan that they are the place where “every body recommends.”

With that said, I felt apprehensive trying on my suit. I requested a sleek, streamlined suit that would hug my body. Instead, at my third fitting, when the jacket was nearly complete, I looked bulky. There was about two inhes of extra fabric under my armpits which the eponymous owner-cum-tailor Raja Gulati and his son, Bobby, insisted was normal; I just didn’t feel right. In fact, I think that would sum up the whole experience. While the tailors are apparently famed for remembering every customer’s name the minute he walks through the door, they could barely remember that I was even the customer, at first only addressing or looking at Shin. In addition, their shop was always overrun with the regulars, a good sign in terms of their quality, but who the tailors fell over themselves pleasing, whereas I would be left waiting, ignored, and annoyed. During my fittings, I rarely got anyone but the non-English speaking Thai tailor’s full attention. When I commented that my suit felt big, I was given the age-old line of “we do this everyday, you should trust us,” as if I were too ignorant to know how clothes should fit my body, which I live with everyday.

Raja’s tailors very classic, conservative suits. I wanted something trendy; I ended up with something in the middle, but nevertheless, a very well-tailored suit that will still look great on me. The total cost? A whopping $250, dirt cheap compared to a suit bought in Japan or America, on the cheaper end for suits that Raja’s normally makes, but extremely high-end for Bangkok, where at other inferior tailors, $100 can buy two suits, five shirts, and a few ties.

Luxuries number two and three were a haircut and manicure/pedicure. I got my hair cut at Toni & Guy Essensuals, on the 1st floor of MBK, by a Senior Stylist for $20. While it didn’t come with all the frills I’ve gotten at Japanese salons (head massages, seven shampooings, a bajillion staff loitering about), I still got a great cut, despite the fact that I couldn’t really communicate with the stylist and I only had a vague idea of what I wanted. But, given that this was my first haircut in a year (I know, I know), it felt great taking off three inches of split ends.

The manicure and pedicure cost me $13 at an immaculate salon called Daily Nails in the Ploenchit Center, on Sukhumvit Soi 2. The salon had only recently opened and had all of the latest nail products and doo-dads. I had my nails done while lounging in a massage chair that, after one hour, began to bruise my lower back. Nevertheless, the two “girls” (one was actually a ladyboy) working on my nails were incredibly professional and experienced for Thailand and, for once, I got a mani and pedi that I was actually 100% happy with.

Last but not least, the ultimate luxury, and one which I had absolutely nothing to do with, came last night on the flight from Bangkok to Incheon Airport, where I’m now writing this. We checked in as normal, received our boarding passes as normal, browsed the shops as normal, and then proceeded to the gate where, when we showed our boarding passes to the gate staff, they ripped them up and handed us new ones in seats 1E and 1G. In other words, business class. This was my first time experiencing such a luxury and I was flabbergasted, jubilant, and very smug as I pre-boarded before the hoards of people already thronging the gates.

Business class is every bit as decadent and bougie as it’s made out to be. Of course, we had champagne before take-off. The flight attendants addressed me by name and we had personal TVs with good movies, not films like Spy Kids 2, which I have actually been subjected to once back in cattle-car class. We ordered our entree and drinks like in a restaurant, no beef-or-chicken carts for us, baby! And the meal didn’t come on a tray. Oh no, it came in four courses in fact: salad, appetizer, and bread, main dish, fruit and cheese, and cake. The wine was not only drinkable, it was good, rather than the vinegar-like concoction they try to pass off as wine in economy. And the seats! Seats I will never forget. Roomy, comfortable, fully adjustable, from the recline to the lumbar to the footrest. In the bathroom, amenities like toner, moisturizer, cologne, floss, and disposable toothbrushes sat on the counter, next to a vibrant, purple orchid. It was the only flight I’ve been on that I didn’t want to end.

I’ve been spoiled in the last few days, but in several hours, when I’m back in Japan and have to worry about finding another job, at least I won’t feel so bad, knowing that all of my pampering came at a bargain price.

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Yellow Monday

May 30, 2007

Mondays in Bangkok are a sea of yellow Polos. Waiters, taxi drivers, and office workers alike don the ubiquitous shirts to express their love for the king.

The “yellow fever” epidemic began thusly: in Thailand, every day of the week is assigned a color. The king was born on a Monday, therefore Monday’s color is yellow, Thailand’s royal color.

Unlike other modern monarchies where subjects belittle, gossip about, or ignore their royalty, Thais revere their king. This patriotism has increased this year in particular, the sixtieth year of the king’s rule. (Sixty, in Asian cultures, is one of the most important birthdays in a person’s life and so I’m assuming it’s the same with anniversaries, too.)

The king seems immune against the criticism faced by most heads of state (not counting the continuous terrorist attacks in the Muslim south as any kind of direct criticism of the king himself.) Nearly every Thai I have spoken to, from the remote Pai mountains to the tropical Andaman islands, adores the king. Posters of both him and the queen are displayed in shops, hotels, sidewalks, and even the roof of taxis. In Kuala Lumpur, while flipping through our guesthouse’s guestbook, I came across a message from a Thai guest: “Long Live the Thai King!” Last night, we went to see a movie. After the previews, the royal insignia flashed on the screen and an announcement informed us to stand for the national anthem. Images of the king mingling with his people played one after another. Similarly, TV screens at one of Bangkok’s central monorail stations played a national anthem tribute video, as well.

Thailand’s king is revered for many reasons, most of which a casual tourist cannot understand. However, based on gleanings of information that I’ve received from Thais, the King is regarded as a humble, selfless figure, working totally for the benefit his people. Policies that he has enacted have helped to raise many sectors of the Thai population from poverty, encourage modernization, and discourage unhealthy practices in the country. One example comes to mind: the King sponsored an agricultural program to assist Thailand’s northern hilltribes in replacing their major crop from opium to strawberries.

As a cynical American who believes that lampooning our politicians ranks up there with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I wonder at a population that loves its leader this much. However, the Thais prove their sincerity in their devotion and love for the King, when, every Monday, the streets of this city turn into a river of gold.

Koh Lipe: Paradise Found

April 22, 2007

There is a Thai island to suit every personality. Tao for the divers, Phangan for the hippies, Samui and Phi Phi and Phuket for those who cherish resorts, hamburgers, and all of the comforts of home, Lanta for families, Ngai for rich Thais, Sukorn and Bulone Leh for the backpackers with dreams of Robinson Crusoe.

And there’s Koh Lipe for me.

Here’s my criteria for a good beach: water as clear and blue as a swimming pool, a few inexpensive restaurants and shops, and a room without bugs or other critters that costs under $20. Lipe didn’t let me down.

Getting there was a trek. Being anal-retentive, I had it all planned out; a ferry cruised straight from Lanta to Lipe in only two hours. We’d simply hop on that and be there in a jiff. Except that on the Andaman coast, we were a blink away from monsoon season, when almost everything – ferries included – stops running. Unluckily, that ferry stopped service on April 15; we planned to travel on April 17. Drat. So, we booked a minibus from Lanta to Trang to Pak Bara, a four-hour zip through Thailand’s green south, and a three-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Pak Bara to Koh Lipe. The whole trip cost about $30 per person.

Pulling up to Lipe’s waters, a longtail boat came to meet our ferry. Lipe hasn’t reached the level of development of Phi Phi or Lanta, and has yet to build a pier. Putt-putting over the surface of the water, I could see giant coral formations only a yard or so under us. Even half a football field’s distance from the shore, the water was only shoulder deep. The next day, at Pattaya and Sunlight Beaches, we were to discover that looks did not deceive and that it was as calm and clear as the swimming pool on my patio (and with less bugs floating in it, too.) We rented snorkeling gear and swam out three minutes from the shore, where tropical fish darted amongst the clusters of rock and coral.

We stayed at Pooh’s Bungalows, which both Lonely Planet and Travelfish derided for its less-than-ideal location inland. Staff at both guides must be supremely lazy, since it was a three-minute stroll to Sunlight beach and a five-minute one to Pattaya. After staying in ratty bamboo bungalows for two weeks, I appreciated the solid, concrete room and creative decorative touches at Pooh’s. They also included breakfast, internet time, and free water refills in the room rate, making it as affordable as some of the glorified shacks that sat on the beachfront (where the only thing included with the room were scorpions in the bathroom, or so we heard.)

While there are bars on Lipe, since it was nearly low season, the vibe was very laidback. Banana Restaurant and Bakery, between Pooh’s and Pattaya beach, packed in a solid crowd with their nightly movie. Pooh’s featured live music performances every night we were there. Other than that, we found nightly entertainment in the sky. In my twenty-five years on this earth, I have never seen so many stars. I actually saw the Milky Way. People who have lived in the country will scoff at my ignorant, city-slicker awe, but I thought it was pretty cool.

For eats, we liked the cheapy Thai places close to Pooh’s, the seaside barbeques at the end of Pattaya beach, and the delicious Italian food at Bodhaya Resort. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to eat there, but the Flour Power Bakery on Sunset Beach turned out some delicious-sounding treats like pie, brownies, and creative breads (shrimp baguette, anyone?) On a snorkeling trip, we had fabulous green curry made by the restaurant at the Forra Dive Center on Sunlight; according to the staff, the Massaman curry is even better.

dsc02692.jpgAfter a series of over-touristed beaches, Lipe was a refreshing change and definitely deserves the title of My Favorite Thai Island. I’ve heard that the Perentians in Malaysia boast beautiful beaches and sea-life as well, so the award for My Favorite Southeast Asian Island is still too close to call. Stay tuned for the verdict, coming in a few weeks.

Four-Star Hotel Blues

April 15, 2007

Starting last July until I became unemployed last October, Shin and I put away 400 yen (about $3.50) into a used jar of Nescafe everyday. We watched the coins pile up and over the course of three months, we amassed a considerable stash, over $300, for a very specific purpose – several nights in luxury hotels.

Two days ago, we tasted the fruits of our labor for the first time in Koh Lanta, a backpacker retreat turned up-market resort island.

Luxury came at $66 per night, at Holiday Villa on Lanta’s main beach. Since booking two nights over the internet a week ago, I’d been having nightmares – it would be a flophouse, no better than the bamboo bungalows where we normally stayed. They’d serve the same nauseating deep-fried eggs that we’d been eating for breakfast for three months and there would be roaches in the room. $66 times two, wasted!

I needn’t have worried.

We checked in and the staff – from the front desk girls, to the waiters, to the gardeners – were some of the friendliest we’d come across on our trip. They upgraded us from the cheapskate Deluxe Room to a Junior Suite. The room looked out onto the garden shed and next-door villa, but I didn’t care. Junior Suite, baby! Talk about rags to riches.

There was a bathtub. In three months, I’d only taken one bath but I evened out the score a bit during our two-day stay. There was a shower booth. Two sets of fluffy, rose-scented towels. Scalding water, which I wasted with glee. Not one, but two air conditioners, which felt so nice after a soak in boiling water. The room had furniture, too. Sofas and chairs and tables that all matched and didn’t look like they’d been pulled out of yesterday’s garbage. The four-poster bed was king-sized heaven, with pristine white linens. A 25-inch television with cable and a mini-fridge. A scale and full-length mirrors, which some might consider more of a curse than a luxury. Not so when you’ve been subsisting on an Asian diet for three months in 98-degree weather, doing athletic things like walking everywhere.

Of course, there was the luxury of all luxuries: a swimming pool. For two days, I didn’t even see the beach, ironic since that’s one of Lanta’s only draws. Beaches, however, are free. You have to pay $66 a night for a swimming pool. Although small, the pool had all of the necessities: waterfall, Jacuzzi, floaty toys, landscaped exterior, and lounge chairs. It was so, so good, swimming in serene, chlorinated waters.

Shin and I were most excited about the buffet breakfast, which would have had to consist of moldy bread and banana peels to have disappointed us. Granted, I’ve eaten better, but the four words “all-you-can-eat” make anything taste good. I shoveled copious amounts of bacon, home fries, and cheese omelets down; I will make some cardiologist very rich one day.

But we all know how the story goes.

We checked out, with leaden hearts.

Back to the bamboo bungalows, with their cold showers and dark, dingy rooms. I may not be the toughest girl on the block, but since January, I think that I accustomed myself to zero-star accommodations pretty well. In two days, all of my training has been ruined. By all respects, our room now is perfectly acceptable. But once you’ve tasted champagne, you can’t go back to malt liquor. So here I sit, depressed, lethargic from bacon withdrawal, and reminiscing, with the ocean roaring a few yards away, of a swimming pool where I was, once upon a dream.

Written a few days earlier but because of difficult internet access, posting now.

Earlier in my travels, I read Alex Garland’s The Beach, a book that is required reading for backpackers making the rounds through Southeast Asia. The gist of the novel goes: young, adventurous backpacker happens upon a hidden beach paradise populated by other scruffy, pot-smoking travelers. In their zeal to protect their secret world, they end up destroying it.

In 2000, Leonardo Dicaprio starred in the movie version of The Beach, set here, in Ko Phi Phi. That movie put this little island, already famous amongst a certain group of travelers, on the mainstream map. To the backpackers who “discovered” this island twenty-or-so years ago, it became paradise lost.

Ko Phi Phi could have been appropriately be described as a paradise. Waters such a vibrant shade of seagreen, you’d think they were something out of a computer game. Tree-dappled cliffs skyrocketing into the sky. Blue skies interspersed with coconut palms.

But it’s hard to imagine the pristine world to where the first backpackers arrived. Greeting the visitor now are clunky resorts where palm groves should be, and dozens upon dozens of longtail boats, so many that they’ve rendered Tonsai unusable for beachgoers. The streets of Tonsai Village, aptly nicknamed “Tourist Village” are choked with internet cafes and shops selling the same sarong and fake shell necklaces as everywhere else in Thailand. Even on the beaches, the constant buzzsaw of the longtail engines afford no peace and you have to dodge shards of broken beer bottles on the sand

Both Lonely Planet and Travelfish and everyone else really write about Ko Phi Phi with biblical undertones. It is the Garden of Eden, post-Fall. A paradise ruined by the big resorts and souvenir shops. I always rolled my eyes at such descriptions. The irony is that it’s the backpackers who destroy the place first, but who sigh and shake their heads once the Thai-owned resorts start cashing in. As if we Westerners have never been guilty of putting up parking lots.

Then came the 2004 tsunami, which wiped it all out. The Lonely Planet writes about the disaster like the Old Testament writes about Noah’s Ark or Sodom and Gomorrah. And while God may have promised “Never again” and given us a rainbow as a reminder, the Thai government had different plans, to everyone’s consternation. Back again were the resorts and the souvenir shops. The tourists very soon followed and now, in April 2007, it seems everything is business as usual.

Even if I take issue with the melodramatic prose of Lonely Planet and Travelfish, I find that I can’t help share in their dismay. Sure, it’s only my first time here and I’ll never know what this place was like before mass-tourism hit it stronger than any tidal wave, but to me what’s sad is that I can’t see what all of the fuss is about. Meh, I think, it’s okay. But it’s no paradise. I feel like I never left South Beach. There’s no sense of awe. Or maybe my hopes were too high.

Anyway, tomorrow we leave for Koh Lanta, another backpacker “discovery,” now gentrified by swimming pools and 24-hour electricity. And so it goes. There are so many islands in the Andaman Sea, however, that the backpackers need not worry. They could discover one paradise per week and rest assured knowing that in ten year’s time, each island would have Amaris and Sheratons enough for all of the sun-hungry tourists who’d destroy the place in their wake.

Night Bus to Krabi

April 6, 2007

This was written several days ago, yet went unposted because internet access in Railay costs $5/hour (!!!!) and the internet cafes wouldn’t allow me to hook up Shin’s laptop to one of their cables. Retyping it would have cost me the same amount of money as one night’s stay in a 5-star hotel. Apologies for the delay.

railay-beach.jpgYesterday, we arrived in the paradise that is Railay, on Thailand’s west coast. Famous for limestone cliffs that plunge directly into the lapis-lazuli bays, Railay attracts both vacationing European families (I’ve never seen so many blonde, sunburned people wearing speedos in one place in all my life, and I’m from Miami so that says a lot) and hardcore rock-climbers, with their dreads and funky sneakers. Of course, there are the backpackers, too, but it seems we’re outnumbered here. We’re staying on Railay East, at the Railay Cabana, in a jungle-esque clearing at the base of the rocks, making this stay feel very secluded and primitive, save for the croons of Bob Marley wafting over from the bar next door.

Getting to Railay was no easy feat. It involved taking a dreaded 16-hour night bus from Khao San Road in Bangkok. Total driving time was actually 12 hours, but in true Thailand-style, we did a lot of waiting around.

It was our fourth haul on a night bus, and by far the most pleasant. I have learned well from many a hellish bus ride. Experience has taught me the secrets of not only getting through a long-haul night-bus ride, but also how to get at least five hours of sleep on them.

First, pick the right company. Do your research. I use Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum. In Vietnam, we used Sinh Café tours. In Thailand, we went with Olavi Tours and Travel for the bus to Krabi (the drop-off point for Railay). With both companies, we experienced no major problems, only inconveniences, which I suppose are inevitable no matter where or who you travel with (cough, United Airlines, cough, Northwest Airlines, cough, cough.)

Second, book ahead, especially if you’re traveling in peak season. Even if you’ve picked a good company, if you book a night bus three hours for departure time, that company won’t have seats left. Then, they’ll call their “friend” at an inferior company to get you on any bus. This is how I ended up suffering through the long, painful journey to Chiang Mai, back when I was a night-bus novice. I know backpackers want to be spontaneous and live in-the-moment (man), but nothing makes those virtues as unattractive as getting stuck in a seat that doesn’t recline or has a broken air-con vent.

Third, eat before departure or bring food on the bus. Of all of the bus-rides we’ve taken, day and night, when we stopped for food, it was never at mealtimes. Dinner is at midnight, lunch at 2 p.m., and breakfast? Don’t make me laugh. If you’re a snacker, bring something with you. The food at the food-stops is always expensive, usually double price. Don’t try to be healthy; there’s something about long-haul bus rides that crumbles even the steeliest of will-powers. Oreos and Pringles always taste that much better when you’re trapped in the same two-foot space for half a day.

Fourth, do use meds and other doo-dads to enhance your travel experience. Motion sickness pills, now with extra drowsiness inside! Head pillows, earplugs. Bring wet-naps or a wet face towel to freshen up. Carry your toothbrush; there’s nothing like waking up to the taste of the Oreos and pad thai that you ate for dinner the night before still on your breath. If possible, do something strenuous the day of departure so that you’re nice and ready to fall asleep at 7:30 p.m., when they always, inevitably turn off all the lights on the bus.

Lastly, your seat will directly affect the quality of sleep you get. If at all possible, ensure that you get on the bus ahead of the other passengers. In general, front seats good, back seats bad. Obviously, don’t sit in any broken seats; in fact, the moment you get in your seat, check that it’s comfortable and that it can recline, that there are no springs jabbing into your spine, that the footrest works, etc. Sit by the tires and say goodbye to your legroom. Due to some excellent strategizing, on the ride down to Krabi, we sprawled out in the bus’ prime seat: the chair right behind the door. No seats in front so we kicked our feet up onto the rail and lounged like those smug bastards you always pass in business class as you’re marching off to the cattle-car section of another crappy Northwest flight. I slept like a baby.

railay-final.jpgAnd now I’m on a beach paradise, where I’ll remain for the next two weeks, my only care in the world being how I’m going to afford all of the overpriced resorts, seafood barbeques, massages, and ice cream. Damn these European tourists, driving up the local prices. If I wanted to pay $5 to use the internet, I would have gone to Sweden.

Back in Bangkok

April 1, 2007

We’ve come full circle in our travels of Southeast Asia, once again back in Bangkok, where it all started. I remember the first night here. The weariness from a full day’s travel, the bewilderment of stepping out of the taxi onto Khao San Road and seeing all of those Western faces, the fear of going out of the guesthouse where I was sure there were thieves and tricksters, just waiting to steal my money and fancy-pants Sony digicam.

dsc02466.jpgNow I can laugh at myself. Bangkok is cake, with its 7-11s and Boots drug stores. The streets are loud and chaotic of course, but I’ve been in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It’s dirty and sticky, but nothing like the dirt roads of Cambodia. It can be sinister in places, but not where we’re staying, Siam Square, Thailand’s Times Square, post-Giuliani.

The day we got here felt good. Stepping off of the bus, we were approached by taxi touts. They told us it would cost 300 baht (about $9) to get from the bus terminal to our hotel. I laughed at them. Please! Who do you think we are? Some naïve tourists? (With tip included, in costs $3.)

With Laos and Cambodia to compare it to, Bangkok feels like Beverly Hills. Despite the 90-degree heat, women strut around in full makeup and high heels, toting LV bags. The boys here are pretty, with their dyed hair, plucked eyebrows, and skinny jeans. There are Dunkin Donuts and Subways on every corner. Middle school kids dine on sushi and pizza at mega shopping malls. By contrast, I feel like a country bumpkin in my dust-covered khakis, hippie cotton shirt, and flip-flops.

Still, after months of being the lost tourist, it’s nice to come back to something familiar. Relatively familiar, that is.

We’ll stay here for a couple more days before beginning the second half of our figure-eight route down south to Thailand’s beaches.

Pai: Two Tales of Travel

January 23, 2007

PaiWe’re finishing up our three days spent in the backpacker hub of Pai. Pai is one of those strange places that has become famous for Nothing. From the wealth of yoga classes, aromatherapy, and reiki healing services around the town, eau de hippy wafts throughout the dusty streets. Many say Pai has become a tourist trap congested with Western tourists and many say this place is heaven on earth; I’ve found neither to be the case. There’s a relaxed vibe between the Thai locals, hill-tribe locals, Thai tourists, and Western tourists. The scenery is beautiful. But, after three days, I’m ready to move on.

But, to it’s credit, Pai has been the setting for two stories that, before I began this journey, I imagined to be the quintessential traveler’s experience:

Pai RiversideThe first story. Yesterday evening, we were sitting out on the riverbanks of our guesthouse, watching a Thai man build a barbeque pit. Two twenty-something Japanese girls sat next to him, with the ingredients for their dinner that night – bags of fresh vegetables. The Thai guy calls out to us “Wanna barbeque tonight?” Sure, we think, why not? He makes the same offer to a Canadian grandmother who had just come out to catch the evening air. She’s game, too, and so is her friend. So off they go to the local market to get chicken, potatoes, and vegetables for a salad for the rest of us.

They return, the Canadian lady busts out the whisky she bought at the airport duty free, and it’s officially a party. Pretty soon, we’ve recruited two more staff from the guesthouse – a middle-aged brother and sister – for our impromptu barbeque. One guy gets out his guitar and starts playing Beatles and Eagles tunes, with a couple of Thai favorites thrown in.

Evening turns to night and we’re all happy with our barbequed chicken, potatoes, salad, Canadian whisky, and vegetable soup courtesy of our two Japanese friends. One Thai guy was especially happy with the whisky and after a while, his sister started laying into him (in Thai, of course.) He starts yelling back and then gets pouty. It was probably a typical “You’re drunk, you need to go home,” “No, I’m not, shut up” argument between siblings, but the Canadian lady wants to know what’s going on. “Hey, what’s he saying? Translate that.” So the other Thai guy obliges, and obviously says something that gets the guy riled up, because suddenly what was once an instrument for hippy music, now becomes a weapon by which the drunk guy starts beating his friend.

And who’s sitting next to the friend? That’s right, me. I was a hair’s breath away from getting whacked by a guitar. Whisky’s flying everywhere. As soon as the fight’s started, though, the sister breaks it up and apologizes. The two friends make up, and all is right with the world, except that I’m now drenched in whisky. But at least the chicken was good.

Story #2. We wanted to do a one-day trek today, but everywhere around town only offers two- or three-day treks in the Thai wilderness, so we had to pass. Therefore, we decided we’d make our own trek and walk to a hot spring 5 miles outside of town. Why I thought I could do this, I don’t know. To add to the insanity, we decide to start out at noon, which everyone knows is the best time to take hikes on shade-less paved roads.

The walk starts out fine. One mile in and I’m thinking no problem at all. Then we hit a stretch of long, winding pavement. Gulp. And it’s hot. And I’ve already drank half of my water.

So we’re walking. Motorbikes and pick-up trucks are speeding past us. There’s not a shop or person in sight. Just miles of trees and bushes. The scenery is beautiful, and I would have been able to appreciate it more had I not been panicking that I would meet my death on a hot, dusty road somewhere in the Thai countryside. My boyfriend reminds me we haven’t even been walking for an hour, we’ll be okay.

“You’ll be okay!” I shout. “I’m going to faint from heat stroke!”

“Why don’t you drink some water?”

“Water! We don’t even know how much farther we have to go!! (There were no signs anywhere.) I need to save this water!!!”

“Okay.”

Then, I do what any normal person would do when they need to calm down and cool down. I start to cry. Like a toddler. “I’m hot and hungry and thirsty and I wanna go home!”

OasisAt this point, we spot a mirage in the distance – a guesthouse?? Yes, it is! And their life-giving restaurant. Saved! I gleefully order a cheeseburger, because I can. We dine in the shade, gazing out at the verdant countryside. Thankfully, my boyfriend doesn’t mention my temper-tantrum and we set out again towards the hot spring, which happens to be five minutes down the road.

The hot spring is empty and, thankfully, not so hot. Like an oasis, with a weird Thai-Grecian theme. We splash around for an hour before, gulp, we have to make the return journey.Me in Pai

As you’re now reading this, you know I survived. But, I would like to emphasize that it was just barely. And I definitely wouldn’t have made it without my boyfriend’s promise of chocolate cake upon our return.

Tomorrow, we leave Thailand behind for Laos. A whole day sitting on a bus, and I couldn’t be happier.

Two mornings ago, we arrived into Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second biggest city. We took the overnight bus from Bangkok, which was cramped, hot, and uncomfortable. As I was already feeling lousy, that trip made things worse; therefore, most of my time in Chiang Mai has been spent in our guesthouse, sick.

Never fear, I’ve recovered and I can now give you the low-down on the city. Chiang Mai is to Bangkok what Kyoto is to Tokyo. Bangkok is crowded, noisy, frenzy-paced, the economic and political center of the nation. Chiang Mai is laid-back, green, and filled with temples and universities, Thailand’s cultural heart. Like Kyoto, Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountains, restaurants and bars flank the city’s main river, and big, old houses hide in the back streets. And while there are still plenty of tourists here, we seem resented less than we were in Thailand’s capital.

Chiang Mai’s temples and scenery lure travelers into the city, but the activities are what keep them. The city is a haven for educational opportunities – from Thai massage to Thai boxing, and of course the ubiquitous cooking classes, offered by seemingly every guesthouse and travel agency in the city. Today, we sampled an introductory Thai cooking course offered by Gap’s Thai Art School, (no, not the Gap where you can buy jeans and cheap T-shirts.) We made gorgeous food, pigged out on said food and got to take home the leftovers, plus came away with a recipe book, too.

Market in Chiang MaiWhat I liked about this course was that first they took us on a tour of a local market. Not a tourist in sight, although by the looks of indifference on the market-people’s faces, I figured they were well used to seeing us and our sleek cameras. Our teacher explained all of the local vegetables and fruits, pointed out that stuff that makes tourist’s skin crawl (ant larvae, fried bugs, etc.), and riled-up the buckets of catfish by shaking his keys at them (catfish are sensitive to sound, the poor things.)

Food we made!Then, we got back into our covered pick-up truck and headed towards the open-air kitchen. We were given recipe books and taught how to make five dishes: green curry, fish soufflé, chicken and cashew nuts, fish cakes and Tom Yang Kun. By the fish cakes, our stomachs were begging to be fed, and at 1:30, we chowed down. My favorite was the green curry, since we made the paste from scratch. It took about one million chilies, two hundred shallots, seven handfuls of garlic, twenty-three spices, and the kitchen sink (more or less), but in the end it was so fragrant and such a beautiful color and consistency (like fresh guacamole), that the curry just sang. Yum!

After lunch, we made three more dishes: pad thai, spring rolls, and pumpkin custard. We got to take these home for dinner. In addition to all of this, we got to try our hand at fruit carving, making a lotus flower out of an onion, and a rose out of tomato skin.Lotus Onion

We had a good group of fellow students, although some of them asked too damn many questions (i.e. how many tomatoes do we put in the Tom Yang Kun? Just look on the plate they gave you!!)

The course was a bit expensive, about $27 for each of us. But, considering the quality of the instruction, the amount of food we made, the fact that both lunch and dinner for today were covered, and that I had a lot of fun, I think it was a great deal!


Ayutthaya

January 11, 2007

Ayutthaya at SunsetAyutthaya is one of Thailand’s former capitals, was invaded by the Burmese, and is now a collection of beautiful ruins.

 We made the trip from Bangkok by local train, a supposedly 1.5 hour journey, which stretched out to 2.5 hours.  The train was jam-packed, not a seat to be had.  Vendors waddled up and down the aisles selling water, fruit, and snacks.  It was an interesting experience, but exhausting; we got into Ayutthaya knackered and ended up taking a 2-jour nap before heading out to the ruins.

The preffered mode of transport for going around the ruins is bicycle, although I can’t fathom why.  The streets leading to the Historical Park and chaotic and the bike paths in the park are bumpy, at best, non-existant, at worst.  Add in the rusting, granny-style bicycles and that makes for a sore butt at the end of the day.

Buddha in the treeStill, the ruins were beautiful, especially in the late afternoon.  The grounds were nearly deserted, except for a few small tours and a painting class.  Most of the ruins are red brick, mottled with black.  Sitting decapitated and amputated along the walls were rows of Buddha statues. One very famous photo-op is one such Buddha head, in eternal meditation in the roots of a tree. 

The ruins had me in awe.  Not so much their age or their design, but their there-ness, if that makes sense (which I’m sure it doesn’t.)  With the sunset behind them and the trees growing around them, they seemed to be a part of nature.  While I had no real expectation of the ruins we were to see – especially the great Angkor Wat – I’m now far more curious about them than when we first started out.