Lately, one song that’s been playing often on my iPod is Joni Mitchell’s Carey from her Blue album. The opening lyrics go:

The wind is in from Africa
And last night I couldn’t sleep
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave you, Carey
But it’s really not my home

My fingernails are filthy
I’ve got beach tar on my feet
And I miss my clean, white linens
And my fancy French cologne.

I imagine she’s talking about travelers’ fatigue and I know just how she feels.

Two days ago, we hit the four-month anniversary of the day our plane set down in Bangkok and this whole journey began. While it’s been one of the most eye-opening, gutsiest, most exciting things that I’ve ever done, this trip is also wearing me out.

I’m tired of five-hour bus rides.
I’m tired of wobbling my way onto rickety boats.
I’m tired of the four shirts that I have and of all my pants being stained by red dust and the remnants of oily vegetables that I’ve dropped on them.
I’m tired of unpacking and packing my bags every third night.
I’m tired of white toast and Nescafe for breakfast.
I’m tired of perspiring my sunscreen off before 10 a.m.
I’m tired of mosquito bites.
I’m tired of eating in restaurants. I just want some salad.
I’m tired of automatically comparing the prices of one-liter bottles of water everywhere I go.
I’m tired of always feeling like my days need to be filled by an activity and tired of feeling indolent when I take a day off to wander aimlessly around air-conditioned shopping malls in the middle of a Tuesday when everyone else is at work and I can’t buy anything anyway because it won’t fit into my backpack.
Etcetera, etcetera.

Like Joni, I long for my own bed, for clean linens that hold no danger of bed bugs. I don’t wear fancy cologne because it gives me headaches, but I ache to sit in front of a mirror and play with my toybox of overpriced, department store makeup.

With only three weeks left, we’re coming down to the finish line. It’s not that I’m itching to get home. I’ve traveled, I’ve given it my all, and, when I board the place back to Japan on May 31st, I won’t shed a tear that this wonderful, exhausting trip is over.


Malaysia, Truly Asia

May 6, 2007

Malaysia’s catch-phrase, used by the people at the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, is “Malaysia: Truly Asia.” As far as touristy slogans go, it’s bang-on accurate.

Malaysia boasts a rich diversity of landscape, from rainforests to mountain retreats to tropical beaches to bustling cities; in this sense, it is no different than its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. However, what makes Malaysia “truly Asia” is the heterogeneity of its people. Nearly every major Asian religion – Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam – are represented here. Cuisine-wise, too, the choices never cease. We’ve been here for two weeks and I haven’t yet been fatigued by the food, whereas in Vietnam palate exhaustion took about a week, Thailand, a few days, and Laos, a few meals.

Malaysia’s national language is Bahasa Malaysia, but Chinese and English are also widely spoken. I marvel at the locals’ linguistic prowess; it’s more common to meet Malaysians fluent in two languages than not. Turn on the television and the music video VJs pepper their Malaysian speech with English words until all of a sudden they full-on switch into English. Seconds later they’re back into Malaysian.

dsc02874.jpgUntil a few days ago, we were in Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital. Bustling, loud, and hot like most Southeast Asian cities, KL (as it’s called by the locals) is one of the most modern cities in the region in terms of infrastructure, but the city has a distinctly traditional pull. Muslim customs abound. It is a city with a relatively low-key nightlife, where a beer costs as much as it does in Japan thanks to prohibitive taxes, and where Muslim girls cover their heads in embroidered headscarves while still toting Juicy Couture handbags. Many of the city’s famous buildings are either directly or indirectly influenced by traditional Muslim architecture, the most famous example being the fabulous Petronas Twin Towers. Each tower is structured as an eight-point star, each point representing a virtue of Islam.

The Islamic Arts Museum, too, is a cool, modern building composed of glass and beige, Italian marble. Yet, the outside features adsc02868.jpg gorgeous blue and yellow tiled mosaic, and the whole museum is modeled after a mosque, with its turquoise domes and refreshing inner courtyards. Not only did I appreciate the gorgeous exhibits of jewelry, armor, textiles, glass, ceramics, etc. from all over Asia, the museum itself is an art piece representing the “simple splendor” which, in my mind, is one of the cornerstones of Islamic art. Along with the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok, this was the best museum I’d been to in Southeast Asia.

Moving on from Kuala Lumpur, we’re now in Malacca, which has a completely different atmosphere about it. Of course, there are still mosques. The Muslim women are more conservatively dressed here. But if KL is Malaysia’s future, Malacca best embodies its past. dsc02908.jpgIntricately stuccoed and tiled Chinese shophouses, meticulously preserved, line the streets of Chinatown. Stadhuys and St. Paul’s church, stark and simplistic and very Dutch, sit on Malacca hill, the eye of the city. Streets have Portuguese names. Malacca is also the capital of Nonya cuisine – a culinary creation of the Baba-Nonya (Malay-Chinese) people. While other places in Malaysia boast rich histories and varieties of people and food (Penang comes to mind), Malacca seems to have fused all of these together the best; on one street in Chinatown – you have a Hindu temple, a mosque, and a Buddhist temple. Around the corner is a museum devoted to the Baba-Nonya heritage. There is even a little corner of the city where descendents of the Portuguese still live, where they speak a patois of Portuguese and Malaysian.

If there is any religious, racial, or ethnic strife (which I’m sure there is, as with any place where diverse groups of people come into contact), as a tourist, I rarely see it. In general, it seems that most people respect and tolerate each other’s customs and traditions. Coming from Miami, another salad bowl but where no one really respects or tolerates anyone else, I’m impressed that Malaysians not only celebrate their country’s diversity, but use it as a draw card to tourists from abroad.

I came to the Cameron Highlands for the tea and all I got was this lousy rain.

dsc02791.jpgBack when Malaysia was still a British colony, the Brits, looking for a hill retreat to escape the tropical heat and remind them of more nostalgic days in the drizzly English countryside, popularized the Cameron Highlands as a vacation spot and agricultural center. Today, this place still brings in the tourists, now mostly Malaysians, looking for cooler weather, the perfect cup of tea, and strawberries, a rare fruit in Southeast Asia. Activities here include visiting the plantations and factories of Malaysia’s number-one tea producer, Boh, picking strawberries at one of the kazillion (or so) strawberry farms, hiking in the mountains, and hiding from the incessant drizzle.

The Highlands are a hiker’s paradise, with over a dozen established trails from strolls in the woods to full-on bush-whacking. Shin loves walking and he loves nature and, in particular, he loves walking in nature. I like walking and I begrudgingly respect nature, but a jungle-hike is not on top of my list of things I love to do. The day before, we’d spent stuffing our faces with tea, cake, and all manner of strawberry-related products (which is very high on my list of things I love to do), so I figured I should return the favor and go hiking with Shin.

A word on hiking in the Cameron Highlands: the combination of isolated hiking trails and nearly constant rain makes for a muggy, muddy walk. Another word on hiking in the Cameron Highlands: Jim Thompson, über-famous in Thailand for single-handedly reviving the Thai silk industry in the 1950s, is still presumed lost somewhere in the mountains, after embarking on a jungle hike and never returning. Excellent.

So, I found myself in these very same mountains yesterday, scampering over tree roots and trying to negotiate creeks and mud buried under a layer of leaves. Shin was my hero, helping me up and down the particularly steep sections. Our three-kilometer hike took two hours. In those two hours, we only saw two other hiking groups. While the trails were well posted, I sometimes envisioned myself getting lost amongst the bramble, doomed to a fate like that of Jim Thompson. I also pictured myself tripping on a damp tree root, breaking my leg, and having to survive on twigs and wild mushrooms until a rescue party came to find me.

But, alas, it is the things we worry about which never come to be. In the last ten minutes, of our hike, it started to rain. It went from a steady drizzle to a downpour in mere minutes, which was fine under the canopy of trees, where we still had shelter. Once we exited the woods, however, we still had a five-minute run down a paved road to the nearest shelter. One-minute in the rain was enough to soak me to the skin. Had this been warm, tropical rain, I would have welcomed a cooling downpour. But, we were in the closest place Malaysia has to the English countryside and thus it was a cold, bone-chilling rain, the kind that in Jane Austen novels, always give the heroine a life-threatening fever.

Soaked and shivering, Shin and I waited under a pavilion on a nearby golf course. We watched a leech crawl up Shin’s shoe. We watched cars splash by. We waited and shivered and finally, scared that I would end up on the cusp of death like Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, we ran for the bus stop, which turned out to be much farther than I thought. At the bus stop, we watched bus after bus flying by in the opposite direction. But none going in ours. Finally, by some miracle, we flagged down an empty taxi, which we shared back to town with three Malaysian boys, also soaked from the rain.

After a hot shower and a cup of tea, I’m fine. Poor Shin, however, has come down with the sniffles.

Our requisite “off-the-beaten-path” stop for Malaysia is Taiping. An hour-and-a-half south of Penang by express bus, it is a pleasant small town, easily walkable in several hours.

Once a tin mining town, Taiping boasts “32 Firsts” in Malaysian history – first English-language newspaper, first museum, first railroad, etc. And while its star has fallen since those times, Taiping still draws in some visitors, although not many. In two days, I have seen no other foreign travelers; come to think of it, I think we may be the only guests in our hotel. Other than our homestay in a Cambodian village (which, being a village, had no tourist attractions whatsoever and therefore doesn’t count in my mind), this is another true first.

dsc02757.jpgActually, I really like Taiping. Its main draw, the famous Lake Gardens, do not disappoint; they are very green, flowering, and well-tended, with charming gazebos and old-fashioned lamp-posts. The mountains in the background remind me of the Japanese gardening “borrowed scenery” technique, except unlike in Japan, Taiping has not spoiled the view by building ugly, concrete apartment buildings.

The city has a small-town feel, with only a few main drags. Except for the KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and 7-11, most stores are mom-and-pop deals. People here are as friendly as you would expect small-towners to be; one man actually stopped his car, got out, and asked if we needed help as Shin and I tried to decipher the map in our guidebook. On the other hand, foreigners here must be rare, judging from all of the stares and “hello’s!” that I get from the local kids.

One reason we decided to stop in Taiping was its proximity to Kuala Kangsar, royal town of the Sultan of Perak. Kuala Kangsar is famed for two buildings – the Ubudiah Mosque and the Royal Museum. It’s an easy day trip – only one hour on local bus – from Taiping. Although even smaller than Taiping, Kuala Kangsar vaguely reminded me of Weston, a chichi suburb of Ft. Lauderdale. The town center felt very Malaysian, streets lined with Chinese shophouses, small general stores, a grocery store, a KFC. But walking further afield towards the mosque, the houses suddenly became very swanky, the landscaping very purposeful. While there are more SUVs and guard-gates in Weston, I could tell that some very well-to-do people must be situated in Kuala Kangsar, the richest being the Sultan himself.

Before arriving at the Ubidiah Mosque, we stopped in to Galeri Sultan Azlan Shah, a museum dedicated to the Sultan of Perak. Housed in a wonderful British colonial style mansion with blue-tiled fountains along the perimeter, the gallery featured everything from the Sultan’s four Rolls Royces to his judicial robes, various official uniforms and costumes, golf trophies, and Olympic passes from every year since the Seoul games. While the exhibits were only marginally interesting for me, the presentation was quite good, the building itself was beautiful, and the air-con was on full blast, very important when it’s 95-degrees outside. Overall, I don’t regret the RM 4 ($1) I paid for admission.

Visiting the museum had unfortunate consequences, however. Our next stop would be the uber-famous Ubidiah Mosque. The Roughdsc02770.jpg Guide described it as “Islam’s answer to Cinderella’s castle,” but anyone who knows their Disney would probably say it looked more like Aladdin’s. More than anything, I’d call this mosque very fun, although I’m not sure if the architect planned it that way. Dozens of tall, thin spires painted in black-and-white stripes rose up around the main dome. It glinted in the noon sun, resembling a shining, golden onion. The tragedy, however, was that we arrived at 12:09. Visiting hours were from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. (thanks for mentioning that, Rough Guide), with the mosque reopening from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Disappointed, we resigned ourselves to snapping photos of the outside only.

On we went to see the Sultan’s palace, a monstrosity set amongst lovely, tropical foliage. The architectural style was British colonial meets Islam, with elements of the stately mansion topped off with bulbous, golden domes. Too lowly to be allowed within the premises, again, we gaped from the outside.

dsc02777.jpgOur last stop in Kuala Kangsar was the Royal Museum. Approaching the gate, we saw a handwritten sign posted there: Closed for Renovation. Again, we could only take pictures of the museum’s exterior. Nevertheless, the main draw of the Royal Museum is its exterior, so I didn’t feel so bad. Geometric patterns painted in the royal colors of yellow, black, and white cover the sides of the building. Raised on stilts in the traditional Malaysian way, the building also contains no nails, which is something I’ve seen before in Chinese and Japanese furniture and architecture. I think it has something to do with the nails being bad luck. The effect of the building, with its bright colors, crazy patterns, and charming shuttered windows was like something out of Hansel and Gretel, minus the candy and gingerbread (darn.)

Between the mosque and the museum, fairy tales could have been the theme for the day, along with crap luck and seeing buildings from the outside only.

Penang, Glorious Penang!

April 24, 2007

If Malaysia is a gourmet heaven, then Penang is for the gods and saints. For two hundred years, the island has acted as a hub port for the Asian region; at one time, almost all ships crossing the Indian Ocean stopped here to load up on supplies. The result has made Penang a treasure chest of cultures, religions, ethnicities, and, best yet, all of their respective cuisines.

Penang’s metropolis, Georgetown, is a foodie paradise, with two of the world’s most popular cuisines – Indian and Chinese – represented two or three times each on every street. The aroma of garlic frying in black woks wafts from makeshift noodle stands. Fat, doughy Chinese buns beckon from giant steamers. Indian restaurants proudly display tray after tray of scarlet- and sienna- and mustard-colored curries. Even though it’s over 90-degrees, groups of men sit at tables drinking steaming teh tariks, sweet and frothy milk teas. Indian pancakes, fruit shakes, Chinese donuts, Western breads, pizza, fresh sliced fruit, it’s more than I can bear.

Best of all, more than any country we’ve been to, food is downright cheap. The night we arrived in Penang, Shin and I stumbled from our guesthouse, tired and starved from the twelve-hour trip. A plain cafeteria beckoned from across the street and, as it seemed somewhat peopled by the locals, we went in. A waiter shoveled some rice on a plate and nodded towards a counter where probably forty separate dishes – from fried chicken to steamed fish to okra with chilis – waited. I heaped several dishes onto my plate of rice and ordered a Chinese tea. Before I chowed down, the waiter peered over my shoulder to calculate the bill. With rice, tea, and four dishes, it all came to $2.

Hawker centers – i.e. open-air food courts – abound. Stalls of all kinds line the perimeter of a courtyard filled with tables and chairs. The choices amaze; there’s everything from dim sum to rib-eye steak, and even sashimi, although, clean as the hawker stalls usually are, I would still hesitate before ordering in an open-air market. Nevertheless, after ordering Malaysian noodles, ramen, two bamboo baskets of dumplings, and two drinks, Shin and I still couldn’t break $5.

With prices so low and quality so high, it’s easy to organize the day based on how many meals I can get in. Breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, mid-afternoon snack, early dinner, late-evening snack, dessert. And it takes planning, because you wouldn’t want to ruin the momentum by eating noodles twice in a row or wasting precious stomach space on ice cream bought from a convenience store. I would eat constantly if I could, but sometimes Shin gets mad at me so I have to cut out a snack or three. Although we’re only on Day Four of what will probably be five weeks in Malaysia, I feel that there isn’t enough time in the day to stuff as many delectables as possible into my ever-expanding stomach.

Penang Tropical Fruit Farm

Speaking of food, I highly recommend this place for fruit-lovers. We made the one-hour journey to the center of Penang via motorbike. Past the turn south, I didn’t see any bus stops so I assume going by local transport isn’t an option. According to our Rough Guide, staff can come pick you up, though it’ll cost you.

When we pulled up to the fruit farm, we were the only people there. We paid the expensive admission fee, RM 25 (about $5.50), and waited for our guided tour to begin. Admittedly, the “farm” looked more like a garden than any place where mass quantities of fruit were produced. Our guide arrived and explained that the actual farm amounted to 25 acres of land and that it set up this miniature version of itself for the tourists.

Despite its size, the fruit farm was very heavy on content. We saw all kinds of rare fruits from all over Southeast Asia, some so rare, that they don’t normally grow even in Malaysia. We saw thorny fruit, hairy fruit, miniscule fruit, and jackfruits the size of small boulders. Best of all, our guide was very hands on, allowing us to sample these rarities straight from the tree. We tasted nutmeg fruit, which were incredibly bitter, red bananas, and juicy water apples. The tour only lasted about thirty minutes, but as the midday heat started to overwhelm me, I didn’t mind.

fruit.jpgThe end of the tour was what I was looking forward to anyway, and it didn’t disappoint. Our guide showed us to a pavilion and uncovered a fruit buffet the likes of which I’d never seen – two types of watermelon (yellow and pink), two types of guava (white and pink), two types of water apple (green and pink), mango, starfruit, figs, the most luscious papaya and dragonfruit I’ve ever had, and more. All were grown locally and organically, and it tasted like it. In addition to this, we gulped down large glasses of fresh juice, blended to order with any fruit we wanted. After three plates, I was bursting, yet kicking myself for not sneaking in a Tupperware.

No matter. The fruit farm sold some of the largest, healthiest looking fruit in the gift shop. I bought a kilo of mangoes for RM 8, a bit overpriced, but being organic, I figured they would cost more than the fruit in the local markets.

So now that I’ve stocked up on my vitamins, minerals, and fiber, I can spend the rest of my day chowing down in Penang, guilt-free.

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.