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Narathiwat market 1.20.03

j: Into Thailand. We caught a local bus (RM2, about 50 cents) for the 30 minute ride to the border post on a riverbank, which stops pretty much anywhere that someone flags the driver down, obviating the need for well-marked bus stops. We easily cleared immigration, then took a little boat across the river and filled out more paperwork for Thai immigration, getting our free 30-day tourist visa. We grabbed the first (English-speaking) share taxi we found, who of course took Malaysian ringgit as well as Thai baht for Narathiwat, mabye 20km further up the coast. While we waited for the share taxi to find a few more passengers, we walked around briefly in this depressing border-town (reminds me of Tijuana), where oddly enough we saw no foreign-exchange booths, and most interestingly we saw multi-colored ducklings. I'm talking neon colors, technicolors, unnatural-for-ducks colors.

In Narathiwat we were dropped off at the hotel we had picked out of the guidebook, a Lonely Planet Southern Thailand Beaches book I found used for AUD$10 in Perth, but it was the most recent edition, which thankfully also took the last of our Malaysian ringgit. It turns out even this town had lots of banks with ATMs (US$1 = B42.8, or B100 = US$2.34), so we needn't have worried. The weather of course hadn't changed since being in Malaysia that morning, but now at least the mosquitoes weren't supposed to have malaria ;-) We trudged through the humid town to look at the colourful fishing village and beach 2km to the north, which was quite nice though the water was murky this time of year. The further out of town we got, the more people, mostly youths and families on mopeds, smiled and said "hello" to us in English. Dorothy, you're not in Malaysia anymore. The Thai people are renowned for their smile and positive attitude, and it showed. We also discovered that a 1000 baht note (about $24) dished out by the ATM was difficult to use when buying things like, oh, a 15 baht drink. We later read that any bank will gladly exchange the bill for smaller ones, but at the time we suffered to get back to our hotel where we had left our water and snacks. In town we saw goats hanging around, plus many dogs -- all the more contrast, we realized, to the lack of dogs in Malaysia. The market had 20 types of bananas for sale. For dinner we ate at a river-waterfront restaurant that was mostly seafood naturally, and very tasty. Bilingual menus certainly helped, with similar dishes to the many Thai restaurants back home in Seattle, but at one quarter or one fifth of the price.

Unlike Malaysian, Thai language is hard. Very hard. The written form is an elegant but mostly unreadable to me script, since the "letters" look much too similar to my untrained eye, and the transliterated romanized words are not consistent like Japanese. There are lots of different vowel sounds, and the way the phrasebook describes them don't always match to how local people say words. Furthermore it's a tonal language so, for example, the word "mai" (pronounced "my") can be pronounced 5 different ways (none of which I can master :-) to make 5 distinctly different words -- "new wood doesn't burn, does-it?". On the plus side, verbs aren't conjugated and there are no tenses, plus there is no annoying gender or plural distinction or definite articles -- take that, German!

Smiling Faces h: For once my take on this is much the same, hee hee. We were so surprised at first when people started smiling at us and greeting us that we assumed they were trying to sell us a ride or they were just weirdos. After the umpteenth hello it finally occurred to me how stifling Kota Bahru in particular had been and how relieved I was to be somewhere where people smiled and greeted foreigners, even if they were secretly laughing at us all the while. A highlight was standing on top of a bridge and watching these boys paddle a fishing boat back and forth in the river under the bridge - a game but like many games of subsistence economies also a necessary skill. They looked maybe 10 or 12 years old and already you could see the muscles rippling in the backs from practicing paddling. They pointed at us at first and then smiled and waived to get our attention.

For six days now I have been in tremendous heat and humidity wearing full-length pants or skirt and long-sleeved shirt. Jan, on the other hand, has been "conservative" meaning he hasn't worn his soccer shorts and tanktops. I did pretty well for most of it but here in Narathiwat it has become truly unbearable. Wearing less clothing is still no more an option than in Kota Bahru, really, since the strong Muslim influence extends firmly into Southern Thailand. So, our best option... GO NORTH. Find a beach. Take some clothes off and chill out.

thailand map 1.21.03

j: To Surat Thani. We decided that given the weather and water conditions, we might as well head up to the sunnier and nicer islands of Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. The gateway town to those islands is Surat Thani, a town half way up the peninsula. This was a comedy of errors. First, the in-town bus station did not exist, which we found out after we walked too far (it's easy to miss something that isn't there and walk right "by" it) in the humid mid-day heat, then found someone to point us in the right direction 2km out of town. A songthaew, basically a pickup truck with 2 benches in back and usually a roof, said he couldn't take it there, presumably off his usual route in town. He headed off, but stopped 50m later and backed up to give us a ride after all; he must have figured the fare was worth the effort in these quiet days. At the bus station, we found there was no near-term bus to Hat Yai, a town further up the peninsula where we knew for sure all the trains stopped, as it is the biggest transportation hub in the deep south. If it weren't for our taxi dropoff we probably would have walked right by the bus station as it was no bigger than any other store, and the lady at the bus station who did not speak much English wrote down the phone number of a mini-van company. Great, I'm supposed to call them myself? Luckily, this guy made the call for me, not even asking me for change for the local pay-phone call, and said it would come in about 20 minutes. Cross my fingers, I thought. So I went off in search of some food, finding tasty freshly deep-fried chicken, and a 7-11 store for drinks and ice cream. Just as we finished eating, our air-con minivan arrived and we were crammed into the back seats for the 3 hour journey. Ugh.

In Hat Yai we were dropped off at the train station -- one benefit of minivans and share taxis is being dropped off more or less where you like instead of at a station somewhere -- and as we were about to enter, a local tout claimed the train wasn't running, or something like that. Suspiciously, we brushed him off to check for ourselves. The train to Surat Thani was running an hour late I was told at the counter, but since we would have missed that particular train had it been on time, this only meant a half hour wait. No problem, 2 tickets in air-con 2nd class please -- 3rd class is cheap but uncomfortable wooden benches, which wouldn't do for a 5 hour train ride. 2nd class is like bus seating, pairs of swivelling seats on either side of an excruciatingly narrow isle. The train kept getting delayed and delayed until finally they stopped updating the anticipiated departure time. Uh oh. I asked the one English-speaking fellow at the information counter, who said that the train had had an accident at the previous station. Hit a cow. Hmmm, was that a euphemism or literal? Meanwhile more and more foreigners, or farang as the local slang goes, arrived to wait on the platform, though it never exceeded two dozen of us. Finally our train left around 6:30pm, by which time it was almost dark so our plan to see some scenery from the train backfired. We didn't eat on the train besides minimal snacks and water for fear of using the squat toilet on the train -- usually not a big problem, but combined with the rickety motion of the train, better to avoid it we thought. As our anticipated arrival around 11:30pm arrived, we noticed that the train station signs were hard to see, nor were there any announcements. Hmmm. As it turned out, the conductor and his assistant knew on their clipboard which passengers, or maybe just which foreigners, were getting off where and came by ten minutes beforehand to retrieve the blankets previously bestowed on us and to let us know that the next stop was ours. Did I mention the train car was absolutely freezing? Full-blast air-con, quite uncomfortable really.

In Surat Thani, or rather the train station 15km outside of town, a good dozen foreigners alighted on the platform. Not many taxis meeting the train I noticed. Six of us banded loosely together for a songthaew into town, backpacks perched precariously on the roof. At least it wasn't hot and humid at this hour. We had picked out a place in our guidebook, but the first stop was where one American guy wanted to go, for a Thai woman had given him a business card for it. As he and the two Swedish guys went to check out the rooms, the Irish guy, Heather and I waited in the taxi. I pulled out the guidebook to check on this particular hotel, reading out loud that "cheap hotels mainly do short-time (hourly) trade" to which the Irish bloke asked, "You mean like a brothel?" Well that didn't impress him, so he followed us to our hotel, which turned out to be quite nice with a beautiful lobby. The room had a fan instead of air-con, but that was OK. The big drawback was no hot water, which as it turned out, was something we'd have to get used to anyways.

Ferry to Ko Pha Ngan 1.22.03

j: Ko Pha Ngan. The island beckons. I woke up early as usual and strolled about town briefly in search of breakfast. At the market, I decided on a deliciously sweet just-carved-up pineapple for 40 baht (US$1) and some fruit from one particularly helpful, non-English speaking vendor. She lured me in with a free sample of a small rough-skinned brownish fruit called salak or snakefruit, though it was tasty somewhat like a grapefruit and I bought a bunch. Also a piece of a fruit, which I at first thought was durian, the king of fruits according to Asians and often banned from hotel rooms due to its aroma, to put it kindly. I asked her in Thai if it was durian (well, ok, I said Durian and pointed at it), and she laughed and said a sentence including the word durian to the lady-vendor next to her. Fine, make fun of me. That's when I skimmed my list of fruit and asked if it was jackfruit -- bingo! Not bad, but not good enough to buy, especially as I was trying to curb my tendency to overbuy fresh fruit.

Getting to the island of Pha Ngan (Ko or Koh means island, pronounced "Kaw") involved a bus and ferry combo, followed by a shared open-air songthaew ride through town where we were blocked for a while by a procession of new monks, then across the rutted dirt roads through green fresh-smelling jungle to the opposite corner of the island. The lack of paved roads has impeded over-development which, of course, is a good thing. We had kind of picked out a hotel from our guidebook, but the taxi driver hadn't asked us where we wanted to go besides the name of the beach. She stopped at a hotel, a set of bungalows as they tend to be here, at the furthest end of the beach. Tricks of the trade. OK, I'll get out and have a look. Not too bad, plus they had some brand new bungalows only a month old. OK, we'll stay, maybe look for another place tomorrow.

h: This portion of the trip for me has been like a long, slow, exhale. It's been a total of a week really, but talking to the Irish guy in the taxi was nearly exhilerating after such cultural isolation in Malaysia and Narathiwat. As the ferry made its way over to the island, I could feel myself slowly relax. I'd been able to wear a sleeveless shirt and skirt today and this simple pleasure alone was lovely. I had also noticed that carrying around a suitcase that weighs 17 kilograms had actually started to improve my upper body strength and for the first time I was just a wee bit glad I'd packed those books in Australia.

Ko Pha Ngan road Talking to a Thai woman on the ferry as well as several foreigners, we got the idea to head to one of the more isolated beaches on the north end called Hat Thong Nai Pan. Overall, the island of Ko Pha Ngan is less heavily touristed than Ko Samui, which is part of why we chose it, but apparently there is one beach on the island reknowned for its full moon parties which are these all-night drug and music and drinking scenes that have been known to attract 10,000 people to one beach. According to the guidebook, the local psychiatric hospital has to beef up staff during these parties because there is a local loco weed, in the family of deadly nightshade, that is sometimes given to tourists asking for mushrooms. It causes powerful hallucinations and frequently those who try it kind of flip out for several days and wander around aimlessly clawing at air. Anyway, as fascinating as all this sounded... we opted for the quiet isolated beach on the other side of the mountains.

And some mountains they are! We took a pickup truck taxi along a paved road and then through a so-called mountain pass - a mud and clay road that apparently washes out somewhere everytime there is a major rain storm. Huge boulders in the middle of the road, blind corners, steep grades throughout - it was all quite a wild ride. The mountains were the first real jungle we've seen as well and they smelled fantastic - even better than the sea, I thought. Fresh, clean, and cool.

We arrived just at dinner time so we didn't get to see much of the beach before dark, but basically it's a chill-out locale. Younger more adventuresome couples and a few families with a small child. Nearly everyone here is European - and of the Europeans, largely they are German - and during our time in Thailand we have met very very few Americans. We're wondering if they don't travel to the places we're going or if Americans just aren't travelling right now, state of political affairs and the economy. Seems a shame, really. This is a beautiful place.

breakfast view 1.23.03 - 1.30.03

h: I am brown. Very very brown. This and my bug bites have been my biggest preoccupations over the last week or so. I seem to be much tastier to the things that crawl and fly than Jan is and I am envious of him for it.

The most energy we have put into anything here on the beautiful island of Ko Pha Ngan has been into watching the other tourists. People are infinitely fascinating for me to watch and in a place like this beach where there are relatively few and you see the same ones over and over again, the stories I've made up about them are more and more elaborate.

Our favorites, however, are this trio of German guys who have been sitting on the beach every day in the same shady spot since we arrived. This spot is located just in front of the table where we typically have our breakfast so they have given us something to ponder as we enjoy a cup of instant coffee. They are young, the bodies of boys rather than men, lean and firm, no weight gained and lost, no hair sprouting in undesirable locations. From the looks of things they have been here for some time as they are very tan. One of the three wears a speedo, while the other two sport long surfer-style swimming trunks. The one in the speedo has the good looks of the group and we have noted that he has noted this as well.

We have seen them lounge in the water near the shore but we have never seen them actually swim. The most active we've seen them at all, in fact, is playing frisbee and even that does not appear to involve actual exertion. They do not take lunch together, as perhaps they are afraid that their books or towels will be stolen? So two will go for lunch and the other stays. We've made it up that perhaps being German and all they've worked it out on a proper schedule as to who goes to lunch when and what the frisbee breaks look like as well. Jan has tried to talk to them a few times in German and sometimes they answer in German and other times in English, but never do they make an effort at conversation beyond polite responses. They will smile and are friendly but not sociable to us or anyone else we have seen approach them. They do not seem overly interested in watching girls and they do not seem overly interested in each other, although Jan claims they seemed to apply sun lotion to each other a little too attentively.

None of this in and of itself is particularly interesting. Young or old, gay or straight, sociable or withdrawn. What's interesting is what's missing - the absence of a purpose other than getting to the beach early enough each day to occupy the same exact shady spot. They are not on the right beach to party or pick up girls and they are not snorkeling, kayaking, swimming, fishing, diving, rockclimbing, running, or playing sports like pretty much everyone else on this beach. They seem utterly content with a total lack of activity and conversation. It's like a puzzle that I can't work out. But the best moment for me was when we started talking to a couple of New Zealanders who had just arrived on this beach but had scouted it out a few days before and had seen them there and noticed exactly the same thing. Three young guys who hadn't even changed position on the beach all day.

There is also the Elfin couple, both smallish in stature with large ears and noses. They don't speak to anyone or each other and it's difficult to tell if they are really that forlorn or if their faces are merely frozen in that expression and even the warm Thai sun can't thaw them. And the German couple, I guess they are not that interesting since our biggest debate over them has been whether they are younger or older than I am. (Younger, it turns out. Jan actually asked out of the clear blue one day.) And then there's the two couples in the two bungalows next door to us - both gangly Caucasian men with mature-looking Thai women. The men are painfully white - by which I mean to imply that they are not ex-patriots who live here in Thailand with these Thai women as their wives. Either they have brought their Thai wives with them from Germany... they meet local women with ease to be envied by multitudes... OR they are paying for their accomodation AND their companionship while they are on holiday. Interesting idea, really. Rent a remote beach villa and a woman. Ugh. And to continue downhill, there's the couple who wear only the "his and hers thongs" as Jan calls it. Why is it that people who shouldn't be wearing these things are the only ones who are inclined to do so? Finally, the only Americans we've met here - a twenty-something couple from North Carolina.

In addition to people-watching, there are all kinds of crabs on the beach, geckos, dogs (we realized later that we didn't see a single stray dog in Malaysia and yet as soon as you cross the Thai border they are everywhere... hmmm.), fish of various sizes in the shallow waters of the beach, and as mentioned above... BUGS. I occupied a morning playing film director - the fruits of my labor as seen from our breakfast table are here. I am quite pleased with the result although I nearly drove Jan nuts trying to get it just the way I wanted it. Sorry, we needed to delete this due to limited web server space.

Tomorrow we are scheduled to leave for a 160-million-year-old jungle with the world's largest flowers which are currently in bloom. It has rained pretty hard today - our first Thai rainstorm - so it's hard to say whether we'll make it out of here. Perhaps the rain has taken out the road, perhaps it's too muddy, perhaps perhaps perhaps. At the moment, it's time to wrap this up and get to the Internet cafe.

breakfast view j: We ended up not wanting to bother moving to a different bungalow, since ours was so new and relatively nice, despite the bugs. Of course not keeping fresh fruit, like juicy cut up pineapple, in the room helps too. Our stay on the island was characterised by laziness and routine. Similar breakfast around 9:30am each day, lazing in the shade, sometimes making the 10-minute stroll to the far end of the beach (though not every day!), swimming in the reasonably-but-not-quite-bathwater-warm water, floating on the inflatable air-mattress we bought, going to the Internet cafe, trying to work up energy to walk down the beach for dinner and failing most nights... In short, it was great. Very relaxing. It even took almost a week before I managed to walk along the road through the village that is right behind the beach -- the one the taxi had come in on, and at the very end of which was our bungalow operation. Banana trees grew on some properties next to the road, as well as papaya and of course many coconut palm trees. Oh, we did manage to rent kayaks one day, but they were extremely uncomfortable as they seemed to be designed for Thai people with small hips -- not like either of us have huge hips, and airline seats are more of a problem for shoulders, but we had to squeeze into these kayaks which made it very uncomfortable and we only lasted one hour. The one consolation was I rescued a soccer ball from a rocky outcropping, but it was underinflated and too hard. Also, we saw some cool fish that looked just like brown leaves in the water. And one late afternoon I played beach volleyball for the first time in many years, which was sweaty fun but mostly undid the Thai beach massage we had gotten earlier that day (250 baht, about US$6, for an hour).

We ended up on this island instead of Ko Samui because partly from a friend of a friend's recommendation, and partly because of the guidebook which said that it is less commercial, less touristy, less busy -- and it delivered on this beach. Ko Pha Ngan is what Ko Samui was like a decade ago, and the lack of comprehensive paved roads on Ko Pha Ngan has impeded development, thank goodness. One beach on Ko Samui, called Hat Rin, is famous for its monthly all-night raves known as full-moon parties, where up to 8000 people gather. No thanks, seen the postcard, don't want to do that.

After the day of rain, we decided to leave a day later than planned, which turned out to be a good move as the next day was a beautiful sunny picture-postcard kind of day. Which left us with a good taste in our mouth alongside the pleasant memories. Except for the monstrous bug bites I finally received on my feet the last night, from mosquitoes and spiders and biting flies, oh my! Thank god for Benadryl. Even two weeks later many bites were still visible, and occasionally itchy.

breakfast view 1.31.03

j: To Khao Sok. We took the same songthaew back to the main island town and ferry terminal. The 11am car ferry was not running today, with no explanation offered. I followed some other tourists to one of many travel agencies across the street and bought a combo ferry/bus ticket for the noon "express" ferry. Heather jumped at the chance to write more email, this time at one-third the cost as on our beach. I located an ATM and a convenience store for some snacks and drinks -- did you know 7-11 had a catalog from which you could order? Apparently they do in Thailand, though this was the only one I saw. As the headed to the dock for our ferry, we saw the Kiwi couple (i.e. from New Zealand) from our hotel, frantically searching for a cheap snorkel set to borrow as their wallet had "kind of gesunken" off the dock. The one store had them for an outrageous 1000 baht (US$25) which was more than the borrowed baht they had on hand, so I pointed them around the corner to a rental place, but afterwards on our ferry regretted not having been more help -- did they need more money? what if they didn't find the wallet? Especially after they had kindly done a hand-drawn highlights map of New Zealand for us... Sigh. The ferry turned out to be rather packed, probably over-loaded as the engines cut out several times resulting in a lurching pause, and we arrived late back in Surat Thani. The inner cabin was filled with diesel fumes, and the outer deck was brutally hot as mosty of it was unshaded. I managed to weasel some space for us under the lone canopied part for some shade, opportunistically grabbing a little more space a time. Even without the delay, this "express" boat seemed no faster than the car ferry, although it did dock at a much closer port to the town of Surat Thani. We noticed that many people had amazing bugbites and sores on their feet and lower legs, not to mention several people with burn marks on their calves from mopeds, and several people with bandaged knees and ankles. Ah, the price of paradise.

A songthaew took us to a bus terminal, where a minivan with a defunct air-conditioner took us and another couple to Khao Sok, the national park in a jungle most of the way across the peninsula, on the road to Phuket. Luckily it was already around dusk, so opening windows was sufficiently cool and probably more comfortable anyways. Arriving at the park, or more accurately just outside the entrance, the minivan stopped at one bungalow hotel called "Freedom Resort." The other couple and I checked it out -- they decided to stay, we wanted to go somewhere nicer. We moved our luggage into the pickup truck to get to our guidebook-chosen bungalow hotel on the proviso that he would only give us a ride to one place and potentially back. The hotel ended up being full, so back we went. The bungalow was cheap at only 150 baht (less than US$4) per night but it was also cheap -- as in cheaply constructed. It was an older open design with thatched walls and not much more protecting you from the bugs than the mosquito net hanging over the large bed. It did have its own bathroom, which rarely implies a bathtub, but rather a sink, toilet and shower, in this case a trickle of water out of a showerhead. This was going to be a tough night -- definitely roughing it.

breakfast view h: Our minivan driver, like all similar non-public transport, gets paid to take his passengers to a given accomodation and as a passenger you are strongly encouraged to get out and have a look at the rooms available. Generally the driver will give you a lift to another location if you are not satisfied with where they have taken you, but they are not happy about it. Jan took a look at the bungalows at Freedom Resort and reported back to me that they were "not all that exciting". We politely requested that the driver take us to a place we'd chosen from the book and he politely agreed to do so but said it was the only place he'd take us and that if we didn't like it that he would bring us back to the Freedom Resort. We agreed. Our bad luck and timing perhaps, but the place we'd chosen was full that night and so back to Freedom Resort we went. It was not particularly comfortable for either us or our hosts since both of us knew we didn't particularly like the place and had wanted to stay elsewhere.

I wish I could say that bad sentiment was the extent of my discomfort at this place but unfortunately that was just the beginning. When I saw the bungalow, I cried. Truly burst into tears. Ever since arriving in SE Asia I had been pretty disdainful of the accomodation (even our brand-new bungalow at the beach could not keep out roaches and such), but this bungalow was the limit - I wanted to go HOME. The structure was on stilts about 10 feet off the ground so the walls were woven in a manner to let the breeze pass through but not to keep out things that crawl. Additionally this bungalow had a foot gap between where the walls ended and the roof began. The bed did have a mosquito net but it was full of patched, and unpatched, holes. And frankly at this point mosquitoes were the least of our worries.

Anyway, after I cried I felt calmer and accepting of this fate. Like a princess marching to the guillotine, if you will. Little did I know of the lasting psychological wounds.

waterfall 2.1.03

h: I have learned a few things about myself on this trip and the one most immediately applicable to this story is that I have learned that I have a very defined sense of personal space when it comes to creatures greater than two legs. I am fascinated in broad daylight and at a watchful distance at the variations on a theme that Nature has created to entertain herself - I do not have a general dislike of any particular sort of creature except maybe cockroaches and Nature created them for the purpose of being disliked so that is not relavant. In other words, I grew up in a National Forest, I camped as a kid. I have a good eye for spotting things and I am curious.

But for the jungle, the alluring, mysterious, magical jungle that I'd grown up reading about in adventure stories fantasy and true? I hated it. Absolutely hated it. We stayed two nights in an open air bungalow with only a mosquito net and if the mice weren't scratching and dropping turds on the mosquito net then we were being buzzed by a giant moth whose shape we could barely make out but whose wings made noise simply flapping in the air. When we checked into the bungalow there was a small wasp's nest with a large wasp that the management proceeded to remove, but they could not get rid of the ants nor the mosquitoes, nor the little-ant-like-thing with giant pinchers that I sat on on the bed. At 6am the continual symphony of sounds amplifed times 4 as the cicadas seemed to warm up to the new day en masse. The second night we were welcomed back to the room by a metallic green junebug on steroids and a medium-sized tarantula. At least there were no roaches - except the one-and-a-half-inch flying one at dinner.

And for the jungle hike itself, as if the grueling 7-hr, 12-kilometer jungle obstacle course that they sold to us as a "slow hike" wasn't enough... I spent the whole of it hunched over since I was a good head taller than the guide and discovered early on that it wasn't treelimbs above his head I had to watch out for... It was spiders that strung their webs across the trail. Spiders that were black and yellow and 6 inches across that Nature has put here to look like one of the wickest creatures on earth. Then there were leeches after the rain and some kind of biting flies. The mosquitoes weren't out until dusk, thank heaven. I was not in shape for this kind of hike (rappeling down a muddy canyon wall using a jungle vine is not my idea of a hike) and my legs died somewhere in the first half. I am still amazed that I made it out uninjured, while our 48-year-old Thai guide hardly broke a sweat. The only thing that kept me moving when I wanted to stop, which was pretty much always, was that I would be more miserable than I was even now if I didn't make it out of there before dark. Here I was in broad daylight and still alive and there were already plenty of things that were actively trying to suck my nutrients into the jungle ecosystem. But after dark? I couldn't even contemplate it and I kept moving despite the numbness. As I write this, four days have passed and I can now finally use stairs again and lower myself to the toilet seat without the use of my arms. My t-shirt at the end smelled so badly I threw it away; I used up my normal sweat and started sweating something that humans were not meant to sweat.

It's funny but I never imagined I could hate any nature experience that much. I mean, the jungle is a place of children's stories - exotic and dangerous with its tigers and leopards. But I would have welcomed being eaten by a tiger - at least I'd have gotten to see one. It's the little guys that all wanted just a piece of me that seems totally and utterly unbearable. I am grateful I went because now I can say I've been and I hate it, rather than just hating it without having tried it or not having an opinion. And I am grateful to have survived the physical challenge that I unwittingly set before myself.

breakfast view j: Welcome to the jungle. Spike, the stiff-necked Aussie expat who seemed to own Freedom Resort, seemed knowledgeable enough about the jungle and we trusted his hike recommendation. Bad move. The hike started with an hour straight uphill climb in the late humid morning to view the world's largest flower. Rafflesia kerri meyer, known to Thais as wild lotus, has no roots or leaves, living parasitically in the roots of a vine. In late fall the buds appear, up to the size of a football, and bloom in January and February, i.e. now, reaching 80cm (two and a half feet) in diameter. This is in fact the reason we decided to take this side trip to this jungled national park. Oh yeah, and the flower is supposed to smell like a rotting corpse -- how can you pass that up? Well, we saw a few buds and one blooming flower that ultimately disappointed. No stench -- ok, that wasn't disappointing -- but it wasn't as colorful or pretty as we imagined -- more like a big cup on a big saucer. It felt very sturdy, almost but not quite like flexible plastic. I'm not saying it was fake, it's just not the texture one expects from a "flower."

You'd think going downhill on a lesser incline would be better, but it's actually tougher, especially on the knees. My right knee started giving me occasional jabs of pain, as it likes to do under stressful knee bending exercise. Great, and only five and a half hours of hike to go. Take it a little slower, tough it out. By the time we reached the bottom of the waterfall for lunch, after scrambling down the cliffs I was more than ready to hop into the cold pool of water. As I removed my hiking sandals, a nice trickle of blood flowed from the top of my foot. I didn't see a leech, but given how long it took to stop bleeding -- almost 10 minutes -- it must have been. How disappointing not to see the leech at least. It started to rain during lunch, an unexciting but still warm stir fry and rice that was provided, albeit carried by me in my backpack, with the guided tour. It occured to me we didn't even know how much this was all going to cost us, which post facto could be whatever they wanted to charge. After lunch, we headed down river, but since the rocks were slippery from the rain, we ended up walking through the knee-deep river almost as much as on the shore. At the last river crossing, despite Spike's assurance that there was no deep water, we had to wade waist-deep through the river, holding my backpack above my head to keep it and the cameras inside dry.

I thought the end should be near, but no, there were just no big hills left. The park entrance was still 5km (3 miles) away. The path went up and down little hills -- this was no meadow-flat path, and quite narrow in places. In the distance we saw a hornbill bird, though its noise was much more distinct. Anyways, my left knee started hurting too, a first for me. Now I could no longer favour my right knee on slopes, as both knees would take turns occasionally shooting sharp jabs of pain to remind me: idiot, time to stop, you're injuring yourself more. 4km left. Now another leech attached to my other foot, just above the left ankle, but this time I saw him. Hard to scrape off, plucky little sucker. He must have just started, as the blood trickle didn't last very long this time. The leeches, supposedly uncommon this time of year, are supposed to be disease-free -- if I was to belive Spike, who was rapidly losing credibility. I may have been calmer about removing the leech this time, giving Heather time to come over and look, but not enough composure to take a photo. So what did it look like? About 2cm long (almost an inch), grey slug-like, half the diameter of my pinky. Blech. At a rest stop, the guide, who had been chain-smoking his home-rolled palm-leaf cigarettes through most of the hike, stuck a wad of loose-leaf tobacco onto my second leech bite. Surprisingly the tobacco clung on despite the stopped blood flow, making me look like my ankle had a little beard. He also offered us what we thought were wild coca leaves to chew, which was tempting for the painkilling effect, but we declined. 3km left. By now the path was flatter, but my knees were getting worse. Every step hurt, incline or no. For a few minutes I waddled without bending my knees, as that seemed to propel me without immediate pain, though it did make my thigh muscles burn. Just leave me here to lie in the dust. Send a helicoptor or something -- if this wasn't a good time for my costly medical evacuation insurance to kick in, then what was? I struggled through and pretty much collapsed into a chair back at our "Freedom Resort" a few hours later. Spike of course joked that he liked to see the pain on people's faces after the hike, compared to the cheerfulness in the morning. I wanted to strangle him. Though he did fire up the BBQ early for us, as he was planning an Australian BBQ that evening, which was in fact tasty and nicely un-Thai for a change. Of course, getting up the stairs into our bungalow still remained a knee challenge -- that must be the real reason they built the bungalows so far off the ground.

girl scout 2.2.03

j: Return to Surat Thani. One day and two nights in the jungle, and in that bungalow, was more than enough. We did get a ride from the bungalow folks, actually the minivan driver who brought us there, in the pickup truck back to the main road where we could catch the hourly bus for the two hour ride back to Surat Thani train station. This one at noon was supposed to be air-conditioned, according to the schedule, but wasn't. Of course. Though with open windows it wasn't bad -- at least until it became packed like sardines half way there. We jumped off at the train station, where much to our chagrin we discovered that all the couchettes were sold out in both first and second class! Well, it was Sunday night and the guidebook had warned us to book in advance, which we wanted to do but somehow it just didn't work out that way. We definitely did not want to do a night train in a seat, so we booked seats for the first train at 11:30am the next day and grabbed a nearby hotel with A/C to chill out. My knees were definitely better, but still I had the occasional twinge on stairs. Heather minimized her movements all day, i.e. she stayed in the room while I brought back food and drink.

h: While Jan sorted out the business with the train tickets, I took up my usual guard duty over the luggage. I could hardly move with my legs so stiff from the hike so it was a duty I was well suited to for the moment, provided no one actually tried to take the stuff - I'd never have been able to chase them down! Anyway, as I sat in the train station, girl scouts and boy scouts in uniform started to come into the train station. Their parents were sometimes waiting with them and sometimes saying goodbye so it became apparent that they were headed into Bangkok for a scout-outing. Pretty exciting! I had been in scouts as a kid and remembered hearing that there were scouts all over the world, so I was interested in their uniforms and such. I asked a couple girls if I could take a photo, and they never really said yes but they also didn't say no, so I ambled over and took the shot. They didn't look too interested. So I kept trying to take photos of the different girls. The two group shots I took came out out of focus somehow, which was disappointing. But I managed to get this one on the sly and I like it very well. I watched this girl for quite sometime and she wore this expression often. She was the worrier of the group.

emergency light 2.3.03

j: Bangkok. Nothing like a ten hour train ride to dull your senses, or at least your derriere. We were hoping for some exciting scenery -- after all this was a day train, mostly -- but after the first hour the scenery hardly changed and we mostly read. Interestingly, there were uniformed hostesses on the train not unlike flight attendants, who wheeled a little airlplane-style cart down the aisle and provided a free lunch and soft drinks. I wonder what treatment first class received? When we arrived in Bangkok that evening around 9:30pm, I rounded up a bunch of 1 baht coins (about 2.5 US cents) for phone calls. After about the 10th full hotel out of our guidebook, I hit "paydirt" with the Miami Hotel, which included an actual bathtub and hot water, plus a bonus outdoor pool. And yes, our room was painted in a Miami-esque lime green colour. Not the best place, but not too shabby either. Our biggest beef was that we were way overcharged for our laundry -- 800 baht, about US$20 -- for what should have cost maybe 300 baht at most. Live and learn -- I made the mistake of not asking beforehand, and I'm sure we could have taken it down the street or even next door for much less. They charged by the piece, not by weight as they did on the islands. The emergency lights at the end of the hall where powered by a car battery sitting on a table, which was odd, but at least they had backup lights!

cabbages&condoms 2.4.03 - 2.10.03

j: Bangkok. We ended up spending 8 nights in Bangkok, much more than the 3-4 nights I would have expected. The first 5 days or so were a nice temperature, better than KL, but then the heat and humidity increased oppressively the last few days. We didn't really do that much in Bangkok, besides chill out and spend pretty much a whole day working on this website. We went to the two biggest tourist sites: Wat Pho with the huge reclining buddha, and The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew with the diminutive but highly revered emerald buddha. Crowded, not that exciting without an explanatory guide. How quickly we become "wat'ed out" -- much like seeing too many cathedrals in Europe, seeing too many wats. We also went to the huge weekend market, endless rows of stalls (about 6700 of them according to the bible, er, guidebook) of pretty much anything you might want, including live animals ("fighting roosters!") and even a kitchen sink. We managed to pick out a few things, but didn't do so well in the haggling department. Hint: one half of the couple is not supposed to say "ok" to the first price mentioned. ;-) Also, I had my hair cut in Bangkok at a busy salon near our hotel, for a mere 200 baht (US$5). First off I was offered my choice of beverage: coffee, water or soda. The lady cutting my hair spoke enough English, but she ended up cutting my hair shorter than I had asked for -- probably the shortest it has ever been. She painstakenly trimmed hairs for almost an hour past when I thought it was fine and all done; this no doubt contributed to the continued shortening of the hair. Another lady showed me the traditional Thai (i.e. non-sexual) massage list which I respectfully declined. In my mirror, I watched two Thai men receive facials, including steam, some facial massage and even nasty cream with many cucumber slices (not just on the eyes); one of the men fell asleep during his treatment. In the end, I did like the haircut and it was certainly professionally done -- and absolutely wonderful in the hot humid climate and at the next beach, where I could just run a wet hand through my hair to make it look respectable.

One of our better and costlier dining experiences was at a place near our hotel called "Cabbages and Condoms," created by a man interested in helping the rural poor do family planning. A worthy cause indeed! We even considered staying at their resort in Pattaya, which was quite expensive but unfortunately also booked out.

tuktuk One big experience we almost forgot to write about was our tuk-tuk ride. Heather wanted to experience it once, since they are less common and less comfortable than metered taxis nowadays -- a not-so-quaint polluting noisy anachronism really. Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled motorized vehicles that really do make a "tuk-tuk" sound, and since they are open, you get to inhale the fine Bangkok air as a bonus. Near our hotel the tuk-tuks lie in waiting, offering ridiculous fares of 20 baht for one hour of sightseeing and the like, or asking me if I was looking for a massage, holding a small brochure full of scantily clad women. This one day we bargained with a driver to take us to the Grand Palace, on the other side of town in old Bangkok, for 60 baht including a detour to two lesser wats (temples) that he "insisted" upon. The price was less than the combined sky-train to the river fare, from which we would need a boat ride, and would be how we returned home from that part of town. In any case, we set off and in a few minutes arrived at the first wat, name unremembered, but it was a lucky shrine. As we rounded the far corner towards the wat's door, a businessman entered the wat just ahead of us. Inside, after he prayed, the businessman chatted us up and told us how he had just bought some jewelry at an exhibition to take with him to Sydney, where he could sell it for double the price. Last day of the exhibition, special prices! He even showed us several business cards of foreign jewelry stores, as well as a certificate for his purchase (but not the purchase itself). He told us the name of the store/exhibition hall, and said our tuk-tuk driver would know where it is. Hmm, very suspicious, especially since the purchase of vastly overpriced gems is one of the biggest complaints the tourist police investigate! We thanked him to be polite, wished him luck, and returned to our brief gawking and then back to our tuk-tuk.

The tuk-tuk driver insisted we stop at a store and look, so he could get a voucher for gasoline. It turns out to be the gem store that the mysterious businessman had mentioned. Hmmm. I went in, but Heather stayed in the tuk-tuk. After about 5 minutes I returned, and the tuk-tuk driver was not happy. He complained that we didn't both go in, we didn't stay in the store long enough, he didn't get his gas voucher. Why we no help him? (sic) He wanted us to look in another store to help him get his gas voucher. We said no, take us to the Grand Palace as planned. He did not look happy, but we stood firm. A few minutes later, as traffic became heavier, he suddenly pulled off the road and onto the sidewalk and told us to get out, to take a taxi. Why? Because we wouldn't help him. OK, we got out, and since we hadn't paid him up front, it was no huge loss. Except that we didn't know exactly where we were, though as we walked a few blocks we managed to match some hotels to our map, and made our way on the bus (much cheaper too) to the Grand Palace. Yet the whole experience left a sour taste in our mouths.

skytrain h: It seems to me as though Bangkok isn't a city where you have to do anything; Bangkok kind of does you. It was described to me by one of the New Zealanders we met, Josie, as "full-on" and I have yet to come up with a better description. Everywhere you turn your head there is something to look at and to merely walk along the street is part obstacle course, part gauntlet.

The street, Sukhumvit Road, we stayed on is a perfect example of the structured mass chaos that is Bangkok. A relatively new skytrain, only three years old, parts the traffic of the 6 lane road, but the lane directions are reversable according to the time of day so the side of the skytrain you are standing on does not necessarily indicate the direction the traffic in front of you will be traveling. Most crossings are overpasses because the traffic is traveling at such a high speed and with such fluidity that it would be nearly impossible for a pedestrian to make his way across. Bangkok is notorious for its very bad traffic (and resulting air quality) so when I say high speed and fluidity I do not mean that the cars are constantly in motion. In fact, for the most part traveling by car in Bangkok is very stop and go. But even as the cars stand waiting at the light, moped and motorcycles slither between cars and trucks, crossing the lane divisions, up onto the sidewalks, to keep moving what little they can. And when the cars themselves are in motion it seems there is very little regard for lanes; as a passenger you sway constantly as the driver dodges every imaginable obstacle without hesitation or deceleration.

As a pedestrian you lose the disconnect of putting your fate into the hands of your taxi driver and suddenly you are forced to navigate these obstacles yourself. Everywhere you look there are people, people walking, people who are pretending to be walking but are mostly shuffling, people eating, people begging, people selling stuff, people waiting for the bus, people pushing carts of food, people people people. The street we stayed on is known for the vendors who set up shop each day along its sidewalks; they sell everything ranging from deep-friend bugs to watches to sliced and diced fruit you've never seen before. The are carts to resole the shoes on your feet, people handing you flyers for restaurants, and tuk-tuk drivers who want to take you for a ride. Most of what you see, you will eventually see again but at first you can't help but turn your head everytime someone says hello to try and sell you a sarong or a DVD or a silk table cloth. There's so much to see, it's so colorful, so overwhelming. But after awhile you begin to practice looking everywhere and lingering nowhere, scanning constantly but not letting your eyes rest too long anywhere lest you attract the attention of the ever-vigilant salespeople. The art of looking visibly bored is useful in making your way through the streets of Bangkok.

street vendor I was not nearly so impressed with the tourist sights we took in in Bangkok; it was miserably hot with no shade anywhere, the Palace and Wat were surrounded by paved ground which merely reflected the heat, and it was full of sweaty farang and Chinese. In the Palace you are required to wear long skirt or pants and no tank tops as well as shoes that have both enclosed heel and toe. When you get to the Wat containing the Emerald Buddha, you are required to take off your shoes. I think the Thais enjoy watching this part, hordes of roasted foreigners leaning this way and that, pulling sweaty shoes off their feet to amble in to see Buddha, then back out again to try to find something to sit on to put your shoes back on in the glaring sun while hordes more roasted foreigners surround you trying to pull their shoes off. The architecture is elaborate but didn't do much for me. It reminds me of Las Vegas, glitzy in a tacky sort of way, mirrors, painted gold, ornate figures. The Palace itself reminded both Jan and I of Disneyland; I think we could get thrown in jail for a statement like that - in all seriousness the Thai do not tolerate any defamation of their royalty. Still, I can't think of anything more mediocre than Disneyland and that is the first thing I thought of. Jan and I joked that Vegas should do a new hotel theme of Thailand - what to call it? Hotel Siam, of course.

What did impress me? I loved the Dusit Zoo. It was stinky in the way that all zoos are and dirty in the way that Bangkok is but there were tons of monkeys which never cease to entertain me and a good exhibit on turtles and reptiles. There were also tigers, which we didn't get to see in the jungle, and of course Thai elephants, one very disturbed Malayan sun bear, and there were children. One group of school kids after another, screaming, running, laughing in their uniforms with their teachers and chaperones invariably dragging behind. Jan was irritated, I was charmed. A girl caught me watching her and smiled and came and sat down right next to me on a bench. I was so shocked I didn't know what to try to say to her, not that she would have understood me. Eventually she bored of me smiling at her, her smiling at me and went back over to where her group of giggling friends were standing and watching her.

I also loved a young photographer's exhibit that we stumbled across outside the gates of the Palace. There was a sign handpainted mostly in Thai with a little English that mentioned something about a photography exhibit inside the gates of what was apparently a university campus inside. We spotted it our first day in the area and made a point of going back when we visited the Palace. It was modest, both in size and materials. The premise was a group of 26 students had been in search of their own Thailand for three years using some kind of method developed by a German photographer whose name I forget. The result was fascinating; some dark (one guy photographed himself naked in the city somewhere, which is really bizarre because the Thai are very culturally adverse to nudity - even bathing when done publically in rivers is not done in the nude). And some light, including the one that best stays with me in spirit, a series of a woman weaving in which she is using this dazzling violet silk in her loom. The light is very bright and brings out the violet fantastically and each image is not focused. The result is this powerful vibrance of the motion of working the loom. I have never seen the point before of these blurry photographs one sees in art exhibits - but this gave me some perspective in that regard. A lasting powerful set of images in my memory.

Another powerful image that hangs in my memory is one that was not captured by a photograph. Like so many things one sees on a trip like this, we were flying by in a taxi on the way to the bus station when to one side of me I noticed an shallow overgrown vacant lot. Unlike most vacant lots in Bangkok, which are far from vacant, this one seemed truly empty - save one card table set up near the sidewalk where a young man was bent over hard at work... on a sewing machine. Nothing to his left or to his right except sunlight glinting on the broken glass of the vacant lot.

h: I wasn't terribly excited to come to Bangkok, and when we arrived I wasn't terribly excited to be there. It is a city known for its prostitutes and despite assurances from a few people that there was much more to see there than just that, it seemed pretty hard to miss. There are many places to stay in Bangkok but most of the districts with moderately priced accomodation tend to be near the seedier districts (which makes sense) and the hotel where we ended up, Miami Hotel, was not a rent-by-the-hour sort of place, but it wasn't without its disreputable characters. Unfortunately, it's so obvious because all of the prostitutes are these tiny Thai women, usually under 30 years old, and all of the men they are accompanying are old and white and fat. You see these couples hand in hand in the hotel elevator, in the streets, in the restaurants... everywhere. I was getting more and more depressed about it all, while Jan on the other hand seemed relatively oblivious. He claimed it didn't seem as much in poor taste as in America where you see hookers walking the streets - somehow he found this more offensive than seeing these Thai girls with old white men. We had a good laugh about the Street Hooker, American subspecies, can be recognized by its plumage of red leather, too-large belts, stiletto heels, and fishnet stockings. The American Street Hooker, has been losing habitat in the Americas for some time now and is far less easy to spot than in the past. While still present in large numbers, the American Street Hooker is no longer as prominent as it once was in urban America...

Anyway, you get the idea.

So here I was in this world-class city, pretty obsessed with what I was seeing around me and as a result not having a very good time. I was in a bookstore looking for a guidebook to Vietnam and decided to pick up a locally published book on the bar girls of the infamous Patpong Road for a little more insight, hoping for some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. What I read was very interesting. It's called, "Hello My Big Big Honey" and it's written by Dave Walker and Richard S. Ehrlich. One of these guys came up with the idea for the book and recruited the other who is a Columbia school of journalism graduate and won some award from them in 1978. I figured it couldn't be too sleazy.

The book, it turns out, was an ethnography of men who had come to Bangkok in search of a little fun, but ended up falling in love (real or only professed, it's difficult to tell) with the bar girls that they originally rented. The book is a collection of interviews with bar girls and letters that men from around the world have sent them after returning home from their Bangkok adventure. And it was utterly fascinating, both with regards to the insights into the women who do this work and the men who purchase their services. The first thing that shocked me was that most of the girls doing this work are doing it to in some way support their family, unlike most western prostitutes who are often doing it to support a drug habit. Thai culture is traditionally matrilineal, which if I remember my anthropology 101 means that the land is passed down through the women of the family. So rather than the burden of keeping the family farm up and running being on the oldest son, it is placed on the shoulders of the oldest daughter. There are not many job opportunities for poorly educated provincial girls, so many of the girls that come to work in Bangkok are doing so at least in part to support their aging mother or parents. So, as a result of this, men who become involved with these bar girls, as apparently happens, also become involved with their families, particularly in that they are expected to provide financial support not only to the girl, but also to her family. He professes love, and she professes to return his love but only so long as he can provide financial support to her family, which as these letters show, can be extremely confusing to a western man who does not make the same connection between love and financial support that the Thai do. But I've skipped a little.

The preface to the book includes a little about how this all happens. The girls interviewed for this book are called Bar Girls. They work in a bar where they flirt with men and encourage men to buy drinks. Most of the bar girls receive a salary for doing this, but they are usually also for sale. Perhaps the first misunderstanding in all of this is that when a man goes into one of these bars, unlike when he might go to see a Western prostitute, there is no discussion of a transaction. The girls are there to make him drink and feel good and will compliment him, pay attention to him, gush over him. If he wants to leave the bar with the girl, he must pay a "bar fine", which is compensation to the bar for taking the girl with him, but the whole exchange is typically not done as it is in the west - as an obvious negotiated transaction. Which is more tasteful by Asian standards, but by western standards it can be quite confusing for the men, despite the obvious fact that they came there to BUY a woman, since the whole thing is set up to make it seem like this girl really likes him.

So what happens next? They spend his whole vacation together and she gives him her address to write to her. Some of the men seem to think they can "take her away from all this" while others seem to ignore the fact that she is still doing what she was doing when HE met her. But if they stay in contact, she almost always asks for money. Sometimes they actually do get married and the girl goes to the man's country. The estimates are that these marriages seldom work out, although the women doing this work do have a motivation to find a guy to marry them since when they hit 30 the industry is no longer so good to them. But overall, the odds are not good and in large part it seems to be this inital premise - she wants a provider for her and her family, he wants her unconditional love.

Anyway, what did I get out of all this? I guess a little perspective. It's still exploitation and it's the demand that brings these girls out from the farm. But sometimes the money they earn this way gives them better opportunities than they would have otherwise, even if they settled down and married a nice Thai boy - which they sometimes do even after a career as a bar girl. As for the men? Well, I am less angry at them and more sad for them. It sounds like many of them are really just losers in their own culture which why they come here for attention and paid affection. And ironically, even when they just come here for fun it seems many are more emotionally vulnerable than might be expected - falling dangerously in love with these women whose affections they have merely rented.

our guide 2.8.03

h: Yesterday started out beastly; a four-hour public bus ride to a floating market in the middle of nowhere that was closed by the time we got there. The guidebook instructions seemed easy enough to arrive there by public transit, but failed to disclose the reality that you would never actually be able to get there in a reasonable amount of time unless you got up at an insane hour. We tried to get back on the public bus that dropped us off but they wouldn't, well, it seemed they wouldn't let us back on. So instead we paid 250 baht (bargained down from the asking 400 - conversion 42 baht/1 USD) for a 1-hour boat tour of the closed market. Faces dour, we stepped into the boat and gingerly took the straw hats they handed us to wear.

It took us about 5 minutes to realize that we were doing something WAY cooler than what we had come here for. Instead of people in boats in every direction trying to sell us something we didn't want, the canals were nearly empty save the locals who were sitting idly by their homes, dogs running along the water's edge, people washing, cleaning fish, and smiles and a friendliness that we couldn't have paid for. It was quiet, cool, and shady. Our guide seemed particularly pleased that we knew a few words in Thai and proceeded to try to teach us names of fruit trees and birds we floated past - an impossible task on his part, but very exciting since most Thai seem reluctant to instruct us how to better pronounce our thank yous and hellos. The late afternoon sunlight was filtering though the trees and the sparkling reflections off the water made it perfect light for photos. I saw a 5-foot monitor lizard. And we got to be film stars in some Japanese tourists' camcorder-umentory as we headed back to the dock.

And then, it got even better.

Nip-pun We returned to the dock and we were escorted up to a building where the lady who'd sold us the tour was selling food and cold drinks. But instead of them trying to sell us food, the grandma of the operation came out and handed me four oranges. Thinking I was being forcibly sold something I tried to decline, but she insisted they were free. She moved things off a table where there was a fan and pulled me over to sit down. As we sat there eating an orange, she brought out some kind of starchy Chinese mincemeat pie for us to eat as well. I'd scraped my knee getting off the bus and as we sat there eating the pie, the daughter-in-law came over and bandaged it up with alcohol, iodine and a bandaid. And then came the bananas. We admired their pug dog and took some digital photos to show them. His name was Nip-pun and he wore a bright pink sweater. He was obviously loved a great deal and very spoiled and they were delighted at the attentions we paid him.

After the grandma gave us oranges and pie we were starting to feel guilty about having bargained the price of the tour down. But by the time she put the banannas and oranges leftover in a baggie for us and drove us up the road in a pickup truck to the bus terminal, we were falling over ourselves to try to say thank you. We weren't sure why they had decided to be so nice to us, but I was so grateful. It was why I had come travelling and it was what I will remember of Thailand. The smiling grandma with legs nearly too short to work the pedals, driving us to the bus stop with my bleeding knee bandaged up and holding a baggie of bananas and oranges.


j: I agree with heather that it was much more interesting to see more of the little canals around the market where real people lived, and not just the market itself (where we did in fact see a handful of market boats). Very different from my touristy trip here 11 years ago. I tried to make a little conversation with our rower who mentioned Iraq when we said we came from America, so I said in Thai that "we did not want war Iraq" -- conveniently, "want" and "war" were right next to each other in the dictionary part of my phrasebook. He seemed to like the effort and replied, but of course I did not understand him and brilliantly repeated "no war." I thought the pie was rather tasty; she actually brought out 4 pieces for the two of us and wanted us to eat all of it, though I restrained myself to one piece apiece. The bananas she gave us, an entire bunch of 20 or so finger-sized ones, were also tasty.

dirt road 2.11.03

j: Ko Samet. The three and a half hour bus journey to Ban Phe, where the ferry terminal for Ko Samet is, was uneventful; what was different was receiving a bagged snack and a mini bottle of water, and the fact that there was a toilet on board, even if the door didn't like to stay closed. The ferry, on the other hand, would only go when at least 20 passengers had accumulated -- not on a set schedule. And it is only a 30 minute crossing. Luckily we didn't have to wait more than an hour, as most of the people from our bus trickled in, presumably after having a quick bite to eat. The breeze felt nice when the boat finally moved, for the humidity on the dock had been just as oppressive as in Bangkok. A songthaew took us for 20 baht (50 cents) each in less than ten minutes to our chosen beach, not counting the time it took to stop at the National Park entrance and pay our 200 baht (US$5) each foreigner entry fee. While the island is part of a national park, that hasn't stopped development from happening, in some places rampant albeit lowrise. Heather camped out with our backpacks and knapsacks while I walked to our chosen bungalows (hotel) which was off the road a little and I had to pass through the grounds of another hotel.

It was full. So was the hotel we tramped through. Uh oh, caught without reservations again. The other two bungalows -- again, meaning two bungalow-style "hotels" -- had rooms, both fan and air-con, available with similar prices but not so great-looking. Conscious of Heather's requirements for sanity after Khao Sok, I ventured to the next beach, a mere 200m past the end of this beach, and checked out more place for comparison -- Jep's Bungalows on Ao Hin Khok ("ao" is Thai for bay). Their fan rooms were 600-800 baht (US$12 - 15) depending on location, even though the guidebook listed them as 350 baht (US$4). However, what they had going for them was being pretty new and very clean and well-sealed. We opted for that. We found out later that the flyscreens didn't all close perfectly on the windows, but at least two of them fit well -- yet another use for duct tape, had we brought some. It turns out they have been upgrading the facilities and were installing instant hot-water heaters, as well as new showerheads, but hadn't done so in ours yet -- no doubt they would do that as soon as we left.

2.12.03 - 2.14.03

j: Ko Samet. Wow, no bugs in the room! Yes, there had been some mosquitoes outside at dusk, and we killed one or two errant ones inside, but no creepy crawlies, no roaches, nada! That was worth the price of admission in and of itself. The beach turned out to be quite nice, nestled between two small headlands separating our beach from the very commercialized one towards town on our left, and the slightly more secluded one to our right where we had first looked for a room. The dirt road ran between the front desk, which also had the open-air video/TV lounge playing 2 movies nightly as well as drinks, and the restaurant/bar which fronted the beach. As there was little traffic, and it was only one lane wide, crossing it was no big deal. I had liked dinner well enough the night before, but Heather was unimpressed. Breakfast here one day; two bungalows over the next two days, where they had freshly baked goods and non-instant coffee. The restaurant was very casual, which was good in that you could sit there and read and not be pestered to order something, and bad in that it could be difficult to get someone's attention to order something or get the bill. Mostly we stayed on the beach in front of our hotel (that is, in front of the restaurant) which also had some nice shade provided by casuarinas (pine trees, if you recall). This was a much livelier beach than on Ko Pha Ngan, not surprising since it is a half-day trip from Bangkok. Mostly Europeans, evidenced if not by language then by the toplessness. Not that I'm complaining, mind you, though the Thais consider it quite rude. I walked to the other beaches to check them out -- the quieter one was much smaller and had no shade, the busier one was too busy with boats and jetskis and wall-to-wall restaurants along the shadeless beach, not counting the shade in the restaurants. Beach vendors came by in a friendly way, carrying sarongs, fruit and booklets of henna tattoos which seemed quite popular.

beach For an island that receives little rain, and thus is ideal for camping, we were surprised to get a rainshower in the middle of one night. And a major downpour one morning, though it did relent by our late breakfast and returned to sun by the afternoon. The rains caused some lovely sewer smell in our bungalow, causing us to keep the fan running continuously in our windowless bathroom. We did see a boat bearing "Jep's Bungalows" wording come close to shore daily, followed by a guy on a windsurfing board paddling a big blue hose to shore. On the final morning I inquired about it, to be told that the boat was delivering non-drinking water for the bungalow operation. Even with the perennial water shortage, our laundry was reasonably priced at the same 50 baht per kilogram, just like on Ko Pha Ngan, and more importantly, about a third the price of our rip-off laundry in Bangkok. Grrr. On a random note, the guidebook warned of mangy dogs making lots of noise at night -- while we did see several dogs, they weren't out of control nor did they make any noise. They did like to curl up next to your table, whether you were eating or not.

h: I spent one lovely day on the beach on Ko Samet and was then in the middle of the night beset with a case of food poisoning. After spending a night with my body forcibly removing the contents of my stomach and intestines through whatever means possible, I was bungalow-bound for the next two days. I read a fair bit and Jan brought me banannas, sprite, and rice soup. I asked him to tell the hotel "no meat and no vegetables" thinking I'd get broth and rice, which was what I wanted. They delivered with their version that included no meat whatsoever - hot water and rice. I appreciated the intention but have you ever tried to eat hot water with rice in it?

I was teasing Jan that I'd have to read his paragraph on Ko Samet so I could hear about what he did there and whether he had fun.


j: Back to Bangkok. Returning back to Bangkok was surprisingly smooth and quick. No sooner had we checked out than a songthaew appeared, the ferry was ready to go as we arrived at the dock, and the bus to Bangkok left within 10 minutes of our arrival at the little bus terminal (after saying no to many taxi and minivan offers). We even helped Ken and Barbie through the process. We don't know their real names, but they are from Vancouver, Canada, eh, and weren't all that friendly. Mostly she seemed snooty, and we think we overheard her name to be Candace (is that Candy for short?), kind of fitting really. "Ken and Barbie" really does say it all.

In Bangkok the bus stopped on the main street near the bus terminal. Or so we assume, since we couldn't actually see the bus terminal, just the skytrain above and the Science Centre next to us. All the Thais got off, then the bus driver told us we were near the terminal, so that us farang got off too. We took a taxi through the grinding traffic back to our Miami Hotel, mostly because we knew what to expect and it was only for one night and we still had work to do on the website. I left Heather in the lobby while I went to the ATM and to retrieve our passports with fresh Vietnamese visas from the nearby travel agent (bet you forgot about that) so that we could check in to a similar room, but without the benefit of a little refridgerator. Had we planned on being here longer, we would have asked for a different room, but for one night it did not matter.

breakfast view I decided to hand-wash my baseball cap and a tank top, if for no other reason to use up the last of our small box of laundry detergent -- not exactly something you want to carry over borders where they care about drug smuggling. Anyways, I washed the cap and hung it up, but as I was washing my tank top, the bottom of the sink just dropped away. Doh! Heather mentioned she had seen cracks in the sink, but come on, it really shouldn't come apart like that! I went to inform the hotel, who sent somebody up to look at it with me. He left to get a manager, or so I presume. He sent me back down to talk to the front desk, where one lady spoke more English. She said they had to have "an engineer" look at it and tell them how much it would cost to repair it, with a strong implication that I had to pay. Meanwhile they would give us another room. Not a happy camper, but I didn't want to get angry or shout, as this would "lose face" and not help my cause. Back in the room, Heather and I discussed our options and decided that I would go out on the street to talk to a nearby "tourist police" officer to figure out our options. No kidding, that's what they are called, and they are there to help tourists and are supposed to speak decent English.

On my way out, I told the lady at the front desk that I was going to speak to the tourist police, then I wanted to speak with the manager, as I did not think it was right for me to pay for the sink which had to be close to breaking point already. She told me that she hadn't said that I definitely had to pay, but that the engineer would assess the situation as to whether or not I was responsible, and if so how much the damages were and not to worry. "That's encouraging," I thought. I still went out to talk to the tourist police officer around the corner, who was talking to some sidewalk salesmen, ignoring the fact that there are (supposed to be) $50 fines for littering cigarette butts in Bangkok -- perhaps they are enforce that law more vigilantly against foreigners? Anyways, I showed him a picture of the broken sink on my digital camera, which he showed to a couple of street vendors too (hmm, will one of them run off with the camera? doubtful in front of the tourist police officer. relax.) The tourist police officer spoke little English, though he did ask if I wanted him to come to the hotel with me -- I told him not yet, maybe tomorrow, depending what happens. So he called over yet another street vendor whose English was better. He then seemed to take little interest as two of the four interested street vendors exchanged points of view in Thai. Ultimately they agreed that it did not seem like I should have to pay, and that if the hotel did try to force that, then I should go to the police station 10 minutes away by foot. I thanked them, and figured I would have to wait until the morning to see what comes of it all.

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Next country: Vietnam (previous country: Malaysia).

Copyright © 2002-03 Heather Krause and Jan Trabandt