Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Breathing in Bangkok

In 1994, in transit between Tokyo and Delhi, I spent one night in Bangkok (insert jokes here). I arrived late in the evening and sacked out on Khao San Road, a haven for backpackers from all over the world. I don't recall much from that visit other than a cheap room with thin walls (the couple in the next room put the walls to the test), polluted air and dense traffic. I left early the next day for India and didn't think about Bangkok for many years.

I'm back in the city now, and it's still sprawling and polluted. I haven't returned to Khao San Road though. I've opted instead to go upmarket for a week, booking first into Dream Bangkok, a boutique hotel with all the trimmings, and then Cozy on 10, an affordable "city residence," both located off Thanon Suhkumvit, a section of the city popular with ex-pats and filled with mid-range accommodation. It's been great to settle into a bit of luxury and leave the backpacker trail behind. This is Bangkok after all, a city with a cosmopolitan heart beating behind a chaotic facade. Who couldn't use a few nights sleeping on 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton and watching movies on a 43-inch plasma-screen television?

Dream Bangkok Hotel

Official figures list the population of Bangkok at around 8 million, but the true number is probably double that. This is one crowded city, a patchwork of dense neighborhoods where poverty and wealth coexist, where modern skyscrapers cast shadows over hidden hovels. Beggars line the streets, empty cups outstretched to men and women wearing high-end fashions from European and American designers. It's a city of contrasts and contradictions, a city I haven't begun to understand and probably never will. I just walk the streets and breathe it all in, choking pollution and all.

I believe one way to get to know a place is to visit its markets. I ended up spending my first two days in Bangkok in two different shopping environments. Taken together I think they represent two sides of Bangkok (and Thailand). I first visited Chatuchak Weekend Market, the big Buddha of Bangkok's outdoor markets. I spent the next day at the super-duper upscale Siam Paragon, an ultra-modern shopping complex hawking luxury goods (jewels, furniture, clothing, even Ferraris and Lamborghinis) and visions of the future.

Outdoor market is usually a euphemism for flea market. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Chatuchak, while offering some used good, is a true market. I wandered the aisles, discovering new products around every corner: books, flowers, religious statues, furniture, pet supplies, art, fruits and vegetables, CDs, handicrafts, knickknacks and clothes, so many clothes. Young designers sold their original designs out of tiny stalls, which to me turned an ordinary marketplace into a center of creativity.

I was struck by the range of t-shirts stenciled with clever and attractive designs. I was tempted to buy one with a cat perched atop a stack of amplifiers, but they didn't have a color that I liked. I did, however, buy a set of postcards from a young artist. His expertly rendered drawings of classic Volkswagens (buses and bugs), Mini Coopers and Vespa scooters were too good to pass up. If you are reading this, you may receive one in the mail soon.

Hello Kitty Chocolate Frosty

Chatuchak Clothing Stall

Artist With Postcard of 1955 Volkswagen

Thai Cowboy

Drink Stall (With Matching Blouse)

No market is complete without food. Chatuchak's food stalls are the perfect place to rejuvenate after some serious shopping. Vendors sell soups, noodles and salads from makeshift kitchens wedged into corners of the market. There are also juices, jelly drinks and coffees for sale. I sat down on a wooden bench for a frothy iced coffee and then walked and sipped a freshly-squeezed glass of tart orange and lime juice. Lunch was a a steaming bowl of thin rice noodles with nuggets of chicken and fresh veggies.

Chatuchak is a market for the people. It's down to earth, accessible and welcoming. It's a place where I saw families, couples and teenagers hanging out, shopping and having fun. I stopped and listened to amateur musicians busking for spare change and joined a dense crowd at a makeshift shop selling gold. Chatuchak has something for everyone, even a non-shopper like me.

I was surfing through cable television that night at the hotel while munching on a room service hamburger (you only live once) and came across a segment on a local program about a True Urban Park, a technology-oriented cafe at a mall called Siam Paragon. I hadn't heard about Siam Paragon, so I jumped online and did a little research. According to Wikipedia (a site I trust more every day for facts and figures about Asia), Siam Paragon opened in December 2005 and is one of the largest malls in Asia. The complex includes the obligatory shops and restuarants, but also boasts a concert hall, exhibition spaces, a gourmet market, an aquarium, a bowling alley and a multiplex with the largest multiplex screen in Asia (in the 1,200-seat Siam Pavali, which translates as "The Heaven of God in Siam").

True Urban Park reminded me of an Apple Store crossed with a Starbucks. I learned later that True is a local Internet service provider and the shop a marketing tool. Still, I felt right at home amid all that technology. There is a cafe at one end where clear-plastic lampshades hang from the ceiling and a video screen dominates one wall. The center of the store is dedicated to the latest in technology: computers, mp3 players and cameras are displayed like luxury handbags on a shelf unit. There is a nook filled with books on design and an eclectic collection of CDs. The store is anchored by a lounge with Internet-enabled computers and wide-screen monitors. Prepubescent boys perched played games featuring guns and gore; the girls preferred games in which they taught characters dance routines. And there was wi-fi (why did I leave my laptop at the hotel)?

Siam Paragon Escalators

True Urban Park


Tech Wall

Internet Access

I spent the rest of my time at Siam Paragon wandering through the mall, gawking at price tags and musing on globalization and consumer culture. I passed up the aquarium and bowling alley in favor of some quality time at Kinokuniya, one of my favorite bookstores in the world, and was tempted to pick up a new collection of short stories by one of my favorite writers, Haruki Murakami.

In my travels through Southeast Asia I've seen plenty of McDonald's, KFC and Starbucks, which didn't surprise me. I didn't expect, however, to find Bentley, Bose, Mont Blanc and Versace in Bangkok. Call me silly. Call me naive. Call it a learning experience.

What about the food? I've gone four paragraphs without mentioning anything edible. Well, it was a mall. The food court was beautiful, there were luxury restaurants to match the luxury boutiques. I ate a greasy plain plate of Japanese noodles with tempura prawns. I did, however, discover a local ice cream parlor called iBerry, where I was tempted by a scoop of Banana & Cheese ice cream in a waffle cone. I curbed the impulse and moved on.

There is a scoop of Banana & Cheese ice cream in my future. But that's another story. Stay tuned.

Hanging Out at Siam Paragon

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Monday, June 25, 2007

The Andaman Express

I've been a slacker this past week about blogging. It's not that I don't want to blog, to fill you in on my whereabouts. It's just that I've been in a funk over my experience of late. Nothing bad has happened to me. I've just been disappointed over finding out that my expectations, however low they may have been, were not low enough. Bear with me as a complain for a while. It may not be pleasant, but I'm good at it.

When I last wrote, I was midway through a tour of the Andaman coast, a geographically spectacular region of Southern Thailand that attracts hoards of visitors throughout the year. My northward journey took me to the islands of Ko Lanta, Railay Beach and Ko Phi Phi, and finally through the tourist mecca of Phuket. These locations are all beautiful, with rugged coastline, white sand beaches, lush jungles and vast coral reefs. So what was my problem?

Railay Beach

Ko Phi Phi

Check out a map of Thailand and you'll see that the Andaman coast is a slender strip of land that connects the bulk of the country in the north to peninsular Malaysia to the south. Anyone that visits the area travels north to south or vice versa. As a first-time visitor to the region, I hit the popular spots (there's a reason they are popular, so why not check them out?), which meant I was part of a roving crowd shuffling from one beach to the next. That couple I met in Ko Lanta? They were in Railay too, and then again in Ko Phi Phi. Those British students at the next table in Railay? There they were huddled against the evening downpour at Ko Phi Phi. That couple I met over lunch in Railay? We had drinks at sunset in Ko Phi Phi and disovered that we were staying in adjacent bungalows. It's like we had all boarded a monorail and were getting on and off at the various stations along the way.

Backpacker Rush Hour, Ko Phi Phi

I mentioned in a post from Railay that I was looking forward to seeing Thailand. This feeling increased the longer I spent on the islands. Ko Lanta was quiet, with very few people in the resorts. At each stop on the journey north, the beaches were more crowded, the towns more frenetic.

I ended in Patong Beach in Phuket, the epicenter of sleaze. I'd heard so many horror stories about the place, about the sleaze and slime. I had to see it for myself. Bars, touts, hookers and scam artists don't add up to a pleasant time. Sleazy is too nice a word for Patong Beach. At least I found a friendly barber and got a nice haircut.

At Railay Beach and on Ko Phi Phi, I was surrounded by Eurpoeans and North Americans. Commercial areas offered an endlessly repeating loop of dive shops, travel agents clothing stores, minimarts, and restaurants and bars. Most of the restaurants served bland Thai food from English menus (I hunted down the places where the locals ate, and was generally happy with the food). At night the bars were filled with crowds of rowdy drinkers. Placards outside the bars advertised which movies they would screen each night ("Little Miss Sunshine" at 6, "Spider-Man 3" at 8). A few Internet cafes offered rows of televisions and libraries of Playstation 2 games, though I only saw young men (western and Thai) at the consoles, and they only played driving and soccer games. Everything I saw could have taken place at any college town in America or Europe.

Playstation Cafe, Ko Phi Phi

What makes this more interesting is that these are places that were hit hard by the Indian Ocean tsunami in December of 2004. But tourism is an important part of the Thai economy and rebuilding started immediately. A few shops displayed photographs of the destruction and aftermath, there were some DVDs for sale, and I saw one T-shirt with the words "Still Alive" printed on the front. But there were no memorials, nothing to educated visitors about the event. According to Wikipedia, on Ko Phi Phi 70% of the buildings were destroyed and 4,000 of the 10,000 people on the island were killed. Where are the memorials? There's a ton of money flowing into these places. Someone is missing a chance to do good.

The bottom line is probably simple: reminding people of killer waves is bad for business. And in southern Thailand, the tourism business is booming.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My Compliments to the Chef

I worked late every Thursday night at my last job, and was famous for ordering Thai. I called it Thai Food Thursdays. It became a sort of running joke that when Matt was working late, there would be a Thai delivery. Do I have to spell it out? I love Thai food.

I arrived in Thailand geared up to eat authentic Thai cuisine. I’ve been disappointed by the selection so far. I blame it on the tourist ghettos, where cooks dial down the spice to bland and then take it a few steps further. Perhaps I could learn to cook Thai food and set my own spice levels.

I emailed a cooking school when I was in Ko Lanta, but it was closed for the season. When I spied a brochure for a cooking school in Ao Nang, I jumped. Here was a chance for me to learn a few tricks.

I enjoy cooking. I believe that if you can read and follow directions, you can cook. There are variables to cooking well, of course, but the basics are quite easy. Follow the steps, don’t let anything burn and adjust for taste. Easy peasy.

Nevertheless, I haven’t cooked anything more complicated than pasta and steamed vegetables in the last five months. Could I handle five courses of Thai food?

I took at long boat from the beach at Railay to the town of Ao Nang and was greeted by a silent man with a sign reading “Smart Cook.” He chauffeured me for fifteen minutes through town, past more travel agencies and resorts than one place should be able to support, to a nondescript house on a quiet residential street. I was beginning to doubt my decision to enroll in a cooking class, but was greeted with a big smile by a young woman named Mark (confusing, I know). This is the low season in southern Thailand (i.e., the rainy season) and I was the only student. Private cooking lessons? Okay by me.

Mark Believes in Fresh Ingredients

Mark handed me a recipe book and we quickly got down to business. She told me we’d be cooking six dishes, each one a staple of Thai cuisine. I had been given the choice of four different menus when I signed up for the class, so I was familiar with the day's program. On the menu were some of my favorites – pat thai, tom yam soup, papaya salad, green curry – and some dishes I was vaguely familiar with – chicken with cashews and banana in coconut milk.

I donned an apron and we got to work. Mark introduced the basic ingredients of Thai cuisine – garlic, lemongrass, onions, galangal (a relative of ginger), chilies – and walked me through the first two dishes, Tom Yam Kung (hot and sour soup with prawns) and Pat Thai (fried noodles). She also told me that if I wanted more meat in any dish, chopping off a finger was not the way to go. It was barely past 9 a.m. and I was getting hungry thinking about the end product.

Tom Yam Kung and Pat Thai require little more than the blending and simple heating of very basic, fresh ingredients. The Tom Yam (my Tom Yam!) was perfect, the galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves supplying the distinct flavors of Thailand. The whole dish took no more than 10 minutes to prepare. The Pat Thai, I’m sorry to say, was not the best I’ve ever had (the noodles clumped together, it was too dry), but I got the gist of it and will do better the second time around.

Tom Yam Kung

Pat Thai

The next challenge was a curry paste. Somewhere in my past there was an episode in which I tried to make Indian curry from scratch. I recall being overwhelmed by the number of ingredients, the blending of the spices and a complicated round robin of heating, mixing and reheating. I’ve always assumed Thai curries would also be beyond my abilities as a cook. Perhaps I’d fooled myself into believing a delicious cuisine like Thai would have to be complicated. Of everything I learned at Smart Cook, the most important was that Thai food is not complicated. Even curry paste.

Once again, it came down to a few fresh ingredients. We were going to make green curry, but I told Mark about my passion for Penang curry and she offered to show me how to make that instead. It only required that we change a few ingredients – for example, dried chilies instead of fresh. She set me to smashing the ingredients in a stone mortar, telling me how old Thai women have very strong arms from a lifetime of mixing their own curry paste. Then she let on that most people use a blender these days. I was happy to be traditional about the whole thing and worked up a sweat smashing the chilies.

Smashing Chilies for Curry Paste

Ten Minutes Later... Curry Paste

We set the paste to one side and moved to the next dish, Som Tam (papaya salad). I love papaya salad, a spicy mix of unripe papaya, chilies and lime, but the unripe papaya has always been a mystery to me. I asked Mark about it and she led me into the backyard and pointed at a tree with a bunch of cucumber-looking bulbs growing like bananas. Mystery solved. She also pointed out long beans growing in the front yard. Fresh ingredients were sprouting in every corner of the yard. What had at first been a nondescript house was shaping up to be a self-contained center for Thai cookery.

There’s no bite to a dish without that one magic ingredient: the chili. Mark told me green chilies are the hottest, then red, and that the younger and smaller the chili the hotter it is. She also listened to me gripe about the lack of heat in the food I’d eaten lately and told me I could request a dish at a restaurant with a specific number of chilies. She then asked me how many chilies I wanted in my papaya salad. I chose two small green, one red and one that was half and half.

My Som Tam was spicy! My mouth was scalded, my nose running, sweat trickling off my brow. I say this with full awareness of the boasting I’ve done in the past about my tolerance for spicy food. With humble heart I admit I have a three-chili limit when it comes to Som Tam. Nevertheless, I ate most of the dish and savored every bite.

Papaya Salad

Halfway through the menu, I was starting to feel full. I’ve been eating well these past few months, but I’ve also been eating with moderation. The gargantuan portions of American eateries don’t exist in this part of the world. I eat a plate of food and feel fed, not stuffed. Three dishes before 10 a.m. is unheard of for me. I think Mark sensed this because she sat down with me and we talked for the next 20 minutes. We covered the role of food in Thai culture, the superiority of a thin over a thick crust in a pizza, and the ubiquity of processed foods in western diets.

Penang Curry and Kai Pat Med Ma Maung (fried cashew nuts with chicken) may sound like difficult dishes to prepare, but they were both, again, a matter of blending fresh ingredients and cooking them for a few short minutes in a hot wok. Mark was there to regulate the heat and keep me on track. I think the regulation of the heat and the timing of the mixing will be most difficult when I set out on my own. She put both dishes to the side and in we took the next few minutes to prepare dessert, bananas in coconut milk.

Penang Curry

Fried Cashew Nuts With Chicken

Bananas in Coconut Milk

I sat down and ate every delicious bite. When the food’s this good, there’s no such thing as full.

Not too shabby for my first attempt as a Thai chef. I was astonished that such simple dishes could yield such distinct and strong flavors. As far as I can tell, the secret seems to be fresh, local ingredients. Ginger is just not the same as galanga. Lime juice cannot be substituted for kaffir lime leaves. Dried chilies don’t yield the same heat as fresh chilies.

With the popularity of Thai food in America, I’m sure I can get what I need, at least in New York or Los Angeles. So here’s an offer: I’m cooking Thai food for anyone who wants it when I return home. Just drop by any Thursday night.

My Compliments to the Chef

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Global Village

In late 1989 and early 1990 I spent six months backpacking in Europe, Egpyt and Israel. I was an ignorant kid out in the big bad world for the first time. I started in London, got sidetracked in Amsterdam, did whirlwind tours of Germany, France and Italy before slowing down for two months in Spain and Portugal. With four months of solo travel under my belt, I headed to Egypt for a taste of a truly foreign culture. Egypt was everything I hope for, it was everything that Europe and America was not, and it hinted at more far-flung destinations in my future.

I heard through other travelers that if I were heading across the Sinai Peninsula and into Israel, I had to stop at a spot on the Red Sea called Dahab. I think today it would be described at “chill,” but back then it was just mellow. Dahab has grown over the years into a full-blown resort town (and was the target of terrorist bombs in 2006), but in early 1990 it was still an outpost with nothing more than a small strip of ramshackle restaurants and a collection of huts on the beach for accommodation. I passed the days lounging on pillows, reading books, playing backgammon and swimming in the sea. There was nothing Egyptian about it other than it’s geographical location. It was all about chilling out, listening to Bob Marley and being a backpacker. It was my first taste of the backpacker haven (or ghetto, whichever you prefer). It was also the only place I got food poisoning in my six months of travel.

Backpacker hangouts are nothing new. They exist all over the world. They cater to their customers with western food, western movies and plenty of space to RELAX. And they are usually located in breathtakingly beautiful scenery.

Thailand is a country with a fair share of backpacker havens. In the south, where I am now, there are stunning islands and beaches, each one packed to the gills with tourists in the high season. In the low season, i.e. now, there are still tourists, but prices are much lower and the crowds much thinner. The rainy season will do that to a place.

My last stop, Ko Lanta, my present location, Railay Beach, and my next destination, Ko Phi Phi (pronounced Pee Pee, heh heh), rightly fit the mold of backpacker ghettos. Locals are here to serve the customers, Menus are in English, the food is bland, and there's little trave of the host country other than the stamps in the visitors' passports. As a 40-year-old single traveler, it’s been tough to make connections with the groups of twenty-somethings and the happy loving couples. I feel more at home, and more alive, when I'm mingling with locals.

Ko Lanta

Railay Beach East

I’m happy I’ve seen Ko Lanta and Railay, and Ko Phi Phi has a reputation as a paradise on earth (see "The Beach" or, better yet, read the book), but I’m looking forward to heading north and seeing Thailand.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Motel Hell

Ko Lanta, Thailand, is a district of 52 island in the Andaman Sea. The islands are lush, the waters clear and fine, the beaches white and wide. The land supplies rubber, cashews and bananas, the sea provides fish. But the main cash crop is tourism.

The west coast of Ko Lanta Yai is lined with beaches, with accommodation for every budget, from backpacker novels to luxury resorts. This is not a party island, like Ko Samui, and doesn’t draw the package-holiday crowds you will find in Phuket. It’s laid back. Perhaps this is because in a country that is 95 percent Buddhist, Ko Lanta is 95 percent Muslim.

There are a lot of beaches of southern Thailand and I pulled Ko Lanta out of a hat, more a choice of its convenient location than anything else. All you need to lounge on the beach is sand and surf, right? The next hurdle was deciding where to stay.

On the ride out of Hat Yai, I met a British man, mid-40s, who runs a dive shop in Phuket. I asked if he had any recommendations on Ko Lanta and he mentioned a place on a hillside, across from a five-star resort. He didn’t know the name but with the help of a guidebook we pinpointed its location. My destination was now a place called Lanta Marine Park View Resort. (Resort can mean anything in Southeast Asia – from Club Med-style digs in a private compound to a collection of tattered huts on a scabby beach.)

At the ferry terminal on Ko Lanta Yai, I was told it would cost 500 Baht to take a taxi to the resort. I balked at the price, having just paid 450 Baht for the six-hour journey from Hat Yai. I told a travel agent that I wanted to go to Lanta Marine Park View and she called the resort. A ride would be there in 30 minutes to take me 30 kilometers south.

Thirty minutes later a truck pulled up and a shaggy-haired twenty-something Thai motioned for me to hop in. George introduced himself then started talking about smoking weed and how much he loved Neil Young. But George was friendly and gregarious and I was getting a free ride. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and offered to play him some Neil Young bootlegs off my iPod.

I was shown a bungalow overlooking a beautiful crescent of white sand backed by lush forest. The five-star Pimalai Resort & Spa covered a large chunk of real estate on the opposite hill. The room was clean and neat, the view spectacular and the low-season rate reasonable at US$17 a night.

View From Bungalow A-10

The staff was entirely young and Thai. They seemed slow and stoned, and not entirely interested in or accustomed to providing hospitality or comfort to their guests. I’d seen this before in Asia and wasn’t very concerned. Give me the room and I’ll take care of myself.

I drank a few Singha beers at the bar, ate a delicious dinner – prawns covered in a very spicy sauce of basil and chilies, fragrant jasmine rice on the side – then retired to my room to clean up from the long day of travel. I flipped on the lights, locked the sliding doors behind me and moved into the large tiled bathroom.

Refreshed and clean, I returned to the bedroom to find dozens of inch-long flying insects swirling through the air and converging at the light above the bed’s headboard. They were termites with wings, or a gargantuan flying ant. They swarmed, fighting to get as close as possible to the bright light. Severed wings littered the pillows; bugs that had lost their wings crawled over the bedsheets. I’d closed the door! How could this happen?

I moved to the door and looked down at a scene out of a horror movie. There were more insects crawling through a small crack between the floor and the bottom of the doors, armies of them in formation, a never-ending stream of pests come to conquer corner of Ko Lanta. I shoved a small rug into the crack but they just squeezed through. I had visions of “Night of the Living Dead,” of zombies packing into a doorway of a remote farmhouse, intent on wreaking havoc on the innocents inside. Cinematic visions of bugs large and small, real and imagined came to mind.

I need a plan, and quick. Light! They like light. If I turned off the lights inside the room and turned on the patio light they would make a U-Turn and head outside. I’d worry about the crack in the door later.

The door wouldn’t open. The lock wouldn’t budge. I turned the latch through one revolution, two, five, ten. Nothing! I was trapped with the swarm. They were landing on my head and shoulders; there was nothing I could do to keep them off me.

Could I spend a night in this room, locked in with the swarm? Could I wait for someone to notice the guest in A-10 is missing? They seemed more concerned about getting high and hanging out than the welfare of the guests. I could last a day or two with the supplies on hand, a water and half a package of chocolate wafer cookies. It would take the staff a lot longer than a day or two to find me.

Perhaps I could call the front desk. My cell phone was getting reception and I still had credit from Malaysia. I tried the resort’s number and heard various recordings in Thai, none of them intelligible to me. I swatted bugs off my head and crunched them underfoot.


I don’t know how it happened, but I tried the latch again and the lock clicked. I threw open the doors and flicked the switch for the patio light. Dead. Dark. Damn!

But I have a nifty headlamp. I set it out on the patio and the bugs flew out of the room en masse. I swept out the carcasses from the bedroom, washed down the drain the ones stuck to the wet bathroom floor.

I marched to reception and started yammering to the first person I saw, a young woman with an expression halfway between boredom and coma.

“Do you understand there are hundreds of flying insects in bungalow A-10?,” I said.

I was met with slack-jawed indifference.

“They are coming in through a crack in the door! There’s nothing I can do to stop them.”


“Yes, thousands of them.”

"Do you want to change rooms?”

I noticed that other bungalows had lights on, with no swarms around them. A-10 must have been the exception to the rule. I moved to A-7, a beautiful bungalow that would fetch several hundred dollars a night in the west. It’s got an unobstructed view of the beach and I slept on clean, cotton sheets with fluffy pillows. Yes, the bugs must have been an anomaly.

I think the root of the problem is in the staffing, a group of young Thais, none of them trained in running a hotel and few of them able to communicate with the English-speaking clientele. Forget about room service or getting your room cleaned during the day.

I read online that a European company recently bought the place. I think they are cutting corners, catering to the mass market but offering a product that’s really only attractive to backpackers Yes, Lanta Marine Park View turned out to be a gussied up youth hostel with a full bar and beach access. At US$17 a night I had to take what I could get, warts and all. If I wanted more, there was the Pimalai Resort for US$500 a night.

Lanta Marine Park View Resort

I awoke this morning refreshed and ready for a day at the beach. A quick pee and then I would grab a quick breakfast. I flushed and somewhere in the back of my mind registered the weak flow in the bowl. I turned on the faucet to wash my hands and nothing came out. The shower was also dry.

I marched back to reception, to the same woman from the night before.

“There’s no water in my room.” I said.

Her eyes glazed over. “Maybe later," she said. "Maybe tomorrow."

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My Mood Swings

It's not all roses and sunshine in the land of smiles. No, my friends, my arrival in Thailand has come with a few rough spots. I’m happy to be here, smiling in fact, but these first few hours have been a test. It's not the full-blown culture shock of Indonesia, but neither has it been the warm welcome of Malaysia and Singapore. Let’s just call it first date jitters. Matt, meet Thailand. Thailand, Matt. Treat him well.

The day started with an early pick up at my hotel in Penang. Three young Brits occupied the rear seat of the minivan, settled in for their eight-hour journey to Krabi. I took a window seat in the middle row. Five Indian men in their 30s piled in after me. It was an uneventful two-and-a-half-hour drive to the border, and an unremarkable trip through immigration (however, the Thai stamp in my passport could not be mnore dull).

The Indian guys got out at the first hotel on the Thai side of the border, none of them carrying more than a small daypack. I hadn’t thought about their lack of luggage until one of the Brits said pointed out the obvious: for what they were doing they didn’t need luggage. Yes, not more than a half a kilometer into the country and Thailand’s infamous sex industry rears its ugly mug.

According to Lonely Planet, prostitution accounts for 3 percent of Thailand’s GDP, something like 19 billion baht every year, or somewhere in the range of half a billion U.S. dollars. Despite the country’s loose reputation in the west, however, locals drive 95 percent of the sex industry. The Indians will most likely get their rocks off, have a cup of coffee and be home in time to tuck in the kids.

I have desires like everyone else, sure, but I have no desire to pay for companionship or contribute to the trafficking of women, amny of them underage and under the delusion that there are no other options. I realize my lack of participation will not achieve anything, that the planes will fly whether or not I buy a seat. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe paying a guide a dollar an hour to steer me up and down Mount Kinabalu is just as bad. At least I won't get AIDS climbing a mountain. I I could fall off the summit and die, though.

Anyway, back to reality. I bring up the sex industry because I know it’s going to be a presence throughout my trip through Thailand. I’m tempted to count the number of times I’m offered illicit sex, but that would just depress me (three times in the first six hours). I came here to eat, to lounge on beaches and to hike through magnificent landscapes, even visit a temple or three.

I'm staying tonight in a decrepit town called Hat Yai, a thousand kilometers south of Bangkok. I chose Hat Yai because I didn't want to spend a full day on the road, and it is halfway between Penang and my next destination, the island of Koh Lanta. Hat Yai is southern Thailand’s commercial center, and one of the largest cities in the country. That doesn’t mean it’s nice. It’s gritty and exudes an air of menace. The only games in town (other than the ladies) are bullfighting – a local variation in which the bulls fight each other! – and Muy Thai kickboxing. Oh yeah, and there have been bombings by separatists in recent years.

A post on the Lonely Planet discussion board summed it up for me. Don't blame me for the cryptic references, I don't know what they mean either.

"Hat Yai has never been a safe place for the past 50 or more years. It is a border town dominated by criminals of all kinds, armed gangs, communists (up 1998), capitalist (ongoing) including murderers, rapists, money launderers, drug smugglers and swindlers. Activities include organized smuggling from guns to consumer goods, brothels, mono, bi, di and multiple, illegal gambling. This town is a haven for extremists of all religious denominations.

In short they are too busy going about their business to bother with decent people like you."

In other words, the most wretched hive of scum and villiany this side of Mos Eisley. Don't hold my room.

Downtown Hat Yai, Thailand

The minivan driver asked me on the way into town where I was staying. I gave him the name of a hostel recommended by my guidebook. I assumed the driver would drop me at the front door. Instead, he stopped at a travel agency and called it the end of the line. The trio of Brits was huddled in conference, deciding what their next move was going to be.

Here we go again, I thought. Time to raise my guard, play hardball, stand firm, no matter what. I told the people at the travel agency I wanted to go to a specific hostel, gave them the name and demanded they take me there. They pointed to an old man and said he’d take lead the way. He tottered off into the streets and led me to another hotel, a place I'd never heard of. The old switcheroo, eh?. I said no, put my foot down, held my cards, etc. He pointed at a tuk tuk, said the driver would take me where I wanted to go. The tuk tuk driver asked five times the going rate. I walked off, reminding myself to be like Fonzie, to just be cool.

The first thing I noticed when crossing the border, and it was now a pronounced and potentially hazardous detail, was that I was now functionally illiterate. The Roman script used in Malaysia has been replaced by Thai, an unrecognizable collection of squiggles and lines that may as well have been the output of a two-year-old with a blank wall and a box of crayons. Thankfully, the tourism industry caters to an international clientele and every hotel advertises in English. I found one that looked inviting, or at least friendly, and through a complicated serious of gestures – somewhere in there was the international symbol for “Help me, I’m lost” – I managed to convey my desire for a map and directions. The desk clerk pinpointed my location on a tourist map, showing me that I was only about six blocks from where I wanted to be. I set out to walk. Two blocks later a guy on a moped offered to take me there for three times the going rate. I was making progress.

View of Hat Yai From My Hotel Window

I arrived at the hostel and it was a pit – nothing too bad for the money, but far below the standards I’ve set for myself. I scanned the guidebook and chose the first mid-range place on the list. It was better, affordable, with three locks on the door. I checked in and what was the first happened next? A middle-aged woman who works at the hotel came into my room as I was setting down my bag and asked me something in Thai that I didn’t understand. I scanned my guidebook for useful phrases and found the Thai for “I don’t understand.” She laughed, extended her hands, her index fingers aligned side by side. “Girl?” she said. “Later” I said, then waved her off. I’m not buying what she’s selling, but at least I could remain polite.

Ok, to be fair to Thailand, this was a first date and we are just getting to know each other. I’ve felt jitters each time I’ve entered a country, relaxing with each day and discovering first impressions are not always reliable. I realize this post may sound bitter; I hope you can see there's some healthy sarcasm below the surface. The next few months are going to be gritty, there are going to be scams and setbacks. I would say “Bring it on,” but W. spoiled that phrase for me. But you know what? I’m taking it back. Bring It On! Just get me out of Hat Yai first.

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Why would I want to buy bees?

A sign over the single elevator in my hotel in Hat Yai, Thailand. I’d think twice about sharing this with guests. But that's just me.


Sunday, June 10, 2007

Lazy Sunday

I've been quite the slacker since climbing Mount Kinabalu, first recuperating in Kota Kinabalu and then whiling away a few days in Penang, an island off the northwest coast of Malaysia, with a stack of paperbacks ("The Quiet American," a few Lee Child mysteries) and DVDs ("Star Wars," "The Quiet American," "Old Joy," "10 Items or Less"). After four months on the road, a little downtime is a good thing.

It's Hot! Time for an Iced Coffee. Mmmmm....

It's now a lazy Sunday in Georgetown, the capital city of the state of Penang, the streets are quiet and I'm in my hotel room planning my next move. I have been looking forward to visiting Thailand for a long time. I will leave Malaysia on Tuesday morning and head to the Andaman Coast. Where I end up depends on the weather - the rainy season has arrived. I plan to work my way up the coast, skirting the tourist mecca of Phuket while hitting islands and beaches, then passing through Bangkok en route to trekking in the north. Anyone with knowledge of Thailand is encouraged to send along recommendations and suggestions.

I feel like I've completed another chapter, that I've wrapped up the second leg of this trip and am ready for more. The first leg was nine weeks in Australia. Over the last eight weeks I've toured Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. The next leg, call it my summer swing, will take me through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I plan on continuing this crazy adventure into the fall with visits to China and Japan, though I remain flexible and plans could change. In each country I've experienced ups and downs, made friends and come to know more about myself. There's nothing like travel to challenge, enlighten and entertain. I know this will end someday, but for now I'm riding it with everything I've got.

I've created a new Flickr photoset of highlights from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. These are my favrote pictures from the past two months, a mix of travelogue, people and places. Enjoy!

Hey! Check out the Photoset!

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Rocky Mountain High

I’ve been to desert, ocean, city and swamp. I’ve swum with sharks and sea lions, encountered deadly snakes and wrangled with disingenuous locals. I’ve climbed a bridge, visited temples and photographed skyscrapers. I’ve downed delicious tropical juices and devoured mounds of Chicken Rice. What’s a traveler to do next? How about climbing a mountain?

Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo is thee tallest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea. At 4,095 meters (13,435 feet), Kinabalu can’t compete with the world’s great peaks. It’s not even half as tall as the five highest peaks on the planet. Kinabalu doesn’t even rank in the top 100. It’s a runt in a land of giants. But I’m a hiker, not a climber, and 13,435 feet is a noble challenge.

Mount Kinabalu Obscured by Clouds
(As Seen From Kinabalu National Park Headquarters)

"Selamat Mendaki" (Happy Mountaineering)

The trek takes two full days. I would stay in a hostel in Kinabalu National Park, at 1,564 meters (about 6,000 feet), then wake early for a day of hiking from Timpohon Gate to the resthouse at Laban Rata, a distance of six kilometers and 5,000 vertical feet. I would then spend the night in a hut at 11,000 feet, waking up at 2 a.m. to tackle the summit, a climb of 2.7 kilometers and an additional 2,500 feet of elevation. Numbers are all well and good, but don’t tell the whole story.

Everyone who climbs Mount Kinabalu must hire a guide. My guide was Julius, a deceptively reserved local who has spent his entire life within ten kilometers of Mount Kinabalu. He started working as a porter when he was 14. Now, at 28, he doesn’t know how many times he’s climbed to the summit. He does, however, estimate that he could make the 18-kilometer round-trip in about five hours. Life all the porters and guides I encountered on the mountain, Julius was strong as an ox and modest as a wallflower.

Julius was an excellent guide and climbing partner, never pushing me to go beyond my own pace, and happy to point out flora that I would otherwise have missed, like the carnivorous pitcher plants that trap their prey in a cup of sticky syrup. He was also good for conversation, delivering a string of out-of-left-field questions like “Do you know Chuck Norris?,” “Do you like women with big breasts?” and “Do you believe in black magic?” These moments of absurdity help me immensely and I thank Julius for his offhand take on the world. He was also my unofficial photographer, though he could use a lesson in composition and the importance of a level horizon.

Julius, Master of the Mountain

I’ve done my share of hiking, and wasn’t concerned about the climb itself. Other travelers said I’d be sore in the days to come, but that seemed par for the course. What I discovered soon after passing through Timpohon Gate, however, is that Mount Kinabalu is more climb than hike. There’s nothing subtle about the trail; it is rocky, steep and treacherous. Well maintained, yes, but challenging. About 20 meters out 8.7 kilometers is on level ground. The rest is incline, over rocks and roots, up steps, around boulders and across rock faces. The steps are tall, consistently up to my knee and sometimes up to my thigh. Even with the walking stick, I often struggled to find my footing and had to pay attention to every step.

The Summit Trail...

...It's a Walk in the Park

Within the first hour of the climb I started to feel fatigue. But Julius gently urged me forward, telling me, “You are a very strong man,” and I soon found a comfortable pace. We covered the six kilometers to Laban Rata in four hours and forty-five minutes, arriving at 1:30 in the afternoon. I was the fourth climber of the day to make it to the camp, and I entered the empty resthouse exhausted and happy. Still, I was unable to eat, unable to do anything but rest my head on a table and wish for unconsciousness. I checked in at registration and dragged myself another ten minutes up the trail to my hut, where I found a comfortable bunk and two warm blankets.

Panar Laban Hut

I awoke three hours later feeling rested and alert, and returned to the resthouse for a meal. What had been an empty hall in the early afternoon was now crammed to the rafters with climbers. There was tempered excitement in the air. Everyone in the room had climbed up the mountain; we were equals in this endeavor whether the climb had taken four hours or fourteen (the average is about six hours). We were a collection of weary faces and slumped postures, but we were now some of the highest people in Southeast Asia.

I retired to my bunk at 7:30 an settled in for a few hours of sleep. Julius woke me at 2 a.m. After snatching a quick cup of weak coffee at the resthouse, I gathered my supplies (headlamp, gloves, hat, camera, energy snacks, multiple layers of clothing) and set out to conquer the summit.

Julius and I had hiked through rainforest most of the previous day, and had spent the night in an alpine zone of stunted trees and sparse shrubbery. Now we would cross the timberline and hike cross a great slopes of bare granite. The air was thin, but at least the terrain was fairly even.

We set out at 2:40 and within a few minutes passed a young woman vomiting by the side of the trail, a visceral reminder of the situation. Anyone can climb Mount Kinabalu – it doesn’t require mountaineering skills and can be accomplished in a sturdy pair of walking shoes. The climb is, however, very strenuous and without a moderate level of physical fitness you will suffer. And there’s the unpredictability of altitude sickness –even the strongest of athletes can be hobbled by elevation.

I was aware of the altitude, and decided to take my time. If it took five hours to hike 2.7 kilometers, so be it. As I trudged up the mountain, my progress slowing as I gained more elevation, I thought of every National Geographic special I’d seen about Everest, recalling how climbers would take one step, then rest, another step and another rest. And here I was crossing 12,000 feet, taking a few steps at a time, and resting. I was walking slow, slower than I’d ever walked in my life, slower than a tourist on Seventh Avenue or rush hour traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard.

I pushed on, following the thick white rope that guides climbers up the naked rock to the summit. The full moon had passed a night or two earlier, and I was able to turn off my headlamp and hike by moonlight. Jagged peaks were outlined against the starry sky. Perhaps it was the exhaustion, or the realization that willpower was propelling me closer and closer to my goal. Perhaps it was the elevation. Whatever it was, I couldn’t think about reaching the top without experiencing an upswell of emotion, tears of joy threatening to erupt at any moment. But I kept my emotions in check and set my sights on the only thing that mattered: the summit.

Low's Peak (4,095 Meters)

My legs felt great, but I was acutely aware of my lungs and my heart rate. Passing 13,000 feet, I’d push myself 10 or 20 feet and have to stop, gasp for a few breaths while my heart thudded in my chest. It took me an hour to cover the last 500 meters. I covered the final 100 meters at a slow crawl, using hands and feet to clear the jumble of boulders below the summit.

Meanwhile, Julius was like a kid at the playground, jogging up and down the slope behind me and bouncing up and down for warmth. I should have hated him, but was inspired by his enthusiasm. Even after 14 years and countless ascents, he displayed an impish glee at being at the top of the mountain. I’m sure Julius earns a paltry salary for his efforts; he deserves much, much more.

There’s an old saying that the journey is the reward, not the destination. I reached the summit, asked an older Japanese man to take a few pictures of me and was quickly ready to start climbing down. The sun was about to break the horizon, and there were dozens of climbers clamoring for space on the narrow summit. Also, I felt a sudden surge of nausea and didn’t want to vomit on the expanse of Southeast Asia that lay below me.

The Summit

With the rising sun illuminating the slopes, I took my time on the descent, photographing the peaks that were only outlines an hour before. A cottony layer of cloud covered the land, perhaps a thousand feet below me. I realized that no birds were singing, no frogs croaking, that plant life was stunted and wispy, clinging to the crevices in the rock. I was tired, so tired, but still in awe of the scenery, appreciating every moment I had earned with hard work and perseverance. I was reminded of my love for the Australian Outback and the American Southwest, for the harsh spaces where only the hardiest of species survive. Beaches and forests are great, but for me there’s real beauty in the barren. I wonder where that comes from?

Moon Over Kinabalu

View From the Top

South Peak

Sunrise Over Kinabalu

Two hours later I was back at Laban Rata, eating a breakfast of ramen noodles and ready to complete this adventure. But Kinabalu National Park had one more surprise in store for me. The park is in a rainforest. I had been lucky the previous day and climbed without encountering one raindrop. On the descent, however, the rain never let up. It never poured, just a steady mist and drizzle that increased the difficulty of the trek. All those steep slopes, the rocks and roots were now wet and slippery.

On the hike down, we encountered the next day’s climbers making the ascent. I urged them on with words of encouragement, telling them the summit was worth the effort. Around kilometer two an elderly Australian man asked me if the climb got any easier. I should have said it was a piece of cake, but told him the truth, that no, it really doesn’t get any easier, that it’s a slog from start to finish, both going up and coming down. He seemed put off by my answer, but asked me if I’d do it again. Without hesitation, I said “Yes.”

I surprised myself with this quick response. Mount Kinabalu was the toughest climb of my life, a challenge for mind, body and spirit. I loved every terrible minute.

Mission Accomplished!

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