Saturday, July 07, 2007

Thailand Triptych

My 30-day Thai visa expires on July 11. I will be spending the next few days trekking, whitewater rafting, and taking public transportation to the border with Laos. There's been a lot to write about over the past four weeks, but a few items have slipped through the cracks. The following nuggets have been on my mind over the last few days.

Rough Seas

Anyone who travels around the islands of Southern Thailand will end up taking a ferry from one island to another. Transportation ranges from long-tail boats that carry passengers up and down rivers or along coastlines to giant ferries that venture into the open sea to pass between major destinations.

There was a storm overhead and strong swells in the sea on the day I traveled between Railay beach and Ko Phi Phi. The ferry was old, its cramped interior offering narrow rows of seats and an exposed wooden bulkhead. As the boat movied into the Andaman Sea, the waters turned choppier and the boat started to skip from wave to wave. Swells of three or four meters crested above the bow and great plumes of spray soaked the top deck. Tourists exchanged worried glances. I soon heard whispers questioning the safety and seaworthiness of the vessel. The more anxious passengers were now wearing lifejackets.

The crew had been through this before and approached the situation with smiles and good humor. They assured everyone that we would be safe, then proceeded to hand out clear plastic bags. In a moment of blockheadedness, I thought "How nice, they don't want our belongings to get wet." I then realized that with 90 minutes before we would reach Ko Phi Phi, people were going to get sick. Sure enough, not ten minutes later a girl about 8 years old started to toss her cookies. The young woman two seats to my left then turned green and started retching into her own bag.

I spent the rest of the journey holding onto the seat in front of me and staring intently at one spot about five feet in front of my face. The boat bucked from wave to wave, crashing into the troughs with a bang, eliciting groans and cries from the passengers. The horizon was an unsteady blur out the window. I fought nausea and thanked the stars that I'd skipped breakfast. It seemed that whenever I looked up there was someone tottering down the aisle holding a clear bag of puke. It wasn't the Titanic, but it was a pretty awful boat ride.

When we arrived at Ko Phi Phi, the passengers shuffled onto the dock, happy to be safe and secure on dry land. I overheard a backpacker tell a friend that he'd just spoken to the captain, who told him that he'd ridden out the tsunami on that very boat. I take back everything bad I said about the boat ride. It could have been so much worse.

Andaman Ferry on a Calmer Day

Friends in Faraway Places

There are a lot of foreigners in Thailand. Many of them are tourists who skip from destination to destination. But there are resident foreigners who live and work quite comfortably in the country. While in Bangkok I was fortunate enough to meet two fellow Americans living abroad.

I met Linnea Philips though Peggy Olsen, the first friend I made on this journey, way back in February during a layover at the airport in Fiji. Linnea has spent the last few years in Thailand working for the Amicus Foundation, a relief organization run by her stepfather and family. We met one night for vegetarian Thai food, where she impressed me with her fluent Thai and good humor. We met again the next day to explore a few art galleries and eat banana and cheese ice cream.

The art was lackluster, especially a creepy exhibit of large-scale photographs of Tuscany (the photos were fine, it was the layout of the exhibit that freaked us out - black walls, harsh spot lighting and atonal music). The ice cream was surprisingly good. It was overwhelmingly banana-flavored, with small, fatty globules of a mild cheese adding texture. I couldn't figure out what kind of cheese they used, but it tasted like a cross between cottage cheese and cream cheese.

In the space of 24 hours Linnea and I shared streetcorner Thai, shopping mall banana and cheese ice cream, a dessert crepe with a mound of chocolate ice cream at a French restaurant, and an array of vegetarian dishes at Tamarind Cafe, a combination restaurant and art gallery where we were joined by her friend Pia.

Linnea moves to Florence, Italy, in September to attend cooking school. I wish her the best of luck and hope we can share a plate again in the future.

Linnea, left, and Pia at the Tamarind Cafe, Bangkok

Yes, food is the great unifier. The other ex-pat I met was Newley Purnell, a freelance writer with an occasional byline in We met through a mutual friend, Matt Gross (aka The Frugal Traveler). I met Newley for lunch and he shepherded us into a back alley market where crowds of office workers from the neighborhood were just sitting down to their midday meal. It was a taste of the real Bangkok, both in atmosphere and in the heaps of springs rolls and noodles we ate.

We were joined halfway through lunch by Newley's roommate, Dan, another freelance journalist. We talked the trade for a while and for the first time in a few months I thought about the job I left behind in New York. No, I don't miss it. Still, it was great to talk to a few writers and gab about the business again. Unfortunately, we were unable to meet up again while I was in Bangkok. Newley has no plans to leave BKK, so look him up the next time you are in town.

Newley, left, and Dan Somewhere in Bangkok

Many thanks go out to Linnea and Newley.

Motorbike Madness

The next time you are standing at a intersection waiting for the little green man to start blinking permission to cross, stop for a second and think about how lucky you are. For the past few months I've been living in a world where pedestrians have no rights. The road belongs to scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses. People are an afterthought. Play Frogger for a few hours and you'll get the picture.

I spend a lot of time waiting for gaps in traffic. I'm a multitasker, so while I'm working out trajectories and probablities I'm also taking note of how crazy motorized transport is in this part of the world. The craziest of the bunch? It's got to be the scooters.

Scooters are the preferred form of transportation for a large chunk of the population. But there are no rules. It's common to see three people per bike. I've seen families of four and five. I've seen people chatting on cellphones while speeding around corners. Dogs get into the act too, peching comfortably behind the driver or squinting against the wind in a front-mounted basket. Yesterday I saw a pair of teenage girls on a busy street, the passenger feeding the driver a stick of chicken satay. I realize I'm imposing my own cultural values here, but it's nuts. Nuts!

Three on a Bike, With Refreshments

Taking Care of Business

Dad and Son

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Blogger Đồng Hà Văn said...

awesome travel.
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12:55 AM  

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