Samard and his wife Papai own and operate the Riverside Guest House in the town of Pai in Northern Thailand, about 40 miles from the Burma border and not far from the Golden Triangle where the three countries of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. Samard was born in this area, but his family moved to Bangkok when he was five. He finished school, got an accounting degree and wound up spending eleven years in the business world before he escaped to Pai - with 8000 people compared to Bangkok's 8 million - six years ago and built the Riverside.
hut - commonly referred to in these parts as a bungalow - overlooks the
Pai River which is about 80 feet across. Actually the hut is half built
right into the river bank. In the previous rainy season the one next door
was swept away in an annual torrent in which water levels increase 100
times over dry season levels. It's about 6' by 10' with straw mat on a
wood floor, and a later model, the first ones he built have straw mats
on bamboo floor joists that flex as you walk on them. They all have straw
mat walls, and roofs of woven Teak leaves on bamboo rafters. It rarely
gets cold here so it's left very open and airy. The huts are furnished
only with a thin mattress, blanket and mosquito net, though the net is
not needed outside of the rainy season.
In the courtyard there are pet monkeys and papaya trees and a separate building with community bathrooms and cold showers and a hot shower that's available during certain hours of the day. There's a campfire on the river where we burn foraged coconut fronds and brush. Tasty meals are served at the restaurant for less than a dollar and it costs all of $1.60 per night.
We are at about 3000' elevation and about a mile in the distance is a forested ridge that climbs up to about 4000 feet. A third of the way up is a Wat - a Buddhist Temple - "Temple on the Hill, Welcome". About four miles up the road is a hot spring in a small national park that's equipped with six round two person concrete tubs. It's an easy walk, though the temperature in mid-February is in the nineties, or you can rent a bike or motorbike.
Once or twice a month when at least three people want to do a hill tribe trek - almost every guest house can arrange one - Samard leaves the place in Papai's care and takes you up for two to five days, whatever you like, for an all inclusive $12 per day. Typical itinerary includes visiting several hill tribe villages, seeing opium fields - 80% of the worlds opium is grown in this region - riding an elephant and floating down a river on a bamboo raft.
Bamboo is everywhere on the trail. It will grow as much as 30 feet in three months with a trunk of three to four inches and there are at least three kinds that I can distinguish. There is teak. It's illegal to cut this valuable tree with it's giant beautiful leaves. In fact, nowadays all commercial logging is prohibited, it's even illegal to own a chainsaw in Thailand, but that doesn't necessarily stop the poachers or the villagers who believe those trees to be their birthright. There were quite a few large trees in view, this is as remote as you can get in Thailand, but many of the teak were marked for cutting. It's not illegal to cut a dead tree so they gird - cut the bark in a circle near the base - a live tree, destroying its circulation, and in a year's time it's dead. There is dawn redwood which the villagers are allowed to cut if it's strictly for their own construction use, and a few pines amongst many other kinds of trees that Samard is familiar with but doesn't know the English names of.
There are also oddities like a fig tree that has large clumps of fruit growing out of its trunk and a common vine tree which uses a host tree for about thirty feet then branches out on its own. This is not a rain forest with thick underbrush and a dense canopy, though there is a great variety of trees, but rather a bit more open and spacious. It's the middle of the dry season and many of the trees have lost their leaves, creating an odd juxtaposition of looking like fall approaching winter while it feels like the height of summer. The only animal that you might see during the dry season is barking deer, a small dog sized species. In rainy season add bear, monkey and maybe gibbons.
There are eight of us on the trek; Peg and Joe, a sort of straight, sort of hip, couple from Marin who feel rushed because they only have five weeks in Thailand. Mark and Tom, students from Holland - Mark is studying law to please his parents but hates it. And Ed, who is a cook in a tree planters' camp on an island between Vancouver Island and the mainland in British Columbia. He works sixteen hours per day, seven days a week for four months so he can spend the rest of the year traveling. Then there's Siema, our porter, who lives in the village on the river at the end of our trek.
We walk for about two hours in the morning, three in the afternoon. Samard's a real comedian; at the first Y in the trail he says, "Oh I think I forgot the way". There are no trail maps to purchase and no signs and no obvious means for distinguishing the side trails from the "main" trail. But we were lucky to have him; the first day we came across a group led by an obviously inexperienced young guide who had gotten them lost, requiring several hours of backtracking.
On the uphill climbs I trade bringing up the rear with Siema who's carrying forty pounds to my five. And really he's hanging back to save me a little face and I suppose to keep me from getting lost. He makes fun of me by mimicking my hard breathing when I catch up. At the top of each hill is a primitive way station consisting of a bench or bench and shelter. Similar in concept shelters exist at frequent intervals along the rural roads. Traveling with Siema did have its advantages; he talked to birds, he gave me strange little wild fruits to eat and once while he was waiting for me to catch my breath, he spotted and dug up what I thought sure to be a wild Jerusalem artichoke.
The water is clear and cold by the time we reach the higher elevation, more remote villages, but we are warned not to drink it (the villagers do), it might have malaria mosquito eggs in it. We saw lots of different butterflies and heard many new to my ear bird songs, though mostly the birds themselves were hidden in the trees. We stop at villages for lunch breaks; most of our food is purchased from the villagers, but Samard and Siema do the cooking. The only thing not included is Coca-Cola or beer which obviously comes at a big premium having to be hauled up on someone's back in most cases.
At about four PM we arrive at our evening destination and head down to the stream to get washed up. They do most of their washing in the stream, and we try to be discrete about observing them, though it is fascinating seeing the women do a complete job on themselves without ever getting uncovered. Most of their houses are much the same as my straw hut at the Riverside, the occasional wood house the exception. They cook over an open fire and leave out the tops of the walls to let the smoke out. And as in every house in Thailand, however lowly or exalted, shoes are left at the door, a custom which makes especially good sense here where so many animals run free.
We stayed at the village chief's house the first night. We sleep as the villagers do, on a straw mat on a wood floor. He was building a small wood house next to the larger bamboo house that we stayed in, probably to have some privacy when his house turns into a hotel for trekkers. The chief is elected by the villagers; the only requirement being that he or she speak Thai - very few adults can speak it - and attend a meeting in town once a month.
Each tribe has its own customs, heritage and language. They migrated here from the surrounding countries - Burma, China, Laos - at different times, but largely over the last century. They are interspersed throughout these mountains with the result that we experienced three distinct cultures in the four villages we visited.
This particular village is mostly Christian, having had a successful missionary some time back. It was Sunday, and about 2/3 of the adults were in church which is situated just back of the chief's house. We were finishing dinner in an outside eating area when the service ended. As the churchgoers filed past it turned into a reciprocal parade with each posing for and eyeing the other. These villagers are remote, and we were surely a curiosity to them, but they are not without their connection to the world at large. There is a Thai national election happening and there are posters in every village. Three of four villages we visited were accessible by motorbike, though I would not have believed it only seeing the trails which are very steep and rugged in places, and villagers are often seen in town selling their handicrafts.
Still it is not possible to go to these places without questioning the effect we are having on them. These people are good simple folk living a lifestyle unquestionably doomed to fade off into the modern world and while we may be hastening the process, I doubt if we are changing the essential outcome. By far the most impressive building in each village was a new or recently built school and virtually all village children, as well as all Thai children between the ages of seven and twelve, are attending school. If for any reason a child cannot attend during the day there are classes every night which is also open to adults who have missed out on basic education.
Some seem content in their ancient ways, others are almost desperate for a little knowledge of the English language and the outside world. Joe and Peg spent a couple of hours on our second night as impromptu English teachers. And one man's room partition was papered in the real estate pages of a Bangkok newspaper hawking $2000 per month condos and toney suburban developments. I was left with the intellectual rationalization that as long as we visited on their level - eat and sleep as they do - that we do more good than harm or are at least neutral. Meanwhile my subconscious seemed to be at war with that view and kept trying to subvert my rationale - I thought more good than harm but the words popped out opposite.
After dinner I was invited to share some moonshine rice whiskey with several of the locals, including the teacher from the neighboring village who unfortunately didn't make it to class the next day. Samard said it was 40% alcohol, but it was mild and tasty and I clearly lost track of how much I was drinking. About an hour after the moonshine ran out two guys showed up with opium.
Most of the villagers don't do it much anymore at least partly because they can't afford it. It is not a community effort, fields are small and individually worked. Addiction has been and continues to be a serious problem in the villages, but for us "farangs", Thai slang for foreigner, it's like required reading - something you do because you're here then maybe never again. They sell one pipe at a time in a ritual which has you laying on your side while the euphoria man, facing you, also laying on his side, prepares and lights a homemade long stem pipe. Laying on one's side in this manner is, so I'm told, the derivative of the words "hipster", and of course "hip".
I did five pipes and considered myself moderate. (Ed who was sure to do opium again did seventeen.) Not long later I found a comfortable spot to melt into the floor and began to drift off into a fuzzy dreamlike reverie. Not long after that I was compelled to stagger to my feet and out the door to find a reasonable place to bring back my previous couple of meals. Fortunately there was a little dog nearby eager to clean up the embarrassing mess. Opium tends to rattle your system and induce regurgitation. But even adding the burden of the moonshine churning up my innards and it's attempt to make the very act of puking that much more distasteful, the effects of the opium made it entirely painless, effortless and barely unpleasant.
The government is cracking down, they say this is the last year (92) for growing opium in Thailand. Meanwhile Burma and Laos, the other two sides of the Golden Triangle have far less control over their borderland opium producing areas and it's an easy walk across. The penalties for possession of drugs can be severe in some cases, but this is also Thailand where trekking companies freely advertise visiting opium fields, drugs are as available as alcohol on many of the resort islands and in some absurd twist of reality, beer and opium are expensive while pot and whiskey are cheap. Six opium pipes equals 24 ounces of beer equals 1/4 ounce of pot equals a pint of local whiskey.
After a couple of hours walk on the third day we reached the elephant camp for our hour's ride where we were warned to stay clear of the baby elephant. He's too playful; the previous week he had picked up a dog and threw it against a tree with predictable results. The trainers, called "mahouts", of our two elephants were young boys of about nine and fourteen. They are given an elephant when they are young to grow with it and form a life-long relationship.
We rode in a wooden chair, though Ed, by request, rode on it's neck. The elephantís thick, bristly hair made his ride somewhat uncomfortable. The actual ride was slow, they are lumbering, though quite agile animals, and would have been relatively uneventful if not for the fact that the mother would go nowhere without her baby and the baby kept running off, requiring some pretty speedy barefootin' on the part of it's mahout to get in front of it and drive it back.
After two plus days of walking, I was happy to spend the next five hours soaking my feet in lukewarm water as we glided serenely down the river on our bamboo rafts. They are about 28 feet long consisting of about 15 bamboo poles lashed together with bamboo strips. They are built for one trip down the river, after it arrives at its destination it is taken apart and the bamboo is sold and reused. With a load it rides partly submerged so our stuff is placed in large plastic bags.
We scrape bottom sometimes, speed down almost white water other times and duck under low-lying branches or logs that have fallen across the river. It almost feels like it is going to capsize occasionally, but the water is shallow and warm and you really wouldn't care that much.
Siema who likely has spent his entire life close to this river, is steering us with a perfect hand through all the most difficult places. We are coming up to an especially difficult spot between two rocks but instead of a deft maneuver he steers the raft directly onto one of the rocks and brings us to an abrupt halt. What's happening? He jumps off the boat, begins stalking up the bank - he's spotted a snake! The snake gets wise and jumps into the river. Siema jumps into thigh high water after it, chases it down and pulls a five foot snake out of midstream. He smashes its head against a rock, brings it back and ties it to the raft -it must be dinner!
The river also has commercial uses other than tourism. We floated by two landings where planks of teak were being lashed to bamboo for the trip to market. There is still teak in the more remote places but it is definitely getting rarer anywhere within the villagerís reach. The government has little power to stop the cutting in these areas, still it's illegality combined with increasing scarcity, has shifted the Thai logging industry into Burma and other neighboring countries. The government is planting a lot of trees with the stated goal of increasing the country's forest cover from 20% to 40%. They are also trying to relocate villagers living in National Forests but they in turn are not happy with where they are being sent and are prone to holding big protest marches.
Unfortunately, they love to burn both to clear for agriculture as well as after every crop and since it rains hard enough here during the short dry season to leach out much of the nutrient value of the soil, they burn a new area every few years. Still, the more remote steeply graded areas are not suitable for agriculture so if only the teak is cut the forests will remain relatively intact. But they love to burn, wherever you go in this season, February, you see fires in the distance and here in the Pai River valley it is always a bit hazy.
is quick, cheap and easy and the ashes provide an immediate dose of nutrients
but in the long run it has to be better for the soil for the organic matter
to be returned. Of course being from Oregon where both cropland and forest
slash are regularly burned, enveloping large parts of the state in a noxious
pallor, one could hardly be surprised or aghast at primitive third world
Thailand: Fake Genuine 501ís
The budget Asia traveler always finds his/her way to Bangkok's Khao San Road. Regardless of what you might think of Bangkok, and it certainly evokes powerful negative responses in many people, it's very hard to avoid. For one thing itís the transportation center for an area with the population of the US, as well as the bridge between East Asia - China, Japan, etc., and South Asia - India, Nepal, etc.. That, reinforced by Thai government policy, has given it Asia's lowest priced air tickets. Further, it's the easiest place to make arrangements for the more challenging destinations in the immediate neighborhood - Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam - and the primary place to start from when exploring the rest of Thailand.
Khao San Rd is not that different from many other parts of the city. It's a quarter mile long with attendant alleys, and stuffed with stores and sidewalk vendors. Except here all are geared to the low end international traveler. In addition to thousands of guest house rooms the street abounds in money changers, travel agents and overseas telephone services. There are close to 40 shops selling custom suits and silk, and at least as many selling very nice Thai-style hippie clothes, often patterned after hill tribe designs.
For six or seven dollars you can get a pair of fake genuine 501's; the hip pocket promotional says button fly even when it has a zipper, they come in a dozen colors that never saw the inside of a Levi's factory, the pockets seem a bit short except for the watch pocket which is so deep I have to turn the pants upside down to get anything out of it, and they all come in 34 inch length even if the tag occasionally says something else. There are also abundant outlets for "rerecorded" tapes, travel gear, icons, jewelry, etc.
I arrived pretty late first night in Bangkok but got a place fairly easily, "Ice Guest House". It was minimal and funky; a bed, a fan, a single uncovered dangling light bulb, thin plywood walls and no window. Went out for a couple of beers, got back and surprised two immense, 1 and 1/2 inch long roaches climbing up the wall. Actually, I was the surprised one, they took their time, seemed right at home. It was their turf, I might as well just go to sleep and assume it's normal.
Too grungy even for my plebian, eclectic standards, I went out the next morning and found a place after several tries - "Top Guest House" - that was much nicer for the same price ($2.50/night). Even so a few days later one of those big time roaches flew - no foolin' - right by me and landed on the wall a few feet away in the guest house common area. This prompted me to ask a young Thai girl who was part of the establishment if I should smash it, she shook her head no.
Rats and roaches come out late at night. The streets are actually reasonably clean because the Thais are hard-core sweepers. The problem being the amazing amount of food that is prepared and eaten in sidewalk eateries and the fact that there never seems to be enough garbage cans to contain the residue. Not that the typical garbage can, a large wicker basket, could provide a meaningful barrier to the varmints. Pushcart and bicycle cart recycling is alive in Bangkok, but if they don't get to it, no matter, it'll still get recycled. A modern garbage truck with four or five workers aboard will pull up to a large mound of garbage that's completely overflowing its containers and spend an hour doing an exhaustive sort.
Small, four inch, pale white house lizards are found climbing the walls everywhere in Bangkok. In a tropical setting of constant heat every building without air conditioning is left open to the outside and enables easy access for the little reptiles. I've even come across a few geckos which are more common outside the city. You don't see the geckos very often in spite of their size, about 8", because they stay undercover, but you can never mistake their presence. They periodically make a loud shuddering sound, then repeat their name - gecko, gecko, gecko - four or five times before the sound fades away.
The bottom end single in Bangkok is typically a room, equipped with a fan, that's not much bigger than the bed that's in it. Only a bottom sheet is provided, you bring your own cover. It's always so hot and humid here that outside of a few cool nights (below 72 degrees) around New Years it's a burden to keep the most minimal cover on. The city has three seasons; the hot wet from June to October with almost daily thunderstorms and temperatures in the 75 to 88 F range; the hot dry - but still very humid - from November to February with temperature ranges of 70 to 90 F, and the extra hot dry from March through May which begins with Februaryís temperatures and gradually rises to a daily range of 84 to 102F and holds until the heat wave is broken by the monsoon.
It has cold community showers, not much of a hardship considering the pervasive heat, and squat toilets. Physiologically speaking squat toileting is really an excellent way to do it, that is, if you are not so stiff by the time you're finished that you can still get up. It's basically a porcelain inlaid hole in the floor with a convenient place for your feet. Included is a scoop that you manually flush it with, getting the water out of a large bucket or built-in reservoir. Sign by the toilets at the Top Guest house, "Please do not use toilet paper in these toilets. The pipes are small, hence the blocka>
As far as I can tell, anybody can sell anything on any sidewalk in Bangkok. The government has tried to restrict vendors to designated market areas for many years to no avail. Hard to get tough when the sole livelihood of so many people is at stake. Latest regulations are a bit more realistic, vendors have to take Wednesday off, they can't set up on the street itself, and they have to leave a three foot walkway between stalls. The three foot rule, if it's ever enforced, will make it a lot easier on many street musicians. Most are blind or handicapped and they are often seen singing into a microphone powered by a hand held amplifier as they negotiate a narrow aisle between stalls that's barely sufficient for two people.
Sidewalk food ranges from complete restaurants on a three wheeled cart, to superb banana and/or egg crepes, to fresh coconut juice sweetened with sugar cane juice, to bite sized chunks of tropical fruit. If they haven't got the capital for a cart, a shoulder pole carrying two baskets will work. The food is uniformly good, the only problem at times is communications - on one occasion I was saved by a vendor who knew I didn't realize I was pointing at BBQ chicken heads and not drumsticks.
Everybody seems to be doing something even if it means spending all day sitting in front of a sidewalk store with only a few dozen articles in its entire inventory. In Pai, people were dredging river rock by hand. They would use a bamboo scoop to dig it out and a screen to remove the small stuff. When they had filled the ten five gallon metal cans sitting in their boat they'd float it down river about a half mile to a construction site. The regulars had easy to maneuver steel boats, others had serviceable bamboo rafts.
There is little in the way of idleness or public drunkenness that I could detect though local whiskey is as available as soda pop. And they start working at an early age. Free schooling goes only to age twelve - though the government is in the process of adding three years - so it's common to see young children working long hours, for instance, in the guest houses or as sidewalk vendors. Secondary school costs $120 per year - way beyond the capabilities of many Thai parents, so scholarships notwithstanding, only 28% are currently attending.
Thailand, with consistently one of the worlds fastest growing economies, averaging 7% per year for the last 30 years, is beginning to get competition for development dollars from neighbors with much lower labor costs. Workers in several neighboring countries earn as little as $30 per month compared to Thailandís minimum wage of $100. But for now even a military coup, in 1991, and the murder of hundreds of demonstrators a year later only creates a little blip on a straight upward line.
In Bangkok, the country's only major city, there are currently 200 high rises under construction, more than any other city in the world, and the changes are happening so fast that there are currently more under construction than already exist. It's a fascinating melange of squatter colonies, modern high-rises, itinerant vendors and posh department stores. Some Asia travelers complain that Thailand is too modern and this was born out by meeting a woman who said she and her companions had come to Thailand for a three week vacation in the middle of a six month sojourn in India.
Thailand: Fly Me to the Moon
Sitting in the Hello Beer Bar Restaurant and Guest House my second night in Bangkok, Greg sits down across from me. He's from Little Rock, been teaching English for about nine months. Anyone can live and work in Thailand, any native English speaker, not to mention a few others with thick accents, can get a job teaching. No worry about legal working visas, you just leave every three months to renew a tourist visa and continue doing it for years. The authorities never question your motives.
He looks too straight, out of place in the hip tourist-ghetto scene. Greg doesn't much like Khao San Road or the Europeans who make up the bulk of its denizens, but he does like to talk to fellow Americans, show them around and hopefully, as I was to discover, get them to pay the cab fare. He's quickly bored at the Hello and sees he's got a live one so were off to try something different. First it's the Texas Bar run by a black American from California. It was super pseudo redneck Texan which included a bumper sticker put down of Jane Fonda, freezing cold air-conditioning and dead - more workers than customers.
Next is Cowboy Street. This is not the famed sex entertainment Patpong Street which includes live sex, not to mention women shooting blow darts across the room, smoking cigarettes and doing other barely imaginable things with their (in this case not so) private parts. Patpong as it happens is not hidden away, ensconced in some backwater of the city. Rather it's in the heart of the nearest thing Bangkok has to a downtown and only a few blocks from Convent Avenue, so named for one of the city's oldest convents and Catholic girl's schools. It's also one of the few venues of its type which draws straight women and includes one of the city's most extensive night markets.
On Cowboy Street, with its dozens of girlie bars, they do what looked to me a bored go-go dance on stage and mingle with the mostly foreign customers. They wear numbers for easy ID. If you want to take one out of the bar, you pay the bar a fee and negotiate directly with her. "This is Asia Stan, things are different here, you hafta do it", says Greg, as he reaches under a leotard to check out the merchandise, "See, she likes it".
First day in Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city, I stopped to rest and peruse on one of my exploratory walks and Rudy approaches. " You Italian? ...America, what a coincidence, I was born in Hawaii". He's 63, was raised in Indonesia, but his story, background, is confusing and hard to figure. After a few minutes of small talk he asks if I have any important engagements otherwise he'll take me to meet his nephew, have a few drinks. The way he sweet talked the young woman in the shared taxi on the way to the nephew's, I thought his story of having nineteen kids with six wives might actually be true.
Rico's got a nice house and a maid. He's conversant in English and we talk about recycling, amongst other things. Then he explains he's a pit boss for a chain of casinos, but to make a little side money he's looking for a partner to learn his program for winning at blackjack. If I can do it he'll stake me and I'll get a 25% cut. Says there are lots of Japanese and Chinese high rollers who practically enjoy losing their money. I can make $25,000 in one sitting and he's persistent about showing me how it works.
Rico's dealing, in the real game the guy that likes to lose his money bankrolls the dealer. I'm sitting across from Rico playing against the house. Rico gives me hand signals or shows me the cards, if you don't get it on the first show, touch your eyebrow. He likes the way I shuffle, I brag about playing blackjack as a teenager (I always lost). Yes, he thinks I can do it and explains that he can't use an oriental, they would be suspect, whereas I would make a perfect cover. Says he tried a black American guy once but he got greedy and demanded an unfair 50%. "I don't know Rico, this is kind of sudden, I'll get back to you".
Meanwhile I'm visualizing my throat being cut by one of those Japanese or Chinese who love to lose their money should they become apprised of what's happening. Rico then repeats a story about his wife being in the hospital and heís in dire need of $3000 to get her out. He goes on to say that there's a guy in town who has $5000 to lose, he can set up a game for that afternoon and we can make it a practice run. "Rico, I'll have to think about it."
Rudy really wants me to go with Rico's scam, meanwhile there is somewhere else he really wants to take me and it turns out to be a working class brothel. He says the girls are between 15 and 19 and while Asians do tend to look young in European eyes a couple of them looked decidedly younger. At one point in our conversation he kisses his cross, explaining he's a Catholic, and a short time later he's telling me that the owner gives him first crack at the virgins, but says he's not interested and jokes about them being too small. He makes it sound so commonplace I ask him if he thought it would be OK for his own daughters to be prostitutes. "Oh no, they don't have to". As I'm leaving he asks me for 100 baht ($4), says he's broke.
Back at the Hello a couple of weeks later I'm sitting diagonally across from Murray. He's got an English-Thai dictionary, a phrase book and a notebook in which he's faithfully copying each Thai letter 100 times. On top of five tones, Thai has 44 consonants and 32 vowels and to further complicate matters there are no spaces between words, no capitals and no punctuation. Finally it has a really oddball characteristic called orbital vowels - some appear above, some below, some to the right and some to the left of the consonant sound that precedes it. Murray is in his early thirties from Edmonton, Alberta, and has been in Thailand for about six months. He's learning Thai so he can find a pure village girl, the ones that know English only want to use you.
Meanwhile two young (18-20) Thai women sit down across from me, next to him. There are two booths side by side but without a full partition between them - in Asia it's common to take an empty seat in an otherwise occupied table - and soon the one next to him is helping with the next letter in his notebook. Now Elliot arrives, sits down and soon joins in the Thai lesson.
He's about 40, from the states but he has spent more of his life outside, mostly in South America. Heís been here for two years doing AIDS work and speaks Thai fluently. The big thing in the Bangkok expat community is key rings that hold a spare condom. He's not worried about AIDS, both of his Thai girl friends are faithful to him. He goes on about how most condoms go flat when theyíre blown up - not entirely a fair comparison. Then he and Murray joke about using multiple condoms.
Now the beer is taking effect and before too long Murray has at least temporarily shelved his resolve to study up for the perfect village girl and he's asking the one next to him if she wants to go home with him. She demurs at first, "No, I go home." Elliot the AIDS man sees Murray encountering obstacles in his quest for a little casual sex, and says in effect, "Son, if you really want this girl let me do the talking". Murray gives the high sign and in a few minutes she was ready to go. "What about the other one?", Murray says. Elliot responds that he can have both. "Yea, but two often confuses things, one just hangs around giggling". He left with both.
The sign at "The Gypsy" near Khao San Road advertised live jazz and Latin, and merited a try. First up was a four piece band and lead female vocalist doing "Fly Me to the Moon", etc.. They're not bad, they just need a little practice. The "Latin" band which had somewhat better execution was mostly the likes of Eric Clapton and John Lennon. After a while and three beers a conversation begins with Keit, a Chinese-Thai gem dealer, 36, married, two kids. After several interruptions from his mobile phone, a friend called from a nearby nitespot and invited him over. Won't I go with him? Heíll cover everything, says something about singers.
When we first got there the "singers", about 20 of them, outnumbered the customers but by the wee hours the place was full and I realized I was the only farang. All wore white silk or satin, mostly long flowing gowns. Each took her turn singing and all were surprisingly good. The entertainment also included a full chorus line and a bawdy comedy sketch. Meanwhile Keit, who had eaten two courses at the gypsy, bought a large meal for the three of us and half dozen of the girls.
I had already decided I'd had enough to drink
back at the Gypsy but here the waitresses were right up on it and however
much I drank my glass was always full. No secret how I felt the next day,
it took a week before I could look at another beer. And Keit went home
to his wife disappointing that young sex worker who had put all that effort
into him. He wanted to meet me the next day, but I was in no condition,
"Sorry, I'm heading for Samet Island tomorrow morning, I need a vacation!"
One of Bangkok's English language dailies publishes a letter to the editor decrying the sex trade. A few days later a European man retorts, saying in effect, "What about us ugly guys who can't get a girl in our own countries?" Here if you can merely smile, nod your head and carry on a conversation with someone who has a 100 word English vocabulary, then you can easily get picked up by a beautiful, playful, exotic young woman, only to possibly discover, at least the first time, she might need "taxi fare" home. You can also rent one by the day, week or month.
The Thai attitude towards women and sex is paradox on paradox. Prostitution is not approved of or condoned by the larger society, and bar girls are strictly prohibited from many guest houses. It is in fact illegal and a community can shut down the sex trade if it wants, but except for those very rare occasions, it's obviously done completely in the open. And in many cases with little or no obvious or outward differential of respect for couples of convenience. It is argued that the world's oldest profession, practiced voluntarily by adults, acts as a shield against abuse and rape. There is undeniably less incidence of that here, not that any cause and effect relationship can be drawn.
Most Thais, even including most prostitutes, dress very conservatively, though many young women do tend towards short skirts. Riding the bus in Bangkok late one night, old guy, retired army man, called me over to sit next to him. "Nice and Neat." He was trying to convey to me in very fractured English that I was too skimpily dressed. "Nice and neat" he repeated as he jovially elbowed me half off the seat. I should be wearing at least a T-shirt and long pants. After about the seventh elbow I feigned getting off the bus and went to hide in the back till my stop came up. Considering the constant heat itís remarkable how covered up the Thai people stay.
Women make up a meaningful portion of the construction workforce even though much of the work, such as mixing ingredients for concrete, is done by hand. Women construction workers smirk when they see me in my straw hat and shorts. Then I tip my hat and my bald head sends them into serious guffaws.
Men reserve the right to have multiple wives and buy sex. Many women also have affairs and wield a lot of power in the home and are largely responsible for the success of the Thai population planning effort, now down to 1.4% annual growth. "Many children make you poor" was the slogan and it was aimed at the women. Whenever the subject came up in conversations with Thai women they were adamant about having only two children.
Occasionally they are also known to retain the ultimate weapon against being slighted by their wayward men. They'll get him roused up only to cut his dick off. Then just to show there are no permanent hard feelings, they go right to the phone to call the hospital to come quick and stick it back on. Iím told it doesn't happen as often as it used to,
Meanwhile the spread of AIDS has caused much speedy consciousness raising. When the threat first surfaced the government tried to keep it under cover, being more concerned with the threat to tourism than people's lives. Fortunately they have taken an about face. When their 100% condom use program for prostitutes began two years ago there were HIV infection rates above 60% in some locales. As part of the program the Health Minister brought together the police and the brothel owners to insure that every sex worker was checked on a monthly basis. Their experience was that when condom use went above 95%, infection rates went below 1%.
When some prostitutes complained that condoms made them sore and reduced the number of clients they could serve, the government raised lubrication standards. Asked about the seeming incongruity of working with an illegal industry, the Health Minister is quoted as saying "When people's lives are at stake who can quibble about legality?" Unfortunately the disease has already passed through the high risk groups to some low risk categories; in one area 7% of pregnant women tested positive, having gotten infected by husbands bringing it home after seeing prostitutes. The big task now is to get the information to the population at large.
But let's try to clear up some misconceptions. While it is certainly true that AIDS can be contracted through sex, it is not sex, per se, that causes it. For some time the big question has been why some people become infected from sex but not others. A 1991 study of couples with one infected partner, who had sex over a period of time without using condoms showed the following: Of 200 couples in which the man was HIV+, 33% of the women became infected. Whereas of 50 couples where the woman was the carrier only one man was infected and that was said to be a special case in which the sex was frequent and wild.
In late `93 a further study revealed that young women are more susceptible because their membranes are thinner and they have less mucous. Both conditions point to the greater likelihood of getting torn up in sex, the mucous having the additional benefit of protecting against infection. Women, being far more sensitive and prone to other infections, are left with more avenues for HIV to penetrate. High rates of infection amongst non drug injecting heterosexuals then is related almost exclusively to the presence of VD or other infections and in the case of women, rough handling in sex. Not that the threat of AIDS should ever be taken lightly.
After Six Weeks of Traveling After Thirteen Years of Working, I Need a Vacation
I went downtown to buy my ticket to Asia after Christmas, leaving January 30, extra cheap, ($700 round trip, Portland to Bangkok), Korean Air Lines. The agent said it would come in the mail in about a week. After two weeks, thought I'd better see what's happening. When I got there she pulled out my paperwork, realized her omission, punched away at her computer, picked up the phone and after several minutes of wrangling in Korean she says 30th is booked, how about 28th?
I was actually somewhat relieved. Shortly after buying the ticket I had picked up an astrological calendar for the road - the moon was going to be "void of course" on the 30th. Oops, that can be a problem. The moon travels through the twelve astrological signs every 29 days. Moon void of course is a relatively obscure astrological timespace that occurs at the end of the moon's travel through each sign, and refers to the time between its last aspect to one of the planets and it's movement into the next sign.
The moon is, shall we say, left hanging, it's psychic energies receptive while its tangible self is resting, preparing for the next approaching sign change. According to the text, it's a time for meditation, contemplation and spiritual growth. That part sounds good enough but the kicker is that it's a bad time to start a trip or new venture because it tends to bring confusion and disjointedness to the material plane. Returned a few days later to get my tickets, she says I'm going on the 30th after all.
Considering ticket hassles, this trip was confused even before it began.
No matter how much respect I might have for the starry machinations, there is no way the other side of me would allow a change of plans solely on that basis. Better to make your decisions independently and just let things happen and sometimes, as it happens in due course, suffer the consequences. Moon void of course can last as little as a few minutes, or as it was on the 30th, a day and a half. And so I might conclude, based on this very experience, that it can be just a little out there, or as it was on the 30th, way out of line.
For instance, I left with a Visa card that had a business name on it but not mine. Getting money out of it was hit or miss so I called Portland and asked to have a new card sent. When the business told the bank, they said, "Oh, you can't use a business card overseas", and promptly canceled it. Well maybe you can't, but I, at least sporadically, was. I then learned that while it may well only require the seven days quoted at the post office to get a letter to Thailand from the states, it's a lot safer and more realistic to expect it to take as much as three weeks. The Visa card finally came - it didn't work - I called Portland again - it worked, but I discover my name is spelled wrong. One sharp money change clerk spotted the discrepancy but let it go through anyway - then finally got one with my name spelled correctly.
At the end of February, three weeks into the trip, I was in Chiang Mai heading back to Bangkok. I had purchased my bus ticket but stayed out very late the two previous nights. Being in no condition for an all night bus ride I consequently set the journey back a day. Now you might rightfully ask how someone who had made such a point of despising overland buses and at the very same time be a life long booster and lover of trains would voluntarily choose the torture of the former when, as I later discovered, the train provides a very comfortable and affordable ($16 for a 450 mile overnight journey with a sleeper) alternative.
I have two poor excuses. Finding your way in a unfamiliar city, sometimes with strange or even nonexistent numbering systems, can be very confusing, and taking a train in Bangkok requires going twice to the station, once a few days before to buy the ticket. I had just arrived in an exotic new world and not yet gotten the confidence to move around easily on public transportation. Alternatively there is a fleet of individually owned overland buses that pick you up right on Khao San Road and drop you off right where you want to be in Chiang Mai, instead of at the train station at the other end of town. And they are cheap, too cheap. A never ending price fare war has brought prices down to an average $3, sometimes including a free night's stay in Chiang Mai.
Too cheap because some bus crews, a significant number at least because it happens every day, try to make up for it with thievery. In my case they were successful for when I arrived in Bangkok I discovered my pack had not. (Violent crime on the other hand is minimal compared to the US - walking the streets late at night did not feel at all threatening.) Aside from money and passport which always stay on my person while traveling, I was left with towel, glasses and Swiss Army knife.
And of all things shopping is one of my least favorite activities. Three weeks later while returning from my first island trip I lost my reading glasses and that evening in a fit of pure unconsciousness I practically threw my new uppers down against a tile floor in the process of brushing them and broke two teeth, and then just a few days later my towel disappeared.
Confusion reigns, not that it matters, I'm still having the time of my life. In fact, only two months into this trip and it was clear that a year was never going to be enough. It took two weeks in Bangkok to replace my stuff - I pared down to a daypack and a small shoulder bag with room to spare for cold weather clothes - and take care of business, and by then I'd had enough of the big city. After six weeks of traveling after thirteen years of working I really needed a vacation and after a taste of my first island I had no wish to be anywhere else. If not for having to return to the city three times to unconfuse money matters I might have seen only one island, instead I had the pleasure of four.
Koh (koh=island) Samet is the closest resort island to Bangkok, only 2 1/2 hours by bus and a short boat ride, and small, only four miles long and consequently highly developed. Even so I saw a 3' giant salamander while negotiating the rocks between two populated beaches. Koh Samet.......just a bunch of half naked farangs and much more conservatively attired Thais lazing around a tropical island paradise with milky white sand and bathtub warm water.
Most of the island is a national park, though one would hardly know it except there is a sign at the park office which is in the center of the most intensely developed beach and completely surrounded by bungalows, that says, "This is a national park, it is illegal to rent bungalows here." Park rules allow unrestricted camping on the beach but the park designation is recent and came after much of the development so the question of ownership is still a contentious issue, with the result that I met travelers who were rousted out of their tent in the early hours by locals who said, "This is private property, no camping."
No problem camping on Koh Chang which is also a national park. It is Thailandís largest island, nearly 200 square miles, located in the east of the Gulf of Thailand very close to Cambodia. There's no town and no stores and the greater part of the island is only accessible by boat. Eighty percent of it is mountainous untouched forest. Traveler bungalows in a $2 to $25 range share the beaches with Thai fishing villages and there are plantations of rubber, durian, banana and the ubiquitous coconut. All beaches are public and accessible, even when bungalows are built right on the edge of the sand public pass through is never restricted.
Mama runs the Seaside Bungalows on Kai Bae Beach. Everybody calls her mama, she calls everybody her age (39) and older, mama or papa. She has four kids and everybody who works there is some kind of relative and there was a whole tribe of kids running around. Mama loves to smile and wander around hugging people. I was around for the Thai New Year, 2536 - they in fact keep many of their own records in Buddha years. Add international new year and the important influence of a population that is 14% ethnic Chinese and they get to celebrate three new years annually.
Their own celebration happens in April, the hottest month - daytime highs in the 97 to 102 degree range - and school holiday, and is centered on the healing property of water. Predictably, especially when it's a humid 100 degrees outside, a ceremonial sprinkling of magic water has degenerated into a melee of marauding dump a bucket on their head dousers. In the cities they fill the backs of pickup trucks with barrels of water and brook no mercy. By 10 AM on the first day - it lasts three - the kids at mama's had soaked each other. By noon all the adults who weren't hiding in their bungalows, myself for instance, had become enmeshed in the fracas and soon after that they all trooped over to the neighboring restaurant to stir up a little mayhem there.
There isn't a whole lot of water in Koh Chang's Kung Plu waterfall but that doesn't detract from its unique setting. The water falls into a pool that's about 150 feet long, 8 feet wide and deep, probably at least 20 feet, but really hard to tell. You can see clearly down maybe 6 or 8 feet, but then the water begins to turn black. I theorize that organic matter has fallen and sunk to a deep bottom and is fermenting down there. On the one side of the pool is a vertical rock wall that is 100 feet high and extends an additional 250 feet past the first pool to frame a second pool which is similar except not so deep. The opposite side of the upper pool is a 30 foot high vertical rock wall that, obviously fissured from the larger rock, creates a wonderful narrow little canyon. The water lines in the upper pool show that the level rises as much as 8 feet during heavy rains, surely another dimension with a lot of water.
Lipung approaches as I'm riding the boat to Koh Pha-Ngan, a three hour ride from the peninsula in Thailand's south. "You have place in Koh Pha-Ngan?", "I'm looking for something quiet." "Oh, I have very nice bungalow very quiet sure sure only seven bungalow." He then takes out his picture book of "Dream Hill Bungalow" to show me the view, the insides of the huts, his sister Yah and her four year old son Yood, etc.. "We have ganja and opiates". "I'll pass on the opiates, but..." He's got a winning smile and at two dollars a night the price is right.
The island is about 70 square miles, has 7000 permanent residents and 2600 tourist bungalows for rent, and one town with no paved roads outside of it. Aside from tourism the local economy is based largely on coconut and squid. The first tourists appeared less than ten years ago and it is currently experiencing steady growth, though it will still take several years additional development before all but a very small part of the island could be considered anything but peaceful and quiet - many beaches are accessible only by boat or trail.
Haad (haad=beach) Yow is six miles from town at the end of two miles of rough dirt road. The Dream Hill is up a hill with a great sunset view in back of another bungalow colony at the far end of the beach. I was so laid back there I could barely make it the couple hundred feet down to the water some days. Other days, as you might expect, I did some serious exploring, notwithstanding near 100 degree temperatures. They get walk in business during high season but few would come otherwise if not lassoed by Lipung; seemingly his only function since Yah does almost all of the work, and probably a result of the amount of time he spends in drug induced stupor.
One morning I saw her looking over a set of blueprints. Blueprints? The Dream Hill's bungalows are pretty solid compared to many but still it's hard to think of them and blueprints in the same context. The plans, in fact, came after the fact - the authorities had come by and said if they didn't submit a set of drawings and buy a permit they'd be shut down.
It's off season and the beach is nearly deserted. It's a coral beach too shallow to be much good for swimming close to shore, except at high tide. But it is excellent snorkeling territory - people spotted stingrays and other large fish - outside the shallow reef that encloses and shelters the beach. Being more of a wader or flailer than a swimmer, I would stand motionless in the crystal clear water and when the air was calm, leaving the water without ripples, it felt like I was standing in a giant tropical fishbowl. More than a dozen types of little fish would show up in just a few minutes and in the shallows of just a few inches were several kinds of white, almost transparent, really little guys who were at times almost invisible against the white sand underneath.
When you begin to bore of serenity and need more people and a disco injection, head for Haad Rin, the island's most developed beach. Actually it's two beaches back to back across a sandy quarter mile wide peninsula with one a shallow coral beach similar to Haad Yow, the other a wide fine sand beach that's impossibly perfect for swimming, sunning or just being around people.
Drop in at the Bauhaus Pub at midnight any day of the week and there may be a dozen quiet people lounging about. Come back an hour later and it's turned into a sweating mass of dancing/mingling bodies and it doesn't shut down until 5 AM or when the last customer goes home. I could hear it clearly where I was staying on a hill overlooking the beach a half mile away. I would have gone more often but couldn't figure out how to stay up till the dancing started.
But Haad Rin is most famous as the home of the full moon party. Once a month 2000 to 5000 revelers, depending on the season, hit the beach from all over the island, neighboring islands and even as far as Bangkok. The big speakers come out, beachfront restaurants add magic mushroom omelets to their everyday fare, the ganja flows freely and maybe even a little acid shows up. The party begins when the moon rises over the water at sunset and ends when the sun rises over the same spot the next morning, though one can expect to come across at least a few mushroom-eaters wandering aimlessly around the nearby mountains for quite a bit longer.
Koh Pha-Ngan has a reputation as a haven for burnt out hippies and dope fiends. One traveler quoted a recent British publication saying a lot of people go there, get enveloped in a drugged out haze and then forget how to go home. It's certainly freer than any place I've ever been - people smoke openly in the restaurants on all the remote beaches. But even Haad Rin is off limits except for the full moon party, and the opiates are always kept under wraps.
It is said the police offer extralegal permission for a price or they've just written the island off as a valuable tourist attraction. In fact, they will occasionally attend a full moon party to harass a handful of the thousands of partygoers. But this is Thailand where the law often seems to be voluntary and regardless of the obvious truth in some of the island's bad press, the traveler community is largely indistinguishable from anywhere in Asia - I even met a woman there who was a vacationing missionary.
My three months in Thailand was twice what I'd planned and it was tempting to think of staying on till vacating and recreating started to become really boring. But the only realistic outcome was to move on and reorient the journey towards more time in fewer places and make sure the softer, easier places were amply represented.
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