Sunday, September 20, 2009

Will you take me as I am, strung out on another man?

Koh Phangan sunset 1

Back in Bangkok for a couple days before flying out, and I've got to say that the city is not as impressive to me on the second go-round. Then again, the elation I felt when I was here before had more to do with not being in China anymore. Since then, I've cleared out my lungs and brain in the wonderful, fresh sea air. It's hard to get excited about any city after spending more than a week sitting under the shade of coconut trees, breathing along with the tide. I'm now having serious Koh Phangan withdrawal. But perhaps it's better this way. If I were leaving directly from the island, I might never actually get on a plane, just disappear into the wild hills and turn up several years later as the proprietress of a guesthouse on a remote beach, my hair in dreadlocks and my feet rough from never wearing shoes.

I've returned to the cultural airlock of Khao San, the necessary step for the leavers and the arrivers, bars open all night for the jet-lagged and the party-till-you-drop crowd, playing the same music they've been playing since they filmed Cheech and Chong there, interspersed with bad techno. I got in last night and somehow ended up drinking with South African sailors until nearly dawn. That's the kind of effect Khao San has, somehow: staying up late with people you don't expect.

About 24 hours left in Thailand before two overnight flights in a row deliver my exhausted and miserable self back to San Francisco. My bags are packed (not hard to do, I feel like I haven't unpacked in years), my mouth used to the taste of travel. The soundtrack is Joni Mitchell, the consummate melancholy woman on her own in a strange place, always Joni Mitchell singing in my ears when I travel alone. Here she is, singing a song that rings perfectly true.

Friday, September 11, 2009

... But better

Haad Rin from a boat

So, I'm in the tropical paradise of Ko Phangan. I got my pasty foolish self sunburnt to a crisp within 24 hours of being here, of course. But no matter. The lobster look will soon enough turn itself into a tan, and by the time I come back home I will be a nice attractive bronzy color, rather than my current sick-looking bright red.

Everyone who recommended this particular island to me said that reservations were absolutely not necessary. You just get off the ferry, they said, and you will be swarmed by people bearing pictures and all kinds of other information about their guesthouse or bungalow operation. Unfortunately, when it rains, everyone on the island scatters off to a bar or under a rock or something. So I was left on the pier with all my awful luggage and no place to go in the rain, all after traveling on buses and boats for the past 14 hours. I'm kicking myself for shipping my nice, light backpack home from China and traveling with a suitcase. I did this so I wouldn't have to leave the suitcase behind in China, but damn, I'm so kicking myself now for having to lug this unwieldy thing around hills and rickety island piers and unpaved streets, not to mention looking like a total fool compared to the all the glossy-tanned carefree backpackers.

Deserted island

So I caved and spent the night at the overpriced and shabby little "resort" right by the pier for the first night. Then I went exploring and found a better place to stay. But not before collapsing on the beach and turning myself around in the sun like a rotisserie chicken. Asian people don't ever do this. Asian people are scared to death of the sun. They apply all sorts of horrible toxic whitening agents to their skin so they can be whiter. It's only us Westerners who strip down to next to nothing and do our rotisserie chicken impressions until we're burnt to a crisp. Everyone wants what they don't have...

Incidentally, I had been worried about traveling about Thailand in the rainy season, but I am actually very glad that I am here now and not any other time of year. There are not as many people, things are cheaper, and the weather is cooler (though still quite hot -- this is tropics, after all). Every day, it rains for an hour or two, then the skies alternate between beautifully cloudy and mostly sunny. It's perfect.

Big swoopy bird. With coconuts!

Today I went on a "reggae boat tour," which was a boat ride around the island with stops at various points to hike up to a waterfall, go swimming, have lunch, get really stoned on some very nice Thai weed, then go snorkeling. It was wonderful.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Same same

Young monk feeding pigeons

The predominant sound in the Thai language, which is a tonal one much like Chinese, is "ka" -- or at least, it seems like the predominant sound to my untrained ears. As a result, I feel like I'm surrounded by a huge flock of some exotic species of tropical crow. I can't quite call it a pretty language, but it's certainly mesmerizing.


On my second day in Bangkok, I met another American girl traveling by herself on a ferry-bus down the Chao Praya River. For her, Bangkok was the staging area before she went south to teach English in a city near the Malaysian border. We got along, and hung out together for the next few days until she left. It was interesting to compare perspectives, her in the initial oh-god-what-have-I-done panic of arriving at her work-abroad post, me with my jadedness at the opposite end of the same experience. She hated Bangkok for its servility to the West, which is what I (somewhat guiltily) appreciate about this city.

Floating market 3

Despite the wild-eyed craziness of Bangkok, I have managed to find many pockets of peace and tranquility for myself, despite staying just half a block off Khao San Road. On Sunday I took a boat tour on the river, and somehow ended up being the only person on the boat. I've also found a chill little coffee shop nearby; most of the time I am the only person there.

Khao San musicians

I do have to admit that the tourist trap aspect of Khao San is getting to me a bit. The other night I was walking down a busy side street when a man complimented the tattoo on my back. I thanked him and kept walking. He continued trying to talk to me, until I got a little creeped out and ducked into a shop. When I came out he was still there, and continued following me and trying to talk to me until I turned around and said, "You are following me. Stop it." He left me alone then, but I can't stop thinking about the fact that there are many women out there who will be too clueless, polite, or unaware to face a man like that and tell him outright to leave them alone, and they will be taken in and have devil-knows-what happen to them. The thought of it is chilling.

Making green curry in a mortar and pestle

On Monday I took a cooking class, which was one of the goals I had for Thailand. It was amazing, and I learned a great deal. Overall, I am completely enchanted by Thai food. I have not had a bad meal the whole time I've been in this country, between all the curries and the heaping plates of Pad Thai and the fresh fruit.

Street curry

Tonight I take an overnight bus, then ferry, down south to Ko Phangan. Stay tuned for updates from tropical paradise. In the meantime, more of my Thailand pictures are up on Flickr.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Greetings from the Banana Pancake Trail

BANGKOK - Let me tell you something about Khao San Road in Bangkok: it's a huge and horribly touristy stretch of bars and shops catering to hippie children and other lost souls who are trying to drink away the memory of their real lives across the ocean by vacationing in a type of resort only an acid trip could dream up.

Let me tell you something else: I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT HERE. Not because I have any illusions about this being "real" Thailand, but precisely because it's not. I've spent the past half a year in "real" Asia, gawked at by everyone I passed on the street, constantly lost and confused. Traveling around "real" Asia, not even to mention living in it, is f'ing DIFFICULT. Khao San Road is easy. Blissfully, carelessly, stupidly easy. Stay in a guesthouse and eat pad thai and banana fritters and pineapples off the street for pennies. Drink super strong iced coffees thick with condensed milk. Bargain in English for T-shirts and necklaces. Stay up all night drinking, then eat breakfast in the gathering sunshine.

My first day in Thailand overlapped with my friend Julie's last day, and we met for breakfast near her hostel. She told me about riding motorbikes around some remote part of Laos, and complained of how touristy and insulated parts of Bangkok appeared to her in comparison. And of course, for those searching out the hard ground of authenticity, this city will ring hollow. But for me, weary from the authenticity-overload of living in provincial China, this is perfect. For the first time in six months, I can blend in. With my dirty sandals and ripped jeans and hair messy from the humidity, I look just like everyone else here. No one questions my presence. I cannot even express how good this feels. I'm tired of having travel experiences that feel like work.

I'll be here at least a week before going to Ko Pha Ngan, the hippiest little hippie island in the Gulf of Thailand known for holding massive raves on the beach, and laying on the beach frying myself in the island sun until it's time to go home. Oh yes.