Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Here fishy fishy - 2.3.15

Today the gates of heaven slid opened and let me in for a few hours. I wonder if there is a more beautiful place on earth then Koh Lok. I doubt it.

Early this morning I took a boat from Koh Lanta to Koh Lok for a snorkeling expedition. When I got on the speed boat I took a seat at the front figuring this would afford me the best views. I was right about that part. What I hadn't anticipated was how rough the journey would be. We made our way down the coast, stopping a few times to pick up passengers. Then we set out for the island. We were told it would be a 45 minute journey. We were also told the sea was rough so it might be a bit choppy. As I've said before, Thai's are kings of understatement. A more accurate statement would have been "there's a 50% chance we'll make it safely to the other side but a 100% certainty that if we do, you will be covered in your own vomit." The driver pointed the boat directly towards the island in the distance and opened up the engines full throttle. The waves were coming at us head on, waves of biblical proportion, and the front on our small boat rose up at what seemed 45 degrees then crashed down again, bottoming out hard each time as if landing in rock. We rose and fell with each wave, up in the air out of our seats as we crested each wave then slammed back down when we hit the bottom. My brain rattled in my skull. My organs shook. I feared my kidneys would become dislodged and I'd puke them over the side of the boat. And I had chosen the worst seat, all alone up there in the thick of the tumult. I felt like Noah on an arc of the UN. Behind me, Chinese, French, Brits, Germans, and the Thai mad men running the whole operation seemed like the flock I was shepherding the other side. The only common language between us was fear as we screamed and clutched the side rails for dear life. At one point it got so rough that one if the guides came to reassure us. "Don't worry. This boat new - 30 days old. Have 3 extra motors in case these 2 burn out." This was not reassuring. I wondered how much insurance they carried - surely not enough. I wondered what this boat was made of. Fiberglass? Was it designed to handle this kind of thrashing?  Why did they have a new boat - Did the old one snap in half? I considered biting on my towel to keep my teeth from shattering if we hit a particularly stiff wave.

That was the hell part of the journey. But then we pulled up at the island and entered heaven. It took my breath away. It was the stuff of movies and coffee table books, white sand beaches, a crystal sea undulating between shades of blue the hues of beach glass. It was time for our first snorkel experience. Under us was an expansive coral reef, stretching as far as you could see in every direction. I saw angel fish bigger than my 2 hands, enormous sea urchin partially concealed under coves in the coral, and a bunch of other fish I couldn't identify - a long fish with a nose half the length of his body, a green and pink and blue fish with fluorescent green fins that flapped elegantly as he meandered. Big fish guarded their territory by lunging at little fish who tried to enter. All the fish pecked at the coral looking for food and it all looked like an ancient buried city inhabited by prehistoric creatures. I wondered - why are fish so colorful if survival depends on their ability to conceal themselves from predators? And why do they move around so much? Do they spend all of their waking hours hunting for food? Do fish sleep?

Soon it was time for lunch. We pulled up to a beach with a campsite (this island is completely undeveloped, hence the beauty it retains and the only way to stay here is to camp). We were served a buffet of the best food I've had in Koh Lanta. Simple Thai food, full of flavor. I spent my 90 minutes of free time lying on the beach and sifting the sand between my fingers (it fwas only slightly more coarse than powdered sugar), staring at the sea, desperately trying to capture these colors on film, and floating in the water. When it was time to go I wanted to cry. I did some quick calculations and figured I could cash out all of my assets and live here, pretty much for the rest of my life, camping on the beach, eating Thai food, and maybe selling jewelry made of coral and shells to the tourists who visit. Dennis could just fly over and join me and he could make a living playing music for island visitors. That would be a wonderful life. 

Somehow, I dragged myself onto the boat. I discussed with a young British student, visiting Thailand on a break from school, how I expected the journey to be more pleasant on the way home since the wind would be at our backs. She agreed. Sadly, we both turned out to be wrong and the trip back was even worse. I gripped the handrail so tight that I pulled muscles in my forearm (they’re so strained I’m having trouble typing). I could no longer bear to sit down so I crouched and tried to take the rise and fall in my knees as if surfing the waves (a more pleasant experience than taking it in your back but one hell of a workout). After 45 minutes, we finally made it back to try land.

For my last dinner in Koh Lanta I decided to head into town to a place I’d read and heard about - Time for Lime. They run a pretty popular cooking school, I’d heard they served authentic Thai food, and all of the proceeds from the restaurant go to an animal sanctuary they run. The place was packed so I took a seat at the bar. Over the next two hours I ate a nearly perfect meal. A lemongrass margarita, a few glasses of wine, and a 6-course tasting menu of marinated grilled shrimp, carmelized fish with thai spicy salad, green massaman curry served in a banana leaf cone . . . it was spectacular and it only cost me $20. On the way out I made a donation to the animal charity and made my way out to the street to find a tuk tuk. It was my first and only tuk tuk ride and although every bump in the road was amplified in my sore body, it was a thrilling way to travel. After nearly 2 weeks in this country I’m starting to feel completely at home. Hard to believe it’s almost time to leave. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Biker chic - 2.2.15

I decided to rent a motorbike today to explore the island. In my youth I probably could have circled this place on my bicycle but these days, I need a motor. The motorbike rental agent met me in the hotel parking lot. He had a sweet bike for me - hot pink and grey . . . I wondered if he rented solely to women. He didn’t ask to see my drivers license or ask if I knew how to ride one of these things. But I told him I was a newbie and needed some instruction. His English was pretty limited but he did what he could. “One” - he held up one finger for step one then sat on the bike and pushed up the kick stand. “Two” - he put the key in the ignition, turned it, and hit the starter button. The engine started to turn. “Three” - he turned the right handle grip towards himself and the bike began to move forward. “Four” - he hit the brakes (which are basically bicycle breaks.” “Careful,” he said. “This one (points to left break) good. This one (points to right brake) not so good.” He watched me as I walked back through the steps and took the bike for a quick spin around the parking lot. I didn’t fall over or hit anyone so I guess I was declared road safe. He left. 

When I pulled out of the parking lot I was a little scared - just a few days I was afraid to ride a motorbike taxi and now I was piloting this thing on the open road. I decided to go only fast enough to keep the bike from tipping over. As soon as I was out on the main road I looked at the fuel gauge - nearly empty. I planned to cover a lot of ground so needed to gas up. I pulled up to one of the many shops displaying a “gasoline - 40 Bhat/liter” sign. This shop sold souvenirs inside but some sell candy, groceries, coffee . . . most business owners in these parts are diversified. The gas sits in empty glass liquor bottles on a rack by the side of the road. I go inside and ask the woman behind the counter to fill ‘er up. She grabs a plastic funnel, opens up the gas tank, and begins emptying bottles into my bike. Three bottles - 120 Bhat - about $4 did the trick. 

I looked at my map one more time - the tourist map I’d picked up at the hotel - and decided I’d be at the southern coast in one hour, just in time for lunch. It was a straight shot so I’d just keep hugging the ocean until I reached my destination. I was headed to see the only five star resort on the island, partially because it’s supposed to be amazing, and partially because I figured they had the best beach. I planned to check out the hotel, check out the town, grab some lunch, and get in some quality beach time. The scenery on the way down the coast was amazing. Every few miles I’d see some picturesque beach or village or clever sign and would pull over to photograph it. But this was eating up valuable beach time so after 5 or 6 stops, I decided to push through to my destination. Halfway through the journey, the scenery changed. The sandy beachside road started climbing and winding through jungle vegetation. The scenery was dotted with roadside stands selling fresh herbs and cattle grazing in small clearings. This wasn’t what I had expected but it was gorgeous. I get too hungry to continue and stop at a restaurant hill on a hilltop overlooking the ocean. Nearly an hour has passes since I set out so I pull out my map again to orient myself. I find this restaurant - cleverly named “The Good View” on the map and to my dismay, I realize I’m no longer on the ocean road. I’ve taken a turn into the interior and and am now crossing to the west side of the island. I finish my curry (good) and decide to continue to Lanta Town since I’m only 5 kilometers away, the only real destination on the west side of the island. The town looks like Southeast Asia’s answer to the wild west. There’s a single dusty road and shop owners sit under awnings, mill about the street waiting for . . . I don’t know what.  A few tourists snap photos and buy trinkets they’ll eventually donate to Good Will, and I decide to circle back to other side. 

Now that I know where I’m going (sort of) it’s a fast ride over the mountain. When I get to the other side I realize where I went wrong. Although on my map it looks like a straight shot down the coast, there’s actually a little turnoff, which I missed the first time around. I should have learned by now not to trust tourist maps. I remember cycling through Mallorca many years ago. We were riding through the mountains and one morning when we woke up out legs were shot. We wanted flat ground. There was a 3D relief map of the region in the lobby of our hotel, no doubt made by a 3rd grader for a school project, and we used that map to decide which route to take. I have never climbed so many mountains in my life. 

Back on the coastal road I pass through a beautiful little town, more Mill Valley than Jersey shore (which is what part of the island resembles) and I make a note to stay here next time I’m in Koh Lanta. There’s a lovely little shop with lots of handmade items (I stop to buy gifts for all of you at home) then finally, blessedly, I arrive at Pimilai. The entrance is a really steep hill so I have to gun it to get this little bike to climb. As soon as I turn it a fleet of security guards with whistles come running after me waving their arms. I stop the bike and as soon as I do it starts to roll backwards down the hill. I brake hard to keep the thing from slipping out from under me. They ask me the purpose of my visit. I consider saying “I came down here to use your facilities for free because I know they’re the best on the island but I can’t afford to stay at your hotel.” Instead I say I am checking into the hotel. They direct me to park my bike in a lot next door.

The resort is everything I thought it would be. An oasis of calm. A series of private villas falls down the mountainside all the way to the ocean where some lucky bastards (who are paying about $1500/night) can step out their front doors onto the sand. There are lounge chairs everywhere and as much I’m dying to lounge in one, I need to stay under the radar. I lay out my towel on the beach and spend a few blissful hours taking it all in. When the sun gets low in the sky I find my way back to my bike and head home. The sun is starting to set and I stop many times on the way back up the coast to capture it on film. Night falls in earnest and I find the headlights on this machine (I was never able, however, to find the turn signals). I’m really comfortable on this bike now and am passing tuk tuks, other bikers, and even a few slow cars. I think for a minute about getting a motorbike to cruise around San Francisco then remember that I’d need to wrap myself in a blanket to do this back home - not quite the same as cutting through this salty air, still warm on my skin at 7pm. 

I’m tired when I get home so grab a quick meal at the hotel restaurant. It sits right on the beach and the ambiance is pleasant but it definitely caters to westerners. I grab my waiter and order a green curry with chicken. I tell him I want them to make the way they would for a Thai person. He asks how spicy I like it and I say “as spicy as you like it.” Sadly, I must have found the only Thai guy in the world who likes bland food. A little disappointed I eat it anyway and tell him it’s good, then head to my room to crash before I fall asleep on the table. It’s 9:30. My new bed time.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Phuket to Koh Lanta - 2.1.15

Today was a little bumpy. I woke up early to pack and have breakfast before my 7am shuttle to the port for my 8am ferry to Koh Lanta. I was sitting in the lobby on the dot of 7 awaiting my pickup. When they didn’t show by 7:15 I got concerned and asked reception to call and ensure they were on their way. They couldn’t reach the car company but assured me they were on their way - probably stuck in traffic. At 7:30 I really started to worry. The hotel is about 30 minutes from the port and the boat was scheduled to leave in 30 minutes. Missing the boat would mean cooling my heels in Phuket for 6 hours and arriving late in Koh Lanta. Again, I was assured not to worry. At 7:45, reception started to worry. They told me the company had called and left a message. Apparently, one of the passengers either had more luggage than anticipated or brought a friend along unscheduled (I couldn’t quite understand). At any rate, there wasn’t enough room in the van for me so they just went to the port without me. Genius. Again I was assured not to worry - the boat would wait for me. While I was relieved to hear this, keeping 300 people waiting on my behalf didn’t seem like a solid plan B. Reception called a driver who showed up just after 8 and shuttled me to the port like a New York taxi driver, weaving in and out of lanes, even crossing into oncoming traffic to overtake cars and motorbikes. We pulled up to the boat at 8:40 I hopped on board. As soon as I’m on they apply a blue sticker to my chest. It feels like the scarlet letter until I realize that every other passenger is wearing one. They’ve branded us, like cattle, for easy sorting when we arrive. Yellow sticker - you’re spending the day on Koh Phi Phi. Yellow with a number on it - you’ve also purchased an excursion. Blue like me - on to Koh Lanta (aka: cool kid). 

I headed straight to the top deck for the best views and photo opps. I sat next to a Chinese couple who were a little put out that I’d asked them to move their camera bag so I could sit down. You know what’s worse than a French tourist? A Chinese tourist. A few minutes into the ride the Chinese guy next to me whips out a portable speaker to entertain his friends. That little thing was powerful and he treated us to such classics as “Take my breath away” and “I’ve had the time of my life.” I wondered if China could be that far behind the times (not out of the question) or if this guy just had terrible taste. When we pulled up to Koh Phi Phi 2 hours later I where I would transfer to another boat to Koh Lanta, I was pretty over the medley. But the views were pretty spectacular. Little fishing boats and big cruisers hummed about little inlets carved out of the rocky island. The water was turquoise. And I started to get excited.

The second boat was smaller and faster. The only outdoor seating was on the narrow decks on either side of the boat. I found a spot between some Germans and a crew of French guys who looked like they’d been drinking since the night before. The deck was narrow and with back against the wall my feet dangled over the side. The sea is blue the way I’d imagined it would be and warm as it douses me over and over again. The water is nearly irresistible. I start feeling the pull to jump in, to just slip under the guard rail and let myself fall of the side. I spot the life life buoy hanging from the rail beside me and think it would be a good opportunity for the crew to practice their “man overboard” drill. I’m guessing their skills have grown kind of rusty. Somehow I managed to stay safely seated on the boat. I deserve a medal. At the front of the boat a small Thai flag flaps in the wind above a makeshift alter of those yellow flowers I see throughout Thailand that bear an uncanny resemblance to dandelions. I’’m sitting outside the captain’s cabin and notice this boat is equipped with side mirrors. Is that in case a speed boat sneaks up on us and we have have to move aside to let him pass? The great mysteries of the universe. As we approach Koh Lanta I’m in a state of utter bliss. It’s breathtaking, all i imagined it would be. A long white beach circles the island and the interior is forested. It’s rough and sparse and I’m in love. I wonder if there’s a Facebook quiz “which Thai island are you?” I am Koh Lanta. 

Bliss is a persistent feeling on this journey. The only thing missing is Dennis. As much as I wish he was here and intend to come back with him, I’m glad I took this trip alone. When bad things happen to me (as they did before this trip) this is my way of healing. Self-reliance has a powerful  curative effect. Having to figure things out, navigate a foreign land, entertain yourself with only your own imagination and instinct is a pretty magical experience. When the shit hits the fan some people go to the mountains or the woods. I go to Southeast Asia. I have been confronted on this trip with the essence of myself and it feels so empowering. 

The hotel is nice but lacks the serenity of Rachamanka. I fear few places will ever measure up. But I rent a bike and set out for Long Beach, which I’ve read is one of the nicest spots on the island. It’s 3:00 by the time I set out so I grab a quick meal at the first place I see (a simple stir fry of chicken, veggies and garlic which is delicious) and continue the journey. Long Beach looked really close on the tourist map I grabbed but as I pedal along in the blazing mid-day sun I remember that tourist maps are not drawn to scale. It’s a good 10 miles away and I need to take a water break. I find a 7-11 (we export only the worst of America), grab my water, and take my place in line. When it’s my turn I’m about to step up to the counter when a woman who’d been looking around in the aisle behind me pushes me aside and steps to the counter. I tell her that there is a line and I had been waiting. She tells me in thick Russian accent “I do not understand.” Her daughter stands beside her. “You’re very ride,” I say. “I do not understand” she replies. Bullshit. Every grown adult knows how to wait in line, whether they like it or not. “You must be from Russia,” I say. I know she understands but she can't blow her cover now. I tell the woman at the register to check her out ahead of me - she’s obviously in a terrible hurry. Then I take it a step too far. I realize that her daughter understands me. Without thinking I tell her “don’t grow up to be like your mother. Aspire to be better than that.” She looks scared. The Russian woman scowls. The register next to her opens up and I check out before she leaves. Back on my bike I wonder if she’s going to mow me down as I pedal slowly up this hill. I’ve been learning about Buddhism and reading a book about it and I feel like I’ve really started to embrace the key principles but this incident makes me realize I still have a lot of work to do to reach a state of true zen. 

After passing some interesting sites, notably a mosque that was broadcasting a call to prayer (this is one of the only places in Thailand that is predominantly Muslim) I finally reach the beach. Although I’d read that lounge chairs were available for rent, there are none in sight. Also, I realize I didn’t pack a towel but I’ve come too far to turn back. I head to sea for a swim. I float for a while, watching the clouds slip slowly through the sky, then make my way out and lay on a makeshift towel of my sweaty tee shirt and shorts. I open my book and start reading and out of the corner of my eye I see movement. I look but there’s nothing there. Then I see it again. And again. I realize there are little holes in the sand everywhere and that ghost crabs live there. Ghost crabs are sand colored and hard to spot but once you notice them you realize they’re everywhere. And they’re terrifying. They look like spiders with shells and they can move. There’s one right next to my hand and after a minor freak out I decide to repent for the Russian incident by making peace with them. I calm myself down and being reading again. When the sun starts dipping in the sky I make my way back to the hotel at a leisurely pace, stopping when something catches my eye. I stop to take a picture of a man walking his cow his cow down the street. I stop to buy postcards. I stop for water in what I realize is the Thai boxing stadium in Koh Lanta. I only realize this because a truck outside is covered in a banner advertising tonight’s match and plays a recorded advertisement over and over in a loop. Interestingly, the recording is in English, Australian English to be precise. Eventually the truck starts making it’s way slowly through the town, announcing to all that the match is taking place tonight and “should not be missed.” I suppose they need to attract the tourists to fill the stadium (although I take a peek and there couldn't be more than 50 seats in there). I consider for a minute going to see the match - I’ve heard from other travelers that it’s a unique cultural experience - but it starts at 9 and that’s just too late for me. One of the things I’ve learned on this trip is that when I’m free from the constraints of work and every other responsibility in my life my natural rhythm is to wake up around six and fall asleep at 9:30 or 10. I’m going to try to keep that up when I get home - we’ll see how it goes. 

Now it’s 8pm and I’m relaxing on my porch with a cold Singha. There is no wine to speak of in this country and when you find it, it’s shockingly expensive. But beer is growing on me as a little end of day celebration. Tomorrow I’ll be exchanging my bike for one with a motor and really touring the island. This is the last leg of the journey before heading back to Bangkok to catch the flight home and that feels right. As amazing as this has been, there is no place like home and I’m really starting to miss my people.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Phuket - F**k it - 1.30.15

OK, so I’ve been in Phuket for about 36 hours, admittedly not long enough to see the whole island, but I’ve been doing my best to find what is noteworthy about this place and why so many people come here. I’ve come up dry. Let me back up . . .

The flight here from Chaing Mai was long. Phuket is in the south and Chiang Mai (where I was flying from) is in the north of this long narrow country so I had much ground to cover to get here. I also had a short layover in Bangkok and when I got on the flight from Bangkok it was overrun with French tourists (not my favorite people to bump into on vacation). I’ve been seeing a lot of French people all over this country and decided to investigate the link between these countries. The abbreviated history that I was able to glean is: 17th century - The French try to colonize Thailand (then Siam) as they’ve done in neighboring Laos and Cambodia but fail. 19th century - France pushes to colonize the country again and war breaks out. This time France wins some ground and expands their presence in Indochina to include regions of Thailand. 1940-41 - When WW II starts, Thailand sees the opportunity to regain lost territories from now weakened France. Germany and Japan come to their aid. They win. It seems to me that the Thai would want no part of the French who have repeatedly battled with them over they years but tourist dollars are tourist dollars, I suppose.

Anyway, I landed late (11:30 pm) and hadn’t done a lot of research so was surprised to get in the cab and drive for close to 45 minutes before reaching my hotel. All the while I watched the meter click up and up (I’d heard that taxis on this part of Thailand were a rip off) and when I finally got out, the ride cost me nearly $30. Ok, in San Francisco that ride would have cost me 2 or 3 times as much but this is Thailand. In Bangkok or Chaing Mai that would have $15. I felt ripped off. At checkin they had me fill out a bunch of forms that I hadn’t had to fill out at other hotels. Multiple people asked me for my departing flight number (I don’t have one - I’m taking a boat to my next port of call) and I found this insistence on establishing the details of my departure just minutes after my arrival to be rude and irritating. By the time they put me in the shuttle to my room (this resort is like a mini San Francisco - up and down a bunch of steep hills so they shuttle you to your room) I was fit to be tied. I didn’t tip the bellman (I regretted this the next day). My heart was beating fast and I felt like I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs. I considered taking a Xanax. But instead I downed the 2 cans of Singha in the minibar and went to bed.

The next morning I woke up early to get in some pool time before taking the free hotel shuttle into town. The free shuttle goes into town once a day at 11am. And it doesn’t go into “town” exactly. It drops you at a hideous western-style shopping mall on the outskirts of town (the hotel no doubt receives kickbacks for this). My plan was to take a taxi from there (still cheaper than carfare from the hotel). But the shuttle was full (of French tourists). They’d neglected to tell me when I’d checked in that you need to book the shuttle in advance (probably because they were so focused on finding out when and how I’d be leaving three days later). They waited for all the passengers to board then realized there was one spot left in the front. The guy sitting there moved over to the hump seat (looking decidedly less than thrilled) and I climbed in. After a bumpy 30 minute ride (the poor schlock next to me kept hitting his head on the ceiling and wincing a bit with every jolt) we arrived. I got off the van and spotted a public bus parked ahead. I ran and jumped in the back. Public buses in Phuket are fun. They look like vehicles you’d use to move day laborers around your farm. They’re open on the back, open on the sides, and passengers sit on benches running the length of each side (one of many things common in Thailand that would never pass code in the US). I didn’t know where the bus was headed but as it pulled away from the shopping mall and the bewildered French people who’d just been dropped there from the hotel I thought “sianara suckers.” The bus wound it’s way through narrow, crowded streets until it reached the downtown district where my cooking class would begin in 2 hours. The driver asked me for 50 cents and I descended.

When I stood on the busy street and opened my honking tourist map a man approached me and told me where I should go - he recommended a local market where I could shop and eat like a Thai person. He offered to chauffeur me around for the next 2 hours for $2. I accepted. I’ve been doing a lot of things in this country that I wouldn’t do at home - hop in cars with total strangers, ride on scooters through streets with seemingly few traffic laws (more on that later) but I’ve felt safe all the while. He took me to the Expo and said he’d back in 45 minutes to take me to my next destination. I entered the market hopefully, unprepared for what I’d see. It was indeed, as promised, a place where Thai people shop. There were a bunch of stalls up and down the halls of this indoor market filled with clothing shoes, underwear, phone accessories, handbags . . . it was interesting to see (the average price of a garment here was $3) but not the kind of shopping I was looking to do. I spotted a set of doors and made a beeline for the exit. But as I approached the exit I saw a black creature scurry between racks at the lingerie shop and I nearly jumped into the arms of a passerby (a tiny elderly man who I most certainly would have crushed). The second rat I’ve encountered in Thailand. I regained my composure and headed outside. I wanted to grab a quick bit before my class and the street food didn’t look appealing. I headed to a nondescript restaurant across the street called “Uptown.” It was nearly full with Thais, not a westerner in site. I took this to be a good sign and ordered the red chicken curry. As I’ve said before, every curry I’ve had here has been unique. This one was kind of sweet, not too saucy, and served with red bell peppers (a nice touch). I was impressed. I would later read in my guidebook that this is one of the most popular restaurants in town among locals.

I decided to head to cooking class early to explore the grounds so my ad-hoc tour guide dropped me off there. As soon as I arrived I was overcome by reverence. I have dreamed for years of coming to this place. The Blue Elephant cooking school is the reason I came to Thailand at all. It’s a dream that began so many years ago in Paris, when eating at the Blue Elephant restaurant was a much needed sanctuary from the overbearing Frenchness of everything. I couldn’t believe I was standing of the lawn of this former governor’s mansion and was about to learn to cook like a Blue Elephant chef. Inside, I took some photos of the famed “blue bar” (a long swanky bar backlit by blue light) and one of chef instructors milling about. The four of us there for cooking class moved into the learning kitchen, got our aprons and recipe books, and met our chef instructor. She was friendly enough but I disappointed to learn that she’d spent many of her childhood years in Orange County, CA. The lilt in her voice was more valley girl than Thai. And she launched right into recipe preparation without explaining the array of ingredients that make Thai cooking so unique or the history of the dishes we were about to prepare.

She cooked the first dish - chicken satay, we tasted it, then we were basically left alone to follow the recipe and make our own versions. This drill was repeated for crispy fried fish with sweet and sour sauce, thai noodle salad with chicken and shrimp, yellow curry with beef, and steamed banana cake. When it was all finished we adjourned to the front porch of the restaurant, overlooking the garden, where we were served the food we’d prepared. I was disappointed, a little crestfallen almost, that the lesson had imparted no true knowledge of Thai cuisine. I had a few tasty dishes to show for it but if I hadn’t already learned the secret of great curry at the Chaing Mai school, I probably would have burned the place to the ground. Over the meal I had a nice chat with a young couple from Chicago who had come to Phuket on their honeymoon. They were real foodies who’d eaten at some of the world’s best restaurants and when I told them I’d be going to Nahm in Bangkok on my last night, they informed me that it was the best meal they’d ever eaten, that it was recently rated the #1 restaurant in all of Asia, and that it was the first Thai restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin star (this last part I knew). We ate and said our goodbyes and I wandered back through an open air market where purveyors were beginning to fry up street food for dinner to the bus stop. I had heard the last bus to my part of the island ran at 5:30 and it was 5:45.

As I looked around for the bus (which I suspected had already left) I was approached by a taxi driver who offered to take me back to the hotel for 300 Bhat ($10). Pretty reasonable for these parts. I followed him to his vehicle which turned out to me a small moped. I hesitated. I had 3 bags - one filled with leftovers from Blue Elephant, one with my camera, and one large handbag. The driver assured me he would find space for them on the tiny moped. I thought about the accident I’d seen just a few days earlier in Chaing Mai - a moped driver had been hit by a car while making a right turn. We’d seen it happen as we were driving back to town from our cooking lesson and as we passed we noticed that the injured moped driver had a compound fracture - his shin bone was protruding from a hole in his pants. But the driver assured me it was safe and handed me a pink helmet. I hopped on. The ride back was surprisingly fun. It was rush hour and the streets were packed with cars and moped and bicycles weaving around through unmarked lanes. In the distance I saw the “big buddha” one of the main attractions in these big parts. As the name implies - it’s a giant statue of buddha on the top of a hill and as we rode by it was backlit by the setting sun (I wish I’d had the nerve to whip out my camera and take a shot but both hands were passing holding on for dear life). At one red light my driver struck up a conversation with the guy driving the moped next to us. I had no idea if they knew each other or if this was just the kind of thing you did when you stopped at a red light but I couldn’t believe that this guy was carting his whole family on that bike. His young son sat in front of him, secured by the driver’s arms and legs, his young daughter sat behind him, secured by the arms of legs of mom who sat at the back. A practical if perilous way to get around.

Back at the homestead my plan to spend the evening updating my blog was foiled by internet connectivity issues (not a rare occurrence here) so I went to the lobby and checked out a DVD from their collection of aged American block busters. I laid on my bed and ate my Blue Elephant leftovers as Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp galavanted through Venice, dodging mobsters and the police in The Tourist. The day hadn't been without highlights but overall, it proved the most disappointing day in my Thai adventure thus far. I decided to stop searching for the soul of Phuket and spend tomorrow lounging on the beach. A day in Phuket, I decided, still beats a day at the office hands down. But there are far better places to be out of the office - I know because I’ve seen so many of them on this trip. Adieu Phuket. After tomorrow we will part ways and I do not intend to come this way again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Culinary Hell - 1.27.15

The strangest and most unexpected thing just happened - I had a bad meal. Not a disappointing meal, not a meal I could have taken or left, but a meal so bad I couldn’t eat it. After a long, hot, emotional day at the elephant sanctuary, I couldn’t muster the energy to head into town so I decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. A nice British couple I’d met on the outing today told me they’d been very disappointed with their meal when they had eaten at the restaurant but I figured they’d just ordered poorly. I ordered well - spicy beef salad starter and Malaysian curry with chicken main. The salad was my worst nightmare - mostly onions (white and green) and tomatoes, topped with “beef” that 90% gristle. I picked out what I could - slivers of julienned carrot and cucumber, a few leaves of lettuce . . I even hunted for and ate every cilantro leaf I could find. I sent back the bulk of the salad chalking my disappointment up to poor ordering. I had fallen into the same trap as that nice British couple. Then came the curry. It looked about right - meat in a curry sauce - but something was amiss from the get go. I noticed that the rice was long grain (think Uncle Ben’s) and not the short, sticky rice you see in Thailand. This restaurant, like many other fine dining establishments in this town, tries to cater to Westerners by serving what they think Westerners want - Eastern food in a Western style. But I have yet to meet one of those poor conflicted souls in Thailand - the Westerners I have met delight in authentic Thai food and expect that is what they will be served, this being Thailand and all. 

I spooned the curry onto the rice and dug in. Then the sadness really set in. The curry had no flavor - no hint of spice or freshness, no complexity or depth. It kind of tasted like ketchup. But far worse than the lack of taste was the quality of the meat - this fine dining establishment had served me nothing but skin and knuckles and gristle. I couldn’t really find anything that seemed edible. This is the stuff I’d trim off and throw away because even my dog won’t eat it. I tried a bite to make sure I wasn’t missing something but struggled to get it down. 

I pushed my plate away and called over the waitress. I told her as kindly as I could that the dish was inedible and asked her to take it away. I expected her to offer me something else or to subtract it from my bill but she just smiled and bowed. She had no idea what I’d said. I might have just explained that I had suddenly decided to go vegetarian or that I received an important call and had to rush back to the US immediately. She brought me the check. 900 Bhat or roughly $30. That’s about 10X what I would have paid for a far superior meal at a local street vendor. I was pissed.

As I walked back to my room I felt angry (and hungry) - not a great combination. I wondered how it was possible that such crap food could be served is such a magical place. I wondered why this hadn’t come to the attention of management months before, how all of the diners before me had shirked their duty to inform the powers that be that this was not acceptable, not here at Rachamankha. As I continued to stew, I noticed that every chandelier in the place is exactly the same - a sort of white fabric cube, edged in brown piping, with a brown tassel hanging from the bottom. When you actually stop and look at them, they’re not pretty. And it seems a fairly sophomoric design choice to simply repeat the same fixture over and over and over again. Back in my room I noticed for the first time that my air conditioner is one of those wall-mounted fixtures you see in old European buildings - effective but an eyesore. Why did they make that choice in such a design-conscious hotel? One bad meal had turned my whole world grey. 

Still hungry but still too tired to head to town, I opened a can of Pringles from the mini bar and hopped into bed. I grabbed my book, read a few pages and drifted off to sleep around 9:00.

Elephant Heaven - 1.27.15

My guide picks me up from the hotel this morning to take me and about 10 others about an hour north outside of town to the elephant sanctuary that people refer to as “elephant heaven.” I’m like a kid on Christmas morning and it feels like my head will explode before we arrive and I ever lay eyes on them. In the van they show us a movie about safety (elephants are really docile until you piss them off - then they can literally crush you with a swipe of their trunk or a kick from one of their massive legs) and another video about the important work this organization, Elephant Nature Park, is doing. A woman named Lek (which I learn means “little” in Thai) started this organization in the late 80’s to rescue elephants from the often tragic fate that befalls them in this country. Thai’s have a very complex relationship with elephants. On the one hand, the elephant is considered a holy and revered animal. One of the most important legacies of a Thai kind is to discover a unique elephant - the last king discovered a while elephant, and the current king discovered the largest elephant ever found. These are things for which they will be remembered. And 90% of Thais are Buddhist so respect for life and never harming another living creature are key tenets of the faith. On the other hand, elephants are expensive to keep. They require lots of land, which is getting hard to come by, and they eat 10% of their body weight in food every day (that’s a few hundred pounds of corn, squash and melons - elephants are vegetarian). In this developing country, elephants must earn their keep. Thais have found a few ways to make keeping elephants profitable and each of them breaks my heart. One way is to use the elephant for tourism. This involves “breaking” the elephant so that it lets tourists ride in little seats strapped to its back. At the park they showed us a video of how elephants are broken and I can’t bring myself to explain it to you. I cried when I saw the recorded footage. Another way is to use elephants for labor. For decades Thailand had a thriving logging trade and elephants were used to haul logs up and down mountains. This one doesn’t seem that unreasonable but many were given amphetamines and worked round the clock. If they faltered they were severely beaten or worse. Thankfully, logging was banned here is 1989 (although it is still alive and well in neighboring Myanmar). 

After our hour long journey through the country side we arrived at the elephant park, a vast expanse of land at what seemed like the edge of the world. The place was teeming with activity. About ten other day tours like ours have arrived, another 75 people who’d volunteered to spend a week working at the park were busily moving about, and the staff of over 70 were hard at work preparing food for the elephants, cleaning up after them, tending to their care. 

Our guide, a sweet middle aged Thai woman, gave us the schedule. First we’d feed the elephants, then we’d visit the park and learn about how it functions, then we’d bathe them, feed them again, and finally walk around the property with them and sit and watch them graze. The elephants lined right up when they saw us on the platform (they’ve grown very accustomed to their schedule) and while my group started feeding them from our basket of watermelons, I pulled out my camera and started shooting. “Kath-a-leen - behind the red line” my guide said. Five minutes in and I’d already broken the first cardinal rule of safety - stay behind the red line when feeding the elephants to avoid being knocked out by an elephant trunk. This was the first of many times throughout the day that my guide would chide me for something. After the feeding (boy can elephants suck down watermelon) we went out in the fields to learn more about the place. There are 43 elephants on the property. Some were brought here when they were retired from the tourist trade, some were purchased from villagers who could no longer afford to keep them, some worked in logging and were brought here when that was banned, some has stepped on land mines and were brought here for rehab, one was brought here when he was orphaned at 4 months after his mother was shot for eating corn from a farmer’s field. This little guy, named Hope, stole my heart. The guide told us he was found wedged between 2 trees deep in the forest. Apparently he’d run for cover when he heard shots fired and remained there for many days with no food and water. He was wedged in there so tightly they had to cut down the trees to get him out. Now he’s a rambunctious 4 year old, getting into everything and annoying the older elephants with his incessant desire to play.

Next we saw the vet area where resident and visiting elephants are treated. There was a volunteer vet from Canada giving an IV to a baby who’d stepped in a trap 2 years earlier. His leg was still swollen from the trauma but my guide told us he gets along just fine. I was fascinated by this place, so thankful that it exists, and desperate to find a way to contribute. My guide told me about how much things have changed, how much more awareness there is in Thailand of how animals should be treated. Yet the economic realities persist. I was confronted again with a fact I have long understood but never really accepted - that prioritizing animal welfare is a luxury enjoyed only in wealthy countries. In most places, animals are still property, a resource their owners to exploit for survival.

We eventually sat down to lunch with all of the other groups - hundreds of us lined up for an amazing vegetarian buffet. I sat down with an american family from LA, there for a week as volunteers. We discussed what an amazing place this was, and how much respect we had for Lek, one little woman who made this all happen and kept it going for nearly two decades. I was desperate to meet her, but she wasn’t around. Next we sat and watched a documentary film about this place. I was happy to see they were getting publicity (apparently this one aired in the US) but it was a tough film to watch. Learning about the lives of these animals before making it to the park was almost more than I could handle. 

Then, the most thrilling part of the day - bath time. It’s important for elephants to bathe daily. If they don’t, they quickly develop skin rashes and sores and other ailments. Here, they are walked to the river by the elephant guides (these guys are amazing - they have built so much trust with these elephants by caring for them so well that those elephants follow them wherever they go) and bathed by the volunteers and visitors. It’s hard to describe the thrill of stepping into the river with those giant animals and splashing them with buckets of water. The young ones shake and paw at the water and make a game of it. The older ones put their ears forward so you don’t forget to wash behind them. After the bath we escort them out to the field where they are fed (again) - this time corn. Did you know that the average elephant spends nearly 18 hours a day chewing? I’m now a fountain of useless elephant factoids. I found a spot in the shade of a tree and laid down and watched them. I decided that if this software thing doesn’t work out, I’m going to move here and work with these amazing creatures. 

It’s finally the end of the day and when we get back in the van for the ride back to town I’m sad to be leaving but so thankful for the experience. We had to stop twice in the long driveway to let elephants pass, and a few more times to let dogs pass (I forgot to mention - the center also cares for over 400 rescued dogs). At one stop I watched a woman play with a child on the steps of one of the cabins. She looked familiar - a lot like Lek who I’d seen in the documentary film earlier. As the van began to roll forward our guide turned around and said “Kath-a-leen - that was Lek!” I looked back and put my hands under under my chin, palms together, and gave her my best Thai bow. She caught my eye, smiled, and bowed back.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

One night in Bangkok - 1.25.15

The day started out with a bang. I woke long before sunrise at 5:15. Beating the world awake, even if only out of jetlag, is still a thrill. I feel like I’ve lucked into more quality time on earth. To capitalize on this pocket of time, I downed a cup of coffee and headed to the gym. Just one day into this trip, I’ve already come to expect the kind of service I receive so consistently at the Sukhothai. I was greeted by the gym attendant who handed me a towel, handed me a pair of earphones, and offered to set up my treadmill for me. I declined. I tethered myself to my phone and turned on my running playlist. By 5:45, I was off and running and it felt great. After an invigorating run, I stopped by the bathroom on the way out of the gym. For some reason, during those 45 minutes I started thinking of my schedule, fretting that I wouldn’t have time for breakfast before my 8am pickup for the temples tour I’d scheduled. What started off as such a relaxed morning somehow became rushed. I ran into the stall and dropped my belongings onto the floor - my headphones, my towel, and my phone - oops. It landed on the tile floor face down and when I picked it up I saw the cracked screen. Not just cracked, decimated. There were 5 solid cracks running all the way from top to bottom and a few stretching across the sides. When I swiped to test the phone tiny shards of glass broke off. Miraculously, it still worked but one more jolt and this thing’s a goner for sure. I cradled it in my hand like a wounded baby bird and have been carrying it in a protective pouch all day. This thing has to last through 2 more weeks before I can get it fixed stateside. 

Thankfully, things looked up from there. After a quick shower I headed down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, not having time to venture outside before my tour. The Sunday buffet breakfast was on and the spread looked marvelous. But at 2800 Bhat (about $92) I decided to go a la carte. I looked at all of the patrons lining up for that hundred dollar buffet and wondered silently how all of these rich, dumb bastards ended up at this hotel. I ordered the first thing that caught my eye - fried rice with blue crab. It arrived in a terrine shape with a side of fish sauce and sliced chiles. Less Breakfast of Champions - more Breakfast of Hedonists - it was so tasty I couldn’t help but let out little moans of joy as I savored each succulent bite. I don’t care if they have roll me out of this country - I am eating my way through it without shame. 

I made it to the lobby at 8 and found my tour guide - Lek. A friendly little woman, about my age, she escorted me to the car where our driver for the day was waiting. He spoke not a word of English but gave me a little bow. We were off through the mad streets of Bangkok which were still uncrowded at this early hour. Lek explained that we’d see three temples and the grand palace, provided traffic allowed. Every few hundred feet we passed a billboard of the king - Rawa. When I asked about them, Lek explained that he was a great man, the longest reigning king of Bangkok and the 9th king from this dynasty. As we wove our way through streets, the scenery turned decidedly local. We passed sad, sagging apartment buildings with large red satellite dishes clinging to windows and balconies. Laundry hung from the rafters of balconies sheltered by corrugated metal roofs. I felt a tinge of guilt, the rich American trolling the town in an air conditioned sedan with her driver and private guide.

We arrived at the first temple, the first temple of King Rawa the first, right in the center of the city. It was practically empty as we removed our shoes and climbed the gilded stairs to enter through solid carved wood doors, stories tall. Inside she explained that this Buddha was a royal buddha - you could tell by the number of tiers on the canopy hanging from the ceiling above him (9). She explained that the murals that covered every inch of the walls told the story of Buddha’s enlightenment (he went into the woods for 4 years and emerged enlightened). A few monks sat on a bench - presumably meditating. Lek explained that it is the highest honor to become a monk and families dream of having their sons enter the monkhood. She said that most men pass through the monkshood before getting married. I thought monkhood was a lifelong commitment but Lek explained that’s not the case. A man can choose how long to stay - 2 weeks, 2 months, the rest of his life - whatever he feels is right for his journey. On the one hand, I found that a copout. Just 2 weeks of quiet contemplation, scant eating, and the donning of an orange robe was all that was required to achieve the highest state of honor? But then I started to understand - Buddhism is a personal journey. That’s the whole point. It is a way to get our of your own head, to engage with the world in a way that is meaningful to you, to shed the here and now of materialism for some higher state of consciousness. I began to really appreciate it. 

From there we went to the major temples, the ones with teeming mobs of tourists shooting pictures. The Temple of the Reclining Buddha was impressive - the building was built to house this golden treasure that about the size of a small city block. On his feet, inlaid with shell, are the key principles and lessons of Thai Buddism. The next was the the Royal Palace - a compound of buildings used for state ceremonies and to house visiting dignitaries (Obama was invited to stay here when he visited but he opted for a hotel instead). Finally, we went to a small quiet temple on the outskirts of town. There were few tourists but we weren’t allowed to enter because a ceremony was taking place - an apprentice monk was becoming a true monk. The monks sat on the altar in a circle praying then listened as this man recited key Buddhist principles (one of the monks in the back appeared to be checking his email on his phone the whole time, which made me laugh). I stood at the back of the temple and captured on film the moment when he exchanges the white apprentice robe for an orange monk robe. I was moved and felt like I got a little glimpse into a secret society. 

We finally broke for lunch and my guide took me to a restaurant she knew well across the street from the royal palace. She said she’d done her schooling next door - apparently guides like her must do paid coursework and receive a degree in order to give these tours. We’d bonded during out walkabout at the royal palace when she asked if why I was traveling alone. When I explained that I was taking advantage of a window of time between jobs and that I decided to come even though my boyfriend had to stay home and work, she admitted she’d thought I was single. She told me she was 37 and hadn’t found “the one” yet (my term, not hers) but at this point all she really hoped for was a “real man, not a lady man” (apparently this is an issue in Bangkok - there’s a pretty thriving gay and trans-gender community). I told her that in my experience, it had been far less lonely to be alone than to be with someone who didn’t make me happy. I urged her to hold out, which made her smile. She was happy to hear that it’s possible to meet someone amazing at our age. By the time we got to lunch, we were laughing like old friends. She ordered for both of us and we shared - green chicken curry and a really simple but delicious stir fry of shrimp, garlic, basil and snow peas.

After pool time and a nap, I ventured out for dinner to a restaurant I’d heard about. It was a local establishment, had been there for years, and prepared traditional “royal” Thai cuisine. I was desperate to try it. I was told it was “a little out of the way” but I drew myself a makeshift map (not having access to Maps in this country) and set out to find it. I walked through what appeared to be the expat area of Bangkok - modern, pristine apartment buildings behind guarded gates and chauffeured Mercedes’ rolling through the streets. Then I entered the night market on Silom Street. This was what I expected - a chaotic mix of stalls, many selling food they were preparing in huge, smoking woks, many selling cheaply made (and priced) clothing, there was even a guy giving a “Sham Wow” demonstration. The streets were filled with people - locals and tourists. When I made my way past the market the streets got quiet. I passed massage parlors and custom clothing shops (apparently they can take your measurements today and deliver you a custom made fine suit tomorrow) and a few dilapidated restaurants. There weren’t many people on the poorly lit streets and I started to feel a little vulnerable so I tucked my purse tightly under my arm and kept walking with purpose so as to not be stopped and asked if I needed directions (that’s when trouble starts). I was nearing my destination - a little road between Soi 16 and 18 when I passed a Hindu temple that appeared to having services at this late hour. Across the street was a little market where a few Thai’s were cutting flowers and lacing them onto strings to make decorations for worshippers (I don’t know if you wear them or bring them as offerings but they’re everywhere in Thailand). Two large dogs, labradors maybe, sat under the table where the flowers were being cut, looking up hopefully as if food would eventually drop off that cutting board. I couldn’t decide if they were owned by these shop owners or just strays (there are tons of stray dogs here). They looked hungry, if not emaciated, and my heart broke a bit as I walked by, wondering if it would be appropriate to buy them something to eat. But I continued. I found the little road I was looking for and turned in. It was even darker on this street and as I walked past what looked like a construction site, a black rat scurried out from under the fence and nearly ran across my toes. I stopped and screamed. My heart was in my throat. This was a dark, decrepit, narrow and empty street and I started to think of all the things that might happen if I continued down it. Someone could jump out of the darkness and attack or kidnap me. A rabid dog could mistake me for its next meal. A rat might fall from the sky and land on my head. There were no signs of this “out of the way” restaurant” so I turned around and hurried back to the main street.

I thought maybe I’d walked too far, had missed the actual turnoff so I doubled back on my path, passing the temple, the flower shop, the dogs that broke my heart. After a few minutes I worried I’d never find this place. I ducked into a hostel and grabbed a little map of the district that was sitting on the counter. I went outside and sat on a bench to examine the map and determine my next move. There were some met outside, sitting on their scooters making small talk. One of them stared at me in a very uncomfortable way. He didn’t look Thai, more Arabic. I caught his eyes them turned away, eager to escape his creepy stare. When I looked back a few minutes later he was still staring. A group of Japanese tourists had gathered and were setting off and I decided to fall in behind them and make my escape. I learned from the map that I hadn’t gone far enough on the main street so I headed back past the temple, the flower shop, the heartbreaking dogs, and the rat-infested construction site and finally stumbled upon the street I sought. It was as dark as the last alley I’d gone down. I was shaken. I decided if this road did not lead to Rome I’d jump in a cab and head back to the hotel. But halfway down between two miserable looking houses there was finally, blessedly, a sign for this restaurant.

Behind the front garden I entered and found a charming, homey space where I was seated at the back next to a large table of Asians. They were speaking English but with an accent I couldn’t place - Hong Kong? Singapore? They discussed the “best white countries” for Asians and surprisingly, the US did not make the list. They settled on Australia. My meal came - a vibrant green curry with a cone of jasmine rice wrapped in a papadum leaf and it was heaven on earth, worth all the trouble. When I’d finished all the meat and vegetables I considered taking the bowl in my hands and drinking what remained of the sauce. I realized a few things tonight. The first is that Thai’s are kings on understatement. If they say a place is “a little out of the way” what they really mean is “you couldn’t find this place with a military-grade GPS device in your pocket.” The second is that curry is like a fingerprint - each one is unique. How many chiles do use in your paste? Do you use white or black peppercorns? Do you cook down your coconut milk before adding the paste (to make a thick, creamy curry) or do you cook the paste first to open up the flavors then add coconut milk as a finisher?

After dinner I grabbed a cab. As we headed back toward the hotel I realized how close I had been all the while. The little street where the restaurant sat was only a 5 minute walk from where I’d started. But I’d gotten turned around in the market, thrown off by the dark streets, shaken up by the creepy man. I decided to stop thinking I could just figure it out by myself, that I would just stumble upon the right path without any help from those in the know. I vowed to ask for help in the future. A good lesson in life.