Friday, March 26, 2010

Bangkok

I'm in Chiang Mai at the moment ensconced in a quiet guesthouse I discovered during my earlier visit here, Muan Baan, on Soi 7 in the old city (Click here for that entry), but the days I spent in Bangkok included some very special moments that I want to relate. I almost had to force myself to begin this entry because I'm feeling so happy and contented. I'm infatuated with Thailand and its lovely people. And I'm finally traveling on my own and have the strong feeling that Thailand will play a large role in my future. I visited a Buddhist temple with a new Thai friend the other day and was, quite unexpectedly, overwhelmed with feelings of thankfulness for the life I've had, the many friends I have both old and new, friends that have treated me so well, my fantastic and loving family, thankful for Tuli and Carin, my grandchildren, my good health, and the things I'll experience in the years left to me. What a lucky guy I am to be so blessed!

As you know if you're a regular reader, Albert and I killed some time in Pattaya mainly because of the political unrest that was ongoing in Bangkok. I had visited Pattaya earlier in the month and didn't really want to return but I thought, what the hell, I can just hole up in a comfortable hotel, chill out in the aircon, read, and catch up on my Internet stuff: do email, talk on Skype with family and friends, etc. And that's pretty much what I did. Albie and I caught one girly show at the Champagne-a-Go-Go but I wasn't into it, so I left early and went on home. After a couple of days we took a bus to Bangkok's Ekamai Station and from there a 300 baht cab ride to the Khaosan Road neighborhood in Bangkok where our hotels were located. Albert always stays at Four Sons on Phra Arthit Road and after some Internet research I made reservations at a more comfortable place (larger, quieter and at 900 baht per night, the most expensive place I've stayed in), the Phra Arthit Mansion about a block away.

I had been trying for a month to connect with Joe, my good friend from Fiji, and he was scheduled to finish his free-diving course on Koh Tao on the 21st so I reserved a room for him at my hotel. He wasn't to arrive until midnight and his flight out was early on the 23rd so we had limited time available to catch up on things but I reckoned that was better than not getting together at all. In the meantime, before his arrival, some serendipitous events unfolded in Bangkok.

Henry
It's almost unbelievable how you encounter people you know when traveling. Twice in as many days I met people under circumstances that were, well, incredible. But as all travelers soon come to know, the incredible does occur, and with fair frequency. For example, one of the guys I did the motorcycle trip with, Al, is actually related to me through my cousin Carol. He lives in Homer now but he grew up just outside of Buffalo, New York. Strange but true. Here's another: during our travels together Albert had been exchanging emails with a friend of his named Henry. As it turned out, Henry was in Bangkok when we got here and, of course, he and Albert wanted to get together in person to exchange stories and the like. Albie's favorite hangout in Bangkok is the Gecko Bar, a short walk from where we were staying on Phra Arthit Road. Henry met us there and soon he and I got to talking. He's retired and is approximately my age and before long we got to chatting over our beers about where we were from and Henry says, I’m from upstate New York. Really? I said, me too. Where exactly? I asked. Turns out he went to high school in Hamburg, a 20 minute drive from my familial home in Sloan! Seeing as he’s just a year or two older than me, we were growing up in western New York at the same time. After a couple of high fives, we continued our conversation, and he mentioned going tobogganing in Orchard Park. I exclaimed, at Chestnut Ridge Park? Sure enough, that was the place. He even knew about Lerczak’s, a bar out on Lake Shore Rd south of Buffalo where I spent so much time partying during my years in junior college. One is compelled to say again and again, It's a very small world. And to add even more credence to that statement, we spent an evening with good Homer friends Stephanie and Mike who left the next day for the beaches to the south. Homer people do get around, that's a fact.
(I can remember driving many times out to "The lake” from Buffalo with my good friend Carm and many others, fraternity brothers, college friends, running from bar to bar, drinking beer after beer, and then finally after last call starting the long drive back to Buffalo. How we made that long, twisty drive on that narrow 2-lane road late at night without any accidents is quite beyond me. For more about The Lake read this Buffalo Evening News article by Sandara Luedke.


Chao Phraya River scene with Wat Arun in background

Then, next day, I took a river trip downstream to Bangkok's Central Pier with the goal of riding the Skytrain to the big computer superstore Pantip Plaza. I had nothing special in mind other than to simply experience Bangkok from a different perspective. As I prepared to leave the taxi boat I turned to a falang whom I'd heard speaking English earlier and asked, Is this Central Pier? He said, yeah, I'm pretty sure it is. He looked sort of familiar but I didn't recognize him at that point. A few minutes later on the Skytrain platform I turned toward him to take a photo and he glanced over at me with a surprised look and asked, Dave, is that you? It was Brian, a commercial fisherman from Homer, actually a client of our business, Alaska Boats & Permits, and his daughter Hannah who is working for an environmental firm here! ( Note: I have never included any last names in my blog in order to protect the privacy of my friends.) We were astonished to run into one another so far from Homer, but there you have it. Another huge coincidence. Hannah remembered me from my years at the Homer Library. She was just a young girl then and an avid reader; she and her dad were out doing some errands together in her temporary home, Bangkok. How amazing is that? Below is a photo of them on the Skytrain platform.

Homer friends Brian and Hannah in Bangkok
Back at the Gecko Bar that night, Albie and I were having our first beers, talking with some other Alaska friends, John and Phil, when Henry showed up with a Thai woman. Henry is the type of fellow that enjoys meeting people, especially women, and because of that he's fun to hang around with. I've talked with Henry at length and can tell you he's not the type of fellow that last statement might imply to some of you, honestly. He had encountered this woman, Nut, in her place of work, a Thai massage business on Phra Arthit Road and said to her, come along with me for a few minutes and I'll introduce you to some friends and maybe some work will come of it. Since the tourist season is over now and work has gotten scarce, she agreed to accompany him. I liked her right away and got her cell number to set up a massage in my hotel room the next day. I've been in Thailand for quite a while and have really never had a massage so I thought, yeah, I should do this at least once before going home. I said I'd call her the next day to make an appointment and she left.

I wrote this in my Journal later: David you’ll not remember this unless it’s written down but you almost didn’t call her. Having a massage in your hotel room can imply so much in this country. But, I reasoned, this is not going to be that type of massage. She's a trained massage therapist, not a 20-something "massage girl". (I learned later that she's a 46 year old mother of two grown kids that she still helps to support.) So I eventually overcame my shyness and called her to set up an appointment.  The Thai massage, as opposed to the oil massage, is almost like physical therapy, and she did a wonderful job. It felt great and was incredibly relaxing.  Nut is a small woman and had all she could do to perform the last part of the session, the part where she tries to twist and stretch my upper body. It was difficult and afterward we both laughed about it. I realized I really liked her and asked if we might do something fun together. She immediately suggested a river trip, upstream to Ko Kret, an island in the Chao Phraya river. We set up a date for 10 o'clock next day at the Phra Arthit pier where we would catch a taxi to the furthest station and from there grab a smaller taxi to Ko Kret, do  a bit of exploring, have some lunch and do whatever. Sounded just perfect to me.

Next day we traveled to the Nonthaburi Pier by public water taxi, 13 baht each, and from there after a bit of haggling with a taxi driver who wanted 1000 baht for our island ride, we got him down to 700 baht (about 20 bucks), hired him and his tiny, fast long-tail boat to take us to Ko Kret Island. What a great ride it was. Racing along with Nut in my arms, she holding her handbag over her head to avoid the sun (as do all Thais), but laughing and holding onto me as the boat splashed through the oncoming chop. The taxi guy turned out to be a real sweetheart. We bumped into him maybe a half hour after he dropped us off near the tiny town of Ko Kret because I wanted a picture of this giant gold Buddha I had spotted across the river. He was moored right in front of the pier where I was headed to take the shot and when he saw what I was doing he yelled up to us to come on down and he’d take us across. And so began my first exposure to Buddhism.

Giant Buddha near Wat Bang Chak
Nut is a Buddhist and she guided me through the steps needed to make a proper offering of incense, the same sort of offering I’d watched from outside the temple at Wat Phnom a couple of weeks ago. With the incense came a small packet of gold foil that we stuck to this huge statue of Buddha by applying it to a spot you like and pressing hard with your finger. The whole ceremony felt incredibly special. Feelings of gratitude unexpectedly flooded my mind. I thought about Tuli and how much I love him, I thought about Carin and her family, I thought about how I’ve been surrounded by friends for my entire Thailand adventure, I thought about how lucky I was at age 66 to be standing on my own two feet in Thailand, in a Buddhist holy place with this petite and goodhearted Thai woman, soon to be my lover, and I felt thankful for my health and good fortune. I have had a good life and whatever years are left to me I will be eternally grateful for, especially for this fantastic year of travel.

Nut
We returned to the boat and our guy took us the rest of the way around the island.  We had lunch at a tiny restaurant on stilts and then raced back to the pier we started from. Later in the taxi I had the hope that journey would never end: the wind was rushing through our hair, the occasional water spray from the river hitting us, and here’s this  wonderful, warm woman sitting close beside me. I came as near to a feeling of surpassing peacefulness and fulfillment as I've had in a very long time. That's gotta be good, right? I decided at that moment to rebook my return from Chiang Mai in order to rejoin Nut in Bangkok for my last week in Thailand.

Me and Nut at a riverside restaurant






Like all Thais, Nut doesn't like the sun. Here she answers a phone call but hides under her handbag. She says, only falangs like the sun. ;-))







I wanted to spend the evening with Nut but this was the only night I had to spend with Joe so after coming along with me to meet him, and after making a date for breakfast the next morning, she headed for home.  It was so very good to see Joe again after an entire year. We had a great time and reconnected in fine fashion. There is just something I love about him. And the feeling is mutual. I have pondered our friendship since last year when we met at Manta Ray Resort in Fiji-- he's 26, my son's age, and I'm 66 -- what can it possibly be that keeps us connected? Yeah, we had a great time, scuba diving (he was my dive instructor), partying. But whatever it is, we became close friends in Fiji and remain so to this day.


Here's a shot of Joe at the Gecko Bar before we began our search for the elusive black sambuca ;-)).

Below is one Joe took in Gulliver's. He set the camera for time delay, put it on the floor, and then before it counted down we pulled some always-available-for-a-photo Thai girls over to us. They got a big kick out of the resulting shot, as did I.
Me and Joe at Gulliver's on Khao San Road

Me and Joe and the Gecko Bar


We talked about him coming to Alaska. We talked about doing a motorcycle trip from Alaska to Central America, or even Brazil. Hell, who knows? It could happen. We talked about a lot of other stuff too but for much of the night we were in noisy environments so it was hard to have a long or serious conversation.  But whatever the connection between us was about in Fiji, it’s still there: we’re mates, solid, and we emphatically decided to remain so. We stayed out until 3 am, searched for a commemorative black sambuca (we drank many of these in Fiji -- see my Facebook album Manta Ray Resort) and finding none in any of the Khaosan bars we hit, were forced to settle for the white variety, so we drank a few of those, danced with a couple of Thai girls in Gulliver’s, and then reluctantly said so long for now. Because we both had planes to catch in the morning it was, see you next time, let’s not make it a whole year, talk with you on Facebook.

Joe flew off to meet his parents in Istanbul where they're fitting up a large sailboat for a leisurely cruise in the Mediterranean. Joe's dad is a retired ship's pilot and master mariner so they recently sold the house in Plymouth, England, and bought a 20 meter sail boat. I'll link some photos of it in here later. Then last night Joe and I were chatting on Facebook and he said, you should come to Greece and sail with us for a couple of weeks, a month, whatever you like. I'll be spear fishing for food, my folks are awesome, the boat is awesome, the Greek Islands are, well, also awesome.  My standard first response was, and is always, no way. I can't do that. Plus, I get seasick on anything larger than a six inch swell. But the longer we talked the more I began to view his invitation as a potential golden opportunity. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At this point, anything's possible. I might just grab that wild hair and head to Greece. We'll see.  I'm looking around for a cheap ticket to Athens.

Chiang Mai

A view of the ancient wall and moat surrounding the old city of Chiang Mai


I arrived in Chiang Mai on Tuesday and caught a taxi to Muan Baan, the small, quiet guesthouse I stayed at last month with Albie, immediately rented a small moto to get around with and then contacted Lauren, an old friend from Homer and former dispatcher for Mako's Water Taxi. We had a nice lunch together (Bird's Nest Cafe - excellent curries with brown rice) and shared some Homer gossip. Lauren's been living in Chiang Mai for over a year now and teaches English, mostly to Korean children. She is also a Couchsurfing host and we shared some good stories about the great folks we've both met through that wonderful organization.

Tomorrow I'll head off to Pai on my rented Phantom motorcycle. I did a test ride today and the new bike feels pretty solid. I love biking here. It's always warm and during this season at least, it never rains. If our plans hold up, I'm going to hang out with Ainara on Saturday night in Pai and then drive back here Sunday in time for the big Sunday Night Bazaar. I'll probably Couchsurf with Lauren for the next couple of nights and then fly back to Bangkok to be with Nut for the rest of my time here.I had originally planned to stay in Chiang Mai until it was time to return to the states. But my brief encounter with Nut was enough to make me change my plans. I was going to return to Bangkok on the 30th to be with her.

In closing I have to remark once again that this has been one hell of a trip. When I look back to my first few hours in Bangkok in February, how foreign everything felt then, and how out of place I seemed to be, there was no way I could have guessed the way things were going to turn out. The great adventures were all still ahead. The motorcycle trip, the weeks I spent in Cambodia, the craziness of Pattaya, the low ebb in Koh Chang, meeting Nut in Bangkok, my strong desire to return to Thailand as soon as possible. My good buddy Doug was kidding with me before I left and said he thought I could become a "citizen of the world" if I wished. Sure, I replied. But now it looks like he may have hit the nail on the head. Incredible? I guess it really is. Unless you're doing it.