Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In Bangkok with Nut

April  4, 2010 Bangkok

I've been back in Bangkok for almost a week now and it's been fabulous. Nut has been staying with me and we've been having lots of fun. She took several days off when I arrived and we did some great stuff during that time, market visits, Thai massages, tours of some temples. She's been working for the past several days but will not work during my last three days in Bangkok, which overlap the Songkran Festival, the Thai New Year celebration. (Water throwing is common during the festival. (Read more here or watch a YouTube video shot on Khao San Rd. last year) Songkran should be interesting. We want to get massages again, take in a couple of meals at some upscale restaurants, and enjoy Songkran. Our plan is to buy super-soakers to use in self-defense. When I first heard about Songkran I thought to myself that it would be a fun way to stay cool in this infernal heat. I'm always too hot anyway. But then I learned they use ice-water. Friends who have been through it tell me to put my cell phone and wallet into Ziplok bags and prepare to get wet and stay wet.

With Nut at Wat Arun

Ever vigilant about avoiding the sun, Nut always carries her parasol during the day
The first touring we did last week was to visit two famous Buddhist temples located close to one another but on opposite sides of the Chao Phraya River, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. Bangkok, and indeed all of Thailand, is thick with temples. They are extremely ornate and are often surrounded by a complex of smaller temples and shrines, gardens, and monks' residences.

Wat Arun window detail

Wat Arun detail

Wat Arun detail - the entire stupa is tiled with china plates as shown here (and above)

Wat Pho detail - gold leaf and tile abound
Nut laughingly disguises herself as a Muslim at Wat Arun

Next day we caught a water taxi from the Phra Arthit Pier and headed downriver to the next to the last stop. Because Nut gives massages all day she often gets to the point where she could use a massage herself. Someone had recommended this place and she suggested we go together. It's located right on the Wat Chanyawat Pier. The massage was terrific. A full two-hour massage cost 120 baht -- about 4 bucks! Hard to believe if you're used to paying $50-60 for a one hour massage stateside. By the time we were finished the intense afternoon heat convinced us to go directly home and get into the air-conditioning. Showers help too - I'm in the shower at least 4 or 5 times a day, basically every time I come in off the street. We moved from the Phra Arthit Mansion the other day to a cheaper place, the Pranakorn Inn a short distance away, which is as almost as nice but at 400 baht per day (about $12 USD) costs less than half of what I was paying there. Our room doesn't have hot water but in Bangkok during March and April, believe me the "cold" water is plenty warm enough. We were going to move downstairs when a room with hot water became available but we soon realized it wasn't necessary.

Another photo from Wat Arun - I call it Buddha Row
Immense reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Another note on Bangkok involves water or at least, washing. I have been practically living in my white sleeveless shirt and tan shorts. In this heat I simply can't wear anything else. But every night I hand wash both items in a bucket or the bathroom sink because they are filthy from the polluted air and heavy traffic. It amazes me when I see how dirty the water is from just one day in the sweltering heat of Bangkok.

Eating lunch with El at the Wat Don Wai market
Last Saturday we went to the big floating market at Wat Don Wai. Nut and I first taxied across the river to Central Plaza where we met Nut's sister El. Then we took a minivan from there to the market. I hate using minivans ever since that trip Albie and I made from Koh Chang to Pattaya and this ride was no exception. We waited until the van, not a big, comfortable Toyota Commuter but a much smaller one, was jammed with 13 passengers before we departed. All I can say about them on the plus side is that they're fairly cheap.

This market was fantastic. Myriad vendors selling all sorts of, to me at least, exotic foods. Deep fried chicken and duck, sushi, all sorts of fruit, several varieties of fish prepared in many ways, smoked, fried, steamed, etc., pork, greens, baked goods and other confections, liquid refreshments: an awesome variety. If you're a food lover, Thailand is the place to be. Thais love food and can be found eating at any hour and in all places. In shops the clerks are always eating with their food containers positioned in every available place on the counters and desktops. And this goes on all day. Nut, who weighs in at about 105 pounds eats something (noodles, soup, fruit, chicken and rice) every two to three hours. I kid her by saying she must have a tapeworm in her stomach that gets most of what she eats because she eats more than I do. Honestly. We eat a good breakfast at about 10 am but by the time I walk her to work on Rambuttri Road at around noon, she's ready to have a bowl of soup at a local shop.

Okay, back to the market -- we've been walking around scouting what we'll buy for the evening meal at her sister's. Nut has assured me that El is an excellent cook so we follow her here and there as she inspects what's available. But before we buy anything, we need to eat lunch, naturally, so we adjourned to a bustling floating restaurant on the river and took a seat. During our walk I had mentioned some foods I like, things that looked good to me in the market. Asparagus was one thing I mentioned. Thai women take all of this very seriously apparently. Before I knew it there was an asparagus salad in front of me, asparagus and kung (shrimp). We had a squid dish and kung pao gai (chicken and fried rice), cuttlefish, along with some other tasty dishes whose names I can't recall now. At one point Nut turned to me and asked, do you want to try something different? Sure, I said. She ordered a plate of deep fried duck's bills. There's not much meat on a duck's bill but what's there is plenty good. They're on the white plate near Nut's right hand. It was a fantastic meal. And Thais stay at the table until everything is eaten, no matter how long it takes.

Nut and daughter Duy Duy preparing morning glory for the table

Afterward we went over to her sister's for the evening meal. I hit some badminton with nephews Nat and Not, had a few beers and watched the ladies, including Nut's daughter Duy-Duy (pronounced Dwee-Dwee) prepare the food. (note the names I'm dealing with here, no kidding: Nut, Nat, Not). El cooked up a fabulous Thai meal; tom yum soup, stir fried veggies with shrimp, and the centerpiece, deep fried morning glory. As I said earlier, if I mentioned a particular food it would magically appear on the table. Similarly, I had eaten a morning glory salad with Nut at our favorite local restaurant,  Take-a-Seat, the night before, had commented on it to El, and so it appeared on our evening menu. While at the market we had purchased two big bunches of morning glory stalks. Had I known how labor intensive the preparation of morning glory was I would never have mentioned it to anyone. Above is a photo of Nut and Duy-Duy slicing the morning glory into thin strips. The leaves aren't used for this dish but the stalks must be sliced into quarters or even into eighths if too large. The whole process took three women over an hour to finish. They chatted and gossiped for the whole time while I played the amused onlooker and guest of honor.

Wednesday, April 14th, 1:00 pm

Now here it is already, the day before I fly back to the states. I want to finish up this entry so Nut and I can take in a bit more of the Songkran festivities on our last day together. I have no photos of any of the celebrations because of the water you're constantly getting dumped on you or sprayed with. It's a bad scene for cameras and cell phones. I left mine at the hotel.

Dressed up in our Songkran shirts

Yesterday we went to meet El at the Phran Nok market where she works selling homemade confections. The plan was to hang out there until about 5 pm when she would close her shop and then go to Khao San Road to "play in the water." While we were there I hung out with the market people, all friends of El's for many years. Songkran is the Thai New Year so everyone was in a party mood. Even without understanding any Thai I was made to feel welcome and a part of the festivities. We drank beer and shared food all through the afternoon. Every so often there would be a huge commotion on the street and Nut would hustle me out there to watch. It was sort of like our Fourth of July but better. People thronging the sidewalks, strings of firecrackers ripping the air with loud reports, people dancing in the streets throwing water from buckets or cups, super-soakers, even garden hoses. Every so often someone with a pot of colored chalk paste would run up to me and with a big smile, say "Happy New Year" to me, the only falang in the entire neighborhood, and smear this paste on both sides of my face. The proper response is to laugh and return the greeting, shaking their hands or bussing the women on the cheek as the case may be. Everyone was super friendly. People turn out with boom-boxes or even set up big loudspeakers on the sidewalk where they then tie up traffic as they dance to rock music, loud and bass-heavy, in the street. An absolute ball.

At intervals a trailer or cart appeared carrying a Buddha or a group of monks (who also throw water I should add). This day is meant for cleaning things, houses, apartments, personal lives, even sacred statues. I joined about 50 people as they pulled a wagon behind them carrying a Buddha that folks would throw water on. The wagon was pulled along with two ropes, sort of like a huge tug of war. I was invited to join the party and it felt good to be involved with these joyous celebrants. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of seeing a farang in this old Thai neighborhood, so far from the usual tourist hangouts.

Then back to the market: more food, more beers, more introductions as new people dropped by El's stall, more toasts of "Happy New Year", more chalk paste smeared on faces. During the midst of this one side of our big table was cleared to make space to cut up a bag of small, green eggplants for the next day's food. Everyone pitched in to help. Each vendor sells a particular food item but any of the nearby vendors will watch their neighbor's stall if the owner needs a lunch break or must run an errand. Likewise with the prep work for El's neighbor's food stall. El helped, the duck seller across the aisle helped, the ice cream lady helped, Nut helped. It made me sad to think about how isolated most Americans are from their neighbors these days. Being in Thailand is like taking a step back in time to the years when there were close knit neighborhoods in our country. Before the move to the suburbs forever changed the American way of life. One of the best parts of being in Thailand is witnessing the neighborliness of the folks throughout this friendly country.

Finally 5 o'clock rolled around and El made ready to turn over the store to her son, Ice, for the last two hours of the day. I had thought she and Nut and I would take a taxi to Khao San Road to take in the celebrations there. Instead, my good luck was apparently at work again, the guys from the next stall said they were going for a ride in their pickup and asked if if we wanted to join them as they toured the streets with barrels of water. Now try to imagine this as a way to have fun if you can. We hopped into a late model king-cab Toyota pickup, filled two 35 gallon plastic garbage cans with water, added 13 people to the bed (along with 5 in the cab), everyone with a soup bowl or small bucket at the ready, and then drove out onto the streets looking for trouble. What a blast! After the first 30-40 minutes we stopped at a house somewhere and refilled the garbage cans. But this time we went to the ice-seller and got two huge chunks if ice to add to the water. The down side of this is that now when water sloshed over the rim of the container, we got wet with cold rather than the pleasantly warm water at the start. Not everyone is fair game for a soaking either: moto drivers, old folks, anyone with a very young child, but when you come across a group of like-minded folks with water buckets at the roadside, that's the signal for the driver to slow down or maybe even pull over, for a huge water fight. Everyone gets soaked immediately! And everyone laughs like mad through the whole thing. Then when our driver finally pulls away everyone on both sides is all smiles yelling "Happy New Year". I haven't had that much fun in years.

We rode around for a couple of hours until we ran out of water. Finally we went back to the market and said our good-byes. Nut, who is not well insulated like me was chilled by the time we caught a taxi and rode back to our hotel to get dried off and warmed up. We did not immediately turn the aircon on, actually enjoying the heat for the first time. I had been soaking wet for much of the day, the only day in Bangkok during which not a single a drop of sweat trickled down my forehead. Every so often one of the other folks riding the pickup would ask, are you cold? I'd reply, hell no, I'm from Alaska! After a few minutes at 40 mph in the 90-degree heat my hair and shirt would be almost dry again. But it never stayed that way for long. What a fantastic experience for a visitor to luck into. Hooking up with Nut has led me into corners of Bangkok that I'd never have seen otherwise, introduced me to pieces of Thai life and culture that I'd have surely missed if not for her. She doesn't particularly like this photo because she has no makeup on but it's my favorite so I include it here.

This is my last day in Thailand and my last day with Nut. It will certainly be a bittersweet return for me. On the one hand, I'm homesick and want to see loved ones and dear friends again after my long sojourn. On the other hand, I'll surely miss Nut because we have grown very close in these past three weeks. It's also the end of the biggest adventure of my life. I left Alaska on October 29th. By the time I get back to Homer it will be close to the end of April. I came to love Thailand during that time and I will return here next fall. I plan to buy a Phantom to tour this wonderful country with my buddies from Alaska again. If Nut's plans come to pass she will soon be up north in Chiang Mai, which would suit me very well. I will hopefully be able to return by mid October to rejoin her and continue to discover what our somewhat improbable relationship holds.

So until October dear readers, that's about all I have to say on the subject of Thailand.  Friends have been telling me for years that this is a fabulous country to visit. At this point, I must say I wholeheartedly agree.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

To Pai and back

Wat near Night Market, Chiang Mai

Mile marker Rte 1095
Sunday, March 30: I'm back in Chiang Mai after a fabulous weekend with Ainara in Pai. And the ride up there and back on the rented Phantom was the best fun I've had riding yet: perfect weather, a short, 100 mile distance, plenty of time for photography and side trips, plenty of easy curves, the kind that tempt you to push a little harder near the tail end, virtually no traffic, and when you stop for a break there's birdsong all around you. Route 1095 has got to be one of the world's best motorcycle rides. The blow-by-blow follows.

The route
Banyan tree
Friday, March 26: I left Chiang Mai this morning at about 10 pm and went through its North Gate heading north on Rte 107 to the junction of 1095 where I hung a left into the good riding. As I said above, Route 1095 is a terrific biking road: it climbs to about 4600 feet to cross a ridge and offers plenty of curves and ups and downs, beautiful forests, and mellow surroundings. I never went faster than about 80 km/hr and when I saw something I wanted to photograph I merely pulled over and took a picture.  At one point I pulled over took out the pinner that an Alaska friend had given me in Bangkok the night I was with Joe, and took a few small hits. From that point on I really slowed down and enjoyed the ride. When I was here earlier during the big motorcycle trip, the guys were always pushing ahead to get to our next destination. Today, after realizing that Pai is at most a 3 hour trip from Chiang Mai, I slowed way down and took in the sights. I have some good photos of a huge and spectacular banyan tree that I want to work on in Photoshop later. I took a side trip to the Pongduet Hotsprings and against my better judgment paid 225 baht to enter but after I walked in I realized that I was almost the only person in the entire park.
Pongduet Hotsprings geyser
Bamboo thicket
 I took photos of the geyser, laid myself down on the ground and listened to the wind and the birdsong, thoroughly enjoying the peace and quiet. I reckon I’m still feeling fairly blissed out. The dope helped, thoughts of what might be ahead with Nut helped, thoughts of my good fortune helpedbut whatever the causes, I was really digging the ride. The road climbed to about 4600 feet during the trip and up there it was so cool and refreshing I wished I could stay and set up camp.
A flower at the Hotsprings

Along the road to Pongduet Hotsprings

Walkway at Pongduet Hotsprings

My cabin at Rim Pai Cottages
Friday, March 26th, 6 pm:  It's evening now and I’m sipping a Singha on my quiet deck watching the sky darken and wondering how it will go with Nut when I return to Bangkok. I feel a strong attraction for her and apparently, she feels the same for me, although obviously we know nothing much one another as yet. We exchange sweet little text messages every day and chat too but the language barrier coupled with poor cell phone acoustics keep us from having a very long conversation. How could we really get together given our massively different realities? Yet the attraction is strong. Although I hesitated to voice this except in my own mind, at some level I had hoped I might find a Thai lover during this trip. Maybe that’s the biggest reason we’re headed into this as yet undefined relationship.

Saturday, March 27, 2010 8 am Rim Pai Cottages

I'm up much too early after not getting to bed until late last night. Ainara and I didn’t meet until about 10 pm even though she arrived in town just before 8 o'clock. Ah well, she's Spanish after all and was perhaps still going on Bilbao time ;-) When she spotted me she yelled, Daaaaaave!  ran over and gave me a huge bear-hug.  It was damn good to see her again. She’s a beautiful lady with tons of vivacious energy. I asked how things were going, and about a job interview she’d had in Chiang Mai earlier in the day but she said, "It was only okaybut no worries, things will work out eventually.  I have enough money to stay here for a while and if nothing turns up I’ll head to Australia and find something there." She had hooked up with some folks who she brought to our get together, Luka, an Italian traveler, and two Israelis, Elia and Edan, a couple on tour after their army gig was up.  We had a good time exchanging stories and eating the great curries at Na’s. Then we adjourned to the Bamboo Bar on the river and stayed there until about 3 am.
Ainara, Luca, Edan and Elia starting the evening at Na's
I’m up because we’re all going to meet at 9:30 for breakfast and a moto trip to the waterfalls up the road. Ainara is reluctant to drive a moto herself so she will ride with me on the Phantom while the others have their own bikes. I’m not sure where else we can go because 1095 is hilly as the blazes in both directions and it’s the only road out. The Pongduet Hotsprings would be one choice but that’s quite far, maybe 80 miles round trip. In the other direction, the Baan CafĂ© is only 26 miles up the road. Maybe they’d be up for that, I’m not sure.

My cottage here is pretty nice but it’s not available tonight which means I’ll have to move somewhere. Maybe back to the Noon Guesthouse (where I stayed last month with the boys) or over where Ainara is, only a stone’s throw from here. But I need to pack my meager belongings up and get over there soon. I wish I had gotten more sleep. After our ride a big nap opportunity will present itself and I’ll take it for sure.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010, 10:30 am:
I'm writing this from the Chiang Mai airport. I have a couple of hours to kill and will take the opportunity to catch up on my Journal writing. 

Ainara and I riding the Phantom near Pai

Saturday was a very lovely day. When I saw where Ainara was staying and learned what she was paying per night I quickly signed up for a room there myself. The Golden Hut Guesthouse is right on the river, my room quite nice, and at 300 baht it's the cheapest accommodation I've had yet.

Back to the ride. We went first to a nice waterfall about 6 or7 miles west of Pai. We took a dip, sat in the sun, watched the Thai kids having a blast on the rocky slides, and chatted. It was comfy even in the sun up there. Actually Pai at 1600 ft is quite a bit cooler than Chiang Mai (1000 ft) or Bangkok all the time. The nights especially are quite pleasant. 
Ainara, my good buddy from Bilbao
Elia and Edan

Ainara at Pai Canyon
Next we drove over to Pai Canyon. It was hot and I got sweaty by the time we reached the top of the small hill overlooking the canyon. It was a surprisingly scenic place and before long, thanks to the dry breeze, I cooled down and dried off. We all took some photos, hiked around a bit, and then headed back to our hotels for nap time. Later we got together and had dinner, at Na’s again.  Afterward Ainara and I joined some other friends for a drink and I had a chance to talk with her about her plans. She’s feeling a little scared about what to do for money, and in the long term, what to do with her life. She's very earnest in her desire to help the local peoplemostly Burmese immigrant children in Mae Sotget recognized and get an education. But she’s been frustrated because the NGOs in the area are competing for funds. Moreover, much of their management is on the take and raking money off the top, money meant for the schools and those children, so that the schools are always operating in the red and are consequently chronically shorthanded.  To make matters worse, the Burmese children are not Thais and hence are do not really have a claim on any aid from the Thai government, which looks the other way when it comes to helping them.  They are foreign nationals, not Thais. It’s a mess and Ainara is caught in the middle somewhere.  I encouraged her as much as I could but felt sort of powerless to really help. But we had a great talk and strengthened our developing friendship. I hope we'll be friends for life and that we will see each other often in our future travels. This is one fantastic woman and I love her as I do Joe and Naroa, Ainara's best friend and my host in Bilbao, because they are wonderful friends and have treated me so damn well.

Below is a view from my deck at Golden Hut Guesthouse. Pai is a hugely popular tourist destination and the entire Pai River valley is built up with hotel after hotel, much of it new construction.

Rose bush along Rte 1095
The motorcycle trip back was as pleasant as the trip out. I took a few more tokes off that pinner I had left from the ride in and, as before, took the rest of the ride at an easy, safe pace. I took a few of the smoother, juicier turns briskly but mostly I just hung back, stopping to take a photo now and again, and enjoyed the feelings of being on my own, riding a motorcycle in such a wonderful place, and loving Thailand and its people. Did another side trip too, this time to the Mork Fa Waterfall, and once again I found an utterly empty park. It looks as though if there’s a fee involved, even the modest 120 baht fee I paid here, you will be pretty much alone. It’s a fantastic place. I took  a few photos, relaxed for a half hour and then moved on.

Mork-Fa Waterfall 
Here are a few scenes from the ride back:

Along Route 1095

Temple on Route 1095

Sign at Mork-Fa - This is no joke. OSHA would go nuts in Thailand!
I did my last moto ride of the trip out of Chiang Mai yesterday. The rental period on my bike was not up until 3:30 so I had resolved Sunday afternoon to do a ride early the next day. I had plans to attend the huge Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai, but in the event, I couldn’t enjoy the market because when checking my saved emails from AirAsia, I mistakenly concluded that I’d set up my return to Bangkok for 23:50, almost midnight. I promptly got on Skype and tried to get an earlier arrival time but AirAsia will only allow one change per ticket and I had already re-booked my flight when I decided to return earlier to Bangkok.  I was prepared to sacrifice that last ride to go to the AirAsia office near Tha Phae Gate in the morning to buy a completely new ticket with an earlier arrival time. I did not want to lose Tuesday with Nut, especially as she was taking the day off to be with me.

I was in bed fairly early and slept well until I bolted awake at 5 am thinking:  wait a minute, the lady I spoke with when I first changed my itinerary had told me my flight’s departure time——it was something like 12:25, and I had it written down on a slip of paper in my wallet! I quickly dug out my wallet. Sure enough, there it was——departing Chiang Mai at 12:25, March 30. I quickly logged in to AirAsia on the Internet and checked “My Bookings”. Yep, it was there, just as it should have been. I returned to my slumbers much relieved.

I had spent much of Sunday night in a panic but I had made a careless error. I had looked at my original itinerary, not the updated one. How I could have missed the original April 3rd departure date is, now, quite beyond me. I was booked to return by about 1:30 and I should be with Nut by no later than 3 pm.  The trouble I cause myself in these cases is just ridiculous. Once panic sets in things go downhill in a hurry.

Anyway, the ride was phenomenal. Route 1004 to Doi Pui is another motorcycling dream. Nice smooth highway with enough of an altitude gain to make for very pleasant biking as the ride progresses and the air cools, many places to stop for food or refreshment with your choice of several side trips to scenic places (waterfalls, quiet creek-sides), if you have the time to take them in. I would ride it often if I lived in Chiang Mai.

Butterfly: at a waterfall near Chiang Mai
Butterfly: at a waterfall near Chiang Mai

Contented traveler

Quiet stream off of Route 1004
Butterfly: at a waterfall near Chiang Mai