Posts Tagged ‘Thailand’

First backpacking trip lessons

March 1, 2010 1 comment

We’re back in Zhuhai with Chinese New Year resolutions.  Brian wants to quit smoking and lose 20 pounds.  I’m vowing to scoot around the firewall and update this account more often–and improve my Chinese!  I do have resolutions of another kind, though, to be used at another time.  I wouldn’t have any resolutions to make, however, without first looking back on the past few weeks.  There are things that I did on the Thailand/Malaysia trip that I would hesitate to do again, though many things that were wonderful and perfectly right.

A.  Right thing: spending enough time in one place to be able to experience in it.  Wrong thing: spending too much time in said place.

There was no reason to stay in Bangkok for four days.  Day four was just spent in overwhelmed hiding from the city, in air conditioning and eating food that I’d already eaten before.  I was happy to be in Kuala Lumpur for several days, because it gave me the opportunity to visit with my friends, but had it not been the end of the trip, and had I not been on the last ringets of my paycheck, I really would’ve liked to visit the tea plantations or something outside the cities for a day or two.  Cities help with reconnecting to civilization, but too much civilization can give you heat stroke.  The money dilemma, however, leads me to my next lesson:

B.  The street is the best place for food.  The convenience store is the best place for booze.

If I had stuck to that rule, I would definitely have made it to the highlands.  There are, of course, meals that are special or reserved for special occasions, but after a while everything becomes a special occasion…last night in a city, first night in a city, a birthday, a first visit to a waterfall…With the exception of Nop’s specially caught squid in Khao Lak, the best food I had on the trip was Pad Thai and Char Kuay Teow–both from food stalls.  The wine coolers and domestic beers aren’t usually better, but they are within budget and definitely do the trick.

C.  Set goals.

This may be something meant more for my own personality, but unless I’m prepared for an activity, unless I’ve done all the research previously and know how to go about it, I’m perfectly happy in a hammock with a book for the entire trip.  I read four of them over the course of this trip: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, A Land on Fire by James Fahn and The Beach by Alex Garland.  While part of me is proud of that fact, the other part of me isn’t so proud.  Trips such as these, especially when only on the road for a few weeks, are about exploration and discovery of new cultures.  I resisted the “to do list” method to traveling because I have had some to-do list making travel companions in the past who were not very flexible in their approach and really knew how to kill a good time.  However, while most of my reading was done on a train platform, some of it was done when I could’ve been out at an Islamic Art Museum or a park, or exploring architecture, or meeting new people, or something else that I could’ve learned about if one of those books I’d read was a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.  Which leads me to my last point:

D.  Never travel without a guide!

Lonely Planet took me to some of the most fun times I’ve ever had in Hong Kong, as well as in Florence, Pisa, Siena, Rome and Vienna.  Without it, Brian and I were mapless, uncharted wanderers in much-charted territory going “what do you wanna do?”  “I don’t know, what do you wanna do?”  We always ended up doing something, but with a guide and a plan, we could have done a lot more, a lot more cheaply, and with a lot more efficiency.

There were plenty of small lessons to be learned as well: Clean and Clear oil absorbing sheets are the bomb in the tropics, as is showering as many times as possible, as is washing things in your sink on the first day you reach a location rather than the night before you leave.  Those are practical things I’m sure anyone besides I, the sometimes overly big-picture oriented person, would most certainly have thought of before buying a plane ticket.  Also, I learned that places like Surat Thani are a necessary evil, as are things like waiting until 3am for a train while your travel companion sings “The green grass grows all around all around…” over and over again.  Shiver.

Anyway, thanks for reading so faithfully for the past few month, and special shout-outs to Usha and Anu for hosting me in Kuala Lumpur!  I had a wonderful time and you were great hosts!

The next few weeks of work should be pretty interesting, and I’ve resolved to try to help you all get more insight into Chinese culture as I do myself.  So stay tuned!


Meanwhile, Back in Surat Thani

February 10, 2010 2 comments

“Temple!  Temple!  Temple!  HA–34 POINTS!”

I couldn’t determine the accent of the couple next to us, but they were definitely speaking English.  Crammed in the front of the bus from Khao Lak, scoring one point for every bird-house like construction that they saw standing in front of a house.  They’re not exactly temples, I kept biting back.  They’re actually called “Spirit Houses”, and are used to keep any and all ghosts/poltergeists/demons sheltered and out of the house.  The more people who have died in any given spot, the bigger the Spirit House.  They come in bright colors, and are gilded in the clawed style of Thai Temples.

“SPIRIT HOUSE!” may’ve been a difficult thing to shout, though…every time they yelled “temple!”, a drop of water from the leaky air conditioner landed on Brian’s shoulder.


The final day and a half in Khao Lak was beautiful, but we’d gotten antsy again.  After our wade across the lagoon, one of the workers of the Sunset Bar rushed from the beach hut to summon Nop, who brought us a tray of 4  squid.  They’d just been pulled out of the ocean, and their skin was flashing from purple to white and every hue in between.  Nop told us that’s how we could tell it was fresh.  He cooked two for us with lemony spices with sauteed cabbage, onion, and carrots.  We could barely finish.

“Three people on a motorcycle!  46 points!”

Saddlesore yesterday, we left the bikes beside the Amsterdam Resort workers, who were cracking open shells on the bricks outside the computer room.  We walked two blocks to the International Tsunami Museum.  It was little more than two skinny stories with a few presentation boards with facts and photos, a small laptop with seismic readings and a horrifying video of the wave coming in, but it was extremely effective.  It’s been six years already, but the memory is still poignant, and the results are observable in the sparse population, the construction outlets, and the under-utilized, but beautiful beach.  Most of the facts about the incident can be found online.  One thing I didn’t know, that I think is worth sharing, is that the earthquake that set the waves in motion also moved the North Pole by an inch. 

I realized that I was more shaken by the visit to the Tsunami Museum than by my visit to Auschwitz two years ago, which was confusing.  But then, for something like the Holocaust, one can focus anger on the evil people who were the cause and the perpepuation.  I can’t hate the ocean, or fault lines, so the feelings are a little more conflicted…

“Temple…Temple….MONKEY ON A MOTORCYCLE!!!”

We lurched forward to look as the bus passed a man riding a moped down the left side of the road, literally with a monkey clinging to its back. 

Our train will get here after midnight.  We’re sipping fountain drinks in the internet cafe surrounded by Thai teenage boys playing computer games.  We’ll arrive in Penang, Malaysia tomorrow morning at noonish.  Before that, though, we’ll try to squeeze in one last Pad Thai.

Perfection (barring jellies and tsunamis)

February 8, 2010 4 comments

We knew when we were herded onto the open truck with a couple of Poles and all of our gear that we weren’t getting to Khao Lak that night.  The bus station, as the man at the Surat Thani information desk had warned us, was an overpriced Tourist Agency that didn’t even sell tickets to our location.  We had gone irrevocably downtown away from the bus station, and by that point so had the sun.

We crossed the street in a bit of a huff, I refused to pay the cab driver (and miraculously got away with it–possibly because we stomped away while he hassled the Poles).  There, however, we were drawn back to another agency where a polite woman named Ahn convinced us to spend the night at a low cost backpacker hostel and then take the 7am bus the next day.

Surat Thani is like the Kettleman City of Southern Thailand, albeit slightly larger.  It’s a juncture from which one can head to a multitude of different spots of interest.  It’s got the cheap In&Out burgers (or Pad Thai, rather), but it doesn’t have much else.  We lay in the hostel watching a Jessica Alba movie until we fell asleep.  It was a bit of a disappointment, as we’d been on the train from Bangkok for eight hours that day and had spent our final day in Bangkok in air conditioned markets or indoors hiding from the rabid street vendors and Ladyboys.  In our defense, though, Zhuhai does not have the National Geographic channel.

So until today we had been feeling a bit disillusioned, a bit tired of temples and pretending to pray to gods we didn’t feel any connection to, and a bit disappointed in ourselves as travelers.  We got on the bus, and fell right back to sleep.

Five hours later we got off the bus and were in Paradise.  I mean the city of Khao Lak on the Southwest Coast of Thailand.  We’d read about it on and seen that it was very small, friendly, and was trying to recover from the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami.  If ever there was an opposite to Bangkok, this was it.  We sat down in the “D-Time Bar” where the servers saw our backpacks and immediately called our hotel for us.

As we sat, sipping cool drinks and staring at the emerald-green mountains, a lanky farang (foreigner) with a fanny pack stalked up to us.

“You speak English or Sprechen sie deutcshe?”  He told us that he was Kees and would be taking us to the Amsterdam Resort.

Don’t let “Resort” fool you–I’m far from a high roller.  What we got was a simple bungalow with a fan and a mosquito net.  We did find out, however, that Kees is in charge of the place itself.  He likes to sit at a table in the center of the open-air restaraunt giving free travel advice and adding up totals on a clacky-keyed calculator.

We ran straight into the ocean, and then straight back out, after Brian was stung by a jellyfish.  After that incident we decided to take it easy and wade across the lagoon to a beach shack called the Sunset Bar, where we sat, quietly, until sunset.  Nop, the owner, came to us with a brown paper folder full of before and after pictures from the tsunami.  He apparently, had the bar for years before.  There had once been evergreen trees surrounding it.  There had not been any lagoon.

We promised to come back, tonight, for dinner.

Brian and I spent the day cycling on the left side of the road to witness white sand beaches and step over dead jellies lying in beds of shells.  Tomorrow we’re going to hike to a waterfall.  Right now, though, we’ve got a date with Nop, a Sunset, and squid.

Suck on that, Bangkok.


February 3, 2010 3 comments

So what brings me to the biggest tourist magnet this side of the equator, complete with crowded temples, gem scams, commodified everything and ambiguous cultural genuineness?  Well…I’m just a TA getting paid Chinese wages.  What did I expect–the glitz and expense of Tokyo?  It’s my second night on the tourist circuit of Thailand/Malaysia, I’ve seen more white people here and heard more English than I have since I was in Hong Kong during October.  It’s got its merits, some of which I’ve really enjoyed, and some of which I’m still trying to figure out.

So here’s a breakdown on Bangkok so far:

A.  I’m traveling with my friends Jim and Brian, and we’re staying at what has turned out to be the gayest hotel in Bangkok.  There’s a twenty four hour internet cafe with art deco windows and amazing pad thai on the bottom floor.  Working boys are sitting at every table that a leering white man is not.  One of our Chinese friends met up with us today–Jimmy–my age and incredibly bright and cute–and he was trying to ignore the wrinkled stares.  Or at least laugh it off.

B.  We hopped a package trip today that was arranged by the omnipresent concierge at our front desk.  We should have known by the diamond shaped diagram on the back that we would be rushed through all of the colorful tiled spiers and solid gold Buddhas (including the 5500 kg and one 46m long reclining, and one in a temple made of Carrara marble) and shuttled through a gem shop.  Every guidebook I’ve ever read from Thailand has sworn me away from these places…but here we were, uncomfortably trying to shake off the overeager saleswoman and find the exit.  We just grit our teeth, waited for a shuttle and stared at sharks as they circled a tank in the center of the showroom.

C.  Our new Thai friend, Ken, has been accompanying us everywhere and helping us with translation.  He’s a chef about 100km south in Pattaya, and today he took us through a knot of street food stalls into a teal lunchroom, complete with stacks of Pepsi crates and posters of the King in his smart glasses and side part.  We had plates and plates of chicken livers, duck meat and fats, bean sprouts atop spicy noodles and coconut milky soups.  We’d been canistered inside of the Gem-scam van all day with no food, and we were happily sated.  Walking amongst the buckets of steaming ingredients, the soup pots, and the barbecue stalls, I felt like I was in the middle of an episode of No Reservations, complete with local “fixer”, dark dining rooms, and offal.

D.  Last night we went to the red light district.  I don’t want to make this too graphic, but I definitely saw some things that I never want to see again, and got a ping pong ball shot at my leg from a place a ping pong ball should never be.  Chandy (what we’ve been calling our co-workers Chad and Andy) who had been staying at the same hotel as us, sat next to me in silent horror.  Our mutual friend, my travel mate Brian, managed to violate most Thai tabboos, lifting his legs up and showing the bottom of his feet, laughing and dancing so uproariously that he was the first one accosted by tip jars (which didn’t confuse anyone but him), and attempting to take a picture as he stood, quite literally under the “NO PICTURE.  NO DVD.” sign in blacklight paint.  The photo was blurry, but it would’ve shown us all with our mouths in the shape of “NOOOO!”

So that’s it for now.  I’ll try to blog every few days so as not to get too behind.  If you have any advice for what to do while I’m in Thailand, let me know.  All I really know is that I’m heading South from Bangkok, and want to be in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia by Chinese New Year to see my friend Usha 🙂