Thursday, April 29, 2004

Nha Trang and Hoi An

It has been rather quiet the last few days. I spent most of them on the beach, and, oh yeah, recovering my passport from a bout of extreme self-stupidity.

There was an election a few days ago. If anyone voted I didn’t notice.

I left Saigon for the beaches of Nha Trang. The train ride was uneventful, except for the ancient Vietnamese lady I shared a train cabin with smacking at my hands over dinner. Apparently I have terrible table manners.

Nha Trang is beautiful. Turquoise water, white sand to the horizons, and NO ONE on the beach. It is considered horribly ugly for Vietnamese to get a tan so they are nowhere near the beach. And even the girls selling things are wrapped up like mummies. So, except for some tubby Germans in thongs and whiter than white Englishmen, the beach was largely deserted.

The next day I went to the spa, or, to be exact, the Thap Ba Hot Spring Center. I was swayed by the very convincing line in the brochure, which said, “Soaking in Mineral Mud is Very Interesting.” For $4 you get round trip transportation and a day at the spa. I went with this nutty Canadian couple. He was this big guy who did road construction when he wasn’t backpacking--funny as hell--and she seemed to keep him from hurting himself with pointy objects. We had been in the spa for all of 20 minutes, hadn’t even made it to the mud yet, before he appears with 3 beers. First, I hit the mineral mud. Soaked is probably a generous term for what I did. Wallowed would be less romantic but more accurate. Then on to the hot mineral pools. We stayed there until we were dizzy, which didn’t take too long when you are slugging beer at 10 am. Then we walked through the “Massage by High Pressure Spray.” It was pretty much how it sounds, a toned down version of mid-60s Alabama crowd control. Then into the hot mineral pools: a pair of gorgeous swimming pools, with water too hot and thick to swim in.

That night I left for points north.

Here is where I get stupid. In order to leave my bag at the hotel for the day, I had to leave my passport. I picked up the bag on the way to the train, but not the passport. And the clerk, who was staring at my passport as he gave me the bag, said nothing. I didn’t realize I didn’t have it until I arrived in Hoi An. But for a small fee and a couple days delay, they were happy to arrange to send it to me. Apparently this happens fairly often.

I poked around Hoi An for the day, cute little tourist trap with traditional Chinese architecture. And stupid expensive. I had some clothes made though by the “world famous” tailors. I have to admit, they were pretty good. The seamstress sewed her own tags into the clothes for god’s sake. The touts were unbelievably aggressive. I actually hid out in the housewares section of the market for a while just to get some peace. You wouldn’t believe how cheap rice pots are! That night I took a cooking class. It was a little expensive and turned out to be more a demonstration than actual cooking, but I achieved my goal. I can now make a spring roll. Ever seen a white girl of indeterminate European origin attempt to roll something in rice paper and deep fry it? Here’s a tip for all the kids at home: Stand Back.

Next day I hit the beach. In Hoi An you have a choice of two beaches, China Beach, where the US Marines landed in 1965, or the “boat people” beach, where, for 10 years, refugees took off heading for the Philippines. I chose “Boat People.” It was a pleasant 5 km bike ride outside of town. It was quiet. I sat in the sun. Traded baseball insults with a couple of guys from Detroit. Flirted with a cute Irish boy. With emphasis on the boy part. He and I ended up going out for drinks that night. Wow (I thought) what a dumb rich kid you are. He loved to hear himself talk. His stories included things like the night he and his buddies were at Chris de Burghe’s (ßSpelling?) house when he was out of town, partying with his son; then, you know, they got really drunk and put on his scuba gear and jumped into the splash pool. And then there was this time when he was visiting his Dad who lives in Nice, and Dad had to buy him another motorcycle because he wrecked the first one trying to show off to some girls outside a club. The vast majority of these stories ended with something truly witty like, “and then we made him drink a bottle of our piss…” Like I said, cute—had I been five years younger and recently had a frontal lobe lobotomy. I decided not to sleep with him.

The following day, I finally got the passport and was ready to leave this god-forsaken rip off central. I go to the corner to eat yet another bowl of noodle soup (comprises roughly 75% of my diet) and wait for transport. While I am waiting and happily munching my ’Pho, I get into a nice chat with a moto driver. He offers to drive me the 30 km to the train station for the same price as the pickup truck, but he is faster and more comfortable. I agree. I am finishing my soup when the truck shows up. The helper jumps off and grabs my bag and throws it up top of the truck. I quickly pay for my soup and begin protesting. They conveniently don’t speak English and the moto driver gets involved. I am not really sure what was said, but the pick up diver jumps out of the truck and clocks the moto driver upside the head, who is 15 years older and cross-eyed. The two of them start tussling on the ground like a pair of schoolboys. I am not really sure what to do. The soup lady intervenes by throwing me physically into the truck and scolding the two men. And off I go in the truck. I guess in the end it was for the best though. Who knows what fate would have befallen me on the back of a moto with a cross-eyed driver that had recently suffered some head trauma?

After a quick stop at the Cham Museum, which houses the art of the Cham people that we didn’t blow to bits in the late ‘60s, I got on my train to Hanoi. Which is where I am now. Today is Reunification Day and tomorrow is May Day, so it should be a rip roaring time up here.

Confidential to EG : I finally saw a creature of note. I was hanging out at the old Chinese drinking house night before last and there was this HUGE spider chilling in the ladies room. He was smaller and thinner than those monster porte-a-scorpions in Burkina, and without those big digging legs, but he was big and had this mid-80 GAP stripey pattern. Layed out, he would have been a bit bigger than the palm of your hand. I’ll be on the lookout for anything else. (Physical descriptions like this are really cool. You might think of adding a bit more visual images throughout. This is “literary non-fiction” after all so you can add lots of stuff if you want, though just a little might be appropriate. For example, not just “moto” but “green and black moto.” Or, maybe not.).

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Just A Quiet Day in Saigon

I know this is unprecedented, but as I have hours to kill before my 11 pm night train to Nha Trang (and the beach), I will send my second e-mail trip update in as many days. And this one contains a great story about stripping naked and paying a Vietnamese woman to beat me. (That sounds promising!!) But that just happened. In the interests of chronology, I will start with the morning . . . .

This morning I went with a tour group to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Saigon. The Cu Chi tunnels were part of a network of 250 kms that the Viet Cong used to beat us in the war, and are a fun day trip if you don’t mind looking at medals labeled “#1 American Killer” or “Best American Tank Destroyer.” Slightly uncomfortable at points, but everyone is pretty good natured about the fact that they vanquished the American imperialists and my money is as green as anyone else’s. On the way out to the tunnels, our very nice Vietnamese guide (whose brother was killed in the war) talked a blue streak. Bad jokes, non-sequitor stories, you name it. The only time he shut up is when a dump truck ran us partly off the road and we took out some woven palm screens drying on the roadside. Right before we arrived at the tunnels, he had, for a change, a relevant piece of information to share. “Well, you see, I do not want to tell you, but I am not licensed guide. I point you in right direction then, if you need me, I hiding in the washroom.” Terrific. Luckily he stuck us with someone fairly knowledgeable and we made it through. The tour consisted of looking at various parts of the complex, kitchens, field hospitals, etc, as well as the indigenous weaponry (bamboo spike pits and such). They showed us a spider hole and let us try to squeeze down it. I was cursed by the million things in my pockets at any given time, and the bane of most Western Women’s existence, hips. We did get to crawl 100 meters through one of the tunnels though. The word un-frigging-comfortable comes to mind. Now, as you all know, I am pretty short, but even I was reduced to crawling on my hands and knees at one point. And good Christ it was hot. These things were just a maze of tunnels and war rooms and bedrooms and such. It was really like being in an anthill.

After fun-with-tunnels, I decided to continue with my Americans-as-the-Capitalist-Aggressor theme and went to the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum. It was as impartial as one can expect a victor’s museum to be (hell, we have the Enola Gay in the Smithsonian), but some of those pictures are pretty damning. Particularly of the My Lai massacre. In the same way I can’t understand Pol Pot killing babies, American GIs doing the same is even harder. You can tell that the museum was recently revamped to not offend American tourists (even the blood-soaked imperialist Yankee dollar is convertible…), and now it says things like, “Not to lay blame on any one country, but to prevent this tragedy from ever re-occurring.” But still, you don’t want to open your mouth for fear someone will recognize your accent. Some of the labeling on the exhibits though was still a bit suspect. There were American machine guns with captions that read something along the lines of, “This semi-automatic weapon became standard issue, and was largely used to suppress anti-war demonstrations and torture suspected members of the Viet Cong.” They neglect to mention “shoot back.”

In order to keep from having to commit ritual hari-kari, I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Reunification Palace (and listened to them kick around the French for a while), then I went to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, which was bizarrely surrounded by pools of copulating turtles of all varieties.

So now, with a few hours to kill before my train, I decided to treat myself to nems for dinner and a massage. There is a school for blind students that teaches them how to give massages so they will have a way to earn a living. I thought, well, I can get a massage and still help the poor blind third world masses. Everyone loves sustainable development, where is the bad? So I go in and buy my ticket from the only sighted person in the whole compound (the guy taking the money), and get sent to the ladies side. I go into the curtained off cubicle and take off my clothes. Now I had been warned that this is a no-nonsense hard massage, and that I should take my bra off or they were going to yell at me. So I am lying on this table with a towel on, dreaming of the gentle meditations that Helen Keller would soon be rubbing into my back, when my masseuse walks in. Generally, one imagines blind people as walking slowing with a stick, or gingerly feeling their way around. Not this chick. She just walked headlong into things and bounced. Just smacked into the wall at one point. (Must be a cultural thing, huh?) Anyway, I am a little disconcerted but whatever. She starts rubbing my back and I relax a bit.

Then she starts beating the holy living hell out of me. Pinching, slapping and pounding on my back. I can’t complain because she doesn’t speak English. It feels like boulders are raining down on my back. Then she takes a break to check the tensile strength of my rib cage. Then back to boulder rain. She moves down my legs to by feet. OH! CHRIST! I know from the museum today that the Geneva Conventions prohibits beating on the souls of the feet! Oh Jeez, you are trying to tear out my Achilles Tendon! Then she walks around the table, taking out a perfectly innocent chair on the way, and begins to beat around the face and head. First she takes my head and PLANTS it into the pillow, WWF style. Then the noogies start. She has me turn over and goes into a routine that varies between drilling a hole in my forehead, and violent-child-patting-the-dog. Then back to boulder rain again. After 45 minutes or so of this violence, she lets me go, with a happy chirp of the word “finished.”

Now I am killing time in this internet cafe until my train to the beach, where I will relax and get no more massages.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Me and Mekong

So, since you last left your heroine, she has puddled around Phenom Phen and then the Mekong Delta. This fine evening finds her in Ho Chi Minh City, or the Artist Formerly Known as Saigon.

In Phenom Phen, I went to see the Choeung Ek, more widely known as the Killing Fields, and S21, Pol Pot’s famous torture center. (Coupled with Birkenau, I just need to go to Rwanda for the genocide hat trick.) The Killing Fields and S21 were gruesome. Whatever goes through people’s heads when they are killing children with garden hoes is beyond my comprehension. And for the record, Pol Pot was one crazy evil son of a bitch. With weeks of taking power he rounded up all the artists, academics, and intellectuals in the country and started to kill them. Everyone I know would have been in the first to go. The Killing Fields are now an open space with a tall stupa filled with layers and layers of skulls. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of skulls. Some you could tell how they died, bullet holes or skulls smashed in, some you couldn’t. They were labeled in groups of age and sex; for example, “Girls Aged 10 to 15,” “Infants,” and “Senile Men 60 and Over.” Beyond the stupa you could see the excavations of mass graves, square holes in the earth marked with signs like, “Mass Graves Containing the Bodies of More Than 100 Women and Children, Mostly Naked.” Next to the sign was a pile of broken bones and teeth. S21 actually bothered me even more. It was formerly a French high school complex, eerily similar to the one I taught in while in Africa. The conditions were horrendous: tiny cells and large rooms where hundreds could be chained to the floor. In the rooms now were thousands of pictures of men, women, and children that “worked” there. There was also an exhibit that showed current pictures and snippets of interviews with “Victims and Perpetrators.” Considering that only seven people survived, most of the people featured were perpetrators.

That afternoon I decompressed with some museums and temples and what not, but it sort of put a damper on the city. I even took the next day off from sightseeing.

Then it was off to the Mekong. And, Jesus, I have to stop drinking the night before I leave someplace. I slept through my alarm again and only made it to the bus because one of the guys from the guesthouse banged on my door. I had 10 minutes to shower, dress, pack and to get rid of the half naked Englishman I found in bed with me. I dashed out to the bus and just made it. I was literally still drunk as I had only stopped drinking two hours before. I took the boat over and set up shop on the border. Let me tell you, Vietnam is a different place than Thailand or Cambodia. In the latter two, public displays of extreme emotion are frowned upon: it’s a religious thing. In Vietnam they are playing ball with a whole different Buddha. It is much more like China. Hotter, faster, dirtier and vastly more interesting. And there are no private cars here. Nada. There are a couple of NGO Range Rovers, but all the rest are public transport and motos. Thousands and thousand and maybe millions of motos. Which they drive completely without regard for anyone or anything else. The ride I just took from the bus station trumps by Cotonou wrong-way-round-8-lane-traffic-circle for the scariest ride of my life.

The first day I was in a place called Chau Doc. From there I hired a driver and daytripped to couple nearby villages. We got off to a slow start . The moto blew a tire in the first 30 minutes. The driver dropped me off at a roadside thatched hut to drink tea and watch Chinese movies with the women folk while he went to get it fixed. The movie we watched was set in Imperial China, but was likely made circa 1983, judging by the mullets on the heroes (which is a feat and a half with one of those long que tails), and the feathered bangs and blue eyeshadow on all the heroines. When we got moving again, the first stop was Ba Chuc, another on the Pol Pot’s Greatest Hits list. As if I needed another reason to think he was a Class A motherfucker. Cambodian troops came over the border and massacred over 3,000 people in three weeks in April 1978. A lovely ancient old man was kind enough to mime a disaster inflicted on his country by someone else other than my country. And then we had some tea.

From there I went to Tuc Dup Hill. Tuc Dup Hill is a hill (though it likely was a mountain at one point in time) that the US spent over 2 million dollars trying to capture between 1968 and 1972. And outnumbered the Vietnamese over the years 20 to 3. Anyway, now they let you sit on the 500 kg unexploded bombs and run around the cave structure. My guide was very nice about the whole me being an American thing. He didn’t speak a lick of English and therefore described the scenes basically by pointing to me, making machine gun / airplane bomb run noises, then pointing to him. But, like I said, he was really good-natured about the whole thing.

Back to the guesthouse for my bag, then off to Cân Tho’.

Today I went on a boat trip down the Mekong. We saw some floating markets, which were like regular markets, but with boats to run into each other with. The more interesting part though was just floating through the villages on the river. The river in is the main street. It’s really neat, but again is one of those things that would sound really sappy if I tried to explain it, so I just suggest you see it for yourself, or look at the OBSCENE number of pictures that I took.

After that is was on to HCMC. I employed my new strategy for getting from one place to the other on the way out. I get on the back of a moto and loudly repeat my destination. Either the driver will take me to the bus, the air-conditioned minibus, the regular minibus, or take me there himself. I give up an element of price control, but at least I get there.

As I checked into a hotel, they told me that they had a room with a fan for $7 a night, or a room with A/C, satellite TV, fridge, phone, and hot water for $8 a night. You better believe I sacrificed the dollar. The room is unreal. I haven’t been anywhere with hot water and climate control in weeks. The toilet was even sanitized for my protection! Pure, unadulterated heaven.

Before I conclude this e-mail from afar, I would like to add a new segment to our little time together. “Interesting things strapped interesting places.” As there are no private cars here in Vietnam, everything must be strapped on to the back of moto bikes, or to your person. (RPCVs in the house are familiar with this.) Anyway, yesterday, I saw two gentlemen riding their moto with three 19” TV screen / tubes strapped to each, one on each thigh and one on the back. I would imagine this would be difficult to do, but when you got to move 6 screens, what’s a coupla guys to do?

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Holiday in Cambodia

So I am in Phenom Phem, the capital of Cambodia. I survived Songkran in Thailand, though it took me a few days to dry out. I went to a beach party that basically involved beer, techno, waterguns and Thai fire dancers (which basically <-word repeated too often involved kerosene and keeping back 5 meters). The next morning I embarked on a 32 hour trip from the southern Thai islands to Siem Reap, the town near the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia. I have to say that the bus to Bangkok was the most uncomfortable trip I have made since I made the Ouagadougou –Lome run back in my Peace Corps days. There was so little leg room you actually had to wiggle to get you legs between your seat and the one in front of you.

The trip up to the border was uneventful enough. The crossing took unnecessarily long and had the added pleasure of having to walk the gauntlet of 10-year-old pickpockets from the immigration building to customs. Then we waited three hours for transportation. I thought I would be a savvy traveler during the wait. I needed another bottle of water, but instead of buying it at the tourist center where we were waiting, I would go out and across the street to the local shop, therefore saving up to 50¢. Unfortunately in said local shop, I ran into some children celebrating Songkran. And they were into the flour throwing aspect of the celebration, in addition to the water. I recrossed the street, soaking wet and smeared with hardening white goo, but proudly clutching my reasonably priced bottle of water. Hehe.

On the way from the Cambodian border to Siem Reap, we had to drive very very slowly because it was still the Songkran festival and the driver needed to throw water balloons at passers by. And the road was awful, on par with Burkina rainy season roads. And we had to cross a bunch of little rivers on these bridges made from a metal frame and unsecured railroad ties. The only comfort was that the metal bridge frames weren’t rusty because they are no older that I am (joint kudos to Richard Nixon and Pol Pot on that one.)

The next morning I hired a motocab and set off for Siem Reap. I should have known known what? when the guy got pulled over in the first 5 minutes. He went the wrong way around a traffic circle and the cop confiscated his moto. He had to pay one hell of a bribe to get it back . . . . We spent the day tooling around the temples.

In the beginning we had some communication issues, i.e. he couldn’t speak any English and didn’t realize that I wanted to actually stop and walk around the temples. He just drove by. Eventually we worked out a system where I smacked him on the back a few times and he stopped. Angkor Wat is incredible. I will leave it at that. Anything else I could say would sound like nancy-pansy hippy stuff and you know that isn’t my scene. Go see it yourself if you can. If not, I will bring the OBSCENE number of pictures I took over and we can have a look.

My favorite temple was Ta Prohm, one of the jungle temples. I got there at sunrise and had the whole temple to myself. I was supposed to go watch the sunrise somewhere else, but my driver got lost. I didn’t see another soul for almost an hour. I was completely playing Laura Croft in Tomb Raider (I’ve never seen it but I have a good imagination - and point of reference as it was filmed there.) I would set the auto timer on my camera, then run, jump and swing into the frame. Most of the shots are me as a blur, but I was having a hell of a time. When there is just you in this huge temple, it is almost like you discovered it. Again, I recommend it, especially the Laura Croft thing.

I left Siem Reap this morning. I was supposed to take a nice air-conditioned minibus down, but I ended up getting completely drunk last night and sleeping through my alarm. I fell in with this group of Irish and English travelers and that was that. At eleven last night I said I was leaving “the pub” as soon as my glass was done, and don’t you know it took me to 3 am to down the thing. Using my new-found Harvard intellect, I deduced that perhaps they were putting more beer in it when I wasn’t looking or dancing on the bar or something. (Sounds familiar!) Anyway, the moral of the story is I was out $5 for the bus ticket and had to find another way to Phenom Phen. Being a former Peace Corps volunteer, I decided to take local transport. At the local bus depot, a nearby dirt field, I selected my vehicle. One driver tried to entice me into his less filled truck with promises of more room, but this wassn’t my first rodeo so I got in the full one with the engine on and therefore avoided sitting in the hot sun for hours until the second one became as crowded as the first.

Now these trucks were a different animal than the ones that I knew in Burkina. They were standard pickup trucks that you sat in the back of. With 23 of your best Cambodian friends. And their 9 children. And their luggage. And two 50 kilo sacks of rice. And a full wooden Queen sized bed frame for the newlywed couple. There are no benches, you just pile in and sit on the edge of the truck. I was late arriving so the Alpha Granny, already in the back of the truck, assigned me to the back corner with the young boys. I suppose it could have been worse, I could have been on the floor with the young girls, but still, I was not given a primo position. I was next to the luggage that was tied to the back beyond the tailgate and topped with young children. I didn’t think this was particularly safe, but they probably had insurance, right? Anyway, we take off down the road toward the capital. The pavement promptly ends just out of the line of sight of the last luxury hotel, beneath a government banner with the slogan, “Tourist Money Helps Lessen the Economic Crisis,” and resurfaces intermittently throughout the journey, mostly so the driver can hit it at Mach 1 and try to bounce you out of the truck. As people spread out I got pushed off the side of the truck and on to this metal ring that was welded onto the back to tie the luggage to.

Yes, that is as uncomfortable and dangerous as it sounds.

The only less comfortable mode of transportation I saw was the hog truck where the pigs were, um, hogtied and stacked on convenient hog transport stacking shelving units on the back of a pickup. But, we were going through the Cambodian countryside, past rivers and traditional homes, which were really quite beautiful. So it wasn’t so bad. For the first two hours. Then I ran out of water and realized it was 100 degrees out and my body remembered that I had been drinking like a fish the night before. The next six and a half hours were a little tough. I was FILTHY when I got to Phenom Phen. I mean filthy. I can’t remember my hair ever being this dirty, including all African transport. I washed it three times and the suds were still brown.

So now I am holed up in this cute little hotel in Phenom Phen. The rooms are a little ghetto, like the bathrooms don’t have sinks and the shower is a spiket roughly 6 feet above the floor. The room is tilted at a 15 degree angle. But I am paying $3 a night so I can’t complain. And this isn’t even the cheapest room. Shared showers are only $2.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Koh Tao

If I could be reasonably assured that the Christian afterlife was half as beautiful as the southern Thai island of Koh Tao, Jesus the Lord and Savior could welcome me back to the fold immediately.

I lucked out on the bus ride down and got a place on an all-together comfortable double-decker traveling coach. My luck was somewhat more questionable in that I sat next to a self-described “Crazy French… pardon Corsican” guy. He spoke broken English a mile a minute and almost completely nonstop. Also in our little seating section was a very nice Czech couple, Helene and Peter. Helene was a beautiful and shockingly nice international cosmetics sales girl. Peter was vintage Prague Rock. Not in the esoteric guitar sense, but in the long hair, “I own a motorcycle and tend bar during the graveyard shift in the basement of the Akropolis” sense. As we boarded the bus, we were instructed that when our stop is announced, we are to exit the bus immediately because it was continuing and didn’t have time for us.

Yes sir.

The trip was long due to the evening traffic in Bangkok and the broken fan belt somewhere outside Chumpton. When we did finally arrive at the port, most of the bus was asleep, as it was 3 in the morning. A small Asian man entered the bus and screamed “Koh Tao!” at the top of his lungs, prompting a Chinese fire drill to get off the bus. The situation was a little sketchy there for a few hours. We sat at a roadside restaurant and smoked cigarettes for three hours until a wooden pickup truck came to load us up and take us to the docks. Much more like I remember third world transportation. I spent most of the trip trying to reconcile the fact that I found the Swedish girl sitting next to me attractive, despite her very pronounced mullet. (Oh yuk—mullet that is, Sweedish girls OK) And then the two hour ferry ride brought us to Turtle Island -- Koh Tao.

(There aren’t actually any turtles on Turtle Island, too many drunk gap-years so they went to search out quieter waters.)

The island is unreal, with clear turquoise water, dark green hillsides and palm trees everywhere. I came here to primarily to scuba dive and was supposed to leave yesterday, but am still here and still do not possess a bus ticket out. I spent hours just floating in the turquoise water, and, dare I say, frolicking with the schools of friendly fish, including a light blue one that I seriously suspect of having less than wholesome intentions with my red painted toenails. The diving has been good; I finished my Advanced certification class and then took a Nitrox class. Nixtrox is oxygen enriched air that lets you stay down longer and is supposedly more dangerous to use. I didn’t really see that to be true unless you are planning try to smoke a cigarette at 30 meters down. The most dangerous thing that happened all week was the driver of a dive shop pickup, that I was loaded into the back of, almost going into a ditch (canyon actually) because he didn’t want to run over the enormous green snake sunning itself in the middle of the road. So I went diving, saw 8 billion types of fish (yes I actually counted) including stingrays, grouper, triggerfish (truly nasty SOBs), moray eels, barracudas by the boatload, and one lone shark. Alas the whale sharks had already passed through 2 weeks ago.

Some highlights of my diving adventures:

Night diving. So you jump off a boat in the pitch black with a flashlight and scuba gear. The last warning the instructor gives you is that not to let the 3 foot long barracudas worry you, they rarely bite, and to let him know if you see any sharks. It went well, though, and no one was bitten by the barracudas, but they were rather big and did swim a bit on the close side.

Deep diving. Deep diving takes you down to 30 meters, roughly the height of a seven story building. It’s dark down there and no colors because it is too deep for the light waves to reach it. And again, the instructor asks you to let him know if you see any sharks. We did see one, but he wasn’t too interested in us. Apparently the fact that we were all clad in colors befitting mid 80s Miami hookers convinced him that we were probably not seals.

I could go on, but you are bored already. I have been writing travelogues for years now, I know these things.

So, that brings us to today, which is the Thai New Year, Songkran. Traditionally, the New Year is celebrated by splashing water on your friends and family to cleanse them for the upcoming year. I pictured some sort of glorified baptismal spritzing, until I saw tourists and long term residents alike stocking up on Super Soakers days ahead of time. And I mean stocking up. So then I figured that it probably had been turned into some touristy waterfight with guys hosing down giggling girls in white tee shirts with the natives looking on in disgust. Wrong. The Thais are out of control. The place looked like Wild Water Kingdom the day after the Aquatic Armageddon. They are driving around on any sort of mechanized vehicle they can find with barriques (50 gallon drums) of water and what can only be described as firehoses. Nailing passers by. Especially if they are on other mechanized vehicles, like motorbikes, where the aim to knock them off. Those on the pickup truck or whatever not involved in the direct operation of the water canon are throwing buckets of water, or drinking beer, or both. Every child old enough to walk has a watergun. I have currently sought shelter in this internet cafe, but rest assured , I am soaking wet. What worries me slightly is that the festival isn’t even supposed to kick off until sunset and it is 4 in the afternoon.

Well, that is all. I am head to Cambodia next, but god only knows how long it will take me to get there because of the holidays.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

How not to get ripped off in Bangkok

Just a quick message to let all you worry warts out there know that I am in Bangkok safe and sound. I got in on Wednesday night around midnight after 20+ hours in transit. I had no real problems, but as this is my first adventure on my own, I was a bit on edge. Don’t-get-ripped-off overdrive is more like it. I got into the taxi and what came out of my mouth sounded something like this: “Hi. I need to go the Shanti Lodge on 37 Ayutthaya, soi 16. Don’t take the expressway because I know they charge tolls and there is no traffic now anyway and I know it isn’t full so don’t try to take me anywhere more expensive and make sure the meter is on and no I don’t want to go to any tailor shops or gem shops and no I won’t take any packages across the border for you.” Breath. The guy actually pulled over on the highway to see what kind of mutant he had picked up. I got there okay though.

My first day I planned to get an early start and get a good bit of sightseeing in before it got beastly hot. I was on my way to the wats (Buddhist holy places – but more on that in a minute) when I got waylaid by an Israeli guy names Shlomo – which incidentally is ancient Hebrew from Peg-Me-In-The-Face-With-a-Dogdeball – though he went by Solo. He was on his way to the Vietnamese Embassy to do visa stuff, which I had to do anyway. I decided to join him because he said that he knew where he was going and that it wasn’t far. He turned out to be wrong on both counts. After we decidedly could not find the right bus, we opted for a cab, which took 50 minutes to go 500 meters. Then we set off walking. Despite it being 5km, he insisted that it would only take 20 minutes. I was doubtful but what the hell do I know. We started walking with him following the map. He continuously assured me we were on the right road and going the right way, but I was reading over his shoulder, and, call me crazy, but I was always under the impression that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. I keep following him though because (1) I am navigationally challenged, and (2) he was great at running point for the suicide street crossings. (more here by way of explanation) We walked for a number of “20 minutes.” Eventually we got on the Sky Train and made it to the Embassy, where he was told that he couldn’t have a visa because Israel did not have formal diplomatic relations with Vietnam. I left him seething on the sidewalk and went off in search of a cold drink and some wats.

That afternoon, after a Fanta (which type) and a bowl of Thai noodle soup, I hit the three major must-see wats of Bangkok – Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). For those of you who have never been to a wat, the experience is hard to describe. If you grew up on the shore, I can explain it like this: remember drip castles you made when you were a kid? The kind where you get a bucket of wet sand and let it trickle off your fingers, making intricate towers? Think of those, but huge and gold, and, instead of our haphazard creations, being symmetrical and of incredible artistry. As for the interior, think The King and I. As with every different type of place of worship I encounter, I was amazed by the patience and piety that went into creating such a structure. And the Reclining Buddha was especially frigging cool because it was HUGE. Think in terms of football fields, people. After spending a good number of hours wandering around the wats, I grabbed some street squid from?, jumped in a tuk-tuk and called it a day.

Then next day I hit the National Museum, which was big and at least partly air-conditioned. It mostly contained the history of various battles and all things of and related to the monarchy. I really dug the funeral carts. Those Thais know how to die in style. The most exciting bit was the huge lizard I found in the drainage ditch outside. I decided immediately that he must be a gila monster and tried to coax him out to get his picture taken, but apparently he doesn’t like Tic-Tacs.

Later that day I meandered over to Jim Thompson’s House. Jim Thompson was some white guy that came over from? and either revived the traditional Thai silk industry or made a killing off the backs of exploited laborers, depending on who is writing the history book. At some point in or around 1967 he decided to tak a walk and has yet to return, but his house is really cool. It is a conglomeration of six or so traditional Thai teak houses, surrounded by amazing kick-ass gardens. The whole compound was truly incredible, as was his collection of ancient Buddhist art. (Okay, the ages of the things were impressive, some dating back to the 7th century, but the art itself looked like something they used to block off lanes on the Triboro Bridge.)

Having had enough of site-seeing, I decided to do something practical with the remaining daylight hours— go shopping. I had only brought 2 tee-shirts with me and thought that at least one more would be required during my four month trip, so I headed over the Mahboonkrong Center, the largest mall in Thailand. Now, I may be a bit removed from mall culture, but one must remember that I am a Strong Island girl by birth. I spent all of middle school cruising enclosed shopping areas for boys. Whitman, Smithhaven, Roosevelt Field. Bring it on. I am a grizzled veteran.

[Insert consumerism smackdown here.]

I am completely unworthy. I cowered in the fluorescent light for a full three seconds before advancing. The mall was larger in size and population than most towns in upstate New York. It was filled with the blinking lights of new-fangled electronics yet to make it across the pond and cute little tee-shirts that a pre-schooler would have trouble wriggling into. And staffed by a strange race of Thai teenagers in SlipKnot tee-shirts. Timidly I bought something in cotton, size XXL, in the nearest boutique and beat it the hell out of there. Defeated, I tried to take a moto cab back to the hostel, but the driver got a bit lost. I ended up crossing the four way intersection under the Thai Phaya Skytrain Station from all four cardinal directions. I did eventually make it back though…

It is hot in Bangkok so I am heading south to the islands tonight or tomorrow. Whale Shark season has just started and me and my newly minted scuba license are dying to check it out.