19 April 2008

Many nights in Bangkok

This post concludes the series of my retrospective adventures. Should I have time, I may endeavor to review my year on Planet Japan, if only in regret that I didn't keep a blog with that title when I was actually there. Such an undertaking, needless to say, daunts me, so you will forgive me if I never attempt it.

I arrived in Bangkok on a sultry day. I like this city very much--I would even consider living there if not for the acrimonious air--and I was glad to be accepted back into its however fetid embrace. I chose to stay at the famous and rambling Suk11 Hotel on Sukhumvit Road, and I recommend this place if you can manage to get a reservation (often full and they're lazy about returning emails). Sukhumvit had changed a lot since last I visited in 1999. For example, they built a "Skytrain" mass transit system, the sole purpose of which seems to be to connect all the fancy hotels and giant shopping malls they also built. This part of Bangkok now looks more "futuristic" than Tokyo, or the Tokyo people imagine anyway, since Tokyo only looks futuristic circa 1985. You will not be surprised that I spent a certain amount of time in the cheap but beautiful cinema megaplexes, foregoing, however, the $12 VIP seating (some in "racecars"). I also spent a certain amount of time wandering around goggle-eyed at all the high-end retail shopping and high-end retail shoppers.

I had even more excitement in store because the very same day I arrived, I was set to meet my good friend Miss Fern, who was flying over to Thailand to take a massage course. Despite some confusion at the airport, I managed to pick her up with the assistance of my "Miss Fern" sign. We spent the next few days poking around the endlessly wonderful and labyrinthine markets and some of the more interesting neighborhoods. I let Fern set the agenda since a) I'd been there before and b) I was primarily occupied with gorging myself on street food (safe to eat in Bangkok). We also moved to a different hotel, the Sri Ayuttaya Guest House in Thewet (north of the infamous Khao San Road), which I only mention because it's a lovely place where you should also stay, except the desk staff are bitches.

Once Fern was feeling comfortable in the exotic environs, we planned our jaunt to the north. We visited the ancient city of Sukhothai, where an Italian gentleman tried chatting Fern up, and also the less-visited city of Nan. At Nan, we organized a hill tribe trek, which is this thing that everyone does in Thailand and is kind of a questionable practice. Basically, every traveler to this part of Asia wants to see whatever scrap of "authentic" culture remains there. Since none does, for the most part, these trips end up being exploitative: you're put into a giant group, sent to the hills to visit a tribal village which has become more like a zoo or circus, the natives dance around and sell souvenirs, and then you go back fully loaded with anthropological musings on the nativity of the human condition--or, more likely, disappointment. Chiang Mai is notorious for this. Seeking to avoid a carnival atmosphere, Fern and I booked an overnight trek to a Hmong village with the only agency in relatively obscure Nan and had a wonderful time. The highlight of this trip was definitely our strange encounter with the Yellow Leaf people. These are actual, real, modern-day hunter-gatherers. When we met them, they were sitting, a man and a woman, half-naked, under a lean-to of banana leaves. We gave them some bamboo tubes of pork and rice as an offering and then proceeded to have a cultural exchange which consisted of us staring at each other. I could wax sentimental about my feelings at this time, but I'll save it for meetings-in-person. It will suffice for me to say that this is high on my list of awesome things I've been able to do. I wish I could find out more about the Yellow Leaf people, but they are extremely secretive. Even their language is basically unknown, but it's beautiful and they sound like they're singing when they speak. Doesn't it make you wonder what has been lost to time?

The second highlight of the trip came when we witnessed two dogs, recently finished copulating, who, despite their strugglings, were unable to "disengage". Animals are funny.

After Nan, we visited Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city, though it hardly feels like one. Lots of temples, lots of nice restaurants, lots of peace and quiet, cheap: Chiang Mai is good. On our last afternoon before parting, as Fern was to begin her Thai massage course, we visited a monastery in the countryside to attend a Buddhist lecture. The lecture itself I don't remember, but afterward, the monk started spinning off some fascinating conspiracy theories. For example, he opined that Hurricane Katrina was karmic retribution for the Iraq war. I asked him what he made, then, of the tsunami in Indonesia, and I think he waffled and said global warming. He also explained that the US government keeps thousands of psychics employed in underground bunkers they aren't allowed to leave from which they conduct psychic warfare on our enemies--their offensive and defensive powers being the reason for our victory in the Cold War and continued dominance in the world. I believed him.

Leaving Fern to her Thai massage (and, by the way, I had one of these every day I was in Thailand--$5/hour!), I made my way further north, almost to the border with China, to the little hippie village of Pai. Other than being a laid back travelers' hangout, Pai is a launching point for multiple-day rafting trips to Mae Hong Son on the Burmese border, and I went specifically to book one of these. The agency I chose was run by a nice Frenchman who said when he first arrived, Pai didn't even have a bank. "Wow," I said, in my best young-person-listening-to-an-old-person-yak-about-the-past voice. Most of the other rafters were also French and, I thought, a little bit weird. Nonetheless, there's nothing like rafting all day, then sleeping in a camp on the side of the river, and then rafting all day the following day, too. The rapids weren't too impressive, but I had a nice time and returned to Chiang Mai refreshed and satisfied by my adventure.

From there, Air Asia came to the rescue again--$20 back to Bangkok, from which I bounced down to Kuala Lumpur. I managed to get a stopover in KL just to check it out, and I found it pretty boring. I saw the Petronas Towers, the colonial district, and even a major festival celebrating 50 years of Malaysian independence. A television reporter approached me there and asked if she could interview me. She wanted me, I gather, to say glowing things about Malaysia and the festival. Having only just landed an hour before, I told her I didn't know anything about Malaysia or the festival and suggested she find another white person who did. She was clearly flustered by this and clearly didn't care what I actually knew or said, but even while traveling, I am not prone to lending myself out as a tool of the corporate media (eat it, military-industrial complex!). Well, it's not like she offered me a free meal...

The one thing I did enjoy about KL was the metro. It's automatic, so you can stand at the very front of the train and stare through the window as you travel through the twisty tunnels. It's like one of those simulated rides they use to have (do they still have those?), except it's real, except it's a subway so it's tame and doesn't feel like much more than staring at a screen. I loved it.

For the sake of taking one day trip away from KL, I visited Melaka, a former Portuguese colonial, former Dutch colonial, former Chinese merchant city on the southwest coast. Melaka is famed (mostly to Singaporeans) for its "Baba" cuisine, which is like Chinese food but with spicy Southeast Asian influences. I had some, and it lives up. I also had local Malaysian coffee, which, I'm sorry to say, doesn't. Melaka also has a fort.

At the time, I said my trip around Southeast Asia was the best so far of my life, for many reasons--the people I met, the sights I saw, the food, the massages, the stunning scenery, that cafe owner in Hoi An who invited me to drink beer and watch the World Cup with him, etc. And I never even went to the beach! I would later say the same about South America. So do things keep getting better, or is it just my attitude that demands the constant surpassing of expectations? I don't know, my friends, but I do hope things continue to get better as they have done, especially as I approach my 30th birthday, as I am about to embark on yet another chapter in my personal odyssey, so that I am able to share ever more exciting experiences with you all, for which opportunity I am most grateful and most glad.

PS - Comments are welcome, but sanctimonious blatherings are not. This is my blog, and I cannot bear having my sardonic wit undermined. Have a nice day.

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