Friday, January 23, 2009

Water-soaked rice fields at the foot of the haze-obscured doi Suthep mountains west of Chiang Mai.


Yesterday on my way back into Chiang Mai, I pulled off to the side of the road and bought two different kinds of grilled-something-on-a-stick, fresh off a hot steel drum laden with smoking charcoal.

I may never know what exactly I ate, but it was reminiscent – I use that term loosely – of barbecue. One of the items had bones and wings (pigeon maybe?) and the other had a pungent earthy flavor that tasted of four-legged critters running close to the dirt.

I tore into the treats quickly and tried not to ruminate on the their origins until after I had washed them down with water. It was my most adventurous dining experience yet, but let's just say that now I know what not to order at the roadside grills...

Sleeping dogs at a sleepy wat in the countryside north of Chiang Mai.

A road sign at a junction north of Chiang Mai. Sometimes the choice in Thailand is as simple as one way or the other.

Paintings of Buddha images for sale on a street corner in Chiang Mai.

Food vendors pose for a picture on a side street – called a soi – in Chiang Mai.

Stalls at a night market in Chiang Mai's old city.

Advice for aspiring travelers (revised)

OK, here's how you come to Thailand in 10 easy steps:

1. Don't bring anything but a camera, two shirts, two pairs of pants, money and a backpack.

2. When you get to Bangkok, go directly to Hualamphong and catch the next train to Chiang Mai. Do not go to Khao San road, do not get into a tuk-tuk. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.

3. In Chiang Mai, skip the fancy hotels, book a room in a guest house – all you need is a bed and a shower – and get some sleep.

4. When you wake up, drink some dark coffee, head for the nearest travel spot and rent a scooter. Drive around the city for a bit, get used to the traffic and then head out (any direction will do – the point is to get lost).

5. Invariably you will pass a fruit stand. Buy a bag of oranges or any fruit of your choosing – maybe even something you don't recognize. Smile a lot, thank the vendor and get back on your bike.

6. Stop at some point and eat some fruit.

7. Drive until the road ends, turn off your bike, close your eyes and listen to the silence. Breathe deep and realize you are in the middle of nowhere in the most beautiful country in the world.

8. Breathe deep again.

9. Smile.

10. Repeat.

Inside the walls of a wat as dusk falls in Chiang Mai's old city.

Buddha statues next to a shrine at the end of a road north of Chiang Mai.
A thicket of bamboo in a small forest north of Chiang Mai. It was so quiet I could hear leaves falling.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bangkok to Chiang Mai: car No. 7, seat 39

The train ride to Chiang Mai is not for the meek.

Hualamphong station in Bangkok is packed with travelers – most of the Westerners are sprawled with their backpacks on the station floor – and outside on the platforms the smell is overwhelmingly of diesel, diesel and more diesel. To use the bathroom at the station I hand 2 baht (about 7 cents) to a girl at the entrance counter, struggle with my bags through a crude turnstile and realize I now know what the worst job in the world is: cashier at the men's bathroom in the Bangkok train station.

Accommodations on the train are pretty rugged – even by Amtrak standards. There are about 30 people in narrow car No. 7, and I am assigned when it comes time to sleep to an upper berth – a simple drop-down bunk with a pillow and a blanket. Luggage racks line the aisle and simple curtains afford the bunks a modicum of privacy.

The train pulls out a little before 8 p.m., creaking and clacking and listing its way north.

The train's bathrooms are grubby stainless steel-plated cubicles with noodle colored walls. Above a low six-inch steel foot pedal-operated washbasin, a barred open-air window allows a glimpse of the dark countryside rushing by. The floor urinal evacuates directly onto the passing tracks below.

In the morning the air coming in from outside the car is bracing. Thatched huts, motorcycles, chickens and cows drift by. In the dining car I down a small cup of sweet coffee, while outside thick vegetation encroaches on the tracks, a thin mist rises from the fields and hills like painted shadows roll away in the distance.
Child happily poses for a photo at an outdoor night market in Chiang Mai.

Statues outside a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai.

Goodbye Bangkok

I started my last day in Bangkok with a straight razor shave from a local barber – a slightly unnerving experience that left me with a fresh-powdered face and a few patches of whiskers to clean up myself at the hotel. For some reason I romanticized the idea of getting a world-class shave from a Bangkok barber, but the episode – despite absorbing the rising and falling cadence of the barbershop banter – left me wanting.

I checked out of the hotel before noon and took a stop-and-go taxi ride to the Hualamphong train station where I checked my backpack for the day. On a search for an Internet café I wound up in Chinatown, which is ten times as crazy as Khao San road – minus all the tourists. There are just as many people, but because of the omnipresent traffic everyone is forced to the sidewalks that are lined with food vendors, souvenir stalls and sleeping homeless people. I walk for 15 minutes before deciding that in Chinatown Internet cafés haven't quite edged out the chicken-on-a-skewer stalls or the fried-fishhead vendors.

My next adventure must've looked like a route Billy from Family Circus would've took as I meandered in the noonday heat past trash dumps, tent cities and outdoor asphalt soccer fields. At one point I wander into a local food court where KFC, Dairy Queen and other Western familiars lined crowded avenues of plastic knick-knackery. My favorite food stall: Duke's Fresh, which billed itself as "a slightly outrageous bakery."

Eventually I wind up at MBK, a massive shopping center near the sky train and the National Stadium, which has for sale just about everything – all located right next to a whole lot of nothing. What I mean to say is that MBK is a capitalist venture of the most ridiculous proportions. The entire fourth floor – perhaps 50,000 sq. ft. of individual 12 ft. by 12 ft. stalls– appeared to be dedicated to the selling of cell phones and their various accessories. Disturbing.

Tired of walking, I jumped into another taxi. The driver told me I could help him out if I let him take me to a couple of high-end stores – some kind of tourist promotion whereby he got vouchers for gasoline. I feign interest at a precious gem outlet and a custom tailor and he takes me wherever I want to go for the rest of the afternoon for about $2.

For lunch, I post up at a seafood restaurant where I sloppily wrestle with a whole crab tossed in a dark red chili paste and various vegetables. I amass a pile of wadded napkins and bowl of cracked shells, and I am convinced that the staff will be joking about me later – the American who had no idea how to eat the crab.

Afterward I jump into my first tuk-tuk and head back to the train station – a bumpy, stuttering ride through the afternoon traffic, during which my driver tells me that Chiang Mai – my next destination – is very cold right now. I nod, smile and wonder: In Thailand, how cold can it really be?

A stall of golden Buddha statues in Bangkok's Chinatown.

A minor footnote (for any aspiring travelers)

Depending on your destination and your level of desired comfort, I have one piece of advice to aspiring travelers: bring less than what you think you need.

I have been in Thailand less than once week, and already I find myself trimming my load of crap that back in the States I deemed potentially essential. After two days in Bangkok, I was rooting through my backpack one morning and found myself asking, Why in the hell did I bring all this stuff?

Preparing for eventualities with comforts from home is great in theory, but my recommendation – recently revised – is to travel as light as possible and realize that just because you're in country you've never been too doesn't mean your Bowie knife and night-vision goggles are going to come in handy.

Items I've shed so far: Two magazines and two books (there are plenty of used bookstores all over Thailand that operate on a trading system, so the English language is never far away); an alarm clock; my cherished Associated Press hat (I imagine a kid finding it one day on a Bangkok trash heap, inspiring him to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist); miscellaneous toiletries; and a deck of hole-punched playing cards from the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas.

I am sure there are other items I will ditch (I brought a baseball for some reason), and others I will pick up along the way. But even for someone like me, who loves to travel light, I realized pretty quickly that I it's never light enough. So my suggestion: when in doubt, leave it out. You'll thank yourself in the end.
In Chiang Mai, down the street from the guesthouse I am staying at, freshly made noodles dry in the morning sun.
Cooks prepare breakfast on the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Television is universal

If I thought for a second that in coming around the world I was somehow escaping the financial crises and political yip-yap, I was wrong.

On an English-language television news station, the anchor is discussing the latest Thai "stimulus package," which is predicted to grow the local economy by 2 percent this year. But the prime minister has warned that the public should not become "addicted to populist policies" because it may "spoil" them. Sound familiar?

On another familiar note, the news show highlighted a job fair sponsored by the Labor Party, which has expressed a desire to increase job training and education, and points out that local wages have failed to rise with the cost of living.

On the lighter side, the station's entertainment segment previewed an upcoming "romantic comedy" that promised to bring together "laughter and joy" on the screen. But the only images I saw were of war and explosions, interspersed with scenes of slapstick comedy based on bumbling violence. I was assured that the movie would rise above the latest political and social conflicts that Thailand has been experiencing.

On the local version of ESPN, narrated by British anchors, I caught a replay of an NBA game – Cleveland vs. New Orleans. It was refreshing after two days of Thai and broken English to absorb the monotonous banter of basketball commentary.

Very strange: when I woke up this morning and turned on the television – I am attempting to learn Thai through subtitles – there are commercials for a Mister Donut and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The KFC commercial featured a triangular version of a chicken nugget, which was apparently capable of making a young schoolgirl zip to attention in class – small flames in her eyes, eager once again to pose questions to her teacher.

Street food looks ... interesting

Food vendors are everywhere on the street, from fresh fruit to grilled chicken skewers to whole blackened fish, but I have yet to work up the nerve to try any of it. Maybe tomorrow after I check in at the train station (leaving for Chiang Mai) I will develop some courage to try something I at least recognize (there are many items I don't).

Still I've had some good food – and also some … interesting food.

Breakfast at the hotel consisted of a curious blend of Western and local cuisine. Braised cabbage was a surprisingly light and delicious way to start the day, and the coffee is black, bitter and strong – just the way I like it. But another bitter item – some sort of steamed scallion-like root – was a little strange.

Also strange: On Khao San road at a tourist spot (called, according to the menu, O! Hungry) I ordered what looked like a local specialty, but turned out to be Western-style spaghetti noodles tossed with bacon and scallions that was served with a shaker of Parmesan cheese. The chef's attempt, perhaps, to please his American guests? Whatever the intention, it was an awkward blend of cross-cultural flavors and one I will endeavor not to repeat.

But, last night at the hotel, I ate the best Pad Thai I've ever had. Simple and perfectly cooked, it came with shrimp and a tray of fish sauce, chili flakes, pickled hot peppers and sugar crystals – all of which I sprinkled generously on my dish. I couldn't have been happier, and I devoured it on the outside patio while the fountain gurgled and the sounds of Bangkok drifted in from the street.

Boxing anyone?

Throughout the day I come across groups of men and women huddled around televisions watching Thai boxing matches. Their attention is absolute. I could drop a wad of 1,000 baht notes on the ground and no one would notice. It becomes clear to me by my second day in Bangkok that napping and boxing are the national Thai pastimes – my kind of people. At first I thought it was a special match on television that morning – the spectators so rapt I figured it must have been a big bout – but then later in the day I came across the same scene.

I stopped to watch in the alleyway, another group of Westerners to my right, and the shouts became more animated as the bout drew to a close – one of the contenders was flipped over the ropes and shouts rang out down the alley. The apparent favorite won, and everyone seemed happy as he walked around the ring, fists raised and pumping the air. I need to make it a point when I get back into Bangkok to visit the National Stadium for one of the famous bouts.

There goes a pile now!

Dirty is a bad descriptive in Bangkok: mostly because it can be used to describe most everything. Trash is everywhere – in small neatly tied bags along the street, and in looming piles lining dark alleyways. The only garbage cans I've seen are in front of 7-11s (yes, there are plenty of them here), but they were overflowing with what looked like a weeks worth of refuse. There is so much garbage I find myself taking pictures of it, as if it were an ancient relic or a sight not to be found at home. Of course, whenever I snap a photo of a dirty alley, I turn back to the street and find some local staring at me – and with good reason: if I were back home and saw a foreigner taking pictures of an overflowing dumpster, I'd think it was a little strange, too.

Baffled by Bangkok

Six words: Impatient, snarling, stuttering, honking, cacophonous traffic.

There is no order to Bangkok, no method to its clanging madness. You have to roll with it before it rolls over you.

It's like the city and its buildings eek out a secondary existence around the impertinent vehicles: tuk-tuks, motorcycles, scooters, buses, taxis, trucks full of eggs, fresh fruit carts pushed by men with cigarettes dangling from their mouths and one hand incessantly ringing a tinkling bell. Even pedestrians are a force to be reckoned with.

Walking around the markets surrounding the tourist haunt of Khao San road there is a quick learning curve: crossing the streets is all about initiative. Traffic lights count down between colors, but the most efficient way to thread the bustle is to take opportunities when they come. Once you've dodged between buses and taxis on even a minor thoroughfare in Bangkok, there is no urban danger you cannot overcome. It makes New York look like Pleasantville.

A few of the sights on my first day: mangy cats with crinkled tails; defeated-looking dogs rooting through piles of unidentifiable garbage; people taking naps on public benches and against shop fronts; homeless people under bridges; murky canals and pools of stagnant water; lines of incredibly clean white laundry hanging in dilapidated debris-laden backyards; densely-packed book stalls that would make any Boulder bookseller drool; alleys that turned into alleys that led to other alleys and finally – if I was lucky – to streets; Buddha statues and small shrines paying homage to any number of things, from large roadside trees to temples to bridges to vacant buildings; tourists with maps looking lost on crowded street corners; and a shiny black Audi A4 pushing slowly down a dirty alley barely big enough for its creeping hulk.

And that was before lunch.

In a square mile area, one can find more than enough sights and smells – smells good and bad, but mostly bad – to keep one occupied for weeks. Like reading all the books ever written, it would be impossible to explore all of Bangkok in a lifetime.