Friday, August 28, 2009

The Beach

Remember that movie with Leonardo DiCaprio where he goes to Thailand and finds this idyllic, Utopian island filled with backpackers, where everyone lives in peace and harmony and smokes weed on the beach and wears white-person dreadlocks, until something goes wrong and they start turning on each other and then these opium farmers kill everyone? That was filmed near where Al and I went in the south of Thailand! Don't worry, there were no run-ins with sharks, AK-47s or white boy dreads on our trip to the beach, but there were plenty of fruity drinks in inappropriately-shaped glasses.

So yeah, our beach vacation was a tad less exciting than Leo's ill-fated trip to a hedonistic island paradise, but we still had a lot of fun. We first went to Ko Samui, a really beautiful island that a lot of people use as a jumping-off point for many of the other islands off the southeast coast of Thailand. Ko Samui is crawling with rich Italian and French tourists who spend piles of money on lavish accommodations and carafes of watered-down wine at the beach-front restaurants. Al and I, being the poor students we are, opted for a more budget-friendly guesthouse and kept pretty closely to our diet of Changs and fried noodles, with some exceptions for those drinks in the sexy glasses. The closest we got to experiencing the lifestyle of the rich and famous was when we picked up our luggage in the absurdly well-appointed Ko Samui airport. That airport was so fabulous I would gladly have stayed there, sleeping next to the baggage carousel, but I bet it'd be out of my price range. Maybe I could afford one of the comfy chairs by one of the gates, but probably only for a few nights. This is me at the AIRPORT:


Okay, enough about the airport. Ko Samui itself was fun, too. I overcame my fear of riding on a motorbike and allowed Al to drive me around the island on a little red Honda number. I am proud to report that we did not crash into a bus, drive over a cliff, or careen into a storefront, all of which I was pretty sure were real possibilities before I climbed aboard. Al is an excellent driver. We spent the nights lying on pallets at an outside beach bar, drinking mai tais and watching people light huge, lantern-like balloons and send them off into the dark sky.


After Ko Samui, we headed to Ko Tao, a much smaller island nearby, to meet up with Al's friend Tim and do some SCUBA diving. I had never dove before, but I wanted to try it, so I signed up for the beginning class to get my open water certification. I made it through the first two days (which involved so much pool time we all looked like white, wet prunes when we emerged) and my first open water dive without incident. During the second dive, however, several disasters occurred, I freaked out, and came to the conclusion that SCUBA diving is not for me. Most of it was just me panicking under water and thinking I was drowning, but after that happened twice and I was sobbing into my regulator, I realized, "Wait, isn't this supposed to be a recreational activity?" So yeah, I tried it, but I'm afraid SCUBA is one of those expensive, jet-setting hobbies that I'm going to have to pass on from now on, just like cliff diving and extreme yachting.

After I gave up on SCUBA, I had a fantastic time on Ko Tao. I went running in the hot, hot heat, discovered some new beaches, read a book in the shade, and ate a lovely salad in a restaurant that clearly catered to white girls who miss their fresh vegetables. Al and Tim quit diving early and we spent our last full day drinking Changs (surprise!) and hanging out. That night we headed out for a semi-debauched night at a beachside bar that allows drunk people to jump rope through fire. Suffice it to say that by the end of the night, one of us, who will go unnamed, had a burn on his leg from falling in the fire jump rope. Okay, it was Tim.

So, that was Ko Tao. Our next stop, after an excruciating ferry ride back to Samui, was Bangkok, for our final two nights in Thailand. Stay tuned for my next post on that experience. Laterz!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Therapy Elephants

Hi loyal readers. Thanks for being patient while I got my Thailand on for the last 2 weeks or so. I'm now sitting in the Seoul Incheon Airport, eating a bag of this Thai snack that Al and I call chicken sticks because the bag has a picture of a chicken on it, even though the ingredients don't mention chicken. We choose not to question it. Anyway, I have a 10-hour layover here, and I'm in hour 7 now. I spent the first 7 hours wandering aimlessly around the shiny shopping area, reading a trashy book about vampires, and sleeping on a bench, probably drooling on myself. Now I am up and about and want to begin the semi-arduous task of blogging my Thailand adventure for you all.

The best place to start would be the beginning: Chiang Mai, the first place we went after our Cambodia detour. Chiang Mai is a very pleasant city in the north of Thailand that has somehow morphed into the activity center for tourists to Thailand. The options are overwhelming: trekking, ziplining, Thai cooking class, muay thai fighting class, massage class, Thai language class, whitewater rafting, elephant parks, tiger parks, monkey parks. Basically, if there's a dangerous wild animal that is capable of being doped up for tourists' enjoyment, you'll find it in Chiang Mai. (As a side note, I'd like to point out that although I am completely against drugging baby tigers so that they won't claw out the eyes of the chubby British girls who come to "play" with them, I am still not totally convinced that ALL of the animal parks are abusive. I seem to recall reading somewhere once that when elephants paint pictures by holding paintbrushes in their trunks, it's actually therapeutic for the elephants. Al thinks this is an absurd idea, and claims that no elephant would voluntarily paint a picture without being beaten, Dumbo's-Mom-style, behind the scenes. But I am not so sure.)

After much consideration, Al and I decided to go with two days of Thai cooking class, and a two-day, one-night trek to see the so-called "hill tribes" in the countryside outside of Chiang Mai. The cooking class was held at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, which is a well-respected school run by a popular Thai TV chef at his beautiful home on the outskirts of the city. The class was really fun (we got to use a real stone mortar and pestle to make curry paste, and I didn't crush my own fingers!) and we learned a lot. We cooked six dishes a day and ate each one, so by the end of each day we were deep into curry-coma and had chili and garlic oozing out of our pores. Delicious.

On our third day in Chiang Mai, we embarked on our trek, which was a package deal that included trekking, staying overnight in a hill tribe village, riding elephants, whitewater rafting, and bamboo rafting. Like most things in life, there were disinctive highs and lows on this trip. The highs: seeing beautiful scenery on our trek, playing in waterfalls, not being murdered in our beds by our opium-addled guide, getting to pet an elephant! The lows: seeing elephants being speared repeatedly with large hooks by their handlers (this wasn't a therapy-elephant kind of place), having zero contact with actual villagers (except the ones who came around peddling candy bars and massages), peeing in a hole. Actually, the peeing in the hole wasn't so bad: it made me feel rugged.

Overall, the trek was fun and I'm glad we did it, but it was tainted by the bizarre antics of our guide, Johnny. Johnny, who referred to himself as "Mr. Johnny Walker," was a crazy-eyed, wiry man with long fingernails and wispy facial hair who smoked like a chimney and occasionally made howling noises as we were tramping uphill through the forest. His jumpiness and bug eyes were later explained by the fact that Johnny was smoking opium the entire time we were trekking. I know. It's like, come ON Johnny, get with the times: opium is SO China in the 1870s. At least upgrade to heroin.

Yeah, so, Johnny was creepy, but we somehow made it back down to Chiang Mai without him going all Opium Wars on us. After our trek, we decided to get Thai massages, because it's not a trip to Thailand without some small lady pulling your body into weird configurations, right? We tried to pick a place that looked like it gave legit massages and not "sexy massages," which would have been awkward, I think. The massage place made us wear these giant Thai pants that we had to hold up with our hands, and weird, ninja-style tops. Apparently wearing ill-fitting clothes makes the entire massage more effective. Al and I were on pallets right next to each other, but I still kept my eye on Al's massage lady for the first five minutes to make sure she wasn't pulling any funny business. Hey, this is Thailand: you can never be too careful.

The rest of our Chiang Mai activities were less structured. We spent a lot of time at the night market, buying knickknacks (or, as Al called it, "Sawasdeecrap"), eating noodles, and drinking Changs. We also went to a few bars in the city, with mixed results. The first bar we went to had a dart board and played classic rock. The second bar we went to had Connect 4 and was filled with prostitutes. The instant we walked into that second bar, Al and I both knew something was weird. I was the only non-Thai female in the place, and the Thai women inside thrilled at the sight of Al, then looked disappointed when they saw me. Once they realized that we were just there for drinks and not for "massage," they went back to sitting around expectantly, scanning the street with their eyes, on the watch-out for potential business. I imagine that they normally did a pretty brisk business, since Chiang Mai is crawling with old white men who are eager to pay for sex with young, Thai women. It's completely astounding to me how many creepy old dudes I saw with girls young enough to be their granddaughters, strolling down the streets unashamed. If I were a sex tourist to Thailand, I'd at least try to hide it, I think. Not these guys: they seemed proud of the fact that they were exploitative skeezeballs. Chiang Mai was our first encounter with the blatant sex tourism that is rampant in Thailand, but it wasn't our last. Turns out that Bangkok makes Chiang Mai look like Mr. Roger's neighborhood. Yick.

After five days in Chiang Mai, we headed off to the south of Thailand for the beachy leg of our trip. I will write more about the South later, but my time at the free internet kiosk is running up. Sawatdi for now!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Cockroaches and spiders and Cambodia, oh my!

Hi everyone! I am writing you from lovely Chiang Mai Thailand. Since I last wrote, my life has improved approximately 1000000%, given that I finished the bar exam (and didn't die of exhaustion/hot-tub-borne illnesses) and flew to Thailand to meet up with Al. Vacation has never felt so sweet and well-deserved, let me tell you. Al and I met up in Bangkok and spent a few nights in the swanky Royal Orchid hotel before packing our bags and heading to Cambodia for a few days. In this post, I'll try to convey our Cambodia experience: the good, the bad, and the extremely creepy.

So, our initial plan was to spend three nights in Siem Reap, a town known mainly/only for being the site of the impressive Angkor Wat temple (and a bunch of other temples), now a U.N. World Heritage site. We decided to get to Siem Reap via the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, because one of the airlines has some sketchy monopoly on direct flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap, and Al and I didn't feel like being extorted quite so early in our trip. If only we had known then that trying to avoid being screwed royally (no pun intended) in the Kingdom of Cambodia is like trying not to get your ass grabbed on the subway in Italy: functionally impossible.

Our trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap got off on the wrong foot almost immediately, when we were taken by our tuk-tuk (motorcycle rickshaw) driver to The Sketchiest Bus Company in Cambodia/The World, against our wishes, and then charged twice as much for a bus ticket to Siem Reap than the correct price. The "luxury bus" we were put on was hot and smelled kinda weird, and the driver insisted on blasting weird Cambodian television shows that seemed to involve an inordinate amount of shrieking. Did I mention the bus ride was six hours long? It was.

The absolute worst part of the ride was the rest stop that we made halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, in what can only be described as the armpit of Cambodia. Several disastrous elements collided to make this place particularly putrid: the intense heat, the piles of garbage, the mud, the standing water, the mosquitos, the grubby children relentlessly badgering us to buy pineapple from them, the heaping baskets of fried cockroaches and other unidentifiable insects for sale, the flies circling the plates of rice for which we were forced to fork* over exorbitant amounts of money. Not great.

The kids selling the pineapple were particularly tragic. Obviously their parents are forcing them to engage in this kind of behavior, since it's one of the only feasible ways for them to make money (especially US dollars), but these kids were super aggressive and a bit intimidating. One girl, about ten, would not leave Al alone for the entire half hour or so we were forced to stay at the rest stop. Her spiel went something like this:

Girl: You want pineapple?

Al: No, thank you.

Girl: You buy pineapple, you buy from me?

Al: I don't want any, but thank you.

Girl: (whipping out gigantic, live tarantula from somewhere and waving it in Al's face) You want spidaaaah?

Al: (hopping out of the way) WHOA! No, no, thank you.

Girl: Pineapple? You want some?

At one point, I walked away from Al and the spider girl to try to get around a big puddle of smelly mud, and the girl said to Al, "You want girl?" So not only do the adults have these kids peddling pineapple and spiders, but they have them pimping out prostitutes as well. AWESOME.

It wasn't the best rest stop ever.

We got back on the bus and made it to Siem Reap, where things improved immensely. Siem Reap is a cute, touristy little town with dirt roads lined with bars, restaurants, laundromats, and knick-knack shops (to meet all your Hello Kitty needs!). The entire place runs on tourism surrounding the temples, and there is not much else to do there besides temple gaze, except to sit around eating noodles and drinking Angkor beer, which is a pretty good alternative, really.

Al and I stayed in the uber-backpackery and fun Garden Village Guesthouse, where we spent a considerable amount of time in the rooftop bar, eating noodles and drinking beer. Like I said, it's a pretty big activity there. We went and saw the temples on our second day in town. Perhaps I'll post pictures of the temples eventually, but suffice it to say they are impressive, imposing, and quite unique. We spent most of the day hiking around the temples and taking cheesy pictures among them, and were ferried to and fro by a really nice tuk-tuk guy named Nai, who was one of the only service people in Cambodia who we encountered who didn't try to overcharge us, cheat us, or take us to a crappy restaurant so he could get a commission. We really liked Nai.

After spending approximately 6 hours in the intensely hot sun and semi-suffocating humidity looking at the temples, we felt pretty templed-out and satisfied with our day, so we returned to the Garden Villa and decided that we'd take off the next morning. Since we had seen all we wanted to see of the temples, it made sense to go back to Phnom Penh to see something different for our last day in Cambodia.

After arriving in Phnom Penh on a cheaper and MUCH less creepy bus, we decided to visit the genocide museum that documents the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime during their nearly four years in power in Cambodia. The museum is situated in a former high school that was converted into a massive torture center by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Oddly, this is the second former-torture-center-turned-museum that I have visited, since I went to la ESMA in Buenos Aires two summers ago. Perhaps not the most uplifting way to spend an afternoon in either city, but I think as a visitor it's important to try get a sense of the terrible things that people in these places have gone through in recent history, whether it's comfortable or not.

My basic thoughts on the genocide museum were the following: the Khmer Rouge was pure-D evil, the UN, France, and China should be ashamed of themselves for supporting them, and Cambodia seems to continue to suffer immensely almost thirty years after the regime was ousted. After all, during the Khmer Rouge regime 1/4 of Cambodia's population was killed, either executed or starved to death by being forced into the fields to work, since the government couldn't produce enough food to feed its own people after exporting most of its crops. Pretty horrific.

The Khmer Rouge also did things like banning music, perfume, colorful dress, the right to choose one's own mate, family units, money, schools, books, etc. Surviving a regime like that has to have long-lasting effects on the society that suffered through it, I imagine. It's crazy to think that when the Khmer Rouge took over in the 1970s, all of the cities, including Phnom Penh, were evacuated, forcing everyone who survived into the countryside to labor in the fields, as per Pol Pot's great plan to make an entire nation of peasants. It's hard to imagine a city as busy and bustling as Phnom Penh today, with all of its zig-zagging motoboys and tuk-tuks and cars, as being empty and lifeless just over thirty years ago.

Maybe the after-shock of the Khmer Rouge regime explains some of the swindling, hustling vibe that we got from a lot of people we encountered in Cambodia, but who knows. Long story short: I'm very glad I went, but I'm also really glad that I'm in Thailand for the rest of the trip (it's fantastic so far). Also, SUPER glad that the spider girl didn't throw the tarantula in my face. Close call.

I'll write more about Thailand soon. Keep it real, peeps.