Friday, December 28, 2012

Hunting & Pecking

We've spent the last couple of days in search of some sort of special antique or old thing to bring back with us. The search has been yet another sign of the changing times in SE Asia. By 2000 the Thai antiques had all but disappeared. In 2004 you could find some nice things from Cambodia. In 2007 we picked up some special pieces from Laos & Burma. Now as we approach 2013 these items are all but gone. Most of what's left here comes from China & Indonesia, and it's impossible for us to discern what's real & what's a reproduction designed to deceive. Our last ditch effort will be tomorrow at the weekend market in Bangkok. Or maybe it's me that's wrong to want to bring home such special pieces that should stay where they were intended to spend their forever.

We've been surprised at what a comfortable vacation this has been - "comfort" not being a word we've ever really before associated with our SE Asian adventures (save those few glorious days at the FCC hotel in Cambodia in 2004). We haven't wanted for anything - each little craving can be easily met and paid for at some modest price.

I'm not sure why the comfort weighs a little heavy on my heart, but it does. The more familiar the SE Asians have become with the West, the less able we seem to be able to get to know them. It was a good thing to radically accept nescafe in lieu of a latte and abandon most hope of finding Western food - surrendering instead to whatever Thai delights could come from rice, fresh veggies, and kaffir lime leaves. An friend sent me a recent NY Times article about Thai monks struggling to stay relevant in an ever Westernizing nation. Consumerism in the new Buddhism. The mall is the new Wat (temple). And sex sells & sells & sells. (But that has always really been the case here.)

Yes, the unfortunate blight that has not changed is the sex tourism industry, the blatant exploitation of women who have had few or no other opportunities in Thailand. Our most recent hotel is situated on a soi (side street) overrun with butterfly bars and massage parlors that are nothing more than brothels - packs of desperate women sitting out front all sexed up - waiting for some white guy to come along and pay her enough for sex so that she can send some money home to care for her children and aging parents. And the white men show no shame in their exploitation - flaunting it, wearing the women like Rolex watches on their wrists.

We have not regretted a moment of the last month (save the food poisoning in Laos) - and even that gives us a bit of a story to tell.

Seems unfair to end this post o such a somber note, so I've decided to add in some photos from the last month that didn't quite make it into previous blogs.
We must pay some more homage to Cabbages & Condoms:

And of course Buddha & precious ancient holy places:
These are more from  Ayutthaya

And lovely, lovely, Laos:
The Wat across from our hotel
The house we could maybe buy for $30,000

Laos Buddhas...
The best part of all of this, the most important part is that I have had 15 years of hunting & pecking, of thinking, of challenging myself, of traveling, of joy, of frustrations, of learning, of falling down, and of love to share with my favorite person ever.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Monkeys Dammit!

It was beginning to look as though this would be the only monkey I'd see in SE Asia this time.

So I was on a mission. Because indeed this blog can't be called migrant monkeys & have no monkey pictures (as Pete so dutifully pointed out).

It took us a few days to rally after we were struck down by food poisoning in Laos. We soldiered on to the airport after a sleepless night of the sick, and had a few fretful moments that we would not be able to find a room back in Chiang Mai so close to Christmas. But in the end baby jeebuz smiled on us, we did not have to sleep in a manger, and we found a comfy place to recuperate. With so much fresh fruits & veggies available here we nursed back our health on fruit shakes- my favorite being beet/carrot/cucumber/lime. Francis thought it tasted like licking an envelope & stuck with pineapple lassi.

Unsure what to do on Christmas day itself I begged one little favor of Fran - that we could please, please do something that entailed spending an afternoon with some monkeys. At first the Monkey Centre seemed like a keen idea. Then I read the Trip Advisor reviews. Apparently it is more like monkey torture camp... No bueno.

And so we settled on the zoo where I spent hours enraptured on Gibbon Island.

 We head back to Bangkok tomorrow to wrap up the trip. I promise we have some last few adventures planned, and I'll have at least one more blog to write.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Waiting for the end of the world

The blog post indicates Seattle time, but in Luang Prabang, Laos it's neigh on noon Friday 12.21.12 as I write this. It seems no one mentioned to the Laotians that the world was supposed to end today. S'OK, though. It seems the Mayans were wrong. And I doubt the Laotians would have abandoned their day to day doings regardless.

It does seem that since we last traveled this way someone has told the Thais & Laotians about Christmas. It doesn't feel at all like Christmastime in the 90 degree heat, surrounded by palms & tropical flowers, sipping drinks along the Mekong.

The SE Asians have put their own spin on Christmas decorating. Sexy Santa seems to be the rage in Chiang Mai.

In Luang Prabang they have hung Christmas crackers from the bamboo. Our guest house has gone all out - two life size Santas next to fully decorated fir trees with expertly wrapped gifts at the base of the tree. Saxophone Santa plays some sexy Christmas jazz. The hotel staff love to turn it on for us every time we walk by.
There is a third life size Santa  - clearly in need of some repair as he's missing his legs. Right now he's hanging from the rafters with his head covered by a sack like he's waiting to be executed.

Although we're blowing the budget in Laos, it's quite nice to see the country more prosperous. In 2007 the Laotians did not  embrace their own currency. Rather than the Laos Kip - most businesses only accepted USD or Thai Baht. Now all prices are in kip - challenging my math skills at 7,900 kip to the dollar.
Instead of swanky accommodation for $25 USD you're more likely to pay twice that for a little less swank.
We once dreamed of properly brewed coffee while we choked down some Nescafe. Now there are proper lattes being served on every corner. The English translations have left us with much less to titter about ("crab" spelled "crap") -except for the sign in our hotel bathroom asking us to please not put the "nappy in the bowel".
Small children still patrol the main drag in the evening - with their boxes of trinkets - shoving them in the faces of dining Westerners as they sternly command "Buy something". They are less persistent than before - accepting a head shake & shrugging as they walk away, on to the next one of us who looks for all the world to them exactly like the last. They are less intrigued by suicide blondes, facial piercings, & ladies with tattoos. They are drawn instead to chattering with small white children who have brought dolls from America - dolls with long blonde hair & princess dresses & names like Belle.

We hope with all hope that some things never change - the monks & novices who solemnly shuffle along the wat grounds. The wats that are more splendid than those we've seen in Thailand. The Beerlao that still costs about a dollar for a 22 ounce bottle. The view along the Mekong that will take your breath away.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

And then we got a little lazy

We ran out of some steam in Chiang Mai. Or something about the familiarity of the town lulled us into a string of days filled with not much more than reading, walking, and rediscovering so much amazing veg food. The town has really boomed in the last five years. The little side sois are bursting with guest houses & restaurants geared for the Western appetite.

We tried to find a vegetarian cooking class for Fran, but alas "no have". We did find a dog that looked a little bit like Regan's Charlie Batch (without Charlie Batch's adorable underbite), and a cat that looked a bit like Grumpy Cat.


And of course we saw many more Buddhas.

We've visited Chiang Mai more than any other city, and each time we seem to find something surprising - like the 14 Century stuppa above - the tallest stuppa in Thailand.

We paid some exorbitant fee to get to Doi Suthep, a temple on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. These were the most interesting things we saw there.

Francis wouldn't play Connect Four with me at the gay bar, so I molested this poor little calico cat.

Eventually she liked it. Um, sorta.
We almost took the slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos. Dodged a bullet there... Last night we met a traveler from Holland who had taken the slow boat. He said the boat operators acted more like they were carrying precious cargo of potatoes rather than people. 1 toilet for 140 people. 2 days of motion sickness.

It's sleepy here in Luang Prabang along the Mekong River. Chilly mornings & evenings, and tourists have a midnight curfew.
It doesn't look like we'll end up traveling to any place we haven't already been (and the rest of our travel will only be by plane), but there is a certain charm & curiosity in seeing how things have changed... including us - so grown up that we shudder at the thought of a 10-15 hour bus ride and instead we book a flight.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Just leave a tender moment alone

You can't force a recreation of those magical moments - those chance happenings that are so unexpectedly delightful that you dream about them for years to come and marvel at the spectacle of it all.

In 2007 we had such a magical night - at a little bar in Ayutthaya called the Jazz Bar. Back then the Jazz Bar had just opened - a partnership between four or five Thai guys around 20 years old who loved to play jazz. We drank gin & tonics all night, listening to live renditions of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and original pieces by the King of Thailand (a saxophone player). It was such a brilliantly unexpected surprise. When the floods ravaged Autthaya in 2010 or 2011 my thoughts immediately turned to the Jazz Bar, leaving me wondering & worrying if that little gem had survived. We hedged our bets on the train to Ayutthaya - sadly most certain that the Jazz Bar would be no more. When we arrived in town - what joy to see that funky little yellow and black sign hanging in a closed up store front!

The Thai people having a quirky saying - "Same, Same, but Different". The sign hanging above the door was the same, but everything else was different.  The tiny performance stage  was gone. The dark painted walls were now pastel green & white striped. The enclosed garden seating was dismantled - replaced with cheap plastic lawn furniture wobbling on the open street. The young Thai men who so loved jazz music had moved on to other ventures, selling the bar some time ago - leaving no recent memories in that town of what once had been. We patronized the bar nonetheless - for old time's sake. Instead of soulful, earnest live jazz we were subjected to the likes of Don Henley, Brian Adams, & The Scorpions. (How we yearned to get our hands on that ipod!) It did turn out to be a memorable evening - chatting with Toi -  a gregarious, hilarious, quite brilliant guy running the bar & tables. He kept us bust with geography quizzes. "Which 4 US states have four of the same letters?", "Name 8 US states that begin with N", "Name 8 US states that begin with M", "Name 4 countries that only have one vowel". By the time he got to "Name 11 countries that have only four letters" we gave up - too many Singhas into the night to continue with any more brain teasers. But Francis had just enough Singhas to join Toi in an impromptu karaoke rendition of Extreme's "More than Words". I regret that I did not capture that moment on film...

But we did capture this Thai woman meticulously grooming one of her three dogs at the train station.

It's so tempting to clutch at cherished memories but false to think that you can breathe life back into them. And this was once again true of the train ride north - from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai. Rather than the serene, comfortable, & charmed trip we experienced in 2007, this time we were tortured for 14 hours during what was supposed to be an 11 hour trip. The four young French travelers in front of us thrashed in their seats like small children with ADD whose Ritalin had worn off. They squealed - taking slugs from cans of Chang beer, spread their clothing and blankets and electronic gear all over the front of the train car, and frantically made out with each other in their various states of half-dress. When they grew bored with movies & video games they tacked up a small target on the wall & shot spit balls at it. Then when they took notice of the cockroaches scurrying along the wall of the train - they took aim at them with the spit balls.

I have been accustomed to making small talk with fellow travelers on public transit & was perplexed that none of the other Westerners on the train seemed remotely interested in engaging me in even the most banal conversation. Eventually it occurred to me that their disinterest may have something to do with the fact that I am nearly old enough to be their mother. Le Sigh...

We arrived without fanfare in Chiang Mai - our most beloved Thai city. And so we expect to spend the next few days rediscovering our favorite restaurants and haunts - this time with no expectation that anything will be the same & ready to embrace all that is different.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A cat in a dress & Buddhas for days

We got an early Monday morning start on the 10:00 train to Ayutthaya.

As the Thai saying goes we found this little town to be "same, same but different". We took a little stroll around to get our bearings & happened upon creepy stuffed animals tacked to a (???) & an unimpressed cat in a dress.

We've been mulling over our experiences in Bangkok - mostly the Forensic Museum & the contemporary pieces at the Arts & Cultural Center. The shared themes of mortality & dystopia are so strikingly antithetical to the American experience & discordant with the American dream. In America we would turn away aghast and offended at such ugly truths - the vivisections of diseased & mutilated organs, a plastic encased cyclops baby with probiscus whose skin was flayed and crudely sewn back together with a thick white thread, & the rotting naked bodies of executed criminals on display. We refuse to embrace let alone acknowledge suffering & death. In Thailand small children are brought to such museums - with no consideration that they should be shielded from the harshness of life or protected form the inevitability of death.
Here  - the impermanence and pain is woven into the very fabric of society. It's the foundation of the Buddhist religion and the conscious knowing that drives daily motivations.
But it's not good to always be so somber & serious on vacation. So, we spent an evening on the river and began what is sure to be just the start of staring in awe and adoration at so many Buddhas.

We leave here tomorrow - taking the long train to Chiang Mai - relishing a day to read and relax - to make each other think and hopefully make each other laugh.