In honor of Unwinnable’s vacation week, I have decided to share three of the five letters I sent back to the States in February of 2010, when I was on one of my all-time greatest adventures – traveling through Thailand with my oldest friend, Shawn Lucas.
All of these letters (reprinted without spelling corrections, but with some personal details removed) were tapped out and emailed from my iPhone.
We begin on Day 5, after a few nights in Bangkok that included our first Thai massage, several dozen tuk-tuk rides, a beautifully chaotic trip to a Muay Thai boxing match and a $2 pad Thai lunch at the city’s equivalent of the Port Authority Bus Terminal – which was delicious enough for a Zagat rating.
But it didn’t get truly hilarious until we headed north.
2/15/10 – On the Train to Chiang Mai
Wish you all were here. If you were, you’d likely be laughing your asses off at the scene that has unfolded in this 2nd class sleeper car from Ayatthuya to Chiang Mai.
Let me set it up for you: Two American train travelers, both roughly the size of two-and-a-half full-grown Thais, are stuffed in tiny, windowless top-bunk sleepers opposite each other – a spectacle that no doubt is quickly becoming legend among the conductors.
One of those Americans, my family members can no doubt guess who, is in abject terror of falling out of his bed not only as he tosses and turns later in his sleep, but even now as he types out this email with the left side of his body pressed firmly against the inner wall of his compartment, clutching his iPhone with white knuckles in pure dread.
Shawn, whose head he can see through an opening in his curtain across the aisle, is watching The Big Lebowki on his iPod and occasionally looking over and smiling.
So how did these poor tourists end up in such a predicament? Simply put, 1st class sleepers were sold out. Still, it’s far more fun if I tell you a bit about the last couple days leading up to this train ride, before drifting into sleep and hence putting my life into the hands of the two safety belts that hang from the ceiling and attach themselves to the side of my flip-down bed.
Ayutthuya (never spelled the same way twice by me or by local signage) is a small city a couple hours north of Bangkok, brimming from east to west with ancient ruins and exotic marketplaces. We spent two nights under the care of Jane, who owns and operates the Old Palace Resort, one of her twin daughters and a wonderful tuk-tuk driver who became our personal chauffeur despite understanding neither English nor simple pantomime. Among the other characters who helped make Ayyatthuta a blast: Jane’s cat, the waiter in the blue section of Hua Raw night market, who served us 22-ounce Singha after 22-ounce Singha and tamed our cravings for pork fried rice, cashew chicken and pad Thai, as well as a waitress in our favorite market across town, who caught me without a smile and asked, “Why you sad? Do you no have madame?” When I confirmed my lack of “madame,” she loudly announced that I was single to every woman within earshot.
But I digress. The main theme of the last two days was relaxation. And eating exotic snacks. And sweating. A lot of sweating. Did I mention it was hot?
The sun battered down on Wat Yai Chaimongkhon (forgive my spellings throughout as all I have handy is a tattered map with tiny writing) so fiercely that my snapshots of its reclining Buddha, draped in shining gold cloth, somehow came out blue. The place was packed for Chinese New Year as pilgrims came from miles around to climb the steps of the temple to the very top and a) Press gold leaf to the Buddha statues and/or b) Toss coins down a deep wishing well.
The temple (“wat” means temple if you haven’t already figured that out from my emails) is surrounded by statues and guarded at front by a pair of enormous Buddhas. Shawn took some great pictures, though for me the highlight were some “pictures” locals took of ME.
To wit: A group of high school students grabbed me for an on-camera interview. They asked me a series of questions from a cheat sheet – actually they asked me twice because we had to start over halfway through after they forgot to press record – including the usual “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?” before catching me off guard a bit with “What do you think of our Buddha?”
(Thais are clearly amazed at my size and hence find me fascinating. One group of primary schoolchildren at another wat took turns, one by one, coming up to me to wave and say “bye!” as they passed. Another old man, with whom we shared a tuk-tuk, pointed to my leg – which was (and is) the size of his whole body – and gave me a thumbs-up.)
Perhaps the highlight of our tuk-tuk tour of ancient ruins was Wat Mahatua, which features the head of a Buddha statue cradled in the roots of a sacred tree. No one knows how the head got there but theories abound, my favorite being that Burmese looters decided it was too heavy, dropped it on the ground, and the tree simply grew around it.
There is so much more to say – especially about the food, including a Muslim street fair dessert in which you take multicolored strands of melted palm sugar and roll them into a pancake (I honestly thought the stands were selling bags of yarn) – but my fingers are falling asleep.
We’ll be in Chiang Mai in the morning, so more adventures to come!
Hope you’re enjoying my emails, and that all’s well back in the States.
2/18/10 – Chiang Mai to Phuket
We’ve just ascended from Chiang Mai International Airport on a swift two-hour flight to Phuket for a few days in the island paradise known as Ko Phi Phi. Shawn, perusing the guidebook, has already discovered a highly recommended Muslim fried chicken joint near the beach, so by the time you read this we’ll be sunburnt, drunk on Singha and licking savory grease off our fingers. Our struggle continues.
Chiang Mai was a blast, a highlight in a trip packed with highlights. When last we left you, we were crammed into a sleeper car from Ayyathuya. The next morning, we awoke to breakfast and the misty mountains of the southern Himalayas. I am glad to report that I alighted from my top-bunk perch without incident, and a few hours later we finally arrived in Chiang Mai, where we were welcomed in hilarious fashion by our shuttle bus driver, holding a sign that read: “Welcome Shawn Wcas.”
“Shawn Woo-cas? Shawn Woo-cas? Hello? Shawn Woo-cas?” he asked as we approached – and a nickname was born.
As if that wasn’t enough, we were so punchy from a night of fitful sleep that when the shuttle moved 100 feet to pick up another passenger, Shawn declared “We’re here!” and tears were streaming down my face.
We checked into our backpacker’s hotel and spent a good part of the morning booking our flight, ferries and hotels for Phuket and Ko Phi Phi, then ventured forth to the Warorot Market, a real down-and-dirty affair, where I made the unfortunate discovery that the luscious-looking green snack food I had been craving to try since Ayyathuya was, in fact, pickled apricots. And yes, it’s as awful as it sounds.
Among the other treasures at the market: Every kind of dried fish snack imaginable, electronics that were cutting-edge in the 1980s and novelty cartoon T-Shirts with nonsensical semi-English phrases – although my favorite lost-in-translation artifact was a sign we saw the next day advertising “White Water Rubber Rafting” and promising “Extension-Fun-Fun” and “Different and Experience.”
Shawn was understandably a bit tired of the whole temple scene, so we parted ways for a bit as I covered all the Wats circled on our map by the travel agent. Although we loved all the requisite recommended temples we saw on this trip, we were equally impressed with some of the lesser-known ones, including Wat Duhfuk and Wat Sammattayu, which oddly weren’t mentioned in the guidebook.
In the evening, we spent hours at two downtown night markets – the yuppified Night Bazaar and the Anusan Market to the south, where we ate dinner and pondered buying expensive gifts for all of you but ultimately decided – *yawn* – we were getting tired. With a long day ahead of us, we flagged down a tuk-tuk and headed home, but not before Shawn summarily rejected several cabbies who refused to shave 10 baht off the price. Truly Shawn has become a Thai travel expert – or has completely lost his mind – as 10 baht is worth approximately 30 cents.
The next day was trek day, and probably the part of our trip that will make you, my dear readers, the most jealous. (Although we hear you NYers got 8 inches of snow the other day. Did I mention we’re currently flying to a tropical paradise?) We hopped into a large tuk-tuk (a pickup tuk, if you will) with two lads from London (by way of Cairo), one of the guys’ Thai girlfriend, two awesome lesbian-Americans (living in Portland and Sydney, respectively) and a French family (father, mother and daughter), plus a driver and an English-speaking guide for a day that included:
– An elephant safari
– Visits to two small Thai villages
– A stunning hike through banana trees and rice paddies
– A swim in a waterfall
– A delicious homestyle curry lunch
– A river safari on bamboo rafts
Shawn and I shared an elephant – a loveably independent soul who nearly wandered off with us, sans guide – feeding it bananas as we pondered how much hazard pay he deserved for carrying the two of us up and down hills and across a river. Along the way, our songbird guide stopped us at treehouse weigh stations, where we were sold more bananas. We noticed one old woman was hawking cans of Singha, so we ended up atop our elephant, drinking beer and listening to our driver sing in Thai. We bought a framed photo and nearly died laughing when Shawn asked, “How the fuck did they print this out so fast?” We decided there must be a Kinkos nearby.
After the elephant ride it was off to a pair of Thai villages, where we observed the locals and watched old women do laundry in the river and pick weeds from the rice paddies, then hiked down for a swim at Maewang Waterfall. Yes, that’s the name. I won’t describe the state of my own wang after jumping into the ice-cold water, but to give you a sense of it, the wind was knocked clear out of me.
We hiked out along an irrigation canal, then had lunch at a small village restaurant that felt more like eating at your Thai grandma’s. Green curry, sweet and sour vegetables, fresh pineapple and watermelon. Oh, and hammocks for pre- and post-meal lounging.
And then a rollicking ride on bamboo rafts that left us soaked and smiling. Imagine the DisneyWorld safari ride except this time, when you turn a corner and a see a mother and baby elephant bathing – they’re not animatronic, they’re goddamn real. At one point we went under a rope bridge and a woman with a homemade wheelbarrow passed overhead. It was so perfectly timed we joked she was on a loop. “Cue the elephants! Americans in 5,4,3…”
We’ve touched down now in Phuket so I’m gonna wrap it up with a quick story about our last night in Chiang Mai. We found a local sports bar and Shawn managed to charm the entire staff by making our waitress one of his famed paper napkin roses. She was so enamored she wanted to learn how to make her own. Shawn taught her and she spent the rest of the night teaching the other waitress and the gay chef, then building a bouquet for the bar. We believe she plans to decorate the entire restaurant with them, putting them in the toothpick holders, meat-eaters be damned. We also met the owner, Mem, who loves American sports. When we asked her what she thought of baseball she said, “I don’t know (team) nicknames, but I know ‘back-back-back-back!'”
It was as if Chris Berman were a tiny Southeast Asian woman.
Okay, we’re in a taxi headed to the hotel on Patong Beach. We head to Phi Phi on the ferry tomorrow.
Viva la Thailand!
2/24/10 – Koh Phi Phi and the Journey Home
I’m writing to you as we fly from Bangkok to Tokyo on Leg 1 of our journey back to reality. Our return trip actually began yesterday when we said goodbye to our beach resort on Koh Phi Phi, took the ferry to Phuket, and flew north for one last night in Bangkok. I’m still sore from our farewell Thai massage, during which, at one point, my masochistic masseuse began to violently slam a wooden peg into the back of my neck. Authentic!
Phi Phi was an island paradise, but first we had to wade through Phuket, specifically Patong Beach, as our flight from Chiang Mai arrived after the last ferry to Phi Phi had already departed. I’m sure Patong Beach is fine if you like that sort of thing, but a poor man’s red-light district/overcrowded tourist trap in deep-fryer heat is something I can do without, especially when I’ve come to expect things to cost a certain number of baht (we were spoiled, to be sure).
As it turned out, Phi Phi wasn’t exactly a bargain either, but it was breathtakingly beautiful and, relative to Patong Beach, almost completely deserted. We had a private beach at our hotel – Phi Phi Natural Resort – which, at any given time, had no more than a half dozen people (and even the public beaches were more than spacious). Shawn compared a video I took, of my beach umbrella blowing in the wind and the waves kissing the empty shore, to one of those Corona ads. I was too busy watching topless European women stroll on the sand, however, to develop any metaphors of my own.
After one sweltering night in Phuket, we hopped on the ferry to Koh Phi Phi and grabbed a spot on the front deck. If you don’t mind indulging me for a moment (if you do mind, skip to the next paragraph), I had just downloaded the brand new record by one of my favorite bands, Shearwater, and decided the ferry ride was the perfect place for a first listen. It’s also a perfect way to put a picture in your mind about the trip – the cover of the album (The Golden Archipelago) shares an uncanny resemblance to the view we had from the deck of the ship, sitting in the open ocean air, the bright sun shimmering on the water, new and mysterious islands in the distance – all that as the backdrop to Jonathan Meiburg bellowing “You are castaways!” on one of the tracks. (The album rules, by the way.)
To give you a sense of how removed from the real world we were, it took a two-hour ferry ride to Tonsai Bay and then another sizable chunk of time in a longboat water taxi to get to our hotel. I’m surprised we didn’t have to pay the boat captain with gold coins from our eyelids or have to dodge a three-headed dog, because once we sat down to an enormous lunch buffet, on a dining deck perched just above the sea, we thought we’d arrived in the afterlife. The Monty Python-esque Thai musician, who played keyboard and sang Everly Brothers songs in a broken accent completed the surrealistic scene.
From there we did a lot of relaxing, and almost as much eating – both at the buffets and two down-home shack restaurants on the beach, including one owned by the wife of a Brit named Peter, who’d once been a multimillionaire fashion designer in the Big Apple before wisely trading in his business for a one-way ticket out. He’s a jolly good chap, who made us mixed drinks and told us stories about the tsunami, which ravaged Tonsai Bay but missed the northern part of the island (where we stayed on this trip) – and his wife makes some yummy Tom Yum, to boot.
The highlights of our four-night stay on an island with no roads but plenty of cashew chicken:
– Falling asleep on the beach
– Swimming, then falling asleep on the beach
– Swimming, reading, then falling asleep on the beach
– Swimming, reading, watching the latest episode of Lost on my iPhone, then falling asleep on the beach.
Not to mislead you – we did have our adventures. One of the most memorable was a steep hike in sizzling heat to a lookout spot high over Tonsai Bay, of which I posted a photo on Facebook. The view is spectacular and I was able to fully enjoy it as soon as the paramedics finished resuscitating me. They’re calling it a mini stroke, and I should have full use of my left side again within a few days.
(We also ran into the French family we met on our elephant safari while we were up there, taking photos and drinking 47 gallons of water.)
Perhaps the highlight of our stay was provided by Sola, the local longboat taxi skipper whom we drafted, in our usual style, as our personal chauffeur. He took us to several spots around the islands, the most beautiful being Phi Phi Leh, where we joined the hordes of tourists who can now proudly boast that they, too, swam at Maya Bay, where Leonardo DiCaprio galavanted in the movie The Beach. After that, Sola took us to a much better spot – a bay without a beach, just sheer rock cliff faces rising in all directions, where we leapt straight from the boat and swam, while watching schools of flying fish dance on the water.
Between keeping busy and the often brutal heat, Shawn and I had our punchy moments. Mr. Woo-cas made the sage observation that the standard Thai greeting – sawasdee krap! – sounds a heck of a lot like (mom, cover your ears) “sweaty cock” when uttered by a native. As an experiment, he began addressing hotel workers with that choice English phrase, and – guess what? – it worked. Simply tell a Thai to have a sweaty cock, and you’ve instantly made a new friend!
Well, I think that friendly tip is a good place to wrap up this final e-journal entry and thank you all for coming along on this adventure with us. It’s rare that you come to the end of a vacation and don’t think, “Where the heck did the time go?” but in this case we don’t feel that way at all. We packed so much in, and experienced so many new things, that it feels like two months, not two weeks, since we last stood on American soil.
Love you all, and sweaty cock,