April 17, 2005

Be Bold And Powerful Forces Will Come To Your Aid

    That first night we visited next door for a drink before we went to bed.  Bee Bee’s had many lights set up in trees and around their bar, and had a great music collection which they played loud enough that we could hear from Lanta Family.  We felt incredibly guilty going next door when we could be ordering from Lanta Family, but Lanta Family had no music, no bar and very few lights to sit by.  It was heartbreaking to see the staff sitting in the restaurant patiently, while their customers went elsewhere to enjoy the evening.
    The next day I woke early, around 6:30am, the air cool and the morning light soft.  I decided to jog to the end of the beach, and I made a friend on my way, a playful black dog who enjoyed having someone to run with.  Running on the beach was a great workout, sometimes the sand would be firm and you could get a nice rhythm, sometimes it was soft and you had to plough your way through.  We reached the end of the beach; Dave and Cheryl had told Jeremy and I that to get to the next beach, Long Beach, you had to walk back up to the road as it was impossible to navigate the head of rocks.  My friend the dog had already begun to take a path up the small ridge ending Klong Khong Beach, so I decided to see if he knew a way Dave and Cheryl didn’t. 
    As would be expected, he did, and we pushed through the jungle until we came out on the other side to a small empty beach.  Along the small track he led me on I saw odd flip-flops, pieces of trash and parts of fishing nets which had been washed up by the tsunami.  The top of the ridge was about 10 metres above sea level, so the tsunami must have been very high here.  At the end of the small beach we hit another ridge, which we climbed over, and saw the same display of bits and pieces laying about.  On the other side we reached Long Beach, but I turned back, having seen enough for one day. 
    After breakfast we responsibly sat down with our books to study grammar and teaching methods.  Though we started with good intentions, it was difficult to stay enthusiastic about present simple continuous tenses, auxiliary verbs and prepositional phrases.  Especially when many definitions of these words begin along the lines of “People have struggled for many years to explain the meanings of the present perfect tense” or “One way to describe an adverb is…” followed by a list of seemingly-unconnected word uses.  Jeremy told me about the time he watched his grandmother diagram a sentence.  I listened in amazement and we both wished Grandma Klein was here to divide the superlative from the adjective phrase. 
    By late morning we were joined by another resident of Lanta Family, a 35 year-old Dutch dancer Alisa, who had sold everything in Germany where she had been living for 9 years and set off traveling with her German boyfriend to see where life would take them now.  We exchange oh-my-god-I’m-quitting-my-job stories and hypotheses about how your mental outlook determines your destiny.  She told us about cutting her long hair, which is generally a required “look” as a dancer, and how it felt to be homeless, stateless, unemployed and an owner of nothing.  We each exchange stories of following our hearts and taking a leap of faith, then watching events unfold around us in our favour which we could only have dreamt of before.
    “Be bold, and powerful forces will come to your aid” Jeremy quoted, and we each nodded in agreement.
    I looked at Jeremy and laughed.  “See, I should just be bold and cut my hair off, and who knows what will happen for us?”  I had been talking about cutting my hair for weeks, thinking about it for months ever since our trip in Fiji where I had to deal with caring for my waist-length hair in the heat.  I had known I would have to think of something to help me take care of it, as the efforts of washing and detangling it while living out of a backpack were greater than anything else I had to care for.  It was the one chore I couldn’t escape from, and the one which annoyed me most.
    “You should” he encouraged with a smile.
    I looked at him nervously, unsure if he was merely egging me on or if he really thought I should do it.  It is hard to imagine yourself with short hair when you’ve had long hair your entire life.
    “Do you want to cut your hair?” Alisa asked.
    “I want to.  It’s just too long, and it’s impossible to take care of in the heat.”
    “How long is it?”
    I pulled it out of the knot it was tied in.  “See, I never even wear it long anyway, it’s always tied up because it’s too hot to have it down.”
    “Wow, it is long” she said, running her fingers through the length.  “Seeing this makes me want my long hair back!”
    We laughed at the impossibility of the situation – when you have short hair you want long hair but when you have long hair you want short hair.
    “No, really” she assured me, “you should cut it.  Because you will always wonder what it is like to have short hair, and you will not know unless you cut it.  If you cut it you will know, and if you don’t like it it will grow back quickly in this heat.  But at least you will know.  It is good to face your fears.”
    She struck a chord with me and I took a moment to contemplate.  I wanted short hair.  I had wanted short hair ever since Fiji when I thought how cool it must be to just jump in the ocean and swim without worrying how I was going to get the knots out of my hair afterward.  The only thing stopping me was fear – fear of the unknown.  I just didn’t know what it would be like as I had only ever had long hair.
    I looked at Jeremy.  What do you think?
    “I think you’re going to do it, it’s just a matter of when.”  He was right, I had been talking about how I didn’t want to have to cut my hair because I had reached 30, and that’s what you do when you’re 30, get a new style or something to save from aging ungracefully.  “Be bold and powerful forces will come to your aid.”
    I jumped up, I had heard enough.  “Alright then, let’s do it.”  I ran over to the restaurant and asked one of the girls for a pair of scissors.  They were sharp enough.
    “Let’s go.”  Jeremy looked very nervous.  “What’s wrong, don’t you think I should do it?”
    “Well, I didn’t know that ‘we’ would be doing it.” 
    “Come on, don’t you want to help?  Just cut the back piece off, I can’t cut it by myself.”
    “I’m just nervous that you’ll freak out at me if you hate it.”  Valid concern.
    “Look, I’ll probably freak out and hate you for a bit.  But I’ll get over it.”  I hoped.
    Back at the bungalow we wet my hair in the shower and I carefully plaited the entire length.
    “Where should I cut it?”  I tied it 2 or 3 inches below the nape of my neck.
    “I don’t know.  That looks fine.”  Jeremy had commenced damage control already. 
    I turned to him.  “What’s wrong?  Do you think I shouldn’t do it?”
    “No, I think you should do it, I think you want to.  I’m just worried that you’ll regret it.”
    I thought for a minute.  “Well, so am I.  Do you think I will regret it?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “Will you miss my long hair?”
    “Of course I will.”
    “Do you think I will?”
    “I don’t know.  You probably will.”
    There was only one way to find out, and I wasn’t going to let my fear get the better of me.  I let Jeremy off the hook and took the scissors in my own hand.  As I closed the blades around the top of my plait, I looked at myself in the mirror and faced my fears.
    “Be bold…and powerful forces…will come… to your aid” I declared as I hacked my way through my hair.
    Jeremy looked at me expectantly, nervously.
    “Well, what do you think?”
    I stared at myself in the mirror, in shock.  It was gone.  My plait was in one hand, unconnected to the hair on my head.  I had actually done it.
    “I’m not sure.  I think I like it.”  I shook my head and felt the short lengths of hair fall around my face.  “I like it.”
    Jeremy smiled at me.  “Do you like it?” I asked.
    “I do.  It looks good.”
    I searched myself for any feelings of regret, of panic, of horror at the short haired head looking back at me in the mirror.  There were none.  I had faced my fears, and found that there never was anything to fear in the first place.

April 16, 2005


    The night was punctuated by regular breaks at rest stops, the first of which was enforced as the bus attendant woke me up with a poke and the instruction “Hey you, eat.”  The rest stops were large open buildings with street stall food as well as a restaurant with a sitting area to eat in, squeezed in amongst mountains and mountains of packaged snacks and sweets.  As there is no toilet on the bus a visit to the rest stop bathroom can not be avoided, though the number of flies and bugs trying to tip you off balance as you squat yourself over the hole in the floor can make the whole experience a little traumatizing.  Most important to remember, though, is that the bus driver will leave when he is ready, so it’s best not to dawdle.
    Thankfully only the first stop was mandatory, and we tossed and turned in our seats until 5:20am when the lights were switched on.  We began to stop regularly, letting people off at various places along the read, as we neared Talat Kao, the bus terminal just outside Krabi.  As the bus pulled off the road all the motorbike and songthaew (like sitting in the back of a utility) drivers roused themselves in preparation for business.  It was still pitch black outside and as we had no idea really where we were, we were at their mercy.  As we collected our luggage we agreed to an exorbitant amount to be driven by taxi car into Krabi town. 
    The ride was short, only 4km, and as the driver pulled up on the shore-front road lined with travel agents and hotels, the sky began to change to light blue.  We dragged our belongings over to a seat in a park which ran up to the shore and watched a group of about 10 Thai women practicing aerobics to loud dance music, mostly western pop tunes.  It was just like Aerobics Oz Style, with the leader shouting commands and occasionally letting her side-kick helper lead a couple songs. 
    After consulting our Lonely Planet for information about nearby islands, we decided on a small and seemingly undeveloped island Ko Jam, which we could get a boat to from Krabi.  We ate some noodles from the only place open so early, then sheltered from the already hot sun under some palms until the businesses began to open.  We wandered over to a travel agent and enquired about getting a boat to Ko Jam.
    “Ko Jam no have boat.  No farang.  Only charter boat.  About one thousand baht.”
    “What about Ko Phi-Phi?”
    “Have boat.”
    “Ko Lanta?”
    “Have bus.”
    “How far is the bus to Ko Lanta?”
    “About two hours.”
    “Is Phi-Phi ok to stay there?  Do they have electricity?”
    “Not sure.  Maybe have cheap room now for tsunami.  Not sure.”
    The only thing left to do was consult the internet, so we searched the Lonely Planet website for any discussion about the islands in the area.  It seemed Phi-Phi was under a lot of construction rebuilding what had been destroyed by the tsunami, and though it would have been good to volunteer for a few days to help them clean up, we really had to study for the CELTA course.  Ko Lanta however sounded untouched.  There were a few recommendations for a beach called Lonely Beach, so we decided to head there and see what looked good.
    “How much is the bus for Ko Lanta?”
    “200 baht.”
    “Can we get a ticket for this morning?”
    “Wait here.”
    Half an hour later a mini-van pulled up out the front and we were hurried on.  After picking up a few more passengers, 3 farang and 4 Thais, the van sped out of Krabi.  We passed by huge karst formations, mountains of limestone, which were one of the main attractions for the area, particularly for rock-climbers.  The rattle of the van seemed to rock us to sleep  and we dozed off until an hour and half later until we reached the first pier for the ferry to Ko Lanta Noi, the smaller of 2 islands which make Ko Lanta.  The ferry was just pulling in and as soon as the last car had driven off our driver sped onto the ramp and over to the opposite side, squealing to a stop only meters before the platform edge.  As soon as the ramp touched ground on Ko Lanta Noi after a short 10 minute journey, we were the first vehicle off, and we lead-footed it down the road, rushing by coconut and rubber plantations.  We had no idea what the hurry was about, but soon found out when we reached the pier on the other side of the small island to find the ferry to Ko Lanta Yai just pulling away.  We laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation, and the ferry turned back for us.  As soon as our van and one other car behind us made it on the ferry it pulled away again, and as we looked behind us about five other cars pulled up simultaneously, all obviously having come from the previous ferry as we did.  As they say, “the boat come when the boat come”.
    Our driver was nice enough to ask where we were all staying, and if we had a reservation.  When he stopped at a travel agent by the side of the road and asked us all to get out we weren’t quite sure what was going on, and before we knew it he was driving away with only the 2 farang who had said they actually had a reservation at their chosen bungalow.  Obviously we were meant to go inside and make a reservation here, for a small fee of course.
    “I’m getting the feeling like someone’s about to screw us for money” Jeremy said to me as a man tried to usher us forcefully inside the shop.  I slipped by him and caught the attention of someone driving a motorbike with a kind of side-carriage.
    “Taxi?”  He pulled over and we threw our luggage in the side-carriage, Jeremy jumped on the back with the driver and I perched next to the luggage.  Before the travel agent man knew what was going on we were taking off down the dusty road for Reggae House, a bungalow operation and I had read good reviews of in my guidebook.
    The road was very bad and we had to drive slowly at times.  When a Thai man riding a scooter pulled up beside our driver and spoke to him while we were driving I figured they were friends, until our driver slowed and stopped. 
    “Where you stay?” the newcomer asked us.  He had a round, friendly-looking face, though he looked a little anxious.
    “Reggae House” I replied.
    “Oh, Reggae House closed” he tried, but I had heard that one before.
    “Oh no, we called them and they said it’s no problem, they have a reservation for us.”  Playing one of those games where he’s lying, and I know he’s lying, and he knows I know he’s lying. 
    “Why don’t you come see my place, Lanta Family Resort.”  He flipped open a photo album and flashed us pictures of clean bungalows with fan and bathroom set on  a spotless beach dotted with coconut trees.  It looked perfect.  “We have bungalow with bathroom only 100 baht ($2.50US).  Very nice.  You come look, I pay taxi driver half fare to bring you.  If you don’t like I pay taxi driver take you to Reggae House, no problem.”  He looked as though under he was desperate under his Thai neutral expression. 
    We had nothing to lose, Reggae House was just a name out of a hat for us anyway.  “Sure, we’ll go take a look.”
    He spoke Thai to our driver, who complained right back at him.  I understood that the driver was explaining I had argued the price of the taxi down to 50 baht, and that Lanta Family was further than Reggae House.
    “He say Lanta Family more far Reggae House.  You tell him 50 baht before but he say 70 baht now.  OK?”
    That sounded fair, and our portion would only be 35 now that our new friend was splitting the bill with us.  “So we pay 35, right?” Jeremy asked.
    “No, you pay 70 I pay 70.  Please?”  Now he did sound desperate, especially as it was rare to hear a Thai person say “please”, not that they are not polite, but that it is a word they just don’t use very often. 
    For 100 baht we couldn’t complain, if it were indeed true, and though we knew that Lanta Family never intended to pay half our taxi fare, we agreed.  As we turned down the road that led to Family Lanta, our tout having gone the other direction when we continued on, a small Thai girl with a demure smile and playful eyes ran out to meet us.
    “Bungalow?” she asked.
    “Yes” we replied, and she walked me to a cluster of bungalows while Jeremy rested in the restaurant.  Our friend had been truthful, we were offered a very clean and adequate bungalow for only 100 baht so Jeremy checked in while I took the luggage to our room. 
    We were 2 of 7 farang staying at Lanta Family, only four of 15 bungalows occupied at the time.  The beach was beautiful, though a little rocky as you first walked in the water, and exactly what we were after.  There were bamboo tables and chairs set up along the edge of the sand, with some beach chairs, a hammock and a swing.  We ordered lunch, noodles and curry soup, and settled down in some shade to read and relax between swims in the clear water. 

    After a couple hours relaxing in the afternoon, Jeremy decided to take a walk to explore the beach, so I piled on some sunscreen and joined him.  The sun was bright and the water crystal clear, but the beach wasn’t as tidy as we would have expected.  Litter was scattered up to the shoreline and I suspected there had been a bit of a beach party the night before.  Bee Bee’s, the bungalows next to Lanta Family, was very tidy and had a great set-up of tables and platforms with Thai lounging cushions alongside the sand.  The next place looked a bit rundown and without any customers, while the next again looked abandoned.  Bungalows had been left to fall down on one side and there was great need of a general clean-up of trash.  It looked rather odd for a tourist beach, and we started to get an eerie feeling about the place.  There were too few tourists, and Thais for that matter, and it looked like no-one had been in these bungalows for months.
    We reached a fancy two-storey resort built of cement with a swimming pool before the shoreline, and wandered over to explore.  There were two farang on the balcony of one of the rooms on the second floor, so we knew this place must at least be operating, however as we crossed the grounds it too began to look abandoned just like the others.  The gardens were unkept, there were no Thais floating about, and as we got closer we noticed that each of the rooms on the ground floor were empty.  No furniture, nothing.  In fact, we realized, there were no glass sliding doors on any of the rooms on the ground floor, such as every room on the second floor had.
    “Are you alright?” a voice called down from the second floor.  We looked up to see a 60-something couple looking down at us from their balcony.
    “We were just looking around.”  A silent pause as Jeremy and I began to realize what we were looking at, and the couple watched on.
    “Were all the glass windows on the ground floor knocked out by the tsunami?” Jeremy asked, finally saying what we had been thinking, but unable to voice.
    “Yep.  Everything.  All the furniture, everything.”
    We looked around us in silence.  All of a sudden it all came together.  The trash washed up on the beach, the bungalows knocked-over, the falling-down roofs.  Even the pool table in the middle of nowhere which we hadn’t really taken much notice of before.  The tsunami had hit Ko Lanta, and though it hadn’t been affected as badly as Phuket or Ko Phi-Phi, it certainly had affected lives here.
    “It’s heartbreaking isn’t it?”  Cheryl and Dave were Australian, and were spending six months in Thailand at a time since retiring, before they could finally pack up their lives back home and move here for good.  “We had actually stayed here a couple of times on previous trips, and ended up befriending the owner.  So we stayed in touch by email, and after the tsunami happened, he emailed us asking for help.  Dave’s an electrician, you see.  So when we came back he gave us the keys in Bangkok and has left us completely in charge.”
    Jeremy was still exploring the ground floor rooms and he called me in to look in one of the bathrooms.  It was two inches deep in sand, trash, dead coral and shells.  It looked like the bottom of the ocean in a bathroom.
    “I can’t believe this!  We had no idea the tsunami hit Ko Lanta.  I mean, it makes sense considering the location…”
    “Yeah, they were hit.  Most of the bungalows on the island have closed down and the owners gone back to Bangkok to try to make money so they can rebuild.  But everyone’s going to Bangkok, it’s pretty hopeless.”
    “Did the owner here have insurance?”
    “He did, a lot of the places here didn’t, but he did, because it was a more up-market resort.”
    “Is he getting it covered?”
    “No!”  Dave laughed.  “The insurance companies aren’t paying up because it was an Act of God.  He would have been better off if the place had burnt down.”
    The air was heavy and it suddenly got cool.  This place would have been a dream in its day, swimming pool lined with ornamental pebbles and air conditioned rooms with glass doors giving a full view of the ocean from your bed.  Now it was an abandoned concrete shell behind a swimming pool seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  It must have represented at least one man’s entire life-savings and some. 
    I noticed a pile of at least 20 mattresses leaning up against one another in one of the downstairs rooms.
    “Actually, there was a guy living down there when we got here” Dave told us.  “The owner said he could stay as long as he helped out around the grounds, but as soon as I went down to tell him the day’s activities on our first morning here, he took off.  I don’t know what’s wrong with them.  We don’t see any of the locals picking up the rubbish on the beach.  It’s like they’re all so depressed they can’t get motivated to do anything.  Many people have just left what they had here because they can’t afford to fix it, and the others are struggling at best.  It’s so sad and depressing.  We’ve had a number of backpackers asking us if there’s anything they can do to help, but there’s nothing really right now.  If there was money to buy supplies and start rebuilding, then there would be work to do, but right now there’s nothing.”
    We stood in silence looking at the empty building, the scattered rubbish, the clear blue ocean which had brought this devastation. 
    “Was anyone hurt here?”
    “Six people died on Ko Lanta.  No-one was killed in this resort though.”
    “Was the owner here when it happened?”
    “No, he wasn’t actually.  He was very lucky.  See that tree there?”  We were standing beside a medium-sized tree bearing large green fruit.  “It’s a Chinese good luck tree.  The owner planted it here when he built the place.  If it bore fruit it would bring good luck, and it did have fruit, but then the tsunami came.  But the owner was actually supposed to be staying here over Christmas with his family, in the room directly below.  Anyway he was delayed due to business and couldn’t come, so they weren’t here.  So he says the tree brought him good luck.”
    We smiled at the owner’s ability to find some fortune in the disaster which had befallen him. 
    “How long are you staying here?” Cheryl asked.
    “About ten days.”
    “Well, we’ll probably see you around then.”  There wasn’t much else to say, Jeremy and I were completely bummed and pretty much speechless. 
    As we started walking away Cheryl called after us “Have a jump in the pool on your way out, we’ve cleaned all the rubbish out and just put the chlorine in, so it might be a bit strong but it needs a good stir-up.”
    “OK.”  We both took a dive in the deep, luxurious pool, the floor lined with smooth ornamental stones, which you would expect to see in a Club Med resort.  Surrounded by half-dead grass in front of an abandoned building, it was incredibly surreal to be swimming in this pool in the midst of such devastation.  We quickly climbed out and started walking back to Lanta Family.
    As we made our way back along the beach we couldn’t tear our eyes from what we now realized was the direct result of the tsunami.  It was as though it had happened yesterday, with bungalows still leaning on their sides and the pool table out in a clearing on its own – where it had come from I couldn’t guess.  We could make out where stone steps had once led to a restaurant, but were now buried under sand and stones.  A bar was left washed out and abandoned, the shelves empty and chairs and tables gone.  Old beer bottles, odd flip-flops and even a soup ladle decorated the beach which was piled with dead coral in places.  As we walked in silence I studied the sand, wondering who the owner of that shoe was, or where those broken fishing nets had washed in from. 
    Suddenly I noticed one of the fishing ropes in the corner of my eye was actually moving and I looked up to see a purple and yellow striped sea snake struggling in the sand. 
    “Holy shit!” I called to Jeremy as I stepped quickly but not suddenly to the side.  I was only one metre from it when it caught my eye, well within striking distance I would imagine.  Luckily for me it was having a tough time in the hot sun and was barely able to keep its head up, though it continued to try to slither through the pebbles and shells. 
    Jeremy turned back and we stood a good distance away, watching it struggle towards the water.
    “I can’t believe I just nearly stepped on that thing.  I wasn’t even watching where I was going.  And it will kill you too, it’s really venomous.”
    Suddenly it stopped struggling and lay there still.
    “I think it’s dead” Jeremy ventured.
    We stood for a moment.  I threw a rock at it.  It found new wind and started again, this time so close to the water’s edge.  It finally made it to water and a small wave washed over.  We watched anxiously to see if it would swim away with the backwash, but instead it was tossed right back on the sand again with the next wave.  It started to struggle again, and when it finally reached some water for a second time the same thing happened.  It seemed not to have enough strength to swim out of the breakwater. 
    A couple of small kids ran out on the sand nearby so we called to them to come see the snake.  They squealed and threw shells at it before calling to a man further down the beach.  He smiled at us and watched it for a minute, then used a long tree branch nearby to pick it up and toss it out past the shallow breakwater.  I saw it hit the water but didn’t see it resurface, nor did it wash up on the sand again.  Satisfied, the Thai man walked away. 
    As we walked the short distance back to Lanta Family I felt an overbearing sense of struggle, the locals struggling to rebuild their lives after the ocean tried to wash them away mirrored by the sea snake’s struggle to survive a much smaller, but just as deadly, wave crashing on the sand.  Although Ko Lanta had at large been spared by the tsunami, in terms of lives lost, surviving the after-effects of the tsunami was not a given.  We had probably seen a total of 5 other farang on the beach so far, and at a tourist destination which only stayed open 6 months of the year due to monsoon, not everyone here would survive to see the return of business.

April 15, 2005

Scouting Siam Square

    The next day we woke in our crisp cool hotel room and tried to shake the talcum powder out of our clothes which had dried quickly in the oven temperatures outside.  It was the last day of the Songkran festival, but at least we were prepared for what we would find outside.  We enjoyed our complimentary breakfast downstairs and pored over our map of Bangkok.  The agenda for the day was to check into a hotel in Siam Square, explore the area a little and find a hotel to stay at for the duration of our course. 
    As we checked out of the D&D one of the lobby staff who had found our participation in the festivities the day before quite amusing, asked us where we were going.
    “Siam Square.”
    “Follow me.  No water.”  He led us down to the end of a narrow alley where some men were building something next door.  “Go here, left, right, find taxi.  OK?”
    We thanked him very gratefully for his tip; though we had put the raincovers over our packs we weren’t exactly sure how useful they would be against the forces outside.  We took the alley to the end, turned left, turned right past some homes and a small eatery, and came out in the carpark of a market just around the corner from Khao San.  The car park was almost empty but we could see the throngs pushing their way along the street directly outside the entrance.  There were no cabs in the carpark; there was nothing to do but push through the crowds and try to hail one in the street.  We put our heads down and tried to carry an air of determination and indifference to the Songkran celebrations.
    The first cab asked us where we were going, then shook his head and took another passenger.  The second cab was stolen from us by a cute Thai couple who smiled “Sorry!” at us as they took advantage of our momentary pause.  The third cab stopped for us and the driver helped us haul our ridiculously heavy luggage in before we all jumped in to escape the water and paste from which we had already begun to suffer. 
    “Which hotel you stay?”
    “Wendy House.  Soi Kasaem 1, Rama 1 Road.”  Soi Kasaem 1 was a small side-street directly across from Siam Square, and was supposed to have the most budget accommodation in the area.
    As we sped away the crowds dissolved until the streets were empty but for a few children standing by a hose waiting for a victim, one boy even peering over a bridge expectantly with his bucket in hand, watching the walking path beneath.  The city had indeed shut down, with banks and government offices closed no-one else bothered to open, and traffic was very light.  We arrived at Soi Kasaem 1 quickly, and the taxi driver dropped us at the front of Wendy House on the narrow one-way street.
    Wendy House was clean and comfortable, though the rooms were a little small to be shared by two people taking an intensive course.  The only common area was the restaurant/internet café downstairs which would be far too noisy to study in, so we checked in for the night and then wandered down the street to check out a few more places.
    A-One across the street was very similar to Wendy House, though the rooms were slightly more spacious and fractionally cheaper for a monthly rate.  Muangphol Mansion didn’t give off a very good vibe at all, and the receptionist didn’t even let us see a room.  As we wandered by Reno Hotel, the most luxurious hotel on the street, I figured we may as well see what they have to offer, though I had actually crossed them off our list purely on price.
    The door was opened by a smiling doorman and the lobby looked like any lobby in a very nice hotel in a western country, with a hint of Thai style.  We asked to see a room and were shown to a very spacious room with closet and a real bath, even a dressing table which could be substituted for a desk.  There was a pool area downstairs which was cool and shady, and the restaurant was air-conditioned and large enough that a corner table could be quiet enough for study. 
    Jeremy was sold.  “I don’t need to look anywhere else for a room, this place is fine.”
    “What about the price?”  The monthly rate for Reno Hotel worked out to be the same as the daily room at D&D.  Considering all the amenities it was great, but it certainly was a lot for a month and we had been hoping to get a “cheap” room considering the cost of the course.
    “For the extra $200, it will be worth it to be able to relax if we’re going to be working our butts off.”
    I had to say I agreed.  We had heard that the CELTA certification was very difficult, and a little bit of luxury accommodation might pay off when we were up late at night finishing assignments.  And besides, we would be accommodating two people, not one.
    We decided to check out the location of the school first before making any decisions.  We followed the directions given to us by the school for the shortest route from Soi Kasaem 1 to the ECC centre.  At the end of the street was Thanon Rama 1, a major road, beneath the sky train tracks above.  We walked to the stairs which brought us to the sky-train platform, then crossed the platform to the entrance to Tokyo department store on the second floor of Mahboonkrong (MBK) Shopping Centre.  We walked through the centre until we came to the walkway to Siam Centre, on the other side of another major road, but took the stairs to the street rather than entering the shopping centre.  We had effectively used the department store walkways to cross two major roads, bringing us to the corner of the intersection directly diagonal from the corner on which Soi Kasaem 1 was located.  From here we were only 20 metres from Chula Soi 64, a small street on which was located the Department of Pharmaceutical Science, the British Council and the ECC school.  The school was closed, obviously, for Songkran, however from the outside it looked very clean, organized and professional. 
    We wandered along Chula Soi 64 a little to check out our soon-to-be lunch stops, and enjoyed some beef (which was actually very, very chewy tripe) soup, a super spicy vegetable curry on rice, grilled squid and some small sweets, which were like tiny pancakes which harden when they’re cooked, spread with a meringue-like paste and sprinkled with spicy orange-coloured coconut.  It was all absolutely delicious, and cheap!, and I almost wished the class was starting immediately so I would have an excuse to try everything on every menu.
    There was not much else for us to do, unless we wanted to wander around the department stores which were open, or blow some money at the over-rated Hard Rock Café around the corner, so we turned around and headed back to Soi Kasaem 1.  We seemed to have made a decision about our accommodation situation for the course, so on our way to Wendy House we reserved a standard room at Reno Hotel from 28 April through 28 May; the extra money would be worth making the Bangkok heat bearable.
    We ordered a beer in the café downstairs at Wendy House and wondered what to do.  We had accomplished all that we had planned for the day in a matter of hours.  The next thing to decide was where we would spend the next two weeks before the course started.
    As we were heading for the beach there were three easy options.  The first, Ko Chang, was a beautiful island we had both been to before on the eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand.  Three years ago we had each managed to find nice quiet beaches and have a very relaxed time on this island which, along with 46 other islands in the area, belong to the Ko Chang National Marine Park.  We both knew that now, three years later, the island would be much more popular than it had when we were both there last, especially considering it was one of the areas not affected by the 2004 tsunami.  Assuming that it would probably be quite busy and overrun with farang, we decided to leave it as it was in our memories, and go somewhere else.  The next obvious choice would be the southern end of the Gulf of Thailand, such as the islands Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Samui.  Samui was too touristy and Pha-Ngan, the famous island for full-moon parties, would be a little too busy for our needs, so we crossed those off the list too.  The final option was the islands of the Andaman Sea, including Phuket, Ko Phi-Phi and Ko Lanta.  We knew that many of these islands were still quite devastated by the tsunami, however we figured that if we were going to contribute to a local economy, it may as well be one that needed our money the most.  We could catch a 12 hour bus from Bangkok straight down to Krabi, and decide which island to go to from there, where they would have more information about current conditions.
    “You know, we could just go tonight.”
    Jeremy looked up at me.
    “Well, we probably won’t get our money from the room back, but we’ve got nothing left to do in Bangkok, and if we stay we’re probably going to spend money on entertainment ‘cause our room’s so bloody hot.”  We weren’t paying for air conditioning at Wendy House.  “We may as well just go down there tonight and get started on studying for the course.”
    “I didn’t even think of that.”
    We paid for our beer, ran upstairs and grabbed our packs.  It was 4pm and most of the overnight buses left Bangkok bus terminals between 5pm and 8pm each evening.  If we hurried we would make it.
    We explained to the receptionist that we had decided to go to Krabi, and that we understood she couldn’t refund us the accommodation.  We got in a taxi at the end of the street and asked for the Eastern Bus Terminal.  Jeremy got enough cash for the next ten days, in case there were no ATMs on the island, and I enquired about bus fares.  We purchased tickets for the 6:20pm 2nd class bus for Krabi.  It would arrive at 6am. 
    While we waited for the bus we bought some fried chicken and steamed rice for dinner, and a bottle of water for the road.  If we were hungry later we knew the bus would be stopping on the way.  We packed all our valuables into a day pack to carry on the bus in case of thieves hiding in the luggage compartment below, not at all uncommon, and climbed on.  We were the only farang on the bus, which was not full.  The interior was decorated brightly with red and pink curtains and carpet which covered the walls and ceiling, but most importantly the air in the bus was crisp from the air conditioning.
    As the bus pulled out of the station it rocked wildly from side to side as the driver slowly navigated through the massive pot holes in the road at the bus terminal.  Once we made it out of the terminal we headed straight for the freeway, and picked up speed as we left Bangkok.  The bus attendant played a martial arts movie involving a master who is believed invincible until he meets a woman who can scream so powerfully that it destroys anyone in its path – except the master of course who is merely caught off-guard, then they battle it out for the next hour and half.  The passengers on the bus loved the movie – including us, and as the sun went down we covered ourselves with the blankets hung over each seat and tried to find a comfortable position for the night. 

April 14, 2005

Messy Thailand

    Riding in a taxi in Bangkok always feels like a little bit of luxury to me as it is stinking hot outside, while you’re crisp and cool in the back seat of the air-conditioned cab.  As we hauled our packs off the trolley, dragging them over the road to the first taxi in line, Jeremy swore yet again that things were going to have to change (meaning that he was going to throw out half the contents of his pack at the first opportunity.)  The taxi driver made a face as he picked up one of the packs to stow in the boot of the car.  We managed to fit both packs in the boot and the rest on the back seat with ourselves.
    “Where you go?”
    “Khao San Road”.  The central point for all farang (foreigners) in Bangkok, Khao San Road is a place where you can find a cheap room, eat your favourite food from home (no matter what nationality you are), buy a fake media pass, stock up on cheap silver jewellery and meet people from 30 different countries in an area about one kilometer square.  All farang roads in Bangkok lead to Khao San Road.
    “OK.  We take freeway, OK?”
    “Yes, Expressway OK.”  The Expressway was a toll road but well worth the extra 40 baht to save 45 minutes in traffic.
    The taxi took off and we sped toward the clusters of tall buildings scattered throughout Greater Bangkok.  One of the most striking things you notice when driving through Bangkok, in fact many parts of Thailand, is the jagged development of the cities.  The recession Thailand suffered in the 1990s has left many buildings standing unfinished as the developers/builders were unable to afford completion of the work.  At first it may appear that the city is run-down, but it’s not until you talk to some locals that you realize it is in fact unfinished development, which makes it particularly heartbreaking.  This visual display of shattered hopes and dreams reminds you of how tenuous life can be in Bangkok, fortunes can be lost or made, a stroke of luck could land you in one of the comfortable air-conditioned apartment buildings or sleeping in the muck of the slum directly beside it. 
    “Where you come from?”
    “America… and Australia.”
    “Oh!  America.  Australia.  Very good!”
    The taxi driver was obviously in the mood for a conversation.  “Very hot today?” I asked.
    “Yes, hot hot!”
    “Is it raining?” I asked, meaning “have the monsoons arrived?”
    “No, not much.  Only little rain.  Very hot Thailand now!” 
    He kept turning back to look at us as we sped along the freeway.
    “You come Thailand first time?”
    “No, not first time.  Actually, we met in Thailand before, on Ko Pha-Ngan.”
    “Oh, you met Thailand!  Very good!  How old you?”
    “Twenty-seven and twenty-eight” I answered for both of us in Thai.
    “Oh!  You very young.  I have daughter thirty-five.  Have one baby four months.  My daughter she work in Bangkok in ECC.  ECC computer.”
    Jeremy and I looked at each other in surprise, ECC was the same organization we were doing our CELTA certification with.
    “ECC!  We know ECC.  We are doing a course at ECC Siam Square in two weeks!”
    “ECC you know?  My daughter Katana Dechavilon big manager at ECC.  KATANA DECHAVILON.  Big Manager.  My son Bungen work ECC Rama 2.  BUNGEN.  Good work Bangkok.  Good money!”  He threw us a huge happy grin over his shoulder.  He was about the proudest dad in Bangkok at that moment.
    “Wow – maybe we will meet them?  We will be at ECC in Siam Square.”
    “Yes, ECC have many office all Thailand.  Siam Square, Chiang Mai, many many.  You teacher?”
    “We will be studying to become teachers.”
    “Teacher good money Thailand.  Very good.  KATANA.  You see Katana, you tell her you see father, Somchai me, SOMCHAI.  Father.”
        “Somchai!” we repeated after him, imagining the look on Katana’s face when we tell her her father gave us a lift from the airport.  It’s a small world even in Bangkok!
        “Katana now in New Zealand.  New Zealand.”
        “Oh, yeah, New Zealand!  On holiday?”
        “No, tour.  Tour.  Make tour with ECC.  Ten days New Zealand.  Come back Sunday.  New Zealand very cold.  Have snow.”
        We laughed hysterically, imagining Katana’s first experience with a white landscape.
        “Katana call me, New Zealand too cold!  Too much snow!  Must take hot water, put on car, put inside car, make car OK.”
        Jeremy and I were killing ourselves laughing, remembering all the drag of having to drive somewhere in Connecticut in winter.” 
        “How old are you?” we asked, amazed again by Thai youthful looks, considering he had a 4 month old grandson from a thirty-five year old daughter.
        “No!  You look younger!”
        “Thank-you!  I work before at customs but now I retire.  I not working I not happy.  So now I taxi driver!”  We laughed along, funny how some things are the same the world over.
        “And your wife?”
        “She stay home.  She have Katana baby, Katana in New Zealand.”
        “So you have a baby in the house again?  Does your wife like that?”
        “No!  No can sleep!!”  We all laughed together, enjoying common understanding of things that don’t change, no matter where you’re from.

        The taxi pulled up to the curb at the end of Khao San Road.  Somchai had warned us that he might not be able to get to Khao San Road due to the “big party” Songkran festival, the Thai lunar New Year.  Songkran, also known as the water festival, is held April 13-15 and the entire country shuts down basically to enjoy a three day waterfight.  Buddha images are “bathed” and monks and elders receive the respect of younger Thais by the sprinkling of water over their hands, while the rest of the population simply cools off and has some fun by throwing water at anyone and everyone.  No exceptions.
        We paid Somchai for the taxi ride and he wished us luck, then we piled our packs on our backs and turned into Khao San Road.  Flags and posters (mostly “Coca-Cola”) hung above the street like a parade route.  The road was wet and sloppy as though it had been raining.  Shelters from the sun were set up in the road, under which farang were laying lazily, water guns in hand.  It was only nine-thirty in the morning but it seemed as though most of the people on the street hadn’t yet been to bed.  Thai people stood in the shade, some watching people go by, others lazily squirting farang with their water guns.  We got the impression that something huge had been going on, and though it had reached a pause, it wasn’t yet finished.
        Very little had changed about Khao San Road.  The silver shops were still there, the restaurants with their tv screens already playing pirated copies of the latest Hollywood films.  Street vendors selling fresh fruit were setting up while those with huge woks over gas burners were switching their fare from omelettes on rice for the morning to thai noodles for the rest of the day.  It still looked the same and smelled the same, aside from the temporary festival additions, and it still held the title of both the best and the worst street in Bangkok. 
        Most importantly, however, was that the D&D Inn was standing right where I’d last seen it, a welcome sign to any traveler wanting a relatively well priced room with hot water, air conditioning, clean sheets and HBO.  We dragged ourselves in, checked into a room and spent a minute enjoying a closed door and air-conditioning. 
        We were both tired but too eager to explore Khao San Road to sleep.  We changed and headed back downstairs to get some snacks and see what had changed.  The orange juice vendor was still standing in the same spot as 3 years ago, selling the sweetest orange juice I have ever tasted.  Gulliver’s Travels was still on the corner, and the pad thai vendors smelled like a drug.
        I couldn’t resist my addiction to Khao San pad thai so we ordered a serve each from a lady who looked like she had just set up.
        “How do you say ‘Happy New Year’?” Jeremy asked.
        “Sawatdee bee mai” she smiled.
        “Sawatdee bee mai.”  We practiced the words, trying to commit them to memory.
        As she fried the noodles with loads of garlic, cabbage, bean sprouts and fish sauce the smell made me realize how much I had missed the Khao San pad thai.  I truly believe it is the best fast food in the world.  I piled my serving with crushed peanuts and chilli vinegar and tucked in with the two sticks we were given to use as chop-sticks. 
        I rolled my eyes at Jeremy.  “This is sooooo good!”
        He smiled at me and sprinkled chilli flakes over his.  The little thai lady interrupted him as she came out from behind her wok and faced him with a big smile on her face. 
        “Sorry…” she said in that way only Thais can, oh-so-apologetic when you know they oh-so-don’t mean it.  Before he could figure out what she was apologizing for, she tipped a bottle of ice cold water down his back, laughed, and returned to her position behind the noodles. 
        “Sawatdee bee mai!” she laughed at us.  We looked at each other.  It was ten o’clock in the morning and we had just been dunked by the sweetest little lady you’ve ever seen.  We knew that we were about to get really, really wet.

        Now that we had been introduced to Songkran, sleep was absolutely out of the picture.  We bought some cheap plastic thongs for my feet and a few bottles of water each for ammunition, then headed out of Khao San Road.
        We found ourselves thrust in the midst of throngs of Thai people walking down the road, squirting water-guns at each other, tipping bottles of water down each other’s back, even groups of ten kids crowding around huge containers of water loaded on the backs of utility trucks, dipping in their buckets and tossing them on to the crowd.  Now the important thing to remember is, true to Thai style, one must not express any displeasure at any water-tossing, no matter how cold, no matter how much, and no matter how inappropriate i.e. just as you’re about to take a mouthful of pad thai.  The only correct response is to smile and laugh, saving face but most importantly just enjoying the festivities.  Now this is easy to follow at first as the cool water is a welcome relief to the Bangkok heat, however as the sun occasionally disappears behind clouds it can become a little cool to be constantly drenched, let alone with the ice water.  However, not to be the awkward foreigners who can’t hang with the locals, Jeremy and I headed off down the road towards Democracy Monument with our bottles of water in hand, throwing water straight back at those who splashed us and laughing at the entire scene of chaos.   
        As we made our way it became abundantly clear to me that I was receiving significantly more attention than Jeremy in the Songkran exchanges with those we passed.  And it wasn’t just the water either, there was a new element to Songkran which we hadn’t encountered on Khao San, but which was proving more popular than merely splashing water about.  People were carrying small bowls with them which contained some kind of mixture of water and a powder I believed to be talc.  As they walked by you, they would stop in front of you long enough to dip their fingers in the paste and wipe it over each of your cheeks.  At first this was quite funny, announced by the usual insincere “Sorry!”, however after five minutes of that there was talc in your eyes, mouth, nostrils and ears as the passersby searched for bare patches of skin to smother.  I tried wearing my sunglasses so that I could at least keep the muck out of my eyes, however this brought even more fun as my sunglass lenses were smeared with particular accuracy to ensure I couldn’t see through them.  At times the Thais were so excited to be celebrating with a foreigner, as Jeremy and I seemed to be the only farang outside Khao San at this time, I would feel hands groping for my face from every direction whilst I stood with my mouth and eyes squeezed shut, calling for Jeremy to come back for me when I felt them pass by.  Our favourite apology was “Sorry… messy Thailand!” by a twenty-something feminine Thai man before he smeared paste all over Jeremy’s face. 
        We must have endured this for two hours on main roads all but closed down from the crowds, cars driving too slow covered in paste and taxis using their discretion as to whether they should stop for anyone or not, as well as smaller streets where families gathered out front of their homes, laughing at their children particularly enjoying seeing farang walking by, helpless against their Super Soakers.  Utility trucks drove by with children piled on the back, throwing their buckets of water at pedestrians as they sped past.  We walked by a shop front where two people were refilling hundreds of empty plastic water bottles with tap water and made a mental note to check our water bottles were untampered with the next time we purchased water.  Occasionally we stopped at a street vendor serving small balls of fried fish with chilli dipping sauce or small bowls of tom yum noodle soup, and marveled at how they were miraculously dry despite being located in the midst of it all.  We even passed a policeman, solemnly enforcing the peace with one cheek and one side of his shirt smeared with the grey paste.  I had to stop often, calling to Jeremy to pour clean water into my hands so I could wash my eyes, as my face seemed to need so much more paste than his.  We passed a number of Buddhist temples and saw piles of flowers just inside the entrance, offerings to Buddha, and heard chanting fill the air around.  Statues of Buddha were being bathed gently by young and old, and any car driving by was a moving target for at least a bucketload of water. 
        After hours in the thick of the celebrations I felt an urgent need to have eyes, ears and nose cleared of paste, clean clothes that were not dripping wet and a drink of water that didn’t taste of chalk.  We worked our way back to the end of Khao San Road and noticed that they had erected a barrier slowing the entrance of people into the road to enforce that they leave their talc paste bucket behind.  I guess they had experienced farang displeasure at having their nice expensive clothes smeared with goo and figured it best to leave that only to the farang who dared venture outside their tourist haven.  As we re-entered the road it was now full of Thai people and foreigners, though mostly Thai, engaged in all-out wars from one side of the street to another, squeals coming from all directions as ice-water was fired, the street wet and sticky with not a single dry piece of clothing in sight.  The farang were really getting into the spirit of things, displaying more playful aggression where the Thai would use the surprise sneak-attack, looking away quickly to deny any responsibility for the soaking you just received.  As we reached the D&D we passed three travelers in clean clothes carrying their luggage out of the hotel foyer, and I laughed outright at them.  They rolled their eyes in resignation, there was no use fighting this one.  As we walked through the lobby the staff laughed at our sorry state and we retreated to our room to shower.

        After a long nap I headed up to the pool on the roof, where I had left Jeremy hours ago.  It was now dark and I had a priceless view of the bright lights of Bangkok from the 7th floor.  To my amazement, the Songkran celebrations had intensified into a Mardi Gras-like all-out street party.  Below me in Khao San Road the street was literally jammed full of people moving past each other, easily ten abreast, each pushed against the one in front.  The bars and restaurants had their stereos turned up at full volume and enthusiastic Thais were dancing hard as they lined the streets.  Most of the throwing of water was now being done by those at the sides as anyone in the middle could barely raise their arms high enough to fling anything at anybody, so they simply enjoyed getting soaked.  The noise of the music, squealing, screaming drifted up to me.  As I looked out to Democracy Monument I could see the crowd extending the whole way towards the brightly lit fountains which had been set up around the monument.  Behind me it continued on, in all directions, and endless celebration Thai-style.  As far as I could see Bangkok was one throbbing, moving, snaking, squirting, screaming water fight. 
        I felt someone sneak up behind me and turned to see Jeremy with a big grin on his face.
        “Have you seen this?”
        “I know!  It’s crazy.  You should see it out there – it’s impossible to move or go anywhere without getting immediately drenched to the bone.”
        I looked out over the crowds.  “I can’t believe it – it’s ten times bigger than when we were out there.  It’s like… I’ve never even seen anything like this before!  Not this big…”
        Jeremy laughed at me.  “ It’s like a Thai Mardi Gras!  People are going crazy!  It’s awesome.”
        We set up the tripod and took some video before we could tear ourselves away from the spectacle.  If you can say anything about Thai people, it’s that they know how to have a good time. 
        Messy, messy Thailand.

Back to the Beginning

        Perhaps the funniest thing about cabin-society is that although we are aware we are existing in a realm far from normal, we are in fact thirty thousand feet in the air, we all pretend that we are doing something entirely normal and expected, merely catching a movie and eating out.  Obviously we’re all awake but will be sleeping soon, so of course we need an evening meal served, never mind that it’s one o’clock in the morning.  As the cabin staff do their best to serve the quickest dinner to 400 people in the same room ever on record, the passengers feign an aroused appetite in an attempt to show appreciation for the staff’s efforts.  Before you can say “How do I get this stupid tray to come down” or “Can someone open this terrorist-proof plastic packet so I can get my friggin’ cutlery out!” or “Why the hell is my tray so friggin’ smooth my meal keeps sliding off it into my lap!” you’ve had an entrée of garden salad with Italian dressing, a main of chicken with mango sauce and fancy potatoes, pavlova for desert and two glasses of wine while polishing off some bread and sharp cheddar.  Suddenly you realize that this was all a devious plan concocted by the cabin staff to keep your mouths full long enough that your stomach signals your brain to initiate falling-asleep-sequence, transforming 400 unsettled people asking how many hours the flight will be and how to get the left earpiece of their headphones working into 400 slightly open snoring mouths, 100 of these snoring heavily, but most importantly none asking any more stupid questions.  This leaves the cabin crew free to disappear behind those tiny curtains where they shrink to tiny size and meet in a tiny secret room beneath the cabin, drinking tiny bottles of liquor all night.

        After you’ve woken up from a neck so stiff you swear you’re going to need a neck-brace, stumbled to the tiny little bathroom twice, alternated between tucking your legs up under you on the seat and stretching them out under the seat in front of you a dozen times and woken yourself up gagging on your own desert-dry throat a thousand times, the full cabin lights (including a couple of spotlights they save just for this moment) are blasted on, trained for your tender pupils, and the cabin crew, in perfect appearance no less, greet each of you with a cheery, yet forgiving of your sluggishness, “Good morning!”  Naturally the instinctive response is to scream at their pristine perkiness “How can it even be MORNING when the sunrise is taking two hours because we’re chasing the sun on its cursed path across the sky thirty thousand feet in the air YOU FREAK!!”  But of course we smile politely, wiping our chins and stretching our necks, knowing that anyone having survived the last six hours and surfaced looking as they do must be in possession of some kind of superhuman powers, and it would be in our best interests, at thirty thousand feet, to obey the masters of the cabin politely.
        I looked over to see Jeremy looking just as fresh as I, gazing bewildered about the cabin.
        “Did you sleep?”
        “Not really.  You?”
        “No, not really.”  Much as would be expected.
        Through the window I saw the night sky, though I could see the other side of the aircraft being bathed in the “morning” light.  Out the window something flashed and, hoping that it wasn’t the tip of the wing retiring mid-flight, I stared intently until I saw more lightning flash through the clouds just below us.  It’s amazing watching an electrical storm from above as the event shifts from a display of sheer power stretched across the infinite expanse of sky to a merely playful game of tag between the clouds. 
        A tail wind brought forward our landing time in Phuket, an island in the south of Thailand at which we were to wait in transit for the connecting flight to Bangkok.  Breakfast was served and removed rapidly and suddenly we were again being asked to lock our trays and move our seats to the upright position.  As the island rushed towards us I tried to imagine what it must have been like when, four months earlier, an enormous mass of water was displaced and rushed at high speeds, just like me in the airplane, towards the same island.  I scanned the land looking for signs of the tsunami but saw nothing clearly recognizable.  As the wheels touched ground I wondered what events this airport had seen since December 2004. 
        “Passengers in transit to Bangkok, please take all your belongings with you and proceed to the transit lounge.”
        As we patiently filed out of the aircraft it hit me that I had fallen asleep in Australia, and woken up in Thailand.  The ease with which we travel nowadays is unbelievable, regardless of the quality of airline meals; so far as I’m concerned, if I find myself with ten fingers and ten toes standing at my desired destination, the flight was a roaring success.  We ventured through the worm-hole again and emerged in the warm humidity of Phuket airport at 6:30am.  The transit lounge was half full with Thai and foreign travelers, circumferenced by gift shops and snack shops.
        My curiosity got too much of me and I dragged Jeremy over to the snack shop.  As we wandered through the aisles we laughed at the things so strange yet familiar, the tiny little cans of lychee juice and bottles of Thai Red Bull, the family pack of dried squid, packs of Oreos and Tim Tams, tiny little hot dogs in buns which come in plastic packets, clear plastic bottles of drinking water, Chang and Singha beers, tins of nuts, sweet breads wrapped around shredded pork and dried prawns.  It felt like last week that I was cracking open a can of mango juice and picking the weirdness out of the bread buns.  But the cementing of my feeling of being “in Thailand” came when I walked into the airport bathrooms and smelled that unmistakable not-far-from-the-sewage smell of Thai water.  The sign “Please do not stand on toilet seat” above a western toilet.  The old lady in front of me in the line gesturing for me to go before her.  It was definitely a very familiar feeling.

        Our connection to Bangkok left right on time.  I looked across at Jeremy and took his hand.
        “Last time we were in Bangkok you put me in a taxi and I cried all the way to the airport.”
        He smiled, and we took a moment to appreciate all that had passed since we were both last in this part of the world.  It had only been 3 years and 3 months since we parted on Khao San Road, me on my way back to London and Jeremy on his way to Laos and Cambodia, and since then we had fallen in love in California, moved to Washington D.C., married in Connecticut, waded our way through the INS system and built a life in the nation’s capital before packing up and selling everything, spending 3 months living with Jeremy’s parents and 4 months living with mine in Australia to get right back where we started from.  And here we were again in Bangkok to pick up where we’d left off after a brief interruption to our adventures.
        As the plane touched down we could see that Bangkok had already reached bread-baking temperatures.  The haze of heat and pollution covered the city in a shimmer which looked dirty and uncomfortable.  We taxied by three men enjoying a round of golf on a course which actually met the taxi-way.  The aircraft came to a stop in front of four buses on the tarmac – no worm-hole this time.  As the cabin crew thanked us for traveling Thai Airways we gathered our hand-luggage and filed like sheep off the aircraft and into the thick wall of Bangkok summer heat. 
        “Passengers from Australia this bus please!” 
        The handrail was slick from humidity and I could feel my body instantly covered in a film of sweat.  Yum.
        The bus sped away from the plane, who I was very grateful to for delivering us in one piece, and we quickly found ourselves standing in front of an immigration desk in the decorated-when-very-brown-was-very-“in” Bangkok International Airport.  Beside us were a couple of men coming from one of those middle-eastern countries where the men wear long white “dresses” with a cloth covering their head jammed on by a length of round “rope”.  As the immigration official stamped our passports and we headed on for Baggage Claim I told Jeremy the story of the time I left Karen standing in this same airport for an hour after waiting for her at the wrong terminal.  We collected our luggage and as we pushed our trolley through customs, which involved… absolutely nothing actually, I spared a thought for Schapelle Corby, in whose shoes I could have been in an instant.  Jeremy looked over at me incredulously.  I mean, someone could have at least pretended to care that we were passing through customs. 
        We emerged from the airport procedures to the usual crowd of limousine touts calling “Taxi, taxi!”
        “No limousine thankyou.”  Their enthusiasm disappeared in an instant and I was forgotten before I had passed them by.
        As we stood in line for a money changer there was a small crowd to our left of men wearing the long white dresses gathered around two wheelchairs inhabiting two women, I assumed, in full long black burka and black face mask.  It was like a scene from Star Trek crossed with a Michael Jackson party, to be as politically incorrect as I can possibly be.  The men seemed to be standing back from the women, though the women seemed to be barking orders, or at least opinions, at them.  I try not to pass judgement on people I come across who are different in appearance to that which I’m familiar with, but there was something decidedly other-worldly about these women.  As the money-changer handed me my notes I turned to find Jeremy speaking with one of the men.
        “Nevermind, don’t worry about it.  It was just a question.”
        Oh shit, what has he gotten himself into.  The Arabic man is not letting it go.
        “Why do you ask?  What do you want?”
        “Nothing, it’s fine, don’t worry about it.”
        “Where are you from?”  He smiled at Jeremy – a good sign.
        “America.  And you?”
        “Ohio.”  He smiled very broadly at him now and seemed to be daring Jeremy to call him a liar.
        I called out Jeremy’s exit cue, “Come on, we have to go!”  He met me and we headed towards the exit.
        “What did you ask him?”
        “I just asked him what the masks were for.”
        I look at him in disbelief.  “You can’t ask them that!”   
        Jeremy met me without pause, “They’re the ones we should ask.”
        As the exit doors slid open before us, realization washed over me with the thick humidity we were stepping into, and I stood corrected.

April 13, 2005

Departure Lounge

        After an horrific scene at the international departures gate of Melbourne’s Tullamarine International Airport, I gladly found myself thumbing through the pages of New Weekly and People magazines, relishing Jennifer Anniston’s house-hunting “woes”, what can one buy in Malibu with $20 million nowadays, and trying to avoid further commentary on Charles and Camilla’s over-speculated, over-televised and over-bloody-due wedding.  Airport bookshops are so convenient when one has time to kill.  Luckily, the instruction beside flight TG980 to Bangkok read “Relax” on the Departures television screen, as opposed to “Boarding”, “Final Call” or “Still Trying to Locate the Thingy That Goes on Top of the Engine Bit…Delayed”, so I obediently relaxed my way through the troubles of the rich, the famous, and of course the Desperate Housewives.  Jeremy nearby thumbed through a Thailand travel book noting suggested housing for Siam Square, Bangkok, our soon-to-be home for four weeks while we attempt a CELTA certification, hopefully widening our future employment options. 
        “Found anything?”
        “Yeah, there are a few places here…” 
        I looked over his shoulder and skimmed over the list.  The addresses were jibberish to me, “Thanon” this and “Soi” that.  We would need to sit down with a map and try to figure out were these places were. 
        His dedication to using his spare time constructively shamed me, so I moved back to my trashy magazines.  Best not disturb him as he is doing such a great job.  Besides, there is so much complexity to the Camilla and Charles situation I don’t fully understand.  I mean, will Camilla really be Queen?  I silently scoffed at those around me reaching intently for a paperback copy of their favourite Shakespearean classic or the latest best-selling autobiography of an influential world figure.  We both knew that they wouldn’t make it past the fifth page of the first chapter, but only I was honest enough to admit this and set my standards to a more realistic height.  In fact, by unashamedly displaying my tabloid-reading, I was furthering the strength of my character by shunning pretence and refusing to partake in this charade of intellectual superiority.  So were I, in fact, to reach for any literature which I had no intent to read merely for the sake of not reaching for literature which might lessen one’s opinion of my intellect, I would be denying my true self to myself and those around me, and missing an important life lesson in honesty and humility.  Satisfied, I pondered Brad and Angelina’s seemingly inevitable love-child.

        I always enjoy inspecting the population of an international flight and imagining each traveller’s circumstances.  The businessman so bored with airports and all activities related to them lessening his time to make profit.  The family beginning or ending a holiday with friends or relatives far from their home.  The young adventurers on a quest of discovery with the whole world seemingly at their fingertips.  The fifty-year-old couple who look like John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  The community of world-travellers is small, in comparison to the global population, and I always consider myself incredibly lucky to be a member.  Each time I walk down that rickety walkway between the departure lounge and the aircraft I imagine I’m falling through a wormhole between worlds, and I never tire of the excitement.  As I step through the aircraft door and am greeted by the stale processed air of a busy 747, I look around me at those who will be my best friends for the next 8 hours, the air-hostess who will ignore my smelly and disheveled state in the morning when she wakes me with a smile, the young child whose cries I will ignore an hour after the lights have been turned off, the heavy aging man whose snores will bring no complaint though I cannot help but listen to be sure he draws his next breath.  Coming from a society of growing personal space expectations, the imposed limits on liberties which must be suffered as a cost of world travel at speeds measured by the number of movies you can watch on a flight make the unspoken laws of cabin-society fascinating to me. 
        Jeremy and I are lucky enough to be the only two passengers in a row of three seats, a good omen for any flight. 
        “What are you going to have, the chicken or the seafood?”  Jeremy has already found the dinner menu options. 
        Airplane food is one thing, but seafood on an airplane?  “I’ll take the chicken.”
        “I’ll take the seafood then.” 
        As the plane begins to taxi to the runway, the cabin staff in their immaculate Thai dress busy themselves readying the craft for takeoff.  The cabin is filled with the sound of seatbelts being fastened as the Thai and English safety instructions are shown on the TV screen.  I look over at Jeremy and his face reflects the nervousness and excitement I’m feeling.  As the engines crank up after only a momentary pause for approval for take-off, the air in the cabin stiffens and it seems every joint in the craft clings tighter, knowing this will be a group effort.  The whine of the engines reaches a painful pitch and I reach for Jeremy’s hand as our center of gravity suddenly shifts slightly behind us.  We smile nervously at each other and the 747 throws itself down the strip of runway, overhead lockers rattling. 
        “This is it” he smiled at me.
        “This is it.”
        After a final lunge flight TG980 launched herself into the still black summer night. 

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