Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Unbearable Hospitality of Thailand, a festival not to be missed, and a birthday party!


...is a tour guide in Bangkok who just so happened to study at a university in Thailand with a mutual friend of myself and Jon. Knowing that we were hopelessly inept wanderer's and would need some sort of direction, said friend (thanks Sharif) put us in touch with Soren, who invited us to come to his village with him to join a huge celebration that is held every year in honor of an extremely old temple known as Phanom Rung. This temple complex is considered one of the oldest and best preserved of the Khmer temples in Thailand and they are justifiably proud of it. It was originally built as a Hindu monument, which now summarizes absolutely everything that I gathered of the history of the place.

The festival takes place all in one day and is somewhat comparable to the ceremony every year in which they rededicate the Statue of Liberty...if there was such a thing, and if New York was filled with Thai people...which, although I've been gone for a while, I'm pretty sure isn't the case.
Nevertheless, we were off to Burriram!

Part of what made this trip particularly fun was that Soren seems to know just about everyone in Thailand. When asked to explain this phenomenon, Soren simply said "I know at University." If that is the case, then Thailand has the highest proportion of University graduates to citizens of any place on Earth, because we couldn't walk for more than 10 seconds down any street without having to stop and talk to someone he knew. Commensurate with his affable nature, Soren also has a number of "closer friends" who partook of this trip with us. It was nice, and fairly unique (to me) be traveling with tourists who were themselves natives of the country I was in. Good fun.

3 of our fellow travelers. Lovely ladies each.

Thus we found ourselves on a "local bus," which despite my cringing when hearing such terminology (remembering what that moniker denoted in India), ended up being quite nice. Ever the tour guide, we arrived in Burriram at 4AM and were almost immediately met by a man driving a pick up truck which Soren had arranged. Jon and I were unsure as the schedule for the day, all that we knew was that Soren didn't seem to have much in the way of sleeping in mind. Never to fear, we arrived at his mother's house at about 5 and spent 3 blissful hours sleeping in his sisters old room.

(L to R) Jon, Me and Soren...the wheels on the bus go round and round...

Jon and Oat (pronounced "Oh-aht") enjoyin' the ride

Since I have been rambling on and on about Thai hospitality without really describing it (an oversight which my fiction writing teachers are surely growling about even as I type) allow me, if I can, to describe some of the ways in which Soren and his family made us feel at home:

-When we first met Soren, he introduced himself, then vanished for 5 minutes, returning with plastic bags filled with ice, a straw and fresh watermelon juice that he had just bought for us

-While showing us his apartment, we noticed that there was a large, double bed in the middle of the room (the apartment being a slightly-larger-than-normal efficiency for two people), along with two small mattresses on the floor. When I asked if he and his roommate traded off in the bed, he looked at me strangely and said "no no, we sleep on floor." When quetsioned further, he explained that they had the bed for guests and that they never slept in it. I'll repeat; he and his roommate owned a bed which they reserved exclusively for guests while they slept on thin mattresses on the floor. I was flabbergasted.

-After showing us around his apartment, he insisted that we go swimming in the pool in his building. Not being suitably attired, Soren loaned me a pair of swimming trunks. If you have never seen a six foot two inch man go swimming in shorts bought for a five foot four inch man, then you have missed out on seeing quite a lot of hairy legs and wedgie tugging. Of course, I pulled it off with style. Oh, and they were neon green and pink.

-Soren took us to dinner at a place that he said made him feel like he was at home. Of course, this meant that it was in a back alley, alongside a canal, we were the only white people within 3 square miles and ordering for ourselves was out of the question. Soren ordered, we ate, then the sneaky guy paid for it over our vociferous objections.

-When arriving at his mothers house, at 5AM, she had food ready for us, but we were told that we could sleep first. After doing so in a bed that she had prepared, she served us the food which no-one had touched and was still somehow warm.

Soren's home, quite comfortable

Soren's Aunt (middle, short) seemed to think that Jon and I were visiting exclusively for her flirting pleasure. I'm pretty sure that she pinched my butt about 2 million times.

The above are but a small sampling of the multitudinous kindnesses, small and grand, which were extended to us during our time with Soren.

We were taken to the silk factory in Burriram, which has consistently won the Kings award for finest silk in Thailand

After devouring a breakfast of sticky rice, chicken with garlic and mushrooms and some kind of vegetables, we were back in the bed of the pickup truck. Of course, Soren had taken the mattresses from his own room at his Mom's house and had laid them, with sheets and pillows, in the bed of the pick-up so that the 5 of us could ride back there more comfortably.

Living where we do (Western countries) there tends to be an obsession with road safety that is compensated by poorer driving. Riding around in the back of a pick-up truck at home is (I believe) a ticketable offense, or at the very least frowned upon. Anywhere else in the world, it is probably the most used form of transport. And I have this to say about it; it is wonderful. I have now ridden in the beds of pick up trucks through deserts, across mountains and along beaches and each time I find myself wondering why I don't do so more often. The wind whips past you, the scenery seems more vivid and the road beneath you feels more immediate. You are traveling the road, not simply riding on it, and though the difference may be small, it can make a world of difference.

"...movin' right along, footloose and faaaaaaancy free, I'm ready for the good times are they ready for me?'
-Fozzie Bear

So we spent 5 glorious, mostly comfortable hours plummeting through the Eastern edge of Thailand towards the temple.

Then we arrived

We're here! (professor Om thinks that it's raining)

And met some locals

(find pics w/me and jon) Her father was very happy to have us photographed with, who we later learned, was the "queen" of the festival. Sort of like Homecoming queen but in a sexually repressive society.

There were only a very few other farang (white folks) at this festival so it was quite a novelty to have a picture taken with us. As we thought it was quite a novelty to have our photos taken with girls in gold gowns and men with swords, the arrangements all took care of themselves.

One of Soren's friends who was with us is a professor of Tourism at a University in Burriram. We affectionately know her as "Professor Om." Prof Om had taken the liberty of securing us tickets for the (what we later learned) was a gala to be had that night, plus dinner. But first. The Parade!

Parade route

This was one very, very long parade. Since it started about an hour late, we found ourselves sweltering in the sun for quite a while, affording us at least an opportunity to take in what was going on around us. First, and most annoyingly, there was a kind of "who's on first" routine going on over a loudspeaker whereby one guy would talk for a while into the mic, and he would be answered by the other guy with "klap" (yeah) every 5 of so words. This went on for roughly 45 minutes. And drove us nuts. Along the pathway, there was saffron bunting strung up (saffron being a sacred color, color that monks wear etc.) and it was interesting watching people step over this banner, as they made very certain not to touch it with their feet. There was a set up as well under which those with the "good seats" could sit comfortably and sweat in the shade.

Oat and me, sweating.

As the parade passed us by, the ranks of heavily sweating men, lifting enormous plaster statues of bulls, roosters, serpents and horses seemed to make our situation comparably tolerable. The fact that they then had to struggle up five steep, narrow flights of ancient stone stairs, the edges of each step inevitably worn smooth by the passage of thousands of feet humbled me as I sipped my water and occasionally tugged on my shirt to let some air pass through. The blaring music, while not entirely pleasing, added a festive air to the already bright colors and smiling people. The children running around seemed to be having the best time, kids not worrying about things like sweating or getting dirty. I noticed that all of the men that were responsible for the heavy lifting had what looked like thick black tattoos, strange mysterious symbols and heavy looking notation, written all over them. Prof Om explained that it was written with a black marker (awww...) and that the symbols were to half to keep evil things away, and half to bring good luck. It looked to me like everyone had gotten drunk and then written on each other, but what do I know? (the answer to that question is 'absolutely nothing').

The parade ended, we followed the procession up the stairs and looked around the temple.

Doesn't this look like a promotion for a cross-cultural sit-com set in a mystic Thai temple? Huh? Anyone out there want to shoot this pilot?? (chirp...chirp)

The temple guards are not to be trifled with

The lovely ladies

After doing so, we were tired. This was of no consequence to Soren, who now insisted that we rush over to another temple on the other side of "town" before rushing back to eat dinner. Protestations visibly ignored, we left, saw the temple, decided that it was worthwhile after all, then returned for dinner.

The other temple. Bludarg

Dinner was, in a word, wonderful. A stage off to one side contained a multitude of dancers, singers and other forms of entertainment. This stage overlooked an area that must have been at least 4-5 acres, all covered with tatami mats, upon which roughly a thousand people, all sat around large wicker tables. Neatly uniformed servers bustled about and laid out a spread of food that was able to easily feed the dozen of us that were present, with enough sticky rice left over to act as dessert (quick fun note: the sticky rice came wrapped in banana leaves, which I thought you could eat, much to everyone's amusement).


After dinner was The Show! (my italics and emphasis). Up until this point, Jon and I had been thoroughly impressed with the festival, albeit a bit dissapointed at how reserved much of it was. For all of the enthusiasm which people obviously harbored, not much of it was shown beyond polite clapping and broad smiles. So it was with some reservations that we climbed the steps to the temple and took our seats to watch...well we really weren't sure what. Perhaps if Soren had told us "...oh don't worry, the show is just a two hour, Broadway quality production using the 3000 year old temple, a platoon of Thai soldiers, sword fights, fire spinning, a full-on epic battle scene with real weapons, professional music, lighting and acting recounting the entire history of the Earth from the macro (creation of earth by Buddha) to the micro (rebuilding of that particular temple) capped off by an extraordinary fireworks display...I think that you'll like it," we would have been more excited going in. However, if he had previewed the evening in that manner, it would have lost the awesome ability to completely and irrevocably alter what I would even consider possible of a stage production in a small village. Jon and I spent much of the show smacking each other in disbelief at each new wondrement that unfolded. Of particular coolness was was the highlighted sword fight, in which two very talented martial artists fought each other with metal swords which clanged and sparked dangerously and went on for a full 5 minutes, complete with spinning kicks, flips and "can you believe that he dodged that?!"-type blows.

Phanom Rung at night

The show ended with the lighting of hundreds of candles, which were placed into paper cylinders and released into the air, floating easily away high into an indigo night. You could see the points of light for miles before they winked out over a shadowed horizon, after which we just turned our heads back to see more lifting off the ground and making the same journey, the wind guiding the light to where it was perhaps more needed.

Full cast

We got back in the pick-up, and drove out into the night, stopping off to drop one of Soren's friends at a bus station so that he could catch a ride back to Bangkok. I was agog at this decision to leave, as we had arrived on a 10 hour bus that morning at 4AM, and here he was making the return journey beginning at 11PM, all so that he could make it to work the next day. I hope that it all worked out for him.

We took our leave of Soren's home the next day and high tailed it back to Bangkok. As we were figuring out our plans for the evening Soren shyly mentioned, "we have party tonight."

"Why Soren?" Jon asked.

"My birthday! You come?"

Soren hadn't mentioned that it was his birthday before because he didn't want us to feel like we had to go to his party. Shaking my head at his consideration, I RSVP'ed on the spot. Thus we spent our last day with Soren and his (even more) friends, at the same restaurant as before. Contriving to finally get to pay for something, Jon and I talked about how to get the bill before Soren did...to no avail.

"Good night everyone!" Soren called out as people got up to leave.

"Wait, Jon and I want to get the bill."

"Already done. I paid. You no worry!"

Happy Birthday Soren!

There was nothing we could do except to accept his offer to stay in his enormous, comfortable guest bed (while he slept on the floor) and drink the tea that he made us, and shower using his towels, and eat the toast and jam that he provided us with in the morning. We just didn't have it in us to refuse anymore.

Soren, thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you.

Next: Another double posting, recounting the most fun 3 days in a row I've ever had, and a brief commentary on the kindness of people to travelers, strangers and friends alike.

A double helpin'

Hey there all.

Due to some oversights on my part and certain aspects of the so called "internets" eccentricity, I neglected to post some stuff earlier, then have posted something later and basically, the point is that there are now two posts for your perusing pleasure.

The post just below this writing is actually the second, so if you scroll down a little bit and start at the "Thailand!" titled post, read it, then come back up to the top, you'll be right as rain. A little something extra from me...to you. Ain't I sweet?


A brief return to Bangkok

Back in Bangkok. Jon knows the good place to stay. We locate it, check in, eat, drink orange juice. We go out, walk streets, see Israeli's, use absurdly cheap internet. We contemplate boat rides, temple visits, tuk-tuk's around the city. We nap, get up, go book shopping and talk to Thai people. At night, we get a cab, go to Pat Pong knowing the reputation. It is a place, as fully as is possible, of the sin that you only dream about. We walk the streets, feel uncomfortable, have a drink, have two more, jangled nerves settle...a little. Men harangue us to buy pirated DVD's which all begin with messages about not-pirating DVD's, offer us wicked sharp knives, ninja stars, cheap silk and absurdly out of place dolls. Walk past women, but more significantly, walk past lady-boys, the bizarre third gender endemic to Thailand, neither fully men nor women, yet look like the most petite of females from anywhere else on Earth. Another drink to settle this disparity in gender understanding. Small greasy men hold laminated cards, menus of the hedonistic depravity that awaits those with money inside the poorly illuminated halls, up the stairs, long, low-lit stages, fully dressed women appearing anything but, drinks cost three times what they're advertised, run for the door, a glass bounces off my head, ice clinking on the floor, screamed Thai in my direction, run run run run out the door and down the street, still getting hassled, more violently now. Women tug sleeves as you pass, open doorways reveal assembly lines of for-purchase pleasure, dominant clientele being overweight and white and balding and Hawaiian shirted and sweating and drunk, groping desperately into the night and white bikini nothings and the bile rises in my throat and another drink keeps it down, only just. And clinically you just stop and wonder and think and can't make it all make sense but this world, this bazaar isn't sensical and the street rushes up and spins but you don't notice and the people swarm around you with a purpose so definite and strange and mad that you are lost lost lost and a great booming voice is echoing from a loudspeaker and you are condemned, condemned! for your geography and your weakness and it's all too much so then there you have, well you find and go to a McDonalds a bastion of refuge, cheeseburgers and the price, who knows, and then more and back to the street and the lights are overwhelming but it doesn't matter and the loud voices and women and men and..others still plying the flesh that by rights shouldn't be theirs to sell yet push push push and inevitably the wolves come, the old wolves with pockets stuffed full, yeah full! of the money that drives the street onwards. If you squint and look hard the money lines the pavement and the sky and the lights are made of coins that reflect the moon...but no moon no moon, a moon is pure and glows and the coins are dull and reflect nothing nothing nothing except other coins and the coins in the lights mirror the coins in the eyes and bills on the backs are the clothes that slacken as she twists and promises and yeah that hard money piles up and the street grows taller and taller until we fall off the end of it, a long lethal lonely fall that ends in our room and sleep, sweet sleep, and maybe tomorrow the lights won't shine so painfully.

And in the cool light of day the wolves slink slowly towards cool caves and look in the mirror and don't reflect because memory is too hard, too hard and the shadows pass away through the low doorways and mirrored ceilings and there they wait, they wait for that long fall of night and sun and now they can't touch the bright places, which are being washed now (washed I say!) with the grey rag that wipes the greasy man's brow when he gets up tonight with his card and promises and can't remember how it was that the street has gotten so tall.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Thailand!: In which I re-learn how to smile, meet up with an old friend, and experience the inestimable beauty of a tourist-infested island

Thailand! Yay!

I arrived in the (former) land of Siam on a beautiful sunny morning. Then I stepped out of the air-conditioned terminal and started sweating. A lot. The morning was still beautiful and sunny, I just hadn't counted on the humidity being in the range of improbability.

Still, the shuttle bus to Khao San road went smoothly. I was particularly pleased to note that we were traveling on roads that were (heavens!) paved, and where people generally stayed in their (gracious!) own lanes and, on a bus that (egads!) had the same number of seats as they would allow people to ride. Small favors really, but of utmost import given my recent travails.

Sitting at a table outside of a bar, reading a book, drinking a beer, look up, take picture of elephant, go back to book.

Khao San road (Thanon Khao San in Thai), my destination, is kind of like the slop bucket at a farm. All the animals end up there when they need to eat or drink, everyone gets dirty and there is a lot of grunting and staring. It is set up to cater to the backpacker element, and, to be frank, being around this many "white" people gave me a case of massive culture shock. Up until that point, I had been mostly around people native to an area, in India, Zimbabwe, Zambia etc. Nearly everywhere, the dominant group were the locals. But not here. It was disconcerting to say the least.

A short, humble diatribe, if I may be permitted, on being a foreigner in a foreign land:

1. Dreadlocks. Why? I mean honest to God...why? If you are not a 6 foot Jamaican then you have no business with them. If you are an overweight, pale, Irish guy with Chinese tattoo's running down both arms and a "wanker" t-shirt on, then you really shouldn't be getting these things. Also a note to parents: DO NOT ALLOW YOUR CHILDREN TO GET THEIR HAIR PUT INTO DREADLOCKS. It is not cute. It looks stupid. This will reflect badly on your parenting abilities. I will personally call social services on you.

2. Talking to people whose first language is not English. TALKING LOUDER does not make what you are saying any more clear. Neither does repeating yourself over and over, loosing spittle and angst at the poor street vendor who just wanted to cook you some pad thai. Try talking slooooower...maybe point at their conveniently hand lettered sign to indicate your desires. You'll be awkwardly fumbling with your chopsticks in no time

3. Sex workers. I know that I try to keep this space squeaky clean, but it is just ridiculous here. Let this serve as a warning that from here on out, if I am in Bangkok and you are a 50 year old, fat, balding man in a Hawaiian shirt, sweatily groping a 15 year old Thai-girl I will do everything in my power to throw you into oncoming traffic. You are a plague upon humanity and deserve whatever fate the Goodyear company can wreak upon you.


Diatribe aside, I was immediately and, in all probability, permanently affected by my first few hours in Thailand. After getting myself settled, I decided to dive right into to the local grub. At this point in my travels, I feel like my immune system has been throught the equivalent of Navy SEAL survival school and can handle anything that I can throw at it...

"An orange juice please, with ice."

Suicide in some countries. Utter deliciousness here. Setting off in a random direction, I soon found myself pleasantly lost, perambulating around wide open squares, brightly colored signage and sidewalks so clean you could ummm (come on Norm, think of something to write besides 'eat off of it'...)...change a babies diaper on it! Yes!

I hadn't been walking for more than 10 minutes when I was stopped with a loud "Hello!" Being an expert now in deflecting unwanted advances by people desirous of my mythologically full wallet, I ignored the call and kept walking. Then the 5 foot 5 inch tall Thai man planted himself in front of me and offered his hand.

"Hello! Where you from?"

The look on his face was pure joy at talking to me. Furthemore, I couldn't see a taxi that he could lure me to, a rack of necklaces hanging from his hand or a shady back alley where he could try to get me to exchange some currency. "Oh well," I thought, "I guess that I'll try to just have a conversation."

The ensuing conversation took an hour. During that time, he told me about the history of Thailand, his daughters, his wife (who he was out on a walk avoiding), where in Thailand was good to go, how to say hello (sawatdee-klap), and thank you (korp-kun-klap), and
which foods I should eat. This was only to be my first brush with the overwhelming, nearly oppressive form of hospitality that the Thai practice, and it very nearly caused me to burst out crying at how nice this man was being. Of course, since I'm the rough, tough, world-travelin' hardass that I am...I gave him a hug instead. Then, this near-saint wrote down a list of places to go in Bangkok, hailed a tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) and haggled the driver down to 40 baht to drive me around for 3 hours. 40 baht is about one dollar. This guy then pressed his hands together and inclined his head (known as a wai), turned on his heel and walked away. He hadn't wanted anything more than to have a conversation during which he could practice his English, and I could see that he actually took pleasure it helping me get around the city.

This was right around the time that I regained my smile.

In India, Yeah Yeah and I had often talked about how we had forgotten how to smile. This is not to say that we had lost the ability to form our faces into an expression redolent of happiness. Rather, we had lost the reflex ability to grin quickly at people, the kind that you offer to someone as they pass, as it is an ability that is largely useless in India. When I first arrived, I would flash someone a grin and it would be met with a blank stare. Even more difficult for my ego to bear, was that when I would smile towards a woman, she would not only refuse to return the smile, but would cast her eyes down and hurry away from me like I had just told her that her sari made her butt look big. Thus did my "snap-smile" atrophy to the point where attempting it off-hand could have caused a full face sprain.

In Thailand, if you aren't frowning, then people are smiling at you. Big, enormous, gargantuan tooth filled smiles that take up the whole face and sometimes even shake the body. Sometimes I will just walk around for an hour or two and see how many people I can get to respond to my smile. With minimal exception, everyone offers me a worthwhile expression in return.

But enough jibba-jabba. On to the sites!

Here we have "Standing Buddha" Apparently the African Naming commission has been at work in Thailand as well

This thing is really, really big

My first advised stop was the magnificent "Standing Buddha." The Thai people love gold, so anything that is of remote importance is, at the very least, of a goldish hue. Bangkok has over 300 temples, each with something unique to recommend it to a visitor. I was able to make it to another 2 of these before being shuttled off to the Grand Palace, which, as you can imagine was... Super.

Man do they like gold!

Side of one temple at the Grand Palace. I have nothing clever to say about this picture

The Thai people also revere the sacred "Hugging eagle", who, though terrifying to behold, is quite cuddly.

I spent the day wandering around the Grand Palace, following a Mural that is roughly 2 miles in length and depicts an epic story that, since I couldn't afford a tour guide, I can only guess at.
It seemed pretty interesting right up until the Buddha looking guy sat down for a while and then nothing much seemed to happen from then on.

I don't think that I was supposed to be taking pictures in the temple. Don't tell anyone.

It was at about this time that I found out that an old comrade-in-arms was doing some SCUBA diving on the Southern Island of Ko Tao. Though I was greatly enjoying Bangkok, I had been longing for the salty smell of the ocean and the annoying grittiness of sand in my britches for some time. Khao San road is, among other things, one of the best places in Bangkok to book travel from, provided that you don't end up as one of the cautionary tales that are told about disreputable travel agents. Since I had already heard a number of these stories, and, determined as I was not be "taken in", I visited no less than 14 different booths, shops, internet joints, restaurants and travel agencies, each of which had more or less the exact same deal to offer me. It is remotely possible that I looked, sounded and acted like a crazy paranoid man as I went place to place demanding to speak to whoever was "in charge" and eventually becoming so well versed in the particulars of the trip that I was correcting the agents on their pronunciation. I was offered three jobs before I finally found someone who possessed the proper smorgasboard of characteristics that would allow me to buy from them. It is possible that I was bribed with cookies. I'm not saying that I was, but I'm also not saying that I wasn't...

Exhausted, but with a ticket in hand, I slept in my room that looked right out onto the madness of Khao San, which meant that sleep was not something that would occur for any great length of time nor be sufficient to provide me with the rest that I somewhat desperately needed. The next day, I got onto my Air-conditioned, individually assigned seat, movie-playing, blanket-giving, non-stop, non-breakdowning super bus and rode all the way to a city called Chumphon, arriving at 4AM. Apparently, this is a route that is run often, as I discovered that while waiting the three hours for the boat to the island, the waiting area had tatami mats (not terribly comfortable, but covered the floor), firm pillows and would serve you breakfast if you wanted. I slept, I woke up, I ate, I got on a boat.

View from the boat, not of the boat

I love riding on boats, I love being out on the ocean. Somehow or another, these two passions seem to work well in tandem. Go figure.

I arrived on the island...

And found Jon...

Eating noodles. Jon loves noodles.

To give a quick background: Mr. Jonathon Guidroz Esq. and I both attended the George Washington University at the same time, him being a year ahead of me despite being several months younger. We also had similar social affiliations (cough...fraternity...cough) and for the past year in DC, had worked at the same company (Corporate Executive Board) and had lived less than a block away from each other. So of course, I knew that Jon was in Thailand and we had planned on meeting up.


Jon has been on the road for nearly a year now. In that time he has been to South America, back to his storm-ravaged home of New Orleans, then to Europe, Africa and now Asia. I had absolutely no idea that we were in the same place until a fortuitous series of e-mails placed us in touch.

Long explanation aside, it was great to see yet another long lost, far flung friend and we spent several nights on magnificent Ko Tao, soaking up ultra-violet radiation during the day, and terrible Thai whiskey at night.

The island of Ko Tao has become justifiably world renowned as one of the best places to SCUBA dive. Moreover, due to the weakness of the Thai baht to nearly every other currency, coupled with weather systems that only prevent diving in event of tsunami, the price to get any sort of diving certification is next to nothing when compared with most other places. What does all this superfluity mean?

Hazy mountains. Tranquil ocean. Big ol'rocks

It means tourists. And tourists mean money. And money means banana pancakes (which we'll get to in a second).

Stepping off of the boat onto the island, about 85% of the people are quickly shepherded to the dive resorts that they have prebooked, eyes a-quiver and loud bah-ing evident. For those few unfortunates who hadn't already made arrangements, the friendly looking people holding the signs with the guest-house names on them seemed honest enough... One of the benefits of being very tall (relative to the average Thai, or Indian person for that matter) is that their loud entreaties for, whatever they're trying to get you to do, largely pass below your ears, allowing you to at least appear blissfully ignorant. Thus did I set off at great speed across the island finding myself awash in signs for internet, "Western Food!" and book stores. I have come to learn that a good measure of exactly how "touristy" a place is, is by how many used book stores there are, and how well stocked those stores are. If you're in a place and they have a well thumbed second edition of Donald Trump's autobiography next to 72 copies of "On The Road"...run. There is nothing but pain for you here.

Which brings me to another point that I would like to make about traveling in general...

...There will always be people who will tell you how much better things "used to be." Crusty old travel veterans right on up to someone 3 years your junior with a shiny new passport, if someone has been somewhere even once, it has since "gotten commercial "or "sold out" or "gone backpacker." This is almost the most infuriating thing about traveling (right next to dreadlocks and Bob Marley. No knock on Bob, but if I see one more stoned kid bobbing his head to "Get up, stand up" with his eyes closed really "understanding" Bob's struggle I'm going to light his dreads on fire). Nostalgia is so prevalent I'm thinking of starting a worldwide business called "Wasn't that great?" in which you can show up at a place and then one day later you can pay someone to listen to how much better it was the day before. I'd make a mint.

So we were forced to listen to people, on an idyllic beach, with a lazy tide foaming in, and nary a cloud overhead whine and complain that it was too commercial. When asked, in all innocence "well then why don't you go somewhere else?" I was met with hostile glares and a curt end to further conversation.

Allow me, if you will, to explain why it is that you didn't go anywhere else: Because that would involve independent thinking on your part. When you came 5 years ago, it was not while running the Jolly Roger or the Union Jack up your mast. Arrrr! You didn't "discover" Ko Tao, you came for the same reason that I did; someone told you that it was good. Whether or not more resorts have been built in that time does not make your previous visit inherently more "authentic." When you arrive, in your home-made, dugout canoe, with a waterskein made from the flesh of an animal you killed, skinned and cured, paddling onto the shores of an island onto which no other person has ever set foot, then you can talk about how commercial it has gotten 10 years later when you've clear cut the forests and built casinos. Until then, enjoy your time on the crowded dive boats, eat your pizza and hamburgers, and pass me my overpriced beer, because for my money, this beach ain't half bad.

Next: A moral lesson in Bangkok, the supernatural hospitality of a friend, and a festival not to be missed.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Full Moon Party: 10,000 people, 1 Beach, Lots of Fire

This was it. The culmination of my time in South East Asia. As I reflected back on the two and a half months that I spent in one of the most volatile, beautiful and memorable places that I'd ever been, I couldn't help but be find my train of thought frequently derailing before it made it anywhere near the station.

I was surrounded by people.

Lots of people.

Thousands upon thousands of people.

Oh, and I'd been drinking. Quite a bit.

Yes, welcome to the Full Moon Party (or FMP as I will shorten it to from now on to save you, oh precious reader, valuable moments and my nimble fingers further suffering) where the drugs flow like wine, the beer flows like beer and there are enough things on fire to create a massive hole in the ozone layer, right above our humble beach.

I had arrived on Ko Phagnagn that afternoon, having just completed my PADI Open water scuba diving course. Since it is not particularly interesting to discuss things best left to pictures (see Japan posts upcoming) I won't take up too much of your time. Suffice it to say that there is much more SCUBA diving in my future. Any activity where the people who are considered the best are the ones who move the least, breath the slowest and are inherently the most relaxed is the kind of activity for me. Oh, and the sharks make it moderately interesting as well.

The history of the FMP deserves a moment of recognition here. The island that it is held on used to be a kind of hippies hideaway. It wasn't easy to get to, once you were there, you tended to stay, and any behavior that you could think of was groovy by the rest of the residents. Then, each month, a kind of pilgrimmage to the island would occur, with only the stoutest of souls and the bravest of travelers making the trip out to an island that would be consumed with madness, a fitting tribute to a sacred time of the month.

Times have changed.

As the world has gotten smaller (and flatter...according to Mr. Friedman) the fabled monthly parties in the south of Thailand went from rumor to legend to...pretty much a well controlled party. Each month, thousands of dreadlocked, tattoo'ed and baggy-pantsed young travelers, their eyes bright from excitement and ecstasy, descend on the small town on Ko Phagnagn to participate in a ritual that has moved from being the worlds craziest party to "The Worlds Craziest Party© " Becoming a victim of your own success is not exactly a new concept, and as any number of tourist ghettos can attest, what once was unique and interesting can develop into "Unique and Interesting" within a few short years (see: Cancun, Cozumel, Goa, anyplace in Florida, Cape Town etc.). Nonetheless, how could I pass up something this popular, this talked about, this essential to a trip to South East Asia?

Of course, if it had only been for the party, I may have found my motivations lacking and my will to participate ebbing slowly away with every minute that I spent submerged in saccharine blue ocean, salt water gently corroding the contact lenses from my eyes. No, there were a few other, more pressing reasons for my attendance...

(L to R) Lorraine, Aidan, Claire, Intrepid Hero, Tanja, Ghost of Christmas Past (not pictured)

Those reasons had names, and they were: Claire, Tanja, Aidan, and Lorraine. As I've made reference to in the past few months, there is a kind of well worn backpackers trail that leads one through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. It could perhaps be just as accurately characterized as a rut if one were so inclined, which I assuredly am not. If it be a rut, then a most pleasant one it is. Still, throughout my travels in this region, I found myself nearly every night with these most excellent of individuals. We had laughed together, and drank together, experienced awesome and amazing sights together, and drank together, gone sailing and kayaking together, and drank together, and experienced hellacious bus rides and beautific boat rides together. And drank together. Now, here, at the end of all things, we would wile away our last few hours taking in the made-for-backpackers experience of the Full Moon Party. The brilliant flashing lights, the deep booming that seemed to shake the sands beneath our feet like the tremors that had broken them down from mountains in eons past, the buckets full of disgusting Thai whiskey out of which every single person on the beach was guzzling.

Lorraine makes friends easily...actually, given where her hand is, maybe TOO easily...

Tanja is full of surprises...not the least of which is that I had a bloodsucking leech on my face that she had to bite it off...thats totally what is going on here.

Truth be told, it is difficult to make a real friend on the road. "Friends" come fast and thick, and it is a rare traveler who has not exhausted the capacity of their notebook and the ink of their pen trying to keep up with all the e-mail addresses that thrusting yourself into the ether of travel loneliness necessitates. But these rarely are people with whom you share anything real. You don't know them long enough to find out something that you don't like about them. You don't see them cry. You don't learn about their families and their future and what they hope for themselves. These kinds of relationships are elusive at best, nigh on impossible at worst to establish when one decides to be in a different country nearly every week. Yet slowly, and improbably, Tanja, Claire, Aidan, Lorraine, Pieter and Mathijs (last two couldn't make it to the island) ended up becoming not "friends", but friends. It is a fact that I will be eternally grateful for.

But enough of my blather, on to the party.

Here's a quick summary of what you can expect from a FMP:

You will arrive on the island, to find that the boat has left you approximately 45 minutes by tuk tuk from Hat-rin, the beach where the magic happens. Trying to negotiate will leave you ultimately unfulfilled as the walk to the beach is nearly 3 hours and the drivers know this and will not hesitate to let you know it. One annoyingly pricey cab ride later, you find yourself in downtown...ummm...town and begin to see how the party is going to go down. The streets are narrow and, while not cobbled, they do seem to have a sort of routine paving scheme going on. On every corner, and also inbetween every corner, an industrious Thai person has set up a folding table with plastic buckets, stuffed full of 1. ice 2. a fifth of either Thai whiskey, vodka or gin and 3. the appropriate beverage to accompany the prior two items. The buckets sell for a very reasonable 3-5 dollars a piece, and they seem to be the only acceptable form of libation during the evening.

It should be noted that I had arrived far in advance of the festivities. It is a well known and bragged about fact that the FMP really "gets going" around 2am and revelers can be found at the "secret" (ahem) after-party that starts around 10am. So with time to kill, I set off to find my erstwhile companions.

It was not difficult.

Be it due to some cosmic interference, a telepathic connection or simply good planning, the whole group, despite traveling as three separate units at all times (Claire/Tanja, Aidan/Lorraine, Norm) always managed to bump into each other nearly immediately after arriving in a place. I have no hypotheis as to why this occurred save that I am just a center of gravity for awesome [severe beating of Norman by super-ego....back to the narrative].

We ate food, lounged around, and come midnight, we set off at a leisurely stroll to the beach. Let me see if I can find a suitable analogy to what the beach looked like from our spot at the top of the street looking down...

If you were to pull the ground up over an anthill, then grab two different colored flashlights, pour crazy-ant-alcohol all over the ants and then watch them dance around for a while, you might be getting there...

If you somehow managed to herd a huge group of cats into an auditorium of which you kept reducing the size, while playing a thumping back beat that drove the cats nuts and into one corner of the auditorium, shivering in fear and anticipation, you might be close...

If you were to watch a riot developing in a city, from a helicopter above (but not TOO high above) that city, you would be spot on.

This was perhaps 1/100th of the beach

There was fire. There was dancing. There was movement that was less dancing and more...well..animal than anything else. There were people selling drugs, at least half of whom were undercover police officers trying to make a few quick bucks with an arrest and a bribe. As we descended to the beach, the chaos became more visceral. Though I'm not great with numbers, I would say with confidence that there were at least 8,000 people packed onto a beach the size of several football fields. I had imagined that the FMP would be one cohesive unit, everyone throbbing and stomping and rotating to the same beat. It was not so. Clearly the beachfront was prime real estate for any enterprising entrepeneur who chose to cash in on the popularity of the event. As such, the 20 or so bars lining the whole beach have taken to gouging each other, in price, in music selection, and most importantly, in music volume, to turn profits on the excited freaky dancers. Thus, walking 30 feet in either direction from the dead center of any bar was akin to walking behind a jet engine as it is firing up. Somewhat disorienting.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that despite everyone trying to look different from each other, the looks all kind of blended in the wash. Thai fishing pants (baggy colorful pants that tie in the back), flowing, billowy shirts, long ratty dreadlocks and the dreaded fire pois (about which more in a moment) flooded the beach and made the outside of each bar as similar as the one before it. This did not lend itself to catching back up with ones friends once they had been lost.

They have such nice smiles, I really can't think of anything snarky to say...bollocks

Dancing my way around from bar to bar, I found myself being exceptionally thankful that I had violated one of my own sacred maxims and kept my sandals on for the fracas. The beach was, in a word, vile. When not chugging from a bucket, beer was dispensed in large bottles, many of which ended up deposited on the beach half full,then broken. As the tide receded, drunken partyers chose to forgo the traditional methods of relieving themselves for the (apparently) more attractive option of using the ocean. Though this may be acceptable for the variegated organisms that inhabit our watery depths, that effluent washing back up on the shores, all night, in not insubstantial quantities, made for a rather pungent aroma.

A note on the poi's. I have mentioned fire as being a rather large part of the festivities and I wish to elaborate a bit on this point. It would seem, from my completely curosry and not-at-all-thorough investigation of fire-spinning, that it originated as kind of martial art of particular daring. A poi is a relatively simple object. It is essentially a cloth ball on the end of a meter long chain. At the opposite end of the chain is a small loop into which one slips a digit or two. Having accomplished this, the poi'er dips the cloth balls into kerosene, lights them on fire, then proceeds to spin them over, around and behind their bodies, their pace increasing as the rhythm accelerates.

Uhhh...dude....your light saber is on fire!

The Thai people on the island are typically proficient at this art form. As seen in the picture above, they can also practice their craft with sticks coated at either end with kerosene. Much of poi spinning involves the throwing of the fiery chains and sticks into the air and catching them in various interesting and acrobatic ways. Done correctly, a firespinner can create a halo of jagged flames over their head, can make the fire dance in opposite rhythmes on either side of their body and can fling the winged light high up into a night sky, briefly obscuring the stars durings its parabolic flight back to the still gyrating hands of the firespinner.

This is when it is done properly.

Unfortunately, there are a number of people who, singed dreadlocks attesting to the contrary, seem to believe that they possess the innate grace, timing and rhythm required to participate in this unique activity without hurting themeselves. Combine this assumption with massive quantities of alcohol and drugs, and throw in loose, light, baggy clothing and unwashed, ass-length hair, and you have yourself a recipe for comedy! Even more unfortunately, the flights of the fire that I described as "parabolic" contain a necessary truth: a parabola is an arc, not a straight line. In order to catch a flung object that is moving along an arced path and not a straight up/down one requires a person to move to catch it. Many of the amateur spinners seemed to neglect this aspect of physics. Thus, it was not uncommon to see that brilliant tongue of fire lifting into the sky, only to be followed moments later by the high pitched screaming of a newly minted member of the "guess what happened to me at the FMP?!!?" club. Taking membership now!

Claire is so strong she can actually bend me in half with the merest touch...it took three weeks at a chiropractor to fix this...thanks a lot Claire!

Still, it was enthralling to watch the fire dance to the command of a frenetic man, wildly and inexplicably making it move to his own rhythm while keeping time with the beats pumped out by the steroidic speakers lining the beach.

I have also made mention of the exceptional organization that this party manifests. There were two events, in addition to the streets lined with bucket sellers, that made this preparation apparent. The first was the abundant, and amazing food that was being distributed on the beach. Over the past 6 or so months, I have eaten things ranging from very tasty to very terrifying. Much of what I have eaten has come from people selling me things from small carts at which they cook the food while I wait. The FMP was no exception, except that it was so exceptional. The had skewers with a chicken. No, I don't mean a skewer of chicken, I mean a skewer with a f&$#ing chicken on it. You could literally buy an entire chicken roasted over a fire in a large grill and brushed with some kind of spices for about a buck. I have since learned that eating most of a chicken that is covered in a kind of bar-b-que sauce, and then placing your hands on the sand, and then on your face, is a supremely stupid idea, but I didn't care, this was some good freakin' chicken! There were also the requisite pad thai stalls, spring rolls, pastries, rolls, curries and all other manner of delicious eatables to keep even the most robust of partiers fueled til the break of noon. All of this wondrous food was laid out in a kind of state fair-esque midway that seemd to have been reserved specifically for it. Where the stalls stood, there was no bar. It was necessary to cross through this area to get from one half of the beach to the other, and you could not help but salivate at the smells emanating from the mini-kitchens as you passed. That's good organization. Oh and no bargaining. Everything had a price and if you didn't like it, you weren't getting any food.

The other way that I learned of the excellent organization of the party involved, somewhat embarassingly, yours truly and an inopportune place/moment to catch some z's. As the night wore on (and wear on me it did) I found myself increasingly...well....exhausted. Not only had I been diving that day (which kind of screws with you anyway), not only had I been dancing like a lunatic for the past eight and a half hours, not only had I eaten and drank enough to make Dionysus jeaous, but I had been doing all this while muddling through sand and people, trudging my way up and down increasingly crowded beaches that seemed less and less yielding every pass I made. Come an hour before sunrise, I gave up.

I had planned to party til noon, I really had. I wanted to find the "secret" party that I had found out about on the flier that had been handed to me by no less than 10 people. I wanted to prove how hardcore a backpacker I was by partying the lastest at the greatest party on earth. I wanted to do those things...and so in order to have the energy to keep going, I laid down on th beach for a moment to catch a minute of rest...

...Two hours later, I was rudely awakened by two very impatient looking Thai men who had grabbed my shirt and were shaking me. Hard. For a second I thought that I was being robbed. Then I started laughing because the only thing that I had brought with me from Ko Tao (where I was diving and upon which I had left all of my belongings) was 10 dollars in cash and a pen, all of which were gone. I stopped laughing long enough to check that my shoes were still on my feet, after all, shoes are worth something. Finding my shoes safely glued to my feet by beer, and the other detritus that had accumulated over the night, I turned my attention to my would be assailants. Then I noticed something interesting about them.

They were wearing uniforms.

They were taking my pulse.

They were shining a light into my eyes.

"Hey" I said..."stop that."

They spit something at each other quickly in Thai and off they went down the beach. Propping myself up on my elbows, I could see at one end of the beach a depressing and bizarre tableau. maybe 100 people, moving slowly to a raging house beat. They looked like the walking dead, but I knew what they really were: the walking faithful. They believed in the myth of the hardest core partier, the one that is talked about in legend and whispered about on dark nights. The backpacker who partied for 24 hours straight then went bungee jumping then hiked alone in the jungle for a month then had a funny incident with local culture. I know that story, and I know that it is a lie. But it is a lie perpetuated by me and my kind, people who refuse to believe that there is a limit to the amount of fun that can be had, people who can feel competitive about something like hours on a bus, people who think that having travelers diarrhea is a mark of honor.

Crazy people, really.

Ahhh!! The flash of a camera! Pose!

So the medics went on down the beach, a beach looking like a combination of an invasion from a country of people who have been collecting all of the worlds trash, and a bunch of beached seals. Indeed, by my count there were at least 20 other people within 50 yards of me stretched out on the sand in various manners of repose, only a few of which looked comfortable or natural.

So ended my experience with the FMP. I had fun, I danced a lot, I ate a chicken and I developed a minor case of actue epilepsy from the lights and crowd. As I sat on a low wall in town, waiting for a taxi to take me back to the boat that would take me back to Ko Tao so that I could, that very day, take my Advanced Open Water Scuba Test, I couldn't help but smile at the fact that I had done it. I had been to the legendary, the revolutionary, the ineffable and remarkably well orchestrated Thai Full Moon Party and I was so excited by the thought that I promptly fell asleep, sitting up, with my arm fully outstretched in the air in front of me. I know this because a fellow party-goer snapped a picture of me then woke me up to show me how funny I looked.

I did indeed...look quite funny.

Not at all; drunk, exhausted, hungry, happy and confused

Next: The briefest of returns to Bangkok for one more goodbye and WELCOME TO JAPAN...where nothing makes any sense whatsoever, plus the emergence of Rich-San into our narrative.