13 December 2011

Teacher Michael Don't Play Dat!

I have a hoodlums class.  Recently the hoodlums were being extra hoodlum-y and Teacher Michael had to tell 'em whats up!  They came to the next class with this handmade apology.  Apology accepted hoodlums.

06 December 2011

Spelunk Yeah!!

What did I do this weekend?  Well... 

I had the day off in honor of Father's Day.  In Thailand Father's Day coincides with the King's Birthday.  And since the King is like a cultural mash-up of Elvis, Abe-Lincoln and Jesus it's a big deal.  With plans to go away for the weekend I wanted to be productive.  I got up at 7am and wrote like it was my job.  I finished around 4pm having added a very acceptable number of pages to my book.

That night I went to a party at house a few of my friends are renting.  It's a big place with four bedrooms, hardwood floors, A/C and a sizable yard.  They are paying 7000baht a month.  Split four ways that comes to about $55.

We were being loud and obnoxious and beer-fueled when the neighbors came out to say hello.  We thought they were going to curse us out in Thai and say, "Police!  Police!"  Instead they gave my friends a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of wine and a carton cigarettes and said, "Welcome!  Welcome!"  Thailand.  The Land of Smiles.  Gotta love it.

As planned we took a minibus to Khao Sok National Park.  The Lonely Planet Guide describes Khao Sok as "...like stepping into Jurassic Park."  It was high on my must-see list the first time I visited South East Asia and has been sitting on the tippy-top of that list for months.
SO FREAKING WORTH IT.  We rented floating bungalows on Cheow Larn lake.  The boat trip to the bungalows alone was worth the cost of the whole trip.  Which incidentally was less than $60 for two nights accommodation, transportation, a guided hike and meals.

That afternoon we relaxed by the bungalows, swam, kayaked, and floated on tubes.  I didn't get a tube.  I was distressed at first, but then I remembered my redneck roots.  I remembered my Mom and Dad and their adult friends floating in New Hogan Reservoir drinking Coors Light with their legs through the armholes of life vests like giant buckled-up diapers and I thought, YES!!  Needless to say I was floating like a happy incontinent moments later.

That night we sat around the table, listening to music and holding a surprisingly fun and funny talent show.  The fact that we went through an unconscionable amount of Thai whiskey may have had something to do with that.  My favorite line from the talent show came from one of the girls in our group.  She had done a magic trick and was deservedly proud.  One of the guys got up and as a joke pretended like he was going to whip out his junk as his talent.  The girl with the magic trick blurted out, "If his d*ck beats my magic I'm going to be pissed!"  I hit the floor with that one.

There was more music, there were more games, there was naked kayaking.  It was a good night.

I woke up, took two steps out of my bungalow and plunged into the lake.  There is nothing like a jump in the water to wash-off the night before. 

We left fairly early in the morning to go on a hike.  The sky was grey and angry.  I was incurably thirsty despite drinking bottle after bottle of water.  And the two people in front of me on the boat were singing Disney show tunes for some F#&k-my-life reason.  I wasn't all that stoked about the morning adventure, but it ended up being one of the best hikes I've ever taken.

We started out on a leisurely stroll through the jungle.  The girls stopped to take pictures of butterflies.  The guide made everyone palm frond and flower jungle hats and picked some dainty jungle edibles for us to sample.  It was okay.  Then it got badass!

We crossed paths with another guide who advised us to turn back.  A tiger had mauled a deer on the path that morning.  The warm carcass was still there.  Our guide sent us off to a waterfall while he had a think on whether risking our lives was good or bad for his career.  Ultimately, he came up with this solution, "If we see tiger run in straight line, he only eat one person.  You run this way, this way, this way, I won't be able find you again." 

Naturally that was good enough for us and off we went.  We got to the mouth of a cave.  The entrance was only a few feet high and narrower than that.  We squeezed in armed with flashlights and headlamps.  The water in the cave was waist deep in most places, neck deep in others.  The walls were high and rocky and narrow enough to brace at arms reach.

We climbed over small water falls, and past others that started up high beyond the reach of our lights and trickled down over brown bulbous stones that looked like they had been melted and hardened mid-drip.  We passed through wide open spaces with high-up ceilings covered in bats.

If I had to guess I would say the cave was at least half-a-mile long.  It was a trek; a difficult, dark, rocky, bat-filled, glorious trek.  At the tail-end a triangle-shaped opening revealed the vivid green of the jungle and we emerged looking like this:

On the way back to our boat and a safe escape from the hungry tiger we saw the deer carcass.  A huge chunk of its neck and abdomen were eaten away.  Claw marks ran down its sides.  Did we run?  Did we cry?  Did we say things like, "poor poor deer."  Nope we did this:

And then we drank Thai Whiskey and relived the day in Big Fish detail.

I followed the same two steps I took the morning before and plunged back into the water.  I floated in a life jacket diaper for a while, walked along a floating log and got the inner-tube lounge session I missed on Day 1.

In the early afternoon we took a 90-minute bus ride back to Surat and I spent the evening doing absolutely nothing.

So how was your weekend?

21 November 2011

Phosphorescence and Starry Skies

This past weekend I went camping on the beach with my roommates.  I almost didn't go.  I wanted to work on my book and thought a quiet house without distractions would be the best place to do it.  But, it was sunny and I had a new tent to break in, and what kind of idiot passes up the chance to camp on the beach in Thailand?

We went to a small secluded beach called Ao Thong Yee.  It is beautiful and untouched and soon to be ruined.  A local bar owner told me that the property was recently sold to a big developer.  Maybe one day when I'm fabulously wealthy and the beach has been turned into a Four Seasons resort I'll be able to bore the life out of the staff with tales of the good old days.  "I once pitched a tent where that woman is getting a massage--err, um, I mean a tent tent of course, before any of this was here.  Another Mai Tai?  I'd love one!"

We did beach camping stuff during the day, swam, played Frisbee, drank beer.  At night we collected drift wood, and palm tree logs and had a fire.  It was an incredibly clear night -- the kind of night that makes you want to turn off all the lights in all the cities because it is tragic that we are ever robbed of all those stars.

I had heard about the Phosphorescence at the local beaches, but had yet to see it.  That night the water was as clear as the skies above and the Phosphorescence were glowing and tracing in streaks of bright luminescent blue.  I was little kid giddy about it.  People were talking to me, but I have no clue what they said.  I was too busy doing underwater karate moves to flare the bright bright blue.

I had breakfast at a great beach front restaurant the next morning.  The scooter ride home was long and rainy, but a small price to pay at the end of a great weekend.

Also, we found out you can rent a beach house for 2000 baht a month ($60).  Someone's getting a beach house!  Someone's getting a beach house!

Also, I managed to get some book work done on the beach.  Twelve journal pages worth.  Multi-tasking like a ___________!

14 November 2011

Free Lunch

I wrote this entry for our school blog.  Here is what lunch abroad looks like:

One of the benefits (usually one of the benefits) of working at Thidamaepra is the FREE LUNCH!  Who says there is no such thing?

MASSAMAN!!  I can't even begin to describe how delicious this is.  Teacher Joseph came into the lunch room and shouted, "Is it true?  Is it true?  YES!!"

The highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows.  Dirty Curry.  Why do we call it "Dirty Curry?"  Imagine walking down the beach in combat boots, stepping on a dead fish and licking the boots clean.  That is what it tastes like.  Gross.

Chicken, cilantro, sweet and spicy mystery sauce.  This is every bit as tasty as it looks.

Blah.  This is what the middle ground looks like.  The glass noodles are decent.  The steamed vegetables are so-so.  Rice is rice.

Look Thida cooks -- I don't want to be at school on Fridays either, but this is going too far.  Left over Dirty Curry and crusty fish shaped salt cubes?  How dare you?  (Note to the reader:  None of us ate this.  We went out.)

08 October 2011


In my last blog Rapid Fire I mentioned that I always forget my camera.  I am going to try to remedy that this go around.  I will do my best to post a picture-of-the-day every day.

Picture #1 - Bangkok

I could post a picture of the Grand Palace or the Reclining Buddha or some other cultural type thing.  But, let's be honest - that isn't what Bangkok is all about.  It's about getting so wasted that you fall asleep outside and some asshole like me comes along and takes your picture.

Picture #2 - Bangkok

This is a boring picture.  If I was three seconds quicker with the camera it would have been awesome.  I was drinking coffee in the middle of the afternoon wondering if the rain was ever going to stop and right there, next to the yellow sign board, a butt ass naked Thai lady walked past.  She wasn't even wearing shoes.  Naked naked naked.  And she didn't seem to think that was odd.  She held her chin high and did a bushy strut right through the rain.

Sorry I wasn't quick enough to get a picture.  However, there is a consolation prize.  Take a look at the ginger in the corner.  Look familiar?  He's alive!!

(Apologies to those of you who typed "naked thai ladies" into Google and ended up on this site.  I know it isn't what you were looking for.)

Picture #3 (and 4 ) - Bangkok

Bangkok nights.  At the end of this one I left my wallet in a taxi.  I could go back to Surat and end my vacation early, but that would suck, so instead I am borrowing money from my roommates to get through the tripWinning at life.  Winning big. 

Picture #5 - Pattaya

We stayed for one night.  It rained.  There was neon.  I spent a lot of Blake's money.  Not worth taking a picture.

Picture #6 - Koh Samet

We stayed here for a couple of days.  It was okay.  I've seen better beaches.  And there were more mosquitos than pretty girls.

Picture #7 - Surat Thani

This is a picture of my house.  Thanks to the wallet incident I had to come back early.  I could go to one of the near by islands, but I think I will stay home.  That sounds boring, I know.  But, I want to work on my book and with no one else home I don't have any distractions.  If I buckle down this week I think I can get to the half-way mark of the book (125 pages) before classes start.

17 September 2011

Rapid Fire

Why do I always forget my camera?  I've been meaning to do a blog about food forever.  Every time I dig into a delicious plate of Yam Pla Duk Foo (catfish salad) or Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai (spicy green curry with chicken) I think, damn forgot the camera again!

The camera would have been nice today at English Camp when I was surrounded by 350 super cute, very excited Thai third graders. 

I could have taken a picture of the Yellow Submarine poster I made.  I have the painting skills of bored monkey you would have loved it.

I was sick last week.  One of my students jabbered something at me in Thai that I didn't understand.  His little buddy held up his hand like, "yo I got this" and says to me, "Teacher.  You have hot nose?"  Do I have a hot nose?  It took me a second, but I realized he was trying to ask me if I had a cold.

I have one hoodlums class.  They suck.  Even their Thai teachers who are allowed/encouraged to smack them with rulers have trouble keeping them in line.  They were so bad last week their first assignment on Monday is to write me an apology letter.

I should take a picture of one of the letters.  Ehhh, I'll probably forget.

Luckily the rest of my classes are great.  I was doing a speaking test with my favorite class last week. I call them up by student ID numbers.  Just to mess with them I shouted out a couple student ID numbers in Thai.  They gave me a standing ovation complete with whistles and a chorus of "Very good Teacher!"  I burst out laughing I couldn't help it.

I have a kid named Ice in my hoodlums class that looks like a future middle linebacker.  He isn't.  He is a future ladyboy.  How do I know?  The other day he brought a full-on tea set to class.  I told him he couldn't keep it on his desk.  But, halfway through class I caught him having a one-man tea party.  The week prior I caught him holding a doily from a table top around his waist like a skirt and twirling, checking himself out.

I have a super fat kid in my favorite class.  He is a big teddy bear.  Mostly he just blinks at me and smiles but his English is improving.  I had the students tell me what their future job will be.  "I will be a designer because I like clothes" sort of thing.  I asked the big fella to stand up and tell the class his answer.  He said, "I will be a cook because I like to eat."  Boom, keeping it simple.

Dear Earth Zone....please stop sending the one waitress who doesn't speak a lick of English to my table.  Also, get her hearing checked.  Every time I give my order in Thai (things I know I can say well) she looks at me like I farted out of my mouth.

I am restless.  I tweaked my foot a few weeks ago.  No big deal, I'm fine.  But, I haven't been able to exercise.  Sweet right?  Not sweet.  Restless = grumpy.

This is ridiculous I know, but I need a vacation.  The semester ends on September 27th and I am RE-E-EADY to get away and enjoy THE WHOLE MONTH OF OCTOBER OFF!!!

Speaking of time off I just found out that I have the week between Christmas and New Years off.

Shoutout to my homies.  If you are wondering when would be a good time to come visit please re-read the line above.

Two of my roommates are moving out at the end of the month.  Booo!!  They will be missed.  Hopefully their replacements are cool.  They had better be.

My roommate Ryan got asked to pose for Thai fashion magazine.  He is one of the cover models.  Im not sure if his now swollen head will fit in the available space, but if it does it should be hilarious.  He and another white guy will be dressed as Vampires biting into the necks of two helpless oh so pretty Thai models.

I should take a picture of the magazine when it comes out.  Ehhhh, I'll probably forget.

This year is flying by.  I am done teaching regular classes at the end of February.  And my contract is up at the end of March.  It's time to start making next-step decisions.

Do I stay in Thailand?

Do I move to South America?

Do I move to Turkey?

Do I move to Prague?

I have thought about all of the above and if forced to make a decision today I would pick Prague.  So, lets assume that happens.  A whole new set of questions arises.

Do I go straight there or pay America a visit first?

Can I afford to go to America first?

Can I stay in America for a couple of months and work?

Can I line-up a job in Eastern Europe before I leave?

Do I want to line-up a job first or is it better to wing it?

Probably best to wing it.  It's the Abroad way. 

Book project update.  70 pages written.

22 August 2011

Happy Birthday Blog

One year ago today I posted my first blog entry 14 Hours. I was still in L.A. then making my final preparations to move abroad. It has been a good year.

25,000+ words written
500+ students taught
14 passport pages filled
5 countries visited
4 months spent on the road
1 year that reset the bar

11 August 2011

There is nothing wrong with being short

I started a big writing project. I’ll give you a hint…it’s a book. It might suck. I might lose inspiration and never finish. I might get published and become super famous. Who knows?

MB Abroad has been neglected since I started the project a few weeks ago. For the foreseeable future I won’t have time to write my standard 2000 word tales of whatever it is that I’m doing, so a compromise is in order. My entries will have to be shorter. A lot shorter.

I am no better at shortening my typing than I am at shutting my mouth. But, here goes. MB Abroad in brief:

Swimming with Fusiliers
I went Scuba Diving in Kao Tao recently. For ninety minutes it was good. For one minute it was exceptional.

Towards the end of my first dive I followed the Dive Guide through a canyon of coral covered boulders. We emerged into an open area. The sea floor was white and mostly barren. Seemingly out of nowhere a school of Fusiliers glided in front of us. A Fusilier is a small (6-8in) fish with orange and silver stripes. The school was 60 feet long, 15 feet high and 10 feet wide. We swam into the middle of the school. They calmly let us. We were enveloped. Every direction I looked, above, below, side-to-side Fusiliers surrounded us in a perfect circle. We swam out and watched them slowly fill in the hole we had left. We surfaced a few minutes later. Usually the Dive Guide goes through safety checks and gives directions for getting back on the boat. Not this guide. He was too stoked. He pulled his mask off and excitedly said, “How mental was that mate!”

Scaling the Dat Fa waterfall
Last weekend we drove out to the Dat Fa waterfall about 40 minutes outside of Surat Thani. The falls are hidden out in the jungle. They are multi-tiered and beautiful. The first level was crowded so we hiked higher up the falls. The upper levels were empty. We found a small rock to jump off which naturally made us want to find bigger rocks to jump off. The girls stayed behind and the boys started climbing. We scaled the wet face of falls, crawled through under-growth and stinging nettles and scaled the side of a cliff face using a hanging vine as a rope. At the end of our trek we found the perfect jungle swimming hole.

I’m not going to lie. I had several Danny Glover “I’m getting too old for this shit” moments on the way up. But, the top was worth it. We swam in the cool deep waters. We scaled to the highest point we could and plunged in. And then did it again and again. It was a hell of a Sunday adventure.

And the best part…before we started back down we found a hidden trail that made going down a whole lot easier.

Even if there was a map I wouldn’t make you a copy
Friday is the start of a three day weekend. It’s Mothers Day in Thailand. Or “Wan Maa” as the Thai’s would say. I’m going to a secret beach on Koh Phangan Island. It is one of my favorite places in Thailand. It has 300 baht bungalows on the sand, good cheap food and an amazing relaxed atmosphere. If you visit I will take you there, but only if you swear never to speak of its awesomeness. It is that good.

01 July 2011


At 7am my cell phone alarm chimed and then chimed louder. It was Monday morning, time to get up. I rubbed my tired eyes. I had slept long but not slept well. My face felt puckered and punched. A couple of beers by the pier the night before had turned into Jenga and other drinking games at a Farang favorite dive bar. Not a wise decision on a school night. I cursed the balloon like bags under my eyes, showered, dressed, grabbed my helmet and rode my scooter to the Rice Soup Place.

The Rice Soup Place is a breakfast spot on my way to school and a ritual stop for my roommate and I. If it has a name I don’t know it. For 25 baht (75 cents) you get a bowl of delicious peppery rice soup, two Thai donuts and a cup of coffee. The RSP had been closed for almost two weeks so I was thrilled to see a line of scooters parked curbside. Sitting down at a sowing machine turned breakfast table I added a dash of crushed pepper and swirl of chili-sauce to my soup, ladled up a spoonful and felt my eyes roll back in peppery bliss. When the soup was finished I tore a Thai donut in half, dunked it into a small saucer of condensed milk and washed it down with sips of hot coffee. The return of the breakfast ritual was just what I needed. I got back on the scooter feeling satisfied, rejuvenated and ready to teach.

I weaved through the throngs of scooters loaded up with kids being dropped off and parked in the dirt lot behind the school. I teach at Thidamaepra. Thida is big. In the morning thousands of students fill the courtyard for assembly activities. As soon as I walked through the gate I was assailed by dozens of hands reaching for high-fives. The foreign teachers are high-five magnets. If you are one of those people who goes elbow deep in hand sanitizer every time you touch a door knob don’t teach in Thailand. You will high-five 400 students a day and at least 40 of those students will leave you wondering “Was that wet hand clean wet or…?” The post poop possibilities are chilling.

Holding a giant cup of instant coffee I walked as quickly as possible toward the Teachers Room. I was trying to make it inside before the King’s Song started. I didn’t make it. The music que'd and I hit the brakes. When the King’s Song plays Thailand stands still. It’s like a national game of freeze-tag. Imagine being in an American shopping mall and seeing the whole place stop like someone hit the pause button because the National Anthem started playing. It’s weird and it’s cool. I don’t like having my coffee intake interrupted but I like the national unity and pride that comes with the King’s diddy.

I teach fifth-grade or Pratham 5 as it is known here. Most of my classes are IEP (Intensive English Program). But, four times a week I teach general Pratham classes. The students in those classes only have English once a week. I get paid more for the IEP classes but I find the general classes more difficult because the student’s English comprehension level is much lower. My first class on Monday’s is a general class. Joy.

Monday marked the start of a new chapter in the textbook called “The Natural World” which I was looking forward to because that meant lessons based on plants and animals and things kids like. My first class was from 8:20 - 9:10, Pratam 5/5. The students were chatty as they always are on Monday mornings so in my best Teacher voice I said “Quiet in 5…4…3…2…1.” When I use the countdown I say the last three numbers silently like I am directing a TV show. I don’t think they understand the Hollywood reference but they do like the silent counting part. It usually works well. Because it was Monday I had to do it twice.

I started the class by reviewing what we had learned the previous week. I wrote sentences like, “To go swimming you need _______.” The students had to raise their hands and answer “goggles” or “a swim suit.” The class is split into teams and I give points for correct answers. The points system is a common TEFL technique and it works amazingly well. When classes aren’t behaving I start deducting points, you should see the look on their faces, you would think I was plucking money out of their little pockets.

After the warm-up we read a section from the book on Giraffe’s. They are 10 years old so when I say “repeat after me” they hear “scream these words!” After ear splitting responses like “A geeerafe…is…five...point…five…meters tall” we moved onto listing animals. I assumed they would get into this part and they did. The majority of the class had their hands in the air and most were shouting “Teacher! Teacher!” They listed around thirty animals before I cut them off. The animal list was just prep for the real lesson which was comparatives, bigger, smaller, faster, taller, etc. I wrote several examples for each of the major comparatives, e.g. “A cheetah is faster than _______.” Once I was sure they had the hang of it we played “Two Animal Challenge.” I threw a ball to a student (usually one who wasn’t paying attention) and gave them animal combinations (panda/duck). They would have to tell me “A panda is bigger than a duck.” Finally we played a game where two students would draw their favorite animal on the board. The class had to guess the animals and come up with a comparative. At the end of each class the students stand and say “Thank you Teacher. See you again next time!” Since I only see the Pratam classes once a week I spice up the exit by making them sing “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, good-bye!”

I left 5/5 damp and dehydrated. I didn’t have time to stop for water, my next class was starting two doors down. IEP 5/2, 9:10 - 10:00. I have three IEP classes each with fifty-four students. I see my IEP students every day. Monday the lesson plan for IEP was essentially the same as the Pratam lesson only I asked more complicated questions and expected more complicated answers. Where the Pratam students added “Bird” to the animals list the IEP students tried “Phoenix” and settled for “Eagle” when I insisted on real animals. As the week progresses the IEP classes will get increasingly difficult focusing on things like superlatives, physical characteristics and behavioral characteristics. At the end of the week the IEP students will play my favorite game, Animal Fights! I pair off animals into brackets and the students have to tell me who would win in a fight using characteristics and comparatives. For ten year old kids speaking a second language they can be really creative. Last semester I had my students decide who would win in a fight between a rhino and a butterfly. The girls thought the butterfly would tickle the rhino and make it run into a tree, the boys thought the rhino would wait for the butterfly to land on a flower then eat the flower. I still don’t know which argument I like better but I do know that boys will be boys and girls will be girls no matter where they were born.

At the end of 5/2 I had a break from 10:00 – 10:15. Thai schools are not big on punctuality so this break typically lasts until closer to 10:25. I arrived at my 5/1 classroom just as the students were putting their shoes on the rack outside and taking their seats inside. I taught the animals and comparatives lesson…again. All of this repetition may seem boring but it’s actually nice. It gives me the gift of hindsight. If a lesson runs too long or seems too difficult I can make the necessary adjustments. 5/1 was well behaved. They have to be.  Their Thai teacher is very strict. Each of my classes has an assigned Thai teacher to help with discipline if needed. My other Thai teachers observe, laugh at my silly antics and “Shhhsh” the students when needed. The 5/1 Thai teacher is different. She watches with icy intensity from the back corner and corrals the students with a low decibel click-cluck. Seriously, that’s all it takes, a quick click-cluck of the tongue and the students sit ramrod straight and zip-up. The power of the click-cluck is awe inspiring. It’s rare, very rare, but once in awhile I get her to flash a brief amused smile. Every time it happens I have resist the urge to stop class and yell, “Boom! She smiled. Who else saw that!?” I wrapped up 5/1 at 11:10, it was time for lunch.

We get free lunch at Thida. Goodness. Pure goodness. This ain’t no soggy chicken nuggets and box milk lunch, I’m talking about giant vats of rice and huge platters of tasty Thai food. AND…it’s all you can eat. 11:10 is early for lunch but on Monday it came just in time. If I was a video game character my life bars would have been dangerously low. I needed fuel. They were serving Massaman Gai. I almost wept. Massaman is freaking delicious. Imagine a stew with slow roasted chicken, big chunks of potato, carrots and onions, BUT instead of a typical stew broth it is bubbling and marinating in a spicy Indian curry sauce with peanuts and a hint of cinnamon. It’s like Momma’s own got shipped around the world collecting herbs and spices and far flung flavors until it came back something familiar and something delectably new. I ate two bowls. I washed it down with a cup of Milo (Thai Ovaltine) and booked it to my 5/3 class, 12:10 – 1:00.

You already know what happened in 5/3, animals and comparatives. After that I had an hour break before my final class of the day. Typically I walk down the street to a coffee shop called Impressions during my free periods. Impressions has House Green Tea for 10 baht and WiFi. However, just before lunch I was handed a card with a Username and Password to the Thida network. Score. I went to the Teachers Room and logged onto http://www.stumbleupon.com/. It led me to a site with free downloads of (Nerd Alert!!!) UCLA and UC Berkeley lectures. I was geeked about this find and immediately started downloading a Berkeley lecture series on the Roman Empire. I launched the first lecture and thought of my sister Sarah, who after realizing that I had called her all excited only because I had to tell someone that I had seen Picasso’s, The Old Guitarist at the Chicago Institute of Art said, “God you're a dork.”

My final class of the day was Pratam 5/5, 1:55 – 2:40. Animals. Comparatives. You know the drill. At the end of class I grabbed my bag (a sweet authentic army rucksack I bought at a second hand store) and my helmet and called it a day. On the way home I picked up my laundry clean and folded for 30 baht. At home I changed clothes and slogged my way through an uninspired workout. I showered. I changed. I settled into my extremely comfortable satellite chair, cracked open Big Sur by Jack Kerouac and commenced chilling.

Monday: a day like any other day.

One Last Thing...
My roommate Blake made up a board game for his high school students called Blake’s World. Before the game starts he has them sing “Blake’s World! Blake’s World! Party time. Excellent!” Because they are still learning English what they say is, “Brake’s World! Brake’s World! Potty time. Accident!”

Until the next blog…

09 June 2011

Bia Nai!! - The Movie

Bia Nia is Thai for "Where you go!!" Where I went was all over Thailand, Laos and Vietnam for nearly two-months. Here is a quick-cut music video version of the trip.

27 May 2011

Back in the Saddle Again

I wrote this article to post on the Super English website. It should be posted there soon. In the meantime I thought it made sense to post here as well since it is about my return to Surat Thani. Enjoy.

My first 48 hours in Surat Thani, Thailand ended more than seven months ago. I know how to get around town. I own a beat-up scooter. I know where to eat and where not to. Surat is my home, but for the past few days it has felt brand new.

Last semester I was a teacher at a different language school in town. When an opportunity came up to work for Super English I jumped at the chance because I knew through friends that they offered the most flexibility and the least amount of administrative work. I knew going in that moving to a different school meant a bombardment of new; new students, new teaching philosophies, new co-workers, new housing, new roommates, new, new, new. I wasn’t apprehensive about the change, I was excited. My home was being renovated and plans looked amazing.

For all of April and most of May I traveled around Southeast Asia burning through the previous semester bonus. I went to Northern Thailand for the Thai New Year, took a slow boat down the Mekong River into Laos, went over land into Vietnam, rode halfway down the peninsula on a broken down Russian motorcycle and eventually ended up in Saigon two days before New Teacher Training at Super English was scheduled to begin. Teaching abroad gives you the time and means to see the world. That is why we take the leap others are afraid to. But, all that globe trekking can be exhausting. By the time I hit Saigon I was pooped, spent, knackered. I was ready to see my renovated home and start my renovated life.

After a seemingly endless stream of slow boats and sleeper buses flying home was an absolute joy. I flew Air Asia which is cheap and no frills but I half expected to be handed a glass of champagne because I felt just that spoiled. After two months of traveling I couldn’t wait to eat Thai food again, so when I landed at the Bangkok airport I did the only logical thing, I headed straight to McDonalds and ordered a Big Mac. Logical? Well, yes, the food in Surat is phenomenal and cheap. The Bangkok airport has cheap imitations at exorbitant prices. A Big Mac is a Big Mac.

When my connecting flight landed in Surat I was greeted by Wen, the true Super Star of Super English. Wen is Thai and the head administrator at Super. She does it all and if you decide to move here you’ll love her. Wen dropped me off at Super English where I met the other new teachers. I was dirty and disheveled and tired enough to sleep standing up, but everyone seemed nice. I could see future friends even through blurry sleep deprived eyes. An hour or so later I got dropped off at my place of residence, a house affectionately known as the RAT House. I took the only room left, a room not so affectionately known at The Dungeon. The Dungeon-Rat combo was a temporary thing. Right down the street surrounded by scaffolding and painters was our pretty new house almost ready to occupy. The prospect of sleeping off my travels on a funk nasty mattress that felt like a sheet pulled over springs was daunting, but to borrow a word from a former Super English teacher I was nonplussed. It was a “This is Thailand” moment. “This is Thailand” is a favorite Farang phrase. Its official translation is, “You Sir/Madam sought out an adventure and every adventure comes with its trials. Forget the 1st world. Embrace the challenge!” The condensed translation is of course, “Deal.”

The New House!

My trusty scooter was stranded on Koh Samui so I had to take a Tuk Tuk to pick up my belongings from a friend’s house. I am not a pack rat, but I have a thing about getting rid of books…I can’t do it. I wish I could because my backpack weighed about 80 pounds. (No I don’t know how many kilo or stone that is but trust me it’s really heavy.) I should have paid the Tuk Tuk driver for a round-trip ride. Unfortunately, that bit of brilliance didn’t hit me until I had walked for 20 minutes laden with an 80-pound backpack and a giant green fan. By the time I snagged a Tuk Tuk I was a sweaty, bagging eyed, stanky mess of a Farang. Those poor kids sharing a ride with me, little did they know that the monster before them was an Ajarn. I trudged through the entrance of the Rat House, dropped my things on the floor of The Dungeon, plugged in my giant green fan and slept on springs for 10 hours straight.

At 7:45 the next morning Peter Meltzer, the head man at Super English picked-up all the new teachers for a Welcome Breakfast. The food was traditional and fantastic; rice porridge soup with shrimp, dim sum and because I can’t abandon all Western ways, hot black coffee. Afterwards we took a tour of Thida, the school where I will be teaching this year. The tour was all I needed to get my head around a return to teaching. The kids had started their Thai classes already and were really excited to see us. There is no such thing as a Thai kid without personality. They are turned up to 10 at all times and you are an irresistible toy. You will never get closer to famous than teaching at a Thai school. Calls of “Teacher Teacher” will follow you everywhere. You can’t blend or meld or cling to anonymity. As a Farang teacher you are the show and the Thai kids love it.

Over the next day and a half I got a chance to learn more about Super English, my new co-workers, and the exact brevity of my time in the Dungeon-Rat combo. In that time I got all of my laundry done for 60 baht, ate at a few of my favorite places and drank a few Singha beers with friends I hadn’t seen. Many things were new new. Many things were same same. Surat is a great place to live and it felt great to be home.

I start teaching classes tomorrow. I move into my new house a few days later. The scaffolding is coming down. The dust is being swept away. The renovations on my life in Surat are nearly complete and I cannot wait to settle in.

06 May 2011

Motorcycle Diaries

The plan was to ride from Hanoi to Saigon on classic Russian Minsk motorcycles. We didn't make it.

Day One

This is going to be one hell of a ride. Everything that could have gone wrong did. I arrived here in Ninh Binh filthy, soaking wet and exhausted. Today hurt, but it was an adventure and I am ready for more. Our original plan for today was to ride to Mai Chau a small village in the mountains off the Ho Chi Minh trail, but the mornings final preparations seeped into the afternoon so we decided to head due south to Ninh Binh. We left the bike shop at 2:30pm. We didn't get out of Hanoi until almost 4:00pm. Why? Because, we are stupid and impatient. The guy that sold us the bikes offered to guide us to the highway just as soon as he finished his lunch. But, we, in our infinite wisdom decided to wing it. How hard could it be to find the highway? Hard. Like really nightmarishly, chaotically, freakishly hard. First of all the Highway wasn't marked on the city map only on the full view Vietnam map. Second we followed the guidance of every non-English speaking person who pointed in a vague non-committal direction while trying not to laugh at us. And third the traffic in Hanoi is INSANE. There are no rules. None. It is pure chaos. But weirdly chaos based on trust. There is no stopping and starting at intersections in Hanoi. It is all go all the time. The key is to go at a calm and consistent pace. If you cruise the land-mines will narrowly avoid you. If you stutter, stop or speed up....BOOM CRASH BANG! Oh, and I should mention Shane had never ridden a bike with a clutch before. Imagine if you didn't know how to run and someone pushed you into the streets during the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona and said, "You're on your own kid." It was something like that for Shane. Eventually, hopelessly lost we paid a local man 100,000 Dong ($4) to do what the other guy offered to do for free, show us how to get to the damn highway.

We were on the road for about 10 minutes when it started pouring rain. We pulled over to buy rain gear. My bike wouldn't restart. The internet told us that Russian Minsk's are not fond of rain. The internet wasn't lying. Luckily there was a mechanic a couple of shops down and he got me fixed up. Back on the road the rain had turned the highway into a dirt bike track. I loved dirt bike riding as a kid. I loved highway dirt bike riding today. I rode through puddles and pot holes. I got splashed with walls of water from passing trucks. It felt like we were fleeing the city in a disaster movie. I smiled a muddy toothed smile the whole way.

We didn't arrive in Ninh Binh until after dark. We checked into a very nice hotel. A very nice hotel that costs $20 a night or $6 per person. You have to love South East Asia prices.

Day Two

Things can always be worse. I need to remember that. The day started off beautifully. The skies were cloudy but rain free. We wrapped our bags just to be safe and hit the road. The bikes ran fine at the start. We were having a great time, down shifting and accelerating through the small towns and openly running in the spaces between. Our goal was to make it to Vinh a large city near the coast. From there we would be able to venture out onto the mountain roads the following day. Then it started to rain. When it rains here massive puddles form instantly. Vietnam is something of a diva when it comes to weather, it has to be wearing the right costume. My bike is something of a diva. It looks and sounds tough but it absolutely wilts under the rain. I broke down again. Again there was a mechanic near by. Again we had to stop for 30 minutes while my bike was being fixed. We were behind schedule but still had hopes of making Vinh. We didn't. Shane ran of gas near the town of Thanh Hoa. We decided to stop there for the night.

Day Three

Neither my bike nor Shane's bike started this morning. We wasted an hour at a shop that couldn't fix them and another 15 minutes at a Suzuki dealership because Vietnamese kids who fix scooters clearly know how to fix a 40's era Russian motorcycles. The kid at the dealership directed us to an old man around the corner. The old man didn't speak a word of English but he spoke motorcycle beautifully. We called him the The Minsk whisperer. In all honesty what he did probably wasn't hard. There isn't much to a Minsk. They are somewhere between a janky motorcycle and a beefy lawnmower. But whatever he did we couldn't have and the bikes finally started behaving. By the time the whisperer was done whispering it was too late in the day to make any real progress so we did what you do in a town with nothing to do; we drank six 22-cent beers, ate yet another bowl of Pho and fell asleep at 9:30.

Day Four

The good times and the bad. We were aiming for a 9am start time. My bike fired up on the first kick and purred like a wheezy Russian kitten. Shane's bike started too. Blake tried to start his bike and the kick starter snapped off. Before the day had even begun we were back at the Minsk whisperer's garage. While Blake's bike was getting fixed I ate a bowl of Pho. It tasted like all the other Pho I had eaten. At 10:30 we hit the road. It was glorious. The sun was shining the road was open (openish) and the bikes were running well. Things were going so well that I started getting ahead of myself, thinking about the possibilities of the days ahead. Then Shane signaled that he needed to pull over. His bike wouldn't switch gears. I messed with the clutch pretending like I knew what I was doing. Giving me a broken bike is like giving a kid a wooden spoon and an empty bowl, all the stirring in the world isn't going to make a cake. Surprise surprise there was a mechanic 100 yards away. By mechanic I mean the guy locals run out and frantically point to because they know he can fix whatever minor problem three white boys on busted Russian motorcycles can't. White boys they know will gladly handover an ungodly amount of Dong to get back on the road. Some wingding thing in Shane's gearbox was stripped so the "mechanic" wrapped bailing wire around it, put everything back together and gave us the thumbs up to carry on. Bailing wire. And it worked. I was shocked. I am still shocked. The stretch of road ahead had its moments but was mostly a town-to-town drive. We ended up, finally, in the city of Vinh. Vinh is not a pretty place. It was decimated during the "American War" and rebuilt in Russian concrete bunker fashion. We ate a late afternoon rice dish that was...I'll spare you the details. Not wanting to take any risks we went to Big C for dinner (Asia's version of Walmart). Big C had a KFC. I hate KFC. Today I loved every greasy, mayonnaise soaked bite. It was good. So so not Pho good.

Day Five

Today was anticipation realized. This whole trip, Bangkok, Songkran, trekking, Luang Prabang, Hanoi, Halong Bay, all of it felt like build up to this one almost perfect day. Before we started traveling motorcycles were the thing. The road, the wind, the off-the-path places, the adventure, that is what we were looking forward to most. The motorcycle trip was the blood and breath of this trip and for one day, for one so damn close to perfect day we had it, everything we had hoped for.

We left Vinh at 9:30am cautiously hopeful. None of the four previous days had gone as planned. Each day thus far had been a jagged road of fits and starts...mostly fits. Shortly outside of Vinh the roads opened up and we found ourselves humming down the AH1 highway. AH1 is the main road connecting Hanoi and Saigon. It is not a highway in the modern American sense it is a highway in the American dream sense. Like 50's era highway systems of old it is a two lane road that dissects the shifting geography of the country and passes through true-to-the-culture towns and villages.

As we moved southward the scenery changed so often it seemed like it was actively trying to impress us. We saw rice fields of vibrant green, narrow winding mountain passes, sweeping ocean views and a black and blood orange sun setting over the palm lined horizon. Riding across this tapestry of Vietnam would have been all the things that great things are if today was just a day. But today was not just a day. Today was the fifth day of a mostly broken adventure. Today was our fifth chance at the dream. Today the tapestry of Vietnam unfolded beautifully covering up our failures and realizing our dreams.

Today was not perfect. It was almost perfect. It was so damn close to perfect. We stopped to get gas and a bite to eat about 50km shy of Don Hoi. In places like Don Hoi tourists are a sight unseen. Over the last five days every time we stopped in off-the-path towns we drew a crowd. Friends called friends who call their friends and pretty soon fifteen Vietnamese people would be gathered around watching us not be Vietnamese. At this particular stop we had a family of eight sitting at the table next to us talking about us while pretending not to. The mom of the family blushed when I caught her trying to sneak in a picture of us on her cell phone.

At this moment the perfectness of our perfect day was unblemished. Hue (our aimed for destination) was 200km away. We were making good time. We should have been there by dark. 75km outside of Hue, Shane's bike broke down, this time for good. We waited an hour and a half while a local mechanic did is best to revive the blue and red beast we had dubbed Captain America. The bike was easily fixable but needed a small part we didn't have time to wait for. The mechanic had a son named Hai. We decided to give him Captain America as a gift. Hai had a Beginners English book that he had used to learn a few words and phrases. In the book we found a picture of a present being given at a birthday party. We pointed to the present, pointed to Captain America, pointed to Hai. He understood. His face lit up like the 4th of July. We signed the gas tank, packed Shane's things onto Blake's bike, packed Shane onto my bike and made our way to Hue in the dark. I hope Hai gets to keep Captain America. I hope he sees our names chipping and fading away when he is big enough and old enought to ride it. But if not, if his Dad sells it to a dealer who sells it to a tourist, Captain America will bring that family $200, and in nowhere Vietnam that is no small thing.

Day Six

I am writing this final entry beneath the shade of a tree on the banks of the Perfume River in Hue, Vietnam. A pretty Vietnamese couple just stopped by so the man could take a picture of his pretty girlfriend sitting beside me. Blake and Shane are canvasing the town with fliers trying to sell the two remaining Minsk's. Our motorcycle adventure is over. We had moments both good and bad. We had a day that ranks near the top of all my days. It is a good time to move on.

Historical Note:
Osama Bin Laden was shot once in the head and once in heart. Today the world makes a little more sense.

Halong Bay is pretty

Our three day trip to Halong Bay had its issues. The food was awful, the tour hosts were useless and I got tagged in the hip with a stool when a 30 person fight broke out in a bar on Cat Ba Island, but when a place looks like this how bad can it be?

Visit my Facebook Gallery 6-Weeks to Kill to see more photos.

27 April 2011

The time I ate a live beating snake heart

Two Vietnamese men pulled a bright green and yellow snake taut with its lined belly facing up.  Another man stabbed a three inch blade into the beasts neck and sliced downward.  Muscle and fiber burst out dark and purple and pulsing.  The man squeezed the wound exposing the beating heart.  I knelt down, put my mouth to the wound and ripped the serpents heart from its body.

Gross right? 

I knew I was supposed to eat the snake's heart when we booked the dinner, I just assumed the little marble sized thing would be fried up with some crispy onions and soy sauce.  Instead we got all primal.  A snake dinner goes something like this:

  • Rip the heart from the body and try not to puke
  • Drink a vodka shot mixed with snake blood
  • Wash that nastiness down with a sip of Bia Ha Noi (Bia = Beer)
  • Sample a surprisingly tasty snake appetizer
  • Take a shot of rice wine.  Tradition dictates that you do this before each course.
  • Sample snake meatballs
  • Another shot of rice wine
  • Try to eat tiny pieces of meat between snake ribs
  • Another shot of rice wine
  • Eat some slimy snake skin thing
  • Take a shot of vodka mixed with snake bile that you have been eyeing with dread
  • Chug half a bottle of beer and wipe your tongue with a napkin like that's going to help
  • Order another bottle of rice wine and talk drunk politics with a French dentist who has about a gallon of snake blood smeared on his face
I took video of everyone munching on snake heart.  Shane almost pukes, Mike digs in deep and comes up with crazy eyes, I'm comically nonchalant about it.  I will edit it all together when I'm done traveling.  For now you have to watch Blake's video.  It's pure gold.

28 Hours On A Bus

Luang Prabang to Hanoi. The bus company said it would take 24 hours. They lied. I have the journal entries to prove it.

6:08pm - The bus is pulling away. Shane and I are wedged into sleeper seats. I think they went with the name "sleeper seats" because "painful dentist chairs for anorexic people" seemed a little wordy. There is a metal bar running across my shins that I am definitely going to kick the living hell out of in middle of the night. There is no bathroom on this bus. This is going to suck.

6:10pm - I just cracked open The Kite Runner. I have heard it's a good book. I have about 20 minutes of light before I have to start reading by flashlight. Shane has the window seat. I am all up in his personal space trying to get to that light.

6:42pm - I figured out what the shin bar is for, these roads are really rough. The shin bar is there to keep me from plummeting into the aisle--a roller coaster harness basically.

6:50pm - Yes! The genius bus operators just starting playing a god awful music video. The volume is cranked up to 100. Books are being closed. iPods are being turned off. The only thing I can hear above the video noise is WTF!! in seven different languages.

6:51pm - The people have spoken. The video is off. It's getting dark. Flashlight time.

7:45pm - Ugly ass gold drapes and Shane's head are blocking any view I would have through the side window. I can see through a small section of the front window however and that shit is scary. It's all road bushes road bushes road bushes. The driver is charging through these mountains. I'm ready to get off this ride and get a churro. Or maybe a funnel cake.

8:15pm - I think the girl in front of me is going to hurl. Please don't hurl girl in front of me.

9:23pm - We just concluded a 30 minute pit stop. I ate a bag of BBQ flavored peanuts and a Kit Kat for dinner. I want to fall asleep soon, but not too soon.

9:23 and 35 seconds - One Valium. Two Valium. See you on the otherside.

3:29am - I am awake. Well my brain is awake but my body is still in Valium land. You should see my handwriting. Four year olds would judge me. I am awake because we stopped in the middle of no where to pick up two ASSHOLES who don't seem to be aware that everyone else on the bus is SLEEPING. I would tell them to shut the f--- up but turning my head sounds like a lot of work.

3:30am - 7:00am - This lovely chunk of time was filled with tossing, turning, bizarre mini-dreams, muttered F-bombs about the shin bar and revenge plots against the aforementioned ASSHOLES.

7:30am - We got off the bus and walked a couple hundred yards to the Vietnam Immigration Office. It was pretty painless as far as these things go.

9:00am - We are back on the bus. The driver is playing shitty Laos music. An Aussie dude behind me loves the sound of his own voice. He is currently taking an over/under bet on what time we will arrive in Hanoi. He is asking every passenger on the bus and logging their times in his phone. Boredom does things to a man.

12:05pm - I just bit my tongue. It woke me up. How did I fall asleep with all the twisting and turning and Aussie dude talking you ask? Bus sleep is like a coma, it's your body's way of saying, "This effing hurts, I'm out."

1:10pm - We just finished lunch at a typically sketchy roadside stand. My options for Vietamese meal #1 were:
Rice with fish
Rice with beef
Rice with chicken
Rice with meat

Meat. Woof woof.

1:45pm - Have I mentioned how terrible these roads are? We are going so slow we just got passed by a kid on a bike.

2:48pm - My peek-a-boo view of the passing countryside is really beautiful. Rice fields of vibrant green are being tended by people in traditional dress. They are carrying large baskets full of harvested rice on 50's era bicycles.

2:53pm - Hey driver. STOP HONKING THE HORN!!!

3:00pm - Imagine going down a slip-and-slide that was layed over rocks and branches and sharp little kid toys. That is what this bus ride feels like.

3:25pm - I am awake. My ass cheeks are not.

5:27pm - The road is starting to look like something made for cars not cows. Almost there?

6:13pm - It has been 24 hours and 5 minutes. I just saw a sign that read "Hanoi 120 km." Hit the gas liars!

9:35pm - We are off the bus and sitting in a cab. Hanoi looks cool. I am starving. Food is priority number one. No woof woof meat.

20 April 2011

Tuk Tuk Smoke Smoke

I began writing this on the slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos. It is not the fastest way to get there. It is not the cheapest way to get there. It is the slow way, the beautiful way. When your travel time is limited you want to get from place to place as quickly as possible so that you can be there for as long as possible. Air travel is great for this. It is like a magic tragic. You board a plane in Los Angeles, have a snack, watch a movie and land in New York. The fact that you missed the Rocky Mountains, the red bluffs of the South West, the heartland and the Appalachians is irrelevant because you didn't have time for in between. There is a lot to see between here and there and when you have the time to take your time it is worth it.

The boat I am on is a 60’ green and red barge. It is piloted from the front by a Laotian man who handles currents and narrow passages calmly and effortlessly. As is usually the case there are way too many people on this boat. I don’t believe the word “capacity” translates into any of the South East Asia languages. There are no seats on the slow boat. I am sitting on a blue and white pillow decorated with pictures of cartoon puppies that I bought for 40baht before crossing the border. In total I will spend 15 hours crushing these puppies with my bony ass. I know what you are thinking, being crammed onto an over-capacity barge for 15 hours with nothing to sit on but a cheap pillow sounds like a slow boat to hell. It’s not. The boat is traveling up the Mekong River into the heart of Laos. Laos is untouched. There are no housing developments or restaurants or gas stations lining its shores. The Mekong is a brackish brown green path into the depths of the jungle. During the monsoon season the Mekong dissects the jungle foliage perfectly. The browns of the water meld seamlessly into greens of the shore. This is the dry season. The waters have receded leaving a belt of sand and shale. The seasonal shoreline gives the rivers edge the look of bombarding climates; desert sands that erupt suddenly and shockingly into deep green jungle.

We docked for the night at Pakbeng village. The sun was setting and insects the size of small birds were on the attack. For the first few hundred yards up the hill Pakbeng is tourist equipped. It has a handful of guesthouses, restaurants and shops selling water, beer and chips. There are no 7-11s, no ATMs, and no Wi-Fi. Pakbeng is more than happy to feed and shelter passing strangers but it’s not about to put on airs. It will how ever sell you weed. We looked at four guesthouses before settling on a place that offered two rooms with gorgeous views of the Mekong. On our way up the hill we were approached by six different Laos men and a kid asking if we wanted weed, ganja, tuk tuk smoke smoke or high yeah? We were also asked by our waiter at dinner, by the doorman at the town's only bar, by the lady that sold us toothpaste and just for good measure by the guy that made our coffee the next morning. The room with the gorgeous views cost us 30,000 kip a piece ($3). Later that evening when we asked for towels the proprietor refused to lend them. We had been the first up the hill. She didn’t know that four boats had docked that night. She wasn’t happy when she found out. She charged everyone else four times what she charged us. We had the best rooms in the house. She could have gotten even more for ours. I showered the next morning and dried off with my bed sheet.

I went for a run before we got back on the boat. It was early and the surrounding jungle looked exactly like you would expect it to look. Dew hung heavy on everything, mist crept down the slopes, bird calls echoed through the foliage and the morning sun shone soft and hazy as it burned the clouds to whisps and vapor and nothing. The image was everything you expect from pictures of the exotic. Yet when you are here you are shocked by how real it is. As I passed through the village with droplets of salty water and Beer Lao beading on my skin I caught the attention of a group of village kids. They started running along with me waving and saying “Sabai-dee!” I returned their hello and then sped up a little challenging them. They laughed and raced forward to catch me. I sped up again. They caught up again. The villagers took notice. The tallest and strongest of the kids noticed them noticing and decided to test me. He took off. The kid couldn’t have been more than twelve but he was quick. I raced to catch up with him. We ran neck and neck. Villagers on both sides of the road “Ohh’d” and “Ahh’d.” I smiled at the kid and burst ahead. Safely in front I turned back and clapped. I gave him two thumbs up. He narrowed his eyes considering the distance, considering it a challenge. I waved him off shaking my head no. I jogged away slow and out of breath. Moments like this are what living abroad is all about. In this place I am different to them and they are different to me. Abroad I can have a foot race through a village with a twelve-year old Loation kid and we can both get caught up in the “Look at you, look at me” joy of the moment and we can both remember it fondly even though our lives will never again be in step.

Luang Prabang is beautiful. Nestled against the Mekong the city has a palm lined river front, meticulously maintained French architecture and a quiet romantic atmosphere. This is not a place for activity it is a place to read, nap, sip and savor. It looks like a something Disney built minus the falseness. Most tourist stops in South East Asia are a gauntlet of sights, smells, colors and temptation. Luang Prabang is different. The mixture of Laos and French influence here is oddly at ease. Here an orange robed monk walking past a boutique hotel with a name like Au Fil Du Mekong makes perfect sense. The one thing it's missing is good eats. In other parts of South East Asia the cheap food is the best food. Not in Loas. In Loas the food looks like Thai food and tastes like nothing. With three exceptions, baguettes, Lao coffee and Beer Lao are all excellent.

We leave for Vietnam tomorrow. The bus ride takes 24 hours. Im going to need that puppy pillow.

15 April 2011

Trekkin - Like the Doodah Man

Rain poured over the dense green mountains. The day had been stifling hot.  The rain was a surprise.  Low lying clouds nestled into the crevices of the mountain gave the appearance of rising steam.  It was a beautiful tableau.  I was terrified when I witnessed it. Traveling by minivan in Thailand is like hurtling down the death shoot from The Running Man.  I had to concentrate on the pretty stuff outside because inside our driver was gunning it through the rain and around a blind corner while passing a barf bag to a girl in the back.  The girl in the back barfed three times.  I don't know if it smelled I was in the front with the seat pulled so far forward the air freshener was more or less dangling from my nose.

On this particular minibus ride I was hurtling away from Pai.  Pai is a tiny mountain town in Northern Thailand.  I had heard nothing but good things.  My experience was decidedly mixed.  Pai is stunning; flat pastures surrounded by rising jungles, canyons brimming with bright green foliage and blooming flowers, quiet bungalows along a lazy river.  Pai is the perfect escape...if you're a goddamn dirty hippy.  Pai is overrun with dreadlocks and fisherman pants.  Your chances of interacting with a Thai person are slim.  Your chances of seeing six white people sitting in a circle with guitars singing "Let it Be" are all but guaranteed.  I imagine Pai is quite distressing for some hippies.  Imagine if you were the only hippy in Corn Cob, Iowa.  No one else had Adam Duritz hair or a hemp hat the size of a cargo net.  You were different, man.  Then you got to Pai and discovered that you were indistinguishable from everyone else who fancied themselves different.  In Pai you were the same.  I don't have anything against the hippy crowd.  Outside of hair and clothing and mad hacky-sack skills I have many hippy tendencies.  If this was my first trip to Thailand the demographics wouldn't have even registered, but I live here, I see Thailand differently now.  In Pai I felt like a perfectly nice Thai town had been displaced by a high school clique and that made me a little sad.

With Songkran still a few days away Shane and I decided to go trekking.  Three days and two nights of hiking, elephant riding, white water rafting and drinking beers around a campfire.  Our first stop was the Karen Longneck Village.  The Karen Longneck people were discovered thirty years ago living deep in the jungle near the border of Thailand and Myanmar.  They had no contact with the outside world.  They believed in a form of spirtualism akin to voodoo.  And their women all wore heavy gold rings around their necks.  The rings were not merely ornamental, village chiefs inisted they be worn to defend against tiger attacks.  That's hardcore.  I feel like a gentleman if I offer a woman my coat on a chilly night. You must be wondering how long it took to hike to such a remote and ancient village.  It took about 14 seconds, a tuk tuk dropped us off.  You see the Karen Longneck tribe was discovered by Christian missionaries.  The lucky longnecks were given the gift of Jesus, led away to the edge of town and allowed to sell trinkets and wave to white people.  These jungle cats got franchised!  Sure its exploitative, but it's better than a tiger dangling from the larynx right?

Coming soon...Elephant trekking the movie!  I kept the video camera running from my seat atop a paciderm.  Uphill, downhill, bathing in a river, another elephant taking the biggest pee ever recorded, you'll see it all, just as soon as I'm done traveling and have time to edit it.

Our guide for this trek was a Thai man named Khai.  Khai had a beer gut, smoked a lot of cigarettes and wore a Harley Davidson American Flag bandanna around his head.  If he were American he would have introduced himself as "Road Dog" or some other roadie cliche name.  Khai belived in taking it slow. Real slow.  I lost count of how many times I rear-ended the person in front of me.  If we moved any slower we would have been standing still.  Yet, somehow we managed to hike our way to the Lahu (top of the mountain) village by the end of day one.  The Lahu village is home to 30 families and a bunch of scraggly cats.  We were assigned a village century, we called him the Cat Whisperer.  He sat quietly in our hut at all times.  Occasionally a cat would try to sneak in and the Cat Whisper would wave his Florida hat, hiss and stomp if necessary to chase it away. 

The second day of trekking took us through dense jungle trails where we visited two beautiful waterfalls.  We stopped to swim at the first waterfall and had a cannonball contest with a local kid.  He was about four years old, butt-naked and full of personality.  He knew how to say two things in English, "Hello!  You...one more" and "Hello!  Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola."  Anytime we stopped paying attention to him he would wad up a moss ball and lob it at us.  At one point he rubbed moss all over himself like he was soaping up, gave a primal yell and plunged green and gooey into the water.  He was a funny kid.  That night we camped in a hut alongside a river running through the jungle.  The sounds of nature echoed.  The stars shone bright.  It reminded me of camping as a kid.  I loved it.

On the final day we hiked down the mountain to the river below to go whitewater rafting.  It's the dry season so the rapids were minimal but it was still fun.  We also got to try bamboo rafting.  I stood at the front of the raft and steered by pushing a bamboo pole against the river bottom.  I knew when to push off because a our river guide yelled, "Captain Jack more right" or "Captain Jack more left" anytime we needed guiding.

We arrived back at the hostel dirty and tired, but didn't have a moment to rest.  Blake, a friend from Surat had arrived to join in on the adventure.  First there were two in our wolfpack then there were three.  Also, it was the start of Songkran (Thai new year).  Songkran is a three day water fight.  As I type this thousands and thousands of people are dancing in the streets soaking wet, throwing water, drinking beers and loving life.  I need to get back out there.

Visit my FB gallery 6-weeks to kill if you want to see more pictures.

05 April 2011

Out of the muck and into the mire

We didn't leave Surat Thani--we escaped. The night we departed the rains hit hard and bad turned to worse. The flood waters moved from inches to feet. Running water was shut-off. A navy ship was sent to rescue tourists from the islands. Army trucks were sent to get them to the airports. The city areas were sunk, and the rural areas which are most areas were drowned. Thirty-five people died in our province. The Thai people will wait for the waters to recede.  They will sweep and mop and re-open with their trademark smiles and Sawasdee-kas. The Thai people will do that. I'm from California. Where I come from rain is nature's smog mop. I got the f--- out.

Shane (my fellow traveller this trip) and I boarded the night bus to Bangkok. We peered out at the muck and the mire of the watery south until curiosity gave way to sleep.  We waited for the big bad city to wake us. Most of Thailand is sleepy and slow and content with a Mai Ben Rai attitute towards life. (Note: Mai Ben Rai can most closely be translated to the stoner's "Hey man, it's cool.") Bangkok is different. Bangkok is a huge, fast, global city with Thai distinctiveness and unrivaled variety. You can buy, do, find anything in Bangkok, all depending on how deeply you want to scratch. During the day we skimmed. We rented bicycles and tried (mostly failed) to ride around the old part of the city. We took a long tail boat ride through the ancient canals. We even did a little shopping. The days were touristy, cultural, safe.

At night we scratched. Bangkok after dark is a multi-level vile of poison. There are sidewalk cafes overflowing with shabbily dressed backpackers, upscale clubs catering to impeccably dressed Thai rich kids, seedy neon joints with naked girls dropping down from the ceiling. If you open a beer in Bangkok a hooker will magically appear. Open another and a ladyboy will test the fuzziness of your goggles. It doesn't have to be, but if you want it to be Bangkok is just as wild as you have heard.

With this in mind it was probably ill-advised to start Saturday night off with a bottle of Thai moonshine. (Note: Don't drink Thai moonshine. Imagine washing nasty week-old dishes with a crusty sponge, leaving the sponge out for an hour, then sucking on it.) With a moonshine glaze we walked out to the main road to hail a cab. As we were giving the cabby directions two gorgeous 6-ft blondes sauntered over. They were Dutch. This is what they said:

Dutch Hotness
Are you going to the ping-pong show?

No. We umm...well

Dutch Hotness
No. No. Get in. You will come to the ping-pong show with us. You have to, this is Thailand!!

(That was enough for Shane, he was already getting in the cab)
A ping-pong show? You girls really want to see that?

Dutch Hotness
Of course. We are Dutch!

I didn't know what that indicated about the Netherlands or her people. I didn't care. I just got in. If you don't know what a ping-pong show is I can't explain it to you. This is a kid friendly blog. But know this, the odds of two statuesque blonde European girls inviting Shane and I to go to one is about as likely as God inviting the Devil to Christmas dinner.

Let's skip ahead a bit. Exterior; the glitzy part of downtown Bangkok. Interior; the high-rise apartment of a Finnish man named Ante. Shane knew the Fins. This is where we wanted the cabby to take us before plans got rerouted. The apartment had a beautiful view of downtown, pretty people were socializing inside, it was a great atmosphere, it was only the beginning. We had big plans for a big night out. Bangkok wakes up when most cities go to sleep. We left the luxury digs at 1:30am. The night ended at 5:00am when I left 7-11 intermittently eating wasabi peanuts and a Snickers. The time between was brilliant. At that time of night things speed up. Secret entrances, clinking glasses, jokes, revelry, dancing, little black dresses, music, it all intermingles and records in an undulating blur. Time becomes overwhelmed by experience. "Dude you should have been there" isn't a cop out, it's just what you say when you just can't explain.

"It's time to get up. The time is 11:30. It's time to get up. The time is 11:30." This is what the alarm on my phone sounds like. It's a woman's voice. She has a British accent. I hate her. Especially when she has fallen behind the Hostel bed and I can't find her. Bangkok was great, but once again it was time to get the f--- out. We boarded a bus for Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam.

In the mid 1400's the armies of Siam invaded the Khmer Empire razing and plundering as they drove toward the holy temples of Angkor. The great temples were abandoned and the Khmer capital was moved to its modern day home in Phnom Pehn. The Thai armies left the temples intact because they deemed them too glorious to desecrate. The Thai King wanted to emulate and improve upon the temples in his wealthy and prosperous capital city Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya became the crown jewel of South East Asia and an important trading partner for China, Japan, Portugal, France and the Netherlands. In 1767 Burmese armies invaded Siam razing and plundering as they drove toward Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was abandoned and the capital moved to its modern day home in Bangkok. The Burmese armies didn't have the same reverence for Ayutthaya that Siam's armies had for Angkor. They burned Ayutthaya to the ground. Bricks were taken from Ayutthaya to build the wall surrounding the Grand Palace in Bangkok. A small but important connection between ancient and new.

Today, Ayutthaya is a sleepy, slow Thai town in the shadows of the city that was. The temples and ruins of Ayutthaya are still beautiful but clearly pail reflections of what they once were.