Five and a half feet of snow in 17 days and temperatures of five below zero drive you to extreme things. For me, it drove me south. When I say south, I don’t mean Florida or Aruba; I mean the southern hemisphere. I felt compelled to journey to a place where I could experience a reversal of seasons. Being in a warm place that was still technically in winter was not good enough. Our Boston winter was turning so grim I needed to go somewhere that was legitimately in summer. Summer is more than weather; it’s a way of life that people get into. You get to see a whole group of people let their hair down. It’s almost like seeing your boss a little drunk at a cookout. No matter the type of person, the summer version is always at least a touch more carefree and pleasant.
Of course I planned my trip to Chile and Argentina long before I knew Boston would turn into Hoth of Star Wars or the direst winter north of The Wall. But once winter decided to rear its foul, butt-ugly head in late January, my month-long trip became all the more compelling. But being the ill-mannered bitch this winter was, she saw it fit to delay my trip one day by way of a three-day snow storm. I detest the naming of non-hurricane storms but this one deserved any of the following names:
2) Lord Vader
5) Elevator Fart
My Nigerian cab driver took me to the airport in a relic of a Ford LTD Crown Victoria. I’m often too thrifty to bother with such highbrow transport but Superstorm Stalin had shut down the MBTA that day. I forget why, but we discussed the various aging trends of different races. I thought that white people get more wrinkles, gray hairs and hair loss than black folks as they age.
My cab driver replied, “Maybe but black people tend to die younger.”
I thought on this briefly and offered a positive perspective, “Okay but at least you look better when you die.”
On my way down to Atlanta, I sat next to Jana and Rick, a married couple in their 50’s and 60’s who were on their way to Mardi Gras. My next aviational leg to Santiago had me sitting next to a Chilean native that was now a hospital chaplain in Dayton, Ohio. Life takes us to interesting, unique places. I bet no Chilean guidance counselor saw that one coming. His name was Raul and when I told him that was my chosen high school Spanish class name, we formed a bond so strong I knew I could count on him to watch my back as I gobbled down a sleeping pill. By “watch my back”, I mean “make sure the stewardess puts a breakfast on my tray table even if I appear to be dead”. Anything else that may happen to me was of small import.
Prior to leaving, I had reserved a car through a gentleman named Andres. Outside the airport, I met one of his employees who introduced me to my vehicle. I left Santiago immediately and headed to Valparaiso. Once there, it only took me two hours to find my hotel. I asked about 12 Valparaisins and was given confusing directions not just from them but from people they would call on their cell phones to let me speak with. I appreciated the immense efforts they made but I hope to never get lost in Chile again. Also, I’m not sure if you call Valparaiso residents “Valparaisins” but I will do so any way since “Valaparaisin” contains the word “raisin”.
When I finally arrived at my hotel, I got out of the car and for the first time noticed that it not only appeared to be a few years older than the 2014 or newer model I was promised but that the tires were more bald than me in 20 years. And, the maps and air compressor he claimed would be in the car were also missing. On top of this, I would later discover that my wiper blades were less effective at removing water from a windshield than a comb and that the mobile phone that came in the car that was supposed to have 40 incoming/outgoing calls had two which I believe is about how many calls you get when you’re arrested.
Costa Azul is owned by an amiable Slovenian couple named Luka and Nina. This small guest house is in the congested neighborhood known as Playa Ancha which is perched on a hill that overlooks downtown Valparaiso and the harbor. Valparaiso is, what someone told me, a “quirky port town”. That description definitely functions properly. There are steep hills with small buildings clinging to them, giving the appearance of a layered cake. Oh, and the bus drivers are crazier and bolder than a drunken Jedi pilot. My bus driver bombed down steep curving streets like Steve McQueen in Bullitt. So that’s the best way to envision this experience: if Steve McQueen was in Valparaiso, was trying to get his pregnant wife to the hospital or was simply late to work and happened to be driving a bus.
The next day I left Costa Azul and said farewell to Luka and Nina. I once more internally remarked on Nina’s Slovenian attractiveness. Luka isn’t unattractive but he’ll simply have to find space in someone else’s fantasy.
Eleven hours later, I arrived in Pucon. I passed so many hitchhikers along the way that you would have needed to hire at least five school buses to pick them all up. If I was someone that liked using the phrase “Damn Commies!”, I would have been in a state of ecstasy.
Once again, it took me an hour of multiple sets of contradictory directions to find my lodging. Ellie’s B&B is run by a nice lady and her teenaged daughter. It was great to find out that this guest house was a mile or so away from a smoking, active volcano that was due to burst any year, showing higher than normal seismic activity. And just like Valparaiso, I appeared to be the central body of a planetary system comprised of barking dogs. Some of these planets were domesticated but many were quite feral.
The morning after I arrived, I managed to break the toilet. To be fair, the flapper (the piece at the bottom of the tank that is lifted up to let water out of the tank) was on its way out and I happened to be the straw that broke the toilet’s back. But because this happened on my watch, I travelled down to Chile’s version of the Home Depot with a photo of the piece I needed. I showed this photo to one of their employees who then took me to their lighting section. She pointed to a light and smiled. I showed her the picture again and said “toilet…agua”.
Before things spiraled further out of control by way of me attempting to install a light fixture in a toilet, another employee directed me to the plumbing section. Maybe she wanted me to install a light in the toilet like one would see in a swimming pool. Maybe “night peeing” is all the rage in Chile.
After securing the part, I returned to Ellie’s house and, in Spanish, had to explain to her daughter that although I broke their toilet, I was now fixing it. The whole ordeal made me yearn for constipation.
During the day, I hiked through the beautiful national park known as Huerquehue. Today, like all the days thus far, was enjoying the best kind of weather you could hope for in Boston during the month made popular by the band Earth Wind and Fire: September. The scenery was inspired, containing mountains, lakes and forests.
For dinner, I ate at a small table on the sidewalk outside of Club 77 and got the better of some fish, vegetables, potato balls and wine. I must say, the quality and polite prices of wine in Chile really do make up for all of those barking dogs and bad directions. As I sat there, I was entertained by musicians that stopped at all the restaurants and cafés along the street to play a couple of songs. Upon completion, they came to me with a hat and asked for money. Their music was good unlike the absurd techno blasting out of a slowly passing Jeep Wrangler, techno so terrible it literally sounded like a fax machine.
It was midnight when I finished up and as I looked around, I was amazed by all the families with children that were still out. No one looked tired. Midnight in Chile looked like 8PM in America.
The following day I drove downtown. Pucon’s center is a grid with noticeable bustle. I parked my car and was immediately approached by a man in a bright green vest, holding a handheld credit card machine. He put a ticket on my windshield and told me I would pay him when I return. Perhaps this system allowed some sort of financial benefit to the town and/or the driver but it also required a lot of employees to cover the entire grid. I found it odd, like some sort of pre-Industrial Revolution business model combined with modern technology. I thought parking meters sorted this process out but who asked me?
This experience seemed to be a recurring thing in Chile: a high employee to customer ratio. Every gas station I’ve been to has had more employees than a 1950’s American gas station. Nina and Luka in Valparaiso have also confirmed my sightings, telling me you will often see a high number of wait staff in restaurants and cafés. On the whole, I would say things operate less efficiently here but if that’s the cost I have to pay for friendly faces and great cheap wine, I’m most certainly willing to pay it.
I headed out of town and down a gravel road to a mountain’s edge. After a brief hike, I swam in Lake Villarica. It was a treat to wade in the water, while looking at the volcano who continued to puff away like an Italian mob boss.
On my way back to Ellie’s, I stumbled upon a fair where I drank/ate mote con huesillo. This is a strange affair consisting of sweet liquid, chunks of wheat swimming around the bottom like lazy catfish and a very saturated dried peach that floats on top. At the end of a muddy field stood a stage with large speakers on it. In the middle of the stage was a woman in a long, simple but somewhat elegant black dress which contrasted nicely with the extremely casual garb found on everyone else. This lady controlled various karaoke backing tracks with an iPad that she then sang to on a microphone. Her voice was good but she seemed a tad out of place in this casual backyard environment. In front of here were playing children and the occasional person crossing over to the other side of the field. Right next to her stage was a carnival game tent. All in all, it was a live performer’s nightmare.
After another marvelous, clock-stopping breakfast the following morning, I bid farewell to Ellie and drove south through precious natural landscapes of hills and fields and large lakes. I eventually arrived at my accommodation for the next two nights: Parque Ilihue which consisted of only a couple cabins that were wedged between a steep, small mountain and the southern shore of Lago (Lake) Ranco. As I settled in, I turned on the TV and watched Star Wars, Episode 3, Revenge of the Sith dubbed in Spanish; it didn’t matter what happened with the rest of my stay, this place getting a five-star review on TripAdvisor. For some reason, a Spanish-speaking Yoda made much more sense to me.
As I read in bed, I heard a horse walk up to my window, only a few feet away, and start eating. Of course, once again, this was followed by the sound of barking dogs which unfortunately bounced off the large rock mass standing tall and less than 100 yards away.
As I wrote outside on the small porch the following morning, six little pigs hustled over to my cabin. At first, it seemed like some dark, macabre form of room service. I didn’t recall ordering bacon though. But the cute little slobs grunted and jogged by me, running into a garden where they were soon shooed off by some kind of garden lady.
I asked Gabriel, the owner, if there was a way to climb the mountain behind Parque Ilihue. He said I could drive up. He then pointed to a specific point and brought a house to my attention that was so high up it was barely visible. Gabriel told me an old woman lived there and that she allowed people to enter her property and take in the view. In return, it would be considered amiable if you gave her a little something. I assume he meant cash but who knows? Maybe that high-altitude living has allowed for an undying amorous appetite in this older model.
I drove up the squirrely gravel road and looked for two hubcaps attached to a post; this marked the location. When I found it, I pulled over and began a small ascent up to her house. As I did, I heard voices from the property across the street. Due to the open, bowl-shaped area we were in, the sound reached me quite well, despite the 130 or so yards that separated us. I looked down and saw a very large pig running towards me. Unsure if it was some sort of dangerous watchpig, I stopped and a young man ran up to me. I explained to Francisco the purpose of my visit. He informed me that the house belonged to his grandmother and I was welcome to take pictures.
We walked through a few barking dogs and came upon a backyard that dropped off into nothing. And as expected, in brilliant non-American fashion, there was not even a hint of a fence or railing to keep humans and poorly kicked soccer balls from tumbling off the edge. Beyond this edge was a view of angels. I could see down to Parque Ilihue, the surrounding fields, the lake and all the mountain finery that bordered it. I thanked Francisco for his time, handed him a little cash and said “para la comida de los perros” (for dog food).
That night I ate at the Parque Ilihue restaurant. Much of what I ate came from the surrounding farm, including the pork. Sorry little piggies. Looks like I just ate your uncle.
At two in the morning, I received a text from Andres, the rental car gent, telling me that he emailed me a name and address of where I could get new tires. Initially, he proposed I pay for it and that he would reimburse me. I said no; he would pay for it. Ultimately, he sent me to the wrong city, forcing me to drive a little further out of my way. Fortunately, I was able to shop for gifts and play with a tiny kitten while I waited for the new tires.
With new tires, I drove back towards Puerto Varas. I tried not to reflect on how terrible this car rental experience had been. Thankfully I had it in me to let it go, reminding myself my days ahead involved great food and wine and lacked alarm clocks and hammers (I’m a handyman). Also adding to my amnesia of the foolishness was arriving at my next stop, Casa Ko, which was located 23 miles east of Puerto Varas and a couple miles off the main road and Lago Llanquihue. The setting was immaculate: a 60-year old farm house surrounded by trees and fields and a perfect view of Osorno Volcano. In fact, my bedroom had a small balcony that looked right at this volcano. Yet again, there were all kinds of animals, including a friendly goat that found my presence necessary.
Dinner that evening was memorable. The other guests and I ate fresh food (some of it grown on site) and shared stories. There was a Mexican lady in her early 50’s, a Uruguayan man and his Danish wife, a French lady and her British husband with their daughter and a young Swiss couple enjoying the last six weeks of an epic 10-month long southern hemisphere tour.
The next day I involved myself in a six-hour hike that climbed up part way of Calbuco, yet another volcano that was located just behind Casa Ko.
The following morning, I said goodbye to everyone and drove back through Puerto Varas, then south past Puerto Montt and boarded a car ferry that took me to Chiloe, an island just off the coast. I decided that I needed to see some penguins so I did the logical thing of driving to their home on the northwest side of the island.
Afterwards I checked into my guest house which was located a few miles north of Chiloe’s biggest town, Castro. It was on top of a hill and surrounded by rolling farm pastures so the view was solid but this place was not one that would ever taste my repeat business. Comparatively speaking, this place was not cheap which is fine as long as the establishment proves its worth. But my room, being a tiny little box that is located in a tiny little loft area that seemed to collect all the heat in the house, did not prove its worth. To make matters worse, my room had windows that didn’t open. Better still, due to the ceiling being pitched, the wall that contained the door was so low that you had to duck your head or suffer an unwanted head bang (which I suffered a few times). The lodging was worse than one could expect being a prisoner on a WW2 Russian submarine.
The rest of the place had some admirable qualities: there was a small restaurant that looked out onto the valley; there was a nice room with a small deck that shared the same view. But, the whole place suffered from diabolical craftsmanship. Much of the construction appeared to be completed by a dumb angry baby.
The weather was not as elegant as the lakes district, the traffic into Castro was a bit much, my lodging was below par, and the penguins were more boring than an ant farm. Chiloe was starting to feel like a low point of the trip.
This would all change quickly.
The next day as I walked back from a beach in Chiloe National Park, a lady ahead of me slowed down to ask me a question about a nearby path. Soon after, we were engaged in conversation as her two friends walked ahead of us. Isabella is a 34-year old environmental engineer from Santiago. She was visiting Chiloe with two friends. The first, Jesica, is a feisty accountant (who knew such things existed) from Vina del Mar. The second, Alfonso, is a lab technician in Santiago who Jesica and Isabella actually met for the first time in Chiloe a couple days previously.
By the end of our walk, we were already making plans to meet for a drink later. They even invited me to join them on a tour of a smaller island known as Mechuque, located just two miles off the eastern coast of Chiloe in the Gulf of Ancud.
That night we all met at a small bar restaurant in Castro. As earlier in the day, there was that fantastic group dynamic of two people (Alfonso and Jesica) doing their best to make sure that Isabella and I were given ample time to talk alone. Yet, this “rare time” was tempered with some group chat. As my conversation with Isabella evolved, so did my boldness. After discovering that Alfonso and Jesica were heading back to Santiago in a couple days and that Isabella, who was in the midst of a glorious, welcomed “in between jobs” spell with no set plans for the remainder of an open-ended vacation, I asked her to join me for the remainder of my trip. Before she could reply, I told her to think on it.
The next day, the four of us took a boat to Mechuque. There we watched the preparation of a cuisine unique to Chiloe: curanto. Curanto is literally made in a large hole in the ground. Hot stones are placed down first with layers of shellfish, chicken, pork, potatoes and sausages above. On top of that, large green leaves known as nalca are placed with a wet sack, dirt and grass above, creating a crude pressure cooker-like environment. When the dish was complete, the 50 or so of us on the tour sat at long tables and tested this ancient dish. As I sat down, I noticed I was only one of two “gringos” and the only American on this tour and most likely on this tiny island. For some reason, that made me slightly proud.
During the meal, Isabella looked at me and with slightly imperfect yet alluring English, spoke, “I have thought about the proposal you made about the travelling and my answer is yes. I would like to go with you if that is okay.”
To me, this was jazz. I did a decent job of suppressing my boyish excitement. I was trying to talk but at the same time making sure I didn’t botch this choice opportunity.
That night, we all met again in Castro for a drink but this time others from the tour joined us. One was the only other gringo on the tour, a Swiss gent. When he heard my last name, he exclaimed, “Coxen?! Your name sounds just like the Swiss German word ‘koksen’ which means ‘doing lines of cocaine’!” Was it too late for me to become an 80’s Swiss metal god? I felt that this small fact about my name was clearly enough to take me to the top regardless of my age or gray chest hairs.
The following day I left Chiloe. Isabella’s plan was to stay another day in Chiloe and then visit a friend in Puerto Montt for a night. I directed my car and my leisurely energies to Puerto Octay, a small town on the north side of Lago Llanquihue. My lodging was located a couple miles north of town. This guest house called “Zapato Amarillo” or “Yellow Shoe” was run by a fantastically pleasant couple comprised of a Swiss man named Amrin and his Chilean wife, Nadia. That night I dined in fine style with two older couples: a Chilean couple from Santiago and a German couple in the midst of a six-month, multi-country, bi-hemispheral journey.
The next morning I made it so with a truly effective breakfast in the dining room that looked out at Osorno Volcano, the same volcano that my room in Casa Ko across the shore looked at. Looking at this volcano while I ate was not enough. I had to walk around it, close enough to be fried by one of its deadly burps (although that would be highly unlikely since this volcano has not suffered acid indigestion since 1869). So I got in my filthy car and drove towards the volcano. My plan was to hike around an elevated hike that took me part way around Osorno and gave me a potent view of Lago Todos Los Santos.
I turned off the main road and onto a 13-mile gravel road that ended at the trail head. At the beginning of this gravel road, I spotted a woman in her late 60’s and a young boy on the side of the road with their thumbs up. Of course, I took this as the international sign of hitchhiking. Had their thumbs been turned down, I would have taken that as a sign that they were bitchhiking. I pulled over and picked them up. I didn’t understand all they said but I did learn that the five-year old boy was the lady’s grandson. I forget the young lad’s name but I will never forget his drive and ease with correcting my Spanish grammar and pronunciation.
After dropping them off, I carried on up the slowly ascending gravel road that grew narrower. At the road’s end, I parked my car at a small house that served as a tiny, rarely used café and lodging for a young German man named Karl. A friend owned the property but Karl had volunteered to oversee this remote outpost for several months. I looked around and tried to imagine such a sparse existence and its effect on the mind. He was a man in his 20’s with no TV, internet connection and practically no electricity (save the little he had from a small solar panel). He seemed to linger as I prepared myself for my hike. Clearly he knew I wanted to be on my way but I could tell he yearned for some human contact.
When I returned from my hike, he came back out and we talked some more. He became eager to discuss his existence with me. I often show a soft spot for those that live willingly or unwillingly on the fringe. He told me that pumas often haunted him at night but that he had a weapon to defend himself from ridiculous puma attacks. He then went into his house and returned with a black handgun.
I was starting to get nervous.
I also noticed a knife in a leather sheath hanging from his hip. Was that there before? I don’t think it was but I couldn’t be sure. However, I did remain calm.
He removed the cartridge and handed me the weapon for my inspection. The gun smelled of oil, telling me he kept this sidearm in fine working order. I gave it back to him and he reinserted the cartridge.
Oddly, he put the gun back into my hand and said, “Fire it if you like.”
I tried to hide my surprise and confusion and asked, “Uhh, where do I fire it?”
“Wherever,” he replied with a casual tone that I could not yet discern was genuine or not.
I aimed at a pile of wood. Out of all the inanimate objects in my field of vision, I felt the pile of wood was most likely to be guilty of some reprehensible transgression. I pulled the trigger. The sound echoed of the mountainsides dramatically but something was missing. I felt virtually no recoil. I told Karl that I expected the gun to kick back when I fired it. With a smile that most people would miss, he informed me that this handgun contained only blanks that were only intended to scare off animals with a loud sound. And from what I could tell, it also did a grand job at scaring off any potential café customers. I handed the gun back to him.
God, this was all bizarre. The handgun exchange now seemed to me as some sort of test. Perhaps part of him hoped I pointed the gun at him so he could test his Rambo knife on my American flesh. Maybe I was imagining all of this. Maybe these were my final moments on Earth before I was killed by a tortured German hermit.
As he showed me around the outside of his cabin, I looked in a window and saw the type of poster on a wall that you typically see in the dirty back office of a mechanic. I could also hear the angry sounds of death metal music that could not be played too loud due to the small amount of energy at hand. I then turned my head and saw an axe freshly stuck into a large log. Or, I thought, I guess I could be killed that way.
But suddenly the tone of the situation changed a little. He began to show me the remains of a ten-room hotel on the property that burnt down in 1997. He and the owner were slowly in the process of rebuilding it. I now felt slightly more at ease; from the little I know, it seems bad for business to murder a tourist before opening your doors.
I bid Karl farewell and realized or hoped it was my imagination to blame for my apprehension. I hoped my time spent talking to him was mildly therapeutic for him.
The following day I picked up Isabella from Puerto Montt and together we drove towards Argentina. After a multistage, complex border-crossing procedure, we made it to Villa La Angostura, a lovely, nicely-paced mountain town on the northern shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi. The day before, I emailed our hotel, Hosteria Pichi Rincon to tell them I was now travelling with a friend. She asked me if I wanted a room with two twin beds or one matrimonial. Wow, I thought, this is a crucial junction. I have to decide if Isabella is going to be a “two twin bed” friend or a “matrimonial bed” friend. Would she be offended to find a room with only one bed? Is the fact that she decided to travel alone with me enough to assume a matrimonial bed status? And if that is the case, will she think of me as a boner-less wisp if I don’t request a matrimonial bed?
Although single, I had felt I had been sidelined with some sort of mysterious, unknown injury that had kept me out of the Lust Olympics for a long time so I felt incredibly rusty with all of this. But, the previous looks in her eyes told me there was a good chance that she would become a “matrimonial bed” friend (but I couldn’t be 100% sure).
I chose the matrimonial.
Fully comfortable and confident with my decision, Isabella and I followed the friendly manager, Rosana, to our room. With great anticipation, I waited to study her face. It would tell me all I had to know. The door opened. There it was: basking in the afternoon sunlight, a neat and sexy matrimonial bed. I turned my head to her but then caught some other awful ogre in the background. On the other side of the room was also a twin bed. Damn! This could screw up everything! I felt mixed signals were now being transmitted. I wanted to take that stupid twin bed out the back door and set it in fire in the back lawn.
She put her bag on the twin bed and I put my belongings on the matrimonial. Damn it.
After unpacking, we sat down on the romance-wrecking twin bed and discussed our dining options. The hell with this, I thought.
I kissed her.
And the response was positive.
But being classy, respectable and hungry grownups, we took a time out from this baseball game with a runner on first so we could secure some dinner. After our meal, we picked up a bottle of red wine and a Cuban cigar. The plan was to walk around while I smoked. We shared a lot about ourselves on the ride to Villa La Angostura but suddenly the stakes were raised. The subject of “last time we had sex” bubbled up to the conversational surface. Before I tell you the amount of time for me, I must warn you that it is Rated G…“G” as in it has been so long that my sex life could be discussed with a general audience or in a Disney movie and “G” as in “Grim”. I took a deep breath…”Four years.”
“Mentira (Lie)!” she shouted as her mouth dropped and her eyes bulged. It always gives me great pleasure to tell something to somebody that throws their face and body off the neutral ground they tend to gravitate towards.
Isabella asked me a few times if I was lying. Once she was satisfied I was telling the truth and the shock subsided, she clung to me a little closer and displayed what can best be described as smiling body language. We continued to walk a little and after some bold thought she turned to me and asked me with a welcome South American confidence and comfort, “Will you have sex with me tonight?”
Good Lord. I couldn’t believe this four-year drought might actually come to an end. Rain clouds were gathering and the glorious sound of thunder grew louder and the first majestic drops were now striking my face. With an Irish Catholic awkwardness that will never be capable of destruction, I told her, “Well, uhhhh, sure…of course!”
On our way back, we found a small supermarket that seemed to sell everything, making it the perfect target for rioters in the event of an apocalypse. To frame it even better, it was the type of store where the actual event took place: it was Tuesday at 10PM in Argentina and I was waiting in the line to buy a wine bottle opener, wine glasses, chocolate, chewing gum and some condoms while the man in front of me was waiting to purchase a Black & Decker power drill. This is exactly the type of experience I fantasize about when travelling. The lead up was great too. Isabella and I looked at condoms together which was a first. I usually procure these scandal makers on my own. Her presence turned out to be quite beneficial since I had never bought condoms in Spanish.
So there we were. An unlikely couple making our way back to our charming hotel with a wine opener, a bottle of wine, chocolate, condoms and some chewing gum. We just couldn’t lose.
The elements of the next day were ones that could all be found on the Periodic Table of Pleasure. There was a hike, a dip in Lago Nahuel Huapi, some fine trout at lunch, a professional nap and ultimately a fine dinner. At dinner, I had enjoyed one of the dynamics of Argentina’s struggling economy: the negotiation of the blue dollar (the unofficial rate between the peso and the dollar). Our sexy American dollars are highly sought after in Argentina to the point that most businesses (and individuals) accept and prefer them. This is important to know since the official rate, as in the one you would get at an ATM or when using your credit card, is around 8.5 pesos to the dollar while a good blue dollar rate will get 12 or more. You don’t have to be good with numbers to realize this blue dollar rate will allow you to get 50% fatter and 50% drunker on your vacation.
Before travelling to South America, I had read in a few places that folks you’re exchanging with prefer 50 and 100-dollar bills that are new. This is why I paid my bank a visit shortly before I left and loaded up on 50’s and 100’s that were paper cut new. This was all confirmed with the owner of the restaurant we were dining at who was willing to make a personal exchange with me. As always, Isabella’s perfect Spanish and lady manners provided the perfect lubrication to the process, keeping the deal squeak and friction free.
For dessert, we enjoyed red wine, rare time and a most tender therapy.
After breakfast, we said goodbye to Rosana and drove south to Lago Puelo. Just before our final destination, we decided to drive through Bolson to look for some good Cuban cigars (which were hard to come by). I was tired and at one point briefly drove down a busy wrong way while cars came right at me. In Boston, this would have caused rage beyond calculation. But here, it got me a guy who playfully said in a conversational volume “Hey hermano”. He called me his brother and his tone was one that could have been mistaken for friendship.
Once I gathered my wits and got back on the right side of the road, I began to notice how dirty the air was. At first I thought it was dust that resulted from the very dry conditions and dirt roads but once at our guest house known as Huala Hostel, the owner Dalva told us it was due to multiple forest fires that were not too far off. The smell, taste and sight of smoke were thick enough to stir up concern at first but the locals did not seem to be too worried with this chimney-like atmosphere. Well, I guess we could always chill in the nearby lake if the fire knocked on our door.
If you like meat, Argentina is your place. The quantity and quality is enough to send a vegetarian into a disgust-induced coma. This night we ate at Luz de Luna and absorbed a meal that, upon retrospect, should have been put into a time capsule to prove to future generations that they will never be as great as we are. It was merely a leg of lamb on top of some papas fritas but the lamb itself had been slow-cooked for several hours with a combination of rosemary, other spices and clearly a lot of love. This was easily the best lamb I ever had. You could practically will the meat off the bone with your mind, requiring little to no physical effort.
The staff was a bunch of sweethearts. They all seemed happy to be there and gave an inspired performance. I even had the honor of shaking hands with the chef who humbly described the culinary and enlightened journey of my dish. And, if you still had some available real estate in your belly after that victorious Viking conquest after-battle meal, you had a galaxy of fresh ice cream to explore (which we did).
Driving back from an afternoon of lake pleasure the following day, it started to dawn on me that Argentina looked like scenes out of Mad Max sometimes. The landscape was arid and many of the cars were cartoonishly old and battered looking as if it had been 20 years since the last new car was made. Cars that would have been scrapped before the Great Demise were still being used out of sheer necessity. These cars had mismatched hoods (and some didn’t even have hoods). They were often heavily damaged and held together with random materials and some desperate emotion.
That evening, Isabella and I ate at the same restaurant again and retired afterwards to Dalva’s relaxing yard. No matter where we went, Flora the small lady cat was sure to follow. Flora was one of Dalva’s many animals and once I gave her some leftover trout, she decided to attach herself to my presence. She even came into our room, jumped into my suitcase and onto our bed. It was like she was some strange alternative to the evening mint you might find on your pillow in a fancy hotel.
When we finished breakfast the next day, Isabella and I set sail for a southern village in the southern shore of Lago Traful known simply as Villa Traful. With no reservation and a positive attitude, we touched down on a lakeside camping/cabin arrangement with marvelous views and food. During our dinner outside on the deck, we experienced heavenly visuals and another of Argentina’s common elements. The element I speak of is a stray dog begging at your table. My first inclination was to ignore these dogs since I knew that no matter what I gave them, they would probably use it to buy booze. In all fairness, these dogs are looking for a combination of love and food and they’re usually nice but while I’m eating, I don’t often desire the presence of begging creatures. Sometimes the owner or manager may shoo them away but they always return.
After Isabella and I ate our breakfast the following morning at a table next to our cabin, another cat befriended me and became the lucky recipient of a bowl of milk.
The next day we drove north through cinematic countryside to San Martin De Los Andes. With its grid street system elegantly placed in a valley on the eastern shore of Lago Lacar, this town was already speaking sweet nothings to me before I even got out of the car.
On the way, however, I did have one minor altercation. One thing I really do admire about the South American lady is that she not only shows no fear with a roadside pee, she practically embraces the concept. So we pulled over to the side of the road to release our liquid tension. While she chose a spot right next to the car, I laughed at her indecent proximity to the road and dashed through some tall vegetation to attain more cover. Thinking all the while I was the wiser, I returned to the car and looked down at my legs; they were absurdly covered in sharp burrs. It took about 10 minutes to removes these little f#*ks, a process made worse by the sting I received by the sharp burrs themselves and Isabella’s vengeful laughter.
For the next three nights, we checked into Apartamento Maiten, located in a quiet corner of San Martin. We had a nice two-floor affair with a warm wooden interior, two bedrooms, a kitchen and an effective little balcony in the back. The next day, a maid called our telephone and asked when she could clean our unit. In efforts to preserve global resources and avoid an interruption, I told her not to bother. “Somos personas limpias (we are clean people)” was the reason I gave her which drew about 45 seconds of powerful laughter from Isabella who overhead my chat from upstairs.
We then made an effort to track down some lodging for our next stop. Although we didn’t know exactly where it would be, we knew it would on the other side of the Andes in Chile. First we decided to take a gravel road pass that took us into Chile and then take a three-hour ferry ride over a long thin lake caught between two mountains and ultimately to the beautiful Huilo Huilo national park.
This idea disintegrated when we discovered we wouldn’t be able to book a ferry until three days after our desired departure date so we pursued the idea of a more northern pass, Mamuil Malal. This pass was meant to be stunning and would bring us through Pucon where I was three weeks previously. Thinking we might get a good deal on lodging due to the end of busy season, we called several places in the Pucon area to get pricing. Unfortunately, prices still seemed locked in their high season mode. Although we didn’t book anything, we decided that the Pucon area would be our next stop and that we would book something later that day.
We headed into town and stopped in at a small bakery. On the wall, a flat-screen TV was showing the news. There was footage of a volcano erupting which naturally grabbed my attention but what really caught me off guard were the words below the footage: “Volcan Villarica, Pucon”. I looked at Isabella and said “Pienso que necesitamos buscar una otra via a Chile. (I think we need to find another route into Chile)”. The titillating combination of the volcanic eruption and my mastery of Spanish clearly distracted Isabella to the point she no longer owned the mental capacity needed to purchase something at the bakery (that’s how I saw it anyways) so we moved on to a nice little restaurant to order some takeaway. On our way, we decided to go back into Chile the way we came and to stay over at two of my favorite lodging options that Isabella could now see: Casa Ko and Zapato Amarillo.
Pondering the eruption a little more, I noticed two interesting elements of this event. One, it seemed like everywhere we went was falling apart after we left or right before we arrived. Both of us had visited Dalcahue on the island of Chiloe and a week later, a massive forest fire swept through the area. As I mentioned before, near Lago Puelo, forest fires were popping up like teen dreams before, during and after we left. Now Villarica blew its stack after I left. I wasn’t sure if this made me important in some way or simply some asshole that brought about bad fortune.
The other thing of note was that when we tried to negotiate with hotels earlier in the day before knowing of the eruption, I either couldn’t get a lower price or they were booked up. What?! A volcano was erupting in their backyard! Hotels should have been empty and we should have been given entire floors of buildings to ourselves for $5 a night and all the free shower caps we could handle. These hotels should have been starving for business, given the natural disaster.
That night we ate at Torino Bar and Bistro and ate a meal that is still waiting for words to be invented to justly describe it. All I can tell you is that my dish involved a pile of legendary meat covered in cheese and tomatoes with an appropriate amount of garlic found in each bite. In the end, a sensational crème brûlée took us to where we needed to be. We were so stuffed with edible pleasure after this that the only option was to burn off calories at a nearby lousy video arcade.
I’m not sure this fine meal was to blame but something unkindly lingered in my digestive track for the next several days causing stomach aches and brown problems. If I had to guess, my decadence hit a point of critical mass and became more than my body could bear. Luckily it did not keep me from making it back to Chile and to Casa Ko where we were still able to visit the pristine region of Cochamo.
After a hike, we hung out with the locals that were all sitting in front of a house located at the trail head. Isabella was lovely enough to find me a soothing cup of Lady Tea (chamomile). She instead opted to have the traditional drink of Argentina and southern Chile: mate (pronounced mah-tay). I love mate and drink it at home in the states but I thought it wise to avoid any stimulating drinks in my current condition. However, stimulating ladies were still allowed in my daily regimen.
It was great to watch how these people drank mate and how communal it was. There was only one gourd on the table and it was shared by everyone that wanted to drink mate. Sticking out of the gourd was a metal straw that had a filter on the bottom to keep out the mate leaves that constituted at least 50% of the gourd’s content. Someone would typically finish the gourd off and pour some hot water back into it. Then someone else would come by a moment later and do the same thing. When the flavor weakened, someone would dump out the old wet leaves and replace them with new ones and begin the process all over again. Watching this, I had to guess that everyone in South America had contracted Mono within the same week decades ago.
At Casa Ko that night, we met a lovely team from Germany named Liselle and Raul. Raul was originally from Chile but had to leave 35 or so years earlier to escape the harsh political regime of Augusto Pinochet. Interestingly enough, his ancestry contained no Chilean elements. He was actually 50% Italian, 25% Spanish and 25% Irish.
Also intriguing was his look. His skin was tan and his salt and pepper hair was long and straggly and thinning a bit in the crown area. His short beard was white and politely matched his eyebrows. He had round cheeks and the eyes of William H Macy. And these eyes were always filled with life and activity. Liselle was also noteworthy in her appearance. She was very petite, probably not standing much higher than the kindergarteners she worked with at her job. Her hair was short and her smile had the staying power of a tattoo.
Isabella and I became quick friends with these two lovelies. In fact, Isabella became friends with almost everyone with undeniable ease. I’m fairly skilled at meeting new people but Isabella excelled at it which brought yet another welcomed level of vitality to my trip.
We left Casa Ko on what would be the first and only day of rain of my month-long sojourn. Due to the weather and my malfunctioning digestive services, we did something I love doing when travelling: we went to the movies. To me, watching a movie in a theater is like going to sleep. Coming out of the theater is like waking up. You almost forget where you are and your mind expects its familiar environment. Exiting into a Chilean mall was almost as good as the film itself (Kingsman).
When the movie ended, we drove north to Puerto Octay to stay again at Zapato Amarillo. We arrived at dinner time and sat across from a vivacious Dutch couple in their early 60’s. Karla was pleasant and most certainly the “straight man” in the double act. Her husband Richard was bombastic in both demeanor and appearance. This tall man had a face that provided no challenge to a caricature artist. His wild white-grey hair sprouted up from his head and then down the sides like a tuft of overgrown grass. His mustache and accompanying patch below his mouth were also white-grey.
To be just, his mustache was worthy of a dedicated wing in the Jedi Archives. It was a giant push broom of a thing with light tobacco stains towards the bottom. His nose looked as if it had been broken once or twice and hastily put back into place. And when he laughed, which was often, it was an all-encompassing laughter that somehow turned his face into even more of a caricature rendering. It was amazing to me how in just two days, Isabella and I met two different couples that we both would have felt comfortable engaging in some sort of multi-couple dancing event with.
The following day, we ran into Raul and Liselle in the German-styled town of Frutillar. We enjoyed an effortless stroll and dining experience with these two winners. We got a kick out of all the German themes that kept popping up. They were reminders that many Germans settled in southern Chile long ago. While most of these settlers were good folks, there were a minority of Nazis that fled to the region (and many other parts of South America) after WW2 in efforts to escape punishment for their war crimes. In fact, the night before, Richard and Karla told us how they happened upon some sort of remote guest house in a remote part of Chile that stank of a dark Nazi past.
After Zapato Amarillo, we made the long drive north towards Santiago. About two hours south of Santiago, we decided to spend a couple days in part of Chilean wine country. The area we decided on was Colchaqua Valley and the town was Santa Cruz. During our stay, we pretentiously visited a winery, an experience humbled only by the fact that we were wearing hiking boots.
On our last day, we drove north towards Santiago and with a little time to kill, Isabella decided to take me up in a funicular to the top of San Cristobal Hill where one could see all of the city and beyond. Back on the ground we ate at a restaurant nearby where I was able to savor some pastel de choclo one more time. Afterwards we drove to the airport. We sat outside for a couple hours. I was waiting for my plane and she was waiting for a friend to pick her up. The surrounding scenery may not have been dramatic but the weather and company were exotic to me.
We walked back into the airport. It was time for me to make my way through security. Before I went in, I paused and said some parting words to Isabella. She seemed a little sad. I looked at her and asked, “Are you going to be okay?” Upon hearing my question, she put a slightly out of character, defiant smile on her face and said, “Always.”
I detest multi-human transportation. I’m glad it exists. It can be cheap. But it reminds me of school which I don’t like. There is that unmistakable institutional feel that permeates the entire experience. I also hate the smell of airplane farts of which there would be 20+ hours of. So it had to be a place as special as Thailand to allow me to overcome this foolishness, to get motivated to embark on such a big trip.
After flying to JFK from Boston, I boarded a behemoth 14-hour flight to Beijing. I sat next to a gentleman from India named Sidhu. He had spent five weeks or so visiting a daughter in New Mexico, family in Vancouver and a son in NYC. Sidhu was 63 and had been retired for three years. From the age of 14 and a half through 60, he was a police officer in India. At 14 and a half, I hadn’t stopped playing with Legos yet. India clearly has noteworthy trust in its youth.
In many movies, there has been that moment when the President of the United States is in danger and quickly gets ushered to safety. This is how it was for me when I landed in Beijing and Air China realized I was about to miss my connecting flight to Bangkok. I was aggressively ushered with shouts and important hand movements through multiple checkpoints. The irony was that my connecting flight was delayed three hours due to mechanical nonsense.
I finally got to Bangkok at 3:30 AM and took a taxi to my hotel, Lamphu Treehouse. The lobby was open with dark wood everywhere. I started to notice that in a climate like this, it was hard to see where outside ended and inside began. It was a quiet, tucked away place right on a canal. After five hours of sleep, I was arrested by a fine American breakfast buffet. Thai food may be the tops in the PM, but in the AM, my body and soul desire American food styles.
In the six hours since I arrived to my hotel, Bangkok transformed into a complete traffic-choked nuthouse. You couldn’t walk ten feet without passing a food vendor or being attacked by a shifty character trying to sell you something or swindle you in some way. Later that night, a tuk tuk driver tried to gain my business by simply saying “Happy Ending”. If I was offered a happy beginning, perhaps I would have considered. Never before had the color of my skin betrayed me so. I instantly became a lightning rod for all sorts of unwanted transactions.
Almost instantly, I started to enjoy the Thai’s questionable but enjoyable use of the English language. An entertaining example of this was a yellow sports car with the words “Top Secret” dangerously written on the side. It must be a challenge to remain so top secret with the words “Top Secret” written in big letters on the side of your car.
I headed south through the famous, crowded Amulet Market but as my amulet needs were practically nil, I moved on. The only time I’ve ever used an amulet was in a video game. I was about to enter the big temple known as Wat Phra Kaew when a security officer advised me to return later when the crowds had died down so he waved down a tuk tuk driver for me and told the driver to take me to a few notable sights.
I should probably tell you what a tuk tuk is. More than a gas powered vehicle, it is potentially the most fun way to get around a city. It’s about four and a half feet wide and eight feet long. It has two wheels in the back and one up front that is steered with handlebars. They have a distinct sound and smell and they look like something you would find in a children’s ride in an amusement park.
My driver was a short, smiling man of 60 years. His tuk tuk looked older than I was. I soon found out it was actually the same age as I am (40…gross). I looked at all the holes, dings and overall lack of luster that this tuk tuk had and I suddenly felt old.
My driver was a force to be reckoned with. What amazed me most is how comfortable everyone was with everyone else’s absolute lawless driving. He showed no remorse as he drove on the wrong side of the road after sitting in traffic for a few moments (an all too common practice as I would continue to see). He abused bike lanes often. He zigged zagged. He cut people off. It was all too glorious and I loved it.
He took me to Buddhist temples. The temples were beyond description. They were ornate to the point it looked like some impossible computer graphic or a prism of colors not done by man but by some powerful force of physics. Every temple was ornate inside and out. Upon entering, you were required to remove your shoes which created the perfect scenario for a shoe thief.
The only thing that rivalled the beauty of the temples was the suit I had made for me at B.B. Fashion, a shop that my tuk tuk driver took me to. I chose a luscious burgundy-colored Thai silk for the suit and black silk for the shirt. The employee, Alex, tried to sell me the store but I was able to resist. I was measured at 2:00PM on a Thursday and the suit and shirt were ready by 10:00AM the next day. Someone was certainly exploited in this process but I still felt joy in this piece of custom clothing that would make its way to stage on the body of Barry Tattle.
The morning my suit was to be ready, I called Alex to see how it looked. He professionally replied “very sexy”. Alex was shady and it made me happy.
After eating and sharing a beer with my driver and seeing a gigantic reclining Buddha in Wat Pho, I bid farewell to my excellent driver.
The next day I tried my suit on and the fit was alarmingly perfect. It was tight in the way Barry Tattle’s suits yearn to be tight. The final price for the suit, the shirt and shipping was $310. Absurd. I left B.B. Fashion and headed to Suvarnabhumi Airport where I would meet Green. As it turns out, Green is much more than a color. She is also a dear Thai lady. I met her through a Thai nanny in Boston that I met during a job. Green and I had emailed a lot before we dramatically met in front of an airport Starbucks.
The two of us boarded her Toyota Corolla that had some fine custom trimmings added to it around the door handles and gas cap. Around the door handles read the words “Be your own star”. So basically this Toyota Corolla was like a loving grandmother that built your confidence by dropping positive anecdotes on you.
Our ultimate mission, our ultimate desire was to visit Thailand’s finest jungle, Khao Yai. But first, we would spend the night at a small house she owned in Prachinburi. On the way to her house, we stopped at a well-known temple covered in white marble. Watching Green I realized how superstitious and spiritual the Thai Buddhists were. Green bought a few things to leave in front of Buddha as offerings. After kneeling in front of Buddha and praying, she grabbed a cylinder filled with numbered sticks. She shook the cylinder until a stick fell out. She looked at the number on the stick and walked over to a space on a wall that had various fortunes with numbers that corresponded to the numbers on the sticks. But not all the fortunes were good. Green told me that you could tell which fortunes were bad since they were the ones that still had a large quantity still hanging on the wall. If someone had shaken out the stick of a bad fortune, they would often leave it on the wall.
We drove on to her house which was located about 30 minutes from the jungle. Living in her house were a couple people she used to work with when she lived in Prachinburi: Ohm and Ainst. She had since switched jobs and moved to Bangkok which is why she rented her place to Ohm and Ainst. The four of us crushed lots of food we cooked ourselves at a restaurant that put a bucket of flames underneath a grill device that cooked meat and heated a stew in a surrounding moat.
After eating, Green and I explored the wonders of karaoke. In America, most women would not karaoke with you unless they were your mother, girlfriend of ten years or dying. Green made her way through so many Thai pop tunes that delight was all that was left in me. I returned fire with some Sinatra, Joe Cocker, Elton John and “You’ve Lost That Love and Feeling”. By the end of our karaoke sojourn, it felt like we had taken a bath together…there were no more secrets between us. This is the power of karaoke that no one talks about. It exposes and shames you like your first day at Shawshank Prison.
The next morning we headed towards Khao Yai. Everywhere we drove, the driving somehow got scarier. My favorite remains how people drive a small motorbike or scooter in the breakdown lane as small motorbikes or scooters drive the opposite direction in that same breakdown lane.
“Is this allowed?” I asked.
“No.” Green told me.
What looked like a shack and a patio hiding behind some bushes turned out to be a shockingly cheap and amazing Vietnamese restaurant. We had not had breakfast so we decided a spicy Vietnamese meal was the best way to start the day (and it was). From there we visited the great jungle. A jungle is not as interesting as great food or terrible driving so I won’t go into wonderful detail about it. There were waterfalls and monkeys and people there.
In the park was a Buddhist shrine dedicated to a man that was instrumental in making the roads through Khao Yai National Park. Here I tried my luck with the can of numbered sticks and managed to get a very good fortune that more or less said: I will be lucky with everything I wish for. If I am sick, I will get well. I will find my soul mate. I will become friends with my enemies. If I lose something, I will get it back.
On our way back to Bangkok, we stopped at a strange steak house. If you ignored the Thai employees and clientele, you would have thought you were in a hokey, middle American restaurant. There were wholesome red plaid curtains and wooden booths to sit in. Afterwards, Green dropped me in Bangkok where I checked into Korbua House on the same canal as my last hotel but a few hundred yards away.
The following day I met up with a close friend of my Boston comedy friend, Bethany. Nong was born in Thailand, moved to the states in her early teens and moved back to Bangkok only a month ago. Most of her family lives in Bangkok but Bangkok also happens to be a good place to embark on her clothing design business.
I will not tell you Nong’s age but once I discovered it, I could not believe it. She was fit and lovely (if I ever start a lady gym chain or a yogurt company, it will be called “Fit and Lovely”). I told her she must be some sort of immortal “Highlander” or “Thailander”. With her compact, athletic figure, the flashes of red that ran through her hair and the choice eyeliner work around her eyes, she had the appearances of a dangerous and desirable character in the movie Highlander.
In addition to visiting Bangkok’s biggest temple, Wat Phra Kaew (with all the suit measuring and beer drinking, I never made it there the other day), Nong wanted to also visit a temple that was known for bringing fortune to those starting a business (among other things). She bought some offerings, placed them in front of a shrine, kneeled down with her feet pointing away from Buddha (it is extremely disrespectful to point your feet at Buddha or anyone else), and silently prayed. This was the second time in a couple days that I got to watch a lovely Thai lady pray and I had no objection to it.
While Nong was occupied in prayer, I walked over to a small stage where three Thai ladies, dressed in some sort of traditional, royal looking garb engaged in a very loud comedy that was accompanied by music. It proved to be an odd pairing with the nearby holiness but Buddhism rolls in a different style. I could not imagine a stage on the grounds of a church with some person telling jokes within earshot of praying people.
The two of us then took in the over-the-top wonders of Wat Phra Kaew. The craftsmanship and attention to detail were other worldly. It made me understand why some people think aliens are responsible for certain human creations. It also struck me how “bling” Buddhism could be and perhaps offered an explanation as to why many Thai cars and tuk tuks were sometimes amusement-park colorful. The key attraction of the temple is the Emerald Buddha. Although not very big, it is very old and considered to be one of the most important Buddha statues in Thailand.
As special as it was, I had a hard time keeping my eye off one of the temple employees that had four inches of hair growing out of a mole on his right cheek. Perhaps there is a reason for its profound presence. It’s funny because this man’s job was to coax people to leave the main temple area so others could come in. Perhaps this mole pony tail helped scare people out.
After leaving the temple, we enjoyed some ice cold coconut water. This had become a favorite of mine. They hacked open the top of a young coconut with a large knife and put a straw in it. When you’re done, you can scoop out some coconut with a spoon.
Nong and I walked over to a market area where we purchased colorful bread shaped like a lotus. Stuck into the bread were a candle and two sticks of incense. The purpose of this was to give thanks to the river by lighting the candle and incense and putting it into the river. This was part of the Loi Krathong festival, something Nong had strongly wished to take part in. After we set our lotus bread boats loose in the water, we hopped on a very crowded boat and headed down the river to a sky train station. Our object was to avoid the festival crowds that were starting to swell along the river so we headed east, away from the river, to a trendy area known as Siam Square for dinner. Then we moved further east into Sukhumvit. Here we had drinks at a sleek bar that had upside down Barbie Dolls hanging from a ceiling. All of the Barbies were connected by string to various gears that moved them up and down at different times. It was unsettling.
The next bar we visited was Iron Fairies. What a fantastic place this was! Imagine a 30-foot wide by 30-foot deep by 40-foot tall box filled with various wooden landings that were all connected by wooden staircases. The place seemed to be lit only by candles. It felt like a deep, romantic place out of a fairy tale.
Shortly after we sat, a jazz quartet started to play. They were fronted by a desirable Thai lady singer. She spoke in what I could only call “Jazzy English” but with a thick Thai accent. Once she started to sing, her accent vanished. As I sat there, I noticed a few couples composed of white men with younger Thai ladies. I know that in Thailand it can be common to hang out with a Thai woman in a PG manner. If you want your manner to be rated R or S (for Scandal), that is also possible. At least one of the couples looked to be something more. This something more was probably a more permanent solution. Green had told me that many foreign men would travel an hour or so from Bangkok to the coastal city of Pattaya to collect what might become a long term girlfriend or wife. Many of these women were poor and this arrangement provided them a way out.
The following day I saw what looked to be several cases of this walking around Phuket airport, the main landing point for the southern beaches and islands. I guess that’s what you do after you pick your lady up at the lady shop; you first try her out in a paradisiacal environment. It made me sad. Hopefully some of these relationships become genuinely romantic. But from what I saw, they had a dark futuristic tone to them, like something you would see in a science fiction movie where society has become something you can relate to but something you hope we avoid, something you’re glad was only in a movie.
Nong then brought up such a funny and accurate point.
“Maybe everyone here thinks the same about us, that you hired me.”
I returned fire. “No, they probably think YOU hired ME.”
The two of us said our goodbyes and I enjoyed my final Bangkok tuk tuk ride back to my hotel.
The following day I flew down to Phuket and then ferried my way to one of the less trafficked islands known as Koh Yao Yai. On the ferry ride, I met a man named Daeng. He worked at a hotel on the island. When I mentioned I was from Boston, he told me that he was in Falmouth, MA the previous year to deliver his boss’ cremated remains to a church that contained his father’s remains. I’ve heard of bosses asking for a cup of coffee or to pick up some dry cleaning but this was something entirely new.
At the pier, I was picked up by Dam, the owner of my hotel for the next three nights, the Thiwson Beach Resort. I was shown to a very proper, charming wood bungalow. Everything here was friendly and relaxing and right on the beach. One of the employees showed me to my room. He attempted to instruct me in locking my door but could not as the key was bent. To comfort me, he said, “No need key…safe here…no mafia.” I didn’t have it in me to tell him that although I was no longer worried about the mafia breaking and entering into a bungalow on a remote Thai island, I would still like to be able to lock my door.
The next day I rented a scooter and scooted my way south. The island was inhabited primarily by Muslim fisherfolk that seemed quite friendly. Dam had told me there was a gas station one kilometer. From the hotel, I drove right by what I thought was a juice station but turned out to be a gas station. It was a tiny little shack that had one-liter bottles of gas lined up on a shelf.
As I drove on, it was nice to take in the simplicity of this place. Basic structures on the roadside served as tiny restaurants and shops. Everywhere I went, there seemed to be a smile waiting for me. It wasn’t until I reached Thailand that I realized how much my smiling muscles atrophied in Boston. Children especially were amused by my appearance. To them I must have seemed to be some foreign, lightning-white wonder. At one point, I drove by a school in a remote area and all the children ran to the edge of the schoolyard and started screaming and laughing. On the way back, the procedure repeated itself.
I managed to find a few nice beaches. One was much removed and of decent size. Besides a couple locals, I had it to myself. Now that I think of it, I also shared the beach with a lot of trash. This was a shame because without it, the beach was better than a best friend.
The following morning I boarded a longtail boat right on the hotel’s shoreline. The plan was to visit several of the small islands just east of Koh Yao Yai. Sharing this experience were three Belgian gents named Dirk, Krist and Joris. They were friends from university and decided a two-week sojourn to Thailand was in order.
The islands are part of Ao Phang-Nga Marine National Park and provide an abundance of karst scenery – think dramatic cliffs against the ocean, the likes of which you see in “The Man With The Golden Gun”. We stopped at many pretty little beaches and did some mediocre snorkeling or as Joris pronounced it, “snuggling”.
Although the beaches were also full of many other fellow foreigners, we did enjoy the tour. There also seemed to be many Russian tourists which spurred on a funny observation the Belgians had made during their visit to the Similan Islands. The phenomenon they enjoyed was that of Russian men taking pictures of their girlfriends in the most ridiculous poses on the beach. Dirk showed me a couple rich examples on his camera. There was a lady laying in the sand, on her back side with her arms stretched out wide as if she was expecting a hug from the sun. The only parts of her back side that that touched the sand were her toes, butt and shoulders. She must have looked like the letter “M” from the side.
On one of the islands, I walked along a path that became the evacuation route during the tsunami nine years previously. I saw the wreckage of a couple smaller boats deep in the woods. It was almost impossible to imagine how they could have been brought back into such deep forest and vegetation. To my knowledge no one was killed on this tiny island during the tsunami but they did have to be rescued. What a horrific, certain-death feeling these and the other victims must have felt. If I ever survived a tsunami, I would probably wear a jetpack for the rest of my life.
The next morning was all about rain so I sat around and wrote. Since I checked out of my room, I had to use the common area toilet when business needed to be executed. Normally I don’t need to discuss movements with people but this experience allowed for my first skirmish with a Thai toilet. For those that don’t know, it’s basically a hole in the ground that one is supposed to stand above and mimic the position of a baseball catcher (except there is no catching; only “throwing”). Even though the stall area was roomy, they felt it necessary to place this thing snug in a corner so it felt like trying to crap an 8-ball into the corner pocket. Fortunately, I’m a pool shark so it all worked out.
Afterwards, Dam drove a few of us to the pier in the back of a pickup truck taxi. We boarded a ferry to Ao Nang. I introduced myself to a couple I shared the taxi and ferry with: Ineke from Holland and Simon from Belgium. Simon’s name was fortunate since he looked like a sharper, more handsome version of Simon Pegg. He expressed his regret at booking their trip through an agency. He felt a complete lack of control, especially when transferring from one place to another. I reflected on my relatively smooth experiences thus far but that was about to change.
They both had an admirable handle of the English language which seems par for the course for any European traveler I meet. English seems to dominate the world. It is truly the Lord of The Rings “Common speech”. If two people from two different countries that have different languages converse, it will almost always be in English. Even in Asia, this was the case. It amused me how a Chinese person would use English, the language of some far away land, to communicate with someone in a nearby or bordering country.
From my understanding, once reaching Ao Nang, I was supposed to get on a longtail boat that took me to Railay, my next stop. Although Railay is on the mainland, one can only reach it by boat. After reaching a harbor near Ao Nang, I was told a taxi would take me to Ao Nang center where a longtail boat would take me to Railay. When I asked around where this taxi was, no one seemed to know so I approached an amiable British fellow who sported a fine northern accent and asked him for advice. He told me to walk down the beach for about a mile to a restaurant known as “Wang Sai”, buy a longtail boat ticket and wait until eight or more people showed up. I was told a longtail captain would not travel with fewer than nine passengers unless you were willing to hire the boat out yourself for $50.
I bought my 100-baht or roughly three-dollar ticket and waited for an hour. No one else showed up. I asked the ticket vendor if there was another way to get to Railay so she refunded my ticket and told me to walk ten minutes down the road to another point where longtail boats departed. I walked down the road only to find the boats were no longer running so I angrily walked back to Wang Sai bought my ticket back (which mysteriously increased to 150 baht) and enjoyed the fine fortune of twelve people showing up to take what was the last boat of the day to Railay.
As we walked towards the water, we realized that our boat was about 100 yards offshore and that we had to walk into the water with our luggage above our heads. Among the passengers were two Japanese ladies with heavy suitcases. They were on their way to a wedding in Railay. One of them desperately dragged her suitcase through the sand that was wet from the ocean and the rain that was falling. I took the suitcase from her, lifted it above my head and walked like a third-world market gypsy into the water. By the time I reached the boat, small waves were compromising my balance. It was dark and the water was now above my waist. After handing the heavy case to someone on the boat, I scrambled up a slippery ladder, feeling as though I would tip the boat over as I climbed. Fifteen minutes later, we reached Railay West and experienced the reverse boarding process but in more shallow waters.
After helping my two new and very grateful Japanese lady friends with their bags, we walked ashore to a very wet, drizzly Railay. The first thing I noticed was that this place was engineered with only temporary pleasure in mind. There were no cars or streets and seemed to be no real homes or schools. There was only a walkway that lead through bars, restaurants and hotels that were all next to each other, competing for your financial love. The vibe of the place was compared to one of reggae in my guide book which was true for a large part.
This relaxed vibe was also shared by the fella on duty, An, at the front desk of Railay Garden View Resort, my hotel for two nights. An casually strolled up to the front desk with nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist. It’s odd they called it “Garden View” because most of the bungalows have a legitimate sea view. All the bungalows were situated on different levels so nothing, save a few trees, obstructed the view.
The next morning, with light, I could now appreciate the impressive scenery of Railay. There were partially vegetated cliffs that stood close to 100 meters tall. These cliffs acted as bouncers, keeping the douchebags out of (or perhaps in) this club known as Railay. They would not allow anyone in or out unless by boat.
On the way back from breakfast, I met who would become my new friend for a day or so. His name was Son and he was about six or seven years old. I assume he was a child of one of the employees. He came over to me while I navigated my iPhone. I showed him a picture of the War Doll. He responded with great pleasure, so much so that a young Japanese lady and her mother also came over to take a look. They were genuinely pleased to witness the true power of the West.
After a few hours of sea kayaking and viewing a cave, I returned to my bungalow. Before ascending the stairs to Railay Garden View, I saw Son rolling some old bicycle tires down the concrete walkway along the small beach. He was shirtless and very wet from a recent swim. American parents would never allow their young child to play among strangers, so far out of view, much less swim in the ocean. But if Son makes it to adulthood, he’ll be stronger for it.
My father once told me how he too had a very long leash as a six-year old growing up in the Bronx. He would often walk, by himself, to the western edge of the Bronx. This by itself is noteworthy but what made it spectacular was that to reach his destination, he had to cross some very busy train tracks in a train yard. And not just one set of tracks either…he had to cross over at least four tracks that constantly had trains travelling on them! And if that isn’t maniacal enough, he had to avoid the lethal “third rail” that contained enough voltage to kill a mountain. This is more natural and outlandish than a storm!
“Watch out for the third rail,” his parents might politely say as he left the apartment.
“Chris!” my father would say, “It’s amazing I’m alive! But this is how it was. This proves I was meant to be here today.”
Perhaps Son will someday be bald with white hair, a powerful creature passing on powerful tales of his past to a younger, softer generation.
Son had a big smile on his face which made me happy since he didn’t appear to have any friends his age in sight. And I also got the feeling he didn’t go to school. His life seemed to be using his imagination to create an interesting world. As I sat out on my front porch, doing a combination of writing and staring out at the sea, he walked up the stairs to my bungalow and confidently took a seat next to me. He never spoke but he always had a pure smile on his face. I entertained him with some simple gags, one of which makes it appear that the tip of your index finger has separated from your finger. This evolved into guessing which hand behind our back contained a hidden object. His mother called him and he was off.
Before hanging out with me, he walked up to the two young German ladies in the adjacent bungalow. They were relaxing on their front porch too. Son cutely and silently stood in their presence. I imagine Son did this a lot – walking right up to the guests without speech, without reservation like a friendly pet. This was his education and it must have been a unique one.
As I ate my tasty American breakfast, a blonde woman with a face full of professional features asked to share the table with me. Ingrid was her name and she was a flight attendant for Lufthansa. She lived in Limburg, Germany and was on a two-week holiday. As it always seems to do when you meet people while travelling, the conversation lead to stories of other travels, both completed and ones filed under “Dreams”. Everything about her made me think she was engineered to be a flight attendant: her face was very pretty (and it smiled genuinely), she had nice hair, she wanted to make those around her happy and she looked strong enough to pull my body out of a seat and throw it into a life raft.
By the time we finished our breakfast, it was just after 9:00AM and a strong wind picked up. The rain that had been annoyingly but harmlessly tagging along like Bobby Brady for the past three days had now come back like Patti Labelle with a new attitude. Ingrid said goodbye and made her way to Railay West where she would catch a longtail boat that would bring her a few hundred meters offshore to a ferry on its way to Koh Phi Phi. Just like that, another pretty lady left my life.
I had to do the same procedure 30 minutes later to catch a ferry bound for my next destination, Koh Lanta, so I packed up my things and walked over to Railay West in the type of rain I thought only happened in movies. I looked out at the water and saw a sea that had gone from “annoyed” to “visibly upset”. When I reached the beach where my longtail boat was supposed to leave from, I was informed that all ferries were cancelled.
I walked ten soaking, wind-driven minutes back to my hotel that I just checked out of to find it was now fully booked so I decided to go back to the beach in hopes of finding some other way off this place that could only be accessed by boat or wizard’s spell. On my way back, I bumped into Ingrid again. Her ferry to Koh Phi Phi was also cancelled but being a seasoned traveler, she was able to smile through all of this. I told her that I was trying to get to Koh Lanta. After some short consideration, she decided to join me. In that authoritative German accent, she explained that Koh Lanta was on her list of islands to visit. That and the fact that the ferry cancellations were due to a ferry practically sinking off the coast of Koh Phi Phi made her change her course.
We both wanted to leave Railay. It was a fine place but we both found it to be suffocating. Even if the weather had been pristine, I would have been itching to leave this place after two days. The place was filled with too many bros in search of a laid back beach paradise. And because Railay is famous for its rock climbing, there were also lots of straight up bros and she-bros in search of that perfect climb. All of this if fine but I was hoping for something a little more authentically Thai. I was beginning to think such a thing did not exist in the south. I guess there was much Thai authenticity in the south but it felt diluted by Russians and Europeans who approached southern Thailand in the way Americans would the Caribbean. I never got the feeling that many of these beachgoers cared they were in Thailand. They wanted a warm, relaxing holiday. There is nothing wrong with this nor was this the case with all the beachgoers. Many of them, like myself, would soon travel north in search of a more distinct cultural experience.
But the Thais have no qualms about catering to these beach hunters. They’re quite happy capitalize on this arrangement. The foreigners are happy because they enjoy a lovely tropical situation for little money and the locals are rewarded with a dependable business. I wondered what the south was like 30 or 40 years ago. It seemed to suffer the same fate that the Costa Del Sol did in southern Spain. What was once a more charming, low key paradise had now become a bit overrun. That said, with places like Koh Yao Yai, it seemed still possible to encounter a less worn environment in the south.
This wanting to leave pushed us to find some way to get out of this place. Perhaps foolishly, we finally found a longtail captain that was crazy enough to brave the seas for 20 minutes. Twenty minutes is what it would take to get eleven of us to a small pier where we could take a taxi into Krabi. From there, we would take a minibus to Koh Lanta (via a couple brief car ferry rides).
We waded out to our boat. How silly I have been all these years for taking for granted all those times I was able to board a boat without having to get soaked from the waist down. Acting as a second mate was a young boy of maybe ten years. I couldn’t believe this brave little bastard was allowed to join us on this trip. Judging from his leathery, hobbit-like feet, he had already logged many hours at sea. He had no life jacket on either. But then again, none of us were given life jackets on what would soon prove to be a very life jacket-worthy journey.
As everyone struggled to board the boat with their possessions, I again appreciated that Railay is a place for the young. There is no way that most older folks would have the patience or physical capacity needed to simply get ashore.
Next to me on the boat was Keith the Canadian. Keith was in his 40’s and was absurdly fit. He wasn’t large but he clearly worked out. Even his face looked like it worked out. Keith could have been a person used as the successful, “this-could-be-you” role in an over-40, testosterone supplement commercial. Keith and I wondered why there was no pier in Railay or Ao Nang or so many other places. Later that day, I found out the reason: the royal family rarely gives out permission to build a pier in Thailand. I guess Railay won’t be building any nursing homes any time soon.
Once out in the open water, we were no longer just soaked from the waist down. Waves crashed over so frequently that it was no longer a series of waves but one continuous watery punishment. It was also at this time I began to relish the captain’s Olympic talent at navigating the boat through extremely rough, ever-changing waters. He allowed the boat to shake side to side only once or twice (although front to back, the boat rocked furiously which was obviously beyond his control). He moved the boat around the waves as if he had somehow been given a map of exactly where the waves were going to be at exactly what time. When we reached the shore, everyone heartily clapped and cheered our protector.
It turned out that Keith was headed in the same direction so the three of us eventually got on a very cramped minibus to Koh Lanta. Ingrid liked the sound of my hotel so she checked in to her own room there too as Keith broke off and pursued his own hotel destiny.
Although not swept away, I was growing a tad fond of this German creature. Unfortunately, this 29-year old beauty could not stop talking about her 51-year old “love” back in Germany. Officially, they were no longer together but in many ways they still were. The massive thorn in the side of this romance was that Ingrid wanted children and he did not. I told her to be careful but that ultimately, it seemed like getting burned was her only way of getting through this.
“But we’ve been together for three years. You should hear the things he says to me! He says he loves me!”
“Well,” I said, “A 51-year old guy is going to say whatever he has to say to keep a hot 29-year old around.”
Wow. I hope I didn’t just say that because I was attracted to her – further proof that beautiful women cause problems. Or maybe it’s the men that like these beautiful women that cause the problems. It didn’t help matters that she kept using the word “love” to the point that the word was in danger of becoming a mosquito.
Ingrid’s parents were only nineteen and seventeen when they had her. Although they divorced, the parents remained friendly. Perhaps this older man provided her with both lover and any piece of a father figure she subconsciously felt she lacked. Maybe she just liked guys in her 50’s.
After drinks and dinner, she wanted to walk down the beach. Was she getting lusty with me? I borrowed some of the finest lines from Barry Tattle. I tried to find words inspired by this romantic setting. I think I likened her to a flower at some point. She smiled and laughed. She adored my attention but replied, “You are cute. There must be women at home that like you.”
This was indeed a polite way of telling me that her “love” still had power over her, even from six time zones away. All I could do is look at the ocean and blame it for its inability to assist me in my sexy efforts. God! If only Barry Tattle were here…he would have been able to safely arrive on the shores of Lady Land.
Back at the bar, we talked at length with one of the owners, Michael. He was 34 and from Switzerland. His sharp mind, ability to speak several languages (including Thai), his charm, his natural attraction to people and his predator disposition made him the perfect business owner and host of the resort. His slight vanity was tempered by intelligence and genuine humility that would surface from time to time. He had first visited Koh Lanta in ’98 and kept coming back a month at a time until he joined forces in 2007 with the other owner, a Muslim Thai named “A”. Like his fellow countrymen, Michael seemed to have a strong handle on finances, using words like “spread sheets” and “silent partners”.
Technically, there was an invisible line down the middle of the resort, one half belonging to Michael and the other to A. This just wasn’t for financial reasons but also for religious ones. Being Muslim, A did not want any alcohol or pork on his premises so all the porky drunks had to stay in the bar on Michael’s side.
Ingrid noticed a mango sitting on the bar. She practically begged Michael to eat it. Michael looked at A who shook his head and smiled and dutifully cut up the mango for her. Michael looked at the mango and asked me, “What fruit are you?”
“I couldn’t really compare myself to a fruit,” I answered.
“I said the same thing,” Michael told me. “but upon reflection, I realized I’m a coconut. It’s got a very hard exterior except for a few spots on the top and once you break through, there is a soft, watery substance without much to it.”
“But is a coconut even a fruit?” I asked.
“Well I don’t know…I’m not a scientist. But think on this for a couple days, you’ll be able to think of a fruit you resemble.”
Weeks after this conversation, one thing happened and one thing didn’t. The thing that happened was that I discovered that coconuts are indeed classified as fruit. The thing that did not happen is me thinking of a fruit I resemble. I’m tempted to write something of this fruit quiz on TripAdvisor:
“Make sure you know what fruit you most resemble before checking into this hotel. If you really want to freak out the owner (the non-Muslim one), tell him he reminds you of a coconut. Oh, and the beds are comfortable.”
The next day I rented a scooter. I was going to scoot with Ingrid but she mentioned the word “shopping” so I decided it was best for me to go it alone. I rode north and then east and then south along the coast. Just like I saw in Koh Yao Yai, I saw gas being sold in bottles outside all kinds of shops. But since Koh Lanta is not as Muslim as Koh Yao Yai, most of the gas was stored in used Thai whiskey bottles. This was ironic because Thai whiskey looks and tastes like gas.
I made a stop at the charming Old Lanta Town. As I was about to leave, I saw a Thai couple in their 60’s making fruit shakes so I ordered one consisting of coconut and mango. I’m a big fan of a drink that requires the use of a machete which was the tool required to open up the coconut (or as I now call this fruit, the “Swiss Michael”). The fruit shake man sat down with me and taught me some words in Thai. He grew up in Koh Lanta and lived in the house that his father built. This man was great. If you took Neil Diamond’s hairstyle from the 70’s, aged it, and thinned it out by 60%, that’s what his hair looked like. I’m not really sure what was keeping this guy from renaming himself “Neil Thaimond”.
The next day I headed south on the scooter and made it to Mo Koh Lanta National Park, located at the southernmost tip of the island. I walked through a little jungle and then to a lighthouse. At the base of the lighthouse, I stopped to reflect on the fact that I was at the southernmost point of my trip and now further south on this planet than I had ever been before. I’ve never been south of the Equator and this is as close as I’ve come. I hope I did not tease the southern hemisphere too much with such a near miss.
While I walked back to my scooter, two Russian men walked towards me, the opposite way. Even in a Thai body, the man on the right would have seemed momentously foreign and out of place. The way he walked and held his body was almost cartoonish; there was this sensational oblivious pride to every step. This is why it was so delightful when, without warning, a little monkey ran up to him, ripped open the paper bag he was carrying, quickly identified a pineapple, grabbed it, darted over to a tree and climbed it as if gravity was momentarily suspended. By the time the man realized what was happening, the monkey was already 20 feet from him. By the time the Russian became angry, the monkey was perched on a branch about 50 feet up. If you brought this monkey feat to a human scale, it would be as if a human grabbed a keg of beer and made it to a height of 150 feet in a tree in under fifteen seconds. The monkey was now eating the pineapple and staring at the Russian who was shaking his fist. Eventually the humor of the situation took over and the man (and I) started to take pictures of this wonderful little bastard in the tree.
Although out of my way, I decided to visit my favorite juice-making couple again. I ordered the same coconut-mango brew from yesterday. I sat down to drink and conversed with Neil Thaimond, realizing this out of the way juice run was worth it. For whatever reason, I consciously chose to understand that I would probably never see this man again. I typically don’t think this way. But most of the people we encounter in life are ones that we probably see once or twice and then never again. Because of this, I tried to enjoy this unique moment. The man told me his name but I can’t remember it.
Upon returning to base, I decided it was time for a Thai massage. My masseuse was in her 50’s and little but when I closed my eyes, I felt I was being slowly crushed by the Terminator or some other mechanical act of God. There were times I feared I would break but I tried to relax and have faith in this little lady torturer. When it was over, I must say I felt alright.
I had not seen Ingrid the night before or during the day (I actually phoned her at one point to make sure she was okay). I was at the bar drinking a beer and reading “A Prayer For Owen Meany” when she walked over. Ingrid told me about her adventures since seeing me last. She got a flat tire, got it fixed and finally made it to some bungalows known as “Where Else”. Since I met Ingrid, she incessantly kept talking about this place. I never asked why she wanted to see it. My brain unknowingly registered it as some repetitive item you encounter in a novel. At first it seems unimportant but then suddenly, this little clue sheds light on some crucial feature in the novel later on. Finally she explained.
Ten or so years ago, her “love” travelled to Thailand and stayed at “Where Else”. He loved it so in an attempt to feel a special connection to him, she felt compelled to go there. As she went on about this place, I noticed her small black shorts and black top. She really looked good. Why do women have to look so good when they’re talking about their older German boyfriends that are so far away, they may as well be fairy tale characters?
I stepped away from the bar for a moment and when I returned, Ingrid was speaking in her native tongue to a young handsome German man with a tank top and tan shoulders. They talked so long that I started to read again. They showed no signs of letting up so I got up, said goodbye and let them carry on. I simply couldn’t compete. The handsome, the young and the German are all things I could handle but the tan shoulders were simply more than I bargained for.
Today I had breakfast, said good bye to Ingrid and made my way north to Krabi. I checked into the Orange Tree House hotel and was greeted by a wild-eyed, entertaining and friendly man in his 30’s. He took my details and arranged my next day’s transfer to the island of Koh Phangan which is off the gulf coast side of Thailand. When I asked his name, he said “Tiger”. But he didn’t just say “Tiger”, he put his hands out like claws as he spoke his name. I would have paid double for my room if I knew this was how my stay would start out. Soon after, I met OIL. OIL also worked at the hotel and was a friend of the same Thai nanny that introduced me to Green. That’s right, I had now met a Green, a Tiger and now an OIL; things were getting pretty Disney around here.
I left the hotel and found myself in a town that did not inspire awe but one that was cute in its own way. One thing I did enjoy was that there were not too many tourists. There seemed to be regular Thai people doing regular Thai things.
In the morning, OIL was kind enough to bring me breakfast. I returned the favor by picking up a few snacks for her and Tiger at a local market. I was beginning to love these local markets. I was boldly diving into them with little regard for food poisoning. Being from half a world away, partaking in these exotic, often less than sanitary food dispensaries was like walking on the moon without a spacesuit. The locals had long ago developed a hardy resistance to the bacteria and God knows what else found in these markets but they were all new to my foreign figure. I was amazed that I handled it all so well. There were a few times I felt small disturbances in my bodily force but at such time I would take some homeopathy remedies given to me by my friend’s wife. Did this homeopathy work or was it more of a placebo effect? I don’t know but I’ll take them again.
The van that came to pick me up looked like a run-down, dumpier version of the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo, although this van looked like it created more mysteries than it solved. And so began what I was finding to be a typical transfer experience. I thought, foolishly, this one van would drive me to the ferry about 100 miles away. Instead, I was driven to one travel agency/station in Krabi where I stood around for 30 minutes. I was then told to get on another van that stopped at a couple restaurants, travel agencies and finally to some 5th world bus station. The roof of this station was supported by thin logs and was made of corrugated metal that was heavily dented from all the coconuts that had fallen onto it. There were mismatched plastic chairs scattered about the dirt floor in no specific pattern. One of these chairs almost broke in half when a man sat in it. A bathroom that cost about sixteen cents to use was home to putrid aromas and urinals that were somehow mistaken for ashtrays.
After 90 minutes in this glorious hole, I was ushered to a large bus that was going to take me to the opposite coast. The wonder of it all was that after two and a half hours of short van rides and standing around, I was no more than five miles from the Orange Tree House hotel, my original point of departure. If someone had simply told me I had to be at this bus “station” to catch a bus at a certain time, I would have taken a taxi from my hotel and avoided over two hours of thumb-sucking nonsense.
Once the bus got going, I realized the air conditioning system somehow caused me to sweat more than if there was no air conditioning. At one point, the bus pulled over to the side of the highway in the breakdown lane where two vans appeared to be waiting. One of the van drivers came aboard and called out for people going to Surat Thani. About 20 people got up and left. After this professional exchange, the bus pulled out into the highway, only to pull back over three minutes later. Another van driver got on to our bus.
“Anyone else go to Surat Thani?” he asked.
We all looked around but no one moved. The man asked again but no one moved. He counted us, shrugged and left. The bus pulled back out onto the highway and drove to the pier where we barely made our ferry.
On the boat, I sat down in the seating area located in the lower deck and tried to relax. To my right, along the windows, was a ledge where I noticed something odd. About two feet away, ants were slowly devouring a dead dragonfly. At that point, I didn’t care so I rested my head on the ledge anyways. Besides, the ants seemed to be more interested in the dragonfly than me. A few minutes passed and I suddenly sensed something heading towards me so while keeping my head on the ledge, I turned slightly and saw a mouse running on that same ledge, heading for my face. He was about six feet away and closing fast. I pulled my groggy head up fast which scared the little creature so much that he fell off the ledge. I looked all around the floor area beneath the seats but didn’t see him. That was the time I decided to sit in the upper deck.
When our boat pulled into the harbor at Koh Phangan, it was dark. Lucky for me, Watcharin, the owner of the hotel I was to stay at for the next three nights, happened to be at the pier and drove me to the Longtail Resort. The road that took us through the middle of the island to the northeast corner was a mess due to construction. On our way, I told Watcharin I was headed back to the mainland on Saturday to spend a few nights at the lesser known beach town of Khanom. He informed me that he would be leaving Koh Phangan Saturday morning on a car ferry and driving right by Khanom if I wanted a ride. I immediately accepted his gift-like gesture. I became drunk on the idea of not having to put myself through another transfer like I had today. In the fifteen minutes that I had known him, Watcharin had become my best friend. I privately decided that he would be repaid for his efforts in whiskey or gas.
The next day I rented a scooter. I wanted to drive back into town and over to a jungle where I could hike to the island’s highest peak. This idea was lovely in theory but in theory it would remain. The heavy rains of the previous night and morning had made the road too muddy to travel. I tried to navigate it with my scooter but I was all over the place. Because of this, I was confined to a small corner of the northeast part of the island.
I drove down a road to look for some waterfalls. I stopped at a small shack with a sign that told me the waterfall was 100 meters into the woods. An older man came out to greet me. After looking at the waterfall, I bought a bottle of water from him. It wasn’t until he counted my change three inches from his face that I noticed his almost complete blindness.
I thanked him and drove further down the road, managing to get stuck in a rut on a very steep slope. I eventually made it to a small beach with many bungalows and a few restaurants that climbed high up the steep hills that surrounded the beach. It was eerie because there was no one around. I’m sure the rough road I travelled and the fact it was not yet the high season had something to do with it. Soon after I walked onto the beach, five white guys came out and swam in the rough water. They had a slightly frat-boyish way about them and I figured they were on vacation. But there was also a European lady in her 50’s with a whiffle haircut that walked by me and said hello. The whole thing was playing out like a rejected screenplay for The Beach.
I drove back the way I came and passed by the old man again. The bottom of my scooter was covered in mud and in need of a quick spray so I stopped to see if the old gent could lend me hose. After explaining what I needed for about a minute, he opened his mouth and a revelatory “Ahhhhh!” jumped out. He smiled and grabbed a hose that he attached to an open top, 80-gallon tank of water. There was no pump involved and therefore no pressure. He turned the valve on. The water dripped out of the hose with the force of drool slowly leaving a geek’s mouth. Although he could not see the ineffective result, the blind man smiled and exhibited a strong sense of accomplishment. I laughed my ass off on the inside. In his mind, I had enough water pressure to fight back a line of 80 rioters. There was no way I would in any way compromise his glee so I pretended to wash my scooter, graciously thanked him and gave him a little money.
The night before I left Koh Phangan, Watcharin informed me that we would be leaving on a 7:00AM ferry instead of the 10:00AM one he previously planned on. This meant I had to be awake at five in the morning. This is typically a terminal diagnosis for me but for some reason, I’ve been going to bed earlier on this trip and often waking up at 6:30AM. For anyone that knows me, this is noteworthy.
The reason Watcharin wanted to leave so early was because he was not able to make it into town earlier in the day since all the rain had caused a certain hill to be slippery with mud and ultimately impassable. I went to bed, hoping things would remain dry. Of course things did not remain dry. It was not raining when we started towards the pier but the damage had been done. At the bottom of the cursed hill, Watcharin stopped, put his truck into four-wheel drive, took a deep breath, and speed up the hill. At the halfway point, the wheels started to spin dramatically and I could already feel myself spending the rest of my trip at the Longtail Resort. Watcharin persisted and now the vehicle started to shift sideways. To my disbelief, the truck somehow managed to inch up the hill. It made no sense but I still appreciated this event that defied physical logic. At a hysterically slow pace, we made it to the top. The next mile was rough but nothing that paralleled the dodgy nature of our last obstacle.
When we waited in the pickup truck to exit the ferry, we were slightly delayed by a tractor trailer truck that was trying to drive off the boat but couldn’t due to the seas that had grown rough. The truck gave up, backed into the boat and let the other vehicles go by. I was happy to be on the mainland. Had I fully realized how wild the weather could be this time of year, I would have chained myself to a radiator back home and eaten the key.
At the time I booked the trip, I read that the weather is pleasant in November on the Andaman Coast where I was last week (Koh Yao Yai, Railay, Koh Lanta, Krabi). I assumed that the weather on the opposite coast, just 60-100 miles away would be similar. No. Apparently, the gulf-side where I was now enjoys a second, smaller monsoon season that ends in December. So now here I am in the quiet beach town of Khanom for three days, still on the gulf side, hoping I know of the sun for a few generous moments. If not, at least the rain will hide my tears. And, my last week of this trip will be in the Chiang Mai area which is supposed to be slightly cooler and drier.
Once again, I have my own bungalow here at the Talkoo Beach Resort. And once again, I have two small bottles of drinking water, honorably waiting for me. It’s funny how every place has two. Not three, not one…always two. I guess they figure there will be a couple staying in the room so one bottle for each. If that’s the case, my invisible wife has died from dehydration due to me drinking all her water.
This place is decent. I have a neat wooden sink. I also share my shower with a giant cockroach. As far as the whole resort is concerned, I’m sharing it with about 100 Thai youngsters who appear to be fourteen or so. I don’t know why they’re here but there are boys and girls and they’re often wearing athletic jerseys. Every once in a while, they cheer about something. There’s a lot of giggling. Maybe they’re here to watch me clog up the pool filter with an inordinate amount of chest (and shoulder) hair.
There’s also a bunch of random animals on the Khanom beaches (and other Thai beaches, for that matter). Right now, I’m listening to the beginnings of what promises to be a great cat fight. One of these cats that appears to be feral but was recently taken in by the hotel has found its way into the clean towels and sheets that were left for me in front of my bungalow. Also on this beach, as in the others, I find loads of garbage. It’s a shame as these beaches are arguably the nicest in the world and they are marred by trash. I find bottles, single shoes and for whatever reason, lots of toothbrushes.
Every bar or restaurant I went into was empty, making me feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Was I talking to the only employee in the establishment or was I talking to a figment of my imagination? I couldn’t tell.
During the evening, I noticed my toilet paper supplies were disturbingly low so being the proactive type, I decided to avoid a most certain future calamity. I walked into the reception area and turned quickly into the front desk. As luck would have it, the woman on duty at the front desk was blisteringly hot. Had I known this, I would have waited for the wart-covered ogre that probably works the night shift. But I was right in front of her by the time I could see who was on duty so there was nowhere to run.
With all the casual coolness I could muster, I put one elbow on the high desk, turned slightly and said, “Oh hi…I was just wondering if I could get some toilet paper.”
“Okay. You need it now?” she questioned.
What a loaded question.
“Well, I don’t need it right now but perhaps at some point in the next day.”
“How much you need?”
Another loaded question.
“Oh, I guess one or two should do it.”
I then did what was probably the worst possible thing which was staying there and talking to her for about 45 minutes. When another guest walked up, I told her goodbye. When I was almost to the door, she shouted across the reception lobby, “sir, you forgot toilet paper!”
I awkwardly retrieved it, got a funny look from the other guest and was on my awkward way.
The next morning I asked my hotel for a scooter to rent. The receptionist asked me to wait a few minutes and then placed a call to someone. Shortly after, a man in his early 50’s drove up in a ridiculously pink scooter. I was about to start making fun of this guy in my mind until I realized this was my scooter. If the color scheme wasn’t bad enough, for some reason, the words “chic”, “Scoopy!” and “Lover” were written on both sides of the scooter. To make matters somehow worse, the “o” in “Lover” was a heart. Thankfully, my helmet was moderately tough looking. It was black with a tinted visor. It looked like something an Imperial Welder would wear while constructing the Death Star.
The appearance of my scooter did not stop me from taking it up a mountain and down numerous, rough jungle roads. One of these roads, without a hint of a warning sign, had a huge, impassable gaping hole at the end of a bridge. If I wasn’t paying attention, I would have driven right off the edge and into this eight-foot deep canyon.
This was not the first time I’ve come across a dangerous road condition without warning. Earlier that day, while I ascended a mountain on a small, winding road, I noticed the earth just to the left had completely washed out. There was not one single sign or orange cone that warned me of this. If I had driven close to that edge, there was a sizable chance that I would have taken a 40-foot plummet.
For lunch, I stopped at a great, seaside seafood restaurant. I sat at the edge (all the excitement today was found on edges) of a large deck and digested not only a wonderful seafood meal served in a coconut but equally delicious views. My waiter was a young South African man with very striking blue eyes. Later that day, five miles away at the bar next to my hotel, I saw those same eyes again on someone else serving me dinner. These eyes belonged to the brother of the waiter from the seaside restaurant.
The brother who worked the bar was scruffier, older and bolder. He kept calling me “bro” but pronounced it “breu” with a tiny roll of the “r”. He was full of tales, more than would be expected of someone aged 20 years old. He went on at length about his experiences as a diamond smuggler in Africa. I’m not sure about the validity of these stories but they went well with my beer. One story in particular that struck me as outlandish was that he claimed Nelson Mandela was already dead. He said that his father was in the military and knew someone important that said Mandela had passed away a while ago and that they were making it look like he was alive for the sake of upcoming elections.
“Breu, Mandela is dead, breu.”
I also didn’t believe this kid since he really disliked black people. I thought he said Mandela was dead because he wanted Mandela to be dead. It was odd because he looked like a young hipster but was racist. Who has ever heard of a racist hipster? On the inside, I laughed at his claim but when two or three days later the media said Mandela had died, I wondered if this pecker was right.
After dinner, I headed over to the receptionist area to collect my breakfast coupon for the next day. Why they didn’t just initially give me three coupons for the three days I was going to be here was beyond me. Maybe they thought I was going to try to scalp these tickets to what has been a very mediocre breakfast show. Or maybe they did it this way since they knew it would give me an excuse to go talk to the gorgeous, oil painting of a lady at the front desk. You know the one: she provided me the previous night with a resource more important than diamonds: toilet paper. She was there again tonight!
We chatted for a couple hours which was amazing given the language barrier. She told me that she watched a couple of my videos online but didn’t really understand them. I would have given plenty to be a gecko on the wall while she tried to make sense of my foolishness. After ten minutes of chatting, she brought to my attention to her co-worker who I did not see since he was sleeping on the ground behind the tall reception desk. This was odd but great.
I gathered my breakfast the next morning and again listened to a lot of Thai shouting on television. It was everywhere. Every television I walked by or sat near in Thailand seemed to be showing the protests taking place in Thailand. The protests began when a controversial bill had passed through Thailand’s lower house. It was called the Amnesty Bill and many believe it would have allowed former leader Thaksin Shinawatra to return to Thailand without serving jail time. Thaksin was removed in 2006 by a military coup after many believed him to be guilty of corruption and implementing too much control on the country. When I was in Bangkok over two weeks ago, the protests were peaceful. I could actually hear them from my hotel window. Even though the Senate rejected the Amnesty Bill, the protests continued and grew a little more violent, resulting in a few deaths and several injuries. Now the protesters wanted the current Prime Minister and Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to step down as they believed her rule to be controlled by her brother.
For the most part, these protests were peaceful. At one point, the police even removed barricades and let the protesters enter restricted areas. This was done in efforts to diffuse the tensions of the protests which it seemed to do. There were even pictures showing protesters embracing police. From what I could see, these protests were much less violent than comparable political protests seen throughout the world. Perhaps it’s because the vast majority of Thais are Buddhist. A Buddhist respects life, right down to an annoying insect. Perhaps this respect of life keeps people from being too reckless. Or maybe it’s because they’re in a tropical climate and don’t want to sweat more than they have to. Being violent is a workout and we all know how dangerous it can be to exert yourself in the hot sun.
Again I went out on my pink, breast cancer awareness scooter. Again I received some curious stares from some of the locals. A foreigner or “farang” as they say, on a pink scooter tends to stick out. The thing I liked about Khanom was there were few farang. I was starting to wonder where Thai people vacationed and I think Khanom is one of the places. As in Koh Yao Yai, I got some genuinely curious smiles as I encountered some Thai people (also due to the fact that it was low season in Khanom). On my eventual van ride to the airport the next day, I was the only farang out of fourteen passengers. And the refreshingly small airport at Nakhon Si Thammarat was completely void of dang farang. It felt great to get off the tourist grid for a moment.
Today I decided to drive north to see some beaches and the area’s famed pink dolphins. I saw none. These dolphins are pink due to a rare form of albinism. I was hoping they would be attracted to my scooter and mistake it for a relative. I also stopped in at a cave whose steep entrance, overrun with jungle vegetation, look like any number of sets from Indiana Jones. There was not a soul around and the cave was not lit. I went about fifteen feet, trying to light the way with my weak iPhone light that was humorously consumed by this greedy darkness. I stopped and decided to take a picture, hoping a picture taken with a flash could show me more. It did show me more, more of something I did not want to see. I looked at the picture and covering what would have been a couple feet from my head were hundreds of bats. One or two became disturbed by the flash and started to fly around. It was then I realized how unimportant a cave experience was for me.
On my flight to Chiang Mai, I had a layover in Bangkok. When it came time to board my flight, a long line had formed at the gate. At that moment, I got to observe something interesting. A Buddhist monk quietly walked to the front of the line to the side of the check-in desk opposite of where the airline employee and customers were. The employee looked up, saw him, finished with the person she was checking in, moved over to where the monk was, checked him in and let him on his way in front of the rest of us. It was very reminiscent of an old Obi Wan Kenobi moment. No one challenged this Jedi and no one in the line adjusted their facial expression.
It made me seriously consider shaving my head and wearing some orange sheets around. I’d like to know if his powers would hold up in American Registry of Motor Vehicles line. I doubt it. I think you need Moses riding a dinosaur kind of powers to conquer those cues. My guess is that Buddhist monks are so revered in Thailand, they are given certain well-deserved privileges but I still prefer to think he’s using Jedi mind tricks to cut lines.
When I exited Chiang Mai airport, I could instantly tell I was in a more serene city. Taxi drivers were there waiting for me but the over-the-top hustling and yelling I experienced in other parts of Thailand were gone. After checking into my hotel, I went out to eat. I sat outside eating and heard a band in a restaurant across the street playing “Feels So Good” by Chuck Mangione. What an unexpected pleasure. And just when I thought things have peaked, a 50-year old white guy with a subtle gut walked by wearing a black, sleeveless shirt that said “Lamborghini Countach” on it. And yes, there was a front and side-view picture of a Lamborghini Countach on his shirt.
The following day, I walked around this really wonderful small city. Chiang Mai is a very livable place with just the right amount of urban intensity. There is a great diversity of things to do but at no point is it overwhelming. The abundant soulful vibe and culture were something I missed in the southern beaches (although it still could be found there). I can’t help but feel that people go to the south to relax or retire and people come to the north to live. If that doesn’t sell you on Chiang Mai, perhaps this picture of the most ridiculous car wash I found on a side street will.
The other thing I finally decided to do in Chiang Mai was to buy a couple shirts for my friend Phoebe. Phoebe had been to Thailand before and once purchased a shirt covered with less than perfect English and hoping I could find something similar. At first I likened the activity to that of having to write post cards while travelling: something nice to do but a bit of a chore. Once I started this hunt, I became totally absorbed and intrigued by it. I couldn’t believe how bad and entertaining the English was; it was a hipster’s wildest clothing dream come true.
I opted for a daintier form of travel today, a bicycle with a basket in front of the handlebars and no top bar in the frame. I cycled around some of the remaining parts of the old city I had not yet seen. At noon, I met up with my brother in law’s friend’s brother. Jon had been living in Thailand for a couple years. The day before, he said, “Meet me at Wawee Coffee shop. I’ll be outside when you get there. I’m about 5’6”. I’ll be smoking.” It’s perfect when you can identify yourself by a future action. Tom knew a day in advance what specific action he’d be engaged in at a specific moment. Beyond breathing and scratching my head, I have no idea what I’ll be doing tomorrow.
I identified Tom immediately and not just because he’s white, (there’s plenty of expats in Chiang Mai – 20,000 according to Jon). He was the compact, wiry, relaxed guy in the back smoking. He provided me some wonderful input on Thailand in general. From what he told me and from what I read, the Thai are a people who, for the most part, have no desire to cause problems. They desire to alleviate tension and typically don’t discuss politics (except the protesters). “Thailand sounds like an Asian ‘Pleasantville’”, I said.
He laughed, put out a cigarette and said, “yah, in a way”.
He told me how much they love their king which is seen everywhere. You can’t walk ten feet without seeing a picture of him. He recommended I read the book “The King Never Smiles” which has been practically banned in Thailand. It sheds some very interesting light on this immensely popular figure. The book claims that the King is one of the greatest PR achievements of all time and he was “made” to unify the country. Whether this is true or not, he does unite the country like nothing I have ever seen. The best demonstration of this was during the protests. The King’s birthday fell in the middle the protests. During that weekend of his birthday, the protests stopped. There was such a reverence of this man. He somehow rose above politics and all that was petty. This made him more important than the most powerful political figure in Thailand. Jon told me that he has a lot of influence on decisions made in the country.
I’m not sure America has such a figure, someone that the entire country has unwavering love for, that is immune to all forms of politics while at the same time influencing them. I think the closest thing we have to that is the Statue of Liberty or Captain America.
That night I stopped in the North Gate Jazz Club. There was no music when I arrived so I read and drank a Singha. A man in his early 30’s came over and asked if he could share the table. His name was Paul. He was white and professionally bearded. He wore a baseball cap that said “Montana” on it. This cap failed to contain the early 1980’s-length hair that poured out of it. His eyes and glasses were reminiscent of John Lennon while the lower half of his face was pure Barry Gibb. Paul was some sort of marine biology wildlife employee (basically, he walked in the woods a lot) for five months of the year in Glacier National Park located in Montana. The other part of the year, he was a substitute teacher and like me, was spending a month in Thailand. The music finally started as we spoke and compared notes on our Thai experiences. Unfortunately, the jazz evolved into that modern, free jazz that I can’t stand.
“Hey, you want to check out a really cool music bar that I was at last night?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“My sister would be displeased to see me trusting a stranger so blindly but if I get taken advantage of in some way, at least there will be music in the background.”, I thought.
We walked a mile or so out of the small city. When we approached the area, Paul couldn’t find it at first. “It’s down some dirt road, I think.” Paul continued to look. Paul was clearly not from the northeast – his wonderful inexactness told me that. He originated from Atlanta, Georgia (probably the Atlanta that happened before all the traffic arrived).
We finally found a long disturbingly dark, dirt driveway that led off the busy road and walked down it. “God, my sister is going to be furious with me. Too late to turn back now. I wonder how bad this will turn out. Well, I’ll just have to wait until my body heals and my psych evaluation comes through positive before I see my sister again.”
About halfway down, we paused and each took a side of the driveway so that we could add to Chiang Mai’s water table. “Peeing with strangers? My sister will definitely change the security code on the garage door opener when she finds out.”
Paul was so excited to revisit this bar. “Wait until you see how cool this place is! The owner let me play a mandolin last night.” We came out of the darkness and into the light, looking fun. There were people sitting at a table outside that turned to look at us. Whenever this moment happens, I am taken back to summer high school parties. I love that same feeling of coming out of the shadows into a well-lit area in the back yard as the partygoers attempt to identify you during your approach.
When we were completely in the light, we could see the doors of the bar were shut and no music was playing. The people at the table were the employees and they informed us the bar was closed in observance of the King’s birthday. Paul’s heart sank. In true “kick ‘em while he’s down” fashion, a dog ran up to Paul at that very moment and bit his ankle hard enough to draw a little blood. We left.
“You think that dog has rabies?” I asked.
“No. I don’t think so. It’s funny, that dog attacked another guy last night but it had a muzzle on at the time.”
I love animals dearly but I’m fairly certain I would have kicked that thing in the face with memorable force if it bit me. Why a business owner would have a dog around that bites people is mysterious to me. I felt bad for Paul. He made a valiant effort to see this place and not only was it closed but he got bit by a dog.
Back at the main road, we flagged down a tuk tuk driver that seemed to have whatever disorder it is that makes you appear drunk. He may have been drunk but there was something more to it. He dropped us in town. After we got out, he awkwardly remained in the road, in the darkness. The road was quiet at that late hour but his staying there struck me as odd. Paul and I tried to find an open bar but found none. We said goodbye and I walked back to my hotel. I approached the spot where we were dropped off and in the darkness, I saw our tuk tuk driver in the same spot. He was sloppily sitting there and burping repeatedly. It was so strange that I loved it instantly. He eventually saw me, made some incoherent noises, started his tuk tuk back up and departed.
After checking out of the hotel, I got into my tiny, white rental car. I headed south out of Chiang Mai and then west into Mae Hong Son Loop. This roughly 600-mile loop begins and ends in Chiang Mai and takes you through lovely mountains. On my way to my first destination, Mae Sariang, I stopped off at some hot springs. As I walked around the springs, a man gave me a hard-boiled egg which is the international gesture that means “you look like a guy that would eat a hard-boiled egg given to you from a stranger”. He and his family were cooking eggs in the hot springs. This Mae Hong Son trip was already paying huge dividends.
After spending a night in Mae Sariang, I drove north to Mae Hong Son. My resort was five miles outside of town, in the middle of nowhere. When I walked up to the reception desk, I saw a picture of Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and the owner of the resort. It was taken about five years ago when these famous creatures stayed at the resort. Later on, I waited in the reception area until the person on duty left for a moment. I then quickly grabbed the picture, put it next to my face and took a photo.
After dark, I headed into town and walked around a night market. Performing in the middle of it was a group of Thai children playing various pop songs. Joy was the order of the night when they played “Zombie” by the Cranberries. As the song ended, “Dog Bite” Paul from Chiang Mai walked up. He emailed me earlier in the day and said he might go to Mae Hong Son. We hung out for a bit and I headed back to my place but not before we made plans to meet up in Soppong in a couple days.
The next morning, I drove north and then took a smaller road northwest to a small village named Rak Thai which was less than a kilometer from Burma and boasted a heavy Chinese influence. My guide book warned me against doing any hiking in this area as the border was an infamous drug route. I must say it was exciting to have some thrill involved with an international border. My closest international back home is the American-Canadian border. The biggest danger there may be someone trying to smuggle some condoms or maple syrup.
I walked around the reservoir that was found in the middle of the village. On the far side of the reservoir, I saw some people manually pushing some sort of wooden ferris wheel. This thing looked like an ancient torture device. There were four “seats” that swung like swings that were connected to a framework that was connected to a thick wooden axle that rested on two large wooden posts on either posts.
A somewhat burly Canadian in his late 50’s named John somehow convinced a Thai tourist to get in this absurd and probably dangerous device. John began to push the massive wheel with the help of another lady. The Thai gent began to climb and laugh with fear and delight as his loved ones looking on did the same. I rushed over and helped this wheel bring its victim to the top where he paused for a moment. It was just enough time to let out a scream and for us to run out of the way as the wheel violently spun around 315 degrees and then came back down in the opposite direction. But this was not the scary part. The seat he was on also swung, giving him a serious whiplash. The Thai man laughed with such nervous power, I was convinced I needed to do this.
I got in, swallowed any doubt and could not believe the intensity of this primitive amusement. It wasn’t until I got off and looked at the wheel closely that I realized how bold I was. This wheel was missing somewhere in the neighborhood of 45% of its structure. I could not believe people were still allowed to use this liability wheel. But this captures the essence of Thais in regards to many things.
I got in, swallowed any doubt and could not believe the intensity of this primitive amusement. It wasn’t until I got off and looked at the wheel closely that I realized how bold I was. This wheel was missing somewhere in the neighborhood of 45% of its structure. I could not believe people were still allowed to use this liability wheel. But this captures the essence of Thais in regards to many things: They don’t fix things until they break. I can’t tell you how many shady boardwalks and decks I walked on that were clearly rotting away.
I then drove on to an even tinier village located high in the mountains that was reached by a dangerous, narrow and cartoonishly winding road that was often not wide enough for two cars to pass by each other. At the top was a village of only one dusty road with vendors on either side selling food and other trinkets that are a parallel version of the same trinkets sold in every country that I never seem to have interest in. To get to the pretty mountain top lake and camping area, one had to pass through this smoky, dusty market gauntlet. The position of the brilliant late afternoon sun provided a cinematic quality to everything. The small village was rife with tourists but they were all Thai tourists, probably from Bangkok and probably happy to escape the protests and general city nonsense on this long holiday weekend. This made me the only farang in this Thai tourist destination.
There was an energy and a buzz to the place but it remained relaxed. Thais do this very well. They all come out to have a good time but no one tries to be the big man on campus and attract attention to themselves. They all seem to get along. They keep things friendly, polite and light yet meaningful. When I made it to the camping site, there were many tents set up, practically on top of each other. I never grasped the appeal of this type of camping. You drive for hours to get away from a city, only to place yourself in what is often a more crowded living space that offers less privacy.
I got back in my car and drove to the small mountain town of Soppong. I ended up having to do a decent amount of night driving, unfortunately. I also lost a hubcap and dented a wheel in the process so I was a tad edgy by the time I arrived at the Soppong River Inn. To remedy this edge, I aggressively attacked four beers with dinner.
On my way in to town, I drove through a large festival so after dinner, I poured the remainder of my fourth beer into a cup and walked into town to investigate this festival. Although the festival was a quarter mile long and on both sides of the main road, I never made it past the first attraction the entire night. Why? Because the first thing I saw was an outdoor karaoke bar. The beers I already drank had quickly found their place in my body and had effectively melted away what little inhibitions that may have kept me from going into a completely foreign environment by myself and instantly signing up for some karaoke.
I looked at a nice woman who was drinking with her friends. She could tell I needed help so she came over to me. “Karoake?” I asked. She smiled, took my hand and led me over to the karaoke “conductor”. Next to the conductor was a special table. This table’s specialness came from the fact that it was set in the corner, apart from the other tables and because it was occupied by Soppong police officers. One of the officers took great interest in my presence as there were few, if any, foreigners at this festival. His name was Nong and he was 25. Although his English was not stellar, his excitement and desire to communicate allowed us to chat to some extent. He introduced me to another cop whose name escapes me but his face looked like a Thai Val Kilmer. Then there was Kop (I think). His first gesture to me was to offer me what I thought was a dark-colored joint but ended up being a small, grizzled piece of beef.
They all drank that foul Thai whiskey that only became remotely bearable when mixed it with soda water. Some of them rose from the table every once in a while, would disappear for 20-30 minutes and come back. It seemed to be more than a bathroom break. Were some of them actually on duty? Having a drink, doing their rounds on the streets to make sure their town remained in one piece and then coming back for another round? From what I could tell, Nong was off-duty that night but a few of them appeared to have their guns on.
I was beginning to deeply fall in love with Thailand. This place was like the Wild West. America likes to think they lead the way in personal freedom but I don’t think that’s the case (at least not anymore). From what I saw (and from what others have told me), most of Asia seems to be where it’s at. You can drive like a lunatic, do whatever else you need to do and as long as you’re not hurting anybody, no one is going to give you too much grief. There are exceptions to this but the general vibe I got was one of a relaxed freedom.
“You like Thai lady?” Nong asked me.
“Yeah…sure, I guess they’re pretty,” I foreignly responded.
“Yes! You like Thai lady!” Nong exclaimed with a big smile that involved every part of his face and rarely left his face.
Before I could incriminate myself any further, I was called to a haphazard, wobbly stage to sing “Easy” by the Commodores. As I started to sing, everyone stopped what they were doing and looked up at me. It was plain to see that they loved the fact I joined into their musical merriment. These people could recognize a unique, funny moment and they weren’t going to let it get away without acknowledging it first.
Shortly after I returned to the table, some young pretty ladies joined us. They showed no hesitation in drinking voraciously in front of the cops so I judged them to be in their mid-twenties. One of the ladies named Fern snuggled right up to me. She kept calling me beautiful, causing her friends to break into hysterics. She grabbed my leg and leaned into me for a photo. Was something happening here? We all continued to drink. I bought a few pitchers of beer that vanished faster from drinking than if we simply knocked them over.
It was time to call in some heavy artillery. I ordered this obnoxious device called “The Beer Tower”. About a third the way through the tower, the ladies got up to use the bathroom/woods. Kop leaned over to me, “You see her tomorrow too! Festival keep going!” Nong smiled and we all laughed.
Twenty minutes passed. “Damn,” I thought, “these small Thai ladies have huge bladders.”
Soon we understood they were not coming back.
“I’m so sorry!” Nong apologized.
“It’s okay, Nong, I’m used to it!”
Ladies or no ladies, this would not deter us from drinking. I had a beer tower that needed to be climbed and without the help of the ladies, it was up to me to complete this large task. God, I felt like Atlas. It had been years since I was drunk like this. Somehow, I was sober enough to sing “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” by Stevie Wonder and “Love On The Rocks” by Neil Diamond.
I unwisely ate some spicy noodles, bid my new police friends goodbye, spoke of my return tomorrow night and floated home. With the noise and distraction of the karaoke bar gone, I was able to hone in on my foggy disposition. What is usually a smooth, seamless, continuous image as my eyes take in my surroundings was now a bunch of unconnected, staccato visions that my brain tried to make sense of. Once back at the hotel, I did something I had not done in over eighteen years. I threw up (from drinking). It was more humbling than a year’s supply of Sunday church services. It was great.
After five hours of shifty sleep, I woke at 7:15 AM to the sounds of chickens. Forty-five minutes later, I could hear the festival starting back up and what sounded like distant karaoke singing. These people were machines. They drank, festival-ed and karaoked for five days straight. I don’t know what god they were paying homage to but this god must have been happier and more proud than an ivy league parent.
I ate a great breakfast. Part of its greatness came from the fact that I managed to keep it all down. I went back to my room and laid down but shortly after, I heard a knock at the door. It was Paul with his John Lennon eyes and his Barry Gibb beard. We chatted a bit, enjoyed the perfect river view outside my bungalow and drove over to Mae Lana to do some caving. Paul hikes for work so he’s in good shape. I’m in good shape too so I was looking forward to a powerful cave hike with our guides. The entire cave was a whopping seven miles long with a river running through its entirety. We were only going to go in about one to two miles.
Unfortunately, an Austrian man in his late 50’s and a German man in his early 60’s joined us. It wasn’t the age thing that was the problem or their personalities. It was other things. First, they smoked and drank a little too much (not on the cave hike). They were not overweight but they didn’t seem to exercise. Second, they both wore flip flops! Before entering the cave, we all knew we would be climbing over rocks and wading through waist-deep water. Good footwear was essential. These two factors really slowed these guys down (and Paul and I). Perhaps this wasn’t the worst thing in the world as it forced me to really examine the cave itself. There were amazing cave formations like I’ve never seen in my life and giant open areas that were at least 60 feet tall.
But there was a third thing that made the presence of the Austrian gent a bit grim. He decided caving would best be done in a Speedo. So to review, this man was awkwardly scrambling through a dark cave in flip flops and a Speedo as if someone told him that was the way to the French Riviera. To make things even grimmer, he spent most of the hike right in front of me so I had to stare at these long, white, pasty legs that appeared to be born of the cave.
That night, I took Paul down to the outdoor karaoke bar. Paul was enthralled. Like me, this is exactly the kind of experience he looks for while travelling. I started off with “Stuck On You” by Lionel Richie. Perhaps there’s no connection but soon after I educated this small Thai town on Lionel Richie’s country tones, some of the young ladies from the previous night joined us again at the “Cop Table”. Paul tried talking to one or two of these feminine delights but was limited by a lack in a lingual common ground. He shifted his conversational efforts over to a couple of the cops. This chat bore some interesting fruit.
Paul addressed me in a slight southern tone, “Uh, yeah dude, I’m pretty sure these girls are like sixteen or seventeen.”
“What?!” I was shocked.
“Yup, looks like you dodged a bullet, man.”
By the way, that expression seems to bear more weight when it’s backed by a southern accent. I’m not sure I would have tried to close any deals last night but it still made me shiver. The fact that the drinking age in Thailand is 20 and these ladies were drinking with cops, I thought they were in their 20’s.
I went back up and sang “Easy” again and then “New York, New York”. The crowd was really into it this night. A drunk woman and man were moved to the point that they approached the stage while I was singing and gave me their half-consumed drinks. Another young man that was supersonically drunk and wearing a red sweatshirt that said “Cautio” (”Caution” misspelled, I presumed) on the back came over to me at least 20 times to shake my hand. He was an odd, spooky chap that was also trying to get me to dance. The cops paid him no mind but their patience wore thin and they kicked him out of the karaoke bar about five times before it finally worked. What a gift this all was.
The next day, Paul and I drove back to Chiang Mai. We enjoyed some first class street food and I said goodbye to this agreeable man. I then drove to the Chiang Mai airport and began my four-flight, 40-hour journey home.