Bangkok, mid to late June 2000.
We’ve been in Bangkok for about thirty hours now; it’s hot, really hot–leaving the air con exit terminal of BKK international was like entering a vacuum and I almost lost my balance when I hit the wall of wet heat. You can buy fried scorpions and cockroaches from street vendors outside of bars at two AM; you can, it appears, buy anything or anyone outside of bars at two AM. The Thais drive on the British side of the road– I had no idea that this was the case and had an odd moment at the airport. I tried to enter on the wrong side of the taxi and thought, when confronted with a steering mechanism, that I was in the early stages of dementia, sleep deprivation. Despite the fried scorpions, the easy access to anything, and the obviously transvestite prostitutes outside our hotel, this appears to be a smooth place, a fast developing city full of Mercedes’ and BMWs, marble facaded high-rises, skyway rail systems, and legions of workers. We’ll probably be here for about five days while we make arrangements (visa and air tickets) to get to Hanoi. I’m finding it pretty easy to keep to my budget of $35/day while still enjoying hair raising taxi rides, some sight-seeing, a few beers, and three daily restaurant meals. The food really couldn’t be better. We stayed at the White Lodge for the first two nights but then moved to reside a block off of Khao San Road, which Leonardo Dicaprio in, The Beach, dramatically designates as, ” The Gateway to South East Asia.” The film was terrible, but the quote is correct. This is where everyone from everywhere comes to start his or her stay or trip or exile in Indochina.
Our flights were longer than expected–we were awake for twenty six hours, and then found that we couldn’t sleep, that we could only sit on our hotel terrace, drink Singha beer, watch geckos and smoke cigarettes. I’m still shaking off the lag and I’m not looking very forward to getting back into a jet to get to Hanoi, but that’s life.
Hanoi, late June 2000.
I Think it’s a Monday and we’re leaving Hanoi in about nine hours. We’ll be taking a sixteen hour train to Hue, which is about at the midway point of the country. This is authentic Asia. Hanoi has remained exotic and kept us entertained for five days now, and it has made Bangkok look like Europe. People had cars there and were used to seeing Westerners. Here, the motorbike to car ratio is about 400/1. Add in a few hundred thousand bicycles, cylos, and a complete and hilarious disregard for traffic protocol and safety and you have Hanoi, a perfect eastern chaos. We’ve made the rounds: had a picture beside a statue of Lenin, taken photos of butchered dog, seen a few accidents, been on some mad cylco rides and made a two day treck to the Gulf of Tonkin-Halong Bay, where we dived off of a ferry into seventy five degree open-ocean water. In general, I’ve found it much more comfortable here than in Bangkok. There was a visible sex-tourist presence in Bangkok-a perversion of some sort in nearly every restaurant we ate in, and the Thais would regularly address Thuy in Thai. So we, more particularly I, felt self conscious about our public image. Ironically, in Vietnam, no one addresses Thuy in Vietnamese; the nose ring, tattoo, and western clothes, and perhaps the silver rings we picked up on Khao San road, preclude any perception that Thuy is Vietnamese. We’ve met a lot of other travelers, had some broken English conversations with cylco drivers at midnight after a few beers and generally had a great time, but I’m ready to go-it’s loud and very dangerous because of the traffic situation. I keep trying to get a photo that captures the image of one thousand motorbikes crossing an intersection at thirty miles an hour from all directions, all with horns blaring, while an eighty year old lady, bamboo stick over her shoulder, and baskets of scary food balanced from each end casually crosses diagonally. Hopefully at least one of my photos really conveys the madness. Unfortunately, I’ve got a sluggish camera; it has about a four second epoch between the moment I press the button and the moment the shutter decides to move. I’ll figure its timing out eventually-probably when I’m back in the states. Anyhow, I’m off to run last-minute errands before leaving urban Vietnam for the countryside. We’ve seen two motorcycle accidents and counting.
Hoi An, early to mid July 2000.
Here’s a list of things I have recently done that you probably haven’t – Given impromptu English lessons to waiters and beach vendors. Surfed and caught three fairly nice waves at China Beach (water coming in at about 70-75 degrees) Raced down crazy Vietnamese highway 1 between soviet busses, ancient pedestrians, water buffalo, and other motor-bikes on a 110 CC motorcycle with sexy wife on back. (Think moped on steroids-though since their exhaust systems are far from intact, we were able to get them up to 98 kilometers an hour). Vomited explosively in the bathroom at the Pho Hoi 2 hotel. Had a Hugo Boss suit custom tailored in cashmere for $35. Although, strangely, I can’t find the Hugo Boss label. Woke up abruptly from sleep reinforced by 20 mg. of Valium on a ancient sleeper car a few hundred kilometers above the DMZ at circa 2AM because Thuy was screaming about the, “hands of a man with very long fingernails” that had forced their way into her window at an unknown night stop. Saw a ten foot shark strapped to the back of a motorcycle just after having surfed at China Beach where small children trying to sell me trinkets had sworn no sharks were in residence one kid actually responded with the word, “sharks” when I told her I was from California. Saw our third motorbike accident. Saw some ducks in a river who were referred to as “sexy” by Mike the Australian.
I’m leaving on the night bus for Nha trang in two hours.
Saigon, late July 2000.
It’s monsoon season and Saigon is wet. There’s a lot of water here. This country has a thousand and one rivers and nearly a thousand miles of sea coast; yet despite the heavy downpour here in Saigon, it’s still eighty degrees so no one seems to pay much attention to the rain. We’ve been here in Ho Chi Minh City for about five days now and are leaving tomorrow morning for Phnom Pen, Cambodia. Saigon is a much bigger, much flashier, and much more developed city than I had expected. Hanoi, the second largest city, is a thousand years behind Saigon, which of course makes sense in the overall scheme of things; still it was a surprise to see the modern high-rises, neon billboards, and the presence of cars, (a rarity in this country) some German, on the roads. Saigon is not at all unlike Bangkok. We have had some fun meetings with Thuy’s relatives and an especially touching one with Thuy’s mother’s best friend with whom contact had been lost. Thuy has managed to reestablish this contact. The long lost friend was, at times, in tears. Thuy’s mom had been about eighteen when they fled, and hadn’t had time to say farewell to friends. I can’t go too much into detail, beyond the tears, on these meetings since I still can’t speak word one of Vietnamese. Tonight, Thuy will visit another faction of the family, but I will not join them as I accidentally made a date with a couple of Brits we met in Nha Trang: really, it’s better that way as Thuy and family probably feel more at ease without the ridiculous Westerner around who hasn’t bothered to learn even to say “hello” or “thank you” and who needs constant translations.
For our first couple of days in Saigon, I wasn’t too impressed; I had already seen Bangkok. But yesterday we got our feet wet; we saw the sights. We hired a couple of cyclos (three wheeled bicycle powered rickshaws) and not only took a tour, but got into the swing of things and took the drivers to a bia hoi hall: a working class beer hall where the local brew is doled out for about 25 cents a glass. After breaking my “never imbibe before six” rule, I had a go at taking the helm and peddled my driver up and down the street; it took me about thirty seconds to overturn the pedicab and Thuy swears she caught it on film. We’ll see. They were fun old guys, remnants of the reconstitution. They had been, in one way or another, allied with the Americans or South Vietnamese Army, so had lost the right to own property or a business, leaving them with few opportunities. Hence, they drive, drink, eat, copulate, and live in their cyclos.
Aside from that little tour, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels. These are the infamous tunnels burrowing hundreds of kilometers beneath the surface of the Cu Chi province, just outside of Saigon. They had been a final, strategic, and successful staging point for the sacking of Saigon. They were amazing (Though most have been substantially widened for big fat western tourists). In fact, a big fat western tourist in front of us freaked out as we entered the tunnel and had to back out, causing two things to happen: one, several of us had to back out awkwardly to allow her out, and two, a funny little Vietnamese tourist with a tentative grasp on both English and the norms of western public behavior began laughing, cackling really, and repeating over and over “Too fat, too fat, very, very big, ha, ha, ha.” That alone was worth the price of admission.
We also visited the Mekong Delta. Very nice, though not much to report. It’s basically a tropical delta where a good portion of the country’s rice is grown. It’s very wet. Apparently, heavy fighting and defoliant dumping took place there, but now it’s inhabited by a lot of smiling rice and fruit growing peasants, dogs, and kids who run out of their grass huts to wave to the westerners as they go by in their long-boats. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, those smiling, laughing children throw big stones or hard unripe little fruits at your boat. Kids are so cute. We also visited Nha Trang. It’s the quintessential beach resort of the pre-industrialized world. Some of you who read this will no doubt visit it in the future, as it is destined to be the next Cancun, or Cabo. Aparently there’s a seedy after-hours side to this town that includes that famous passtime of the Germans: pedophilia. Yes, I know that this perversion is not uniqe to Germans, but that’s what they’re known for around here. Anyway, we, having lost our stamina for late night reveling, failed to see any signs of this, save the used condoms on the beach.
We took a boat trip while in Nha Trang, Mama Hahn’s. It’s a famous bacchanalian cruise where opium and marijuana are repudedly shared in the relative safety of the South China Sea. Nothing doing. Police boarded the boat twenty minutes into the four-hour cruise, and a humerous episode ensued. Seventeen year old Vietnamese cops in poorly fitting surplus uniforms trying their best to look hard and threatening became the photographic subjects of twenty five European twenty-somethings who thought it was great that the police should board the famous trip on the very time they (the tourists) where aboard. The police weren’t able to keep up the façade for long and broke into sheepish grins as bikini clad British girls flirted with and photographed them. The police left without a scene, but the crew then failed to produce the tacitly promised substances. Oh well.
After a recent e-mail in which I questioned economic and political policy, someone wrote back telling me that I should relax, enjoy myself, and just be a tourist. Well, of course, that’s exactly what I am here. I look, I see, I photograph, I read some books about or that are set in Vietnam, but I have very little meaningful interaction with the people on this trip. Since Thuy can’t bear to negotiate prices, I negotiate petty things, but petty negotiation is petty interaction: They pour me the beer, offer me the cigarette, and then gouge me on the price instead of Thuy. I feel very passive here, remind myself of Japanese tourists in air con busses, with guides, forty-second floor hotel rooms and zoom lenses–insular travel. On $15-20 a day I’m not, obviously, traveling like the Japanese, but that’s how I feel much of the time. Really, it all comes down to the language barrier. I wouldn’t change things and go somewhere else even if I could go back in time, but I do think that this is the last time I’ll travel like a tourist and not attend language schools or something of that sort while abroad. There is one time, however, in which I feel engaged in Vietnamese culture: when I drive motor-bikes.The insanity on the roads is truly world-class, so my very presence on the street has the ever-present risk of disaster, which would definitely include me in the local program, make me a part of the local culture. I think that’s all there is to say for now except for the following list of observations:
Ø The Vietnamese are very hands-on, yet cold and eastern at the same time. I never would have guessed the former part. The cold part: in public, and everywhere is public in a region as crowded at this, people stare at you, the westerner, without smiling. However, if you catch their gaze–and I don’t mean stare them down to assert alpha male status– they immediately and politely look away, always. Also, people just don’t hug in the western sense. On the other hand, they do put their hands on you: once you’ve established a friendly relationship with a Vietnamese, they’ve usually got their hands all over you. Although in the west this touchy routine would seem like a sexual advance, it’s not here. I surmise that since this is primarily a Buddhist country, where the Christian taboos against touching are absent, people just behave naturally. Men comfortably touch men and women comfortably touch women. I have never seen this among Asians in the states so I have no idea if it’s just the Vietnamese or an Asian trait in general.
You can rent a small motorcycle from strangers on the street for less than a dollar an hour. Do you need a license, a deposit, insurance, collateral, or identification? Nope. Here’s how the conversation goes: “Motorbike?” “Yeah, how much?” “How long do you want?” “Just two hours.” “Okay, ten thousand; five minutes, two hours, whatever.” “Okay. Does it have petrol?” “Petrol?Yes, yes, lot of petrol. You go all day. Here.” He then hands you the keys. If you don’t know how to drive a motorcycle, he’ll give you a thirty-second lesson on the transmission and how to lock the steering column and then allow you to drive off into the planet’s most insane traffic on his motorcycle with no idea of who you are. It’s great.
Despite that whole touching thing, the locals are unbelievably respectful. No man looks lasciviously at a woman on the street, and no woman flaunts her sexuality. Again, I’m talking about the people on the street; places exist and are plentiful to do both of those things more discreetly.
I have not heard one single negative utterance about my being American, or about my relationship with Thuy.
The police, at times, decide that one AM is a good time to do a random search of your hotel room. This involves rapping on the door for about eight minutes to wake the Westerners up (who have had a bit too much to drink and are sleeping very soundly); arguing through the door in Vietnamese with the bilingual American girl inside, with what sounds like such vehement anger that the American guy who doesn’t understand Vietnamese and is stumbling around the dark, windowless room looking for his boxers, thinks the visitors just might end the argument through the sudden use of firearms; and then opening the door; switching on the light; timidly yet officially peering into the room with one eye for about two thirds of a second; nodding “Okay” to the hotel staff; and then departing with a single movement that manages to shut off the light close the door and leave the confused American standing ridiculously mid-room with eyes no longer dilated and with still no more than a vague idea of who the intruders were or why they had visited.
Street vendors, who in most countries I have visited sell usless and embarrassing jewelry, sell good stuff here. For instance, bootlegged copies of good books: The Killing Fields, Mr. Nice, copies of the Lonely Planet guides for all the local countries, The Quiet American, which I finished yesterday, or bootlegged audio, video, and game disks. Prices? For books/$2, CDs/$1.50. Good fun.
Two more motorbike accidents, one apparently fatal, which takes us, I believe to five. Okay, I’ve got to go eat. Maybe I’ll write from The Killing Fields.
Bangkok, early August 2000.
We made it back to Bangkok last night. This second arrival, after five weeks of Vietnam and Cambodia, was like coming home. Bangkok now seems predictable, clean, orderly, almost western. We’ll be bored soon no doubt, but we’re holding off on our trip south for diving as I have developed a sore throat in Cambodia; I’ve got the antibiotics in hand, but the thought of seven precious vacation days without drinking or going out into the sun has me giving my immune system one more night to prove its worth. You can have any medication you desire over-the-counter in this region. When you ask for sleeping pills, they throw Valium and Xannex at you. When I began to explain my sore throat to a pharmacist, he cut me off with a wave, and tossed me some antibiotics. “Take three a day for seven days. Two hundred Baht.”
Our last nights in Vietnam were smooth. We visited the sights and museums of Saigon, found that cobra tastes like dry chicken, that visiting students from South Korea sometimes without warning break into complete renditions of “What’s Going On” at dinner-scaring the hell out of the British guy next to them, and went to a nightclub in Cao Tho where a guy with whom I was sharing the urinal trough looked over, then down, and made a crude yet complimentary comment. We where on the road to Phnom Pen within twenty four hours.
Cambodia was like a risky new chemical; I’m glad to have tried it yet doubt I’d do it again. The roads are legendary, perhaps the worst in the world. The moment we crossed the Vietnamese border, we went from paved highway to dirt road; we went from the Sino/Japanese style pagodas of Vietnam to the Thai-style (indianized) wats of Khmer/Cham Asia; and we began to see the first photogenic rice fields of our journey. It’s not hard to find a thousand year old scene (naked kid standing on a water buffalo midway in a horizon of rice paddies) in Vietnam, except that these shots are always marred by huge power lines or radio towers or phone cables. Not in Cambodia, you get the real deal there: rice paddies, levitating butterflies, lily pads, bamboo forests, water buffalo, stilted long-houses, a horizon of deep almost fluorescent green, seemingly pre-historical peasants, water, mud, and more water. On that muddy road between the Vietnamese border and Phnom Pen, I came to understand haiku.
Phnom Pen was a much more developed and bustling place than I’d imagined it’d be – history and all. Like in Saigon, I was surprised to see cars, nice cars: Land Cruisers, CRV’s, 318’s, Accords. They are the trappings of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations), hence they are not Khmer cars. Their presence, however, puts into relief the difference between communist Vietnam, and quasi-capitalist Cambodia. We arrived early, five o’clock, so we checked in to a $5/night hotel and hopped onto the back of a mototaxi for a trip to the Internet cafe and an impromptu tour. How much does Internet access cost in Indochina? Thailand $1.50/hour, Vietnam- 40 cents/hour, Cambodia-$8/hour. We didn’t write home from Cambodia. From the cafe we went to a cafe. A little empty wat-like like restaurant on the bank of the Tonle Sap River was our destination. In return for a quick lesson in Khmer, I bought our driver, Somali, a beer. I offered him a cigarette and he promptly emptied it out and filled it, from an immense bag he produced from somewhere under the table, with ganja. It was smoked with the filter intact; Somali has asthma.
The next day we accomplished many things. We visited the killing fields, where butterflies and dragonflies flitted over the apparantly stray children and semi-domestic cows that played and grazed on the uneven fields that surrounded a very tall, very narrow pagoda. From a short distance, it looked like a water color composition, a perfect eastern pastoral scene. Up close, this beauty is grotesquely contrasted; it collapses in upon itself. The grassy ground is uneven because there are mass graves everywhere, many not yet unearthed, and the pagoda was full, story after story, of bleached-out human skulls. You can touch the skulls and see for yourself exactly what form death took as she visited the previous owners of the pagoda’s skulls.
From there, we headed for S21, formerly a school and later a torture center for the unfortunate who were to make the several kilometer march to the Killing Fields. S21, like the Killing Fields, is a contradiction, a peaceful place of grass, trees, pull up bars (again, it was a school) and flowers where a quiet holocaust took place. Inside the rooms it’s exactly what you’d expect; it’s fucking ugly. There is still blood on the floors. There are still beds upon which many of Phnom Pen’s people laid waiting to die or on which they were tortured. There are mathematical equations scribbled in pencil on the walls of simple cells (perhaps done in S21’s days as a school, perhaps done by members of the persecuted intellectual class as they waited for torture, then death). Lastly, there is a map of Cambodia made entirely of human skulls. I’m at a loss for how to respond to this. A genocide occurred here yet there have been no reprisals, no trials, no vengeance. Who is responsible? Pol Pot for being in power? Beijing for supplying arms and information to the Khmer Rouge? The States for destabilizing the area in a US backed coup and then carpet bombing the eastern half of the country killing a cool half million peasants and then giving the rest a reason to join the KR? I don’t know. I do know that in this case the communist Vietnamese Army was the hero; they handily ended the Pol Pot Regime and fed the population in the aftermath. I have found (granted I was in the country for only a week) that the poor and uneducated see Vietnam as an evil oppressor, an annexor of Khmer territory, while the educated Khmers are willing to point out that the Vietnamese essentially saved the country. How did the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia, get away with genocide twenty years ago, while Germans are still hated, or at least widely mistrusted, for the actions of their grandparents? Innocence, perhaps.
After all that sobering horror, I decided it was a nice day to fire an AK-47. I caught a moto-taxi out to the local army base which, due to budget problems, doubles as a shooting range for the testosterone heavy western tourist boys. I was the only person, save five young soldiers and my driver (who was immediately busy drinking beer and smoking cigarettes) there to use the range. A kid came over and had a great time showing me the arsenal: hand grenades, grenade launchers, M-60s, a vast array of handguns, but what I wanted was what the Americans don’t have: a Czech machine gun. After playing war for about ten minutes, $20 for the magazine (thirty bullets), I joined my driver and the soldiers to chat about Cambodia; Vietnam — they didn’t like it; Thuy, who my moto-driver had seen and described to them and who they thought was a prostitute; America — they had no comment; American movies, which they especially respected because, in contrast with the Hong Kong film industry, American actors handle and fire weapons correctly; and my job as a teacher. When my driver decided that he was adequately drunk to drive me home, we got up and began walking toward the bike, and I heard the first anti-American sentiment (not including lectures from Europeans I often meet) I’ve heard in Asia. One heavy soldier, who had not engaged himself in our conversation, but had sat and stared at me, empty and cold, said finally, “I don’t like America. You bomb my people.” And indeed we did, so I weakly said “I’m sorry,” straddled the bike and we were off.
Now that my driver was loosened up, he became a sort of philosopher-sage. He summed up the various nationalities for me. “The French and Israelis are stinking bastards for me, they only want to give $1 a day for motorbike.” I was paying that per hour. “The American and the England-good, good for my business-pay good.” “Vietnamese? Too many Vietnamese.” He finished with, “The Japanese: best of all-they pay $1000 for a virgin I get from owner in Vietnam; easier for Cambodian, but no more virgins in Cambodia.” Then he summed up the drug scene in Phnom Pen. “There is good weed, and there is no good. I have good, very good. What is your room number?” It was a nice lesson, but I declined outright: no weed, no grenades, no moto tour, and no virgins. Instead, I gave him a tip in Riel that amounted to about 20 cents. He was more than happy.
Why did my driver want my room number? The moto-taxi drivers are the source for drugs in Phnom Pen. I approached a group of them outside our hotel to get a ride and found them divvying up a huge amount of weed, a prison amount, if we were in the states. Later that night we had drinks with some British girls we knew from Saigon. They informed us that police had stormed, AK-47s bared Elian rescue style, the rooms of several Westerners in a nearby hotel. The bail, or bribe, or salary, or fine, or whatever you want to call it was $2000US/each. Some of that obviously went back to the drivers with the drugs and the room numbers.
The next day we took an exorbitantly expensive ferry (a monopoly) to Siem Reap, the setting of Angkor Wat. Siem is a much slower, more peaceful place than Phnom Pen. We saw the wats. Nice, big, amazing, but actually I’m not really too into that sort of thing. Ruins always look to me exactly as they do on the postcards or the history books. Still, we had a couple of days, so we killed them and now we can say we’ve been to a cool, historical, and exotic place-which is good because the Cambodian stamp on my passport is illegible. From there, Bangkok.
As I said, the roads of Cambodia are among the worst on the planet, so to get to the Thai border we had to take a Nissan pickup truck. Unless you have the budget to fly, there is no other mode of transportation. I have the photos to prove this–there were 21 people and two huge bags of rice and what appeared to be oranges in the basic two-wheel-drive extra-cab pickup: six of us, who had paid $6 a head to sit in the “luxury” of the air-con cab, and fifteen people, paying about $2 each in the back, mostly peasants, and a few Westerners who greatly underestimated the value of the four extra dollars that we paid to sit inside. There are potholes (bomb-craters, some) every couple of yards in the highway that are easily four feet deep. Halfway to the Thai border, we hit one and blew out the left front shock-it actually exploded. I was certain that we would then either spend the night in a rice paddy and be robbed or worse, or that we would pay a full day’s budget to ride the rest of the way in the back of a passing dump truck. The available trucks were full of really, really foul looking rubbish that would probably have required jabs we hadn’t bothered to get. We were never in danger, however. Several peasants hopped out of the back, looked casually at the problem, and went right to work fixing the suspension with a bough cut by machete from a tree on the side of the road. I have photos of that, too. They rammed a fat branch under the wishbone and made the rest of the trip sans front left suspension. The roads look as though B-52s were overhead the previous week, and as we made the six-hour trip, we passed an easy 20 disabled vehicles whose drivers or passengers hadn’t yet learned how to replace metal components with wood carvings.
Chiang Mai, mid-August 2000.
From Bangkok, we took a night-bus to Chumpon, from where we took a ferry to Ko Tao Island. The designation of “VIP” on our VIP bus was a little different from what it might mean elsewhere. Here it meant that we were mandated, loudly in Thai, to sit in the back row of the bus, by the bathroom, in seats that refused to recline. It meant that at about three AM, when the Valium had really set in well, we where angrily awakened in Thai-now Thuy knows how that feels-and forced off the bus. It meant that we had to wait on the side of a highway with some German girls in who knows where for we didn’t know what. It meant that, after a few minutes, a pickup truck came along and we were told, again in Thai and with a lot of consternation, to get in. The Thais can be hilarious in their inability to comprehend our inability to comprehend their language. We were driven to a dock and told, I think, to sleep. We did. For me, it was the first time in six weeks that I regretted throwing away my socks on that first night in Bangkok. It was obvious at the time that I would not need them or anything else made of cotton, for that matter. I found a plastic bag for my feet and let the Valium overtake me again. When day broke we found breakfast, some bathrooms, and a speedboat to take us to the island.
Ko Tao is a more typical holiday destination than, say, Phnom Pen or Hanoi. A dive island in the Gulf of Thailand, it serves as a base for about fifteen scuba diving schools that offer courses and diving at very low prices. We attended lazy classes about basic dive physics and how to use dive-tables to avoid the bends. It was interesting; I had never understood why surfacing after a dive could cause bubbles to form in one’s bloodstream. Now I know. We were told many times not to smoke or drink while regularly diving. And we were taught by mostly western instructors who chain-smoked and were the most visible in the beachside bars at night. On the day we left, I climbed into the rafters of the shop to store my luggage and found the head instructor in a shady state, laid prostrate on a mattress breathing oxygen from an emergency medical tank. Certified by PADI to dive to eighteen meters and with seven dives (including one cave-exploration) in our logs, we left on about the eleventh of August. We had to since one island over, Ko Pha-Ngan, was gearing up for the biggest rave in the world (The Full Moon Party), which took place on the fifteenth. The whole area was becoming inundated with western revelers looking for parties; accommodation suddenly became expensive and scarce. It probably would have been great, but we, nearing the end of our trip, realized that we were not supposed to leave Thailand without seeing the northern city of Chiang Mai. We took the ferry/VIP bus back to Bangkok.
We came off the VIP bus awkwardly, in central Bangkok at five AM. Stupid with Valium and bus-sleep, we hired a taxi to take us to Khao San. It was the taxi driver’s lucky day and he smiled big at the request. Why so happy? We were a half block off Khao San Road but were too delirious to know it, so the taxi driver drove us ten yards and then very cheerfully charged us the minimum meter fare of thirty five Baht. I have never been on the streets of Bangkok at five thirty AM; there were still a fair number of people drinking and socializing in the street. There were also a fair number of self-conscious looking transvestite hookers standing at odd intervals, looking even more awkward than we felt. They must do a good business in drunken tourists at this hour, because while they are always around, their numbers and ratio to actual female prostitutes where greater at this hour than at any other time I have seen them.
We found our five-dollar a night room, slept for two hours, and then booked ourselves on the night train for Chiang Mai, which according to Asiaweek, is the 9th most livable city in Asia. Had we known better in mid June, we would have started our trip in Chiang Mai, passed through Laos, and then followed our itinerary as it stood. This is the short circuit-Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangkok. The long circuit involves extensions into China, Nepal, India, and the Middle East. We cut into the short circuit at about mid point in Hanoi.
Chiang Mai is just as the guides portray it; it’s like a laid back, peaceful version of Bangkok, with all of the perks and half of the chaos. Chaos can still be had, though. People come here for mountain trekking and classes: classes in massage, classes in cooking, classes in Buddhism, classes in yoga, classes in meditation, classes in Thai boxing, classes in silversmithing, and on, and on. A British friend tells a funny story about coming here to learn about Buddhist meditation and then being paraded around the town in trumped up outfits, white robes and a monk’s bowl, to the amusement of the locals who, of course, dress strictly western. Thuy is attending three days of Thai cooking classes and the results that she has brought home each night are well worth the VIP bus/night-train back to back trips. Last night we visited the famous Chiang Mai night bazaar, and took in the sights: Several Thai boxing matches–they were toned down though. What makes Thai boxing unique is its sheer brutality, the liberal use of knees and elbows. These exhibition fights did not include these important weapons. Still, they were fun to watch. Cock fighting–I’ve never seen it before; now I have. Drunken western men with Thai bar girls, prostitutes. Some who were sitting near us during the kickboxing were particularly smarmy. One, I couldn’t quite clock his nationality–not German or French, but English was not his primary language–had an old, stoned, rough looking prostitute with purple tracks up her arms who he referred to as his wife. When the transvestites came out of the boxing gym (they’re probably boxers) in their cabaret outfits, he went crazy. He offered to leave his “wife” for any one of them and began pouring rounds. Within a couple of minutes, he had an entire gaggle of girlymen around him quacking in their unmasked deep voices. We left, though Thuy was genuinely mesmerized by the mystery of where transvestites in g-strings hide their goods? Afraid to discover the answer, I didn’t look.
We strolled home through what must be the red light district–I hadn’t read about one in Chiang Mai, but the Chiang Mai guides did say, “all the perks of Bangkok.”
I’ll be back in Oakland within the week.
Bangkok, late August 2000.
Two days is all we allowed ourselves to complete a week’s work. Shopping in the best market for unlicensed goods in the world is hard work. However, we have found time for some evening diversions. We went out to see stadium-level Thai boxing. It was great: eighth row tickets for eight fights–$9, worth every Baht. We also took a stroll through the world famous go-go and prostitution district (although, all of Bangkok seems to be the latter). Interesting, let’s leave it at that. We saw another motorcycle accident; I’ve lost count. We also bought a lot of fun stuff and we’ll be staying out tonight, our last night, until at least three AM-the bus to the airport leaves our hotel at 4:55-it sounds bad, but I think it’s going to keep us from suffering any jet lag. Look at a time-zone map and you’ll understand. Right, SFO.
Oakland, late August 2000.
It was a wonderful trip and having been home for only about ten hours, I find myself very, very bored. There’s no crazy street people; no yelling matches; no hookers; no stray puppies to make Thuy swoon; no motorcycle crashes; no drug dealers; no crooked, super-macho cops on Harley knock-offs; no deformed beggars; no green-just-off-the-plane-and-nervous-looking western college kids; no old white men with young Asian girls, or in some cases boys; no tuk-tuk races; no Buddhist monks; no fried insect vendors, no “Rolex” dealers; no transvestite waiters, or I guess waitresses; no group of travelers who can instantly become my close friends; no tailors trying to get me to come to their shop; no geckos; no twenty minute monsoon downpours that seem, oddly, to raise the temperature about five degrees to make for perfect drinking weather; no kick-boxing touts—-nothing————nothing to amuse me while I have my dinner and drink my beer. What have I replaced all this stimuli with in return for first-world stability, for safety?
Regis Philbin, tonight.
We’re already making plans for our next trip.