3.27.2009

i lub thailand

Wow. Thailand.

I have to say that heading into Southeast Asia I really didn’t have a lot of plans. I knew I wanted to have an adventure and fly by the seat of my pants but I really didn’t have any expectations about the amazing country that I was about to encounter in Thailand. What I found was a place that was colorful, spicy, friendly and overwhelmingly beautiful. However, more than anything else, Thailand was fun.  It was the perfect combination of an exciting culture, lucky opportunities and amazing travel companions. So let’s start at the very beginning…

The first day we docked in Laem Chabang, a port city about 2.5 hours south of Bangkok.  That afternoon a bunch of my friends and I had all signed up for a visit to the Pattaya Elephant Village so after lunch we hopped on the bus and got on our way. We arrived at the elephant village and were greeted by about 15 elephants! I really love elephants so I was immediately excited. We were able to feed them bunches of bananas and stroke their trunks.  It’s crazy how they use their trunks as an arm, scooping up the bananas, picking them off and popping them into their mouths. If they smell the bananas they immediately stick their trucks out in the direction and grope around to try and find them, like hungry children asking for sweets. This tactic resulted in a lot of elephant snot and a couple messy banana grabs, but no one really minded.

 Once everyone got settled our host asked us if anyone would be interested in helping to bathe the elephants. A few people volunteered and hopped on the elephants’ backs. We all ran down to the river to watch as the elephants trudged into the water and dunked themselves under. Everyone was soaked, laughing and having a great time. Once they were done with their bath we all came back and our host told us about how elephants had formerly been used for labor in the timber industry before it was outlawed by the Thai government. He demonstrated how an elephant master trains his animal and how, once the master has achieve absolute trust, his elephant will lay down in front of him to show that he or she is not afraid. The elephant who was demonstrating lay down and it was such a silly and surprising thing to see. You never see elephants lying down and she looked kind of like a big wrinkly dog.

They then showed us how to get onto the elephants back by holding onto the ear, stepping on the knee joint and hoisting yourself up.  Everyone got a chance to hop up on the elephants’ backs and go for a quick ride around the village. After coming back together we got to meet a male elephant and one who had formerly worked in a circus. The elephants came right up to us while we were sitting and were so big and beautiful and gentle. I was in the front and literally had an elephant standing next to me for a lot of the presentation. Very cool. Finally, we were treated to a Thai drum performance and then took one more ride around the village before it was time to go.

After the elephant village a few of us decided to stay in Pattaya instead of heading back to the ship.  Pattaya is a beach town with lots of restaurants, shops, bars and a number of go-go clubs. My friends Steve, Hussain, Disha, Keith, Martha and I split off on our own and decided to explore and find some dinner. We found a restaurant and immediately settled in for a meal and some local Thai beer. We ordered dinners and I got a dry aromatic peanut curry with shrimp. It was definitely spicier than I had anticipated but it was so tasty.  We took turns tasting everyone else’s food, finished our beers and went to go explore some more. We had heard that there was a night market in Pattaya so we walked around trying to find it. We shopped a little and eventually found a network of stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs, clothes, muy thai gear, backpacks and pretty much anything you can imagine. We had a great time shopping and joking around and after making it out of the market we decided to go find a place to sit a have a drink.

We walked down the street and the Thai women would catcall from inside the bars, beckoning to our male friends and trying to pull them inside.  We had learned a lot about the sex trade and sex workers in Thailand and it was kind of shocking to see the women (and men as women) in person, literally in almost every bar and club along the streets. We finally found a place with less aggressive women and after our drinks we decided to go out in search of street food.

We walked around past all the bars and found a few street stalls out in front of a 7-11. We went in and bought some Thai snacks and drinks and when we got back out there were plates of noodles with egg and pork waiting for us. They were hot, fresh and absolutely delicious. After our snacks we saw a phone café down the street so we stopped there to make some quick calls home. While we were waiting we watched the bar across the street which was full of Thai women dancing and, as we saw everywhere else in Pattaya, lots of older white men enjoying their company. A bunch of other people on the ship went to go see ping pong shows, but luckily everyone in my group was unanimously creeped out by the idea. If you don’t know what a ping pong show is, I promise you don’t want to.

I went inside the cafe to make a quick phone call and when I came out I saw everyone huddled around a street cart which had piles of insects on it. My friend Steve informed me that he bought a bag of grasshoppers and we were all going to eat them. The man at the cart fried up the grasshoppers, seasoned them and gave the bag to Steve. I really don’t like bugs so I couldn’t even make myself stick my hand in the bag to touch them. I actually tried to but then freaked out and dropped my grasshopper on the ground. My friend Keith just popped it in his mouth like a chip and Steve, Martha and Hussain all sucked it up and chomped theirs down. I kept saying I would grab it by the thorax and Martha said that I definitely was not allowed to say thorax if she had any hope of eating hers. Finally Hussain grabbed the last grasshopper, a big one, and I let him pop it in my mouth. Disha got the head and I got the body and both of us freaked and danced around while we chewed and finally swallowed. Honestly, it was really crunchy but it tasted fine, kind of like popcorn or soy nuts.  Plus, now I can say I ate a grasshopper.

After our buggy snack we decided to catch a taxi home. All the taxis from Pattaya were pickup trucks with roofs, open sides and benches that you sit on in the back of the truck. We all piled into a truck and made the 40 minute drive back to the port. The breeze was great and we enjoyed laughing about the grasshoppers, hookers and silly things the whole way home. When we got back to the port all of our friends were sitting outside, hanging out, and recounting their adventures in Pattaya. We joined them for a little while, laughing and having a good time until it was time for bed.

I really wanted to have an adventure in Thailand and I had originally planned to go to Bangkok the next day and stay there until it was time to get back on the ship. I had toyed with the idea of flying to Phuket or trying to go to this Half Moon Party on an island off of Koh Sumoi but both of those seemed expensive and involved flying which I didn’t want to do on my own. However, Keith, Steve and Hussain were all going on an SAS trip to this island called Koh Samet which is only an hour taxi and 15 minute boat ride from our port. They said that I could stay with them in their hotel room for free and basically just hang out. I decided that this was exactly the kind of adventure I wanted and by the time we got out of the taxi at the port I had decided that I definitely wanted to do it. My friend Hannah was sitting outside when we got back and after she decided to come with me I knew it was going to be great.

The Koh Samet trip wasn’t until Wednesday morning so I still had the whole next day to myself. I had hopped online the night before trying to figure out something to do and had come across a Thai cooking class that this woman Angsana Andersson teaches in her home. I love cooking and I was even more excited about the idea of learning traditional food in a home setting. I had written her on short notice and wasn’t sure if she was going to get back to me, but when I got back on the ship after Pattaya I had a message from Angsana saying that she would be able to teach me the next day and that I should call her when I arrived in Bangkok.

The next morning I hopped on a bus and took the 2.5 hour drive up to Bangkok. I called Angsana and she told me to come by her house around noon. I had some time to kill so I walked around this area mall called Central World. It was a giant, westernized mall and I decided to find some food since I had skipped breakfast and didn’t want to cook on an empty stomach. There was a pizza place that I had seen ads for so I stopped in to order some food. I got a Tom Yung pizza with shrimp, calamari, pineapple, mushrooms and Thai chili sauce. I figured if I was going to eat chain restaurant pizza it should at least be interesting.
When it was almost 12 I hopped on the Bangkok version of the subway, an elevated network called the sky train. I got off at the Ohn Nut station and made the short walk to Angsana’s house. She was at the store buying ingredients when I arrived and I was greeted by her mother. Angsana came back and introduced me to her husband and 1-year old daughter Victoria. Originally, she had been working in Bangkok teaching Thai to foreigner when she met her husband who is originally from Sweden. After they married they moved to Florida for a few years and then transferred back to Thailand in order to raise their two kids and be closer to her family.

Angsana took me back into the kitchen and we got ingredients ready to make khao niow mamuang (mango sticky rice), gaeng khoa sapparot (red curry with shrimp and pineapple) and moo satay (pork satay with peanut sauce). We put the rice in the steamer, marinated the pork and then got to work making the chili paste for the red curry. I chopped up spices, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and chili peppers and then ground them with a mortar and pestle in order to make the paste which would serve as the base for most of the sauces and curries we would make.

Once the rice was done we poured over a mix of sugar, salt, jasmine oil and coconut milk and let it sit to absorb. We skewered the pork and made the peanut sauce to go along with it. Then I diced up vegetables and pineapples, de-veined the shrimp and we got ready to make the curry. We mixed the chili paste in the wok with the shrimp and vegetables and then added coconut milk, fish sauce, palm sugar and at the very last minute threw in some more fresh chilis.  The smell of everything cooking was incredible – spicy and garlicky and sweet – and it hung in the air in the kitchen as we cooked. The last thing we did was make a vinegar/cucumber sauce to go with the pork satay and then it was time to eat.  The pork was tender and tasted great with the mildly spicy peanut sauce and the cool vinegar to set off the creaminess. The shrimp curry was hot, spicy and so delicious. The coconut milk and the palm sugar set off the spice of the chilis and the saltiness of the fish sauce and it was so good.  Finally we took out the sticky rice and cut up a fresh mango to go along with it. The mango was awesome and tasted great with the sweet sticky rice. I left full, satisfied and with a bag full of leftovers.  I thanked Angsana and took the sky train back to the Siam stop.

I had a few hours to kill by myself but didn’t want to stray too far from where the bus was picking us up so I decided to explore the Siam stop area. I looked around a few outside markets selling clothes and then went into this giant western-looking mall. It had 9 stories and the ground floor was an aquarium. I bought some books at a bookstore and sat down with a Thai iced tea to read a little. I grabbed some dinner, walked around some more and finally hopped the bus back to the port.

The next morning Hannah and I got up early, grabbed breakfast and decided on our plan for getting to Koh Samet. We were getting our taxi just as the SAS trip was coming out to their bus and we told Keith, Hussain and Steve we would see them at the island. We were really excited for an adventure and we knew that it was going to be a great day. We took a taxi to Ban Phe and then hopped a 15 minute speedboat to Koh Samet. We were let off at the end of one of the nicest beaches I’ve seen. It immediately reminded me of the summers we used to spend in the Bahamas with the Haestads, wearing nothing but bathing suits and just playing all day. We walked onto the beach and both Hannah and I just smiled because we knew we had made a great decision.

We figured that we were ahead of the SAS trip so we decided to just walk down the beach and hang out until they arrived and then try to find someone. We had worn our bathing suits under our clothes so we dropped our backpacks and ran into the water. It was so clear and warm and perfect. We laid in the sun for a little while until all of a sudden my friend Bradee comes walking down the beach. She pointed us in the direction of the hotel so we walked up the beach and within 5 minutes we found the guys. We all decided to get some lunch, drop our stuff and then enjoy the beach.  We sat down at a beachfront café for some pad thai and fried rice and after lunch dropped our stuff off in the guys’ bungalows. It turns out that each of the rooms, in addition to the double bed, also had a padded window seat which was about the size of a twin bed, which meant a perfect (and free) place for us to sleep!
We decided to leave everything and just get on our bathing suits and enjoy the beach. I think we spent most of the rest of the afternoon playing in the waves and hanging out in the ocean. We hurdled the waves and swam out to the buoys. The guys did flips and tried to ride in on their stomachs and we just had a great time joking, laughing, and marveling at the fact that it was a Tuesday afternoon in March and we were at the beach in Thailand. I couldn’t even tell you what was so funny but we were laughing the entire time and I felt like a little kid again.  We stayed in until all our fingers were pruney and then we decided to go explore the rest of the beach.

We walked down past the sculptures of Buddha and the Mermaid that were on one of the rocks and sat down at another beachfront restaurant for D1 (dinner 1). The guys got fried rice and sticky rice and Hannah and I ordered nachos. We listened to Thai covers of 90s music and while the boys got their food our nachos never came. We asked around until about half an hour later we were informed that they were out of nachos and forgot to tell us. Le sigh. We knew D2 would be in a few hours so we just turned back around on the beach and decided to find a place to get massages.

We had been told many times that Thai massages were incredible, not to mention very inexpensive so when Hussain, Hannah and I saw some women who were given massages on the beach, we settled down while Steve and Keith decided to go explore some more. The massage was awesome. I could hear the sound of the waves and the women speaking in Thai and I’m pretty sure I fell asleep at one point as it was so relaxing. When I woke up the sun had started to set and I felt great. It was almost like waking up from a kriya. We looked around for Keith and Steve but since they weren’t back yet we decided to run into the water and wait for them.  We played and when we got out we realized it was cold so we ran back in, Baywatch-ing it the whole way.

Once Keith and Steve came back we all cleaned up and found a place for D2 that had tables on the sand and little cushions that you sat on and faced the ocean. We ordered kabobs, garlic bread, and corn on the cob and enjoyed dinner on the beach. The kabobs and the corn were really good and the garlic bread was really strong and kind of raw? But overall everything was tasty.  After D2 we decided to go back up the beach to Buddy Bar for a D3 of desserts and drinks. We ordered a banana split, 3 baskets of fries and a satsung bucket which was basically a small beach bucket filled with ice, red bull, vodka and coke with a bunch of straws stuck into it. We dug into our fries and ice cream and left an empty bucket on the table after a satisfying D3.

A bunch of other SAS kids were at the restaurant with us and after D3 everyone walked down to beach to a pub on the water. There was music and dancing and fire show.  We danced and then sat down to watch the guys spin fire on the beach. They had flaming batons, rings and chains and it was incredible to watch. They would throw the batons up in the air and catch them effortlessly and they would spin the chains around them making all kinds of patterns in the air. After the fire show we decided we wanted to night swimming so we took off our clothes and ran into the water. It was still warm, even though the air was chilly, and it was fun to just lay back and appreciate the night, laughing and joking as always.  After a good swim we walked back on the beach to our bungalows and passed out.

The next morning we all met up in Keith and Hussain’s room and went to get breakfast. Breakfast was free with the hotel which meant that it was free for Hannah and me too! Yess. We decided that we wanted to get back in the water since we only had a little time left. Keith went to go to the internet café to call his girlfriend and the rest of us ran into the water just as it was starting to drizzle.  Pretty soon the drizzle turned to a pour and we all continued to swim in the ocean while the rain fell. It was really fun, especially since the rain and the air were cold but the water was nice and warm.

Eventually though it began to thunder and lightning and we decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to be in the water. Keith wasn’t back yet but we decided to just make a run for it. We ran all the way back to the bungalows and hopped in the warm shower in Steve’s room since we were all shivering. We dried off, watched some of Field of Dreams and then got ready to head home. We asked the tour guide if we would get a ride back with the SAS trip and he said to just make ourselves invisible and get on the boat. We stowed away on the boat and the bus and were able to make it back to the ship for free! All in all, an awesome adventure.

After getting back to the ship we re-packed our bags and got a taxi to Bangkok. We had a hostel booked where a bunch of our friends were staying so we grabbed a van and started the trip. The drive usually takes about 2 and a half hours but once we got into Bangkok our driver got really lost. That along with the combination of bad traffic turned our ride into 4 hours. The van kept playing a loop of bad love ballads, Celine Dion, Thai covers and Stand By Me by the temptations. I love Stand By Me but this was painful.  All of us were exhausted from the night before, still full of Thai redbull and a little bit delirious.  However, when we arrived at our hostel and Bangkok all of our stress and delirium melted away.

The place was called Lub d Bangkok (sleep in Bangkok) and it was awesome. Free internet, a big open lobby, all kinds of rooms with big bunk beds, clean modern style and a really great atmosphere. It was clean, friendly and all of our friends were there to greet us. We were absolutely starving so we went out to get some dinner. We stopped at the first place we saw with food and ordered generous helpings of noodles and rices and curries. For dessert a bunch of people tried fried bananas with ice cream and I got this thing called taro mousse with gingo nuts, which we ended up calling it grimace soup. It was a warm sweet white broth with little purple chunks in it that were the exact color of Gimace, the McDonalds character. Despite its unusual coloring it was actually pretty tasty and we all left feeling full and happy.

We decided we wanted to check out some of the night markets so we walked through the Patpong area toward the Suan Lum market. We looked at all the stalls and bought a few things. I got a pair of flowy pants since so many of the countries we’ve been visiting are really really hot, but require legs and arms to be covered. We decided to take an alternate route back to the hostel and just walked around the city enjoying the sights and sounds. We were told by some faculty that we had to try durian, a fruit that apparently smells terrible but tastes great. I don’t know who decided on the tastes great part but we bought one from a street vendor and were fairly grossed out. The smell was not so great and it kind of tasted like a garlic mango? Plus the consistency was really gross. Overall – grasshoppers=yum, durian= noooo.  We bought some sodas and dragon fruit to get the durian taste out of our mouths and headed back to the hostel. Since we were all still tired from the night before so we decided to just hang out, enjoy the free internet and get some sleep so we could explore the city in the morning.

We got up bright and early the next day with the resolve to see the sights and get back to the ship on time. We saw the Grand Palace which was beautiful and ornate. We saw a few of the buildings and stopped in the monastery to see the Emerald Buddha. It was blistering hot out though and we all felt like we were melting. Literally, on this trip I am becoming increasingly amazed at how much sweat my body can produce - a disgusting but true fact.  After the palace we made the walk to Wat Pho which is home to the giant reclining Buddha. The reclining Buddha is incredible and, most notably, HUGE. It’s a giant sculpture of the Buddha, all gold and glowing, showing him in reclining position.  He is literally 15m long tall, 46m long and fills the entire space. His feet are decorated with mother of pearl, as are his eyes. When you walk in there are people dropping coins into little buckets in order to bring prosperity so the entire space echoes with the clinking of the coins.

 After seeing the Buddha we took a cab up to Koh San road which is a street famous for being a backpackers hangout. We got a great Thai lunch and shopped around before making our way back to the hostel.  All of the monuments were beautiful and it was nice to make sure that we saw the big sights before leaving Bangkok. After lunch we met our friends at the hostel and grabbed a taxi back to the ship, making it back just in time for on-ship time.

Overall, I think that I had such a good time in Thailand, not only because of the country, but because of the way this trip has changed the way I think about travel. Normally when we go somewhere we plan and have an itinerary and make sure that we know what’s happening, to who, and when. If anything, as this trip progresses I’m finding myself wanting to do exactly the opposite. I want to have adventures and not make plans and just go with whatever happens.

My friend Dave on this trip is my independent travel idol. In Cape Town he hitchhiked all the way to the Cape of Good Hope and back again, camping on the beach and relying on the kindness of strangers. And while I don’t think that I’m ready for a hitchhiking adventure just yet, I really am more open to the idea of just seeing where things take me. As long as I have a place to sleep, I’m down for anything.

I’ve also realized that it truly is the people you’re with that make your travels awesome. You learn a lot about people when you travel with them and on this trip I was lucky enough to travel with a really great group. Sure it took us four hours in a 10-person van to get to Bangkok and we were all sweaty and exhausted and starving, but we made it and I was still laughing as we walked into the lobby. I’ve met so many incredible people on this voyage and I’m encountering new ones all the time.

We hit the halfway mark of the trip two days before we arrived in Thailand. It was definitely a bittersweet day as it means that now we’re officially on our way home. But, it was also neat to think that, while I know the second half of the voyage is going to fly, I still have a whole half of my time to fill with as many adventures as possible. And I intend to do just that.

We arrive in Vietnam tomorrow and we’ll see where it takes me,

lia

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