Tuesday, April 28, 2009

laos karaoke dream

As is frequently the fate of visitors in Thailand, I had to leave the country this week to replace my expiring visa. The most economical option for me was to travel to Vientiane, Laos, a ten-hour bus ride away. While the Cambodian border is closer (as is the Burmese border, but I’m not that crazy), the usually-pricy Thai visas are currently being handed out for free in Laos to encourage tourism to Thailand, which is hurting economically since the political strife has scared away its customers. Rather than navigate the fragmented transportation and the incomprehensible and ‘expensive’ bureaucracy on my own, I signed up with one of the companies specifically formed to guide and ease the visa border run. It was well worth it, as they not only drove me and my fellow visa-needers directly the whole way, but also negotiated the seemingly-endless queues and forms such that we could usually waltz right through as a group with a mere hour’s wait in comfort rather than the day or so in line in the sun required by most. Judging by a repeated facial resemblance, I suspect this was achieved through strategic nepotism, for which I am personally grateful.

One stage of the process did require us to stay overnight in the astoundingly boring Vientiane, so while all of the Europeans and Americans went out to get drunk, I found myself on my own and in the surprising position of living out a secret life-long dream. Let me tell you: The hostel in which we stayed had a relaxed karaoke bar on the ground floor. The delightful Filipinos in our group had hijacked control of the machine, and were bravely belting out the most saccharine English-language hits of the past 20 years accompanied by strange pirated music videos seemingly compiled from New Zealand travel ads and scenes from The Bridges of Madison County. When I walked in, “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith was on (with footage of fish), and the current singer was cheerfully struggling with the lyrics. Seeing that I was American and therefore probably could deal with the words on the screen, she thrust the mike at me, and I obliged with my best Steve Tyler.

They loved me. The delighted crowd insisted that I sing all the English-language songs that they chose, about 40 all told, though I only made it through about 15 before my voice started to hurt (I blame the successful but damaging escalating modulations of “My Heart Will Go On” at around song ten, along with being generally out of practice). Despite not having the stamina they wished and being culturally-appropriately-self-depreciating at the time, I was secretly really proud of my performance, peaking with a soulful and inspired “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” which was especially well-received by the crowd. While I’m a fine singer, I know a lot of what they loved was just the ingrained American confidence and humour for which I can take no credit, as well as my almost sickening familiarity of the songs’ original melodic inflections, for which I similarly claim no responsibility. (For those of you who don’t know my musical tastes, they run more toward the complexly rhythmic and musically complex, like Radiohead and Arabic house, and usually run desperately away from anything smacking of pop or the insipid, so all my knowledge of these songs comes from the forced pop-culture soundtrack of grocery stores and malls. Ok, and maybe mix tape or two from circa 1994. Just maybe.) But for whatever reason, for one night, in the most unlikely of venues and with the last songs I’d ever have chosen, I got to be a star.


Elephants are rather hard to avoid here in Thailand. Bangkok alone, the least hospitable and likely of elephant stomping-grounds, hosts dozens of the giants who with their owners beg on the streets at night, literal tail lights swinging as they flick away the flies. And as for depictions of elephants, you can’t go half a block before seeing one: the municipal seal, showing Indra seated on the back of an elephant. The Buddha astride a three-headed elephant. Sequined elephant images on tourist purses. Stone elephants standing guard like the NYC lions outside the gates of the rich. Elephants cavorting or charging, painted onto the walls of the most revered temples of the 1400s. Elephant topiary.

The Thai people have good reason to so commemorate the noble elephant: they were the war steeds and tanks that secured the land, kept off invading forces, and kept the established social ranks in line (setting aside any anti-imperial socialist or anarchic qualms as to the desirability of this). They were also the workhorses, ploughs, and backhoes of the vast terraforming that sculpted the river basin into rice fields and the forests into beautiful homes (again, setting aside environmentalist concerns).

In addition to their reverence for their labour capacities, Thai people also worship elephants. As with much of Thai Buddhist worship, significant aspects of Indian Hinduism and pre-Khmer animism have been imported and reinterpreted (more on that soon in an upcoming post), so it is commonplace to have the elephant-headed god Ganesha standing protectorate over the Buddha and roped in marigold garlands, or to have platoons of ‘toy’ wooden elephants given up onto the altar of a local place-spirit, with incense and homage offered to the tiny beasts. Even the aforementioned proliferate ‘secular’ depictions of elephants are revered, with everything from the bridge decorations to the topiary offered flowers and foodstuffs daily, and bowed to when passing. If it looks like an elephant, it gets presents and respect.

It’s a literal shame that this respect does not extend to the remaining elephants themselves. The wild elephants have very little habitat left, leading to starvation and violent conflicts with farmers. Since logging was banned to preserve what little forest remains, most domesticated elephants have been out of work. The elephants who do work, especially those participating in the ongoing now-illegal logging trade, are often subjected to horrible conditions. I met one elephant who had been prodded in her eyes so often she went blind; another who was forced to keep working even after stepping on a land mine; another who was addicted to amphetamines. Those begging in Bangkok have to breathe exhaust, drink dirty water, walk over broken concrete, try not to get hit by cars, as well as find what limited forage is available. Only ten years ago Thailand still had 4000 elephants. Nowadays only 2500 remain in this country, with fewer than 30,000 worldwide.

In order to support the small amount of healthy work available for elephants, as well as to get to safely see them in closer proximity, we ventured out on an elephant-riding trek one of our days in Chiang Mai. The elephants take a stroll through a valley with tiny us on their backs, and get rewarded by us with handfuls of snacks and the tasty forage along the path as they go. It was so cool to ride an elephant: the one we rode is named Noi, which means “Little”; she is the same age as me (and about the same place in her lifespan, as they live to be about 85 and mature as slowly as humans); she lives with her father, whom she adores but with whom she is very competitive; she’s especially stubborn, but will grudgingly do almost anything for a banana. She would lumber along, her gait so long that we’d almost forget another step was coming until we’d shift suddenly to the other side. Then she’d get a gleam in her eye and race up to walk in front of her dad, then slow down so much he’d have to pass her. I liked her style. The setup at this and similar ventures isn’t ideal, since they still keep the elephants chained up when they’re not being ridden, and they still have to live for the pleasure of people, but it’s a fair site better than oppressive logging or the elephant circuses where they are forced through literally torturous training to paint pictures or play soccer.

We so enjoyed the peaceful time with the personable and mischievous moving mountains, and were so taken by their brethren’s plight, that we ventured out again the next day to the Elephant Nature Park. The park is a heart-warmingly perfect preserve a few hours’ drive north of the city where rescued elephants can recover, roam free, and lead their own autonomous elephant lives with plentiful food, baths, elephant friendships, and lots of human love on hand any time they want. The whole place is set up for the elephants, with the desires of humans coming a far second. Throughout the day we got to feed, observe, pet, talk and walk with, and wash the elephants, but if they got bored they were allowed to just wander off: they were in charge. Washing was especially fun, as it involved getting into the river with the elephants and scrubbing them down with a brush and bucket while they rolled around and splashed and sprayed water.

It was heartbreaking to see the disabilities of the various elephants, some of whom could barely walk due to the injuries inflicted by their previous owners. But it brought happy tears to my eyes to see how they lived in community: an elephant missing a foot and the blind elephant were best friends, helping one another side by side all day; one of the old-lady elephants is the nanny to the babies, allowing the moms to go stretch their legs and gossip; a young teenaged elephant flirted with the girl-elephant he has a crush on, though the old ladies sternly informed him that she is too young for him, and suggested he talk with the nice young lady-elephant his age. Their body language and social interactions were so human sometimes it was hilarious, and I was glad to learn that in fact this is not anthropomorphization, but that they are indeed just as intelligent and communicative and complexly social as they seemed. Which makes the harm done to them all the more difficult to bear.

The woman who runs the park, Lek, is quite savvy: though she is one of the only people in the country lobbying and working on behalf of the elephants, she does so very effectively, starting at the root of people’s conceptions of elephants through education and by modeling a different system, and then working up the chain of health services, owner-training, etc., all the way to political representation. It was inspiring not only to see the elephants having such a good protector and advocate in this tiny woman, but also to see an organization so well-run, so focused in its goals, and so efficient in its projects, and all the more surprising to find this in a third-world country and in an organization with no Western leadership.

Elephants may now be my favourite animal. (Why can’t I like guppies or something?)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

chiang mai

Though our excuse for visiting was the riotous Songkran festival (see below), which of all Thailand reaches its peak in this city, I would have been delighted to choose Chiang Mai as a Thai holiday destination at any time of the year. The small, leafy, walled city nestled into an accommodating mountain plateau is much more my style than the sprawl and bustle of Bangkok. Where Bangkok boasts of food and traffic and nightlife, Chiang Mai’s claims to fame are scores of temple/monastery compounds (‘wats’); pervasive 13-19th C Lanna-style architecture and artifacts, which I would inexpertly describe as ‘Thai Gothic’; the cultural presences of hill tribe traditions such as Hmung embroidery and Karen weaving; its beautiful cooling mountain setting; and various treks and sports adventures thereof, from hiking to elephant riding.

This is only a very new reputation, though. From the 1100s on, Chiang Mai was best known as a key crossroad along the China to Indian Ocean land trade route, then later as a regional producer of valuable crafts and opium to contribute to that trade. As the city coalesced, it became notable for its defensible city walls and moat, as well as for being a hotbed of Theravadan Buddhist theological discourse and devotion. All of these factors are still quite present in the city today. Though opium is theoretically not grown in Thailand any more thanks to an aggressive crop-replacement campaign led by the Thai government, monarchy, and the CIA, combined with the threat of execution for non-compliance, most people in the city seemed to hint that this laudable official story and the realities of transitional and supplementary agricultural incomes don’t entirely correspond. There certainly did seem to be more affluent farmers and more highly-mellowed revelers than could easily be explained otherwise.

The Chiang Mai region showed itself in its best light when we got out of the city, which we did for a majority of our days there. On our second day, I took off mountain biking with one of Petra’s Australian colleagues, Katie. We were driven to the top of the predominant mountain range that forms Chiang Mai’s horizon, and were led by a local guy on a hair-raising but gorgeous and exhilarating vertical romp on dirt paths down through the jungle and occasional isolated rice and coffee fields of the mountain villages. It was hands down the most difficult biking I’ve ever done, but successfully completing the route with only one deep bruise and in time for dinner made me inordinately proud.

On another day, we foraged out with some Canadians we’d met in town and with them rode elephants through a valley, hiked up through a lightly-inhabited jungle to a waterfall, at pad thai off banana leaves, and rafted down a river that was much more placid than its “white-water’ marketing had suggested. As it was still Songkran, all of the valley’s inhabitants were picnicking along the riverbanks, with hundreds of kids and teenagers bobbing around in inner tubes or just floating along with the current. This made navigating our raft much more difficult than usual: we had water in our eyes nearly constantly from the Songkran-splashing gauntlet, and had to avoid running over people, and had to fend off boarders. At one point, so many kids were hanging off our bow line that we stopped dead in the middle of the river.

On a more sedate note, we hired a funny little pickup truck (‘songtaw’) another day to drive us to some of the out-of-the-way temples and ruins that surround Chiang Mai, and later to a crafts show where local artisans hand-make enamelware, weavings, and the like. I especially liked seeing how they took bamboo strips and tree sap and a bit of gold leaf and turned it into a truly lovely bowl.

All in all, an exhausting but lovely visit to northern Thailand.

Note: more photos, from the cameras of our fellow travellers, hopefully coming soon.


Imagine a nation-wide weeklong waterfight. Everyone, everyone is involved. Roads closed, main streets flooded, business and schools suspended. Children who are usually expected to show at least mischievous respect gleefully (yet still hesitantly respectfully) squirting forces of water from well-designed water guns, or dumping buckets of water onto adults as high as they can reach, usually belly-high. Hordes of enthusiastic, grinning, often-drunk young men driving around in pickups and motorcycles with well-planned routes, outfits, and water-dousing instruments to maximize their water delivery, soakedness, and flirtation opportunities. Middle-aged shopkeepers looking innocent, yet deadly with iced water in their sprayers. Old men kindly using the water in its more traditional handful blessing, but grinning if said blessing happens to get some foreigners or young people chillingly wet down the spine in the process. All of this to so great an extent that within five minutes of leaving a building’s protection, you are as wet as if you had been fully submerged in the moat. In fact, you may have actually been fully submerged in the moat, though if you are sober you can usually avoid this fate.

At first, it was really fun. We were doused, we doused, it was a textbook lifting of ritual social restrictions, an annual blowing-off of societal steam. And then the teenaged boys started having too much fun dousing Petra, who was looking especially pretty. And, despite the humid hot hot weather, I got cold. Standing around in drenched clothes, and being continually re-drenched, occasionally with ice water, just isn’t healthy after a few hours, let alone a few days, no matter how hot out it is. And then, after the third day, …well, let me just say that the water we were being doused with was not AT ALL clean, and my skin is still healing from the fascinating rash (though rash seems like too tame a word), though my intestines have thankfully recovered.

Songkran has not always been quite so conducive to illness. Though Thailand has used the Western-style calendar since the 1940s, they also follow their own solar calendar in which this is the year 2552, and the New Year is April 14. Songkran originated as the celebration of the change between years, with a sort-of Buddhist Yom Kippur feeling that consisted of cleansing all images of the Buddha, especially statues. According to Wikipedia, “the throwing of water originated as a way to pay respect to people, by capturing the water after it had been poured over the Buddhas for cleansing and then using this "blessed" water to give good fortune to elders and family by gently pouring it on the shoulder.” One’s bad karma is lessened by being spiritually cleansed with this holy water. If this is the case, then we are all really, really pure now due to the modern enthusiastic delivery of the blessed water. :)

While it was a bit overwhelming in Chiang Mai proper, we had a great time celebrating Songkran in a random little village an hour’s drive outside the city. We had been out on a day’s expedition in the hills (details to come later), and our itinerary called for us to visit an orchid farm on the way back to town. Our guide had been imbibing in a celebratory spirit throughout the day (we had a driver who was not celebratory, don’t worry, mothers), and he turned to us with pure mischief in his eyes on the drive to the farm and asked something along the lines of “Would you mind if it turned out the orchid farm was ‘closed’ and I provided some alternative entertainment instead?”. Well, our group (us and a bunch of Canadians and a few Aussies) couldn’t turn up the mysterious offer, and told him to take us where he would, which turned out to be his family home. We were greeted with great delight in the driveway by his extensive clan and spent the next who-knows-how-many hours standing in the road being hand-fed who-knows-what tasty snacks and drinks, dousing the few people who ventured by and each other, singing and dancing with abandon to frantic Thai pop, and being teasingly subjected to an elaborate matchmaker game by the old ladies (I am supposed to marry the charming gay Mike, from Vancouver, who looks just like Jude Law: could have made out much worse). The neighbours all came over with great curiosity and undisguised jealousy to see how the family got white people to come to their party: apparently we provided enormous social cache. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever attended, and thoroughly redeemed the holiday to me. Sawatdee bee mai! (Happy New Year!)

Note on the photos: I didn’t take many, since my digital camera is not waterproof, and I did not want to risk its ruin. The photos at the beginning of this slideshow were taken with a disposable waterproof film camera, and the soft-focus ones at the end are taken with my camera wrapped up in a plastic bag.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

political tensions, but we're ok

For those of you who follow the news: Yes, Bangkok has "ground to a halt" (most government and transportation in gridlock) because of the most recent ongoing coup attempt, this time by Thaksin supporters). If you haven't seen the news, see the Bangkok Post. No, it doesn't affect us at all: our out-of-the-way neighborhood is the same as it ever is, tasty food and friendly people and brisk traffic and all. We're planning to leave the city anyways this evening for a week-long holiday in Chiang Mai in the northern mountains, so if it gets more touchy here we'll be well out of it. We'll keep you updated, but seeing as it hasn't affected us yet and that previous coups have been ambivalent and even kind to foreigners, I expect we'll be just fine.

koh tao

My journey to tropical island paradise began at 10 p.m. on Friday evening boarding an ornate, curtained, double-decker bus at the Bangkok train station. My seatmate was a lovely environmental engineer from the Netherlands. In between intermittent bouts of paying attention to the bizarre post-apocalyptic sci-fi action movie dubbed inexpertly into Thai and inexplicably starring Sir Ian Mckellen, we talked through the night about environmental sustainability, human trafficking, and travel in South East Asia.

In the photos below you’ll no doubt be struck by the incredible beauty of the port of Chumphon, the bus’s destination, in the early morning light. Sadly, I am unable to tell you anything much about the loveliness that seems to have been. Erika took the photos. I spent almost the entirety of my day-lit time in Chumphon asleep on the ferry floor in a puddle of dirty water. I wasn’t in the puddle when I fell asleep – the puddle shifted when the boat started moving. I was so tired that at first I didn’t realise that damp had become definitively wet and once I did, I didn’t care.

My first impressions of Koh Tao, aka Turtle Island, are somewhat fogged by a dearth of sleep and a wealth of sweet-starchy green mango dipped in chilli and salt (which is good at any time, and more delicious than you can imagine at a 1 a.m. pit stop). The boat pulled up to the dock just as the skies began their daily warm-ups for the coming monsoon season. I got soaked to the skin wading up to my ankles across the main street. But of course, the clouds then parted and passed. The sun appeared, the water became brilliant turquoise, and as I spread my sweatshirt out on the sand to steam if not dry, I thought . . . wow. This is pretty nice. The island is ringed alternately with gleaming white beaches and magnificent tumbles of boulders. In the centre a series of mini-mountains jostle one another, rumpling their drapery of palms, ferns, banana trees.

Resting in the Gulf of Thailand on the Eastern side of Thailands isthimus connection to Malaysia, Koh Tao is a reef island. Wade about 15 meters off the beach and you hit coral. Much of the coral immediately accessible to the most populus areas is unsurprisingly less-than healthy, but a community environmental group is rising to the challenge and the next few years will hopefully see positive changes for marina life. The beach off of which we took ourselves snorkelling is crowded with busy, beautiful, happy fishes: schools of tiny blue fish that glow electric blue, two-foot long skinny needle-like fish with Dr. Seuss noses, yellow fish with spots, a big fish striped orange and white hiding coyly under a coral shelf, an iridescent rainbow fish the size of a salad plate receiving a thorough scouring from two industrious cleaning fish no bigger than salt shakers . . . we even saw tiny stonefish (too small to be scary) and what might have been a lion fish (chose not to get close enough to be sure). I chased a school of five baby sharks as they meandered around the bay, eventually losing them because I got tired right around the same time they got tired of me and picked up the pace.

Our time in Koh Tao was brief and magical. So far removed from the mass and noise Bangkok, it was an excellent reminder of the incredible diversity this relatively small country actually supports. Wherever you may be, it’s all too easy to slip into a routine and forget to explore. Koh Tao is an excellent antidote to such complacency, its beauty at once restful and inspiring.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

under the sea

Imagine standing around with a group of fit hip college students in your bathing suit. Then stretch on a vey tight, damp, rubbery wet suit, adjusting your flesh to fit its cling. Pull on an inflatable lifejacket, with four hoses and a big metal tank longer than your torso attached: the thing weighs about 40 pounds, and has five different clasps to keep it on. You want to sink to your knees with its weight, even though you think yourself strong. Add a weight belt with another 30 pounds. Then slap a mask on your face, covering your eyes and nose. Oh wait, you forgot, take the mask off, you have to spit in it first so it doesn’t fog up. Snorkel on the side. Squish your feet into two flapping fins. Now take that right-hand hose, put the respirator at its end in your mouth, draw in the dry air with the slightest delay, the slightest catch, frighteningly recalling pneumoniatic breaths. Now, don’t fall over on those fins, make your way to the front of the boat. And, with all that weight pressing on you, with all your senses gone except your cloudy masked vision, your breathing already impaired, jump off the edge of the boat to the deep water 15 feet below. It’s terrifying. Despite so much careful practicing, despite that our rational minds were trying to dryly remind us through the “aaaaa no no no no can’t breathe will sink going to die no no no” of our lizard brains that the thing in our mouths would give us fresh air, we were all convinced we would drown. Two women threw up. A few cried. One man almost passed out. I went mute, dizzy, totally panicked. But then…

The second you start to sink down (thank you, boat boy, for pushing me), the air in your mouth from the respirator is a cool and real presence. You aren’t drowning. And there are bubbles! And it’s so blue! Beautiful bubbles. You have no idea. All the gear is instantly weightless, already forgotten. You’re an astronaut, a bird, your own dream, microscopic. The ocean is so HUGE. The fish – surely they can’t exist? striped, glowing, then one brushes your hand! And the shock of it, this vista so totally alien, which no recording or aquarium could prepare you for, is real and you are in it. It’s like discovering an additional sense, an epiphany, faith. And the coral, the anemones, haven’t even appeared yet. It is so, so beautiful. And being weightless is so, so fun.

As of the end of last week, I officially completed my Open Water Diver scuba certification. My plans to complete the Advanced and then Underwater Photo Specialty certifications (the whole point of starting scuba) were thwarted by an untimely head cold. Another time. I’ll be back. I can’t wait to be under the sea again.

(Sorry, no photos. Next time!)