----------------------------------------------- Google Site Map ----------------------------------------------- Cindy in ...: March 2007

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Penang: The Long Road Here

What did I see on the long bus ride(s) that took e from Chiang Mai to Penang? Towns and small cities that pretty much look all alike. The same street stalls, and the same people eating noodles at 3 a.m. Strange gray karst rock formations rising from the plains. A fishing village built out over the water, with gray wood houses and a raised wooden sidewalk winding between them. Old rubber plantations, the trees tilting, displaying few leaves and no taps. One or two working plantations, taps in place, a lone man collecting the latex sap. Roadblocks near Surat Thani, with the police only asking those in the mini-bus, "Farang? Farang?" Once they knew we were all foreigners, we were free to go on.

The road to Phuket was long. I took a VIP day bus to Bangkok (aaaah, clean air! No, I'm not being facetious. The air in Chiang Mai was awful enough to make the news in the US.), and then planned to take an overnight train down the peninsula. It turned out to be the beginning of school holidays, and the train was booked. So I took a bus that left from the train station, and then a mini-bus. By the time I'd reached Phuket, 28 hours had passed since pulling out of the Chiang Mai station. The beach was a perfect place to rest.

Then to get to Penang, I took a first class air-con bus to Hat Yai, then changed to a mini-bus to cross the border. All that went pleasantly enough, and it only took 14 hours. The big surprise was seeing the Butterworth/Penang area, which has developed a lot of very modern, very big-city areas since my last visit in 1993.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Phuket: No More Maaaak Maaak

One of the first things I noticed in Phuket was that there seemed to be fewer bar girls. Maybe it was the beach I chose, but there were a lot of families and older couples, and very few ugly old white men with impossibly young and beautiful girls, each one emitting the horrible bar girl screech. Maaaaak maaak. I had sort of put it in the background in Chiang Mai, like the dust and the sidewalks blocked with motorcycles. Then when I got to Phuket, I really noticed the difference. I noticed how much it had annoyed me.

The bar girls are a funny phenomenon in Thailand, as a lot of face saving is involved. The girls work in bars, and men "hire" a girl to travel with them, paying a fee to the bar owner to "make up for the temporary loss of his employee". Usually they leave the bar and travel with the men, who of course pay all expenses and buy lots of presents. The girl will have at least one family emergency during the trip, and the man will be expected to pay for her brother's hospital stay or her mother's doctor. Both act as if they are terribly in love, then he gets on a plane and goes away, and she resumes her hunt. She does have to eat, and she has parents, siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews to support.

One of the strange aspects is that the men, especially the young men, frequently do not seem to recognize that the girl is "hired". They truly believe they just paid the bar owner for inconveniencing him, and the girl gets no cut of that money. And worse, they believe that the girls are in love. The girls do other work around the bar, taking turns being the cashier, for instance. This allows the men to pretend she "isn't one of the bar girls." Then later it turns out that "she was just like all the others, after money."

Interestingly, it is possible for a girl to get out of the bar contract that her mother put her in and become an "independent", taking one step up on the social ladder. Some manage to work their way out of the situation, starting a business, or even marrying a farang (foreigner).

Because they never see any part of Chiang Mai but the tourist area, the men never realize that there are no respectable Thai women hanging out in the bars alone. They swallow the stories they are told. This is important, as it allows the girl to save face. Or maybe they don't. Face means a lot in Thailand, so maybe they just let them have their little stories about being a beautician. That's a euphemism. "Beautician in Bangkok" or "Secretary in Pattaya" are common expressions.

One sad thing is that legitimate relationships are tainted with the bar girl brush. As are legitimate jobs. I pity the girl who really is a secretary in Pattaya.

Chiang Mai: Noodles

This post is for Raoul, who has fond memories of the noodle stalls in Thailand. Actually, as I remember, he has fond memories of the ramen stalls in Japan. And those in Korea. And I seem to remember something about noodles in China. And Malaysia. And at the hawker stalls in Singapore.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Phuket: A Change of Scene

Well, Phuket certainly looks better than Chiang Mai, and the air is better, too. But then, so was Bangkok's. I found myself saying something that sounded like an oxymoron: "I'm so glad to be in Bangkok, where the air is cleaner." Apparently the weather was supposed to change enough to clean some of the smoke out of Chiang Mai. I haven't checked, though.

I chose Phuket because I thought I'd stay in town, take a bus to a different beach each day, and act more like a tourist. Instead, I went to Kata Beach, got up every morning and put on my bathing suit, hung out at the beach all day, then went to sleep early. Repeated as needed, which was every day.

The beach was busier than the kind I'm used to in SE Asia. There were two long lines of lounges and umbrellas. I, of course, spent my time on a cloth spread on the sand in the shade of a tree. No way I would pay 100 baht for a place to lie down.

The umbrellas actually added something to the atmosphere, though. When I was out in the water, and turned to look back at the beach, the umbrellas made a nice mauve and navy blue line along the base of the trees, as if an artist had drawn them there for effect. This impression was aided by my being blind as a bat without my glasses.

The water was a dark blue-green, clear, with waves and swells big enough to jump around in, which was what I did most of the time.

One interesting thing was that there was a beach restaurant that was cheaper than any of the away-from-the-beach places. I found it late in the afternoon of my last day.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Chiang Mai: Where did I get all this stuff?

Well, I finally left Chiang Mai. With sore eyes and a raw throat, I took a bus to Bangkok. It was really weird to leave. I learned that when you have been somewhere a long time, packing is hell. You accumulate things. Having six books to read is fine when you are in one place. It is not appropriate for the road. A new blouse here, a skirt on sale there ($7), and you have too many clothes. That big bottle of shampoo that was so much cheaper suddenly seems like a very bad idea.

I did get rid of some stuff though, some of it inadvertently. I was considering dumping my Tevas because daily wear for five months had not been kind to them. And my flip flops looked like they were about to go, too. Then I decided to keep them. And then I left them behind.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Chiang Mai: Seeing the Air You Breathe

If I wanted to see the air in front of my face, I'd have moved to Los Angeles long ago. The air here has gotten so bad that I actually got moving and bought a bus ticket. I've been in cities that had horrible air pollution because of temperature inversions. Cincinnati had a major problem because it sits in a valley. But my eyes didn't burn there, and I didn't have coughing fits.

Every year the farmers in SE Asia burn off their fields. It's illegal, but traditional. Unfortunately it happens at the driest time of the year, just before the rains, and the fires tend to spread. Because Chiang Mai sits in a valley, and is surrounded by fire, it is having the worst problems. The temperature inversion is being blamed on El Nino.

Tomorrow morning at 7 am I'll be on a VIP bus to Bangkok. I was going to fly, but they have been canceling a lot of flights. And even on the budget airlines it is more expensive if you go at the last minute. So I booked the bus, which gets in at 4:30 pm. I'll then have the option of taking an overnight bus to Phuket, going out to the airport and getting a flight to Phuket or Krabi, or deciding to stay in Bangkok. Of course I still have to pack...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Chiang Mai: Self-serve Laundry

Most laundry here is done by the kilo. It costs 30 baht per kilo for wash, dry (usually on a line), and iron. I am big, and I have fairly sturdy materials in my wardrobe. If I wait until I am desperate to have my laundry done, I end up with over five kilos. That's 180 baht, or nearly $6.00.

So, being a cheap budget traveler, I looked for an alternative. I found it in a laundry that advertised self-service washing for only 20 baht a load, and all 5 kilos fit in a load. Of course, that 20 baht doesn't include laundry detergent, leaves me with a load of wet clothes to haul back to my guest house and hang on a line, or if there is no line, to spread about my room. I pay 5 baht for the detergent, and an additional 30 baht,to have it all hung, dried, and folded. For 5 baht, I can get a single piece of clothing ironed. I only use that option for my 'teaching clothes'.

Where does the 'self-service' part come in? Loading the machine, adding the soap, inserting 20 baht into the machine and pressing 'Start'. Except I don't even do that much. If I can wait overnight, the woman who runs the place will work my load in with her other work, and take care of everything. So I usually pay 55 baht for the same service, minus ironing, that once cost me 160 baht. And I really don't need to have my bras ironed, anyway.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Chian Mai: Season's End

Everyone is gone. If I go to my favorite restaurants, no one I know is there.

Tourist season is pretty much over, except for the mini-season around the Thai New Year, Songkron. Not only will my last thirty day entry stamp expire long before then, but I really don't want to be around. Chiang Mai is supposed to be the best place to be for Songkron, but it doesn't sound good to me. People tell me, "Oh, you'll love it. It's great! Everybody is drunk and they walk around with those giant water pistols and you are soaking wet all the time. And in Chiang Mai it lasts a whole week instead of just three days!"

Now, I don't know why people think this will make me want to be here for the festival.

I'm out of here any way, since I must cross the border on the 22nd, and this time I would have to get a new tourist visa to come back. So I plan to go to Penang, then on to Lake Toba, in Sumatra. It feels strange to be leaving, especially since in all this time I have done very little in the way of tourist activities.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Chiang Mai: Random Observations

Yesterday I saw a woman eating an ear of corn by picking off individual kernels and putting them in her mouth one by one.

The problem with most street food is that you eat it standing up. One of the main reasons for stopping to eat or for a drink is to get a place to sit down, rest the feet, give the legs a break, and sit in the shade near a fan.

There are lots of older travelers in Chiang Mai, and quite a few of them are not on vacation, but traveling long-term. I've met three couples so far, from England, Canada, and amazingly enough, New York. The New Yorkers are on a short trip, but coming back to spend the winter on Phuket.

I'm always surprised by young Buddhist monks comparing the features on their digital cameras, or chatting on their cell phones, or even carrying briefcases.

All those sidewalk ramps are not for people in wheelchairs but to make it easier to put your motorcycle inside your shop or house at night. They are so steep no one could make it up them in a wheel chair. I've had enough practice to know.

The Thais don't smile as much as I remember. Those blazing bright Tiger Woods smiles are a little rare these days. But then, I haven't been here since 1992, so things have changed and my memory is failing.

A young boy, maybe six years old, stands on the sidewalk with a golf club, a full-sized driver, and practices his swing. As I walk by I say, "Tiger Woods" and get a grin, big but a bit shy. I forget sometimes that Tiger is the first Asian-American and the first Thai-American to win the Masters, etc. etc. etc. And that his smile is pure Thai.

Red lights don't apply to motorcycles or bicycles, especially if the light is only there for a pedestrian crossing. Pedestrian lights only allow 8 seconds to cross. I look up, see the '8', and by the time I am off the curb I'm looking at '6'. I try to trundle across at a steady pace, to give the motorcycle drivers the best chance to miss me. And who said spending months in one place would be dull?

There are some countries that I just go in and out of a lot. I go there to travel, I go there on the way to somewhere else. Thailand is one of those countries, like Mexico, Malaysia, Singapore, and Germany. If I got all my passports together and counted stamps, I think I'd find ten Thai entry stamps. Singapore has got to be the champion. On the 2004-05 India trip I collected four. And I'll get at least one more this time because that's my departure point.

Lady boys. The third sex. The reason why plastic surgeons here are good. And the reason I can buy shoes. Women's shoes are made for 'lady boys' who can be well over six fee tall. Thailand has a huge transvestite population, and a favorite game is to look at couples and guess what sex the woman is. They frequently have their Adam's apple, as well as other parts, removed, so it can be really hard to tell.

Motorcycles with a whole family on them, none of them with helmets, and a driver who paid a bribe to get that driver's license.

A man wearing a padded jacket, zipped to the top, with a scarf wrapped around his neck, seen as I walk to the pool in my bathing suit and sarong. Of course the Thais think we are equally nuts, and don't understand why we perspire when it is only 35C (95F).

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Chaing Mai: Things to Do

Although I was really just in Chiang Mai to hang out, if I had wanted to keep really busy, I had a lot of options. A partial list:

Chiang Mai is a craft center, and one of the tourist things to do is go to the 'factories' to watch things being made by hand. Most of them are in villages that specialize in a particular craft. Thus you go to the 'umbrella village' or the 'celadon village'. I've been scouting out things to do here, and came up with the following list of factories to visit.

Hand painted umbrellas
Celadon ceramics

In addition, the tribal women selling in the markets and on the streets pass their time making new items to sell. So while I am taking photos of bags with beaded patterns, a woman is sewing away on a similar bag, while she checks to see if I have questions or want to buy something.

I could also take some classes.

Thai cooking
Batik making
Thai boxing
Thai language
Massage (Thai, Ayurvedic, aroma therapy)

Or go adventuring

Treks in the hill to visit supposedly remote hill tribes
White water rafting
Ultralight flights

Or do not very adventurous things

Ride an elephant
Float down a river on a raft

Or just go to see stuff

Elephant Showgrounds
Hill tribe museums
The International Flower Show
The buffalo and cattle markets

There are wats (temples). Literally hundreds of wats. Wats everywhere. Little, insignificant wats, big important wats. All different. Most of them bright and shiny and colorful and, well, a bit garish.

Then again, I could just get pampered. Chiang Mai has the means.

Day-long spa treatment
Steam room

And then there is eating, in restaurants, on the street, or in the markets.

Middle Eastern

Or I could just sit by the pool and take an occasional dip. Maybe reapply the suntan lotion. That sounds good.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Chiang Mai: It's Part of Long-term Travel

My last few posts haven't been full of sunshine. For a few seconds I considered just not writing anything about having a down period, but that's the reality of long term travel. It isn't wonderful and fun and interesting every day. Even during the years when I actually traveled, moving from place to place, seeing new things and meeting new people every day, I had what I called my "What am I doing here?" days. I learned that just writing that in my journal made me feel better. It reminded me that it has happened before and it will happen again and I should just get over it. It's not working this time, but that's OK.

There are no major issues here, just things that aren't going the way I want.