Thursday, February 24, 2011

Meet the Haberstocks!

This has been the hardest entry I have written thus far. I have been putting it off for far too many days, because I was too intimidated to start on it. It's intimidating to attempt to put into words such a great experience. We packed so many wonderful things into just a few days. I don't think it's possible for words to do it justice. I don't want to leave any details out, but you'll be reading for hours if I did. So, grab a tea, a bowl of popcorn, some chocolate covered jujubes (what I wouldn't do for a bag of those right about now!!) ...and get comfortable.

Jonathan and I had the privilege of meeting the Haberstocks through your typical random travel connection method. My super-fun cousins, Carolyn and Rob, have a friend named Jill whom they met through their U2 connections. Jodie is Jill's sister and, through a series of events, phone calls, emails and messages, we were lucky enough to catch up with fellow Canadians, Jodie, Joel and their three wonderful children Caleb, Anica and Rebecca at their home in Prao, north of Chiang Mai, in Thailand. We were especially lucky as Joel's parents, Jeanette and Alymer, were also visiting from Saskatchewan so we had the added bonus of their company. It took a bit of organization on all of our parts, but we are so happy that everything worked out the way it did. Our time spent with the family has been some of the most memorable highlights of our trip thus far.

Prao is a small town. We knew this before we even got there, based on the number of bewildered people at the bus stop that were positive that we had it all wrong and were meaning to go to Prae, a popular tourist town in the opposite direction. They weren't too sure about us, but they let us board the bus anyways, with our take-out papaya salads in tow. The bus ride was a quick two hours. The ticket girl even let us use her cell phone to call our guest house so the proprietor could pick us up at the bus station. Our call ended up getting cut off so we weren't sure if we had relayed the message of our arrival to Pamela, the owner of Aomdoi Resort, where we were staying. The locals at the bus station were so friendly and helpful. A few people got out their cell phones for us to borrow, including the motorbike taxi guy who didn't even try to convince us that he should take us there on his own. This certainly wasn't a tourist town, and it was very refreshing!

The Haberstocks are an incredible family. They left their home in Vernon, British Columbia in search of a Family Adventure. That, they most certainly found. An adventure with a cause. On the property that the Haberstocks live on is First Wiang Phrao Church and Home of Grace boarding house where thirty seven children live, as well as the house that the Haberstocks currently reside in. When they arrived in August the family helped build the house that they are now staying in. When they leave, it will become the boys dormitory. The children who live at the boarding house are from the Lisu Tribe and most of their families live in the surrounding Hills. (Although not necessarily anywhere close by.) In the best case scenario, the children are sent to Home of Grace by their parents, so that they can live somewhere that makes attending school possible. Many of the Hill Tribe villages are so inaccessible and isolated that there would be no way for the kids to get an education. Unfortunately, other children live at Home of Grace because their families are abusive, drug addicts or prostitutes who can't care for the children. In some cases, the kids have been used to run drugs or have been physically and/or sexually abused by older, intoxicated, members of their home villages. Home of Grace is run by a generous, friendly, compassionate man named Satit and his wife, Ratna, who feed, clothe and love the children for the time they are there. Each child has a story and the Haberstocks have been working diligently to make an individual profile of each child, so that the child's details can be sent back to a prayer circle in Canada. The youngest child at the house is three years old, and she is as adorable as three year-olds come. Although not everyone is in agreement over the idea of boarding houses as an ideal solution, there is no doubt that Satit is doing the best in this very difficult situation. He is trying to give these children a chance, or at least a choice, to have a different life.

Jodie and Joel are more closely involved with the church. They run free English classes for the community and we had the privilege of being guests in a couple of these on our short visit. They also have three kids from Home of Grace over to their house every Friday night for dinner and games. The kids get to taste pasta, Jodie's homemade sauce, and yummy 'traditional' (as in cookies, brownies and crisps) desserts. Then they play cards, or board games or Wii and get to hang out with the family for the evening. It seems like a fantastic way for everyone to get to know each other and for the boarding house kids to have the opportunity to experience a loving, open, generous and fun, family, Canadian style! Plus, it sounds like fun for Caleb, Anica and Rebecca too!

We had arranged to meet up with the Haberstocks at Home of Grace where they live and volunteer. They run two free English classes. It happened to be the last class for their beginners and we were to be the 'guest farangs.' Joel met us outside. 'You look just like you do in the pictures!' He told us. 'See, its a good thing I didn't shave my beard or cut my hair,' Jonathan said to me. Sigh.

Joel mentioned that the students were pretty nervous when they found out that ourselves along with Jeanette and Alymer were coming to their class so that they could practice their English with us. When the course started, the adult students spoke no English whatsover, but now, merely weeks later, they were able to have simple and social conversations with us. We took our time and had individual conversations with the students. They asked us our names, where we lived, what sort of work we did, and questions about our families. It was great to have the opportunity to communicate with real people from the Prao communitiy. Joel and Jodie must have been so proud to see their students putting to use everything that they had learned. Learning to communicate is such an important, and possibly life changing lesson.

After class Jodie took us on a tour of the small town. We wandered through the very local-local market gawking at all the interesting treats, such as grilled frogs and pig ears. Yum! The girls pointed out their favourite 'everything' shop, because really, why would a shop limit themselves to selling just one thing, some restaurants and a nice park. We arrived back at their house just in time for dinner. Joel had picked up some yummy fried chicken while we were gone and had made some of his signature sticky rice to accompany it. It was so great to feel like we were part of a family again, as it had been so long since we have been with ours. We even learned a new grace to bring back home. The conversation was fantastic and it felt like everyone had something interesting to say. We could have talked for hours. I can't say enough about what a fantastic, open and inspirational family the Haberstocks are.

After dinner Joel and Jodie had to rush back over to the church for their second English class of the day, the intermediates. We followed shortly with Jeanette and Alymer as guest speakers. The students in the evening class spoke English quite well. With the students we all took turns introducing ourselves and then going into a little more personal detail. We asked each other questions and in the end, we all learned quite a bit about each other. Among many interesting facts, we learned that Jeanette and Alymer have been travelling throughout their retirement, mostly to visit their far-flung children living, at various times in Central and South America and now Thailand. You would never guess that the lively couple is in their 80s and 70s, respectively. They are absolutely amazing! If we are half as adventurous and healthy as they are when and if we are 80, we will truly be blessed. We also learned that Maly and Noi, two of the friendly Prao women in English class, love to dance and that we were welcome to come to their dance class the next night! Maly was particularly interested in 'snow' and how exactly it is that we Canadians go about living in it. How do we drive in it? Are there more accidents? How cold is it? How much snow is there now? Its funny that people are so interested in the things, that, when at home, we usually are trying to escape.

When the class was over there was yet another amazing surprise. The kids from Home of Grace were going to put on a performance for us! The girls filed in, all dressed in their beautiful velvet Lisu dresses, followed by the boys, who had just come for the entertainment. A few of the older girls even wore the silver belts and elaborate head dresses that are worth several hundred Canadian dollars. Active church members, Ahtit and his family, make the Lisu clothing and very generously donates a few of the exquisite belts to the boarding house every year. A woman would only get one of these belts in her life and it would be worn only for special occasions and her wedding. The younger girls performed first. They formed lines on the sanctuary/stage and performed a beautiful dance. Even the smallest members of Home of Grace participated, following the lead of the more experienced girls from the front row. They were adorable. Next up were the older girls. There were three of them, adorned with silver belts and head dresses. They danced gracefully to the soundtrack accompanied by the jingling of their bells. We felt very lucky to be there and honoured that the girls would go to such effort to perform for us and the Haberstocks. Jonathan had the opportunity to chat with Satit a bit after the dancing. As Kristen and I suspected, Satit (and folks like him who are committed to addressing a pressing need in their particular community) allocates resources according to what is needed most immediately and importantly to the children. That is, money is spent on food, the improvement of sanitation (plumbing, toilets and clean water aren't a given like they would be for us in the West) and if possible, trying to create a play area for the children. There simply isn't money to spend on advertising on the internet. Therefore, folks who want to help organizations like Home of Grace can't easily find them. You know there are needs out there and that organizations like Home of Grace is doing their part in addressing those needs, but they can't contact you and you can't find them. Satit said that if we know any friends or family back home who want to volunteer their skills and hobbies that he and Home of Grace would without hesitation open welcoming arms. We will post their contact information soon and hope that you look into the opportunity if you have even a little bit of an interest. As for us, Kristen and I hope to visit Home of Grace again for a longer period. You can still be involved without leaving home, too: Satit has asked that we pray for Home of Grace. We would like to extend Satit's request to you.

The next morning Joel called and said that there was a festival up in one of the hill tribes about thirty kilometres out of Prao. Plans are very fluid in Thailand. One minute you are enjoying breakfast on a terrace and the next you are bumping up along a steep, windy mountain road, past breathtaking scenery in the back of Ahtit's truck to a distant village celebrating the Lisu New Year. What a life. The kids and Jodie stayed back to get some school work done while Jonathan, Joel, Jeanette, Alymer and I hitched a ride up the mountain to the village. It was barely ten in the morning and the celebration was in full swing. Dozens of women were chop, chop, chopping up ingredients and stirring the most massive cauldrons of simmering lunch, men were taking welcome shots of locally made rice whisky and everyone else was dancing. It was the same dance we had come across when were were biking outside of Pai. In theory, I should have been an expert, but in reality my previous practice wasn't all that apparent. Again, we were the only westerners there and were welcomed almost immediately by being pulled up into the dance. Round and round we danced, to different instruments. Joel and Jonathan were experts by 11:00. When I took a seat for a well deserved break I was designated baby sitter of a cute little girl who steadily munched her way through a bag of corn-on-the-cob. I think it was cooked, but they were all still in their husks, so its hard to say. She watched as her mother, who had the craziest gnarled toes I have ever seen (not that they impeded her dancing in the slightest) glide away to dance, her eyes widening as she realized that she was being abandoned, and then turned to me and stared with more than a little apprehension. My little corn chewing charge was too adorable not to photograph. I took a few pictures as she continued to give me the stone stare, and showed them to her. She immediately transformed into a sullen sulker to an exuberant, excitable subject. She would smile and wait a couple half seconds for me to click and then she would demand to see the camera and laugh and laugh. Soon, being my subject wasn't enough. She wanted to be the photographer. I tried desperately to hold onto the strap as she swung the camera around. She aimed and clicked and clicked and clicked. There was significantly more clicking than aiming. Either that, or she was just really interested in people's footwear. Then she got the idea of self portraits and delved into that for a bit. It was all going swimmingly until other curious kids came by to see what all the fuss was about. Then she got jealous. If I even aimed the camera at anyone else she would pull out her cutest smile and stick her face in front of the lens (Wally and Penny: does this sound like any little girl that you've known?). She was hilarious. Overall, it was an overwhelmingly authentic experience that we feel very, very lucky to have been a part of, thanks to Joel and the in-the-know Prao community. When we were all tuckered from dancing we took a songtheaw back to Prao to relax a bit before our big dance lesson that evening.

It was Friday so the Haberstocks were having three of the boys (from Home of Grace) over for dinner and games that night. Jodie was making homemade tomato sauce and I asked if there was anything I could do to help. 'Not really, we were just going to make some cookies,' she said nonchalantly. COOKIES? COOKIES!! I was so excited!! In hindsight, I maybe should have contained my excitement a little more, seeing as we had just met the Haberstocks and I didn't want to frighten them with my crazy cookie cookiness just yet. But they were making cookies!! I absolutely love baking and haven't been able to bake anything since we left Vancouver more than four months ago. I don't know why baking is so overly exciting to me. Maybe it's the process, maybe its the familiarity, the coziness. Likely its the cookie dough. To my absolute delight Jodie even suggested we make my favourite chocolate chip cookies with the Tollhouse recipe! Jeanette and Alymer (bless their souls) had just brought Canadian survival provisions (aka a Costco-size bag of chocolate chips) to replenish the supply. It was very fun. Anica, Rebecca and I made the cookie dough, being sure to taste it for quality at each step, while Jodie and I chatted about life in Thailand and Canada and everything in between. It was everything cookie making is supposed to be and more! And, of course, the finished product was pretty darn tasty in itself.

In a flash it felt like it was time for Jonathan, Jeanette, Alymer and I to scoot off to our Thai dancing lesson. Joel walked us over to a building behind the hospital where we met with a second Noi, who was the dance instructor, Maly and Noi from the English class, and a bunch of other Prao women who were keen to practice their moves. Noi, the instructor, was 59 going on 30. She was petite and agile, a fantastic dancer and patient teacher. We learned to waltz, chacha, ballroom dance, and then lastly, a traditional Thai dance. To learn the Thai dance, we followed Noi in a circle swinging our arms back and forth and trying our best to imitate the awkward, but graceful movements that the Thai women were performing so effortlessly. They made it look so easy, and were very encouraging as we twisted our wrists around in vain. Whether we can actually dance or not remains to be voted on (there's no need to place your ballot yet), but either way, we certainly had a lot of fun trying! It was an amazing experience to be welcomed so warmly and take part in something that regular, fun loving Thai people are doing in their day to day lives. Again, we felt so lucky to be temporary members of this fantastic Prao community. I know the Haberstocks are going to find it hard to leave these wonderful people.

Since the Haberstocks weren't sick of us just yet, we all journeyed together to Chiang Rai, via a longtail boat from ThaTong. It was pretty entertaining as the nine of us piled into the songtheaw headed to ThaTong, taking up the majority of the space on the benches. There are too many highlights to discuss in detail, but we enjoyed the novelty of hoisting a motorbike onto the songtheaw's roof, the gorgeous scenery, the leftover cookies and, above all, the company. The boat ride up the river was fantastic, and we had a great time in Chiang Rai sampling all the market food together, attending Church in Thai and playing a very fun new card game while the night market buzzed around us. By the end of the five days Jonathan and I felt like we had known Joel, Jodie, Caleb, Anica and Rebecca our whole lives. Home of Grace and First Wiang Phrao Church is so lucky to have such a dedicated, open, friendly and welcoming family. If more families treated each other with the same amount of love, respect and encouragement as the Haberstocks do, it would go a long way in making the world a better place. We can't imagine our time in Thailand with out them and we truly hope that our paths will cross again. Thank you, Thank you so much Haberstocks! Korp Kun Ka!

If you are interested in following the Haberstocks, you can find their blog at:

ps. For most posts from now on, we will also add some more photos to our Flickr account to accompany it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

More Thai Bits & Bites

A few more random Tall Thai Tales (hahaha!)

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Bus Ride

The air-conditioned mini bus that I insisted we book for our journey to Pai was already an hour late. 'It will be here at 9am, our front desk lady told us, 'Thai time.' So really, that narrowed our departure time to anytime between 9am and 9pm that day. Or perhaps at some point on the following day. It's only one hundred or so kilometers from Chiang Mai to Pai. But somehow, the road manages to take in 762 curves in that distance and takes about four hours, depending, of course, on how late your driver is to fetch you, and how many times you need to pull over for someone to throw up out the window. How do I know that there are precisely 762 curves, you may ask. Well, because that's what the T-shirts in the market say, and so therefore, it must be true. I don't know what kind of sick masochist actually kept their eyes open the entire swerve-a-thon, taking time to notate each and every nightmarish curve, but whoever it was then proceeded to construct big white pillars along the side of the highway and adorn them with the curve number you are on, followed by how many more kilometers you are still destined to endure. I didn't find it that helpful. Ohhhhh curve 235! Only 527 to go! Hurray! Anyways, in the defense of Pai, because it's a fantastic place and I wouldn't want to scare anyone from visiting there, the highest numbered column I managed to catch was only like 187 or something.

Although, considering the state I was in on our way to Pai, our van certainly did feel like it spun in circles at least 762 times. Maybe even 763. The trip would have been a test of your inner stomach muscles to begin with, but considering I thought it a good idea to have a very fun night the evening before with a gaggle of new found friends, made the four hour journey just barely survivable. The event of which I speak was held at a posh hotel in Chiang Mai. We were led (after a few wrong turns... its a very big, very posh hotel with a lot of hallways, you know) to an amazingly atmospheric outdoor lounge where huge black leather comfy chairs were arranged in a cozy circle, palm trees were lit up with soft yellow light and a group of friendly farangs (fellow travellers) were chatting away in the warm summer air. Our personal waiters added a couple more chairs to the circle and brought us some ice cold drinks. I say personal waiters because the twenty or so of us where the only people in the bar. The night went into flash forward, as time when one is having fun. One minute I was chatting with and Irishman about the state of world affairs and the next I was waving goodbye to Jonathan from the back seat of a motorbike, being driven by my new Thai friend, Ving. 'Boys!' she exclaimed as we sped off. Then there was a heart to heart with an infamous Thai Lady Boy, some giggling at the plethora of gorgeous young Thai women on the arms of old wrinkly white men, a dance storm to the tune of the quintessential reggae song, No Woman, No Cry, at the Reggae themed bar, a pit stop at the oasis-like 7-11 to stock pile chocolate bars, and finally, a stern looking husband. Then somehow, at approximately curve 98, I came to the stark realization that my fantastically fun night had somehow morphed into a 'terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.' 'Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!' I whined at curve 103 to a bright-eyed, bushy tailed, eye rolling Jonathan whilst clutching a very large, very ready, plastic bag. He rolled his eyes again, because he could.

Sweet as Pai

Pai was a place that was made for lingering. We found a perfect $6 bungalow about a fifteen minute walk from town that came with a balcony and comfy nylon hammock overlooking the valley and mountains. There was a bamboo-constructed open air lounge with even more spectacular views, made even better with comfy places to sit, hot water for tea, and wifi. Sigh. Most days I really can't believe that this is our life.

We rented a scooter (and two helmets) to explore the glorious countryside. We made a plan to hit up a couple waterfalls, a canyon near a Chinese village and then take a dip in the hot springs. We were between waterfalls when we heard some interesting music. I glanced down the alley as we motored past and saw a whoie bunch of people decked out in their traditional wear dancing around in a circle while the musician strummed an instrument I didn't recognize in the middle. 'Turn around! We're going to investigate!' I yelled in Jonathan's ear. We found a place to park our scooter among the rows of motorbikes and scooters already parked alongside the narrow road and edged our way in to the courtyard. Everyone looked fantastic. Their clothes were velvety and colourful. Some people had a vest of jingling silver pieces that complimented the music as they moved in sync with the pied piper. Others wore bright headpieces adorned with long red or yellow strings almost all the way around. They were Lisu people, it turned out. Members of one of Thailand's several Hill Tribes. The circle moved in perfect harmony with the musician, everyone's steps in perfect precision. It was beautiful. The community lingered around, drinking 'Chai-in' (Thai ice tea, which is orange-y in colour and mixed with milk and sugar) and pop, laughing and enjoying the dance and music show.
Kids fiddled with their outfits, admiring the sparkling silver and trying to acquire as many different drinks as they possibly could from different relatives that they would then mix all together into a potion that only a kid would dare taste. People smiled and waved at us and the kids loved my camera. Teenagers tapped away on their cells, looking like they were counting the seconds until they were free from their family responsibilities. We were just settling in with our strawberry Fanta pop's when one of the men in the dance circle turned towards us and started waving frantically in our direction. I looked to my right. To my left. Behind me. The man kept waving, and then pointing. Me? Couldn't be! Then who? 'Hold my camera, Moon, I'm going dancing!' I exclaimed to Jonathan as I ran off to join the circle. The music kept on and everyone knew instintively which beat to move which foot on. I fumbled along in between two tribesmen bumping this way and that, trying desperately to follow along, encouraged by their enthusiastic nodding everytime I happened to put a foot in the right place. Those who have attempted to teach me a line dance can imagine my two left feet tripping all over each other. Must have been pretty entertaining. 'Happy New Year!' called the younger man in the middle of the circle with the video camera. 'Happy New Year!?' I cheered back. Good times. Good times.

Pirates in the Andaman Ocean

We were looking for a lazy, laid back Thai Island when my friend Daryl suggested the little Island of Ko Jum. 'There's not much to do but read and swim,' we heard. Sounded perfect. Being the busy season we emailed off a reservation. When we didn't hear back, we Skype called to confirm our arrival. It was all going so well. We booked our ferry ticket and hotel pickup in Krabi and were sitting out on the hotel patio at 10am sharp the following morning, awaiting our shuttle. The boat was supposed to leave at 11am, so we had plenty of time. 'Don't worry if they are a bit late.. its Thai time! The boat won't leave without you,' the American guy who sold us our ferry ticket assured us. 'Mai ben lie!' (No worries!). Plenty of pickup trucks, their bed's overpacked with backpackers and their gear drove by us merrily on their way to the port. People were picked up at the hotel beside us, behind us... but no one came for us. 'Stop worrying!' Jonathan scolded. 'You're going to have to get used to this 'Thai Time thing, or you'll be stressed out every day!' He was right. I tried to distract myself from the fact that it was now 10:39 and, still, no sign of our ride. At 11:00 am I begged him to run down to the agency where we bought our ticket and just make sure everything was dandy. Ten minutes later he was running back up the hill. 'They are sending someone right now!' he called breathlessly. 'So they forgot about us?!' I gasped. 'I think so,' he admitted. Sure enough, the same silver truck that had driven past us about five times about an hour earlier came squealing around the corner. The driver looked guilty as he hurried us into the back an tossed our bags in on top of us and thrust two ferry tickets in our direction. He sped to the port and ushered us inside. It was 11:13. The building was practically empty. For sure we had missed the ferry. The ticket man was there, though, leaning against the wall, looking bored. He took our ticket and ripped it. He was in no particular rush. That was reassuring... or just really mean. We ran out along the pier to the waiting ferry. Phew. It really did wait for us! And considering almost every person on the ferry already had a cold beer in hand, they didn't even look that annoyed with us. We literally ran onto the boat, just in case, after waiting around all this time, it would try to pull away as we were half way across the plank. We sat down on the steps to catch our breath and turned down the beer, ice cream, doughnuts and juice that everyone was desperately trying to sell us. Fresh meat, I guess. Now I know why everyone already had a beer. They probably just got sick of saying 'no' while they waited for us tardies. When our boat still hadn't set off ten minutes later I started to feel a little less-bad about being late. Another ten minutes passed before a couple, weighed down under backpacks the size of the Eiffel Tower, sauntered around the corner and slowly made their way to the awaitng ferry. Well, the least they could do was break into a gallop, or, jeez, walk quickly! We ran like it was the hundred meter dash! Some people. Their body-bags were barely over the ferry's railing when the boat's motor started spouting out black smoke and we pulled away from the pier. Woohooo! Next stop: relaxation!
Not so fast. Clearly the hotel touts had other plans for our boat ride. Daryl had warned us about the touts on the boat trying their darndest to convince you to go to their resort as opposed to the one you had already booked. The guy with the coin in his ear took his mission very seriously. He didn't just have a coin behind his ear, like Grandpa, but the coin was actually jammed into his ear so it sat flat, blocking his eardrum. This annoyed me to begin with. And then he opened his mouth. The worst part about these touts is that they act all friendly, like they are trying to help you, when in fact, they are really just lying to your face' 'Hey, brother, where are you staying?' he asked Jonathan. 'AoSi Bungalows,' Jonathan answered. 'Ahhh. No good. You don't want to stay there. Come stay at my place!' And he thrust a binder of pictures from his resort into our hands. 'Very nice, but no thanks. We have reservations,' we told him. 'Ok, well if they don't come pick you up, you come stay with me. AoSi always forgets to pick up their guests.' We came to the first stop. 'See, no AoSi! Come with me!' The coin-eared tout told us, making a move for our bags. 'AoSi is the next stop,' a member of the boat crew mumbled to us. 'No Thanks!' we said again. Now he was annoyed. He had spent a good few minutes trying to befriend us and we weren't even going to fall for his ploy?! What a waste of time. He huffed and puffed some more, but eventually he and his 10 Baht coin got off the boat. How many people fall for his lies, I wonder?

The ferry to Ko Jum goes something like this. It's actually the Krabi-Ko Lanta (a larger island, further south) ferry in disguise. If you want to get off at Ko Jum you still have to buy the ticket all the way to Ko Lanta, but then, as the ferry is passing by Ko Jum long tail boats jet out from their moorings and meet you at the ferry. It is just how I would imagine being attacked by pirates in longtail boats would be. One minute, the ferry is cruising along and the next minute a dozen long tail boats start aparating along side it. They fly in noisily, out of no where and start roping themselves to the ferry on both sides, and each other forming a big, floating convoy. On each side I counted at least five long tails tied together. Each boat belongs to a different resort and they are all vying for the closest position. When you hear the name of your resort being called out, you jostle your way to the front of the crowd and heave your luggage over the side. Unlike your typical pirate attack though, everyone was willingly walking the plank to join the pirates on their boats, destined for the deserted island. You hop (or jump, fall, roll, get up, jump, fall..and so on) from boat to boat until you tumble into the correct one while your bag is being passed along the assembly line after you. The first time we experienced this we were totally overwhelmed. It seemed like complete and utter chaos. Everyone was yelling and pointing, bags were flying, boxes of supplies from the mainland were being ripped open and their contents dumped into rice sacks... Would we ever see our luggage again? As quickly as it all began, it was over and we were motoring away from the ferry in our own private longtail boat. Ahhhh serenity. And then. 'Are you sure you have a reservation?' The friendly Thai man running AoSi asked us again. AoSi Bungalows is a beautiful resort with bamboo bungalows perfectly situated on the side of a cliff at the far end of a practically deserted beach with stunning views down the island. We were so excited when Daryl recommended it to us. The Resort is owned by a Scottish man, but he must have been on vacation (where do you go on vacation when you live on an island?) and wasn't around. 'Yes, we have a reservation for three nights. We talked on the phone to an actual person and confirmed.' The man's English wasn't fantastic and our Thai was even more useless. I got the impression that they weren't exactly expecting us. Who we had talked to on the phone remains a mystery. They only had the best of the best bungalows left. The most expensive, naturally. After much 'discussion' we ended up landing one of the 700 Baht bungalows for 500 Baht, and all was well. Until the clan of crazy monkeys started clambering all over our tin roof, screeching and competing for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (the monkey version) on our balcony at 6am the following morning. It was a barrel of monkeys...but not as fun as I remember the game to be...But, really, who can be mad at monkeys. Apparently people who have to put up with their antics every day can. 'The monkey jumped down from the tree, ran behind the bar, stole the big jar of sugar and took off with it!' a British couple informed us with glee when we went down to the patio for breakfast. 'That's the third jar this week,' the waiter grumbled.

Strangers in the Night

Knowing that it was the busy season down in the islands we reserved and then confirmed and then confirmed again our cheap sea view bungalow at Haad Graud Resort on Ko Phangan. We wanted to make sure that when we arrived at our second and final Thai Island that they would actually be expecting us. We saw our transport holding up the 'HAAD GRAUD' sign almost immediately after disembarking the ferry and sighed in relief. Our resort was at the other end of the Island, about ten kilometers away and we didn't fancy a five hour walk. We happily piled ourselves into the songtheaw and set off to our hammock clad balcony. The sun was low in the sky and the silhouetted palm trees were beginning to stand out against the purple and orange sky. We hadn't gone far when I spotted a tall, Polish looking guy on the side of the road. He looked familiar, but it was hard to tell in the low light. He looked up and caught my eye. We looked at each other for a fleeting moment before we both realized that we knew each other and his face broke out into the biggest smile I had seen in weeks. It was Banana, our Polish friend that we had met in the Cameron Highlands at out One Hundred Days celebration! It was Banana with a haircut, which explains why it took me a minute to realize who he was. He started waving frantically. I get overly excited when I see someone I know, just because it happens so seldomly. Plus, it made me feel super cool to be on a random island in Thailand and know somebody. Who am I? Jonathan? Anyways, another two guys stepped out of a store next to Banana and started waving at us as well. Was that Taylor too? Wow! Cool! We wanted to stop and find out where they were staying so we could meet up later, but how could we? Our driver was in the front of the truck, separated by a glass window, and he couldn't speak English anyways. Banana took a few strides towards the bus (He's really tall. A few strides got him quite far). 'Cheap?' he yelled. It was traveller code. He wanted to know if the place we were being shuttled to was cheap, and if they could come with us. I nodded enthusiastically and waved them over while Jonathan banged on the window, trying to get the driver to stop. The guys took off into a full run to catch up to where the truck finally pulled over. The driver got out, confused. We were jumping around all excited to have found each other, which made communicating more confusing for the poor driver, who I think at this point had started to fear for his safety. We asked if there were more cheap bungalows available. He quickly nodded and smiled, which in hindsight, he probably only did so that he could escape to the safety of his drivers seat and lock all us crazies in the truck bed. Of course, when we arrived at the resort a good twenty minutes later, in the dark, there weren't any cheap bungalows left for the guys at Haad Graud. But there was a room next door, so all was well again. After we had all claimed our respective beds we spent the evening catching up where we had left off in Malaysia. Banana, and Taylor had been travelling together since we had all met in the Highlands. There were a great number of tales between there and here. They had even picked up a third muskateer, Daniel, who is a Catalin photographer from Barcelona. The three of them were hilarious together. Banana and Taylor would be heading home soon, to Poland and the States, respectively, but it certainly wasn't stopping them from making the most out of their remaining days. It's not that interesting of a story, I know, but its a perfect example of life on the road. New people enter and impact your life everyday. You talk, share, laugh, learn. Sometimes, like in this case, you feel instantly connected. Sometimes you see them again, and sometimes you know you never will.

Flower Power

After our trek in the hills surrounding Chiang Mai we decided to hang around the city for a few days until the feeling returned to our calves, and to catch the flower festival that was scheduled for the weekend. It was hard to decipher exactly what the flower festival was celebrating, other than the sheer beauty of flowers, but heck, if flowers aren't reason enough to celebrate, what is? Information surrounding the festival was vague. We knew there would be a parade of sorts, which would probably somehow be flower-focused and that afterwards all the floats would be parked down in a park within the old walls for all to admire, and a bunch of food stalls, of course, to feed the masses. Flowers? Food? Sounded good. We walked towards the main street around 9am and found it lined with people. We figured that it was a good chance that we had found the parade route. Sure enough, a short while later we could see the parade approaching from a distance down the main street. 'It takes a long time for the parade to get from the river in the one end of town to the old town,' Our Irish guesthouse owner had warned us. 'Mostly because tourists are always jumping in front of the floats, stopping the parade to take photos.' Tourists! No way. I found that hard to believe. What kind of dumb, rude person would actually hold up the whole parade just for a photo? As the floats slowly made their way towards us, the answer became clear. Pretty much any tourist who could fight their way on to the road, did. And then they would stand there. Right in front of a float and snap away. Or, they would shove their child out onto the street, at the mercy of the moving float so that they could capture the 'kodak moment' when their little one was very nearly pummeled by a pretty flower float. Ahhh. How cute. Remember that time.. There was one mother who sent her child out in front of every SINGLE float. She didn't miss one. Really. What are you going to DO with fifty-seven photos of your ten year old self in front (or smushed under the wheels of) fifty-seven flower floats? Then there were the 'real' photographers who would run out into the street and literally shove the lens of their SLR into the faces of the traditionally dressed Thai people who were in the parade. The Thais took it all very graciously. They didn't even slap one person (that I saw).

Ridiculous toursits aside, the parade was actually quite impressive. Every centimeter of every float was covered in flowers. A florist could probably retire if they sold the number of orchids that were arranged on just one of these massive floats. The designs were so perfect and the colours so bright that I wouldn't have believed that everything was made out of real flowers if I hadn't seen the floats close up later that day. Every float was topped with beautiful Thai women waving and throwing flower petals, or ornately dressed couples, or, my favourite, a flower photo of the Thai king. A photo made of flowers, its true. They sure do love their king. There were flower bunnies (its the Chinese Year of the Rabbit), white flower elephants, flower pillars, flower geese, flowers in everyone's hair. Flowers, flowers flowers! Near the end of the parade young, beautiful Thai women holding baskets of flowers and with a few hundred dollars worth of orchids in their hair strolled down the middle of the street under umbrellas that were held by their doting partners. A hush fell over the crowd as they passed. Their presence was undeniably distracting. It demanded attention. They were slender but womanly, with sparkling eyes and bright smiles. They were feminine, graceful and absolutely stunning. Like Sarah on her Wedding Day. That's right. Now that I think about it, they probably took lessons from Sarah! Smart. Rows and rows of men lining the street blushed when they smiled in their direction. Wow. Good work, Mrs. Towle.


It was bound to happen sooner or later. We ran out of sunscreen. Not only is sunscreen crazy expensive in relation to everything else in Thailand, but there are also only minimal flavour selection. Choices include: whitening or whitening. Yes, it's true that I don't want to get all red and sunburnt, but I also wasn't hoping to get even more pastey white! I went into beauty supply store in Chiang Mai and was absolutely overwhelmed by the number of products and unnaturally pale cardboard cutout women that accompanied them, that promised to strip your skin of any natural pigment and leave you nice and translucent. Of course, this is not how its advertised. 'White is beautiful!' Every product had 'white' on it somewhere, which led me to wonder how many of the bottles actually contained something that would whiten your skin or if it had become more like how they write 'lite' on all the food products in the US. But really. People spend money on this.

We were at a canyon in Pai a few days later. It was scorching. We hiked up the steep hill to get to the top and were greeted by a tiny Thai woman wearing jeans, a hoodie, a BALAKLAVA(!) and the huge bug eye sunglasses that would rival those in Hollywood. I don't think a single I looked at myself in a sundress and sweating. 'Aren't you hot?' I asked her. 'Well, kinda. But I own a beauty store and if I don't cover up, no one will buy my products, because they won't believe that they work.' Fair enough. But nuts. Just like how they, no doubt, think we are off our rockers lying out in the blazing heat roasting like peanuts. Just an observation.

Your Mini Thai Language Lesson

Try out these simple phrases next time you are at your favourite Thai restaurant. I bet the Thai staff would love it! Out of politeness, you finish most phrases with 'kaaaa' if you are a woman and 'kab' if you are a man. The kaaa is dragged out, as the number of a's suggests. Of course these may not be exactly how someone fluent in Thai would spell it out, but it's what has worked for us this month.

Try it! It's fun!

Hello: Sa-wat-dee kaa/kab Pronounced: Sa wat deeeee kaaaaaa/kab
Thank You: Korp Kune kaa/kab Pronouned: the same as it looks
Very delicious!: Alloy Mac! (alloy is the delicious and mac is the very)
Beautiful: Sue-oi
Spicy: Pedd
Not Spicey: mai Pedd
Delicious Thai Iced Tea: Chai yin
Yes: Chai
No: Mai Chai

And just for fun: Rice is 'cow', Chicken is 'guy' and pork is 'moo'

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Thai Timbits... Tidbits!

Here are a few little short stories from our time in Thailand. They are in no particular order.

Thailand: Hour One.

Longtail boats, soft white sand beaches, warm turquoise waters and swaying palm trees. This is what the islands in Southern Thailand are all about. If you are a sun-worshipper than maybe you really will have found your paradise. As long as you don't mind that it's everyone else's as well. It's true that the islands are no longer the undiscovered gems that they likely were ten years ago. There is no denying that they are beautiful. And that with the hoards of tourists have come all the conveniences you could want, making travel so very easy here. Plus, there is the added bonus of all that delicious Thai food. Although, if that's not your thing, you could always just order a burger and fries. We enjoyed our time relaxing on Ko Jum and Ko Pha Ngan, but really, besides maybe a few more thai dishes on the menu, we felt as though we could have been at any resort, almost anywhere in the world.

We arrived in Thailand from the Malaysian Island of Langkawi. Everyone in the town was pushing bus/boat packages to various Thai destinations. We didn't see how it could be so difficult that we would need to be led around like sheep, so we went out on a limb and decided to try to make it into Thailand all on our own. Apparently no one does this. We caught a shared taxi to the port, then bought a ferry ticket direct from the boat operator for half the price that was written on the ticket. We were at Thai immigration in Satun within a couple hours. Easy Peasy. After we were stamped into the country we made our way to the entrance hall where the hasselling began.

We exchanged some money and followed some Thai people who looked like they were in the know down the front steps to a songtheaw. They were waiting for us. They knew we would make the right decision eventually. A songtheaw is like a shared taxi. For $1 you get to sit in the back of a truck on a padded bench and hold on to metal rails on the roof of the hard canopy, along with all the other patrons while the driver weaves his way around the city dropping everyone off at their specific destinations. 'To the bus station' we told the man who ushered us into the back of the truck. Other than us, the benches were crammed with local women. Some men stood on the bumper and hung off the back handrails. If you aren't actually 'in' the truck, I think you have to pay less. Makes sense. The women weren't too sure of us to begin with, but warmed up as we charmed them with our Thai language skills. 'Hello!' 'Thank you!' We would say. And then our vocabulary was exhausted. They were very impressed. After about fifteen minutes and about one hundred 'hellos!' the driver pulled over and scurried to the back to let us know it was our stop. 'Bus to Krabi?' we confirmed. 'Krabi?!' The bus driver huffed. Apparently there was some miscommunication between the man who had ushered us on to the truck and the actual driver. The driver started to point back towards the direction we had come. Obviously we had passed the bus station and now he wanted us to somehow find our way there by foot. I wasn't sure, but I didn't think our one hour of accumulative Thai language skills was going to make it an easy task. We started to unload our bags from the back. 'No! No!' The Thai women came to our rescue. They waved us to sit back down and put their hands on our luggage. They yelled at the driver in Thai and shook their fingers around at him. They said 'Krabi' a lot and waved their hands around. If it was me, I would have done what they said. They must have been pretty convincing because the driver finally gave in and let us stay in the truck. The women shook their heads and rolled their eyes in the driver's direction as we merged back onto the street. Stop after stop the driver would get out, come to the back of the truck and try to convince us to get out, and the women would loudly express their displeasure and, in the end, the women's argument would always win through and we were able to keep our coveted back-of-the-truck bench spots. Every time the driver would return to the drivers seat and the women in the back with us would shake their heads seemingly in disgust and make faces at the back of the driver's head. God bless angry packs of women. When the last woman was dropped at her destination she left the driver with strict sounding instructions and one last threatening shake of her finger. She waved good bye and smiled at us. 'Thank you! Thank you!' we called earnestly. Now it was just us and the driver (who likely loathed us). There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to drive to the furthest most deserted street corner and finally, finally, be rid of us. He drove faster and cut corners. We slid around in the back like kids in a tilt-a-whirl. We weren't going to make it anywhere alive; let alone the bus station. To my absolute shock, our truck finally pulled into a parking lot full of broken-down, rusty looking buses. Wow. There was a good chance that we had actually made it to the bus station. Then the driver came around to the back, helped us with our bags and even pointed us in the direction of the ticket counter. Double wow.

We bought our bus tickets all the way to Krabi for a fraction of what everyone we had met along the way was trying to sell them to us for. Plus we had gotten a city tour of Satun! What a deal. In total, the entire trip for both of us cost less than half of what one person's ticket would have been if we had booked it in Langkawi. To top it all off, our bus somehow even left an hour earlier than it was scheduled to. Which probably just means that it was the bus that was supposed to leave two hours ago, but was running late. Oh well. Worked out for us. We boarded the second level of the VIP Air-conditioned bus, which was completely decked out in baby blue and pink doilies and settled in for a long afternoon of face slaps, crying women and corny sound effects: aka Thai TV. And so began our first hours in Thailand.

Organized chaos.

This is how I would describe travel in Thailand thus far. Every time you organize your transport through a 'farang' friendly agency you get a full, first hand experience of how all this chaotic organization goes down (farang=foreigner). Sometimes that label is meant nicely, sometimes it's not. Its a sure fire way to figure out if someone is talking about you. Just listen for how many times 'farang' is used in the sentence while a group of locals is looking in your direction. Sometimes restaurant signs will read 'Farang & Thai Food!' Anyways, as I mentioned before, the Thai Islands are super touristy. So they have the whole herding us around aspect down to an art. Although it was so much cheaper to do a little leg work ourself when we arrived in Thailand, it can also sometimes work out that attempting to arrange your own transport can be even more expensive, and a hassel not worth enduring. Once in a while, the thought alone of negotiating a taxi to the port and then the boat company and then a songtheaw from the ferry to the bus station and then the... and so on, makes my head spin. In such circumstances we just have to suck it up and hand our Baht over to an agency, sit back, and 'relax'. Although, even if every single person on your bus is a westerner, does by no means mean that you will be spared watching movies and music videos in Thai, keep in mind.

We bought our catamaran ticket from the office on Ko Pha Ngan for an absorbent amount. We only had three destination choices. The port where the ferry would first arrive, a beach resort town half way up the coast, or, Bangkok. We weren't planning on going to any of those places, but we chose the half way point solely because it wasn't Bangkok. Anyone who has travelled this way in Thailand is now shaking their head and smiling/grimacing from the memory. Upon check-in we were all given large, round, colour-coded stickers based on our destination that were stuck on our shirts, along with a colour-coded baggage tag and a ticket. It's like how farmers spray paint the butts of their sheep so they can easily tell them apart when the time comes to round 'em up and shave 'em naked. The ticket was taken from us almost immediately and all we were left with was our purple sticker. This boat was made for tourists. We were herded on and through a series of obstacles. First up was a plank with pushy French people and then onto the wet, slippery deck and then through a door to an indoor seating area that was practically full from the boat's first stop and reeking like a stale lunch box, then to pile our bags NOT according to their colour-coded tags in the front of the boat. Then, because there were no seat left inside, we all filed back outside to scrounge for somewhere to sit. This is where the 'fun' began, as the boat company had clearly sold many, many more tickets than there were spaces for people to 'be'. Not even sit, that was a luxury only about half the people were allowed, just to be. We ended up at the back of the boat, in the perfect location to inhale all the thick black smoke that the boat engine was emitting into our faces, on a crate of glass Coke bottles. Who still drinks Coke out of a bottle anyways? I don't know if anyone has ever sat somewhere with bottle tops sticking up their butt, a child on the right crying, a Japanese couple canoodling against the bathroom door half a foot to the front and a full, rancid garbage can on the left that people continued to use, tossing their leaky, sticky, chicken bone and banana peel garbage over your head (garbage that, for the record, very rarely made it into the actual garbage can and more often just landed somewhere between your lap and your hair) for three entire hours before, but (gasp for air) its not recommendable. People were standing everywhere. Because there literally wouldn't have been enough floor space to sit, even if they wanted too. And so, despite the bottle-top butt tattoo that was forming, I stuck with my coveted 'seat.' People were jealous.

So. We finally arrived at the port and after an announcement in Thai, again, every single person on this boat was a tourist, and not from Thailand, there was a mad rush of people trying to collect their bags, which all seemed to be at the bottom of the pile. Bags were getting tossed this way and that. Tossed perhaps is not the right word as most people pack far, far to much and their bags are massive. Bags were being 'heaved' to and fro. Well, that was what it looked like anyways from the very back of the boat, a very long way from where the bag pile was located. We waited and waited in 'line' to get to the bags. Then, when we got close enough to the bag pile we were told to go wait outside and the bags would be brought out. 'We made an announcement!" we were told. Sure enough, when we got on to the dock there were the bags, being heaved over the side of the catamaran and dropped down a number of feet on to the narrow, rickety dock. Hopefully no one had anything that wasn't completely un-breakable, and 100% waterproof in their sacks.

The boat held literally hundreds of tourists, mostly backpackers. After making our way down the dock, without even falling in through any of the broken planks, we were told to 'check in.' What? I had a sticker? Didn't they already know I was there? Apparently not. The 'check-in' line was a mile long. It was like when the Mandarin has a free-food day and people line up for hours and hours just to eat sub-par Chinese food. Only I was positive that there wasn't any chicken balls at the end of this line. And so, we waited. And waited. When we finally got to the front of the line and there was no free fortune cookie awaiting me, my suspicions were confirmed. We did, however, get another sticker to add to our collection. A little red triangle. It was stuck (with a little too much force, I might add) on top of the purple circle. And then a little Thai lady, who I think was addressing us, but it was very hard to tell said 'Bus No.1 in half an hour over there.' She waved in a general direction and immediately pushed us along and started directing the people behind us. Ok, so we were checked in, I guess. We walked away bewildered. Oh well. Thanks to some industrious locals who were smart enough to see that the hundreds of farangs paraded through the port everyday would very likely be interested in chowing down on some burgers, pasta, french fries, a thai dish or two and fresh fruit smoothies while they waited for their bus, there were plenty of food lines to entertain us until Bus no.1 came around.

We sipped our smoothies and watched the show. A tiny Thai woman was running the show. It was clear, as she was the one with the all mighty (and neon) clipboard. She was tailed by a constantly growing string of tourists who didn't quite trust this 'system', asking her repeatedly if they had missed their bus, consulting the clipboard over her shoulder (which wasn't hard as she was about five feet tall) and which piece of dirt, specifically, they should stand on, so as to not miss their bus, if, in fact, it was still on it's way.

Our bus left, late, and packed to the gills with smoothie slurping, tank top wearing, loud and proud backpackers. We stopped again. At a not-so-conveniently located bus stop aka over-priced restaurant in the middle of no where that has a contract with the bus company and is always full of hotel touts who are nice enough let you know, in advance, that every single hotel in all of Bangkok is full, and that if you don't reserve a room with them right this second you will be wandering the city streets all night where, of course, you are likely to get mugged. Oh, and we had to check in again, of course. 'Checking in' this time meant exchanging our stickers for a new set entirely. Just when I was growing fond of my purple circle, red triangle set. We switched buses to one where we all sported matching stickers. At least this way, if we were all on the wrong bus, we were all in it together! Many, many hours later we were dropped off in front of a mall (that had an ice cream store, so it was o.k) somewhere in the vicinity of the city we had 'chosen' to be let off in. So, you see. It made no sense at all to us, but we, two little people from a crowd of hundreds of similar looking grungy travellers, somehow managed to be delivered safely and with relatively minimal hassle to our destination. Success.

Happy Buddha Pants

Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, is known for its shopping. There is a nightly market with every sort of stall you can imagine. Everything is hand crafted by local people, or brought in from the hill tribes, and it is all a steal. If only I was coming home direct from Thailand... sigh. Anyways. The Sunday market was of particular interest, as I 'needed' a new pair of pyjama pants. The backpacker/hippy style is alive and well in Thailand and pretty much everyone wears a version of flowy, patterned, loose, backpacker pants. You would know them if you saw them. They looked comfy, so I was bent of joining the crowd and owning my very own pair of cliche hippy pants. We wandered through the stalls and I stopped to touch every pair of pants we passed. Too thick, too thin, too colourful, too short, UGLY, um why do we need extra material bulging out from our hips, not the right price.. and so on. And then, much to Jonathan's delight, my eyes finally rested upon the perfect pair. They were thin and soft and had an elastic piece at the back, for ultimate comfort. 'I'll take these,' I said. 'Why dont you try them on first?' Jonathan, the constant sensible voice in my ear said. I sighed. How boring. The vendor didn't seem to like the idea either. He knew what was going to happen. I didn't. 'One size fits all!' the vendor insisted. Jon gave me a stern look. 'Well, where the heck do you want me to try these on?' I challenged, motioning to the packed street and stall that backed onto a phone booth (which was also used to display the pants). 'Right here.' Fine. So I wiggled my way into the one-size-fits-all-baggy-pants. Turns out the size these pants don't fit is the Kristen-size. Yes, its the shameful truth. I was too fat for the pants. 'You have pants on under!' the vendor persisted, sensing he was about to lose his sale. I sighed again and jiggled the (chocolate chip) muffin tops spilling out over top of the almost-mine perfect pants. Apparently the rest of these boring hippie backpackers parading around, showing off their newly acquired pants just aren't enjoying pad thai quite the same way I am. Their loss! Jonathan shook his head. 'I'm too fat for your pants!' I finally admitted to the vendor. 'Ya,' he replied. 'The vendor just agreed that I am too fat for these pants!' I cried to Jonathan. He burst out laughing in response. Something was lost in translation... I'm almost sure of it.

Defeated, and still convinced that there was faulty elastic in the pants I tried on, we continued on my mission. There was a sign over a rack of mod-robe type pants that read 59 Baht (about $2). I ran my hand along them. Acceptable material. I took one from its hanger. They were wide enough to fit Boombee, the elephant we had ridden a few days earlier (Jonathan said they looked like a Babar costume). They had a huge top part and two little pieces of material sewn to the back. 'How do these work?' I asked. 'Put them on,' the vendor instructed. Well, at least I knew these would fit around my waist. I pulled them over the pants I was wearing easy and held the excess material out so Jon could jump in too. haha Just kidding. But he would have fit. Two Jonathans would have fit. The vendor folded the material to make it fit around my belly then reached around, grabbed the two ties, tied them around the front and then folded the material down so it was no longer touching my chin. That's how big these pants are. And thats how I ended up with 'Happy Buddha pants.' Pants that would fit the big, jolly, happy Buddha... or me.

Chicken Soup ala Thai

It was the Chinese New Year so we set off following the big red and gold dragon down the street to where the firecrackers were exploding in the middle of a crowd of people. By middle I mean that the dragon costume, which was being held up by about a dozen teenagers was running tight ciricles around the cardboard box of firecrackers that they had set off the in middle of the busy street. It was almost enough to stop the traffic. Almost. It looked like fun. There are no safety standards to speak of in Thailand, but safety and fun are so seldom related anyways. It was an amazing show. The dragon ran in circles and up and down the street faster and faster to the beating drums. Finally, a bunch of kids all hung themselves from a very tall metal pole with what appeared to be elastic bands and then the dragon was slowly heaved up the pole with it's massive head being passed along person to person all the way to the top until it's body was coiled around the quivering pole. Then the glimmering dragon swayed and jumped and everyone watched in absolute awe. And then more firecrackers. Exploding from everywhere, showering the entire crowd with flaming firecracker particles. It was good fun. If I was an evil spirit I would have most certainly been scared off.

Anyways, all that celebrating (and fearing for my eyes) left me feeling peckish. Jonathan had already secured some Thai roti, which is completely different than Indian roti, and almost solely eaten as a dessert. Sweetened condensed milk is the most popular topping, but the roti stands are always stocked with bananas and nutella for the more deluxe version. I just wanted a little something, and for once, I wasn't in the mood for sweets. Write that down. We came upon a cute guy, maybe about fifteen years old or so standing behind a table with a ginormous cauldron of simmering broth. 'Noodle Soup with Chikin' the sign read. The kid smiled at me. He was just so earnest and cute. Chicken noodle soup, I took liberties in translating the dish. Sounded perfect actually. I asked though, just to make sure. 'Chicken and noodles?' He nodded and motioned me to sit down. A few seconds later I had a piping hot bowl of soup topped with a generous helping of crunchy beansprouts. I doled out the sixty cents that the soup cost and handed it to the young guy. 'Thank you very much!' he said to me in Thai, bowing his head. 'Enjoy!' He was just so cute! The soup guy just bowed at me! Jonathan sat down across from me with his roti. I ate some of the fresh veggies. Yum. I stirred the soup around. There were lots of noodles: check number one for chicken noodle soup. There appeared to be some tender chicken chunks: again, we seemed to be on the right path. But then, there were also some squarish cubes of something that resembled tofu. That would be ok too, although not a staple in the classic version. The 'tofu' was almost purple in colour though and had little black specs in it. They must have marinated it, I thought. I took the tiniest of nibbles. It was just about the same consistency of tofu... hum. Well at least it wasn't beef or pork. 'Oh just ask!' Jonathan finally said after I had pushed it around my bowl for a few long minutes discussing out loud (to myself) what it could possibly be. I waved the cute kid over. 'What's this?' I asked, jabbing a chopstick into a cube and watching it jiggle in response. He said something in Thai which I didn't understand. He was smiling though, so it must have been ok. 'Tofu?' I asked. What was tofu in Thai? I couldn't remember. He shook his head, still smiling. hmm. Then he took his hand to his wrist and made the motion of cutting. What? Why was he... ohhhhh no. 'Blood?' I asked, not wanting to say it out loud, in case that made it true. It felt like the moment stood still in time. My cute kid started nodding enthusiastically. 'Yes! Chikin blood!' he exclaimed proudly, showing off his new English word. I tried my very hardest not to look absolutely horrified. Jonathan looked like he was about to throw up. 'Cubes of congealed chicken blood' he confirmed grimly. No. no no no no no. That couldn't be right, because it was too gross to be true. I looked down at my soup, which only a moment ago seemed so very appetizing. The congealed chicken blood looked back at me, mockingly as if to say, 'Ya! That's right! I'm chicken blood! The blood of a chicken! And you can't be grossed out because you already ate me!' 'Shut up, chicken blood!' The soup guy continued to stand over our table smiling and nodding. I grimaced back. 'Thanks!' I said in Thai. 'Very good.' Oh. My. Lanta. Jonathan was already freaking out, so I tried to pretend it wasn't a big deal. Could I eat around it? Could we just get up and run away now? I looked in the soup guy's direction. He was still standing there behind his big pot of soup grinning from ear to ear. Is it rude to just get up and leave the food there, untouched. Would I be insulting the entire Thai culture, or worse, his mother's cooking? 'Its ok, I'll just eat around it!' I said positively to Jonathan. I hate wasting food. I pushed the objects in the bowl around with my chopstick. I tried in vein to hide the blood cubes which now seemed to be multiplying. I piled the noodles on top of them and they worked their way back through to the top. I pushed them all over to one side and they just floated back. My supportive husband just continued to sit there with the most disgusted face. He really wasn't helping. I told him so. These cubes of congealed blood were on the verge of causing a fight. I was jabbing my chopsticks into the soup, annoyed that Jonathan was so grossed-out, because it was MY soup and I wanted to be grossed-out, and if he was this disgusted than I couldn't possibly be as disgusted as I felt because then we would both be crazy westerners over reacting to a little bit of spilled...and then cubed and congealed blood and then... a chicken foot floated to the top of my bowl. 'Ummm. I just found a chicken foot,' I declared, interrupting our glare-fest. Jonathan shot up from the table like a Chinese firecracker and disappeared immediately in between the food stalls, leaving me sitting there alone with my soup. It was just me, some noodles, a few cubes of congealed chicken blood and a foot. No biggie. Right. I shot a quick glance at the smiling soup guy. By some flash of luck a German couple had shown up and were looking intently at the big pot of soup asking all sorts of complicated and distracting questions regarding the soup's contents. Smart little buggers. They had obviously been here before. I saw my escape opportunity and seized it, dashing away from my bowl of soup without looking back. Phew. Safe. I felt very bad though. And then of course, I couldn't find Jonathan. He's always lost somewhere when I'm looking for him. Either that, or I am never sitting around where he leaves me. Either way. I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off (bad pun) hoping to find my husband before he started heading back towards my soup and then, inevitably, I would have to face the sad face of the formally smiling soup boy. And no one wants to see a sad soup boy. I finally saw him wandering towards the soup in his ambiling Jonathan way. You can picture it, can't you? Do de do de dooooo... 'I'm Jonathan. I desert my wife in the middle of a soup crisis and then try to foil her clean escape...And I like roti.' I called his name and then yelled his name and then shrieked his name. He didn't hear me. He never does. I broke into a full run, through the crowd, trampling children and tripping over old people's canes, like in a cop-bad guy foot chase in the movies. Breathless, I grabbed his shoulders (or his hair, which is that long as well) and dragged him towards the chocolate doughnut stand. Never again will I choose dinner over dessert. This is what happens, people. You end up with chicken foot soup. Every time. I should have known better. Dessert. Always choose dessert!

p.s. We added more photos to our Photostream. They rotate around on the photo badge on the right hand side. Click on a photo to be whisked off to our full photo album!