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!

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Laura said...

New favourite lines:

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.'

Almost crying I was laughing so hard. This blog is seriously a major light in my life!!!! you HAVE to write a book!!!!!

Parentals said...

I had laughing tears in my eyes as well reading about the 'soup ordeal'..... makes U. Dan's 'rabbit/ chicken' soup look good. Like Laura, I could picture the whole thing like I was there.
You're also very adventurous in your transportation options!!

Sarah said...

I'm unsure which part I enjoyed more, the ordeal with the hippy buddah pants and how helpful Jon was there or the soup story and the description that everyone has enjoyed. Excellent start to your thai adventure. This was definitely a 'LOL'-inducing blog entry.