Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Phuket (Karon Beach)…in the here and now.

I realized I hadn’t written for a while, and then realized I just didn’t feel like going back and writing about the past. So here I am in the here and now. I am sitting in a colorful room, much like I’d imagine a room in Mexico, at the Casa Brazil in Karon Beach. I’ve been here ten days, and just signed up to stay next door (because they are full here) for another week. It’s a beautiful, hot, busy beach with lots of shops and a million tourists (mostly Russians and Europeans).

I arrived here from Luang Prabang with a nasty cold, so I spent the first few days just going to the beach, eating soup, and sleeping. Honestly, when I flew in and arrived at Phuket I was ready to go home. It was a long day of traveling; three hour layover in Bangkok, and Phuket town did not look like someplace I wanted to stay. It was like going from Hanalei to Las Vegas. I was grouchy with a cold, and the people at the airport were not all that nice. But, like I’ve learned to do on this trip, I soldered on. Then the taxi ride took forever (over an hour), and I wasn’t sure if he knew where he was going. I certainly didn’t. I kept trying to call Casa Brazil, but couldn’t get through. I finally did, and they told the driver where to go (which I was getting ready to do, but to a different place). 

When I first arrived at Casa Brazil, the agent came out to greet me smiling and I was so glad to see a friendly face. The place is really unique, and although there are a ton of places around here, it is still the nicest one I’ve seen so far. The owner, I found out, is an artist and musician. I haven’t met him, but his work throughout the hotel is remarkable. It really feels like how I imagine Mexico, but with a lot of Asian influence. I was quickly checked in, and taken to my room on the 4th floor (no elevators, dearie). The room was a bit dark at first, and it took me a few days to really warm to the décor, but once I did, it’s been wonderful. The price, with breakfast included, is about $40.00 a night.

The next morning, after I slept about ten hours, I opened my curtains and stepped out on a tiny balcony to a view of the mountains that looked so much like Lahaina, Maui that I was shocked. That’s when I fell in love with this place.  Then I walked 2 minutes to the beach, which is packed wall to wall with umbrella lounges. Normally, I would run as far as possible from a beach like this, especially at home; but for some reason, I enjoy this beach. I love laying and people watching. There are so many different people, and stuff going on all day. Also, there is no English spoken so I don’t have to listen to conversations. I can just observe the people. That seems to make a difference. I spend a lot of my day on the beach, swimming, reading, listening to music, and people-watching.  I will say this as an observation only; we talk about having an obesity problem in America, but I just want to note that it is not only in America. There are really fat Russians, Germans, Italians, English, Dutch, and French people and they don’t seem to have any problem freely flaunting their flubber for all to see. I’m no skinny minny myself, but I feel pretty thin here. This is not an awesome body beach, although there are a few spectacular exceptions, both male and female. It’s nice, because I don’t feel self-conscious at all in my skin. It’s also a top optional beach, and I would forgo my top if I was with a friend, but not alone. They have everything at this beach from jet skiing to para sailing right off the beach, to little grass shacks with drinks and food, to massage on the sand, to boogie board and raft rentals. Your every need is there. And you can walk right across the street to lunch or shop. Okay so it’s not the Phuket of yesteryear, and I’m sure I missed the best days of this island, but I’m enjoying it for now.
One night I walked to Kata Beach for steak dinner at the Buffalo Grill and how amazed was I to see this huge reconstruction of what looked like Fred Flintstone’s house. It is called Dinoland and there is a huge bar, restaurant, and miniature golf. I haven’t checked it out inside yet, but the outside is so funny to see in the middle of Asia…yabadabadoo!

I rented a scooter for about $6.00 and went riding all over Kata and Karon. It took me a couple of days to work up the nerve. The traffic is pretty thick, and there are not too many road rules. I did great though, once I got going. I went up on the highway a sped my way to the Big Buddha overlooking the bay. There is no other feeling for me like being on two wheels. I just know I have to get a bike when I get home. It makes me feel so great to be riding along with that wind in my hair. Riding on the beach roads through Kata and Karon was a bit more challenging, and just in case my sisters are reading this, yes I did wear a helmet. I did notice that the Thai drivers were very patient, and most of the drivers and riders were not too aggressive.

One day last week I went on a super boat cruise that took twelve hours total from pick up to delivery back to the hotel. Spent all day on a really nice yacht going from island to island, with good food and drinks (soft only for me) included. It was a really good crowd of people from Australia, Italy, Holland, and Russia. Russian tourists are generally not very friendly, perhaps because they usually don’t speak English or other languages, but I did get one of the girls to smile at me. The two Australian families were traveling together, and they were really friendly and wanted to know all about my trip. The beautiful lady from Venice was very nice, but didn’t speak much English. We hung out together because she left her husband in Phuket. It was just a good, friendly, fun crowd; which isn’t always the case on these tours that you get a good mix of people. The crew on the boat was also great. Very efficient and friendly. The day was sunny, but turned a bit cloudy at the end of the tour. I would have like to have spent more time on each island, but it was wonderful just being in a boat on the ocean. I also love boats, and wouldn’t mind taking a long boat trip sometime.  Maybe I’ll charter a yacht and go somewhere for my next adventure, after I go across the United States first.  I had to go to James Bond Island for nostalgic reasons, because I started reading Ian Fleming when I was in my teens and wanted so much to escape from my life and my family (as most teens do). Reading those books and wanting to be James Bond probably influenced my decision to leave the US and travel around the world when I was in my 20’s. Well, the island itself wasn’t much. A lot of tourist shacks selling mostly junk. I did buy a glass beaded bracelet as a memento. I walked around to see the one sight worth seeing, which was the tall spear island in the bay that reminded me of those old 60’s fantasy posters with islands and psychedelic spheres floating over blue seas, which is where Avatar stole it’s scenery  from, I believe. This island was featured in one of the Roger Moore James Bond movies, which I never saw because I never watched any of the Roger Moore movies.  Sean Connery is and will forever be James Bond. We ended our day with a swim in a completely isolated bay. It had gotten cloudy and the water was a bit chilly, but I was determined to have my swim anyway.  By the time I got back to the hotel, I was a happy, sleepy camper.

Yesterday I went into Karon Beach and met up with friends, and then I walked in the hot sun all the way back to my beach. Really dumb, but I was determined to walk it. I got a chair in my usual spot, changed into my suit under my towel, took a swim and laid by the beach until almost sunset. Then I went “home”, took a shower, had a cold soda water, laid down for a bit, got up and went to dinner. Came home and played on the computer. The Internet here is not good, and that’s a bit frustrating. There is no TV in English, so mostly I read, write, sleep, eat, and go da beach. Not a bad life, though.

Luang PraBang…the city of monks walking.

I am writing this on the last day at the Casa Brazil in Karon Beach. I am moving next door for another week, and it’s good because I know by then I’ll be ready to move on. I can tell I’m ready when I start to think about where to go and what to do. Up until today, I’ve been happy just day by day.

I really don’t want to write this blog about Laos, because as much as I want to tell you about Luang Prabang, I also don’t want anyone else to know about it. From the minute I got on my Laos Air flight, I knew I was going to a nicer place. Everyone was so much gentler than in Chiang Mai. When we flew into Northern Thailand, it was like flying into Hanalei on Kauai.  The airport was tiny, but very efficient, and I got through Immigration very quickly. I had a long ride through very hot tropical scenery to the city. My first view was not very impressive, as it was very busy and it’s hard to tell a city from the window of a cab. I booked a guest house that got rave reviews on TripAdvisor, although it was very expensive. It was a wonderful little place tucked away on a street between the Mekong River and the second river, right in the middle of the main visitor part of town.  The room was tiny, but beautifully made up with the most beautiful wood floors and doors (Kent would have known what kind of wood!).  The shower was open with just one wall closed, which I didn’t mind. It was a very cozy place. Breakfast was included, and the food was excellent. Another wonderful find is Lao coffee. It is the best coffee I’ve had on my entire trip, including Paris and Turkey. An effort was made to switch the Hmong tribes from growing Opium, which they had done for generations, to growing coffee. The coffee is a very dark, strong bean; and is delicious.

What was so special about Luang Prabang? It was the Asian village-town I’ve been yearning for. How Chiang Mai and Goa were reputed to be in some long ago. Those magical places that I always seem to end up in when the glow is fading, like getting to the beach when the sun has already set below the horizon. Paris in the 30’s, Hawaii in the 40’s & 50’s, the Haight in the 60’s, Amsterdam in the 70’s, Seattle in the 90’s; there are some many names of places, and times “you shoulda been there”, and no matter how good your timing is, you will miss some of them and some of them will be special only because you were there.  The people in Luang Prabang were mostly kind and gentle. There was a bit of hustling for river cruises and taxis, but even that was mild compared to other places. There are a number of Buddhist teaching monasteries in the city, including one very large temple, and every day everywhere you see all ages of monks walking through the city in their bright orange robes, some carrying colorful sun umbrellas. I know that monks are just as good as priests or clergy in any other religion, and they are only humans like the rest of us, but there is something about the feel of this city that sings; here is a place where there are a lot of people contemplating the nature of life, the nature of being, the real underneath the real. 

The first couple of days in a new place are usually spent getting my bearings, and finding out where stuff is. My favorite places where the soup lady stall, and she was the antithesis of the soup Nazi in Seinfeld. She was a middle-aged lady with a large shop-restaurant who stood all day in front making noodle soup, with a beautiful face and generous eyes.  I loved her soup. When I had a cold, she made me some soup from all greens that cleared me up in a minute. She also rented bicycles for about $3 a day, pretty pink and purple bikes with wide tires and little baskets. I rented bicycle from here several days and rode all over town. Although there is a lot of traffic, everyone is very polite and easy to ride through.

My other favorite place was the local market place where I bought ice and water. This was a raucous family with the mom who was also young and hard-working. She kept giving me free ice, or cookies, or drinks. I kept trying to pay her and she kept giving me free stuff. We had good laughs tussling over me trying to pay.
I only did one tour while I was there. I took a very, very, very, long slow boat ride in a long wooden boat with a loud motor down the Mekong River through miles and miles of jungle, although I didn’t see much wildlife. The boat ride was so long, that I started wondering if the boat man had misunderstood and thought I wanted to go to China. We finally ended up at the Buddha Caves, built into the mountains by the river. It is a little hike up some very rustic dirt steps into this series of caves filled with Buddha’s. The place was packed with tourists, but the setting was unusual and beautiful. There was every size, shape, color, and style of Buddha you could ever imagine, and again I purchased a flower candle and knelt by one shrine to offer my prayers for myself, Kent, and all my friends and family especially all the ones who have “passed on”.  I started to hike up to the higher caves, but just couldn’t make it. Angkor Wat wiped me out for hiking up to anymore temples or sites for quite some time. 

I only stayed five days at the first hotel, and then I decided to stay in Luang Prabang longer. I just couldn’t leave this quiet, lovely place, so I found another room right across the street. I’m getting really good at that. This place was much cheaper, the room was larger, the family who ran it was friendlier, and I loved staying there. It also had a much hotter, nicer shower than the more expensive place. So I rolled my bags over there and set up house for another ten days. I kept deciding not to leave. The weather was really nice, although much cooler than Chiang Mai, and it did rain hard a couple of times. When I finally did leave, I had picked up a bad cold and the weather turned really cold for me.

I had breakfast almost every day at the same little coffee place, where I sat outside and had excellent coffee and omelets with fresh fruit just like home. Mangoes, papayas, bananas, melons, mango steins, and that funny fruit with the white juicy sections in the middle of a hard dark shell. Another wonderful thing about this place, influenced by the French occupation and from when it was the Royal capital of Laos, is the over-abundance of restaurants with great food of all types from French, Italian, German, Thai, Laotian, Chinese, Japanese; every type of food you can imagine. There was even a place that had couscous dishes from Morocco.That's the place I had a lovely talk with the couple from Sidney who were also staying at Amanta House. We agreed it was really a nice place, especially for the price (about $30.00 a night).

Another wonderful thing is that everything here is very cheap, much cheaper than Thailand; although I heard visitors saying it was expensive for Laos. Some friends in Chiang Mai said it was just a place were rich Americans were hanging out. I honestly didn't see any rich Americans, although there were some very pricey hotels. I also saw a lot of backpackers and eco-travelers, and a lot of older travelers like myself. Some of the restaurants were a bit expensive, and some of the ones on the main street were downright snooty. Although it was evidently very popular, and filled every night with mostly French travellers; I did not care for the Elephant Place. I had lunch there, and was not impressed. I was also put off by how silly the waiters where. A couple of times  I went to the Tree Top Restaurant right on the river, mainly because the photographs done by the owner of Northern Laos scenes and people are worthy of an art gallery. I ended up talking with him for a bit the last time I was there. He was from the Netherlands (Holland), and him and his wife had ended up in Luang PraBang feeling the same way I felt about it; and never been able to leave. It’s that kind of place.

The days just kind of rolled along, like the two rivers. I bought a wrist band from a young, beautiful girl by the river. I mailed hand-drawn New Year’s cards to friends and family. I actually was able to pack about 15 pounds of stuff and ship it home at the little post office, which was very organized. It cost me a ton of money to ship, but I just had to lighten my load. I’m very glad I did now that both my cases are lighter. I did end up sending stuff that I wish I had kept, but it just means I have to get new stuff or do with what I have.

I spent the day in the temple, but I am temple-fried so I kind of went through the motions; making my offerings and throwing my fortune again. Although I love seeing the monks everywhere, as a woman you are not supposed to look at them. You have to cover your arms and legs in the temples. And basically, once again, you are not included as part of their religion. I think it is only recently, in Thailand at least, that they have finally allowed women monks to be ordained. I saw women monks in Thailand. I did not see any woman in Laos.

I had a choice of going to Vietnam-Ha long Bay, China, or on to Phuket. I waited and waited for the right decision to come to me. In the end, after hearing pros and cons from different travelers, I decided to leave Vietnam and China for another day. It was very cold up there now, they have a high rate of malaria and I haven’t been able to get new meds over the counter like I did in India, and I definitely did not want to go to another big Asia city like Hanoi. I heard the little towns on the Chinese border of Laos were nice. I talked with a lovely couple from Sidney, and she was not that impressed with HaLong Bay, because it was cold and very foggy. She said she wished they had gone in spring, and stayed for longer on a boat cruise.  She said it was a very long bus trip from Hanoi. I also talked with another lady my age who was traveling all over on the buses (I admired her!). She insisted I should go, and told me there were some islands in the Mekong Delta that were much nicer than Phuket. Then another man said he would have passed on Hanoi; it was loud with cars honking (like India), very cold, and not much to do there.  I usually make my own decisions in the end and really, I just didn’t feel like going any further North this trip. It’s one of those choices you make on a trip like this that you may later regret, but I doubt it. I’ve always known I could not go everywhere and do everything, and have been committed to doing what feels right only for me.

I did have a hard time leaving this lovely town, and was only helped along by the fact that it got rainy and cold right as I was packing up.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chiang Mai…2011 bye bye

I had a hell of a time going on from Bangkok, booking at the last minute during Christmas-New Year’s week. All the flights and first class train were booked to Phuket, and all the trains and hotels were booked for Chiang Mai also. My friendly travel agent on Soi 11 finally gave up, and refunded the train she booked because she could not find a hotel. I ended up in my hotel room working magic online, and booked a last minute flight and hotel myself.

If I had gone to Phuket then, I would have missed going to Luang Prabang in Laos, which would have been tragic; so it all worked out. When I got to Chaing Mai, honestly I was surprised. I expected a sleepy little village, and what I got was Bangkok’s younger, wilder, not so made-up sister. I ended up in a hotel right on the corner of the Night Market district. The hotel was definitely not worth the money I paid, but I got a kick out of it because it really reminded me of the hotel in the Maltese Falcon or Casablanca. Those same yellow-beige walls with long corridors, and some truly beautiful wood walls and ceilings. My room was immense, the way hotel rooms used to be in the 30’s and 40’s. I had a sitting room, and a large bedroom, so never mind that the carpet was dingy and the tub didn’t work. It was actually the perfect place to spend the end of 2011, nostalgic as I felt moving into 2012. 

I spent the first couple of days canvasing the area, found some friends in town, had a great dinner at a place where the owner had lived in Hawaii for ten years. The highlights of my time in Chaing Mai were the Elephant Ride, which was a great experience although the group I ended up with was not very friendly. You never know when you book tours what combination of people you will end up with. This group was made up of several young couples from San Diego and Montreal. The San Diego couple were,  like a lot of young California couples, kind of snotty and over-impressed with themselves. The couple from Montreal were very nice, especially the man who was originally from someplace in the states. There was also an older guy from New Zealand who was very interesting, and we did a fun ride together on the raft. For whatever reason though, the group just did not jell, and everyone pretty much went their own ways. It was a long tour outside of Chaing Mai where we went to an Elephant Farm. The ride on the raft down the river was my favorite part of the tour. It was so beautiful, and there were only two of us on a wooden raft with the steersman. As we were rolling along down the river I felt memories of reading Tom Sawyer, the Mississippi River as it was in the 1700’s(?). Just this great feeling of being out in the wilderness riding down a river on a wooden raft with the sun on the water and birds chirping in the trees, with the occasionally monkey in a tree sighting; I could have stayed on that raft all day.

Then we rode the elephant. They had you ride in two’s, but I got to go by myself. It was a great ride through the river with the elephant wading through the water, and up the steep muddy bank onto a track through the jungle. My driver was really good, and took me off the track away from all the other riders for a bit. My only regret was seeing some people riding bareback without the saddles, and I wished I had done that.
After that we ended up in a dusty stop, and took an ox cart ride back to the main camp. If you have never ridden in an ox cart, it’s okay. Not an experience you need to rush after. It was dusty and hot, but there was a picture perfect moment riding in the cart past the fields of rice with farmers in wide brimmed hats bent over sodden lanes framed by the mountains of Northern Thailand and the blue sky.

The next highlight was the 5th Annual Flower Festival in honor of the King, which I booked with a guide. That was a mistake. I could have gone on my own just fine. It was set up like an amusement park with exhibits representing all the countries in the world. The emphasis was on conservation of Thailand’s natural resources, and concerns for the world’s ecology. It was a school holiday so the place was packed with kids of all ages, which was actually a great experience. I especially loved the exhibits of orchids, which were so beautifully arranged they were like a fantasy. My guide was a young student, and we ended up having a great time together; although I think she was more interested in shopping than being a guide. We spent most of the day walking and riding carts through the park. I skipped some exhibits, because there were so many, and I was not feeling all that great. After, we went up to the temple whose name I have somewhere. It is a very old temple, and they have some weird ceremonies there every year where they exhibit “magic”. I bought some pieces of gold flakes and put them on the long row of mounds which would eventually be used to remodel the temple. I said prayers for all my friends and family with each piece. It was a very special ceremony. I also threw my fortune, where I went into a small room, knelt and shook the wooden box with sticks. Each stick had a number, and the stick that fell first from the pile was your fortune. Of course my guide had to translate my fortune, and of course it was all very positive. I’ve saved both of the ones I did in Thailand, and will have someone at home translate them for me too. That temple was one of my favorites because it seemed very heathen. There were statues of women goddesses from Northern Thai mythology, and a water pond with a water nymph. It was very different from the temples in Bangkok, which were very proper and masculine.

The last highlight of my trip to Chaing Mai was New Year’s Eve, which was in some ways, a very difficult time for me. I could have met up with some people in Chaing Mai, but it didn’t work out and actually wouldn’t have fit me or my mood. I ended up having a great night on my own walking around having little mini adventures. One of the best ones was the paper lantern lighting ceremony on the river. I noticed these lights flying above me while I was walking, and they looked like the pyres that were lit on Maui at the temples during the Obon Festivals. Every year the Buddhists have a ceremony where they take the ashes of ones who have died that year and build a pyre which they set on fire and put into the ocean. This lit pyres float out into the water at dusk. It is one of the most beautiful ceremonies I’ve ever seen. So when I saw these fires in the sky over Chaing Mai, that’s what I thought of, and I tracked them down to the river front. They were selling these huge paper kites, which had rings of paraffin. You lit the paraffin and held the paper kite up until it filled with hot air. Then you released it into the air to float away. The man said that this tradition was done at the New Year, and you put all your bad thoughts, unfulfilled wishes, cares and worries from the past year into the lantern so they could float away; and you could begin the New Year clear of heart and mind. I lit three of them. There was a young girl also doing this ceremony who was so nice to me…she took my picture and helped me with my lantern lighting. Overall, it has been rare that young people have reached out to me on my travels, but this girl was so very kind and generous, and made an extra effort to be friendly. Maybe I reminded her of someone. I’ll never know because she went off with her friends, and I went on to my next adventure. 

I had found this little club across the river a few nights before, and I could just tell by the kids running it and the décor that it was a very cool place. They had a bandstand, and an area up these old stairs with a pool table and a bunch of sofas and seating areas. It looked like an old French jazz club with artwork on the walls, old chandeliers over the bar, balconies over the outside road, and tables out on the sidewalk. I asked if they had music, and they did have a band. So New Year’s Eve I went back there and heard one of the rockin’ best bands I’ve heard in a long time live. They played jazz, blues, rock, and the lead guitarist was unreal. The whole band was young Thai’s with maybe one Chinese guy, and they had a young white girl who sang in Thai and English. She did a great version of Alicia Key’s, “if I ain’t got you”, which of course made me cry. It was okay. The crowd were all fixed on the band, and I was in the corner by the bar, so I just let the tears flow in honor of… It was a really young crowd and I was the only “visitor” there, but no one made me feel out of place at all. The staff were really friendly and welcomed me back, and hell I did have on my cool black jeans and t-shirt even if I was four decades on.  I went upstairs and played some pool with a crowd of kids. One of the girls told me how well I played. I told her my eyes were shot, and I’d played a lot better when I was younger. I had a few sodas, listened to some great music, played some fun pool, and took off while the feelings were good. 

I ended up back at the Meridian Hotel across from my hotel, and they were having a big outdoor party which you had to pay 200 baht to get in. It was amusing because all the “rich” people were standing around trying to look like they were having a grand time, while all the street people were staring in at them and actually having a grander time on their own. I did end up paying to get in just so I could do the New Year’s Eve countdown, which was really funny and perfect. I toasted my soda with a bunch of drunk strangers, and after hanging out on the streets a bit longer, went back to my hotel feeling as if it was the perfect New Year’s for me in my single state of mind.

The other great experience that I had was I went twice to the spa at the Meridian Hotel. I certainly could have gone anywhere on the street and gotten a cheap massage or any type of treatment, but the massage places on the streets, like a lot of things in Thailand, are set up for men. They are “wham, bam, thank you mame” affairs that are not very esthetic or pleasing to my senses. Sitting in a row of chairs getting massaged with my clothes on in an open window with a bunch of tourists walking by is not my idea of a relaxation experience. The only exception was the massage on the river in Bangkok, and the place I went to on Soi 11 which were both very peaceful and beautiful experiences. The spa at the Meridian had a special on, so I got one day of full body treatment and another day having my Chakra's aligned for a very good rate. The rooms were elegant, the music was sublime, and the huge soaking tub was the perfect place to end the day. The whole experience, including the great tea they serve after, was well worth the extra baht.

Between the beginning of the year blues and being over Chaing Mai ants in my pants, I was ready to move on…but no idea where to. I didn’t really want to head down to Phuket without seeing at least one other Northern country. I was seriously thinking of Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, so I thought I’d go to Laos and decide from there. I didn’t want to go to another big city, and then someone mentioned to me that Luang Prabang was worth seeing, so that’s where I decided to go.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Back to Bangkok; a blue Christmas.

The day I left Siem Reap I got up and went to check out of the hotel. I thought I’d check my email while I was waiting for the car to go to the airport. There was a three day old email from my brother-in-law telling me my husband’s mother had died on December 17th . I was so grateful I had been able to talk with her on Skype the week before, and evidently after we spoke she started slipping away. It wasn’t a shock, but being so far away and getting the news three days after really made it difficult. There I was checking out of the hotel, crying. The people were so nice and understanding, and I had the same driver to the airport that I’d had for my trips to Ankor Wat. He didn’t speak very much English, but he was very kind helping me organize myself as best I could and I made it to the airport. When you are flying from one country to another, you really can’t be having an emotional crises. I had a few crying fits in the bathroom at the airport, but mostly was able to put myself together and make it through to Bangkok.
It was comforting that I was returning to the same hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 11. They welcomed me back, and I didn’t have to adjust to a new place when I was feeling kind of fragile. There was a beautiful Christmas tree in the lobby which really made me sad thinking of Helen and all the wonderful Christmas times we had spent together as a family in Hanalei. I was finally able to reach my brother-in-law on Skype and that helped me feel a bit better, although still very sad. It was a strange return to Thailand, but somehow the fact that I was at Ankor Wat when she passed was very meaningful to me. I had so many thoughts about my husband and the strange nature of our lives that only lead to one eternal place, a place of which we have very little understanding.

The next few days I spent in Bangkok reconnecting with friends, sharing my loss, being gentle with myself, talking with family. I also did some business. I went to the local hospital, which I picked because it was the one the King was staying at, so I figured it had to be pretty good. It was so easy to set up an appointment with a GP online, and they even had a shuttle bus that picked me up at Soi 11. I was able to see the doctor, have tests run, get results, and get my prescriptions all on one floor in about three hours. It was not as cheap as Turkey, but the service was excellent and everything was very efficient. Once again, a far cry from the experiences my husband and I had in the hospitals in Hawaii. I do want to add that the doctor I saw did not speak very fluent English, and several times I wondered if he had any idea what I was asking, but in the end he took all the right tests and I got the medicines I needed refilled.

I also went to the Embassy in the hopes of having them help me get a new password for my social security account online. For some reason, I no longer had access and was concerned about my benefits since I’ve been unable to get any mail forwarded since Holland. I had called the day before and they had said someone would call me back. Then I called back and they said to come in person. It was a strange experience. The security was no surprise, and the agents were all very friendly. The Social Security specialist could not help me, and said I would have to contact the Embassy in Manila. I advised her I was not going to Manila, but in the end it was clear to me that they could not help me. What was so interesting about this experience was the fact that there were at least ten men in that room of various ages who were all there to take care of visa situations in relations to having just married Thai wives. And several agents were spending at least 20-30 minutes taking care of each of these men’s concerns. Of course, it made me think again of this whole compliance position between Thailand and America with regards to what is, in reality, legalized sexual slavery. How did this become the norm, for Thailand to sell its women to aging (and not so aging) foreigners? And when did America become an active supporter of this system. It was so odd to be in that embassy and realize that their main purpose, their expertise as it were, was to assist this room filled with men who had found their Shangra-la. Meanwhile I, a lone retired white woman, would have a harder time getting assistance from my government in Thailand than if I’d landed on Mars.

Around this time, Christmas was approaching. I've spent the last few holidays since Kent died surrounded by friends and family, which has been a blessing. This year I had fully expected to ignore the whole holiday event. I did not expect that Thailand would be a Christmas holiday fiasco, which is really amusing because most of the people don't even celebrate Christmas. The whole Christmas deal is done purely for sales and marketing; to sell stuff to foreigners. It was really funny, in a sad weird way, which was best expressed by the ad my friend found of a picture with Santa nailed to a cross. I had some friends from Hawaii in Bangkok so I was invited to spend time with them. We spent a wonderful day traveling around Bangkok,catching up and ended up at a massage place that was actually floating on the river. The barge of massage beds was out in the open with a roof painted with scenes from Asian mythology, vivid colored gods and flowers. We had a very thorough massage, as only a Thai massage can be, with deep knuckles in muscles and cracked bending of joints. This is not the easy, soothing, expensive, nice, massage you get at your local Ritz-Carlton. This is a medical realignment of your whole body, with a total price of 100 baht or $3.00 for a full hour rubdown. Nothing fancy, just lying on the river listening to the boats, and someone’s child talking on and on, and hands slapping on bodies, and my mind drifting away into a world of  memories, tears sliding down my cheek and overall in the feel of my back on the soft mat, the soft low throb of life on the river rubbing itself into my skin.

I spent Christmas at a wonderful dinner party with an old friend, some new friends, and lots of strangers. The food was an incredible mix of American holiday fare with turkey, potatoes, and cranberry sauce; along with a full table of Thai food that was all so delicious. We were in an apartment over the river with a view straight from the pages of Conde Nast. It was one of those times when I truly felt like one of the beautiful people with Bangkok spread beneath us in a cool blue evening dress just waiting for the fireworks.
Most of the rest of my second visit I spent walking around Bangkok. I went to the movies at the new mall, ate great food, and met new friends. I had decided I would go up to Chiang Mai for New Year’s. I didn’t want to spent New Year’s in Bangkok or Phuket…just too much crazy partying for me; so Chiang Mai seemed like a good choice at the time….and I'd finally had my fill of the Bangkok buffet.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ankor Wat; dreamland.

I went overland from Bangkok to Siem Reap, a journey I only advise for the very young or the very adventurous. There were eight of us on a very long boring bus ride with a mean Thai driver who flipped out when the Romanian couple started kissing in the back seat. Mind you, this is after leaving Bangkok, the Sodom and Gomorrah of Asia where I saw girls running around the streets in mini skirts with no panties. I very conflicted country, Thailand. It was a big drama with me and another American finally talking the driver, who insisted he was very religious, out of throwing these heathens off the bus. Finally, he drove us to an immigration stop outside the border crossing were they heisted about $50 from me for a Cambodian visa. Then I was put in another van and taken to the Thai border, where I had to lug my bags out and over to the Cambodian border and then to another taxi, which I shared with the Romanian couple and a very sweet Thai girl. Living like a refugee. We ended up having a good laugh about the mean driver and the whole fiasco trip. It was another five hour drive, but I finally made it to my hotel, The Salina in Siem Reap. At first I was a bit disappointed because it seemed to be in a off beat part of town and was completely empty, but after I was there for a day or so, I ended up loving it. The staff were wonderful, they had a great pool, and the room was really comfortable. 

I started my tour the next day and my first sight of Ankor Wat stopped my breath.  I have seen, both on this trip and in my life travels, many sights. Although I am not yet jaded by the wonders of the world, I am also not easily astounded.  We drove around a moat the size of the Colorado River, and I got out of the car to walk across the first of many bridges and stand in front of the first of ten temples. It is the most awe inspiring sight I have ever seen, truly.  Ankor Wat was first built about 900 years ago, and lay completely undiscovered by the western world for several hundred of those years. It is now very much discovered, and may only have a few years left before it has lost its astonishing charm. What might save it from being completely overrun is the fact that it is not an excursion for the faint of heart or weak of limb. I spent two days touring all ten temples, and at the end of the first day I literally thought I would not make it through the next day’s tour.  I walked to the top of every temple, except for the very last section of the last temple, and I could not have made that last climb if I had been promised absolution from all my sins.

I hired a driver and a guide at the hotel because I only planned to stay a few days in Siem Reap, and wanted to get the most out of the trip that I could. My guide was an enthusiastic young father and college graduate who knew as much about the history of Ankor Wat as I imagined possible for one person. His English was not perfect, and it was challenging understanding all of his explanations, especially of the detailed minutiae of kings and sons of kings who had built each separate temple. He did have some wonderful stories about the various statues and artwork, but most of the time I was breathing so hard after having hiked up a thousand tortuous steps that I could barely concentrate through the blood pounding in my head. Most of what I loved was the feel of the place, a feeling of something so old and so powerful and so filled with the reality of a culture that has, for the most part, disappeared. Several times I had to ask my guide to stop talking so I could just absorb my own sense of being high above the ground in the middle of a jungle in Cambodia surrounded by a temple carved by long dead rulers in their homage to old gods. This was the experience, the scene, the feeling that motivated this journey; to be standing on the top of a temple in the middle of a jungle in an ancient land.
Great writers, poets, and artists have described Ankor Wat over the last few hundred years, and I am not sure I am up to the task. These are my impressions. Standing at the top of a temple looking down steps so steep one man later told me he literally froze and could not walk down the steps until a monk and guide took his arms and helped him down the steps. I had a few times when I was going down these very steep and high stone steps feeling as if I could fall off into space at any moment, but for some reason I was not afraid. Walking over a four car wide stone bridge toward a temple decorated by the surrounding jungle and seeing a wall stretched into infinity, covered with stone gods so elaborately designed with jewels and cloth they could have easily peeled off the wall into the trees around me. Walking down a wooden walkway suspended over water that reminded me of a world in MYST, with an algae covered lagoon on both sides, and trees draped with moss hanging overhead. We came to an open space with a number of statues sunk into algae pools. There was a group of monks following us, and my guide said they had come to do a special ceremony, but were unable to complete it because the pool was dry for this time of year. I kept being reminded of games I’d played, including Laura Croft and Myst, where so much of the game worlds looked exactly like what I had stepped into. Ankor Wat is a fantasy world come alive; it is truly the place of dreams.
My other favorite place was the palace of trees, where the temples are actually encased in these huge trees that have grown over and around them so that you can’t tell if the tree is a temple or the temple is a tree. Wandering through these structures was magic. I felt a tug of ancient druid blood, which I’m sure is buried somewhere in my DNA.
There were at least three times during the two days that I came upon a shrine where I felt it was not intrusive to make an offering, and lit incense or a candle. The last time I did this was after a long hike to the top of a temple. There was a shrine which was being tended by an ancient Buddhist nun. I went up to the shrine and lit some incense and made my offering. While I was standing there, she came over to me, stretched to reach the top of my head and ran her hands gently over my head and down my body, patting me as she softly chanted. It was such an amazing feeling of holiness. A pure blessing. The day I was leaving Siem Reap, I received the email saying that the mother of my husband had passed away in Hawaii the past weekend. I truly believe that nun blessed me as Helen was leaving this world.  
The second day, we toured the flat land temples which I was very glad of because the first day was a lot of climbing, and I was exhausted. I also insisted that we go up in the hot air balloon ride. It’s not that great as a balloon ride because you are in a very large basket with about fifteen people and the balloon is raised in the air about 200 feet on a steel cable, but my main reason for going was to be able to take pictures of Ankor Wat from the air and I got some great shots. I asked Won, my guide, if he wanted to go to so he could tell his children about it. He was thrilled, but we couldn’t talk the driver into going with us.  
The balloon ride made us a bit late for the climb up to the top of the mountain, which is the temple spot where everyone goes to watch the sunset. I had several people who have been to this site tell me not to miss this event, the sunset over Ankor Wat. Won was really anxious that I not miss it. He had planned for us to go the first night, but it was a bit cloudy and I was exhausted at the end of the first day. Then, we were a bit late after the balloon ride and it was a holiday weekend, so the hike up another very steep rocky hill was packed with people from all over; China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, America, Australia, Japan. They only allow 300 people on this temple site at one time and we ended up in a very long slow line at the top of the mountain. Also, most of the people who had gone up were not coming down until after the sunset, which made line move even slower. I was very tired after this second long day and standing in a slow line to climb up one more very steep set of endless stairs to sit and watch a sunset over Ankor Wat, which would have been oh so romantic with my husband, but without him? Well, to be honest, I just couldn’t do it. Won was much more disappointed than I was when I told him, “Let’s just go back down the hill.” I assured him I was more than happy with all we had done and seen, and missing out on the sunset was not that big a deal to me. I told him we have the most wonderful sunsets in the world in Hawaii, and Ankor Wat was so spectacular in so many other ways. Even though I was in Siam Reap another few days, and I thought about going back for the sunset later, in the end I just couldn’t face another climb up another hill, even for Won’s sake.