– Updates –
The humblest of my apologies for the wait. I’ve been quite busy lately. No wait – that’s not the word. Lazy. Yeah, that’s it. Also, the computer goblins absconded with a nearly complete version of this at one point, so consider my responsibility shirked.
So whither art thou, Adam?
I’m in Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit – also known as Bangkok, Asia’s sin city and leading cause of testicle injury in middle school. It is sweltering here, as it is all year round – it’s supposedly the hottest major city in the world. It’s also more humid than gym shoe, so I’ve become accustomed to sweating like a cold glass of water. I saw a wizened old Thai man jogging the other evening in a full tracksuit and he hadn’t a bead of sweat on him. I stood dripping with perspiration and envy as he shuffled by. I’m not built for this climate.
Case in point: In a bid to offer you the vicarious experience, dear reader, of the ups and downs, the mountain-peak-vista highs and the crack-alley-lows of my itinerant life, I came down with a severe case of sunstroke that lasted four hellish days. A day of snorkelling in water-muffled tranquility around coral reefs, forgetting woes and worries and sunscreen was the train wreck; the aftermath was 48 hours of waking sleep and twisted Sisyphean dreams of trying to draw rectangles, only for one side to disappear as I was about to complete the square (math joke!). The rest of my time was spent in the bathroom in escalating hostilities with my digestive system and a small army of bird-sized mosquitoes. Like all wars of attrition, there were no real winners.
After a successful recuperation in a serenely beautiful Thai seaside town called Prachuap Khiri Khan under the pitying care of a hostel matron, I set out for Bangkok missing one epidermal layer but sporting a new, robust fear of the sun. The snorkelling and the extra time spent in Prachuap were well worth it, though.
The car is in quite a state. It is slowly leaking oil from a cracked oil pan, and I deposit a little bit on the ground each time I park, like a dog dutifully marking its territory. The power steering fluid is once again MIA, the coolant has evaporated, somehow, and there is is a thick layer of dust both inside and out that is glued like quick-dry cement to every surface.
The Indian shipping company I used to get the car to Malaysia, LCL Logistix, also gouged a chunk from the side of the car as they deftly maneuvered it into the container, and simply stopped replying to my emails when I
very politely informed them of their blunder. I can only imagine they are writing me a lengthy apology and baking me a cake of some sort to go with the cheque to pay for the damage. Despite using an “x” to spell “Logistics” they seemed to be a relatively reputable company. However, they turned in an almost comically incompetent performance. Other people looking to ship from India: look elsewhere.
On the upside, I have a small colony of ants that now keep me company and live somewhere in the belly of the car. There is also a friendly spider who pops up now and then to say hi. He jumped onto my hand as I was shifting gears a few days ago, causing me to scream like a little girl and swerve into oncoming traffic, and I think I might have squashed him. Godspeed little buddy. I’ve contemplated buying a sugar glider and maybe a small fox to add some drama to my little ecosystem.
I was supposed to be in Australia about 7 months ago. Unfortunately, since the original plan had me taking a ferry to Indonesia from Malaysia (which doesn’t exist anymore), thence on a container ship from Timor to Oz (which is now well out of my budget) and ultimately selling the car down under (which I found out is illegal), my plans have necessarily changed. I will now be driving back to England via China, Mongolia, Russia, and central Asia next spring, spending the winter in Shanghai. Australia, you will have to wait. Better late than never – but you can’t be late if you don’t show up.
– Malaysia –
I spent a solid month in Kuala Lumpur, loafing about, pondering existential crises and applying myself with no great impetus to various diversions. I then spent about a week driving up toward Thailand and exploring some of the north along the way.
Malaysia doesn’t have a lot of marquee attractions. Mostly due to the Islamic influence, there’s a significantly thinner party atmosphere in the country, so it’s often overlooked by travellers binge drinking around the region. Fortunately, there are plenty of sights to keep you busy and impressed, Malaysians are a pleasant bunch, the food is good, and you rarely have to share accommodation with credulous gap year students.
What’s that? I was once that moron yelling and stomping around a quiet neighbourhood in search of my hostel at 3 in the morning? No, you must have me mistaken with someone else. In my gap year, I was writing a treatise on socioethnocultural development in modern European soundscape recordings and having erudite conversations with free-thinking academics over miniature cups of espresso and croissants on sun-caressed wrought-iron tables. I think – my memory of that period is pretty hazy. Probably all the croissants.
Old people, answer me this: Is the main draw of growing older complaining about young people? I’d be content if that’s all there is.
Back to Malaysia. Here’s the best/worst of my time there.
Playing squash in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is the only country whose national sports hero is a squash player. Nicol David is utterly dominant in women’s squash. She’s been No. 1 for the last few years and holds all sorts of records in the sport. Unlike Canada, in Malaysia a number one player means that the skill level of the average basher is quite high, as it also was in Pakistan. Hey, Canada – remember how a Canadian was the World Open champion and world number one in men’s squash for several years? Of course you do.
I played pick-up squash with a group of middle-aged Chinese guys a few times a week. They’d run me into the ground and then we’d go get delicious late-night Chinese food, most of which I could have never ordered on my own. Great fun. I also entered a tournament as a walk-on, and they paired me up against the former national squash coach in the first round. The match was not at all competitive. It builds character to be humbled so nonchalantly by your competition, and humiliating defeat is worthwhile discomfiture.
The Petronas Towers are great-looking buildings. They rise like twin sentinels above the KL skyline and have just the right mix of restrained futurism and Islamic architectural influence. At night, the layer cake of geometric triangles and circles above the connecting bridge is buttressed by soft white light and office fluorescents bead the bodies of the towers like perspiration. The best view of KL is actually from the Kuala Lumpur Tower, though, which gives a a great 360 view of the city, including the Towers.
The night market on Jonker Walk in Melaka. Most night markets are just stall after stall of the same tacky knickknacks and plastic souvenirs. The Jonker Walk market was mostly kitsch, too, but there was enough variety to make each stall worth a look. The excellent and cheap street food helped, too. I purchased an Elmo passport cover, which I hope will smooth border formalities.
Near the end of Jonker Walk there is a permanent stage set up where Malaysian Chinese get their karaoke on. I’m a huge fan of karaoke, and have no qualms with belting out Backstreet Boys classics, but karaoke is serious business to the Chinese. One stand-out crooner was recalled to the stage several times, and for his finale a handful of old ladies joined him onstage as impromptu backup dancers.
Hash running in Kuala Lumpur. Hash running is a social run-cum-booze-up that was invented by British servicemen stationed in Malaysia during the 30s. They created a running club to get rid of weekend hangovers and, somewhat contrarily, to “acquire a good thirst and satisfy it in beer.” My kind of athletics. Basically, a hash run involves a “hare” laying out a loop through the jungle using bits of paper, whereupon the “hounds,” in this case pallid expats and their young Malaysian wives, decipher the trail and arrive back at base an hour or two later. By this time the beer truck has arrived and everyone gets properly sauced. They happen once or twice a week in KL, and I went to a few of them. Excellent times all. The Dutch organized a particularly eventful run:
The run began at 4:30 in the afternoon. My roommate Sam and I arrive in the jungle at 5:30, a punctual (for me) hour late. I blame the horrendously designed KL road network and my insistence on using my internal compass for navigation. To get to the run site, we turn off a back road and drive past several muddy ponds, irritating a handful of sleepy-looking locals fishing in the ponds. The home base is a field of tall wild grass on the edge of the jungle. The Dutch organizers have followed a leave-no-trace policy by flattening half of the field with their trucks, ensuring a nice grass-free area for post-race festivities.
I haven’t been able to walk properly for the past few days due to some undetermined foot injury. Despite all good sense to the contrary, I find myself lacing up my dilapidated runners at the back of the car. I have a nagging sense that I wouldn’t be doing this if I had not just driven 60 kilometers in rush hour traffic to get here.
The organizer is hollering at Sam and me to get going if we want to finish before dark descends on the jungle and everything gets all Wrath of God. She gives us a brief overview of the course, and tells us that the highest hill on the course is no taller than the highest mountain in Holland. This is presumed to be some strange run-themed joke and we jog into the clammy jungle already sweating buckets.
Usually it’s easy going when you’re the last to tackle the course, as the frontrunners have deciphered the trail, and all there is to do is follow a meandering route through the jungle to the refreshments at the finish line. But the thunderstorms earlier in the day and the passage of dozens of runners has turned the trail into a virtually impassable slippery mudslide. Two hundred meters in and we start up a sharp incline. At least the Netherlands is a flat country. Presumably, the toil will be short-lived.
The foot-wide slip ‘n’ slide increases in steepness at an alarming rate. I’ve worn my only runners, which boast tread like baby skin and are excellent for out-of-control kamikaze descents, but admittedly provide little help going up hills. Claustrophobic vegetation kettles us onto the trail. I grab trees and roots and haul myself bodily up the mud path, on my knees, back on my feet. I gain purchase by velcroing my thrashing limbs to vines with thorns like fishhooks.
We look up the slope to see a victim of the course cursing and huffing. He’s a heavyset British retiree and is uncertainly coming down the hill. His attempts to stay upright give him the appearance of a baby deer. “On-on lads, it just keeps going up and up,” he says, using the odd slang of the hashing community. “Screw it. I’m going back for a beer.” Wise sayings often fall on barren ground, it is said, and we plow on.
We encounter a few more pasty course casualties, all complaining about the difficulty of the run. It’s normally far easier than this – most have come expecting a jog in the jungle, followed by free-flowing booze and other refreshments, not some sadistic Predator remake. Soon, we come across a little laminated sign stuck to a stake in the ground. There is a clipart image of a grinning man and the advice: “If you turn back now, it will be even worse!” I am drenched in sweat and mud and inadequacy, and I want all the Dutch dead.
We arrive at the summit with a bone to pick with Dutch geography. The tallest mountain in Holland is only around 300 meters, but we accomplished that in an almost vertical ascent. It also means we’ve covered only 25% of the course, and still have about 5 km to go down a muddy forested mountainside.
Sam claims that his father was a mountain goat or something like that, and that he’s inherited some genetic ability to run down hills very fast. In any case, he can go inhumanly quick on the descents and he rockets off down the hill like frightened quarry. I’m left alone, depleted, wondering whether it would be easier to just turn around and hurl myself off the hill and join the Brit for a beer. I decide I won’t give the Dutch the satisfaction.
Soon I come across a dog. In the middle of the jungle. A dog. Some bright spark has taken this poor thing to exercise in the middle of the humid muddy tropical wilderness and left him behind. The dog looks as frightened as a dog left behind in the middle of a humid muddy tropical wilderness. I adopt him as my spirit animal because I identify with his fear and self-doubt. I assure him we will get out of this alive, together.
The dog soon abandons me as he realizes I’m the weak link and I’m left alone in the jungle again. Where’s the camaraderie? This is why I prefer cats. You don’t expect any loyalty from the things, so it’s academic when they find little Whiskers gnawing at your leg for nourishment because you haven’t fed him since you keeled over while watching The View.
I soon find an old Brit with a cane (?!) making his way down the treacherous muddy slope. I hang around and offer some help, but he responds that he’s “Just fine, lad. On-on.” I couldn’t buy a friend right now.
The remainder of the run is easily summarized as a succession of painful encounters: I fall on my ass many times, julienne the skin on my lower leg with a palm branch, take an impromptu bath when I lose my footing crossing a creek, and leave behind many comrades in the forest, who I presume are still out there, raiding surrounding villages for sustenance and resources.
Finally on a flat jeep track out of the nightmare, thirsty, delirious, I run into a refreshment table where several jovial (and quite drunk) Dutch 60-somethings hand me a pair of orange socks and a cup of orange Gatorade. I throw it back in one gulp, thirsty as I am. It is not Gatorade. It is vodka mixed with orange Gatorade powder. I ask if they have any water and there is much laughter and kneeslapping. I take two more cups of vodka since it’s all they have and stumble down the path into the open field. They are serving smoked salmon and gouda cheese and someone offers me a Heineken and a bottle of water. The Dutch ledger begins to balance out.
As the remaining survivors come trickling in, the true weirdness of hash running really begins to manifest itself. The beer starts flowing in earnest and the party turns into a giant roast. Newbie runners are forced to sit bare-assed on a bench of solid ice and are given “hash names” that are vulgar enough to give a Vice editor pause. (Some examples of upcoming hash run names in Chiang Mai: the “Dirty Pervert”; the “Humperdick”; the “Sloppy Rod”; the “Jungle Chim” – look it up.) The organizers of the run are made to stand on crates and are sent up in the least politically correct way possible.
Organizer: “Why are we Dutch so tall?”
An English from the crowd: “Because we put you in the racks.”
Finally the beer and cheese run out and everyone repairs to a local restaurant where the roast continues at the on-on-on. Some of these older expat guys can rage longer than most of my friends. Impressive.
Number of leeches feeding on my blood at run’s end: 4
Pounds of gouda consumed by yours truly: ~1
Distance covered: ~7k
Time: 2 hrs
Injuries of indeterminate origin discovered the following morning: 3
The food in Penang. Unreal. The little island of Penang is a locus of Indian, Chinese and Malay culture and the result is like the culinary equivalent of a musical supergroup – Penang is the gastronomic equivalent of the Traveling Wilburys. Each component gets their moment in the spotlight but they stand taller supported by the blend of talent in the background. I ended up spending several extra days there mainly so I could eat more food. The tourist office issues a map with the best street stalls and restaurants, and a list of about 40 dish suggestions. Laksas and curries and biryanis and lassis. I got to 33/40 in Malaysia as a whole; around 20 of those I tried in Penang. There are lots of old historic sites and interesting buildings around, too, making the little island a pleasure to wander around while digesting.
Volunteering at a soup kitchen in KL. Everyone should volunteer more, especially me. My contribution to society has been minimal in recent months… and years. Though my halo glows a little brighter ever since my $25 Kiva microloan to a goat farmer in Tajikistan, these days I spend all my money on street food, shitty beer and museum passes. I was encouraged to do some more work on the ground after contributing to a food distribution truck in KL a few times while I was there, which offered a starkly contrasted view of life in KL than that from the Petronas Towers.
Driving up to the Thai border. I complain a lot about the driving in this blog, but some of the most serene moments of my travels so far have come on the road. There’s got to be some reason I’ve driven over 30,000 kilometers over the last year. It’s something about the sense of movement and the sensation of time fleeing from you like a giddy child merging into a tranquil stillness that tucks anxious thoughts to sleep as with a warm blanket. For brief instants, the chatter is hushed by an ungraspable ethereality.
This time, I was driving to an unfrequented border crossing with Thailand. Floating down back roads arcaded by emerald broad-leaves, sungold shafts of sunlight corrugating the road with shadow and light and turning the inside of the car into a shimmering daytime disco, howling wind whispering the smells of grass and earth and stone through the windows, the road bearing down on eternity, your primitive senses absorbing the immensity of it all, unconsciously, euphorically.
Learning the bar we were at would give you a liter of beer for free if you could finish it in one minute. This was also a lowlight.
– Malaysia Lowlights –
Getting around Kuala Lumpur. With a car or without, it’s a Herculean task. While the public transit system in KL is expansive, it’s integrated like 1950s Alabama. To get from one of the main residential districts in the city to the national stadium, I walked 30 minutes, changed trains 3 times, then walked another 10 minutes. Meanwhile, the road network in KL was designed by some highway-obsessed urban planner with an Escher fetish. If you miss an entrance onto the maze of overpasses, underpasses, tolls, portals, wormholes, and stargates connecting the city, you might as well just keep going to Thailand or Singapore, such is the pain of getting back on track.
That Adele song about the rain – I heard it about a bajillion times in KL. Restaurants and malls and the radio played it on nauseating repeat. I’d rather stick my head in a bucket of fire ants than hear that bleating chorus one more time.
Race in Malaysia. You rarely encounter outright hostilities amongst the different ethnic groups in Malaysia, and the place has certainly come a long way since the race riots of the late 60s, but the veneer of multiculturalism is thinly worn. There tends to be an underlying contempt for the Chinese, who generally control the economy, while the Malays dominate politically. This is common throughout the region, as the industrious Chinese rarely integrate but form insular self-contained communities. While the country is nominally tolerant, talk to any cab driver of either race about the New Economic Policy of 1970, which legislated that 30% of corporate wealth be in the hands of ethnic Malays, and you’re just asking for a vitriolic racist rant.
Getting the car through customs in Port Klang. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.
– Thailand –
Thailand is the first non-Muslim country I’ve been to in 7 months (India wasn’t, actually, but I spent most of my time in areas with large Muslim populations), and one could hardly pick a country more at odds with Islam’s sober modesty. It has insidiously wormed itself into my brain. I still shake off a mild shame when I see bare arms and legs. I keep thinking, “Someone’s gonna get fined for that.”
With the bare arms, sunny beaches and laid-back atmosphere comes the inevitable crush of tourists. Thailand is notorious for attracting various types of travellers who fit very nicely into stereotyped little boxes. To wit:
The Sexpat: Older retirement-age farangs with an arm draped over a young Thai girl; Barney Gumble in appearance, Surly Duff in demeanor.
The Bropacker: Found on Khao San Road and in other tourist hovels, currently on binge drinking tour of SE Asia. Easily spotted clutching a bottle of Chang in full bropacker regalia (neon singlet, swimming trunks, $3 Ray-Bans, fourth pair of flip-flops). The female equivalent is sporting more or less the same thing, but is wearing Vang Vieng tubing short shorts and drinking a bucket. Rabid appetite for a “good time.”
The Expat: Walking around in a collared shirt, drenched in sweat. Does not have time for you. There is a generally accepted hierarchy in this group: expat corporate executives radiating self-importance and disdain for locals and foreigners alike have anointed themselves top of the heap, while the English teacher occupies the lowest rung on the ladder, just below NGO interns and the corporate expat’s quarantined cat.
The Bus-seat Tourist: Old or young, they see the country through the tinted window of a chartered bus; easily spotted in large twitchy herds, conspicuously nervous about being outside their air-conditioned cages.
Full Moon Party
I skidded onto Ko Phangan with a host of body-painted backpackers for some corruption of moral purity for several days during the Full Moon Party. The party originated as a bunch of hippies doing drugs and deciding that the full moon looked grandest from a particular beach on one of Thailand’s eastern islands. Whatever. It’s evolved since then to a monthly drinking binge, and Haad Rin beach plays host to tens of thousands of ill-advised decisions come the night of the party.
On the big night, various MCs set up enormous speakers all along the beach playing different types of music, none of it particularly good. One DJ was playing a type of dark psytrance that would make a suitable soundtrack to getting stabbed in a Russian nightclub. The simple solution to the shitty music was the consumption of more buckets, small pails filled with a scoops of ice, arrack, Red Bull, and regret.
If you got sick of Call Me Maybe, there were various “activities” set up along the beach. If there’s one thing a bunch of booze-fuelled travellers don’t need, it’s activities. Popular diversions included bonfires, fire jugglers, guys eating fire, fire skipping ropes, fire limbo, and so on. You get the idea. I was spectating the fire limbo, when one poor fool tried to jump the limbo stick. His long, seemingly coordinated run-up belied his utter inebriation, and on takeoff he promptly lost his footing and his Fosbury rapidly morphed into a belly flop onto the flaming limbo stick. He flailed around like a fish on land for a brief moment, then arose, only slightly singed, to the applause and hooting of a rapturous audience and was promptly offered a bucket. Palma non sine pulvere.
The party roils on until the sun rises and well after. If you don’t want to be scarred for life, best get the hell off the beach before the harsh light of the new dawn reveals the horrifying arithmetic of thousands of buckets and an utter deficit of prudence. Certainly an excellent party, though.
We posted up at a restaurant the morning after, which happened to be across from one of the many clinics in the town. The next hour was spent watching an absurd revolving door of injured drunks entering with a heavy limp and departing with heavy bandages. The scene walking around town post-party was like Animal House meets MASH.
Bangkok highlights included the standard riverside Wats and Chatuchak market, but the most interesting attraction was the little visited Siriraj Hospital Medical Museum. On the second floor of a nondescript building in the heart of a massive hospital complex is the Thai “Museum of Death.” There are three sections. The first is an exhibit describing, in stomach-churning detail, the myriad diseases that can take down the human body like a Jenga tower. These descriptions are blankly narrated by a doctor who has no idea he’s ruining your day – it’s more or less the same effect as looking up symptoms on WebMD. Sore throat? Cancer. Fatigue? Cancer. Headache? Yep, you’ve got the cancer.
The second section houses the corpse of Thailand’s most notorious cannibal serial killer, Si Ouey, who was mummified and put on display as a deterrent against violent crime and affairs with the Pharaoh’s mistress. There are also hundreds of preserved body parts in glass cases, in various states of breakage, stabbage, bludgeonage, and other configurations that make you want to sit on the couch eating take out and never leave the house again.
But then you get to the third exhibit and you decide you weren’t that hungry in the first place. In the parasitology room, alongside unnecessary models of street food stalls and restaurant kitchens, there are hundreds of images of parasites depicted at terrifying levels of magnification. Their effects are described by jazzy narratives of the organism’s happy travels through your various tracts. Suddenly Howard Hughes didn’t seem that crazy.
Deep in leafy green forest is a small border post between Malaysia and Thailand. I can’t remember the name, but it was small enough that no one seemed to care who was coming or going. I stopped at the Malaysian checkpoint and they stamped my car papers and ushered me through. I inched down the lane into Thailand, expecting someone to stop me and ask for papers, passport, where I was headed… anything. A security guard at the end of the lane beckoned me toward him, and as I drove up he gave me a broad smile and indicated I should just keep on driving.
I pulled away from the border and noted that I was now in Thailand proper. No passport check, no vehicle registration, no searches. I parked and walked back to the customs building.
“Hey there, can you stamp my passport?”
“Where is Thai entry stamp?”
“That’s what I’m after.”
“When you enter?”
“3 minutes ago.”
“You are leaving?”
“No, I’m coming.”
“Why you come from Thailand?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Where is Malaysia stamp?”
Of course, I hadn’t been stamped out of Malaysia either. I trotted back across no-man’s-land to the Malaysian office where I had more or less the same conversation with the border guard, who couldn’t understand why I needed an exit stamp when I was clearly coming from Thailand.
After sorting out the passport stuff, I needed to register the vehicle to drive in Thailand. In a fan-cooled room in the Thai border station, a fat uniformed man sat melting into his chair, slowly being squashed by gravity and the weight of his immense responsibilities. He barked orders at two scuttling women as he fanned himself with my customs documents. After stonewalling my paperwork, it was clear he had no idea what was actually going on, as he never did any of the work himself. With this established, it was a simple task to organize things with the two friendly ladies, who filled everything out and then deferred dutifully to the great squinting Hutt for his precious signature.
The whole experience was a bit surreal, but typical of certain elements of Thai society. The grinning border guard exhibited a typical laid-back and non-confrontational Thai friendliness, which frequently supersedes actual practical matters. The helpful ladies were models of the obliging and eager-to-please attitude most Thais have toward foreigners, while the great slug typified self-important officials that are found the world over, but especially so in Asia.
Point is, I could make a lot of money as a smuggler.
The Thai term “kathoey” is often translated as ladyboy in English, but generally refers to any transgendered individual. The general acceptance of this “third gender” in Thai society is roughly on par with the acceptance of gay culture in Western countries, which is quite surprising given the traditionally conservative values in Asia. Transgendered individuals in Western society face far more ignominy than in Thailand, though they are not without their own problems here – a convicted male-to-female transsexual will still be incarcerated in an all-male prison, for example.
I was speaking to an old Thai lady in a hostel and the topic of gender reassignment came up. “If that’s what they want, then I’m happy they can be who they feel they are. Who am I to tell them otherwise?” Preach it, lady.
If I had a soft female voice and even a modicum of musical talent, I would be releasing compilations of acoustic covers of happy pop songs and making a crazy amount of money over here. Every half-hip establishment in Thailand plays this type of music. The opposite is also the case. Take a sad song, jack it up with synthesizer and a 4-4 beat, and you have the soundtrack for a night out at a Thai club.
My iPod has been in its death throes for a while, so I’ve been left with two options in the car: Thai radio or the Top Gun soundtrack on casette tape. It’s literally the only physical music I have. Thai radio, even by my extremely low entertainment standards, is terrible. Even the classical music station, usually a safe bet anywhere, only seems to play variations of Pomp and Circumstance. Suffice it to say, I’ve listened to Danger Zone about a thousand times in the last week or so. On a completely unrelated note, my moustache has been growing at an unprecedented rate.
The Thais are proud of their country, and they do have plenty of reasons to be proud – their economy’s on the up-and-up, especially as compared with most of their neighbours; they have some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world; Bangkok is a capital on par with most world cities; and they’ve managed to cajole idiot Westerners into actually paying to eat bugs on Khao San Road. The national flag display-density might be the highest I’ve ever encountered. It’s everywhere. Fortunately, the Thai flag is quite semaphoric, so it doesn’t bother me as much as other countries’ displays of overt nationalism.
They also have the world’s longest-serving current head of state, King Bhumibol (though their elected government is another story), whom the Thais absolutely adore. At the beginning of all theatrical screenings, the audience must stand and pay respect to the king, which they all do reverently. No matter that you can be arrested if you don’t under Thailand’s archaic lese-majesty laws, which outlaw any perceived insult to the royals. A Swiss was imprisoned in 2007 for spray-painting posters of the king. Text messages and even body language criticizing the king can and have been punished. Apparently, the king himself isn’t that fond of the law. If so, it seems to me the thing to do would be for him to just get rid of it. (See further: http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2011/09/12/is-thailand-regressing-on-lese-majeste/)
Thai food is generally quite delicious, though a lot heavier than I was expecting. They use a lot of oil in their cooking. In touristy areas, it can be difficult to get adequate levels of spice in what is normally very spicy food. You tell the guy “very spicy, yes, yes” with a grin and a thumbs-up and you end up with a spiciness level in the vicinity of morning cereal. Elsewhere, it gets extremely spicy, which is right up my alley. One time I went a bit too far, though:
The Spice Must Flow
Or: The Story of the Spiciest Thing I’ve Ever Eaten
I went to a $2 Thai make-your-own-soup buffet and beelined straight for the untouched curry broth that featured a bouquet of rainbow-coloured peppers floating menacingly around the ladle. A little old Thai lady saw me eyeing up the concoction and tore across the restaurant yelling “Hot and spicy! HOT AND SPICY!” I nodded assuredly at her with the hubris of a Greek hero and doused my noodles with two giant helpings. She shrugged and gave me a “your funeral” type of look.
The first bite was spicy, but not intolerable. On my way to the second bite, I catapulted a spoonful of chili broth into my eyeball, and spent the next 15 minutes in the bathroom pledging fealty to various gods if they would just put me out of my misery. I returned to bales of laughter from the waitstaff and most of the restaurant patrons. Dignity and pride crippled, the only thing I had left was a drive to regain some honour by finishing the fiery dish. After the second bite, time slowed down perceptibly and the walls began to breathe. I alternately shivered uncontrollably and sweat until my shirt was a watery drape. The waitresses were doubled over and one of them, between giggles, sympathetically brought me a plate she had prepared herself: “No spicy.” I finished both plates to the rapturous applause of the waitstaff, was awarded Man of the Year by Time magazine, and spent the next three hours wandering around a megamall in a hallucinogenic fog.
– Angry Birds merchandise is everywhere. Angry Birds cakes, cups, posters, t-shirts, flower pots, license plate covers. Who buys this shit?
– The feeling of going from sticky humid heat to an air-conditioned room is one the greatest sensations in the universe, ever.
– How do I still not own a pen? I have been without pen for months now, and I am always needing one. Edit: Yesterday I bought an Angry Birds pen.
– And this:
– The royal family/government owns the most property in Thailand. A close second has to be 7-11. These little air-conditioned oases can be found on literally every street in downtown Bangkok, and there is usually one on every side of a square city block. You’ve never experienced such convenience.
– From the annals of That Took a Turn in an Unexpected Direction: My CS host in Bangkok, Jake, and I tried our hand at a little urban exploring. Our intended adventure: an abandoned, incomplete 50-storey apartment building smack in the middle of downtown Bangkok.
Unfortunately two floors up they had welded a gate on the stairwell, and we hadn’t brought a wrench. We were heading out when it started to storm, and we were forced to awkwardly stand at the entrance next to the security guard who we had snuck past to get in, and who seemed a bit peeved at us. Then we learned why it was so easy to get past him: one of the pack of stray dogs living on the first floor of the building had bitten his goat, and him and his cracked-out girlfriend were tending to it in his truck. We spent the next 15 minutes waiting for the rain to abate watching a goat slowly die in the bed of a pick-up. Felt like something out of Camus.
– TV sports in Malaysia: Squash, badminton, sepak tekraw, ping pong. These things are arguably not TV-friendly, but they’re fun to see flipping through the channels or at a bar. At the very least, they’re happy alternatives to 5-day cricket test matches.
– Even if I find the idea of saving face, which is the modus interacti amongst Thai, preposterously annoying it certainly breeds incredibly friendly people.
Southeast Asia has been a pleasure so far, especially Vietnam, which I will cover in the next update a couple of years from now. The food here is excellent and cheap. The variance in subtle social cues and expectations means I get to embarrass myself every couple of days by breaking some cultural taboo. Thais are so absurdly flattering of looks and my pronunciation of “hello” in Thai that I’m wondering why I don’t have a modelling contract and a translation gig at the UN. The deluge of virtually identical temples is tiresome, but it’s the same deal with mosques and churches – only the truly unique and historically important are novel and exciting.
Lanscapes here are beautiful and lush. At different times they have reminded me of home, Pakistan, India, Bulgaria, Switzerland, and Jurassic Park. Sometimes the jungle is so verdant it’s frightening. It’s the shade of green that, should some sad circumstance befall you in the woods, you fully expect vines and creepers to incorporate you into the greenery long before the search party arrives.
The great Chinese ocean laps at the northern regions of these countries. Southern Chinese culture breaks over Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam with a strong undertow that is yanking me north. I’m eager to go, but Laos and Cambodia are still to be explored before the great Chinese adventure begins. The greatest luxury I allow myself is that of slow travel, but some days things can’t come quick enough.