Friday, February 27, 2004

Two Australians and a Scotsman sit around the fire. Their faces are ruddy from the glowing flames and the rice whiskey. The ocean whispers to itself in the darkness.

"Well of course she's mad," one of them says. She's from somewhere around Perth, a blazing desert town bleached with sunlight. She's got a round face, dark hair and crystal-blue eyes. She says the word "no" in that peculiar Australian way; adding a few syllables and half of the word "toy." She leans forward on her plastic deck chair and stares gravely at her companion, a very tanned young man with an average face and sandy brown hair.

He slouches in his chair and sucks on his drink, staring out into the pitch above the water. The draught carries remorse into his belly and makes his brow wrinkle dangerously. "It's how she's been acting," he says defensively.

The Scotsman is silent. He has dark skin that, at one time, attracted abuse from his fellow students. His was the only dark head in a sea of ginger. He is a chef from a tough town. His favorite herbs are parsley, coriander and maybe rosemary. He too slouches in his plastic deck chair, but sips from his drink thoughtfully.

The woman leans even further forward, putting elbows on knees. Her long brown hair swings around her face and shoulders. Her voice shoots out like a javelin, quick and sharp in the humid air. "Still, it's not for you to judge and you shouldn't have said it."

Another draught and the average face steels itself against the attack. He's a student, studying to be an engineer. He spends most of the day in the hammock on the front porch of the bungalow, reading a thick fiction book about lawyers. He and the Scotsman once went swimming over a reef. They captured sea cucumbers and squeezed them, trying to make them spit. "You can see the way she's acting. I only told the truth."

"You called her a whore." The last word sneaks out of her mouth, a low breathy sound that heads straight for the fire. It's not meant for any one else's ears, but the word still carries. It hits her companion with a force that drives the blood from his chest and into his face. It becomes a beacon in the night.

Monday, February 16, 2004

The ferry plies a well-worn, three hour route to Koh Pha-Ngan. The city reporter told me about the place when I called him in New York. "I'm fucking going to Thailand," I said. "Go to Koh Pha-Ngan," was his terse reply. It's a backpacker's paradise.

The waters are calm, a mild and tropical azure in the afternoon sun. The breeze at the prow is refreshing and I take a seat facing our destination. The seats are in the open air, but sheltered from the sun by a generous overhang. The ferry is a huge, lumbering shoebox of a vessel, its belly filled with cars and tractor-trailer trucks. One of the trucks is packed with gravel. Phil and I wonder if gravel is a hot commodity on the island and have delusions of becoming illegal rock runners. We'll own this island in no time.

We both read. I'm half-way through a Hemingway short story when a smiling Thai around our age approaches with a photo album. We know what's coming and I think about deflecting his sales pitch with a few forceful words. But it's futile. We're going to be trapped on this boat with this guy for at least two more hours. We're a captive audience and have no choice but to let him sit beside us, his album open on his lap.

It's filled with pictures of his bungalows, small square buildings with hammocks on their porches. There are also quite a lot of pictures of him surrounded by young and beautiful European backpackers. He says that one of them is his girlfriend. She's French, I think. She stays in his bungalow. He sleeps in a tent on the beach. This seems curious to me, but I don't feel like getting into a conversation about this guy's dysfunctional relationship. Phil and I thank him. If, for some reason, our reservations at Pimmada Huts falls through, we'll look him up.

Three seconds later, we're approached by another Thai hocking his huts. This one's got a different approach. He speaks immaculate English with a comical surfer-boy accent, has flowing black hair and smokes a cigarette between long, thin fingers. He calls himself Billy. He spent several years in Seattle, he tells us. He has many friends there. He swaggers around on the deck before us, talking about parties and alluding to his sexual exploits with young, beautiful European backpackers. This seems to be a popular hobby for young Thai men. He's never too specific about his past deeds, expertly walking the line between tactless forklift driver and pimp. He's not presumptuous either, asking us at one point whether we "maybe like guys. I can find those for you, too." We shake our heads and smile. He hands us his card and saunters off to find other prey.

The rest of our journey is smooth and uneventful. We dock at Koh Pha-Ngan's "International Port" and wait for the ferry to disgorge the trucks and cars onto land. We follow, our bags in tow. We're immediately assailed by a platoon of taxi drivers. Somebody up above yanks on Phil's tension cable and he snaps upright into a thin, wiry line. He's in negotiation mode now. How much for your taxi, bozo? We'll give you half that. He wears one of the drivers down and soon we're rocketing up a hill to our bungalows in the back of a covered pickup truck.

The island is small. A moist, oppressive heat hangs over it like a blanket. It presses down on me as our cab twists away from the water, up a hill and into coastal jungle. It's like I'm on some remote colony world where there's not quite enough oxygen in the air and just a little too much gravity. The sun is a major player here. It blasts everything with searing rays. When I step out of the truck's bed, I feel it pressing itself into the flesh on my face, knocking at the bones of my skull. If this is what Earthlings think of as paradise, I must be from somewhere else.

Our place is called Pimmada. It's a collection of about a dozen huts arranged in two parallel lines next to the beach. They hug a small garden of tropical plants and saplings. The restaurant/office overlooks the huts, high on a hill above the beach, next to the road. The place is owned by a Thai family--an ex-lawyer and her husband, Guy. Phil stayed here about three weeks ago. They recognize him, call him "Feeeel!" and show us to our home for the next five days. It's one of their luxury bungalows and it's impressive. It's got tiled floors, a bright, clean bathroom and a large hammock hanging across the front porch. It's the second in from the water, which is about five yards away. The water's warm, but not the warmest I've ever felt. In Baja you could do your dishes in the Gulf. It almost steamed when the sun went down.

But we're in Thailand now. The sun is setting on our beach and everything is on fire with red light. The sky is cloudless and bright orange. The water is like a mirror. We all take out our cameras in an attempt to capture the beauty, but I have a sinking feeling that it's futile as the sun melts into the horizon. This battle can't be captured on film (or with a CCD). The furious orb thrashes about behind an island to the west, throwing angry, razor-sharp shafts of light in our direction. I smile. You've lost, fucker. It's night's time now. No more sunscreen, sunglasses or sunvisors.

The sun is gone, replaced by stars and a waning moon. The air is still thick with water and heat. We eat dinner, burning chilies over rice. My mind explodes with endorphins and the muggy air around my head puts me in a kind of dream state. Time kicks into slow motion. Jay and Phil play chess before the setting sun. But the sun's already set. Some beer flows down my throat and into my belly. Things get even slower and more unstable. I walk out into the sand. It grabs at my feet as I walk forward, claws at my ankles. The air wraps tighter around me, the stars come down to talk. My thoughts become intolerably sluggish. I've gone tropical and I won't recover until I leave this place.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

We leave Krabi for Koh Pha-Ngan:

It's 8:30 in the morning and I'm exhausted. We've got a 9 a.m. bus ticket to Surat Thani, where we'll catch a ferry to the islands. My things are packed and I lug them down to the lobby of the Bai Fern. It's very early, but there are a few people eating cereal and pancakes. Phil and Jay are still packing.

I'm blindsided by a furious Thai with bloodshot eyes. He launches a volley of barely-understandable words at me. After a few seconds of careful consideration, I realize that he’s a taxi driver, waiting to take the three of us to the bus station. We’re supposed to leave at 8:30. It’s 8:30 now and he’s very upset and un-Thailike. We’ve still got to settle up with the guesthouse and Jay and Phil are nowhere to be seen. “You come now!” he says manically. “We leave now!”

I’m not going anywhere without Jay and Phil. I’m trying to tell him this when four very flustered and upset Germans rush off the bus to confront me. One, a chubby blond, looks as if she’s ready to have a nervous breakdown. “Please move faster,” she says. “We’ll miss our bus!” She’s followed by a stout, dark-haired man with earrings. He tries the sincere approach. “Please move faster,” he says, placing a hand on my shoulder. “You’ll make all of us miss the bus.”

I am very tired. Anybody who knows me at all knows that I cannot stand being rushed or otherwise molested in the morning. This assault infuriates me and it’s all I can do to not show these Germans my impression of a Thai boxer. “Just relax!” I say, firing my meanest, most ferocious glare at them. “I’m not going anywhere until we’ve paid our bill.”

Jay and Phil come down a minute later, dragging several hundred pounds worth of gear. They’re just as flabbergasted by the Germans’ salvo of anxious attacks as I am. We are all under the impression that we’re getting picked up at 9 a.m. to catch a 10 a.m. bus. Regardless, these people are ready to have a group aneurism on the steps of our guesthouse. We hurriedly pay our bill and throw our things on the taxi, a converted industrial hauler with bench seats. It hurls through Krabi Town to the bus station. I fume during the entire ride, wishing every type of horrible torture upon the clockwork Germans, who are, I gather, perpetually on time to everything.

We reach the bus station around 9. It’s quiet. There is no bus. It’s scheduled to arrive at 10. I become even more furious and contemplate the penalty for assaulting non-Thais on Thai soil. Jay and Phil take stock of their things. Phil’s got Jay’s passport. Or does he? He rifles through his pack. It’s not there. Panic flashes across his face. “I left it at the guesthouse!” he cries.

Jay is terrified. He rushes off toward a few taxis. “I’ll go get it,” he says. “Wait here.” He catches a scooter taxi and is off in a whorl of dust. Phil and I are left with the bags and the Germans, who are quite smug about the whole situation. They’re on time. They’re early. They’re secure and definitely not American. I can read it on their face as clear as a road sign. My anger is now hatred. These are very bad examples of the human race.

Phil’s face flashes with an earth-shattering revelation. He’s got Jay’s passport. It’s in his pack, now in his hand. He jumps, then rushes off toward the small huddle of taxis. “Wait here, I’ll go get him.” He catches another scooter taxi and is off in hot pursuit of Jay. I’m left alone with the bags, the angry Thai taxi driver and the Germans, who are happier than ever.

Time stops. I stand by our luggage and watch for the bus. It is due in less than ten minutes. I’m doubtful that they will make it back in time. A Thai approaches me, a broad smile on his face. He works for the bus company. “Your friends, they will return?” he asks. “I hope so,” I reply. “They forgot something,” I lie, not wanting to explain the situation. “Can catch the 11 o’clock bus,” he says, his smile broader than ever. Mai pen rai, Thai for “no worries.” I nod and thank him for his kindness.

Three or four minutes later, the bus comes lumbering up the gravel drive toward the station. It’s painfully slow and I’m grateful. Every second counts now and there’s part of me that still thinks Jay and Phil will make it. But the bus pulls up, the Germans load their luggage. The station attendant asks me if I want him to load our luggage. I tell him no, we’ll catch the next bus. He smiles, tells me everything will be OK and the bus pulls off. I watch it with a feeling of defeat. The Germans have won. They’ve been rewarded for being mindful and on time. But this is Thailand, where 90-percent of the population is Buddhist. They know that everything is impermanent, everything changes. Jay and Phil come zooming across the gravel parking lot toward the station, each on their scooter taxis.

“Is that the bus?” asks Jay.

“Yes, we’ll catch the 11 o’clock,” I say sadly. The bus comes to a halt as the words leave my mouth. The station attendant rushes over to us, holding a cell phone. He’s called the driver, asked him to wait for us. I am ecstatic. Thailand has rushed to our rescue. The attendant grabs a bag and we dash for the bus.

The Germans are not pleased to see us, but we’re very pleased to see them. We pass them on our way to the rear of the bus. “That’s right,” says Jay as we find our seats.

Krabi, 1/17 National Forest

It's humid and miserable. Terribly hot. I try to remember what I did today, but it almost doesn't matter. I can't do anything without sweating. Even at night our room feels like a sauna.

Today we visited a national forest preserve near the tiger cave wat. We ride our bikes to the spot where we made our hellish ascent to the wat a few days ago. This time, however, we take the second stairway, which leads to a forest wedged between more limestone formations. The place is a national park and it's been carefully manicured, a relatively sterile forest. Regardless, it's fantastic. The trees are locked in a bitter struggle with the rock formations, each trying their hardest to leave Earth altogether to take up residence in the sky. The trees form a canopy that seems to be miles above our heads. Underneath it’s very still, like a church. The trees seem to have a strangle hold on everything, save the cicadas. There are millions of them hidden among the ferns and palms growing around the base of the trees. They buzz and scream ferociously, an ear-splitting sound that seems to make everything vibrate. A calm breeze makes its way down through the canopy. The ferns quiver in its wake at the same frequency as the cicadas. If we didn't know any better, it'd be very easy to blame the screeching on the plants.

We come across an enormous tree, one so tall that it's sent great structural flanges out from its base, creating huge vertical walls of wood. It's got relatives throughout the forest, each more impressive than the last. Round a bend to find one that has fallen. Its trunk is broken about a meter from the ground. It’s splintered and dry and covered in red ants. The fallen tree itself has carved a great rent in the surrounding forest. The ferns and palms are already taking it over.

The path leads to a network of caves in the limestone cliffs. Some monks from the nearby wat used to live in them. They’re filled with Buddha statues and plaques inscribed in Thai. We creep deep into one cave. A huge stalactite hangs like melted wax from its roof. When we tap on it, it rings like a gong.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Krabi, later.

Jay and Phil head to Phi Phi, a small island off the coast of Krabi. I stay in Krabi Town. I've got to catch up on my blog download some pictures from my camera. Later I meet Phil and Jay for dinner. We eat, have a few drinks. We're walking through town with no destination in particular, when Phil spots an attractive Thai girl in front of a small department store. He's red with the Singha and all smiles. She's selling sunglasses and she likes him. Jay and I can see it in here eyes. Her name is Nikki. She doesn't speak a lick of English. Somehow, Phil convinces her to meet him at a local bar after she's through with work.

We meet her at O'Leary's, an Irish pub of all things. She brings her friend, a chubby Thai who smokes religiously and speaks about seven words of English. They use the bartenders and waitresses as very bad translators. I learn very little about the two and become uncomfortable with the situation. Between puffs on her cigarette, Nikki's friend asks broken questions in English, relays information to the bartender in Thai, then laughs uproarously. I can't help but feel that we're being set up for something. I tell Phil and Jay that I'm through. I'm looking for another bar.

I end up at a small bar whose mascot is a black bat. It's called Asian Road. It's all red lights and downtempo music. The place is about a block from our guesthouse, done up in bamboo and dried grass and filled with Swedes. It's not a bad thing, but the language barriers have created a cage. No matter, I've got Mae Kong and Coke, a good drink for about a dollar. I drink two, scribble some notes, then head back to the room. There's a whole bottle of Mae Kong in there. I collect it and head out into the city with my camera for some night photography. I get some good shots of a backstreet and some night traffic.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Krabi, 1/14

My legs are on fire and I'm swimming in sweat. An endless staircase stretches up before me, zigzagging up the sheer limestone cliff into a tangled bramble. We're only half way up the 1,200-stair path to Wat Tham Seua and the view is amazing. A nearly endless expanse of green fields marches to one horizon. The other is cluttered with huge, lumpy rock formations--the product of a gigantic Jell-O mold set down on molten stone. It's deadly hot, but Phil and Jay don't seem to be affected. Phil is a mountain sherpa, well trained by his month-long trek through Nepal. Jay's legs are wiry and strong from years of piloting a bicycle through the streets of San Francisco. My legs are jell-o, soft and wiggly from two years behind a desk.

I curse my last job and continue the ascent. Whatever's up there better be worth it. According to the guidebooks, which have sadly dictated most of our activities during the trip, Wat Tham Seua (Tiger Cave Temple) is one of the most famous forest temples in Thailand. Down below, along with the cool drinks, food and salvation, there is a network of caves. The cool caves were popular with the monks. They filled them with shrines and Buddha images. They also went absolutely mad and built a temple atop a 600m high sheer rock formation. There's a giant Buddha up there too, supposedly. But we're only half way.

We've ridden some scooters out here, three Hondas. They're fast, smooth and very fun to ride. Jay and Phil were, again, a bit more fearless than I was, but I managed to keep up. When we arrived at Wat Tham Seua, we made a b-line for the steps. We wanted to get a jump on the tourists. We definitely have. Nobody in their right mind would try this ascent at 11 a.m. It's bloody hot and the steps are like ladders in places, steep and deadly. Thankfully, the views are saving us. We're going crazy with the cameras, taking frequent stops to launch volleys of snapshots at all the beauty. I've brought my backpack, complete with CD player and two tiny speakers. They fit perfectly in two of the pack's mesh pockets, turning it into a portable stereo. I put on some 80s--Blue Monday--to ease my pain. It works for a minute or two, then the thumping bass drum and synthesizers become wildly incongruous with the nature around us. I shut the music off and go to work, huffing and puffing my way up the steps, my calves screaming with fatigue, my quads trembling with exhaustion.

The reward is phenomenal. The wat is perched on the very edges of the rock formation, overlooking all of Krabi. It's a huge platform, tiled and rimmed with a stone fence. There's a huge Buddha up here, protected by two nasty-looking five-headed serpents who are coiled around his crossed legs. They've got vicious fangs razor-sharp gold crests. Buddha's got a great view, possibly one of the best in the world. Right now, however, it's being obscured by a mess of ramshackle scaffolding. It traps him like a cage. Apparently, he's in the midst of renovations. From where were standing, however, he looks to be in good shape. They've given him a pink skin tone and all his adornments, including a rich red robe, have been painted in vibrant colors. It's the first Buddha we've seen who's in full color and he's very impressive.

There's a glowing golden chedi at the other end of the platform. The brilliant gold against the blue sky offers the greatest natural contrast in color I've seen, the kind of contrast that only a tropical sky can offer.

On the way down, we encounter a troop of monkeys. They're frolicking in a tree along the steep stairway. They're caramel in color and have sloping faces like baboons. One has someone's underwear. He's trying to wear them like a shirt, but there simply aren't enough holes in them. He scuttles around on the branches, occasionally stopping to struggle with the red briefs. We're all terribly absorbed in this show. I set my backpack down on the steps and retrieve my camera. While I'm busy snapping shots of the troop, a few covert operative monkeys sneak down behind me and make a move for my backpack. Luckily, Jay spots them before they can make off with it. They're a regular band of thieves. They flaunt what they've pilfered, water bottles, underwear, string, bottle caps. One of them, a big male, creeps down from the trees and sits down on the steps a few feet from me. He brings a few members of his harem, two smaller females who groom him while he poses for the camera. I inch to within a foot of him, then stop when he yawns. He's got razor-sharp fangs the size of pearing knives on his upper and lower jaws. He seems calm enough, but I can't help thinking that I'll end up on "When Monkeys go Wild" on Fox.

Later, we ride to the beach. We head to Ao Nang, where I witness the first truly tropical waters I've seen. They're crystal clear, but chalk-full of long-tail boats. They look like long slices of melon, a small engine mounted on spindly pieces of steel at their sterns. Long, needle-like propeller shafts jut out behind them into the water. They're terribly noisy, like water-fearing helicopters, and don't seem to do the scenery justice. Once again, it's dominated by the huge, alien karsts, which march right on down to the water's edge.

I am exhausted. Jay and Phil still have energy and decide to explore the beach and surrounding rock formation. Supposedly, there’s a few caves filled with seawater. I find a spot under some low bushes along the beach and read. Fifteen minutes later, I’m asleep. Wake to pinpricks on my stomach. I lift my shirt to find tiny yellow ants, furious at being trapped under the fabric. I’m covered in them. I sit up, remove my shirt and brush myself off manically. The people on the beach must think I’m crazy. After this ordeal, I take stock of my surroundings. They’re crawling with insects. There are huge red ants, crimson spiders, beetles, flies, mosquitoes and even a few centipedes. They’re amazingly mindful of the straw mat I’m lying on and go about their daily business. I’m content to watch them until Jay and Phil return almost an hour later.
Flight to Krabi, 1/13

We leave Chiang Mai in the afternoon. Kay sees us off at the airport. She's a little sad to see us go, but is happy to have spent some time with us. The flight is short and relaxing. Something about the sterile, air-conditioned climate of the airport and the unreal, soap-opera beauty of the flight crew puts me at ease. We're making forward progress again. We're traveling.

We land and deplane on the tarmac--there's no air-con tube to take us to the Krabi airport, only a set of rolling stairs. It's hot and muggy, even more so than Chiang Mai, but the air is clean and fresh. From the runway, I catch a glimpse of the towering limestone rock formations, known as karst formations, that dominate the Krabi landscape.

Krabi lies in the south, across the water from the famously tourist-infested Phuket peninsula. Phil's been here before. In fact, he spent an entire week in Krabi Town. He didn't do much, he said, but he enjoyed it nonetheless.

We take a cab into Krabi Town. Its driver is a very short man with skin the color of lacquered teak and a huge, watermelon-slice smile. He drives a small Toyota. Half of the trunk is filled with a subwoofer cabinet and the dashboard is crammed with stereo equipment. "Good stereo?" I ask. "Yes," he replies, his grin wider than ever. As the cab carves its way into town, Krabi reveals more of its startling landscape. The huge karst formations jut up out of a thick blanket of green forest, white and gleaming like bleached bones. They have heads of messy, tangled jungle that spill out into clear blue skies. By the time we reach our guesthouse, Bai Fern, I've forgotten to ask our cab driver for a demonstration of his stereo system.

Our room is clean and white. We've got three blue beds, one of which is on the floor. We've got a balcony with a view of Krabi. It's a nice place, perhaps the nicest we've had in Thailand outside of the Shanti Lodge in Bangkok, which had orchids in its showers. We have dinner in Phil's old haunt, 31 Restaurant. It's a tiny, family-run joint with about five tables and one fan. We're served by a tiny woman with thick, round glasses. She's amazingly shy and smiley and bows profusely every time we order food or drink. The food is very good, spicy and fresh. I have one of my Thai staples, chicken with basil over rice, and Jay eats pat Thai.

We rest for the night and make plans to explore Krabi.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Chiang Mai, 1/12

Phil is red with dust from head to toe. I've managed to keep clean, but I can feel the rusty powder in my eyes and nostrils. We're at the rear of the pack, which is blazing down a mountain outside of Chiang Mai on about six well-worn off-road bicycles. Phil's fallen twice, but is amazingly unscathed. He's had the good fortune of landing in heaps of fluffy dirt and has managed to miss the thorn vines, trees and sheer cliffs.

We've been kidnapped by the largest German I've ever laid eyes upon. He's taken us and three Canadians up a mountain in a 4WD pickup and told us to ride down. Well, OK, he didn't really kidnap us. We paid him around $20 bucks to drive us up here and loan us his bikes. His name is Adon and he looks exactly like Clancy Brown, AKA the bad guy in Highlander the movie. But Adon is no bad guy. He's a champ. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Phil picks up his bike and we're off. He's off, anyway. I settle into a relatively tame pace and enjoy the countryside. I just can't get into it. Maybe it's a sense of pushing my luck, thumbing my nose at fate. I managed to survive yesterday on the Suzuki and I'm not about to get seriously injured riding something without an engine. The day didn't start well either. I slept maybe four hours and my first mountain bike was broken beyond repair. One of the rear chain rings was completely missing. The remaining rings flopped around dangerously on their spindle. Adon was nice enough to lend his tank of a full-suspension bike to one of the Canadians and I got the Canadian's functional bike. Regardless, I've lost my will to risk serious injury. It's time to enjoy the countryside.

We're coming down a sweeping, rutted road that strikes through coffee plantations and small family farms. It's the greenest place I've ever seen, swathed in great stands of trees, quilted with verdant fields. I round a bend in the road and come face to face with the most picturesque scene: a small family farm, complete with bamboo farmhouse. As I'm standing there admiring the tranquility of everything, letting my eyes roam over the scene, I notice something black dart by in my peripheral vision. I hear a squeal. It's a herd of tiny black pigs. They're swarming under a stand of scraggly trees around a small farmhouse. When they see me staring at them they freeze. What in the hell am I? I'm down wind of them, so their snouts are absolutely useless. I take a few slow steps toward them and they scatter, dashing around the other side of the house. One particularly brave pig stays behind to stare me down. His snout pokes at the air and his wiry tail thrashes at the air behind him. I make a few clicking sounds, as if I have any idea how to call a pig, and he zips of to join his friends.

I keep coming across marooned members of our group. One guy, Wolfgang, a German bicycle shop owner, has gotten two flats on this ride. He's brought his own bike, a carbon fiber full-suspension bike that looks like it was designed by HR Geiger. It's got a bizarre and fascinating mechanical front suspension fork. He greets me with an exacerbated smile. "Hullo!" he cries. "Second flat today. Glad I brought extra tubes!"

He works nine months out of the year. He spends the rest of the time mountain biking throughout Thailand and Europe. He's got two shops, one in Berlin and another in Chiang Mai. He makes good money, but would rather have the time. "You can always make money," he says with a smile. He's skinny, pale, round-faced and decked out in aerodynamic lira biking gear. "You can never get the time back." He used to work only six months out of the year, but now he needs the extra money. A man eventually longs for creature comforts, he says. He's still happy, but looks back on the good old days when his energy was boundless and his pocketbook was never on his mind. He fixes his flat and is off in a trail of dust.

I catch up with everyone at the bottom, feeling a little ashamed of myself. They've all managed to rip it up. I've managed to be a coward. Whatever, I tell myself, I didn't get hurt and that's what's important. Jay, Phil and I talk to the three Canadians, Cam, Andrew and Jim. Cam has dark hair, pale skin and classically Canadian features--that pleasing fusion of French and English heritage. Andrew is built like an ox, is blond and has a square jaw like Dudley Do-Right. Jim is also blond, but built more like a poet with long flowing hair, freckles and blue eyes. They tell me I look exactly like a Canadian rock star who I've never heard about. I take this as a compliment. We talk about politics and economics. Jay and Phil are a little let down. Who goes to Thailand to talk about the economy? I'm delighted. Cam is an optimist. Everything works in cycles; the economy will definitely get better. Jim and I aren't so sure. We'll believe it when we see it, as Phil would say. Large corporations have realized that they can get away with working their employees harder for less pay. Why would they ever change? I like Jim very much. He's got a wry sense of humor and gets all my references to 1984. He listens carefully to what people say and is an excellent conversationalist. He tells us that he used to work for an energy company in Canada. It's hard to imagine him sitting behind a desk, dealing with power and natural gas.

We have lunch with Adon, who is a bit unhappy that he didn’t get to come along on the ride. Regardless, he tells us how he ended up in Thailand. He left Germany to follow a manic lust for adventure that led him to Hawaii, where he lived for 10 years. He ran kayak tours, rented mountain bikes and snorkeled. He built his own house on the side of a mountain. "I had breakfast every day on the roof overlooking the forest and the ocean," he says. But Hawaii wasn't good enough for him. He craved more action. Chiang Mai offers mountain biking, rock climbing, river rafting and even hang gliding. His guesthouse, the Rose, runs a series of tours. He enjoys himself, but could do without the Thai government breathing down his back. "The minute you open a business, you're the enemy," he says." He's got a taxman, a man to fill out government forms and an auditor to look after his taxman. Adon's got a wife now, a Thai woman, and a child on the way. They don't share the same interests, he says, but they relax together. "My last girlfriend, we did everything together," he says in his deep, accented voice. "It was not good. It's better now."

Chiang Mai, 1/11

When I was looking for specs, Jay went and found himself a Thai girl. Well, OK, he found her at a club called Bubbles later that night. Her name is Kay and she's a student in Chiang Mai. She speaks English very well. Jay has already challenged her to a match of ping-pong. Instead, she agrees to take Jay, Phil and I around Chiang Mai in her Honda City. She gathers up her friend, Neuhng (Thai for the number one), and we head for Chiang Mai's Night Bazaar.

Kay gives us an opportunity to gaze into Thailand's royal obsession. The King's picture is on everything everywhere--money, billboards, dashboards, washboards, bus stops, train stations, you name it. Kay tells us that she has his picture in her home. The king is currently the world's longest-ruling monarch and his people love him. He's got a kind face framed by very endearing and thick black-rimmed glasses; the type of glasses you'd find on Ray Bradbury or Gene Shalot. He's been on the business end of cameras his whole life and is depicted playing polo, ice hockey, saxophone and even touring distant provinces of Thailand with his own very impressive SLR camera. He's 80 now, but can still be seen in his prime, brimming with youthful zeal. "I love him," says Kay. "He is my king."

As simple as that sounds, it seems to sum up the country's feelings. The prince is another matter. He's positively hated, says Kay. He's a lazy, no-good show off who never graduated from school. We ask her what will happen when it's his turn to rule Thailand. "No," she says with vehement denial, her eyebrows plunging dangerously low over her large brown eyes. "We do not want that."

The night market is, as always, amazing. We watch Kay expertly haggle over the price of a very thin scarf. It's in her blood; she uses every fiber of her being--her hands, her eyes, her hips, her hair, her voice--and the vendor really has no chance. She responds to his proposed prices with high, almost whiny syllables, batting her eyebrows seductively. In the end, he caves and she walks away with the deal of the century.

Later, we eat absolutely the best pat Thai noodles on the planet. Jay buys them from a street vendor, who's got a gigantic bowl of the stuff on a cart. At first I'm dubious, but after watching waves of gastronomic ecstasy pass over Jay's face, I give in. The noodles are delicious--sweet and spicy. They're perfectly cooked, providing just enough resistance to each bite.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Chiang Mai, 1/10

Wake to the sound of turbo-prop aircraft flying dangerously close to the roof of our guesthouse. For a terrifying second I think the sound is coming from our room’s small fan. The incongruous roar of the airplane is baffling. How can such a small fan be making such a racket?

Jay and Phil tell me that they didn’t get our tickets to Krabi yesterday. We've got to get them today, before breakfast. I'm a bit upset and ready to get the day started. I give them some cash and tell them that I'll meet them at the city gate. They head off to the travel agency. I leave the guesthouse and wander toward the gate. I have plans to rent a motorbike. A real motorbike, not another tiny scooter. I want reserves of power. I want speed. There are a few shops in town that rent bigger bikes, 400cc Hondas and Suzukis. It's illegal to manufacture bikes bigger than 125cc in Thailand, so the Thais have bigger bikes imported. They pay a hefty import tax and a fee, but make the money back on rentals.

I head down Moon Muang Road. I'm nearing the city gate when I spy a yellow Suzuki GS400 with a "rent me" sign on it. The thing looks huge next to the tiny scooters--yellow and black like a yellow jacket. It's kismet and I snatch it up for about 250 baht. I'm a bit nervous. It's been a while since I rode a bike and this one is several steps up the evolutionary ladder from the adorable Nouvo in Ayuthaya. I throw a leg over the beast, check my mirrors, tighten the chinstrap and promptly and very confidently stall the bike. Twice. The guy at the shop frowns at me. "It's been a while," I tell him. "Everything's fine." I finally get the hang of the clutch and soon I'm careening through Chiang Mai traffic at a blistering 25 miles an hour. It's packed. I fall in with a school of scooters. We swarm around the larger vehicles, keeping each other safe from any hungry minibuses or pickup trucks. At first I'm terrified, then I realize that I'm chugging along at about the same speed I'd travel on my bicycle. It eases my mind and I make a couple circles around the old part of the city to get a feel for the bike.

I park the bike in front of a 7/11 and head for the Art Cafe, a place that serves "International" food. I have a hunch Phil and Jay will be there. It's right and I find them polishing off some breakfast burritos. I order a basic American breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast. I’m ravenous after the bike ride and scarf the whole thing down in a matter of minutes. I look up to see the waiter, a Thai, looking a little surprised at my appetite and feel just a little guilty.

We decide to get another bike, one for Phil, and head into the mountains. Jay, who doesn’t have much experience on motorbikes, will ride on the back of my beast. Phil will get a smaller 125cc sport scooter. The sport scooter features drop handlebars, sport suspension, sticky tires and, of course, has absolutely no basket. Phil’s is metallic blue and very sporty indeed. It’s got a single, pointy headlight and looks like a metallic insect.

The road out of Chiang Mai is congested. My bike feels, once again, huge among the buzzing scooters. The more I ride it, the more I realize that it’s rife with eccentricities. It refuses, for example, to go into first gear after it’s stopped. The throttle is extremely sensitive and a hair’s width of movement sends the bike rocketing forward or whining to a halt. The suspension is very soft. I stall the bike again and again at several intersections. Eventually, I learn to compensate and we’re off. The traffic thins out as we approach the mountains surrounding the city. They’re squat and very green by our standards. The tallest peak, Doi Inthanon, rises only 8,415 feet from sea level. Regardless, they are breathtaking. The two-lane road winds like a snake through verdant valleys covered with patchwork farms. The hills are spotted with golden, bamboo-framed, thatched-roof houses and barns. Plant life seems to cling to anything that moves slower than our motorbikes. At the same time, the air is thick with smoke; it hasn’t rained much during the last few months and farmers are burning anything that has the potential for combustion.

We stop at an orchid farm. It’s filled with row upon row of very beautiful, yet banal, flowers. Jay is mesmerized and shoots several rolls of film. Phil and I explore. The place is built around a large, open-air mall filled with informational booths, jewelry counters and, oddly enough, dead insects. The place is an entomologists dream. Apparently any six or eight-legged pest who wanders into the orchid farm is promptly killed, dried, pegged to a board and displayed very tastefully in a glass case. Many of these cases are for sale. They contain maybe a dozen different bugs each, typically arranged around a very impressive member of the insect world—a tarantula, scorpion or horned beetle. We spend some time anthropomorphizing them, playing out mock battles between giant flying roaches and mantises and living the lives of dung beetles.

When we enter the orchid farm, we’re greeted by a very curious sign that reads, “Siamese Ridge-Backed Dog This Way.” We follow the sign to a succession of identical signs that lead us around several corners, past the insects, through a few stands of orchids to, very unexpectedly, a small brown dog lazing in a patch of sun. She’s pleased to see us and greets us with smiling eyes and wagging tail. It doesn’t take us very long to realize that this dog, as amiable and likable as she is, isn’t the famed “Siamese Ridgeback” that all the signs were pointing to. In fact, she’s lying directly under yet another sign that points to a row of dim cadges beyond a greenhouse filled with baby flowers. We bid our friend farewell and head for the mysterious ridgeback. We find it, huddled in the back of a small, dirty cage. A stone plaque hangs above its door. An ancient Thai manuscript is carved into its surface in tasteful, curvy gold letters: “A big bodied creature with a ridge on the back. A dependable partner on the hunt. A strong and courageous dog with a tail fashioned like a savage’s sword.”

The creature huddled in this dirty cage is definitely big-bodied. It doesn’t look ready to hunt anything, however, and seems to have put its courage away for the afternoon. When we approach, the dog lifts its head up and flashes us a very serene Thai-dog smile, then heaves its considerable bulk off the ground go greet us. He’s a very handsome dog, light brown in color with a wide, almost fox-like face. The fur on his back grows into a Mohawk-like peak that stands up in, well, a ridge. There are three ridgebacks altogether, each in its own cadge.

Oddly enough, the dogs have company, a small family of Siamese cats. These cats are also proudly displayed behind thick steel bars. One, a small white kitten with blue eyes, mews lazily at the tourists. The rest are stretched out luxuriously on store-bought, carpet-covered cat apartment platforms.

Later, we stop at a local water park. The Thais have taken advantage of a mountain stream, which has carved a series of pools out of the rock. They bathe and play in the stream and pools. Most have brought some sort of food, either a picnic lunch or full-on barbeque. Some have small charcoal Mongolian Barbeque-style grills. They cook thin slices of meet and vegetables on small islands in the stream.

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