A Travellerspoint blog

Crossing over

*Introduction to Lao language and culture*

22 °C

I like to check out the market when I arrive in a new town. It is usually interesting, easy to find, will give you a feel for where you are, and has something good to eat. My first act of orientation upon waking in Pakse, Laos is thus to wander through the market. It is enormous and baffling. I must have grown accustomed to the Thailand markets and without realizing it come to recognize at a glance the fruit stands, vegetable stands, flowers-and-incense stands, knick-knack shacks, and so on. Here in Laos, I cannot quickly ‘read’ what I am seeing. It is just different enough to confuse. My eyes bounce from vibrant chilies to veritable mountains of cabbages to trays of cooked fish swarming with flies to a woman lifting a squawking chicken by its feet… This place feels so foreign. If I want to get a sweet snack (which I prettymuch always do), I don’t even know what to ask for. To make matters worse, people here clearly speak much less English than in Thailand, making it harder for a newcomer to access. My thoughts swirl. I am in a new country, I need to learn the food, I need to learn the language, I need to learn the culture, I need to learn… basically everything.


My Thai language efforts were highly unsatisfactory, perhaps thwarted by the whole tonal thing. I managed to learn the numbers and a few other essentials like horng nam (bathroom) and ka-nom (dessert), but my attempts at any more sophisticated communication were generally met with laughter or – even worse – blank stares. Very disheartening. Lao is likewise a tonal language, so I am already glum about my prospects. I would need to find a Lao person who speaks good English (rare here) and is willing to patiently coach me on the difference between kai to mean far, kai to mean close, kai to mean egg, and a couple other versions. It also wouldn’t hurt if (s)he could explain the food, social customs and such… Really, what I need is a language and cultural broker. Good luck, I say sarcastically to myself.

On the upside, I do know one word that will be of imminent use: Phoe. I stop at a small roadside food stall and manage to make myself understood. Five minutes later I get a steaming bowl of noodles and broth. On the side is a heaping plate of mint, basil, lettuce and green beans alongside. It is delicate, fragrant and warming. (Yes, I have just come from the market where the vegetables are sitting in dusty piles on the ground. Yes, it is highly unlikely that these greens have been thoroughly rinsed in distilled, safe-for-tourists drinking water. And yes, I happily ignore this knowledge.)


After phoe, on to business. One of my last acts before leaving Koh Phangan, having mastered the automatic motor scooter, was to gain some familiarity with the semiautomatic variety. Not wanting to spend too much time at it – there were vacant hammocks waiting to be occupied – I learned just enough so that I could later rent one, drive off, and learn on the road. Time now to implement. After a quick look around to gauge prices, I hand over my passport in exchange for a 100cc Honda Wave. It is the lowest motorbike on the pricing totem pole so I know it is not exactly state of the art. But I am not exactly the most discriminating driver, this being my third time ever.

My fondest wish is to do a road trip, but I decide to be responsible: I will first take a day to make sure I actually can drive the thing. I head about an hour down the road, and all goes well. I feel pretty comfortable, and actually prefer having gears. There are now several waterfall turnoff’s nearby. Figuring any waterfall will do, I randomly pick one called Tad Gnuang. As I pay the nominal fee for entry and motorbike parking, I notice that the man taking my money speaks excellent English. Wheels turn quickly and I ask him point-blank for what I want: “Say.. After I visit the waterfall, can I buy you a cup of coffee and you teach me some Lao?” He consents. I spend a few minutes checking out the waterfall, which is a very nice one, then return excited for my Lao lesson.


My teacher’s name is Boualy. For several years he worked with an ecotourism company in Vientiane, the capital, then returned home to help develop Tad Gnuang. After covering some basic Lao words and phrases, we get into a long conversation about sustainable development and his plans to make Tad Gnuang a community asset where tourism dollars help fund a school, library and clinic, and where visitors can get an authentic taste of local culture. Laos, for most of its history, has been relatively remote but now it is changing by the minute. It is interesting to explore the economic, education, infrastructure, health and social aspects of its rapid development. We discuss all this seated in an open air cafe surrounded by leafy green. A girl is slowly cooking bananas and potatoes over a brick oven/grill. The local coffee, grown right here on the Bolaven Plateau, makes me smile and sit up straight with every sip. Moreover, over the course of our conversation, the family running the place smilingly bring us shots of Lao Lao (local whisky – tasty but strong!), then two roasted bananas, then cups of tea. They are incredibly warm, and like that I am interested in their language and country. I think am starting to get an idea of Lao hospitality.


I leave only after several hours, and only because it is getting dark. I stop at Pakse’s night market for dinner. Having no idea what anything is, I point to a pot of stuff that looks good, nod yes for sticky rice, and soon find myself with a hot bag of food and nowhere to eat. I drive to a spot overlooking the Mekong river and settle down on a rock. Note: Here in Laos, as in cultures around the world, eating is a highly social activity. Families share meals, period, and I think Laotians find it a rather sad sight when foreigners dine alone. Not five minutes pass before a man from a shop across the street comes over and indicates I should join his family at a table in front of their shop. They bring plates and utensils for my food (which I was eating with fingers out of the bag), hand me a bottle of water, and sit with me while I eat, attempting what little communication is possible with my ‘noy neung’ (‘little bit’) Lao. I am wowed, to say the least. I eventually thank them, return to my guest house,and fall asleep thinking that most of what has happened today, I cannot picture happening anywhere else I have ever been.

Posted by sbw2109 03:21 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Sketches of Chaloklum

*Party tricks to make friends quickly, plus guide to dining and night life*

24 °C

I. Party tricks to make friends quickly

Apart from SCUBA diving, my first days on Koh Phangan are spent in relative solitude. Many couples have come here to spend the holidays canoodling in paradise, which means less solo travelers for me to meet. Which is fine. At first I soak up the alone time. I have a beachfront bungalow for $13/night, a bit of a splurge by my lodging standards, but I am enjoying my walks and swims along Chaloklum bay. I decide I could do with some human contact, so when my diving instructor Gem invites me to a Christmas Eve party, I force myself to overcome my antisocial tendencies and show up.

The party is well off the main drag at some place called The Crow Bar, which I find only thanks to Gem’s hand-drawn map. I walk into the open air bar to a big buffet of free food (liquid consumption will be surely compensate) and a festive gathering of local Thais and Westerners in assorted states of sobriety. Gem greets me warmly and urges me to get caught up on the food and drink, so I get a plate and start mingling.

I soon realize most of the crowd is associated with one or another of Chaloklum’s diving schools. So, cool, this is the local dive crowd. I get to chatting with the wife of a dive instructor who tells me there was a party here last night during which the men were competing/showing off by hanging from the rafters and doing ten pull-ups. So, cool, we are talking about this and then suddenly – I really don’t know how this happens – I find myself hanging from a rafter myself, everyone looking up at me expectantly. I know virtually no one here, but they are all about to know me. No, I cannot do ten pull-ups. But I can do ten gymnastics-style leg lifts, bringing my feet up to my hands and back down again, legs straight and toes pointed of course. The stunt demands a combination of control and flexibility (not to mention sobriety) that makes me pretty sure it will not be duplicated tonight. I finish to huge applause; apparently I put the macho pull-upping men in their place. I sheepishly return to my drink, but am no longer invisible - quite the opposite. Everyone knows my name and it will take me weeks to learn theirs. On the whole, though, this ends up being a good way to make fast friends. I am presently invited to a party at someplace called Gemini Bar tomorrow night, then something going on the next night, and the next, then it is New Years…


Thus life goes by at island pace. Thanks to a bout of foul weather, my SCUBA course becomes a drawn-out affair. Many travelers have only three days to get a PADI certification before catching their next flight on, and so are forced to dive on days with strong current and poor visibility. I, on the other hand, can – and do – hold out for better diving conditions. My stay creeps past two weeks. I scout about for cheaper accommodation and my friends help me arrange a bungalow in the prestigious Pikey Villas [see part II below]. I invest $6 in a blue hammock which quickly becomes my favorite perch.


We play Scrabble on rainy days. Note that Scrabble at Pikey Villas must adhere to the Queen’s English; over my vociferous objections I have been denied credit for many a legitimate word because although it was in the bloody Oxford English Dictionary, it was branded with that terrible scarlet letter A, that unpardonable shame, “American origin.” Whatever. When not being hazed for my nationality, I feel warmly accepted. I am not yet an ‘official’ resident of Pikey Villas – for that you must pass out in the Crow Bar and most likely wake up with explicit drawings on your physical person, courtesy your artistically inspired friends. But I cannot run an errand in town without seeing people I know. And when I pass lobster-hued 21 year olds in neon green “Full Moon Party" T-shirts, I cannot help sighing to myself, “ah, the tourists.”

I suppose I have become a self-hating backpacker, inasmuch as I have grown weary of hanging out with people who are every bit as transient as I. I enjoy being anchored in the local community and moreover, having grown up and lived in large cities my whole life, I am fascinated with the day-to-day functioning of this little village. I observe how activity centers around the key local joints, how information flows through the social network, and what constitutes worthwhile information. I note the overlaps and gaps between Thai and Western Chaloklum, starting with the many Thai-Western couples (usually a Western man with a Thai woman). In short, it is a bit of an anthropological exercise carried out with cocktail in hand, perhaps summed up in the following.

II. Chaloklum dining and night life

World’s End Café looks squarely out at the dock that all the dive boats use, weather permitting. (When waves are too high they use the island’s main port, Thong Sala.) Run by a British couple with a personable 3 year old son, World’s End has good breakfasts and coffee, sandwiches and other fare. It is perfectly situated to observe goings-on at the pier, and its proprietors are always in the know. Go for “brekkie” and you will learn whose boats went out that day and how full they were. Go for afternoon coffee and you hear whether the boats had to turn around before reaching Sail Rock and whose boat almost capsized.

The Lost Dog (a.k.a. “The Dog”) is a mainstay of Chaloklum’s modest nightlife strip along the ocean. Run by a British man and his Thai wife, it boasts a pool table that is home to frequent tournaments with plenty of drinking of course. You can enjoy a pizza while you wait for your turn on the pool table because it is conveniently located right next to…

Café de la Moca, a delicious Italian restaurant run by an Italian man and his Thai wife. Twice a week is pizza night, and the melting-hot cheese really hits the spot when you get tired of curry. Which may take a while because the options are so good. Such as,

Texas (no I do not know why it is named that) makes, hands down, the best Massaman curry. Run by a Thai couple, it is situated on a corner that everyone passes if they are going anywhere. Have dinner there and you will see your friends speed by on their way out. Dine late and you will hear via the street traffic grapevine who is going to be in pain tomorrow.

The Old Lady’s is owned by a diminutive but slightly plump white-haired Thai woman. I am unsure of the restaurant’s actual name because no one ever calls it anything other than The Old Lady’s. From the street I initially notice its exquisite array of orchids, hanging roots and other plants. The food remains a mystery to me because the Old Lady has not yet opened for the season and no one knows when she will. Happily, my last week on the island, she opens her proverbial doors (the whole place is open air) and… Yum.

Zhaba, also on ‘the strip,’ is a Russian-run restaurant and bar with a faithful clientele of compatriots. Walk in and you will think Chaloklum is a Russian town. I once order tonic water and lime, and instead get a vodka tonic. I’m sure it was an honest mistake; no one walks in there just orders water. Really, my only complaint is the long bookshelf with untold literary treasures surely offering years worth of erudite reading… all inaccessible to me because every last volume is in Russian. This irks me. I am used to strolling up to bookshelves in cafes and hostels and having my pick of four languages worth of books - not none.

The Crow’s Nest (a.k.a. “The Crowie”) is tucked away 200 meters down a dirt road. You would have to know about it or be of an exploratory disposition to find yourself there. It is run by Chris from Estonia and his wife A from Thailand (and I do not know how else to spell her name, it is simply pronounced like the letter “A”). The Crowie is a favored spot for a nightcap and throws great parties. Watch out for absinthe, which may come at you when you least expect it.

Pikey Villas is a group of wooden bungalows scattered behind the Crow’s Nest. So christened by its inhabits, a colorful crowd of local expats mostly from the UK. Many are instructors at Sail Rock Diving School and can be found, if not doing pull-ups at the Crowie, supporting the ever-popular…

Gemini Bar, a full bar recently added to the Sail Rock school. Gemini hosts great Christmas, New Years, birthday, and just-because parties that begin with a delicious buffet and proceed to impressive amounts of drinking. People sometimes end up in the pool which, being unheated, is actually quite chilly. But they are probably too drunk to notice.

Seven Eleven. This beacon of Thailand’s development constitutes a major point of activity in town, with constant foot traffic in and around. Several food carts rest right outside the stoor like symbiotic species, so your Seven Eleven run can be combined with grilled chicken or a banana pancake. We sometimes go for a late night ice cream, eaten just outside on a dirty stone bench beside a perpetually overflowing garbage can. This bench serves as a passing hangout for the whole town, of course arriving in varying states of sobriety (and here please envision a long-tailed curve, distribution strongly weighted towards the intoxicated end of the spectrum).

Omega Bar (pronounced “Omeeega” if you are a Brit) holds jam sessions every Wednesday night. Any and everyone is welcome get on the mike with a guitar, or take a turn on the keyboard or drums. Sometimes there are talented people making brilliant music. Granted, everyone is eventually so wasted and happy that were the music horrible, no one would care. I have verified this by taking a turn on the keyboard.

Baan Tai – A town on the south side of Koh Phangan, down towards Had Rin (of the infamous full moon parties), with a decidedly more active nightlife than Chaloklum. One evening, several upstanding gentlemen go down to Baan Tai for a refined evening of entertainment wind up engaging some… how to put this delicately… professional services of a personal nature. Baan Tai is henceforth a easy means of referencing said occasion, generally in the interest of making someone blush.

  • * *

January 13, 2012

This morning I go for brekkie with friends at World’s End. We chat about the previous night’s shenanigans, keeping one eye on the weather over Chaloklum Bay. The water is wavy and the pier quiet; the diving boats are using the more protected Thong Sala port today. The sky is an intense mixture of brilliant sun and fast-moving rain clouds. We get back to Pikey Villas just as the rain starts, settling into hammocks on the porch to wait out the monsoon. I eat an orange, spitting the seeds over the railing. A red hawk circles overhead. I wait until he perches in a palm tree, then lift my binoculars for closer observation. I am not an avid bird watcher, but I like this hawk (he is familiar by now), and even more like the idea of having time to sit and peer at a bird. Today is my last day on Koh Phangan; tomorrow I leave for Laos. The matter grew somewhat forced - my Thailand visa is on its last day. But I also feel ready to move on. I came here for a SCUBA diving certificate, but seem to have found something else: Peace. Now it is time to trade comfort for the unfamiliar.

Posted by sbw2109 16:54 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Destination Koh Phangan

*The island of firsts*

overcast 24 °C

After two lovely weeks together in Thailand, my mother departs. My guesthouse in Krabi Town that night has a room with a window for 250 baht or one with no window for 150 baht. I decide to save a couple bucks and skip the window. I have a cup of tea with the owner who is very friendly, encouraging me to spend some time in town, offering advice about where to go next, and offering to book me a ticket onward. I have my sights set on Koh Phangan, an island on the other side of the peninsula, but he is pushing the nearby Koh Lanta – he has lots of friends there and can tell me all the good places, the weather is better, etc. I weigh the two equally unknown islands, still readjusting to traveling solo. He notes my tension. “Easy, easy,” he says. “Some people, they are very fix in the mind. No able to go with what is right there. Koh Lanta is very nice, I think you will like it. Maybe I can go with you, show you the good places, I know lots of people there.” I feel… not easy… oddly pressured, in fact. I retreat for the moment, saying I’ll figure it out in the morning.

I stay up late working on a grad school application, at some point drift off, and wake up in total darkness. The utter lack of light juxtaposed with my watch saying it is 10am is disorienting. ‘Windows are important,’ I muse, shaking off the cobwebs. I decide to leave for Koh Phangan today, in equal parts because I do not fancy another night in a windowless room and because the guesthouse owner is maybe a little too friendly. He seems disappointed that I am leaving, and disappointed in me for rejecting his recommendation of Koh Lanta. Still, he will book me a ‘joint ticket’ (traveling via bus and boat) for 600 baht. I saw the same thing for 500 baht down the street, but I would feel like a jerk going behind his back to save $3. I shrug, pay up, thank him, and look forward to moving on.

The journey begins with a minibus from my guesthouse to a bus station, continues with a large bus across the peninsula to the port city of Surat Thani, and ends with a ferry to the larger and more well-trod island of Koh Samui and finally on to Koh Phangan. This goes from approximately 11am - 7pm. For most of the journey I feel like tourist cattle, branded by the ‘joint ticket’ sticker on my shirt. In the ample time I have to sit and think, it strikes me that you have to work very hard to get off the tourist grid here: The guesthouse owners are all so friendly, happy to book you a joint ticket to your next destination, and since you don’t know the next locale they will gladly set you up with a guesthouse there, which will in turn shepherd you along the well-traveled way…


Thus my inordinate pleasure finding myself on a ferry to an island where I have no accommodation booked, no one expecting me, and no one to guide me. All I know is that I want to head to the north part of the island because (1) there are several SCUBA diving schools there, and (2) the southern tip of the island, where the (in)famous full moon parties take place, is not my scene. Shortly before we dock, I flip through Lonely Planet and pick a small northern beach town called Mae Hat. After negotiating a ride there, I tell the driver I have no accommodation booked and ask if he knows anywhere simple and cheap. He delivers me to a place with bungalows by the beach for about $13/night. By now it is completely dark so I cannot see much, but I register a few longtail boats floating on dark, quietly lapping waters. This will do for the night.


I wake up in the morning to the sounds of surf rolling in as beautiful a scene as I could have dreamed. I have ambitious plans for today: Find a diving school and secure lodging for the next two weeks (this period includes Christmas and New Years, when even quiet Koh Phangan fills up). I set my sights on a town about five kilometers west of Mae Hat called Chaloklum which has several dive operations. I decide that 5km is a reasonable walking distance and I could use the exercise, and set out around 9am. But it is kind of a boring walk, and is turning into a hot day. Which gets me thinking. On the way out of town, I couldn’t help but notice several shops with motor scooters for rent, and the thought did cross my mind… In fact, I am undertaking a very inefficient and labor-intensive day – walking five kilometers to and from a day of running around town – quite simply because I have never driven a motor scooter before and am scared to try.

Oh dear. When one part of me starts calling another part of me names (chicken, wimp, etc.), interesting things usually ensue. Case and point, I am now doing an about-face, walking back to town, entering a shop and inquiring about a scooter. The woman asks, Automatic or manual? I ask which is easier since it is my first time. Her face goes white and I see her trying to transmute shock into polite concern as she explains that there is no insurance, the roads here are difficult, etc. I quickly say yes, you are right, it’s a bad idea, I understand, thank you anyway, and make my retreat. I know something about the importance of ‘saving ‘face’ in Thai culture, if either of us has any left to save.

Lesson learned. At the next shop, I just stroll in and ask for an automatic. The man has to show me how to turn it on, after which he reminds me to brake with the left hand (rear brake) only, so he must has some idea of my experience. But we seem to have a tacit ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ agreement. I thank him, fasten my helmet, attempt to gently give it some gas, and with a whiplash-inducing jolt, I am off.

To be perfectly candid: I am nervous as hell and my driving is atrocious. But by the time I have shopped several dive schools guesthouses and selected one of each, I am starting to get the hang of it. Which is perhaps why, upon finding myself with time and gas to spare, I take a turnoff leading to one “Paradise Waterfall.” Parts of the road, which is scarily steep, are dirt, while other parts were once paved but are now so cracked that they are worse than dirt. I somehow make it up, walk five minutes to the waterfall and sit down to have some fruit for lunch. I am trembling.

The waterfall is nice but not very interesting, so I soon leave, dreading the return path. Happily, I regain the main road intact. Which is perhaps why, having yet more time and gas to spare, I decide to check out Had Khom beach, which looks close enough on the map. The dirt road leading there is longer than I expect. It also has some steep grades which reveal my brakes to be in less than ideal repair. All told, it is slightly less harrowing than Paradise Waterfall but nonetheless nerve-wracking. But well worth the effort: I arrive to an idyllic strip of sand with a rustic bungalow resort, some hammocks in the shade, and a few mellow sunbathers. It is so lovely that I ask if there are any rooms; I’d love to spend a couple nights here. The woman laughs. Apparently, despite its end-of-the-world feel, this quaint little corner has been discovered.

I leave well before dark; no need to attempt night driving just yet. When I return to Mae Hat with both myself and the bike intact, I’m not sure who is more surprised, me or the shop owner. I know it’s no big deal – people drive motor scooters all the time – but I do feel some pride and pleasure at having survived the day. And tomorrow I will be initiated into the art of SCUBA, learning to breathe underwater. This is turning out to be an island of firsts.

I try to approach new things with a cautious respect, not assuming I will be any good. That said, I suspect I will do alright with SCUBA because I am pretty comfortable in the water. Sure enough, I take to it like a fish. After a couple inane but necessary hours of PADI videos, we get our the equipment and get in the pool. I put the regulator in my mouth, start breathing through it, and slowly slip below the surface. I am breathing underwater. It does not matter that there is nothing more to see than the pale blue cement walls of the pool. This is surely the realization of some childhood fantasy of mine.

After a couple sessions in the pool, we move on to open water dives. The main site near Koh Phangan is Sail Rock, a little island poking up in the middle of the ocean about an hour away (though it can take up to two hours if the weather is rough, and if the weather is rough enough the boats will not go). During my five dives I perform the obligatory skills (especially clearing my mask – I get to practice that a lot because it keeps filling up) and get lost in a fantasy world of fish. I end each day exhausted but happy, and usually catch a nap on the way back. Here is the scene on the return boat ride:


Posted by sbw2109 21:51 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Whirlwind Cambodia, Relaxing in Railay

*Amphibious villages and amphibious landings*

sunny 20 °C

My mother does not eat breakfast. What’s more, she can go an entire day without eating, right up until she gets a migraine. After a week of traveling with her, I fear I am losing weight. Our first day in Siem Reap, I notice our guesthouse has an appealing breakfast menu and bring this to her attention. Our tour tomorrow starts at 8am, so I suggest we breakfast at 7am. Ema is unenthused. I proceed to lecture her on the importance of the first meal of the day. She remains unimpressed. I finally say that I for one plan to start my day with proper nourishment, fill out the little card requesting one “Khmer style noodles” noodles and a Vietnamese coffee, and we tuck into bed.

I have been taking breaks from my break, so to speak, to work on PhD applications. I wanted to finish them before I left Chicago, but, well, this is me. Deadlines are now looming large, so here I am churning out a personal statement over breakfast. Be that as it may. The “Khmer style noodles” noodles have a delicate, savory flavor with an underlying sweetness, and the sauce on the side carries a substantial kick. The Vietnamese coffee is stupendous, and if I had access to it on a regular basis I would surely develop a coffee habit. Not a bad way to coax myself through this application business.

Apart from the Khmer food, which I really enjoy, our three days in Siem Reap comprise multiple highlights. Beyond the merits of its breakfast, our guesthouse is associated with a nonprofit called the Ponheary Ly Foundation which works to help children attend school who otherwise would not be able to. Our first act is to visit a school that the foundation supports with volunteer teachers and supplies. State education in Cambodia is free, but uniforms and books are not. Moreover, most children have a primary school within walking distance but their secondary school may be a few kilometers away and if the child has no bicycle (s)he may not attend. One of the foundation’s strategies is thus to provide bicycles, a simple step that can make a huge difference. As we stand there in the hot sun discussing all this, we see children ‘commuting’ to school, some by bicycle and some on foot, ducking under barbed wire and walking across the dry rice paddies.


After the school, we visit a floating village. Our excellent guide, Rithy, explains that there are two floating villages accessible from Siem Reap. The closer of the two has basically been bought by a Korean company which runs the boat tours and keeps the profits. The other is farther, but is run by a village cooperative and profits are shared among the residents. Not a difficult choice.

The floating village sits on a lake, naturally. But we do not just drive up to the shore, walk out onto a dock and board a boat. The lake expands and contracts depending on the wet/dry season, so it begins rather gradually. At first we are driving along an elevated road surrounded dry land, but the houses are on stilts. Then there is water on either side of the road, proving that the houses are on stilts with good reason. The water continues to rise. Eventually the road ends and we board a boat. But we are not yet in the floating village, rather still in what I term in my mind an ‘amphibious village.’ A unique product of the wet/dry season cycle, these villages are basically set up to function half the year on dry land and half the year under several meters of water. During the dry season they grow rice, have regular streets and trees, and people travel via the usual mix of cars, motorbikes, bicycles and foot. During the wet season they fish for a living and get around by boat, navigating around the treetops.


In this second picture, note the roof of a market stall that is mostly submerged now. In a few months people will be doing their shopping on foot along the street (which in a weird reversal of ‘up’ and ‘down’ presently sits 2m below our boat). Rithy next points out a little flag sticking out of the water which he explains marks another, shorter market stall so people do not inadvertently run over the roof and damage it with their boats. This is a moment of wonder for me: How perfectly, down to the last detail, these ‘amphibious villages’ adapt to what most places in the world would be viewed as a catastrophic annual flood.

Then, so subtly I barely notice, the houses are no longer anchored and we are in the floating village. The small rafts/homes generally house 6-10 occupants, and as we motor slowly through the ‘streets,’ we see that the water serves every imaginable function – washing, swimming, transportation, waste disposal, cooking, drinking. This is an existence so different from anything I could have ever imagined.


Meanwhile, I am struck by an odd random thought. Know those days when you just need to get out for a walk? Maybe you need a study break, are fed up with your roommates, or simply need a breath of fresh air and some physical movement, but whatever it is you just need to get out and clear your head… You cannot do that here. Unless you own a boat or fancy a swim, you are stuck in that house with the other 5-9 inhabitants. For some reason, of all the things one might pick to marvel over in this otherworldly world, that hits me the hardest and stays with me the most.

Ema was in Thailand for a week, I was there for a month, and we each acquired corresponding degrees of familiarity and comfort with the country. At the end of our first day in Cambodia, we concur that we may still be in “Asia,” but Cambodia feels utterly foreign. I pick up a book in our guesthouse called “Same Same but Different,” just because it is about Cambodia and is written in German which I need to practice. It turns out to be a great book. True story by a German journalist, Benjamin Pruefer, of how he met and married a Cambodian woman, written with a keen eye for detail and a saucy but tasteful sense of humor. A few pages in, I come across this passage that resonates perfectly with our first sense of Cambodia (and the translation is my own, so - you know the drill - any errors or omissions…):

Cambodia. I had traveled two months through Asia and would now spend the third and last month here. It was supposed to be the end and the high point of my journey. When you enter this country, you leave everything behind. It is totally different from Thailand. There you step out of the airport, and yes it is different from Europe, but you know that at any moment your cell phone may ring and Grandma is on the line and you can get on an airplane back to Germany. But once you have crossed the border into Cambodia, it is different. You are not only in a different country, but rather on another planet. You feel far away from everything. Not only because Cambodia has no McDonald’s, no ATM’s and no Seven-Eleven stores. It seems to challenge everything that you believe you know about the world and yourself. You feel like Alice in Wonderland behind the looking glass. Everything is inexplicable.

Our second day in Siem Reap is devoted to Angkor Wat. I don’t really know what to write, especially since the site is so famous and volumes have been written on it. I will therefore take the easy way out and use pictures, which are supposed to be worth some nice round number of words…

(Guess who does not like heights!)

For our third and final day in Siem Reap, a friend of Ema’s has recommended we visit a silk factory. Not the sort of thing I would normally go for, but come to think of it, Ema would probably enjoy it. So here we are at the silk factory. Actually, factory is probably the wrong word. It is a complex where they first breed moths, then feed the resulting larvae/worms mulberry leaves so they grow.


Once the worms are mature enough to start making cocoons, it takes five days for them to spin their cocoons. The outer layer of the cocoon becomes ‘raw silk’ and the inner part is ‘fine silk.’


They put the cocoons into boiling water to separate out the threads. A worker sits there with a wooden spoon slowly coaxing the thread out in a straight line, constantly untangling it.


There are about five more smoothing/untangling/refining steps to create the thread used to actually weave the silk fabric. For color, they use either natural dyes (for example, from sorghum tree or purple flowers or banana leaf) or chemical dyes, which are of course cheaper and easier. But that is all that is easy about this process. Patterns are made by tie-dying bundles of thread before it is woven into fabric. This entails tying many little pieces of plastic around the bundles of thread, dipping them in color, and removing the plastic; note that this tying and untying, which may be done in several iterations depending how complex the pattern, could take a couple days. Then they arrange the spools on a loom. We watch in wonder as workers adeptly operate looms with their hands and feet, sending the shuttle back and forth across the threads to make the pattern.


It might take several days to make a complex scarf, and if one thread is in the wrong place, or one bar of the loom is set wrong, the pattern will be off. Suffice it to say, it is an ingenious and labor-intensive process, and actually quite fascinating.

After the one-hour tour, there is a gift shop. I normally dislike shopping, but after seeing how this stuff is made, I wander around fingering even the plain-colored, un-patterned scarves with a good deal of wonder. Ema is into it, too, of course. Our tour ends at 2pm… and we are there closing the store at 5pm, doing our part to support fair trade and the Cambodian artisans.

After hitting Bangkok, Erawan, Kanchanaburi and Siem Reap, our last stop is Railay Beach in southern Thailand’s beautiful Krabi province. But before we can relax on the beach, we first have to get there. This means we fly Siem Reap - Bangkok - Krabi, take a bus from Krabi airport to Ao Nang port, catch a boat to Railay, and hike some 20 minutes across the peninsula and up about 50 stairs to our hotel. It is an entire day traveling, but we have plenty to talk about and it passes pleasantly. As we are on the bus to Ao Nang and nearing the end of our odyssey, I turn to Ema and say, “So, I saved the best news for last… On the boat to Railay, there may not be a dock. So, um, we may have to walk in the tide a little.” She takes the news pretty well. The feat itself is another story. The ocean floor is alternately wickedly slippery, alternately muck that sucks at your feet so hard you have to use all your strength to extricate your foot and any shoe that you might like to keep. The ‘amphibious landing’ is probably one of my favorite moments of her visit, even better than the squat toilets:


Railay is technically a peninsula, but land access is nonexistent due to mountains cutting it off from the mainland. Hence it functions like an island, accessible only by boat. More interestingly, the east side of the beach has a swampy, mangrove-lined coast while the west side has the idyllic white sands and aquamarine waters of a ‘Thailand’s Best Beaches’ calendar. This has resulted in the east side generally having the cheaper accommodation, along with the accompanying backpackers, Tiki bars and tattoo bars. The west side has the luxury resorts and upscale restaurants, and is actually quiet at night. East side/west side – walk 20 minutes and you are in a place with a dramatically different vibe. I am fascinated by this Jekyll/Hyde phenomenon.

What’s more, Railay is clearly in transition. The path joining the two sides used to cut through jungle, but you can see land being cleared for hotels and restaurants; a logical next step given the constant foot traffic along this route. And the new lodging is trending towards the upscale. There are also a couple resorts on the east side which are bulldozing segments of the mangrove swamp to create that pretty beach where God clearly had a moment of absentmindedness and forgot to put it there. And – this is key – they have lofted trailers with large wheels which can drive out into the tide so guests can step from the long-tail boat right onto the truck bed and arrive perfectly dry. As it currently stands, visiting Railay requires one to walk through some water and some muck. I think eliminating the amphibious landing will bring a more snooty clientele. Ema points out that it is more ADA friendly. She is right. Still.

Anyway. Here we are in paradise, albeit paradise fraught with fast-moving tourism-driven changes, and what does Ema do but fall asleep without dinner again. I walk down to the strip of restaurants, return with some Thai food and Diet Coke, and wake her up to eat. I am keeping us both alive here. Though to be fair, it was a long day of traveling. Accordingly, our next couple days are basically spent lazing around Railay and some of the nearby islands. Ergo, I will do the lazy thing and post pictures again. In honor of being lazy. Because that is just what you are supposed to do sometimes.


Posted by sbw2109 09:40 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Ema comes to Thailand

*Pushing my mother out of her comfort zone*

sunny 20 °C

Last summer as I was planning this trip, I decided my mother should visit me in Thailand. I figured it would be foreign, exciting, exotic, really something new and different for her. So I floated the idea, and was pleased when she seemed to actually consider it. Encouraged, I applied the most potent leverage I could think of: I, your only daughter, will be all alone in a strange faraway land; don’t you think you should come make sure I’m safe? Not surprisingly, this worked. She is now boarding a plane to fly halfway around the world, and I am heading for Bangkok to meet her.

The bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok takes ten hours, in theory. I settle in for the ride, seated next to a nice Thai girl. We exchange a couple words, which is all that is possible given that neither of us speaks the other’s language. I start to read but my attention span expires, so I begin making a necklace out of hemp; just something to occupy my hands. I notice my seat mate watching me, and decide to see if she likes arts and crafts. I show her how to tie the knots, and soon we are making the necklace together, using ‘box stitch’ and ‘spiral stitch’ – leftover knowledge from summer camp a couple decades ago. We exchange a more words with the help of the language section in my Lonely Planet book – it does come in handy sometimes.

Around 10:30pm, we appear to be reaching the outskirts of Bangkok. I am looking forward to getting off the bus. At this point the interior lights cut out, the motor dies, and we cruise slowly to a stop on the side of an elevated highway. Our driver attempts to restart about ten times; the engine only wheezing pitifully. We sit. The lights flicker on and off at random. While it is dark, there is not much to do; we can neither continue the necklace nor communicate by drawing or pointing to words in Lonely Planet. When the lights come back on, we ‘talk’ some more. She has to use the bathroom. I don’t know how to say, “whatever you do, don’t think about water” in Thai, so I playfully start to draw droplets of water falling. “No, no!” she laughs. I open LP back up and we search out phrases to comment on our current situation. At the same moment, we both spot this most relevant sentence that was thoughtfully included: “The motorbike won’t start.” We laugh… We wait… Some passengers are flagging taxis, but I have nowhere pressing to be. I get up to stretch my legs and peer over the side of the highway to a surprising and sobering sight below: Street lights reflected in water. Weeks after the worst of the floods have subsided, parts of the city are still underwater.

I get back onto the bus. The lights go back out. I fall asleep. Close to midnight, my friend shakes me gently awake; another bus has finally come to the rescue.

I had thought we were close to our destination, but we drive for at least another hour. Thus my first impression of Bangkok: This city is MASSIVE. Arriving at the Mo Chit bus depot around 1am, I get off and consider where to head. I figure the easiest place to find a bed for the night will be the well-known tourist corridor of Khao San Road. I do not hire a tuk-tuk – those are for tourists, ahem – but rather ascertain that there is a No. 3 bus into the city. I am the only non-Thai on the bus and have no idea when to get off, but the driver is kind enough to let me know when we reach Khao San. I wander down the street, check prices at a few guesthouses, and settle on one next to a bar with a guy on a guitar playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish you were here.”

The next day, I meet Ema at the airport. She emerges from the throngs of travelers with a bounce in her step, looking swell after her long trip. As for me, after two and a half months of traveling alone, I am excited to see her. Our first day is spent doing Bangkok. We tour Wat Po, walk along the river, walk around trying to find Chinatown, walk around trying to find our way out of Chinatown, walk through the amulet market, walk down countless random streets, walk through bustling and bewildering markets… and limp back to our hotel. We end the day with much needed foot massages at an upstanding establishment that states for the record, “No Sexy Massage.”


Our next destination is Erawan National Park. To get there you catch a bus up to Kanchanaburi and another bus on to Erawan. Lonely Planet has a sentence about there being bungalows for rent in the park, and although searching online I cannot ascertain the exact nature of said lodging nor actually book a room, I decide to go for it. I have spent a fair amount of time planning for Ema’s visit, trying to ensure that we have something of an agenda and lodging with flush toilets. But really, what is the fun of having your mother visit you in Thailand if you don’t push her at least a little out of her comfort zone?

First, on a bustling Bangkok street, I tell her, “Wait here with the bags while I go figure out which bus we need.” I disappear, return a few minutes later with bus tickets and a bit of food (she tends to forget to eat, poor thing), and we squeeze ourselves and our luggage into a minibus designed with truly petite people in mind. As we ride she asks where this bus drops us off, whether that is where we catch the next bus on to Erawan, and if I know when that bus leaves. I don’t make her suffer on purpose, but I honestly do not have any answers beyond, “We’ll see.” To her credit, she accepts this. Not that she has much recourse.

When we arrive in Kanchanaburi after three and a half hours, Ema needs to use the facilities, and asks if they are squat toilets. Having just been myself, I reply to the affirmative. She makes an unhappy face. I urge her to take advantage of this opportunity to have an authentic Thailand experience right here in the Kanchanaburi bus depot. Again, she does not have much recourse. She returns shaking her head and laughing. I commend her for her fortitude.

Meanwhile, I have purchased tickets to Erawan Waterfall. Ema wants me to ask the bus driver if there is lodging in the park and I attempt to oblige. Between my lack of Thai and his lack of English, I think I am understood and think the answer is yes. She then wonders purposefully aloud where in the national park the bus stops, whether it is near the bungalows, and if we can maybe call ahead to see if they have any availability. I am pretty sure no one here speaks any more English than our bus driver, and tell her I have gotten all the information it is possible to get for now so, once again, “We’ll see.” Again, to her credit, she accepts this. As we sit on the bus watching the scenery change from urban sprawl to forest, I mention that as a very last resort, I have a tent; is she okay with that as a fallback option? She thinks for a moment, and says yes. Good woman.

Our lesson for the day: Even when you cannot verify online exactly where you are going and what you will find, things can work out very well. The bus drops us right at the entrance to the park and the driver points us to an office where we can arrange lodging. We go in and ask about bungalows, they quote an absurdly low rate for the next two nights, and hand us a room key. Then we are walking down a forest path, out into a clearing with graceful trees and a bubbling brook, and into a beautiful cabin with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the stream. The only catch, we later discover, is that the hot water shower is not working. On the up-side, it certainly saves time and helps conserve water.


After a long day of traveling, we both succumb to a siesta. When I wake up it is dark and Ema is snoring, no doubt thanks to jetlag compounded by an exhausting workload prior to leaving Chicago. I know she is not getting up anytime soon, dinner be damned. As for me, I am hungry. I recall some food stands by the park entrance, and know that you can get food just about anytime and anywhere in Thailand. So I walk back up the road, find a little restaurant in operation, and return to our room bearing pad thai, chicken curry, a bottle of coke, and a pineapple for dessert. She wakes up slowly but surely. Says I spoil her. I reply that there has to be some reward for putting up with a slew of quirky logistics and squat toilets.

Erawan waterfall is beautiful, but is decidedly ‘discovered.’ The good thing about staying in the national park is that you can get to the falls before all the tour buses arrive.


We have a lovely couple days swimming in the falls, watching monkey mayhem, and visiting the Phra Tat cave. Tucked into a beautiful bamboo forest and reached by ascending 597 steps (Ema counted) and squeezing through a very narrow passageway (one of us has claustrophobia), Phra Tat cave is an immense echoing cavern the size of several grand ballrooms combined. It has vaulted ceilings where bats make their homes, and is adorned with all manner of otherworldly rock formations.


Next stop, Kanchanaburi. Again we are on a bus to a city with no lodging booked. Ema is a little concerned, but is starting to get used to this. We get off the bus and wander down the street with our bags, view a couple rooms that are a little rough around the edges, then find a floating hotel on the River Kwai with a large bright room and - dare one hope - a hot shower.


Kanchanaburi was a major node in the infamous Thailand-Burma Railway, a.k.a. Death Railway, built by the Japanese during WWII using forced labor. We rent bicycles and pedal around to two museums, a temple built into a series of caves, and finally a restaurant called Jukkru which takes some finding but is SO worth the effort. I am enjoying traveling with my mom. And she is being a darn good sport; see claustrophobia-inducing cave below, and note that the hoped-for hot water shower is not actually working.


Posted by sbw2109 16:57 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

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