Saturday, August 20, 2011

Thailand Redux

Well, it turns out my last night on Gili Air was more eventful than I’d anticipated. I’d gone to a nearby hotel to put op my last post, and found I really didn’t have an appetite for dinner, but I got a watermelon juice because it came with free wifi access. Two hours later I was puking that same watermelon juice back up in my bungalow and feeling pretty miserable about it. I’d been so exhausted the night before that I’d fallen into bed without taking my malaria pill (as I realized the next day), but my money’s on food poisoning. In any case, I took a Malarone and an antibiotic and a Dramamine, and by morning I was tired but feeling okay.

Which was good, because that day was also fuller than I’d expected. There’s two boats to Bali from the Gilis, one fast and one slow. The fast one takes and hour or two and costs a bit over $60, so I paid Rp175,000 (about $22) for a ticket on the 4-hour slow boat with a van to my hotel in Kuta. What the guy who sold me the ticket didn’t mention was that it also included a ride on the public boat back to the harbor in Bangsal, an 2-hour van ride across Lombok to the port, then the 4-hour ferry, and finally another 2-hour van ride across Bali to Kuta. And all this with my 20kg bag, backpack, and laptop bag. Whoops. It was evening by the time I got to Kuta (and no direct hotel drop-off either, just one stop in the touristy part of town), and the first place I found with rooms available was Fat Yogi. Rp300,000/night (around $35), but I was tired so I took it. Wow. Lap of friggin luxury, there. Hot water and air conditioning, good wifi by the pool in the courtyard, no mildew or spiders! The bed was a little hard, but I slept like a rock. In the morning I wandered around town a bit, unsuccessfully looking for fruit kripik to bring home (should have stocked up in the Surabaya airport!), then caught a cab to the airport and flew to Chiang Mai, Thailand, by way of Singapore.

The Singapore airport, by the way, was culture shock all over again, so clean and shiny and modern. Since I had a few hours to kill between flights I walked a loop through the three terminals. I stopped in all five gardens (orchids, ferns, sunflowers, cacti, and butterflies – yes, there’s a butterfly garden in the airport), used one of those foot massage machines they’ve got scattered around, mailed some postcards, and got dinner. I declined to use the movie theater, the Wii, or the LAN gaming rooms, but they’re there for your use (free) if you’re so inclined. That place is ridiculous.

And now here I am in Chiang Mai. I realized after I’d booked the tickets that this chunk of vacation is exactly what I did last year too – a stint on an obscure island for the scuba diving, then a few days in a city in Thailand. Bangkok was one of my less-favorite places to visit, but Chiang Mai is proving to be a sweet little place. Nobody hassles you (unlike Bangkok), and there’s a few hundred wats around town and plenty of walking to do. I chose Chiang Mai in a large part because of its reputation as home to some of Thailand’s best food, and that’s the one area in which it’s let me down. Certainly not bad, not by any means, but I was expecting to have my mind blown (like it was in Bangkok, that city’s main redeeming feature), and that’s yet to happen. Though last night’s dinner at the night market was one of the best so far, a Northern Thai dish made from pork, tomato, and chilies, eaten with sticky rice. I’m having trouble finding places without any English on the menus; maybe that’s my problem. Of course that means they have to have pictures, or else I’m totally at a loss. But so far no luck. The award for best food of the trip is so far firmly in the hands of Luang Prabang.

My first day I just walked around the old city, looking for the main temples. I had breakfast at a little café on a soi (side street, of which there are many) near my hotel, where the guy served me a ‘mixed fruit juice’ that turns out to have included orange, tomato, carrot, dragonfruit, watermelon, pineapple, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting. I definitely need to try to make that at home. The first major temple I stumbled across, Wat Chedi Luang, has what looked like Madame Toussaud’s-quality wax figures of two of their former head monks sitting cross-legged in glass cases before the altars in two of the temples on the grounds. I was told yesterday that those were the actual monks, dead and preserved. Eew.

Lunch was papaya salad from a street cart. Papaya salad is one of my favorite Thai dishes, but this version nearly burned my mouth out. Probably my own fault for nodding when she asked if I wanted it spicy. There were a few more temples, then a visit to the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders. This guy has spent his whole life collecting insects and rocks shaped like animals and other weird natural objects ad made them into a museum. Apparently he and the other lady who run it are experts in mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases, and they had an impressive array of mosquito species on display, but they also put up signs saying that mosquito bites inoculate you from other diseases and malaria prophylaxis doesn’t work. So I’m skeptical. But the bugs were cool.

Thailand abounds in cheap massage places, and since I was sore from lugging my bags around the day before I decided to spring for an hour-long back, neck, and shoulder massage at a place that employs former female inmates. Apparently Thai jails include massage school. It ran me about six bucks in total, and apparently the Thai definition of ‘back, neck, and shoulders’ also includes what we Westerners would call ‘legs, arms, and hands’. It was pretty marvelous overall, but my ex-con masseuse must have had awfully strong hands, because there’s a bit of back up between my shoulder blades that’s way sorer now than it was when I went in. I guess I was tense.

For day two I booked a day trip out of the city to Doi Inthanon national park, which includes the highest peak in Thailand, a whopping 2,565 meters above sea level. (Is that high? Mt. Everest is 8,848m; the highest point in New York, Mt. Marcy, is 1,629m. So kind of high.) We drove up. First stop was a pair of pagodas dedicated to the king and queen. The views are supposed to be spectacular, but it’s currently the rainy season, and was currently raining, so all there was to see was cloud. Then up to the top, for more cloud views and a nature walk through some gorgeous cloud forest. From there we went to a market. The Thai king pays local hill tribes to plant veggies instead of opium, and they sell them here. I can’t imagine the profit margin’s the same. I bought some tea. The historical irony would be better if I were British.

That’s about where it stopped raining. We went to a waterfall for lunch, and then to a Karen village to see some traditional weaving. We worked on Karen in field methods last semester and I helped put together a dictionary as part of the class, but all I remember how to say is ‘two bananas’, ‘three coconuts’, and ‘water buffalo’, and since there were neither bananas, coconuts, or water buffalo in evidence that wasn’t much help.

And yesterday I took a cooking class. First stop was the market, to teach up about Thai ingredients. I bought half a kilo of mangosteens (yay!); a bag of fried silkworm larvae, which taste kind of like bar peanuts; and something large and winged and so far unidentified, which I have yet to taste. From there we drove out to the farm where the cooking class was held, and got a tour of the gardens before heading into the kitchens. It’s quite an operation they’ve got out there, with three or four classes going on at the same time. I opened the day by slicing into my finger instead of a stalk of lemongrass, but it went smoothly from there. A pair of British girls living in Kuwait, ages maybe 7 and 10, were both brave enough to try a silkworm. Most other people weren’t. Nobody took me up on my offer of a leg from the winged thing. The British girls asked me how I was going to eat it and my answer was ‘bite off its head, then keep on going’, but I think they have a point. I’ll let you know how it goes.

And finally, last night I walked out to the night market. Mostly a lot of the same mass-produced stuff you see for sale in Bangkok, but I found a few interesting things to buy as gifts. Tonight’s the Saturday Market, which is supposed to be better and more local. Handicrafts here look a lot like what I saw in Laos, which I guess isn’t surprising, since the border’s just a few hours drive away. And in half an hour I’m getting picked up for a ride down the Ping River. Here’s hoping the rain lets up.

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