Sapa

Comment

Sapa

On the windy streets of Sapa an old man of those northern hills sat peddling his flutes, playing tunes on them as the crowds disappeared behind shelters against the cold night. In between songs and the occasional pull on his tobacco pipe, he and I fumbled around together trying to find a common chord where our musical conversation could meet, he on his flute and I with my mandolin. We never did find it, but no matter. Before too long this young man from Hanoi came up, took the mandolin into his hands and within minutes had figured out how to play it. This is just one of the songs he played that night, a traditional Vietnamese tune that drew together those disparate wayfarers of the night- foreigner and local, old and young, from north and south. In that moment the music brought us all together.

Comment

Comment

January 30, 2014 En Route to Hanoi

               There are times when I think about what a curse traveling is. We live in a world where half of humanity- the white, western and privileged- can merely board a plane and land halfway around the globe to experience foreign lands of poverty and injustice from the comfortable perspective of a tourist. Most do so without even considering the effect that their presence will have on the local society that they visit. Though others may at least be conscious of what their decision to travel causes, this does not assay them of the guilt of their actions. The fact of the matter is that any ecosystem will change with the introduction of a new variable. When we visit a culture we turn them into a spectacle, dehumanizing them as a product of our curiosity. And in the act of it, eroding the very peculiarities of their culture that we came to see.

                It is modern day colonization, a cultural imperialism that in some ways is worse than the economic empires of the 19th century. Before they were merely robbed of their resources and autonomy, now we steal their identity through the introduction of elements of our own. This can never be an equal process of give and take because the idea of the West has come to represent the new global culture and against this weight the Rest will never be able to compete. They call this force modernization, but that is only an euphemism for what is really happening, the homogenization of the world into a static and unsustainable monoculture of self-destructive consumerism.

         In the end we will all lose, some will just have a more luxurious defeat than others. We are experiencing what in nature is best represented by the phenomenon known as red tides. When an abundance of nitrogen is introduced into an ecosystem it allows for the rapid and unchecked growth of a phytoplankton whose population is normally limited by the ecosystem’s natural constraints. However, when their population booms it causes the waters to become toxic for all other beings, killing off everything until the nitrogen becomes depleted and the system returns to its natural equilibrium. In the case of man it is the industrial nations which over the last century have come into contact with the limited resources that otherwise kept their growth in check. We are at the point now of toxicity. It will only get worse from here.

As long as I am allowing my words to ramble across these pages, I think I will continue. Ignore the incoherent stream of thoughts, it is the natural path for the mind of men to take. The plane is like a one-way door, a device usuable for one to traverse the world as they please while for others it, like the angels and the beasts in the myths of old, is a reminder that the laws of God do not apply equally to all of his creatures; that in fact, some are more graced than others. The westerner can spend a little money to visit a country that by global standards is wretched and poor and when he has had all that he can bare, he can leave just as easily. But for those who actually live in that wretched land, there is no escaping their lot in life. No plane ticket, no amount of money, no prayer can change their color or ethnicity to make them an equal in the eyes or logic of the white westerner. Even those who make it West and become affluent will never escape the stigma imbedded in the culture and values of mankind.

         And this fact can only have two effects on those “others” in this world, shame and indignation. Both of which are the two worst poisons that could afflict the heart of man. Imagine how it must feel to have people come to your land, camera in hand, trying to capture what some other foreigner has objectified you as in some novel or movie or travel guide. You see in them a standard of living (at least in the material sense) far greater than you or your children could ever hope to attain. It is enough to cause you to question your own values, your own sense of worth. It changes your society, causing a split and disparity among people that were never really that similar in the first place. And now you have your own people guiding these foreigners about, exploiting those things abourt yourself that you were once proud of but now has been made into a commodity. All of a sudden you realize that you are poor and your ways are peculiar. All that you thought was the substance of what should be known has been made worthless. 

Comment

Comment

January 28, 2014 En Route to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

                 My soul will continue to traverse this earth until the day that I die. Never to be a part of the people that I wander amid, always to live at the edge, with the eyes of an outsider, forever trying to understand those which I will never be counted amongst. I am neither shepherd nor sheep, but cattle-hound, forever keeping watch over the flock; forever trying to keep at bay the darkness.

                Over the last few days I have seen sights that should make the heart of man swell with joy and sorrow, but instead I take all in with a continence  that does not waver, my blessing and my curse. In Phnom Penh I saw a prison where lives were devoured to feed a fantasy of a world that never could be. Tuol Sleng, S-21, Pol Pot’s hell where the disappeared vanished into a bureaucracy of photos marked deceased. Then there were the Killing Fields. A pagoda towers high about a swath of idyllic green. The flowers are in bloom and off in the distance the villagers are planting in the rice paddies, water to the knees, their supplies in the canoe next to them. But where you stand the air is crowded with memories that want to be forgotten. In the pagoda is a case 18 stories tall, each level stacked high with skulls. Beneath your feet as you walk bones are rising from the soil and scraps of clothes grow up like grass fertilized by the deceased. A tree shades the earth but its branches offer no solace, for it was against its bark that the babies were crashed, their short lives not being worth the cost of the bullet.

                That night we took our bus to Saigon. We were three hours out of Phnom Penh when we felt a small thud and saw something flash by in the window. A man on his bike had swerved too far into the road and was struck by a bus that would not have been there but for the tourists it carried. By the time we disembarked the man, his skull split open, had been lifted onto the back of a scooter and taken away. The few Cambodians on the bus were smarter than us, because as soon as it happened they had taken their luggage and flagged down whatever vehicle passed them by. While we sat on the side of the road with the police for the next three hours, watching the villagers watch us, two worlds brought together for a brief space of time and then parting ways without farewells. 

Comment

Comment

February 13, 2014

So much has happened over the last two weeks. My lax in writing will one day come back to bite me as the details and events that right now are so clear will eventually fade away and become lost to time. There was Hanoi of course, that town that never developed into a city but remains one on the maps and in parlance all the same. True, it is too small for its population, but it’s the pace that has truly left it behind the true metropolis of Saigon in the south. The people are still “provincial,” as they used to say. The bars close ast midnight as the police in jeeps come out to clear the streets, forcing everyone indoors or to known but overlooked after-hour speakeasies. 

Comment

Comment

January 14, 2014

Another early morning in the land with no time. The clock holds no sway in such a place, the day instead has its three proper parts: morning, the afternoon heat, and evening. While the true locals follow the patterns of the seasons, each with its necessary chores and responsibilities, the travelers merely drift about, drawn this way and that by their whims and wants. The language of this place is English spoken with every accent of the world- Thai, French, Pakistani, American, Australian. This country is the melting pot of the adventurous and discontent, all depending  on which lens you use to view it.

                yesterday was one of those incredible days, the reasons why I travel. I woke up on the farm, PermaPai, where I have been staying for near a week now. Lilly and David were staying in town for David’s birthday and Gop had just awoken to prepare breakfast, his morning task. We were supposed to leave at 9 but Lilly and David were operating on Thai time, so we would be successful if we left by noon. I went into town for coffee and returned to the farm a few hours later, just in time for us to leave. We were off to the Nam Lok caves, an extensive cavern 3 hours away by motorbike on a rough, paved road that twisted up and over the mountatins that form the border with Myanmar. The ride was exhilarating. Most of the traffic was motorbike or large, slow trucks. The views reminded me so much of my home in the mountains of North Carolina- soft, inviting mountains rich with life and diversity.

     When we arrived at the village near the cave we went to our guesthouse, Cave Lodge, and had lunch. The place had a special magic to it. A large, open lodge that faced the river, teak floors and a high thatched roof. It was opened by a man who escaped from Australia as a youth in the 80s to seek adventure and new life with the Hill Tribes that live along the border fighting against the Burmese Army in support of their kin in Shan State. Mixed up in all of this is the parallel story of the opium trade and heroin addicts, the stuff that has given the Golden Triangle its reputation around the world. The Thai Army came to this area about a decade ago and burned the fields, arresting people arbitrarily in the process, destroying what sadly had become a way of life throughout at least three generations of Hill Tribe people.

     That afternoon we explored the caves before making our way to the mouth  where the show would begin at sunsest. Thousands of swifts made their home in the mouth of the cave and every evening they came home to roost in one heavy black cloud that circled out of the sky and streamed into the cave. It lasted for an hour as more and more birds joined the throng. It was an incredible sight. That night I ate a meal of Shan food and listened to music around the fire. 

Comment

En Route to Ho Chi Minh

Comment

En Route to Ho Chi Minh

My soul will continue to traverse this earth until the day that I die. Never to be a part of the people that I wander amid, always to live at the edge, with the eyes of an outsider, forever trying to understand those which I will never be counted amongst. I am neither shepherd nor sheep, but cattle-hound, forever keeping watch over the flock; forever trying to keep at bay the darkness.

                Over the last few days I have seen sights that should make the heart of man swell with joy and sorrow, but instead I take all in with a continence  that does not waver, my blessing and my curse. In Phnom Penh I saw a prison where lives were devoured to feed a fantasy of a world that never could be. Tuol Sleng, S-21, Pol Pot’s hell where the disappeared vanished into a bureaucracy of photos marked deceased. Then there were the Killing Fields. A pagoda towers high about a swath of idyllic green. The flowers are in bloom and off in the distance the villagers are planting in the rice paddies, water to the knees, their supplies in the canoe next to them. But where you stand the air is crowded with memories that want to be forgotten. In the pagoda is a case 18 stories tall, each level stacked high with skulls. Beneath your feet as you walk bones are rising from the soil and scrap of clothes grow up like grass fertilized by the deceased. A tree shades the earth but its branches offer no solace, for it was against its bark that the babies were crashed, their short lives not being worth the cost of the bullet.

               

                That night we took our bus to Saigon. We were three hours out of Phnom Penh when we felt a small thud and saw something flash by in the window. A man on his bike had swerved too far into the road and was struck by a bus that would not have been there but for the tourists it carried. By the time we disembarked the man, his skull split open, had been lifted onto the back of a scooter and taken away. The few Cambodians on the bus were smarter than us, because as soon as it happened they had taken their luggage and flagged down whatever people passed them by. While we sat on the side of the road with the police for the next three hours, watching the villagers watch us, two worlds brought together for a brief space of time and then parting ways without farewells. 

Comment

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Comment

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Anata- live today and see what tomorrow brings

The twisted nature of life. I visit a country made famous by both beauty and atrocity. Many come here to see the temples of Angkor Wat, the ancient place of worship for the kings and gods. But when visitors walk the streets of this city not even the blind could forgo seeing the scars left by a war fought to kill these very same idols. Who has not heard of the bloodlust of the Khmer Rouge, of Pol Pot and the Killing Fields?

And even today, as tourists begin to once again roam these streets, the scars of those deaths are still everywhere to be seen. And to average travelers it is all just apart of the show. Maimed men with missing members, blinded, deformed, sit on the corners playing music with signs before them to evoke sympathy from passing tourists: I lost my legs to a landmine (these signs will say), I do not want to beg but I cannot work. Others go from table to table in the cafes, selling books about the war which they, even many years later, are the living victims of. And always we feel that guilt that grips the stomach, knowing full well that if that bone-shattering shrapnel that dismembered this man was reassembled, on it somewhere would bare the mark, MADE IN THE USA.

                On one afternoon we sat in a park by the river, speaking with a Japanese traveler who paid his way selling jewelry. As we sat there a swarm of kids came running up to us. When Isabel offered them the food she was throwing away, a ferocity took over them as they pushed and fought with each other over the scraps. As they turned to me and the meal that I still ate, their ferocity turned to hunger and despair, the practiced look of a beggar that does not make their hunger any less real. But then, when the food was gone and there was nothing left to beg, their expressions changed once again to the smiles of youth. But when I offered my mandolin to one of the children for him to play, he looked at his own hands, covered in dirt just like his barefeet and his face, and he was afraid to accept it, believing he was too dirty to hold something that nice. And his eyes were sad.

                Before long we each had three children sitting on our laps, per chance the closest thing to an embrace these lonely orphans had known in their lives. For these were different and lowlier than any of the beggar children of the tourist infested streets. I do not think the locals allowed these little destitutes to prowl over there. No, these children would know a suffering far worse than many of their countrymen. Their skin was blackened and scarred, their clothes were as dirty as their bodies and barely recognizable as pant, shirt or dress. Snot crusted under their nose with no mother for them to wipe it away. Somehow I ended up with them crawling on my back and I took to picking them up and swinging them in the air. Whenever I put one down there were two more waiting for their turn. And during all this the local Khmer looked on with trouble in their eyes, though I do not know if their derision was directed at us or the children that bothered their livelihood.


That night Isabel dragged met to a cocktail class which taught the recipes of local variations on drinks. It was at a bar called the Old Wood House, owned by a Frenchman and his Khmer wife. The class was nowhere as interesting as the conversation we had with the wife’s younger sister. It was not her words that told her tale as much as her energy. She radiated with a joy that was so out of touch with the dire circumstances of her life. Lala was 25 with two children from a man who left her to care for them while he went out with other women to drink. If her culture allowed her to, I believe she would have left him. But she also knew that few Cambodian men would take her, for she already had two children and was old by local standards. However, working for her French brother-in-law and encountering so many western women, Lala’s eyes had been opened to a new world of values and lifestyles that came hand-in-hand with tourism. She had been changed. In her eyes could be seen the spark that will grow into the flame of a new idea of womanhood that is spreading across this world. I have seen this flame in the eyes of strong, young women all over the world. From Morocco to Central Asia, America to Cambodia, across the globe there is a generation of women who have seen another path than the one their societies’ have designed for them, they have seen it and they will take it. If the socialism and fascism and all the ideologies of the 20th Century were man’s revolutions to make a better world, than now it is women’s turn. Let us pray they do a better job than we did, the world cannot afford their failure.

The evening ended but not without one of the subtle jabs to the conscious that grounds us back into the time and space that we inhabit. Lala told us the story of her walk to work that morning, and she did it with a smile and air of normalcy that showed just how different our two worlds were from each other. As she was passing by a dumpster she saw the body of a newborn, its birth fluids its only protection against the cold predawn air. She brought the baby to the hospital but it was too late. Another life lost to a world that could barely support those already living. As she told her story my mind was drawn back to those children who had clung to my arms earlier that day. The cruel realist in my soul asks the question, which child had the worse fate, and my compassionate side answers neither, and both.


Comment

Angkor Wat

Comment

Angkor Wat

It is a place where the languid scent of incense drifts through the air. The howl of monkeys crests the walls and resounds through the caverns. A place where your feet want to move slowly and silence is the anthem of the moment. As the sun rises above these walls it awakens the stones, and you watch them grow from grey-black to colors of auburn and iron. It is a place where truly the gods once did walk, a temple fitting of a serene being. Somewhere in the forest monks chant as the golden orb of the day crests above the treetops. There is still a chillness to the air, the last remnants lingering from the fading night.



The poor here are solicited by all, their allegiance bought for a little food and money. The Cambodian Peoples’ Party, aid groups, the church, they all vie for a people who are too tired trying to survive to concern themselves over ideologies. All they have to do is bare their mark. The Party’s banner stands above the door of some homes, others have plaques thanking the western group, family or government that built this house or that well. And the Christians require little from them in this world but everything in the next. Nothing is ever given for free in this world, even recognition of a good deed carries it cost.

Comment

The Island

Comment

The Island

         In almost every shop on the island there are motor scooters sitting out front, available for rent for as cheap as $5 a day. If you know how to ride one this is a perfect way to explore. With a semi-complete system of roads that can carry you to the beaches on every side of the island, you could easily pass a day exploring from the back of your bike. However, more often than not the tourist renting the scooter has never ridden one before, and when they come across the first pothole, the first stretch of road covered in sand, they fall, damage their bike and probably themselves, and are forced to pay up whatever the shop demands of them to retrieve their passport they have left as collateral when they bring back the bike. Most of the time it is no use going to the police, because they are more often than not on the side of their countrymen.

          That day Isabel, Hannah, a German from the hostel and I rented bikes and explored the island from end to end. We stopped to ask other tourists who were doing the same thing what beach we should go to and then off we went. Besides its natural beauty the island offered cheap places to learn Maui Thai boxing or earn a certificate in diving. During the ride I could look off along the road and watch as tourists swatted at each other with foot and fist, attempting to replicate in one week what true fighters spent a lifetime learning. To say our farewells to the day we rode our scooters to the highest point on the western half of the island, taking a steep dirt trail where I stopped to watch as the novices on their scooters fell time after time trying to crest some of the steeper hills. On top of the mountain was a rocky acropolis where we joined others to watch the setting sun with a cold beer in hand and backs burned red.

                That night we ate dinner before heading to a bar on the beach to enjoy the last night we would spend on the island. I saw what was happening even as I did it, laughing at myself as it happened. Alcohol and a pretty girl had driven me to recklessness. Before I had given it any thought I had stumbled my way beneath a flaming limbo stick, jumped into the sea fully clothed, tried my hand jumproping a flaming coil and getting burned in the neck in the process and dove through a ring of fire, all in an alcohol inspired attempt to impress a girl. I have lowered myself into a state of reckless folly, becoming what in my years of travel I have disdained most in others. That night it struck me that I was living a life that was not my own. A year ago I had been living like a vagabond. I walked from France to Spain with my possessions on my back. For four months I travelled across Morocco spending as little money as possible, sleeping on a beach or in the woods when a room in a hostel that cost as much as a beer back home was too much for me to spend.

                Right now I am a tourist, not a traveler. But this journey has only just begun and I hope as I move away from Thailand and those that flock here I have the chance to see the region for what it truly is- the home of peoples and cultures that have been here long before European travel agents turned it into a package holiday for affluent youths that come wanting to take a trek off the beaten path without getting their feet or conscience dirty. Let those that want it have the beaches and DJs, but I have yet to discover what I am here for.

Comment

Full Moon Party

Comment

Full Moon Party

It has taken 24 hours but I believe I have finally recovered from the Full Moon Party. We were dropped off on the island of Koh Pangyong at seven. The ferry that took us there was electric with the revelry of all those who were going to the island for the party. Taxis were waiting for us when we disembarked, big 15-seat vans that slowed to a crawl as they struggled to get over the mountains to the party on the other side of the island. At this point I was already suffering from lack of sleep. Out of the last four days I had only been able to catch about five hours of true sleep from all the travelling from Spain to Bangkok and then from there on to the island. And the night ahead was sure to offer no reprieve. The ferry back to Koh Tao wouldn’t be returning until six the next morning, guaranteeing a full night ahead. But it didn’t matter, the party lay ahead of me and lack of sleep was no reason not to enjoy it.

                The taxi dropped us off on the edge of town where the party was spilling out. As we headed towards the beach the streets had already turned into a carnival, crowded with young Caucasians dressed in tanktops of pink and yellow neon, the uniform of the evening. Thais stood behind booths, peddling clothing marked with the words FULL MOON PARTY, fried foods perfect for drinking on, and buckets of liquor with a straw sticking out that seemed to be the drink of choice for everyone at the party. When we made it to the beach we were confronted with a kaleidoscope of lights from one end to the other. The world had transformed into an ecstatic frenzy of color, an orgy of sensual bodies dancing and moving, feeding off of itself, getting bigger and rowdier and more passionate by the minute.

 By midnight it was going full swing but still far from its peak, a crescendo on the rise. Young Thais spun poi to the starry eyed amazement of the spectators. In the sea at the fringe of the lights naked figures reeled in the waves while further up on the beach balloons full of nitrous hovered over incapacitated bodies lying with their backs to the sand and their eyes to the heavens. Back in the chaos of light and sound somebody had begun swinging a flaming jumprope large enough for three to stand in abreast. The revelers massed in a circle around it as it swung to the rhythm of the music, those behind urged those inside the ring to try their luck dodging the swinging flame. Soon burning rings were lit as well and the more daring tried their luck diving through them, some failing miserably to the wonderment of the cheering crowd. I succeeded diving through, many did not. Everywhere I looked I could see bandages on arms, legs, even faces. The Koh Panyang tattoo they were called. For the evening, at least, it was the price people were willing to pay for the liberty to party without inhibition.

At 5 in the morning the party music and dancers were still going strong, the only difference was the number of sleeping forms on the sand and pavement who had crashed and remained wherever they fell. By the first hint of the rising sun I was running on my fifth or seventh wind, forcing myself to keep moving or perish. We started meeting up with people we recognized from the ferry the night before as we gathered where the taxis had arranged to pick us up. Delirium was the only common thread to the conversation as we drove back to the dock. Fresh with another burst of energy I sat drinking beer under the morning sun as a French and Swede argued passionately over football. But when my ass finally landed on the deck of the ferry I used what energy remained to me to crawl underneath a  bench to sleep for the entire return voyage. 

Comment

The Cabaret Show

Comment

The Cabaret Show

Still struggling from the night before, I lost most of the day to sleep, only rousing myself in the afternoon to visit the beach where I fell asleep on the cushioned porch of a tea shop. That night an English girl who had dreadlocks sewed into her in Bangkok arrived to our room in the hostel. When I asked all the occupants in the room if there was anyone who wanted to come with us to a ladyboy cabaret show, she was the only one who was excited to see it as we were. You see, Thailand has many things to boast about, the historic expanse of its northern mountains, the breathtaking beauty of its islands in the south and, last but not least, its unique tolerance if not outright support of transexuals, more popularly known as ladyboys. It is not uncommon to be walking down the street and see a seemingly beautiful women with a large adam’s apple on her neck and an ominous bulge in the crotch of her go-go shorts, depending on the stage transformation. I have heard more than a few stories of eager men who went to bed drunk with a beautiful woman in the evening and awoke in the morning to discover in the light of sobriety that there was more to their lady-friend than they knew. The internet is littered with guides for men visiting Thailand advising them on how to avoid making this very mistake, but whether you attribute it to the transformative magic of womenfolk and their makeup or to the ability of alcohol to render the most intelligent of men powerless to the inebriated persuasion of fleshly lust, these incidents will forever continue.

                Well that evening on the island of Ko Tao we came across a group of sirens on a street corner dressed in the full regalia one would expect from women of their trade in the days of yore. However as these women slid up next to the men walking by, they whispered sweet nothings to them in low, husky voices that made the toughest men on the island blush and quicken their step. After I ran that gauntlet and scurried away I laughed about it with Isabel and we decided to attend the show that evening, if for no other reason than that the entry fee included a free beer.

                So the Brit and a few others from the hostel joined us and we took our seats at the start of the evening show. For the next hour beautiful women in extravagant dress sang and danced before a crowd of pale skinned foreigners. Many of them would have been indiscernible from anything other than what they appeared to be while there were others who still had the roughness of appearance and movement that only the lesser sex are born with. The final act of the evening was when a handful of the performers grabbed a man from the crowd who was forced up to the stage when his own girlfriend pulled his seat right out from under him. The women sat him on a chair and danced around and on him while he in turn did his best to keep his composure. By the time it was over his face had turned a deep red. Any who have visited Ko Tao and have not seen this show have missed out on one of the most memorable experiences to be had on the island, because, damn it, where else are you going to get the chance to say you’ve seen a ladyboy cabaret show? I’d caution against going to one in Bangkok or Phuket where the finale is most likely to end with a shower of ping pong balls raining on the crowd from the performers on stage. 

Comment

Ko Tao

Comment

Ko Tao

A sleepless night spend on a rickety train from Bangkok to Chumphon. I arrived at 6 in the morning, physically exhausted but mentally fueled by the excitement of change. I had not decided to go to Thailand until three days before I left, when my sister saved me from the doldrums I was experiencing living a passive existence in Nerja, Spain, by inviting me to join her on her trip in Southeast Asia. When I arrived in Bangkok she had already decided our first days of the trip. She had bought train tickets to head down south to the islands to celebrate the full moon at a party famous among backpackers the world over. So the night after I landed in Bangkok we were boarding a train.

 The journey did not end there. We were taken from the train station to the pier in the back of a covered pickup, its roof loaded down with our baggage and the bed stacked full of human cargo. I made the journey with my feet hanging out the back, watching as the town began to awaken. Young Thais in their school uniforms waited for other pickups to collect them. It was one of those surreal moments that no words or camera could preserve, but which always lingers on the edge like a taste the mind is always grasping to remember.

 Sitting beside me was a Pole my age who was the picture perfect embodiment of the type of tourist that comes to the Thailand. He had been to the islands a handful of times before. He came to relax, to party, to live with reckless abandonment for just a few weeks a year. He drank the beers he had bought at the station while he told me the story of his last trip. He had been arrested for smoking a joint- a felony in this country. When he didn’t have the money to bribe the police he had to go to jail, where he spent a week calling relatives back home to wire him the money to bail him out. That’s the way it is here. The affluent come from all over the world to revel in the freedom that their money can buy them and the people who actually called this country their home either made their money off of them or are ignored by those who do.

The truck unloaded us at the pier and we boarded an overcrowded catamaran for the three hour voyage to the island of the Ko Tao. We sat on the floor of the deck, fighting for space with all the other backpackers our age. The people of the developed world were well represented- Americans, Poles, French, British, Argentines-all coming together in one place for cheap drinks and lodging. Tall swells rocked the boat. It listed from side to side as ocean spray showered the deck. I saw the same Pole from earlier with his head buried in a barrel, ingloriously spewing up the celebratory beers he had earlier drunk.

The boat let us off at Ko Tao but took about half of its human cargo on with it to Ko Phangan. We were planning on going to another island later that evening for the Full Moon Party, however, because we were late in deciding to go to the party the price of a place to stay on Ko Phangan was already far out of our price range. So my sister, Isabel, had booked us a place on Ko Tao and we would take the sunset ferry to Ko Phangan instead.

The island of Ko Tao was something right out of the brochure. A small island of lush palms climbing higher and higher to the mountain tops above. Boulders from millennium past had rolled down the slopes, laying however they had landed, right up to the pristine strip of sand that merged seamlessly with the cerulean sea. The bay harbored boats of all shapes and varieties, skinny water taxis with far-reaching outboard motors, high-bowed junks, flat bottomed ferries retrofitted with oxygen tanks and regulator racks for diving instruction. By some peoples’ definition Ko Tao has all the ingredients needed to make paradise, a heaven for those who preach relaxation as the pathway to bliss. After the frenzy of Bangkok, the serenity of this place was a welcome change.

Comment

Arrival

Comment

Arrival

Another day and night spent travelling; hopping from one plane to another, mountains to desert to jungle, the world changes around me as I skip across its surface. And now here I am, my first morning waking up in Bangkok. The air is warm and sweet, the smell of  city streets and flowered palaces, of putrid canals rolling past temples with incense rising listlessly into the exhaust thick air. It is an Asian breeze. Not since Beijing have I awoken to an air like this, but that is where the similarities with China end. Everything about this city is different from the Chinese metropolises I've seen. Despite the fact that the city is wracked in revolt, there's a vibrancy alive in the streets. China is a country under the yoke of technocrats and force-fed progressiveness, a nation enslaved by its own development.

Thailand, on the other hand, sweats its freedom out of every pore. Bars drip from the deluge of Europeans and Americans, their hawkers in the street competing to draw the crowd, their weapons are cheap drinks, funky decors and guitar acts swooning streetwalkers with familiar american tunes sung in nasally Thai voices. Taxi drivers pimp girls on the street corners with laminated menus of services rendered. Old white men with wedding rings on their fingers strut down the sidewalks with young Thai girls on their arms, their holiday wife-for-hire. A city of vice- dirty, libertine and profitable. Welcome to Bangkok, where all your desires are only a few dollars away.

 My arrival in Thailand coincided with the day the protesters had called to shut down Bangkok, but even their revolution had a certain festivity to it like no where else in the world. The train was packed with celebrating protesters, dressed in protest shirts and wearing Thai flags as bracelets and scarfs. Across from them police officers stood about nonchalantly, bored or smiling along with the protesters. It was a stark contradiction to the hyped up fears promoted by western media outlets. The day I left Europe the State Department issued an advisory warning urging Americans to stock up on two weeks' supply of food and water. A military coup is said to be imminent but that's not the feeling on the streets. A rickshaw from the train station brought me through the protest as he tried to navigate his way through blocked off streets as he worked his way towards the hostel. Behind the shouting protest organizers on the stage a band was tuning up. Streets vendors smiled as they peddled their wares in the festival like atmosphere. Bangkok, a town like no other.

Comment