Saturday, June 11, 2011

(not so) Alone in Narita

Arrived at Narita Airport around 8:30am (with slight time change) and headed out. I have an 7 hour layover. My goal - to go to Tokyo. I calculated it carefully yesterday. A train into the city takes an hour and a half, so lets call that 2 hours to be on the safe side. So that leaves 4 hours. Minus 2 hours to be at the airport 2 hours in advance for an international flight. That leaves 1 hours. I can do this, and I'm feeling less tired that I thought I might after the red eye from Bangkok.

However, when I get to the train, a very nice woman who works there and who speaks really good English (incidentailly from living in Daly City for a while) explains that although my calculations were correct, I did not take into account the train's schedule, which I guess I just assumed ran more frequently. When that was factored in I would have closer to 45 minutes without buffer time AND be well past my 2 hour before hand deadline. It was impossible.

She could sense my disappointment, but suggested I go check out Narita (where she was from) guaranteeing that it was "very Japanese." I didn't want Japanese, I wanted The Future - but anything beats 7 hours at an airport, and as I said I wasn't even feeling that dead yet.

So off to Narita. I found to my dismay in the real airport beyond the duty free, that my credit card was not acceptable. Luckly my little coffee drink could be paid for by US cash, of which i had $5, and got the exact right amount of Yen for the train back as change.

Stepping out, Narita was so quiet. I realized for the first time how relatively loud Thailand is, probably because of all the motorcycles everywhere. Perhaps also because I was traveling with my Mom and bro, so I haven't been alone for long for a while. There is a Temple here, my Daly City friend had told me, so I would get something to eat (there were bakeries everywhere), and head over to see it and sit in the adjoining park and rest in the fresh air before going back to airport land. I thought...

The same problem of having a US card persisted. I had hoped not to have to change money, for my 3 hour stay in Japan, but it seemed now that I had no choice. I needed water and food and more caffeine, but even without these, I needed a train back. Where was the nearest ATM I could use? Unclear, but as I understood it it involved a bus, or better yet - there was always the airport.

I was beginning to feel very alone and how futile this excursion was proving to be. When I was turned down at yet another store, a young woman took pity on me and told me that an ATM in town that could take my card was at the post office. She explained the directions, which were very complicated. Then looked at my now, much more tired face, and, as if reading my mind, pulled out a piece of paper and wrote my destination on it so I could ask others for help when I fell off track.

Which I did several times, my most notable of helpful townspeople being a little aging lady dog walker who walked with me for a few blocks back the blocks I overshot, telling me about her daughter who lived in New York.

Make it to the post office to find it closed. Why? Oh yeah, its Sunday. I ask again, and the 711 is my new destination. To make a long story short, I did get some cash and headed to see if I could find an internet cafe. I ask some "young people" who pointed me toward McDonalds. Okay. Went to McDonalds, and on their porch I tried again. There were some more "young people" hanging out there, and I felt like I was starting to get delirious because I could understand what they were saying - but it wasn't English. Either way this internet wasn't going to happen so maybe they could help.

No - they couldn't, because no one spoke English. Then I asked - Espanol? Yes, that's what it was. They were a group of students, two Japanese and two from Peru. They took an interest in me right away, and rather than indulge my interest in getting online, the offered me a tour, they would take me to the Temple.

So somehow I had stumbled into my own personal tour guide (the leader who stayed with me after the rest pealed away), who (entirely in Spanish) answered all my questions about the Narita, the Temple, Tokyo, Japanese Culture, and filled me in on where the chillest cities in South America were and what it was like to be Latino in Japan. When I made my way back to the train and tried to buy a ticket, languages were completely mixed up in my head. I think I am wearing out.

Oh! and he bought me a shaved ice. For those of you who know me, you know my latent passion for snow cones, so the was the icing on the cake. (That metaphor feels mixed, but I don't thing it is)

My new friend (we have already connected on "the face") will show me around Tokyo next time I come - for longer and definitely must be in August, which he and his friend must have told me about 2 dozen times, is the best time to come.

Meanwhile - don't ever get stuck in Narita International. Somehow I just end up having a $40 Sushi lunch. It was good - but not that good. I am tired not (Kirin). I believe this concludes my posts on this travel blog. Thanks for reading.

Chiang Mai Will Change Your Life

I won't argue that Chiang Mai is somehow more authentic than other parts of Thailand or miraculously unspoilt by tourism, globalization and the other credibility impairing hazards of the present century. But I found myself drawn in by its wily charm. It has a certain liveliness, a spirit of astonishment unlike anywhere else I have been in the world (which admittedly until this trip only included Western Europe and North America). The amount of time we stayed was far too brief and I feel I barely scratched the surface. I am determined to return as an intrepid traveler unbound by the path dependency of the virginal tourist.

We may have been destined to love Chiang Mai by choosing to begin experiencing it with a Thai Full Body Massage. The price of said massage wouldn't buy you a slap in the face or a kick in the pants in the U.S. much less the extensive snapping, cracking and deep tissue therapy we received while wearing light fabrics that prevented me from feeling so much as a twinge of bodily violation. Following this, we watched dance Khum Khantoke as part of an "authentic" Lanna Dining experience. This included an impressive sword dance and a fascinating Sueng Ka-pho coconut shell dance. More about these shenanigans, and their authenticity or lack thereof, in a later post. 

Next I experienced a series of highly visceral hallucinations. I felt as if I flew high above the jungle upside down. The trees, the banana palms, the noisy yet euphonic hum of insects, the replicative green - everywhere green - whirled around me with dizzying splendor. Jiminy Cricket served as our guide. He taught us the ways and protected us from the gravest dangers we may have encountered. Undoubtedly my view of the jungle has been permanently altered by meeting it under such tumultuous circumstances.
I had already seen the muddy river below my dangling feet. But now we got deep in the muck. Our captain fancied that he was a Jack Sparrow, he heard voices, he talked to himself and he led us down the current feet first. I was prepared to dunk my head in the drink, I was ready to drown.

The day had not yet ended and my venturesome delusions now took shape as avatars - tigers first, and then ultimately elephants. I feel no shame admitting that I am terrified of anyone who is capable of tearing my face off and eating my flesh like so much lettuce. The tiger, he is capable, but the tiger can be approached in highly controlled circumstances as we discovered.
The next morning, the visage of the elephant became my delusion's North Star. We were all entranced by their gentle comic majesty. Sympathy for these enormous beasts anguished me - normally my soul harbors few warm feelings for animals. I deal with them as a technocrat deals with reams of collected data. I analyze rather than pet. They took us on slow, stuttering roller coaster ride through the jungle.

My sister and I rode on a houda atop the elephant. Her name was Wan Pen and she was a hard working 31 year old. She climbed and she ate using her highly articulate trunk. My feet were on her back, occasionally I placed my foot behind her ear. The jungle around us made way for these hulking wanderers. Again the resounding buzz of insects surrounded us, but this time Wan Pen's ears flapped back and forth to ward them away.
The long chain of visions that Chiang Mai induced in me ended while visiting a working silk factory. These little slugs - born to transform - provide, in their yearning to become another, a fine fiber that Thais (among many other peoples) weave into threads. We wear these threads for fashion and comfort. After examining the worms in their various stages of development as well as the fibers, the threads and the wooden machines that women work to weave the silk, I entered the adjacent retail shop that sells the finished goods. My dream ended with the stark juxtaposition of a hot silk factory and an air conditioned retail shop. Nearly every shop I have entered in my life has had a sweat shop behind its wares, but the connection had never been so clearly dramatized. I felt a vague sickness; a hangover of unearned luxury infested me like opportunistic mold.

Last Day Phuket

(apologies in advance for the hasty post and photos - not sure how my internet will be for a while)

Last day in Phuket - have an evening flight out so lazed a bit in the morning and then decided to drive the cost up and check out the other beaches as we went.

Patong is a shit hole. There. I said it. Don't get me wrong, the beach is gorgous, so I can see why so many young foreigners came and over the years made the place on big pile of tourist crap. I bought some sunglasses and a Frappuccino TM.

The northern beaches might have been nice, but access is limited to those paying the rent (or paying those who pay the rent.) We accidentally made our way into a huge spead of condo developments around assuming man-made lagoons, with a big fat golf course in the middle. Again, I understand why, but it does still seem a shame.

The last little beach before the airport to the north of Surin is a little beach called Nai Yang. What can I say but THIS IS THE SPOT.

A rad beach town with little restaurant spots with tables on the beach catering to surfers. Actually, kite surfing was the thing here, and the is-it-going-to-rain-is-it-not-going-to-rain weather of this part of the year gives amazing gusts of wind for these guys.

If you travel to Phuket I highly recommend you look into staying in Nai Yang. I head you can camp on the beach as well. Sounds pretty good to me.

My last Thailand-Thai meal on the beach was perfect. Mom and Rob are heading back for a few more days in Thailand and I am headed home by way of two subsequent red eyes: one to Narita International (Japan) and one from there to SFO. So from 15 min from now for the next 24+ hours or so (8 hour layover at Narita) I will be in transit. Pretty rough.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Beach Bumming and Thai Market

A mellow day yesterday. We hit the beach in the morning, and stayed for a good chunk of the day. Kata Beach is gorgeous - the pic I caught doesn't even do it justice.


For those who know me well, you know how happy I am near (and in) water, and the water of the Andaman is so warm! After years of stepping tentitivly into the Pacific ocean off of Nor Cal, I was genuinely surprised, and after a moment to adjust my thinking threw myself in for a swim. What a treat.

In the late afternoon we hit the road from Phuket Town, which actually gained it's city status in 2004. We had hoped to get "off the beaten path" a bit, as the beach areas of Phuket are pretty geared toward tourist, to the extent of hosts of restaurants, cabs and souvenir vendors trying to grab you off the street and make the sale. (This aggressiveness could also be because we are sliding ever more into "low season." We had read about an open air market and driving into town we did spot one. It was unlikely that this was the one we had read about, but we stopped anyway.

What we ended up finding was a real treat. A Thai farmers market, get this, for Thai people. Since it was the outskirts of Phuket town and around 5pm, we gathered this was a spot many would stop to get dinner ingredients or take out.

We wandered around the market, and I began to take lots of pictures:

Everyone was so friendly and we were informed at one point that it was odd to see us there (being non-Thais). I began to approach people for portraits, mainly kids who were running around playing together as their parents worked or shopped. At first they kindly assented, but after walking the loop around the small market several times, many had already seen what I was up to and they began to offer and chat with me as best they could given I know no Thai. This was the kind of "immersion" that had been a bit elusive throughout our trip, and I spent the entire hour or two (no one was keeping track) with a huge smile on my face and the knowledge that the photos I was getting were better than any souvenir I could buy.


Back to Kata beach, the three of us headed to a bar restaurant which I was loured into by: its pool table, Regan-Era-classic-rock-super-hits-of-the-80s/Van-Halen-Pandora-playlist, and a Connect Four! set on every table. A deadly combination for staying late and drinking too much. Good times.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"We Have Some Catching Up To Do..."

So much has happened over the last five days that contemplating how to write about it leaves me breathless with anxiety. The weekend's events seem retrospectively less glamourous after the momentous adventures of the top of the week, but some highlights lend themselves to description (I'm sorry I couldn't render all of this in cxl480 because I don't have a 560iMachineBox-Pro 8* but I'm dealing with 4.67 pendisc from the mid 2000s and it's like "Back to the Stone Age!"  If you can't follow my jargon you're probably not my friend on facebook/gmail/blogger/twitter/twatter/blotter/blitter/blatter anyway so whatever.)

On Saturday, my sister and I explored the Khao San Road district of Bangkok in the late afternoon and early evening. Khao San Road is known as a haven for young hipsters from around the world and if the T-shirts on offer in some of the stalls were any indication, such a reputation appears entirely accurate. I saw an Imperial Stormtrooper holding an umbrella on a t-shirt in once such stall. Mere minutes later I saw some paleface wearing the shirt and deduced that he had just bought ironic Star Wars memorabilia in the heart of the Jade Empire of Southeast Asia.

Perhaps my years living "Check Your Privilege" atmosphere of UC Berkeley has fatally buttressed my carefully nursed white self-hatred. But Bill Hicks' line about the "whiny white pieces of shit" inhabiting the cast of "Thirtysomething" came into my head over and over again despite the fact that most of the travelers moving about Khao San Road are probably just perfectly agreeable Norwegians, Germans, Canadians, Americans just like me.

Tangential to my own insecurities are some observations about race in Thailand. Based on media representations I have caught on billboards, street advertisements, and the haunting telescreens that dominate Bangkok's Sky Train transit system, it appears that the more Chinese a Thai looks, the better. That is, light is right in Thailand just as in the U.S. or Brazil or seemingly anywhere in the world. I have begun to understand Southeast Asia interpolates the paler East Asia with the darker South Asia.

An exhilarating nighttime Tuk Tuk ride through Bangkok's metropolitan archipelago carried my sister and I to the Ratchethewi neighborhood we had read was the chosen destination of "young Thais in the know." Experiencing a district teeming with the budding cognoscenti that attend Bangkok's universities imbued me with a frightening vision of a future increasingly overtaken by neon regalia and the features of an endless, infinite shopping mall.

Travel Day: Chiang Mai to Phuket

Left beautiful and peaceful Chiang Mai to head down to Phuket. We were a bit worried about what the weather would be here (the south being wetter than the north) like but this morning is sunny and warm.

Flew into Phuket at around 5pm and decided to rent a car to make the most of the couple days we will be here. Phuket is a big island, about 50Km long (30ish miles) and it took us quite a while to drive from the airport. Driving on the left at night was a bit nuts. The Thai don't have lanes. Although they are painted on the road, its common to just move in and out of each one as need be. Very aggressive with lots of motor cycles.

We made it down to Kata Beach where we had chosen to stay, given its description of being a little more laid back than Patong - which is a little north up the west coast of the Island from us.

We have a little list going of what we want to do hear, including check out the beach and the Andaman Sea!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Elephants are Rad.

Yesterday the highlight was the elephant park. Not as hokey as it might seem, the park get a lot of traffic from tourists for the "elephant show" and rides, (we skipped the show) but is also a preserve of sorts. At any rate, it is confirmed once and for all that elephants are indeed lovable and have a sweet and thoughtful disposition, at least when trained.

I took a ton of photos (shot up my card), some of which can be found here:

The ride was kind of nuts. Robbie and I kept reminding ourselves that it was probably the least dangerous thing we have done so far, since we didn't have to trained. Elephants are big, perhaps you already knew that, and so you're pretty far off the ground, and their gate and stride is slow but their weight shift quite a lot. We were lead up along something like a hiking trail in the foothills and going uphill, and especially downhill was a trip. I would add more detail, but mostly I just want to stress how rad elephants are. Very rad. Their trunks, rad, and super articulate. Their feet, super rad. Their mouths, really odd and rad also. They are vertical, which I didn't know.

This park was very relaxed, and after the ride we bought some banana's and sugar cane and met some elephants up close and personal. The park has all ages, from babies in the nursery (more on that in a moment) who are a few months old, to the oldest elephant who is 78. (Elephants are rad.) Elephants love bananas and sugar cane. Elephants pick things up with their trunk - out of your hand.

We finally headed over to the nursery and met a baby and mama:IMG_5535
This baby was so so rad. (see pictures) So playful and funny. Unlike the other elephants that were admittedly more interested in us when we had bananas than when we didn't, the baby just wanted to play. Also, just like a human baby, he was still getting used to his body, and especially the trunk. While the older elephants had this amazingly articulate way of pincing with the top and bottom tips of their trunks, (see elephant painting) the baby really didn't have it down. He would have something for a moment, and then drop it and try again and again. While the older ones sort of pop thing into their mouth (think popcorn) the baby was less accurate when it did get up there and would sort of smash it in there off to the side and try to use the feet a bit. Anyway, I love this elephant most of all.


Lastly we saw them training elephants to paint. Amazing, but a little less interesting than elephants just being elephants.

Anyway, I know this is a lot about elephants, but they are seriously seriously rad animals. Way more interesting than the report I did about them in third grade.