Sunday, August 06, 2006

Vang Vieng

The only thing that made it possible to leave Luang Pabang was knowing that some day I will return there. Hopefully to stay. It is everything Vang Vieng should be. For one, there are scores of places to eat French pastry, drink cappuccino and read the Herald Tribune. It seems like the perfect place to grow old. The city is full of tiny brick lanes which absolutely make it impossible to get a car down them. Lush gardens everywhere compliment the colonial French Architecture.

Vang Vieng on the other hand is a dirty little party town and I can tell Sasha hates it. She is being brave though. We need a rest after the harrowing trip here.

We came in on a mini bus. We had tried to get a public bus in Luang PaBang but they didn't seem to want to sell us a ticket. They offered it to us at the same price as the van. We were packed in 10 to a car. As we wound through the mountains everyone held their cameras out the window trying to capture the wild rugged mountain-scape that dwarfed our tiny vehicle.

We have booked a one day trek that includes hiking, caves and rafting. It's a little bit too organized but with only two days here its about all you can do. We have to make haste back to Bangkok if we are to catch our flight to Suri Thani on the 10th. That means two nights here then another day of travel to VieneTiane. We will spend two nights there then cross the border to Nonghai and catch the sleeper train back to Bangkok on the night of the 9th. We will arrive at the train station in Bangkok at 6am. From there we will take a local bus to the airport.

The sun is setting now and the spectacular mountains that surround this tiny town are disappearing. There are scores of new hotels going up just as the jumble of old guest-houses appear to be crumbling into the red earth. They are repaving the entire city and dust is every where. You have no choice but to call these tiny towns cities, because besides the jungle that is all there is.

The bars here are filled with the reincarnation of the Woodstock generation. Instead of tables and chairs there are railed in platforms about a foot high filled with pillows. They lounge around stoned out of their minds watching re-runs of Friends. In every bar we passed there they were, Monica and Joey and Rachel and uh, uh... Rick? Brad? Squawking on blue screens. The contentment here is made possible by something called a happy shake. A mixture of opium, mushrooms and alcohol. The police, costumed like sadists from a Lina Wertmuller film, look the other way.

I spotted Boz from afar. He was wearing his yellow pants, grinning from ear to ear. I was happy to see a familiar face. Especially one that was sober. I told him that Sasha and I were going to book a one day trek and if he and Dom came along we could all get the same one for 13 bucks each. He and Dom exchanged glances and then looked around at the stoners.
"I'm in." They said in unison.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Luang Prabang

We were jostled around on the back of a Tuk Tuk truck on a mud and rock filled road heading out of the main drag of Luang Prabang. Along with two Brits we were heading to the Kwang Sy waterfall. The star attraction.

There was an earthen parking lot where we arrived filled with the usual collection of vendors selling food and trinkets. We hiked in and right away saw the bears in their cage. They danced about on their hind legs like clowns for the pleasure of bananas tossed to them by spectators. I had to turn away. Across from them was the tiger cage. When I saw this cat and how it prowled about its jungle pen, I was convinced the sleepy beasts in Kanchaniburi had been drugged. I had never seen such a large and agile beast. It moved like lightning through the dense brush jumping from branch to ground in muscular leaps.

Like all great theatrical personages the waterfall teased us before its appearance. Streams of milky emerald colored water splash over the large boulders and pool up into the swiming hole. Any ten year old would have been delighted by the jungle vines and the low hanging tree one could jump from. We enjoyed diving into the water and swimming hard against the stiff current toward the crashing waterfall, but I was left wondering if that was all there is.

As we squeegeed the water off our bodies I saw Boz and his friend Dom heading down the trail. We were about to head back when they advised us to keep going.
"It gets much better." Boz grinned his mysterious grin.
We climbed up a little further and there was a large round boulder plunked in the middle of the stream. water pooled to the left and right of it. People were swiming out to it and diving in. It was perfectly arbored by the jungle canopy, like an advertisment for romantic getaways.

We climbed on further and rounded the bend. There was a decaying resort there, filled with spiders and snakes, caving in with rot. Just beyond that the river made a spectacular leap heavenward. It crashed down in torrents onto the boulders strewn below it. Vines and moss and trees clung to the cliffs surrounding it. A small patch of blue could be seen floated above the canopy like a crown. I struggled with my camera turning it left and right. I tried to make a little video, but like all things grand it was unphotographable.

The next day we rented bikes and visited the temple of happiness on the outskirts of town. It took me a while to decipher why it had been named that. It is an octagonal shaped shrine on the crest of a jungle covered hill. Inside there are two pictograph murals, one set on top of the other. The top row depicts scenes of heavenly virtue. There are rolling hills and blue skies, verdant rice fields and pilgrims glowing with divine radiation.

The bottom mural is filled with graphic renditions of avarice filled sin. The artist took his opportunity to make multiple studies of near naked women frolicking in the heat of lustful abandon. The were juxtaposed to scenes of warlike carnage which included the beasts of the wild tearing out the organs of the fallen. I could imagine that late at night the monks took advantage of this mild pornography. Furtively groping beneath thier orange habits in a bid to make their spiritual solitude more endurable.

We then headed out on highway 13 around the enormous mountain that dominates the vista of Luang PraBang. The guy at the bike rental had called it a highway. This was one of the most optomistic and generous things one could have called this road. It was muddy and filled with rocks. The ground slid away beneath us as we struggled up the hills. At every turn there were rice paddies where little had changed in hundreds of years. A muddy river spread out below us and huge kharst formations filled the vistas like ancient kings. We passed a man harvesting pineapples. Speaking badly in Thai I managed to buy one. It was crisp and juicy with just the right amount of sweetness and a hint of pine. I finally understood why they had been named such.

We made it back to the one real road in Laos. Highway one connects Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng and Vienetiene in the south. We headed up an endless hill until we could pedal our bikes no longer. We walked up the final curves that crested the ridge blocking our way back into town. Trucks overladen with Laotian workers roared by. They smiled and waved to us cheering us on. We reached the top and roared down the other side. Children ran to the side of the roads holding out their hands for us to slap as we zoomed by.

In town we treated ourselves to a dinner at a luxury resort. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror as we entered and I truly looked like a mad man. We were mud splattered and sweaty with our hair completely blown out. They sat us anyways in the elegant dining room. After a meal of Bison stew and a garden salad. Then we had a fusion desert that consisted of one of the many tiny pumpkins we had seen at roadside stands roasted and filled with coconut cream. We dove into the pool after eating. Sasha passed out on one of the lounge chairs. Soon other patrons of the hotel appeared. They looked like cadavors clad in black bathing suit. I tried not to judge but I felt out of place. I enjoy the crafted beauty of these places but prefer the wildness of a public pool like the ones we have in Harlem. Anybody can come in. Filled with noise and little bodies hurtling themselves into the water.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The River

It was three hours of bad roads in the pouring rain from Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong. We were the only foreigners on the bus. We rarely passed another vehicle. The little towns quickly gave way to mountain jungle.
"Do you feel like you are getting farther and farther away from civilization?" I said to Sasha.
"You are." I teased.
Later in the day as we got closer to our destination the driver began letting passengers off in front of any place they seemed to want. People jumped off with sacks of rice at little primitive villages of straw huts and dirt floors. By the time we got to Chiang Kong the bus was half empty and it was coming down in buckets.

We found a tuk tuk to take us to a guest house. We hadn't prepared much so we took whatever place he offered us. Typically they work with a family member or friend bringing them customers. It was a sad little place but ok for a night. Red ants were massing just outside our door. We scoured the town looking for bug repellent and a place to make us a bag lunch for tomorrows journey across the river into Laos.

That night we met Michael. He is a little German man from the former east with belly that expressed his love for beer. He was sitting in the open dining area of the guest house. The jungle was all around us. I noticed him reading a copy of Hitler's Volksstaat. A book that is always a conversation starter. He had grown up in the former east of Berlin. I got to quiz him about communism to which he gave elusive answers always punctuated by a smile. He is a school teacher and is wise about what he says to whom. There was an open deck near the row of rooms and tiny kittens wandered everywhere. Later he and Sasha and I watched American Beauty with the house dog curled up against me. It was nice to watch Kevin Spacy perform to a background of Cicada and Geko's.

In the morning we loaded our luggage onto the tuk tuk and headed for the boarder. The guesthouse manager, who had booked our passage had put a big sticker on each of us that read: Slow Boat. We got to the landing and had our passport stamped by one of the few unsmiling Thai people in the entire country. There was no dock to speak of. We had to hold our bags over our head and walk in the mud to get on. We boarded a longtail boat and crossed the river into Laos.

On the other side of the river we had to get our visas stamped again. Everyone was changing their denominations into kip and then stuffing large wads of money into their wallets. A man approached our group and asked for our passports.
"Don't worry, don't worry." He assured us. I was worried.

We were then led up the street into the dirty little boarder town of Houexai. We were told to wait again while something happened. Nobody seemed to know what. Then they came back and took us in small groups away and back down to the waters edge. They came for us and we did as we were told.

We boarded a long mahogany boat. It was covered and somebody had made pink curtains for the open spaces on either side. We waited there for two hours. They led group after group to the boat. Soon it was overloaded with Farang, foreigners.
"If the boat breaks up." I said to Sasha. "Leave everything behind. Kick off your shoes and as much clothing as possible. Don't fight the current. Let it take you down stream and deposit you on one of the sand bars." I could tell by looking at her eyes that this did little to reassure her.

The last to enter were two Americans. An older man with grey hair in a floral shirt carrying a video camera and his wife. Her hair was cut short and dyed red. Her pink pants were the only thing louder than their voices as they complained endlessly.

The boat pushed off two hours late. We traveled down the muddy Mekong river. The water swirled and eddied around barely submerged rocks. It had rained hard the night before and the banks were full. Sasha was pale.
"Are there any life jackets on board at all?" She asked, deeply pained.

The valley was green with large coconut trees on either bank. We rarely passed anywhere and when we did it was a tiny collection of grass huts. After seven hours we reached Pak Bang.

Pak Bang was a little hamlet with a few new luxury hotels miraculously sprouting up and a score of backpacker guesthouses. The children ran barefoot on the dirty main road down the muddy embankment to greet the boat. They hoped to grab our bags and carry them for us in exchange for tips. They swarmed over the boat and one had to fight with them to regain ones luggage. Sasha stepped onto the narrow gang plank and plunged into the river. She crawled up out of the milky water onto the shore her determination intact.

I guarded our belongings as Sasha ran ahead of the crowd to get a hotel. She secured us a room in the best of the lot. It was a concrete building with a big veranda and a panoramic view of the river. We stashed our things and then decided to go for a swim. We had seen a group of boys playing in the water on the opposite embankment. We made our way through a Wat where Buddhist monks prayed. Then we went down a steep bank and Sasha got her first close up view of the grass huts with mud floors where most of the world lived. Women held dirty babies in their arms as they swatted away flies. A soiled towel with Bugs Bunny and the Tazmanian Devil hung from a window. The little boys hid while we bathed in the river. The coffee light water was warm and soothing on our limbs cramped by the long journey.

That night we had one of the best Indian meals I have ever had anywhere, including New York. The meal was prepared with fresh homemade yoghurt, garden vegetables and juicy bits of chicken. As we sat at the table Boz appeared. I had met him on the boat, just outside the engine room. He is Dutch and has classic good looks. He smiled a wide smile like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. A pair of sunglasses pinned back his red hair. His pants were four alarm yellow. He inquired about our wet hair and we told him that we had gone for a swim.
"In the Mekong?" He scowled. "That's brave."
He went on to describe a mysterious parasite found only in those muddy waters. It swam up ones urethra then extended large hooks into the walls. Incurable, it slowly ate up your insides.
"I saw it on the Discovery channel." He said. Sasha stared slack jawed.
"Well, that's the last time we do that." I said.

After dining we headed home as the generators were cut and the town went dark. There was no electricity in Pak Bang and by mutual consent generators were cut off at 10pm. Several restaurants and shops on our way back were lit exclusively by candle light. The stars above provided the only illumination for the street.

The next day we boarded the boat early. We were determined to get the best seat possible. We were lucky. We grabbed the last "first class" seat on the forward deck and a plastic chair in the bow next to the captain. Our plan was to switch places every two hours to give each other a break. Then they proceeded to cram even more passengers on board than the day before. They had come down from the jungles looking for the only way out of Laos. The river. Passengers were crowded into the engine room in front of the huge diesel engine that powered the craft. There was little ventilation. The noise was deafening. We headed down river for another seven hours of rock dodging by our fearless captain.

I traded places with Sasha and sat next to the loud Americans we had seen the day before. The floral shirt guy video-ed everything yelling out descriptions for the sound track. I did my best to avoid looking at him but eventually I relented and let him lead me into conversation.

He blew my mind. His name was Ted. He mentioned that he had lived in upstate New York when he was younger. I asked him where.
"Millbrook." My eyes grew wide. I prodded him to elaborate and he proceeded to tell me about his life on the legendary commune there founded by Dr. Timothy Leary. He knew the whole crew, Billy Hitchcock, Baba Ram Das. He had been one of the original members. He told me of the warring factions. One faction wanted to just get high and chant and let god take care of them. The other faction to which he belonged wanted to create an alternate sustainable community. They had set up a printing press and pottery shop. He told me of the police raids. He described how the community churches had rallied around them during the months of endless police harassment. He told me about the bitter dissolution of the community and their flight to Nevada. Since then he and Pink Pants had traveled around the world. It seemed there was no point on the map where they had not set foot.

Listening to Ted was like listening to a movie and the time flew by. Soon we were in Luang Prabang. The boat pulled ashore and we were greeted by the usual army of Tuk Tuk pirates. They are in every bus station and port ready to take advantage of the anxieties of new arrivals. The Kharst formations we had seen as the boat descended the valley surrounded the town. It was full of tiny streets and luxurious gardens. There were rows of neat structures in classic French colonial style. We rolled our suitcases down the dusty narrow streets searching for a place to rest as the moon rose in the east.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Chiang Rai

We found the Thai language teacher on a little gravel covered back lane in downtown Chiang Rai. Chickens wandered about the yard pecking at the stones. Her house was petite and pretty. We were almost immediately made uncomfortable. She sat us down at a big table covered with photos of her students smiling up from us from under the plexi-glass. She began the interview like it was a class.

I had to wonder what she was thinking. I had made it clear that we were only dropping by to say hello. She was the mother of Ting's girlfriend. Only she didn't know it. Ting had forbidden me to mention to her that he was dating her daughter. He said we could contact her for information about Chiang Rai.

Ting had been my language teacher in Chiang Mai. I had managed to squeeze in a few classes between swimming laps at the enormous, seemingly eternally empty, pool at the Lotus Hotel and wandering around the gigantic mall that was attached to it.

She blazed onward like a stubborn cow. For a teacher she seemed to have a big problem with listening. I was finally able to wrangle a few tips out of her. They would all turn out to be worthless. We beat it back down the lane and onto the strip of bars, hotels and cafes it adjoined.

"I can't believe that it cost the Thai people 1500 baht to travel to the King's Mother's Palace." I said to Sasha. "that's a fortune here, there's got to be another way."
We went to the bus station to check it out. The attendant at the information window spoke perfect English. She told us we could get to Ronkoon "The White Temple" for 15 baht on a local bus. The base of Doi Tung could be reached for 25 bhat. Once you were there however you would be at the mercy of the pirate Tuk Tuk drivers for the final ride to the top.

That night we ate at a little restaurant we found while looking for luxury hotel swimming pools we could sneak into. There were only Thai people at Tong Thung, a garden restaurant located on a strip of roadside bars and hotels. I saw a little stage at the back and asked if there was a show. The waiter's face lit up.
"Chai, Chai"
He literally skipped out back to tell the performers that they would have an audience tonight. The audience would consist of two. Me and Sasha.

They seemed pleased to perform for the tiny assembly anyways. Two Thai women and a boy who was aggressively competing for the prize of the most beautiful of that threesome. They danced with swords, flames and parasols, coveying a story hundreds of years old in the stylized movements of their ancestors. At the end they encircled our table in the empty restaurant blessing us with flowers strewn at our feet. We liked it so much we would return the next night with two doctors from Tennessee.

The next day we saw Ron Koon. I was surprised to see that it was new built. It embraced an esthetics of a Vegas Casino, with the exception of the stunningly verdant mountain setting. On the interiors was a mural of a golden Buddha. As I followed the horde of school children out the entryway I noticed the artists were working on an equally enormous mural for the back wall. It contained a representation of September 11th. One tower was aflame. A lone plane was about to strike the other. A tiny Superman flew haplessly by the Brooklyn bridge. A Pepsi truck was making it's way over that span. A gas pump, like a coiled cobra, dripped petrol into the mouth of a ravenous consumer.
"What's that all about?" Sasha asked the artist. He played deaf to her query.

The next day we saw Doi Tung. The Tuk tuk's charged us 300 bhat to go to the top and come back. Pirates. Still it was only a fraction of what the school ma'rm had thought was reasonable. The gardens were ok. Beautiful, yes certainly. The memorial for the Queen mother? Well, perhaps it is only for Thai's. Her house however, stunning. I could imagine Frank Lloyd Wright gazing at it, his face twisted in a jealous rage. It was everything he ever aspired to. It blended perfectly with its environment. It's wrap around balcony offered a postcard view of the northern mountains of Thailand. It had large airy spaces, was completely constructed of wood and stone and minimally furnished. The main hall had a representation of the solar system surrounded by the zodiac carved into the ceiling. I could get a lot of work done in a space like that.

We were the only foreigners at the tin roadside bus stop. It was raining. I flagged the bus town and we jumped aboard. Sasha soon slept on my shoulder. The broken down bus, gaily colored with innumerable pictures of the royal family, buddhas and temples rattled down the highway toward Chiang Rai. We wouldn't be able to lounge by the pool at The Legends which bordered the Mae Kong river. Still, not a bad day.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


"Sasha I have to go to the hospital." I said, stuffing things into my bag. Sasha rolled over and groaned. It was clear she wasn't going anywhere.

I had been up since five am taking the powerful laxatives prescribed for me by the Gastrointestinoligist at Chiang Mai Ram Hospital. I sat in a chair in front of the TV, drinking water and making frequent trips to the bathroom, while watching Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach. I still don't get the attraction. Dawn came and with it the local songbirds who sound like they are auditioning for a Tarzan movie.

When I got to the Hospital they took my blood pressure, temperature and weight for the third time in two days. Everyone I dealt with asked me about allergies, hypertension, diabetes and previous hospital experience. I admired the redundancy. They were a team.

They put me on a gurney and took me to the OR. I was put on an IV drip. The nurse, a sweet little Asian with too much skin whitening cream and expertly plucked eyebrows, told me it was to feed me. I hadn't eaten since the day before as ordered.
"If you need anything you tell me." she said.
"What's your name?"

They brought me into surgery where Dr. Lee was cat-napping behind his desk. He woke, smiled and offered me his hand.
"How are you feeling today Khun Rene?"
"Sabai di, Kuhn Lao?
"Sabai di."
Nuuung came over and stuck a needle into the IV.
"What's that?" I said.
"Make you sleepy."
"No but what is it?" I persisted. Dr. Lee's face loomed over me. It looked like a big yellow sponge.
"Like a sleeping pill." He said.
That was the last thing I remembered.

I woke with a start. I looked around at the other patients in the recovery room. All of them in green hospital garb. All of them wearing green hair nets. All of them in various states of wakefulness, like me. I looked at the clock on the wall. Two and a half hours of my life had been erased. I had a pretty good idea of what had happened during that time lapse but I didn't remember any of it. Now I know where Aliens get their ideas.

Nuuung came by and asked me how I was doing.
"What's your name?" I stammered. My tongue felt thick in my mouth.
"You forget me?" I could tell she was smiling because the corners of her surgical mask were pointing up. She wheeled me into the doctors office. He was napping again.

He showed me a video of my colon. He gave me a guided tour pointing out the landmarks.
"See, nothing, nothing, nothing."
"What about the pain?" I had this little pain in my gut now for a decade. It never really hurt that much, but it never went away either. Last year at Chiang Mai Ram I had had a battery of test including ultra-sound. All of them came up negative. Still I had dreamed up a black knot of cancer festering inside of me. With the colonoscopy everything was crossed off the list.
"Probably nothing, come back in ten years." Dr. Lee advised.

To satisfy my curiosity he showed me what a cancerous polyp looked like. The lining of the patients colon was dark and splotchy. Mine was as pink as the Olson Twin's nipples.

The Doctor and Nuuung insisted that I go home in an ambulance. The attendant wheeled me into the elevator and took me down to the main lobby. He escorted me to the cashier where I settled the bill for my personal Fantastic Voyage. It came to a whopping $225. The teller asked me if I had any insurance.
"No." I smiled. " I'll just put it on my card."
As I waited for the ambulance to pull up Sasha magically appeared.
"I had a feeling that you needed me." she said.

I was in a daze for the rest of the day. I had a big breakfast of bacon and eggs and pancakes to celebrate my youthful intestines. Later we went to Kaed Suan Kao to see Superman. It was dubbed into Thai. Superman was invincible. He soared into the stratosphere then drifted back earthward, Christ-like. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Rocket Man

We were coming back from the distant ruins of Sukothai when Sasha spotted him. He had his cart parked underneath an enormously ancient bhodi tree. Behind of him a row of tuk tuk drivers lay sprawled out in the back seats of their tiny cabs, dead to the afternoon heat. We pulled our bicycles off the road and parked beside him.

His stainless steel cart was powered by a motorized bicycle. There were big jars of multi-colored syrup on top. Each one had a picture of a fruit on it. In the middle of the cart under the awning was a sculpture of a minature jet aircraft.
"What is it?" Sasha asked me, swiping at the black flies around her legs.
"I think its some kind of Italian soda." I ordered one and the brown man with a wide smile nodded and filled a small plastic bag with ice. He ladeled a dolop of syrup into the bag. then he placed the bag beneath the tail of the little bomber and began to pump. Soda water spurted into the bag quickly filling it.
"Cool." I said. "Rocket Soda"

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sleeping girl

Her skin was as brown as almonds, clear and unblemished. Her hair was jet black and cut just above her chin. She had a tiny mouth with pearls for teeth. The wind blew threw the open windows and we were all covered with dust as our rickety train made its way north from Bangkok.

Peter and Abby sat across from us. We had decided that morning to share a tuk tuk to the train station. We were on our way to Phitsanoluk. The idea was to get there and then make our way to the ancient capitol Sukothai. We bounced around with our luggage in the back of the open vehicle raising a funnel of dust behind us. The little engine roared over the bridge to the other side of town. When we got to the station all the trains were sold out. Our only chance was to take a third class car on a local train at 11:30, two hours from now.
"Third Class, that means riding on a wooden bench forever." Peter moaned. Abby made a face.
"I could do that." I said. " Its not like were going all the way to Chiang Mai." Sasha nodded in agreement.
"It is unbelievably cheap." Peter offered. "One Euro each." Peter and Abby are Dutch.
"Cheap sounds good to me." Sasha said, and it was decided.

We wandered around a bit then took a Ferry back across the muddy river which miraculously, in one minute, landed us behind Tony's Place, our old hotel. It cost us 3 bhat apiece. Peter and I looked at each other.
"Huh." I said. "Good to remember for next time."
We had a delicious cappucino and Italian style pastries at a little shop Sasha and I had discovered the day before. Then we headed back for the train.

We made our way back through the train to the "Ordinary" section of the train. There was a long bench on either side. A young girl sleeping on one bench sat up to make room for Sasha and I. People shuffled around moving luggage to make room for Peter and Abby. They were all staring at us with unabashed fascination, nodding and smiling. I don't think many Farang sit back here.

The car was an unending calvacade of food and beverage merchants. They made their way up and down the train hawking their wares; multicolored bags of ice and tea, fried chicken, fresh fruit, green cotton candy pancakes with coconut filling, pre-packaged dinners of rice and pork, whole raw fish. They would get on at one station, deplete their stock then jump off at the next. And there were many stops on this track. From time to time we would pull off to the side and wait as the express trains roared past us.

The sleeping girl was sitting next to me. She quickly exhausted my rudimentary Thai. She was fourteen, her sister thirty two. They were traveling with their mother and father to their home in Sawan. Her father looked to be about 102. He was an old lion carved out of a tree trunk. His right leg was missing, replaced with a bamboo stump and a rubber stopper. Her mother had a bad tooth for every day of the month.

They must have done well in Bangkok because the girls were buying every treat that came their way. The old man proudly showed me his cellphone. Everyone was eager to share their treats with us. Their generosity was embarrassing. Especially when one considered the cheap meanness of the tourists that filled the hotels here. The girls grew excited at one station where they knew that hawkers would run up to the train with the best coconut ice cream I had had since my grandfather made it in my backyard in Chelmsford. As I stumbled for my wallet the old man swiftly paid for us all and there was nothing that could be done about it.

I took out my flash cards and went through them with the sleeping girl. I decided to narrow it down to "days of the week" and for half an hour we drilled each other, laughing, smiling at each others pronunciations.

The old lion and his family, held each other, smiled at each other, laughed with each other and their warmth embraced us all. It was a lesson. At Sawan they said their goodbyes. The father the only one to take my hand. I waved to them as the train pulled out of the station. The sun was going down. Mountains had risen in the tropical landscape. There were no more vendors. The train emptied out and the only sound was the cicada.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Giant Roaches

The giant cockroach stared at Sasha. It's antennae waving in blinking wonder at the sudden intrusion. The bare floresent bulb sputtered overhead.
"I just don't want to see thousands of them." she moaned. "I don't want to see a sea of them parting every time I turn on the light."

I lay under the mosquito net in our tiny room. The grimy fan supplying our only comfort in the sweltering Bangkok evening. We had changed Hotels a few days ago. Even at twenty dollars a night the bill at Siam II had begun to mount. This place. This old teak guesthouse with a handful of rooms was only six dollars a night.

By comparison Siam II was a palace. It had nicely sized rooms with a King sized bed. It had color TV with STAR playing movies 24 hours a day. It had a private bath with hot water. It had a tiny swimming pool, an attractive staff and an army of housekeepers. This place had none of that. The humble, pimply family that ran it spoke only fleeting english.

Still, at these prices one's right to complain is considerably dimminished. And the extra bhat goes a long way in Bangkok.

I had two silk jackets custom made for me. Crazy pimp-style Harlem jackets that I designed. We had our teeth cleaned and polished and filled at Betty Dental Clinic at MBK. MBK is a gigantic Mall, like six American malls stacked on top of each other and crushed together. We took the public bus to Kanchanaburi and walked with tigers. We payed the 1000 bht extra to have our photos take with a giant feline's head cozied in our laps. We had luxurious spa treatments at a first class hotel, where they scrubbed every inch of dead skin off our bodies with wild honey and raw milk and sea salt. I took private Thai language classes with a tiny brown drill sargent who stretched and hour and a half into two. And we ate whatever we wanted to.

I glanced over at the giant cockroach and lazily made a swipe at it with yesterdays International Herald Tribune. It scuttled beneath the faded yellow plasterboard that had be used to cut up this darling old edifice. "Yes." I thought. "It was worth it."

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Mary Baker Eddy

I saw my old teacher at Wat Po today. She looked at me and squinted her eyes.
Yeah that's me, Nick. She couldnt pronounce my name so she re-named me. I stayed for class and let them use me as a model.

On my way back I ate on the street. Last night Sasha and I ate on a corner in Khao San during a thunderous downpour. Today the sun was shining again. I sat at a tiny little metal table on a red plastic chair whose maker's western market must be primarily kindergartens. I was served a bowl of angle hair rice noodles, with two little fish balls. A ladle full of spicy peanut cream sauce topped it. In the middle of the table was a large flat bowl with a piece of gauze covering it. It was filled with bean sprouts, raw green beans, cucumber slices and fresh basil. The customers picked from these and added thier choices to the warmth of the bowls before them. The owner smiled at me glowing with pride. I smiled back. Further up the street I had a banana leaf with a serving of crimsom blue stickey rice. It was white peppered with nutty grains of wild rice. The vendor had put a dollop of coconut cream on top, followed by a wedge of sweet brown paste.
"What, name?" I asked in broken Thai. She looked at me quizically.
I pointed and asked again.
"Oh. Dom."
Dom is good.

On the bus ride over I was telling Sasha what pirates the tuk tuk drivers are.
"It would cost us 500bht a day to go back in forth to Wat Po. IF we could argue them down that far."
"That's ridiculous." She said. "Especially since its so easy just to hop on a bus."
I had spent the entire afternoon yesterday trying to find the bus to Siam Center while she was at school. She wanted to know how to get there so she might take a yoga class. After struggling with the tourist center I stood by the roaring traffic laden with two incomplete maps. Then I had been put off the correct bus twice by operators who insisted that I wanted to go to the airport. It took me four hours in that blazing smog to get there and back. The entire trip, now that I know it, will probably take me less than an hour. I looked at Sasha.
"If you say that again I'm going to toss you out the window."
"You wouldn't do that you like me too much."
"Let's say I like you enough to warn you that if you say that again I'm going to toss you out the window."

Last night I had a dream that while I was cleaning the kitchen counter I heard my old cell phone ring. The ring is unmistakable. It sounds like what a gold Caddilac easing down Lenox Ave in 1974 might have sounded like if it could be transmuted into music. I reached behind a box and there it was, brown with rust, even though it had only been missing for a week. I wondered who could be calling me since I had had the service suspended. I flipped my old Lazr open and answered. It was Bruce. My face was hot with shame. I couldn't speak. I hadn't called him in years. Mainly because he was dead. It had never occured to me that you could still ring someone up, Mary Baker Eddy style, once they had passed over. How stupid was that? Finally I managed to stammer.
"I love you." It was all I could think to say.
"I love you too." came the reply.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


I put sasha on the bus this morning. She is off for her first day at Massage School. I wrote on a little piece of paper for her:
"Chan Meeow pai Wat Po" or, "I would like to go to Wat Po."
"When you want to come back take the 53 bus." I explained. "If you are not sure then you can say: 'Chan Meeow pai Khao San'. "
"How do you say 'hello' again?" she asked.
"Sawadee Kaa"
I told her she was going to make a lot of nice new friends at school. She made a face.
"But I don't like anybody but you."
I laughed.

We are still a little jet lagged and have been napping in the afternoon. Yesterday we went to sleep at 4pm and didnt wake up until 8:30. Even then it took all of our efforts to get out of bed. Our hotel room is cozy, in the back, with a nice bird that sings at dawn. We have a color tv and there is Star which plays only western movies all day and never any commercials. There also is a little swimming pool.
"Pom meeow pai wai-naam." I would like to go swimming (you have to ask at the desk for a ticket.)
"Pom meeow pai wai-naam." Sasha repeated.
"No, no, no me pom, you chan." I clarified for her.

Last night I had a dream that I had been contacted by a little publisher. The agent told me that they had decided to publish my novel version of The Iron Horse. It was a minor imprint, but all the same I was quite pleased. They were going to publish sixty new authors in one go as part of a publicity scheme. When the books were ready we were all to meet in the forest behind Dawn Clements house for a group picture on Camp Hill. I showed up and they had set up a long table at the crest. In the place setting in front of every chair was every authors book. The books were cheaply made with mediocre graphics on the cover. Never the less I was excited. I looked and looked for mine. Then I saw it. Instead of print my book was to be released in liquid form. It was in a white plastic bottle with cheap red ink silkscreened on it. It looked to be about three quarters of a litre. On the back was a blurb written by the publisher about what a genius I was. Everyone else had a book except for one other guy who also had a cylindrical white bottle at his place setting. He looked equally displeased. I left without saying anything. There were not even any instructions on how you were supposed to read this thing. Like, do you pour a capful at a time into a tray or something?
"Maybe it was some kind of Videodrome thing where you drink the book and you actually experience it. That would be cool." My cousin Ray offered. They had prepared a party for me back at home and were equally confused.
"I really don't give a shit." I said. "I just wanted a book."

Bangkok is having some kind of election in August. There are two main canidates it seems. One has short plastic black hair and is wearing some kind of white naval uniform. Behind him is the temple at the royal palace. There is Thai script imprinted on the sky over his head in a watery semi-circle, giving him a coin like halo.

His rival is a woman with an equally stiff looking beehive. She has a brown textured wedding photograph background, also with a back-light produced halo. Beneath her are six pictures in two rows, each one with a dour mug-shot of one of her cronies.

The admirals cronies are pictured together in what appears to be Cub Scout uniforms.

Both of them look like corpses. Yes the photos are hand colored or they are made up to look like they are interred at a funeral home. It just goes to reinforce my belief that all politicians are goons.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

swollen feet

"You're feet are all swollen." Sasha said to me when we got to the hotel. I looked down and sure enough they were. Feet and legs that belonged to somones elderly aunt. How could this have happened?

It wasn't the only insult that happened this week. Before I left for Thailand I went to a birthday party for one of my friends. He was turning sixty. Sixty. That used to be the age somebodys grandpa was. Now the first person in my circle, not a teacher or boss had made it. Dawn made a glorious feast for us all. I had to leave before the cake. She let me see it in Lynns cranky old refrigerator. It was magnificent in all its pink frosting. I could only imagine it with all those god-damned candles.

But Sashas feet were swollen too. She hobbled around the room with a 24 year old torso perched above her moms legs. It was those 17 hours without a break in the air. In the past I always had to change planes somewhere along the line. That gave me an hour or two on earth to walk around and stretch. Neil Armstrongs legs must have resembled a pair of dead dolphins.

Today I showed her around Khaosan. It's fun to impart ones wisdom. A lot of Thai I learned from last year is coming back. We went shopping for cloths. I had told her to bring nothing and she had. That way there will be plenty of room in our tiny suitcases for treasure.

Not exactly nothing. I told her about my tripple tier system.

1. Passport, plane ticket, credit card, atm card. Without those you are going nowhere.

2. Rain hat, quick-dry cargo pants, stuffable rain jacket, multi-function super comfortable immersable shoes, compass, whistle, knife, Not essential but sometimes hard to find.

3. Immodium, pin and bandaids (blisters), aspirn, decongestive cough supressive capsules, fingernail clipper. Not hard to find but the kind of things that when you need them you need them and you don't want to have to go wandering around looking for them.

While she was looking at some tops a man and woman approached her. They wanted her to be an extra in an Indian music video. The pay was 1000 bhat, about 26.40 usd, for a days work. They led us to The Octopus Bar, the famous Khaosan super-disco. Sasha and a score of other western girls, were to sit at the bar behind a rack of super skinny Thai dancing beauties. We watched as they began rehearsing their choreography. The crew was entirely Bollywood and they were shooting old-style with a Nagra and 35mm film. I thought it was cool but she quickly grew bored of being a piece of eye-furniture and wanted to leave. So we did.

At the hotel we took a dip in the pool. Tonight its my favorite restaurant again.