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.