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Thailand

I’m a wordy person.  If you read this blog, you already realize that. If you’ve ever had an actual conversation with me, you’d realize it’s the same long winded kind of storytelling.  A few friends have asked if I put up all my pictures that don’t appear here with snarky captions, so here we go.  As I travel, I have already seen people losing pictures and files when physical items get misplaced so I’ve decided to back up all my pictures on Flickr.

I’m joining Fiickr like it’s the mid 2000’s: Travel Photos.

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I was worried when I went to Laos that I had gone to the most laid back and friendly country first and loved it.  If every other country was pushier and more full of scams, would I find lazy Southeast Asia too stressful?  Rushing head first into Bangkok did nothing to alleviate these thoughts and I hated my first two days full of touristy mediocrity and crowds.  However as I settled in, I learned to appreciate Thailand.  It is the richer, more developed neighbor of Laos and it shows in the complexity and busy nature of the cities and food.  Much like how people feel about children, I love them both just in very different ways.  I am glad both are full of smiling, friendly people.

Well, the Thais are smiling, friendly people when they aren't sicking their cannibalistic children on ye olde Burmese soldier enemies. Best photo op this trip.

My retreat into the hills of the north ended and I returned back to Bangkok.  I was warmly received by another friend I had met at the Chinese village wedding.  We journeyed out to Pattaya, the Miami of Thailand full of resorts, brights colors and prostitution.  I stuck to eating delicious fresh seafood on the water and enjoying the pleasantly cool ocean breeze.  It has been too long since I’ve been at the beach and I’ll be making a point to return to another one soon.

You grill those mudbugs in a cowboy hat, random floating market lady.

I really only spent one full day in Bangkok which meant I headed out to another floating market.  This time heading there with more people, and fortunately local Thais, meant I ate even more extravagantly.  We also took a longboat tour of the nearby temples and enjoyed the variations of the closely packed venues.  My favorite is split between wood carving temple and tree covered temple with statues of how violent Thai people beat Burma in an old war.

Tree like vines have covered this beautiful temple over hundreds of years.

After a day full of delicious durian and other fruits drifting by in canals, I was heading out on an early morning flight.

I went to another floating market too late, they mostly occur in the morning. This fruit lady was still around to give me a delicious variety buffet.

I often don’t visit the large tourist destinations of a place and enjoy the weird little things you observe.  There were quite a few of those things in Thailand. I loved meeting the Thai family where the mom wore sweatpants that said “BIG ASS” and her daughter proudly told me it ran in the family.  I laughed at the billboard on the highway that claimed a nearby city was the Detroit of Thailand.  I really hope it was more pleasant than current Detroit. The traditional Thai dresses look so elegant and make the Thai women walk in dainty tiny steps.  The opulence and refinement of culture not ravaged endlessly by wars could be seen in every aspect of life.

Some of the quirks can be found all over Southeast Asia but they were my first hilarious encounters.  I witnessed the entire families cramming onto motorbikes complete with baby and dog.  Everyone is somehow hanging on in their flip flops and with multiple bags everywhere.  Taste and fashion includes bright neon colored lights everywhere and an abundance of sparkly bits and leopard print.  There were Engrish signs everywhere. Some are just translated poorly, as Thai people use “porn” and “kok” a lot.  I wish I knew what those words meant in Thai.  The grammar is different as there appears to be no conjugation of verbs and the subject and object of sentences are gone.  I found myself speaking like this to be understood more easily.  After being in Thailand for weeks you can find me exclaiming just like the locals “cannot!” or “do not have!”  I learned to somehow drink out of plastic bags without spilling them as I walked.  It’s normal to have locals pour out glass bottles of soda into plastic bags full of ice to keep the bottle.  Even as I headed out I couldn’t help but laugh that the monitors had a notice about informing staff if you wanted to bring durian into the airport.  That is, perhaps indicative of how I felt about this whole area.  Yes, this is so delicious nothing else matters.

You know a country loves durian when a town has a statue for it.

My round the world plane ticket leaves from Bangkok to Helsinki en route to Budapest next, so I will quite likely see you again Thailand.  So until next time, thank you for being so delicious and friendly.

Yes, I’m out to confuse people.  Chiang Rai is another city in northern Thailand, a few hours away from Chiang Mai.  I headed out that way to meet my Thai friends that I met at the wedding of the tour guide operators in Xishuangbanna that I found in Lonely Planet.  I certainly do not seem to meet people the same way twice.

My friend asked where I was in town. It was not til later I figured out I was next to the giant golden clock tower that puts on a light show every evening at six.

There are some similarities between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.  One unfortunate one is the touristy night market/bazaar that was again full of terrible food.  I seriously don’t need this much westernized fried things, thanks.  I did manage to locate an awesome roti cart a few blocks west of the clock tower in front of a 7-11 before an abyss of darkness.  The guy sells griddled to order fresh roti slathered in condensed milk for 5 baht.  That’s about 16 cents.  All things will now be compared in “number of roti that could buy”.  Mango sticky rice?  I don’t know, that’s like, eight roti!  Sorry dollar tacos, you’ve been replaced.  There are some differences too.  Chiang Rai does not have the hundreds of guesthouses that Chiang Mai does, as evident by the handful that were even on hostelworld.com.

The beautiful view from the hill. The snaking river is just out of view.

I only stayed one night in Chiang Rai proper before I headed some kilometers out of town to the hill overlooking a beautiful river that my friends live on.  I’m still unfortunately quite the city slicker so it was nice to get out of town and be in the middle of nowhere for a bit.  I could use a few hundred less bugs though.

I think I may have mentioned this before, but am I the only one who didn't know pineapples grew like this?

I stayed almost a week absorbing the sounds of the hill.  The crackling burning lighting up the night sky with acrid gray smoke that the locals do to their crops yearly.  The buzz of insects like a buzz saw, getting louder as the rains neared.  The proud braying of geckos, each to tell the other how big they are.  The scattered motorbikes that pierced the long periods of only nature sounds.

It was a week that passed quickly as I lounged on a rattan lounge chair reading and sweating.  Foreigners often seem surprised that the locals do not think I am Thai.  They often also mistakenly think that means I get ripped off less because I must look local.  Unfortunate for me fact: every Asian person can tell I’m a tourist and disregarding that there are so many Asian tourists who get ripped off too.  Here’s an easy way for foreigners to tell that I’m not Thai if you can’t tell by my clothing: I’m the one sweating gallons of water just like you.  The locals always look so much less sweaty than foreigners.

A tree laden with huge jackfruit.

It was a pleasant week exploring the quiet town of Chiang Rai.  I enjoyed the walks around the hill to see all the fruit.  I really enjoyed just stopping for a week and getting a few home cooked meals.  I got the learning how to cook local food in an expensive course bug out of me in Laos.  However I did pick up a few tips hanging out in the kitchen watching my friends cook.  I did more touristy things than usual but at so slow a pace it didn’t feel overwhelming at all.

The crazy White Temple. There is all of one monk living in its unfinished splendor.

We went to the White temple, which is made by the same artist that made that clock tower I saw in town.  This is a crazy modern temple with skulls and pop culture references everywhere.

Not your average temple art. I like it.

Even the no smoking signs are awesome! If people blew Thai style curves with cigarettes, I don't think anyone would quit.

The murals inside include everything from Doraemon to Ben 10 to burning world trade towers.  Well, I have to hand it to the artist.  This certainly isn’t every other temple I’ve seen.  I saw some more traditional temples in town as well.  There is an even weirder  and more morbid collection of modern art at a complex known at the Black House.  This seemed to make the friends I was staying with and bringing me around uncomfortable though, so I passed on going.

This little guy stopped his bobbing up and down exercises to reach towards us for some ripe bananas.

I finally got to see some elephants as well.  I haven’t signed up for any of the expensive mahout (elephant driver) or gibbon treks.  We ended the week with a delicious Thai bbq attended by a few hundred of our bug friends.  A good, relaxing time before I head back to Bangkok and then to the bustle of Hanoi.

I stuck around Chiang Mai for a few days after Songkran (Thai New Year) because I wanted to see what the city was like.  The drunken tourist filled revelry sounded nothing like the quiet charming city many of my friends told me was their favorite in Thailand.  The temples around every corner circled by a moat and old city walls were lovely and quiet once the holiday ended.

As with any city, my experiences are often colored by the people I meet.  I met more random new people here than I think I have in a while.  I attempted to use couch surfing again as I figured Songkran would be more fun with some Thai people.  This unsurprisingly did not work as I’m sure most couch surfing hosts were out of town or had friends visiting already and my requests were quite last minute.  Good thing I managed to join a Thai family for Songkran anyways!  I did, however, meet a nice German expat who I had not much in common with beside travel.  I tried again to meet a Thai person to learn some infamous Thai cooking and instead ended up in a cult like ashram.  Well, so maybe couch surfing isn’t working out so well in Asia.  The only other experience I’ve had was a flake in China.  After great experiences in Brazil and Hawaii, I’m still optimistic.

On the pleasant flip side, the first girl I met at my guesthouse turned out to be awesome.  She told me the guesthouse was a good place as I awaited the staff to come show me around.  Later on she also introduced me to some great food and a tea shop where I spent quite a few evenings.  The tea was ok and was a bit much for me at foreigner prices, but the crowd was fun.  It was a mix of artsy, spiritual, and the general crowd not interested in the “I party until 6 am daily!” scene.  There were constantly people in the room exchanging massages, painting things, and some were hula hooping.  I’m not sure how everyone else found this place, it’s quite hidden.

The other key find for me is the North Gate Jazz Co-op.  I stumbled upon it looking for a bathroom during Songkran and found a small venue with a live music stage and a crowd ready to dance to something besides lip-synced pop.  They seem to have live music most nights and often got so busy I saw the crowd spilling onto the streets just to listen.  The owner and I struck up a conversation about the blues bar in Bangkok called Adhere the 13th as well.  I kept going but never managed to catch a live show there but I know I’ll like it if it’s anything like this place.

Last, but certainly not the least, the food of Chiang Mai.  I leave disappointed by the evening walking streets and night bazaar as they were mostly full of fried goods or precooked tourist fare.  The night bazaar looked like it had some interesting fresh seafood and muslim joints but that’s always a bit sad to tackle alone as I can’t try too much unless I want to spend a fortune.  Luckily those were not the only things to eat at night as there were multiple locations in the touristy old town where bunches of carts would show up.  I liked the ones at the north and southeast gates the most.  They had what looked like the best offerings of khao man gai (boiled chicken served on rice cooked in the fatty chicken broth), fatty pork shank on rice, papaya salads, oyster omelettes, fried radish cake omelettes, noodle soups, and fresh stir fry places.  The south side food area had a few ladies selling curries and other premade dishes for Thai people to take home.  I bought a set of chopsticks and a metal soup spoon just to partake in these, but as often is the case, there isn’t any seating for these since its take home fare.  There is a cart area on the east side which seemed mostly geared towards tourists and was for the most part subpar.  Desserts were similar just about everywhere with mango sticky rice and roti stands galore.  The east market has some lackluster Chinese desserts.  The north gate had the best if slightly more expensive mango/durian sticky rice as they gave you a bag of golden fried rice to add some crunch.

Why yes, I do want a curry noodle soup for breakfast. And yes, this is one of my few pictures in Chiang Mai as I was terrified of people throwing water on my camera.

Over the multiple days I also sought out what I’m told is one of the trademark dishes of the city, Khao Soi.  It is a Burmese influenced dish of Chinese style wheat noodles in a thick and spicy curry soup.  The Thai have it for breakfast and I could see this being quite the hangover cure.  I love being near borders, they usually have interesting accidental fusion food.

Where to find stuff:

The Tea Tree

Moon Muang Soi 6 (Across the street from the north side Somphet Market, up the stairs with a yellow ramp like thing in the middle)

Open til 8 or whenever the owner feels like going to sleep

North Gate Jazz Co-op

On the inside of the moat next to the east side of the north gate.

An activity for the evening/night.

A somewhat useful food map

I found this useful to locate the food markets but find some of their opinions about other things to not be accurate.   The same user made maps of attractions and nightlife as well.

Western new year usually makes me cranky and worried about making big, expensive plans.  The Thai people have gotten it down.  They’ve mixed spring break, new years, and in Chiang Mai at least, a moat filled with water and a city full of water guns and buckets to make a great holiday.  I see why all the backpackers told me to come to this town for the new year.  There were concert stages everywhere and the moat was lined with cars, food stalls and so much festivity that instead of grass or moat, you just saw hoards of people.  I don’t have many pictures as everything was getting absolutely drenched.  I did appreciate the people who duct taped plastic bags around their camera lens and arms.  They looked like Zoolander-esque hand models.

Over the course of three days I wandered the length of the town moat getting soaked many times over.  What started as a gentle bathing with scented water of Buddha statues and of your elders has turned into the biggest water massacre ever.  I had a nice chat with a monk in a big temple.  A little girl soaked me with water but then beckoned me over to put talcum powder on my cheeks.  I got adopted by a Thai family for a day when I wandered up to their store trying to buy food.  Next thing I knew, I was being plied with an endless supply of rice noodles, beer and homemade coconut wine.  You aren’t acting like a Thai person until you’ve crammed more than two people on a motorbike.  For Songkran, you aren’t acting like a Thai person until you cram an entire family into a pick up truck to have a giant mobile waterfight on the moat roads.  I got to do both with this family and it was a blast.  The rest of the days I wandered the moat eating every five minutes.  Of particular note, the Thais generally respected when I was eating or drinking and would avoid soaking my food and head during this period.  Most foreigners were not this bright or polite, but more on that later.  I was at a distinct disadvantage any time I shot anyone as I brought down the wrath of whole smiling Thai families on me every time I did so.  It was a lot of fun.

Say hello to my little friend, the fake Super Soaker. I had water gun envy of the people with multiple nozzles.

So how does one get goosebumps for hours in 90+ degree weather?  People put huge ice chunks in their water to freeze it up.  The dirty brown moat water became a welcome warm splash after all the ice water.  I’ve realized the best way to not get targeted by everyone was to follow other high profile targets:

– people in costumes (there were four guys in full SWAT outfits).

– women walking alone (yes, I realize the irony of this statement).

– cars full of people and trash cans full of water.

– women wearing white.

There were definitely a few perverted men who kept shooting at the women wearing light colored clothing and at their chests.  The abundance of hip-hop and Thai pop also fueled a spring break-like atmosphere as I couldn’t understand many songs but you could definitely get the gist.  There were scantily clad (here, scantily clad means some midriff and short shorts for Thai people) women selling beer at most locations.  I’m amused that even out here, I was hearing the some of the same music (Pitbull came on at one point) and the same overused sound clips that I hear in America and every spring break I’ve been to.  I even saw a foam party at one stage.  Unlike when I was in college, I no longer have the endurance to drink as much and found these things amusing for shorter periods of time due to that.

Then my cheap knock off Super Soaker broke so I moved on to this lovely turtle pack. Neither was that effective against the giant buckets of water dumped on me constantly.

The one downside was how many rude foreigners I saw.  I was told, I assume like most backpackers, that this was the place to be.  That means that I saw more people wearing “In The Tubing – Vang Vieng” t-shirts, which is a place where people only show up to get trashed, hurt themselves tubing over shallow water on sharp rocks, and do a lot of drugs.  It was always the foreigners starting days too early, soaking people during rush hour trying to go home.  Often it was foreign guys that were being too serious and aggressive, throwing water in buckets as hard as they could or skulking around like it was World War III.  There was the idiot who screamed “I love you long time” at a poor masseuse in her shop.  There was even one guy who shot a 50 year old bartender while she was behind the bar working.  You aren’t even supposed to have water fights after the sun goes down.  She walked out to punch him in the face, but in a move that made me respect the bar less, they didn’t kick him out.  The front page of a local paper the next day had only one English article talking about drunken foreigners in bikinis (very conservative here) causing trouble.  I wish this isn’t what we brought with us to join the celebration.

I had a wonderful time during the new year but I can see how it can be too much for most people.  It’s a lot of drinking and loud, obnoxious behavior for the otherwise rather quiet and polite Thai people.  I’d only recommend coming if you do like a spring break atmosphere or a large group in which to do your own thing.  You literally cannot step outside anywhere in the moat and not get soaked in the four days (or five/six for foreigners) of Songkran.  Happy Songkran everyone, and a third happy new years for the year to me.

Not the half you thought I’d turn into a bad joke is it?  Despite my attempts at finding a quiet place to lay out all day and read and sketch, I find myself in another gigantic city.  After all the bustling, crowded, dirty streets of China I find myself in a bustling, crowded, dirty city in Thailand.  Bangkok has the least green space per person or land, I forget which. The difference here is that while China pays homage to its past (Beijing) or straight to the future (Shanghai), I didn’t feel like either was rooted in having a personality in the present.  Enter Bangkok, if it has anything, it has lots of personality.  I particularly enjoy the asymmetrical Rama VIII bridge that looks like golden rays shooting from a prism.  I quickly went from the cold of Seoul to the early spring of Beijing to the mid-spring of Shanghai and to what I’d consider full out summer in Bangkok.  It is 90 degrees and humid at all hours of the day and night.

Today I sat in a park and watched a little Thai girl collect these flowers falling off trees next to the Rama VIII bridge.

Bangkok is rather overwhelming at first with its heat and less than friendly cab drivers on the way to the backpacker/tourist area of Banglamphu (Khao San Road).  It does not help that streets change names every time they change neighborhoods and the bus system is impossible to figure out.  In future visits I think I might opt for the more modern Silom district and be near the Skytrain subway system.  The river express boats are a convenient way to get around if you are looking for the tourist sights.  I did not need to be this close to Khao San Road and the food in the immediate area is not great.   I enjoyed staying near the river with a rooftop patio to gaze upon boats drifting by and thunderstorms lighting up the night sky.  I’m not sure how this is the hot and dry season, it’s been pouring buckets of rain almost every day. The Banglamphu area and the slightly hard to find Riverline Guest House have some relaxing green space and areas to just hang out so I have gotten more reading in than I expected.

After I got past my first day or two of being overwhelmed, I managed to get a cheap massage or two and out of my district to enjoy Bangkok’s charms.  There are various huge markets, some full of any tax-free wholesale merchandise you can think of, or in my case, other ones stacked full of food.  I appreciate that each market was full of small entrepreneurs selling all sorts of weird stuff.  I enjoyed walking by the young people hand painting t-shirts to death metal or working with leather in their small storefronts.  As I got away from the backpacker area, I noticed cab drivers and service people were a lot friendlier, very smiley and way less likely to rip me off.  I’m not sure if I need to go shopping in any more markets as I am still overwhelmed by the pure mass of people I’ve run into at them.  I have been hitting the food markets with vigor.  Tomorrow I leave for Chiang Mai to celebrate Songkran, the Thai new year celebration that is marked by three days of water fights and buddha cleansing.  Thanks Bangkok, I know I’ll pass through here again before I leave the region.

I have been in Bangkok for a few days.  When people ask what my favorite types of food are, I usually say Thai and Mexican.  I love spicy and complex fresh flavors.  So I have been a tad disappointed because while the food here has been good, I haven’t found the explosion of taste I’ve been expecting.

I tried a solo food crawl from this site last night that did not end well because the khao man gai I was seeking had closed for good and many of the stores were not open at night.  Also of note is that their map has north facing left.  Luckily I stumbled on this blog that recommended the Khlong Lat Mayom floating market.  It turns out this is a wonderfully relaxed market where people don’t push you to buy things.  They even have clean, free bathrooms that were well stocked with toilet paper and soap.  That just about never happens.

It was a bit of an adventure to get there as the area I’m staying at is nowhere near the BTS (skytrain/subway like light rail) nor is the market.  On the upside, the taxi drivers near the floating market were both really nice. To get there from the Khao San backpacker/Banglamphu area I’d recommend taking a Chao Phraya express boat to BTS station (about 15 baht or so) to Saphon Taksin (port/dock 1) where you can catch the BTS for 15 baht to Wang Wian Yai BTS station.  Then take a taxi for 100 baht or so to “Talaht Nam Khlong Lat Mayom”, which means Khlong Lat Mayom floating market.

Many people worry about getting sick from eating random street food.  I’d like to tell you that i do not very often get sick from the quality of the food as much as I do from eating three meals at once in some fear I’ll never go back and see that cart or stall again.  I could definitely use an eating partner in crime so I didn’t feel compelled to finish everything I want to try.  Without further ado, here’s my feaster celebration:

Floating market is a bit of a misnomer. There's a row or two of boats in a canal that serve as docked restaurants. The rest of the market is deliciously on land. Note this does mean no one handing you things on poles like at other floating markets.

Does anyone know what I'm eating? I seem not to a lot of times here. It was a spicy maybe rice flour like cake on top of sauteed cabbage.

An old favorite for me, spring rolls in small bite sized square portions. Very fresh and they were closed when I wandered by hours before the market closed. I'll take that as a good sign.

A tiny chicken and tiny peanut empanada. A bit dry but I can never turn down a hand pie.

This guy made delicious oyster omelettes on top of an egg crepe on a smoking hot crepe grill.

I was particularly impressed how many vendors made containers out of creatively stapled things. The oyster omelette crepe thing was extra tasty with all the spicy, sweet and sour sauces.

I think these are boat noodles, with a meaty broth and some meat and offal inside. It was dark, fresh, spicy and delicious. I'm not sure where the chicharrones were supposed to go so I threw them in. I had to gesture for 5 minutes to get this with the nice ladies on a boat. Everyone else surprisingly spoke enough English to get by.

This is about the point when I started getting uncomfortably full so I thought coffee might help. There were many legit coffee shops with English signs. Nope. I chose the old lady and her daughter with the visible sock in a ring type filters. Deliciously thick and sweet.

I didn't even get to the crazy salt roasted whole fish or freshly grilled seafood. This guy has a cool looking fish rotisserie set up.

The coffee gave me the incorrect idea that I could eat more. I got these pad thai like noodles and could only eat half. My cow like four stomachs do have a limit.

There's always room for ice cream, it melts and fills in the cracks. These are passion fruit and rambutan flavored. Oddly the passionfruit was salty and the rambutan pasty like taro. The coconut ice cream with toppings in a coconut that I wanted was sold out.

Well, at least I'm not the only one feasting here. You can buy fish food to feed the gigantic 2 ft. fish. Watch out guys, that fish rotisserie is coming for you.

I ate so much at lunch I suspected I would only need fruit for dinner. What better fruit than one of my favorites? For me, wax apples are only rivaled by the cherimoya and custard apples in Southeast Asia and by a cold slice of watermelon on a hot day.