I just found the perfect description of my wanderlust in the book I’m reading right now called A Fortune Teller Told Me (which I highly recommend, so far it’s fantastic). Terzani, the author, writes how his need for travel comes not from his body but “from another source, that brought with it a baggage of old yearnings and homesickness for latitudes known to me in some life before this one.” I’m not one to believe in reincarnation, but there is something true about this statement none the less.
I seem to be searching for places that have remained untouched and am continuously disappointed when I find time after time that a place has been infiltrated by the West and the tourism industry. I don’t want modern hotels or Pizza Hut. I don’t want to see a 7-11 on every street corner and I would much rather swim in the ocean than a hotel pool. Yet I also find myself enjoying the comforts and conveniences that come with modernity. I couldn’t have internet access if it weren’t for foreign influence for example. And I quite like air conditioning every now and then. It’s a matter of finding a middle ground that is difficult.
I am writing this as I sit on the river bank of the Mekong in Thailand looking across at Laos. I managed to find a wonderfully laid back guesthouse in a Lonely Planet and am so happy not to be in one of the concrete block hotels mentioned beside it in the guide book. But it almost isn’t enough for me. I miss the time when I wouldn’t see the headlights of cars on the opposite river bank. You might be thinking that this was way before my time and I have never been here before so how could I miss it? But it’s more that I know how it was at one time and know I would have liked that better. Then again, how can I say that as I sit under an electric fan and electric lights wearing REI 99% Deet and drinking a cold beer. I suppose I could do without the cold beer, but I am so spoiled that I’m not sure how long I would really last in Thailand without these creature comforts.
I seem to find myself in a predicament then, I want the best of both worlds and not only that, I want it all to myself. I know, it’s very selfish of me.
When I start this line of thikning, I’m always drawn back to the idea that it’s people like me, the ones who want to go to the untouched places of the world, who end up ruining those very places. If I found it, then so will other people, and before you know it, a little piece of adventure becomes a tourist attraction and the magic is lost. The people in that area will change with the landscape and that place I loved so much is gone, it’s spirit buried beneath asphalt and hotels.
Every time I visit a well known destination it makes my heart ache a little; I miss the way it used to be. I don’t think I have baggage from a different life like Terzani, but a yearning to have lived in a different time period. To have been one of the first set of foreign eyes to see a forest. Knowing that my going somewhere will have a slight, I guess it’s more like extremely small, impact on an area is a huge draw back to travel, but I also feel that if I don’t go to these places then my life would feel like it was lacking something.
After I graduated from CU I couldn’t convince myself to get a real job, a solid post-graduate job, because I knew I needed to travel. I knew I would feel a kind of homesickness for places I had never been except perhaps in someother lifetime. So here I am experiencing those places I yearn for, only to find myself lusting for a different time period.
Last week I went to Scout Camp with the fifth and sixth grade at Nonthun School. All of the teachers involved with the fifth and sixth grade went, along with teachers and administrators who wanted an excuse to ditch school for two days. The camp was at Namphong National Park next to Ubolrat Dam. We had had nice weather all week until the day we went to Scout Camp and the temperature shot up. Children were fainting during the opening ceremony and I was surprised they didn’t have any casualties during their two hour hiking adventure. I hiked with them for the first hour but then got a terrible headache, which I thought was due to dehydration, but turned out to be a sinus headache because I came down with a sore throat and runny nose later that night.
The hike was hot, but fun. They had different obstacles for the kids, like climbing up the side of the hill with a rope and going through a small rock cave where they smack you in the face with baby powder. When you are sweating profusely, having baby powder poured all over you is not desirable…at all. (Baby powder is a topic I will have to cover next. It is an obsession out here. People wear so much it makes their skin look ghostly. I’ve been told they do this purely because they like the smell of it, why has someone not invented baby powder scented perfume out here yet?)
At night we had a four hour camp fire. It went on FOREVER. It just wouldn’t end. At first I thought it was fun, but then it just dragged on and on and on. While the kids were doing skits and singing, the male teachers managed to get plastered. The Assistant Director, who was in charge of leading the camp fire, got so drunk that an hour into the festivities had to be removed and replaced with a teacher who hadn’t been drinking. It was a disgusting sight. The worst part was that they were drinking at breakfast when I woke up in the morning. I could barely understand when whiskey and beer were consumed at tailgating parties at 6 in the morning at university, but at Scout Camp? seriously???? There were kids around! What is wrong with these people?? The worst part was that they were going to drive themselves (not the kids) home! What a wonderful example we set for the children. Here is a video of the lighting of the camp fire. I was a little worried towards the end…sparks were flying pretty far.
The kids surprised me in how self sufficient they were. I think that if all of the adults disappeared from Thailand the kids would be able to carry on just fine. The meals they made outside their tents looked much more delicious than what the teachers ended up with. American kids could learn a lot from these kids about survival. I was very impressed.
I chose to sleep outside in a tent that a teacher at my other school lent me because of my previous experience with sharing rooms with teachers. The snores that comes out of these women sounds like t-rex with a sinus infection. It’s terrifying and does not make for a good nights sleep.
One of the teachers favorite things to do, that I rarely take advantage of, is the ability to have the kids do whatever it is you desire for you. The teachers use the kids for everything. I want oranges; go get a kilo. I need water. Wash these dishes. Pick the lice out of my hair. Pluck my gray hairs. So when I looked at my tent, I chose to hand it to the closest student. I promise you I don’t use the children like my personal servants, but in this instance I figured that the student and his friends would do it much faster than me and I’m sure I saved myself from being laughed at.
Two and a half years ago, while I was traveling on Semester at Sea, I was surprised when cell phones would appear in locations like the forest of Vietnam or a small village in India. It was a little bit of a surprise to me that the cell phone revolution had really spread everywhere and was changing communication worldwide, not just in developed countries. I didn’t dwell on the thought too much though. A cell phone would ring, I would think “that’s odd, who here has a phone?” and then move onto my next thought.
Now that I’m living in Thailand though, I’ve been thinking a lot more about this thought. Every single person I have met in this country has had a cell phone. All of my students who come from poor and middle class families have cell phones, all of which are far more advanced than the hand me down cell phone I use. Cell phones are everywhere and there is a different kind of cell phone etiquette, or perhaps a lack of one, that accompanies the devices.
No matter who you are having a conversation with and no matter how important the topic at hand may be, a Thai person will still answer their phone should it ring. Occasionally they will apologize first before picking it up and sometimes they will talk in an almost inaudible voice on the phone to make up for the interruption, but this isn’t always the case. I was offended by this behavior in the beginning. In the states if someone answered their phone while I was mid-sentence I would be put off and think that they were rude. It’s a way of showing me that I’m not significant enough to deserve your full attention. Apparently this behavior is not considered rude here though; it actually hasn’t occurred to most people that this might be impolite.
I was a little shocked to notice this as I was learning about Thai customs and how important respectful actions are in Thai culture. Toddlers learn to wai (bow head with hands in prayer) to elders at a very early age and a student that can be a brat in class will still be extremely respectful by waiing or helping me outside of class, for example. I found myself wondering why a culture that values respectful behavior so much would allow such impolite cell phone behaviors to continue?
During one of our first work meetings, the idea that teachers in our organization will not answer their phones in class was introduced. I was startled to find that this was even an issue. Why would a teacher answer their cell phone mid-sentence during a class in front of their students? What kind of example does that set?
The excuses started to pour out. What if the director calls us? What if our husband calls? What if my family is hurt? Waiting a half hour for the class to finish before calling a person back didn’t seem like an option to them, or at least it was an option that could only result in bad endings.
Family is so important here that the idea of ignoring a call from a spouse or sibling or parent is preposterous. The way I see it though, cell phones are using one pillar of Thai society, family, to chip away at another pillar, respectful behavior. Cell phones cause people who care about their family to become disrespectful towards whoever might be in conversation with them. But then again, nobody seems to find this disrespectful or annoying other than foreigners, so I guess if Thai society is okay with it then I should be too.
Now I only get annoyed when someone answers their cell while talking to me. I will not give up on the idea that teachers should not answer their phones in class though, that will always be unacceptable to me.
As I mentioned in my last post, I took a New Year’s vacation down south to see some friends. Hanging out with Bobby, Will, and Petra was exactly what I needed. It was great to see a different part of Thailand, and visiting Phuket and Koh Samui made me appreciate the Northeast much much more.
My vacation started with a six hour bus ride from Khon Kaen to Bangkok. I was expecting an uncomfortable bus ride, but much to my surprise it was the nicest bus I’ve ever taken. I should have figured this though, because every time I have expectations, Thailand shows me the exact opposite of whatever it was I was imagining.
The bus pulled out from the station at exactly noon and arrived at almost exactly 6:00PM, which was quite amazing since nothing ever happens on time here. A cute Thai girl adorned in a silver Thai silk suit served fruit juice, water, a snack, a hot lunch and some milk over the course of the journey. The chairs reclined and gave massages if so desired. I was in heaven! The cherry on top was the Thai variety show and movie that they played on the TV. Thai entertainment is as corny as Telemundo, only much worse, which means it is so much fun to watch.
My friend Dow (her name means stars), her boyfriend, and his father picked me up at the bus station in Bangkok. We went straight to a massive market where we searched the stands for the ingredients for our seafood dinner. We bought large prawns, crabs, fish, an octopus, vegetables, and desert. Unfortunately, I left my camera in the car so I don’t have any pictures of the market, but I’m sure it’s not the last time I’ll be visiting it so I’ll take some pictures next time.
They cooked one of the most wonderful meals I’ve had in Thailand so far. There was a hot and spicy prawn soup, shrimp with snow peas, grilled crab and octopus, fish, and rice. I couldn’t have asked for a better meal. The next morning we had the leftovers for breakfast along with an octopus stir fry and some crab stir fried with garlic and morning glory.
After breakfast we walked around the garden looking at the cockatoo, the peacocks, and the Thai speaking parrot. I was confused when Dow said that we would take a tour of the house, which I’d thought I had already done. It turns out the house is on a fruit farm! I had no idea since we had arrived in the dark the night before. We took motorbikes around the farm where they had jack fruit, banana, coconut, and dragon fruit trees. I sampled a little of everything and was so full by the time they dropped me off to catch my next bus.
After waiting an hour for my bus to Phuket I finally sat down in my seat at around 7PM. I was stuck with a seat in the very back of the bus where none of the seats recline, and appeared to be the seats reserved for the people who were traveling alone since most people were traveling in pairs. It was an uncomfortable bus ride and I awoke at one point to find my blanket and purse soaked. It was raining outside and the roof above me was leaking. As if not being able to recline my chair wasn’t uncomfortable enough, now I was wet as well.
There was about a foot or so of water covering the entire highway so the bus drove slower than it usually does and as a result we arrived in Surat Thani around 7am when we should have arrived around 5. They dropped us off and we waited for an hour or two which is when we were shuttled into a van which took us to another shop where we waited for another two hours. When my bus to Phuket finally arrived I had to walk through quite a bit of water and despite my attempts to stay dry, my pants ended up getting completely soaked. I spent the next five hours sitting on the bus in wet pants.
I arrived in Phuket around 4PM after having spent 21 hours traveling. I was so excited to see Bobby and Will though, that I didn’t really care about the bus experience, in fact, it sounds much worse than it felt. That night we went to Ko Panyi, a Muslim fishing village, and spent the next day hiking in Phang Nga. My last day in Phuket we went to Karon beach, which was my only beach day of the entire trip. I had so much fun with Bobby and Will who make me laugh so much. I kept thinking how wonderful it would be if Rachel, Logan, Arin, and Des could have been there though! Next time maybe?
On the 30th I took an eight hour bus/ferry trip to Koh Samui to see Petra. Petra is working as a butler at an absolutely stunning resort called Six Senses (http://www.sixsenses.com/Six-Senses-Hideaway-Samui/). I highly recommend it if you are looking for a lush beautiful resort to stay at. Although I’m not sure I would recommend Koh Samui itself as a destination. It is swarming with tourists and despite some very beautiful views, the amount of development on the island took away all of the magic for me. If you are looking for Thai culture you will only find a watered down version here.
I didn’t really come for the island though, I went to see Petra. I arrived in Thailand one week before her and we call each other constantly to share both good and bad experiences. We have very different jobs and live in very different parts of Thailand, but we both have shared similar emotions and challenges throughout our experiences here.
I spent New Years Eve at some bars on the beach in Chewang. Fireworks and good luck lanterns were released into the sky everywhere. The island was teeming with drunk tourists and unfortunately some Thai people use this as an opportunity to bring out pet monkeys and even eagles for drunk tourists to take pictures with. I felt so bad for the poor animals who are brought to the loudest part of the island, where even I can barely handle to be, and are forced to take pictures with stupid tourists. It broke my heart.
My trip to Samui was cursed with rain, so I didn’t manage to get to the beach. We still found plenty of fun activities to do though. We went to the movies, for a hike, and we popped into a Zen art gallery where we met the a fantastic artist. She was a true artist at heart and wanted nothing to do with money. Her sister took care of the business end of things and she insisted that Petra and I each take a painting that spoke to us even though neither of us had enough money. I chose one with a teal mandala and some black bamboo painted on it.
On the third I started to make my way back to Khon Kaen. Which started out easy enough but took a turn for the worst when I was left stranded somewhere in Surat Thani due to reasons that are still unknown. I may have been sold a ticket for a bus that didn’t exist…we will never know for sure though. After an hour of driving around with an off duty cop who wanted to help me, I finally caught up with a group going to Bangkok and did not have to buy another bus ticket. I finally got lucky, and was seated in a seat that reclined really far, making my ride to Bangkok extremely comfortable. It took me thirty hours to get from Koh Samui to Khon Kaen and was so unbelievably happy to be back in a city where things are cheap and people are extremely nice. I am so glad I was able to see my friends, but I am also really glad to be away from all of the tourists. This trip was exactly what I needed to appreciate the Northeast.