Monthly Archives: January 2007

Back in Bangkok

Hello Everyone!

I was ready to go after 2 weeks on Ko Pha Ngan – I spent the last week of it being insanely athletic: swimming a ton, doing yoga and taking kickboxing classes. I injured myself exactly zero times, which means (as far as I’m concerned) that I’m not getting old yet. The kickboxing was completely different than anything I’ve ever done – I spent the four practices learning how to stand when you fight, how to punch correctly and most efficiently and how to land a kick. The key to everything was how you were balanced, it wouldn’t make much sense to kick someone if you fell over doing it. I’m not a land animal, but I handled this alright.

Every day after practice, drenched with sweat, I went down the street to this bakery that had chocolate chip muffins and these things called “tuna pies.” It was a croissant filled with tuna and melted cheese.

Then I’d walk up to my hut to shower. Ok, here’s my hut: first, it was on stilts high on a hillside, surrounded by trees with loud birds. There were stairs that lead from the street up to the front door, and when I walked in the first time I saw that it was a fucking work of art and I had to take it, no matter what the price was. It was all wood. To the right was a nice enclosed bathroom with hot water, a real toilet and a good sink and a URINAL. My first ever room – 4 star hotel or not – that had a urinal actually in the bathroom. That sold me, the rest was icing: past the bathroom on the right was a sun room with a table placed among about 8 windows, facing out at the bay and town below perfect for writing, if I hadn’t spent all my time in the hammock. Behind the sun room was a landing about shoulder height, a platform where my queen sized bed waited up about 4 steps. Up more steps past the platform was a loft with a fridge I never used, and another little table, then a door opened onto an emormous porch that had a hammock strung across it. The whole thing faced the “sunset” side of the island.


Writing room


Not a bad place for a hammock…

So, after kickboxing or yoga or whatever, I’d hit the bakery, come home and shower then go up and read in my hammock for an hour or so… listening to music and watching the people down in the bay before I went off to do something or other (usually the sauna at the temple). Nightlife at Hat Rin was ridiculous – the party didn’t start until 2:30am or so… people told me. My nights were uncomplicated – food, internet, reading at a bar and maybe a drink, then back to the hut by midnight. If I couldn’t sleep I’d walk to town and watch people all dressed up/down for the night, maybe I’d make an ill-advised jewelry purchase… it’s hard to say what happened.

I’m in Bangkok now and on my first day back I headed to the weekend market and saw this amazing sweatshirt with flowers and birds in print and embroidery. In retro-spect it was the kind of hideous thing that the girls at the shop probably joked about – would this thing ever sell? What kind of messed up person would think it’s attractive? A black sweatshirt in thailand with pink flowers, etc. So I strolled in and of course loved it and asked the price – the girl started at 100$ and I thought to myself, I bet I can get her down to 40. So I offered 40 and she took it immediately and all the girls burst out laughing at me. They probably would have taken 10, but you don’t go back once you’ve offered a price. And besides, it’s worth 40 to me now.

Well, apparently at this market they give you different colored bags as a secret signal to other shop owners that “this guy’s a good bargainer” or “this guy’s an idiot”or whatever. I’d just heard about this the day before, and I declined the bag they offered me – a green one – and put the sweatshirt in my daypack. I was smiling the rest of the day.

I’m on my way to the newly-condemned Bangkok airport today and then to Singapore. I’ll be back in Seattle on Friday at 7am. I’ll send a wrap-up email from home and a link to all the pictures, etc.

Take care, thanks for the emails,
Mike

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Back at Pha Ngan

Hi Everyone!
About a week ago Azure took off and went back to Seattle, leaving me to travel alone for the last three weeks. We had a great time in Ko Pha Ngan (site of the jungle sauna) so I decided to come back and spend most of my time here. Body Mind & Soul:

Body – Yoga
I have this secret fear of looking back one day and saying, “That was when I was in the best shape of my life, and I’ll never be in that shape again.” So it’s a perpetual goal to be in the best shape of my life, at some point in the future (kinda like how “best case scenario” is always in the future, as I wrote at Thanksgiving after my bag was stolen). It’s optimism, I suppose.

So I went to a Hatha Yoga retreat in the middle of the island where there were, probably, 50 people practicing where the jungle meets the beach. 50 liberals. (myself included). It was very peaceful with the chants and the moving and the teacher talking and all that, but there was this chainsaw right outside the room that cut through you like the voice of a whining kid. It kept going, people tried to ignore it. People tried to center themselves and ignore the outside world…. eyes closed, focus on breathing and….

BOOOOOM! A tree came down right next to the practice area. It clearly jarred everyone because their faces looked like they’d witnessed an execution. Back to center, eyes closed again…. Breathing….

BOOOOOM! This time, a little closer. The students were starting to get uncomfortable, shifting in their poses here and there.

BOOOOOM! Finally, the instructor asked someone to go tell the tree murderers to stop. It was hilarious.

I don’t know if all Hatha Yoga is like this, but I hated this version. First, they told us to keep our eyes closed the entire time. I don’t know about you, but every good decision I’ve made has been made with my eyes wide open. Every realization, every relevent observation. (When we were in Laos the lights went out and it was SO COMPLETELY PITCH BLACK that by association I felt my eyelids must be closed on my eyes because that’s the only time you ever really see that blackness. I made that observation with my eyes open.) Second, there was just a hell of a lot of meditation going on – chanting, listening to “meditation music,” and straight silence. Third, I sat there and watched (against the rules) as people chanted in a dead language, bowed to the sun, listened as someone talked about our connections to the larger life forces around us. And I realized… it’s a religion. An almost organized religion for (us) liberals. So I bolted before I got a panic attack.

Then I discovered what I was looking for – Ashtanga Yoga. The Australian instructor kicked my ass. I was sweating before the warmups were over, I was in over my head physically and it forced me to raise my game mentally. And, the best part – the practice was held INSIDE the ring at a boxing school. Now THAT’S yoga.

Mind – Reading
I’ve been reading a lot and two of the books were Palm Sunday and Welcome to the Monkey House, both by Kurt Vonnegut. In Palm Sunday he gives this amazing commencement speech, part of which says that the most powerful form of meditation is reading. Instead of retreating into our own minds (as in yoga) we can actually share thoughts, read the minds – literally – of some of the most wise people who have ever lived. Or the most wicked or most talented or whatever. It’s available to us and we don’t even have to close our eyes.

Soul – Music & Writing
Ko Pha Ngan is known for their awful music, indirectly. So I was totally blown away to walk by a bar and hear some beautiful Hendrix I’d never heard. The DJ said the song was, “Blues.” I’ll have to look this up. It was a peaceful moment – Hendrix is/was such a magician. Then the DJ played some Bob Marley who I consider over-rated to an extreme matched only by U2. I don’t know about this place. There’s beauty and pollution.
I’ve also been writing a lot in my journal. I had the intention of writing letters to all my favorite authors (Vonnegut, Larry McMurtry, Daniel Quinn), but I don’t know what I’d say beyond “Please acknowledge me!” I think that’s what everyone wants, to an extent, so I shouldn’t feel bad about writing it.

I didn’t even write about my bungalow, and it’ll have to wait. Next time.

Take care everyone!

Mike

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Bombs?

No problem. Azure and I didn’t let the bomb disturb the New Year’s Eve BASH in our hotel room. We shared it with a) Dark Chocolate, b) Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches and c) Hannibal Lecter. in novel form. As last year we read and shared Lonesome Dove, this year it was Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal – all by Thomas Harris, each progressively better until Hannibal which was one of the best reads I’ve found. FYI this trip I’ve also read The Kiterunner, Tuesdays With Maurie, Clan of the Cave Bear and Fast Food Nation.

I promised a recap of Laos, and I’ll share with you my favorite memory, one that will stay with me as long as I can remember things. We packed on a boat with a bunch of other tourists and a few locals and motored for two days from Hueay Xai to Pak Beng on the first day, then Pak Beng to Luang Prabang on the second. The seating was cramped, squeezing two people on a low wooden bench that was actually large enough for one and a half, but we were making new friends with everyone around us, so it was ok.


Who’s that cute girl on the right, 6 rows back?

The villages on the sides of the Mekong are isolated – perhaps as isolated as any can really be these days. There were no roads in, only the river. There was no electricity in any of them, just kids running around, women doing laundry and men fishing in the river.

At dusk we arrived in Pak Beng, a town that has generators and a road that connects it to the rest of Laos, so it’s relatively more advanced. As we pulled up to the shore, there were dozens of people crowded around the plank asking us to stay in their hotel rooms – Azure shoved past them, up the hill and found us a quiet little room at the end of the tourist street for a pretty good price.

We put our stuff down, grabbed a bite to eat, then went for a walk. Like I said, Pak Beng runs only on generators, but only in the tourist part. So as you walk down the (only) road and out of the town, the generators fall out of earshot and with them the lights die behind as well. The pavement turns to dirt and up a little hill in the jungle it gets darker but not quiet – the crickets and other bugs are VERY loud on both sides of the road. But other than that, nothing. We crept down the dirt road, around a bend and suddenly saw a dozen candles ahead of us. Around the little flames, sitting at tables eating dinner and gossiping, were all the townspeople. By candlelight they talked and laughed and said “Hello!,” teenage girls with other teenage girls, old men with other old men, old women with other old women, the kids running around out of control in the street. The neighborhood only consisted of, maybe, a dozen bamboo homes, but they were beautiful. It was so dark you couldn’t see ahead to the next group of people down the road, only the candles really, and when we stopped to look up we got dizzy from seeing so many stars. I’ll never forget how simple it all felt.


The next morning on the Mekong, in Pak Beng.

We spent a few days in Luang Prabang, most of it I battled a stomach thing, then flew back to Chiang Mai and rented a motorbike. We biked to the north, out of the industrialish Chiang Mai and into some mountains. There was a valley before we entered the mountains that I swear was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. We climbed and climbed and it got colder and colder. We finally reached a peak, then descended the other side into a valley that I swear was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The first night we reached the hippie town of Pai. Apparently it used to be a quiet little village, then some artsy folks showed up and more followed and it’s been losing its innocence ever since. The pollution is pretty bad and apparently through all the development, none of the locals made a cent – it was all imported goods & labor from Chiang Mai and the people working there still are from Chiang Mai. We ran into some Americans there who complained that all the tourism was ruining their paradise… that they’d been there for howevermany years and it was losing the special charm of a small village. Hmm. Ok.

We spent a couple days there (during which I got a thick black armband that feature’s prominently a boar’s tooth) then got on the bike and continued the loop. Up into some mountains again, then down into another valley, probably the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. A little town called Ban Mae Su Ya is nestled next to a mountain that resembles Mount Si, and across the valley are a couple mountains that look like Haystack Rock on the Oregon Coast. If any of you make it to this part of the world, you must visit.


Yes, friends, that’s a boar’s tooth armband.

On the motorbike we contiued to wind down the hills toward the river and past valleys that were probably the most beautiful I’d ever seen. They were the kinds of thing that you take pictures of, but as you’re taking it you say, “this is useless – a picture could never capture what I see right now.” So you look at it and try to store away its beauty in a corner of your memory, but as you’re doing that you realize it’s pushing out all the other valleys you’ve tucked away over the last hour, and the memory won’t last. So, as it should have been from the beginning, you just look at it and try to appreciate it for what it is at that moment, and keep driving.


The most beautiful beautiful I’ve ever beautifuled.

We made it back to Chiang Mai after 4 days on some of the most beautiful road in the world, it must be, then back to Bangkok for New Years. Now we’re in Kuala Lumpur doing nothing, really, and tomorrow we’ll be taking a bus to some island off the west coast. Not Penang, a smaller one.

Thanks for the emails, again. Check out the pictures if you have a chance.

Take care,
Mike

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