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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Thailand, December 2017 (Part 1)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

Before we begin, may I direct your attention to the EVA Air In-Flight Safety Video? I guarantee that it will be the most magical 5 minutes of your week. Prepare to have your spirit soothed and your soul cleansed by the miraculous healing power of CGI-assisted interpretive dance.

DAY 1: Seattle to Taipei

Here are some things that happen on a long-distance flight:

  • Nasal mucus evaporates and your membranes swell, which kills your taste buds
  • Dry, inflamed mucus membranes + recycled air = you are 100 times more likely to catch a cold
  • Water stored on planes has been found to contain E. coli
  • Lower levels of oxygen give you headaches, leaving you dizzy and fatigued
  • Tiny pockets of gas get trapped in your dental fillings and cavities, causing excruciating pain
  • Skin dries out, causing itchy rashes
  • Gas in your bowels increases, leading to bloating, nausea, and flatulence
  • Blood clots form in your legs (Deep Vein Thrombosis), which kills thousands of people every year
  • Your body is exposed to increased UV rays – a seven-hour flight is equal to one x-ray

DAY 2: Taipei to Bangkok

After a 14-hour flight (two x-rays) from Seattle, we emerged limping, gaseous and irradiated in the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei. It was 5:20 AM local time.

Allow me a preamble: Prior to this trip, my only other international travel had been for a wedding in Spain, with a brief side trip to France (Robin was raised Catholic and wanted to see Lourdes; my eczema was sadly not healed by divine intervention). Oh yeah, and Mexico. Canada, of course, but that hardly counts, right? Pretty limited. And here we are, en route to a one-month stay in Thailand.

I’m also not a particularly easy-going traveler. I’m anxious. I have a finicky stomach. I hate getting lost. To manage my anxiety, I like to have everything planned in advance. For a drive from Seattle to San Francisco, I once wrote up a 4-page, single-spaced itinerary, which I photocopied several times just in case one got misplaced. Robin is the opposite – early years spent drifting around the world from kibbutz to pizza parlor to hostel to catamaran made her a bold and resourceful traveler who prefers to “figure it out when we get there” or some such long-hair nonsense. So already we have a problem.

Add to that: I am a lousy swimmer, filled with panicky dread at the thought of muscular slithering leviathans beneath the surface, whether or not Sir David Attenborough is narrating. Squid especially (shudder). So of course, Robin booked us on a 3-day live-aboard-the-boat snorkeling trip while in Thailand. Trying not to think too much about that.

We’re in Taipei! All we saw of Taipei was the airport, and it’s not that different from any other international airport… EXCEPT FOR THE DELIGHTFUL THEMED WAITING LOUNGES. If I asked you to guess what themes they chose for the waiting lounges, you might come up with Hello Kitty, and that’s an excellent guess, because yes, there was definitely a Hello Kitty Waiting Lounge, good job. But would you have guessed Great Events of Aviation of Republic of China Waiting Lounge? No? What about the Glory of Sports Waiting Lounge? Scoff if you must, dear reader, but I will always cherish the memory of the twenty minutes I spent checking Facebook in the Glamorous Textile Art Waiting Lounge.

We weren’t even 24 hours into our trip, and we already had food problems. One of the few vegetarian options (for Robin) was “Tofu Pudding, Peanuts, and Food.” I had a disconcerting vacuum-packed sandwich which was constructed from three slices of Taiwanese Wonder Bread and some white, flavorless… cheese? Perhaps? After three hours in the airport, trying to find aspirin (success!) and coffee with actual cream (nope!), we boarded another EVA Air flight bound for Bangkok.

I guess you may as well go ahead and call the EVA Air flight attendants “stewardesses” because they are all immaculately-coiffed young women in retro/mod 60s-Pan-Am-esque outfits.

When we disembarked in Bangkok, the *very first* advertisement we saw, before we even left the airport, was for Snail White Skin Cream, featuring the bleached face of a (theoretically) Thai woman. We saw similar ads throughout the rest of our trip – always the most Western-looking Thai models, with their skin Photoshopped all the way to “Cast Member of ‘Friends’” levels, selling cream to make your skin whiter. Did Robin spend a sizable percentage of the trip offering passionate commentary on those ads? Yes. Yes, she did.

We made our way to Passport Control, and while we waited in line for an hour and a half, I practiced alibis to explain any discrepancies, but they asked no questions about the THC-infused snickerdoodles in my backpack, so we were in like Flynn.

Another ad we saw right outside the airport, and several more times over the following month: “BUDDHA IS NOT FOR DECORATION – DISRESPECT TO BUDDHA IS WRONG BY LAW.” Given the ubiquitous presence of Buddha statuary, trinkets, t-shirts, and tattoos offered for sale at every stop, it appeared that the Buddha Police have their work cut out for them.

Our friend Jack, whose wife Yui is Thai, had warned us that the “Metered Taxis” were often not actually metered, meaning the driver was free to charge whatever they wanted. Tourists who don’t speak Thai (like us, for example) and who are still figuring out how to convert from Baht to USD are often too flustered to raise a fuss. And in fact, every taxi we got in except one “forgot” to turn on the meter until we asked. One told us the meter was broken, so we said, no problem, we’ll take another taxi. We started to get out, and the driver eagerly waved us back in; the meter was mysteriously repaired.

Another item of note re: taxis. In preparation for the trip, our friend Yui had kindly typed up all of the names and addresses of places we were going, in Thai. We could, we thought, simply show this to taxi drivers and ba-da-bing, language barrier removed! I felt pretty proud of myself, but it didn’t turn out to be quite the solution we hoped for, and I’m not sure why. Most sources place Thailand’s adult literacy rate around 95%, so I don’t think that was the problem. Perhaps confusion over spelling variations (something we would encounter throughout our trip), or maybe the text was too small. We also tried pointing out the location on maps, both printed and electronic, but that didn’t seem to improve our odds of reaching our destination. We had better luck with tuk-tuk drivers; almost every one we met spoke some English and they seemed to know the city better. Next time, I’ll definitely work harder on learning some basic Thai; that was my Western arrogance thinking I could get by without it.

Here’s the first thing to know about Bangkok: Traffic is bad. Not Seattle bad, I mean “immovable gridlock clusterfuck” bad. I mean “you-will-sit-motionless-in-traffic-for-20-minutes-at-a-time-and-be-tempted-to-go-michael-douglas-in-falling-down” bad. Which is precisely why so many Bangkok inhabitants drive motor scooters. Our taxi would move forward a couple of feet, then stop again. While we sat fuming and impotent, hundreds of motor scooters, carrying one, two, sometimes five passengers each (Dad driving, Mom at the back, one kid on the gas tank, two more sandwiched between Mom and Dad) would slip between and around the parked cars like steel balls through the pins on a pachinko machine. Most of the drivers not wearing helmets, women – some in hijab or burka – riding side-saddle, many drivers and passengers talking on cell phones, scooters laden with enormous bags of produce or fish.

Some statistics, as of 2017:

  • There are close to 37 million vehicles on Thai roads
  • Thailand is second in the world for road accident deaths, after Libya
  • Approximately 24,000 people die on Thai roads every year
  • 73% of those killed are motorcyclists
  • There are as many traffic deaths in Bangkok as in the rest of the country combined

Here’s another thing you need to know about Thailand: DO NOT MAKE FUN OF THE KING. The king is a big deal in Thailand, and you will see his portrait on the wall of every restaurant and shop, on huge murals above busy intersections, on calendars and posters and plaques and monuments. We saw him many times on the road between the airport and the hotel. It took me a couple of weeks to realize that I was actually seeing pictures of two different kings.

Rama IX (AKA King Bhumibol the Great) reigned from June 1946 until his death in October 2016. At the time of his death, Rama IX was the longest-reigning monarch in the world. His legacy is complicated. Rama IX was instrumental in moving the country toward democracy, and helped indigenous Thai farmers to transition from growing poppies (for opium) to coffee. He held a patent for a wastewater aerator of his own design. He was a skilled sailor and sailboat designer. He was an accomplished jazz saxophonist who adored dixieland and New Orleans jazz. He is revered as a paternal and almost divine figure by many Thai citizens. But he also prosecuted a brutal war on drugs, condoned military massacres of protesters, and never revoked the lèse majesté laws which make it illegal to criticize the monarch. In portraits, he is almost always depicted as an older man with thinning hair, wearing large glasses.

Rama X, the current king, is not nearly as popular or, seemingly, as ambitious. In portraits, he is a young, dark-haired man in a somewhat too-elaborate military uniform who looks out of his depth.

We planned to be in Thailand for the entire month of December, and we were looking forward to a respite from Christmas decorations and Christmas advertisements and Christmas music. Much to our surprise and dismay, Christmas has successfully invaded Thailand. During the two-hour taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, we had plenty of time to admire the giant plastic snowflakes and candy canes, the looming inflatable Santas and metallic Christmas trees, the saccharine Christmas music pouring from every department store, not quite drowned out by the roar of a million poorly-tuned motor scooter engines.

After checking in to the hotel, we hit the pavement despite feeling filthy and dizzy from lack of sleep. It seemed like it would be smarter to stay awake and start adjusting to local time. Bangkok was loud and dirty and crowded and bustling, just like New York or any other big city. Despite the presence of police at seemingly every intersection, traffic laws were routinely ignored. This was in keeping with my eventual impression of Thailand – and Bangkok in particular – as a sort of libertarian test case. Everywhere you looked, unregulated commerce was flourishing – every unused space was pressed into service as a restaurant or other vending stall. Monstrous bundles of hastily-installed electrical and phone cables drooped from buildings and across sidewalks. (“I don’t think that’s up to code…” became a running joke on this trip.) You could walk into a pharmacy and get almost anything they had in stock, without a prescription (NOTE: EXCEPT VALIUM). Everything seemed slightly broken or hastily repaired or cobbled together. And yet, everything was more or less… functioning. Thriving, even. Which, sure, could prompt you to consider whether all of the regulations we take for granted here in the US are, you know, strictly necessary. Maybe those libertarians have a point! Then again, our traffic fatalities are nowhere near those of Thailand.

We walked through a fully-appointed Christmas Village complete with mammoth modernist Christmas tree, then into a mall with a Starbucks. “Do They Know It’s Christmas” blared from overhead speakers, making conversation impossible. If Sting is still wondering, I can personally testify that they do, in fact, know it’s Christmas. After eating at a hip vegan cafe on the upper level of the mall, we stumbled back to the hotel, physical collapse imminent. I showered, brushed my teeth and climbed into bed, at which point I realized that I had lost my backpack somewhere in Bangkok on the first day of our trip.

I put my clothes back on and ran back out. I had, of course, left it at the last place we visited – the vegan cafe. The owners had kindly held it behind the counter for me, and had even tried to reach me via the phone number on my luggage tag. I was running on the sidewalk when they called, and hadn’t heard the ringer. This might be a good place to mention that one week before our trip, I had dropped my wallet on the sidewalk after dinner on Capitol Hill. This seems to be a pattern with me.

DAY 3: Bangkok

The next day, we got up early, consulted a map provided by the concierge, and made our way to the closest BTS (Skytrain) station. A sign on the train told us which seats were reserved for monks, which was kind of a moot point because there were no available seats at all. We took the Skytrain north and exited at Mo Chit station, about a block from the entrance to Chatuchak (commonly known as JJ) Weekend Market.

Chatuchak Market is enormous and bewildering. It covers 35 acres, has 15,000 stalls divided into 27 sections (“In terms of locating your category of goods, this system is rather useless,” says bangkok.com, accurately), and is visited by up to 300,000 people each weekend day.

It is bordered on one side by a park, on another by a looming, crumbling building that I longed to explore. Looking for designer clothing, rare books, t-shirts, plants, food, shoes, giant millipedes encased in lucite, fried scorpions, illegal ivory, endangered monkeys, or possibly Nazi flags? You will find all of that and more in the narrow, endlessly forking aisles of Chatuchak. I bought a Gundam t-shirt that made me happy, Robin bought some white tennis shoes, we ate plates of papaya salad and chicken satay while our exposed shoulders and necks and thighs turned bright red.

We had been warned, but curiosity overruled ethics and we ventured into the bowels of Chatuchak to find the Animals section. Near the entrance, we passed a booth set up by the government, warning us not to purchase endangered animals or ivory. Not fifty feet from there, baby macaques, monitor lizards, turtles, frogs, hedgehogs and more were for sale. Also dogs and cats. Hand-lettered signs warned us not to take any pictures. “NO PHOTOS – THIS MEANS YOU – FUCK OFF” read one.

Still aching from our flight, we happily accepted the offer of a foot and back massage in a tiny stall off a less-populated alley. There were five massage chairs, and five masseuses – four middle-aged Thai women and one young man. While they vigorously kneaded our sore muscles and folded our bodies into increasingly convoluted positions, the four middle-aged women happily chatted and laughed with each other in Thai, occasionally commenting on tourists who walked past the stall. The young male masseuse was pointedly excluded from this conversation. Two pretty, heavily made up young Japanese women came in for a foot massage. They looked at their iPhone screens blankly throughout the 30 minute session. Every so often, they would reach across Robin and I to show each other pictures of pop stars.

NOTE: Wat means Temple.

I reached my Chatuchak saturation point after four hours or so, and Robin agreed that we could leave as long as I promised we could come back on one of our later Bangkok layovers. We hailed a tuk-tuk on the street, and asked the driver to take us to Wat Pho (or Po, or Phra, or Photaram, depending on which map you’re looking at), home of the Reclining Buddha. “I can take you to Wat Po. 400 baht.” Feeling cocky after hours of Chatuchak haggling, I thought we could do better. “400? No no no, that’s too much. 300,” I countered, acting offended. “350, but we make one stop,” the driver responded without hesitation, and I must have nodded or blinked because he started the engine and we were already careening through traffic.

The “one stop” was Royal Boss Tailors. Okay, sure, we said, we’ll take a look, while chuckling up our sleeves. Poor guy. Doesn’t he know we’re not going to buy anything? We’ll look for five minutes, then be on our way. Easy peasy, right? Fifteen minutes later, I found that I had purchased my first tailor-made suit. In my defense, I needed a suit. Second, the price was so reasonable I couldn’t afford *not* to buy it, or at least that is what I told myself. Mostly I think we were intoxicated and naive, and they made it so easy. The tailors – all stylishly-dressed Indian men – were professional and smooth and efficient and the fabric looked rich and gorgeous and it was all over before we quite knew what we had done. Robin and I couldn’t stop marveling about the whole experience. “Did we just buy a custom-tailored suit in Bangkok? Why did we do that?”

At Wat Po, a man stood outside the entrance with a snake the thickness of my arm wrapped around his neck. Inside the temple grounds, stray cats and dogs wandered freely. We took off our shoes to enter the hall containing the (150 foot long, 50 foot high) Reclining Buddha. His ankles were undergoing maintenance and covered with heavy drapes, but the soles of his feet were on display, divided into 108 panels depicting the auspicious characters by which Buddha is known. Likewise, there were 108 bronze bowls lining the hall, into which you could drop cash donations, because C.R.E.A.M.

After walking the grounds, admiring the stupas (mound-like structures containing relics), avoiding the mangy dogs and petting the friendly ones, we jumped aboard another tuk-tuk and headed back to the hotel.

DAY 4: WFFT

Elephants are integral to Thai mythology and identity, and there are no shortage of parks and safaris and preserves where you can take selfies while riding them like horses. Like any first-time visitor to Thailand, we wanted to see some elephants, but then we did some Googling and had second thoughts. If you can stomach it, here’s a video that describes the process commonly used to break an elephant before they are featured in a tourist attraction:

Happily, there are (some) laws on the books now to protect elephants, and there are also several parks in Thailand where abused elephants are taken in, nursed back to health, and allowed to roam free. At these parks, the elephants don’t paint or do tricks, and they definitely don’t give rides to tourists. We visited Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand in Phetchaburi province, a little over 100 miles SW of Bangkok.

WFFT is located on land donated by a Buddhist temple, Wat Khao Luk Chang. There is a Thai tradition of leaving unwanted animals at Buddhist temples, which means Wat Khao Luk Chang is also the source for many of the animals that end up in the park. We came to see elephants, but WFFT also has macaques, gibbons, bears, lorises, langurs, lizards, crocodiles, and one depressed cassowary.

Like everywhere we went in Thailand, there are also stray dogs wandering all over the park. Pro Tip: Unless you have food, the stray dogs are generally not interested in you. Best to let them go about their business.

The park is primarily run by volunteers (read: hippies), and anyone can purchase one- to four-week volunteer tours. They also have super-awesome eco-lodges that you can rent, most located right next to elephant swimming holes, so you can watch the majestic beasts frolicing in the mud while you check Facebook from the safety of your porch.

We got to take a walk with a good-natured female elephant and feed her along the way. I was instructed to give her a chunk of fruit every ten steps, no more, but that’s easier said than done when there is a six-ton creature stomping along next to you, poking and prodding and searching with her muscular, prehensile trunk during the other nine steps. I held the fruit bucket on the side facing away from her, but that accomplished nothing – her trunk would sneak around behind me and try to find the fruit even when she couldn’t see the damn thing.

Robin got to hose down our elephant friend and scrub her sides with a long-handled brush. The elephant seemed to enjoy the bath, and they have to get cleaned off periodically to avoid bacterial growth, but when we turned off the hose, she wasted no time throwing mud and grass and sticks all over herself, because that’s how mah elephant buddies roll, bruh. Also, the dirt helps them avoid sunburn.

“How can you tell which elephants are female?” someone asked, and the tour guide explained that the female elephants are noticeably larger than the males. “Heh, heh,” chuckled an older guy behind me. “Larger and LOUDER.” His wife slapped him, and the tour continued.

We met several other elephants during the day, including one who spent most of his time swimming. “Watch this guy enter the pool,” urged our tour guide. “We’ve never had another elephant do it this way.” He had been out grazing, and was just re-entering his enclosure when we passed by. He galloped toward the pool and then leaped – head-first, legs behind – into the water. A minute later, he rose to the surface, spraying water from his trunk. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, it sure looked joyous. Apart from the pool, his enclosure was pretty spartan – unlike those for other elephants – and we asked why. “Every single thing we have put in there – including giant truck tires, heavy boulders, and palm trees – he has torn up, dragged to the pool and pushed to the bottom. Every few months we have to drain the pool and clean it out, then start the process all over again.”

The primate area had huge cages suspended several feet off the ground, and those cages were connected by a network of enclosed bridges. Once the gibbons were healthy enough, they would be moved to a man-made island in a local lake, and eventually – hopefully – back to the jungle. While our guide explained all of this, we heard a scream from behind. We turned around just in time to see a gibbon nonchalantly (and copiously) urinating from his overhead perch onto a dismayed tourist.

We saw a terrifying murder-bird called a Southern Cassowary. At five to six feet tall, they are one of the largest living birds. They can run 30 mph, jump 5 feet off the ground, and kill you with a slash of their 5-inch dagger-like foot claws. “I’ll escape by jumping in the nearest water!” you might think, but you would soon be bleeding out at the bottom of the lake because these motherfuckers can also swim. This particular cassowary had gotten loose from a private owner (but seriously, who in their right mind would want a man-sized blade-wielding ostrich as a pet?) and wandered into a rural village. The locals, thinking it was some kind of demonic dinosaur (not inaccurate), tried to kill it. By the time WFFT showed up, the cassowary’s casque (a 7-inch bony blade on the top of the head) had been broken, and he was near death. WFFT doctors nursed him back to health, but the damage is obvious and heartbreaking. We watched him try to eat, but he couldn’t coordinate his beak movements and he kept dropping his food. Then he would stare at the ground, confused.

Late in the afternoon, we reached the final exhibit. “Local Thai people often leave unwanted animals on the steps of the nearest Buddhist temple,” our tour guide explained. “And often, when a family dog has puppies, and the family can’t afford to raise those puppies, they wind up here.”

During the day, we had seen bears and monkeys and hyenas and elephants and prehistoric assassin-ostriches, and at each stop, we would all “hmm” and “oh, I see” and “gosh, that’s fascinating.” The second she said the word “puppies,” everyone lost their damn minds. “PUPPIES? OH MY GOD I LOVE PUPPIES! OH MY GOD THEY ARE ADORABLE!! WHO’S A GOOD BOY?? WHO’S A GOOD BOY?? YOU’RE A GOOD BOY, YES YOU ARE YES YOU ARE!!”

Then the taxi took us back to Bangkok.

DAY 5: Bangkok to Koh Lanta

Our next stop was Koh Lanta, an island in southwestern Thailand, and that meant a flight from Bangkok to Krabi, a taxi from the airport to the pier, a speedboat to Koh Lanta, a taxi to the resort…

First we had to get to the Bangkok airport, and here’s a tip: There are two international airports in Bangkok. Suvarnabhumi (BKK) is the larger and more modern of the two, and it was meant to replace Don Mueang (DMK). Things didn’t work out that way, and they are currently both open, and if you don’t pay attention, you’ll end up at the wrong one and miss your flight. Luckily, I made up a very detailed itinerary in advance.

I’ve mentioned my travel anxiety, and that anxiety increases with proximity to airports. Too many people, sensory overload, worried I’m going to be stopped at security or miss my flight etc. etc. Multiply by ten if I’m in an unfamiliar airport in a non-English-speaking country.

On this day, everything we did seemed to be wrong – we kept getting in the wrong line and then being redirected to electronic kiosks which were confusing, and no, you check in your luggage over there, and no, this line is only for international flights and so forth. Robin had been griping about my insistence on arriving several hours early, but by the time we were through security and headed for the gate, our flight was boarding. “Whew! Good thing we got here early!” I exclaimed with relief. That is when I heard my name over the airport public address system: “Would passenger Mr. Jason, en route to Krabi, please see AirAsia agent at gate 53 immediately.”

I hurried to the gate and spoke with an agent, who told me that there was an (unspecified) problem, and I would have to return to security. I left my bags with Robin and ran back to the security screening area, where an agent explained that no, I would have to return to the security *department* back in the main terminal. Already out of breath and sweating, I continued to the main terminal and found the security department, fully expecting that I would end the day in shackles.

“Power bank in your luggage,” a security agent explained curtly. “Cannot fly in checked luggage, must go in carry-on.”

“Power bank?” I protested. “I don’t have a power… ohhhhh, do you mean my phone charger?”

The agents weren’t allowed to open my luggage to remove it, and if I broke the security tape, the bag would have to be re-scanned and checked. I was allowed to open the zipper just enough to reach my hand in, and I stood there, under the watchful eyes of two uniformed security guards, trying to locate the verboten and highly dangerous “Power Bank” while the minutes ticked past and my chances of reaching Krabi within the next 24 hours diminished. Then, success! I tucked the phone charger in my pocket, sprinted the length of the airport for a second time, and made it on the plane with minutes to spare. Robin wisely didn’t ask any questions, and I sat humiliated and panting, damp and reeking, as our plane took off.

NOTE: Koh means Island.

Koh Lanta (more properly Koh Lanta Yai) is located in the Andaman Sea, off the west coast of Thailand, between the Phi Phi Islands and the mainland. It’s known for long white sand beaches and vast rubber plantations in its dense jungle interior and it’s a popular tourist destination for Swedes. Yes, Swedes. It’s less developed – and less aesthetically appealing – than most of the other places we visited. After Bangkok, it felt like a relief to me, and I enjoyed the time we spent exploring. But Robin had trouble finding vegetarian food (surprisingly, that problem persisted throughout our trip) and there wasn’t a lot to do, exactly, plus there was the unfortunate incident with the cave spider, so she was less enamored with it.

There is a large Muslim community on Lanta, and depending on our proximity to a mosque at prayer time, we could hear the muezzin calling out adhan. I’ve got no love for religion, but hearing that was admittedly thrilling, and made me feel far from home.

Our resort, Costa Lanta, was right on the beach. We had arrived just prior to the busy season, and many evenings Robin and I were the only people in the restaurant, watching the geckos gather on the overhead lamps as the sun set.

After checking in, we walked into the nearby town, Saladan. As the principal port of entry for the island, Ban Saladan is geared toward tourists and filled with bars, restaurants, and shops selling elephant-emblazoned t-shirts and knock-off Buddhas made in Indonesia. I stopped at a roadside cart and had a Thai pancake with banana and coconut, drizzled with warm Nutella. It was fried in what appeared to be a half-stick of butter, so it was oily and messy, but also oh my goodness get in mah belly.

DAY 6: Koh Lanta

At the time of our visit, I hadn’t yet looked up the statistics on motorbike fatalities in Thailand, so I was probably over-confident. “I know how to ride a bicycle,” I thought to myself. “How hard could it be?” So we rented a motor scooter from the manager of a travel agency down the road. “My name is Man, like ‘Strong Man’!” he told us, flexing his biceps and grinning. He introduced us to his niece, an ambitious teenage entrepreneur in hijab, who sold us gasoline in a milk jug. On Koh Lanta and other islands we visited, we saw very few gas stations as we know them in the U.S., but gasoline was widely available, nonetheless, from roadside carts laden with 10 or 20 unlabeled milk jugs. I couldn’t help but imagine a movie scene where a speeding car might skid into one of these carts, and the ensuing fireball consuming everything in the vicinity. I stopped myself from voicing this fantasy.

I drove – shakily at first, but with increasing confidence and speed – and Robin was happy to be the passenger, her arms wrapped tightly around my chest.

NOTE: Sala means a raised, open-air building, kind of like a gazebo, but they can vary in size much more than you might think if you are basing your mental image on the word “gazebo.”

Our first stop was Lanta Animal Welfare, where we got to hang out with rescued cats and dogs. Allergies usually prevent me from spending too much time with cats, but they were hard to resist and I ended up sitting on the floor with kittens in my lap. The dogs had organized themselves into packs, and each pack had its own sala where they gathered and slept. Because of the sweltering heat, most were sleeping during mid-day when we visited. And like all the stray dogs we would meet in Thailand, they weren’t particularly people-focused. They did like to take walks down to the beach, though, and you can volunteer to do that with them. Posted on the wall we saw pictures of dogs that had been adopted, now in their new homes: Toots, now in Germany; Skitch, now in Sweden; Coconut, now in Italy.

Back on the motor scooter, we drove down the west side of the island, then cut across to the interior because I had seen the word “Viewpoint” on a map. Traffic dwindled as the elevation increased with surprising rapidity, and we found ourselves leaning forward on the scooter as we climbed up and up into the jungle, leaning into the switchbacks. I think there was an actual “Viewpoint” somewhere, but we ended up at the Viewpoint Restaurant, at the highest elevation, surrounded by dense forest, with our shoes off, drinking freshly-pressed watermelon juice. The view was spectacular. Koh Lanta is only about 3.7 miles across, and we could see far out across the ocean.

After cooling off and using the rudimentary toilet – actually, let’s talk about toilets for a minute.

I tend to drink a lot of water during the day, and I seem to have inadvertently conditioned my bladder to pee approximately once an hour, so travel is always a challenge. Like a spy who always scopes out possible exits before sitting down, my first order of business is locating the nearest bathroom. Besides my baseline frequent urination, I suffered from some pretty awful intestinal difficulties on this trip, about which the less said the better. My point being, having used hundreds of toilets throughout Thailand (no I am not exaggerating), I feel that I am qualified to offer some comments.

  • Get used to cleaning your nether regions with a garden hose.
  • The first few times you try this, particularly if the water pressure is high, you will likely end up spraying water at a incorrect angle, and will walk around for the rest of the day with wet pants and shoes. Accept this fact and move on.
  • Please don’t put toilet paper in the toilet. Or tampons. Or a turd of larger-than-normal dimensions. The plumbing and sewage systems in rural Thailand are simply not designed to handle that. Trust me on this.
  • Corollary point: Yes, your dirty toilet paper goes in the small, uncovered garbage can near the toilet, the one with flies buzzing around it. For reasons that I hopefully don’t need to elaborate, you’ll want that toilet paper to be as clean as possible. I cannot stress this point enough: The toilet paper is only to be used for dabbing yourself dry after you use the hose.
  • If you have any further questions on this topic, please PM me.

We rode down from the viewpoint into Lanta Old Town, spent a little time driving through rubber plantations and residential areas along the east side of Koh Lanta, then headed back to the resort as the temperature turned suspiciously cool.

Robin loves a farmer’s market – or, really, any kind of market – so we stopped at one on the way home. Fifty or more motor scooters were parked at the entrance. We were in a largely Muslim area, and women in hijab presided over most of the stalls. We saw enormous sacks of different varieties of rice, small songbirds in handmade wooden cages, freshly-caught fish, the most colorful fruits and vegetables I’ve ever seen, a million unknown foods in single-serving plastic bags… but no pork.

I had an egg pancake with freshly-shredded coconut and sugar, and also a deep-fried tofu and vegetable tart. Robin tried aloe vera jellies with coconut, and fried tofu in sweet peanut syrup. As we left, I realized that the sky had darkened and I had to take off my sunglasses.

We were still six miles from the resort when the storm broke, but I thought we could make it. Of course we weren’t wearing raincoats, because an hour earlier the heat had been almost unbearable, the sun bright, the sky cloudless. But now we were on a motor scooter, in t-shirts, dodging potholes that were now small lakes, on poorly-maintained roads, in an actual deluge. “Honey, I think we should stop somewhere…” Robin wisely suggested. But I didn’t like the idea of being stuck somewhere for hours while we waited for the rain to stop. By then it might be nighttime, and I was terrified of trying to navigate home in the dark. So I kept going, even when the rain felt like it was tearing the skin from my face, and the road became a swiftly-flowing muddy river. I finally had to admit that I couldn’t see the road or the front wheel of the scooter or anything more than a foot in front of my eyes, and pulled under a covered dining area for an abandoned restaurant. Another couple – German tourists, Kristof and Patrizia – soon joined us, then a young Thai boy.

We laughed and took pictures of each other and marveled at the intensity of the downpour and our soaking clothes and utter lack of preparation until the sky cleared.

Later that night, we walked down the beach to a small open-air bar, bedecked with Christmas lights. Slow, smoky blues music came from a boombox in a tree. Popé, a young man from Cambodia told us about his travels and search for a job. He made us his signature cocktail, which he called “Good Woman, Good Man” because it contained Sweet and Sour mix. I did not completely understand his explanation, but that did not prevent me from getting drunk.

DAY 7: Koh Lanta

On the previous day, we had seen a sign for Khao Mai Kaew Cave, and heaven knows I like me a cave tour, so we got on the scooter and followed the signs. “One hour hike to cave,” we were told, and that sounded do-able.

Our guide led us into the jungle, and it soon became clear that this was not like cave tours I’ve been on in the United States. We were climbing rickety bamboo ladders next to waterfalls, using frayed ropes to keep our balance on narrow paths (“I don’t think this is up to code…”), and we hadn’t even reached the cave. At one point, Robin reached out to steady herself, and our guide sharply told her to freeze. The tree she was reaching for was covered with spines. “Very poisonous,” he noted.

Once in the cave, things took a turn for the even-more-sketchy. We were walking on makeshift wooden catwalks over deep chasms, slipping on wet rocks, banging our heads on unlit stalactites, and none of it felt remotely safe. Within minutes, our clothes were torn and smeared with mud. I was enjoying the adventure, but Robin was feeling increasingly anxious and claustrophobic. Every few minutes, I had to encourage her to take a deep breath and focus, assuring her that we would soon be out in the fresh air again.

Our guide saw that Robin was struggling, and tried to cheer her up. “Do you like spiders?” he asked her hopefully.

Those of you who know Robin will immediately understand that this was a disastrously bad idea. Robin has a long-standing and fairly serious case of arachnophobia. She even saw a therapist about it. For months, Max and I would hold a picture of a spider *across the room* until Robin could look at it without bursting into tears. Bottom line: This was the worst possible thing to say to Robin on a good day, much less when she was already near panic.

So, Robin was now in tears, hyperventilating and refusing to move. I was genuinely afraid that we would not be able to get her out of the cave, and tried to regain control of the situation before a rescue team had to be summoned. I held her face in my hands and forced her to look at me, which she did not want to do. “Honey, I have not seen a single spider in here. I promise to keep you safe. We have to make it out of this cave, and you will not be able to do that if you keep crying. Stop crying for now, and I promise you can cry all you want when we’re outside, okay?”

It took several minutes, but she eventually was able to slow her breathing and focus. We continued following the guide, through a narrow corridor that forced us to crouch. Robin held on the cave wall to steady herself. I swung my headlamp around, and saw a spider the size of my outstretched hand on the wall, inches from her hand. “KEEP LOOKING STRAIGHT AHEAD AND KEEP MOVING,” I told Robin. “DO NOT LOOK TO THE SIDE. LISTEN TO ME. KEEP MOVING.” Miraculously, she did exactly as I said, and we somehow made it out of the cave. Our companion on the tour, Ulrich, took a picture of the spider and emailed it to me later. Based on my extensive Google research, I believe it was a Giant Huntsman Spider and even though I don’t share Robin’s arachnophobia, it was creepy as all get out (but not poisonous).

Back at the motor scooter, we surveyed the damage. We were filthy with cave mud. I had scratches on my arms and legs. Robin was teary-eyed and barely able to talk. More importantly, my precious Gundam t-shirt had been ruined.

Oh, there was also a large colony of bats in the cave, all blissfully sleeping while we crept past in silence.

Onward! We drove past a mean-looking gang of monkeys picking over a pile of garbage:

We ended the day by riding all the way down to Mu Koh Lanta National Park at the southern tip of the island. We took pictures of the beach-combing monkeys, and started a hike around the point, but Robin was pretty rattled by that point and couldn’t stop worrying about the possible presence of some heretofore-unseen species of jungle spider, so we didn’t make it very far. We stood silently for a minute in the verdant forest, just listening to the shrieking cicadas and birds, and then turned back.

When we reached the town near our resort, Robin told me to pull over at a grocery store. She emerged with a bottle of vodka. I didn’t drink any, but the bottle was empty by the time we left Koh Lanta.

Proceed to Part 2

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2 Comments

  1. Your pics are so amazing! Love reading this, pal.

  2. I think that safety dance video is a check to see if anyone on the flight might already be on a pharmacological bad trip.

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