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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Thailand, December 2017 (Part 3)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

DAY 17: Khao Lak to Trat

Another tiring day of travel. Taxi from Khao Lak to Phuket, plane from Phuket to Bangkok, plane from Bangkok to Trat, taxi to hotel. Khao Lak is on the western coast of Thailand, Koh Kood is all the way to the East, close to Cambodia. For those of you following along on a map, this is like if you were visiting the United States for the first time, and you said to yourself, “I definitely want to spend some time in California. Then maybe the next day, I’ll go to Massachusetts…” We wanted to get all the way to our resort on Koh Kood, but we were too late to catch the last ferry, so we spent a single night in an austere hotel somewhere outside of Trat. Robin has some kind of permanent bias against hotel restaurants and is always convinced that we can find something better just up the road, but it turned out that we were in a dark industrial area with no options. We were the only people in the hotel restaurant, and we picked at our food while watching a bizarre Thai game show whose rules we could not fathom.

DAY 18: Trat to Koh Kood

We had purchased our ferry tickets, and reserved space on a taxi to the Laem Sok pier. The taxi was scheduled to pick us up at 8 AM. 8:15 came and went, then 8:30. “I’m sure it will be here any minute,” we were assured by the flustered concierge. “They’re not usually this late…”

When the taxi did arrive, the driver was clearly trying to make up for lost time. Our luggage was hastily thrown on top of the converted pickup, we were hustled into the back with eight other passengers, and we tore out of the hotel parking lot at top speed, without regard for pedestrians or other traffic. The next half-hour was terrifying. My stomach full of acidic hotel coffee and powdered eggs, our driver swerved from lane to lane seemingly at random, ran red lights, darted off the main road onto rutted rural paths looking for non-existent shortcuts, and took corners at a speed that I felt certain was unsustainable purely from a physics perspective. I was still suffering from a lingering seasickness hangover, and this ride was not helping. By the time we arrived at the pier, I couldn’t speak for fear of throwing up. “Are you okay?” Robin asked me. “You look awful.”

Then it was time to get on the ferry, which was actually a large jet boat. There were 30 or so passengers, all crammed belowdecks, with no windows and thus no way for me to focus on the horizon. Once we were out of the bay, the captain quickly accelerated. The sea was choppy, and we spent the next 90 minutes smashing into every crest, flying over every trough. BANG – weightless drop – BANG – weightless drop – BANG…

DAY 19: Koh Kood

Koh Kood was by far my favorite place we visited, and I would have been happy to spend more time there. It was quiet and undeveloped and less tourist-oriented, but also gorgeous and clean. There was no traffic to speak of, very few trinket shops, and fewer nightclubs to attract the bro crowd. I had the first decent coffee of the entire trip on Koh Kood. The island was also big enough, and with enough waterfalls and viewpoints and beaches to keep us occupied for a long time. It was the first time on the trip that I felt relaxed. But my intestinal disturbance was not going away, so I finally sought the advice of a professional.

Just as we had seen in Spain, pharmacies in Thailand play a much more central role in everyday healthcare. Some are open 24 hours, the pharmacists are available for walk-in consultations about your health problems, and they can generally prescribe something effective without the intervention of a doctor. We found a pharmacy near our hotel, I described my symptoms to the woman behind the counter (who spoke perfect English, and probably several other languages), and she handed over some pills and some powder. We complimented the sweet portrait of her, which hung on the wall above the counter. “Thank you! My friend in New York City painted that for me. I want to go back there someday…”

I mixed the orange powder with some bottled water (“Don’t use the tap water – you’ll get LaGuardia,” Robin reminded me), and it tasted awful. Like off-brand Tang. Correction: off-brand Tang-flavored beverage. Or maybe Cragmont Tang-flavored beverage. No, wait: Cragmont Bang! (compare to active ingredients of Tang). But it worked. I took the pills and downed my Cragmont Bang! religiously, and the situation down below gradually improved. For the first time on our trip, I didn’t feel tired or anxious or nauseous.

Our resort had motor scooters for rent, so we grabbed one and kept it for the next five days. Consulting a map we got from the front desk, we intended to visit each waterfall, temple, rock formation, and other point of interest.

On the first day, we drove to Klong Yai Kee Waterfall – massive flat rock shelf surrounding a deep pool, into which the fall empties. It was pretty, but not a lot of shade near the water, and it was fairly crowded when we were there. Robin dove in and swam under the falls, I took some pictures, then we hiked back to the scooter and rode on.

We also visited Khao Rea Rob (which is funny, since I have a good friend named Rob Rea, not that you care), an odd rock plateau with a naval memorial on top. The edge of the plateau had railings like the bow of a ship, complete with flotation rings bearing the name of the ship: HTMS Sriracha. There was also a shrine to a naval commander, surrounded by offerings of flowers, bottled water, food, and 40 or so rooster statuettes. We saw a lot of those rooster statuettes in Chiang Mai later.

Also on the first day, we found our favorite waterfall: Klong Chao. It is surrounded by forest, big enough for plenty of people to swim without crowding, you can climb the rocks and wind up behind the waterfall, you can climb the face of the waterfall and jump off, and there’s a goddamn rope swing. There were small fish in the water, and you could feel them nibble at your legs and feet, which I did not like, but I got used to it. Klong Chao Waterfall perfectly matched my dream of what Thailand might be like. Amazing.

DAY 20: Koh Kood

We were determined to see as much of Koh Kood as possible, so we climbed on the motor scooter and headed northeast to Ao Salad. Our understanding was that Ao Salad was a small, picturesque fishing village with one of the more impressive Buddhist temples on Koh Kood. The residents of Ao Salad are a mix of Thai and Cambodian people, almost all working in the fishing industry.

Once we escaped from the cluster of resorts, we were on a virtually empty road for several miles, so of course I sped up and happily weaved from side to side. Until I turned a corner and swerved to avoid a large snake and almost crashed. No wonder so many people die.

NOTE: Ban (or Baan) can mean a single house or a village.

Ao Salad was indeed a small village, which is why it was sometimes written Ban Ao Salad. But it was also one of the main ferry ports on the island. Within the ten minutes after we arrived, twenty or so taxis and mini-vans roared into town, quite literally overflowing with tourists heading back to the mainland. A local yelled at us because we were parked in a taxi spot, so I awkwardly rolled the scooter twenty feet further down the street, strenuously trying to look like I knew what I was doing.

While we waited for the taxis and tourists to dissipate, we explored the Ao Salad Temple. The main temple building was still under construction; bare cement with visible rebar. But on top is a gorgeous sixty-foot-tall golden Buddha. While researching this story, I found a picture of the Buddha right after it was originally constructed, and it was on the ground. Later, they raised it, and then built the temple beneath.

There were no monks visible at this temple but they did have an animatronic monk who would read you a blessing if you dropped a coin in his cup. It seemed to be undergoing maintenance, or perhaps it just doesn’t work if you drop the coin in ironically.

There is also a brightly-colored wooden bell tower at the temple, which we climbed. I was taking pictures as usual, so Robin reached the top ahead of me. The top level was reachable only by ladder, and I was wrestling with my camera, which kept swinging around and getting in my way. The second I reached the highest rung, someone jumped out and shouted “BOO!” After regaining my balance and composure, I realized Robin and a young Thai boy were laughing uproariously at my near-fatal almost-fall, which seemed like bad cricket. But the kid’s laughter was infectious and it was impossible to stay angry. He couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9, and – if I understood him correctly, which is questionable – he lived at the temple with his brother. He was full of energy and humor and desperately wanted someone to play with him. He had a makeshift hammock at the top of the tower, and he wanted me to sit in it with him, so I did. Then he directed me to make a series of faces and silly gestures, which he would copy, giggling. He insisted that Robin photograph each pose. When we had to leave, he asked me to help him hide under a tarp so that he could scare the next tourist to brave the top floor.

We drove south then east again on a narrow paved road that turned into a narrow dirt road, in search of the “Old Trees” we had seen noted on our map. We never did find the Big Chai Tree (I think we took a wrong turn, then got distracted), but we did stop to admire the 500-Year-Old Makka Tree, which was massive with vines and vine-like roots covering its surface and twisting around its base. It looked like something primeval or alien, something that did not belong to our world.

Before aiming the motor scooter back to our resort for Happy Hour, we checked out Huang Nam Kaew Waterfall. It wasn’t as photogenic or impressive as some of the other waterfalls we visited, but it was the site of our first encounter with Yoga Man. Yoga Man was an irritatingly handsome shirtless German bro with a man-bun, who showboated his way through various god-tier yoga poses on a perfectly-positioned boulder in front of the waterfall, the sunlight and the water spray heroically framing his tanned and hirsute body. “Take my picture!” he yelled at his Victoria’s Secret model girlfriend, in German-accented English. “Take my picture!”

DAY 21: Koh Kood

Near Khao Rea Rob (the weird rock formation with the Sriracha memorial) was Chaiyo restaurant, which had been recommended to us by a friend who knew Koh Kood. In any other context, I would have been worried about the safety of eating at Chaiyo – it was little more than a shack, built on rough-hewn planks suspended above a stagnant pool of water. If you looked down while eating, you could see fish and garbage and other unpleasantness in the murky water, through holes in the floor. Having said all that… the food was delicious. I had the best Tom Yum soup there – so spicy, so flavorful! The owners were attentive, friendly, and accommodating for vegetarians. Highly recommended, but remember: PLEASE BE PATIENT – ONE CHEF ONLY.

There had been a continuing problem with the hot water in our bungalow, to wit: There was no hot water in our bungalow. Surrounded by turquoise ocean and palm trees and white sand and waterfalls and temples and the all-you-can-eat breakfast bar, it seemed entitled and truculent to complain, but finally I remembered how much we were paying for the bungalow, and I demanded satisfaction. I am an American, God damn it. The maintenance staff couldn’t seem to fix the hot water, so the manager moved us to a much nicer bungalow, right on the beach. We could step off our porch, walk 10 feet, and be in the ocean. I went inside to enjoy my first hot shower, and Robin decided to relax in a chaise lounge on the porch. I was just working up a lather with the complimentary coconut-scented body gel, really enjoying myself, when I heard a shriek. I wrapped a towel around my waist, ran out the front door, and saw Robin recoiling in horror, clutching her iPad to her chest, while a thick green snake on the chaise lounge reared back and hissed loudly. It had been peacefully sleeping under the cushions when Robin sat on it, and it was annoyed. Disgruntled, you might say. Groundskeepers and other resort guests ran over to help and/or gawk. The agitated snake slid under the chaise lounge and through the porch decking to the sand beneath, and the groundskeepers chased it with rakes and scythes and much dramatic posturing, but our serpentine friend escaped unharmed. All the gathered guests had to process the event: “Honey, did you see that?” “Oh my God do you think there are snakes under our porch?” “I’m never sitting on a chaise lounge again!” “I’m kind of an expert on snakes, and let me tell you…” For days afterward, guests and staff would come up to us, their eyes wide. “Have you seen any more snakes?” As if we now had a special relationship with the local snakes, and they might drop by occasionally, like friends do.

The groundskeeper told us that this species of snake lived in the coconut trees and was (mostly) harmless. Google leads me to believe we saw a red-tailed green rat snake. Wikipedia: “When the snake is stressed, it may inflate a bag of air in its neck, making it appear larger in size. In captivity, it has quite the ‘attitude’ and may strike at or bite an unwary handler.”

DAY 22: Koh Kood

We drove south to Ao Yai, another small fishing village. I had gotten more confident on the motor scooter, but the further south we went, the bigger the hills we had to navigate. I would try to get some speed on before reaching a steep hill, which scared Robin. I might also have been a little scared. And coming down, she would slide forward against me until I was at the very front edge of the seat bracing my feet against the cowling to hold her back. And then I had to decide whether to try to get her to scoot back while we were still zooming down the hill, or just grip the handlebars more tightly and wait until we found a flat stretch. That part made me nervous, but in my defense, I am a gigantic man-baby.

The surrounding forest was beautiful, though, and the roads were deserted. We drove through several rubber plantations, and I stopped to look more closely. On each tree, there was a diagonal groove inscribed through the bark and into the flesh of the tree. White latex (see, I would have said “sap” but Wikipedia says nope) would fill this groove and flow downward until it hit a small sharpened metal trough that had been driven into the tree. At the end of the trough, a bucket collected the slowly dripping sap. Sorry: Latex. But after the first groove dried up – maybe in subsequent seasons? – they would have to carve another groove, and another, until the tree was gouged up pretty badly for a foot or more.

Writing it out like that, it doesn’t sound as interesting as it seemed to me at the time.

We had seen stray dogs at every stop on our trip, but Koh Kood probably had the largest, most visible population. There was one who hung out near the bar at our resort – every day, you could find him sleeping on a wooden bench. And make no mistake – that bench was his. If he happened to be out roaming, you could sit on the bench temporarily. But when he returned, he expected you to vacate with haste. Dogs slowly walked across the road, shuffled along the shoulder, wrestled on the grass, bounded into the ocean, ran in packs down the beach – they were ever-present but somehow separate. These were not domesticated dogs, and they had very little interest in humans cooing at them.

Something else that finally registered: Everywhere we went, workers were pouring cement. Roads, walls, sidewalks – it seemed that most structural problems could be resolved with a couple bags of cement or sand. The cement and sand bags were also ubiquitous. Sometimes they were used to fill in a muddy path or pothole, but we also came across a ton of little coin purses and wallets and other things made out of the bags.

My point is: thousands of stray dogs + lots of wet cement = paw prints immortalized on every street and sidewalk.

Ever since we had arrived in Thailand, I had been searching for a good cup of coffee (and not Starbucks, thank you very much). Weirdly, the best Americano that I had on the entire trip was in the (not-actually-open-yet-and-we-don’t-actually-have-ice-cream-either) ice cream shop of an empty resort on Koh Kood. Downside: The in-store radio played nothing but Christmas music. And I’m not talking Jingle Bells or Winter Wonderland or My Dreydl or even Last Christmas by Wham!. No, whoever had compiled this Spotify playlist had chosen only the most explicitly and aggressively Christian Christmas songs: O Come All Ye Faithful, O Come Let Us Adore Him, Born in Bethlehem, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing…

Back at the resort, Robin taught the bartender to make a lemon drop, while I gorged myself on chicken satay and roasted vegetables from the nightly barbecue. Then the lights went out, and an audible groan went up from the guests in the restaurant/bar area. Everyone instinctively and simultaneously looked up and down the coast. All the lights were out – all the resorts and restaurants and businesses. There had been storms visible over the ocean for the last couple of days, and all the afternoon ferries had been canceled because of choppy seas. Now, we assumed, the storm had made landfall somewhere and knocked over a power line or two. It was also possible that a stray dog had urinated on a transformer: WE JUST DIDN’T KNOW.

The bartender was still making cocktails by the light from his iPhone, and keeping tabs on a wet sheet of paper. The barbecue still worked, natch, so I was pretty cool with the power outage. Except I was worried about getting stuck on the island and missing our flight back to Bangkok.

An hour or so later, just as the bartender’s iPhone light was dimming, the power came back on, and we all drunkenly applauded this victory of science over nature.

DAY 23: Koh Kood

It was our final day on Koh Kood, so we took one last trip to our favorite waterfall, Klong Chao. Yoga Man and his girlfriend were dominating the rope swing area (“Take my picture!” he yelled, over and over again), so I never got a chance to try it.

There was a neat little alcove in the rocks just behind and to the left of the falls, and several people swam or hiked over there so that they could take a selfie without including a bunch of annoying tourists in the picture. Full disclosure: I did exactly this on our first visit. Today, there was young hetero couple hovering over there, clearly wanting to take a picture but… something was wrong. They were negotiating. I watched from the other side of the pool, fascinated. Suddenly, the young woman took off her bikini top and then posed with her boyfriend while their friend took a photo. Ah, okay, I thought. They wanted a sexy vacation picture with her topless, and she was a little shy, and… no, wait… they’re still negotiating. Now she was trying to convince her boyfriend to do something, but what? He wrapped a towel around his waist and awkwardly hopped on one foot and then the other, nearly falling into the water, while he removed his swimming shorts. She grabbed his shorts impatiently and threw them over to their friend, still waiting with his camera. “Oh no,” I said to myself. “They’re not going to… oh yes they are. Good Lord…” They began self-consciously making out, while the rest of us around the pool (at least twenty people, including young children) stopped whatever we were doing and gawked. I’m not sure I can emphasize enough how weird this was – they were basically on a stage in front of us, half-naked, clearly trying to get jiggy… to what end? But then the young man chickened out, ran to put on his swimming shorts, and his topless girlfriend stood alone and fuming.

DAY 24: Koh Kood to Bangkok

We had to catch a ferry in Ao Salad, so we hopped aboard another one of those Thai “taxis” which are actually converted pickup trucks. You may well suspect me of exaggerating, and I would not blame you, but I swear this is true: There were fifteen of us on that taxi, and two dudes were just standing on the rear bumper. We raced up and down hills, took corners at unsafe speeds, swerved to avoid dogs and snakes, and our two friends on the bumper carried on a casual conversation the whole time.

Our next destination was Chiang Mai, but the ferry and flight schedules didn’t cooperate with our plans, so we ended up spending another night in Bangkok. I wasn’t looking forward to Bangkok, but the stopover was fortuitous, because my high school friend Jack and his delightful wife Yui (who, it must be noted, helped us immensely by writing out destination names in Thai, and by answering a million dumb questions about Nang Talung and other things) were in Bangkok to visit Yui’s parents. Also, I hoped to hit Chatuchak one last time, in the (probably vain) hope of replacing my cave-ravaged Gundam t-shirt.

The taxi from the airport to our hotel took 1.5 hours. At one point, near the Victory Monument, traffic… just… stopped. For twenty minutes. There was an ambulance behind us, and the ambulance driver felt that the best option was to leave the siren running for the entirety of that twenty minutes. “ALL SHALL HEAR MY IMPOTENT RAGE,” I imagine him muttering to himself, eyes wide, mouth drawn in a madness-stricken rictus, as his hand – seemingly of its own volition – grasped the volume knob and turned it up, up, up, past government-approved safety levels.

Even though we showed the taxi driver the address of our hotel typed out in Thai, he still drove a quarter-mile past it, then stopped, confused. A man on the sidewalk yelled out, “Looking for G9? It’s back that way.” But the street was one-way, and my anxiety dictated that we exit the taxi immediately, so we got out and walked, carrying our luggage. G9 Bangkok was fine for one night, though the bathrooms in the lobby were shocking, the rooms were tiny, and nothing was what you would call “clean.” I was only partially mollified by the fact that Deerhoof had stayed there while on tour.

After showering and resting up and processing the agonizing taxi ride and taking a couple of deep cleansing breaths, we took another taxi to meet Jack and his family for dinner. It was one of those hot pot restaurants, where they bring a bunch of stuff and you dunk it in boiling broth. Which I think is technically Chinese, not Thai, but hey, whatever, we are cosmopolitan world travelers! Because Robin is a vegetarian, they brought out a special pot with two chambers. We all promised not to dunk our slices of raw beef in Robin’s side of the pot, which was reserved for egg tofu and bok choi.

After dinner, we walked outside in the warm night, looking for a taxi. A street vendor with a wide selection of fried insects offered me a handful of silkworms, and my wife and friends bullied me into eating them. In all seriousness, I was curious, and the silkworms didn’t look as bad as, for example, the scorpions, so I popped them into my mouth. I was bracing myself for a soft payload of silkworm entrails that would gush onto my tongue when I bit down, but that didn’t happen. The silkworms were woody and smoky in flavor, papery in texture, not at all disgusting. The stall proprietor congratulated me, pleased that I had not vomited or spat them out on the sidewalk.

It was time to say our goodbyes, so we hopped into a taxi, and Yui explained to the driver – in Thai – the location of our hotel. I also showed him the name and address of the hotel, written in Thai. He nodded as though he understood, then headed in the correct direction. But a few blocks from our destination, he made a laborious 3-point turn and started driving in the opposite direction, away from the hotel. I tried to communicate that he was driving in the wrong direction, pointed back in the correct direction, held out the printed sheet with the address in Thai, but he was clearly confused, and possibly unwell. I asked him to pull over, and we walked. It was easier.

Proceed to Part 4

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