Friday, May 4, 2012

"no dry, no balls"

[Note: I wrote this post in mid March but never got around to publishing it because I couldn't find time to upload accompanying photos. With a bit of encouragement from friends at alumni weekend - and now that I have returned to a land of high speed internet - I decided to add photos and publish the post as is. Northern Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia stories to follow in the next few weeks.]

15° 00 N, 100° 00 E

Hello, how are you tomorrow?

I suppose the right thing to say (to those of you in the States) would be, "How are you yesterday?" since I am about 14 hours ahead, however "How are you tomorrow?" is something the local guys in Railay yell to unsuspecting passersby for a laugh, and I have grown to love the phrase. The question never fails to result in a confused tourist (myself included), as does the other urgent exclamations "Somebody is looking for you!" and "Your back foot is chasing your front foot!" It is just one of the ways the locals makes light of the fact that tourists have taken over their island, and is an indication of their spirited nature in general. 

Ryan and I have been traveling for two weeks now and have been having an amazing time in Thailand. After an easy midnight meeting at the Bangkok airport (Ryan flew in from Salt Lake City and I flew from Manila), we traveled the next morning to Ko Phangan island by plane, bus, and high-speed catamaran. We spent about a week in mellow Ko Phangan before taking a catamaran, bus, mini-bus, and long tail boat to even mellower Railay, where we spent four days. We returned to Ko Phangan for a tattoo appointment in Haad Rin and spent two days there eating at our favorite places one last time and saying goodbye to the friends we had made. We are now in Bangkok to apply for a visa at the Myanmar embassy.

Though everyone can relate to the difficulties in finding a "good" travel partner, I must say that I'm really fortunate to have Ryan along this trip. Ryan is unconditionally patient, positive, sociable, adaptable, and open to the world. As such, he inspires me to behave the same. I met Ryan only a little over a year ago and started to get to know him last July before I left Park City. Somehow the universe aligned to enable us both to be on this adventure. I cannot be more thankful to have someone to share these experiences with (you would all agree that turning to a friend during an awe inspiring moment is much more satisfactory than the lone mental note), and - as reluctant as I am to admit needing it - to have someone to help keep watch over me. I had no idea before embarking on this journey just how sketchy it would be to travel through Southeast Asia on my own (though the worried looks on everybody's faces should have been some indication).

So much has happened over the last two weeks that it's hard to fill you in on it all, but here are some of my favorite highlights...

Day 26: Sri Thanu, Ko Phangan
Remember our new German friend Christian? We saw him at least once each day we were in Ko Phangan, usually for a meal, and loved getting to know him and his yogi friends. Christian has all kinds of crazy life stories, my favorite being his tales of travels to Mexico when he was 19. I've come to call nights with him "wild card" nights (in the most excellent of ways), since Ryan and I never know what to expect when he invites us to hang out.

Perfect example: On our second night in Ko Phangan the three of us were out to dinner when Christian ran into his friend Katarina. Katarina was just finishing her meal as we were walking in but stayed to catch up with Christian. Christian met Katarina, who is from Argentina and has an enticingly sexy accent, during his first trip to Ko Phangan. Unfortunately the circumstance that brought them together in the first place involved vying for the same bungalow that a senile old lady had absentmindedly promised them both. Katarina ended up living there and Christian ended up taking a trip to Myanmar instead, which he loved and has now convinced us to do, so all worked out. Anyway, Katarina had just begun a course on tantric after finishing a second level month-long yoga course. So, in between usual restaurant lingo like "I recommend the dish with cashew nuts," and "Check, please," the three of us heard an introductory crash course to tantric - suppressing ejaculation in order to recycle life energy; the belief that life energy is lost during both female orgasm and menstruation, making tantric doubly important; the difference between male and female orgasm patterns get the drift. The conversation seemed usual and nonchalant to Christian and Katarina. I, on the other hand, sat amusedly across the table from Katarina and tried my best to ask thoughtful questions without reverting back to the awkward time I learned about puberty in middle school. Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

Christian and a new friend ...not Katarina

Day 28: Ko Phangan
We signed up for a group tour through Ko Phangan that included the following stops: Muay Thai training, a Chinese temple, snorkeling, elephant trekking, archery, a viewpoint of the coast, ziplining, and an herbal sauna. While I loved each of the mini adventures, I'd have to say my favorite part of the day was when our guide Snake came over with his FM radio during some down time and asked if I wanted to hear some pop(ular) Thai music. We sat there, one headphone bud in each ear, and he told me stories of his faraway love, a young Swedish girl he met on one of his tours and magically ran into again at the Full Moon Party, and his dreams of teaching guitar in Sweden (he has an awesome tattoo of Elvis on his chest).


Snake the tour guide


Day 29: Haad Rin, Ko Phangan
Ah, what to say about the infamous Full Moon Party? Well, we got to Haad Rin at about 11 PM and left after the sun came up at 7 AM, the party still in full swing. In between those hours was a dizzying mix of DJs, dancing platforms, body paint, neon, fire dancers, a huge double jump rope lit on fire, an enormous water slide, sand, and sea. Add to that equation pouring rain at the peak of the night; we had no idea what was rain, sweat, spilled drinks, or ocean water. Wild wild wild. People were out of their minds in revelry. Then sunrise came, revealing the straws and empty buckets lining the beach and people dry humping in the ocean surrounded by five others peeing mere feet from them. It was time to go, and we were thankful to be on the west side of the island (Haad Rin is located on the south side), away from the bumping beats and smell of stale liquor, piss, and salt water. It may not have been the most savory of experiences but I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat, simply for the opportunity to witness thousands of people from all over the world interested in nothing else but a good time by the sea, under the light of the full moon. (You can watch a short video on my Facebook page

Day 30: Sri Thanu, Ko Phangan 
Christian invited us to join him to watch a mystical dancing performance, the end product of a three-month goddess retreat exclusively for women. Ryan and I were less prepared to walk into that performance than we were to witness the insanity of the Full Moon Party. I can hardly explain it. To begin the evening, the performers were displayed in the center of the room, acting as live portraits of gods and goddesses. The living dioramas consisted of groups of three goddesses surrounding one god, fully outfitted and acting their parts, with intricate arm motions and their tongues sticking out. The audience was invited to participate, walking up to the gods and goddesses with offerings and showering them with flower petals. The women then went through a series of bellydancing performances to tell the story of The Seven Veils, each representing a level in the descent to the underworld.

Day 33: Railay Beach, Krabi
We went out to sea with a diverse group of travelers for instruction on deep water solo. I loved trying this type of climbing because when you're tired or can't go up any further you just let go and plunge into the cold ocean (amazingly refreshing in the Thai-high temperatures and humidity). We took a boat to a few different stops, including a place for cave exploring and a pre-prepped plated rice lunch on the beach.

Ry taking the plunge

After a full day of climbing we invited the people in our group for "a beer." That one beer turned into many. Since we had two men from Singapore, a Swedish couple (from the small town where the author of Pippi Longstocking lived), an American couple, and a German couple in our group, we more or less had "cultural lessons" at the bar. Each pair taught the others how to say "Cheers" in their native tongue. My favorite is from Singapore, "Yam seng," where everyone holds the first word as long as they possibly can ("Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam! Seng!"). As you can imagine, the Singaporean cheers gets rowdy as the rounds add up. The title of this post also comes from something they say in Singapore - "No dry, no balls" - meaning if your glass isn't dry, then.... We also took turns explaining and playing a drinking game from each country. They all loved "Vroom vroom err." Alas, the hangover the next day was extremely painful, but totally worth it.

Day 35: Railay Beach, Krabi
We decided to try some sport climbing on the huge rock faces and boulders on the beaches of Railay. After all, Railay is world famous for its climbing spots. We were joined by our new friend Helen and an adventurous American girl named Amber. We met Helen the day before as we lay in the outdoor common area of our hotel, dying from our aforementioned cultural lessons. Helen, who is a nurse from Norway and on her third solo trip through Southeast Asia, was equally as hungover from her own escapades.

Though frustrating for me at first, sport climbing was incredibly fun (Ryan killed every route offered to him by our guide). Our day was made when the guide made good on his promise to take us on an extra stop. We entered a dark cave where we climbed over rocks and walked up bamboo ladders and rope ties (made a bit more challenging with only two flashlights for five people). What we found on the other side was ...magic: a moonlit view of the coastline 16 meters below us, and Mars visible in the night sky. We repelled out of the cave into the muddy jungle, where we walked for another 30 or so minutes in pitch black. Since it had just rained, we were greeted by a second showering of rain water whenever we tugged too hard on a tree branch for support. A cold beer and a hot shower were more than welcome after the long, awesome day. We talked late into the night with Helen about life and travel. As a parting gift, Ryan gave Helen his Tucker Max book since she was near finished with her's. I can't wait to hear what she thought of her new fratravel entertainment.
Day 39: Bangkok
After a rough day going around Bangkok with an ornery tuk-tuk driver, Ryan and I stopped into an ice cream shop for a treat. Aside from having the best homemade ice cream I think I have ever had, this ice cream shop was also a wondrous reprieve from our humid, hostile day thanks to Mac, the ice cream server. With just a few samples generously doled out, Mac seemed to make the stressful day melt away. A man came walking through the ice cream shop a couple of times and Mac introduced him to us as the shop owner, Song Sit. Song Sit told us that the shop was having a special that day: free Hoegarden beers with the purchase of ice cream. Suddenly our day was looking up. After a few minutes chatting in the ice cream shop, Song Sit said he wanted to invite us into his personal shop next door.

We walked over to another place I can only describe as, well, magic: a room filled with thousands upon thousands of items adorning tables, displayed in glass cases, hanging from the ceiling, mounted on the wall - all things Song Sit had collected from all over the world. The amazing thing is that by no means did the room feel crowded or overwhelming. Each item had its perfect place. What's even more amazing is that each item had its own story that Song Sit could share - where it came from, who made it, what its significance was.

In addition to owning the ice cream shop, Song Sit works with Burmese refugees who have crossed the northern Thai border. He speaks in a wise, easy manner that makes you feel like you are in a room with the Thai Mr. Miyagi. Sitting there in this awe-inspiring room filled to the brim with stories, drinking Belgian beer with an ice cream shop owner while listening to his favorite Neil Young (yes, Neil Young) songs, was easily one of my most enjoyed moments on the trip. Before we left Song Sit had us choose between two jars, shaped and painted as owls, for a parting gift. We chose the one to the right (because of its funny look on its face) and each walked away with a "grandpa Buddha." Song Sit told us a bit about our new little stone buddhas, adding that it would protect us along the rest of our way long as we did not let it fall below our waistline.

To end with, I love being here. I love throwing off my flip flops before entering shops and homes; Thai style seating on cushions on the floor; "take a book, leave a book" signs at backpacker hotels; saying "Hello," "How are you?" and "Thank you" in Thai; getting to know tour guides, boatmen, restaurant staff, and others who are traveling; the endless array of characters and funtivities; riding a motor bike round to no destination in particular; spicy Thai dishes and the plate of cool cucumbers and green beans on ice as a counterbalance; and waking up in the morning and deciding whether to stay or if it's time to go.

Rest assured, though, home is home and I miss you all.