Date Written:  January 20th, 2010 (En route to Bangkok...somewhere over the Pacific)

Well...here I am, back at the keyboard once again...poised and ready for another travel adventure.  I left Boston "yesterday" morning and I'm on my way to southeast Asia.  ASIA!  For now I'm on my own...due to some limitations with work, Jodi won't be joining me for a couple weeks.  That's okay though...it's a small price to pay since it looks like she'll actually be employed when we get out to San Diego in a few months.  I definitely think I’ll miss her being around a lot, but it’s nice to know it’s only a couple weeks.  Maybe I need the alone time anyway to decompress a bit.  I feel as if I’ve been wound a little too tightly the last month or two.  Maybe that was a byproduct of being back in the rat race for a little while.  The last few days of preparation have seemed pretty surreal for some reason.  I was working all the way up until last Friday, which was just 4 or 5 days ago, depending on what time zone you want to count from.  Because of that, I didn't really do much prep up until Saturday.  I'd say of all my trips I've been on, this one has easily been the one with the least amount of thought put into it.  Maybe it's because it's only going to be for 2 months...or maybe because I'm just getting good at not planning anything.  I dare call myself a veteran at these excursions... adding it up, I've spent a whooping 33 months on foreign soil since January of 2003.  It seems staggering when you put it that way.  This trip will be far different however...my first time in Asia, a place where the culture will be FAR different than anything I've seen and I’ll be dealing with a pretty big language barrier for the first time ever.  Truth be told, I welcome the new challenge.  No doubt I've seen many, many people do the same and they seem to get by just fine.  For me, my only real concern will be trying adjust my body clock...a 12 hour time change is nothing to sneeze at.  That is a lot of time zones cross.  Hmmmm...it just dawned on me that today will literally be the longest day of my life...well, if you count the hours of daylight anyway.  It’s sort of like a solar baptism.  Thirty straight hours of sunlight.  It’s a nice way for me to cross back into the world of the wandering...the world I love more than anything.  It’s taken me the last week or so to say this, but NOW I’m ready.

Date Written:  January 20, 2010 (Tokyo Airport)

Well, I’m about 80% of the way to Thailand now.  To say the flight was not that comfortable would be an understatement.  It was one of the older Delta planes which did not have much leg room, the meals were subpar (not shocking), and I was stuck in a middle seat between not so friendly passengers so I didn’t even have good company as a distraction.  Back in Boston when Jodi dropped me off, she pointed out that the last three times we’ve flown somewhere, we have not flown together.  That’s a little strange but there have just been a number of weird circumstances.  I never thought too much about it I guess, but for this long uncomfortable flight it definitely would have been a lot better if she was here.

Upon arrival at the airport, things went pretty smoothly.  It was 3:30 p.m. local time and 1:30 a.m. EST.  I managed to sleep a fair amount on the plane so at least I feel awake enough.  A funny side note:  There was an American business man a few seats down from me in the same row on the plane from Detroit.  He must have polished off an entire 12 pack throughout the flight.  The guy was completely tanked and belligerent by the time we deplaned.  After we got here, the guy came up to me in line as we went through the security check.  There must be something about my face that says “talk to me if you’re wasted” because this kind of thing always happens to me.  There were actually two different lines for people getting off the plane...one was for people entering Japan, and the other was for people with international connections.  Of course, 96% of the people on my plane we’re connecting so I had to stand and talk to this dude for like 15 minutes.  It was super uncomfortable because he was using the “I’m tanked” voice and was talking WAY too loud, drawing long stares from everybody within 25 yards of us.  Apparently, he got off the beer and had a few whiskeys while I was sleeping because the guys breath could have been used as an alternative fuel source.

Anyway...the airport in Tokyo was not that eventful.  I found a place to plug in my laptop and have a beer and sit and type for awhile.  I was hoping to have free internet but it didn’t happen.  One thing that was pretty cool was I went into this little store to buy a water...the Japanese guy in front of me bought a bunch of assorted items and when it was time to pay he just held his cell phone up to this little sensor.  It beeped and off he went.  First Shin Ejima destroys our entire class in Stratego in 5th grade and now this!  Damn you Japan and your technology!  Quit being better than us!  I stood there having to use the traditional method of reaching in my pocket and removing paper bills to pay for my water, feeling somehow like I was beat at a game that I wasn’t even playing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I arrived at the Bangkok airport around 10:30...an hour early which was nice.  My second flight was much better than the first, but it was still about 7 hours.  It was a newer plane this time with better seats and I was in the aisle.  It also had the individual TV’s on the back of every seat so I was able to take in a couple movies.  I actually watched Michael Jackson’s “This is it” which was basically an hour and half of me dancing in my seat.  Good times.

It took a good hour to get through immigration and customs as the lines were very long.  It seemed like every flight was landing at the same time.  They take every single person’s picture as you go through immigration and ask you a bunch of questions.  Thanks terrorists.  A process that should take about 15 seconds per person now takes 2 full minutes.  I’m not even gonna get off on a tangent on this one, but sometimes I really feel like the terrorists have already won.

I hopped in a cab outside the airport and was able to make my way to my friend Carole’s pretty easy.  The first thing I noticed about Thailand that I had no clue about is that they drive on the other side of the road here.  It was the first time I have ever been in a country where this was the case.  It threw me off a little bit when I went to get in the cab and the driver went to get in on the “wrong” side.  Funny how the little things underscore how far you are from home sometimes.  The taxi driver spoke a few words of English and we actually had a pretty funny conversation on the way into the city.  I’m always overwhelmed by how much two people can communicate even when neither speaks the other’s language.  It makes you feel happy about humanity in some ways.

I arrived at Carole’s at about 12:30 and her and her husband Martin were still awake to greet me.  Quick background:  Carole and I became friends back in Houston.  She is from France and teaches french at the International school here in Bangkok.  She recently got married to Martin, who is from Texas and they both have been living in Bangkok and teaching for the past 5 years.  It was great to have a warm greeting and even better to have such a great place to stay after the exhausting plane ride.  We hung out talked for about an hour and finally went to bed.  Even though it was 2:00 p.m. EST, I was wiped out.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I didn’t wake up until 11:30 in the morning which is pretty crazy.  I guess my body really needed the sleep.  Carole and Martin had left for work hours before so I was on my own.  After getting cleaned up I decided to head out in search of food when I realized that I didn’t know any Thai words that would help me get around.  I spent about an hour writing down and learning some common phrases and off I went.  I was pretty happy to be able to stroll outside in shorts and sandals after leaving a snowy Boston behind just two days earlier.  My first impressions of this area of Bangkok were not unlike those in any other city in Latin America.  They live in a bustling area with lots of traffic and tons of sky scrapers.  Walking down the road, I saw several other tourists around and I immediately realized that the people in this neighborhood are accustomed to seeing foreigners strolling around.  Nobody even gave me a second glance.  Almost all of the signs on the street are in Thai (they do not use the English alphabet, but rather characters that look somewhat like Arabic to a westerner, even though I am sure they are not close) making it tough to get your bearings as you’re walking down the road.  The only way to tell what some of the shops are is to look inside.  My brain was on overload.  There are a lot of different things I like to take in when I’m in a new city.  For example, I always pay attention to what bus numbers are passing me so that if I’m in another part of town and see the same number, I know I can get back to my home base.  I also try to identify a few things on my block and recognize intersections.  Though I saw english letters in a few places, this process of memorizing my surroundings was a little scattered with all the Thai wording mixed in.  It was a little disorienting.  I guess it must be what life is like for people who can’t read.  You recognize some words here and there, but everything just gets lost in a sea of jibberish.  Luckily my sense of direction is pretty strong, so I just started walking around the neighborhood, taking a few random turns, heading nowhere in particular.

The streets in the area were packed with street vendors, selling all different types of food.  Of course, I took the chance to grab some meat on a stick...just 5 baht here (less than a quarter).  Mmmmmmmm.  I can see I will not be going hungry in Bangkok.  I also tried some sort of fried thing that tasted okay, but I have no clue what it was.

After awhile, I wanted to find a restaurant to get a nice solid meal.  I was looking for a sit down place so that I could read through my guide a little and decide where I was going to go for the afternoon.  The only thing I really needed to get done was to find a travel agency and look into flights to Phuket and Singapore.  I had come up with the idea a few days ago...thinking about what I would do to kill time until Jodi gets down here.  Near Phuket, there is some of the best diving in the area, so I was thinking of trying that and then maybe working my way down to Singapore, more to say that I hit Malaysia than anything.  I had a delicious meal of pork and noodles and also tried out a good Thai beer called Singha.  Ordering food was easy because a found a small restaurant that had pictures of all the food on the menu.  Definitely made my life easier, but the waiter did know a few words in English.  I found myself to be incredibly quiet since I don’t know the language.  It’s weird when common phrases like please, thank you, or “how much” don’t just come naturally.  Even though I had spent an hour writing stuff down and studying, when it came time to say anything I just froze up.

After I ate, the exhaustion really set in.  The 12 hour time difference was catching up with me, even though I had slept pretty well through the night.  I meandered around the neighborhood a little and I came across a travel agency.  The woman inside spoke English and I checked out a few options on going to Phuket.  I ended up checking in three different places and got three different prices but it was perfect because it gave me an idea of what the real prices were.  In the last place I was literally falling asleep while the woman was checking flights for me so I had to give up the search.
I got back to the apartment around 4:30 and decided to take nap until Carole and Martin got home from work, which was around 6.  When I got up just around then, they were already home.  We went out for dinner just after that.  Walking on the street at night was not too much different from the daytime in this neighborhood.  The one thing that they showed me that I had not seen during the day was this road called Soi Cowboy.  Let’s see how I can describe this street and how strangely out of place it was.  It would be something like taking about 100 meters of the vegas strip, shrinking it down to a mini size, and then sticking it in the middle of Lincoln Nebraska (just threw that reference in there to check if my buddy Eduardo is reading these).  This street was lined with bars on either side, with bright neon signs, and women in dresses that had a fabric to skin ration of about 1:20.  It did not fit in with the vibe of the neighborhood in the slightest, but I understand that many, many people come to Thailand just for this and so it exists.

They took me to a street a few blocks from their place that had a bunch of street carts on it.  It’s a little tough to describe what that means...it reminded me of Cartagena, Colombia.  The carts have one or two little plastic tables around them and small plastic stools so you can actually sit down and it.  It’s not the traditional idea of street food where you just grab what you want and eat it while walking.  I actually took a picture but it came out a little too dark.

streetfood

We had a fantastic meal!  Carole and Martin are well versed in their knowledge of street food here so they ordered about 4 or 5 different little dishes.  My favorite was this papaya salad called Som Thom.  We also had some pork and some spicy vegetable dish.  At some point while we were eating, Martin reached into the napkin dispenser and got a nice surprise as there was a huge cockroach inside it!  Bad times.  If you’re at the street carts at night, it is not too uncommon to see a roach or two running around.  I mean, you are outside so there isn’t much you can do about it.  The thing is, it’s not like they get into the food or anything.  The interesting thing about this was that I was not phased in the least by what happened.  I mean, I hate roaches just as much as the next guy, I definitely don’t want to see them on me or on my food, but I know that in a big city with street vendors that you’re going to see them.  I couldn’t help to think about how the average American might have reacted in that situation.  All part of the traveling world I suppose...there’s good, there’s bad, and there’s ugly.  Truth is it can happen anywhere though...some of you may have heard my famous story about being on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and finding a huge dead cockroach drowned in my Hurricane.  Bad times.

Anyway, we finished up a delicious meal and Carole caught me up on her life from the past several years and what she’s thinking of doing next.  I was really happy to find out that she decided that she will take a page out of my book and take a full year off next year!  That is great news.  She won’t be traveling the entire time, but it’s was a so refreshing to be around people that are in the same state of mind.  The idea of taking the time off is embraced and encouraged here...in Boston people stare at you like you’re a leper if you tell them you’re taking a year off.  Instead, we had a great conversation about where she might go and what options lay ahead and how great it feels to learn what freedom really is like.  People always think I don’t want to live on the east coast because the weather...sure that’s partly true, but the biggest reason was that it would have been impossible to have that same conversation I had with Carole that night if I was in Boston.  It would have been, “You must be rich?”, or “Don’t you care about your job?” or “Why would you go THERE?”, or any of the other things I hear every time traveling comes up.  I end up defending the decision to travel rather than talking about the places I’ve been!  I remember back in July I went to Mt. Washington with a bunch of friends.  I had been back east for about 6 weeks at that point.  We were talking about why I like to travel...everybody who was there (including a friend of mine who does an fair amount of traveling) seemed to gang up on me.  The discussion was great and I enjoyed it...it forced me to verbalize some of my ideas and brought some important things to a conscious level for me...but even now, looking back at it I was put on the defensive.  I could have spent all that time by the camp fire talking about what it’s like to bus through the Andes mountains, or how it is to surf in northern Peru, or maybe what it’s like to stand in the middle of the Atacama desert.  Instead, it was an hour of me trying to explain myself.  On one hand, it was probably the single best conversation I had while I was back in Boston, but on the other hand, it would have been a lot nicer to hear, “tell us about where you went” rather than “tell us about why you went where you went and how you could leave so much behind”.  The whole thing reminded me why I’ll never fit in there.  That’s the real source of my desire to move west.  I lived in San Diego for 4 months last year and had the “traveling” conversation at least 20 times...if not more.  Never once did someone question my decision to go.  It was more like, “Wow...cool!?  How was _____?  I really want to visit there!  I’ve heard great things.”  I guess the different mentality out west suits me a little better.  Time will tell if that is true, but on that night in Thailand, talking to Carole, I felt like I was where I belonged once again.

After our dinner discussion we headed over to a beer garden just near their house.  Oh the joys of sitting outdoors on a hot night and having a cold beer.  The only problem with this place was that it was located right on a main street that was heavy with traffic...but nevertheless, it was a nice place to finish the night.

carolemartin

I was feeling very tired when we got home and it was only 10:30.  I really think I’m gonna need a few days to recover here.  Good thing I have nothing on the agenda right now!

Friday, January 22, 2010

I had a fitful night of sleep, drifting in out of sleep but never really feeling like I was getting good rest.  This will be a tough adjustment.  I finally got out of bed around 7 and spent the next couple hours online and talking on skype.  What a phenomenal program that is...so easy to travel in the technological age.  Around 10 I finally headed out to explore the city a little.  Since I will probably spend several days here when Jodi arrives, I don’t want to do too much, but I can’t just sit here in the apartment all day waiting to get tired. 

I decided to head downtown to Kao San Road, an area that is known to cater to the many backpackers that come through Bangkok.  I figured I could use the time to learn how to move around in the city and  also get some information about buses/trains/planes to Phuket.  The previous night, Martin had explained to me how to get the river taxi to downtown.  It ended up being a cool little experience.   These long boats travel up and down the canals all around Bangkok.  Not sure how to describe them...they are about 20 meters long with bench seats that go across their width.  They have a canopy rooftop on them to protect from the sun and rain.  It’s not a hard top, it’s vinyl, and I learned why about 5 minutes into the ride when we passed under a low bridge.  These little ropes hang down with hoops on them and all the people on board would grab on and pull the roof down lower so the boat would fit under the low bridges.  It was funny to see it even though I’m not doing it justice describing it.  I always love the innovations and problem solving skills of the people outside of the US.  Here is a picture of one of the boats:

rivertaxi

By the way, another thing I love about being aborad is the English you see on some of the signs in the street.  Check out the front of the mailboxes here in Bangkok:

mailbox

Classic!

Anyway, on the boat ride I met Rob/New Zealand and Laura/England, both of which had just arrived in Thailand the night before, although both were in the middle of long trips.  They were pretty cool and headed in the same direction as me, to the old part of downtown so we stuck together.  Getting off the boat, I was in a very different area of the city than where Carole lives.  We were somewhat close to the royal palace so the streets were wide and the few roundabouts we could see had pristine statues and landscaping.  There were also many large billboards and banners with pictures of the king on them.  I recognized him already because his picture is also on all the money here.  Over the next several days I came to learn that they LOVE (can’t find big enough letters for this) their king here.  I don’t think he is involved in government...it’s more like the royal family in the UK where he is just a fixture and representative of the country.  I don’t know that much about the monarchy, but he has been the king here in Thailand for over 60 years and might be the most adored public figure I’ve seen in my life.

So we strolled along until we stumbled on Kao San.  What a cluster f!!  I thought I had seen lots of foreigners back in the neighborhood I was staying in.  There probably wasn’t one single Thai person on this entire street.  There were tons of restaurants and shops and all sorts of things being sold.  The good news was I saw many signs with bus prices and train prices on them.  I had come to the right place to get information, but outside of that I’m not sure what the great value was in this street if you’re a tourist.  Despite that, we stopped and had a beer and the others ate some food as well.  Afterwards, we set off walking semi aimlessly towards one of the buddah statues in town.  The maze of streets got the best of us, but since we had no real goal, it didn’t matter.   That’s what I love about being in a new city with no agenda or time constraints.  You just sort of wander around, choosing directions for no real reason and see where the day takes you.  Ahhhhh....back to life on the road.  I love it!

As we strolled around I tried several different street food items.  WOW!  The street food here is absolutely unbelievable.  SO flavorful and so many delicious sauces.  No question it is the best I have ever had, and that is saying something because I eat street food everywhere I go.  I had to coax Rob and Laura into trying a couple things but they were pretty happy with the ones they tried.

After about an hour of walking the jet lag was starting to kick in and I was getting tired.  We were also drifting from the road with all the tourist info and I needed to figure out what I was going to do still about getting to Phuket.  I was a little sad to leave them as they were cool people to hang out with but I needed to head back to take care of business.  It turns out a bus ride to Phuket is about 17 hours and costs around 500-600 baht.  The train is not much faster and it takes about the same amount of time but costs 800-900 baht.  I plane ticket was only 1800 baht so it seemed like it was worth it to fly down there.  After the long flights over here, I wasn’t ready for a really long bus ride and flying down meant another day for me to rest in Bangkok as the only ticket at that price was for Sunday morning.  That was perfect since my intention was not to stay in Phuket, but to just use it as a port and catch a ferry to the Similan islands.  Getting to Phuket early meant I might be able to catch a ferry the same day.

Once everything was figured out, I headed back to the apartment.  It was about 5:00 or so...I was tired but decided I was going to power through.  I sat down to work on journals for a bit and answer a few emails.  Around 6, Martin came home with another teacher from the school, Jonathon/Australia.  He seemed like a pretty cool guy right from the start.  I think he said he had been here for about 6 years...two of them as a dive master down on an island called Ko Tao and the rest of the time here in Bangkok.  Something tells me there are many ex pats here with a similar story.

We headed out for dinner at a Korean Barbeque place that Jonathon knew that was about 15 minutes away and near his apartment.  The dinner was absolutely fantastic...we had about 6 or 7 different dishes with all types of great sauces.  Absolutely perfect.  We chatted about all sorts of things over dinner.  At some point, we noticed there was a bit of a stir going on outside...a bunch of teenagers gathering and a few cops around.  It turned out there was some Korean pop star eating at the restaurant next door to ours.  All the buzz seemed a little silly to me...especially since the police presence is probably what created the buzz in the first place.  Funny how fame is merely the state of mind of the people around you.  Reminded me of this great story which I told a few years back in my Brazil journals.

After dinner, we headed to Jonathon’s apartment around the corner.  The place was really spectcular...a HUGE, spacious 3 bedroom pad with a great view.  He even had a cool little bar right in his living room.  We had a few drinks there and then Martin and I headed out to a nearby bar on Soi 11 called Cheap Charlies.  It was just a small bar with tables outside but it was pretty packed.  We ended up having a couple beers there and finally started to head home around 2.  On the way down the road, we ran into some other teachers from Martin’s school.  They were going to another bar so I’m sure you can imagine they didn’t have to bend our arms to come along.  We spent the next hour there and it was pretty fun.  There were a couple American guys in there, one of which went to USC, so we talked college football for a bit.  I also managed to learn some new Thai phrases from the bartender.  It’s just been a couple days so I don’t know that much yet, but I’m learning a lot fast.  It’s an interesting language actually and I’m starting to see that it is much simpler that it seems on the surface.  Too bad I don’t have a few months to spend here because I’d like to learn it.

We finally headed home around 3, but not before making the obligatory drunken stop at a 7 eleven for some snacks and water.  By the way, I think there are more 7 elevens here in Bangkok than there are in the entire US.  You seriously pass one on every other block.

One other thing I haven’t mentioned up to now...Bangkok is a very safe city.  The vibe is much different than being in a Latin American city where you’re constantly looking over your shoulder.  We walked about 10 blocks back to Martin’s place along rather deserted streets, but here it’s completely safe to do that.  They don’t have much crime in Thailand really and somehow, just walking along, you can feel that there is nothing to worry about.  After so much traveling, you get a sixth sense for these sorts of things, I guess.  Got home and crashed around 3:30.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Very little happened today...I didn’t wake up until about 11 and we spent almost the whole day in the apartment.  I helped Carole organize her music library and copied a bunch of songs from her.  As she has traveled quite a bit, and she has many friends from all over the world, she had quite the music collection.  It’s pretty cool how music connects so many people from so many different cultures.  I really think it’s a shame that our exposure in the US is so limited.
Later we went out for yet another great Thai dinner.  We had all sorts of dishes, although one was really spicy.  I can’t say enough about how good the food is down here.  It has certainly been the highlight so far.

I was excited for the next day.  My “transition” period is over now and it’s time to do some real exploring.  It has been awesome to be able to stay here with Carole, and ease back into the traveling life like an old man getting into a hot bath.  Now, the real adventure will start for me...off to Phuket and parts unknown.  Back to being a wanderer.

AC

Note:  All pictures associated with this journal can be found here.

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