16 January 2005

(Pink Journal Excerpt - Thailand: Part 4)

We took the vehicle ferry across the way from Trat and drove the one paved road circumscribing the island. Ko Chang is much more touristed than I expected, but it was also because we saw the first beach off the ferry. The Lonely Planet is a touch out-of-date on the place, and of course there are now ATMs and money exchange places dotting the street alongside bars, massage parlors, and what seems like millions of "same same" bungalow resorts flooded with farang. We drove further along steep, blind turns, passing sangthaews and motorbikes, and found Chang Park Resort, where Peter and Lynn had made prior reservations. They were leery though, and had good reason to be: there had been signs for it on the ferry, and it was advertised on a huge billboard at the first intersection on the island! When we pulled in and passed elephant sculptures, I started singing "In Da Club" by 50 Cent; I think the can of Singha I had on the way there had gotten me a little slap-happy.

The bungalows- which looked mediocre at best- were spread around nicely maintained grounds. Peter and Lynne weren't thrilled with the place, but were booked there for the next four nights. We decided to go on to the next spot together. We found a beautiful beach with many travelers on it, but it was full.

I thought I'd have a bit of a problem trekking around looking for a place to stay while the two of them returned to their posh, forced resort, but I saw a friend pointing at me, squinting and smiling: it was Cyril- the boyfriend of the Swiss girl, Irina- who rode the bus with me from Pai to Chiang Mai! He was staying across the way at Gecko Garden, a brand new guesthouse 20 feet away that had bungalow accommodations. Although they were full, they offered tents for 100 baht right there on the ground of the lobby/bar/restaurant's balcony! I put my duffle bag in the tent, changed into my bathing suit, and started drinking and writing in a hammock. And now, after dinner up the beach with the French/Swiss couple at a guesthouse showing National Geographic sea documentaries followed by "Dumb and Dumber" mysteriously subtitled in English, I emailed for a bit at the ridiculously overpriced cafe on the beach. 2 fucking baht a minute!

I walked back in the sands and now am at Treehouse Lodge's awesome restaurant and bar having another Beer Chang and writing by candlelight. And what is the DJ playing? ANTIBALAS! This is so nuts. He was playing Mr. Scruff before this. The place is hopping with people and I am feeling shy, but maybe not shy enough. I love how small the world is and how it's becoming smaller.

*

It's the next evening now. I spent the day well, waking up early out of necessity to find a small bungalow in which to stay the night for 200 baht. I had an "American Breakfast" at that posh spot up the beach from Siam Resort, and met two very friendly Canadians. They had just arrived in Thailand and were very eager to explore. I was in search of Hat Wai Chek, described in the Lonely Planet as a "beautiful, secluded beach," and I'm not sure if I actually found it! I traveled with an Australian named Rowan, and we walked up Bang Bao Beach trying to find accommodations for him. He found a fairly ghetto spot ironically called "Poor Bungalow," and we passed nude sunbathers to find our path to the mysterious beach dead-end at Dolphin Resort. It was an upscale, private resort comprised of boathouses along a man-made road, and I pitied anyone who paid the 2500 baht to stay at that still-being-built tourist trap. We were totally confused about the whereabouts of our secret beach, and with good reason: each person we met told us something different regarding our own location in relation to it! After too much frustration, we found a nameless beach that may or may not have been what we were looking for in the first place, and enjoyed the clear green water and nude sunbathers.

I swam in the warm water, and ordered pork fried rice for lunch. There were small puppies with their mother, looking very hungry as they stalked dining travelers sitting nearby the makeshift restaurant on wooden benches, but they tended to ignore me as I sunned myself the whole remainder of the day. After Rowan left, I sat reading and reflected on my travels here as the sun set. Another Australian approached me, and bought me a beer after a five minute conversation. His name was Matt, and he and I wound up drinking free beer swiped from the restaurant's fridge. We shared dinner up the beach at his guesthouse, and our food arrived an hour after we ordered it! I felt badly, but I left before Matt's food even arrived so I could try and find my way back.

It was pitch-black outside, and only the silhouettes of palm trees interrupted the screen of stars. I trudged along the shore, astounded that there were absolutely no lights other than those across the ocean! The waves crashed to my left as I took one last Singha from the fridge and apologized to the imaginary worker. I had forgotten about all of the stray dogs, and they had forgotten me as well- or, at least they weren't able to recognize me, because they were barking and following very closely behind. I couldn't see them- I couldn't see anything, really- but I heard their paws leaving prints in the soft sand and felt their soft fur brush against my bare calves. I was talking to myself- and to them, I suppose- saying everything would be OK. I just kept moving, trying not to imagine one of the dogs becoming angry and attacking me.
I saw two people in the distance wearing lights on their heads, and I shouted hello, hoping this would somehow make the dogs decide to give up and turn around. My stranger saviors couldn't give me a ride to Lonely Beach, but helped to light my path at least for a short while. I blindly followed distant music up the steep roads, and was soon able to connect it with a location. A couple I had seen earlier that day gave me a candle to light my way home, but I decided first to stop in a karaoke spot.

One patron was incredibly drunk and kept shaking my hand, giving me swigs of his vodka Red Bull. I actually can't remember if I had a beer there or not, but I had a disgusting Thai cigarette. Anyway, I started back up the road with the dim glow of my orange candle, and a young guy picked me up on his scooter to drive me home. We zoomed up and down the slopes, his headlight projecting the web-like shadow of his basket ahead of us on the road. I gave him 100 baht, grateful I didn't have to waste an hour making the drunken walk around blind turns.
I returned to Treehouse and had one more beer before passing out in a hammock. I was too wasted, and so was everyone dancing around me. I got two bottles of water and started sobering up before my walk home. The problem was, I couldn't see a fucking thing and obviously couldn't identify which bungalow was mine! I was stumbling slowly and heard voices from just beyond a wall separating my resort from another, so I thought I'd see if they could get a light for my candle! I was lucky to find smokers who had a lighter, and I hoped my little guiding light wouldn't go out on its way back. I remembered my bungalow number was 20, and lit the first one I saw: 17. The candle lasted me my walk past the three bungalows, unlocking my door, and getting into bed- my head spun ever so slightly, but thankfully not quite enough to make me sick.

This morning I got horrendous brain-freeze from a banana shake and sunbathed the entire ferry ride to the beautiful island of Ko Wai. The water was a brilliant shade of turquoise and incredibly clear. We rode past two piers, and then I was fetched by a motorboat and brought to my guesthouse. I was shown my little bungalow, set up my mosquito net, and had pork with ginger and rice for lunch. I met a nice Slovakian girl named Ivana, and talked for a while about the nearby islands. Grabbing a snorkel and mask, I walked the island's rocky perimeter to a secret beach where palm trees lined the ten-foot stretch of fine white sands. A single boat was docked, but left only twenty minutes after I arrived, leaving me alone to explore the fish swimming among the coral nearby.

There was a French woman on the beach with me who was nice and very talkative. Her name was Guilaine, and I'd imagine she was in her forties. She spoke in a thick accent, using stereotypically perfect exclamations like "bah" and "phh," and told me about the island. I swam, soaked in the sun, and enjoyed her company on our private stretch of sand. And now I am back near my guesthouse, swinging between two palm trees on a red hammock. There are fishing boats docked nearby and, other than the dog that just started barking at me, everything is perfectly serene.

*

I lazed around until finally enjoying dinner, and had stilted conversation with a bizarre and almost rudely quiet Englishman joined by his 30 to 40 year-younger Thai girlfriend (whom he was undoubtedly paying to accompany him on his holiday). It was the 25th year he's come to Thailand. He asked me if I knew what Stonehenge was, the fucking twat.

I lied and said it was nice to meet him, then- with a borrowed flashlight- navigated carefully over rocks and a vague footpath towards the other resorts. I soon realized I was staying at the most paltry accommodations, and figured I could splurge a little more on my very last week. After emailing for five fucking baht a minute on a painfully slow dial-up connection- the only one on the island- I walked back to Pakarang Resort and made a reservation for the next night. It was there that I met a nice Canadian named Danny who was sitting outside of his room (the one I would take the next night). He was nice to show me inside, and it was light years nicer than the one I had for only 100 baht more! He invited me to join him for a beer.

We sat and sipped Beer Chang, and I realized that brand gives you a headache before it gets you drunk. Anyway, we spoke about everything from the plague and joy of being a writer, through traveling, infidelity, and the purpose of life. He was born to an illiterate Vietnamese refugee in Hong Kong, but soon moved to Toronto. Currently on holiday from his year exchange with Hong Kong University, he planned on visiting Hanoi to see the hospital in which his mother was born- a place she hadn't seen since. It was his goal to make a book for his family explaining their history- something they don't really know about or acknowledge- and would fill in the blanks as the only one to actually visit their homeland. This gift of heritage, as he explained it, was his purpose in life. I asked if he thought we choose our purpose prior to birth, if our soul has a lesson it needs to learn and thus aligned itself with the right astrological circumstances to do so. I asked because it's a question I've always wondered about myself, and one I feel may have been answered in this time I've spent alone in Thailand. I have started to believe my lesson deals with love and trust, as well as family. I thought of my extended family, but then of my parents' friends and their children, realizing they've always felt more like a true family to me. It's sad in one way, but wonderful in another, because it shows you the definition of family sometimes has little to do with blood and who marries into it; it is instead the people with whom you feel safety, love, and a sense of home.

The next morning during breakfast, I began reading the beginning of a "terrifying novel" which had been laying among the French books and magazines sitting on the counter, a book called "Sleepwalk." I didn't get far when Jose- a Spaniard staying at the guesthouse- gave me a week-old newspaper with a five-page story on the tsunami. I hadn't really been thinking of the disaster, and this was sort of a belly-flop into its epicenter. And meanwhile, I still hadn't told Shai (the guesthouse manager) I was going to check out and stay with one of their competitors. I waited until I had all of my food, then used the excuse that Pakarang had a fishing trip and that, since it ended late at night, it'd be more convenient to stay there. In fact, that was partially true, but I always feel bad about leaving places and people: it's like you're telling them they're not good enough. I suppose it's all inevitable though, and you can't carry guilt for making a change, regardless of the impetus for it.

When I walked to Pakarang's reception area, I recognized Etta sitting with another girl, eating watermelon and pineapple, and smiling at me with bizarre scabs all around her mouth. It was grotesque, and she barely made any effort to hide it; I don't know how she could have, really. She had gotten my email the night before and had come to meet me, and alongside her was an English girl named Kate whom she met on the boat ride. I set my bags down and joined them, unable to stop staring at the sores on her face. Though I didn't ask, she brought them up, saying they had been there for about a week and hurt when she smiled. They also seemed to be spreading.

We all walked together around the rocks to the secret beach, and waded in the clear blue-green waves dappled in sun. I clicked with Kate, and wound up talking a lot more with her than I did with Etta, but Etta and I soon had lunch together alone. Kate joined us afterwards on the beach, and the three of us were soon enthralled by a sad game of cat and mouse: a dog vs. a very frightened crab!

The dog continually nosed in, trying to bite the crab as it skittered nervously around with its pinchers sticking straight up, and would jolt back- either startled or in pain- from the minor retaliations the poor crab could muster. Eventually, the crab attempted its obvious escape of burrowing into the ground, but didn't make it deep enough. The dog was determined, squeezing his nose into the hole and recoiling over and over again, only to finally dig him out with his paws. I was rooting for the crab all along, but then started feeling sad for this overly-curious dog. The crab scurried out like a robotic ballerina on her toes, and the dog was ready. He caught him in his mouth, but softly let go. Trying a second time with a little more confidence, he managed to fling him a little. I started cheering for the dog, but immediately realized the crab was in deep shit! He snared down on him again, and this time really twisted his neck back to let him loose, sending the crab flying nearly six feet to land awkwardly on the shore. His right pincher was now broken, hanging sadly and crooked. The dog- no longer interested- sniffed his way to a new location, and his defeated prey burrowed slowly into the wet sand.

The three of us headed to Kate's bungalow for some beers after a quick rinse in the shower, then had dinner. After our meal was my night time fishing trip, and Etta came along- it was wonderful! We picked up some beer, and walked carefully along a plank connecting the boat to the pier. The stars were brilliant in the sky, and seemed to move ever-so-slightly as we drove out into the ocean to cast our bait. We strung slippery squid onto our hooks, their ink like blood on our fingertips, and let them fly over our shoulders, splashing into the darkness beyond. I started getting bites immediately, and caught five or six fish within seconds of lowering my line! Maybe it was beginner's luck, but who cares: I was on a roll! I enjoyed it so much that I remained after we docked at midnight, fishing for squid alone on the pier. I only caught one and had problems with my reel, so I retired after a half-an-hour to sleep.

I spent today with Kate. For breakfast, we had tempura banana and pineapple with honey, along with two of the fish I caught last night fried to a crisp, and washed it all down with tea. She and I went to Paradise Resort's beach and played frisbee in the water, then swam and collected coral further along the bend. For lunch, I had a deliciously spicy curry soup with coconut, and she had Tom Yam (hot and sour soup). We then hiked to a village that made rubber from the forest trees, and saw the sheets hung to dry on lines near the beach. The sun was beginning to set and we gave up on trying to find a way to the scenic sunset point; instead, we got the shit scared out of us by an enormous hopping cricket on our path back through the bucket-adorned rubber trees, and dipped in the water to swim off the sweat.

Right now, I am reclining and looking at the lack of a horizon line, the reflection of the pier lights dancing in the ocean. Thai girls are speaking softly in the next room, the power generator is humming nearby, and occasionally a gecko punctuates its drone with its kiss-like call. There is no breeze and the water is completely calm- almost as calm as I.

*

I had dinner sitting at a table next to Etta's so I could be closer to the television, and prepared myself to watch that night's movie: "Alien vs. Predator." With me was Reagan and Elizabeth- a Canadian couple around my age who were spending their long honeymoon in Southeast Asia. Kate soon took a seat next to me, and we provided sarcastic commentary on the horrendous and predictable film, waiting an hour and a half before inquiring just where in the fuck the food we had ordered was hiding. It had taken nearly that long to be brought my drink- Oishi brand ice tea with condensed milk- and finally, a flustered and embarrassed employee took our order again. We enjoyed our meal entertained by karaoke videos (all of which were laughably irrelevant to their corresponding song lyrics) and then by a second feature film: "Elf," starring Will Ferrell.

It was amazing how warm and excited I felt seeing footage of New York City- its subway signs, taxi cabs, skyscrapers, businesses and citizens- and immediately became emotional and homesick. It didn't help that "Elf" is a sweet and touching movie, but we watched it intently and laughed out loud. Except for one other table, most everyone else had paid it no attention and gone to sleep.

Will Ferrell's character Buddy went on a date in Central Park to ice skate and look at Christmas trees, and I thought of Sarah- how I missed being able to do those things with her over the holidays. Then of course, the hilarious scene where Buddy accompanies his father to work and gets sent to the mailroom: "it reminds me of Santa's workshop, except it smells like mushrooms and everyone looks like they want to hurt me." And then the dwarf author who tries to help Buddy's father with children’s book ideas, only to be ridiculed by what Buddy doesn't realize are midget jokes. Finally, the touching climax of New York City regaining Christmas spirit, and Buddy, Santa, and reindeer silhouetted against the moon glowing over the caroling crowd in Central Park. I lay in my room alone, beneath the cocoon of my mosquito net, and had the first strong feeling that my trip was coming to an end... Yet with these memories of home, I almost began to welcome it.

In the morning I packed and once again waited far too long for my toast and pancake. Keeping me company was a South African named Simon who had been traveling for far longer than I had and who was eager to return home and work. Kate and I headed to the pier for our ten o'clock boat to Ko Kham, and I fell asleep on its deck with the sun beading sweat down my chest and back. Unbeknownst to me, an hour of rocking back and forth had gone by, and Kate wiggled my toe to ask if they knew we were, in fact, going to Ko Kham. I rushed down the back ladder to inform the boatsman, and his hasty U-turn answered her question and gave me a good laugh.

The island was tiny and beautiful. We got situated in our bungalows and rented snorkel gear and flippers, and then I realized I had stupidly left my sandals on the boat's top deck! I had removed them in vain as to not leave tan lines on my feet. It was no problem: the boat would soon return from Ko Mak, and I'd be able to retrieve them. Meanwhile, I found two books in English at the reception desk: "Total XS," a book about INXS' singer Michael Hutchence written by his brother Rhett who sandwiched the tale with his own boring junkie anecdotes, and ironically, "Morvern Callar," which I immediately claimed for my post-snorkeling afternoon.

Kate and I floated above green and yellow formations, ominous flowering spines of black sea urchin dotting the shallows like porcupine land mines, and followed silvery tetra schools to watch parrot fish dine on the coral. When Kate grew cold in her striped bikini, and when my goggles started giving me a headache, we lay on the beach, she reading her novel "Everything Is Illuminated," and I about Morvern. The book begins with her avoiding her boyfriend's dead body- sodden with blood in the "scullery"- and promptly heading to work at the supermarket. After a foursome that very night with two boys and her friend Lanna, she makes herself mixtapes by which she dismembers and buries him, then sunbathes on her rave holiday in Spain (paid for by a publisher's advance on her boyfriend's book she falsely claimed to write!). Besides her glaring dishonesty, Morvern Callar is my kind of girl, and I laughed thinking Sarah had dubbed me the movie's soundtrack right before I left.

With breaks for dinner and Backgammon with Kate, I read the novel solidly, reaching its conclusion under my mosquito net and listening to the generator humming louder than the insects, powering lights bleeding through the slats of my wooden bungalow. Only four more days, I thought... And today, I counted one more down, reading "Total XS" cover to cover in the sun, cooling off with short swim breaks. The same topless mothers surrounded me atop stretched sarongs- their babies and boyfriends nearby- and while boats brought small groups of tourists to what I decided was my beach, I ignored the camera-clicking crowds rather than let them get to me.

I am on my third and final beer right now. The breeze is blowing the patio's hanging lights back and forth. There are couples and families speaking Dutch, German, French, English, and Thai, and I am ignoring each incoherent conversation, allowing my eyes to close under the heaviness of alcohol and another day spent in sun. Tomorrow, I go to Ko Mak, and it's really out of necessity: I have to check email, pay a credit card bill, and just travel the short distance to another island before I make the day-long journey back to Bangkok. It's been nearly five weeks, and only three days separate me from home.

I had taken a break from reading today to daydream about my trip... If I thought the first two days in Bangkok felt like a welcomed eternity, they were now lifetimes behind me. I got tingles of excitement thinking of my plane's landing and the initial walk I took around Khao San Road, a place I would complain endlessly about yet still return to. Especially now, after making my last reservation at Green House (the first place I stayed), it feels like things are coming full-circle. I've tried not to think of home too much so I can remain entrenched in my current locale of sun, sand, and sea, but when you know something is coming to an end, you can't help but begin to let go. It's all a cycle, yet we are never the same upon our departures or returns. The trick is, we constantly look forward to both while honoring what fueled the desire for each: over and over again, it's growth, and then the need to share it...

*

I was awoken a little after 3 AM by the sounds of an island storm. I couldn't differentiate falling rain on the ocean from wind through the trees, all blending into one loud wash of sound which kept me awake. When I was able to slip back into a dream, a rooster decided to start the morning noise.

Brushing my teeth with the remaining water in my bottle, I had yogurt and a banana pancake with condensed milk for breakfast. I read a week-old Bangkok Post, then spoke to a lesbian couple who had just taken savings they had intended for a down-payment on a house in San Francisco and spent it on a year's journey around the world. They explained it was a "mid-life crisis"; I corrected them and called it a "mid-life adventure."

Under overcast skies, a boat took me to Ko Mak, where I ate an ice cream bar and waited for a computer to become available at the lab. I had a lot in my inbox, including two potential modeling jobs in NY. I didn't get to pay my credit card bill and even tried calling HSBC, only to learn I'd have to pay a fifteen dollar fee to do it over the phone! So, I did the most logical thing: got on a motorbike and sped off!

Down paved and unpaved roads colored gray and reddish brown, I sped through coconut plantations and rows of rubber trees, all lush from last night's rain. I found villages once again with rubber sheets hanging to dry, and little puppies standing guard. I rode faster and faster around bends, stopping to eat red curry and chicken in a coconut milk broth. I accidentally left behind my camera at the bungalow, and was upset I was unable to capture the imagery whizzing past me, becoming alternately brighter and darker beneath passing clouds. Feeling satisfaction from a long ride which left tiny black bugs dead on my chest, I returned the bike and indulged in a butterscotch sundae with scoops of vanilla, strawberry and rainbow.

I lay on the beach- the sun back out again just for me- then cooled off with a swim. I had some time to kill before the boat returned at 5 for a Swedish family and me. Once back at the island, I saw the lesbians leaving for a hike and decided to join them. The view was unimpressive and the path was both hard to follow and led nowhere; nevertheless, it was time well-spent. I enjoyed a nice dinner alone reading the New Yorker, finding I was being eased back into my life by the funny little twists many call coincidences. I had a couple of beers, and tucked my nose in my shirt to avoid cigarette smoke the breeze carried my way. And now, safely under the mosquito net in my bungalow, I am growing sleepy amidst the excitement of another dawn just beyond the horizon. I need to do something special tomorrow night: it's my last full night in Thailand.

*

The next day, I awoke to rain once again. By 7:15 I was brushing my teeth next to the toilets since it was the only area outdoors with a roof, then ate muesli (mispelled "moosley") with the lesbians and admired the rain. I wore my bathing suit and- not wanting to get my only clean shirt wet- wrapped my dirty towel around me, waiting for everyone to arrive for our boat ride and shivering ever so slightly. The clouds hung low in the sky, cloaking the forests of distant islands in thick, slowly changing grey shapes. The waves were choppy and pelted with raindrops, and the boat's exhaust swirled behind us. Three hours went by but all felt still as the sky reflected in the mirrored sunglasses of an Italian passenger next to me; time itself seemed like a reflection. We were nearly surfing the ocean at the mercy of the current. Once at the dock, we mounted a plank to connect our boat with another, but it slid back and forth precariously with waves that made both look like bobbing toys. I grabbed the hands of two men who helped me to cross, then scooted off in a sangthaew from Laem Ngop to the bus station at Trat.

Eating nori-flavored Lays chips and strawberry Pocky, I stepped on my bus to have my worst fears confirmed: the fucking air-conditioning was on full-blast and it was freezing! I put my jeans over my damp suit and slipped a sweater over my dirty shirt. I wrapped the two thin blankets in the overhead around me and tried to sleep across the seats in the back. Besides our break for lunch (I tried congealed blood for the first and last time), we drove solidly for seven hours, battling traffic on the way to Bangkok's city limits and losing terribly: we were practically at a stand-still. I tried moving the AC blowers away from me. It was futile.

I met an English couple around my age whom were both named Chris, and we shared a 3 and a half baht public bus ride to Khao San Road. I put my luggage away in my room at Green House, and walked downstairs to have a beer, write some emails, and watch Lindsay Lohan in "Mean Girls" out of the corner of my eye. I had another beer with dinner (at the place in front of Deep Bar) and listened to the music through its glass doors and windows. Especially since I was drunk, the one thing that had my curiosity piqued was the "special massage" parlors. You can choose your masseuse from behind a glass wall where they sit en masse, vying for your attention with waves, smiles, and hellos. I walked over to one of soldiers of the tuk-tuk army off of Rambutri, and told them what I wanted to see; being a tuk-tuk driver, of course he knew where to go. "No fucking, no sucking" I explained, and he looked at me almost incredulously. He asked, "Thai massage?"

"No," I replied.

I had heard of a bath massage where a guy sat in a hot tub, then two naked Thai girls sprung up from underneath and started massaging him. This, of course, was impossible to describe to someone who barely spoke English, so I just told him to take me wherever. "Beautiful girls," I said. "Ah, bootiful girl! Yes!" he beamed. "Same same."

Of course...

The first place was a Thai massage place that charged 1000 baht, and I walked in, then immediately out. "Beautiful girls," I repeated, and he took me to another spot. I was accosted by the manager as I entered. He grabbed me by the arm and led me to a viewing window covering the entire wall- floor to ceiling. And there they were: mediocre-looking girls all made up and wearing lingerie, all staring at me. "2000 baht," he announced. I just wanted to look, really, but started haggling him down. "1000 for an hour," I offered, and to this he laughed. "No, thank you." He shouted "1500" as I was on my way out, then rushed to me pleading, "OK, OK, 1300 baht." Nope. I walked in an identical place up the street and it was the same sad scene. I said no again and was followed out by another manager. "Beautiful girl," he said. Not really, I thought.

The final stop was a bar called "Star Dust." There was no viewing booth this time. All the girls- who were all finally good-looking (thank God!)- wore matching sky-blue dresses and sat on carpeted risers facing the tables. The manager told me the price of a beer (200 baht for a small!), and I asked what the story was with the girls staring blankly at me. "3000 baht," he said, and that's when I stood up. He started yelling at my tuk-tuk driver in Thai, and I was more than ready to throw in the towel and head back to Deep Bar. I had seen enough.

The bar was packed! I ascended the stairs amidst dancing and singing Thais and ordered a pitcher of Asahi for myself. I stood next to three nice bankers, one of whom spoke English really well while the others struggled or didn't try at all, and we raised our glasses again and again in cheers. They yelled along with the music, getting drunker with each toast. When the lights came on, they invited me out for more drinks and food, and the crowd filtered into the street. A tuk-tuk raced to our next destination, speeding in between cars and rounding corners a little too quickly.

I ordered a bottle of Sang Som for us, and snacked on soup with tofu, seaweed, blackened egg, hot peppers and cashews. Deep's staff joined us around the large table and, if you can't tell, I had too much to drink. The few L&M cigarettes I had didn't help matters much, but it was truly wonderful. I almost felt sad, my head spinning lightly with a permanent smile, sitting among those who were genuinely kind and going out of their way to welcome me into their circle. I wondered why we as westerners don't do that: when the hell would that ever happen in New York? God forbid you even talk to someone who's from New Jersey! I'm being sarcastic, but really, why is it different here? And it's not just Thailand- it's Asia in general. It's honestly a much different part of the world in many ways- ways I know I am going to miss. And it's something I thought about throughout my last day in rainy Bangkok.

I woke up to the light cloth curtains blowing as if in island wind, and I once again forgot where I was in my hungover haze. I showered to try and wake up a bit. I can't recall when I actually made it back to my room the night before; I just remember playing someone's guitar on Khao San Road and singing "farang, farang, farang" over and over again with an equally drunk Thai girl. The water was hot for a short while then sadly went cold, ending my basking a little prematurely. I dropped off my laundry next door, and bought a clean tee-shirt to wear, throwing away the black one I had worn for the last five nights in a row. It was drizzling and fairly cold, and erased any desire to walk around outside. So, I retreated to the Green House's lobby, won Tekken 4 as Law, then watched "White Girls" (with the Wayans Brothers) and "The Girl Next Door" with Elisha Cuthbert, who was somehow even hotter than she was in the first season of "24." The film was absurd, but nursing my hang over with a Heineken didn't make me too picky.

I ate lunch yet again at the place next to Deep Bar on Rambutri, sitting outside and feeling melancholy about my incipient departure. The street vendors fried noodles and cut vegetables, serving a mainly Thai clientele sitting on plastic stools; tuk-tuks buzzed noisily by, and the clamor of language filled in silences left between it all. I heard melodies broadcast from the opening door at a nearby 7-11, and watched more and more tourists burdened with huge packs walking in awe down the street, looking as wide-eyed as I had been upon arriving to the neon chaos of midnight on Khao San Road. I slurped coconut and lime soup, moving steamed rice to the side of my mouth with my tongue as I pulled out lemongrass and slices of galanga to place on the rim of my saucer. Flashes of my journey interrupted the "now" happening all around me, and letting them go while smiling in gratitude became meditative- the sweet and sour taste of my lunch the perfect companion for the yin-yang of my feelings, the bittersweet place somewhere between a tear and a smile.

I wrote at the granite tables outside of Green House and ignored the Akha women selling jewelry and skulking colorfully in the narrow passageway. My laundry was ready, and I placed the fragrant, folded items into my empty duffle, leaving in the florescent bits of yarn they used to distinguish mine from the rest. Becky and Montann decided not to join me at the Chatuchak Weekend Market, so I journeyed there alone at 5:30. It was almost dusk, and the labyrinth of candles, Hello Kitty paraphernalia, puppies, Buddha images, knock-off Diesel jeans and trucker hats was swarming with slow-moving shoppers. I found little things for Sarah and Jamie, then realized I only had 500 baht left in my pocket! I ran into Leila and her family picking out some clothes, and laughed at how seeing the same faces had become such a wonderfully inexorable pattern.

Outside in a brightly-lit open air restaurant, I ate a last meal of noodle soup, seated at one of the many tables crammed with baskets of green vegetables. Past the crowds surrounding sidewalk vendors spilling into busy streets, I descended to Bangkok's immaculate subway. Again, everyone around tried to help me get where I needed, or at least gave me a smile if they didn't understand. I departed only one stop later, and climbed the escalator steps to Central Plaza's elevated walkway. Once in the theatre, I bought popcorn and green Fanta, then watched "Meet The Fockers"- a sequel to a movie I've never seen ("Meet The Parents"). It was actually pretty funny and not too stupid after all (I had wanted to see "The Aviator," but it was too long and I would've missed my flight home!).

I took a public bus to the airport, feeling sad. Of course I was looking forward to being with Sarah and seeing friends, but I really wanted to stay. Things were just beginning to come more naturally and, besides not knowing the language and still being amazed by the Thai lettering on everything, I felt I was slowly fitting in and finding my way. It's always that way, isn't it? Endings do that to you. So, I paid a 500 baht exit fee and ate at KFC (the cheapest option in the international terminal). Besides, I had wanted to eat there all along. It was greasy and the sauce was bizarre, so I purchased some chocolate and banana Pocky and strawberry Lotte gum to mask the taste.

The sun is on its way up, leaving a rainbow across the horizon line and tingeing the edges of the rugged, snow-capped landscape. I have slept on and off. From Bangkok to Seoul, I could barely keep my eyes open and my throat felt sore from the aircraft's recycled air, but on this flight, I have had little time with my eyes closed. I read Time Magazine's report on happiness, ate gross airplane food and sipped pineapple juice, and watched "The Girl with the Pearl Earring." I should definitely close my eyes and remove the headphones softly playing "Classical Masterpieces," but I am too full of anticipation. I am scared of getting culture shock. I know it's going to be so strange stepping off the plane and feeling the cold air within the walkway, then groggily making my way to what will undoubtedly be an enormous customs line. But, wherever it may be after all the paperwork and logistics are taken care of, my eyes will dart wildly, looking for her looking for me; I get tingles just thinking about finally making eye contact and a smile. I've replayed it over and over again, and I know it'll still be different than it has been in my mind. There will still be spontaneity. It's actually going to be real instead of a daydream from the other side of the world....

And then, after whatever happens, calling my dad and hearing him smile, telling him I am safe and home. Who knows what the rest of this day will bring. We have an hour left in the air, and beneath a floor of clouds is a frigid Lake Huron. I want to dream and escape this last hour. I don't know what I'll focus on: the journey of my last five weeks, or the one awaiting me in the rest of time to come.

06 January 2005

(Pink Journal Excerpt - Thailand: Part 3)

Breakfast was a bagel with butter and jam, and I sat waiting for the bus to Chiang Mai with an Australian couple on their three-month holiday from "uni" (what they called university). The bus pulled up, and I did what any obnoxious New Yorker would do during rush hour: try his damndest to get a seat. And, I did, thank you! I got the one near the door, so I was somewhat able to stretch my legs out. The bus was beyond packed, and more and more continued to board, standing uncomfortably in the aisles. Near me was a nice French couple, a cool German girl who strangely had an Australian accent, and a super-square American guy with the kind of neck that negates the presence of his chin: just a triangle from his jaw to his breastplate. If he wasn't such an herb, I wouldn't have even noted this little detail. When he opened his mouth- about almost anything- he sounded like a naive puritan half his age and as socially inept as a caveman. In one of our pained conversations, he made it a point to differentiate a "french kiss" from a regular kiss. I am sorry, but the last time I heard someone say "french kiss" I was eleven.

The bus ride was long, and I split a sangthaew with him and the German girl, Maren, back to Rose Guesthouse. Maren and he thankfully found another place to stay, and I said I'd meet them at 7 to hang out, knowing full well I didn't want to. So, after showering and sending off some emails, I devised a plan to go to the movies either with- or preferably without- them. It's sad because Maren was nice, but triangle-neck square pants would ruin it. I ate a quick dinner, and planned to see the 7:20 showing of “Jaew,” a Thai movie about maids who were secretly spies. Pai warned me there were no English subtitles, but that was half of the fun! I was on schedule to leave but- Goddamnit! I had to take a shit, which proved to be the ten extra minutes I could've used as my getaway. They were downstairs in the lobby, and I immediately went to part 2 of my Plan A:

"I am going to a movie right now- in Thai- wanna come?"

They laughed, thinking I was kidding; obviously, I wasn't. Numbnut ribbit chin couldn't understand why I'd want to do such a thing, and Maren just looked blankly at me with a confused smile on frozen on her face. "I mean," America started, "it'd be fun to sit together and throw popcorn at each other, maybe even make up the dialog"

"Yeah," Maren lamely offered.

They were missing the point, and that wasn't their only problem.

"Well," I began, "I am going now, so..."

Neither of them had eaten, and I feigned disappointment before hopping in a tuk-tuk: it's just another chapter Mr. Triangle Neck's novel will be missing!

The movie was very cute and easy to follow, although the dialog and most jokes went over my head (the audience's laughter clued me in as to when I should laugh). There was enough to keep me entertained, and I loved the experience of seeing a Thai movie. Towards the end, I really wanted to catch a film in English to balance it out; since the price of a ticket wouldn't even buy a small popcorn or even Mike & Ike's back in NY, I felt it was time to splurge.

I figured I'd see “Ocean's Twelve” which might've been OK for $1.25, but there was too long a wait in between, so I settled on “Bridget Jones' Diary 2,” which was just beginning (I missed previews and the salute to the king). The opening scene was Christmas in London, with Bridget going through the snow to have dinner with her family. I immediately thought of home and how far away the holidays felt for me. I thought of families in New York and Chicago being together, and of course I thought of my family- how our Hannukah consisted of a phone call and a single Fed-Ex package containing gelt and a dreidel! It made me warm and really miss home and, for as corny as that movie turned out to be, that opening scene made it worth it. There were other moments as well: Bridget watching her boyfriend as he slept, and when they first said "I love you." I am a sucker for romance, even when it's between a bland-looking English guy and a fat Renee Zellweger.

But now, I am just soaking in the sun at a beautiful hotel pool next to Rose Guesthouse. The weather is perfect and it feels good to do nothing but relax. I'll take another swim, shower and check email, and probably get a massage. I am completely free, and knowing so feels as delicious as this sunshine.

*

My inbox was flooded with more emails and it made me feel so loved- everyone wants to know I am OK. Even the guy I did the radio spot for in Long Island- Tom [omitted], the CEO of the ad agency- emailed me personally! I finished writing everyone, then Ada, Krista and I went in search of a place to donate blood for the tsunami victims. We were too late but, as we later learned, they were only looking for RH-? I have never even heard of that blood type. I suppose it's like that woman at the motor scooter rental giving me the fake purple plastic helmet: it's the thought that counts. So, once again we had dinner at the food market and watched live Thai music, then navigated over to our favorite foot-massage spot with adjacent laughable entertainment from lip-synching lady-boys. With banana and chocolate waffles for dessert, we stopped at 7-11 where Krista and I bought Beer Chang for the road. If it was cold, I think it wouldn't have tasted so much like liver bile. I honestly don't remember it being so fucking awful before, and I really didn't need a beer.

We went to the guesthouse roof for drinking and good conversation: identity and lying about it (specifically about being American, Austrian, or Jewish), disabilities, death, and travel. Krista is such an interesting woman! Over dinner, I learned she had spent two years traveling all over Africa with forged car and insurance documents, and that she has now made travel her job! She's 46 and lives in the slums of Berlin for around 100 Euros a month (!), and works maybe 8-10 weeks out of the year, leading tours for mentally disabled adults. Other than that, she lives off the government, collecting unemployment, and takes voyages on her own 4-5 months out of the year. She had a boyfriend who couldn't take her being away all the time, so she's basically alone in this life. She goes to India and Thailand on a rotating basis each year, visits the Dalai Lama, and told us crazy stories, like how drinking hash tea in Afghanistan made her collapse from her chair and hit her head on the way to the floor, where she promptly shit herself. That one stuck out- everyone's most embarrassing moment does.

*

This was harder than I thought it would be. I just made it to Doi Pui summit, and am sitting on a log. The sun is on a downward curve, but nowhere near low enough where I'd get stuck doing that difficult path back down in the dark! There is no signage whatsoever. You're just intuitively following what has been walked a million times and, eventually, you hit dirt staircases with wood railings that let you know you're going the right way. Sort of like deja-vu: there's no map to any of this, and we follow along our own beaten path- the one which makes the most sense- and our soul has little hints along the way, even giving us a hand when the path becomes too hard. My journey in Thailand is a little more than halfway over, and appropriately, on the last day of the year, I've climbed a mountain alone, successfully.

It's time to keep going. There's much more to see, feel, taste, touch, smell, and respond to in the myriad ways we do. I've thought of some resolutions for the new year to come, and most involve things inside of me versus outside. I want to put more trust in others and lose some of the cynicism I have. I want to be less selfish and more thoughtful, more compassionate. I want to have a better relationship with my sister, and continue to have the wonderful one I have with my dad. I also want to continue feeling better each day about my mom being gone in the physical form, and get better at finding her all around me. Because, she is all around me, and I'm crying now but it feels good. The tears burn. I was meant to make this journey to Thailand alone, as nice as it would've been to have Olia join me. So much is changing in the world; so much is changing with me. I am independent, confident, and most importantly, I am in love. My last resolution is to make it work.

*

Oh snap! Oh damn! Pineapple shake! I fucking love fruit shakes, especially on the first day of the new year, washing down a banana pancake!

I was able to find Rose Guesthouse from my motorcycle last night, but initially wasn't able to find my motorcycle! I had gotten a ride in a pick-up truck after my detour on the Doi Pui roads proved futile, and retraced my steps back down the forest terrain. I cleaned up- which was mandatory by that point- and headed for a foot massage with Ada and Krista at our favorite spot. This guy was the best yet, and I practically floated to the food stand afterward to get hot and sour pork soup for 20 baht! I put a little too much chili powder in there and kept having to blow my nose, except it was already running from my cold anyway.

I had to leave Ada since she still hadn't been served, and rushed to The Hole in The Wall to see a bootleg DVD screening of “Closer,” the new movie with Jude Law, Julia Roberts, and Natalie Portman. I ordered a beer Chang and waited for them to turn off Michael Jackson's 30th Anniversary Special. After seeing “Closer,” I wished they had just left it on. It sucked so fucking badly I don't even know what to say. I kept waiting for one of the actors to break character and say "just kidding" into the camera, or even apologize! Maybe the director would walk on screen, throw down the script, and quit. It was all about cheating, breaking trust, and living a lie, and made it all seem so pathetic. All these issues that I feared in relationships, and of course with Sarah, were all written about so poorly it made it seem relegated to people who are unsure of themselves. And maybe that's what it is: if you aren't confident, or have major issues with yourself (Jude Law's character had trouble dealing with his mother being gone, and the other male lead was a textbook pervert), you will always have the wandering eye and probably be unfaithful. It's because you are looking to fill that void in yourself, and of course no one person can, so you jump from one lust- or what you think is love- to the next. The movie's tag line was "if you believe in love at first sight, you never stop looking." That's utter crap too! If it's real, why keep looking?

And so, I took a tuk-tuk to a nightmare of a party I had seen advertised all over town, and I should've known it would be a farang fest. I took one look around the shithole after paying a 100 baht entrance fee (at least it got me a tequila), swigged another Beer Chang, and walked outside to talk to the girl working the door.

"I want to go where there are Thai people, not farang."

A white girl was nearby, and she spoke Thai! She recommended a spot up the road and, with her accent, I thought she had said "Exxon." No- it was X-Zone, and was absolutely perfect. It was packed with hundreds of young Thais drinking and dancing, bathing in swirling lights and smoke. Everyone I made eye contact with smiled and said hello, raising their glass in a cheers to the new year, or even pouring some Sang Som or 100 Pipers from their own bottle into a fresh glass for me. There was live entertainment, sexy dancers and loud music, and eventually a hilarious lady boy. I was getting phone numbers from Thai girls left and right after their only question "what is name?" or "where come from?"

I got pretty wasted with one table of people whose names I had forgotten within seconds, and made my rounds both down- and upstairs. There was a huge balcony from which you could spy on people, and sometimes that was more fun than being in the thick of things. But, on one trip between floors, I met a girl named Monica with whom I spent some time, sharing a Heineken with 2 straws and then babysitting her when she started feeling sick. It felt good to be a person she could lean on, and I brought her water to help her sober up. It felt like a good thing to do on the new year: be of help to someone.

I made it to bed minutes before six after a long walk home. I awoke late, showered and had breakfast, and boarded a bus to Sukhothai. The air conditioning was on full-blast and it was freezing! I was blowing my nose every five seconds and had to use one of the blankets from the overhead bin to try and keep warm!

It was dark when I arrived, and my saamlaw driver took me to Lotus Village, a beautiful bunch of teak houses raised above a lotus pond on stilts. I nearly had a heart attack when I reached my room: my money belt had fallen out of my back pocket on the road and I didn't realize it until I had rifled frantically through both of my bags, thinking I had been robbed. But no, there- and fully intact- was my belt and all of its contents. Thank fucking God! It was 9:30 or so, and I wanted to explore the town. Walking up the street, I noticed a family sitting outside within their gate, grilling food and singing karaoke. I took a closer look at the song lyrics being highlighted on their television monitor, and they motioned for me to join them!

The man without the microphone said something to his wife, and she stood up to open the gate for me. I was given a seat, poured some whisky, and offered a plate! They spoke very little English, but I was able to communicate well enough and even sang the only song I knew in their system: "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee-Gees. I sucked and it wasn't even funny; they had never heard the song before so my joke made no sense. I just must've seemed like a total freak, drinking their whisky and eating their food as I stumbled through the words in a high falsetto.

I said goodbye and found an internet cafe nearby. Dad had written me an email about a recent encounter with our relatives. It was nothing different than his usual sarcastic remarks, but I was sitting there- the only person in the whole place besides two employees and a guy who had fallen asleep with his cell phone constantly ringing in his back pocket- and laughing out loud!

After trying unsuccessfully to buy cold medicine at 7-11, a guy on the street helped me find a small kiosk that sold four-pill packets of "Tiffy," a potent cold remedy that wound up doing the trick. The problem was, when I turned to go home, I had completely forgotten from which way I came! I walked in the wrong direction over and over again, circling around dark streets flooded with stray dogs without there being a single business still open (with the one exception of a night market nearby), dazed with my map which no one was able to read. I was only two blocks away from where I needed to be, and each time I made the embarrassing rounds past the same angry dogs, it seemed my guesthouse was somehow becoming further and further away. Finally, I decided to try something new: I was going to walk in what I had no doubt was the wrong direction- walk towards the lights and the fruits and vegetables, towards the people who know you have absolutely no idea where you are- and something good is bound to come of it.

What happened was no one understood the name of my guesthouse, couldn't read my map, couldn't even find themselves on the fucking thing, yet still looked at me with the same, genuine smiles on their faces. A woman pointed to an older and very small man kick-starting his scooter- he would take me there. Although he spoke no English whatsoever, he appeared confident, so I hopped on the back with my map. With my arms behind me, I held onto the metal seat handle as we bounced along roads nowhere near Lotus Village and, smelling liquor on his breath, I wondered just what in the hell I had gotten myself into this time. But, just like the other night in Pai riding with Lance, I trusted it.

After he took me to the wrong guest house (ironically the one I am staying in tonight) I knew his heart was in the right place. He couldn't make heads or tails out of my map, pointing with his skinny, dark finger and mumbling intermittently to himself in Thai, but in the glimmer of his yellowing eyes there was an idea. He drove in a direction we hadn't been in yet, and which even to my lost ass was clearly fucking wrong, but there were police there! Hallelujah! After much deliberation, we were on the road together again, this time on the way home...

I woke pretty early the next day and ate a delicious- albeit too expensive- breakfast at my guesthouse of coconut yogurt and muesli, and fresh mango, pineapple, and banana from the Sukhothai market. I got on a public bus that took me to the town's main bus terminal, and it was there I learned that the night bus I had planned on taking to Bangkok was full. Not only that, every fucking bus was booked until Tuesday! Luckily, there were still government-run buses, and I could show up the early the next day to board the first one out of town. I made reservations at another guesthouse- a place called Baan Thai- and took the next bus to the old city to continue my day.

The bus was packed, but not only with passengers seated on wooden benches stretching the length along the sides: huge bags of vegetables took up the entire center row, even infringing on our foot room underneath! I sat with an Italian father of two across from his family, and talked with him for much of our short ride there. His wife remarked something I've noticed again and again here in Thailand: the juxtaposition of modernity with ancient Thai life. In a rickety bus where we are forced to ride with vegetables, someone next to you is chatting away on their cell phone.

I rented a colorful mountain bike for fifty cents, and started pedaling around the ruins of Thailand's first capital: Sukhothai's old city. The weather and scenery were beautiful, with many temples now reduced to orange and reddish-brown stupas and bricks in the grass, surrounded with trees and shimmering waterways dotted with lotus flowers. People picnicked in the shade, their bikes in the grass, and I slowly rode by, smiling ear to ear. I took a route outside bordered by fields, small huts, and mountains in the watercolor distance, stopping only as a large herd of white cattle crossed the road to drink from a pond, kicking up dust clouds as the bells worn around their necks jangled peacefully in the breeze. I continued round a bend, walking up rock staircases to more temples which- though dilapidated- still maintained a sense of magnificence. At one point, a car honked at me as it rode past, and I slowed to a stop. The driver rolled down his window and his wife unloaded small green pears into my open hands! They smiled and drove on, and I shook my head, wondering why everyone in this town was so nice!

A girl wearing a Suicidal Tendencies tee-shirt served me a lunch of fried rice and pork, and I started up the road towards the new city and some of the temples outside of town. I saw nothing but really busted ruins, but kept pedaling until I reached a party with balloons, music, and a circle of men drinking rice whisky. They waved hello, and beckoned me over; of course I went. I parked the bike, removed my shoes, and had a seat on one of the blankets they had set out. I started sipping the whisky, and was given a chaser of water. I munched on chips I'd imagine were made from rice, colored pink, white, and light green. I didn't have much time to spend with them before I had to return the bike, but just enough for some whisky and a musical request of the young Thai girl's record (Nong Mai) which I wound up purchasing later that evening. We wished each other sawadii pi mae (happy new year), and I went to return my bike. A bug flew directly into my eye- the second time this has happened to me- and the woman at the bike rental wiped it from my eyeball with a piece of toilet paper.

Back on the bus, I was proud of myself when I recognized my stop, and hopped off to hear chanting coming from up the street. There was a small temple with cats running around, chasing each other and playing outside while four monks in orange robes led a few women in prayer. I saw a farang seated at the end, so I knew it was safe to take a closer look. I took off my shoes before kneeling in the doorway next to the edge of a woven mat on which the four non-monks sat, following along in their prayer books with hands clasped together underneath their chins. I took cues, bowed when they bowed, and kept my mouth shut. One monk had a microphone and slightly stood out from the others' steady harmony of worship, rising and falling with various vowel sounds. When it stopped, the young monk in the center spoke in broken English. He said what I soon realized was "meditation" and mentioned the tsunami. We closed our eyes, taking his direction to clear our minds. I thought first of a serene beach, then the violent crash of dirty waves and utter madness, then washed everything away, including all my other thoughts. I remembered meditation was not cleansing your mind by trying not to think, but instead a process of observing your thoughts and letting them go, just as you let your breath in and out.

I went to a couple interesting places in that short time which I hadn't been in years: I was at the house on Ridge where Jason lived before meeting Megan- the house opposite 2018 Pratt Court that Jacob, Ryan, and Jacob Brown shared the year prior. I thought of that time- if only briefly before letting it go- and felt warmth. The monk then asked that we imagine our mind sleeping, snoring even. I concentrated on the color of my eyelids, and thought of sleep with my mind's breath sounding as it entered and released. And I remembered the sound of my pulse amplified in my pillow at night, how it sounded like footsteps in a cotton cave.

The session soon ended and everyone left except for the young monk and the other farang: a German boy, also 27 years old, named Florin. We asked few questions, mainly allowing the monk to tell us whatever he wanted. It was obvious he wanted to practice his English. The cats scurried about, pouncing and wrestling each other, then relaxed while being pet by one of us. Kittens tugged and chewed my backpack's straps, knocking over bottles of juice left for Buddha to roll them around with their paws, and the monk continued to speak with the same calmness- completely aware, but appearing oblivious. He only concentrated on his thoughts and did his best to translate them into words Florin and I could understand.

I asked if he missed his family (I had to explain the concept of "missing someone" to him), and he replied yes. He only saw them once a year, and seldom called. He explained there was only one telephone in his hometown of farmers and, when it rang for you, you had to walk to it to have a conversation. He was only 25 years old, but had decided he was ready to be apart from the world and those he loved so as to be closer to Buddha. Or, was this then becoming closer to everything?

I grabbed my stuff at Lotus Village and checked into my new room at Baan Thai, passing what seemed to be everything to do in town along the way: nothing. It was quiet with a few food stalls seating people on small chairs, a market, internet cafes, and one bar next to the 7-11. I ate some soup and wrote, and had no problem indulging in some banana rotii up the street. A woman with very crossed eyes made it for me, and four Thais drinking cheap whisky sat behind her. When I was served, they invited me to join them. I find it painfully ironic that while Sukhothai's people are the most eager to speak to you, they simultaneously know the least amount of English out of any province I've visited! I drank with them for a while, and finally pulled out my Lonely Planet, pointing to phrases in the back so I could hear how they were pronounced. They did offer to take me dancing outside of town, but they seemed too drunk to drive and I had to get up early the next morning anyway. So, I went to 7-11 and got a delicious, buttery lemon-flavored cake, and returned to my guesthouse. An old man in a wool hat was sleeping outside my room. I don't know if he worked there or not, but we nodded goodnight, and returned to our respective slumber.

I gave in and took a tuk-tuk to the bus station (fuck it, it's 75 cents!) and purchased my bus ticket to Bangkok. I got a strawberry yogurt, some purple cookies, and these sesame and seaweed flavored "nuggets" which bordered on inedible; it's a good thing we stopped for lunch, but my lunch was crap, too. Something earlier had given me cramps and gas, and I didn't care enough to hold it in on the bus ride.

Once in Bangkok, I blew past the tuk-tuk drivers, barely making eye contact, and it felt so good- like being at home! The guesthouse in Pak Chong was full (I decided to skip Kanchanaburi and head straight to Khao Yai), so I had some time to kill in Bangkok before leaving the next day. I also had been wearing the same clothes for three days and, not surprisingly, hadn't showered either. A tuk-tuk driver asked "where you going?" I looked him dead in the face and said "to the metered taxis up there."

And why I headed directly to the area I complained about the most- well, asides from Patpong- I don't quite know. Maybe just because it's familiar…

*

I decided to pamper myself today. I already had my swim trunks on since my laundry situation had reached a state of emergency, so I thought I'd use them! I started walking towards D&D Inn to see if I could use their swimming pool, and ran into Clara and Amy (from my trek) on Khao San Road! They had spent a shitty New Year in their hotel watching “Harry Potter,” and I told them about mine. They recommended I go to their old place which had a spa, so I did. For 200 baht, I swam in a rooftop pool with elephant head statues spitting water at me and, for another 250, steamed and used an amazing sauna at the spa! The massages were too expensive, so I found another cool place after I cleaned up. For 250 baht, I got the best oil massage I've had yet, and I just ate a delicious dinner of coconut soup with pork (Tom Kha) and an orange shake. The two Israeli girls just walked by and we talked for a moment. How does everyone I've met come back into my life in such a huge country? What are the chances? And what are the chances I'd even look up from writing at that precise moment they crossed my path? In this shrinking world, where less and less has been surprising me and irony seems to be an everyday occurrence, I guess those chances are, well, not even "chances" at all: they are promises.

I walked upstairs to Deep bar (right next door to where I had dinner), and was invited to sit with two tables of Thai kids who were partying pretty hard. They had gone through 4 bottles of Dewars and were on their fifth, and also had Bacardi and a pitcher of Asahi. I don't know how I got away with not paying for anything other than the Beer Chang I bought when I came in, but I really can't complain. These kids- mostly nurses- spoke English really well and it was refreshing to have a real conversation! One really drunk guy was a soldier, another was a finance lawyer, and one of the girls was an MC- a presenter for different functions. We drank quite a bit as the band downstairs played cover versions of popular Thai songs, and everyone sang and danced along. There were no other westerners in the spot, and I closed it out before wandering out drunk to people-watch.

One mediocre looking blonde stumbled out of Khao San Center with one of their glasses and was chased down with a plastic cup. She was oblivious to her mistake and, in a thick English accent, pleaded "let me drink it!" They poured it into the plastic cup for her, and she nearly fell over turning around to make her way up the street. I'd say "walking," but that would be too generous. She was mumbling, "I need my boyfriend." "Is he here with you?" I asked. She said he had gone to get food and told her he'd come back. I would've told her the truth- that he was most likely getting sucked off by some lady boy- but I didn't think that would've helped her situation much.

I was accosted by prostitutes as usual, and actually shoved one older, pockmarked bitch pretty hard who tried grabbing my penis as she said "massage, massage, hello." I would've told her to fuck off and leave it at that, but she literally blocked me on the street as if she were playing defense, so a good, healthy push was in order. I could've body-checked her, but perhaps that would've been going a bit overboard.

I got back at three and tried unsuccessfully to get Hotmail working on one of the computers as drunk Israelis watched reruns of "Friends." I am sorry, but that show is such garbage! I gave up 40 minutes later and passed out, waking up this morning forgetting I was in Bangkok, and with a splitting headache and stomach cramps. Now I'm fine- a little hungover, but fine- on my way to Pak Chong, watching a karaoke video that's pumping cute music throughout the bus, and drinking Pepsi that a little stewardess just brought around. I also just ate what was quite possibly the best Dunkin Donuts' donut ever made. It was glazed pink with a white flower, and tasted like strawberry candy. I am going to overdose on sugar. If the Pepsi and donut don't do it, it'll be this music....

*

I nearly slept through my stop, and easily would have had my neighbor from the next seat over not tapped me on the back. I got on another bus after buying a snack at 7-11, and rode to Green Leaf Guesthouse. I walked past a bunch of people seated out front and was shown my room. It was definitely the nicest yet: a big, comfortable double bed, a washroom, and a separate bathroom with a shower- albeit a cold one I never used.

I ordered lunch and it was totally tasteless. I suppose it's my fault for ordering it "medium spicy," but it was just diluted crap for tourists. There were two women sitting nearby, and I asked about the tours offered through the guesthouse. As my luck would have it, they were 1 and a half-day tours, and the half-day would begin in only twenty minutes! My timing was perfect!

We all loaded up into a sangthaew, and our group immediately got along famously. There was a very-much-in-love Polish couple, Monica and Matt; an older English couple, Peter and Lynne; 2 women from England, Fiona and Faith; and what I thought were a mother and son that turned out to be a couple: a kiwi named Dave and his girlfriend Renee. We first went spelunking in very pretty caves and ate tamarind from the trees outside, seeing bats and Buddha images inside with flashlights and sparse florescent lights illuminating our way. And then, over dusty roads that forced us to cover our faces with whatever we had, we drove to cornfields to see bats flying in perfect waves out of an adjacent cave. We were able to use a telescope to magnify what looked like a black, watery wave exiting the cave's mouth.

The sun began to set, so we soon returned to the guesthouse for dinner. Most of us showered- I didn't- and came to the table complaining about how cold the water was! I just sat drinking, talking to Lynn and her husband Peter. Soon, the rest of our group joined us, and we were finishing our beers and drinking Mekhong and Pepsi courtesy of Matt. I was getting pretty toasty after 2 large beers and whisky, and Fiona had mentioned a couple karaoke spots up the road. I convinced everyone (except Monica and Matt who had since gone to bed) to come out for another drink and some singing. Besides, at the time, it was only a little past nine.

The karaoke bar was small with an elaborate mural on the stage. With the exception of three, all the songs were in Thai, so immediately we realized it would be more of a voyeuristic evening. The problem was that there was really no one else in there! I sang "Black Magic Woman" and brought the house down with a mouth guitar solo. I also improvised another song I had never heard before and don't really remember- something about "sexy, naughty, bitchy" and being a "rebel against monogamy." By this point, there was another table of Thais in addition to the two girls who had joined us and sang the Nong Mai song about carrots per my request! I was drunk and slap-happy, laughing out loud at the table's singing and what sounded like commentary about the songs themselves. At half-past eleven, I was on my way to bed, and fell asleep quite easily.

This morning, I had scrambled eggs, toast with butter and jam, and fresh fruit. Peter was having chest pains, so Lynne and he unfortunately stayed behind. Another ten people were going along on the same tour, and they tried to split our group up for the drive to Khao Yai. We stuck together, even ignoring the people from the other group for the most part. We stopped for too long when our guide spotted parakeets flying about and a snake slithering its way out of a hole in a tree. The other group had binoculars and were equipped for this sort of thing; we clearly weren't. Regardless, the beginning of our day was spent spotting birds and monkeys in the forest and involved very little walking.

We came upon a tree whose roots seemed to extend into the sky and, with the verbal guidance of our guide, I climbed them and then descended from the inside to the forest's floor using the roots and vines! I was scared out of my mind. On the way up, I was grabbing onto very little at times and sticking my gym shoes into crevices suggested by the guide when I couldn't find my own way. I was getting higher and higher from the ground, and it occurred to me- as Matt politely pointed out- that, if I fell, I'd "only die." What was I thinking? In reality, it was quite dangerous, and when I rounded the tree to climb down its insides, I thought for sure I'd fall and break my neck. I had to lean against a branch that reached the floor, using it as support as I went down facing forwards. As much as I enjoyed it and started trusting it more and more, my feet wanted nothing more than to be on the soil rather than half-twisted in shapes created by the tree's gnarled roots! I hit the ground and sighed relief- I couldn't believe I had done it!

Following some more bird-watching and a short hike through a field, we reached a tower where we relaxed for lunch. We were all hungry and tired, having eaten only a snack of sticky rice and coconut custard. I was almost dizzy, and couldn't tell if it was from fatigue, hunger, or leftover fear from my climb! I lay in the dry grass and closed my eyes until being rudely awoken by an ant biting my fucking neck! The bite immediately swelled into a nice red bump, and I exacted swift revenge, crushing the ant into the ground.

We went to a beautiful waterfall next- the one used in "The Beach"- and Matt and I swam in its frigid pool. I accidentally smashed my knee on a rock in my eagerness to dive in, and swam out to be pummeled by the waterfall's cascading drops, letting the cold numb my pain. It didn't stop the blood though, and Fiona gave me a band-aid back at a small cafe where we shared hot chocolate, peanuts, and a disgusting trail mix made with dried fish.

Moving on, we stopped for the sunset and slices of watermelon at a vista point, then attempted a night safari- from within our car! A wild elephant came out onto the road and ran after us, and it soon became a game: we'd scream at the driver, half-scared and half-excited as we drove quickly away from it, then throw the car in reverse to head back for photos which never wound up turning out. We'd all push closely together, or hold our cameras out beyond our view and snap blindly away in the dark. At most, we'd catch his eyes shining from his dark mass of flesh, but generally, it was one of our elbows, hands, heads, or a pole from our bus in the frame; it was hilarious. And, as we drove freezing in the open air, we laughed hysterically at seeing what we joked were the same animals over and over again, walking to their next scheduled location. The stars were bright and drowned the night sky in constellations viewed with our heads upside-down.

I drank hot tea back at the guesthouse, and since its food was such crap, neither I nor anyone else wanted to put up with it again. So, we walked up the road to the German-owned "Garden Lodge" with cars and trucks passing way too quickly on our right. I had beef soup, fries, and a chicken sandwich, and none of it was that bad! Matt and Monica were pissed about their pork and potatoes being cold, but everything else was otherwise fine. The group really gelled, and that's what made this day and a half in Khao Yai so wonderful. Right now, I hear distant karaoke coming in loud and clear, and I have no choice but to let it lull me to sleep.

*

I am on the road now, sitting behind the seats of Lynn & Peter's pick-up truck and heading to Trat, hoping we'll make it in time for the last ferry to Ko Chang. It's not quite noon yet, but we've already had a little lunch from 7-11: a mass-produced tuna sandwich on white bread which had an almost chemical aftertaste, my favorite nori seaweed-flavored Lays potato chips, some yam and peanut chips, and an orange drink containing floating bits of jelly. When we stopped at a bank, Peter pulled out his iPod and of course I was curious as to what was on it. I was stunned: Queens of the Stone Age, Radiohead, Coldplay, Primus, The Charlatans, The Stone Roses, The Strokes, and fucking Interpol's new record!

I sat for a little while back in the car, looking out at the passing fields, trees, mountains, Thai signage, and the small markets of small towns' lazy days, and started feeling so emotional. Listening to "Narc" and "Not Even Jail", I thought of the wintry home I am halfway around the world from now. I thought of Jamie doing yoga in the morning or cooking kale with some brown rice for herself and Eric, or coming home in her clown outfit with painted rosy cheeks to match her polka dots. And I thought of the people at Gilda's Club, maybe because I had so often listened to that music to and from our Thursday night sessions, but more likely because they are such constant and important characters in my life back home. And as we wove into oncoming traffic to pass the slow open-air vehicles or trucks with no brake lights, of course I thought of the one person whose always been on my mind, and just felt the warmest melancholy: the type of heaviness that stems from longing, but also from the appreciation, gratitude, and love which comes just before tears of joy. Music can make the furthest things away feel so close.

And now the sun is setting over the southern beach of Ko Chang, and I am relaxing in a hammock with a beer Singha, grateful the world is so small and that this journey has been nothing short of magical.