Shitbus to Bangkok


We get reservations in the morning for a bus from Krabi to Bangkok. We find an internet café to make online reservations for the Maxx hotel (their rack rate is $40 but it can be had on the net for $20), but it takes a day to confirm, so we’ll show up and play dumb. We take boat to Krabi, which leaves late because of stupid loading – every passenger had to get on and off the boat by climbing over a rail with their luggage. (In Bangkok, it was the opposite problem: if you don’t get on right away, it’ll take off without you.) At Krabi we get on the bus and it stinks. It smells like a public toilet. They gave a moistened towellete with a glass of water, and I held the perfumed towellette to my nose the entire three hours it took to get to our first stop, Surat Thani. The bus stopped for a half-hour for dinner, and Elif and I started asking the Thais to empty the toilet on the bus because it stank up the whole bus. The rest of the bus passengers, mostly tourists also, were complaining the whole ride down about it but when it came time to do something about it, it was left up to Elif and I. The response was Thai: nobody wanted to do the dirty work. The drivers wanted the helpers to do it, and the helpers wanted the drivers to do it but the drivers were taking a shower, and Elif was saying that we needed a clean bus, not a clean driver, and when everyone returned, their main strategy was to say over and over that they would empty it at the next stop, which was six hours away, when someone else could do it for them. At that point, I loudly announced that the bus would not move unless the toilets were emptied right here, right now, and that Elif would get in front of the bus and I would get behind and the bus was not going to go anywhere. They looked at me and I said, come on, let’s see you empty and clean the toilet, right now. And again it worked.

On the bus was a 21-year-old kid from Fairfield, and not from the Warde side of the tracks. He was like the American Scooby in “Happiness” – a 21-year-old stoner who’d burned out of Fairfield Prep and went to some boarding school upstate where he was able to smoke more pot away from his parents. His dad’s a real estate king who bought his kid into Georgetown, where he graduated with a Sociology major. His mom’s a macrobiotic nut. The kid wants to play golf, caddy, be around golfing. I told him my story which amazed him. He got as a graduation gift a $5000 check to see the world. His favorite place was New Zealand where he loved the tourist industry – the concrete Alpine slides, the bungee jumping. He loved the Full Moon Party at Ko Pha-Ngan and took too much ecstacy there. I then told him the best advice I could say is not to jerk off your twenties.

Th 4/11

We get into Bangkok at 6AM and have trouble getting a cab to the Maxx Hotel for any amount of money. We arrive and tell the front desk we have internet confirmation but no printout. Of course we’re not in their system, but we pick up our bags they’d held for us (mostly a heavy marionette we’d bought 2 weeks earlier at the Weekend Market) and they gave us rooms anyway, but we have to go to a net café and print out our reservation to prove to them that we have the cheaper rate.

We shower up and go to the National Museum. Since we arrived on a Thursday, we got a free tour. We had a choice, Buddhism or Thai Art, and we chose the latter. What I liked most about the pace is the museum buildings themselves, which were built in 1782 as the palace of Rama I’s viceroy. But because teak warps in a tropical climate, they’re apparently always working on roof tile or something – high-maintenance stuff.

From there we took a cab to Wang Suan Phakkat, and I fell asleep in the cab. I woke up when we arrived and when I got out I realized I’d left my Lonely Planet guidebook in the cab, which really sucked because in it I wrote all my notes from various museums – stuff I’d learned about the kalas and the nagas and Ganesh and Airvata and Air Jordan and all this knowledge lost to the ages. The whole time I was at Wang Suan Phakkat, I was pissed about my missing notes. The place was a collection of five traditional wooden Thai houses with art, antiques and furnishings. They had no a/c and it was of course over 100 degrees outside, but they gave you cute wooden fans to keep. Although there were some nice displays, it wasn’t nearly as special as Jim Thompson’s house.

From there we walked to the Bangkok Doll Factory. We asked a guy directions, and he ignored us and walked away, as if he were Italian – but then he got in his car, started it, and drove us there. Very, very nice. The place was in the middle of nowhere; the dolls weren’t that special but we were the only tourists there, of course, and we got to see people making them by hand, which impressed me but not Elif and Dilek, as Kadri had done that with Elif and Dilek for about fifteen years in what was once Turkey’s biggest toy factory.

We walked to the luxurious Siam Square shopping mall, passing lots of Ghost Houses on the way. (Those are little dollhouse-like structures adjacent to houses and hotels where the evil spirits are supposed to reside instead of bugging the real house). At Siam Square we printed out our hotel reservations at an internet café. Then we went to their food court and ate lunch. Elif and I had sushi; I didn’t want it, as we’d just had it three weeks before the first night we were in Bangkok and I wanted to try some other stuff, but she was really jonesing for it, so sushi it was. I had a lemongrass drink, and that was so good I went back and got a cherry drink, which was also wonderful.

We called Dilek’s sister Ilknur on Dilek’s cell phone to make sure Meow Meow was still alive. Ilknur said she was and again gave Elif a “when are you coming home already?” evasive kind of talk. This was the third time Ilknur sounded weird, so Elif asked her to spill it already. The news was that the first Friday we left for Thailand, Dilek’s cleaning lady came in to clean her office as she does every week. She turned on the sink and no water came out. (Power and water outages are common here and have nothing to do with the weather). She locked up and left. Monday morning, the rest of her office complex came in to work to find 32 tons of water flooding the place. And Dilek will come home to face a $8000 bill for the damage (a half-year’s wages; no insurance). Cos said nothing, pondering it like a judge. Dilek is hiding half her money from him in a separate bank account, because he’s impulsive like a child and will spend it on toys. Cos still said nothing to console her or talk about what they’d do. Finally, his ruling: “This all happened because we went in so many non-Moslem temples.”

We went back and swam.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Godless in Krabi and Ko Lanta

Islets in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
Image via Wikipedia

The longtail boat took us through Phang-Nga bay today, which was wonderful. We saw a cave with thousand-year-old paintings. We saw limestone cliffs, took the boat between them, went in and saw some more caves (at Kao Tapu and Tham Lod), where we walked barefoot through water to see amazing stalagmites and stalactites and got eaten by bugs. I swam through the cave at Ko Panak, which was shallow and idyllic, but the bottom was slimy so I had to swim flat. They then took us to Ko Ping-Kan, where they filmed the James Bond flick Man with the Golden Gun. (It has a cool teeny island offshore which is long and narrow coming up from the water, then getting flat and wide up top, like a spike fallen from the sky.) The tour ended at 4, and we took a bus to Krabi, and from there a tuk-tuk the 24km to Ao Nang. It started to pour, and we were getting soaked, but we were actually able to bargain the driver down. We got to our hotel, set in, and then heard that Dilek had a nasty fight with the hotel owner. I thought, here our Mediterraneans go again, but what happened is pretty funny: brown sludge was coming up from her shower drain, covering the bathroom. She called the manager on duty, a woman who saw it and said “Ew!” and handed Dilek a plunger to clean it herself, as she didn’t want to touch it. Dilek, who knows little English and less Thai, managed to tell her to do it herself. She called two young men who came and didn’t want to do it either. So Dilek turned the shower on and soaked the manager. She ended up with another woman; when we got to the lobby, the manager was soaked, which was great. Because we were with the lower life-form that is Cos, we ate another Italian dinner, but it proved to be surprisingly good. We walked along the shore of Ao Nang. It’s developed, catering mainly to Swedish tourists (!), but the development is a block off the shore, mercifully, the facilities are nice, and the place had a good vibe. We went into many places that had snorkeling or island tours, but they were all agents of the Barricuda Company monopoly, and all were charging the same. But we found an incredibly helpful tour guy who gave us advice for the rest of our trip. His take was that the Similian islands were expensive and hard to get to and better for diving than snorkeling, and there’s a western storm coming this week that’s muddying the waters so don’t go; and that off the eastern Gulf of Thailand it’s all overdeveloped and not for us, but that, since Songkran (the Thai New Year) is coming up and transportation will get iffy, we should just pick a place and stay there. Which place? He grinned, took out a map, and pointed us to these two little islands south of Ko Lanta, called Ko Rok. He said Lanta’s developed but from there you can get boats to Ko Rok, and that’s his “love.”

Su 4/7

We took a huge speedboat to Ko Mai Phai (Bamboo Island) which was actually closer to Ko Phi-Phi than Ao Nang, but the speedboat whipped us there in an hour and a half. Snorkeling was great, and the real surprise and treat was that Elif was able to snorkel. There’s something erotic in sharing something beautiful and new with your spouse after being together for a long time, even if that something isn’t intellectual. I was thrilled she could snorkel, as her experiences with it in the States were miserable – she found the gear so uncomfortable on her face and in her mouth that she’d vowed never to do it again. She loved it. We saw amazing fish and coral.

We got back to the hotel and I asked the night manager for a blanket. She said, no, only one per room. I don’t know what’s happening with the hotels south of Bangkok, but this woman is going to give me a blanket, period. I pointed to all the room keys she had and said, the hotel’s not sold out. You’re giving me a blanket, now. She said nothing. Then I used an Elif trick: I said, Right now, let’s see you get up and get me one, now. And she got up and got me one.

M 4/8

We took a songthlaew to Krabi and had breakfast. The café owner served us rose-flavored tea, which we admired, so he gave us a free box of it. Very sweet guy. There were touts everywhere outside, like flies. Where you going? Where you going? We walked past them and got a boat ticket to Ko Lanta, which was run by a monopoly which was charging the same price as the touts. On the boat we met a Republican couple, Kevin and Margaret. They were in their late 30’s, from Atlanta. Kevin was a management consultant and was very rich. He was tan and had a thick neck, carried a fishing pole and smiled a lot, reading some junky novel, telling us about how luxurious the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok was. At $200 a night it’s supposed to be the finest hotel in Asia, or something. Margaret is a pale, pretty-but-fading-fast southern belle who works for the congressman who replaced Newt Gingrich. She told me tales of Newt’s genius and of his lechery, especially his fondness for fucking and firing his interns. She really admires her hard-working boss and got the job from an old college connection, combined with just showing up and good timing. She said she didn’t care whom she worked with as long as it were Republican – “a Democrat just wouldn’t fit my lifestyle.”

Ko Lanta is really two islands, the small round Lanta Noi in the north and the banana-shaped Lana Yai in the south, which is the main island. Lanta Yai is much bigger than we expected – it’s 27km long. The pier is in the northwest tip, and the main coast is the west coast. The place was a tourist hell. We got off the boat and it was a mob scene. The pickups were all in front of each other, and the only way to get to a bungalow was to follow a tout into a truck. We wanted to go to the bungalows at Lanta Marine National Park View; Lonely Planet said it was far down the coast, way to the south, and the last half would be unpaved, but it would have the best beaches. So we piled in and there were a dozen people in the back of this little flatbed. It was hot, the road was indeed unpaved, and my knees were up against my chest – but the worst part was that, since Elif and I were against the edge, the red dust from the road covered us with red – our clothes, hair, mouths, everything. Elif got it the worst by far. The bungalow was a disaster. Our bedsheets were stained; we asked the petulant girl at the front desk for new ones, and she ignored us and kept putting on makeup, looking in her mirror. The hot water wasn’t working, and we were informed that there was no other places with even broken hot water on the island, so we shouldn’t complain. After awhile of getting no new sheets, we took our bags and left. We walked south along the beach and found bungalows available at the Kantheng Bay View Resort for about $5 per night, and they were fine. We checked in and I discovered that it was run by a Moslem family. A really intense looking teenager asked where I was from and I said, I’m American and my family is from Turkey. I was feeling sick of lying that I was from Turkey. He asked if I was Christian. I said no. He asked if I was Moslem. I said no. He asked what I was. I said nothing. He looked angry. No God? He asked? I said I find religion very interesting. He spoke in Thai to the girl next to him. What he said sounded like, “If we kill this infidel, we will both be blessed.” I took my leave of the fine couple and went to swim with Elif. The waves were tremendous. My favorite part was the pier: it was made entirely out of rubber, so it swayed up and down like crazy on the waves – we were running and jumping and dancing and laying on the pier, and it was like being on that bridge that collapsed in Oregon in the 1920’s.

We came back and tried to make reservations for the Ko Lanta speedboat to go snorkeling tomorrow. Other members of the Family pulled us aside and said, the speedboat’s fast and everyone takes it, but if you come with just us, it’ll be just the four of you; it’ll cost $2 more per person and it’ll take an hour-fifteen instead of forty minutes to get there, and it’ll be by longtail instead of speedboat, but you’ll be able to be alone and do what you want, and snorkel all day if you like instead of spending half the day swimming. That sounded fine with us.

We walked over to the infamous $600/night Pimalai Resort and Spa to check it out and have a laugh at their dinner menu, and to our great surprise the food is the same price as at our $5 bungalow next door: about $7 per entree, but upscale cuisine by candlelight on the beach with a shockingly-good Mariachi duo. We loved it. The service was very fine. We ate and listened to the duo and the waves.


We had breakfast at our bungalow, which tasted like shit and was served by my Islamic terrorist friend. The snorkeling at Ko Rok was fantastic, every bit as good as the guy at Ao Nang promised. The two “guides” on our longtail boat were very nice, as was the provided box lunch. We not only saw a great variety of multicolored fish and multicolored coral, but the setting was especially fine. My favorite was the fluorescent holes in the coral that quickly close its mouth shut if you moved your hand near it. While we were snorkeling, Dilek stayed on the boat and watched our guide get some Thai stick from another boat that pulled up. According to her, they smoked it out of a giant bamboo bong that went into the water. They took us to a beach that had a Buddhist shrine of many linga – wooden penises everywhere. They had a blowgun and speared a fish underwater. Cos fought with Dilek on the boat and rolled his eyes to the heaves, saying “Allah Allah!” (Oh my god, what a woman I’m with!) At which, our two guides shouted and whooped with delight. “You’re Mus-i-lim! Mus-i-lim!” – as if we said we rooted for the same soccer team as them. They were already nice to us, but after that they were very, very nice.

We got back around 4, and Elif and I hitchhiked to the pier to attempt to get VIP bus tickets to Bangkok. Everything above 2nd class was sold out because of Songkran. In the street, Abdul was selling crepes. He was wearing a skullcap and did not smile at us. We ate a chocolate fried banana sugar crepe that was out of this world. Then we tried to get back to our bungalow. Nobody wanted to take us. It was 27km and unpaved, and I realized that the only people that really go there are the pickups that take the twice-daily boat-drops of tourists from the pier, and that’s it. We asked all the taxis and no one would take us. I pulled bills out of my wallet, but bills don’t really interest the Thais when the Thais don’t want to do something hard. Finally we find a motorcyclist who’ll take us there for $8. I’m in the middle, Elif’s in the back, we’re squeezed on, and it’s scary as hell. It’s the first time either of us had been on a motorbike and the road is terrible and he’s driving fast and it’s wonderful. Elif said that many times she had to hold on with all her might to not fall off. We have dinner again at the Mariachi restaurant.

Enhanced by Zemanta

A Muslim Fecal Fishing Village

James Bond island, Thailand
Image via Wikipedia

Well, we woke up and had a nice fight with Ooi Shie Ching, the manager of the Imperial Hotel. We complained that there was no hot water, brown sewage came up from the tub, and there was rat shit all over the side of the tub, which we hadn’t noticed at 1 in the morning, and we’d like half our money back. She went upstairs to inspect it herself, and came down to announce, that’s not rat shit, it’s bug shit. Elif did not take this kindly and Ooi offered to call her good friend at the tourist police who could side with her if we wished. Elif yelled some more and Ooi said Elif was the rudest person she’d ever seen. Elif asked her to repeat herself and the woman got a little flustered, which gave me the opportunity to lean over and ask, what did you say to my wife. Say it again, I want to hear it. We left saying all the nice letters we’d write to the guidebooks, etc., and took a bus to Phang-Nga. The bus had a VCD player and they were playing a karaoke disc of a gay singer singing Thai pop songs, with transliterations on the bottom in Thai script. Every video was the same: the gay guy surrounded by six Thai women adoring him and dancing badly, all in front of a curtain. The video was 30 minutes long. The ride was 90 minutes long. They played the video three times.

As soon as we got to Phang-Nga, we booked an overnight tour with Sayan Tours, which was recommended by Lonely Planet, and, as it says on their brochure, WE WILL HAVE FUN. The tour started at 4, it was noon, so they took us to the Sa Nang Manora Forest Park in a pickup truck and said they’d pick us up at 3:30. The park was fantastic. They had a 2km trail through the forest, with rattan vines, mossy roots, water cascading down rocks into pools. The trail made you climb on logs over some of the pools. Cos, disappearing and reappearing, fell off a log and Dilek caught him; then his heft knocked him on the ground, which took her with him – and he yelled at her for making him fall. You can’t say the word “Cos” without Elif following it with “…he’s an idiot” as if it were his last name. Thais were playing in the pools, bathing. It was beautiful. We got back to the entrance, and waited, and waited, and there was no pickup truck. We tried to call Sayan on our cell phone and the cell phone could not pick up a satellite signal, of course. We asked the park ranger and they had no phone. But she laughed at us; Sayan’s always late, don’t worry. And, sure enough, a half-hour later, they came. We complained; they gave us a song and dance about another truck being repaired or something.

They took us by superloud longtail boat past some incredible mangroves to Ko Panyi, a Muslim Fishing Village of about two thousand people. Were it not one of the most beautiful places in the world, it would be the most disgusting place in the world. The village was situated in Phang-Nga bay, overlooking dozens of cliffs jutting out of the bay, in bizarre shapes, with the setting sun causing spectacular light effects and shadows in all directions, amazing scenery no matter from where or to where you look. The village itself was built on small pilings, with some concrete but mostly wood, extending out into the water, so the bulk of it was over the bay itself. There was a mosque, some stores, and a few kids playing soccer on the ground over the water. The problem was that the people were gross. Their dump and their toilet was straight down below them. Everything goes into the bay. You use a toilet, you can hear your excrement splash. You look into the water, the children are swimming in the styrofoam cups with the trash with the feces. Their sustenance is fish farming, and their traps where they kept and raised the fish were with the trash with the feces. We walked through the village and looked in the houses, with Osama bin Laden posters inside. Dinner was at 7 – fried fish. Yum. We stared at the food a long while and decided to eat salad, which was imported. We slept in our bungalow, with mosquito netting, over the bay, over the trash and the feces. When we awoke, the tide had carried all the garbage out. We decided not to shower in the morning, a first for Elif. It would have involved pouring bay water over your head with a small bucket.

(Imperial Hotel, Phuket: 51 Phuket Rd, Muang Phuket 83000 Thailand, 076-212311; fax 66 76-212894)

Enhanced by Zemanta

Pai in Sukhothai

Phra Achana, Big Buddha image in Wat Sichum, 1...
Image via Wikipedia

One of Mr. J’s servants picked us up at the guest house and took us to Doi Suthep, a wat from the 1300’s on top of a mountain. You walk up 300 steps to get to the complex. Very nice views, lovely cloister, but it’s another wat. An Asian tour bus came and its people were more fascinated by us than by the wat. We actually went into a gem store there, which was frustrating because Dilek, me and Elif are at least one and probably two too many people to buy something. Elif had sold some silver in Turkey and wanted to spend that much, period, on a gem. Dilek wanted to pay for everything. I wanted her to spend a little more if she saw something she liked. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t pretty ugly, but she didn’t buy anything.

We then went to Doi Inthanon National Park. There we saw Phra Mahathat Naphamethanidon, a pair of chedi built by the Royal Thai Air Force to commemorate the king’s 60th birthday in 1989. The area is lovely – gardens with flowers of every color, magnificent views of mountain peaks, but the chedi are just plain spooky. It’s a his and hers tomb-to-be, each facing the other, each requiring a walk up many, many stairs to get to. His is austere, with a single Buddha in the middle. Hers is insanely ornate – carvings of her in action all over the inside walls, plus perfectly awful carvings of great architectural highlights from all over the globe, paid for by various governments.

The rest of the park was lovely. We saw three waterfalls, starting at the one on the top of the mountain. Elif and I hiked down from the 3rd one to the 2nd one, which was the largest, and the hike back up was a killer in the heat. The driver then drove us from the 3rd one to the 2nd – we didn’t know it was accessible by car – we felt a little silly.

The driver got us to the church on time and we caught a bus south to Sukhothai. It was advertised as a 2nd-class bus. Imagine sitting on a crowded school bus for 6 hours, but much less comfortable. Not only did our backs and tailbones hurt, but our asses were killing us. We arrived in Sukhothai at 12:30AM. Immediately we were hit up by the motorcycle taxi mafia. There we were, us four surrounded by a dozen of motorcycle taxi people wearing pink jackets trying with brochures of guest houses they wanted to take us to. We said, no, we want to go to one we already had in mind. We argued for awhile; a guy from the Balkans (!) with a handlebar moustache came up and told us that we would love the place his “friend” was recommending, and we went to the customer service window of the bus station to ask for help. They had a sign “Report problems and scams, get help” but the guy inside was quite nasty and wanted us to go with his good friends at the motorcycle taxi mafia. We asked him which way was our hotel and he said it’s over 5km down the road. We said that’s impossible and showed him our Lonely Planet map. Turns out, they’d built a new bus station way out of town and that’s where we were. So we said we wanted a tuk-tuk or taxi, as Dilek and Cos wouldn’t get on a motorcycle taxi. The guy said there was no transportation at 1AM except motorcycles. We asked Cos and Dilek. Dilek was not getting on a motorcycle. So we hitched up our packs and started to walk.

We’re walking down the main road for maybe 20 minutes without seeing one car of any sort. Nothing. Then some lights come from way in the distance, getting bigger, getting bigger, and then I see the scariest face in the world bearing down on us – it looked like the guy at the beginning of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre – twisted, mouth hanging open, eyes bugging out – and driving a sawngthaew tuk-tuk which was mounted backwards: it was like a motorcycle pushing a cart. He was a mute, with spastic twitches, but he had a great smile. We told him where we were going; he made 50 with his fingers, we said 40, and he was happy. I didn’t think you could negotiate after 1AM in the middle of nowhere, but we did. The hotel was another 5 miles – much further than what the guy at the bus station had told us! He dropped us off at our hotel and then took out a card printed in block letters: “I will take you all over Sukhothai for only 500 baht. At least 3 hours. Over 14km of ruins.” I told him no thanks. He then made lots of grunting noises and twitches and held up four fingers. I told him thanks, but no, we wanted to walk around ourselves. Then he made the numbers 3 and 5 and a circle for 0, and I figured, let’s hire him. He was so happy. He asked me what time and I said 8AM, and he showed me 8 fingers twice and then made me shake his hand to seal the deal. We had ourselves a driver.

Th 4/4

He was the first driver to show up on time. Sukhothai was the first capital of Thailand and was big from the mid-1200’s to the late 1300’s; it has the peak of Thai art and architecture. There were 21 different sites and 4 ponds. There was a large lotus pond with a bridge in front of Wat Mahathat, whose stupa spires feature the lotus-bud motif. Inside its walls were 200 chedi! The 15-meter brick-and-stucco Buddha at Wat Si Chum was our favorite, but all the different sites – about a dozen – were lovely. Although it was as hot as Ayuthaya and the ruins at Ayuthaya were in better condition, Sukhothai was more enjoyable, mainly because of our driver – not having to walk around in that heat from place to place was a good idea, and it was really too large to walk around in any weather. What I liked about our driver – I forgot his name but it was something like Pai – is that he would try to explain what we were seeing. He’d point to the Thai on the inscriptions for what he found interesting, and then we’d find the corresponding English. We fed him breakfast but what really made his eyes light up was whenever we asked him to get whatever he wanted to drink – he ordered a frozen fruit shake and other cool stuff. He also seemed to know exactly where we wanted to go even before we told him, and he didn’t leave anything out.

At the end he wrote on a card “Si Satchanalai-Chaliang Historical Park 60km” and then took us to a friend of his. His friend looked like a real badass – muscle shirt, loads of tattoos, and we would be riding in the back of his pickup – but Dilek and Elif had had enough. I whined a little – it was supposed to be spectacular, and we’d planned to see it and it was so close – but it’s supposed to be similar to Sukhothai and they’d really had enough. It was too hot and they didn’t believe I’d ever really take them down south to swim, and I decided to choose not to ruin my marriage by seeing some ruins. So our driver takes us to the bus station, where we get harassed by some sleazy bus company operatives. Elif says she wants a VIP bus to Bangkok and this guy says we have a wonderful 2nd-class bus. Elif says she wants to see it first and he says, if you buy the tickets, when the bus comes if you don’t like it, I’ll refund your money. We laugh at him and a bus arrives to Phitsanulok, a larger town of about 100,000 less than an hour to the east. We take a bus there, as transportation options from there to Bangkok are supposed to be much better. The bus was 3rd-class, no air-con, and oh did we sweat. At Phitsanulok we found a bus to Bangkok – no VIP, but nice enough. We slept on the bus and woke up when the bus stopped at the Bangkok airport. The airport is north of the city and we were coming from the north – we had no idea that the bus would stop there and thought it would only stop at the central bus terminal, so we started yelling and jumped up and grabbed our stuff and hopped out.

We went into the airport and asked if there was a flight to Krabi and they said the daily Krabi flights are sold out for weeks, but there’s a flight to Phuket in a half-hour, the last one of the day, at the domestic terminal 1km down the road. We ran out and caught a cab, told him domestic terminal, and the driver says OK and then drives right past the exit ramp. We start yelling and say domestic, domestic, and point behind us, and then the driver has to drive to the next exit and turn back, and we get there, run on line, are standing behind these Sikhs that are taking forever, get our tickets, run to the gate, and the plane is late anyway.

We land in Phuket and the Phuket airport is about 35 minutes outside of town, so we take a minivan into town to a recommended hotel, which turns out to be a shithole. We walk all around downtown Phuket, go into six other hotels, and they’re dirt-cheap, or expensive, and they all have shithole in common. Dilek is getting loopy. She wants to walk to the bus station – it’s 1AM again – and try to find a bus to Krabi. I tell her that there will be no 1AM buses to Krabi. It takes some convincing; I’m glad we packed light, one backpack per person. Finally we give up and stay in an expensive one ($20) that turns out to be dirty anyway. I feel satisfied that I got them south to swim ahead of when I promised I would. I don’t know how many more days of stupas and bots and wats Cos could have taken.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The weird Wat Khaek

Sala Keoku
Image by orangebrompton via Flickr

We’re at the Laotian border just ten miles from Vientiane, its biggest city, and we don’t go. I do the math; I want to see Sala Kaew Ku (Wat Khaek, meaning “Indian Temple”) here, and it’s an hour and $30 a person to get visas for Laos, and then there’s transportation to Vientiane, and we’d have to come back the same night or else have to carry our bags with us, and it’s a real pain to get from here to the northwest, with mountains in between and no trains or planes direct, and the flight to Bangkok is at 11AM, so let’s bag Vientiane and get on that flight. Vientiane is in Laos, and if I’m going to triage stuff out of the concept of “seeing Thailand”, Laos has to be saved for “Seeing Laos.”

Far weirder than that was Wat Khaek. It’s one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever seen – a 1978 shrine made by Luang Pu (“Venerable Grandfather”), a Brahmanic shaman who made his own mix of Buddhist and Hindu iconography and mythology. It’s essentially a huge, weird sculpture garden of cement statues of Hindu gods and Buddhas mixed with things that look like Munch paintings, Polynesian masks, 1930’s WPA art, people clubbing each other. I exposed maybe a roll of film on the place, which made me feel quite guilty, not about the money but about looking back on the trip and seeing where my aesthetic priorities are – kitsch over high art – but this is the Rolls Royce of kitsch, not even in the same ballpark as the 5 Temples shrine in Los Angeles, not even in the same ballpark as Gaudi Park in Barcelona. They had chickens and statues of chickens.

From there we went to see Phra That Nong Kai (the Holy Reliquary in the Middle of the River). It’s a Lao chedi which slipped into the Mekong river in 1847 – it’s now near the middle and continues to slide – and its top is only visible during the dry season, which we were in. You can just see the top of it; the rest is under water.

THAI Airlines had a bus which went the 1 hour south to Udon Thani, where we took a plane to Bangkok and then a connecting flight to Chiang Mai. (We made a V, flying southwest and then northwest; there was no other way of getting there directly.) The flights were wonderful, except for some turbulence on the second leg undoubtedly due to the heat.

Chiang Mai came very highly recommended by my friends the Ojalvos, but it reminded us of San Francisco – not in its topography, but being a picturesque but not lively enough. We arrived at 3, settled in, took Cos to a Yunan mosque (where Chinese people with skullcaps asked us if we were Moslem) and Cos prayed inside for ten minutes while we sat, and then we went to an overrated dinner dance at the Old Chiangmai Cultural Center. We met a biology teacher from Kansas who was teaching in Singapore; he didn’t know much and confused Jared Diamond with Richard Dawkins. The food was bland of course and the rushed dinner was accompanied by Thai dancing performed by the first ugly Thai women I’d seen; they were too young and rather inelegant. After dinner we were ushered outside to an amphitheater where we saw hill-tribe dances which were much better. After that ended, the hill-tribe people tried to sell us stuff.

(Beautiful hill-tribe stuff at The Lost Heavens Tribal and Primitive Art,

Taeng on drugs

Pha Taem National Park, Ubon Ratchathani provi...
Image via Wikipedia

F 3/29

At 6:15 we gave Tang what turned out to be a wake-up call. He said he thought we’d said “between 6 and 7.” He said he had to shower and he’d be right over. He came a half-hour later. I realized that although I’d asked if the car would hold up, I forgot to ask if it had seatbelts. It did not. We told him to drive to Prasat Phnom Rung 2 1/2 hours east by the Cambodian border. When we got there, he said, go slow, you take your time, I sleep.

Phanom Rung is Khmer for “Big Hill” (Phnom means “mount”), and it’s on an extinct volcanic cone. The Angkor temple (Prasat; a “Prasada” is a South-Indian pyramid temple) was built between the 10th and 13th centuries, but the bulk of it was during the reign of King Suriyavarman II in the mid-12th century. He was a great Khmer ruler whose reign seems to have left the best architecture (he also built Angkor Wat in Cambodia). This one was incredible. You walk up this massive staircase, past a long promenade, past pillars with lotus-bud tops, then over a naga (multiheaded serpent associated with water, fertility and creation) bridge, to get to the huge cone-shaped prasat (temple) made out of laterite and sandstone. The temple had amazing sculpture, including the Phra Narai lintel (the block over the entrance across the door pillars) which shows the reclining Vishnu, surrounded by heads of Kala, the god of time and death; he’s asleep on the milky sea of eternity, represented by a naga (he’s reclining on his right side on the back of the naga). Growing from Vishnu’s navel is a lotus that branches into several blossoms, on one of which sits the creator god Brahma Above the lintel is a Shiva Nataraja (Dancing Shiva) relief. There was also a lintel showing a divinity seated over a kala (a demon commanded to devour itself, commonly sculpted over a temple entrance as guardian).

After Phanom Rung, we went 5km south to Prasat Muang Tam. This one was from the late 10th century. It was in many ways equally stunning, especially as it was surrounded by four L-shaped ponds. Each pond was surrounded by nagas whose tails meet to form low gates leading down to the water. There were kalas everywhere. The temple was dedicated to Shiva, but Vishnu was also worshipped there. When we got out a few men were watching playing on some musical instruments and walking and laughing. We loved it.

We were done by noon and we said, OK, let’s go to Khao Phra Vihan (Preah Vihear in Cambodian), three hours east. His jaw dropped and he said, no good idea, you stay here and rest, we’ll never make it, it closes at 4:30. He said, let’s see it tomorrow. Now I’d heard about Thais being lazy but we were hiring him for the day and we’d said it would be hard, and there was no way we were going to stop at noon. He said, you’re crazy! and laughed hysterically, and said, OK, you’re the boss, and drove.

He was driving and he started to sweat. It was very hot in the car, but he was not looking well at all. Sweat was running down his face in waterfalls. I offered him water. He was very happy. I offered to stop for cigarettes and coffee and whatever he needed. He was very happy but looking worse and worse. We stopped by the side of the road where there was a thatched covered hut and a woman cooking. We offered him lunch but he refused, saying he wanted a vita-drink. The vita-drink is basically sugar water, a B complex, and caffeine. Cos could not eat any of what the woman was making. Cos could not eat any Thai food at all, which was becoming a bit of a pain. So Elif asked the woman if Elif could cook Cos some food. The woman looked surprised but said OK, and Elif cut up some vegetables and made Cos some fried rice and egg. We looked around for our driver but he had disappeared. When he came back, he looked better than I’d ever seen him. Must be the vita-drink, I thought.

We got to Phra Vihan at around 3:30 and we were stopped by border guards. Phra Vihan is closed. Apparently the Thais and the Cambodians are in a border tiff. The Thais have a sign posted saying that due to factionalism among the Cambodian security forces and due to Cambodian villagers polluting Thai streams, they have to close the site to protect the safety of all Thai guests. There’s always been a dispute about the site – the World Court awarded it to Cambodia in 1963, but the Thais are still unhappy. It closed during the 1993-7 Phnom Penh offensive against the Khmer Rouge, but when Pol Pot died in 1998, it reopened, and now it’s closed due to this stupid pissing match. Another rule to remember when visiting a border ruin or area: call ahead. (Not like I have a phone number). Although the Thai military wouldn’t let us in, they were glad to take our money to let us see it from the Pha Maw I Daeng cliff a half-km away. We went up and could barely make out Phra Vihan, but the view of the valley below was lovely, and the sounds of the cannonfire (BOOM! – puff of smoke) were heartpounding.

From there we made Taeng drive 2 1/2 hours north to Khong Jiam, on the Laotian border and right near the Pha Taem rock paintings, which we wanted to see the next morning. Taeng calls someone on his cel phone and says that he’s sorry to disappoint us but his best friend is coming from Singapore the day after tomorrow and staying with him in Bangkok for nine days, so tomorrow he’ll drop us in Khon Kaen, where his brother may have a car and can drive us the rest of the way. I’m thinking that we should end up in Udon Thani tomorrow night because it’s bigger and we can rent a car or find someone else in case his brother doesn’t come through.

But for now, Taeng is a trooper. He drives us to Khong Jiam and takes us to a guesthouse of a friend of his. He’s getting a kickback but it’s getting late, and the place is nice. We’ll pay for his room, even though he said he’d sleep in the car, and the owners give us half-price on his room. We go out for a walk on the Mekong River. Nice views of Laos. Taeng takes us to a restaurant on the river and we offer him dinner. He says no thanks and says he’s going for a smoke. We say he can smoke with us, but he says no and goes down by the river. He’s clearly an opium-head. I don’t care as long as he drives alright and takes us where we want to go. He doesn’t eat anything though. He has very bad teeth. Dinner was in an outdoor restaurant. The owner was Japanese and told us about the horrors of MSG and how it clots blood and decreases sexual appetite. The Thais add it to everything, for the taste. We stayed until the winds came and it started raining tamarinds. A tamarind fell that was the size of my arm. You could kill someone with that tamarind. We covered our heads and ran to the hotel.


Sa 3/30

We saw Pha Taem first thing in the morning when it was only 95 degrees outside. It’s a tall stone clif with prehistoric paintings over 3000 years old – paintings of turtles and elephants and hands and geometric designs that looked like labyrinths. The hands were the most interesting, as some were dipped in paint and applied to the surface, whereas others were outlines, as if someone spit paint at the hands on the wall. Right on the road there we saw Sao Chaliang, which were lots of mushroom-shaped rock formations that we could climb on.

We headed west and then northwest. On the way we saw some wats. Wat Tham Hew Sin Chai, near Ubon Ratchathani, would have been a nice cave temple with water cascading over it to make a waterfall over the entrance. I say “would have been” because it was the dry season, and because of a very nasty scene. There was a starving, bloody black dog inside, near the Buddha image. It was very, very hot outside. Some other wats had cats walking around and on the Buddha shrines, no problem, but here, a woman sweeping up started beating the dog with her broom. The dog was too tired and weak to go, and she kept beating it, and I went up to her and puffed out my chest and bellowed “HEY!” I was saying “very bad, very bad” in Thai. Elif pointed to the Buddha, and then acted out in pantomime that the Buddha would slit her throat if he saw her beating that dog. To which the woman smiled and held up the crucifix dangling from her neck, as if to say, I’m a Christian, what do I care about Buddha, Jesus would approve of me beating this helpless animal! We stayed in her face until she left the dog. So we didn’t get to see Thai dancing in Bangkok, but we got to see a live play of Buddha’s teaching that life is suffering, acted out in canine. There was more humanity in the prostitutes of Patpong than at this mountain temple.

We drove north to Khon Kaen, and Taeng told us his brother wasn’t going to be available to be our driver tomorrow after all. He took us to some nice wats along the way, including a very peaceful and lovely Laotian one near Yasothon. By the time we got to Khon Kaen it was late and started to rain. Looking at the map, Udon Thani north of there was where we were headed, and it was far larger (and more likely to find a new driver). I did the math and figured we’d take a bus immediately and then at Udon take a taxi to a hotel, but we may not have been able to catch one that late, and I said to Taeng if you drive us north to Udon we’ll pay you some extra. Taeng looked exhausted and his windshield wipers were barely working; he laughed and rolled his eyes and said you crazy, and then kept on driving. We got to Udon and checked into the Royal Mekong Hotel; it was pricey ($20 a night) but we all wanted some luxury. I checked in, came out and sat down next to him in the taxi, and said, “There’s no more single rooms available, so rather than going to another hotel, I thought you might like THIS instead,” and I fanned out six 500-baht bills in front of him, two more than we’d agreed on, and his face looked up like a Christmas tree and he bowed and made the praying gesture with his hands, and we took his picture and went inside. They gave us a complimentary cocktail, a fruity concoction with as much alcohol as there is vermouth in James Bond’s martini, and the waitress hovered over us hoping for another order. It was Cos’s birthday so we bought him an expensive black russian cocktail with about as much alcohol as there is vermouth in James Bond’s martini. There was a lounge singer with huge fake breasts singing out of tune to a pianist who could not play the piano.

Ayuthaya, and Lopburi, city of monkeys

Prang Sam Yot, one of symbols of Lopburi.
Image via Wikipedia

In the morning we took a bus to Ayuthaya, which was the Siamese royal capital from 1350 until 1767, when the Burmese sacked it. Its name is Sanskrit for “unassailable” or “undefeatable” – and for a long 400 years, it was. The Siamese had control over many of the countries surrounding it, and its population was over a million in the late 1600’s; it was supposed to have been one of the world’s great cities. Now it looked like an abandoned Efesus, and it was abandoned for good reason: it was 105 degrees outside. Unlike Bangkok, there was no shade, no refuge, no hope. We were at the mercy of the sun and the tuk-tuk drivers. Cos bought a cowboy hat and I bought a straw hat. They had elephant rides and nobody took them. I bought water for 50 cents, four times the normal price. The wats were in really good condition, better than Sukhothai, but the sun was melting my brain, and for the first (and only) time the weather was really getting in the way. We went for lunch in a Chinese-Thai restaurant and had a palm-hearts salad that was hotter than the heat. I went to the bathroom and a Chinese boy, looked like the son of the owner, was at the sink. Water was barely dripping out of the sink onto his hands. He looked deeply philosophical. He said: “Very little water today…but better than no water at all.” We went to the canal and took a boat trip. There was a sign before we got on: “You will see many wats and many smiling faces.” The river passed many wats. And we saw many, many smiling faces. Children bathing with their parents, splashing around in the filthy water below their teak houses, smiling and waving and seeing if we were looking and diving into the water for us.

We decided to take the train 1:15 north to Lopburi. Lopburi was a part of the Angkor empire, and then it was wrested from the Khmers in the 13th century by the Sukhothais in the north, and there are plenty of wat temples there, but we went for the monkeys. We were told that Lopburi was a city besieged by macaques, which frolic all over the wat temples, and it sounded like fun. The train there was a 3rd-class train. They had fans blowing every ten feet from the ceiling. The fans weren’t helping. I had sweat coming down my front, down my back, down my middle. I was feeling crazy. I couldn’t sit still. At some point the train reached a stop and I saw a lot of hands reaching out the windows and coming back in with some kind of snow-cone. I stood up and ran to the window and yelled “one!” Elif said make it two. There are points in your life where everything you hear about Hepatitus-A or dysentery or not drinking the water don’t seem to matter. Give me the ice thing, now. It was a cocunut-milk snowcone. It made me feel better for a minute.

We got off the train and there was a second when I wondered whether it was worth coming and where the monkeys were. Then we crossed the tracks and we were greeted. Hundreds upon hundreds of monkeys, everywhere. Coming to you, begging for food. Fucking in the streets. Tumbling with each other down hills. Scampering up telephone poles and swinging from telephone wire. Walking on barbed wire. Playing with bars on apartment windows. Food-fighting. Running across the street, causing traffic to stop and start and swerve. Jumping in the backs of pickup trucks for free rides. Elif took a picture of one who then made his face look fearsome. We took the 3rd-class train back. We made faces at the children of two families and they made them at us. We gave them some coconut candy and they gave us banana chips. I did not feel very smart today but I thought: People are very nice. Monkeys are fun. Life is OK.

Muay Thai Boxing for kids

Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok (as seen from northea...
Image via Wikipedia

We went to Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and the Grand Palace, from 1782, the first ear of Bangkok rule by Rama I. A line of tuk-tuk drivers waited outside. “It’s closed,” they all said. “Reopens at 1PM. Come with me, I’ll take you shopping, have a friend with an amazing sale on gems…” We walked past them into the palace. The place was like Disneyland. Very baroque temple architecture: Adventureland, Fantasyland, it was sculpted with tailfins and was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Although I’d passed a travel test by not listening to anything a tuk-tuk driver tells me, I failed one by getting the CD audio guide (the rule is, never get one for anything that’s not an indoor art museum). It was useless, and trying to find my way back to return it took forever. The temperature soared to 105 and we had to wear long pants. It was the first place in Bangkok where we saw tourists – either nobody goes during the hot season or Bangkok’s so large it absorbs them all nicely – lots of Japanese tourists and not much else. The sun was three inches from my head. I drank a gallon of water. We then went to the Vimanek Teak Mansion, the world’s largest golden teak building, a 3-story 81-room mansion from 1910, a nice complex where the prince and his sister lived for awhile with some fine displays of old photos of turn-of-the-century Siamese ceremonies. Dilek and Cos left the house without telling us to buy ice cream. We searched the entire top floor, where the temperature was more like 205 than 105, and finally we left and found them under a tree happily eating ice cream, and I screamed at Dilek. I really let her have it. Cos always wanders off, partly because he’s an idiot and partly to get away from Dilek, but Dilek should know better. We saw some boring Thai dancing in an outdoor pavillion there. We ate in an outdoor restaurant on the grounds which was for the workers and groundskeeps. The food was amazing and far too spicy. I have no idea how people in hot climates eat spicy food.

We went to the Dusit Zoo, which on the map looked like it was next door, it probably was, but we couldn’t find it and it was too hot. We asked some people where it was, and they couldn’t understand. They couldn’t read the Thai in my Lonely Planet. I pointed to a billboard advertising the zoo and then shugged my shoulders and asked “where?” and they still didn’t understand. The Thai people are very nice but completely thick when it comes to body language, sign language, barely mispronouncing words, etc. (Their language has five different tones, rising and falling, and if you don’t say the word with the correct tone, forget it.) We found the zoo and it didn’t have much in the way of animals, though we were very impressed by the multicolored monkeys (Pythagrix Nemaeus: the Donc Langur (Douc Langur?). We sat down in a park there and a family gave us all mangoes and helped us cut them. We told them we were from Turkey. Such nice people.

We went to Lumphini stadium to see Muay Thai boxing. We arrived early and the windows were closed, but official-looking sellers came up to us in yellow “VIP” jackets and asked us if we wanted to sit or stand. I recognized this as a scam immediately – there were cheap standing areas, and there were sitting areas, and there was ringside, and I knew they’d say that the only area left to sit in would be ringside, and it was a weeknight and there was no way it was sold out, so I said I’ll buy tickets later. They got confused and followed us for awhile, but we waited. We gave up on being vegetarian just for this vacation and bought spicy meatballs on a stick from a crazy guy who sang to us. They were yummy and he asked where we were from and we said Turkey and he said Galatasaray. Soccer makes the world go round. Eventually the window opened and we bought non-ringside seats.

The preliminary bouts were the hardest to take, for they start out at the lowest weight categories, which meant we were watching a couple of 15-year-olds beat the crap out of each other. After the first round, the betting starts, and middle-aged men stand up and scream out their bets. The first bout had one kid beating another kid, and he was clearly the favorite. Then, suddenly, he gave what looked like a nice kick to the other guy’s head, except instead of the other guy falling down, he himself fell down, flat on his back, from exhaustion, and was carried off on a stretcher. The second fight was also two boys, one of which was like Randall “Tex” Cobb. He never connected and always got hit, and kicked, and hit, but he would not fall. It was disgusting. Finally, he did go down, and was carried off on a stretcher. In fact, most of the fights ended in a knockout, and most of the knockouts ended in one guy completely immobile, carried off on a stretcher. It was great fun. I ate roasted watermelon seeds and spit them on the floor. Life is good. It’s time to head north.

Wat Arun is evil

At breakfast we saw Rana and Engin and they said nothing to us and we said nothing to them. We went to the huge temple, Wat Pho

Wat Arun (Thai: ???????, Temple of the Dawn, p...
Image via Wikipedia

, with its mammoth reclining Buddha, 15meters high, with gold leaf and mother-of-pearl inlay for the eyes and feet. It’s the oldest and largest wat in Bangkok and has the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand. They had dozens of Ramakien murals featuring their version of the Indian epic Ramayana, and we liked the Chinese Rock giants with weapons in their hands guarding the Sheltered Gate. It was again over 100 degrees outside. Bangkok was having a heat wave. It wasn’t supposed to be this hot until mid-April. Cos and I got 1/2-hour massages at Wat Pho, where they have a little school. We paid 50 cents extra to get clean sheets. They had a fan. The woman who massaged me looked like a middle-aged owl, with cokebottle glasses and a moustache. She didn’t massage me so much as manipulate my body into grotesque contortions. She cracked my knuckles on my fingers and toes. I will have to buy a book on Thai massage. Being bent pleases me more than being rubbed.

We took a ferry to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, named after Aruna, the Indian god of dawn. Its prang (Khmer-style tower) has a plaster covering embedded with a mosaic of broken multicolered Chinese porcelain (from then the Cheinese ships calling at Bangkok used tons of old porcelain as ballast). Wat Arun is a small place, it is a lovely place, but it is an evil place. It’s right on the river on the opposite side with an incredible view of Bangkok, but we paid three times to get in there. When you get there, they request a donation and show you a book where everyone paid 100 baht. So we left 100 baht (usual admission is 40). Then they have these two cutout figures of goofy monks where you can put your heads through and take a picture. We snapped a picture of Dilek and Cos with their heads in it, and a man appeared out of nowhere and demanded 80 baht from Dilek. It says at the bottom of the life-sized figures, in tiny one-inch-high blue letters on a blue background, 40B. Finally you get to the wat, which you can climb around, and it says “Admission 40 baht.” I said that we already paid, but the front desk payment was just an optional donation. (Every temple has one, but they put the admission at the admission and the optional donation inside). A nasty trick, and by now I was pissed, but we’d crossed the river and it was 100 degrees outside and we ponied up our third payment. I started to climb and was stopped by a man demanding 20 baht to rent a sarong to cover my legs with “out of respect.” Only one or two places in Thailand, such as the Grand Palace, demand that you cover your legs, and I knew that Wat Arun wasn’t demanding it out of respect. So I opened my backpack and put on my slacks over my shorts right there. I climbed and sweated. It was beautiful. I hated it.

From there we piled in a 3-wheeled tuk-tuk (a basically motorcycle with a covered cart behind it) to get to a Portugese church. Elif yelled at me because piling 4 people in a tuk-tuk instead of a 2-rowed songthlaew meant that we were literally sitting on top of each other, but we made it there OK. We ended up in a poor area of teak houses over little streams and tiny, tiny alleys that looked like some kind of Venetian ghetto (mixed with something out of The Deer Hunter). Even though the houses were decrepit and they were living over smelly, garbagey, muddy streams loaded with mosquitoes, they had amazing little gardens and birds in cages which looked well tended-to. We went to the church and then to a temple nearby where a monk was sleeping under a huge bell. It was too hot. I again suggested we go back to the hotel to swim. They were thrilled.

Turkmenistan Airlines

The Presidential Palace in Ashgabat.
Image via Wikipedia

Instead of flying the swanky Turkish Airlines ($599 direct to Bangkok), we chose Turkmenistan Airlines‘ $431 blue-light special (no website), with a stopover in Ashgabad. I asked the guy at check-in if they had a frequent-flier program, and he gave me this look like, give me a break, we’ve only had a country for a few years!

The plane was a standard-issue 757-200 but it looked decrepit on the inside – ratty carpets, fraying seat cushions, no reading material, and no TV’s hanging from their brackets. The Turkmen passengers were amazing to look at. The enormous women wore enormous rainbow-colored robes and turbans. They smelled like goats and their top teeth were all plated in gold. They had no familiarity with the concept of assigned seating and sat where they wanted. The stewards and stewardesses had no familiarity with the concept of being a steward or stewardess. To get the Turkmens to go to their assigned seats they said things like “Come on now, get up, let’s see you move it, already.” They could not get the passengers to stop smoking in the bathroom. Every few rows was a picture of the king with very bushy eyebrows, grinning, wearing a lot of gold on his hand and a powder blue suit. The plane took off making six sharp 90-degree turns to the left that made me wonder of the hydraulics were working properly. They fly one flight a week out of Istanbul, and the food tasted like it was from four or five flights ago. Their alcohol towelette had mold on it.

We landed in Ashkabad and stayed there for three hours. One other plane landed during that time, from Moscow. I drank a chocolate liquor called Balzama. It tasted like a mixture of chocolate, bourbon, and shoe-leather. An Indian passenger connecting from Kazakhstan to New Delhi was in trouble. They When his bag didn’t come out of baggage claim, he asked a soldier about it, and the soldier asked to see his passport and then walked away with it. The Indian asked me to ask for his passport back. I talked to the soldiers in Turkish. They answered back (in Turkmen) that their “hundred-head” boss would give the man the passport back when he was boarding the plane. We talked about Istanbul and Ashgabad and soccer. The soldiers grinned a lot and looked like they came out of a Kusturica film. They had hats with extremely wide berets.

We arrived in Bangkok at 2AM. It was a balmy 31 degrees Celsius outside.