“Travel Hopefully” – Thailand

The problem with going to Thailand was I went right after I got my mother’s Christmas cards. Since I was living abroad that year, my mom forwarded me all the cards she received so I could hear about how my aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends, etc. were doing. It’s always fun to read them, but also a bit depressing. My mom has somehow gotten herself on the Christmas card list of a lot of over-achievers or shall I say over-acquirers, and not just in terms of money, but also spiritual awareness, self-fulfillment, assisting other people and conserving natural resources.

So while I, in fact, went to “exotic” Thailand, which would be good Christmas letter fodder if my mom or I wrote Christmas letters, it’s not quite the same. Mom’s friends (or friend’s children) seem to be all saving Mother Nature, running political campaigns, meditating for peace, getting in touch with their inner child, their 401K and/ or higher realms of thought and understanding. When other people (i.e. people who send my mom Christmas cards) are planning to go to Thailand, they call up their travel agent and say “I’d like to go where I can do the most good,” or “I’d like to go see some temples and learn more about Buddhism.” They ask to stay with local families and particulate in low-impact tours. They inquire about financial possibilities and use it as a chance to learn more about growth stocks. I call my travel agent and say “I would like airplane tickets and a hotel room please.” I didn’t even say WHERE I wanted to go.

This is the highest expression of my ‘don’t learn too much before you go’ policy, which is related to but not the same thing as my ‘judge where you want to live by how the name of the city sounds’ policy. In this case, we went to Phuket and Bangkok. I found out, after paying for the tickets, that Phuket was, in fact a resort/ beach area, EXACTLY the kind of place that my best friend, B, who was going with me, would NOT want to go to. The fact that it worked out well just convinced me even more that I have the right policy, but consider yourself warned if you ever think of going someplace with me.

Thus I spent our time in Bangkok airport, before flying to Phuket, reading B’s book on Thailand to find out where Phuket was. (It’s an island off the left hand side of Thailand, in the Andaman Sea.)

Landing at Phuket was quite nice for me – looking out the airplane windows I could see palm trees, hills, blue skies and the sea. That’s about all it takes to make me happy, geographically wise. It was a one-hour drive to where we were staying – not too far a distance, but lots of traffic and road-construction. Most people on motor-bikes (families of four perfectly balanced, career-women zipping along like in Italy, men carefully transporting goods, hot-rod guys, etc.). The houses which lined the roads were made of concrete blocks and very small, one or two rooms, but with large outside areas with concrete floors and tin roofs, which served as sitting rooms and kitchens, very practical. Many little shops attached to the houses too – like you would see five or six picnic benches under a roof near a house and guess it was a ‘restaurant.’ Houses that have a paved ‘yard’ and a small fence around the property also usually had a ‘spirit house’ – looks like a martin house on a shorter pole, painted red with gold embellishments, flowers, incense sticks etc.

The road goes by lots of rubber plantations. Rubber trees were a very nice surprise, I didn’t think I would effuse about them, but they are just lovely – small trunks, about a foot circumference, and very straight. About half way to their crown they start branching out, so the top is very full and bushy. I should, of course, say something like they are similar to a laurel or a maple but I have no idea about tree shapes. Rubber trees are planted in very straight rows, so when you drive by, you look down long shaded alleys, whereas looking down on a plantation from above, it would appear to be a green carpet. In between the rows are occasional small huts with coconut palm leaf roofs to store the rubber or for shelter. You can see the raw rubber – grayish-white, the size and shape of a bath mat – hanging over wooden racks to dry or being carted around on motor bikes.

In town were lots of very small shops, check by jowl. Patong Beach (the area we were) was all one-story except for five or six GIANT hotels; the guidebook said that Patong wasn’t “yet” the next Nice (as in France). Thank heavens. We had the obligatory Pad Thai for lunch, napped, then walked along the town, a wide horseshoe curving around a bay. From the display of dead seafood on ice outside the restaurant, B picked out some dead squid to be grilled with shark eyes while I had bananas and fruit juice. Her exact words to describe her meal were “sometimes squid is kind of chewy but this is great, just slides right down.”

The next day, B got up and went exploring. I slept. I really adore her, but that is one of the joys of friendship – you can love someone while still thinking they are nuts. B goes on vacations and likes to get up early to see museums. She, willingly, i.e. without needing the threat of bodily harm, goes to farmers’ markets. She buys guide books, reads maps, has sunscreen, and wears sensible shoes. She investigates the culture.

I got a Thai massage – which is NOT one of those fun, rubbing, relaxing ones, it is one of those ones in which people pretend there are such things as pressure points and they poke or squeeze your imaginary pressure points in your legs and toes. It might have been good for me. Hard to tell. Then we went out to dinner and B picked out some soup made from the less-popular kinds of seafood and I had some bananas. Great bananas in Thailand!

The second day we went on an ELEPHANT TREK. Now this raised all sorts of ethical considerations for us. Is going on an elephant trek, albeit a mere 30 minute one, something a hip, happening, p-c, recycling, the RIGHT kind of laundry detergent using woman can do, without being hypocritical? It bears thinking about.

My position was that 1) the elephants were already trained 2) there was not much tourism, thus we were not so much creating a demand, as helping elephants already in the service of white, middle-class tourists who read Barbar at an impressionable age gain more bananas. B was unconvinced, but I really wanted to ride one. So we did and thus I report to you that elephants are the sweetest, dearest creatures ever. They have almost supplanted camels in my affections. The one we went on was a female, 45, and she was not huge and imposing, with her head down, her eyes were just about at my level, lots of long lashes. We had to climb up a rickety tower to get on her back, then sat side by side on a fragile wooden seat.

Did you know elephants are covered with 3-inch coarse, black hair? And lots of it on the top of their heads so ours looked, from where we were sitting, like a punk rocker with a spiked hair-do. And elephants have perfectly round feet! We walked along a little trail in the sun, and then followed a stream bed for about 10 minutes – neat to watch her gauge her position. You wouldn’t normally think about elephants judging where they walk, but this was a fairly narrow, rocky trail and she was carefully choosing each step. The ‘mahout’ was nice, no English. Elephant ears are joined vertically to their head, so when they flap – they flap like shutters in the wind, very endearing.

After the elephant adventure (she got a bath after we got off and B bought her bananas, they have TINY little mouths and if you’re holding bananas they will snuffle you all over with their trunks to find them) we went to Phuket Town, all three and four story buildings, not architecturally interesting. We walked around Chinatown and the food market (nope, I have NEVER smelled anything as bad as that food market, never in my whole life). We wanted to go to the aquarium, but it was closed. We did get to go around on a local bus – like a long-bed pick up with seats on either side facing each other, roof over the top and open sides. That night we had dinner at a nice ITALIAN restaurant (guess whose idea THAT was) right overlooking the water – very pretty. I had three courses.

The fourth day we took an all-day tour to the Andaman Sea. (after Emily Dickinson’s poem – I had always wanted to see it, but following my strict principle of “don’t know before you go”, I didn’t realize we were near it until I got off the plane). We got picked up in a mini-van, then drove ½ hour to a small village, got in a ‘long boat’ which ferried us out to a ‘big boat’, which took us out closer to a series of islands, shooting straight up from the water with almost vertical walls, which were a national park. We were then herded into kayaks and kayaked around the islands. (B wanted to paddle herself; she really is quite the dame). We had lunch at a nice, long, sandy beach full of shells. Ferried around on various forms of transportation in tropical weather by and on the water: this is pretty much my idea of a perfect day.

We, of course, had to have another ethical discussion before we decided to take the sea trip. All the trips advertised at the hotel had the word “eco” somewhere in the title. So the IDEA of environmentally-aware tourism is playing large in the mind of Thai tour operators, although the FACT of it still a ways away. We, naturally, could not take the ‘power boat’ tour. The ‘long boat’ are wooden, narrow and about 30(?) feet long, driven by a tiny propeller that is NOT attached to the back of the boat – but to a long piece of wood that is stuck out behind the boat – maybe ten feet from where the person is standing to steer. Doesn’t look very practical. They only thing I could think of was that BEFORE motors were invented – they moved the boat by fanning the trailing piece of wood back and forth in the water – so when motors arrived they just stuck them on the end. I could be wrong.

The ‘big boat’ had a front little cabin for the person steering and then a big open room where a woman cooked lunch. At the end of the boat was an open place where they stacked up all the kayaks. You climbed up a ladder to the second floor – covered with a tarp roof – which had benches along the sides for us to sit on and a rough low table in the middle, to put drinks and lunch on. You could turn around on the benches so you were looking straight out at the water, with your legs hanging over the side – very fun. Little silvery fish would hurl themselves up out of the water and then skip along on their tail ON TOP of the water, perfectly straight, for ten to twenty feet and then dive back in.

On the way back home on the big boat, it started raining, so I went and stood at the edge of the seating area and watched it rain; I was already in my swim suit from swimming so it didn’t matter if I got wetter. I hadn’t seen rain in five months and moving amongst the green islands in the grey-green sea with wisps of clouds and heavy rain was lovely. That night we went out to dinner. I had chicken fried in plantain leaves and B had more unlovable seafood. On the way back to our hotel we stopped and got ‘reflexology’ (i.e. foot) massages. Thai masseuses love to crack your toes. I don’t know why. I wish they would stop it.

The next morning we flew to Bangkok and went to our second, large, chain hotel. B went out exploring and I had a “Thai astrology” reading done. I was told I was in love with an older man, that I would fall in love within a week, that I would receive a diamond ring very soon, that my shop was going very well and I had a car. Zero for five. She then told me I would get married either very soon, that I would live away from home, and that I was a good writer. As being a ‘good writer’ was the only thing she said that I didn’t question, she then repeated it about six times. I, of course, believed her.

I shall now gush at immoderate length about a store. But first we will reminisce. I am amazed every time I go to Paris how the French can create beauty in every small detail of their lives. They have beautiful dish towels and elegant paper towel holders and sophisticated water faucets. You see a student walk by in jeans and a sweater and you think “Oh, THAT’S how one is supposed to wear jeans and a sweater.” Aesthetic considerations are always taken into account.

Americans have a talent for the quick, the easy, the replaceable – but we haven’t got ‘beauty’ down at all, hence I have walked into a lot of ugly shops. So when I hit Jim Thomson’s (everyone turn to the east, bow slightly and say ‘peace be upon him who had good taste’) silk shop, it was almost painful how beautiful the cloth, silk robes, purses, and scarves were. And the man has been dead for thirty odd years. He disappeared in the late 60s, went on a jungle trek and never came back but the silks are still marvelous – warm and rich. There wasn’t anything in the store that was unattractive – three floors of loveliness.

The next day we went on a tour in the morning of the ‘grand palace’. I am even more convinced that monarchy (constitutional, of course) is the way to go. The present king (whose name the tour guide never mentioned) decided to move out of the main palace and into a smaller palace so tourists could go see and it. Lots of temples and buildings covered with gold or elaborate porcelain tiles, but the style doesn’t ‘resonate’. Put me in an old English country house and I am beside myself – but this was a kind of grandeur that doesn’t affect me.

And Buddhists do seem rather concerned with death – we kept being told where the royal family are cremated, where their ashes got put, how long people mourn for and what to wear to a funeral. B liked the idea that you bring boiled eggs as an offering and after you have left them for awhile at a shrine, you get to take them back to eat. Buddha images (they are careful never to say ‘Buddha,’ always ‘the Buddha image’) also like gold (who doesn’t?), lotus flowers and LOTS of incense. We’re not talking measly High Church take a little, put it in a censer and waive it about – we are talking a fistful of sticks, maybe 20 or so at a time from one person.

At stores where they sell the spirit houses, they also sell Buddhist robes (all sizes) and what we guessed were special ‘new house kits’: a bucket the color of the Buddhist robes with Colgate toothpaste and Joy soap and all sorts of sundry stuff – all wrapped up in yellow/ orange cellophane and with a big bow. You can just imagine a new couple getting about 16 of theses as housewarming presents – either that or you burn them with a body so the spirit can set up their apartment in the next world.

After the tour we were helpfully taken to a gem factory – where I longed to buy rubies for each finger and all my toes. Then (here is a telling psychological insight), B headed out to visit local markets and see important sights. I went to an old, colonial British hotel where Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham stayed and had high tea (and rode the hotel’s ferry up and down the river for free because I looked like a guest). The last day B went to see some famous temples while I had a late breakfast and swanked around the pool.

So what did can we learn from Thailand? First, when you are going to decorate, use Jim Thompson silk. Second, don’t learn too much before you travel. Let’s say B and I had done the proper research – would we had had a better time? Doubtful. The good thing about traveling ignorance is that you needn’t torture yourself with the things you ought to see which are closed, impossible to get to or not as nice as described. I always “travel hopefully” but I also travel with a fair amount of happy ignorance, and I can show you a few silk pillows to prove it.