Thursday, May 31, 2007

Interlude: Suvarnabhumi

Suvarnabhumi Airport, all new and shiny! My flight to Hanoi was delayed over an hour, so I had plenty of time to kill. Luckily I had bought a few second hand books at the Th Khao San Market so I had plenty to keep myself occupied.

Next Stop: Hanoi

Monday, May 28, 2007

Red vs. Blue

While in Thailand, it only makes sense to check out the national sport, Muay Thai, otherwise known as Thai Kickboxing. Luckily for me, there are Muay Thai fights somewhere in Bangkok every night of the week.

Wednesday night fights are hosted at Ratchadamnoen Stadium, a short walk from my hotel. The lineup was a total of 10 fights, with the eighth being the nights main event.

I was shocked at the sheer viciousness of these fights. This isn't slow moving American boxing. The fighters wade in quickly, hitting with anything they can. Fists, feet, elbows, knees. Anything.

With my pleasant ringside seat, I could hear every thwack and smack as hard bits of flesh impacted slightly softer bits. I had a perfect view of one poor unfortunate who got a cut on his forehead that reopened every subsequent round, sending blood pouring down his face.

Each fight lasted 5 rounds of three minutes each, with two minute intermissions between rounds. Well, 5 rounds, unless say you got knocked out in the second round! With ten fights total, thats a lot people smacking that everliving crap out of each other.

I was more than happy to leave after the main event, of course I had to have my picture snapped with the winner first! All in all it was very interesting experience. I certainly enjoyed it, but I can't say I'm eager to repeat it. Theres just something so brutal about the sport, and boxing in general that I can't quite get behind.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Further Impressions of Bangkok

My second full day in Bangkok actually turned out much like my first. Rain, temples, markets, traffic, heat, sweat, and the like.

I went back to the Golden Mount to see it in a non-holiday non-crowded state. These bells were pretty cool, as people walked towards the summit the would hit each bell, so that if a family was coming, the noise was pretty loud!

Luckily, the rain stopped long enough for me to snap a few pictures from the top. I also caught a snap of a couple of monks meandering the premises.

The humidity was truly oppressive, and I sort of hopped from air conditioned building to air conditioned building. This resulted in lots of quick stops for a convenience store snack or to check my e-mail at cheap internet cafes. I also checked out the King Prajadhipok museum. It was actually a fairly interesting look at the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, and the life of one very reform minded king. Prajadhipok ruled Thailand from 1925 to 1935, in what was a very turbulent period for Thailand. A bloodless coup in 1932 radically changed the government, but broke the spirit of the king, and he abdicated and moved to England a few years later. While the museum was pretty interesting, it was a bit too much. I certainly learned far more about King Prajadhipok than I had ever expected!

I didn't have the guts to take the water bus, as I had no idea where it went! But it is a pretty cool concept.

Next: Red vs. Blue or Oh My its Muay Thai

Monday, May 21, 2007

City of Angels, City of Rain

Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathatiya witsanukamprasit.

That is the true name of Bangkok, it means, roughly, "Great City of Angels, Repository of Divine Gems, Great Land Unconquerable, Grand and Prominent Realm, Royal and Delightful Capital City Full of Nine Noble Gems, Highest Royal Dwelling and Grand Palace, Divine Shelter and Living Place of Reincarnated Spirits."

Phew. I think I'll stick with the less official but slightly more widely used Bangkok. (Thanks to Lonely Planet for the name and translation)

My first full day in the City of Angels was marred by an unceasing rain. I had my breathable Gore-tex jacket, but with the heat and the humidity, it wasn't near breathable enough. Despite the rain, I actually got wetter WITH the jacket on than with it off.

I was also foiled by the fact that it was May 1st, May Day. Just about every store and restaurant was closed, which made being a tourist a bit more difficult. The Golden Mount, a huge temple complex visible from my hotel room was open to all, but filled with local worshipers which made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Sadly, while my hotel was centrally located, it was a little on the old and musty side, so I certainly didn't have any desire to spend my day in my room. My only recourse was to wander the streets, and see what I could see. I encountered the Golden Mount, a fortress complete with cannon, a few snazzy looking temples, and the Winged Democracy Monument.

Of course, I continued eating my way through southeast-Asia, with another delicious Tom Yum Gan, which wasn't quite as spicy as the one I had in Phuket, thank God.

Being it was May Day, many of the cities residents had taken to the streets wearing yellow shirts embossed with the symbol of the Monarchy. Thailand takes their King VERY seriously, and they love him with a passion unknown in the States. Even George Washington isn't nearly as revered as King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

After a long day of walking in the dripping, muggy weather, I was glad to take a shower and crash out with hopes of a dryer, cooler tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rain Rain Go Away

My last day in Phuket dawned sunny, clear and hot. My flight to Bangkok didn't leave until 9:00 PM, so I had plenty of time to kill on the beach.

A quick dip in the Andaman sea was a great way to refresh myself after walking around town all morning. I noticed that throughout South-East Asia Hotels had a much more civilized check out time of 12:00 noon. Of course they have a correspondingly later check-in time, but since all my flights were pretty late, that was no problem.

After I checked out, I left my bags at the hotel and headed back into town for lunch. One delicious green curry later, the first of the trip actually, I was just moseying about aimlessly and I noticed that the clouds over the Andaman Sea were getting larger, and darker than usual.

So on the way back to the hotel I ducked into the large covered market that was nearby. The market was pretty cool, but I detest having people try very hard to sell me things. I just want to be left alone to browse, and if I want something, well I'll let you know, thanks. Of course thats not really how street markets anywhere work, and especially not in Thailand. If they notice one iota of your concentration landing on their stall, they are on you like Jaws on a beach of nubile maidens.

I still managed not to buy anything, though I almost bought some knockoff Birkenstocks. God knows the poor lady tried hard enough to make the sale. I figured that in general anything I could get in Phuket, I could probably get in Bangkok much cheaper.

I was lucky to be indoors though, as the heavens opened up and it started absolutely pouring outside. Like it was a torrent of nigh biblical proportions. Anybody caught outside, even if they had an umbrella or a rain slicker, were soaked within minutes. The crowd in the increasingly stuffy market built up, with many people clustered around the door waiting for the rain to abate. We waited, and waited, and waited some more. As we were waiting the market started to flood. Finally I had had enough waiting, and sprinted the 20 yards to my hotel. Needless to say, I got pretty wet. But soon enough I was on my way back to Phuket International Airport for my flight to Bangkok. That was an interesting experience. Budget airlines, night flight, thunderstorms, even I was a little bit worried as we came in to land at Suvarnabhumi Airport, ready to start the Bangkok portion of my trip.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Bond, James Bond

In the 1974 film The Man with the Golden Gun Christopher Lee's cultured assassin Francisco Scaramanga menaced James Bond from a secret island lair. That lair is actually Khao Tapu, an island located to the north of Phuket.

There are many tours that offer a view of this slice of movie magic, and most of them offer a bit more than just the puny island. Our tour started at Suwankuha Temple, a Buddist temple embedded in an impressive little cave. Outside of the cave were dozens of excessively cute monkeys, but the low light caused by the overcast weather made getting a good close up difficult. I have many many pictures that are 'almost' amazing.

The cave itself was filled with Buddhist statuary and bats, both of which I find fairly interesting. Though after living in Japan for so long, I'll admit that Buddhist statuary is becoming passé for a tourist attraction. The bats were cut though. After leaving the cave the tour bus rendezvoused with a few others and our groups boarded a 'long tail' boat, so called because of the long propeller shaft sticking out of the back of the boat.

These flat bottomed boats are perfect for navigating the estuaries, mangrove swamps, and island chains that make up Phang Nga Bay National Park. Our first stop was a collection of sea caves. We all boarded colorful inflatable sea kayaks, and then were chauffeured around the spectacular rock formations and mudskipper infested swamps.

Next up on the itinerary was a visit to James Bond Island itself, but to our misfortune the sky morphed from merely overcast to pouring rain.

Luckily we got a chance to see a couple of waterspouts, from a distance. While I've seen a real tornado (again from a distance), I'd never had a chance to see a waterspout.

Unluckily once we got the island the rain went from pouring to drenching. We clustered under an awning and took pictures of tiny little 'nail island' in all its rain shrouded glory. I don't think the famously tall Christopher Lee would fit! Alas, movie magic is shown to be all smoke and mirrors.

We cut our stop short, as the tropical rain was in no mood to dissipate anytime soon, and it was way past lunch time. Lunch was at a restaurant in the village of Koh Panyee.

Koh Panyee is worthy as a tourist stop because it is built entirely on piles driven into the shallow mud. The islands that dot Phang Nga Bay are often too sheer to build much on, and the same is true here, so the island is used as a wind break and an anchor to hold the ramshackle fishing village.

The market and the mosque presented the primary attractions, once the delicious course lunch had been consumed. The rain had let up a little bit by the time we left, so the journey back wasn't quite as wet and dripping.

Once back at the hotel I decided that after such a strenuous day of travel I need a reward! Having never had a professional massage, I figured that now was as good a time as any, being in the land of the cheap, high quality massage. The hotel had a spa area in the back with a barber shop for hair extensions, manicure and pedicure facilities and of course massage rooms. I was pretty tired, but the thing that really stuck out was the strange sounds made as the masseuse popped my toes. I didn't think feet were supposed to make noises like that. The massage was certainly very relaxing, my muscles were pretty sore, both from the days travels and just generally walking around with a heavy backpack and camera.

With that, my busy seconds full day ended, and I drifted off to sleep very rapidly.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

By the Shores of the Andaman Sea

Paradise: a place of extreme beauty, delight, or happiness.

While Phuket may not quite be Paradise, there are too many crazed Tuk-Tuk drivers for one thing, it certainly has its charms. The warm clear beauty of the Andaman Sea is chief among those charms, contrasting sharply with the turbid and chilly Japan Sea here in Kanazawa, or the rocky coasts of Northern California. Those places offer my only real 'beach' experience, so the deceptively gentle looking Karon Beach was a revelation.

I say deceptively gentle because the surf is actually pretty big for a swimming beach. Riding the waves might be a bit difficult, they weren't that big, but they were certainly more than large enough to knock this land-lubber right off his feet. One tumbled me pretty good actually, and really taught be to be a bit more careful. I quickly learned how to judge the waves, and relearned that the deeper, the better off you are when dodging breakers.

Speaking of large waves, Karon Beach was one of the areas hard hit by the tsunami back in 2004. (Side note, the earthquake that triggered that devastating tsunami is the longest recorded by a seismograph, at between 500 and 600 seconds. The Ishikawa quake we had was 30 seconds, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 had strong shaking of a mere 48 seconds.) Despite the damage done a mere two and a half years ago, Phuket's toursits facilities have recovered handily. Only in a few places did I see an damage, and all the roads, hotels, and restaurants are going strong.

When I stopped off for lunch on my first day, I thought I'd try something new, rather than the same old (delicious) green curry or pad thai. I went with hot and sour chicken soup (tom yup gai). The waitress asked if I wanted it prepared spicy or mild. I raised my eyebrows and said I wanted it spicy, of course.

I am an idiot.

Now I enjoy spicy food. I revel in it. I love Wasabi, Jalapeños, Chipotle, heck I even consume Habanero death sauces. In all my life I don't think I had ever encountered anything of this magnitude in heat. It was intense but really that is putting things rather mildly. I finished the soup, but I suffered and enjoyed the meal the whole way. It really was wonderful, I mean it tasted great, but it is certainly one of those dishes that separates the men from the boys, and the sane from the totally over the moon nutcases. Like myself, for example.