Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Live from Surat Thani!

sa-wat-dee jahk grung tep!
updated photos on flikr

29 October 12:00Chinatown

All the sleepers to Surat Thani were booked for this evening so I ended up getting a 2nd class car leaving at 11 o'clock tonight. With ten+ hours to kill, I check my bag at the station and head to Samphan Thawong for some lunch (vegetable + beef soup with sticky rice--45B ($1.25)) and figure out what to do for the day. It's so bloody hot--I'm sweating standing still--that I think it will have to be some place with air-con. It is difficult to stay hydrated. The military police are a strong presence here, but bicycles are not surprisingly. There are hordes of 125-250cc motorcycles and scooters, though. The traffic is insanely trecherous but if you're Zen about it, you can cross a crowded street as smoothly as navigating through a crowd of students on campus.

As in Mexico, personal shrines set up in cafes, public places--even taxi cabs and busses--are common. Small buddha statues surrounded by flowers, candles, incense, and small bowls of rice. Pictures of revered buddhist teachers, military generals, and the king himself hang on walls like the St. Joseph's and Sacred Hearts in Italian restaurants, and make for a strange mix of religion and militant nationalism. Pictures of the king are everywhere, even on skyscrapers. I shudder to think if we did the same with our President.

As for the monks, they are no mythical figures. They walk the streets and through the crowded train station like ordinary citizens, with orange robes in lieu of a suit and a canvas satchel in place of a briefcase. I even spotted one wrinkly old monk checking out Lotto tickets at a roadside stand.

A squat woman at the station asked me if I had friends. I said no--I knew she meant 'Are you by yourself?'--and pointed to myself, holding up one finger, to which she replied 'aah.' Aside from summers spent hiking the AT with Andy and Brian Pye, I have always traveled alone--never with a girlfriend and never with friends. Anonymity can give way to lonliness now and again but for the most part it is a comforting blanket. The freedom from agendas and the freedom to come and go as I please--to sleep under a tree all day if I want to--when there is no one to object is a benefit I claim in exchange for an empty bed at night. But judging from the way I feel at the end of the day, I reckon I wouldn't want to be using that bed for anything but sleeping.



The South African wasn't kidding about the tak-tak drivers--they are crafty sheisters. I got roped into a ride from one after leaving the cafe. I offered the small brown man 30 baht for a ride to Saphan Taksin which he accepted but kept repeating 'ten minutes. You wait. Free gas.' I had no idea what he was talking about, so I just nodded when he showed me a coupon for 'Free Gasoline.' I was only half surprised when I found him pulling over in front of a clothing store telling me to go inside. Turns out the '10 minutes' was how long he wanted me to look around the store and the 'free gasoline' was his commission from the shop. I gave him 40b and told him I would walk the rest. I turn off the main road onto a soi (side st.) and it is suddenly a different Bangkok--shadowy noodle rooms, bony street kitties lapping broth and scallions from little wells in the ground, Chinese herb shops full of gnarly roots and magical powders. When I get tired of walking I hail a cab to the pier. Two things astound me: the sheer volume of scooter traffic on the roads and the number of yellow-shirted government workers seen on the street. Every now and then you will see a guy on a shiny 650 (not much bigger) but they're about as rare as scooters and 125cc's in the States.

I take the Skytrain above the snarled city traffic to Victory monument, which doesn't look like much more than a concrete pillar surrounded by a swirling clog of cars, busses, and scooters. The heat is oppressive, so I decide to head out farther to Chatuchak Park to try to take a nap. I rent a plastic straw mat for 20b (65 cents) and lay out in the grass by the water. There is a breeze and its a quiet respite from the city. A brother and sister try to sell me dried bread and bird pellets for the pigeons. They play with my camera and I give them each 2b and tell them to shoo so I can take a nap.



I wake up three hours later; the mat guy is standing over me with a smile. I hand it back to him and jump on the Metro to Huamphlong. By now I have a headache that only gets worse. I get a massage and try to eat some soup but only feel nauseus in the sickeningly hot station. I got out on the platform and lie down on the floor with a bandana over my mouth to filter out the fumes. I feel like I'm going to be sick and remember the legless beggar I saw earlier. Drifting in and out of sleep the train finally arrives. The Russians I saw at the cafe earlier are sitting in front of me talking loudly. I hope I can sleep for some of next 11 hours.


Thankfully the car is modestly air-conditioned, but I am still shivering with a coldsweet. I drift off to sleep for a bit only to wake up with just enough time to stagger into the toilet and throw up. I feel like death and it is a brutal ride, but emptying my stomach helped a little. I wake up next in the pre-dawn and watch the sky lighten exposing water buffalo with little birds hopping around in the jungle. I am sad because I think to myself, 'I will never reach buddhahood because I cannot transcend pain.' Sometimes a minor headache can throw me more than a debilitating depression because of the horror, I think, that it comes from outside my control.

As the Russians and most of the other tourists head for the taxi stands, I decide to take the local bus from Phun Phin to town. At 12b (30 cents), it is a tenth of the cost of a taxi and is more uncertain, which is half the fun (if you look at it that way). In this section of the country, though, almost nothing is written in English and communicating is harder. I am feeling a little better now, though I do just want to get into town and get a room and something to eat and then hole up and sleep and get an early start to Chaiya tomorrow. I find the Ban Don Hotel amid the stinking fish and vegetable markets. Apparently it has the reputation of a 'by-the-hour' hotel, but my room is cheap and very clean and big and has air conditioning.

When I look around at other backpackers making their way to the islands or national parks or to here-or-there, I'm reminded that when it comes down to it I do not especially like traveling that much. It is draining rather than invigorating for me; still, I enjoy it because it is impossible not to grow when you expose yourself to a world outside yourself. It's a strange duality. So for that, I like it. But I am looking forward to being at Suan Mokkh, if anything just to have the comfort of being in one place for a while.

Will not get to write for close to two weeks, so enjoy Halloween, the gloating Sox fans, and be well.

jeu gan na!


Rebecca said...

As I read your entries I form strong visions of me as an apparition squeezing your hand gently as you travel, stroking your brow when you fell ill or weary. I am praying for you and thinking about you often.

My faith and strength are here for you to borrow on, even if only in the abstract, intangible realm of thought and emotion.

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