Dec 2004 - Jan 2005 -- Everyone in the world has learned a lot about tsunamis in the past couple of weeks.I think the thing I have been most surprised with is the randomness of the damage.While some people lost everything, others walked away without a scratch.Damage seems to have a lot to do with geography: where you were in relation to the quake, the shape of your bay, how deep the water is, etc.
When Sarah and I visited a college friend of ours who lives in Bangkok, I was shocked by the tsunami footage I saw on tv.Since we don't have tv on Exit Only, I hadn't seen the images of destruction blasting across all the news channels.Phuket's tragic death toll of almost 300 people pales in comparison to places like Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and India.
I was even more surprised when I talked to other tourists about the tsunami.In Chiang Mai we met an American woman who told us her family was "petrified" for her safety even though she was currently 300 miles inland.She also said she was originally flying to Phuket this week, but changed her plans because of the risk of disease.
I can thankfully tell you her fears are unfounded.Two weeks after the waves, much of the damage has been repaired, the beaches are clean, and hospital visits are slowing down.Everyone helps where they can and the beachside economies are slowly kicking themselves into gear.I realize this isn't the case everywhere, and to people who lost family members in Phuket, it isn't even relevant.Sumatra, Sri Lanka, and India have much bigger problems than a declining tourism industry......
But all I can do is tell this story as best I can from where I am.Maybe this story of hope will be a positive change from the sad destruction in the news.
The local people work industriously to clear the beaches of debris and rebuild damaged infrastructure.The newspaper reports that construction crews have doubled their wages in the wake of the wave, which gives you an idea about the demand for their services.Currently, 70 percent of the resorts on the island are fully operational.However, due to a mass tourist exodus and widespread canceling of reservations, hotels are operating at 20 percent occupancy.
That's about all I have to say about the tsunami for now...otherwise I'll just be repeating things you already know from the tv and internet.The rest of this journal entry is going to be devoted to a quick trip Sarah and I took to
Bangkok and Chiang Mai a few days ago.
Bangkok is an amazingly cool town.I remember visiting it a couple of times when I was much younger, but to be honest, only with a sort of convenient haziness (you know what I mean...like when you think you can remember your own birth but are actually confusing it with an episode of ER you watched from the bathtub).
At any rate,
Bangkok was even better than I remember (or think I remember).The city feels like a cross between
Miami and Riyadh.It has massive roads, massive traffic buildups, English is a second language, and no traffic regulation.When Vivorn (our Thai friend) picked us up from the airport he demonstrated that a Toyota Corolla, driven Thai-style, can reach Mach 2.Impressive, except that every motor scooter in the city passed us like we were standing still.
If driving is an art form, Thailand is filled with drivers who throw buckets of paint at a canvas and call their work a masterpiece.Lines on the asphalt are considered mild suggestions rather than rules, so most two lane roads operate as four lane expressways.In many ways this is like
Riyadh, except that those same roads in Saudi would become six lane superhighways.
There is something for everyone in a town like
Bangkok.Vivorn is an avid fisherman, so he took me and a couple of his friends to a lake teeming with mutant catfish.The lake is a privately owned fish farm where locals can fish any time, day or night.We arrived just before and reserved a cabin for the evening fishing session.A giant sign at the entrance to the lake claims that the record size catfish caught at this lake is 210 pounds and 12 feet long.
Yeah, I know....I thought the same thing..."there is no way that catfish could ever grow that big"...and even if they did, they would live in a mountaintop jungle lake somewhere in the deep Amazon, not at a fish farm in Bangkok.
All I can say is that while I was walking down the dock, I watched a kid catch the biggest catfish I have ever seen or heard of.His fishing rod bent into a giant question mark while he reeled the monster in and he had to get help to pull the fish onto the dock.Ghostly white, six feet long, and at least 50 pounds...that catfish made a believer out of me.
I was really pumped to catch one myself, so I rushed off to the cabin to try my luck.Thus began three hours of cold, mosquito bitten, uneventful waiting:
12:00 am - The rods are set, the bait (bread) is ready, the fish are biting
- One of our group orders a pizza
- Lots of mosquitoes
12:50 am - Vivorn shows me how to cast a fishing line (we pull a line behind us on the boat, so I don't have much experience casting with an actual pole)
12:51 am - I forget to release the brake on the rod while casting, so the line snaps and I hurl a giant clump of bread and fishing tackle into the middle of lake in what turns out to be my best cast of the night.The fish are laughing at me.
12:52 am - Vivorn goes to buy another lure since I just hurled the other one into the lake.
12:53 am - While Vivorn is gone, I try a different lure but don't mash the bread tightly enough onto it, so when I cast the line, it goes ten feet before exploding into a rain of bread crust.The fish are laughing so hard they can't breathe.(Ha...the joke is on them...if they can't breathe, they can't swim...if they can't swim, they surface...and if they surface, they are mine.)
1:00 am - The pizza isn't here.Speculation begins about whether
the 30 minute rule applies in Thailand.Call the company but the pizza isn't free.
- Still no bites.
1: - Pizza is here.Much rejoicing.
1: - Vivorn returns with lure.He's determined to catch a fish tonight.
1:15 am - The fish are mocking us.
1:20 am - The group of teenagers in the cabin next to us throw someone into the lake.
1:30 am - I successfully cast a line.It only goes about ten feet but we all consider this a great improvement.Impressed, the fish fall silent.
mosquitoes.Vivorn says male
mosquitoes don't bite, only females do.
2:00 am - We discover our cabin is the site of an all-female mosquito weekend retreat.
2: - I cast again, this time about six feet.Alas.
2: - I cast to a mighty distance of twenty feet.I am goliath in the eyes of fish.
2: - Still no fish bites.
2:30 am - Everyone wants to go home, but Vivorn is too hardcore.He wants to stay, and he has the car keys.
2:40 am - This is ridiculous.
3:00 am - No fish bites, but mosquitos consider the evening a success.
3:15 am - The mutiny is complete.The fish have won.We go home.
I don't know if there really are 200 pound catfish, but after seeing that kid catch his 50 pounder, I believe it is possible.All I can say for sure is that there are indeed enormous mutant catfish in a lake in
Bangkok, and they are way smarter than me.
Sarah and I did a quick visit to
Ayutthaya, which used to be the cultural and international trade capital of Thailand back when the country was still called Siam.The temple ruins are a huge tourist attraction, but our tuk tuk (motorcycle three-wheeler taxi) driver got lost so we arrived at sunset, when the place was largely empty.
I always find it humbling and a little creepy to walk through the ruins of what was once a "wonder of a modern age".It reminds me how short life is.Even in ruin, the temples are beautiful.At night, colored lights are shined onto the domes of the highest towers so busloads of tourists can take pictures from the road.Through a quirk of timing, Sarah and I got locked in the temple grounds after the other tourists had cleared out, so we took our time to walk around.I think we surprised the gate guards when we emerged from the darkness...
We took a train to get back to
Bangkok.It was only an hour and a half trip, so the train only had third class fares.We quickly discovered we weren't the only people in Thailand with the idea of returning to
Bangkok that night...there weren't any seats or standing room available in the train cars, so we stood next to the bathrooms in the hallway between cars...and thus began the mayhem...
As soon as the train left the station, a Thai fellow in a cream colored jacket who was standing in the rubber accordion section between cars made eye contact with me.Smiling, he motioned to his watchless wrist in the universal gesture for "what time is it?". I told him and he smiled back.I must have looked friendly because two minutes later he sidled over to me and grabbed my wrist to see for himself.Then he looked right at me and burst into a stream of friendly-sounding Thai.I motioned that I didn't understand so he repeated himself.Of course I didn't understand this time either, so I smiled and shrugged.Since I don't speak Thai beyond saying "thank you" and he didn't speak English, we had reached an impasse.
We weren't getting anywhere (although he, Sarah, and I were all laughing) so Sarah opened the Lonely Planet book to the "Handy phrase" section.It didn't help, but it was a good try.The guy was really interested in communicating and even though he didn't read English, he kept grabbing the book.Just for fun, I told him the Thai equivalent of "I'm pregnant" which only confused things.
We were pretty much yelling back and forth to each other so we could hear over the clacking noise of the wheels on the tracks.By now we had the attention of everyone in the vicinity and other interested parties began moving our way.A Thai student at university standing next to us became our default translator.A Thai man in a camouflage coat with two teeth appeared out of nowhere, pointed at me, and told me in halting English "I.....love.......you....." then smiled toothlessly.
Finally realizing I didn't understand Thai no matter how many times he repeated himself, the first guy pulled out his wallet and to show me his ID card....written in Thai language (which doesn't even use western letters).While he was showing me his card, the guy in the camo coat pointed to Sarah and told me she was beautiful.I agreed.The university student was laughing a lot.It was a fun and quick ride back to
Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist culture.All Thai males are required to be a Buddhist monk at some point in their lives.Every town and city in Thailand has a collection of Buddhist temples (called "Wats" that are well worth a visit.Usually a Wat is filled with a collection of Buddha statues surrounding one "special" statue, which the Wat is often known for.There are many types and sizes of Buddhas: Emerald, Gold, Lying, Sitting, Standing, Bronze, Gold Leaf, Jade, Reclining, Smiling, etc.
Another staple of the Thailand tourist experience is the snake show.Snake shows seem to feature three kinds of snakes: the jumping snake (nonvenomous), cobra (quite venomous), and king cobras (hardcore venomous).
In a show, the snake handler agitates the snakes enough to strike (which doesn't take a lot of effort), then spends the rest of the time trying to avoid getting bitten (which takes a lot more effort).It's not really logical, but it's amazing to watch.(In some ways, the snake show experience is a bit like a rap concert.Usually rap groups feature someone who actually raps while other people on stage pitch in with "Uh huh....." and "Yeeaauhh, dawg" and wave their arms around to hype up the crowd.I think those people are called "hype men" but I've only been to one rap concert in my life and don't really like rap music, so what do I know?Anyways, snake shows have announcers, too.They give running commentary to hype up the crowd.)
There is a big difference between king cobras and regular cobras.For a start, regular cobras come in two types: biting and spitting.Both are poisonous, but they don't use spitting cobras in snake shows because they can spit venom with accuracy into the eyes of anyone they don't like.It doesn't kill you, but apparently it is incapacitating and at least temporarily blinding, which is bad for tourism.A bite by either type of cobra will kill a human in about an hour unless they get to a hospital in time for anti-venom.
King cobras are much bigger than regular cobras and seem much more businesslike and lethal.While smaller cobras eat mice and rats, king cobras eat other snakes...they don't play around.Apparently regular cobras bite quickly with smaller amounts of venom while king cobras latch on and pump their venom glands dry before they let go, if they do.
Jumping snakes are not poisonous, however, and at the last show dad and I got volunteered to go in the ring with the handler and put our finger in its mouth.Neither of us truly wanted to, but we watched a middle aged woman do it before us so excuses were hard to come by.Mom wasn't impressed.
Our next destination will be the Maldives, a chain of islands southwest of Sri Lanka.It looks to be about a 12 day sail.Currently we are waiting for the weather to clear up in the Indian Ocean to give us the best chance of a safe passage.We will update the website next from there....
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