B A R R Y L A N D .



land of smiles.
updates on our honeymoon in thailand.

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things i did in 03.
a year of sickness, health, adventure, and love


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 O ne of the first things we talked about when I proposed to Catherine was where we'd go for our honeymoon. I suggested that we go for no less than a month. Catherine got an odd look on her face and said, "Oh. I was thinking more like 6 weeks." I knew all over again that I'd chosen well.

We went back and forth on various places we could go, keeping it to fairly inexpensive parts of the world (you can't stay in Paris for 6 weeks; or at least we couldn't). Then we found ourselves in a Thai restaurant, and the idea struck us: Thailand is the perfect place. Neither of us had been there before, it was great weather, good travel, an interesting place that had both the resorty beaches — good for honeymooning — and the historically and artistically interesting stuff as well — good for a monthlong trip.

We bought our tickets and then didn't think a thing more about it till we packed after the wedding. No itinerary, no reservations.


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  T U E S D A Y ,   A P R I L   6 . 

After 24 hours of travel we arrived at the Bangkok airport, with no idea where we were going to go. We'd lost our guidebook in an airplane hours before. But we found some experienced-looking travelers and asked them, and they mentioned Khao San Road, a famous half-mile in an older part of town. We'd read about it earlier, betting it would be the perfect place. We took a cab straight to it, and rounded the corner onto a street that comes out of my fantasies of Bangkok: banners flying, people everywhere, booths with clothes, jewelry, and music, the enticing smell of food, and little bars and inns every few feet.

Nearly every public place has a shrine — with statues, food & water offered.
We quickly found a good hotel (whose receptionist was kind and gentle but firm on the girl policy that an inebriated gent wanted relaxed a bit), put our stuff up, and went out into the street. Didn't do much, just saw the sights and got a plate of pad thai.


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  W E D N E S D A Y ,  A P R I L   7 . 

Woke up quite early and got going: we had the delicious complimentary breakfast in bed, went out into the market, and bought some flip-flops for the shower and a new guidebook.

In the heat of the afternoon, we went to get a massage: one hour of body massage, followed by a half hour of foot massage. Good enough to do every day. The foot massage was especially good, in that they administered some kind of tingly stuff that made our feet and legs feel cool even when we returned to the heat. A bite of lunch (fish balls in green curry, stir-fried chicken and nuts), and we were back to shopping a bit, this time for a shirt for me.

That evening, back out on the street for dinner. We started with fresh watermelon and then fruit drinks. Mine was dragon-fruit, whose skin is red and bony like a hungarian horntail, but whose flesh is more like a dalmatian, white with little black seeds scattered through.
Also for sale: scorpions, bugs, and worms.
It tasted sweet and dry. Then we did some more clothes shopping among the many booths with gorgeous clothing of Thai silk and other exotic materials. (One of the most exotic and desirable materials in the eyes of Thais, apparently, is T-shirt material — T-shirts with various logos, from the familiar to the unfamiliar to the bizarre, are everywhere.)

More strolling around, a bit more eating, and we called it a night at around 2. At least publicly: we then went back and had the best, and least painful, sex we've had so far. I can't imagine going through this fragile process outside of the absolute assurance of love and care. Even now its rewards are beautiful, cementing an already deep relationship.


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  T H U R S D A Y,  A P R I L   8 . 

Thailand is big on politeness, especially in dress. Most of the locals have long sleeves, or at least covered shoulders, and long or longish pants. If you're going into a temple, we've heard, you should even have shoes on rather than sandals, although again the culture of politeness would probably prevent a guard from scolding you or barring your entry.

All this is in contrast to the behavior of foreigners, especially on Khao San Road, where shoulders, legs, and bellies are all on display.
The road by day.
Not that anyone cares, Khao San being a somewhat set-apart place. I remember reading an article that said you could start out on one end of this half-mile-long pedestrian street as a suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying traveler and emerge on the other end sandalled, tattooed, pierced, dreadlocked, and completely unrecognizable.

We settled for more massages, a facial, and a beautiful green silk napkin top for Catherine.
Us in our Thai gear:
1 - 2.
We also arranged bus tickets to Ranong, had our first disappointing meal, consisting of a dry approximation of sandwich, and relaxed with a cool fruit drink (watermelon for Catherine and the beguilingly cloying lychee for me) before boarding that evening.


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  F R I D A Y,  A P R I L   9 . 

After an overnight trip by bus, we arrived at Ranong in the south at around 5 am.
Our bleary arrival.
An extremely bad cup of coffee and a taxi ride later, and we were at the pier that would take us to the island of Ko Chang. (Actually, that phrase is redundant, because "ko" means island.) We'd looked at a few places to stay in our guidebook, but were met by a kind girl named Moon, who wanted us to stay at *her* place instead. It was called Tommy's Garden, and it was on a different beach than the others. We decided to take her up on it.

We were paid richly for that decision. Ko Chang is a tiny island in the Andaman Sea, two hours out by fishing boat, in a little group of little islands, most of them uninhabited. Chang itself is mostly uninhabited, except for a few bungalows dotting the west and south side.
More island pics: 1 - 2 - 3
Moon's place was simply perfect. It's an island paradise: seven darling little shacks sitting in leafy shades, along a very private beach, with a central, low-slung ranchhouse where people gathered and meals were served.

Only a few other people were there, all of them very personable, good travelers that were a pleasure to be around. After a delicious meal cooked by Moon and her partner Toi, we sat around a campfire on the beach and drank from an Igloo bucket full of a delicious rum-coke-and-lime drink: a giant Cuba Libre!

Around midnight, I stepped outside our shack, and emerged into a moonlit night that perfectly resembled what the French call nuit americaine — the tinted lens effect used in old movie scenes that took place at night. Looking out across the big boulders, sandy crescent, gently lapping waves, distant islands, and deep blue sky, presided over by a serenely triumphant moon, I had the odd feeling of being transported to the very place I was standing.


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  M O N D A Y,  A P R I L   1 2 . 

A leisurely weekend of fruity pancakes, beach, sun, sleep, sunset, and excellent companionship with new friends. What a way to spend Easter! Monday we got up early and Toi boated us to the main boat back to Ranong, about a two hour trip.
They serve drinks in bags.
From there we caught the bus to Surat Thani to the east over the mountains. It's on the other coast of this thin strip of Thailand, and it's on the way to Ko Samui, a much more famous and touristy place where we figured we'd spend Songkran, the New Year holiday.

It's also a big city with a good hospital. Catherine was experiencing some terrible pain, which we now know to have been honeymoon cystitis, a common and easily fixed condition that affects honeymooners. But it didn't seem to fit the description we'd heard about and prepared for. A trip to the hospital was the wise choice, and Ranong didn't have the facilities.
Knowing how to use white-out.

Our bus strained and struggled as we ascended the mountains, but (at a rate of about 5mph) managed to make it. On the way, we made friends with several of the under-6 set, some of whom developed a taste for the sour apple candies we occasionally handed out.

We hadn't even gotten to the bus station in Surat Thani when Catherine cried out: she spotted the hospital just to our left. We barked at the bus driver to stop, and we got out right at the hospital's front door. Traveling mercies.

The place itself was brilliantly designed in the Asian tradition of spatial harmony: much more horizontal and airy than we're used to. Just the architecture gave us a sense of peace and tranquility, as opposed to the cramped hallways and awkwardly spacious lobbies of American hospitals.

In a very short time, we were signed in (as "Mr. Cathering Brake") sitting in an office, being questioned by an intern who knew just enough English to be very frustrating. After several gesticulations, we thought we'd gotten her to understand what the problem was. She sent us over to the lab to have Catherine do a urine test. In a miraculously short time by American standards, the results came back: Catherine was not pregnant. Very helpful results, had that actually been our question. The doctor prescribed some pain medicine and sent us on our way, oblivious to the fact that we had not at all been helped.

We saw our nurse at the desk on the way out, and hoped she could help us. She was, by the way, wearing the universal nurse outfit that seems to have been abandoned completely in the West: white dress, white shoes, and the nurse-hat-that-isn't-quite-a-hat- but-more-like-a-cloth-tiara. Why can't American nurses look like nurses? That's all I ask. What's next, Catholic schoolgirls wearing white polos and khakis? We're witnessing the decline of the West. Anyway, the nurse: we asked her if we could see a doctor, and she only pointed to the intern that we'd just seen. No one seemed to understand that we wanted an examination.

Finally, I went back to the information desk, and asked firmly for someone who spoke very good English. The girl there got on the phone and had a series of conversations that always included the word "falang" (that is, "foreigner"), and the phrase "Veri! Gut! English!" spoken with a comical clip. Soon, a friendly youngish doctor was ushering us into an examination room where he proceeded to examine Mr. Cathering Brake.

He used a flashlight. I'm not kidding: it wasn't even a Cool Doctor Flashlight, or anything that looked like medical equipment. Nope, it was a big orange heavy duty Home Depot flashlight, slightly beat-up, as if it had had a first life in a garage. I must say it was very effective, and no doubt less expensive than the lighting in Western hospitals. Maybe that's why our total bill, including exams, labs, and all the medicine, was 89 baht. (At 38 baht to the dollar, remember.)

Honeymoon cystitis it was, as confirmed by a second lab test. A trip to the pharmacy for some simple meds, and that was that. Disaster averted. Everything OK. On to the hotel.

A Brit we'd met in the hospital had recommended a new hotel called BJ. We arrived there to find a clean, well-laid-out, sparklingly new place with hot showers, towels, mats, and a real bed, all of which we were ready for after the last few days. We cleaned up and went out to find a place to eat.

The restaurant we wound up at was attached to a hotel, and came straight out of Lost in Translation: Thailand. Big, empty, blankly luxe, with a few grim customers here and there, being serenaded by listless singers singing, with karaoke-style midi accompaniment, the ubiquitous sweet-sweet pop ballads that Thais love. We had a pretty good meal there (I ate a plate of Morning Glory with noodles), punctuated by an impromptu blues performance at the out-of-tune piano — the first time I've touched keys in over a week.


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  T U E S D A Y,  A P R I L   1 3 . 

New Year's Day, 2548. That's what day it is according to the Buddhist calendar. Thais celebrate this, and the Gregorian New Year, and the Chinese New Year, and any other holiday they can get their hands on. Today, you bathe your Buddha statue, and you reverently sprinkle priests and monks with water, and you reverently sprinkle elders with water as well. You also douse everyone else in sight with huge amounts of water, buckets and buckets of water, indiscriminately tossed at passersby. If you don't want to get wet, you stay in. But don't stay in: go out and get completely soaked.

Surat Thani is traffic-jammed with pickup trucks — who knew there could be this many pickup trucks? — each with between 10 and 30 revelers in back, with huge trash-can-sized buckets, dog-pail-sized bowls for tossing, bright plastic supersoakers, and hoses. The people in trucks soak each other, people in other trucks, and pedestrians, of whom clusters stand on strategic corners with their own buckets, pails, and waterguns. It's like a very clean Mardi Gras. April being the beginning of the hot and dry season in Thailand, all this is quite welcome.

Catherine and I ventured out to do some shopping. Surat Thani is not a very touristy place, and we were pretty much the only people of European descent in sight. The revelers reacted in one of three ways: either they refrained from dousing us and instead shouted various garbled versions of "Helloooo!", or they doused us with greater gusto than normal, or they gingerly approached us, asking, with exaggerated body language, our kind permission to agree to be somewhat sprinkled.

Catherine did quite a bit of cringing, and I did quite a bit of boisterous yelling. The Thai culture of politeness was in evidence even here: they (mostly) refrained from getting Catherine, but attacked me till my flimsy cotton Thai shirt was dripping. Several times, I managed to get one of the dousers near me, only to flip his pail onto himself, causing either confusion or cheers from the trucks. But folks were uniformly pleased to see us wet and enjoying it.

Our insides were drenched, too: with watermelon juice. We'd eaten breakfast at the hotel, which served fresh juices as is common all over. But for some reason Catherine and I fell in love with the fresh watermelon juice, and ordered several refills, much to the bemusement of the management.

By late afternoon, we'd ferried to Ko Samui. Fifteen years ago, Samui was an undiscovered paradise. Today, it's a crowded, expensive tourist place. Still, it's gorgeous, and the perfect place to be for Songkran. To get to our hotel on the opposite side of the island, we rode in a sawngthaew, a group taxi in which 20 or so people sit crammed in the covered bed of a truck, usually for a fare of about a quarter. (On Ko Samui, it's $2.50.)

Naturally, by the time we got to the hotel, we were soaked to the skin, having passed band after band of revelers posted along the roads. Others on the taxi were less than delighted with this custom, which makes one wonder why they were here now, or why they didn't take a taxi. Maybe they just didn't know, or just didn't believe the watering would happen to this extent. After I suggested my strategy of flipping the pail back on the douser when possible, the gal across from us sourly suggested that next time we just bring eggs and throw them at the revelers. Knowing this logic is exactly what gets the human race in trouble, I wondered if it was too pointed to ask where she was from; finally I did. Her answer: "Israel."

In the evening, we took a swim in the calm, warm waters of Chaweng Beach, where our hotel is. We'd read the description of lush gardens and wood-and-rattan rooms and immediately knew we should stay there, despite the absurdly expensive rate (20 bucks a night). Sure enough, it's a delight: leafy pathways, pretty rooms on stilts, and very quiet, especially considering the pounding happy hardcore techno accompanying the water festivities just up on the street.

But we hadn't realized that the beach is reputed to be the most beautiful on Ko Samui. We bobbed in the water and looked back at the beach, with its moderate crowds, strings of lights, and dramatic purple sunset beyond the mountains, and for the severalth time counted ourselves among the rich.

Hat Chaweng reminds me of what beach resorts must have felt like in the 50s: a bit cheesy, but the commercialization is somehow calmer, and certainly far from the wall-to-wall Disneyfication of, say, Hawaii. The Mai Tai we had with dinner fit right in.

One thing that's a bit refreshing here is the clientele. So far, we've been in traveller places rather than tourist places. Most of the folks we've seen have therefore been sunburned Europeans and Brits and Aussies in their 20s, moderately pierced and tattoed, many with backpacks, and all quite beautiful. Catherine and I had noted that just about everyone on Khao San Road in Bangkok (a mecca for this sort of traveller) was unusually attractive. But Ko Samui is different. Here, we've seen our first ugly people, our first overweight people, and our first old people. We've also seen our first families with small children. What a striking difference!

Any traveller knows that the true World Music is electronic dance music. It's absolutely universal, and all up and down the beach you hear its varieties: trance, deep house, and especially vocal and progressive house. Where electronica is not thumping out its laid-back, perfect-for-the-beach beat, you hear Norah Jones, who seems to have conquered Thailand. But at our place, where we had dinner, the vibe was entirely different. There were Thais and tourists, old and young, singles and couples and families, and the atmosphere was much more like a church barbecue. The music was mostly some gentle Thai pop, but for a while there was a particularly amusing CD of alto sax music: saccharine midi backgrounds behind a Splenda sax solo, churning out hit after hit of a certain kind. "Seasons in the Sun," "If," "Feelings." As if this weren't enough, the postmenopausal table next to us pleasantly hummed along with "Feelings." Priceless. And then, there was an intro that sounded somewhat familiar, a synth version of some song from that era... what was it?... and then they all started humming along right when the melody came in, not missing a beat: "Song Sung Blue." Yes.

So the vibe is a bit different on Ko Samui. Actually, it's quite nice. In the absence of one's own goofy family members, one can get a comfy taste of home. And in the meantime, it's a welcome break from the ultracool traveler monoculture that so dominates elsewhere.


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  W E D N E S D A Y,  A P R I L   1 4 . 

After a leisurely day of good food and air-conditioning, we took an evening trip to Wat Phra Yai, the big Buddha statue that's often featured in travel pics of Ko Samui. If you ask a taxi guy for "Wat Phra Yai," he'll look at you with puzzlement and repeat it over and over until you gesticulate that you're talking about a big Buddha statue, at which point he'll say, "Big Buddha, Big Buddha!" Yes, Big Buddha. Should have known that since the nearby beach is called Big Buddha Beach.

The actual place is such that in a thousand years or so it'll be historical but right now it looks a little cheesy. Originally, a monk in the 20s thought it would be a good idea to get a large monastery and shrine on this little island off Ko Samui (called Deer Island after a local legend about a magical disappearing hart), but he died right after the foundation was built, and it languished until the mid-60s, when a young monk took up the project again, this time envisioning a large Buddha statue. What this means artistically is that instead of getting something like the Art Deco Cristo Redentor of Rio de Janeiro, we get a 1971 Big Buddha that, although it's massive and stunning from a distance, is just a little too groovy closer up. This Buddha's toked up a few times. A satisfying trip nonetheless, and refreshingly un-overcommercialized.


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  T H U R S D A Y,  A P R I L   1 5 . 

We slept in a bit, had lunch, then took a taxi back to the ferry, on the way passing the riot of businesses, some with names like Pizza Hut and Starbucks, and some with names like "Simply Harmony of Health & Pleasant."

Back to Surat Thani.
Typical Thai dwellings.

We took a leisurely stroll through the town, stopping at the nearby City Pillar. Each city has a municipal shrine somewhere near its downtown, usually white, and often quite beautiful, though a bit kitschy. This one was all three. We took off our shoes and walked its acre.

Down the street was the night market, another thing that most Thai towns have some version of. It's a few city streets full of cheap food booths, trinkets, clothes, and more food. Kind of like NIOSA, but about 30db quieter. We settled into an adjacent restaurant with a laid-back atmosphere and delicious homey food. Our guidebook is geared toward folks who like this sort of place, but makes no mention of it, so we thought we'd give the writers a heads-up. Finding out the name of the restaurant and what street it was on, though, turned out to be a half-hour comedy adventure. You might not realize how hard it is to communicate the concept of "What is the name of this restaurant," but just try it sometime in a foreign land. Body language is, of course, just as far from universal as English is, as evidenced by Catherine's memorable observation, "I think he's telling us to stay here, but he might want us to come with him." Hard to get more ambiguous than that.


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  F R I D A Y,  A P R I L   1 6 . 

Today we went a few hours further south, to Nakhon Si Thammarat. It's an ancient southern capitol, originally called Ligor when it was the capital of the legendary kingdom of Tambralinga.
A typically leafy temple.
Its Indian name was Nagara Sri Dhammaraja ("place of the sacred Dharma-king"), and if you pronounce that with a Thai accent you get Nakhon Si Thammarat. So it bears the marks of former cosmopolitanism, especially in its variety of religions: Buddhists of several persuasions, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians all established a presence here and built buildings and temples.

It's also a place where folks are proud enough of the local coffee variety that they're likely to actually serve it. I'm afraid that instant coffee has conquered the rest of the country, to the point where the real thing is sometimes difficult to get. After touching down in our pleasant, forested, wood-and-brick hotel, we went to a coffee shop that looks very imperial-funky in a way that could fit right in on the St Mary's strip or Austin's 6th street, and had a Hao Coffee: thick, rich, and slightly muddy, it's reminiscent of the chickory coffee you find in New Orleans. Then dinner and an intriguing chrysanthemum soda.


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  S A T U R D A Y,  A P R I L   1 7 . 

Two weeks! It's hard to believe that our marriage is only two weeks old today — it seems much richer and more comfortable than that. This lengthy time of travel is doing its work on our relationship.

We've been sitting so much lately: sitting on buses, sitting in sawngthaews (those taxi-trucks), sitting in restaurants, lounging in hotels and on beaches, ach! So today we walk. First, a meal at the cute little alcove with the funky cafe, right next to which is a market-cafeteria-restaurant that's known for its local southern Thai cuisine. My meal, a bass in curry over rice, was so hot that with the first bite my face flushed, my nose sweated, I hiccupped, my mouth burned, and my eyes watered. That shock treatment might have been good, though, because the rest of the meal, hot as it continued to be, seemed normal by comparison, and I could thoroughly enjoy the unusual flavors. One taste we recognized was that of fresh peppercorn. Not just freshly ground — not ground at all — but truly fresh, green, un-dried, and still in clusters. I guess I've never had it this way before, nor even thought much about where those dried black peppercorns come from or what they're like when they grow. The experience reminded me of the land of Bism, from The Silver Chair, where the diamonds and rubies hang fresh and juicy on their trees.

I'd also noticed Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee on their menu. Blue Mountain is the first better-than-Maxwell-House coffee I remember hearing about, back when i was 9 or so and reading the Danny Dunn books — well before the era of boutique coffee. The local librarian, Carl Bernal, who introduced me to those books, came to our wedding two weeks ago. (True to form: "You're going to Thailand? Well, there's a wonderful book....") One of his gifts was an envelope full of Thai currency, enough to buy us our first hotel stay in Bangkok, with some left over: just enough for a cup of this coffee. So Carl, thank you for directly and indirectly being a guide to life well lived, then and now.

Then we walked. The city is very narrow and mostly lies along a longitudinal main road. Heading south, our first stop was at Chedi Yak, a Sri Lankan monument that looks like a grand 50-foot-high bedpost ornament, built in 1287. Next was Wat Phra Mahatat, a thousand years old, and the biggest wat in southern Thailand.
Inside: reliefs and statues.
Its chedi (the bedpost ornament) was probably three times as big as Chedi Yak, and stands at the center of a forest of chedi. The forest is surrounded by a few temples and museums, in a courtyard whose four walls are in fact cloisters filled with slightly varying golden Buddha-like figures seated in a never-ending row. The effect inside these cloisters is dizzying and Spielbergian.

More sweaty walking in the hot, hot sun, and then a taxi to the National Museum, a slightly interesting, un-air-conditioned place that has some cool old pottery, ornate less-old pottery, and some dazzling nielloware.

Next, we took a long and fascinating walk through a Thai neighborhood, filled with friendly folks greeting us ("Hel-loooo!) from their tiny, ultraneat abodes, some freestanding, some stuffed side by side into what look like warehouses. We visited the local three-star hotel and allowed ourselves to be tempted by the executive suite with its 17th-floor view and jacuzzi-jet bathtub, before taxiing to the home/workshop/theater of Suchart Subsin, the elder and better of the two remaining practitioners of Nang Talung, the ancient craft of shadow puppetry. These ornate puppets are cut out of water buffalo hide, colored, and then projected onto a backlit screen to act out comic plays and dramas with musical accompaniment. We took a look around his upstairs museum, and looked in on the workshop, and then asked if we could see a show.
See the show.
He agreed, a few apprentices or family members joined him behind his screen, and Catherine and I sat entranced for 15 minutes, drawn into this other world that so few have kept alive.

On the way back, we dropped by the magnificent city pillar, called Lak Meuang, a miniplex of 5 impossibly ornate buildings, the center of which depicts Rahu swallowing the sun — beautiful in its own right, and interesting in that it's a city pillar that isn't Buddhist. We walked around and around this dreamlike confection, which exemplifies Eastern balance from one angle and Western high Romanticism from another, and marveled at the arresting Hindu imagery.

After all that walking, a foot massage was in order: an indefatigable masseuse treated Catherine and me for an hour apiece. Luxury!


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  S U N D A Y,  A P R I L   1 8 . 

A refreshing lunch at our cafe, with more Hao Coffee, and the best iced coffee I've ever had. On the menu, under the heading of "Fruit Drinks," right under Zalacca, Rosella, and Tamarind, was listed Molasses. Hmm. Other menu mysteries we've encountered: an entry that's exactly the same as the one two items above it, with a different price; and the unforgettable dessert listing "Red Beans in Hot Ginger Syrup." Had to order that last one. Not too bad at all. Also, not too good at all.

We then took a minivan back to Surat Thani, where we spent a leisurely evening.

NEXT: more paradise, and trouble therein