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T U E S D A Y, A P R I L 2 0 .
Yesterday we woke at a bleary bleary hour and got a bus to Ranong, then a boat to our desert island: Ko Chang, with its glorious sunrises and sunsets, perfect beach, fun people, and hostess/chef/mamacita Moon.
It felt like a homecoming. We even got our honeymoon cottage back: it's the only bungalow on its side of the beach, with a fantastic view, separated by a flower-lined path. No kidding.
So we settled in for a week of sun, beach, food, love, and no air-conditioning. On the bookshelf there was a nonfiction book by Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide series. He thinks so much like I do that I'm going to have to write an article about him. I remember that our whole crew in high school were rabid fans, but I somehow never got around to actually reading anything by him. A kindred spirit!
We also, after swapping card tricks and life wisdom with Moon, discovered an old German card-deck, hardly in use these days. A fellow traveler, a Mannheimer named Johannes, said it's the kind of thing your grandparents have but no one quite remembers how to use. We spent a few hours puzzling over the suits (Acorns, Hearts, Bells, and Leaves), the faces (Underknave, Overknave, and King), German court culture, and the strange fact that such an arcane piece of old Germany could find its way, unexplained, onto a remote island in the Andaman Sea. Check them out.
The several guests were from various places. We rejoiced in some of the differences and similarities that bind us. One shocking conversation revealed to a Brit and an Austrian that America doesn't have any castles. "No castles at all?!" Well, after all, who would have built them? We've never had a king, or any royalty. A stunned silence. Not that these intelligent guys didn't really know that, but that it's just one of those things you don't think about. Growing up in Austria you don't stop to think that other countries might not have thousand-year-old castles at every riverbend, just like if you're an American you don't stop to think that other countries might not have a Starbucks at every street corner. Granted, that's a bad example, because there is a Starbucks on every street corner, even in countries where there's no street. But very rarely is there a castle. You learned in school, and picked up elsewhere, that America never had royalty, but it never sank in till just now, so you sit there and think, "Wow. No castles. No kings. Weird." And that's what travel does.
T H U R S D A Y, A P R I L 2 2 .
We took a walk to the neighboring beach, and decided to check out something we'd noticed before: a huge huge structure perched right on the cliff over the beach. (Ko Chang, like most of these islands, is a vertical place whose land rises sharply from the water.) It turned out to be a house that was inhabited by the two brothers who built it, all six stories of it, out of beautifully finished woodwork, around a single pole cut from a tall, straight tree. The brothers showed us around the entire place, right up to the tiny 6th floor lookout. Spectacular! Then, true to their culture, they graciously served us some tea and crackers.
I'm not sure if it's because the island is so oddly sloped, or whether tides are usually this big and I've never noticed, but the difference between high and low tide is dramatic on Tommy's beach (which is unusually low-slung). When it's high, the water laps up just a few feet from our bungalow; when it's low, it's 40-odd yards away. Our morning swim, then, is done in exactly the same spot as our evening frisbee, the only difference being that our feet are touching the ground.
Stepping into the main sheltered area where the several guests eat and congregate, it's the custom, as all over Thailand, to leave one's sandals outside. Catherine and I generally left them right on the floor by the steps rather than on the steps themselves or the ground outside. After Toi pointedly dumped them on the ground, though, we adjusted. What's strange is the artificiality of the distinction. If you walk around barefoot outside in the dirt, you can just waltz right on in with your filthy feet. If you have filthy feet in sandals, you take off your sandals and walk in in filthy feet. But if you wear very clean sandals, you still have to take them off.
Of course, it's not the artificiality of the distinction that's at stake in this part of the world: it's the distinction itself. The world consists of an inside and an outside, and one must live in recognition of that, no matter how technically illogical that recognition may be. Does it really accomplish anything to adorn the prow of every boat here with a cluster of flowers? Of course it does: no matter how you interpret it, or what weight, superstitious, religious, or scientific, you put on it, the fact is that the sea is unpredictable and we haven't conquered it, so you go through this little ritual that requires just enough expense and trouble to keep that fact in your mind. I think it's the same way with the shoe thing.
We'd been warned of the Avian flu by every well-intentioned friend in North America. Our answer was always the same: it's only a danger if you go to a farm or somewhere with live poultry in a rural area. No chance of that. But we noticed at some point this week that several live chickens are running around. Their little tracks are everywhere. We walk through them, barefoot, several times a day, which means that we very likely get chicken poop on our feet, clothes, hands. Does it matter that we're on a remote island? Does that count for us or against us? Does it mean anything that they climb trees? Yes, they climb trees. They just flit up onto the trunk and find their grip, and then get themselves a nice sitting spot among the branches. It reminded me of jazz legend Clifford Scott's memorable voice singing "Look at meeeeeee, I'm as helpless as a chicken in a treeeeeeee." Helpless, and preferably harmless.
We've also registered our first round of mosquito bites, though we've been careful to apply the 100% deet we brought along. Malaria isn't supposed to be a danger here except in the Chiang Mai area, so we haven't been taking the malaria pills just yet. Ah, living dangerously! Or is it just the danger of doubt?
But Catherine has begun feeling sick. She's started eating simply, and staying pretty close to bed. Also, her ear has begun to hurt more — it's been nagging for a few days, but she figured it was a mild case of swimmer's ear from either the dodgy shower water or the foreign ocean.
F R I D A Y, A P R I L 2 3 .
After a sick and feverish night, Catherine felt worse than ever. All day long she stayed in bed, finally moving out to the front porch to get a little ventilation — these small bungalows, though windowed, are unair-conditioned. So it's toast and tea, and rest, and ice in a bunched-up T-shirt. And I didn't feel too swell myself.
Friday night before we went to bed, we waded out into the shallows and did something we'd been wanting to do since we got here. We played with the plankton. Apparently, some varieties of plankton in the ocean are phosphorescent, and they light up whenever there's a bit of action. Every time you move your feet, there's a swirl of little momentary firefly-lights around them. We bent down and swirled our hands around, and felt like gods, sweeping galaxies into brief existence.
But paradise must end, and it's never a fond farewell. Why, though, must we always leave it trembling and sweating, with all creation groaning?
S A T U R D A Y, A P R I L 2 4 .
Friday night was pure misery. Both of us were moaning all night. I officially proclaimed myself Sick, with bad intestinal problems that were not at all helped by the squatty potty or the tropical heat. Catherine was beyond sick, with panic-high fever and abdominal pain that brought fears of appendicitis or worse. Got to get in to town.
We took the early boat into Ranong, and plopped ourselves down in the best hotel there — dark, dry, and air-conditioned. It's blessed relief, just being here where you can actually get and stay clean, but horribly frustrating that there's no internet nearby, as we'd love to beg friends and family to pray.
S U N D A Y, A P R I L 2 5 .
Sleep, sleep, sleep, bits of toast, and more sleep. 24 hours' sleep, in fact. Feeling slightly better, I got up around 11 and inquired about doing a visa renewal trip. Ranong is right near the Myanmar border, which is just as good a place as any to leave Thailand for a moment and come back, thus renewing the 30-day visa. It's a cottage industry here. So I found a place, and found internet access, too. Unfortunately, I couldn't get even one email sent or received in 40 minutes. Aargh! No one even knows that any of this is going on. Ah well. Fifteen years ago they wouldn't have, either.
On and off throughout this week, Catherine and I have found ourselves singing the chorus of the most ridiculous song I've ever heard. Our last night in Surat Thani, we had dinner again at the Lost in Translation place — the dismal hotel lounge with pretty good food. The listless singer put on a microscopic amount of pep for a peppy song whose chorus goes:
That's the kind of thing that can stick in your head for a decade. Which may be fine, because previously we'd been prone to break into "Song Sung Blue."
We rested more, Catherine ate some, and we caught an overnight bus to Bangkok, where we thought we should go for medical help. The stomach pains were by this point excruciating, the fever hadn't abated for more than a while at a time, and at least 20 times a day I'd look over and see Catherine scrunched up, face contorted, and in tears.
M O N D A Y, A P R I L 2 6 .
The bus ride to Bangkok could theoretically have been considered comical. We were in a large comfortable air-conditioned bus (as you've now guessed, AC is the currency of luxury), but the problem was that the road must have been given some extra twists since our trip down here. Added to this, the luxury bus registered every toothpick and smidge of gravel on the road as a full-fledged bump, a feature that I'd thought belonged only to moving vans designed to carry your antique furniture.
Of course, it's entirely possible that the road was littered with corpses, televisions, giant logs, and the occasional zamboni. There must have been something the driver was trying to avoid, or at the very least something convincing him that it was in everyone's best interest to swerve from one side of the road to another. Maybe trees grow in the roads here, and he was going around them. At one point I thought he might be swerving further off the road to go around a tree that was already well off the road, just to see if he could do it.
The poor bathroom was so traumatized by this combination of vehicle and driver that the lock would often come undone, flinging the door open to expose me in all my sweaty glory. Or, if not me, Catherine, seeing as we were the only ones to use the restroom, which had one of those silly chair-toilets, unlike the apparently preferable squatty ones in the rest area, which people flocked to.
The rest area was a nocturnal mini-metropolis, with huge spaces where freshly cooked food was served at reasonable prices, especially to those whose luxury bus fare included vouchers. It was really very nice. They had groceries and snacks and supplies there, too. I wondered why America didn't have such a place, then remembered that we don't need to: every place is that place. You can stop off at Taco Cabana or HEB 24 hours a day.
Catherine stayed on the bus; I had just enough energy to go and lust after the food that I didn't dare to get. Earlier, on the bus, they'd served us a couple of bags full of delicous-smelling freshly baked rolls, which we bit into only to discover that they were stuffed with mincemeat and green spicy bean curd. Thanks. No really, thanks.
We arrived in Bangkok feeling far worse than when we'd left Ranong. We crashed out at our hotel, a pleasant wood-panelled guesthouse in a leafy neighborhood, then when Catherine felt like she could move we went to a clinic, where a medical person checked her out, observed a pain episode, and prescribed away. For the ear, pain medicine and eardrops. For the belly, pain medicine and anti-inflammatory. For both, a round of antibiotics.
As of this writing, Catherine is feeling much better already. Answered prayer, there. We'll thank you for the prayers you would have offered had you known, and we'll continue to rest up, eat some, and enjoy this honeymoon that's far from over.
T H U R S D A Y, A P R I L 2 9 .
After a few days of nothing but R&R, we sprang up from our sickbed and saw a bit of the town. On today's agenda: Wat Pra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and the Royal Palace. The picture at the top of this page is from the Wat Pra Kaew temple complex, and it really looks like that. A wonderland of spires, glittering in the sun, with a new strange vista everywhere you look. Our guide told us that it was intended to resemble the Thai mental image of heaven; it does a pretty good job of resembling my own.
The Emerald Buddha is not made of emerald, nor does it contain any emeralds; it's solid jade. We couldn't get anyone to tell us why they called it the Emerald Buddha. It was originally covered in plaster and made to look like an ordinary plaster Buddha. Then, in the 1400s, a monk noticed that the nose had chipped and underneath was green jade. They then made the startling discovery that this boring old thing was actually quite precious, and that whoever had made it had disguised it for some reason. So, now it sits in this gorgeous complex which also contains some ancient scrolls of Buddha's teachings, statues of all the Chakri kings, and ashes of those kings.
The Chakri dynasty consists of all the Ramas. Rama IV was Mongkhut, the king somewhat unjustly treated by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Rama V was Chulalongkhorn, the Europhile who was responsible for modernizing Thailand while preserving her distinctness and protecting her from colonizing Western nations. Rama I came along in the 1780s, and, while America was fighting for independence, moved the capital from Thonburi (across the river and now enveloped by the city) to Bangkok, and built this splendid palace and temple complex. Stunning.
The actual temple built for the Emerald Buddha was fascinating: inside, it is covered head to toe and side to side with murals and frescoes depicting events in the life and ministry of Gautama Buddha. The symbolic style of Eastern art is gorgeous, but in a place like this one can't help comparing its stilted generalities to the veined humanity of Michelangelo.
And you can't help comparing the visitors, either: the place was filled with folks, about half tourists and about half worshipers, who were devoutly offering their prayers. It struck me: how often do you see people really worshipping in, say, St Peter's? Or Westminster? Not during an official Sunday morning service but anytime, on an average Thursday afternoon? The contrast was striking and humbling.
F R I D A Y, A P R I L 30 .
After yesterday's sunny trekking, we took it easy and lounged around till early evening, when we went over to Khao San Road and got ourselves pampered. We got the full facial treatment, which includes one dang vegetable after another in cream form, a hardening face mask, a zit-popping ceremony, more cream, cucumber wrap, and a leg massage. Our faces are so smooth now! We then decided to go un-Thai and headed over to an Indian place for a traditional Indian dinner. We stuffed ourselves full of curry and nan bread, potato-and-cream-cheese balls, barbecue chicken, and more curry. There's a huge Indian population in Thailand, and much Indian influence. In fact, yesterday's temple was surrounded by a 450-yard mural depicting the Ramayana — in its entirety.
S U N D A Y, M A Y 2 .
We took an all-night train from Bangkok to the northern metropolis of Chiang Mai, 450 miles and ten slow train hours away. Why is everything so slow here? On the way, we ate a pomelo, a dry huge grapefruit that tastes less grapefruity than orangey.
We knew we wanted to stay in the old city, the part that's inside the moat, which still flows. Huge chunks of the ancient city wall still stand in remarkably good shape, giving the impression that the wall didn't crumble but was merely dismantled in places to make way for modern life. After walking this way and that, with a map that seemed to lie to us at every turn, we settled on our favorite of the hundreds of guesthouses, a charming and not-too-lavish place set back from the street, very inexpensive, slightly gardenny, with nice big rooms and nice big beds, and a comfortable outdoor lobby/cafe. We booked two rooms, one for ourselves and one for our visiting friend Cathryn.
Cathryn is one of Catherine's best friends. She lives in Khunming, China, a couple of flight-hours north. Catherine desperately wanted Cathryn to be able to come to our wedding — now nearly a month old! — but Cathryn just couldn't do it. So, we arranged a rendezvous here in Chiang Mai.
It's Thailand's second-largest city, but is entirely different in tone from Bangkok. Bangkok is hectic, chaotic, polluted, vibrant. Chiang Mai, though crowded, is comfortable, slower-paced, easygoing. The old town is a square maze of whimsically arranged streets — lanes, really: cars seem lunky and out of place here. If you lived here, your life could be in reasonable walking distance, with cafes, restaurants, markets, merchants, internet places, houses, churches, and schools all in a hodgepodge. Mercifully devoid of tacky-cute tourist folk commerce, it's an unselfconsciously preserved altstadt. This is what modern life would be like if it weren't like it is.
Thailand, by the way, is where brands go to die. Right along with the McDonald's and Starbucks and Pepsi and Coke, we've seen Swensen's Ice Cream, Pepsi Max, Coke Lite, and, remarkably, Mirinda (Tastes Like An Orange Avalanche!). For balance, though, we do see other things like grapefruit Mentos. Do we have these in the States? Addictive.
M O N D A Y, M A Y 3 .
Today is the one month anniversary of our wedding. Like all such things, it doubly freaks us out: we can't believe it's been that long, and we can't believe it's been that short.
And what a honeymoon it's been: vomit, diarrhea, headaches, infections, hospital visits, pain of all types. We've nursed each other more than we could have imagined. We've popped each other's pimples. We've thanked God for giving us this incredible time to care for each other and know each other so intimately. That's the way to look at it, right? Squatting above a cement hole, with a clammy face, making sounds you never thought the opposite sex would ever hear, groaning through your vomit, swatting flies away — "Getting to knoooooow yooooou!"
Well, there's the other stuff too. The full moon transforming the deep blue sky into an opera set, the stunning beaches all to ourselves, the golden spires rising from trees of a million greens, the island sunsets, the magical smiles, the noodles and curries and fresher-than-fresh fruit juices and sherbets that line the streets, the delicious Thai massages, the silks and jewels of a grand civilization, and, crowning all, the constant company of the woman of my dreams. What a month it's been.
I do keep returning, though, to the pimple-popping. What better image of marriage could there be than this, the very definition of catharsis, this satisfyingly painful purging of each other's impurities?
Next: elephant rides, orchids, bazaars, pampering, and banana shakes galore.