The View From Row 56

I was surprised by a lot of things in Thailand. For instance I was surprised how easy it was to get by with my rudimentary grasp of the Thai language (and by “grasp” I mean “each of my fingers could count one of the words I know in Thai”). I was also surprised by how little culture shock I experienced. I chalk that up to being an experienced traveler coupled with the friendliness and accommodating nature of the Thai people.

What I didn’t expect was to freeze my butt off.

Monday morning, the clouds that had sat over Chiang Mai for a week miraculously lifted, and for the first time I could see the mountain Doi Suthep looming nearly 4,000 feet above the city. What I didn’t know was that it was a massive cold front from China that had swept the clouds away.


I’d been waiting a week to visit Wat Phra, the spectacular temple near the top of Doi Suthep. Now, with clear weather, I hurried over to the Chang Puak north gate where songtaews were waiting to drive up the mountain. The good news is that it was only 50 baht ($1.50) each way. The bad news is that the songtaews wouldn’t make the drive until they had 10 passengers. So I sat on a bench with a mixture of Japanese and French tourists and waited for more sightseers to arrive. It was the United Nations of Awkward.


After a few minutes, a slightly befuddled gal from England wandered along and we had our quorum. We all piled into the back of the open-air truck for the 45 minute ride up the mountain. Our driver made it in 30. Possibly because he discounted things like “lanes.” If you’ve never passed a tour bus using the oncoming lane while screaming uphill in a songtaew, you haven’t lived.

Upon reaching the top there was a long staircase to climb to reach the actual temple, and then I somehow managed to miss paying the entry fee required of foreigners when I accidentally wandered in the back way. Security was not TSA-level.


The temple was, as advertised, spectacular, as was the view of Chiang Mai spreading out below the mountain. I have to admit to being a little bit templed out at this point, but I still enjoyed it. Visiting temples in Thailand is a weird vibe, with a mix of Japanese and European tourists snapping photos while stepping over and around Buddhists who are actually there to make offerings or kneel in prayer. Imagine if there were a bunch of Japanese tourists loudly walking among the pews and snapping pictures at your Sunday church services.

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On the way up the mountain, our driver had stopped at a viewpoint so we could “take pictures,” which turned out to be an opportunity to shake us all down for the return fare. “I wait two hours,” he had said, not entirely convincingly. Reluctantly, we all forked over another 50 baht before he would take us the rest of the way to the top.

When I came down the staircase two hours later to look for a ride back home I was somewhat shocked to see the driver standing there waiting for me. He waved and grinned and excitedly rounded all 10 of us up for the ride down the mountain. We made it in four minutes.


That night the cold front began to settle in, and the temperature dropped to 51 degrees. Those of you who are currently enjoying winter may not think of that as a cold temperature, but buildings in Chiang Mai are not insulated and have no heat. As I sat by the window working on my computer, the curtains were blowing in the wind even though my (very drafty) windows were closed. My fingers started to stiffen.  Eventually I went to bed, fully-clothed, wrapping myself in the lone blanket like a spring roll. It was frigid.

The next morning I looked at the forecast and it was not promising. Lows of 45 degrees every night for the next seven days. The local English-language news website reported that towns nearby had been declared disaster areas due to the cold, and offered tips on how to stay warm by building a rudimentary heater out of a candle and baking dish. I was going to freeze to death if I stayed in Chiang Mai.

So I jumped online, bought a ticket for Bangkok, packed my bag and two hours later headed for the airport. It took me three tries to find a songtaew driver who would accept less than 100 baht for the ride. Two weeks in Southeast Asia and haggling over 61¢ seems like a good idea.

The Chiang Mai airport had free wi-fi and prayer rooms for several flavors of the devout, presumably overrun with Japanese tourists. Domestic security was predictably light. I probably could have smuggled a candle and baking dish in my pants.


Curiously, my Thai Airways boarding pass said I was in row 56, which seemed like an awfully large plane for such a small route as Chiang Mai – Bangkok. I wondered if the $34 fare meant I was getting towed behind the plane in a lawn chair.

The mystery was solved when I boarded the aircraft; the first row of the plane was row 31. I have no idea where the prior 30 rows of the plane were. Did they make two 737s by just breaking a 747 in half?

Thus settled into my empty row 56 (enjoying a secret identity as row 25), I read a Kindle book through the one-hour flight to Bangkok and occasionally glanced out the window to enjoy glimpses of the Thailand countryside. Once landed at Suvarnabhumi airport (pronounced “Sa-wa-nee-poom” — someone was drunk in transcription class) I caught the ultra-modern Airport Link elevated railway to the Sky Train and then to the comfortable AirBnB that I had reserved in the On Nut area of Bangkok (insert your own joke here). Bangkok is also experiencing unseasonably cold temperatures, which means the mid 60s at night and low 80s during the day. It’s very pleasant. The people here are wearing parkas.

I’ve spent the last couple days exploring the night market near my condo and visiting the Siam Paragon mall, which is the most Instagrammed place in the world. I made a point of not Instagramming it

One last surprise in Thailand: I’m surprised by how much I miss home. Not homesick, so much as road weary. I’ve had an absolutely amazing and wonderful trip here, but tomorrow is my 103rd day of travel for 2013. I’m looking forward to heading home tonight so I can be somewhat recovered from jet lag by Christmas. I’ll be back to Thailand for sure, and I’ve had a great year exploring the world. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

My next trip starts January 6.

Andrew Berkowitz
Bangkok, Thailand
December, 2013


A Bug in the System

Every hotel and guesthouse in Thailand (and by “every” I mean “the two that I’ve stayed in”) have an ingenious system to prevent tourists from leaving the lights and air conditioning running all day. Next to the door is a slot for your room key, and unless your room key is in that slot the lights and AC are switched off.

Also, there’s no pipe smoking, in case you’re visiting Thailand from the 1950s.


So anyway, the other day I was returning to my room in the late afternoon. I shut the door, slid the key fob into the slot next to the door and…


There was a shockingly-loud explosion, a sound like the electric chair scene from The Green Mile and the entire room lit up like lightning had struck next to my head. In that brief moment, I thought the building had exploded and I was going to die. I instinctively ducked and covered, which my third grade teacher would have been proud of.

I turned around to see if there was anything left of the room, and I discovered with some relief that the explosion was happening outside my window. In fact, the utility pole just three feet from my window was still buzzing and sparking, and when I went to the window I saw an extra crispy bird smoking atop one of capacitors. Apparently, in a massive coincidence, this bird had decided to make an extremely poor life choice at the exact moment I was enabling the power to my room. Holy khrap, did that scare the pad thai out of me.

A moment later the barbecued bird made a cartoon-like tumble three stories to the street below, where passing residents gathered around it to examine the corpse, occasionally pointing up toward the top of the pole as if to re-enact the fiasco. Amazingly, despite creating a special effect on par with Marty McFly hitting 88 miles per hour, the bird didn’t kill power to my hotel, though it did black out several nearby guesthouses.

A few minutes later another bird, clearly an extreme thrill-seeker, decided to see what all the fuss is about and landed on the exact same pole.


On Sunday night I went to the Sunday Walking Street in Chiang Mai old town, which is an enormous night market that goes for more than a kilometer down the main thoroughfare, as well as many side streets. I walked for three hours and didn’t even see all of it. Like most night markets, they sell everything from handbags to crafts to bootlegged DVDs to puppies.


And food. Oh the food! Food stalls as far as the eye can see, on every corner, down every side street and in the courtyard of the many wats (temples) on each block. By 8 p.m. the street was so jam packed with people that we were all moving at a slow shuffle, but I was constantly ducking into side streets to sample bits of food. Just some of the things I ate:

Bacon wrapped mushrooms.

bacon wrapped mushrooms

Braisd pork shank in sweet, spicy sauce (khao kha moo). Easily one of my favorite dishes in northern Thailand. I ate it three times at three different vendors over the week.

pork leg

Fried quail eggs. These were sold everywhere and quite delicious.


This is what the quail egg fryer looks like:


Grilled, slightly-fermented sticky rice on a stick. Notice my artistic photo composition with squid-on-a-stick in the background.


And I had told myself that when I went to Thailand I was going to try eating bugs. Apparently they have a delicious, nutty flavor and are packed with protein. But when I got to the bug table I took one look at the piles of fried grasshoppers, worms, beetles and crickets and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I think I needed someone to dare me.


After chickening out on the bugs, and bugging out over some chicken, I went down a side street and stumbled upon the open-air Miss Chiang Mai pageant. There was a bit of slow Thai dancing, and then the various contestants came out in groups of three, each group wearing different costumes ranging from “traditional dress” to “wow, that’s slutty.” I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, but I would summarize the pageant as “Women wearing heels that are much taller than they’re used to wearing.” There was a lot of cautious tottering about and fake smiles.

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After three hours of exploring I was beat, so I grabbed the first sidewalk massage place and spent an hour jayramboing while getting an outstanding $4.50 foot massage.



Partying with Pachyderms

You can’t throw a stick without hitting an elephant tour in Thailand. And come to think of it, most of the tour companies should probably be hit with sticks anyway, to give them a taste of their own medicine. The traditional method of “taming” an elephant involves restraining it in a tiny cage and beating it until it bleeds, so there’s a huge gray area around what it means to be a responsible patron of elephant tourism.

Speaking of huge and gray, I went on an elephant tour, and it was awesome.


After perusing many options and discarding the tours where they make elephants do unnatural, demeaning tricks like dancing, painting or appearing as a guest rapper on a Justin Bieber song, I chose Elephant Nature Park. Unlike most other tours, this park is specifically set up as a rescue center for abused elephants. You don’t ride the elephants or pretend to be their “mahout for a day.” Instead, you visit to spend time with the elephants and learn more about the park’s mission. They have one-day options for those who want to get a taste of elephants (tastes like chicken) or two- to seven-day volunteer trips where you live at the park and help it operate. I chose the single day tour, because much as I love animals I also love showering.

I was picked up bright and early in an air conditioned van and we sped toward the park, about an hour from Chiang Mai. Along the way our perky tour guide “Bee” (not her real name — or species) gave us rapid-fire instructions about how to interact with the elephants: Don’t stand behind the elephants; don’t put your hand in the elephant’s mouth, don’t invest more than 20% of your pre-tax income in any securities offered by the elephants. Common sense stuff, if you ask me. We also watched a DVD, where two breathless naturalists searched for elephants in Thailand; apparently they hadn’t noticed the brochures in front of every guest house.

Elephant Nature Park sits in a bucolic valley in the mountains north of Chiang Mai. At 250 acres and about 35 elephants, there’s a LOT of room to roam. The four males and 31 females spend their days wandering around the park, split into a number of self-selected female family groups, as well as some loners and the solitary males. They range in age from four months (tiny, gray and wrinkled) to 80 years old (enormous, gray and wrinkled). A few of the elephants were born at the park — apparently they have no problem getting it on in captivity — but most were rescued from awful situations: abused pets, elephants used for begging on the streets or former logging elephants.


The latter is a typical and difficult situation. In 1989, Thailand outlawed logging when they noticed that they’d deforested 80% of their country. Good for trees and good for the few remaining wild elephants, but a tough situation for the over 3,000 elephants which worked in the logging industry, uprooting trees and hauling logs. Now unemployed and not easily re-trained into IT, those elephants had nowhere to go. Some were sent to Burma, where elephants are still used for logging; others ended up with beggars on the street or working in the tourism industry, giving rides and performing tricks. It’s all a very messy situation with no easy answers.

But for Elephant Nature Park, the answer is simple — take in as many elephants as they can rescue, no matter how old or injured. Some of their elephants are in robust health, but others are blind or hobbled. One has a broken hip from being hit by a car; another had a foot blown off by a land mine. The 80-year-old elephant is in fine health, but mostly hangs out near the feeding platform waiting for snacks and Matlock reruns.

After arriving at the park and stowing our backpacks we immediately launched into feeding the elephants! We were given huge baskets of bananas and large, hard gourds. The elephants would hork up the food as fast as we could hand it to them. I was amazed at how dextrous their trunks are. They can balance an entire bunch of bananas, juggle a gourd or pick a single banana off the ground with a deft touch. We all started out tentatively handing food to the eager trunks, but eventually were shoveling food to the elephants as fast as we could.


The gourds looked like the kind of hard squashes you’d put on your table for Thanksgiving, either decoratively or ironically. Each was about the size of a volleyball. The elephants would just pop them into their mouths like a grape and crunch down with their four giant teeth, flattening the gourds in an instant. An elephant can eat up to 500 kilograms (American units: 220 inches) per day, so the park goes through a LOT of bananas.


It was surreal to be standing next to four full-grown and one baby elephant, as they gently walked around us. This may be the least-surprising revelation of my entire trip, but elephants are HUGE. And yet, they seem like such quiet, gentle creatures that I never felt scared even when they were towering over me or I was shoveling food to their eager trunks. It occurred to me that if this were the USA I’d have had to sign a 16-page liability waiver and observe the elephants from a “safe distance.” Here they handed us baskets of gourds and admonished us to “try not to get stepped on.”


It’s hard to exactly “pet” something that’s the size of a Ford Econoline van, but I spent a fair amount of time rubbing their trunks, scratching behind the ears or stroking their hide. Elephant skin is rough and thick, with bristly hairs; their trunks are muscular and strong; their ears made of the softest, drooping skin. One of the pregnant females came over for a snack and Bee showed me where to put my hand on her enlarged belly to feel for the baby. Elephants are pregnant for two years, although they still never manage to get the baby’s room painted until the week before labor.

After feeding time, Bee took us on a walking tour to meet some of the other elephant families. We met the seven-month-old who was being cared for by three mothers; the blind elephant who spends every day with her protective best friend; and we checked out one of the males from afar, who kept trumpeting for some of the lady elephants to come over for a “back rub.”


After we ate a hearty vegetarian lunch of bananas and gourds (kidding — it was Thai food and french fries) we went down to the river for bathing time. The elephants stood at the water’s edge and we fed them more food while throwing buckets of water on them. It had rained the night before so the river was especially high, and after finishing their afternoon snack the elephants walked to the middle of the river and plopped over for a swim. They trumpeted in delight. Afterward, they climbed out onto the riverbank and tossed dirt over their heads and onto their backs, providing a protective coating from the sun and insects.


We then went for another walk around the park, where we met the four-month old elephant, who was precious and tiny (at least, tiny as elephants go — as vehicles go she’d be a Smart Car). We were warned not to get too close to the baby because she is prone to playfully jumping up on people, which is adorable when it’s a schnauzer puppy and less adorable when the baby is the size of a major appliance. The baby’s family group and another family group were hanging out together, and there was a bit of a tete-a-tete between two females who both apparently wanted to spend time with the baby. This seems to be a running theme here in Thailand.

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On the way back to the main building we stopped off at the elephant salon, where one of the elephants was getting a pedicure. Seriously. The elephant happily had its front foot up on a platform and seemed to be enjoying the toenail trimming and buffing. Elephants have very sensitive feet and in the wild can sense tiny vibrations from the ground. On the other hand, in the wild they can’t get their cuticles planed by a guy with a two-foot emery board.

Back at the main building we had one more elephant feeding and then it was time to leave. I gave the nearest elephant one last hug around the trunk and we piled into the van for home. On the way back we passed by several elephant camps where lines of elephants were slowly parading tourists around two-by-two on hard platforms that were strapped to their backs. It made me glad I took the tour that I did. But if Justin Bieber calls I will totally rap on his next album.


[Reminder: You can click on any photo in my blog for a much bigger version. In case you didn’t know how to operate the internet.]

Andrew Goes to Cooking Class and Learns How to … BABY!!!!!!!!!!!

I’m a pretty decent cook, but I jumped at the chance to sign up for a Thai cooking class because I was sure there was some secret to perfect pad thai like “Soak the noodles for five and a half minutes” or “Don’t use McNuggets.” There are dozens of cooking classes to choose from in Chiang Mai, but I went with Thai Farm Cooking because their office is 17 steps from the front door of my guesthouse and the first lesson of responsible travel is “Laziness rules.”

I met at their office at 8:15 a.m. and piled into the back of an open air truck along with Stephen, a chunky retired Aussie with nose hairs you could braid (if you’re into that sort of thing). We swung through town to pick up the rest of the cast of characters: three women from Liverpool on an extended holiday through Southeast Asia; a newlywed couple from London doing the same; a blonde from Long Beach; and a German-Swedish couple and their six-month-old baby. After a bit of shyness, we all introduced ourselves and discussed the weirdest things we had eaten while traveling. Miss California offered up live termites. The Aussie suggested kangaroo. The new bride announced that she was a vegetarian, so “carrot.”

After enjoyed the smoggy ride to nearby Ruamchook Market, we piled out of the truck and had a tour of the various stalls selling the ingredients we would be using that day. I was impressed by the machine that turns shredded coconut into smooth, white coconut milk. Apparently it’s all mechanized like this, so if you had visions of winsome milkmaids taking pails out to the coconut barn, guess again.


Our guide for the tour was a tiny woman named Pern, who had a great sense of humor and joked repeatedly that we would all get naked soon. I surreptitiously re-read the brochure to see if I’d missed something. But Pern kept cracking jokes and having a grand time as we toured through the market, learning about the different kinds of rices and seeing palm sugar in its natural habitat. Occasionally, triggered by something that someone said, Pern would burst into song, regaling us with stanzas from Lionel Ritchie and Beyonce. She was like a tiny Thai jukebox.


All of this singing, dancing, joking and threatening to get us all naked was frequently interrupted, however, because every time Pern turned around and laid her eyes on the six-month-old baby she COMPLETELY LOST HER SHIT. She grabbed the baby, hugged the baby, kissed the baby, threatened to run away with the baby and generally screamed “Baby! Baby! Baby!” over and over again. She’d be in the middle of explaining the difference between white rice, black rice and brown rice, when she’d pause, run over and snatch the baby out of its parents’ arms, and launch into another round of cooing, cuddling and shouting “Baby!” I’m no psychologist, but I think she’d probably like a baby.

After touring the market for another 10 minutes we piled back into the truck and drove about a half hour to the farm. They have three open-air kitchen huts standing in a beautiful garden. We put on aprons and Pern took us on a tour of the garden, showing us how galangal, lemongrass, kefir lime, spicy basil and other Thai ingredients grow. We picked and sniffed samples from each plant and said erudite things like “This turmeric smells earthy with a hint of loam.” The Aussie asked what the grass under our feet was called and Pern said “Grass.”


Meanwhile, the entire rest of the sizable farm staff were COMPLETELY LOSING THEIR SHIT over the baby. Every time someone would lay their eyes on the baby they would shriek, start shouting “Baby!” and rattle off a string of either gibberish or Thai while they ran over to grab, cuddle and otherwise admire the baby. I’m not an expert on Thai culture, but I’m pretty sure they have babies of their own. For whatever reason, they just really like babies.

I had read, before coming here, that Thais are a happy people — it’s known as the Land of Smiles. And they weren’t kidding; the Thai people do seem really very cheerful. Anywhere I go, Thai people are laughing, joking, smiling, and just generally enjoying life. The people at the farm — when not attempting to devour the baby — spent most of their time cracking jokes and laughing with each other.


The cooking itself was not especially challenging. For each course, all the ingredients were provided on a platter — some already cut up — so all we had to do was some mild prep work and then cook. Pern walked us through all the steps, and it was pretty foolproof, except for the girl from California who seemed to mess up each dish. She later confided in me that she had been unable to find lemongrass in Long Beach, but that she had looked in the Home Depot garden section.


All of the dishes turned out to be extremely delicious, and it really seems that the secret to Thai cooking is … BABY!!!!!!!!!! Baby! Baby! Baby! Baby!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Sorry, I got distracted there. As I was saying, the secret to Thai cooking is fresh ingredients, in the right proportions, cooked simply. I did learn a few useful cooking details and I’m excited about cooking Thai when I get home and seeing if I can duplicate the magic.

Here’s a brief rundown of the dishes I cooked:

First we made our own yellow curry paste, pounding chile, ginger, turmeric, curry powder and lemongrass in a heavy mortar and pestle for about 10 minutes. I’m glad I do CrossFit.


Ta-da, curry paste!


Then, with our plate of ingredients, we did some light chopping and made a tom ka gai (coconut chicken) soup.


Delicious! Cate and Deeta from the UK carefully examine their own soups before digging in.


Next I assembled a cashew chicken stir fry.


Mmm … delicious and attractive.


We were ALL extremely full by this point, and everyone groaned when it was time to go back into the kitchen to make noodle dishes. I learned how to make pad thai, and then I made my own dish, which was a wide noodle dish commonly called pad see ew in restaurants. I ate half of it before I remembered to take a photograph. I’d be a really bad professional food photographer.


And finally, though I was sure I wasn’t going to eat another bite, we made coconut rice with mango. I ate the entire thing. So delicious!



Postscript: It’s now 12 hours later and I still haven’t eaten anything since the class. This might be the most food I’ve eaten … ever. If there’s one lesson I take from all of this it’s … BABY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Days 5-6: The Ultimate Thai Experience

So far I’ve kept my massage-a-day streak intact, with an alternating schedule of foot massages (after long days of walking) and traditional Thai massages (after long days of blogging). Thai massage, which is performed fully-clothed (both of us) on a mat on the floor, involves a lot of stretching, pressure points and flexibility work. It’s been described as having yoga performed on you, which is also my favorite threat in a street fight.

Before the massage you are given a pair of Thai fisherman pants and a blousy top to change into; any bodywork that includes a costume change can’t be all bad. The masseuse then spends the next hour kneading, poking, stretching, bending, folding, spindling and mutilating. Highly recommended.

There are literally twenty massage places within two blocks of my guest house. I’m not sure how they stay in business, considering 99% of the time they appear to be empty and the competition has driven the going price down to $4.70 – $6.20 / hr. Also, none of them really does anything to distinguish themselves from the others. You’d think some marketing genius would come up with pirate-themed massage to really stick out from the crowd.

Speaking of sticking out from the crowd, here’s one style of massage I won’t be experiencing:


There is no scenario under which my genitals are up for 25 hrs of detoxification. I’m not even so sure that I suffer from Toxic Genitals. Time to consult the internets.

In other important news, I’ve now settled into a weird but effective bi-phasic sleep schedule where I sleep about 4.5 hours each night, with a big 90 minute nap in mid-evening. This is mostly driven by working until 2 a.m. or later to synch up with the other folks at TeamSnap and not being able to sleep past 7 a.m. due to the rooster laugh track outside my window. Yesterday I had meetings until 4 a.m. so I only got three hours of sleep; a good nap around noon perked me right back up.

There’s no better place to be on this kind of schedule, because if I have a half hour between meetings at 11:45 p.m. it’s easy to pop around the corner to the main street where food stalls are still happily cooking; midnight pad thai has become my go-to the last couple nights. (Midnight Pad Thai is also my Maria Muldaur tribute band.)



Yesterday I found the Facebook group for Chiang Mai Ultimate (frisbee, not fighting), so I headed over to Chiang Mai University to play a little bit of pickup disc. I flagged down the rare songthaew driven by a woman, and after consulting her map as to where I was going we engaged in the standard songtaew rate negotiation.

Certain things are expected to be bargained for in Thailand, such as everything at the public markets and prices on songtaew rides. Although the price of a ride is nominally 20 baht within the city, the definition of “within the city” is somewhat fluid, and the price for farang (foreigners) is “whatever we’ll pay.” As my destination was on the outer edges of what I’d consider the city, I was prepared to pay more than 20 baht.

Anyway, Hadas would probably describe me as “Not the finest negotiator in the land,” and so given the handicap of bargaining in Thai I was pretty much prepared to pay whatever price the driver named, even if it was 7,000 Euros. As it was, I lucked into perhaps not the greatest Thai negotiator either, because our conversation went like this:

DRIVER: “How much you pay?”

ME: “Tao rai?” (How much)

DRIVER: “How much you pay?”

ME: “Tao rai?”

DRIVER: “80 baht.”

ME: “See sip baht.” (40 baht)

DRIVER: “Ha sip baht.” (50 baht)

ME: “Chai.” (Yes)

So I was feeling pretty good about remembering all the points I’d learned in my business books about negotiation: Make the other party name the first price; respond with an offer that’s less than you’re willing to pay; and remember that traffic drives on the left in Thailand so when you step out into the street to commence negotiations you don’t get flattened by a truck carrying water buffaloes.

She motioned for me to climb into the front seat, which was a first for me in a songthaew. Along the drive she pointed out places of interest in Chiang Mai and I maintained a death grip on the seat cushion as we sped down the wrong side of the street while I sat in what should have been the driver’s side of the car in America.

Ultimate frisbee was fun. It was a mix of expats and locals. I was one of four people from Portland, just offering more proof that getting out of Oregon in the winter is the patriotic thing to do. I scored a goal or a touchdown or a field goal or whatever points are called in ultimate. I haven’t played since college, but one of the Thai players asked me how often I play, which I choose to take as a compliment.

It was a bit tricky to find a songthaew after the game, as it was dark, but eventually I caught one coming off campus and when I told the driver where I was going he said “40 baht.” So much for my crack negotiating skills.

Today I dropped off my laundry at one of the twenty places that do laundry within two blocks of my guesthouse. I think pretty much everyone who owns a washing machine has a sign out that says “Laundry – 30 baht/kilo.” I asked when it would be done, and the woman either said “tonight” or “stir-fried noodles with pumpkin.” My Thai is still pretty shaky. She also didn’t give me any kind of ticket or claim check, so it’s entirely possible that I’m going to have to pick my clothes out of a police lineup tomorrow.


After that I went for a walk and then took my requisite mid-morning bi-phasic sleep nap. I’ve got a busy afternoon of massage and eating Thai food planned, followed by an early bedtime to rest up for the next two days of TripAdvisor Recommended Tourist Activities™. One fun surprise was picking up some meat on a stick that turned out to be rice-in-a-sausage-casing on a stick. Delicious and different than anything I’ve had here yet.

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Day 4: Lost

I was not surprised to get lost in Chiang Mai’s old city. I was surprised to get lost while attempting to board the airplane to Chiang Mai.

About four hours into my epic stay in Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport I finally decided to pass through security and find the gate for my flight. While entering the extremely perfunctory security checkpoint a random guy noticed my TeamSnap t-shirt and asked where I’d gotten it. He was very excited to learn that I am one of the founders of TeamSnap. He’s a customer — Jason from Edmonton — who plays on a TeamSnap-organized hockey team. We had a nice conversation.

I was SUPER excited to get recognized for my TeamSnap t-shirt in BANGKOK!

His wife/girlfriend regarded our entire conversation as if we were space aliens. I’m betting that “My dude met the founder of the software used to organize his beer league hockey team” doesn’t make it into the Highlights of Bangkok post on her blog.

It was quite the hike to my gate. Since Don Mueang only services a handful of low-cost airlines, much of the airport appears to be walled off or otherwise closed. It was a good 10 minute walk to the gate area, down two flights of escalators and past much abandonment. After waiting in the airport for close to six hours, I was excited to learn that my flight was delayed another hour. I sat in the waiting area and let the cold Arctic air conditioning waft over me, hoping a tauntaun would happen by that I could filet with any number of objects I might have smuggled through the perfunctory security checkpoint.

I was flying Air Asia, with my ticket having cost all of $39. The signage is perky Japanese-inspired typefaces and bright colors, and their staff appears to have been hired primarily on the basis of sex appeal. Every single flight attendant and gate agent for Air Asia would be Miss (or Mr.) December on the Delta Airlines pin-up calendar.

A lot of Air Asia is really slick. For instance, after checking in online they sent a QR code to my phone. When I got to the airport I was able to scan the QR code at a kiosk and it spit out my boarding pass.

There are also some elements to Air Asia that are a little less successful. For instance, you can pay extra to get priority boarding access, but because we were at a gate that didn’t technically contain an “airplane,” we boarded onto a shuttle bus instead. Every person who had priority boarding access was summarily shoved to the rear of the bus by us non-prioritized boarders, and thus were last in line to actually get onto the airplane.

A secondary issue — and more serious in my book — was that the shuttle bus driver did not appear to have all the required details to execute his job, such as — for instance — the location of the plane. Our shuttle bus drove to one section of the airport. Stopped. Did a u-turn. Drove to a second section of the airport. Stopped. Waited for a minute while (I presume) a heated radio conversation ensued, and finally drove to a third section of the airport where there was a plane parked on the tarmac.  I still haven’t figured out why they didn’t park the plane at the location where the shuttle bus was initially located, but for $39 I’m not complaining. I imagine an interview for the position of Shuttle Bus Driver at Air Asia involves picking a photo of an airplane out of a lineup that includes other vehicles like tractors and sailboats.

On board the plane I perused the (fantastic) English-language in-flight magazine, the only drawback of which was an article about how they recover the cockpit recorder “black box” after airplane crashes. Maybe their editor got lost on his drive to the office.


The stunningly hot flight attendants demonstrated the safety procedures, which I paid rapt attention to because safety first is my motto. In the event of a water landing you can blow into the tube on your life jacket for inflation. I consulted the map in the in-flight magazine to see if we were traveling over any water.

The flight was uneventful, especially because there are no complimentary beverages and I wasn’t going to pay a buck for water on an airplane, like an animal. We landed in Chiang Mai in about an hour and pulled up directly to a walkway leading to the terminal, thus forestalling the possibility of getting lost.

While waiting for a taxi I met two jolly Poles (which is also the title of my Bing Crosby tribute Christmas album), who offered to split the cab fare and along the way one of them shared tales of getting thrown from a motorcycle in Krabi (a town on the coast of Thailand) and suffering a severely sprained ankle. Amidst swapping travel stories I politely suggested that I had always wanted to visit Poland, which may slightly stretch the definition of both “always” and “wanted.”

Chiang Mai’s old city is a square about 1.5 kilometers on a side, surrounded by a moat and remnants of the original wall built in 1296 to keep out (I think) East Germans. The rest of Chiang Mai surrounds the old city radiating out a mile or so in each direction until it meets the countryside. The old city is a maze of twisty roads and alleyways and I can attest that it is solidly possible to get very lost wandering its streets (with or without priority boarding).


Luckily, being only two square kilometers in total (the city, not me, though at the rate I’m eating I’ve got a shot at it), eventually you come out on one of the edges of the old city and can get your bearings by the swarms of traffic driving the two streets that parallel the moat. My guesthouse is on the third floor of a lovely building on the northeast inner side of the old city. I have a lovely view of Doi Suthep mountain, or at least I will when the clouds lift.


Within a few blocks of the front door are dozens of restaurants, cafes, massage shops and street vendors. About three blocks aways is a small daily market that sells fruits and vegetables and freshly-cooked food.

Yesterday evening I walked about a kilometer up to the north gate of the old city, where there’s a large nightly food market. One of the best-known vendors is a woman in a cowboy hat who cooks up braised pork shank served over rice with a soft-boiled duck egg. Delicious! This is an area that few tourists visit, so none of the food vendors has signs in English. Thus ordering is a bit of a challenge, but a fair amount of pointing seems to get the job done.


This morning I walked about a mile and a half to the Wararot Market, a large complex of buildings and outdoor stalls near the river, that has food vendors, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables and anything else you could want to buy. I picked up some meat-on-a-stick along the way, and when I got to the market I finished my breakfast with some fried rice and two packets of spicy sausage grilled in banana leaves. After some initial tests I determined that you probably are not supposed to eat the banana leaves. Delicious. One of the stalls had buckets of live turtles, eels and catfish, which did not make it onto my breakfast menu.


This afternoon, after my morning nap (still sorting out my body clock, but getting more onto a rational schedule), I caught a songthaew over to the supermarket to pick up some midnight snacks to keep in my room. Chiang Mai has neither public transportation nor traditional taxis, so most people get around by songthaew (literally “two rows”), a red pickup truck with a modified cab on the back that has two parallel benches and acts as a sort of communal taxi.

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They ply around the city by the hundreds and you just wave them down and tell them where you’re going. If they’re headed in that direction, you hop in and share the ride with anyone else who’s in there. If they’re not going near your destination they’ll tell you no and you just flag down the next one. I went one for three on my first flagging (probably because the grocery store was not a common destination) but caught the first songthaew that I flagged for my ride back home.

After storing my groceries I headed out to a nearby restaurant where I enjoyed a bowl of tom ka gai soup (coconut soup with chicken) and did some work on my laptop. It’s 82 degrees, very comfortable, and other than mosquito bites on my feet, pretty darned close to paradise. The only thing that would make it better were if my gal were here to enjoy the food and perhaps an occasional water landing, if you catch my drift.




Thailand Day 3: Meat on a Stick

Here was the plan for my first full day in Bangkok:

  1. Wear myself out sightseeing.
  2. Stay up until 10 or 11 p.m.
  3. Sleep for eight hours and be magically adjusted to this time zone.

Here’s what actually happened:

  1. Wore myself out sightseeing.
  2. Passed out at 6 p.m. and slept for eight hours until 2 a.m.
  3. But not for eight hours straight because I was awakened by a phone call from the hotel front desk at 10:30 p.m. telling me that due to Monday morning’s planned protests I should leave for the airport four hours early.
  4. Left my hotel seven hours before my flight so so as to avoid traffic and now have another five hours to kill at the airport.

So pretty rock solid planning, I’d say. But let’s start at the beginning:

Having awoken at 4 a.m. on Sunday, I was easily the first guest to sample the hotel’s breakfast buffet when it opened at 6:30 a.m.; it was a mix of questionable American-style meat products and much-less-questionable Thai fried rice and vegetable stir fries. I opted for the less questionable. True factoid: the minibar in my hotel room features, beer, hard liquor, nuts, candies and a pack of condoms. That’s a party waiting to happen.

After breakfast I walked a kilometer over to the BTS SkyTrain Surasak stop. The SkyTrain is Bangkok’s partial solution to its awful traffic — kind of like Chicago’s El, only with way more Hello Kitty art on the inside. The SkyTrain is modern, fast and air conditioned to feel like Finland in January. Luckily, pretty much all the public signage here is in both Thai and English, so it’s quite easy to get around.

It was a fast SkyTrain ride to the Chao Praya river, where I caught the Chao Praya Express boat for 15 baht (50 cents) toward the Grand Palace. Although Bangkok’s traffic is miserable, there’s a convenient river running smack through the center of the city, and it’s one of the best ways to get around.



The boat ride took about a half hour and deposited me just steps from the Grand Palace. Unfortunately, I was a half hour early, so I took a stroll as part of my stated quest to wear myself out.




Thailand has very strict dress codes for entering palaces and temples. I’d been careful to wear long pants and to leave my tank tops in 1979 where they belong. Click on the photo below to read the full dress code and the very important warning at the bottom!


After paying admission I spent a couple hours exploring the Grand Palace, which is (as advertised) exceptionally grand.

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There are several other “must see” attractions near the Grand Palace, but since I’ll be back here toward the end of my trip I decided to must not see them yesterday. Instead, I rewound my journey so I could get a welcome almost-afternoon nap.

But not before partaking for the first time in the legendary Thai street food. I’d read that Thailand had good street food, but what hadn’t really gotten across was how plentiful it is. It’s not like you have to walk several blocks to find street food vendors. They are on every street, all the time. No matter what happens, I am not going to go hungry here.

I sampled various kinds of meat on a stick — pork, chicken, and lemongrass pork sausages. Delicious!

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My Bangkok hotel sits directly across from a small market, and the alleyway I walk down after exiting the front door passes by dozens of small food and fruit vendors. Like I said, not gonna go hungry.


After an hour nap I was ready to go again, so I hopped back on the SkyTrain to go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. It’s the last stop on the SkyTrain line, so I got a very nice aerial tour of Bangkok. This city is big, and the air quality is horrible, but it’s also a very exciting, very cosmopolitan town.

Chatuchak Weekend Market is considered to be one of the largest open-air markets in the world. There are maps all over the place, and I was still lost for most of the time I was in there. It has pretty much anything you could possibly want to purchase. Food? Clothing? Textiles? Pets? Antiques? Leather? Some of the shops are VERY specialized. A shop selling nothing but soaps shaped like fruits and vegetables? You betcha!

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I wandered around for about an hour, taking in the sights, eating more meat on a stick and drinking fresh-squeezed orange and grape juice. Each meat-on-a-stick costs 30 cents. A glass of orange juice costs 60 cents. This place is cheap.

Eventually I stumbled across an open-air massage shop, and I paid $7.50 for an hour-long “foot and shoulder massage.” The lady giving my massage was tiny but powerful. It was a mix of traditional and Thai massage, with a fair amount of stretching and flexibility work. She seemed to take issue with my incredibly tight hip flexors, so she went to work on them, in the process coming surprisingly near to my own meat on a stick, if you catch my drift. Overall it was slightly painful and quite wonderful. I left the market feeling light on my feet.

After a brief rest in a nearby park I headed back to the hotel and intended to do some light work before heading out later for dinner.


What actually happened: I fell down face first on the bed and slept for four a half hours, until the front desk called to tell me that Monday an epic traffic-snarling protest march was planned and that I should leave for the airport four hours early. I rolled back over and slept for another 3 – ½ hours, finally waking fully rested at 2 a.m.

Not only is my body clock still fully NOT on Thailand time, but it’s not on Portland time either. I think my body believes that I’m in Spain.

At 4 a.m. I wandered out to look for some dinner/breakfast, but the street food vendors weren’t open yet. Luckily, there’s a 24-hour 7-Eleven on every corner, so I picked up some 7-Eleven brand meat-on-a-stick (of course), hard boiled eggs and water. After snacking and packing up, I checked out of the hotel at 6 a.m. and caught a cab to Don Mueang airport. In a combination of very bad Thai (mine) and slightly-less-bad English (the cab driver), we determined that it was probably a good idea to leave this early. The traffic was dicey even before the protest was to start. (More on Thailand’s politics in a future blog, as soon as I figure it out.)

Now I’m currently parked at the airport for the next (looking at watch) four hours and 40 minutes.

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Don Mueang is Thailand’s “old” airport. It was closed when the gargantuan new Suvarnabhumi (pronounced “JFK”) Airport opened in 2006, but with air travel exploding in Thailand (figuratively), several low-cost carriers re-opened Don Mueang to help handle the volume of traffic. Now there are three discount carriers operating out of Don Mueang.

All that is to say that this airport does not have the wealth of international dining options as its counterpoint, so after checking into my Air Asia flight I went downstairs to arrivals and out the door, across a rickety overpass, toward a nearby neighborhood where I picked up some breakfast meat-on-a-stick and sticky rice. My Thai remains so shockinly bad that the breakfast lady had to tell me four times how much it cost, and I finally just handed her a wad of money and let her pick out the proper amount. I’ve got to learn to listen more for the tones, because there’s a big difference beween five baht and 1,000.

Four more hours to kill. Time to go look for some noodles for mid-morning snack and get ready for my discount flight to Chiang Mai. My airplane ticket to northern Thailand cost $39. I have a strong suspicion that some of us passengers are going to have to chip in for gas halfway through the flight.

Thailand Day One: Long Day’s Journey into More Day

Friday, 1:54 p.m. PST – Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean

We’re 30 minutes into an 11-hour flight to Tokyo and they’ve already shut down the entertainment system for a 15-minute “hard reboot.” If they can’t get Two and a Half Men to play consistently I have some serious questions about whether this plane will make it to Japan.

Nonetheless I’m in a chipper mood because I’m ON MY WAY TO THAILAND. It’s day one of my annual winter trip away from rainy Portland (currently masquerading as snowy Portland) and I couldn’t be more excited. The entertainment system failure notwithstanding, so far Delta is killing it with a hilarious new safety video that seems to have been inspired by the movie Airplane. Sight gags galore plus a cameo by Alex Trebek. What’s not to like?

I’m also excited because I’ve upgraded my travel repertoire with the following improvements:

A noise-canceling headset

It reduced the loud roar of the engines to a soft purr and means I can listen to the in-flight entertainment (when operating) at a comfortable volume. There is also a commercial for the very brand of headset I purchased, playing before movies on the entertainment system (when operating), so I feel like a smug shopper.

A supremely dorky travel pillow

It looks like an inflatable giraffe bladder, but during the second leg of this flight from Tokyo to Bangkok I intend to sleep like teenager.

A new, smaller travel backpack

In my never-ending quest to pack lighter, I bought a smaller version of my already-small carry-on backpack. I’m going to Southeast Asia — it’s not like I need to bring bulky sweaters. My bag is ultra-light, except for the 35 pounds of food that I’m carrying with me just in case they do not offer food in Thailand. Luckily, I probably will have eaten all of it by the time they serve dinner on the plane. Hadas says I have a luggage fetish. It is not a fetish. I merely appreciate a fine selection of quality bags and enjoy choosing the perfect one for each trip based on the destination.


Global Entry

On my last trip I was sitting in my hotel room with nothing to do, and it occurred to me that I was probably a Frequent Traveler, seeing as how I was sitting in a hotel room in the midst of a frequent trip. So I went online and signed up for the US Customs and Border Control’s Global Entry program. After submitting a lengthy online application in which I listed my employment, residence and travel history, and coughed up $100, I was conditionally approved in late November. And thanks to a stroke of luck I was able to get in for my in-person interview this past Monday. The interview, with a cheerful Border Control officer at the Portland Airport, was mainly an excuse to give me a pamphlet about the program and take my fingerprints. Now a proud Global Entry member, I get two benefits: One, I am eligible for TSA PreCheck, which means at the airport this morning I got to to through the special line where you can leave your shoes on, your laptop and liquids in your bag, and just generally speed through security like it’s 1999. And two, when I return to the US I can fly (figuratively) through customs and immigration at a Global Entry kiosk instead of waiting in line with the other poor saps from the plane. So far TSA PreCheck was a big win, and I’ll report back on Global Entry when I globally re-enter in late December.


My cell phone now works in any country with no crazy jacked-up international roaming rates. T-Mobile FTW!

So thus properly outfitted for a trip to Thailand, I thought I should address the most frequently asked question I’ve gotten, which is:

“Thailand? By yourself? Are you crazy? Aren’t they having riots?”

It’s true that they’re having some protests, but the tear gassing is apparently localized to some very specific areas of Bangkok, and I’m only going to be there for a day and a half before heading north, so I expect it’ll be a light tear gassing at most. Besides, last I heard the protestors and the government had called a time out from hostilities to celebrate the King’s birthday.

Regardless, the chances of me actually getting to Bangkok are still dubious at best. Even ignoring the question of whether this plane is airworthy, there’s the small matter of China and Japan being locked into a tete-a-tete over some disputed islands in between the two nations, so apparently our pilot has to radio Beijing when we’re flying over the disputed islands to say “Hey y’all, we’re just a friendly Delta plane with a balky entertainment system — please let us through.”

And if that wasn’t tricky enough, it was dicey as to whether I would even make it to the flight this morning since Portland suddenly decided to turn into the second coming of Siberia and the roads threatened to make a 15-minute drive to the airport into an all-morning affair. Whoever said getting there is half the fun probably needs to evaluate their definition of fun.

Needless to say I’m expecting to experience a world of culture shock upon landing in Thailand. With a year to prepare for this trip I’ve learned a good 15 words of Thai, ten of which are the numbers one to ten (feel free to quiz me). I plan to spend a fair amount of time pointing at food and hoping it is not roast beetle knees.

All righty, the entertainment system is back up and Cougar Town is not going to watch itself. More details to follow if we make it.

Delta’s pretty fancy times for Economy Class. I slept through the mid-flight ice cream service:



Saturday – Somewhere in Asia

Somehow I missed out on Saturday with the time difference. Seriously, I left home Friday morning and woke up on Bangkok on Sunday. If anyone finds my Saturday, please mail it to me.

Sunday 5:20 a.m. – Bangkok

So … I made it. The entertainment system sort of worked, except that it would show you a different movie than the one you selected. This probably came as a surprise to the parents who were trying to cue up My Little Pony for their kids and got Showgirls. I watched Pain and Gain, and Now You See Me on in-flight entertainment roulette.

Nonetheless, the rest of my travel day was pretty smooth, and I do mean day. The sun stayed up for the entire flight to Tokyo since we were flying directly west. A quick two hour layover in Tokyo and then an easy seven hour flight to Bangkok during which I mostly slept and here I am!

Passing through immigration in the Bangkok airport was as easy as any country I’ve ever been to. I was through the line in less than 10 minutes with my new passport stamp. I grabbed 9900 Baht from an ATM (still figuring out the conversion rate, but I think it’s somewhere between five dollars and my life savings) and caught a taxi to the Silom City Hotel.

Extremely notable fact: THEY DRIVE ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD HERE!!! AAAAAAAAAAAGH! That made the taxi ride a bit of an adventure, even at 1 a.m. It also means that the moving walkways in the airport and the escalators are also on the wrong side, and I can neither confirm nor deny that I spent five minutes walking around level two of the airport trying to figure out how to get down to level one. In the process, I got stopped by security and asked to show my passport, because apparently I looked suspicious trying to figure out how to ride an escalator. Quality tourism.

After checking in at the hotel I slept another two hours, from 2 a.m. – 4 a.m. (11 a.m. – 1 p.m. Portland time) and then awoke to start my day. It’s gonna take some time to shake off the jet lag. Note to self: learn the Thai word for “siesta.”