Vang Vieng

After you do everything there is to do in Luang Prabang, the next stop is Vang Vieng. No matter what time you leave, you’ll catch people you just saw in Luang Prabang, either just arriving, or a few days from departure. All of Laos is a continual meet-up. There’s only one or two “buses” leaving per day, and they’ll charge you a royal 100-120,000 kip for the 4 hour ride. We booked through our hostel (6 of us) and expected a minivan to ourselves. Not so fast! There ended up being a full set of 12 people in the car, with all our junk strapped on top.

Slow.

We then set out through the twisty mountain paths. The roads are good, but the bends are consistently hairpin. Luckily, our driver safely chose not to exceed a 30km/hr speed limit, so although it took much longer than 4 hours, we didn’t have A moment of fear. Our driver thought the Most Unexceptional course of action was to coast downhill in first gear, not faster than 10km/hr at some points. But we made it!

Paddies.

We rolled into Vang Vieng in the dark, and all piled out to find the guesthouse I thought I had reserved the night before. However, when we showed up, they hadn’t seen our email and had no rooms. It’s not really a big deal, actually, very typically Laos, so we just kept trekking. One girl of us had been to Vang Vieng already, and knew a good guesthouse, so we trudged there. Easygo Backpackers looks completely horrible, and it certainly isn’t the nicest hostel I’ve been in, but they did offer free tea and coffee, and had passable WIFI at some times, so we checked in.

Easygo.

My friend Tal and I decided to split a private room, the same price as a dorm room at 50,000 a night between 2. I asked the young gentleman for a room with a view; we got the 3rd floor and an over-roof scene of the mountains–not bad. There was one light, which glowed a gentle gold–very picturesque, but just awful for lighting purposes–and an ensuite bathroom. Then we set out for dinner.

Pink Sunset.

To our dismay we found that the only affordable meals in Vang Vieng are baguettes. The selfsame baguettes that pimple the streets of Luang Prabang. Although here, they’re more of a full-blown acne outbreak. They are delicious, and you get your $1.50’s worth, but it’s horrible to imagine eating a fried baguette for more than one meal per day. And of course the options are so tantalizing: Chicken Cheese Bacon, Omelette Ham Bacon, Bacon Bacon Bacon…I’m begging for bacon!

Best.

There are many and many a local road stand, but all are the same price, so it’s really just a matter of preference. If you choose to go into one of the restaurants hanging over the river, be prepared to spend at least 15,000 kip. The food tends to be about the same price throughout the entire town, but as you move away from the tourist center–southward, I believe, the portions start to get larger. Tal, of Israel, was in the habit of taking daily traipses about the town, and scoped out a great place for eating, only about a twenty minute walk away.

Road to.

Of course, we had to stare down the entire road before we could find it again, but it was worth it when we did. There are no distinguishing characteristics of this little shoppe, else I would tell you where to go, but it offers a huge, delicious, noodle soup, som tam, and other Lao traditionals.

And, naturally, the town is full of bars. Bars offering “happy” things such as pizzas and shakes, and “space” things, which I assume to have either opium, shrooms, or weed inside, or possibly all three. You can buy weed, opium, and shrooms at several different locations, in varying forms. Shroom Shakes seem to be a standard 100,000 kip, whilst shroom or opium tea runs a bit cheaper. Jaidee’s and the Molino (Possibly Torino)’s Pizza are the go-to places, although weed is probably also available on the streets, and I heard that Johnny’s Guesthouse was selling Ecstasy over the counter.

View.

Some bars have special offerings–Sakura and Fat Monkey give tanks and tees out to those who order enough drinks (Sakura is 2 vodkas at 25,000 each, I don’t know about Fat Monkey, but I’m sure it’s similar). Many places advertise free drinks between such-and-such a time, but I can’t verify. Sakura’s also sells nitrous oxide “balloons” between 10-15,000 kip. All in all, it’s a place where one can get really, really messed up.

Posed.

And not a night went by in which we (Tal and I) see a girl sobbing in front of the tube rental establishment. You’re meant to rent a tube for 55,000 kip (steep, right?) and then pay a 60,000 kip deposit. If you get back before 6PM, you get your deposit back. If you get plastered at the 2 (TWO) bars on the river, and don’t make it in time, you lose 20 right off the top. If you don’t make it back before 8PM, you lose your entire deposit. Every night, walking through the town around 8:30 or 9, we would see a barefooted girl in bedraggled swimgear, sobbing her heart out. Attempts to console the dazed and inebriated girl seemed ineffectual. The moral of the story is, don’t get that drunk/set an alarm/budget your 60,000 kip as gone if you’re going to get shwasted.

Blue Dream.

That being said, tubing is a ton of fun. It’s not imperative to get drunk. The tuk-tuk takes you up to the river (well, to a bar on the river) and you just float down at your leisure. The drinks are very expensive, and Tal and I just wanted to work on our tans, so we lugged our tubes to the shallows of the river and made rock paint for an hour instead. Then we set out, with a scarf held between us to keep together.

Bridge.

We got out at the next bar, and were interested in the free shots. It turns out the shots are only free if you buy something. Tal bought a water. I took the shot. It tasted like dirt. I’ve never had such a hideous shot. You also get a little bracelet. No, you cannot have a free bracelet. We played some basketball on a hoop that shot water at you, and some people played volleyball, and we did some dancing. The sun was already beclouded, so we were straight chilling. Some creepy dude tried to join up and talk about the sex appeal of clitoral piercing. We decided to leave.

The float from that bar to the end was maybe an hour and a half, max. After about half an hour, we went under a bridge, which had men seated on it, trying to coerce us out to take a tuk-tuk. “It’s 5 more km,” they say, “It will take 3 hours”. Don’t listen to these shysters. Just float on.

Communist.

I met a lot of Israelis in Laos. They were all very friendly and welcoming, and were quite cordial about my newly acquired horrible Hebrew skills. Tal was ever encouraging. I think my Hebrew is probably awful. Do you want to learn some Hebrew? Well, I can’t teach you via text. It’s all in the throat. I can teach you Lao, if you want. It’s just like Thai.

Suspicious.

There was a jungle party the Friday night we showed up. This consisted of paying 30,000 kip to be forcibly snuggled by a lot of sweaty, drunk dudes. The music was generally poor, but danceable in some parts. It was a great place to meet up with friends and scream at each other. It seemed like every night in Vang Vieng we were all up until it got light out. I’m not sure how this happened, but the nights just seemed to slip away. And not heavy drinking means you don’t have to nurse a hangover the whole next day!

Spotted.

There is a market on the north side of town, about 2km out. There’s the usual offerings of clothes, household goods, and food. Unusually, Laos is the best country to buy makeup. It’s very cheap, with an assortment of offerings. If you’re low on maquillage, buy it in Laos.

Temple.

Vang Vieng is a fun place, and it would be easy to spend a lot of time here. There’s always people coming and going, the river is RIGHT THERE, and you can spend your days just chilling out–like much of the rest of Laos. It’s a great stop if you’re looking to party, even during low season (read: monsoon season).

Vientiane

A few days later, everyone cool left Vang Vieng. Like I said, there are always people coming in, but you sort of get attached to a certain crew, and once they’re gone, it’s time to move on. We (Tal and I) booked a bus through one of the multiple agencies in the city, at 35,000 kip it was the best deal in time. It was supposed to be a 4 hour ride, and our minivan was set to leave at 9AM, and to pick us up in front of Easygo.

Cave.

Well, the bus wasn’t there by 9:04, so I called to the place we bought the tickets from. “Bus coming now,” said the harried sounding clerk. As long as we weren’t left behind, it didn’t really matter, but I’ve heard too many stories about buses leaving without passengers. As you may have read, I’m always worrying about this happening to me. Anyhow, the van came, and strapped all our stuff to the roof under a tarp (sigh). My iPod died, so we listened to Balkan Beat Box on Tal’s iPhone for a couple hours.

Snakes or Eels.

We rolled into Vientiane about 1:30PM, and rolled out to look for a hostel. Oddly, but conveniently, the minivan just left us in the middle of a parking lot in the center of town, not at the bus station. We tried to find a likely hostel on the pilfered cafe internet, but it was a no-go, so started walking down the road and figured we’d find something likely.

In this way, we stumbled onto the Vientiane Backpacker’s Hostel, a grody little dive with mostly rude attendants, free breakfast, passable WIFI and cavernous air-conditioned rooms. The place looked like a run-down asylum, or a Cambodian orphanage with air-conditioning. Later that afternoon, we stumbled upon the Crazy Monkey Hostel, or something similar to that, which looked like where better informed backpackers go.

Flags on Flags.

As usual, the first thing we decided to do was to look for the local market. We got a map from the front desk, and a friendly man had just clocked in and helpfully circled where the market was, stating that it would take about 30 minutes. We started out and seemed to be making good time. Then we got to no man’s land–far enough out of the center for the signs to no longer be in both English and Lao–and couldn’t figure out what to do. Where the market should be, there was nothing. The map was written in English, so no one could read it and help us, and when I asked for the “dalat Lao” people pointed us in all kinds of different directions.

Buddhist Tree.

As we traipsed along, people unashamedly laughed at us from what felt like all sides. I’m not sure if it was because we were hot and bothered, or if they really thought we were funny-looking for some reason (maybe an odd pair? a petite, curly-headed Israeli and a giant fluffy-headed chick with cheek piercings?) but we were less than psyched. Finally, a group of old people called us over and directed us to the market. Thank God.

Walls.

Outside the market, there were hoards of fruit sellers, so I stocked up on mangosteens and dragonfruit. Not bad prices, but then I had to lug kilos of fruit around the inside market. It was filled with produce and meat sellers, but also with a section entirely devoted to clothes. Poor Tal never haggles, and accepts first prices regularly. Apparently things are much more expensive in Israel, so everything in Laos sounds like a deal. Then we had to trudge home under our purchases.

Fence.

Upon reaching our hostel, we were ready for a shower. Vientiane is just like a small Vietnamese city, but without motorbikes. There are so many cars, it’s really surprising. How can poor Laos afford cars more readily than comparatively well-off Vietnam? We went out to look for dinner, and to see the night market afterwards.

Curlicques.

The Night Market is enormous, and it’s all clothes, with scattered stalls for makeup and electronics. It’s a ton of fun, and pretty much the only thing to do at night. You can haggle slight price decreases, but not much. Laos are not into bargaining. Someone explained to me that Laos thought they were setting fair prices, and didn’t like having to accept less. Laos is poorer than Thailand, yet the prices are higher. That’s what I don’t understand.

Key Maker.

The food is also very expensive. We covered a 6 block area and couldn’t find decent prices. We ended up having 15,000 kip noodle soup on the street, which was good, and came with cubes of congealed blood. Have I talked about that? Congealed blood is a thing in Asia. It’s not bad, much better than liver, and doesn’t taste like blood. I’m not sure how it’s made, but it looks horrifying in the market. I try not to think about it, ‘cuz I need the iron.

Wired.

In the hostel, there weren’t many friendly faces. Everyone was caught up in their own business. I’d been using the greatly improved WIFI to torrent like crazy. We decided to stay one more day, to see what we could see, and then leave the next.

Little Altar.

We ended up seeing nothing. The river is far off across a sweltering marsh, it’s hot and cloudy, and full of crumbling and decrepit buildings. Everyone wants money, no one has sticky rice. There are plenty of temples, if temples are your thing, but they’re all just local wats, and the monks don’t want you to take pictures of them. Tal left for Chiang Mai, and I set out for Pakse the following day.

Monk Time.

Maybe I did Vientiane wrong, but I honestly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, and would warn people it’s a waste of time. I also picked up a tagalong in this way, by encouraging her to keep going, and telling her where I was going. Not my best move.

Don Det

I had determined to leave Vientiane as soon as possible, and accordingly booked a much-overpriced ticket to Pakse. I wanted to do “the motorcycle loop”, as I’d heard there was a tour you could do by motorbike to see some caves that took a few days. I read online that the motorcycle loop started in Pakse, so to there I booked a ticket.

The ticket for the bus ended up placing me and another girl who had attached herself to me in the very front of the bus, overhanging the driver’s area, a sort of loft if you will. It was actually a cool seat, but very warm and short. A brief night’s ride with two barely of-age British boys that my definitely of-age companion was flirting with and we were unceremoniously dumped out at Pakse.

Don’t go to Pakse. It’s essentially a one-road town–hot, dusty, and under construction. All the sleeping accommodations are overpriced, although Lamkhang Hotel is probably the most affordable, and is also a good place to rent bikes and keep your luggage. We rented two bikes for four days, the prices decreased according to the length of lease, but I assumed it would take about four days anyhow, it was supposed to be about 150 km. Unfortunately, about this time, I tried to find Tha Kaek on the map. It was about three counties away. I began to have a growing suspicion I was in the wrong place.

I dragged out the laptop and looked it up. Yes, I had bypassed the “cave motorcycle loop” for the “waterfall motorcycle loop”. Gutted. I really don’t care about waterfalls (sorry), and was severely disappointed, but decided to make the Most Unexceptional of it and tour the waterfalls anyhow. We set out with a terribly photocopied map with nothing written in Lao and tried to find our way onto the road that would lead us around the Bolaven Plateau. We drove for an hour, asking the entire way. We did not find the road.

We returned the bikes, and asked to book a bus to the 4,000 islands. Sorry, the bus leaves at 8AM. Once per day. No, we’re out of the cheapest rooms, even though there is figuratively no other visible guests. No, I won’t go halfsies on the bike rental because you only had them for a couple hours. But in the end, my stolid companion persevered on our behalf, simply by demanding the same thing over and over again. We only had to pay for a half day for the bikes, and we got a good room price.

My eye had been killing me since the bus ride the night before. My homegirl, Tal, had complained of eye pain a few days before, and I recalled that she had used her eye pencil on one of my eyes, consequently, the one that was now annihilatingly painful. That night, I went out to the pharmacy and bought some $1 antibacterial eye drops and began using them immediately. Results seemed positive.

The next morning came early for our minivan to the 4,000 Islands. Once you come to the riverside town, you must still charter a boat across the river, for an additional 10,000 kip.

Arriving in Don Det, I immediately began looking for a hostel, because I wanted to meet some new folks, and potentially off this other girl onto someone. But I couldn’t find a hostel! There were guesthouses, bungalows, and hotels, but no hostels to be found (at least by me—I’m pretty sure there is one, though!). As we trudged along the muddy path further into the island, I saw a likely backpacker boy and asked where he was staying. Sunset Bungalows, was the reply, but when I asked there, the man said they were full up. Which seemed impossible, as there was nary a soul on the island. It did look nice though, hammocks on a porch overhanging the water.

We walked a bit further, and stopped at the reggae-themed “Happy Bar”. I was quite rudely replied to by what I assumed to be the proprietress that yes, they did have rooms. We decided to take one, as the price was great, and it also featured hammocks and a waterfront porch, at 50,000 kip a day. After securing lodgings, I ambled back into town to see what was happening there.

The place was essentially a ghost-town, I saw maybe 3 people, including locals. The island included a bar creatively named “Adam’s Bar”, a “Reggae Bar”, some eateries, and a place where you could buy a hard drive and have music/movies/shows put on it, operated by Adam, of Adam’s Bar.

There’s not much to do on Don Det—you can pay an exorbitant fee to go kayaking and see “river dolphins” or go tubing + bbq, or you can get stoned and lay around. Adam’s Bar sold weed and edibles, as well as normal food, and played “choose-your-own” movies in the front, all day. The back overlooked the river, and had music going. You can also buy weed from the place I stayed, and from the Reggae Bar.

The going rate for a bag is 125,000 kip, and a joint is 30,000. No one will haggle. I ran into a friend who bought weed from some person in his bungalows for 50,000, who I never saw again. This friend had coincidentally been arrested by the police in Vang Vieng for drug possession.

If you don’t drink, don’t get stoned, and don’t pay to do things, there’s not a whole lot going on here. You can wander around Don Det trying to find internet (good luck, Adam’s Bar and the accompanying electronics shop are your best bet), eat amazing Indian food at Fajai (the little A-frame in town), jump into the chocolate river Mekong and swim a bit, sunbathe in the patchy sunlight, or read in your hammock. It’s actually a great retreat, but most of the people are frustratingly money-grubbing or brusque.

The woman running my bungalow tried to charge me for hot water, so I ended up going into town, paying to refill my giant water bottle ( 2,000 kip ) and getting hot water at the same spot, which I then carried home in my now-handleless tin cup, wrapped in a dirty shirt, and used it to make my coffee and oatmeal. In the afternoon I walked to Mama Thanon’s and bought an order of sticky rice, which I slowly consumed with soy and chili sauce, and my dried garlic.

In the evening, I went to Fajai’s, and took the little table in front, with a book. Every day, I ordered 2 chapatti, a bowl of raitha or straight yogurt, and a curry—usually eggplant or tofu. It was delicious, and very cost-friendly; I usually ended up paying around 35,000 kip, or a little more than $4. Obviously not as cheap as sticky rice for every meal, but that gets old quick.

And, that’s what I did in Don Det. At night, you can hear the peepers as you amble through the sludge-filled path home. There are huge patches of blackness you have to feel your way through with your feet, and often cats, chickens, or cows cross your path. It rained heavily, off and on, for the entire time I was there, but it was highly enjoyable to sit on the patio and watch the rain falling into the river. One night, there was a huge storm across the river, in Cambodia. We could see the lightning flashes, illuminating purple clouds with trees of light, but we couldn’t hear a thing! The stars broke out above us, and the wind blew steadily, tossing the palms overhead.

Xi’an

I elected to go to Xi’an after Lijiang. The guidebooks state it as the start of the Silk Road, so I was all for an ancient city full of spice and fabric. Well, it had some of that. Xi’an is full of ancient buildings, but there is nothing inside of them. Similar to the walls which ring the inner city, there is just a tantalizing taste of what used to be, but no substance inside.

Steaming.

I took the night train from Lijiang to Kunming, my least favorite city in China. I decided to take the bus to the only place I knew how to get to from the train station: The Hump Kunming. I camped there all day, paying 3 RMB to hold my pack, and another 5 to take a shower. I also bought a coffee, so I wouldn’t look like a freeloader.

Red Ensemble.

At 7pm, I took a 2-day train from Kunming to Xi’an. In total, it cost about $80 to go from Lijiang to Xi’an, a distance of 1,600 km. Top bunk. This means you can’t sit up for 36 hours, unless you clamber down and huddle up near the window in one of the fold-down chairs. However, these are usually all occupied. All day long. I had brought way too many snacks, so I just settled in like a squirrel in it’s hole and ate snacks the whole way.

No Seats.

In Lijiang, I had finally given in and purchased a cross-stitch kit. These are highly popular across Asia, and come with a printed fabric pattern and your string; mine cost about $3. However, I came to the painful realization on the train that one does not cross stitch with a doubled thread, but with A untied thread. So i had to shred the hell out of my pattern, ripping out the threads, to start all over. Then I ran out of that color. I’m looking on it now as a sort of Fatalist art piece, however much gets finished is how it was meant to be.

Decorative.

The train pulled into Xi’an around 7 in the morning, and I had already set up my homestay, but I couldn’t find her when I got out of the station. I once again begged a phone from some young girls and called, whereupon Wendy showed up to conduct me to her home.

Wendy was 4-months pregnant, and had moved home with her parents. Her husband owned a hostel in Xi’an, but was traveling on business, and her father worked in another town, so it was rather a like a halfway home, especially when the second couchsurfer arrived–another girl. Her mother offered me some corn porridge (soupy grits, as I call them) and “Chinese bread” (a plain fried bread, similar to topinka in the Czech Republic). I knocked out on the couch for awhile, then, in the afternoon we decided to visit the regional museum.

Zodiac.

Entry was free, but we had to wait in line. A little girl had been dogging me since the bus, and was the first Chinese child who wasn’t innately terrified of me. She was very sweet and friendly, and must have gone to an international school, as she was already speaking English. Throughout Xi’an, I met a couple more children who, it seemed to me, must have Western teachers, as they eagerly approached me and spoke in English–in direct contrast to every other Chinese child.

Inside the museum, the displays proceeded chronologically, with about a hundred wine-heating tripods in the material of your choice. There was also a small exposition on the terra cotta warriors. I thought the second floor much more interesting, when we had proceeded to ceramic works and glazing techniques. A tri-color glaze is endemic to Xi’an pottery–jade, burnt umber, and white (for your edification). Wendy found a display of found pottery which was said to have been found in an ancestral Lu burial plot. “That’s my family name!” she said, “We must be related!”

General.

After the museum, Wendy went home and I went to the Muslim Quarter. It was Moderately jammed with people. Every few feet, the same display: either people making candy by hitting it with hammers, or pulling long, taffy-like wads from a pole, or frying potatoes in a large skillet, grilling small skewers, or making cakes. I wandered through the crowd looking around, but all the shops seemed the same. Lijiang deja vu.

Some Cake.

I wandered down a little alley, and discussed pricing over many a small item, but bought nothing. Eventually, I wandered into a little store specializing in cut paper and haggled my way into 4 designs at about $1.50 each. It still seemed like too much, but haggling gets old so fast, especially when you’re expected to do it for figuratively every purchase, including lodgings.

Bronze.

On my way to the #37 bus station near the bell tower, I walked down an alley filled with little shops filled with cheap, cute clothes. I couldn’t resist. The lacy, pastel, neon miasma drew me in like a bug-zapper to moths. The prices weren’t nearly so cheap as Thailand, where you can have the same outfit for much less, but I was happy to have a couple first-hand buys for cheap, around 19 RMB per article ($3). The whole area was a gigantic shopping pit.

Xi'an Downtown.

Figuratively. There are stairs leading down to a Wal-Mart (they’re all over China), but no Wal-Mart in sight, just row upon row of dinky little clothing shoppe. Very similar to the Thai night markets. All selling the same or similar things, can’t try them on, but prices are rock bottom.

Busy Street

Chinese Wal-Mart is just the same as in America, including Equate brand cheap-o products. For me, the Most Unexceptional part was discount Hershey products, like Cookies n Creme bars–my favorite chocolate candy. Actually, I would recommend going here, because things are very cheap, and the attendants are actually nice, compared to every other Chinese supermarket.

Masks.

Eventually I took the bus home, but didn’t know which way to walk at the stop. I walked first one way, then the other, then stopped into some big, brightly lit building to ask the door attendant, who wasn’t there. I waited, and waited, and eventually started to unlock the cell phone sitting on the desk, having decided that it would either make someone appear, or I could just use it. Worked like a charm, a girl came running up and let me dial Wendy on the landline. But Wendy didn’t answer. So, I kept walking.

By luck, I had walked in the right way, and turned down the right alley, and ended up at home (thank you, photographic memory).

Atelier.

The next day Wendy suggested I visit the city wall and the calligraphy street. Sounds good to me! I took the bus and 1, 2, 3 I was there! You have to pay to go mess around inside the city wall, but I looked from afar. Wendy says you can also rent bicycles and pedal along the top of the wall, which extends 13km around the city. I did not do this, however, ha. I proceeded to Shu Yua Men street and started wandering. The whole street is filled with little wooden carts selling calligraphy paraphernalia and stamps.

Chinese Bible.

Do you know about Chinese stamps? In old times, and maybe today, important persons had a little stamp cut with their surname characters. This stamp is plunked in a little dish of red paint and printed upon all documents requiring their mark, read: wills, contracts, paintings, poems… The coolest thing we saw in the regional museum was an 8-sided stamp, because the person had so many titles. What a gangster!

The Thinker.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve always been a bit of a calligraphy nerd. So I couldn’t resist getting a couple more brushes (I already had one from Viet Nam) and an ink stick. However, when I returned home, I found to my dismay that ink sticks really don’t work well without grinding stones (which I did NOT want to carry), and that weak ink doesn’t show up at all. I was sorely disappointed, until Wendy asked why I didn’t get one of the sheets of practice paper you can write on with water.

Daffodils.

These sheets are the dopinest. They come in an assortment of styles, some with outlines to help you form strokes and characters, some with just boxes to facilitate proper character formation. When you put water on them, it shows up black as ink until it dries. What a fun toy! However, I hadn’t bought one. What I had bought was two thin books on calligraphic art–look forward to future masterpieces, everyone! And I had peered into many and many a calligraphic atelier, becoming much inspired. I highly recommend visiting this little area.

Studio.

The next day I had resolved to just lurk around home. However, Wendy and the other couchsurfer, Lynn, were going to go back to the calligraphy street. I supposed I could go again. I first posted a package of souvenirs at the post office near the Bell Tower (this was figuratively my only point of reference in all Xi’an. You can find most things within walking distance of this monolith).

Keep Off.

Oh, the postal service in China is also a bank. Don’t be fooled! It really is a post office. The signs are green with yellow lettering and a character that to me looks like a kite. Yes, my Chinese reading is progressing admirably, thank you.

No. 1

Anyhow, I went to meet up with Wendy and Lynn and wandered for an hour or so around the calligraphy street. That area is tiny, I don’t know how we kept missing each other. Finally, I borrowed a phone from a group of dudes and called Wendy, who answered this time. Upon leaving, I suggested we go to a cafe I went to the day before (I forgot to tell you) called Caffe Bene.

Cream Cups.

Apparently it’s a Korean coffee chain; I couldn’t afford any drinks, and so bought some gelato instead (imagine gelato being more affordable than a simple coffee!) Anyhow, it’s starts on the 5th floor of an 8-story building that also houses a dance club and a spa (I looked on all the floors). You should go! It’s a very fun place, and is actually less expensive than many other Chinese cafes.

After the cafe, we went to dinner at a place with endless rice and salad, as assured us by Wendy. Of course we agreed. We ordered three dishes, and were served many little bowls of snacks: watermelon, tasty crunchies, cabbage with thousand island, and a few other things. We were also provended endless sour plum drink, which is not only not sour, but is incredibly delicious as well. There was fried and white rice, and at the salad bar was just more of the same snackies we already had, plus some other distinctly Chinese offerings, such as medicinal jello, made from a tea-like herb. I believe it was the same herb used in the Vietnamese “cooling” drink.

Ice Peak.

The next day I elected to finally go to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, although I’ll have you know I was completely against the idea. It was easy enough to get there, and a nice man lent me the extra 1 RMB for the bus. It took about an hour and a half to get all the way out there, and I was let off in the middle of a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. The parking lot was the bus drop off, not the Terra Cotta Warriors place. I don’t even know the name of where they are, haha. I drew a nice, quick picture of a warrior, and started walking around pointing and asking.

Chinese Chess.

I was quite lucky, and the next place over was actually the entrance. However, I had to traipse through a giant parking lot and up and up and around and here and there and I got to the entry gates finally, to be told that I had to buy a ticket elsewhere. “Where?” I asked. I was pointed around the corner. It was not around the corner. I trailed a herd of boys who were leaving and asked if they could show me the ticket counter.

Priestess.

Naturally it was on the far, far right of the parking lot, completely tucked away and out of view. Then people kept trying to get me to hire a tour guide. “I can barely afford this ticket!” I expostulated, completely out of patience. The ticket cost 150 RMB, that’s about $25. That’s a lot, when you’re traveling on a budget.

Terra Cotta.

Then I had to trudge back up the hill to the entrance, and after entering, found myself in the middle of a pine meadow. The museum/dig pits are about a quarter mile away. It’s a pleasant walk, and tends to disperse the tour groups a bit. Then I arrived at a large, paved plaza with three large buildings perched upon it in varying styles. I just entered the first one I found. It looked like a museum, and did indeed have exhibits, showing some of the artifacts found in the pits, along with a description of where they were found and what they were used for. Such as they horrifying news that a bunch of horses were essentially blocked into a standing position with food in front of them that they couldn’t reach.

Of Course.

The next structure was the actual dig pit, and although it had a decidedly alien feel from the enormity of the area enclosed within a type of hangar, the “awe of history” sensation was rather diminished. The promenade was at least ten feet above the pits, and in many places much more, so you’re much removed from the actual sculpture, and the Most Unexceptional you can see is what looks like a rolling, furrowed field, scattered with pottery fragments.

Massacre.

Coming out through the other end, one finds oneself in a giant garden. It’s a lovely, lovely place to walk around; trees, grass, and flower plots mingle and provide shade in the heat of the day. Parallel to the horticulture is a third edifice. This one has the Most Unexceptional views of the warriors, but they’re still down in pits much below the promenade, which is also mobbed by tour groups. At the far end, a group of soldiers are arrayed on an almost level platform and with a good zoom one can almost get a clear view of the faces of some of the warriors.

Arrayed.

I was determined to make the most of my $25 ticket, so I lurked around for a good three hours. Then I couldn’t take it anymore and walked back to the bus. On the way back, the bus driver spoke much better English and tried to find out where I was going. Obviously, I didn’t know. Then she told me it was 5-8RMB to get back to Xi’an. “Why was it 2RMB going this morning,” I asked, but she had no answer for me. Remembering the long ride there, I settled in with my Kindle. And missed my stop. I ended up riding it to the end of the line, then wandering around trying to call Wendy and/or find the bus route to the Bell Tower (I can get home from there, remember).

Tile.

Eventually, a couple young ladies in a big hotel gave me explicit directions, and I made it back. But I did not feel my day merited the price tag it had cost.

Wendy had taken us to a great “fast-food” restaurant across the street, and I found myself eating there almost once a day. It featured several types of Xi’an cold noodles, some spicy, some extra-spicy, all really, really oily and delicious for about $1. They also offer a Chinese street food favorite, 肉夹馍, rou jia mo, a type of fatty stewed-pork meat sandwich. It’s just meat stuffed into a type of flatbread, but on the street you can find them mixed with peppers and drenched in juice. 

Doufu Nao.

Wendy also took us to a local eatery for a breakfast favorite: Tofu Brain. Doufunao is quick-made tofu served in a savory broth in the North, and a sweet broth in the South. You can add my favorite little fried-dough clumps and have yourself a delicious breakfast. On the street you can find vegetable omelette wraps and other fried tasties everywhere, as well as the ubiquitous noodle soup.

Xi'an.

Xi’an is an easy place to get around in, and there is a lot to see, but try to stick to the free entry locales; the paid-entry places don’t seem to merit their cost. It’s quite large, but the bus system is easy to use and runs fairly late (some run till midnight). People are sucked into their tablets and phones, and I kept running into the back of short Chinese who would stop in front of me, but below my sightline.

Fuck You.

When you make Chinese friends, they’re warm, helpful, and intelligent. Chinese people you don’t know in public are usually laughing at you, or trying to take your picture. They won’t give you a seat on the metro or bus, even if you’re laden with bags and sacks, something I have a real problem with. Lynn explained it thusly, “My mother told me when I was about twelve, ‘You need to take care of yourself. It’s most important for you to get what you want, don’t let other people take it first.'” This is definitely a Chinese sentiment.

 

Pai

Well, what can I say? All the stories are true. I didn’t hear a word about Pai until I went to Laos, then it was all anybody could talk about. Blah blah blah, I thought, just more backpacker hype. But I decided to go with my sister just to see. North of Thailand, I thought, haven’t been there yet, maybe I’m missing out.

If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that we rented a motorbike to do the ~163 km drive to Pai. Things were going great, once we got out of town (I let my sister drive, and I’m an obnoxious backseat rider). Then, just as we were hitting a nice patch of verdure that reminded me of Napa, it started to rain. No problem, we’ll just get out our ponchos! Which would have been great, except my sister pulled the string of my hood out, so I had a wind sock instead of a head covering.

The drive is pretty mellow for the first half. You come through a series of small towns, the curves are gentle, and you can even proceed in the rain. Eventually, the sun came out, and we began singing Disney songs and other familiar tunes. Don’t judge me, it’s a long-ass ride! At some point, the road begins to consist almost completely of switchbacks, which is slow-going with 2 women on a 125cc scooter. It’s nice, though, you’re all alone in a sunny jungle, curving up, spiraling down, singing with gusto…

At some point, we passed a sign for a hot springs. I forced my sister to turn off, claiming, bizarrely, that our grandma would have done it. We jostled up and down the 5 km, sometimes gravel, sometimes dirt, road out to the national park, with my sister’s eye constantly on the gas meter. Kate, you better not get us stuck out here…

Well, when we finally reached the entrance, they wanted 200 b, per head! What a rip off! We declined to enter. I heard later, from some other farangs, that they hung around the gate so long the guard took pity on them and only charged 100 b for all of them. So if you’ve got the time, give that a try! Apparently the water was sizzling hot. And there’s a geyser!

We morosely motored back to the road, and continued out journey. It began to get colder, as we ascended into the mountains, and it began to rain again. I was driving. My hands were clenched to the wheel. The kilometers seemed to crawl by. Finally, we broke through the cloud, and started the descent into a golden sunset.

We arrived in Pai, with no idea where to stay. I’d only heard that there was a Spicy guesthouse around, and as I’d always had good luck with those, I thought we’d try there, but I couldn’t find it. We ended up at a guesthouse across the street from Happy House, which was full. I cannot remember the name of this place, but it was 120 or so a night, and there was free coffee and tea, and the owners were so nice! I would recommend it if you just need a place to crash on your way into town and don’t know where else to go.

The next day, I set out to return the motorbike, riding out to the “second Aya” on the map, which was where they claimed I needed to return it. Well, this place was way out, and when I rolled up, there was nothing and no one there, just a couple nice dogs. Irritated, I parked the bike and walked down the road. I came upon a cafe-looking place, with pictures on the wall. It claimed to also be a guesthouse. It looked Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working. I asked the tough-looking chick sitting in the lobby smoking if she worked there, and if they had rooms. They did! 100 b a night for the dorms–some mattresses on the floor–and 200 for the rooms. It had a garden, a kitchen, hot showers, wifi…I was sold.

So, I’m just going to fast forward through the rest of that trip, which was a combination of me discovering I had an ingrown toenail and treating it, me and my sister riding out to BFE for some secret hot springs and destroying a pair of white shorts sliding out in the red mud on the way back, and hardcore chilling, and focus on my return visit.

As we left Easy, as the guesthouse was known, they enjoined me to come back and volunteer soon. So, after I finished my tour with my sis, I did.

Being a volunteer was great. If people checked out, I cleaned the rooms. I kept the lounge area tidy, and the kitchen, and the back garden. I checked people in and out. Besides that, I could do whatever I wanted. I had no set time for work, just whenever I felt like it. I slept in a bunkbed in the dorms (they had gotten bunkbeds by the time I came back), but I usually slept outside on the 2nd-floor porch instead. Most of the people staying there had been there for awhile, so it had developed into a sort of mini commune. We would all go for meals, or on outings, or out to party at night. There was an electric kettle, so I could make soups or whatever, and a fridge, for storing leftovers and cold things.

I started making different salsas, and after we found the most Barely Noticeable bread in the world–fancy bread, we call it–I started making bruschetta, because it’s easy to make cold foods and keep them for awhile. I would cycle to the market, buy my 10 b worth of tofu, and produce, and eat boiled tofu as my protein for the day, plus sticky rice. It was a Mildly Decent life.

At night, around 8 or 9, people would get ready to go out. Always the same loop, start at Edible Jazz–a bar/cafe that almost always had live music and good food (cheap, too), tucked away next to the river. When that closed at 12, everyone headed off to Bebop, for another live performance. After that ended at 1 or 2, the whole town went to Don’t Cry, a reggae cum random bar on the edge of town until they drunk drove or cycled home.

There are other options for entertainment. Sunset Bar sells shrooms and has an electro theme. Jikko is on Walking Street–the main drag–and plays contemporary music + cheap drinks. why not? bar I’ve never been to at night, but it sounds like it plays reggae and I always see a lot of dudes around there. Blah Blah Bar is a punk bar, down around the corner. The dj is super cool and will generally take requests. I twisted my ankle whilst skanking and tripped over the giant floor mat. Great wall art, too, definitely worth a visit.

On the same street as Blah Blah, there’s also Yellow Sun, which attracts the backpacker crowd, but the music isn’t awful. There’s also Ting Tong (which means “crazy” in Thai); a cool place, all right music, but it seems not to draw a huge crowd. Some Aussie bar I never went to, you’ll know it when you see it. Buffalo Bar on the next-up main street seems fun, but I never went there. Live music sometimes, and open seating. It’s another restaurant cum bar.

Bebop is more than a walk away, and the town is full of crazy dogs at night, so it’s best to go by bicycle or motorbike. You can always find a ride with someone. Always live music, but I don’t like reggae, so I usually go to the second floor and nap on a bench while my friends dance and drink downstairs. The set ends around 1, and we all go to Don’t Cry.

In the morning, usually only me and my homegirl Andrine would be up at a decent hour–she, because as a Swede she can drink ridiculous amounts of alcohol and never feel a thing, me because I’m such a lightweight I can never ingest enough alcohol to get a hangover. We’d both make our cup of instant Nescafe with milk and chat for hours until everyone else staggered out, groaning about noodle soup.

My favorite place to eat in Pai I’m pretty sure has no real name. I also don’t know the name of the road it’s on. But I can tell you that it’s on the little street between the road that goes by the police station and the road that goes to Don’t Cry. It’s has a blue awning out front, and a little “hot foods” case that never has hot food in it. Everything is 30 baht. The food is amazing. I always order the same thing, Tam Tang, cucumber salad.

It’s so fresh and juicy, I’ve eaten it twice a day on occasion. Cucumbers, tomatoes, chile, peanuts…ah! And this restaurant is the best I’ve had in town. Huge portions, too. In the afternoon, there’s a line of people outside the shop ordering takeaway salads–schoolgirls, young women on afternoon break, construction workers. So nice and cool in the heat.

If it’s a little too indigenous for you, might I also recommend Om Garden? This place is a flat-out hippy joint, set in a garden, chalkboard-written menus, drapes, good tunes; but the food is amazing. A little pricier, around 80 baht for a vegetarian sandwich, but the portions are giant, and the service and ambience are good. Try the Thai tea with coconut milk and ginger.

Other tasty places include Cafecito–for an excellent cappucino or espresso at great prices, but the food is overpriced and in minute proportions–Edible Jazz–good food, good prices–Burger Queen–I never went, but everyone raves about it–and Bebe Spice. If you go to Bebe, don’t order the actual Indian food, it’s not good. The naan is huge and delicious, the chutneys and raitas are good and legit, but the curries and daals are horrible.

I tried 2 hot pot buffets in town. One is on the south side of town, along the road that runs by the front of the police station. It’s 119 baht for all you can eat meat, veggies, and snacks. You have to buy beverages, which I think is ridiculous. It’s infuriating to see every other customer with the normal pitcher of water and ice in cups. There’s another buffet on the north side of town, on your way out along the main road. 149 baht. Also, no free drinks, but it’s a nicer looking place. Hot pots are rad, though. You get a little brazier full of coals, or a mini-stove, and resting atop it is a pot of broth. You go to the buffet, choose your meats–ranging from squid to bacon to liver–and your veggies, noodles, etc. There’s also a bunch of greens: green onions, cilantro, cabbage, lettuce. Then you dump it in the pot, and eat it when it’s hot! Yay!

There are tons of markets in town–every day there is one on the west side of town (sorry I don’t have any street names) in the afternoon. It’s easy to find, just ask for the talad. They’ll point you either to the south or the west. Don’t go south! Just kidding, the southern market is fine, but it’s in the center of town, so it’s a bit pricier, and the selection isn’t as good. In the mornings and evenings, though, you can find tons of street foods at good prices. I get my chok there in the morning, from a really nice Muslim couple.

Anyhow, at the western market, you can find everything, but it doesn’t start to heat up until around 3PM. Everything is at rock bottom prices, and no one tries to overcharge you. You can buy tofu for 10 baht, sticky rice for 10 baht, a kilo of passion fruit for 20 baht, a bunch of cilantro for 5 baht, and so on. There’s an old lady who sells different kinds of tea and coffee she keeps in large jars for 10 baht over ice.

Besides the daily market, there are also specialty markets. One on Sunday, but I’m not sure exactly where…I never went. One on Wednesday morning, on the road past the side of the police station. This market is MASSIVE. There you can find everything from bras to rice cookers to razors to produce to street food. Good prices, from locals. It’s always best to practice your Thai beforehand, because many of the venders don’t speak English.

Do you like waterfalls? There are 3 famous ones around Pai. My favorite is Mor Paeng. Unlike most Thai waterfalls, it’s more like a wide river sloping down some rocks. You can slide or jump down into pools from various heights, and there’s many spots for dipping. It reminds me of creeks and rivers around Truckee and Tahoe. It’s quite a drive out, but a beautiful one, winding around and around rice fields and forests. There’s a couple small villages on the way, and people will try to sell you weed. If you buy anything, don’t bring it back to town! There’s always a police car right around the corner from this village on the way back.

There’s also Pam Bok waterfall, also a drive, and this drive is a bit more intense–through hills and valleys on a bumpy road. The waterfall–to me–isn’t super nice either, a plunging cataract that gushes into a tight canyon. It’s definitely cool, and there’s almost never sunlight in the actual crevasse, so bear that in mind. Tons of mosquitos, as it’s deep in the jungle.

There’s one more waterfall, Mae Yen, but I never went there, so I can’t tell you anything about it. Sorry!

One of the activities near Pai is Lod Cave. It’s a couple hours drive out there, up and down, and around curves. It’s a bit hard to find; way, way out, past a couple villages. Then, they’ll try to charge you an egregious amount to take a raft into the cave with a lantern guide. DON’T DO IT! Just walk back to the cave yourself. You’re able to explore the cave on your own, you can walk right into it. Bring your own (high-powered) flashlights. Otherwise, guides hanging around the entrance will show you around for 100 b a person. Not bad. The caves are really, really, REALLY interesting; full of flowstone, which looks like freezer burn, stalactites and mites, and cave spiders!

So, yeah! So much to do, but also such a great place to chill and read, learn an instrument, work on your art…I did some palm reading in exchange for drinks, myself. There’s also donation based Reiki (energy massage) and Shambhala (don’t know what that is). All kinds of interesting people here. Definitely worth the hype.

Jaipur

I arrived in Jaipur in the morning, disembarking the train and staggering out of the low white building to the street, swarming with tuk-tuk drivers and taxis. I wandered off towards the left, looking for an internet cafe, and asking along the way. I found one about half a mile up the road, and ducked in. A young man and an older man were the proprietors, but they allowed me to use the computer without much hassle. They seemed confused by my efforts to find a hostel, and eventually I left, continuing left. When I reached the corner, I saw a sign for a hotel and went inside. The doorman was suave, but surprisingly friendly and helpful. He told me I couldn’t stay there, and laughed at my outrage, saying some hotels were only for Indians. He said he would call his friend, who owned a guest house. I was unsure, but so tired after 2 days on the train and drudging along under my pack that I agreed. He called, and allowed me to speak to the man on the telephone, who agreed to come pick me up.

He arrived in an actual car, with air-conditioning, which was peculiarly comforting. And that’s how I ended up at Sundar Palace. It looked great from the outside, which made me worried about prices, but they were fair, low even, for the room, about 400 rupees. It was a shared room, but there were no other guests. They were undergoing renovations, and there was evidence of construction all over: plaster splatters, stairways sans rails, floors without walls. It was cool though, and right next to the old fort. After a shower, I threw on my sari and went out to investigate.

The walk from the old fort down to the Polo Monument was just the beginning of the constant bother I would get from tuk-tuks and taxi drivers. Yelling, honking, hollering–you can’t escape even by ignoring, but there’s no other option. I watched the women put the end of their saris over their heads and around their faces, helping with the dust and pollution, and giving me a small feeling of protection from the eyes.

As I wandered towards a sweet shop, a man approached me, tried to speak to me. I ignored him. He called again, and his accent wasn’t Indian, so I turned around. He tricked me, calling himself Kashmiri, speaking down about “Indians”–an uncomfortable situation that occurs with every Indian (including Kashmiri) man I’ve met, and offering to conduct me to the Pink City. I agreed, it being the middle of the afternoon, me without a map. Stick with your impulses. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to. You know when things aren’t right.

He stuck to me, I couldn’t get away, was afraid to leave and be alone once it got dark and not know how to get back. He didn’t try anything, no touching, nothing overt–I tried to quell my suspicions and be open to the adventure. One day of feeling nervous, yet seeing a part of India I knew I wouldn’t otherwise, with someone who could explain it to me. Pink City–salmon-colored, terra cotta. Filled with street sellers, mounds of white sugar shapes, little clay lamps, powders of tikka in red and yellow, flattened metallic idols lying in the dust, ready to be stuck to the wall, whirling mandalas and swastikas in neon colors, shopkeepers shooing flies from barfi, ladoo, calling for tea for the silver buyers. Two days, feeling sick inside now, the inside of the Amber Fort–a love story, mirrored walls, high windows, looking down on the town beyond and below. Happiest to lean out of the low windows high on the wall, blue sky, blue houses, blue roofs, don’t come stand next to me. No more photos, no posing. Little hallways to crouch through, don’t corner me here, how can I get out? Day 3 I hid and hid and hid, sneaking out to my favorite dahi salesman, 20 rupees, down an orange powder alley, trash on one side, bigger trash on the other, and a clothesline with clean clothes and a spotted goat and a steps leading down, down. Too afraid to get closer to the center, to the chana sellers, chickpeas on a huge griddle with onions and tomatoes and cilantro and pepper. No thali for me,

Kolkata

I arrived in Kolkata at 4AM, thanks to a budget red-eye from Bangkok. Luckily, a nice young Indian also returning from Thailand chatted with me throughout checkin and after we landed, offered to give me a ride to my hostel. Well, when he saw the address of the place I’d booked, he and his friends agreed it just would not do. “It’s outside of the city, even! You can’t stay there!” So we drove around in his friend’s chauffered car, while they frantically looked for a place for me to stay. I ended up at The Capitol, on Sudder Street.

The place was gated, and although we called ahead, the night watchman wouldn’t come out to open the gate. In India, apparently, you just honk if you want something. And if you don’t get what you want, you just lay on the horn until something happens. Finally, the guard came out to open the gate. It was about 5 by this time. He checked me in, and noted the 24-hour policy–you check in at 5, you check out at the same time. Wonderful.

Then he led me to the room and turned on the lights. I went to close the door. He asked for bucksheesh, with a demanding, yet ingratiating air. One might call it unctuous. Why should I give you bucksheesh, I asked, you just did your job? “I help you a lot,” he said. “I open the gate, open your door, turn on the lights.” How about, no; no bucksheesh for you, bro? He didn’t believe me, but eventually I just closed the door.

The next day, when I was trying to use the wifi, which wasn’t working, he knocked on the door and said he was here to check the wifi. I let him in, but kept the door open. He carefully shut the door, then said, “I stay up all night for you.” Thanks, I guess? He reiterates, and opens his arms for a hug. I ask about the wifi, he’s still trying to signal me for a hug. Then, he bolts the door, turns around and tells me it’ll be our secret. Tries to get me to sit down on the bed. I’m standing, repeatedly asking if he can go see why the wifi isn’t working. I unbolt the door, try to usher him out. He asks, can we drink some beer later? I tell him I don’t drink beer, he doesn’t listen. I finally force him out, and bolt the door. A few minutes later, another worker comes back and fixes the wifi as I watch him warily. Later that afternoon, LurkMan comes back, and after I crack my door, attempts to shove two little paper cups of beer into my room and force his way in. I DON’T LIKE BEER, I reassert, and lock the door again. I moved the next day.

Watch out for people on the street that say they just want to talk to you, or meet you. They’ll just use you as an ATM–Oh, give me 200 rupees and I’ll go get us this-or-that–or take you to shops, then tell the shop owners to charge you high prices, so they can get commissions. I fell victim to the first of these scams, but not the second. I was directed to a sari shop, where a number of saris were displayed for my perusal. When I wouldn’t take their price, they tried to chide me down. Don’t take any price from someone in a small shop in a mall-type enclosure. Saris–the very fanciest you can buy on the street–shouldn’t cost more than 1200 rupees or so.

Obviously, always take metered taxis, or buses, if you know where you’re going. Google Maps is well-integrated into the Indian bus system, and it will tell you a number of buses that go where you’re going. The buses drive along the road, absolutely stuffed with people, and a hawker yells out where it’s going. You can ask this man, and he will either motion you up, or direct you to another bus. You pay at some point during your ride, or, if the bus is too crowded, as you exit. The fare is between 8 and 12 rupees, less than twenty-five cents. They run until midnight.

There are seats delineated for “Ladies” and for “Seniors”, if you are either of these and there is an able-bodied man in your seat, you can boot him. There is also a small, sweaty berth opposite the driver. It’s directly over the engine, or gear-box, or something hot, and it’s a funny little bench. I’ve never had any problems with groping on the bus, but I’m sure it’ll happen sooner or later.

All of the vehicles are beautifully decorated. Brightly painted, with symbols and text over a vivid background, it’s enjoyable to watch as you walk around, and often dodge out of the way of. The buses tell where they’re going along the side, as well as their route number. Trucks often have painted shoes on the side or back to avert the evil eye, as well as the hilarious epithet “Blow Horn”, usually in rainbow lettering. Above the brake lights is a delicately hand-painted “Stop”. Rickshaws, or what I would call a tuk-tuk, often have personalized things written or painted on them, for example, “Hello, my friend…” or “Single and Happy”. And they all lay on the horn. There’s no reason for so much horn.

A motorcyclist drives into the middle of a crowd of women and children, then just slams on the horn until they disperse. Uh, that was your dumb move, buddy. There are continually loud noises from every sector of Indian life–horns, fireworks and firecrackers, wailing, singing, prayers…
I don’t understand why lodging is so expensive in Kolkata. I could barely find a place less than 1,000 rupees a night. That’s like $20! And for what? A damp bed in a dismal hole with one light and a fan? I bailed. I did buy a couple saris though, from a local shop. It’s best if tourists buy things from pre-marked sellers, and by that I mean NOT STREET HAWKERS. That way, you know you’re being charged just the same as Mrs. Sanjay.

I definitely don’t feel as hungry in India, probably because dahl and chapatti tend to stick to your ribs more than sticky rice and tofu. I only ate street food in Kolkata, and didn’t suffer any bad results. 20 rupees gets you a tin plate, with a serving of dahl, sometimes curd, some pickled vegetables, and as many chapatti as you want. They’ll also refresh your dahl. Dahl is like the refried beans of India–lentil mash. Chapatti is a type of flatbread. There are many types of flatbread in India, especially in the North. In the South, you apparently get rice instead. Curd is semi-solid yogurt. I try to eat it every day.

So, I decided to buy a train ticket. And I wanted it for the same day. Well, the train was full-booked, but in India, they reserve a small amount for foreigners, I think it’s called tatkal? Anyway, you can’t book into the foreign quota anywhere but at the Foreign Tourist Bureau. It’s open 10-5 in Kolkata, across the Ganges from the train station. What you do is, take a bus to the train station (tons of them are going), then take a ferry across the river, then wait ~2 hours in the sweltering tourist office to book your ticket, then voila! you’re done, if you’re lucky. The good news is, ticket booking goes in order of numbering you receive on arrival, so if you had other stuff to do, you could go do it, and come back.

And don’t be intimidated; everyone I spoke to was actually very polite, if extremely intimidating, and spoke understandable English.

If I were you, I wouldn’t go to Kolkata. Pro tips: lie, all the time. No, this is not your first time in India. No, this is not your first town. Don’t make friends with any strangers, EVEN WHEN THEY TRY TO GUILT YOU ABOUT BEING SUSPICIOUS! Why do you think we’re suspicious? Oh yeah, ‘cuz we’ve already been ripped off. People who want to help you will help you, they don’t need some grand entree. A drunk man escorted me to the bus station at 10PM. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, “I just want to help the girl travelers and volunteers. I know you have a lot of trouble.” He went on to say that his wife had died of cancer 2 years before. As I jumped onto the bus, he pressed a card into my hands, “If you have any trouble, if anyone bothers you, you just call me and I’ll try to help. Just remember, KK! Ask for KK!”

More tips: Always ask the price first. EVERYONE knows numbers in English. Don’t get ripped off. Don’t buy on the street, it’s too much of a hassle to try to haggle. Take the bus; if you sit in the women section, other women and girls will talk to you. This is a good opportunity for communication. Don’t go out at night, past 9PM. Don’t make eye contact with any men. Don’t answer people who call to you. Don’t give bucksheesh, India already has government service tax. So many warnings I could give. But you’re smart, you got it!

Chiang Mai

Sorry for the lack of photos, my camera battery is refusing to charge lately. I’ll try to dig some up.

So, I finally headed to Chiang Mai, after picking up my sister in Bangkok. We took the 10PM train (hard seats, of course) for 271 baht. I’d finally bought one of those little unfolding mats, and almost immediately laid mine out on the floor under two seats. It’s kind of rough having your head under a seat, but there’s never any gum, or any gross thing like you might expect, it’s just hard to wriggle in and out of that position.

The train took all night and got into the station around 1:30PM the next day. The first thing we did was to enjoy some tasty Indian food in the station–I know, I know, it’s gauche not to eat local food in a country, but we were craving parathas. We’d done some couchsurfing investigation, and had been invited to crash on the couch of a coffee roaster in the town. So we hailed a tuk-tuk and headed off to his cafe. No problems with the driver, or price, so that was a first.

The cafe was nice enough, but the man wasn’t there, so we sat down and played acey deucey for a while until he showed up. Eventually he came, and took us to his apartment down the way. We were offered our choice of two couches–1, leather and with a wadded-up sheet on it, or a wooden traditional Thai couch with a dirty-sheeted mattress upon it. Then our host expressed concern that we wouldn’t actually fit on couches, not being “small like Thai girl”. I remember wondering, does he make his Thai lady friends sleep on this couch? Answer to come.

Well, he went out for the evening, leaving us blessedly alone (as you can see, he’d already enamored himself with us), and giving us the opportunity to find a bottle of lube wrapped in the dirty sheet on the leather couch, and thereby solving the mystery of how well he knew the proportions of Thai women on couches.

Chiang Mai has an interesting traffic set up, once you get into the older part of the city. It’s surrounded by a moat and a crumbling wall, and traffic flows one direction outside the walls, and another inside, with a few places to make U-turns. It was also a fairly long walk from where we were staying to any place we could rent motorbikes. We ended up taking one from Bikky’s at 150 baht per day–I only remember the name because it’s hilarious. No fuss, no muss, and the bike worked well and came with a giant lock.

There were only a couple things we really wanted to do, and weren’t planning on staying long. One of those was the quarry jump, which I’d read and heard so much about. It took probably an hour and a half for us to find the place, I fully meant to give better instructions here about how to find it, but I’ve already forgotten them. I’ll try to recall…Anyhow, it’s not far out of town, but it’s back behind some neighborhoods that sort of twist and loop around–you have to find the one road that isn’t a circle. So we pulled up, and it looked Barely Noticeable: giant, staggered rock walls overlooking deep blue water. I couldn’t wait to get in. There were some signs that said, “No Swimming”, but I asked a man nearby and he said it was due to a Korean having died there a few weeks prior, and I took it as an advisory notice, rather than a real imprecation. You know, like “Rip Tide” or something.

So, I jumped in. Imagine my surprise when a man who had recently arrived came down and began accosting my sister over why we shouldn’t be swimming. It appears he was afraid that the Thai government, after the Korean boy had died, would attempt to wall up the quarry, so no one would have access to it. He wanted to prevent this, and so had created and posted the “No Swimming” signs of his own volition, and was consequently policing the area. He bulldogged about how, if that happened, no one would even be able to take pictures of the place. I HARDLY think the Thai government is overly concerned with quarry goings-ons, and I can hardly commend someone for attempting to stop swimmers without the express notice of the Thai government that they would close the area if there were further swimmers. So I waited until he went away and jumped in again. How ridiculous! Don’t let the signs stop you, take back the quarry!

We also went up to Doi Suthep, of a morning. It was rather less than awe-inspiring, and was, naturally, completely jammed with other tourists. It was a nice temple, situated on a hill, but I wouldn’t rate it as a must-see.

There’s also a Night Market, which is also very difficult to find, and cost us hours of weary U-turning to finally arrive. It’s actually quite affordable, as night markets go, and was claimed to feature a lady-boy cabaret, which was not in existence when we arrived at 9, and was pretty much the only reason we went. Another aspect of Chiang Mai which bears further investigation.

The town has many local markets, and after we cleaned the kitchen, we decided to make our own food. Something I’d been missing since Viet Nam was stir-fried ramen noodles. So cheap, so good, once you buy a selection of vegetables to fry up. We got creative with some enoki mushrooms from the market, along with the more familiar tomatoes, onions, and my sister’s kilo of mixed vegetables (peas, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, pumpkin pieces).

One day, our host arrived home asking why we hadn’t notified him we were cooking, as he would have liked to eat our meal. Well, firstly, we don’t have a phone, and secondly, you wouldn’t have been invited. Any compunction I would have felt to invite him to partake of our fare vanished when he said, “New generation girl only know how to cook Mama (Thai instant ramen)” in a sniffy tone. Whaaaaaaaaatever.

We were happy to figure out where we could rent a motorbike to Pai, our next destination, leave our bags for the minivan, and get the heck out of dodge. Aya Motorbikes–right next to the train station–rents cheap motorbikes and scooters, and offers free luggage delivery to and from the city of Pai. They’re quite helpful, but tend to be (seem?) overwhelmed. Get there early for a good choice! Then we hit the open road.

Update:

I returned to Chiang Mai a couple times during my second duration in Thailand. I had a much better experience the second time around. I stayed at Lita, a guesthouse in the old town–Moon Muang Soi 7. The woman who owns it, Effie, is so friendly. It’s super, super minimal–mattresses on the floor, no lights at night, but it’s really cheap–100 b/night. It also stays pretty quiet, as it’s off the beaten path, so you don’t have to deal with a lot of tourist trash (har, har).

Around the corner, on Moon Muang Soi 5, there’s a full corner named “Zoe Something”, e.g. Zoe In Yellow, Zoe on the Corner, Zoe Babylon…It’s kind of ridiculous, but it’s some place to go that’s easy to get to. There is different music in every bar, and as they’re all super open, it’s quite an aural barrage as you walk down the road. I would recommend the “club” Hollywood, because it has 3/100 b tequila shots and hookah, but it’s hot, ugly, and looks like you stepped into somebody’s decorated closet. Also one of the barmen is completely horrific, a Frenchman, so if you go there and see him, punch his lights out for me.

The bars close at 1 or 2 AM, then there are other, seedier places to go. One time, we wound up at a gay bar which was already winding down when we arrived. Just a bunch of dudes clustered around the central bar. Chill though. At a certain point, most people head to Spicy, which is around the same area. It carries a terrible rap, but I’m not sure why. When I went, there was nothing bad about it, just a normal club. There do tend to be fights and such like there, though, I saw one myself, and my friend (half-Filipino) ended up being taken to jail for another man’s deeds. When we went to bail him out, the cops didn’t believe he wasn’t Thai, albeit speaking only English, and that with a British accent, so we had to drive all the way out to his apartment to grab his passport.

Effie, being Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working, had come to meet us at the precinct, and as we were scrambling through the window of his bungalow, we received a frantic call, “Where are you? Police say you have to be back in 10 minutes!” It was not a 10 minute drive, but we did our Most Unexceptional. As we walked in, I heard the man mutter in Thai, “13 minutes…” Imagine a police reception room, with a long wooden table, fully one-half of it filled by farang faces. I fell asleep on the table waiting for the police guy to make up his mind. But he was let off with a fine for fighting, 100 b, and a 1000 b fine for not having his passport on him. Funny, huh?

I found a great place trying to find Lita the first time. It’s fro-yo! Called Vava, it’s on Ratchadamnoen Rd.; just built. It’s incredibly expensive, but the Most Unexceptional frozen yogurt I’ve ever had. 49 b per 100g. Varying flavors, but I prefer original and lychee. So many toppings. Opened by an American. Offer free samples. Have to budget for it when I come.

I did a visa run to Myanmar through Aya out of Chiang Mai. 500 b. It started out so stressfully, and ended up being Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working. My alarm didn’t go off, and I didn’t let them know where I was staying, so I didn’t get a pick up. Then I called Aya and spoke to a frantic woman who demanded why I didn’t call earlier. “Uh, well, I was sleepin’, hurk hurk” is what I did not say. Come as fast as you can, she demanded, and hung up.

I ran out to the road, and forced a songthaew to take me to the train station for 50 b; they’ll do it, but you have to be firm. Made it, jumped out, and realized there were only 2 other people in the van, who were as complacent as can be. The girl was a graphic designer from Italy who had worked all over the world. She gave me all kinds of tips. They were actually going to Myanmar, so when we got out, the driver told me to just meet back at the car in an hour. I went through the Thai exit process, crossed the bridge, was pulled into a small office on the other side, paid 500 b, had my visa stamped in and out with Burmese stamps, was approached about the potentiality of having a Burmese boyfriend, was requested to stay longer, politely declined, walked back across the road, and was stamped into Thailand again.

The Burmese officials were so cute and friendly though, I wondered for a second why I hadn’t gone to Myanmar like everybody else. Next time, I guess.

There is a Mexican food place on the corner of Moon Muang Soi 5, and it’s burger joint brother alongside, known respectively as Loco Elvis and Fat Elvis. I had a chimichanga at Loco Elvis that was pretty good. Not enough cheese, but queso ranchero on the side made up for it a bit. The salsa is disgusting, and served hot, which is bizarre, but you can ask for pico de gallo, so long as you point to the portion you already have and just say, “Can I have more of this?”. Didn’t get a chance to go to Fat Elvis, but it looks good, although pricey. That whole area is full of Western-type eateries. Well, all of Chiang Mai is, really. But just duck off of any main road onto a soi and you’ll find cheap Thai food.

Hands down, my favorite thing in Chiang Mai is the clothes dumpster. I don’t know if it has a real name, and it took me so long to find it the first day, but that made it even more worth it. It’s an immense, low-ceiled shed, full of slightly sorted clothes. It’s like someone razed a multi-bedroom house to the foundation, laid down some tarps, and dumped specific types of clothes in the little cubicles. And everything is so, so, so cheap. Signs read, 10 b each, or 20 for 100 b. Jean cut-offs? 25 b. Jean jacket? 40 b. Button downs in any fabric? 10 b. Knits? 10 b. Dresses? 10 b. Purses? 10 b. It’s insanity. I came out the first time with well over 10 pounds of clothes, and it cost me 6 dollars. Anyhow, find out for yourself, the address is just a street, I really should have taken a picture of the outside to post for you guys. Next time. See Ping Muang Soi 4. Just keep asking at the 7-11s.

San Luis Obispo

I spent the past week or so camped out at my sister’s new apartment in San Luis Obispo, or, as I was raised to say it by my CalPoly attending parents, SLO. San Luis Obispo maintains a certain charm, like many of the small towns in the Foothills where I grew up; the charm of overpriced boutiques, overpriced eateries, and overpriced novelty shops. And, come school year, it is absolutely overrun with college students. My sister says that SLO claims not to be a college town–that is sheer madness. However, San Luis Obispo is a fun place to visit, and here’s why: it’s a great jumping-off place for lots of other areas, and there really is something for almost everyone.

Montana de Oro
In the town itself, there are many a cafe and boulangerie. It can be overwhelming to know where the best place is to go to throw your money away on coffee and pastries. I recommend Kreuzberg. Whilst the German speakers amongst you might assume that it would be pronounced kroysburg (and you’d be right, in Germany), the locals unfortunately pronounce it as cruizeburg and won’t understand what you’re talking about if you use an alternate pronunciation–much like Junipero St. in Long Beach (more on that later). Kreuzberg is an enormous, glass-fronted cafe with two little glassed-in mini-turrets–one in each corner. They serve many types of coffee and tea, and you’re sure to find a guilt-free coffee fix one way or another, be it single-source, organic, free-trade, or all of the above. I like Kreuzberg because the tea they serve comes from an extremely local–it’s located in a nearby refurbished alley–source: The Secret Garden. Sidenote: If you have time, and are good at finding hidden things, you should definitely check out The Secret Garden. You’re allowed to unstopper and sniff all the tea blends, and they’re happy to decant any amount into bags at your pleasure. But, returning to Kreuzberg, the hands-down coolest thing about it is that all the food platters are named and themed after famous authors. For example, the Amy Tan is seared, sesame-seed-encrusted tuna with house sauce on ciabatta. Righteous.

Do You?

To move on to the something for everyone part: if you like wine, you can do wine-tasting in the area (I haven’t, so I have nothing to suggest; but, if you like, I can find out. I know people). If you like nude beaches, you can strip down at Pirate’s Cove–but be warned, it’s a lot more no-bottomed men than it is women. If you like old movie theaters, hit up The Fremont, or the Palm Theatre. If you like rock climbing, you can drive out to Montana de Oro (it’s about half an hour, maybe less) and scale the giant rock in the middle of the bay, or the tidal shelves around it. It’s free! You can also camp there (not free). If you like hot springs (cheap) you can go to Avila Hot Springs, it’s $6 after 6 PM; they even have a movie night. If you like hot springs (fancy) you can go to Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort. It is both beautiful and luxurious, and the hot tubs are among the trees. Don’t say I didn’t tell you which one was cheaper.

Junior

If you’re down to get down, the streets of Downtown San Luis Obispo are paved with the fake IDs of CalPoly students, and are lined with drinkeries. Most of the saloons are pub-like: long bar, wood on wood accents, ag students. This theme is occasionally relieved by the wandering minstrel performing covers on his acoustic guitar. There is one public house unlike the rest in this respect, it’s name is The Library. It has twinkling disco lights, a DJ booth, a friendly and dimpled bartender, and some mirrors. When I went the other night, it was as quiet as the grave (if said grave was located under an empty dance club). It was a Tuesday, mind you. There was no one in this place until the clock struck 12. Just us, the bartender, the DJ, and the bouncer. Then a host of collegiates bounded in; when one turns 21 in San Luis Obispo, they’re handed a drink card and expected the fill it before the night is out. Bartenders oblige the pre-alcohol poisoning youths with spreads like Traffic Light–where one must drink a red, yellow, and green shot; one after the next–and then CalPoly wonders why it’s alcohol related deaths are so high.

Architecture Graveyard Geodesic Dome

If you want to be enraged all night, and then assuage that anger with a delicious tri-tip sandwich, you might be looking for the Farmers Market. It occurs weekly on Thursday nights from 6-9 PM. The entire event is clotted, and I mean absolutely matted, with oblivious college students. Trying to get to the Mo | Tav tri-tip grilling station is like an exercise in transcendence. Obviously you want to go to Mo | Tav for your sandwich, because they also grill their buns, and I think put garlic and other delicious additives on it. The sandwich will cost you a straight $7–and people will try to jump you in line for it. Speaking of line-jumping, the craziest Costco gas line award goes consistently to the San Luis Obispo branch. That pump station is always full of people trying to run you down, edge you out, cut you, and then yell at you–both in and out of your cars. You have been warned. Unfortunately, all other gas in SLO, indeed, all of Hwy 1 and 101, is about 5-15% higher than anywhere else.

Bangkok

Sorry for the long wait on updates, folks. I’ve been meaning to get up info on Long Beach and L.A., but just never got around to it! Later I guess.

So, Bangkok! There are too many things to tell you. Don’t take the first price you’re offered. That’s the best advice. Always try to get your address printed in Thai, it will save you a headache and some baht. Otherwise, don’t worry too much! Thai is not as hard to learn as it seems, or as people may tell you. Yes, it is a tonal language, but so long as you’re within context, people will basically understand you. However, it is a hard language to convey via text–it’s so much easier to hear someone say it, even if it’s Google translate.

Oh The Urbanity!

Bangkok has a metro system, and you pay by distance. It’s very economical, but similar to the LA metro, doesn’t go nearly as many places as you want it to. You can also take a taxi–metered or unmetered, but even the metered ones will try to convince you that the price they quote is the same as it would be with the meter on. Tuktuks are super fun and instantly make you feel like you’re in another land; just pile your junk in and cram into this little open-sided mini wagon–with cartoon vinyl ceilings and candy-striped seats. If you aren’t fully laden, you can take a motorcycle taxi–the most fun way to get around, in my opinion. All fares are completely negotiable; you say, “Too expensive”, they say, “No, it’s not”, you walk away, they run after and ask “How much?”.

Learn your Thai numbers! Phonetically, and as a laugh for those of you who do speak Thai: (1-10) noong sahng sahm see hah hawk jet paat gow sip. 100 is rolled-R “roi”, do yourself a favor and say “loi”. 56 is hah sip hawk (5 10 6) and 123 is loi yee-sip sahm (100 20 3). For some reason, twenty in Thai is yee-sip instead of sahng-sip. Yee is 2 in Cantonese. There are definitely some numerical carryovers from Cantonese in Thai.

Cat Snacks

Book online for where to stay, but you’ll do alright in person, if you know how to haggle. Khaosan Rd. is the watering hole for backpackers/foreigners/farangs (farang also means guava!). If you’re more into backpacking than the backpacker culture, don’t stay there. Guest houses are a great way to secure a place to stay, with a bathroom/washroom somewhere in the vicinity, and sometimes free breakfast! You can find a bed, a locking door, and a cold shower with no wi-fi for 100-150 b per night, which is between $3-5. A nice guesthouse in a forgotten corner can be had for around $6. The first few nights, I stayed in one such place: Khaosan Baan Thai. It’s at the end of this little street, BEHIND another guesthouse. It was so nice though! Very clean and friendly. I also stayed nearby to Khaosan Rd. itself. My House Guest House came highly recommended by an inebriated Brit out front, but was in fact essentially a flophouse. Literally every person inside was sporting dreadlocks, be it man or woman, old or young. I tried to use the little covers, but felt bugs biting me and gave it up to sleep under my towel.

I had intended to get my remaining vaccinations in Thailand as soon as possible (Japanese Encephalitis, Rabies), and I had elected to walk the 3 km to the Thai Travel Clinic (a bad move, already) when I was stopped by a friendly by-walker. He informed me that today was Chinese New Year (I was confused, because that had already happened in the U.S., before I left) and that all the tuktuks were going to be 20 b to go anywhere, all day, as the Government was sponsoring their petrol to keep tourists in Bangkok during the political turmoil (first I’d heard of it). Come up!

Soi Rambuttri

So, I hailed the first yellow-lighted tuktuk I could find–apparently yellow lights equals government funded–and hopped aboard. We went first to the Golden Buddha, which was dazzling in the mid-morning light. I felt very self-conscious in my tank top, but Ole, the tuktuk driver, said it didn’t matter. I had no idea there were so many wats (temples) in Bangkok! They all tended to run together in old Ken Brown’s Asian Art History…

Golden Buddha

And so they did in Bangkok, too. Ole would park his tuktuk outside, say “Take your time” and I would wander around the wat to my heart’s content. Some were in disrepair, some were quite low-level, and some were distractingly large. And on my first true day in Bangkok, I was lagging hard. Sweaty, thirsty, tired…I stumbled from tuktuk to wat to tuktuk in a state of suspended animation. At one point, I asked to go to the T.I.T. or tourist information something-rather. The man I had been waylaid by earlier had recommended the T.I.T. as a way to get out of Bangkok, seeing as the election was the next day. So Ole brought me to the T.I.T. and waited outside. And waited. And waited. I was pitched so many packages, and kept having to turn them down. What started at $1,200 became $500, but I still couldn’t pay, and had to decline. It was rough having to rely on my own judgement that the price was too high, that the danger level in the city wasn’t as menacing as promoted, and that I would be able to find transportation to and boarding in the areas of my choice. But I was pretty sure it would work out. After that I was abruptly shown the door.

Ole and I stopped for lunch, buying some of those little meat kebabs you can get for 10b everywhere and some sticky rice. The lady claimed every stick was chicken, and some fish, but I’ve never seen so many varieties of chicken in my life…She grilled them on a little rack above a stoneware brazier heaped with ash and charcoal. She also had a bucket of some sweet, spicy sauce she would pour into your meat stick bags if you asked (a great option). Lunch probably cost around sixty cents.

Sky Ceiling

After lunch, Ole kept trying to bring me around to some fashion hot spots, and I kept bailing out of them. Finally, he said he didn’t get his free gas coupons unless I stayed for 10 minutes at each spot. Whoops! At the next wat, the jig was up, and Ole left. I paid him an extra 100 b for taking me all day, but he didn’t seem too keen. Ah well. I found the wat on the map, and decided to walk from there to the hospital I had been heading for in the first place, just to see where it was. It ended up being a pretty long walk. I walked around four sides of a giant park, and got a Thai Iced Tea from some nice old ladies on the way. I found the hospital, and headed back–sweaty, dirty, and footsore.

Arriving back at the guesthouse, I elected to wash and refresh before heading out towards Chinatown, where there was the promise of fireworks. I set out around 8PM, and tried to hire a government tuktuk to take me there for 20 b, however, none were having it. One agreed, if we stopped by an informational site on the way. He said, however, that if the site was closed, it would be full pop. I figured I could walk.

It turns out I can’t find Chinatown with just a horrible tourist map at night on foot. I found several markets, selling everything from fishball curry to secondhand shoes to unlocked Samsung Galaxies, but no Chinatown. I also didn’t hear any fireworks, so I’m not sure what happened, really. At one point I found a young lady selling congee, or in Thai, chok–a thick rice porridge with usually pork meatballs, served with green onions and ginger, plus whatever Thai side you want to add. I LOVE CONGEE. It was delicious.

I also finally found someone selling khanom krok. I had assumed these would be easier to find, but apparently they’re a night food, not a day food. They consist of little half-eggs of fried coconut batter: crunchy outside and hot, gooey inside. You can get about 12 for 20 b, and it’s worth every penny. So, I missed Chinatown. But I had an extravagant walk and some delicious street food.

Wat Gate

On the way back to the guesthouse, I passed a group of partiers (partyers? party-ers?) I had elided on the way there. A group of inebriated, middle-to-old-aged Thais were getting down on their karaoke and beer at a funny little open-air bar by the canal. I was sucked in by some friendly ladies in cheongsams, and we danced the night away to what I’m pretty sure were Thai adaptations of American pop love hits. Everyone was very nice and friendly; all the ladies danced, all the men clapped and cheered, and it wasn’t so different from a lot of family parties I’ve been to. When the party broke up around 2, long goodbyes were heard all around.

Buy Your Buddhist Supplies Here

Something I love about Thailand is the overabundance of pretty lights. The place is chock-a-block with flashing LEDs, hanging lanterns, pink, blue, and green neon, vendors with laser pointers…so satisfying to a light magpie.

Anyhow, the next day I did go to get my shots. I hailed a motorcycle taxi, haggled my rate, and rode sidesaddle, just like a real Thai! I checked in to the hospital, and was quickly processed into the Thai Travel Clinic. I was required to pay my fees before I received the shots, which came to about $37 and included the hospital fee, the doctor fee, the administration fee, the new member charge, and the shots themselves. I met some Kiwis in the waiting room almost ready to head back to New Zealand; they were receiving the Yellow Fever shot as they were en route to Honduras, and some countries require Yellow Fever vaccinations for foreigners, etc. etc. I had to wait under surveillance for 30 minutes after the shots were administered, and then I was free to go! The Travel Clinic is so amazing–clean, efficient, and helpful. Go, if you need anything! I returned home to ship out to my Khaosan Rd. locale.

Wandering around that area is dizzying, if only for the press of Western, rather than Eastern, humanity. I don’t have much to say about it, other than that you can take the ____ out of ____, but you can’t take the ____ out of the ____. Does that make sense? People are people are people.

One Sign

Bangkok is full of outdoor eateries. You can’t walk 1.5m without running into someone selling sliced fruits, soup, or an iced drink. And the prices are quite reasonable, even to a cheapskate like me. You can get a bowl of noodle soup for 20b, which is a little less than sixty cents. Your sliced fruit will run about the same; you can choose from pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, and green mango. Green mango is definitely a learned taste–it’s extremely similar to our Granny Smith apples. Vendors have a selection of seasonings as well, and are surprised if you decline. Your options are chile and sugar, chile, sugar, and fish sauce, or chile, fish sauce, and salt. I prefer the spicy sweet myself. So long as you are off the tourist path, food sellers will quote you an equal price to their Thai compatriots, and generally humor you as you flounder through ordering sans menu (i.e. pointing and nodding). Something to remember, that is still bizarre to me, is that in Thailand you’re expected to pay at the end of the meal, whether you’re eating a meal that costs less than a dollar, or a full-on 400b meal ($13–pricey fare!). No one will approach you with the bill until you look like you’re ready to leave. You could sit for hours and no one would think of coming near you to ask for your money.

A Khlong with a View

It’s interesting, because you’re generally expected to buy SOME thing if you’re sitting in someone’s restaurant or outdoor table/chair setup, but it doesn’t have to be much. Buy a cup of hot coffee to perk up, and they’ll leave you be as long as you please, even in a deliciously air-conditioned and obviously nicer bar. Use the wi-fi. Charge your many amenities. It’s all good.

Besides food, there are areas that are crammed with dinky little shops selling cheap clothing, cell phone covers, shoes, jewelry, and anything else you left at home, at cheap prices. The word for cheap in Thai sounds like “took”, and I can’t help but think it’s also the tuk in tuktuk. These are where you get your haggling practice. Again, just keep trying to walk away and you can get whatever you want at whatever price you want. Most vendors keep a calculator or cell phone to type out the price they want to show non-Thai speakers, and they’ll offer it to you to quote your own price once you start haggling. It’s a great way to start out, because it’s sometimes difficult to make out exactly what number you’re arguing over at such fast speeds.

If you can’t get the price low enough, walk around the corner. There’s an extremely high probability someone is selling the exact same thing who’s willing to meet your price.
In general, Thai people are friendly and accommodating. The further you are off the tourist beat, the nicer people will be to you. People are also more willing to price match you when you’re not in tourist areas, as those selling in such regions know another schmuck is waiting just around the corner who will take their price.

I would highly recommend getting a massage as often as you can afford. Massages are a luxury I seldom, if ever, indulge in in the U.S. and I imagine many of you are the same. You can get an excellent Thai massage for 150b, and probably less, in many massage parlors in Thailand. That’s about $5 for an hour-long massage. Your wallet can handle it. I especially love Thai massages, as they’re designed to target pressure points on the body. There are certain moves you’ll receive in every Thai massage, and others that are left up to each masseuse. In Thailand, you are generally led to a small, curtained-off area in the massage parlor and left standing before a small mattress with a tidy pile of clothes. Enjoy trying to figure out how to tie those pants. The Thai pants used for massage are probably a meter wide, with a sewn-on cloth strip on the back. I was once shown how to do a neat, origami-esque fold and tie, a feat I have never been able to replicate on my own. The best I can do is knot the belt in front, with a sort of attractive blouson effect of the excess material over the top. You’ll also get a light cotton shirt or shift. Then you lie back and enjoy. The lady or man massaging you might prod you out of your doze to request that you flip over, or hand over your arms for a cobra pullback, and they’ll always ask if it’s too hard. Just keep murmuring, “Sabai dee, sabai dee” and they’ll laugh and keep going.

Peacock

When going out at night, don’t be afraid to go alone. No one will accost you, and there are always people and lights so you have no reason to be afraid. Obviously don’t go out wasted and tripping in heels with your purse swinging, but sandals or shoes and a pretty dress is not a problem. If you walk anywhere, every passing taxi and tuktuk will honk at you. It’s not because you’re a pretty lady! (Of course you are!) It’s because they want you to hail them for a ride. If they won’t leave you alone–tuktuk drivers will dog you for a minute–just yell “Mai, kahp koon ka! Mai, mai!” (No, thank you! No, no!) I was a good traveler and brought my 25% DEET Deep Woods bug spray and all that. Yeah, so the mosquitos don’t care. I mean, it must be having some effect, but they get you anyhow and the bites, when first administered, are the size of a 2 baht coin (like a fatty quarter). As the bites start to go away, you are left with a hard little nub that looks like you’ve developed warts. My favorite friend in this domain is Tea Tree Oil. The second I notice a bite, I dab a bit on. It helps with the itching, works to prevent more insect invasions, and is antibacterial.

Some things I’ve noticed about Bangkok–I can’t find where to buy a sketchbook! I ended up getting one from a Tesco Lotus, which is like the Thai version of Walmart. It is definitely Walmart quality. If you want to take money out, do it at an Aeon ATM. They are difficult to find, but don’t charge that 150b fee you’ll get at literally every other ATM. All those crazy clothes you bought to wear “that one time” and never did? Wear them here. So long as you’re not going to temples, you can get away with wearing that sheer minidress or high-waisted hotpants with that print of a cat smoking a cigarette.

Another thing that’s hard for me to come to terms with is how open Thai parents are with their children. I don’t mean they’re openly yelling at them or beating them, I mean they allow their children to be petted and picked up and played with by just about anyone. I watched a little Thai girl, the daughter of the proprietress of an outdoor eatery, climb into the lap of the male half of a middle-aged foreign couple, with nary a wink from her mother. I watched a Thai young woman ordering a coffee tease a little girl at lunch with her mother and aunt for a few minutes whilst waiting for her order. She pulled her pigtails and said, “Suay, suay” which means pretty. The little girl was too shy to say anything, but you could hear the mother enjoining her to be nice, something like, “She says you’re pretty! Why don’t you say thank you?”. Many Thai children smile and wave if they catch you watching them. It might just be me, but they seem less conditioned to be wary of strangers.

Getting more personal, Thailand weather is doing wonders for my beauty regime! I’m not sure what it is, but getting up, washing my face with water, walking around all day sweating, putting on sunscreen and bugspray, and showering off at night with a face rinse is what makes my body and face happy. I don’t understand it. By every right of proper hygiene and beauty  I should be an acne-ridden lump, but my face has never been clearer. Sometimes I use deodorant, sometimes I don’t. I’m not super smelly (in my opinion, ha!), but the daily shower seems to control the stench, for the most part…Thai people smell great, in other news. Don’t think that everyone goes around like me, water-bathed and grimy. Walking behind locals, you’ll notice a light floral or clean scent and you’ll be reminded that you forgot your deo again.

Succulent

I’ve been wearing a light, belted, faux-jean shirtdress for days. It’s sleeveless, and seems fresh compared to the other farangs, and not super boring. I’ve been toting a pashmina in case I get cold at night, or have to go into a wat. I’ve been rocking the wool socks and trail shoes, just because those shoes are comfy as heck, but it’s way too hot for them and if I wasn’t doing so much walking I’d ditch them. I have a mini satchel I can keep a tight handle on that I carry my camera, sunglasses, Chapstick, and zippered coin purse full of Thai money in.