Something just scurried across my foot as I sat down for breakfast only 12 hours after arriving in Thailand. Bangkok, more specifically. It was a cockroach – a big one. I realized then that cleanliness standards were heading south as we ventured north into SE Asia. But then, I recalled, this can happen in any city and any establishment. While staying in a suite at the prestigious Sydney Harbour Four Seasons, a mouse ran across Audrey’s foot. Vermin and insects apparently ignore class structures.
Bangkok, a city of ten million, would not make the EPA’s list of ‘environmental-friendly cities’. The cops, many pedestrians and crazy Tuk Tuk drivers wear facemasks to prevent breathing in the toxins making everyone look like Michael Jackson impersonators. We are however thinking this air will be clean compared to our upcoming month in China. Although, in an effort to improve its image, I read in the Bangkok Post that Thailand will be hosting the World Toilet Expo and Public Toilet Forum this year. China hosted it last year. I’ll let you know if the expo had an impact.
While in Thailand you’ve got to head north to Chang Mai to venture into the hill tribes then south to the islands for beaches and diving. So, we did. Chang Mai, no small city itself, offered us two memorable experiences. First, the largest water fights I’ve ever been to and second, the chance to ride an elephant.
It was the Lunar New Year and time for the Songkran Festival or water festival which lasts about a week. It can only be described as a country-wide, Mardi Grasesque water fight with city centers being the ‘front’. Not hundreds or thousands but tens of thousands of people running around Chang Mai with every possible water deployment system imaginable – except water balloons. Imagine walking down Main Street in Pleasanton with a hundred thousand people armed with water guns, hoses and buckets. Then, put a river down the center and make all the city’s faucets accessible for reloading. That’s Songkran.
On our first visit to the battle zone, I took my camera to capture the hysteria. Guarded like a Secret Service Agent on Ronald Reagan, I aimed for the Kodak moment when my protectorate yelled “Uh oh” then we were drenched by a half-gallon bucket of water. Rushing to get the camera back into the Ziploc, “Incoming” was yelled by my human shield as I jammed the camera into the bag and we retreated to safety. I quickly decided the camera had to go back to the room and the festivities would not be captured on ‘film’. Everyone participates and no body is exempted from being shot – Old, young, male, female, EVERYONE. Not even the police who put walkie talkies, cell phones and guns in plastic bags. You get wet. I’m not talking about getting-shot-by-a-little-squirt-gun wet but I’ve-just-fallen-into-a-swimming-pool wet. We armed ourselves with the finest pump-action fire canon the Chinese exported and joined into the festivities.
A two-day trek to the hill tribes was another memorable experience allowing us to spend the night in a hut with a small tribe three-hours hike into the jungle. The huts are completely made from bamboo and generally have one room. No furniture, no sink, no stove. The children, who have none of the capitalist toys or ‘necessities’ as back home are, however, just as playful and cheery as any.
We spent time talking to the locals to learn about the customs and their different lifestyle. I learned the process for obtaining a wife and that the children marry early. Girls are often betrothed between 13 and 18 and paid a dowry. A typical dowry could range from 10,000 – 20,000 baht equivalent to 250 – 500 US dollars. Significant when you consider an average Thai worker may only make 2,000 US dollars per year. I can’t imagine these tribal members come even close to making that much. This makes our two-month, DeBeers-induced rule seems paltry. Best of all, the dowry is negotiable with the future in-laws. I’m just trying to figure out how to negotiate with Audrey’s parents and how much to offer. Audrey has informed me she is worth more than two goats and a pig. Far more in my eyes.
“He just crapped on my shoe” I yelled out to Audrey. As we left the hill tribes, we jumped on an elephant. I was sitting atop his head, Audrey in the ‘saddle’ when another elephant came up next to ours. Next thing I knew my foot was inches from his butt which began extricating the previous nights’ dinner on to my left foot. Those shoes no longer are the same color as when we left and I only hope US Customs lets me back into the country.
After a week in the north, we ventured to the south to relax on the beach and SCUBA dive. Since the western edge of Southern Thailand was significantly impacted by the tsunami, we chose the eastern side on the Gulf of Thailand. We spent a fair amount of our time underwater in awe of the sea life including sting rays, eels, barracuda and a mixture of brightly colored corals. At one point I stopped and floated in my gravity-free world and watched the thousands of fish swim around me in their schools. Dreamlike.
After a day of diving we’d head to a local outdoor restaurant on the beach, order a fruity drink then watch the sun set into the horizon. Every night one of us looks at the other and says, “We’ve got a pretty good life” then both nod our heads and look out as the sun falls away.
Our last few days were spent just hanging out in a hammock at our bungalow on the beach. We now head to Cambodia to see one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of the World (Temples of Angkor Wat) then down the Mekong Delta to Vietnam. With all these experiences, we are only halfway through this adventure.
Bryan & Audrey