Not much to talk about - writing about laying on a beach surrounded by touts begging for business and fat Euros sunning themselves is almost as boring as reading about it. But I have been emailing recently with a friend about doing a "travel journal." But that's what this is, right? Well, sorta. Let me explain. Remember that plot point in the first American Pie movie, the sex book? The one with all the accumulated knowledge of years and years worth of high school seniors? (Frankly, I was surprised it was a book, and not a postcard, but that's not the point.) While a blog can make readily available the knowledge of a multitude of travellers, said information is not always the easiest to get to those currently in the act of moving about. What if, she proposed, there was a journal that went around from traveller to traveller, and country to country? No, it's not mensa, but it fosters communicating not only with those who want to find the one good restaurant in Jomtien Beach, but also those who might need a map to get there. Or those who're travelling without their own Financial and Menu Adivsor and are sick of the backpacker "scene"? Or perhaps a really thorough guide on how to say the six tonal variations in Vietnamese? Or a diagram on just how to use Southeast Asian squat toliets, especially as compared to Japanese ones? (Hint: Turn around.) Can't blog daigrams, yet, either. But perhaps the most important aspect of a handwritten and passed journal is that the Internet is intangible. The physical connection of smeared letters, mid-sentence ink changes because the pen died or broke or for some other capricious reason, of girls who put hearts above their "i"'s, and the boys who do it, too. If backpacker travel is, in one sense, being disconnected from the world of familiarity, then perhaps this is a way to maintain it without losing the spontaneity that uncertainty brings.
A generous friend has given me and the Financial and Menu Advisor use of their timeshare, and since they belong to something that seems to be a timeshare exchange, we seem to be in Pattaya, a sunny resort southeast of Bangkok. At first, the unbelievable volumes of overweight white Euro men with lithe young Thai things (both boy-things and girl-things, it's hard to tell here) were a bit intimidating. But convinced that the place we were staying in had to have some authentic Thai culture, it being in Thailand, I've committed myself to the hunt. After walking one way up Jomtien Beach turned up a very sad-looking pile of decrepit metal shacks doing their interpretation of a shantytown, and then walking down in the other direction, we finally found it. The holy grail, the golden Buddha, the the cure for our hunger. Down a street notable for it's two tattoo parlors facing each other like gangstas in the night, there it was: an authentic Thai restaurant. The main streets are filthy with farang food: German, Italian, even British and Swedish restaurants are more readily available on the main streets than good ol' down home cookin'. So we, the FMA and I, leapt at the chance to experience what we were missing from our days in Bangkok. We were not disappointed. Spicy curries over rice, coconut heaven with Tom Kha Gai, a cold pork salad that had so much chili it ripped out my lips, and some heretofore unknown (to me) deep fried mackerel that was the perfect antidote to that fiery pork salad. Not only was the food delicious, the owners were so friendly (maybe because we were the only customers) that they let us stay for an hour after the meal to read our books and relax. Not even 50 feet from the hubbub of the main street, between this and the food, they can be sure we'll head back there again.
The Financial and Menu Advisor and I woke early and took the ridiculously misnamed water taxi down to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. Apparently, if you get there right at 7:30, when it opens, the entire structure gleams with the morning light in such a spiritual and epiphanic way that it will change your life. And your socks, too. Despite my cynicism about the cultural propaganda, the temple is actually quite remarkable. It's covered in little pieces of tile that Chinese junks had left in the Bangkok harbor a bit more than 100 years ago. Despite this forced limitation on decoration material, the designs created are remarkably consistent, varying in color and emphasis but never feeling carelessly thrown together or done in a desultory way. Besides, getting to touristy place a bit early and enjoying the lack of hordes is a novelty for someone who just spent some serious time in a place that can feel like nothing but the madness of the crowd. After taking a cross-river water taxi (it's a bus, dammit!) back to the main side of the river, we started to make our way towards the Sleeping Buddha, a giant gold buddha reclining that's smiling because he's inside a building out of the frickin' heat. On our way there, we got stopped by another local who tried to convince us that the Buddha would tied up in a private ceremony with the monks until 1 p.m., and we really should go to this other place nearby on the map. Sure, I told him, mark it on the map, please? Feeling that this was a scam, I said, oh, that's close. Me and the FMA'll walk there. Oh no, he said. You really should take a tuk-tuk. Look, here's my friend, the friendly tuk-tuk driver. I smiled and the FMA and I walked on. Do people really fall for this kind of bullshit?
This morning, as I dodged tuk-tuk drivers bolting through intersections, I came to a realization. It was not 11:15 a.m. It was 10:15. Gaining an extra an hour to repack my meager belongings that will accompany me for the next nine months was a nice after-breakfast mint, but it suddenly dawned on me that I had been waking up at 3:30 in the morning, not four, and that my entire life since arriving here has been more rushed than it needed to be. This changed, as Rick Moranis said in Spaceballs, absolutely nothing. But my first three days in Thailand have been a balance of cheap everything and quality eats on one scale, and sweltering heat, humidity and exhaust on the other. I've been staying in Villa Guest House, in the Thewet section of Banglamphoo, which is a teak on teak on teak respite less than a 10 minute walk to that backpacker heaven Thanon Khao San, but more importantly, a five minute stroll to the nearest water taxi. The room we've been staying in is clearly the nicest in the house, although all the rooms are furnished with dark, polished teak furniture. Ours has a double-bed, armoire, desk, chair, drying rack and a beautifully built rocking chair that I'd steal if I could. Best of all, it's got a private entrance separate from the other rooms, so we don't have to encounter other people unless we want to, a nice touch in a city where the next encounter is probably the tuk-tuk scam artist around the corner. Or it could just be a friendly young woman asking about your trip in her best broken English. The water taxi is more like a bus, with a set route that goes up and down the main river through town. The non-express boats are incredibly cheap, 11 Bhat ($0.25) to go to the end of the line. So on our first full day here, that's exactly what we did. The Central Pier was interesting enough, but not as weird as a giant tower we glimpsed from the boat. It rose far higher into the sky than anything else on the waterfront, and yet it was dilapidated. Run-down. Talcum white for most floors, and then soot-gray until the top. And the architecture was bizarre, a series of windows with circular terraces ringing each floor like flying saucer pods. topped off with several stories of columns and round hole that would've been perfect for a clock. As we walked towards it, picking up yet another bottle of water suitable for drinking, a middle-aged Thai man approached us. In his broken English that was still better than my meager Thai, limited to "khop-khun" (thank you) and "dai-mak" (very good,) he started to spin the usual native-to-foreigner spiel. Having done this enough in Japan, I began asking him questions about the grail du jour, that tower. It turns out it was a hotel/business/entertainment complex that was never finished, one of the many casualities of the Asian economic crisis from the late 90's. As we would learn the next day when we took the water taxi north to the end of the line, it was also not the only unfinished waterfront complex. After spending three years in Japan, where people bitched and moaned about their losses from their own economic downturn 10 years on but were hard-pressed to point out any examples of such, an abandoned 40-story phallic symbol on the water - ostensibly prime real estate - sure brings the point home. And now you're wondering, where's the curry? The title promised curry, and I don' see no steenkin currah! Dinner was curry. Breakfast also seems to be curry, if there's room along with the fried banana, fresh-made smoothies and roasted banana, but dinner on both the first and second nightwas curry. Thanks to the Lonely Planet recommendation surprisingly gone right, on our first night we checked out Roti-Mataba, on the corner of Th. Phra Athit and Th. Phra Sumen, an Indianesque restaurant that had fantastic green fish curry, a red curry that I think was pork, rotini bread, spring rolls and the ever-necessary bottled water for a grand total of 177 Bt. It's 40 Bt. to the U.S. dollar - you do the math. The second night the Financial and Menu Advisor and I did the food cart thing. Fears of cold portions and unfiltered water were no match for my hunger, and so while she passed on most of it, I devoured a fish cake, a red chicken curry and a green... something else curry. Along with rice and water of dubious-to-us origin, I had a hearty meal. The FMA passed on eating in favor of sleep. We learned later that in Bangkok, stall water and ice is generally safe these days, as is tepid food. Dumb risks abound when travelling, but boy was it good.
After talking about this mad, mad trip for nearly a year and a half, it's finally happening. Or, as my parents would want me to tell them, "After an uneventful flight on an airline with a somewhat dubious safety record, I'm safe and in Bangkok." I flew over on China Airlines, with a four-hour stop in one of the world's most pathetic, dingy, built-in-the-70s-or-couldn't-you-tell airports, Taipei's Chang Tai Shek. China Air is nothing to sneeze at, either, with the highest incidence of fatal accidents among international Asia-based carriers - through but only through 2002. The past three years have been smooth sailing, and it shows! Joking aside, the flight into Bangkok was as smooth as my head (no, really: I shaved it down to the skin) and all the seats had those great video screens in the back that give you a choice of movies, TV shows and video games. Best of all, both flights had head rests that had padded extensions by my ears, which was fantastic because I could turn my head and sleep comfortably. Why American carriers like United doesn't have them is beyond me, with their exorbitant ticket prices. But the best part of the flight was, of course, that final landing, when I got off the plane and that belt of humidity whacked me upside the head. Breath-stealing humidity in October is as clear an indication as any tuk-tuk driver that you're no longer where you were, and you might not know where you're going to be tomorrow, either.
I've just gone through the newspaper columnist equivalent of getting unceremoniously fired. Shitcanned. Booted. Terminated. Except by my "printing press," and not some pencil-necked, wanna-be fedora-wearing try-hard editor. Due to technical difficulties beyond my control, my old host for http://www.biginjapan.org ceased to function. And I don't have everything running yet on the new host, and so after a two-month break, here we are. Eventually, I will get good ol' BIJ central up and running, but probably not until I'm in Australia. Oh, yeah: We're taking this show on the road, to Thailand, Melbourne, and a dozen points in-between - if your idea of a straight line is one drawn by Dali. So, without further ado: The Itinerary - 18 Oct leave for bangkok 2 Nov leave for melbourne 9 Jan leave for bangkok 10 Jan leave for madras/channai 27 Feb leave kolkatta/calcutta for bangkok 27 Feb overland to beijing, and back 14 Jun bangkok to SF