Southeast Asia Journal Number 10

It’s been quite a while since my last journal.  I have been very busy closing in on the end of the semester and now I am finally sitting here with little work and lots of time.  So I thought I would catch up on where I am at.

Firstly, though, because I have actually written a couple of incomplete journals that I have simply not sent out because I didn’t have time to upload their corresponding photos, I have decided to put all the journals into this one letter.  I will separate them by date and/or theme of entry.  So here they are:

Feb 12, 2010:
Thought for the day: “The aging process.”  It’s an interesting thing to have been in different parts of the world and witnessing people in their home culture in different stages of their lives.  In Thailand (and Asia in general, I think) there is a sharp curve in the appearance of aging people.

Mother and daughter

As very young people, Thais seem to stay younger-looking, longer.  And you know how some babies are just not that cute, well I have never seen an ugly Thai baby.  All of them are just buttons.  The interesting thing is that they retain these baby-like features for much of their youth.  Even 12- and 13-year-olds appear to be much younger.  Their features are simply more youthful.

In their school-aged years, I see that most people here are very active, limber, enthusiastic about sports and in very good shape.  Watching the takraw matches is really the best example of this.  This is a game that is the superchild of combat soccer, volleyball and hacky-sack.  It’s really insane.  The players do back flips, side kicks, head shots and other nimble displays of athleticism, all in an effort of kicking a weaved ball over a net to the opposing side.  The ball is something quite remarkable, too.  It’s about half the size of a soccer ball and has a unique bounce provided by its flexing reeds.  It has a distinct sound when struck.

At any rate, past this youthful stage, I see young adults and adults who appear older than their younger cousins but not very aged as in other genetic lines.  Their skin remains taut, their eyes and facial skin shows very little sign of wear or sun damage.  And they are still very active.  Even in technically demanding sports like football and takraw, it is not uncommon to see middle-aged men hammering away on the field.

It is not a common sight, however, to see older men beyond these years on the field.  This is where the general appearance of people takes a sharp turn.  After about 50 years of age, I notice a lot of bodily wear.  I notice a lot of people hunched over as they walk, a lot of wrinkles in the face, softness of skin and much less activity.  I regularly see people older than 50 sitting around in shops as their younger relatives do all the work.  They are expecting their family to care for them.  This is not anti-cultural either.  This is the norm.  Elderly people are respected and cared for in this culture.  I just think it is interesting that one doesn’t have to be very old to be considered elderly.

Walking around Chinatown

I was recently talking to some people in a shop where their grandparents lounged in the back of the store and they were discussing their family.  They indicated that their parents were only 65-years-old.  This amazed me because I would have put them at 80.  Later, in a similar discussion, I learned that the elderly people were in their 80’s and I would have thought that these poor people looked as if they were going to fall over dead at any moment.  They looked to have been about 100-years-old.

I just think that in the places of the world where there are high accumulations of white lineage, the curve of apparent aging is slightly less blunt.  Though we grow a little more quickly from our youth-looking  years, I think that appearance changing growth slows as we get older.  Many middle-aged white people still have some of their 20’s and 30’s level activity level, they have strong bones and muscles which keep them from needing movement assistance until much later in life and they appear much more able for longer in life.  Perhaps this is because the government has spiked our water with something that allows us to work longer and support the system…

Feb 26, 2010:
Muay Thai:  Thai boxing.
The word, “Muay,” simply means boxing.  Therefore, Muay Thai, is Thai-style fighting.  So the next time that you hear someone say “Muay Thai boxing,” they are simply saying Thai boxing boxing.

There is a big difference between boxing and Thai-style fighting.  In fact, though it resembles kick-boxing, there is still a world of difference between Thai-style and mainstream kick-boxing.  The knee-jabs are more lunges, the stance is not as wide but more aggressive, there are more throws, spin moves and downward angle blows in the Thai style.

I have read a lot about Muay Thai since I have been here, but my first opportunity to see a live match was this weekend.  It included teenage boys, adult men and even adult women.  The most extreme was the adult men – both about as lean as I have ever seen a person.  And in each match, the pre-bout ceremony was very interesting to see.  Well, the entire thing was very interesting, actually.  But especially the activities before each fight.

Pre-Bout Ceremonies

Before beginning, the fighters bow in closely to the coaches and do a quick prayer after which the coach places a circular item on the head of the fighter.  Then each fighter enters the ring and begins their circle around the mat.  They go to each corner and place their head in the turnbuckle and say a quick remark and move to the next corner.  Once back at their corner, they begin an interesting display of movements, stretches and perform a type of on-mat dance which resembles a crane or possibly a phoenix (which is more likely since that is the national symbol).  At the end of this spectacle, each boxer bows in the direction of their birth place and that’s the referee’s signal to start the match.

Each fighter is ready and they are brought into the middle.  This will be the only time that the fighters actually acknowledge the other’s presence.  There is no engagement before the matches in any way.  They do not look at one another, they do not try and intimidate one another and after the match is done, if one of them is still on the mat after a knockout, the other comes to the aid of the loser.  It is a very respect-driven show.

Each match is judged by a panel who evaluate the fighters in five three-round bouts if a knockout doesn’t occur by the end of the last round.  Of the several fights that I watched, the only one to make it to a judge’s decision was the adult males and I think that was simply because the both of them were very seasoned in getting their heads kicked – because both of them certainly received a few nicely aimed round-house kicks to the face and head.

They had a lot of stamina and could take hits like nobody’s business.  They also seemed almost to be moving in complete unison with one another.   They fought as though no one else was around.  They didn’t display acting or showy, ceremonial celebrations for the crowd’s entertainment.  They were completely focused on one another.  One punch or kick would no sooner be thrown and the other would react with lighting speed and precision coordination to counter the attack.  But never was there any ill-intentioned motivation – even after the fight.

It was quite an experience to have seen and understood this type of thing.  And I don’t think that I would have understood that much about the fight had I not first been privy to the Thai way before having seen the matches.  It was pretty interesting to have been able to apply what I know now to what was happening in the ring and to know why things happened the way they did.  I was interested to see how people with such a culture of respect would act in the ring.  It was a sharp contrast to how American or even western style of ring fighting happens.  There is total and blatant disrespect in our style.  They even bight one another’s ears off in some cases.

March 2, 2010:
Why Thailand rocks:
There have been many times that I have been sitting around somewhere in Thailand or doing anything at all, really, and thought to myself, “Thailand Rocks!”  And it is normally in these times that I realize that I want to have a pen and paper handy to record just what I am thinking and share that with others.  Well, I finally started keeping some recording utensils around and did just that.  And I came up with some interesting things.

Reason #1:  Unlike in America, when you pass someone or interact with someone in some way, there is an expectation of immediate respect for both parties.  In some cases, the balance is tilted slightly because of age, personal status or position.  But most of the time it is just about making sure that you acknowledge the other person and respect them for the purpose of keeping in line with your own self-image.

There is an unspoken rule that exists in much of the Orient.  No place, to my knowledge, is this more exemplified than in Thailand.  This unspoken rule seems to be the combination of a couple of things – the most profound of which is the idea of self-image.  It is very important to not loose face in this country.  Anything that one does that is aggressive, angry or physically loud is seen as a personal loss in dignity and therefore undeserving of your time or respect.  This may not be the most ideal way to try and stay respectful, but at least when two drivers get into an accident, their motivation to not get angry is deeply engrained in their belief system.  There is an expectation that each driver will first check on the welfare of the other person and deal with the situation peacefully and respectfully, being careful to never direct blame or accusation at the other person.

I have seen several collisions in the U.S. in my 15 years on the road.  But never have I seen one where both people came immediately to the aid of the other person.  I have personally been in an accident where I got out and asked if the person was alright.  But I have never been approached in the same way.  And I think that is mostly because the other person is afraid that if they say “sorry,” or ask if I am okay, it is an admission of guilt and that could end badly for them in court.  And that is unfortunate.  But nonetheless, that’s just one more reason that Thailand is so different… and therefore rocks.

Reason #2:  Thailand has awesome weather.  I am not so sure I would appreciate the heat – even if it is a little hot by global standards – if I hadn’t come here in the middle of the Alaskan winter.  I know that I went basically from one extreme to the other on the thermal scale, but I think I like this one in a different way.

While I enjoy winter sports, snowboarding, riding snowmachines, generally playing in the snow and seeing the incredible views that snow-capped mountains boast throughout the winter, I can also get into the summer water sports, the outdoor activities, the beaches, the kayaking and the benefits of plenty of sun.

I am probably the most tan I have ever been.  That’s not saying much, I know, but I think I am finally a different shade than bleach-white.  It’s kinda nice.  And I am sure that the patrons at the beach appreciate that as well.  Thai beaches are no strangers to sheet-white westerners.  But at least I don’t burn as much anymore.  And the lobster-tans have failed to paint me in recent weeks.  That’s a perk, too.

Reason #3: Thais have a culture of simplicity.
Everything down to their own language comes with the expectation of simplicity and ease.  As I learn their language, I am finding that there are more and more facets of this culture that simply do best in the simplest form.

This is a good thing and a bad thing, though.  For one, being simple means having to worry about very little – or at least hoping to do so.  But the bad side to that is that it means less will get done in the same time that it should be expected to get done.  Because there is the expectation of less stress, anything within the job that is difficult is expected to take more time or not get done at all.  This translates into all sorts of difficulties.  For instance, Thai’s love paperwork.  There are probably five forms that I have to get filled out just to withdraw money from my bank account.  With each student’s office referral here at school, there is a dance of paperwork around the desks that wind up getting filed somewhere and kept away.  But the problem comes when the teachers need to access that file or to review progress and none of the Thai staff really wants to go through the motions of retrieving it.  It can get pretty frustrating.

Reason #4: Everyone smiles.
This, too, comes with its good and its bad, but how horrible is it that everyone smiles.  Everywhere you go, no matter what situation you’re in, there is always someone smiling at you.  I witness a vehicle accident and immediately both parties involved rushed to find out how the other was while they had a big smile.

Smiling is the Thai way.  It is just something that people do.  They greet with respect and they sort of expect to be greeted the same way.  But no matter the agenda, I would much rather be in a society where people deal with things with a smile on their face.  I recently returned from Malaysia and the interaction there reminds me of the states.  There are a lot of cultures there.  And if you smile at someone they might smile back, but smiles are not initiated there.  It sort of gives the other person the idea that you are plotting on them or that you are not being authentic in your actions.  And, to some degree, both of these facets are true on a small level.

To explain the Thai way of greeting, it is important to note that it’s all about saving face here.  To do something in an aggressive or angry way or to loose your temper is to disgrace yourself and your pride.  To lash out or strike someone else in anger – even if it is a child getting a spanking – is to loose the most face one can loose.  This level of personal ignominy is seen by others as horribly shameful and deserving of their disrespect and even disregard.

What this means is that if someone becomes overly angry or personally aggressive to another person, the victim of this interaction as well as all who witness it will likely turn and walk away from the perpetrator.  This person has disrespected others as well as themselves.  They are therefore not deserving of the respect or attention of others.

On the other hand, the agenda behind the immediate respect is not so much the meting of respect to others as much as it is to hold themselves in higher order before others.  This means that the reason that when I am approached by Thai’s, they are smiling at me more because they are claiming a respectful status rather than appreciating my presence.  This is more limited to strangers rather than friends, but it is nonetheless present.

Ultimately, I would rather things be handled with a smile irregardless of whether or not one’s personal pride is the basis for their handling of the situation.  It essentially means that things always take the immediate detour around negative assumption, ill will and disrespect and just get done.  For all of the frustration that has been attached to my previous decisions, actions and interactions with others, I have always felt like I was going about things in a way that could have been a little easier.  But because it is a western style of dealing with daily challenges that has been passed down through the generations and unfortunately spread most of the way around the world, it is a huge part of how humanity interacts and how we see it portrayed in the media.

I think that anyone who has ever acted out of anger could learn things from the Thai culture – I count myself as one of these people.  I have a lifetime of stories that have unfortunately ended in negative and even aggressive interaction.  So being here has taught me many important lessons – none of which, I think, is more important than this one.  I just wish I had started learning it sooner in life.

March 5 – 16, 2010:  My second trip to Malaysia:
Krystal came to visit me for 11 days this month.  I dropped her off at the airport just last night.  But between March 5 and that time, we really covered some ground.

Unfortunately, because of a string of rifts in communication between the school administration and my company (who contracts English speaking teachers to teach within that school), I was told at the very last minute that I would need to make a second trip to Malaysia to correct a visa problem so that I could work for the following contract.  Essentially, this threw out the window all of the plans and goals that I had spent the previous two months organizing and strategizing – and investing.

But it still wound up being okay, over all.  She and I went out the first weekend to Koh Samui and had two wonderful days filled with elephant rides, Muay Thai fights, walks on the beach and wonderful food.  This took us from Saturday to Sunday.  That afternoon we took the ferry back to the mainland and rode the motorcycle the long way home, stopping over for a night in Khanom – a beach on the Pacific side that is nearly deserted.

The first night, we met up with a friend of mine who has for the last few years been building this house that is probably the most interesting and architecturally unsound structure into which I have ever stepped foot.  While we were there, one of my newer acquaintances fell through the steps to the front of the house.  There is a spiral staircase (of sorts) that is made of a combination of circular pieces of wood, concrete and a single supporting beam.  The upstairs, the walls and even the vestibule of the house were made out of glass bottles, animal bones, driftwood carvings and shotty concrete with the support of knotted-wood pilings.  Interesting to say the least.

Eccentric House

Neung and his bike

We had some drinks and some delicious fish, steak and pork cooked right on the self-made barbecue.  Another thing that was self made was his motorcycle.  Not only does he build eccentric housing for himself, he also welds into creation the most bizarre formations of vehicular construction as well.  The first time I saw it, it looked like a very long chopper-style bike.  But upon closer inspection, I could see that it had the smaller wheels of a moped, a plate-welded tank, seat and body and a spot-welded chain as handlebars.  It was completely custom – from wheel to wheel.  Really something.

At the beach in Khanom, there are phosphorescent algae which are luminescent when disturbed.  So that night we had a bottle of rum to celebrate her arrival and had a long conversation in the sand.  We set up a tent and then took a late night dip and found ourselves surrounded in little pixie lights wherever we moved.  They were like little, shimmering jewels sparkling in the middle of the night.

That was beautiful, no doubt.  But the best part of the night was just realizing that being back with Krystal was finally settling in.  She had finally arrived after months of planning and we were having a great time.  Whether or not she will ever return or even if the time for our relationship is not fully matured, there we were enjoying one another once again.  It was nice that she came and after all the ferry, motorcycle and foot travel (and even elephant travel) that we’d done, sitting there on that isolated beach in the middle of paradise, I knew that I couldn’t be worried about the future but simply happy with the moment.

The next day, Monday, we headed back.  Once in Surat Thani we got some food from the local market and headed back to my apartment and packed for the long week in Malaysia.

Tuesday morning we were on a bus headed for Hat Yai, the immigration station, then to Penang, Malaysia.  Two weeks prior, I had met a man on the ferry to one of the islands and he happened to own a guest house in Penang.  So we decided to call him up and utilize his accommodation for our stay there.
Upon meeting Jimmy, I could tell that this was a well-traveled, older man with lots of stories.  What I couldn’t tell was that he had a chip on his shoulder the size of his guesthouse.  As long as you were talking about nothing of real substance, Jimmy had plenty to say.  We planned to meet for a burger while on the island but ultimately never met up.  But once in Penang, he took up the charge of being our personal tour guide to the Georgetown area of Penang Island.

It was great to hear about the English settlements and mansions dotting the street along the waterfront and how they came to be huge hotels which now use the mansions as their entryways because of a court decision to retain

Penang, Malaysia, from atop Penang Hill

their historical integrity.  It was cool to see how these millionaire-descendents had started all the businesses and colleges in town and how they had built up many of the palaces, restaurants and hotels in the area.  Some of the richest people even settled on Penang Hill.  In fact, David Brown’s Restaurant atop the hill (which is actually more like a mountain towering over the entire island) was originally the mansion of the nobleman of the same name.  This actually happened to be our last stop on Krystal’s birthday.  It was a real treat to eat delicacies overlooking a sea of lights.  But more about that story later.

Along my many personal car rides with Jimmy I would notice him honking and shouting a lot.  At first I thought that perhaps the standard for the other drivers was simply being ignored and that Jimmy was basically helping bring them back on track by reminding them with his siren song.  But eventually I figured out that he was just being an asshole.  Most drivers don’t react well to being honked at in Penang – mostly because the Georgetown area is pulsing with exp

ensive cars, retired drivers and a generally peaceful mannerism.  But they react even less well to him cutting them off, slamming on his breaks in front of them, rolling down his window and extending his middle finger out into the warm sea breeze that constantly coddles the land between the trees.

But while I was made a little uncomfortable by his constant banter of negativity, I had to remind myself that he was from a different time, a different culture and a different generation.  It really wasn’t until he stopped a man on the street and nearly yanked him into the car blathering on about how the man owed him 14 Ringgit (about 140 Thai Baht or about $5 US) for a beer the previous week.  Whether this man had ever even met Jimmy seemed to be shaped into the panes of this man’s expression as he was jolted by the arm in surprise by a 65-year-old man in a random, passing Toyota.

All good points for a journal, I suppose.  But the best part was probably when these four Auzzies came in to ask for the details of the room.  I had been sitting reading some travel manifesto when they arrived and Jimmy was busy writing something at the desk.  He looked up at them as though they had just interrupted an urgent meeting.  They began to ask about the accommodation, inquiring about whether or not there was “air con,” a “tele” or even a fan when Jimmy stopped them cold.  Nearly yelling, he told them if they wanted to stay at the Ritz, they needed to go down the street.  Shocked, the young backpackers tried to settle the old man by apologizing and restating that they had never been there before and were simply curious as to the size, appearance, level of comfort and amount of attention to accommodation that was included in the room.  Jimmy then stood up and ordered them away.

It was then that I knew for certain that Jimmy was a top level candidate for a study of world class assholes.  And even if it was just a bad few days, I could tell that Jimmy and his Love Land hostel were in for certain demise.  I almost spoke up and said that these young travelers were likely to go and tell all their traveling friends how business was run here and that he’d not just sent them away but all whom they talk to as well.  But, as I have learned here in Thailand, it wasn’t my place to learn other people’s lessons for them.

Penang Hill, Kek Lok Si and the nicest little grounds keeper ever:
Krystal’s birthday was probably the most eventful.  March 11 fell on a Thursday last week and it started off with a sweaty wakeup call to handle my visa business, then it was off to see the town.  Walking around China Town, Little India, The Komtar and taking busses all around the island was the impromptu schedule for the day.  We walked passed this little Indian clothing shop on the way to the shopping center and I bought her a pretty blue dress and a shirt for myself.  Then we hopped on a bus headed for Penang Hill.

Most of the time, you can catch a one-hour tram which was built in the 1800’s by the Swiss that ascends the steep, east-facing side of the mountain.  But it had broken (or so they told us) in between this time and the last time I was there.  And even though I knew this ahead of time and asked our bus driver to take us to the four-wheel-drive side of the mountain where you can hire a car to drive up, we still wound up at the wrong entrance and had to get a cab ride to the right side.

The cab ride alone was probably worth the trip, in retrospect.  It was frustrating to have needed to take the taxi, so I was already a little upset at the time we wasted on the bus.  But the entire process of taking a cab was pretty amusing, looking back.

First, we found out from a gas station attendant that the taxi driver was in the restroom.  So we waited outside the bathroom for the driver for about 20 minutes before finally calling out “Taxi!”  He emerged promptly so I wasn’t sure what I was more alarmed at – the fact that he could have left that rancid room anytime he wanted and simply didn’t or that before he came out there was no sound of running water, shuffling for pulling up pants or tucking in a shirt or even a toilet flushing.  What was he doing in there?  The cab ride would give some clues.

Once we agreed on a price, we jumped in the cab and took off.  About three minutes into the ride, though, our attention was brought to the cabby’s odd use of the gas and clutch peddles.  He would rev up the engine and then press the clutch which caused a jerking motion to the car.  When we started watching him, though, was when the real strangeness came about.

This man was clearly not doing well.  He entered into some frenzied series of aggressive face-wiping and hand twitching.  This led into a more elaborate pattern of wiping his hands on his pants, gripping intensively on the wheel, all manner of grunting, clenching his jaws and thrusting his chin forward in rapid succession.  Noticing this, I began to watch him for any signs of swerving or dangerous

driving but though his eyes were covered every few seconds as he wiped at his face and squeezed his eyes shut, he seemed to have a pretty good grasp of the road and his vehicle’s placement within it.  So I tried not to worry so much.  When I finally got to the point of asking him if he was alright, he began telling me how he knows everything and that he understood what I was saying.

I left it at that.

Once at the gates of the entrance to the long climb up the mountain, monkeys peppered the trees, streets and power lines all over the area.  There was a park and an open-air coffee market, but I couldn’t see any four-wheel-drives.  It wasn’t until I stopped to ask someone how to get a ride to the top that I found out that they were charging some ridiculous amount.  This is where the coincidental “closing” or “breaking” of the tram came into mind.  They were essentially the only transport up to the top of the government-run tourist spot.  They had cornered and, subsequently, monopolized the market of trips to the top.  Nevertheless, I wasn’t having it.

We eventually finagled our way into the back of a truck of some wealthy restaurant trippers and that’s where our birthday dinner took place.  We stayed atop the hill well past sundown.  It was a great view and there are also many other things there that make it worth the trip.  There is a really nice Indian temple there with many interesting relics (including a statue with a chance-resemblance of the overweight porn star, Ron Jeremy).  There are spiders the size of your hand.  There is a mosque behind which the sun sets each night.  And there is a large snake cage and some other tourist attractions.

Once we left Penang, we headed out by boat to Langkawi and then to Satun where we completed immigration check-in and picked up a local bus that took us through Trang and Krabi.  We had a chance encounter with two very nice people who brought us to stay at their friend’s guesthouse and I believe that was the first bed that I have slept in since being in Thailand that actually had springs in it.  All the others just sort of feel like box-springs.

From there it was a series of local buses that brought us through Trang to Krabi.  Krabi is great.  Not only are there these great longboats that will tote people from the coast out to the many beaches and sites of the area, but it’s packed to the gills with the nicest people on earth.  But before I get into that, I have to describe these boats.

Longboats in Krabi and Ao Nang

The thing that stands out about these boats is the fact that they all have old Honda and Toyota car engines driving their propellers.  This is such an amazing thing because they are such heavy engines.  They weigh so much that the driver has to put his entire body into actually steering the boat.  It’s a pretty interesting ride.  They bring all the tourists through these majestic passes between island mountains jetting straight up into the sky with sheer limestone rockfaces.  It’s quite a sight to see.

Boats through the island mountains

It’s really an absolute paradise.  They filmed the movie “The Beach” right around the corner from where all these little spots are.  You can rent kayaks or go on a day-long kayak tour or you can simply lounge around on the many beaches and get massages, bamboo tattoos, sit around and drink and catch a tan or take off to the little beach at Railey and chase monkeys up a mountain — though they would likely be the ones doing the chasing.  It’s like an adult Disney Land.

Once in Ao Nang, we had a great time.  We had a great lunch, almost got some tattoos, and even got chased out of vacant rooms in a hostel.  We snuck in and showered.  It was kind of payback for the last time I stayed there and overpaid.

Ultimately we took the chill-on-the-beach-and-tan route and then headed back that night to Krabi town.  We stayed with this really great couple who kept bringing us beer after beer and exchanging stories and laughs into the wee hours of the morning.  The next break of day found us eating breakfast at an Italian restaurant before heading back to Suratthani.

Sleeping off our sun-hangovers, we just relaxed for Krystal’s last day in my little paradise and I went to work the next day.

All in all, it was a hell of an adventure.  But then, there are plenty of adventures to be had here in the land of smiles.


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