Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Party's Over, Part One

Yesterday, while reading about the Royal Wedding, I lost a crown.

It just slipped right out of place as I was eating khao soi for breakfast and I slipped into shock. The implications of this were vast and slowly I began to understand what they all were.

The worst is facing up to my dental phobia, which has kept me from putting my money where my mouth is. That, coupled with an inherited talent for selective blindness, along with no insurance, has kept me from seeking the help that I badly need. Not something I'm at all proud of.

Next is the possibility that this will make me delay my trip back to the states. That alone is enough to engulf me in tears.

Then comes the question of where to seek treatment. Friends responded to Facebook and email cries for help and I began to google their recommendations. I decided that one private hospital was probably much like the others--except for Bumrungrad which is the gold standard and approaches US prices--so made an appointment at Paolo Hospital, which is the only one I've ever frequented.

One of my dearest friends in Bangkok persuaded me to try a dentist on my street first and obediently I set off for the House of Beautiful Teeth. As I sat and waited for my turn to be seen, I could hear the sound of a drill, and an old man came out of an office with his mouth stuffed full of cotton gauze. I made myself sit still, rather than heading for the exit.

A receptionist took my blood pressure, twice. "High," she said, shaking her head. She led me to a room where I was beckoned into a reclining position on a classic 1950s dental chair. "Rinse" she said, pointing to a paper cup full of water. It tasted as though it had just come from a faucet and there was a green spot on the bottom of the cup.

"Hold this mirror in your left hand and look," the dentist ordered. I took one look at my sagging chin and let the mirror fall to my chest. I recognized this woman who was poking into my ravaged mouth. She was young and pretty but she had the stereotypical dentist's myopia--look at the teeth, forget the person who owns them.

As I reclined awkwardly at full-length, she began to enumerate my options in fast and flawed English. Her mouth was covered in a face mask, which made her words more difficult to hear; I suddenly realized how much of my understanding in this country was enabled by reading lips. But I understood the word "extractions" and sat bolt upright, reclaiming a small portion of my adulthood.

"Oral surgery," she said, "in a government hospital. They are very busy there, so it might take more than two months. Our government hospitals are very good, but they have many, many patients to take care of."

Her estimate for a bridge with four extractions hovered around 20,000 baht or around 689 US dollars. The price was right but the extractions in a government hospital was more total immersion than I ever wanted. And I was uneasy about extractions in general.

Perhaps we parted friends, but I didn't really care if we were, especially after she began to discuss my blood pressure. I could feel it rising to apoplectic levels as I made my exit.

The consultation was free. I would have gladly paid a fee if I could have rinsed my mouth in clean water.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Life That Matters

It all matters of course. But the lessons that I've learned in 2011, for the short time that this year has been in place, all point out that the life I have been given is a constant matter of choice. How I perceive the world around me, how open I am to the beauty of it, how I transmit what I am given, and most of all, where I spend the time I'm allotted depends on how open I am to signals of importance.

From the time I was 21 until I was 47, a large portion of my life was bound up with my children. For the 15 years that followed, I went exploring. Now as I approach 63, my search for home takes me back where I started from, with my family.

One of my first memories that holds speech is from when I was three and living in Mt. McKinley National Park as it was known then. Some older children came to our front door, told my mother that they were going exploring and asked if I could come along. "No," she replied, "Mikie's too little to go exploring." I think I eventually forgave her, but I've never forgotten.

I've learned that exploring can range wide on familiar ground or be quite narrow in exotic territory. "I have traveled a great deal, in Concord," Thoreau said, while backpackers spend their time in Bangkok in front of a computer screen or a TV blasting Western dvds. My own SE Asian explorations pale when compared to my friend Elizabeth, a woman who is a true nomad and adventurer. And yet I realized yesterday while on a bus, how much of Bangkok I have mapped by wandering through it over the past decade and a half. Although like any major city of the world, Bangkok changes constantly so there are always new spots to discover--it's why I love it so.

But more than I love Bangkok, or Thailand, or SE Asia, or the whole bloody continent itself, I love my kids. Take away my posterchild status of Menopausal Meanderer--rip the stripes of Seasoned Expat from my shoulders--I can live with that. I'll never make Mother of the Year either. But whether I'm in Bangkok returning to Seattle once a year, or in Seattle making an annual pilgrimage to Bangkok, I will always be an explorer, never too little nor too old.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Clean, Well-lighted Place

Yesterday a friend took me away from the hot, crowded, demented weekend market at Jatujak Park to the clean, orderly, coherent food market known as Aor Tor Kor. The minute we walked through the portals, I was in awe; "It's like Whole Foods," I babbled and indeed it was. The lighting was clear, the displays were artful, the aisles were spacious, the floors were clean--and the food swept as far as I could see, beautiful, luscious, perfect food.

Neither of us were hungry since we had already made a commando raid on Jatujak's food stalls and we both regretted it. Making plans to return later in the week, we wandered through still lifes of fruit and fish, as lovely as anything to be seen on Yaowarat Road at night but in gleaming, almost pristine surroundings instead of on a set for Blade Runner.

I woke up last night as thunder crashed and lightning flickered through my bedroom and the thought that was uppermost in my mind was it's too easy. We had wandered through a subway station tunnel where the food market's exit was clearly emblazoned on a wall graphic, we strolled past pretty little boutiques in the tunnel that were as colorful as they were well air-conditioned, and we emerged exactly where we wanted to be. This was not Bangkok as I had ever known it.

So of course today I had to go back on my own for breakfast. Heading directly for the beautiful glass case that displayed egg tarts like Tiffany jewels, I bought two. They were picture-perfect--yellow satiny filling enrobed in flaky Macau-style pastry. Tearing into the box the attendant had reverently placed them in, I pulled one out and took a bite.

I've had egg tarts in four cities: Hong Kong, Beijing, Penang and in Bangkok's Chinatown. I know what good ones taste like and this one was not of that ilk. The crust was flabby and damp; the filling was pallid and flavorless and without the lovely silken texture that keeps an egg tart from being baby-food. I tried the second with the same dismal discovery. "Disgusting," I shuddered as I looked for the nearest waste receptacle.

But ever an optimistic when confronted with beauty, I walked past packages of cut-up fruit, bags of prawn meat extracted from the shell, roast pork that made me salivate. I was on a mission. The day before my friend and I had passed a pan that was filled with hoy taud, the mussel and egg pancake that I love, and I had stifled a moan of disappointment that I had no appetite.I did now and I was going to find that pan.

I ordered and then looked for something to drink--there was guava juice, nam farang, the drink of my people. I sipped it as I waited for my food; it tasted nothing like the smaller bottles that I bought on the Skytrain platform that were filled with a tart juice with the distinct flavor of fresh guava. This was watery and bland like the boxed fruit juice that I had bought only once. Did they buy the boxed juice and pour it into bottles here, I wondered, or was it simply not fresh? It was wet; I finished it only because I could no longer bear to throw any more nourishment away.

I barely recognized the dish that finally came to my table. It was crisp, brown lace with a few minute bivalves poking through. It crunched in my mouth like cereal, leaving a fine overlay of oil in its wake that an hour later is still with me. As I left, I peered into the vat of batter that was the mainstay of my pancake. It looked like gruel, not the thick paste that I've seen in other places.

Aor Tor Kor is a beautiful place to visit. It's a fine spot for food photography but for eating? I'll take my chances on the street, thank you. Chaos and dirt are okay by me; I've tasted the alternative and I'll never do that again.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Loving Korat

An elderly samlor driver shuffled in my direction, holding out a chopstick-load of thin, yellow noodles. I had learned long ago that Korat people were hospitable but this seemed over the top--besides, I'd already had my breakfast. He stopped inches away from me and bent toward the sidewalk, firmly gripping his chopsticks. There at his feet was a millipede and that was the recipient of the noodles.

"He likes them," the old man and I agreed, as the miilipede began to eat and the driver eased back into his vehicle to finish the rest of his own morning meal.

It had been late the night before when I tottered off the bus after a 12-hour journey. My split-second decision to avoid Cambodia in favor of Laos had taken me across a large portion of the north-east to a city I'd been to once a year or more ago. Exhaustion and incipient senility had blasted the name of the hotel I wanted to find there right out of my memory cells; it was an English name was all I could dredge up and I wearily and dubiously decided that it was called the President. Unfortunately none of Korat's taxi drivers agreed with me.

A desk inside the bus station was helmed by a young woman who looked as tired as I was, but she had a map of her city with a list of hotels and one of them was mine. Without my asking, she called the Thai Inter Hotel to nail down their address and made sure they had a room available for me; once again and almost immediately I fell back in love with Nakhon Ratchisima (nicknamed Korat.)

The Thai Inter Hotel has obviously been inspired by Thai International Airways; the staff wear uniforms that bear the cut and color of the Kingdom's flagship airlines and photos of planes adorn the hallways. Victor is the owner and a genial host. He cares about his hotel and that shows in the details. The Thai Inter is impeccable, with bright and pretty rooms, breakfast with butter that is of a spreadable consistency for the toast, bathrooms that include not only hot water but--are you ready for this? A shower curtain that is crisp and clean.

Korat, like Chiang Mai, was once a moated city and the old part of town is still surrounded by water that is clear. There are trees and a manageable amount of traffic and a stunning number of temples and people who are dazzlingly kind and the most imaginative and colorful graffiti in the Kingdom. When I'm there, I know I'm in Thailand and when I leave, I'm always looking forward to the next time I go back.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Where old replicants go to die...

Après le Deluge

Songkran ended and the world around me began to take on a normal cast again. Water and good wishes had done their job--sunlight had returned and the sky was no longer white. Feeling the exhilaration that comes with the third and final New Year, I climbed on an ordinary bus (windows open, no aircon) and went off to Chinatown and the Indian section of the city.

Traffic was minimal, the air felt fresh, and our bus moved persistently and almost rapidly. When we got to the spot where all buses converge at Victory Monument, our driver felt no reason to slacken his pace. Faced with a minor traffic snarl, he took to the sidewalk and then back to the open road (well it was a more of a concrete island in the middle of the street, but even so...)

As we traveled along a leafy boulevard that was divided by a tree-shaded canal where people have set up basic living structures, a goat loomed into view and when I got off the bus, the woman who preceded me slapped a small hand towel on top of her head to fend off the heat of the sun. Suddenly I was no longer in Bangkok; I was in Thailand.

For the first time ever, the dark and claustrophobic halls of Sampeng Lane were empty with long, unpeopled corridors stretching toward a slant of light. The moshpit of the Pahurat market was easy to walk through as well and I headed into an almost vacant Indian Emporium. Post-Songkran, this beehive area of Bangkok had become my own little private, surreal world that I shared with only a very few people.

Clutching a little bag of samosas to take home for supper, I climbed into another unimpeded bus that reminded me of how much I miss by sticking to the subway and skytrain. Passing a food cart that featured thin slices of meat held in drying position by little pink, blue, and yellow clothespins, I made a New Year resolution that I would take a bus at least once a week in 2555.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Written in Water

Anyone who thinks there's no revolution taking place in this country should go downtown and witness the latest battle on Silom.

With a certain degree of terror, I went there yesterday to see how my bookselling friend Victor ( was holding up with Songkran raging all around him. The subway I took was crowded with teenagers brandishing multi-colored water-fueled AK-47s, all headed to the same spot that I was. What they were wearing was barely tolerated on the beach when I first came to Thailand--skimpy shorts and tank tops and flipflops were only worn by my gay male friends in public at the turn of the last century. And even more surprising to me was that these kids weren't wearing their public masks of polite formality; they were goofing around as though they were in their own living rooms--and that to my barbaric American point of view looked great.

When we reached our destination, they headed for the open street while I took refuge in the skybridge walkway that links the subway to the Skytrain and to the shopping center where Victor works. As I peered cautiously over the edge, the only vendors on this sidewalk that is usually thronged with goods of all kinds were selling bottles of water and bags filled with pellets of compressed powder. The pavement itself was invisible, covered with moving bodies that were daubed with chalky powder that had been mixed with water to the consistency of whitewash.

The sounds of disco music pulsed through the crowd, and on the street in front of Burger King, was Soi 2 in broad daylight. In the olden days, this gay male enclave was a night world, even during Songkran--it didn't wake up until around 10 pm and nobody I knew went there much earlier than midnight. Its music and craziness and Songkran water warriors, who were more vicious than any I'd ever seen amywhere else in the city, all were concentrated in this short little alleyway, and its companion neighborhood of Soi 4. I often thought that was a shame because the life and color of this neighborhood could do a lot to liven up the rest of the city. And now it was.

As I watched, I realized that where the disco music played was where the heart of the Silom activity was going on--dancing, battling, flirting was all happening right there, like a mini-Mardi Gras--an integrated, uninhibited, full-tilt party. The teenagers moved through and beyond the noise and the funk and the warfare, slowly in an almost ritualistic procession, reaching out to smear each other's faces and bodies with paste, shooting and splashing and hurling water as they walked in an almost orderly fashion.

There had to have been thousands of them filing along this long main street where last year tires burned and people died. For the three days of Songkran, Silom was theirs. From all over Bangkok, these kids put on their most informal clothing and grabbed their water guns and shut down the heart of the city. Their numbers allowed Soi 4 to come out into daylight and be crazy, caused stores to shut down, and covered the street with a chalky, egg-shell, powdered finish.

This particular Songkran scene is light-years from the one I experienced two days ago on the canals. The teenagers I saw on Silom are almost a different species from the students I used to teach who seemed frozen into formality by a rigid code of etiquette. Thai culture is being transformed and transmogrified and where that will take the country is anybody's guess.

More than anywhere I have ever lived, Thailand is held together by family. The glue is that particular unit--starting from the very top, with the King's birthday celebrated as Father's Day. The grouping I saw yesterday was a unit I never saw before here--thousands of teenagers on the loose, taking a tradition and turning it inside out. These are the people who are going to determine the future of this country; they are going to change it.

I'm old enough to recognize and salute their energy, while also feeling very sad for what is being lost. And as I peered down into the disco inferno in front of Burger King, I was grateful for the privilege of being removed from all of that by the gift of age.

Victor, I discovered, had stayed home.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Water, Water Everywhere...

Songkran, or Thai New Year, is a holiday that grumpy old people love to gretz about. Life as we know it comes to a screeching halt and is replaced by people brandishing water artillery and pots full of dirty water that comes from a gigantic plastic garbage can and buckets replenished at that same source. Two days ago, the best-selling item on Silom Road seemed to be plastic pouches for cameras, cell-phones and currency, presumably water-tight and all in brilliant flaming Crayola colors.

The small children on my street began their dress rehearsal for this festival two days early. Luckily I had already bought their friendship with Hello Kitty stickers and they let me pass by without saturation. I rewarded them the next day with gummy hamburgers and hotdogs, which mollified everyone of them except the baby. Never underestimate the brute determination of a two-year-old brandishing a garden hose.

"Come with us to Taling Chan," my friend Mrs. Nupa invited me. The outing fell on the first official day of Songkran when my life stretched in vast emptiness for the next three days, so I was delighted to accept--even though I wasn't sure of what the event would involve. There is a floating market at Taling Chan but only on weekends so that couldn't be our destination. Would we bathe Buddhas at a temple? Visit a family home in the country? It seemed rude to ask so I resorted to the indirect approach.

"When we go to Taling Chan, Mrs. Nupa, what should I wear?" She looked puzzled.

"Will we go to a temple in Taling Chan?"

"Maybe, if there's one on the way," she replied, still looking confused by my inquisition.

"What clothes should I wear to be polite?"

"Your usual ones," she assured me, "Yes, black is okay." But I knew Songkran was a time to wear bright and blazing colors and went off to find something in aqua, which seemed appropriate for this particular holiday.

We ended up at the Floating Market which was open for Songkran and Mrs Nupa’s husband immediately arranged for a canal boat ride, which is one of my favorite things to do. As we got in the boat, small children viciously bombarded us with waterfire and a man handed out plastic bags to all who wanted them. Mrs. Nupa tucked our handbags inside a plastic shroud, tying it tightly, and I considered getting one for my shoes, which were already soaked. I gave a brief and longing thought to the horrible flipflops that I'd bought on the beach at Samet, and then shrugged. Shoes are cheap in Bangkok.

We sped away from the small snipers and entered a world that's a century behind the one we live in. Houses bordered the edge of the canal, flowers and trees softened the banks on either side, and temples gleamed ahead of us. "Water on the left," the boat's helmswoman warned and handed out little buckets which were rapidly filled with canal water. And as we passed the temple grounds, we were hit by a wall of water, hurled by men, children, and very old ladies.

For two hours, that was our existence--throwing water from tiny beach buckets and being inundated by cannonades of water from the porches of houses, bridges that spanned the canal, other boats as they passed by, and from the sacred sanctuary of temple grounds. And it was fun--cold, soggy, and laughing, everybody on our boat was having a fabulous time, although a very little girl, wrapped in a towel like a baby burrito with a plastic bag tied over her hair, wasn't always sure that she was.

At the end of our journey, we dried as we ate riverine food--fish, cockles and shrimp--admitting to a strong urge for naps as we drove back home. I slept for two hours after a restorative warm shower. This morning my fingertips are no longer puckered and waterlogged but the sense of happiness remains. Sawatdee Phi Mai, took khon, happy Thai New Year to everyone in the world.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Time Forgot

The front of the one-storey, dusty concrete building had a sign in English that said "Bookstore" so of course I had to walk in. A glass counter held pamphlets that looked as though nobody had touched them since they were first printed and probably with good reason. The closest wall held books in Laotian, one of which was a picture book of a bearded Russian who looked like a crazed forest monk capable of killing every last one of the Romanovs with his bare hands.

In the far corner of the room were women sitting on the floor and with very little hope I asked them if there were books in English. They beckoned to another wall. And there were English books--Lao/English dictionaries, workbooks for learning English, texts on Business English from the days when business was still conducted on typewriters. I scanned the shelves hoping for one of Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri mysteries that he had published in special editions for the People's Democratic Republic; I'd seen them in Vientianne in a bookstore that was only marginally more enticing than this one. There were none.

I wasn't surprised. The English language literary scene didn't seem to have appeared on Savannakhet's radar; there wasn't even that traveler's mainstay, the shelf of yellowed, curling, abandoned, multilingual paperbacks, in the hostelry that I was staying in. Although I usually ignored that amenity, at this point I would have tackled a John Grisham masterpiece in Dutch or even Norwegian. But the Savanbanhao Hotel didn't even have maps of Savannakhet in English, which meant not only did I not know where anything was--I had no idea of what there was in this place.

So I walked, for hours, in hot sunlight, down roads that shredded my shoes with the efficiency of razor-blades. Along the river and under the trees were tempting little spots that served grilled chicken and fish and papaya salad at cloth-covered low tables. Hungry, I ordered and looked for a table that didn't have clusters of flies where food had been spilled on the jaunty red tablecloth.

The food was good and the flies enjoyed it. I thanked every god I could think of for the lid on my basket of sticky rice and for the generous portion I'd been given; resolutely I tried to avert my eyes from the plates of chicken and somtam and green vegetables that were no longer mine.

Across from my hotel was a kind woman who sold me a large bottle of cold Beer Laos. I was asleep before six.

The free breakfast offered by my hotel involved one sunny-side up fried egg, a cold baguette, and a cup of milky, sugary instant coffee. "We don't have black coffee," the waitress told me and I fled.

"Chez Boune," the desk clerk replied to my desperate plea for real caffeine, "I will take you there on my motorcycle." And in a small, impeccable cafe, built from Laos timber and open to the dilapidated sidewalk, I was served the most splendid double-espresso in Southeast Asia. "Better than Bangkok," I told the woman who brought it to me, who responded "Better than Starbucks?"

Chez Boune eroded my moral fiber. It was there that I had a dark Beer Laos with my bruschetta well before noon and finished my lunch with a piece of coconut layer cake. And it's the only place in the world where I ate every last morsel of the butter that was served with my baguette the following day--it tasted like summer, sweet and clear and clean on my tongue. "We get it from France," the Laos owner told me, "My husband and I lived in Paris for years."

I walked for miles in Savannakhet, constructing my own mental map of the place, realizing that if I had never been to a colonial Mekong outpost, I would probably have loved this one. But I had, and I didn't. Same old broken pillars behind the walls that obviously once enclosed an estate, same old gaping windows in abandoned French villas with fading mustard-colored walls, same old goats foraging near government offices. A few leafy trees swooped over a road for about a block; the other streets were unshaded and the one large and ugly fountain near a dismal-looking park was bone-dry. Not only did I miss the grace of Kratie in this place--it made me miss Vientianne.

And yet Savannakhet is what I'd wanted. It is Thai. People speak Thai, eat Thai food, happily accept baht for the smallest transaction. They are kind; not even the tuktuk drivers can measure up to the rapaciousness of their counterparts in Vientianne. Their slow pace is soothing and the lack of distractions offered by the town makes it a fine place to catch up on projects that have been ignored or to sit on a verandah and read. Just be damned sure that you bring your own books.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Blowing in the Wind

The closer to the border I got, the more I realized I wasn't feeling good about going to Cambodia right now. Since I had already jettisoned Saigon because of depleted resources of all kinds, and because Battambang is a place that has always called to me, I did my best to ignore the feeling. Spend the night in Aranyaprathet and cross the border in the morning when your energy's returned, I told myself more than once.

But the truth was, I didn't have the energy. Wiped out and depressed by a long and dismal cold, in no way had this been a trip I was ready to make; I was more than willing to stick to my comfort zone. As the bus moved closer to the end of my journey, it became clear that I didn't want to leave Thailand.

But I had to. There's a quaint custom that almost every expat must adhere to while living in the Kingdom that is dashingly called the visa run. Although this phrase conjures up men in Panama hats and white suits and women with blood-red lipstick and cigarette holders, the reality is far less glamorous. People in wrinkled clothing scurry across the nearest border as cheaply as possible, get a visa renewal within a day or two, and race back to work. As far as I could tell, this was a way for Thailand to put tourist revenue into the pockets of less-favored countries, since despite their best efforts, the visa-runners shell out money after they cross the border for necessities-- transport, food, a hotel room, and beer.

When I have to renew my privilege of living in Thailand, I usually combine the chore with a trip that will make the process fun, and I've always enjoyed these journeys--until now. As I tried to buoy up my spirits for my Cambodian foray, the bus stopped, policeman got on who barked questions at the passengers and a number of people got off. Only two or three returned.

After a half-hour or so, this happened again. The young girl sitting beside me did her best to persuade the policeman to let her remain but he was obdurate. She didn't come back, nor did any of the other passengers.

The third time this happened, soldiers took the place of the police. The young man sitting beside me removed the Buddha image he had on a chain around his neck and slipped it into his pocket just before the bus stopped.

"What's happening?" I asked the woman who sat beside me after my former seat-mate disappeared.

"Khmer people," she explained, "They have no passports, no ID cards."

Suddenly the border tension at Preah Vihear seemed very close and any joy I had tried to muster up over this trip went away. I had no desire to go to Cambodia right now; this wasn't the right time for me and I knew it in the way an animal knows there will be an earthquake. When we reached Aranyaprathet, I asked to be let off at the bus station, where I bought a ticket for Korat. From there, it would be an easy matter to reach the Laos border.

Laos is almost Thailand, I told myself, it's not like really leaving. I can do that. As I stood in the first sunlight I'd felt in weeks, chatting in bad Thai to a friendly, chubby woman who stood nearby, I clutched my bus ticket that would take me through a part of Thailand I had never seen before. Shadows dappled the dust, my sweater was at last too warm, and I felt very happy.