Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Point of No Return

I haven't reached it yet but I'm very close, which is why I'm leaving this beautiful little city the day after tomorrow. I've been here almost two weeks. The mother at Good Morning Vietnam and Coffee is beginning to explain the political news on TV. I am well acquainted with the Golden Labrador who shamelessly frequents restaurants in his vicinity, hoping that diners will be generous. I've met the local fashionisto, a handsome devil with an exquisite girlfriend and a dazzling collection of women's shoes that fills two walls in the back of his shop. The ladies who sell me the Bangkok Post invited me to join them for lunch today. And of course there is the marvelous, wonderful, kind family that my friend Beau belongs to--more than anybody else they have given me a toehold and a place to feel connected in Nakhon Phanom. I have been extraordinarily fortunate and I am extremely grateful.

From the very beginning, when I saw this, tendrils of longing began to sprout somewhere in my heart and mind. And every time I see it, "Just one more day," is what I mutter to myself. I'm a sucker for sweeping landscapes--it's the one part of me that is truly Alaskan.

Over a period of fourteen months in the last couple of years, two people I love very much died. I didn't realize how unhappy and depressed I'd been recently until that feeling went away. I knew it had when I felt eager to get up in the morning--and it wasn't just because I'd found a place where there was good espresso. It was more to the point that I could walk to it, on a sidewalk, and then sit at a corner table of an honest-to-god sidewalk cafe and listen to birds singing. Top that Bangkok, or even Seattle. Nakhon Phanom doesn't claim to be "inter" or "world class" but in many ways it has much larger places beat.

It's a place that's not afraid of color and uses paint with riotous and delightful abandon, all over town. I'm going to go into withdrawal when I return to Bangkok, where buildings are either glass and steel or unadorned cement.

There are places here that serve Western food and a spot called Little Tokyo (inland sushi, anyone?); with a large Vietnamese population there's a generous representation of that cuisine too. (The best fried spring rolls I've ever had I ate here last night.) But it's the Thai food that I wanted and ate and was delighted with--there are people in this town who still know how to use a wok. And the desserts at Ali Blah Blah Bistro--crepes, pies, creme brulee--are marvelous indulgences that I will miss badly when I leave.

Yesterday I wandered through Ho Chi Minh's garden and the tiny house he lived in. I looked longingly at his desk and the open window above it that framed leaves and blossoms. A hopeless romantic, I knew I could be happy in this place. Of course I always leave out minor details like mosquitoes and outdoor privies in the middle of the night.

There is so much beauty in this river town and I've tried to catch it and keep it and share it. These temples, this sky, these idiosyncratic buildings--I love them all.

But of all the memories I've caught in a snapshot, this is the one that will bring me back, the bend in the road that promises new discoveries, new stories.

Thank you, Nakhon Phanom--see you soon, I hope. Until then I hope to keep with me the sense of delight and the love of life I've felt since I came to stay with you.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pretending I Live Here

I celebrated the end of my first week in Nakhon Phanom by living in it--no sightseeing, no picturetaking, just moving through a day as I would if I were lucky enough to be a resident.

It would be so restful, because everything can be achieved by walking. Going to get coffee, buying a battery charger for my new battery, the one that went on strike after two days and 157 snapshots, buying garlands of jasmine and marigolds at the market, taking them to the gigantic bodhi tree in thanks for letting me snap it several times, buying a paper, reading it at a bright and comfortable little cafe, eating khao mun gai, buying a few things at the local supermarket which has aisles like deep, dark canyons, and all on foot.

It's a great day for walking here because there's a slight windchill, enough to tangle my hair and almost blow away my shawl. It clattered the dry leaves of the tree that I gave thanks to, loud enough that I wondered what a real storm would sound like under its branches. It blew away the smoke of the past few days and made Laos' mountains visible again.

There's more to do, I know there is. Perhaps I might pay a visit to the brother of people I know in Seattle, who lives in an abandoned hotel overlooking the river. Or I could see if I can persuade a tuktuk (Skylabs here) driver to take me to Ho Chi Minh's house and then bring me back--no success with that yet. Or I could sit in my bright little room and watch my battery charger--it flashes in different colors like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind--blueredgreen in staccato bursts. As I watch, I can be grateful that I live, although temporarily, in a town with no need for a Skytrain.

Today is Wednesday and I just paid enough to ensure that I will be here for four more days. My friend Beau told me long before I came that if I ever visited her town, I wasn't going to want to leave. She was right; I feel as though for the first time in my life, I'm living in Thailand. Last night I walked through the lovely temple grounds that are near my hotel and was stopped still by the sound of monks, praying. If I were ever to come back to live in this country, this is how I would want to live my life.

Long Ago, Far Away

Today I crossed a river and a border to get more Thai time. I planned to stay a few hours in Laos, at least long enough to have lunch in the town I've looked at from the other side of the Mekong for almost a week. But the minute I got off the bus, I was hit by the smell of dried squid, which seemed odd, since Laos is a landlocked nation.

Following my nose, I found this
which up close looks like this. Strips of fish? Pig? Buffalo? I say it's ugly and I said the hell with it. I bought a ticket to return on the same bus I came in on, for a grand total of thirty minutes in Laos. Go ahead, take away my traveler's status. I'm not going to care.

I like my morning coffee and my silent wanderings in Nakhon Phanom, staring at buildings and looking for my next meal. I was ravenous after my rapid foray into unknown territory and found this
where I had a remarkable lunch of fish lahb and mango salad, which had everything from squid to nuts. It's right next to a joint called Classic that has photos of hamburgers and pizza. I ask you--where would you eat? Yeah, me too.

The clouds are gathering and I think another riverboat ride would be a very good way to begin (and probably end) my evening. I did that last night and avoided spider bites by sitting on the upper deck. The light was different from the one that I saw on my first trip and it probably will be again tonight. It's my Nakhon Phanom Happy Hour, complete with a can of Beerlao.

It's hard to think of a reason to leave, especially since I have yet to go to the National Library, or Ho Chi Minh's house (in a Vietnamese village five kilometers away), or to the Blue House Cafe to hear Isaan music, or to give a floral offering to the giant bodhi tree that I took snapshots of when I first got here. Besides, Bangkok is so far away from this place that I'm not sure I'll ever find my way back.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Loving Inertia

This morning I sat outside on a quiet corner, sipped coffee, listened to birdsong, and watched this small town wake up. Nakhon Phanom is the first place I've ever been in Thailand to give me this and this is why I keep extending my stay by two more days.

I'm not really a traveler; I'm a voyeur. I like to go somewhere I've never been and watch it. This is my fourth day in Nakhon Phanom and there are still places I haven't been because I wander slowly, on foot. But I know that the best coffee in my part of town is at Good Morning Vietnam and Coffee and the best pastry is at Ali Blah Blah farther down the road. I've spent a lot of time in both places, watching and enjoying the world around me.

There's a boat trip on the Mekong in the evening (for less than two dollars) ; spider bites are free, but in addition they also serve Beerlao in cans--a first for me. And the riverside is walkable for miles. I know. I've done it and plan to do it again soon.

There's more to see here. I've yet to see the center of town and how people do business there. But so far I'm happy in my 65-year-old Chinese hotel, with its big windows, checkerboard floor tiles, and profusions of wood, and in my riverside neighborhood. I can understand why Uncle Ho lived here. It's a fine place to write and wander and perhaps plot social change. So far I'm still wandering.....

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Fresh Off the Bus

The trouble with being new in town is you have to find where everything is, and when you're tired and hungry that's a challenge. Last night I took a wrong turn in looking for food and ended up in what's probably the business district. Kind ladies directed me to the Night Market because there were no foodstalls, they assured me. I ended up buying beer, peanuts, and water at a 7/11, where the only bottle opener in the shop wasn't for sale.

On my way back I found a store where everything was 20 baht, including my (made in China) church key. When I finally reached my hotel, I discovered that they sold both beer and water in the lobby.

But a hike before dinner is good for an aging broad, although I felt apprehensive this morning when I went out in search of coffee. I had seen a place called Vietnamese Coffee near the Windsor but would it be open? Would the coffee be drinkable? And most important, would I ever find food in this town?

It was open. My espresso was good (and I never use that word loosely when it comes to coffee). They had something that I didn't understand for breakfast. I ordered it, along with a latte.

And this is what I was given. I never take pictures of food but this I consider a miracle right up there with the Loaves and Fishes. I rarely will touch an egg, especially a fried one, but this was too good to ignore.
And then I walked down the street in the opposite direction from my Death March of the night before and there were many, many food shops--and a 7/11, only a couple of blocks from the Windsor. I won't starve, or go into caffeine withdrawal, in Nakhon Phanom. And since I slept well lat night with no insect invasions, I may stay here for a few days. I think I really like this place.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The 250 Baht Difference

First of all, 250 baht is less than $8.00. And that's the difference (financially speaking) between my hotel room at Thai Inter in Korat (under $23) and my room at Submukda Grand in Mukdahan (just above $15). But the gulf between the two can't be measured in dollars or baht.

Thai Inter and Submukda Grand have the same appurtenances--hot water, air con, fridge, TV, and glass bottles of water waiting in the room. The rooms in both places are immaculate and each has a tiny private view of the world outside (veranda in Korat, balcony here.)

Thai Inter also had room service, a breakfast room, and a small bar that was almost a sidewalk cafe. Submukda has none of those things. Thai Inter had comfortable pillows and soft sheets. Submukda has scratchy polyester bedding that feels as though it's been starched and pillows that may have been chiseled from laterite. The room at Thai Inter was bright and pretty; Submukda is dark and serviceable.

But it is in the middle of a bustling commercial district, down the street from a Chinese noodle shop that has good coffee and outside seating, and steps away from the Mekong that keeps the city from being part of Laos. And that's why I always stay in this institutional hostelry for business travelers.

This morning I had breakfast at the Chinese place on the corner and watched Mukdahan wake up--children going to school, monks on their morning rounds, people filing off to work, some wearing wool hats and wrapped in towels to ward off the distinct chill. As I watched, I realized everything I've ever learned about this area, I've observed from this corner. And that just might be worth  a bad night's sleep that is pervaded with vague hints of sewer gas.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Taking Care

I woke up this morning feeling ridiculously grouchy. My phone battery died and I had to replace it--in a town where I have never had to enter a shopping mall or deal with anything remotely to do with real life. Korat and I have a fantastic relationship. I give it adoration and it gives me good food and comfort too. Why did I have to mess with that by needing something utilitarian to take place? Was I going to have to find The Mall (pronounced Da Mah)? Oh, god, I really didn't want to face cute little sales clerks with little English and still less patience with my abysmal and limited Thai--not here. That's what Bangkok is for.

I should have remembered that I was now in Thailand. What I did remember when I set out on my quest after breakfast was to be observant and look for shophouses that might sell exactly what I wanted.

I found one and the man behind the counter tried to insert a new battery into my old Nokia. It didn't fit. "Go to I.T. Plaza," he told me.

Korat isn't a hotbed of transportation options, particularly early on Monday morning, An elderly cyclo driver stopped and agreed to take me where I needed to go--fortunately it wasn't too far (he was very old--maybe close to my age--and I was worried that he might drop in his tracks from a coronary.) The Plaza was a shopping center, not a mall, and I felt grateful., even more when a girl behind a counter understood my problem and promptly replaced my battery.

An I.T. Plaza it might be but it wasn't narrow-minded in its offerings. There were shoes that weren't hideous and that fit me in a shop near the exit. I bought two pairs and felt exultant.

The man in the shophouse had no reason to be helpful. He wasn't going to get the sale, after all. The girl behind the counter didn't have to be kind--her sale was under ten dollars. And the elderly cyclo driver quoted a fare of 1.50--I gave him 2.00 at the end of the ride and felt as though it should have been more.

But Thailand--real Thailand--is a country where people take care of each other, and of visitors too. It goes beyond customer service into cultural values. It's why I haven't answered my phone for the past two nights.

On the train to Korat, I sat beside a sweet and elderly gentleman. We began to chat and as we neared my destination, he helped me with my baggage and stayed with me until I was at my disembarkation point. A former Police General, he very kindly gave me his phone number in case I had any difficulties as I traveled onward. I gave him mine and we parted friends--or at least I thought we had parted.

On my first night in Korat, he called to make sure all was well and to say that he missed me and to find out when I would be farther north near his home territory. It was a kindly gesture, although a bit lengthy, and I appreciated it. Last night, before my battery died, he called. Twice.

I didn't pick up my phone, nor did I when it rang this morning after the battery was changed, nor at noon when it rang again. I turned my phone to silent and I persistently check the number that's calling when it vibrates. It's always the same one.

He is a very kind old man and he is doing his best to take care of me. Unfortunately when that caretaking leaves the marketplace and becomes closer and more personal, I begin to claw at my throat. Perhaps I don't want to be Thai in my next life after all, just a foreigner once again who comes to Korat (and points north) and loves it in her own prickly fashion.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Right Place, Right Time

This is one reason why I love Korat--its unexpected jolts of visual poetry. Not all of it is so lyrical, but I love that part too. The next time I come to Thailand, I may bypass Bangkok altogether and head for here right away.. In fact I may end my trip here, except for a couple of days in Thailand's capital to see two very good friends.

I've had enough of luxury malls, the Skytrain, and people blowing whistles. I want Thailand, and that's where I am now. Thank you, Nakhon Ratchasima, for giving me what I need, every time I come here.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Long, Strange Trip--But I Like It

I'm halfway into my 10-week journey. On Saturday I get on a train and leave Bangkok for smaller cities--Khorat, Nakhon Phanom, Roi Et--and a quick jaunt into Laos. I'm looking forward to being in places without rapid transit and shopping palazzos. Two weeks without days filled with artificial light is just fine with me.

I'm blessed with friends in Bangkok and that's why I'm here--that and the river, which I love with an unreasoning passion. This trip has been different from any other time I've spent here because of the cordons of protesters at key points throughout the city. Places I often enjoy going to are filled with tents and people with whistles. Lumpini Park, one of the most beautiful urban oases I've ever been to, is a campground--a clean and tidy campground true, but not its usual quiet sanctuary. The delightful chaos of Silom Road is a long line of vendors selling patriotic accessories. Victory Monument is clear of tents at last but when I was there yesterday it was still not up to full and glorious speed. Maybe today....

When I return to Bangkok, perhaps the riverboats won't be crowded to full and terrifying capacity, the buses will be running full-tilt again, and the stages and tents will be gone. It seems as though the point of Shutdown Bangkok has been achieved. The world knows--as does all of Asia--what the grievances are. Now it might be time to start the dialogues between factions before the violence gets ramped up. At least I hope the talking and listening begins soon. Please, no more Thai people hurting Thai people.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Bright, Hot Morning

There's no breeze coming through my window this morning, just heat rays that promise to intensify as the day lengthens. The quiet is absolute except for the faint buzz of a motorcycle zipping down the road that leads into the city, and the sound of a little boy's voice as he and a friend go off to seek what adventures the morning may hold.

I hope they continue to be quiet ones. Today is Election Day in Thailand and the anti-government party has decided to hold picnics on the city's main roads and near polling stations. They will supply the food.

Like much of the current protests, this is benign and festive, which brings to mind the old parental admonition, "It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt." Beyond the food and the market stalls and the crush of shoppers who come to find bargains at the demonstration sites, tempers are running high.

I agree with points on both sides and have friends on either bank of Thailand's Great Divide. Two things about this embroglio bother me very much: People who are exercising their right to free speech are preventing other people from their right to cast a secret ballot and livelihoods--if not lives--are being endangered by what could be solved by a national debate and discussion. But neither side seems at all willing to listen to the other.

In Bangkok laws seem to have been suspended. The Emergency Degree is flouted every day and acts of violence go unpunished. However  those of us who might think that the rule of law is no longer observed in Thailand's capital city can take comfort that this is far from true. And if you don't believe me, just try to have a beer or a glass of wine (let alone a cocktail) anywhere in the Kingdom of Thailand today--even if your skin color indubitably proves that you are incapable of casting a ballot.