Ladder Theory

Rural, northern Thailand looks a lot like rural, central Uganda.  The vegetation in both places is lush and tropical but, thanks to an ongoing drought in each, also dry and dusty.  A perpetual haze drifts around each place, which, while hard to explain given the lack of industry, seems fitting for the hot climate.  Looking at the window of the bus coming into Nan, there were moments where I did a double take, thinking I was back in Masaka: the landscapes were just too alike.


The similarities, though, end with the natural environment.  For one thing, in Thailand I was looking at the window of a modern, air-conditioned bus, driving on a paved road, as opposed to a surplus mutatu from China bouncing on a rutted dirt track.  Like Uganda, Thailand has its fair share of shanties—precarious-looking constructions of scrap wood and corrugated metal—but here, the shanties have multiple rooms and satellite dishes.  Thais get most of their food from the same kind of sprawling street markets you can find in Kampala, but they have the option of modern supermarkets selling Western goods at Western prices (anything imported to Uganda comes with an absurd mark-up).  In Uganda, there are clinics run by NGOs; here, it’s hospitals run by the government.  Jackie’s school building might be a little worn, but the students have desks—not benches—and a cement floor, rather than dirt.

These comparisons are, of course, arbitrary.  Arbitrary except that Thailand and Uganda are both a part of what we variously label the “underdeveloped” or “Third” world, the Eastern “periphery” to the Western “center” of the global economy.  Nonetheless, anyone looking at basic economic or social statistics could rapidly come to the same conclusion to which my observations point: Uganda and Thailand are very different places.  Indeed, a quick visit to the CIA World Factbook could confirm that, in 1062 when Uganda became independent, it was on par with Thailand in GDP, literacy, and infant mortality.  A half-century later, Thailand is light-years ahead on practically any measure.

As I write these observations, I realize that they are astonishingly obvious.  And yet, among students of development, there is a strong sense that any sign of progress is necessarily a lie, that we cannot make real comparisons between the standard of living between countries, and that development never actually happens.  But if we define development as “people getting more of the shit they want,” it is incredibly clear that development does happen and people are happier for it.  Crude as that measure is, I think you can come to the same result from a more sophisticated thought experiment: imagine you were going to be born into a society, but didn’t know what your ‘status’ in that society would be (whether you would be rich or poor, male or female, etc.)  Which country would you choose to be born into?  I think even the most radical post-modernist academic would not have a hard time plumping for Thailand.

Pick-up trucks and power lines. Would you rather NOT have them?

“Ladder theory”—the notion that all countries follow a set series of stages of development—is intellectually dead (as opposed to the ladder theory of relationships, which is 100% accurate).  Rural Thailand is neither a glimpse at Uganda’s future nor the West’s past.  Still, the image of a country somewhere between destitution and decadence was, in a strange way, heartening and refreshing.  To me, it suggests that the world is not just capitalists and their victims, colonizers and colonized, rich and poor.  There are, indeed, shades of grey in development—countries that are an intermediate rung between undeveloped and developed—and their existence reminds us that there is, actually, a reason why we’re doing this.

– – – – –

Jukebox: Gallows – Queensbury Rules

Nan –> Bangkok –> Delhi –> London –> Oxford

1 – 13 – 10

After three days on my own, I would say that I have thoroughly exhausted Nan’s many “attraction places” (as the t-shirts say) and so, at the rather strange request of head teacher Ajarn Prakop, I spent the entire day at school with Jackie.  For lack of anything better to do while Jackie was teaching, I jotted down a few disjointed observations about Thai schooling.

Spot the typographical error!  (Note that it appears to be a correction of a previous typographical error)
Spot the typographical error! (Note that it appears to be a correction of a previous typographical error.)

I am always struck by the realization that, in most places in the world, school is and has been really boring. Even visiting restored “Old West” prairie schoolhouses in the U.S., it is pretty apparent that most learning happened via rote memorization and, as a consequence, school must have been completely miserable.  In Uganda, with 100 kids packed into one classroom, uni-directional teaching was the only option, but that didn’t change what a raw deal it was for the kids.  Here, too, Jackie tells me that a lot of the teaching consists of call-and-response.  The school has no hallways or glass windows—everything opens onto the courtyard—so you can hear students speaking in unison all the time.
The children’s artwork and activities hung on the walls, though, makes me think it’s not all a drag.  Apparently one way the kids show respect for their teachers is with enthusiasm: occasionally, you hear an entire class shouting “hooray” in a way that more fits my ideal of an elementary school than anything I’ve ever actually experienced.


The school’s infrastructure feels a bit old and decaying (but who am I to say, I went to school in a converted strip-club without plumbing).  The lack of new and nice things, though, seems more than compensated by the pride that teachers and students take in the place.  While I was there, some 4th graders’  boundless energy was channeled into a “sweep the entire school and pick up all the fallen leaves” game, which they appeared to seize upon with relish.


Oh, and they have boy scouts.  When Jackie took me on a tour of the school, a group of boys were outside wearing uniforms that were all to familiar (the trauma is so near…)  Like any good group of scouts, they were supposed to be learning the (completely useless) skill of how to lash together sticks of wood, but instead appeared to be beating each other with sticks.  Some things, it would seem, are universal.  The girls, for their part, get to learn to cook, which is both more useful, less dangerous, and infinitely less fun.

According to this motivational mural, the king is better than you at everything.

Education here is definitely intended to be more than just academic.  There are all sorts of things around the school promoting patriotism and Buddhism (what am I talking about?  Arizona has a law requiring American flags in every classroom).  Anyone looking to find evidence of the (exaggerated, charicaturized) Asian culture of hierarchy and obedience need look no further than the frequent school assemblies and “let’s brush our teeth en masse” songs played during recess.   But really, what’s wrong with brushing your teeth, especially when your school lets you eat ice cream for breakfast?

I really wish I could get ahold of the "let's brush our teeth" song.

All in all, though, I don’t think I would mind attending the Bandon Srisermkasikorn School.  I’ve seen some schools that feel like prisons, and this is not one of them.  Plus, I hear they have some great English teachers.

Really, the best kind.

– – – – –

Thailand ended for me at the bus station, waving goodbye from the furthest back seat of the bus, pressed up against the window while the bus pulled away, grabbing a last look at Jackie.  It was a storybook perfect ending to a storybook perfect trip.

– – – – –

1 – 14 – 10

Delhi remains the worst airport of all time.  The bureaucracy really is so senseless that it’s not even worth my time trying to spin it into an amusing anecdote.  It is as if someone set out to design the least intelligible airport ever, and succeeded astonishingly.

I would mention only that there are currently six people mopping this waiting room (yeah socialism) and the TV appears to be playing a program mocking Islamic terrorism using sock puppets.

– – – – –

I remember coming back to Princeton for the first time.  It was at the end of fall break my freshman year.  I was not happy to be returning; I was leaving behind my best friends in Flagstaff, still in high school, and coming back to a place where I felt truly lost.  Still, on the air train at Newark, I genuinely couldn’t travel fast enough: I was excited to be home.

I’m leaving behind a lot in Thailand, but, right now, Oxford is the place where I belong, and on the way back, the bus couldn’t go fast enough.


1 – 11 – 10

It was another incredibly pleasant day in Nan—even if I have little to report from it.  We woke up and went to the morning market (there are separate markets for the afternoon and evening), where we bought sticky rice in banana leaves for a whopping $.17.  How it is that we in the West are not eating sticky rice all the time is beyond me: who would have thought that a little coconut cream could turn rice from boring to delicious?

In her element.

I went with Jackie to her school in order to get a wider view of elementary school in Thailand than just sixth graders in skimpy outfits.  Jackie had decided to eschew lesson planning in favor of having her students pepper me with questions.  After an hour, I was left with new respect for elementary school teachers: given how slowly time seemed to move while I was standing in front of her kids, I cannot imagine how my teachers managed to keep us entertained for seven hours a day, five days a week.

No caption needed.

After school, we grabbed our bikes and visited a pair of Jackie’s friends along the river.  We closed the day with a feast at a local restaurant.  After just a little time in Nan, I can see the draw for ex-pats: the town is large enough to not feel completely backward, but still feels low-key and familiar.  I could certainly stay for a lot longer.

– – – – –

In the abstract, I am no fan of markets.  Among my radical and freegan friends, “markets” are a frequent object for derision and resentment: we complain about how “markets” are ruining the planet and compelling us to participate in an economic system we don’t support.  Somewhat more substantively, in my studies a dogmatic faith in free markets is connected to some of the worst excesses of development policies.  “Markets” are the reason that badly needed health and education services are cut in Africa, and “markets” provide the logic for forcing poor countries to drop trade barriers so they can be flooded with subsidized food from the west.  In short, any way you look at them, markets suck.

Note the pile of coconuts in the background. Definitely the central point of this photo.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about the physical places, markets, sans quotation marks.  Actual, tangible markets I love.  In fact, there often the first place I seek out when I travel.  Sometimes, I wonder why: markets are, of course, a place where capitalism is at its finest, with small entrepreneurs selling and nearly everyone buying.  Not to mention that in the third world, visiting a market inevitably means walking by rows and rows of skinned, but still recognizable, animals.  Even when I avert my eyes, I can still smell it.

Apparently, these are compressed blood.

I suppose that I appreciate markets because, in contrast to strip malls or department stores, markets are very social places.  Jackie knows her “sticky rice ladies” and “tofu lady,” and a purchase from them is inevitably accompanied by some friendly banter.  She is loyal to them (apparently—somehow—she’s sick of sticky rice, but keeps supporting them nonetheless), and they clearly appreciate her (for more than just the 5 baht they get out of her).

While ultimately, the main reason to go to a market is to buy things, I certainly don’t feel the same overwhelming compulsion to purchase useless crap that I do when I am in a shopping mall, because there’s something else to being there.  I wouldn’t mind “capitalism” and “free markets” so much if there wasn’t such a strong sense that the business of economies is necessarily atomized and anti-social.  Market aren’t just places where we go to buy the material necessities of life, but also places where we connect with the community that makes life meaningful.  The act of walking among one’s fellow humans, I think, is half the point.

– – – – –

1 – 12 – 10

As I run out of touristy activities to describe (at this point, I’m really just trying to slow down time so I don’t have to leave), I am turning to totally unsupported sociological pedantry.  One of the most wonderful elements of Nan—not to essentialize a diverse community which I’ve experienced only for three days too much—is the degree of trust people seem to have in one another.  Tired of borrowing from her roommates, Jackie and I went to a local shop to rent a bike.  Upon telling the shopkeeper (really, more motioning, given her limited English) that we wanted to rent a bike, she disappeared into the back.  She returned after 30 seconds, wheeling out a bike, and bid us adieu.  We didn’t fill out any paperwork or leave any collateral.  She didn’t say when she wanted us to return it, and didn’t say how much she wanted us to pay her when we did.

Of course, that situation was partly made possible by the fact that Jackie is a schoolteacher and, by merit of being white in a town that is 99% Thai, easy to track down.  Other things I’ve seen here, though, are less explicable.  When we went south, we left a pair of bikes—unlocked—out in the street in front of the bus station, for a week, and they were waiting for us on our return.  Jackie’s apartment is left open and unlocked all day, and her roommates leave their laptops out on the porch.  Apparently, this is not the crime season in Nan.

I suppose if I’m going to get really pedantic, I should add that this communal trust is what we as sociologists call “social capital.”  While this may very well be a textbook example, however, the label “capital” seems misleading.  “Capital” is something we uses to create something else: we spin our “human capital” into getting better jobs, and financial capital is only useful insofar as it helps you start a business.  Capital is not beneficial in and of itself.  This summer in Uganda, our project sought to try to connect social capital to economic benefits too, but often the links between those two are harder to find.

As tends to be the case, we are missing the point.  Being able to trust one’s neighbor may not be particularly helpful for increasing economic activity in an isolated poor community.  But it is a good in and of itself.  I am jealous that people in Nan can leave their doors unlocked and rest easy about their personal property.  While it may not make them wealthier, I am sure that they are left richer for it.

Uttaradit –> Nan

Our adventures in public transit brought us to Uttaradit, a town somewhere between Bangkok and Nan (but definitely not our intended destination).  At 8:00 a.m., in a moment made especially surreal by sleep deprivation (caused by an unhelpful combination of all-night karaoke “entertainment” and overused air-conditioning), the entire station ground to a sudden halt.  All the TVs suddenly switched to images of waving flags and happy Thais in front of elegant government buildings.  All the waiting passengers leapt to their feet.  Loudspeakers from somewhere unseen started blaring the king’s song, and everyone started singing.

I'd make a snide comment about monarchy, but you can get arrested for that.

They are really into that guy.

– – – – –

I celebrated my arrival in Nan by trying to burn-off a few calories acquired from binging on Roti (absurdly delicious crepe-like things, on which you can get nutella, or peanut butter, or chocolate… or all three).  Jackie gave me detailed instructions for getting to the tow-path along the river, but I “opted” to go exploring in all three cardinal directions that did not lead to the river.  I find that getting lost is the best way to explore a new place, anyway.

Upon my return, I walked to the corner store to buy some bottled water.  I think because I’ve been in tourist-y areas, I hadn’t yet fully experienced Thailand as “The Land of Smiles.”  This woman, however, seemed to think everything I did was hilarious.  The way I opened the refrigerator, reached into my pocket, fumbled to find the right coin were all cause for laughter and smiles.  I wish I could be that entertaining in the west.

– – – – –

1- 10 – 10

If—one year ago—I were asked to design a perfect day with Jackie, I probably would not have envisioned a day spent motorcycling around Northern Thailand.  Despite being far off my radar screen for perfect dates, though, I can’t think of any way to spend today that would have made me happier.

Just one week ago, I was in a place that had sun.

We rented a motorbike in Nan and headed east towards the national parks.  At first, the terrain was flat, but after about 50 kilometers, we started rising above the rice paddies and water buffalo into the mountains.

On the way out of Nan.

Eventually, we sputtered up to Doi Phu Kha, which, like most of the beautiful places in the world, doesn’t lend itself particularly well to being photographed.

Nice location for a Wat.

The other side of the mountain brought us to Bo Klua, a village nestled in a ravine.  We grabbed noodle soup from a tiny restaurant run by an adorable old lady, and visited an 800-year-old salt mine.

Apparently, in Asia, you always have to make this face in pictures.
Mmmm, delicious... salt?

The ride home, though, was my favorite part.  Motorbikes are a fabulous way to travel, because you get to combine the convenience and speed of modern transportation with the sense that you’re actually outside doing something.  (I’m not sure why motorbikes aren’t more popular in the U.S., since they seem to be big in Europe, Africa, and Asia.)  I should that Jackie did a fabulous job driving, getting us up hills which the engine could barely conquer and dodging all two cars we saw on the 100 kilometer ride.  We made it home around sunset, in time to visit a Wat and grab green curry with tofu from the night market.

I had the luxury of taking pictures while Jackie had to figure out how to get a tiny bike up a mountain.
Hundreds of little buddhas! I feel like it would be sacrilege to call them cute.

One of Jackie’s roommates’ friends asked us which bars we had visited on Ko Phi Phi.  When I responded, “Uh, none,” I could see in his face that he thought we were lame.  I, for one, feel pretty smug: this is the best vacation ever.

Ko Phi Phi –> Bangkok

1 – 5 – 09

We were woken up in the middle of the night by rain pounding on our corregated metal roof (which is of somewhat questionable integrity).  I guess any form of extreme weather is a little scary when you’re staying on an island on which 2,000 people were killed by the tsunami (many of them tourists—sometimes nature isn’t discriminating).  There’s even a creepy shell of an abandoned resort just a few metres down the beach from us.

By comparison, getting a morning wake-up call from a troupe of monkeys was far more exciting.

– – – – –

Jackie and I left our bungalow in the morning and started trekking through the jungle up to the island’s main overlook.  While it was just a few kilometers, the path was entirely grown over.  I learned during our climb that geckos have a surprisingly loud call, given how small they are: I was convinced we were being stalked by dragons.

We reached the top, and I for one was not disappointed.  There are moments were nature strikes me as simply absurd.

Coming down off the mountain into the main village felt like going from Shangri-La to Sodom and Gomorrah.  There was a paved path on the other side of the overlook, though the steep climb cut out most of the island’s visitors.  Still, by the food of the trail, everything was dirty, shoddily built, and crowded.

I try not to be elitest about travelling.  Personally, I don’t see much point in traveling thouands of miles in order to get drunk with a bunch of Western college students (it’s easier done at home, the whole affair costs less, and I get to sleep in my own bed), but I don’t particularly begrudge those who do.  That said, Ko Phi Phi is absolutely disgusting.  Despite that every guidebook cautions about the conservatism of Thai culture, people are bathing topless and staggering around drunkenly by mid-day.  The beaches are crowded with people and trash.  The island is small enough that you can smell the overflowing landfill from just about anywhere.  It’s pretty much my own private hell.

It guess it does bother me that such phenomenal natural beauty is being so thoroughly shat-upon en masse.  Obviously, this isn’t entirely the responsibility of the European visitors, though I do feel as though the Thai residents probably see caring from the island as a lost cause and as such jump in on the degredation.  When the tsunami wiped the island clean, there was apparently a lot of hope that the rebuilding would take place more thoughtfully.  AAApparently the allure of profits has led to more of the same.

In summary, while Jackie wanted to wander around the village for the afternoon, I just wanted to flee.  We grabbed a water taxi and enjoyed a relaxing evening in relative quiet isolation.  Live and let live, I guess.

– – – – –

1 – 6 – 09

I am always disturbed by deference and unsolicited subservience shown to me simply because I am white.  I sensed it in Uganda when hungry farmers would save food—which we had bought for them to eat—for me, or here when an elderly woman wanted to give me her seat on the train.  Now that we’re in the “touristy” part of Thailand, it’s even more evident: everyone wants to “serve.”

I’m currently sitting in a coffee shop on Ko Phi Phi while Jackie submits some applications for next year.  The television is turned to the Asian version of CNBC; it’s business news, but with the Dow Jones as a footnote.  There’s a certain self-confidence to it that I appreciate, a sense that, while at the moment the East has to play the West’s game, eventually the situation will be reversed.  I imagine the days when Thais will defer to Americans are probably numbered.

– – – – –

One of my favorite things about travelling is moments where I feel like I manage to get “the deal.”  Jackie and I wanted to go snorkeling, but the options were overwhelming and substantively indistinguishable.  How many islands did we want to go to, three or four?  In what order would we like to visit them?  Do we want the “big longtail” or “small longtail” boat?  Is it important that our operator offers “fruit” in their advertisement?  Is “offering fruit” code for “not shitty?”  Wandering through Phi Phi village, we felt distinctly indecisive, until one restaurant owner came out and plugged the “P.P. Garden Home Tour.”  Generally, I’m skeptical of anyone aggressively selling me something (though I’m generally enough of a sucker to buy anyway), but I had a hunch that this guy was genuine.

It was wonderful when I turned out to be right.  Our tour was really fantastic: we snorkeled all over, (sort-of) avoided the crowds at Maya Bay (as in, the beach featured in The Beach, that bad movie with Leonardo DiCaprio that no one saw but everyone pretends to be really enthusiastic about once they’re on Ko Phi Phi and can go see it), and capped it all off with a gorgeous sunset.  Our guide was constantly explaining why his tour was better in little way—how he chose a superior route and took us to the key sites at the best times.  While I’m sure part of it was marketing (“tell your friends about P.P Garden Home Tours”), it was also cool how proud he was of his little operation.

– – – – –

The length of our tour left us in Phi Phi Village long past the point where our hotel’s ferry was still operating.  I felt a strong need to get out of the village before the debauchery got going in earnest, so we chartered a taxi for a somewhat exhorbitant price (even by Western standards).  Ultimately, though, it was worth every penny: once we were out on the water and away from the town, it was pitch dark (our boat didn’t have a light).  The stars were fabulous.

– – – – –

1 – 7 – 09

Woke up to a massive tropical storm.  The nearby islands were swallowed up by the clouds and fog, and by the time we made it to the hotel restaurant, we were drenched.  It used to be a running joke in our family that any time I went camping, rain would follow.  Many a scout backpacking trip was made miserable by this pattern, but unlike my ten-year-old self, though, I didn’t much mind.

The weather cleared up by afternoon, so Jackie and I rented a kayak and paddled north.  We were quickly rewarded by a troop of monkeys fishing for crabs at the water’s edge.  We drifted towards shore and sat watching them.  I figured they must have been pretty accustomed to humans, because for fifteen minutes we got to watch them and they ignored us.  At some point, though, something we did piqued their interest: the females and juveniles fled into the forest, and all the males came to the shore.  They just sat there, staring at us.  There was something intense and all-to-human about it, so we paddled on.

Around the bend there was an extremely posh resort.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, but since everything else man-made on Ko Phi Phi has been such utter trash, it came a bit out of the blue.  I know I come from the “class” of people who patronizes these sort of places, but I’m really glad our family vacations involved campgrounds and macaroni and cheese cooked on a Coleman stove.   We surreptitiously pulled up our kayak on the beach.  While my rebel side might have appreciated a confrontation with resort security, the seersucker bathing suit Jackie gave me meant that I didn’t exactly stand out.  We did go for a swim in their negative-edge pool, though, so I’ve preserved a bit of street cred.

Paddle just a bit further down-island and there was a shanty town perched on the rocks.  Presumably, it’s where the cooks, maids, and bartenders live.  Walkable from the resort, but situated as to be just out of sight.  Apparently a lot of the people who work on Phi Phi are “sea gypsies,” who were completely pulverized by the tsunami and have only more recently settled down.  I’m always sort of amazed these situations of extreme inequality can persist over time.  How do you wake up in a shanty and work all day in a cabana and not mug someone or swipe a laptop?  I suppose I could interpret this as a sign of the intrinsic goodness of humanity, or maybe just an indication that our perverse system of poverty and prosperity, weirdly, is actually stable.  The revolution most definitely is not imminent.

– – – – –

1 – 8 – 10

I realize that this is one of my favorite things to say over and over again, but wow you can get wireless everywhere these days (except in my house at Oxford—not just that we don’t have it, but it’s apparently NOT ALLOWED).  I imagine five years ago going on vacation with a laptop would be unthinkably pointless; now it’s obligatory.

I only mention this because, today, I gave in to the allure of checking facebook and logged on for the first time in a week.  And, of course, if you check facebook, you might as well check twitter, and, and, that ultimate vacation-ruiner, e-mail.  Somewhere buried in my inbox was a message from my department, reminding me that I am presenting on my non-existent thesis topic in second week… which is about 15 days from now.

Maybe I should just improve my self-control, but it seems almost criminal that after two plane rides, three buses, and a boat, I should even have the option of internet.  Isn’t the point of desert islands that you are isolated and unreachable?

– – – – –

Our trip back from Ko Phi Phi took us through Bangkok, where I got a chance to experience one of the city’s notorious traffic jams.  Fortunately, though, our driver kept us entertained: upon getting in, he asked us where we were from, and, when we said “America,” he declared “Ah, you will like this” and put in (apparently) his America Mix.  For the next hour, we were regaled by truly godawful Thai/English disco/pop fusion (best line: “Rasputin, Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine”).

Ordinarily, low quality disco would have caused me to throw myself into traffic, but here, I appreciate it a bit more.  Life in Thailand has a soundtrack.  They blare music in buses (all night), taxis, restaurants, and just about every other public space conceivable.  I’m not sure they have a strong appreciate for subtlety or appreciate a monochromatic existence.  As a person who puts headphones on to walk down the hall to the bathroom, I can definitely appreciate it.

Chiang Mai –> Phuket –> Ao Phang Nga –> Ko Phi Phi

1 – 2 – 10

Back on the road today.  I started with a brief run around the perimeter of the city moat (I’m hoping to return in some semblance of fitness for rowing tryouts), which we followed with one last trip to get mango sticky-rice.  Afterward, we took a Tuk-Tuk to the airport and caught a flight to Phuket.

Phuket is an overdeveloped peninsula in the south of Thailand, where billboards advertise elephant trapeze shows and hotel brochures only sort-of attempt to mask the real meaning of their offers of Thai women for “companionship.”  Fortunately, Jackie, a master trip planner, had us on a bus away from the crowds within the hour.

Ao Phang Na is apparently on the tourist trail, but evidently not a frequent stop.  All the signs are in Thai, and after having all the standard modern conveniences in Chiang Mai, our hotel here is a bit closer to roughing it: there are quite literally holes in the wall (we paid for, and got, air conditioning, but apparently that doesn’t mean that you’ll be in a room where air conditioning will do any good).

At dinnertime, we walked down the main drag of town, which seemed completely deserted until we reached a New Years carnival.  There were games, all sorts of crappy prizes, and, of course, a large stage… on which people were singing karoke.  For her own amusement, Jackie sent me off to try to find food, but since I can’t say “I’m vegetarian” in Thai and can’t tell which mass of fried noodles is pork-free, she eventually had to take charge.  Naturally, we got sticky rice.

– – – – –

I think I’ve figured out the key to authentic Thai cuisine.  Surprisingly, my favorite Thai restaurants in the U.S. aren’t too far off: they just need to add a lot more sugar.

– – – – –

1 – 3 – 10

Well, that was the best $40 I’ve ever spent.  Today we booked a longtail boat to take us out into Phang Nga Bay.

The trip started with weaving through narrow corridors of water between impenetrable walls of mangroves.  When we emerged, we were in the shadows of huge limestone cliffs that felt like something out of Lord of the Rings.

We stopped to go canoeing.  I was initially a bit disappointed that “canoeing” meant “a Thai guy will paddle you around.”  I finally got a chance to grab the paddle, though, impressing everyone with my seafaring skills… that is, the guy immediately took my paddle back when we almost ran into a cliff.

Mid-day, we stopped at “Jame [sic] Bond Island,” a protruding formation featured in The Man With The Golden Gun. Given how far it seemed like we were from, well, everything, it was a bit of a surprise how many people were there.  It’s hard for me to be resentful of tourists since I am, in fact, a tourist.  This is genuinely one of the most beautiful places in the world, so I can’t blame others for wanting to see it.

– – – – –

If there were an award for capitalist ingenuity, I know who I’d give it to.  During our little canoeing trip, we slipped under a low-lying cliff and came out into a gorgeous stone depression.  And there, waiting for us, miles from anything, was a guy in a boat selling coconuts filled with juice.

Second place goes to the guys who managed to get ice cream to James Bond Island, where there is no electricity or permanent settlement.

– – – – –

Evening brought us to a Muslim fishing village, built on stilts on the rim of a tiny island.  Packed during the day with visitors—as the miles of stands selling t-shirts and fake pearls attest—it was almost completely silent and dark at night.  We were staying in a tiny wooden bungalow, and could watch the tide coming in and out through the gaps in the slats of our floor.

Practically the only other English speakers on the island were some British tourists, who invited us to play scattegories.  I’ve always loved backpacking because of the way having a limited amount of stuff forces you to interact with people, and I loved our isolation for the same reason.

The night concluded with a yellow moon rising over the cliffs.  Having no electricity is awesome because you get to go to bed early.

– – – – –

It’s days like these that make me sad to think that—in an actually sustainable world—these kind of experiences would have to become much rarer.  Travel is so physically destructive in terms of the resources it uses, but also mentally broadening.  Maybe jet-setting around the world will have to be curtailed, but I do hope that in eco-topia, we get rid of our houses and cars before our travels.

– – – – –

1 – 4 – 10

We woke up at 5:30 a.m. to watch the sunrise.  While Jackie assures me that she’s seen more beautiful ones in her time in Thailand, I was duly awed.

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It always takes me some time to adjust to the way blatant animal cruelty is so visible and open in the developing world (not that it’s not awful in the West, just that it’s hidden).

Two nights ago, my heart sank when I saw some sort of sea crustacean wriggling—alive—over an open flame at the market.  This morning, I went down to the pier and saw, in the belly of a longtail, a mass of fish and other critters—some sort of bycatch—gasping out their last.  After sunrise, a pair of fishermen came down and started sorting through them.  Some they put into buckets, while most they threw back into the water.  By this point, of course, most of them were dead, and their carcasses just floated off.

Our tactics as animal rights activists in the west often center around trying to force people to acknowledge that the meat on their plate was once a living, breathing animal.  We assume that, once they see this, they will think twice about eating it.  This strategy flies completely in the face of what you can see in practically any place other than the U.S., where it is completely obvious that meat was once an animal because people buy and cook it in a form not that different from the one it took while alive.  Thai’s see their future meat all the time and often kill it themselves, yet seem completely undeterred in their carnivory, Buddhism be damned.

Humans have such a great capacity to be indifferent to cruelty, one that definitely cannot just be overcome by presenting people with gruesome images or “the facts.”

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Our tour brought us back to Ao Phang Nga.  Our plan was to next take a bus to Krabi, from where we could get a boat to Ko Phi Phi.  Upon entering the bus station, though, we were told that the 10:30 bus—the only one that would get us to our boat on time—was full.

But wait… the British couple we had been travelling with said there was another bus—a second class bus—that we hadn’t been told about, and they had just bought tickets.  We went back and asked, but were told there were no tickets.  The British couple told us they had been told the same; we just had to ask for standing tickets.  We finally convinced her to sell us tickets, at which time a bus started pulling out of the coach park, saying it was bound for Krabi, even though it was 10:05.  The cashier told us to get on it, but the attendant said our tickets weren’t valid, so we went and exchanged them.

All in all, we must have bought and exchanged our tickets about four times.  The bus itself was quite fancy, at least in that it had very cute lacy curtains and a substantial stuffed animal collection in the windshield.  Next to a driver, there was an employee whose sole job was to manage the in-drive entertainment, which, of course, was karaoke.

By comparison to the tiny bus terminal, the boat station felt like a modern airport.  But, there were still a number of completely senseless steps in boarding, which culminated in us and about 200 other confused farang mobbing two attendants who were exchanging our tickets for nearly identical tickets, which we needed for some un-apparent reason.  This makes sense to someone.

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We arrived at Ko Phi Phi and were immediately surrounded by vendors trying to convince us to buy hotels/water taxis/underwater cameras/tattoos/scuba tours.  Fortunately, Jackie had found us a place on the opposite side of the island, away from Ko Phi Phi town, which seems pretty crappy.

I was a little disappointed when I saw the state of our bungalow.  I guess after Uganda—where 5,000 shillings ($2) gets you a top notch room with electricity and a lock—I was banking on $20 getting us regular power and maybe even a functional bathroom.

You don’t go to Ko Phi Phi for luxury, though.  The fact that we found a quiet place thirty feet from the ocean during high season on a notoriously crazy island is pretty fantastic, and it has a with a hammock at that.

Chiang Mai

12 – 31 – 09

Ah, this I missed.  In Uganda, boda-boda motorcycle drivers were a constant source of amusement, providing opportunities to hone my communication-through-hand-gesture skills and affording me an opportunity to see new places I had never intended on visiting.  In Thailand, cheap transport is via songthaew (a truck with benches in the back) and Tuk-Tuk (a tricycle/motorbike/rickshaw).

Our first day in Chiang Mai, we hired a songthaew to take us up to Doi Su Thep, one of the region’s most gorgeous Wats.  Unsurprisingly, there was a decent amount of haggling involved, plus the driver’s obligatory attempt to convince us that we should actually go to the “Tiger Kingdom” or “Elephant Sanctuary,” both of which were coincidentally further away and incidentally would cost more to get to.

Eventually, he drove us towards the Wat, but halfway there announced we could go no further until two hours later.  It’s hard to think we were getting ripped off, since he asked for only a fraction of what we had promised.  We looked around and found ourselves at the local zoo.  Obeying my go-with-the-flow survival strategy of traveling, we decided that providence was telling us we should go see the baby pandas and went in.

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I’ve heard a few people complain to me that Thailand is really touristy, which I suppose has some truth to it.  There is definitely a massive infrastructure for tourists, from guest houses and cheesy “cultural theme parks” to massage parlors.  What I like about “touristy” Thailand, though, that at least some of the tourists are Thais themselves.  The zoo was packed, not with farang but Thais on holiday.  Later in the day, when we climbed up to Doi Su Thep, we found a Wat that was itself a veritable zoo, but mostly with people visiting as part of a holiday pilgrimage.

I realize that practically half of these journal entries thus far have compared Thailand to Uganda, which is to some extent a baseless and arbitrary juxtaposition.  Everything is relative, though, and that’s my frame of reference.  In this case, the contrast is really clear.  Among my employees in Uganda, few had ever been to a National Park; everything there was meant for outsiders.  It’s a refreshing that, while I’m enjoying what Thailand has to offer, so too are at least some of the Thai.

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New Years is definitely not my favorite holiday.  Although the turn of the millennium was pretty awesome (my family hid from Y2K in the bottom of the Grand Canyon), and I have a certain appreciation for the absurdity of Flagstaff’s Giant Pinecone Drop, I find New Years celebrations, in general, to be pretty forced.  What are we celebrating again?  A good excuse to get drunk?  Do we need a holiday to do that?

This was definitely my favorite New Years ever, and while that may not be saying much in the context of my general dislike of the holiday, I think it could stand up to some stiffer competition.  The night started with us exploring a huge street market and continued when we were joined by another PiA fellow—from Korea—for dinner.  Afterward, we walked to the Tae Pae gate, the entrance to the old city.  There, a Thai lady-boy band in Santa hats sang Michael Jackson covers while the square that spanned the city moat devolved into a giant party.

The main event, though, were Kom Lai: giant paper lanterns with wicks at the bottom that, when heated, lifted up into the sky.  We bought a handful and, after a few attempts that culminated in flaming paper falling on the crowd and a statement in Thai from the stage that seemed to be about the ‘stupid farang,’ we succeeded in adding a few lanterns to the twinkling mass above us.  With a countdown in Thai, it was officially 2553.

We and a few other farang formed a circle and entertained the bemused Thai crowd with some “Western” dancing, until we returned to our room and collapsed.

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1 – 1 – 10

Our second full day in Chiang Mai passed in gloriously lazy fashion.  We woke up and went to the corner restaurant, which is quickly making me a mango-sticky-rice addict.  Afterward, we hired a Tuk-Tuk who took as around the ruins of Wiang Kum Kam, the partially abandoned14th century district of the city.

Afterward, we went to get messages and spent the evening wandering the night market.  Not bad.

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One of the things that has been particularly “enlightening” about my trip so far (pardon the pun) has been the opportunity for an up-close look at Buddhism (or the Thai variant, Theravada).  As a disclaimer, I should note that the number of things I actually knew (or, actually, even now know) about Buddhism could be counted on one (fingerless) hand.  My ignorance did not, of course, prevent me from having some preconceptions.  I always thought, for instance, that Buddhism was simple and un-materialistic, less evangelistic and institutionalized than the Abrahamic faiths.

So far, I would say these assumptions were far of the mark.  Wats are everywhere here, and since the compounds are often the most gorgeous part of the urban landscape, we’ve visited a half-dozen already.  In some ways, they are indeed peaceful places: beautiful architecture being watched over by serene statues while monks softly chant scriptures, with gongs and chimes ringing out occasionally.  Some, however, have  less rosy elements: a few we’ve visited, for example, have large and gruesome diorama displays of some form of Buddhist hell.

Most striking, though, is how strong the commercial component of the Wats is.  Inside the temples, vendors—often monks themselves—sell various incenses and curios, all tool for “making merit.”  People leave gifts of twenty or one-hundred baht notes in front of statues.  Rather than being put to the side, the bills form unavoidably obstructive displays that seem to remind everyone else that salvation comes through giving.

I guess the story of Jesus entering the Temple and driving out the money-lenders is sufficiently engrained even in my agnostic soul that I find this commercialism somewhat disconcerting.  Even in ultra-touristy Notre Dame, the gift shop is pushed to the side, a sign of some lingering guilt about mixing religion and money-making.  I suppose that if I had ever visited a mega-church, my perception might be different.  Really, I’m more discovering that Buddhism is in many ways familiar; I guess religions are all flawed in similar ways.