Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Myanmar

From that day on, Sam called twice a day.  First thing in the morning, when he woke up and late at night, right before going to sleep.  We were saddened by his persistency but knew there was nothing we could do.  It became a ritual.  When the phone rang in the morning, the girl nearest to the phone talked to Sam for a few seconds and then immediately handed it over to his “girlfriend”.  He pleaded to come back to Erawan but we knew our business there was finished and we couldn’t give him a chance to hope.  Since neither party spoke each other languages, the conversations were minimal. 

- Good Morning Sam
- Good Morning __. How are you?
- I’m good. And you?
- I’m fine. Thank you. I miss you. I love you.
- I miss you too.
- Are you happy?
- Yes. Are you?
- No. I miss you, I miss you, I miss you…

It was heartbreaking to hear the kid’s sad voice.  Alas, we had to move on.

Natalie’s time in Thailand was quickly approaching an end.  But we still had one more place to see before her departure.  An old city of Ayutthaya, a now UNESCO World Heritage Site that once was a separate kingdom. 

Ayutthaya was everything we imagined Thailand to be before our arrival.  Ancient stones whispered stories of old glory taking us back in time to honorable warriors and Buddhist rites.  We marveled at every citadel, statue, ruin and carving. 

Soon we were back in Bangkok.  We decided to spend as least amount of time as possible in the busy and polluted city.  Giving ourselves only enough time to stop by a huge market to buy souvenirs, meet with Valentin and take a ride on a water taxi to visit a Laying Buddha statue.

The next morning we were parting with another member of our “band of sisters”.  The parting was upsetting but we knew we would be seeing each other soon.  Natalie was planning to visit me in Tokyo in the spring, during my last few weeks in Japan.  She called us as soon as she landed.  And from that day on, she also called us every day (except unlike Sam, only once a day).  Spending two weeks in Thailand, bonded us even more than all of our trips to Italy, Greece and China.  We missed her terribly and she felt our absence ever so greatly.  It was only Olga and I left.  We had another two weeks in Thailand; deciding not to waste our time, we headed north.

Our destination was Sukhothai, another ancient city with many marvelous statues and ruins.  But before Sukhothai, we had to make an emergency stop in a hospital. 

When we stayed in Bangkok a few days prior, we rented a room on a second floor of a Pakistani restaurant.  The room was shabby but the sheets were clean. Or so we thought.  Olga woke up in the morning with strange bites all over her feet.  They were burning and itching.  Since neither Natalie nor I were bitten, we thought it was mosquito bites and decided to let them be.  But two days later, Olga started to limp. 
Entrance to the 2nd floor...through the Wash Room

We quickly found an emergency room and were taken to the doctor.  The Thai doctor spoke excellent English.  To our great surprise, we found out that many years ago, he did his residency in a university in the Bronx.  What a small world we thought.  In a small town of Chai Nat, in Thailand, we found a Thai doctor from the Bronx.  He had a few laughs explaining to us that many tourists complain about unusual insect bites when they come to Thailand but gave Olga four different prescriptions which eventually healed her feet but made my “GPS” (Olga) incompetent since one of the medications had antihistamine in it and made her drowsy.

By Sukhothai, Olga’s feet were a lot better but since she was still limping a little, we decided to rent bikes to see the large area of the ancient city.  The city was as beautiful as Ayutthaya. 

By now, we were only eighty kilometers from Myanmar (Burma) border.  Someone told us that the road to the border was exciting and had plenty of things to see.   We set off early in the morning, stopping by a National Park with beautiful waterfall and largest Krabach tree in Thailand.  Then we drove to a small village hidden in the mountains where we got lost.  And after getting help from the locals we were back on the main road.   

The closer we drove to Myanmar, the curvier and steeper the road became.  Trucks were driving at snail speed rounding dangerous corners. 

Suddenly, we saw three young monks standing on a side of the road and with their thumbs up.  Not believing what I just saw, I instinctively continued driving. 

- Olga, were the monks hitchhiking or am I going crazy?
- Weird, but they looked like they were hitchhiking.
- All those people who picked me up in Japan.  It’s time to pay it forward.

We pulled over.  Hastily cleaned up the car and turned around. 

- Where are you guys going?  Mae Sot. Perfect, that’s where we heading. Get in.

And that’s how I ended up with three monks in the back of my car.  It was almost unreal.  I kept turning around and looking in my rear-view mirror back to confirm I wasn’t dreaming.  The monks spoke decent English and we chatted for a bit.  However, soon they asked us to pull over and told us they were getting off.  We weren’t near our destination.  Puzzled, we asked why they were getting off and they said they were meeting two more monks across the road.  I don’t know if it was my driving, my staring, our numerous questions or the truth about two more monks but we parted our ways. 

Finally we made it to Mae Sot, a small town with a popular market and the last outpost on the Thai-Myanmar border. 

We didn’t realize how close we were to the border until we drove up to a bridge and a security officer stopped us.  (watch video)

- Hello. Where do you go?
- Straight.
- ?
- We are going straight. What’s there?
- Burma.
- Oh.
- Please turn around.
- Can’t we go to Burma?
- Please park the car.

They were willing to sell us exit visas.  But we didn’t know the procedure or whether we would be able to get back in so we parked nearby and walked over to the border.  The border was a dried up canal patrolled by armed soldiers.  However, we saw people walking back and forth continuously.  Not wanting to take our chances, we stayed on the Thai side of the canal.  The canal was doted along with benches full of people, selling cigarettes and other souvenirs.  We called them “Duty Free Shops”.  Hey, they were on the border. 

We didn’t spend too much time in Mae Sot.  Checking out the famous market and not finding anything of interest, we soon were driving back.  Our destination was 320 kilometers (200 miles) away. Chiang Mai.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Elephant Camp and Sam

As promised, we stopped by Sam’s house in the morning before leaving Erawan Resort. However, Sam was still asleep; not wanting to wake up the young “lover” and have another confrontation, we bid the family final good-bye and drove away. 

Our next destination was Sai Yok ElephantCcamp only an hour away. However, poorly navigating in curvy and steep roads we went in completely different direction and lost two hours. The mood in the car was somber. No one talked. Everyone was thinking of Sam. Eventually we found the camp and for a little while forgot about Sam. 

The elephants were beautiful. Large gray animals looked proud and unconquerable. 

We were thoroughly mistaken and soon found out the harsh reality. 

When we paid the guide for the ride, he took our elephant on the bitten path. Riding through narrow paths into the water and bending smooth corners, he followed the guide’s orders. At one point, the guide got off the elephant to take our pictures and when he got back on, the elephant started to blow air through his trunk, making rumbling sounds and refused to go. Yelling at the old mammoth, the guide grabbed a short wooden stick with a sharp metal hook and hit the animal with all his might on the head. We screamed. Feeling worse than the dirt under a rock for paying and enjoying the ride based on animal cruelty, we sent lots of good energies to the elephant, gently caressing his rough skin and whispering words of regret and encouragement. The animal calmed down. The rest of the ride was a pure torment. All we wanted was to get off the succumbed elephant and ask him for forgiveness. Luckily the ride was over shortly. As soon as we got off, we looked at our elephant. One of his eyes was almost white; he was old and half-blind. Barely holding back tears, we thanked him for being patient with us and expressed our sorrow for abusing him. He was moved away a moment later. 

We stayed just a bit longer, caressing babies and feeding them bananas. But none of it was making us feel any better and so we left. Trying to get to our next destination we got lost again. The mood was unanimously morbid. The animal cruelty we witnessed hang vividly in our minds. The thoughts of Sam came back. We imagined him waking up in the morning and when finding out that he missed us, getting on his motorcycle and being so upset, riding so fast and getting into an accident. Our imagination grew dim pictures. I stopped the car and pulled over. What are we going to do? This whole day is horrible. Nothing at all is going right. Should we go back to Erawan? The vote was 2 against 1. One of the girls thought it was unfair to go back and give Sam a chance for hope, the other two saw everything that went wrong that day as signs of unfinished business at Erawan. We turned around. 

When we drove into Sam’s driveway, his family was thoroughly surprised. We demanded to see Sam. Sam came out looking sleepy, confused but calm. We got him into the car and drove to the lake where we first met. Not knowing how to communicate to him that we were worried about him, we sat silently and observed him. Sam didn’t show any signs of broken heart or sadness. In the end, that’s all we wanted to know. That the kid was ok. 

We spent the whole evening with Sam, sitting quietly by the lake and talking amongst ourselves. Later, his 24 year old brother, Lot, and 10 year old sister joined us. Lot brought beer and soon the alcohol loosened the tension. We were laughing, playing around, arm-wrestling and drawing pictures on a napkin to communicate. When the time became too late, the family started to worry and came over to the lake to check out what was going on. At that point, I was putting the young sister and Lot into the back of our car (Lot was too drunk to drive his scooter). Sam took one of us on the back of Lot’s scooter and we all drove home. When we got into the driveway, we were met by a large angry-looking man (we called him Sumo Wrestler). Soon we were surrounded by the whole family. Some looked confused, others angry and Sen (60 year old relative who accompanied us at the waterfall the day before) smiled and offered us a beer. Sam and Lot asked us to stay but the “Sumo Wrestler” waved at us and said good-bye. We knew we overstayed our welcome, quickly got in the car and drove away. 

It was a rough day. We went through a wide range of emotions. Sadness, anger, upset, worry, happiness, laughter, fear. When we finally settled in a hotel, showered and got into bed, the phone rang.

"I miss you", - said Sam in a very sad voice...

Floating Nun and Thai Family

The Floating Nun didn’t disappoint, well Olga was a bit unsatisfied.  When a 200 pound woman dressed in white neared the corner, we were a bit surprised.  The brochure mentioned a tiny old woman who was able to sit in the water for a long period of time without moving.  This nun was much younger and we couldn’t call her tiny even if we wanted to.  Silently she put her hands in prayer and then proceeded into the water.  Making graceful occult signs with her hands, she floated in the water only half-way submerged.  She was beautiful to watch.  The feel of complete peace and unity with the Universe reflected in each of her movement.  The audience was silent.  Thai people are very religious and seeing a holy person performing “magic” with the blessing of Buddha made them revere in awe. The reason Olga was disappointed because she thought there was no trick to the nun’s float.  At the nearest beach she proceeded to prove us her point but couldn’t hold her balance in water long enough.  We had a few laughs and gave the nun her due.

After getting lost several times and wasting hundreds of miles going back and forth, we finally entered Erawan Resort where the infamous waterfall was located.  Alas, we came too late and the waterfall was closing soon.  The security at the entrance told us to come back early the next day to take full advantage of time needed to explore all seven tiers of the waterfall.  A bit disappointed, we drove away and soon found a quiet and beautiful lake nearby where we decided to relax for a while before going out to search for lodging. 

A small floating pier welcomed us with a soft squeak of old wood.  The weather was warm and our heads were weary; Olga and Natalie laid down on the pier and I started to write in my journal. 

Right next to us, a large Thai family was having a party.  Lots of food and booze were accompanied by laughter and splashes of water.  Next things we knew, they were offering us beer and food and asking to join their company.  We started to “talk” and soon became quite fond of our new friends.  Olga and Natalie were challenged to jump in the water and when they accepted the challenge, our initiation was completed.  We were part of the family.  They were impressed with our stories and travels and offered their young member as a guide to our Erawan Waterall trip the next day.  They also made a few calls and got us a cheap room in a beautiful resort right next to the waterfall.  And the next thing we knew, we were invited to their house for dinner. 

The dinner was superb.  The owner of the house made a few runs to the open-air market nearby and bought fresh meat and vegetables.  There were so many dishes and they were so delicious, we completely stuffed ourselves.  We also found out that the owner’s wife lived in Japan for a long while many years ago and spoke very good Japanese.  My Japanese was as “good” as their English and our communication increased ever so slightly. 

The evening was wonderful.  We played with kids.  Talked to adults about Thailand.  Showed them pictures of our travels.  Drank beer.  And exchanged presents.  The atmosphere was friendly, relaxed and family like.
Kids, cooking their own dinner

The next day we picked up Sam, our 17 year old guide, at his house and were off to the waterfall.  At the entrance, we met Sen, his 60 year old relative who decided to accompany us as well.  The waterfall was stunning.  Ember color of water glowed teasingly through sparking rays of the sun.  And even abundance of tourists didn’t sway us from entering clear waters.  Each tier, exposed new wonders and beauty.  We were thoroughly smitten. 
 Our guides: Sen and Sam
At one of the rest-stops, we met a European man in his 60s who was sitting on a tangled web of roots of a beautiful tree which was wrapped in holly yellow fabric that is usually worn by monks.  With his feet slightly treading the water, he looked peaceful and wise.  The Brit turned out to be a fascinating narrator and we spent an hour talking to him about alternative healing (which he practiced), his 30 year long journey across the world, “holly” union of marriage and relationships.  Wanting to spend more time talking to him but feeling bad for Sam and Sen who patiently waited by our side, we had to let the Wondering Shaman go. 

We spent most afternoon in the waterfall.  Swimming around with nibbling fishes, sliding down big rocks into cool water, relaxing under warm rays and trying to communicate with Sam and Sen who didn’t speak a word of English.  After the waterfall, Sam took us to a large cave.  Barely lit by a gasoline lantern, the cave allowed our imagination to run wild.  Each stalactite transformed from an ordinary limestone into animals, flowers and fish of all sizes and shapes.  We saw skulls, sank ships and hidden treasures.  The cave was magical. 

We spent the evening with Sam and lots of beer by the lake of our resort.  By then, Sam has fallen hard for one of group members and when we dropped him off at his house late at night, he didn’t want to let go.  Holding tight the hand of the woman of his heart, he looked like a lost puppy.  His family made jokes about the “couple” but he wasn’t a least bit mad.  The only thing that was upsetting him was that he had to say good-bye.  His chosen woman realized the absurdity of the situation and rushed her friends to go but not before Sam made her promise to come back in the morning to say proper good-bye.

If only she knew how quickly and deeply young hearts fall in love…