Return to the Elephant Tower

December 25, 2006

The Swiss - Moroccans stared at their watches and muttered words about schedules and boat departures. We were standing in a dusty parking lot waiting for a mini-bus to take us back to Trang after having been floated from Ko Libong on a long tail. The couple were going to Malaysia today and had an appointment with a boat leaving from Satun in the late afternoon. They had no chance of making the boat, but didn't yet realize this. I sat in the shade of a tree, not especially concerned with time tables. Anna and Brian, also heading to Satun, seemed to have lost the urgency of time as well. Our boat hadn't left until 10 am, two hours later than the couple expected, when the tide came in and it was possible for boats to land and depart with people in them. The Swiss - Moroccans were delightful, fun people. They just hadn't adjusted to a place that doesn't run with Western style timetables. The mini bus driver wasn't going to leave for another forty minutes unless more fares showed up to make to the run more profitable. Even then, I knew he'd drive slowly through towns, honking and waving in an attempt to pick up more fares. No, they would not make their boat today.

The ride to Trang played out as expected, with the driver never breaking 40 kilometers per hour. He made several detours to small villages to pick up other passengers, and drop them off in other spots. The Swiss - Moroccans urged him to speed, but as they spoke not a word of Thai, and he not a word of English, their efforts were in vain. After two hours we reached the Trang bus stop, bustling with activity and with nary a sign in English. I inquired at a window about a bus to Nakhon Si Thammarat, a provincial capital on the Gulf of Thailand, but got only head shakes. My sister and Brian, along with the couple, tried to get the fastest bus to Satun, not realizing that there was only one bus, so all options were equally fast. A tuk-tuk driver who spoke some broken English tried to help them, getting them in the right line, and then helped me. There was a bus to Nakhon Si, but it left from elsewhere. He'd take me. I hugged my sister and said my farewells, wishing her and Brian a safe journey, then plopped into the tuk-tuk and roared onto the streets of Trang.

A five minute journey brought me to a bank, in front of which was a local commuter bus, which was apparently my chariot to Nakhon Si. It was unclear when it was to leave, so I bought a iced tea and had a seat on shaded steps with some Eastern Europeans who were traveling around Thailand without the aid of a guidebook or map, or knowledge of Thai, or much knowledge of English. I liked them right away. When I saw Thai beginning to board the bus, I went on as well, my chariot quickly filling to the bursting point. Much like a chicken bus in Central America, this was for locals only, and made many stops, mostly dropping people off at their homes in the country side after a day of work in the big city. Nakhon Si wasn' very far, but the bus wasn't very fast and after 90 minutes the bus ended in a big city, which presumed was Nakhon Si. Armed with a crude map torn from the pages of the guidebook, I set out to find the train station, which would orient me to the city. I was in no rush, however, and stopped in a little shack for a bowl of kuaytiew plaa (noodle soup with fish balls) and a beer to quite my stomach and slake my thirst.

The town moved and throbbed like a provincial capital, with streets full of uniformed school children and plenty of vending carts and traffic and, gasp, traffic officers. I was, however, struck by the location of the railroad. According to my map, it should have been located elsewhere. Beginning to suspect that I was lost yet again, I followed the tracks to the station, only to find that I was not, in fact, in Nakhon Si, but in a cross roads town about forty kilometers from it. My guidebook had nothing to say about the town, so I walked back out to the street to ponder my options. It was only four thirty, so I could easily wander about and find a place to stay for a few days, then take a train back to Bangkok. But there was a wat that I really wanted to see in Nakhon Si, so back to the bus stop I walked to see if there was another bus to the city, the next train not being until tomorrow.

In typical tourist-lingo I asked a man in charge of the bus station if there might be another bus heading to Nakhon Si later today. By this I mean I that I approached a man sitting on a bench who seemed slightly better dressed than the other men sitting around, threw up my arms in the universal sign of question, and said in my best Thai accent, "Nakhon Si Thammarat?" This is understood everywhere I've been. Although I knew the Thai for, "Is there a bus to Nakhon Si Thammarat?", I also knew that I wouldn't be able to pronounce them correctly. The man responded and told me that yes, in fact, there would be a bus to Nakhon Si Thammarat in a little while, and would I please have a seat? By this, of course, I mean that he nodded, smiled, and a pointed to a bench. Universal understanding.

Thirty minutes later I was on green bus, packed with Thai, heading for Nakhon Si. The bus had driven to a small vending cart on a non-descript street and parked for ten minutes as locals packed the old trap to capacity. How they knew that the vending cart was the bus stop for the local Nakhon Si bus was beyond me. We rumbled along as they afternoon light faded into darkness, rolling through the hills and on down to Nakhon Si, stopping frequently to let out passengers. By the time we reached the capital, there were only a few people left. The bus pulled over to the side of the street and the driver waved to me that I was in Nakhon Si, or at least that this was the furthest that they'd take me. I hopped out on to the street and tried to figure out where I was.

Armed with my map, I looked up and down the street before deciding that I had no way of knowing where I was, so it was best just to walk up the street for a while. The air had begun to cool and the walking was pleasant, passing various street vendors and shops, the sidewalks packed with Thai out on the town. I realized that I should have been nervous about being lost in a town at night with no knowledge of the local language, no one to call for help, and without ability to read street signs. I wasn't. I was in Thailand, where things always have a way of working themselves out in a positive manner. Indeed, ten minutes down the road led me to a sign that pointed the way to the train station. I knew where I was, thanks to the map, and quickly navigated my way down a side street to the Nahkorn Garden Inn, which was listed as a good budget choice, air conditioned rooms running only 400 baht.

Outside of the walled garden of the inn, I paused and scratched my head. Then place I was looking at was certainly not the budget standard that I had experienced in Thailand and certainly couldn't cost only 400 baht. I walked inside and sheepishly asked how much a room was. In excellent English, the woman behind the desk confirmed that a room was 450 baht. Still puzzled, I took one, a porter carrying my pack up to my posh room. Queen sized bed, air conditioning, satellite TV, and a mini fridge filled the brick walled room. In the States, such a place, on such grounds, would run in the $100-150 a night range, depending on which state capital you happened to be in. I had it for about $12.

I quickly dropped my pack and headed back out into the night for dinner. Night markets are always the best place to eat, and Nakhon Si's was close by. Packed with locals and nary a pale face in sight, I wandered its length, trying to decide where, and what, to eat. I finally settled on a vendor, with the requisite plastic chairs, and ordered up graprao kai, extra spicy, please. And extra spicy was what I got. Chicken, squid (a new touch), baby corn, and fresh green peppercorns accompanied the massive amounts of garlic, basil, and chilis. With a fried egg, rice, and soothing, cooling cucumbers, it was the largest portion, by far, that I'd had in Thailand. I could see the cook and his wife glance at me occasionally to see how I was doing. My smile must have reassured them. Several Thai men were having their dinner here as well, and I tried in Thai to explain where I had been, what I was doing, where I was from, and so on. This seemed to go over well, but my explanation of my profession as a teacher of mathematics wasn't conveyed quite properly, as they thought I was a basketball player. Perhaps my attempt at explaining rock climbing in Tonsai was what did it.

I paid my 25 baht after the fire in my mouth cooled down and wandered the market once again. I wondered where Anna and Brian were, and if the Swiss - Moroccans had made their boat or not as I walked past the various stalls and vendors. It didn't especially matter. They were in Thailand, and so would be having an agreeable time. Thoughts of becoming an ex-pat again filled my head. The Sangsom I purchased at a 7-11 on the walk back to the hotel fueled these thoughts, thoughts of leaving the ordinary for the extraordinary, of the mundane for the transmundane, of cold rain for warm rain, of distant personalities for welcoming ones. Although I had left Ko Libong, the country still had a grip on me that was palpable; I could feel the pressure on my body. I was no longer experiencing traveller euphoria; I was thinking seriously. I was thinking thoughts that everyone who spends time in Thailand, or anywhere beyond the norm, thinks at some point, at some time. I was drawn.

The brick walls of the hotel room looked much like the walls at any fancy hotel in the States; I could have been in New York or Los Angeles or Seattle. I wasn't sure what time it was, but padded over in my underwear to the bottle of Sangsom on the dresser and poured myself a stout glass of Thai whiskey. Although I could have been anywhere, having a drink upon waking means I had to be on vacation, with nothing of importance to do. The liquor burned and churned my stomach, but I liked my exercise anyways.

The morning was warm when I set out on the streets of Nakhon Si for a stroll about the provincial capital. I didn't have much of plan in mind, but there was a wat on the south end of town that I wanted see, as well as postcards and trinkets to buy for those at home. Maybe find an internet cafe to let Mike know when I was returning to Bangkok. I wandered down the main road, looking for stores that might have postcards, but found none. I looked for an internet cafe with equal success. I found the ubiquitous yellow polo shirts that Thai's wear on Mondays in honor of the King, scooter parts, and stacks of lottery tickets, but none of the normal bric-a-brac that make for nice presents for those at home. What I did find was a nice park with some benches in the shade where motorcyle jockeys were sitting waiting for a fare, gossiping and smoking. I took a seat near them, assuring them in sign language that I was just fine and didn't need a lift, and rested for a while. It dawned on me that I had not seen any other farang in town. Perhaps buying postcards would be more difficult than expected.

After a half of an hour I continued my stroll and found a sack of lovely pineapple for breakfast, purchased from a old woman in a side alley where I had wandered off from the main drag. Being able to buy fresh fruit on the street seemed to me to be a mark of an advanced civilization to me. About the only street vendors in Lakewood are prostitutes and drug dealers, neither of which seem to suggest a civilization of much quality or advancement. My shirt had was beginning to soak through once more and it was time for yet another rest, just twenty minutes after leaving my bench in the park. An internet cafe appeared just in time, and I took a seat next to a young monk playing a blood spraying, first-person shooter video game. The contrast brought a smile to my face.

Wat Phra Mahatat was only a couple of kilometers from my hotel, but it had taken me nearly three hours to reach it. Last year I had spent much time wandering and loafing around nearly every wat that I could find. Except for a brief excursion through the wat at the base of Khao Jiin Lae, I had not visited a single wat this year. Wat Phra Mahatat was, according to the Lonely Planet, one of the most important wats in southern Thailand, equivalent to some of the big ones in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. There was an important distinction, though: No farang. It isn't that I have something against seeing other palefaces. Far from it. But a large wat without tourists has a different feel than, say, the same-named wat in Chiang Mai with mass numbers of tour buses out front.

I wandered the grounds before entering the main area, slipping off my shoes for the inner sanctuary, which held numerous Thai in various states of prayer. I fingered my camera bag, unsure of the feeling coursing through me. It was almost a sense of un-belonging, a sense that I was in a place that I shouldn't be. No one paid me any mind, no one glanced in my direction or noted that I was a person out of place. The feeling was coming from inside of me. I took my finger off the camera, put my shoes back on, and left the Thai to pray in peace.

As in most wats, a ring of bronze Buddhas wrapped around the wat. I strolled around the ring, mostly alone, feeling that this was more appropriate. The ring was covered and cool and I eventually settled on a section where I could sit comfortably on a stone step, below a gaze of a large Buddha. I closed my eyes, but did not sleep, nor did I think very much. It was quiet. I think a breeze might have blown through, but I wasn't sure. I remembered why I liked wats so much.

I stood in the heavily air conditioned shopping mall down the road from the hotel, gawking like some country rube standing in the middle of Times Square for the first time. I'd been in countless malls in my life, but never in Thailand. Everything was just a bit off. There were packs of roaming teenagers, yet they seemed cute and friendly instead of dour and tense. There was a Pizza Hut, yet it advertised a sea food pie with numerous squid tentacles poking out of the cheese. There were cell phones for sale, but not from one vendor. Rather, every third shop was dedicated to mobile communication. There was a massive, western style grocery store, with western style shrink wrapped goods and meat under plastic. Yet also an aisle dedicated to incense. I decided that I didn't like the mall, even though it was in Thailand. Just as Brian had found food in Thailand that wasn't good, so had I found a market that wasn't good. I went back to the hotel for a nap.

I had accomplished nothing today that had been on my to do list, which admittedly had nothing on it. It felt good, even the trip to the mall. I had managed to buy a ticket on an overnight train to Bangkok, leaving in the afternoon tomorrow, but had failed to find post cards or trinkets. I was hungry, but it was still light out which meant that the night market wouldn't yet be in full swing, so I set out to explore the part of town where the Lonely Planet map ended. I wandered the side streets, stopping in various 7-11s for iced teas, noting things of interest, such as the bearded face of Al Pacino from Serpico, which graced several bumpers, windows, and mud flaps. I wasn't sure why this particular image was so popular in Nakhon Si, but would like to know the answer some day.

My loop brought me back to the road where my hotel was, but further north. Off the map. A large night market was beginning to set up, with loads of food stalls hawking curries and stir fries and soups and spice pastes and skinned body parts. I settled for a sack of pineapple, followed by a sack of tod mon. Night markets, like fresh fruit on the street, seemed like a sign of advancement, of civilization. They would never work in the States. We are too afraid of the people we live with to venture forth on the street at night. No, we only feel safe in a sanitized setting, like a movie theater or Applebees. The logos tell us it is safe, they tell us we should be there, and so we go. There are strangers on the street, and strangers mean danger, we're taught from a young age. I bought a bottle of Chang and had a seat in a plastic chair next to a vendor selling lottery tickets, watching the sun dip low and the crowds come out. Later I would set out for another night market and another massive plate of graprao kai, doused in nam phrik. Nothing about the vendor would be allowed in the States, for it would seem far too unsanitary for most people. They washed the plates in a tub of soapy water in the alley next to the stall, drying thing by hand. The food was cooked from fresh ingredients on the spot, cut up by a man who didn't separate his chicken knife from his vegetable knife. Indeed, he had only a single cutting board and a single cleaver and the concept of cross contamination was unknown to him. The stacks of egg cartons sat next to the wok where he could get at them, rather than in a refrigerator. Everything was made insight of the customers, rather in the back, where we seem to prefer our cooking to take place. His joint was packed with Thai, which was what drew me to it in the first place. I'd eat in such a place in a heart beat back in the States, but I would never get the opportunity. It would never be allowed. We were not civilized enough.

Trains have a way of moving that is unlike any other mechanical means. They waddle through towns or crossings, swaying gently from side to side with a racket that seems out of place. Out in the open, when they accelerate up to speed, the movement is gentle, graceful, athletic. Like a bear, they seem awkward and ungainly when moving slowly. Watch a bear run at full throttle and be amazed.

I had failed to meet another farang while in Nakhon Si Thammarat, but as the train moved into the main rail corridor of southern Thailand a steady stream of whiteys came aboard, making their way from the tourist islands of Ko Samui and Ko Tao back to Bangkok. The Thai couple and their two young children sitting next to and around me provided more entertainment than stories from Aussies about how much fun they had had getting drunk on a beach. A thick novel by Dostoevsky provided more nourishment than stories from other Americans about the massage parlors they had visited. A bottle of Sang Som, discretely kept in a plastic iced tea bottle and drunk from my upper level bunk, made for a better night time story than a tale from Euros about the great deals they got on suits and shirts. It wasn't that I was intentionally unsociable. Rather, there was better company to be had.

Sometime around 6 am the train staff moved through the compartment converting the bunks back to ordinary seats. I had slept well and deeply, better than on any transoceanic flight that I had ever been on. Except maybe that time to London when British Airways had upgraded me to business class and given me champagne to drink and filet mignon to eat. I was busy talking in traveller-ese with the Thai couple when I noticed my stop in Bangkok appear, and then disappear. I went on trying to explain rock climbing to them, which is some what difficult as the only Thai words that I know have to do with food. They departed from the train, leaving me to continue to Hualongphong, the main railstation in Bangkok, right in the heart of Chinatown. Although I hadn't been able to raise Mike or Wallapak on their respective cell phones, I did have a rough idea of how to get to the Elephant Tower. Whether or not either of them would be there when I arrived was a different matter entirely. But, being Thailand, there would be something interesting to do on the street as I waited.

I transfered out of the rail station and made my way to the MRT underground. A few baht and 30 minutes would take me back to the northern edge of the city, which I had missed while gesticulating to the couple. The day was sunny and not yet hot, making walking pleasant. I had to walk as there was no way a taxi driver would understand where I wanted to go. I was a little unsure of which direction to head, so I picked a random one and started walking down the street, buying a sack of pineapple along the way for breakfast. After 20 minutes of not seeing anything that I recognized, I decided to be a bit more systematic in my search for the Elephant Tower. Navigation for me always works the same: Make a random choice, which is always the wrong one, and wander about for a while until I feel like using my brain instead. My success rate then goes by about 10%. Luck was with me this morning and I was able to find a large pedestrian overpass where I could get enough gain from the street to see buildings in the distance. And there, in fact, was a building that looked quite like an elephant's head with miniscule tusks. Thirty minutes, and another sack of pineapple, later found me in the apartment drinking smoked Laotian tea.

There was nothing that I especially wanted to see in Bangkok, though I did want to buy some postcards for people at home, perhaps some bric-a-brac, and to stuff my face with as much street food as I could. After drinking several pots of tea, Mike and I wandered out to a mall where he had some shopping to do for a wedding he was attending tomorrow and where I was finally able to score some postcards, the first I had seen since leaving Ao Nang. We ate graprao mu along the side of the road and pondered the high price of climbing gear in Thailand. We gawked at the low price of digital prints along Yaotin road. For the equivalent of about $1.50, I could get 12 by 18 prints, which would cost $25 at home. Plus tax.

But it was the advent of the evening that brought out my last wish. We were heading for the Thai version of AYCE. On long distance trails, AYCE joints are dreamed about. Town stops are scheduled and ranked by the quality of AYCE places. However, All You Can Eat generally means awful food. When you're burning 6000 calories a day on trail and only consuming 4500, you tend not to care about quality. Mike assured me this place was different. It was Thursday night, which for some reason seemed to be street night. The several kilometer walk along Yaotin road passed through throngs of Thai out socializing, bargaining (and sometimes buying) for goods, and eating. Street vendors of every possible sort, from young to old, male to female to katoy, sold every type of appliance, jewelry, foodstuff, clothing, car part, stereo component. "That young girl makes the best squid in Bangkok," Mike said as we passed one open-coal stand. Mike was rather particular about his squid, so the compliment carried some weight. But we were on a mission.

The AYCE joint was a large, open air place, with tables centered around an electric grill of sorts. The grills was shaped like half of a basketball and made of something that looked like bronze. Heated electrically, you melted fat on top o fit then plunked down thin strips of pork and chicken and cooked it as you liked. Mike and I opted for the seafood option, which meant that a separate grill came out, heated with coals replenished from time to time by the staff, on which to grill prawns, squid, fish filets, and crabs. A central market place held all the raw meats, marinated in different ways, the seafood, and mass quantities of various salads and dipping sauces. If you wanted something a bit more elaborate, like yam talay, that immaculate mixed seafood and glass noodle salad, cooks behind a counter would make it for you. This was ours for about $7 a piece. The only thing you had to pay specially for was beer. We quickly had a feast grilling.

I've had some gluttonous meals in my time, such as eating non-stop at the Caesar's casino buffet in South Lake Tahoe for two continuous hours after coming into town from the PCT. Or in my heavier days when I ate twelve 8 oz steaks at an AYCE steak joint in Denton, Texas. Or the time at the Salt Lick near Austin, Texas, where I ate so much barbeque that I forgot to drink any beer. But the damage Mike and I did set a new level. We grilled plate after plate of massive (12 to a pound) prawns. Strip after string of marinated, fatty pork went onto the golden basketball. Plates of som tom and yam talay kept coming. Crab after crab went onto the grill, the sweet meet sucked out of every hollow. Plump squid after plump squid was touched by heat, just barely, before being eaten. In a show of true excess, I only went after the most succulent part, the tentacles, leaving most of the bodies for Mike. In the end, I felt dubious about being able to make the walk back to the apartment. My pants had various stains from sauces and dripping fats, and my beard was stained and greasy. We had consumed so much that I barely felt the 4 liters of Chang that we had split. I couldn't walk back, so I waddled instead.

Wallapak was waiting for us when we returned, having finished teaching for the day at the rather late hour of 9 pm. In the morning they were heading out to a wedding south of Bangkok and went to bed early. I grabbed two bottles of Chang and went out to the balcony to look out over the lights of northern Bangkok from the 14th floor of the Elephant Tower. As on the first day in town, everything was appealing. The warm night air meant that I could sit shirtless in comfort in December, sipping beer that at home I wouldn't touch. Yet the Chang, perhaps even worse than Steel Reserve, seemed the perfect complement. The heavy traffic on the roads below didn't seem perverse, rather it seemed artistic, the red lights forming a solid line as they flowed along. And the thought of relocating to Thailand, of becoming an ex-pat in a place where I couldn't speak the language and didn't have a job, was creating a conflict in me. Rationally I knew that living in a place was different from visiting a place, that day-to-day life has a way of dulling the joys and augmenting the irritants. If I lived here a late or missed train might become a source of annoyance, instead of an opportunity to have a new experience. I knew all this in my mind, yet I cared not. I knew that the hot, humid air would no longer feel comfortable against my skin and that I would quickly tire of having sweat soaked shirts clinging to me. I knew that I would miss the snow covered mountains of Washington in my backyard, that I would tire of the polluted air of South East Asia and yearn for the crystal purity of a high alpine cirque in the Olympics. I knew that I would never be able to fully integrate into a society, that I would only be an ex-pat, and that I would search for others to whom I could fully relate and who would fully understand my thoughts. I knew all this and I did not care. I was gripped by Thailand.