Summer Vacation, Pt. II

The trip has been going well. It’s nice to catch up with friends and family, and the non-desert climate is ever so pleasant. Returning home requires a little adjustment, though, as one grows accustomed to the UAE after a while. We laughingly have listed things that we forgot about life in the USA.

Jenia’s list looks like this:

•Drinking unfiltered tap water
•Driving with your windows down
•Paying attention to gas prices
•Beer being sold next to soda, water, and juice
•How blue the sky is
•Credit/debit card readers (I keep handing mine to the cashier)
•Bugs
•People stopping at stop signs
•Flowers
•Having to keep an eye on your bags and child

Mine includes all those things, and adds:

•Good ol’ southern rednecks
•Walmart
•Drivers using turn signals
•People having the same accent
•New $100 bills (when did that happen?)
•The great selection of familiar foods in the supermarket

What a difference living abroad makes to how we view things. We are that much more appreciative of Breyer’s ice cream, for example, than ever before:)

Here are a few pictures from the last week, and I’m not sure you will revel in the non-desertness of the scenery in quite the same way as us, but still, revel in the greenery:

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Summertime

It’s summer. We said masalama to the UAE and are now on US soil, in the great state of Maine. It feels awfully good to be home, visiting family and friends that we haven’t seen for many moons.

The foremost thing we are enjoying, outside of time with people we love, is the freedom to show affection in public. It’s nice to be able to hug or kiss and such without worrying about the local cops slapping me with a fine or something.

It’s also great to roll down the car windows and have cool air flood in. Maine is absolutely fantastic this time of year–cool at night (55 last night) and warm (79 was today’s high) during the day.

Anyway, brevity being the soul of wit or something, I’d better leave off now. Here’s a pic I snapped while outside yesterday.

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The Thai Paradox

Our trip to Thailand was great. There were wonderful things (like mango sticky rice), weird but nice things (like hair washing – a 15-minute procedure at a local salon), weird and not nice things (like people eating bugs), and then there was what I called the Thai Paradox.

See, before flying to Bangkok, I emailed our friend in Udon Thani and asked if there was a dress-code (you ask this sort of question after living in the Middle East for 2 years). She was happy I asked and advised to stick with bottoms that are to the knee or lower & tops that cover my shoulders. I was a little bummed, but it wasn’t a big deal, since this is the kind of clothes I wear here every day.

We also did our research on Bangkok and found out that we both needed to wear long bottoms & closed-toe shoes to visit the Grand Palace. Ok, no big deal again, we packed accordingly.

And then we arrived to Thailand & I felt like I was the only woman under 40 in the city of Bangkok who was not wearing a mini. Seriously.

I thought, “Well, this is the capital, it’s more touristy, people are more wild here. It will be different once we head up north-east.”

Wrong! In the very non-touristy Udon Thani girls still wore cute little dresses and shorts so tiny I’d never dare try them on.

When I asked our friends what’s up with the clothing thing, they explained that generally, Thai people dress modestly, but the younger girls and women want to look Western. “Well, I’m Western,” – I said, – “can I dress like a Westerner?” Their answer stunned me.

“You can wear whatever you want and they won’t care, but if you start talking to someone & they find out that you are a) a teacher’s wife and b) a mother, and you are dressed like that, you will basically lose all respect. Because you should know better.”

Now, we are not talking about daisy dukes & cropped t-shirts. We are talking about something above the knee & without sleeves. Quite a modest culture, huh?  NB: I am not talking about the touristy beaches of Thailand here.

Where’s the paradox, you may be asking.

Well, you see, one of the things Thailand is known for is sex tourism. Male & female prostitutes abound, and while prostitution is officially illegal, I hear it’s actually government-controlled. Here’s a Wiki article on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_Thailand It’s scary, really, how many foreigners come on a vacation & buy a local for the duration of their stay.

What’s even more strange to me, is that it’s not just the foreigners. Our friends told us that it’s considered absolutely normal for a man to have several mistresses + a wife. Sometimes the women aren’t too happy with the arrangement (we heard a story of 3 girlfriends who found out about each other & joined forces: they sold the guy’s pricey electronics & split the money :)), but in general it’s expected and not frowned upon. Even in their non-touristy city, both of our friends have been approached by the locals. They and their expat friends have been offered “special services” at a massage salon, the guys are consistently asked about their Thai wives (and why they don’t have any), the women are being told that the fact they already have husbands “is not a problem”.

Prostitution and extramarital sex? Yay! Bring it on! Let the whole world come and sleep with our people!

Women wearing anything above the knee? No way! That’s too risqué. We are a modest people.

I just don’t get it. I don’t. 

P.S. The whole issue of modesty/modest clothes is something that I get passionate about very quickly, and since I seem to hold a somewhat not-mainstream-Christian view on it, you may not want to bring up the subject with me.

P.P.S. More reading on human trafficking in Thailand: http://www.humantrafficking.org/countries/thailand

NGO’s that help sex workers:

Empower http://www.empowerfoundation.org/index_en.html

SWING https://www.facebook.com/SWINGfoundation/info

If you know of any others, feel free to leave a link in the comments!

Making a Life

When we started to feel content here in the UAE, it was because we’d committed to making a life here.  Not necessarily to anything long-term, but rather to getting involved in the community.  It’s hard for a westerner to feel like he or she belongs in the area, since the local culture is (at least in Al Ain, I can’t say for sure about Abu Dhabi or Dubai) quite closed to those who don’t speak Arabic.  I’m quite alright with this, since my culture in the USA is much the same way to those who don’t speak English.  It’s all a natural part of moving to a different country.  I know if I learn Arabic beyond the handful of phrases and words I’ve picked up over the last two years (two years!) that more social doors will open.  Although it’s hard to feel like I truly belong here, it’s not been hard to develop relationships with other expats.  Jenia and I have, as we’ve said before, more friends than we did back home in the States.

Kabs (spelling?), freshly made at the Yemeni place.  Ever so tasty.

Kabs (spelling?), bread freshly made at the Yemeni place. Ever so tasty.

For us, this process of feeling comfortable began with people, and slowly expanded to being a part of other things in the area.  We started going to Al Ain Evangelical Church church and attending a small group.  I was invited to play with the church band.  We’ve ended up taking on the responsibility of being small group facilitators, which added a wrinkle to life, and we’ve also started ballroom dancing lessons, something I (Shon writing here, by the way) never thought I’d enjoy at all.

So what’s life like for us now that we’re in the groove?  It looks a little like this, on a relatively relaxing weekend, like the one we just had (which had temperatures dip below 100F and felt marvelous):

On Friday we zipped to the mall, then stopped by our favorite bakery for some savory pastries, and in the evening we attended a choral concert held at Al Qattara Arts Center.  There we met friends and encountered acquaintances, and enjoyed time hanging out with in the relatively cool, oven-dried evening afterward.  Saturday we took Frank and Mel and their expanding family to a fabulously atmospheric (read: hole-in-the-wall) Yemeni restaurant which might be called Al Kabisi (but I’m not sure, as I’ve never successfully translated the sign yet, and I didn’t think to see if it said on the newly-minted English/Arabic menus we were given).  Then we hung around Jahili Park for a while, made a de rigeur visit to Starbucks, where we paid more for drinks than we paid for our entire meal shortly before, and returned home so we could enjoy the evening at home.

We're now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

We’re now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

Being involved in the community and building a life here has allowed Jenia to build her photography hobby into something more than that.  She’s taken portraits of numerous families on the orange sands and in green parks, done a promo shoot for a local performing duo called Sarah and Adam, and is starting a three-day shoot for a school tomorrow.  It’s great.

Jenia's photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam.

Jenia’s photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam, and I like it.

I’ve left deeper things out as I recount simple events.  It’s hard to say how much we’ve learned about ourselves as we’ve made a home abroad.  Living here gives us a window on the world that we wouldn’t have had before.  We’ve gained an amazing perspective on life in the Middle East and the Arab world, and grown more culturally empathetic than before.  We’ve found ourselves, as we adapt, stretched and pulled, angered and moved to laughter, exasperated and impressed.

Now, when somebody asks me where I’m from, I no longer immediately respond, “Georgia, in the USA.”  I smile.  I’m from Georgia, yes, but I’m also from the UAE now.  I’ve got a life here, and it’s a nice one that I’m immensely grateful for.  I’m not sure how long we’ll stick around, but for the time being, we’ve got a good thing going.

Summer Heat

Sorry, but my subject for the day isn’t anything deep.  It’s simple–summertime heat.  If you know the Middle East exists, you know that it has a reputation for being hot, so the notion probably doesn’t surprise you.  This year Abu Dhabi isn’t disappointing in the heat department, either.  Last year in 2013 we had a rather mild spring, with a good amount of rain throughout April.  That kept the temperatures comparatively low.  There wasn’t much rain last month, however, and as May draws nigh to a close, the mercury is leaping higher and higher.  Let me share a story or two to illustrate what it’s like.

My cousin is visiting from the USA right now, and Jenia and I have been showing her around.  We spent a day in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi over the weekend.  During our Dubai time, we were mostly indoors, seeing the tremendous Dubai Mall and such.  I got sick of being cooped up inside, and ventured out to walk near the base of the world’s tallest building, with Jenia and the baby accompanying me.  “Man, that feels good,” I quipped as we stepped out of the air conditioning.  Jenia didn’t seem to agree, but she kept her peace.  It was mighty warm out and very muggy.  After about ten minutes, the little one was bright red, and Jenia retreated with him to shade and then the air conditioning.  We then went to the beach with the aim of swimming at Jumeriah Beach.  To our disappointment, we found the nice beach with paid admission, snazzy park, and, most importantly, showers, had no parking available at all, since most everyone evidently fancied a dip to get some relief from the blazing sun.  Consequently, we drove to the next public access beach, which, on the plus side, offers a great view of the Burj al Arab, but has no showers.  “I’ve never seen it so crowded,” Jenia said, surprised by the mob on the sand and in the water.  We paddled our feet instead of going for a proper swim.  In truth, the water was so warm that it wouldn’t have seemed very refreshing in the first place–a surprise when you’ve been accustomed to the Atlantic’s constant coolness, as my cousin was.  When we returned to the car, the humidity was so high that the car’s body had fogged over while parked, as if it had been driven through a thick haze.

While in Abu Dhabi, we visited the Emirates Palace, a palatial hotel owned by the UAE government and operated by the Kempinski hotel group.  We kicked around the hotel, exploring the opulent (though questionably tasteful) interior.  Eventually, we went outside to have a gander at the grounds.  Jenia’s sunglasses fogged over when she stepped through the doors.  In the space of only a few minutes (perhaps up to 15), we were all dripping sweat.  My shirt was almost entirely soaked, and my linen pants were wet all down the backs of my legs.  At one point, when I put the baby in his carseat, the sweat was dripping from my nose and splashing onto the upholstery.  I’m a lightweight guy–not the kind who sweats easily, so it means something when I’m dripping like a faucet.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi, being coastal cities, are much more humid than Al Ain.  Al Ain’s heat is easier to bear, owing to the dryness of the air.  The sweat doesn’t start pouring off you as quickly.  Still, triple-digit heat is intense.  We’re in Al Ain now, and today’s high was, according to my iPhone’s weather app, 113F, the same as yesterday.  Other thermometers are reading hotter, and it’s hard to know what to rely on.  Regardless, the heat here is akin to that of an oven.  My cousin wears a stunned expression every time she sets foot outdoors.  I tell her, “At least you get a real experience.  The heat is something to write home about.”  That doesn’t seem to help her enjoy it, unfortunately.

So there you have it.  The hottest part of the year is still well on the horizon, and it’s already super hot.  But I expect the heat now, and I smile, because it’s all part of the experience of living in the UAE.

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What a Day

I’ve never been locked out of my workplace before, at least not deliberately, by the administration, who blocked off most of and put a heavy chain through the handles of not one, but all the entryway doors in order to contain students today. This was done, of course, with no notification to teachers, and I happened to be getting lunch when they did it.

There were three other teachers with me, and we all found ourselves looking through the glass door at the Filipino office assistant on the other side who shrugged and said, “Padlocked, no key.” So we seated ourselves and talked about the possibility that we might not have to teach another class today.  However, another of the Filipino assistants noticed our plight and pointed us to a back door leading through the biology lab. The guys there threatened to charge us admission fees, but we made it through their gauntlet and got back to work.

Why the extra levels of inmate containment? Not sure, but the kids are getting restless, and I guess the administration sensed the likelihood of a mass escape attempt was high. I say mass, because they constantly manage to squeeze out in small numbers one way or another. At lunch, they sneak over the fence or get out in some other creative fashion. By the way, it’s pretty funny to watch boys wearing what amounts to dresses making their way over walls, as I did a few days ago. Maybe the cause of the restlessness is the Al Ain vs. Manchester City expo game that’s going on now? Who knows.

Anyway, all told, it was just another day. They unchained the doors and released us all when the clock reached the proper hour.

The chain and padlock of which I speak, here shown after the throngs were released.

The chain and padlock of which I speak, here shown after the throngs were released.

Food Friday: Favorites from Thailand and Laos

It’s been a while since we wrote up a Food Friday entry, so here we are.  Just like the headline says, here are some favorites from Thailand and Laos.  They’re mostly things that took us by surprise, hooking our tastebuds and leaving us with big smiles on our faces as we realized we’d found new foods we loved.  In no particular order, with the possible exception of number one:

1.  Mango Sticky Rice.  Amazing.  Actually, fresh, ripe Thai mangoes are so good, so delicious, so mouthwateringly scrumptious, that I’d probably rank a mango itself right up there, even without the sticky rice.  But anyway, sticky rice being a pretty unique thing, if you ever visit, you gotta try it.

2. Papaya Salad.  It’s hard to get this without little dried shrimp in it, which is kind of weird, I’ll go ahead and say.  However, it’s dang good–the papaya is shredded almost like cabbage, and dressed in a sweet-spicy sauce and a few other things.  Never had anything else like it.

3. Coconut Juice.  Actually, I didn’t think it was awesome, but the little Turtle sure did.  He LOVED it, to be sure.  We stopped at a roadside stand and I forked over some baht.  They chopped the top off a green coconut, jabbed a straw in it, and handed it over.  I gave the kid a sip, and the rest was soon his.  The next day he got his very own coconut, and made equally short work of it.

Spring Rolls.

Spring Rolls.  Deliciously un-deep fried.

4. Fruit Smoothies.  These suckers are delicious.  Granted, they’re sweetened with a hearty dose of sugar syrup, so they’re basically guaranteed to taste nice.  Available in all kinds of variations, they’re usually good.  A watermelon smoothie was a delightful way to cool down when walking along Ao Nang Beach one hot afternoon.

These dishes were all readily available in Thailand.  In Vientiane, we found similar stuff, of course, but the region does have a somewhat different flavor, and to be sure we sampled it, we visited a renowned restaurant called The Laotian Kitchen.  There “we played it safe,” as our friend and guide said, and didn’t try anything that would scorch our tastebuds.  Being really satisfied with what we ate, I’d say we made the right choice in that regard.  So what did we have, anyway?

5.  Tofu Laab.  Think stir-fry, but different.  Delicious over some of that sticky rice I mentioned earlier.

6. Spring rolls.  Not fried, and ever-so-fresh, leaving the belly feeling happy, not overloaded with grease.  Highly recommended.

Tofu Laab

Tofu Laab, a Laotian specialty.  You can get it with chicken, but that’s not our bag, baby.

There you have it.  Five favorites.  We had many different dishes which we really enjoyed, and one or two may well merit mention here (how about the many curries?  Those usually were good) that I’m forgetting, but if and when you visit Thailand and Laos, give these a try.  I guarantee you won’t be let down.

One last thought as I’m closing–be sure to order your food mild.  Even mildly spicy to Thai people is really spicy to you and me.  Twice I forgot to order that way, and both times I found it hard to come close to finishing my food.  The first time, I tried what looked like a tasty multi-mushroom soup.  It was so hot, however, that I couldn’t actually taste anything other than my mouth burning.  And in a moment, after trying valiantly to prove that I could master the stuff, I was sweating and my head was spinning.  The second time I fared only slightly better, managing to avoid dizziness.

That’s that.  Until the next time.

Spring Break Travel: Laos

As you already know if you read last week’s entry, Jenia and I spent the majority of our spring break in Thailand.  But there was one day when we went elsewhere: Laos.

Laos is, if you didn’t know, the landlocked country between Thailand and Vietnam.  The capital is called Vientiane (Vee-en-tyan, or perhaps Ven-shun, or some variation, depending on who you speak with), and the prefecture has a population of roughly 780,000 people, or more than a tenth of the country’s population.  The Mekong River separates northeastern Thailand from Laos, and to get to Laos, we had to cross the Friendship Bridge, an unimposing structure which is currently celebrating it’s 20th anniversary.  Previously, people were ferried across the river from the Vientiane area to Nong Khai, Thailand.

We went through Thai immigration, crossed the Friendship Bridge on a large passenger bus which cost 15 baht each, and then purchased visas upon arrival in Laos on the other side.  The Laotian visas set us back $35 each, and we stood around outside while the border guards stamped our passports and such.  Incidentally, when you enter the country, you’re supposed to supply a passport-sized photo, but we didn’t have any, and they simply used the pictures they snapped of us at the immigration counter anyway.  Immigration would take any of three currencies: American dollars, Thai baht, or their own Laotian kip.  As luck would have it, we were low on baht, and I had to use the ATM right nearby and withdraw some kip, since it was the only currency the machine dispensed.  I took out 1,000,000 kip, and parted with 980,000 of it to get our visas.  It was nice to be a millionaire, if only for a few minutes.

I did not realize, which shows my lack of preparation, that Laos was a communist country until we were in the bus, rolling over the Friendship Bridge, and I saw the red, white, and blue Laotian flag alternated with red and yellow hammer and sickle flags.  In fact, as I soon found out, the history of the country is fascinating: it was a major part of French Indochina all the way up until 1954, when it gained more or less complete independence.  During the Vietnam conflict, the North Vietnamese Army invaded and occupied Laotian territory, and there was a major bombing campaign by the United States to try to expel the invaders.  The 1970s were a bracing time of war, and in 1975, the government was overthrown by Pathet Lao, who allied Laos with Vietnam.

Lao Flag

Until I visited the area, I confess that I’d been quite unaware that the Vietnam conflict took place partly on Laotian soil.  To this day, the conflict’s legacy is marked by undetonated explosives, and it’s not unusual to hear a story from an expat about innocent kids playing in a field and getting a limb blown off as they happened upon an unexploded ordnance.

Lao Monk

The first thing I noticed about Laos was that it seemed poorer than Thailand.  And Thailand, to be sure, doesn’t exactly strike me as the most cosmopolitan place in the world.  Laos is a rung or two down the socio-economic ladder from its more popular neighbor.  A short drive, taking perhaps 20 minutes, into the capital city made quite a difference.  Vientiane has an interesting multi-national flavor, but it is obviously dominated by its own culture (which makes it remarkably different from Abu Dhabi, where we live).  There were lots of temples and buddhist monks wearing orange walking on the sidewalk.  There didn’t seem to be a single American chain restaurant in town.  The city itself had a charmingly small feel, although the roads did get crowded sometimes.  I’d have never guessed the population is as high as the statistics say it is (I’ve seen others say the city has about 250,000 residents, but Wikipedia lists it much higher).

Street Scene

We had a friend acting as our guide, and she showed us around various areas, though she was much constrained by the brief tenure of our stay–a mere 26 hours.  We saw a college, where undergraduate students worked in neat-looking 2 storey buildings, a classroom on each floor, which had only benches inside and the wooden shuttered windows were wide-open, since there was no air conditioning.  We drove past a few nice looking, large, new buildings in the city, “The Japanese government paid for that; the Chinese paid for that,” said our friend.  On the curb, tuk-tuk drivers reclined in hammocks rigged up inside their conveyances, snoozing until someone came along in need of a ride. The same proliferation of dangerous-looking, low-hanging telephone wires we saw in Thailand continued in Laos.

Night

In the evening, we went downtown in search of an authentic and delicious meal: we found just what we were after at the Lao Kitchen.  What tasty grub!  We hoofed it a bit afterward, walking the poorly lit downtown streets, and waiting to cross the road at an intersection, we were warned: “Watch out for motorbikes.  They could come from anywhere.  I’m not kidding.”  She was right.  We saw scooters zip onto the sidewalk, motoring along illegally until they found a gap in traffic that allowed them to nip over to the right-lane, where they were supposed to be.

Egg Rolls

We stopped at Patuxai, a monument known alternately as “The Arch De Triomphe” and “The Vertical Runway.”  The story of the monument is as colorful as any: it was built in the late ’50s and early ’60s with cement that the USA gave the country to expand an airport.  The arch itself is both picturesque and slightly grotesque; a large gray oriental block rising up 8 stories.

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Patuxai

Next, we visited a night market, just in time to have a hurried look at the wares: clothes, both traditional and not, some tourist shtick (some of which is genuinely cool, like the coconut wood kitchenware), and other such.  There, again, Turtle was a focal point.  At one point, the little fellow got tired of being carried in the Boba carrier, so I put him on my shoulders and walked around.  That attracted lots of grins, and I was actually stopped by some friendly folks for the sole purpose of having a group of people take a picture with my little blond son.  It was humorous, and had I not already grown accustomed to this kind of treatment in Thailand, I’d have thought it even more so. The market was soon shutting down around us, so we called it a night.

Night Market

Basket Vendor

Coconut Wood

The next morning we ate at a French bakery, then shopped for souvenirs at a little place across the road.  We spent most of our remaining kip on breakfast, unfortunately having to make an ATM run to get more money to fund our souvenir goodies, since the store’s credit card machine wouldn’t work.  The ladies inside enjoyed Turtle while we shopped; he had a ball pointing and waving for them.  Speaking of kip, if you go, withdraw plenty of money when you use the ATM, because many places don’t accept credit cards.

After that, our schedule dictated that we head for the border.  We walked to the bus station, a fairly grueling little journey because of the heat and humidity.  After a while figuring out what bus went to Nong Khai and when, never mind where the bus departed from, we parted with our friend and ended our time in Laos.

LilySushi

LaundryIn reflecting on visiting Vientiane, it must be said that the area is not spectacular.  The Mekong may offer a good sunset photo somewhere, murky water reflecting the brilliant hues of the sinking sun, but it’s not beautiful in and of itself; Vientiane has a few interesting sights (not all of which we saw; there’s also a Buddha Park, which we skipped, having already gone to one in Nong Khai, and not feeling like walking around in the sweltering afternoon heat), but it’s mostly unremarkable, and while it’s possible to get lots of interesting photographs of people, and perhaps some nice city/town shots, it’s hard to find landscapes that are astounding.  Like Thailand’s northeast, the land is generally flat.  That said, Vientiane is noticeably nicer than what we saw of Nong Khai.  Walking around Vientiane is a different experience from Thailand, and a dramatically different experience from exploring the grand capital cities of the West; it feels humble, it’s a bit hectic, there are street food vendors all around; tuk-tuks on every corner.  It’s a bit grubby; it retains a French influence in the architecture and street names.  Like Thailand, Laos is inexpensive.  We ate at nice places, bearing in mind that it’s important to be choosy, as food poisoning is a real possibility (our host had it 4 times in less than a year), and we found the food affordable.  The markets offer inflated fares to foreigners, but even the higher prices aren’t so bad, and it doesn’t take much effort to bargain and get the prices closer to what a local would pay.  In contrast to nearby northeastern Thailand, Vientiane seems to have a lot of foreign visitors, and it has a more international flair about it.

Were I doing it again, I’d visit Vientiane.  It’s a neat place.  But I’d try to allow enough time to venture to Luang Prabang, which is, judging by photos, an area of magnificent natural beauty.

Spring Break Travels: Musings on Thailand

It’s back to the real world in a few days: back to work, back to the mundane, back to the routine.  Now we’re back to our apartment, life as usual.  But since that’s not too interesting, I’m going to share about the trip the little family and I made to Southeast Asia for the better part of two weeks.  We visited two countries, Thailand and Laos, but for now I’m focusing on Thailand.  We explored three distinct areas of Thailand.  Bangkok, Udon Thani, and Krabi (Ao Nang, more specifically).

Map borrowed from this website: http://samui-attractions.blogspot.ae/2012/04/map-of-thailand-koh-samui-hoh-phangan.html

You’ll see Udon Thani nearly at the Laos border in the northeast; Bangkok is center on the gulf; Krabi and Ao Nang are near Phuket.  Map is borrowed from another website, but it seems to have come from EmbassyWorld.com.

Let’s talk about scenery first.   Without a doubt, the Krabi area was the most scenic, with stunning cliffs and towering islands, verdant greenery, and multi-colored waters.  In contrast, Udon Thani isn’t picturesque at all.  It’s a city that’s grown rapidly in recent years, but it mostly lacks anything that lends itself to a photograph.  There’s a bustling night market, a nice mall, and street vendors selling whatever they can, and in the parks people play a sport that seems like a mixture of soccer and volleyball.  But it isn’t beautiful.  Bangkok was a surprise.  We’d both expected the city to be something other than it is.  What, exactly, I’m not sure.  But we didn’t find it pretty for the most part.  Until we reached Krabi on the tail end of our trip, in fact, we shared the opinion that Thailand generally wasn’t pretty, except for the temples and palaces, which seemed the only things well-maintained.  Bangkok has skyscrapers almost right next door to homes of a floor or two, paint peeling off the sides, yards ramshackle. It’s grimy and the sidewalks are uneven and difficult to walk.  

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

The Thai people seemed very warm and friendly, always smiling and courteous.  Even people trying to sell us trinkets and such weren’t usually pushy.  They’d try to get our attention, of course, but they’d accept “no thanks” as an answer without any of the irritating badgering that we put up with on a visit to the Old Souk in Dubai or to pretty much anywhere in downtown Kandy, Sri Lanka.  Wherever we went, the little blond baby boy we were carrying was an attraction.  Turtle himself thought the attention was quite alright, and enjoyed waving “bye” to people and pointing his finger up, which caused no end of giggles and imitations, bringing a smile to the little guy’s face every time.

In Udon Thani, a couple we’ve been friends with for years showed us around.  They’ve been there for a while, and were able to take us to the neatest places and help us sample the tastiest foods, as well as advise what to avoid and teach us a couple of Thai phrases.  It was awesome to catch up with them, and so good to have their inside view of and understanding of the area.

So what are some insights we gained from our trip?  Would we want to live in Thailand?  Is the Pad Thai (or Thai food in general) better than it is anywhere else?  Here are three things that made an impression on me.  Jenia has more insights, very interesting ones relating to culture, and she’ll write them up someday soon.  For now, here are my thoughts.

Insight one (if this is really an insight, perhaps I should call it an “observation”): there’s a palpable sense of freedom when compared to living where we do right now.  Yes, this takes the face of cross-dressing and prostitution in some places, but in others it’s the simple wearing of whatever clothes you feel like putting on, knowing nobody’s going to be offended.  There’s a sense of freedom in the (unregulated and kind of sketchy) selling of food on the sidewalks, off the side of a scooter with a sidecar contraption that contains rice and noodles.  This also means people run red lights or drive the wrong way on some roads (particularly the “motorcycles,” or scooters, in our understanding).  It’s got a touch of the Wild West about it, with all the associated connotations.  Regarding those who enforce traffic regulations, evidently extremely inconsistently, “The police here do stop you sometimes,” said our friends, “because they want a bribe.  But they usually only stop trucks and motorcycles, because they’re the ones that break the laws all the time.”  The bribes are usually small, too, which makes the harassment more bearable, they said.  Speaking of bribes, those are apparently also expected when doing some bureaucratic business, something us tourists don’t usually encounter much, and which I have no personal experience with.  “You just pay it,” we were told, “So things get done.  Otherwise you could wait forever.”  This freedom most certainly does not extend to making remarks about the King, and one guidebook we read advised tourists even to be careful about putting a banknote in your back pocket, as it could be deemed disrespectful to sit on a portrait of the King, whose face adorns all the currency.   If you’re interested in news about Thailand, check out the Bangkok Post.  The linked article is actually pretty interesting, being about the ivory trade, and it should supplement what I’ve written nicely.

Insight two: the place is still third world, despite fairly rapid development in the 20th century.  In terms of creature comforts, convenience, and the like, it’s a notch or two above places like Sri Lanka, though.  The electricity is generally reliable in Udon Thani, for example, however everyone’s prepared for a brief outage.  Also regarding electricity, it’s disconcerting to see the proliferation of wires that hang from telephone poles, sometimes easily within reach of anyone who might casually reach up and touch them.  We suspected the low-hanging ones were merely phone lines, but weren’t sure.  In Ao Nang, the highest wires were actually buzzing constantly, snapping, and popping occasionally.  At night you could see electricity arcing around the insulators atop polls sometimes.  Walking on the sidewalks under this wasn’t particularly nice, but we got used to it quickly, and it became normal after a day or two.

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A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

Insight three: the food is by turns surprising, delicious, and tastebud scorching.  We found a couple of favorite dishes: papaya salad, a sweet and spicy dish, and mango sticky rice, which is exactly what it sounds like–slices of fresh, melt-in-your-mouth mango with glutinous rice.  We liked the fruit smoothies that were ubiquitous.  It was shocking to see bugs roasted up and for sale as snacks.  Want a crispy grasshopper?  Check.  Maybe  silkworm larvae?  Got it.  Other insect?  Probably available.  Neither of us ventured to try these, although my friend offered us this tidbit: “I’ve tried the ones under an inch long.  They don’t really have any taste.  They’re kinda crispy.  Just wings and things, you know.” And as for the Pad Thai: Ruen Thai, a restaurant half a world away in little Cornelia, Georgia, makes stuff that’s as good or better than we encountered in the actual country.  If you’re ever in Cornelia, you should go there, and you can have a wonderful Thai dining experience at a fraction of the cost of flying to Thailand and with none of the risk of food poisoning you run at a street vendor.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

Insight four: the place is hot.  Really hot.  In UT it was 100F one day, and this was just barely April.  It’s also extremely humid.  This is no surprise, as Thailand is a tropical country, but still, 100F and high humidity is formidable.

Would we move to Thailand?  No.  “It’s too third world,” says my wife.  I agree.  It’s a neat place to visit, and we’d definitely go back.  The next time, however, we’d fly to Phuket and get the ferry from there to Ao Nang, skipping the bland northeast, grungy Bangkok, and go directly to the scenic coast, with its otherworldly pillars of rock and vegetation rising from the sea.  That’s all for now.  Stay tuned for Jenia’s upcoming post, one I think you’ll find far more interesting and insightful than what I’ve offered here.