Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Big [Dirty] Mango

Bangkok, Monday morning, December 2009.

I awoke on Khao San Rd at 5:30am.  Fumbling out of my 3 dollar hostel, there was heavy grey mist covering the streets and the only thing clear to me was the blood orange color of the monks' thick robes wandering silently, collecting alms. their presence is loud, although a peaceful one.

Thailand is a maze of contradictions. it's culture full of paradoxes that few can solve or explain.
How is it that these holy men walk this street before dawn so gracefully when only hours before it was littered with drunken backpackers, prostitutes and scam-artists? How can these cultures coexist in a way that makes sense?

Bangkok, although the most Westernized city in the country, also exudes the most "Thai"ness. It is a compact chaos, glittering with golden stupas and suffocated by smog. Its people, its badgering, its heavy air, tuk-tuks, traffic, they weigh down on me so much that I feel like the city is actually a pressure cooker, not a metropolis, and I'm ready to explode.

 They call it the Big Mango, which I always assumed was an Asian play on the Big Apple, but Bangkok is not unlike eating a ripe mango with your hands: if you don't mind the mess, its quite the treat...

Bangkok has the most to offer, assuming you can suffer through all the in between. The most beautiful temples, some of the best food, easily the best shopping.... It's a fascinating,fun and fast paced place to be, but it wears down on you quick... which is why I was sprinting towards the bus station, utterly exhausted and desperate to get back to dusty old Ayutthaya.... Oh yeah, and I had to be in class by 9 o clock......

Don't Leave Home Without It

The Essentials of Living/ Traveling in Thailand
I've been here long enough to know what to bring around the city or pack for quick country tour. These products I literally could not live without.

#1 Tiger Balm
This small but mighty item is so essetial in my daily lifie that if I forget it when I leave the house, I immediately go to 7-11 to pick up another one for a meager 50 baht. Because at any given moment, I have at least 4 ferocious mosquito/ ant / other scary bug bites somewhere on my body that need rubbed down constantly. Luckily, TB does the trick. While I was keen on white for a while, the red version is a bit more fiery so I've switched back to that.

Tiger Balm is a miracle worker on sore muscles as well as bites. Ask your masseuse to lather some on before your yogic Thai-massage and you will be in heaven (or should i say Nirvana?).
Other uses include: rubbing on your temples for a quick pick me up, rubbing on your neck/shoulders when sitting at your computer for 24 hours takes its toll, or rubbing anywhere on your body at any time for mentholy warming, burning, cooling tingling magic. I like it on the inside of my forearm, near your elbows. (Thanks Emily) Weird, but totally sensational. As you can tell, it's never far out of my reach and I use it generously :)

#2 Prickly Heat, Lavender or BabiMild, purple
 February through May, this will safe your life. When you're hot and sweaty, (which is all the time, even after you shower) pour this old-lady powder all over yourself and your sweat will tingle away. Its absolutely magical, and will leave you feeling indescribably prickly and fresh. 
just do it. you will smell better too!

#3 All-purpose Sarong.

Forget your towel? Your $3 hostel doesn't have sheets? Want to wear a skirt? Do you have to shower in public? Do you need a blanket on the bus? A pillow? Need a handkerchief to cry into when you miss your bus? Need somewhere to wipe the gallons of sweat constantly dripping off your face, or the leftover mango all over your hands?


I think 75% of my facebook pictures feature this Om-ed Yellow-Wonder. I. Love. It.

(It should be noted that I also used it as a tapestry/window insulator when I was living in Chicago. 
Seriously all-purpose.) 


If you have those three things, you are off to a good start. A few other less-essential but often appreciated  products are:  menthol inhalers for smelly bus/train rides or headaches, sanitizer wipes for general use, and tamarind candy for yummy, healthy snacking :)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Drunken ghosts celebrate life

More than 2553 years ago, Buddha went off into the forest for a long time to meditate. Gone for 49 days (but eventually seeking spiritual enlightenment) the folks at home started to worry about him. They were convinced their Prince was dead deep in the forest. But eventually, after days of worry, the enlightened man emerged, and his people were so surprised to see him they thought he was a ghost. On discovering he was the real deal, the villages threw a big "glad you're not dead/ welcome back" party.

Now, I don't know about in the old days in Nepal or India, but Thailand sure knows how to throw Buddha a party. They call it the "Ghost Festival" or "Pee Tha Kon" in Thai.  Everyone dresses up in intricately painted masks made of rice baskets and wood, with matching outlandish costumes.

ghosts in the streets of dansai
too much poking. awkward.
Apparently there are customs and formal traditions involved in this festival, including finding a lucky pearl in the river and listening to 13 of Buddhas sermons.... but I didn't see any of that. It's pretty secondary to what the festival is really about : Dancing around in costume, drinking, and poking one another with huge wooden phalluses they carry around like swords. (There is really no explanation for this other than the Thai sense of humor - I've checked)**.  

During the parade, there were also a few groups of men dressed in blackface - extremely bizarre and offensive, but given the amount of racism in Thai culture, not surprising. (Again, Thai sense of humor is a little off at times, and I found no real reason for these groups to be included in the celebration)  I feel weird about posting these pictures, but I also feel it necessary ? 

ummm this is okay?
The festival took place in beautiful Isaan, Loei Province. This side of the country is less developed, full of rolling hills and rice fields, and was predictably sunny and hot that weekend. The odd thing about visiting Isaan, is that falang are still kind of a novelty. While magnificent ghost masks and spectacle danced around me, I was the one being asked multiple times to have my picture taken with locals. I even saw a few people sneak pics of me on their cellphones while I walked by - it felt nearly paparazzi-esque, and made me pretty uncomfortable. I was there with my other falang friend - and with her pale skin and red hair,  we were very foreign sights for the people of Leoi. 

This ghost-man wanted his pic with the falang, and the falang wanted a pic with the ghost man. Win-win 

Overall, another enchanting weekend of colors and celebration in Amazing Thailand.  While I certainly learned a lot about this Buddhist holiday and the culture of Isaan, the intrigue lies in that I always leave these festivals with more questions than I came with...

**Phalluses or lingam are prevalent in Thai culture, blending together a few different religious customs (In Hinduism, it represents Shiva), but typically symbolizes fertility or power. How this was particularly relevant in this festival wasn't exactly clear. But hey, why not. 

Monday, July 19, 2010


"They will beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
Nor will they train for war anymore"

Isiah 2:4

While visiting Vang Vieng, Laos, I had the opportunity to visit Elephant Cave, and I was blessed with a lesson of peace. All of my Catholic/Jesuit/Karios Community friends are well familiar with the verse above, and this could not be a more beautiful example of peacemaking and turning "swords into plowshares" - or in this case - bombs into bells. 

 I would dare to say that 99% of Americans could not point to Laos on a map.  (Admittedly, I probably couldn't have either a year ago). Probably even fewer know that we decimated this country with our bombs thirty years ago. During our secret bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War, we dropped over 2 million tonnes of bombs on this tiny country - more than all of the bombs dropped during World War II altogether!!! making Laos
the most bombed country in the world
(More bombed than Germany? Iraq? Vietnam? Yes. yes. yes.)

As if that wasn't enough horror, an estimated 30% of these bombs never exploded, and still lay silent in fields, awaiting a plow, farmer, or playing child to come along and knock them into explosion. Thousands of people die every year in Laos from "bombies" - unexploded bombs left from American raids. Farmers and families are starving to death because they cannot plant their fields out of fear of coming across a de-facto land mine and blowing up. 

I don't feel like getting into the million other ways that we destroyed this country, because I never needed more reasons to be ashamed of American history to begin with. What did little Laos ever do to big America? (Nothing.) Why did we even do this in the first place? (Still not sure.) What are we doing now to fix these atrocities?? (Not much).

But this BELL - this beautiful bell. It's amazing to me how a community can come across such a symbol of American oppression and death to their own country and turn in into a musical instrument for their local temple. It is rung every morning and evening to call the monks to temple and prayer. This shell, just like the millions of  other ones that kill children and farmers every day in Laos, was polished and painted and turned into something made for meditation, enlightenment, and peace. This sword that is now a plowshare sends a message of hope for the reconciliation of my own country's injustices on this small nation. A transformation from violence to harmony, and a lesson to be learned for everyone.

works cited/ read for yourself:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Family Vacation on a Nazi Boat ... (and other adventures)

So, I've spend the last month unexpectedly traveling through Laos and Vietnam.... How those kind of things happen "unexpectedly" I"m not sure, but here inSoutheastAsia they just do. One day I was spending my afternoon at my fancy gym in Chiang Mai, while a mere 48 hours later I was cooking rice over a fire in the middle of rural Laos....

I have serious whip lash from the transition into Vietnam from Laos. While Laos' pace of life is similar to that of molasses, Vietnam is all hustle bustle whizzing by...

I spent the past few days on what can only be referred to as a Nazi Boat touring through Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island. While the scenery is breathtaking, I can't help but feel like I'm in some kind of tourist factory... being shuttled from one activity to another, quick stops for generic meals, and being asked "Are we having fun?!?!" By Vietnamese with wicked smiles glued to their faces the whole time....

In Thailand, it is well known by everyone who's been there that there are no rules, especially for tourists. Whatever the falang says, goes. It is was makes Thailand so popular and so easy to travel through. Thai (and Laos) people love falang... and, well... Vietnamese people.... do not.... On the Nazi Boat around Cat Ba, we were being told what not to do so many times that I was having wicked flashbacks of sophomore year in highschool that soon turned into realities.... Due to the "do not BYOB" rule, yet an overpriced wine list onboard, we were forced to sneak vodka into our tiny, cramped cells and drink booze out of water bottles so the Dutch grandparents we were sailing with wouldn't judge us.... (not to mention the severe nazi punishment we would receive!)

The contrast in pace also requires some major adjustment. Vietnam's congested traffic, constant honking, and persistant vendors are indeed a little jarring. Especially remembering the slow and lazy nights we had in Laos, sitting around eating sticky rice, freely sipping lao lao at our leisure, and telling stories... ah, peaceful, free, Laos.... like some kind of foggy mountain dream....

Monday, April 12, 2010

Red shirts and water fights
[the last video footage by the Japanese journalist who was killed right off of Khao San]

quick update, because its been awhile and im in the center of chaos right now.

Bangkok has been making a lot of news lately because of the red shirts, and although i havent been following religiously, it may be just as bad the media is reporting. (but then again, i just got here)

today also starts Buddhist New Year - which means constant water fights by hoses, buckets, and soaking your neighbor by any means necessary.

On Khao San, the main backpackers street in Bangkok, the stark contrast at the end of the road is incredible.

[there are a million poignant pictures to take here, but unfortunately my camera now belongs to a nameless Khmer child in Phnom Phen...]

On one side of Khao San there are hundreds of shirtless, soaking travelers and backpackers dancing, rap music blaring, dousing eachother with icy cold water to bring in the new year...

and the thai people, the red shirts, on the other end of the street, are not only dry, but sucked of the joyous party atmosphere that exists only feet away. broken glass and rocks cover the road, all the storefronts and restaurants are closed for blocks to due broken windows and general fear. The center  of the street is roped off by waving thai flags where there is a memorial for two people killed by the government military earlier yesterday. talking with some red shirts on the street, between 10 and 20 protesters have been killed. thai people walk by somberly, offering gifts of thai flags, water bottles, flowers, coins and red bull.

the contrast in the two atmospheres, in pure sight and emotion, is overwhelming.

this protest has lasted over a month for the red shirts, and now its turning violent at the time of New year - a time that's supposed to bring hopeful rebirth and new beginnings. it seems that that won't be happening any time soon here in Bangkok...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

tuk-tukin' round the YOOT

So I've lived in Ayutthaya (pronounced uh-YOOT-tai-yaaa, and affectionately nicknamed The YOOT ) for almost 4 months now, so i figured it was about time i saw all the sights. with a friend in town and the sun shining, i finally had an excuse to be a tourist in my own city.

Kassem was our tuk tuk driver and tour guide for the day, and quite frankly, he was The Man. he spoke Thai with us - clearly and slowly - and somehow perfectly estimated how much we knew, because at all the right moments he would slip into a very articulate english.  "dern chaa chaa bundai jet sip gao ... around the back of the gold chedi behind the stupa... hen buddha suay maag". Not only did we understand HIS thai, but HE understood OUR thai - which is an amazing accomplishment in this little city.

In our further Thai-glish conversations with Kassem, we found out he was quite the ladies man,  also enjoyed rice whiskey, and wouldn't stop teasing me when my face got red after drinking a beer (damn asian flush).

of all the sights in ayutthaya, the reclining buddha is my favorite.This buddha is one of my favorite poses in general, where Buddha is about to die after his lifelong meditative battle with earthly suffering, escape samsara [reincarnation] and enter into nirvana [kind of like heaven, but not].

i find Ayutthaya's RB more beautiful than the more famous one in Bangkok's Wat Pho, mainly because you can actually see the whole thing at one time, and its not obtructed by pillars, nor contained by ceilings. It's just chillin' under the clouds, his orange robe wafted by wind, gold stickers sparkling in sunlight. He is relaxed and reclined, about to enter into the sweet blissful state of nirvana, and his expression captures this perfectly. his smile is sneaky and mysterious like the Mona Lisa, but definately at peace, euphoric with spiritual detachment and looking forward to his future liberation. he just looks so... content. almost smug. i love it.

Side Note: This is perhaps the reason why I prefer temples and buddhas over churches and crosses. Tell me the last time you were in a church surrounded by images of Jesus looking smug.... (never. its depressing.)

Another noteworthy temple of the Yoot is Wat Phu Khao Thong, an impressive chedi consisting of 79 steps but a rather bland extertior. While the name means "Golden Mount", it is actually white. More like dirty gray. But endure the 79 step walk up, and on the base of the chedi you will find a very small door, about 4 feet high, like something from Alice and Wonderland. It leads you down an equally shallow hallway, and there you will discover something amazing. Deep inside this pyramid there is small, clostrophobic room, 20 degrees hotter than it is outside, stuffy and... sparkling. It covered with glitter and gold, including a magnificent ruby Buddha unlike i've ever seen.

A monk was sitting quietly in the "room" already, but it was more like a closet. With only me, Eva, and the monk, the space was packed, the unmoved air stuffy with incense and farang sweat. Overcome with sparkling idols, I bowed to the ruby Buddha and humbly excepted a gift of sacred thread (yet another) and a blessing from the resident monk.

Our trip around Ayutthaya was tireless, but somehow visiting temples always leaves me rejuvenated and propitious. The city of Ayutthaya, it turns out, is much like the Golden Temple itself. As an outside observer,  it may look simply old and dusty. But look closer, and you will find a history deep as it is dirty, and full of beauty and blessings  in the most unexpected places.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Haiku Friday

On a Thursday! Lucky you.

On Thailand........

Full Moon over sand

buckets of booze all abound

Douchebag Paradise


"An iced coffee, please"

But when it reaches my lips

Am I drinking cake?


Tuk-Tuk twenty baht

black exhaust smells quite noxious

I need a SARS mask


Sunburnt robes layered

Your bright curtain engulfs you

What lies underneath?


A sweet, sticky clump

of coconut and white rice

with mango, I drool

On American Politics.....

Since when is war Peace?

A surge of violence out East

Barack, earn your prize


Yo, Copenhagen!

This blue planet needs healing

Stop fucking around


GITMO still open

Black hoods and jumpsuits I wore

their Justice denied

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Warning: profanity ahead. Inspired by the hilarious

So of course I thought Joe was joking when he said that you could play the harmonica better than me! You’re an elephant, for Christ’s sake. I assumed that because I have lips, I have the ability to blow air into little aluminum crevices better than you. You only have that that long-ass nose you grab bananas with…. And yet apparently this is superior to my pathetic little human mouth and chubby but conveniently mobile fingers.

IT WASN’T ENOUGH that I’ve spent my ENTIRE MUSICAL CAREER coming in second place to Asians . But no, second chair violinists and 3rd place piano player to the human Asian race wasn’t enough. Now I’m surpassed by the Asian ELEPHANT? On the least-complex instrument ever? You don't even have a TIGER MOM. You have got to be kidding me.

And you HAD to throw in that little dance routine, didn’t you? Rub salt in my white, untalented, callused wounds, why don’t you????

Now, not only am I embarrassed, I owe Joe ten beers. Ten of your own GD “Chang” Beers – you self promoting, big-earred whore. F U, Asian Elephant. For being so god damn adorable with your charming musical ability…. And reminding me how much a suck at life. Thanks a lot.