Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Familiar Fizz

There are some things you will rarely escape, no matter how far you travel. McDonald’s, for instance. Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and KFC all show up fairly often. And Krispy Kreme has made a recent debut here in Thailand, following us all the way from home. But nothing is as prevalent, and as adaptable, as good ol’ fashioned Coca-Cola. No matter where we’ve gone, how rich or poor the country, what language they speak or what money they use, we could always order a Coke with our meal. (Apparently this is true unless you go to North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Burma, or Sudan.)

I have seen the Coca-Cola emblem written in so many languages it’s mind-boggling. Most products maintain their logo and change all wording to the local language; Not Coke. Strangely, you can instantly recognize it, no matter the language. The brand image is apparently seared into our brains. The same thing can be said of most Coke and Pepsi products.

One big difference between here and home that they use old school glass bottles. You almost never see glass Coke bottles in the U.S. But, in Southeast Asia, they are much cheaper than plastic, since the bottles are returned to the company and refilled. This means you have to either drink it on the premises and give the bottle back, or they will toss ice in a plastic bag and pour your Coke in. Slap in a straw and you have a to-go “cup” full of soda, sweetened with real sugar. Nothing quite as refreshing, or precarious, as a bag of cool soda.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Happy 750th Birthday, Chiang Rai

Last week marked Chiang Rai’s 750th anniversary. Founded in 1262 by King Mangrai, the city was essentially the first capital of what was to become Siam and eventually Thailand. Chiang Rai, meaning the city belonging to King Mangrai, was captured by the Burmese some time later, sending the King fleeing south, where he founded Chiang Mai as his capital instead. 

King Mangrai Memorial, Chiang Rai

Despite its short reign as the Siamese capital, the people of Chiang Rai are incredibly proud of their historical and cultural heritage. So, it stands to reason that the 750-year anniversary would be a huge production.

In preparation for the celebration, all the schools in town were closed Thursday and their parking lots commandeered by the city. As the capital city of the Chiang Rai province, the expected turnout was pretty huge.

Chiang Rai remains the center of Thailand’s Lanna culture, which has its own traditional dress, food and customs. (Fridays at school are ‘Lanna Day’ during which time teachers wear traditional garb – women in straight, ankle-length, wrap skirts and collared, wrap-closure shirts, and men in shirts of rough fabric with knot-and-loop closures instead of buttons. Men traditionally also get to wear pajama-style pants, just not to school.)

There is also a vast hilltribe population in the province, each tribe speaking its own language, donning unique clothing, and practicing its own customs. All in all, northern Thailand is soaked in a heritage all its own.

The celebration brought each of these elements together. At all the temples around town, shows and displays boasted Chiang Rai’s history. And the Saturday walking street was opened on Thursday evening; a stationary parade-of-sorts demonstrated the various costumes, dance, and music up and down the center of the street. And on the sidelines, hilltribe handicrafts were sold while the tribe children sported various jingling, colorful dress.

Despite being less popular than its predecessor Chiang Mai (literally, ‘new city’), Chiang Rai has a rich cultural and historical background. It was a spectacular celebration to be present for, despite the fact that we managed to only catch the aftermath, not the performances. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

No Smoking

For a country with so many smokers, little social stigma about smoking, and where you are allowed to smoke nearly anywhere, the warnings on Thai cigarettes are surprisingly large and horrific.

Last year in the U.S., there was talk of putting graphic images on packs of cigarettes, taking up 50% of the packaging as a dramatic warning system. I perused the proposed images. They have nothing on the Thai warning pictures.

However, I find many of the warnings here confusing, misleading, or even slightly amusing. Why is Thai Fabio smoking into the face of that child/probable kidnapping victim? Holy hell, who lit that man’s foot on fire? Also, are these really warning me of the dangers of smoking? Oh well, at least the Thais are going all out.

It was actually strange going to other Southeast Asian countries last spring; the cigarette packs looked disconcertingly bare.

Disclaimer: I realize that writing about the fact that we are smokers in Thailand may spawn some criticism. However, in our defense, it took us a long time to get all of these empty packs together. Oh, and we have set Feb 1st as our quitting date, so you can all rest easy.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Yoga as a Foreign Language

I have been practicing yoga since my freshman year at Emerson College. I never feel better than when I have a regular, daily yoga practice, but I have a hard time being as disciplined and dedicated as I would like when it comes to maintaining an at-home self-practice. When no one is looking, it’s much easier to be lazy. For the first year of our time in Thailand, we weren’t living anywhere that had yoga classes. It was a very lazy year. But, finding myself in a city with an expat community I set out to find yoga somewhere.
I found two places in Chiang Rai: one, a pseudo-hippie café catering to foreigners, the other, marked with a sign all in Thai, except for a picture of people doing yoga and the number 700. It was time for a comparison.

First, I went all-Thai. Since I couldn’t find any info online, I stopped by to ask for times, prices, etc. The woman who greeted me spoke little English and repeatedly said, “Thai language.” Three classes a day, 60 baht ($2) a class or 700 baht ($23) a month, definitely worth a try. I assumed she meant she only spoke Thai. I was wrong. She meant the instructor spoke Thai during class. Oh well, no different from the rest of my life here.

Then, I went to try out the hippie expat café, although with some reservations. I don’t mean to sound judgmental, but many of the foreigners we meet aren’t exactly my cup of tea, which is why I had put off going for several months. I find them to be pompous and abrasive. Backpackers in Aladdin pants, talking about full moon parties and how awesome and fucked up they were, or spouting pseudo-spiritual dribble; I just can’t take it. And spending so little time around English speakers makes it even more difficult to be forced into listening to them ramble on about themselves. (I know I sound bitter, but feelings build up after a year and a half.)

Turned out, they had to cancel their yoga classes for lack of a teacher, but hadn’t updated their website. So, I pedaled on over to my Thai yoga class instead, making it just in time.

Turns out, I adore taking a yoga class in a foreign language. The instructor, a delightful man with a wonderful sense of humor, a big smile, and a fantastic energy about him, does speak some English, particularly yoga-oriented English. He probably speaks enough to teach a full, not very detailed, class in English.

Three months ago, he was very heavy on the English, clearly for my benefit. However, as the classes generally follow a standard ashtanga series and I have been doing yoga since 2005, his English usage has dropped down to practically nothing. When he does say something in English, I know it is directed at me, which is just lovely. He leads a wonderful, challenging class and the Thais enjoy themselves and are all willing to attempt anything. Just last night, we did headstands, handstands, and forearm stands all in one class.

Occasionally there will be another foreigner or two, and the class gets and injection of English, but not very often. My Thai comprehension, while still pathetic, is also dramatically improving. 

Okay, only yoga-specific Thai, but it’s something.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Thai Fruit: Durian

Durian. Oh, infamous durian. Banned from buses and trains, inappropriate to eat in mixed company, the durian has one overwhelming feature – its smell. Pungent, cloyingly sweet, with overwhelming tones of rotting garbage, the scent of durian is a uniquely nauseating experience. So overpowering is the smell that at Bangkok’s International Airport, the warnings for traveling with durians are identical to the warnings for checking firearms in your luggage, only the graphics are different.

I have tried durian several times, but I just cannot divorce my taste buds from my olfactory senses. I can only hold my breath while eating for so long. It just tastes exactly how it smells, with the added bonus of being super mushy.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bookstore Connoisseur

I am an admitted book junkie, and used bookstores are like my Mecca. While living and traveling in foreign countries, the lack of English-language bookstores has been the most difficult adjustment. Bookstores are few and far between, and when one does find a good one it is almost certainly expensive, catering to us “rich” tourists and such. But, having no other choice, I still will spend a good hour selecting a pricey, yet tantalizing, stack of literature to hold me over until our next book expedition.

Living in Chiang Rai, I have been lucky enough to find one decent bookstore carrying primarily English books. The selection isn’t great, but the owner is lovely. He pays very well for trade-ins (used books have become a currency with which I buy more used books). And, as the next closest bookstore is three hours away, beggars can’t be choosers.

I never miss a chance to swap for more books the second I finish reading, and have therefore perused every single bookstore we have come across in our travels. Bookstores are as necessary to me during travel as local cuisine or national monuments. Many of the books I have bought abroad are just as well-traveled as we are, working their way around Southeast Asia, picked up in one country and traded in another. I find books with stamps from bookshops in Koh Tao, Bangkok, and Koh Phi Phi. They have stickers from Bali and Vietnam, price tags from Laos and Cambodia. So far, I have yet to see a book stamped with a bookstore I haven’t visited. 

This system of reading is hands-down the worst way to check any of the books off my intended reading list, but thanks to a combination of curiosity and desperation, I read a slew of books in the past year and a half that I would have otherwise never even heard of. Several that surprised me, in no particular order, off the top of my head: Giraffe by J.M. Ledgard, Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres, A Case of Exploding Mangoes by  Mohhamed Hanif, Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (not that great, but apparently a must-read for travelers?), 2666 by Roberto Bolano. 

As a traveler, I know that the lighter, easier, more convenient thing to do would be to suck it up and buy a Kindle. And maybe, one of these days I’ll be praising the wonders of my new e-reader. But for now, I am willing to trudge along with a stack of paperbacks weighing down my backpack. I will wade through the used bookstores to find a couple of gems at decent prices. I will spend every kind of currency on overpriced books. I will forsake the ease of buying exactly what I am looking for in one simple click for the gamble and intrigue of not knowing what I will read next. Sorry Kindle, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Certified: The Art of Thai Massage

As our time in Thailand is slowly coming to a close, I realized I only had one chance left to learn Thai massage. A gift to myself, I spent the holiday break (the only consecutive free days I have left before we leave) getting Thai massage certified in Chiang Mai. Not wanting to spend an absurd amount of baht or waste my time only learning a small portion of a Thai massage, I opted to go to the same place Win went during his 2008 Thailand trip.

Win described the course as a week of getting and giving massages, and he vouched for the awesomeness of the instructor. Her 5-day whole body massage course was about half the cost of the bigger, less personal massage schools. Not bad for a hundred dollars.

So, I too went to Ms. Aree Sanyaluck, but my experience was a bit different from Win’s. For starters, I was the only student. This meant that, as I was the only one practicing, it was all massage-giving, no receiving. But, hey, I didn’t have to worry about being paired up with some creepy tourist as a massage partner. Since I was practicing on Aree herself, she knew exactly how well I was doing and how to correct me. Plus, I got to learn at my own pace.  

So, I spent five days hanging out, massaging Aree, while her three black cats lounged in the sun or stretched out alongside us. Aree turned out to be a ridiculous individual. After teaching for 26 years, she speaks not only fluent English, but also French, inadvertently slipping from one to the other occasionally. We talked about Thai schools, farang men, the Thai version of prostitution (‘girlfriends’), different types of tourists. I listened as she professed her profound hatred for most of the massage schools around Chiang Mai, especially those that teach Wat Po style (carelessly popping, cracking, and walking on backs); she told me about her herbal medicine work with the local hospital and the psychiatric hospital; and I learned about her time in Australia and Europe learning massage through a program set up by the King. Not a bad way to spend time off work.

Giving a Thai massage is incredibly exhausting, with all the lifting of dead weight, pulling and stretching of limbs, and bending the recipient into some very yoga-esque positions. But it was a ton of fun to learn, and apparently, I am a natural at it. This probably has something to do with the fact that I get a Thai massage every week ($10 for two hours, who could resist?) and I know what things they do that I just hate. I blew through the five day course in three and a half, so Aree taught me the extra two days (foot massage) on day five. For free. A wonderful New Year’s present.

And, the whole arrangement worked out in Win’s favor as well: once I finished the course, Aree had me practice on Win. Twice. So at least one of us got a free massage.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Canine Delights

Southeast Asia is chockfull of stray dogs. Apparently, especially in Buddhist countries, homeless animals aren’t given the poor treatment or apathy that they receive in the Western world. They are more like public pets; well-fed, oftentimes given collars and a place to sleep, stray animals do quite well in this part of the world. Among all the stray dogs and the care they are given, two phenomena strike me as absolutely delightful.

A bizarre canine trend has been popping up with increased frequency in Northern Thailand; as the weather has been getting colder, we have seen a distinct rise in the number of dogs wearing clothing. I don’t mean Chihuahuas and Pomeranians, on which accessories are common, but rather on your average, run of the mill stray mutts. Dog-specific clothes, sometimes, but also human hand-me-downs, sweater vests, old t-shirts and the like. People are going around and dressing these dogs in random articles of clothing. Just trotting down the street, happy and warm, stray dogs in human clothing.

My number one, favorite phenomenon among dogs in Southeast Asia: I love little dogs with massive heads. To be more accurate, their heads are the size of an average dog head, but atop a squat little body with extra short legs. The result is pure hilarity. Just looking at them, I feel joy so pronounced it typically spills out as a giggle fit. These dogs, a minority in Thailand, made up the majority of stray dogs in Central Vietnam. I am not a dog person by any means, but if ever I happen to own a dog, it will have to have this unique body shape.