Sawasdi!

My bud Wayne lives in Phuket and I thought what a lovely place to go for a well-deserved bit of Rest and Reorganization. Some things happened, some things didn't, and I once again returned to Atlanta only to find the place hadn't changed a bit. So, here's some of it. Not all, but some. So come with me for a moment. Let me tell you a story.

Thailand is the original peaceful kingdom by the sea and Phuket is an island paradise with friendly people, awesome food and weather and scenery that makes Malibu look like Macon. Really. Here's the 'Bu, and here's Patong beach:

The 'bu Patong beach

Malibu may have the Porsches and Bentleys, but Phuket's got everything else. To put it in the current American vernacular, Thailand ROCKS. Everything is also so shockingly cheap you've got to constantly recalibrate your mind to the world in Baht. A thousand Baht is roughly $35 US but, like poetry, prices don't make sense in translation:

Breakfast for two, 175 Baht
Two skewers of grilled something, 20 Baht
An hour of Thai massage, 250 Baht
Chivas nam, 150 Baht

Saying breakfast was six bucks for the both of us, lunch was 70 cents and an hour of twisting, popping and squishing was ten bucks with tip just doesn't make sense, so I had to get comfy with what things cost in Baht, and tip by percentage. Chivas nam, by the way, is Chivas Regal Scotch and water (nam). At five bucks, this is no deal. Anything brought into Thailand is subject to a withering import duty, but they don't have an income tax. SWEET. I'd rather pay more for imported Scotch and get all the good local stuff for cheap cheap. Scotch I can get anywhere ...


Wandering About
I don't want a tuk-tuk, suit or massage, thanks but no, and people are constantly hustling you for all of the above. A polite wave is all it takes. Never had anyone get even slightly aggressive but it IS a bit annoying to have to wave 'em off every ten meters. Once you get used to _that_ silliness, Phuket is AWESOME. Avoiding the cheap knock-off crap, local Thai shirts, silks and wood-carved products are all very good. I picked up half a dozen nice shirts for about $10 bucks each. Good eats abound at street vendors selling everything from fruit (incredibly good) to barbecued chicken (same) to fish balls (tasty, if mysterious) My body may be a temple at home, but it's a full-up amusement park when I'm on vacation. I ate the squid, the fish, the chicken, the sausage and whatever else they had out and available. Fried rice, coconut curry, hell I even wokked my way through Thai culinary school. This stuff is GOOD. I avoided the tap water since I'm not a complete kamikaze, but everything else was just fine. Don't worry about the ice, the tea, or even the iced tea, and if you haven't had Thai iced tea, try it. Wonderful stuff without the cream they insist on using stateside. My bud Wayne is a child of the American South and drinks American-style iced tea which the Thais wisely serve with sugar syrup. There's an idea for ya' --instead of trying to dissolve sugar crystals in cold tea which ain't gonna happen, how about putting out a creamer of syrup that will? Crafty, these Asians ...

There's a BUNCH of places with iced fish, lobster and godzilla-size prawns on display at street level where you pick what you want, spec how you want it, and in about twenty minutes you're eating it. Wayne's a vegetarian and he introduced me to vegetarianism in the early 80's, a path I followed for some 20-odd years. I've since taken another path and relaxed a bit, but Wayne-O is still on the Green Wagon and watched in shock and awe as I munched my way across the landscape:

"Lobster's a freakin' bug, man! They're bottom feeding fucking bugs! Please tell me you're not gonna eat that shit?"

"Damn skippy, dude. Pass the prik nam pla."

Take yer pick

Almost everything is Thailand is served with fermented fish sauce and chopped chilies (prik nam pla) and you'll be absolutely revolted by the smell of it. Once you growl that back and actually taste it, you'll find out why sixty million Thai's eat it every day. After a week in-country eating this stuff I was well on my way to developing a real substance abuse issue. It's Good. Very. The best Nam Pla is made from prawns or anchovies, depending on your tastes. I like 'em both, but you knew I would. Thai food is simple, quick, and healthy if you go easy on the coconut milk. I haven't cooked much of it at home, but I'm gonna do it now. French knife-work with Thai ingredients and Italian style. Yeah, this kicks ass ...

You want Thai with that?

Chivas nam / Nam Shiva
Paradoxes aabound on this trip, and I'll lay out just one of 'em: Wayne spends a lot of his time at Sai Baba's ashram, and one of the things they do up there is Bhajan, singing the various names of God throughout the ages, he says. Nam Shiva invokes Shiva, one of the Hindu trinity. Chivas nam is Scotch and water at a bar in Patong. Shiva is the destroyer aspect of God, according to the Hindus, and Chivas will do just about the same given the chance. There's some serious industrial Truth here, but I was far out of my depth in grasping it, so I switched to drinking Russian Standard with a crew from St. Petersburg and made some cryptic notes for later meditation. The Russians were cool as hell to party with, and I found out that Phuket is a premium destination for Europeans who pretty much own the place: Germans, Dutch, Swedes, Aussies, Russian Mafiya. Rock on Stazi, wherever you are. You people party like there gonna outlaw it tomorrow.

Banana club

With absolutely no explanation offered, here's a pic of Wayne with an ape I sang with:

Wayne and his new girlfriend

Here's him actually singing, although I didn't make it into the frame. Yes, those are elephants. Pratchett fans will note I didn't call him a monkey.

Play that funky music, white boy ...

A few more pics of why Phuket is such a righteous place:

Boats on the beach

Doorway

If you'll note in some of the pics, I'm sporting a sunburn that can only be described as AWESOME. Wayne's head roasted, hat or no, and the tops of my feet got grilled through my Diesel sandals. Phuket is pretty close to the equator and the sun there is much stronger (varying as cosine latitude in case you just HAD to know). I swam, dove, attempted to surf a bit and generally just loved the place. The beaches are mostly empty, and someone probably ought to tell the Euro girls to put their tops back on. Trying, like the Thais, to be tolerant of other cultures I didn't think it was my place ...


If you meet the Buddha on the road ...
Riding our bikes through the mountains, Wayne and I stumbled across several Buddhist shrines, temples, and ruins of both. I had to stop in at a few, and ended up lighting incense and placing three wands each in front of four shrines. I'm not sure what the tradition was, but the monks took it seriously so we did to. We both prayed for enlightenment, prosperity and a somewhat lessened hangover. Buddhist thought has a huge influence in Thailand, and I spent some of the evenings reading the Buddhist tracts you could pick up at the shrines and some of the material Wayne keeps lying about from his travels in India. There's a lot of good thought here, and quite a lot of it resonates with my thinking: choose your own path, seek within. How all this deep thought and wisdom can coexist side-by-side with the action in Patong is hard to grasp, but it certainly does. Ah, mystical Asia. I donated some Baht at one temple, and got the most elegant calligraphy carbon-copy receipt. Sweet.


Bikers on the Beach
Asia runs on old Diesels and small displacement motorcycle engines. A BIG bike there is 250cc, with most of them 125 or 150. Gasoline is about 30 Baht a liter ($4 bucks a gallon) which isn't outrageous, but there's a lot to be said for not spending Big Baht on gas. Considering that 300 Baht at the market gets you enough fruit, rice, vegetables and fish for two people to eat well for a week, 120 Baht for a gallon of fuel is a chunk of change. The concept of Currency really hit me on this trip -- an egg costs about the same all over the world in terms of the hours of labor required to purchase one, but labor rates and costs vary wildly. Wages are low in Thailand, but the cost of living is low too. Rather than gold, or the fantasy of a fiat currency, I think I'd rather see the world on the egg standard. You can't eat gold, and my US dollars dropped in value every day I was in-country. I'd rather trade in eggs or, failing that, Euros that aren't plummeting in value every week.

Back to the bikes. Here's a typical parking area outside a shop in Patong:

Bikers rule

Nothing but bikes, and small displacement engines all. Of course, there's still plenty of people Bringing It Old School:

Bikes and old school dude

I know I've mentioned the eggs more than once, but they're freakin' amazing. Hard shells, orange yolks you can scramble with a spoon and flavor like I can't tell you. Here's a few pics from Greg Goes to Thai Culinary:

Curry paste materials
Damien crushing the curry
Red and green curry paste

You know, I was halfway through eating lunch before I remembered to take a picture. Pad Thai, Massaman curry with tofu, mixed rice. Simple, fast and GOOD.

Pad thai, Massaman curry

Sporting a serious sunburn, here I am in a small kitchen by the sea. You know, if this only paid better ...

Sunburned and happy


Why Delta Airlines Sucks
Since I was flying Business Class, I got to hang out in the Thai, China Air and EVA Air lounges which were nothing short of amazing. A spread of food worthy of a cruise ship, free drinks (Chivas nam!), free Internet and a staff that was courteous enough to make you feel like, well, King of Siam. Thai and EVA even had showers and a room for you to clean up. Delta? These guys are Third World. The Delta Crown Room lounge at LAX was packed to standing room only, which they say isn't unusual. The Dim Sum and Thai buffets of Asia became peanuts and coke at LAX, just like on board their sad little airline. Even the ubiquitous free Internet connection costs ten bucks in the Delta lounge, although you can usually connect to one of the decent airlines free wireless networks. Talk about Cheap! Hey, I'm from Atlanta and it pains me to say it, but Delta has turned into Aeroflot. OK, that may not be fair. From my dealings with Russian biznessmen, I'd expect Aeroflot to be pretty deluxe these days.

EVA Air was fantastic, Thai was outstanding. Delta flat-out sucked. Third world service, nickel-and-dime charges for things everyone else gives away, in-flight service featuring inedible plastic food and service that reminds me of scenes from The Book Thief. Take the hint boys: get better FAST or you're gonna be history. Sawasdi, Delta, goodbye.


Back To The Good Bits

Jungceylon mall shrine

There's a lot to be said for the Thais: they're tolerant, happy and very easy to get along with. They're very happy to show you their language, their food, their culture and their beautiful country. Mostly Buddhist, every building has a shrine outside which most Thais bow to, hands together, as they pass. It's a nod to Thailand's animist origins, and they've got to be the most tolerant people I've ever seen: Hindus, Buddists, Jews, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs all getting along. They even put up with me and Wayne.

Looking across the straits to Indonesia I think about the thirteen thousand islands I'll never have time to see and sit at the edge of some Great Truth that I'm not quite getting. Watching the locals smiling and laughing and working so hard for very few Baht I think that, like Lao-tse, they've stopped worrying about the answer and have settled for asking better questions. What's for dinner? Where are we going? What shall we do today? It was good to come home to my woods and my mountains but equally wonderful to know there's still a peaceful kingdom by the sea and that they know there, for sure, the right questions to ask.

Copyright 2007 Greg Richter / IFR Music