monday memories / RTW trip: no turkey in thailand

while i have my around-the-world photos out from their usual home in the garage, i think i’ll continue telling some more stories from that adventure. after the last post about bali ...

we walked across the malaysia/thailand border. that was weird. no man's land for a few hundred yards. then after a harrowing minibus ride overnight from the border of malaysia, we made it to a perfect little island. away from the touristey phuket, ko samui and ko pipi, we found ko lanta. off season. pretty much deserted. as in, no full-moon parties (one can only imagine the insanity!). lovely.

we stayed in a place that was “closed” but – in gracious thai style -- they allowed a few folks to stay anyway. an interesting couple from port townsend and an aussie couple.

we arrived on thanksgiving (my very favorite holiday). and we arrived provisions in hand. we hadn't been able to find a turkey so we bought chicken. no sweet potatoes so bought white potatoes. no regular string beans so bought those long asian string beans. at the beach bungalow, we were told we needed to find the chef and ask permission to invade his sacred, sand-floored kitchen and cook up the thanksgiving feast. this young chef eyed us up and down – you know how chefs are – and grudgingly turned over his kitchen to us. we prepared the feast, and invited everyone staying there to join in. so the six tourists (we say “touri”) and the three local guys caretaking the hotel, including the chef, regaled at our meal. it was a great, right up there with all-time perfect ambiance, company and food.

from the islands we headed up to bangkok ... to the blare of tuktuks and the first masked people i ever saw because of the pollution. pretty overwhelming after the harmony and balance of bali and ko lanta. but we were two months into our trip and getting our travellers’ “sea legs” by now. curt dove into the thai spicey food, sweat dripping down his face, savoring the pad thai and gai pad graprow (chicken with holy basil) dishes. i had read a one-liner in our lonely planet guidebook about a monastery that offered an herbal detox process for people hooked on the ever-prevalent and highly addictive opium and heroin from up north. decided i had to go there to see for myself. a journalistic bug, if you will. left curt in the city -- the only time we separated during our whole 10-month journey -- and headed to wat thamkrabok 130km north of bangkok.

the monastery was spectacular, in a rough, primitive way. huge buddha statues gazed down on the tranquil paths and the dark-brown robed monks -- mountain monks -- who use no transportation. walk everywhere. eat once a day at 7am. hard core. i think they're like the navy seals of monks (at least that's what i understood from my guide). but peaceful at the same time.

the receptionist monk wrangled up the only english-speaker to give me a tour. my monk guide was american. huge. hailed from new york, his bronx accent still strong. said he had been a mercenary before coming to the monastery to change his ways, 18 years prior.

i was in awe of him, a little fearful, and thrilled. i’m walking with an ex-mercenary-turned-monk, i thought. it was like a dream. hard to take it all in.

as we walked, at one point i swayed into him – you know, the way you do walking with someone -- brushing his shoulder with mine. he said, a monk may not touch a woman, with a half-smile -- still serious -- whispering, that’s the most fun i’ve had in 18 years. i stayed three feet away after that. didn’t want to mess with this guy.

he showed me the monks’ life, sitting on rocks, chipping away at stones or carving huge buddhas. breaking down and building up. a perfect metaphor for the addicts there for drug detox.

the recovering addicts stay in a secluded dormitory for the first 5 days where they ingest a secret herbal potion morning and evening which causes immediate vomiting. they also take herbal pills and drink special herbal tea. and twice daily, they leave their seclusion to walk across the grounds to endure HOT herbal steambaths. cold turkey detox. i didn't have much access since i wasn't with a big news organization, but i did see the procession to the steambath. here are more images of the process, if you can "stomach" it. the monks have been delivering this detox process since 1959 for over 100,000 addicts. apparently they have a high success rate.

after bangkok, we headed up north to the enchanting, lush, mountain region of chaing mai and smaller chaing rai ... and the thai portion of the golden triangle. from idyllic mae hong son, we left on a seven-day hill-tribe trek.

our group was led by the lovely burmese man leung.

we walked all day, entering a village in the late afternoon.

we stayed in local homes – one-room bamboo homes on stilts -- the animals live underneath. no electricity. no running water (thus the little dirty faces everywhere).

we ate and slept with the families, scattered on the bamboo floor.

our first night after dinner, sitting around the fire INSIDE the bamboo house (how do they not burn them down?), a very old woman entered and made her way to a dark corner of the room. leung went off in the dark after her, then returned. one by one, people went into her corner, then returned. turns out she was the opium dealer in town. as it was described to me, she lay on her side with a candle and the opium pipe on the floor. for a small price, anyone could go and lay down next to her, facing her. she would stoke the pipe and keep it going while they smoked, she took turns. many of the others in our group tried it. me? are you kidding? i wasn’t going anywhere near the stuff. no curiosity at all, not after what i’d seen at wat thamkrabok.

every evening in each village, someone would enter after dinner and offer opium in a dark corner. leung seemed to like it. i was afraid he was becoming addicted, if he wasn’t already.

only one night did we camp out, in the jungle. leung made all the cookware, tea kettle, serving spoons, and chopsticks out of bamboo! then cooked the meal. we ate off of big leaves. the whole trek ... amazing.

after saying goodbye to our new friends, we found another little village where we’d heard several peace corps workers were living. they invited us to stay for christmas and enjoy the turkey they'd been fattening up for months. we remembered our turkey-less thanksgiving and were quite tempted ... but we wanted to keep moving to get to nepal. 

so we headed out of the hills, this time on the top of a bus, soaking in the tropical air, the floral scents, the late afternoon sun ... no fear, just contentment. we were real travellers now. we could handle pretty much anything. we could get around. we were safe. having fun. learning. making all kinds of friends. having all kinds of experiences. in. the. world. free.

ps - i apologize for all the photos of curt. he's just so dang photogenic! 

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lessons learned: cook for the locals. just say no. ride on top of buses whenever possible. 

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ok, i'm cooking thai food tonight!