Category: Thailand

Back in the Saddle…Rwanda and beyond

Ahhh, that was a nice little hiatus. Thanks for bearing with me. I know you were drumming your fingers impatiently on your desk all this time. While I hopped around to four different countries and completely wore myself out.

First, Peter and I went to Rwanda. As you do.

But really: Peter and I met a Rwandan (or Rwandese, as they say there) police officer a few years ago, and he invited us to visit. We figured we had better go before he forgot who we were. We also rounded up Rod, whom some of you may remember as our exceptionally great and extroverted travel partner on previous adventures.

It was my first visit to not-North Africa, and I can’t recommend the place highly enough. FWIW, Peter and Rod had been to Kenya before; they both liked Rwanda more. Which, I know, it’s not a contest. But in terms of traveling logistics and concerns, Rwanda has its act together: secure, clean and tasty food.

Don’t go to Rwanda if you’re a penny-pinching backpacker, though. Hotels in Kigali are pricey (we paid $50 for a private room at the hostel; everything else was $70+) and getting around by bus might be tricky. (We got escorted around in a car, which is just not like us.)

Another hotel we stayed in in Kigali one night. Peter and I got put in the penthouse suite--whee!
Another hotel we stayed in in Kigali one night. Peter and I got put in the penthouse suite–whee!

And, let’s be honest, Rwanda is not looking for backpacker tourists and doesn’t really want to help them out. Rwanda wants the tourists who will pay big bucks to go visit the mountain gorillas.

Which is not me and Peter. Our cop friend we were visiting did say the gorillas were amazing, and we should go. But it’s $750 per person, and besides, I just feel a little bad bothering them. My general approach to ecotourism is extreme: nature will be better off if I don’t go visit it.

Instead of visiting the gorillas, we just took a lot of photos like this. That's Rod next to me.
Instead of visiting the gorillas, we just took a lot of photos like this.

I’ll do a separate post with some more details. Suffice to say for now, we thought we would have “done” it in a week, but I am already plotting my return.

From Kigali, Peter, Rod and I all flew to Addis Ababa. As you do.

This was partly because Ethiopian Airlines was the best way to get to Abu Dhabi (long story; it involves frequent-flyer miles, so I won’t bore you). But it was also because Peter and I have both loved Ethiopian food since forever. And Ethiopian music. So why not stop?

Before we left Kigali, our police officer friend’s wife warned us that Addis would be a rough transition. “It is very dirty,” she sniffed. “Lots of chaos.” After being in pristine and orderly Rwanda, I figured any place would be.

But, whoa. Addis felt like Cairo circa 1992. The taxis are Ladas. The pollution is bad. The street kids are frenzied and miserable and one of them yoinked Rod’s phone right out of his pocket (but was clumsy and dropped it, so Rod got it back).

The mean streets of Addis Ababa.
The mean streets of Addis Ababa.

But our Bradt guidebook said of Addis that “its bark is worse than its bite,” which I think is a rather sweet assessment. And after a couple of days, I could see this was true.

It helped that, ohmygod, they really do eat Ethiopian food in Ethiopia. I will get to this in more detail.

From Addis, we flew to the UAE. In the morning, we were in a Lada taxi with smoke coming up through the floorboards. In the afternoon, we were in a leather-interior late-model Audi, being whisked along the smooth, straight highway from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. Totally disconcerting. We were so wiped out, we slept through our entire Etihad business-class flight. Rats.

We landed in Bangkok, third and final leg of the trip. If there’s one thing this trip taught me, it’s that three countries is just too damn many. I don’t know how people do the steady-nomad thing and still absorb anything. I’m glad I’ve been to Bangkok before (was this our third trip? or fourth?), because if it had been my first, I would’ve just collapsed in the street.

Peter’s mother met us, and she kept us moving–without her, we would’ve flopped by the pool at the Atlanta Hotel.

Look at us, sightseeing!
Look at us, sightseeing!

But, as a result, I came home and needed to flop around some more. Traveling thoroughly accompanied for three-plus weeks was exhausting. I did a lot of sitting on the couch and staring into space.

Then I went to Costa Rica for about ten days and stared into space some more.

And here we are. Finally. More details to come, folks.

A very nice picture Peter took of his mother and me, on the 75th form of transport of the day.
A very nice picture Peter took of his mother and me, near the end of a long and interesting day. Phew.

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #5: Be inefficient

On to more practical matters. Though this still relates to trip-planning.

Take the train, especially if it’s slow.

I can’t tell you how many guidebooks I’ve read recently where they’ve said, basically, “Enh, there’s a train, but you’re better off on the bus/airplane.”

C’mon—how will you ever be better off squished in a bus barreling down a highway? On a bus or a plane, you’re just waiting till you get there—that’s 100 percent wasted time.

On a train, though, the adventure starts when you get on. Fine, maybe it gets a little boring in the last hour, but it’s still at least 70 percent quality time.

OK, so maybe don't take *this* train...

Moreover, the train makes the decision for you. Overwhelmed by all the wonders a country has to offer? It’s easy to narrow down your itinerary if you just go where the train goes. After three trips to Morocco traveling almost entirely by their excellent train system, I think I’m finally ready to rent a car or hop a bus to the farther-flung parts of the country. Peter and I still haven’t run out of entertainment on the Thai train line.

Yes, you’ll be missing some things—but that would happen no matter what. Why not enjoy what you can see by train, rather than showing up cranky and poorly rested to a bunch of other places?

...but definitely this one. (Photo by Peter.)

I could expand this tip to cover all kinds of odd transport: bikes, funiculars, pickup trucks with bench seats in the back. The weirder and more novel, the better. That way, the transit time becomes an adventure too.

In fact, maybe this tip should just be: Go the least efficient way. The slower you go, the more you see.

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #2: Ugly Places

Continuing my series of cranky travel tips, many of which have to do with how to plan your itinerary. This one’s related to Tip #1, but in the bigger picture.

Go to the ugly places.

I’ve argued this before, specifically about Cancun. But it has a broader application.

Any indie traveler worth his backpack shuns the place with concrete hotels, nor do most people go where there are zero landmarks. But you can learn a lot about a local culture in some random “ugly” city, more than you can at some remote beach where there’s exactly one local, who’s selling you weed and cooking your fish dinner however you like it. Cancun is very, very Mexican if you know where to look—and how to look at it.

Perfectly authentic Mexican sweets in supposedly soulless Cancun.

Another example: Pattaya, in Thailand, universally reviled as ground zero for whoring. But to quote a guy I met in Bangkok: “It was great! There were Indian package tourists, and they were posing for photos with trannies on the beach!”

C’mon! How is that not heartwarming? I’m not saying you should go for a week, but one night can be fun. The nice thing about ugly, over-touristed places is that you can gawp all you want–at prostitutes, at sunburned Brits in gold chains, at whatever.

The same logic applies to under-touristed spots with no major attractions. This summer, Peter and I took an exceptionally great trip to Thrace, the eastern fringe of Greece. According to guidebooks, and even most Greeks, there’s “nothing there.” That means no ancient Greek ruins–but there are very interesting Greek-Turkish towns and more recent history. One town–New Orestiada–is definitely un-charming: it looks like a midsize Midwestern town, with uglier apartment blocks. It was built from scratch on a grid system, and the very reason it’s that way is what makes it interesting.

Greece like you've never seen it before: New Orestiada.

Even if you don’t buy my argument, you should thank me. Every time I get held up in some ugly place, gawking and eating and laughing, I’m not making it to that pristine, off-the-radar beach. I’m one less person ruining the fringes. And the world could use a little more of that.

Terminal 21, Bangkok

OK, this is just total eye candy for travel geeks. I don’t even like malls. But Bangkok is a mall kind of town, and when Rod (yes, he met us in Bangkok again this year) told me that there was a new airport-theme mall, I of course had to go.

It’s at the Asok BTS stop (aka Sukhumvit Soi 21). You can enter from the SkyTrain level, but we arrived on foot.

At an airport-theme mall, the security setup even makes sense!

The info-booth girls wore adorable outfits. Two, in fact: At night, the stewardess uniform was black with green trim.

Airport-style signage was everywhere.

Each floor is a different “destination.” The London floor had a red double-decker bus. The floor with the movie theater was Hollywood, of course.

The Istanbul floor had a lot of booths selling crafts. They had some font confusion. Unless perhaps Terminal 21 also enables time travel back to pre-Atatuturk days of Ottoman Turkish script?

I also felt vaguely uncomfortable on the ground floor, the Caribbean.

They seemed to put the most effort into the San Francisco floor.

Just when I started to feel like I was in an even cheesier version of Fisherman’s Wharf, we found the food court. Ah, maybe that’s why there’d been so much care put into the SF floor. The food court–aka Pier 21–was an assemblage of some of Bangkok’s best-known street-food people, in spiffy mall style. But not too spiffy style–I like how everyone still operated out of plastic tubs.

We grazed and gorged.

Afterward, we stopped at the bathroom. The theme-ness started getting a little confused here, because the bathroom apparently had its own theme.

It was all set up inside like some rustic pizza joint, with brick everywhere and a wood oven (yes, in the bathroom), and a gargantuan rolling pin hanging from the ceiling over all the toilet stalls. I was a little lulled by the fancy Japanese toilets with the warm seats, so I didn’t take any pictures.

As Rod pointed out, they didn’t go quite as far over the top with the airport/travel theme as we would have liked–I mean, that woman dusting the San Francisco trolley was wearing a random French maid outfit, when she could’ve been wearing a depressing powder-blue polyester jumpsuit!

Why didn’t they consult the real experts before building? An army of frequent fliers could’ve over-designed the place. The Thais just have to focus on the food. Now that’s synergy.

Thailand, Let Me Count the Ways, part 2

So, all this, and I would love to say the Thais are my people, that I have found my true heart-home on the globe.

And yet. And yet… I can’t. There is a connection that isn’t happening, some part of me that doesn’t throw off sparks when I come into contact with Thailand. I have felt it scores of times in Mexico, and in Syria, and even occasionally in Egypt, when I can cut through the smog and the traffic and the tourist fascination.

Is it because there is just too much like-going-with-like in Thailand? There, I’m on board with everything already. In Mexico, I feel like I’m visiting what could be my better self, if I stretched—my self that’s quicker to laugh but also more polite, that paints the room in cobalt blue and rose pink, that drinks without fretting about it. Syria is the model me that has perfected the art of hospitality, developed my sense of taste without being snobbish about it and learned to live with dignity no matter the circumstances.

More practically, though, the answer may simply be language. I speak Spanish and Arabic. Except for the ten hours Peter and I spent in a classroom in Bangkok near the end of our trip, I don’t speak Thai.

Those five days of classes were thrilling, though. Why did no one tell me there are languages in which you don’t have to conjugate verbs? That pronouncing tones can be fun, and not impossible after all? Our teacher was a delight, and even if we don’t recall anything we learned*, we at least made a Thai friend.

I rely on words. Even as I’ve switched to more of a photo format on this blog, I’ve felt like I’m cheating. The sensation produced by a great picture somehow doesn’t count if I haven’t hashed it out in three too-long paragraphs, then pruned it all back to one tight one.

As much as I felt freed up last year when we went to Thailand and bumbled around, language-less and reduced to pointing and smiling and giving the thumbs-up, I also felt cut loose, bobbing along in the current and never mooring anywhere or with anyone.

A lot of people, probably most of them, travel like this. But a lot of people are simply better at this style of travel than I am—they’re more outgoing, and they can make a real connection with people by pointing at lines in a phrasebook. But coupled with my more passive style, my lack of fluency, or even functionality, makes me a pure spectator.

I would never say I’m fluent in Spanish or Arabic, but I can order in a restaurant, buy bus tickets and crack the occasional joke—all without thinking too much about it and worrying over what kind of impression I’m making.

I think this is the key: if I can slip off my cloak of self-consciousness (like an invisibility cloak—but the exact opposite), there’s a chance for me to really see the person I’m talking to and really listen to what they’re saying. Less me, more them—probably a lesson I could use in any language, in any country.

It appears the only solution to my Thailand quandary is…more. More visits, more study, more food. And plenty more time with my bootleg Rosetta Stone software.

And in the meantime, I won’t take my grasp of Spanish pleasantries for granted, nor my ability to read Arabic.

*except the phrase paw dee, which means “just right.” But even that doesn’t really count because it turns out I already knew it, because my mom has been saying it for decades, to mean something more like “close enough.” I didn’t even know it was Thai until I took this class—it was jarring to hear a familiar phrase in a list of other non-cognates.

It must’ve worked its way into the family idiolect through my ex-stepdad, who was a monk in a Thai monastery for a while before he showed up on our patio when I was six or so. In my memory, he was wearing his saffron drawstring pants the first time I saw him, and he probably said, “Paw dee” right then, for all I know.