Saturday, February 14, 2009

Ode to Bangkok

No other city on earth is as crazy, captivating and no-holds-barred as Bangkok. This mega-metropolis of 10 – 15 million residents hoists skyscrapers to rival Manhattan and sprawl to put Texas to shame. No matter how much you struggle to leave Bangkok, to explore Thailand’s world-famous white-sand beaches and topaz-water islands, the pulse of this urban megacore keeps you locked inside. Bangkok is truly the place where anything is possible, from mango vendors serving you 4 a.m. fruit to hawkers in front of bars holding enormous signs boldly proclaiming “we sell fake I.D.’s!!” (not that anyone needs one, except to take to their home country.) At both noon and midnight, you’ll find people clamoring in the restaurants, surfing the Web, watching outdoor movies or shopping from sidewalk vendors don’t differenciate noon from midnight. Bangkok is the land where street vendors sell everything: the Harry Potter book collection, roasted squid, and corn-on-the-cob. Foreigners come crawling to the city to satisfy their most eclectic desires. Want an affordable sex-change operation? Want a fake press I.D.? Want a Thai wife? No problem – this is Bangkok! Bangkok has it all! You can have your teeth whitened by top-notch dentists before noon, get a new tattoo in time for dinner, guzzle a bucket (literally) of hard liquor by 9 p.m., get your hair cornrowed at 3 in the morning, and then stay up until sunrise at an Israeli-owned internet cafĂ©, where you eat hummus while downloading Weird Al videos on YouTube with your new Welsh friend, who chain-smokes and has two black eyes.

I love the city for its fashionable $2 streetside clothing racks, its $5-an-hour massages, and its 75-cent plates of pad thai. I recently spent a few days at Ko Samet, a beach with soft white sand, crystal-clear blue waters and perfect cloudless skies, and you know what I said upon returning to the traffic and congestion of the city? “I missed Bangkok!”

The only hint is its “officially” nighttime is when transvestites start roaming the streets. Short men wearing stuffed bras and hip-hugging dresses pose very convincingly like sexy young Thai women. They congregate at the bars and flirt with clueless Western men, who buy them cocktails all night.

I didn’t know this until I had been in Bangkok long enough that I must have unwittingly watched hundreds of them in action. “Look at the size of ‘her’ hands,” someone told me, “and look closely at the neck. That’s a man.” After that, my friends and I started playing a guessing game of “man or woman?” with every high-heeled, mini-skirted Thai we saw. I found myself wrong (or at least, outvoted) about 80 percent of the time.

Perhaps “man or woman?” is a game that’s better lost than won. The winners, who can always guess correctly, show symptoms of having been in Bangkok too long. Stay in Bangkok too long and you may morph into a white-haired aging hippie in the corner of a 24-hour vegetarian restaurant eating kale at 5 a.m. while muttering to himself about how expensive south China has gotten these days. (Yes, this guy is real. We met him at dawn after a red-eye bus ride from Ton Sai back to Bangkok. Which, by the way, was also when we met the Welsh guy with the two black eyes, who kept recommending the Massaman curry. Which, by the way, is delicious.)

After two months in repressive India, where everything shuts down by 8 p.m. and wearing shorts, tank tops or above-the-knee skirts is a no-no, Bangkok is a breath of fresh air. Here, reality turns upside-down, and its good to be on your toes – in this case, toes encased in spiky high-heels which you can buy from a street vendor at 3 a.m. Just remember: the girl shopping for high-heels next to you wasn’t necessarily born a girl. Need a cheap sex-change operation, anyone? I know just the place ….

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Limestone cliffs of Ton Sai, Thailand

We had to wade when we exited the boat. There was no other way to reach land. Water sloshed above my knees, lapping against the edge of my skirt. My sandals began to sink into the mud, which I couldn't see beneath the murky waters. Still, we waded. Treasure lay ahead. We had to reach the limestone cliffs.

We were arriving in Ton Sai, a beach in Thailand with a pebbly, narrow strip of honey-hued shoreline. No one comes to Ton Sai for the mediocre beach. Hundreds come each year for the climbing. Surrounded by psychedelic stalagtites, and featuring more than 700 bolted routes, Ton Sai is a climber's mecca.

We had intended to climb at Raileh, the beach-next-door, which features equally good climbing routes and a much smoother shoreline. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea, rendering Raileh crowded and expensive. Worse yet, Raileh is filled with roaming vendors who interrupt you while you're sunbathing to ask, for the 10th time that day, if you want to browse their ugly selection of sarongs.

Ton Sai, on the other hand, has that laid-back, never-in-a-hurry ambiance that could only belong to a budget beach carved out for twentysomethings who stay for months. Everyone in Ton Sai is sculpted like a Greek god. It is the isle of beautiful people.

On our first day there, I scouted out the area and found a great climbing spot. It was in the shade all day, and there were no other people around! No lines!

I tried to lead a couple of 5.10's. But something felt amiss.

"Maybe you're not comfortable leading climbs," said a girl named Pete. (She spells it "Phet," and she's Thai, a native of an island about 1 hour north).

"Maybe," I replied. "Lead climbing is good for me, like eating brussel sprouts and paying taxes."

But something felt amiss. The rock was rough. The edges were jagged. Was I scared? Or was something wrong?

I figured out the problem the next day, when reading through a climbing guide.

"Shadow Wall: Dangerous and loose rock. Long draw-outs between protection. Questionable anchors, especially on multi-pitch routes. Not recommended!" the book said.

Well, whoops.

We switched over to another climbing wall, slightly more crowded, but with a sweeping view of the waters. The guidebook described several of its routes as "a classic! Don't go home without it!"

We spent a great day climbing. And then another. Then another. We found more good climbing walls. Made new friends from Britain and South Africa. Got recommendations. Explored even more rock walls. Took rest days to read Harry Potter on the beach. Discovered our favorite lounging, chill-out bar.

We meant to stay in Ton Sai for 2-3 days. We ended up staying for 10.

Such is life here.


My friend wrote this story about Ton Sai, and it made me laugh so hard that I'm reposting it here:

“This isn’t going to work.” Paula said very matter-of-factly. “There’s a monkey blocking my way.” She said it as if she was talking about a traffic jam or a long line at the grocery store. (I guess we are just getting used to everything at this point.)

Paula was attempting to deliver some leftover shrimp and fried egg to a pregnant cat that she had befriended at our bungalow in Tonsai, Thailand. Unfortunately for her, the monkeys had other ambitions on the snacks.

“There was a big monkey right on the path, so I tried to go around our bungalow, but it darted around the side and intercepted me,” she said. “Why are you laughing?”

I am fascinated at how monkeys, from quite a distance away, can tell when someone is carrying food. They have such one-track minds.

“Ok. Let’s go,” I told her, smugly getting up from my beach-strung hammock. “We’ll get past the monkeys.”

We neared our bungalows and caught wind of an unexpected sight. The lone monkey had multiplied into a full troupe of monkeys – papa monkey, mama monkey, twin baby monkeys, cousin Earl the monkey. And believe me, they were causing havoc. A small female perched on our railing eating a banana peel that we had discarded, apparently unafraid of fulfilling every monkey stereotype. Another small monkey fished the remaining crumbs from a neighbors’ Pringles can as the neighbor looked on helplessly.

I have never taken a primate behavior class, but I have hung around enough bars in a college town to know how to make a dominant male behavior display, so I knew what to do.

I bared my teeth at the largest monkey I could find. Paula, meanwhile, coaxed the pregnant cat to a nearby bungalow. As the monkeys attempted to follow her, I held them at bay by making sustained eye contact, hissing and showing my incisors as needed. As ludicrous as this sounds, it worked. Paula was able to feed the cat in relative peace while I battled the monkeys.

What has my life come to?