Our First Thai Massage

I’m a type of guy who can really appreciate a good massage, heck, even a bad massage, but of the one or two I’ve ever paid to receive in the States, I’ve had trouble feeling it was quite worth the steep price. For this reason, I was excited to find that like many fine things in Thailand, you can buy an hour-long massage on the beach for the price of a cheap cocktail back home in Boston.

Steph, on the other hand, has never been much for massages. For some reason, to her they just don’t feel like much more than painful friction and pressure. My theory has held that she simply hasn’t had a good one yet; perhaps, I thought, this trip would be the time that she’d learn to appreciate a massage – that and coffee, but we’ll get to that later in the trip. In hindsight though, Thailand may not be the best choice for this awakening to take place.

Thai massage is a unique practice with interesting and ancient roots. Instead of speaking to the particulars on that history, I’ll just summarize the style as a focus on pressure points in muscles, increasing flexibility, and well, a healthy bit of good old-fashioned pain. Knowing this ahead of time, I wanted to make sure I’d get the most authentic experience I could, so I spent the previous day walking the beach scoping out the massage practitioners that looked best – essentially, we’d want the most jacked up muscle ladies I could find.

We settled on a place with very kind (and of course built) ladies who set us up with two side-by-side massage tables, right on the quiet beach on Koh Lanta. Our massages started out with the what I assume to be the basics –  a firm sucker punch to the arch of the foot – and then quickly got to business. It wasn’t long before Steph and I had women kneeling on our backs and pulling our arms toward their sides forcefully and repeatedly, as if our bodies were rubber dinghies that these women needed to return to port before the tide went out.  Muscles were stretched, digits cracked, pelvi squeezed. Not a few times, I’m sure I heard Steph actually yell “Ow!”, after which her masseuse surely asked if the pressure was too much, and upon affirmation, merely dialed it to 11. “Please relax your body,” they’d remind us, while pressing a heel into regions no foot should ever graze.

All the while, you might think we were at least soothed by the gently rolling, crystal clear waves less than 50 feet in front of our eyes; but even if we could have blocked out the pain of the contortions in which we’d been placed, we still had to ignore the women’s screaming and laughing children, running around and underneath our massage beds wielding sticks and shovels.

When the children’s cackling hit a peak, our practitioners stopped to see the cause of the ruckus. She laughed at them and turned back to us: “They’re just chasing a large snake! You know co-vra? Co… I uh, cobra? You know cobra?

Haha! Thailand has many large snakes,” she reminded us, before reiterating our need to relax our damn bodies. With this, Steph rolled her head in my direction with a look that confirmed we’d need to approach this massage thing another time.

Week on Ko Lanta, Thailand

Last week we left Bangkok on an overnight train headed for the South of Thailand. Originally we had planned to spend some time in Northern Thailand , but the flooding throughout the central plains had blocked all major highways and railways out of Bangkok to the north. We had even originally intended to spend another night in Bangkok, but with the flooding heading our way and the sandbags piling up outside storefronts, we thought it best to get back on the road…

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We took the train to a town called Surat Thani and then switched onto a bus headed for Krabi, on the West coast of the Thai Peninsula in the Andaman Coast.  The bus ride started out great–we had AC and some crazy Thai music pumping in our glammed out ride—

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Life was good.

30 minutes later………  Scott was soaking wet from the continuous drip of icy water from the AC condensing above us. At one point, it was so bad we decided to get out our dry bag to catch the water–we had a good 2 cups of water by the end of the first tape album.

In an ironic twist of fate, the bus then lost all AC and reached an uncomfortable/truly terrifying 120 degrees. Scott was right in the sun and was not doing well:

(I got amazing pictures of the sweat pouring off of his arms, which he would not let me post…)

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Luckily, we had our bucket of water in our dry bag that we had collected that I was able to use to pour over our heads. 🙂IMG_1733

—————

We finally reached the town of Krabi, just in time to snag a place for the night and eat at the night market before heading out again the next day…
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The next day we basically threw a dart at a map and decided on heading on to the island of Ko Lanta, in the Andaman Sea. We were confused when we were told we would be taking a mini-bus to Ko Lanta–  a bus? to an island??   It all made sense when our minibus drove right onto a car ferry and shuffled us right across to the island!!

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For the week that we were on Ko Lanta, we stayed at a little Thai-owned and -run place called “Where Else”, right on the beach. Each bungalow, each and every detail, from the walls, to the sinks, to the wood shelves, had been made by hand, gradually being added to over the 14 years the family had owned this property. They not only lived on the property but also continued to work on it every day we were there, adding new hanging hand-woven lanterns or buoys that had been strung together, resulting in a crazy but cute amalgamation/ explosion of washed-up beach life.
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Our bungalow was extremely rustic, with nothing more than a bed, mosquito net, cold shower, and manual/bucket-flush toilet, but it had everything we needed:
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At our local watering hole, the “Feeling Bar” at Where Else:

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It would have been perfect were it not for the CONTINUOUS flow of various animals that we would find in our bathroom each day.  Within two minutes of our arrival I sat on our extremely low toilet, just to find a super slimy lizard/snake slithering right at me, forcing me to pick up my feet despite my already extremely uncomfortable crouched position.  Later, we found 2 hermit crabs (we could hear them every day–they lived in the corner of the room–), a rat that kept stealing and eating our soap (the bars that he left behind had little teeth marks in the morning), and an abnormally large wasp-type animal that burrowed in the rock gravel, always in the same spot, despite our attempts to oust it by filling its hole with rocks, covering the hole with enormous rocks, and flooding the hole with water–all to no avail. Better than our neighbors who apparently had a monkey in their bathroom eating their medicines all night!!

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On our first full day on the island, we decided to try our hand at Southeast Asian motor-scootering for the first time. For most of the people who live here, a motor scooter is their only vehicle and therefore their only way of transporting entire families (usually up to 4 people on one bike!), bulging grocery loads, bird cages filled with birds (everyone seems to have bird cages here), 20-foot step ladders– everything.  Interestingly, most of the population on this island is Muslim, so we quite commonly see a woman flying down the road on a motorcycle with 3 kids, a bird cage, sunglasses, and a burka blowing in the wind.  It’s an interesting culture, indeed.

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So we decided to try it out for ourselves. For $6/ day, the fun we had on our little hog couldn’t really be beat.    We explored remote villages down muddy side roads, came across an old Buddhist temple and deserted beaches… We were a little unsteady on it at first; by the end of the day, we were flying down a washed out muddy road with bagful of groceries in one hand, and a pile of freshly-washed laundry from the woman down the road in the other— truly riding in Thai-style.
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Getting gas:

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Lunch at Sea Gypsy Restaurant, overlooking other islands:

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Caught in the daily downpour:

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We had been dying to see a Muay Thai (Thai boxing fight), and spent a while trying to find the stadium. Eventually find it by a total struck of good luck– unfortunately, they don’t start up the fights until the high season in November. We were at least allowed to look around the training ring.

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———–

During our week on the island, we ate some pretty amazing food–

“green pancakes”, made of flour, eggs, condensed milk, a green herb that is supposed to have healing properties. The “pancake” is slapped out by hand into a crepe-like shape and then thrown onto a hot griddle.  It’s filled with fruit or an egg, folded into a square, and then drizzled with more sweetened condensed milk and chocolate…. what could be bad about that?:)

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But our favorite restaurant during the week was called “Cha Cha Restaurant”– a nondescript restaurant in front of the cook/owner’s home…. definitely the least outwardly “cute” or decorated restaurant within half a mile, serving some of the best food I’ve probably ever eaten. My $2 bowl of massaman curry with sweet potatoes was heaven–the best dish I’ve ever eaten. This place was so good we ate there 3 times, and regretted every time that we didn’t.  🙂  Go now. Seriously.

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If the culture on Ko Lanta could not possibly get more interesting, I should add that the island is also home to so-called “Sea Gypsies” (their term), who are indigenous people who live in the South of the Island.  Their dialect was extremely different, being very staccato, with lots of clucks and clicks of the tongue.  At one point during our motorbike ride, we accidentally came across one of their burial grounds— shallow graves with individual tin roofs placed over each grave, a plate of food left by the grave by loved ones as an offering.

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———-

When we weren’t motor-scooting around, most of our time was spent talking with our hosts, reading our books, lounging at the beach… But on our final day on Ko Lanta, we took a snorkeling tour of the various islands south of Ko Lanta on a longtail boat, a hideously loud contraption with a car engine (I think?) for a motor:
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Our captain:

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Swimming in front of a limestone karst:

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The highlight of the snorkeling trip was a site called the “Emerald Cave”, which you can swim into during low-tide. When we arrived at the entrance, we were told to strap on a life jacket and swim into the cave, following the flashlight of our beanie-wearing, fully-clothed guide. Because none of our guides spoke English, we didn’t know what to expect and we were not told anything about the cave–  we thought we were just there to swim in, see the stalag -tites/-mites and swim out again. The stalag -tites/-mites were amazing, but we had no idea what was ahead. We just kept swimming toward the beam of the flashlight, deeper and deeper into the cave, at one point the warm waters becoming frigid for the lack of sunlight.

Eventually, we began to see light at the other end. We thought it was the other end of the cave looping back around to the outside ocean. Instead, we crawled out onto an emerald green crescent of white beach, completely surrounded by 100-foot high walls of solid rock, covered in dripping green rainforest—we were in a blowhole of a volcano, in the middle of the island.  A sign told us that the spot was once use as a place for pirates to hide their treasure and is now protected as a national park.

Its beauty is difficult to describe– truly a magical, almost unworldly and holy place.  And because we had to swim through the cave to reach it, we have no pictures of it, and now its memory exists only in our minds.:)
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———-

At the end of our week on Ko Lanta, we took some pics with our host family, saw some amazing sunsets, said goodbye to Ko Lanta!
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Rolling

We’re 3 or 4 hours behind schedule on our journey south to Surat Thani, after a few – I assume – unplanned stops throughout the night. Rather than an inconvenience, the delay has afforded us a front-row seat to the villages of the south-central Thai countryside as they wake and get about their field work on a Monday. The landscape out my second-class sleeper car window faces west, overlooking sprawls of lush tropical vegetation dotted with curly-horned cattle and scatters of florescent green coconut palms stretching for a greater share of the sun. Occasionally the landscape dips down from the trackside and I can see that the palms are anchored to miles of rolling hills. Close to the horizon, the hills rise to fuzzy limestone-faced mountains, which I guess to be Myanmar (Burma).

This gets me thinking of a book I read about George Orwell, who was surprisingly (to me, at least) stationed in Burma as a British officer late during their occupation, sometime around 1920 I think. In the book, the author describes her own recent visit to the country in her attempt to piece together clues from some of the lesser-known events that took place during Orwell’s stationing. Much of the book ends up focusing on the author’s own experience during her stay, under close watch by Myanmar authorities, accompanied by a personal guide and forced to report her whereabouts, which she assumes are being quietly tracked by the people she meets anyway. She must also be careful to conceal her journalistic intentions and hide her writing materials so as not to be discovered as more than a mere tourist, and she has a few close calls along the way. In the end, she was able to discover a some anecdotes about Orwell’s time there. Mostly though, she uses the book to draw a parallel between the events in Burma and Orwell’s later writing in 1984, which eerily foretold a situation much like the one she had experienced, long after the Brits had left, Orwell had passed, and the military junta took hold.

I feel it’s been at least a year since I’ve read up on the current situation in Burma. Looking out at those mysterious mountains in the distance, I wonder what the people are doing in this instance. Is Aung San Suu Kyi still free? I’ll use this post as a reminder to study up on these things, as we may end up crossing into Burma later on for a visa renewal. For now though, miles from the nearest internet connection, I can only speculate, and smile at the cows.

Khao San Road and the backpacker trail

Khao San Road. It’s over-developed; it’s touristy; it’s almost certainly changed since its original establishment as the backpacker haven of Southeast Asia over 3 decades ago.  I came to Bangkok expecting to hate it. But like most good travel adventures, it surprised me in a way that I never expected.

From the moment you step onto Khao San Road, you know that you have stepped into an odd mix of young and disheveled backpackers, aging expats that just never seemed to be able to pick up and leave, neon signs and posters blaring at you from every angle, and a fascinating history at the interface of East-meets-West culture.  Banana pancakes, pad thai, and an array of crispy bugs roasted over large woks can all be had for less than a dollar. A large bookstore sells used books in English (hard to find outside of Bangkok), ranging from Neitzsche to Chopra that have been passed down through the years by countless backpackers before us.

The problem that I had with Khao San Road before even seeing it is that I have generally found that hanging around other travellers ruins the experience of a place, makes it lose its authenticity. More recently, I’ve begun to appreciate that it’s still worthwhile and even enjoyable to accept a place for what it is—expats, other travelers, indigenous people– everything. In fact, this realization only came to me while strolling down Khao San Road—perhaps the most over-touristed backpacker strips in the entire world, which I really couldn’t help but find fascinating.

For example: On Khao San Road, I was able to enjoy my very own, first-ever plate of real Pad Thai from Thailand, cooked right before my eyes:

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khao san noodles

khao san noodles

I had considered getting a fake Harvard ID at the booth that manufactures any fake ID that you could want in under 20 minutes, but I already had a real one! (I tried to take a picture of all of the the available IDs for purchase, when I got shooed away by a man saying “no photos…”).

Scott also enjoyed himself, by letting hungry little fish eat the dead skin off of his feet at the local spa. For some reason they were very attracted to his legs instead of his feet:
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fish spa

fish spa

Interestingly, we decided to undergo the fish treatment only due to its complete and utter weird factor, but we ended up loving it. Initially, the experience was horribly ticklish; I kept jerking my feet out of the tank and ruining the massage experience of the woman near me with my shrieking. By the end, my feet that had been aching all day from walking all across Bangkok felt incredibly relaxed, like I had not stood on them for a week. Also priceless were the horrified looks we got from other tourists walking by and looking at our feet—unfortunately we did not get any pictures.

To add to the craziness and the anything-goes mentality of this infamous road, it rained for a few minutes while we were enjoying a rugby match inside a bar, and we came outside to find this:

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flooded khao san

flooded khao san

Just another example of how something so commonplace—a little rain shower—can be transformed by this crazy but somehow charming place. And myself? I now understood the appeal of backpacker ghettos after years of writing them off so quickly. Khao San Road, I love you.

Lost in Bangkok

Last Wednesday, we left Panama City, FL for Bangkok, Thailand.

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Here’s a quick photo-tour of the highlights.

Our Korean Air flight was really nice, on the largest commercial plane we had ever seen, let alone boarded. The flight was 12 hours to Seoul Korea, followed by another 5 or so hours from there to Bangkok. Along the way, we had personal TVs with 30 or so movies to choose from, free wine and posh slippers!

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free wine and slippers!

We arrived in Bangkok at night to a bit of a blur of tuk tuks, steamy night markets, and zooming moto-taxis. Our hotel was in the downtown area, which seemed to be a wealthier section of town, judging by its amazingly swank shopping malls and fashion scene.

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Ronald

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In a single mall, we found Krispy Kreme Donuts, a Ferrari dealership, a bowling alley, private karaoke rooms, and $400 jeans (pretty steep when you consider a nice hotel is about $20 per night in Bangkok!). We were also surprised to learn that some of the best food can be found in the food courts, completely the opposite of back home. However, perhaps due to the romantic vibe of it all, we still enjoyed the food in the street markets more…
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Southern Treats in Bangkok

mall cars

bowling in Bangkok

karaoke!

karaoke!

…and aptly-iconified bathroom signs.
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Gotta go

In the mornings, we had breakfasts in the food stalls on the street. The typical morning fare was big bowls of noodle soup, with chicken or beef parts, and several other ingredients we didn’t recognize. It was delicious and super-spicy.

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breakfast in bangkok

breakfast

…anyone have any idea what those little green balls are?

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One of the highlights of our time in Bangkok was the Chatuchuck Weekend Market, which was a sprawling set of market stalls with vendors selling handmade clothing, furniture, food, and pretty much anything else you could imagine.
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chattachuck, bangkok

chattachuck, bangkok

chattachuck, bangkok

chattachuck, bangkok

chattachuck, bangkok

chattachuck, bangkok

chattachuck, bangkok

chattachuck, bangkok

On the way to the market, we happened upon a beautiful Buddhist Temple area, where monks were loudly chanting as we walked around. Unfortunately, the pics don’t do it justice.

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chattachuck, bangkok

chattachuck, bangkok

meditating kitty

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One more post on Bangkok to go…

First stop

My first month of down-time since leaving Boston was spent in one of the most beautiful places on the planet—uncrowded, sugar-white beaches that stretch for 30 continuous miles, crystalline emerald waters teeming with tame dolphins—a little-known paradise that everyone backpacking around Thailand is looking for.

It’s funny, then, that I’m sitting on a plane now headed to Southeast Asia in search of sights and smells and sounds that, for me, won’t ever quite top that place—my hometown, the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Nothing can ever replace the feeling of stepping onto that warm Gulf sand and breathing in the wild, salty wind after being away for far too long—or watching a fiery Florida sunset melt into the ocean for the thousandth time.  An almost too-perfect background for the past month of relaxing with my amazing and charmingly wacky family and digging into those old childhood favorites like the chili cheese pie at Tom’s Hot Dogs and yes, even Taco Bell (twice…).

Maybe travel is not about replacing, then; it’s about learning, growing, and sometimes even being more appreciative of the places we are from when we finally return home.

And I know that when I’ve seen whatever it is that I need to see, and done whatever it is that I need to do, the Emerald Coast will be there waiting for me, beckoning me home like it always does.

Gulf of Mexico, Panama City Beach, Florida

Transitioning

I’m in New Hampshire now, enjoying a few days’ visit with my family before I fly south to meet Steph, soon after which we’ll finally leave on our trip. The fall season is well underway, and my family has been making the most of that in the short time I’m here. Earlier in the week, my sister was able to make it up from New York, and we went for a horseback trail ride at Castle in the Clouds. My brother Adam drove in for a day, and we were able to fit in a run along my favorite Bog Road route, apple picking at an orchard near Concord, and dinner with Grandma – and my parents have been off work all the while!

Even the weather has cooperated; the air has that unmistakably New England autumn feel – thin, and too cold for complete comfort, but too inviting to stay inside.

Schooner off the coastline of Boston

Fall seems a good time to begin a trip like this. In New England especially, fall marks the start of a large change: the trees invert in color, the temperature drops, and the last page of the calendar nears. Change has been a theme in Steph’s and my life lately as well; it’s been a bittersweet last 3-4 weeks.

We moved to Boston about 7 years ago, and since then we’ve grown together into the people we are today. Our current tastes and interests came mostly from the time we spent here; it was in Boston that we found our shared love of cooking, where we both began to love running, where we became engaged, where we bought our first home, and where we learned to treasure the ability to get most anywhere without driving a car. We also met some of our closest friends in Boston, and were fortunate enough to work with and learn from some of the brightest people in our respective work fields.

And then moving seemed to happen so quickly. Since just September, we’ve sold our house, Steph defended her PhD thesis, and I completed 2 major year-long projects at work, all while traveling to conferences in England and Tennessee, spending time with our family in both Florida and New Hampshire. There wasn’t any time to pause and reflect on all that’s changing, what we’ve learned, and where we’re headed next.

So now, it seems we’ll have time to do that. We’re off to Southeast Asia for a trip we’ve long wanted to take, and my friends/bosses/colleagues at Filament Group have been incredibly generous in allowing me ample time off to take it slowly, and eventually work along the way. I’m not sure how long we’ll be away, but I am sure that it will change us yet again, and to me, that’s pretty exciting!