Monday, July 09, 2007

Fighting Kids, Sharks, and Butt Cleanings

We got into Thailand after midnight. As we headed to our hotel, the first thing I noticed was a huge banner on the side of one of the buildings of the airport. “Long Live the King,” it said, and had a picture of an elfish looking man in his fifties. We’d see various pictures of the king all throughout Thailand: pictures of him and his wife, pictures of him in his younger years, pictures of him doing various “normal” activities, pictures of him dressed all in gold, even pictures of him taking pictures. I never really considered it before, but I think a country having a king is a good idea. It’s like the countries own mascot, and not in the way a president is.

We were on a plane to Samui, the small island in southern Thailand where we stayed most of the trip, early the next morning. As our plane came in to land, I was struck by the sparseness of buildings in the jungle on the islands below. There were concentrations of buildings, but clearly no population to speak of. When we touched down at the airport, I kept waiting for the actual buildings to appear. Beside the runway, there appeared to be only huts. It turns out that these were the airport, a series of a few huts, one with a few desks inside, one with a conveyor for luggage, but the rest only filled with some chairs for waiting. None of the buildings even had walls, just palm-leaf roofs.

The airport “limousine” to our hotel cost about three dollars for each person to take us half way around the island. We’d find out later this was expensive. For the same price, we got a full service vegetarian 6-course meal in downtown Bangkok at a pretty decent restaurant on the last day of our trip. I was struck by the buildings as we made our way across the island. Most of the buildings had English signs. There was a preponderance of restaurants and clothing shops and massage parlors but little else--not even grocery stores. This island was clearly for tourists.

We got to our hotel and checked in. Our room was tiny compared to the room we had in Bangkok. We paid $30 a day for a tiny A-frame bungalow on the ocean. When I booked the trip online, I thought this was cheap, but most of the other bungalows nearby were half the price and some of them were a lot nicer. When we got to the hotel was the first time I really heard the Thai language. Everyone at the airports and our first hotel spoke to us in English, and we heard few Thais speaking to each other. Thai has a very unique sound to it. It’s very intoned, like it’s being sung, but it’s also very nasal, kind of like singing a song through your nose.

It’s very distinct from other Asian languages I’ve come in contact with. I could easily distinguish it from Japanese (which sounds like you’re running out of oxygen, but are trying to be as polite about it as possible) or Chinese (which sounds like you’re doing a very poor impression of Daffy Duck in Pig Latin) or Korean (which sounds like you’re very annoyed by the fact that you have a cold). Thai is definitely a unique sound.

We didn’t start our fast and “cleanse” on our first day, but we were still in preparation mode, which meant that we were strictly sticking to raw fruits and vegetables. This was a shame because I love Thai food, and the restaurant in the hotel where we stayed was voted one of the 50 best in the world by some food magazine. After our simple dinner, we headed out to look around. We were struck by the number of dogs on the island, all of which seemed to simple wander in and out of restaurants and stores. None of them seemed to belong to anyone, but all of them seemed to be familiar to everyone. During our walk was when we say the poster for Muay Thai, Thai kickboxing.

We got to the kickboxing arena early, so we walked around outside before finding our seats. The street that the arena was on was poorly lit and filled with bars. Each bar had several women out front that were obviously prostitutes. Some were young, in their mid to late teens. Some not as young, up to about 40 or so, I’d guess. Some were quite pretty. Some were not. There were skinny women and fat women. There were women dressed in almost nothing and women dressed conservatively. Apparently, they had someone to suit the tastes of any john. Regardless of what they looked like, they all stood out front and shook their money-makers, trying to rope in any foreigners that passed by. Obviously it worked, since there were far fewer of them when we walked the street again after the fights.

Later in the week, we’d see many older men walking around with young Thai women. A friend of mine once told me that in Thailand, you get a “girlfriend” for the day to go around with you to places and whatever else you want for just a few dollars. I’ve traveled now, and I’ve certainly seen thinly-veiled prostitution before, on the streets and in bars and in hotels, but seeing prostitution in the way it is simply flaunted in Thailand was very strange. In most other countries I’ve been to, when I’ve seen a woman that was obviously a prostitute, there was always a certain shame to it, but the Thai prostitutes seemed to lack that. To them, it seemed like a viable and honorable profession, not something to hide.

Obviously, I’m not a supporter of prostitution, and I was certainly weirded out by what I saw in Thailand (especially the very old men with the teenage girls and boys), but there’s something to say for the pride the women took in their work. It was almost as though they were so comfortable with it, that anyone that saw them would be made comfortable too. I can’t say that I was 100% comfortable with the rows of women outside of the bars in front of the arena, but I wasn’t as uncomfortable around it as I would have guessed either. It was certainly a strange experience.

When we finally went into the arena, there was almost no one there. This was our first day outside of the hotel, so we didn’t really get Thailand yet. Everything, from fights to flights to meals, starts late in Thailand. Thai people know this and show up late to everything. Eventually the place was packed, but not until about 15 minutes after the “starting” time and about 15 minutes before the fights actually finally started.

As we sat and waited, I got an opportunity to see some fighters training behind the bleachers. They were far away, but seemed tiny. At first I thought they were just small men, because they were obviously well-toned and well-trained, but I got up and got a closer look. They were children, some of them younger than 10, I’d guess, and the oldest no more than 18 or 19. The pictures we saw on the flier that led us there didn’t show these boys. The pictures showed men, who actually did fight later in the evening, but the first several fights were quite literally children.

It was strange seeing these young boys punch and kick and lace into each other. It was strange to see the knock out of a boy who couldn’t have been 12. It was strange to see these less-than-5-foot-tall boys with rippling muscles and probably homework waiting for them. It was strange to see them fight for blood and sometimes find it. I didn’t know whether to leave to go into shock.

I left confused by what I had seen but went home to sleep well.

Our fast started on a Monday. Now, the next week we were in Thailand, there’s not much to explain. We mostly stayed in or around our bungalow. We sometimes went out shopping or just for walks, but not often. We were too exhausted from not eating to do much. I can, however, explain what the fast and the “cleanse” entailed.

We prepped for three weeks before going to the retreat. We ate mostly raw fruits and vegetables with some cooked veggies and potatoes thrown in at times. During the week of our fast, we didn’t eat any solid foods. Instead, we were allowed 5 “detox” drinks of fruit juice and herbs per day, and outside of those we could drink vegetable broth, carrot juice, or coconut water if we wanted. We also had to take herbs to “clean us out” 5 times a day, and do enemas twice a day to “flush out the toxins.” I was pretty skeptical about the system going in, but I thought I’d do it for the experience. I come out of the experience just as skeptical as I went in, but glad I tried it. Not eating wasn’t too hard, and I actually got used to the enemas, although I could handle never doing one every again.

I was completely fine and actually felt good for the first three days. Hye Sook had problems with energy and stomachaches during the same time. On day four, I started to feel sick, and I actually threw up once or twice on day five (something the people there said was my body getting rid of toxins, which I’m not sure I buy), but I felt pretty good the last two days (just hungry).

After we’re done and back to normal life, both of us had some slight improvements to our body. My wrist and knee (both of which I’ve had problems with) feel pretty good and my shoulder (also a problem) feels okay. Hye Sook’s jaw (which gives her all kinds of problems) is feeling good these days. Neither of us is sure what to chalk these things up to, since it wasn’t obviously the cleanse, or just the fact that we laid around for a week. Other stuff didn’t heal, and I got a cold soon after we finished. I don’t feel in drastic improvement in energy or anything like the people there said would happen. So again, I’m not sure what to make of the program, but I’m not going to strongly recommend it to anyone or anything.

One really great thing that happened from the fast, though, was getting to eat again. I’ve never enjoyed or savored meals as much as I did for the first few days after the fast. My first real meal was simply steamed veggies and rice (trying to ease back into regular food). I’ve never enjoyed such a simple meal as I enjoyed that one.

After the fast, we were left with only four more days in Thailand. The first day was pretty much getting back into the swing of things, but then we tried to pack as much into the last days as possible. I went scuba diving the day after we started eating again. Despite some seasickness, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Having literally hundreds of brightly-colored fish swimming around you in circles is amazing. Seeing schools of barracuda chasing those curious fish is unbelievable. Seeing sharks, and improbably-colored strangely-shaped fish, and things that weren’t quite plants and weren’t quite animals was something that’s hard to put into words. It made all the time and money I put into learning to scuba dive last year well worth it and then some.

Our last day on the island we spent finally enjoying Thai food, and then learning to make some ourselves. Hye Sook and I took a Thai cooking class, and we learned to make some curry, sauces, a stir-fry, and various other simple dishes. The food I made there was probably some of the best food I’ve ever made myself, and I cook very often. I only hope I can recreate it back here in Korea.

After leaving Samui, we still had another whole day in Thailand, but this was in Bangkok. We were in Bangkok that first day, but we arrived so late and left so early we didn’t see much of the city at all. Just getting into the city from the airport was an ordeal that involved us getting dropped in the middle of the city (but luckily near a subway station), finding somewhere vegetarian to eat (and happening across an amazing all-vegetarian Italian restaurant), and finally making our way to our hotel through Chinatown.

Walking through Chinatown in Bangkok in even the early evening (it was only about 9 when we finally worked our way to the hotel) was quite odd and even a little frightening. The buildings were tall, concrete gray, and seemed to be held together with just tin roofs, plastic banners, and rope. On the street, people were selling everything from food (lots of fruits and stir-fries) to the weird (several shops were selling bird nests, which are apparently used to make soup) to substances of questionable legality (it was the first time I saw shark fins being sold in an open market, which are illegal internationally). Homeless people were everywhere, although they were mostly sleeping, and the few we had contact with were very polite. One homeless man even directed us to our hotel, and didn’t ask for a coin in return. He seemed quite content just with a “thank you.”

We finally found our hotel after lots of creepy back alleys and crowded streets. We were out and in dream land almost before we could get our key from the front desk.

The last day in Thailand was gray and gloomy. We hit a few restaurants, some temples, and just wandered the insanely crowded streets (Bangkok is by far the most packed city I’ve ever been in), but both of us were pretty miserable. We went to the airport early and tried to rest before getting on the plane and heading home. The trip was a lot of fun, but both of us were happy when our heads finally hit our own pillows after the 5-hour flight. It’s good to be home in a country where I can understand a little bit of some of the stuff that’s going on instead of none of it.



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