Sunday, November 24, 2013

Koh Tao's Hitchhiking Dogs

Koh Tao is an island in the Gulf of Thailand, the northernmost of three in an archipelago, famous as a diving destination.

One of several dog methods of riding
on scooters.
It is populated by about half Thai and half expats from Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the US.  The island is covered with restaurants, resorts, and all the associated businesses that support them.

There are almost as many wild, feral, and homeless dogs and cats as people. They seem to do quite well for themselves mooching off the humans who feel sorry for them, and those who simply discard a lot of uneaten food.

Even the dogs that are owned wander around town, fearless, knowing that nobody will run over them with a motorcycle because the people of the island are both kind hearted and good drivers.

In fact, many dogs ride on the motorcycles and scooters, with rumps on the seat or the lap of their owners, paws on the handlebars. Often the wife and kids also ride behind on the family's only transportation system.

And some dogs have taken to riding sideways on the scooters, often simply hitching a ride with whoever stops long enough for them to hop on.

My friend told of one 80 pound dog that can really throw off the scooter's balance. He just pushes off from the foot boards when he decides he's reached his destination. He doesn't even wait for the scooter to stop first.

I saw quite a few posters for the humane association, and was told that they routinely pick up animals, spay them, and then let them go back to the pretty good life they'd been living. But there was one poor dog whose back side was paralyzed. She pulled herself all over the beach begging for tidbits. I was a little surprised the association hadn't picked her up yet.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Koh Tao, Island Paradise

South end of Sairee Beach
From Chiang Mai, my friend Rheta and I flew to Bangkok, and then on to Koh Samui, one of three largish islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Samui is not the largest, but is probably the flattest. It is covered with golf courses and has the only airport.

We took an hour and a half long ferry ride to Koh Tao. Rheta's son Darius met us at the port. He has only a motorcycle, but had borrowed a pickup for our short ride from Mae Haad to Sairee Beach where he lives. We stayed at the Asia Diver's hotel, a few blocks from his house.

Koh Tao is the smallest of the three islands, and the one farthest north. Ferries run every day to Koh Samui, Champhon, and other points on the mainland. The island is one long mountain spine with multiple peaks all at about 1000 feet above sea level. Covered with jungle and planted coconut palms, it is a popular spot for divers and snorkelers.

Hunky island scenery
We found the heat and humidity stifling compared to the temperate climate of Chiang Mai. But since it was still the rainy season, the periodic rains cooled things off, and mornings were cool and pleasant until the sun rose. After sunset, the breezes from the ocean brought the temperature down to bearable.

Sairree Beach is both a beach and a town. It's the largest beach, perhaps a mile long, with a reef just a few yards out where the waves don't smash the coral. A large rock outcropping that falls into the sea and cuts the beach in half is the separation of Sairee and Mae Haad.

There is a beach "road" that parallels the ocean with a row of restaurants, bars, and cottages between it and the beach. Not much wider than a sidewalk, it is used by motorcycles and walkers. Lined with shops and restaurants, it is a pleasant hike under shady trees from one town to the next. Further inland is the highway, a two lane road for faster vehicles. Nobody would dare walk next to it for long.

My plan had been to take scuba lessons. Darius has been in Thailand for about 15 years and is a Dive Director. That means he is qualified to teach dive instructors how to teach every level of diving including the deep sea technical stuff. He had a good teacher lined up, but I came down with a head cold. So he sent me to a dive shop where I bought an excellent snorkel and mask.

The first day out, I got a bit sunburned so skipped going the second day. By the way, I never realized what a miracle Aloe Vera is. My sunburn cleared up overnight. The third day we took a snorkel tour on a boat that went round the island stopping at various reefs and bays for some amazing underwater viewing. Our little excursions lasted only about 20 minutes, the rest of the time I could stay in the shade on the boat.

We stopped at different bays and beaches where certain experiences were promised. We would be swimming with sharks at the first stop, but in fact nobody saw one. It was a deep bay with the bottom littered with broken antler coral, as if a bulldozer had gone through. A typhoon destroyed the reef several years ago. We saw very few fish, the little ones had nowhere to hide, and though I was told there really were sand sharks, their coloring kept us from seeing them at all.

Each stop was a new experience. In one crystal clear bay there were hundreds of Sargent fish in schools that parted around us, and the boulders on the sea floor were covered with corals in beautiful condition. Many of the boulder tops were beaten down, by bad weather perhaps, but certainly by the fins of so many snorkelers and divers.
Flowers that pop up all over the island

The boat circled Koh Tao and ended at Nangyuan Island, a hump of land that eroded in the middle leaving a spit of sand connecting the two jungled mountains. On either side, turquoise water lapped onto the white beach.

Privately owned, it cost a bit to go onto the island and a bit more to rent two chairs and an umbrella. The "sand" was roughly crushed antler coral, sharp on bare feet. In the very shallow cove, the rough sand extended under the sparkling water until it reached an area of large boulders that rose up out of the white sand like beautifully placed rocks in a simple graveled garden. Each one was coated with coral and anemones, hundreds of tiny bright fish swam in and out of the miniature caves. In fact that area is called the Japanese Garden and my long time viewing it lead to the demise of my back. I stayed out much longer than I should and for the next three days could barely wear clothes over my seared back. Aloe Vera gel helped a lot but it would cause shirts to stick so painfully I had to shower them off! I so wanted to return and see the garden again, but the sunburn prevented my doing much of anything. Even with a shirt on, the power of the sun caused agony.

Scene just outside the Koh
Samui airport
After the snorkeling day I could fully understand why Koh Tao is the dream island for scuba divers and snorkelers. The island is chock full of resorts, each with its own scuba school. Long-boats with propellers on the end of a ten foot rod could also be rented. The owners were willing to take people anywhere around the island for as long as they wanted. No site was off limits to underwater sightseers.

The beach between the two mountains on Nangyuan Island

A native tree arching towards the ocean,
with a little help from human friends

Long boats (foreground) and snorkeling boats in Mae Haad

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Chiang Mai: In the Slow Lane

The hottest food I ever ate in my life was in a Thai restaurant in Kansas City. It was called Laab Salad. A pile of red (not tinted red, not raw, but chile red) meat piled on top of cabbage was a dish my friend Lester had been told to try. 
Dragon in a Chiang Mai park.

One bite and the top of my head blew off. I could not possibly drink enough water to put out the fire. Lester was beet colored and panting. I thought he might have a heart attack. Water streamed down his face and off the bottom of his ear like a little dripping faucet, wetting the front of his shirt in a long slash.

So when Rheta and I went down the street to a little open-air cafe, I had no idea what to expect. The woman running the place spoke no English but an older man at one of the plastic tables did. He pointed at some bowls and said HotHot. That was enough for me. I pointed to something else. The food was lined up in pots without signs, even in Thai. Only the cook knew what they contained. 

The not HotHot dish turned out to be cold but quite spicy. It had chicken, some vegetables, and came with a pile of rice in the shape of the cup that dumped it out. In addition, we each got a bottle of water and a plate with other cold crisp leaves of unknown origin. 

Against my normal admonitions, I ate most of the leaves. Apparently the Travelers Revenge so prevalent elsewhere is not so prevalent in Thailand where it rains often, washing the plants as they grow. The curry was excellent, and the rice toned down the spicy heat. Our bill arrived; it was almost $3.00 for both of us. 

I was in love with Chiang Mai right off the bat.

Our host told us about the red trucks and how the transportation system works. Within the old city, a mile square chunk of land surrounded by a moat, there are red pickups with camper shells over the back and outfitted with bench seats. We negotiated with the drivers, whose English was usually rudimentary, with a lot of pointing to places on our map. If he agreed to take us there, we’d hop in the back with others on their way to someplace. Eventually we’d hop off, pay him 20 Baht, and be on our way.

A street band playing at
the Saturday Night Market

At the Chiang Mai Gate to the old city, there appeared to be a permanent traffic jam. Most drivers would simply shake their heads if we asked to go there.

On Saturday and Sunday nights there are night markets; streets that are blocked of traffic and fitted out with thousands of tent vendors. We visited the Saturday night market and were astounded at the amount of merchandise available. It ranged from handmade teak frogs with ridged backs that you could “croak” with a little mallet, to the ugliest plastic jewelry from China that would probably break the minute you put it on.

We stopped on a side street where the University of Chiang Mai’s agricultural department was serving ginseng, mango, and other flavors of wine they’d manufactured. For 30 Baht we sampled several kinds and were suitably impressed.

Students from the School for the Blind stood together in little clusters, sang, and played lovely old Thai songs. They also have a massage school and though we never got a massage there, we heard they were exceptional. 

After the reopening of the prison, these monks walked
 home, one of them mindfully texting on his cell phone.
On Sunday, we wanted to get a massage at the Chiang Mai Women’s prison. The prison has a program where they teach the women, who only have a short time left on their sentences, a variety of skills so that hopefully they won’t return. The now-closed prison is in the center of Chiang Mai, and just across the street is a lovely restaurant and massage business run by the women. We signed up for massages at 2:00, and then wandered over to see inside the old prison. Some festivities were going on at the time, loudspeakers had been set up and monks were sitting, lined up in chairs, listening to a speech by an older monk. People brought baskets, decorated like Easter, with sticks coming out, laden with 50 and 100 Baht bills. In the bottom of each basket were various canned and boxed foods that monks might like to eat.

Across the street was a solid jade Buddha we’d seen a couple days earlier at a temple. It was no longer in the bed of a truck, but sitting on a pedestal in the courtyard of a small temple. I assumed the new Buddha was the reason for the celebration, but eventually we discovered it was the reopening of the prison as a public space that prompted all the speeches.

Wandering through the grounds of the prison, we were struck with how decrepit, stiff, and uncomfortable it must have been. It looked like it had been closed up and abandoned for years. Weeds grew out of every crack in the sidewalks, the razor wire was half down along the walls, paint was peeling everywhere, and the doors looked rusted open.

Steven, our host, said it had only closed three months prior. A new prison was built about an hour's drive from the city, and the prisoners are carted back and forth daily. The massages we got there were the best we'd had so far in Thailand. I asked the woman working on me if she enjoyed giving massages, and she said it was much better than in the prison where every day is long and boring. 

The reopening meant the city would now take it over and perhaps create an open space park, or performance center. It covered quite a lot of square meters, and had a sturdy wall to protect whatever they decided to build inside. In a few years, it might be worth a visit just to see what they make out of it.

One morning I woke up early and went for a long walk. There was a nice little temple just down the street so I wandered in to have a peek. It wasn’t closed, but didn’t look particularly open either. By the back door of the temple a little dog sat peacefully waiting. As I took his picture he leaped up and began to wiggle all over. I turned around to see three saffron robed men walking up behind me with trays of food.

I stepped aside and all four of them went into the temple. In a moment, the little dog came shooting out followed by a monk with food for him too.

I took my shoes off and entered the same door. The monks had put one tray on a little stand and were loading it up with small bowls of various curries and vegetables. I looked around, took a few photos of the amazingly bright paintings that covered the walls. They all depicted incidents, real and mythical, of the life of the Buddha. One showed his mother watching as he took his first steps, a lotus blossom appeared under each foot.

I sat in a chair backed up to a wall and just watched the goings on in the room. An older woman came through the front door with a plastic sack containing some food boxes. She knelt in front of the oldest monk who chanted and blessed the food, her, the room, and probably the whole world. It was lovely chanting, quiet and intimate. She unknelt in that graceful Asian way, rising up as if lifted by the air, backed up bowing, then turned to leave. He took the sack, unopened and placed it next to the other trays. Then he and the two monks sat on the floor in front of the large tray and began to eat.

Monks who asked me to breakfast with them.
I finally asked if I could take their picture. The older one spoke some English and asked if I would like to join them for breakfast. It looked like they had more than enough food, but I didn’t know how many other monks were around who might want to eat a bit later on, so I declined.  

It was a sweet morning, people connected with each other on such a fundamental and generous level. The woman who prepared and brought the food, the monks who accepted it and blessed in return, feeding the little dog,
the offer of breakfast to me….With no language barrier, it was simply human interactions happening naturally in a culture that values people more than

The blessing