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Part XXXIX What I did over winter vacation
January 27, 2000

I wish I could say that I have been SO busy that I have much to report and that my life has been as exciting and anecdote-filled as ever.  But that is not the case.  Except for going to Thailand just before the Y2K bug ate the world, life has been standard, only colder.  So, I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you about the Artist(ic Country) Formerly Known as Siam.

Before embarking (or is it disembarking?) on our trip to Thailand, Jeff and  I were assured that it was going to be warm.  "Lucky you," said some, "you get to bask in warm sunshine while Japan freezes."  So, we packed accordingly.  We were in Thailand from Dec. 17th until the 26th.  We went on a three day outdoor trek from the 22nd until the 24th.

December 23, 1999 was the coldest day in Thailand in more than 25 years.

While we were sleeping outside in pants, long-sleeve shirts and sleeping bags roughly the same thickness as mosquito netting, the temperature reached just about freezing.  The sleeping surface (known also as the ìfloorî) was simply sliced bamboo trees, only slightly more comfortable than corrugated steel.  Needless to say, this was not one of the most comfortable or cozy nights of our young lives.  I went to "bed" around 1, shivered uncontrollably until 3, then went back out to the campfire and huddled there until the others staggered over around 6 or 7.

And I had a great time.  The trek was more of a relaxed nature walk than a real hike, which was a good thing considering none of us got much sleep either night.  We walked about 3 hours the first day, 4-5 the second, and 2 the third.  The rest of the time we were eating and/or chilling at the campsite.  The most exciting part of the trek for me was the first night's campsite, an indigenous village.  There is a large group of these villages scattered throughout Northern Thailand, and the people who inhabit them are universally referred to as the "Hill Tribes."  True, they live in the hills, but nobody seems to know where they actually came from and how long they have been there.  Our guide, Mr. Dee, explained to me that since the tribes themselves have no tradition of oral history, there is almost no way of determining their ancestry.

In any event, the village was the most primitive settlement I have ever seen.  ("Primitive," by the way, is not an insult. Calling someone "uncivilized" is insulting, but "primitive" simply refers to the lifestyle and tools.)  There is no electricity or running water.  The houses are raised about 3-4 feet above the ground so that during the cold months the animals can sleep underneath them and provide heat, and also so that during the rainy season the house is protected from flooding.  I am using the word "house" very loosely, however.  The walls, ceiling, and floor are constructed completely out of bamboo, while the roof is anything waterproof and available -- I saw iron (or steel), aluminum, and even tarpaulin roofs.  A few roofs were made out of large leaves, and I understand that they function very well and only have to be replaced every two or three years.  The most memorable part, though, was the floor.  As I mentioned above, the floor was also made from bamboo.  The thing is, in order for the heat from the animals to get in, the floor must be very thin.  So thin, in fact, that you could see through it.  So thin that when walking, once constantly felt as if one were about to FALL through it.  Indeed, one member of our party had a close call along those lines.

Speaking of our party, other than ourselves, Mr. Dee, and the helper (Aut), there were eight other trekkers:  three Canadians, one American, one Australian, one New Zealander, and two Bulgarians.  It made for a fun trip.  On the last day of the trip we rode elephants and largely-submerged bamboo rafts (see below) for about an hour each, and it was a fitting end, because in Thailand Jeff and I experienced more forms of transportation than I thought existed.

Starting from the top-end down, we rode:

-- the limousine sent by our hotel to pick us up at the airport.  It was just a big black car. I think they called it a limo because the driver got to wear a chauffeur's hat.
-- the standard taxi.  Warning:  you have to make them use the meter, or they will charge at least double the proper rate.  We learned this the hard way.
-- the Bangkok "tuk-tuk," probably named for the sound they make.  This cheap alternative to the taxi is basically a covered rickshaw with a motorcycle in front instead of someone pulling you.  They are almost small enough to swerve in and out of traffic.  The fact that they are not quite small enough to do this does not stop them from doing this.  The single most annoying thing for Bangkok was the swarm of tuk-tuk drivers surrounding you everywhere in the city.  The fervent, desperate cries of "Tuk-tuk!!  Tuk-tuk!!" still haunt me in my dreams.
-- the saamlor, which is the cheap alternative to a taxi outside of Bangkok.  A saamlor resembles nothing so much as a very small covered pick-up truck with benches along each side.  A very, very small pick-up truck.
-- the motorcycle taxi.  Jump on the back and hold on for dear life.  While these actually are small enough to swerve in and out of traffic, they do so at a speed which defies belief.  Jeff's actually jumped a curb and went on the sidewalk for a hundred yards or so because his driver decided that traffic wasn't moving fast enough.  I understand his feelings -- Bangkok traffic was the worst I have ever seen or even heard of.  And I was told that this year it hasnít been bad at all.
-- the glorified moped. This one we rented and drove ourselves.  They were advertised as "motorcycles," but they were hardly Harleys.  I mean, do real motorcycles top out at 65mph?
-- the elephant.  Decidedly slower and unable to swerve anywhere, in OR out of traffic, the elephants had the advantage of being able to trim the trees along the way.  They must eat a lot, judging from the two elephantine piles of effluvial excrement our elephant left behind.  Interestingly, the elephants are trained to turn to the side and make their  deposits just off the trail.  You haven't really lived until you've seen potty-trained elephants.
-- night train with beds.  (Bangkok -> Chiang Mai)  Comfortable, but loud.  Afforded a decent night's sleep.
-- night train, no beds.  (Chiang Mai -> Bangkok) The airplane-style seats were not as comfortable as beds, of course, but since this trip was just after the sleepless three-day trek, Jeff and I were unconscious nearly the entire 11 hours.
-- the yang-haaw river taxi.  This was a long, very loud boat.  Our smiling driver took us on a standard tour of the canals of Bangkok which included some memorable watery slums.  Official population figures put Bangkokís population at 6-7 million.  Conservation estimates by independent groups double that figure.  I think we saw how the other half lives, and it ainít pretty.
-- the bamboo raft.  Don't sit down on one unless you like wet butts -- due to the weight of the passengers, the entire raft spends a great deal of time 2-3 inches (or more) under water.  Not exactly the Queen Mary, but then we weren't exactly navigating the North Atlantic in winter.  The funny part was that the guide/driver, the one who does this everyday of the year, was the only one who fell off.  Fortunately for him, the water was only about four feet deep.

You may be curious about what kind of hotel it was that sent a "limo" to the airport to pick us up.  This is one area in which Thailand's deflated currency definitely worked to our advantage.  While in Bangkok, Jeff and I stayed at the Siam Intercontinental Hotel, a 5-star, luxury hotel with all the amenities, including the room-service club sandwich ($8) and the in-room Thai massage (more than $8).  This hotel, which in Europe would probably cost more than $300 per night, was a measly $50 each due to the crash of the Thai Baht in the mid 90's.  Go, George Soros!! *

So, for the most part prices in Thailand were very good, although they didn't always work out so well.  After purchasing a train ticket for the equivalent of $0.50, I then went to a newspaper stand and bought some Smints (American breath mints) for nearly $2.00.  So, a small burst of minty freshness is worth four 90-minute train trips?  It was then that I realized only tourists buy breath mints.

After we arrived back in Japan, we went to Tokyo to usher in the new year.  If you saw a scene from Tokyo on TV, chances are it was where we were, since it is the most famous shrine in the city and always the biggest draw.  Usually over 3 million people show up to Meiji Jingu, as it is called, but this year there were only around 2 million.  Trust me -- at ground level there is no difference.  We then went to Roppongi, one of the most famous nightlife spots in Tokyo, where we danced the night away.  The dance club was so hot and humid that my glasses kept fogging up, and when we left I had to wring the sweat out of my shirt.  That's gross.

* George Soros is a multi-billionaire currency speculator who played a large part in the Thai Bahtís meteoric fall** a few years ago, and thus got me my cheap hotel room.  Oh, yeah, and it also messed up Thailandís economy pretty good.   Iíve read that the only good part about that is that fewer people can afford cars and the traffic in Bangkok is getting better.  Having seen the supposed ìlighterî traffic thatís a bit hard to believe, but apparently in the early 90ís it could take 14 hours to drive across the city.

** Why do people always say ìmeteoric rise?î Have you ever seen a meteor rise?  No -- thatís because meteors FALL.  Quickly.