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The ‘big Buddha,’ built on a hill just south of our beach, was built for the king’s 80th birthday. You can see a worker under his right hand for scale!

I might have gained 10 pounds in my past two days in Phuket, thanks to the delicious cheap food that I’ve been eating at every possible opportunity. Christine and I have just gotten to our hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but I don’t know how anything can top Phuket (pronounced Poo-ket, causing me to lose the bet I had with Christine, darn it) and the two and a half days we spent there.

After I finished my last blog entry early in the morning of the 4th, I almost locked myself into the internet-capable lobby of the POD Backpackers hostel – those magnets they use to hold the doors shut are really powerful, and I thought for a second that they turned off the unlock switches at midnight or something. But after a quick shower, I was ready to make the trek to the pickup station for the “low cost commuters terminal” or LCCT. The prostitute was no where to be found at this time of morning, and despite hustlers trying to get me to pay twice as much for my bus ticket, I found one selling for 8 ringgit, and immediately fell asleep on the bus.

I’ve never seen an airport as ugly as the LCCT; it’s obvious that they call it low-cost for a reason; it’s built like a warehouse and may have in fact been one. Fortunately, the Asia Air plane they provided for us didn’t shake apart in the 2 hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Phuket, and I found myself emerging, blinking, into the bright and sunny Thai tropics, where I was immediately shaken down by taxi drivers, who were somewhat turned away by my insistence that I didn’t yet have any Thai baht. A woman behind a counter was happy to offer me a bad exchange rate, so I took my chances with a nearby ATM machine.

It was then that I discovered the nasty little trick that 99% of Thai ATMs have in store for users, both foreign and local – a 150 baht, or 5 USD, surcharge applied to every single transaction. Oh, you’ll find lots of ATMs in Thailand, but only a tiny fraction of them don’t levy a 5 dollar fee, and those are normally found in big malls and supercenters, and often from a single bank called Aeon. I sucked it up, and paid the toll – and had a few thousand baht, 200 of which I needed to take the hour long shuttle bus ride from the airport at the north of Phuket island, down to Karon Beach.

I was quickly impressed by people working in the Thai service industry. My shuttle bus contained 8 other fellow foreign tourists, and the bus pulled over about 10 minutes from the airport at a strip mall, where we were all politely requested to exit the bus and enter a building, which had five women at desks, asking us for the name and phone numbers of our hotels. In five minutes more, we were all back on the mini bus and on our way. I was the only person going to Karon Beach (every one else was going to the much more party-centric Patong Beach, just a bit north of me) but although the driver told me he’d never heard of “Karon Beach Clinic,” the guesthouse I was staying at, he had already gotten semi-precise directions from our hosts on the phone, thanks to his colleagues at the office. Very nice!

The hostel was absolutely wonderful for the price we had paid for it. Christine’s stuff was piled in one corner, since she had arrived last night, and I wrote her an email joking that since this place was just costing us $23 a night, less than what I pay to live in Madison, we might as well just retire to live in a hostel, right now. Unfortunately, although the price was good, I hadn’t withdrawn enough baht from the first ATM to pay for both nights at the hostel, so I gritted my teeth and suffered another 5 dollar surcharge at an ATM in front of a supermarket just down the street. They also sold beer by the bottle for 90 cents apiece, though, so that took the edge off a bit.

I had no plans for this first day, nor any part of time in Phuket. I had originally planned to go on a “discover scuba” adventure with the same company that Christine had left with, but strange chest pains back in Malaysia had worried me, and I had cancelled my tentative plans (readers might recall my bout of collapsed lung problems in late 2011). But I found a random tour group website and booked a “combined package” day event that included whitewater rafting, ATV riding, and an elephant ride. Christine and I were already hoping to do the latter in Chiang Mai in a few days – and probably with a more reputable organization than a company which sells a full day of activity for $60.

But I needed to find something to do for the rest of my first day. I asked our friendly hostesses at the Karon Beach Clinic where I might find a good place to eat like the locals would, and she told me to go up the road to the nearby beach of Kata. Well, I tried, but I’d been awake for the past 36 hours without much food in me and I wearied quickly, trotting down the sunny asphalt towards a town of unknown distance. Although I was tempted to stop at establishments with names like “Non Stop Bar,” featuring fat old Western men slumped over with beers in front of them, I was still hoping to find a local place. I spied a little open-air cafe on my right, and I gave in and went for it – and boy, was I glad I did.

The restaurant, called Between Restaurant, was manned solely by a young Thai named Ton (pronounced Tone) and his slightly younger brother. I was the only westerner there – success! The small menu had a couple pages in English, and the prices didn’t seem to be more than a couple bucks per plate. I ordered 2 dishes – the Pad Thai and the garlic fried pork. Ton whipped everything up in about 10 minutes and had the plates in front of me, expertly presented with a lime and springs of beansprouts. It was fantastically delicious and I promised him I’d bring my girlfriend with me as soon as possible – and where did he learn to cook like that? Ton told me proudly that he’d been working in hotel restaurants for 4 years, but only 6 months ago had decided to open up his own.

Don’t be fooled by Ton’s simple workstation – the man works food miracles!

Happily full, I napped in the hostel for a few hours, before resolving to get some sightseeing done before the sun set. I wandered the shops and streets, looking for sunglasses (I had forgotten my own on the counter at home) thatweren’t obvious fakes, but every single thing on the streets were branded “Dolce and Gabana” and “Puma” and “Oakleys” – and selling for $2 apiece, I’m pretty sure they weren’t. I asked the vendors if they had anything without a namebrand on it and they looked absolutely dumbfounded. Going into an optical shop, I was confronted with the opposite side of the spectrum – they were asking $90 for a pair of sunglasses in there. Where is the Walmart middle ground of a generic, UV-blocking set of shades for $20? I gave up and headed on to the beach.

I relaxed and read a book for awhile, and donated 200 baht to a wandering woman who had official looking paperwork saying that she worked with orphans (I even got a receipt, stamped by the Ministry of Public Works). Eh, even if she was a scam artist, at least I feel like I did my good deed for the day. I watched the tourists riding jet skis out in the ocean and wondered how prevalent jet ski scammers were on Karon Beach – apparently they’re quite common elsewhere in Phuket. When I bothered to ask how much they were charging, they told me it was too close to sunset to rent to me anyway, and the agents leapt onto their skis and disappeared to the north, towards Patong.

I got a haircut on the way back, from an elderly man named Pon who was watching TV with his wife when I entered. I was leery of scams now, and when he told me it was 200 baht for a haircut, I raised an eyebrow. His wife shouted something at him and he immediately said “okay, okay, one hundred!” I don’t know what she said, but as Pon slipped the plastic apron over me, his wife toddled up to me, smiled happily, and pinched my cheek. Guess I was adorable enough to merit a discount or something? Pon offered to give me a shave as well, which I accepted – it was my first time ever receiving a professional shave with a straight blade razor, and I wondered if it was a good idea to demand discounts from someone who was gently caressing my throat with a razor blade. With my head craned up, I saw the prices written on the mirror – Haircut, 200 baht, Shave, 100 baht. I felt guilty – Pon was just asking the regular price; he wasn’t trying to scam the tourist. When he was finished, I gave him 300 anyway, and though he told me in extremely halting English that we had already agreed on 100 baht for everything, I told him he did good work and I didn’t want to shortchange him. Zach Heise: terrible at bargain hunting with locals.

Pon’s about to get started on my coif. I wonder if he always wears that, or if there is something particularly terrifying about my hair?

Even though it was only 9pm, I was ready for bed again, as I knew I had to be up early to meet the tour bus. The driver was a dry young man with a penchant for shades, hair gel, and cigarettes named Annan, and since Karon was the first stop on his pickup list, he and I were the only ones in his 12-seater van. He didn’t seem inclined to talk much at first, but he noticed I was taking pictures of things, and as the vehicle picked up various Australians from various hotels, he started pointing out interesting sights to photograph, usually just upcoming temples and whatnot (of which I’d already seen dozens in Malaysia) but even so, I appreciated his effort. It turned out that this adventure tour was quite far away – on the Thailand mainland, actually. Crossing the bridge only took 30 seconds, though, and we were soon deep in the jungles around Phang Nga.

My fellow adventurers were almost exclusively Australians, with the exception of 3 Kuwaiti guys who had been staying at a rather opulent hotel at the top of a hill in Patong. Our whitewater-touring boats could only seat 4 people each, besides the two Thai pilots, so I was paired with three Australians that I’d struck up conversations with in the van – Jarrod, Luke, and Darryl. As we stepped out of the lodge by the road, fitting our helmets and life jackets on, I saw the river for the first time and realized that it definitely wasn’t going to be like the private river that Christine and I enjoyed in Costa Rica last year – this river was absolutely packed with people. There must have been 50 boats in the river, representing at least 5 different rafting companies, and the shores were swarming with people too. What proceeded over the next hour was fun, in a bumper-boats sort of way, but not what I was expecting. Luke in particular, a big, burly miner, was greatly enjoying the “splash water into other boats as rapidly as possible” part of the trip, and I was foolishly wearing contacts, so I spent most of the time trying to cover my eyes up as Luke’s targets retaliated. Our grinning guides only gave us 2 paddles to share, so Jarrod and I switched off between Luke and Darryl, who were cousins, to have a go at the rapids. I wonder though, if they only gave us two paddles for the four of us in order to purposely keep us from going to fast, or being able to bypass the constant thumping into other boats we were doing! We passed under at least five rope bridges, all covered with Thais with cameras, snapping away at us. I already knew that we were going to be offered to buy our adventure photos as soon as we got back to the lodge!

Definitely not like the private river we had in Costa Rica, on which we were one of 3 boats, if I recall rightly.

Thinking back to what I wrote a few paragraphs earlier, I suppose I should correct myself: I had originally signed up for a full hour of ATV riding, and had skipped the elephant ride. But the ATV ride, while fun in the sense that ATVs are naturally fun, was rather stilted in presentation – my Australian colleagues and I were just driving in little spurts, following behind a guide, in figure eights through about 500 meters of jungle track. Everyone else had only signed on for half an hour originally, and I was bored after my first half hour so I told them to keep the last half an hour; I was going on the elephant ride instead. They could care less; I was paying for time doing stuff, not the individual items themselves, so Jarrod and I teamed up again to ride a big, 43 year old male elephant named Bulla’a. Bulla’a seemed entirely unimpressed with carrying us and the little metal harness that we were riding us – he walked carefully up hills and through streams, stopping to grab snacks out of the trees and bushes around us. As with the ATVs and the rafting, there was a person to snap a picture of us on the elephants, but our teenage guide was a crafty little guy – he waited until we had crossed the road away from the elephant shelter and then offered to take photos with our own cameras. I only had my Android with me, so Jarrod handed over his waterproof and drop-proof camera for the photos. Hopefully I can get the pictures from him eventually! The two of us just tipped the guy 100 baht each for his work, far undercutting the 300 baht that the “official” picture demanded. And we got dozens of pictures for our money that way! Darryl and Luke reported regretfully that their mahout guide had been a lot more forceful with their elephant than ours had, smacking him with a pointy stick whenever he lingered our snacked – and they didn’t get an unofficial picture collection either.

Between the rafting and ATV rides, Annan also took us to a large waterfall, where we all disobeyed a “no jumping!” sign. Cannonball!

Annan, who had been driving us between each of the different ‘adventures’ was more than happy to stop and let us get beers at the little shops that seemed to have been set up in the jungle just for the tourists – as I was traveling with 3 Australians, beer stops were frequent! But now, the rest of our bus group reconnected, and after a fairly bland lunch (I was still dreaming of Ton’s cooking the previous day) we headed back to Phuket, with one last stop at the “monkey cave” that housed a 300 year old reclining Buddha and hundreds of macaque monkeys who were even more forceful with tourists than the monkeys at Batu Caves had been – these monkeys climbed right into the hands and arms of my fellow travelers and took peanuts, bananas and other snacks right out of them. I wasn’t about to be worrying about rabies shots while thousands of miles from home, so I declined the vendors offers to let a monkey leap onto my head.

We made it back to Phuket at around 5 in the afternoon, and I already had a plan for the next day’s activities – a moped ride up to the Big Buddha pictured at the top of this post. Annan had helpfully pointed him out from the car ride before he dropped me off last again (I asked him if Ton’s price of 60 baht per plate seemed good to him, to which he chuckled and said “where I eat, it’s for 40 baht a plate,”) and it seemed like a fun little trip for Christine and I. My rental “agency” was actually a massage parlor about 50 meters away from the Karon Clinic, where a smiling middle aged woman named Ming took my original passport and 260 baht for a 24 hour rental. 9 dollars to rent a moped…I wasn’t sure to be thrilled or terrified. Of course the gas tank was empty, so I got it filled up and took it for a test ride around Karon Beach before Christine returned with her dive bus.

Apparently using old liquor bottles as 1-liter fuel containers is common throughout Asia! Be sure to remember which of your bottles is which!

I surprised her with the moped rental by hiding the helmets (which were included free with the rental; a nice touch) in the closet. She was pleased with idea, and after only a brief rest, we headed north to Patong to experience the nightlife I’d heard of on some mysterious place named “Bangla Street.” My Australian friends had told me they were all heading there later, and although without a phone I knew I didn’t have much hope of finding them again, I said I would try to meet them later if possible.

Bangla was Party Central with a capital P. It was like Madison’s state street during Halloween, except supposedly like this every single night – a single long pedestrian-only street constantly hued with garish pink, blue, and red lights floating down from the multitude of bars and eating establishments (mostly bars) lining the street. The “small time” vendors wanted a piece of the action too: people were walking around selling necklaces, bracelets, your name written crocheted in yarn, postcards, and less appealingly, pictures with lizards and monkeys that were chained to their owners’ wrists. By far the most advertised thing on the street, though, was the Ping Pong Show… we literally could not go 30 seconds without a Thai pushing his or her way into our path and holding a big sign into our face. “Ping Pong Show! Free! Look at how many things you see…” It didn’t take a genius to quickly guess they weren’t talking about table tennis matches…also advertised on the big card were disturbing things like “nail show” and “dart show.”

We sought up the relative safety of a fancy looking bar with huge plaster tigers out in front of it, but it was like entering a closet to Narnia – ever buying a couple mixed drinks at the bar right by the entrance, we peered further back into the establishment and found that the building was actually comprised of dozens of smaller bars, all about the same size (about 3 meters square) and each with a pole and bell. The pole was for a dancer, standing up on the bar and smiling coquettishly at drinkers (we were appealed by dozens of women, each in the colors of her particular bar, as we walked open-mouthed through the madness) as they gyrated in varying levels of sultriness in time to the blaring, thumping music. The bell, though, was for the drinkers – apparently, you could ring the bell for one thousand baht, about 33 dollars at current exchange rates, and then everyone sitting at that particular bar got a free shot. We heard occasional faint dongs a few times as we circled the massive floor, but nothing close by enough that we could sneak in and get a free shot!

Get the Flash Player to see the video, or use Chrome which has Flash Player built in - you just need to activate it.

We began our hike back towards where we had left the moped, but spotted a place with slightly cheaper drinks, and a slightly quieter atmosphere (our eardrums aren’t as young as they used to be, I guess!) We were enthusiastically ushered to our seats by a heavily made-up pretty young Thai woman, who asked us what drinks we wanted. I did a double take at the sound of her voice…it was a very nasal, almost duck-like honk. I looked at her bare arms and noted the telltale tricep ripple – we were talking to the first ladyboy we’d met on our trip. We placed our order, and when she returned, I introduced ourselves and found out her name was Cindy. “Good name,” I told her. “Are you from Phuket?” “No,” Cindy smiled. “I come to Phuket a lot. Travel here a lot when I was younger, from Bangkok. Then I come to Phuket for work, get my pussy here.” Christine and I double-took again. “Excuse me?” I said politely. “My pussy!” Cindy chirp-honked brightly. “I get my pussy here.” “It’s nice how everyone says exactly what they mean here,” commented Christine.

Christine and Cindy, our waitress for the evening.

As we wheeled our moped out of the tangled mass of at least three or four hundred other mopeds parked outside Bangla street, I watched people out on Patong Beach lighting candles under plastic bags, and then setting them adrift in the sky, where each floating, flaming dot eventually vanished into the darkness of the night sky. It was almost midnight, and the streets and single main road back to Karon was almost empty. It was just chilly enough to be comfortable, especially after the muggy heat of a street packed with wandering humans. It was nice to shower in the hostel, though!

The next morning, we had the chance to sleep in a bit before having lunch with Ton (I had already taken Christine for dinner there the previous night before Bangla). His eyes widened a bit at the sight of the moped. “Be careful when driving to Big Buddha!” he told me emphatically. “Thai people crazy drivers!” The guy was handy to know – not only had he provided a laundry service the previous evening (60 baht per kilogram) but he also contacted a friend of his to provide a private taxi service back to the airport for 1000 baht for when we got back. Comfortable in the knowledge that our rides for the day were taken care, Christine and I set off to the south, cruising on our 110cc moped down the highway and following the English signs for the Big Buddha. The highways eventually turned into little farm roads (more rubber trees) and things angled steeply upwards – and of course, the ratio of tourist attractions with huge signs in English increased as well. After about 15 minutes of slowly chugging uphill, though, we arrived at the posterior side of the Buddha.

There was a little display showing how the tiles were mounted and polished on a concrete base

The site was apparently started in 2007 to commemorate the king’s birthday, and signs of construction were still evident everywhere in the form of concrete-coated rebar. However, as with every Buddhist site, there were no fees and orange-robed monks were everywhere, mingling with the tourists – as well as some friendly cats which of course Christine petted. Up at the top of the hill in front of the big man himself, there was a nice view looking to the south east, and some tiles which were going to be used in the construction of the visitor’s center beneath the Buddha (you can see it in the picture at the top; not quite ready yet). For 300 baht, Christine and I “bought” a tile and signed our greetings from America.

Christine and I provided a little USA love for the Big Buddha

It was noon, and extremely hot, so the long descent back down the mountain made a nice breeze. I quickly returned the bike to Ming, who checked it only cursorily and cheerfully returned my passport to me. We even had time for a foot massage from another parlor next to the hostel before Ton and his driver friend (who told us her name was Tuktuk, like the little three-seater motorcycle taxis, but I’m not sure if she was kidding or not).

Getting pampered for 300 baht an hour, so much cheaper than Malaysia was!

And here we are in Chiang Mai! It was a nice surprise to have an airport taxi be only 100 baht to get us right to the door of our hostel, the Aoi Garden in the center of the city. The mattresses are hard, but the AC works and that’s the important thing with these muggy nights. Looking forward to hopefully hearing back from the Ban Chaang Elephant Sanctuary tomorrow and doing some elephant washing and ‘training’!