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We returned home yesterday (Friday) morning after a very interesting trip back south.

I don't know how much the American media (if at all) is covering the current situation in Thailand but I do know the Asian and European media has been making it sound as if the entire country is one big disaster zone.  Briefly, the worst monsoon floods to hit the region in 60 years has created some very serious problems in several of the northern provinces this past week.  Swollen rivers and mudslides have inundated a number of communities (ranging in size from small villages to medium-sized cities), washing away roads and buildings.  The latest figures I've heard list over 50 deaths and many more people missing (those numbers will rise once the waters recede); the Bangkok Post yesterday reported that an estimated 12,000 people have lost their homes and that military troops are having difficulties in reaching many of the affected areas.

Tim and I experienced some of this first-hand when we were essentially stranded in Chiang Mai with the halting of all rail service in the north of the country.  The flooding was so severe near the city of Uttadit that four trains were stopped there by the water (leaving over a thousand people stuck in the tiny station).  We ended up flying back to Bangkok on Thursday afternoon — a flight in a tiny turbo-prop plane that made a stop at the flood-stricken Sukothai airport to pick up fleeing tourists (the runway was partially under water as was all of the surrounding countryside).

All of this put a very unusual end to our trip to the north to visit Tim's family.  As I mentioned, the Asian and European media seem to be exaggerating the flooding as the reports I watched on satellite TV made it sound like ALL of northern Thailand is under water.  We did see some unusually high and fast-moving streams in Lamphun province but certainly nothing like we've seen in the Reuters photographs and CNN-Asia videos.

Back on Tuesday, my stomach was feeling somewhat better so Tim and I made an early start back to visit her parents and other members of her family.  The motorbike that her brother had loaned us was truly a piece of crap — it looked as if it hadn't been cleaned or serviced in years, the kick stand was held on by a piece of ancient string and the right foot rest fell off as soon as I tried to put it in the "down" position.  The gas tank was also virtually empty and we had to push the bike several hundred meters to the nearest gas stand.  Not a great way to start the day (especially since it began to lightly rain on us before we got out of Lamphun and we had at least a two-hour drive ahead of us).

Luckily, we didn't get rained on that much on Tuesday or Wednesday despite the skies constantly being overcast; it seemed like we were always just on the edge of a cloud, sometimes we'd see some sprinkles and then we'd drive out from under it.

When we arrived at her parent's house, Tim's mother was the only one home so we visited for a short while and showed her some more photos (we'd made a stop at a Fuji film store in Pasang).  We then drove out to a "garden" where her father was working; there were a few scrawny longan trees and he was digging in the mud at the base of one.  A short visit with papa and we were driving down the road again, soon stopping at her sister's hut.  I was confused now as Tim had told me she only has one sister and this was a different person than the woman who was introduced as her sister on Sunday.  My question about this went unanswered.  After sitting there for a while (during which Tim dragged out the food platter), we went to visit her aunt and another woman whom I'm not sure if she's a relative or not (she looks to be at least a hundred years old, but living in the way they live tends to prematurely age them).  Again, Tim helped herself to their food.  This annoys me somewhat, not only because I already think that Tim eats too much but also because I think it's rude that she just helps herself and eats so much of their food when they have so little to begin with.  I've been trying to explain this to her but haven't had any success.

Around this time, I began feeling ill again so we went back to her parent's home where we sat for another hour or so before beginning the long journey back to our guesthouse in Lamphun.

Wednesday morning, the sky was once again dark and dreary.  Despite this, it would prove to be the longest I'd spent riding on a motorbike since the annual camping trips my father and I used to take more than 25 years ago.  It was a very enjoyable day as far as traveling, although I did tire of the visits once again (more on this a bit later).

Our first stop was at the Lamphun Provincial Prison.  We were there to visit a friend of Tim's, another kathoey, who was locked up for six months for something to do with telephones (I sure can't wait until we both learn more of each other's languages so when I ask why we're at a prison I don't get an answer like, "My friend, he in jail for telephone bad").  Anyway, in front of the prison is an open-air waiting area with hard seats; before you can sit here, you have to tell the guard in a small booth who you are there to visit and then pay a 200-baht fee plus buy a bag of food.  I have no idea if the prisoner gets any of the 200 baht but there are markers to write notes on the fruit bags.  The visitors are taken into the prison in small groups; when Tim's group was called, she wanted me to go in with her but having no desire to see the inside of a Thai prison I said I'd wait outside for her.  In retrospect, I wish I had gone inside because it would probably have given me something more interesting to write about.  I spent some of the time reading (I just started State Of Fear by Michael Crichton) but mostly people-watched.  Tim emerged after 20 or so minutes, pleased to have seen her friend (another person she'd known since childhood).

Leaving the prison, Tim wanted to visit another aunt and headed east into the mountains towards Mae Tha.  This was an extremely pleasant journey through some very spectacular scenery, reminding me at times of Colorado with nearby mountains and plenty of trees with the occassional rushing stream alongside the roadway.  The villages were widely spaced in this area and most of the roadside businesses sold ornate wood carvings.  I really want to return at some point to buy some wooden statues, etc. (our next visit to the Chiang Mai area we'll probably rent a car for local travel and mail any purchases back home).

After a two-and-half-hour drive in the mountains, we crossed a river (the water was much higher on its banks when we drove over it again an hour later) and arrived at Tim's aunt's home.  This was another shack lacking electricity or any other modern amenities.  When we arrived, nobody was home but Tim entered anyway and began eating while I stood nervously outside.  Within a few minutes, a neighbor walked over with her baby and elderly mother.  When Tim's aunt returned a few minutes after that, they beckoned me inside and once again I sat on the floor with them as they chattered about in Thai and ate with their fingers amidst a swarm of flies and mosquitoes.  Meanwhile, the neighbors stuck their heads in the glassless window and stared at me (something that happens constantly and makes me extremely uncomfortable).

I quickly tire of these visits because I'm left there ignored (but stared at) while they talk in their language, making no effort to communicate with me or to offer me food or drink (although, I'd turn it down even if offered because I just can't get used to eating food which I consider filthy because of the flies constantly landing on it).  I can usually maintain a smile on my face for a short while and then I begin to tire of trying to appear like I'm having a good time.  So then I start watching a particular fly or one of the scrawny chickens that always seems to be wandering in and out of the homes, or I'll look up at the sky and wonder if we'll get trapped there overnight if it starts pouring rain on us.  Every once-in-a-while, I'll say to Tim, "What say you?" in the hopes that she'll explain what the conversation is about but which usually results in a reply such as, "My aunt, she talk."  So, I just say, "Oh, that's nice," and try to stay awake a while longer.  Sometimes, I'll hear the term "farang" and know they're talking about me.

During the third day of these types of visits, I began to cringe everytime I heard "farang".  Many expat Westerners in Thailand hate this word and view it as very derogatory.  Prior to this trip, I didn't really understand that viewpoint and didn't mind being referred to as a farang.  But now I began to understand and actually thought of a good way to explain this to Tim:  Calling any non-Asian a farang would be like saying a Thai person is exactly the same as a Malay or a Philipino or a Japanese person.  They may all be "Asian", but they are all extremely different.  I asked Tim if she could begin telling her relatives and friends that "I am not a "farang", I am an American."  This seemed to please everyone who heard this phrase as I think they recognized the national pride that this entails.  In fact, I'm beginning to think I could sell t-shirts with similar phrases on them — come up with a good design and have the phrase both in Thai script and English; also, you could make them for any of the nationalities that have expats like, "Ich nich bin farang, ich bin Deutschlander," for Germans, etc.  Of course, as with so many of my similar ideas (which I usually come up with while sitting on the back of motorbikes or while on family "visits"), I probably won't follow through with this one...

Anyway, while at this particular aunt's home, it began raining very hard for a short time and I told Tim that we should be heading back "home" so we wouldn't get stuck in the mountains.  When the rainshower stopped, we headed southwest towards Pasang.  We were amazed at how much more water was in the river and streams we passed than had been just a short while before.  At Pasang, we purchased a bunch of food at the market and headed back to her parent's home (I was constantly watching the sky at this point as I thought our luck was nearly at it's end).

Sitting with her parents once again, Tim ate about half of what we'd brought for them (how do I get her to stop this?) and her father told us that none of the trains were running because of an accident.  Tim was very concerned about this but I told her if there was a derailment, they'd probably have it cleared fairly soon and they should be running by the time we needed to board the next evening.  We weren't told the trains had been stopped by the flooding.

Prior to this visit, Tim had asked if I could give some money to her parents.  In their culture, it's usually the "job" of the youngest daughter to take care of the parents financially in their old age.  Her youngest brother had been doing this for her for quite some time, although she had managed to send 3,000 baht home each of several months earlier this year.  I had decided to give them 10,000 baht (USD $262) because they hadn't asked for a dowry and don't seem to expect one; also, it's a nice amount as this is the maximum I can withdraw from the ATM each day.  But when I was counting out the bills in my wallet, I decided to make it 12,000 baht instead (one month's rent).  However, when I tried to hand the bills to papa he waved it off and Tim quickly rushed in with a silver offering bowl.  I placed the money in this vessel, Tim and I each had to bow our heads and put our hands up in the wai position, and her father then chanted part of the Buddhist Dharma (which is in Hindu or Swahili, I'm not entirely certain).  It was touching and I think this indicates that they considered my gift to be an unsolicited dowry for our marriage.

Returning to Lamphun, we happened to turn on the television and began seeing some of the images of the current flooding.  Of course, I couldn't find an English-language channel and Tim couldn't tell me much (with images of houses flooding down flooded rivers flashing on the screen, I asked "Where?" only to receive answers such as "Thailand have much water" and "Trains no work").  I managed to gather that a large portion of the rail lines were underwater and I knew Tim was worried because we were scheduled to take the overnight train back to Bangkok the next day.  I told her that when we checked out in the morning, we'd go straight to the Chiang Mai railway station for the latest answers.  I said that if the trains weren't running, we'd get a refund on our tickets and then go to the airport to see about getting a flight out.

This is, in fact, what we did.  We repacked early in the morning (I was glad to be leaving that guesthouse — the room had a severe spider and ant problem) and Tim arranged for a songteow (a covered pickup truck that serves as the local bus/taxi) to take us back up to Chiang Mai.  He took a "short cut", making the usually 50-minute trip in less than thirty — weaving from lane to lane at high speed to avoid the huge potholes caused by the heavy rains and causing me to fear for my life on more than one occasion.  The train station was absolutely deserted except for one person manning the Advanced Tickets counter and a couple of sleeping tuk-tuk drivers.  I asked Tim to take our tickets to the counter and see when the trains might be running again; she returned in less than a minute with a full refund (I guess they've had to do a lot of that in the past couple of days).

We then loaded our luggage into a tuk-tuk and rode over to Chiang Mai International Airport (a very nice facility; I was very impressed.  I thought that last-minute, day-of-flight, one-way tickets back to Bangkok would be extremely expensive and was prepared for them to be in the neighborhood of 10,000 baht each.  I figured I'd check Nok Air first as they are usually the lowest priced of the local budget airlines.  However, we couldn't find the Nok Air ticket office so I approached the Bangkok Airways counter.  I was very surprised when the two tickets, with tax and landing fees, came to just 5,020 baht (approx. USD $130).  We would be leaving just before 3pm (the earliest flight available) and would land in Bangkok at 5pm following a 10-minute stop in Sukothai to pick up people stranded at the airport there.

The plane was one of those 20-passenger turboprops (an AT-62, I think the safety card said).  It was so small that my backpack and the wrapped engagement photos wouldn't fit in the overhead compartment but we were allowed to put them on the empty seats across the aisle from us.  The lady sitting in front of us was from northern California (near the Oregon border) so I had a nice conversation (the first time I'd spoken to a fellow native English-speaker in almost two months).  Before we landed in Sukothai, we were fed a nice snack of cashew cookies and fruit and later had a very good hot lunch of sliced pork over spaghetti noodles.  As we approached Sukothai, we could see huge areas of flooding; half of the runway was underwater and the passengers we were taking on had to come most of the way from the terminal by boat.

We arrived in Bangkok about fifteen minutes early.  We went to the hotel reservations counter in the Domestic Terminal and I asked for the least expensive hotel close to the airport (Tim was feeling a bit ill and I didn't want to stay in the airport all night; we had changed our reservations to the earliest available flight to Phuket which left at 7:40 in the morning).  We booked a room at Don Muang Mansion which, although right across the highway from the airport, took us over 40 minutes to reach with the horrible rush hour traffic.  The cost of the hotel, with "free" transfers from and to the airport, was 1,600 baht — WAY overpriced as the quality was less than the filthy 450-baht-per-night guesthouse we'd stayed at in Lamphun.  Anyway, it poured rain all night long and I particularly feared the nearby lightning strikes.  I don't know which kept me awake more — the noisy storm or the constant feeling that ants (or worse) were crawling all over me.  Our 4:45am wakeup call saw us already awake; the driver was actually waiting for us when we checked out shortly after 5:00 and we were soon at the airport (there not being near as much traffic at that time of the morning, although we did see a lot more than expected people on motorbikes beginning their communte).

We had some difficulty finding the check-in counter for Bangkok Airways.  They are actually on the ground floor while most of the other domestic flights have their check-in counters on the second level.  I found out this is because they have their own gate area; most of their planes are too small to use the usual jetways at Don Muang Airport and you have to board busses that take you out to the tarmac.

I have to mention here that I am very impressed with Bangkok Airways.  Not only are the airfares relatively low but the quality of service is very high.  They feed you on the plane to the point of bursting, PLUS they have complimentary refreshments in the gate areas of all of the airports they serve.  These refreshments (the Bangkok airport had coffee, several juices, pastries, cakes, toast, etc.) are free to ALL of their passengers, not just the "elite" or frequent traveler ones.  I think we'll be using them more in the future...

Our hour-long flight back to Phuket was aboard a 717 which Tim prefers to the "small" plane we'd come down from Chiang Mai on.  (I can't wait to see how she reacts to flying on an even bigger plane eventually.)  We landed from the east so Tim was denied that spectacular final approach over the ocean and right above the beach.  It was pouring rain when we arrived and we hired a limousine after we'd retrieved our checked bag; the hour-long drive to our home in Chalong cost 550 baht (the taxi would have been 650 baht and, if we'd used her friend's pickup again that would have cost 1000 baht).

Back home, we didn't waste any time unpacking our clothes and I began sorting the other stuff we'd brought back.  There was a notice that I had a package to pick up from the post office so we drove over there during a brief lull in the rain (I had a couple of new Bruce Springsteen CD's waiting for me — I'll write a brief review soon) and then stopped at 7-Eleven to buy some water and sodas since there was nothing to drink at the house.  Soon after we got back, Jum and Lek showed up (and almost as quickly began drinking our purchases while I explained we hadn't had anything to drink in a couple of days other than what they'd served on the plane).  Jum had brought her laundry and I jokingly asked if she could wash a few of my things since neither Tim and I had any clean clothes to wear yet.  She had been checking on the house while we were away, getting the mail, etc. and now gave me two water-soaked bills that had arrived.  We'd left her some money to pay any bills (which usually are due within two or three days after they are left in the mailbox) but she said it had been raining and she couldn't get to 7-Eleven to pay them (which is practically right across the street).  So, both bills were overdue and we'll have to go to the water company and phone company offices on Monday to pay them now.

Tim asked for some money so she could buy some food at the market; when this came back, Lek, Jum, and Tim ate most of it (they'd bought one very scrawny and tough fried chicken lef for me).  I retreated to the master bedroom to catch up on reading e-mails (I hadn't turned on the computer for several days) and load some music onto the iPod.

Tim and I fell asleep fairly early (despite her playing a DVD of John Carpenter's "Ghost Of Mars").  I woke up around 4:30 this (Saturday) morning and began catching up on computer "paperwork" (adding expenses into Money, transferring photos from the digital camera, etc.) while waiting for Tim to wake up.  She just poked her head out of the bedroom door (looking like death warmed over, but in a "nice" way) which is perfect timing now that I'm virtually finished with this blog entry.  After we have our morning coffee, we'll probably start laundry.  I don't think we'll go anywhere today but will probably go shopping tomorrow.

It is nice to be home...



As I write this, I'm laying on top of my bed in a Lamphun guesthouse recovering from a 24-hour bout with what I think was the flu — runny nose, headache, and massive stomach cramps.  Or, perhaps it was a bad cold coming at the same time as a bad reaction to local food eaten yesterday.  Or, it the stomach problems might have been the result of my forgetting to brush my teeth yesterday using bottled water rather than from the tap.  At any rate, I've spent most of the past day in bed drifting in and out of sleep between trips to the restroom.  I just hope I feel well enough tomorrow to visit Tim's parents once again; she's been a trooper taking care of me all day rather than going down to Wiang Nong Long herself.

When last I wrote, we were getting a late start Saturday following an "interesting" night out on the town.  All difficulties had been forgiven and forgotten and we were looking forward to a nice day together.  Once Tim woke up, we drank coffee together on the balcony overlooking SK House's swimming pool.  We then walked to an eatery I'd noticed while walking on Moon Muang Soi 6 the day before.  The Chiang Mai Saloon offers a decidedly Tex-Mex selection of food and I wanted Tim to try some food similar to what she'd find in New Mexico.  She ordered chile con carne with refried beans and I had beef fajitas (which actually was served on a cast-iron skillet, just like "home").  The beans weren't very hot and the other items had a strange Dutch crumbly cheese (similar to blue cheese) that didn't provide the same effect as cheddar would have but overall the food was very good, particularly the fajitas.  Tim especially liked the chile and the chips with salsa (some of the best salsa I've tasted, by the way).  We also liked the saloon's logo (featuring a Thai cowboy atop a bucking elephant rather than bronco) and I decided I wanted to buy a t-shirt there.  However, they were out of extra large sizes at that location but told me I could buy one at their original branch on Loi Kroh Road.  Tim purchased a very smart-looking black polo shirt for 200 baht while we were at the Soi 6 location.

We took a tuk-tuk to Pantip Plaza where I bought a plug adapter for the laptop and then we began walking to the other Chaing Mai Saloon to buy my t-shirt.  However, we got turned around and lost so ended up taking another tuk-tuk there.  They didn't have any black polos but I did buy a white t-shirt with the logo that looks nice but not near as nice at Tim's shirt.  We then began walking just to look around; when we stopped at one point, I found on the map that we were very close to the Suriwong Book Centre on Sidonchai Road so I led Tim there to check it out.  It was a huge book store with a very large selection of English-language books at wholesale prices.  Tim and I both chose several books, including one I'd been checking various bookstores to find since arriving in the city.  Exploring Chiang Mai by Oliver Hargreave has detailed descriptions not only of the city itself but of the surrounding villages and countryside along with great maps and photos.  I was very impressed with this particular bookstore in a city full of bookshops (both new and secondhand).

It was raining when we exited Suriwong so we took a tuk-tuk back to our guesthouse and spent the evening reading and repacking.  I did some computer work and we turned in fairly early.

We checked out of SK House around 9:30 Sunday morning (a simple process of just giving them the key, no paperwork or additional payment was involved) and found Anon waiting for us in his ancient Toyota pickup truck.  We set my laptop backpack on the passenger seat in the cab (the sky was threatening rain) and the remainder in the bed where Tim and I also rode.  It was a pleasant hour-long journey down to Lamphun with a cool breeze and the rain held off.  Much of Highway 106 along the way to Saraphi is lined by very tall yang trees (903 of them, according to Hargreave's book) which were planted in 1899 and are protected by a 10,000-baht fine for damaging them.  The countryside is dotted by small villages and temples with many trees and occasional small rivers.

Anon had scouted out a couple of hotels in Lamphun we could stay at and we chose Tantong (spelling?) Guesthouse near the railway station.  It's a couple of kilometers outside of the old town center but is fairly clean and comfortable with air-conditioning and mini-bar in the room and an Internet cafe in the lobby.  It's a bargain at 450 baht per night (about USD $11), although there are a lot of spider webs along the ceiling in the bathroom (which I worked on dislodging with the shower hose tonight).

After we settled into our room, Anon drove us to Tim's family.  This was another case of people living in a completely different location than I'd been told.  First, Tim had told me they lived in Lamphun and then it was Pasang which is an hour from the far side of Lamphun.  The actual location is closer to Wiang Nong Long, another hour or so past Pasang.  Somewhat past Pasang, we left the main highway (106) for a weaving country lane only wide enough for a very narrow car or truck.  The mountains were in the distance and the fields the road passed through were full of cotton and longan trees.  The area actually reminded me quite a bit of northeastern Kansas and the drive on the winding road began to remind me of drives I've done to Lake Perry with my dad.

We finally arrived at the home of Tim's parents.  It's a pretty basic structure with a concrete enclosure at ground level (that doesn't have walls on one-and-a-half sides with a wooden house above (also open-air with a covering.  I managed to remember to wai both papa and mama and speak the appropriate greetings to each in the Lamphun dialect of Thai (essentially a different language from that spoken in central Thailand) and got big hugs from both.  After we had sat (on a platform in the concrete ground-level "basement"), Tim's father took a spool of white string and proceeded to wrap it around each of my wrists to make bracelets.  Tim's mother than did the same with my wrists and then they repeated the process with Tim.  As I understand it, this means that they give their approval for our marriage.  We then showed some of the photos we'd taken together and had lunch (I mainly ate cucumbers although Tim gave me some fried pork skins and sticky rice a couple of times).  Two of Tim's brothers and her sister also joined us and they all had great amusement at my discomfort in eating the flying red ants offered as dessert (I did manage to get a few down; later, when I had the first of my stomach problems I joked with Tim that the ants I'd eaten were now eating me).

After a while, Tim led me behind her parent's house past an open-air barn containing several cows to the shack shared by her youngest brother and sister.  They had a mud oven (similar to the hornos used by native Americans in New Mexico to cook fry bread) next to their home which was made of cinder blocks; the only "furniture" inside was a broken-down television set and stereo speakers.  A short visit there and then we walked down the country lane a hundred yards or so to the house of Anon's parents (he'd grown up with Tim), visited there for a while, and then walked another couple of hundred yards to the house of Tim's oldest brother.  This was another very poor hovel (Anon's family home was the nicest out of the four I visited) and her sister-in-law was sewing pants on the side "porch" amidst a swarm of chickens.  Tim's oldest brother is a musician and he played a tune on the stringed instrument remembling a guitar (Tim couldn't tell me the name of the instrument).

It had been raining off-and-on all day and I began filling ill sometime after noon, mostly a sore throat and a case of the sniffles.  We had planned to have our "official" engagement photos made in Lamphun so we cut our family visit short around 4:00 after another brief visit at the parents' home (where papa gave my hands a big squeeze and placed them atop Tim's hands, another sign of his approval).  Tim's youngest brother loaded a small motorbike into the bed of Anon's truck; he was loaning this to us so we could get around a bit easier (no tuk-tuk's in Lamphun and only rare songtow's run in the area).  We arrived at the portrait studio in Lamphun just before closing time — we both had makeup applied to our faces and were outfitted in traditional Lamphun costumes for the photos.  We had a number of 5x7's made, plus a couple of 10x15's which came with "free" frames.  Best of all, we were also given a CD with the photo files to make it easy for reprints.

I was feeling very sick by this time so we made a quick stop at a pharmacy before Anon dropped us back at the guesthouse.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, I spent all of last night and most of today alternating between sleep and trips to the toilet.  I feel a little better now, have eaten some food (Tim found some croissants somewhere), and took a shower a short while ago.  I hope to feel strong enough tomorrow for another trip to see my new family.



We arrived at Chaing Mai Railway Station a little after 7:30 in the morning yesterday (Friday) after a restless night on the overnight "First Class" train from Bangkok.  Calling the train anything special is a joke because it was ancient, filthy, and noisy.  Our compartment was tiny with no room to even stand up in; I barely managed two hours of sleep in total.  It certainly ranks far below the Beijing to Shanghai overnight I traveled on three years ago and I thought that one was pretty bad!

I'll try to bring this up to date without going into too much detail as I'm on battery power and a very weak wireless connection.

Wednesday morning, we took a taxi back to the Department of Consular Affairs in Laksi to pick up Tim's passport.  As usual, she spent the entire taxi ride talking to the driver in Thai — giving him our entire history together in addition to the most personal of details.  I really hate when she does this and any protests I make go unheeded.  I can understand enough Thai to know when she's talking about something that's extremely embarrassing to me or that other people, especially strangers (but worse when it's someone I know) have no business knowing.  Anyway, in the course of this conversation she agreed for the driver to turn off the meter and wait for us in order to take us to the Royal Grand Palace after we finished our passport business.  This cost us (me) 500 baht when if we'd just kept the meter on and taken a second metered taxi the toll would have come to less than 200 baht.  I've warned her numerous times about schemes such as this in Bangkok but she just doesn't seem to get it.

The passport pickup process was much easier than the application process.  We went to a different section of the second floor (turning right at the top of the stairs instead of the left) where there was a row of 10 or so windows.  At the first one, Tim gave her application receipt and was given a number.  When her number was called (no lighted display, just someone calling the numbers in Thai), she approached a window where she had to place her left index finger into a fingerprint reader.  They then took her photo (again?), during which she managed to hit the tripod the camera was sitting on angering the clerk who went to great pains to get the camera "just right" once again.  She was then given her passport.  I had instructed her to look at the information closely before leaving the window so any mistakes could be spotted right away but she stuffed it into her shoulder bag and walked quickly away.  I stopped her before she got too far and we checked the passport, not finding any errors.  The entire pick-up process took less than 10 minutes.

We then got back into our taxi and headed down to the "Royal area" of Bangkok.  The region surrounding the Royal Grand Palace has many government offices, wide tree-lined boulevards, impressive monuments, huge temples, etc.  When we arrived outside the palace, I gave the driver a 1000-baht note and — of course — he insisted that he didn't have change and there wasn't anyplace he could change it that early in the morning.  I was savy to this scam as well and directed him to wait while I went into a 7-Eleven across the street where I bought a Coke and got the small bills to pay him with.  He insisted he couldn't wait but in the end he did when I made it clear that otherwise I would just pay what would have been on the meter.  I hoped that Tim learned a lesson not to trust just anyone and she was a bit more careful later when someone tried to sell us a 20-baht river taxi ticket for 400 baht.

I had visited the Royal Grand Palace on an organized tour back in January so it was nice to play "tour guide" as Tim and I explored the grounds.  She was very impressed with the displays of wealth and power and we spent a lot of time looking at the huge murals.  We eventually made our way inside Wat Phra Kaeo which houses the Emerald Buddha and Tim did a small Buddhist ritual of bowing and wai'ing in front of the altar.  There were also several weapons museums on the grounds that hadn't been open during my previous visit and we had fun exploring those.

Exiting the palace grounds, we walked up to a collection of street vendors surrounding the entrance to one of the water taxi piers.  Tim had some noodle soup while I drank a Fanta orange before we continued walking south to Wat Po.

Wat Po is famous for two major attractions:  the huge reclining golden Buddha and the school which trains all of the "legit" traditional Thai massage practitioners.  We walked around the reclining Buddha in his temple, and each bought a donation cup full of one-baht coins.  You then walk along the line of offering bowls, dropping one coin in each bowl.  I forget how many bowls there are but there's supposed to be enough coins to hit each bowl.  I ended up with two extra coins.  I had promised to get Tim a massage at the school and we finally found the right place.  She kind of hesitated at the price (380 for a one-hour massage), partially because of the expensive taxi ride in the morning and also because the last massage she got — on Phuket — cost 150 for an hour.  I assured her this was okay and that this was a treat for her.  She felt great when when exited and had enough energy to do some more walking.

We walked along a row of government buildings opposite Sanam Luang, an oval-shaped park paved in concrete which had a lot of construction going on.  We passed the Defense Ministry with it's huge cannons outside as well as the Hall Of Justice and the Criminal Court buildings.  We turned back along one of Bangkok's famous khlongs (canals) which smelled like an open sewer, and turned south once again across from the Royal Hotel.  We ended up at Phra Chan Pier where we took the cross-river taxi boat to Wang Lang Pier (cost: four baht).  The boats on the east side of the Chao Phraya River go north so you have to get to the south bank in order to go south.  We then purchased two tickets (11 baht each) on the express boat to Sathom Pier (which is underneath the Saphon Taskin SkyTrain station.  It was a very enjoyable ride; the taxi stopped at about five or six piers along the way — it kind of hits the pier briefly and you need to be ready to jump off at the right moment or you end up in the river; the stops are usually very brief.  Along the way, it was fun to watch the river traffic and the buildings (many expensive hotels standing right atop ramshackle slums) passing by.  We successfully jumped onto our pier at our final destination and climbed the stairs up to the SkyTrain station, buying two Zone 5 tickets for 30 baht each.  We changed trains at the Siam Interchange Station and disembarked at Ratchetevi.

Outside of that station, I noticed a photo shop so we decided to stop and have some prints made.  We'd picked out some photos of ourselves to give to Tim's parents and I'd put them onto my memory stick and had been carrying it around for several days.  The 30 or so prints cost a total of 87 baht.  While waiting for the photos, we had some dinner (noodle soup with some sort of meat balls) at a street stall.  We then walked down to Pantip Plaza where I purchased a 60GB iPod for around 50% less than what it would have cost in the States.  I'd spent the previous several days talking myself into this purchase and had decided on the 30GB model; however, in asking about 10 dealers their prices before finally buying it I found one that had the 60GB for only 100 baht more than the lowest price 30GB version (it was a white one and the blacks seem to be more popular in Thailand).  I also justified it in that we hadn't spent a whole lot of money in Bangkok and I'd decided to buy Tim a small gold chain as a gift; I needed a gift for myself (and we can share the use of the iPod as well).

When we exited Pantip Plaza, it began to rain (it had been threatening to do so all afternoon) so we finally got to use the umbrella we'd bought several days before.  We made our way back to the hotel (taking a short cut through an interior extension of the garment district) and I spent the rest of the evening setting up the iPod.  It was pretty easy — the first time you connect it to your computer, it automatically begins downloading everything from your iTunes folder.  In less than an hour, I had over 400 songs plus several television shows installed on the iPod.  I then spent another 45 minutes or so adding selected photos from the past couple of months.  Tim was very impressed when I demonstrated the iPod to her the first time by showing her a slideshow of our photos, complete with music.  We spent the rest of the evening repacking our luggage and turned in fairly early.

We awoke very early Thursday morning.  Tim was exited because I'd told her that we were going to buy some gold this day.  We left the hotel around 8:00, although I told her I doubted any shops would be open until nine or ten.  We made our way to the Big C building, waiting outside for it to open at 9:00.  We then killed another hour browsing until the jewelry shops opened.  I had told Tim that I didn't want her to pick up anything too gaudy and that a nice thin chain (which could hold her Chinese amulet) would be nice.  The price of gold was posted at 12,500 baht for a baht (baht is also a unit of measurement as well as the name of the currency; I'm not sure how it compares to an ounce).  Tim soon zeroed in on a tasteful chain, the price of which was 13,350 baht with a 20% discount.  This was actually less than I was prepared to spend so I was happy and Tim clutched my arm the rest of the morning.  On the way back to the hotel, we stopped briefly at an Internet cafe so I could post a couple of blog entries stored on my memory stick.

Check-out from Baiyoke went smoothly and I was given a choice of a free gift; I chose a sheet of Baiyoke/Thai Post stamps as it was the only thing I thought I could fit in our already over-burdened luggage (and certainly didn't need an ugly coffee mug or cheap-looking pen).  We then took a taxi to Hualamphong Station (84 baht) where we spent the next five hours waiting and trying to stay warm (it was a cool, rainy day and the air-conditioners inside the waiting room were going full-blast).  I was fairly impressed with the range of food and other shops inside; offerings include Black Mountain Coffee, KFC, and Dunkin' Donuts.

A little after 5:30, we made our way down to Platform 5 and climbed aboard car number 11 of Special Express First Class Train Number 1 (our berths were 11 and 12).  This very ancient car featured a narrow hallway down the right side (as you're looking towards the front of the train) with the sleeping compartments on the left.  It all felt like it was constructed in miniature and I had a hard time walking through the passage and then through the door to our room.  It had all definitely seen better days and was very grimy and faded.  We did have a good dinner, however — a sweet-and-sour chicken and beef over rice with spicy Thai vegetables.  I had a hard time sleeping and woke up with a raging stomach ache.  The toilet at the end of the compartment was the Asian squat variety and I was afraid to use it because of my unfamiliarity with the technique plus the fact I thought I'd fall over because of the moving train.  Eventually, I could no longer deny the call of nature and successfully used the toilet.  I immediately felt much better.

The last couple of hours on the train were especially scenic with many dense forests and tall mountains visible alongside the tracks.  We arrived at Chiang Mai about 40 minutes late which was fine since we couldn't check into our guesthouse until noon.  The station was very nice and we enjoyed sitting on the covered (but open-sided) platform for a couple of hours.  It was nice and cool but around nine we were tired so I called the SK House to see if we could check in early.  That was no problem so we gathered our things and exited the train station only to be beseiged by an army of tuk-tuk drivers; Tim chose the only female among the group and we roared into Chiang Mai proper.  The ride cost just 60 baht.

Check-in at the guest house was very easy.  I handed the desk clerk my voucher, she asked if I was "Mr. Mark" and gave me a key.  We followed the bell hop up to our room on the second floor in the far corner at the back.  It's a very nice place built in the traditional Lanna (hill tribe) style with plenty of teak wood and interesting decorations.

We slept for a couple of hours before venturing out to walk around and see what the neighborhood was like.  We're very near the moat that surrounds the old section of town.  We had lunch at a small cafe (I had some very good French toast with honey that came with French fries!) before returning to the guesthouse.

In the evening, Tim's friend Anon picked us up.  The plan was to go shopping at the Night Bazaar but this ended up being Tim talking to her friend as I struggled to keep up; they were walking so fast that if I stopped to look at anything interesting I'd quickly be left behind.  I'd told Tim that I wanted to buy a Chiang Mai t-shirt (or else I'd have to wear my current t-shirt a third day in a row — Tim took all my other clothes to the hotel laundry while I was in the shower and they won't be back until right before we check out tomorrow!) and a surge protector so I could charge the laptop battery.  But instead, we ended up sitting in some bar where I sat drinking water, getting eaten my mosquitoes, while the two of them chattered away in Thai.  I quickly become bored with this but try to keep smiling so Tim is happy.  Several times, I indicated I'd like to go do a bit of shopping and find a shirt, etc.  This was met with, "okay, we'll go in a little bit" but then more beers would suddenly arrive at the table (I wasn't drinking and kept wondering when they were ordered).  I finally got up and said we should go now; of course, I was expected to pay the entire bill with no offer of help from Tim's friend.

After exiting the bar, we began heading back to the parking lot and I once again said I wanted to buy a shirt as I didn't want to wear the same shirt again.  This was met with, "okay, we go now."  But Anon drove us to some nightclub in a remote part of town.  This turned out to be some gay strip club with a bunch of skinny Thai men prancing around on tables.  I immediately told Tim that I wanted to leave, that I didn't like this one bit, etc.  We stayed there about five minutes before Tim and I left Anon sitting there alone.  As we opened the door, I was given a bill for 480 baht.  I said, "We didn't order anything."  Anon had ordered two beers and a water for me (which we didn't receive) and I was expected to pay anyway.  I couldn't very well refuse to pay in this situation so I paid and we left, taking a tuk-tuk on the street.  I pretty much gave Tim the silent treatment all the way home; I was seething inside but couldn't let Tim know it.  In the end, I apologized because I know trying to explain all that I was upset about would probably do no good.  Maybe someday when Tim can understand enough English or I can learn the appropriate Thai I can explain some of these things that piss me off.  In the end, we love each other very much and I need to remember to just shrug off some of these "minor incidents" because, in the long run, they don't matter so much.

Tim's sleeping in this morning (it's just after eleven) and I think we'll just do some minor sightseeing today, perhaps go to the zoo or a nearby palace.



This morning, we are preparing to leave Bangkok.  We check out of Baiyoke Sky Hotel in about 90 minutes (I'm in an Internet cafe in Pratanum, near the hotel) and then spend five or so hours at Hualamphong Station waiting for our overnight train to Chiang Mai.  Hopefully, I can get more frequent Internet access there.

We did A LOT of sightseeing yesterday, visiting the Royal Grand Palace and Wat Po as well as taking the water taxi down the Chao Phraya River.  I'll compose a more detailed account on the laptop tonight or tomorrow and include it with my next posting in a day or two.

We are having a wonderful time and I'm really looking forward to meeting more of Tim's family in Pasang and Lamphun this weekend.



The past couple of days have been extremely exhausting and I haven't felt much like writing in the evenings when we return to the hotel.  Also, I haven't had time yet to make it to an Internet cafe and the computers in the hotel's business center do not have USB ports available for me to plug in my memory stick.  Hopefully, I'll get to a cafe later today (Wednesday, the 17th) in order to post the two entries I've written while "on the road."

By the time Tim woke up Sunday morning it was raining as Bangkok felt the effects of the huge typhoon in the South China Sea.  We spent half the day in the room watching television and having a picnic on the floor.  The previous day when we returned to the hotel, the main market soi was somewhat flooded but by the time we ventured out it wasn't bad at all.  We eventually arrived at Pantip Plaza, the huge computer mall, where we bought a Thai language computer keyboard that I can plug into the laptop so Tim can learn how to use the computer.  I also looked at prices for iPod's and was happy to see they cost a bit less in Thailand than in the States.  The prices for a 60GB iPod Video (new) start at 11,900 baht (a bit more than USD $300).  I'm seriously thinking about buying one but fear that Tim would "appropriate it" as soon as I got it all set up and I'd never get to use it!

While at Pantip, I also introduced Tim to root beer floats at A&W.  She didn't seem too excited by it but I certainly enjoyed it.  On our return trip through the wholesale clothes market, we spent about USD $60 on clothes — buying five shirts for me, a shirt and several pairs of shorts for Tim, and various other small items.  We had another picnic of street vendor food in our room and watched "Blade Trinity" on HBO (which I knew I wouldn't like but Tim is happy to watch any movie, good or bad).

Monday was our big trip to the Department of Consular Affairs in order for Tim to apply for her passport.  We decided to go to the main office which is very near the Don Muang airport.  We had gathered together all of our paperwork that the official Thai government sites and various other websites had said we needed.  This included multiple copies of Tim's Thai ID card, two photos, and various other paperwork.

However, the new main office had recently streamlined the process and it couldn't be easier.  You go to the second floor of the building where an official scans your ID into the computer and it prints out a number.  You are also given a slip of paper where you write down your first and last name in Roman characters, your birth city, phone number, and a reference (close relative) name and phone number.  When your number is flashed on the big screen (we were number 504 — it was at number 280 when we arrived but we only had to wait a bit over an hour), you go to the cubicle number which is flashed alongside your waiting number.

The attendant at Tim's cubicle (number 53) indicated that I couldn't sit with her so I went back to the main hallway to wait.  (I did observe a number of other farangs in the cubicles with their Thai partners so I don't know what the problem was with Tim's attendant.  Anyway, I wanted to watch the full process so I could report back in some detail but have to rely on Tim's account; she tells me that first they checked her ID in the computer and then took her fingerprints electronically.  She filled out an application (we'd downloaded a form from the Internet but they've changed forms as well) and found out the English transliteration for her name was "wrong" (there really is no "correct" way as there are many different ways to convert the Thai characters to English but now we have to use the "official" spelling so now I have to change that on our lease and other documents).  They then put that information on the computer and took her photo (they didn't want to use any "outside" photos).  Tim then came out of the cubicle from where I followed her to the cashier; she gave the print-out to the cashier and I paid 1,000 baht (which is less than all of the websites reported).  We have to return in three days to collect the completed passport (today, in fact).

We were all finished by 11:00 (we'd arrived at the passport office a little before nine) and took a taxi back to Baiyoke (metered, it cost 140 baht).  We changed out of the "monkey clothes" into our swimsuits and then went down to the swimming pool so I could begin teaching Tim how to swim.  She proved to be a "natural", picking up the basics very quickly.  We had a great time splashing around in the pool but paid the price later with sunburned shoulders.  We also had a lunch of street food by the pool before going back to the room.  Later, we walked down to Central World Festival (a huge shopping mall) but remodeling inside made it not much fun as most of the stores were closed.  We did, however, spend some time shopping at the Platinum Fashion Mall where Tim bought a couple of pairs of shorts and we continued our elusive search for "real" Levi's (we finally found some non-copies at a mall in the Big C building but they didn't have Tim's size).  For dinner, we tried Steak Hunter in the Big C building; Tim had the "German special" which had three different kinds of sausages along with mashed potatoes and spicy pork salad while I had a pepper steak with teriyaki sauce which came on a bed of spaghetti (odd, but good).  We took another tuk-tuk back to the hotel after purchasing a few more "supplies" at Big C.

Wednesday (yesterday) was to be our visit to Tim's daughter.  All this time, Tim had been telling me that her daughter (Miao — which means "kitty cat", surprising considering that Tim doesn't like cats) lives in Ayutthaya so I'd researched the easiest way to get to that city and planned to check out some of the tourist attractions there.  I knew that the third class train to Ayutthaya cost 35 baht and they left every hour.  We took a taxi to the main train station for Bangkok (Hualamphong) and then Tim asked for the tickets at the counter.  The price came up as 650 baht; I said, "No, that's not right," and the ticket booth person said that the VIP train to Ayutthaya was finished and we needed to take the special coach to Bang Pa-In (which I'd never heard of).  I said, "No, we want the third class train to Ayutthaya" but Tim said there was no other way to get from there to Bang Pa-In.  I scooted her off to the side so we could be alone and asked her where this second town was she kept mentioning and why were we trying to get a ticket there?  It turned out that Miao doesn't live in Ayutthaya at all but in Bang Pa-In which is a considerable distance away but closer to Bangkok and that there were no VIP trains there.  I told her that she could have explained this to me before so I could have known we weren't going to Ayutthaya (she kept saying "same same" but, no, it wasn't as far as transportation and geography goes) and also I didn't want a VIP train for 650 baht or any price.  Anyway, in the end, we bought two 2-baht tickets for Bang Sue Junction and changed there for Bang Pa-In (which cost an additional 11 baht per ticket).

We arrived at Bang Pa-In shortly after eleven (after starting out from Bangkok about 9:30) and were greeted at the station by Miao (who gave me a big hug and called me "papa") and her husband Ant.  It appeared we were in the middle of nowhere, in a farming area that reminded me a lot of Kansas (complete with corn stalks but no sunflowers).  We took a samlor (basically, a pickup truck with covered seats in the back) to the center of town passing a large Royal palace along the way.  The main goal of the day (aside from visiting) was to go to the local amphur so that Ant and Miao could get legally married (they have a common-law marriage but wanted the certificate since Miao is pregnant).  Tim was there to give the guarantee that Miao was free to marry.  However, the amphur wouldn't let them marry because Miao was only 18 and needed to be 20 before they could make it official.  Mai pen rai.

Anyway, we walked back down the street to the palace and spent several hours walking the grounds (an example of two-tiered pricing:  I paid 100 baht for admission while Tim, Ant, and Miao each paid the 30-baht Thai price).  Bang Pa-In Palace dates back to the 17th century but was used mainly by King Rama V (1868-1910) and most of the buildings standing today were contructed between 1872 and 1889.  It was an enjoyable way to spend the day and I was happy to get the tourist bug tickled.  We then spent a couple of hours at the house shared by Miao, Ant, and his relatives.  It was a traditional Thai house made of teak wood and raised on stilts.  I enjoyed the visit although mostly I sat in the background while everyone else chatted away.  We took another samlor to the center of town, shopped in a small market, and then Tim and I boarded a provincial bus back to Bangkok (60 baht).  This bus took about two-and-a-half hours as it made many local stops but it was a nice change of pace (and a bit more comfortable than the train).  We got back into the city a little after six, took a taxi from the Northern Bus Terminal back to Baiyoke, had another room picnic, and turned in fairly early (I was asleep before nine).

This morning, we return to the passport office and then plan to do some sightseeing and more shopping (we'll need to mail our purchases back home).  I hope our feet can hold up to one more day of strenuous duties!



Our first couple of days in Bangkok have been very busy and we're both fairly tired.  I think I'll let Tim sleep in this (Sunday) morning and we'll just take it easy today.

Neither of us slept well Thursday night.  We tried to turn in early but we weren't tired so we watched a movie ("Heartbreakers," starring Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ray Liota, Gene Hackman, and Jason Lee).  We still tossed-and-turned afterwards and I think I managed about two hours of sleep total (not all in a row, though).  We both got up after the second snooze alarm (at 5:15a.m.), made some coffee, and showered.  I was glad we'd packed the day before so all we had to do while waiting for Tim's friend Non to pick us up was to take out the last of the trash.

I hadn't met Non before and we seemed friendly enough although he couldn't speak a word of English.  He and Tim chattered away happily during the drive up to the airport and they were so engrossed in their conversation that the turn-off was missed.  In fact, Non didn't realized he'd missed it until we arrived at the police checkpoint as the southern end of the causeway that connects Phuket with the mainland.  He had to turn around and backtrack almost 10km back to the airport road.  This is another reason why I like to go to airports long before my flight is due to take off.

At the Phuket airport, you have to pass through security metal detectors outside before you even enter the departure level of the terminal.  Accomplishing that, Tim and I found the Bangkok Airways check-in counters at the far end of the line and quickly received our boarding passes.  Tim was very happy to see her name printed on hers.  We then passed through the second security checkpoint and entered the waiting lounge.  We only had about a 70-minute wait until our boarding time and Tim had a cup of coffee so she wouldn't fall asleep.

Our plane was an ancient 717-300 with a gleaming white exterior decorated with a large representation of Ankor Wat in Cambodia emblazoned across the body.  The interior was spotless and the Bangkok Airways flight crew were very attentive in their duties.  I was very impressed with every aspect of this flight and I look forward to using this company again.  Even the lunch was excellent (although Tim didn't like the "farang food" — sliced turkey in gravy, linguini in marinara sauce, a soft roll, and chocolate ice cream).

Tim got very excited when the plane began to push back from the gate.  She spent the most of the beginning of the flight happily staring out the porthole (and looking back towards me with a big smile on her face), often trying to point out something she'd seen below.  When we actually became airborne, I heard her say "wow".  I took a few photos and shot a bit of video at the takeoff but the glare of the sun beyond the window washed out most of the detail.  Tim also took a few photos of islands as we passed over Phang-Nga Bay.  The rest of the flight was fairly uneventful although Tim continued looking out the window even when all there was to see were clouds.  I mentioned the lunch already (served shortly after takeoff and finished about 30 minutes before landing); Tim was surprised that this was "free".

We broke out of the cloud cover shortly before landing; I think we approached Bangkok from the west this time before turning to make our final approach from the north.  As we descended, Tim clutched her armrests with her hands and she had some difficulty dealing with the popping of her ears (I need to remember to buy some gum to chew for the return flight).  Just was we were touching down, she grabbed my hand and squeezed very hard when the wheels hit the runway.  As we taxied towards the Domestic Terminal, she once again became the little girl and was alternating looking out the porthole and smiling back towards me.  She was amazed at the golf course between the runways and asked what happens if you hit the ball too far.

The plane was too small to dock at a jetway so we parked on the tarmac and had to squeeze into a very crowded bus for the final bit of the journey to the terminal.  We didn't have any checked bags (just my laptop backpack and a roller suitcase) so we could go straight to the taxi stand (after a quick stop at the restrooms).  We had planned to take a taxi to the Department of Consular Affairs first (which is fairly near the airport) and planned to have the taxi wait for us and then take us the remaining distance to the hotel.  This would have cost 1800 baht but I had the transport company call to make sure the office was open.  It was actually closed because it was the day after the Royal Ploughing Holiday so we booked a taxi directly to the hotel (for 650 baht, plus an extra 20 baht for the tollway).

We arrived at Baiyoke Sky Hotel in much better time than I'd expected and our room wasn't yet ready.  We were told to come back to collect our keycards in about 45 minutes so I took Tim into the wholesale garment market across the street.  She was absolutely amazed at the variety of items and the very low prices; we'll return here later in the trip to do some serious clothes shopping.  Breaking out of the far end of the soi, we walked a short distance more before Tim found a small restaurant to eat at.  I had a Coke while she enjoyed some "mystery soup".  Back at the hotel, we went to our room on the 49th floor and Tim's eyes went wide again.  It's just as big as the room I'd had in January if a bit shabbier (there's some broken tile in the bathroom and the carpet isn't as spotless as I'd like).  Tim was impressed with the view and couldn't believe how big the bathroom is.  I tore the cellophane off of a Baiyoke bathrobe and Tim happily changed into it — I don't think she'd ever worn a bathrobe before because she's slept in it the past two nights.  I explained to her that the only free items in the minibar were two bottles of water per day and that we shouldn't touch the overpriced cans of coke or beer (we later purchased some items at a nearby 7-Eleven).

Since it was her first time in a "fancy" hotel, I decided to splurge a bit and order room service for dinner (Tim had never even heard of room service before a few days ago).  She had the beef masaman curry with steamed rice and I ordered a pan-grilled sirloin steak with golden sauteed potatoes.  For dessert, we had a tropical fruit platter.  It was all very good and huge portions (served with a variety of hard and soft rolls as well).  We spent a total of 565 baht (including tip), which is less than USD $15.

After dinner, we went down to the 20th floor and checked out the outdoor swimming pool.  It was nice and cool and there was a lot of lightning in the sky above.  I can't wait to begin teaching Tim how to swim later in the week.  After a half-hour or so down there, we decided to go up to the 84th floor and walk around the outdoor observation deck.  We were stopped at the bank of elevators and asked for a ticket.  It was free the last time I was here so I asked how much the ticket was — 200 baht per person, but that includes a free drink at the Rooftop Bar and guests of the hotel receive a 10% discount.  I went to the desk and purchased our two tickets (total: 360 baht) but wasn't too pleased.  Still, I had fun showing Tim the lights of Bangkok but I doubt if we'll want to pay to return during daylight.  We spent about an hour revolving high above the city before it began to rain so we went to collect our free drinks at the bar.  We actually "saved" money here as all the drinks in the menu were vastly overpriced at 200 baht each; Tim had a bottle of Singha (which costs 35 baht at a 7-Eleven) and I had a Black Russian.  Returning to our room, we watched a movie ("Angel" with Jessica Alba — English with Thai subtitles) on HBO before falling asleep (actually, I fell asleep about 30 minutes into the movie).

Saturday morning, I woke bright and early.  I spent some time transferring photos and video from my camera onto the laptop and updating my Money account.  The room I stayed in last January had an Ethernet port so you could connect to the Internet but this room doesn't have any way I can get online.  The hotel manual says that there's broadband available in the Business Center on the 18th floor so perhaps I'll go down there today or tomorrow.  (If it's too overpriced, I'll just seek out an Internet cafe and use my memory stick to transfer blog entries.)

Tim woke up around 8:00 and we managed to leave the hotel shortly after 9:00.  I had decided we should check out the massive Chatuchak Weekend Market so the first task was to make the long walk to the Praya Thai Skytrain Station.  It's actually not that far a distance as the crow flies (about a half a kilometer) but many of the sois are dead-ends so it's like threading a maze.  I had mapped out the shorted route on my highly-detailed MapMagic Bangkok software and written down which soi numbers we needed to make right or left turns on.  The problem was that there were no street signs so we quickly became lost and the walk took much longer than planned.  We were both exhausted when we arrived at the station and then had to content with the long flights of stairs up to the track level.

Looking at the map, it appeared that if we got off at Sapham Khwai Station, we would have a shorter walk to the market than if we exited at Mo Chit Station.  The fare was 25 baht for each of us.  It proved to be a very long and hot walk from the station to the market, along sidewalks crowded with amulet vendors.  I never knew there was such a large variety of Buddhist amulets before yesterday.  Finally arriving at Chatuchak, our first task was to get some lunch and we found a small cafe amongst the dozens lining the outer edge of the market.  Tim had some noodles and Thai veggies while I had some roast pork and steamed rice.  After lunch, we entered the market proper and quickly became lost.  I planned to try and find the animals section first (which was at the far end) and then work our way back towards the clothes.  It took us some time to get the proper orientation; every once-in-a-while you can find a sign stating what types of items are sold in that particular section.  These sections have numbers which (sometimes) correspond to the numbers on the maps.  Anyway, it's all very overwhelming and confusing and wonderful.  The hardest part was trying not to become separated as Tim and I made our way through the throngs of people.

Once we found the animals sections, we had a great time looking at puppies, kittens, baby bunnies, exotic birds, and all sorts of marine life (from jumbo fish and giant tortises on down to tiny little tadpoles).  But the days of people selling endangered species seems to be over as the most exotic thing we came across was a large peacock that was protesting being stuffed into a flimsy cardboard box so the buyer could strap it onto the back of a motorbike.  Before this trip, I know Tim really wanted to have a pet dog but now she seems to realize that it's no fun cleaning up after one makes a mess.  We talked a bit during a "rest stop" and I think if we have any sort of pet in the future that we will probably get an aquarium for fish.

As we began making our way towards the antiques & collectibles section, it began to pour rain.  We took refuge in a furniture seller's stall and hoped the rain wouldn't last long.  Luckily, many of the sections are roofed so when we began moving again we could explore small sections before making a run to the next one.  I was on a constant lookout for a vendor selling umbrellas (we'd left ours at home) but never found one — somewhere amongst the 15,000 vendors there has to be an umbrella stand!  Anyway, by the time we made it to the exit, the rain was just a light drizzle.  We decided to walk up to Mo Chit Skytrain Station as it was a shorter walk than the one we'd arrived at.  Along the way, we passed the Royal Thai Civil Aviation School and took a photo of a trainee helicopter.

I thought I'd show Tim a different area of Bangkok so we took the SkyTrain to Siam Station, opposite the huge Siam Paragon Shopping Center (fare was 30 baht each).  We then walked along the elevated walkway east towards Chitlom Station as I wanted to show her the famous Erawan Shrine.  Along the way, we saw the headquarters for the Royal Thai Police and the special hospital just for police patients.  We descended to street level by going through the Erawan Hotel next to the huge McDonald's.  The story of the shrine on the street corner is, briefly, that an abnormal number of people died in the construction of the hotel.  The shrine was build beneath to honor those workers who died and the donations and alms given there go directly to the victims' families.  Tourists like it for the "free" Thai dancing (the dancers only dance after someone makes a donation, however).  The shrine is a little different now from my last visit — it's wrapped in a white cloth decorated with pictures of the King; there are dozens of yellow garlands surrounding the base.  Tim knew this meant someone significant had died and asked if I knew who had just died.  I didn't know but remembered a news story from a week or so ago about a mentally-ill patient who had recently attacked the Erawan Shrine, destroying part of it (hence the sheet surrounding it).  When nearby garbage truck workers saw what he was doing, they attacked and killed him.  Perhaps that was who the flowers are honoring.  Anyway, Tim stopped at the entrance of the shrine because she has her period and you aren't allowed to enter a shrine if you're menstrating.  I continue to learn something new every day...

We then walked north towards the huge Big C; I wanted to buy some more picnic supplies for the room and see if they had any umbrellas for sale.  I was amazed at the new contruction on Central World Plaza across the street.  It looks like the jumbo-mall is one big construction zone but it still seems to be open.  Plus, it seems like there's at least two more floors that have been added on top since I was here in January.  We'll probably check it out later in the week as we'd like to go there to see a movie (we want to see "Mission: Impossible 3").  At Big C, Tim bought several baggies of soup and I bought a few cans of Thai fruits (lychee, longan, and rambutan).  We also bought some sodas and found an umbrella for 95 baht.

We were tired of walking at this point so we decided to take a tuk-tuk back to the hotel.  Bangkok tuk-tuk's are quite a bit different from Phuket tuk-tuk's and Tim's eyes went wide as we began moving.  These are three-wheeled, motorcycle-based vehicles which belch copious amounts of smoke and are extremely noisy.  They also can weave in-and-out of traffic with almost the same dexterity as a motorbike (and usually try to fit in the same impossibly tiny spaces between busses and cars as do their two-wheeled bretheren).  The first time our tuk-tuk zipped three lanes of traffic between vehicles that I wouldn't even attempt to walk between, Tim grabbed my hand and said, "I fear."  I had great fun watching her reaction as we travelled the short distance back to Baiyoke (and, for once, I wasn't overcharged as we only paid 60 baht for the journey).  As we drove up the soi directly in front of the hotel, we were both amazed to see that the rain had flooded the street to a level of around three or four inches.  I had heard about how easily Bangkok streets flood during storms but this was the first time I actually saw it first-hand (most streets in the city used to be canals and have only been filled-in within the past 50 years or so).

We retired to our room for the night (except for another brief journey down to the pool to enjoy the sunset), having our picnic on the floor and watching some television ("Shrek 2" and "Blade Trinity" on HBO, "Less Than Perfect" and "Cops" on StarWorld) before falling asleep fairly early.

Today (Sunday), I'm letting Tim sleep in (it's almost 10:00) and we'll probably do a bit of shopping later today.  She's worn out from walking so much yesterday (she REALLY isn't used to the walking or the huge crowds of people and traffic) so we probably won't do anything too strenuous.  We'll save going to the riverfront for another day...



It seems like every day brings some new clarity to my surroundings.  Sometimes, that comes in the form of a very simple realization or understanding.

For example, a few days ago I first noticed a small folding table alongside the main road just outside of our soi ("soi" is a small side street or alley). &nsp;This table had a dozen or so whiskey bottles atop it, filled with a liquid that I assumed was either pale whiskey or sugarcane juice (you see A LOT of the latter at the various markets, but usually in old soda pop bottles).  I didn't really think much of it until we were leaving to drive into Patong last night and Tim pulled up to this table.  I didn't think she was thirsty as we'd just easten.  Since she was getting off the motorbike, I followed suit.  Tim then lifted the bike's seat and removed the gas cap after which the vendor uncapped one of the bottles and poured it into the gas tank.  Apparently, each bottle holds 30 baht of gasoline as the man poured two bottles into the tank and then Tim asked me for 60 baht (approx. USD $1.60).

So, now I know what the late night drivers do when they need to fill up as all of the "real" gas stations I've seen usually seem to be closed and cordoned off when we pass them as early as 9:00 or so in the evenings.  Every once in a while, you do see a small vendor stand that says "Gasoline" but those never seem to be manned.  Now that I know what the "whiskey bottles" really are, I've been noticing more of these tables in the area.

As Tim pulled away from this gas stand, she laughed and told me that the vendor had commented that he thought the motorbike was brand new because it was so clean (she and I had spent a couple of hours washing and detailing it yesterday afternoon).

For the second night in a row, we had gone down to Patong to "party" with Tim's friends last night.  The night before, Tim and I spent an hour at Che-Ra-Hut — a bar on the last hill before you come in to Patong from the southern highway — waiting for La to get off of work.  It was a nice enough place but the bottle of Singha we shared wasn't very cold and I noticed a distinct soapy flavor (influenced, I'm sure, by an online critique of Thai beers I'd read earlier in the day).  After La arrived, the three of us journeyed to a karaoke bar in the middle of nowhere on the northeast edge of Patong.  It was a place geared more for Thai locals than for tourists and was basically a shack with some tattered sofas & tables and a single karaoke machine that had definitely seen better days.  The hostess kept filling our drinks even though we weren't drinking; when I noticed we were being charged even if we didn't drink the bottles brought, I tried to let Tim know we should leave.  I stopped drinking my Coke but still the hostess kept putting ice cubes in the glass (the bill listed each cube at 25 baht) which began melting all over the table.  Plus, she was charging us for whiskey that she was drinking.  By the time we got out of there, we were 1,300 baht (approx. USD $40) poorer although we probably drank 200 baht worth of beverages in total.  An example of the infamous two-tiered pricing where the "rich Westerner" is charged way more than the Thai locals and expected to pay for everyone else's drink as well.  Mai pen rai...

Last night was a lot less expensive.  We met Jum at the Patong Shopping Plaza and hung out there for a while with Lek and Ja (who were both working their jobs as motorbike taxi drivers).  After a while, we walked down to the beach front road and then along the various shops and stalls towards Bangla Road.  It was the first time I'd been down there among the touts since arriving and the severe shortage of tourists caused virtually all of them to try and sell me something.  I happened to be wearing one of the shirts I'd bought at Bangkok's wholesale clothes market the previous January and several of the Indian suit hawkers commented that it was a nice looking shirt.  I thought this one was fairly original:

"Hello, boss.  Nice shirt.  You want to buy some more?"
Close to the intersection with Bangla Road, there was a large open-air bar (I didn't see a name, but it was near the WB Studio Store and Molly Malone's) featuring a Thai Elvis impersonator.  I captured a bit of "Viva Las Vegas" on video to send Keith (his friend Chris — married to Marilyn's best friend Vickie — does some Elvis impersonations himself); most of the verses seem to be sung in Thai while the choruses are in English.  We also stayed to hear "Suspicious Minds" and the finale, complete with MC saying "Elvis has left the building" at the end.

There weren't very many people strolling up Bangla Road (we were there rather early in the evening — between eleven and midnight).  There was a light scattering of farang DOM's (dirty old men) in the company of young Thai women wearing skin tight (and very short) dresses plus various families out gawking at the spectacle of it (most of these seemed to be Scandinavian and German).  There were also a number of Japanese couples.  We bought some wine coolers (blueberry and raspberry) at the Big 1 Supermarket under Ocean Plaza and then sat across from Thai Thai Restaurant.  At the entrance to the soi neighboring that restaurant, there were several lady boys from a cabaret bar called Katoeys R Us ("katoey" is the Thai word for ladyboy) holding a banner advertising free "family-oriented" shows.  They were dressed in some pretty elaborate diva-styled costumes (think Cher as Las Vegas showgirl). &nsbp;One I thought was pretty hilarious looked like one of those "bad mamas" in the 1970's blackplotation movies such as "Shaft" (she even had the requisite Afro hairdo).  Whenever a family or strolling couple came close, they would give a little dance in the hope these unsuspecting people would want to take some photographs.  If a photo was taken, then they would "demand" money for the privilege (the other ladyboys would cut off the "victims" escape) — I've heard the ladyboys can be very dangerous with their tempers so it's best to pay without arguing.  Luckily, I'd heard about this scam before so I know to steer clear of such gatherings...

We also witnessed one farang who had clearly thought he'd picked up a strikingly tall Thai girl from one bar or another.  We'd seen them walking hand-in-hand earlier and I'd commented to Tim whether he knew the "she" was really a ladyboy (the height was one giveaway, the Adam's apple another).  We got our answer as we saw them again with him throwing a fit.  Again, in Thailand it's never a good idea to show anger as it causes you to lose considerable face; he should have just found a calm, cool, and collected way to remove himself from "her" company.

A little after midnight, we turned down Rat-U-Thit 200 Pee Road to head back down to wear Tim and Jum's motorbikes were parked.  We made a stop at Mick's And Matt's Bar (where Jum used to work) and I talked a bit with Matt — I'd been introduced to him on my last night in Patong back in January and we'd become friendly.  He told me about how slow business had been all week (we had noticed a severe lack of customers at every bar we'd passed that evening and the one before).  I wasn't too thirsty but I ordered a Leo beer for me and Tim had a Tiger.  Jum went and purchased some papaya pok-pok which they ate while I had some sliced canteloupe.  Just as we were getting ready to leave, some Thai friends of the waitress showed up armed with some bottles of Thai white wine (made from rice instead of grapes!).  They offered me a glass and I found it surprisingly good; it's called Siam Sato and only 25 baht (approx. 60 cents U.S.) a bottle.  I plan to seek some out at the earliest opportunity.

We left Jum at her motorbike with a friend of Lek's and Tim and I began the 35-minute journey back to Ao Chalong via Karon/Kata.  As we began up the first hill outside of Patong, I felt rather cold so we stopped and I retrieved my jacket from the motorbike's seat compartment.  This was the first time I'd worn it since buying it and it felt very comfortable.  I'm still surprised that I felt cold enough to wear it though.

I awoke around 7:30 this morning and worked at uploading some more photos.  I'd hoped to be caught up before leaving on our northern trip but I ran into a couple of days where I'd taken a lot of pictures.  It's 7:30 Thursday night now so I guess I'll have to wait until we return.  I also burned some music CD-R's (Marillion) and a photo DVD-R to make some room on the hard drive (I'm taking the laptop on our trip).

Tim didn't wake up until late in the afternoon (she began her period last night and had cramps).  We spent some time packing and then Jum came over to do laundry and to eat a late afternoon meal with us.  She'll be checking on the house while we're gone (as will be our landlord and next door neighbor) so we gave her a key and the combination to the mailbox.  She'll come around every two or three days which I like better than having someone stay here (don't want to waste the electricity or worry about them making a mess).  This evening, we cleaned out the fridge and moved the motorbike into the second bedroom.  I'm finishing up a few things on the laptop and then we plan to turn in fairly early.  I can't wait to get "on the road"...



With an errand to print out various hotel vouchers and airline e-tickets today, along with a visit to the Rawai post office to pick up the train tickets, we are almost ready for our impending trip up north.  We leave early Friday morning — a friend of Tim's is due to arrive at our house at 6:30a.m. in order to drive us to the airport (the flight doesn't leave until 9:40 so we should have a good allowance for the possibility the friend is late in picking us up).

When the train tickets hadn't arrived from Bangkok by Monday, I e-mailed the agency only to receive a reply that they hadn't sent them because of the Coronation Day holiday (any specific holiday in Thailand usually lasts several days BEFORE and AFTER as an excuse to delay obligations).  I explained that we would be leaving town on Friday and needed them ASAP (especially since Thursday is yet another public holiday — Royal Ploughing Day, which signifies the beginning of the rice harvest).  They promised to send them via EMS which is the "express" service of Thai Post.  This morning, we had a notice in our mailbox to retrieve the tickets at the nearby post office branch.  Upon arriving at the post office, we went inside to the counters but were directed to the loading dock in the back.  I gave a clerk back there the notice and he had me sign a ledger and then gave me the envelope (he never checked my ID but I guess I was the only farang with an EMS letter today).  Luckily, all the information on the tickets was correct so we shouldn't have any problems next week when we board the first class overnight train at Bangkok's Hualamphong Station.

I'm really looking forward to the first part of the journey the most right now.  The short (about one-hour) flight up to Bangkok will be Tim's first-ever trip on an airplane.  I'm not sure what the seating policy is for Bangkok Airways (there are no assigned seats listed on the e-tickets) but I hope to get a window seat for Tim so she can watch the takeoff from Phuket and the landing in Bangkok.  At any rate, it will be a fun adventure for both of us.

The six-night stay at Baiyoke Sky Hotel should also prove to be quite the experience.  I first stayed here this past January; I had wanted to "splurge" on my last few nights in Thailand and thought "what better way to do that" than to stay at Thailand's tallest building?  Rising 88 storeys above the flat Chao Phraya river plains, it used to be the tallest hotel in the world until it was eclipsed by one in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  I had received a special Internet rate of USD $55 per night in the peak tourist season and was treated to a huge room in the "Sky Zone" (floors 54 through 68).  I was extremely impressed by the level of service and the many amenities at this hotel.  When I first realized that Tim and I would have to stay in Bangkok at some point for consular and immigration purposes, I vowed I would treat her to a "real" hotel (and I hoped I could, once again, get a decent rate).  I was pleased to find an off-season special rate that was even more impressive than the one I paid in January.  However, this time we are staying in a lower zone (floors 22-50) but it should be the same style of room I had previously even if the view from the windows won't be quite as spectacular.  I found out last night that Tim had never even heard of room service so we'll definitely have to order our dinner in the room one evening.

There are three passport offices for Thai citizens in Bangkok — the main Department of Consular Affairs and two temporary offices.  However, none are in very convenient locations in regard to train or subway lines and all will probably entail very lengthy (and expensive) taxi journeys (the bus system might be a bit too complicated for us to maneuver over such a long distance).  I do have one idea that I might try — the main office is fairly close to Don Muang airport so, perhaps, we can take a taxi there when we first arrive on Friday and then another the remaining distance to the hotel after we finish our business.  Or, perhaps we can have the taxi wait for us (although that could be a lengthy wait if the horror stories I've read about Thai bureaucracy are even remotely true).

The process that a Thai citizen who wishes to apply for an ordinary passport seems simple enough:

1) Presenting the completed application form

2) Checking the identity card of the applicant

3) Taking a photograph

4) Paying the application fees (between 1,073 and 1,573 baht, depending on if you want a 32- or 64-page passport)

5) Making a record of the applicants' signature and issuing a passport application receipt.
The passport is then collected three working days after the day of the application (unless you're applying in a provincial area, then it's 10 working days).  Tim, having been married before, will also need to present a divorce registration certificate and we'll need to show a copy of our lease with our registered address.  All documents need to be presented with two copies "certified true" (I assume this is the same as getting them notarized, although I have no idea where to do this in Thailand — I explained to Tim what we needed and I think we can ask one of her friends to help direct us).

Our other major task on this trip is to visit the American Citizens Services section of the U.S. Embassy so that I may obtain the Affidavit For Registration Of Marriage.  This is a form that needs to be completed and notarized at the embassy stating that you are free to marry (and are not currently married in your home country).  It contains all the information required by Thai law and you need to have it translated into Thai after leaving the embassy.  You then take the original and the translation to a different office at the Department Of Consular Affairs near the airport (necessitating ANOTHER trip up there) where they authenticate the Embassy stamp.  Only after obtaining all of this documentation can you go to the local Amphur (like a registry office) nearest our home where you register yourselves as married and receive a certificate stating same.  The last step in this process (also at the Amphur) is to have Tim's Thai ID card changed — Thai women keep their maiden surname (surnames didn't even exist in Thailand until early in the 20th century) but they need to change "Miss" to "Mrs." on the card.  This is only the legal part of getting married in Thailand.  Only after being registered as married, and when the time comes that you can afford the dowery paid to the family and the fees paid to the village monks, then you can have the wedding ceremony at some time in the future.  Many opt not to do this but I think it important to have the traditional ceremony.  This is all way in the future, however, and I just want to have the affadavit in advance so we have a start to the whole process.

If you think this sounds complicated, wait until I begin describing the process we'll have to go through in order to get a visa so that Tim can visit the United States with me at some point...

Anyway, with the official business out of the way, we can enjoy ourselves with some sightseeing.  I really want to get to the massive Chatuchak Weekend Market this time around.  This huge open-air conglomeration of merchants has over 15,000 stalls selling all manner of things imaginable.  There used to be quite a trade here in endangered animals as well but police raids seem to have shut down the more exotic of these vendors (so, I probably won't be asking someone how much to buy an elephant or gibbon).  This market is easily reached via the Skytrain.  I also want to take one of the famous water taxis and see more of the Bangkok waterfront than I was able to see when crossing bridges over the rivers in minibusses on my last visit.

We also plan one day-trip up to the old Thai capital of Ayutthaya in order to visit Tim's daughter.  The city is about an hour-long trip on the third-class train; the fare is between 15 and 35 baht each way.

On the evening of May 18th, we board the overnight first-class train for Chiang Mai where we will stay in a guest house for a couple of nights before going down to Pasang in Lamphun province where I'll meet Tim's parents for the first time.

It should be quite a trip.



We have more or less settled into somewhat of a routine that repeats itself with slight variations from day to day.

Most mornings, I wake up before Tim.  That can mean that I roll out of bed anywhere between six and nine o'clock.  I quietly collect my laptop from the makeup desk in the master bedroom, along with a book or my digital camera, and then set up my workstation on the living room table.  I begin uploading photos using my Webshots software (I generally upload in 18-photo mini-batches) while I read my morning e-mail — my current domain address has yet to attract any spam so I usually don't have much to wade through on a daily basis other than a few local news bulletins and the occasional friend & family mail.

Between nine and eleven (depending on how late we stayed up watching a DVD movie or Thai television), Tim cracks open the bedroom door and peeks out.  I swear she reminds me of a zombie before she has her morning coffee, looking for all the world like a beautiful version of the undead.  Her first task is to make a cup of coffee for the two of us, which is really tasty (her "secret ingredient" is something called Beep which, as near as I can tell, is some sort of ice cream topping which makes the brew especially creamy).  While we drink our morning caffeine, we watch my photo screensaver or Tim watches me write a blog entry or e-mail.

The routine after that varies a bit depending what our "big plans" for a particular day may be.  During our "lazy days" (lately, the norm instead of the exception), one or the other of us will sweep the house (all the rooms are tile) while the other follows with a mop.  A couple of times a week, the floor-cleaning routine includes a thorough scrubbing of the bathrooms.  We (meaning I watch Tim) do the laundry two or three times per week; lately, this has been a minimum of a two-day process as Tim usually waits until the second day before she begins ironing (this area has been deemed "off limits" to me).

The meal preparation has been reduced to just a couple of times per day (sometimes only once a day) as Tim is eating much less now than when we first moved in.  I think she also worries about how I perceive the smell of the Thai cooking as she has been frying fish out on the back patio lately.  Most days, she will make a quick trip to a nearby market or food stall in order to find me some fried or barbecued chicken along with a bag or two of sticky rice.  During the meal, she usually feeds this to me by tearing off strips of chicken from the bone, pressing it into a thumb-sized mound of rice, and then dipping this into a bowl of sweet chile sauce before popping the entire morsel into my mouth.  She's very quick at this and usually waits patiently as I try to chew and swallow what's in my mouth or take a drink of soda, yoghurt drink, or water.  Only when my chicken is finished will she begin eating her bowls (now down to one or two, along with a plate of "greens"/weeds); my protestations that I can actually feed myself have been to no avail.  I think this is part of the legendary stories of how well Thai women take care of their man and no Western ideas of woman's liberation can change this.

If we need to run errands, we shower before leaving the house — even if we have already had our first showers of the day (most days, I take between two and four showers).  That way, we stay "fresh" at least as long as it takes us to dress and get onto the motorbike.  I find it best to have a "to do" list before we leave the house and to realize that I'll be lucky to cross one thing a day off of it.  Tim gets easily sidetracked and often we end up stopping off at one of her friends' homes rather than our scheduled stops of the day.  I know now from experience that "a quick stop to see my friend" is, at a minimum, a three-hour exercise in patience for me.  First, they have to get caught up on all the gossip and events that have happened in the hour or so since they finished a 90-minute telephone conversation (which occurs several times daily).  Then, they have to buy a bunch of food to eat (guess who pays for this food?).  After the meal, it's more conversation (and during the before- and after-meal talks, they almost always go inside, leaving me outside alone to twiddle my thumbs) and occasionally it's a "darling, so and so come now to give me hour massage" or some such "request."  This happened two days ago and the only way I ended that was by saying "jep ton" ("hurt stomach") so Tim took me home so I could use a "real" toilet.  Of course, yesterday, I agreed to take her back so she could have her hour-long massage which ended up being another marathon visit with the same friends (honestly, what do they find to talk about so much every day?).

Anyway, I've learned that if I really need to get something done on a particular day is that I need to start "requesting" it several days before.  For example, I wanted to go to the council office to pay the rent (due on May 11).  I began putting it on our "to do" list on Friday and we finally were able to do it today.  I'd been trying to get us to an Internet cafe almost as long (to print out travel documents — I'll probably buy a printer when we return from Chiang Mai) and we will (hopefully) go tonight.  This is all part of the Thai attitude towards time (and I'll reprint some excerpts I found on this subject in a future blog entry) and it does no good to get angry or upset about it.  A simple farang like myself can do nothing to change such a basic tenant of life here so I just laugh it off and make quiet "suggestions" to get us back on track.

In fact, I don't think I would object so much to the lengthy visits to the friends so much if only I was included a bit more.  I don't think they realize how lonely it is for me to have to sit either alone or among them when they are all jabbering along in a language that I don't understand.  Occasionally, I can determine that they are talking about me (the words farang — basically meaning "white Westerner" — or tilak — "darling" — are key give-aways) but my requests of "what do you say?" are either ignored, met with a one- or two-word response, or laughed at which actually distances me from the conversation even more.  I think I would feel different if I did have someone with whom I could speak English (and not the broken English I converse with among the few expats I've met so far — a German and a Dutchman).  (BTW, paying for everyone's meals no longer bothers me so much; I just keep the fridge less well-stocked and try to avoid going to restaurants with Tim's friends — if we keep the meals to the food stall variety, it is very cheap.)

Our returns home after errands and visits is usually a race against the rain as the rainy season is definitely here (although it has yet to rain today).  But what's been worse than the threat of storms has been our frequent travels in a major road construction zone.  The upper stretches of Chaofa West Road are currently being resurfaced.  However, the crews don't close the roads (or redirect traffic) while the work is being done.  So motorbikes, cars, trucks, vendor carts, etc. are all trying to navigate an ever-increasing poor road surface amidst dust, gravel, mud, and tar.  It's hot and dirty.  And, believe me, the hot tar doesn't feel too good on your feet (which generally aren't well-protected if you're wearing the standard sandals as footware).  This road construction seems to be inching ever closer to our home in Chalong; it would be nice if they would try and finish a section of road before beginning to wreck the next few yards and I think the road is getting worse rather than better.  I think that we could find some alternate routes for most places we need to go up around Central Phuket but Tim is reluctant to go too far out of our way.  (But I did manage to talk her into going to Phuket via Kata & Karon yesterday — a much more scenic route, I think, and it doesn't seem to add much travel time especially considering how slow the traffic is through the construction zones.)

Our evening routine usually includes a final meal between seven and nine o'clock.  This usually involves Tim re-heating some leftovers from earlier in the day for herself and me having a can of fruit from the fridge.  Occasionally, I'll have some "noodle soup" which Tim prepares for me special (not spicy, although lately I've been adding some chile powder to provide some more flavor).  I'm still not to the point I'd like to be regarding Thai food but Tim seems pleased now that I seem a bit more receptive to trying a little more.

A side note on eating:  the past couple of days while eating in public places, I've been very conscious of using my left hand as my primary eating hand.  In preparing to come to Thailand the first time, I remember reading about how you don't want to be seen doing anything with your left hand because it's considered "dirty".  But I hadn't given it a second thought when I came here since I've always been left handed.  I first began to think about it the day before yesterday when we were having lunch with Lek and Jum at a Chinese restaurant in Big C (MK Restaurant) and I was struggling trying to eat with chopsticks (never learned how).  The Thai people in neighboring booths were giving me funny looks and I got the impression they were more appalled because I was using my left hand rather than my inability to use the sticks.  I thought about that again today when Tim and I had our lunch in the basement cafeteria at Big C; I was trying to eat my wonton soup with my right hand and managed to spill much of it on the table.  Most Thais I've watched eat generally hold a big spoon in their left hand and a fork in their right, using the spoon to shovel items onto the fork before eating.  I've tried that but I just can't seem to make it "look good".  Something else I need to work on this week so I don't embarrass Tim when we visit her family...

We follow that meal most nights with a DVD in the air-conditioned master bedroom (the rest of the house doesn't have air conditioning).  Most of the time, it's an English language movie I've brought from the States (no Thai subtitles) but I've picked movies that Tim could enjoy without knowing what was being said.  These have included action flicks such as Kill Bill, Die Another Day, and Pirates Of The Caribbean, and a few "cartoons" such as Ice Age and The Incredibles.  We recently watched the romantic comedy Hitch over the course of two nights and Tim seemed to like it very much.  Occasionally, we'll buy a new DVD that has the option of watching it either in English with Thai subtitles, or dubbed in Thai with English subtitles.  Tim also has a stack of borrowed VCD's (which I don't like because of the often poor quality) of Thai movies (as well as some Brazilian, Chinese and Korean movies dubbed into Thai) which usually don't have English subtitles.  "Luckily", most of those movies have been so awful that Tim hasn't even wanted to sit through them for more than a half-hour or so.  We did watch one very good Korean movie all the way through; it was an epic that came out last year about some aspect of Chinese history and starred Jackie Chan (Tim couldn't translate the title for me).

Some nights, we'll start a second DVD (that's usually when the Tim's selections get played) during which I usually fall asleep.  We're usually both asleep between ten and twelve o'clock (and I'm almost always the first one sleeping soundly) — quite a change for me as I'm used to staying up all night and sleeping in during the daytime hours.  However, the past couple of nights, I have awakened around 1:30 or two in the morning feeling the need to wander out into the kitchen for a drink of water but I've then returned to bed to sleep until the morning.

Well, that's our general routine most days.  Even in the exotic tropics, life can become static.  It's the things you do to break up these routines that really make the adventure.  And most days, we do succeed at just that...