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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...