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It's been a week full of new experiences, one that hasn't allowed me much time to sit and write blog entries (although I did find some time to work on a few Wikipedia projects).

The most interesting activity occurred on Tuesday with my first (of many) visa runs.  We actually went by minibus rather than coach because there were only six people going on this particular day.  We left Chalong a little before six in the morning.  Our driver seemed to have had his training as a kamikaze pilot as we traveled at warp speed and he delighted in passing slower-moving (i.e., everyone else on the road) vehicles by overtaking them in the oncoming lane of traffic, particularly on blind curves near the summits of hills.  This produced numerous "close calls", the most jarring of which was when he ran us into the grass on the far side of the road as he swerved to avoid two large elephants that came up over the hill as he passed a large truck stacked high with chickens.  One of my fellow passengers (a man from England who talked my head off at the beginning of the trip but was frightened into silence as we entered the twists-and-turns of the rough-surfaced and mountainous roads outside of Phuket) dubbed our driver "Luke Skywalker" since he was using the "force" in place of safe-driving skills.  Unfortunately, such techniques are common among Thai minibus and big-bus drivers and there are numerous accidents everyday (Thai television news never censor the scenes of death and destruction — more on the pleasant images the press shows the public in another entry...).

Anyway, we arrived in Ranong about an hour-and-a-half ahead of schedule.  Our first stop was the Thai Immigration Office where our passports received exit stamps; the official didn't think my passport was my own as I no longer resemble the photo (had much shorter hair and a goatee three years ago) and he repeatedly asked me if I was sure that was me!  We were then taken a short distance to the entrance to the boat dock, the last 100 yards of distance saw us walking through the most squalid of slums with trash piled high on either side of a small walkway.  The ancient wooden dock led out to our boat which had definitely seen better days as it looked ready to collapse into the surf at the slightest stiff breeze.  We had surrendered our passports to our minibus driver (I didn't like giving up control of the passport; it's illegal as it's U.S. Government property and the State Department advises against doing so) who now gave the stack to the boat "captain" and paid our Myanmar entry fees (USD $5.00, which is ONLY payable in U.S. currency — there are touts surrounding the pier who sell American five dollar bills to other travellers who aren't part of organized visa runs).

The boat trip across to Myanmar (the U.S. Government doesn't officially recognize the name, still using "Burma" so as not to support the military junta that now runs the country — for more about this see the Wikipedia articles, "Myanmar" and "Explanation of the names of Burma/Myanmar") only took about 20 minutes or so, with a brief pause at a Thai Immigration hut in the middle of the channel where our passports were checked for the exit stamps.  As we entered open water on our way to the former Victoria Point, the water became very choppy and we were constantly being doused by the spray.

We eventually neared the Burmese coast and observed a number of Buddhist temples, gleaming golden under what little sunlight was left (a storm was rapidly approaching).  We also saw many signs of the military junta with cannons and other materiel on various hilltops and surrounding official-looking buildings.  There weren't any soldiers on the pier as we arrived at Kawthaung, but there were several surprisingly well-dressed (in crisp white shirts and black trousers) touts who called down to us as we docked to ask us (in flawless English) if we wanted to buy some things.  Beer, whiskey, and cigarettes are pretty much the only items to purchase here, along with cheap Viagra — I had no need for any of these so I, along with everyone except one man from France, elected to remain on the boat while the "captain" took our passports to Myanmar Immigration.  He returned about five minutes later with our entry and exit stamps properly applied and gave us back the passports.

Our journey back to Thailand was a bit different as we slowed while passing a small platform in the middle of the water which was manned by some tough-looking Burmese soldiers with machine guns and what looked like an anti-aircraft rocket launcher.  They looked us over and quickly waved us on our way.  When I raised my camera to take a photo, one soldier brandished his gun while another waved at me.  It began to pour rain just as the boat docked at Ranong; we reboarded the minibus and returned to the Ranong Immigration Office where our passports received Thailand arrival stamps; my visa now expires on September 1st.

A quick lunch followed at a nice restaurant east of the city, slighly up one of the mountain slopes (this area is riddled with spectacular-looking waterfalls) before embarking on our harrowing drive back to Phuket.  The driver seemed to be going a bit slower and not overtaking as many other vehicles to the welcome relief of all his passengers.  He even played a VCD for us to watch ("King Kong", dubbed in Thai — NO English subtitles, so Tim was the only person who could understand the dialogue; I was the only other person who had seen it before so I didn't pay much attention and even managed to doze off for a time).  We were back at Mike's Bikes shortly after six, hitting the nearby market (where we ran into Franz and Pen) before going home.

I planned to relax most of Wednesday (not having had much sleep the night before) but we had visits by Lek, Jum, and Puk at various times.  In the evening, Tim found out that there was to be a concert that night in Patong and asked if we could go.  I thought this might be fun so I agreed and we met Jum at the concert's site — a large open space near the beach on the north end of Patong.  It was walled-in and admission prices were 200 baht or VIP at 500 baht.

I decided to buy the lower-priced tickets:  upon entering the enclosure, you gave your ticket stub to a man who gave you a plastic stool to sit on and then you found an empty spot of ground to place it.  The VIP tickets simply got you a plastic chair (with a back which would have been nice as the stool became increasingly uncomfortable the longer I sat on it) in an area closer to the stage.  It was a pretty large area and the stage was comparable in size to many of the large outdoor amphitheatres in America.

We missed the opening acts (there were at least four performers in total) but we caught the beginning of the headliners, Pong Larng Sa-orn, who released their debut album back in March but are an extremely popular concert act.  They play a hybrid of traditional Thai (primarily Isaan-style) and rock music but with (mostly) traditional instruments (such as those huge bamboo panpipe flute-like things , a xylophone-type instrument, and plenty of congas).  Even the bass and guitar were more of a Thai design than a Western one.  The group has many, many members:  numerous flute players, a drummer, keyboard player, xylophone player, bassist, guitarist, lead male singer, several female singers (who also played congas) and various combinations of "traditional Thai" dancers.

It was all very entertaining, but they did take one thing a bit too far:  there's a tendency for many Thai musicians to turn parts of their performances into comedy routines — they will pretend to make mistakes during the songs themselves, use sarcasm to make the audience laugh, etc.  This group did the comedy thing during almost every song, often breaking each song up multiple times in order to make people laugh and then would try to finish the song.  As a result, most songs were strecthed ten or fifteen minutes each when they could have easily performed the song alone in three or four minutes.  The only songs I can remember that didn't have these sorts of breaks in them were the instrumental opener (which seemed to be a medley of many traditional and popular Thai tunes) and a cover of "Zombie" by Irish band, The Cranberries (seemingly, the most popular foreign song here).  This latter tune did have some comedic elements, but they did managed to get through the song without stopping in the middle.  I think I would have enjoyed the comedy much more if I could understand more Thai (or if Tim was willing to try and explain some of the jokes to me, many of which were physical comedy but I didn't understand the cultural references).  I did laugh a number of times and I did enjoy the show on the basis that it was interesting music and a fun presentation.  I just think that if they cut down at least half of the joking around and play more songs "staight" then they would have a more cohesive set.

One thing I've noticed when watching Thai concerts on television (many are aired live) is that many members of the audience will hand money or garlands of flowers to the performers during the show.  These flowers are usually of the type you see hanging from the rear-view mirrors of cars and trucks (to ask for protection from the spirits of the roads).  I guess it's comparable to people in America occasionally giving roses to certain of the less rock-oriented musicians or girls throwing their bras up to male pop singers.  Anyway, at this particular concert people were constantly giving money and flowers; at one point, someone handed the singer one of those sticks with a skewered barbecue chicken thigh on it that you buy at any market.  Very funny!

Thursday became our "lazy-around-the-house" day, although we did venture out in the afternoon to watch "Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" at the SFX Coliseum in Central Festival.  It was a fun movie, but not as good (I thought) as the first one — it was much too long and the sudden ending (leaving you to wait for the third installment to find out what happened to Jack) was a surprise.  Tim reported that the Thai subtitles were well-written but agreed that it was too long (particularly since she had to read the entire movie).  I think we might go see "Superman Returns" next week.

The remainder of the week is somewhat of a blur:  We did go to several open-air markets in the Suphan Hin area of Phuket City, including one that sold primarily wooden furniture (some really nice pieces there).  I barbecued an excellent chicken breast one night and Tim made me various different kinds of sausages on other nights.  We watched a movie at home last night ("Zathura", which we both enjoyed) and began watching another ("Freddy Vs. Jason", which I fell asleep during — I've never been a big fan of horror flicks).  I also tried to help Franz fix his computer — apparently, the shop people had installed an illegal copy of Windows XP Professional on his machine and the latest Microsoft update gave him the "blue screen of death".

I'm not sure what we'll do today.  It looks like rain so we'll probably end up staying home for most of the day — Franz's computer problems got me to thinking that it's been a while since I've backed-up my hard drives so I might start working on that.

It might be a few days before I feel like writing another blog entry.  Of course, there are a few things I've been wanting to write about but haven't yet found the inspiration (such as durian, since it's now in-season and the numerous stands selling it on Phuket make driving anywhere a very "aromatic" experience!).  We'll see if the muse strikes...