The Buddha's Belly is Full...
My tenacious sense of adventure and quest for fast paced, romance laced foreign wonder and mystery has led me to move into a shabby, miniscule, shoe box sized room in an apartment "On the wrong side of the tracks" (as my bass player Ian informed me) in San Francisco for the past 3 months in order to save up money for a 18 day trip to Thailand. Probably not the smartest move considering I only have a few thousand in the bank, live in one of the most expensive cities in the US and am a struggling musician... but rational rarely seems to win with me and the persistent, gentle, beaconing whisper of a call was sent over the pacific from southeast Asia and simply could not be ignored by this travel/romance junky (and wannabe Lonely Planet travel writer). So, I find myself jet lagged, up at 3 in the morning in a hotel room with pen in hand, mind brimming over from the past 24 hours here in the gorgeous, chaotic metropolis of a stew pot called Bangkok.
As anyone knows, foreign travel is best with a foxy companion and my trusty sidekick travel partner is a delightful, brilliant, hilarious and (might I add) gorgeous Spaniard named Enrique. "EQ", as I have nicknamed him, is 6' 2" and 200 pounds of pure sillyness, fun and fashionable, hip European fabulousness who fills my heart with joy with his relentless romantic antics and fills my mind with wonder as he rattles off endlessly about quantum physics, mathematics, politics, astronomy, the large HAdron Collider, etc.. Holy shit! Talk about looks AND brains, this guy studied physics in college and works as a 3 dimensional modeler at Pixar back in the Bay Area. Last year, after enduring an earth shattering, devastating breakup with close to suicide inducing magnitude of proportions, I thought for sure my luck was up. But I am ecstatic to say that my luck is on the mend because my heart is finally starting to make some noise again and I can feel it beating with the pulse of life here in the streets of Bangkok as we wind aimlessly in and out of narrow alleyways, urban temples, cluttered sidewalk shops in attempts to pack as much action into our first day in exotic Thailand.
Bangkok - The Buddha's belly is full here in this swarm of a city with a whopping 9 million inhabitants. The quickening pulse of three thousand years of societal evolution ticks loudly in these electric, crowded streets lined with brightly colored neon pink taxis, tiny motorized rickshaws, snaking urban rivers teeming with thousands of flower decorated boats carrying today’s fresh toxic catch and various goods to and from their destinations. The air is heavy and thick from the heat and pollution. I feel absolutely dizzy when I ascend the towering “Golden Mount” temple at one of the cities highest peaks and gaze across the jagged horizon, Enrique and I silently admire the majesty. I imagine the millions of hands it took to carefully and meticulously persevere under the hot equatorial sun to craft this spanning patchwork of skyscrapers and hundreds of ornate Buddhist temples, all in the name of "The One" enlightened being that said "You too have the same God like potential inside... and with that same great hope we endure on in such suffering as the world surly provides to build and live in these complex cities, learn to love (or at least tolerate ) each other and brilliantly and sometimes awkwardly hash out our uncertain futures together.
Back in California, my friends and I all in solidarity (and might I add from the ripe old age of 14) unanimously rejected western, Christian notions of religion and gracefully adopted the more mystic, gentle ways of Eastern mysticism. Like so many of us in the blue states along the US coasts, we practiced yoga, eat vegetarian, enjoy sitar music, (attempt to) meditate and generally emulate our Eastern neighbors. Sometimes I wonder, people say it's "Fashionable" - all this art and philosophy from the far east - but I think it's more of a perhaps subconscious recognition of a deeper and more peaceful and powerful way of life (or perhaps it's out of boredom?).
It is truly ironic because we seemed to have swapped our western materialism over here to Asia as shows as we wind down the streets to the music of Lady Gaga, Akon and The Black Eyed Peas blaring out of taxis and shops by young Thais fashionably clad in T-shirts and jeans smoking Marlboro cigarettes and eating Mc Donalds. Oh the irony. But, one cultural aspect that does seem to remain clear and intact is the reverence and practice of Buddhism as shows with the hanging of framed pictures of depictions of the Buddha in every storefront counter wall, the saffron orange robe donned monks traveling by boat through the canals, the incense burning little old Thai lady that curiously questions us about or origin and then smilingly encourages us to go visit the "Lucky Buddha" statue north of town. "If you visit, will bring you good luck!" she beamed. Enrique, subscribing to more science based, realistic knowledge just nods his head in good humor and rolls his eyes. Me, being a whimsical, gullible hope/luck junky agree in concurrence and says "We're going!".
At any rate science always inevitably meets up with religion somewhere along these crossroads. They circle each other slowly sizing each other up... "You think you're pretty hot shit don’t you?” “You want a piece of this?”.. egoicly deciding to ignore each other, but secretly longing to know the others mysteries… And perhaps that's what led us, two westerners - Celeste and Enrique - to this spiritual Mecca called Thailand.
As much as I hate to admit it, I learned how to travel from the best (now in my eyes the worst) of them. The sinister, James Bond inspired world traveler AKA: Heartbreaker, cruel, evil, heartless womanizing sociopath. This guy taught me everything I now know in the 2 action packed, lust and love laced, adrenaline fueled years we were together. We met in Santa Barbara over the course of 2 days decided we really liked each other and our first technical "date" was in Istanbul 10 days later. We spent over a year total traversing time and space together through: Turkey, Greece, Germany, Thailand, Bali, Brazil and then the tarnished jewel India - which after 4 INTENSE weeks found me heartbroken and stranded by myself in Kashmir at the foothills of the Himalayas after leaving him in the middle of the street after logging in at an internet cafe to find not one but 2 of Art's current girlfriends who had contacted me in attempts to warn me. He came into the cafe and the look on his face told me all I needed to know after I repeated the letters back to him (he even called these girls the same pet names as me!) Awful.
But, what I did gain, besides a year of good therapy, was the ability to navigate ridiculously unnavigable foreign cities, the importance of Purell, tremendous haggling skills, what foods to avoid so that I don't spend the night snuggling with the toilet instead of my lover - I was his eager student (eager enough to spend my life savings chasing him across the planet) and he was my charismatic wolf in sheep’s clothing tour guide with the same thirst for adventure that I have now contracted. For better or worse, I caught it and now the thought of my next tropical adventure consumes a large portion of my daydreaming real estate on a daily basis.
Patong: The Vegas of Thailand (on crack). My notes on this town? A tourist trap, chaotic mess of a shorted out neon light bulb desperately flashing in hopes of attracting some lonely, desperate westerner cheap thrill seeker or shopper who flutter about like a moth down the crowded streets seeking out some bit of bizarre comfort from the hoards of sleazy bars, Thai prostitutes, drag queens, cheap alcohol or any other various forms of distraction. I remember waking up this morning turning over to face Enrique and saying "I am certain that we will have psychic scars from last night." He laughed as he hopped out of bed and I lay in bed remember (or trying to forget) our previous night of debauchery.... more debauchery than I will usually succumb to... The way the envoy sent from the strip club said "Want see ping pong show??", who would have known that over the course of the next 2 hours we would witness a super sex freak show that would prove to display the raw potential of harnessing the power of your pussy to hurl objects through the air! I will spare you the most gruesome details and give the disclaimer that Rachel and I agreed we would leave if the girls in the show were underage.
Curiosity, that persistent gnaw. The way curiosity seduces me poses my own moral dilemma and makes me feel so weak sometimes when I would generally consider myself a moral person... Of course you rationalize it by saying "Well, everybody here is doing it." or "Well, my boyfriend offered to buy me a lap dance and it would be rude to say no." or " Well... in a way we would be supporting the arts!" Anyway, I ignored my Buddhist doctrine warning against unnecessary sexual deviance and spent the next 2 hours savoring the visual delight of scantily clad, very hot Asian strippers and let myself be shocked an awed by a lady who shot darts out of her pussy at strategically positioned balloon targets set up around the stage with unbelievable precision. TALENT! The middle age white guys in the club, who Rachel during the course of the evening had coined the term "The undateables" for, vacantly stared in awe at the circus antics while the rest of the strippers in the club hovered around them hoping to get 500 baht stuffed into their zebra striped g-strings.
I suppose the most depressing part of the evening was that I was actually involved in this ridiculousness, but mostly because there were thousands of white people that flocked to "Sin City Asia". What Rachel, Enrique and I were most baffled about though was that there were PLENTY of wide eyed Muslims milling about in the crowd with shopping bags full. WHAT? Does... not... compute... Allah? Do you read? Your followers are currently wandering through the very stuff that you wage your holy wars over. Bizarre...
Ko Phi Phi.
Enrique, who claims to be an atheist, set one foot on the blissful tropical isle of Koh Phi Phi, and although he hasn't noticed himself doing this, I have already heard him say "God bless you" 3 different times. Yes, the island is so spectacular that it would make a believer out of even the most skeptical of characters! At the internet cafe, on our first morning on the island, Enrique Facebooked "Paradise exists, and I am on it" and these words ricochet around my heart and mind as I wind my way along pristine white sand beaches with lapping aquamarine 75 degree salty ocean water, narrow cobblestone store front lined alleyways and corridors, neon green, intense Banyon tree lines tropical gardens and jungles, delicate, spicy wafts of scent of Thai food scented air and best of all, the most astoundingly gorgeous, ridiculously wonderful, dramatic island scenery - and I kid you not - this feels like it must be computer generated effects. It feels like we're in Pirates of the Caribbean, only we're currently pillaging primo snorkel spots, funky beachside reggae bars and cheap beer!
We paid a U.S. $15 each to set sail on just a slightly beat up yacht with 25 other international travelers for 8 hours to all the surrounding hot spots, snorkeling amongst coral forests with thousands of brightly colored fish and lazed in the sun on the upper deck admiring the crazy "Karst" rock island formations - which are these GIGANTIC jungle covered rocks and cliffs jutting thousands of meters out in the sea. The ship's crew are this rowdy Thai islanders with plenty of tribal tattoos, sunny - yet mischevious - dispositions who love to entertain and pick on the tourists in good humor. What I gather from the Thai people that I have interacted with is that they are generally happy, family and business oriented, are curious and inquisitive about westerners but are TOTALLY willing to screw you out of your money. The tourist scams run rampant and you have to have some serious haggling skills in the marketplace to get a fair price. Generally though, the people are really friendly, open minded and playful, which is definitely one of the attractions that make Thailand so irresistible!
When night falls on Ko Phi Phi Don, you hope you are watching it from the town's best lookout point on top of the southwest hill, a brutal 45 minute hike in 95 degree, humid weather - but SO worth the ordeal. Enrique and I felt proud to be the only people over 27 that made it to the top where we were hypnotized by swarms of castle like clouds moving slowly over the vast Andaman Ocean all painted like a precision watercolor in soft, gentle pastel colors and a stunning 260 view of the hourglass shaped island with long strips of golden beaches on either side, passing ships and twinkling post sunset city lights.... Ahhhhhh.... We meandered back down a dimly lit jungle path and followed the scent of burning kerosene to the beach where the locals, dressed in tight jeans, torn up rock band t-shirts and mohawks entertain the tourists with impressive and sexy fire dancing routines that involve 20 foot long flaming double dutch jumproping, fire limbo and staff and poi fire dancing to very loud dance music provided by a DJ in a custom made bamboo thatch DJ booth! Fabulous... This combined with an endless supply of $2 Mai Tai's and the sight of the occasional drunk and overly ambitious tourist catching themselves on fire while sloppily attempting fire limbo provide for an unparalled evening of rowdy island entertainment.
2 Sunburns, 1 eye infection and $400 later, Enrique and I found ourselves hung over and suffering from a brutal 9 hour travel day on a fish gut stinking ferry, an overcrowded bus with no air conditioning, a waiting station in 95 degree heat and then in the back of a rusty pick up truck, with bad brakes, tearing down a windy, jungle road at 60 mph holding on for dear life as Enrique's friend Sharira tells us all about her life on the party island of Koh Phangon. Sharira, a sassy, whip smart, petite Mexican chica who Enrique knew from san Francisco where she worked for 7 years as a stock trader, seems to have gotten tired of the corporate grind, dropped out of society and left her old life behind to move to a remote tropical island and live in a cute, rustic 2 story bungalow with no air conditioning and an outdoor bathroom. Rustic indeed - and PERFECT for a lazy afternoon of lounging around in hammocks, chatting about life, drinking chilled coconut milk and savoring the most delicious view over the electric satin green jungle canopy down to the jagged cliffs and gentle blue Gulf of Thailand. Black butterflies flutter by the patio, the jungle air is thick, wet and buzzes with the sound of real life. Is it any wonder, we ponder, why Sharira, perhaps a casualty of corporate America's conveyor belt of materialism would want to seek refuge in the arms of an island of Ko Phagnon?
Last Stop - Koh Tao – There are words still unspoken, and worlds still unexplored swirling deep beneath the surface of the sea. We’ve come to Ko Tao to join the hundreds of twenty and thirty something international scuba instructors and snorkel junkies to try to unlock some mysterious vault of sunken treasure that lies buried in these pearly waters. We’re all descendents of mariners, pirates or sailors on some level… and we’ve all come from and then return to the sea one day… Perhaps this subconscious reality provides an impetus and unites seaside communities like these, whose passion turns inner city lads and urban lasses into salty sea dogs, sultry mermaids and suntanned, freckled, triballed out, sea turtle tattooed dive guides, who soon after you sink you soppy wet flip flops over the bow of the ferry to touch the golden beach sands of the isle, do their best to convince you to book 4 nights at some sub standard, moldy shack of a room at their broke down palace of a bungalow “Beachside Hotel” in hopes of capitalizing off of any potential Jaques Cousteau wannabe longing to explore the quiet, peaceful and fascinating underwater worlds…
Well, they suckered themselves two eager participants who wanted to grow gills and on that gorgeous island we spent 4 days literally underwater looking ridiculous strapped beneath heavy aluminum tanks with various breathing devices and metered gadgets dangling from every limb of our body and flippers braving jellyfish brush ups, shark attacks, decompression sickness, razor sharp coral reefs in order to get a rare glimpse of a trigger fish, sea tortoise or whale shark.
Lady Boy Cabaret on Koh Tao! FABULOUSNESS!!!