Sunday, December 6, 2009

Heading South

...we've just come full circle a second time. We started our Thailand trip in Bangkok, and after all our adventures in Chiang Mai, we passed through Bangkok again a week ago. Here we are now in Bangkok a third time, looking out across the Chao Prahya river, which is buzzing quietly with millions of mosquitoes and loudly with a handful of overpowered ferries.

We just finished an awesome trip. A side-trip, but still--we spent the week in southern Thailand, on hills, on a beach, and in no less than four caves.

The first two of these were in Petchaburi, our first stop. A place so far off the tourist trail that it was hard to find any signs in letters I could recognize, and where getting food was an exercise in sign language. The town's one attraction was that pair of caves, which had been converted into religious spaces--one was a wat, or temple, while the other was just filled with Buddha images. Both had an interesting, unexpectedly postapocalyptic feel to them, empty and surrounded with stray dogs. Hundreds of monkeys sat in the side streets as much as in the trees, scratching themselves and squawking at us. They seemed to be waiting for throngs of snack-laden tourists that didn't exist. Inside the "cave of a thousand buddhas" were two women in white robes, meditating in silence. The darker corners of the cave were filled with the guano and high-pitched chirps of lots of bats.

...the Buddhas

..and us, waiting patiently for the shutter timer.

The real Terminator vibe, however, came from the wat cave. Its entrance was halfway up a hill that rose out of the otherwise flat outskirts of Petchaburi. As we approached the hill, locals were burning trash and leaves in ditches by the side of the road. The smoke wafted up to large, but decaying facilities--a half-finished parking structure, some food stalls, and a long line of bathrooms. These buildings, like the monkeys that surrounded them, seemed to be waiting for visitors that never came. We were the exception.

Only one other person entered the cave with us--a lady, like those in the by the "thousand buddhas", dressed in white. Three dogs followed her in; they looked as though they had definitely seen better days. We followed the dogs.

Inside, the wat was lit with bare flourescent tubes. The Buddhas were beautiful, but the smell was consitent with the handful of stray animals that seemed to call the place home. Nathan and I found a side cave that was accessible only by crawling through a tunnel a few yards long. It was just big enough to stand in, and black except for the dim glow of Nathan's iPhone. It also contained two floorboards, a broom, and a piece of cloth--we're guessing that a monk spent some quality time alone there.

...then we set the iPhone flashlight to red and Ben took a really long exposure shot.

We kept walking. One of the coolest statues in the cave was a very large reclining Buddha. So Matt whipped out his headlamp and Ben did another 15-second exposure:

...every year during New Student Orientation, there's a slideshow of the wildest pictures people have taken with the word "Stanford." With a little luck, this might qualify. (Also, the way the word overlaps the Buddha a bit was unintentional.)

We walked deeper into the cave, and into the most surreal experience I've had on this trip so far. We heard someone's voice echoing from the walls, piling syllables on top of each other in a fast staccato rhythm. It was the lady who had walked into the cave in front of us, and it was clear that she wasn't saying anything in any language. She was exerting herself visibly, though, taking short sharp breaths between long stretches of sound. This was glossolalia--"speaking in tongues." I had only known it from the book Snow Crash (which, by the way, is awesome.) In real life, however, there was something seriously disconcerting about it. I watched open-mouthed for about a minute. The three unkempt dogs stared back, presumably hoping for food, but the lady was facing one of the Buddha images and never acknowledged our presence.

We left the cave and climbed to the top of the hill, which is capped with an enormous (20-ish yard tall) sitting Buddha.

...and some extreme scaffolding

The statue was under renovation, surrounded by an abandoned-looking construction site. The hilltop also had some excellent views of Petchaburi and the countryside. this one

The next day, we took the slow train to Hua Hin, through some scenic farmland. Hua Hin is only about 100 km south of Petchaburi, but in many ways the cities seem to be opposites. Hua Hin, it turned out, is a sunny beachside resort town. Once an annual destination for the Thai royal family, it is now full of Hiltons, Courtside Marriotts, and middle-aged vactioners in beach chairs. Nathan found some really good seafood.

Our last stop was lots more memorable. It was Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, and it was almost as devoid of tourists as Petchaburi. Steep, dramatic, jungle-covered limestone peaks rose up next to a white-sand beach. We had a bunglow surrounded by palm trees.

...yes, it was this good.

That night, I walked over a short, steep path to a nearby fishing village. The boats were all ridiculously colorful. No English was spoken or written anywhere, so I just walked up to some dude who was loading fishes into a giant cooler and asked "khao lai"--"how much?", one of the five or so phrases of Thai I know. (I have the same understanding of Thai that a parrot might have if it was still in training. It worked, though, and with a bit more gesticulation and waving of Baht bills, I got some fish.) I got a few other things from two little shops. (This town was so small, it didn't even have a 7-Eleven. Those are totally ubiquitous in Thailand, kind of like McDonalds in America, and like McDonalds, you know you're really off the map when you find a place that doesn't have one.) In any case, I carried the fish back and Nathan showed me how to cook them Japanese style, encrusted in salt. We made a bonfire out of coconut shells and palm fronds.

...the fish was ridiculously delicious.

We got up the next morning to go caving again. These were a different kind of cave altogether, though--no black chambers or hair-raising utterances here. Instead, these caves were gigantic, and most of their roofs had caved in, creating two gaping sinkholes. Lots of sunlight filtered in through really tall trees reaching toward the surface. We shared the space with a couple of butterflies and a group of elementary-school kids.

We rolled back to Bankok again by the scenic route--chugging along in a German-built diesel contraption from a couple of decades ago.

...yours truly and friends

Until next time... peace!

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