Hometown Tinder

Two years ago, I used Tinder in Coimbatore and Madras. I convinced myself that it was a sort of social experiment, however the truth is that I was more overcome with curiosity than anything else. I was curious to see if I could find a girl I knew, on one hand to see what they were up to, and on the other to see how they project themselves to a potential right-swiping guy. Over the course of ten or so swipes, I landed on the profiles of three girls I knew and went to college with, one of whose profile photos was taken at her wedding, making me question if she missed the point of it all somewhere. Safe to say that I didn’t open the app again during the rest of my time there.

Thoughts courtesy my stumbling across this article on The Atlantic: Link

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A Passage to Cambodia

Part 2 of my expedition to East Asia.

SIEM REAP, Cambodia: Meeting Dom and Nono

We gave ourselves a minute to let it sink in that we were in a wholly different country, after what was just a 50 minute journey from Bangkok (our transit point from Chiangmai).

After completing the visa on arrival formalities, we went outside the airport to look for our tuktuk driver whom our Airbnb host Dom – a Frenchman running a guesthouse in Siem Reap – was gracious enough to send to pick us up. It seemed serendipitous, considering one of our first experiences in Thailand was visiting Hong Island.

The tuktuk that Mr. Hong took us on was a little different from the ones we traveled on in Thailand. There, the tuktuks reminded me of the standard autos you would see in India. Here, tuktuks were a motorbike up front pulling an open carriage where people and luggage would sit.

We headed over to our stay through the singular highway that connects the airport to the city. Looking around, we were left speechless by the sheer number of hotels that populated the area. There wasn’t much creativity involved in their naming – Angkor Paradise, Angkor Palace, Prince d’Angkor, Angkor this, Angkor that…

The Cambodian language – peppered on restaurants and store signs everywhere – looked a lot like Telugu. We pulled into a small mud road and after much bumpiness, finally reached our destination. Dom was waiting to receive us with his five year old German Shepherd Nono, who came bounding up to us as we arrived inside. Playing with her for a few moments took away all our tiredness associated with the travel, and we headed up to our room.

Dom’s guesthouse is divided into two portions – a modern portion with 6 or so rooms, and the Khmer portion, with 3 rooms. He led us up a flight of stairs to the Khmer portion of the house, where we would be staying. Score. We dropped our bags off in our room, which was minimally decorated, and he showed us around. The Khmer portion was made almost entirely of wood, with wooden flooring, walls and ceiling, populated with old wooden smells. The floor creaked as you walked along it, and the lighting was minimal, giving me a very haunted-house feeling.

Going through the kitchen, we saw a random packet of MTR puliogare powder lying around, and knew we were home.

Dom left that night, making us promise to ask him the meaning behind the name of his guesthouse the next day.

Chess and Stories

The next morning, Dom sat us down and told us the story of Nine Incense Sticks in French-accented English, which consisted of his experiences as an ambulance driver in Paris, finding himself in Laos, swimming across the Mekong river with Nono, working his way to Cambodia, befriending a monk and finding faith in a Buddhist temple. He was a good story teller, and he found a rapt audience in D and me. And Nono, who seemed to follow Dom to wherever he was.

Nono!

The police visited in the interim, courtesy two Chinese girls going to university in Hong Kong who were staying in the room neighboring ours. Apparently one of the girls fell ill and needed to go to the hospital for a general checkup. The doctors found nothing wrong with her and had asked her to pay $30 for the ambulance charges, which she flat out refused, leading the hospitals to call the police. They ultimately settled the matter after much ruckus – Dom had to intervene saying “You’re not from this country, I’m not from this country, why create a fuss?”. Good diplomacy given the situation.

Breakfast consisted of a couple of packs of Maggi. We got a run down of things to do and places to visit (“use only dollars, no credit card anywhere, the local currency is so devalued here that you will only get it as cheap change”), and I started an aggressive game of chess with Dom, playing until we had to leave. We rented a couple of bicycles to make our way around the city center. Our Thailand data pack didn’t work in Cambodia, so we were left having to maneuver our way around by using Google Maps’ offline functionality and asking people for directions the old fashioned way. We realized as we were making our way to Chamkaar, the restaurant we were going to for lunch, that we had mapped to the wrong location – there were two branches of the same restaurant, one in the city center and the other along the highway that we had used to get to Dom’s the previous night. Inadvertently having mapped to the latter rather than the former, it took us a while to find the place, owing to the lack of navigation we were so used to by that point and also the fact that we were on bicycles that should really have been nowhere close to the highway. By the time we finally got there we were ravenous, and we wolfed down some Khmer curry and puffs, playing dumb charades against each other in the process and downing a bottle of Angkor (there’s that creativity again) beer.

We came back home where I finished my game (stalemate), lazed around for a little bit then went out again to the night market, which was located right next to Siem Reap’s famous Pub Street – incredible amounts of alcohol for dirt cheap prices. No wonder Siem Reap is one of the best cities in the world for tourism.

An alleyful of clothes and colors, Night Market, Siem Reap

I was possessed with strong thali-cravings so we dined at Maharajah, an Indian restaurant nearby. We continued to roam around the area for a while longer, and then headed to Platinum Cinemas to catch a late night showing of La La Land – I had really wanted to watch it with D and I had no qualms with watching it again. We got there in time for the previews, which consisted of interesting trailers for Cambodian movies – one was completely incomprehensible and packed with bad acting, which made us want to watch it as soon as we could (four separate love tracks, called Four Stories or something to that effect). D loved the movie, and La La Land now stands to be one of two films which I have watched across two continents in a theater (the other being The Dark Knight Rises, the last film I watched before moving out of India in 2012).

We got back late and fell asleep immediately, finding the thought of waking up early the next morning daunting but excited for the coming day, when we would get to explore as many Angkor temples as we could.

Another Day of Sun…?

We awoke four hours after sleeping and headed out to get day passes for the Angkor area, along with Mr. Hong who was waiting for us courtesy Dom who arranges trips like this for all his guests. We joined a huge group of people making their way to catch the best spot to take a photo of Angkor Wat against the sunrise. Seeing how it was 5.00am when we took our spots, we couldn’t see a thing. Sunrise was supposed to be at 6.30, and the crowds were gradually starting to increase closer to 6.00. 6.30 came and went, and the sun never showed up. It was too cloudy for a proper sunrise. The deflation in everybody’s hearts was palpable. By the time we walked over to the actual temple, it was 7.00 and the day was slowly getting more light.

Angkor Wat, by day

Seeing Angkor Wat in the daylight was pretty stupendous – an appropriate adjective to use because of all the stupas present (I’ll show myself out). Angkor Wat is the largest religious site in the world and was constructed almost a millennium ago. Initially constructed as a temple for Vishnu, it followed a Buddhist route and later went back to Hinduism as more kings came by and added more to it based on the religion they practiced. We waited half an hour to climb up to the Bakan, which used to be the sanctum sanctorum of Angkor Wat and is now more of an observatory. I was eager to learn more about the history of the temple, and seeing that we didn’t have a guide, paid for book called Ancient Angkor sold by one of the vendors within the temple premises. It ended up being an incredible investment, as it provided enough and more information about not just this temple, but any temple that we would be going to after. Walking along the exterior galleries we saw bas-reliefs of the Kurukshetra War, a depiction of heaven and hell and Yama waiting to judge the dead, and the Battle of Lanka, among others. Quickly munching down some cream pies, we went back to Mr. Hong who took us to Angkor Thom and the Bayon temple.

Tuktuk,  Mr. Hong’s back and a bottle of Bayon water. It seemed like all the entities which made Siem Reap famous lent their names to brands there.

Angkor Thom was the capital city of the Khmer Empire for a long time. Getting into to the city walls in itself gave a sense of grandeur of how the place must have looked 900 years ago – we had to cross a bridge lined with large sculptures of Devas and Asuras holding a Naga, depicting the Churning of the Ocean – which seemed to be a pretty prominent theme in both Thailand and Cambodia – to a massive gate which opened out into a huge park. We followed the road to Bayon, the official state temple of Angkor Thom several hundred years ago, a stunningly decorated temple with several sculptures of serene faces all around it and above it. This temple also was similar to the religious route taken by Angkor Wat, in that kings added on to it based on their religion, leading the temple to be a confused mess of sculptures, bas-reliefs and levels upon levels and a maze of doorways. This did nothing but serve to add on to the speechlessness we experienced the more time we spend there. We were left imagining how the faces would have looked late at night. Definitely creepy. The name Bayon, sounding so similar to “bayam”, seemed fitting.

Faces at Bayon

We followed the path to the Terrace of the Elephants located close by. D was tired by this point, and I left her saying that I would be back in half an hour and ran up to the top of the Baphuon temple. I had to cross 3 levels which got progressively steeper, and fought the crowd to take in where I was as quickly as possible. I made it back to her 35 minutes later, which wasn’t bad all things considered. Mr. Hong by this point came in search of us, and we left to get some coconut water and bananas, before going to Ta Prohm – where the roots grow along with the ruins and where Tomb Raider was filmed – and getting completely lost there. We finally found Mr. Hong again – us having no network and phone did not help our case – and we got back to Dom’s. A repeat of New Year’s night happened as we had meant to go to Pub Street that night, but were too tired to even consider getting out of bed.

Beatniks and Yellow Submarines

We finally did go to Pub Street the next day, drinking at Beatnik – a speakeasy (!), Yellow Sub – a Beatles-themed bar (!!) with a terrace, Angkor What – where we got shots for $2 (!!!), and finishing up at the Temple bar, no exclamation points here. Several drinks and rolled ice creams later, we ended our day in a perfect manner – with a huge ghee roast at Dakshin’s, and packed some more food for the night (I’m still surprised how D lasted so long without curd rice).

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Nothing more beautiful than a ghee roast cone

We went back to Dom’s and packed our bags, saying goodbye to him and Nono, and left to the airport back to Bangkok for one last night.

Unfortunately, we didn’t visit a supermarket while we were in Siem Reap. Next time.

BANGKOK, Thailand: I Hate to Say Goodbye

What I appreciated about the places we stayed in was that they volunteered to send someone to pick us up from the airport or drop us back when we had to catch a flight. I’m not sure if they did it out of necessity, to stay above their competition, or if it was due to the goodness of their hearts and hospitable nature. I choose to believe it’s the latter.

We stayed in a hotel named Sweet Loft, who sent us a taxi to pick us up – our identifier was to look out for the man in the orange shirt. Finding him easily in the crowd, we went to the hotel which was a little disappointing from an expectation vs reality perspective – the pictures on their Airbnb listing were a little different from what we saw. I didn’t complain though, as they did give us a free pick up and breakfast consisting of bread, butter and a drink that mildly resembled Tang the next day.

Pretty soon the time came for us to leave. D and I left to Suvarnabhumi and parted ways.

Until maybe two years back, I didn’t know the lyrics to the song “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music were “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehn goodbye”. Not knowing German, I was always under the impression that it was “I hate to say goodbye”. The misheard lyrics seemed fitting given the circumstances.

I’m not sure when I’ll be seeing her again but I sure hope it’s soon.

Kob kun mak, Thailand, Cambodia and D. You were all brilliant.

A Passage to Thailand

It’s been two days since I got back from what was the best trip that I have ever had (so far). It consisted of two packed weeks of experiences, some old, some new, in four cities across two countries in East Asia. Here’s my attempt to chronicle the memories for posterity, split over the next two blog posts – one for each country visited.

BANGKOK, Thailand: Sawasdee Ka

I landed in Bangkok over 28 hours after I left Houston. I left behind mildly cold weather and Christmas decorations everywhere to go to a sweltering humidity and refreshingly, no mention of Christmas a day and a half later. Getting to Bangkok took some effort – I traveled west from Texas on a non-stop 17 hour flight across the Pacific to Taiwan, followed by a layover and a 4 hour journey to Bangkok. This, when compared with a total trip time of just over 5 hours for D and the fact that I had a small catalog of movies to choose from on my flight, made me slightly irritable. The Hello Kitty symbols adorning everything from the outside of the EVA Air plane to the utensils I used to poke at my food were charming initially, and I had temporarily forgotten my woes regarding the impending travel. Closer to my landing time I was distracted by the thought of meeting D after 5 months, and a growing sense of excitement about our trips to different places in an unknown land.

I decided to take a taxi to our Airbnb, where D was waiting, having already reached much earlier and managing to get some sleep as well. Being exhausted, I was in no mood to take the train. It took me some time to convince the frustrated taxi driver whose number I pulled from the machine to take me to my destination, as it was around 30 km from the Suvarnabhumi airport during peak traffic time. He tried my best to convince me in broken English to take the train but I was adamant. After much discussion, I got him to angrily agree and I loaded my bags into the Toyota.

I had always wanted to visit the East, drawn to the culture, their food and the low costs associated with travel. Bangkok looked and felt a lot like Bombay. I guess it comes with the territory of being a large city, having a huge and diverse living and floating population, with highways crisscrossing everywhere and a decent looking skyline. I also noticed billboards having pictures of Ganesha on them, which caught me by surprise. I observed that several billboards had images of the recently deceased king, and that the king was also on all their bank notes. Seriously – every. single. one. I think they even had his image on the coins. This was either a high level of reverence or a forced respect of authority – I couldn’t decide which.

The driver kept muttering to himself in Thai – when he picked up a call he received I could swear that he cursed at me and this inane journey through traffic. I didn’t care. Having no data pack on my phone (not that Google Maps was very trustworthy at that point anyway), I tried my best to help him navigate to the apartment complex that I was supposed to get to. We ended up taking some shortcuts here and there and I ultimately asked him to drop me off when I was close to the place. Having spent an hour and a half in the cab in traffic and deciding that enough was enough – I would hike it to the apartment. I realized I could see the apartment complex from the place he dropped me off, but it was across a small stream. I picked up my suitcase and trudged across an under-construction overhead walkway, with the workers grinning at my predicament. I finally reached the place, and reached D. And a well deserved lunch of homemade puliogare and MTR ready-made bisibele bhath.

Side note: If I could build a temple for MTR, I would.

Extreme Ways and Snarky Puppies

Our first night in BKK was spent in Khaosan Road, where we observed a horde of street vendors trying to sell Fear Factor style scorpions and snakes for unsuspecting tourists, less for them to eat and more for them to take Instagram-worthy pictures with the “food”, actual food vendors making crepes (marketed as pancakes) filled with Nutella and bananas and a host of other toppings, and a good number of eateries and bars with lively atmospheres. We sneaked into Susie Wong’s Beers and Buns, where D had veggie options, and I had a Thai-level spicy pork bun. We split a bucket of Chang beer (with ice!) and the lady manning the station at Susie Wong’s gave me control of the sound system – I’m guessing this is something they do often as the music they were playing consisted of the Venga Boys, Aqua and Britney Spears. After our meal, we headed over to a couple of bars, where we listened to a Thai guy rocking out some Lynyrd Skynyrd, among choice acts. Sufficiently drunk, we headed back to the apartment, but not before making a quick stop at 7-Eleven to get a feel for the local supermarket items sold – something D says she wants to make a point of doing in every country she visits from now on, of which I am in full agreement.

On the face of it, Thailand seemed tailor-made for tourists from the Indian and American markets – street food in the form of crepes which were suited for both sets of sensibilities was abundant, plug points everywhere catered to both sets of charging blocks, thus having no necessity for a travel adapter, and toilets have both the water spout Indians are so comfortable with as well as toilet paper, without which Americans would be lost. Smart, considering India and the US are among their biggest tourist markets.

The next day consisted of us finding ways to heat MTR ready-made upma for breakfast and drinking some smashing pre-packaged Milo, lunching at Peeps, an impossible-to-find restaurant, and hurrying over to Don Muang airport to catch our flight to Krabi and its famed beaches.

Our flight took off shortly, but not before they took a minute to honor the king – something which was going to be a standard feature of all our flights to come. Counting our money left over from one night in Bangkok, it hit us that if what we had spent was any indication, this trip wasn’t going to be as cheap as we had initially thought.

KRABI, Thailand: No Reservations

The Krabi airport was small and crowded. We made our way out and navigated our way to Little Home in Aonang, the hotel we were going to spend the next four days in. As we were checking in, a cat came up to our bags and started clawing at mine. Disappointed with the results not being to his claws’ satisfaction, he skulked away. The desk clerk informed us that his name was the Thai word for “Why?”, which we found hilarious.

Little Home’s housecat sharpening his claws on my bag

We dropped off our bags and took a walk to Aonang Beach road to get a feel of the place, and were somewhat let down by the result. Aonang was touristy. Very touristy. We were led into a hookah bar by some of the famous (notorious?) lady-boys of the land, and left upon realizing that we were both tired as hell. Hopefully things would get better and Krabi would have more to offer.

Boy, did it have more to offer.

We took a longtail boat ride to Hong Island, Hong Lagoon and Paradise Island. Our guide was a guy with dreadlocks who looked more Mediterranean than Thai, and who had the best accent I have heard in a while – I wish I had recorded him speaking but alas.

We had to pay a national park fee prior to getting to the island (400 THB per adult and 200 per child below 6 years of age, as I recall). There was an English couple sitting with their child, who was clearly 7 or 8 years of age, necessitating them to pay 1200 THB for three tickets. Our guide came by to collect the fees and when he got to the couple, the husband handed over 1000 THB. When asked to pay the rest, he pointed at his daughter and said, “She’s 3.”

3. Dammit man, if you’re lying at least try to lie convincingly. He ended up having to cough over 200 more Baht because the guide was having none of his shit. Ha! Justice was served.

Hong Island, where the lagoon was situated, was absolutely stunning. The lagoon was neatly nestled between huge cliffs and rock faces. At that point all our reservations against Krabi were washed off by the blue waters lapping away at us on the beach. What I personally loved most about the place was that it was not as crowded as I had thought it would be, a fact that made it all the more beautiful.

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Azure

There was an attempt

I hooked up my snorkeling gear and got into the water, to snorkel in the lagoon. I had tried doing the same before in Key West, no less than a month ago, and had failed miserably. I fared not much better here. My pathetic endeavor, resulting in me completely losing my bearings and thinking that I was going to drown, only to find solid ground under the water, was quickly spotted by a couple of burly gentlemen from the Scandinavian region. I strove to salvage what was left of my dignity by walking away with my head held high and acting like there was something wrong with the snorkeling equipment. I don’t think they bought it.

D on the other hand was chilling away to glory. I watched agape as she floated on her back in the shadowy part of the water (Argh! Sun!), and swam out into the ocean, wearing her snorkeling gear like some pro. I skulked my way toward her in a disgruntled manner. On the plus side, she taught me how to float on my back as well, something which I feel I should do again soon lest I completely forget how to do it anymore. I hope I’ve not forgotten already.

Every time we closed our eyes…

We picked ourselves up and went back to the boat, to have a bland lunch on the beach in another island, served by our reggae-guide. Our last stop for the day was Paradise Island – or as our guide pronounced it “ParaDISE IIII-land”. In my head I had always imagined islands to have a beach, a good amount of sunlight, coconut trees and lush foliage everywhere, and ukulele music wafting out from unknown places. This place fit that definition perfectly, except the only music we heard was the sound of the waves and it was heavily, and amusingly, populated with cats.

We found a path leading out to a beautiful cove, untouched by visitors. For a few seconds we had the cove all to ourselves, before we were unceremoniously joined by our co-passengers from the boat who had clearly seen us walk along the path.

We took some time to take in the sights and sounds before we were taken back to our starting point. It was one of the few instances where a name like “Paradise Island” lives up to its expectations.

Paradise Island

Having had our fill of shopping, crepe-pancakes and tender coconut on the way to our hotel, we discovered a vegan restaurant named Govinda’s with quotes from the Bhagavad Gita lining the wall, run by a South American lady who had spent some time in India. Dinner consisted of some unexpectedly fantastic khichdi from there.

The Day After

Having done her research, Phi Phi Islands and Maya Bay were two places D really wanted to visit. We found ourselves at our departure point in Aonang beach with at least 50 other people. All of us got into a massive speedboat (apparently the only one in Krabi with 5 engines) and made our way out. I was mildly annoyed with the crowd but I wasn’t bothered by it too much as we were both fresh from the fantastic memories of our excursion the previous day. We were just glad we didn’t do this tour first.

Hassan, the guide, conducted his business like an overly assertive school teacher talking down to a classroom full of kids. He kept referring to folks at the back by their nationalities rather than by name, which we found amusing.

There was a better attempt

The guide made it clear that we would be snorkeling in the middle of the ocean, rather than the previous day’s trip where we snorkeled close to the shore (and in consequence, close to where I could get my feet on the ground after floating). This made the trip little more daunting for me, because this was the primary reason why I was pathetic at the activity. Being a self-taught swimmer and having swum largely only in the pool in my apartment complex, I was always confident of having something solid underneath me where my feet could reach. Given that the water here was over ten feet deep, I found myself wishing that I had either taken swimming classes earlier, or that I was 11 feet tall. D tried to instill some confidence in me but to no avail. I resolved to stay as close to the boat as possible, holding its sides if need be.

The place we went to snorkel at was in Phi Phi Leh. Imagine a circular island consisting of massive rock faces with a pool in the center and with a small inlet through which boats could pass. I tentatively took my snorkeling gear and, putting it on after wearing my life jacket, I jumped feet first into the water. Holding on to the boat for dear life, I surmised that this may not have been the best of ideas. An Indian co-passenger whose name was Dharmendra came to me and gave me what would end up being the most valuable advice anybody would give me on the trip – “Cycle your feet! Pedal like you’re cycling in the water!”, he said, and gave me a reassuring thumbs up.

And so I did. And it was marvelous. And I floated standing up. I would have hugged the guy if he was close by. I thanked him profusely instead. It opened up a whole new world of snorkeling experience for me.

We went back onto the boat and, rejuvenated by my newly acquired life lesson, departed for Koh Phi Phi.

Koh Pee Phi

Landing at Phi Phi’s Maya Bay we saw a maami clad in a sari and an uncle waving us on to shore.

Prior to 2001, apparently Maya Bay was completely free of visitors and those who did make it there would enjoy pristine waters and a location that was sure to take one’s breath away. Then came Leonardo DiCaprio’s film The Beach, which was shot primarily there. And suddenly, the place became THE place to be for most folks.

We got off the boat and observed what was akin to the crowd that Tirupati would have experienced during an early morning darshan on an auspicious day.

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Hmmm….

There would have been at least 30 large boats in the area at the time, and easily over a 1000 people. The beach was surprisingly clean though. As the islands are equidistant from both Phuket and Krabi, it plays host to people from both towns at any given point of the day.

The photos of Phi Phi online are not to be trusted. In my opinion it’s worth going but nobody would be missing much if it was skipped – D might differ with me on this. The island was definitely beautiful – I was amazed at the different shades of blue to be seen in the waters, among other things – but it would have been all the more so if there was a lesser crowd. We stayed there for a few minutes before leaving to eat a packaged lunch at Tonsai Beach, and walking around the island for a little bit of time.

No need for an attempt

After lunch, we went to snorkel some more (there was a lot of snorkeling involved in this trip) at Monkey Beach. The name is as literal as it gets, there is a beach, close to it there’s a rocky coastline, and there are monkeys along the coast. We anchored a ways off from shore and got into the water. Using the precious advice handed out to me earlier, I pedaled in the water as soon as I got in and snorkeled my way across the sea, seeing multiple beautiful sea creatures and getting minorly stung by tiny jellyfish invisible to the naked eye  in the process. Small orange fish, huge blue and purple fish, purple anemones, … I only wish I knew what fish I was looking at – Hassan really needed to step up his game.

We swam almost all the way to the monkeys before the folks at the boat started to call out for us to get back, then headed over to Bamboo Beach where a Chinese lady tried to make us do “silly” poses (her words, not mine) while clicking pictures of us, which only served to make us more awkward than we usually are under normal circumstances.

Once our fair share of pictures were taken, we sailed (is that the right verb for traveling by speedboat?) back to Nopparathara beach and hitched a ride to the hotel, returning with an experience which more than made up for the crowd-induced disappointment encountered at Maya Bay.

We rented a scooter and rode to the Krabi night market, a fantastic local market which would stay open until 10pm a couple of kilometers away from the hotel. After the debacle that was our previous scooter renting experience in Goa, we were more than happy to get one that worked without any issues and gave us no trouble. After more shopping, eating and drinking, we got back to the hotel and slept soundly.

A guy belting out Thai songs with full passion, Night Market, Krabi

Lesson No. 2

“Don’t kayak 4 miles if you’ve spent the last two days swimming in the ocean”

We learnt this the hard way the next day, after we found that we could hardly keep up with our group during the kayak tour we had scheduled at Ao Thalane Bay. We’ve both kayaked before and have loved it every single time. This however was the first time we kayaked for such a long distance after having undergone several different strenuous activities during the previous couple of days. The group we were with was supposed to go through a mangrove grove located in the middle of the water. We fell behind, got stuck, could hardly lift our arms and were left playing catch-up for most of the tour. New Year’s Eve certainly didn’t start off as well as we wanted, but it was still a great experience.

We learnt from AK, our guide, that there would be no fireworks that night due to the king’s death, which was disappointing. Little did I know that that fact would bear no relevance to the night ahead.

After a conversation with a Norwegian couple who were part of the tour with us, we ended up getting back to have lunch at Bussaba – where D & I squabbled over the food, and where I ate the best Massaman curry I’ve had yet – and a massage at the massage place next door. I took the traditional Thai massage option – to say the masseuse bend nimmuthified me would be an understatement. My joints came out feeling all the better for themselves, all things considered. We restocked on supplies and alcohol to pre-game from the 7-Eleven close by. Drinking a couple of beers, we both discerned that courtesy our kayak odyssey we were too tired to go out and get up to any sort of tomfoolery. The massages certainly didn’t help our case. MTR pulao saved us from having to go out for dinner yet again and we decided to call it a night – ushering in the new year the old-fashioned way, pun intended.

January 1 came round and we decided to take an early morning walk along the beach to survey the damage done by revelers from the previous night, which we saw was not much. I irritated D with a rendition of a couple of terrible Tamil songs, changing the lyrics when I forgot the words, and we had breakfast at a nice cafe run by an Australian lady.

Aonang Beach, New Year’s Day

Later, having run out of MTR options, we ended up grabbing lunch and packed a dinner from an Indian place 2 km away. We had some beer leftover from the previous night and we drank it on the beach, listening to the sounds of the waves. Happy, we left for the place I was most excited for this entire trip.

CHIANGMAI, Thailand: Say Wat?

Chiangmai is a beautiful old city located in the lush in northern Thailand, located close to several mountainous regions and surrounded by greenery. Having heard a lot about the place prior to our visit, I was eager to get my feet wet in an authentic Thai cultural experience. The city was founded about 900 years ago and was the capital of the Lanna Empire for a good period of time. Evidence of the same abounds throughout – from the old city walls bordering it to the 300+ Buddhist temples dotted in locations in and around the place. It also plays host to a cuisine unique to the region which isn’t really explored much outside of Thailand.

After arguing with a dick of a tuktuk driver and not finding a songthaew in sight, we waited an hour to get a taxi to our Airbnb, which turned out to be a charming single room in a shared home named Kalyanamit, located within the four walls of the city and close to the city center. The home interestingly featured, among other things, images of the king and queen once again, leading me to believe that if the locals were hanging up such pictures of their own volition, it may not have been forced respect of authority after all. Our host Prow was sweet enough to leave some traditional Thai sweets for us and even left us a postcard with a new year wish on it. She had also left recommendations for food and things to do close to her home. After taking stock of our surroundings, we ate the leftovers we brought back from the Indian place in Krabi and fell asleep almost immediately.

Prow’s message written on the back of a postcard

Breakfast on our first day in Chiangmai consisted of rice noodles and scrambled tofu at the Reform Kafe, part of the Green Tiger guesthouse right next door to where we stayed. Side note: Are mushrooms in Thailand in general amazing or is it just me?

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Rice noodles and amazing mushrooms

The proprietor of the guesthouse was an extremely affable Swiss man named Daniel, who basically mapped out our entire itinerary for the day as much as he could. Being in an extremely bike and walk-friendly city, we rented a couple of bicycles and rode around the city, visiting 8 different Buddhist temples (known locally as “wats”) including Wat Khuankama, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Sri Suphan, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Suan Dok among others. I was under the impression that Buddhists, being frugal and fond of simple lifestyles, would extend the same principles to their temples as well. What we saw however blew that assumption out the water.

The stupa at Chedi Luang – nothing short of stupendous

The temples we visited were ornate and magnificent, with huge statues of the Buddha adorning them, and gold everywhere. They also, unsurprisingly, had full scale images of King Bhumibol. Most of the history was written in Thai, which was unfortunate, as it would have been great to read about the temples when we were there. Monks provided free discourses to all who listened, and signs told off people to stop standing and staring and encouraged those who cared to talk to monks and learn about the Buddhist way of life – the talks were appropriately labeled “Monk Chats”, leading me to imagine someone logging on to a computer and chatting with a customer service representative who was doing some Jehovah’s Witness style spreading the word for the Buddhist culture. “Hi there, my name is Chan, would you like to hear how to find yourself?”

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Si Phum

I’m not religious, but I did pray at the temples we visited. It seemed appropriate.

The hills are alive…

I had spoken with Prow beforehand to book a car and driver to take a day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park, in which the Doi Inthanon mountain is located, about 70 km away. Since food options for D would be scarce, we packed some coconut cream pies, croissants, green tea KitKat and other snacks from 7-Eleven and a lunch from Green Tiger next door, who were nice enough to prepare our food at 7am, much earlier than their regular breakfast time. Our driver Kay spoke very little English. We communicated with him with a mixture of broken English, sign language and Google Translate.

Since we did have the car, we decided to make a few quick stops, at another wat, a rice field bordering a stream, and Sirithan waterfall. We met Sudheep – at least I think his name was Sudheep – an Indian-American guy who lived in Bangkok, attempting to cycle his way to the top, and marveled at what was certainly going to be an inhuman effort, given that the ride up was only going to get steeper. We stopped at the Twin Chedis, built for Bhumibol and his royal consort Sirikit. There, we spotted a lady making a food item which looked remarkably like panniyarams. Seeing that we were eyeing her preparation from a distance, the lady called out to us saying “no meat, no egg.” D almost jumped with joy and ordered some, while I went out to get tea, for which the weather was very conducive. We then went to the Kewmepaan trail, a 6 mile long trek across the mountain, outside of where we were told the only way to go in would be if we took a guide for whom we would need to pay a nominal amount as a group. We protested, seeing that we were only two people and that we didn’t need a guide and that the guides in any case were beneficial only for people who spoke Thai, but the guy manning the entrance pointed to a sign which implored tourists in English and Thai to pay for the betterment of their children’s lives. Sufficiently emotionally blackmailed, we pooled in with an older American couple from Wisconsin, paid the sum at the entrance, grabbed our walking stick and headed out onto the trail, guided by a middle-aged lady.

The beginning of the trail was dense, lush, verdant, insert any other adjective which could be used to describe how green it was. We walked in silence for a while shaded by a canopy above, with the sounds of a light rain falling against leaves to keep us company, when the trail suddenly opened out to a clearing and a meadow with a breathtaking view of the valley below. The scene looked straight out of something from a Miyazaki film, with a light breeze blowing against the tall grass and a tiny trail fenced with small bamboo shoots. I fully expected one of the small soot sprites from Spirited Away to come up to us from somewhere.

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Echoes of Miyazaki

For lack of time, we halfheartedly left the viewpoint and trudged back the same way we came. Our next stop was the summit of Doi Inthanon mountain – the highest point in Thailand and the park’s crowning glory. The temperature was gradually dropping as we climbed further up, and at 2600m above sea level, it was at least 15 degrees colder than Chiangmai. Sipping ginger tea, we walked along the Angka trail and cheered as we saw Sudheep powering his way up to the summit on his cycle. Stopping at the massive Wachirathan waterfall, definitely one of the largest I’ve seen, we made our way back to Prow’s.

Dinner involved a traditional Thai curry served inside a coconut, and walking around the city taking in the general atmosphere after.

Having walked 7 miles and climbed 30 flights (or so the Health app on my phone tells me), it had turned out to be one of the more tiring days in the trip. I silently whooped for having booked the car and driver beforehand.

A Passage…

The next morning, D and I split up as she went to Fuang’s, a vegetarian place close to our stay, and I badly wanted to try the khao-soi nearby. Khao-soi is noodle soup with a meat of choice topped with fried noodles, indigenous to northern Thailand. Khaosoi Khunyai, the place I was heading to, was supposed to have the best in Chiangmai. I skipped the lines by getting in just as soon as they opened. The place was a small shack open to the outdoors manned by one lady cooking and taking orders and a waiter who would bring the food to the table. The crowd was sizable for that early in the morning but I managed to get a table without much hassle, and had a delicious meal.

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Khaosoi Khunyai

I rejoined D after brunch and walked to the Warorot market, where Chiangmai locals primarily shop. There, I sampled an outstanding chicken curry puff and we wolfed down some butter buns and sweet and savory crispy wafer rolls. Yummy.

We took a tuktuk back and finally met Prow herself – a small and extremely friendly Thai lady – and thanked her for her hospitality. We also met our neighbor, a Japanese gentleman who gave me my second Japanese film simulation of the trip – he could have been cast as a side character in a Kurosawa film – and we spoke about ramen, sushi and visiting Japan – standard fare from the primer of non-Japanese folk talking to Japanese folk. Saying our goodbyes to Prow and promising our Japanese neighbor that I would visit, we departed for our next stop – Siem Reap and the city of Angkor, in the neighboring country of Cambodia.

In light of my time there, I’ve decided that retirement will be spent running a guesthouse in Chiangmai. I’ve also decided to call it White Elephant – in no way related to Green Tiger. Sorry Daniel, but you’d better get ready for some competition.

The Year That Was

I’ve traveled a lot this year. A guy I know posted the places he visited over this past year on Facebook, and I was inspired to recollect and jot down the same. I also wanted to note down the different concerts (and where possible, major sporting events) I’ve been to over the last year, which I’ve appended to the end of every month.

I should make this a yearly thing. I may probably go through the photos on my phone and retroactively do one for 2015…

To the best of my memory, these are the places I went to on a monthly basis, leaving the confines of my four walls in Houston:

JANUARY:

Amsterdam, London, Austin, Chicago

Concerts – Tool (Houston’s Toyota Center), Black Sabbath (Chicago’s United Center)

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Sabbath

FEBRUARY:

Austin, Lansing, Ann Arbor

Concerts – None

MARCH:

New York, Austin, Denver, Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park

Concerts – Steven Wilson (New York’s Beacon Theater)

Steven Wilson and co. paying tribute to David Bowie with a rendition of Space Oddity

APRIL:

Austin

Concerts – None

MAY:

New York

Concerts – None

JUNE:

New York

Concerts – Buckethead (Houston’s House of Blues), Yanni (Houston’s Hobby Center)

Buckethead jamming away
Yanni and troupe

JULY:

New York, Coimbatore, Chennai, Bangalore, Goa, Mumbai

Concerts – None

AUGUST:

Galveston

Concerts – Guns n’ Roses (Houston’s NRG Stadium)

Slash, the guy who saved the concert for me

SEPTEMBER:

New York

Concerts – None

OCTOBER:

New York

Concerts – Opeth (for the 6th time! Houston’s Warehouse Live)

NOVEMBER:

Miami, Key West, Bahia Honda State Park

Concerts – None

Sporting Events – San Antonio Spurs @ Houston Rockets (Houston’s Toyota Center)

DECEMBER:

Chicago, Seattle, Bangkok, Krabi

Concerts – None

A lot of instances of New York popping up, but with my nephew being born, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ll end my year in Krabi and head on over to Chiangmai and Siem Reap in Cambodia over the coming week.

Until then, cheers 2016. It’s been a good year, personally. Not a great one professionally, but I’m hoping the next year changes that. To an even better 2017, with more travel, more music, more opportunities, and fewer celebrity deaths.

Catching up with old friends is always fun, and all the more so if it involves walking around Chicago on a cold and snowy winter’s day, warming up with some hot ramen, throwing back several rounds of whiskey, discussing Hamilton lyrics and pondering past lives. A good weekend indeed.

About Last Night

Years from now, kids would probably ask their parents “What were you doing the day Donald Trump got elected President?”. Parents may not remember what they were up to, but I think they would all agree that it was a strange twist in the tale, although maybe not hugely unexpected given how America refuses to trust Hillary.

One of the biggest things that may affect me about a Trump presidency is his stance on immigration, on which Trump has been both here and there. One day he would praise workers on their H1B, saying that they stimulate the US economy and that the country needs more of them, and the next he would say that he needs to  cut down on visa abuse and increase salary caps for the visa. Given that I had two attempts to get the H1 and went 0-2, it’s rather alarming. I do have one more attempt in the lottery, but as the Hamilton line goes, “I’m not throwing away my shot” wouldn’t apply here because the situation is not in my control.

The US Immigration system is crippling and is in massive need of an overhaul. Getting a work permit here seems to be a monumental task. Some may say insurmountable, however the thousands of workers who have a valid right to work here would disagree with the assessment. I’m not sure what he has in store for me but I’ll just have to wait and see. If nothing I may have to emigrate somewhere else. Canada and Australia – are either of you listening?

I don’t like the Donald. I don’t like his policies, his rhetoric, his capriciousness. I don’t appreciate how we takes to Twitter not just to mull foreign policy, but also to personally attack individuals who criticize him. I just don’t think he is Presidential. But I didn’t have a say in the matter when the country voted, and the only say I do have is me ruminating here about how the United States seemingly had a momentary lapse of reason, one that would affect the country and the world at large for four (or eight? *shudder*) years. But as long as he puts the Office before the Man, there may be a chance yet.

I think it’s a good time for me to start watching The West Wing.

Harry Potter, Rajinikanth and the Weight of Expectations

Having watched Kabali on the second day of its release and having read the latest Harry Potter book (its script format notwithstanding) within a week of its release, I decided to pen down my thoughts on the two. The reason I am clubbing the two into one post, although each is probably deserving of its own, is because they are both cultural phenomena. One about a Boy who Lived, the other about a Man who Lives. Both have captured the hearts of millions of people around the world, both are Thalaivars in their own right, both of whom I am a full fledged fan.

The similarities don’t end there. Both have Larger-Than-Life personalities – Rajinikanth, in all his films post Annamalai in 1992, seems to have developed his through his gait, iconic laugh, and all-round style in his films, which has found resonance with fans worldwide. By contrast, Harry, despite having friends by his side, always seems to have been portrayed as a lonely figure in the books, who seems to want nothing to do with the Larger-Than-Life personality that has been thrust upon him. Obviously, fans love HP for the themes of friendship, loyalty, courage, the triumph of good over evil and what not, so much so that when something new is announced pertaining to the boy wizard, there is an unparalleled level of hype generated. One could possibly make an argument that the hype is somewhat similar to that generated when a new Rajni film is announced, so maybe it’s not that unparalleled after all.

Kabali: I had never been more excited for a Thalaivar film than when I saw the first few images released officially when this film was announced. This was further bolstered in May of this year, when I stayed up at night to watch the teaser as soon as it dropped on YouTube. Whatever I may have said in a previous post, written in a fit of what can only be described as post-Thalaivar-padam-watching-euphoria, there is no denying that Lingaa was nothing short of a travesty. The story was boring, the supporting characters were awful, the climax was shit. There came a point where there’s only so much suspension of disbelief that one can perform, given that time and again you were watching a post 60 year old man play a 25 year old on screen. So for once, it was refreshing to see Rajni seem like he was playing his own age. Granted there was a sequence in the teaser in which he looked young, but the make up looked convincing enough that you could afford to suspend disbelief a little more. I had faith in Pa.Ranjith, who had made gritty realistic films in the past. Although he was inexperienced, I was glad Rajni took a chance with him rather than go to his familiar stable of directorial horses in the form of P. Vasu, Shankar and KS Ravikumar. It seemed to me that the hype level was justified. I was hopeful.

To tell you this movie is divisive is putting it mildly. I’m guessing people expected the Thalaivar with the Larger-Than-Life persona that he had cultivated over the last twenty years. What they got instead was a Thalaivar who had to showcase his acting chops after a long time. I was impressed, this was a Thalaivar I hadn’t seen in a while. I had missed him.

I thought Ranjith did a decent job given what he had. There were parts of the film that I loved, like the story – it wasn’t an all out revenge saga of a gangster – rather it was more of a gangster searching for his long-lost family; and parts of the film that I hated, like the editing which was all over the place.  Unfortunately, this film was never fully fleshed out as either a completely Ranjith film, which you expected to be more grounded in realism, or a full Rajni film, which you expected to be chock full with style. It was somewhere in between. And fans didn’t like that. They wanted the Thalaivar of yore, echoing back to his Annamalai, Baasha and Padaiyappa days. The fact remains that you might never get to see that Thalaivar again. The paradox of directing someone like Rajni today is that he has become so larger-than-life that it’s probably going to be very difficult to convince people that he is still capable of oozing style, as well as act in a good story.

This film could have been better, but I’m not complaining. First movie with D, so a little special.

HP and the Cursed Child: I grew up with Potter. I read the Philosopher’s Stone when I was 10 or 11 and there’s been no looking back – I devoured the rest of the books as and when they were released (once I caught up to the release schedule) and finished my last one in 2007, when I was 17 – the same age Harry, Ron and Hermione were by the end of the series. I would quote the books in conversation (“You wouldn’t know a joke if it danced naked in front of you wearing nothing but Dobby’s tea-cosy” – I still don’t know what a tea-cosy is). I loved the movies and watched all – barring Hallows part 2 – of them in the theater. To say I loved the series would be an understatement.

I am 25 now. I got to know of the play much after it was announced – I knew something was brewing from JKR as I was subscribed to the Pottermore email list some time back, but I didn’t bother finding out what – and had no idea there was a book launch surrounding the play. I was reminded of it when I had marked that I was “interested” in a Facebook event concerning the book launch on July 31 – Harry’s birthday. Undeterred by the fact that it was the script of the play written by someone else and not a novelization by JKR (which would have been infinitely cooler), I pre-ordered the book on Amazon, if nothing but to relive my childhood and the joy of owning a HP book again.

I didn’t have too many expectations prior to receiving the book. Once I got it in hand however, I was excited. It may not have been a HP novel in the true sense of the word but it was a new story by JKR! Marred by my corporate job, it took me three days to finish the book.

I hated it.

There are so many plotholes, so many questions raised, so many issues I have with the book. The new characters are downright boring, the returning characters are thoroughly different from the ones that I grew up with, the plot line as such is contrived and seems like it was such bad fan-fiction that I am stunned that JKR came up with this story. She has clearly taken a George Lucas route with this book and has come up with something pretty dreadful. Although at least Lucas had a good basis going for him with the prequel trilogy – exploring Vader’s past is a cool story in itself. There is really no reason for JKR to have come up with this. Granted, it may look great on stage with the effects and set changes (which seem infinite in number going by the script) – but special effects do not a good a story make.

Prior to reading the book, I was wondering who the “cursed child” in the title could be. After having read the book, which fails to answer the question concretely, I’ve come to the conclusion that I, as the reader, am the cursed child.

But that’s the problem with having created iconic characters such as Potter or having molded into such an iconic character as Rajni (I take the liberty of calling him a character as he has become one, playing pretty much the same person since the early 90s – sort of akin to Clint Eastwood in the Man with No Name trilogy). Whatever you try to do with them, it might not be the best a fan can expect.

Why not, amirite?

I gave in and purchased a lottery ticket last night. Well, 5, if we’re keeping count. Chalk it up to curiosity. Or is it temptation? Something to think about.

The cash prize is now $1.3 billion, the largest in history, and the odds of winning are 1 in 292 million. Insert the “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?” meme from Dumb and Dumber here.

The odds are described on my ticket(s) with an exclamation mark at the end, and I’m not sure if they are being encouraging about the chances or if it’s a casual reference to the astounding nature of the number. Now that I think about it, it’s probably the latter.

See you on the other side.

EDIT POST DRAWING RESULTS: Logic and math have triumphed. I won exactly zero dollars last night, and am now $10 poorer. Back to the grind…