There’s indeed been a change in the weather. It started in the same place where the storm came in – in Nong Khai. I really wanted to like Nong Khai. I had heard such good things about how charming the town was, how sublime the Guest House was. But the truth is, I didn’t. Not so much anyway. There was nothing “wrong” with it, per se, but the vibe at the Mut Mee Guest House was just too weird. And try as I might, I couldn’t get past the, yes, dare I label them, unfriendly 20-something tourists; the ex-pats too full of themselves to even engage in conversation, let alone mere courteous salutations; and the food which was touted as fantastic, but was meager, expensive and rather tasteless. The town was fine, with a great market mostly for local people; but still, it was too bloody hot to stroll around much. The view of the Mekong was “okay”, but it had a more ‘industrial’ kind of look to it that I had seen in far too many other, more picturesque settings where I had enjoyed it.
I spent the better part of one day … get a load of this – at a mall! This would never be on my top places to visit, but damn it, it was air conditioned, had great fruit shakes and good local food and a gigantic Wal-Mart kind of store – yikes, I didn’t quite know what to make of my delight in this place, but it served my minor shopping needs for stocking up on toiletries on the cheap, a look-see into a Thai grocery store as I strolled the cool aisles and a chance to escape from the heat for a few hours. And overall, I guess Nong Khai delivered as the perfect place for the emotional storm which came in.
I did enjoy one afternoon bicycling around for a few hours; but before long, it just got too hot to linger, so I returned to the Mut Mee for more writing and brooding. Yes, brooding. I looked it up in the dictionary – it means “to think deeply about something troubling.” Or something like that. It’s under-rated, I think, what with our new-age culture’s insistent mentality of “it’s-all-good”, going always towards the light, delighting primarily with things when they are all perfectly wonderful and happy and la-la-la. Well, I wasn’t feeling la-la-la, I was more blah-blah-blah and if there was any delight to be had for me, it was in letting the blahs be there. And so I did. And so they were. And it was in that very doing, or rather not-doing, but letting be, that I made friends with those blahs, let them have their way with me and trusted that they visited not to do me harm, but to teach me to be more whole and thus more fully human..
And part of how I got there, too, so very surprisingly; was with a trip to one of Nong Khai’s highly touted tourist attractions. I had pretty much let go of the ‘things to see and do’ list, with my interest to explore such places waning with the ever-increasing heat and humidity. While I was sometimes disappointed to miss the many sites I was looking forward to exploring, I simply couldn’t cope with the effects of the weather.
But this time, I pushed myself to visit the Salakaewkoo Sculpture Park outside of Nong Khai, the place I had heard, read about and been strongly encouraged to check out. And it was there that I found many things, not the least of which was that place in me that still could be enthralled and amazed. The folks at Mut Mee said the best way to visit was by bicycle and maybe that was true when it wasn’t blisteringly hot. Instead, I wisely treated myself to a round-trip tuk-tuk ride and blessed myself over and over as I saw the distance along the way.
It was truly an amazing, awe-inspiring place. It wasn’t very old, perhaps only 30 years or so, but this self-proclaimed (aren’t they all?!) mystic-type guy felt called to create these concrete sculptures over several acres of land and he created truly stunning works of art. Most were gargantuan, Buddhist images and even in their mammoth proportions, were decorated with precise, intricate designs. And then there was the park within the park – The Wheel of Life, depicting stages of the human life process. One had to enter through the vagina and then walk around the circle with statues and carvings at every stage, along with representations of the various Buddhist beliefs and depictions of the five senses around the middle of the circle. I was blessed to be all alone there in the peaceful surroundings as I languidly walked the circle, sat in a shady spot for awhile in quiet meditation, reveling in my solitude; and all along the way, struck by his incredible vision and creativity. It was here in the circle that finally my tears found their quiet, safe place to come to life. They came not in the weeping sobs like I had imagined; but softer ones with no urgency, just flowing easily and tenderly.
It wasn’t a long time – maybe only an hour or so in the circle – but I could feel a deep and dramatic shift inside myself. Out of the blue, that same blue that had recently visited perhaps; art was lifting me up, giving room for my tears, soothing me, delighting me even as I cried. I cried not only to express the sadness and loneliness I had been feeling. This time, as so many times, there was a soup of emotions in those tears – I was crying as much for how his art had moved me as I was for the loneliness that had enveloped me. I was crying for the sorrows of my life and for the incredibly beauty of my life. I was crying for the loss of love through divorce and death and misunderstanding. I was crying for the friends who brought grace to my life with their love. I was crying for all of it. Oh, I was so happy to be crying!
Then I did an odd thing. I pulled out my I-phone. Here I was, in the middle of this holy place, having a cathartic emotional, spiritual experience and I pulled out my I-phone – wtf?! But I didn’t question this odd behavior; something in me knew what I was doing – I went immediately to a recording of Jon & James singing “We Can Be Kind” from our Singing with Courage workshop at Kalani. And then, as back in January in that circle of dear and new friends, more tears came.
I listened to the velvety smooth harmony of their voices; I heard the lyrics, reminding me of what matters, what really, really matters above all; I felt their deep and abiding love for one another and for all of us, in the circle and beyond; and my heart broke open again, in sadness and in deep joy. Again, art was moving me. Oh dear Jon and James – what a gift you’ve given me, far away as you are, you’re singing right here next to me – on my I-phone, no less – in this mystical, magical place. The best use of technology I can imagine!
What an afternoon it was!
In this, what I had decided was indeed an altered state, I made another brilliant decision. After the tuk-tuk brought me back to the guest house, I gave myself a final gift before taking my leave of Nong Khai. I headed for a Thai massage.
I’ve had lots of massages on this trip and way before this trip. I couldn’t say how many, but like my friend Jennifer, I’m a slut for body work, although I don’t treat myself nearly as often I’d like, what with the cost of it at home. But here in Southeast Asia where they’re half the cost of seeing a movie in the States, I’m a downright whore for them. The place was a short stroll right around the corner from the Mut Mee and within a few minutes of the woman’s hands on me, I asked her if we could increase our time to two hours. She smiled and kneaded on.
I came out of there a changed woman. I mean it. I had been having some aches and pains, due in no small part to the hard-as-rocks beds and pillows; to my intermittent back pain; and to my recently diagnosed plantar fasciitis; but now, everything was gone. This treatment – part deep pressure massage, part physical and emotional tension reliever, part someone using my body as a yoga class, part torture chamber – was hands down (!), the best massage of the trip. Maybe of my life. Two hours – $12. Anyone know where I can get a transformative, two-hour Thai massage for $12 back at home?!
I’m convinced it made the overnight train trip to Bangkok all the more bearable. We left Nong Khai (certainly with no tears shed saying goodbye to Mut Mee!) at 6:20 pm and rolled into Bangkok around 7:30 am. The train was much like the one I started my trip out with exactly four months ago, from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchanthani en route to southern Lao. That time, I hadn’t booked far enough in advance and had an upper bunk. But now, seasoned traveler I’ve become, I bicycled to the train station a day in advance and secured my lower bunk bed. No private car – just regular seats that fold down to create beds. They hang curtains as privacy panels and that’s it. It’s way more comfortable than it sounds and definitely more comfortable than my Vietnam train ride from Hanoi to Sapa where there were private cars of four beds that were hard as nails and where I hardly slept a wink. This time I did sleep and even felt fairly rested upon arrival in Bangkok.
Ah, Bangkok – what a jolt of a city to be in after all my time in small cities and villages. It’s hard to believe I’m still in Asia in Bangkok, although when I’m back home, I’m sure that will seem silly. But it’s filled with cars, some very fancy ones, all of which I’ve hardly seen in four months; wealthier by far than anywhere I’ve been and filled with paved streets and even freeways. Billboards, big buildings, all so modern and westernized, as is much of Thailand these days and especially as compared to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
It was early morning in Bangkok and I finagled a fair-priced taxi (yes, a/c taxi – how fancy!) to the bus station where I could get a bus to Trat in about half an hour. All went very smoothly and easily, although the bumper-to-bumper traffic in Bangkok was a time-consuming shock. Arriving at the bus station, I had thought I was taking a ‘government bus’ to Trat, but it ended up being a fancy, air-conditioned one with only one person to a seat and no chickens in sight, about which I was quite pleased! I was hungry, though, having not eaten since lunch the day before and the bus station having nothing on offer besides packaged cookies, salty snacks and unidentifiable meat items on skewers. Even in my hunger, I passed on all of them. And on the drinks, even though I was thirsty, too. I had grown savvy enough on all these long bus rides to know that my bladder couldn’t cope with their schedule; and sure enough, for a 5½ hour trip, we didn’t stop until 4½ hours into it and not for a meal, only for a pee break.
Arriving into Trat, it was now late afternoon. There was a tuk-tuk headed to the ferry dock for Koh Chang with some tourists waiting for more passengers. I was tempted to join them and head straight for the beckoning beach. These tourists had just come from Sihanoukville, Cambodia which was not far away and there was yet another tuk-tuk headed in that direction. I was even tempted to return there, much as I loved my time at Cinderella’s and Mushroom Point on Otres Beach. It’s not like me, though, to return to places where I’ve been before; even in my long-term traveling tiredness, I’m much more pulled towards the unknown places yet to be discovered and explored. I racked up these thoughts – going to Koh Chang now or even Cambodia some time again – to my tiredness and passed on all of them. Instead, as planned, I got in the tuk-tuk headed into Trat town and gave them the name of a guest house I hadn’t booked, but figured would have rooms in this quiet, off season.
Shit! There was a “Closed” sign on the front door of the Ban Jaidee Guest House. The tuk-tuk driver suggested another place, but I’m onto their commission schemes and never take them up on their offers. I tried the door. It was open and I walked in and called out. A woman came to the door, apologized that they were closed for cleaning and fixing and suggested another place that she gave the name for to the tuk-tuk driver. Even though it was close by, he wanted more money. And then he suggested his place again. Arghhhh! I went back inside the guest house and again asked the woman for the name of the place she had suggested. As I began to write it down and in my weary exhaustion of traveling for almost 24 hours, I looked at her pleadingly and said, “Oh couldn’t I stay for just one night – I won’t be any bother, I promise. It’s just me and I’ll be quiet.” Oh, okay, she said and laughed; and with that I found a burst of energy, ran to get my bags out of the tuk-tuk, said bye-bye to the driver and made my way up the mahogany wooden stairs of this very old, but beautifully restored Thai building and to my simple room for the evening. Again, I was reminded of the gifts that come my way as a solitary, mature woman traveler, sure that they are part of the reason she generously allowed me to stay.
I had a very short list of things to do for the afternoon and evening. In this order:
*Eat and Drink
*Walk (A must, no matter my tiredness, to get my bearings and sense of grounded-ness and connection with whatever new place I arrive in.)
Even as tired as I was, I felt energized from the shift away from my recent dance with despair. And it seemed so simple, really. All I needed to do was to let it be and it was there and I felt it and then it was on its way. Why-oh-why do I struggle so much with this? Why does it seem I need to keep learning this lesson over and over to just surrender to whatever I’m feeling and no doubt, whatever it is shall pass, leaving its lessons in its wake? I know ‘why’ is a useless question. I’m learning, I’m learning, even as I resist, I learn!
I had a few showers (the heat still intense); I ate and drank and walked the town. I had dental work (definitely not on the list!) and even made time to write about it. Then it was time for sleep; although once I got into bed, it was hard to find. I was restless and over-tired, I guess, and rolled and tossed around in the quiet and total darkness of the closed-for-business Ban Jaidee Guest House. Finally, when sleep came, it was too close to the middle of the night and my dreams of an early start to the ferry melted away. No matter, I would get there when I would – the beach wasn’t going anywhere.
As expected, I awoke later than planned and decided it would be a late-morning departure to the ferry. I wanted to explore Trat a little more, go to the market and get yet more of a sense of the place. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a place to eat, although I came across many (all local) eateries. I’m not a finicky eater, really I’m not and Thai street food is some of the best. But I attribute my lack of any gastro-intestinal disturbances for all this time to my keen discernment of what my body can handle and what it cannot. And I didn’t see anything that fit into the former category, especially with my preference for avoiding eating animals. I almost went for the skewered chicken. I came very close in my hungry desperation, walked up to the bbq and even inquired as to the price. But as I looked at the burnt chicken parts on the thin, bamboo skewers, my hunger abated. My body said “no” and I listened.
So I moved on. I had heard about the magic potion of “Yellow Oil” for which Trat is famous and is said to be good for everything that ails you, from skin to sinus problems to general, all around well being – a sort of locally made kukui nut or tea tree oil or Rescue Remedy, it sounded like to me, and something I thought would be fun to bring home. So find it I did, at a local pharmacy, along with a new dress for $3 (no, not at the pharmacy!) that I treated myself to in celebration of going to the long-awaited beach! I explored the marketplace, one of my very favorite places no matter where I am – to witness the gathering of the locals; the ‘talking story’ that takes place, even if I can’t understand a word; the unusual, sometimes creepy items on display, all so different from what is familiar and known to me. The Trat market delivered and once I procured my oil and dress, I made my way back to the Ban Jaidee, gave “Po” my many thanks once again and walked to the tuk-tuk taxi station for this almost-final leg to Koh Chang.
I took the tuk-tuk (say that 5 times fast!) to the ferry and then arriving at the ferry dock, I saw a young tourist in the back of another one. I recognized him – we had met two months before in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, him also on a motor-bike journey. “Hey, Hawaii,” he beckoned with a smile. “Hey, Holland, howzit?!” How crazy the traveler circuit is and what a reminder of how small the world is. We had spent an afternoon at a waterfall together back in early April and had enjoyed the simple contact. Now we caught up on each other’s itineraries and since he was just coming back from Koh Chang, he had nothing but a stellar report to give. I could feel the excitement growing!
We bid our good-byes & Happy Trails/Safe Travels regards as he was headed to Bangkok and back home soon and I, I was going to the beach!
My excitement was slightly put off as I watched the ferry come to dock – it was a huge old thing, barely looked seaworthy and was covered in rust and decay. The island appeared close in distance, but the ferry ride would take close to an hour, I was told. It looked possible to swim in shorter time. I put the ‘sinking ship’ thoughts out of my mind almost as quickly as they surfaced; and trusted instead that nothing would come between me and my date with the beach.
The ferry was fine – I chatted with a young Brit from Southampton who was on his first-ever 2-week holiday out of the UK and the local Thai who was a tour guide on the island. Both were friendly and the Thai guy, Pong, confirmed my choice of a beach as the best on Koh Chang – yes! I told him of Tiger Hut, where I didn’t have a reservation, but figured I didn’t need one. He confirmed it as a good, if simple choice and said it was indeed right on the sea. It was all I needed to know. Danny the Brit was headed to Lonely Beach, aka Backpacker Central, far away if not by kilometers, then surely by my preference of places, from the sleepy quiet I was seeking on Khlong Prao.
And then there were the monks onboard. They’ve become quite commonplace, seeing as I’ve seen them strolling around just about everywhere except Vietnam. Almost always they draw my attention, if for no other reason than the flowing saffron robes and when in groups, moving like the setting sun. This time they gave me a big tickle. You know, with their vows of poverty and all, I noticed one fiddling around with an I-pad! Normally I resist the temptation to take photos, lest I appear the insensitive and disrespectful tourist. But this time I couldn’t resist and sure enough, I got a great shot of the holy man, if he was even old enough to be called a man, with the ubiquitous Apple logo in front of him – perhaps Apple would like to see it for their next ad campaign!
There was also a scattering of Thai people on board along with the ever-present overweight, disheveled, middle-aged Western man alongside a young, gorgeous Thai woman (try as I might to remember that they too <the men, not the women; I have no hard time remembering that about the women, for some reason!> are representatives of the Divine, a task at which I am failing miserably.). But no other tourists – clearly it’s off season, so I wasn’t the least bit concerned about arriving without a reservation. I had a destination; that was enough. I had read about the place on the internet and Simone had told me of the good reports she had heard about it. That was plenty for me – its name is Tiger Hut on Khlong Prao Beach – and I was ready to be there!
I was giddy with excitement as we landed on the island, not remembering the last time I felt this kind of anticipation. Ahhh, indeed, the weariness was waning as I was finding my way back to the delight of travel – the beach does that to me! It took a bit of a wait and a ride to another dock for the tuk-tuk to fill up with enough passengers; but then we were off, climbing the steep, mountainous roads that would take us from the east to the west side of the island, my eagerness growing with each kilometer, knowing it was about a 40-minute ride to Khlong Prao beach. There was a local woman on the tuk-tuk who confirmed yet again that Tiger Hut offered simple bungalows on the beach. But, she warned, the tuk-tuk won’t go down the road it’s on as it’s too precarious and pot-holed and it’s a long walk. But I wasn’t daunted … I’d figure it out somehow – I was going to Tiger Hut and that was that!
Danny and I bid our adieus and they let me off at the path leading to my beach bungalow home. Before I began the journey in the arduous heat, I decided to stop for lunch at the restaurant beckoning me right where I was dropped off – I didn’t yet know the food situation at TH and hadn’t eaten in too long. My beach arrival would be postponed yet again and with good reason. I was amply rewarded with my decision – I couldn’t remember when last I had had a ‘proper’ meal and this one was both gorgeous and delicious. Although I hadn’t asked for shrimp, I got it and didn’t quibble – it came with a wide assortment of fresh, perfectly cooked veggies and pineapple, all in a tangy, spicy Thai sauce, with rice, naturally. I ate with the speed of light, due not only to my hunger but to my insistent eagerness to get to the beach, get to the beach … NOW!
I prayed to the Ride Goddess, trusting she’d arrange some kind of transport to get me down the path. Any kind would do, she knows I’m not fussy about these sorts of things and have taken any and everything offered. The sun was brutally hot and although the sky had some clouds, the heat was still baking. With a just-bought, big bottle of cold water, backpack, small day bag and yet another shoulder bag newly-acquired in Luang Prabang (I really must do something about my thing for bags! Don’t ask, but it’s filled with fun stuff I bought there and decided to carry instead of mail, what with being so close to my leaving time. Never mind the bag, that’s not the point of the story, just a description to tell you what I was trudging with!); I began my final journey to the beach. As I walked, I imagined I was on a holy path, walking the walk of the seekers, the believers, those in search of the dharma. We all find it in different places … as for me, the beach is sure to deliver! And this image was working for me, even if the Ride Goddess had taken a holiday. I also realized as I took each and every step that this journey was one of the final legs of this grander pilgrimage I had begun in January. Yes, I was headed into my final chapter of my adventure and if I was supposed to do it all the way on foot, then so be it, I would walk in joy and pleasure, even as I sweated and burned all the way.
And then it appeared. Ohno, not the beach and not Tiger Hut. Not yet. But that other thing. The fork in the road. I love that quote by Yogi Berra (not someone I frequently quote) – “When you come to the fork in the road, take it!” But love it or not, right now, it didn’t help much. Which way to go? I really, really didn’t want to backtrack and damn it, there was no sign. Okay, I know; I’ll take off my backpack, have a drink and a rest in the shade and wait for my ride. Yes, wait for my ride that I was sure would come. Even though I had only been walking for close to 15 minutes, my (new!) dress was completely soaked through and sweat was dripping from every part of my body. Yes, I would patiently wait here for my ride – no problem. And guess what? It came! Yes, it came, a motorbike with a side-cart. No, that’s not a misspelling, it had a square side-cart with a wooden-planked bottom, a small seat and metal bars all around. “I’m going to Tiger Hut,” I said with a cool calmness that must have belied what I looked like in that moment. The two Thai men smiled and invited me in. The man in the side-seat quickly moved to the back of the motor-bike and they directed me to take the seat in the cart. “Thank you, thank you, you saved my life,” I said rather melodramatically, figuring they probably didn’t understand me anyway and enjoying the exaggeration to myself.
It was meant to be. They both work here at Tiger Hut – this was my shuttle service, the timing was just slightly off! I ate faster than they had expected! The discussion of prices began before I even got out of the cart. One of them told me the different choices of bungalows. I said I wanted one closest to the beach with its own bathroom. “How long do you stay”, he asked, the most important question in bargaining power. I don’t know. 1 week? 2 weeks? 3 weeks? Forever? He grinned. “Okay, okay, 200 baht.” That’s $6 and change. I jumped out of the cart. One of them carried my bags to the open air restaurant and I let him.
There were lots of Thai women about, workers I imagined, but they were all just hanging out. With no tourists in sight, there was nothing for them to do but lie in hammocks, chat and crochet. It is low season, after all. They smiled warmly at me and naturally I returned theirs with a broad smile of my own.
And then as I looked around, I started laughing and I could not stop. No, no one had told a joke, nothing was particularly funny; it wasn’t that kind of laugh. It was a deep laugh that I hadn’t heard in a long time and instantly I knew it was coming from the same place my tears had come from only a day ago (was that only a day ago? – should I be concerned about bi-polar disorder? – no I shouldn’t and I won’t!). Like the tears, I felt no need to get in the way of letting the laughter come. The Thai people all must have thought I was crazy, but I didn’t care. The man was directing me to one of the bungalows, but I couldn’t follow him. Although I quickly took in all that was around me – the raised wooden platform lounging area and bar with the palapa roofs; the dozen or so rectangular wooden restaurant tables lined up on the sand, just centimeters away from the sea, the sea breeze wafting through it all; and even the simple bamboo and cement bungalows with those same palapa roofs – I walked directly and single-mindedly to the sea. The man headed to the bungalows watched me go and seemed to understand the call. It was a very short walk. I gingerly flipped off my shoes and walked into the sea. And then I laughed even harder. The warmest imaginable sea water lapped in small, tender waves at my ankles. Too warm for some, I’m sure, but nowhere close for me. I resisted the urge to fling off my dress and jump in – a wise decision; after all, decorum was called for in my recent arrival and planned long stay here at Tiger Hut (why there’s not an “s” on there, I don’t know, I’m just reporting it as it is!).
I finally followed the man to my bungalow; and simple as it is, it’s clean, functional, has a flushing Western toilet (not always on offer, believe me!), a small wooden lanai and it’s my home now! I brought over a chair from the restaurant for the lanai, a low table for my things inside and then quickly unpacked, ever the nesting Virgo that I am. But in only a few short minutes, I had my bathing suit on and was in the water. And I stayed there ‘til almost dusk. And still, with the laughter that wouldn’t go away, I started crying! Laughing and crying, delighting in this moment, I was swimming in the healing waters of the Gulf of Thailand as it cleansed and welcomed me, sanctifying not only my arrival to this beach, but once again, to myself.
And now, after spending the better part of this entire afternoon writing, writing, writing; it’s time to bathe once again!