Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Selamat Hari Raya

Here in Malaysia we just celebrated Hari Raya. This is the Muslim celebration following Ramadan, the month of fasting. When we lived in Dubai, they call this holiday Eid. Like Christmas in the West, this holiday is the biggie for Muslims. People travel to their hometowns and enjoy feasts, open houses, and gift giving.

I'm not sure about Malaysia, but when we lived in Dubai people gave VERY big gifts - think cars, apartments, juicers. But people weren't too sentimental about these presents. In fact, the Emirates took re-gifting to the next level. Following Eid, the local paper had a special classified section "Unwanted Eid Gifts" where people profited off their presents.
Today, the New York Times had a very amusing article discussing the many Muslims who struggle because this is the time of year their servants (drivers, cooks, gardeners, and maids) travel home to be with their families. In fact, some people find it so difficult they are forced to check into luxury hotels. Taking care of yourself can be so taxing...

Friday, 25 September 2009

Locked Down in Thai Prison

I’m lying face down on the floor of a Thai prison. Behind me a convicted felon has just delivered two damaging blows to my kidneys and now has her fingers locked around my neck. I manage to turn my head slightly to the right and squeeze one eye open. From this angle I make out the tepid cup of tea she offered me when I first sat down. For the pleasure of this punishment, I am paying just over $5 US.

The Chiang Mai Women’s Prison offers a number of rehabilitation initiatives to prepare prisoners for their release. On offer are cake baking, gardening, working in the prison vineyard (?!), and traditional Thai massage. Upon reading about this in my guide book – an activity described as a “prison spa” where you needn’t worry as you won’t be “massaged by hardened crims” – I declared this a must do activity.

After enjoying a watermelon shake in the freedom of a teahouse garden, Mr. Happy, Tex, and Loppy Lou follow me – somewhat apprehensively – to jail.

Like most buildings in Asia, we are asked to remove our shoes when we enter. So it was we found ourselves being led by a barefoot guard into a brightly lit room with cinderblock walls. There were no bars on the windows. There were no windows. Loud, Thai pop music blasted from a small boombox sitting on a chest of drawers. Above the chest hung a mirror in which the criminal masseurs snuck looks and retouched their hair each time they passed.

I was handed a set of Thai pajamas and told to change in the bathroom. I was then directed to a mattress on the floor. This is when I meet inmate No. 44. She nods toward a cup of tea saying it’s for me. I detect a note of recklessness in her eye. She could care less if I drink my tea or not. I don’t. I’ve had too much of that watermelon shake I mentioned earlier.

“On your back!” She orders and proceeds to mash my feet into the floor. Usually these massages begin, “Are you hurt anywhere?” or “Is this too much pressure?” But No. 44 just haves at me, applying the pressure of a jack hammer.

To me, this is a mind game. With each pressure point No. 44 hits she dares me to beg of her “go easier”, “slow down”, or “let me go home”. I refuse. I can take anything this convicted Thai prison inmate cum masseur can dish out.

No. 44 hits, punches, presses, and pounds my body. She whacks, she cracks, and jostles my brain inside my head. I will not scream.

What is she in for? I want to know, weighing the possibility that people of greater guilt have already touched my body. Did she write a bad check? Hotwire a tuk tuk? Buy a baby?

When she moves to my neck and starts plucking my ligaments like guitar strings my tough facade finally cracks. I make a face.

“You in pain?” No. 44 asks.

Who me? “Sort of,” I relent, giving her only so much.

I anticipate the relief I’ll soon feel when she loosens her fists of steel.

Then I hear the cackle. “Hahaha!” She laughs, “Pain is good!”

This, I think, is indeed a criminal mind.

After one hour the massage is over. Mr. Happy pays the guard at the front desk and I hand No. 44 a tip.

“How did it go?” I ask Happy.

“It was good. But she was a little on the gentle side. You?”

“Yeah…gentle,” I manage, rubbing my dislocated shoulder. “I can’t imagine that little lady was guilty of anything.” Pain is good. Pain is good.

Then I suggest a glass of wine at the prison vineyard.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Big News: Thai-ing the Knot!

I'm going to fast forward a day or two into our trip because I know a lot of people are excited to hear the details of the BIG NEWS that occurred during our holiday!

Following Bangkok, Tex, Loppy Lou, Mr. Happy and I flew to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. The city sits along the Ping River and boasts more than 300 Buddhist Temples.

We stayed at the beautiful RatiLana Resort which was our five star splurge for the trip!

The place was beautiful, romantic, and relaxing. Perfect.

Flat screens in the bathroom? ClassE!

Some of you know that Loppy Lou and Tex began dating last August.

But the story actually beings much earlier. Loppy Lou and Tex have known each other since their salad days at JMU.

They reconnected last year on…Facebook!

And the rest was history. They completely compliment each other. He’s trying to help her find a little place to call home.

And she’s trying to help him out with his questionable fashion choices.

So, in Chiang Mai, Tex decided that he wanted to surprise LL with a special dinner. The evening began with the four of us sharing some cocktails.

Just as we finished our drinks, Tex told LL that he would be taking her on a private date night. LL was delighted and the two of them slipped away.

Tex had actually arranged a private dinner for two on the hotel lawn! He was first taking LL into town for a drink and then a boat would pick them up and sail them downriver to the RatiLana! Mr. Happy and I knew the plan so we snapped a few photos before the boat set sail! Bon Voyage!

Loppy Lou was thrilled! She was completely surprised.

When the boat docked, flowers and tea lights led their way to a private table under the stars.

After a beautiful first course, Tex couldn’t wait a moment longer.

He was full of Thai cooking, love, and courage. He got down on one knee and proposed!!

Once again, Loppy Lou was thrilled! And completely surprised!

She said yes!

Mr. Happy and I returned from our dinner and tried to spy on the couple. We weren’t sure if the question had been popped yet so our discretion was imperative. We employed our special ops-like stealth.

But we were spotted!

We congratulated the happy couple and invited the new fiancées back to our room for some celebratory champagne.

Over bubbly, we booted the computer and the two skyped the parents to share the good news!

Then they retired to their room which had been decked out for the newly engaged.

They were soooooo happy!

We can’t wait for them to thai the knot!

Monday, 21 September 2009

Bangkok: We Eat, We Shop & Get What We Knead

Ode to Bangkok
Oh Bangkok, dear Bangkok
Greatest city on Earth!
You fill me and thrill me with delirious mirth.
Your massages relax
Your foods delight
I can shop on your streets from morning till night
And when I return from a long hard day
My wallet’s still full, for so little we pay!

Please check back here for the release date on my volume of original verse.

Yes, we are in Bangkok - Asia’s most intoxicating city! And just like every trip to Bangkok I take, we hit the ground running.

Day 1:
We arrive around 5PM. First stop: The Tailor’s.

Narin continues to win our business. Tex needs a new suit and this is the best place to go!

Second stop: Food! We hit up Cabbages and Condoms on Soi 11. All proceeds go toward supporting health education in Thailand.

The food here is tasty and the décor unique. We order:

stirfried soft shell crab

prawn and eggplant salad

phad thai pataya

Cleverly arranged condoms account for the eatery’s interior.

No surprise here. Man U always plays it safe (Go Arsenal!)

Day 2:
We get an early start and take the river boat to Wat Po.

We are there to get a look at the Reclining Buddha.

But these little braided girls are here to get a look at Loppy Lou. They request an interview with her and she relents.

I ask one of the school girls to take our photo. She does. And completely misses the Buddha. School girls...
Luckily we find a more conscientious photographer to help us out.

At Wat Po we unwind with a massage at the most famous massage school in the world.

Next, I bid adieu to Tex and Loppy Lou. They are headed to the Grand Palace, which I’ve visited a number of times. I take it easy at the amulet market.

Here you can buy any number of powerful amulets to protect you from evil and bring you luck. I don’t really know what I’m looking at.
I seriously don’t know what I am looking at. What the???

I spot some delicious looking Asian tacos! I bite into one (with my very own teeth) only to discover they contain coconut. I am not a lover of the coconut. I throw it away, but I’m sure it would have been delicious to someone more fond of the coconut than I. Loppy Lou, Tex, and I reassemble. We head to the hotel to meet Mr. Happy who had to spend his days in KL working (what’s that?). We take the recommendation of the Lonely Planet and go to the Vientiane Kitchen for dinner. They claim it’s one of the best thai restaurants in Bangkok.

There is live entertainment.

And we order a tower of beer that knocks Tex’s socks off!

We also order up some spring rolls and duck beaks.

Yes, you read correctly. We ate duck beaks. Well…Mr. Happy passed. They are meatier than you might imagine.

We also meet the world’s best balloon artist. He created this Pink Panther…Bangkok style.

He definitely deserves the title “artist”.

Noticing that Loppy Lou and I have big eyes for the clown, our boys try to show off their own balloon skills.

This was embarrassing for all of us.

The clown made us…this!

Not sure exactly what it is, but it’s definitely technically difficult.

Day 3: Chatuchauk Market
This is the best market on Earth. Silk shawls, tshirts, cutlery, bags, sunglasses, mosquito face masks…we get it all here. We barely have time for a rest and a bite to eat.

That night we hit up Khao San Road. This is a big party area. Here we are attacking our first bucket of whiskey. Yum!

Day 4: Relax
This is our day to relax! We decide to have a leisurely lunch at Naj. THIS is the place Lonely Planet should list as the best Thai restaurant in Bangkok. It is delicious and the restaurant is beautiful. It is on Convent near the Sala Deng Sky Train Stop. Everyday they have an amazing 5 course lunch for only 250 bhat!!!! This is the best deal in Asia. Go!

No duck beak here!

We follow up the eating extravaganza with a TWO HOUR massage at Body Tunes.

The face of relaxation.

That night Mr. Happy and I head off the shops of MBK and Tex and Loppy Lou head off to Calypso!

Um, where exactly is your hand Loppy Lou???

We regrettably must leave Bangkok. But it’s not easy. We pile into a cab with all of our bags and new purchases.

We just fit. And of course… Mr. Happy uses every free minute to squeeze in some work! Take it easy Mr. Happy!