Ambient Language Acquisition

Elephants III

If you’re around elephants often enough, it’s not that hard to pick up elephant language.

There were five people left in the van: the driver, three backpackers in rapidly deteriorating dress, and a young Thai woman in business attire. All of the other passengers had long since disembarked, calling their stops to the driver, who would nod his assent and help unload their burdens.

Periodically, the driver would nervously gaze into his rear-view mirror. As always, we had been shoved into the farthest back seats, where our bulk seemed less menacing, where they put all the cargo no one knew what to do with. We loomed, cramped and ungainly, into petite-size seats atop our travel towels and toothbrushes. His gaze would pass over us indirectly, and he would cough gruffly in consternation.

“Hey,” he said to the woman, after a long moment of anxious glances. “You speak English?”

“Yeah, kinda,” she murmured, already not liking where this conversation was headed.

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Modern Thai Buddhism, R2D2, and A Lot of Dead Water Buffalo

Wat Rong Khun - Front gates
Chiang Rai is a whim city for us. We have been rocketing through Thailand, and think making a run at the Laos border directly from Chiang Mai would tire us. Chiang Rai is only three hours away, and there is a regular bus service! Also, they had very similar names. Off we go.

The owner of our B&B is middle-aged, speaks flawless English, and her house feels delicate and genteel. We hide our drinking not just to appease her rules, but also because we suddenly feel the urge not to disappoint her. We don’t stop drinking, certainly, we just learn to become ashamed.

She scoffs when we suggest taking a tuk-tuk to the White Temple. We’ve heard good things, but have been told it is out of town and difficult to find. Our suddenly surrogate mom shakes her weary head, writes down some instructions in Thai and English, and tells us to simply walk to the market and find our way onto the local bus. Tuk-tuks, she implies, probably knowing we have already fallen victim to them numerous times, are for suckers. Find the local bus, pay the twenty cents, and you will get there in one piece.

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Mid-Thailand Elephant Extravaganza

Pachyderm Posse

Prepare for elephant time.

Jan Peng is eighty years old and has a marigold wound through her ear. She is blind in one eye, a wound from an old handler when she reacted to some slight or another. She is enormous and still strong, and grows cautiously used to our presence, mostly because our presence necessarily includes all the watermelon and banana she can eat.

Most of the elephants here have seen hard lives. They’ve been broken and worked from a young age, either used for logging or corralled into the tourism industry. There are broken bones, ruined limbs, blind eyes. They are mighty creatures, but that has not meant safety from cruelty. Still, the park is safe. The mountain is safe. They have this forest, and this river, and this field.

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The Strange (& Ethnically Distinct) Beaches of Phuket


What a glorious day for a kite. Or erotic photos. One of those two.

We had finally broken out Felonius, the kite. This sprawling phoenix burst into the calm, azure Phuket skies as we started off our first days on the beach. We were looking for respite and believed we had definitely found it, as the water stretched out before us in sparkling crystal waves and the sand stayed clear, as though thorough and expedient staff were combing it every ten to fifteen minutes while everyone took a smoothie break. It was a beautiful day, we had already slathered ourselves in SPF 1000, and middle-aged ladies in windbreakers jogged up to offer us fresh fruit.

In time, though, we noticed a strange facet about the makeup of Karon beach. It was packed full of white people, which was of course common in tourist-friendly Thailand. But they were all the same kind of white people: statuesque, blonde, tall in some alien way. They spoke perfect English, but would occasionally ask us native speakers for tips or specific words. They were teutonic and bronzed and all went to the gym every single day. We came to realize that we were on the Germans’ beach.

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The Lonely Tale of Fleabag, The Island Stray

Private Beach

The water is calm and dark, but the sands show the remains of the rainy season. Deep wells form and drift, brine collecting in sudden pools, and rocks and shells litter all the way back to the sturdy palm trees. There are mountains out in the water, on distant islands, ones just as quiet as this one. The wind carries black, heavy clouds, and it feels like a monsoon could open up upon us at any time. It is bright here, but it’s fragile–a storm just biding its time.

There is salt in the air from the sea, and we walk the enormous distance of the low tide to get to the water. Koh Mook is usually a busy island, but the monsoons leave it quiet, desolate. Emptied out. No one stops us from entering this private beach, which becomes our private beach simply by default. The sands and surf before us are endless, and it feels a little bit like we are alone in the universe, or at least in this small part of it. It’s the end of the world, or just after it.

There is little noise but for the slow, easy swell of the tide, and the skittering of paws from behind us. We are not so alone: a scrappy stray approaches us cautiously. He has a mutt’s colouring, the enormous paws of impending maturity, but the wary eyes of youth. This is his turf, maybe, this great, untouched swath of dark-brown earth and deep, black water. He knows every rock and cave, he knows the nearby forest. He trots towards us, this little local lord, and not long after his brother, or his loyal viceroy, sidles up, too.

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Thailand Photoglut: Imagine Some Dumb Pun on “Phuket”


Well, dear friends, it’s that time again. The tumult of words I have for you to describe my vacation is virtually endless, and yet those words still take time to percolate. To simmer. To stew. I must add delightful verbal spices and boil off my various grammatical cul-de-sacs before I can present you your fresh, steaming pile of sweet, sweet essays. And so, let us bask in pictures of Thailand which, as you may already know, is a very beautiful place. Elephants! Golden temples! Stunning beaches! Fire-breathing dragons, perhaps! It’s a land of wonder. Let’s go.

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Ballad of the Epic Sunburn

Koh Samui beaches have better food than most cities.

We spent our last day in Bangkok sight-seeing, and when the time came we rushed back to our hostel to be ferreted off through the city. A travel agent had booked us our train, bus, ferry, and hotel on the island to which we would travel, but we had not heard a thing in days. We were told to stand idly at our hostel’s stoop and wait, and then various Thai people would slink forth from the shadows with our tickets and usher us off into the unknown, or however it is things are done there. Indeed, soon a cabdriver appeared out of nowhere, saw four honkies milling about, and took us to his taxi. Because of traffic, someone was being sent over by motorcycle, or possibly unicorn or sorcery, to bring us our travel documents. I was never actually entirely positive that the next leg of our journey was actually concrete until it had passed, and even then it seemed certain that magic would somehow be involved to complete the task.

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One Night in Bangkok (Or Several)

I have thought of many ways in which to start this post about my first excursion out from the adopted homeland. Do I discuss more of my feelings on Korea? The nature of my desire to travel, and indeed its roots in the insatiable wanderlust of humanity? My connections to my real home, and this one, and how it feels to be away from both? How quickly one connects to travel partners? How living in Asia is like consistently dropping through the looking-glass, again and again, without respite? In reality, though, I know what is on my mind. I know what I should say first, just to get it out of the way, as its cool, salving memory whisks through my mind once more. Friends, I finally tasted foreign beer on a regular basis, beer that was not Cass or Hite, and sweet Jesus did it make me happy.

What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and this beer is the sun.

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Temple Cat and Street Scorpion: Thailand Photoglut


Words. I have literally dozens of them jangling about in my addled monkey brain, trying desperately to make it to word document, then to blog post, then to your waiting eyes to tell you about my vacation. But these words take time to coalesce, to coagulate into something resembling actual human communication and not a series of ecstatic expository yelps ending each with an exclamation point, and no individual words exceeding the two syllable mark. In other words, I am stalling until I can write more. In the intervening time, to provide you with the bloggish sustenance you so clearly need to nourish your chapped, ravenous souls, I provide you with this, a photoglut of Thailand. “But Michael,” you cry, “we came for amateurish writing, not amateurish photography!” Well, today you get the latter until I can extrude the amateurish writing from my noggin in a pleasing, humorous manner. Behold: Thailand.

(All pictures from Bangkok, Surat Thani, Kanchanaburi, Koh Samui, and the travel routes in between.)

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