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More luck than brains

It's been a busy three days since I last wrote. The climax (or lowest point) must have been the loss of my wallet with about 800 Bhat of cash (16 EUR) and a credit card inside. I left in on a telephone in a bus station in Khon Kaen during a very stressful moment trying to get to our next destination. Luckily, within ten minutes I noticed the loss and could cancel the credit card, so the damage is minimal (although I should hope that one day it hits me hard because I apparently never learn and leave my things all over the place -- like the camera on the return trip from Zanzibar/Tanzania). Anyway, shortly after the loss, we ended up in a very fortunate situation ("more luck than brains"), but more on that later.

Last time I wrote, we were in Khorat, headed for Phimai the same evening. With about four hours to spend, we opted for a massage, and I chose the traditional style with a weighty woman bouncing up and down my body and twisting it into unnatural shapes. Nevertheless, I felt absolutely great afterwards and am looking forward to the next time. The massage took a little longer than expected, and when we finally made it to the laundry place to pick up our load, they had just closed. But nothing is impossible in Asia, and soon we had one person tell another to find the owner in a hairdresser shop, and she happily made an exception and handed over our bag. Feeling very good, we headed for the bus terminal to find the bus leaving 90 minutes later than planned, so we spent the time watching the busy life of Thais departing and arriving before riding for 90 minutes to Phimai, where we had to wake the owners of the guest house despite having called in earlier to let them know of our late arrival. The room was spartan but moderately clean, and we passed a night only disturbed by the continuous sounds obviously made by cockroaches, though none seemed to be in our room itself. Jokingly, I remarked that there is nothing to worry as Thai cockroaches would take off their shoes before crawling onto the bed, but I am yet unsure whether that was reason enough for Aline to finally drift to sleep.

Phimai is a tiny town housing a beautifully restored Khmer temple, said to be the best preserved in Thailand. Without a guide, and with the heat picking up to a stifling level already at 9:00 o'clock, we decided to better spend the time in a bus, traveling north to Udon Thani, but first spent a visit to the Phimai national museum, and the "Banyan Tree," a huge assembly of trees with Thais picknicking in its shade. Leaving Phimai with a bus, we had to hop on another in Thalak Ke, about 10 kilometres away from Phimai, but our initial joy of catching an air-conditioned ride for the 4 hour trip to Udon Thani was severly lessened when the bus pulled in and was completely crowded. We stood pressed against each other for the first 90 minutes of the trip, until we reached Khon Kaen, where lots of people got off before lots more got on, but we were able to get seats in between.

Having arrived in Udon Thani, the plan was to leave the same day for the Laotian border to catch a boat along the Mekhong river to Chiang Khan, but that seemed impossible without a visa for Laos, which is $30 per person and a little too much for the joy of the journey. A little disappointed, we stayed in a luxurious hotel (10 EUR per night) and strolled around the city at dawn, chatted a while with a Welsh expat about old European men coming to Thailand to find women, and finally headed for the Mandarin restaurant, suggested in the Lonely Planet. The place was sketchy, with a loud television set blasting some Thai soap opera, and the staff really misunderstood the meaning of "appetiser" and "vegetarian", so that I ended up eating a giant plate of "Chinese Hors d'Oeuvre", Aline's spring rolls with shrimp paste, and the Pad Thai I had ordered. They forgot the noodles, and Aline's Tofu portion was too hot, but our tummies stuffed, and we sank into bed early.

The night was horrible, I was plagued by stomach aches and the fear of a repeated experience -- the last time I ate Pad Thai along this meridian was in Vientiane, and I came down with food poisoning, and I felt exactly the same way as back then throughout the night and morning. I stayed in bed long but fortunately found that I had just put too much food into my belly (which wasn't used to it, we had been eating sparingly), and walking solved the problem.

Weighing our options, we decided on the route of the next two days. Initially, it was to be Loei and the Phu Kradung National Park, but seeing that it was a little too difficult to reach with public transportation, we decided to head back to Khon Kaen, forget about Udon Thani and the lost day, and continue to Nam Nao National Park along the route 12 between Khon Kaen and Phitsanulok, with an optional stop shortly after Lom Sak for some whitewater rafting.

It was after being told that all busses were overbooked (remember, Songkrat, the New Year's festival bringing every Thai back to his home, starts this week) and our furious attempts to find a hole to slip through that I left the wallet on the telephone. I noticed the loss on our way to the other bus terminal, but it was too late, and it didn't help that nobody spoke English anymore (basically ever since we left Ayuthaya). As said, the money wasn't a big loss, the credit card immediately cancelled, driver's licence and insurance cards also being no biggie, but the wallet still contained one item of interest: the receipt for the cargo bag with the children's clothing waiting for me in Chiang Mai (hopefully).

We had our friendly Tuk Tuk driver took us to the tourist police to file a report, with which we should be able to reclaim the bag even without the receipt -- Aline also fortunately took a picture of the bag. But the tourist police was out for the day and as we came to realise the misery of our situation -- it was about 18:00 o'clock by now and we were looking at losing another day on our journey, a friendly women with very good skills of English walked around the corner and told us to hop on her car. We were so glad to be able to follow someone's command that we didn't even ask where she was taking us, but on the back of the pickup, we learnt from her two students that she was an English teacher taking us to the police headquarters. There, we got the report and again boarded the pickup heading back to the city.

We still did not know how to continue from Khon Kaen towards Phitsanulok in the lower north of the country, but the lady offered to negotiate a rental car for us after heading to another police station to help her student with a report against a British man, who had left her in the top-end hotel without paying the bill. Fortunately, she knew the real name and telephone number of the guy, so he'll surely get his share, that bastard.

The rented car with driver to Phitsanulok would cost us between 4000 and 5000 Bhat (80 to 100 EUR), which we thought was too expensive, and it was again our lady friend who decided to head for the busses again and try her luck. She got us on a 2nd class bus to Phitsanulok, leaving Khon Kaen at 3:45 in the morning, and with about 7 hours to kill, we took her and her two students for dinner and to a discotheque as a form of thanking her for her help. Her name, by the way, is Jill, and she runs the "Khon Kaen Language Centre", teaching English, Japanese, German, and Spanish to about 20 students, half of whom live in her own house as they come from far away.

We talked much with her and her students that night. Dinner was a huge buffet with everything you can imagine, including cow stomach and pig intestines (and yes, I tried them both, though I need not do that again), and grills at the tables for a very cozy atmosphere (if it hadn't been for the live band that was playing just a tat too loud). Jill apparently spends her days helping other people, not only learning languages; people come to her for relationship troubles, legal issues, or other difficulties such as my lost wallet. She does not choose to help people, but feels that as a Thai, she must. This attitude prevails throughout the population (as soon as you leave Bangkok and the tourist centres in the south) and is maybe the most important reason why this country is such a great place to be.

After dinner, we ended at a discotheque with another live band, including singers and dancers, and even though it was clearly too loud for my taste, the band was very good, and we had a splendid time getting drunk on Thai beer --after all, what else was there to do until the bus left. I also found out that Jill runs an Internet cafe and consequently left her with 10 Ubuntu CDs to try out, and give away to her computer-savvy students. It was great to explain to her what "free of charge" means, but very hard to actually get her to accept it.

After the discotheque, she took us to her house for showers and a quick meal, and I tried to demonstrate Ubuntu to her, but did not succeed within the small time frame I had available. The reason was that her house uses static IPs, and I could not figure out how to tell the Live CD to use a static IP -- it did not ask me. Anyway, this isn't anything I cannot solve via email once I return to Switzerland.

We left the city on time and were looking at 5:30 hours of an uncomfortable, rocky bus ride, but thanks to ample space, it went by quite quickly. We gave up on the plans for the national park and postponed the "experience of nature" until Pai (see below), and also found out that April is not the month to go whitewater rafting in Thailand, so without any stops, we reached Phitsanulok and quickly headed for a hotel to sleep through the midday heat, a little too long unfortunately to still get some errands done, like cashing traveller cheques.

I am now sitting in an Internet cafe in Phitsanulok, and we did get most of our to do list done. We'll stay here for one night, enjoying the "food festival" over at the night bazaar, and head for Sukothai tomorrow. Having made the acquaintance of a very helpful employee of the Thai Tourist Authority, we now have the possibility to ride along in his van tomorrow, iff he makes it back from Bangkok in time; otherwise we'll go by bus and meet him there for another festival and a light show in the old city of Sukothai, which is now known as the historical park, which the Lonely Planet describes as "Thailand's most impressive World Heritage site".

Also, tomorrow, Songkran starts in Sukothai (a day before the official start), and we have been told that Sukothai is one of the two best places for the event on numerous occasions. The other is Chiang Mai, and we were lucky to get two seats on a plane leaving Sukothai for Chiang Mai on the 14th, so we'll get to spend more or less two days in each of the "party centres" (Songkran ends on the 15th, though some cities just keep on going). I have to say that I am very excited about witnessing this event. All the shops in all the towns keep piling water guns on the streets, and for three days, the camera will be better left in the hotel as the entire city soaks itself in water. I cannot wait to buy one of the biggest guns, make a run for the all the Thais, and then give the gun to a child.

While I am talking about plans, I might just as well continue my brain dump. From Chiang Mai, we are currently looking at 2-3 days in Pai, a village north-west from Chiang Mai with beautiful landscapes and many hill tribes within walking distance. I'll be leaving Chiang Mai for Yangon in Myanmar, and am currently faced with four choices as to how to spend my remaining time in that country. Mind me while I share these options with you:

The simplest options would have me drop the clothing and gifts off at Julie's guest house; Julie is Swiss or German and frequently organises for clothing and similar items to be sent to refugee camps in Myanmar. Then, I could travel to Myanmar and be free to spend the time in Yangon and Mandalay, showing Linux to people, head out into the countryside, or spend my time in the monastery to which I have been invited. These options all appeal to me, approximately in decreasing order. The last option depends on whether Julie organises a trip to a refugee camp anytime soon, in which case I may be able to go along. I'll keep you posted.

That's it for now from me from southeast Asia; we're off for the night bazaar. Thanks again for reading along.