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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Northern Thailand: Taking a break - Brett

Bangkok – City of hedonism, thronging masses, commerce, sex tourism, and chess matches. And, as we discovered, land of amazing food, old friends, fantastic Belgian beers, and... ladyboys.

We arrived in Bangkok via a long walk, a taxi, three airplanes, and a train into the heart of this sprawling Asian capital. My friend Mark picked us up accompanied by his girlfriend, Meiw. Mark works for the U.S. State Department traveling around Asia assessing aid programs and deciding who gets grants from the huge USAID budget. He came to Thailand almost three years ago after a two-year stint in Mongolia, also doing aid work. And after five days in Bangkok, we came to see why he loved this place so much.

So have you heard the one about the two Americans who wanted to see the wonders of the world?

Mark, Meiw, Jenny, and I walk into a bar. As my eyes adjust to the light I realize that I am surrounded by 30-40 of the absolute most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. I had heard that Thai women were gorgeous, but this was ridiculous. It defied the laws of physics, biochemistry, and statistics. They are flirty and smiley and I can feel that weird, pleasant sensation in the pit of my stomach. And then Mark drops the bomb.

    “Brett, they're all dudes.”
    “Huh? No way.”
    “Yep, every single one. They're called ladyboys”

It's not possible. Okay, yes, I like athletic looking women, but these (wo)men have a sublime, lithe beauty that is anything but masculine. They are not cut or muscular or toned. They are just – beautiful.

My head is spinning and I feel all weird inside. I'm about as open as they come about my sexuality, but somehow I feel confused and weird and guilty and... I don't know – it's just strange. My heart goes out to these guys who feel compelled to drastically alter what nature has given them. But in some way I feel better knowing that, at least in Thailand, they are free to live life as they see fit. Another part of the world puzzle clicks into place.

So I have always thought of poverty as a lack of adequate money to fulfill one's basic needs. But we are discovering on this trip that poverty can take many forms. Southeast Asia is full of local officials who have become rich off of corruption and bribery, but who are educationally poor. We have encountered farmers who have plenty to eat, and a roof over their head, but who could not pay for a doctors visit no matter how urgent or necessary. One could easily argue that many of our peers in America are spiritually poor, given the pervasive nature of gods, karma, and puja rituals we have experienced here in Asia. And what of the joy of living every day just to live? I am a perfect example of one who has wealth, shelter, friends, family, and a bright future – but who thinks too much about what may come to pass some day. What I should be doing. What my future might hold. A poverty of peace? I have met more happy people who have nothing. But I am getting ahead of myself...

We left Bangkok headed for Pai. Chang Mai is the gateway to northern Thailand (and Pai) and we were lucky enough to stop here and hook up with Adam and Kathy, our friends from Boulder who are also traveling for a year. We arrrived on the eve of Loy Kraton – the festival of lights – and spent three nights wandering packed night markets, dodging massive displays of uncoordinated but seriously impressive impromptu fireworks displays, and experiencing a pyromaniacs dream of self-ascending flaming lanterns, floating (and burning) works of carved vegitation, and ear-drum asssulting adult toys (see our Picasa site for details), along with thousands of fellow revelers packing the streets of this old royal city.

Post-festival we moved on and finally found the peace we had been looking for in Pai. We felt like we were on the verge of imploding. Jenny had given the ultimatum. We stop for two weeks. Daily naps, writing, yoga, running, and chess games served to keep us busy during week one. But after about five days, Brett was getting fidgety and feeling like we were wasting time. Week two we moved about 4 km outside of (the already sleepy) town to an organic farm/fish pond and decided that we had found heaven on earth. Morning breakfast of home-made, organic muesli (over 32 ingredients including popcorn and pumpkin chips!), “good morning juice”, and “love tea” started each glorious day. Indeed, the menu stated that the food was made with “110% love”, and you could taste it in every bite (one morning Orn, the owner/chef told me she was upping my dosage to 120%). Brett settled in and began to enjoy this slower-paced life. And Jenny was getting her mojo back.

Not to say we did nothing. In anticipation of our upcoming Laos motorcycle tour we decided to rent motos and do some practicing. Two days of winding, empty, perfect mountain roads later we were ecstatic. This was the BEST! Jenny was stylin' on her Honda Phantom (black with flames on the gas tank) and Brett found an old rocket that brought ear to ear grins (although watching Jenny ride was even more fun than riding his own bike).

But vying for the highlight of northern Thailand was our day playing with our 13-year-old elephant. You really have to see the pictures to understand how much fun we had. After a bareback stroll through the local hills we lumbered down to the water and played. And played. And played. We got sprayed, we played bucking elephant, we got tossed into the river, and we laughed and laughed and laughed. Brett is not much of an animal person, but he fell in love with these gentle giants. Did you know that elephants live to be a hundred years old? Did you know that they are pregnant for over two years!? If we ever settle somewhere for long enough, I now know what kind of pet I want...

Thailand was now coming to a close. Our two weeks of forced rest had worked. We were both stoked on traveling again, getting along well, and feeling enthusiastic about the rest of southeast Asia. We would need it as we had six weeks of hard travel left if we wanted to see Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia before our grand tour of the far east ended and we headed down to Australia and New Zealand.

We waved goodbye to Orn and Run at Bueng Farm and boarded a bus heading east towards the mighty Mekong River and the mysterious country of Laos. We thought we were leaving the “land of smiles”, but little did we know that we were about to meet the nicest, friendliest, happiest people on planet Earth.

Thailand: Land of Smiles - Brett

It is not Life's job to tell you its ultimate meaning. Rather, it is the task of the individual to offer Life the best lived, most meaningful life one can manage. - Elie Wiesel

We emerged from our ten days of silence as changed persons. This was not a desire or a question or a hope – it was known in our core as fact. When you are sitting with a quiet mind – finally at peace with yourself on day 5 or 6 – the power of Truth can blindside you and leave you reeling. As I have often related through these pages, this journey is not just to see the world, but also to look for some of the Answers to those mysteries that burden one's soul. We have variously turned to religion, classical philosophy, and new age spiritualism as possible avenues of discovery, only to find hypocrisy, overly complicated theories, or ideas that simply did not resonate with our hearts or our heads. We have found isolated pieces of meaning across many different wisdom traditions, but how does one pick and choose? Jesus taught us to love our neighbors. Buddha taught us to be dispassionate observers. Existentialism teach us that we alone control our destiny. Ghandi taught us the power of non-violence. These are all ideas that fundamentally appeal to the soul – but why can no one agree on how to carry out a lifestyle based on these principals?
This journey has given us the opportunity to read and study and observe and discuss and meditate and contemplate in a way that is not possible in the everyday world of career and responsibilities. And after years of searching and months of travel and days of silence sitting at the top of a hill in northern India, four small words presented themselves to me with a clarity and a conviction that I have never previously experienced.

love, compassion, integrity, and grace

Four small words that finally found a home in my heart. Could it really be that simple? I felt like a piece of the big picture was finally falling into place. These words provide the guidance that I have been searching for to become the man I want to be.

You know, I remember reading somewhere that you finally achieve enlightenment when you realize that you've been elightened all along. Far from the heady claim of enlightenment I know that these answers have been inside of me for many years, yet I have lacked the courage to live a life based on these truths.

And if you read the saints and the mystics and the kabbalahs and the sufis of the world's wisdom traditions, you will find that they too have come to the same conclusion. Be a good person. Live with integrity. Give back to the world. All the world's religions boiled down to their most fundamental Truths. All the rest – the rosaries, the songs, the incense, the fasting, the rules – all are just trappings to help us achieve a foundation of love, integrity, compassion, and grace.

I now believe this as firmly as I have ever believed anything in my life. This is my God.
So is it that simple? Swimming in the bliss that often accompanies such profound (?) insights, we left the retreat full of promise and excitement, believing the next step in our lives was just beginning.

But the reality was that we had no idea how to put into practice what we had each discovered. We fought bitterly with each other within hours of leaving the retreat. But we were determined, and through steady work over the next three weeks we would experience a new level of love for each other as we learned to respond instead of react to the daily challenges of an almost symbiotic relationship. And the awareness that we practice every day helps us respond to the difficulties of different cultures, different values, and different environments with a previously unknown or undiscovered grace.

But to allow these newfound skills to flourish, we needed a break. Aside from the ten days spent in intense, mind-altering, sleep-deprived meditation, we had never been in one place longer than seven days, and that pleasure only once. One hundred different beds in less than two hundred days. Sounds like a David Lee Roth memoir.

So we decided to park it for two weeks of naps, swimming, reading, chess, and motorcycles. Our chosen spot was the tiny, northern Thailand town of Pai – population 3,500.

But first we had to get there.