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Friday, June 14, 2019

Udti Patang

1331

Soaring above the clouds,
Touching the skies.
Raising against the odds,
Kissing the winds.
Never in the sidelines,
Always in the spotlight.
Voyaging beyond the string
tugging her tight.

Higher she flies,
Higher she flies.

Leaving the onlookers
Dazed and confused,
Leaving her mark
Wherever she chooses.
In a field full of hoppers,
She jumps and she dances.
She looks down at the clouds
As she shoots for the stars.

Merriment fills their eyes
As they look up with dropped jaws
The string tugs at her as she strays too far
She nods her head and never loses sight

Higher she flies,
Higher she flies.
Spreading joy unbounded
Into the skies.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Sound of Laughter: Wild Wild East

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing. and right-doing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.” - Jalal Ad-Din Rumi

To travel beyond the borders drawn out by men has always been
a desire. It’s not easy. You need time. You need good company.
You also need money, and not peanuts. I was at my workplace,
in the interlude between the coding phases when Vignesh pinged me.

‘We are going to Thailand! Are you coming?’

Wow. For someone whose previous trips were to Goa and Gokarna,
the charm that Thailand offered was too hot to decline.

‘Cool. When are we going?’

‘The second week of April. There are public holidays coming
so we could save our leaves.’

I checked the calendar. No, there was no way I could do it.
For, one of the public holidays was Vishu, which is a very
important family time. I could not be away from home during Vishu.

‘No. I am not coming.’

The decision was made fast. However, second thoughts lingered.
I explained the situation at home.

‘Don’t go!’

‘What good is Vishu without the kids at home?’

‘I do not have good feelings about Thailand anyway!’

‘Let him go!’

The last voice was of my brother dear, who usually doubles up as my advocat
when the going gets tough.

After much nays and debates and convincing, another decision was made.
I was on board.

The phase between the conceptualization of an idea and its execution is a sweet spot.
That’s where all the planning happen. And trust me, good planning is essential for a trip.
There were nine of us with six days and a whole country to cover. Nine minds, ninety
interests. Needed to streamline and be inclusive while keeping a tab on the expenses.
Not all fun, right? Still, I enjoy planning and was actively involved. The medium?
Whatsapp group, of course! After much discussions, debates, and deliberations,
we decided to cover four major cities - the capital city of Bangkok, the infamous Pattaya,
the island of Phuket, and the exotic Phi Phi Islands.

We all had passports. And the visa was on arrival.
Fortunately for us, Thailand had waived off their visa fee until April end,
which helped us save around four thousand rupees. The next challenge was
obtaining the local currency, Baht. The rules said we needed to show at-least
ten thousand bahts per person in order to get the visa approved.
I am not getting into the details but we did raise ninety thousand bahts for the
nine of us. Which equates to a little over two lakhs Indian rupees.

Fast forward to The Week.

Day 0: April 13

Our trip had kicked off on the previous day, when Jijo, Prasad, Johny, Varun and I
boarded the Anantapuri Express from Thiruvananthapuram to Chennai.



Chennai, because we had booked our flights from there in a bid to cut costs.
I would admit that it was not the smartest decision since we had to travel
a lot and also lose a day in the process. However, my day was not wasted,
since the train passed via Villupuram where Krishna is.
I deboarded at Villupuram, got fresh at the railway dormitory, and set out to
meet my brother dear. We hit the nearby Adyar Ananda Bhavan for breakfast,
where we sat and chatted for some time. By twelve, I boarded another train to
Chennai, and reached the airport at Meenambakkam by four in the evening.
Checked in at six. Boarded at seven-thirty. Took off an hour later.
The window seat was a first. The night lights, a sight to behold.




Day 1: April 14

Arrived at the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. A huge huge line for the visa.
Had to spend about three-four hours at the queue.



The tedious process ended at five in the morning. We had our priorities set,
and data connection was paramount. Went to a local vendor Truemove and
took one of the short term packages for tourists. Then we proceeded to
relieve ourselves and that’s when I received a big shock.
No water, only paper.

After comforting ourselves, we headed to the Magic Point Street Food stall at

the airport for breakfast. Coming from somewhere where nonvegetarian options
are a rarity to start the day, Thailand surprised me. Basil roasted duck with rice.
Tasty. The Thai flavor was too strong for some though.

We headed straight to see The Grand Palace complex in Bangkok. Since we
were nine, we booked a minivan through the local app, Grab, which is
pretty much our Ola or Uber. The complex houses several buildings of
historical and political importance. It opens itself to visitors at eight-thirty
every morning. We reached right before the opening and a considerable
queue had already been formed. Great architecture. Intricate works
resembling our own temples. Very photogenic.






Johny chanced upon these wall paintings that he interpreted as an alternate
telling of the Ramayana which is darker than ours. Either he is a genius at
decoding art. Or, it was ‘curtains were blue’ all over again. Whilst we were at it,
a group approached us and asked us if we could pose for a photograph with them.
Either they took us for some serious art students. I am yet to come up with an
alternate theory to explain that.


The tour was wrapped in two hours, and we hit the nearby 7-Eleven store to
quench our thirst. Watch out for 7-Eleven. This ubiquitous retail store would
play a major dietary role in the coming days.




By eleven, we began our next journey to the party capital, Pattaya. Pattaya
was roughly a two-hour drive. Exhausted from all the travel, we reached the
Golden Villa at Pattaya around one in the afternoon. For all the gold in its
name, it was actually a moderate abode. We checked-in had a much-needed
shower and went out to have some lunch. That afternoon was spent in the pool,
with me enjoying ice cream while others chilling out with their beers.

As daylight paved the way to the dark, we knew where we had to go.

I mean, that was the whole point of visiting Pattaya. It’s what made
Prithviraj, Jayasurya, and Indrajith fantasize about visiting Pattaya in
the forgettable Amar Akbar Anthony. Yes, the infamous Walking Street!




The nomenclature is pretty straightforward here. It is a street by the side of the beach.
All you could do is walk since vehicles are denied access at night. The place is wild.
Crazy wild! And all you could do is walk along with the million others who walk beside you.
The place is lined with shops. Bars, pubs, cafes, restaurants dominate.
Go-go bars are the unique offering, which is more or less the strip clubs of the West.
Without saying, sex sells. Hot, like pancakes. Or maybe hotter.


Our visit to Thailand had coincided with the Thai New Year, Songkran.
It is a water festival, and they celebrate it in the most obvious manner -
by throwing water at each other. No, tourists are not spared either.
You go out? You get wet. And we were out on the Songkran night,
in one of the craziest areas of Thailand. We picked up cues, bought water
guns and joined the bandwagon. By “we”, I refer to Johny, Shafath and me.
Others were busy finding a McDonalds for supper. Seriously, I do not understand
the logic behind eating from McD or Burger King while in an entirely different country
with an entirely different food scene. For me, a major part of a trip includes savoring the local flavors.


While they were busy munching on their big macs, we were engaged in a fierce water war
with absolute strangers. We allied ourselves with a bigger gang from Vietnam and fought
the battle with all that we had. Fun would be an understatement. Ecstasy wouldn’t do justice.
We were delirious.


Once the burgers and the water guns were done, all of us converged in one of the pubs, where a lady was performing live. The time was midnight, and the night was still young. Beer is all around you in Thailand. So is pork. People sat there chugging their beers. There were a lot of people around us. A lot of people from a lot of countries. All of them seemed happy. Happiness hung around us. By one, we headed back to our rooms. A lot had happened on day one. A happy beginning.

Day 2: April 15

At home, it was Vishu. We were still under the hangover of Songkran. The day started slowly, with me
deciding not to visit the Sanctuary of Truth, instead deciding to watch the first episode of the final
season of Game of Thrones that had been aired then. Went out to the nearby store, got a can of
iced tea, and settled to watch the epic show. By twelve, we had to checkout from our hotel.
We bought some ready to eat, microwaved food from the 7-eleven, and hired another mini-van
that would drop us at our residence in Bangkok.

We reached the Ratchadamnoen Residence in the afternoon. Good reception. Amiable staff. Attractive room. And great location. In the heart of the city. Very close to the famed Khao San road. After checking into the rooms, my friends entered into their ritualistic pact of buying and consuming drinks produced by fermentation of grains, fruits, or other sources of sugar.


Come evening, Sarath and I set out to explore the town and the life there. Clean roads. Beautiful buildings. Some lovely locals were selling hot snacks by the roadside. A banana-coconut based snack. Fried quail eggs. Fried chicken on a stick. When others joined, we went on the traditional tuk-tuk ride to the Wat Arun temple. This temple is by the riverside, and it is a sight to behold after sunset.



We returned after buying some souvenirs from a lady who had a zero-tolerance policy on discounts. We returned to Bangkok for more street hopping, munching on the delicious item on offer. After much trotting, we reached where he had to be on a Songkran night - Khao San Road. This place is the final word for all things wild. All the people in the vicinity had assembled there, and what followed was a mindless party. Everyone was dancing to loud music. Everyone was throwing water at each other. Everyone looked incredibly happy. Beer flew like water through the streets. The whole scene was dope. A community of strangers had come down to party like there was no tomorrow.

And come tomorrow, there would be nothing on the roads that would give away a clue of what happened a few hours prior. The sanitation workers are impeccable at their work. The celebrations sauntered into the wee hours and finally ground into a halt. Left in an elated state of delusion, we headed into our rooms to get some well-needed sleep.


Day 3: April 16

Recharged after a sound sleep, got fresh and headed straight for the breakfast buffet.
Good spread; forgot the details though.  Had a brief chat with the friendly receptionist,
Earl. Despite spending all these years at Bangkok, she had never visited Safari World
she said. Well, I have not been to Meesapulimala or Nelliyampathy back home,
so in a way, we were even. Felt like clicking a picture with her, but then just couldn’t
bring me to ask her for a picture. As Swetha says, opportunity missed is opportunity lost.

We hired another minivan and reached the hyped Safari World by eleven. The Safari ride
started some thirty minutes later. We were seated inside a closed bus and driven around
where the deer, horses, zebras, giraffes, tigers, lions, bears, ostriches, and many others lived.
Our excited cheers were met with nonchalant expressions. These animals were so used to
overexcited tourists, to the point, that they had learned to completely ignore our very presence.
The ride was followed by the buffet lunch, where they served ‘International Food’ and ‘Indian Food’.
It amused me to think that Indians had a separate cuisine in a foreign land. Probably the people who
visited before us might have complained about the lack of vegetarian options. Anyway, I did not stick
to Indian and filled my plate with whatever looked attractive.



The afternoon was lined up with various shows by animals trained to make us laugh.
Orangutans, sea lions, dolphins and a variety of birds took turns in making our jaws
drop with their impeccable timings and synchronization. As I sat there lauding the
authorities for carving out a space for animals in the city, Johny educated me on why
safari parks are not wildlife conservation. First, we encroach their natural habitats.
Then we bring them here, train them the way we want, and make money out of it.
It was consumerism at its ugliest, he said. The words made sense to me. I like the
Safari World a little less since then.



We returned to Bangkok in the evening, where we had booked a hostel for the night.
Shower, change of clothes, and I was out to live the Bangkok nightlife one last time.
Songkran or not, Khao San is so full of life and energy throughout the year.
Loud music, food, drinks, vendors selling souvenirs to laughing gas, everything co-exists
and magic happens. I walked up and down, and then some more across the length and
breadth absorbing all that I could.

A young woman selling armbands came up to me offering her product. The bands looked cool,
except that the messages were a tad not safe for home. As I declined, she asked me where
I was from and then suggested that Indians had no money anyway. She laid out a trap, and
I walked right into it. I ended up buying one, albeit something with a decent wording.


It was in this street that Sarath, Johny and I decided to have a taste of the much talked
about Thai Massage. We were ushered into one of the umpteen massage parlors,
where a professional masseuse indulged us. After the relaxing activity, we headed
to the DMK airport by midnight. We were to fly to the island of Phuket in the wee hours of Wednesday.

Day 4: April 17

The sparkling nightlife had drained me so much that I dozed off as soon as I was seated
inside the plane and missed the take-off. The flight got delayed by half an hour, and we
were tensed since we had to rush to the Rassada Pier to catch the ferry to Phi Phi. In the
hullabaloo, I lost Johny’s headphones that I had borrowed from him since my headphones
drowned in the Songkran waters and his phone was broken. Yet another minivan. We reach
the pier on time and board the ferry. If Asian tourists were in abundance in Bangkok, Phuket
had more Australians and Westerners too. The two-hour-long ferry ride began and most of my
friends resumed their sleep. For some unfortunate reason, sleep and I were on a break. I spent
the time going up on the deck, coming back, going up again, and having the tea and croissant
on offer. The view from the deck was great, and people from diverse cultures were taking turns
to click themselves in the backdrop of the crystal blue waters and pristine isles.



We reached the exotic Phi Phi Islands by eleven. Phi Phi is a tiny island which would transform
itself into a giant party place as night falls. We walked and checked-in to PP Maiyada Resorts.
That’s when my friends decided they had to go for Scuba diving. I decided against it since we
were on the island for only a day, and I wanted to explore the bylanes and the life there. Also, phobia.
Freshens up, and gets out to the streets after deciding to treat me with a decent lunch. The island
has narrow lanes with almost no vehicles. The lanes and bylanes are lined up with cafes, pubs,
restaurants, bars, tattoo shops, souvenir shops, pubs, and more pubs. After walking for some time,
I went to The Mango Garden and ordered Sticky Mango Rice, a local delicacy. In some time, I was
served two servings of sticky rice - one white and one blue - a ripe delicious looking mango sliced up,
and a bowl of coconut milk. The flavor of the rice was nothing like what I had tasted until then. It was
culinary love at first bite. Even the coconut milk enthralled my taste buds like anything. Contended,
I left the place. Rice, mango and coconut milk. What an unusual combination for lunch! So I thought,
completely forgetting about Mambazha Pulissery, which is a local delicacy back home and is made of
ripe mangoes, grated coconut, and curd served with rice. In retrospect, these two dishes from two
corners of the world seem like brothers who were separated at childhood. Same, same, but different.


The walk resumed, and I hit a convenience store where I chanced upon the famous handmade
Thai soaps, that Pooja had talked about. The store had a pack of five of these soaps, all of the
different aromas, for hundred bahts. I purchased those and strolled on until I came across Fish Spa,
where they offered fish pedicure services. Woah! Another item off my checklist. In one word -
Unforgettable Experience! Oh, wait that’s two words. Never bother, cause it was an
unforgettable experience. A very amiable lady welcomed me in and gently washed my legs
with soap and water. They made the excellent conversation too. Once I was initiated, they led
me to a fish tank where all I had to do was immerse my legs in the water and possibly hold still for
fifteen minutes. As soon as the tip of my feet touched the water, a school of fish charged towards me
and attacked from all over. In instant reflex, I retreated. So did the young couple from Israel who sat
beside me. The lady asked us to bear the feeling for two minutes, by then we would get used to it.
So I did. It was amazing. I am not very sure if my feet became all clean after that, but the whole
process was fun.



I went back to my room for a quick nap and went out only after the heat outside had subsided.
The evening was spent at Loh Dalum Beach. Coming from Kerala, I am no stranger to beaches
but Loh Dalum was one of a kind. Crystal clear water, calm waves, and water so shallow that
you could walk on and on and the water would be within your knee levels. The Scuba company
too returned by then and the evening was spent at this serene beach. We headed back to our
rooms after an hour or so, spent some time at the pool where Vignesh gave swimming lessons
to Jijo and I. Jijo learned.

Since scuba had effectively depleted our collective currency reserves, we decided to hit a
restaurant that accepts Forex Cards. The Pizza Company. The serene beach was a big
party spot when we visited it at night. People were dancing to loud music, and we joined
with whatever we had to offer. B midnight we went back to the rooms. We had to sleep
early to wake up early. We had to wake up early to catch our return ferry in the morning.
Party Over.

Day 5: April 18

Despite hitting the bed real late, we woke up (had to wake up) early since our ferry back

to the mainland would start sail at nine. We skipped the bath, hurried through the breakfast
buffet, and reached in time. Shafath and Johny, who had seen through the party throughout
the night, had to be dragged along so as not to miss the sail. In the mad rush, Shaf forgot to
take a package from his room that contained some of the souvenirs that we had bought the
other day. We realized that only once we reached the other side. Anyway, we headed to our
final abode - Hotel Clover Patong, our best stay of the trip. Patong is a commercial area of Phuket,
with a beautiful beach and a walking street of its own. What else do you need? We did not
need anything more. But the hotel needed ten thousand baht as security deposit. Refundable, of course.

Meanwhile, Shaf had contacted the resort at Phi Phi and confirmed our misplaced baggage
was with them. They promised us to send the baggage across in the next ferry. Right after
checking in, Shaf and I went back to the ferry to collect those. After taking a much-needed
shower, I went out to explore this side of Thailand. What amused me the most about this hotel
was its location. The beach? Very close. Bangla Road? Even Closer! Since Google told me that
Patong is famous for its seafood, I walked by the beachside in the lookout for a decent place.
These joints had their fresh catch in display at the front, and I fell for lobsters. Despite the
outrageous price, I went for the experience. Pina Colada accompanied the barbecued lobster.


After ticking off this extravagant affair off my bucket list, Varun and I set out to roam around
in the Bangla Road, which is Patong’s own Walking Street. By now, I guess you have an idea
on what to expect from walking streets. Yes, loud music. Lots of shops. Food. Beer. Massage
Parlors. Sex shops posing as massage parlors. Art. Fun. All this in abundance. Street dancers
performed. So did street magicians. It seemed like there was a place for anyone, everyone.
It’s in this street that we chanced upon this charming vendor Tuk Tuk (if I got her name right)
who was selling yummy pancakes in the street. We had banana pancakes with Nutella and
milk toppings. Impressed, we went on to take selfies with her and promised to return for more
pancakes the next day. A promise that we could not honor.




The Patong Beach was our next stop, where Johny and I indulged in some failed
relationship bitching as Shaf listened uninterestedly. That day I received a call from
home where mom mentioned that Krishna got no food that day as her college canteen
was shut, thanks to the parliamentary elections in Tamil Nadu. I felt it like a cruel irony
that my sister had to sleep hungry on a day where I had gone out for exquisite culinary choices.


Day 6: April 19

Decided to get some rest, and woke up only after nine. Another thing that I liked about
this hotel was its breakfast buffet. Great spread. Pancakes, Maple Syrup, Bread, Potato
wedges, Ham, bacon strips, Eggs to order, noodles, Rice, Fruits, and some more. Jijo had
found out a decent, cost effective package to explore Phuket on our last day. We all got ready
as someone arrived to pick us up.

The first stop was big Buddha, which as the name suggests, is a really big statue of Buddha
erected on a hilltop. It’s a sight to behold, as the majestic Buddha would draw you in. I felt the
concept similar to the Lord Shiva statue at Murdeshwar, except that the sea-side Murdeshwar
had a better view. Basically, faith sells. Be it Goa, Gokarna, or Thailand. Be it Hinduism,
Buddhism, or Christianity. Good view, nevertheless.


Big Buddha was followed by a temple complex. Even more Buddhas. We sought blessings
from a few. Posed with a few others. And then went on with our journey. We had miles to travel.
A quick lunch from a nearby seven-eleven store calmed our hunger.



Our spiritual run came to a halt as we reached the Nai Harn Beach by the afternoon.
The beach looked amazing. Maybe, amazing would not be enough to describe. However,
it was too hot to hit the beach. There were some benches nearby, and we camped there.
I even lied down for a while in the shade of a pine tree. Once the sun toned down for a bit,
we went to the beach for a while. Alas, could not spend much time there since we had to reach
this famed sunset point before well, the sunset of course.

Promthep Cape. The place was crowded by the time we reached. Nevertheless, we found
some spots for ourselves to catch the celestial wonder, an everyday occurrence. I sat down
and watched the yellow-golden-almost red ball of fire as it started drifting down gradually. However,
as it always happens, the clouds gobbled it up before it could actually set. There was a mild
disappointment, but that was nothing new. I have tried to catch sunsets at Kanyakumari, Varkala,
even Gokarna, and every single time the clouds got there first. Thinking about it, the idea of sunset
is a beautiful lie. The sun never really sets.



Upon reaching the hotel at night, we wasted no time in diving into the rooftop pool.
I don’t know to swim, but that has never doused my craving to just lie in the cool water.
The pool was kinda shallow, and I was teaching myself to float. Let go of the inhibitions.

Returned to Bangla Road for one last time. There was an entire alley dedicated to street
food, and any foodie would fall in love with the place instantly. Finally, I had a taste of the
very famous Pad Thai noodles. The place also had exotic offerings to the tunes of crocodile
and deer meat, if you had such cravings. Later I accompanied Sarath and Varun in their
souvenir hunt and returned to the hotel rooms by midnight. The last night at Thailand. It was
both comforting and saddening to think that I would be home this time the next day.

Day 7: April 20

The final morning was spent in another fling with the glamorous buffet, and we wasted no time in
getting fresh and heading out to the airport. We reached by ten thirty, which was more than sufficient.
Post-check-in and security checks, we had nothing to do other than hopping up and down the airport,
checking the items for sale. That’s where I saw the cute elephant shaped soap, that I knew I had to
but for Krishna. I did.

The thing about Phuket airport is that it is right by the sea-side. The take-off gives you a view
that’s unparalleled to your usual takeoffs. Guess who got the window seat for this spectacular
take off? Many did, as a plane has multiple window seats. Fortunately, I was one of them. It felt
special to look down at the clouds. To see the isles from the sky.



As cliched as it may seem, part of the journey really is the end. Our journey had come
to an end. A week had passed, gifting us some unforgettable memories. Goodbye, Thailand.
See you again? Honestly, I would love to. But there are far lot places that I haven’t seen yet.
So I am not really sure if I would be coming back. Nonetheless, Thailand lives on.
The memories do too -  in the photos, we clicked, in the stories we shared, in the moments
that were captured, in these words that were written. The memories live on where it matters.
And if something reverberated throughout our voyage into this wild wild west, it's the
sound of laughter. We laughed at our own silly jokes. At our stupid mistakes. We laughed
in pure joy. And laughed at our worst times. We laughed louder than the loudest song played
at the parties. We laughed all the way through. A happy beginning, happy proceedings and
a happy ending.