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The Lunar Year (A.

Murray)

Chapter 1

Bangkok, Thailand

The Air France Jet took departed Hong Kong in the early evening and landed in Bangkok around 8:00 P.M. The plane's final destination was Paris with stops along the way in Bangkok and Bombay. The stylishly dressed flight attendants were all French, if not, excessively so. The two men and three women executed their duties with seriousness and an air of superiority for their mostly Asian passengers. Before the plane took off, I watched a tall, blond flight attendant arguing with an elderly Chinese passenger who wanted a blanket. The flight attendant waved his arms and raised his voice rudely at the old man. After several minutes of mis-communication the baffled Chinese man gave up the argument, and the attendant stalked off. The man never did get a blanket. The language of choice by the crew was of course, French. The pilot and the head flight attendant both addressed the passengers in French over the intercom. Several minutes of French announcements were followed by a terse English translation. I could not help think that the English translation was included only to comply with a regulation for international flights. The French still did not seem ready to concede defeat on the question of which language was the de facto international language, English or French. As a friend once told me, "French is the language of the mail and shampoo bottles. That is about as international as it gets." Not that the French or English translation made sense to many passengers anyway. Most of them looked as if they were going to disembark in Bangkok or Bombay. The only people who were probably taking the whole flight to Paris were the crew. I hunkered down in my seat trying to avoid a confrontation with the Air France crew.

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It was Chinese New Year, the year of the Snake, and I was traveling to Thailand with a group of fellow students, during the two-week break from our college classes back in Taipei, Taiwan. I was spending my junior year of college abroad taking classes in Mandarin Chinese and Chinese history and culture through the University of California Education Abroad Program. My fellow travelers were also students, some from California and some from other states whom I'd met at the Mandarin Training Center where I studied Chinese every morning for four hours a day. Chinese New Year was a two-week celebration in Taiwan and revolved around spending time with the family, eating vast amounts of food and giving small children red envelops stuffed with money. Since none of us family nearby and because the whole city of Taipei practically shut down for two weeks, our group was on a two-week journey through Southeast Asia, from Hong Kong to Bangkok and ending in Singapore. As the plane began to taxi down the runway, Marcus, the leader and organizer of our group, read to me from his guidebook. Marcus was an American student from Temple University, who initiated and organized the two-week trip. He had invited eight people including myself, Amy, from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and my housemate Andrew, an American student from U.C. Berkeley. Marcus had purchased the airline tickets in bulk, booked the hostels and set up the general itinerary for where we would go. Marcus was the only one who'd thought to bring along a guidebook. "Listen to this," Marcus read aloud, "Everyone in Thailand smiles. It is the country of many smiles." I hoped it was true. I was looking forward to visiting a place with polite people after spending a week in Hong Kong where people seemed too aloof to notice you and if they did, they either talked past you, barked instructions or pretended not to understand English, Mandarin or even Cantonese. As we crowded off the jet and filed into the Don Mueang International Airport, now known as the "Old Bangkok Airport" I saw that the guidebook was correct. There was a sizable crowd of smiling Thai onlookers waiting for friends, or people watching for fun. Most of the onlookers

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began to stare in my direction, and I felt slightly self-conscious. I was a tall, blond, freckled woman traveling in Asia and it was still hard for me to get used to all the attention I received everywhere I went. As the crowd began to jostle each other for a better look it dawned on me that they were not interested in me at all this time. Behind me, there was something more interesting to gawk at than a white American woman. Behind me followed two of my travel companions. It was a pair of very stylish and attractive black, African American women. Vera was the more stylish of the two and Marina was the more demure and pretty. Vera was overweight but it did not detract from her beauty. Instead, it gave her an aura of strength and vitality. She draped her figure in colorful, splendid skirts and lightweight sheer blouses. She carried herself with pride that was graceful and agile. Her hair was a mass of long, thin braids that she tied back at the nape of her neck. Her face was a heart shaped cherub. Her eyes were wide, and deep brown, and her skin was the color of dark caramel. Mari was tall and slender. Her hair was cut along her jaw line. She wore the typical clothes of a college student: jeans and a sweater. She had a long face and coffee-colored eyes. Her lips were full, and her skin was a dark bronze. "Oh God, they are staring at us," Vera moaned. She flashed a cheery smile and waved at everyone as if she were a visiting beauty queen. The crowd responded with bigger smiles, giggles and by pushing each other to get a better look at the two black women who had just landed in Bangkok. Vera and Mari were used to being gawked at. They experienced this type of attention continually back in Taipei, where they were also spending a year abroad from their historically black college in Georgia. During most of the three-hour flight, I sat next to Vera and Mari, who had also been invited by Marcus. The three had bonded back in Taipei after learning that they were all originally from the south. The women told me about their experiences in Taiwan, where people were very ignorant of and prejudiced against Africans. Vera was perceptive and insightful about Asian prejudice against blacks. She said Asian racism did not bother her as much as American racism because

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Asian ideas were based on ignorance while American ideas were based on blatant hatred and disdain. Mari had a scientific approach to her life in Asia. She acted as if she were taking part in a social experiment. She was studying abroad on a scholarship from her university. When she returned after one year, she was expected to give a lecture to the Alumni Association on racism in Asia. She told me she had planned a catchy introduction. She would ship home several hundred tubes of toothpaste as a gift to each member of the Alumni Association. The toothpaste was the most popular brand in many parts of Asia, including Taiwan and Japan. It was called "Darkie" toothpaste. The tube was painted a bright yellow and on the front was the smiling face of a black minstrel. The man's eyes bulged from his head, and his large mouth featured two rows of sparkling while teeth. Mari planned to pass out the tubes of toothpaste before she even began the lecture. She imagined that after one looked at "Darkie" toothpaste the audience would have a pretty firm grasp on the topic racism in Asia. *** Marcus had arranged for us to stay in a Baptist mission. It was like an apartment complex created to house missionaries visiting Thailand. At the mission, we were given two rooms. Both rooms had two queen beds and a bathroom. There was a kitchen attached to a short hall, which ran between the two rooms. Somehow, without much disagreement the eight of us managed to decide who would stay in which rooms. I was to share a bed with Amy and Veronica. The other bed was for Ling Ling, a Chinese American student from California, Janice a Taipei native and Suzie, a Euro-Asian, half German, half Chinese woman who was making big money working as a model in Taiwan. The Taiwanese though that Euro-Asians were the most beautiful people in the world. Suzie and others like her were able to exploit this view and earn megabucks modeling for catalogs and billboards. Marcus the only man in our group took the other room for themselves. Andrew, my housemate from Taipei had decided to stay at the Sheraton rather than lodge at some dingy Baptist mission with the rest of us.

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After settling into our temporary home, I went to bed, and slept for ten hours straight. The next day I woke up and ventured out to examine my surroundings. Our small apartment was on the second story of some offices that were used by the Baptists. To the side of the building was a small playground complete with swing set and sandbox. The compound was at the end of a long driveway. The driveway led to a suburban street. The street was lined with modern looking condominiums surrounded by trees and hedges. This unexpectedly quiet suburban street discombobulated me. Was I in a developing nation or back in Los Angeles, I wondered? My confusion was quickly put to rest when my travel companions and I embarked upon a walking tour of the neighborhood. Two blocks away from the mission, I entered a confusing tangle of streets, vehicles, and street merchants. The streets were a combination of narrow alleys and wide avenues. Bangkok's city traffic was just as disorganized and dangerous as that of Taipei, where I was spending the year on a study abroad program through my university. Unlike Taipei where the main mode of transportation was the motorcycle, the main mode of transportation throughout Bangkok was the Tuk-tuk, a motorized rickshaw that looks like an elongated golf cart and carries up to three people. Tuk-tuks could quickly maneuver in and out of the crush of Japanese cars and Honda motorcycles racing through streets and alleys at high speeds. The sidewalks were lined with vendors selling everything from tacky trinkets to plastic sunglasses. There were also huge, outdoor stalls where merchants hawked designer tee shirts, plastic Gucci purses, and Rolex watches. They were all imitation; of course. It turned out that Bangkok was not far behind the fads back in fashion conscious Hong Kong. It seemed like everyone in both cities wore Rolex watches and carried Gucci bags. The difference was that in Hong Kong everyone had the real thing while here in Bangkok they had the cheap knock offs. After spending several hours roaming the streets, I became very acquainted with Bangkok's unique, pungent smell that permeated the air. It was a combination of diesel fuel, cooking lard, human sweat and human excrement. These odors clung to the thick, humid air and gave me the physical sensation of being trapped inside the belly of a living organism. Not only could I smell the air, I could see it too. The sunlight filtered through a thick layer of brown smog that settled

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upon the city like a think veil, muting out all color. The distortion of color under a sky of graybrown haze reminded me of Los Angeles. *** Later that afternoon, our group of travelers loaded into the cab carrying colorful beach towels and bathing suits to have lunch with Andrew and to crash the Sheraton swimming pool. Andrew met us in the lobby and led us the elevator to his spacious room on the sixth floor of the hotel. From the window, we could see a wide avenue where we could watch raucous drag races take place among the taxi drivers below. The room itself had dusty gold wallpaper, and the bedspread had a golden, generic flower pattern. There was nothing in the room to indicate that we were in Thailand. There were no decorative elements to indicate that we were in Thailand. Not even the food. Back in 1989 the modern concept of boutique, native location hotels had yet to be developed. At that point four and five star hotels tried to make you feel as if you were comfortably ensconced back home in the United States. "Let's eat," I suggested. "Let's just stay here and eat," he responded, "I don't want to get in a cab and try to find anything." We went down to the vast swimming pool that was surrounded by long rows of mall-type fast food from all over the world served cafeteria style. I wanted to eat Thai food because I was in Thailand, and I wanted to experience the local cuisine. I grabbed a brown plastic tray and scanned the rows looking for the Thai food stall. I saw Korean food and Japanese food at several stalls. I saw drink stands with tropical fruit shakes. I saw a salad bar and even French cuisine. I did not see Thai food anywhere. "You have got to be kidding me," I exclaimed with irritation, "I can't get Thai food at a hotel in Thailand?" I finally settled on a fruit salad and fresh coconut milk. I rejoined my companions at a plastic table shaded by an umbrella. They were eating sandwiches. "I guess tourists who stay here want to eat their own food," Amy conjectured after hearing my complaints.

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I looked around at the guests sitting at the other flimsy plastic tables. There were quite a few Japanese tourists eating sushi rolls. I saw some Italians across the way, probably eating European food. "There is a Thai restaurant inside," Andrew said. "Why didn't we eat there?" I asked. "Too expensive," he said biting into his turkey sandwich. After lunch we went to lie in the sun on lounge chairs next to the pool. I quickly realized that we would not blend in well with the guests who were all older and richer than we. They were also using the fluffy white hotel issued towels while we were wandering around with threadbarestripped towels in a jumble of random colors. I sat down to slather on sunscreen and people watch. Next to me sat a hefty middle-aged Italian tourist accompanied by a petite teenage Thai girl. She rubbed sunscreen on his massive, hairy back making me want to upchuck my lunch on the spot. I glanced around and saw similar couples reclined all around the patio. The scene was disturbing and mind-boggling. Why were so many young women paired up with unattractive, slovenly middle-aged men? It was a sight I would see all over the city. Later, I was told that these girls were tour guides or paid escorts. That night I was determined to locate authentic Thai food somewhere in the city. Andrew, Amy, and I split from the rest of the group to go on a quest for regional cuisine. We planned to join the rest of our companions later that evening at Pat Pong, an outdoor night market and sleazy sex district popular among foreign tourists. First, we walked down some random streets and had no luck finding a restaurant. Finally, we decided to ask some locals on the street. We saw a group of taxi drivers working on their car engines. Amy, the brave one, approached them. She talked to them for a while using a combination of words and gestured for eating. She returned to us followed by a thin, scrawny youth who gave us a crooked toothy smile. "He will lead us to Thai food," Amy announced. "Do we have to pay him?" I inquired. Amy shook her head negative.

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The boy walked quickly, and we scrambled to keep up. He led us down a street and turned down an alley. We walked out into a wide avenue. They continued along this route for several minutes. Then he turned up a nameless alley. By this time, I was getting suspicious. I imagined him leading us to a dead end and then pulling a knife on us. I whispered a warning to Amy, but she rolled her eyes at me. Finally, we stood outside a tall Western style hotel with long driveway leading up to a dimly lit entrance. There were valets wearing tuxedos waiting for customers. Out teenage guide went to speak with them. "This is unbelievable," I muttered to myself. The boy came back and sheepishly told us that the five star hotel did not offer Thai food. We wandered off aimlessly. I felt hungry and irritable. I hadn't thought to take along a guidebook so we were lost. I felt sure that there had to be Thai food nearby, somewhere. I peered down a dark alley a block from the hotel. I saw a flashing red sign on a large building. "It is probably a brothel," Andrew said. "No," I predicted, "the sign is red not green." In Asia, there were no red light districts. There were green light districts where prostitution occurred. As someone put it to me, "In Asia, green means go." "Besides, I don't see any Japanese writing on the sign so it can't be a brothel." Most of the brothels in Asia had Japanese signs out front. The signs were there to attract the Japanese businessmen who were either visiting the country for legitimate purposes or for the Japanese men who traveled around Asia on their notorious sex tours. The lack of green lights and Japanese script was a promising sign. We ventured carefully down the forbidding looking alley. At the door, we peered in cautiously. We saw a large dining room with wooden tables holding small candles facing a stage. The room was dimly lit with red and blue stage lights. The room was mostly empty. A Thai man in a tuxedo ran to greet us. "Hello, come in please," he smiled widely. "Is this a restaurant?" I asked warily.

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"We have food, yes," the host responded guiding us to a table near the stage. He disappeared and came back with menus written in English and Thai. Amy, Andrew, and I laughed with relief. Our quest for Thai food had ended. We proceeded to order a feast of celebration. The food arrived immediately. I slurped the most exquisite soup I had ever tasted called Tom Ka Gai. It was a chicken soup made with coconut mild and red curry powder. Little pieces of ginger root and lemon grass floated in the broth giving it a mixture of flavors, both sweet and tart. We were then given an assortment of curried meats. One dish was a steaming platter of diced beef in yellow curry sauce. Another dish was chicken in green curry sauce. We ate cucumbers in light rice vinegar with peppers. We drank Thai beer. We ate and drank with hedonistic abandon. As we ate the show began. A young Thai woman ascended the stage, picked up a microphone, and began to wait an eerie, melancholy song. She was accompanied by the hollow beat of a disco synthesizer. Blue and yellow lights flashed across her face and body as she swayed back and forth, rolling her eyes skyward and clenching her fist in despair. She gave an emotional performance and I was sorry I could not understand the words, which were sung with such distress. After a delectable repast, which cost about fifteen dollars, we hopped into a taxi and sped off to visit Pat Pong Street. I sat in the front seat where I struggled to buckle myself in, but the seat belt had been dismantled. The cab driver laughed at me as he swerved in and out of traffic. I decided that prayer would be my only protection. At one point he drove on the wrong side of the road, straight into the oncoming traffic. He swerved around the car ahead of us at the last possible second. After that I forced myself to relax by closing my eyes. I had given my life over to fate from the moment I had stepped onto the plane leaving LAX months ago. The cab dropped us off at the edge of Pat pong, teeming with high-energy nightlife. The area was a must-see according to all travel guides. Every night at Pat pong there was a market, similar to outdoor flea markets back in the States. Vendors lined the streets hawking a myriad of

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merchandise. These capitalists of the third world covered long tables with tee shirts, cassette tapes, fake watches, cheap aluminum earrings, and plastic purses. Pat pong differed from other the night markets in that it had more things for sale than most. Sex. It was for sale all over Pat pong. You could watch it or do it. The choice was inescapable and always available. There were so many choices, and varieties of sex it reminded me of a Western style supermarket with twenty brands of chicken soup for sale. Sex on Pat pong was everywhere and impossible to escape. I was totally unprepared for the sex we were confronted with, and I had grown up in Southern California where we visited Tijuana regularly. Tijuana was tame compared to Bangkok. As we walked down the street men leaned out of bars and sex clubs beckoning us to enter. Men ran up to us on the street and handed us fliers and cards graphically describing what we would see upon entering. These harried men attacked groups of tourists, begging and pulling at every foreigner they could lay a hand on. Then men grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the open door of a cabaret. "I'm a woman, why would I want to go to a brothel?" I demanded of him. He just laughed and pressed a paper flyer into my hand. "You got to read this!" Amy squealed waving a paper in front of my face. I reluctantly took it from her and read a list of available shows. The list included the following: the razor show, ping pong ball show, pussy opens coke bottle show, pussy and chop sticks show, pussy and fire show, lesbian, and fucking show. Amy and Andrew were jumping up and down with excitement. "We can't pass this up. How sick. No one will believe it back home!" Andrew cried feverishly. I did not want to go. I felt queasy and confused by all the commotion on the street. I convinced them that we should at least find the other members of our group. They agreed, and we pushed our way through the crowded streets. We stopped along the way to socialize with other tourists. We met some Australians. They had been traveling all over the world for the past two years. They said Thailand was their favorite country so far. They recommended we see a sex show. It was completely worth it they insisted. Next we ran into an English man we knew from the

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Mandarin Training Center in Taipei. "I just got back from Cambodia," he bragged. In 1989 both Vietnam and Cambodia were closed to foreign tourists. The Vietnam War was still a deep and bloody scar upon the people and the land. "Are you kidding me?" Amy said obviously very impressed. "I saw some really bad shit," his blue eyes looked wild. "Like what?" I asked, "Did you see houses stacked with skulls?" I'd seen this on a television documentary about the Khmer Rouge, the communist government party that had decimated the Cambodian people during the 1970s. He did not answer contemplating where he should tell us what he'd seen. "I saw stacks of hashish the size of hay stacks," he whispered dramatically. We were suitably impressed so he continued, "I also saw a bunch of German heroin addicts shooting up on the Thai-Cambodian border. They were just living there doing all kinds of shit." "How did you get into Cambodia?" Andrew wondered. In 1989, it was illegal for Westerners to enter the country. He said he had hired a guide to take him through the jungle. After he left I wondered out loud if he had even been in Cambodia at all. "I bet that guide just walked him around the jungle and then lied by saying they were in Cambodia." After a few more blocks we found our friends. They were loaded down with bags of junk. Marcus had a pile of tee shirts and Ling Ling had a bag full of pirated cassette tapes. "We got these shirts for eighty baht," he bragged. That was about two dollars and fifty cents. Veronica and Amy were close to each other whispering. Andrew leaned in to listen. "Let's go," Amy said pulling my arm. "Where?" I asked warily. "Sex show," she said, "Do you guys want to go with us?" she asked Marcus and Ling Ling. Marcus, a Baptist declined. Ling Ling, a Mormon declined as well. They had better morals that

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we did. Amy, Vera, Andrew and I set off down the street. Amy and Andrew began negotiating with different sex salesmen. I felt embarrassed but not enough to run away after Marcus and Ling Ling. I was a woman. How could I watch a sex show where women were being exploited? How could these women subject themselves to such degradation? At that point I believed women everywhere could make personal choices and determine their futures, just as I could do. I did not want to waste my money supporting such an industry. Amy and Andrew found a guide. The young teen boy promised us we could "look" for free. We followed him across the busy street filled with revelers on foot. It was like Carnival in Brazil. We followed the skinny boy down an alley off the main drag. I felt my usual paranoia creeping up and thought about warning my friends, but it was no use; they would just mock me for being so cautious. The boy turned the corner and climbed a flight of stairs. We followed. The nightclub was not large. The lights inside were dimmed, and everything glowed neon under the black lights. The stage was vividly lit with blue show lights. The elongated room had a stage running down the middle. It looked like a catwalk for a fashion show. Along the walls paralleling the stage was a line of bar stools and small stationary tables. We chose to sit along the wall away from the stage. I sat between Andrew and Vera leaning back comfortably against a carpeted wall. Amy sat across from us. The club was mostly empty. I saw a few figures sitting on the other side of the room against the wall. Momentarily, a young Thai girl approached to take our drink order. She looked very young probably sixteen or seventeen. She stood about five feet four and was very thin with spindly arms and legs. Her dark brown hair hung down her back in long spirals. Her eyes were round, and her lips were full. Her complexion was a flawless, smooth caramel color. Around her breast and hips, she wore a band of white silk. She was not wearing shoes. When she smiled at us and her teeth glowed yellow in the florescent black lights. She stared at me intently, and I stared back puzzled. Suddenly, I became self-conscious of my androgynous appearance. My shoulder length hair was pulled back tight behind my neck, and I was not wearing makeup. I was dressed in dark

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skinny jeans and a man's tee shirt. On my feet, I wore white Converse high tops. Andrew was wearing the same outfit. The girl took our order and disappeared behind a door. She reappeared carrying a tray with four bottles of Coors Light. As she approached I noted that she looked like an Asian model in a beer commercial. When set the tray down and we grabbed them like a group of thirsty sailors. As we finished our first beers Synthetic pop music blared out of speakers just above my head and the show began. To open the show, two lean teenage girls sashayed down the center of the stage. They were both completely naked with long hair down their backs. The girls parted and stood at either end of the stage where two poles protruded up from the stage. With an attempt at synchronization, they wrapped their hands around the poles and began to swing their narrow hips around and around like untrained belly dancers. The girls gyrated not even attempting to match the beat of the disco pulsations. I was shocked, stunned and embarrassed. "I cannot believe I am watching this," I hissed at Amy. She smiled bobbing her head in time with the music. Vera was sipping her beer and observing the spectacle with interest. She was probably taking mental notes for a paper she was planning to write. I looked away from the stage disgusted and disturbed. Two foreign couples entered the bar while the girls were warming up the stage. They were middle-aged tourists from Europe or Australia. Without a hint of disapproval, they sat down at the stage gazing up at the girl. They turned to each other and began talking, and waving for a waitress to serve them drinks. The two dancers finished their routine and left the stage as a girl in her early twenties appeared on stage carrying a chair. She sat down and began a demonstration of the amazing capabilities of female genitalia. "How can she do that?" Amy exclaimed.

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Amy and Vera began a debate on whether it was just a visual trick. I concentrated on the woman as she pulled a thread with needles from between her legs. As I watched the pornographic display, I became desensitized. The shocking sight became amusing and unreal. I did not turn away with disgust or embarrassment. Instead, I joined the debate. "She must have a tampon inside that has needles in it, and then she just pulls them out," I theorized. Good thing I became desensitized early on in the show because what followed would have been so shocking to my previously innocent eyes I would have fainted had I walked in on the middle of this act. I now refer to it as the "lesbian orgy shower sequence." Mounted to the ceiling above the stage was a shower head. A strobe light pulsed as water sprayed on three thin girls rolling around the stage, cuddling and kissing each other. Amy, Vera, Andrew and I hooted with shocked laughter. The couple in front backed away so they wouldn't get wet. As we were eyeing the shower scene, our young waitress returned. She cast an eye toward Andrew maneuvering around his three female companions to get closer. She leaned in to whisper in his ear and as she did her hair brushed my beer. I grabbed my beer with disgust, pulling it away from her while thinking, "I don't want this prostitute contaminating my beer!" The girl turned to look at me earnestly. She fastened her deep brown eyes on mine, and we stared at each other. I held my gaze not looking away. "May I shake your hand?" she asked with a soft voice. I almost refused then offered my hand to her. She took my large hand with cool, lithe fingers and we shook hands slowly up and down. She was only a few years younger than I, but she seemed like a child. She smiled warmly at me, her eyes sparkling, "You are very beautiful,” she stated in accented English. She turned to Andrew and asked him whether he would like a private room and a girl for himself. Andrew politely declined. We ordered another round of beers, and the girl walked away swaying her narrow hips seductively.

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"They act as if prostitution is normal," Vera observed, "They talk about sex as though you are ordering food." "I guess it is nothing to them," Andrew noted, "It's just as if they are typing letters or answering phones in an office." I pondered what Andrew said as I sipped another luke warm Coors Light. It struck me as pitiful and profane. Prostitution was simply a job a woman took because she didn't have the education or opportunity to take one as an administrative assistant. The women accepted their plight and maintained a decent attitude, what else could they do? In America most women worked in low level office or retail jobs, those were the main options offered by the economy. In Thailand, a developing nation, overrun by wealthy tourists looking for kinky sex with underage girls, there were not many other options. It was also a county where women were regarded as completely inferior to men. Even their religion endorsed and maintained the view. The Buddhism of Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia was a branch known as the "lesser vehicle," or Hinayana Buddhism. Technically, 95% of the Thai people practiced Theravada Buddhism, another branch within the Hinayana school of thought. Theravada was a Buddhist branch with a more limited view on who could and who could not attain Nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth. In short, men were first in line and the ones who were eligible for enlightenment were the monks. The entire country was teeming with crowds of smiling, barefoot boys clothed in saffron robes running around holding metal bowls and begging for coins and food. These youngsters were novice monks, or peasant boys sent to live in monasteries that provided them with food and education. Historically, the only way a poor child could receive an education was by living in a monastery as a novice monk. Girls and women were not given the opportunity to serve as Buddhist nuns as they were in the countries of Northern Asia. Women in Southeast Asia participated as lay people, not clergy, and their best hope for ultimately achieving Nirvana was to be reincarnated as a man in their next life. So while the little boys studied the Sutras in the monasteries, the little girls were prepping for a life spent in dark bars serving visiting foreigners.

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More likely than not, within a poor family, a girl child was a burden, just another mouth to feed and a descendant who could not take care of the elderly or the ancestors. If a mountain girl from Burma, Laos or rural Thailand was sold into the sex slavery, which sacrifice might actually save her parents, brothers, and baby siblings from starvation? It was overwhelming to contemplate and hard to accept from my elevated status as a well fed, well-educated girl within a family of three daughters. What would my parents have been forced to do if they'd had three daughters in a country without jobs? As the lithe waitress looped back to our table and I thought to myself, "There is no difference between us. I could be her if I had been born here. And she could be I." Vera, Amy and I began discussing the conditions the women were forced to life in. We hypothesized about how frequently they had been pregnant or had suffered miscarriages. We wondered if they were married and if their husbands accepted sex work as a necessary evil. We wondered if they were owned by the bar managers or forced to serve for a certain number of years before being released? Did they make money and if so, how much? I guessed that they made a couple dollars a day. And what happened when they crept up on age thirty? Were they dead by then from disease? The late 1980s was a naive time period when AIDS was just beginning to spread like wild fire across the poor nations of Asia and Africa. Thailand would ultimately become one of its worst victims but then, it was not something people discussed and it didn't even come up in our conversation. After about an hour of watching naked women dance we got bored and decided it was time to find something more interesting to do, like shop for clothes. We asked our childlike waitress for the check. She left, and a huge Thai bouncer approached. "You must pay 300 baht,” he demanded trying to intimidate us. "What?" screamed Vera. "No way!" Amy chimed in, "You said we could look for free and that's what we did. We were looking not doing!"

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"Hold on," I said wanting to reconcile the matter without causing a scene, "We owe 300 baht total?" That was about fifteen dollars U.S, which did not seem like too much for the four of us. "No," the bouncer responded angrily, "300 Baht each!" "Oh my God!" Vera yelled. "Look, there is no way we are each going to pay 300 baht," Andrew reasoned with a business like tone, "Let me see the manager." "I am the manager,” the muscle man declared. "I will talk to those guys over there," Andrew announced getting up and walking over to a group of foreign men at the entrance. The angry manager started to hassle us demanding the money. "Let's just pay him," I said feeling frightened. "I think not!" she said rolling her eyes, "Don't be a wimp. This is a total rip off." "But," I said, "we did stay awhile and we saw quite a bit." She turned away looking for help. "Look," I said to the big man, “I will pay you and then we'll take off." I pulled out a colorful roll of money covered with the faces of Thailand's royal family. I peeled off 300 baht and handed it over. He snatched the money and gazed down at Vera. She ran to another table asking the other patrons what to do. Amy and I looked for Andrew. He was in the middle of an argument with three overbuilt Thai bouncers. Tension was in the air, and I felt nervous that we were going to take a licking by the bar guys. Vera was hysterical and Amy, although calm, looked around for an escape. Suddenly, four American sailors came down a staircase. Amy pounced on them, "You have to help us! These guys want us to pay 300 baht each! That is crazy!" The men ignored our pleas and wandering away to sit in front of the stage. "Amy, get real. Those guys are paying customers!" I said sharply. "Let's just run for it," She suggested.

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Vera was waving her arms around talking to two couples that came in after us. They were Australian. "Outrageous!" a woman declared. She was ticked off because they had been told to pay 300 baht as well. Amy suggested that we run away. "Let's just walk out as a large group," One Australian recommended, "They can't hurt us if we are together." We gathered and walked over to the entrance where Andrew was being harassed. The Australian men joined in the argument. I turned away and looked back at the stage where America's finest were seating gazing up as the next act began. It was the grand finale. It was the "fucking" part of the show we'd seen advertised on the flyers. I watched a scrawny teenage boy come on stage followed by a girl who looked as young as he. Maybe it was a virgin fucking show, I though cynically. "Now!" Amy yelled grabbing my arm and pulling me out the door. As a group of eight, we crashed through the door and smashed our way down the rickety wooden staircase. We raced around the corner and ran as fast as we could, tripping over each other through a narrow alley. We raced toward the Pat pong night market. My feet pounded the pavement and my heart beat furiously as adrenaline course through my body. I didn't know whether the four Thai bouncers were pursuing us or not. As we reached, the crowded street of Pat pong we dispersed. Amy and I turned and merged with a group of foreign shoppers. We halted next to a table filled with pirated cassette tapes. Vera and Andrew skidded into the back of us. "Check out these tapes!" Amy remarked, “They even have the new U2 album." She asked the salesgirl to recommend a local Thai band then proceeded to buy the tape. After our escape, we went back to wandering the streets, buying a mix of items from drinks to tee shirts. We peered into a few clubs to see what else Pat pong had to offer. The clubs were all

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similarly sleazy. Some had huge cages on stage where women thrashed against the bars. One club had a chorus line of transvestites performing choreographed dances. Back at the Baptist hostel, Andrew, Amy, and Vera retold the others about our adventure and how I had given in by paying the money. Everyone laughed at how gullible and innocent I was to pay such an exorbitant amount. For several days, we retold the story embellishing the facts to add drama about the dingy sex bar and our narrow escape from the four cheesy bad guys.

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Chapter 2

Bang Saen & Chaing Mai, Thailand

"This place sucks," Andrew decided after four days in Bangkok, "We got to get out of here." Amy, Andrew, and I were seated at his hotel pool drinking warm soda through straws in red cans decorated the words Coca-cola written in Thai script. I thought about keeping the soda can as a souvenir. The usual crowd of obese men accompanied by tiny underage girls surrounded us. Andrew perused his guidebook looking for a suitable destination. "This is Thailand, aren't we supposed to visit a beach?" he asked rhetorically. We visited the Sheraton concierge desk and asked for a beach recommendation. The clerk told us to go to Pattaya, the premiere beach resort of Thailand. She also dropped insider information that a large U.S. Naval ship had just arrived in port the day before. No way did I want to go to a beach town overrun with horny sailors. I'd seen that same group of sailors back in Hong Kong so I knew what they would be up to in Pattaya. "No, we don't want to go there," I said, "Too many tourists. We want to go where the locals go." The girl looked at us strangely then recommended Bang Saen, which was closer to Bangkok than Pattaya, only a three-hour bus trip as opposed to a six-hour bus ride. We raced back to our rooms to pack, and then headed for the bus station. We discussed our travel options and agreed to go first-class since it was such a long journey. Our round trip tickets cost about eight dollars U.S.

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The bus was a modern tour bus with air conditioning and a television mounted in front. Andrew and I sat in the first seats by the driver. Amy sat behind us so she could take a nap across the double seat. For the entire three-hour trip I watched kick boxing, the national sport of Thailand. It is an extremely violent sport where two men face each other in a boxing ring without wearing helmets of padding of any kind. The sprightly men continually spring into the air and kick each other, preferably in the face. Occasionally one man is hurt so badly he bleeds profusely, but this does not discontinue the match. After several rounds I came to admire the agility and dexterity the athletes demonstrated. The blood didn't bother me after a few hours, and I began to view it as a graceful yet deadly dance. The bus dropped us off on a dusty road, and we wandered along at sunset looking for a cheap hotel. Bang Saen was a sleepy town without the hotels and bars we were expecting to find. Of course today, twenty years later, Bang San is a bustling beach town but back then it was off the beaten track and ignored by the international jet set who preferred to party in Pattaya or Phuket. There were very few cars on the road and no one wandering the streets but us. We passed a couple warehouses but didn't see any houses or places to eat. The road ran along the beach, a long narrow spit of golden hued sand fringed by a long line of mature coconut palms. It was humid, but a slight breeze off the Gulf of Thailand kept us cool. There was a sidewalk paralleling the sea. The ocean was serene, and water lapped the shoreline as if it were a lake. The gentle waters of the gulf flowed out to merge with the South China Sea to the east. Tragically, the scene was not so serene decades later when on December 26, 2004 the largest earthquake ever recorded by a seismograph rocked the Indian Ocean unleashing a Tsunami of epic proportions. Thailand was hit hard by the killer waves. Up to 8,000 people lost their lives along the beaches of Thailand. I was pregnant with my twin boy and girl at the time and as I watched the horror on CNN I thought back to the quiet beaches and of all the children, local Thais and tourists who played along the shore every morning. The Tsunami horrified me and I cried in disbelief as the news crews covered stories of children separated from their parents and victims who watched their lovers torn away by the 30-foot waves. The event was so raw and

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unfair to the people of Southeast Asia. I couldn't shake the images from my mind and even dreamed of huge waves crashing over me and dragging me away. My old roommate Mandy was living in Bangkok with her Swiss husband and four children when the Tsunami hit. I immediately shot her off an email to check on her safety. She had been in Europe when the Tsunami hit but conjectured that if they had been home she and her family would have been on the beach in Bang San along with everyone else enjoying a bright sunny day over Christmas break. But, way back then the ocean was calm and a gentle breeze stirred the palm fronds overhead. Amy, Andrew, and I wanted to find a room where we could see the water. After meandering for several blocks we approached a two-story bungalow facing the water. We entered the lobby, which looked more like a family room than a hotel entrance. A smallish, lightweight husband and thin wife looked at us oddly as Andrew dragged in a name brand suitcase while Amy and I lugged in camping backpacks. We must have been an odd combination of travelers from their perspective. Andrew was Chinese American, but his appearance could have been that of a wealthy Thai citizen. He stood about five feet seven with a nice physique and a handsome face with sexy, almond shaped eyes. Many Thai people were of Han Chinese descent so it was not uncommon to see Chinese looking people speaking Thai. Amy and I towered above Andrew both of us over five feet nine and probably looking like identical Barbie doll twins to the innkeepers. Our appearance must have been even more confounding because we were both dressed like men with broken down jeans, formless tee-shirts, and dusty hiking boots. Our appearance was a sharp contrast to the Thai women who were slender, petite, and pretty. "We want one room,” I said holding up my index finger. The husband sitting behind the front desk wrinkled his face in confusion. "One room?" He asked holding up one finger. "Yes, one room," I repeated, "with two beds." He turned to his wife, and they discussed the matter in hushed voices. "O.K," he said giving us thumbs up.

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The little wife smiled and handed us a key then led us up a staircase. The husband and a few other Thai men in the lobby had suspicious grins on their faces as we stomped up the stairs. Our room was small but tidy. There were two double beds pushed against the walls and a ceiling fan overhead. A balcony with dingy French doors opened up to a view of the beach across the street. The sun was setting behind the hills to the west and glowing dusty pink with gray streaks. I stood on the balcony and inhaled deeply with satisfaction at the sight before me. I felt like a fully-fledged world traveler as I watched the colorful sky blend from pink to purple over an unfamiliar ocean thousands of miles from my home beaches in California. While we were waiting in the lobby of the hotel Andrew had picked up a pamphlet advertising sex. It pictured two lithe Thai women preparing a bubble bath. On the back, the young women were shown taking baths with Thai men. Inside was a description of the restaurant and all the activities that were available for men to enjoy. It boasted that foreign women were also available upon request. After deliberating for a few moments we decided to go to the brothel for dinner, we were starving and we didn't see any open restaurants on our way into town. After washing up we tromped down the stars back into the lobby. The owners were sitting behind the front desk, and a few old men were hanging around chewing beetle nuts. They starred at us with open curiosity. I smiled and waved a goodbye. They waved back smiling. On the street, we waited for a taxi to come by. We waited about ten minutes, but no cars came around. Bang Saen was a drastic change from Bangkok where taxi drivers fought viciously for customers. Slowly we meandered down the street hoping a car would pick us up sooner or later. Momentarily a white Japanese pickup truck pulled up alongside. The driver, accompanied by a small child, waved for us to come over, and then asked whether we needed a taxi ride. I had never seen a taxi truck before so I was suspicious whether he was really a real taxi driver and not a kidnapper. "I doubt this is a taxi," I observed dubiously. "So what? As long as he can take us to the club, it works for me," Andrew said pulling out the pamphlet and showing the driver.

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The truck driver began to laugh. He motioned for us to climb in back of his truck. We crawled into the truck bed and to my surprise there were wooden benches mounted on either side of the truck. Maybe this was a taxi after all. I sat in the middle above the right tire. Andrew sat next to me, and Amy lay down across the opposite bench. She closed her eyes for a quick nap, which she could do anytime, anywhere. The driver pulled back onto the paved road and sped down the desolate nighttime street. Our journey to the Brothel lasted a long time, and I wondered if the driver were lost or taking us to some isolated place where he could mug us. We hadn't thought to ask him where the brothel was or what it would cost to get there. I forced myself not to worry because at this point we were in the back of a speeding truck and there wasn't anything I could do to escape. Instead, I admired the night scenery as we sped along the empty road. The moon was full, lighting up the sky with a fluorescent glow. I noticed rickety shacks and dilapidated warehouses scattered through wide lots of land. Untended grass sprouted between the simple huts, and I saw laundry hanging from taut ropes swaying in the breeze. The road was lined with the same tall, mature coconut palms that were growing along the beachfront. After about half an hour we pulled up next to a tall, square fortress that looked like a nondescript office building. The driver stopped and jumped out of the cab to help us clamber over the sides of the truck bed. We paid him without complaint and even gave him a modest tip. Then we approached the backwoods brothel. Two boys wearing tuxedos opened the heavy glass doors and ushered us inside. We entered a well-lit, expansive room with a gaudy chandelier hanging above our heads. An eager hostess ran to greet us. We explained that we were looking for dinner, and she led us to the dining area, which overlooked an empty dance floor. She handed us menus and left us to peruse the photos of main dishes. She raced back to our table with glasses of water, and we ordered piles of food immediately. We were the only customers anywhere to be seen. During our dinner feast we were subjected to another melodramatic performance by a slinky Thai siren howling and cooing as she rolled her eyes toward heaven. I attempted to ignore the

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amateurish singing and syncopated drum pulsations as I drank Thai beer and noshed on a dish of clear, rice noodles and bean sprouts. As we ate, Andrew again attracted the attention of a local woman offering sex. The slim girl wearing a beautiful tight red dress ignored Amy and me completely, not mistaking us for girlfriends or wives. The Thai people must have assumed that it would be impossible and unlikely for such a dashing young chap to be romantically tied to overgrown, uncouth foreign women as we. Andrew refused the woman's invitation, but he turned his head to watch her slide away smoothly on spiky high heels. He took a deep breath and seemed lost in thought as Amy and I ramble on about how great the food tasted and how crappy the countryside looked. As we cackled and drank another beer, Andrew slipped from his seat and followed the woman out of the dining room and up a flight of wide, carpeted stairs. Our eyes followed him, watching him succumb to the seductive powers of a foreign land he had decided to investigate. I was not shocked or disappointed in him. Thailand did weird things to normal people. The ambiance of the county made foreigners feel as if the old rules no longer applied. Tourists felt liberated to do as they pleased: indulge, abuse, or accept. I had given up my judgment and pity because my ingrained Christian mortality no longer made sense in the tropics of a developing nation. "Shoot," Amy sneered," Now we'll be here all night." "Oh man," I said with malice, “he could have at least told us when he was coming back." We saw the hostess and flagged her down. "Excuse me madam," Amy said politely, “can you please tell us when our friend will be back?" She nodded and walked away. Neither of us remarked again on Andrew's absence. We began to discuss the awesome discos we'd experienced in Hong Kong. The woman returned and said that Andrew would be finished in one hour. She was holding a written message from Andrew. She handed Amy the note, which read, "Please wait for me, and don’t leave." "We're supposed to wait?" I asked with irritation, "The music here sucks."

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The waitress gazed at us intently. What did she think about us sitting in the dining room, waiting for our male companion? "Do you have men?" I asked spontaneously. Amy burst out a sharp laugh. "I am serious," I continued heckling the woman, “do you have men who give massages?" The woman was caught off guard by the question. She became flustered, not sure how to respond. Amy picked up on cue, "Yes, you should have men. What are we supposed to do while we wait?" "Men?" the hostess asked cautiously. "Sure," I stated with indignation, “Why not? "No, no," she said seriously, “no men." "Too bad. What about women for women?" I continued trying to push her buttons. The woman was taken aback and responded softly, “No women for women." "Well," I finished, “that is really too bad." The woman left, and Amy and I began to discuss the gap in services. "Maybe they have only male prostitution for gay men." I suggested. "I guess they don't expect foreign women to want sex with Thai men," Amy hypothesized as she played with a leftover piece of papaya An hour later, Andrew returned sat down at the table. "Let's go," he said pulling on his suit jacket. Amy and I pulled on our worn, padded Chinese style military jackets and walked out of the brothel. Outdoors we scanned the street for a taxi. Eventually, a pickup truck pulled up in front of the brothel. It was the same driver who had driven us from Bang Saen. His child was no longer in the cab. It was midnight and we were cold so we piled into the truck cab as the driver smiled at us knowingly and turned in a wide U turn back toward the sleepy beach town.

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***

"So what happened?" I asked when the lights were out and we were in bed under the covers. Andrew had one bed to himself and Amy and I shared the bed next to the window. Andrew was quiet for a few seconds before responding, "I didn't have sex with a prostitute," he assured us. "Yeah, so what happened?" I felt entitled to know. I was asking with a mixture of voyeuristic curiosity, repulsion, and maybe even jealousy. "It's so weird," he began. "What?" Amy asked kindly. "I don't know why I went," he added guiltily. We were silent, not knowing why he went either. Was it to prove something? Was it because he was curious and tempted by the seductive woman? Or was it because this was Thailand and everything was permissible? "God," he exhaled, "don't ever tell anybody what I did." "What did you do?" I probed. "It was all so strange. I went upstairs and there were these girls sitting on couches behind a glass wall just watching T.V. I was there with some other men, Europeans. We were told to pick a girl. Each girl wore a number tag on her chest. They told us to pick a number." "What number did you pick?" I asked as if it mattered. "I picked the number thirty."

"Was she pretty?" I asked as if he were telling me about a classmate at school. "She was the prettiest one there. She looked really young, maybe seventeen or eighteen." "Tell us what she looked like," Amy coaxed. He related that she had long spiral permed hair, which was popular among the bar girls we had seen on Pat pong. She was thin with narrow hips and shoulders. Her skin was smooth, and tan

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and her face and eyes were gentle. He said she came to him willingly without apprehension and led him to a room then asked what he wanted from her. He was scared and embarrassed so he didn't answer. She began listing off prices for services she could provide. Andrew didn't want sex so he requested a warm bubble bath like the photo we'd seen in the pamphlet. He undressed and climbed into the bathtub by himself. She did not undress or bathe with him, he claimed. "She looked fine," he said with wonder, “I mean, she didn't have any bruises on her skin as if someone were abusing her." Andrew was silent, wallowing in guilt as we all drifted off to sleep. None of us ever mentioned the brothel incident again.

***

After we returned to our friends at the Baptist Mission we bragged about our relaxing two-day excursion to the beach. They were envious that we had escaped the overwhelming heat and crowds of Bangkok. They had done some sightseeing and gone to bed early deciding to avoid Pat pong and its obscene night market. They were ready to leave town, "We are taking the train up north to Chaing Mai," Marcus informed us, "Do you want to go?" "That sounds good to me," I agreed readily, "When are we leaving?" "Tomorrow night at 5:00 P.M." When I told Andrew that we were going up north to the hill county he was disappointed. He wanted to go south to the famous island of Phuket. "Andrew," I explained, “I am so sick of the tourist traps and the prostitution that follows foreigners. Phuket will just be a bunch of crazy Aussies and heroin addicted Germans. Chaing Mai is supposed to be the real Thailand. I want to see the countryside." Andrew and I haggled for a while longer and he even started to sway me until I reminded him that he and I could visit a beach back in California anytime we wanted. A beach was just a beach, I argued. I was attending school at U.C. Santa Barbara, which was located on a beach, and

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Andrew had attended U.C.S.B for two years before he'd transferred to U.C. Berkeley so it wasn't as if we hadn't spent quality time partying on beaches already. My final argument was that Taiwan, where we were living for the year, was an island replete with gorgeous, uncrowded beaches. In the end, Andrew capitulated and decided to accompany us north. He wasn't at all thrilled with the prospect of our trip to the rural countryside, but I think he feared what might happen if he traveled alone to the rambunctious beaches of Phuket. The next day, Amy, Andrew, and I rose early and raced through the city to catch up on our sightseeing. We visited the Royal Palace, also called the Grand Palace, an elaborate and spiraling complex that once housed the Thai royal family and functioned as the seat of government prior to the twentieth century. Over the decades, the city developed around the temple and government buildings. Thailand is now a constitutional monarchy, and the royal family is pictured on coinage, bills and in numerous photos posted in buildings and restaurants across the country. One historical fact that Thai people recounted often was that their country was the only one in Asia that had never been colonized by the Europeans. The compound housed over one hundred colorful structures with orange-colored tile roofs and towering spirals reaching toward the heavens. A white wall surrounded the entire complex. In the center was the main building, which originally housed the King and his family. The building itself was typical of European architecture with long narrow windows, white colonnades, and a marble balcony. The roof however, was constructed of towering gold spirals that were typical of Thai architecture. It was interesting to see the two styles of architecture married within one building. In the front corner of the complex was the most sacred Buddhist site in the country, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. We were required to take off our shoes to enter the temple. Inside the temple, we viewed the small jade carving of Buddha that was housed in a glass box overhead. The interior was painted with murals telling the story of Buddha's altercation with a demon named Mara. We also viewed a small-scale replica of Ankor Wat, the famous temple in Cambodia. The statues and murals in and around the temple were reminiscent of Indian Hindu temples I'd seen in magazines and books. The diverse architecture of the temples and office

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buildings enabled me to see how influenced Thailand had been by other cultures such as Hindu, Khmer and European. The Buddhist temples of Thailand were very different from the Chinese temples I had seen in Taiwan. After checking off the box for the main tourist destination in Bangkok we hopped in a taxi and sped off to explore the highly rated Shangri-La hotel. It was a nice western style hotel with while marble floors and airy, open dining rooms. Fancy hotels did not impress me at that stage in my life so I was bored and under whelmed by the generic look of the lobby and pool area that lacked any reference to local architecture or culture. The air was humid, and the sun felt so intense on my face and arms I was sure my skin would be burned scarlet red by the end of the day. I was tired of walking and sightseeing and inhaling smog while sitting on the hard wooden bench of a Tuk-tuk as the driver dove in and out of traffic. The streets of the city were filled with a constant crush of traffic jams and noxious fumes spewing from a stream of diesel trucks and buses. We wandered away from the Shangri-La Hotel and down toward one of the wide filthy canals that cuts through the city. We spotted a line of motorboats tied to a dock and Andrew who loved boats raced ahead to see whether we could take a boat ride. He struck up a conversation with an old man attending the boats. Andrew asked whether he could take us on a boat tour along the canal. The man acquiesced, and we plopped our weary bodies down on the metal seats of a rickety powerboat. Life vests were not found anywhere on board. The elderly Thai man jumped in after us, ripped at the motor cord and the engine roared to life, Within a matter of minutes we were tearing through the filthy waters of a wide canal flanked on both sides by an odd mishmash of wealth and poverty. We speed past colonial mansions and plywood shacks built on the banks of the water. I saw gardeners bent over expansive green lawns of luxury hotels. Teenage boys in cut off jeans lounged around dilapidated homes jutting out into the murky water. Children in shredded shirts and shorts chased each other along the shoreline. Ferries, crammed with Japanese tourists and plump European men cruised by our small craft. The tourists on board leaned over the railing shooting photos of the ostentatious mansions and the sinking huts. Amy, a talented photographer, pulled out her Canon AE1 with the new telephoto lens she purchased in Hong

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Kong and began documenting life on the canal like a photojournalist for National Geographic. Andrew was sitting at attention in his seat so happy to be on the water. He begged the captain to let him drive the boat and was instantly indulged. As Andrew took control of the helm, I leaned back and gazed up at the dusky gray sky. A cool, moist breeze caressed my face and arms as I inhaled deeply feeling satisfied. This was definitely the best way to sight-see in Bangkok. ***

That evening at four thirty we arrived at the train station ready to embark on our journey north. The station was packed with travelers. There was nowhere to sit in the colorless, open air, concrete terminal. The line to buy train tickets wound through the station like an endless chain of firecrackers. People were irritable as they rubbed against each other and vied for the best position in line. Our loosely bound group elected Marcus to buy round trip tickets to Chaing Mai. We loaded him down with colorful paper bills and then abandoned him to fend for himself. Amy, Andrew, and I took off in the other direction to explore the station and the surrounding streets while the others headed off toward the food stalls. The station was located in a rough looking neighborhood. We settled down in a cafeteria and drank boxed fruit drink. I bought the Bangkok Post, an English language newspaper. After twenty minutes we headed back toward Marcus who was sitting with our band of haggard looking travelers. He informed us that he had purchased firstclass tickets in an air-conditioned car with pullout beds. The train was departing at six o'clock that evening. "How long is the trip?" Amy asked. "Thirteen hours," he responded. "At least we can sleep," I said naively. We boarded the train an hour later with a group of Europeans and Australians. We were probably the only passengers who could afford the ten-dollar tickets. Then again, maybe we were the only ones dumb enough to want to travel in an air-conditioned car. It was unbearably frigid

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inside and impossible to open the windows to let in warmer air. I was thankful I had brought the down sleeping bag I'd purchased in Taiwan. I put on a sweatshirt and a jacket. We started socializing with the other groups. One group was composed of three college students from Europe and one from Australia. A man sitting next to Amy and me was a doctor from England. He was arrogant, condescending and rude to us the entire trip. He started the discussion by asking us whom we'd voted for in the recent election that George H. W. Bush had won. We replied that we were hardcore liberal Democrats. He made a sarcastic comment that our votes must not have counted for much. From there it went downhill. The doctor gave Amy and me an oral dissertation about how horrible the American military acted around the world and how the C.I.A was a bunch of criminals and how dumb Americans were compared to Europeans. Amy and I tried to defend the honor of our nation but as a young woman, I was not very informed about U.S. Foreign Policy. I'd barely learned about the Vietnam War in high school. In retrospect, I am glad he did not give me a quiz on Asian geography because I probably would have failed. All I knew of Thailand's geographic location was that bordered Burma and Laos, and the only reason I knew that was because I had heard about the Golden Triangle and the drugs that were available up there. Around nine o'clock, a primly dressed train attendant came through and converted our seats into beds. I slept below Amy and across from Andrew. A thin curtain separated the beds from the aisle, providing some privacy. I crawled into my compartment, curled up in my sleeping bag, wearing long underwear, and gazed out the window. We were traveling at night so I couldn't see anything other than the moon just above the horizon looking exactly the same as it did back home in California. I thought about how far away I was from my family and friends and how nothing in Asia was remotely similar to my previously hermetically sealed life in the concrete Suburbs of Los Angeles. The only reminded that I was even located on the same planet was the familiar sight of the moon, constantly gazing down on me like an unblinking eye. It was impossible to sleep. The train rattled and shook on the old iron tracks. The air conditioner blasted freezing cold air directly on my face. I dozed a bit and finally gave up trying

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by five o'clock in the morning. I converted my bed back into a seat and watched out the window as the scenery flashed by. We were speeding through an area of lush valley of verdant, steep hills. I noted that the slopes were carpeted with low dense bush punctuated by banana trees and coconut palms. On a distant hill, a fire burned. Red flames leap up consuming the surrounding forest. Black smoke wafted into the early morning sky. Were villagers clearing land for crops? I saw more of these fires along the route north and then again on the way back to Bangkok. I was from Los Angeles so I had seen many hillside fires in my lifetime, but it was different in Northern Thailand. People were not fighting the fires they were setting them.

*** There was a white pickup truck waiting for us at the train station in Chaing Mai. Marcus and the others in our group had befriended an American girl a few days earlier in Bangkok. Her name was Sara; She was spending her junior year of college studying Chinese in Beijing. She was, like us, on Chinese New Year break from school and had come to Chiang Mai, Thailand to visit a family she had lived with during her junior year of high school. She had recommended Chaing Mai as the best place to see the "real “Thailand, as opposed to the fake, obscene Thailand back in Bangkok. The owners of the Toyota truck were Sara's "Thai parents.” I was surprised that anyone up here could afford an imported truck; the place looked positively impoverished. Sara ran to greet her "Thai" sister, a nineteen-year-old girl named Lalana. The girls hugged and kissed with excitement and affection. A tall, husky American man with a dusty reddish brown beard stood by smiling at Sara. She turned to the man, jumped up into his arms and yelled, "Hi Dad!" With a wave of her hand, Sara introduced the eight of us as friends she'd just met a few days ago. We all shook hands with one another. Then they invited us to get in the back of the pickup. We had so much luggage, it filled the truck bed so we had to climb on top of the bags for the ride to the youth hostel. I sat next to Sara's Dad, Bob. He told me how much he loved the Thai people and that he and his family came to visit every year. His son, also in college, was down in Phuket, alone. Bob talked about his adopted Thai family and dreamed of bringing the daughter to study

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in the United States. The truck dumped us off outside a cheap hostel recommended by Bob. God knows where we would have spent the night without Bob and Sara's help. "We will come back tomorrow and take you to a temple," Sara promised waving goodbye. Our group of ragtag, sleep-deprived travels dragged our bags into the hostel, which looked like some one's backyard. The sleeping quarters were more like small sheds containing three cots each. Behind the rooms was a shaded patio area used as the restaurant. A small shack functioned as the kitchen. As soon as I was settled in my hut, I returned to the patio for drinks. I ordered fresh coconut milk, which was served in a tall glass over ice. The liquid was white, like cloudy water. I sipped the slightly bitter liquid and chomped on the ice. I felt cold although the temperature was above eighty degrees and humid. I shivered as a breeze passed through the courtyard. Amy and I spend the rest of the day strolling down the quiet streets of Chaing Mai. We discovered a beautiful temple near our hostel. A high concrete wall protected the compound. The Temple was tiny compared to the temples we had seen back in Bangkok. All temples in Thailand though seemed top-heavy with short walls and huge, overpowering rooftops of gilded gold and sloping down and back up in sharp curves. This temple had a stately roof with a gold surface and intricately carved designs. The center of the temple raised two stories into a tall multi leveled pagoda. The tower was a spiral of red and blue sections that were accented with gold tips that protruded like daggers. The building was mostly rooftop and appeared top-heavy like the base would eventually be crushed under its weight. I wondered how such short wall could support such an enormous roof piled high with tiles and spires.The temple itself was built on a raised, white marble platform. Thick gold borders framed the entrance and the arched windows. Inside a group of boys wearing saffron robes ran wild, playing hide and seek and peeking out at tourists curiously. Amy took a few photos of the boys and then gave them a few coins as a tip. We looked at the statues and took our shoes off to enter the main temple. After a few more photos we left and went back to the street hoping to find some authentic Thai treasures to buy as souvenirs.

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Directly across the street we found a small store owned by a friendly Thai matron. Her shop was piled high with a treasure trove of colorful textiles. Hand woven bags, baggy drawstring pants, and loose blouses were folded neatly on long tables. Hundred of embroidered coin purses and shoulder bags hung from the ceiling. Long bolts of silk died in a kaleidoscope of colors were stacked on shelves against the walls. Displayed along the back wall we saw intricately designed carpets and wall hanging of Buddhist gods and demons. Amy loved fabric and began gathering piles of clothes and textiles. She held up a blouse and admired the fabric. I picked up a pair of indigo blue pants with drawstrings around the ankles and waist. The material had a course texture like hemp. Setting them down, I turned to a pile of brightly colored shoulder bags. They were simple in design. There were two rectangles of fabric sewed together and a hole cut in the upper half, creating the shoulder strap. The shopkeeper told me that they were used as book bags by school children in Burma, now called Myanmar. I bought ten of them knowing my friends back in Taipei and in the United States would love them. The cost was two dollars and fifty cents each. I bought the pants and a pair of shorts. Amy bought coin purses, an embroidered vest and several yards of fabric. We took photos of the shopkeeper then went back out to the street to photograph street scenes and locals. The next morning I felt sick. My body ached, and my sinuses were stuffed up. I did not feel bad enough to stay in bed though. Sara, Bob, and her Thai family showed up in the white pickup truck to take us sightseeing. My friends and I piled into the truck along with an Australian man we had met at the hostel. His wife and child were not joining us for the trip because they were both sick with fevers. The man, named Gerald, and his wife had been sailing around the world for the past seven years. Two years ago they had borne their son on an island near Fiji. Now they had decided to sell their sailboat and travel by land around Thailand and Burma until the son was five and needed to start school. Gerald was very excited to find out that Amy, Andrew, and I were from California. He said Australians identified with the California lifestyle. The temple was about ten miles outside town. We traveled on a newly paved road though hills covered in dense jungle for about twenty minutes. We arrived and parked in a gravel parking lot

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The Lunar Year (A.Murray)

that was already full with many, many cars. There was a crowd of over one hundred people milling around the parking lot buying drinks and trinkets from local women sitting behind metal tables. The temple itself was located high atop a steep hill. Trolley buses zoomed up and down the hill, shuttling people back and forth between the parking lot and the temple. We opted to walk up the mountain trail; a staircase made of stone and brink cutting through the thick jungle. As we marched up the hill hoards of other tourists joined us. I felt as though I was going to the zoo not a sacred Buddhist temple. I arrived at the temple huffing and puffing and sweating from so much exertion. The temple was disappointing, not much different from any other temple I'd already seen on the streets of Chaing Mai or in Bangkok. It had a gold Buddha in the main building that was topped by a massive roof made up of golden spires. After being in Asia for six months I was getting sick of Buddhist temples. What I liked best about the temple compound was the marvelous view of the valley below. I leaned against a stone banister and admired the panoramic view of lush, green jungle below me. Amy walked around the perimeter of the temple snapping photos of the stonework and the cute kids running around the grounds. I started feeling worse and sat down under the shade of a large Juniper tree to rest and drink water. I watched the crowd mill around taking photos of each other and stopping at kiosks to buy postcards. I felt as if I were at a Disneyland attraction rather than a holy shrine. On the descent down the mountain staircase I saw three young girls dressed in colorful, traditional clothing. I stopped to take their photo and as soon as they heard the snap of the shutter they leaped forward grabbing at my arms yelling, "Baht! Baht!" I sighed and asked how much they wanted for the photo. The girls held up three fingers. I dug through my bag to find thirty baht to hand each child. At the bottom of the hill, I again stopped to rest in the shade. Two women were selling coconut milk under a tree. A large pile of discarded coconuts surrounded them. They had two types of coconut, the dark, stringy coconuts and the smooth green coconuts the size of a large grapefruit. I pointed to the green coconuts and the stockier, older woman pulled out a long

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The Lunar Year (A.Murray)

machete and hacked off the top in one savage wallop. She inserted a straw and handed it to me in exchange for ten baht. I drained the clear, sour liquid in one deep slurp and then picked at the sides to eat the soft, fleshy white mean inside. I loved how available fresh coconut milk was here in Thailand. Back at the hostel I crawled into my down sleeping bag to take a nap. I was exhausted. Andrew wasn't feeling well either so he lay down in his cot next to mine, and we both slept for several hours. Amy woke me as the sun was setting. She invited me to go shopping with the group to a night market. Andrew refused to go because he felt sick. I forced myself out of bed and slouched out to the patio to buy some food. I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and orange juice. I felt terrible, but I didn't want to miss a shopping excursion to the local night market. I wandered through the night market in a daze. My brow was wet with sweat, and my hands shook. The outer edges of my vision were blurred, and I felt slightly hallucinogenic. I knew I was sick, but I desperately wanted to experience nightlife in Chaing Mai. I followed my companions through the streets, stopping to admire the trinkets and folk art sold by the northern Thai people. This market was not as lively or as sleazy as the night market on Pat pong in Bangkok. It was also smaller and quieter than the night markets in Taipei. Sara and her Thai sister were a great help when it came to bargaining. If they spotted one of us attempting to buy an item, they raced over and began shouting at the vendor in Thai. The vendor would shout back, and each side would waive their hands in the air until a price was settled upon. I was grateful for their help because I was completely incapable of bargaining and always felt guilty for trying to undercut such low prices in the first place. Amy and Andrew, on the other hand were highly skilled negotiators. A few days earlier, back in Bangkok, the three of were shopping and entered a shoe store. I saw some leather sandals I really liked. They were very simple with a flat, hard sole, and a wide band of leather that looped across the foot and a smaller band that looped over the big toe. "Look at these cool sandals," I cried waving Amy over, “These remind me of shoes in Tijuana. They look like hippie sandals from the 1960's."

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"Oh man these are great,“ she agreed. We knelled down to hunt through a disorganized pile of sandals looking for our size. The salesgirl came over to help us as Andrew came over to see what was going on. "Hey," he announced, “I want a pair too!" He diligently sorted through the pile looking for his size. After several minutes we each found a pair of sandals that would fit. That was when the trouble began. "How much?" Andrew asked. The sales girl quotes an outrageous price, about twenty dollars a pair. "Never mind," I said giving up hope. Andrew and Amy began negotiating with the girl, quoting her outrageously low prices like five dollars a pair. The girl responded by shaking her head vigorously. I grew embarrassed and wandered away to look at other items in the store. I overheard Andrew reasoning with the girl as if she could understand his logical pitch. He tried to reason with her that since we were buying three pairs at once we should get a very low price. The bargaining went on for some time. I grew impatient and went outside to wait. A few minutes later Amy and Andrew stormed out. They waited a minute then barged back in again. I leaned against the window waiting. Nothing was worth that much hassle to buy. Suddenly, Amy and Andrew emerged from the store holding a plastic bag with three pairs of sandals. "Here you go!" Amy said presenting me the shoes. "How much do I owe you?" I asked. "Eight dollars," she replied with satisfaction. I handed over two hundred baht. At the night market in Chaing Mai I didn't see anything that made me greedy with desire so I wasn't forced haggle. After six months in Asia, I had seen enough cheap trinkets to last a lifetime. My eyes glazed over as I looked at tables piled high with exotic junk. "The problem is," Amy predicted, “you will regret not buying this stuff when you are back in the States. You'll think back and realize how great these bowls and statues would look in your living room."

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The Lunar Year (A.Murray)

I knew she was right but at the time, I couldn't find anything that I could justify haggling for and then dragging back across the Pacific Ocean six months from now. My friends, on the other hand, had no problem with the consumption of junk. They guzzled up tee shirts and pirated copies of popular music. They found cheap carvings of Buddha and other deities. They crammed shopping bags full of wallets and fanny packs. When I first arrived in Thailand I was hoping to find a genuine souvenir, something special and authentic. I wanted a doll, a statue, or a wall hanging. After searching in vain for days in Bangkok I realized that finding something significant was like looking for a Thai restaurant, almost impossible. It seemed to contrary to the essence of Thailand, a county that catered to imbecile tourists who wanted the comforts of home and more. During the 1980s, tourists preferred generic hotels and familiar food. In the end, I realized that I didn't need a token souvenir to remind me of Thailand. The experience itself had burnt an indelible image in my mind. Our last morning in Chaing Mai, I could not get out of bed. My bones and muscles arched as if I had a severe case of the flu. I was burning with fever and had no appetite. I stayed in my sleeping bag while everyone else went sightseeing. I missed out on the best part of the whole vacation. My friends went to an umbrella factory and bought beautifully painted decorative sun umbrellas. Then they took an elephant ride through the jungle. Andrew was so enthusiastic about the elephant ride he decided to extend his stay in Thailand and go on a three-day elephant trek to the Golden Triangle to the north, where Burma, Thailand, and Laos converged. He came back into the hut that night packed his bags and raced off for an adventure into the mountains. "See you back in Taipei," he said to me as I lay in my sleeping bag shivering. My body was raked with fever. Outside it was a balmy 85 degrees but I was shaking with cold as I were camping in the Himalayas. The humidity was so high my friends were barely wearing more than bathing suits. I found a wool blanket placed it on top of my down sleeping bag. After taking two Tylenol pills, I fell asleep and had desultory dreams about my parents, the burning

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mountains and drowning in the Bangkok canal. I was parched like a desert when I awoke and crawled to the snack shack to drink for pineapple juice. That evening we left on the night train to return to the Baptist Mission in Bangkok. The train ride was unbearably uncomfortable. The car felt like an icebox and I shivered all night as I suffered from lucid nightmares of being towed out to sea by riptides and giant waves. Early the next morning I awoke and crawled to the bathroom. I passed Amy in her bunk and she looked up at me with glassy eyes, "I feel terrible," she moaned, "last night I slept between the train cars just so I could vomit off the train." I moaned back, "I feel like I have the worst flu of my life." Inside the bathroom I peered into the cloudy mirror above the metal sink. I noticed blotchy purplish blue bumps on my cheeks. I pushed aside my greasy bangs and saw a small patch of red on my forehead. "Why am I breaking out in acne?" I wondered. I shuffled back to bed and pulled out a compact mirror and some makeup. I rubbed the bumps and then smoothed beige-colored makeup all over my face. I added some blush and put on a layer of mascara hoping I could hide my face's pallor. After several hours the rash spread to my neck and chest. By the time the train pulled into Bangkok my entire body was blotchy red with tiny purple dots. "Look at me, I am sunburned with acne," I informed my friends. Back at the Baptist Mission. Amy was so pale from vomiting she probably had dysentery and I was so sick with bone breaking pain in my joints we couldn't comfort or care for one another. Amy threw her bag on the floor the room and collapsed on one bed and I lay down in the opposite bed. Everyone else escaped the infirmary to eat lunch. I lay in bed worried I was dying of a tropical disease. After several hours our friends returned and I begged someone to take me to the hospital. I was afraid to go alone because although the fever had passed, my bones ached and I was verging on a panic attack, positive I would die from the skin disease I had contracted in the

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The Lunar Year (A.Murray)

jungles of Northern Thailand. Marcus, a kind gentleman agreed to take me to the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in a Tuk-tuk. We entered the air conditioned modern hospital and approached the front counter where a Thai nurse looked me over and exclaimed, "You look like you have Dungy Fever!" My blood pressure plummeted and I inhaled to keep from fainting. Dungy Fever was a rare disease in the late 1980's, unknown outside of southern Taiwan. It was contracted through infected mosquitoes and was usually fatal. Today, Dungy Fever can be contracted throughout the Pacific, including the Hawaiians islands. "I've been living in Taiwan," my voice cracked hoarsely. "You can't say that,"Marcus reprimanded the nurse,"You haven't even examined her." I sat in the lobby next to Marcus waiting for a doctor to call on me. I looked around the waiting room fearing I might catch something even worse from the other patients. I saw a few other people with a purple rash similar to mine. When I was finally called in by the Thai doctor, he looked me over asked a few questions then gave me the diagnosis, "You have the measles." "But I got a measles shot." I said. "You have a measles-like virus," he restated,"it will go away in about a week." "Do you have any medicine you can give me?" I asked. He gave me a shot in my upper buttocks, which was probably just a vitamin shot to appease me. "I am leaving for Singapore tomorrow," I informed him. The doctor laughed at my plight,"They will never let you in the county," he claimed, "You should stay in Bangkok until you are better."

Back at the mission my friends looked me over with apprehension,

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"Does it itch?" Vera asked. "Like crazy," I replied trying to refrain from scratching my whole body. The room was sweltering and the ceiling fan only circulated hot air. Amy looked pale and was completely ill, "You'll get better," she said sympathetically. I told my friends that the doctor recommended I stay behind until I got better. I was afraid that customs wouldn't let me into Singapore looking so sick. They might think I would infect the whole country with an unidentified measles-like jungle virus. "You can't stay behind," Amy reasoned,"you'll go nuts." "Just wear a hat," Marcus advised. "And makeup," Amy added. That night no one slept in bed with me. Four girls piled into bed next to Amy, who was probably also infectious. The next morning, miraculously, I felt better. The bone crushing pain had eased and the out of body, floating sensation had evaporated. I gazed at my marred complexion in the mirror. The rash looked like it was beginning to fade. I hoped and prayed that my face wouldn't be scarred permanently. I dressed for the flight to Singapore, a country said to be so clean that fines were given for spitting or littering. I pulled on long pants and a long sleeve shirt to hide the rash. I slathered my face with tinted concealer and painted my eyelids with eyeshadow and mascara. I was hoping the heavy makeup would detract from the purple and red spots across my cheeks. I borrowed Marcus' straw hat and put on sunglasses to further veil my spotted skin as we joined the line that snaked through customs to board the airplane to Singapore. I looked ridiculous but I was petrified that airport officials would take one look at my blotchy skin and prevent me from exiting Thailand. Or even worse, I was afraid that Singapore would not let me enter. "The worst they can do is quarantine you," Marcus sympathized.

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Forty-five minutes later we lined up to exit Thailand and board the flight to Singapore. I stood in line between Marcus and Amy, who looked as pale as Snow White, Her ice blue eyes looked glassy red marbles. She looked like she was ready to faint. Marcus marched through customs without a hassle. I was next. I handed the young, neatly dressed Thai clerk my passport. He scanned it for a few seconds, then looked at my face carefully. He paused, smiled with a twinkle in his eye and waved me through to board the plane. Several hours later I disembarked in Singapore and was riding in a Mercedes Benz taxi at a leisurely pace down a perfectly maintained, immaculately clean highway in the heart of the island-nation. The air was crystal clear and the buses adjacent to the highway looked like they had been manicured. I gazed out the window wondering how this sanitized, modern city could be so geographically close to the whirlwind of dirt and erotica of Thailand. The taxi passed an American fast food chain restaurant and everyone in the taxi cooed with delight, "We'll eat there tonight!" I doubted there was "authentic, regional cuisine in this generic nation so I wouldn't bother looking. I spent five days recuperating in Singapore. It was a good, safe place to do that. Amy, however, wasn't getting better. She was lethargic and dehydrated. On our second night in Singapore she checked into a hospital where she was immediately given an IV and spent the next two days sleeping. I hadn't realized how sick she had become. I was too preoccupied with my unidentifiable purple spotted virus to care about anyone but myself. I wandered around Singapore alone, not interesting in seeing much. I made one day trip to the botanical gardens but other than that, I didn't want to sight-see. Mostly I sat in the my room at the Salvation Army Youth Hostel and contemplated the eight days I had spend in Thailand. For me, it was an experience that left me dazed. I didn't know how to interpret all that I had seen in Bangkok, Bang Saen and Chaing Mai. Eight days was not enough time to understand the people or places I had seen. The face the country presented to tourists was skin deep and veiled from reality. I knew that country had more to offer than generic hotels, prostitutes and gilded temples. I had seen monks and young boys roaming the streets in flowing orange robes alongside fourteen year old

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girls holding hands with fat foreign men. It was a country of perplexing contrasts, where sin and spirituality were melded into one enigmatic whole. I imagined that if I were so confused, then the Thai people must be bewildered by the hoards of egotistical, self indulgent tourists flocking to their country. How did the locals maintain those ubiquitous smiles? In some ways, my short trip to Thailand made me despise being a tourist. Traveling for such a short time, was such a superficial experience, akin to reading a National Geographic article. After two weeks of travel through Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore, I was ready to return to Taipei, where I was spending a year, and had limitless time to get to know the local people and visit places in a much more profound way. I felt a mixture of relief and contentedness as I borded the flight bound for Chaing Kai Shek Airport on the island of Taiwan surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean.

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