Saturday, March 13, 2010

A few years back when I was preparing to travel to China my first time, I discovered a site online that allowed travelers to hook up with both other travelers and hosts from different parts of the world. The site name (which is included in my right column here) is Virtual From that site, I met a Chinese man who took me out one night in Beijing and showed me a wonderful time at a five-star Chinese / Mongolian Hotpot restaurant.

There are many similar sites available on the Internet.

About five or six months ago I found via I was impressed with it since it allows you to join as either host or traveler, or both! So, Mam and I joined up with the site, listing ourselves as hosts to travelers (backpackers mostly) from all around the world.

The nice thing about is the ability to tweak your host page to your liking, limiting your guest stays to how ever many days you wish. Mam and I chose two days, as that is enough to get to know someone fairly well before returning back to your own, familiar routine. You can give as little or as much information as you want. We simply chose to be fairly straightforward as to our surrounds, all the flora and fauna around here, and the fact this ain't a four or five star deal here. You simply toss a mat on the floor and we will provide a pillow and small blanket, if needed.

Some people choose not to feed their guests, however we choose to offer meals, as geographically it isn't easy to get into town from here. We are rather "removed" from civilization out here in the boonies. So, we feed our guests simple meals, provide a place to sleep inside, and can show people around a bit. No big touristy areas out here, so this appeals to those who want to see the more rural side of Thailand, and rub shoulders with the locals.

Our first contact from was with two women from Denmark, which we had to cancel since the timing wasn't right. But, Tuesday evening I was sent an e-mail from the site, giving me a link to the profile of a Russian couple who wanted to stay with us for two days.

The picture above was taken on Wednesday afternoon when Sergey and Oksana arrived at our cottage. The two of them had been staying in their tent on the beach in Songkhla city, and they were very happy to finally find someone on CouchSurfing, who could host them for a couple of nights.

Oksana told us she was rather nervous staying on the beach..."Everyone just stares at us! I was tired and wanted to sleep, but kept waking up every ten minutes afraid someone would come into the tent!"

I certainly could understand her concern, as Thai's think nothing of just literally dropping everything they are doing and staring...mouth agape, with little or no expression, or sometimes what can easily be construed as an angry look. A bit scary when you are from a country where staring at someone can get you in a bit of trouble. Thai's also have a poor sense of "privacy" which is very different than other countries, so sometimes feelings can be a bit ruffled.

Oksana and Sergey showed up at our cottage a bit rough around the edges, tired, hot and needing a bath. Of all the times to travel, these two picked one of the hottest weeks in Southern Thailand. Laden down with heavy backpacks, and exceedingly tall, we quickly warmed to them simply from their nice smiles.

My wonderful wife went into her typical "Cooking Mode" which is....well...., which is what Mam does. When she's nervous, upset, feeling awkward, or bored, Mam cooks.

She find solace in it.

However! Her first offering was met with a couple of frowns.

"We're vegetarian. Sorry!" As Mam placed a large bowl of pork stir-fry on the table in our hut.

"Huh?" Mam said, not familiar with that word at first, then slowly remembering, as the word set on her mind for a bit.

Here in the South, the city of Hat Yai hosts a huge vegetarian festival every year, which Mam loves to participate in. She's a frustrated vegetarian herself, and loves vegetables, but she's also a die-hard Northeastern Thai woman who loves her pork.

"Oh! Okay! Wow! Sorry!" she said, grabbing the bowl and retreating back into the kitchen. Our first faux pas with our Russian visitors.

A few minutes later Mam emerged with a large bowl of stir-fried vegetables and rice, making our parched and hungry guests very, very happy.

We broke out the chilled, bottled water, some spoons, bowls, and a much needed fan, and had some lunch. I eventually asked them to what extent they were vegetarians, and found that they do eat a few things like eggs, cheese, etc. And Mam beamed at the prospect of a new challenge in the kitchen.

We had a great conversation and found out a bit more about our guests, as the four of us exchanged pleasantries and information. Sergey and Oksana both were very shocked to find out Mam was forty-two years old and had two grown children. Neither of them could believe it.

Both are from St. Petersburg, Russia, just a tad north of Moscow. Sergey is a massage therapist, whereas Oksana is an artist, recently graduating from an art school in Russia. She told us she is a teacher now, teaching young children how to draw and paint. Oksana shared quite a few of her sketches and drawings with us, which she had saved on a thumb drive, and Mam and I both were very, very impressed.

There was a bit of a language barrier, but it wasn't too bad. What Sergey couldn't understand, Oksana could, and vice-versa, so it all worked out pretty well. Like Mam, the two of them don't go very far without their Russian / English...English / Russian dictionary.

Mam and I learned that Sergey and Oksana had been to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lao before traveling to Bangkok and then to the South, where they ended up in Songkhla. Their primary means of travel is hitch-hiking, a bit dangerous if you ask me, but when I offered my opinion on that their expressions struck me as that typical young people's defiance.

I just hope they remain safe.

After lunch the four of us ventured up the road a piece, as there isn't too much to see in Klong Tong Nuea, so Mam and I decided to walk with them up the road to the Tong River and dam, and then on through the village to the Klong Tong Nuea Priest Residence and Meditation Center.

They both loved the river and got to see that it is most definitely the hot spot (cool spot?) for the local kids. Oksana walked all over the area of the river and dam shooting photos of the kids swimming, and then they discovered a hanging (Tarzan) vine directly over the river which afforded some great fun and pictures.

Under the bridge there were three "women" fishing, and Sergey was right next to one of the "women" who had just caught a small fish, and who was very friendly...showing Sergey her catch. You can imagine Sergei's surprise when I informed him that "she" was in fact not a "she" at all, but rather a "he," dressed as a she.

Mouth agape, Sergey could only mumble, "Wha?"

This, of course, was the highlight of my day, as I intricately described what a ladyboy or Thai katoey was. The kicker here is the solid fact that many of them look almost exactly like a woman. This one was no different, with two-toned hair, very feminine facial features, thin...shapely figure, and a dress of course...perfect fishing attire.

Oksana appeared as though she didn't believe what she was hearing, scrunching up her nose at the very thought. Most likely she thought I was pulling their leg a bit, until Mam backed up what I was telling them, then Oksana's face also took on the same characteristic as Sergei's.

We walked on towards the temple, and both our guests were well impressed. Klong Tong Nuea temple is very ornate, and they are constantly adding new "attractions" to their grounds.

Although Mam and I have been there numerous times, this time was perfect since there were two monks sitting outside, and we were able to sit down and talk with them. The younger monk spoke perfect English and told us he was from Kuala Lumpur originally. He translated virtually everything we said to the older monk, who as it turned out, was Phra Chalung Kata Pungyo, the temple Abbot!

I thought that was really cool, and I was happy our guests had the opportunity to not only meet, talk with, and take pictures of two Thailand Buddhist monks, but also the whanna, or boss monk! For me, I was able to tell the younger monk the story of our puppy, whom I found in a fertilizer bag at the temple, and he translated this news to the abbot, who seemed pleased.

Finally we headed back home and Mam ducked into the kitchen to begin preparing dinner. She kept shaking her head and saying, "I've never made vegetarian Som Tam or Tom Yam!" Both of which she was preparing for dinner.

"Huh?" I said. "Aren't they vegetarian any way?"

I'm still puzzled over that one, but then I don't care for either meal anyway. But, I don't recall any meat going into them, unless she was talking about gung or shrimp. Oksana had mentioned earlier that she didn't eat fish and neither did Sergey.

Damn, I'm glad I'm a meat eater. Not as complicated.

Dinner was relatively short. The temperature had only barely dropped from exhaustively hot, to extremely hot, so while Mam and I put away the dishes, our two guests took much needed baths. Sleep came early, and before we knew it, it was morning again. Thursday proved to be a bit less hot, with a fairly decent breeze, so we made plans to call a motorcycle taxi driver to take Sergey and Oksana to Wat Pakka, a temple located approximately 15 kilometers from us, heading due West.

Like our local temple, Wat Pakka is very ornate, yet different. It is constantly undergoing renovation, and many, many beautiful things are added all the time. But, for Mam and I, the grounds are what really makes this temple a showcase. Their main grounds surrounding the large, central Buddha, are not only well manicured, but they contain a wealth of different species of flowers, palm, ferns, and vines. Beautiful small shrubs that are carefully trimmed, large flowering hedges marking the paths, and gorgeous palms, their fronds whispering in the wind.

Mam and I sat this one out for two main reasons...the expense of four of us going, and the fact that Mam and I had been to the temple only a month or so ago. So, Sergey and Oksana went alone, and when they returned, they were very happy, commenting on the beauty of Wat Pakka.

More of the same that Thursday, getting to know one another better, and just trying to stay cool. They were to leave Friday morning, heading south for the Malaysian border, and a stop in Georgetown, Penang.

Although Mam offered to give them a lift to the main route, the two of them refused, dead-set on hitch-hiking all the way to their destinations.

All told, a very nice visit! Sergey and Oksana were perfect guests, very polite, very gracious, and fun to be around. We wished them well, and I gave them the phone number of my good friend Annie Skelchy for when they arrive in Kuala Lumpur.

We may yet see them again, as Mam asked Oksana what their long-term plans were, and she was told they plan on heading back to Thailand for a short layover, then up north into Lao and Vietnam for a second time.

Three more months on the road for them before they plan to return to Russia.

We wish them well!



radioguitar said...

Oh wow! Couchsurfing! I used that site to couch in Paris last year. It was a really good experience too, met a really nice couple with a really nice apartment near Belleville.

And another coincidence that your surfers were from St Petersburg! I was there a three or four years ago, it's a beautiful city. We did our damnedest to not look like tourists and as a result people kept stopping us to ask for directions, in either Russian or German. Pretty funny. And as another consequence, local people treated us like locals, on first encounters, which was very cool. Just like most places I've been to, people are basically good people.

Ladyboys in the wild though, that's dedication to your art, eh? ;>

Jeeem said...

Hey Chris,

The main reason I decided to host travelers was for Mam, as I thought she would really benefit from it, both from the English speaking aspect, to just getting to meet people from different parts of the world.

Mam is a relatively naive country girl, and she likes meeting new people, so this is a perfect opportunity for her. She's shy speaking English, but I didn't help her this last visit, and she did fine. She needs to learn to ask people to slow their speech down or repeat things.

"Foreigners talk so fast!" she says to me. I've lived with her for almost five years now, so we're used to one another. But, if she doesn't understand something I've said, she won't say anything, whereas if she doesn't understand what one of our guests are saying, she will ask them to either repeat it or rephrase it.

We've got another guest coming tomorrow. Katya from Moscow. Seems when it rains (Russians), it pours (Russians). This one is a rugged sort. She's into rock climbing, rope climbing, and extreme sports. Going to be interesting.

Man Chris, you've been around the block a few times eh? And yeah, you're right, people are basically good people. Uh, the ladyboy situation here in Thailand (funny man) is worse than you'd normally think. They are everywhere, and some of them are hard to distinguish.

Me? I just grab 'em in the crotch to make sure.


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