Hello…

The blog-world is silent. I’m tuned to a dozen blogs through the RSS-feed—not many, I know, but that’s the number I check on every night, soon as I’m home. It’s a truly-Merry Christmas for them, and all but two have deserted the space—a bookstore blog and a business blog, both of whom chatter through Bakrid and Christmas, Hanuka and Dasara. It’s like when I was a student, at my desk with an open book, and with the battery drained in my radio—needing the noise to concentrate on the reading. Hello everybody; come back!


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Mutha and Brother

All vehicles were whizzing by, and we could only ask two children who looked like brothers and were selling Kannada evening-papers. Their dark-brown faces were clean and sharp. They knew the landmarks: Food World and HDFC Bank before it, Bata Shoe Store on the left, Food Bazaar on the way—establishments beyond their use, but which they knew. They gave clear directions eagerly. Then the younger, shorter boy demanded that we buy a paper for two Rupees. His brother thought him overly opportunistic and tried pulling him away: yey, baaro! But he was stubborn and we bought one and I asked him his name: Mutha. We drove on and I saw in my mirror the older boy still chiding Mutha.

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Saturday Evening: Inox

All cars are out Saturday evenings. If people aren’t going to the pubs they are headed for the malls. Sujaya had two tickets for a Bollywood movie at Inox in the Garuda Mall: a gift from someplace where she’s been spending money. She was keen, so we went. It was as I had feared: we were constantly bumping into people and knocking elbows with them. I peered into the shops while riding the escalators: Mango was empty; many more were empty and were looking into aisles milling with people up to their doorstep. The jewellery shop was full. We were late, and I wanted to escape to the top floor and into the movie-hall. There the movies had begun and the aisles were empty except for a couple hurriedly buying popcorn in American-size tubs—one leg toward the food-counter and the other toward the movie hall, the rest of their body-parts similarly divided and inclined. The toilets were clean, the air-fresheners were effective and a soft disorienting light adequately benumbed the senses. The movie-hall was half-empty, though it was a Hindi movie rated with a good number of stars in the morning paper. The seats were plush, and the sound was strong and sharp. I haven’t, until now, experienced movie-theaters with this comfort in India, and have been seeing films only at home. I’ve stumbled on a new pastime.





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Dispossession

We’d just arrived, located a spot for pooje, and begun to lay about the prayer articles: a composite picture-frame of Ganesha, Saraswathi and Lakshmi, lamps, incense, vermillion powder, camphor, sweets, fruits, flowers, a pick-axe, a spade. A villager and his son soon arrived. We were a few: three promoters, two government officers, a team of four from the contractor, one from the architects, and a promoter’s wife. The villagers have been cultivating the land taken away from them seventeen years ago—not owning it, but tilling it, told by the government that when people come to build a factory, they shouldn’t make trouble.

The villager announced himself owner of the land and member of the panchayat. His face showed defiance and its impotence before government. He is strong from toil and from decent nourishment—uncommon for village-folks. He hadn’t come to fight. He asked the government officer to tell us to give jobs to all the youngsters in the surrounding villages. The officer explained how jobs are given, of merit, need, and qualification. The owner said the Deputy Commissioner had promised that all the villagers would get jobs when they acquired the land. He demanded a job for his son. What is his education? High school. I laughed. He protested tamely: what more can a villager study? I said I laughed because we hadn’t laid a brick and already we were talking about jobs. He was silent. All were silent.

It was a beautiful day. A cool December breeze played about this high ground, the sun shone bright in the early-morning hour. We had set out before dawn from Bangalore and arrived in three hours, enjoying a smooth drive. The pooje went exceedingly well; the poojari is apparently the favorite of film-stars Ambarish and Vishnuvardhan. The beautiful location captivated the whole party. It rolls down to the river which was dry when I first saw it; now in December we saw it full and in lazy flow. The man from the architects said we should build a resort by the river. The contractor suggested we build a guest-house overlooking it.

I wondered before this villager, he in a blue-check sarong, I wearing blue jeans, if we are worthy of his land which we now possess for no great effort but merely because of a shift in economic policy. His land has been taken away from him and sold to us. He would know its every inch, as did his father before him. He would know each undulation, every furrow, where water reached, where water didn’t reach, the whole nature of the ground, the character of its trees, all of which are beyond us. We will have a factory and a garden there. We will improve the supply chain and recruit and motivate people. We will install machines, jigs and fixtures. And accountants. The scent of the land before rain, the turning of the land with the seasons, the coming and going of crops, the ox and the plough, the surprised snake slithering away at the feet, pesky birds, good monsoons, drought, healthy crops, worms, plant diseases, husk in the wind, lunch come from home taken in the shade of the tree, the harvest festival: no one will ever experience this land as he did.

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Swami Brahmanandaji

Swami Brahmanandaji telephoned for us to do the arti on stage for his yajna last week. To be asked by him is an honor, so we went. I cannot be religious in public: one has to lose inhibition, close eyes, look inward, do body signs, and pray—not easy for the self-conscious. There before a large picture of Krishna, Sujaya held the deepa, I cupped the bottom of her palm and we struggled to be in sync: I tried fast turns and she forced a slow pace. Then I realized that if the deepa went off it would be a terrible omen. Fear and discomfort shook my hand and the flame fluttered. It was a long arti, our hands went round and round, accompanied by song. When done, we offered the deepa first to swamiji, then to the devotees. They stretched their their arms in our direction, hundreds of arms, reaching for the flame, hands cupping the vision of it from far, absorbing its power and its blessing. They chanted, eyes half-closed, some eyes imploring, some rapturous. We held the object of their devotion, standing behind it, standing over them, seeing a sight only for God to see. I glanced away.


As he preached, swamiji often withdrew from talking, closed his eyes and took deep breaths. A profound peace came upon his face when he did that and compounded his radiance. Now we were down in the audience, in communion, and his peace descended on us. He said the things we’ve heard in other sermons but they came home with fresh power. His eyes shone. When he smiled, which he did when he spoke in jest, lines appeared and settled easy on his face—a picture of peace. Two hours went like two minutes.


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Dog Days


They are fond of dogs in my neighborhood. Most houses sport at least one, some even more: big ones, small ones, some long and short with belly close to ground, tall great-danes, shepherd-dogs, black and beige labradors, various hounds. Golden retrievers brushed silken and shining. My neighbors are rich, with children in the United States or United Kingdom or Singapore. Dogs give and take love in place of their children. Their masters have also adopted dogs outside their gates—street dogs, a dog per house before some houses, two or three before other houses. Dogs behind the gate eat factory-made dog-food; dogs outside eat leftovers from dining tables. An old lady whose daughter lives in Singapore walks nightly to her street-corner and empties a pot for a pack that has claimed the territory. When I first saw, so many dogs ran at her heels and devoured what she poured. Nowadays they start walking with her, then drop out one by one until a surely starved finalist reaches the street-corner to eat her charity.


In the middle of night they rise up in orchestral chorus, and bark and bay, high and low, for many minutes; when sleep is all but destroyed, they fall silent. Early morning, the labrador pup in the front house yelps continuously and draws out any vestige of sleep. Behind our home, their dog is always chained in their backyard; his constant complaining nags more us than them. Sometimes, from a close distance, a melancholic one wails in such lamentation for God knows what, he submerges the neighborhood in depression. Just now, a man walked his untrained dog without a leash on our street; his dog attacked the labrador; soon other dogs arrived and each attacked each—their bark and snarl tore the silence in my study.


Someone once tried to get the city corporation to take away the street dogs. The neighborhood reacted swiftly and put collars on all of them. The dogs are here to stay. I’d miss them if they go—I think. Up where my street bends left, a thin one with white streaks on a black coat trots up when I approach. He walks close by my heels for some time, always looking up at me, unnerving me with human-like expressions changing from questioning to conversational; when the next one’s territory comes up, he returns to his base back in the middle of the street. On First Main, a black fellow looks nervously, but gains courage and growls showing sharp teeth when the small brown pet behind the gate runs up barking fearfully: fearful because he sounds like he’ll tear his throat, and because he runs full speed slipping and sliding until he is one inch from the bars and it appears he might break his snout. Both of them will not make friends with me. The big pack at First Cross looked downright nasty when I was new and when I walked Duke past them. Duke died last month; now they lie and only lift a brow and register my lone passage.


It Is alright. In this neat place with its two gardens and its lovely houses, I have grown to accept these chaps. I haven’t heard so far that any of them bit a human, however seriously they snap their teeth at each other.


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Singapore beckons…


Ishmael could tell when he needed to go away to sea. I can tell when I need to go away to Singapore: when Apple have released upgrades; when my software is available in new versions; when I’m restless for a bigger bookstore; when my tongue craves chinese-vegetarian; when the soot and sound of Bangalore become intolerably oppressive; when the desire for endless walking in a clean city becomes an ache and an urgency. I must run, fly there. I’m going this weekend.


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Electronica, Munich


We flew into Munich fearing the rain and cold of November. The green has left the leaves and the leaves have left the trees. But the sun shone from Wednesday till we flew out on Friday. We saw mostly the airport and the exhibition, but on the Thursday we went to the gasteig and heard a fusion performance of big-band-jazz and gospel and classical music. They sang in English, and the songs are still in my ears. But I am glad to be home. Europe is not exhilarating in winter, even with christmas lights burning in November.


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In the Line of Fire


On a Church Street pavement, I saw President Musharaff's In the Line of Fire. He released it only a few weeks back. There it was, in budget print, a paperback edition of the subsidized type, selling second-hand. Is it doing so well?


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Church Street, Bangalore

We bought music at Planet-M and walked back on Church Street. It is a pub n’ restaurant street, with one or two colonial bungalows that have resigned themselves to exploding commerce and retired behind high walls and closed gates. Young people dominated the street. At four on Sunday, Western men sat in the pubs; by six, young locals outnumbered them. I noticed coco-grove, a new pub whose awning, tables, chairs, aprons, are all white. It is an open pub with a white canvas roof, next to the pavement—a first in Bangalore. Its parent, the Coconut-Grove, sits over the wall behind and tugs at noses of passers-by with strong smells of coastal spices. Stylish restaurants mix with dark dank aged eateries. The air-space on the street is taken by scents from the kitchens: Chinese and Andhra, American and North-Indian, pub-food and fast-food. They are a pleasant invasion on the nostrils, distinguishable, arriving one at a time, shaken-not-stirred. Over the length of the street, another smell obtrudes from below–through patterns of holes drilled through concrete lids covering a foul drain. Some sections have no covers at all, and there the smell of the drain is triumphant. Through these smells we walked, now breathing in pleasure, now fighting nausea.

Deepavali, 2006

The sound of exploding crackers is incessant. Wealthier people are igniting chains of ‘bombs’ that go on forever, like batteries of machine-guns firing endless rounds of ammunition. ‘Sparklers’ and ‘rockets’ are of new kinds this year. Rockets shoot up to a great height, abruptly slow and trace a snake-like coiling path in the black sky. Then they stop, explode, and rain down slowly—big bright multicolored drops gently scattered by cool October breeze. ‘Flower-pots’ throw up fountains of sparklers which are higher, much wider, and brilliant than before. Thin silvery shimmering lines intersperse the height of white and golden fountains.

All this week, sweets given by friends were generous in quantity and rich in variety. Symbols of hope have transformed to celebrations of achievement. So many people have moved into the middle-class; the wealth of the rich has expanded vastly and fast. This Deepavali—our festival of prosperity—a large Indian population is resoundingly announcing the arrival of great wealth. I see from my balcony, a hundred meters beyond the trees, now at night, an impossibly thick cloud of smoke lit by amber electric-lights, rolling slowly and expansively to the sky. The billows are multiplying at the base and widening. The smoke will rise all night, it appears to me.

Meat Eating

Daily I see chicken upended and hanging from bicycle handle-bars, bunched at the legs, tied with any tie and tight according to the mercy of who did it. Tied like that they lie around the feet in rikshaws and sometimes their little heads hang over the edge. Scooters carry sheep with pairs of legs hanging on either side, belly over lap of pillion riders. By the road, on either side, butchers hang meat tucked into the same animal’s gut. They hang up the distended sacs on shop-fronts like flowers are hung.

I ask Sujaya and Yashas to not eat meat and be vegetarian like me. They tell me I am unkind and impolite to say that.

Phuket

My neighbor - young, lean and hard with a pleasing face - wore a yellow T-shirt with the royal insignia on sleeve and chest. He was visiting Phuket to audit a hotel for his investment bank. I asked if the yellow T-shirt was for his king. He said, yes, cautiously. I pointed to the king’s picture in the glossy special edition of Bangkok Times and said he has a good man’s face. Still cautious, he said disconnectedly that it is nothing compared to what he has done, helping the poor in the villages for decades. I glanced down: my casual shirt was, coincidentally, a pale yellow. I am wearing yellow too, I exclaimed. Thank you, he said, beaming, reassured that I wouldn’t speak lightly of his king. Our talk stayed centered on the king. He has heart trouble now and cannot work like before, he said, and I sensed a genuine catch in his throat.

***********

From the air, Bangkok looked a flat plain from horizon to horizon, its wealth showing in stilted expressways and tall buildings that stuck out at us from the plains. From the fringe of the city, rectangular watery aquaculture patches ran for miles up to the sea, not a square meter wasted. Over the Gulf of Thailand we went, crossed a narrow strip of land, and soon dropped below clouds over a completely different terrain by the Andaman Sea: Phuket is a mass of gentle hills, packed together, completely green - many heads with thick curly green hair. The sea, brilliant at noon, pushed into the island forming small and large bays; the land boundary turned and curled abruptly in the stretches that I saw from the air. The spectacle equaled its reputation.

***********

Thais do not raise their voice. Faces drop or turn away in quick response to a frown. They are a healthy, gentle people. The visible economy in Phuket is tourism, with capacity built to take the influx of the high season that lasts from November to March. Now in June, the monsoons have arrived, it is hot still, and taxi drivers, tour operators, masseurs, restaurants, hawkers, small-shops, are all touting aggressively to squeeze some business out of the low season; but they do not push beyond a couple of attempts.

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We were there to run the marathon, so we could walk only a little, needing to conserve ourselves. We spent the one day we got after the marathon buying sundry things and in the evening, against the pronouncement of the guidebook that Patong is debased, hopeless, we went there on the recommendation of the young lady at our travel desk. She assured us that Patong has good shopping. The hilly drive from our beach hotel to Patong in the South was a fine experience. We came down a hill to Kamla Beach, on which many fishermen perished in the tsunami. In the town by the beach tourists did not wake up from deep sleep following Christmas revelry of the night before; high waves took them up and away. Now they have many signs identifying evacuation points in the event the tsunami returns. The pain and shock have gone. Our driver asked how many we lost in India. We all lost, he said. Then he was excited at the wave of tourists arriving from India, a major new source. He had seen on television that planeloads of Indian tourists are arriving on direct flights into Bangkok. He had read somewhere that Indian businessmen living in England and America are buying Phuket property. He appeared comfortable with the news.

We were glad we came to Patong. It was only drizzling when we got off the car, so we could walk a little on the long promenade by the beach. On the sidewalks, Indian touts pestered us with garments, tuk-tuk drivers gave no peace; but it was far more exciting than Phuket Town. When rain struck we hurried back to the main street with its open-bars and cafes. Tourist couples sat in them; single male tourists sat with Thai girls. A man stood in the rain on the street and waitresses called him in; he made conspiratorial signs that said he was with someone who would join him soon. We didn’t find the kind of place I wanted: a place with live jazz. In the Thai restaurant we went wet and dripping into, they had a giant screen for football. Switzerland were defeating Togo who had superb attack but no finish. The Westerners and the young Japanese who moderately filled the place all cheered Switzerland and gasped together whenever that favorite was challenged at the goal. Our hearts were bound to Togo.

When we walked back to our taxi, the open-air bars had turned raunchy and the atmosphere of early evening had gone. A drunk tourist danced with a couple of waitresses; he wore no clothes above his waist. Pretty young women with hard faces and vacant eyes sat in small groups on high stools in the open bars. A young tourist walked with an exceptionally beautiful and boldly attired girl, sharing an umbrella, wearing simultaneously the flushed look of one on a first date and the furtive embarrassed look of one in an illicit venture.

Our taxi was gone too, we called and the driver asked us to wait ten minutes. Right there a foreigner in an SUV knocked down a foreign biker. The biker was gaunt and wore a polythene raincoat. The SUV driver was large, middle-aged and paunchy. He got off and tried to light a cigarette. Massage girls holding placards with massage written on them and on the back of their orange T-shirts gathered to stare interestedly from their foyer. A concerned but expressionless policeman started to guide two-way traffic on the single available lane. Time passed and the SUV driver had still not lit his cigarette, which hung from his mouth in the drizzle. They wouldn’t talk to each other; they didn’t make any move; no conclusion was apparent even in the end. Finally, the situation not changing, the SUV-driver got back into his car; the biker picked up his bike, distraught and wet through his transparent raincoat, all his attire clinging to him. The SUV sped past the bike and neither looked at the other, nor at the policeman who stood with his back to them.

Barbershop: Phuket Suburb

My cab paused a long time before a barbershop. The shop was cavernous and resembled the larger auto-garages on Indian roadsides. The wide width of the shop opened fully to the sidewalk; still, it was dark inside. A lone barber worked facing the street, standing behind his customer’s head. The customer lay supine head to toe, a perfect parallel to the ground, parallel to the street, perpendicular to the barber at his groin. Traces of lather stayed on the face. The barber cut hair on the side of the head that faced the street, with brisk strokes of the comb and expert clicks with scissors. All the while, he never looked at the head but at at the goings-on in the street, eyes flitting, body loose; the hands freely did their work. He looked less a barber than one strumming a guitar, left hand at the innermost fret, close to the strumming hand. In this very public place, he looked like he was performing a concert, solo.

Phuket Downtown 2

In Phuket downtown, in the low season of June, I have to remind myself that this is a tiger economy. The great wealth of Bangkok does not show here, but there is not dire poverty either. Phuket looks a very traditional Thai town, and the major sightseeing options are Buddhist temples, Sino-Portuguese homes of olden Chinese merchants, a vegetable market and an aquarium. English is poorly spoken. People fold hands seriously and with meaning: long greetings are fully intoned and so sound sincere. They are mild mannered; even the pesky taxi drivers who hound you do not press beyond a point. Yellow flags fly everywhere in respect for the king and his kind face is on prominent display in reception areas of offices, hotel buildings, restaurants, and on arches over streets, roundabouts, everywhere.

The national sport appears to be Traditional Thai Massage. Everywhere that is the sign that strikes you and in town, some hotels have massage signs bigger than their name boards.

In the suburbs, realtors are in charge, their large hoardings sell properties on a scale that made me fear for the future of this beautiful island.

On Ranong Street I took delicious lunch at a vegetarian restaurant. They warned me off some dishes crying, too hot! There are several vegetarian restaurants on that street, close to a temple for a vegetarian deity. The deity and his attendants are aggressively postured, their faces fierce. That was a surprise but I later figured that the purpose might be to assert that vegetarians are not necessarily tame. Next door is another temple where you draw a numbered stick from a cylinder, then pick slips off a side shelf from pigeon holes bearing the matching number. The slips tell your fortune in Thai and Chinese; later that evening the bartender in my hotel read mine. I happily learnt my future is secure.

Phuket Downtown 1

It began to rain, so I hurried to the Fountain Circle and asked the waitress at the coffee shop to please get me a cab. We chatted for the ten minutes I had to wait. Every customer is important now in the low season, she told me. She spoke of poverty at home on the Malaysian border; her university degree; her struggle to make money in Phuket; the futility of it, because all she earned, Phuket took back through high rent and other costs. But, she said, my king has an idea to make cheap fuel from vegetable oil and thus reduce costs overall. Right now, in her opinion, it is best to go abroad for work but it is difficult to get a visa because Thai girls make trouble everywhere. I searched her face, and saw only earnestness. It was in the morning that I drank half of an overly strong cappuccino in her place which has a superb ambience and very nice pictures, especially one of her king and queen with Elvis Presley. Then as now, I was the only customer. A Japanese gentleman stood in the street and peered at the menu board; she and her two colleagues in the deep dark inside ignored him and he went. Take care, she called, as I entered the cab.

Rain on Holiday

I was alone at the beach yesterday after dinner. The sunbathers of the afternoon had left, probably to contribute to Phuket’s vibrant nightlife. The guidebooks mention shows that start at 01:30AM! I cannot be out of bed after eleven, and from ten to eleven I have to lie in bed and read, in Phuket or in Paradise. At the beach, rain-clouds had formed over the sea, while over land the sky was clear and the stars were out. A strong breeze pushed but rooted me to the sand, rejuvenating me and renewing a bond with the sea, from which I have been away for so long.

The sunbathers are true Sun-worshippers. Back home, our homage to Him is paid in the gentle dawn with mantras, and by a very few. The rest of us would rather be in shade and most of us don’t know the mantras. These people lay in blistering heat, offering up their UV-filtered flesh. There were so many of them, lying on white sand on unsheltered stretches away from plentiful tall trees that curtained the glittering sea from the lagoon. If they had read my thoughts they would’ve been aghast:

I was standing there praying for rain; for plenty of rain; for so much rain that it would drench this roasting place to the coolness of Bangalore from where I have come. And I stood after dinner alone on the beach fretting that there was cloud over sea and not over land. I returned to my room, wondering whether I can manage the heat on marathon-Sunday. I shut the door and heard water pouring down the tiles in the balcony. I ran there: It was raining, hard.

Again this afternoon, in the restaurant by the lagoon, after an engrossing lunch of rice with thai-green-curry, I looked up. The music had gone from Judy Garland to Norah Jones. The lagoon had changed from a sun-drenched blaze to a rain-battered gray.

Transit Lounge: Bangkok

I’m in the lounge, struggling to sleep, defeated by an endless noisy feature on massage-chairs coming loud on television.

I came in at 04:15. The moon hung low and large when I landed thirty minutes before into an airport in slumber. The number of planes and the scale of the airport reflected the size of the Thai economy. Here inside, I saw shop-girls in duty-free shops lazily rapping shelves with feather-dusters, chatting dully, sulkily, looking like they’d rather be home, sleeping. No sales were happening in the few open shops. Now Japanese businessmen from Nissan (stickers on laptop covers) are tapping on sleek ultra-small Panasonic laptops and talking around me. I enjoy the rasping consonants in their speech. Beyond, a gallant Western man is attentive to his pretty Asian companion.

I don’t sleep. I work on my Mac for a while, see the time, and go. The terminal has awoken with gusto. The aisles are teeming with passengers and queues have formed at cash-counters. At my gate, the flight to Singapore appears to be going full. Outside, the world is dry and bright. My holiday has begun.

Phuket weather, Thailand climate and practical information guide


I'm leaving for Phuket now, with a short stopover at Singapore to pick up some essentials. The weather in Phuket is warmer than in Bangalore. I'll know how it feels to run there soon. Thais are celebrating their king's sixty years rule: all are wearing yellow in his honor. Grand events are planned. The weather guide offers its words of comfort. It appears to be a good time to go there.


Link: Phuket weather, Thailand climate and practical information guide.


This quickly gives way to cooler temperatures and rain showers from late May until November (the monsoon season). Visiting Phuket in the monsoon season has lots of advantages. Temperatures average a comfortable 29/30C (88-90F) and light warm winds make sightseeing tours very pleasant. During the monsoon season, it doesn't rain every day! The usual weather pattern is for short dramatic showers, with plenty of sunshine in between, providing an opportunity to chat with the locals while you're waiting for the rain to pass. June, July and August are particularly pleasant.

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Getting ready for Phuket


It has been a strange few months this year. I have not traveled and my schedule has revolved round my marathon training. In the weekend, I have had to rest before the long run on Sunday and rest again after the long run. I haven’t seen many people, nor have I done much else than reading and learning some light web stuff.

So I am happy that next week I will go away to Phuket and stay there eleven days. Today, Sujaya picked up Lonely Planet - Thailand for me and promptly claimed it for herself; I am waiting patiently for her to tire of it.

I will make the hotel reservation now.


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