Author Archives: Scott Stampfli

Visa Shuffle!

Lek and I dropped our pens after a full day of mind bending K-1 USA Visa conscription; we were both drained, yet happy to be free of it. Splayed across the hotel kitchenette counter lay neat stacks of documents: notification by State Department, medical exam reports, birth certificates & passport photo copies, criminal investigation inquiries stating my sweethearts clean record, my financial statements and evidence of support, various forms stating over and over Lek’s family history. Yet the largest bundle contained proof of our collective five year relationship- letters and emails and a wad of photos illustrating our collaborative travels by bus, train and jet to Chiang Mai, Lampang, Sukhothai, Khorat, Phimai, Khon Kaen, Vientiane, Phanom Rung, Ko Chang, Jomtien, Hua Hin, Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan, Trang, Trat, Krabi, Ko Lanta, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Hat Sichon, Suret Thani, and all point in between. As well as a plethora of pictures recording special moments with Lek’s family in Thonburi; clearly showing the magical growth of her (now mine too) daughters over our years spent together. Everything was signed off and completed, nothing to do but send the official statement that we were ready, and to request an appointment with the American Consul.

We sat back and enjoyed a drink, and a few well deserved hugs; then off we went on a short stroll up Silom Blvd to the UPS kiosk to send the sacred document, and afterwards some side street shopping for holiday things; and a bit of gai yang and som tam to take back to the hotel for lunch.

Today is farang NEW YEAR’S EVE and everyone is in a festive bustle and there is a band of HS students from Yala jamming drums and voices on the corner. The temperature is unusually mild and not so humid; the street full of honk honk downtown BKK traffic, skid marks of tourists heading to over priced, crowded holiday parties and chaos, as time marches on…

After lunch Lek was sleeping on the big bed, and I drift into timeless contemplation behind a few beers. Ten months since filing the K-1
petition with an emigration attorney in San Francisco, then a stream of couriered paperwork between California and Siam; and sweating out the Homeland Security background check, before moving onto to more of the same with INS; and can’t help chuckling a wee bit while pulling off a fresh Singha, recalling my first visit to The Kingdom in 1996.

Upon clearing immigration at Don Muang International I was struck in awe by the playful, relaxed friendly Thai vibe, especially juxtaposed against the rude pushiness of Hong Kong where I’d been staying; and I like HK. But instantly realized I’d entered a magical sphere of exotic smells and sights, where the Buddha walked hand and hand with common people; a place where doing the Right Thing was practiced in graceful everyday movements, and human interaction; yet still enough edge to make it delightfully real, modern and interesting.

That was then and this was now, with our only one common goal- to be legally married in the country in which I was born, in front of my family and friends, and to share with Lek a slice of the terra firma of Northern California and my origin. And then Lek to return to her heart country and daughters, and momma and family on the Klong stop by Wat Intharam- where boys become monks and at sunset golden rays slide off the temple spires like illuminated fingers reaching out…

On March 1st Lek was granted her K-1 visa at the American Embassy; we will be married in California in April.

All the Best- S. Stampfli

Journey to the Khorat Plain

Temple ruins at Phanom Rung

Northeast to Khorat (November 2004)

I landed in Bangkok from San Francisco, then two days visiting Lek’s (my Thai girlfriend of several yrs) extended family in Thonburi, across the river from BKK proper and near Wat Intharam. Finally we secure her two daughters at Momma’s house, and are ready to begin our journey east to the Khorat plain- ultimate destination: the 12th century Ankor restored city of Phanom Rung, and next to find a driver who will take us off the main route, following back roads mirroring the Cambodian border south to Trat, which will put us in position to take the ferry to Ko Chang (Elephant Island).

After a concluding night of dinning and drinking on the west bank of Mae Nam Chao Phraya, with forty or so of the extended family, next morning we board a train from downtown Bangkok station. The second class car is only half full as we make the slow trudge through the many stops servicing the suburbs of this vast city of seven million; yet the view from the tracks educates the first time rider of the poverty often gone unseen by someone staying in Siam Square, or even on Banglamphu (Khao San Rd).

Four hours up the rambling trestles we pass scary looking chemical plants and bleak desolate flatlands, before the terrain gives way to rice fields and sparse herds of skinny cattle. Then our train chugs ascending a grade cut through the hills, and we see mining operations and small dusty towns, before leveling over the mountains onto a wide open plateau. From here it is all endless paddies and occasional skinny cows and forlorn water buffalo; soon we head into the populated outskirts of Khorat and the weathered terminal.

Lek and I check into a ten buck a night hotel, and are stoked to find the hot water works, yet the bed has barely a mattress and is hard as concrete, and the white stucco room makes us feel like we are staying in a mental hospital. However that evening we walk a few blocks to the night market, and enjoy a yummy Issan meal of kai ping (grilled garlic marinade chicken) and laap muu (fried minced pork with chilies and fresh mint leaves)- including sticky rice and beer, total cost for two around $4 US. Walking back to the hotel we cut through a dark alley and literally run into a smiling little man walking his teenage elephant; we stop and chat and he allows us a photo.

The next morning we negotiate with a guy for a lift to the town of Phimai to the northeast of Khorat. Lek sits in the cab with the driver and I spread out in the bed of the dented pickup with the bags, and off we ramble up the road.

Phimai to Phanom Rung

An hour later the truck dumps us off in front of an ok looking semi-modern hotel in middle of no where- off desolate two lane Rte 206. The Phimai Inn turns out to be good digs, with large, clean rooms complete w/ A/C, hot water, satellite tv, fridge, and a comfy queen sized bed ($18 US a night). The view from our second floor nest gazes out over a small garden and mature fruit trees, and beyond endless rice paddies w/ the occasional skinny cow & or forlorn water buffalo. There is also a large well maintained pool, and a well staffed open air restaurant covered by a wooden roof which is good, since it’s nearly 90-F degrees in the shade; even though it is only the end of November. We’re delighted to find the food very fresh and Issan tasty (spicy), the beer icy cold, and the waitresses extremely friendly. Although reading the menu cracks me up: “curry snake head…flyed frog…curried grass hopper…eel with kiss rice…” but the fair also has the more traditional dishes like laap muu, kai ping, etc- and everything Lek and I order is yummy.

Next morning our prearranged driver picks us up at 9-am and we ramble over country roads leading east, and a bit south. We are headed to Phanom Rung which is considered Thailand’s best restored Khmer monument/ancient city- circa AD 1113-1250. After about 90 minutes the lonely track passes through a small village and we begin to see evidence of historical sites: the remains of timeless stone walls, a well constructed reservoir still holding water behind a dam built in the 12th century, overgrown piles of earthen brick, etc. Then the road rises up the side of an extinct volcano which allows us to gaze over an extended plain leading to Cambodia, and we enter the park; I’m glad we hired a driver w/ a good vehicle, as he drops it into first gear and we motor up the steep ascent. The jovial wheel man is named Pong and he drops us at the top, explaining he’ll pick us up on the other side of the mountain once we’ve seen our lot.

Lek and I spend the next three hours strolling and examining the excellently restored, impressive, ancient city monument which sprawls over several wooded acres. The deserted hallways, hefty pillars and giant door openings lead one to image gods living in these perfectly symmetrical walls and ritual spaces. The stone blocks are laterite and sandstone, and the carved art work depicting lotus-bud tops, dancing girls, Vishnu, Rama, Krishna, and the rest of the Hindu brethren are stunning. By the time we amble back down to the van we are quite overwhelmed by our walk through time, but then Pong insists on stopping at two other lesser sites on our journey back to Primai; which is only icing on the historical cake.

Navigating Bangkok’s Rails and Rivers

It is essential for the 1st or 2nd time visitor to Bangkok to have a good map showing the Bkk Transit System (BTS) routes, as well as the public water taxi stops up and down the Chao Phraya River. Truly it’s the only way to stay somewhat sane when attempting to cross, or circumvent this vast air polluted city of eight million people. Forget tuk tuks and or taxi cabs as you will no doubt be stuck in a maddening traffic blood clot; unless only needing a short lift; even then sometimes it’s faster simply to walk. And if walking the streets of BKK for your initial explorations- be very careful when intersecting busy streets, as cars and trucks do not stop for you like back home, even if you’re within pedestrian crossings; and watch out for motor bikes going the wrong way on sidewalks too.

The sky train and underground systems generally run on time and are quite reliable; also they’re fully air conditioned, so it’s a good way to beat the sticky heat while crossing town. I enjoy the public river taxi for traversing between Th Sathon or Th Silom and China Town or Banglamphu. Cheapest transit in the city (15 Bt or less) and affords cooling breezes on the Man Nam Chao Phraya, and great temple and people watching. You can also make stops to cross to the other side to see Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), or hire a long tail boat to explore Klong Bangkok Noi or Klong Yai near Thonburi, or whatever else looks interesting or fun.

Recently, Lek (my Thai girlfriend of many yrs) and I got up early one Sunday morning and took the commuter train from Thonburi Wong Wian Yai station to Samut Sakhon (also known as Mahachai) – about an hour directly south of Bangkok. This one engine line is used exclusively by locals mainly as transport to the small farming communities which parallel the tracks, or as a connecter to the rail line continuing to the city of Samut Songkhram. Or to shop for fresh seafood in the sprawling markets of Mahachai where fishing trawlers come up from the Gulf; this was our plan.

The funky train was unexpectedly crowded as we rumbled over worn rails, and past dilapidated concrete and stucco apartment buildings, where smiling children loitered about the asphalt streets and dirt alleyways. Yet fifteen minutes down the line the terrain becomes surprisingly verdant and tropical with tall palms and giant elephant ears, the abundantly watered lowlands painted by lilies and lotus and other wild flowers, and occasional weathered wooden houses and platforms. These are the farmlands which provide vegetables and fruit for the markets and restaurants of Bangkok.

Finally we roll into Mahachai and the coach halts in the midst of a bustling grocery market place. We stroll past mountains of chilies, onions, ginger, and every kind of produce, and tables stacked with newly slaughtered pigs, chickens and beef; & all types of harvest from the rich Gulf of Siam. Lek is possessed and bartering with street vendors, buying plastic bags full of squid, crabs, clams, prawns and whole fish on ice.

Half hours later the whistle blows, and we dash past brightly painted fishing trawlers anchored at the dock, and board the train for our return to Thonburi. The scene inside the rail car is festive as Thais giggle over loads of fresh caught seafood and vegetables. The floor is slick with water from melting ice, and as the late morning heat comes on a fishy odor permeates the air. Lek is on her cell calling Mama and Aunts, informing them to ready the skillets and light the grill for the Sunday family feast.