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Juxtaposition

Koh Chang And Delhi: From Island Paradise To Urban Onslaught

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View Asia '08 on Bwinky's travel map.

From Bangkok, we took a brief sidetrip north to check out the ruined city of Ayutthaya (eye-YOU-tay-uh). When Europe was just emerging from the Middle Ages, this place was one of the capitals of the world, larger and more splendid than London or Paris. Then the Burmese came in and sacked it, and now it is a sleepy provincial town with a backyard full of evocative ruined temples.

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The way of the world: the sun sets on everything eventually

After the intensity of Bangkok and the preceding month of rushing through Southeast Asia, we needed a vacation from our vacation before taking the plunge into India. So we set off for the Thai coast and the island of Koh Chang, enduring a rather unpleasant five-hour van ride with a group of four French stoners who insisted on smoking in the van, doing more to damage Franco-US relations than Dominique de Villepin. But it didn’t matter once the ferry pulled up to the island.

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Mountainous Koh Chang under a glowering sky

After its food, Thailand is probably best known for its beaches, and its islands are legendary. Swish Koh Phi Phi is too budget-breaking and party heaven Koh Phangan with its beach raves isn’t really our scene, so we opted for Koh Chang both because of its proximity to Bangkok and its status as a National Marine Park, meaning slightly less development. We were just looking for a place to chill out for a few days, and we found it: on the more quiet eastern side of the island, at a secluded beach-side spot called The Souk.

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Nuthin’ but the sound of the surf (and the rain...)

Just what the doctor ordered: for $10 a night, you get your own thatch-roofed, whitewashed bungalow, complete with groovy under-the-bed lighting...

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Note that the drug laws in Thailand are very severe, which I think is sort of too bad because how can you not be tempted when you’ve got a bed like this?

...and trippy tunes in the beachside cabana where Ed, the long-haired hippyish Thai “Head Dude” (so it says on his business card) holds forth behind the bar, mixing a mean margarita.

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Yes, we can see you behind the glass, Lynn

So, after a pleasantly unhurried couple of days of mellowness, we took a deep breath, plugged our noses, and jumped off the pier from paradise into the swirling maelstrom that is Delhi, India.

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Hope you’ve got your hanky handy, because you’re in black snot land now

There is absolutely no way to prepare yourself for India. The noise, the filth and pollution, the crush of people, and the poverty are unlike anything else that I have experienced... ever. We sat on the highway while our cabbie argued with another motorist after a fender-bender on the way into the city from the airport. We sat in the streets -- twice -- while wedding processions with brass marching bands and elephants stopped traffic. We were accosted by beggars with every possible deformity. We witnessed people defecating in the streets. It is, without question, the most soul-wrenching place I have ever seen.

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Delhi: the bazaar of the bizarre

And yet, that is not the only side of Delhi. We were there during a big Sikh religious festival (celebrating the death of one of the gurus, not sure exactly), for example, and at times beauty pierced the ugliness. From colors on the street...

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Offering flowers

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Old Sikh warriors marching in a parade

...to stately architecture amid the decay...

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The Mughal-style Jami Mosque, the largest in India

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The British Raj-era government buildlings -- and note that this is at mid-afternoon, not sunset

...to simple glimpses of the faces of the people being human in a place that drains humanity...

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A gorgeous sari at sunset

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Morning light

...there are moments when Delhi has a certain charm. Moments when grace contrasts with chaos and filth.

It reminds me of some lines by a poetic songwriter named Jeff Johnson:

On and on this cycle goes
Wretchedness and beauty juxtaposed

The modern world often amazes me -- we can wake up on Koh Chang, in a quiet island paradise, and go to sleep in Delhi, a frenetic, seething cauldron. I can't think of two places that are more radically different. The concept of juxtaposition is one that has always fascinated me, pairing two opposites to highlight each other's qualities. The beauty of Koh Chang amplifies the ugliness of Delhi. And yet Delhi's ugliness in a way provides an ideal lens to magnify its charms.

Posted by Bwinky 22:05 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites

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