mastercopycat

Virtual meanderings

Tag Archives: Bangkok

Evening entertainment for Thai people.

I really wonder how often visitors to Thailand ask themselves how Thai people entertain themselves and where Thai people go for an evening out.

Lest we forget, is it only natural that they need a way to socialize and entertain themselves – or you thought they are only around to serve you or take your money? Because it is what some people believe, judging by their behavior. Restaurants and fast food chains such as McDonalds tend to cater to foreigners (as well as the globalized urban middle and uper-middle class). After all, the Thai tourist industry was built around catering for foreigners since its very conception. In case you do not know how tourism started in the Land of the Free – it was when American soldiers came to Thailand (a US ally) to relieve themselves from the Vietnam bombing raids and to screw the local women. Forgive me if I am being blunt, but this is how things are (the Buddhist deities have been busy at work ever since delivering justice to everyone involved). What has followed since is largely the logical evolution of the originating act.

So, where do the “common people go”?

McSpicy McDonalds

McDonalds - this is not where 'common' Thai people go

Read more of this post

Getting around in Bangkok

    I am wrapping up writing about Bangkok. Next post will be about the islands in the South. So I thought I’d devote this one on something simple, yet essential – moving from point A to point B in Bangkok.
    Travel guide books showcase the ‘local flavor’ with photos of tuk-tuks and smiling Thai drivers. But – you should all know by now – this is the least recommended way of transport (unless you are some kind of rip-off lover)
The infamous tuk-tuk 'taxi'

The 'traditional' tuk-tuk 'taxi'

    Let me quote (again) the venerable www.bangkokscams.com:
We got scammed with the TukTuk, a guy in an official looking suit who spoke quite decent English was standing in front of the grand palace and told us it was closed until half past one, because the king’s sister had died. Since we thought Thai people respected their royal family we doubted he would lie about something like that – after three weeks in Thailand we are innocent no more. In any case, he got us an ‘alternative route’, conveniently hailed a TukTuk for us and after visiting the standing budha (which was actually quite nice) we went from shop to shop. I got scammed into buying a suit. I had actually been thinking about getting one made, but probably would not have done so if it weren’t for the scam. Luckily my suit turned out pretty decent although a bit overpriced, so I like to think I got away with it. We later met a British couple in Kanchanaburi who got scammed by the exact same guy, appearently he told them the same story word for word :)Even outside bangkok people think of you not as a person, but as a wallet with legs”

    Or revist what Issac, a long-time Bangkok resident, had to say in his letter to me:

If you stay in Kao San Road or go the sits in the old city (This is where Kao San Rd. is located) then watch out for scams. In particular, I would advise to never take tuk tuks (three wheeled open air taxis). They always try to over charge and they will take you to a shop (jewelry, suits, travel agent) instead of your destination. It’s the same price or cheaper to take a metered taxi.

   But there are a lot of those tuk-tuks out on the streets and Thai people can often be seen using those?!

    But… but are you Thai? Price discrimination between locals and foreigners is one thing (and it makes some sense), but blatant rip-offs and scams such as the Thai gem scam is another.

   So is there a way out of that? Yes. Bangkok offers many modes of transportaion (and I did use all of these myself). Read more of this post

Funny pics – Bangkok

No journey depiction is complete without the funny moments that one was lucky to capture on camera. Some of the photos I posted earlier are amusing, but there were more memorable scenes I witnessed that simply could not be fit into the lengthy posts. So, before we say “good bye” to Bangkok and move further, let’s have a brief stop and enjoy those.

 

A Random Cow at Ayutthaya

A Random Cow at Ayutthaya

      Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and employing cows to graze the grass is much preferable to the noisy gasoline lawnmowers (would be my guess)

Ayutthaya Cellphone Tower

Ayutthaya Cellphone Tower

I loved how the nearby cellphone tower rises above the surrounding ancient towers. Old meets new in a fine combination.

New and Cleaner Toilet at Ayutthaya

New and Cleaner Toilet at Ayutthaya

I think there is little to add to this sign at the entrance of Ayutthaya.

A sign at Ayutthaya

A sign at Ayutthaya

Food dog? Medicine dog? I am not sure where this money goes, but you can do your own reserach.

A sign at Ayutthaya

A sign at Ayutthaya

The eternal electric light of Buddha…

East meets West

East meets West

Another West meets East photo – the temple equipment taking care of the serene music inside – inconspicuously located behind one of the Buddha statues.

Bangkok Wallstreet Tailors

Bangkok Wallstreet Tailors

Wall Street Tailor (Wall Street of Mumbai, that is)

Da Vinci Code Second Hand

Da Vinci Code Second Hand

A second hand bookstore – one of the best ways of determining what nationalities come to Thailand

Bangkok Porn

Bangkok Porn

This one requires a bit more explaining. My hotel room in Bangkok was at the very end of the corridor. Next to the hotel – literally two meters away – was the neighboring residential building. The hotel corridor window was overlooking the window of a private residence – inside which a couple of times I could see that someone was watching Thai porn on a black and white TV.

Bangkok to Chiang Mai and how I got ripped off nicely at the train station

I started the day by making the usual list of things to do. By now – the forth day since the journey began – it was an established fact that travelling on one’s own was mostly about writing “to do” lists and chasing them to the end. That traveller’s freedom thing was a myth. Or, rather, freedom would only manifest itself through some discipline. When you travel in a group you can share most of the chores – like hunting for information, shopping for necessities or – last, but definitely not least – having someone   watch over your luggage while you’re using the little boy’s room. But when you are on your own… well, you are on your own.
And the list of things to do was a reflection of that fact.
Largely thanks to the conversation with Brent last night, I had made up my mind where to go next – Chiang Mai, the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand.” Despite being the “largest,” it actually has only around 200,000 inhabitants – and lots of offerings for tourists. Kara had suggested that instead of going there by bus, I should take the much more comfortable overnight train and sleep on a couch.
It was reasonable advice, and I agreed. I looked up the Thai train schedule online (in English) and found out that there were two trains bound for Chiang Mai in the evening. The expensive A/C couch first class was B730 ($25), and the cheaper options were under B500 ($17). I also looked up where the train station was relative to Khao San – luckily, it was not far and a taxi would be the best option to get there. Then I packed my stuff, checked out but left my bag in the hotel storage room (they offered a free one-day luggage storage service, much appreciated) and started pursuing the items from the daily “to-do list”.

Plastic(?) statue at train station main entrance

Plastic(?) statue at train station main entrance

Courtesy: author

     I could not read Thai (I leave it up for you to decipher), but I can tell you – that did not look like a statue of a policeman. The garment was army-style and this looked like a Thai soldier. Why would there be, one might wonder, a true-size friendly smiling army guy at the entrance of the trainstation in the capital of the Land of Smiles? My guess would it be that it was installed by the Thai government as part of its propaganda campaign against the so-called Red Shirts Movement.

Event staged by Red Shirt members at the landmark Democracy Monument

Event staged by Red Shirt members at the landmark Democracy Monument

 Courtesy: author (shot this through my taxi window)

    You can learn more about the protests and the disposition of forces in Thai society and politics here and here (by a person you already read about – Isaac Olson). I’ll just add that while the violence at the time of my visit was already over, the city was under curfew and some popular tourist destinations (King’s palaces) were “closed for renovation” and surrounded by fences and police. On the surface it all looked like “business as usual” – and perhaps a good deal of foreign visitors never noticed any different.

Next inside the train station entrance was the information desk, serviced by two middle-aged ladies, who spoke decent English. One asked me where I was going. “Chiang Mai”. This made her very happy, because – she told me – she was from Chiang Mai herself. I immediately became a person to be helped more than the usual and she decided to personally accompany me to the ticket counters to help me out. We went to a counter, she told the guy something in Thai, he told her something back… and she told me that there were no train tickets to Chiang Mai left. Nada. Zero. Zip. All taken.
The friendly lady was quick to provide an explanation – the Queen’s birthday was just a couple of days from now, and it was to be a public holiday with people going back home.

But when there is a problem, there is a solution (Thailand is no different than most places on Earth – many problems are invented so that you pay for the solution). And who knew it better than that lady! She quickly took me upstairs to the tourist bureau to get “help,” where a very beautiful and sincere Thai girl with perfect English offered me a bus ticket for only B 950.
Let’s summarize the situation. What were my options? I had already checked out of the hotel, and I had booked the hostel at Chiang Mai for the next day. Whatever I chose to do, staying another day at Bangkok would cost money. I was also looking forward to moving on – four days at Khao San is perhaps close to the all-time world record. In addition, I was assured that the bus was very comfortable and I would be able to sleep fine. So I gave in – B950 be it. Now, this story has more to it, but for the time being (and for some extra suspense in this suspense-less post), let’s get back to what the train station looked like.

First of all, inside was really clean. In the big central area, people were sitting or lying around with their shoes off. Kids were playing around. There was a statue of Buddha near one of the walls and people were able to offer their gratitude. It had a very relaxed atmosphere, and I think it is the best train station I have seen. Train stations are usually all but relaxed.

Bangkok trainstation

Bangkok trainstation

Courtesy: author

            At last the four of us – all foreigners traveling to Chiang Mai, were told to follow some Thai guy who appeared out of nowhere. He took us out on the street – where there was no bus in sight – and we were told to get on two tuk-tuks (two passengers each). Together with our luggage, we were transported to another area of Bangkok and delivered to what looked like a ticket booth on the street, and not a bus station. At least there was our bus there – a double-decker with about 70 people (all of them foreigners). The leg space between the seats was very little, and there was no chance in hell to assume a sleep-friendly position. Hence, I got no sleep (yet again). The bus stopped at some place at about 1 am for a “snack”, but the food was really not good.
Since I did not know what to expect, it all seemed fine to me at that time (any inconsitencies could easily be attributed to misinterpreting and cultural differences – regarding, for example, leg space).
But fact is, I – and I guess everyone else on the bus – was being ripped off nicely.
I will fast forward a bit and tell you how I found this out. Some days later I took another bus on the same route – from Chiang Mai back to Bangkok – and this time my ticket was arranged in advance (by the hostel manager). It was the so-called super-VIP bus, and it cost B550. Let’s do a quick comparison to the B950 bus that I was currently in.

 Offering  B 950 bus  B 550 Super VIP bus
 Passenger seats  80  20
 Food  Once at a rest stop, bad  Several times in bus, OK
 Leg space  Totally insufficient  Plenty – almost like a bed
 Extra  A/C, blanket, pillow  A/C, blanket, pillow

The back trip felt much like airplane business class and nothing like the crowded double-decker bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Then I also checked about the Queen’s birthday – and it was August 12, not August 1st.

Since I do not speak Thai, I still wonder whether I could have avoided this particular rip-off given the circumstances. But the good thing was that – once bitten twice shy – this was the biggest rip off I let myself get involved in for the whole journey. It was also a lesson to not rely on getting the tickets in the last possible moment, but rather do my best to get them in advance. It also made me re-consider the more expensive, but more predictable (not to mention faster) flying option. I say “re-consider”, because my original intention to use exclusively land transport once in Asia – no planes! Yet after a couple of such encounters with Thai and later Cambodian ingenuity, I changed my mind. On a side note, there exists another solution: on my next journey (whenever that is) I am looking forward to travelling around Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on a scooter.  While it is not an option for everyone, a lot of people do it and it is a very viable alternative.

Expat Party in Bangkok and my next destination

In the evening I headed to Sukhumvit to meet Kara. She had offered to take me to a party that a friend of hers was throwing. Kara was renting a nice three-bedroom apartment with two other expats. Splitting the rent in three made it a very reasonable sum.

At Kara’s place I met another friend of hers, who was just passing by through Bangkok. He was in his early thirties, also from the US, and had previously worked at Yahoo but had quit about a year ago in order to travel. It turned out that Brent (that was his name) had been to many of the places I was envisioning to visit (and a whole lot of other places that I had not even heard of). What is more – he had done most of the journeys travelling completely on his own, just as I intented to.
As it was only my third day in South-East Asia, I certainly lacked Brent’s experience and seasoned attitude – but instead commanded uncertainty and hesitation. So I told him that.

Han Solo, Indiana Jones

Brent

Myself, at that time

Myself, at that time

Brent brushed away any concerns of mine and assured me that it was “all going to be ok,” and there was absolutely no reason to worry. Writing in retrospect, I can confirm that he was right. But at that moment things were still blurry in my head. Yet, the very fact that in front of me was a person who had recently a travel similar to the one I hoped to do was a real motivator (and      a priceless source of information, needless to say).
And talking about information, let me revisit the most important bits and pieces that I managed to scoop from the people I talked to so far:

  • If transiting Bangkok, there were very reasonably-priced hotels right near the airport, no need to go to Bangkok proper. Source: two British girls on the immigration line.
  • Cambodia was not a place where dragons lived. Instead, it was a place where hundreds of hotels had been built (at least in Seam Reap near Angkor Wat) and the tourist industry was booming. Source: Karen (the British lady standing behind me at the immigration line).
  • Best way to fly around the region was with AirAsia.com. Source: Isaac
  • A good place to stay in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Laos – Spicy Backpackers. Source: Brent
  • Best source for traveling by train (worldwide): www.seat61.com . Source: Kara
  • Somewhat arcane, but good to know: In Korea you could sleep for very little money ($5 to $7) at public baths. Source: Isaac

Along the journey I assembled many more of those (which I used to build up a series of posts that I will post later) that whould make the journey of anyone else following in my footsteps easier and smoother – transportation, obtaining local currency, English proficiency, laundry, internet & telephone services, food & toilets, hostels & hotels, and more.
The party itself was around the swimming pool in the inner yard of yet another gated community complex. Next to the pool was a gym. This was a residence for expats and upper middle class Thai people – with the usual security guards at the entrance who let us (the farangs) inside, no questions asked.
There were about thirty people at the party, all expats – Americans, Europeans, a couple of Indians, and one girl of a mixed German-Thai origin – everyone lived and worked in Bangkok. But one of the girls at the party had a strangely familiar face – but I could not understand why.
Then it finally dawned on me. Prior to my departure I had tried to contact that very girl through Couchsurfing. I had chosen to contact her because of her pretty face  university major (Psychology) and nationality (German). A Psychology major suggested interest in people behavior and culture. And – I like German people.
But I had never gotten a reply back (I still like German people no less, though).  Luckily, the second person that I had tried to contact through Couchsurfing was Isaac – who did respond.
Just to make sure I was not mistaken I asked Kara (a prominent Bangkok couchsurfing host herself) whether this was indeed that girl and Kara confirmed.
So I went and introduced myself  and asked her why she .
    Scratch that. I did not – after all, my Couchsurfing request for a meeting had failed to bring about a response.  On the other hand, I did not want to let such a fun coincidence go to waste. So, what I did was take a couple of “secret” photos of the German girl. I thought it would be a good laugh (for both of us), if on the following day I sent her a message with those and thank her for the good time we had had together in Bangkok.
But despite my original intention, eventually I did not do that either. On the next day I was already out of Bangkok. Then each new day offered enough interesting distractions and wasting time on such a useless prank was just not justified. It would only have worked immediately after the party. A week later was just too late. But it did give me and some people I told the story a good laugh. (On a side note, I got to meet and have a very good time with other Germans in Thailand, Vietnam and China that more than compensated for this one).

At some point at the party there was unanimous agreement between Kara, Brent and myself that another round of board games at yesterday’s place was a much better thing to do than staying. Which we did. The three of us played till 2:30 am, chatting about Thailand and sharing travelling tips. When I got back at the hotel, I craved some sleep. But largely thanks to Brent, I had made up my mind where to go next – Chiang Mai, and more specifically – a hostel in Chiang Mai going by the funny name of Spicy Thai Backpackers.

“Asian people are all alike“ – Leo Tolstoy & Ayutthaya – the ancient Thai capital

Happy families Asian people are all alike“– Leo Tolstoy

Waking up at 6:30 am was an immense challenge. I had hardly slept at all – the price to pay for having a good time in a good company the previous night. But if I wanted to do that Ayutthaya trip I already paid for – I’d better get up. The arrangement – as is customary in Thailand – was that someone would pick me up from the hotel reception. The guy showed up about on time and I asked him if it was possible to wait for five more minutes till I put something in my mouth. He said “no problem” – he had to “do something” and “wait me five minute outside.” So I took the chance to gobble a quick snack and five minutes later, as agreed, I was out.

At 7 am the Khao San street was practically empty. This backpacker inferno, the mother of all crowded tourist streets – empty? One of the only people around was my guide – papers in his hand, waiting. I told him – here I am, I am ready, we can go, etc. This produced a somewhat confusing reaction – the guy stared at me, with his eyes showing bewilderment and he started murmuring something to himself that I could not understand. For a minute or two there we were – me, standing nearby and him looking around as if waiting for someone or something – the tourist van?
Five minutes later my actual guide shows up from the entrance of a neighboring hotel and waves at me to join him.
Yes, that’s right! I had fallen victim to the phenomenon that Asian people look all the same to Europeans.
Typical inconspicuous Asian people

Typical inconspicuous Asian people
Courtesy: cnet.com

     OK, in fact it is not hard to distinguish faces – if you pay attention (!). That is, if you took a closer look at the person when you first met them. I had just glanced at my guide for a second at the hotel lobby – still sleepy and longing for food. I had paid zero attention to what clothes he wore, what his face looked like, etc. So I had mistaken a bystander for my guide. I think that he was some Vietnamese tourist who had come to enjoy Thailand – and got “confronted” by some unknown white foreigner instead.

***
Ayutthaya

    The one day trip to Ayutthaya – the ancient Thai capital –  consisted of: getting there in a packed-full van, visiting an old Buddhist temple, going around ruins, having lunch, taking a stop at the famous giant reclining Buddha statue, visiting a traditional Thai house, checking yet another Buddhist temple, going back. It might sound boring, but it is extremely hard to get bored in Thailand (… when a recent edition of Playbeing Magazine headlined an article with the words, ‘When you are tired of Ursa Minor Beta you are tired of life’, the suicide rate there quadrupled overnight).

A small piece of Ayutthaya

A small piece of Ayutthaya

Courtesy: author

    We headed to Ayutthaya in a 12-seat van. The van would stop at various hotel entrances to pick up more tourists who had signed up for the same trip. Our van was then joined by two more vans, making it a group of around 30 people. Half an hour into the tour it was all too clear to everyone that our “friendly and fluent in English” guide (as advertised in the tour brochure) was without a doubt the former, but unfortunately not the latter.  It was very hard to understand him and at times it just felt like he was speaking in Thai. In fact some native English speakers seemed to grasp even less than I did, giving me a chance to help two British girls with some interpreting. Truth be told, I could do that only because I had brought along a travel guide by National Geographic. (said travel guide soon proved practically useless for just about anything but descriptions of sight-seeing spots, and I dumped it in Chiang Mai. But it did a great job on Ayutthaya.)

  Our Thai guide’s mode of operation was this: bring them to a location, talk incomprehensibly for a while, then tell them – “OK, now you go around free, we meet at car in one hour.” The upside was that during this “go around free” time we were spared the constant effort of trying to grasp what he said. The downside was that it was not possible to ask questions – and I had plenty of those. About the murals at the temples, about statues and buildings… The National Geographic was too brief.

Inside a Buddhist temple at Ayutthaya

Inside a Buddhist temple at Ayutthaya - who is who and who takes care of what? You tell me!

Courtesy: author

     The guide was a short man, I’d say in his late thirties, and – he told us – he was not married, as he did not make anywhere near enough to support a family. From the way he spoke, it was clear that he had learned the language largely on his own – and I have no idea how and where he did that.

NOTE: It is easy to ridicule Thai people’s command of English – and in fact a lot of people do so. However! Such attitude does not take into consideration several very importan facts. Fact one – most Thai people earn very little money and have had no chance of getting a good education with English lessons at school. Fact two – even if you secure a job in the tourist service industry you are usually not paid much, because the money go to the owners of the tourist operations. So, who do you expect to be your guide for the sum you paid – Tiger Woods’ mother’s brother himself? Give these people some credit – or at least be considerate of the reality.

The Ayutthaya ruins were my first encounter with ancient Thailand – a much welcome change from the big, fast-moving and noisy Bangkok. Ayutthaya had been the kingdom’s capital for about 400 years, up until 1782. This period ended with the coming to power of general Chao Phraya Chakri, e.g. King Rama I. I am mentioning this useless information for the sole reason that the current king is a descendent of said Mr. Chakri. Nowadays Ayutthaya is a place where the remains of hundreds of  buildings – temples, palaces, administrative buildings – stand.
On the ruined walls hundreds of decapitated Buddha statues were neatly ordered for the tourists to take photos of.

Ruined Buddha statues

Ruined Buddha statues

    Courtesy: author

    Our guide stressed how Ayutthaya had been ransacked, pillaged and destroyed by the evil Burmese, who also took with them its most prized statues and golden treasures from the temples. What he did not say was that in those times Thai armies were doing the exact same thing to their Burmese and Cambodian and Lao neighbors. It is simply absurd to take the higher moral ground – inflicting as much damage as you could to your neighbors was the norm of the day.

    We also had the chance to visit a true-size replica of a traditional Thai stilt house – which I found very interesting, especially the way the extended family coexisted there. The family patriarch and his wife had a separate section of the house all for themselves, while all their children, married children and grandchildren lived in separate sections, all coming together in a nice inner yard. More information here. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architecture_of_Thailand).

   At Ayutthaya I saw yet another great example of how the carefully edited photos in the guide book differ from the unedited reality. There is this beautiful Buddha head, embraced by the roots of a tree that had grown around it. In the travel guide there was a photo much like this:

Buddha head in tree roots

Buddha head in tree roots

Courtesy: Wikipedia

And here is, courtesy of me, some context

A pic is worth a 1000 words

A pic is worth a 1000 words

Courtesy: author

    A further enrichment to the environment – not present in the picture – was some tall American guy in his fifties who had come to enjoy the marvels of Ayutthaya with his tiny 20-something old Thai female companion.

We also visited a big new Buddhist temple, and the giant statue of a reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha Ayutthaya

Reclining Buddha Ayutthaya

Can we please pretend that there are no dozens of tourists just outside the camera’s range?
Courtesy: Wikipedia

   The van got us all back to Bangkok about 4pm. I did enjoy the trip and heartily recommend it – and you can find more information and photos of Ayutthaia here. But I’d also say that when (later on this trip) I visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia it truly blew Ayutthaya away.

Board games in downtown Bangkok

I got a call by Isaac  who had come back from Vientiane, Laos – and we arranged to meet in downtown Bangkok (where he lived). Khao San Road was far from the downtown area at Sukhumvit road. To get to Sukhumvit I could use a taxi or try the public transport – first the river boat and then the modern elevated “sky train” (I will be dedicating a separate post on Bangkok transportation options). I opted for the public transport option.

It was rush hour (people were going home after work) and the water taxi (B20) was fun. The sky-train (B40) at rush hour was even more fun.

Rush hour

Rush hour on the Bangkok sky train

Courtesy: Fabricdepot.com

    Luckily, in the former the river breeze was cooling me off, and in the latter it was the air-conditioning. I got off at Asoc station (one of the big downtown stations) and met Isaac, who had brought along two more companions – his fiancée and a Canadian friend of theirs. We then proceeded to pick up another friend of theirs – Kara (an American). Kara, too, was a prominent Bangkok Couchsurfing host and also lived in the Sukhumvit road area.

    This area is the epitome of upscale Bangkok. To quote the link above “[it] epitomizes modern Bangkok from its high rise apartments to air-conditioned shopping centers and stylish boutiques and restaurants. Sukhumvit also has a wide selection of nightly entertainment venues making this one of the city’s more colourful areas.”

Sukhumvit Road - Bangkok, Thailand

Sukhumvit Road - Bangkok, Thailand

Courtesy: MikeBehnken on flickr

    After having a quick snack at a nearby fast-food, Kara took us to a board game shop in the area, where club members could play board games for free. She had just signed up for a membership and was eager to try it out. Soon it was clear that I was in the company of seasoned board game players. As for me, I had not played a board game in my life (excluding the “board games” we played as little kids).

The boardshop was located at a gated community residential area with security guards (who never stop you to ask questions what you are doing and where you are going if you are white a “foreigner”). We left our shoes out at the front door, as is customary in Thailand. Inside were some local Thai teenage boys and girls playing – upper middle class (read: rich) kids, who also spoke decent English (not always the case with Thai people). The contrast to Khao San and its neighboring soi with their old buildings crammed together could not be sharper. To me the Sukhumvit area felt almost like a different country (but we never stopped at any of its bars full of old white men accompanied by young Thai girls).

Sukhumvit board games shop

Sukhumvit board games shop - random Thai kid (Look Ma - no shoes!)

    Courtesy: author

    My American acquaintancies decided on a board game called “Ticket to Ride: European traveler” and we spent the next four hours happily enjoying ourselves (the game was truly fun) – until it was already 1 am. Next thing on their agenda was going to a party. And me? I had to be getting up early next morning to go on a one-day trip I had booked, so I left.

Not only had I had a great time with them – but they had also provided me with a lot of insight on Thailand and South-East Asia. Possible new stops en route Bangkok – Shanghai – Tokyo were beginning to pop up (in my head, that is). But as far as tomorrow was concerned – I was going to Ayutthaya.

The Painting Exhibition

    When I am not sure what to do next, I just make a list of things that I think ought to be done and go after it. It creates the illusion that I know what I am doing and, more importantly, that I am in charge of the situation. Then something happens and changes the plan mid-way.

    As I went around the area – just a hundred meters from Khao San Rd – I crashed into the Bangkok Museum of Art. A poster announced that it was the last day of the 12thPanasonic Contemporary Painting Exhibition. I quit my research on neighboring hotels, the next day tour booking, the eating and the river taxi riding (all of these were on my list) and went to see the exhibition.

12th Panasonic Contemporary Art Exhibition

12th Panasonic Contemporary Art Exhibition

And here is a painting that won the top award at one of the previous exhibitions

Panasonic Contemporary Art Exhibition Painting

Take that, American abstract expressionists and European decadents!

 

NOTE: You can learn more about this annual exhibition from its official website.

Contemporary Art Museum Bangkok Inner Yard Statue

Contemporary Art Museum Bangkok Inner Yard Statue

This statue sat in the museum’s inner yard. Four true-size female bodies with, maybe, their true inner personalities exposed (?). Had the artist gone through a sequnence of unhappy relationships with attractive women?  Did he want to solidify his memories? Was this some kind of Terminator 4 proposal? Whatever the inspiration, the museum showed me a whole new side to Thailand that I suspect few people actually bother to see.  Then, as a possible antithesis to the beautiful but deadly women hidden inside, at one of the entrances otuside was a lone male head, which had clearly transcended all things mundane.

Contemporary Art Museum Bangkok Entrance Statue

Contemporary Art Museum Bangkok Entrance Statue

I then got back to researching housing options at the hotels hidden in the soi around the museum. There I came across yet another of the Sabaddee chain hotels – and this one featured a transparent offering rooms for as little as B300 ($10). I do not know what this B300 looked like (as it turned out to be, of course, unavailable), but for the slightly higher B350 they showed me a small clean room, with a small TV and a small squat toilet. Note the word “small” here.

While the B350 room was clean, the hotel building itself was quite old and worn out. I decided to stay at my present hotel, at least until I had the chance to talk to Isaac. I had no idea where I was to go next, and hence I did not know when I wanted to leave Bangkok.

NOTE: In Thailand it is customary to ask to have a look at the room before you rent it. They will either give you the key and you would go and check it yourself, or someone will join you and show you the room. I do not know if the same rule applies in the Bangkok Hilton, but for the kind of places backpackers stay at it was the norm.

A quick note on squat toilets – this is the type of toilet prevalent in Thailand and much of Asia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squat_toilets). The topic “toilets in South-East Asia” has tempted many a traveler to share and meditate. Looking it up online will bring you hours of fun, so there is little I can add myself. Interestinly enough, my Traditional Thai hotel room (which I eventually chose to stick to for the whole duration of my Bangkok stay) had a European-style toilet :).

My Traidional Thai room with integrated bathroom

My Traidional Thai room with integrated bathroom

Courtesy: author

First day in Thailand

There is this psychological state of mind of which Freud nailed as “longing to get back into the womb to feel safe again.” This is how I felt when I woke up in my silent and cozy room at the thought of going out to the Khao San madness.

The maddness
Courtesy: thailandtravelpro.com

My "Traditional Thai" hotel room

My "Traditional Thai" hotel room

My room
Courtesy: author

 

I could just sit around, watch my plasma TV all day long, be lazy, relax from the exhausting travel…rrrright… If that was what I would do, I’d better stayed at home. I got up, took a shower and went out.

Boy, what a contrast it was to face the world now, having gotten enough sleep and with no heavy backpack on my back. Khao San felt completely transformed too. The garbage was gone, cleared in the morning. I could see all the surrounding buildings, as there were no neon lights. It felt nothing like last night. The noise was gone, the sun was shining and everything just looked… normal.

By night one way, by day another 
Thus shall be the norm…
(Princess Fiona describing Khao San Road)

Khao San day time

Khao San day time

  Courtesy: Author

    A small mystery from last night also found its explanation. Last night, while I was moving back and forth Khao San last night, longing to find a place to sleep, I had been approached by an overly friendly local guy who was sure that what I needed the most was a new custom tailored suite.
Tailored suite was exactly what I did not need at that moment, and I let him know about that. He quit insisting and left me alone. Oh, well – that would have been too easy, wouldn’t it? In reality, the guy just would not take “no” for an answer. When his attempt to friendly shake hands with me produced no result, he grabbed me by the arm, and tried to take me with him. From the little I knew about Thailand, Thai people never made physical contact – considering it extremely impolite.

So the whole story was almost surreal – and it certainly added to last night’s “Where have I come?” feeling. Now, in the broad daylight, more friendly ‘suite touts’ materialized with killer bargains, and this time I could see that none of them were actually Thai. They were Indian (or Bangladeshi, or Pakistani. I’d opt for Indians, however). Turns out that making custom tailored suites is good business in the areas visited by Western tourists. If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense, given the fact that they charged a third of the price in Western Europe. Since I had other encounters with the tailored suits mafia, I will be making a separate dedicated post.

Outside I set off finding the nearest 7/11 store in order to get a SIM card for my phone, and I found one such store just a 100 meters down Khao San.

7/11
US…? …Thailand!
Courtesy: nop711 on flickr

    NOTE: 7/11 stores are everywhere in Thailand (and are cleaner than their US counterparts). Later I found out that 7/11s abound in Japan as well.

A couple of minutes later I had my new SIM card, topped up with some credit. Yet I still needed one extra for my phone to continue being operational in Thailand – a charger (oh, how easy we forget about these things…). Back at home in Europe, while doing my research, it had somehow slipped under my radar that power sockets in Thailand followed the US standard. Unfortunately, no chargers were sold at that 7/11. Where to get one then? The girls behind the counter had no clue (or rather, their English was yet to improve) and could not be of any help.

I got out of the shop – having the confused-foreigner look – and I was immediately approached by a young guy who wanted to sell me T-shirts and anything else that he knew how to pronounce in English. I asked for a charger. “My cousin sells them over there” – he answered without skipping a beat and ordered me to follow him. I did.
“Over there” turned out to be a small dark shop on the side, completely hidden behind hundreds of T-shirts on the stalls in front. Believe it or not, they sold chargers there. $8, problem solved.

NOTE: Even from this first day in Thailand I could already tell that the level of English varied greatly from shop attendant to shop attendant, but was usually very basic. Get ready for sign language, dust off your acting skills – and keep smiling.

Thus spoke Issac: The words of the wise man

     There are those who want to know about a destination as much as possible before they visit it. Then there are others who prefer knowing very little in order to avoid bias and feel the place themselves. Then there is me, who cannot make my mind which way I want it. For this travel I decided to stick to the second approach. As there is not a clear-cut boundary between the two approaches, it seems to be more of a personal attitude. In the former case you tell yourself “I will learn as much as possible to avoid any problems”. In the latter case you say “I will deal with whatever happens on the spot, one way or another”.

     That just said, for my first days I did not think it wise to rely on the travel guidebooks candy – and I tried to get in touch with someone who lived in Bangkok (using the popular www.couchsurfing.org website). As I kept postponing this task to the last moment, I almost missed my chance – one never knows when and if the person you are trying to contact will answer. After losing three days on one attempt that did not work out, I made a second try just the day before I left for Istanbul.
This time it worked – and I got back an extensive answer from Isaac, an American PhD student living in Bangkok with his fiancée (also American). Luckily, I was able to read his message midway – at Abu Dhabi airport. Isaac happened to be in neighboring Laos, but was coming back to Bangkok today. I provide his email in full here, as it is a must-read (all credit goes to Isaac):

Great to hear from you. Thanks for the complements on the blog. I wish I had more time to add more content to it, but I’m busy with my thesis. We would love to meet up with you in Bangkok for dinner or a drink. We’re not hosting right now just because we’ve been so busy with school. As far as places to stay go, I don’t have any great advice since I live here so I never look for a place to stay. However, most of the budget stuff is located on Kao San Road. Kao San Road is famous or rather infamous for being one of the world’s most famous backpacker places. This offers a lot of convenience as far as food, alcohol, travel agents, and sights go, but it has also attracted a lot of scams, drunken backpackers, sex workers, and shops selling “Thai” souvenirs. Some love it, some hate it, personally I would only want to stay there for a few days. On the plus side, it’s easy to show up there and just walk into guest houses, look at a room and decide if you want it or not. Be wary of noise from the street though. I’ve heard that there are a few good hostels in the Silom area too. You can always find a CSer who is hosting as well. A week in Bangkok is a bit long in my opinion, but you’re right that it’s probably a good way to get over jet lag and culture shock. I think you can see and experience most of what Bangkok has to offer is two to three days, but that is just my opinion. If you only have two weeks though, I wouldn’t stay in Bangkok for a whole week. There are many other great places to go in Thailand.

If you stay in Kao San Road or go the sits in the old city (This is where Kao San Rd. is located) then watch out for scams. In particular, I would advise to never take tuk tuks (three wheeled open air taxis). They always try to over charge and they will take you to a shop (jewelry, suits, travel agent) instead of your destination. It’s the same price or cheaper to take a metered taxi.

Laos is great. I’m actually there right now, but I’ve only been to Vientiane. It’s far quieter than Bangkok. Also, the people are friendly and honest. There is a lot of natural beauty too.

Vietnam has a lot of nice things to do and it’s popular among backpackers. I’ve only been to Northern Vietnam. You should go to Sapa, but pay extra money to have a guide take you out of Sapa into the actual villages on an overnight walking trip. Don’t pay anyone to only take you to cat cat “village.” Hanoi is interesting and Ha Long Bay is not to be missed. I’ve heard good things about Hue too.

For Japan, you have to spend at least a few days in Tokyo. You should also go to Kyoto for a few days and probably Nara. Himeji Jo is great as well. Skip Osaka since it’s nothing after you’ve seen Tokyo. I’ve heard Hiroshima is good too. I also recommend Nagasaki, but it’s out of the way. Budget at least $100 dollars a day for Japan to be realistic. Be careful you have enough money for a visit to Japan last. It’s painfully expensive. I would recommend staying in a capsule hotel in Japan. There is a good one located in the Akihabara neighborhood (a geek’s paradise).

Korea is great. You have to see Seoul, especially the Kongbokgung (Palace). Cheongdokgung (palace) is also good. I also recommend walking along the Changichong (stream) for good people watching. For food eat Korean barbecue, bibim bob, bulgogi, kimbob, solentang, and anything else that looks interesting (You could try boshentang which is dog soup. It’s not too easy to find, but you can if you look and ask middle aged to older men where it can be found) Eat kimchi at every meal, you will be addicted by the time you leave. You also have to hike up a mountain in Korea. Go on a weekend day when a lot of Koreans are hiking too. They will probably give you food and alcohol (soju) at the top of the mountain. Also, try to make it up to the DMZ. Go on a USO tour. If you don’t go with the USO, then don’t take any DMZ tour that doesn’t take you to Panmunjom/Joint Security Area (JSA). You should also go to Gyongju (old Silla/Korea capital). Probably the most beautiful place in SK is Soraksan National Park near Sokcho. Busan has busy beaches, but the best beaches are on Jeju Island, but if you’ve been to Southeast Asia you will not be impressed. However, Jeju Island is quite fun and unique. I would recommend driving a scooter along the coast and across the island. You should hike up Halasan (mountain) and go to the tiny but great Udo (Island). Near Seoul is an island off the beaten path called Gangwado. It is a great cross section of Korea offering traditional food, lots of ginseng, mountains, temples, rice fields, and a mud flat beach. I would also recommend visiting public bath houses in Japan and Korea. You can actually sleep at them in Korea for about 7 dollars a night.

You’re phone won’t work in Thailand, but you can buy a sim card for 100 baht and top it up at any 7-11.

Finally, you have to go to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom outside Siam Reap in Cambodia.

If you have any more questions, feel free to ask.

    By the way, Issac has a personal blog that I highly recommend. His posts on Thailand in particular offer a lot of information and deep insight on things Thai (especially politics) which will help you get beyond the “Land of Smiles” level of knowledge. Check it out!