Category Archives: Travel

Travel

exploring more of Bangkok, especially Bang Rak

I’m writing this on a rainy Sunday afternoon, our last Sunday in Bangkok. Thursday morning, we leave to return to America, so I’m feeling contemplative.

A Very Good Decision

I posted a blog article in late September about good and bad decisions we made in the early part of our trip. We’ve made lots of other good and bad decisions along the way, over the past four months. But one of the best decisions regarding Bangkok was choosing a hotel. We decided on Pas Cher Hotel de Bangkok almost by accident. Back in late October, when we were in the Philippines, Beth was doing a lot of research online about where to stay in Bangkok. We’d never been here before, and about all we knew was that it was a good idea to stay near the river, since it’s sort of the heart of the city. And we knew staying near a BTS (their elevated metro system) station was also a good idea. This hotel had both things going for it, pretty good reviews, and a reasonably price in our budget. So we stayed here a few nights before moving on.

Since then Beth has been back to this hotel twice, and I’ve been here another three times. We still like the hotel itself, and the staff, but what really sets this place apart is the neighborhood. Bangkok is divided into 50 districts, one of which is called Bang Rak, and that’s where Pas Cher hotel is. This district has a mix of middle class housing and international tourist hotels, old historic houses and modern high rises, inexpensive Thai food stands, and foreign food restaurants, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and American. Shopping is a mix of day and night outdoor markets with different specialties, department stores, and standalone shops.

Since we can’t cook in our hotel room, we dine out at least two meals every day, sometimes more. The hotel plan we’ve gotten each time includes breakfast, but sometimes we go out for a second breakfast if we want something special. And lunch and supper are both eaten out every day except when we take leftovers back to our room. So I’d done a lot of sampling of a lot of different low- and medium-price food options in the area. That suits me just fine, as you can imagine.

Breakfast at Pas Cher

Here’s part of a typical breakfast from our hotel’s breakfast buffet. They offer both Asian style breakfast items and Western style breakfast items. But other than the toast, butter, and jam, I’ve found the Western items to be pretty gross. That includes sunny side up eggs and sausage that looks and tastes like American hot dogs. But the Asian items are more interesting. Usually there’s a Thai curry dish with white rice, like this.

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And every morning they have rice soup with green onions, some other herb, and some chunks of ground meat (pork or chicken, I’m not sure). I really like this stuff. The rice isn’t cooked way down like with congee (I wish it was); the grains are all solid and whole. One of the herbs they use in it must be the same as something in pho, because even though I can’t identify what it is, it hits the same taste buds.

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bridge

Another nice discovery I’ve made in the Bang Rak area is an art gallery and cafe called “bridge” (always spelled lowercase, apparently). By pure luck, it’s located not far from the Pas Cher hotel where we’ve been staying. There are several coffee shops closer, but they’re chains – a Starbucks, a Black Canyon, and a Coffee World (in decreasing order of price). I like supporting my independent coffee shop when I can, and I found bridge.

The whole time I’ve been here has been between art exhibitions, so I can’t speak for the art side of things. But their cafe is great. They have very good food and coffee, friendly service, and a comfortable space.

Here’s the main barista who has been there every time I’ve visited, next to the espresso maker and related stuff. She’s very nice, speaks English well, and is a great cook. I think she told me her name once, but I can’t remember it.

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I guess you could say the coffee drinks are almost all Western style food, since they’re Italian style espresso drinks for the most part – cappuccinos, lattes, and so on. Their food menu has Thai food, Chinese food (I think), and Western food. One day I decided to try fish and chips there, and it was amazingly delicious.

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One thing I like about the coffee drinks is the presentation. Here’s how they serve a cappuccino, in a wood tray with a little wooden spoon and a packet of sugar.

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Wat Arun and Khaosan Road

If you know anything about Bangkok, you’ve probably heard of Khaosan Road. For years and years, it was the international traveler haven of the city. Books have been written about it, books have been set here, and so on. It contains one of the four red light districts of Bangkok (that I’m aware of – there may be more), a ton of bars and restaurants, and all forms of entertainment and shopping targeted to young international tourists with disposable income.

Khaosan Road (sometimes spelled Khao San Road, and pronounced COW-sawn, not COE-sawn as many tourists say) is  so famous that it’s the first thing people often associate with Bangkok. I remember when we were in Christchurch, New Zealand four months ago, there was a bar near the B&B where we stayed and it was called Khao San Road. Anyhow, we wanted to visit to see what it was all about. Not being too excited by hard drinking and ping pong shows, we didn’t really expect to be into the Khaosan scene so much. But we couldn’t say we saw Bangkok until we saw what others so often saw about Bangkok. The advice we got was to visit at night, which makes sense.

We decided to combine that with a trip to see Wat Arun, the “Temple of the Dawn”, at sunset. We’d heard it was really pretty, and there are bars and restaurants set up across the river from the temple just for this purpose, since so many people want to take in the sight around sunset. We had the Nancy Chandler map of Bangkok and after reading a little about the two places it recommends, we chose one that sounded more our style, Sala Rattanakosin.

So one day we got on the orange Chao Phraya Express Boat, and headed north. Finding our way from the express boat pier to the restaurant/bar wasn’t too hard. Climbing the five flights of stairs was a bit more of a challenge, considering I’d sprained my knee the week before in Phuket climbing aboard a long tail boat.

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Drinks were very tasty but expensive. Food was also expensive. But the view was magnificent. We spent 2000 baht at this one place, which is $55. That’s the most expensive night out for us ever in Bangkok, and we didn’t even get a real meal, just one small appetizer each (and two drinks each).

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After we left Sala Rattanakosin, we caught a tuktuk to Khaosan road, paying way more than we should have, but getting there quickly.

The Khaosan Road area was pretty much like what we expected. There were lots of Western tourists out in the streets and in streetside bars drinking away. Lots of backpacks. Lots of loud music. Lots of people selling stuff to tourists – sunglasses, bikinis, scorpion-on-a-stick to eat, toys that light up and go into the air, and so on. There’s a police station right at one end to make sure things don’t get too crazy for too long, I guess. We also got sales pitches from people selling custom tailored suits, ping pong shows, dinner, beer, and so on.

I looked for little trinkets to buy to take my family and friends back home, but came up empty-handed. We found one shop of crafts that our Nancy Chandler map recommended because everything in it is Fair Trade, but they were closed by the time we got there. There are supposed to be some stores that carry used English language books, something you’d expect to see in an area full of tourists, but we couldn’t find them.

So, with our hopes of shopping dashed, and still being full from the expensive rooftop restaurant, and not wanting to sit around and have a drink in the din of the street, and feeling hot and sweaty from the humidity, we headed for “home”. Beth flagged down a tuktuk, quickly negotiated an even more ridiculous price (since he’d pulled over where he wasn’t allowed to, and it was right in front of a traffic cop), and we were off through the late night streets of Bangkok.

Here’s a photo of us holding on for our lives.

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I may have made it look and sound a little more dramatic than it really was.

Lumpini Park

One thing I just love about living in a city is the density of interesting things I encounter just by chance. I guess any city is like this, but a city that’s new to me obviously feels like it has more new stuff. And Bangkok is especially so. I think that’s because there are so many things going on in the streets that take up less space than things in America. In Denver, you never run into a business that takes up less than about 50 square meters. But here, a business can be as small as a 1 square meter cart, and stuff is packed into smaller spaces than in most of America.

Lumpini Park is a major public park in Bangkok, just east of the Bangrak (aka Bang Rak) area. It’s easy to get to by BTS. Lots happens there, as with a big park in any city. But since there’s no snow in Bangkok, stuff happens in Lumpini Park even in the middle of “winter”.

We read about a series of free concerts in Lumpini Park every Sunday night. From doing a little online research, I learned than these concerts are by the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. So hey, free culture! Sunday had been rainy in the morning, which cooled things down immensely. But the sky cleared up by afternoon, and so we headed for the BTS station.

On the way, we gathered up various bits of food from food carts along the way. And when we got enough of it assembled, I realized that our picnic supper looked a lot like a picnic in America. We had fried spring rolls (OK, that’s not very American), corn on the cob, and fried chicken. We didn’t have a picnic blanket, but I brought my Marmot Goretex jacket which would be good enough if we needed it.

After the short train ride, we walked into the park past the statue at the entrance of King Rama VI, who created the park back in the 1920s. There were even more food carts there, and I couldn’t resist stopping for a shave ice.

I got orange flavor with sweetened condensed milk on top, in the Asian style. The guy’s ice shaver was totally old school: a big block of ice on a hand-cranked turntable and a metal blade. The resulting grains of ice were bigger than Hawaiian style shave ice, and it was more like an American snow cone.

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After that, we discovered an art display of a bunch of elephant statues. From what I could understand, different groups or companies submitted their own elephants as a way to show their uniqueness or represent some cause or another.

Some of the organizations did things as boring as just putting their company logo on the side of the statue. Others modified the standard statue and painted it with a custom design. For instance, I remember one elephant was a land mine survivor and had a prosthetic foot. This elephant caught my eye because it is clearly a representation of Spinal Tap’s first album. None more black. And music symbols.

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But then I saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as an elephant and had to get a photo next to it.

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The concert was supposed to start at 5:30pm, and we could hear the music off in the distance, so we knew we were late. But then the bells sounded to indicate that it was 6:00pm.

And you know what happens every morning and eight and every night at six in Thailand, right? The national anthem is played, and everybody stops in their tracks and stands. It was eerie, since this was the first time I’d seen it. Everyone who had been walking to or from the concert, or checking out the elephant statues, or playing games just suddenly froze like in the world’s largest game of freeze tag. When the music ended, the bells played again, and everyone suddenly unfroze and went back to whatever they were doing.

It’s weird that in all the time we’ve spent in Thailand now, roughly five or six weeks, I haven’t been in public at either 8:00am or 6:00pm to witness this. I didn’t take video of the event, but I found a couple YouTube videos of it that other people made.

Once the anthem was over, we made our way to the area where the concert was going on. There were yet more food stalls there, but we didn’t need anything else. Since the turf was water logged, we found a section of unoccupied curb and sat there listening to the music and eating our picnic. The fried chicken vendor near the east entrance to the Saphan Taksin BTS station makes the most incredible fried chicken. I don’t know what herbs and spices he uses, but I daresay his are better than the venerable and inscrutable Colonel Sanders.

The music was a mix of vocal and instrumental pieces, and a mix of Western and Thai. They played some Thai pop songs from past eras and also a tune or two from Les Miserables.

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One thing I thought was strange was that the attire of the orchestra was very casual. Some musicians wore blue jeans, some wore black slacks, some wore skirts. Most, though not all, wore yellow polo shirts like the one the conductor is wearing in the photo above.

In hindsight, even though this whole evening was supposed to be about the concert, the concert itself was the least significant thing. Watching all the people, seeing the art, and enjoying the park were what I’ll remember most.

how the city changes, and why I’d like to study it more

In Bangkok, I had a chance to do something I couldn’t do in any other city we visited in our Eastern Hemisphere travels – see how the city changed over time. When we settled back into the Pas Cher Hotel de Bangkok on January 19, it was my fourth stay there over the course of two and a half months.

Beth and I have been here enough now that many of the staff recognize us. Yesterday when we arrived to check in, the three women who work in the restaurant area – I call them “the breakfast ladies” – all came running out of the building to greet us back to the hotel with wais. They’d never done that before. Strangely, the front desk receptionist, even though she recognized us, didn’t seem unusually happy. Not sad or gruff, just nothing out of the ordinary. I think she said “welcome back” but that’s about it.

So Much to Notice

One reason that it seems things change is that we just notice more and more. Bangkok from street level is very dense compared to our baseline of urban areas of medium-sized American cities. What I mean by that is that if you just stand on the sidewalk and glance at a building, you may or may not notice what kind of business goes on there. But as you learn what to look for, and spend a little more time, you see more and more going on behind that first business.

There are signs everywhere, and the eye is sometimes drawn to the biggest or brightest one at the expense of the others. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked past a given business and only on the six or seventh time actually noticed that there’s another business behind it through a tiny passageway, or on the second floor, or something like that.

I think part of this is just me being ignorant of the visual cues. For instance, when a business is closed here, there’s often a big security door that looks kinda like a garage door that the owner pulls down over the storefront. This covers up the windows so you can’t see that inside there is normally a sewing machine repair shop or wahtever. And the big garage doors often cover over the signs that would be another clue of what goes on there. But also it means that after hours you often can’t tell the difference between a store that is closed for the night and a vacant space.

In a post from several weeks ago, I was complaining about how hard it was for me to find a barber that would work on men in the neighborhood of our hotel. At the time, I imagined some sort of “rent a friend” service where you could hire a local guide who would help you find that sort of thing. And I still think that’s a good idea. In fact, an acquaintance of mine turned me on to the fact that there is already a website where you can find people like this. It’s called rentafriend.com. If I’d known about it on my first time to Bangkok, I probably would’ve used it to help out with some of this kind of thing.

But now that I’ve been here a little more, I’m starting to see where there are more shops of whatever kind I’m looking for, but they’re just not obvious at first glance. I remember asking the woman at the front desk of our hotel where to go to find that mythical men’s barber, and she gave some vague directions about walking down to the hospital, and then looking across the street. I spent an hour wandering around where she described, and never finding the barber shop. Now I realize she doesn’t actually know this neighborhood very well. She just works here, but doesn’t live here. And since the hotel is so new, she hasn’t actually even worked here for very long. So of course she wouldn’t know exactly where to find a men’s barber. She doesn’t spend any amount of time on foot walking around this area. When she’s done with work, she commutes to her home in some other part of the city, spending about as little time in this neighborhood as possible. And since she’s a woman, why would she ever really pay attention to where the men’s barber shop is located? Duh.

So there’s more than meets the eye when you’re walking around Bangkok. No big surprise there. But I don’t think that’s the only reason that it seems things in “our” neighborhood are changing.

Rapid Changes

The first time we stayed at Pas Cher hotel and walked around the area to find places to eat, we found about four or five options. That doesn’t include the restaurants that are in the shopping mall at the end of the street, since those are really obvious and easy to find because they’re clearly marked.

Four or five food stalls seemed like plenty, since they all had different stuff. We could just rotate through them and never get bored. Plus, if one or two turned out to be duds, it’s no big deal because there are others to choose from.

But since then, in only two and a half months, another half dozen food stalls have apparently sprung up from out of nowhere. There’s one right across the street from our hotel now that we haven’t tried, there are two just a couple doors down, there’s a Chinese place midway down the street, and so on.

Also, there are some food carts that have just appeared from out of nowhere. In November, if I wanted coffee, I’d have to walk to one of the coffee shops in the shopping mall or make my own Nescafe in our hotel room. Now, every morning there is a coffee cart in the street near our hotel. There’s also a fruit smoothie cart and a tea cart halfway to the shopping mall. The tea cart also makes coffee, I think. I’ve seen it listed on her menu, but haven’t tried it. More importantly I’ve discovered she makes magnificient chaa yen, what we think of as “Thai iced tea.”

Human Geography

I know this topic probably bores the hell out of most of you. But I have a big fascination with human geography, in particular how cities grow and shrink and change over time.

What forces would cause more food carts and stalls to open up in a short amount of time? Well, the hotel we’re staying in is one force right there. It’s only been open a few months. Some time ago, it was an apartment building, and then everyone moved out and it was remodeled to be a hotel. So I’m guessing that for a period there weren’t as many people in the area, and then suddenly there were more. In particular, there were foreign tourists who eat two or three meals out every day, and have the money to pay for them.

Or maybe these other food stalls were there the whole time but temporarily closed the first time we were here, due to the owners being on vacation in November. Is November a popular time for vacations in Thailand? I really don’t know. But I wish I could settle into a neighborhood of Bangkok for six months or a year and take notes and photos documenting how and why the neighborhood changes. My gut feeling is they change a lot faster than a neighborhood in Denver.

There’s only one problem. Who’s going to give me the money to do this urban geography study, when I have no training as a geographer and can’t speak Thai? Oh, and there’s another problem. I would probably die if I was here for six months. Make that two problems.

bye, bye, Sukhumvit

When we returned to Bangkok from our jaunt to Phuket, we decided to stay in a different part of the city. We chose a hotel in the Sukhumvit area, a new hotel called Aspira D’Andora Sukhumvit 16. It’s only been in operation a few months, and the reviews were good. Also, the price was lower than comparable hotels in Bangkok.

The Sukhumvit area is a long band of the city that has a little bit of everything. Sukhumvit is the longest street in Thailand, and supposedly goes (almost?) to the border with Cambodia. That reminds me of Colfax Avenue back home in Denver. And like Colfax, Sukhumvit has a little bit of everything, either directly on it or on one of the hundreds of lanes that branch off from it. Bangkok’s world famous red light district is there, but several internationally recognized shopping malls are, as well. It’s not just a street, but a whole district. The “Sukhumvit 16” in the name of the hotel refers to the fact that the hotel is on Soi Sukhumvit 16. The street naming and numbering system in Bangkok is amazingly convoluted, so I’m not even going to try to explain it here. But the relevant part is that Sukhumvit 16 is one of the side streets that branches off the main Sukhumvit, and it has a different flavor than where we stayed in Bangkok before.

Sukhumvit 16 from Google MapsThat was a good thing, as we got to see a new neighborhood, but in the end we didn’t like it as much as the area where we’d stayed before. So today, after five nights at the Aspira D’Andora, we moved back to the Pas Cher Hotel de Bangkok.

What didn’t we like about the Sukhumvit area? The hotel itself was pretty good, though they had a bunch of problems with their internet service. But the street, Soi Sukhumvit 16, just isn’t as interesting as the soi where Pas Cher is. Soi Sukhumvit 16 has a lot of traffic congestion in the morning and afternoon rush hours. Traffic in this area is notoriously bad, which is one reason they built the BTS SkyTrain above the main street, and our street was just packed with cars and motorcycles feeding into that main street, full of people going to work or coming home from work.

Here is the main Sukhumvit. This isn’t the side street we were on, obviously, but that side street feeds into this one. You can tell this isn’t the part of the street with the worst traffic, because there’s no SkyTrain overhead.

Soi Sukhumvit 16 also doesn’t have many reasonably-priced Thai food stalls. Thanon Cheroen Wiang, the soi (side street) where Pas Cher is located, has probably a dozen restaurants, stalls, and food carts where you can get a plate of food or a bowl of soup for a dollar or two. Sukhumvit 16, on the other hand, only has two. Everything else there is more upscale, often way upscale.

Thanon Cheroen Wiang from Google Maps

What Thanon Cheroen Wiang looked like in 2011, according to Google Street View. It’s still essentially the same. Narrow but mellow, lots of food carts and stands.

Lastly, Pas Cher is midway between two BTS stations, both of which are only about a 1/2 km away, at easy and quick walk. But Aspira D’Andora is much farther from the nearest station. It’s not a long distance, but in comparing the two areas, I’d rather be in the place where stuff is closer, not the one where I have to walk to get to anything.

Somewhat related, Pas Cher is also close to the river, the central pier of the express boat system in particular. So when we want to go somewhere that’s best accessed by river, it’s easy. All of the Sukhumvit area is distant from the river.

Oh, I guess one last reason that we decided to move back to Pas Cher is that you can buy a breakfast package there for cheap. They serve a variety of stuff for a buffet breakfast – some really good Thai food and some OK western food. But Aspira D’Andora doesn’t offer breakfast so you have to walk to one of the cafes nearby, which will cost a few dollars for coffee and a basic meal.

Why am I telling you all this? Maybe one or two people in the future will read this and find it useful in making their own Bangkok travel plans. But way more importantly, I wanted to document the kind of things we consider when we choose a place to stay on our travels.

We’ve been trying to stick to a $100 a day budget for all expenses. That includes lodging, food, ground transportation, entertainment, souvenirs, etc. But it also includes big ticket items like health insurance. The first $25 or so of our $100 goes to pay for health insurance. How we decide to spend the other $75 is a big deal. In some cities, most of that $75 has gone to a hotel or B&B or homestay. But in Bangkok, given the quality of hotel and location we want, we can spend $25 to $40 a day for lodging. Same goes for Indonesia, India, and Cambodia. They’re all in that range. For some reason, the Philippines was more expensive, and of course Australia and New Zealand were more expensive still, even with a good exchange rate working in our favor.

Thanks for reading. It’s hard to believe, but next week we’re going back to the USA.

thoughts about my hanky

(this post has no relation to Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo)

When I was packing all the stuff I thought would be necessary for a six-month journey around Oceania and parts of Asia, I was on the fence about whether or not to pack a handkerchief. But I thought to myself about how little space and weight it takes up, and decided to take a chance that it would be useful. Good decision.

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This hanky (a “square piece of cloth or paper used for cleaning the nose and drying the eyes”) has come in handy for many uses in many countries. Over the course of the past five months, I’ve had a common cold a couple times, and it has been useful then for the intended purpose – cleaning the nose. That’s especially important because of the difficulty I’ve had finding cold medicines that dry up post-nasal drip, something I take for granted in the USA.

But I’ve used it way, way more to wipe sweat off my face since we’ve spent so much time in the tropics. I had hoped that being in warm countries so much during our travels would toughen me up a bit to warm, humid weather. Back home, I’m a wimp. Even though I lived the first few years of my life in Texas (Beaumont and Houston), I don’t remember the heat and humidity being an issue. I guess when you’re four years old, you just don’t think about those things. But I’ve been in Wyoming and Colorado since the mid-70s, and it just doesn’t get hot and humid that much. Sure, some parts of the American west are hot during the summer, but definitely not during the winter. Tropical southeast Asia is hot (by my standards) even in the winter time. And as anyone from a sweaty climate will remind you, “it’s not so much the heat as the humidity.” Am I more acclimatized to heat and humidity than I was six months ago? It doesn’t feel like it.

My hanky has also been very useful in cleaning off dirty and foggy windows in Indian trains and Indonesian planes. And wiping up spills or marks left by sweating drinks on furniture.

I read an article before we set out from Denver about what one traveler (who calls himself the Expert Vagabond) considers so important that he takes his wherever he goes. It’s called a shemagh, or keffiyeh.

Shemagh as used by a US Marine in Afghanistan

I didn’t have a way to get one of those on short notice before leaving America, nor did I think it was all that important. But if I could, I’d go back in time and get one of those instead. Why? Well, it does everything a traditional handkerchief does, PLUS it’s much bigger – big enough to double over as an eye mask. On the long flight from LAX to Sydney, one of the many reasons I couldn’t sleep was that the cabin was always too bright. If I’d had a sleep mask, it would help. But I didn’t, and my American hanky was too small to make a difference.

By the way, it’s not just Expert Vagabond and desert military men who recognize the value of something like a big scarf. If you’ve read Douglas Adams, you know that the “Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” says the single most important thing to take as you travel is a towel, for many of the same reasons that a shemagh are handy in the real world.

A towel, [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

Douglas AdamsThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I’m pretty sure if Ford Prefect had known better, he would’ve taken a shemagh instead of a towel. They’re lighter.

I didn’t think about the shemagh much more for a couple months, but then when we visited Cambodia, I learned about a garment they have called a “krama“. It’s essentially the same thing, with just a different name. I really wanted to get one of those, but due to circumstances I never had time to shop. So I filed it in the back of my mind.

The krama is apparently really versatile, as shown by this Tumblr blog, 101 Uses for a Krama.

Krama as a baby seat

 

The krama I want

A month later, when we were in Rajasthan province in India, I saw a lot of men, particularly auto-rickshaw (“tuktuk”) drivers, who had a scarf they would use for warmth. Theirs looked to be made from a soft but thin wool. I remember one driver who had his scarf tucked up into the awning over his head during the day, and then when it got cold at night or in the morning, he could just pull it down and wrap it around his head as a scarf or hat or turban.

I really wanted one like that, but I never found one that I thought was authentic and reasonably priced. So eventually I bought a cotton scarf. It was hand made in a village in Rajasthan, but only looks marginally manly. The ones I’d seen in Cambodia and on the tuktuk drivers of Rajasthan had a very masculine look to them, I thought.

As I write this, I’m in Thailand in the dead of winter, where it’s hot and humid, at least by my standards. So getting a warm scarf is about the last thing on my mind. But next week I’ll be back in Denver, where I anticipate it’s going to be freaking cold. I’ll whip out my “marginally manly” scarf and see if it helps, but I’m a little skeptical.

the red tides of Phuket

Well, that last article I wrote said it was the 2nd half of our trip to Phuket, but I didn’t cover one of the topics I wanted to write about. And that is the Russians.

Where the Russians Are

One of the first things I noticed about Patong Beach, the part of Phuket where we stayed, was how many Russians there were. They were everywhere! A friend of mine named Susan visited Phuket 10 years ago and said that then the Germans ran the place, but I think the Russians must have driven them out. Because it’s all Russians now.

There were more Russian restaurants in just a two-by-two-block area around our hotel than in all of Denver. Menus in nearly every restaurant were in Thai, English, and Russian. Thai’s obvious, since that’s what the locals (mostly) speak. English is the modern day lingua franca, so that makes sense. But Russian? Yup.

So I did some research. In 2014, the largest sources of foreign tourists to the Kingdom of Thailand were China (4.6 million), Malaysia (2.6 million), and Russia (1.6 million).

(See here for my data, courtesy of Wikipedia)

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The United States is way down at #11 with 0.7 million.

But the weird thing is this: Looking back at the three weeks I have spent in Bangkok as a tourist, I’ve encountered tourists from lots of other places, speaking lots of other languages. But I don’t remember a single Russian. So if Russians outnumber Americans by over 2-to-1 overall, and I haven’t seen any in the city, where are they all? Now I know. They’re all in Phuket.

From that same Wikipedia article I quoted above, in 2006, just 8 years earlier, Russia was the #19 source of tourists, with a paltry 187,000 visitors during the entire year. So they went from the #19 slot to #3 in the course of 8 years. And boy how things have changed.

Phuket has apparently gone from a pretty nice beach town to the high priced scam center that we found it to be while we were there.

Charlie and Brittany, expats from America who have lived in Thailand a few years write The Trading Traveler blog, wrote this:

Falling Out of Love With Phuket

One review of a Phuket hotel on TripAdvisor had this to say in 2011:

Have stayed at the Amora many times over the past few years and have always enjoyed it (did have a lovely welcome back) – but would never stay there again. The hotel is predominantly full of rude, arrogant Russians, who flout hotel rules. The hotel is now scruffy and tired looking. The pool closed at 9pm, but people still using it at 3am keeping us awake. Reception staff very good – breakfast staff miserable and unfriendly (which has never been the case in previous years) probably fed up with miserable russians. Breakfast awful – didn’t even serve bacon. Rooms still lovely, pool lovely, grounds lovely, lovely beach. Will never return to Phuket whilst Russians still around – have totally ruined it – Phuket now is expensive – stayed in Khoa Lak before coming to Phuket (no Russians there) and significantly cheaper to eat and drink and more relaxed and friendly. Absolutely gutted that Russians have ruined our piece of paradise.

I found similar reviews of a few other hotels that echoed the same story – the ibis Phuket Kata (“OVERRUN OF RUSSIANS”) and the Hyton Leelavadee Phuket (“fully in the hands of russians”).

Why I’m Grumpy About Russian Tourists

So why do I personally have a grudge against the hordes of Russian tourists in Phuket? It’s not like I knew the “old” Phuket and am grumpy that it’s not the same any more.

Well, they’re inconsiderate, for one thing. I never once heard any Russian tourist even try to speak a little Thai. Beth and I have learned basic phrases like “thank you” and “hello”. Even though our accents are probably terrible, we try. Sometimes people giggle, but I think they appreciate it at least a little. In nearly a week in Phuket, not one Russian did that. Also, from what I’ve read, culturally Russians just don’t smile very much. That’s OK. But we’re in Thailand, and the Thais smile. So you should smile back.

Also, they’re tacky. Example 1: The guys never wear shirts or cover up their tiny bathing suits when they go into restaurants, like Thais, Asians, and Americans do. So you go get some lunch, and there’s some burly tan guy in a banana hammock and nothing else, usually scowling and drinking some hard liquor. Speaking of which, example 2: We were eating at a restaurant near our hotel when a group of Russians came in with their own bottle of hard liquor. Rather than buying drinks at the restaurant, they opened up the cheap vodka and drank that during the meal.

Lastly, I’ll refer back to something from my last blog post. It’s a section of a cave wall in a Buddhist temple that is built into a natural cave north of Phuket. We visited there, and saw this scene:

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Notice how almost all the graffiti is in Russian? But the sign isn’t? There’s some sort of mismatch going on here, but more importantly, why is it the Russians think it’s appropriate to carve graffiti into the wall of a Buddhist temple? That shows a profound lack of respect for Buddhism and the Thai culture, in my opinion. Trash your own home if you must, but this isn’t the way a well-behaved guest acts.

OK, I said that was the last reason, but I thought of one more, and I need to tell a long story to explain it. Bear with me. I think it’ll be worth it.

On the second day we were in Phuket, I decided to visit one of the dozens of massage parlors on our street to get a foot massage. With business being down, all the masseuses were out front of the store trying to lure in more customers, so they were happy when I just walked up and said I want a foot massage, no hard sell required. One took me in to the main room and we began.

It was nice and peaceful. But then a group of four Russian women arrived, also to get foot massages. My masseuse softly said “I’m sorry” to me as the loud Russians walked in. Their chattering mellowed out to conversational levels after a few minutes, and soon thereafter we all settled into our places. There was one American (me), four Russian women, and five Thai woman, all in the foot massage room.

The music on the sound system was strange. It was all cover tunes of famous Western rock music, but done in the same style as the original. I encountered this phenomenon before when we were in the Philippines, but still can’t explain it. Anyhow, I was enjoying it, even though every tune made me think of the original version.

But I started to chuckle when a cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” came on. The cover tune singer tried, and ultimately failed, to imitate James Hetfield’s famous growling. That was funny enough, but then I realized that not a single person in this whole massage parlor had probably ever heard the original. This isn’t one of Metallica’s super popular songs. And if you are a 20-something woman from either Russia or Thailand, you wouldn’t have heard the song when the Black Album came out (1991) and was popular, because you weren’t even alive then!

But it gets better. After Metallica, the next song was a cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. And if you think it’s tough to do an imitation of the singer of Metallica, it’s impossible for a mere mortal to imitate Freddy Mercury, at least on that track. The guy who got the job had vocal pitch that was everywhere but where it was supposed to be, and it sounded like a mediocre night at the karaoke bar. The singer was better than I am, but not even in the same league as Mercury.

So the song is rolling on, and I start thinking the same thing as before – none of these Russian or Thai women were even alive when this song came out, and probably none of them have seen “Wayne’s World” either. And so when it gets to the part of the song when everybody in the Western world sings along (“Galileo, Galileo, Galileo”) and the faster part when you are required to bang your head like Wayne and Garth, the room was deathly silent and calm.

I was the only person who knew what you’re supposed to do! I looked around. The Russians were still having their same conversations with each other or fiddling with their mobile phones, and the masseuses were still rubbing and chatting softly with one another in Thai. But nobody was participating with “Bohemian Rhapsody”! And that is just wrong. I can forgive the Thai girls; they were on the clock working. But four inebriated young women on a girls night out and they all ignore the time-honored Queen rituals? This dude cannot abide.


I’m gonna leave you with this link to a humorous article called “Russians in Phuket are Angry People“. I especially love the photo with the caption “A Russian man scowls at his family while they scowl at fish.”

A Russian man scowls at his family while they scowl at fish.

 

 

Phuket, part 2

First, catch up on the first half of our trip to Phuket, Thailand here.

The second “half” of the trip was just two days, and then we flew out on the third day.

Birding Before Bond

Tuesday January 12, we signed up for a private guided tour to James Bond Island and other stops in the area. The company I hired was Easy Day Phuket, based on great reviews I’d read online.

The guide, a young woman named Ben met us in the hotel lobby at 6:00am. We were getting an extra early start in order to have a better chance of seeing some birds along the way, plus hopefully beating some of the crowds. The driver was named Pong. I’m guessing both the names are spelled different than that, but that’s what they sounded like to me, and I didn’t ask them to write them out, because really, what’s the point? To write them correctly would mean using the Thai alphabet, which I can’t read anyhow. So anything written using the Latin alphabet (what most of us incorrectly think of as the English alphabet) would just be a transliteration anyhow.

Ben and Pong had a big Toyota van for us, the same kind that we rode in to get to our hotel from the airport. Here in Phuket, everyone has those vans. It was overkill for just two guests and hardly any gear, but I guess it’s easier for them to use a big van for all trips rather than a car for some trips and a van for others. Anyhow, the plan was to drive about 90 minutes north, do some birding by land, and then switch into what is called a long tail boat for the trip to the islands.

We stopped midway for some breakfast at a set of roadside stands, and Ben helped us choose what to order. In fact, she paid for it all, which was a surprise. But the trip itself cost so much money that I guess they can afford to pick up the cost of breakfast, lunch, and snacks along the way.

A ways after going through the airport area in the norther part of the island of Phuket, we went over a bridge that connects Phuket with Phang Nga province. It was hard for us to say Phang Nga at first, but once I stopped thinking about how it’s spelled and imagined it a different way it was much easier: PAN-yaw. There’s a little subtlety to it that I’m losing, but “PAN-yaw” is pretty darn close, at least to my ears.

The first place we looked for birds was at the national park headquarters not far from the boat dock where our long tail boat would later be picking us up. There was once a boardwalk through the mangroves there, but termites ate all the boards. So they replaced it with a concrete walkway, but at some point the concrete bridge over a creek collapsed and they never fixed it. So we could only access about 1/10 of the path, and the birding wasn’t very good.

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The start of the trail. Unfortunately, the sign is much better maintained than the trail is.

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It sure looks like there must be millions of birds in there somewhere

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Here’s where the trail abruptly ends. There was once a bridge crossing that water, but now all you can see are the bridge pilings.

We then moved on to a nearby park where there were no people. It did have a walkway that was intact, but no birds at all.

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This big piece of limestone ominously marks a small nature park that is surrounded by houses and a highway.

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Lots of mangrove trees, but no birds

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The walkway was pretty nice

So we soon left, and went to a third park to attempt to see birds. This one had some monkeys and some sort of shrine and landscaping. There were some birds there, but not a lot and we didn’t stay long, because then it was time to continue on.

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Here’s a dog with unusually saggy teats that we saw while looking for birds

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Beth had never seen one of these birds before, only read about it

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Groovy cave through the limestone

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Shrine to the Buddhist hermit

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You see a gazebo. I attack!

James Bond Island and the Nearby Attractions

We drove back to the national park headquarters and met up with the boat. It was a nice long tail boat, way more comfortable than the boat we sat in for the tour of the riverfront in Kumai on Kalimantan, Indonesia. The seats had cushions, which were the life jackets. And best of all there was an awning over our heads so we were in the shade. Shade plus breeze equals happy Todd in the tropics. And there was certainly a good breeze once the boat got up to speed.

On the way out toward James Bond Island, the boat captain took us slowly along the mangrove trees at first, so we could search for birds. But once it was clear we weren’t going to spot anything, we sped up.

Let me explain a little about James Bond Island. This area of Thailand has thousands of little limestone islands. They haven’t weathered all that much over the millennia and jut up out of the Andaman Sea. Trees grow on them, but for the most part there are no people because there are no flat parts to build on. Some of these remote islands were used in the James Bond film “The Man with the Golden Gun” from 1974. And this one tiny island in particular, called “The Nail”, was where the villian Scaramanga’s space laser was hidden. After the movie came out, Westerners who had seen the film started visiting, and over the last 40 years a tourism industry has built up around this.

Sir Christopher Lee as Scaramanga, “The Man with the Golden Gun”

Scaramanga and James Bond square off in front of “The Nail”

Now, even the locals call this island “James Bond Island” because of its brand name recognition, and tours are advertised all over to go visit it. The island is covered with tourist shops selling the usual tourist junk, t-shirts, trinkets, hats, sunglasses, etc.

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The beach that had so many interesting scenes in the film is now mostly taken up by a bunch of stalls selling crap to tourists

A nearby Muslim community that’s been there 300 years gets much of its income from either feeding the hungry tourists or paddling them around on sea kayaks or driving the long tail boats to take tourists out to the island. It’s pretty grotesque, but if you want to see the place from that James Bond movie, you gotta go.

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The Nail

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I made it!

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Tourists hamming it up in front of The Nail

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It’s a little misleading. The sign is actually on James Bond Island, but the thing the sign appears to be labeling is not called James Bond Island. It’s called The Nail.

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There is a tiny foot path leading from one side of the island to the other. Our boat captain dropped us off on one side and then took the boat to the other. I guess that’s standard practice, which is why there are hundreds of tourists trying to climb up and down this narrow rocky train in their flip flops.

After a half hour on the island viewing The Nail from a few angles and dodging Russians on the narrow footpath, we got back in the boat and headed for lunch at the aforementioned floating Muslim village.

Did I already explain long tail boats? I don’t think I did. Long tail boats are a type of watercraft I’ve only seen in Thailand. It’s a long and narrow wooden boat with benches. The captain sits in the back of the boat in front of a large gasoline engine that spins a long shaft attached to a propeller. On the other end of the engine is a long handle with the engine controls. The engine is balanced on a pivot mount so the captain can easily move the drive shaft in and out of the water, or push or pull it in either direction. This way, he can provide both thrust and direction to the boat. The “long tail” refers to the drive shaft that connects the engine to the prop. I’ve seen these boats range from small size that might only carry two or three people to very large ones that could carry twenty to thirty. These are common on the Chao Phraya, the river that Bangkok is built around. But they’re also used here at the coast. Here is a photo showing a medium size long tail boat. I took this at James Bond Island. See how the long tail is designed so the captain can point the propellor in a more than 90 degree arc? He can also reverse the engine, so the boats are pretty maneuverable.

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Happy long tail boatman

On the way to the Muslim village for lunch, we passed by an area where many tourists stop for some canoeing through sea caves. If you want to do this, it’s an extra 400 baht per person. That gets you an open topped inflatable kayak and a person to paddle it. You don’t have to do the paddling yourself, nor are you allowed to. That’s the job of the paddlers, who are men from the Muslim village, we later learned. Besides, the sea caves are too dangerous for inexperienced kayakers to do on their own, supposedly. They don’t want people running the inflatable kayaks into the sharp limestone outcroppings.

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One of the sea caves you can paddle through if you take the sea kayak tour

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Notice how the people paddling the kayaks dress very differently than the passengers

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Inflatable sea kayaks

Koh Panyee

Koh Panyee (also sometimes spelled Koh Panyi) is the village of Muslim fisher folk. It’s a bit weird to see this island among all the other islands out here with a village built on stilts next to it, and a mosque (masjid) with golden onion domes on one side.

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Another long tail boat carrying tourists through the Andaman Sea in front of some other rocky islands

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Side view of Koh Panyee village

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Koh Panyee, the Muslim village where we ate lunch

According to our guide, a bunch of Muslims came here from Indonesia about 300 years ago and created this settlement. Now this area is part of Thailand, so they speak Thai. But they and many of the people of this province are Muslim, even though the king and most people in Thailand are Buddhists.

The lunch restaurant has a simplified but strange approach. They serve several dishes, and every table gets the same things. So they never ask you want you want or don’t want. They just bring about six different plates of food, in quantities so large that the group could never even think about having seconds. It’s really weird, because there is no interaction with the waitstaff. Nobody gives you a menu, asks you what you want, asks you if there’s anything else you’d like, and so on. You just come in and sit down, they see how many people are at the table, and then you wait. In our case, the wait was uncomfortably long, as if they were ignoring us or we were invisible. But eventually three or four young Muslim women materialized with tons of food all delivered to the table simultaneously. There’s no way we could eat even half of it. I guess our guide Ben took care of paying for it, because when we were finished we just walked off.

After lunch, we walked through the village. Years ago, this probably felt like a real tour of a village. But nowadays, there are tables and stalls set up everywhere along the one path that everyone takes. It’s literally non-stop shopping, with postcards, clothes, trinkets, food items like dried fish, and snacks. And then near the end of the trek through this weird market area, we visited the town’s school, which was even weirder.

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Here is the path they take all the tourists down. Imagine this being about a kilometer long, and there being stall after stall of t-shirts, clothes, food, etc.

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The school seemed to take recycling pretty seriously. Except in airports, I can’t remember seeing a recycling bin like this anywhere else in Thailand.

While the children were trying to take classes – or, in the case of the kindergarteners, take their afternoon naps – a steady stream of tourists flows by, peeking in each doorway, talking, and taking photos. This sounds incredibly distracting to me, and I asked our tour guide about it. How are the kids supposed to learn anything with all this commotion? She couldn’t really explain it either, and agreed that it might be better to have the older kids use the classrooms on the tourist path, and put the younger kids in the other classrooms. Personally, I think they should just keep the tourist path out of the school altogether, but I guess they want the tourists to see that they’re really doing education here.

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It’s not practical for school kids to go to another town for school. They’re too remote. So they built a school here for all grades.

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Tourists (and their guides) milling about outside the kindergarten rooms, where the kids were supposed to be napping

We didn’t get a similar walk by the mosque I mentioned. That’s notably not on the tourist path, and that’s probably a good thing, because a lot of the tourists on this conga line through the village were wearing nothing more but bikinis (usually with at least a tiny cover-up over the butt) and flip-flops. It was a huge contrast between the Russian tourists in their sunbathing attire and the locals who wear long pants, modest shirts, and often head coverings. Sadly I didn’t get any photos to show this.

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This is as close to the mosque as we ever got

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Our boat is the one on the left in this photo. You can see our captain and the engine and “long tail” in resting position.

Back to Land

After leaving the Muslim village, we continued back toward the national park headquarters in our long tail boat. We stopped briefly to see some rock art in an alcove. Our guide said these paintings were made 3000 years ago.

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Rock art from long, long ago

We also passed the only hotel in the area. It doesn’t look very nice from the outside. I don’t know how it looks inside. If you wanted to stay as close to the Phang Nga Bay as possible, this would be the place.

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Hotel needs a new coat of paint

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Other boats at the dock near the park headquarters

Buddha Cave Temple

It was starting to get late in the day. Well, not really late late, but given that we only paid for nine hours of touring and we still had a 90 minute drive to get back to the hotel, we didn’t have much more time. So we only did one more thing, and that was a short side trip to Wat Suwannakuha, also called the Buddha Cave Temple. Many people call this the “monkey temple” but there weren’t many monkeys in the area when we were there, and none near the entrance to the cave. One theory on TripAdvisor is that rabies swept through the monkey population a few years ago, and now many of them are dead. That’s probably a good thing.

The entrance fee was only 20 baht, which was nice. Our guide just paid for us and dropped us off to go see it on our own. Inside are some Buddha statues, including one large reclining Buddha. There are also some statues of the guy who originally started meditating here because it was so quiet.

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At one point, the caves go up. We climbed up the makeshift stairs a ways, but the last little bit looked too steep to do in flip flops with a big camera hanging around my neck, so we came back down.

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The photo below shows one of the rock walls in the cave. I thought the irony was sweet. There’s a sign that says “Don’t write anything on the rock, please.” And it says it in Thai and English. But nearly all the graffiti you can read is in Russian.

So there are two possibilities:

  1. Maybe a bunch of Russian tourists filled the wall with graffiti. And then the national park service came along and made a sign asking people to not do that. But instead of writing the sign in Russian, they did it in English and Thai, languages that the rude Russian tourists may or may not understand.
  2. The other possibility is that maybe the sign came first, and the Russian tourists, unable to read and obey instructions in either Thai or English, wrote graffiti on this tempting wall because they couldn’t read the sign.

Either way is a weird reflection on human nature. And either way, Russian tourists suck. Why would you go into a Buddhist shrine in someone else’s country and write graffiti on the walls? Do they really think this is appropriate, or do they just not give a damn? I think I’ll write more on my experiences in Phuket with Russian tourists later.

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Once we finished up inside the cave, we settled back into our van for the long journey back to our hotel. Beth and I both napped a bit on the way, I paid the remainder of what I owed the tour company, and we said our goodbyes.

I hope Ben and Pong got home before too late, since we kept them an hour later than planned.

Phuket, part 1

OK, first of all, Phuket is an island belonging to Thailand, and it’s pronounced “poo-KET”. Most English-speakers think of “ph” as being an “f” sound, but in Thai written using English characters it’s not. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. But “ph” is like “p”. So as you read this post, the little voice in your head shouldn’t be saying anything that’s a bad word in English. Good? Good.

We arrived in Phuket after an 80 minute ride in a jet airplane from Bangkok on January 8. We picked up our bags at the carousel, and then wandered out of the baggage claim area where we found a hotel transfer service that costs a lot less than the fixed price taxis. Saving money? That’s good, right? Sure, it is. Unfortunately, the van service sucks. Big time. We saved money, but it took about twice as long as it should, and we got terrible service. The company is called PMK Airport Shuttle, also called Phuket Maikhao Sakhu. Here is the website: http://www.phuketmaikhaosakhutransfer.com/index.php. If you ever travel to Phuket, don’t use this company. You can read the gory details on TripAdvisor. There are a hundred stories just like ours there, so I won’t even repeat it here.

Our hotel was Silver Resortel Hotel in Patong Beach. Not knowing a thing about the different parts of Phuket, I just chose a hotel based on the hotel reviews. And this hotel is pretty nice. Our room is great!

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The housekeeper arranged our towels into these shapes. I still don’t know what they’re supposed to be. Pigs? People praying?

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The first night we just ate at the hotel restaurant. Even with a 20% discount for being guests, it’s still overpriced. But everything in Phuket is overpriced, even this Coca-Cola.

The area isn’t very idyllic, though. It’s about as removed from the real Thailand as Disneyworld is from the real America. Most of the people here are tourists from Russia, and their idea of a good time is: drink, suntan, drink, sex with Thai hookers, and then drink some more. I didn’t expect there to be so many Russians here that hotel menus and signs are often printed in Russian (in addition to Thai and English and sometimes German).

The day after we arrived, we spent a few hours on the beach. And of course I got sunburned, even though I thought I was in shade most of the time. Our beach umbrella blew over and nearly self-destructed, but I was able to get it back together and the hotel (where we had borrowed it) didn’t say anything. So I guess I got away with it. I’m not a big fan of the beach; that’s Beth’s thing. Since I have a hate/hate relationship with the sun these days, after having skin cancer twice, I much prefer to stay cool and shady. But I do enjoy swimming in the ocean, which I got to do.

Saturday night, we decided it was time for something uniquely Thai, so I booked us tickets at the Patong Boxing Stadium, which is a local venue for Muay Thai matches. For 1350 baht each (a total of about $80), we got to watch seven bouts from very comfortable seats. They also picked us up and dropped us off at our hotel, and we each got a free t-shirt. They start with the lowest ranked competitors and work their way up.

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Empty ring before the fights begin

So the first bout of the night was a couple of 14-year-olds. Then it was a couple adults, one who got knocked out. Then two women, in what they billed as the “lady fight”. Then four more bouts of men. A couple of those ended in knockouts, too. I didn’t want to take my big camera, so I shot a few stills with my phone. They didn’t come out awesome, due to the action in low light, but maybe you get the idea.

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Two 14-year-olds trying to kick and punch the snot out of each other

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Here’s one of the competitors in the “lady fight”. She’s the one who won.

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The only women’s bout that night was one tall white woman against one much shorter Thai woman

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I can’t remember if this was the 4th, 5th, or 6th fight of the night

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Grown men kicking and punching each other

Sunday we stayed out of the sun, except to walk around and explore the neighborhood a little. After the late night at the boxing match, I wanted to sleep in and just chill all day long, which I did. I also had time to do some planning for our big excursion coming up on Tuesday.

Monday was back to the beach. This time I stayed under a tree and wore sunscreen all over. More reading. Beth got up the courage to go parasailing. That looked like fun to me, but I’m too much of a scaredycat for it, plus afraid of what impacting the water on my head or neck might do to my precious and delicate inner ears. I was pretty proud of her, though, and took a video of the whole thing.

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Beth getting suited up in the parasailing harness

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One last smile before lift-off

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It takes a crew of several guys to make this thing work. There are two in the boat, and then four or five on shore.

 

 

Bangkok exploration and shopping

This time around we stayed in Bangkok 10 nights total. We arrived from India on December 29 and then left by plane for Phuket on January 8. That seems like a long time, but it feels like it flew by. I already wrote about going to see the new Star Wars movie, visiting my favorite coffee shop in Bangkok called FOONG, and a crazy New Year’s Eve party in the street. I already talked about the weird culture shock I had going from northern India to Bangkok.

I spent a lot of this trip to Bangkok writing and planning. I cranked out a half dozen blog posts one day, and got totally caught up on the story of our travels. I’m sure you missed some of them, so go check out the complete list if you care, and then come back to this one.


Other than the things I already talked about, we did some exploring of the city, but approached it slightly more like people living there instead of tourists. We didn’t go to any of the temples or other cultural or historical tourist sites. Instead, we spent our time learning about various neighborhoods and things in them.

Three of the days in Bangkok, Beth and I did set out to explore specific areas we’d read about but hadn’t seen yet.

One day we took the Chao Phraya Express Boat – a sort of bus that goes up and down the river – up to visit the Wang Lang area, which is a dense market area near the Siriraj Hospital. We looked and looked for some shorts that Beth liked, but didn’t see anything. I got some street food, but didn’t need to buy anything, so I was just “window” shopping.

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It was at Wang Lang that we were first introduced to Thai banana pancakes (click link for video). Since then we’ve had them several times from several vendors. They are so yummy, and the banana makes us convinced they’re healthy. There’s fresh fruit right there!

Another day, we took the BTS up to the Sukhumvit area and then walked around on foot. One of our guide books talks about this area being an expat hangout, and so we followed the “short cut” path drawn on the map. It was pretty boring, and even a little nerve-wracking, after dark. Sure enough we found a few Western style shops, including a Mexican restaurant (Sabroso) and a pastry shop (Mousses and Meringues), both of which were good. But most of the walk was just past shops that had closed for the night or residential areas. I guess exploring this area after dark isn’t too interesting. Part of this area has a lot of bars and prostitution, but we didn’t visit that part. That’s the famous Soi Cowboy, which we were near. But we were more interested in dessert than go-go bars.

The next day we decided to go explore Chinatown. We took the Express Boat north to one of the Chinatown piers, got off, and started walking through the shops. There was some stuff going on right by the pier, but as we walked on we started passing things like banks and gold stores that either were already closed or were in the process of closing. We got to the main street, turned right, and found a place to get some food. This area was pretty hopping.

But after leaving that, my plan was for us to walk to a place our tourist map called the “fabric market”. Beth wanted to buy some new shorts, and I figured that would be a good place. But we got so hot and sweaty on the long boring walk that Beth called for a break at a McDonalds to cool down in the air conditioning. This McD’s was part of a shopping mall that was also closed. 🙁

Once we found the fabric market, we found that although the mall itself was open, all the shops inside were closed! So that was yet another bust. Here’s a nice blog article someone else wrote about what we would have seen there, during the day.

We then walked down to the river, found a bar called Pakklong@The River, and had some drinks under a fan. There was some live music, a guy with a guitar playing cover tunes. It was nice having a very large, cold beer and watching the river boats go by. Here’s a strange thing that happened there. I ordered a Chang beer, one of the main two beers in Thailand. And there was a separate server in a green dress with the green Chang logo who did everything related to my beer. We had a regular server who did everything else – deal with Beth’s drinks and my other drink, take our money, etc. But the Chang server opened my beer, poured it, and whenever my glass was getting low, she would come back by and pour more from the big bottle into my glass. She never said anything to me, just poured beer. I assumed I wasn’t supposed to tip her separately, but I don’t know. There was a big Chang display and counter over at the side of the room, so I assumed she was there to promote her company’s brand of beer, and wasn’t an actual employee of the restaurant.

This isn’t my photo, but this shows the type of dress she had on:

Chang Girl and the Red Rose

Then we went to the Saphan Phut Night Bazar, which doesn’t open until 8:00. On the way there, we stumbled into a flower market which was just insane with activity. Beth got some photos, but I didn’t think to.

Unfortunately, we soon learned that the night market only has about three types of shops, just repeated over and over about a thousand times. The first was hip clothing for 20-something Thai women. As you might imagine, the shorts at those shops weren’t what Beth was interested in. The second thing was tattoos. Apparently, one out of every three business transactions in this part of Bangkok is someone buying a tattoo, or at least a temporary tattoo or a henna tattoo. The third was mobile phone cases. If you want 100 places to buy the exact same mobile phone case for the same price, the night market is where to go. Anyhow, lesson learned: Chinatown also isn’t very interesting after dark.

Overall, we’re getting the sense that if we want to go exploring, we need to do so much earlier in the day. Even with the reputation for night life, shopping in Bangkok happens much more on “normal business hours”. In India we got used to the idea that shops don’t even open until 10 or 11, and then stay open until 8 or 9. In Bangkok, it seems those same shops are open more like 9 to 6. That’s not to say that there isn’t stuff at night. Far from it! It’s just that if you don’t have a specific store in mine and want to just wander through a new neighborhood, do it in the day.

culture shock, but not what you think

After spending a full month in India, coming to Thailand has been a culture shock. This is actually my third time in Bangkok. It feels really, really weird to say that, but it’s true. Six months ago, I’d never set foot in Asia and now I’ve been to Bangkok three times. Admittedly all three of those visits only add up to less than two weeks, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable going out and doing regular stuff now – shopping for a new belt, buying a metro pass, finding and ordering cha yen on the street, chatting with the folks in the neighborhood, etc.

But a day or two after our arrival on December 29, I realized I was having a bit of culture shock adapting to the change from India to Thailand. And so I thought I should jot down some of those feelings, as naive as they may be, since I may never feel this way again.

Gender Roles

The first time the culture shock really hit me was when I was using the men’s room at the cinema. Beth and I were there to see the new Star Wars movie, which wasn’t possible when we were in India. In India, some restrooms in busy locations have full time attendants who keep the restrooms clean, mopping up messes, emptying the trash, pointing out which soap dispensers work and which don’t, and pulling out paper towels for you. In some busy restrooms in Thailand (well, at least in Bangkok) there are also attendants.

In India, the restroom attendants are always the same sex as the customers. The women’s bathroom has a woman attendant, and the men’s bathroom has a man attendant. But at the movie theater, one of the two attendants in the men’s room was a woman. Nobody seemed to think twice about it. She was right there in the midst of the urinals, with her mop and bucket as guys all around did their business. Beth says she hasn’t seen a male restroom attendant in a women’s restroom, so I wonder if that happens. But since going to the movie theater that day, I’ve already used another public restroom that had a female janitor working inside, this time at the department store near our hotel. That’s twice in three days.

From what I’ve read, gender in Thailand is a much more fluid thing than in America. And from what I’ve seen, it’s way more fluid than in India. It seems India has very distinct gender roles. Men and women dress very differently, act differently, have different jobs, and so on. There was never a time in the month I was there when I saw someone, even at a great distance, and wasn’t sure whether it was a man or woman based on how they dressed, something that happens from time to time when I’m in America. But in Thailand, men and women often dress much more the same, at least in the public places I’ve seen. Skinny jeans and shorts and short sleeve t-shirts are all equally common on young women as on young men.

Our server at a Japanese restaurant we visited yesterday appeared to be what I think of as a trans woman. She had a male body shape and facial features, but wore the the uniform and makeup of a female. I say “what I think of as a trans woman” because in Thailand there is pretty wide acceptance of a third gender, kathoey, often called ladyboys, that is totally outside my experience. Later that same day, one of the clerks at Mister Donut looked and sounded female, but dressed male – hair style, clothes, and makeup; she was a Thai Justin Bieber lesbian, if you know what that means. Then there’s the immigration control supervisor at the Bangkok international airport. I’ve encountered her twice now. She sounds and mostly looks female, but wears the same uniform as men and acts much more “macho” than any of the female officers we’ve dealt with. In America many would call her “butch”. Lastly, our server at lunch today also looked like she had a male body and face but wore female clothes, hair, and makeup. All four of these people wouldn’t be all that out of place in most of the civilized parts of the United States. But we didn’t encounter a single person like this in a month of travel in India, and then we encountered these four in the first four days we were in Bangkok.

Before I go on, I’m going to remind you that my impressions of India were from only a small number of data points. We only visited a handful of cities (and one village), all in northern India. This covered areas with different ethnic and religious makeup – some areas mainly Muslim, some areas mainly Sikh, and some areas mainly Hindu. But of the 10 most “advanced” cities in India, we only saw two of them. How would things be different if we spent more time in the modern places like Hyderabad or Bangalore or Mumbai? Are gender roles less rigid there? I don’t know.

Traffic

Another thing that I’ve realized in these first few days of being back in Thailand is how traffic is totally different. Streets are crowded in Bangkok, but they are all in good condition. They’re all paved, without random holes, without cows or other barnyard animals, and for the most part without the incessant honking that we heard in nearly ever Indian city. The highways are very well designed and maintained. Unlike India (and the Philippines and Indonesia), there isn’t a swarm of motorcycles weaving between cars and trucks.

In Bangkok near our hotel, there’s a crosswalk without a stoplight and people actually honor it. You can just step out into the crosswalk and four lanes of traffic will stop for you. None of them will speed up or swerve into the other lane to avoid you. They just stop until the pedestrians are all passed, and then they start driving again.

Taxis and Drivers

In the month we spent in India, I never saw a taxi – either a car or tuk-tuk – use a meter. Every fare was negotiated up front. If you love haggling, this is awesome. If you are a clueless tourist who doesn’t know what a fair price is from point A to point B, this sucks because you always pay more than you should.

On the other hand, here in Bangkok, all taxis have meters. They’re required to! Now, your driver may to try to negotiate a flat fee for a ride, but you’re under no obligation to do so. Case in point: The driver we got at the airport to take us to our hotel wanted to offer me a flat rate of 550 baht (about 15 US dollars) for the journey, to include the highway tolls. But having taken a taxi from the same point A to the same point B before, I knew it wasn’t likely to exceed 375, and the tolls only add up to about 70 or so. So I declined his offer, and said I’ll just pay what’s on the meter plus the toll fees. That turned out to total about 415, so I gave him an even 500 baht note, and wished him a happy New Year. He got paid what he should have by law, he got a very generous tip, and it still cost less than what he originally quoted me. To me, that’s a win-win.

Lots More Skin

In the parts of India we visited, women dress very modestly. We almost never saw a woman wearing shorts or skirts above the knee, except for tourists. I don’t know how the rest of Thailand is, but here in Bangkok, maybe 1/2 of women wear shorts, 1/4 wear skirts, and 1/4 wear long pants. Young women especially wear very revealing clothes in public places, and nobody seems to have a problem with it.

Here are some photos to help show what I’m talking about.

Here are some Indian women in northern Indian cities going about their business – riding trains or being tourists. I shot three of these photos and stole the fourth.

For comparison, these are photos taken of normal women around Bangkok. These photos don’t belong to me.

I think you can see the difference. Can it all be attributed to latitude? I don’t know. Whatever it is, it was a big change.