The Grand Palace of Bangkok

Dateline: January 25, 2016 / Location: Bangkok

The last tourist attraction we visited during our month in Bangkok was The Grand Palace. It’s probably one of the first places most tourists visit, and for us it was the last. Maybe that tells you something about our time in Bangkok overall. We put a lot higher priority on exploring different parts of the city than we did hitting the big sightseeing locations.

What’s the Grand Palace?

The Grand Palace in Bangkok is a complex built by one of the previous kings of Thailand, after the capital moved from the west side of the river to the east. It includes a temple (which houses the Emerald Buddha), palaces, and governmental buildings. It started with just a few buildings, but they just kept filling in the empty space in the area with more and more buildings until it was very crowded. The king wasn’t happy because the breeze that used to exist here was now blocked by all the buildings. So the king started spending more time in a city to the north that wasn’t so crowded.

Realizing this was kind of a dumb approach, since Bangkok is the capital after all, the king had another palace built in a new location in the city. At that point, the royal family moved there. And then later, the monarchy’s absolute rule was replaced by a democracy. At that point, the king was no longer the head of government, so the government moved all the government functions out of the Grand Palace area as well.

That left the complex with a palace that the king no longer lived in, and a bunch of government buildings that were no longer used by the government. So now it’s mainly a place for tourists to visit.

Getting There

I had read lots of advice online that you need to get to the Grand Palace really early to avoid the crowds and the heat. Fortunately, there was a cold snap while we were there, so the heat wasn’t an issue. But still we wanted to beat the busloads of Chinese tourists, so we set out as early as we could by express boat, headed north.

After the second or third stop of the express boat (a water bus), it was clear something was wrong. I don’t know whether the boat had serious mechanical problems or if the driver was really bad, but it took him several tries to dock correctly with the pier to let people off. And black smoke was pouring out of the back of the boat. A couple stops in a row, the driver hit the pier with such force that the passengers all were shaken around and I was afraid the boat might break or bend or something. By the second time this happened, Beth was getting really nervous, and so we hopped off the boat prematurely. We went to a Starbucks, I had a cappuccino, and we used the restrooms. After regaining our will, we got back on the next northbound express boat.

This one worked fine, and we were soon at the right place. A short walk from the pier led us to the entrance. We didn’t get hassled by tuktuk drivers or any other scam artists. We bought our tickets (500 baht each), rented two audio tour players, and were soon on our way.

Camera Choice

A funny thing happened over the course of our several month trip, and I guess I might as well talk about it now. I took my new Panasonic GH4 camera on this trip, with a couple of microphones, a couple lenses, and related basic accessories. My original plan was to shoot some 4K video and get as many nice still photos as I could. The camera is smaller than almost all DSLRs, as it uses what’s called a Micro Four Thirds format lens system. But with all the stuff – and even without – it still weighed a fair amount, and meant that whenever we went somewhere I had to take my backpack to put it in with all the stuff.

But I realized once we got to Agra, India, that the people who were tuned into these blog posts liked the photos I was taking from my iPhone 6s just as much as the photos from my GH4. So I started alternating them. Some outings I’d take the GH4, some outings I’d just take my mobile phone. And then toward the end I was just taking my phone. That’s why these pictures of the Grand Palace are from my phone. In fact, all the photos I took in Bangkok were from my phone. My expensive camera just sat in the camera bag in our hotel room the whole time.

In hindsight, I might have saved the hassle and weight on this journey by not even taking a “real” camera with me. Maybe I’ll do a “lessons learned” post later and touch on that.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Most of the time we spent at the Grand Palace was what they call the “Temple of the Emerald Buddha“. The Thai name is Wat Phra Kaew, and it is the most sacred Buddhist temple in all of Thailand. I guess that’s because the Emerald Buddha is the most sacred object in Thailand.

There’s a lot to see in the temple area. Here are my photos.

 

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Here, Beth and I stand in front of the golden stupa called Phra Sri Ratana Chedi. It is said to contain some of Buddha ashes.

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Here is a miniature model of Angkor Wat that the king had made. I guess having a model of the real thing makes it so the Thais don’t feel compelled to go to Cambodia (a long time enemy) to see the real thing.

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I loved these two statues of giants that guard the entrance to the temple area. There are several of these giants all around the grounds, and there are a pair of giant statues like this at the Bangkok airport.

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Buddha is for respecting. Not furniture. Not tattoo. Here you can make offerings, but I took the photo to show the message on the umbrellas. A lot of tourists visiting Thailand take home tattoos of Buddha or furniture or other trinkets, not realizing that it’s disrespectful. The Thais look at Buddha tattoos sort of how you might expect the Italians to look at Jesus Christ g-strings.

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Here’s where we took our shoes off before entering the temple. Unlike the Sikh gurdwaras we’d visited in India, there was no attendant to guard your shoes. But nobody took mine.

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This is the outside of the main temple. The people are lined up outside to get inside and have a chance to see the Emerald Buddha.

I didn’t actually take a photo of the Emerald Buddha. Nobody is allowed to. A very stern security guard will stop you, grab your camera, and yell at you if you try. I know, because a Chinese tourist near me tried. It doesn’t really matter, though, because you can’t get close enough to it to get a good photo anyhow.

Here is a photo from Wikipedia, so you can see what it looks like.

The Emerald Buddha isn’t actually made of emerald. “Emerald” in this case just means that it’s green. It’s actually made of jade.

The Rest of the Palace

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This great building was designed in European style at the time when Thailand first started to become modernized. The architects originally designed it with three European style domes, but advisors to the king suggested they be replaced with something of a distinctive Thai style, and that’s what you see here. So the building is a nice mix of Western and Thai architecture. It’s used for big state functions still. Most is off-limits to tourists, though there’s a weapons museum in the lowest level.

After seeing the Buddha, we left the temple to see the rest of the Grand Palace area. There are a few of the government buildings to see.

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In this photo, the big European style building is on the left, and to the right is one of the king’s palace buildings. Like I said earlier, no king has lived here since the royal residence was moved to a different palace in 1925.

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Close-up showing the Thai style roof. Look closely at the corner where the two parts of the roof come together. There is a statue up there. I think it’s a deva.

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And that’s all she wrote, as the saying goes. You can see from the crowd of people leaving that even though we beat the worst of the rush, it was very crowded there. No, the exit isn’t down from the sign. For whatever reason, the downward pointing arrow means “keep walking in this direction”.

After leaving the palace complex, we stopped for some much deserved lunch, and then caught an express boat back to the Central Pier near our hotel. Though the excursion took about six hours total, we were only on the Grand Palace grounds about two hours of that.

 

Bangkok Folk Museum

You probably know how I’m interested in human geography, in particular how cities are born,  grow, and change over time. So I was psyched to learn that Bang Rak, the part of Bangkok where we’ve been staying, has its own little history museum. It was a bit confusing at first, because I found three different names for this museum: the Bangkok Folk Museum, the Bangrak Museum, and the Bangkokian Museum. It turns out those refer to slightly different things. The Bangkokian Museum is another name for the Bangkok Folk Museum. And one floor of one of the buildings of the museum is the Bangrak Museum. They all have free admission, are in the same location, and apparently share the same volunteer staff.

Getting There is One Third of the Fun

My knee has been hurting since I twisted it getting onto the long tail boat to go see James Bond Island the week before, so Beth and I were trying to minimize the amount of walking I did. To that end, we took the river bus (what they often erroneously call a “river taxi” around here) north a couple of stops and got off there, to shorten our walk.

On the way out of the pier area, we passed the Portuguese embassy, and then walked through this area of really expensive art stores. That included a statuary, and one of the statues caught my eye in particular. Most of them were things that looked like some rich Bangkok family might have in front of their house – a religious or historical figure, or a fountain, or a Greek god or something.

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But this one was definitely a Native American on horseback. I guess there must be some market for this sort of thing in Thailand, which for some reason surprised me.

We walked a ways farther and found underneath the elevated expressway is a sort of holding facility for all kinds of stuff related to garbage removal. There were dozens of garbage trucks, mostly in new or near new condition. There were piles and piles of garbage bins and recycling bins. We even found some piles of large wicker baskets that I think are for collecting and removing recyclables.

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In the photo above, you can see they have a big pile of those long fluorescent bulbs, hopefully being stored here until they can be properly disposed of. Beth loved it and took about six thousand photos.

Once we continued on, it wasn’t much farther to the museum. I spotted the gate leading to the museum and soon encountered the security guard. As soon as he could see us coming down the street, the guard came out to the gate and started waving me on, like “You found us! Come in!” This museum is way off the beaten path for tourists. He proudly displayed the guest book, which I signed. We were only the sixth group of visitors for the day, and the only from the USA.

Bangkokian Museum

Just in case the security guard excitedly waving us in wasn’t enough of a clue, this sign made it clear we found the museum.

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I read somewhere the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), which is the city government of Bangkok, had a problem to encourage this sort of small museum in various districts around the city. In fact, this museum may have been the first one of the BMA Local Museum program. Here is the faded sign.

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A volunteer greeted us, gave us a brochure in English, explained briefly that there are three buildings here, and made it clear that we are to remove our shoes as we enter each one.

I’m not going to go into detail about everything we saw. You can check out these two great web pages that describe the museums in detail:

But I’ll say that we saw art, and lots of furniture and other home items that were in common use in the first half of the 19th century. The theme of the museum is sort of a slice of life of what it was like for a middle class Bangkok family in the Bangrak district from the 1920s to the 1950s (and in some cases a little beyond).

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A lot of the stuff, like this furniture, reminded me of my grandparents’ furniture in the western United States.

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But the kitchen and cooking stuff was definitely different, like these tiffins. I’d known tiffins were an Indian thing, but I guess they were (are?) used in Thailand, too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with one of these in Bangkok.

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These coconut shells are actually low tech kitchen shells. If you put one in a bowl of water, it sinks at a given rate depending on how many holes it has. when the shell is totally submerged, then the time is up.

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Before gas or electric, here’s what Thai kitchen stoves looked like.

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Light was provided by what I’d call a “Coleman” lantern.

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Interspersed in the old stuff in the museum were some art exhibits, including one of these Japanese style paintings that use “tadpole writing”. If you could read Japanese, I don’t know if this would mean any more than it means to me, which is almost nothing.

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Bangrak Museum

The Bangrak Museum, which was the main thing that I wanted to see, was probably the least impressive. There were a lot of photos and some written descriptions, but almost all of it was in Thai, with no English translations. So we just had to guess at what we were seeing.

I can tell you some of the photos were showing how the Bangrak streets looked 50 years ago and now in modern times. Some of them showed the old canals and farmland that was back then.

Most of the photos hadn’t been enhanced in any way, and many were printed on colored card stock. So that made them even harder to understand, and almost pointless to photograph. So I didn’t take any pictures of this museum. I’m sad to say this part was a let down. The greatest praise I can give is that it’s in the one building that has air conditioning.

Once we finished the Bangrak Museum, we used the restroom, made a hefty donation to go to the maintenance of the museum, and then walked back to our hotel. This part of town is now heavily Muslim, so we found and ate at a Middle Eastern restaurant. I was too busy enjoying the delicious hummus to take any photos. Sorry. Oh, and the kebabs were outstanding.

 

 

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.

The Worst Way to Kill Coyotes: A Few Words About Terrorism

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Coyote photo by Yathin S Krishnappa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve got my share of weaknesses, but one thing I’m really good at is spotting patterns. I think it’s a skill I learned in college, though maybe I had it all along and just refined it there. A lot of engineering – whether it’s aerospace or software – is looking at a problem from several perspectives, understanding it, and then categorizing it. Once you know the type of problem, you can figure out which of a set of solutions is the best match.

As a youngster, I spent a fair amount of time in the outdoors around wildlife (usually searching for it in vain). My father was and still is an avid outdoorsman, and taught his sons to fish and hunt starting at an early age, along with associated skills related to wilderness survival. Even though I didn’t have as much interest or skill in hunting and fishing as Dad probably hoped, I always had an interest in wildlife.

In the fall of 2001, I was between jobs. I had been laid off from a dot-com startup in Denver, and took advantage of the time off to go spend some time in the desert in Utah. One night, I was staying at Canyonlands National Park and there was a ranger talk about coyotes. So I decided to go.

Part 1: Breeding More Coyotes

The ranger giving the talk was a research biologist specializing in mammals, so she knew a lot about coyotes, tonight’s topic. I paid close attention. One part of what she explained was a huge surprise to me, and has stuck with me to this day.

The common methods for controlling coyote populations, she said, were 180 degrees backward. It turns out that if you kill coyotes, such as by hunting – as ranchers had been doing for the past 80 years or so – and you don’t make any other changes to the environment, the end result is actually more coyotes. What? How is that possible?

You see, coyote mothers actually change their biology as a result of food pressures. If there is a lot of food pressure, meaning that there are a lot of coyotes in a given area competing for a small amount of food, then the mother will have small litters of pups. Why waste energy producing a lot of pups if some are likely to die of starvation?

But if there is a lot of food in an area, and the population is low, then pregnant mothers create larger litters. So if, for example, humans go shoot half the coyotes in a region, birth rates spike up the next year, and soon there are suddenly even more coyotes than before. But now the area is overpopulated, so the next year’s litter size goes down. Over time, these spikes up and down dampen out like a spring, and things come back to a natural equilibrium.

The arrival of the white man and his sheep about a century ago threw things into imbalance. Now there’s a larger-than-normal supply of food (sheep, trash, pets), so Mother Nature said, “Hey, let’s make more coyote pups to eat all this food.” Of course that wasn’t OK with the sheep ranchers, and so for the past century they have typically shot or poisoned any coyotes they encountered. The US government even sponsors coyote hunts in an effort to protect sheep ranchers’ investments.

But something strange has happened. Despite intense hunting, the overall population of coyotes in North America has actually grown over the past century. Coyotes now live in more parts of the continent than ever before. You can probably guess why – more food and less pressure at the same time! Less pressure from some coyotes getting shot, but also less pressure because we killed off all the wolves that historically kept the coyote populations in check. That has caused coyote populations to expand in both numbers and territory.

As a side point, biologists and smart ranchers have known this since the 1970s, at least. Yet we still shoot coyotes and think we’re reducing their overall numbers. It sure seems like this approach is the right approach! “How could shooting coyotes not reduce their populations?” we ask. And when there are still coyotes eating our lambs, we say, “We must redouble our efforts and shoot or poison even more of them!” That’s been the attitude of both the Department of Agriculture and the sheep ranching industry.

But I’m not here to discuss politics or economics. The point is that ranchers and the US government have spent a huge amount of effort trying to kill off coyotes for a century, and they’ve utterly failed. They caused the exact opposite outcome to occur from what they wanted.

Don’t believe me? OK, I’m just a city boy who doesn’t know squat about ranching, sheep, or coyotes, right? I don’t blame you for being skeptical, so I’ve provided links to a few studies so you can go read about this yourself. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the scientists who spend their lives in the field tracking coyote populations.

References:

Coyote Management: A Rationale For Population Reduction” by Dale A. Wade, Texas A&M, 1981.

The Effects of Control on Coyote Populations: Another Look” by Guy E. Connolly, USDA-APHIS Animal Damage Control, Denver Wildlife Research Center, 1995.

Wikipedia’s article Coyote

Part 2: Breeding More Terrorists

Also in the fall of 2001, while I was learning this surprising fact about the biology of coyote population control, something else happened. Some terrorists hijacked some airplanes and flew them into some buildings on September 11.

Americans were stunned, and then pissed off. How could these terrorists do such a thing? Why would they do it? The story most people in the media – as well as the US government – liked to tell is that America had just been sailing along minding its own business when out of nowhere these crazy Islamic foreigners decided to hit us with a sucker punch. We hadn’t done anything to warrant this, we told ourselves.

But the reality of it, fairly plain to anyone who paid attention to the history of Middle Eastern geopolitics, was that we had in fact done things to warrant this, at least in the eyes of a lot of the downtrodden. And we’d done these things consistently over a long period of time – a thousand years to those who still held a grudge for the Crusades, or sixty years to those who fault us for treating the region as our personal oil reserve since WWII.

So now what? America – and especially President Bush – wanted blood, revenge against someone, even though it was hard to say exactly who was really responsible. The US government eventually selected some Muslims to be the targets of our revenge, and then began the campaign to sell the idea to the American public.

In much of America the sentiment was, “Bomb ’em back to the Stone Age!” US citizens honestly thought the solution was to level every city and village in Afghanistan (and Iraq, for some reason). The sentiment felt a lot like the sentiment of the sheep ranchers who had lost some of their lambs to coyotes. And I remember thinking to myself, “Hmm, if we just indiscriminately drop bombs on random Muslims in this area, aren’t we just gonna create more terrorists?” That’s exactly the opposite of the intended outcome!

Imagine some ten-year-old kid living in dusty hut in Afghanistan. There is some chance that he’s going to grow up to be a terrorist with the ability to threaten America later on. But he’s much more likely, left to his own devices, to grow up to be a regular person, a farmer or shopkeeper or maybe a doctor.

Now imagine a scenario where instead of being left to his own devices, this ten-year-old’s parents are killed as collateral damage from an American drone strike trying to take out some terrorism kingpin. Americans justify these deaths to themselves by saying the civilian deaths are an unfortunate cost of war. The process of making America safe from terrorism includes some collateral damage from time to time. But from the kid’s perspective, this is terrorism. His parents, law-abiding citizens just going about their business, were killed by surprise by a missile in the dark.

Now the kid is scared to death – terrified. Is he gonna die next? Let him live in fear for a decade, and what’s that kid going to be like as an adult? Do you think he’d like some revenge against the people who ruined his family for no good reason? That kid has just gone from being unlikely to become a terrorism threat to being reasonably likely. Same with his brothers and his cousins and his friends.

In other words, in the process of killing off terrorists, we just inadvertently created even more terrorists. It’s just like the coyotes. It seems like killing the pests is going to eliminate the pests, but that’s not how it really works.

Now fast forward a decade. That kid who would’ve grown up to be a farmer or shopkeeper or doctor is now a perfect recruit for ISIL.

Why has Iraq turned into such a hotbed of insurgency? Diplomats and military strategists use the term “power vacuum” to explain it. When we caused Iraq to undergo a forcible regime change (the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s government), there was no good, stable, strong leader waiting in the wings to step in and take over.

Hussein had ruled with an iron fist. He committed so many human rights atrocities that America felt justified in removing him even if he didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction. But this power kept a lot of fringe elements in check. With him gone, these fringe elements have been able to expand, the latest being ISIL.

The same thing happened in America with coyotes and wolves. Before the white man arrived, the wolves kept the coyotes at bay in much of what is now the USA. But we killed off wolves, and that left a power vacuum. And in that vacuum, coyotes were able to expand.

So what’s the best approach to reducing the population of ISIL combatants? Don’t ask me; I’m no expert. What’s the best approach to reducing the population of coyotes? I bet that may lead to the solution.

They both follow the same pattern – the more you try to kill them using brute force, the more they reproduce. So I bet they both follow the same pattern of reduction.

Part 3: So Now What?

The parallels between terrorists and coyotes that I was afraid of in 2012 and 2013 all came flooding back to me when I recently read an article by Peter Van Buren, called “You Won’t Like It, But Here’s the Answer to ISIS”.

Van Buren’s suggestion is to admit that what we’ve tried the past 14 years has failed, and try something different. All the current candidates in the presidential race of 2016 support doing the same old thing, though.

Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.

But it doesn’t work, and hasn’t worked, partly because “someone else’s boots” never materialize, or if they do they’re woefully ineffective.

Once you admit that the old approaches haven’t worked, Van Buren suggests coming to grips with the real risk of terrorist attack, which he says is significantly lower than the fearmongering government would lead us to believe.

Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11.

That number is insignificant compared to just about any other source of risk of death – domestic violence, drunk driving, HIV infection, lightning strike, dog bite, etc. So is it right for the government to spend so much of our money (and infringe on so many of our freedoms) to battle Islamic terrorists?

Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.

So what should we do? We’ve gotta do something! Well, here’s where it gets good.

With coyotes, if you want to get rid of them, you take away their food source. If you’re a sheep rancher, you put your lambs in a safe area that coyotes can’t get to. If you’re a resident of the prairie, you put your trash in containers that coyotes can’t get into and you keep your lap dogs indoors.

With Islamic terrorists, if you want to get rid of them, you take away their food source. That means removing their cash flow. ISIL gets its money from selling petroleum and from private donations. So you blow up the trucks of smuggled oil they’re selling in Turkey. And you use the international banking system to make it impossible for our allies (and our enemies) to transfer money to them.

Then you move all America’s military assets out of the area, and cut your losses.

Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.

In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.

This is history talking to us.

When will we be ready to listen?

 

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.

IMG_1057

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)

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 10.47.54 PM

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:

P1040015

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.