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Back in Bangkok

I wasn’t going to do a post from Bangkok, but I’ve got…ohhhhh, 8 hours to kill, so I might as well. I don’t think I did a good enough post on Bangkok before anyways, and I want to remember this place. I said goodbye to Ron and left Hong Kong in the morning and headed on the subway to the ferry terminal. It’s always funny walking down the road with your big backpack because everyone looks at you and wonders what the hell your story is. It’s a funny feeling, too – having your house on your back. I had been craving coffee for a few days and seeing as I had foregone breakfast, I was able to justify splurging on some Starbucks. I can’t tell you how nice it is to be able to walk into a McDonalds or a Starbucks in these foreign places. Let’s put aside the attitude that American cultural imperialism is eroding these countries little by little. At least you can walk into a comfortable place just like back home and get a good cup of coffee. It’s like a mini vacation. It reminds me of so many lazy Sunday evenings that I would head over to Starbucks and read or study and that feels really good. I imagine it’s kind of like how the British had all these islands and random countries in their “empire” so they could just pop over when they felt like it. The Starbucks empire is far more impressive than that ever was.

So I sipped my coffee and wandered to the ferry terminal. I bought my ticket and met two Kiwi (New Zealand) girls and chatted with them for a while. I made the mistake of asking if they were Australian and got a dirty look – but then apologized. They really don’t like that. I fell asleep on the ferry and woke up in Macau and we all piled off the boat. Much to my surprise, though, I didn’t even have to go through customs in Macau – there was a hallway that led straight to the airport shuttle. Once there, they checked me into my flight, scanned my bags and hauled me off to an airport backdoor and classified me as a transfer passenger. It blew me away. You know, Macau really has a good thing going for them with the flights they offer. With airasia.com you can fly to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur for sometimes 10 dollars. It’s incredible and much cheaper than flying from Hong Kong, so they really accommodate it and make it easy for everyone. I didn’t really have much time to get any impressions of Macau, but I would like to go back and check it out one day.

So after hanging out in the airport for a while, I was off to Bangkok. I met two Dutch girls in the plane and we got into a pretty heated discussion about the European Union constitution which naturally led to a discussion on the value of life (…?). They were both really smart so I learned a bit. We really hit it off and so after landing, I made their lives a little easier by showing them where to get the bus for cheap into town. We asked a few people and finally got which number we were supposed to take and once there, a lady got up and gave us her seat and explained to me that we would need to transfer at a certain place and get another bus. She was really friendly. I chatted with a Thai girl next to me and she told me when to get off, so that was great. Everyone was really friendly and a surprising number of people spoke English. Bangkok passed by outside the bus and I was able to catch a nap. Once we arrived, I went to my favorite hostel which required us going through some random alley ways (I surprised I remembered). So we got checked in (I have a really nice and huge room for 3 bucks) and then I showed Anka and Sandra (the Dutch girls) around the Kao San area. I was really surprised. It’s not peak season anymore so this whole area is way quieter and chilled out. Kao San wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered it and the girls had fun checking out all the random stuff there is on display to buy. I bought some fruit (which is kept on ice) from a fruit vendor on the street and that was something I really missed. I haven’t eaten very well since southeast Asia. I used to eat so much fruit when I was traveling here. In China it was all fried stuff. So it was time to get my ticket to Cairo. My friend Colleen had found a guy who had a ticket “on reserve” for me so I tried to find his office, but just before I asked another guy how much the ticket should be. He quoted 345 dollars. I went to my guy. He quoted $385 – quite a difference, no? So I went back and asked him to match it, plus I would give him 5 bucks for helping me out when I was in Hong Kong. He told me something about how he had to call in the morning and find out about taxes and, “come back tomorrow – I don’t know if I can do that price,” very rudely. Hah. I went next door and bought the ticket. I had to get some money out so they guy said he would be there until midnight. Me and the Dutch girls went out and got dinner (they treated me!) and we chatted for quite a while before I excused myself so I could go pay for the ticket. When I got there, he wasn’t there and the girl told me he had gone and would be back the next day. I asked if she could call him and she was kind of rude to me, asking why I didn’t come earlier. I snapped (very politely) back at her that I was told that I could come back any time before midnight. She reluctantly called her boss and he walked in two minutes later. I paid him and joked around with him for a bit, then joked around with the girl and they liked me after that. Tough crowd though, damn. That’s how a lot of southeast Asia is. If you just go in and do your transaction, you are just another stupid foreigner to get money from. But if you joke around with the people and get them to laugh, they kind of let you in and you learn a bit more about the culture because they let you see more. So me and the Dutch girls then went back to take a look at Kao San. The local beer I had was much stronger than I realized, and I found myself quite tipsy. Some old lady was selling all sorts of fried insects in the street and we met a bunch of Germans and Israelis there pondering which to eat. I had a whole bag of a wide assortment of insects and we all chatted in the street for maybe 30 minutes before heading to a bar and chatting some more. We all talked in this group for another hour or so and I lost track of time. It was great though because I had an excellent time and met lots of people. Me, Anka and Sandra left and headed back home (well, it is my home) after a while where I got ready for bed and passed out.

This morning was all about recovering though. I had a hangover (I NEVER get hangovers! This local Thai beer is some harsh stuff) and it took most of the day to get over it. I’m okay now though, and have spent the day wandering around Bangkok and running some errands. I picked up my ticket and nearly gave the guy a heart attack when I said “but, the destination says Tel Aviv, not Cairo! Why??” and he laughed pretty hard. I then had lunch with a Thai girl. Actually, she ran the bookshop on the corner and I asked her where she bought the food she was eating so I went and bought the same and came back and ate with her. She was quite an interesting girl. I sold my China and India guidebooks and made 15 bucks. I also got one of the worst haircuts of my entire trip. It’s never good when the woman messes up your hair and is rude about it. Oh well.

And I’ve been examining Bangkok while I’ve been here. It really is an interesting place. The people really are friendly and there is always a hilariously random assortment of things going on in the street at any given time. It really is just a big city, but it’s definitely got its own flavor, too. You really get the feeling that this place has a unique and rich culture, but there is of course that feeling of separation too. There are quite a bit of expats here, as well. One thing you notice as soon as you arrive, though, is that the girls here are stunning. They really are. It is amazing. But never once have I seen this sex trafficking while here. I haven’t seen little kids for sale or really even porn for sale anywhere. Of course you see prostitutes and ladyboys, but that’s in all countries. This is a place that you could just sit back and observe it zip by and never get bored of it.

So I leave tonight at midnight for Cairo. I’ve written down a hostel name and the exchange rate, so I’ll brave the chaos when I arrive. I’m glad I got this flight though. Soooo cheap!

Dude looks like a lady!

So I crossed over into Bangkok. It wasn’t much of an event. After staying in a pretty nice hotel for a mere 4 bucks (which Zach and I split), we hopped on the ferry to Thailand. It is always interesting to see a completely different country on the other side of a little river. We wondered why they didn’t just build a bridge – but then realized that that would cost money and the ferry boat drivers wouldn’t have jobs. So I guess that’s why.

On the other side, we got stamped into the country then headed into town. There we hit up the ATM and then caught a bus. I can’t tell you how weird it was to see ATM’s in the street after traveling through Cambodia and Laos where there are none. It was just really really weird. The bus was spectacular, as well. No blaring music. No people on the roof or livestock in the aisle. Straight flat roads. Air conditioning. We were in dismay. We went directly to Chiang Mai and spent a few days there while we acclimated to Thailand. Chiang Mai is called the Bangkok of the north, but it’s not really. It’s a big city with a few million people but it’s way more laid back and the people are much friendlier. The city is really nice, as well. I can’t say that I really did too much. I was traveling with Zach, Jean-Michel and Ellen (with whom I did the trek in Laos) and we went out to some nice restaurants and generally relaxed. Zach and I rented some motorbikes and rode through the mountains – and visited some orchid gardens and a snake park on the way. It was beautiful, although hazy because there is so much fire everywhere.

One takes note of a few things upon entering into Thailand. First, there are fires everywhere. It seems like half the forest is on fire at any given time and while you drive down the road you can see the flames devouring the dry bush in endless lines as they progress through the forest. There is smoke everywhere in the north and in the forest it can really burn your eyes. The next thing is that people are incredibly friendly here. They really know how to treat people and you always get a huge smile and maybe a compliment or two. That being said, you can also see the extreme opposite. In heavily touristed areas, you get some of the biggest jerks I have ever encountered on this entire trip. For example: At the tourist market, Ellen wanted to try on a top she wanted to buy. The guy said no. She was confused and asked again, politely (she is a very nice and polite girl). He angrily said that it was his store and his rules and she could not try it on. We were all stunned. I smiled and said, “Well, if he doesn’t want your money, we can go to the store across the street. Simple as that!” He started following us and telling us to get the hell out and mocking everything we said. I couldn’t believe it. Adam Smith’s invisible hand will make short work of his business, thank god.

And of course, last but not least: I have never seen so many MEN DRESSED AS WOMEN in my entire life! Jesus Christ! In Chiang Mai, they are everywhere and it’s crazy. I can’t understand why it’s so rare in all other SE Asian countries (that I’ve visited) but it’s so blatant in Thailand. You are afraid to even check out girls here because upon examination you realize that you are checking out a man – and the moment you realize this are forced to look away in shame lest your sexuality be questioned.

“Ohhhh my god! You think a man is hot??!! YOU FAG!”
“Dude, but I swear – She…he looks like a woman!”
“Yeah right. You are so gay. So that’s why you wanted to move to Hawaii, huh? It all makes sense now.”

I haven’t seen so many in Bangkok, but perhaps that’s because I’ve learned to keep my eyes averted. Or maybe I have – I just didn’t know it. Welcome to Thailand!

I split off from Zach, Jean-Michel and Ellen and headed toward a really nice northern town called Pai. Once there I found a little bungalow for $1.75, although there was also a rat living there and the mattress was on the floor. I could see his droppings all over the bungalow and my backpack was chewed when I awoke. Bastard! I spent the evening wandering around Pai, eating some sticky rice with mango (which is really good) and ran into a Dutch couple I met over a month ago in Cambodia. It really is crazy how you run into people like that. We didn’t have much to talk about because we didn’t even know each others’ names but they explained to me how they both got sick for three weeks with fever, chills, diarrhea, vomiting and exhaustion. But they didn’t go see the doctor yet. Riiiiighhhht.

In the morning, I rented a motorbike and headed even further north to a town called Mae Hong Son. The ride over there was a motorcyclists dream. The roads were sooooo sharply curved it was incredible! I had so much fun. I got pretty high in the mountains and the views would have been spectacular if not for the smoke everywhere. There were bright green rice field terraces everywhere and the weather was excellent. Dense forest surrounded me everywhere and I really enjoyed it. I visited a cave (Tad Lod) and paid for a little boat trip through it which was cool. There were thousands of huge fish in the little river going through the cave and my tour guide (you have to pay for one) was pretty funny. She pointed out the formations in the cave in single word quick shots.

“OK! ICE CREAM CONE!” she said as she pointed at a ice cream cone looking rock and looked at me for approval.
“Yeah…that does look like an ice cream cone!” I would say.
“OK! CROCODILE!”
“Yeah…that does look like a crocodile!” Rinse, repeat.
At some points she thought I should really take a picture so she would command me to do it.
“OK! PICTURE!” she would say.
Not wanting to displease her, I would.

I met an English group who were visiting the cave right behind me and we hit it off and grabbed lunch together after. We had a good chat and then bid our farewells.

After that I visited a Buddhist temple in the forest and that was really nice. I find it really amusing that in some of the beautifully decorated temples, they have carvings and designs of people vomiting on each other and stabbing each other. This one was no exception and it actually had a life size replica of a man lying on the ground while a dog ripped his intestines out and some sort of a claw came up from the ground and gouged out his eyes. Sucks to be him. From what I gathered, they would actually welcome you into the temple for free if you wanted to learn about meditation. You would live with the monks and do everything they did. That would be pretty interesting.

I continued on and finally arrived at Mae Hong Son. There wasn’t a whole lot to do so I got a 2 dollar all you can eat dinner where you had to barbecue your own meat (of which you could get as much as you liked) on a little grill at your table. The thing is that it’s so much work that you work up an even greater appetite while eating. I nearly exploded after I misjudged my stomach’s capacity.

From there, I headed back to my hostel and after chatting with some Canadians, called it a night.

The English guys I had spoken with at the cave told me they had went through Malaysia in January and it wasn’t too rainy. I was planning on going there but cancelled my plan because it is the rainy season and I thought it would suck. They said it wouldn’t so I opened back up the plan and dynamically adjusted my itinerary to fit 2-3 weeks in Malaysia in. In the morning I headed right back to Pai, where I immediately caught a bus going to Chiang Mai and then went straight to the train station where I immediately caught a train going to Bangkok. How’s that for fast? Everything worked out perfectly and before I knew it I was in the second class car heading south. I thought I was going to be stuck in a chair for 14 hours until I realized that the two chairs facing each other actually turned into a bed and another bed folded down from the roof. I was amazed! I would be able to sleep in a bed! There was air conditioning, a dining car and the service was world class – true to Thai fashion. I loved that train. The lady facing me was from Australia and we spent a while chatting. She was just recovering from breast cancer and I gathered that she had realized that she didn’t see enough and was too young to die – and then decided to see the world. And so there she was. She was a really nice woman.

In the morning, I woke up, caught a taxi to Kao San Road and found a place to sleep. Kao San Road really has to be seen to be believed. Somehow this area became THE tourist area with tons of budget accommodations and shops selling anything you can imagine. It’s crazy. There are thousands of tourists wandering around everywhere and loud music thumps in all directions. Taxi drivers vie for your attention and beggars point at their cups when you walk by. Women get their hair braided in the streets and people cook banana pancakes and Pad Thai on the sidewalk for 25 cents – the aroma of which makes you hungry, even if you just ate, every time you walk by. Men dressed as women try to trick you into looking at them and then ask if you want a massage and shop keepers beg you to enter their stores. The heat is almost unbearable both day and night and after an hour of walking around you are drenched in sweat. It’s quite an experience.

The real shame though is how jaded all the shop owners become. They really are jerks, which is understandable seeing as they deal with so many tourists all day. I walk into a travel agency and they don’t even look at me. Or they look up and then go back to eating. You try to bargain and they tell you to go away. It’s incredible. But everywhere else, the people are so friendly. I wandered around the streets yesterday night taking pictures with my new (7 dollar) tripod and I had so many people come up to me and chat – offering directions or advice (and wanting nothing in return, as far as I could gather). I had a few Thais talk with me for 20 minutes and then we would go our separate ways. This has happened to me several times today even. People really are quite friendly here.

What is interesting is how many weirdo foreigners there are here. You see all sorts of people in the streets. Goofy German tourists, crazy hippies, stinky homeless bums (who are from abroad), hot college girls, frat guys, old women walking around talking to themselves, nice old couples, families, and they are all taking this place in like it’s wild. For me, Thailand is a pretty normal place. I had one person tell me that it was like “Asia Lite”, which I think is appropriate. My theory is that when people think of Thailand, they think exotic and then come. They know it’s pretty developed and that they are generally pretty safe on the streets. There are western toilets and electricity. You can buy hamburgers. In my opinion, going to Thailand is like walking up to your ankles in the ocean and then saying you swam in it. It’s nice that it gives people the chance to see “crazy”, even though it’s not really. But relatively, I guess it’s pretty crazy compared to home.

As for me, I’ve speeded here to Bangkok and I leave in 2 hours on a 20 hour train to the Malaysian border where I will head to Taman Negara and do some trekking in the worlds oldest rain forest. I think it’s going to be pretty awesome. After that, I’ll catch a plane back to Bangkok and then off to Nepal. It’s going to cost me 20 bucks for the train to Malaysia, 30 bucks to fly back, then 200 bucks to fly to Nepal. How’s that for budget? Time is flying and I can’t believe how quickly I’ve covered ground. True, everything is a blur, but I think I got a good feel of SE Asia. I would rather spend more time in Nepal, Malaysia, Tibet and China.

So that’s what I’ll do.