Monday, December 31, 2007

Day 3 - Chatuchak, Chinatown And Hippies

For our final day in Thailand we had a bunch of things we wanted to be sure to get in that we hadn't seen yet. First on our agenda was going to the weekend (this would now be Sunday, November 11th) Chatuchak Market in the northern suburban area of Bangkok. We took the SkyTrain to the end of the line, with just about every other tourist in Bangkok it seemed.

Chatuchak Market is a huge, sprawling place with just about anything and everything you might want to buy, from food to souvenirs to music to clothes to pets. There are also a lot of street performers and artists either busking for money or trying to sell their crafts.

We walked around the market for a while, watching American and European tourists trying to bargain down shopkeepers for their goods so they could save a big 50 cents or a buck. We bought several souvenirs for my nieces, little change purses with elephants on them, and Lisa bought a collection of black ceramic elephants for our shelf at home as well as a shirt with an elephant on it. You can sense the theme of the trip when it came to souvenirs.

We pretty much always paid what the asking price was for everything because, well, it was already pretty damn cheap without having to try to haggle with the guy or woman running the stall. If we bought more than one thing at a stand they would always give you a break in the price. The whole bargaining thing would become much more of an issue later in our trip.

I also bought a silk tie, sans elephant image, for 100 THB (about 3 bucks), as my big purchase in Thailand.

We also saw another interesting and somewhat unexpected sight at the market. It seems that the creepy, old, white Western men don't just have sex with the young Thai girls while in the city. They also take them out during the day for sightseeing and shopping. It already seemed odd enough to me that one would travel halfway around the world just to pay for sex. But were they really also paying for a "girlfriend" for their stay?

After noticing it the first time we noticed it a bunch of times while walking around Bangkok, especially at the market. We managed to take a stealth picture of one of these creepy dudes with his two "dates" while I pretended to pose for a picture at a coffee stand.

Well after that we figured we'd seen all we wanted to see at the market, so we took off. We wanted to see Bangkok's Chinatown. We grabbed the SkyTrain again, transferred to the subway at Asok/Sukhumvit and headed to Hua Lamphong train station to walk over to Chinatown.

All in all, the Chinatown in Bangkok isn't a whole lot different than many cities' Chinatowns in the States. Crowded, lots of stands selling stuff, tons of smelly seafood and countless jewelry stores. Though the main drag was a pretty impressive sight.

After checking out Chinatown for a while we then headed over to the pier and caught the commuter boat back up to Phra Athit, in the Banglamphoo neighborhood. We wanted to get a look at Khao San Road, which is basically the backpacker district in Bangkok.

After seeing it I couldn't figure out why people would travel to Thailand to hang out at Khao San Road. I could see the one positive aspect, that it was closed to traffic. Very few places in Bangkok can you get away from the cars and motorbikes.

But the rest of it, what the hell? Pizza places, Irish pubs, music stores and clubs pumping out hip-hop or reggae, and places to get your hair done Rastafarian style. And hippies everywhere. American hippies mostly. So you come all the way from America to Thailand just to hang out with other American hippies and eat pizza and drink Guinness? It would have been a hell of a lot cheaper to go to San Francisco. There really wasn't a big difference between this and Haight-Ashbury, except for maybe the absence of a Ben & Jerry's. Hell, pick a neighborhood in just about any major American city. Williamsburg in New York, Little Five Points in Atlanta, North Halsted in Chicago, Capitol Hill in Seattle. You would pretty much get the same experience in any of these places as you would on Khao San Road.

Bangkok deserves better than to be turned into a nightclub for twenty-something Americans.

Even worse, there was a poster advertising a Linkin Park concert that night. Geeze, what mean thing did the Thai people ever do to us that they deserve this? They give us the wonderful Thai food and we pay them back by sending them our dirty old men to have sex with their young girls and our awful, awful poseur-punk/metal bands? How cruel can we be?

On behalf of my people, I'm sorry Bangkok.

After heading over to May Kaidee's for one more fantastic Thai vegetarian meal, we made our way to the dock to grab the boat home.

We got to the pier, walking down that alleyway with the bar in it. Now, a couple nights before when we got there around the same time the ticket counter was not manned and people just paid on the boat. This night there was a kid standing there. I walked up and told him two people and he said "twenty baht." I tried to give him a 100 THB note and he said "no change." This should have been my second red flag (the first being that the counter wasn't open the other night). Lisa had a twenty she gave him and he put two tickets on the counter. We waited on the pier and I was looking at the tickets and I noticed something. The tickets were already ripped. I showed this to Lisa and we were thinking about going up and saying something to the kid, but we didn't know what we would be getting into. I think we were also a little gun-shy after looking like a couple of American ass-holes at the Wat in Ayutthaya.

The kid sold a good game, putting on a life jacket at one point and telling the crowd that the boat was approaching soon, but disappeared before the boat actually docked.

Sure enough, several people were scammed by this kid. The tickets were used ones he had gathered up. At the moment we were on the boat he was probably enjoying some beers bought with money he had conned out of some tourists, including us. Very annoying to get taken like that. But all in all, getting scammed out of the equivalent of about 70 cents isn't anything to get too wound-up about.

Once getting off the Sky Train at Nana, we walked up Sukhumvit Road one last time looking at all the skeezy sex tourist and their companions. Stood behind a couple of them at a drugstore buying a single pack of a condom while we were getting some postcards.

Back at the hotel I bought a beer in the restaurant and went down to sit by the pool. Started a conversation with a French guy who had the same idea as me. We talked about the whole sex tourism thing in Bangkok and I came to an understanding about the whole thing. After seeing all these guys out and about with their "dates" during the day acting like a couple I suddenly understood the whole thing to a certain extent. The reason all these guys go to Bangkok for this isn't just because of "yellow fever" or the fact that the girls are young and pretty (thought that is surely part of it).

No, it's because they play the part better, as the Frenchman pointed out. You don't just get the sex. You also get a girlfriend who will hold your hand, visit the museums with you, let you buy her stuff and generally act like she is totally in to you. For whatever amount of time you pay for, you are in a relationship.

I then saw these guys not just as skeezy, but also sad and pathetic. I almost felt sorry for them. Almost.

Next - Cambodia!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Day 2 (Part 2) - Wats Of Ayutthaya And Dirty White Men Of Bangkok

We arrived at the Ayutthaya train station and made our way into the waiting area to collect our thoughts and look at the map. The guidebook we were using, the Fodor's See It line - not recommended at all, great pictures but short on practical information and decent maps - said that Ayutthaya was a walkable town, but that it was suggested to hire a tuk-tuk to see all the major sights. Since we were only planning on seeing a couple of the wats we figured we would do it on foot. Still trying to avoid the tuk-tuk scene at this point. So we turned down the woman at the station who was offering to take us around, along with half dozen other tuk-tuk drivers who kept offering us rides on between the station and the street, and made our way down the road toward town.

Ayutthaya's train station is on the opposite side of a river from the main part of town and where all the stuff a tourist wants to see is located. We would soon discover that it was quite a bit further than it looked on the Fodor's map. We stopped for refreshment at one of Thailand's many thousand 7-11s. For those of you wondering, and I know you are, yes the 7-11s in Thailand have the hot dog rollers/warmers and the chili/cheese sauce pumps.

Like any suburban area, the roads in Ayutthaya are pretty wide and straight and not always very pedestrian friendly. Just finding the stairs to get up to the sidewalk on the bridge took us a good ten minutes. It was hidden around a corner under the bridge and no sidewalk led to it. We crossed the bridge, hung a right and I thought we were just around the corner from where we were heading. But we walked and walked, yet didn't seem to be getting anywhere. The part of town we were in looked mostly like any nondescript, run down American suburb. We could have just as easily been in Jersey City as Thailand.

I kept having to check the map to see if we were still going the right direction, which of course made tuk-tuk drivers stop to try to get us to jump in. It was hot and sunny, but Lisa and I tend to try to walk places when we travel so we kept turning them down. What took us over an hour to do could have been done in about ten minutes, so there are drawbacks. But hey, we weren't on a schedule.

We'd been in this situation before. When we went to Rome several years ago every guidebook said don't try to walk down the Appian Way to The Catacombs as the road is long, busy and lacking sidewalks. We did it anyway. Not only did the road lack sidewalks and shoulders most of the way, but it is bordered by a wall. So every time a group of cars came speeding down the road we stood up against the wall until they passed.

For some reason this was seeming more arduous than that. Maybe because we were older or that it was hotter than Rome. It could have been because in Rome there was stuff to stop and look at and take pictures of along the way instead of feeling like we were in Newark.

But finally we were able to spot one of the towers of Wat Phra Mahathat and just walked towards it without having to keep looking for street names.

When we got to the main intersection by the Wats there was a huge herd of cattle making their way down the street.

We had seen in our guidebook that the Wats were free to enter, but when we walked in the entrance a woman at a little hut kept yelling at us to buy a ticket. We kind of ignored her and she came in after us and said we needed to pay. Having been in places before (like Egypt) where their is a lot of conning of tourists with fake ticket takers or "security" at tomb entrances, we tried to hold our ground and insist that we didn't have to pay because it was free. We started to wonder though, and I went and checked out the hut outside and it appeared to be on the up and up.

So instead keeping ourselves from getting ripped off like a couple of stupid tourists, we pretty much just came across like a couple of ass-hole Americans. George W. Bush would have been so proud.

We checked out the two wats for a while, which included seeing a Buddha statue ruin which had been taken over by a tree and the roots grew around its head.

And a stray dog climbing all over the ruins.

We then decided to go back to the station to get the train back to Bangkok. No way were we going to walk again. We hired a tuk-tuk (though Lisa found out later it was something called a Songthaew and not technically a tuk-tuk) to get us back.

Train ride back took longer as the train kept having to stop for long periods for some reason. It was also a heck of a lot more crowded than on the way there. I also noticed that mnay people on the train had big bags of rice with them. We're talking about bags that looked like 20 to 50 pounds each. I never did figure it out, but many people were met at the Bangkok station by family members to help them with the bags. There must be a place north of Ayutthaya that sells rice so cheap that it makes it worth the trip.

After getting back to Bangkok it was too late to go up to May Kaidee's to eat again, like I wanted to, because we wouldn't be able to catch the boat back. So we decided to go an Indian restaurant we saw in the Sukhumvit area by the hotel that we saw on the way to the subway earlier that day.

After a fine Indian meal at a place called Namuskaar we strolled up Sukhumvit toward the hotel. That was when we finally saw the sex tourism industry right out in the open.

As we were walking up the street I suddenly realized that there were women around dressed a heck of a lot skimpier than any Thai women we had seen out and about at all. There was definitely a "hooker dress" look to many girls' ensembles. I actually saw short-shorts on a girl, who also happened to be basically on top of a guy up against a wall. And they were all hanging out with older white guys. There was no discretion at all. Guys were walking down the street holding hands with girls that were obviously "in the business" on the way back to hotels.

Then, as we got to the corner of the lane our hotel was on, I noticed a place called, if memory serves, The Champagne Club. I hadn't noticed this sign before even though we had walked by there so many times. I realized that was because it wasn't open and the sign wasn't turned on during the day. Inside the door, in a foyer next to some stairs, were two chairs with two very scantily-clad young girls sitting there. It was pretty damn obvious what that place was all about.

"Holy crap," I thought, "No wonder our hotel is so crazy about the whole 'no sex tourists' thing, it's right around the corner from us."

Now that we had finally seen it with our own eyes, we wouldn't be able to stop noticing it the rest of the time we were in Bangkok.

Next - Chatachak Market, Chinatown and falling victim to our first scam

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Google At Your Own Risk

I've decided to stretch out my Asia traveling posts even longer, and intersperse them with my usual rantings. I promise I will eventually get through the whole trip. It might just take a few months.


Like a lot of you out there I do a decent amount of people Googling. Not the celebrity or historical figure Googling, but of people you know or used to know. We all do it, just like we all Google ourselves from time to time. I don't do that very often, and usually it is just this blog that shows up anyway. I used to show up quite often in reviews of plays that I had directed, but since I don't really do a lot of that these days those don't really show up too much anymore.

But quite often I will type in the name of some long lost friend or acquaintance if I happen to think about them and will suddenly want to know where they're at and what they are doing with their lives.

It is also true that I have Googled the names of certain bullies or some other ass hole I hated in high school, secretly hoping to find an obituary, arrest report or sex offender registry. But alas, nothing like that has turned up yet. I'm still convinced that John Knox from Lake Zurich High School in Illinois must have turned out to be a serial rapist. I'm just sure of it.

But mostly I use it to try to find people with whom I actually would like to get back in touch. If you've done this yourself you know it doesn't work as often as you like. If you had a friend a long time ago named John Smith you are basically screwed. But every once in a while you get a hit. My friend Ben, who I've known since about 3rd grade in Georgia, has a unique enough of a last name that he was the first thing to pop up when I typed in his name. That led to reconnecting with our mutual friend Ian since Ben was still in touch. Great to reconnect and for the most part no real major revelations, Ben still married to the girl he married the last time I had seen him, though no kids, which I suppose surprised me a little. Ian had gotten married since I had last seen him, not a real surprise since that's what a lot of people do between the ages of 22 and thirty-something.

I thought my friend Lee Baca from high school in Illinois had a unique enough name that he would pop up right away, but it turns out that he has the exact same name as the sheriff of Los Angeles. I'm not sure how many pages I scrolled through before I gave up on that one. Like I said, not always a successful search.

I'm not an easy one either. If anyone from my pre-college past has ever tried to Google search me they would have hit dead ends as well. I changed the spelling of my first name during college. That's actually why I recently added to my blogger bio to include my old spelling and the cities I've lived in, just in case any old friends are looking for me. Or any ass hole bullies having a Flatliners moment in life and want to make up for previous wrongs.

The other night for some reason I thought about my old friend Andy Riemer from Lake Zurich High School in Illinois (I moved my senior year in case you are confused about the Georgia/Illinois thing). I haven't seen Andy since probably 1991, when a bunch of us went up to see him one summer weekend after he had moved to some godforsaken hell-hole called Richland Center in Wisconsin.

Andy was the friend I hung out with the most my first year out of high school. I was still hanging around the shit hole suburb of Lake Zurich because I didn't have the money to start college yet, and Andy was a year behind me in school so he was still stuck there too. Typical of all my friends, he was a misfit as well. The only person I ever knew who answered "Stray Cats" to the question of favorite band. Seriously, do you know anybody who says the Stray Cats are their favorite band?

He had a pretty screwed up home life. His dad seemed fairly distant and grumpy all the time, his younger brother was into killing small animals and had way too many weapons and he had an older brother who was a coke-fiend. A coke-head to the point that one night we were hanging at his place when his parents were out of town and we found his brother passed out in one of the rooms, with his arms kind of up in the air and his hands in a stiff, claw-like position.

Beyond being distant, his parents were generally pretty shitty too. Even though he was still in high school, when he turned 18 they booted him out of the house. So he moved in with my family. He was there for a while. We had planned to room together at college the next year, but he ended up not graduating. At some point he moved out of my mom's house and up to Wisconsin where his parents had moved. I don't know if they asked him back in to the fold or if he begged back.

Between my being in school in downstate Illinois and his residence being in Wisconsin we didn't see each other very often after that. The final time was the aforementioned weekend of wild debauchery at his apartment in Richland Center after he moved out, or was booted out, of his parents' place again. There is actually video of this weekend out there somewhere that would kill me if I decided to start a political career.

Sometime after this Andy went off the deep end. I'm not sure when or how it happened, but at some point he had a born again moment and became a Jesus freak. He had been drifting and was pretty damn vulnerable, which is exactly was those religious fanatics look for in a victim. Eventually Andy shunned our friend Rachel, probably his closest friend at the time, because she had a history of bisexual relationships. My last conversation with him was about how he treated her and my own status as a non-born again. I don't remember the exact quote, but he said something to me along the lines of his duty now being about converting people, and if they won't then he would be done with them.

And that was the end of what had been a pretty close friendship. Last I heard he was still in Wisconsin, married with a kid and still über-religious, but that was probably more than a decade ago.

Like I said, I was thinking about him the other night for some reason. So I typed his name in to Google.

I wish I hadn't.

I had hopes that I would find out he got through his religious wackery phase and became like a normal human again. Completely the opposite was true. He seems to have gotten in even deeper and become even more of a loon.

I found a blog he keeps right here on blogger, called Riemer Ramblings, which is just basically a journal of his mundane family life. First thing I find out is that he doesn't just have one kid, he has NINE FUCKING CHILDREN! It is just not possible that I was ever friends with someone who would go on to have nine kids. I looked around his blog looking for clues to this being a different Andy Riemer, but it was him. Mentions of places he's lived pretty much sealed it.

And he is still praising god all the time, using capital letters for the h's in him and he, and always thanking him for the few good things that come their way. He even does this when the good thing was something done for them by an actual flesh and blood human being. Some people bought them some groceries, others gave them money when their new kid was sick in the hospital. He wrote posts each time thanking god and saying how he always provides, instead of writing how thankful he is for the PEOPLE that provided for his family in a time of need. He is, of course, a worship leader for a small congregation, whatever the hell that means.

I thought I was going to be sick. I couldn't believe this was actually someone who was once a friend of mine, a close friend at that. The worst was a post he wrote about Wal-Mart, which you really should read to believe. He puts up a letter he wrote to Wal-Mart to make a complaint. It was a really, really long letter that came down to two basic beefs with the local Super Wal-Mart. Their substandard grocery bagging by their clerks and the quality of their produce. At one point he suggests a retraining every month of their clerks on correct bagging, I fucking kid you not.

See, myself and the kind of people I generally hang around have our own beefs with Wal-Mart too. But our complaint is Wal-Marts substandard fucking waged they pay their poor slaves, not that the underpaid, overworked people accidentally put toilet paper in the same bag as the frozen food.

Typical of most religious people I experience. They claim to care about the world but they are really only interested in their own self-satisfaction and convenience. Any negative effect it has on the rest of the world isn't their problem.

He even at one point, I kid you not, accuses them of going upscale like Target. Let me say that again, he accuses them of going upscale like Target.

I can't possibly have ever known this guy.

I didn't leave him a message. What could I have said? "Hey man, long time no talk. I see you are still a crazy bible-thumper who has made both your life and the world a worse place by breeding too goddamn much." Probably wouldn't have gone over well.

Oh Google, you have brought me so much joy. I suppose enduring some bad every once in a while is a small price to pay for what you give us. But this one was really painful.

I would have been better off not knowing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Day 2 (Part 1) - Slow Train To Ayutthaya

After seeing how long my day 1 post became, I'm going to try to keep the blogs shorter and more often instead of long posts only a couple of times a week. So days will probably often be broken into parts. I figure this is better than writing such monster-sized single postings. It should be easier on us all.

Yay, another day of international transit geekiness. Yesterday it was SkyTrain and boat, today it would be subway and regular train.

We walked to the closest subway station, a little way down Sukhumvit Road. We turned right on to Sukhumvit from the lane that our hotel was on, which was the first time we walked that direction since we arrived. We gone to the left both when we walked around town after arriving and to go to the SkyTrain stop the next day. This area of Sukhumvit that were right around the corner from turned out to be what seemed like the big tourist area. Almost all of the lanes similar to ours going off of the main road were heavy with things to attract Westerners. We passed by lanes with Irish pubs, English pubs, Australian pubs (all three seemed to advertise fish and chips), restaurants with "American-style breakfast," custom tailors with prices listed in dollars or euros, and a ton of hotels both big and small, luxury and budget. Along the way guys standing in front of "custom made suits" stores kept trying to get me to come in to their shop.

There were, of course, more 7-11s. And lots of places offering Thai massage.

We got to the Sukhumvit subway station, where there is also a SkyTrain stop. Something they do on the subway in Bangkok that they don't do on the SkyTrain is a bag check at the entrance. Nothing too major, just a quick looksie in the bag by security guys standing at the top of the escalator. We bought our fare discs, little black plastic things about the size of a quarter but a little thicker. To go six stops the fare was 26 THB (almost a dollar) and you waved the disc in front of a sensor on the turnstile to get in then deposited it in the slot to exit.

We would've gotten some good pictures on the subway except that photos are not allowed, along with just about everything else it seemed:

Yes, Lisa did take a picture of the sign that tells you pictures are not allowed.

We took the subway to the end of the line, Hua Lamphong, the main Bangkok train station. The main hall of the train station had a stage set up with children singing as part of the month-long celebration leading up to the king's birthday. Really. These people are insane about their king. They actually celebrate for a month before his birthday.

Too bad, I could have gotten a better picture of the train station without all of the kids in yellow shirts in the way.

The train station does employ these wonderful people in baby blue uniforms to help out tourist trying to take the train. A young lady asked us where we were trying to go and she pointed us to the right window and told us how long it would take to get to Ayutthaya. Luckily for us we got there right on time and the next train was leaving in 10 minutes. We bought our tickets, and a third class seat on a train ride that would be about 3 hours cost 15 THB (50 cents) each, about half the cost, or even less, than every ride we took on the SkyTrain or subway in the city. Kind of fucked up if you asked me, and probably has a lot to do with why you see poor people taking motorbike taxis and crappy buses instead of the rail system.

We made our way to the front car of the train since those are usually the least crowded. The first car also happened to be the car that has the disabled/monk seating area. Of course we used this opportunity to take another stealth picture of a monk.

Third class cars in Thailand are the bare-bone, open window and overhead fan type. As someone who lives in America and has mostly taken the train here and in Europe (with one overnight train in Egypt as well) this is the first time I've been on a passenger train with open windows and fans that wasn't some amusement park or old-time excursion train. Those usually go in a small circle and include some sort of "train robbers" on horseback or some other hokey shit. The train at Stone Mountain Park in Georgia was like that.

No, this was a train that people actually rode to get someplace. Mostly local people. We were the only tourists in our car from what we could tell. Close in to the city there are a lot of people that live right next to the train tracks. Poor people that is. Lots of slapped together tin houses.

Pretty damn hot on the train for the ride up. Every window on the train was open, so it was hot and you got to get dust in your eyes. Fun. Actually it was really interesting to do. I imagine that, like commuter trains in the States, there are people that take this train every day.

For some reason there are a lot of brush fires by the tracks. At one point we passed by one and a bunch of flying ash flew inside our window and we were covered with it. The hazards of the open window cooling system. took a while to brush off, and my shirt pretty much smelled like most of my clothes did through my college years.

Finally we made it to Ayutthaya.

Next - Walking for miles in Ayutthaya and the previously promised sex tourist sighting (I promise).

Friday, December 07, 2007

Day 1 - May Kaidee And The Pigeon Man

First morning in Bangkok. Excited as hell.

We did a good job of staying up the night before, about 10:00ish, so I thought we were in good shape for beating the jet lag. But when you are dealing with a time difference that is exactly the opposite of the zone you live in it is hard to do that in one day.

So Lisa was wide awake at 4:00am and I was up around 5:00. How the hell I could just wake up after less than seven hours even though I really hadn't slept for the previous twenty-something hours is beyond me. I guess the body clock is a pretty strong time-keeper. Though if that's the case, why the heck did I oversleep class and work so many damn times? Oh right, the partying.

Still, not too bad for the first morning.

We made our way out into the city after breakfast. I decided to be adventurous and try a Thai breakfast of rice congee, a rice pudding type of dish, with a small omelet, egg cooked with radish and salt eggs. The rice congee was OK, had to add a lot of sugar. But the salt eggs were the most gawd-awful thing I have tasted in a long time. I wasn't too adventurous for breakfast after that. Stuck with Western breakfasts from there on out.

So we took off to see the sights. We did pretty much the top tourist attractions on the first day - Golden Palace, Wat Pho, National Museum - so we weren't going anywhere off the beaten path or anything. But when you are going to large tourist spots you do have to know what the common scams are since there will be people trying to pull them no matter what continent your visiting. Lonely Planet is one of the best guidebooks for letting you know what to watch out for, I think.

Bangkok is infamous for its traffic, and I was determined to avoid taking cabs, tuk-tuks or anything else that involved wheels on pavement while we were there. That's my general goal when I travel anywhere, though it's not always possible in the developing world. Luckily, Bangkok joined the world of modern mass transit in 1999 when the first SkyTrain line opened. It now has two lines, Sukhumvit and Silom, and was joined in 2004 by the first subway line. These don't cover nearly as much of the city as they should, but combined with the state railway's local stations, a boat service that traverses the Chao Phraya and the smaller long boats that work the city's canal system, you have quite the intermodal system. They don't have the concept of free transfers down yet, not even between the subway and SkyTrain, but the modes do at least cross paths enough to make transferring between them fairly easy. (map of the "system")

For a transit geek like me it is a lot of fun to figure out all the logistics of getting around the city. I wanted to make sure I knew how to get anywhere we were going at all times so we could avoid asking anybody directions (might as well out a big sign on my head that says "I'm a lost tourist, take advantage of me") and turn down any offers from taxi or tuk-tuk drivers.

We pretty much got to use all the modes of mass transport while we were in Bangkok. We were in a great location for it too, being walking distance to both the SkyTrain and the subway. So we walked to the Siam Central SkyTrain station. Along the way we passed the Erawan Shrine, a crazy busy Hindu shrine. We thought there was a special event going on when we first passed by, but we eventually found out that it is like this all the time.

We caught the Silom line to the current southern end of the line, Saphan Taksin, on the edge of the river right next to Central Pier. Train cost us 35 Thai baht (THB) based on the distance. I thought it was kind of expensive for Bangkok since Thailand is a fairly poor country. Fares on the train, based on distance, seem to be in the range of 30-40 THB per ride, which is US$1-1.35. Considering that a can of Coke can be had for around 12 THB, this is a pretty heavy cost for the local residents. But it is a damn fine system. Really modern and clean, and the stations are really big.

Anyway, we got to the boat dock and asked about tickets and we got the tourist boat tickets pressed on us. Unlimited rides on day long on the special tourist boat or any of the other regular commuter boats for only 100 THB. This looks like a go deal until you find out that individual trips on the regular boats, at least within the area where you will go as a tourist, cost between 9 and 13 THB. So there is no way you get your money's worth on the tourist ticket. We only made that mistake the first day.

We climbed on the boat and made our way to Tha Thien to go to the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Kaeo grounds. A great way to travel in Bangkok, along the river away from the traffic and the masses of people on the sidewalks.

And Monks travel that way too!

We actually got off the boat one stop too early and had to walk all along the western wall of the palace to get to the entrance. Which was a great walk except for all the tuk-tuk drivers trying to get us to take a ride with them by telling us the palace was closed. This is apparently a common ploy to get you to ride with them to shop where they get a commission for delivering customers.

Wat Phra Kaeo is home to the famous/sacred Emerald Buddha, which we couldn't get a picture of because of something to do with praying or worshiping or some shit. Sheesh.

If I'm on vacation and I don't get a picture of something, does it exist?

So we went there for a while, stopped in the palace cafe for a cold drink that included trying a coconut.

It wasn't that good.

Then we went to the National Museum and then doubled back down to Wat Pho. This would be only the beginning of a good solid week of seeing Wats in Thailand and Cambodia. By the time we would leave Cambodia I would pretty much have seen all the Wats I would ever care to see.

At least Wat Pho had the Reclining Buddha.

I know this is supposed to be a revered figure and everything, but I can't find it anything but funny myself.

One thing that happened on the way down to Wat Pho is the kind of thing you watch out for when traveling. We were walking along Sanam Luang, a large esplanade north of the Grand Palace, when we were accosted by a guy shoving little baggies of corn in our hands. We kept saying "no thank you" and shoving them away but he really was pushing them on us, even opening them up on the second try so that they would already be falling out. He was trying to get us to feed the pigeons. If you've ever done any international traveling at all, you've seen this before. Someone pushes something on you for a "picture moment" even though you didn't ask for it, and then expects a ridiculous amount of money for it afterwards. Another time I remember this happening to me was in Rome, with two guys hanging outside the Colosseum or something, in full Roman soldier costume with plastic Roman helmets to put on people for a picture.

This always bothers me. Even if it is something I want to do, I don't like to be bamboozled. When you are in a place like Venice you go up to a guy with a cart of seeds, with a sign and a price list, and you buy them of your own free will and you feed the pigeons. That's great. This sucked, because I knew there would be a confrontation after the pigeons had been fed. Lisa loved feeding the pigeons, she always does. I had no real problem with giving the guy some money, it is a poor country after all, so I asked him ow much. He wanted 150 THB. So, like five bucks for about a nickel's worth of corn kernels, and I didn't even take a picture. I tried to give him some of my loose change and he told me "paper money." I lied and told him I didn't have any paper money and that I also didn't ask for the corn to begin with and blah blah blah....

He tried to be a little intimidating but I stuck to my claim that I didn't have any paper money on me so if he didn't want my change then he would get nothing. He took the change.

Finally, toward the end of the day we made our way back to the boat to go up to a vegetarian restaurant I read about called May Kaidee's. We took the boat up to Phra Athit, upon exiting the dock you walk down a narrow walkway to the street. In the evening the walkway is actually a bar with tables and chairs. A great little spot.

Had a great meal at May Kaidee's, vegetables with a spicy peanut sauce and spring rolls, with the other customers being mostly European and American vegetarians. My favorite restaurant on our whole trip. Mmmmm....

Caught the last boat back to Central Pier - the biggest problem with the boat service is that it ends at 7:30 even though the rail lines run until past midnight - to catch the SkyTrain back to Siam Central and walk back to the hotel

Strolled along Sukhumvit Road on our way back to the hotel, through the masses of people.

Still wondered where the heck all of the sex tourists were. We'd been in town for day and a half and still hadn't seen any obvious sex tourism. Where the heck does it happen? Were we in the wrong neighborhood?

We would finally find out the next night.

Next - Ayutthaya and Bangkok's skeezy white men (Finally!)

Monday, December 03, 2007

Arrival: One Night In Bangkok

Sorry, couldn't resist that title

Our plane finally landed at around 4:00pm Bangkok time, which was 4:00am at home. I had, after hours of doing crossword puzzles, watching movies, playing Pong and listening to George Carlin, actually managed to doze off toward the end of the flight only to be woken up pretty shortly for our last meal of the flight. It was the first time in my life that I had actually eaten three dinners in a row. I was just arriving in Asia and I was almost tired of noodles and rice already.

The new Airport in Bangkok is enormous and we must have walked for 15 minutes before finally getting to the passport control lines. Something like an 30-60 minutes later (I'm pretty fuzzy at this point) we finally got through and to our luggage. Someone who may or may not have worked for the airline tried to steer us toward the "Official Airport Taxi" desk. Despite its name and color of the counter, yellow checkerboard, this is not the taxi stand but a car service that would, presumably, be more expensive. We waved them off, and all other people standing outside offering taxi rides, to go to the real taxi stand outside and caught a cab for 450 Thai baht (about $15) to our hotel.

Anybody who knows me knows that I'm a total transit geek, and taking a cab is usually not my first choice for any trip. This ride was even more frustrating for a couple of reasons. It was after 5:00pm when we started our taxi ride to the city, so rush hour in a city with a reputation for congestion. I also knew that they were building a rail line, an extension of their SkyTrain, out to the airport. It was originally scheduled to be open last year, but Bangkok's construction companies seem to run about as efficient as the ones in charge of Boston's Big Dig. It was killing me to see the elevated track that I couldn't ride on as we made our way in the taxi on our hour-and-a-half journey to central Bangkok. The new rail line touts a time of 15-minutes to downtown once it is running.

How exactly they could complete an entire new, huge airport but still be working on a simple rail line to get to it is beyond me.

We had read about the Thai people's love of their king before we went there, but until you see it firsthand you don't really get it. When we were getting off the plane I noticed that all of the Jetways leading to the planes had huge letters on the side of them spelling out LONG LIVE THE KING. Crazy, I thought, but not really a big deal since it was a government-built airport, so of course they would have king-praising propaganda. No different than the money in so many countries that have monarchs.

But then we got into the cab. As we were driving along we noticed the driver had a picture of the king taped to the ceiling of the taxi, among other decorations that indicated the king, like the symbol from his crest or flag. And then you see his damn picture everywhere. His huge mug will be on the side of tall office towers, the side of bridge overpasses, billboards and even small homemade signs on people's homes. Seems that the guidebooks telling you to be sure not to make any jokes or say anything bad about their beloved king is good advice.

On the trip to the hotel I noticed the most surprising sight. I half expected we would see a Starbucks or a McDonald's in Bangkok, there seems to be very few places you can go to avoid that. What I didn't expect was 7-11s on almost every block. Really, we even saw 7-11s across the street from each other, a la Starbucks in Seattle, New York or just about every other American city. We would eventually see a Starbucks as well, once we got to the more tourist area, but nothing matched the presence of the 7-11. They are everywhere.

We finally arrived at our hotel, the Atlanta, at the end of a long lane just off the tourist-laden strip of Sukhumvit Road. I wrote before we left for our trip about how the hotel's website was very serious with their zero tolerance warnings about sex tourism at their property. Well, if you didn't get the point before, you certainly do when you pull up to the hotel. We didn't see the Atlanta until we were right on top of it. And how we knew we were there was not because of the small "The Atlanta" sign above the door, which you couldn't really see at night and it is not at eye level so would have been easily missed. No, the clue we were at the right place was the big, in your face sign next to the front door.


"This is it," I said to the cab driver, who was having a hard time finding it.

A bellhop grabbed our bags at the front door and we went to the desk to check-in. We were brought a refreshing fresh juice drink while Lisa was filling out the registration card.

They were served on these coasters:

You know, the word "lout" just doesn't get used enough. The coaster inspired me to try to throw it in to conversations more often.

After we settled in our room we went for a walk around the neighborhood to get oriented to the city. I had felt like warmed-over shit when the plane landed, but with the excitement of being in a place I'd never been before I had tons of energy. Lisa did as well, so we walked a lot that night, dodging the crazy traffic and constantly being on the lookout for obvious sex tourists. I, of course, also kept looking up every time one of the sleek SkyTrains went by overhead. I think we were offered a tuk-tuk ride about 30 times during our walk.

The rest of the night is a little fuzzy. I don't really remember if we got food that night. I do remember that, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say, we stopped at a 7-11 so Lisa could get a Diet Coke since we knew the 7-11 would have it if they actually sold Diet Coke in this country. I also grabbed a couple bottles of Thai beer to drink before bed.

We then crashed out, exhausted as hell.

Oh, and of course I had my picture taken with the sex tourists sign before we left Bangkok:

Next - First full day in Bangkok