|Travelogue: Thailand 1999 #2||
Thursday November 25, 1999
With a couple of hours to pass at LAX before my flight, I've decided to head over to the Thai Airways counters to see if I can purchase upgrades for my flights between Bangkok and Phuket. I can certainly do it in Bangkok, but I really have nothing better to do while I am here. Unfortunately, the United and Thai terminals are nowhere near each other. But, since I'm going to be sitting on a plane for hours, a nice walk does no harm. Unfortunately, when I get there, there is no one manning the counters. There are Thai planes leaving today, and there are a half a dozen confused looking customers standing in the serpentine queue, but there are no agents. One of the patient people waiting tells me they have been there for 1/2 hour already. If patience is a virtual, all these people are going to heaven. Instead, I'm going to wander around in the duty free shop.
I have to compliment LAX on the natural gas busses that shuttle people around this large airport. A bus pulls up, and there is a slight wafting of heat, but none of the awful choking diesel I've come to know and hate. It is such a pleasant surprise, that I stand and wait for a couple of busses to go by just to re-experience the absence of exhaust. Eventually I make it back to the United Airlines Red Carpet club to await my plane. Oh, how I wish they had real food in here. A muffin and coffee isn't doing it for me this morning, and there is hardly much better to be had out in the concourse area. The red carpet club is very full this Thanksgiving morning. I suspect that by noon it will be empty.
I'm flying from LAX to Bangkok via Hong Kong on the ever-popular United Airlines flight #0001. I'm on a Boeing 747-400 in business class in the most excellent seat 7B. I would say that seats 7A, B, F and G are probably among the best seats on the bottom floor in business class on this plane. (Business class seats are on both the first and upper floors of the 747-400.)
I am pleased to report that this seat has power for laptops! This is only the second time in the two years since I bought the $79.99 power adapter that I have been on a plane with a power plug. I am also amazed to announce that they are playing not one, not two, but three movies that I actually want to see. Of course, this supports my theory that "irony" is one of the fundamental physical properties of the universe - since of course it is extremely ironic that on a flight where I have infinite power for my laptop, I will be spending my time watching movies. Gotta love the noise canceling headphones in these new seats. Wow. What a difference.
This is the first time I am travelling to Asia from the West Coast of the USA. The previous two times I have been coming from New Zealand and Eastern Europe. The time shift looks pretty ugly. I left LAX at about noon Pacific Daylight Time, and I arrive in Bangkok 21 hours later at 10pm local time. It will be night local time when I arrive, but it will subjectively feel like morning. I cant decide whether the best strategy is to stay awake the entire flight and then crash to sleep immediately upon checkin, or to sleep for a while on the plane. I suspect that sleeping a lot on the plane will be a mistake, but I will need a certain amount of alertness to get me through the 1.5 hour stop-over in Hong Kong, and then through customs and to my hotel in Bangkok.
I spent my one-hour in the Hong Kong airport mostly walking around. It turns out that Cathay Pacific has a flight to Bangkok at the same time as the United flight, and I wasted a lot of time walking to a far flung gate only to discover that it wasnít my flight. I worked my way back and then headed off in search of the duty free shops. I want to buy a new digital camera, and somehow I imagined that the Hong Kong airport would have a huge duty free electronics store where I could buy the latest and greatest for a song. Sadly, that wasnít so. I found a couple of duty free shops that had a few cameras, but not the one I wanted. Moreover, while the prices where a little bit better than standard US prices, it wasnít a major win. With just a few minutes left before my flight left, I headed up to the Red Carpet club, just because I wanted to see it. The Hong Kong Red Carpet club is very nice - open, airy, and stylish. They have free beer and booze, but still almost nothing in the way of food. No biggie thought, I didnít have time to eat anyway, and the next flight was due to have another feast. The next leg to Bangkok is on another excellent new 747-400 with the new upgraded seats and a power outlet for my computer. Yee ha. I'm totally exhausted, but the guy sitting next to me (Dave) is a really interesting Canadian ex-pat golf pro who lives in Hong Kong and is playing a tournament in Thailand next week. Worth staying awake for.
Friday November 26, 1999
We land in Bangkok uneventfully, got my baggage and cleared customs without a hitch. Dave introduces me to his friend Dr. Dave who is also from Hong Kong, and we all share a cab into the city.
I am staying at the Landmark of Bangkok Hotel, 138 Sukhumvit Rd. They had a special rate through the web of only $100 per night, which I booked through Expedia.com. I hope the rate really exists, since their rates are normally substantially higher. And indeed it does. Furthermore, they tell me that they sold out the rooms, so they've had to upgrade me to an executive suite. What a pity. This room is huge! A dining room, living room and office in one huge space, then a separate large bedroom (which alone is bigger than most hotel rooms I've been in,) and an awesome bathroom. Two televisions, for telephones. There's bougainvillea hanging from planter-boxes outside my triple pane windows. In room 2008. Great views from huge windows from 20th floor, but even up here the street noise is noticeable, and the bedroom directly overlooks the new elevated train line. The train noise is loud even up here, and they're not even officially running yet. Perhaps the 27th floor would be quiet? Certainly I will try to remember to ask for a room on the other side of the building next time.
Saturday November 27, 1999
Morning arrives in Bangkok like a wet gray rag thatís been pushed into the back corner of a dingy bar. From the breakfast room on the 31st floor of the Landmark hotel, the view ought to be incredible. Instead, it is just incredibly hazy. The buffet breakfast (included with the $100 room rate) is great. It is also weird in a classically Thai way. There are a variety of breads, terrific fruits, various steam table standards like sausages (beef, port, or chicken), and nasty looking scrambled eggs. There is also a variety of Thai style Congee (rice soup) breakfast options, and a chef making fresh eggs to order. The thing that strikes me as weird is the array of donuts placed conveniently next to the aspic-heavy pates, and blue cheeses. Itís the kind of buffet where there is guaranteed to be something to thrill and nauseate just about anyone from any culture.
I suddenly realized that it was Saturday, and that meant that I could finally go to the Chatuchak weekend market, which I'd managed to miss on my previous two visits. However, I'm bummed to discover that the cool new elevated trains, which run directly from the hotel to Chatuchak, aren't open yet. The trains have been running non-stop, but apparently they are just testing them. They wont officially open until December 5 [which I later realized was the King's birthday.] So, I took a cab through traditionally bad Bangkok traffic.
The market was huge, exciting, crowded, noisy, hard to get around, and filled with stuff. Basically a microcosm of all of Bangkok. Just about everything is available somewhere within this market. Fruits, vegetables, fish and meats, live birds and fish, pets, ceramics, art, antiques, fake antiques, clothing, hardware, you name it. There is also tons of cooked foods, and innumerable dining stalls. American health inspectors would go nuts seeing food being sold, prepared, cooked, eaten and discarded all in the same area where livestock and pets are being sold, and often where pets are roaming around. Yum. Each of the areas had signs hanging from the ceiling, but the signs didnít necessarily correspond to what was being sold. Some of the signs were quite intriguing. After all the completely random stuff I saw for sale, seeing a sign for an area marked "miscellaneous" was quite a surprise. What could be more miscellaneous that the things that were all around me. Another of my favorite signs was for "Rocks, cocks, and bonsai" - OK, why not put ornamental rocks, fighting cocks, and bonsai in the same area. But the most provocative sign of all had to be "Dream Area". What the hell could that mean! I had to check it out. Honestly, I couldnít distinguish much difference between the random stuff being sold in the "Dream Area" from the stuff being sold everywhere else. The two distinctions seemed to be that there was an air-conditioned restaurant, and a couple of shops selling gems. Pretty dreamy. One of my favorite sights was that of men sleeping in their vendor's stalls surrounded by cages full of cocks crowing and screaming an unbelievable cacophony. The Thais are truly impervious to sound.
I stopped in at a couple of food stalls and had yummy chicken on rice. My friend Val says that you can judge any culture by the quality of its street food. If that's true, then the Thais are the greatest people on earth! Later in the day I went for more chicken on rice at another stall, but erroneously ordered chicken fried rice. It was great. Even when I get the wrong thing it's still great.
After a few insanely hot, sweaty, and crowded hours I got back into a cab for the trip back to the hotel. It took forever. I think my big new Thai word for this trip is "roht! naan!" - traffic jam.
Meanwhile, my new friend Dave has spent the day on the golf course with his 20 expat friends from Hong Kong and Bangkok. They have arranged for, get this, a turkey dinner! I've planned to have dinner with them tonight, so now I'm gonna have my first dinner in Thailand at a Cajun restaurant eating turkey. Good grief. So, off I go to this place called Bourbon St on some Soi off Sukhumvit Rd. We started with some really good crawfish, then had turkey with all the fixings. Is this weird or what? As a side note, Dr. Dave recommends a hotel called the Royal President, Sukhumvit at soi 22 (253-9451). He says he has a beautiful suite for $33. I'll have to remember to check it out.
Sunday November 28, 1999
Got up too late this morning for the Landmark's free continental breakfast, so I went for breakfast at the Nana Café. Their usually excellent doughnuts were totally stale this morning. Another Thai-ism. In the US a donut this far gone would just be discarded. Here, it is served. Sigh.
I wanted to have lunch at Suda Restaurant, where I had had a couple great meals last time, but they aren't open on Sunday during the day (dinner only.) So, I ate at Thong Kee Restaurant instead. It looked like they were serving Dim Sum, but I had an excellent fried duck on rice instead. Really hit the spot.
So today is the day that I am finally going to make it to Wat Arun. For two consecutive visits to Bangkok I've been saying I'm going to Wat Arun, and have never made it for one reason or another (see my previous Thailand travelogues for details.) After lunch I climbed into a taxi and took it to Sathorn ferry pier. I could have gone directly to Tha Thien ferry pier, which is right across the water, but I just didnít want to deal with spending that much time in traffic. Sathorn pier is a lot closer to Sukhumvit, and there is a river boat that goes up and down the Chao Phraya river for only a few baht. Unfortunately, I forgot that this is Sunday, and that means that the boat is on a limited schedule. After confirming that it really was going to be 1/2 hour before the ferry came along, I paid a longboat 200 baht to take me directly there. I got a lot of stares from the locals as I climbed into the private longboat. I couldnít quite figure out whether their expressions were envy, respect, or disgust. Oh well. I'd have invited them all along if I had known how. Of course the longboat driver wanted to take me all over the place (presumably to places where he would get a kickback), but I said "no" and "no" and "no" until finally he agreed to just take me right to Wat Arun. When I got off the boat there were a group of Thai's waiting to collect a 10 baht landing fee from me. My longboat driver seemed exceedingly pleased to see me get pimped for another 10 baht. Hi ho.
It turns out that Wat Arun really is exceptionally beautiful, and worth the effort. The whole thing is covered in mosaics made from bits of Chinese porcelain. Apparently, at the time it was originally built, Chinese trading boats would arrive full of broken porcelain as ballast. The builders of Wat Arun took this resource and turned it into a real work of art. There are bands and bands of flowers made from a plate in the middle with petals of china glommed on. Each one is unique and beautiful. The only disappointing thing about Wat Arun is that it is a little bit on the small side, and you are not allowed to climb the staircases all the way to the top. Nonetheless, it is a great site.
When I left, I decided to just take the 2 baht ferry across to the other side of the river, then a taxi directly back to my hotel. The taxi ride took well over an hour. I've figured out one of the problems with Bangkok traffic. They have insanely long red lights. I timed one at 4 minutes! This causes traffic to back up for miles, then the light goes green for 2 minutes, then red again for 4 minutes. During this immensely long wait, hundreds of motorcycles cruise up between the cars and pull out in front of the front line of cars. When the light goes green, the motorcycles all go, and then the cars only have some 30 seconds remaining after the motorcycles have cleared out. I ended up getting out of the cab about a mile before Sukhumvit because the traffic was so bad that I concluded I could easily walk it faster. Oh, I can't wait for the new trains to be running.
This evening jet lag hit me like a club. I was supposed to meet the guys again for dinner, but slept straight through it. So, I had dinner myself at the Nipa Thai Restaurant in the hotel. Tom Kha Gai and fried whole grouper. Two classically beautiful Thai girls are on stage playing hammer dulcimer and some kind of sitar. Partway through my flamingly gay waiter prances over to the stage and starts playing finger cymbals, whereupon two older British women behind me break into peals of laughter.
By the way, I have to point out that I like the way sugar packets in Thailand are still a reasonable size. I'm not sure when it was exactly that sugar packets in the US got downsized, but it now takes me 2, 3 or even 4 sugars to sweeten my coffee at home. Here in Thailand, there is still a good amount of sugar in each pack. Hear hear!
After dinner I went right back to my room and back to sleep.
Monday November 29, 1999
Had another free breakfast at the hotel, this time sampling the "congee" rice porridge. On past trips I couldnít really deal with Thai style breakfasts, but I seem to be warming to them. I wanted to make a brief foray into Phantip Plaza, so I hopped a cab and headed over. I had intended to take a Tuk Tuk, but none of them would take me! They all want to drive me all over town for 20 baht, but none will carry me a few miles for a reasonable price. Basically they just want to take tourists to rip-off places where they will get a kickback. Carrying me to a mall is a waste of their time.
Phantip Plaza is not just a computer super-mall itís a chaotic, swirling, madhouse. How is it that things in Thailand are always so noisy, crazy and wild. It's just hardware and software for god sakes! All of Bangkok is like that, and Phuket doubly so. Is it something in the personality of the Thais themselves that makes mayhem de rigeur? I have heard and read that Thais believe that noise enhances any environment, and this is certainly a factor. In any case, Phantip Plaza continues to be quite a bazaar.
After Phantip Plaza, I grabbed another cab to go to Wat Traimit. As a Wat, Wat Traimit is pretty uninspiring, and when you've seen a lot of Wats, one more is really just one more. The interesting thing at Wat Traimit is that it contains the largest solid gold Buddha in the world. How do they know it is solid? Beats me. Perhaps they took a core sample as though it were an aged tree. The greatest thing for me about this Buddha is the story that surrounds it. At some time in the distant past, the Buddha was covered in plaster, presumably to hide it from theft. Evidently everyone who knew that there was a solid gold Buddha inside either forgot, or died without passing on this little factoid. As a result, centuries went by with this being another rather un-noteworthy plaster Buddha. One fateful day it was being moved, and was accidentally dropped (probably because it weighted a hell of a lot more than a plaster Buddha should have.) Imagine their surprise when the plaster broke, and inside was gold! For that reason more than any other it was pretty neat.
Wat Traimit sits on the edge of Bangkok's Chinatown, an area I had heard about but never visited. So, I walked down Yaowarat Road, poked into side streets, and into the "thieves market". Yaowarat Road is most notable for the large number of gold jewelry shops. Many Thais donít trust banks and prefer to wear their wealth in the form of 24 carat gold jewelry. Thus, gold jewelry is a big business, and the pieces are basically a commodity. All the shops sell pretty much the same wares, and they are sold by weight with only a tiny premium tacked on for the workmanship. The shops will also buy back gold pieces, and there are many pawnshops where people regularly turn their jewels into cash. It almost has an ATM-like quality to it. Because the jewelry is 24-carat gold it is very yellow, which gives it a very different appearance than the 14 or 18-carat gold of most western jewelry.
China town was full of interesting sites and smells. Each little side road was filled with shops, many of them dark and mysterious, and many of them pedestrian and boring. There are innumerable pharmacies selling herbal remedies, and the dried parts of any imaginable plant or animal. Occasionally I'd poke my head around a corner and find a shop with a couple men sitting on the floor banging out pots, woks, and cooking implements. Other shops simply sold house wares, birdcages, magazines, or the other standard fare of daily life. There are also many many garment shops, and a whole area devoted to selling clothing and bulk cloth. But above it all were the smells of strange foods both cooking and discarded. Blasts of heat hit at random as I pass vendors on the street roasting chestnuts in woks filled with little black stones, or cooking sates over tiny wood-coal-burning hibachis.
One of the most amazing things for me about the experience of wandering around Bangkok's Chinatown was how safe I felt. Perhaps it was mere ignorance, but I never felt at all worried about my personal safety, nor the safety of my possessions. Walking alone down little dark alleyways would worry me in many cities, but here it seems to be no problem at all. I donít think I would do it at night, but during the day it was just another place to explore.
I finally made it back to Suda Restaurant for dinner. I had my favorite fried tuna with cashews over rice. The food was excellent as always, but this time the service was terrible. I was shocked! Last time I was here the service was amazingly prompt and attentive; this time it took me forever to order, get served, and get paid. I wonder what happened?
Tuesday November 30, 1999
I combined breakfast and lunch this morning at the "Soup & Congee restaurant" in Landmark plaza. Sitting a couple of tables to my right there is a guy who looks like Rommel staring at me, and making bizarre popping sounds sucking at his teeth. It's one of those weird, tiny little sounds that manages to carry with most annoying effect across a large and noisy stretch of restaurant. His appearance, his staring, and his sucking at his teeth collectively make my skin crawl. As a result, I rushed through brunch.
Today I'm checking out a street named Khao San Road. It is an area full of budget guesthouses, backpackers' hotels and flophouses. Apparently one can stay on Khao San Road for as little as $4 per day. The descriptions of a dormitory mattress in a $4 room are a bit too depressing to repeat here. In any case, this is the Mecca for American and European kids in Bangkok.
I took a taxi to Khao San road. We got to Ratchadamnoen road, where there are huge blown up photos of the king and strings lights hanging up and down the road. The taxi driver got very excited and tried to tell me that something is happening. Using my trusty English-Thai dictionary, I managed to learn that there is going to be a parade for the King's birthday that evening. Cool. But the king's birthday isn't today. Hmmm. After leaving the taxi at the head of Khao San Road, I ask around some more, and learn that the king's birthday was October 5. But thatís not right; I know the King's birthday is in December. Finally, I think I've put the pieces together. The King's birthday will be on December 5, and there will be a big parade on Ratchadamnoen road. Oh those damned English tenses. The parade sounds like fun. Too bad I'll miss it.
Khao San Road is first place in Bangkok I've felt in danger of being pickpocketed. There's lots of unwashed youths here who look hungry for whatever I've got in my pockets. This is definitely the center for foreign kids and the stuff they would want. Beads, backpacks, fake student IDs. I had a fake press pass made up just for yuks. One strange store had shelves and shelves full of cans of Pringles potato chips, and seemed to sell nothing else. I was particularly amused by a small stall with a sign out front that read "We buy stuff." Indeed. Four giggling Thai schoolgirls came up to me with a tape recorder and a hand written survey and proceeded to interview me. It was very cute.
Eventually I found a little beer garden in the back of a guesthouse and sat on a bench under the shade of some weedy bamboo. The air is cooler today, and there was actually a breeze. I sat there for a very long time doing absolutely nothing. If "sabai" (contentment) is the only word you know, is it the only thing you can feel?
There is tons of stuff for sale here, and the prices for things like T-shirts are much better here than anywhere else in Thailand that I've seen. I continue to be amazed by the magical power of the phrase "final price; good for you, good for me." You bargain your way down to some price, then knock off another 10% and say "final price; good for you, good for me" and the vendor says OK. Just like that. Eight words that are good for 20 to 50 baht right off the top. A powerful potion.
My taxi ride back from Kao San road was my first hard-sell taxi ride in a long time. The driver wont take the highway cause he says it's too long. Mistake. During the drive he gives me every hard luck line in the book. Pregnant wife back home in Isan, working from 5am and still only made 50b, has to pay 800b for cab rental, gets 4 hours of sleep then does it again. Meter pays 1b per kilometer, but gas costs 2b per kilometer. Of course I can't possibly believe him - clearly people aren't flocking to the big city from all over the country so they can lose 1b per kilometer driving a cab. "Do you want to go to a massage parlor?" No. "Sure?" No. "Go look at clothing, only 7 minutes then he takes me to hotel." No. "Surface road faster than highway, you give me the 40b instead of paying toll", on and on. I think I'm starting to prefer the drivers that donít speak English. In the end we got stuck in an horrendous traffic jam about a mile from the hotel, so I just got out, paid the fare without any tip, and walked. [I subsequently got a fare schedule and confirmed the specifics of his lie: the fare (after the initial 35b flag drop) is 4.5b per kilometer up to 12 kilometers, 5b per kilometer from 12 to 20 kilometers, and 5.5b per kilometer thereafter.]
The Landmark hotel has really funny elevator signals. You push the up or down call button, and the light immediately lights up over one of the elevators showing you which one is going to arrive. Then, when it finally does arrive, the light starts blinking. Clever system, but a bit of a surprise the first time it happens.
Wednesday December 1, 1999
Boy do I love the expressway. It only took 15 minutes to get to the airport from my Sukhumvit hotel for my flight to Phuket. (Another good reason for staying on Sukhumvit, instead of the chic'er on-the-river hotels.) Along the way I saw a billboard that I really like. I've been seeing identical signs and posters all over the place promoting Thailand's economic recovery. It shows four icons: 1997 is lightning, 1998 is rain, 1999 is sun showing over clouds, and 2000 shows full sunshine. Neat.
It only cost 500 baht ($13.00) to upgrade from coach to business class on this flight. Probably the best travel bargain on this arm of the galaxy. As I write this I'm sitting in the Thai Royal Executive lounge looking at a packet of Baker's Choice "Cream Crackers". The ingredient list reads "wheat flower, palm oil, salt." The "cream" seems to be eluding me.
Flying from Bangkok to Phuket on a Thai Airways Airbus A300 in business class. This plane has a much smaller business class than other domestic Thai flights I have taken. They have provided for me a really nice little brochure describing the celebrations for the King's auspicious 6th cycle (his 72nd birthday.) His birthday is indeed December 5, as I surmised. All of Thai Airways planes have been painted with a special inscription on the side celebrating the king's birthday. I'm sure this will be a very auspicious flight. According to the brochure, Thais see life as broken into 12 year cycles. The occasion of passing into a new cycle is very auspicious. Each cycle after the ancient age of 60 is doubly auspicious. Thus, this 72nd birthday is the first doubly-auspicious cycle of the life of this most-beloved king. In addition to being the longest raining king in the world, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has (evidently) been an extraordinary king. Though not a ruler (this is a constitutional monarchy in which the king has few real powers), he has been a compassionate force working for the good of his people. Hear hear! Long live the king.
At 12:05 we crashed at Phuket airport, right on schedule. OK, so we didnít really crash, but it sure as hell felt that way. The drive to Patong beach was quicker this time than last. I think they have finished more of the roads, so it only took about 45 minutes, and cost 450b. This time I am staying at the Baan Sukhotai hotel at 70 Soi Bangla (076-340-195). It is double the price of the Sand Inn, where I stayed the last two times, but it is worth it. The rooms are larger and nicer and cleaner, and they have a nice pool and pleasant grounds. The reception people at the Sand Inn were always so nice to me that the Baan Sukhotai will have a hard time beating them, but other than that it seems to be a good move. [A couple of negatives about the Baan; its not as quiet as it ought to be. At night there is some nightclub in the neighborhood that is pretty audible from my room. Also, the shower has a great head and good pressure, but the temperature is totally unpredictable - either scalding or freezing, and you never know which it will be.] [Side note: I tried to make my reservations from the US. There were a couple of web sites that indicated I could make a reservation at the Baan Sukhotai over the web. One had me fill out a form to submit, the other gave me an email address. First I tried the one, then a few days later I tried the other. I didnít get any response from either. Finally, I called American Express Platinum Travel, and they called the hotel for me. According to American Express, the only room that was available was $210 per night. More than I really wanted to spend, so I said "no, thanks." When I got to Bangkok, I called myself. They offered me a room that sounded identical for $109 per night. I guess the first rate was the special American Express rate!]
I got a quick lunch at the good old Number 6 restaurant, then dropped off my laundry (at 1/5 the price that the hotel wanted), and went for a massage. The place I used to go to is still there at the C&N hotel, but there is a big construction project going on next door. It is really noisy. They tried to convince me that I wouldnít be able to hear it, but that just wasnít so. I walked around for a while and finally went in to the "Happy Friends Thai Massage" and got a good Thai massage for 200b (plus a whopping 50b ($1US) tip) from a really funny Laotian girl. Once I said my few small words in Thai, she kept on asking me questions in Thai and then looking at me expectantly. I kept on laughing at her, and finally she says (in English) "Why you laugh?" I said, "Because I donít speak Thai." That didnít deter her though. She said to me "OK, you speak English, I speak Thai," and goes back to speaking Thai to me. So I just answered her in English without knowing what the questions were. Something like
"Blah blah blah, hah, blah?"
"Andrew, whats your name?"
"Blah. Blah blah."
"Yes, I like Thailand very much."
"Blah! Blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah"
And like that. It was pretty fun.
I walked a familiar short walk down 200 Year Road to the collection of open-air restaurants for dinner at my favorite nameless seafood restaurant. I have been craving their wonderful food, and went way overboard ordering shells in curry, crabs in curry and Chinese morning glory washed down with Singha beer. I always feel embarrassed over-ordering in a relatively impoverished country. Sigh.
Patong beach is 10% more prosperous looking than when I was here last. The sidewalks have been re-paved, there are several new shopping plazas, the bars seem cleaner and have new televisions, and the reception seems to be better. Heck, there's even a traffic light at the intersection of Bangla and 200 Year roads. Each time I come here it seems just 10% better, cleaner and more prosperous than the time before. At this rate the place should be completely ruined within about a year.
Thursday December 2, 1999
Eating breakfast at the #6 Restaurant this morning, I learned a new distinction about the rice soups that Thai's eat for breakfast; apparently the Thai people eat "cow thom" (literally "rice soup"). What I have been seeing called "congee" is more of a porridge of rice, and is thicker than cow thom. It is not clear if "congee" is truly a Thai dish, or if it is a Chinese import. In any case, I had a nice bowl of cow thom gai (rice soup with chicken), served with the usual tray of 4 condiments: sugar, dried red pepper, sweet red chili peppers in vinegar, and fish sauce. It was good, but I have still not overcome a lifetime of eating mild and sweet foods for breakfast.
I spent the lions share of the day on the beach. One of the benefits of Baan Sukhotai is that they give you beach towels and vouchers for free beach chairs. However, the beach chair benefit turns out to be a bit of a scam. The voucher gets you a really lame little cloth chair, not the real deck chairs. Of course, I wanted the deck chair, and it turned out that the voucher got me 25 baht off of the standard 50 baht price, so it wasnít a total scam, just a slight bait-and-switch. I got some pineapple ("sappalot" in Thai) from a vendor, and it was magnificent. Sweet, tangy, crisp, and perfectly ripe Phuket pineapple. Wow.
The water was warm, and the surf was fun. It was a lovely day. Even though I was wearing suntan lotion and a hat, and sitting under and umbrella, I managed to get a slight sunburn on my chest and neck. My Thai friends all joked with me about it saying "Ooooh, Pink Panther!" And that makes it all worth it.
This evening I went out to dinner with my friends Lun and Sergio at a fine fish restaurant on Beach Road. The prawns were huge and excellent. Sergio had just finished running a 5-day dive trip to Hin Daeng, and a woman named Cristina who was on the trip joined us. Apparently it had been an outstanding trip. Sergio and Cristina dove into their orders of oysters with the same gusto that must have driven their diving. A fine meal was had by all.
Before falling asleep I was leafing through a Thai-English dictionary and ran across a Thai word (which of course I couldnít read), which translated as "To agree with what is prescribed in the text." Linguistics tells us so much about culture!
Friday December 3, 1999
I woke up with a nasty pain in my left knee. I have no idea what might have happened, but it is really painful. I've decided to go ahead and go on the Scuba Cat trip to the Similan Islands with Sergio, so this kinda throws a monkey wrench into things. I decided to give it a while and see if it got better, but by the time I had wandered about a bit and had breakfast, it was still kinda killing me. I grabbed a Tuk Tuk and headed off to the Bangkok Phuket Hospital in Phuket town, about a 1/2-hour drive. This is now my second experience with Thai healthcare, and I am still really impressed. I walked in, and was seen by a doctor in about 40 minutes. He did the usual poking, prodding, and doctorly stuff that I expected, and told me that it looked like some kind of tendentious of the patellar tendon. He said that it wasnít serious and would get better on its own; that I could dive if I want to, but stop if it hurts too much. He wrote me a prescription for a local equivalent of Ibuprofen, and a topical analgesic, and sent me on my way. The total bill for the visit and the medicinesÖ 910 baht, about $24! Just goes to show, heath care can be cheap when doctors donít have to insure themselves up the wazoo!
Afterwards, I went into Phuket Town to the Robinson's department store. Did a little shopping, and had a huge lunch at a restaurant opposite the store. The menu sounded so good that I seriously over ordered. Oh well. The place was playing the sappiest music. I think it was The Carpenters greatest hits, or some such. If they have to listen to out of date music, why can't these people develop a taste for the Beatles, or something good. Finally, since I was so close to the Phuket Butterfly Garden and Aquarium, I couldnít resist. I had been there last time, and it was great. It seemed even nicer this time - there were more butterflies, and different types than I remembered. The place was neater and cleaner too, though they had redone the aviary in a way that seemed a lot less realistic. I then took the Mario Andretti of Tuk Tuk drivers back to Patong Beach, went to Scuba Cat to pay for the trip, and hooked up with my friends Lun and Od for some Thai seafood.
They took me to their favorite place and we ordered oysters, bar-b-queued shrimp, curried shells and rice. The oysters here are gigantic, and I just can't stomach them. I'm of the slurp and swallow school of oyster eating. A big long chew isn't for me. Od and Lun covered theirs in copious amounts of peppers, dried onion, and garlic. I put one tiny piece of pepper in my mouth and my head almost exploded (and I love spicy food.) Astonishing. But, the prawns and shells were yummy, and it was a fun time. This restaurant was one of 8 or 10 almost indistinguishable stalls on an alley off Bangla Road. Lun assured me that this one was far superior, because they cooked dishes in a spicy Lao style. Given her penchant for peppers, I can see why this would be a boon.
Saturday December 4, 1999
Got up early this morning so that I could change my flights, since my current tickets had me returning to the USA before I would have gotten back from the diving trip. In the US, United Airlines is open 23hours a day, but here it is only Monday to Friday 8 to 5, and Saturday 8:30 to 12. Bummer. So that took a little while, but thatís the cost of travelling fast and loose.
Od and Lun were going to the temple in Phuket this morning to pray, and I went along to watch. There are so many things that I do not understand about the way Thai people practice Buddhism. Before going to the temple, we went to a store full of Buddhist and Hindu icons. They bought a big plastic bucket full of bottled and canned foods and toiletries and random stuff like you might send to someone who was sick in the hospital. They also bought a dozen bottles of water, flowers, incense, and candles. We then went to a food stand and got plastic bags full of food, and finally headed by Tuk Tuk to the temple. At the temple, a monk was sitting on a raised stage, with a couple dozen people seated on the floor before him. He was talking slowly (and rather monotonously) and appeared to be addressing one of the parishioners in particular. Lun and Od went up to the stage with their armloads of goodies and handed them to the monk who took them and went through each item with the appraising eye of a mother-in-law at a wedding shower. All the while he never broke stride in whatever he was talking about. Lun and Od then went through some private ministrations, lighting candles and incense, bowing and praying before the large golden Buddha. Eventually the monk picked up some fronds, dipped them in water, and sprayed water over the assembled worshippers who then got up and left. Lun, Od, and a dozen others moved forward, and the monk began speaking to them. At the end he took pieces of string and tied them around Lun's and Od's wrists. Lun got a white piece of string, and Od got three pieces of colored string twisted together. When I asked why, they said "for lucky." It appears that they donít know why the monk chose different colors for each of them, and so, neither do I.
After the visit to the temple, we all went off to the Suan Mee Suki restaurant in Ocean Plaza on Soi Bangla. Suki is a form of meal in which one orders small plates of raw foods, which are put in a bowl of boiling water sitting on a burner in the middle of the table. As each piece becomes done, you scoop it out along with some of the soup-like liquid. The place mats showed the different raw foods that could be ordered, and included such nauseating delicacies as pigs hearts, stomachs, and livers. I'm sitting there thinking to myself "god, people eat this stuff?" When the waitress came over, Lun and Od started ordering for us, and, you guessed it, the first things they ordered were pigs hearts, stomachs and livers. I am an adventurous eater, but I hate organs and let them know that they had better start ordering some chicken, fish, and vegetables too.
The scuba cat van picked me up at my hotel at 7pm, and drove us to Chalong Bay where we boarded the Scuba Adventure boat to the Similan Islands. The conditions were really really choppy. Of 6 passengers, 3 were puking like crazy all night long and got no sleep. I was nauseous and couldnít stay in my forward cabin, which was bouncing crazily up and down. I spent the first half of the night lying in the center of the floor in the living room area, the most dead-center place on the boat. [Sea sickness tip: if you are feeling sea sick, it often helps to go as close to the center line of the boat as possible, since it will be moving the least there.] One woman spent hours and hours out on the dive deck, wrapped around the railing and leaning over the side. I could see her from where I was lying, but was too nauseous to get up and help her. I kept falling asleep, but every 30 seconds or so we would hit a big wave which would wake me up, and I would look out to the dive deck to see if she had been washed overboard yet. Somewhere in the middle of the night she came in from the dive deck and curled up by the door.
Sunday December 5, 1999
We arrived in the Similan Islands around 6am with a scheduled first dive at 7:30. I had to skip the morning dive because I was so tired from lack of sleep the night before. I had been tossing and turning with each big wave and my knee was killing me because I couldnít find a comfortable position. One of the women who was up all night puking skipped the dive too, another isn't diving on this trip at all (just along for the ride), and the last one is being dropped off on another ship (we were just shuttling one couple.) The people who went on the dive tell me it was great. For me, sleeping was great.
Second dive is Fantasea Reef, a dive to 27 meters. The water is warm, but I am wearing a full-length 5-mil wetsuit. This is important for two reasons; one, as a diver doing repetitive dives, it's really easy for your core temperature to go down, and second there are lots of larval jellyfish in the water that give nasty itchy bites like mosquitoes. Divers refer to them as "sea lice", but this is actually a misnomer. There is a creature called a "sea lice", but it is a parasite of fish and does not effect people. Overall it was a pretty good dive, with good visibility and some big fish. I used up my air a little fast, since I haven't dived in about a year. Had to come up after only 35 minutes.
Final dive for the day is "Beacon Ridge", a dive with a fantastic array of corals. They tell me there are some 200 different varieties of coral that live here. Its really amazing, like some mad sea gardener planted corals from around the world here. Unfortunately the visibility wasnít so good. Oh well.
Had dinner, then watched a video of the movie Elizabeth, then slept and slept.
Monday December 6, 1999
At 6am the boat starts moving to head to the next dive site for our 7:30am dive: Koh Bon, west ridge. Started the day with a deep dive to 40 meters, where we saw two male leopard sharks trying to court a female. Pretty cool. Later in the dive I watched a really big parrot fish pick up and turn over a huge block of coral - really amazing.
The woman who is not diving is still having motion sickness. The water has been a lot rougher than last year, and the boat has just never stopped moving. I've gotten over any motion sickness, but I really wish it would just knock it off for a while. A little peaceful rocking can be quite pleasant, but this is kinda getting on my nerves.
Our second dive was also at Koh Bon west ridge, but this time a bit shallower, and I'm taking out a dive camera for the first time ever. It's an interesting challenge - one more thing to think about and do while under water. It is really difficult to find interesting subjects that are well lit, though, and the damned fish just wont stop moving. There's this beautiful fish sitting there on a contrasting colored coral, and just as I get the shot set up, it swims away. The jury's still out as to whether I like underwater photography or not.
After lunch I went out on the side of the boat and did some fishing. I managed to catch a foot long coral grouper! The only catch all day. It is really fun and kinda funny fishing with just a baited hook on a line wrapped around an old Heineken can.
Our third and forth dives for the day are both at Tachai's Reef. I've decided to bring the camera for the third dive, but leave it behind for the fourth. I'm looking forward to seeing how the pictures turn out, but for now I think a camera is just one more thing than I care to deal with under water. Tachai's reef has some amazing schools of fish, and dive #3 is a lot of fun. By the fourth dive I was very tired, and probably should have just skipped it. To make matters worse, there was a lot of surge, which was exhausting, and I used up my air pretty fast. Then, coming back up the mooring line the current was fierce. I found it hard just holding onto the line for our 5-meter safety stop. I felt like a flag on a flagpole in a high wind. The water was full of tubular jellyfish, and they were streaming by in the current like translucent snow in a blizzard.
The meals are getting more boring; most of the guests on the ship donít like spicy food, and the chef this year isn't as good as last year. Hi ho. The chef did bring out the fish I caught and coated it in a paste of salt and rice flower, then bar-b-queued it. Yum, that was great! It was so good, in fact, that it inspired a dingy trip over to one of the Thai fishing boats nearby to see if we could buy more fresh fish. Seems like the locals aren't having much luck fishing either, but we were able to buy about 20 beautiful crabs for 100 baht ($2.50). In fact, the captain of the boat didnít want any money at all, but we gave him 100 baht anyway. In the US they probably would have cost $20 or more. We brought them back and slapped them on the bar-b-queue with no preparation at all. Excellent.
After dinner, everyone sat down to watch a movie, but I wanted to do more fishing. I hooked something really huge, and together Sergio and I fought it for a while (even managing to cut Sergio's finger with the line.) Sadly, it got away. I'm sure it was a monster, and fortunately since it got away no one can say otherwise J .
Tuesday December 7, 1999
Another early day dawned with the sun coming through beefy multi-layered clouds. Today we will do four dives at Richelieu Rock. I staggered out of bed and into my dive gear for our early morning dive. The visibility really wasnít very good, with tons of plankton and jellyfish in the water. We were down for about one minute when Sergio spied a whale shark! My first ever! This thing looked huge, and supported a whole community of remoras. Sergio estimated it at 12 feet. Whale sharks are not whales but rather the largest member of the shark family. In fact they are the largest fish in the sea. Unlike most sharks, they are plankton eaters and completely harmless. They are huge, beautiful, slow moving giants of the sea, vacuuming up plankton. They are also relatively rare, and many divers never see one in their lives. One of the people on this trip is an Italian dive instructor who works in Egypt and is here on vacation. She has done over 3000 dives, and this is her first whale shark too. I am really excited! For me the most mind-bending thing about the whale shark was that it was absolutely silent. All my life experience tells me that if I see something that big and it is in motion, it will be making noise. The noise of an engine, or hooves against ground, or even just wind noise. But this huge creature was moving in total silence. Wild.
As if the Whale Shark weren't enough, the rest of the dive was just fantastic. Schools of all kinds of fish - big, small, colorful, plain, corals, and shrimp, moray eels, and on and on. At one point I saw two moray eels in one hole. We spotted a huge jelly fish floating in a school of fish and several fish of another variety were eating it. Later on we found three small fish nibbling at a clear disk-shaped jelly. This was probably the best dive of my life.
The second dive at Richelieu Rock was also awesome, but not quite as stunning as the first. I wonder if I will make it through 4 dives today. I'm starting to develop some pain in my left ear, which worries me since last year I got an ear infection in that ear from diving. Sergio is treating me with Otosporin ear drops and I think that is making it better. Thankfully my knee has finally stopped hurting!
The woman on the boat who was having trouble with seasickness is still green and sleeping about 20 hours a day. Not a pretty sight. I'm having a lot of fun learning Thai from the guys on the boat, and the Italian woman and I have started teaching one of them (Tirhasat) English. Definitely fun. I am quite entertained hearing her teach the Thais English with an Italian accent.
Third dive at Richelieu Rock was amazing! I've never felt so comfortable in the water. I swam along with large schools of fish, looking them in the eye, and they swam with me. I've never been so close to fish, or felt so connected to them. At one point 5 or 6 squid came swimming up from the deep. The came right up to me and hung there flashing colors. Using my glove covered hand I flashed colors back at them, alternately showing them the gray front and blue back of my glove. We stayed there "talking" for some 4 or 5 minutes. It was amazing. This was no accident; they were interested in me and I in them. Finally, my dive partners were swimming off so I had to go. I felt a tremendous sadness as I swam away and it stuck with me for several minutes more. I came upon some clown anemone fish that saw their reflections in my mask. They swam right up to my eyes and made threat motions at their imagined rivals. Later a pair of cuttlefish - one large, one small- swam with me. The whole dive was magical, and I was doing somersaults in the water when we reached the surface.
When we got out of the water, it was raining, the wind was picking up and the surf was getting worse. We had intended to do a fourth dive at Richelieu Rock (which is well deserving of four dives), but because of the worsening weather we unmoored and headed off back south towards Similan.
For dinner the Thai cook went over to a fishing boat and bought a bunch of little groupers like the one I had caught and bar-b-queued them up with the salt-rice coating. Boy were they good.
I've created a monster; I showed Sergio the game DX2-Ball by Longbow Digital Arts. Now all he does is play DX2-Ball on my computer and I donít get any writing done. To make matters worse, now Tirhasat and the other Thai guys want to play too. Yikes!
I've learned another good set of words: "Kao chai" means "I understand". "Kao chai mai?" is "do you understand?" (Literally, "understand, no?"), to which you answer "kao chai", "yes, I understand", or "mai kao chai", "no, I donít understand".
Wednesday December 8, 1999
Today we're only going to do three dives plus a night dive, so we did our first dive a little later, around 8am. It is so strange to me, getting up out of bed, brushing my teeth and having a cup of coffee, then donning scuba gear and going down to 40 meters, all before I would normally be up at all. Our dive this morning was a repeat of the Beacon Ridge dive I had done earlier. Again the variety of coral was the main feature of the dive. There was one brain coral that looked like it had been spray painted with industrial orange paint; very cool. There was also a field of dozens of rays lying on the sand, and a large collection of garden eels swaying in the current.
After the dive we went up to the top deck for breakfast. This morning they were serving this odd plate of chopped potatoes and ham. I looked at the chef with a hurt expression on my face and said "kao thom, mai?" ("Do you have rice soup.") His face lit up with excitement and he said (in English), "You want?" "Yes! Yes! Khap! Kao thom." Off he scampered to get me a bowl of rice soup. Much better.
Two more dives today. Elephant Rock included a really cool cave and several nice swim-throughs. Our third dive was a drift dive called "Eastern Front" around Similan islands #5 and #6. I spent some wonderful time partying with an octopus, and towards the end we saw a small sea turtle. Fun.
Between dives we took the dingy over to the beach at island #4. The sand was amazingly fine and beautiful. The princess has a house on island #4, and there are bungalows around it that can be rented. It looks like an awesome place to stay. Since it is a marine sanctuary, there isn't any building allowed beyond the princess' house, the park ranger buildings, and the few bungalows. It looks like heaven. The park ranger said that the bungalows can be reserved at some place on the mainland, but I couldnít understand where exactly. I'm going to have to research this further!
Learned another great Thai phrase that says so much about these people: "mai pet, mai alloi." Which means "if it isn't spicy, it isn't delicious." Dinner tonight was particularly excellent and included a really interesting desert, which was a bowl of warm thick coconut soup with chunks of some kind of sweet tuber, reminiscent of a sweet potato. Yum.
I never cease to love the Thai people. Particularly when I am able to watch a group of them in close quarters, as on this dive boat. There is a Thai captain and three Thai crewmen. They are wonderful. Always smiling, laughing, cracking jokes and poking fun at each other. It doesnít matter what is going on, they are happy and carefree and thoroughly enjoying life. They also have a very refreshing openness, comfort and unconcern about personal space. When I get out of the water and shower myself off with the dive deck sprayer, they think nothing of washing my back. They kid and poke fun at themselves and others. If someone is heavy, the call him "poompui" ("chubby") and affectionately pat his stomach. Another person has a big nose, and it's a wonderful thing and they all have to pull his nose. I get a sunburn and they laugh and point and go "Oooooh, Pink Panther!" It's just great.
The movie tonight is StarGate. The movie is subtitled in Thai, and during long sections of it all the dialog is in this made-up pseudo-Egyptian. Unfortunately, all the subtitles are still in Thai. I suspect that in the English version of the movie, there are English subtitles for the pseudo-Egyptian parts. Oh well. You donít really have to understand the dialog to understand or appreciate this movie. I called it quits early.
Thursday December 9, 1999
The last day on the boat, and we are again scheduled for 3 dives. "Morning Edge" off Similan Island #7 (Koh Payu), then Shark Fin Reef, and ending up at Rocky Point Bay. The visibility is much better today, which is really nice. The "Morning Edge" dive was a fantastic dive site with a stunning bommie (an underwater coral hill), and several amazing anemones. One anemone in particular was brown with a white edge. Sergio says it is an extremely rare "once in a lifetime" anemone that has been anchored in the same spot for the last three seasons. The final dive was a very peaceful and easy shallow dive, which was a pleasant end to the trip.
Tonight we head back to Phuket. True to form the weather has picked up a bit and the surf is somewhat rough. Fortunately, it's not as bad as on the way out and we all have our sea legs, so there is no puking going on. After all the other guests had gone to sleep I got up and had a midnight snack with the Thai crew. I then went and got my bottles of Thai whiskey and vitamins and we proceeded to spend the next half hour or so getting quietly smashed while watching Thai newscasts and communicating simple niceties like "thank you", "cheers", "a little bit", and "good." Totally excellent.
Recommended reading on Andaman Sea fish: Indo-pacific Coral Reef Field Guide by Dr. Gerald R. Allen & Roger Steene and Coral Reef Fishes: Indo-Pacific & Caribbean by Ewald Lieske & Robert Myers, Harper/Collins. Also good, but not quite as good, Indian Ocean Reef Guide by Debelius, and Southeast Asia Fish Guide by Debelius & Kuiter.
Friday December 10, 1999
Having spent the night uneventfully anchored in Chalong Bay, we head back to Patong Beach. Most of the guests are sad to go, but the one woman who was either sleeping or puking for the last five days looks distinctly relieved. I'm guessing this is her last dive trip.
Got back to the Scuba Cat office at about 9am, and to the Baan Sukhotai hotel a little after 10am. Boy, am I beat. Took a well deserved shower and rested a while, then went to the #6 Restaurant for banana pancakes with honey. Mmmmmm. God, I am beat. Did I mention that I feel beat? After a while my ear was bothering me again - not pain, just this continuous stuffiness, so I went over to the Wattana clinic, where they had a good long look in my ears and then gave them a thorough cleaning out. Talk about a weird sensation, but afterwards I could hear so much better! A good move. I then went in search of a massage. I found a place that looked exactly like the foot massage place I went to last time, but twice as big. They were offering foot massage, facials, traditional Thai massage, and aromatherapy massage. Well, not one to pass up a new kind of massage, I went for the aromatherapy massage. It was basically what in the US would be called "Swedish massage." Given the pain quotient of a traditional Thai massage, I was expecting quite a workout, but in fact the massage was mild. I kept on wondering when she was going to drive her thumbs deep into my quadriceps or something, but it never did happen. Nary a scream issued from my mouth. Towards the end she did put rather a lot of pressure on my bladder, which I could have lived without, but all in all it was a very good and relaxing massage. For future reference, the place was the Patong Reflex Zone, at 108/7 Thaweewong Road.
Just outside of the door of the place, a vendor was selling fried bananas and something wrapped up in banana leaves (which turned out to be flavored sweet rice with some kind of sweet bean paste.) Several of the masseurs on break were sitting around eating these things and offered me some. It was pretty good, so I bought a few. In the end I decided I liked the sweet rice, but the fried bananas were very plain. These vendors who walk around with food amaze me. Often they are quite small women, and they walk up and down the streets with two baskets full of food at the end of a long stick supported on one shoulder. I'm sure that this woman couldnít have weighed 100 pounds, but here she was with easily 50 pounds of food and cooking equipment on her shoulder, walking up and down irregularly paved sidewalks in flip-flops. Very impressive.
Sergio, Cristina and I reprised our dinner at Sergio's favorite seafood place on Beach road, then I went off to my bed, which was rocking every bit as much as the boat had been. God, I hate this part. Five days on a rocking boat means at least two days on swaying land. It's unfair.
Saturday December 11, 1999
I went out for a really ugly breakfast at the C&N hotel today. The Thais do American food so badly it makes me want to laugh. Especially the bread - ugh. I'm sure they feel the same way about Thai restaurants in America. My "over easy" eggs were cooked hard all the way through. Why? Do they think that tastes good? Do they think we think that tastes good? Perhaps they think that all fried eggs are just horrible, runny or hard, and they can't imagine it makes much difference one way or the other. Or maybe they are just misinformed about how to fry an egg. I may never know.
I felt like hell all day today and hardly did a thing. One problem with traveling in exotic places is that it can be hard to figure out what is ailing me. Am I rundown from 5 days of repetitive dives? Did I eat or drink something that didnít agree with me; perhaps an intestinal bug in the water? A local cold? Who knows? Sometimes I think my body just needs a day off.
Lun made a big dinner tonight for several of her friends and I, but I just wasnít able to eat much. Afterwards we went off to a snooker place where I played several of the worst games of pool of my life. Much as I wanted to hang out and be sociable, I was still feeling ill. That combined with the noise and smoke of the snooker club sent me home early.
Sunday December 12, 1999
This morning I hired a car and driver to go to Khao Phra Thaeo National Park. All of my guidebooks referred to it, but none indicated which part of the park to go to. It is a big place (23 acres), so knowing where to go is a useful fact. I asked at the hotel, but they had no idea. I hoped the driver would know, but he really didnít. Of course, not wanting to lose face, he pretended that he did. So, he took us to entrance for the Bang Pae waterfall. It was a little under an hour to get to the east side entrance of the park, which is the site of the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center, and the trailhead for the Bang Pae waterfall.
Though the good folks at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center are doing good work rescuing gibbons and reintroducing them to the wild, I'm afraid there is very little there to interest the average tourist. I am reluctant to suggest that people skip it, since they rely on the generous donations of visitors to continue their work. But, sadly, I must confess that the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center is just not a great destination. One thing the Center was good for was learning that we would need a guide if we wanted to do the three hour hike from this waterfall to the one at the other side of the park! Apparently it is a challenging hike with many forks in the paths and little or no signage. Hmmmm. It had occurred to us that it might be fun to hike from one side to the other and have the car drive around to meet us. Apparently this was not to be. Word has it that we should have arranged with a guide through "Touch The Local", which can be set up by many of the numerous travel agencies in town.
Since we couldnít do a real hike, we did the five-minute walk up to the Bang Pae waterfall which is mostly paved and mostly quite easy. The waterfall itself is OK and it is pleasant to jump into the ponds at the base of the falls. Unfortunately, the place is marred by lots of trash and cigarette butts left behind by picnickers. Sigh. Cristina and I decided to follow the path beyond the falls. It immediately stopped being paved and started being extremely challenging. After five minutes of hiking up rocks and roots and pulling ourselves up hanging vines we met a group of several European folks being lead by a "Touch the Local" guide. Apparently the best route is to start at the other side and hike to this side. It is also recommended that one start early in the morning before it gets too hot. Good advice, since Cristina and I were both sweating profusely after just this few minutes of climbing. Oh well. Now I know for next time.
We headed back down, went back to the car, and had the driver drive us out and around to the western entrance and the Ton Sai waterfall. Clearly this was the place to go! There were visitors' facilities, maps of the park, and lots of Thai guys sitting around waiting to guide visitors. Quite a switch from the eastern entrance where there was the Gibbon Center, the trailhead, a small food stand, and basically nothing else. Cristina and I hiked up the path along the river and up the waterfall. It was quite striking with lots of interesting plants and level after level of small water cascades. We hung out for a while by a peaceful little pool where I took off my boots and waded around a bit.
Of course, all of this peaceful beauty was somewhat ruined in a very typically Thai way. All the while we were hiking, we kept hearing this nasty high-pitched whine. And, all along this lovely stream there were ugly blue plastic pipes. It seems that there is a water pump located somewhere in the falls which pumps water down through the plastic pipes. Presumably it feeds the facilities at the base. It also produces this nasty whine which makes it impossible to really enjoy this splendid, quiet place. Only in Thailand!
Afterwards we drove to Nai Thon beach. It was a beautiful drive through stunning rubber plantation. Interestingly, they grow young rubber trees in fields of pineapple. While the trees are growing, they get crops of pineapple. After the trees are mature, the pineapples are shaded out, and they get crops of rubber. Nai Thon beach was very quiet, almost no one was there. It has fine white sand and crystal clear cool water. The beach drops off quickly, unlike Patong beach, so it is easy to get out into deeper water. Unfortunately I got a bit stung by larval jellyfish as had happened scuba diving. Nonetheless, lying in the cool water under a hot sun, floating on my back I had a truely perfect moment,
Tonight is Cristina's last night in Thailand before heading back to Egypt, so Sergio, Cristina and I got together with Lun and Od, and went to Lun's favorite Lao/Thai seafood place to give Cristina a taste of a more authentic Thai restaurant. We had a bit of a screw-up with the ordering though. Lun thought she was ordering a feast for everyone, but Sergio and Cristina thought we were each ordering dishes for ourselves. As it turned out, we had enough food for at least 10 people. But it was fun, and no one left hungry.
Monday December 13, 1999
Had breakfast this morning at the Expat café. It was certainly filled with expats, but was also a nice change of pace for me, since the TV was showing the news in English, and the American breakfast was actually OK. This set me up well for a rather uneventful day. Bopped around, poked my head into a few shops, walked up the beach, and got a Thai massage. One of the best things about a vacation is not feeling like you have to do something every day. Even if you are planning on writing about it!
There is a very Thai construction project going on at Bangla Plaza on Soi Bangla. They've put a very odd texture onto the side of a building here, and put in a really nice brick sidewalk with an attractive arrangement of different colored bricks. Now they are painting the building but without drop cloths. They are spattering paint everywhere and doubly so because of the textured wall. The nice sidewalk is being completely covered in white paint. It feels so typically Thai to me. It seems as though when they do something that is a Thai thing, they can do it magnificently (e.g. carved fruit, traditional jewelry), but when they try to do something western, they always screw it up.
Tuesday December 14, 1999
Today I am flying to Chiang Mai via Bangkok to visit my friend Mike. Again, I have opted to pay for business class because it is so cheap. And speaking of cheap, I am staying at the Tapae Place hotel, Thanon Tha Pae, Soi 3. The rate is only about $30 a night, and worth every penny. Mike referred to it as a "3 star hotel", but I think the cigarette burns in the rugs and lack of hot water in the sink bring it down a notch or two. It's not luxury, but it is tolerable.
Mike took me for dinner at a really good open-air Thai restaurant named "Fong Beer". The dishes were small, so we were able to order a broad assortment, which was really interesting. I particularly liked the dried beef dish. Many of the dishes were Northern style and Lao influenced. It made a nice contrast to the Southern and Central cuisines that I have been eating.
Wednesday December 15, 1999
I got up this morning and had the relatively poor free breakfast at the hotel [which ended up on my hotel bill anyway.] I decided to go to the Wat that is just around the corner from the hotel and try to gain enlightenment. I released a couple of birds for good luck and then sat in front of the Buddha for quite some time, but no luck, no enlightenment. Afterwards I poked around in a local silver shop, which was selling some really handsome silver boxes, bowls, urns, plates, and vases. By now it was time to call Mike about lunch so I decided to give the payphones a go. Wow. It was easy. No muss, no fuss, no bother. The only confusing part was what to pay. I started by putting in a 10 baht coin, but it rejected it. Then I tried 5 baht, but still no joy. Finally, I put in 1 baht in a state of disbelief and it worked. Imagine, a local call at a payphone cost only 1 baht (about 2.5 cents.) Now there's value.
Mike and I had lunch at The Gallery restaurant, located in a nice setting on the river. The menu boasts a variety of awards as the best restaurant in all of Asia, and there is an excellent photo of Hillary Clinton eating there. Mike made a point of noting that in Thailand there is no need to back up such claims with actual awards. Certainly a cynical attitude, but I think he's probably right.
Mike had to get back to work, so I headed off on a little adventure seeing some of the famous crafts that are available in Chiang Mai. My Chiang Mia visitors guide made a big deal of a series of crafts stores in a place called Sankampaeng road, so off I went. Unfortunately, I failed to note that the guide's map was not to scale, and it turns out that Sankampaeng road is a good 20 minutes outside of town. I grabbed a Tuk Tuk, and with difficulty managed to talk him down to 50 baht. I had no idea the place was that far away. I also didnít really know where on Sankampaeng road I wanted to go, so I just let the Tuk Tuk driver take me. Of course, that was a mistake. Left with that much leeway, he took the opportunity to drop me at the World Gem store, a notorious tourist trap at the beginning of Sankampaeng road. I'm sure he got a generous kick-back for dropping me. Oh well.
Since I was at the World Gem shop anyway, I let them take me on the "World Famous" factory tour. To my surprise, it was really quite interesting watching the craftsmen carving jade Buddhas, pagodas, fish, and every other talisman under the sun. There were other sets of craftspeople making rings, bracelets, necklaces and on and on. I was then escorted into the gigantic jewelry store, and had a good long look at just about everything. There must have been at least 200 other tourists in there inspecting the wares, but the place was so large that it didnít seem crowded at all. A ceaseless parade of luxury tour busses pulled up to the front of the building and disgorged their payload. When I had finished seeing what I wanted to see, I was able to just walk out completely unscathed. They even thanked me. It was remarkably OK.
After walking out of World Gems, I realized I had a bit of a problem. Sankampaeng road is actually a very busy road, and has no sidewalk. From the map it looked like all of these crafts emporiums were side by side, but from the World Gems shop I couldnít see where the next place was, and my Tuk Tuk was long gone. So off I set in the full sun, stumbling through the dirt and weeds at the side of the road.
About 10 minutes later I arrived at the next place, a laquerware mega-store. As with the World Gems shop, they had a huge parking lot and a giant driveway that was clearly set up to accommodate the whale-size tour busses. It was equally clear that they were quite surprised to see me arrive on foot. I walked in and several sales people jumped to their feet. There was a flurry of clicking from behind the counter, whereupon the light over the fish tank popped on, followed by lights in the various display cases. Most of the laquerware was very second-rate, and I had to wonder if these thousands of items could really be coated in the rarefied excrescence of beetles.
After the laquerware shop, I faced another long, hot, dirty 15 minute unpaved walk with serious traffic whizzing by. Finally I reached a Thai silk megalopolis, complete with docking bays for behemoth tour busses. And again, they looked quite surprised to see me stumble up, looking quite sweaty and ratty by this point. From the map I had imagined a strip of shops like one might find in almost any city in the world. However, it quickly became clear that the stretch of Sankampaeng road shown in the guide must have been at least 5 miles long, and so far none of it had a sidewalk. It was dawning on me that this place was really set up for people to get into their air conditioned luxury bus, be driven to a shop, get out and buy everything in sight, then get back in and be driven to the next place. You are not supposed to walk it.
Eventually I reached the "Umbrella Handicraft Center". This was actually interesting. I quite enjoyed watching the demonstrations of making paper, carving the sticks for the umbrellas, and the assembly process. There was also an area where rows of people were painting various scenes on the umbrellas, and there were many tourists having the emblems of their choice painted onto their jeans, jackets and backpacks. The painters weren't very good artisans, but it was an interesting process nonetheless. Unfortunately, by this point I was so hot, tired, dirty and cranky that I had a little trouble really getting into it.
Shortly afterwards a blessed sidewalk appeared, and with it a fruit vendor selling sweet Phuket pineapple. That and a bottle of water helped to bring me back to life, and I continued on with renewed vigor. I finally made it to the Borsang Bazaar, which was very much like a tiny version of the Chiang Mai night bazaar. There were a number of other places further up the road that I had hoped to see, but it was starting to get late, and I realized I'd better get back in order to get dinner before my flight back to Bangkok. Here was my next surprise. Since there really wasnít supposed to be any foot-traffic here, there were no taxis. No tuk tuks. Not even a motorcycle taxi. I realized that I had no idea how I was going to get back. After asking around a little, a learned that I really was sufficiently far outside of Chiang Mai that things like taxis and tuk tuks didnít exist. My only choice was to take a "white truck" back. "White trucks" are literally trucks which are white, and they function as the local equivalent of public busses. I had no idea what the bus route was, but I did know which was Chiang Mai lay. So, I stood where I was told to wait, and soon enough a white truck pulled up and I got on in.
Watching my map the whole way, I was pleased to discover that the white truck's route headed almost straight back to my hotel! It took over a half an hour due to traffic, and the truck's constantly stopping to pick up and drop off passengers. Just before we got to my hotel, the truck veered off down a side road, and went a good half mile before it stopped and I was able to get off. All the other passengers had handed the driver a coin and gotten change back. I handed him 10 baht, and off he went. No change. I guess that's the white-mans tax again. Hi ho. At least I was back in the city and knew where I was.
Mike and I had steak at a farang restaurant called The Mozart Benelux. Over dinner Mike taught me the trick to one of the Thai phonemes that has been giving me a lot of trouble. In English, the sound "ng" can appear at the end of words, and occasionally in the middle, but never at the beginning. In Thai, "ng" is frequently found at the beginning of words, and it has been killing me. It is especially awful because the word for the number "1" is "ngun", so I couldnít even count to one correctly! Mike had me say "sing", over and over, emphasizing the "ng", then "singing", emphasizing the middle "ng", then "ninging", "inging", "nging" and finally just "ng". And there it was. That elusive sound.
So, I got my bags, took the hotel shuttle to the airport for a scant $1, and flew back to Bangkok. I'm staying at the Landmark hotel again in a nice room that is farther from the noise of Sukhumvit and the SkyTrain. Room 2120 is about 1/2 the size of my prior suite, but its still a nice big room. It has no dining room, but hey.
I rode the SkyTrain to Siam Center just for the hell of it. It was nice, easy to use, clean (no surprise, its new), and almost empty. It's just too expensive for most Thais to use! The cars are reminiscent of BART or Boston's MBTA cars, but with the seats arranged so that there is a lot of standing room, and relatively little seating room (vs. trolleys in other countries.) Then I went back to the hotel and packed it in.
Thursday December 16, 1999
I'm really looking forward to going home. I have no desire to do anything today, and I may just sit in this nice comfy room and write. Went out for breakfast and had my final Thom Cow Gai for the trip, then back to the room to watch CNBC and write.
Eventually went out and rode the trains a bit more. They had many more riders this afternoon than last night, but were still fairly empty and they were frighteningly cold.
Thais seem to have a problem with the concept of maps. In the past I've shown taxi drivers maps and pointed to where I want to go, and they get that glazed over look that you see on the faces of school children learning geometry. Now, I'm the first to admit that I donít have a great sense of direction, and I'm not the best map-reader in the world, but maps as a conceptual model have been with me as long as I can remember. The Thais quizzically studying the painfully simple maps in the SkyTrain stations evidently didnít have this background.
I walked around the several large shopping mall complexes between Siam center and the World Trade center. When I got to World Trade I realized that I had been there a couple times before and that there was a Chinese restaurant in the adjoining Isetan center that had looked good. Unfortunately, when I got there at 2:15 they were closed; lunch ends at 2. So, not wanting more Thai food right now, I wandered into a Japanese restaurant and had the most expensive sushi of my life. When I got the bill I almost dropped my credit card. Three orders of rather stingy sized and otherwise un-noteworthy sushi set me back a whopping $21.00. The culprit turned out to be the order of tuna nigiri, which rang up at $11 for the two mouthfuls. "Imported, sir", came the response to my shocked query. I sighed and thought back to the 2 kilo tuna I had bought in the market in Phuket last week for only $1.50. Oh well. As my friend Mike likes to point out, the few rich people in Thailand are "filthy rich", so while most things are cheap, that which is expensive is very expensive.
So I'm sitting in my lovely and comfortable room at the Landmark, writing this travelogue and reading email, and I keep hearing this deep rumbling thrumming sound, which vibrates the walls and ceilings. As I keep hearing this I keep thinking that whatever it is, it must end soon. But it goes on and on, about once ever 30 seconds or so. It's a funny kind of a sound - it isn't really that loud and I imagine a lot of people might not even notice it, but it's driving me crazy. After half and hour I call down to the front desk to ask what is going on. A little while later housekeeping comes by and I have the hardest time convincing them to just shut up for a second and they'll hear it. The blessed woman wants to keep on talking and talking. Finally, she shuts up and the sound comes and she says "oh, thatís the elevator." But my room (2120) is nowhere near the elevators. It turns out that there is a glass elevator ("Best view in Bangkok, sir") that runs up the outside of the building and is basically hanging off the side of my room! That explains the funny shape of the living room in this suite! It only runs from 10am to 10pm, so I didnít hear it when I checked in late last night, and I didnít hear it before I left the room this morning. But it's driving me crazy. So, they very kindly move me to 2008, the giant suite that I had last time. Of course, this room is even noisier because it is right over the street and the SkyTrain, but at least those are noises that I can deal with. I really like this hotel, but I can't figure out what room might be quiet. Perhaps if I could convince them to put me on a very high floor. I think I'll have to try a different hotel next time. It's too bad because this one is soooo convenient. Of course, now that there is the SkyTrain it is a lot easier to stay at one of the hotels that are further out Sukhumvit road.
Went to the hotel's Sui Sian Chinese restaurant for dinner. It was pretty disappointing. The hot and sour seafood soup was OK, but the bar-b-queued duck and pork was served chilled, which isn't to my taste. The waiter hovered and hovered over me until I ordered, and then I hardly saw him again until I had to grab a water-boy to get me the check. Hmmmm.
I am really ready to go home. I wish this damned direct flight to Seattle didnít leave so early. It's a 7am flight, which means you're supposed to be at the airport at 5am, which means getting up no later than 4am. Last time I tried the technique of staying up all night, but I was on a much later schedule in general then. This time I'm used to getting to bed relatively early, so I'll see how the 6 hours of sleep technique works.
Friday December 17, 1999
Ouch. You never want to hear your travel clock go off at 4am. Fortunately, I had arranged for room service to bring me coffee and croissants at 4:15am; a fine idea. Checkout of the hotel was fast and efficient, quite an anomaly in Thailand. In most other Thai hotels the counter staff always seem surprised when I check out, as if it is some novel idea, and they have to find out how it is done.
At this hour the expressway is wide open. What a blessing. I know that there are many people in the world who are afraid of flying, but I think it often makes more sense to be afraid of getting to the airport. If you haven't been driven down the Bangkok expressway at 95mph in a taxi that is probably only capable of 90, you haven't lived. But I must say we got there quickly! In the "small world" department, the couple from my dive boat where at the United ticket counter checking in when I got there. Cool. They are great people and it was nice to see them again. Unfortunately, my mileage points upgrade still wasnít confirmed. Thousands of people survive flying coach every day, but given that I have miles to burn and this is a very long flight, I'd really like to be in business class.
When I got to the gate, I had further frustration about my upgrade. The gate attendant was totally harried, dealing with ringing phones, customer problems, and taking tickets from passengers boarding the plane. Bangkok is so weird - before you are allowed to go to the baggage check in, there is a person that checks your passport and ticket, and asks you a variety of questions. Then the check-in attendant checks your ticket and passport. Then you pass through passport control, where, of course, they check your ticket and passport. Then when you go to the gate there are a dozen attendants standing there who check your ticket and passport and ask you a variety of questions. Good grief. So you make it past this gaggle of attendants, and get to the gate, and there is one, count 'em, one gate attendant doing everything. And she really wasnít ready to be helpful to me. In the end a competent gate attendants showed up, but I was only able to get upgraded to Tokyo - they still didnít have an opening for the lengthy leg to Seattle. He did do a rather nice thing though: he gave me a complimentary upgrade to Tokyo, and they will only deduct the miles from my account if I get the upgrade from Tokyo to Seattle.
This is my first flight on a Boeing 777. It's a very attractive plane. Nice gleaming new plastic, very spacious, and First Class looks amazing. More power in the seats for my laptop, business class gifties, everything a traveler could want. I think it is immensely cool sitting in the middle of all this technology, high-tech composites, and plastics. Parts of this plane were manufactured all over the world. Makes me proud to be a Seattlite.
Well, I didnít get my upgrade from Tokyo. For days now I've been the only person on the upgrade list, but somehow when I landed in Tokyo, there were 22 people on the upgrade list, and 7 of them were "1K" members with priority over me. In the end 5 seats opened up in business class, so I didnít get one of them. I'm in one of the best possible seats in coach - 17H - a bulkhead aisle seat. As coach seats go, it's pretty good. However, it seems like it hardly reclines at all. I'm not sure if these seats on the 777 really donít recline much, or if it's just that I've been flying business class so much that I'm used to more recline. Either way, it's going to make sleeping difficult, which is a bummer on this leg. The trick is that I arrive in Seattle at 8am local time, but it feels like 11pm Bangkok time. If I can just sleep on the plane for 5 or 6 hours, I can pretend that I've slept at night and now its morning. The difference between business class and first class isn't that big a deal, but oh, coach to business is a whopper. Sigh.
© 1999, Andrew Sigal
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