|Travelogue: Thailand 1998||
The flight from Christchurch to Auckland was uneventful. Ansett is a really nice airline with very comfortable seats. I then had a brief walk from the domestic terminal in Auckland to the international terminal. The Air New Zealand business class lounge in Auckland is outstanding. I was hungry when I got there and asked the person at the desk if the lounge had any food. He said, "no, just some snacks." Oh well. "Snacks", eh? How about sandwiches, pastries, deserts, sushi, cold cuts, and on and on. It was awesome.
The Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to Sydney, Australia was fine, and also uneventful. From Sydney to Bangkok the flight is on Thai Airways; a slightly below par international flight.
Because I was very unsure about the safety, reliability, and sanity of the Bangkok airport I had arranged for a limo ride from the airport in the Hotel Oriental's Mercedes; a great way to smooth over the anxiety of a strange airport in a new country when you are dog tired. The Hotel Oriental is magnificent. I finally got to sleep at about 5am New Zealand time. Ugh.
Well, the Hotel Oriental really is incredible. American Express says that it is the best hotel in the world, and I am inclined to believe them. A large and luxurious room with a great view over the river, fantastic bathroom with multiple sinks, and on an on. A "fruit of the day", yummy; doormen who bow and push the elevator buttons for me. Fragrant flowers in my room and on my pillow at night. I mean this is just fantastic. I could get to like this! The really surprising thing is that though it is monumentally expensive by Thai standards, it is less that the cost of a good hotel in Los Angeles or New York.
I had the buffet breakfast here at the hotel (included in my American Express rate.) It's kinda odd, sitting on this lovely veranda, with a beautiful buffet of nice fruits, breads, and odd Japanese dishes, looking out over the dirty brown, busy, smelly river. The sun is shining hotly, though the smog is so heavy that it still isn't a sunny day, and the humidity is unreal. Walking out of the hotel is like walking face first into a wall of heat, humidity and smell. Anyway, it's quite an odd scene out here on the terrace. Uniformed waiters running to move umbrellas around to keep the sun off of the distinguished guests, well dressed tourists sweating their brains out (me included), and noisy boats belching out smoke and zooming up the river. For some inexplicable reason I really enjoyed it and had the strange sensation that I could sit there forever just watching it all go by.
I decided to go to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew today. It's just down the river but appears to be a long trip by land. So I have three choices: a "public" river bus for about 20 cents, or hire a private river boat for one hour for $12 to take me there, which is only a 20 minute trip, or hire a private river boat for one hour for $12 and have him take me sight-seeing, ending up at the Grand Palace. I figured it would be cool to take the public river bus, but wasnít sure I'd figure out where to get off. Also, the sightseeing idea sounded like a good one. So, off I go on an adventure, eh?
I get in my private "long boat" at the hotel and we're off. I really donít understand how these "long boats" work. They are really long with a huge engine set inboard. A propeller is set at the end of a 12 foot driveshaft, sticking into the water way behind the boat. The engine, driveshaft and propeller are all attached to a swiveling stand operated by a long control shaft. The driver pushes various levers on the control shaft and also moves the whole business up and down with the control shaft. It seems very complicated and makes me thing of a typical outboard engine put through some kind of weird Hunter S.Thompson/William S. Burroughs nightmare script. The driver speeds up and slows down seemingly at random. I'm not sure when he slows down if there is something special I am supposed to look at, or he thinks that I am trying to look at something, or there is some feature of the water that requires him to slow down. After a while he stopped the boat in the middle of the river and tried by sign-language to teach me how to drive it. This turned out to be a pretty unsuccessful endeavor.
There are some fairly shocking scenes of pollution and poverty along the canals and waterways of Bangkok. To say that it is in sharp contrast to the comparatively bucolic surroundings of the Hotel Oriental is putting it mildly. All the while on the boat I couldnít help thinking about how much I wanted to clean up the water. What would I do if I were king? I imagined all kinds of recycling and hygiene initiatives, education, and water purification plants. But, I have to rememeber that this place is the result of a thousand year old civilization and a specific set of cultural values. I also have to remind myself that environmentalism is a hobby that only the wealthy can afford. Insisting that these people buy plumbing and pay for public services like garbage collection and water treatment disregards the fact that they are already living on the edge. It requires a fundamental change in the consciousness of a people to effect such behavioral changes and to incent them to reprioritize their lives. Convincing them that they would likely live longer, healthier lives and attract more income in the form of tourist dollars and capitalist investment is probably a fools errand when they need to figure out how to eat tomorrow.
As a tourist, it is almost impossible to hire someone to do something for you in this city without having them try to get you to buy something else too. In this case it was inevitable that my boat driver would find a way to get more money from me. About 15 minutes into the trip he stopped the boat next to a woman in a canoe with all kinds of trinkets and crap to sell. No I didnít way a poorly sculpted elephant, or an ugly hat. No to the colorful pencils, the T-shirt, and sparkly dolls. Finally, I bought a beer from her and gave it to my driver. I really didnít mind; it was all part of the game and I would have been stunned if my boat driver had missed such a chance. Furthermore, it was only about a dollar, and this is a circumstance in which my economic contribution can actually have a meaningful impact on someone's life, unlike giving a quarter to a bum on the street in Seattle. On the other hand, I was a bit annoyed when the driver proceeded to deliver me to the Amazing Snake Show pavilion, where there were several similarly shanghaied tourists milling about. It quickly became clear that there was no way I was gonna get out of there without going into the snake show place. Short of swimming in the unthinkably polluted water, there was only one place to go and that was in to the show. The charge was 100 baht (about $3.00 US), but they wanted me to buy a ticket for the boat driver too. Wrong. I may be a sucker, but I'm no fool (?!?). So, in I go, leaving my driver on the dock.
The Snake place (god knows what its real name was) also had a small zoo associated with it. There were many interesting animals there, but it was pretty depressing because they were all in the kind of little cages that disappeared from American zoo's years ago. To make matters worse, the cages weren't even clean. Oh well. One interesting note was that they had a Cassowary, an endangered Australian bird that I had wanted to see when I was there last year. That was a surprise. They also had a peacock that was putting on a pretty spectacular display. When the snake show itself actually started, I hate to admit it, but it was actually pretty exciting. Guys charming cobras and milking out their venom, taking vipers into their mouths and wrestling with boas. It really was entertaining. They even made a half-hearted attempt to make it educational. Go figure.
When the snake show was over I was allowed to leave and we headed off to the Grand Palace. The boat dropped me off at a pier near the Palace, and my next introduction to Bangkok hospitality began: getting to the Grand Palace. I'd read all the warnings about Tuk Tuk drivers and other "touts" who would try to get me to go somewhere and buy jewels, or otherwise separate me from my money. Truth be told I was more worried about being separated from my time than my money. I was amazed at how rapidly they descended on me. No sooner did I hit the street than they were all over me. I knew I was near the Grand Palace, but I really didnít know which way to go. A guy comes up to me "Where you going sir?" "The Grand Palace." "Oh no sir, Grand Palace closed today, tomorrow King Birthday" (sic) (One grain of truth here, tomorrow was the King's Birthday.) "No", I tell him, "the Grand Palace is open today." "No sir, Grand Palace closed. Come, I take you see Standing Buddha, very beautiful, and Golden Mountain, they open free today only, I take you only 40 baht." "No, the Grand Palace is open today, I am going to the Grand Palace" and off I walk. He grabs me "OK, but the entrance to the Grand Palace is that way" (pointing off 90 degrees from the direction I had randomly chosen.) Well, I figure at this point he has no real incentive to point me in the wrong direction, so I go the way he points. Needless to say it was the wrong way, I had been going in the right direction, and I had been only about 50 feet from the entrance at the time. After 5 minutes of walking the wrong way, and fighting off 20 more touts, I found a police officer that spoke English who sent me back the way I came. When I got to where I had started, I fought off a few more Tuk Tuk drivers and finally asked a European looking person where the entrance was. What a pain.
It is very frustrating that you cannot ask anyone for directions in this country except for other tourists and the occasional police officer that speaks English (it seems like most of them donít.) If you ask any Thai for directions, they will always lie, and always try to send you off somewhere else, sell you something, etc. I hate to think what would have happened if I had actually gotten into one of those Tuk Tuks. There was one exception. At one point I was hungry and wanted to find some Thai food, but I was too freaked out by the sanitary conditions of the street vendors to buy anything from them. I went into a fine looking hotel and asked the concierge there for a recommendation. He sent me to a really excellent restaurant that was nearby, and I doubt he managed to get anything out of the deal. The concierges at my hotel also seem to be trustworthy. I guess there has to be some exception. I also found that if I went into a store and asked the proprietor for directions (after admiring their wares), they would usually point me in the right direction (but not always.)
When Ifinally made it into Wat Phra Kaew, I was duly rewarded. It is a beautiful place in high style. Lots of gilding and tiles, temple guardian statues and huge golden stupas. The Emerald Buddha is beautiful and lavishly appointed. The Grand Palace itself is mostly closed to visitors. From the outside the building is an odd pairing of styles; most of the building is Victorian, but it has a traditional Thai roof. All the tourists line up to have their photos taken standing next to the palace guards who are not allowed to move. The guards stand there like statues, faces stern, eyes glued straight ahead while all manner of people practically climb over them searching for the ultimate silly photo op.
Later I had lunch at a small riverside restaurant near the "amulet market" recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. I had the Chicken Pad Thai which was good, but not great. I think that the owners of the place have learned what the Lonely Planet tourist wants. I wasnít offered any options. A white man arrives and they cry out "Chicken Phad Thai?"
The hotel has associated with it a world famous Thai cooking school. Apparently many people come here and stay at this hotel specifically in order to do the week long class. The school also runs the hotel's Thai restaurant, so of course I have to go. I reserved for the ala carte menu, but the ala carte diners are served out in the sweltering heat on the restaurant's porch. Inside they do a prix fixe menu with a show of traditional Thai dance. The items and variety of the fixed menu looked great, and I really needed to get out of the heat. Besides, inside there was semi-communal seating, providing a chance to talk with people.
I have to admit, I was expecting to be absolutely blown away. The food was very good. It really was very, very good. The presentation was lovely. But I was definitely not floored. I had imagined that under the circumstances each mouthful would have me ooohing and ahhhing. Nope. It was very good Thai food, thatís all. I suspect that to my Western palate there is a limit to how much I can possibly appreciate an Eastern cuisine. Perhaps I am just not tuned in to the particular subtleties that would make this Thai restaurant a tour de force. I have always loved food and sought out different varied ethnic dining experiences, but to me there seems to be a sumptuousness lacking in Thai cuisine that could elevate such a dining experience to the sublime. When eating French food, for example, the richness (read "fat") of an exquisitely executed sauce can make me groan, close my eyes, and drift away on waves of flavor. I have had dinners where my conversation was stopped in its tracks by a mouthful of food so delicious, so complex, and so wonderful that I just had to savor it. So far no Thai food has ever done that for me (though sometimes conversation is halted by mind numbing spiciness.) It is also possible that I have not really experienced great Thai food because the Thais tone down the spices for my Western mouth, thus losing the spirit of the food. I may never know. [Postscript: over the course of several years of traveling in Thailand I have truly had spectacular meals. I have to laugh when I read the above paragraph.]
Dinner included a show of traditional Thai dancing. However, I was so tired by this point that I only stayed for two of the dances. Again, they were OK, but not thrilling.
It's the king's birthday today. Thai's are very patriotic about their King, referring to him as "Buddha". Thus, his birthday is a big deal, but everything is still open for business (except government offices.) I'm not feeling well - I'm jet lagged and seem to have an intestinal bug. It's nice to know it only takes 24 hours in a place like Thailand for me to get a stomach bug.
I finally got it together to go out to the only place in Bangkok that one can buy software - Phantip Plaza - an absolutely insane place. Copies of Microsoft Office are available for the equivalent of $3.00 US! I bought the Loxinfo Internet connection kit that my friend Mike Brodie recommended so that I can get online in Thailand. It seems to work great (except that it mucked with my Internet Explorer settings, grrrr.) I also bought a bunch of brand new music tapes for about $2 or $3 each. They appear to be legit, but given the price they can't be. I'm so tired of all the music I brought with me I could puke. [Postscript: everything about the tapes visually appears to be legit, all the right labels are there, the printing is good, etc. However, the recording quality is horrendous; borderline unlistenable. I subsequently bought some more tapes which had poorly photocopied label inserts and no printing on the cassette cases, but the sound quality was very good. Go figure. I think the "correct looking" tapes are actually poorly manufactured legitimate tapes which are made for the Thai market - well made legitimate tapes at US$10 would never sell when faced with the competition of $1 knockoffs.]
One thing I've noticed about Bangkok is that all the shops of a particular type seem to be bunched together. There is a garment district, a flower market, specific fruit and meat markets, etc. And there is one and only one place to buy electronics and software. If you want a computer or software, you go to Phantip plaza and nowhere else. In Phantip plaza there are dozens computer and software places, and they are pretty much indistinguishable. I donít understand why they don't spread out; they could all raise prices if they weren't in such close physical competition.
After a couple of hours studying the wares in software-pirate paradise I went for a very good Thai lunch (Tom Kha Gai and Green Curry Chicken) at Thanying Thai Restaurant on the 6th floor of the Isetan department store (next to the World Trade building). It was amongst the best Tom Kha Gai I've ever had at only about US$2.00. Yeee ha. [Postscript: I subsequently went back on a later trip (see my travelog for Thailand 1999), and was very disappointed.]
I looked around at some shops selling shirts made from the "famous" Thai silk. The guide books (and everyone else) goes on and on about Thai silk, but I gotta say that I really donít care for it. It is very heavy, rough material and most of the colors and patterns didnít interest me. I definitely prefer Indian and Chinese silk myself.
On my cab ride back the cabby hardly spoke any English and didn't know where the Hotel Oriental was. Yikes. Fortunately I had a map, so he figured it out. Of course, he didn't have a map. I wonder what he does with less prepared customers?
I went for afternoon tea at the Author's Lounge at the Hotel Oriental. Very nice. I love the silver lemon squeezer that they provide with the tea; one mustn't dirty one's fingers with lemon juice. The tea treats plus a small snack for dinner filled me up, then I packed it in.
The plan for today is to go to Wat Arun, the flower market, and Vimanmek Mansion Museum - the world's largest all-teak building. So I got up, had another nice breakfast and headed off to the flower market, this time on the public boats. The price was a scant 6 baht, or about 18 cents. The ride was actually pleasant, easy, and quick. I had no trouble finding the right pier to get off. The only downside was that it took about 10 minutes for the boat to arrive because it was Sunday.
The flower market is really wonderful, sunlit roads full of flower stalls, people laboriously stringing flowers into garlands, bundles of roses, stacks of orchids, and dark corridors full of an amazing array of fruits and vegetables. Huge baskets full of longans, gigantic jackfruits, beautiful piles of pomelos, bags full of chrysanthemum flowers, fantastic peppers in bright greens and reds, a visual (and olfactory) smorgasbord. My cousin had told me that I should go at 4am when the monks are buying their flowers, but I'm just not up to it; during the day will have to do.
I donít really understand the economics of this country. Clearly labor is effectively costless. There's no other way these bushels of flower garlands could be produced without being prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, agricultural products also appear to be exceedingly cheap, which is confusing to me because there must be transportation and other costs that I'm not seeing in the end products. There are also forms of waste here that I donít follow. Individual flower blooms wrapped in pieces of paper; the labor to wrap them is basically free, but the paper cost doesnít seem to be accounted for. Perhaps it is just that the labor costs to produce certain manufactured goods are again so low that the resultant product is cheap enough to waste. I'm sure someone can explain it all to me.
So, off to Wat Arun. At least that was the plan. I was standing looking at a food vendors stall trying to figure out what the heck she was making when a guy came up to me and said "Sticky rice, come from my home city, very good." Hmmmm, OK. So he starts chatting with me in tolerable English. He says he is a teacher, but his English isn't very good and he likes to talk to English speakers so he can get better. He starts showing me photos of the kids from his school. 150 kids, he is the principal. His name is Thongbai. OK, where's the scam? Hmmm. He asks me where I am going, so I tell him Wat Arun. He tells me that he is in Bangkok for the King's birthday and he is buying flowers to take to the King's favorite temple, a very important teaching temple that is only open to non-monks on the King's birthday and one or two other special days of the year. Now this really sounds like the classic scam line, but the truth is it really is the King's birthday (they celebrate it for 2 days.) He is going now, it's close to Wat Arun, do I want to come along? It would be a treat for me because foreigners never get to go there, and he would like to continue to speak English with me. My brain is thinking "Just say 'no', this is a scam, scam, scam." But I was in such a good mood after the flower market that I decided to go along.
We hopped in a boat and off we went. It was about a 10 minute ride. When we got there we got out of the boat, but didnít pay the driver... hmmmm. But you know what, the temple was really cool. There were no tourists, it was full of praying Thai people. People meditating, putting gold leaf on statues, lighting candles and incense. My new friend goes off to put some flowers on a statue of a famous monk and pray, then he comes back and tells me about the gifts people bring to the monks, and how monks come here from all over the world to study. There are a lot of nuns here too; the ones who have shaved their heads are here for a long time, the ones with hair are visiting. He leads me upstairs to a room with a super-lifelike statue of a dead high monk with lots of people praying in front of it and a group of monks chanting. Very cool. He encourages me to take pictures "for memory." We spend more time looking at parts of the temple, the place where the monks eat, some features of the roof of the temple. He points out some crafts and details of the temple and tells me that the girls from his town now make crafts instead of going to the city to become prostitutes. Is it possible that this isn't a scam? Could this really be the only guy in Bangkok without a scam? When does he try to sell me the fake jewelry?
When we finish up at the temple he says he wants to go somewhere else, and "would I like to come along?" He really wants to speak more English and show me around. OK. Back into a boat (is it the same one?) and we go off into the canals. He tells me that when he was here last, this whole area was coconut farms, now it's mostly houses and shacks. Bangkok is so crowded and dirty now. He tells me about his school and how poor the mountain people are. Tourists take elephant trips from Chang Mai out to his village to see how the real Thai people live. He would like me to come to his village and visit, he loves to cook and will make me real Thai food. He shows me the photos of the kids in his school again. He is buying clothes for the children while he is in Bangkok. Later today he has to go to the train station to get together the boxes of clothes for the children. I'm waiting for the pitch: a donation to his school? Nope, no pitch. God knows where the hell we are now as the boat has been cruising around for a while. We pass by a shack that turns out to be a little shop of sorts where he has the boat driver stop. He wants to get a beer. OK. We get out and drink Singha beers and eat peanuts and some kind of puff crisps. He tells me about how the puff crisps are made of a Thai plant which is shipped to Japan, and then the Japanese make it into crisps and sell them back to the Thai's. The Japanese get all the money, you see. I still have my guard up though; I've heard stories of people being drugged and robbed, so I donít eat or drink anything that he hasnít eaten first. He tells me about his life, the school, the poverty, his wife and two kids. I'm feeling pretty good. This is really interesting, and miraculously isn't a scam. Incredible.
We finish up the beers and he asks me where I am going to now. I tell him that I am going to go to Vimanmek Mansion Museum. He says he would love to go with me, but he has to go to the train station and deal with his bundles of clothing. He asks me if I know how to get to Vimanmek Mansion Museum, and I tell him I'm going to take a cab. I show him the ticket I have for admission to the place. I haven't looked closely at the ticket myself, but if I had I would have seen that it closes at 3pm, and it's 2:30pm now. He reads the ticket closely and says he will write on the back of it directions for the taxi driver.
We leave the shop and he goes to pay the bill, but I decided to stop him and pick up the 150 baht bill. Two huge beers, peanuts, crispies, bottled water, all for 150 baht. Good deal. Could there really be no scam here? We get back into the boat (yes, the boat driver was waiting for us) and head back the way we came. He points at some shacks and starts talking about the poverty again. OK, I can't stand waiting for the pitch any longer. "Perhaps I can make a donation to your school", I offer. "Oh no, no. You come and visit the school, I make Thai food for you. You see the real Thailand. Then, if you want, you can make a donation directly to the school, donít give me any money." Holy cow! I'm stunned. Thongbai gives me his address.
We get close to where we started, and Thongbai tells me we have to pay the boat driver for all his time, but he doesnít have enough money. How much is it? 1700 baht -- per person. Shit. 3400 baht!?! About $100 US for a couple hours. I know that boats can be rented from my hotel at 450 baht per hour, and I suspect that is a rip off. Damn it. I was so happy that maybe this hadn't been a scam. It was so nice to think that this guy was for real. Now I'm sitting in a boat in the middle of a river somewhere in Bangkok being asked for $100 US. I would have been happy to make a gift to this guy's school (if it really exists), but I donít like being taken. It pisses me off. And the worst of it is that I really donít know if this is a scam or not! Did Thongbai plan all of this to ring up a big boating bill, or is the boat driver ripping me off, or what? Fortunately, I keep different amounts of money in different pockets. I have 2400 baht in one of my pockets and hand him that, pretending its all I've got. Thongbai hands it to the driver. They talk for a bit. Thongbai tells me that he told the driver I'm a student, and it's all I've got, so it's OK. OK, great, $70 and I haven't seen Wat Arun, and I donít really know if I've just had a pleasant afternoon chatting with a Thai school principal, or been scammed.
We land the boat and Thongbai hails me a taxi. He talks with the driver for a bit and I hand the driver the ticket I have for the Mansion. The driver speaks no English, but points at his watch and laughs. I'm way to deep in thought about what had just transpired to deal with playing sign-language with the taxi driver, so away we go. The driver laughs and laughs. Perhaps if I hadn't had a beer in the middle of a hot day with no lunch, I would have paid more attention. Oh well. A half hour cab ride later we are at Vimanmek Mansion Museum, where I finally learn that they close at 4pm, but the last people are let in at 3pm, and because today is the Kings f**king birthday, they are closing early. It is now 3:18. They will allow me to go in for 12 minutes, but I have to take my shoes off first. To hell with it, I'll come back tomorrow! The ticket is good for 30 days anyway.
I wandered around the grounds for a bit, then finally decided to head back to the hotel for a much needed shower. The heat, humidity and pollution are so bad that I find myself wanting to shower and change my clothes several times a day. One interesting note is that my hotel has laundry service and will launder a t-shirt in 24 hours for 150 baht. Alternatively, I can go out to a street vendor and buy logo'ed Nike, Reebok and Calvin Klein t-shirts for 100 baht each.
Of course, it took me three tries to get a cab I was willing to ride in. The first asked for 300 baht, because "king's birthday, traffic very bad." I was too tired and pissed off to argue, and I know full well that the traffic is almost non-existent on the king's birthday, so I just got out of the cab. He yells after me "no, wait, I take you for 200 baht, no, what you want to pay." I just walked away. The second cab didnít know where the Oriental was and I couldnít deal with that either. Finally I found a cab who knew where the Oriental was and would use the meter.
So I got back to the hotel, cleaned up, ate a lot of the lovely fruit I had bought, and made a reservation for dinner at the Oriental's China House restaurant. The China House restaurant is housed in an historic building next door to the hotel, employing four master chefs. The room was beautiful and the service impeccable. I ordered a birds nest and crab meat soup, whole poached sea bass in a black bean sauce, clay pot rice (a "signature dish"), and an eggplant with salty fish dish. Everything was absolutely extraordinary, except for the clay pot rice, which I have to admit I really didnít like at all. I am quite sure it was impeccably prepared, but it was not something I enjoyed.
One can stay in Bangkok very cheaply, and one can eat for next to nothing, however, the China House restaurant does provide the opportunity to spend a lot of money if one wants. There were abalone dishes running for US$100+, and the various shark fin soups were also over US$100. I noticed a few other dishes containing exotic ingredients that would cost US$200 and up. It's kind of a shock to see those kinds of prices in a place like Bangkok. My magnificent dinner was a relative bargain at only US$55.
They do a wonderful thing with tea at the China House. I hope I can accurately describe it. They brought to my table a teacup and a small bowl with a lid on it. The bowl contained hot water and loose tea leaves. The waitress rocks the lid on the bowl over slightly, skillfully pouring the tea into my teacup, straining the leaves with lid. Then she comes back with a silver teapot of boiling water and refills the bowl, covering it with the lid again. This process is repeated whenever my teacup is more than half drained. It is quite a pageant.
One interesting thing about the menu is that most items are listed as available in 3 sizes (at 3 prices.) Some items like whole duck and fish are one size only. When I was ordering I asked my waitress how many dishes and what sizes would be appropriate for me alone. She indicated 3 to 5 small dishes. I told her what I wanted and listed off 5 items. She said to me "I think maybe you will enjoy 4 dishes." I said that all of the dishes sounded really good, and she repeated that "I think maybe you will have 4 dishes, and order more later." Needless to say she was right, as I really hardly touched the claypot rice and was stuffed. There was a guy seated alone behind me who ordered a Peaking Duck, which was huge. I turned to watch as they carved it and commented on how beautiful it was. He said "I hope you will have some, as I seem to have ordered enough for 8." The waitresses carve the duck at your table, magically slicing the crispy skin off in paper-thin slices and putting them into wonton wrappers for you. It's very nice. As a postscript, the following night I met a couple of Italian women who had also been eating at the China House. We got to talking and they said that they love Peaking Duck and ordered two of them, one for each. Apparently the waitress had said to them "I think maybe you will enjoy one." They told the waitress that they really love Peaking Duck and really wanted one for each of them, but the waitress insisted that they "would enjoy one more." When the duck arrived and they saw that it was the size of a turkey, they told me they could hardly stop laughing. They did indeed "enjoy just one."
I got up really late today and farted around for quite a while. After a bit I realized that time was really getting on, and if I wanted to go to Vimanmek Mansion Museum before they closed again, I'd better hurry up! I also wanted to go to Wat Arun too, so time was an issue. The traffic in Bangkok is so bad that it really takes a long time to get from place to place. I decided that I would hire one of the hotel's limousines to take me around so that I could get to the places I wanted and not have to deal with the damned taxi drivers and lying tuk tuk vermin. By Bangkok standards the cost of a limo is an unbelievable extravagance, but by world travel standards it's an equally unbelievable bargain. We head off to Vimanmek, and the driver suggests to me that it would be cheaper for me to take a taxi back, and that there will be many available. I said, "Yeah, but I donít want to deal with the hassle." He assures me that he can wait for me and take me to the next place, but I would save a lot of money if I took a taxi. We drive on. After a while he asks me if I am married, then he tells me that he is married. "Oh?" His wife is in the hospital. "Oh, I'm so sorry." She just had a baby an hour ago. "Congratulations!" He wishes he could go and see her, but he had to work, and the hours when he can see his new baby end in one hour. It was really touching. Needless to say I told him to go off and see his baby (his first.)
So the Vimanmek Mansion Museum was a huge disappointment. This is the worlds largest all-teak building, and was the favorite home of king Rama V. Apparently it was allowed to fall into some ruin, and then was restored relatively recently. I was expecting rooms of magnificent shining wood, but all the rooms are painted. Every surface except the floors are painted, so the fact that it is teak is irrelevant. Most of the rooms are roped off, so one can just look in from the doorways. In each room are various seemingly random artifacts, most not very interesting, and all of which must be viewed from afar (since you can't enter the room.) There are lots of china cabinets full of china that you can't look at, and rooms of hunting trophies and other miscellany. One must take the guided tour, and the guide goes on at great length about what you are seeing (or not seeing, as the case may be) in really poor English. He is very cheerful about it though. I think Vimanmek Mansion is another symptom of a people being overly-proud of a piece of history that is otherwise irrelevant to an outsider. I just can't get excited about a Delft plate that Queen Victoria of England gave to the King of Thailand 100 years ago, especially when it is in a display case at the far side of a room that I am not able to enter. About half way through the tour I asked a guard to escort me out.
On the way over my driver had told me that Wat Arun is undergoing major renovations and is mostly closed. Based upon that and my disappointment with Vimanmek, I decided to blow it off. After leaving the mansion it again took me three tries to get a cab back to the hotel. The first one asked for 300 baht, so I just got out of his cab with him calling after me to make a better offer. The second cab wouldnít take me! I'm guessing he was nearing the end of his shift; apparently they get fined by the cab company if they are late returning a cab. The third cab driver took me on a safe, efficient, sane drive directly to the Oriental with no hassle. The fare was 65 baht, but I gave him a 100 baht tip. He looked stunned. I would so much rather give these guys a great tip for a great drive than have them try and swindle me.
The hotel had invited me as a "distinguished guest" to attend an invitation only cocktail reception in the Author's lounge. It was a very pleasant affair with nice finger foods and an open bar. There was a woman making little round flying-saucer shaped "pancakes" that had the taste and texture of congealed coconut milk. They were insanely good. I met a couple of Italian women who had spent that past two weeks at some kind of health resort on an island off the coast not far from Bangkok. Apparently they spent all their time being massaged and eating fruits. Sounded like paradise to me. They said they started smoking and drinking (and eating Peaking duck) as soon as they could when they got back to Bangkok.
Decided to take the path of least resistance and have dinner at the hotel's Veranda restaurant, even though I had been eating all my breakfasts there too. The food here at the hotel is really good, and it's something of a pain to go out and find food that looks edible to me. It's an interesting contrast to New Zealand. I'm sitting here at the restaurant finished with dinner, and no one has looked my way for about a minute or so, but I'm ready for my check. In New Zealand I could look forward to 15 to 20 minutes of waiting before I finally get someone's attention, get the check, etc. etc. Here at the Hotel Oriental, I've been waiting for 1 minute so I start to make some "ready to leave noises". Simultaneously from two opposite far corners of the room, two waitresses notice and practically break into a run to get to my table. A waiter closer to me notices the waitresses sprinting towards me and pirouettes to get to me first. I tell him I am ready for the check and get the usual "very good, sir" response. While I have been writing this, my waiter is standing just behind me and off to the side waiting to give me the check without interrupting. This truly is the best hotel in the world (and they have a wall of plaques to attest to that fact.)
Breakfast at the Veranda again. This is the only hotel I have ever stayed at where the hotel restaurant is soooo good I actually want to eat my meals here. Ordered the mixed fruit pancakes with vanilla butter from the ala carte menu. Wow! Yummy.
Met Richard and Heather at the airport. It's really nice to see a familiar face after all this time. We fly today from Bangkok to Phuket. It is a short and uneventful flight. A 45 minute van/cab ride takes us from the airport to the Sand Inn in the heart of Patong Beach on Phuket island. The Sand Inn is a clean but unadorned hotel. It is reasonably priced (for Patong), well located and the desk staff is very friendly. It is a 10 minute walk to the beach, but beachfront hotels are a lot more expensive. For us techno-travellers, they have just recently added the ability to dial out from the rooms so you can now get to the internet from the comfort of your own Phuket bed.
Had dinner at the K-Hotel, one of Richard's favorite Patong restaurants. I can't say I cared for it. It is run by Germans, and a fair bit of the menu is in German only with no English translation. I had a steak, which was OK, but not really what I was in the mood for. Also, the service sucked. Afterwards, hit a bar or two and packed it in.
The coffee in the shop under the Sand Inn is so strong I get jitters just thinking about it. Met Richard and Heather for breakfast, then headed out to talk to dive shop operators about dive trips. I want to do a 4 or 5 day live-aboard, but Richard and Heather want to do 3 days. Had a little trouble finding arrangements that matched all of our desires. Ultimately we decided to sign up for two trips with Scuba Cat, one a 2 day/1 night trip to the Similan Islands (north of Phuket) and the other 3 day/2 night trip on a much nicer boat to Hin Daeng, which is South. The Similans have a great reputation, but Hin Daeng is better for seeing Whale Sharks and Manta Rays (of course, not at this time of year.) They say that if the visibility is good, Hin Daeng is as good or better than the Similans, but that the visibility is often poor. Through sheer coincidence, I had picked up a coupon book the night before which contained a 10% off coupon for the dive operators we had chosen. Ended up saving about $350 between the three of us! Not a bad deal for a random stroke of luck.
Afterwards we headed to the main beach in Patong.
This is a very weird place. It is an odd combination of UTP ("Undifferentiated Tropical Paradise") and Sodom. The streets are lined with bars, restaurants, go-go clubs, and hawkers selling all manner of counterfeit clothing, bags and wristwatches. If it has a high price logo on it, they will counterfeit it. If you want an infinite number of Ralph Lauren Polo, Versache, Nike, Adidas, Timberland, etc. polo shirts, hats, bags, etc. each for about 150 baht ($4.25), then this is the place. Care for a Rolex or Tag Hauer wristwatch? About $80 US buys you one. And then there are the Go-Go bars where everyone is on sale, and the rows upon rows of open air bars with names like "Sexy Girl" and "Starlight Love" where the girls grab you off the street and force you onto a barstool.
Meanwhile, the beach has beautiful sand and warm water with a very mild surf. For 50 bhat young men rent you a beach chair and carefully arrange your umbrella. As you sit and read or watch the passers by, a whole army of hawkers parades by selling pomelos, pineapples and watermelon, soda, beer, T-shirts, blankets, towels, donuts (yes, donuts on the beach), or maybe a massage. It doesnít take long to learn the tiny little shake of the head "no" that usually sends them away. God forbid you make eye contact with one of them, and if you shake your head "no" too vigorously, they seem to take it as a challenge or something. The small shake of the head that says "I donít even care enough to fully shake my head" is the only thing that reliably dissuades them. Or perhaps you'd like to rent a jet ski for a 1/2 hour (700 baht - evidently non-negotiable), or a parasail ride, longboat trip, and on and on. It's all available, and all for bargain prices. Of course, you probably just want to be left alone to read on the beach.
The water is warm and inviting, the sun is shining, and I sleep on the beach as the parade goes by.
Lunch at the Number 6 restaurant (conveniently located on the beach next to the Number 7 restaurant.) Really good Thai food, and very spicy too. Why Number 6? Richard did a survey on a previous trip and determined it was the best. (Note that this is not to be confused with the Number 6 restaurant across the street from the Sand Inn on 200 Year Rd.)
After lunch I decided to get one of the massages so vigorously offered by the many masseurs on the beach. 200 baht for 1 hour, how can I say no? I donít think these beach massage ladies have any formal training, but they do have "magic fingers", and give a very strenuous massage, often causing true pain. One thing that really differentiates a traditional Thai massage from an American massage is that you and the masseur are on the same level, on the ground. In the USA, you would be lying on a table with the masseur standing next to you. Being on the same level and on the ground means that the masseur can use considerable leverage. Even though this woman was quite small, by bracing herself with her feet and knees, she was able to contort me into some surprising positions. This was also the first time I had ever had a someone literally stand on me. When it was over I did feel pretty darned good though.
We all had dinner at a seafood restaurant on the Beach Rd. Couldnít tell you which one it was, they are all pretty interchangeable.
Phuket. Another day on the beach. Today I decided to try out the JetSkis. It was pretty fun once I got the hang of it. It was also really hard on the arms - hanging on to the JetSki while bouncing over the waves is definitely an arm-stretcher.
Other than that it was just another day in paradise. Wandered around, looked at people and poked in shops and vendors stalls. I ended up having dinner at a seafood "restaurant" in a market just down 200 Year Road from the hotel. It is kind of an odd place. There are all these open air restaurants set up in this market. I walked up to one of them, and the guy had these beautiful black crabs (live) on display. Instead of a menu, he handed me a book full of photographs showing the things I could order. Of course, I had to have the crabs, so he picked out 3 crabs for me and showed me pictures of how they could be prepared. I had them with the spicy black bean and garlic sauce. Mmmm, mmmm, good. Damn they were good. A real pain in the ass to eat though, because they just take the crabs, chop them in 4 (while they are still alive, of course) and stir fry them up. That means that you have to be prepared to get pretty messy while eating. Fortunately they crack the claws for you.
Got up bright and early to head off to the Similan Islands for scuba diving. Turns out we didnít quite get the full scoop on what this trip entailed. We were lead to believe that it would be about 2 hours to get out to the boat that was waiting for us in the Similans, and we would have a full day of diving, then a full day the next day, and then 2 hour return. Wrong. The trip out involved an hour and a half ride in a van, followed by a four hour boat ride over very rough seas. This meant we would only get a half day of diving today, and then tomorrow we leave at 2pm, meaning only half a day tomorrow. So, this is effectively only one day of diving (half a day on each of two days.)
The six hours out to the Similans wasnít much fun. The sea was quite rough, and the boat was really slow. The other people on the boat weren't every social either, so Richard, Heather and I pretty much just hung out on top of the ship and talked and read.
The dive master on this ship, Uwe, is a really strict German dude. He wasnít real good with simple obvious questions like "when will we dive." His response was usually "When we are ready (in thick accent.)" Then, without warning Uwe announces "Now we dive". So you hop to it and get ready to dive. [Richard, Heather and I proceeded to make fun of Uwe's "Now we dive" pronouncements for the rest of the trip: "Now we eat", "Now we fly", etc. etc.]
I had decided to do my PADI Advanced Open Water certification on this trip as well. I'm not sure it was such a good idea, since it meant I had to spend all my spare time on the boat reading the book and doing exercises. Also, the Advanced Open Water certification gets you basically nothing, and is of very little value. My instructor for the certification was not taking it at all seriously either. For example, as part of the Advanced Open Water certification, one does a deep dive to 40 meters. While at the bottom one does little exercises like writing your name backwards and solving a math problem. The instructor is supposed to time this, and then you do it again at the surface and see how much slower you were at depth. My instructor didnít bother to time me, didnít recheck my abilities at the surface, and didnít even see if I got the right answer on the math problem! Hi ho. Getting certified in Thailand is a lot cheaper than in the US, and now I can officially do deep dives, night dives (which I had done before anyway), etc. without supervision. And, I now know that I donít get nitrogen narcosis at 40 meters (though I did feel a bit tingly.)
The food on the boat was freshly prepared Thai food, and was very good. It seems like there just isn't any bad food to be had in Thailand. After dinner I read a couple of chapters in the PADI manual and then crashed out in a big way.
Day two in the Similans. Got up this morning to dark black skys an very rough water. Seems a typhoon was coming in. We were scheduled to take a transport boat back to Phuket this afternoon. Uwe walks around at breakfast and says (strong accent) "Who is going to Phuket today? (laughing) No one goes to Phuket today! There will be no transport." Yikes.
Nonetheless the dive boat headed off to our first dive spot, which was in a fairly secure lagoon, and we went out for our dive. Did two more dives, by which time the weather had improved dramatically, and there was, indeed, a transport ship going to Phuket. The return trip was on a fast ship and only took two hours.
Basically just another day on the beach. Sitting, reading and recovering from the dive trip. We all went off to my open air seafood restaurant for dinner tonight and had another fine meal, highlighted by a whole fried fish. It wasnít quite as good as my first meal there, but still quite nice.
I convinced Richard and Heather to go off to Phuket Town with me today. Richard's brother Mike had told him that there was nothing worth seeing in Phuket Town, but there is no way I can go to an Island named "Phuket" and not go to "Phuket Town". I mean really. Of course, Mike was right. There is nothing worth seeing in Phuket Town. We had lunch at an upscale Chinese restaurant on the top of the Pearl hotel. It was good, but not quite as great as it should have been. Afterwards, we wandered around Phuket Town and confirmed that there really is no good reason to ever go there. I did manage to find a new fruit at a stall in the town though. Turns out that it is a Mangosteen, and boy are they good! The fruit vendor told me they were 450bhat per kilo and wouldnít negotiate because they were "out of season." Richard was appalled that I would pay that kind of money for a piece of fruit, but he's never seen the kinds of cash I've laid out for exotic fruits in the US! Of course, when I got back to Patong I found Mangosteens there too, and for only 200baht per kilo. So, the price wasnít 450 baht because they were out of season, it was 450 baht because I'm a white guy. Oh well. They still are damn good. Itís a very odd fruit. It's got a thick but soft rind of a shocking purple pink color, which you donít eat. This rind is about 1/2-inch think. Inside is a six segmented white fruit that tastes like really good lemonade. The segments of the fruit look like they would have seeds, but usually only one or two segments actually do. The other thing that is odd about the Mangosteen is that about 1/3 of them have ant colonies inside. The ants donít seem to eat the white fruit at all, so they donít damage the edible part, but you do get covered with tiny little ants as you try to crack the fruit open.
I've been getting quite addicted to exotic fruits here. Each day I search the markets for new fruits, and eat piles of Litchis, Longans, Rambutans and Mangosteens. I thing the Longans are my favorites. I used to like Litchis the best, but Longans are sweeter and easier to peel. At first I was trying to peel them with my pocket knife, and it was taking forever. Then a local showed me how to make them just pop open by biting them in the middle with the front teeth. Yum.
Another fine day in Phuket. This evening I went looking for the famous Thai pancakes. I had been unable to find any, but later learned that they are a night time desert item, not a breakfast dish. Ah ha! So... if you are ever in Thailand, you have to go to Patong Beach in Phuket. In front of the 7-11 on "200 Year Road", stands the man we proclaimed to be the "Wizard of Pancakes". He's actually an Indian fellow and claims to speak seven languages and have made pancakes in six different countries. He made me a special "double pancake Indian style" with chocolate and coconut. Wow. They start out with a small ball of dough, about 1 inch in diameter. On the smooth metal counter-top of the pushcart, he rolls and kneads the dough out into a micro-thin pancake some 7 inches in diameter using a phenomenal series of throwing movements. His hands move in a way that seems slow and graceful, but at the same time they seem like they're moving too fast for the eye to really follow. For the Thai style pancake, this is then sautéed in a shallow wok-like cooking area in a lot of oil and butter. For the "double pancake Indian style", he rolls out a second pancake, places it on the first, and then folds them over and over on each other. Then, when this is fried in the shallow wok, it soaks up much more of the fat, making it all the tastier. When the pancake is done, it is removed from the wok, and covered with various things depending on your tastes. Chocolate, coconut, and mashed banana are the most common. In my case it was Chocolate and coconut. (Note that it is always very important to capitalize the word "Chocolate".) Condensed milk and sugar are then poured and sprinkled over the top, and the whole mess is chopped into 1/2 inch square pieces and served with toothpicks. Words cannot describe just how good the "double pancake Indian style" with Chocolate and coconut is. I gave some to Heather, and I think she was almost in pain from the scrumptiousness.
Postscript: Subsequently I got pancakes at three or four other vendors in Phuket, and later Chiang Mai. No one else came close. It is for this reason that we dubbed the guy I found in Phuket the "Wizard of Pancakes."
Postscript #2: As of April, 2000, there is still a guy making pancakes in front of the 7-11 on 200 Year Road, but it is not the same dude. He makes good pancakes, but they are not wizardly.
Got up very early this morning to go on a Sea Canoe trip to the Pha Nga islands. The trip consists of a bus ride, followed by a lengthy boat ride out to the Pha Nga islands. The ride was made extra long because the continued choppy weather required the boat to go slowly. These islands are interesting because many of them have lagoons hidden inside the islands. For most of the day the lagoons are inaccessible, however, at low tide caves are exposed which allow access to the inside. Even at low tide the ceilings of the caves are so low that you have to lie down in the canoe to make it through without bashing your head. Inside the lagoons are various species of plants growing up the sides of the interior cliff walls. I am told that there are also birds and monkeys living in there, but we didnít see any. Even without the lagoons and caves these islands are striking. They rise straight up out of the ocean, and the bottom of each island is severely eroded by the action of the sea. This causes a shelf-like appearance skirting the bottoms of the islands. Over the years stalactites have grown down from the tops of the eroded shelves, making the whole thing even more stunning. As you canoe next to the islands, you also realize that the walls of the islands are covered with amazingly colored crabs. They are about the size of a small hand, and are black with neon blues, greens, and reds on their backs. We also canoed next to a mangrove where there were mud skippers basking on the mud and roots. Mud skippers are a bizarre kind of fish that take a big mouthful of water and then haul themselves up on land. Definitely a "missing link" type animal. My boat had an extra bonus of excitement. At one point there was a small waterspout spinning and churning over the water. I was looking at it trying to figure out if my eyes were playing tricks on me, when I suddenly realized it was coming straight at us. It went right over our little canoe, and thoroughly sprayed us with water. It was pretty cool.
After canoeing they made us a Thai lunch on the boat, and then we headed back to home. Overall it was really very cool, but it was also kind of a long trip. I suspect that if the water hadn't been so choppy, the trip might not have taken so long.
Side note: On the recommendation of one of the guys at Scuba Cat, I chose to go with "The Original Sea Canoe" company. They were much more expensive than the other similar operators, but the Scuba Cat folks assured me it was worth it. I am unconvinced. We saw several other operators while we were out on the water, and I couldnít see how the extra money for the "Original" folks bought us anything at all.
Got up late and went to the beach. Richard and Heather got an earlier start and headed down there before me, and then I met them. It was really hot today, and I felt like I was going to get sunstroke walking up and down the beach looking for them. The beach was also really crowded today. It really has become high season, and the Europeans have arrived in force.
We went for lunch at Number 6 Restaurant again. As we were sitting there a beggar boy came over to our table and asked for 10 baht. Then he stood there. He just stood there and stood there. Heather cracked under the pressure about 10 seconds before I was going to, and gave him 10 baht. He walked off to another table. A few minutes later an incredibly cute little girl walked over to our table with a handful of packets of gum (another common sales ploy.) However, this was unusual because she also had two packets of Coffee Mate in her other hand. She said something to us in Thai and with a great flourish tore the top off one of the packets of Coffee Mate and insouciantly tossed it on the ground. She pushed the packet fully open, opened her mouth, tossed her head back, and poured the Coffee Mate into her mouth. She stood there smacking her lips for a few moments as we looked back in shock, and then walked away. Richard, Heather and I cracked up; what was that?!? Were we supposed to pay her for eating Coffee Mate? Were we supposed to pay her to not eat the Coffee Mate? Strangely, she walked over to another table and gave them the other packet of Coffee Mate. A few minutes later she came back to our table giggling, and started punching me in the arm while singing a little song in Thai. I played at maker her stop punching me, but she just danced around behind me and started slapping me on the back. Heather suggested that I tickle her, which I did, and she stopped hitting me. After another minute she wandered off again. Maybe it was the heat.
Scuba diving trip to Hin Daeng with Scuba Cat on a 3 day 2 night trip.
The dive van picked us up bright and early at 7:30am after having packed up and checked out... it was an early morning. Drove off to a really busy port somewhere around Phuket, then took the usual longboat out to the dive boat. This boat is way nicer than the one we were on for the Similan islands trip. The crew on this boat is super helpful, and the dive master for the boat gave us a really lengthy and helpful safety and procedures talk. Much more professional than on the other boat. I feel much better about the level of professionalism here.
First dive Shark Point, a nice intro dive with fair to good visibility. Then a pair of dives off of the islands of Koh Bida Nok and Koh Bida Nai. Fairly interesting dives, but the visibility was only fair to poor. I am incredibly pleased and impressed with the Thai staff on this boat. They help us into and out of our wetsuits and lift tanks on and off our backs; it is totally excellent. The boat itself is quite a bit smaller than the Mike Ball dive boat I was on in Australia last year, which makes suiting up a bit of a pain when everyone is trying to get ready at once. A small concession in an otherwise excellent trip.
One other bummer note. I bought booties so I could use open-heel fins, and they assured me that they had open-heel fins for me to use. I was going to buy a set, but since they had them, why bother buying them and then schlepping them back to Seattle. So it turns out that the dive master scrounged around for 1/2 hour at the dive shop looking for fins and finally managed to jury-rig a pair for Richard and me. My pair broke as I was putting them on for the first time, so I had to go back to full foot booties. Damn. Tonight we will go to Koh Phi Phi (pronounced "Pee Pee" island), for drinks and fun at a bar. I'll buy some fins there.
By the way, as I write this one of the Thai dudes is fishing off the side of the boat with a lure on a line that is wrapped around a plastic bottle. It is very cool to watch; he just caught a cuttlefish.
Went over to Phi Phi, and bought some fins (not the one Sergio had recommended, but they were the only open heel fins I could find.) We had a really fun time drinking at Carlito's bar. The place was little-Sweden. I swear every 2nd person there was Swedish. Anyway, we all sat around and talked and joked and drank. Sergio the dive master is a really fun dude. I gotta wonder though, why do all dive masters smoke? Got back to the boat really late; tomorrow is an early day.
Got up bright and early at 7am to get ready for the 8am dive. There are 4 scheduled dives today, but I suspect I will only dive 3 of them. Hin Muang this morning, then 2 dives at Hin Daeng, then back to Hin Muang in the evening.
Pretty beautiful diving, though the visibility isn't all that good. There's lots of Moray eels, and amazing huge schools of tiny fish. It is really cool swimming through schools of tiny fish. I donít recall that from the Barrier reef last year. Unfortunately, there is very little in the way of large fish, crustaceans, or other large creatures (sharks, rays, turtles, etc) here. Later in the year there are often Whale Sharks and Mantas here, but not now.
Note, after 4 dives yesterday and 3 today I am just baked. Decided to skip the 4th dive this evening. For some reason they served spaghetti Bolognese instead of Thai food tonight. I am so used to spicy food now, I smothered mine in Tabasco sauce. After dinner a movie: Courage Under Fire.
I went up to lie out on the deck and watch the stars. To my surprise, as I was watching the stars it started to rain on me. I couldnít figure out where the rain was coming from as it seemed to be a clear night. Within a half an hour it was barreling down with rain.
Another early morning wakeup at 7am for an 8am dive. This morning's dive was kinda cool because we first descended to 23 meters, and then swam into a cave and ascended into an air pocket inside the island. Nice. This was my 25th logged dive as a PADI certified diver. Unfortunately Heather isn't feeling well today, and wasnít up to going on the dive.
Richard and Heather saw flying fish today, but I missed them. Hi Ho.
Two more dives today and then back to Phuket.
The final dive today is the King Cruiser wreck. My first wreck dive. The boat went down a scant 19 months ago, and it is amazing how quickly shellfish have colonized it. Other than the novelty of diving a wreck, it wasnít really very interesting to me. I think an older wreck were sea life has more thoroughly taken over would be more my style. Then, the two-hour journey back to Patong Beach on Phuket.
Even though I was pretty beat from the diving, Sergio and Jorge insisted that I meet them at a club/disco called Safari that night at 2am. The Thai's totally can't pronounce "Safari". It comes out something like "Sah falee". Somehow I managed to stay up till the appointed hour and hang out with them for a while, but I was basically a vegetable at this point and didnít stay long.
In spite of having stayed up till 3am the night before, I found myself awake at 9am with a screaming pain in my left ear. I called over to Scuba Cat and asked them for a doctor's recommendation. They sent me off to a nearby doctor who diagnosed me with an outer ear infection from the diving. Got a prescription for antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory. The whole shebang (doctors visit and prescription) cost 800 baht (about $23.) Amazing how cheap things can be when you donít have to spend a significant portion of GNP insuring yourself against ambulance chasing lawyers.
That taken care of went back to the hotel to wash up, pack up and get ready to go. Just as I was getting out of the shower Richard came knocking at my door. The travel agency had just called because our flight to Bangkok was going to be delayed which would cause us to miss our connection to Chiang Mai. They had rebooked us onto an earlier flight out of Phuket, but we had to leave immediately. Somehow I managed to get everything rammed hodge-podge into my luggage in about 5 minutes flat, and by some secondary miracle all the luggage and people fit into the small taxi they had sent to get us. Someone was smiling on us though, since we pulled the whole thing off without a hitch and made it into Chiang Mai on time.
Richard had found out that the Westin Riverside Plaza hotel in Chiang Mai had a really good rate on their standard rooms, and it worked out quite well. The Westin is a very fine hotel, and was a nice change after the Sand Inn.
We all went out for dinner with Mike at a local Thai restaurant, and then wandered the streets a bit, and went into the night market. The night market is full of interesting crafts (for which Chiang Mai is famous), as well as shops selling all the same usual knock off clothing.
Had a slow morning of it, then Richard, Heather and I headed out to walk around some of the many Wats in Chiang Mai. In front of one there was a woman selling little reed baskets containing live birds. The baskets are woven shut with a strand of grass. Apparently one buys a basket of birds and releases them for good luck. They're available with various numbers of birds, depending on how much Karma you feel you need to work off. I bought a basket of three birds and released them. I'm not sure how much luck it brought me, but it made a great photo!
This Wat was right around the corner from Mike's condo, where we were meeting him for lunch. Mike is a master with "Suki", a Thai dining style in which one orders small plates of uncooked meats and vegetables, and cooks them in a pot of water boiling away in the middle of the table. Mike ordered a selection of ingredients and lead us through the process of cooking them all up in the most pleasing combinations.
After lunch, Mike had some work to compete, so Richard, Heather and I went off on our own to explore Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the temple on top of the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is about 17 kilometers outside the city, up a steep and winding mountain road. Since we didnít have a vehicle, there was no way we were going to get there without a taxi. Mike helped us negotiate with a driver of one of the ever-present "Red Trucks" to drive us to the temple. For what amounted to about $10, the driver took us to the temple, waited for us for over an hour while we toured the place, and then drove us back to our hotel. Apparently $10 was a huge rate to pay for such a trip, but the driver knew we were going to the Westin afterwards, so he knew we must have money. I am still amazed at how costless human labor is here.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep starts with a 300 step staircase with ornate dragons flanking the way up. Once inside the place is full of the usual gold plated stupas and Buddha images. There are also hundreds of bells which people ring for good luck. Overall, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was a very beautiful and impressive temple.
Richard and Heather were tired out after our long day and decided to have a light dinner and pack it in early. I met up with Mike who drove me around the old city on his motor bike. We had another fine Thai dinner at a small restaurant near the gate of the old city. After dinner we wandered the markets again, and I got my first taste of fresh Jackfruit. It is an odd flavor, but I definitely enjoyed it more than Durian. There wasnít much happening in Chiang Mai on a Tuesday night, so in spite of our best efforts we packed it in early.
Another leisurely morning, followed by a boat trip up the local river. The boat trip was pleasant, and the water much less polluted than that of Bangkok. The trip included a rather pathetic stop at a "fruit farm", which was no farm at all, and an exotic fruit tasting session, where the "exotic" fruit was pineapple. Hi ho. Afterwards we went to the Talad Wararot fruit and flower market. I bought a huge bag of Lichi fruit and an amazing fruit called a Dragon Egg. It was bright crimson-purple on the outside, and about the size of an ostrich egg. Truly a stunning looking fruit. Later in the day we went to Wat Chedi Long, a very old wat of the Angkor style. It had been ruined in the distant past, and was under renovations. It was really interesting seeing a Wat of a very different era and style than the many we had already visited.
That evening after our travels we sat in the bar at the Westin and sampled the Dragon Egg fruit. I think the waitress thought we were rather weird for bringing a strange fruit into the bar. However, she did tell us the name of the fruit in Thai, and informed us that it is actually a Vietnamese fruit, and not Thai in origin. Cutting the Dragon Egg open was quite a surprise. While the outside was this unnatural red-purple, the inside was white with randomly distributed seeds, resembling those of a Kiwi fruit. The flesh had a texture halfway between a firm Kiwi and a watermelon, and the flavor was just plain odd. Possibly reminiscent of a Kiwi with no twang. The smell was perfumey. Richard liked it a lot, but I think I have to pass on Dragon Egg fruit.
For our final dinner in Chiang Mai, Mike took us to a really great Thai restaurant part way up the mountain. A good time was had by all.
Another bout of gastric distress; kinda thought I was past the point where anything would effect me. Dragged myself out and had breakfast with Mike, Richard and Heather at an expat restaurant. Unfortunately I couldnít really make it through my eggs. Had an uneventful flight to Bangkok where we were to stay at the Bangkok airport Amari hotel. The Airport Amari hotel is actually in the airport, and ought to be really convenient for a one day stop-over. However, for some reason one has to walk for about 20 minutes to get to it. From the domestic gates there is just no good way to get to the hotel, especially with luggage. We spent some 10 or 15 minutes trying to get on an elevator to go just one floor down, but every elevator arrived at our floor full and no one was getting out. Sigh. Finally we got past that floor change, walked 100 feet, and then we had to go back up one floor again. Apparently there just isn't a connector on that floor.
We got checked into our rooms and I lay down on top of my bed for a rest. A few minutes later I got a call from Richard because he was changing rooms. Turns out his room had "suck bed." Instead of a king size bed, it was two twins pushed together and made up as separate beds! No attempt was made to join them into a single bed. I got their new room number and then passed out again. After a while I decided to really take a nap and pulled down the covers on my bed. Guess what; I had "suck bed" too! Fortunately they still had one room available with a legitimate king bed in it, and so I got moved. I donít understand what makes them think anyone would want a room with two twin beds made up as separate beds and pushed together, with a king sized comforter on top. What is that about? Oh well, Thailand. Personally, I'd really prefer a queen sized bed anyway. It leaves more room in the room, and I just donít need an Olympic sized bed.
Traveler's Tip: If you are flying on a Thai airways international flight, or you book through American Express, rooms at the Amari are roughly 1/2 price.
Later that evening we headed into Bangkok to have dinner at the China House restaurant at the Hotel Oriental. I had told Richard and Heather about it, and they wanted to check it out. We had a scrumptious meal, including a huge Peking Duck which was excellent.
Unfortunately by the time dinner was over I could tell that I was really coming down with a cold. Hi Ho.
Return to Seattle. Richard and Heather were flying first class, but I was in Business. Richard tried to convince the gate attendant to move me up into First class to join them... it was Christmas after all. Evidently the Thai attendant wasn't aware of the Christmas sprit. Oh well. Had a basically uneventful flight, and slept almost all the way due to my cold. Saw Mount Fuji while flying into Tokyo. Richard and Heather thought it was no big deal, but I thought it was beautiful. Richard and Heather were jealous that I was able to sleep the whole way. Apparently they took a picture of me sleeping as "evidence." I'm not sure having a cold was really worth it for a good sleep on a plane.
© 1998, Andrew Sigal
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