|Travelogue: Thailand 1999||
Flying to Phuket, Thailand via Frankfort and Bangkok.
Sometimes I think flying international first class is better than the comfort of my own home! Upstairs in a Lufthansa 747 first class space shuttle. A modern miracle.
Ooops. I spoke too soon. Why can't things just go smoothly when traveling. Just when you think everything is settled, and you're all relaxed and ready for a pleasant flight and a good sleep, some stupidity appears out of nowhere. So "Flight Manager SV 13" Alex Junge just came up to me and told me that I donít have a first class ticket. Good grief. And somehow I allowed myself to get all pissed off, even though I know I am in the right. I tried and tried to explain to him the round the world ticket, but he was not open to new ideas, so that was that. As it stands I have just agreed to pay some $6000 to upgrade my seat to first class, and then I will have to fight the damn thing when I get home. All because some bean counter doesnít know the rules of his own product.
I am less and less impressed with Lufthansa. Every one of the flights has been late, they have no first class seating within Europe, and business class within Europe is unimpressive. They close their first and business class lounges before their flights have all gone in the evening, and though the aircrew has always been very nice, the ground personnel in Frankfurt have not been pleasant. I really like United, but they seem to have assembled the "Star Alliance" with some sub-optimal partners. Perhaps I need to rethink my airline affiliations.
[Postscript: After letting the stewardess know that I am travel writer and that Mr. Junge had just thoroughly pissed me off, a really pleasant captain type came over and joined me for a while to talk about how Lufthansa wants to make my flight as happy and comfortable as possible. We had a pleasant chat, and 15 minutes later he returned with an apologetic printout from Mr. Junge explaining that he had figured out and fixed his error. A pretty nice little letter actually. However, I cant help thinking what would have happened if I hadn't felt comfortable accepting a potential $6000 charge and had just moved down to business class. Something to consider.]
I'm not going to write about the first class service again. Of course it is wonderful, and if you haven't read mytravelog for Madrid, you can read all about it there.
Wow is the Bangkok airport confusing. It took me about 1/2 an hour in my flight-glazed state to find my way from my international arrival to the domestic departure. Of course, when I got there, it turned out that my ticket for this leg was written as economy class (M) instead of business class (J). And, of course, there was no way to convince them that it was supposed to be J. In the end, with just 20 minutes to take off, I decided to just pay the 800 bhat ($21) to upgrade to business class. I'll see if I can get a refund when I get back to the USA. One funny side note; when I said I would pay for the upgrade, the sales agent said that there was no room left in business class, the flight was completely full. At the last minute she said "Let me check to see if anyone has cancelled." In fact, someone had, so I bought my upgrade. When I boarded the plane, I found business class to be less than 1/4 full, and economy was hardly more than 1/2 full. But that is all part of the game.
The plane is a really nice wide-body Airbus A330. It is good to see the end of the goofy Lufthansa European business class with the funny narrow seats, and business class that is 3 seats across.
The flight to Phuket was uneventful, as was the taxi ride to Patong Beach. I had forgotten how long a taxi ride it is, though. Got checked in to the lovely and spacious Sand Inn, and passed out.
[Note: For readers of my other travelogues, please do not be mislead by my calling the Sand Inn "lovely and spacious". This is a private joke. It would be more accurate to call the Sand Inn "cheap, clean and efficient". Do not imagine for one instant that this is luxury accommodation. The off-season rate that I am paying is $18 per night. That should give you some idea of the quality of the place. From my other travelogues you will be aware that I prefer boutique hotels, B&B's, and occasionally fine chain hotels. The Sand Inn is none of the above.]
Wow am I off schedule! Yesterday's lengthy traveling, and the 6 hour time difference between Thailand and Europe have added up to a doozy of a jet-lag. I got up this morning at about 1:30pm. It is really hot outside and about 100% humidity.
Phuket feels a little bit different than it did in December, apart from the weather. Some new buildings have been built, some old ones cleaned up a little bit, and some weather-beaten signs have been restored. In addition, there is a fair bit of construction under way. The overall effect is that the place feels just a little bit cleaner and more prosperous. Also, there are about 1/2 as many western tourists here; it is by no means empty, but things are noticeably less hectic. It's still not a place I would take my teenage daughters though.
I wandered over to the offices of Scuba Cat to see what dive trips they were running, only to find that the offices are currently closed. There was a note in the window with a phone number to call to make plans. I'll give them a buzz tomorrow.
I had the widest price-gap negotiation of my life today buying a beach towel. I walked up to a booth with stacks of towels and picked one that I knew had cost 200 bhat in December. The salesman said 600. I offered 100, and he returned with 500. After a couple more rounds I had only gotten him down to 400, so I decided to give up and move on to the next booth. The next booth with the good towels turned out to be several booths away, but I found the same towel and asked the girl "how much". She picked up her calculator and typed in "120", which I thought was more like it, but then she hit another "0". 1200 bhat for a beach towel! This isn't Nordstrom! I typed in "100", expecting her to throw down the calculator in disgust, but she just went on with the negotiation. Eventually we agreed on 250 "good for you, good for me" (the magic words). I'm sure I could have gotten one for less, and if I was Thai it probably would have been significantly less, but it's just not worth the effort for what amounts to 2 or 3 dollars. I walked away with my $7 towel, amazed at the 5 times difference between her first offer and what I had paid (and the 10 times difference from what I really should have paid!)
Had dinner at one of the little outdoor fish restaurants that cluster together on "200 Year Road", though not the same one as last time. Reminiscing about my prior visit, I decided on the curried sea crab dish again, and chose my live crab. It was truly excellent, though just as messy to eat as last time. And, of course, if was a screaming bargain: crab, white rice, and a soda for 180 baht (less than $5.) Of course, I'm sure that if I were a Thai, it would have been less than half that. But I donít mind the white-mans tax; it helps assuage some of the "embarrasse des riches" that I feel here.
As with the rest of Patong Beach, this area of restaurants also feels just a little bit more prosperous than in December. There are more restaurants, and they each seem to have some bit of upgrading; new seats here, new fans there, a shiny new counter at a third place. Later in the evening I ran into a man named Larry, who is a shop-owner and a friend of my friend Richard. I asked Larry about it, and he told me that 1998 had been the best year ever for business, and though it was slow right now, January through April had each been banner months. He attributed it to the fires in Indonesia and political upheavals in the rest of the region causing American and European tourists to come to Thailand instead of Indonesia, Bali, etc. Those effects combined with the cheap baht has definitely brought in foreign money. Makes sense to me.
What a lazy hazy day. I basically did nothing but eat fruit and drink water in attempt to re-hydrate myself a little bit. Between the high heat here, the drying effects of air conditioning, and the overall effects of extended traveling, I am feeling parched through and through.
In the afternoon I made a brief jaunt to talk to scuba outfits, but I'm not finding reputable-looking places that are open; I hope that is just because it is Sunday. I did stop by the scuba supplies store and bought a small waterproof case. I realized that since I am here alone this time, there is no one to watch my stuff when I go to the beach. With this case I will at least be able to take my money swimming with me. If only this were Australia where the money is made of plastic.
As part of my program to relax completely I went for a traditional Thai massage at C & N Mussaya Thai Massage, on Raththit Road. Their card reads "Massage for heath, can help freshen and release those anxieties with a traditional Thai style massage." Well, I'm not so certain I want my anxieties "freshened", but it was an excellent massage and I am feeling very relaxed now.
Afterwards, I decided to ruin my appetite with a couple of my favorite "Trichinosis sates" (pork sates cooked over tiny little open grills, yum!) Wandering back from the locals-only market, I spied the "Wizard of Pancakes" at his usual spot in front of the 7-11. He had not been there when I looked for him last night, and I feared that his season was over. I made a beeline for him and ordered the "double pancake Indian style" which he had made for me in December. He looked at me with an expression of total non-comprehension. It suddenly became clear that on my last visit he had made up a special pancake on the spot, and gave it a random name. I described it to him, and he made me a pancake that was excellent, but was definitely not the same thing as his earlier invention. When I asked him how business was, he told me for several months straight he had been making pancakes non-stop all night long, and never got to sit down at all. "Good money?", "Oh yes," he replied, "I make 7 baht each pancake." Good for him! And why are his pancakes so damned good? Turns out that one day each month he goes to Malaysia and buys flower and chocolate, and that is where he had been the night before. Furthermore, the flower he buys costs 76 baht per kilo. The local Thai flower is 12 baht per kilo, but it is no good. Nothing like using the best ingredients. [Of course, he is a Thai businessman, so I donít believe a word he says, but it is a fun story.]
I had intended to go to the beach in the afternoon when it wouldnít be so hot, but the sky became blackened with ominous looking clouds, so I let prudence get the better of me and came back to the hotel to spend some time reading and writing instead.
I'm back on my exotic Thai fruit binge again. I've been eating wonderful Mangosteens, and the best Rambutans I've ever had. I just finished eating a fruit that they called (in English) a custard apple, which is almost exactly like the Cheramoyas that are imported to the US. However, this had a slightly more flowery flavor, the seeds were a little smaller, and it is eaten when the it is light green in color, not brown. It was wonderful and I plan on getting another tomorrow. I am told that it is Litchi festival season in Chiang Mai, and that Litchi's are only 15 baht per kilo there now. However, I have not seen any Litchi's here at all. I did buy some Longons but they turned out to be very different than the Longans that I was eating last December. The look the same, but the skin is soft instead of hard, and inside is a 4 part fruit which is a lot tarter and less juicy than the Longan. Flavor-wise they mostly remind me of an under-ripe Rambutan. What a difference a vowel can make.
I had a nice continental breakfast this morning at the café under the C & N hotel, and was reminded of the innocent, childlike quality I find in these people. My place at the table was set with a "Cheery Chums" place mat, with a drawing of pink, blue, and gray elephants dancing together. "Cheery Chums?" At a Soho art café this would be done to be camp, but here it is just innocence. Elephants dancing together are pretty; why shouldnít they grace the table at the C & N hotel? And of course, no two dishes match. Why should they? Dishes break; you buy new dishes, right.
Unfortunately, there is bad news on the scuba front. It seems that I didnít understand the scuba seasons here as I thought. There are simply no live-aboard ships right now. The weather is bad so the seas are rough, and it is low season so there are no customers. All the tour operators are offering the same set of day trips, but with the water this choppy I'm not sure I want to do one anyway. To make matters worse, for several days now I have been incredibly congested. I feel fine, but my nose is very blocked. A guy at one of the scuba places suggested that it is probably the air-conditioning. Could be. In any case, diving and congestion donít mix, so I have to wait for my head to clear up anyway.
I went down to the beach to watch the sun set. It was overcast all day, but at evening time the clouds parted somewhat, and several different strata of clouds became visible as the sun shone redly through them and bounced off the waves at the shore. It was very pleasant and peaceful, there was hardly anyone around, and the waves were crashing so loudly that the noise of the traffic was almost completely drowned out.
After a while I walked up towards the beach road, where I found 4 Thai men playing a game that was almost identical to "Net Hack", but with an 8 inch rattan ball instead of a hacky-sack. [Net Hack is a game played by 2 teams of 2 people over a net that is somewhere between a high tennis net and a low volley ball net. The rules of the game are exactly like those of volleyball, except that you use your feet and legs to hit the ball instead of your hands and arms, and you use a hacky sack "footbag", instead of a ball.] It was pretty cool, and they were quite good at it.
Afterwards, I went on a tee shirt buying spree, and finally ended up at a place that does foot massages. I had wanted to do a foot massage the last time I was in Thailand, but didnít get around to it. So in I went. The place was unrelaxing in exactly the way that a similar emporium in the US would be relaxing. In the US, any place doing massage would have soft indirect lighting, separate areas where your aura would not be at all disturbed during your relaxation treatment, incense or herbs burning somewhere, and the distant tinkling of new age music in the background. This place was lit with a dozen bare fluorescent bulbs to the intensity of the Sahara at mid-day, smelled of the food that one of the unoccupied masseuses was eating, and was filled with the peals of laughter of the other masseuses watching a loud Thai sit-com on the TV. And yet somehow it was an extremely relaxing and pleasant experience, and I even fell asleep for some of it, coming back to full consciousness only for the parts that were more like torture and less like massage. For some reason the Thais haven't really come to grips with the idea of a relaxing massage. Anything that contains the word "massage" in it will consist in part of relaxing massage, and part intense pain. One just has to hope that the relaxing part will outweigh the pain part to a degree you find acceptable. In any case, a Thai massage is always an adventure. [I also learned that in spite of what Samuel L. Jackson may have said to John Travolta in the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, a foot massage does not have to be sexual.]
Afterwards, I was having a hard time deciding what I wanted for dinner, and the only thing I knew was that I wanted something with at least a little bit of vegetables in it. A constant diet of chicken, fish, rice and fruit was getting a bit thin. So I was wandering amongst some stalls near the hotel when I saw a cooking stall with some poultry hanging in it, and a woman cooking what appeared to be vegetables in a wok. So I sat down. The woman asked me what I would like, and I said "I donít know, but I'd like something with vegetables." The woman gave me that look of total non-comprehension that only a Thai can give and said "Chicken, duck". "Do you cook them with vegetables?" I asked. Blank stare. "Chicken, duck", she repeated. A man sitting nearby who was a farang ex-pat looked over and said to me "They make chicken and duck here, they are both very good." I told him that I was really hoping for some veggies, and asked what they were cooking in the wok. He asked her in Thai, and told me it was suki, which I had had in Chiang Mai last year. "Mmmm, that sounds great!" I said to the woman with my most enthusiastic nod. She looked extremely confused, and proceeded to serve me a bowl of very nice suki. She then went back to her wok, and about 5 minutes later sat down a few seats away from me with another bowl of suki. With a start, I realized that I had just swiped this woman's dinner! It was very good; I'll have to try that again tomorrow!
There are definitely some complications with traveling alone. I have been going to the beach, but haven't gone swimming because I donít know what to do with my stuff. When I was here last time, I was with my friends Richard and Heather, so there was always someone to sit on the beach while one or another of us went into the water. Being alone, I have no such watcher. I had asked Su, the manager at the hotel, if it would be safe for me to leave things on a beach chair and go swimming. She made it pretty clear that my clothes and towel might still be there when I got back, but anything else would probably "walk away." (And she couldnít even vouch for the towel and clothes!)
So today I clothed myself in 100% replaceable local garb, and grabbed my local-bought towel. I cut a whole in my $3 fake Nike swimming trunks and tied my waterproof box onto them. Then I went to a shop where locals go to buy necessities, and bought a small lock and chain, and headed down to the beach. With the lock and chain I was able to lock my sandals and hat to a beach chair, and put the keys and my money in the waterproof box. The water was great; really warm and with big waves. I had a fun time getting pounded about. Sure enough, when I got back everything was just as I had left it. As they say, a little preparation goes a long way. However, a little preparation is also a pain in the ass. It is definitely easier and more fun traveling with friends.
I had dinner tonight at a really good restaurant named Baan Rim Pa with my diving friend Sergio and his friend P.J. This is the kind of restaurant where they do Thai food really well, and they add flair. So, for example, the Thom Kah Gai (chicken, coconut milk soup) comes in a coconut shell, but it is really good in addition to having the entertainment element. I had shrimp wrapped in vermicelli threads and deep fried for an appetizer, and then red curry duck for my main. It was very good.
Today it is insanely hot. There was a big wind storm last night, and it seems like it managed to blow out the cloud cover, so this morning it was clear, bright, and super-hot. Then the clouds came back in turning the whole world into one huge sauna. As I was sitting down to breakfast a European-looking guy rode by on a bicycle, and as I was finishing he road by in the opposite direction again. I couldnít help thinking that if I had to pedal a bike in this heat I would certainly burst into flames before I made it to the end of the block. For some reason the idea of going to the beach seems very unappealing. Perhaps this would be a good day to catch up on my email.
Went for lunch at some place on the beach road. They handed me a menu but I already knew what I wanted, so I just said "Thom Yum Goon and white rice, please." I guess I must have ordered it with a great deal of authority and authenticity, because it arrived at what I would describe as "Thai native" spiciness, not "American who likes spicy food" spiciness. Ouch.
Later I went for another very nice Thai massage, and eventually ended up at the beach around sunset. It has been so hot that late afternoon is the only time that is bearable. Also, it is just plain great on the beach in the evening. There is almost no one there, the surf is pounding loudly, and there was a really nice breeze. A Thai dog came by and sat down with me for a while and watched the waves. After a bit he poked his nose at my water bottle, so I poured some water into my hand. He ended up drinking about two thirds of my water from my palm before he decided he'd had enough, and sat down again.
It is incredibly easy for me to just slide into the pace of this place. Shuffling along the streets during the day, craziness at night. Part of me feels like I should be doing something; a trip to one of the other beach areas, a scuba day trip, a visit to the butterfly park, even the silly Phuket Fantasea, but somehow I just donít seem to be getting around to it.
I had an amazingly expensive lobster at Lai Mai, one of the beach-side seafood restaurants tonight. It was the one that Richard, Heather and I went to most often when we were here in December. It has definitely gone down hill (or else they were having a bad night.) The lobster was not good, and the drink I ordered was so bad I actually sent it back. Good grief. In Thailand, 700 baht ($19) is a hell of a lot of money for a bad meal. Hi ho. Meanwhile, the schmaltzy band played the worst rendition of "My Way" I have ever heard. I'm not sure the singer was familiar with the concept of "a tune", and for some reason he kept getting louder and louder. When the female vocalist joined in in a different key, the couple at the table sitting next to me actually started laughing out loud. We had a great time clapping our hands and shouting "No more, no more" when it was over.
I'm not sure what makes the Thai people think that we want to hear smarmy cover songs when we eat. All the tourist restaurants have them. Perhaps the European tourists like it?
I learned the most useful Thai phrase tonight: [transliteration] My ow, kahp koon krahp," which means "No (I donít want it), thank you." I am constantly beset by vendors of everything from cigarettes to luggage, hammocks to flowers, soup to nuts. I can pretty much say "No, thank you" in English 'till I am blue in the proverbial face. But a quick "My ow, kahp koon kraph" dispatches them instantly. Ahh, the mother tongue.
Doing nothing at all seems to continue to be appealing. I'm reading another book by Bill Bryson, Neither Here No There, about his travels in Europe; a very funny book. Had the usual day, wandering about, buying unfamiliar foods in the Thai-only market, eating, going to the beach in the evening. The surf is still very high; swimming today was impossible as the waves were knocking me over when I was only in up to my waist. I'd like to say that there was a pleasant breeze, but it was more like a pleasant gale.
Had a late night dinner at the same food stall where earlier I had snagged the proprietors dinner. This time I had some of the chicken and some duck. They were both excellent.
There was a French movie on the TV tonight. It was in French with sub-titles. But get this, the sub-titles were in French! Evidently someone was not clear on the concept.
While walking to the ATM this morning I got caught in one of those amazing 5 minute long tropical showers. So much water came down in just those 5 minutes that it was running in the streets. Fortunately, I was able to duck into a restaurant before it really started hammering. Everyone who was outside was clearly drenched to the bone in the first 30 seconds. A very impressive show of nature.
I had wanted to go to either the Orchid farm, or the butterfly gardens today. However, since things were looking quite washed out, I decided to go to a place nearby called "Hide Away Spa" (47/4 Na Nai Road, 340-591). I read about it in The Visitors Guide to Phuket, by Gary Ebsen. Anyway, it is Thai massage done in the kind of setting that a Californian would appreciate. It is in the woods in the foothills of Patong, with trees, pools, waterfalls, indirect lighting, and new age music tinkling somewhere in the background. For 750 baht, you get 1 hour in an herbal steam room and a 1 hour Thai massage with your choice of special herbal oil. Apparently Lionardo Di Caprio came to this place while shooting a film on Phi Phi island - a fact about which they are quite proud. I sat in the herbal steam bath for about as long as I could, and then went out and soaked in a pool fed by a fake waterfall, then back into the steam, until it started to thunder down with rain again. I decided that since I was soaked from head to toe anyway, it would be kinda fun to stand in the rain. The attendants looked at me like I was nutso, but I didnít care, and the rain felt really nice after the hot steam bath.
The traditional Thai massage that followed was pretty similar to the other ones I have had, though the masseuse was much older, and had hands of iron. The ratio of torture to pleasure in this massage was much higher than in the rest of my massages. The masseuses that I have been able to talk with have told me that they learned from an old lady who learned in one of the temples. I suspect that my masseuse today was one of those old ladies. In any case, she didnít seem very impressed by my contorting my face and groaning when she shoved her thumbs knuckle deep into my Achilles tendon, or drove the better part of her elbow into my hamstrings.
In any event, the setting was very nice, and the steam was kinda fun, and I got a souvenir bar of soap out of the deal. However, for less than 1/3 the price I think I still prefer the massage at the C & N Hotel.
I'm starting to fade on the constant diet of Thai food, so I decided to head to the K-Hotel for dinner tonight. Their specialty is beef, so I had the fillet with herb-butter. It was quite well done, and a nice change of pace.
I've noticed a strange addiction amongst many of the locals that I haven't been able to get an explanation for. I keep seeing people using nasal inhalers. Everywhere you go there are Thai people (especially woman), absent-mindedly unscrewing the tops of inhalers and idly inhaling. The thing that is striking is that it is so immensely casual. In the USA I've seen people use inhalers for colds, or allergies, or whatever to relieve congestion, but there a person opens the thing up, takes a quick inhale up each nostril, and puts it away. Here, people will stand around having lengthy conversations, talking, laughing, and joking while holding an inhaler stick to a nostril. More than once I've seen a person standing around with an inhaler literally hanging from their nose, looking for all the world like a cigarette dangling from a drunkards lip.
I finally got a look at one of these inhalers tonight. It seems to be a mixture of menthol and other miscellaneous ingredients. I was half expecting to see some addictive substance like nicotine or codeine in the ingredient list, but it all looked pretty benign. Maybe I can find an ex-pat that can explain it.
Well, I know why they call this the rainy season. The faucet has been turned on, and it is quite impressive. Su, the manager at the hotel said to me this morning, "Sleep day?" "Yup!"
At least you get a 2 to 5 minute warning before the real rain begins. It starts as a hard drizzle, then you get a nice tolerable slow rain with a solid wind, and then about a minute later you'd really better have found some shelter cause there's water everywhere. Looking out my window I can barely see the market down the road because the rain is so thick.
But thatís OK. When I come to Thailand I do a very different kind of travel than I do elsewhere. There are a thousand different kinds of vacations you can take; self guided touring, guided tours, adventure/activity travel, etc. And within those there are as many variations as there are people in the world. Normally when I am in a place like this, I feel compelled to go to every attraction, check out all the beaches, eat in a different restaurant every day, and if possible, walk down every street. But here it is completely seductive to just slide into the slow, lazy, meandering day; slip into the comfort of the familiar, and relax. I'll go to the Orchid farm some other time, today I'll watch the rain.
Learned an important new piece of vocabulary today, "fohn dtock", rain! And then there is the ever popular "jahk ah jee", to be ticklish. I also read in a book that though "sawasdi" means both hello and goodbye, the person leaving is supposed to say "lah gawn". However, no Thai person I've spoken to confirms this. I also learned something about "one half". I was in the market today and wanted "one half kilo" of mangosteens. The woman filled a bag with one and one half kilos of fruit. I said "No, one half kilo, please." She looked confused, handed me the bag, and said "one half kilo". After some more confusion, she called her husband over, and we repeated the ritual. Finally I realized that "half kilo" means 1/2 kilo, and "one half kilo" means "one and one half kilo." Ah ha!
Had a Thai omelet for lunch today at #6 restaurant on the beach. This is basically an omelet filled with ground pork in a chili tomato sauce. Yum! Recommended. One thing I really like about the #6 restaurant is that they seem to have their own breed of dog, and every time I go it seems like there's more of them. I sat out on their deck and ate and watched surfers, but then it started to rain really hard, and I had to pick up my food and run inside.
For dinner tonight I returned to the seafood restaurants for curried shells and chili shrimp. For desert I went to another nearby stall and had yummy mango with sticky rice. Rice is in everything you eat in Thailand. In fact, the Thai phrase for "let's go eat" literally means "lets go eat rice." So every meal is rice with something else. Rice soup for breakfast, rice for lunch, rice for dinner and rice for desert. Thais also love things that are too sweet. It is an interesting experience to order some of the local mystery juices that are sold at the various stands. They are all insanely sweet. Even familiar sodas like coke and fanta taste sweeter here.
Sitting and drinking in the local bars reveals the most astonishing tastes in television. Many of the bars have TVs, and most of the people in the bars sit glued to them for as long as possible. This in itself is not surprising, but it is the things they like to watch that amazes me. Sitting in a bar having a beer, crowds of young Thai women will crowd around to watch hacker/slasher films that would make Wes Craven flinch, filled with mind numbing graphic gore. Then, when those are over, they will switch to childish animated cartoons about a Koala bear that has lost its mother.
The one cartoon that really got to me was a Japanese cartoon centered around a really mean little boy who spends most of his time making his mother's life miserable. Each episode pretty much consists of the boy doing a series of cruel things to his mom; throwing the clean laundry in the garbage; eating a cake she made to bring to a party; embarrassing her at the super market; locking her out of the house during a typhoon; on and on. Eventually the mother looses her temper and yells at someone other than the little boy (his sister, the father, etc.) It's really a rather pathetic message. However, coming from the country that brought the world Bevis and Butthead, I guess I donít have the right to be critical.
This morning, my friend Lun and her family were going to Wat Chalong near Phuket Town, and invited me to come along. We had a pleasant Tuk Tuk ride to the temple, and then I followed Lun in to the temple grounds. Wat Chalong is an attractive and good sized temple, though not nearly as large nor as ornate as some of the temples I had visited in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It was interesting watching as they performed various rituals. In the main temple of the complex, they knelt before an altar, prayed for a time, and then picked up various fortune telling devices. First they shake a cylindrical vessel full of sticks until one of the sticks falls out. Each stick has a message written on it in Chinese. I assume that these are I Ching sticks. Then they toss a pair of pod-shaped blocks to see how they land. Apparently landing with the same orientation indicates good luck, and landing with opposite orientation is bad luck. Afterwards, they apply pieces of gold leaf to statues, and then retrieve a piece of paper from one of many drawers in a wooden cabinet. The papers were all written in Thai, but Lun told me that her "fortune" was mostly very good, with a few bad things. Sounds like life.
We proceeded to visit the rest of the shrines on the Wat grounds, and then headed over to some food booths to get lunch. Lun insisted that I try the grilled dried squid that they were all eating. It reminded me of fishy shoe leather. I made the best show I could of eating some, but eventually I had to give up and spit it out.
By the time we got back to Patong Beach, the weather had turned nasty again. Lun and family headed off, and I went back to the hotel to read, write, and wait out the storm. As has been the case, the bad weather came and went in only and hour or two, so when it cleared up I headed down to the beach for a swim. The surf was very strong, but I had a fun time anyway. When I got back to the hotel, Su, the manager, scolded me for swimming during a typhoon. Perhaps I should be more careful.
A beautiful sunny day. The waves are still very big, and they still tell me not to swim, but at least the sun is out and it isn't so windy.
I got a Tuk Tuk and headed over to Karen Orchid Farm about 45 minutes South East of Patong Beach. The farm was interesting, but not really worth going so far out of my way. It turns out to actually be a working farm, selling orchid plants for the domestic and international markets. As such, it wasnít really set up to be visited. So, it was kinda neat seeing the rows and rows of orchid plants in various stages of growth, and the flowers were lovely, but there were no signs indicating what I was looking at.
The Tuk Tuk was dutifully waiting for me, and after I finished at the orchid farm we headed off to Nai Harn beach, at the southern point of the island. I had never been to Nai Harn beach before, and it was really quite nice. Much quieter than Patong beach, with none of the annoying hawkers and noisy jet skis. Apparently most of the beach is dominated by a monastery, so relatively few people go there, and there has been relatively little development. Another feature was that the beach chairs were covered with terry cloth covers that felt really good. A nice touch.
Again, the Tuk Tuk was waiting for me, so after a few hours of basking and reading I climbed back in and had him take me to take me to the "view point." I had intended to go to the Cape Promthep view point, but later discovered that there are two view points, one at Cape Promthep and one at Kata beach. To be honest, I have no idea which one I went to. In either case, the view was lovely. It is recommended that one go to the view point at sunset - apparently it is spectacular. I didnít quite get my timing right though, and ended up there a little over an hour before sunset. It was extremely hot, and I decided not to hang out and wait.
I continue to be amazed that it is worth the Tuk Tuk driver's while to sit and wait for hours while I go and do my sight seeing. In some ways I wish they wouldnít wait. No matter how hard I try I can't get over a feeling of being rushed knowing that they are just sitting there. On the other hand, it is very convenient not needing to track down a Tuk Tuk to get to the next destination.
Another beautiful sunset at Patong beach today. Sitting on a beach chair, eating non-roasted peanuts. Big fluffy clouds and wild rose and purple streaks of light, the waves crashing. This can be an amazingly beautiful place. One half hour before sunset the trees come alive with the sound of a million buzzing insects. Doing their mating songs to each other.
More crabs for dinner but this time I ordered stir fried mixed greens too. I made the mistake of putting too much pepper stuff on them and almost choked to death. Part way into my meal the skies opened up with torrential rains. Suddenly the restaurant filled up as people dived in for cover. The sound of the rain on the sheets of corrugated steel that made up the roof was fantastic. Rain poured down over the plastic roofs of the fruit sellers' stalls and washed piles of rambutans onto the ground. Wind whipped around us. Five minutes later it was over. Just like that.
Afterwards I went to the Wizard of Pancakes and had another delicious coco and coconut pancake. There was another Indian guy standing there talking with the Wizard of Pancakes. He told me that the pancake I had ordered was "Indian style", and that most Thais donít like them that way. So maybe the Wizard of Pancakes wasnít jiving me last time when he called my pancake "Indian style."
I seem to have moved on to the hard stuff. Thai whisky (Sang Thip) mixed with "Thai vitamins", whatever the heck they are. The "Thai vitamins" come in these little bottles and are some kind of brew of medicinal tasting sweet liquid. They mix it about 50-50 with whisky, and it packs quite a punch. Apparently the "vitamins" are full of caffeine ("Same same coffee" they say), so you end up buzzed and drunk at the same time. Woo hoo! Sign me up!
It was a beautiful day when I woke up, but before I even made it out for coffee the rain slammed in like a freight train. My friend Lun and I went over to the market to buy food; she's invited me to join her and her family for dinner. Lun is an amazing cook. When she's cooked for me before, it has always been the best food I've had in Thailand. Apparently her mother ran a restaurant, and she learned to cook from her mother starting at age 7. It shows. Today the market was a swamp, and the rain just would not stop. Lun was not wearing sensible shoes, but seemed to think nothing of slogging off through a mud field in high heels. I just couldnít deal though, so, before we headed into the mud, I dragged her into a stall selling shoes and bought her a pair of sandals. It is always much more fun going to the market with a native. For about 500 baht worth of ingredients Lun can make dinner for herself and me and her 5 sisters and cousins. Of course, I won't understand a word that is said over dinner, but that's fine. A good time will be had by all.
While we were in the market the rain picked up with a vengeance. The whole market area is covered over with bits of makeshift roofing of corrugated steel, wood, and sheets of plastic. At one point when the rain was hardest, a piece of sheet plastic roofing gave up under the weight of a pool of water. A torrent of water flowed down through the torn sheet and crashed into a huge pile of squid. The squid went flying in every direction. It was quite a scene.
Lun taught me how to choose good mangosteens (which she calls "mangoos".) Apparently you feel them all around, and if there are any hard spots then it is no good; it should be uniformly soft (but resilient) all the way around. She also showed me that if you look at the bottom, there is a 5 or 6 lobed ring. If the ring has 5 lobes, then there are 5 segments inside the mangosteen. If the ring has 6, then there are 6 segments. Cool. By the way, no need to worry about eating too many mangosteens; mangosteens donít make the body "hot", so you wont get fat from them. Um, sure. I seem to be testing that theory right now, I'll let you know.
This morning I got a Tuk Tuk and headed over to the Phuket Butterfly Farm and Aquarium (telephone 215-616). It was really great. I think this was the best "tourist attraction" I have seen in Thailand. I love the Thais, but they have a bad habit of screwing things like this up. Either they manage to destroy the artifact they are trying to show off, or they cover it with irrelevant fluff, or they just donít put any information in English, so you donít know what you are looking at. This place they really got right.
The Aquarium is really ignorable. It is quite small containing just a dozen or so tanks with the usual assortment of colorful fish. There's nothing really wrong with the Aquarium, it's just insignificant. (Note: there is another Aquarium in Phuket that I have not been to. I hear it is quite good.) Once you pass through the Aquarium, you emerge into the butterfly garden, which is great. I could have pulled out a book and spent the day there. It is a nicely done garden, enclosed in screening, and filled with flowers and butterflies. In the middle is a pond full of really big carp, with a nice walkway over the pond leading to a cupola in the middle. For 10 baht you can buy a little bag of fish food and feed the carp. It's nice.
Off in one corner of the garden is a cage containing two "small clawed otters". OK, so otters have nothing to do with butterflies. This is a very Thai-attraction kind of thing. God knows why. It seems like they just add things together for no particular reason. If they have a museum of gem-stones, there is very likely to be a life-size wax Michael Jackson in one corner, and a collection of French 17th century snuff boxes in another. But I digress. Anyway, I love otters. Clearly one day God was feeling a little down, and needed some cheering up, so s/he made otters. I find otters to be endlessly entertaining. I was particularly entertained when one of them surreptitiously climbed up the cage and grabbed my hand. It was very endearing. Its hand was small and soft and somewhat clammy and we had a very touching moment shaking hands before it did a back-flip into the water. Somehow a couple of butterflies had gotten into the otter cage, and the otters were having a field day chasing them around. It was great.
Off in another corner there is a separate aviary with several species of native birds. I had the place all to myself, and just stood quietly for a while. After about 10 minutes the birds got used to my being there and started going through a variety of preening, feeding, and mating behaviors. Off in another part of the garden was a cage containing a Hill Mynah bird with an unbelievable array of whistles and sounds. It was really incredible. It said, "Hello", and a few words of Thai, but it was the whistles and grunts that were really its tour-de-force.
The butterfly garden also housed several cages of different kinds of "walking stick" bugs with amazing leaf and stick-like camouflage. There were also displays of different butterflies and beetles of South-East Asia. The great thing was that all this stuff had great signage in correct English (as well as Thai.) There were nicely done displays of the life-cycle of butterflies, different kinds of butterfly eggs and cocoons, caterpillar defense mechanisms, and so it. It was all well done and educational. Even the bathrooms were clean! Go figure!
After over an hour I reluctantly dragged myself away and bought a lemon-lime Popsicle with "nature identical" flavors. Now there's a euphemism for you!
I had the tuk-tuk driver (who was waiting for me, of course), drive me over to the Phuket Orchid Farm, which is at the same place as the Thai Village. Once there, however, it was very difficult to find the Orchid Farm. The Thai Village is all set up for two shows a day of Elephants, rubber farming, Thai dancing, etc. There are no signs pointing out the Orchid farm. Since we were there at about 3pm, the tuk-tuk driver tried to convince me that there was nothing to do until the next show at 5pm. But I wasnít having any part of it. Eventually I found someone who spoke enough English to point me to the orchid farm, which was right next to the entrance. Much like the Karen Orchid Farm, this was a working farm whose main purpose was growing flowers for sale. There was little in the way of signage, and it would really only be interesting to a hard-core orchid fiend (like my Mom.) It is of only passing interest to anyone else. Given a choice between visiting this Orchid Farm or the Karen Orchid Farm I would choose this one. It was much larger, better lain out, and in general better repair.
I went for my usual sunset at the beach, but this time the relaxation was broken by quite a commotion. Someone spotted something out to sea, which might have been a person. Apparently someone had drowned earlier that morning. Big crowds of people gathered around, and the police spoke seriously into walkie-talkies. After a while, 3 of the guys that rent jet-skis arrived and zoomed off into the waves. Eventually they came back and reported that they couldnít find anything. A bunch of American guys tried to rent the jet-skis, but they couldnít agree on a price. Finally the jet-ski guys just headed out into the waves again to play around. Suddenly one of the jet-skis zoomed back to the beach and right up onto the sand. They had found someone alive, but exhausted, out in the waves. The commotion and excitement resumed anew, and eventually the stranded swimmer was saved. Its nice to know that even though there aren't life-guards, if one got washed out to sea, someone might spot you, and that the jet-skis aren't just there for a quick buck and a joy ride.
I'm getting to the end of my travels, and have been looking forward to going home for some time now, but suddenly I cant imagine going home. I cant imagine not being in a place where I can get up, amble out of my room in T-shirt, shorts and sandals, and wander down the street to eat great food for a pittance. I can laze my way into a wonderful $8 massage, then buy a couple kilos of perfectly ripe, completely fresh fruit for almost nothing. How can I leave this place where the weather is hot, and the beach is just down the road. And how do I go home to a place where no one ever smiles, when I have just spent two weeks surrounded by happy, smiling people?
So I went for another foot massage. This time at a place called First Foot Massage (54/8 Soi Patong Resort), which claims to have been the first foot massage place in Phuket. This foot massage had a greater feeling of authenticity to it; there were a lot more implements involved, and there was more pressing on pressure points, and a lot more pain. As my foot massage progressed, I watched a massage going on next to me that was further along. At the end of the massage the masseuse took out a pair of long handled mallets and did a complicated hammering process on the bottoms of the feet. I had some trepidation about this happening to me, but when the time came it turned out to be quite a pleasant sensation. All in all, a good experience.
traveling to Bangkok on Thai Airways. Got to the airport in record time, only 1/2 hour from Patong. It was a good thing too, because of course they didnít believe that I actually had a business class ticket. Evidently Thai airways doesnít keep ticket information in their computers, or something. According to their computers, I had a reservation in business class, but that didnít mean I had a business class ticket! My ticket had an "M" on it, so that meant I was in coach. Anyway, the entire ticket office at the Phuket Airport studied the problem for about 1/2 hour, getting out big books full of rules, and finally made a phone call that cleared the whole thing up. So this time I am in business class without having to re-pay for it.
The Star Alliance Round the World ticket is a great thing, but they definitely have some rough edges to work out. First and foremost, the whole ticket should just show one class, not a different class for each flight. Furthermore, each of the partners need to learn to understand each other's flight classes. And most importantly, they really need to more tightly integrate their computer systems. Having worked in the computer industry for almost 20 years, I am well aware of what a monumental undertaking that could be, but I have to believe it would be well worth it.
In Bangkok I am staying at Ruamchitt Plaza Hotel, 199 Sukhumvit Rd at Soi 15. It is a pit. Not recommended. This place is really run down. The towels are so old that they are patched. I watched a cockroach cross the floor that was so large I wondered if it should be helping out with the rent. However, for some reason the place has really nice wall-paper. Go figure. I'm sure the roaches appreciate the touch.
After getting settled in, I wandered down the street and ended up having dinner at Suda restaurant, down Soi 14 from Sukhumvit. It was really great. Very spicy and very good.
Walked out of the hotel to walk down the street and get a cup of coffee. Instantly a tuk-tuk driver was on me. "Tuk-tuk!" he says. "No thanks." "Cheaper!" he yelled at me. I tell him I am walking. "Cheaper!!!" he repeats. Really? Cheaper than walking? Now that would be quite a trick.
Had breakfast at Java Coffee, a Seattle style coffee house, proudly serving the coffee of Seattle Latte Co. Ltd. The world gets smaller every day. As I sat there eating my doughnut, I saw a European woman jogging down the street. Jogging. In the heat, humidity, and deadly smog. Clearly she is made of sterner stuff than I. Or perhaps, stupider stuff.
Today I went to Lumphini Park, the largest park in Bangkok. It is an attractive place with ponds, fields, and trees. I was surprised to find the park mostly empty on a Saturday in the late morning. I donít know if the Thais consider Saturday as a day off, but if they do, they donít spend it at the park. On the other hand, it was insanely hot out, so perhaps the rational Thais were seeking cooler activities. In spite of the heat and humidity, I was happy to spend some time in a green place of relative quiet. Unfortunately, the streets in Bangkok are so noisy that you really have to be in the very center of Lumphini Park before you get away from the sound. I sat on a bench under a tree by a pond for quite a while, reading and watching Thai couples pedaling paddle-boats. It was really nice. Eventually a young Thai man came over and sat next to me and engaged me in a conversation that inevitably turned into a sales pitch. I wonder if I will ever get used to that. In any case, that was the impetus I needed to head on.
My next stop was Phantip Plaza, Bangkok's insane center for computer hardware and software. Phantip Plaza is a large mall-sized building four stories tall and filled with shops selling virtually identical hardware and software. I will never understand why they choose to cluster together like that where the competition will be fierce instead of spreading out to the many shopping areas throughout the city.
By the time I got to Phantip Plaza I was fiercely hungry (it had taken forever to get there in Bangkok's legendary traffic jams.) Down a little side street just across the street from Phantip Plaza I walked into a nameless little random restaurant and ordered fried pork with basil over rice. I was again amazed at how great the food can be even in a little working-man's restaurant. There is just no comparison with the kinds of quick meals that face us in America.
Later I headed over to the World Trade Center to have a look around. The World Trade Center is primarily a large shopping mall. It is interesting to see the kinds of products that wealthy Thais buy. They are extremely brand and label conscious, and definitely favor foreign imports over local products. I also walked around the attached Isetan department store. There is something funny about foreign department stores. It is hard for me to put my finger on it, but they just donít have the panache of American department stores. American stores like Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, and The Bon Marché lay out their stores and wares with a perfection that could only be achieved through multi-million dollar scientific research studies. As you walk through Nordstrom, you flow from one attractive department to the next, and just find yourself buying. In Isetan, there is a clumsiness to the layout that is certainly only apparent to the eye of a person thoroughly programmed by American culture and values.
For dinner I headed up to the 6th floor restaurant area. It was very strange seeing Thias eating at Sizzler, many young couples that were clearly on dates, bellying up to the salad bar and ordering up a steak. I'm sure they are equally confused by my enthusiasm for Thai food. I had dinner at Thanying Restaurant, which I had eaten at and really enjoyed when I was there in December. However, this time it was very mediocre and completely disappointing, so I can no longer recommend it.
Walked out the door of the hotel this morning, and Bangkok hit me like a sauna. Over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and 100% humidity. Last nights rain cleared some of the pollution, but that is a small mercy.
For lunch, I went to Yong Lee Restaurant, just down the block from hotel. There were no prices on the menu, but you just know it's cheap. And it was good too, but not quite as good as Suda. Unfortunately, the pollution was really starting to give me a headache, and I had run out of Advil, so I wandered around the neighborhood looking for some. Ibuprofen isn't a prescription item, but it is only available in pharmacies. While I was looking for a pharmacy, I walked by a place selling really interesting looking stainless steel silverware. I had seen some pieces that looked just like these in a shop in Phuket, where they were 4 times more expensive. Here they weren't exactly cheap, but they were quite reasonable. I was really taken by a set with rustic looking unfinished handles, and fully finished heads. I haven't bought silverware since college, so I decided that it was about time. However, a full set of sturdy stainless steel silverware turns out to be very heavy, so I decided to buy a small carry bag at a little luggage shop for about $6 to hand-carry them in. These shops selling cheap wares can be very convenient.
Another nothing day. Did some shopping, wandered around. Sat in traffic in taxis; pondered Bangkok's insane traffic and what can possibly be done about it. Will the new sky-train help? I hope so, but I have no idea where the sky-train runs. If it truly follows a useful routing, it could be a great panacea for many of Bangkok's problems. Short of knocking down a lot of buildings, I cant see how else Bangkok can improve the traffic flow. Mass transit has to be the answer in this insane city, and that means elevated trains. Bangkok is built on a swamp, so a subway is out of the question. In fact, I am told that like Venice, Bangkok is sinking. And I can believe it. While sitting in my taxi I noticed some men digging a hole in the sidewalk. One of them stepped into the hole, into water which was 3 feet deep in a hole that was only 4 feet deep. Talk about a shallow water table!
Walking down Sukhumvit Rd is not like walking down any other street in the world. In fact, it's not like walking. It's more like an amazing obstacle course of such a devious design it would make a high-school gym teacher proud. Street vendors on each side impede progress not only with their stalls, but also with stools and chairs, and the constant unpacking of ever more product. The sidewalk itself is rutted and cracked, and pocked with 6 inch tall raised manholes designed solely to send the unwary reeling into the arms of a stranger. But while watching your feet, donít forget to watch your head! Signs, awnings and electrical wires abound at a height that is above the heads of most Thais, but within easy striking distance of the average American. Now populate this arena with hundreds of people each with their own agenda; the three German tourists looking at t-shirts and fake Gucci watches, the lost American family who can no more agree which way Soi 12 is than they can keep hold of their several frisky children; a lazy Thai dog lying lengthwise across the sidewalk; a beggar man with no legs pushing himself up and down the street on a makeshift dolly; a peanut and egg vendor carrying his two baskets of foodstuffs on the ends of a shoulder-carrying pole; a flock of monks in saffron robes; and, of course, an infinite number of touts who jump in front of you to shove a brochure for a massage parlor in your face.
I feel like there should be a degree system for Thailand like the belts awarded in martial arts. I figure I'd have a yellow belt with two brown stripes at this point. With each successfully thwarted tout, your belt gets a bit darker and subsequent touts leave you alone. Talk a Tuk-Tuk driver down in price, your belt gets darker again. Eat the peppers in the Thom Yum Goon, another merit stripe. Help a taxi driver find the place he's taking you to, another point. In a way, it seems like such a system invisibly exists. I can now walk down Sukhumvit and stop most touts with just a wag of my head. When I was here last time they would follow me for blocks, grabbing at my arm and expounding on the wondrous virtues of their product. Now, they sense I am too powerful for their pitch, and give up in seconds.
For dinner, I went back to the Suda Restaurant, and have concluded that it is the most polite restaurant in Thailand. The woman who is in charge wais deeply to me as I arrive and treats me like a distinguished guest. As I was eating my dinner I noticed two sets of Germans eating at tables across the aisle from each other. At one point a waitress came down the aisle with an armload of dishes. She stood there for the longest time waiting so that she wouldnít walk between the people that were talking. Finally, she crouched down and scurried under the conversation, like someone trying to avoid blocking the beam of a projector at a slide show. I was impressed.
A 4am wake-up call is not something anyone should have to hear. But if you are taking the direct flight from Bangkok to Seattle on United, it is a fact of life. On the other hand, traffic at that hour is mercifully light, and the trip from my hotel to the airport only took 1/2 hour.
When traveling, you just never know where the next bit of excitement is going to come from. For the first time ever I was stopped at security; it seems that the silverware I bought in Bangkok caused some intense interest. Evidently steak knives are a no-no. Ooops. So after much commotion, my steak knives and the fork from my salad service where taken away and gate checked. Oh well. Live and learn. When traveling with silverware, donít put it in your carry-on luggage.
Other than that, the flight to Narita on a Boeing 747-400 is smooth. First class on this plane has not been upgraded to the Space Shuttle effects of my Lufthansa flights, but is still very nice. One odd thing about this flight; the turbulence has been continuous. Never so strong that you couldnít stand, just an unending strong rumble. Hmmmm.
One more step on the silverware saga. For some reason at Tokyo's Narita Airport when going from one flight to a connecting one, you have to pass through a security check again. In this case, connecting from Bangkok to Seattle, I had to pass security, and of course that meant I had to unpack my silverware again. At least this time they didnít make me gate check any additional pieces. I had been looking forward to the Sushi in the Red Carpet Club during the connection, but the flight was late getting in to Narita due to a headwind, and the extra time at security meant that I only had time to scarf down a piece or two and head back to the gate. Oh well, it's better than a multi-hour layover.
Second leg, a very nice 747-400 with the latest and greatest upgraded seats. And get this; there's power for my laptop in the seat! This is only the second plane I've been on that has that feature enabled. Woo hoo! Not that it really mattered; some reading, some writing, a movie, and then off to sleep.
For me Thailand is a completely different trip than my other travels. In particular, Phuket is a place that allows me to get in touch with my "inner lazy." It's just so pleasant to live cheaply, eat great food, sit on the beach, drink a lot of beer, and almost completely ignore my compulsion to see the sights.
Of Bangkok,Another travel writer on the web wrote "There's one crazy thing about Bangkok I must admit... it's got this totally mixed up "Big Metropolitan City" thing coupled with this "Third World" backwardness -- the masses of people, motorbikes, cars, buses, tourists, monks, everything crammed in and throbbing -- I found Bangkok to be one of the most sexy, sultry, hot & sweaty places I've ever been in my entire life!!! It's got me in a total "Love/Hate" grip and I can't free myself from its clutchesÖ" I couldnít have said it better myself. Round the World:
© 1999, Andrew Sigal
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