Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Thailand update

OK. I'm here in Thailand, and I have a bit of time to post something. I didn't bring my laptop or my USB cord for my camera, so this one will be without pictures. But pictures should come in a few days. Be patient.

I arrived in Bangkok on Dec. 23, at night. The airport has a big silver (almost aluminum-looking) Christmas tree with bright white lights that go "flash". There are people trying to suggest their taxi services for 900 Baht. If you go outside you see the official taxi stand where the fare is more like 250 Baht. The driver takes me to the vague vicinity but doesn't know the address (and Frommer's guide's map is not very clear). I eventually find the Bangkok Christian Guest House, where I'm staying. This is a hotel that is perfect: close to public transportation, the rooms have all the facilities they need to be comfortable, and no more. The staff is very friendly and helpful. And all for 1000 Baht per night (USD $30).

It's also in a seedy area of town, which is fine because there doesn't seem to be much violent crime in it. Just lots of tourists going to brothels. At no point did I sense that I was going to get mugged or shot.

Went up to see the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha. Very large, very impressive. There was a lot that wasn't available for public viewing, though on certain days some of it opens.

The National museum was also large, with many separate buildings. It seems that the 1500 years of Thai culture is stuffed into the area. I didn't see it all.

A friendly person was advertising a party that would happen in the area later on, but when he found out I wasn't Thai, he then got more friendly and asked me what I saw. He made some suggestions that weren't in Frommer's guide to Thailand. I feigned interest out of politeness. He then suggested I get a tuk-tuk driver to take me to those places. But not one of those that has a yellow plate; only those with a white plate. Oh, and there's one now!

I'll spoil it a bit and say right now that this was a scam. I had read about such scams in Frommer's and several other places. They take you to shops and glean a commission. All in all, not a terrible scam, in that it's not like you're being forced out of your money. But they are not taking you to good deals. They are taking you to places that get big profits and hand some over to the tuk-tuk driver.

The tuk-tuk driver first takes me to a Buddhist temple that my "friend" recommended. What's so special about this one? Well, there's a standing Buddha, a sitting Buddha, and a reclining Buddha. And there's some event happening today. I go there, and someone is bowing to one of the smaller Buddhas there. He starts talking to me (I later figure out he must be in on the scam too) and he confirms that there are special things happening at the temple today. He also looks at my map, where my "friend" had written down the name of a silk suit shop. He gets excited and says that he's glad I'm going there. Today is the last day for some kind of sale where locals can buy the clothes at a fraction of the usual price. This confirms what the first "friend" said.

Of course, the next stop is this silk suit shop. I look around, and the sales rep shows me some suits. Tailor-fitted. I'm not interested--I can get a suit for that price in the States. Sure, not tailor-fitted, and not silk, and not fine-quality (who knows how well these were made anyway), but I don't care about those things. I just need a suit to function as a costume, as an actor wears on a stage, when I go to people's weddings and funerals. He shows me Cashmere suits. I'm not interested. I eventually leave.

The tuk-tuk driver takes me to a jewelry shop. I should mention that this is the first place the driver takes me that is not on the list my "friend" wrote out for me. The next place on the list was supposed to be a museum, but it's closed by now. I'm not interested in jewelry.

The tuk-tuk driver takes me to a carpet shop. I'm not interested. The salesperson seems annoyed that I wasted his time. I now wonder if perhaps this is beyond the "regulars" the tuk-tuk driver goes to--this guy doesn't seem to be happy about the set up. I tell my tuk-tuk driver that he took me to the number of places he was supposed to go to. So I thank him and pay him the 50 Baht (USD $1.50). Incidentally, when I read the section in Frommer's again, it seems that even this was overpriced. Whatever. But the tuk-tuk driver insists on taking me to more places. No extra charge, he says--please, every place he takes me, he gets a gas coupon.

Eventually he agrees to "only two more" places. Which is good because I have a vague sense that I'm pretty far north of the public transit system now. He takes me to another suit store. I tell the salesperson the tuk-tuk driver brought me here but I have no interest in a suit. The salesperson thanks me for being forthright about this and I leave. The tuk-tuk driver is upset that I didn't spend more time there. He takes me to a jewelry store. I tell the salesperson the same thing, but since the tuk-tuk driver told me to stay at least 5 minutes, I do so. The salesperson rattles off names and qualities of different gems. Apparently garnet and cubic zirconium is popular there.

I tell the tuk-tuk driver thank you, and he pleads with me, but I say I'm hungry for some lunch, and I can find one in the area. Thankfully he had brought me into a fairly central part of the city, so that is easy. If he were really nefarious he could have ensured that I was very far away from anything at all. But in this case I had the power to walk away.

So all in all, not a very dangerous "scam" to be caught up in--I just lost about an hour or so of my time, and in the process got to see some shops and a few neighborhoods of non-touristy Bangkok.

One thing about Thailand: everybody loves the king and queen. It's like one big fan club here. People happily selling yellow shirts (yellow is the king's color) and people wearing them. And it's not a Potemkin village either--no one is watching )as far as I can tell) and people set up shrines to the king, and others bring flowers. I bought a shirt. The sign says the proceeds go to some orphanage. The people selling me the shirt were especially pleased that a foreigner bought one--"Now you can celebrate like us!" they said.

One major means of transportation is boats. It's weird--in many ways Bangkok is a modern city with skyscrapers and subways, but it still relies on boats. On the other hand, the boats are very efficient and useful for navigating the river and the various canals, and solves a lot of the traffic problems related to criss-crossing the river. So in some ways it's more advanced than paving the whole thing with asphalt.

Lots of markets, like Hong Kong. I feel not much commentary is needed here, because Hong Kong has so much of all of this atmosphere. Yet I think I didn't blog about it very much. Oh well--you'll see the pictures. Not much to say, really. People are buying and seling, as in any shopping mall, but you meet the owners in little stalls instead of wage slaves dressed in uniforms.

Christmas isn't that special in Bangkok--mostly, they don't notice, though some stores have decorations. One restaurant had a band that came in to sing Christmas carols. They were bad. More specifically, they didn't groove. The drummer was unimaginative, and the pianist was following a jazz score pretty exactly. It calls for some anticipated beats, which the drummer used to re-adjust, with the result that the song kept speeding up. A double bass player was doing his best, but either he or the piano player was making mistakes because they were often on different chords. Then a singer came and tried to follow the Christmas songs. She was reading from the score, and having trouble with the words. The sound system was exactly the sort you get in a for-the-family Karaoke set, and had a heavy reverb to cover up the fact that the singing wasn't very good. After that they switched to Thai songs and it's possible they were doing better then.

On Christmas Day itself I flew to Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. My church supports some missionaries there so I arranged to meet with them. Actually they're in the field up in the mountains now, so I communicated with another one who actually went home to the states, so she put me in contact with another person who would be in Chiang Mai, who had to leave to get a new visa in Singapore, so she put me in touch with someone else, named Bea.

I also made contact with Mike Anderson who taught at Pepperdine for awhile but now teaches students from exchange programs around the US who come to Thailand. We went for a Thai massage, had lunch at his favorite restaurant, and we went together to see Bea.

The missionary organization goes by many names, and one of them is "Free Burma Rangers". They bring in medical supplies and emergency supplies and help out a people group called the Karen who are being burned out of their homes, raped, shot at, and massacred by the Burmese military.

Of course, my being in Chiang Mai, I didn't see the action (that happens in Burma) but at least I got to see a couple of people who work there and see some of the videos they made.

Tomorrow the plan is to go to an elephant farm and ride some elephants. Meanwhile, Mike is taking a kayak down the river to Bangkok.


At 11:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you really wish to enjoy Thailand, make sure you visit pattaya which is a party place throughout the year. Its only 3 hours drive from BKK and a taxi will charge approx 1000 BAHT ($23) for one way trip. For a list of Bars, Restaurants and Eating, Dancing Places in Pattya, you can view them at http://thailand.restrobar.com/pattaya.html


Post a Comment

<< Home