Archive for December 2008

Off to Paradise!

December 31, 2008 - 7:14 am 1 Comment

This morning, we packed up our things and rushed off to the airport to catch our flight down to Koh Samui. Great experience with Bangkok Airlines. The comfort, service, and food are better than on our international flights with Air France.

We arrived on Koh Samui in the middle of a torrential downpour. I was hoping to get lucky with the weather, but it’s monsoon season down here, so this is unfortunately pretty typical. By the time we landed, I had befriended the guy sitting next to me. Jerry, an Irish man here to visit his brother, was traveling with his young son Connor. Like us, they were headed over to Koh Phangan (PAN-YAN), so we made our reservations together and followed them to the ferry. The ride from Koh Samui to Koh Phangan was bouncy but pretty quick.

Waiting at the Pier

Arriving at Koh Phangan

Getting to Bottle Beach, where we had booked two nights of accommodation, was a bit of an adventure. After disembarking, we were crammed into a van. The plan was to take the van as far as possible and then to hop onto a boat at Chaloklam, since there’s no road running all the way to Bottle Beach. But when we got to the pier, the waves were apparently “too big” for boat service, and our only option was to pay up for a 4-wheel drive vehicle to cut through the mountainous jungle in the middle of the island and back up to Bottle Beach.

Taxi Boat at Chaloklam

We shared the ride with Kyle and Beverly, a nice young couple from South Africa. Sitting in the back of a pick-up truck, the trip over the muddy roads of central Koh Phangan was fast and treacherous. We held on for dear life. At first, we were annoyed by the extra travel time and cost, but I think the natural beauty of the island, even when raining, won us over.

Jungle of Koh Phangan

Finally pulled up to Bottle Beach. Seems like a fantastic place. Just getting ready to head back out to Haad Rin for the New Year’s Eve Full Moon Party on the beach. By all accounts, it’s going to be pretty crazy.

Bottle Beach

A big “Happy New Year” from me to you!

Bangkok: WTF?

December 30, 2008 - 2:08 am No Comments

Today was a carefully planned whirlwind of Bangkok sights. First, the crispy duck and fake purses of cramped and stinky Chinatown. No place for a tourist with a tripod.

Signs of Chinatown

A Man With Cool Eyebrows Sips Cofffee and Sells Iced Coconut Water While a Taxi Stops in the Middle of the Road and Blocks Traffic

Then the relatively unimpressive Emerald Buddha at the Grand Palace, the large, reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, then across the river to Wat Arun. Wat Benchamabophit, touted in our travel guide as “a photogepher’s paradise,” was being renovated and didn’t even seem like it would have been impressive without the construction. Some of the wats had incense burning and music playing, helping to make things a bit more mystical. There was no photography allowed inside some of the wats, which is OK since the outside almost always looked more impressive. It was very warm and humid today. I can’t imagine how things are in the summer.

Prasat Phra Debidorn

Reclining Buddha

Phra Maha Chedi

Purple Lotus Flower

Prang of Wat Arun

Doug Climbs Wat Arun

After our wat tour, we tried to make it over to Jim Thompson’s House, a restored residence belonging to the guy who brought the silk trade to Thailand and supposedly an interesting spot, but it was closed by the time we got there. We got a tip from one of our tuk-tuk drivers that there was going to be a big Muay Thai boxing match at Lumphini Boxing Stadium this evening, which fit our schedule perfectly.

After being transported there by tuk-tuk, we were greeted by a vested women at the curb. She suckered us into ringside seats and led us through security. The metal detectors were laughable. I went through with my camera and tripod and there was no beep. I could have been Neo from the Matrix and walked in without a problem.

Inside Lumpinee Boxing Stadium

Each bout began with a little ceremonial dancing by each of the boxers. When it was time to start fighting, the small band off to one side of the ring would start to play, giving each bout a “soundtrack.” It did help make it more dramatic, I think. The mostly Thai crowd flashed signals to each other, an indication they were betting on the fights. For some bouts, they were quiet. For others, they roared with every kick. I had my camera, and we were up pretty close, so I was able to get a few nice shots.

Ram Muay

Muay Thai

Muay Thai

Bloody Winner

Lumpinee Boxing Stadium

Tonight, we ventured out on our own for dinner, choosing a Thai restaurant just down the street from our guest house. The food tasted much like it does at home. Then we found a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the Bedsupper Club, one of the Bangkok clubs hyped up by our travel guides. Our tuk-tuk driver asked us twice if we needed ladies and suggested a ping-pong show, but we stuck to our guns.

We pulled up to the Bedsupper Club only to be denied entry. It looked like we had finally found a decent social scene, but they wouldn’t allow is in with shorts and flip-flops. We then tried another place around the corner recommended by our travel guides, Q Bar, but it was the same situation there. Our tuk-tuk driver said he’d take us to another discothèque.

“Which one?”

“New club called Oscar.”

“No Oscar. We were there last night, and it sucked. We want a new place. We don’t need ladies, we don’t need ping-pong balls. Just a place with other tourists. A place we can have a drink.”

“OK, I find discothèque for you.”

The one he eventually pulled up to was called Kebab Party. Or at least that’s what I thought it was called, since that’s what the biggest neon sign in front of it said. But that was just a food cart. The club was called Bossy. After being escorted inside and paying the cover, the windowless doors opened up, revealing a bar that was almost completely empty, a raised stage with stripper poles, and lasers. The place was filled with people who worked there and hardly anyone else. It was just like Oscar. Doug had the pleasure of finding four men in the bathroom waiting to massage him. They didn’t even wait for him to stop peeing.

We had a couple of drinks and then gave up. Riding the tuk-tuk back to our guest house, we spotted a row of bars with brilliant neon lights and the commotion that usually comes from a good social scene. We hopped out of the tuk-tuk and strolled past the bars, only to find that every single one of them had ladies in front in matching skank outfits and/or numbers on their shirts. Naturally, they all wanted us to come inside. Walking back to the guest house, small groups of girls sitting at makeshift bars on the sidewalk threw themselves at us.

Seriously? Is Bangkok really like this? Where do all the tourists go? There are thousands of them in Bangkok right now. Do they all stay in their own guest houses? Do they all really go out to buy some ladies? Do they all know to bring dress shoes and slacks and go to the Bedsupper Club? The sights were impressive, and the people were friendly, but we leave Bangkok a little disappointed and confused.

Tomorrow morning, we catch an early flight to Koh Samui and then a ferry over to Koh Phangan. We’ll drop our stuff off at our beach house and then head to Haad Rin for what is supposed to be a huge beach party for New Year’s Eve.

If there is no social scene on Koh Phangan on New Year’s Eve, we are turning around and coming home.

One Night in Bangkok

December 29, 2008 - 5:03 pm No Comments

On the night of December 27, I went to Doug’s place, where one of his friends was waiting to take us to the airport. Our big trip had a bit of a rough start when, halfway to the airport, I realized that I had left my brand new iPhone on the trunk of my car. I insisted we go back to Doug’s place to get it, so we did, finally getting back to the airport just in time to catch our flight to Paris.

On our Air France flight, coach class was uncomfortably cramped, with seats crammed in about as tightly as you might expect on a domestic flight in the US. The food, surprisingly served with metal forks and knives, was mediocre. But I was most disappointed to find out that the coach seats on the plane did NOT have an outlet for my laptop. One of our flight attendants, though, was absolutely beautiful. She had one of those faces that you just can’t stop staring at. And I did stare, wanting for a moment to sneak a photo of her. Girls get creeped out by that sort of thing, so I didn’t. She hated me.

With no laptop, I had to entertain myself with the in-flight video system. After watching Ghost Town (fantastic since it stars the brilliant Ricky Gervais), I got a bit sleepy and conked out for the remainder of the seven-hour flight. Wonderful, since I usually have a really hard time sleeping on flights. Woke up just in time for the pilot’s horrendous landing Charles de Gaulle Airport. Didn’t even feel like the landing gear was down.

At Charles de Gaulle

We were scheduled for a seven hour layover in Paris, so Doug and I planned to head into town and do a little bit of sightseeing. We caught the affordably priced Air France shuttle bus into town and spent about two hours sightseeing. We had just enough time to circle the Arc de Triomphe, take a brisk walk over to the Eiffel Tower, and pee on the sidewalk. It was frigid outside (right around freezing), and since Doug and I had mostly packed for the warmer temperature of Thailand, our walk was a little uncomfortable.

L'Arc de Triomphe

Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

Doug and I have both been to Paris before, but on this particular visit, Doug and I agreed that Paris smells like fart. Every time we turned a corner, it smelled like someone had just dropped fresh ass. Walking the streets, I profiled the French: lots of hair, carefree, very little makeup, and pushy. No courtesy when people are lining up for toilets, visiting attractions, or boarding/deboarding a plane or bus. Once again, I tried to be friendly with them, but I was stuck in Peru mode and kept saying “Gracias!” to anyone who helped us out.

We caught the shuttle back to the airport to catch the long flight Bangkok, this one about 11 hours. Again, no laptop, so I watched Tropic Thunder (not bad) before drifting off and getting some quality sleep once again.

Charles de Gaulle Airport

Unfortunately, the flight did not follow the great circle, which would have taken us right over Mt. Everest and might have made a good photo opportunity. For reasons I would later learn, it went around the Himalayas and over India. When I woke up, I cracked the window shade and stared at the blue haze covering the mostly featureless Indian plains and chaotic river systems of Bangladesh before heading out over the Bay of Bengal. A few minutes later, we were descending over the mountain rainforests of Myanmar and landing at Bangkok airport. We were finally here.

Myanmar River System

Suvarnabhumi Airport

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is the coolest airport I have ever been to, with geometrically intricate, glass-covered terminals. After being discourteously pushed by impatient French people trying to get off the plane, we made our way through the terminal, through customs, to an ATM to get some Thai baht, and then outside to catch a public taxi to our guest house. It was warm and humid outside, nice to feel after the freezing temperatures in Paris. And I was feeling fantastic. Despite the lengthy travel time and 12-hour time difference, there was hardly any jet lag.

Confused about the dates and times of our flights out to Bangkok, I screwed up my original reservation for our Bangkok guest house, saying that our arrival date was a day before it really was. Showing up a day late, I was afraid they’d cancel our reservation, but they were cool with us when we showed up. The friendly lady at the front desk offered us a different, slightly more expensive room. We gladly accepted.

We plopped down our bags and headed back out. Since we were only in Bangkok for one and a half days, we knew we had to make the most of our time.

After consulting our travel guides, we decided to head out to the waterfront along the Chao Phraya River, the main waterway through the city. We walked a few blocks and soaked it all in: the hot pink taxis, the beeping horns, the haze from smoky vehicle exhaust, the blind homeless guys singing horrible songs, and all the smells: fried meats on sticks, pork barbecued on miniature charcoal grills, the putrid smell of garbage, vehicle exhaust, and the heavy stench of human feces, all within a few feet.

Bangkok Traffic

We hopped on the Sky Train and then walked a few more blocks before hopping onto a tuk-tuk (TOOK TOOK), a rickshaw-like thing which sounds like sputtering go-kart. Traffic in Bangkok around rush hour is pretty heavy, and squeezing into the back of a tuk-tuk and holding onto dear life while it splits lanes and zips between cars is a definite thrill ride. After arriving, we told our driver “kop koon kup.” It means “thank you,” probably the first thing you should learn how to say when you’re in a foreign country.

Tuk-Tuks & Motorbikes

We got to Phra Athit Road, one of the main streets along the river recommended by one of our guidebooks. It was not what we expected. A woman bowed at our feet as we walked by and then proceeded to piss on the sidewalk after we passed. Monks dressed in robes of highlighter orange shuffled past us. Tuk-tuk drivers stalked us like hungry lions, offering to take us anywhere. There was no communal pier or open areas filled with street performers, and hardly any tourists.

Wat on the Chao Phraya

The only access to the waterfront was through countless narrow alleyways, most of them smelling like shit and dark even during the daytime. After winding our way around for a few minutes, we made it to the rather unscenic waterfront, where the only item of interest seemed to be the majestic Rama VIII Bridge. We walked over to it, snapped a few photos just as the sun was setting, and then waited at one of the service piers for a boat ride down the river. But the boat never came, since it was 6:30pm and the boats stopped running at 6pm.

Sunset on the Chao Phraya

Under Rama VIII

Rama VIII Bridge at Dusk

Hoping to get a few more sweet night photos, we hopped onto another tuk-tuk and headed over to the Grand Palace, only to find that it was closed and surrounded by high walls. A complete bust. While waiting for a tuk-tuk back to the house, Doug and I purchased Cokes in glass bottles from a street vendor, only to see the girl pour them into little plastic bags and add ice and a straw before handing them over to us. Glass bottles are not allowed on the streets of Bangkok.

Determined to get something out of our first day, Doug and I went to get a foot massage down the street from our guest house. The masseuses were anxious to get us in the door, running out to invite us inside as soon as we stopped to scan their signage for pricing. A foot massage is what I really wanted, and it cost 250 baht (US$7) for an hour. But a full body oil massage cost 400 baht (US$11), also for an hour. It didn’t take much convincing for Doug and I to splurge.

The inside of the place was right out of a movie. The innocuous, brightly lit chairs downstairs were visible to the street and were for the foot massages. Doug and I were lead right past them, up some rickety wooden stairs and into a dimly lit room with large “cubicles” made of plywood and a curtain door, Doug into one and me into another. We were told to take all of our clothes off and shower before we started. My masseuse was named May. She was nice. The massage was good.

It was time for dinner and a taste of Bangkok’s legendary nightlife. We decided that our first stop should be Padpong, Bangkok’s “red light” district. We hailed a tuk-tuk driver and hopped in. After hearing that one of the things we wanted to do later that evening was see a ping-pong ball show, our driver made a beeline for one that was completely out of the way but surely made him a commission. We got out, telling our disappointed driver that we weren’t ready to go in and that we wanted to eat first.

We found another tuk-tuk driver who, after hearing that we wanted to see a ping-pong ball show, made a beeline for another one some distance away which surely made him a commission. After making myself excessively clear about our intentions to eat first, he took us to some random seafood restaurant in the middle of nowhere that served very mediocre, very overpriced food. Pen, our tuk-tuk driver, offered to wait outside while we ate so that he could take us back to the ping-pong ball show when we were done.

Doug and I were learning. The best thing to do with these tuk-tuk drivers was to be vague, saying that you wanted to go to a particular neighborhood without mentioning exactly what it was that you wanted to do there so that they can’t sucker you into one of their “recommended” destinations.

After our meal, Pen took us back to the ping-pong ball show. Again, the downstairs looked innocent enough, with brightly colored pleather booths and tables that made the place look more like a foreclosed Denny’s than a place where sex shows are performed. We walked to the counter, paid our admission fee, tipped the guy who shoveled us inside (he stood there with his hand out waiting for it), got our free drinks, tipped the girls who gave us the drinks (they stood there with their hands out waiting for it), and finally went upstairs. The show was something else. Wasn’t sure how to even react to it. What they say about ping pong balls, bananas, razor blades, paper clips, and popping balloons with darts is all true. Four Indian women (one of them covered head to toe) sat in the corner and watched silently.

"Welcome to Bangkok Jeff"

Again, Pen was waiting for us outside after we were done. We told him that we wanted to finally go to Padpong to get a few drinks, so he took us to a bar where several similarly dressed, good-looking Thai girls were chatting on the deck out front. Each one of the girls had a large white button with a large black number clipped to their dress. Doug and I looked at each other and then proceeded to go inside.

The place was empty and again resembled a foreclosed Denny’s. Doug and I looked at each other, not knowing which were the proper emotions to be feeling at this point. We both knew that we were probably getting into something that we didn’t want to do, but we went with the flow. A guy came inside and asked us if we wanted to talk to some girls, reassuring us that it wouldn’t cost anything. What would cost us is if and only if we wanted to take the girls somewhere else. No purchase required, so we went ahead with it. Moments later, all the girls spilled in from outside, and more girls came out from the back, all lining up single file in front of us and smiling. The guy asked us to each pick one to talk to. After taking a moment because I didn’t want to hurt any of their feelings, I picked #24. Doug picked #19.

The girls sat down with us, and everyone else disappeared. Awkward conversation ensued. Doug and I pounded our beers and knew we had to get out of there ASAP. The guy, who in effect was a pimp, asked us if we were ordering another drink or if we wanted to take the girls with us. We declined, and he walked away visibly disappointed.

After insisting to Pen that we did not need to go anywhere that had girls with numbered buttons on their dresses and that we wanted to go to a bar where we could find locals and tourists and have a few drinks, he suggested that we go to the bar next door. Inside, more girls with numbers on their dresses.

Pen said that all the bars in Padpong were like this, so we just told Pen to take us to a dance club in another part of town. So he took us to a place called Oscar.

Oscar was decked out like the cheesiest dance club in America, complete with lasers and smoke machines. The only girls in that place were the ones who worked there. We had a couple of drinks and decided to call it a night.

Before leaving Oscar, I had to use the bathroom. After finishing up my business, a gentleman came up from behind and reached around me with his arms. My asshole seized as it normally does under those circumstances, but it turns out that he worked there (I think) and all he wanted to do was contort me into various positions to crack my neck, back, shoulders and hips. Felt pretty good actually. Worthy of a US$1 tip.

Now, I sit in bed with Dough half-naked, as my late arrival in Bangkok meant that our original reservation, the one with two beds, was canceled. We are sharing a queen bed, which will work fine if Doug promises not to cross the line up the middle.

Our first day in Bangkok was educational to say the least. We have a full day planned tomorrow, as it is our only full day in Bangkok. We have a lot of wats (temples) to visit, more nightlife to experience, and maybe one more massage to squeeze in.

I’m afraid it will be a few days before I get any photos up. I think I’ve got some good ones, but I just haven’t had any time on my computer to get them uploaded. Will try to get a few up soon.

No Regrets!

The Adventure Begins?

December 4, 2008 - 6:09 pm No Comments

An edited summary of the recent drama in Thailand from Wikipedia:

On the evening of Tuesday 25 November 2008, the People’s Alliance for Democracy executed what they called “Operation Hiroshima.” A convoy of hundreds of armed PAD members dressed in yellow blocked the two ends of the road in front of the terminal building of Suvarnabhumi International Airport and blockaded the main road to the airport. The airport is Bangkok’s main airport and an important regional hub. PAD forces quickly overpowered hundreds of policemen armed with riot gear. PAD leaders mounted a mobile stage and proceeded to criticize the government. PAD members armed with clubs, iron bars and knives, with some wearing black balaclavas, then entered the terminal, much to the surprise of the thousands of travelers inside. Armed PAD forces also forced their way into the control tower, demanding the flight plan for Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat’s return from the APEC summit in Peru. Somchai flew into Bangkok Don Muang airport on the evening of 25 November 2008 before flying on to Chiang Mai. All Suvarnabhumi flights were soon canceled, leaving thousands of travelers stranded in the airport.

The government called on the Royal Thai Army to restore order at the airport. The Army did not follow the orders. In a press conference on 26 November, Army Commander General Anupong Paochinda proposed that the PAD withdraw from the airport and that the government resign. He also proposed that if the PAD did not comply, that they be subject to “social sanctions”, whereas if the government did not comply, that the bureaucracy stop implementing government orders. A written copy of the proposal was sent to the government. Neither the PAD or the government complied with the proposal.

At 4:30 AM on the morning of 26 November, three explosions were heard on the fourth floor of Suvarnbumi on the outside of the passenger terminal. Another explosion was reported at 6 AM. Several people were injured. It was not clear who set off the explosions.The PAD did not allow the police or forensics experts to investigate the explosions.

The PAD became the de-facto authority over the airport and the airplanes within it. Airports of Thailand, which planned to use U-Tapao military airbase outside of Bangkok as a replacement for Suvarnabhumi, pleaded with PAD leadership to release nearly a hundred empty aircraft from Suvarnabhumi.

Shortly after the Constitutional Court dissolved the three parties of the government coalition on 2 December 2008, the PAD held a press conference where they announced that they were ending all of their protests as of 10 AM on 3 December 2008. “We have won a victory and achieved our aims,” said Sondhi Limthongkul.

A bunch of my friends have sent me notes about this, wishing me luck and telling me to be careful. Even Doug is a little wary. But it’s sounding like things will be back to normal by the time we get out there. I say this makes things more exciting. 🙂

We’re off in three weeks!