Bangkok, Thailand, Travels

Thailand’s Welcome

Link: https://dannyman.toldme.com/2002/11/25/thailands-welcome/

After waiting forever to get on the plane, at 2:40, I set my watch five hours ahead to Thailand – GMT+7. Where did the night go?

Royal Jordanian served us some chicken and rice substance, an echo of mansaf. I started watching “Road to Perdition” but like everyone else on the plane, I couldn’t stay awake. Up again at 2PM and they served us breakfast near 3.

WARNING: Insulting customs officers on duty may leads to penalties including imprisonment.
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Translation: “Welcome to Thailand. If you’re going to make an ass of yourself, please wait until you’ve left the airport.”

Royal Jordanian had only given me one of the two required cards for immigration. No biggie, I had to go back to a counter to get the second form and get back in another short line. An air-conditioned bus ferried me away from the airport, and I made small-talk with an Englishman, watching Bangkok float by beneath. I’d read that instead of wearing deodorant the Thai simply shower in cold water several times a day, and among the sights from the highway, I saw some laborers hosing off behind a warehouse. The weather was muggy, almost damp, and the sky was alternately sunny and overcast. When I got off the bus at Sukhumvit Road, it was raining. Thailand is not Jordan.

A lady who got off at the same stop helped orient the Englishman and me, and I struck off for the Hotel Atlanta, which I’d selected from Lonely Planet because, while on the high end of the budget price range, it offered a coffee shop, and writing desks. It was way down the far end of its sidestreet, and had a big sign on the left of the door that read “SEX TOURISTS NOT WELCOME” as well as another sign reassuring me that if this was the place I’d been looking for, I’d found it. The cheapest rooms were taken, so I settled in to a suite for 535 baht – about $13, the price of a bed in a European hostel.

They gave me an iced tea while I checked in. A porter helped with my bags and showed the room, demonstrating how to turn on the air conditioner. Up until this point in my life I have never encountered a porter. I tipped him 5 baht: about twelve cents. Tipping isn’t customary in Thailand, but all us foreign tourists probably confuse the issue. If the tip was less than he had figured, his thanks did not betray this fact. All about face.

It being a rainy day, I didn’t feel so much like heading outside. I wandered down to read Dr. Max Henn’s guide to Thai etiquette. It offered the same advice I’d gleaned from Lonely Planet, but with the authoritative, cynical tone of a curmudgeon, who opined that before long everywhere would be just like everywhere else, and the only point to travel would be to make an ass of yourself in someone else’s front yard.

I wandered into the restaurant, where after a while I was awarded with one of the three copies of The Menu. The Menu is a thick tome, heavily foot-noted, explaining everything there is to know about Thai food, as well as the history of The Menu itself, which has historically been stolen and copied, so now each of the three available copies is different, with four more unique variations held in reserve so that as soon as someone steals one copy of The Menu to copy the Atlanta’s style, it will already have changed.

I ate two separate meals, which were cheap. The feasting was in part to make up for all the fasting during my brief exposure to Jordan’s Ramadan.

I looked through one of the English-language daily papers. In the job section I noted that age discrimination is extremely straightforward: age range is listed in the job descriptions. I can accept a lot of different cultural standards, but for me the idea that someone who is 40 is not qualified for a job simply because they’re 40 is plain wrong.

The Atlanta’s restaurant has a selection of movies they’ll pop on the tube for folks to watch. Tonight featured an old black and white where a plane is hijacked and finds itself in Shangri-la.

I thought I should check out the night-life, just to see. Ethan had recommended a nice bar where I could go to relax, untroubled by working girls eager to sell me their companionship. The first menu I saw at Q had the expensive drinks, from which I selected a “Longer Island” iced tea for around $5. After scoping the place out, I had a seat to watch the scene.

While I sat, nursing my drink, women on all sides were checking me out. I had to appreciate that this situation was reversed from the Silicon Valley: here, I was the one surrounded by ladies!

I relaxed and watched an older, chubby white guy making nice with one of the older ladies. Their pattern of interaction seemed consistent with my reckoning that she’d like to see some money for her companionship, but then what do I know? Her two girlfriends were checking me out.

To my left was a group of girls that featured an energetic, light-skinned girl with pig-tails and braces. Sixteen? Heck if I know. One of her friends was chubby and butch, a nice change of pace for Bangkok. Another friend turned my head a few times with her own commotion, and then asked me to dance.

Toffee is studying Mass Communications at Bangkok University. She’ll soon be off to Manchester, England, to hone her English. She asked if I had a girlfriend back home. We whiled the time with her friends, holding hands. We saw each other off by exchanging e-mail addresses and a good-night kiss when the bar closed at 2AM. I made it back to the hotel at 2:30, and was asleep by 3.

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Bangkok, Thailand, Travels

Chao Phyra River

Link: https://dannyman.toldme.com/2002/11/26/chao-phyra-river/

I had checked in to the Atlanta without a reservation, and at that time I was informed that they could only host me for the night. After sleeping in ’til 10AM, I headed downstairs with my luggage to check out, or possibly score a cheaper room. Were there any available? No, but I could stay in my suite until Thursday. Sure!

I had eggs, bacon, dry white toast, and a pot of coffee downstairs while I tried to figure out my next move. I wandered down to the Nana Sky Train station, with the idea of finding my way over to a point at which I could take a Lonely Planet walking tour. But how to get there? The nice lady at the Tourist Information booth asked, “why not take a boat?”

“How much is that?”

“Not more than 15 baht.”

Gee …

I took the Sky Train to Central Pier, where I caught the appropriate boat upriver, wowwing at Bangkok’s riverfront. The last commuter boat I’d taken was in Venice, with Janet. This boat was far more inscrutable than its Venetian counterparts. Instead of color-coded route-maps, there were markings to indicate spaces reserved for monks. We made several crazy moorings through nasty clouds of the boat’s diesel smoke, passengers occasionally leaping on or off or at least making very wide, calculated strides between boat and pier.

Inside the boat
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A view from inside the boat, while mooring at a stop. Note the plume of dark exhaust.

Riverfront housing.
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How the “other half” live: with a cool riverfront view.

Unfinished tower.
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I really love this tower. I suspect it remains unfinished, as a victim of the 1997 crash. The color variations add to its tiered, wedding-cake personality.

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Another imposing waterfront tower. Probably a western luxury hotel.

My stop was interesting because I got to walk along a raised walkway between stalls of people selling various things, mostly food. I made my way slowly around the walking tour, fending off tuk-tuk drivers who wanted to show me their lucky pagodas. I didn’t get to see much because the shiny Wats – Buddhist temples – that make up the backbone of Thai tourism really don’t impress me much. Plus I’d moved slow enough that a lot of things were closed, around 5PM.

I should explain here that a tuk-tuk is a small vehicle based on a motorcycle, that is hired out to passengers. Tuk-tuk drivers are known to sell bogus tours to tourists and generally just try to squeeze the walking sacks of easy money that we represent. Lonely Planet had specifically mentioned the “lucky pagoda” scam – Wat Po is closed today, but he’ll drive you around for a long time to see the lucky pagoda, which doesn’t exist. But how do you know some random small shiny temple is or isn’t the “lucky pagoda”? Ethan boiled it down for me: never, ever take a tuk-tuk!

There were a lot of food vendors near the boat pier, which was also next to a University that was letting out. I strode through the market and grazed from the vendors, by pointing my finger at interesting-looking foods, and ingesting the objects of my curiosity. Good. Cheap. Orange Juice for 10 baht. The lady greeted me in English and was very excited when I addressed her as ma’am. I returned to her stall to sample a red juice, figuring it was cranberry. Whatever it was, it was horribly vile. Beet juice?

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Bangkok, Thailand, Travels

Blowing the Budget

Link: https://dannyman.toldme.com/2002/11/26/blowing-the-budget/

In the evening, I decided to check out a bar that Ethan had recommended. The Woodstock is located in the Nana Entertainment Complex, which is full of titty bars and their ilk. It helps develop discipline to walk through throngs of pretty girls and avoid eye contact, shrugging off the aggressive few that grab your wrist, insisting you come in. Well, you know, I’m tough.

The Woodstock was nice and chill. I watched some pool-playing, sipped some beer, and exchanged smiles with a pair of pretty girls. When I saw that the one girl sucked, I took her up on her offer to join in a game of pool. I ordered another beer, and the girls added “and two Heinekens.” My impression was that I was now treating them to beer. Fair enough, such is the way of the world between a gentleman with a few baht and the honeys.

I lost both games. I really suck at pool. I think the wait staff were looking out for me, because when I paid for the pool games, there were no Heinekens on my bill. I settled up and wandered toward Q, on the idea that I shouldn’t spend any more than the 1,000 baht I had budgeted for the day, of which I had about 200 left, after 500 for the room, and 200 at the bar. (At around 42:1, 1,000 baht is just under $25, 500 baht is $12.50, and 100 baht is under $2.50.)

Walking down the street, I was approached by, among others, an older, very skanky-looking prostitute, desperate to offer me anything. I said “no thanks,” and kept going. She took my arm, then started grabbing my thigh.

I became extremely conscious of my wallet, wedged in my left-front pocket, far from her attentions. My camera was locked in the safe in my hotel room, leaving nothing of value in my right-front pocket. Her pawing did not excite me, and seemed non-threatening, I kept my mind on my money and picked up speed to shake her off.

She broke off after a few paces, and then I recalled my right-rear pocket, where I keep the day’s “spending money” separated from my wallet. I may well have forgotten to button that pocket at the bar, and at any rate, I found that my pocket had been relieved of a little over 200 baht. I turned around, and then turned around again: even if I did find her, what was I going to do about it? No, all is fair in Bangkok and for $5 I wasn’t going to raise a fuss. Judging by her looks, she needed the cash bad enough, and I’d already kissed it goodbye when the girls ordered the Heinekens. That cash was destined to part with me for a lady tonight, and now it was done.

Q had more folks than Monday, and the gender ratio was less in my favor. As all the tables were claimed, I sat down next to a group of ladies and ordered a beer. The music was good, so the evening became all about the dance. Felt good.

There were a fair number of pushy men on the dance floor, and not enough women who were interested, which made it feel more like California. I behaved myself, because I like to dance around the ladies, and if there’s another guy who is pushy they can squeeze over my way and enjoy themselves.

I exchanged glances, nods, and smiles with a lovely young lady with a round face, a white skirt, and a sparkly pink blouse. She spent as much time dancing as I did. We spent the latter part of the evening dancing near each other. When it came time to leave, I told her that I’d love to go dancing with her again, and we exchanged e-mail addressen.

After that, I ran into Toffee again. She wandered off to chill with her girlfriend and when the place closed at 2AM, I went over to chat with her a little more. When I stepped outside, a white guy, a Finnish exchange student named Ari, asked did I want to split a cab over to this other place he knew that was open ’til 5? I was good to go, but who can trust a Finnish exchange student? For good measure, I invited Toffee and her friend along.

We found our way over to Tony’s, which is a big night club that was closed except for a little Karaoke bar upstairs. We got a table in the corner, and I wandered off to answer nature’s call. When I got back, the girls had each taken receipt of tall, blue, fancy-looking mixed drinks, and Ari had a bottle of Heineken, which he recommended because it was cheap, so I ordered one too.

The waiter showed up with a bill of over 800 B. This seemed like an awful lot of money, I figured the girls’ drinks were pretty expensive. The waiter stood between Ari and me and insisted we pay up. Ari threw in his last few baht, and I threw in the remainder of my 1,000, and we were still a few baht short, so Toffee’s friend chipped in.

Now, this totally blew my short-term budget, which made me a little apprehensive. I chalk it up to cultural differences that I wound up paying for those drinks. According to my research, the Thai have a strong notion of social hierarchy, and the “higher” person in the group bears the most responsibility for the bill. From what I’d read, as I was the oldest, malest, foreignest, wealthiest member of our group, that was pretty much my bill to cheerfully pay, even if it made me broke. Ari did his part too. Only then do we start leaning on the girls. The waiter figured that if we were running around in male-female pairs, that the guys were naturally paying, and the girls wouldn’t want us to lose face by offering to pony up. It doesn’t look good if someone who is doing well has to go knocking up his poorer friends for cash. Oh well.

In retrospect, it is also entirely possible that the waiter was scamming us as well. This too is not inconsistent with cultural expectations.

We got to talking, and it turns out that Ari knew the gal I had been dancing with. He explained that Dee was mad at him, because she’d caught him sleeping with one of her friends while dating another. He told me she had a boyfriend, and I said I wasn’t interested in such things. He offered to share her number with me from his cell phone, but I declined, on the theory that if people want me to call them, they will give me the number themselves.

Toffee sang. Toffee sings wonderfully and it is something to hear “I Will Survive” rendered by a lovely woman with a beautiful voice that handles English as a foreign language. She sang more English pop and a few Thai songs, including a duet with her girlfriend. I did a not horrible “Country Roads” and Ari was excused on account of his lost voice.

It blew my mind that a great many of the songs are subtitled in Thai, with English approximations of their syllables. Accurate transliteration of Thai into English is impossible without tonal diacritics, and a drunk fàràng with a microphone trying to keep pace with the rhythm strikes me as an awfully bizarre source of entertainment. Just what are the karaoke people thinking?

It was past five and time to get home. The boys were broke and we were all far from home. Ari revealed his resourcefulness by producing the 100 baht note he hides in a shoe for just such circumstances. He went his way and the girls took me in their cab to my hotel. Toffee mused over the “Sex Tourists Not Welcome” sign, and opened her door to give me a goodnight kiss. Her tongue, which I had encountered the night before, led me to wonder if she wished to be invited in. “Only ten more days ’til I leave for Manchester,” she’d said earlier. The lobby was not locked, and I picked the morning paper off the step and gave it to the guy at the front desk. He woke up and gave me my key. I was to bed at 6AM. It didn’t even feel late.

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Bangkok, Thailand, Travels

Tourist Security and Hotel Shopping

Link: https://dannyman.toldme.com/2002/11/27/tourist-security-and-hotel-shopping/

I had a well-deserved sleep-in, then wandered my way down to the Woodstock to enjoy an excellent cheeseburger topped with fried egg. You can tell they are serious about burgers by the availability of A-1 Steak Sauce. The meat was super tasty. A damned fine experience! Then they turned their big-screen TV to a movie on HBO while I spent some time on the journal. An ex-pat told me to watch out for my backpack, though we both agreed it was pretty safe sitting next to me in the Woodstock. I’d read that some tourists lost their backpacks to criminals who slashed the straps with a razor blade and ran off with the goods. I explained how I carried my backpack more securely, and recounted my experience with the pick-pocket the night before. He said that sometimes you have to ditch being polite and cool and make it absolutely clear that someone’s attention is not welcome. Aye.

Afterwards, I went “hotel shopping” in the Siam Central area, as the Atlanta was booked up for the weekend. Walking through a shopping mall on my way over, I noted several backpacks ripe for the plucking, the worst hanging off the back of a Japanese, the straps coming together and connecting at the top of the bag, and worn so loose that there was an inch of slack between the top of the bag and the man’s back. No, I would be pretty safe from this problem.

I ended up reserving a room at the White Lodge – 400B/night with private bath and A/C – cheapest room on the block, though cheaper could be found over in the backpacker haven of Kao San Road, where I would lose the convenience of the Sky Train. I returned to the Atlanta for a pretty good vegetarian dinner.

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Bangkok, Thailand, Travels

Bangkok’s Chinatown

Link: https://dannyman.toldme.com/2002/11/28/bangkoks-chinatown/

In the morning I packed up and bid adieu to the Atlanta. The new hotel wasn’t too far, though with a large pack on my back, I would be safer in a cab, if I saw one. I spied a metered taxi just a little way down the street, and got in, handing the cabbie a business card for the White Lodge.

“100 baht.”

“Meter,” I pointed at the meter. I’d been in town long enough to understand that 100 baht was an insane fare to charge for the distance involved.

“100 baht.”

I wrapped my arms back through the straps of my bags and got out of the cab with ease. I continued over to the SkyTrain station and made it to the hotel without incident.

I decided on a walking tour through Chinatown, which was only a kilometer or two away, so I walked from the hotel down Bumrungmuang. The sidewalk split off from the road for an overpass, so I followed the sidewalk into a warren of tightly-packed houses and shops. This is where the poor folk lived, the “developing” side of a developing nation, and in my eyes, the more interesting side.

It was enough just to see — ancient houses on top of different shops — stray cats and dogs everywhere — endless textile markets, where the clothing is cheap, so close to where it is made. There were shops full of recycled auto parts, headlight and tail lights hanging from their wires like fish on hooks. Some shops had piles of a particular kind of generator or motor. One shop’s floor was entirely covered in lengths of rusty metal chain layed back and forth like newborn pasta. Unfortunately, my camera was full at this point, so I missed out on a great picture. It had also managed, at long last, to eat the day’s pictures. This irritated me immensely, but what can I do but come back and take some more? I have that kind of time.

Old-school housing
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An example of Bangkok’s old-fashioned, wooden housing.

Security grates
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Thailand’s population tends to be lithe and limber, and Thailand’s thieves tend to be stealthy and nimble. This must be why this building’s security grating goes all the way up.

Crazy telephone wires
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Thailand is chugging away into the information age. The gritty infrastructure for Bangkok’s dense population comes together in beautifully complicated telephone poles like this one atop a railside shanty.

Calico cats
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A colorful family of Calico cats nap in a woman’s sewing shop, which open to the street.

Railroad shanties
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There’s not enough proper housing to go around, but there’s some room for shanties along the narrow-gauge right-of-way. I took this photo from a pedestrian bridge, but you can see that many locals don’t bother to get the view.

Riverfront housing
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This looks like a step-up: random slabs of colorful contrete blocks along the river.

Great Chain of Building
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Two-story river-front housing is overshadowed by ugly concrete construction, which itself aspires to the glistening wealth of the sky-scraper behind it.

Auto Parts
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Need auto parts? Shop here.

At one point, I developed a thirst for a Coke. It wasn’t long before I spied this American logo in one of the narrow alleyways. An old Chinese lady had two refrigerated beverage cases. I pointed out a bottle of Coke, rubbing my finger together and asking “How much?” She grabbed the bottle and opened it, reached for a straw, which I declined, and she bade me to have a seat at one of the little plastic tables sitting in the alleyway next to her refrigerator cases.

Still wondering her price, I handed her a 100B note. She handed me 90B worth of notes in change, then she went for her coins. I asked her to stop, feeling guilty of the slight apprehension that she might have tried to overcharge me. 10B: 25 cents is an unheard of price for a bottle of Coke back home.

I got up to wander around with my bottle but she again encouraged me to have a seat, and then I understood: she keeps the bottles! I was participating in the human economy at a scale where a bottle of coke is best served restaurant style, which explained why she was in no hurry to charge me. Chagrined, I realised that as a strange foreigner I was more likely a threat to naively steal her bottle, than an opportunity to be charged a premium price.

On my way back I stumbled upon a few shops packed full of schoolboys, playing computer games for 20B an hour. They had no terminals available for me to check e-mail. Instead I approached a lady with a cart who was grilling slices of thick white bread with butter and sugar on one side. I asked her how much, and I heard her say 25B, which seemed steep, but worth it for me. She grilled me up a fresh slice, cut it in eight, bite-size pieces, placed them in a baggie and handed it to me with a wooden spear to use as a utensil. I gave her two 20B notes, took my change, and wandered off with my treat. A moment later she chased after me and handed me my second 20B note – the price had in fact been five baht – this delicious treat could be only as sweet as the lady who sold it to me for twelve cents. Her main clientele must have been the schoolboys, and I figured that growing up in Bangkok’s Chinatown couldn’t be that bad if you get to play computer games and eat sugar bread after school.

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Bangkok, Thailand, Travels

Improvised Thanksgiving

Link: https://dannyman.toldme.com/2002/11/28/improvised-thanksgiving/

Not knowing any other Americans in Bangkok, I’d done a Google search for “Thanksgiving Bangkok” and found a website devoted to Asian Nightlife with four public Thanksgiving events. I picked the 500B buffet with “Irish Food and Irish folk band ‘No Fixed Abode'” which sounded to me like the doings of an Irish pub. I rode the SkyTrain out to a gigantic world-class hotel, where I was welcomed by a guy ready to seat me at a table by myself. Perish the thought! I saw an older lady sitting alone at another table, asked if she would like some company, and sat with her instead.

She was Canadian, from Ontario. They celebrate Thanksgiving in September, and she was spending the last of her baht on a Thai meal, instead of the pricey buffet, since she was flying out early in the morning and wanted to eat something light.

She told me that she had a small farm up North, and was a member of an organization called WWOOF: Willing Workers on Organic Farms, where she’d hosted many a Japanese or Korean traveller, exchanging food and shelter for some help on the farm. What a wonderful dinner companion!

I put away three plates of food and a dessert plate — I wanted my 500B worth! After the Canadian lady left, I spent some time talking to a retired couple — he a Texan and she a Thai.

They didn’t have pumpkin pie — Thai pumpkins are different and they don’t make pie out of them. What the hotel did was adapt their monthly Irish Buffet into a Thanksgiving dinner, which is why they had an Irish band playing homage to America. I enjoyed the folk music, and the band tried to favor American composers. I stuck around until they wrapped up at 10.

Back at the SkyTrain station, I noticed that one tall girl was dressed in an unusually fancy black dress. I looked out over the streets and the skyline as I waited for the train. When it arrived, I found myself seated opposite of her, across the SkyTrain’s wide central aisle.

She was quite tall, with long fingers, light skin, and a long face. I overheard her talking with her friend, and her voice sounded unusually deep. She looked too young and pretty to have smoked enough cigarettes to explain this. I followed this hunch and studied her more. Her breasts and hips were modest, but then a lot of Thai women are unreasonably thin. Then I caught her Adam’s Apple. Having captured her secret, I loved her all the more.

Traffic on Sukhumvit Road.
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Traffic rushes down Sukhumvit Road, beneath the SkyTrain station.

I could tell she liked me too. And I wanted to make friends, but how do I go about doing this, especially if I don’t know that she speaks English? And what would she think of my potentially ignoble intentions, for though my admiration was based on the fact that I think very highly of anyone who can struggle so long and hard to to successfully capture their own self-identity, Adam’s Apple or not, she was still a damned fine lady to boot.

When I stepped off the train I looked back through the window, and saw that her head had turned to follow me. For a moment, I was tempted to return, but decided that I would leave it to fate that tonight she and I were bound our seperate ways.

On the way back to the hotel, I worked it out that Bangkok was 13 hours ahead of Chicago. I got back to the hotel at 2300 and Jessica answered the phone. It certainly was 10AM. At 50B/minute, with a 50B connection fee, the nine-minute call ran 500B, but it was worth it to hear mom’s voice on a holiday.

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