Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Thailand - welcome to the jungle!!!

Ok, so I said I'd be gone for about 10 days and now I'm back - Thailand is absolutely amazing! There's no way that you could be satisfied with going to a place like that with so much to see and only spend 10 days there. It's the kind of place where it's way too easy to just lose all track of time and get lost in the moment. Most of the time I had no idea what day it was because it simply doesn't make a difference - the only time I needed to know was when I had to make sure I made it back in time for the plane at the end of it all. I really only had time to check out 2 areas - Krungthep Mahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathani Burirom-udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amonphiman Awatansathit Sakkathattiya Witsanu Kamprasit (you probably know it as Bangkok) and Ko Phi Phi - and even there I could've used a few more days in each location as I didn't get to see and do everything I wanted to. Ok, well if you're bored with words now then feel free to proceed onto the pictures anytime you please - otherwise, go ahead and read on for my take on what I saw.

So impressions? Well the first thing you think when you drive into Bangkok is that it looks like a dirty place. There are stray dogs all over the place and the streets are teeming with seedy looking people walking around looking at street vendors and soliciting prostitutes-a-plenty, keeping an eye out to make sure that the "girl" they're talking to isn't really one of the infamous "ladyboys". There are also plenty of beggars and vagrants. And driving - well the taxi driver that gave us a ride from the airport was weaving through traffic at 14okph like it was Fast and the Furious or something, and he refused to stay in one lane the whole time. Bangkok is a pretty crazy place to be and there is plenty going on at all times, just like any other big international city. One thing that stood out were the number of foreigners walking around, which is in stark contrast to my existance in Japan.

There are definitely some beautiful things about the place though, along with some great people and great sites. It's known as one of the best places to shop in all of Asia because you can find quality stuff there and all the prices are really just guidelines as it's only worth as much as you can talk the seller down to. Things are often only really worth about a 3rd of whatever price they tell you in the beginning, and this is doubly true for any taxi/tuk-tuk rides as well as tickets to attractions such as a Muay Thai boxing match. Much to my dismay, there were not guys running around like Tony Jaa in Ong-bak: Muay Thai Warrior. That would've been cool.

As for the people, well I didn't get to talk to them nearly as much as I would've liked, but most all the ones I did talk to were really friendly. Most everyone knows at least some basic English and can answer basic questions if you stick to the major areas, so I'd say it's easier to get around than in Japan in that respect. It was my first real foray into the world of broken English, as in how you have to talk to get through to locals without making their heads explode. The Thai hookers had especially good English and made for some interesting conversation when they weren't trying to get you in bed with them. If you're sitting at a table outside in some of the busier sections they'd just come right over and sit down next to you without asking unless you push them away. If you buy them a drink then you get the pleasure of their company. Talking around, being a prostitute seems like just another job out there, and a decent paying one from the looks of it as well. One person I ran into said that a friend was married to a Thai woman, and one of the woman's sisters was a prostitute and they would openly talk about business was going and how many guys she had gotten over the past week and the like over dinner with the family.

All the fellow travelers were great as well and it was easy to meet plenty of new people from all over... except for the fact that there were so very few Americans out there for whatever reason. The vast majority of the people I met and hung out with were European (hi Maria and Richard!). Right off the plane I started talking to a guy who was in the same boat as me with no set plans on what to see and do, and I offered to split a cab with him. Shortly afterwards before we got through customs another guy joined us, and we all set out to find somewhere to crash for the night. Amazingly and totally randomly, I ran into a fellow JET from Miyagi that lives less than an hour's drive from me once we found a place and hung out for the whole night! It was the same deal on the way down to the islands - I met a guy on the bus going to the same place as me and we shared a room and stuck together pretty much for the duration of my time in Ko Phi Phi. From there we'd go out with some girls that he met up north and some people that I met during the days I went diving to get my open sea license.

So moving along, Bangkok is known for its nightlife and craziness, but there are also some pleasant sites such as river markets and temples, and also some great food. They also have a lovely, almost resort-like hospital with a Starbuck's and a Sizzler steak house on the first floor if the food doesn't happen to like you too much - I found that out due to something I must've eaten before arrival given the timing as the mud butt arose deep inside my bowels on the plane ride over before I even had a chance to eat anything. I was keeled over in bed for a day listening to the crazy guy in the bed across the way from me, but at least the view from the room was spectacular from my 8th floor vantage point. Oh, and given that it's a tropical country (especially as you move south) the weather was great pretty much the whole time with temperatures in the mid-30's (80-90's F). It rained for 2 hours one day and everyone was complaining how horrible it was even when the weather was just a little cloudy - it didn't really bother me much though coming from my freezing cold apartment.

As you move south, the temperatures don't really change too much, but the scenery does. We drove through Krabi before taking the hour and a half ferry ride to the islands known as Phi Phi (pronounced "pee pee" - Ko or Koh just means 'island'), which is a great place for rock climbing and is right on the shore. Ko Phi Phi has the whitest sands and clearest waters I've seen with some rather well-maintained beaches. You can hardly even tell that a tsunami came through 2 years ago and totally ravaged the entire area killing thousands, other than the few remaining places still being rebuilt and the extreme hike in the prices. People don't really mention things about that since it affected a lot of people, but there are some subtle reminders scattered about.

So I didn't get to go cliffdiving or parasailing, but in Ko Phi Phi I did get to go diving and see... are you ready for it? Monkeys!!! In addition to being famous for having some great coral at relatively shallow depths (you only had to go down about 6-10 meters) and plenty of sharks, sea turtles, manta rays and other aquatic life in spades, they are also known for having the beach from "The Beach" and even have a place on the other side of the island known as Monkey Beach! "The Beach" beach does have a name - Maya Bay. I couldn't remember that for a while though, so me and my Hollander roommate buddy guy came up with a great way to remember it. Maya makes you think of the Mayans, which were an ancient civilization in Mexico. All Mexicans are gay (for the purposes of this story at least), so they love Lenny DiCaprio, which starred in a lovely little film known as... The Beach! See, easy right? I guess all those little mind and memory tricks I picked up in my Japanese studies and working at warping, um I mean molding, the minds of little children for a while pay off in the end!

Ok, so let's finish off with some fun facts and tidbits I picked up along the way. First, Ko Phi Phi is owned and run by 2 families which comprise the Phi Phi mafia! For this reason, anywhere you go on the island there's little price variation and vendors aren't permitted to sell things below a certain price. This goes against things in the rest of the country where prices are wide open and totally dependant or your ability to negotiate and not get ripped off... which is relative of course since you can buy a pair of Pumas or nice jeans for $10USD and beer at bars for $1USD. I hear that they also enforce martial law in the area if anyone gets too stupid and starts trouble with the local businesses. I heard word of a Brit that was dabbling with the drug market that got knocked off last year. There was also a bar on the island that had a ring for Thai boxing which advertized having ladyboy boxing (never saw it) and would give you a "bucket" if you would get in the ring with a friend and pummel each other in your drunken stupor... plenty of people took them up on that, including one guy we saw get a bloody nose before his friend beat him down to the canvas.

Elsewhere, I heard some interesting things about the seedier sides of Bangkok. In addition to the standard massage parlors with benefits (the real massages are great and cheap btw... although they can be painful) and Turkish bath houses (the girls bathe you - think that scene in Coming to America), I also caught wind of strip shows where girls would do all kinds of crazy stuff with their hoo-hahs like shoot out ping-pong balls or darts, smoke cigarettes, or serve bananas to the patrons. The place is also known for ladyboy cabaret bars, which are supposed to be quite interesting from what I hear if you can get past the fact that some of the guys are more beautiful than most of the women you see on the streets... scary. One guy even told me that there's a place you can go and pay the girls to lick you. Seriously!! It's a full body tongue massage, and they lick you from head to toe! Knowing Bangkok I'm sure they make some stops along the way, but they have hourly rates and you can double up on girls and stuff... with all this it's no wonder that the majority of the foreigners you run into in Bangkok are guys. Some of the worst are supposed to actually be Japanese salarymen who come over to indulge in some of their more... uncouth fetishes. Some of it really is just dirty businessmen catering to a sick and demented audience sometimes, but not all of it is. There is a fair bit of exploitation going on, but in general I would say that they definitely don't hold the same taboos as western society does on such things, which I don't necessarily see as bad.

So that's my take on Thailand, as incomplete as it is. I would say that you'd really need to take about a month or so to really get a feel for things, but knowing the way that place is a month would just make you want to stay even longer. There are just too many entrancing places in the world and only a lifetime to see them all. So the real question is: what are you guys doing staying in the same place for so long?!? Get out and see the world around you!

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