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After a nine-hour train ride, we arrived at Thonburi Station on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River in the heart of Bangkok at 5:00pm on February 25, 1996. No hassles at all, just walked across the street to the pier and waited a few minutes for the small river taxi to ferry us across to the Banglamphu area, while watching the orange backdrop to the Wat Arun Temple at sunset. It was only a two-minute walk to the hotel, which had a nice garden courtyard and central location.
Just after checking in, we met a man we like to call "Zipperhead." He is an international lawyer, but you wouldn't think so, seeing this short, crew-cut guy with stitches parting his head at an angle. He was crossing the street at night in a small town, when three motorcycles racing from a red light ran into and over him, leaving him with four broken teeth, two broken ribs, in a coma for one week, and in the hospital for another three. He had been out for one week, but with swelling and pain in the back of his head, back pain, dizziness, lack of balance, and vision problems.
When his driver had the day off, Zipperhead still managed to drive his ultra-expensive, mother-of-pearl Mercedes Benz 500SEL. He insisted that he was a great driver, even at his normal speed of 140kph (75mph) in the city, so it was no surprise a few days later, when he told us that he T-boned a pickup pulling out of an alley, instantly killing a couple, as two tons of steel cut through the cab. He didn't seem remorseful, more like he had gotten his vengeance. He was more impressed by his airbag and that there was barely a dent in his bumper, and also happy to boast about his connections in high places.
His latest solution was to move out of his house, as he was told that it was haunted and was the source of his problems. Two weeks later he was in a third accident. A friend in Kuala Lumpur had thoroughly warned us that the streets were dangerous, but we didn't expect the first person we met in Bangkok to be not only a victim but also an offender. A total disregard for life would be the strongest recurring theme in this city.
After washing away the mountains of dirt accumulated on the train ride, we went in search of food along the world-famous Khao San Road (cow sahn road, KSR), home of every permutation of traveller on earth. It's a 330m (1000 ft) road lined with guesthouses, travel agents, bookstores, souvenir shops, clothing stores, music stalls, and cafes showing movies. We usually visited on our search for good Indian food and the perfect lassi, which meant many nights at the Maharaja Restaurant. The bookstores have an impressive array, but we were saved by limited time and luggage space.
Backpackers are the mainstream on KSR, but there are also young Peace Corps volunteers, English teachers, and many Nigerians and Ghanaians. Body augmentation is very popular here, with a variety of tattoos and body piercing available. Some people get caught-up in the fun and forget to see the rest of the country before its time to go home. It isn't as seedy as expected, and actually felt pretty safe, although it does have many who look like they couldn't handle Western society and have dropped out, are lost to drugs, and seem stuck here. They have zombie stares, walk like they have lost their self-respect, and have the typical dress-style best described as retro-hippie. They always seem to be going somewhere, but no idea where or to what, as there isn't much to do past the few tourist attractions.
The next day was our first escapade into the downtown area. Back to the dock to catch the 'river express' boat, an enjoyable way to get around the city in a 27m-long (84 ft), 4m-wide (twelve feet), flat-bottomed, wooden boat with a highly-curved bow, and a huge, twelve-cylinder, inboard engine. When it's up on a plane, it's fairly quiet, and since the river is so wide, the racket from the longtails dissipates in the city noise. It was fascinating to watch the captain slide the boat in sideways along the floating dock to let us jump off.
We followed the crowd to the GPO, and after a lengthy search through large baskets of letters, we came away with a much appreciated collection, even if it was a mix of happy and sad news. We're glad we took the time to keep in touch with everybody, but distressed by the thought that some mail might be missing. Sean Connolly's letter was successfully forwarded from the Singapore GPO. He completed his RTW trip and returned home to find things virtually unchanged. He was not enjoying the reverse culture shock as he tried to readjust to Western society and a real job.
A quick stop at the ATM to replenish the pockets and moneybelts, then a stroll down Surawong and Silom Roads to gain an appreciation for what heat, traffic, noise, and pollution are all about. Not only is it hot and humid in March, but the smog and construction dust make you feel so dirty that a rejuvenating daily shower becomes vital to maintaining your sanity.
It took an hour to get past all the gemstone shops, banks, and shopping centers ending with Patpong (pot-pong) Street, the notorious 42nd Street of Asia, where US soldiers came for rest and recreation during the Vietnam War. It's pretty quiet during the day, but we returned later one night while in the area and found nothing worth staying for. The street was closed off to traffic and filled with souvenir stalls. Dancing on stages inside the open-door bars were very young girls in bikinis; we were told there were much more risque shows upstairs. There was no mystery to why Thailand was weathering a storm of international protest, especially on the Internet, concerning child prostitution.
After becoming familiar with the extent of this city, you quickly see what man can do with concrete, steel, and asphalt. There are still some wood and tin structures around, but the vast majority is modern, urban, and concrete. This is great place to determine the appropriate population density for a tolerable and sustainable quality of life. No wonder why everyone is abandoning the center for the suburbs, where industrial parks are springing up. It is widely discussed in the newspaper, but obviously nobody in Urban Planning and Zoning is reading. Now, we understand why they teach all the social ethics, aesthetics, and philosophy to engineers!
Tall buildings line the horizon in every direction. There is even the popular practice of adding floors without any approvals: a four-floor building suddenly becomes a ten-story tower. Even scarier, there had been a rash of arson cases in large department stores, and although they are equipped with modern fire-suppression systems, there is no value placed in maintaining them.
In addition, they are building elevated highways over existing roads rather than controlling traffic, however government corruption has delayed the completion for years. The next plan is to build an underground public transportation system, even though the ground is sinking. They are creating more congestion without solving the problem and might consider learning from Beijing, which has solved this, but on a much larger scale.
One of the pollution machines filling the remaining available space in traffic is the three-wheel motorcycle-taxi called a tuk-tuk, which sounds like a mosquito on speed, or a chainsaw, and looks like a VW Beetle with the doors ripped off and the top and rear compressed. The exhaust fumes are the thickest we've ever seen, the kind that results in spectacular pink and purple sunsets, and at night, the streetlights reveal the blue hue and heavy particle density. No surprise that the cops directing traffic wear real gas masks, not the flimsy, cheap cotton ones that serve no purpose.
Knowing all the possible buses at any stop is a survival skill since standing outside leads to coughing fits, a severe headache, and possibly an early death! Taxis are affordable and fast, so you stop thinking in terms of money and more about health benefits, however, it is not reassuring to see them with crashbars on the front and rear bumpers.
There are a few air-conditioned buses to combat the heat, but it's a real trade-off, as you generally have to wait longer for them. There are an amazing number of buses in this megalopolis of 10-15 million people. The drivers race around the streets maniacally, barely stopping to let you off, and pulling away after one foot is on; you learn quickly after a twisted knee, injured shoulder, or bump on the skull. They compete with each other for customers, working long hours, even using 'vitamin' drinks full of sugar to stay awake.
We had just turned the corner back onto Silom (see-lohm) Road from Patpong Road, when 10m (33 ft) back and across the street, we heard a loud bang. Looking back, we saw a large aluminum box spill ice and water on the ground. A pickup truck had backed into it and was continuing to roll backwards out of an alley. Going more than twice the safe speed for such a busy and congested area, a huge public bus doing 70kph (44mph), swerved to the right to avoid sending the truck into the crowd on the sidewalk.
The driver couldn't recover in time, crossing the median and slamming head-on into a slow-moving bus doing 35kph (21mph). The windshield of the second bus fell out with small pieces flying forward, but all in slow motion. The noise was not very loud; an eerie silence followed, then the Thais headed towards it, those close-by screaming, those farther away smiling or laughing, seeing the bus facing the wrong direction and diagonally blocking the lane.
Only our second day and we were witnesses to the criminal negligence that leaves 5,000 dead each year in Bangkok. As fate would have it, Zipperhead saw it too.
We were a little stressed, so headed back. The entire sunset ride down the river was stunning, with the pollution-filtered sunlight peeking from behind the buildings, temples, and trees lining the river. Wonderful variety of boats, especially the colorful and sleek longtails with large car engines pivoted on the rear, and perfectly balanced for high-speeds.
Tourist attractions always seem to be one of the last things we get around to visiting since people, food, and nature take precedence. We went to the Grand Palace on a Sunday, when the tremendous crowds came, days before the auspicious funeral ceremony for the King's Mother, who had passed away nine months earlier.
The palace was built in the 18th century and covers a square kilometer, or 233 acres. Some of the buildings are covered in mosaics of colorful tiles and mirrors, with mythical statues outside. The main temple enshrines the Emerald Buddha. Out front, clouds of incense rise from the offerings of lotus bulbs, necklaces of marigolds, and burning candles. It is worth the effort to drive around the palace area at midnight, when there is little traffic, to see the spectacular colors and glittering gold of the illuminated temple spires.
In front of the palace is a large traffic circle the size of a football field, called Sanam Luang (sah-nahm loo-wong). It is also a ceremonial ground where they had constructed a temporary funeral complex of traditional Thai temples, using wood and paint. Mobs of people wearing black and white outfits came to pay their last respects and witness the cremation ceremony of the Princess Mother inside a seven-story temple.
Behind the palace is Wat Pho, the oldest and largest temple complex in Thailand. The central courtyard is lined with large, seated, golden Buddhas in glass cases. The main building houses the 46m-long (140 ft), 15m-high (46 ft), golden Reclining Buddha. The eyes and feet are inlayed with mother-of-pearl, and the feet display eighteen characteristics of a Buddha. The reclining position is the moment of his death when he lays his head down and passes into nirvana.
Internet access was considered a tourist attraction on our list. It was highly desired by the educated Thais, but nearly impossible to get a few years prior -- quite revealing about the complicated political situation here. The people believe in democracy, yet Thailand is renowned for military coups and dictatorships.
On top of this, King Bhumiphol is a powerful and educated man who knows the country well, and is revered by the people since he spends all his time and money trying to help them. The government does not defy him, and he stays away from the politics as much as possible. However, on his birthday he addresses the nation and announces important issues he would like the government to change. He recognized the Internet's democratic value and announced that it was very important for the people to have it. The government gave open access, but not without adding a 35% tax to it.
Cyberpub was a trendy place at a five-star hotel, and was using smartcards to keep the account balance, but their rates were extremely high. Luckily, a friend told us about Haagen Dazs, which we eventually located. Quite a deal, full net access if you buy ice cream. Philosophical/Psychological Test: Is it free access for expensive $2 scoops of ice cream, or is it free ice cream with the cheapest access ever, $1 per hour? After tiring of all eight flavors, we moved to better things, thick chocolate shakes.
One day, we unexpectedly met a Danish man whom Marc had corresponded with on the Internet. Commercialization of the net has made it very time-consuming and costly to find useful content among all the advertisements, and the amount of junk mail is staggering. During network failures, we would escape to the massive, six-story World Trade Center for air-conditioning, food, movies, and shopping.
We used to think that computers were difficult after years of training people. Now we are finding a large spectrum of education-levels and personality-types owning them, happily surfing the web unencumbered by the technical details behind their new video game played on a world-wide dimension. The net gives them control to find the content of their interests, so they wander around, eventually getting bored and branching out to new things.
We visited Ake, an Internet friend, who has a Masters degree in Civil Engineering, and was managing his uncle's cement factory. He gave us a tour of the modern factory located in an industrial park that looked like some we had seen in Miami. It was a new, German joint venture, producing ultra-light, building blocks with the density and look of lava. They provided an instant pay-off since many areas cannot support the weight of large buildings made of heavier materials, plus they have a tremendous insulation capability. His friend Vut, a Mechanical Engineer at the Mercedes Benz factory, rounded out the day with dinner and a tour of the city at night.
Another day, we visited their friends at Asia Travel, an online hotel listing and reservation company. After we helped with their webpages, Ake and Vut took us to Bang Pa-In, the King's Summer Palace, with its eclectic collection of buildings next to each other: Chinese mansion, Victorian mansion, and imperial Thai structures. Starving, we headed to a riverside restaurant where we got to see the true Thai love for food. They introduced us to a variety we don't usually see on the menu, with many small plates coming out of the kitchen until we could eat no more.
Visiting expats is another interesting aspect of travel. Seeing the way they live reinforces that it isn't difficult to survive overseas. Jay, an Internet acquaintance, now a proud father of a baby boy, welcomed our visit, and held our hands in selecting strange-looking foods at the local vendors.
Gary, one of the hotel guests who had been coming here since 1975, warned us about the recent burglaries in the hotel. We took him seriously when he told us to use a padlock instead of relying on the keys that come with the room, pointing out that one key fits many doors, so we insisted that they repair our padlock latch.
The very next day there was a break-in, and when we mentioned to him that the victim suspected the man staying in the room next door, his eyes lit up. He suddenly realized that his neighbor two weeks ago fit the same description, and had also checked out the day after his stuff disappeared. We suggested that he look in the registration book, where he discovered that the handwriting was the same. In fact, every time there was a burglary, there had been the same handwriting, but with different names. We had also seen the same guy sitting in the second and third floor lounges for the last two days. It looked unusual and he did look suspicious.
Nothing ever became of the case since the others were not willing to go together as a unified force to the 'tourist police', a department created to give tourists the impression that something is being done when actually, they are only filling cabinets with reports. We suspect it was an inside job due to the behavior of one hotel employee, and the fact that there were five thefts in five weeks, plus they were only trying to keep it quiet.
Luckily, one of the guests lightened things up. Fran is a professional magician and an extremely personable entertainer who filled our days and nights with tricks, jokes, and songs accompanied by guitar and dance. He is captivating and funny, and never makes his audience feel stupid, nor embarrassed. In a world of daily, routine interactions, he brings happiness to people where nobody else does. It's a rare gift to make people so happy that for a brief moment they forget all their troubles.
You meet few people in life with the maturity and insight to read what motivates and drives others. When Fran is serious, he still has a calm and comforting personality. He is also a professional photographer and a movie fanatic, and had the best solution for escaping the stifling midday heat -- visit the modern but inexpensive cinemas. As if he wasn't having enough fun, we spent a refreshing day together at a public pool. To end this on a happy note: we kept in touch and he visited us in 1998 when we returned to Florida. Check out the homepage we made for him at Magic-1.com.
We had a long talk with a well-spoken and well-travelled Burmese man who used to work for his government (SLORC). He voluntarily left after the 1988 coup because couldn't stand the human rights violations. He told us that the Golden Triangle opium warlord, Khun Sa (coon sah) had retired, and the army left behind was fighting it out with the government. He explained that people who invite tourists home aren't risking anything since they are probably informers, and that tourists are only prolonging the problems there by making the government richer.
Many of the tourists were skipping Myanmar (Burma), and at that time, foreign governments were considering economic sanctions due to human rights violations by the military dictatorship. With massive foreign investment, and no true financial statistics, there is no way of knowing what percentage of tourist dollars are supporting this regime, however it is constantly being discussed in Bangkok. The country survived for fifty years in self-isolation, and now Western firms are doing business there, so we don't believe the tourist revenue makes any difference on the governments behavior. Change must come from within, by the people. Like China, your presence there may be a stronger influence than isolating them. Most of your money goes into the pockets of the people, plus you can choose to give more, or bring a variety of gifts.
Bangkok is no doubt the meeting place of backpackers, as we ran into many people we'd met somewhere on the road, including Steve and Lois, who we met in Singapore. They had travelled to Bali, and were on their way to Myanmar and Vietnam. The travel agent at their guesthouse fled the country with many of the guests' thousands of dollars. Scams like these are common in Bangkok and the only defense is to leave a small deposit, and call the airline when you pick up the ticket to confirm the seats before paying the balance. They eventually made it to Europe to become "Teachers of English as a Foreign Language," then backtracked to Vietnam again, and Myanmar many more times.
We also ran into Theresa, who we met in Kuala Lumpur and Krabi. She and her partner were no longer together. Although they had travelled together before, their travel goals and style differed too much, and things got ugly. This is a common story on the road, and in most cases, "It's best to leave friends at home if you want to remain friends."
Food is relatively inexpensive so many evenings we would cross the street to splurge at the riverside restaurant, under the moon and stars, watching the boats cruise by. We feasted on fried squid, khao neow makh muang (cow nee-ao mock moo-ahng, shredded, ripe mango on sweet, sticky rice, sometimes served with vanilla ice cream), gayan (guy-ahn, fried chicken), and spicy tom kah gai (chicken in a coconut cream soup, seasoned with lemongrass, lime, ginger, and galangal). Then there was the irresistible fried bananas for dessert.
One thing caught our attention, every dinner table had another smaller, but slightly taller chrome table next to it for prominently displaying the bottles of alcohol being consumed. Watching the young and affluent businessman here gave us a better insight to something we hadn't fully realized in Asia -- status is very important to their business since others want to work with those who appear successful.
Brand name alcohol conveys status, just like the traditional symbols so many in Asia are accessorized with: fine clothing, gold watches, gold pens, gold rings, gold lighters, gold tie chains, pagers with gold chains, and sleek, black, cellular telephones. Sounds like The Man With the Golden Gun. Mercedes Benz is the big status symbol in town. Our status was pretty low, walking home after imbibing Iced Coffee, best when cold and sweet, and sometimes so strong it kept us awake hours past our normal bedtime.
Our travel agent is so successful that his well-established reputation allows him to avoid the status games. He's not a man who suffers from greed, nor does he have an ego problem. Although he was busy, he was still generous with his time and happy to share stories. This is the ultimate travel experience for us, just the kind of person you want to meet, with stories you won't find in history or travel books.
We were spellbound while he reminisced about his childhood, when Bangkok was a small village fifty years ago. There were clean rivers flowing along every street, with plenty of walking space under shady trees. Now he is stuck here due to business, and on weekends he prefers to fly out since traffic is so congested with everyone leaving the city. One night he took us to Thon Krueng (Queen's Cook), a large, outdoor restaurant which he frequents because he knows it serves authentic Thai cuisine, prepared the same way for the royal family.
First, we savored keo wahn, a perfectly balanced and uniquely flavored beef curry in a green, coconut-cream sauce, slightly sweet and not very spicy. He was very happy, explaining that this is the meal his grandmother prepared as medicine for him when he was sick, and that she also died at a ripe old age while grinding the spices for this same dish.
Second out of the kitchen was sweet and chewy moo dat deo, marinated pork slices that have been dried in the sun for one day, then fried in oil. Third from the grill, tasty kai haw pai toi, fatty chicken wrapped in a banana leaf. Next, squid rings stuffed with minced pork. The grand finale, a regal, ceramic bowl filled with delicately-spiced tom yum pork -- very spicy and near deadly if you bit into a green pepper or seed. If you print this and soak the paper in water, it will taste like the food that is described on the page! It rehydrates, sort of like scratch'n'sniff.
Some cultural lessons: Thais don't use dinner knives since sharp objects are symbols of aggression, which you don't want between friends, so we struggled to cut pork with dull, flimsy spoons. If someone gives you a knife, then you always give them coins to show that you bought it, and are not receiving it as a gift of aggression, which would be interpreted as declaring war.
Karin had to go to Guam, since it is US territory, in order to maintain her permanent residency status. Rather than take chances with the time-consuming buses to the airport, we opted for the private minibus from the hotel. Our young driver had poor directions, so for thirty-minutes he drove north in a circular fashion, taking lefts every few blocks until finally stumbling on the last two passengers.
He decided to play catch-up, maybe to be on-time, or maybe he was an ex-ambulance driver, however, we didn't have flashing lights, nor a siren. We called him "Whiplash" due to his rapid starts and stops. He didn't follow ambulances, he passed them on the freeway. There were lane markers 'only visible to him'! An unusual number of vehicles honked at us -- maybe they knew our driver. Unlike Miami, they don't have guns, else we would have been bullet-riddled within a few blocks.
To put things in perspective, a Swiss couple told us about waking-up on a twelve-hour night bus to Surat Thani, only to see their driver forcefully pulling on his ears to inflict enough pain so he wouldn't fall asleep! After a sharp right across four lanes, we exited the freeway, and arrived at the airport with plenty of time to recover, and to rejoice that we were still alive.
Arriving in Seoul, Korea with a long layover, Karin ventured out into the cold, using the clean and efficient underground transportation system to get to an Internet Cafe. She was able to open a 'talk' session with Marc. It was raining when she surfaced, and had to rush back to the airport in time for the flight onward.
Guam is a major destination for Korean and Japanese tourists, so Karin found Guam's terminal in Agana bustling with a constant stream of passengers at 2:00am, and had a hard time finding a hotel with vacancies. Oversleeping the next morning, she still got to the immigration office in time to apply for a Re-Entry Permit before they closed for the weekend.
Karin toured the island, enjoying the white, sandy beaches and rolling hills which reminded her of those in St. Maarten, one of the two islands she calls home. The weather was very similar and it was easy to imagine that she was back in the Caribbean, although traffic was more manageable since Guam is much larger and has a lower density of cars. She drove by a Burger King restaurant, a converted bus with an overhang shading the tables out front, reminding her of the truk-di-pan (bread-truck snackbars) in Curacao, the other island she calls home.
Telephone calls to her parents and Marc's mom, at cheaper rates, confirmed that things were going well. A shopping spree for some much-needed items took her to the K-Mart department store, which had three huge tour buses parked out front, sporting the red and black K-mart logo emblazoned on their sides. She was able to replenish her money supply, as well as the dangerously-low level of chocolate in her body! Driving around at night, it was funny to see couples sitting side-by-side in the back of pickup trucks facing forward, as friends drove them around for a starlit night out on the town.
Getting back was a challenge since Karin had a confirmed ticket only as far as Seoul. All onward flights to Bangkok were booked solid and she would be travelling on standby. She had called the airline daily to check the status, and although the chances had improved, things were still not promising. The plane had to detour to Pusan and wait two hours for fog to lift, before landing in Seoul. Another 'talk' session with Marc from the Internet Cafe, then back to the airport, where she was lucky enough to get on the flight to Bangkok.
Travelling for awhile is like being in a time-warp, leaving you disconnected from the day-to-day world news, not a bad thing at all, but a real shocker when you see the headlines. Politics can be very comical when viewed from Asia. The newspapers have a good mix of articles, but The Bangkok Post was our favorite, with the hidden humor in the articles they wrote or selected from abroad. There was an ironic article about the pollution in Paris being so bad that many people were moving out to the suburbs.
Knowing we are headed west, some of the stories got our attention, such as the IRA activities in London, and suicide bombings in Israel killing fifty-six people in eight days resulting in the Gaza Strip being temporarily closed off. Closer to our existence was news coming from just over the border in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge were under attack and spilling over the border into Thailand, plus more rumors of tourists dying in Cambodia.
We couldn't find anyone who had crossed from Laos to China, and had no interest in seeing Vietnam, so we decided to take our chances. The Laos visa was an exorbitant US$60 for fourteen days, and the China visa was more reasonable at US$50 for thirty days, but easily and cheaply extendible to three months while there. Just like when we started this trip seven months ago, China was playing wargames near Taiwan by dropping missiles off the coast in order to affect elections, but this time US brinkmanship sent aircraft carriers in to make an opposing statement, so we weren't so confident about our future plans.
Finally broke camp, rounding up the stuff that seems to chaotically scatter, as if spring-loaded in our packs, every time we stay more than a day in one place. We passed on the local bus, opting to splurge on a taxi to the train station instead, as it was best to leave in a good mood. Looking back, Bangkok is not a place to stay long. Sunday morning is when the heat, traffic, and pollution are the lowest, making it a good time to see the city. Going to the GPO for mail, taking a ride on the river, and visiting the Grand Palace and Wat Pho are the only essentials, otherwise its just a transport hub.
Marc & Karin
November 18, 1996
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