Thailand -- The Rainy Season
When I announced that I was planning to take a one-week vacation in Thailand by myself, everyone's reaction was the same. Well, that's not really true -- reactions were all the same, segregated by sex. The women who heard all exclaimed, "Sailaja is letting you go to Thailand by yourself?" The men all said (in their best "Beavis" impersonation) "heh heh... cool." I stand today as testament to the fact that a single man can go to Thailand and not do anything illicit or immoral, despite the best efforts of a certain taxi driver. But we'll get to that later.
I started my journey in Bangkok's Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kew ("The Temple of the Emerald Buddha"). A three-foot high solid jade Buddha sits high above an ornate room of tourists dressed in the long pants and long-sleeve shirts given out at the temple gates. I never thought I would need long pants in a tropical country, but out of respect for the religion practiced by 95% of the Thai, modesty is a necessity in Thailand's Buddhist temples. But in Thailand, more important than modesty is simply obeying the local rules. Despite the "no photography" signs written in several languages, one Japanese man tried videotaping the Emerald Buddha. A Thai official with a sidearm forcibly took the camera, removed the videotape, and returned it with a scowl. The Thai are very friendly people, usually -- just don't mess with them on certain points. Anyway, the temple was very beautiful, and had lots of Thai architecture, and other stuff. (If you wanted architecture information, you've come to the wrong place.)
From there, I headed by foot to Wat Pho, Thailand's largest and most ornate temple. On the short way (it was right across the street from Wat Phra Kew), several taxi drivers tried to give me rides. They would stop, ask me where I was going, and when I told them, they would say thoughtfully, "Wat Pho? It's closed. Closed today." This maneuver is a common scam in Thailand, where a driver tells you a certain site is closed, and offers to take you on a "sightseeing tour" for a remarkably low price. The sightseeing usually consists of trips to jewelry stores, silk stores, suit stores, and "Thai massage" locales, all of which pay the taxi driver a handsome commission for bringing them unsuspecting tourists. If anyone tells you something is closed, it's best to check for yourself. One particularly bold driver told me that Wat Pho was closed -- as I was walking through the wide-open front gates.
Anyway, Wat Pho is home to the "Reclining Buddha," a tremendous figurine, over 100 feet long, and at least 30 feet high. As with all Thai Buddha figures, people had put all kinds of "offerings" all around it -- money, flowers, food, half-finished soda bottles, even tickets to that night's Thai boxing matchups. The Wat is also home to a school of Thai massage, a legitimate one. There are basically three kinds of massage parlors in Thailand. There are ones that you can go to with your significant other, since all the masseurs are old ladies who actually specialize in massage. There are ones where the main focus is massage, but you can negotiate something else if you wish. And there are ones where the only pretense at massage is the sign outside that says "massage," since a sign that says "have sex here" would be too obvious. The massage school at Wat Pho is in the first category, where they not only give real, traditional Thai massage (for about $5 for two hours), but teach it as well. The line to get a massage, however, extended approximately as long as my stay in Thailand, though, so I passed.
At this point, the monsoon started. September is a fine month to go to Thailand to avoid crowds and get better prices, but you do have to take your chance with the rain, and Thailand's tropical rainy season makes one think of gathering animals and building an ark. The downpours do cool off the 100-degree heat, but they can make getting around an exercise in wading, if not swimming. Visibility in a monsoon is nearly zero; it was hard to even keep my eyes open against the stinging rain. I spent the rainy afternoon hours hiding in the hotel, but as I was determined to sample some of Bangkok's (less spicy) nightlife, around 8 p.m. I walked outside the hotel, and hired a taxi driver for what would be the worst taxi experience of my life.
I wanted to go to a jazz club I had seen advertised in one of the Bangkok newspapers, so I showed the driver the advertisement, and said "jazz club, please." Many taxi drivers speak no English at all, but the ones who hang around hotels generally are savvy enough to speak enough English to cart around tourists, and this guy was no exception. "OK," he said, "I take you where you want to go. 50 baht" (about $1.60). The price was fair, so I agreed.
Where I "wanted to go," in his estimation, was not a jazz club, but rather a massage parlor of the seediest kind. After 45 minutes of driving in Bangkok's heavy traffic, we pulled up outside the place, which looked distinctively unlike a jazz club. "What is this?" I asked. He replied, "First you get Thai massage. Then we go shopping." I explained to him that I did not want a Thai massage (which seemed to confuse him to no end); I did not want to go shopping; I wanted to go to the jazz club. "OK," he said, "I take you where you want to go." This time, I apparently wanted to go to a jewelry store, at which point I furiously stormed out of the taxi. This probably wasn't the most intelligent decision I had ever made, given that it was still pouring, and I hadn't the slightest idea where I was. But the driver raced out of the car, and ushered me back inside. "Where do you want to go, mister?" he asked, exasperatedly. I pushed the advertisement in front of him. "Jazz club jazz club JAZZ CLUB," I said, rather impatiently.
His eyes widened. "Oh," he said slowly, as if understanding for the first time. "Jazz club. You can't go there. Jazz club closed." Remembering my earlier experience, I insisted he take me there anyway, and he steadfastly refused. Finally, after a lengthy argument about the jazz club, and a total of several wasted hours, I asked him to just take me back to the hotel. "OK," he said. "500 baht."
One night in Bangkok may make the world someone else's oyster, but I felt like I just grabbed the slimy part. I returned to the hotel, did not pay the man (he didn't complain one bit), and on a whim, called the jazz club. They were closed after all, for repairs caused by rain damage. I will forever wonder if the driver actually knew that.
After this brief and undistinguished stint in the big city, I headed to my "real" destination, Phuket Island, a heavily touristy resort island off the southwestern coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. (By the way, it is pronounced "poo-ket," and not anything crude.) It was on this island that I learned two important lessons about life. The first lesson is never forget to bring a camera, because you never know when you're going to miss the picture of a lifetime. There is nothing quite like the sight of a topless European woman lying on the beach, and a Muslim woman dressed head to toe in Islamic garb walking past her, and the evil stare the two share as they appraise each other's lifestyle.
The second lesson is that no matter how beautiful the surroundings, no matter how magnificent the scenery, the most interesting stories are still about humans. I joined a group of divers and rode two hours out to sea, to a tiny remote island only listed on local maps. It was on this trip that I met Daniel and Eliza, a couple on vacation from Perth. I talked with Daniel the whole trip out -- he was formerly in the Australian Navy, and was currently a police officer, and had a lot of interesting things to say (and said them often, and with great vigor). One of the less meaningful things he told me, as we stared across the ocean, was that no matter how far you could see across the ocean from land, when you were on the seas, your visibility was only 12 kilometers, limited so by the curvature of the earth. (Any of you physics people out there care to check that figure, please do.) Later, Daniel and the rest of the party went diving, while Eliza and I (the cowardly contingent) were left behind to snorkel around the beach. I just asked how long she and Daniel had been married, and she said that they weren't -- after six years of marriage, they had been separated since last November. She didn't know why she was on this trip with him. She hated the water. He wanted to stay married, but she was wondering if there was something more out there. "Someone who can see farther than 12 kilometers."
The snorkeling, by the way, was amazing. Swimming in warm waters, through a school of tropical fish, just above the intricate lace of emerald coral, is an experience that could only have been made better if one didn't get sunburned badly during the experience.
I spent the next two days with a taxi driver about my age, and unlike the drivers in Bangkok, he was ferociously honest, and very nice. "My name La," he said proudly. "Like Los Angeles. L.A. La. Easy to remember." La took me sightseeing all around the island and showed me all the touristy spots -- the elephant rides, the cashew factory (freshly made peanut brittle, yum), the aquarium, the butterfly farm (yes, really), downtown Phuket city, and ten thousand scenic views of the ocean. He also told me about the lifestyles of those on the island who were not dependent on the tourist trade (what few there were of them anymore). Most of them were rubber-tree farmers.
We ate dinner the first day in an outdoor set of restaurants and food carts where La said he ate often, and I could see why. The food (genuine Thai food for Thai people, no faux-Thai tourist food) was plentiful and cheap, and tasted mostly like eating chili peppers that had been set aflame and sprinkled with hot spices. It was quite good, although my stomach did protest quite a bit later. Total bill for the two of us, including Thai fried rice, a hot and spicy soup, a chicken dish, a fish, and two large Singha beers (Thailand's Budweiser): about 6 dollars. The fish was served "au natural," that is, complete with head, scales, organs, etc. The waiters seemed concerned that I would be disturbed at this, being a sensitive white tourist and all, but I explained to them that I have lived in Japan for a while, and at least this fish was cooked.
On a random note, I have noticed that musicians in Holiday Inn lounges around the world play the exact same songs, all the time. Even more randomly, I took a picture of my sandals on the beach, which is relevant to maybe four people in the world.
After four days filled with sand, surf, sun, and sunburn (and the occasional monsoon to liven things up), I went back to Bangkok. I once again was lucky enough to hire an honest taxi driver, who showed me some of the less touristy (and thus more interesting) parts of Bangkok. Near the Grand Palace, there is a four-pronged concrete monstrosity called the Democracy Monument, named for the site in which a 1970s student uprising cost several dozen lives at the hands of the army. The Thai military has a habit of throwing a coup d'etat anytime it feels the desire, something like the way normal people throw cocktail parties. The last coup was in 1991, when in the midst of a recession, the military took over the government, wrote a new constitution, and promptly held new elections under rule of law, leaving power after the elections. Weird coup. Apparently, the military has done it so often that while I was in Bangkok, a story appeared in The Nation (one of Thailand's two major English newspapers) declaring that despite the current recession, the military has no intention of overthrowing the government. So don't worry about the tanks you will see in the streets next week, the story continued, it's just an exercise. That's all. Nothing more. The Democracy Monument was filled with marble carvings of both students protesting and military frescos. I guess the artist was trying to say that a nation needs a strong military to stay a healthy democracy, or maybe the army just slipped him some baht to present them in a good light. In any case, it was an appropriate symbol of a nation that can't quite figure out what to do with its military.
From there, I visited what the guidebooks proudly proclaim is the "largest teakwood mansion in the world." What it was made of was less interesting than its history; its last resident was King Rama V (or King Chulalungkorn), a very popular monarch in a lineage of popular monarchs. Remember when I said that there are certain points about which you shouldn't mess around with the Thai? Religion is one, and the royal family is the other. In Thai movie houses, before every movie, they play the "royal anthem," composed by the present King (Bhumibol Adulyadej, vexing your spellchecker from the throne since 1946), and the audience leaps to attention and watches the slides of the King and his family. In the teakwood mansion, there is a Yamaha electronic player piano which plays the King's (rather good) jazz compositions for the tourists. The piano, unlike the rest of the furniture, probably does not date to Chulalungkorn's reign, which ended just after the turn of the century. The house is magnificently adorned with ivory tusks, faded pictures of royal families from around the world, lavishly adorned oriental rugs, Victorian furnishings, and enough Chinese pottery to host a dinner party for China. This mixture gives it a half-European, half-Asian feel -- sort of like a cross between an Oriental palace and "Howard's End."
This feeling pervades all of Bangkok, which is what I would call a "typical Asian city." Bangkok (like Tokyo, Seoul, and Kuala Lumpur) is a city trapped between Asian cultural roots and modern development, a seemingly random jumble of old and new, very rich and very poor. It is teeming with both Buddhist temples and leaded-gasoline cars, and unfortunately far more of the latter. The Thai economy has grown an average of 11.2% since 1985, and the infrastructure hasn't kept up, leading to perpetual traffic jams, terrible pollution, potholes that are rivaled only by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and a gigantic sector of the economy dedicated solely to taking unsuspecting tourists to seedy massage parlors. Actually, Thailand enjoys fairly low unemployment, partially as a result of a very high literacy rate, one of the highest in Southeast Asia. But despite the widespread employment, many of the jobs are very poorly paying, and there is still a fair share of poverty. In the shadows of the gleaming glass and steel business centers hides shacks made from corrugated tin, mostly stolen from old advertising signs. Pepsi may or may not cure your thirst, but a Pepsi billboard makes a great roof.
These economic woes notwithstanding, Thailand is basically going in the right direction. Recent squabbles in their Parliament over finer points of the new Constitution make the days of military rule seem like a remote memory, and debates over how to best beef up the value of their recently floated currency seem outright responsible. Thailand recently became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a trading bloc that will only help Thailand improve its economy even more. Perhaps Thailand will reach a day when it employs fewer people as taxi-driving pimps, and more people in real, productive jobs, like taking away foreigner's videotapes. Anyway, the Thai are trying to look farther than just the next 12 kilometers, and maybe, just maybe, the monsoons won't obscure their view.
If you've gotten this far, you're either really bored, or a really good friend. In either case, you should e-mail me and say hi.
Feel free to look at some pictures of my Thai adventures. (Nothing dirty.)