Category Archives: Thailand

Flashback: Chang Mai Cooking Class

I found these pictures in my files and realized I never posted them because I crossed into Laos the day after this happened and, frankly, the Internet was pretty crappy there and I had better things to do than retell every adventure.  In Cleveland neither of these seems to be a problem, so who wants to hear about my Chang Mai cooking class in Thailand? Continue reading

Photo: Painting Retouch, Royal Palace in Bangkok

Taken February 9, 2009

The Royal Palace in Bangkok is filled with amazing artwork like the mural above, but time and the extreme humidity can’t do good things to the paintings!  This artist was busy at work retouching the gold- you can see how much he’s done, and how much he still had to do…

Back to Bangkok

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It is a well-known secret in South East Asia that for years the Thai airlines actively subsidized nations around them to not build their roads.  The reason for this is because the roads were so absolutely terrible that they could run a nice monopoly on flights from Bangkok for all the tourists.  This is finally changing, but the last infamous holdout was the road between Siem Reap and Bangkok, which on the Cambodian side was an all-dirt, potholed affair beyond measure.

Flying to Bangkok from Siem Reap costs $150, the bus is $15.  And they are finally paving said road, so guess which one I did?  That’s right, the one that took nine hours instead of two!  It seemed a bit not in the right spirit to only see Siem Reap in Cambodia after all, and besides which the road was fine after a half hour of dust tops.  In a few more months it won’t be an issue, though I hear they scam you a bit coming from Bangkok to try and get you into a guesthouse that pays commission to the driver.

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A roadside market where we stopped to try and get rid of spare Cambodian riel (you switch buses at the border- the Cambodian one is an old not air conditioned affair, the Thai one is a modern air conditioned one).  See the pineapple?  I ate one as breakfast, for the lofty price of $1.  I am so missing South East Asia…

Crossing the border between Cambodia and Thailand is the difference between night and day- the Cambodian side is in scant shade with immigration officials known to ask for weekend “overtime” and whatever else in fees (which is why I went Friday!), and the Thailand side is in a cool air conditioned building that hums with efficiency (or is that the air conditioning?).  I subsequently spent the rest of the day marveling at how modern Thailand seems to me now after Laos and Cambodia, Bangkok in particular.  Whoa, a convenience store and fast food chains?  A somewhat stable currency?  I don’t need to provide my own toilet paper all the time?!  Craziness.

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Anyway, once in Bangkok I spent most of the weekend preparing for my flight to Europe on Monday by resting (my foot still hurt a little when I was walking a lot, and I can’t afford to not walk a lot in Europe!) and shopping.  Preparing for Europe from Thailand is a bit like preparing for an Arctic expedition due to the simple reason that it never gets cold here- I haven’t worn long pants in two months, had only one fleece jacket that I’d held onto, and no close-toed shoes at all.  I realize the thing to do around here is normally to head to the weekend market, but it gets really hot nowadays during the day in Bangkok (35C, ie mid-90sF and humid) so I retreated to the giant air-conditioned mall in Bangkok called MBK.  It reminds me more of an indoor market than a mall in the West anyway.

I’m not one for much shopping so I took care of things pretty easily- new pair of fake Birkenstocks for $5, a decent pair of walking shoes for $7, that sort of thing- but the last thing I needed to track down was a sweater as these are somewhat elusive creatures in Bangkok.  I finally found a little stall selling these gorgeous warm ones which confused me due to an “American Eagle- $89.95″ tag attached to each one (you get knockoffs galore around here, but usually tagless), until I noticed the “Made in Thailand” tag on the inside.  Difference between buying a sweater in the US and buying one over here where it was excess from the factory?  Just over $70.  And I’m not posting pictures now of all my purchases by the way, on the grounds that everyone will see them often enough in the pictures to come.

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Another Bangkok tradition for me by this point- the sushi bar just a road off of Kao Sahn Road, which sells delicious sushi plates for $7 and plays French jazz of all things.  One of those places one hopes to find in a round the world trip, and I will miss immensely.

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And last but not least, today was my last day here in Asia so I needed to mail my carefully selected souveniers home (a Thai cookbook, a Lao scarf, and a Cambodian painting of an elephant).  The Thai post office was an interesting affair as due to the painting my stuff didn’t fit into any of their boxes, so the mail clerk made me the box pictured above.  And proceeded to close it so thoroughly that I have absolutely no idea how my parents are going to open it when it arrives on their doorstep in a month.  Total cost of personalized box and shipping overseas via economy air?  About $8- for some reason surface shipping was more expensive.

Anyway, I have to stop this now and make sure my affairs are in order to head to the airport- my flight to Europe leaves in a few hours and it wouldn’t do to forget anything!  The summaries I wanted to write will have to wait for a colder continent… goodbye Asia…

Summary of Thailand

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This is going to sound like something I will start every other country summary I write, but I like Thailand.  With a tropical climate and lovely scenery and kind people what’s not to like?

One of the main reasons I enjoy being in Thailand by the way is something that harks back to my childhood and visiting Hungary every summer- I’m too young to remember the communist days but have vivid memories of the rapid Westernization that followed it, when going to see what the “new” things were was a highlight from the first McDonalds to the first shopping mall.  Thailand reminds me of this- globalization coupling with old culture
in odd ways one wouldn’t expect (see photo below!), so that I’m sure if I return in a few years many things will have changed.  Hopefully for the better, but the jury is out on that for now…

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Highlights:

- The awesome hotel and hospitality at the first place I stayed in Thailand

- Coconuts: Always less than a dollar, chopped in front of you, and handed over with straw and spoon for consumption.  I have been on a coconut binge since I got here because I hate coconut back home but love it here when it’s fresh, and am taking full advantage.

- Having my cousin Judit here for two weeks!  Can’t wait to make it to Hungary come April so we can go out again, even if Hungary doesn’t dispense alcohol in bucket form…

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- And Adrian, our other great friend we made in Thailand.  We parted a few days ago as he headed on to Myanmar (Burma), where there’s no real Internet but I hope all is well.

- Learning to scuba dive.  It’s awesome, and you should all learn how to do it.  We particularly lucked out as we ended up getting one-on-one instruction- a definite bonus- and we made so many great friends at Buddha view.  I am looking forward to going diving again later on my trip!

While talking about diving, by the way, my favorite dive was a night dive we did on our last night on Ko Tao (where we were given a torch and plunged into the darkness).  And while diving during the day is best described as snorkeling 2.0, night diving is so magically different from anything I’ve done.  I felt like I was an astronaut exploring a faraway alien world- in fact, it was hard to believe the underwater world is the same as ours.  I got to thinking about this a lot- I spent last summer working at The SETI Institute* of course, where you spend a lot of time thinking about communicating with alien civilizations, and I spend some time now wondering how we expect to converse with aliens when we know so little about communicating with the other species on our own planet.

*Hi to all the SETI people who have “The SETI Institute” in Google Alerts and are now reading these words!

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- Ko Tao: I almost don’t want to mention this island lest it become another Ko Samui, and in fact the main beach is heading in that direction, because it really was idyllic from its pristine beaches to jungle interior and its magnificent diving and laid-back style.  Trust me, if you’re looking for an ideal island, head to Ko Tao as you won’t regret it.

- Beach barbecues: On the islands every night you see the day’s catch placed out at restaurants with prices, and you pick whichever one looks tasty and it’s slapped on the grill for you.  I will never forget the magnificent giant grilled garlic prawns of the Buddha View barbecue.

- Prices: These are definitely anyone’s friend in this part of the world- right now we’re at 35 Thai baht to the US$, meaning if you spend more than a few dollars at a meal it’s probably because you bought others a few drinks!

- Bangkok I will remain neutral on, though if you want to go shopping you should head here.

- The River Kwai area.  If you only have time for a taste of the jungle, head here even if you’re turned off by the allegations of how the animals are treated in Thailand.

Chang Mai: I am so glad I came here because it’s really the city where I feel like I’ve met more “normal” Thai people than anywhere else- from seeing what the non-touristy normal is to conversations with monks, students, and several others in between.  If you come here I also recommend staying in Micasa Guesthouse- great place close to the action for a good price compared to what you get (~$15 for a single).

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Lowlights:

Pattaya- Beyond the nice digs I had there,  I really have nothing good to say about this place.  I mean I’m sure it’s not so bad in itself, but compared to the rest of Thailand I don’t know why you would bother to go there.

Chaweng Beach, Ko Samui- To specify, the beach itself is very nice.  What isn’t so nice is the rapid development on the road right next to said beach which is nearly more crowded than Bangkok and smells worse because the sewage system wasn’t keeping up to the development.  I’m told even fifteen years ago there was nothing on this beach but that definitely isn’t the case- and as eluded to before with so many other great places to go I don’t know why you would choose this one.

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Mosquitoes- If I thought the ones back home loved to bite me they have nothing on the ones here- Thai mosquitoes love to bite me to the point where if I only spray repellent on my feet they will bite several of my toes within hours.  Thankfully no malaria to worry about in the places I go, but they’re still quite annoying.

Traveler’s diarrhea: If you’re my age in Thailand the general rule is to worry about what you’re eating for about a week- then throwing caution to the wind within reason (still only drinking bottled water for example) and relying on the fact that immodium is one of the best inventions of mankind.  So I’ve had this problem once or twice, mainly just in the form of abdominal pain because once you take drugs you’re back to feeling normal in an hour at max.   Travel hazard I guess.

Seedy Thailand: I met a traveler in NZ once who told me there is awesome Thailand and seedy Thailand, but if you ignore the latter it won’t come after you.  That might be true but there’s no way to avoid the fact that Thailand is the only country I’ve been to where the welcome folder at my first hotel included a helpful pamphlet reminding me how sex with children is illegal. (Really now, does anyone not know that?) It’s also hard to ignore all the sexpats with their little Thai “girlfriend”- this is particularly true in Pattaya which is filled with old white guys trying to have a conversation with their, erm, dates who clearly look bored and would rather get on with it. (I resisted the urge to shout “dude, she’s not even that pretty!” a few times.) And it didn’t stop me from getting tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok asking me “ping pong?” which I never got, as from what I understand a “ping pong show” consists of girls doing things with those balls that frankly never would have occurred to me.

It’s also odd, by the way, was how each of these guys is convinced that his girl is different, and makes a point to mention how humble said girl is compared to Western ones back home.  This leads to an odd question on my part- what exactly do I ask for in relationships that make me so demanding, except perhaps respect and equal footing?  Not like I would go for a guy who comes to Thailand for sex, obviously, but I heard this repeated often enough that I found it interesting.

Ok, that’s it!  Talk to you all later from the other side of the border, in Laos…

Chang Mai

A disclaimer right now: I have an affinity for trains.  I trace this to several generations of ancestors who worked on the railroad in the Old Country to the point where one invented an important part of the steam engine (I don’t remember what exactly, this is just what I’m told).  All in all this means if there is a train option and a bus option I will take the train one, which explains what I was doing on the night train from Bangkok to Chang Mai-

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One distinct advantage about the night train vs bus is you actually get a decent night’s sleep (whereas I just can’t sleep on a bus).  I was a little worried about security and hence opted for a top bunk but turned out it was a little overrated- when I got up in the middle of the night to get my jacket (victim of over-air-conditioning!) a pair of eyes from the next berth was instantly on me at the sound of the zipper.  Turns out I scored the bunk next to a member of the train police…

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Typical scenery from the train in the morning, when not going through jungle I wouldn’t want to attempt walking through without a good machete.  I have a lot more pictures of rice paddies and the like but suspect pictures of train scenery are taken primarily to amuse the picture taker when she was bored at the time, so instead I will continue.

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This is as typical as Chang Mai gets in my mind, as there are over 300 temples in the city. (This one is right next to where I am staying actually- that lovely tower attracted me to this street.) If Bangkok is like Tokyo- both busy, too much to take in at once but in an exciting way- Chang Mai is like Kyoto for all the temples and relative quiet, plus it feels managable to get around.

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View of the Chang Mai moat that used to wrap around the entire city, but is now a series of lakes.  Quite lovely, though on both sides there is a strip of “yes we will run you over” traffic that tests one’s jaywalking skills quite thoroughly!

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The Tha Phae Gate, part of the old city walls built ~700 years ago and now where most of the backpacker stuff is located in Chang Mai.

Note the monk: while they’re always present in this part of the world there are a fair number more due to the temples, obviously.  I am fascinated by the monks.  I attribute this to learning that they can’t touch women to the point where you need to put something on the ground for them to pick up instead of handing it to them, and in fact most refuse to even talk to a woman.  I don’t know why I should be so fascinated by a set of people who will never, ever shake a monk’s hand, but guess that’s probably the very reason.

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Another thing I like about Chang Mai- it’s the first place where I’ve been able to see Thai houses on little side streets, as any other city has been too crowded and/or separated from the tourists.  This little house is my favorite addition to any Thai yard- Thais believe that if you give a separate little house to evil spirits, it keeps them from coming into yours.  A lovely idea.

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Walking around Chang Mai is like walking around Kyoto because really, in both you are forever running into temples.  To continue the comparison though, if the Japanese version of Buddhism is Protestant in its architecture then the Thais are definitely Catholic- you cannot imagine Buddhist temples more ornate than these!

image390This is the inside of Wat Phra Singh, the most famous temple in Chang Mai (the above picture was the outside of the same building).  What was the most fun thing about this was a little sign I saw while wandering the grounds, saying you could talk to monks inside as part of the “English Club.”  Really?  I went inside, and had a nice conversation with a few monks and students attending the school they run (yes, the monks talked to me, though one only talked through the students).  Which was really cool- we talked about what one does to become a monk, their meditation, and what it’s like to be a student in Thailand versus the United States.

And because you can’t come to Thailand without inquiring a little into this here is the coolest thing I learned from the monks, on how a monk meditates and how they always only focus on the present-

As soon as you stop reading this stop for a moment, and imagine that you are going to die in one minute.  The last things that you are going to experience are reading  these words, sitting in this room, thinking and feeling what you are right now.  It is the end of your life- no time to write a letter, make a phone call, all you can do is experience what is right now.  You stop fighting, you stop needing, you stop being concerned with physical discomfort, you stop achieving, you stop maintaining, you stop wanting.  Things like enlightenment, achievement, attainment, and all the rest become meaningless.  You are just present.

No wonder I find monks fascinating.

Busy in Bangkok

I just spent an afternoon updating this blog- first caving in to a restaurant I found where they made me a panini sandwich (hey, I hadn’t had cheese in a month! I miss cheese!) and then slowly nursing a beer at the guesthouse.  Judit is gone, having caught a flight back to Hungary to see what she missed these past weeks at university while hanging out with me- and a few hours time I will be catching a night train to the north.  We’ll see what I find there.

Happy reading!

(Sort of) Wild Thailand

On our River Kwai trip, it was sort of inevitable that we’d be doing some animal things along the way too.  My cousin loves animals a lot, and since everyone else in Thailand does this we signed up for an elephant ride-

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At this point I should mention once we signed up for this tour and Adrian decided to tag along but heard there was an elephant ride, he got really upset.  Apparently the guy had done a six hour elephant trek over rough terrain in Cambodia and swore he never would again, but sure enough came with us.  In actuality, the whole thing was pretty good- I don’t think I’d want to do it for six hours either, but for a half hour or so it’s fun!

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Chilling on our elephant.  Ah, life.

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A picture of where the elephant keepers live.  Which I include because we Westerners spend a lot of time worrying about the treatment of animals around here, and frankly some of the people sounded silly worrying so much about the animals but not stopping a second to think about the conditions the people were living under.

Anyway, after this we went off to meet another famous animal from these parts, at a place called Tiger Temple-

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Tiger Temple is, in short, a place where Buddhist monks started accepting tiger cubs whose parents had been killed by poachers from the jungle in this area.  There are currently 38 tigers living there who would otherwise be unable to defend themselves in the wild, and they raise money for their care through tourism.

And because I hear my animal friends shouting their objections already, I know this is not ideal at all for the animals but this isn’t the West- there’s really not enough money to do something like rehabilitate these animals into the wild, so they’re raised by humans from the time they’re cubs.

Some people also insist that the tigers are drugged in order to be with the humans.  I asked an American who was volunteering there about this point and he said this wasn’t the case- first of all Buddhist monks wouldn’t consider it, secondly drugging the animals would be too expensive, third an animal raised with people is not going to behave the same as a wild one.  Looking around I concluded most of the tigers were just as lazy as my cat, as tigers spend most of the day sleeping.  Either way, it’s probably  still a better life than they would have had killed as cubs.

With that soapbox explanation, you’ve got to admit this is really kind of cool-

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The monks are currently raising money for the tigers to have a better enclosure, aka these guys can’t be reintroduced to the wild so they’re getting a nice zoo to live in.  There are a few enclosures finished already, where I spotted this guy cooling down in the heat-

image363You know, I really think the person who figures out genetics so they can make housecats look like tigers will make a lot of money…

So that’s Tiger Temple- I will say the whole thing was probably the most touristy thing I did in Thailand, as when you go to pet the tigers they hardly give you a moment before grabbing your hand to go pet the next one.  But still, it was really neat to pet them an even, at one point, rub a tiger’s belly and watch his ear twitch in appreciation.