Monday, September 29, 2008

Travelogue #53: The Bangkok/Phuket Thailand Diaries, September 2008, Part 2


SUNDAY 9/14: Elephants, Monkeys, Sunsets, and...a Farm of Noodles?


You know you're staying in a questionable hotel when you rip two door handles off their hinges over a one-night stay in the Executive Room. For such accommodations at the Vaboir Lodge in Bangkok, the three of us paid only $12 a person, and I guess we got what we paid for: see the view from our balcony.



In Phuket, Thailand, we found a completely different brand of hospitality.





For $20 more a night, we hopscotched budget and found luxury. I suddenly ached to indulge in the Anna Pollack School of Vacationing: laying out by the pool, swimming for a few minutes, and returning to my towel and my iPod. If I was indeed my sister, I would also have an US Weekly in hand, as well as a strong opinion on Lindsey Lohan's impending lesbian nuptials. But that would have to come later, because Sunday was for the elephants.



Yes, that is a photograph of an elephant peeing, and yes, I was astonished by this creature's geyser-like force in going number one.

Jacinta rode the back of her own elephant, while Chris and I shared a seat on the back of another one. For twenty minutes, my sandaled feet dangled by our elephant's grandpa-haired curtain ears as our big gray one plodded and stomped through a trail of flourishing greenery against tropical blue skies.




In some moments of this ride I felt triumphant, as if being on top of an elephant was not so different than being on top of the world. But in most moments, I felt like I was Larry David riding an elephant.


What do I mean? This is what I mean.


Yep. "Riding an elephant in Thailand" was supposed to provide evidence of me looking like an adventurous badass. Instead, it provided me with a string of incriminating photographs that make me look like My Fair Lady. I later inspected these pictures, and concluded, with neuroses of Larry Davidian proportions, that while I had suffered with folded legs, Chris had enjoyed a far wider sitting stance on the elephant. I resented his apparent comfort, though I did nothing about it when I had the chance.


One day, justice will be served to you, Chris Snyder. Expect to sit scrunched-legged sometime, somewhere, in your future!

Later, we saw a "monkey show," where Diamond wowed us by dunking basketballs and unraveling knots, all while being jerked around with a metal collar by his trainer.
\

Now, I'm the furthest thing you can get from a PETA member. When I'm asked what my favorite animal is, I say "cow" because I enjoy juicy hamburgers. That being said, I can't deny feeling a shred of ambivalence at the sight of the beady-eyed Diamond hopping and bopping to its master's whims. I think it was the metal collar that unsettled me, for I felt a twinge of hurt in my own neck when I saw Diamond snapped into one direction and then another. Then again, if Diamond were to be let free, maybe the little bastard would tinkle on my shoulder. I don't know. I just don't know.

After the elephants and the monkeys and a random canoe ride through a sludgy sliver of river, our day's tour guide told our driver to take us back to our hotel. We were on our way, until our guide offered us an alternative: "Before hotel, you want to see farm?"

"What?"

"Farm. Pho farm."

Pho farm? From our understanding, we would check out a farm where Thai people produced the famous Vietnamese pho noodles. Did pho noodles even come from farms? I guess we'd find out.



Or perhaps we would not. This was no farm of noodles; this was a jewelry store. How ironic that our guide's more-than-adequate English suddenly dissolved in explaining exactly where he was taking us. We didn't buy anything, but we got a little taste of a more benign version of the infamous Thailand gem scam.

The perfect prescription for a would-be scam?




Sunset. Even with my dukes up, I could not fight its beauty.

MONDAY 9/15: Jews in Thailand?

After a morning of pooltime in which I neglected to put on sunblock and received a cherry tomato tan, I walked out into the broiling neighborhood outside our resort. And I found a Chabad House.



As I've said before, I'm not a regularly practicing Jew,
but I was still pleased to see a sign proudly inscribed with the Hebrew alphabet. Chalk it up to my cozy nostalgia of Sunday school memories from Memphis' Temple Israel. (Though in the mid-1990s, I'd rather watch the NBA on NBC than learn how to read Hebrew.)

Was the Chabad House welcoming?


Even though that man glared at me as I took a picture, I felt welcome enough. I eavesdropped on a crowd of Israeli men chatting on the sofas in the corner of the brightly-lit room, though I didn't understand a word they were saying.

I ordered falafel and challah. Falafel and challah in Phuket, Thailand? Why not?


In the past, I've read that Thailand is a popular vacation spot for Israelis, particularly in terms of young Israeli men and women who just finished their military obligations and are looking for a low-cost adventure. I saw this firsthand, as I listened in on an Israeli woman talking to a Thai cashier in English about a friend's delayed flight from Tel Aviv into Phuket.

Additionally, I saw the rabbi welcome a newly-arrived group of Israelis to the Chabad House, for this establishment is both a restaurant and a lodge. As the rabbi passed my table, I think he wished me a good meal in Hebrew. I nodded thank you.

Shalom.

Tuesday 9/ 16: Bangkok, Part Deux: Rip Me Off Gently

Before our return to Seoul, we had a full day ahead of us in Thailand's capital city. As I stepped out of the Suvarnabhumi Airport into the palpably humid Bangkok air, I wanted to go home. Did I mean home as in Korea, or home as in the United States? At that point, I would have said, "Either." I'd lost my travel jones. I'd lost my as-long-as-it's-something-I-can-write-about-eventually-I-can-deal-with-it-and-even-enjoy-it spirit. I didn't want to be haggled by rip-off artist tuk-tuk drivers. I didn't want to be accosted by street vendors to buy something I didn't want, much less need. Part of me wanted to see if I could get an earlier flight to Korea.

If you're saying, "That's supremely lame," I understand you...in theory. But in reality, come on, man! I was exhausted and sunburnt and Bangkok was hot and sweaty and crowded and cheap and bisected by a puke-brown river on which we rode a motorboat through a shanty-town village where Chris fed fish and Jacinta got angry at the fish for splashing her.



What can I say? On said boat ride, I found myself thinking less about getting ripped off and more about reading Entertainment Weeklys in the backyard of my home-home in Germantown, TN.

I thanked Thailand for its elephants and its monkeys and its cheap cashew nut chicken. But I could not wait to go home, wherever that was supposed to be.


A friend's 07' Thailand experience

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Travelogue #52: The Bangkok/Phuket Thailand Diaries, September 2008, Part 1


S
omebody pinched my nipples: I don't know who, and I don't know how.

I don't have man-cleavage, which might sound like an odd thing to tell you, but having no man-cleavage is actually a statement of identity here in Phuket, Thailand, a steamy beach town where five-star resort palisades blend into streets with bleating bar lights, swarthy middle-aged Australian men hand-in-hand with very young Thai women, and hagglers who plea with you to buy everything from cigarette lighters to flower petals to go-go show tickets to magical wands that brush with a
ribbit across the ridged spines of frog molds.


Oh, and ladyboys. In Thailand there are ladyboys, mammals with Adam's apples and tight dresses and beach ball breasts of which I witnessed one ladyboy squeeze with workmanlike precision on the sidewalk of Patong Street. She (?) wanted to draw attention towards her and away from the Thai boys plopping monster iguanas onto the spooked shoulders of walking-by foreigners.


If the past few sentences in this passage were messy and chaotic, so was Thailand, or at least the sliver of it I've seen over the past three days.

Who pinched my nipples? I don't think it was a ladyboy; I think it was a lady. It happened under the Tiger Discotheque in a place called "Love Bar". Is that how they show love in Thailand? I guess that's why they call this country the Land of Smiles.

SATURDAY

Bangkok is a throbbing, tentacled organism of a city, its rickety rickshaws crossing lanes and centuries with its smoke-coughing scooters and honking taxis. Billboards promoting Hollywood's latest Adam Sandler movie mix along the landscape with gigantic images of Thailand's princes and princesses, all jeweled gowns and regal composure. From the back of a cab on a rainy afternoon, I behold the mad, smoggy churn of old Bangkok. Apparently there are skyscrapers on the other side of town, in new Bangkok, but that feels like a world's away from here.


We come to a stop outside Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This is my first chance to see Bangkok on my feet. And I'm already tired.

Chris, Jacinta, (two teachers at my hagwon) and I arrived at 1pm after a five-hour flight from Seoul and a 4:45am wake-up. Though Thai Airways fed us well, I was still hungry and exhausted. So -


If Lays Chips wants to expand its market share in Thailand, I suggest a new ad campaign featuring the above photo collage and the slogan, "Buddha wants you to crunch. Do you want to crunch with Buddha?"

Before you decide that I'm being culturally insensitive on hallowed grounds, let me say that much of what I saw at Wat Pho felt anything but holy, unless you consider a little boy flicking fleas off a lumbering stray dog holy. In addition to the strays, I experienced a genuine incredulous did-I-just-see-that moment of a red-faced, deliriously happy British or Australian (I couldn't tell which) man sinking his mouth around the fist of a, well, Thai ladyboy as they strolled across the grounds. The man looked as if he was a puppy who'd finally wrested control of a prized chew toy. As I once told my father in a far different context, "we ain't in Kansas anymore, Toto."

On a more serious note, the Reclining Buddha itself was impressive in its sheer hugeosity.


Before walking into its periphery, you had to take off your shoes as a sign of respect. No problem there, as Korea has gotten me more than accustomed to that. What was interesting was this-


As traveler Philip Roeland puts it, "
There was a separate shoe storage area for Thais (again with a sign: for Thais only)...Do Thai feet and shoes smell like roses? Is that the reason why they can’t be stored together with the tourists’ untouchable shoes?" In his essay, Roeland goes on to discuss how not only are shoes treated differently between Thais and foreigners, but so are prices: there are frequently foreigner prices (higher) for certain attractions, and Thai prices (lower or free) for the same attractions. Roeland opines that, "Instead of remembering Thailand as the Land of Smiles, tourists might think of it as the Land-where-you-get-ripped-off-with-a-smile and never come back again." I myself wasn't equipped to much such a leap, then again, our trip had just begun.

As for the "mad, smoggy churn" I spoke of witnessing in the cab, I saw it by foot as we walked south of Wat Pho. Madness. Absolute madness.




Seen: a man in a sleeveless t-shirt on a plastic chair, kicking aside empty beer bottles as he wired together car stereo speakers. Heard: the rattling of movable stalls of grasshopper legs. Smelled: fried grasshoppers, which Chris boldly tried, proclaimed delicious, and remarked, "tastes like anything fried."

Earlier, we passed through a slunk-low market of flowers and fruits I've never before seen with names I've never before heard: rambutans and apple guavas and sopadillas and on and on

*Fruit photos courtesy of Jacinta Green

...with vendors sitting in clusters in front of their fruits, fanning themselves from the cloudy humidity and the constant congestion of people, people, people. I had to pee. Why do I always have to pee during inconvenient times? I somehow snuck into an alley and found a bathroom.

I found similar quality of toilets in China. In conclusion, when it comes to toilets, China and Thailand do not hold a candle to Korea.

Later, I had to go to the bathroom again. Chris and Jacinta marched ahead into the swirl of Bangkok traffic. I confessed that I had to pee, and Chris responded thusly: "Jesus Christ, again?" This angered me, and I think I replied with a not-so-veiled threat of peeing on his face.


I am not proud of my behavior at this juncture.



My batteries were running low. Tired hungry hungry tired hungry hungry tired tired. We taxied to the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, where I enjoyed a plate of green mole chicken for $2 U.S. While Chris took in a Muay Thai boxing match at a nearby arena and Jacinta hunted for bargains in the shopping district, I staggered to the corner of the sidewalk, where a security guard waved me over to sit beside him under an umbrella, so as to escape the drizzly rain.



I sat, my chin grazing my chest. The Suan Lum Night Bazaar was more tourist-friendly than the other areas through which we walked, but the synapses in my brain still felt overloaded: the is-she-or-isn't-she-ness of certain mysterious bodies in short skirts, the pasty backpackers, the cars, the scooters, the madness. I turned and saw another stray dog staring at me. I jolted up in my seat. I don't like dogs.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Thailand-bound...

Thailand is under a declared state of emergency. That being said, it might not be the perfect time to visit the protest-stricken nation, but I'm going anyway. I am Thailand-bound. Bangkok. Phuket. Here I come.

I'll be back next week with words and pictures.
Meanwhile, I'll try to stay away from these guys:


Past travels:
Travelogue #25: Diaries of the Chinese New Year, Beijing 2008
Travelogue #29: How I Ended Up at a Police Station in Fukuoka, Japan at 3am...and Somehow Found My Way Home
Travelogue #30: Can Japanese Blowfish Kill You Deliciously?
Travelogue #31: My Not-So-Lonely Planet Guide to Fukuoka, Japan and Busan, South Korea
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Travelogue #51: A Completely Unauthorized Lonelyy Planett Guide to Seoul Entertainment, 2009


E
arlier this summer, my editor at Eloquence Magazine contacted several expat writers about an opportunity to contribute to the next edition of Lonely Planet: Seoul. Apparently, the Seoul City Government was not satisfied by the portrayal of the city in the last edition of the travel guide, and in turn, wanted to seek
out new writers who'd find the cool nooks and crannies of Seoul that were overlooked the last time around.

I was excited but cautiously so - I've learned that the best strategy for any and all writing possibilities is to wait and see what happens. Unfortunately, the opportunity came to naught; my editor told me the City Government was acting in a way that suggested that maybe its opinions don't hold much water with the Lonely Planet publishers.

Oh well. Since I put in the work to produce several blurbs, I figured it'd be best not to let them go to waste. So - if you're in Seoul, or plan to visit Seoul soon, take a look at the following nightclubs and bars I've experienced/enjoyed over the past year. One of them just might be what you're looking for...

--------------------------------------------------
---------
CLUBS

GANGNAM

Club NB
15000W; open late, Gangnam Station

See and be seen in this rainbow-lit hip-hop music video come to life. This enormous nightclub is packed with dancing women in tight shirts and tighter jeans, and the brave men who try to dance with them.

HONGIK

OI
02-334-5484 ; admission free ; Sun-Thurs 1pm-5am; Fri-Sat 1pm-5am; subway line 2 to Hongik University, exit 5


Drop your shoes and dance barefoot in this marshmallow cave of disco lights and pulsing techno. To relax, enjoy a hookah or a cocktail in one of the club's cool, cavernous corners.

BARS

HONGIK

ICEBAR SUB-ZERO
82-2-337-688; admission 15000 W for cape, gloves, ice glass, and one vodka cocktail; 1pm-2am; subway line 2 to Hongik University, exit 5


Sip cocktails from goblets made out of ice, and watch your breath turn into cool wisps inside this igloo of a bar. Refills are 10000 won.

NABI
02-338-4879; admission free; 6pm-3am; subway line 2 to Hongik University, exit 5


A candlelit swirl of African, Asian, and Mediterranean influence, this underground lair of soft pillows and flavored hookah is perfect for intimate conversations late into the night.

BRICXX BAR: HONGDAE
02-3141-5571; admission free, time hours, subway line 2 to Hongik University, exit 5



Surrounded by noisier clubs, this bustling but laidback basement lounge gives you thirty minutes to puff a hookah before you have to return it. Stay for the drinks: the wine list is long.

ITAEWON

THE BUNGALOW: TROPICAL LOUNGE
010-9001-2380; admission free; time hours; subway line 6 to Itaewon Station, exit 2

Nestled in a back alley of Itaewon is this mellow-vibed lounge, featuring three floors of swinging bamboo chairs and sunken tables. If you're hungry, try the surprisingly juicy California Burger for 13000W.

OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES

JAMSIL


SEOKCHON LAKE
A glimmer in the backyard of Lotte World, this manmade lake is circled by a cleanly-lit walking trail popular with couples and families. Expect hearty foot traffic from morning through midnight.


SHOPPING

ITAEWON

WHAT THE BOOK?

02-797-2342; subway line 6 to Itaewon Station, exit 2

Atop the hills of Itaewon sits this small but bustling shop of new and used books patronized by English-speaking expats. Expect an impressive selection of American magazines, from the popular to the obscure.  


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