Thailand – Amazing, Yet Problematic for the Alone, Weak-Willed, and Trusting (Part 2)

I have made up SO many stories since being in Thailand.  I have had to get out of situations more difficult than getting out of a relationship with an obsessive girlfriend (not something I know about firsthand, just making an assumption).  Many of these situations would have left me in circumstances such as (but not limited to): dead (maybe), without a kidney (possibly because of previous, another assumption), no money, more money, four more Armani suits than I arrived with (none), and a body more tender than the steaes at Ruth Chris’s Steak House.  What’s funny is that this all occurred during my day-and-a-half stay in Bangkok.  Quite the opposite experience from Chiang Mai.

Bangkok

When I arrived in Bangkok at 9:30 PM, I had been awake since 5 AM, spent an exhausting day at the elephant park, and was quickly becoming exhausted with all the flying I was doing.  So I was quite ready to get to the hostel and fall asleep.  I had heard somewhere that a taxi to get to my place would cost around 400 baht ($12).  So when I walked into the lobby area, I asked a few of the more elite taxi services how much they charged: 800 baht.

The regular taxi queue had a long line stemming from the front.  As I moved to get in line, a man approached me and asked if I needed a taxi.  I cautiously told him yes and told him where I was going.  He said he could take me there and I made sure he could do it for 500 baht, rather than wait in line, to which he agreed.  We walked away from the busy lobby and down into the nearly empty (in terms of people) parking garage (first red flag), he directed me to his SUV and opened the door.  On the inside, there weren’t signs such as a meter that hinted this was a taxi (second red flag).  Driven by paranoia, I quickly glanced in back to make sure no one was there.  Clear.

After about 10 minutes of driving through backroads, rather than through the busy city (third red flag), the driver turned around and told me he needed to fill up with gas (fourth red flag, they should always be full) and needed the 500 now, and 2500 later.  Wait, what 2500??  He slyly pulled a laminate sheet out of the seat and handed it to me.  This was one of those flat rate taxis I had been warned about!  This had gone from a $15 taxi to a $60 taxi!  I really had 1200 left to finish my stay in Thailand.  I argued that he had said 500 and I didn’t have 3000 baht.  He persistently kept dogging me for the 500 first so he could fill up.  Uttering a few choice words under my breath (although out loud probably wouldn’t have mattered) I reluctantly handed it over.  I considered just getting out, but the surrounding area was deserted at 10:30 PM and probably not the safest option.

As we started driving again, I decided I needed a new approach.  I suddenly feigned alarm and told him that I had left my passport at the airport and needed to go back to get it.  I don’t know if he believed it or not, but we started heading back in that direction as he got out his phone and started talking to someone.  He kept mentioning the word “filang,” which I had previously learned meant foreigner.  No doubt referring to me and my idiocracy.   He kept asking how long I would be so he could wait.  I told him I didn’t know and to just get another passenger, but he was persistent and told me to leave my stuff.  I gave him another 500 baht to hold him over and convince him I needed my things.  As soon as he pulls up to departures, I throw open the door and run out with him yelling after me.  I dash to the regular taxi queue (much smaller at this point) and get in a regular taxi.  This trip only costs me 200 baht.

Admittedly, my own naiveté allowed me to fall into this predicament.  It made me learn the hard way to go with the gut feeling and to go with the flow.  Besides one other minor event (to be covered later), the rest of Bangkok went off without a hitch.

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I stayed at a ritzy hostel named Glur (it sounds fancy, doesn’t it?).  It was only $10 a night, but I shared a room with 7 other travelers, in this case, all Chinese (sorry, with two Indonesians).  It was located right in the city near the river.  This allowed me to walk less than a quarter-mile to the river, purchase an all-day boat pass, and go where I needed to go.

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I first headed to The Grand Palace.  Since I arrived before it opened at 8, there was quite a line forming.  You’d think most lines would curve around on the sidewalk, here, they just stretch out into the street, regardless of traffic.  Come 8 o’ clock, the gates open and the crowds flood in.  If you’ve ever been to Disneyland and seen the surging crowds who rush in upon opening, that’ll give you a good idea of what The Grand Palace was like.  Except instead of rides and pineapple smoothies, it’s making donations and burning incense.  Upon entering, those of us dressed immodestly (shorts) were redirected to another building where we were given complimentary drawstring pants.  I began heading again towards the palace entry, anticipation building, and realized that the entry rate was 500 Baht (about $15).  Me being the thrifty person I am, reconsidered, returned my pants, and cleared out.  This wasn’t going where you expected it to, did it?  The palace looked cool from the outside though!

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I headed over to Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, where the entrance fee was only 100 Baht!  The Reclining Buddha was quite a sight, laying in at 138 feet long and 45 feet high.  Tourists on both sides of me walked the span of the statue with their GoPro’s and cameras in panorama mode.  The rest of temple grounds were lovely.

Much of the rest of the day was spent following directions on a disproportionate map I found on the ground.  Some of the anticipated activities turned out to be a bust, such as the fourth largest flower market in the world being a warehouse full of potatoes.  Or the National Bangkok Museum being closed (the 1 day I am there).

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I had heard a lot about the famous Khao San Road that every tourist should visit.  I didn’t have that much time to spend there since I had to catch the last boat back home, and didn’t want to be stranded across Bangkok.  The joy of the journey was found in actually getting to the road itself.  I followed signs that promised a shortcut to the road which ultimately led to a door.  Seems like a bad idea to go into an unmarked building with arrows pointing to it.  So I did it anyways and it turned out alright.  Additionally, I was constantly accosted by smartly dressed men who grabbed my arm and would confidently lead me to their suit shop, attempting to size me up to begin fitting me for my new Armani suit.  I come to the conclusion that since I am traveling alone, I must come off as an easier target.  Therefore, just like I did when I needed to get into Costco without a membership, I fell in line with random people, pretending to be a part of their group.  Unorthodox, perhaps.  Effective, yes.  Strength in numbers.

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At night, I headed back to Glur and made friends with a Brit named Emily.  She had sold her flat back in March in order to travel the world.  She seemed keen to discuss Game of Thrones and Dr. Who; both of which I did my best to feign interest through.  She also asked if I had read 50 Shades of Grey.  I thought she was joking, but she was quite serious.  We headed over to the food court across the way to get some spicy chicken and green beans (did not bode so well later).

This is that other “minor” event.  The morning I was supposed to leave, I headed out into the city before it became too busy.  As I joined a throng of people about to cross the street, I struck up a conversation with the person next to me.  Chim is a retired Thai teacher who spends his days enjoying the city.  He asked me what I was doing there and how I was enjoying Thailand so far.  He very nonchalantly asked if I had bought any suits during my visit.  After replying no, before I knew it I had been directed into a suit shop where Chim greeted the owner like as an old friend.  They began taking measurements and sizing me up.  Time to make up another story.  I told them I was headed to the airport in 15 minutes.  They saw that coming.  “We can send the suit to you!”  I ran out of the store.

It’s interesting to point out that in Asia, public displays of affection are uncommon.  It is rare to see anyone kissing, holding hands, or even arms around each other.  This is not the case within enclosed walls.  Many of the people I was sharing a room with seemed to be vacationing as couples and were sharing beds.  Luckily, I had kept the ear plugs from the international flight over.

Overall, I enjoyed my trip to Thailand.  However, I would recommend to future travelers to visit the outer provinces.  It is more of a cultural experience and you can get more for your money.

Thailand – Amazing, Yet Problematic for the Alone, Weak-Willed, and Trusting (Part 1)

It wasn’t until I started writing this entry that I realized how massive it is.  And no one wants to spend their day reading a novel with limited pictures (unless it’s Harry Potter for the umpteenth time).  So I gone the way of Hollywood and turned this into a two-part event.  Except you’ll only have to wait a day for part 2.

Chiang Mai

Upon my arrival in Chiang Mai, I took a taxi to the guesthouse I would be staying at called The White House, which was situated next to The Blue House.  I chose to spend most of my time in Thailand in Chiang Mai because I had read that the smaller city vibe was more preferable for visitors not digging the big city feel.  Being the second largest city in Thailand, it was still a city with nearly a million people in it and only hundreds of temples instead of thousands of temples.  The host, named Nuk, checked me in to my private room ($8/night), complete with its own bidet (‘bidet’ to you sir) allowed me to place my bag and valuables in a secure storage locker, and provided me with recommendations of things to do in Chiang Mai.  I decided to go out and walk around to get the feel of the area.

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In Thailand, main streets are broken into smaller sub-streets called “Soi.”  Think of it as a street-within-a-street.  I could make a joke about street-inception or street-ception, but that joke has overstayed its welcome.  I had a map to follow around, but it was usually difficult to find which direction I was going, unlike the eastern mountains of Utah which always declare East.  One of the reasons I preferred being alone was that I could walk wherever I wanted and take as much time as I needed without having to be considerate of others asking: “Where the cuss are we going?” or “What the cuss are we doing?” and dignifying them with the all encompassing response of “I don’t know.”  I felt a certain sense of nostalgia (and queasiness) as the familiar third-world smell of free sewage overcame me.  I was staying in a part of the city referred to as “within the old walls,” where many of the temples were located.  I saw a group of people gathering at a makeshift terminal waiting to go somewhere, so I decided to join them.  They were headed up to an area called Doi Suthep: a temple at the top of a mountain with a view over the entire city.  The road there was harrowing; winding up the mountain in a series of switchbacks.  I was only one shade of green among many in our small, crammed bus.

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The temple was located in a high, mountaintop village adorned with hanging flags.  There were approximately 300 steps to the temple and lookout at the top.  For those not fit enough to make the arduous trek, there was an elevator to take up.  The view at the top was breathtaking as the clouds settled over the valley and mountains themselves.  I befriended a couple from Israel, Tom and Filek who were on their honeymoon.  I became their unofficial photographer as I kept running into them in the most photogenic areas.  They must have thought I looked lonely by myself and needed something to do.  My best to them.  The ride back down wasn’t much better, and it didn’t agree with the chicken I had eaten.  Admittedly, I went back to my room at about 6 pm, spent an unspecified amount of time in the bathroom, and gave in to jet lag.

Fortunately, it took me only 10 hours of sleep to acclimatize to the new time zone.  At 5 AM, I woke up and took a rented scooter (only $6 and no proof of license!) back to Doi Suthep, and further up to the top of the mountain to watch the sunrise.  Words can’t describe the sight, so I won’t try.  I had left my phone at the guesthouse and my GoPro died, so just take my word for it.  I headed back down to a restaurant and ordered my first real Thai meal of Pad Thai and Mango Sticky Rice.  I CAN show you a picture of this.  Words can’t describe how it tasted, so I won’t try.

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I was lucky to have T-Mobile, whose phone plan allowed me to have free texting and data abroad without incurring roaming fees.  Google Maps has been incredibly helpful.  It allowed me to find the church (LDS church, you don’t need anything to find a Buddhist temple here) that I would be attending.  If it was a cultural experience I was hoping to experience at the Chiang Mai 2nd Branch, I was mistaken.  About 80 people were in attendance, roughly half of which were students from Utah through an assortment of programs such as Help International, study abroad, teaching English, and internships.  No one was more than 50 years old, so they couldn’t have been there to find a wife.  A more appropriate name for the branch would have been the BYU Thai-SA Branch.  The small world that it is, I knew one of the attendees present, Amber Nordhagen, and was able to spend the rest of the day with their group.

The Sunday Market is well-known in Chiang Mai.  Major streets are closed off to allow more than 1500 vendors to set up stalls to sell food and crafts.  It’s been estimated that tourism makes up about 25% of Thailand’s GDP, and the night market was a good example.  The market drew hundreds, if not thousands of tourists.  Besides the vendors, there were few Thai’s there.  Probably because they know they can buy a better quality item for half the price the next street over.

IMG_20150719_192541       Fried Insects for all!

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I’ve never been the sentimental type to buy souvenirs, but I will happily throw down extra money on food.  Which I happily did at the market.  I loved trying shakes from different stalls, trying to find the best one – Mango, avocado, strawberry.  Undoubtedly the best one was this mixed-berry smoothie.  Words can’t desc- you get it.  There were some other delicacies to try such as fried milk, spicy sausage, tzoriso, and fresh coconut milk.  With how many people were there, the next day, everyone cleans up so well, you’d never have been able to guess what had transpired the night before.

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My last day in Chiang Mai, I had made reservations to go to an elephant nature park.  There are varying philosophies concerning the elephant in Thailand.  It is a sacred animal according to the religion here and can be found in stone form in many temples.  In the past, elephants were used for field labor and in the logging industry.  In select areas, some people still use elephants to beg in the street, unnerving the creatures with the loud, city noises.  Many services in Asia cater to tourist’s fascination with the elephant in the form of riding, caring, or feeding them.  The service I chose to go with did not believe the elephant should be ridden and focused on allowing them to roam free and recover from their past.

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I had a wonderful, hands-on experience with the elephants.  We learned about Moosh, an 80-year-old elephant saved from the logging industry who had given birth while working and whose baby had been killed by the careless workers.  Jungle Boy, a 5-year-old baby who had stepped in a trap at the age of one and now had a permanently disable leg.  Seree had stepped on a mine at the border and had her foot mangled.  Each elephant had a story.  Seeing them interact with other elephants rescued from similar situations and how they had bonded was a wonderful sight to see.  While many people fanaticize about riding an elephant, I was content with playing with them.

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When I returned to the White House, I got my stuff together and prepared to fly to Bangkok, which is where a completely different experience awaited me . . .