Saturday, May 15, 2010

Thailand - ราชอาณาจักรไทย (and I thought Korean was tough)

I guess I like reading a lot more than writing. Sorry, I should have updated my blog much sooner, but better late than never.

I went traveling through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and a small stopover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in April. Here are some of the stories from those travels.

I flew out of Incheon International on April 1st. Jon and I were pushing it close and were kind of late arriving to the airport. As we approached to check in for our flight, a Malaysian Airlines employee motioned for us to come over to the first class check in line (there was actually no one around). We told him were we were going and he said he had an offer for us. If I could change out of my shorts and put some pants on along with some shoes (I was wearing sandals), he'd upgrade us to first class for free. The problem was, I didn't bring any pants or shoes with me, I'm going to scorching hot SE Asia! I tried bribing him with my sweet, pink ray ban like knock off shades, but he upgraded us for free anyways. We got to fly first class. Nice way to start the trip.

After a layover in Kuala Lumpur, we landed in Bangkok and made our way to Khao San Road, which is the touristy "backpacker ghetto". Right off the bat, I was surprised with how modern, hectic, loud, and chaotic Bangkok was. The city is huge, about 15 million people, skyscrapers to be seen in every direction, and traffic is always a problem, so it took a while to get to our hostel. We got to our hostel, Kawin place, and after a quick Pad Thai bought on the street for about $1, we crashed for the night.

The next day we saw the Grand Palace, what seemed like a couple hundred Buddhas, and explored the city. If you followed the news at all, you know that that was about the time the red shirt protests began. The red shirts were demanding for the dissolution of the current government, accusing the current people in power of corruption, among other things. Our tuk tuk drivers, and locals we spoke to, insisted that these protests were to be peaceful. A few years ago, the yellow shirts protested and closed down both of the major airports, which crippled the heavily dependent tourist economy, so the red shirts did not want this to happen. Anyway, we could see protesters everywhere, but it was still pretty calm and seemed safe. More on that later.

The highlight of Bangkok for me was touring the Grand Palace. Our guide, a little old Thai man, would crack jokes every two minutes or so, but none of us got them. We did laugh, because he thought he was so funny, on the verge of chocking. I don't think he realized we were laughing at him, not with him. Either way, I learned a lot and saw a lot.

Besides the grand palace, I didn't like Bangkok at all. It was fantastic to see it and experience it, but the place was way to busy and in your face to be able to take it easy. For example, walking down Khao San Road, there are hordes of Indian men wearing flashy suits, sporting slicked back hair, trying to sell you a suit or two.

"Sir, you buy a suit. I'll give you good price, sir. Sir!"
"No, thank you"
"Sir, you will be handsome. Buy suit"

Less than five seconds later, the same type of thing happens, but with a new guy. These guys were like mosquitoes, unwilling to take no for an answer. Apparently, you can get pretty nice suits, custom made and with high quality materials, but I didn't want one!!! One time, sensing that a suit man was approaching, I simply said "I don't want a suit, man". He replied "Why do you assume I sell you suit?! Why? I wasn't even talking to you yet!" "Sorry, but if it walks like a duck..." "Why you say that!? I no sell you suit!" "Well, what were you going to sell me?" "F**k you, I no sell you suit" So I keep on walking. Half an hour later, as I was leaving the internet cafe, the same guy approaches me and offers me a suit for a good price. "Don't you remember me? You said you don't sell suits and that you wouldn't sell me anything?" The suit man, realizing that he had in fact talked to me earlier, says "I can sell you suit now. Best price, you want?" I didn't buy a suit.

We met up with two other friends from Korea, Nicole and Sarah, who had already been traveling for over a month, and traveled together for a while. We decided to leave Bangkok and go see a floating market about two hours west of the city. This required getting up at the early hour of 6:00am in order to beat traffic and the protesters, but alas, a hearty McDonalds breakfast put everything in order. (I want to try McDonalds in every country I go to. So does my brother Sasha). The floating market was nice. Get in a long boat with a scrappy looking motor hanging at the back, and drive around this market/village where people sell stuff I don't really want or need, but interesting to see nonetheless. I was most enthralled with the motors on these boats and the driveshafts sticking out of them, going into the water. It was like they tore a motor out of an old Corolla, attached a driveshaft with a propeller at the end, and viola, you've got yourself a motor boat. Speaking of Corollas, the majority of the cars I saw in Thailand, and Cambodia for that matter, were Toyotas. They were everywhere.

It took forever to get back to our hostel because of protesters blocking roads everywhere. We could see military checkpoints everywhere, but after what seemed like half a day of sitting in traffic, we got out and walked back, at which point we ran into another teacher from Korea, who we spent some time with! This teacher was preparing to go climb to base camp at Mt. Everest. Hopefully he made it.

After Bangkok, we headed for Cambodia. From Khao San Road, we took a mini-bus to the Cambodian border, which was also pretty chaotic and confusing. It took about an hour of standing in the blistering heat to get our passports stamped, but we were on our way soon enough to Siem Reap. As soon as we crossed the border, it was easy to tell that Cambodia is a much poorer country. Rickety looking stores, what looked like ill nourished cows, and trash were everywhere. Thailand looked like a spotless place compared to Cambodia. Recycling does not exist there, as was apparent from stuff lying around absolutely everywhere. Granted, having food on the table for your family is more important than making sure the plastic bottle you're drinking from ends up being recycled, but it was just an example of how different the place is.

Siem Reap is the town situated right next to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. We found a reasonably priced guest house (I think it was $7 a night) with AC, which was absolutely necessary. April is the hottest month of the year in south east Asia, with temperatures reaching about 45 degrees centigrade. I remember Sacramento being unbearably hot, but this, for whatever reason, was worse. When I asked why the internet wasn't working at our guesthouse, the owner, with sweat dripping off his brow, pointed outside and said "Look. It is too hot for the internet. Maybe next month". I had no choice but had to take his word for it.

We bought a three day pass to the temples, which was $40 USD (US cash was accepted everywhere in Cambodia. I guess the US dollar is a lot more stable). The tuk tuk driver that had driven us to the guesthouse the day before came back again to drive us to the temples. We spent the next three days exploring this massive site, by first visiting the smallest temples around the perimeter and working up the biggest ones, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. We went to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, which was surreal and definitely worth the 4:00am wake up.

Along the way to another temple, we stopped to feed some monkeys! Some of these furry guys were the definition of gross obesity, since hordes of tourists stuff them with bananas, bought from little Cambodian kids for less than a buck. Naturally, we couldn't help but do the same.

A highlight from the Cambodia trip was being invited to a Lunar New Year's party by a taxi driver, who happened to be a local police lieutenant. We had our tuk tuk driver, Jimmy, pick us up and drive us the one hour out of Siem Reap to the village where this cop lives. There were about 50 or so people at this shindig. They already had roasted a cow over an open fire and had plenty of food. Cheasy Cambodian music was blasting in all directions and these people loved talking to us. One thing about SE Asia is that they love saying "same, same, but different". Here is an example of how its used.

Jimmy, our tuk tuk driver, calls me over. BTW, I told Jimmy that my name is Jimmy too, but that's another story altogether. "Jimmy, come meet my father!"
Me. "It's nice to meet you. Your son Jimmy here has been a very accommodating driver."
Jimmy. "haha, yes"
Five minutes later, Jimmy calls me over again.
Jimmy. "Jimmy, meet my father!"
Me. "Jimmy, I thought your father is that guy. You just introduced us five minutes ago. Am I mistaken?"
Jimmy. "Same, same, but different"
Me. "Same same, but different? No, you can only have one dad, which one is it?"
Jimmy. "haha, same same, but different, Jimmy. Have some cow! Did you try our Cambodian cheese?" (the cheese did not look or taste like cheese at all. More like ground up alfalfa)

After Cambodia, Jon and I decided to completely change our plans, and decided to go back to Thailand because we heard that Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, celebrates the new year in only the most memorable way. A three day long, city wide, water fight. We took a bus back to Bangkok, where it took a lot of haggling and negotiating to find a way to Chiang Mai. After only too many travel agents, we booked a flight through AirAsia, which have pretty cheap flights all over SE Asia.

Chiang Mai was a lot more to my liking, compared to Bangkok. The city has a laid back feel to it, people don't force suits down your throat, and the landscape is gorgeous. We arrived a few days before Songkram (the name of the new year festival about to happen) was to begin, so we booked a two day trek through the Thai jungle. This trek included riding elephants, hiking through mountains to a little village, seeing a long-neck village, jumping off of waterfalls, white water rafting, and bamboo river rafting. Besides Jon and I, our group consisted, coincidentally, another guy from Seattle and his Brazilian girlfriend, three girls from Ontario, who happened to live really close to Jon, an Austrian girl, two recent high school grad from England, and our tour guide, Khan. The three Canadian girls had somehow never in their lives gone hiking before. About a kilometer into the hike, one of the girls was puking while another was crying, begging to turn back. Bear in mind, its about 40 degrees and we are in the middle of the jungle. The only person knows how to get back to civilization is Khan, and we still have a few more hours of hiking to the village where we are to spend the night. Long story short, we got to the village, albeit later than expected. Along the way, Khan showed us what we could and could not eat; off of trees, from the ground, from rotting stumps, etc. I felt like I was Bear Grills.

Anyway, writing about this takes more time than expected. I'll try and finish soon.

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