Monthly Archives: April 2012

Next Stop: India

“Why would you go there?!” “That’s where I felt most out of my comfort zone.” “Be prepared: nothing works the way it’s supposed to.” “Instead of spending a month in India, take that money and spend a week in Italy.”

When you say you’re going to India, you get strongly-felt responses. We know India is going to be challenging- so many people, such a big country, and definitely still a developing nation. Rather than taking the advice of the “don’t bother going there” crowd, we like to see things for ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

And so we found ourselves sitting on a airplane at the Bangkok airport. Indigo flight 72 to Mumbai. The flight attendant came on the loudspeaker and, I kid you not, said this:

“In accordance with Indian government requirements, we will now spray the cockpit with an insecticide. It has been declared safe for humans by the World Health Organization.”

Isn’t that what they said about DDT? She proceeded to walk the length of the cabin, as passengers covered their mouths with shirt sleeves and handkerchiefs. I wasn’t sure how the authorities would feel about me videotaping this ritual, so here’s my clandestine video.

We’re not even there yet and things are getting weird. India, here we come!

All Hail the King! Or Else.

Now that we have left Thailand, I can speak freely.

As a US citizen, the concept of having a king or queen is pretty foreign to me. If your country insists on being hopelessly anachronistic, might I suggest you elevate a kindly older woman with a bunch of Welsh corgis to a mostly symbolic post? And do host an ongoing debate on abolishing the monarchy, won’t you?

In Thailand, the king’s image is everywhere. On private buildings, on city hall, at intersections, in malls, in temples, and on the money. That’s fine, I guess that’s what you do when you have a king.

To its credit, Thailand converted to a constitutional monarchy way back in 1932, meaning that the elected government makes the laws, while the king is basically a figurehead. Bravo! But wait, what’s this relic, still on the books: Article 112, a draconian law protecting the king from defamation and criminalizing inappropriate discussions about the monarchy. Criminal investigations are launched over this. People are arrested. Isn’t this the 21st century? Isn’t this country a player in the world community? This is ridiculous!

Guess who agrees with me on this: the King of Thailand. In his birthday speech in 2005, the king indicated that he could handle some criticism, saying, “Actually I want them to criticize because whatever I do, I want to know that people agree or disagree… I must also be criticized. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the King cannot be criticized, it means that the King is not human.” He also rather ominously said, “If they criticize correctly, I have no problem,” so I’m not joining the fan club just yet. Even under pressure from groups like Human Rights Watch, the Thai government has refused to loosen up. After all, the anti-defamation statute is a great way for the ruling party to harass members of its political opposition.

It seems to this American that the ultimate act of kingly benevolence would be for the king to abolish himself and save his country a bunch of money on palaces and parades, which could be used for, say, garbage collection. In this place, with its long royal history and neighboring monarchies, quitting the king would probably be seen as diminishing Thai prestige, so it’s probably not going to happen. In that case, how about taking the monarch’s advice and allowing public discussion of the monarchy? Queen Elizabeth seems to have done just fine without the protection of draconian laws.

That’s me whining. What do the Thai people think of all this? It’s their opinion that matters. Let’s see: they dutifully rise for the playing of the national anthem before every movie showing (I went to see Hugo). And, walking to a Metro stop one day, I was surprised when this happened:

National pride or forced patriotism? We gently nibbled on the edges of the topic with a few Thais we met, and all changed the subject. That’s my problem: people not being able to speak their minds. Oops, now that I’ve said that, it’s possible that I won’t be allowed back into Thailand. Then again, I would be happy to return to a more open and fair Thailand… with a little less garbage.

Thailand: Land of Smile*

* Smile sold separately

If it wasn’t for Sao in Khao Lak and her beautiful, genuine smile, we would have wondered how the Thai tourism board ever came up with the slogan “Land of Smiles” (frequently misprinted as Land of Smile). Sao was truly kind and helpful, going above and beyond what one would expect of a guesthouse manager.

Sao helps out

There is much despair in Thailand. Filth, corruption, unclean water, maniacal drivers, destructive tourism, deceitful touts, loads of scams. The land of smiles is really more like the land of sneers. Thankfully, we found some lovely people and joyous times here, yet you gotta deal with a lot of crap to find the nicer side of Thailand.

Tourism is big business in Thailand. Most tourist areas are filled with the Same Same. Fake tourist info centers pushing their own private tours, restaurants with 12-page menus serving mediocre food, bars cranking up American pop songs. I met a new breed of tourist in Thailand: the middle-class Russian. Think Chinese tour groups are exciting? Try spending an hour with over 100 Russians at a waterfall. If my one-time, stereotypical observations are “correct”, most Russians are grossly overweight and wear the smallest swim attire they can find. They unashamedly practice their centerfold poses for the next issue of Playboy. (Where do they post these photos?) Too bad I didn’t see them at the bar later that night. I can only imagine the scene.

We heard that sex tourism makes up 20% of Thailand’s tourist income. The sidewalks are filled with old, Western men walking around with their young, Thai girlfriends. The girls look miserable or at least bored out of their minds. The men look oblivious and content.

The stereotype is that Thai men are bad husbands: beating, lying, stealing and cheating on their wives. This leads some Thai women to look elsewhere. Western men pick up girls in bars and one day marry them. At that point, some men are in for a surprise, as their meek Thai wives reveal their true personalities and become more demanding. Other Thai bar girls string along several Western boyfriends, each of whom only lives in Thailand part time. See how twisted this whole system is? I was delighted when I saw what seemed like wholesome and healthy Thai-Western marriages.

Scams are rampant in Thailand, from the tuk-tuk tour at a price too good to be true, to the fake accident set-up, to the jet-ski and motorbike rental rip-offs, to the-lose-your-shirt gem scam.

With all that going on, how can Thais like tourists, and how can tourists like Thailand? It was in this country that I began to think that tourism may be a bad idea, period. It can bring out the more unattractive side of people. I’ll keep stewing on this one and see if I have any firm conclusions later.

Back in the Land of Smiles, if you see a nice smile, that person is probably trying to save face. Saving face is basically a way of life for the Thai people. They have numerous phrases for this concept. Boiled down, saving face is about making nice, never saying no, telling people what they want to hear, not getting into an argument, covering for someone if they are in the process of losing face. Definitely a 180-degree turn from how most people interact in the US.

For me, all this saving face business feels phony. How can you trust anyone if everyone is smiling, lying, telling you what you want to hear? From my perspective, it feels like a system for squashing true emotions. I can imagine many of these people winding up needing psych care. A scary prospect, as many hospitals are stuck in the dark ages… electroshock therapy is still used on psych patients. Saving face can also be taken to the extreme. Not happy with someone who caused you to lose face? Kill your offender. Many times you won’t even be punished. We heard a couple of these stories and were saddened.

Maybe some of the animosity comes from the wage discrepancies we noted. A foreigner teaching English as a second language earns about US$1000 per month. That person pays rent on a small apartment at about $130 a month. Electricity runs $17 and water is $3. By contrast, a northern Thai woman, picking tea leaves for a living, makes about US$4 a day, or $100 a month, when there is work. She most likely lives without electricity or running water.

Life is even tougher in northwestern Thailand. Over 2 million Burmese refugees live on the border, with others venturing into Thai cities. The Thai government has given them land to create camps. Some are awful, some are nice. There are few educational opportunities for the kids in these camps, so NGOs help out. Time will tell if Burma will allow these people to safely return to their rightful homes.

Few tourists see much of this, as they head south to hit the beautiful beaches and islands. We hit them too and especially enjoyed our four nights on a scuba diving boat in the Andaman Sea. Thankfully, half the staff were Thai people, including one of the dive instructors. These people worked hard, usually getting up at 5am and not sleeping until after 10pm. They may work weeks or months at a time, as tours depart continuously throughout the diving months, October through May. Even with a grueling schedule, they were professional, friendly and quite funny. One of the cooks told me she wouldn’t dream of diving, as she is scared of the water, yet she asked me to say hello to the manta ray for her. And I got the chance to do just that!

No wrap-up of Thailand would be complete without talking about the food. While the pad thai is different than what we eat at home and nowhere did they serve volcano chicken, we did manage some very tasty eats:

Green curry with small green eggplants
Cinnamon-scented chicken, grilled in pandam leaves
Pomelo salad
Sticky rice with mango
Nam prik (anchovy dip) with veggies
Massaman curry
Fresh spring rolls with no noodles and spicy green vinegar dip
Miang Kham or fresh leaf appetizer with sweet shrimp dip
Fried chicken from a street stall
Coconut ice cream with fresh, shaved coconut on top- contains no milk

Thais drink their beer on ice, which actually makes the light lagers much more palatable. When not drinking beer, the norm is to order full bottles of whiskey. Choose your bottle, order some soda water or Coca-Cola and a bucket of ice, and then make your own drinks. If you don’t finish the bottle, the bar will label it for your future consumption or you can take it home. A full bottle of Thai whiskey can run around US$6 from the store, while Johnnie Walker Red is about US$20. We engaged in this Thai tradition one night, finishing the whiskey (and Cokes) the following night.

Before we came, we dreamed that Thailand would be full of spicy food and friendly people. Although both are out there, it took some work to find them, which made us wonder if we were welcome in the country, or just tolerated. Thankfully, people like Sao, Arob and her friends, and the dive boat crew helped us enjoy our time in the Land of Smiles.

Arob and Maew sample the coconut dessert

Mama Yah, high seas cook

And Sao's guesthouse kitty, for good measure

Toilets: Thailand Edition

Here they are: Thai toilets!

As I mentioned back in Malaysia, we want to put a dent in the environmental disaster that constantly buying plastic water bottles represents. In Thailand, we made some headway. Some hotels- bless them- had filtered water available, so we could simply fill up our metal bottles over and over.

Newer, shinier airports (like BKK) often have drinkable water available too.

After some fruitless conversations with pharmacists, we also got our hands on some iodine to treat questionable water, just as hikers and campers do when they head in to the wild (Bangkok certainly qualifies as “wild”). We don’t treat just any water- only water at our nicer hotels received the Next Stop: World seal of approval. Besides the slight iodine taste, it has worked well. While we still buy bottled water, at least we can slip in an iodine batch every fourth or fifth time. Saving 20%-25% of our plastic seems like a worthy cause.

When travelers get to chatting, talk often turns to water quality, and we have occasionally regaled listeners with the sad tale of Milwaukee’s cryptosporidium outbreak in 1993. Research in an idle moment revealed some things even we didn’t know, like the fact that it was the worst waterborne disease outbreak in US history (given that over 100 people died and hundreds of thousands were sickened). We also read this fascinating article (and subsequent corrections to it) about the causes, which led us to be discriminating about the water we treat. Iodine can kill bugs but may not be sufficient if the water has high turbidity. So we’re careful.

The dream, of course, is for there to be drinkable water readily available all over the world. Judging from the piles of plastic bottles we’ve seen in Thailand, we’ve got a long way to go.

Conquering Khao Sok

After scuba diving, snorkeling, and turtle releasing, we still had a few days before our flight to India. Karen and I decided to head for a nearby national park. Unfortunately, Karen’s last meal in Khao Lak went to war with her stomach- we suspect it was the mayo on her hamburger. Why does every hamburger in Southeast Asia have mayo on it? If you find out, let us know.

Luckily, Karen made it through the 2-hour bus ride to Khao Sok National Park before unleashing a visually-spectacular puking performance in the hotel bathroom. Sorry, there’s no video. But it was truly a tour de force.

Karen after the show

Needless to say, I was on my own for a while. Reading about the magnificent karst formations in the park brought back memories of spending my birthday in Spain’s karst country a couple years ago.

Karst Ken

So I signed up for a boating/hiking/caving adventure. Yeah, all that in one day…

For the record, in the subsequent sunny days, Karen recovered… and so did my shoes.

The Thai Muang Turtle Festival

Every March, the sleepy town of Thai Muang, Thailand, hosts the Turtle Festival. On the fringes of a national park, fair-like grounds spring up, packed with vendors, food and a performance stage. The festival raises awareness of the declining number of egg-laying turtles coming to these local beaches. The nearby Fisheries Department runs a turtle conservation center and hatchery. Each season they collect the eggs laid by the turtles that do come, incubate them, and raise them until they are 60 days old, when they are released back to the sea.

All told, over 80 young turtles were released into the Andaman Sea. It was pure joy.

Exploring Chiang Mai

Are you tired of those old, inefficient methods of praying, like “saying a prayer out loud” or “lighting a candle”? Then the Prayer Machine is for you!

When I finally tore myself away from the mechanical offertory, I stumbled into more generosity of Chiang Mai. Apparently it was festival day at Wat Phra Singh.

If there’s one thing Chiang Mai has no shortage of, it’s temples. Here are some highlights from my explorations.