Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Cambodia Prologue

Sorry for the delay in posting. Been busy as hell. Although Cambodia was only a 2 day trip, we packed a lot into it, so I am going to break the trip into a bunch of parts. First, a picture-less prologue-- the arrival.

This time, we got to the airport with plenty of time. We checked in and were told to proceed to the gate. Air Asia requires you to go through a battery of physical and emotional challenges prior to boarding the plane. First, you must wait in line to pay $15.00 in order to exit Thailand. 15 bucks just to get out of the country. Note that 15 bucks is a lot of money in Thailand. With 15 bucks you can eat dinner for about 15 days. 15 bucks can also pay for a week in a hostel. I mention this because in a country where you get used to living on the super cheap, this comes as a shock, mainly because it is feasible that you can end up with less than 15 bucks before leaving the country. I am curious what would happen to a person unable to pay the exit fee, but with an expired visa.

Ok, anyway, so we pay the exorbitant fee and begin our walk... no, we begin our trek to the gate. The gate is not so much in another part of the airport, as it is in another part of the country. Seriously, a tuk tuk and a days rations of food wouldn't have been totally out of the question here. Needless to say, we reach a sign with our gate number, which is posted above a flight of stairs. We walked down the stairs and into a big glass box. From here we could see the gate, but a glass wall separated us from where we were and where we needed to be. We looked around but there was nothing in any direction. Then, we noticed a small door in one of the walls of our crystal prison. We followed it out to an escalator that was roped off. There was no one in eyesight which led us to believe that this was not the right place. We went back into the glass cube hoping to find another answer. Nothing, same as before. We went back to the escalator, but this time, there was a woman standing at a small podium in front. We recognized her as the same sainly woman who had helped us the day before.

She took our tickets and led us down the escalator which ended in double steel doors leading to the runway. Our next stop, however, was not our plane, but a shuttle bus. In this shuttle bus and only by the grace of God the staff of Air Asia and Suvarnabhumi airport managed to cram every passenger of a full Boeing 737-300.

To begin, I would like to say that I was humbled and embarrassed by my lack of knowledge about Cambodia prior to my visit there. In America, though our social studies classes cover much of the world, South East Asia is rarely mentioned excepting for the Vietnam war. We learn of the Khmer Rogue's occupation of Cambodia, but only to the extent that Pol Pot was a mass murderer. This is especially odd because unlike Adolf Hitler, Mussolini, and other despots whose egregious actions are featured prominently in history books, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are not of a past generation. They are of my generation. As the remnants of the Third Reich are in hiding, whiling away the twilight years of their despicable lives praying that they never face the justice that they so richly deserve, the former members of the Khmer Rouge are alive and well. Some of them are as young as thirty somethings. Most are in their midlife. Their crimes were committed years after the Vietnam war that is so fresh in most American's memories. The problem is not that we have forgotten what happened in Cambodia, its that most of us never learned about it. In any case, assuming that there may be those who happen upon this post who, like me, did not understand the full extent of the Khmer Rogue's rule, I will do my best to infuse some history with the tale of my trip.

After successfully making our way to Cambodia, we were welcomed into the airport at Phnom Penh where we had to change our Thai Bhat into a long forgotten currency from another life.
Since Cambodia's infrastructure and economy had to be recreated after Khmer Rouge control, the Cambodian economy is understandably unstable. The Cambodian riel was the currency before the Khmer Rouge rose to power in 1975. From 1975 until 1980 Pol Pot abolished all currency. After the Vietnamese invasion in 1980, the riel was re-established as the official currency. In order to mend the severely damaged economy, and since there was no Khmer money for the new riel to replace, money had to literally be given away to the people. As such, the value of the riel is extremely low (as I write this post on April 17 2007, 1USD = 4,131.80 riel www.oanda.com.)

Riel are primarily used for small local purchases, such as groceries. As Cambodia is trying to re-establish its economy through tourism, the US dollar is widely used, making it the de facto official currency.

Ok, back to the airport. Look at a map of Cambodia (since you are lazy... here you go:)
Not a giant country. We had two full days to see Cambodia. We figured that we could spend a day in Phnom Penh and a day in Siem Riep. Never, in my 25 years, did I ever make a plan that was bad on so many levels.

For one thing, Cambodia is an amazing place. The people, the scenery, the food, and that's not even mentioning the Angkor Wat Temples that in every way imaginable earn their distinction as a UNESCO world heritage site. A paltry two days are no where near sufficient.

The more immediate problem, however was a logistic one. On the map Phnom Penh is about 150 miles as the crow flies. Based on this alone, and the ease of transport around Thailand, I estimated an easy 3 hour bus trip between cities. In Thailand, bus tickets could be purchased the day of and are easy to come by. Such was the case in Cambodia as well, however the bus was not quite so speedy. Cambodia is not nearly as modernized as Thailand. As such, although the distance between Phnom Penh was not far, the roar connecting the two was an often unpaved road that carried on it all manners of travelers. I'll describe that a bit more later, but suffice to say a bus on such a road takes a long long time.

Screwed. We had our return ticket and no where near enough time to do everything we wanted to do. We found this out from our new friend K.

K was the cab driver that happened to be the first person we met when we got off the plane. In fact our intent was not to take a cab, but to hop on the back of a moped to get into the city center. While negotiating with a few guys with mopeds, K kept intervening. "The city is too far to go by bike. Come with me I'll take you to the city center and help you plan your trip."

At this point we already knew not to trust anyone with a "friendly" offer, but then again we were proven wrong back in Bangkok. Since the cab fare split between the two of us was only a few bucks more than the cost of paying two moped drivers (and a hell of a lot nicer if the city was as far as K said it was) we decided to go with K.

"What do you want to do in Cambodia?"
"We want to spend today in Phnom Penh, head to Siem Riep tonight and see the Angkor temples tomorrow."
"Wow, a lot in two days. Are you flying to Siem Riep?"
"No, we were hoping to take the bus. Do you know how we can do that?"

K then, in his surprisingly perfect English explained exactly how flawed that plan is. The bus takes a long time. Scratch that. The bus takes an incredibly long time. K explained that due to the nature of the road connecting the Phnom Penh with Siem Riep, the bus can take anywhere between 7 and 10 hours. Since the rural road is not lit and is often crowded with pedestrians and livestock, the bus only leaves between 6am and about 1pm. The return trip would also leave at about the same time. By this schedule, to see Siem Riep, we would have to skip Phnom Penh, take a 7-10 hour bus ride, arrive in Siem Riep at night, then hop on a bus the next morning to get to Phnom Penh in time for our flight home. Of course, that would be absurd. The other alternative would be to forget seeing the Angkor Temples all together and spend our trip in Phnom Penh. We didn't like that idea.

"I could drive you." K offered. We listened.

"I could drive you around Phnom Penh today, take you to anything you want to see. When you are satisfied, drive you out to Siem Riep and get you a guest house. I will meet you tomorrow morning, bright and early, take you to see whatever temples you want to see, and then bring you back to Phnom Penh. I will arrange for a place to sleep tomorrow night and then pick you up the following day and bring you to the airport. Since we will be driving we can reach Siem Riep in under 6 hours. I will do it for $130."

At first we hesitated. That seemed steep especially by southeast Asian standards. As I write this post, I feel like a complete idiot for even haggling with the guy. It was indeed a fair price. We were basically paying for gas and absurdly little for this man's efforts and time. In fact, considering the price of bus tickets, transportation to the various temples, and the saved headache of not having to worry about time or transit, the deal seemed better and better.

We agreed. First step - exchange money. That I didn't take a picture of this establishment vexes the hell out of me. On a crowded street on the outskirts of the city we stopped at the money changer. This family run place did not have the Thomas Cook exchange rates posted on a board with digital numbers that changed with the market rates. You just took the clerk's word on it.

"You can shop around if you'd like" said the clerk after we showed apprehension at the idea of handing her our money. A quick look at the street, a shop selling memorial stones, various stores that in New York would be referred to as bodegas offering bottled water in buckets of ice melting under the sweltering heat. There would be no shopping around. This is our place.

In front of the woman was a glass counter filled with all sorts of different currencies and change strewn about. Glass. There was no safe in the back room. There was no back room. There was no form to fill out and hand to a clerk along with your passport. There was just this woman and her glass counter filled with cash money.

We hand her our Thai bhat. We receive good 'ol US greenbacks and Cambodian riel. The exchange was one that begged for a passerby to rob all of us. It was... bizarre.

Next stop was a coffee shop where we sat to negotiate our schedule over delicious tea. K explained that he lives in Phnom Penh, but his cousin is from Siem Riep, so he will take us around Phnom Penh and then transfer us into his cousin's care. No problem. With that, our schedule was set, our worries were behind us, and we eagerly set out to explore Cambodia's capital city.

NEXT: Harsh Realities of Phnom Penh and a very regrettable decision.

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Christmas Tale of Blood, Gambling, and Fisticuffs from Oops

Day 5 - Bangkok - 12/25

Correction: Big Oops. We woke up, grabbed our stuff, checked out and grabbed a cab for Bangkok airport. We had about one hour to get to the airport and check in.

Then, the oops: air Asia requires you to check in a minimum of 45 minutes ahead of time. At 44 minutes and 59 seconds before the flight departs, they give your seat to standby passengers. We got closed out of our flight. Then the really bad news: Air Asia's policy states that if you miss your check-in your ticket is null and void. This not only cost us out tickets to Cambodia, but our return flight as well. Our tickets were no longer worth the paper they were printed on.

We begged, pleaded, flirted and did everything else that we thought might help, but at no avail. Our seats were gone.

Until... the warm helpful heart of a benevolent sales manager.

It was the best Christmas present we could hope for - Icy said it was the begging, I prefer to think it was the flirting, but regardless, the clerk we were talking to told her manager about our tale of woe. This dear, sweet saint of a woman went against policy and shifted our tickets to Cambodia as well as the return flight one day forward.

Awesome. A Christmas miracle. Joy to the World.

After a long nap we decided that when one has a day to kill in Bangkok, one must make the most of it - and the most would be made by watching people kick the crap out of each other. We decided to delve into the dark bloodied underbelly of Bangkok and catch a muay thai match.

We had no idea how to get to the kickboxing place, and in the convolutions of Bangkok's streets, a walking route was hard to trace. When what to our wondering eyes did appear? But the tuk tuk driver who abandoned us a day earlier.

Note: Just now I briefly entertained the idea of writing this entire post as a poem with the same rhyme scheme and meter as "The Night Before Christmas." I even went as far as to google the poem and change some lines in this post to match. After about 20 seconds, I decided to forgo this plan. My reasoning for this? Because. That's why.

Anyway, back to things that matter. We saw the "Nick" tuk tuk driver who abandoned us the day before. Still feeling that there must have been some sort of misunderstanding, we walked over to him to find out what happened and ask him for a ride to the Kickboxing Arena.

"While I was waiting for you at Wat Saket, some tourists got into the tuk tuk and asked me to take them to another place. I told them I was waiting for a fare but they insisted."

Of course, this was a lie. You can't throw a prostitute in Bangkok without hitting a tuk tuk, so the idea that tourists insisted on shanghaiing our tuk tuk as opposed to the zillions of others that are constantly trying to solicit them is odd. On top of this, it was hard to believe that Nick put up much of a fight especially considering that he was certain to make more money off of anyone else. That being said, we couldn't blame him. We decided to give him another chance and asked him to take us to Ratchademnoen Stadium.

"Too far. I finish work in half an hour. I don't want to go too far."

We had no idea where the stadium was, and it was strange to have a tuk tuk driver refuse us (as they would typically be willing to drive you to Uganda if you are willing to pay) but we supposed it was his right and moved along the line of tuk tuk drivers that were calling to us. As we wished Nick, whose business motives seemed to neither stem from want of money or want of convenience, he made a request that was unexpected to say the least.

"Can you pay me for yesterday?"

Icy and I looked at him in dismay.


"Yesterday. Can you still pay me for yesterday?"



"Yesterday when you ditched us for a better fare and left us looking for you for 45 minutes on the street around Wat Saket? Pay you for that?"

Strangely his face did not register any sort of appreciation for the conflict between his lack of services rendered and his request for payment. For a few moments, Icy and I just looked at him completely unaware of how to respond to such a request. He looked back at us with a face that wondered why we don't have our wallets out. That look became a look of confusion as we wished him a good night and backed away towards the other drivers.

After finding another driver we reached the stadium. This, by the way, took about 10 minutes which would make some people wonder why the Nick driver told us that it is "too far," but by this point in the evening we had already come to terms with the fact that we will never understand Nick.

The stadium is probably much like you would
imagine. A simple building surrounded by the hoi polloi who are waiting for 6:30 to roll around. Fight time. The stadium usually urges foreigners (who, as you can see, tend to stick out at these matches... as was the case of the guy below who either lost a bet or decided to wear matching hawaiian print shorts and a shirt) to purchase ring-side tickets for two reasons. Mainly because the locals take muay thai matches and the concurrent betting extremely seriously. They do not want people who are new to the sport to get in the way or be inconvenienced by the calamity. Secondly, they separate the visitors in order to protect them from the raffish crowd as they shout and place their bets. Not that the crowd is in any way violent, but there are a lot of them, and when bets are taken they all move around very quickly.

Of course, we had little interest in the placidity of the ring-side seating and wanted to be in the heart of the fight which ironically is no where near the two guys beating the crap out of each other in the ring. We figured that obstreperous as we are we could keep up with the movement and energy of the locals. While this may not have been the case, I am happy that we made that call because to watch a muay thai match is truly to appreciate the audience. Before that day, I always pictured muay thai fights to be about as fast paced and bloody as you get. I pictured Tong Po dipping his hands in honey then broken glass as he was about to square off with Van Damme. While indeed exciting, it more closely resembles a cross between a Karate tournament and a decent boxing match than a bloodbath. In fact, during the entire tournament, we only saw one fighter get KO'd, the rest of the matches were decided by points.

Before each match, fighters enter the ring and perform to traditional Thai music played by a small band in the stands. This pre-fight ritual, known as
Ram Muay, though seemingly an act of braggadocio is in fact a deeply symbolic exercise. Fighters circle the ring symbolizing that the fight is between the two fighters and them alone. The dance is meant to show a fighter's humility to the King, the organizer of the match, and their opponent's coach. Some aspects of the Ram Muay, such as stomping around an opponent are meant to be intimidating (much like a Maori Hakka) however they are carried out with reverence and respect for the sport and the opponent. This humility is best exhibited at the end of the match where the winner kneels before his opponent's trainer in reverence. Wikipedia has a great entry about Muay Thai that outlines more of the traditions involved. I only mention the panoply involved in order to put into perspective the respect for tradition that supersedes any violence involved. (n.b. Please bear in mind that I am speaking based on an organized stadium match, and with no knowledge of the Ong Bak-esque blood brawls.)

As I mentioned, exciting thought the fights may be, the betting that occurs is spectacle by itself. For the first few rounds, the crowd silently watches the fight. After the first few rounds, the
y pick their favorite fighter and roar from their seats making a number of hand gestures to indicate their bets (imagine the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, but dingier, no ties and more Tiger beer.)

A quick tuk tuk ride, and back at the Hotel New Siam,
Where restrictions on prostitutes destroyed Icy's plans.
Yes early was the hour when we went to sleep,
For our new flight reservations we wanted to keep.
A pan-Cambodian ride, (for our lives) we were petrified,
Stay tuned for my next post where that tale will be clarified.
In the meantime, thus ends the story of a Muay Thai Fight,
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Back to Bangkok

DAY 3 - Pattaya 12/23

THIS... is where I will be living next year.

After a night of doubt over my choice to move to Pattaya next year, the following day reconfirmed every reason why I decided to go there in the first place. Actually, there is only one reason - to have an apartment right on an azure ocean and to spend absolutely every single day SCUBA diving in that ocean.

While Pattaya itself has become a haven for hedonism, Poseidon's bordering kingdom remains the peaceful refuge that it has always been to me. No, it is not the best SCUBA spot in the world, heck it's not even the best in Thailand - but with top class wreck and cave diving, and diverse sea life and coral, I know that despite all else, I will be glad to call the waters around Pattaya home.

As I will be living there for a year, I will save my normal SCUBA diving style entries for that time when I will focus much of this site on my adventures diving around Southeast Asia.

That night, we left Pattaya and headed back to Bangkok. This is where we met Bee.

We had returned to Khaosan road again hoping to find a cheap place to stay. We planned to spend the following day taking the cultural tour of Bangkok's temples.

After walking around for a while, we ran into a woman holding a price list for Thai massages.

I think it was about 80 Baht for a full body hour long Thai massage. How could you go wrong? The answer is you can't. For one hour, this woman of small stature cracked every bone and twisted every muscle in my body until I was able to walk out feeling like jello. Anyway, about an hour later while Icy and I were eating dinner at the Sawasdee lounge, we saw her walking around and invited her over.

Bee used to live in a small village in North Thailand before moving to Bangkok. She works as a Thai masseuse, but doesn't like Bangkok all that much. Bee speaks English quite well, though with a heavy accent which is impressive considering she is completely self-taught.

While we were eating, a French lady was sitting behind us. She was drunk to the point of embarrassing her date who was very quiet and noticeably uncomfortable. She insisted on having me listen to her iPod which was playing a French song that I was unfamiliar with. The lyrics were "Je vous dit (something something something) des yeux." I would not say that my French has gotten rusty since high school, as much as it has become non-existent. After she learned that I was from New York, she just gave me the finger. Her boyfriend apologized for her, although I wasn't about to mind the ignorance of a drunk. That was the last we heard from drunk French lady.

Day 4 - Bangkok 12/24

Prior to setting off for, I had a throng of people tell me about all the Buddhas I HAD to see (they were emphatic about that HAD). I was told of the 'Standing Buddha,' the 'Sitting Buddha,' the 'Reclining Buddha,' the 'Happy Buddha,' the 'Lucky Buddha,' and the lesser known 'Received a Birthday Gift That He Doesn't Like, But Has To Feign Surprise and Excitement' Buddha. Not one to take admonishment lightly, we devoted day 4 to a tour of Buddha and the many positions he is capable of (except for the silly one.)

While trying to plan out our day, a man stopped to ask if we need help. Naturally, despite the fact that we certainly needed some sort of direction, we did not miss a beat before answering "no thank you."

In my experience, most people who try to
perform random acts of kindness are looking to make a buck. Such is the sad world we live in. This fellow, however, happened to be the exception to the rule. Completely disregarding our response, he started writing some temple names down.

"You want to see Buddahs?" His intuition was less precognitive and more a good observation of the particular page my Lonely Planet was opened to. He continued. "If you want to see Buddhas, you MUST go to
Wat Intharawihan to see the Standing Buddha, then to Wat Sampaya to see the Lucky Buddha. Then go to Wat Saket to see the mountain from which you can see all of Bangkok. Finally, to Wat Po to see the Reclining Buddha." He said all of this in a really animated way. We let him do his schpeal figuring that there is no harm in attaining information. We would just wait for the part where he tries to rip us off, and excuse ourselves.
"Today, you are lucky because the Thai Government is sponsoring a push for tourism and is subsidizing the tuk tuk drivers." ...sure they are.
"I can arrange for a tuk tuk to take you around for the day. He will drop you off at each temple and wait for you for only --" ...here it comes...

"60 baht."

Hold the phone. 60 baht. That is about $1.80 (split between the two of us.) For a guy to drive us around all day? It seemed too good to be true. I patted my pockets to make sure my wallet wasn't stolen while this guy was talking to me. It was still there. I know, the guy is going to insist on being paid up front, and then ditch us at the first temple. Not that 60 baht was too big a risk, but just to be sure...

"Do we pay you now, or--"

"No, no, no, you pay at the end of your tour. "

I thought about it. There was absolutely no way this guy was ripping us off. Icy and I were shocked and speechless. We tried to imagine any scenario in which this can go wrong, but came up with nothing. This was really an honest offer. More over, the guy who was talking to us was not the tuk tuk driver who was about to benefit from the deal. He was just a guy interested in helping us. He did not expect anything in return.

Some of you may wonder why I have devoted so much to this seemingly mundane part of my trip. Really, this encounter was anything but. You have to understand how refreshing it is to encounter a purely helpful and honest person. I don't mean to sound jaded, but for the most part, people don't go out of their way and devote time to help others. Some do, but it is just sadly not the status quo. This was like a soothing zephyr on a sultry day. In a moment, the skanky sleaze of Pattaya and Bangkok at night melted off in the face of pure generosity.

I say this after patting my pockets for the rest of the day.

Anyway, we get into our tuk tuk. To any of you who are unfamiliar, a tuk tuk is a tricycle motor-scooter with an open-aired covered cab on the back. For some reason, I never bothered to get a picture of these, so this one is courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tuk tuks are great in Bangkok not only because they are cheap, but they also can get around the typically congested streets easier.

I wish I wrote down or remembered the name of our Tuk Tuk driver (as he makes a cameo in the next post) but I didn't and I can't. For the sake of storytelling and as our time with him was spent over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I'm going to call him "Nick." This is the back of Nick's head.

Wat Intharawihan - The Standing Buddha

When the Buddha stands, he stands tall - 32 Meters Tall and 10 meters wide. Named Luang Pho To, covered in gold foil and extremely difficult to photograph, this is Bangkok's Standing Buddha. According to one of the gentlemen at the temple, within the Buddha's top knot are actual relics of Lord Buddha brought over from Sri Lanka. With that knowledge, I was pleasantly surprised to see that not many tourists flock to visit this particular temple.

One thing that I found unsettling was the large yellow sash around the Buddha that seems to be advertising something.

I did a Google search for "Benz RVT" and I found this website. If you scroll down a bit, you can find the words Benz RVT written among the Thai. I am assuming that this is a private company that perhaps paid for some sort of temple upkeep or restoration. If that is the case then this 32 meter sculpture of a deity is being used as a giant billboard. I am not a particularly religious person, but to advertise on a deity who preached about the necessity to turn away from material things just doesnt seem right. Heck, even the idea of advertising on a sculpture seems like a misuse of art. It would be like throwing a pair of Nikes on Myron's Discobolos. I think it's great that this company donated money to restore this temple because it really is beautiful. There is something to be said for doing a good thing without letting people know you did it, but I know many people would scoff at my idealistic world view. Still, I imagine there are less gaudy ways to advertise at a temple.

At the base of the statue, offerings in the form on incense, flowers and gold foil are placed. Presenting such offerings to Luang Pho To is supposed to grant success.

The gold foil is interesting and something that I have only seen in Buddhist temples of Southeast Asia. The idea (as it was explained by our friend at the temple) is that we can share our wealth with the Buddha and his temple.

The temple itself is quite nice with several statues not only of the Buddha, but also of the various Abbots and Gurus who restored and taught at the temple. 

Really, really beautiful place.

At this point, I was feeling a lot better about my decision to move to Thailand.

Wat Sampaya - The Lucky Buddha

The Buddha at Wat Sampaya is Lucky. We were not and got there about 5 minutes after they closed the doors to the temple. Irony abounds.

Wat Saket - The Mountain

Boy, did we drop the ball here. To be honest, it was not completely our fault. We were told about a mountain from which one could see a great view of Bangkok.

I cannot stress enough that the word used was mountain as in a
natural elevation of the earth's surface having considerable mass, generally steep sides, and a height greater than that of a hill.

As you can see, in a country that is not especially mountainous, Bangkok is situated on a pretty flat piece of land. As we are both from Japan where the concept of "mountain" is used very literally, we were both expecting something more along the lines with the above dictionary definition.

After returning home, I did research on this temple and learned that by "mountain," what was really meant was "mount" as in "The Golden Mount" a stupa containing more of the Buddha's relics. From the top of this stupa, one can get a pretty good view of Bangkok.

While we were at the temple, we saw the stupa and carelessly disregarded it as a part of a different temple as we chased our elusive "mountain." All of the temples that we saw had stupas, this one just happened to be enormous. Of course, now we understand why people smiled and said "right here" as we asked them, "where is the mountain?"

Anyway, we were strangely fortunate in spite of our careless mistake.
While we never managed to climb the stupa, in our search for a mountain (within the walls of a temple) we stumbled upon a ceremony. Here, eighteen new monks were being ordained.

This is Number Eighteen (as we came to call him).

We saw a bunch of people taking pictures of and
fussing over him, so we figured that he must be someone important. Maybe the eighteenth monk is the best monk. Maybe he is the one who will one day being unity to the force. We had no idea, but we saw the fuss and wanted to get a picture with him. We were surprised because when we asked a woman to take a photo of us with the Golden Child, the woman we asked gave us a look that begged to know why on Earth we want a picture with this kid. Maybe she didn't know that he would one day save the world. Later, upon seeing the rest of the ceremony, we figured out that the people fussing over Number Eighteen were most likely his proud family.

Then again, you never know. He looks holy. Doesn't he look holy?

We left the temple to find that Nick, our trusted tuk tuk driver was no where to be found. We looked around, figuring that maybe he was chased away from where he was waiting for us, and had to circle around the block. For 45 minutes we waited as he was a pretty nice guy and we didn't want to screw him over. Finally, we came to the realization that he had abandoned us which was a foolish move considering that we hadn't paid him his 60 baht.
It was even more foolish considering the fact that Icy and I were so relieved about the arrangement and how nice and honest he was that we had privately agreed to pay him double that. We figured that 180 baht (about $3.60) was still a great price to pay for a guy to chauffeur us around Bangkok for a day, and if would show our appreciation of the fact that he was not out to rip us off. Alas he ditched us and we had to find another driver. This was done with great ease.

Wat Po - The Reclining Buddha

The Reclining Buddha of Wat Po is probably the most famous sculpture of Buddha in Thailand. It is an impressive sculpture, to be sure, however the temple surrounding it is itself absolutely amazing.

Besides the reclining Buddha, the temple is known for its 95 stupas which are distinctively square. Stupas (like the golden one at Wat Saket) are meant to house the ashes of deceased kings or important monks, or other people of note as well as religious artifacts and relics. The stupas at Wat Po are distinctively square and adorned with ceramic tiles forming intricate floral designs.

The original temple dates back to the 17th century, before the founding of Bangkok. It is the oldest temple in the city In 1801, King Rama I expanded the temple. In 1832, King Rama III enlarged the temple to its present size and built the reclining Buddha. Rama III also established the temple as a center of learning. Here, in Bangkok's first "university" students not only studied Buddhism, but also Yoga and medicine. Here, a type of pressure point reflexology named Nuat phaen boran was developed and it is still taught at Wat Po. It is popular all around the world under its more common name, Thai massage. Throughout the temple, you can see tablets that once were used to educate students in the ways of Thai massage.

This sculpture demonstrates the various ailments which are remedied by Thai massage.

Of course, we also have the obligatory fertility sculpture.

The Reclining Buddha, an impressive 46 Meters from head to foot lies in the Wiharn, a building barely larger than the sculpture itself. The gold plated sculpture depicts the Buddha in the moment as it passed from this world to Nirvana. It is
truly awesome.

Here are my feeble attempts at capturing it on film. Since the Wiharn is only slightly larger than the sculpture itself, it is damn imposable to get a good shot.

On the soles of the feet are the 108 auspicious scenes in Chinese and Indian styles. These are inlaid Mother of Pearl. The same is used to accent the eyes.

Our exploration of the temple grounds ended at the Wat Po Traditional Thai Massage School where students of Thai Massage perfected their craft on our achy bodies.

By the time all was done,the sun was setting. We hung around for a bit as the temple took a new form. The red Thai sunlight reflected off the white walled temples and ceramic encrusted stupas giving Wat Po a fiery glow.

We headed back to our hotel to pack and get set for the following day when we would head to Cambodia.

We'll stop there for now. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

When in Thailand

Welcome back.

How very astute of you to notice that I changed the colors of this site, again. I see nothing gets by you, especially orange. You should look into becoming a detective.

The reasoning behind the color change is two-fold. First, I wanted the site to be a little more unique and have some pictures as part of its permanent background. There is also a new cooler looking Flickr button that will lead you to more pictures. Second, I wanted to change the colors, not only because I think these are nicer, but they are easier on the eyes than a glowing white screen. A computer screen is really just a giant light emitting surface, and you wouldn't stare at a light bulb while trying to read 12 point text scrawled across it. Changing the color of course doesn't change this fact, but it makes things a little easier to read. Of course black would be best but then I would have to use bright white letters. Anyway, if you disagree with any of my decisions, you are wrong.

Anyway, from December 21st until January 4th, I left Nagano and its snowless winter and set off for Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore. As this is my introduction post, it will primarily be text, but fear not - so many photos and stories are coming your way that you will need an army of shithawks to defend yourself from their awesomeness.


The Characters:

Rich: Not that I feel the need to introduce myself. I will go ahead and say one thing though. If you read any of this and at any point feel "hmmm, that is interesting." or "ha, that is funny." or "um, I disagree with his assessment." --please feel free to comment on any post. It makes me feel happy that people are interested in my stories or read my work. Also, if you disagree with me, I would love to explain to you how you are wrong. Seriously though, commenting is easy. Just click the link that says "comments" at the bottom of the post. See, no effort from you and you'd make my day. I can get that warm fuzzy feeling inside knowing that I am not writing all of this for nothing.

Icy Jones: Icy is not a new character on our show, you met him in the first season. For those of you who don't remember, I met Icy on the plane ride to Japan. Icy is from Philly, and is currently in a deep state of depression because he is a huge Dallas Cowboys fan. Icy was great to travel with, not because of his general coolness or the fact that he is a generally easy going guy - these are all great, but the most interesting aspect of having Icy around is the fact that he is a walking novelty in Asia. Not a day went by without someone yelling Bob Marley lyrics at him, or requesting a photo. One guy took time out every day to inform Icy that he was "chillin like a villain." In Thailand where backpackers often get their hair dreaded on the street, a few lads offered Icy a big smile and wink as though they were proud to become a member of some sort of fraternity that Icy was a charter member of. Perhaps the funniest exchange was at a hostel in Singapore when a girl, while rattling off the various genres of music that make up her self described "eclectic" music taste, said "and of course, reggae," while gesturing at Mr. Jones. It could be that the girl really liked reggae, or it could be that she was talking to a man with healthy dreadlocks and made an assumption. I told Icy he should have called her out on it, but he just smiled and shrugged. That's Icy.

Bhumibol, King of Thailand: The fellow you see in the middle of that arch is the King of Thailand.

King Bhumibol of Thailand (more commonly known as Rama IX) is seen in pictures and giant billboards throughout the country. If you catch a movie in Thailand, you will see a video of him with the Thai National Anthem in the background. Almost every person in Thailand either sports an orange bracelet (designed after the LIVESTRONG bracelets) saying "Long Live the King!" or at least some sort of picture of the King on their person at all times.

Oh yea, and if you talk any smack about him, you will find yourself in a Thai prison for 3-15 years according
to lèse majesté laws which the Thai government still practices, so for now, we're going to say that he is a handsome king and move on.

The Arrival - Bangkok 12/21

The night we arrived, it took me a few seconds to snap out of "I live in Japan where absolutely everyone is honest and wants to help me, and no one will ever take advantage of the fact that I don't know my way around/are not yet comfortable with the currency/cannot speak the language" mode. Don't get me wrong, during my time there, I have discovered that the Thai are wonderfully nice people, and are quite helpful. They simply maintain the notion that everyone from the west is a billionaire and can afford absolutely anything.

We arrived in Bangkok's new international airport and immediately found ourselves among a swarm of people offering us taxis into the city. A New Yorker, fortunately doesn't have to travel to Asia to know about gypsy cabs. I knew damn well that the prices being offered at the gate were way above what we should pay to Bangkok, so we worked our way through the crowd to the street in order to find a licensed taxi (in Thailand, these sport a yellow license plate.)

No luck, only unmarked sedans. Only more offers shouted at us. Finally, I heard a softer voice offer a price. "Need a ride?"

I turned around and saw a short Thai woman in her 20s who was moderately attractive. Rather than dismiss her, I fell victim to the weakness that all men are subject to. "How much?"

"700 Baht. The driver will pay for the highway tolls."

"How far is it?"

"About an hour."

700 Baht is about $21. Seemed reasonable, and such a kind offer, for the driver to pay for the tolls. We followed the woman for a few seconds before logic kicked in. "700 Baht is not a good price. It wasn't a good price when the gruffy fat guy offered it to us back at the terminal, and its not a good price now." We then realized that the woman was not a driver. She was walking us to a driver who was clearly smart enough to use the little siren as bait. We hurried back into the terminal and saw where we went wrong. In the airport, there is a tiny sign (with numerous solicitors standing in front of it) informing travelers that metered cabs can be found at the exit of the ground floor. Brilliant. The ride cost us 400 Baht. We paid the tolls which came out to about 20 Baht (by the way, 100 Baht roughly equals $3).

We arrived at Khaosan Road by 10pm. Khaosan is the backpacker road in Bangkok. Many people have their share of things to say about Khaosan, but personally, I didn't mind it. It is what it is, and that's an easy base for backpackers. At Khaosan, there is a wealth of fairly priced guesthouses offering clean and safe lodging. There are dozens of restaurants, internet cafes, places to have film developed (cheaply), places to dump pictures from a full memory card onto a CD or DVD (which we required a few times). There are also independent travel agents who know the country as well as South East Asia well and are invaluable and (at least in my experience) honest resources for booking trains planes and buses to your next destination. There is also tons of shopping, including designer shoes and clothing (some knock offs, and some the genuine article. Salespeople are honest about which is which), as well as pirated music, movies and books. You can even find press passes or college diplomas.

The best part about Thailand, in my opinion, is the food. Thai food is my absolute favorite Asian cuisine. As the country's main industry is tourism, there is very little need to worry about the quality of the food, or health risks. Thai natives don't even drink the water, so all water is bottled and ice is manufactured and clean. During our first night in Bangkok, we had some Pad Thai from a street vendor.

For 20 baht, you get fried noodle goodness. That's about 60 cents for those of you keeping track. Add another 5 baht, and she will throw a spring roll into the mix.

Real Thai Pad Thai is pretty different from its western Thai restaurant counterpart. Where the latter is a richer saucier noodle dish, in Thailand Pad Thai tends to be drier and focuses more on the natural flavor of the vegetables and some spices rather than sauce. Both are delicious, and both make you thirsty.

Fortunately, if there is one other thing the Thai do well, its drinks. On the road there is a wealth of pushcarts offering freshly squeezed juices from any fruit imaginable. I alternated between banana shakes (banana, condensed milk and crushed ice) and watermelon juice. You can also get young coconut juice which is basically a young coconut, cracked open with a straw.

Of course, not all street food is delicious. Some is down right nasty. This cart seemed innocuous enough when we first saw it, but upon further inspection, we saw it was anything but.

Thats right, here we have a fresh batch of fried scorpion and cockroach. There were also silkworms, maggots, grasshoppers, mantises and just about any other creepy crawly you would never want to eat.

I was happy to learn that the hawkers who sell these did not decide to fry up bugs simply for western thrill seekers. In fact, these are traditional fare from a northern region of Thailand called Isaan.

I ate grasshopper (inago) once in Japan. I know full well that it was not too bad, and I assume such is the case with other insects. Still, I could not bring myself to munch on a scorpion, and certainly not a cockroach.

I find this particular picture funny especially because of the "aw hell no" look on Icy's face as he decides to pass on the arachnids, insects, and larvae below the plastic.

Sorry to those of you who were hoping to hear of a brave story about how I tried one... I will do many things in the interest of a thrill, but I draw the line at crunching chelicerates.

During our stay in Thailand, as many travel plans were made on the fly, Bangkok and namely Khaosan road became our hub. As such, we managed to stay in a number of different guest houses throughout our trip. During our first night, we stayed at the "Four Sons Village" guesthouse. It was cheap enough, though not as cheap or friendly as other nicer guesthouses were, and it was completely without character. Still, it was clean and comfortable.

Day 2 - Pattaya 12/22

The following morning, we woke up bright and early, had a delicious breakfast at our guesthouse, and headed to Pattaya.

I didn't know quite what to make of this sign we saw on the way to Pattaya. Perhaps they were referring to a major automobile manufacturing area? Perhaps the home of Motown. Perhaps somewhere in this Detroit of the East is the Thai equivalent of Brandon Back.

Suffice to say, we were only 20 minutes away, yet these questions would never be answered.

Pattaya is a modern day Sin City that makes Vegas look like a local church book club. Its streets are covered with prostitutes as well as ladyboys (transsexuals who are also often Prostitutes.) Unlike most cities where prostitutes hide in alleys or must be sought after in certain shady parts of town, the ones in Pattaya take the more aggressive approach of grabbing you by the arm and negotiating prices in perfect self-taught English as well as catcalling you day or night.

If that is not enough, sleaze bars line the streets. These go-go bars apparently allow a person to see anything from a fully nude show, to women pulling various sharp objects and firing various other projectiles (including darts) from orifices which ought not have such items enter or exit them.

These two ladies (we were pretty sure they were ladies, though we were not about to find out.) Were on the street advertising their particular go-go bar's Christmas party.

I imagine I can skip the obligatory "sit on Santa's lap and tell her what you want" joke and leave it to your imagination. Needless to say, Christmas is a very secular holiday in Pattaya.

Oh, and if you are scratching your head wondering where you heard of Pattaya before, you may have heard about it from me when I said "next year I will live in Pattaya to get certified as a SCUBA instructor."

This is where I will be living next year. Builds character I suppose.