Day 218, Fri, Dec. 8, 2000 – We had a sad
departure from Kathmandu by taxi through trashy rivers and dirty neighborhoods.
Our time here was incredible, from the hearty and happy people to the
sublime sight of the Himalayas towering over us.
At the airport, it looked like the entire population of Thamel was trying
to board our plane. Thankfully, the
line was reasonably civilized and it only took an hour to check in. Then after three security checks, we were delayed an hour
before we finally took off for Bangkok.
The flight felt quick to us as we were anxious to get to
the “real” Asia. We were
looking forward to this region as it has incredible food and natural beauty, as
well as some of the most pleasant and even-tempered people we’ve ever met.
It also has an intriguing recent history tied closely to the US
(unfortunately due to war). We figured we would stop in Bangkok first and use it as our
base for the region before heading into Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
Thailand is still the most popular stop for tourists as it is the most
stable and developed over the past 25 years.
In centuries past, the country had a long history of regional warfare
with neighboring kingdoms long before the Japanese built the “Bridge on the
River Kwai”. It was the only
country in the region never to succumb to European colonialists, although they
had to give up territory to British
Malaysia and French Indochina at various times.
The West’s view of exotic Siam was greatly influenced by the book, play
and movie “The King and I”. Unfortunately,
these were all overly romanticized and are universally derided as inaccurate
inside the country. Thais are very
proud of their independence and indeed many will explain that the name change
from Siam to Thailand in 1939 was in order to reflect the name “free land”.
Unfortunately, freedom does not necessarily result in stability.
Since the revolution that brought a constitutional monarchy in 1932,
there have been some 19 coup attempts and 15 different constitutions. The premiership has been intertwined with the military
leadership for most of the century and elections are generally acknowledged as
fiascos of vote buying and corruption. Thailand
owes much of its tourist industry to its role as relative “bystander” rather
than active combatant during the regional wars. The right-wing military leadership did however play politics
with their neighbors and historic rivals, allowing their bases to be used by the
US military (who also partook in the infamous Bangkok nightlife on R&R
leaves). It is an unfortunate
reality that most tourist or business traveler discussions of Bangkok eventually
get around to this aspect of the city and it’s no coincidence the “Nite
Owl” page of the Bangkok Post website gets more hits than any other page,
despite the author being labeled a “dirty, old, fat, ugly pervert” by one
reader. In 1997 the country was one
of the hardest hit by the “Asian Flu” economic crisis in which currency
speculation crippled the value of the Baht.
Thailand is recovering slowly and steadily, although its ambition to
join the “Tigers” of Asian economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and
Taiwan) may be a long time in coming.
After a 3-hour flight, we touched down at a sparkling
airport which seemed to be new since my last visit here.
The ride into town was surprisingly easy – the city looking much
cleaner and less crowded/noisy than I remember it.
Maybe we were just missing rush hour, because I recall hours-long traffic
jams and having to resort to mopeds to zip through traffic.
Now there are thousands
of motorcycles and not nearly as many 3-wheel tuk-tuks.
It seemed more like Hong Kong, all high-rise and shiny in places.
Our points got us the Sheraton on the Chao Praya River – “The
of Kings”. We could see out
along the river to the spires of the wats and chedis and watch the river traffic
pass by. We walked to a
nearby restaurant and had our first pad Thai noodle dish and curry of the trip
– it was excellent and loaded with the famed Thai spices that only an ice cold
Singha Beer could pacify.
Day 219, Sat, Dec. 9, 2000 – As this would be our
base, we had a lot of emails to write, calls to make and errands to run –
tickets, embassies, supplies, etc. We
drove all over town in taxis looking for camera repair shops.
The malls and shopping centers would rival any in the States and we felt
right at home. We were surprised by
the crowds (and the designer goods on offer) given what we’d heard about the
economy, but we put it down to being three
Saturdays before Christmas. Cheery holiday decorations were everywhere, including huge
lighting wires over the streets. There
were also thousands of posters for the dozens of candidates running in the
upcoming election. As in many
developing countries elections bring out all the crazies and rich power brokers
as political offices are often used to recoup investments with graft and
corruption, leading to the largest gap between rich and poor in Asia.
During the last general election in 1996, some US$1.2 billion was spent -
more than on the US presidential campaign – a large proportion on simply
buying votes in rural areas. After
that adventure, the 1997 constitution empowered an election commission to ensure
fair elections and a National Counter Corruption Commission.
To the surprise of many, the new watchdogs actually brought down the
number two man in the government – the interior minister and general secretary
of the ruling democratic party. The
Senate elections in March had to be re-run 5 times due to vote-buying and
rigging, some candidates buying votes for their rival to get him disqualified by
the commission. The season’s
election is on the same track - 18 candidates and campaign workers have been
killed in the past two months, 46 in the past year.
According to Time Magazine, the going rate for a vote is about US$12 in
cash, although some candidates prefer gifts like rice, fish sauce, t-shirts and
hats. The most colorful prime
minister candidate (and favorite to win) is a billionaire
telecommunications tycoon, Thaksin Shinawatra, who founded the Thai Rak Thai,
(Thais love Thais) party. He is
running on his reputation as a self-made tycoon (although his own wealth is
based on sweetheart monopoly deals with the government) and a platform of
weeding out corruption (although he is under investigation for transferring
US$200 million in assets to his maid, bodyguard and driver to avoid financial
disclosures and taxes on 17 companies). He was also implicated in a
Cambodian coup in 1994 because the government screwed one of his businesses.
Thaksin also extended his celebrity to the golf world by bankrolling
Tiger Wood’s recent US$1 million appearance fee and arranging for his honorary
diploma for Doctor of Sports Philosophy at a local university.
Tiger didn’t escape scandal either when he was met by protesters of
recent Nike layoffs and alleged exploitation.
This is of course a bit much to lay on one guy, particularly one who has
done so much for charity and racial tolerance.
Anyway, we saw a lot more Nikes than political posters
inside the mall, but still couldn’t find what we needed, except for excellent
food. We returned to the hotel to
and conserve energy for this evening. We took a taxi to the infamous Patpong Road area, fortified
ourselves with McDonalds burgers and waded into the throng of stalls, tables,
tourists and hawkers. The aisles in
the street are barely wide enough for one person to squeeze past, so any
commerce is accompanied by bumping and grinding - similar to the shows in the show
bars. Naomi would try to stop to
look at something, only to be pushed further down the road.
If you can successfully negotiate the crowds, the shopping is some of the best
in the world – a monument to everything fake – clothes, shoes, sunglasses,
and female body parts. The shops are in the center of the road, and the sides are
lined with bars pumping a variety of techno, bubble-gum pop, and hard rock from
the doors and windows. Patrons and
dancers lean from the doorways and hawkers
in color-coordinated uniforms yell at shoppers, hold up signs, and wave neatly
laminated cards listing the attractions to be found inside: banana show, girl
show, boy show, three-way, ping pong, tuk-tuk show, balloon show, blow darts,
razor blades - an astonishing array of physical feats, many of which having
nothing to do with sex, strictly speaking anyway.
We pushed our way past the hawkers and finally got some fresh air at the
end of the street, where a 7-eleven store and Baskin and Robbins ice cream
parlor awaited. Each was stuffed
with tourists cooling off and exchanging sheepish grins and descriptions of what
they had seen. We
walked down the other side of the street and listened to the sales pitch of the
Pussy Galore Bar (named after the James Bond character, no doubt) and decided to
succumb to the curiosity of the moment – only after assuring that other tourists
were inside and we could sit by the door. We
were shown to our seat and ordered beers. There
were dozens of girls walking around and dancers on a small stage moving back and
forth to the music. We use the term
“dancers” loosely as they have the least rhythm of any group we had ever
seen (apart from the white guys dancing to Motown funk at the Crush Bar in LA).
We also use a liberal interpretation of “girls” as many of them have
hands bigger than Michael Jordan and voices that would scare Darth Vadar.
One girl introduced herself to Naomi, then let out a laugh that nearly
knocked her off her chair. As
another tourist explained to us, Thailand has a very liberal attitude toward
transgender people and it is one of the best and cheapest places in the world to
obtain the appropriate surgeries and drugs.
There were also a number of actual girls there, which we learned to spot
because they actually had some hip bones to speak of and they didn’t spend
nearly as much time looking in the mirrors as the guys did.
We only stayed for a few minutes and found the whole spectacle very sad
and depressing. We couldn’t help
thinking what these girls (some in their teens) were like at home - probably in
the provinces - cooking, cleaning, watching TV, and taking care of brothers and
sisters. Unlike developed
countries, the workers here almost certainly did not choose this
“profession” from a number of potential careers – they were driven by
economic necessity. Where there is
poverty and a lack of jobs and opportunity, it is almost inevitable that some
will fall back on “the world’s oldest profession” – especially where
rich foreigners congregate. The
most common modern image is the fat, sloppy European or American with two tiny
bar girls (which we did see our share of), but according to Lonely Planet, this
is just the latest manifestation of an ancient Asian tradition of mistresses,
concubines, multiple wives, and chauvinism – a system that is ingrained in the
culture and even accepted as normal to a certain extent.
Some estimates place the amount spent on prostitutes as twice the
government budget leading to cries for legalization and taxation. Of course, there is the attendant exploitation, kidnapping,
slavery, disease, and child abuse as there is anywhere else in the world and
debates rage on how best to address the problems, especially as they relate to
child workers. Although the vast
majority of prostitution may be invisible to foreigners, there is still the
big-ticket variety that coined the term “sexual tourism”.
In recent years, authorities have made several high-publicity arrests of
foreigners booking with internet agencies to hire underage workers.
We quickly reached a gnawing level of disgust and had to
leave for fresh air. We walked
along the street, which thinned out a bit as it got later and bought some
souvenirs and gifts. We also got
some fresh cold pineapple. Now that
we have left central Asia for southeast Asia, we are in the land of tropical
fruits – mangos, papaya, mangosteen, rambutan, and our old favorite the
pineapple. This may be our favorite
sidewalk snack since the gelato in Italy. We
also got a fresh coconut (cracked open with a machete) and made a pina colada
with cheap Thai rum (which is the only way you can really drink cheap Thai rum).
Day 220, Sun, Dec. 10, 2000 – Morning papers today
highlighted some of the global memorials for the 20th anniversary of
John Lennon’s death. It’s hard
to believe it’s been 20 years. I
remember hearing about the shooting in high school and thinking that it must be
a joke – how could someone I’d known and admired all my life be here one day
and gone the next? Now we know it
happens all the time.
We were met early at the hotel by Ms. Nancy and her driver,
who greeted us with the traditional wai a prayer-like gesture with bowed
head meant to show respect. We had arranged a city tour when we arrived at the airport.
We usually don’t do things like that because we’d rather explore at
our own pace, but the price was good and the program had several places we
wanted to go anyway. Ms.
Nancy was a tiny, professional girl in her mid-20s with perfect makeup, gold
huge designer sunglasses. She was
also a wealth of information and before we got to the first destination, we knew
that Bangkok means “Village of Wild Plums” but its real name, Krung Thep
means “City of Angels”, just like our hometown, Los Angeles. But this is
merely an abbreviation since the complete name for the city is listed in the
Guinness Book of World Records as
the longest place name. The whole
name business will prove to be another of the confusing things about Thailand.
We were thankful for the air conditioned tourist car compared to the
taxis and tuk-tuks we were in yesterday in the sweltering heat.
Our first stop was the centerpiece of the city – the amazing complex of buildings known as the Grand Palace. The complex houses the royal residence, office buildings, halls, temples (wats), and pointed spires (chedis) and is surrounded by tall white walls nearly 2 km long. It is one of the most colorful palaces in the world – a riot of gold, green, white, yellow, red and blue like a giant fireworks frozen in time. The buildings are covered in bright paint, curving brass, enamel, porcelain, cut glass and mirrors, which create a sparkle in the sunshine. It was very crowded since it was Sunday, with tourists snapping photos of all angles and locals offering prayers, incense, fruit and flowers at the various wats. The focal point of worship and visitors is the Temple of The Emerald Buddha, housing the three-foot seated Buddha carved from a single piece of jade. It sits high up on a golden altar looking surprisingly small for the amount of veneration it enjoys. It is said to be the “talisman” of the Thai kingdom, and the King himself changes the statue’s robes three times a year corresponding to the cool, hot, and rainy seasons. The statue was discovered over 500 years ago hidden under plaster and paint, which cracked open when it was accidentally dropped while being moved. It was the subject of a centuries-long tug-of-war with the Lao kingdoms before being recaptured 200 years ago. It is now behind glass high in the air, so it is impossible to get a good look at it. The interior of the temple has complex murals of Buddha’s life and incredibly intricate inlaid mother-of-pearl doors. I asked Ms. Nancy why Buddha, who denounced all worldly possessions needed such opulence and she said the value of the wat shows how much respect he deserves. The rest of the complex is a curious blend of Buddhist and Hindu iconography (as in Kathmandu), including a model of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and a mural surrounding the whole complex retelling the Ramakien, a Thai adaptation of ancient Hindu myths. Other buildings in the complex are newer and look more secular, some in a style called “farang sai cha-daa” or “European wearing a Thai dancers headdress”.
We wanted to stay longer, but Ms. Nancy was on a schedule, so we hurried out to meet the car. As we left the area, we found out why she was on a schedule – and why the tour was so cheap. She intended to take us shopping! Yep, the old Indian trick of stopping by for commissions whenever you have a tourist trapped in your car. We calmly but forcefully explained that we did not want to shop and would not have agreed to the tour if we knew that was on the program. Ms. Nancy protested a bit, then talked to the driver in Thai and asked us to write an explanation that she could take to her boss, which we did. Needless to say, the tour was over and they dropped us at the shopping center where we had another delicious and spicy noodle lunch followed by Baskin and Robbins. The crowds were still amazing.
We walked across the road and to the house of Jim Thompson, the famous American architect, designer, businessman and ex-government agent who is credited with single-handedly reviving the moribund Thai silk industry in the 1950's. He disappeared in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967 under mysterious circumstances and theories have abounded ever since. Some say he merely had an accident or unfortunate encounter with a tiger, but others claim he was eliminated by government handlers, rival business interests, jealous husbands, or angry locals. Before he died, he had compounded his riches and love of Thai culture into a beautiful collection of fountains, gardens and traditional teakwood houses on the banks of one of the many canals in the city. A young woman who seemed to be able to talk and smile from ear to ear at the same time gave us a wonderful tour of the house, paintings, sculptures and other objects.
We then took a taxi to the Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This is the oldest and largest wat in Bangkok and houses the largest collection of Buddha images, including the huge namesake, 46 meters long and 15 meters high. The statue is finished in gold leaf with mother-of-pearl eyes and feet with 108 different designs on their soles. In the courtyard, we some great street-version pad thai and listened to a cute band of youngsters in theatrical makeup singing songs and playing traditional instruments.
As the sun was setting, we took another taxi to the golden mount and climbed the steps for a look out over the city. We watched the sun reflect off golden domes at the top of the temple with a group of tourists and a larger group of monks. We spoke to a few of them.
Brak Rakyeist: “ Peace of mind. Some people think that a lot of money is most important, but I don’t think so – think peace of mind. We get this with meditation, but it is very difficult because there are many things to think about. We control our breathing, so we can control our mind so it goes only one way. Meditation is not only for our religion, but all kinds of people need peace of mind.”
Day 221, Mon, Dec. 11, 2000 – Today we took advantage of our central location on the river and walked to lunch then took a boat ride to Wat Arun, the “Temple of Dawn” rising 80 meters on the shore of the river. We admired the ceramic and porcelain design from the bottom, but tourists are no longer allowed to climb to the top. One of the monks told us it was because someone had jumped from there. One of the monks smiled and read back to us the t-shirt we had bought in Nepal – “Never End Peace And Love – I like that – me too”. We had a little chat, exchanged email addresses (yes, we were surprised, too) and he agreed to an interview:
Pin: “In my view, I think we all have the same goal – the same destination – like that song “we are the world”. We are humanity - not separate. Especially I think religion – Buddhist, Christian, protestant, catholic, Muslim – we have the same goal and destination because when we chant and after mediation we pray – “may I be happy and free from suffering and may all sentient beings be happy and free from suffering”. I think it is same as “never end peace and love – like your shirt says.”
We were very happy to meet Pin, as a counterpoint to the
taxi drivers and Patpong
hawkers. He explained that most
Thai men enter a monastery at some time of their lives to bring prestige to
their families or gain an education. Most
don’t stay for life, but some do, becoming teachers themselves, although every
day should be a learning experience for everyone.
We stayed at the temple until sunset to see the colored spotlights flood the area, then took a boat back across the river to the Wat Pho area. A full moon was rising very large and low on the horizon, providing a magical backdrop to the floodlit temples and chedis. We thought about the famous full-moon techno rave parties on the Thai beaches in the South (as in that Leo DiCaprio movie The Beach) and realized this is the exact opposite atmosphere. Maybe we are getting old after all.
Day 222, Tues, Dec. 12, 2000 – Slept in today then
took the entire day to run just two errands – trying to get the Sony video
camera and the Olympus still camera repaired.
We eventually realized (after trying in 5 countries) that repair was
impossible and decided to bite the bullet and buy a new video camera.
Only one place in Bangkok had an NTSC version of the camera – the Sony
Store at Siam Center. We spent too
much money, but got what we needed – plus a bonus of the ability to capture
still photos onto a Sony “memory stick” that could be downloaded directly to the
laptop. As we drove around town,
the only image more prevalent than political campaign posters was the King.
He is on posters, billboards, and huge murals at intersections
and major buildings and temples. To
Thais, the king represents an element of ancient honor and stability in the
midst of coups and scandals. He is not only the longest reigning king in Thai
history, but also the longest reigning monarch in the world, sitting on the
throne since 1946. He was born in
the US, educated at Harvard and in Switzerland, and is acknowledged as somewhat
of a renaissance man – an accomplished saxophonist, photographer, architect,
designer, and jazz composer. His
music accompanies photos of his family before every cinema show – at which
time everyone must stand. He is
held in such great reverence that it is not only a social taboo, but illegal to
speak ill of him in public. Of
course this doesn’t keep people from gossiping in private, as with European
monarchies. The current gossip is
about his children and potential succession scenarios since some of his children
have made “blunders” of one sort or another.
Anyway, after driving around on errands, we took a taxi back to the hotel
to check out and get our bags for the train trip to Ayuthaya.
The train station was amazingly modern and clean, as was the train
itself. I continue to be amazed at
the infrastructure here compared to ten years ago. The trip was just two hours before we pulled into the ancient
capital and got a tuk-tuk to the Ayuthaya hotel and had a welcome hot bath.
Day 223, Wed, Dec, 13, 2000 – Today we got a much better look at the city, thanks to our tuk-tuk driver who gave us a special price on four hours worth of driving around to 6 of the most important temples around town. The guide books say you can do all of this on bicycle, but it was pushing 90 degrees with high humidity and we nearly died even with the tuk tuk. Between sights we had to hang our heads out the back like dogs to cool off. Ayuthaya was he capital of the Thai kingdom for 417 years before being destroyed by the invading Burmese in 1767. The Burmese could hold it for only two years, but by the time the Thais regained it, they had decided to move their capital to Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok. The king who reunified Siam came to think he was Buddha himself, so his ministers beat him to death in a velvet sack so no royal blood would touch the ground. Now the entire city is a Unesco World Heritage site, stuffed with temples, monuments and palaces in varying states of preservation. We visited reclining Buddhas, gold Buddhas and rows of Buddhas. Most were set in beautiful green grounds with palm trees and tropical flowers. Most of the temples were lacking paint or gold leaf, so they showed the red brick backbones of the construction. Some of the ruins reminded us of Prambanan in Java and Chichen Itza in Mexico. After the tour when the sun was a bit lower we walked around on our own, removing our shoes to explore the temples and holy places. Inside, worshippers would offer incense, then kneel down to pray, careful not to point their feet at the Buddha image. Some would buy small pieces of gold leaf to rub onto the faces of the Buddha statues, leaving them patchy and eerie-looking. Near the lake and artificial canal around the city, we had delicious lunch sitting on a mat under umbrellas, then an elephant parade passing silently nearby nearly squashed Naomi. We got pineapple from a cart and then a bicycle rickshaw back to the hotel. The highlight of the day was an incredible sound and light show at the royal palace. We did not expect much after the sound a light show at the Pyramids in Cairo, but this was much more impressive. It started with red flickering lanterns floating off into the air, then dancers, lasers, parades, elephant battles, sword fights, fireworks, and finally the dramatic burning of the city by the invading Burmese army. The music was very good too, adding to the melancholy of the story of defeat and faded glory.
Day 224, Thur, Dec. 14, 2000 – We took the morning
train back to Bangkok reading the Sony instructions and realizing that it is a
much more powerful tool than we had before.
We had lunch of pork rice at the station, followed by a cappuccino at the
familiar-sounding Coffeebucks café. We
checked back into the Sheraton and went to the bookshop to find out what the
Supreme Court did. Well, much to
the dismay of democrats and joy of republicans, the court was unable to rise
above politics and show that they were truly the impartial arbiters of justice,
honor and fair play. The
conservative wing, previous die-hard champions of each state’s right to settle
their own affairs, found that the Florida Supreme Court had screwed up the
interpretation of Florida’s laws. They
did not like that the Florida court failed to give uniform counting instructions
although “voter intent” was all that was called for by Florida law.
Ironically, the same Supremes had previously chided the Florida court for
“making new law”. If this
wasn’t hypocritical enough, the conservative justices also bought the Bushie's
lame equal protection argument notwithstanding the fact that any voter in the
country would have an equal protection argument due to the differing machines
and technology used throughout the country.
They realized how ridiculous this all sounded, so they technically did
not disallow recounts, they “remanded” the issue back to Florida although
there were only two hours left to finish the counts.
Oops, sorry – too late, I guess the Bushie war of attrition, stalling
and delaying and betting on public boredom paid off.
Now it comes out that not only the certifier of elections should have
recused herself, but also that two of the US Supreme Court justices had
questionable relationships with the Bush cause (Scalia’s son works with
Bush’s attorneys – who are sure to get more high-profile work now - and
Thomas’ wife works for the organization helping to staff the new Republican
bureaucracy). America is not quite
third-world because we at least have free speech and press and we did not resort
to violence and intimidation (notwithstanding the invasion of the Miami counting
process by young republicans), but we still displayed some appalling unfairness.
It’s not that we are big fans of Gore either, a plastic phony career
politician, but we turned on CNN just in time to see a replay of Gore’s
long-awaited concession speech, which was pretty gracious considering how he’d
been seriously screwed the day before. Unfortunately,
he also displayed some of the transparent phoniness that rankled so many people
(including some Goreites) all year, making it uncertain whether people will
really want to hear from him again in 2004.
His speech was followed by Bush’s Reaganesque playacting as
president-elect, expertly reading the teleprompter.
He can reasonably pull off a well-written speech, but we’re all waiting for the
first real (advisor-less and speechwriter–less) press conference to see if
he’s really as dim and unworldly as he has seemed all year.
Many of us cringe at the thought of him in a meeting alone with world
leaders like Blair, Schroeder, Putin, Arafat, or Annan.
Of course only time will tell and we should give him the benefit of the
doubt, but it’s quite telling that the British tabloids welcomed him with a
front-page map showing where the UK is. That’s
pretty much the consensus when we talk to people here. Even people who liked his
dad can’t believe that Americans thought he was qualified.
After all, his dad was in the white house for twelve years and he
wasn’t interested enough in the world to go on one trip with him overseas -
this is the most qualified man in America to run the country? The good news (ha ha) is that the nation is now so fractured
that neither side will be able to push through any dramatic policies and
reasonable, independent-thinking moderates (are there any of us left?) may be
able to pull off something all Americans want – campaign finance reform to
replace the money and power-mongering in politics with actual ideas and
solutions to real problems.
Anyway, we spent the rest of the day on errands and shopping since we were leaving for Cambodia tomorrow. We picked up the old camera at Sony, bought new sunglasses and sandals, and pigged out on American food at Sizzler. Afterward we had to go across town to get some memory sticks, but traffic was backed up for blocks. We said “what the hell” and flagged two motorcycles. After a careful discussion about where to go and a request for them to stay together, Naomi’s driver tore off into traffic (narrowly missing a bus) before I was even on the back of mine. The last thing I saw was her eyes bugging out of her head and a scream fading into the distance. We caught up to them five minutes later after bobbing in and out of traffic like Muhammad Ali on speed – it would have been much less stressful if we’d just closed our eyes.
If you would like to follow our adventure to Cambodia, please click here: Photojournal December 15 - 24, 2000
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