Thailand: Bangkok, Kao Tao
February 7, 2003
One of the best bits of advice I got before starting this trip was to figure out a budget, and then add a third to it. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow that advice.
The duty free store in Bangkok was a glittering oasis after Bangladesh. Once we stocked up, we cleared customs and jumped on the airport bus, which had air conditioning, plush seats and a floor you could eat off of. The only non-westerners in it were the driver and ticket collector. A mountain of colorful backpacks took up a sizable portion of the vehicle. Helene and I poked each other constantly on the ride downtown. “Look! A freeway!” “Wow…sidewalks…” “Holy crap ï¿½ look ï¿½ a 7/11 store!”
The bus deposited all of us (and our backpacks) on Khao San Road; perhaps the world’s most famous backpackers’ ghetto. We found a hotel (a little over budget, but why not…) a little way off Khao San. It was after 10pm when we hit the streets, joining the thousands of other tourists who were eating, drinking, and checking each other out. The male half of them were wearing the Diesel and Billabong knock-offs that were for sale all over the place. The female half were wearing not very much. Within a couple of minutes we’d seen our first suspicious couples. Two pasty-white, acne-scarred, butt-ugly guys walked by. Each one had an arm tightly wrapped around an incredibly lovely, gum chewing, platform shoe wearing, young Thai girl.
“Gee, d’ya think?” I facetiously asked Helene. Thailand, of course, is one of the world’s biggest spots for what gets called “sex tourism”. The number of western men who were obviously with prostitutes didn’t surprise me. What did was how open about it the men were. Johns in Canada usually try and hide themselves. These guys looked perfectly happy to be showing off the fact that they were having such a superficial relationship. I hoped the women were making (and keeping) lots of cash.
Things that had been difficult or impossible for us to find over the last five months ï¿½ washing machines, taxis with meters that worked, buses with seats for everyone ï¿½ were now commonplace. If we wanted to we could eat at any one of a number of western chain restaurants. For the most part we managed to fight that off but we met our nemesis with the movies. In stadium seating, air conditioned glory we saw the new “Lord of the Rings”, Eminem’s “8 Mile”, “The Quiet American” and, in a bid to convince ourselves that we weren’t completely shallow, an Indian movie called “The Naughty Girl”.
Both of our bathing suits had bit the dust, so we headed off to the mall in search of replacements. I picked out a few suits and headed for the fitting rooms. A sales attendant stopped me, looked me up and down and shook her head. “You need large,” she said. I’m 5’4″, 115 lbs. with a chest that has never made it out of a training bra. “Large?” I asked, incredulously. The lovely Helene was not pleased when she found herself struggling to get into an extra large. “Where do the normal people shop?” she huffed, trying to unwrap a suit from where it was stuck around her neck. I didn’t answer. I was too busy checking out what must be the world’s largest selection of padded bras.
It was nearly a week before we dragged ourselves to see our first cultural tourist attraction, the Grand Palace. By then it was too late, my brain had been warped. Shadowed by memories of Hollywood movies and confronted by hoards of tourists staring through video cameras at the brightly colored buildings I couldn’t get past the feeling that I was in a section of the Universal Studios theme park.
After eight days in Bangkok we headed to the island of Kao Tao, in the south. A minibus picked us up at our hotel and drove us to a larger bus. The larger bus drove us to the boat. The boat took us to the island. The scuba place we’d booked a course with took us from the pier to our hotel. And the following morning a truck picked us up and drove us 500 metres from our hotel to the scuba shop. My legs were beginning to atrophy from lack of activity. Four days of training with staff from Israel, England and Sweden left Helene and I qualified to check out angel fish, manta rays and other aquatic stuff 20 metres under the sea. In a way it was a relief to be hidden underwater. Everyone on Kao Tao, Thais and foreigners alike, was gorgeous. I don’t know where the ugly people go on vacation, but it is not Kao Tao. Goaded by something (The heat? The food? The beautiful people?) my face broke out in a spectacular display of acne, quite embarrassing for someone over the age of thirty and totally unsuitable for anyone vacationing on Koa Tao. Helene took to calling me “mayonnaise” and I wore my hat pulled low and hoped my new padded bra would compensate.
There was tons of stuff to do. When we weren’t diving we’d go swimming, snorkeling, read, walk or catch a ride to other beaches and bays, drink beer and eat. There were kayaks for rent, and boat trips available. We watched pirated DVDs of just-released in the theatre movies, which were good if you could ignore the people in the filmed audience popping up to go to the toilet, laughing, or coughing. A week passed, and then two. I settled in nicely and was averaging a book a day in my hammock. A cat moved into our bungalow. Then one day Helene went to our locker at the dive shop to get more money. She came back in a panic.
“There’s a whole bunch of money gone!”
“What do you mean, a whole bunch?”
“I mean, there’s a little bit of cash still there, but most of it’s gone. The visa cards and the travelers cheques are still there though. Isn’t that weird?”
“No, not really,” I said, “A smart thief doesn’t take enough to make it obvious. Especially if it’s someone working there.”
“Well, what should we do? Should we tell them?”
“First, let’s figure out how much is missing….”
We sat down with a pen and paper, adding up our hotels, our scuba diving, the books and movies, delicious fish and prawn dinners, tasty Thai beer, new bathing suits, snorkeling equipment and fresh fruit shakes. When we had finished, we looked at the final figure in awe. “My God…” I breathed. The math was almost perfect. We weren’t missing one baht. Instead, we had somehow been going through our money at about double the rate we had budgeted.
“We’ve got to get out of this country. We’re spending too much money,” I said.
“But we haven’t seen anything of Thailand,” said Helene. “And I love it here.”
It was true. For three weeks we’d seen malls, movies and beaches, and hung out with lots of western tourists. Other than the conversation necessary to purchase something, we’d barely said two words to anyone who was actually from Thailand. Everything had been deliciously comfortable and easy: 30 degree days and 20 degree nights. We’d gone on vacation from travelling. Thailand is expert at delivering what the western tourist wants, with a minimum of fuss (at least to the western tourist). I hope the money we spent gets into the local economy and does some good. I hope it compensates, a little, for the superficial but terrifically enjoyable way I’ve spent my time. And I really wish I’d saved more money…