Zoom in from the skyline, and find a modern, pulsating city that has everything from state-of-the-art monorails to fake brand merchandise. And yes, there is a McDonald’s.
May 28-31Bangkok & East Thailand
One of the reasons why I finally did have to leave Yangshuo was that my next Peregrine trip was scheduled to travel from Thailand, overland through Cambodia, and back into Vietnam. And I needed another Vietnam visa. Thankfully, after calling the Vietnamese Consulate in Hong Kong, I knew I could get an expedited visa with next-day service. so I delayed returning as long as I could.
The Consulate office was in a nondescript, run-down building in Wan Chai. Although the building was run down, in contrast to the Vietnamese border officers, the consular officers were extremely pleasant and helpful. Dropping off my application and money, after I arrived in HK on a Thursday afternoon, would be just enough time to be able to have my visa processed by the end of the next day, before I left for Thailand on Sunday.
Being in HK for four days was much like most of my stops in Hong Kong: concentrated among midlevels, central, Wan Chai, and Causeway Bay. I dropped off my laundry, test processed some of the E6 rolls I shot, reorganized my film supplies, went to the post office, hit a few bookstores, the HMV, Fortress (the electronics store), and browsed through a few DVD/VCD shops. I had lunch with some friends, and I did some more writing and site development. I must have been a little tired, because I don’t think I even tried to go out at night this time. Soon it was Sunday, and time to get back on a plane.
Good ol’ BKK nightlife: everything from live sex shows to cheap booze. The sign says “Special Tonight *Tequila* 35 Baht a Shot”, which is not only catchy, but 35 baht is 78 US cents. Who’s up for a piss-up?
The last time I had been in Thailand, was almost two years ago. I was supposed to have gone on a 10-day beach vacation in Phuket with friends, in what would be my first time in Asia. But because of work I had had to stay in NYC waiting. Waiting for exactly what, I don’t even remember, except that it was for a small $120 million high-yield debt deal to fund a rollup. So I had the option of going for three days or not at all. Notwithstanding the day of travel each way, who knew when I would be able to go again – so I went. for three days: two days in Phuket and one day in Bangkok. Of course we had chosen to go during monsoon season. and it poured all three days!
But I was still able to milk the short time I had. In Phuket, we hired a driver to take us around the island the first day. On our second day, we signed up to take a boat to Phang Nga (so-called James Bond island where they had filmed parts of Doctor No) and a floating Muslim village. It ended up pouring so hard we were afraid the boat was going to sink, but still the trip and the sights were beautiful.
In Bangkok, as my friends were too exhausted to wake up, I hired a driver to take me to see as many sights as possible in a day. Leaving at 5am (actually more like 5:45, as I was late getting up), he took me to the floating market 2 hours north of the city. And after 16 hours of touring, exhausted, I think I did get a taste of the city.
This time, I figured I’d try to take the city at a more leisurely pace. I walked a lot – around the Sukhumvit area, from the Sukhumvit west to the Chinese district on the river, by the palace and museums (which unfortunately were closed for a holiday), and down Khao San Road, which was like a big open ratty youth hostel. I took a cruise around the canals. And I shopped – big time.
Bangkok is perhaps most known for its out-in-the-open sex trade. But for bargain shoppers, it should also be known as the place to get the best fake merchandise in the world, albeit mostly illegal.
This knockoff Navitimer is still a good ringer for the real thing.
As I looked, I saw some pretty formidable works among the more rudimentary copies. I did double takes past almost identical copies of a Breitling Navitimer I had at home – and it was only $50 for a good fake. In contrast to a $3-5000 original, anyone could be tempted. On the other hand, the lesser-quality fakes ($5-$25) were sure to have a limited working life, and you didn’t have to look hard to find watches that were already not working right. Yet Breitling, Rolex, IWC, Vuitton, Prada – nothing was beyond the reach of some skilled artisans in some factory in Malaysia or Singapore, or wherever these products were coming from.
In fact, Patpong, a historic center of the Bangkok gogo bars and sex shows, had all but been devoured by the sprawling market that filled its street and crept onto the sidewalks. Now, instead of voyeurism or raw sex, you could get the latest high-fashion bags, clothes, CDs, DVDs, watches, jewelry, and almost anything else here. Still, there was a flood of Westerners with young Asian girls on their arms. I recalled how Lonely Planet had cited a source that claimed more money for rural development in Thailand was being funded by working girls sending money home, than from all of the governmental and non-governmental development organizations combined. What a concept – but also, what a reality.
There were other changes around the city that I noticed as well. There seemed to be less abandoned and unfinished buildings from the last Asian financial crisis, even though there were still quite a few. And the last time I had been in Bangkok, the skytrain monorail was not yet finished, threatened by fallout from the financial crisis as well as from corruption and ineptitude. But this time, the train was mostly finished, and up and running. The skytrain seemed a model in efficiency and convenience; you could really get a good view of the city riding above the hubbub of the streets. The only drawback was that it did not yet extend all the way west, to the river.
Before we left Bangkok, I was able to make my routine fast food “quality” checks at a few McDonalds and KFCs. And I must say, fast food quality was pretty good in Bangkok.
Monsoons and mosquitoes are worth it, to enjoy the deserted beaches around Koh Chang.
In many ways, Thailand is a fully developed, modern country. So as we drove east, down the coast from Bangkok, except for the wide selection of instant noodles and strange Asian foods at the roadside convenience stores, the drive was as uneventful as driving down a rural interstate across the United States. After a five-hour drive, we boarded the ferry for Koh Chang.
Although we didn’t see that much of the island, at this time of year Koh Chang seemed deserted. But perhaps that was part of its charm. Despite the humidity and the mosquitoes, we had whole stretches of beaches to ourselves – and so what if we had to connect to the internet at a virtual crawl, over cell phones at exorbitant prices?
As it was rainy season, it rained pretty hard in the afternoons. But the day we took a small boat to another small island close by, the weather was perfect and we were entirely alone. We snorkeled and lay on the beach; I read some more of my book on Shanghai. We had dinner under the light of kerosene torches. It could have been a perfect honeymoon spot for those less-suited to expensive luxury resorts.
But most of us were also too excited to get to Cambodia and the ruins of Angkor. And so after two days of tropical paradise, we were ready to move on.
Paul has more photos of Bangkok and Koh Chang – from skylines to coastlines, from traffic to the daily lives of the people – on his website. The page is all images and will take a bit to load, but be patient. The wait is worth it.
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