What to Expect in Bangkok, Part Two – Thailand, Asia
Bud light firmly in hand, I'm picking up where I left off. During my first week of on-foot wandering, I marveled at the pure numerical superiority of the homeless. Filthy and unkempt, they sprawled on doorways, street corners, streets, sidewalks and whatever little patches of grass existed in the concrete jungle of Bangkok. At this point, already shell shocked from the verbal assaults that seemed to be coordinated by a crack squad of massage commandos, I instinctively recoiled at the mere sight of them in their dirty clothes and shifty eyes. However, they never said anything. They did not have a change cup and they did not look particularly disturbed with their plight. Chalking it up to the Buddhist philosophy of acceptance of karma, I thought no more of it. I couldn't help thinking about them, though, because they were sleeping on whatever ground I needed to walk on. Eventually, I did end up blocking out their existence, for better or worse. I am not skating off on a tangent, if that's what you are thinking, because I happened to bring up the subject of the homeless with our local guesthouse proprietor.
Thai men, Thai women
I'll call her Amy. (She kept telling us her Thai nickname, but I couldn't understand it. She mentioned it meant “pig” in Thai). I was rather interested in her explanation. I parroted her answer later to Kees (my new Dutch expat friend), who roared with Dutch laughter (Dutch laughter sounds suspiciously like English or Swiss laughter). He laughed because he was incredulous that I didn't believe Amy. For the record, Amy explained that the unfortunate men were not homeless, they were just loafing, like all Thai men. “They make us [women] work you see (I didn't), while they sit around and do nothing all day.” She explained that, for some reason, the Thai men have managed to perfect the Jedi mind trick on their women, convinced them to work all day to support the family, while the men sleep all day and drink at night with their buddies.
Combined with the cultural acceptance of prostitution and “butterfly-ing” (Thai women colloquially refer to men as “butterflies” meaning they visit many flowers [other women], spread their pollen around, then when done, cruise to the local massage parlor for a “massage”). The Thai girls I talked to didn't seem to mind their male dominated culture. Like most Asian cultures, they figured that was the way it was. My thick American brain was slow to grasp this foreign and clearly superior form of thinking. I only have 101 million women to convince back home that although the Thai people can't figure out how to produce a map, dispose of their refuse, label the streets, cease the endless corruption or maintain the crumbling infrastructure, they surely have male/female relations in working order.
I did glean from my congenial female Thai guesthouse owner that every Thai girl wants to marry a Western man, not because of a reverse Asian girl fetish, but because of "movies". Curious, I pressed her for more information. She explained that women were big fans of the dreadful romantic comedies populated by the perpetually befuddled Hugh Grant and his silver haired friend, Richard Gere. Apparently, Thai women were drawn to this medium because the women in the movies were the light of the actor's world, fire of their loins, apple of their limbs, etc. I suppose we take it for granted, but in an enlightened West (point disputed by various multiculturalist groups, dusty professors and university students) shaped by equality, women in the western world are treated very well (point disputed by Virginia Woolf, Susan Faludi, et al.). Anyway, local Thai women in general are not treated particularly well, dominated by the men in their lives.
The travel books are right – Thais really do love children. Every Thai will stop for a quick smile and conversation with the little darlings. They especially adore blond haired, blue eyed children and, much to the shock of some Scandinavian parents I observed, will swoop down and pick the children up.
Elephants are like a national treasure/symbol of Thailand. Way back, elephants were used for all sorts of things; white elephants, the most rare kind, were declared to be the property of the king and as such, were not allowed to work (a non working elephant is rather worthless, hence the expression, white elephant).
Sitting at an outdoor bar in Bangkok, I was surprised to see an elephant directly in front of me, almost touching my beer. The elephant handler shouted something at me and handed me a plastic bag of fruit. I learned from a bar girl that you pay the handler 50 baht to feed his elephant. Arrested by an incredible curiosity, I started peppering the elephant purveyor with questions: where does one get an elephant? Where does it live? Do you carry a shovel for the elephant dung? How do you afford to feed an elephant? Doesn't an elephant need to be near water?”
The handler was not interested in questions, only in the baht. Information exchange broke down due to the language barrier. The omnipresent bar girls were of no help, in fact, they seemed not only totally indifferent to the vagaries of owning an elephant, they were shocked that I cared about it at all. During all of this, the elephant snuck up behind one of the fake rolex sellers and stuck his trunk in his pocket. The seller screamed, hilarious laughter ensued.
I walked with a buddy for miles around Sukhumvit, the sois, every square inch of Chinatown and a large swath of desperately poor Thai neighborhoods around Lumpini Stadium. Often, due to the time change, we couldn't sleep, so we walked all night. I never felt fear or threat. Although I probably appear like Paul Bunyan to the Thais, I never got anything more than a look of bemusement when we wandered into some desolate poor neighborhoods. My expat buddy had this to say about crime and safety, “Don't worry about it, the Thais won't rob you, they'll only cheat you”. Most knowledgeable travelers and locals said the only dangerous parts of the country are near the northern borders and the southern Indonesian Thai border, populated by extremist Muslims.
Two guidebooks and the BootsnAll website breezed by the topic of Thai prices versus "foreigner" prices. For example, the street vendor has 30 baht written on his cart for soup; you give him 30 baht and you get your soup. The Thais know to give the vendor five baht. We went to the stadium to see kickboxing (where Jean Claude Van Dam's movie Kickboxer was filmed). We were directed by various “government officials” to a ticket window where we paid 1,000 baht, quite a sum. Only later did we find out that locals pay a fraction of that sum. All foreigners must move to the furthest section of the stadium. A random Thai will come up to you and say, “This is for Thai only, you go over there” and point in the vague direction of far away. We paid 1,000 baht for the worst seats in the house.
This sort of mindset spills over in other ways. When on a ferry to Koh Samet, Thais were instructed to board the boat first. Just before the ferry was to leave, a government speedboat pulled alongside and began taking on passengers. Hoping to get there in 10 minutes instead of the 45 minutes the ferry would take, I tried to hop in. I was stopped by a grave looking boat pilot, “Thai only” he said in broken English. During the ride, the ticket collector came around. Of course, the foreigner price was 45 baht; local price, 10 baht.
They are everywhere. Dogs and cats litter the sidewalks, usually sleeping. Did they learn from the indigenous male population? There is no spaying or neutering. With the Buddhist belief of reincarnation, the animals are not culled. No funding, no town dog catcher. Animals are almost totally without fur, due to mange, covered in fleas and various other pests. Locals seem to like the animals and often feed them, but they don't touch them.
I was somewhat skeptical of the guidebook claims of superior clothing making. Being sartorial minded, I wandered into a tailor shop recommended by a native. I can explain the differences between off the rack, custom fit and bench made clothing and I can spot them on people. The tailor helpfully offered pictures of his famous clientele: Eddie George, Steven Seagal. This tailor was truly an expert, though. He knew his cloth, style and fit. I had some suits and shirts made; they were impeccable. I would rate them a slight notch below the well deserved reputation of the famous Savile Row shops or master tailors sprinkled around the world, but for the price I paid, I don't think it could be beat, about $400.00 US.
I had almost 10,000 baht on hand; I was looking to spend every last bit of it. I had only managed to purchase a travel alarm clock for 20 baht; it promptly broke. American news reporter and writer, PJ O'Rourke, once observed that in every country he visited, the locals made things they thought tourists would like, instead of what tourists actually wanted, what the locals made for themselves. Much to my bewilderment, were store after store of regular, gas powered lawn mowers. I was boggled. I hadn't seen a blade of grass in three weeks, those I saw outside the city were not being cut down. I don't know how they stayed in business.
The next strange thing were the rows of stores that only sold door handles. Shelves and aisles of little door handles: pewter, metal and brass. If Thailand makes a cultural shift to motion sensor doors, an entire industry will be wiped out. There were also miles of stores that strictly sold Hello Kitty items, big in Japan, apparently. Many stores just sold stickers, Mardi Gras beads, plastic containers, extra large size women's undergarments (puzzling since the only plus sized women I saw were foreigners) and non functioning alarm clocks. There was an amazing array of top notch cloth, more cloth than the eye could see – miles of the world's finest silk, along with a dazzling array of cottons, khakis and corduroy. If I am reincarnated as a tailor or clothing maker, Thailand is my first stop.
A group of stores sold gold and other precious metals. Eddie, a native Thai who runs a Thai restaurant, advised that I not buy any precious metals or rocks unless I was a professional. Since labor is cheap, illegitimate business people can afford to gold plate lead with exquisite detail to fool people like you and I.
Lest I have given the wrong impression, I had a great time in Thailand. I wrote this article more with an eye to entertain and provide a snapshot of the city. Those locals who didn't come in regular contact with tourists were awesome. A business man in a suit was walking next to us in a throng downtown. He turned to us and asked, “First time in Thailand?”. We acknowledged it was. He replied, “Then welcome to Thailand, I hope you have a pleasant vacation". I was really taken back by his friendliness. Bangkok is full of life. I can't recommend it enough. It is one of the dwindling places left on this earth where anything goes. If you have extra cash, stay at the Four Seasons or head down to Phuket.
I had a great experience, met some cool people from around the globe. The only real drawback to getting there from the States is the flight, an absolute killer. It wiped us out for days when we arrived, took me two weeks to fully recover when I got home.