Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

The trip to Phi Phi Island was ten hours long and not particularly pleasant. It began with an hour flight to Krabi on the southern peninsula of Thailand. From the airport we got a taxi that took us to one of the myriad tour companies in Krabi Town, where we purchased tickets for the 3PM ferry to Phi Phi. By this time it was noon and the temperature was more than 100 degrees – not pleasant when you are wearing a fully loaded backpack and dragging around your luggage. With two hours to kill before catching the shuttle bus to the ferry dock we went in search of food and finally found one place open on Sunday. Along the way every tour operator pressured us to book a hotel on Phi Phi. It was the same old refrain – this is high season, there is no availability, you will get there and have nowhere to stay – etc, etc, etc. I know this is a scam but there’s always that nagging little doubt in the back of my head. It says, what if they are telling the truth this time and we get there and can’t find a room? What do we do then – sleep on the beach? The tour operators bank on this. They are experts at instilling fear in order to get your business. Undaunted, we stuck to our plan to wait until we arrived on Phi Phi so we could actually see the hotel and the room before booking.

Old ferry carries passengers to Phi Phi Don

Old ferry carries passengers to Phi Phi Don

We sweated through our midday snack at the open-air restaurant and headed back to the tour company just before 2PM, where we were loaded onto a mini bus and taken to the ferry harbor, about 5 minutes outside of town. After another 45-minute wait in an open-air pavilion we were directed to go to the end of the dock and wait for the ferry. Finally, a rusty old bucket of a boat chugged into the dock and we were allowed to board. The locals were directed to the small enclosed upper seating area; we tourists were sent into a larger enclosed seating area in the lower bowels of the ship, a dark, damp hold filled with rows of peeling blue vinyl seats and reeking of diesel fuel. There was no air conditioning and the heat was oppressive. Windows ran down both sides of this passenger area but they were so fogged it was impossible to see through them. Everything made of metal was covered in bubbling Read More

One of the pleasures of Bangkok is the ability to get lost without worry. Yesterday we took the water taxi from the Taksin Bridge, on our way to see Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. We hopped on board and grabbed a couple of seats on the left side of the boat, soon to discover why every seat on the right was occupied but the entire left side of the boat was empty – the left-hand seats get sprayed with water as the boat makes its way down the river. We had been directed to get off at stop eight but not every stop had a number visible – at least not in English – so we ended up getting off at stop six by mistake.

Water taxi on the Chao Phrya River, Bangkok

Water taxi on the Chao Phrya River, Bangkok

peppers in an outdoor produce market along the Chao Phrya River

Hot, hotter, and hottest – peppers in an outdoor produce market along the Chao Phrya River

Our attitude, as with all things on this trip, was that all things happen for a reason, so we set off on foot along the river. Before going two blocks we found ourselves in the midst of an open-air vegetable and herb market. There were varieties of squash, pumpkin, melon and many other items I have never seen before. One man sat in front of wicker trays sorting hot chilies. Another loaded huge sacks of peeled garlic cloves. A third man loaded a pickup truck with green onions, their root ends pointing outward and looking like white fur. Yet another group sat in a circle peeling large white onions. And then there were the women bundling the same three-foot-long string beans I saw in Vietnam – they are delicious, by the way. Read More

They say things come in threes. I’ve found that to be true more times than not, and it certainly was accurate where my most recent encounters with animals in Bangkok were concerned. It all started two nights ago, as Joan and I were walking back to the hotel from a night stroll down Khao San Road. We’ve made it a practice to walk the three or four blocks that comprise the backpacker district every evening because it’s the best free entertainment you can get. At night the clothing and gift stalls that line the sidewalks during the day close up and are replaced with other types of merchandise. Small groups of prostitutes stand in the middle of the street, dressed in three inch spike heels, mini skirts and halter tops, brazenly offering their services. Backpackers sit on short stools set along the curb, paying to get their hair braided or put into dreadlocks – although why anyone would want to PAY to get dreadlocks is beyond me. Among the tourists wandering the streets are those who are clearly looking to indulge in the sex trade, those who are indulging in another kind of decadence as they sample items from every one of the scores of food carts lining the street, and still others whose only aim it is to get as drunk as possible. One curbside bar set up on a stainless steel rolling cart was doing a thriving business – the sign next to the cart said: ‘Really strong drink 80 Baht – Bucket 200’ Khao San Road and Rambuttri Road (where our hotel is located) run parallel to one another. To get back to the hotel you must either go all the way down to an intersecting road – which is a fair hike – or use one of several shortcuts Read More

“Madame, where you go? Grand Palace open. Wat Pho closed. Open this afternoon. Holiday this morning.”

We must have heard this two dozen times on our walk between the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. This is perhaps the most famous of the scams of Bangkok, Thailand. Men and women stand on the sidewalks surrounding the Wats (temples), telling people that the sites are closed for a holiday and will reopen in the afternoon, when they will be able to see a special ceremony performed by the monks. They then suggest that the tourist spend the intervening time visiting alternate sites, such as the Wat of the Black Buddha, and offer to arrange for a tuk-tuk driver to take them around for some ridiculously small fee (like a dollar for half a day). Many tourists fall for this ploy, only to find themselves being driven around to shopping centers (interspersed with a temple or two) for hours, where they are subject to high pressure tactics of shopkeepers trying to foist poor quality gems, silks and carpets on the victims. The scam operators and tuk-tuk drivers are paid by the shopkeepers for every tourist they deliver. By the time the tourist figures it out, they are back at Wat Pho, usually laden with packages. Fortunately, I know about this scam (I fell for it three years ago myself), so Joan and I avoided the detour this time, just laughing and brushing off the multitude of scam artists that accosted us.

I have delayed visiting any of the Wats or temples in Bangkok on this trip because I have seen most of them before. I wanted to wait until my friend, Joan, arrived so we could share Read More

I’m back in Bangkok after an uneventful (thank God!) flight back from Siem Reap, Cambodia. This time I’m staying at the O Bangkok! Hotel, which is in the backpacker district, but a couple of blocks away from Khao San Road, so it’s not so noisy and crazy. This place is pretty nice. It was built only a couple of years ago, so it is fairly new, relatively clean and you can’t beat the price ($19 per night including breakfast, with 24 hour security and free safety lockboxes at the front desk). I think the third time might just be the charm, where hotels in Bangkok are concerned.

The best way to clean up from Songkran in Thailand? Get the fire hose out!

The best way to clean up from Songkran? Get the fire hose out!

You just never know what’s going to happen around here. I was sitting on the restaurant terrace of my hotel having breakfast this morning when I heard a really loud whooshing noise. I looked up to see an entire crew of workers approaching, clad in long pants, day-glo vests, and rubber boots. Closely following them were two tanker trucks filled with water. Fire hoses attached to the trucks were spewing a high velocity stream of water down the street. Between the fire hoses and the crew that was equipped with brooms and rakes, every bit of dirt and debris left over from the Thai New Year celebration of Songkran was swept away into the sewers. It was really pretty efficient, not to mention amazing to watch. I’ve been wondering how they get rid of all the dog poop. Read More

My driver insisted that I do something special during the three-day Khmer New Year and suggested that I attend a performance of the traditional Khmer Apsara dance before leaving Cambodia. One of the mini themes developing during this journey is that I find myself attending cultural performances unique to each country. In Vietnam it was water puppetry; in Bali it was Balinese dance. I saw no reason to buck the trend, so yesterday evening I went to a local restaurant that features a stage performance of Apsara every night.

Traditional Cambodian Apsara dancers

Traditional Cambodian Apsara dancers

Unlike Balinese dance, which focuses solely on religion, Apsara depicts both religious legends and scenes from everyday life. I especially enjoyed the coconut dance, where young men and women weave around each other in seductive courtship moves while clacking together dried coconut shell in rhythm to the music. Another one that delighted me was the cock fight dance. In every Asian country I’ve seen roosters, caged in loosely woven wicker baskets that have been turned upside-down and set along the edge of the road. In Bali I asked my guide about this custom. He explained that cock fighting is a huge sport in Asia and the caged roosters are being trained to fight. The baskets are placed by the side of the road so that the roosters become accustomed to people and noise. The cock fight dancers, with the aid of wicker basket props, were so convincing that I could almost believe they were roosters when they placed the baskets over their heads.

 Cambodian cock fight dance

Cock fight dance

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