Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

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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To my surprise I have discovered that Cambodia is very westernized, with many people speaking excellent English. Other than the occasional country person who still wears a traditional headdress, the clothing of the Khmer (Cambodians) is mostly western. The traffic is civilized. They have a good infrastructure, many modern conveniences, and their construction techniques are much more modern than I have seen elsewhere in Asia.

What Cambodia does have are the ubiquitous touts, scams, and pushy vendors that are so prevalent in other parts of Asia. They descend upon you like a cloud of hornets the moment you arrive at a tourist site. I have heard many people lament over this fact and indeed, it can be frustrating. When you have said no twenty times and they continue to dog your footsteps, insisting that you buy what they are selling, the temptation is to be rude, ignore them entirely, or raise your voice. However, when the vendors are children of seven or eight years old, I find it impossible to ignore them, much less yell at them or be rude. Perhaps I realize that selling something may be the difference between eating dinner that night or starving. Or maybe it’s because they are all so darned cute. Whatever the reason, I had to find a different way to deal with this dilemma.

The children of Cambodia all have the same spiel to get your attention and rope you into buying something:

“Hello. Where you from?” they call out.

“The US. You know the US?” I replied each time.

Every child replied: “Oh, US very good. Washington, DC, capitol.” In some cases, they added the fact that the US has 50 states – except for one little boy who insisted that the US had 52 states.

That’s when the pressure starts. Read More

Little did I know when I arranged to visit Cambodia that I would be doing so during the Khmer New Year celebration. While the crowds at the temple ruins are bad on any day, the traffic during the New Year is truly horrendous, so I have concocted a plan to avoid the worst of the crowds. I will rise at dawn and be at the site by 6AM, investigate the temples until 10:30 or 11 AM when the tour buses start arriving, then escape to my hotel and lay around the pool until late afternoon. Around 4:30 PM I will return to Angkor Wat to (hopefully) see the temple bathed in the golden light of sunset. This plan also has the benefit of keeping me out of the worst of the midday heat.

Bayon temple at the Angkor Wat complex

Bayon temple at the Angkor Wat complex

I began the day with a visit to the enigmatic Bayon ruin within the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom. Into each of the mythic towers of the Bayon four Buddha heads have been carved, one facing in each of the cardinal directions. The effect, unsettling at any time of day, is even more so at dawn, with mists rising and curling up into the towers, alternately hiding and revealing the 356 eyes that watch from the 178 giant carved heads. Read More