Sunday, January 23, 2011

My Thai: A Month in New Siam

A'dam welcomed 2011 with a bang

"Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going.”  ~Paul Theroux

On the first day of 2011, while frigid A'dam recouped from a night of neon, I slipped through Little Beirut bound for The Land of Smiles.

Landing at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport in aptly named Nong Ngu Hao (cobra swamp), I headed for the laid-back North, where  Thailand's marketing tagline materialized: smiling Thais, bowing in prayer-like wais were everywhere, chirping sawat dii KAH (greetings) and khawp khun KAH (thank you). So this was the copywriters' message: serenity, spirituality, respect and humor are the foundation of Thai culture. In this gracious land, harsh words and boisterous behavior are unknown.
Tea at the upscale Veranda
Watch for Barbara's Ceiling People

First stop: Chiang Mai Writers Retreat orchestrated by Wendy Goldman Rohm (the writer who blew the whistle on Bill Gates with The Microsoft File). At the lovely Nugent Waterside, the bestselling author and literary agent held nine writers captive.

For five days we peered at laptops, unraveling the manuscripts
Honing our craft over a catfish pond

in our heads. Among us: a gentle monk from Cambodia, a South African woman railing against post-Apartheid racism, a Thai widow/single mother (happily remarried) who recouped a $4 million debt with an inspirational bestseller and a Kentucky Wild Cat who regaled us with tales of his three-year stint training Afghan militia. What a page-turner Dave Kaelin's book will be! 

Oxcart riding in North Thailand
Mae Sa Elephant Camp
I can't forget American expat Barbara Franklin, whose generous spirit shone at both the retreat and her Chaing Mai home, where her househould includes an adopted Thai orphan, a physically-challenged teen with a prosthetic leg. Over spring rolls and Chang beer, Sean charmed us all.

Bamboo rafting in the Thai jungle
My head reeling, I did what any sane writer (no, that is not an oxymoron) would do faced with developing a manuscript or exploring a foreign land: let the former marinate while wat touring, elephant trekking, oxcart riding, bamboo rafting and shopping for handicrafts in villages inhabited by long-necked women who lead simpler lives than my own. 

Ever the hedonist, I indulged in a few Thai massages (a sometimes brutal combination of yoga and acupressure) in my room at the Sakulshai Court—a bargain by Western standards at 300 baht (about $10) for two hours of prodding. Revived, I was ready for cooking and carving at Pad Thai Cooking School.

Pad Thai Cooking School
Alas, my honeymoon with Thailand ended when I returned to Bangkok. While the chaotic capital was no surprise, its residents made me eager to depart shortly after I arrived at Best Bangkok House. Here's what went down in 20 hours: 

Doi Inthanon Nat'l Park
  • First sign I've arrived at Worst Bangkok House: elevator to 6th floor room is broken and advertised WiFi is nonexistent. Welcome drink is ½ glass of Fanta; complimentary slippers are cardboard. OK, I'm only paying 850 baht (about $27), but palatial spreads in Chaing Mai ran me under 600 baht.

Ubiquitous tuk-tuks and scooters
Grand Palace, Bangkok
  • Tuk-tuk drivers descend, offering rides to MBK Shopping Center. Do I look like I need new clothes that badly? Squeezing past street stalls and masked Thais shielding themselves from city fumes, I wander into a Siam Square mall. Child pinches me, I whirl around and slap her, Mom returns the slap, then shoves me into adjoining stall. "Insane farang," Thai stares scream.
Alcazar Cabaret, Pattaya
  • I find an interesting blouse. When I ask to try it on, wondering if I can squeeze into a garment meant for tiny Thais, shopkeeper looks at me as if I'm crazy. “No try on,” he says. I walk.
  • No Bangkok visitor should miss Wat Phra Kaeo, holiest Buddhist site in Thailand, advises Rough Guide to Thailand. I negotiate 100 baht for 5km ride, but tuk-tuk driver arrives at his “sponsor,” NOT the Grand Palace. Here he wants me to buy new duds. For him. I refuse. At MY destination, he demands a tip.
  • Tour buses stretch for blocks, disgorging tourists herded by sign-toting guides. With four inches of leg exposed, I must secure a wrap to cover offending skin. In the mid-day heat, lunch suddenly seems more interesting than a palace visit.
  • Girl or boy? Hard to tell in Thailand.
  • I dine on dragon fruit and sat√© sticks from the pushcart queue, then negotiate a 150 baht return fare. On the road, rate changes to 200 baht. “Rush hour traffic,” tuk-tuk driver explains. Come on, it's rush hour 24/7 in Bangkok! But I'm in no position to argue; I've booked a minibus to Pataya.
  • Final outrage: check-out clerk asks if I've consumed anything from the mini-bar. Yes, one bottle of drinking water, 15 baht. Apparently the customer is not always right in Thailand, so clerk checks, then wants 60 baht for mineral water. Incensed at attempted heist of 45 baht ($1.50), I sprint up six flights, overturn trash and produce drinking water bottle. Not sure how long it took staff to mop up eggshells, food wrappers and Hong Thong whiskey bottle shards, but I suspect the rape of unsuspecting tourists' wallets will continue at Worst Bangkok House. 
  • Of course, this all could have been avoided on an organized tour, but did I really want to hide from the real face of southern Thailand?

Ladyboys with show-stopping looks
I head south for party town, aka Pattaya. An outgrowth of the Vietnam War, when American servicemen transformed a tiny fishing village 150km southeast of Bangkok into Sin City, this poster child of tourism gone mad is now a modern-day Sodom and Gomorah strewn with go-go bars, transvestite cabarets and happy-handed masseuses. No one minds the glammed-down Riviera vibe...WASPS and Asians flock here for the SEX, not the palm-fringed beaches. There's plenty to go around, whatever you like, and it's common to see fat old guys with Thai wisps on their arms"rentals" for the night...or the week!
  • Needing a taste of the islands, I journey to Ko Samet on Thailand's East Coast. Known for its ivory beaches and crystalline sea, the 6km island was declared a National Park in 1981. 
Diamond Beach, Ko Samet
So here I sit at a beach bungalow, watching the snorklers and decompressing as the end of my Far East adventure. Tomorrow I return to Bangkok, where I'll take a second stab at a Grand Palace visit. Will I make it this time? Who knows...the quote at the beginning of this post says it all.

I return to my beloved Amsterdam for a single night, then on to Chicago to visit my kids and SoCal for the BCI banquet and my February 23 general meeting presentation: Over the Hump: Egypt by Bike

I look forward to seeing all my OC friends on the flip side!