Thursday, May 31, 2007

Chiang Mai: translating and transportation, warmness and newfound credibility - May 29, 2007

I get Al-Jazeera in my room, along with MTV Asia. I should be set for life now. Maybe I should offer some context: I got an apartment in Chiang Mai after only my second day being here. Thomas and I meandered on over the measly 3.5km through sauna-like weather to the university yesterday and met up with Song-Si, Chiang Mai University’s (CMU) foreign relations liaison. After signing some papers and hearing various faculty vent about the atrociousness of last year’s PIA fellow, we jumped into Song-Si’s car for a ride. It was nice to finally have a friend in a new city, not only for translating and transportation, but warmness and some sense of newfound credibility over the other hillbilly travelers. We didn’t drive very far before Song-Si made the mistake of partially driving off a curb high enough to deal her car some significant damage. Luckily some nice people from the nearby Mr. Car came by and helped us push her car out of danger.
And so we arrived at one of the nicest apartments in town. 18,000 baht later for a down payment and it was mine.
My apartment is in the ritzy western district of Chiang Mai, and while it lacks a gym, there’s a Powerhouse directly behind it (ironically much fancier and more expensive than the one back home, though lacking dumbbells heavier than 75lbs) and a Starbucks across the street.
Thomas and I attended our first Muay Thai fight last night in which two 7 year old kids viciously went at it to kick off the lineup that included various mismatches and an international headliner featuring an Irishman and a Thai. I took some flack from an Irishman sitting next to me for cheering in favor of the Thai even though the Irishman in the ring held a significant size advantage and I had just been informed that every match-up between a westerner and a Thai always seems to be rigged in favor of the westerner.
“How can you be rooting for the Thai?” the Gallic inquired.
“You said it yourself, it seems every match-up is rigged for the Westerner” I put in my two cents. “Not to mention the fact that westerners have been coming over to this part of the world and exerting their dominance for too long: it’s time for the Thai to rise up.”
“Isn’t that what you want to do, though? You said it yourself you want to do Muay Thai. Don’t you want to get into the ring, fight them, and win?”
“I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”
“And another thing" he continued. "You shouldn’t be rooting for the westerner because he’s a westerner: you should be rooting for him because he’s Irish.”

Siam, shopping without buying, Chinatown, and Khao San

Tonight I figured out that my laptop plugs into the outlets just fine and I don't need an adaptor or converter for Thailand (editors note: this later proved to be false for electronics without internal converters as I discovered by instantly blowing out my alarm clock). So I'm on my laptop right now stealing wireless from Asha guest house after sneaking the password from another guest earlier today.
This morning we slept in until almost 11 despite being awoken several times with a start throughout the morning by someone shouting on a loudspeaker, bizarre music, and what sounded like gunshots. After some dallying around, we headed out for Siam Square. The day was basically a shopping extravaganza, except I didn’t really buy anything. Ironic, I know. We started off at what seemed like the ritziest mall in Southeast Asia - the legit one with Dolce & Gabanna, Gucci, Versace, and a fancy aquarium (which we didn't enter because it cost $8). After Siam Square, we made our way over to the MBK: this other gigantic shopping center filled with all the fake stuff (which wasn't as cheap as one would think). The only thing I wound up getting was a fake light blue polo for about $5, though some random guy told us that wit the guys’ fake polos, the colors wash out after putting it in the laundry. Thomas said I could've haggled him more, but I'm not into this whole haggling thing (editors note: I’ve actually become quite good at haggling in the week since). I wasn’t particularly impressed with the MBK.
I'm actually quite hungry at the moment. Oddly enough, I haven’t been finding the right places to eat in Bangkok. Maybe it’s because most of the best food comes from the street vendors, which I’ve been warned to avoid for hygienic reasons. Today all I had was some cereal and fruit in the morning, a little bit of sushi, a smoothie, and an overpriced plate of noodles at the most expensive joint in all of Bangkok’s Chinatown. If Bangkok's crazy, Chinatown in Bangkok is even crazier (and nobody even speaks Chinese). It was crazy and congested; lined with vats of boiling oil that could pour onto you at any moment while traversing the sidewalk. It’s also noteworthy that there are no traffic lights in Bangkok - except for maybe about two which countdown from 60 and nobody heeds anyway - so crossing the street is the biggest bitch the world has ever known. It's a horrifying experience. In this city, street names and maps go out the window. Not only is trying to cross the street or find places nerve-wracking, but so is riding in a taxi, not just a tuk tuk. In both cases you could die at any moment. The driving lanes are also sizably smaller than in America.
In Chinatown, we couldn't find the restaurant we were looking for recommended by the Lonely Planet that I stole from the guest house (on the cover of which the “Thai” part in Thailand is crossed out and inexplicably now reads "Fakeland"). While walking around we noticed that there are very few actual restaurants in Chinatown, but instead street food stalls (and remember what I said about street stalls, though Thomas has been partaking and so far encountered no problems). That's what everyone does, though, and that's where all the good food supposedly lies. I couldn’t cave, and so we walked all over and couldn't decide on anything, eventually settling on the most expensive and fancy place in town. Thomas and I both ordered the cheapest dish – it was like $6, whereas everything else on the street was basically less than $1. At least I got to do a number two in the only nice bathroom in Bangkok’s Chinatown, and we were on our way in our first Tuk Tuk. A tuk tuk is one of those auto-rickshaws; basically the world’s most dangerous taxi. You have to haggle them with prices and a lot of times they don't take you where you want to go, but rather to shopping places that pay the tuk tuk drivers a kickback for customers. Tuks Tuks are smaller than cars and ride almost like motor bikes, so they weave in and out of traffic like you wouldn't believe. This particular ride was crazier than any roller coaster, especially because our driver was young, dumb, and full of ___. They're cheaper than taxis, but you also breathe in all of the pollution and can fall out during a sharp turn. Miraculously we made it to our next destination in one piece: Khao San road. One word: overrated. Thomas chose 'dodgy'. As it turns out, that's where all the (mostly dreadlocked) westerners reside along with a bevy of Thai youth and some very strange characters indeed (most of them trying to sell you bootleg stuff like TEFL certificates, licenses, and various other documents). Kind of strange that a lot of the people who visit Bangkok and stay on Khao San don’t really venture beyond the strip until heading off to the idyllic beaches. At least they get to witness the bizarre Thai man making animal sounds who reveals his secret trick if you’re willing to shell out 25baht.
I guess Khao San is one of those places you gotta check out for yourself, but it’s just not like what you’ve imagined all those years. The same thing goes for Patpong and the notorious ping pong shows, but we won’t go there (at least in this blog). Once again, I’ll just say this: overrated.

Friday, May 25, 2007

I've never sweat like this in my life - May 24, 2007

Right now I'm absolutely exhausted even though it's only 8:22pm - the jet lag is hitting hard I guess, not to mention that we walked all around Bangkok. I must admit, the Bangkok of my imagination was considerably cooler and more exotic than the Bangkok of reality. It doesn't really feel like I'm in Thailand, maybe because I've held all these preconceived notions of what it ought to be like for so long. Still, it remains incredibly hot. I've never sweat like this in my life. Last night's sleep was incredibly bizarre - the bed was stiff as a board, and yes, you guessed it, the room was filthy hot. Thomas got in around 12:30am right after I had passed out, so that kind of threw things for a loop and I couldn't really get back to sleep. We talked for a while and the last time I remember looking at the clock, it was around 2:30am. Being that our biological clocks are all fucked up, we awoke around 7 - actually, Thomas awoke around 7, inadvertently woke me up with his noise and I couldn't get back to sleep. We made our way into the city after a short walk to the skytrain that took us to a ferry taxi that carried us up the river to our destination: the temples of What Po and the King's Palace. Both were incredibly extravagant and rococo. I took plenty of pictures and video footage so you'll basically get to share in the entire experience minus the pollution, annoying impostors trying to hustle you every step of the way, and the excruciating amount of roundabout walking that we endured. We also indulged in the famous Thai massage at the hands of the renowned masseuse's of What Po. Now hold on, hold on. Before you get all bent outta shape - THERE WAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING SEXUAL ABOUT IT (if you don't count the bizarre butt rubbing part). My masseuse was not at all attractive and it was at a legitimate joint where I received the massage in an open room alongside all the other people getting one as well. And to tell you the truth, in spite of the fact that she did some nifty things I'd never seen before, she hurt me like a motherfucker and at times it felt like she was doing some Chinese pressure point torture instead of a massage. It also weirded me out a bit that she started things off by massaging my dirty feet and finished with using those same un-washed fingers on my face and head. Needless to say, I'm gonna have some nasty pimples and sore ass muscles in the morning. We got back to our side of town not too long ago and I must admit: I sold out. I ate Pizza Hut for dinner, which costs more than triple any Thai meal you can get. Strangely enough, it turned out to taste exactly like the pizza hut I've come to know and love. The reason I got it is that so far, the Thai meals just aren't cuttin' it - each prior meal has left me hungry and unsatisfied. My attempt at being vegetarian hasn't worked out so well either as the menus have proved challenging. As for money, while Thailand is much cheaper than America, I've still managed to drop almost $60 in two days (including Taxi, meals, 10 bottles of water, hostel, etc.) Speaking of cheapness, Thomas and I met this asshole earlier in the day - a pompous/contemptuous nerdy traveler from California - who tried to haggle an old lady vendor selling him a chicken breast down from 25baht to 20baht when for him that would be a difference of 20 cents and for her a difference of survival (maybe that's a tad bit dramatic, but still). In the end, he refused to settle for the 5baht difference and walked away. It was some petty shit and I hope that I don't ever turn into that.
Thomas and I were planning on heading out to the notorious Khao San road - if you remember from "The Beach", it's the place where travelers convene to party like rockstars and exchange the kind of travel secrets you can't find in books - but we're not going anywhere. Pretty much after I write this I'm heading off to bed. Today was a long day.
On a tangential note, I've learned to count to 100 in Thai.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Broccoli & Carrots: First Night in Thailand - May 23, 2007

It's about 8am back in the states right now and 7pm here in Bangkok. The plane ride wasn't bad at all as Thai Airlines turned out to be nifty and I managed to sleep most of the flight (about 14 hours). I tried watching "Night at the Museum" with Ben Stiller, though it couldn't hold my attention and so I turned it off halfway through. I thought it'd be a shrewd move arranging for a vegetarian meal on the flight, but I wound up kind of regretting it when it turned out to be just vegetables (broccoli and carrots) and the guy next to me was indulging in salmon and filet mignon (there wasn't actually any filet mignon, but you understand...) The flight attendants continuously walked around offering unlimited booze, wine, and even cognac (indeed cognac) which I partook in none of. When I got off the plane, customs was a cinch and I retrieved my bags without hassle. I was out in two seconds flat before facing a bombardment of shady taxi cabbies and fake information people. Somehow I made my way to the legit taxi services, finding a ride for 400baht to take me into the city (later I found out I'd been overcharged by about 50baht and the cabbie never even turned on the meter, but being that 33baht = 1dollar, it wasn't too bad considering it was over an hour ride). Let me say, I went from one traffic clusterfuck in NYC to another traffic clusterfuck in Bangkok. Thank God I don't have to drive. To offer a humorous anecdote, I accidentally tried to get into the drivers seat in the taxi after forgetting that they drive on the opposite side of the road here. Now I'm at a guest house/hostel somehwhere in the city not too far away from the thick of things (Phayathai to be exact). Bangkok appears to lack a definitive center. The area actually seemed kind of like a slum at first while driving in - there were all sorts of stray dogs running around (which made me grateful I got my rabies shots) and these kids playing some sort of hybrid game between hacky sack and volleyball. It's pretty damn hot/humid now (about 90 degrees) and you can forget about AC. I should probably change into shorts or something. Ironic that I was wearing a hoodie while deboarding the plane. Right now I'm just hanging out at the restaurant/pool/bar/internet area of the hostel while waiting for Thomas to get here in a few hours.