Monday, January 31, 2011

Duty Free Shopping 1 - Taoyuan Airport, Taipei

One of a half-dozen large cosmetics shops at Taipei's Taoyuan International airport

We are, hands down, the most vain species of creatures on the planet, no doubt about it. Worldwide, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every year in an effort to make ourselves look like something other than who we actually are. It's a phenomenon that's long amazed me. I'm not talking about clothing - that's a separate horror show - and those who know me have long ago come to accept that I don't make fashion statements, I make fashion slurs!

When I was a child I was blissfully unaware of most of it, other than seeing men shaving and splashing cologne on for an evening out or watching women I knew painting and powdering their faces far more often than I could understand. In elementary school I wore clean clothes and learned I was expected to brush my hair if I wanted to avoid the ridicule of my peers, but that's about as far as it went - until puberty caused many of our faces to resemble miniatures battlefields - and I think that's when many of us fall victim to the advertising.

In many ways it was a blessing that I hail from humble beginnings. There was no lusting after the newest Levis or bicycles or clothing because we just couldn't afford it, plain and simple. We could afford soap and water, and - face facts - that's about all anyone really needs to be presentable. While I don't necessarily celebrate every sign of age that appear on this shell that carries my spirit around I don't feel compelled to invest much energy in a show of smoke and mirrors to fool people into thinking I'm younger than I am. I don't fault those that do - that's their own business - but let's face facts here, folks: it's an investment of time and effort that in the end will show no reward.

The legend remains that Ponce De Leon went searching for the Fountain of Youth back in the 1500s, and variations of that worldwide obsession still rule much of the realm of personal grooming to this day. Here's what I feel is a good example of just such behavior: there are three basic type of items available for sale in the "Duty Free" shops in airports worldwide: make-up, cigarettes and liquor. That's it. OK, there's a smattering of chocolates, I'll grant you that much.

The images up top today were taken in Taoyuan airport as I waited to board my connecting flight to Suvarnabhumi, and I stitched four of them together to show the whole shop. Mind you, this one was far from the rest of the shopping areas, where there were at least five other shops, all larger than this one - some three times as large. That's one hell of a lot of snake oil. The above woman was meticulously dusting and re-arranging each item on the shelves as I sat there for twenty minutes or so, thinking about the business.

Sorry if I've touched a nerve with anyone today, but I find all of this just as much of a waste of time as I do the cigarettes and liquor available in the other duty-free shops.

My personal feeling about trying to fool Mother Nature is this: to those who really matter in our lives, it doesn't matter if we become a bit wrinkled, lined and flabby. It's what happens.

Now, if someone would help me down off of this soap box, I need to go shave and get myself presentable to go out for the day. Or not.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Rumbly In The Tumbly: Some Advice

Streetside dish washing: fine for the locals - a crap shoot for tourists

Forgive me for repeating an image here, but it makes a point: things are done differently in Thailand than you'd do at home. Some of you will remember the picture above from the 08/17/10 story "Staying Healthy In Thailand" where we covered things we can and cannot control while traveling through Thailand and similar places, and it's an excellent example of why it's important to do all we can to keep our immune systems "up" as best we can while on holiday, and oftentimes that's just more than anyone can do unless you're carted about wrapped in cellophane, eating only from sealed packages of prepared foods with utensils you've personally boiled on a hot plate in your room. It's just not practical, and you have be be realistic about the possibilities of falling ill while away from home. I did again myself this time, and I've been there for well over a dozen extended visits.

You can try to be careful on planes and public transport, you can take steps to clean things where you stay, but you have to be realistic and roll with the possibility that you may find yourself under the weather. Hell, with a cold taking a week to incubate you may well bring one along with you from home. But again, I digress.

I arrived at Suvarnabhumi International feeling like a million baht, even after 17 hours of travel; fresh, excited to be just beginning a three week-plus adventure and couldn't have been more enthusiastic while riding to Pattaya, looking at the familiar sights along the way.

I awoke the next morning with a rumbling in my intestinal area that was to become far more of an inconvenience than I'll go into here (some may want to refer back to the story on squat toilets here - something that's never been a strong suit for me). As most sources would advise I let Nature take its course for a couple of days before walking into a pharmacy and making the same request a million other farang have undoubtedly make before me - asking for some sort of chemical cork to control things. However, being more stubborn than most I stuck to my schedule and just dealt with the increasing problem, figuring I could always walk into Bangkok Nursing Hospital when I'd be back in Big Mango a few days later.

I had one day in Bangkok before flying to Cambodia for a week and no time to fool around, so immediately after dropping my bags in my room I took a taxi (37 baht, and well worth it to avoid the stairs and wait to take the BTS) to the BNH, where I broke my previous record by being in, seen, treated and prescribed within 35 minutes at a cost of less than $40US.

The doctor there informed me (in better English than I speak myself) that she's seen thousands like me, fallen victim to nothing more than a microscopic bacteria that the Thai have ingested since infancy but that many visitors' systems just don't know what to do with. After doing some poking and prodding around on my abdomen below the belt and taking a listen with her stethoscope she assured me that I'd be fine within four or five days, put me on a regimen of antibiotics and electrolyte powders I was to dissolve in the multiple bottles of water I was instructed to drink while hydrating myself and sent on my way. The next day I flew to Cambodia, as planned.

Something else I can share with you is this: if you DO find yourself with traveler's diarrhea, it's wiser to let your body purge itself to begin with without trying to stem the flow with Immodium or Lomotil - but only to a point. If you're still incapacitated after the second day, seek medical help. Most of you won't be out in the boonies, and the health care for basic things like this is reliable and readily available in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and most cities of any size at all.

My stubbornness in waiting an entire week while self-medicating only gave the bacteria more of a firm foothold and turned what probably would have been a three day course of treatment into a week's worth... and that was foolish on my part. Hopefully you'll learn from my mistake.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Stateside Once Again

The sunrise that greeted me my first morning back home

It's Saturday morning, and I've been back home for a little over 36 hours.

My flights home from Thailand Thursday were both on schedule and uneventful, unless you want to count the massive cold that set in with an abrupt and fierce vengeance somewhere over Cambodia on my way to the stopover in Taipei. I count it, as it landed me on the West Coast of the United States looking for a handful of Kleenex - something I hadn't needed the entire time in Thailand so hadn't packed in my carry-on.

I guess if there was a plus side to showing up at US Passport Control with the lower half of my face wet it was that the customs guy wanted me to please just get the hell away from him, so waved me thorough with one of those "for the love of God don't sneeze on ME" looks.

I'm sure many of you have read the ongoing debates on what's "safe" to bring back without raising the puritanical and/or otherwise unexplainable and unpredictable curiosity of the US Customs agents, but although I had my standard three suitcases filled with the usual eclectic mix of junk as gifts for folks, the woman who I was stopped by did no more than a cursory 15-second check in only one of them, and then was only interested in a sealed brick of commercial ramen noodles I'd brought back as a joke gift. She was concerned that they were "chicken" flavored and might be infected with avian flu, for God's sake - so go figure. I could have had 10 dead chickens in zip-lock baggies just below that and sailed right through. Maybe she decided she'd already seen enough temple bells and native handicrafts for the day - I don't know.

I was, however, glad to be waved along and make the drive home, where I've once again attempted to slam gears on my internal body clock and adjust to the 15 hour time shift. Transferring photos and looking over my notes will wait until tomorrow. Today I'm walking from room to room, savoring the sights, sounds and clutter of familiar surroundings, and being thankful I'm home. I even had the sunrise above to greet me my first morning home.

Travel is a privilege I've long treasured and never, never take for granted, but being home and crawling into your own bed is - without a doubt - the absolute best.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Bodybuilders Of Tawan

One last clip before heading to Suvarnabhumi International Airport. A couple of friends back home are quite the aficionados of the male bodybuilder genre and have been asking me if I'd visited Tawan (the sun) a gathering place for bodybuilders and their admirers on the small side street off of Suriwong Road. I have, although it's really not my cup of tea.

It wasn't my personal choice to go this time, either, but a deeply closeted Thai friend had long wanted desperately to go stare at the guys there, had never had the nerve to go alone and asked if I'd accompany him - so off we went after dinner the other evening.

Normally (and understandably) photography is very rarely allowed in the clubs, primarily due to the internet today and people's ability to splash sensitive and (also understandably) embarrassing photos and videos that are then shared multiple times via multiple sources. Tawan is a bit different, in my opinion - but perhaps this is mere justification on my part. Let me explain my logic on this, and then leave a comment if you want.

The guys there are bodybuilders, and, as you can see, spend most of their time on the job posing for themselves in the mirrored wall that faces the stage. The rest of the time they're sitting around talking amongst themselves, checking their cell phones, playing the odd game of checkers or having a snack. The customers are merely minor interruptions to their posturing and posing. Therefore, as they've only been identified here as bodybuilders that willingly pose repeatedly the same way under multiple public circumstances, I don't feel as though I'm violating their privacy by giving you the opportunity of admiring their physique. After all, it's primarily what many of them live for.

So guys - and you know who you are - here's your clip. I'm happy to share it with you, and happier still that nobody noticed my HD recorder while I was taking them.

Now I'll shut up for a day or two. Back soon.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Morning Moon in the Big Mango

A rare and lucky shot with my little camera - enlarged slightly

I awoke yesterday morning to this waning moon setting over the Bangkok skyline. As I stood there watching for a few minutes I found myself again reflecting over the past few weeks I've been here, somewhere around 8,000 miles from home, and watched the birds swooping and diving around below my balcony. Even with the intestinal infection that has somewhat limited my activities (and hobbled my energy level, frankly), all in all it's been another magnificent stay in this land I've become so fond of.

Today is my last day here, and I'll be doing the usual last-minute errands, trying to guess the weight of luggage I've been throwing things into over the last couple of days and either seeing or calling friends here to say goodbye again. I certainly fell short with my social obligations, but friends being friends they've all to a man said "mai pen rai - see you next time".

So, this will probably be my last post from Thailand this trip. I'll be back online after I'm safely settled back onto terra firma in the USA. As the old joke goes: the more firma, the less terra.

Back in a couple of days.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lantern Kits - Suriwong Road

While going to catch up with an old friend later last evening - actually an interviewee who's story I've been following for the past six years - I passed a foreign national and his Thai friend selling these lanterns on the steps of one of the office buildings close to Soi Pratuchai. I've noticed a lot of them this trip; primarily in commercial establishments, but I'm sure they're appearing in some people's homes, too.

They come disassembled in a flat pack an inch to two inches thick, with a folded sheet of instructions in phone book-sized print that assure the buyer the kit assembles easily in about 30 minutes. Maybe it does on some planets, but I suspect it'd take this crafts-challenged farang a little longer than that.

Nevertheless, they're colorful and decorative and I wrestled with buying one or two to take home and fool with some afternoon when I needed a little frustration, but I haven't. So far. They were priced between 200 baht and 600 baht, but naturally the price would be negotiable. The largest one below (second from the right, and nearly 12" across) was 600 Baht.

I hope the foreigner selling them doesn't run afoul of the Boys in Brown who are always about and who probably wouldn't be too pleased that he's undoubtedly working without a permit - or maybe they would be, for 200 baht. After all, this IS Thailand.

[To follow up: I went back again this evening and bought a few of these kits, per a request from the folks at home. I see now that they're actually called "Jigsaw Lamps," and that doesn't make me any more confident about assembling them - but we shall see.]

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Auto - 1, Bicycle Guy - 0

Walking down to MBK Mall to meet up with a friend for lunch today I walked past the result of an accident at the top of the bridge over the Saen Saep khlong (canal), the same one you saw a clip in July with the morning riverboats.

I didn't see the actual incident itself, which is fine with me. I find it nearly impossible not to glance at the aftermath but I don't care to see the collision itself, because of the lives involved.
Things can be replaced, people are a little more difficult.

From what I could piece together the older man (in his late-50s, early 60s) in the red striped shirt above lost the match with a four-wheel vehicle - maybe the taxi that stopped, maybe not - but fortunately I could see he wasn't limping and there wasn't any blood showing, nor was he sporting any road rash. He was, however, both shaken
and visibly shaky; perhaps acknowledging how close he'd come to seeing what he'd be in his next life.

Since I'd forgotten the gift I'd brought for my friend (a specific body wash soap, unavailable in Thailand) we made the short stroll back to my room after our lunch visit. When we passed the accident site the bicycle was chained to a post on the side of the bridge, and it still was when I escorted my friend back to the area of his office near Siam Center.

After some shopping I was nearing the incline to the bridge while hauling my things back to my room when I came upon the man again, trying to get his damaged bike home. The rear wheel of the bicycle was the worse of the two, and it wobbled wildly as the barefooted old man struggled to push it along, obviously still shaken. He was also obviously weary, and was shaking his head and speaking to himself. I could imagine he was trying to figure out where the hell he was going to come up with the funds to repair his transportation, this bicycle that was undoubtedly the source of his meager income.

Regular readers have already heard my opinions on charity, and in an instant it came back to me again, too: we can't save the world, but we can save little pieces of it.

I pulled a 1,000 baht note out of my pocket and trotted along to catch up with the man. It wasn't difficult, as he was really struggling just to push the dilapidated cycle along. He may have had a home, he may not have - nothing about him had had a washing in some time.

Tapping him on the shoulder, I asked him "You OK? I saw you had an accident today." He looked surprised and I know he probably only understood the "OK" part, but he looked back up at me and said "OK, yes".

I held out the note to him, and he looked confused. "Fix bicycle," I said, pointing to the obvious need he was pushing along at his side. For an instant he looked surprised, but then tears filled his eyes as he stopped to wai me, saying "Khup kun krap, khup kun krap, khup kun krap". I told him "Be careful, and chok dee (good luck) before turning to head along my way.

I glanced back to see him still standing there, wiping his eyes with his arm as his gaze shifted from the 1,000 baht note to the bicycle and back at the note, smiling.

Best moment of the trip so far.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Back In Bangkok

My bedroom view from near the 20th floor, looking Southeast

I have a nice panoramic view from my room here in Bangkok - actually two views, since my small suite is on the corner of the building and there's a balcony off of the bedroom and the living room. This is a level of hotel I seldom rise to, but with tourism hurting the internet special rate made it affordable. As we've covered before, it pays to shop around. Should memory serve, my suite here is running me about $67USD per night, breakfast buffet, pool and large gym included. Not that I've stepped into the gym, but...

I'm FINALLY feeling healthy again after two weeks of enduring the bacterial infection and the medications to be rid of it, or at least fine enough to be whining that I don't have enough time here to do and see all that's still on my list. There will be many friends I will not have an opportunity to sit and chat with, and with life passing along as quickly as it does that's never a happy thought.

I spent most of yesterday lost in the crush of humanity that filtered through the arteries and capillaries of Jatujak Market. It was, as usual, an overwhelming experience - and I"m planning to go back today. I'm taking photos by the hundreds, so you've been warned.

Off to breakfast and then out again today.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Dream Realized: Dawn At Angkor Wat

Sometimes dreams we've long thought were out of reach can become reality. For myself, one of these has been to stand by the reflecting moat surrounding Angkor Wat outside of Siem Reap in Cambodia and see the sun rise behind it. That came to pass a few days ago, and it was a moving experience I'll treasure forever.

Just an intimate gathering with, oh, say about 20 busloads of Korean, Chinese and Japanese tour groups! If I had 4,000 Riel (the current value in Khmer currency for one US dollar) for every person who posed in front of it - and sometimes in front of me, as if they couldn't see me taking photos - I could easily pay for my week there - airfare included.

The morning spent climbing up and down the steep stairways while exploring the suggested portions of the main temple were also amazing. I'll be sharing more of this when I can properly prepare the pictures for you.

Almost Back On Track

Water lilies dot the surface of the water in a moat surrounding a temple in Cambodia

Well, "tomorrow" stretched itself out to be five days - and this isn't a proper post, either. However, I should be able to get something up tomorrow. I'm sure most will understand I'd rather be out and about here in Thailand than sitting in my room!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

On The Road (Again)

Although I'm not aboard a Bangkok Transit System (BTS) train I am on the move again. I'll try to post properly tomorrow.

Meanwhile, this is yet another night shot - this time of the Chong Nonsi BTS station the other night while I out and around in Bangkok. I've been doing a lot more night photography, and have been much more pleased with the results, overall.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Better, Thank You

Sweeping up on Soi Pratuchai - preparing to open in a few hours

As we've covered in a couple of other posts, there are some things you can do to stay healthy such as staying hydrated, cleaning common items, washing your hands frequently and being aware of what you're putting into your body (on several levels) - but sometimes it's just the luck of the draw.

It might have been my noodles at the Taipei airport, it might have been a meal the first day in Pattaya, it might have been any number of things; the point is I picked up a bacterial infection that set up housekeeping in my intestinal tract. After a week of trying to be positive and saying "oh, it'll pass - just wait it out" while being miserable off and on throughout the day and dealing with the ominous, unpredictable rumblings that usually signaled another pressing problem I conceded defeat and once again walked into the brightly lit lobby of Bangkok Nursing Hospital yesterday.

Just as efficient and gracious as they'd been on my first visit I was seen promptly, and this
time was out of there in 34 minutes flat, with a total charge of 1,026 baht - about $30US. I'll be taking antibiotics for five days, but am already this morning (Friday, 14 January here) feeling more like myself - as the doctor predicted yesterday.

A couple of folks have asked how to avoid this and the short answer is: you can't. It's just something that's everywhere, and the Thai - having been exposed to it since birth - pass it right along through them, probably on a regular basis. Mine passed through as well, but it took everything along the way
with it.

IF you think you've come down with something similar I can pass along what the doctor told me yesterday, though: stay away from caffeine, colas, coffee (that just irritates the lower intestinal tract) stay hydrated and only eat small meals. I had trouble with my appetite, so when I did feel like eating I ate full meals, and that turns out to be one of the worst things to do; it triggers the intestines to prepare to move things through, ready or not.

After leaving the hospital I decided I'd find simple fried rice for dinner so went along to Dick's in Soi Twilight to watch the folks start cleaning the soi and again watch it wake up from its day-long sleep. The massage guys were out and folks in a couple of clubs that had doors open before 18:00 were puttering around, sweeping up and beginning to put tables and chairs out. As suggested, I ate about half of the order and went to bed hungry, but all was calm!

I was in bed by 20:00, and slept well most of the night. Thanks to all who sent the kind wishes for a speedy recovery. I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thai, Schmai: Ritz Cafe, Jomtien Complex

Filet of sole Florentine at Ritz Cafe in Jomtien Complex

Sometimes when we're away from home and not feeling well we're all liable to give in to comfort foods. I'm certainly no different, and while it seems a little silly to be craving mashed potatoes in the land where one can find the best Thai food (who would have thought?) I've found myself taking comfort in Western foods several days over this last week of sketchy intestinal stability. Last evening I had such a fine dinner at the Ritz Cafe in the Jomtien Complex that I wanted to share it with you.

I haven't a great number of other places in the general area here to compare it to, so please take this as a report more than a review, and consider trying it if you find yourself in the area. It's popular enough that you're wise to make a reservation if you have a group that wishes to dine at a specific time.

In addition to a fairly divers menu overall they had a handful of specials, each offering an entree and the choice of two other items; i.e. a soup, a salad, an appetizer or a dessert. I tried the sole Florentine (above), the creamy potato leek soup and the blueberry cheesecake that my friend assured me was to die for. Two of the other specials I recall were a pepper steak and a lamb dish.

There was an assortment of fresh bread served to begin with while we solved the problems of the world and waited for our orders, but I was glad I didn't have much of it because all of the portions served were more than generous. The filet arrived on a bed of spinach as expected, but it was fresh spinach, and not overcooked. The white wine sauce was smooth and balanced and the small casserole of fresh vegetables was surprising in its variety: peas, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, white potatoes, etc. - all done al dente. Try as I might, it was simply too much to finish - and I knew I had dessert coming.

The blueberry cheesecake was as described: to die for. Smooth, moist, creamy, with a hint of lemon to the cheesecake itself it was accompanied by a blueberry compote - that wasn't cloyingly sweet as some can be - and two small scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Including my bottle of water my dinner ran me less than $12US. I certainly recommend it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It Loses Something In The Translation

A fragrant potted plumeria I walked past yesterday

Let me save some time for folks who might take me to task by saying today's subject matter is in no way intended to denigrate, make fun of or belittle anyone's attempt to deal with the English language; especially the good people of Thailand, as my knowledge of their language could rest unnoticed in your eye.

However, yesterday morning I saw a laminated notice during breakfast at the Lek Hotel that warrants sharing. It was in regards to tipping individual employees in the dining area, and while tipping overall isn't a common Thai way - and isn't practiced fairly by some tourists when it
is appropriate - they were trying to discourage tipping any of the staff directly. The translation was a noble effort:

"In our restaurant business consisting of many staff such as waiter waitress cashier bar boy cook steward including cleaner. Every one of then try to do their best for their assign job daily with fully attend and delegate. In the case of the customers prefer, happy or appetizer with our food and service.

They always give us some tips and we instruct our staff to put every coin of their your tips to the tips box. These money will be divided equivalent to everyone. The smiling on their face and inspiration in their eyes happen every time they receive the tips either less or more.

If you want to give your special tips to some one of us. To avoid misunderstanding from other staff. Please let us know by fill down the paper form. This will make us have adequate reason to explain to other and also have enough reason to evaluate the good performance of one who receive your tip.

Of cause in case of you not happy with our food and service please leave us your complain in the tips box.

However we promise to keep on our standard of food and service as the best as we can.
Yours truly
The Management."

My personal guess would be that the "smiling on their face and inspiration in their eyes" dims a bit if and when the
complaints are discussed at a staff meeting, but that's just my opinion, either less or more.

I'm noting other fine examples of translation as I go along here this trip and I'll share more another day. Please feel free to share any favorites
you've seen in Thailand via the comments section.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Good News, Bad News And Ice Cream

The good news, as some of you have guessed and a few of you know, is that I'm in Thailand now. The weather has been beautiful and I've been on the run catching up with people, places and things as possible.

The bad news is that I've also been hobbled by a fever, followed by an ongoing intestinal problem that's also managed to keep me either sleeping away large chunks of the day and night and being on the run of a
different sort, if you catch my drift. Imodium is my friend, but it's not all that dependable.

My laptop isn't what I'm used to, the version of Photoshop on it is five clicks old and - quite frankly - I'd rather be out gathering new photos and stories to share than doing much at the keyboard. I'm guessing most of you understand!

That said...

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a party for around 50 children - most of whom live in one of the larger slum areas adjoining Pattaya, and some who are under the care of a charity and are properly provided for, but all of whom have endured more hardships than they deserve.

Near the end of the day there were bowls of ice cream to share, and the kids scattered out to share this somewhat rare treat. Something had tickled the two in the photo to the point that they weren't even aware I was there as the one on the right would say something that would set them off with shrieks of laughter that the camera just couldn't do justice.

I have an over-booked day tomorrow (health allowing) so there will be another day's break here. Back the next, I hope.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Every Day Is Children's Day

When I was young I asked my parents why there was a Mother's Day and a Father's Day, but no children's day. The answer I got was "every day is children's day", and in many ways that was true. Like most of you I had a pretty good childhood, but it isn't all sweetness and light for some children in third world countries, and let's face facts - that includes the Land of Smiles.

The 350 or so boys and girls aged five to 17 at the Huay Pong orphanage South of Pattaya aren't with their families, for a variety of reasons. However, because of kind donations from several sources there
will be an outdoor party for them today, and their excitement was palpable yesterday afternoon as they raked leaves, set up tables and chairs.

I'll write more about this and post some photos soon.

I do not expect that there will be a post tomorrow.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Thai Smiles, Part 26: Seen On A Morning Walk

I'm on the road again, and being at the mercy of of my travel schedule there isn't time to write much of a story again this morning, so I hope a few more shots of people I've encountered while taking early morning walks in Thailand will make your visit today worthwhile.

The two guys above were gathered with friends one morning while setting up their sidewalk stands. You'll notice the "L" sign under one of their faces - the "handsome" pose,

The motocy rider below was just a lucky shot, pointing into traffic as people made their way to wherever it is they spend their weekdays.

Although to though to some Western eyes the man below may not look old enough to be driving himself he was directing traffic at an intersection in Bangkok, and seemed to be able to find something to keep himself amused while doing so. Evidently another example of finding sanuk (enjoyment) in what you do.

I have a new experience ahead of me today that I need to get ready for, so this will be short. I'll do my best to update you on things tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Thai Smiles, Part 25: Street Food Vendors

While folks are still digesting the two posts about ticketing and packing for vacations (I know because I can see the traffic for them) I thought I'd offer a few shots of people tending to their food carts in Thailand.

The top picture today is a woman selling a snack I can only describe as a type of corn pancake. The corn is held together by a batter, and if you like corn at all the wonderful aroma rising from the griddle where they cook is almost intoxicating. They brown on one side and then are carefully turned with a well-practiced flip.

The man doing BBQ below has a little different set-up than most BBQ you see on the streets, as most of those are bite-sized pieces skewered on a bamboo stick that's cooked and served for eating while walking or as quick take-away, while this man was cooking larger pieces in a metal cooker. I suppose he was maybe also able to smoke meats, too.

The final vendor today is more mobile than the standard cart, too. These vendors are also fairly common and you'll see them everywhere. Resting a pole on their shoulder they walk along with their wares in baskets on either end of the pole, and if you let them know you're interested they'll stop and set the "shop" down to sell or prepare your food or other items - not always edibles.

It saves them "rent", they can come and go as they please and they exemplify the solid working spirit most Thai wear with pride.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Maintenance Day

Maintenance work at Balls Sports Club, Soi Twilight, Bangkok

There's some general clean-up and organization needed here that will prevent me from doing a regular post today.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Travel Tips #2: Packing Your Bags

[A long post today - and another for newer travelers, but I hope frequent visitors will find something they didn't already know that helps on a future trip. Again, shared input is welcome via the comments section.]

A friend of mine shared something that's helped me packing my suitcases many times, so I'm going to share it with you here: lay out everything you think you'll need for your trip, and then put half of it away again. This makes good sense for a variety of reasons - especially since airlines have continued to cut their weight allowances and have increased charges for additional bags and overweight luggage.

Some of you travel with no more than a carry-on bag, but I can't do that. I take supplies and gifts to friends and extra creature comforts for myself and I always bring things back with me, so I bring a couple of bags. I strongly suggest checking the fine print on your airline's web site for luggage limitations - especially the number of bags allowed and the weight restrictions by ticket class - and follow them. Some airlines charge an obscene premium for going overweight with a bag. That said, there's no need for you to bring a lot of excess junk with you.

Laundry service throughout Thailand is affordable, quick and readily available so unless you're changing hotels or rooms every couple of days there's really no need to have any more than three or four days of clothing, tops. You can almost always get laundry turned around in a day without a "rush" charge if you get it picked up in the morning, but you do have to pay attention and remember to do that. Ask at reception when checking in to be more sure about this - the printed laundry form you'll find in your room isn't always accurate or up to date.

I'm going to stick my neck out and say that in general it's going to cost you about Bt30/1 USD on average per shirt or shorts, but rates vary by place. Underwear and socks are cheaper, but those can be done yourself if you wish. If time allows I don't mind washing smaller items in the shower and hanging them up to dry while I'm out for the day. If you're planning a longer stay it's often possible to find cheaper laundry service near where you're staying.

I've found the "wicking" sports-type undershirts and undershorts are very comfortable (they pull the perspiration off and away from you) and dry very quickly after hand-washing. You can buy polo type shirts made from this fabric, too - and they're very comfortable in tropical climates. This may be too much information for some, but wearing a pair of "wicky" sports underwear makes a long flight much more comfortable, too. Just an FYI.

Sundries (shampoo, soap, razors, lotions, tooth paste and the likes) are readily available and may well be cheaper than you can purchase them back home, so unless you have some specific items/brands you're loyal to, don't bring more than you'll need while you're there. My doctor has a generous baggage allowance and buys quantities overseas to bring back to the US. I'll bet you're going to be surprised when you walk into a Boots or Watsons drug store and see racks of Nivea and other brand name items. Big C and Tesco Lotus stores are also full of these common brands.

Some travel things are important enough to be worth making a checklist for - such as your passport, return ticket, traveler's checks, cash, travel insurance documents, a copy of your current prescription form and the prescription items themselves - preferably in their original labeled containers. Because not all medications are available in Thailand it's advisable to bring enough for the length of your visit, and prudent to bring an extra week's worth in case of a problem with your return trip. Two different Thai doctors I know pointed the availability issue out to me, and it's worth passing along here. I bring a copy of my latest round of prescriptions with me, and it's paid off the one time I ended up at BNH Hospital. [See "Sick on Holiday" here]

I mention the prescription copy and original containers part because although it's extremely unlikely you'd be actively searched when entering Thailand, it can avoid a prolonged wait or confiscation - at the least. I read one story of a man who had vitamins found, and when he said "fine, throw them away" saw them taken away, only to have them returned to his hotel a couple of days later - along with a bill for the lab test determining what they were that was far more than a full bottle would have cost him back home.

It should go without saying, but for the impulsive, reckless or just plain dumb: recreational drugs of all types are illegal in Thailand, and penalties can be severe. Your embassy will not be able to smile and waltz you out of the holding prison they'll find you in. As you may remember, I've seen the insides to one of those places, and trust me... it's not worth the risk.

If you travel with any electronics, such as a camera, laptop, iPod, and the likes (as I do) I've found it's also a good idea to gather the necessary cables, memory chips, proprietary batteries and chargers before the day you're hastily tossing things into your suitcases. Many hotel rooms have one 110V outlet for items that can't accept the 220V standard current throughout Thailand (often in the bathroom), but check the device itself and allow for the possibility that you may need an extension cord with extra outlets. Brand name batteries themselves are available in convenience stores, so don't worry about bringing extras if you don't use rechargables.

If you've already made friends or acquaintances in Thailand one way or another you've probably already considered taking them a small gift. That was recommended to me before my first trip and besides being polite it's paid off in spades for me over the years. I'm not talking about things as extravagant as name brand colognes or wrist watches, I mean simple "I thought of you" gifts. Items from wherever it is you live are usually very well received, such as a sports T-shirt of your favorite team, a local tourist item or some regional edible treats. I brought a few inexpensive T-shirts along one time with the Golden Gate Bridge on the front that were quite a hit. In fact, I've found most anything from "Ah-meh-ree-CAH" - as they often say it - is appreciated.

If you travel with things that could leak (such as hand sanitizer, cologne or a favorite shampoo) while in the baggage hold at 30,000 feet, do like I do and seal them in zip lock baggies. You'll find the baggies come in handy for a number of things while on the road.

One thing I'll add in the interest of your health is the matter of condoms and lube. For those of you who plan on partaking in the wilder sides of the nightlife there it's prudent to bring your own. Although many that you already have at home were made in Thailand (check the label) and although they're available at any convenience store, my same doctor friends say the batches sent outside the country are more reliable, sad to say, and your favorite lubricant may not be available. It is not illegal to bring these items into the Kingdom, but be advised that any other "toys" are.

Travel light, my friends. It's easier overall, and the shopping's very, very good there. You're going to want space to bring things home.

[For newer readers, there are two posts about staying healthy on holiday so far: on a plane here and in Thailand itself here, and one on staying hydrated here]

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Travel Tips #1: Travel Agents And Airline Tickets

A panorama of the cavernous check-in area of Suvarnabhumi International, Bangkok

[Some of you Thailand Veterans might not find this series as interesting as others, but it's designed for the relative newbies who may be thinking of or planning their first trip to Thailand, and I encourage you to join in and share your suggestions and experiences via the comments section below.]

My first trip to Thailand turned out to be very different than I'd planned it. The original seed had been planted in 2001 and it was originally intended to be in mid-2002, but circumstances caused it to be pushed out until 2003. I ended up going there with a good friend/co-worker who had previously visited Bangkok for a few days.

At his suggestion we booked our flights through a travel agent and arranged our hotels together by researching places we both wanted to see online, tempered by his previous experiences. It's the path I'd suggest for anyone visiting a new country and culture for the first time. If you already have a travel agent you've had good luck with, great - if not, ask trusted sources for a recommendation.

You don't directly pay an agent for arranging your bookings - their commission is almost always borne by their office, the hotel, the cruise line, etc. - and an established agent within a group can sometimes get you great fares by means of quantity bookings or within blocks of tickets they're privy to. Over the past few years, however, commissions from airline tickets have gone out the window so bear in mind you're not doing an agent any real favors by taking an hour of their time for airline tickets alone. Nevertheless, agents can still be a wealth of information, and if you let them know up front that you're merely gathering ideas and suggestions I don't think it's unfair to ask one for help. The worst they can do is brush you off, and then you can try another one. I've found many agents do what they do because they enjoy helping travelers.

If you choose to shop around for your own airline tickets to Thailand, be prepared to invest some time into doing so if you're not one who prefers to merely take whatever Orbitz or Travelocity spit out on the first search. Despite what they advertise such sites aren't always the lowest fares, and you always have to compare the additional fees, taxes, conditions and the likes. You have to do your research if you expect to get what you want at a fair price.

Explore your options before beginning your search for tickets, too: credit card companies, insurance companies, credit unions and groups you belong to (such as AARP for over 50 folks in the US) can be good places to start, as many offer some sort of travel benefits. For example, American Express has a good points program that can be applied to travel and lodging and also offers some baggage/trip insurance benefits if you use their card to book your trip. Many others do, too. Hopefully people will comment on those they feel are the best.

Airlines sites themselves have the luxury of offering specials whenever they wish, but be aware they can be limited. Additionally it should be noted that ticket prices on their sites can change at a moment's notice, and are sometimes different within the same day, so I'd suggest checking a few times as part of your research before booking one.

Seasons and times more travelers wish to fly naturally have an effect on pricing, and a good travel agent - or some time spent researching on travel sites - can be a big help here, too. My first trip was in August (low season in Thailand) on Japan Airlines, and I flew on a desirably scheduled flight in coach class with almost no layover wait for $610 round-trip. That hasn't happened since. Today I expect a coach seat from the West Coast of the USA to run somewhere around double that, but that's where the adventure of the hunt comes in!

There are too many travel forums and reference sites to do list properly, but there are a few that I've gleaned nuggets of information from, been entertained by or have found tickets through. One favorite is listed in the reference links in the right hand column here, and that's Seat Guru. It's saved me at least once when I was ready to select a seat that backed up to a restroom wall... not a good place to be for 12 hours sleep-wise, noise-wise or aroma-wise. Again, I hope others will chime in with some of their favorites. I'll update this post as I think of others and add them to the links section, as well. For ticket price comparisons isn't a bad place into as a resource.

My favored airline is EVA, a Taiwanese airline, but I've also had good luck with Japan Airlines (JAL) and have heard enough from friends to feel comfortable recommending Singapore Airlines and Emerites. I've had enough bad experiences with both United and Northwest that I would not only not recommend them, I'd suggest you stay away from them.