Monday, May 30, 2011

Cruising (No...On A SHIP)

Posts will be made from a number of locations over the next couple of weeks, and I'd be somewhere between overly optimistic and a flat out liar to promise one every day. Not that many would notice, but since Friday's entry I've set sail onto the open seas and am on a break from the everyday obligations of home. While I won't be on the ship above (that picture was taken in Honolulu a few years ago) it's similar: a fairly good-sized vessel with a passenger capacity of 2,000 and a crew of 1,000.

Some of the crew from a "casual" dining room, one of five or six places available

While aboard a cruise ship you have three basic assignments: eat, sleep and enjoy yourself. I suppose there are a couple of others, like bathing and making yourself presentable before going to the dining room and maybe not getting so drunk you make a spectacle of yourself, but that's not much work, either. I was raised with the habit of proper personal grooming, and I dropped the drinking habit a couple of decades ago. That leaves the basic three, and I'm in favor of them all.

There are always scheduled activities aboard ship - usually a couple of dozen a day. There are also on-shore excursions in each port, tailored to the interests and physical ability of everyone aboard - from trivia quizzes to shuffleboard to rock wall climbing - although a few more involved things are at an additional fee - massages and facials, for example. The important thing is that at sea or in port you're free to do as much (or as little) as you wish, activity-wise. Naps and catching up on some reading are always high on my list.

Cruise ship travel (from the USA, anyway) is overall one of the better dollar-value vacations you can take and not lift much more than a finger. Basic costs are from around $110USD per day for an "inside" (no window) cabin. That's $1,650 for 15 days. You're fed gourmet meals, entertained, waited on hand and foot, cleaned up after around the clock, and the scenery is all around you at no additional cost. With airfare, $50 per day hotels and $15 per day for food and beverage a two week trip to Thailand begins at $2,300. That's only a thumbnail comparison and there are other costs involved for either trip, but that gives you an idea.

Rain in the distance, taken from mid-ship one afternoon

Ship features vary, but there's always at least one casino, a movie theater, Jacuzzis, swimming pools, a library, an internet cafe or two, a handful of lounges and places to have a drink and 24-hour room service - all included. There's entertainment of the organized variety - musicians, song and dance, shows - and more casual things like crew members demonstrating how they fold the towel animals you'll find on your bed each night, along with the next day's schedule and a piece of chocolate.

Monkey business and other animal fun with towels

The crew is, without fail, both gracious and accommodating. It's their job. They don't get paid much and are more or less contracted captives for the term they sign on for, but true to the cultures they hail from (mainly Indonesian and Filipino, in this case) they're very pleasant folks to visit and joke around with. While I should tell you up front that they're not allowed to - ahem - interact with on-board guests privately it undoubtedly happens. I've heard stories from a few of them, such as the waiter above with the white glove from a past cruise that I still get email from occasionally.

Anyway, I'm here... but I might not be here here every day. I'll do what I can.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Jatujak Market, Part 6: A Cool Spot To Eat

There may be more than one air-conditioned place to eat at the huge Jatujak/Chatuchak Weekend Market, but I've remained fond of Toh-Plue. It's located on one of the two middle "streets" that run through the market (that image from Part 1 is here) and while I may be waaay off here I'm going to stick my neck out and guess that it's near block 22 on that map, in the same middle street that the clock tower is on. If someone knows differently please let me know and I'll correct this. Show your handout map to someone at an information kiosk and ask them to point; that ought to put you somewhere near it!

It's not a fancy place, it's often full of tourists (as you might expect), the prices are reasonable, they take charge cards...and it's air conditioned. That might not mean much to you at the moment, but after a few hours wandering in the hot, crowded maze that is Jatujak you'll understand the appeal of a cool place to sit and rest for a while.

The menu is fairly extensive, as Thai eateries go. The service has always been fast there, and the food has always met with the approval of Thai friends who have eaten there with me, be they vegetarians, Muslim or seafood fanatics.

The neon sign on the outside window (at the end today) is kind of hard to miss, and even if you do you can't mistake the inside of the place if you look at the ceiling: it's been covered with color comics from the Sunday paper. The top photo how the place looks today, and the photo below is how it was on one of my first visits there, taken from about the same spot.

The presentation is more than a street-side restaurant would do, and less than a proper dinner house. There are a few examples below:

This cashew chicken dish came in a crisp noodle nest

If you're dragging yourself around in the mid-day sun you might try Toh-Plue. If you do, let me know how you liked it. The food, I mean - I know you'll appreciate the chance to cool off and rest!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Video Clips: Strolling Soi Twilight

Soi Duangthawee (as it's spelled on the sign above it) is more commonly known at Soi Twilight, the most concentrated - and touristy - grouping of male-oriented businesses in Bangkok. It's also referred to as Duangthawee Plaza and Soi Pratuchai, mainly to keep the visitors confused, I think.

There are Go-Go clubs, massage parlors, restaurants, and bars competing for your attention - along with a few other assorted establishments and the ever-present wandering vendors.

One evening a couple of years ago I decided to try to film a clip of the view, so to speak, as I walked along from the bend near Classic Boys down to where it ends at Suriwong Road. Naturally I was approached and distracted by a half-dozen touts along the way ("Hahb sho nahw!") but the clip didn't turn out to be too jumpy - for something taken while walking, anyway.

It's an HD clip, if you have the bandwidth for it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thai Smiles, Part 34: Random Guys

The "Smiles" series tends to elicit feelings on both ends of the spectrum; those who like and dislike them - and I've certainly heard about it from both camps. Obviously I like taking and sharing them, so it's unlikely that the series will end until we run out of images for it, which will happen at some point.

Vertical images don't display as well here column-wide, but there were a few shots prepared that weren't horizontal so I thought we'd try a grouping of them and see how it works. Up top is a young man I met while out walking in Bangkok. His uniform was either some sort of school or faux-military, I'm not sure which; maybe a form of ROTC. Perhaps someone better versed in that area could tell us. This kid smiled faster than I could compose, focus and take the picture, but there's a hint of one there.

Below is the man who settled my beach chair and made sure I had shade one afternoon in Jomtien, bless his heart. I didn't catch the 1,000 watt smile he's capable of, but this one was nice.

Next is a guy who appeared to be just resting on the back of his motor scooter. I didn't take his photo when I walked past him the first time, but when he was still there on my return trip I asked if he'd smile - and he did.

Finally here's a guy who does Thai massage in Bangkok who stopped work long enough to pose.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Staying Healthy In Thailand: Medications

Left to right: Tylenol Cold, a Thai prescription medication and a form of good old Immodium

We've covered a few health-related topics here, including circadian clocks (your natural internal body time), the possible "rumbly tummy" from eating strange food, going to the hospital, staying healthy while traveling by air and things you can do to stay healthier while in Thailand, to name a few. Today I thought I'd share a few things about medications in Thailand; those brought with you for existing problems or health conditions and those you may need while you're there.

First and foremost let me say I'm not a doctor. Many of us like to think we are when the alternative is to go see one instead of trying to treat ourselves with a cornucopia of over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, salves, creams and the likes, but there's no substitute for a qualified medical opinion. So there. I have, however, had some input from a few doctors I'm friends with here and there.

Most OTC things you'd find at home are also available in Thailand. You can walk into a pharmacy wherever you are (or a Boots or Watson's chain drug store if you're less adventurous) and find antacids, cold medications, first aid supplies, stomach and intestinal distress medications and such things readily available - rather like the examples up top today. If you look around there are pharmacists who will go a bit beyond (or well beyond) their authorized limits to help you get something it's clear you use and are in need of, but remember that any type of controlled substance will land you in the Monkey House just as quickly if you got it from a pharmacist without a written prescription. Don't push your luck.

It's wise to bring any prescription medications in their original containers - especially if you'll be returning to your home country with any of it left. As an added precaution I bring a copy of my prescription with me just in case I'm ever asked for it when re-entering the US, but that's admittedly more than likely overkill. I've spoken with folks who were asked "what's this?" when entering Thailand, though - and having a baggie of pills with nothing to back it up cost one of them their medications and a couple hours of explaining. His medications were held, tested and sent to him at his hotel... along with a hefty bill for lab testing them.

Many of us tend to travel with prescription medications of one form or another. I urge people I know to talk to their doctors before going to Thailand and ask them what alternative medications they could use if their regular medicines run out or are lost, stolen or spoiled in some way. This goes for ALL meds taken regularly.

Western Baby Boomers are aging after a lifetime of questionable lifestyles and dining habits, and that's leading to a dramatic increase in cases of high cholesterol, hypertension and type II diabetes as examples of a few you read of more often than others.

Take type II (non-insulin dependant) diabetes, for example. You'll probably be fine in Thailand if you're on generics for your Type II, but some common brand name drugs used to treat it are not available in Thailand. If your doctor can be made aware of what the purpose is of the name brand they can probably find something close that will suffice at least until you're back home. For example - Actos is a diabetic med that isn't available in LOS, but is VERY similar to the generic acarbose, which is.

If this is not your first trip there or you otherwise know for sure your regular medications are available in Thailand - and can be bought cheaper there, which is sometimes the case - you might consider taking an original prescription slip with you (and a photocopy) and have it filled there. With a copy of the scrip it isn't a problem to bring them through customs back into, say, the USA. Your home doctor may not be comfortable writing you an extra copy, but as they know what the high costs of prescription drugs are many will. It never hurts to ask.

Please be aware that quality control in manufacturing may vary from country to country, so I personally might hesitate to buy a medicine that was keeping my heart beating from a source I wasn't 100% confident about, but that's up to you, of course.

On my first visit to Bangkok Nursing Hospital I came out of there with four prescriptions, I believe. They were all strange to me, but they did the trick and cost me next to nothing.

Speaking of diabetes: unless you're adamant about using Splenda (sucralose) you'll again probably do fine finding Equal (aspartane) or saccharine. I brought back a variety of sweeteners for a friend one trip, and some of them are below:

I'll be sure to pass on any other tips that may arrive in email, but the bottom line is this: as in many other areas of travel if you do your research and prepare for potential problems you don't have any legitimate worries about medications while you're in Thailand.

One added tip: many medications are heat and humidity sensitive. I keep the few I bring (in their original containers) in a cool spot and in a sealed zip-lock baggie - especially things that easily absorb moisture and crumble, like a regular aspirin tablet. You'll notice that prescriptions in Thailand (such as the one up top today) come already sealed in baggies.

Accommodations, Part 13: Evergreen Place, Bangkok

There are quite a few places to stay in the Ratchathewi area of Bangkok; some within a five minute walk from the Ratchathewi BTS sky train station, making getting around quite convenient. Some years back I used to stay at the Asia Hotel, but I've found myself much more content at the Evergreen Place serviced apartments, almost right next door. The Asia is more expensive, the rooms need some upgrading and you're liable to be swept away in a herd-like tourist group while going through the lobby, but it is the home of the Calypso Cabaret (posts here and here). I'll add a post about the Asia Hotel another time.

Evergreen Place is a far less hectic place, and that appeals to this old soul. They have around 120 one- and two-bedroom suites available; most with a nice view, as the rooms begin on the 9th floor of the building. The stitched-together photo up top shows the view from the bedroom of a corner suite, the photo directly below is from the living room balcony.

It's maybe a two minute walk from the BTS station to the little soi leading to the building where the hotel shares space with some business offices, and then less than another minute to the lobby entrance.

A portion of the lobby area. Computer stations are to my left

The staff are a pleasant bunch, and I've never felt as though I was being treated any differently as a single man staying there. Of course, I'm not much of a night owl so I wasn't bringing guests through the lobby after midnight and your experiences may be different. I do know that there's a live camera that shows the comings and goings past reception that you can watch any time on the TV in your room, though. I've noted that same sex couples at breakfast are far and few between, too.

Speaking of breakfast, the buffet opens at 06:30 (should memory serve) and is finished at 10:00, but as you can see by the photo to the left it's a well-stocked and well-maintained buffet. The fried eggs left a little to be desired some mornings, but it's not often I've found soft-cooked eggs in Thailand.

The breakfast area is set up in an open area outside the actual cafe itself, although you can sit in there to eat in the morning, too, and they have a few copies of the Nation and Bangkok Post available. Adjoining the dining area is the gym area, and it's reasonably spacious and well-equipped. Through the open dining area and up a few stairs takes you to the pool area that I photographed from above. It's usually pretty quiet, which is probably good for those of you who are looking to do laps. You can see there's only one young man in it in the picture below, taken around lunchtime one day.

The rooms themselves are kept spotless by an efficient housekeeping staff that seem to be there within minutes of a call if you need something out of the regular schedule. If I'm going to prop myself up in bed to read at night I usually need to call for an extra couple of pillows, but as you can see in the top photo I didn't need to: there were five on the bed when I arrived.

As you can see above the basics are all done well: electronic safe, good sized closet space, plenty of drawers for clothes, a larger than usual refrigerator, a 30" flat screen TV with a VCD/DVD/CD player for movies or music and a decent hot water pot. Amenities differ by type of room, so check the listings on their web site. There was good water pressure in the shower stall, and some rooms have bath tubs. WiFi was free and fast.

You're a ten minute walk from MBK, Siam Square and just a bit further to the other malls, and about a 15 minute walk to Pantip Plaza and the clothing area around Baiyoke Tower.

They run a fair amount of specials themselves, so check their web site as well as any other booking services you may usually check.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Street Snack: Youtiao - X Marks The Spot

Waffles are my favorite guilty snack when I'm out among the street stalls in Thailand, but when I'm really looking to clog an artery I'll stop for an order of the Thai street version of Chinese crullers known as Youtiao. These little fried devils are probably as bad for you as that cheese glorp they ladle over tortilla chips at the baseball parks here in the US. A comedian I followed a couple of decades ago thought they ought to have a "Clothespin On Your Aorta Day" and just clamp off an an artery for you on the way into the ball park... but I digress.

A fried pastry pusher tries to look innocent as he lures the unsuspecting in with his treats

With a paper-thin crispy shell on the outside and a light and airy interior, these are - as my brother would say "just like heroin."

I can eat them until I'm queasy (which doesn't take all that long, truth be known). Sprinkled with powdered sugar, drizzled with sweetened condensed milk or just plain they're absolutely delicious.

Buy a small bag of them fresh and warm after you've watched them dance around in the oil and you just may turn up your nose at Krispy Kremes or anything similar for the rest of your days.

After the ingredients are mixed together they're allowed to rise, and then the dough is folded and worked lightly and quickly; kneaded and stretched into long, flat bands that are chopped with a dull flat blade into small strips.

Two strips are then basted with water in one spot to make them stick, criss-crossed into a sort of "X" shape and dropped quickly (but carefully) into the hot fat.

Because of the air pockets created as the dough rests and rises they float and sizzle gently as they cook. Using long chopstick they're turned to brown evenly on both sides, and then put onto a rack to drain and cool.

If you've ever been around fresh raised donuts cooking you already know the aroma they produce. If you haven't been you're certainly in for a pleasant sensory experience. It was the scent of them cooking that caught my attention some years back, before I was within 10 feet of the cart. When I'd stopped to look closely at the small heap of them the woman had cooling on the rack she picked one up with the long sticks and handed it to me to try.

Looking back I probably should have recognized the little voice as being similar to The Old Dope Peddler saying "come here and try this, sonny... the first one's free," because just that fast - boom! - I was hooked. Just seeing the images today makes my hands shake a little, so if you get there before I do next have a half dozen for me, will you?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Isaan Odyssey: Epilogue

While putting together the 25-some-odd episodes of the Isaan Odyssey series there were many days that there were too many photos for the day's post or pictures that just didn't quite fit the topic. Since they all take time to resize, crop and adjust I set them aside, figuring I'd come up with some way to work them into the saga at another point. There are quite a few, so I'll probably stretch them out over a few days.

In Part Six about Phra Prang Sam Yot in Lopburi we spent a lot of time looking at folks making merit across the street and of the monkeys that rule the roost at the temple, but the actual ruin itself is beautiful if you stop to take a look at the detail. There's a shot from cross the intersection up at the top today, and two detail shots below.

An image of the Buddha sits peacefully inside Phra Prang Sam Yot

Detail on a wall at Phra Prang Sam Yot in Lopburi

From Part Three (Bang Pa-in) there was another unused view of the Wehart Chamrunt hall that was also shown in that day's panoramic shot I'd taken after climbing up into the tower, and a different panorama shot from the same tower view.

Wehart Chamrunt hall at Bang Pa-in

(L - R) the Aisawan Dhiphya-Asana Pavilion, the building we stopped for water and a part of the residence

As long as we're still at the Summer Palace - I was shooting into the sun (never a good idea, as you lose all detail to the shadows) and the gardener below was moving faster than I could follow and focus on properly, but this guy was scampering around in the tree high above the ground with the agile, sure movements of a monkey... and doing it barefoot. Ah, the reckless abandon of youth!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Unexpected Break

I've been called away from my usual routine for a couple of days and don't expect to be able to access the internet to post until Thursday.

See you then.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Isaan Odyssey, Part 25: Bangkok Bound

Waking up on my last morning in Udonthani I found myself really, really congested. I'd been flirting with some sort of nasal problem for a couple of days and it had finally gotten the best of me. As much as I dislike wasting time any time when I'm on holiday all I wanted to do was put a hot compress on my face and stay in bed.

Unfortunately, my time in Udonthani was over, and there were still 600Km/375 miles between me and the room that waited for me in Bangkok, our final destination on this week-long oddysey. It would mean at least nine hours on the road - longer, because I knew we'd have to take some breaks - and while I felt somewhat sorry asking Suphot to drive such a long day, I really needed to get back.

I dragged myself out of bed, started water in the hot pot and called my friend. He'd already planned to ride his scooter into town to say goodbye, knowing there wouldn't be time for Pot and I to drive out to the family home. I'd said my farewells to them the previous night after our dinner out so I hadn't expected to see them, but I'm glad my friend was going to come see me. I rustled up another marginally acceptable cup of instant Nescafe and then went to take a shower so I could dress for the day and finish the packing I'd (thankfully) done most of the previous night while listening to CNN News on the TV. Pot called to give me an advised departure time, and I set about trying to meet that.

My friend arrived somewhere around 08:30, and by 09:00 I was ready to check out. We'd had a somewhat somber conversation: him speaking in a hopeful way about his planned move; me attempting to be supportive but concerned about his overall safety and well-being in a completely foreign place, thousands of miles from his home and family. I don't think I was all that convincing. He lowered his guard and shared quietly how he didn't feel he had many other choices, and there were tears being shed when my phone rang, reminding me that it was time to get going. I hugged him goodbye and went down to the lobby with his tears still wet on my shirt.

Suphot loaded my bags into the back of his truck while I checked out of the hotel. We got into the cab and I waved farewell to the young man I'd helped, mentored and become rather fond of over the past six or seven years. He took a few steps towards us as we pulled away, still waving. As we turned out of the driveway I looked back to see him turn and cover his face and wondered if I would ever see him again. Time and Fate will tell, I suppose.

At my request we stopped at a 7-Eleven type store at a nearby gas station where I picked up another box of Kleenex, water and something to serve as the breakfast I hadn't taken time for at the hotel. Freshly loaded with fuel and decongestant I said "Home, Jeeves!" to Suphot, and away we went, down Highway 2.

I know we stopped for lunch, but I couldn't tell you where. I nodded off repeatedly as we sailed along, but I recall the hot soup was comforting. Frankly, as congested as I was the stand owner probably could have boiled most anything and I'd have been happy to slurp it up. I drank a lot of water and other fluids just to keep flushing my system out, but I was more of a mess than you need to read about here.

Those of you who've spent much time at all out on the highways and byways of Thailand have undoubtedly been slowed up or stopped at some type of traffic detour/speed trap/shakedown. Some are like the weigh stations you'd see in the U.S., some are legitimate stops for violations, some are to check for safety issues or vehicle infractions and some are mere damned harassment; a way to extract arbitrary fines from drivers based on what they think they can get out of you.

Out in the wide open spaces they're often little more than an unofficial inconvenience, where uniformed officers of one variety or another will pull a driver over for nothing more than a quick "fine" that goes directly into the officer's pocket before they wave you back into traffic and on your way.

Some folks I know there keep a few 100 baht notes folded up and within reach while driving for just such stops, and most think nothing of it. There are more organized stops - actually I'd be more inclined to call them "shake downs", myself - where a group of officers will work together in a semi-official capacity and hand out citations such as the one to the above left Suphot was awarded somewhere in the early afternoon.

I don't recall what he was supposed to have done as we came along in the line of cars waved over en mass, but it really doesn't matter; whatever it is they say the infraction was, it can be easily cleared up on the spot with a payment. Once we did that we were again on our way.

The folks above may have had a little more trouble getting themselves sent on their way. All that photo needs is Granny Clampett riding up on top in her rocking chair, if you ask me. From where I was sitting I could count 18 people loaded into the back of that truck, and it was riding LOW. There was a slightly heated debate between that driver and the officer, and the folks in the back seemed a little concerned as he was taken over to the other officers.

On and on we drove (or rather Suphot drove, I slept a lot) for another handful of hours, stopping only for fuel, a quick walk around a couple of times and dinner at one of the Farm Chokchai restaurant chain locations that I'll write about another time for the Restaurants section.

The sun set before we reached the Big Mango, and it was mid-evening when Pot helped me unload my bags from the truck at my hotel. I settled my tab with him and gave him a big hug, happy to have had the time with him and grateful for his dependability and support along the way. He drove off, and I followed the hotel helper into the lobby to check in. I have rarely been as happy to take a shower and crawl into bed as I was that particular evening.

I'm one who doesn't often remember my dreams, but that night I remember dreaming rich and colorful dreams of Isaan.


So, there you have it: Seven days on the road through Isaan, 25 posts, 185+ photos here and a lot of fond memories for me. If you've made it this far thank you for sticking with it. It's a journey I'd gladly make again myself, and I hope you have the opportunity to get away from the standard stops in Thailand some day to experience some of it, too. It's an amazing place.

Friday, May 13, 2011

More "Ladies" Of Calypso Cabaret

Although I can appreciate the illusion of a well done drag show - called cabaret in Thailand - I'm not the big fan of it many evidently are; the first "Ladies" of Calypso Cabaret post was popular with a lot of visitors here, and one I still receive requests on, asking if there are any more cabaret images.

The short answer is yes, and here are a half dozen or so more photos from the Calypso show. More information about seating, times, location and other details are available in Part 1.

Part of an extended show piece

This is about as risque as the shows at Calypso get

This same young man does a credible impression of Tina Turner, as I recall

Knowing their audience, there's a performance aimed specifically at the Korean, Japanese and Chinese tourists who attend the shows