Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cambodia, Pt 1: A Newbie's Introduction

On the grounds of the Royal Palace in the capitol of Phnom Penh

Cambodia is a nation with a rich and colorful history. Some of it is distinctly dark and unpleasant, but then so is some of my homeland; none of us are judge and jury, to my way of thinking. If you leave the torture camps and the killing fields out of it much of what physically remains can be breathtakingly beautiful. We'll visit the less-savory places, but they're a reminder to never forget... and not the face of Cambodia today.

At a memorial site in Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh: the best-known of the areas called the "killing fields"

The people at all levels of culture are gracious, the food is nothing short of magnificent, the shopping can be varied and quite rewarding, and in almost every instance your travel dollar goes a long, long way.

There's plenty of information already online about the kingdom so there's no need for me to fill space with the same facts re-worded, so I'd suggest a site like Wikipedia for more than enough facts and figures for the casual visitor and observer. Here's the Wikipedia link - just don't forget to come back!

You can see the yellow mass of metropolitan Bangkok on this map, as well as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia

As a very basic overview, the kingdom of Cambodia is a country of nearly 15 million people, covering almost 70,000 square miles (181,000 square kilometers), bordered to the West and Northwest by Thailand, a bit of the North by Laos and along it's Eastern and Southeastern side by Vietnam. You can see their only "free" area is on the Gulf of Thailand, to the Southwest.

Easily reached from Bangkok it's a worthwhile side trip, and a good example in and of itself of a land "same same," but distinctly different. We'll be looking at places in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, including museums, memorial sites, night markets, restaurants, accomodations and more ruins than you can shake a stick at, including Angkor Wat and others in that area.

Independence Monument in Phnom Penh by available night

It's not my plan to dive directly into nothing but Cambodia posts - readers have already spoken up with a preference for Thai posts - but be prepared for quite a few in the near future.

"Kingdom of Cambodia" in 2 Cambodian letterings, both of the Abugida family script, as is Thai

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"Shut Up And Kiss Me"? How Rude!

We were cruising along through the countryside on our way to Hau Hin some time back; somewhat overly full after lunch at a roadside eatery, me feeling a bit drowsy and thankful my friend was driving. One of the homemade CDs I'd brought him from home was in the car player, and he was, as usual, singing to most anything he felt he could join in on.

Most of it was new to him, but that didn't stop him. He'd had some time in the USA during his school days - he's very well educated - and while I like to widen his musical horizons a bit I often bring music and songs from those years. He'd lost almost all of the music he'd brought back with him (long story) so the look of surprise on his face when he recognizes something and really joins in with it makes all of the effort worthwhile. He can't sing, but who cares? It's still fun.

I've long been a fan of Mary Chapin Carpenter, and soon enough the song from the above clip came booming from his nice auto stereo system. I'd pulled the audio off of the DVD, so we were hearing the actual recording you hear when you play the clip up top, but that afternoon you'd have heard me singing along. Consider the fact you can't hear me singing it to be a late Christmas gift to you from me. Tapping my foot, I was watching the long rows of flowering plants along the highway when the song got to "It's been too long since somebody whispered 'shhh... shut up and kiss me'".

"Wait... what?" my friend said, glancing over my way. "That's very rude!" At first I thought he was just making a good-natured joke about the phrase, but then I realized he didn't understand what the meaning was behind the usage and thought it was actually the command "shut up!", which is not the case.

He said, emphatically "A polite Thai would never say such a thing!" I tried ten ways to breakfast to explain it to him, citing movies, television shows and all sorts of other playful examples, but there was no swaying him. He kept saying "A Thai wouldn't say that," and it was one of those rare occasions where we just had to agree to disagree.

"I guess you'll just have to skip over that track when you play this disc," I offered "or just toss the disc in the trash, if you want. I won't mind - the media didn't cost hardly anything."  He thought about this for a moment and then replied "I will think about it."

As we were parking in Hua Hin and carrying our bags up the stairs at the hotel I heard it: his voice, somewhat off key, quietly singing "shut up and kiss me".  I smiled and have never mentioned it since.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Trip Report, Part 31: The Report Concluded (Finally)

Carved detail at the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya

When I realize how drawn out this trip report has been I almost feel an apology is due. Part 1 appeared back on May 7th of last year (Bangkok Bound), and finally ends today, just a bit shy of nine months since that first installment.

As mentioned back then I tend to glean something out of most other's trip reports, so hopefully mine will serve a purpose and you'll find some helpful tips/ideas/suggestions that you can refer to, too, even if not all of it applies to you, your travel plans or your own tastes.

The trip report covered my Thailand trip nearly a year ago, and we'd just gotten through a weekend trip into new territory for me, but I figure I'm going to call it there. I'm not entirely done with things from that trip, but the series has gone on long enough, it's getting dark and the floodlights annoy the neighbors so I'm calling it with this wrap-up; a summary, if you will.

The last portions had to do with a long weekend away I'd taken under the wing of an always gracious Thai friend who delights in sharing the "off the beaten path" places with me, and for that I'm always grateful. He has another junket planned for me for my next trip there this year, and I've given up on trying to guess where we'll go and what we'll see.  Since this is Thailand it's comforting to know that the unexpected can - and often does - pop up along the way and sometimes he's surprised, too.

Along the way in the series we covered a lot of ground, figuratively and literally. To save anyone scrolling back that far I hope you'll allow me to refer to some points along the way. The stories you'll reach by many of the links below often contain updates or further information, as well. You are, of course, free to click on the "Trip Reports" link in the right hand column and just plow through them, although since I was still in the kingdom another couple of weeks there may be other posts with that label after today. You've been warned.

Here are some of the things we covered during the 30+ part report:

A friend said one time noted how I seem to return home more tired out than when I left on vacation, and they might be right.  This next time I'm hoping for more "down" time: more reading, more naps, more time in the shade beneath an umbrella.  We shall see.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Working It: A Bar Boy's Collection Of "Walking ATMs"

Silom Soi 4: one of Yod's old fishing holes.

Yod leaned back in his chair, locked his strong arms behind his head and forcefully exhaled a column of cigarette smoke into the early evening air.  A bird sitting amid one of those fine examples of wildly creative Thai wiring above him chirped - perhaps in protest - and took off, dropping a generous dollop of bird shit onto the ground next to the stylish athletic shoe on the left foot he had sticking out in front of him.

"You see?" he smiled "I'm lucky!" I couldn't disagree with him. Yod was lucky; a survivor of a club life, and, as he figured it, possibly set for life.  At least as far into the future as many young people tend to look nowadays.  He knew he wasn't anything close to a spring chicken on the club market; he was, in fact, pushing the boundaries of twinkiedom. He was stunningly handsome now in his early 30s, and one can only imagine what a gorgeous figure he cut at college age.

It didn't bother him in the least that he was nearly finished with the active nightly work of being offed and having to make it seem as though he was attracted to - or interested in the slightest - in the person who had rented his attentions. In fact, it was a great relief. Granted, sometimes there were women who came into the club and offed him for his services ("big!" he said, pointing to his crotch), but he'd very rarely been interested in the men he'd been with. He could "do it", but he knew what he preferred.

Not Yod's complex, but a
good example of the type:
simple,but comfy
Some were younger and somewhat attractive, but most were nearly twice his age; faking enthusiasm or performing acts he didn't care for in the interest of a tip was often a challenge.  If he hadn't needed to be too intoxicated to agree to the tryst he could almost always "rise to the occasion," but sometimes he was merely an object to penetrate, and some customers were rough.

"Act like man, but they not," he said. "Just feel like man if they treat me same dog."  More than a couple of times he'd called the event to a halt, dressed and left, even though it meant no tip. A few times he'd had to struggle to leave, and once he'd had to fight his way out. What he said about those customers doesn't need to be repeated here.

Yod knew he was being used, and he treated his job as just that: a job. As some guys do, he also ran his own "business". Early on he'd been advised to encourage repeat business - a sound practice in any business, come to think of it - and he put great effort into what a friend had done, which was build a clientele who would send him money after they'd gone home.  Regularly.  It was then he promptly left the bars he freelanced in and started to take things easier.

It's a common story those who rent admirers hear early on, if they're listening, be they customers of of either sex.  Anyone who's known someone who has dallied overseas while in military service has probably heard the story in one form or another; the ship leaves Subic Bay in the Philippines and two weeks later the letter arrives: "I'm pregnant and it's yours".

As I said, Yod didn't work the short-term market all that long, preferring to tap the Walking ATM market instead. His rent and basics were paid, but his business was of the longer-term, better income type. As an example I'll cite a common story: "I'll leave my club life and wait for only you if you can help me with Bt ____ a month until you come back to be with me."

Yes, it's dishonest - probably fair to say morally reprehensible - so save your comments. It doesn't excuse his lies, but there are countless examples of farang saying "I want to bring you to my home country to be with me" (or variations on the theme) and then disappearing after the evening, too, and that's pretty crappy behavior, too. You hear that sort of story nightly if you eavesdrop for any length of time in lots of gay and straight bars where a farang is making their moves on a Thai.

Yod had built his business well. He currently had seven guys who regularly sent him money, thinking Yod was their Special Boy and waiting for them to return to visit him, and none knew about the other.  Two from the United Kingdom, two from Germany, one from France, and two from the USA. There were three others who were irregular contributors - Bt3,000 for his actual birthday and the likes - but these were added bonuses, as they rarely visited.

His regular monthly income was in the neighborhood of - get this - 45,000 baht per month, and he had no actual job. That's $1,500USD, or 1,100 Euro.  It might not sound like a lot where you're reading this, but in Thailand it's pretty darned good money. In addition to this regular income, two had believed they were the ones who had built the handsome home he showed pictures of where his mother, father and two brothers lived. They hired help now for the rice and cassava planting and harvesting, and his brothers attended good schools.

He said the easiest ones were the ones who came to visit on a set schedule, because the others could be scheduled around them. Only once over seven years had he needed to beg off or re-arrange a visitor's time in Thailand.  Some of the men he really did feel an affection for, and once he'd felt so sorry for a Dutch man who had fallen hard for him that Yod made up a story to end the relationship to avoid hurting the man too deeply. If he had wanted to settle down with a man, the Dutchman would have been the one. "He very very kind to me and act like Thai way," he said, but that wasn't what Yod wanted.

Yod spent a lot of time at his real home in the agricultural area outside of Bangkok proper, but also had regular stretches in Bangkok and other tourist areas where he managed his bank accounts and kept in contact with his guys from a variety of internet shops. Although he was out of the club scene, he figured he could always make room for one more farang; besides, he enjoyed time with his friends there. His one regular remaining vice was smoking tobacco.

Unlike many Thai club/bar/sex workers he spoke of, he'd dodged the drink/drug/gambling webs and had salted away a small fortune. His family was well taken care of, and he was considering settling down with a woman and making his own family.

After three hours of chatting we called it an evening. Yod wouldn't let me pick up the tab for himself, my translator friend and I. I look forward to following his story.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Close Shave At A Thai Barber Shop

A young Thai man gets his sideburns trimmed in the shop I visited

There's a saying I've used over the years about will power (or the lack of it) that goes "if you go to the barber shop often enough, eventually you're going to get your hair cut." Although I'd walked past a lot of barber shops on my first visit to Thailand years ago I was hesitant to go in with my limited Thai skills. Nevertheless, I'd passed them plenty of times, and eventually I went in.

This local shop is still there, but the barber I saw for a few years isn't - he opened his own shop on the other side of the Chao Phraya river.

I don't mean a fancy shop in a tourist area with the signage and price list in English, I mean a neighborhood shop, where the only familiar words would be brand names and where the prices next to the Thai script mean nothing. Still, I was curious, and when I saw the familiar cylindrical glass jar of blue "sterilizing" liquid in it - the same I'd grown up with while visiting the barber - I figured "why not?" and sat down in a row of chairs to wait my turn. It felt much like a neighborhood shop from my childhood: conversation between anyone inside (who spoke Thai), photos of discreetly seductive ladies on the wall and a TV with a sporting event on.

My regular barber knew two
words of English: my name,
and "okay"
Of course, short of using an autoclave or some other such device there is really no true sterilizing barbering tools, but I saw myself that they opened and clicked a new set of razor blades into the handle for the guy inside getting a shave and weren't re-using the same straight razor over and over.

When I arrived, one of the barbers was bent over a man in the window-side chair who had his head turned left ear up, and the barber (!) was doing something deep inside it.  Puzzled, I watched for a couple of minutes. Soon enough the barber stood upright, smiled and triumphantly held up a pair of fine tweezers. Between the tips of them was a flat, rounded piece of dark golden brown something that I soon realized was ear wax.

My friend later that day told me it was a common thing for some barbers to do such a procedure, and it was as safe as they were skilled; no more and no less.  I haven't tried that one yet. The man who'd had it removed shook his head a couple of times and gave the impression that his hearing was better, and seeing what came out of it I'm sure it was.

As it turned out, when the man who'd just had the haircut, shave and ear job done paid and left I was next up to sit in that same chair. I could see a price list in Thai and some numbers, and some quick figuring let me know they were a pittance compared to prices back home. A cheap haircut in my neck of the woods is $12USD (about 360bt), but that's unusual... usually it's closer to $20. A haircut and a shave here was about $3USD.

I'd just started a walk from the Asia Hotel, which meant I had only showered a half hour before, so I didn't add the shampoo to the package, but I have since.  Not too many commercial places you can be fully pampered for less than $5USD.

Using all of the pantomiming skills I could muster I let the guy know how I wanted my hair cut and that I wanted a shave. He, in turn, mimed digging in my ear, but I smiled and politely let him know I wasn't interested in that today.  He shrugged his shoulders, draped a towel across my chest and fastened it behind my neck with a clip. He went about his work while humming quietly to himself, pausing a few times to look at the television in the "reception" area behind him when the other barber would hoot about the football game in progress.

The haircut was quick and just what I'd wanted. He handed me a mirror and turned the chair so I could see his handiwork.  I smiled and nodded as he leaned my chair back and tucked the towel up around my neck.  I confess I did look up to make sure he was putting a fresh blade into the shaver, but I don't think he noticed my distrust. I'll risk a few things while on holiday, but hepatitus C and HIV aren't among them.  I was needlessly worried, but I'm glad I looked.

The tiny brush you can see being used below on another man was filled with foam which he then spread on my cheeks and neck, as I'd expected. His touch was light, and he worked faster than some barbers do. What surprised me was that he also shaved the light fuzz from both my ear lobes and my forehead.  I've had lobes done before, but never my forehead.  When he was finished my entire face was as smooth as... well, as a baby's butt.

I'm sorry that I couldn't visit with the man, but just closing my eyes and relaxing for a while was really nice, too.  It wasn't as good as a nap, but it was nice. Did I mention he also did a five-minute neck and shoulder massage when he was finished? I should have.

Getting up I thanked him, swiped my face with my hand and smiled "smooth!" and he laughed behind his mask.  The girl behind the counter said "100 baht", and at that price I thanked her, too. I asked the barber for a picture, and he agreed. Now being spoiled I've visited the shop five or six more times each time I've been in the area, even if only to avoid shaving myself. I tipped him Bt20, but I didn't ever notice a Thai customer tipping them.

The shop is a couple of blocks behind the Asia Hotel at Ratchathewi, but the barber himself has opened his own place on the other side of the river. When I first noticed he was gone I ended up having a friend ask about him for me. The receptionist called him on his cell phone and he told my friend where he was. One of these days I'm going to find my way to his shop.

I've had good haircuts and decent shaves at other local spots in Thailand since then, but I've never found another "hole in the wall" place quite like it.  Still, I keep looking.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Trust Me: Adventurous Or Not, You Won't Starve.

Street meats in a market stall

Without throwing all caution to the wind it's easy enough to be somewhat adventurous about food while traveling in Thailand. You'd be foolish not to take into consideration that the Thai have systems that handle some things better than we do; perfectly natural, since they've grown up with them - bacteria and the likes - and developed a tolerance a lot of us don't have when stepping off the plane there. 

That said, there's absolutely NO reason why you have restrict your meals to the hotel buffet, familiar items at a grocery or 7-11 store or - ick - at McDonald's or another packaged food chain restaurant.  You just have to be willing to learn and adjust. Some pre-trip research is always a good idea. Might save you diving into something that might surprise you.

Take the innocent looking chili sauce, for a start. Some visitors can't tolerate the highly spiced food the locals usually can, so one of the first things they learn to say in a restaurant is "no pet," meaning "not hot".

Chili dipping sauce/condiment. Mind the seeds!

You'll likely get a small dish (a couple of tablespoons or so) of chili condiment with just about everything you order. There are lots of variations, but most have the four main Thai flavors in them: hot (chili), salty (salt and/or fish sauce), sour (pickled chili, lime vinegar) and sometimes sweet (sugar of one form or another). However you cut it a nice big spoonful will clear the sinuses   and tear ducts of most folks in short order. 

You shouldn't ignore the local foods wherever you go. That's what Pepto-Bismal, Immodium and electrolyte powders are made for. You live and learn, I figure, but use some common sense - such as asking a trusted expat or Thai friend when in doubt if you don't want to be very adventurous.

Most anything that's been cooked thoroughly and is kept hot enough isn't likely to bother you, and if it's something like raw produce you can read more in the post If You Can Peel It, You Can Eat It

Whether you feel more safe or prefer your Pad Thai in a restaurant, go for this:

Lunch at Chili Culture in Bangkok

If you're open to trying new things, you can go for the same dish as take away from any number of carts and stands...

At an open market

The point is: let common sense give you some direction, but don't let fear choose your path. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Same Same, But Different! Pt. 14: Inaugurations, Coronations

News photo from the
1950 coronation
Millions in the United States are watching the inauguration coverage for Barack Obama in Washington D.C. as today's post goes out into cyberspace. Hundreds of thousands of people have gathered to witness the ceremony, even if it's mainly for show; the official swearing in was done yesterday on 20 January, per law.

While it's a historic day worthy of celebrating - in my opinion, anyway - it may pale by comparison overall (emotionally, anyway) to the coronation of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej who has reigned since 9 June 1946, although he wasn't ceremonially crowned King of Thailand until 5 May 1950.

Even now, as you can see in the clip up top, any time His Majesty makes an appearance (unfortunately something of a rare occurrence the past handful of years) there's an enormous crowd. Estimates to the crowds in the clip were in the quarter of a million range.

The inauguration as seen on the web, which was one hell of a lot warmer than standing outside with the masses... although I'd probably have done so, given the chance.

While there were hundreds of thousands at the ceremony today for President Obama (above), the level of deep reverence won't be there to the same degree. Not that the people there aren't there to support and congratulate Obama, but... well, it's same same, but different!

News photo of His Majesty on his birthday this past December

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sleeping, Part 12: Some Random Napping

Aboard a river raft in dry dock near Chiang Mai

I've mentioned what a guilty pleasure naps are for me often enough that even I'm bored with it, but they're a gift the Thai - and those with enough sense in tropical areas - don't ever seem to take for granted. Thai people can (and will) catch 40 winks in some of the most unlikely places.

In the shade along Laem Singh beach, but that's one of the best spots.

It's not like I walk about with radar on looking for them, either, so it's unlikely I've merely run across a disproportionate number of snoozers. Take note yourself if you're in a location with a climate that encourages the behavior and my guess is you'll see your share, too.

I can't imagine how this could be comfortable, but so it goes

Children are easy to catch napping; they seem to be able to sleep at a moment's notice. When their bodies tell them it's time to rest, they simply disconnect and sleep in the first safe spot possible.

Napping on Mama's shoulder at Jatujak Market

For those of you wondering what I'm doing here on a weekend, it's a make-up for missing Thursday and Friday and a chance to say enjoy your weekend. For some of you in the USA it's a three day break, as we observe the late Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday on Monday.

Well, some of us do. I do. Each year I stop to listen to his "I have a dream" speech (at the very least) and perhaps you'd care to do the same - the clip is below. He was far from a perfect man, but he dedicated much of his life to striving for equality - an equality that has helped others who labor under the burden discrimination - and paid the ultimate price for it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Trip Report, Part 30: Tamnanpar Classic Forest Restaurant, Rayong

One of the waterways on the grounds of Tamnanpar

[This is part 30 of a series that looks like it might find its way to a proper conclusion, after all. It has to do with my latest trip to Thailand, and the people, places and things I encountered along the way. You can find the rest of the series by clicking here on Trip Reports.] 

All good things eventually come to an end, and my long weekend away in the care of a Thai friend was about over. In his enthusiasm to share places with me we had, as usual, overbooked our days, but it's not like I had big plans after returning; I've learned to book the time for these things with some slack built into the day or so after I return.

Main entrance (off of the car park) for Tamnanpar's restaurant

After an early check-out from the Seashell Village beach-side resort and the day trip out to visit the national park and waterfalls at Nam Tok Phliu we headed North to my friend's home (the older one, not the newer one still under renovation from Part 17) for the night.  By the way, if you're interested in the park you'll find more pictures of it in a post from the "Thai Smiles" series here.

Heading back after the waterfall stop it was getting to be later in the afternoon and I asked my friend what he'd like to do for dinner. "Since you liked Cabbages and Condoms and Sugar Hut I want you to see another one like those two. It's 'same same, but different!'" he laughed.  Both of the places above are in the general Pattaya area; owned by two brothers. Cabbages and Condoms I've yet to write about, but will soon. They also have a similarly nice location in Bangkok.

Where we were heading was a place called Tamnanpar (aka Classic Forest) Restaurant, about 15km from the center of Rayong. Built in a "natural" style, this place really appeared to be more garden than building, although the buildings are quite large. It can accommodate very large groups.

The grounds and gardens surrounding the restaurant area were expansive and meticulously groomed, as you'd expect in many Thailand garden areas. The buildings of the resort were made to look more like jungle tree houses, and the trees themselves were incorporated into the buildings that had more of a traditional structure... even the hong nams.

Two of a couple of dozen black swans in the water inside the resort area

Depending on which route you take - we stayed on Hiway 3/Sukhumvit both directions on our journey rather than cutting across Highway 332 - Tamnanpar is around 90km/56mi South of Pattaya; about 90 minutes by car. It seemed to cater more toward a Thai clientele.

An available light panorama of a dining room not being used that evening. My apologies for the 3 blurry hand-held images.

Prices at the restaurant were quite reasonable and they have a wide variety of what I was told was a more Chinese-Thai style of dishes, but there were some Western items, too. I suppose if they do group meetings and convention-style gatherings they'd almost have to, but the dishes we had were of a much better quality than your standard convention food.  There was a couple there providing easy listening style music; he sang and played a keyboard, she just sang.

Trees incorporated into the design of this men's room. You even had a view of an enclosed garden area from the urinals.

We didn't visit the spa part of the resort, but there is one. Rooms there run between $70 to $100 per night (per Agoda for April 2013), and are really quite nice inside; almost everything is finished wood. The gift shop is quite large, as well, but no great shakes except for the most new of newbies.

This terraced water feature doesn't show well in my available light picture, but it was all along one side of our dining room. Very relaxing.

They have a facebook page, if you want to check it out, and if you're in the area - or don't mind the drive - it's a really nice place to relax for an evening. Well recommended.

Map from the Tamnanpar website:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Same Same, But Different! Pt. 13: Plugged Into The Grid

Cell phone in each hand, this woman was lost between them as she waited for a bus on a commute route in Nonthaburi

At the risk of sounding like the late 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney, have you ever wondered why so many people have figuratively and literally bought into that sheep-like mentality which allows cell phones, iPads, Notebooks and all they entail - voicemail, texting, tweeting, facebook posts and the likes - to herd them around like the e-sheepdogs they have grown to be? "Grown to be" is too kind, really; mutated or metastasized is probably more accurate.

It's not merely notifications of things in real life, if you stop to think about it. It's the breathless reporting of information relatively few of us really need to know. My life is rich enough without hearing that Jodie Foster allegedly "came out" on the Golden Globes awards from 30 different sources. I couldn't even tell you how many Kardashians there are, let along how many of them are regularly appearing in the tabloids, and for that I'm grateful. I'm told there are hundreds of sites out there about them, in addition to the regular entertainment sites that seem to think over-indulged drunken housewives slugging it out are newsworthy. Really?  Deliver us all.

OK, I admit I'm a little grumpy this morning, but if it isn't too much information I'll share that it doesn't seem as though I can stop to pee today without some device in my home chirping, beeping, chiming and/or blinking an alert of some kind, and it's made me long for the "simpler" times of 30 years ago, when someone was able to contact you on your land line at home, if you chose to answer it, and otherwise could leave a message on your answering machine that you'd hear when you got home - or while you stood there looking at it and deciding if you wanted to pick up and talk to the person calling.

Nowadays far too many folks are tethered to their cell phones. Those of you who are in the company of anyone under the age of, say, 30 knows they're plugged into the grid almost every moment of their time awake. I'd be willing to bet some sleep with their hands together, fingers curled, with their thumbs furiously twitching as if they're texting in their dreams.

It's the same anywhere around the globe where technology has taken hold, most likely. I know it has in Thailand, where cell phones are as ubiquitous as rice cookers. Let's see a show of hands of those who have had a Thai person moving through pedestrian traffic with you and they'll stop ahead of you and begin using their cell phone.  Yup, I thought so. Most all of you.  To my way of thinking it's the ones that do it at the end of a moving escalator, causing folks to bunch up behind them that are the worst.

I saw the woman up top today from an elevated walkway, and at first glance I thought perhaps she'd upgraded from an older cell phone to a newer one and was transferring info, but after zooming in I could see she was actually texting on both of them, and afterwards was texting on one and talking on the other. Eeks.  I hope she didn't miss her bus when it lumbered by in a cloud of exhaust.

I've seen people in Thailand talking on their cell phones while driving city buses, feeding meat to tigers in the zoo, spot welding high on a pole ledge, running a BigC check-out register, driving countless autos and motocy, even shoveling up elephant dung dropped along a trail at a tourist spot. We won't even mention the male and female club workers who keep their cell phones tucked into spots that would discourage you from asking to borrow them to make a call.

Leave the shoveling elephant dung out of it and it could easily be same same, but only slightly different here in the U.S.

As for me, I'm unplugging for the day. The sun was shining the last time I looked up, and I think I'll go for a walk.  Without my phone.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The "Sick Water Buffalo" Story

Water buffalo in Northwest Thailand

"My family needs a water buffalo," lamented Tum, a reasonably new friend I'd met a few years ago. "The old one was sick for months and died four weeks ago. My parents didn't have the money for a veterinarian and neither did I, and they'll need him for the rice fields soon. Now my family is really in trouble." He looked down at the plate of food  in front of him and was quiet.

[Note: Although Tum speaks in the somewhat halting, broken English some Thai do - as many of us casually learning a second language might well do ourselves - I've taken the liberty of changing his words in the interest of readability and respect.]

If you've read many of the Thai forums, done much research on tourist experiences, rented many "admirers" or had conversations with Thai from several levels of society you've most likely heard a similar story. If one's to be cynical about it it goes on the same list a few others already occupy: "my mother (or another family member) needs an operation", "my brother (or another family member) was in an accident" and "I'm short money for my room rent" topping the list of regulars. 

I was mightily surprised to hear the "Brother in a Motocy Accident" story once and then learn that, sadly, it was true. That story from April 2011 is here, if you'd care to read it.

Of course, there's also the basic "I need money for food" story, and that's usually the easiest to remedy: walk with the person to the nearest food vendor's cart and buy them a meal. At least they will have eaten for the day, even if they continue to panhandle as soon as they're finished and use that money for - ahem - less desirable purchases. 

Getting back to Tum, though. The water buffalo story looms large in the legend of Thai-Farang relationships at some levels; the top one or two, I'd say.  Others may have had different experiences, but it's one of the two I've heard most often while doing research on another project. I almost always manage to show some sympathy and get off the subject as gracefully as possible, but since I had someone to help translate for me I allowed the conversation with Tum to drift into what I was fairly sure was going to be a request for funds... and I was correct. 

Tum, the oldest of four kids, was a club worker with four years behind him, and he hadn't been doing well the past few months. He'd changed places a few times, gone out of his way to stay on the good side of the mamasan when necessary and been a willing companion to those who showed interest in him, but his luck with the number of offs and the tips from them just hadn't been on his side. Now he - and his family off in Isaan - were in a pinch. 

Like a number of other club workers he'd built up a support network of customers over his four years on the market, but he was tiring of the grind and longed to be back home where he wanted to start a family and settle down. He said he didn't lie to the farang he'd been in contact with - he didn't play the "you're the only one and I'm waiting for you" game - so those who had helped him in the past were already tapped out. 

Now he was still short about $150USD. While that may not sound like a lot to some of you, I can put a student through school there for an entire year for that amount. To keep things in perspective, though, it's about what I'd spend for two or three nights in a room on holiday there, too, so everything's relative, I suppose.

Tum excused himself to use the toilet, and I - knowing full well it was a foolhardy idea - turned to my friend and quickly (before he could ask "are you crazy?") asked him to see if Tum was agreeable to a repayment plan that he (my friend) would be OK handling for me, and he reluctantly agreed. Tum said it would probably take him a year to repay the money, but that he would agree to do so. My friend shrugged his shoulders and gave me that "up to you" look, and I looked Tum in the eye, shook his hand and said "OK".

I had to go to an ATM to withdraw the cash, and although some of you are most likely sitting there saying "you moron... that's just what he did with you, the walking ATM" that's not how things turned out.  I was flying on a hunch and not more than a bit of faith that he'd ever be heard from again, but he was. I'm in regular email contact with my friend, and every so often I'd get a "P.S. - Tum stopped by my work and brought me money again this week", and when I next saw my friend he had the entire amount for me.  I didn't ask if he knew how Tum had gotten it - from tips or other Walking ATMs or whatever - but there it was, in the envelope my friend had kept it in.

I had a photo of Tum, and we went back to the club I'd found him in, where several of the guys there said "he finit, go home". My friend talked with a couple of them and found out that he had indeed left the club circuit, gone back into the Great Northeast, and had plans to soon marry the young woman he'd dreamed of returning to.

Now that's a real happy ending.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Thai Smiles, Part 54: More Thai Folks At Work

River raft guide near Chiang Mai

Ahh, Friday! The weekend opens its arms with the promise of the guilty embrace of sloth, and although I can't speak for any of you I'm ready for a couple of days of as close to nothing as I can manage. It's been a busy week for me and I haven't felt in top form, so it's been a bit of a challenge. Nothing enough to complain about, mind you; I'm just making mention in acknowledgement for the posts that have been somewhat, shall we say, thin?

While I'm not really what you could call "retired" - I do have daily obligations away from this blog - I get to pick my own hours, am able to work from home and honestly love what I do. That alone ought to be enough, I'd say. It makes me smile, and while doing just that a few minutes ago it seemed apropos to look in the folder of prepared "Smile" images and see what was ready to be shared.  I found a few, and here they are today.

The guy up top had ferried a friend and I down a river near Chiang Mai, and I think he, too, was heading off on a break as I called to him from our drop-off point on the opposite shore to take this picture. Very pleasant fellow, via my interpreting friend.

Monks arriving to bless a new building and business

While walking in the late morning early one trip I turned down one of the nightclub soi to see how construction had gone since my  last visit and saw that the club was now nearly finished. As I peeked inside the line of monks above came along and went inside for the traditional blessing of the new business. Yeah, only the one up front was smiling, but I liked the image.

The young men below had just made a sale to me - something I've found to usually encourage those who wouldn't normally pause to pose do just that. I'd noticed a guy sitting on the sidewalk ahead that looked like he hadn't eaten for a while, so I bought some sticks from these two and then passed them along to the street guy. Win-win and win, the way I see it.

This last image has been sitting and waiting in the folder for some time. There's a story behind it, and I may get to telling it some day. Today isn't that day, but the short version is I'd managed to get the guy to smile for me (despite his grumpy father) by doing a rough impression of a caged monkey - throwing all dignity to the wind.

You're all welcome to join me this weekend and do the barest minimum of activity.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Housekeeping. Somebody's Got To Do It...

Boys sweeping the walkways at Doi Suthep, high above Chiang Mai

Household and other care help is far more affordable where your home currency carries a bit more weight; something not lost on those nearing retirement age in the USA, for sure. Here it's terribly dear, as one of my British friends would say.

Many of you probably know someone who's had to make the choice between going into a less than desirable assisted living home here in the West or moving to a country where help was more within their set financial means - assuming such a move was possible, of course. Mexico has become a "ride it out" destination for some, the Philippines for others, Thailand for still others.

Thankfully I'm not having to face that decision just yet. Hell, I'd be happy to just have a housekeeper come in to do the basics like dusting, vacuuming and the laundry every so often. As it is, all such details fall to me. I've tried adopting Quentin Crisp's view on dusting - "After three years it doesn't get any worse," - but being somewhat of a softie I catch myself naming the dust bunnies under things and then I feel bad about sweeping them up. That was a joke just then, by the way. 

Computer housekeeping isn't a difficult thing to do, assuming I pay attention to what I'm doing so I don't make major errors while moving, backing up and deleting redundant files.

A friend in Bangkok who knows better (he's a networking specialist for a huge shopping complex) was watching a football match while helping me one time and mistakenly deleted two week's worth of my images from that particular trip. I was beside myself, but managed to smile weakly and joke with him about it, saying "Bad dog! No cookie!" but in truth I wanted to throttle him. The poor guy truly felt awful about losing the 1,000+ images, but once they're gone, they're gone. [Save your breath - I know there are ways to recover many things like this, but I wasn't prepared to go through it].

...and what the deuce does all of this have to do with today's post? Simple, really: I've been shifting things to the new external drives, and time's just gotten away from me. Back tomorrow, Great Silicon Lords and technology willing.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Trip Report, Part 29: Oyster Farming In Chantaburi

A panoramic shot of a grouping of fishing homes near the waters of the Gulf of Thailand, taken from a bridge 

Raise your hand if you remember the last installment of my trip report about my visit to Thailand.  Hmmm... I didn't think so. The last installment was at the end of October last year, so it's been a couple of months.  I'd feel guilty about that but I did mention it may or may not ever find a proper conclusion, and it's a collection of stories and observations so it's not as if it's going to spoil, I suppose. Nevertheless, here's part 29 - the oyster farmers of the Chantaburi area.

The oysters grow mainly on the poles standing out of the water, but they're not fussy...

The Chantaburi area is home to nearly 1,000 oyster breeding farms; about half the number of the largest area, in Chonburi. Those figures are old, so those figures are undoubtedly larger now. There are over 6,000 in Thailand, mainly on the gulf areas, but also on the Andaman Sea side.

More detail of the growing area

You'll see groupings of them growing on square cement posts in more professional farms, but you'll also see many areas with them growing on bamboo posts (or anything else that stays still enough) where the river waters intermingle with that in the gulf of Thailand. They can produce around a ton per rai (.4 of an acre) per year, if it's done right; the average farm in this area being about 2 rai - just over 3/4 of an acre.

The oysters you're likely to see there are of the crassostrea (true oyster) genus, a part of the rhizophorae family, if I've been advised correctly. These are "eating" oysters, and not "pearl" oysters. The two most abundant types grown here are the crassostrea belcherie and the crassostrea commercialis.

Other nets rest above the farming areas

While I'd seen them growing naturally in areas of the slightly brackish waters of mangrove groupings they're abundantly harvested by fishing families in the open waters near Chantaburi. Any time you're heading over a bridge or happen to be near any water flowing to the gulf you'll see boat tie-ups and/or shacks and homes where the poles and nets are set into the bottom and the shellfish grow.

My guess is it's not easy work - not much of the fishing industry is - but it's honest work, and that's what counts, I suppose.  These pictures were taken in a couple of different spots as we rode around one afternoon.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Cheap Flights To Asia: Air Tickets For "Westies"

While I've flown out of Seattle and Los Angeles, SFO is my normal departure and arrival point.

Closer to the beginning of this blog in March of 2010 someone sent me a listing of travel agencies they'd done their own research on, saying it might be of interest to me or the readers here who live on the West coast of the USA.

I ran across it this weekend while clearing space on a hard drive and, while I haven't spoken to 98% of these places in a while I'm offering it up here today as a reference for the adventurous who are looking to make a trip somewhere in Asia any time soon.

Brokers and agencies can have different resources and contacts, and sometimes have access to blocks of tickets via their agency's agreements with an airline or other means.

My apologies in advance if you find yourself getting some disconnected numbers, but in addition to your own web searches through the more common channels (some of which are mentioned here and here) one of these just might pay off for you.

All of the agencies listed below sell tickets to Asia to the general public - or did at some point.

Air Brokers International Travel Service (San Francisco) 800-883-3273, 415-397-1383, fax 415-397-4767
Airbound (San Francisco) 415-834-9445 fax 415-834-9447
All Continents Travel (Los Angeles) 800-368-6822, 310-337-1641, fax 310-645-0412
All Star Travel (Santa Clara) 408-247-9743, fax 408-247-2762
Anglo California Travel (San Jose) 408-257-2257, fax 408-257-2664
STA Travel (Berkeley) 510-642-3000, fax 510-649-1407 (San Francisco) 415-391-8407, fax 415-391-4105
Travel Design Unlimited (Mountain View) 415-969-2000, fax 415-966-8262
BET World Travel (San Jose) 800-747-1476, 408-229-7880, fax 408-365-1101
Brendan Tours (Van Nuys) 800-491-9633, 818-785-9696 
The Budget Traveler (Sausalito) 415-331-3700, fax 415-331-1377
Canatours (Los Angeles) 213-223-1111 
Cathay Travel (Monterey Park) 818-571-6727 fax 818-571-1831 
Char-tours (San Francisco) 800-323-4444, 415-495-8881, fax 415-543-8010
Cheap Tickets (Los Angeles) 800-377-1000, 310-645-5054 (San Francisco) 800-377-1000, 415-896-5023
Destinations Unlimited (San Diego) 800-338-7987,619-299-5 161
Discover Wholesale Travel (Irvine) 800-576-7770, 714-833-1136, fax 714-833-1176
Expanding Horizons (Santa Ana) 800-421-6416, 714-564-8330
Festival of Asia (San Francisco) 800-533-9953, 415-693-0880, fax 415-693-0884
Flight Coordinators (Santa Monica) 800-544-3644, 310-581-5600, fax 310-581-5620
Global Access (San Francisco) 800-938-5355, 415-896-5333, fax 415-227-4641
Japan Express (Los Angeles) 213-680-0550 
Jetway Tours (Los Angeles) 800-421-8771, 213-382-2477
K and K Travel (Fullerton) 800-523-1374, 714-525-4494, fax 714-525-4586
Omniglobe Travel (San Francisco) 800-894-9942, 415-433-9312, fax 415-433-9315
Picasso Travel (Burlingame) 800-247-7283, 415-579-1900 (Los Angeles) 800-742-2776, 310-645-4400
Rebel Tours (Valencia) 800-227-3235, 805-294-0900, fax 805-294-0981
Skytours (San Francisco) 800-246-8687, 415-777-3511, fax 415-777-9290
STA Travel (Los Angeles - West Hollywood) 213-934-8722, fax 213-937-6008, (Los Angeles -  Westwood); 310-824-1574, fax 310-824-2928 (Santa Monica) 310-394-5126, fax 310-394-4041
Sun Destination (San Francisco) 415-398-1313 fax 415-398-1399
Sunco-Carison Travel (San Francisco) 800-989-6017, 415-291-9960, fax 415-291-9950
Supersonic Travel (Hollywood) 800-439-3030, 213-851-0333
Tokyo Travel Service (Los Angeles) 800-227-2065, 213-680-3545 
Travel Time (San Francisco) 800-235-3253, 415-677-0799, fax 415-391-1856
TS Travel (Woodland Hills) 818-346-8600, fax 818-883-4624
Way To Go (Los Angeles) 213-466-1126
World Link Travel Network (Los Angeles) 310-342-1280, fax 310-342-1288  (Santa Monica) 310-453-8884, fax 310-453-7924

Happy hunting. Let us know if you find a gem.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Ladies And Clubs Of Walking Street, Pt. 2

Visit my club! ...  No, mine! ... No, MINE!

Yesterday's post was quite a step off the ordinary path for me, but so it goes. As a rule, I very rarely find myself in a club where the admired on stage are of the female persuasion - or close to it - as it's not where I'd usually choose to spend an evening, but an open mind helps if you're willing to see something more than the one-knee shuffle so common in the gay clubs.

Hookah bars are becoming
more common in some areas
of Pattaya
Mind you, I don't have anything against straight people as long as they act gay in public, to cite the old joke. No offense to reader Paul who'd asked the "where can I go to meet some ladies on vacation" question, either, but I felt a bit out of my league as far as specifics go.

I suppose from what I've been told that the system works much the same as far as bar fines (off fees), worker drinks and tips in the club, etc. goes in a females-for-hire club as it does in a males-for-hire club, other than I'm told that sometimes the drinks can be a bit cheaper. Supply and demand at work there, most likely; straight clubs outnumber gay ones by at least 10 to 1, I'd guess off the top of my head.  Probably by more. I'd also put a substantial bet on the likelihood that the amount of "tea money" regularly paid to get those in charge to look the other way is higher... wink-wink, nudge nudge.

It's more than a dime a dance, but company is available.

There are many other places to drink, dance, socialize and meet company for a short or longer period in Pattaya, just as there are in Bangkok.  Beach Road is dotted with open-fronted lady bars, as are many of the side streets up towards Second Road and Third Road - all very lively places.

Lucifer's either listing some or bowing a welcome to his disco on Walking Street

Walking street was mentioned as the example because (A) it's a fairly wide open - and perhaps safer - area (B) it's usually full of other tourists, so you're not alone in an unfamiliar place, and (C) because there are plenty of other places to look through, shop or dine if you tire of The Hunt or need time to get up some courage before locking and loading. Those who enjoy a more concentrated selection of ladies and bars might try something along the lines of Soi 8 off of Beach Road, but watch your wallets.

So, until I'm there again and follow through on a promise to myself to gather more stories from the women than the men, this will have to suffice.

Hope you enjoy the pictures... and your weekend.