Kings and Queens of Siam

Trip Start Aug 24, 2005
Trip End Dec 23, 2005

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Saturday, October 8, 2005

Editor's note: Due to a pair of energy-draining Thai massages and the incapitated state in which we consequently found ourselves each time, we decided to combine the entries for Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand) and Bangkok into one entry.

Amazing Thailand! There is a royal family here, but the truth is that most Westerners with average or above-average incomes can be treated like kings and queens themselves. Prices are cheap and attractions abound--a whole menu of pleasures to suit any palate or proclivity. Little wonder then, that so many expatriates get lost for extended periods within Thai borders, for they are veritable kings and queens until their money runs out. If you are diligent with your spending, you too can be treated like royalty...
Thai massage (no dubious Turkish massage--the spa variety): $6-$10 for 2 hours
Dinner for 2 at an upscale Thai restaurant: $12-$20
Room at a superior guesthouse (not the Ritz, but basic, very clean with bath and AC, sometimes TV): $15-20/night
Day excursion for 2 with private driver: $20-40
...and of course, this could all be done for less.

Our first impression was a lasting one: Thai culture is reminiscent of the Hawaiian spirit of Aloha, where people are friendlier, more trusting, less confrontational, and more willing to please--sometimes to a fault. Even the hawkers are less pushy than their Chinese neighbors to the North.

Secondly, we recommend that anyone taking a trip to Thailand consider spending some time in Chiang Mai, principal city of Northern Thailand, where friendliness and affordability run even deeper. Bangkok residents accuse northern Thais of being lazy and slow, but the relaxed atmosphere is a refreshing departure from the pinball circus atmosphere of Bangkok. Cheryl wishes she had more time to spend taking cooking and massage courses (2 weeks for under $100), but in our short time there we ate several traditional northern Thai meals, saw a cultural show (clean show, come on!), visited an elephant park and even went shopping for teak furniture. We were fortunate to arrive sufficiently long enough after torrential rains that had left much of the city flooded for 3-4 days. One week before our arrival, our hotel had to call its guests and ask them to find alternate accomodations beacuse the ground floor, which borders the main city river, was inundated. It took us a day to realize that our hotel was so quiet beacuse we had checked in on the very day they had reopened, and only a trickle of guests returned during our three day stay. In general, if you can tolerate muggy, humid weather, October is a good month to visit beacuse it is a slower month than the days of the November-February dry season, so one will not feel the pinch of tourists everywhere.

The elephant park was the highlight of our excursion, but it was with guilty pleasure that we watched the elephants perform various demonstrations, for we didn't know whether to feel sad to see these animals as circus performers and amusement rides, or whether to enjoy the fact that they seemed happy to bathe and perform in a safe environment. Many elephants around the Burmese border are sadly mistreated; they are injected with amphetamines to haul and push lumber harder, and many are maimed or killed by hidden land mines. Sadly, these elephants' docile power and willingness to obey and please their masters is sometimes exploited. Later on around Bangkok (and even in one illegal case, on the streets of Bangkok itself), we saw trained elephants that looked hot and tired of mechanically performing and taking tourists on rides, sharing the same tired and overworked looks of the Bangkok go-go dancers. At least the elephants at the park north of Chiang Mai seemed well-treated and they were most enthusiastic during their pre-show bath and post-show feeding time. Reza nearly lost an arm after an elephant sucked a bunch of bananas out of his hand, but all was forgiven, and Cheryl got a hug (see pictures). We thought we would give them a break by not riding on their backs for an hour, but hundreds of other tourists lined up to take our spot.

A few notes about the teak furniture. Beacuse of its location near the Burmese, Laotian, and Chinese borders, Chiang Mai has developed a reputation as a center for illegal drug, gold, gem, and prostitute trafficking. Due to its surging popularity in western markets, teak--primarily imported from Burma--now seems to have also become a lucrative enterprise. It would appear, based on the number of privately-held teak manufacturing, wholesale and retail shops along the outskirts of Chiang Mai, that the illegal importation of teak lines the pockets of many local and high-ranking officals. In spite of persistent crackdowns, corruption is still rampant throughout Thailand, and the teak furniture business is no exception. The irony is that after going to several of the marquis teak establishments and doing some price comparison, we found the cost of a small-scale export of teak furniture to the U.S. to be no cheaper than one might find at an online U.S. company (compare table set in accompanying picture at $2650 best price with an online quote from a U.S. company using low-overhead Javanese teak at around $2500). The big payoff may only be for savy local customers who are not saddled with high shipping charges.

Another quintessential Thai experience is the tuk-tuk. This three-wheeled cousin of the moto-taxi does not offer the convenience of AC and one is sometimes subjected to suffocating exhaust, but the experience of speeding in a turbo tuk-tuk decked out with neon running lights and personalized seat cushions with elephant and more risque motifs is well worth the mandatory and incessant bargaing (50 cent to $1 range) that invariably lasts the entire ride.

We were eagerly awaiting Thai food, and we were not disappointed. The intricate mixture of spices make smaller portions more filling and much tastier. The "medium" spice option was often enough to start a torrent of scalp sweat from which we could not recover. [Editor's note: we are embarrased to admit that we find ourselves sweating profusely, uncontrollably in this muggy weather. Any small exertion like taking five steps or eating Pad Thai was enough to initiate a sauna-like sweat from which we could not recover without massive doses of A/C. This is particularly embarrasing beacuse everyone around us--EVERYONE from Thai to westerner alike, seemed as dry as the outside of a chilled cucumber while performing much more vigorous activity. In Bangkok, Cheryl signed up for a 1-day course to master some of these cooking elements. Here Cheryl descibes her experience:

Well, a half-day Thai course is not enough to make me into a master Thai chef, but it was fun. We started by touring a local market, which was packed due to the yearly vegetarian festival, and saw produce, meat, and seafood, as well as homemade curries ready to take come to cook. Since the time for the class was limited, everything was already prepared, chopped, and measured for us- all we had to do was dump it all in and just try not to burn it! But it was still alot of fun, and the best part was trying our creations- chicken satay, tom yum soup, chicken with cashews and sticky rice with mangoes for dessert!

Meanwhile, Reza embarked on a search for tailored suits. With hundreds of tailor shops in Bangkok, mostly run by Chinese and Indians, there was no shortage of places from which to choose. Reputedly, tailoring costs should be low. But after purchasing a pair of custom tailored suits at Men's Warehouse prices, Reza traded any potential savings from Bangkok tailorship for a memorable experience.

Finally, some notes on irony. We found it ironic that a modest dress code, especially for females, would be so strictly enforced at the major temples and grand palace of Bangkok, while hookers flagrantly flaunted their services in the presence of local law enforcement. We even observed several hookers chatting with street cops, supposedly while prostitution is illegal. We also found it perplexing--but not surprising based on our previous experiences--that major sites only charged foreigners for admission; Thai residents are exempt. Could you imagine going to the Smithsonian museum and seeing a notice "Foreigners pay here--U.S. residents free?"

Thailand is truly amazing indeed, and for many different reasons. We will soon report on our adventures in Cambodia and Vietnam if we survive the mosquitos and dehydration. Right now we seek AC, and maybe Reza will, in the privacy of his room, point with his toes, and use his left hand to touch Cheryl's head (Thai taboos).
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