A Huge Metropolis

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
Trip End May 10, 2005

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Monday, January 17, 2005

Bangkok (pop. 10 million), also know as the "City of Angels", has some things in common with the other city known by that name (i.e., Los Angeles): smog and traffic. Like many developing countries, their are few pollution controls. You see lots of people wearing surgical masks or scarves over their mouths and noses. Martin was holding the handrail across a bridge and when he took his hand off it was black with soot. The traffic is just as daunting.

How have I noticed how the city has changed since I was there some 20 years ago? There's a lot more privately owned vehicles (and a surprizing number of SUVs) and new buildings. More people speak English. French seemed more commonplace 20 years ago - likely a result of their long association with France. (Note: Thailand is the only country in SE Asia that has never been occupied by another nation, probably as a result of its geography (surrounded by ocean on the east and west, the mountains in the north). Fewer women wear their traditional dress. There's more western toilets (as compared to the squatting type more common in Asia) - a relief to all western women! And, of course, there's Internet cafes everywhere.

Besides the bus (for the very adventurous) or the skytrain (relatively new), there's two ways for travellers to get around: taxi or tuk-tuk. The taxis all have air conditioning and, of course, are enclosed so that you're not continually breathing the exhaust. Fares start at 35 baht (just over $1 Canadian) and it costs you less than $3 to travel most places within the city. The other alternative are tuk-tuks, noisy three-wheel motorcycle taxis (with a canopy that makes it hard to see out of) for shorter distances. When getting into a tuk-tuk, beware! The drivers quote you a cheap rate, but take you around to all the shops where they get a commission if you buy aything. The drivers are so intent on "shopping" that you seldom reach your destination. You're also sucking in the exhaust from the vehicles around you.

And, besides the polluted air, the humidity and the heat, there's the other smells (which can be overwhelming to anyone with a good nose): garlic, fish sauce, urine, flowers, incense, garbage, rot . . . . You always need to watch your step!

Thais are, for the most part, very modest people. This seems strange in a city like Bangkok that is famous for prostitution. You see lots of western men accompanied by Thai women or Thai boys. (We've asked about AIDS in Thailand and we always get the response: "Things are getting better". However, I understand from talking with other westerners knowledgeable re: the situation that this is not the case. The Thai government refuses to recognize the problem or do anything about it.)

Religion also plays a huge role in Thai society. Most Thais are Buddhist; many young men devote three months to being a Buddist monk. There are buddhas and wats (temples) everywhere.

Thailand has both a prime minister and a king. They are very nationalistic. The royal family is revered and there are pictures of them everywhere. The national anthem is played at 8 am and 6 pm every day.

When you greet people here, you "wei" or press your palms together with your fingertips almost touching your nose and bow your head slightly. It's also polite at least learn to say "hello" and "thank you" in the local language.

Most wealthy travellers (yes, we are wealthy) are viewed by the Thais as fair game and get ripped off at least once during their stay in Thailand. Of course, their faces are always wreathed in smiles while they're cheating you and there's no malice intended. To the tuk-tuk driver or street vendor (those Thais trying to eke out a living on the street), you're simply a means of income. The trick for the traveller is to be continually wary without being paranoid, so that when you are ripped off, you don't get ripped off that badly.

Thai is a challenging language to learn. The written Thai script is almost impossible for westerners to decipher; family names (i.e., surnames) are unpronouncable and are often four or five syllables. There are about 16 vowels which can appear before or after consonants or above or below! The offical name for Bangkok is about 15 words long! English translations can be interesting, even when they are gramatically correct. A shop selling "EZ's German Sausage" used the slogan, "The Texture you can Taste". I'm not sure that I want to taste texture! Obviously, it's more than the language - it's the cultural differences as well.

We met up with a friend of mine from the Sunshine Coast of Australia while we were in Bangkok. She and her sister and niece were touring around Thailand for a couple of weeks. I met Rosslyn in Portugal in 1981; she and her cousin had been on the road for over two years! You meet a number of young Australians/New Zealanders and Germans who travel for long periods of time.

Khao San Road is one of the young backpackers hangouts in Bangkok. The street is teeming with restaurants and vendors, selling everything from clothing and jewellry to pirated CDs (available for about 100 baht each or just over $3 CDN but are copies of copies so sound quality isn't great). We went there to buy a second-hand guide book (since I left mine on the plane). It's also a place where thiefs abound. One young guy sitting beside us while we were eating lunch had his backpack stolen. Keeping your valuables out of sight is very important.

All the shop windows along Khao San Road are lined with photos of foreigners who are still missing after the tsunami. It's a haunting and and sobering walk down that street. All those faces, hundreds of them, once so alive . . . .

We're noted a lot of information in the local newspapers about the rebuilding of schools in the tsunami affected areas of Thailand. It seems as though Thailand has responded very quickly to the devastion and are attempting to get things back to "normal" as soon as possible. Tourists continue to travel to the west coast and are encouraged to do so.
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