Thailand August 1999

Herein lies a travelogue with bonus fashion tips of my vacation in Thailand. The purportted purpose of this trip was to witness Joe and Ann's wedding but the real reason was to have a good time.

Trip Preparation and the trip to Thailand

I was prepared for this trip for disease - I had my shots before I left, as well I brought along a nose spray to help avoid dry nose which makes you more likely to get sick on a plan as recommended by Mrs. Dobson. It must have worked as I didn't get sick.

I had also done a major shopping expedition to Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) before I left and had bought:

As well I brought along my trusty old Gor-Tex jacket. I'm ready for the hot and wet weather!

I flew via EVA airways on a 747 in non-scrunched mode via Taiwan. Unlike flying with Canada 3000 or some other charter airline I actually had adequate space to sit in. It didn't feel like cattle all crammed in. Which is good as it takes about 12 hours to fly to Taiwan.

It felt a bit strange though in that now I was part of an ethnic minority. Only about 10% of the passengers were Caucasian and all the announcements were in Chinese first and in English second. I can get a sense of what people with French as their mother language feel like when flying in Canada.

While flying to Taiwan I made a discovery. Air pressure is lower when you are flying than it is at ground level. This is not a exactly news but I re-discovered this phenomena when I had the first drink from the water bottle I brought along. When I openned the valve water spewed up. My pants got wet and it looked like I didn't make it in time to the washroom. Fortunately I was wearing the quick drying hiking pants and they do dry quickly. I re-discovered this phenomena again when flying from Taiwan to Thailand. Doh!

In Bangkok

I was impressed with the airport at Bangkok. Customs and immigration were no hassles at all. As well for arriving passengers there's a sanctuary area safe from the crowds where you can change your money and book a taxi. Once you leave the sanctuary there is a gauntlet of tour operators, and shills for hotels to run as well as the usual crowds of people who are waiting for family and friends. One group held some Cisco signs so obviously they were there to greet some travellers from Cisco. I was tempted to walk up to them as their eyes brightened when they saw me as potentially who they were waiting for. As I mentioned there were not many Caucasians on my flight and I suppose I look like what a Cisco person might look like, complete with my Sportif Zip-Leg Pants. Hmmm... Do I look like a typical Nortle?

The drive from the airport to the hotel was my first experience with Bangkok traffic. An initial experience of that perks you up into being more alert, even after a long flight and being tired from jet-lag.

I spent two days in Bangkok getting over jet-lag. I was staying at the Radisson Hotel and was very impressed with it. It is easily the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at. I can't say that I've stayed at many nice hotels or am an expert on this but the Radisson was pretty snazzy. They didn't have automatic doors but the effect was just the same - when I approached a door some uniformed usher wearing white gloves and a top hat would open the door for me. If I headed towards the elevator one would push the button to fetch the elevator for me. It was a bit windy outside and the ushers were escorting people to/from cars openning the doors and holding an umbrella for them the whole way.

The bathroom in the hotel had a heated towel rack to dry any wet clothes. The phone was a MITEL one so a little bit of Canada was there in the room with me. One odd thing is that there was also a phone in the bathroom. In case you fell and couldn't get up? There was a wardrobe closet with a fridge like light inside, you openned the door and the light in the closet came on. Various little snazzy touches that impressed me.

Each floor had its own style of decor and color scheme. The elevators were gussied up with pillars and even the ash trays were ornate - even with the sand inside raked up into the Radisson logo. At the breakfast buffet they had sushi along with a slab of wasabi the size of a stick of butter where you can scoop what you want.

I visited their Skylounge pub on their top floor as I had a voucher for a free drink and there would be a show on. The night view was fantastic as the windows ran full along 2 walls to give a 180 degree panoramic view of the city. After my free drink I had another another drink which because it was happy hour I had to have two. Another one and I'm feeling pretty good. The floor show was something I'm not going to forget any time soon. It was an Elvis Presley impersonation special! They had the same band playing Elvis songs and a couple of different performers coming up to do their schtick. It felt odd to be in Thailand and hear Elvis songs being sung in English. The performers were a collection of various sizes, genders and singing ability. They had rhinestone bejewelled clothes in common. Seeing a short Thai woman wearing 4 inch platform shoes singing Elvis tunes complete with pelvic thrusts is not a sight I'm going to easily forget. During an intermission they had an incredible acrobatic family do a show. The father juggled flaming torches and could skip rope while riding his unicycle. He could skip rope on his unicycle longer I can just skip rope. He got an audience member to hold various balloons which he popped out by using a blow gun to shoot darts while riding his unicycle. A bit risky then the balloon is held between the legs. There were 3 little kids in this family, 2 girls and a boy which were bounced around in various ways including being slung from a pole and twirled around by the legs of the father who was lying on his back. Quite a sight!

Walking around in Bangkok is a bit of an adventure as it is not a pedestrian friendly place. The multi-lane roads are always busy and hard to cross. Red lights are more of a suggestion to stop than an actual requirement. I would look both ways and also look behind to make sure no motorbike would be running me down on the sidewalk coming from behind. The trick is to not wait until all the traffic is clear as that would be a very long wait but instead just until a few lanes are clear and you would then cross over and let the vehicles avoid you. The sidewalks would sometime disappear as various things would get in the way such as at a tire shop where cars parked on the sidewalk getting their tires replaced. One of the strangest things I saw was a food stall going out over the street with a covered tarp. The boundaries between road and non-road was not always clearly marked with motorbikes driving on sidewalks or going the wrong way done roads. There are many elevated expressways and tollways but it is still congested everywhere.

A number of people had masks covering their mouth and nose but I didn't find the air too bad. It stung the eyes a bit though. The stench from the canals and the sewers which had grates every 5 meters or so on the sidewalks was bad. There were various dead things floating in the canals and the water is oily black. There were people living in shacks right beside these canals. I don't know how they could cope living there.

I took a ride on a 'tuk-tuk' which is a motorized tricycle. The name is onomatopoeic and suggests what it's like. They use 2 stroke engines especially designed to maximize the amount of hydrocarbons they emit in blue smoke. Sitting in the passenger seat my head is up in the top and I can't see where we are going. It's noisy, windy (my hair is continually in my eyes), smelly and in general uncomfortable. As well the driver has a number of different scams. One is that for a cheap ride he will take me to a shop along the way, all I need to do is spend 5 minutes there. Foolishly I agreed. I'm taken to a high pressure sales jewellery shop. They had a massive fish tank with large gold fish in it. But they don't let me linger, I have to look at something. I'm not really interested but look at a gold necklace. Only 15,000 Baht (about $600), can we have your card please. I said no and they usherred me out. All told I was probably in the shop for less than a minute. It's not long enough so I have to go (I'm weak willed compared to the tuk-tuk driver) to another shop, this one a tailor and silk boutique. Here I find a few more reasonable deals and buy a few things, including a Thai tie with an elephant motif, some silk dress shirts and a reversible kimono with a dragon design.

Getting to Nakhon Sawan

The wedding was to be held in a town of about 110,000 about 240 KM north of Bangkok called Nakhon Sawan. This is where Ann's family is from. To get there I went by train. At the Bangkok railway station I was on the right platform at the right time but it was late. When it pulled in I boarded it, and found my seat struggling a bit with my pack to get there. I start to read a book I brought along waiting for the train to leave. A train official comes by and checks my ticket. He doesn't speak English but clearly he wants me out of this car. I assume I am in the wrong car on the train but instead when I get to the end of the car he gestures back out to the platform rather than the next car. I get out and find another train official who speaks more english. I was on the right car, right seat but wrong train! This one is going out to Surin which is east towards Cambodia. Two minutes after I leave the train it leaves. A few minutes later the right train comes into the station at the same platform. It arrives and then it's a rush as everyone boards at once and we ultimately leave Bangkok about 20 minutes late. It's a 2nd class express, the toilets reek and the floor is sticky wet. I hope there is no connection between the two. As we go along one train official half-heartedly mops the train. Unlike in an airplane there is little place to put any baggage. I put my small pack down on the floor to eat and my passport and return airplane ticket get wet inside.

When I arrive at Nakhon Sawan train station I call up Ann's family but Joe isn't there and no one else is there that can speak English. Oh well, I know the name of the hotel where the wedding is to take place so I'll just go there. It is raining down very hard with monsoon rains at the moment so I put on my rain pants. I get a ride with a 'songthaew' to the Amphur Muang hotel. A 'songthaew' is a pickup with benches in the back which is like a mini-bus, people get on and off it depending on where they are going and everyone hopefully is going in the same direction. I get dropped off at the hotel and wonder a bit about Ann but assume that maybe the hotel proprietors are friends of the family or something as it is quite a run down place. It's a 3 story walk up building in a commercial district of town with about 15 rooms to rent run by a family. At the front desk they don't know anything about any wedding. They are surprised at seeing me. They don't see many farangs (western foreigners) in Nakhon Sawan. It's not a tourist destination as there's not much of anything there. The town has all the charm of Prince George. I can't speak Thai (for which I blame Cora as she never lent me her tapes despite repeatedly mentioning them) and they can't speak English so it is a bit of a struggle to communicate. I do manage to book a room for 2 nights at 150 baht a night, or about $6. For that you get a room with a bed and mattress, no sheets, that has a light and a fan. There's no doorknob, instead there's a padlock and you get a lock and key when you get a room. There's no attached bathroom but instead a shared Thai style squat toilet down the hall.

The family that runs the hotel called over a neighbour who can speak a bit of English and he in turn calls up Ann folks to find out where I really should be. Quite friendly people and willing to go to some trouble to help out a quite obviously lost farang. I would have been in a bit of a pickle otherwise as there aren't really taxis in town, besides which I don't know where I need to go tomorrow for the wedding, nor even where I am at the moment as the signs are all in Thai script.

It turns out that the directions I had been given were insufficiently detailed and just mentioned the district so I was dropped off at whatever hotel the 'songthaew' driver was familiar with. In fact the wedding won't be held at a hotel at all but instead at Ann's grandparent's place out of town. A rescue expedition is sent and the fathers of the groom and bride come out to pick me up to take me to the proper hotel where the reception will be held and then join family and friends for a pre wedding dinner.

The wedding

It is a Buddhist wedding and the start time is 7:00 AM. In the morning. That's early. I get up at 5:00 AM and perform the unusual operation of depilation and end up with the usual razor cuts. I use my nearly atrophied skills at knotting a tie. Wearing dockers pants and my sportif ripstop shirt with an elephant motif tie I'm off for the wedding with the Japanese contingent via mini-van to Ann's grandparent's place.

Ann's grandparents have some acreage outside of town with a couple of houses on it. The wedding was taking place on the 2nd floor of a home that is 100 years old. An overflow crowd of family and friends are outside under tents and listenning to the events via speakers from internal microphones.

The wedding had a couple of different parts. I didn't understand all the subtleties of what was taking place. Whether it was chanting or praying or other during the various parts. There was a 30 piece orchestra playing through the various ceremonies. There were 9 Buddhist monks in saffron robes. For part of the wedding the monks were blessing a piece of string which would latter symbolically tie the bride and groom together. The bride and groom gave the monks food. There was a part where everyone took turns in washing the hands of the bride and groom. For most of the time I was fidgetting as there were no chairs but instead everyone was reclined on the floor. While I was sitting cross-legged I was thinking what Karlene, my fitness instructor, would say. Probably to keep my back straight and that this is good for my abductors, or maybe its my adductors. Whatever. My mind wandered a bit during the ceremony as there was very little that I understood. The sun shone and it got very warm, as well I was tired from getting up so early. At some point the inside part finished and we went outside for a short procession led by some people carrying sugar cane - symbolizing sweetness I think. Various other foods are carried by other members of the procession and this is presented to the Bride and Groom.

After the wedding there was another little ritual at the hotel. The Bride and Groom had a honeymoon suite and there was a ritual to help invoke long life by the grandparents. I didn't understand what was going on. The Groom carried the Bride into the suite across the threshold which is another ritual which I don't understand but at least I am familiar with it.

I had a few hours to spare before the reception so I walked around town and seemed to cause a bit of a reaction wherever I went. Not an unpleasant reaction but I was noticed when I walked around. I felt like someone who is walking their puppy or baby and suddenly is not invisible. Not many farangs visit as there is not much of anything to see. If I was to commit a crime any witness would have no problem in picking me out in a line-up as the culprit.

The reception was held in a ballroom with about 500 people. There was an overflow outside of the ballroom. During the wedding Joe and Ann wore Thai style clothes and for the reception they wore western style clothes. I committed a minor faux pas by sitting at the head table. I didn't know anyone else there who spoke English so I sat beside Joe's brother, John. This led to the Japanese contingent to join me. After about an hour and half of greeting guests the Bride and Groom and their parents didn't all have room at the head table. We shuffled around a bit and made room. Sitting at the head table is great because you get good service and you also have clear unobstructed chances to take pictures of the newlyweds. It was my first experience with the overly intrusive and attentive service staff. They were hovering just off the table waiting for some kind of service to do. Anytime the water in my glass went to less than half full they refilled it immediately. As John said it gives a new meaning to bottomless glass.

There were the usual speeches and toasts during the reception and some traditional style Thai dancers who were very good. There were flowers and pretty ice sculptures to decorate the stage.

Chiang Mai

After the wedding I left to go to Chiang Mai which is Thailand's second city. It is approx 700 km north of Bangkok or about 500 km north of Nakhon Sawan. Rather than taking the train this time I went by air conditioned bus. It cost $10. The road was in good condition, usually 2 lanes in each direction with a grassy divider. There was a brief rain shower where we discovered that there are leaks in the very front of the windshield.

I had some directions from Jim (from Wisconsin, state logo "Come smell our fresh dairy air!") in Thai script for a decent hotel by the university in Chiang Mai. They must have the Buddhist equivalent of the Gideons in Thailand as instead of a bible there was an English book called _The Teaching of Budha_ in the drawer.

Chiang Mai is an old city, a former capital of Thailand and has many Wats (Buddhist temples). There are city walls surrounded by a moat. I was surprised at the number of internet cafes that there were in town. I would have sent a real virtual (is that an oxymoron?) postcard while I was there but all my mail aliases are at work.

After I was there a few days Ann, the Dobson family and Ann's family came up as well. Ann studies and teaches at a university at Chiang Mai. She has a Phd in micro-biology but her real calling is as a tour guide for which she can make the same money. She is multilingual being able to speak Thai, English and Japanese so she has the necessary skills.

The highlight of my trip to Thailand had to be visiting a local elephant training camp. Unlike in Canada there is not the same nanny state mentality. There were some gibbons (a kind of monkey) on chains running around and the only 'protection' was a sign warning that they bite. One stole John's hat but he managed to steal it back again when it wasn't paying close attention. Likewise there were no big barriers to separate the people from the elephants. You could go right up to them and it was encouraged that you buy some sugar cane and bananas to feed them. Elephants are very big and intelligent animals. It doesn't hit home until you are close to one. They can use their trunks with as much flexibility as we can we use our arms. I went for a short ride on one and it was quite a thrill.

Ko Samet

After Chiang Mai I took a plane to Bangkok, (approx a 1 hour flight by wide bodied jet) for about $70 and then took a bus to Ko Samet. I was thinking of going to Phuket (pronounced poo-ket) but it is the raining season there now and on Joe's advice I went instead to Ko Samet. It is a small island about 200 km south-east of Bangkok. I found a nice air-conditioned bungalow with a balcony, by a quiet beach and sun burned myself the first morning. I didn't really think I had started yet, I was just sitting in the shade but still I got a good burn. For the rest of the time I slapped on the suntan lotion and anaesthetized myself with beer. I had brought along some books and crossword puzzles but couldn't find the energy to do much of anything. I would just relax and look at my watch on occasion and it had been 20 minutes since my previous thought. The 3 meals a day were the activities that took up all the day, I had to think about going, then actually go and eat, and then think about the next meal. There went the day. There would also be a siesta at noon where I would take a little nap as it was too hot outside. A very pleasant time not doing much of anything.

Back to Canada

I went back to Bangkok and then flew back to Canada via Taiwan. This time I did not get wet when drinking on the plane. I discovered what lies behind those 'restricted, authorized personnel only' doors at Canada Customs as they inspected my baggage. Multiple counters in the shape of a 'U' to empty your bags out on. The inspector is in the middle of the 'U' going through the various items. They didn't find any contraband so ultimately they let me enter the country. The fools.

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