I have been travelling across South East Asia – Thailand, Laos and Cambodia for about 20 days in February and March. I left Europe on the 13th – conveniently to take myself away from my memories on the ever-popular Valentines day. First stop was India – I had gone there for my sister’s wedding, which was on the 17th of February. I will eventually put up some pictures of the wedding on Facebook. I left home on the 21st – only to return in Switzerland after mid March. I think it is a bit of an overkill to document every single day here as I am writing quite after the events/experiences actually happened – so I will give you a gist of my thoughts.
I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand very early in the morning – around 0300. Indians can get a visa on arrival in Thailand these days and there were plenty of them to take advantage of that. Some of the tourists looked dodgy enough to leave no room for imagination about their intention to visit Thailand. However to benefit the regular Thai tourism industry there were a lot of families and couples queueing up for the visa I noticed. I wish I will live to see the day when Indians can travel without a visa anywhere. The visa process was well organised and hassle free although the visa office looked like a Thai food take-away joint inside a swanky airport which can outshine most European airports. As you will realise that my experiences in Thailand were extremely pleasant but I was confronted with one of the ills right when I landed. It was a taxi-driver trying to take me to the hotel on a fixed price and not what the meter indicated. Anyway the friendly Tourist Information woman had warned me of that and I negotiated with the cabbie to turn the meter on.
I had put myself on a decent hotel to start the trip as I knew that I would not get much sleep during my sister’s marriage. I caught up on some sleep and made contact with a friend of a friend (Richard) who was co-incidentally in Bangkok at the time. The next 3.5 days in Bangkok were sleepless and intoxicating … but I managed to squeeze in a fair bit of sight-seeing.
After this trip, Bangkok has become one of my favourite cities. The city has a lot to offer, the infrastructure is good, it is clean, there is an inherent history/culture and locals are friendly – quite a feat for a city of over 8 million people in developing country, if you want to call Thailand that (I don’t). The street food in Bangkok is amazing and I don’t know anyone who fell sick eating them … so I embraced any food I saw and had a bite (ate some worms too just for the banter). There are lots of stuff to see in the city and I am not going to write a tourist guide for an extremely touristy city here – so I am posting some pictures below.
I am not saying that you will recreate Hangover II every weekend in Bangkok, but after dark the city turns fairly crazy. Talking of that movie, the Lebua Skybar at State Tower is a good place to be around sunset – you gotta time it right. The drinks are a tad expensive (550 Baht or 19 USD I paid for a cocktail) there but hey you pay for the view which is worth it – really. In Bangkok there is a strong undercurrent of sex tourism with brothels, strip-clubs and ping-pong shows … but if you can take those with good humour, the city opens itself up to some amazing venues. Khaosan Road is popular among backpackers but I preferred the Sukhumvit Area with the VW buses turned street-side bars. Bangkok like any other big city has websites telling you what’s going on at nights and what events are on.
A Thai lady said : “All sexy women in Thailand are lady boys and all handsome men are gay”. I do personally know many good-looking Thais but the line above is a good word of advice during a nightout in this region.
Some random 10 year olds dancing in Khaosan Road. Wannabe lady boys? “Mom I am a fairy”
I also had the opportunity to go to a Thai kick boxing (Muay Thai) match at the Lumpini Stadium. Some people I know are quite into it and themselves practise the sport. However, if you are not, still it is a good experience. The time I was in Thailand, apparently, the season for “finals” was over i.e. the big boys were resting – so had to watch a light weight version instead. It was an interesting atmosphere with a typical traditional music playing at the background and locals betting on the match right by the ring.
I was sad to leave Bangkok to be honest – but I did make a promise to myself that I will come back. It is only a 2.5 hour flight from Kolkata where my parents are based.
My next stop was Chiang Mai, which is about 700 km north of Bangkok and very close to the borders of Laos, Burma as well as China. The 14 hour overnight train to Chiang Mai was fairly uneventful. The gay cook put up a show in the restaurant coach late at night, which was entertaining. The day we were travelling was some Buddhist holy day (was a full moon day too like most Buddhist holy days are) and the shops would not sell any alcoholic drinks. However it is Asia and there were ways around it. I did not sleep very well in the days preceding the train ride and was not sure if I could sleep while on the train, so I tried to knock myself out with some allergy pills (good old Cetrizine). I was reading about its side effects later: “Dryness of the mouth, nose and throat, drowsiness, urinary retention, blurred vision, nightmares and stomach ache are commonly reported side effects of this drug”. The drowsiness did hit me hard and I did not remember any nightmares when I woke up quite fresh after a good 7 hour sleep.
Chiang Mai is a small town where, like many other similar towns in South East Asia, people are obsessed with pick-up trucks especially Toyota Hilux-s. They do not have Tuk Tuk-s in Chiang Mai but only converted pick-up trucks which form a graveyard for the old-timers from the 80s. To be very honest, I somehow preferred Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Saying that, I feel the same when I go to most small towns in India – I always prefer a big city than a smaller place in most of Asia. This preference of mine, however, would change when I go to Laos (will write about it later).
Near the town there is this place called Tiger Kingdom which houses tigers of various ages who you can take pictures with. This is a very common thing to do in Thailand and I am sure you have seen Facebook profile photos to envy. I decided to follow the crowd … the Pantha meeting the tiger. A bit hyped before the encounter, I was sad and disappointed by the whole thing – they have sedated a bunch of beautiful wild creatures and are using them to make money. The authorities deny that they drug the tigers but it is a blatant lie. Even the very young new-borns (they cost more to take a photo with), who look like little puppies, were sedated. I had bought a ticket to take photos with the largest and the smallest of their tigers but decided to return the ticket for the smallest ones. I will not do this again but I gotta say that it was quite an experience being close to these creatures.
Back in town, Chiang Mai had a decent night market which I had no interest in. The night life in Chiang Mai was more vibrant that what I would have expected it to be and I did not get much sleep that night (thanks to Richard who had come up to Chiang Mai a day before I had).
Chiang Rai was the next stop and more of a pit stop before moving to Laos. Chiang Rai is another small town even a bit further north than Chiang Mai (near to the same countries). There is a night market in Chiang Rai too – every city I had visited after Bangkok had one. But the great thing about Chiang Rai was the massive rectangular courtyard with food stalls all around and a stage in front where the locals performed. Food was great lasted 2 performances – one of a local band who had songs similar to the bands that are bullied in the high school and the second one was one performed by lady boys. The latter, quite honestly, was enjoyable – these lady boys look exactly like women and they were miming to some Thai songs and put up an entertaining show.
A short albeit representative video of the show.
The next day had to say goodbye to Thailand – I really liked the place. Liked the people, liked the food, liked how things worked. It is an easy place to be for a foreigner and is bang in the middle of Asia – no wonder it attracts so many tourists from all around the world. It is a model that India should emulate (India received around a third of international tourists that Thailand got in 2012).
The people reminded me of Indians in many ways but they were not. The culture and the history are interlinked with India, so there is no escape – there are figures from Indian mythology everywhere in the temples (like Garuda and Ananta Naga). The Thai Emblem is that of Garuda (same is true for the majority Muslim country, Indonesia surprisingly) – I got a Garuda stamp in my passport at immigration counter while entering Thailand (picture below).
What I liked most about the Thai people is their tolerance to anything and everything under the sun. People talk openly about sexuality and the tweaks of it – I have met many straight people who can call a lady boy their best friend and are not afraid of it. However, as I realised, to be a gay is still a taboo in Thailand (but to be a Lesbian is not) … this could probably be a reason for the urge of an unusually large number of men in this region to be lady boys when compared to the rest of the world. I do not know and have to read more about this.
A few things to note here – although not an ex-British colony, Thailand (like India and other ex-British colonies) drives on the left side of the road – tried to find out why and this is the best answer I got. Also in Thailand people love their King (quite vocally and in practise so) – you will find pictures of the king everywhere (similar to that of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey). Their love reminded me of the Satyajit Ray film Hirok Rajar Deshe, where the king had brainwashed all his subjects. In line with public sentiment, lèse majesté is illegal in Thailand.