Jan 13, 2013

Trip Epilogue

Little did I suspect that the biggest shock of the trip would be upon my return.



I HATE the seats on the Boeing 737 offered by American Airlines. The headrests and seat backs appear to be designed for a 5 foot person to the exclusion of a larger person. The goddamed curves of the seat and headrest actually pushed down on my shoulders, compressing the spine in a most uncomfortable manner and I was in such distress that I truly feared that I might mentally snap and lash out in anger at the on-board hired help. I'm not exaggerating here. I was dangerously close to acting out in frustration with total disregard for the consequences of the extreme action I was considering. Really, I almost lost it.

But it's not the first time I've almost lost it so that's not the big shock. That was simply a rant I needed to get off my chest.

The shock was how the USA had changed in my eyes upon my return. After more than a month without hearing spoken English, without seeing another English speaking Anglo, without CNN, MSNBC or FOX, without wide boulevards and green lawns, the sight of "Murica" was a shock.

I guess I'm out of practice. Has the overheard spoken English of strangers always been this hard to understand? 

Have Americans always looked so sloppy? Were our clothes always this wrinkled and ill fitting, or is it just our huge bodies that make us look unkempt?

Conversely, were our neighborhoods always so spacious, the roads so wide, the parking lots so expansive?

Here, the water that comes from the home faucet is considered potable, bottled water is not an essential item.

This is the land of absorbant paper towels and napkins more substantial than a one-ply generic tissue.  It's a place where toilet paper is always, always available. There's always a salt and a pepper shaker at the restaurant table.

The traffic here is so... organized. The expectation of normal behavior is so absolute that the idea of encountering unexpected behavior on the road has to be taught, drilled in as a concept called defensive driving.

Have we Americans always been so nihilistic? Have we always ignored the rest of the world?  

I'm sure all this normalcy will become normal again, just as the chaos became the new normal just a few weeks ago. But at the moment it's still a shock.

Dec 22, 2012

Relative Freedoms

While y'all in the USA are considering trading the freedom to download porn or play violent video games vs the freedom to own assault weapons with built-in penis-pumps I'm still over here in Thailand pondering the reality folks over here are conditioned to put up with.

And the other day while driving back from Pattaya, we crested a mountain pass and encountered a road-block checkpoint. The boys in the front seats (very nice boys by the way) looked young and corruptible enough to the police officer (dressed in a very military-looking uniform) that they were required to proceed to a little processing station where they were compelled to pee in cups to determine if they'd been taking controlled substances in the Thai equivalent of "Sin City." Just part of the routine around here.

After living for extended periods in places like Korea and Japan where cigarette smoking is almost universal (at least it was 30 years ago -- dude, I'm getting old), one thing that surprised me about Thailand is how few people I see smoking cigarettes. Apparently they've been largely outlawed. Can't smoke in hotels or restaurants (unless it's open-air), but cigarettes are only about 2 or 3 bucks a pack (high-end US brands like Marlboro and Winston) at the 7-11.  Oh but listen to this: They're censored on TV.

You'll be watching a movie and note that the guy in the scene has a cigarette in his hand, but as soon as he brings it to his mouth, a blur is digitally imposed over the whole face -- but only as long as he inhales or exhales. As long as he's only waving his hand around with the lit cigarette and talking shit, it's just fine.

Similarly, with guns and weapons, you can be watching a shoot-em-up movie or TV series where good guys and bad guys exchange gun play. If the scene involves pointing a gun at the camera, that's fine, but if the guy in the picture is shown pointing the gun at another person, the blur appears. If the gun is just shown pointing or shooting without someone on camera explicitly standing in front of the bullets, that's just fine.

Similarly with any act of violence: flash the knife, wave it around threateningly and that's just fine. Hold it to someone's throat or stab and the blur appears. A hangman's rope is fully visible until it is around someone's neck, then the blur appears obscuring the whole face. 

I was just at the supermarket, a Saturday afternoon and I couldn't buy beer because it was 3 PM. One can only buy alcoholic beverages between 1200-1400 and then 1700-2200 or thereabouts -- I guess they want you sober for supper -- unless you're in a restaurant or a bar where you can slam them down all afternoon and evening until closing.

Yes, censorship is ridiculous. Never forget that.

Dec 20, 2012

Realities as I See Them

1. The camera on my iPhone 4s is a fine substitute for a dedicated camera. One has to make a conscious decision to bring the dedicated camera, but the iPhone is always in my pocket (unless I forgot my phone). And it makes really good quality photos. I always leave the flash off and it still does a great job. And with the Dropbox app and a working WIFI connection, those photos can immediately upload to the cloud and be available for blogging in minutes.

2. My Pentax (one of the smallest, lightest, DSLR's available) still takes better low-light photos, has zero shutter lag, and starts up in about a half-second (making it the quick-draw winner), but the lens that gives it that superior low-light capability is also the working equivalent of a 100 MM fixed lens, making it unsuitable for group shots of people and other shots requiring a wide field of view. In those situations, the iPhone comes to the rescue.

3. The cable TV packages here in Thai hotels often show the same shows I find myself watching back home in the USA, but WITHOUT 5 MINUTES of COMMERCIALS EVERY 7 MINUTES that the US versions have -- and I'll remind you -- this is advertising that Americans are already PAYING TO WATCH. Why can't I see a show with limited advertising back home?

4. Thai TV has one of those reality shows similar to the car/motorcycle restore/customize shows I gravitate toward back home, but these guys also restore/customize  BICYCLES.  How cool is that? Why can't I have a show like that back home?

5. The cable TV packages here actually have 24/7 programing. No infomercial bombast on all but 2 or 3 channels during the graveyard hours like back home. Why can't I have actual programming (like I paid for) back home?

6. Sidewalks and Streets are never wide enough.

Dec 18, 2012

Pattaya at Last

We finally arrived in Pattaya, but first we took a side trip to the Museum of Illusory Interactive Reality, (not the real name) or something along that line. I now hate to admit that I was absolutely hating this place while we where there. It was pretty crowded and the acoustics were exactly like being inside a giant concrete bunker with lots of noisy people talking and shouting. The "art" wasn't what I call art.

It was an expensive hybrid of a museum and an amusement park. Two dimensional art that tried to become three dimensional. You then react with it, photograph it, and return it to two dimensions where it tricks you into thinking it was three-dimensional all along. Confused yet? Don't worry about it. Here's what I mean.


Then it was off to find a hotel. I have to say, this is the best hotel I've ever stayed at anywhere. The rooms were about $70 bucks a night. But on the second evening there was a problem with the air conditioner or something. Anyway, some sort of strange chemical fumes began to persistently waft from the air conditioner (something like burning electrical insulation mixed with cleaning solution) sending Dang down to the hotel desk to complain and soon we were transferred into a $200/night VIP suite for the same price. And they seem to have forgotten to charge me for the nice steak and wine I had for dinner that night too.

Dang and "The Boys" on top of Pattaya
Yes, this really happened: but Dang always seems to come out ahead with this hotel room shuffle. Despite the hidden meth lab smell wafting from the AC in the first room, I still say this is the best designed, best managed hotel I've ever had the pleasure of staying in -- for the record -- the Centara Hotel. It had a salt-water swimming pool down stairs, the best breakfast buffet I've ever experienced, the nicest rooms I've ever stayed in, the nicest showers, HDTV with a channel package to please, Thai, Chinese, Arab, English, Indian, and Russian tastes, speedy WIFI that didn't require a new login/password combo every 3 hours, making the last three posts possible while finally letting me get to my Time Warner email and iPhone text messages for a coupe days. The room is the most modern I've ever experienced with high-tech touches everywhere I looked, and not matter how closely I inspected, I couldn't discover a single detail overlooked by the housekeeping staff.

Yes, I know, all rooms look nice in the photo, but this is better
trust me. It's full of LED lighting, intelligent technology that works
and everything is (not just seems) new, sparkling clean, and 21st century.
I wanna live here forever.

And just a short walk outside the hotel lobby was Pattaya; "Disneyland" for adults, though I must say there are a lot of couples who brought their kids. I suppose having the kids nearby helps keep daddy from wandering into the red lights. Lets just say there's something or someone here to satisfy the most fickle fantasies.  The town is crawling with Europeans and Americans and Russians, and Arabs and I suppose that's why it's so easy to find something to fit any taste. (I'm talking about food)

Something interesting at the beach, the water-jet is attached to and powered by the jet ski, whose driver was quite adept at keeping the high-pressure hoses from getting twisted by driving in circles as the flyer did water-jet powered loops. The flyer had smaller jets attached to each arm for keeping his balance.
Pattaya seems like a good place to (ahem) retire and it may be possible without winning the lottery.

Recursiveness on the road to Pattaya



The giant elephant temple from the gate, quite far away.
 Somewhere along the way, we stopped at a temple with a ten-story tall elephant atop an Asian pottery museum and inside the elephant there was another temple that contained the universe or at least something representing the universal mind. It's all kind of fuzzy now. Oh, and the temple inside the pottery museum inside the giant elephant was made entirely out of broken up (or completely intact) pieces of ancient pottery, ceramic, and porcelain. It was forbidden to photograph in the museum but it was fine to photograph the temple inside -- if you didn't photograph the ancient Buddha statues -- but it was fine to photograph the big golden Buddha, just not the other older multiple Buddhas surrounding the gold one. Are you getting confused? Don't worry about it.
This interesting detail is about one foot tall and was but one of many others - each unique - supporting the
temple within a museum within a massive elephant. The sparkly bits and blue bits are composed
of pottery shards. Yes, that's a teapot lid over the head of the bird-beaked entity. 

I like these temples, I really do. They are so very clean inside (usually). You can walk all over them barefooted, in fact you must. Hell, one temple I was at a few days ago had some adjacent public toilets so clean that you had to remove your shoes before going inside the restrooms.Maybe the whole point is to keep me on my toes.

Anyway, once I got outside the temple inside an elephant that was atop a museum inside a temple inside a garden... shit, forgot to mention the garden.  I absolutely LOVE these gardens. Not all the temples have nice gardens but some of the nicest ones do. This was the best garden yet.

I don't know what these four-foot tall creatures are called or quite what they are, but these gardens
had many varieties or sprites. The tall clumping palms with the bamboo like trunks are truly
rare, even here in the mythical garden surrounding the elephant containing the universal mind.

You can leave your shoes on and there are no rules about what you can photograph in the gardens, except for the ghost houses, which look a lot like miniature temples or shrines. There's a ghost house at every home, business, garden, and of course, at temples. You can't photograph these ghost houses, unless you ask the ghosts first, but it's bad form anyway because you don't want to photograph a ghost, it might piss them off, and you don't want a ghost pissed off at you, so don't photograph those either. This is actually starting to make sense to me, I'm not kidding. 

Did I forget to mention the 10-story tall elephant had three heads?
Also, there's a celestial chamber inside those heads containing the universal mind,
which looks a lot like a bunch of Buddhas, so much recursiveness, so little time.

Am I ever going to get us to Pattaya?

Steamy Bangkok Nights

The past four days have been a little different. That'd be something of an understatement.

After riding the elephants in Autthaya we headed to Bangkok with "The Boys." I've gotten to know them better in the past few days. They would be Dang's nephew and his best friend, both of them college age, lean, good looking and perpetually good-natured.

"The Boys" on a boat - on a day trip from Bangkok


The nephew does all the driving in his cream colored Honda City VTEC. He's a very good driver, earned his driving chops by driving one of the uncle's three trucks loaded with Thai Traditional Opera troopers and/or equipment around various remote places in Thailand. I can imagine the sort of red-eye driving that might entail. He's been driving a rolling road-trip troupe of entertainers to gigs far and wide, but he also happens to be one of the entertainers. I can't imagine how he pulls it off without nodding off, but in any regard, he's got the skills. And the back seat of that Honda is truly comfortable and I can relax knowing there's a professional at the wheel.

I'll have to check the back seat of an American market-spec Honda someday because this one has space UNDER the seat (much like an airline seat) to stash bags and other crap that usually gets in the way on a road trip. I don't think I've ever been in a car that had room under the back seat for hiding stuff like that. Makes the road trip so much better, it does.

It was a short drive to Bangkok from the morning in Auttaya and we arrived at the hotel in late afternoon. The traffic was as bad as expected and the air was gray. We checked in and I was happy to see that it was cheap -- and I mean cheap. It cost the equivalent of $16 a night for each room; one for the old folks and one for the boys. The downside to cheap is the place looked to be 30 years old and every detail of the place was either crumbling or already broken. The view from our room was a wildcat garbage dump on the back side of a bunch of an apartment building that was in even worse shape than our hotel. But I was tired and just wanted to lay down.

I just prayed the place didn't have bed bugs or something. The sheets were clean, or rather the (single) sheet/mattress cover was clean, but the blanket was ratty and pilled. But it had a bathtub/shower and a toilet and a sink. What sort of luxury does one expect for less than $20 a night?

Bangkok in December is HOT (in the high 90s) and humid. After showering we lounged around in skivvies, trying to convince ourselves the air conditioning was doing something besides making noise. After a couple hours Dang discovered the air conditioner in in the boys' room was absolutely NOT working.  So she went downstairs to the desk and raised hell. A maintenance guy showed up with a tank of refrigerant and eventually gave up. Then all of us (both rooms worth) picked up all our stuff and moved a few doors down the hall, this time with an even better view of the garbage dump!

We spent two nights in that dump, but we were in Bangkok damn it, and there was shopping to do. We rode the elevated train/commuter rail to the open-air shopping area, shopped until we couldn't carry any more and returned the same way in reverse. The rail line was quick, clean and quiet with excellent air conditioning. 

Oh, and the air conditioning in our room did work, but after the second night I realized that the only part of the controller that worked was the on/off switch. The fan speed and temperature controls were just to keep me entertained. I began each evening sweating on top of the sheet and by dawn each morning I was shivering under the ratty blanket that I still can't believe I allowed to touch my skin.

After two nights in Bangkok we packed up and headed for Pattaya with a couple of detours along the way.

Dec 14, 2012

Ayutthaya

Yesterday, that'd be Thursday and boy am I ever loosing track, we took a drive to Ayutthaya. The main purpose of this trip was to ride some elephants. After all, how many people go through life and never have that experience?

Ayutthaya must have thousands of these


So this time the driver was one of Dang's nephews, a fellow just graduated from high school who was on break from his dancing gig. Apparently there's a whole branch of Dang's family who are engaged in "show business" traveling the country in a big variety show of traditional folksy entertainment.

Anyway, Dang and I took the back seat while he drove his Honda City, accompanied by a friend who rode shotgun. This was much more comfortable than the VIP Van and I'm not sure why because the leg room in the van is superior in every way. Just goes to show that leg room isn't everything, I guess.



We didn't stop at any temples until we actually got to Ayutthaya, but once we got there, we attempted to do nine temples in a day. This, I'm told, is something of a magic number that if accomplished in the same day will result in especially good fortune. Spoiler alert; we failed, but we came close.

Apparently, Ayutthaya was the first Bangkok; the first capital city of Thailand. It was conquered some time ago by invaders from Burma and largely destroyed. Thousand years-old ruins were everywhere to the point that I was reminded of my day of hiking all over Rome years ago. It is a navigable big river city and is also the victim of frequent floods. Canals and water were everywhere.

Actually, there is standing water everywhere in this country and I haven't been bitten by a mosquito yet. Being from Texas where the native mosquitoes seem particularly plentiful and savage despite the lack of water anywhere, I'm surprised and grateful.

Blurry (sorry) but a semi-vintage tuk-tuk

 All the tuk-tuks in Ayutthaya are of a vintage design that is unique to the rest of the cities in the country. Many are truly vintage restorations, but I suspect most are fiberglass bodied replicas of the real thing. I suppose it's because Ayutthaya is genuinely a tourist destination. There were plenty of Koreans, Japanese, and Europeans nearly everywhere we went and there were even small groups of fair-haired tourists attempting to navigate the city by bicycle.

The whole expedition got to ride. I've got to say, these seemed like happy elephants.


Oh yeah, almost forgot the best part. We rode on the back of an elephant. I could have opted for the 60 minute ride but decided that 20 would be enough. I kind of wished it had lasted longer. I saw a group of folks on other elephants who must have opted for the longer version and they were sitting in the driver's position, you know, sitting on the elephant's neck and getting the full experience. At one point our driver saw my iPhone and asked for it. I hesitated, but Dang explained that he was offering to take our picture. He then climbed down, directed the elephant with voice commands, lit up a cigarette and proceeded to take a butt-load of pictures of us with various backgrounds and poses and did a swell job of it too. I guess I can cross that experience off the bucket list.

 Tomorrow we take an overnight journey to Pattaya.