Sunday, 24 February 2008

A taste of Thailand (II)

Thailand is hot, wet and spicy, and it's not just the weather and the food. Sexual tourism is huge in Thailand, and Bangkok is very justly famous for that. Heaps of old, fat and predominantly failed white men with heavy pockets snake their way to the City of Angels*, with the smell of cheap easy juicy exotic sex dragging them by their noses. And they find what they come looking for, judging by the couples I see on the street.

Massage parlours are pretty much everywhere: Thai massage, oil massage, and maybe something else, which goes unwritten but understood. At first I though it was easy to differentiate the places that offered just-massage from massage-with-happy-ending, but I've heard first-person accounts of the contrary. Even in just-massage places, where girls are not lined outside in revealing outfits and call you out, chances are sex is still an optional extra. Quoting Matt, prostitution in Asia has a full range of shades of gray.

The practical totality of the Thais I've met were disarmingly nice and polite, all smiles and bows. Smile, nod, prayer, bow, in the traditional Thai way. You might find the very occasional asshole, but it's the exception to the rule. But the one rule without exception, the one thing no Thai will ever fail to do, whatever the circumstances, is trying to rip you off. With a big smile and a nod, of course. Every single one I've had any commercial exchange with has tried to rip me off, even when I had already booked for a fixed price, even when the price was clearly tagged. The street vendors, the taxi drivers, at the hotel, the tour operators, practically everyone. Even the immigration official at the Airport wanted a 100 Baht "tip" because I didn't fill out my departure card and he did it for me. You are in their eyes, as I say, an ATM on legs.

It goes much farther than this. In Thailand, most prices are "flexible", that is, they're a rip-off and you're not expected to be so stupid as to accept them, so every purchase implies some haggling. In my personal experience, it's easy and fast to get a third off any quoted price, even if it's clearly tagged in big bold numbers. This still leaves the seller quite happy, so my guess is that real prices should be less than half the first one they give you. The only exceptions I know of are public buses and "serious" shops, supermarkets and 7-elevens. You're not expected to bargain for food either, but I can testify it's feasible and easy. At first it's heaps of fun, trying to outsmart the locals (which you very seldom achieve, believe me) and getting a real bargain, but, as Makura already reported, you do get fed up eventually, and at some point wish for fixed and reasonable prices.

And this brings me to the shops. The green-and-orange seven of 7-eleven is even more ubiquitous here than the Coca-Cola billboards. Every corner and intersection has at least one 7-eleven, open 24h, providing emergency food, soft drinks and beers at convenient convenience prices. I am absolutely thrilled by this. Here is a place where you can live and be active 24 hours a day! Wooo-hooo! There are even night markets, with some stalls open 24h (the owners take turns to sleep right there).

I absolutely adore the markets. They're so full of exotic colours and smells, of life, activity and excitement. They're so authentic and defining, so big and busy, and of course so cheap. I can spend as many dehydrating hours browsing through the stalls as the owners will have them open. The ubiquitous legions of guys calling you out can get annoying at times, though.

[indian accent:] "Hello my frien, com see my shup", "How are you ser, nice to meet you" (while he´s in your way and his hand is fishing out for yours), and of course "Hey where you go?", "Where you from?", "Taxi, tuk-tuk, chip-chip! Twenty Baht!". I´ve tried several tactics but soon discovered that the best way to deal with it is to completely ignore them. At first I pretended I didn´t see or hear them, but at the end I really didn´t hear them anymore. I´ve filtered them out. Now they´re just background noise, a constant buzz you get when you walk certain streets.

I've already pointed this out before, but my reporting wouldn't be complete without making it explicit: Thailand is cheap as shit. A daily budget of 20-25€ (including all local expenses and all regional travel) makes you the king here: restaurants, hotels, taxis, flights, and quite a few whims fit in there. You can go much cheaper than that: on a budget and with time to spare, 10€ per day should do the trick.

I ended my sneak-peek at Thailand with a visit to Phuket and Phi Phi. I loved the fine beaches and the warm sea, the views and the atmosphere. I don´t usually favour lazying on the beach, but here I indulged and enjoyed it very much. These were very touristy areas (Phi Phi horribly so), full of chunks of white wobbly Western walking ATMs, so prices are enormous by Thai standards (still "flexible" though). Even so, they´re less than a third what you would expect on a beach on, say, the Spanish coast.

Phi Phi is where they filmed the beach from The Beach. Luckily Koh Phi Phi Leh (the South, smaller island) is a National Park, so it´s not rotten with hotels, resorts and shops like Koh Phi Phi Don (the North one) is. The bay was, though, at the time I visited, full of one-day-tour boats, and the beach was so crowded you couldn´t see the sand. Phuket, on the other hand, has much more to it than sights and beaches; the towns are vibrant and quite exciting by themselves. Architecture, culture, history, life and nightlife, all around. Not Bangkok, something different, but equally thrilling.

This is getting to an end, so I wish to declare myself before it´s too late:

I'm in sincere, heartfelt, desperate love with Asia. I want to see it all, spend more time here, and Thailand is first on the list. But now I have little choice but to go.

Hopefully an Eastward wind will bring me here again soon, with pockets full and time aplenty. See you soon, Siam.

* The shorthand name of Bangkok in Thai reads "Krungthep", meaning City of Angels.


Discount Vacations said...

hey master man your account of Thailand is quite comprehensive i commend you for this account

maw said...

That's all there is to it. No frills, simply lovable. I wish I had a taste for travel, but every time I do travel I feel like a frustrated tourist. Human nature, as it comes before my eyes in this narrow space-time that has come to be my headquarters, is surely enough for my analysis of the depths or, as you like it, the shallowness of humankind. Perhaps that's why I am reluctant to travelling for too long in this Americanwise-globalized 21st-century Earth: getting to know people in their tourist dimension won't allow for insight; it will simply skim through stereotyped images - so nice but incomplete. And I seem to only like living near poison, something genuine that has to be neutralized...

Bruti said...

I have read it all. I do feel curious and anxious but happy. However, I probably will regret just to stay for 5 days in Bangkok, includling arrival and departure. Too less, ridiculous less. But I have 5 more days in Singapore, and 10 days in Japan.

Sometimes, I am in a mood to write poetically like you. I try to. And I try to absorb things without being to busy and bustling.
But money has not recently appeared in my bank account and does not fly to me naturally, though, I always find money in cars or among chairs in the hostel.

MakurA said...

Me mola lo que cuentas de Tailandia. Todo el mundo dice que es como India, pero way, y parece que tienen razón =)

PS. "dzbpq"

Big Fat Rat said...


I just found your blog through infohub, as I was about to post my own blog entry about Thailand (I am in Bangkok now).

I agree with your thoughts about being ripped off with a smile but it seems to me that the phenomenon happens on a very little scale compared to India (where I just came from). If you've been traveling in India for a while, arriving in Thailand is like Paradise, and even rip-offs aren't too bad...

After six weeks in India, I was fed up with having to negotiate for the most trivial things. When I would get quoted a ridiculous price, say "one hundred rupees" I would just say "why?, two hundred! no, wait, I'll give you three" and walk away.


: ) said...

My husband and I usually just eat from the markets everyday. I have a thai food cooking blog and I have to cook for that sometimes, but really it's so easy to go to the market and pick something out... we get a few things and it's under 100 baht (about 3 dollars). :P Joy Joy's Thai Food