updated 1 February 2000
Where was b? 1999
Thailand- the Land of Smiles
Return to Bangkok, Thong Krup, City of Angels.Bangkok is a must destination for any traveler because it occupies a somewhat central position in Asia and from this concrete jungle radiate cheap flights in all directions.
Khao San Rd.
Khao San Rd. is a small haven for travelers nestled in the older part of town (Banglampu).It reminds one of Thamel in Kathmadu, but I think the main drag there is a dirt road (Or maybe my imagination is playing tricks on me). Budgettravelers typically end up around Khao San Rd.It's a useful place to be because of the multitude of travel services available such as ticketing, internet access, fake student IDs, used paperbacks and veggie spring rolls (the sign on the cart proclaims them Lord Buddha's favorite).You can also pick up a traditional massage and put your hair into a hundred little braids while your boyfriend gets an ancient massage around the corner (but that's a service available throughout the kingdom of Thailand and not unique to any one town or area.)
Bangkok is a terrible place to have to navigate. We crawled through traffic standing on cramped bus from the airport for maybe 2 hours. Traffic control is difficult in any large city, but quickly gets out of hand without the thoughtful guidance of professionals who are typically taken for granted in the West.Bangkok was originally equipped with a fantastic network of canals which were used to move people and goods around. These have fallen into disuse for the most part except for the express boat service along the Chao Praya River.There is a pier near Khao San Rd. which which is four stops up or down stream from the Royal palace area and temple (chapel) of the emerald (jade) Buddha. The temple area is a fantastic circus of color. The Buddha is pretty small. Tour groups from Japan, Singapore, France, Germany, America etc. clog up the entrance area while their guides explain to them how theBuddha has three or four different outfits of gold, one for each season. I forget the seasons maybe hot, wet, cold?
Temples, Gardens - Thai, Japanese, Chinese
Not so far from the Royal Palace area is Wat Po, home of the giant reclining Buddha, covered with gold, with ornately decorated mother of pearl inlaid feet. The buildings and chedis of Wat Po are likewise a profusion of colors. Colorfully glazed ceramic is used to make patterns on every available inch of space (so it seems).The style of decoration could hardly be further from the Japanese taste for dark, unpainted wood, bamboo tatami, and bone white paper set in a wooded refuge. The Japanese also use gray stones in their gardens preferably covered with lichens. There is a great contrast between Japanese and Chinese use of stones. The Chinese go mad for stones and make cavernous landscapes and playhouses out of them.
The Sex Industry
Thailand is famous and infamous for prostitution. In Bangkok, GIs on R&R from Vietnam helped build an industrygeared towards foreigners in Bangkok and just outside Bangkok on the coast in Pattaya. Prostitution has long been part of the fabric of life in Thailand (of course Thailand is far from being alone in this regard). What has developed in Bangkok and Pattaya apart from prostitution is an array of cabaret type shows.The neighborhood in Bangkok known as Patpong is located conveniently near the embassies and far from Khao San Rd. For one reason or another Patpong falls on most travellers itineraries.
So your dying to get the goods... Basically you've got two or three or four short streets. The first one is laden with Japanese restaurants and whorehouses catering to Japanese taste, ie karaoke bars. As you pass by early in the evening girls sit or huddle around entrances wearing their work clothes which are actually a sort of uniform. All the same color, maybe bright or pastel or white. Typically a short skirt, but otherwise something a waitress might wear. look closely or you might miss the small number buttoned near their shoulder(That's so you can make your order, "23 and 37 please.")They are made up, maybe with too much make up, but most of them are young and respectably attractive. They call out to any male passerby inviting him in for a drink or karaoke. They call out en masse to the Japanese salarimen "Irraishaimase, karaoke!". Everyone in the tourist industry loves the Japanese, prostitutes not excluded.
This must be the high dollar street. The next street is more working class. A market spills onto this one so you can buy handbags, T-shirts, sandals or a watch in between beers or shows. As you pass along the street hawkers try to pull you in at every 10 steps. Some work as doorpersons the various clubs, others are free lance artists working on commission. The free lance guys are obviously the most aggressive, they hold a small elaminated pamphlet in their hands. They flip to the page of your given nationality. Perhaps there is a small flag on the page indicating the language namely Japanese, German, Italian, French, or English. The tiny pamphlet describes in black and white the featured acts of the show. Usually a crude black and white sketch is provided for visual emphasis. The list includes such key phrases as open bottle, razor blades, pop balloon and blow out candles to name a few. These guys will try to get you to pay 100 or 200 bht ($3-6) but you can just as easily walk into a similar place with no cover charge and a one drink minimum (90bht).
The venue's feature a bunch of girls working the crowd (be careful or you're sure to get stroked by a transvestite) and taking turns on stage topless "dancing" (very poorly by American standards). Most of these places also seem to incorporate a "sex show" into the act. The show essentially involves a woman and her special organ engaged in various feats as already alluded. If you're lucky you might find a place with a shower show.There is apparently only one show in town somewhat off the beaten path that brings a man into the act.This is apparently illegal and the show keeps a low profile and 500bht price tag (of course negotiable.)Further details are left to your imagination. And so concludes a safe-sex tour of Patpong.
I will briefly relate my seafood dinner in Patpong. I was sitting with my friend enjoying some fresh seafood in the collapsible restaurant which sets up daily in this particular alley. It started raining and before long a small stream had formed beneath our feet.Plastic bottles and discarded papers floated by. Roaches began to climb the walls scurrying for cover from the flood. We were stranded on our plastic stools until the rain subsided.And we didn't have to pay extra for the added stream-side ambiance.
4 September -- Surat Thani
5-6 September -- Boh Put Beach, Koh Samui
7-10 September -- Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui
11 September -- Phang Ang
12-13 September -- Hat Rai Lay (East), Krabi
I landed in Krabi and told an English/Irish couple that this was where they wanted to get off. We went took a tuk-tuk to town and a long boat to the peninsula which is not accessible by road.It therefore lacks the automobiles and motorbikes that plague the other islands and so it turned out to be nicer in many ways than the islands. It is a very small area but it has great rock formations framing the small beaches and had great snorkeling that was comparable to a mediocre dive.
14-16 September -- Hat Yai
It was a nice change of pace to arrive in Hat Yai, a working city, having spent over a week around lazy coastal areas and islands. I was able to get the sand out of my socks and some exhaust in my lungs and street noise in my ears.Hat Yai is a center of commerce for Southern Thailand. There are a mixture of ethnic groups clearly represented in the small area around the train station where I have confined my research. Chinese are visible selling goldjewelry. Muslim women with their heads covered sit behind tables laden with fresh fruits from Australia to Thailand as well as dried fruits of the land and sea and nuts. There is indeed more variety here than other parts of Thailand. I was asked today if I wanted nasigoreng, which is fried rice in Indonesia, if I'm not mistaken. It was a Muslim restaurant. Of course Thais are visible as well, most conspicuously perhaps, posted on windows of pleasure dens. The streets are full of markets, you find goldfish, rabbits, clothes, hardware, women, produce, electronics for Gdog in roughly that order on any given street.Malaysians like to shop for their liquor and women here because it's considerably cheaper than across the border. I better go get a beer while I still can; so I was advised by a 62 year old odd looking German, of an Italian mother. He was on his way to India having spent one third of his life in Asia.
The Vegetarian Festival
16 September 1999
I was fortunate enough to be in Hat Yai for what appeared to be preparation for the upcoming Vegetarian Festival. The Vegetarian Festival is of obscure origin, but can be traced to Southern China, it is celebrated in Thailand only in the South. The biggest celebration is in Phuket, smaller festivals take place in Trang and Hat Yai. It falls on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month on the Chinese calendar. This year its 9 October or so.
What I witnessed was but a prelude to the real action. I was sitting with Don, the 53 year old American who's has escaped from America for 5 yearsand a young English couple who had recently discovered, much to their delight, American pancakes in Los Angeles. When a couple of Americans bicycling around Asia came up to inform us that people were going to scale a ladder made of knife blades in 15 minutes just up the road. Igrabbed my video camera and we made for the crowd that was gathering just up from the Cathay Guest House.The blades which looked like huge razor blades were being bolted into place on the ladder which ascended a good 30 feet into the air. There were two ladders, one leading up to the small platform the other leading down, both with rungs made of large razors.Soon a ritual involving drums, cymbals and incense commenced. The participants were younger men and boys. They were all bare-chested and wore white pants.The incense was waved around and over them as they worked themselves into a sort of trance or frenzy. Some of them shaking their heads or bodiesrhythmically.
Ear-splitting fireworks signaled the beginning of the ritual. Many people covered their ears. While the drums beat something reminiscent of China and something suggestive of noisy Tibetan Buddhist music.With little fanfare the boys began climbing up the ladder. Don had inspected the blades and found them sharp. We were expecting to see some blood, but none was spilt on the ladder. Over a dozen boys participated. Climbing up, taking flags from the ladder, sometimes shaking the ladder, then descending.They climbed up 2 or 3 times each it seemed. Someone had another guy stand on his shoulders while he ascended part of the way. Another guy rested his chest on the razor and balanced himself on it. A couple of them wiped the blade with their clothes before running their tongues over the blade. This may have drawn some blood.
After they were finished with the ladder, some of the older men took blades and ran them over their tongues and licked the blades in an upward direction several times. Slicing their tongues in the process.The were implements of middle age vintage as well, a pair of small axes, and two balls sporting long spikes connected to a chain. These tools were swung around rather wildly by some of the initiates. Grazing their backs and chests as they swung them. Some of them drew blood from their chests in this fashion.At least one participant left wtih a fairly bloody mouth and another with a fairly bloody torso. Another guy fell down sort of comatose looking, but I think he was revived. One of the initiates took one of the small axes and held it to his chest while he swung the other axe up and down loudly striking the axe on his chest which was in turn driven into his flesh.There was blood but nothing out of control.
Apparently the ceremony is Buddhist in nature, the participants adopt a vegetarian diet for a 9 day period or so at which time they are accumulating merit by saving the lives of animals. At the same time, they mortify their flesh perhaps as a gesture of compassion towards the animal victims of their carnivorous diet. The festival culminates with people piercing and spiking bodies with sharp objects of all kinds. Most notably they pierce their cheeks, both of them with a long rod of some kind. You can probably find photos in National Geographic.
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