Friday, February 29, 2008

Adios, Asia

Well, the time has finally come. Tonight's our last night in Southeast Asia. We're in Bangkok, staying at the Suk 11 guesthouse once again (if you're ever in town, it's WAAAAY better to stay here than anywhere near Khao San).

It's kind of an obvious thing to say, but our time here has been full of ups and downs. I absolutely love a lot of things about Asia and I'm extremely glad I didn't talk Liz out of this portion of our trip. Other things about Asia make me so angry I almost can't believe it.

This got me to thinking. What if you could take all the unique, awesome elements from each Southeast Asian country and combine them to make one spectacular uber-country? I think I'd call it Viet Lao Siambodia, and it would have the following characteristics:

- Thailand's beaches
- Vietnam's 16-cent Bia Hoi
- Lao's kicked-back attitude
- Angkor Wat (minus the hordes of tourists)
- Thai curry, som tam, pad thai, pad see iew, khao niaw, Khao Soi, morning glory, Tom Ka, Tom Yum, Sai Oua, etc...
- Vietnamese Pho, Nuong Bo, Vermicelli, fresh spring rolls, strong coffee with sweet and condensed milk, etc...
- Vietnam's healthy selection of pirated CDs and DVDs for around $1.
- Bangkok's T-shirt selection.
- Lao's bread.

And the people would drive like calm, efficient Germans.

Ok, that's too unrealistic even for a fantasy. The fact is that Asian culture is just so different that it's always going to be a little frustrating for Westerners to travel here. My main complaints:

- Driving. As mentioned in this blog before, the way people drive here is legitimately insane. The best drivers are actually in Thailand, where traffic signals are routinely obeyed and the roads are, for the most part, pretty decent. Even here, getting from point A to point B can feel like Death Race 2000.

The worst drivers, by far, are in Vietnam. I am honestly surprised that the bus driver who took us from Mui Ne to Saigon didn't kill someone during the ride.

- Scams. Almost everyone here wants your money; some will provide an honest service or product, others will just try to trick you. We encountered the least amount of scams in northern Thailand and Laos. Vietnam, Cambodia and the really touristy beaches in Thailand are the best places to get scammed. In Hanoi, you'll find multiple hotels, restaurants and travel agencies with the exact same name. The copycats are trading on the original's reputation, and rarely offer equal product.

When we first arrived there, we had a reservation at Stars Hotel. We were taken to "Star Hotel," and told that it was full, would we check out another hotel nearby? We pointed out that the address for "Star Hotel" was wrong and asked to go to the real hotel. They took us to their friend's hotel anyway, where a tout spent 10 minutes trying to talk me into a room for more money than the one I had already reserved.

When it finally became clear that we weren't getting out of the taxi until we were taken to the real Stars hotel, the tout slammed the door in my face and our driver suddenly revealed that he could speak English. Real nice.

Another scam that's less menacing but extremely annoying is the "forced rest stop." The cheapest and easiest way to get around SE Asia is by bus. If you take a tourist bus (which is pretty much your only choice in most places), you can count on a rest stop, no matter how long the ride.

The rest stops are usually welcome if you're in the middle of a 12-hour ride. But often you'll stop 20 minutes before your final destination at some diner in the middle of nowhere (so you're forced to eat there if you want to eat anywhere) for 45 minutes!

Another example. The other day we needed to get from Ko Pha Ngan to Bangkok. This involves a boat ride, a bus trip and a train ride. The bus trip from the pier to the train station in Surat Thani is about 40 minutes. But we drove an hour or so to a completely out-of-the-way diner and were forced to stop for 40 minutes before heading BACK the direction we came to the train station. Ugh.

This wouldn't bug me so much if the rest stops actually served decent food. They pay (bribe) the bus drivers to stop at their particular location, and, perhaps because they have a captive set of diners, tend to serve the shittiest food ever. At one recent stop, I ordered the safest bet on the limited, western-oriented menu: Pad Thai. It arrived about 20 seconds later, cold and limp as a dead fish. It had obviously been prepared earlier in the day and mildly reheated. I took one bite and decided that was enough. When the waitress returned to clear our plates, her eyes went wide at my untouched meal.

"Cold," I said. "No good."

She apologized in the faintest voice ever and disappeared. Of course I still had to pay for the meal. Complaining would do no good.

- Miscommunication/dishonesty. This is related to the scam category above, but different enough to merit its own discussion. It's frustrating to not speak the language, and therefore not be able to communicate exactly what you want from a restaurant or hotel. Sometimes they're gonna screw it up, and there's nothing you can do about it. This is mostly harmless, just a standard pitfall of traveling. But some of the locals use the language barrier to their advantage, like our friend the Hanoi taxi driver.

When we returned to Thailand and started island-hopping, we began to notice errors on our dinner bills. The service is different here, you could chalk it up to the pure laziness and forgetfulness of the staff, except for the fact that it was happening more often than not (like, seriously, 85% of the time), and the error was always for more money rather than less.

The thing is, everything is so cheap that lots of people sit down at a restaurant, order tons of shit, and pay whatever the place writes on the bill. If it's 140 baht versus 220 baht, who really cares? That's the difference between $4.50 and $7, really not the end of the world by US standards, but when you are traveling for a year and trying to make your budget stretch, it all adds up.

And the beauty of this scam is that they can always play it off as a benign error. I'd just get a mild, "oh, sorry" every time it happened.

- Inside-the-box thinking. I have a friend who has lived in Bangkok for 8 years now, and he is actually the person who helped me quantify this complaint. Example. You go to a restaurant and order two pancakes for yourself. They bring you two plates with one pancake on each plate, and two sets of silverware. This has happened to me not once, not twice, not thrice, but EVERY SINGLE TIME I HAVE ORDERED PANCAKES! I have tried explaining at the outset that both pancakes are for me, and that I can make do perfectly well with one plate and one set of silverware. Yet two plates always come. My friend explained that Thais in the service industry get so focused on completing their jobs in a precise way that it is very difficult for them to deviate from procedure at all.

My friend speaks perfect Thai, and when we were hanging out on Ko Pha Ngan, he tried to order fried rice with green curry paste each morning at a different place. Each morning, he had the same conversation.

Friend: "Can I have fried rice with green curry paste?"
Staff: "No, sorry, we can't do that."
Friend: "But on your menu, you have 'fried rice with curry'"
Staff: "Yes, that's made with a different kind of curry paste."
Friend: "But you have green curry paste, yes?"
Staff: "Yes, we have green curry paste."
Friend: "Can you make the fried rice using the green curry paste?"
Staff (unsure): "I don't know. I don't think it will be very good."

Keep in mind that my friend was speaking Thai; there is no language barrier here. And he's an expert on Thai food; the dish he was ordering is something the locals eat for breakfast commonly.

In other words, they really just want you to order what's on the menu and not make any special requests. Customizing your order throws their world into a tizzy.

This phenomenon also occurs anytime you buy anything, anywhere. The people here are obsessed with plastic bags. Buy a single bottle of water and they want to double-wrap it in clear plastic bags for you and toss in about 5 straws. It doesn't occur to them to think it might be unnecessary. They just know that they've been told to wrap all purchases in bags. They don't have the leeway to determine that you can manage to carry your single plastic lighter in your hands.

This isn't annoying so much as it is disheartening; the roads everywhere are littered with all this discarded excess packaging. Particularly in Cambodia. The garbage there will blow your [censored] mind.

- Weird service. Yeah, I'm blathering on and on about the service in countries where I don't speak the language, but, in my defense, I've been eating out 3 meals a day for the past 150 days. Little annoyances become big ones when they happen all the freaking time.

Here's a really weird thing about service in Asia. Let's say you're walking along the street, thinking about some dinner. There are a dozen restaurants in front of you, each with a menu for your perusal conveniently placed out near the curb on a stand.

If you approach the menu, an employee from the restaurant will appear and hover over you until you either decide to enter the restaurant or leave. In Vietnam, they will often try to sell you on the place verbally. Other places, they just stand there and stare at you.

Once you sit down, one of two things will happen.

1. A waiter will IMMEDIATELY appear and expect you to be ready to order. Anyone who knows Liz will know that this ain't happening. If you tell them to go away, they will return in approximately 12 seconds.

2. You will wait about 20 minutes, at which point you will give up and track someone down on your own. You'll order 5 things. After 10 minutes, you'll receive the first thing, perhaps steamed rice. After another 5 minutes, you'll get the second thing, perhaps a curry. Another 5 minutes later, the other person's food may arrive. Or it may not. If you wait for all the food to arrive before you begin eating, the first dishes may become cold and inedible.

Don't let all this complaining fool you. Most people we've encountered in Asia have been exceedingly friendly and polite. Thailand is known as the 'Land of Smiles,' and, for the most part, it lives up to the reputation.

If you haven't already been to this part of the world, you need to come. I'd recommend different places and countries to different travelers (for example, I'd have my parents fly to Angkor Wat and then immediately leave Cambodia for Thailand and Laos), but for the most part, it's an extremely easy and rewarding place to travel.

And now I'd like to address my brother and my wife's brother specifically:

Joel, Dave,

You guys *really* need to visit SE Asia. Save up a few bucks and get the hell over here as soon as possible.

Trust me,


Note: I'm not suggesting they visit Asia to drink 16 cent beers, laze about on spectacular white sand beaches and hook up with smoking hot asian babes and fellow travelers. But I'm not *not* suggesting it either.

And now the part of the post you've all been waiting for, photos!

Watering the street. I couldn't figure out for the life of me why people would do this. It's really common down on the Thai islands to find a guy inexplicably watering the gravel and dirt road in front of his shop. There are signs everywhere advising tourists to conserve fresh water on the islands, so why were these guys dumping gallons recklessly in the street?

My friend Austin actually came up with a reasonable explanation: It cuts down on the dust. So there you go.

Ko Pha Ngan. Although it's best known for the full moon parties, it's actually a pretty good-sized islands with plenty of mellow, beautiful beaches.

Austin and Brynn outside our bungalow at breakfast.

We let Austin do most of the ordering when he's around. The food that arrives is a lot better and spicier than it is when we order ourselves.

I finally got a chance to get some exercise playing a little football with the locals. And, apologies to Pat at CB&S, the game appears to be total luck. I haven't played organized soccer in 18 years, yet I scored two goals - one with each foot - and had another disallowed for being a tick too high.

Just kidding, I did score twice, but was clearly outclassed by everyone else on the field. Even this guy.

Our second night hanging out on Ko Pha Ngan, things got a little out of control.

We started with the local brew, Chang.

Plenty intoxicating on its own, as you can see.

And then we moved on to the ultimate drinking invention: A bucket of alcohol.

Ah, that Sang Som Thai Rum goes down so smooth!

I included this image as foreshadowing: Brooke in front of two empty buckets. She did not feel very well the next day. After our third shared bucket, we apparently contemplated ordering a fourth, and then the next thing we knew, we were all running into the ocean. The last thing I remember is sitting on the beach in my underwear, talking to a British Indian guy about how he should visit the States because the girls would really dig his accent.

After a few days recovery, we were ready to check out the full moon party on the other side of the island. But first, group photo.

This isn't the one Austin took. This is from our little elph camera.

Buckets are the beverage of choice down at Haad Rin (the site of the full moon party).

The donuts were tempting, but I can't imagine eating that "pizza" no matter how desperate I became.

A selection of glow-in-the-dark body paints readily available.

Didn't we learn our lesson?

A big part of the full moon party is attempting to light yourself on fire, be it through fire juggling, fire limbo, fire jump rope, or just plain running through fire.

Atsa spicy meatball!

Also a big part of the full moon party:

Just a few more to capture the scene.

This one very closely approximates what you see through your own eyes. Note the zonked out dude clinging for life to the pole.

And the grand finale to the evening: Greasy schnitzel sandwiches and a rainy cab ride home.

Life after the party: One of the cute puppies back at our bungalow.

Haad Yao turned out to be really impressive.

That's it for now, we actually have to catch our taxi to the airport. Catch up with you in Argentina!


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