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Bangkok For 60 Cents

Hello from Bangkok, Thailand! We have arrived in our 8th country and 4th continent of the trip, and today I finished my third 4GB memory card full of pictures.

I suppose I need to cap off the Europe experience. Let's see, I last wrote from Turkey, from the nice little city/town of Selçuk. We were deciding how to get to Greece, the cheapest way of which would cost at least 70 euros. In the end, we took the ferry out to the island of Samos, which was quite nice. There's not too much to say about that, it was a Greek island, which is to say that it was brilliantly sunny, the buildings were whitewashed and glowed in the sunlight, and Jess forgot her swimming suit, which found her swimming in her skivies on a secluded beach. Given the condition of our two pairs of underwear each at this point in the trip, that was much less tantalizing than one might think.

Anyhow, we had a remarkably tame night bus ride up to Istanbul (meaning they didn't try to dump us off at any point, and I slept like a baby). Our last day in Istanbul, despite being weary from being on a night bus literally every other night that week, we burned off the pounds by walking all over the city of Istanbul. We found a few sites on our map that we wanted to visit, a mosque here, a spice market there, and we set out to find them. We were successful, and we saw neighborhoods of Istanbul that few tourists bother visiting, which is a real pity. We even crossed the bridge to see another neighborhood; there we found an exciting fish market, something that I always love, and the trip back across the bridge was the highlight of the afternoon. We didn't notice as much on the way across, because we were on the upper level with the cars and the tram, but coming back we walked on the second level of the bridge, which was a pedestrian walkway lined with shops and restaurants. Up above on the upper level were dozens if not hundreds of fishermen, dropping their lines over our heads to try to catch the fish swarming for the bread they threw in. Of course, being that the fish probably deal with a constant barrage of fishermen using the same old tired bread, I doubt that they bite very often. Still, it was a sight for us, the kind of culture that you don't get sitting on a tour bus.

Our flight from Istanbul to Bangkok the next morning was unremarkable, though I should mention that flying on Etihad Airways reminds me of the the good ole' days before all the US airlines went borderline bankrupt and cut their services. We were almost pampered by the airline, so rare when I am used to being abused and neglected on a good day flying in the US. Sure, Etihad is the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but what happened to the joys of flying? Now, airlines like Ryanair in Europe are talking about making you pay to use the bathroom on the plane, and have considered designing planes so that you are in a semi-standing position. Shame!

Anyhow, we arrived in Bangkok as scheduled. Unfortunately for myself, I didn't sleep a wink during the flight, so I was in the beginning phase of a coma by the time we came out of the airport. A good monsoon rain was waiting to greet us as we found our express bus to the neighborhood we planned on staying in, called Banglamphu. I fell asleep on the bus, only to be woken up to the driver telling us to get off his bus. We staggered off into the rain, fortunately just outside a cafe. We didn't have reservations for a place in Bangkok; it's better here to actually see the bed you'll be sleeping on before paying for it. I didn't anticipate the rain, though. So, instead of the two of us lugging our backpacks around the neighborhood, I had Jess hang out in the cafe with a good cup of hot coffee and I headed out with my rain jacket and the Lonely Planet to find somewhere to sleep that night. 

Well, as the trend has been for LP on this trip, it was almost entirely useless; the maps were wrong, and the only two guesthouses in our budget apparently no longer exist. That's not to say that there aren't a ton of guesthouses in the general vicinity of Khao San Road, the famous backpackers street in Bangkok. The issue is that it was raining while I was going from one to the other, looking at the rooms that they offered. I saw some very dark, musty, and generally scary rooms before I found a clean guesthouse that offered a basic room with a bed, a fan and a window for 230 baht ($9.70). Then I ran back through the rain to the cafe, and Jess and I went back to the guesthouse to collapse for a 4-hour nap. Our evening was quite relaxing, we wandered around the area, and we ate Pad Thai from a street stand for 30 baht ($.90).

Today was a remarkably interesting day, relative to the general continuous flow of interesting sights and experiences we have come across. We started this morning after breakfast to find a neighborhood of palaces and temples that is south of our neighborhood. Up to that point, I had initially thought that Bangkok was less crazy and busy as a place like Marrakesh, for example. Remember, I'd slept on the bus into town, and we remained insulated in our little backpacker neighborhood overnight, which contains more white folks than Thais. We experienced the real Bangkok, just minutes away from Khao San Road, a street that I'm willing to guess most backpackers never venture far from. 

 Navigational-wise, we weren't doing so hot. It is monsoon season in Thailand now, so there is usually a cloud-cover to match the oppressive humidity and frequent random rainshowers, and getting your bearings in this city is next to impossible. It's hard enough to try to gauge where you are with all the traffic blasting past in the street, and then if you stop just long enough to look at   map, more frequently than not someone stops to offer some advice about where you are going. Now, we are skeptical about such helpful people, they almost always have another motive to offering advice. Let's say that you make $2 a day; are you going to walk around offering advice to foreign people, just for fun? Doubtful. So we put up a resistance, but talked with a few people, including one old guy that was so friendly that our guard was let down. So began our adventure.

The next fellow to amble up while we peered at our map surely had some angle in our day, although I'm not sure how. He was full of great advice, telling us that it was a special day where the government was sponsoring rides via tuk-tuks (those funny little converted motorcycles) to the valuable sights. He was quite reassuring, and even flagged down a random tuk-tuk with the proper government plate. So, against our normal routine, we climbed aboard, and off we went. Our first stop was indeed at a little temple with a huge sitting Buddha. Cool enough. Our next stop ended up being another one of those awkward moments that you don't really believe you had later on. He dropped us off at a "factory," which I was picturing to be a big warehouse full of poor Asian kids on sewing machines. No, instead it was a cashmere suit tailorshop, and we found ourselves backing out the door explaining how, as Americans, we just weren't interested in a $400 cashmere suit or coat. Off we went down the road, to the government run travel agency, the TAT.

This was the only part of the day that I became angry about. We went up to the counter, at which a sluggish fellow told us that the bus to Chiang Mai (our next destination) was booked out tomorrow night, a terrible event as we were planning on getting out of Bangkok. He offered to sell us train tickets, and at our insistence "found" some bus tickets that he offered at 1030 baht each ($31, not bad in other countries for a 12 hour bus ride, but in Thailand?). We argued about the price, until finally we insisted we were going down to the bus station to talk to another bus company. We went outside, irritated to say the least, to find the tuk-tuk driver ready to take us to the next factory. We declined his services, to which he became quite agitated, surprising because he was supposed to be taking us around for the mere charge of 20 baht (60 cents). He drove off in a huff, and as we aren't people willing to let things go easily, we went back inside the agency, showing him our LP that stated that a bustrip to Chiang Mai should cost anywhere from 450-620 baht. He countered that our book was from 2007, and that prices have gone up; "They've doubled?" I demanded to know. Before long, he was on his feet and others were hovering around, in case things got out of hand. In the end, as we had no way of knowing if we were being ripped off or not, we bought the tickets; later, on Khao San Road, we found the tickets for 350 baht, but perhaps for a less safe bus company. Hmm.

Anyhow, we exited to find our tuk-tuk driver sulking further down the road. Upon seeing us, he again offered his services, to which we declined, and then the truth came out. He showed us a card that gave him $5 of free gas, which he said that he received for each "factory" that he took us to. He then offered to drive us free around town and back to our neighborhood if we agreed to go to the touristy shops. I was fairly delighted by his frank honesty and so off we went again. We saw a huge part of Bangkok from that little tuk-tuk, and if you haven't seen Bangkok from the back end of a tuk-tuk hurtling down the crazy busy streets for three hours, you haven't seen Bangkok. Especially if you only paid $.60 for it. As we neared another suit shop, he stopped the vehicle and turned around, telling us that it was ok if we didn't buy anything, but that it was important that we take our time. So we did, politely looking at the fabrics and shooting the breeze with the salesman, who surely knew from our looks and shoddy outfits that we were never going to buy a suit. We stopped at a jewelry factory, which was better because we actually saw the fellows in the back room making the jewelry and could call it an educational experience. It was just the standard old Carpet Shop Scheme all over again from Morocco and Turkey, only this time we were in on it. The guy got his gas cards, and we got to see several of Bangkok's great sights, although they rushed by as he pointed at them and shouted something inaudible in the wind back at us. We're thinking that this could be a volunteering opportunity, where we offer to get these guys free gas by going around with them all day to the tourist shops. Nothing like a good deed...

Anyhow, Bangkok has been good so far. It's as crazy and chaotic as they say, and then there are the sidestreets that they don't talk about, the food stands and the gambling halls, the Thai martial art rings and the genuine fake Rolexes and T-shirts. Sure, we may have paid three times as much for our bus tickets to Chiang Mai (and from the government no less), but that is the result of being in a new country every week. As soon as we figure out the angles in a place, we are heading off to the next one, with all its new angles. That's just part of the adventure of it all, though. If there weren't some angle, some hidden agenda, some gas card waiting to be obtained, then it would be so boring.

Until next time, be safe.


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