Author: Kathy Hornbach

Chiang Mai Thailand – 2nd time around

Chiang Mai Thailand – 2nd time around

Back to our favorite spot as we prepare to head home

img /Travel/Asia/Thailand/ThaiIndia-0104/images/cnxtemple.JPG

We’re both sensing that it is about time to go home — but we’ve got a week left yet, and heck, gotta spend it somewhere. We’re fond of Chiang Mai and Scott knows it especially well having spend nearly three months here back in

Ref: Travel/Asia/Thailand/ChiangMai0102/index.html

There’s nothing exciting to report from our visit, its familiar and relaxing. We stock up on medications (much cheaper here, and available without prescriptions), eat juicy papaya from Scott’s favorite street vendor, get two hour massages that cost $5 each. Wander. Oh, and have “Happy Hour” each evening. We sit out on the porch of our room; make drinks (we’ve run out of both decent rum and decent gin and are now sampling the “local product” – it’s not pretty), have some cheese, Thai treats, maybe some fresh pineapple or one of our favorites, mango with sticky rice. Then head off to one of the local restaurants and blow $3-4 on dinner.

It’s so pleasant here, we decided to check out some long-stay places – furnished apartments for rent by the month. They weren’t fancy, but were entirely servicable and relatively large – and cost on the neighborhood of $150 – $200/month. That’s like $5/day. Sometime soon, we may just do this.
ref: Travel/Asia/Thailand/ThaiIndia-0104/Bangkok3.html

Phitsanulok & Sukhothai – Visiting Ancient Thailand

Phitsanulok & Sukhothai – Visiting Ancient Thailand

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Peter and Vincent continued their journey towards Cape Town; we plant to head back to northern Thailand to visit Pitsanulok and Sukothai. These are not on the major tourist routes, and we had to figure out how to get there. We had two basic choices:

Cheap Way:

  1. Take a bus to Bangkok, end up in the southeast part of the city. Cost: B80 — about $2
  2. Take the Skytrain to the end of one line. B60 — buck and a half
  3. Take a taxi from there to the railway station — another B60
  4. Take the train from Bangkok to Pitsanulok; leaves at 10pm arrives at 4am. B890 ($22) each

You can travel around like the locals, and its really cheap. But sometimes, it just ain’t worth it.

Expensive way:

Go to a travel agency. Use their taxi service to Bangkok airport, and fly. Net cost? About $100. Two hour drive to the airport, less than an hour for the flight. We chose comfort over economy.

We’re here, we’re hungry. It is HOT

We got into Pitsanulok fairly late, and without a hotel booked. We had found a likely place on the Internet, but couldn’t find the phone number. We had expected to find a hotel booking kiosk at the airport. There was nothing but a car-rental place, fortunately they had the local tourist guide and we were able to get the number. We called them, they offered a free pickup and we waited outside and talked to a Thai kid maybe 20 years old, spoke good English, had spent 4 months life-guarding in Virginia and had been offered a basketball scholarship to Georgetown University. As we’re talking, the airport staff turned off the lights and locked the door of the airport. We were the last flight in (it was about 8:00pm).
The hotel was a real find – the “Grand Riviewview” was located, as one might expect, on the bank of the Nan River that flows through the center of the town. It was a 1-year-new hotel that wasn’t in any of the guidebooks. It was 3-star plus, plush and luxurious, had free internet service in-room (the only indication of this was a LAN connection jack on the wall labelled, suprisingly enough, “Internet connection”), good food and prime location. $27 per night including full breakfast for two, tax and service. Hard to argue with. Their English-language skills were lacking; we were the only farang in sight (site?). Scott’s Thai language studies proved quite useful. We don’t reckon Pitsanulok gets a lot of foreignersit’d be a good place to become more proficient at speaking Thai.
Pitsanulok is a decent, medium sized city. Beautiful by night. Like any city, it has kind of upscale parts and kind of downscale parts; it’s easy to stereotype a place based just on where you happened to land (and where we landed wasn’t particularly exciting). Pitsanoluk is the most important city in north-central Thailand, a transportation hub between the north and south. It’s also a gateway to the ancient temple ruins in Sukhothai. It is also the highest combination of heat and humidity we think we’ve ever encountered. Daytime temperature was over 100F, with humidity around 60%. This is like taking a sauna with all your clothes on — and exercising at the same time. Yikes.

We spent the first day wandering around P’lok; found the Tourist office which was quite helpful, visited Wat Yai (which is a colloquial name for something much longer — Yai means simply, “big”). As a Buddhist temple is was interesting, but we’ve seen a lot of beautiful temples in our time in southeast Asia. What made this one interesting is the lack of farang at the site. You got to see a “locals” tourist spot without the “pollution” that ultimately comes when a place is decended upon by foreigners. We had walked both to and from the temple, and by noon we were back in our room, overcome by the heat.

Sukothai’s Ancient Ruins

We didn’t come to this region for the food, the involuntary sauna, the Thai-language-skills-building-opportunity… we were here to get “ruined”, and Sukothai is the place in Thailand for that (or to a lesser extend, Ayuthaya, which is smaller but closer to Bangkok). The Sukothai dynasty is thought of as the “Golden Age” of Thai history, and the birthplace of Thai civilization during the 1200s and 1300s. The Sukothai ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s something we’ve always meant to visit.

After the extravagent expense in getting to P’lok, we took the budget route to Sukothai – a bus, for 75 cents each (about 40 km). We found a delightful guesthouse, with elaborate gardens and lotus ponds, in New Sukothai (about 8 miles from the ruins). Scott’s cell phone is a godsend when you want to make travel arrangements at the last minute.

Given the heat in P’lok, we were determined to get an early start to see the ruins — the park opens at 6am. Well, we’d been used to sleeping in, and by the time we got organized and headed off, it was nearly 8am; it was nearly 9am by the time we were viewing the ruins (having taken a circuitous bus to get there). We spent the next several hours tramping in the heat through the ruins in the heart of the Old City. It’s a large site, and a bit of a walk to get between sites. Unfortunately, the signage isn’t very good, and neither was the map we had, so we walked much further than one really had to. We could have rented bikes, but didn’t want the hassle of having of locking them at every stop. We could have taken a tuk-tuk, but the distances didn’t seem that large on the map, and besides we needed the exercise. We were overheated and exhausted by 1pm. But there was one more temple to see, shown on the map as just outside the city walls. Right. It took a while to find the right gate to exit the old city by; we expected to see the temple right there. It wasn’t. We walked a bit, walked some more, finally saw a sign pointing down a side road, followed that, walking quite a bit more, another sign, another turn, walked some more. What had looked on the map like a 500 ft stroll to the temple turned into a deathmarch in the afternoon sun. It was cooler than P’lok fortunately – couldn’t have been more than 96 or 97 degrees. Well, the temple was in fact excellent. But then we had to take the deathmarch in reverse. It was 3:30pm by the time we arrived exhausted and beet red back at our hotel.

Heat exhaustion aside, it was an excellent set of ruins to visit — check out the pics here (also some of P’lok).

Next: Chiang Mai rerun

Pattaya – Sex in the City

Pattaya – Sex in the City

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An Evening with the BoyzBoyzBoyz Boys

Insights into the Commercial Sex Trade

Boyz sign

Welcome to Boyztown. As we were headed back to our hotel from dinner, the touts (who are all hanging in the same street, vying to get you into their bar) chat us up. There aren’t that many mixed-gender couple in this part of town, so I guess we’re a novelty. As we’re talking, scantily-clad boys wander in and out of the bar. Kathy is starting to enjoy this way too much. After standing in the street for about half an hour, we decided to have a drink at Boyz… to watch the world go by. We stay for about three hours.

This is the sort of thing where “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but photos are “highly discouraged” even outside the venues, and prohibited inside. Why? What’s going on is not exactly hidden from view?

It’s a Living, but…

On the surface it appears that the avenue is filled with flamboyant gay men — but as our restaurateur has told us (and I’ve heard it before) — perhaps 80% of the “Go Go Boys” are actually straight. Doing this is a living, by rural Thai standards it is quite a lucrative living. But the boys (and female CSWs [Commercial Sex Workers], for that matter) aren’t especially interested in having their pictures taken under these circumstances. Thais, like most Asians, are quite modest (see this link for a digression on that topic) and to be in the sex trade… isn’t “something to write home about”. When these rural kids — practically — age 18+ leave their village and head for places like Bangkok or Pattaya, and start sending home cash, what the kid is doing really isn’t discussed. It is one of those “I know, you know, I know you know let’s not talk about it“, things. It doesn’t carry quite the stigma it would in North America (“What’s your kid doing these days?”, “Oh, he’s prostituting for gay men in Bangkok. His girlfriend works in a bar too”) and the trade is regulated.

As the world goes by

The touts are bored — they work from about 8pm to about 3am trying to attract customers, and it has to get pretty old pretty quickly. They work 28 days per month, 7 days per week — two days off per month. One guy is falling asleep while standing in the street. Says he got to bed at 3am (this would have been the previous morning, it’s now around midnight the next day) — and couldn’t sleep. This guy is running on empty.

We’re a novelty (most “mixed” couples are just walking through the neighborhood to gawk) — they’re not hanging around. Thais are naturally inquisitive, so we exchange the usual pleasantries (“Where you from”, “Hold old”, “Any children?”). Kathy asks one of the guys if he has any kids. He beams — Thais love kids — their own; everybody elses. He goes and fetches his wallet, shows us the kid’s photo. Its an intimate moment with a complete stranger in a strange land. Later, one guys purchases a couple of champoo‘s (they’re a waxy fruit that is sort of pear shaped with a slightly tart flavor and consistency of an apple). He brings one to our table and gives it to us. Another touching moment.
Speaking of touching, the baby-photo-guy is getting increasingly “familiar” with Kathy. Thais believe that the head is the most reverent part of the body (you would never touch a Thai’s hair, for example). He walks by, gives Kathy’s knees a little rub. This continues through the night. A knee, a thigh-touch, handshake, shoulder. In a North American setting, the typical husband would invite the guy outside for a fight. But this seemed innocent albeit a bit flurtatious; one stranger reaching out to another.

The Wacko

What happens next is initially a bit scary but ultimately ends up somewhere between annoying, and entertaining. A tall, wild-eyed foreigner walks up to our table (its a table for four) and promptly sits down. Doesn’t ask, just sits at our table and engages us like we were old friends. We try to be cordial; he has an accent that suggest Germany or Holland, we ask. “Originally? From Japan”. OK fine, here’s a Netherlander who happened to be born in Japan. Could happen. But every question we ask solicits an off-the-wall answer. “Your skin is light”. “Yes, I’m Indian”. “You know Indians?” He is manic (Bipolar Disorder), we’re guessing — and we hope he leaves as spontaneously as he arrived. And soon. He stays around 10 minutes. The touts see our predicament — we’re pondering whether to leave, ourselves, to get away from this nut. The touts make the universal “crazy person” symbol (a finger rotated around the temple). This is a sort of signal to us that he’s harmless — but he is annoying. One of them comes to our aid — the champoo guy — and escorts him into the bar (we’re outside). We don’t seem him again.

Boys come, boys go

There are maybe 50 or 75 young men (they’re 18+ and this is enforced, but they’re all referred to as boys, not men), parading around in short, white, skin-tight pants. There is little left to imagination; their short pants extend perhaps four inches lower than their briefs, which are entirely apparent. There’s no question as to which boys have the “assets” and which don’t. Some have cell phones tucked in the back — looks kind of silly but it a status symbol. Many have tatoos. Some are flamboyant; most not. This is the ultimate in meat market.

Inside, there’s a stage where the boys can “dance”. They’re more or less parading around, they rotate; each boy is on the stage for maybe 10 minutes. During this time, he hopes he’ll catch somebody’s eye; maybe the customer will take him home. This is called “Offing” and we’ll get to it next. So here are these guys, most of whom are not gay anyway, trying to look appealing while being literally “on display” — they’ve got number tags on their shirts or shorts. “I want #77 for 2 hours”, perhaps a customer tells the Bar Manager. The boy is “Off’ed” from the bar. Incidently, I’ve been in the “Girlie” bars too — its just the same. More on this later. Very few of the boys look like they’re actually having a good time. It’s sad; kind of pathetic.
There’s limited seating in the bar, and of course, the objective of a bar is to sell drinks and boys — the mananger tries to optimize the number of potential customers and their “prospects”. The boys may sit in the bar, but if a customer needs a seat, the boy gets ousted. Or maybe they’ve got a break time. In any case, there’s a continuing stream of these scantily-clad boys going in and out of the bar. They come outside, use their cell phones, have a cigaratte perhaps. One attractive woman shows up, says something to one of the bar staff. A cute boy comes out and she gives him some money — we’re thinking its his girlfriend — they seem close. It’s surreal.

“Offing”

First, a disclaimer — neither of us has any first-hand experience with this… what follows is a description thoughtfully provided by our hotel. Secondly, we’re describing a procedure here — not particularly making value jugements about it.

Offing” is the term applied to the financial transaction that occurs when a customer decides that he wants some “off-bar” interaction with a Go Go Boy (the procedure is the same in straight bars). The boy and the prospect discuss the potential interaction (we’re trying not to be too graphic here). If they agree, the customer must pay the bar a fee — between about $5 and $7 — to allow the boy to leave the bar. If the boy merely interacts with the customer for any length of time in the bar, the boy will ask the customer to buy him a drink. Drinks are typically in the $3.50 to $5 range, so this is a fundamental way that the boys make money for the bar.

Once the “Offing” fee has been paid, the customer and the boy go off, do whatever they do — and the boy returns to the bar. If the customer wants to keep the boy all night, the charge is higher. Multiple days? Return to the bar and pay an extended fee. Negotiable. Many bars provide rooms by the hour for the convenience of the customer.

According to the guide in our room, the “tip” given to the boy for his services is at the discretion of the customer. It might be as little as B800 (about $20). Doesn’t sound like much of a living, but if the average income for a rural villager is $200/year, and the boy services 5 men a week at $30 each — that’s almost $8000/year.
So there you have it. How to get a teenager for a night of reckless abandon. Or two. This is not slavery, this is not child prostitution. Its a business transaction, authorized and regulated by the government: “dancers” (Go Go Boys and female equivalents) get weekly STD [sexually transmitted disease] tests, and monthly AIDS tests. They are educated in safer-sex techniques. At least the ones working “above board” in bars are protected, to an extent.
We’re quick to judge; we suffer moral outrage easily — but this is not our culture, not our country, not our lives. It is arguable that regulated prostitution is far better than unregulated — which is what we have in the vast majority of the US.

Ref: Travel/Asia/Thailand/ThaiIndia-0104/PitsanulokSukhothai.html”>Pitsanulok
Ref: Travel/Asia/Thailand/ThaiIndia-0104/Pattaya.html

Sexy Pattaya

Sexy Pattaya

Pattaya

You probably won’t “find yourself” here — but you could lose yourself, pretty easily.


Feb 11, 2004 — Pattaya, Thailand… Sex in the City. Billed both as an “International Resort Destination” (restaurant menus in Thai, German, Russian, Greek…, plethora of choices, shops, sports, bars… everything) and the sleeze capital of the world (“You want lady?”, STD clinics, “Viagra! Erectile Disfunction specialists!”, “No Child Sex!” posters, prostitutes, transvestites, tranvestite prostitutes…) Pattaya seems to have a bit of identity crisis. Tourism authorities are trying to redefine it as a family resort (it has a way to go) — but money interests favor keeping it largely the way it is — and money talks especially loudly here.

The closest “resort city” to Bangkok, it is extremely easy, and cheap (by Western standards) to get here, and also inexpensive (again, relatively) to stay. It seems to attract some of the stranger tourists we’ve seen in our travels, like they came here after the Vietnam war (Pattaya got its start as an “R&R” (rest & recreation) center) and never left. It is full of Germans, Brits & Aussies, plus an apparent community of Arabs (sections of South Pattaya are labeled in Arabic), and the aforementioned Russians and
BoyztownThere’s also a fairly large gay section to South Pattaya (Pattaya is split up sort of into North, Central and South, even though it isn’t that big), and we’re staying right smack in the middle of it — an area called, appropriately, “Boyztown”. Why here? You could say it’s the whole reason we’re in Pattaya — Pattaya isn’t a place either of us would go out of our way to get to:

Peter & Vincent, a wonderful gay couple we met on our last cruise (they live in Vancouver, BC and Scott may end up renting their apartment if he goes to Culinary Arts school there this spring) are, as we write, on the Cunard QE II “World Cruise”, headed for Laem Chabang, a port city about 25km north of here. We “negotiated” with them about their coming up to Bangkok to meet us there, but they decided (wisely, I think) to come down to Pattaya to check out the entertainment — their time in port is limited (they arrive tomorrow at 8:00am and depart the next day at 7pm). Peter recommended the hotel we’re at (Le Cafe Royale). We checked it out on the internet — “way Gay but OK”. Kathy was a little concerned that “her kind”, err, gender, might be disconcerting to the other customers, so we sent the hotel an email with out tentative reservation and received a prompt and quite affirmative reply: “Thank you for the consideration but there will be no problems whatsoever. Our staff will be more than happy and our other guests will accept you without any problem whatsoever.” With that, we hired a taxi to drive is from Hua Hin to Pattaya (about 5 1/2 hours; about $50 + tip) and… voila’! we’re in Boyztown.

Kathy seemed a bit “off balance” at first. After Scott pointed out that a girl probably could not be in a safer place, and that she would be surrounded by hot young Thai boys in very short pants… she relaxed, and now kind of likes the place. Scott is worrying about the competition, though. “What have they got that I haven’t got?” he thinks. Youth. Hair. Twenty-eight inch waists.
We went to a couple of local shows, one sort of “skinny-boys-doing-acrobatics-underwater”; one drag show. Both pretty tame. Kathy scoped out the boys, while the boys scoped out Scott. Kind of surreal. We also had dinner nearby and the Proprietor, had recommended these shows and said “You know, probably 80% of the “Bar Boys” are straight — they’ll be the ones checking you (Kathy) out when you come in”. And so it was. “Workin’ Nine to Five (that’s 9pm to 5am” — what a way to make a livin'” –with apologies to Dolly Parton.

Last night (Thursday, if you’re keeping score) we stayed up way past our middle-aged bedtimes, to take in a Drag Show that started at 12:30 in the morning (so OK, I suppose it was actually Friday if you’re really keeping score). The show part was really fun — song-and-dance routines with hunky men and quite attractive transvestites (i.e. these are “all boy” shows, but some of the boys are more ladylike than others. Not to disparage the female sex, but in Scott’s experience [which is “look, don’t touch, by the way], if a girl looks perfect — s/he’s probably a guy. Bodies just don’t turn out that svelte without help.

It is hot here — mid 90s with humidity that just clings in the air. Going out “into the noon day sun” is pretty taxing, so we’ve tried to limit our outdoor activities to “gentler” times of the day/night. That having been said, Scott went out walking around noon today for about 3 hours. Go figure.

Visiting with Peter & Vincent

We connect with Peter and Vincent around 11am (we’re just having breakfast, having been up till 2am the previous night) at the cafe just outside our hotel (the hotel is called Le Cafe Royale, after all…). Peter’s got definite ideas about how to spend their limited time: he wants to visit local gardens (“Nong Nooch”) and a professional drag show at a venue called “Alcazar”. Scott’s not so keen on the garden visit but would like to enjoy the show. This complicates the day a bit but gives Scott another opportunity to bake his brain the sun — and take care of the logistics for Pitsanulok, our destination for Friday afternoon when we leave Pattaya.
Kathy, P & V enjoy the gardens, and we rendezvous at Alcazar. Its an elaborate and very well done show; sort of Broadway-meets-Thailand with transvestites, and worth the $15 or so the tickets cost.

Photo highlights (some “point” to larger versions):

Cafe Royale
Sunset over Pattaya
Kathy poses by Chez Nous, Le Cafe Royale
Scott’s a pushover for a good sunset
May September romance
German Tourist, ja?

Business Transaction in progress

Representative Tourist, alas
Some good looking boys….really

Next: Pitsanulok & Sukothai
Also: An Evening around the Commercial Sex Trade

Paradise in Hua Hin, Thailand

Paradise in Hua Hin, Thailand

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Hua Hin, Central Thailand

Leaving the 3rd world for the 1st: “It’s not bad”. Leaving the 1st world for the luxury 1st world… is even less bad.

Arriving into Bagkok airport felt like coming back home again. It was 5:30am when we arrived — but we were able to buy a SIM card to “localize” Scott’s cell phone, then call and book a hotel, take a taxi there, check-in, and be sound asleep in our fluffy beds by 8:30am. We spent a couple days in Bangkok running errands and getting thoroughly over our food poisoning. Then it was off to a new city: Hua Hin, a resort town southwest of Bangkok.
We took the train from Bangkok down to Hua Hin, about 4 hours. Second Class but with A/C — didn’t seem particularly cool until you went into a non-A/C car… Cost about six bucks — $1.5 per hour of travel. We’d brought all nature of snacks etc. but turns out vendors ply the train with all kinds of goodies. I got a tasty lunch for about 75 cents, but declined multiple offers of fruits and sweets. Thais love sweets… maybe that’s why they smile so much. Dentists must do well.
We arrived around 5pm, maybe 15 minutes later than scheduled; negotiated a songtaew (local equivalent of a taxi: converted pickup trucks with two bench seats (song means two, taew means “bench”). My fading but functional Thai language skills got the price down from 300 baht to 100 — about $2.50 for the both of us. There seems to be a direct relationship in Thailand between how much you speak the language… and what you pay for things. Kathy said something like “Your Thai lessons seems to have paid for themselves on this trip”. This makes me immensely proud :). Studying Thai language seems a bit quixotic — doesn’t share the world-popularity of say, French — but it works great in Thailand!

So “Where the heck is Hua Hin?” Bangkok is in central Thailand, and there’s a gulf about 25km to the south. Imagine an upside-down “U” with Bangkok at the top. Take the left (west) fork and you get to Hua Hin. take the right fork, its Pattaya — another resort town but with a far seedier reputation.
We’re at the Hyatt Hua Hin resort, staying on frequent-flyer (“frequent stayer?”) points. Hyatt “charges” different amounts of frequent flyer points based on the quality (or perhaps the demand, or both) of the particular hotel. Most resorts are 25,000 points per night. Hua Hin was 5,000, the lowest per-night charge. It is certainly an anomaly, as the resort is absolutely lovely: directly on the gulf, several restaurants, manicured grounds. There are relatively few people here; we’re guessing that either there’s a glut of hotel rooms in Hua Hin, or the location is complicated to get to — whatever. Or maybe they just screwed up on their website (www.hyatt.com — check out the property) — but Kathy really “scored” on this place. Of course, with resort quality comes higher prices — full breakfast is about $10, drinks in the $3-$5 range, and so forth. Doesn’t seem like a lot of money (Kathy commented that prices were about what we’d pay in Nashua) — but when you’ve been traveling in the 3rd world and getting meals for 50c, you get a bit touchy over $10 for breakfast. The location is fairly isolated, but we’ve already found local restaurants and small markets to keep us in water, soda and beer — without breaking the bank. And because we’re “long time stayers” (7 nights) — we get discounts, free internet access — and some other goodies. It’s not bad.
Over dinner, Kathy and I pondered how we feel about “hanging out” in the lap of luxury. On this trip we have run the gauntlet of accommodations, from “sleepsacks” on desert sands, to dingy hotels, to elegant havelis, to a 1st world resort. It’s a combination of pleasure and guilt (sort of like eating expensive chocolate): we have an appreciation of how the locals live and the disparity between them and us –yet we worked hard to get the “privileges” we now enjoy. Staying in the 3rd world allows you to enjoy this “1st world bubble” much more.
Our 1st full day here we did… nothing. Went for a swim, lounged by the pool, slept, ate. Visited the internet cafe, which threatens to vastly increase the cost of our holiday here — they get about 20c per minute for internet service (contrast this with 25c per hour) in Bangkok. But we’re “on” to a local Internet provider’s phone #, and we’ll see how the hotel zings us on that cost.
Monday (we think) — another day surrounded by coconut palms, waterfalls, and countless staff who are without exception cheery and helpful. Must be dreaming. This web page is coming to you from our porch, which is amply sized for two, with chairs, table and lamps… and a handy electrical outlet for the PC. Today was as uneventful as yesterday, ‘cept we took the hotel’s car into “town” (such as it is; think of any American beach area in the dead of winter (population-wise) — but with 90 degree weather. Fetched some much-needed supplies (tonic water, Coke & Diet, bottle of wine) as buying them from the hotel could bankrupt us. Besides, it gives us the feeling that we’re getting away with something.
Tuesday…Wednesday….Thursday….Friday
We spent the entire week being lazy bums – sleep till 8 or so; read the paper and have coffee on the balcony, head down for a late breakfast. Spend the morning reading or napping, or picking up something in town. Have a late lunch followed by a swim in the pool. Nap and read some more. Cocktails and snacks on the balcony. Wander out of the resort complex to score a tasty Thai dinner for $3 (for two).
<7 days pass…we spend about $100 for the entire week — not bad for life in a 5 star>

Ahhh! Unrequited Meat Lust

3/6/04 Yikes!, we’ve been eating Thai and Indian food for a month +. Truth be known, we love Thai food (and Indian food for that matter). But we’re suffering from BDS — yes, Beef Deficiency Syndrome. Desperately seeking steak. We’ve scoped out a few choices: the 1st two are noisy and expensive. The 3rd, “Koala Blue”, has a simpler menu with what we seek, and more reasonable prices. Only suspicious part is there is nobody eating there. But, we cast this aspect aside and sit down in the place. The staff (both of them) are very nice… but the meal was dreadful. We both order fillet mignon, medium-rare, peppercorn sauce. We’re not sure what we got (faux fillet Scott thinks, a cheaper cut of meat the French are fond of). It is tasteless and tough. The sauce tastes like pre-manufactured hollandaise with peppercorns thrown in for good like. Kathy’s is raw. They merely threatened it with cooking. And the wine — an Italian Merlot — was horrid. They even managed to screw up fresh asparagus.
Culinary nightmares are made of this.

But Sausage Satisfies (you could do würst)

3/7/04 We once again make the arduous journey into town (ok its only 4 km, takes 10 minutes and costs us about $3 round trip), having spotted an advert for a promising German deli (“Over 30 cheeses”). We’ve already got a decent bottle of red (we hope) at the hotel– the proverbial jug of wine. We supplement it with a king’s ransom of gorgonzola, cheddar, pepper salami, parma ham, olives cured in oil, fresh breads (the proverbial loaf). In lieu of dinner, we gorge on these goodies, consume the entire bottle of wine, and pledge an oath not to be the only customer in an “Australian” grill in Thailand.
We had a couple extra days before we had to go to Pattaya to meet some friends, so decided to stay at the Hyatt for another 3 days. The hotel had no regular rooms, so we had to move to the Club level. You gotta do what you gotta do.
The 10 days at a 5 star resort ended up costing us about $150. Not bad.

Next: Pattaya

Bye Bye Dehli

Bye Bye Dehli

Bye Bye Delhi

Escaping Back to Thailand

The train from Agra left in the evening, and we weren’t back to our Delhi hotel till about 11pm. When we had arrived in India almost a month ago, we were very unimpressed with the hotel. Now, after three weeks on the road staying in some even more basic places, seems quite lovely. They remember us; we’re kind of “family” at the place. Feels nice.

The first thing we did was fill the tub (our first in 3 weeks) and scrub off all the accumulated dirt. It felt soooo good. Kathy was able to eat a small meal (her first in almost 3 days). Things were looking up. And our feet were clean!
We had planned for a couple of days in Delhi, to rest up after the trip, before heading Varanasi and the Ganges River, the spiritual center of India. Our friend Asha’s aunt lived there, and she had offered to let us stay with her, and to show us around the city. We were thrilled. We’d booked an overnight 1st class train (no more 3-tier sleepers for us!) – ready to travel in style!

But, the next day we didn’t feel very good (again). We didn’t do much. We both started worshiping the porcelain goddess again. The day after we were a bit better, but not by much. We didn’t think we could handle an overnight train ride, followed by two days in the very hot, very dirty, and very very crowded city of Varanasi. So, with sadness, we cancelled our trip to Varanasi, and fell back into bed.

The next day, we felt a bit better, but neither of us really had much interest in seeing more of Delhi – been there, done that. Our flight out wasn’t for another three days, but we could see no reason to stay, so we called to see if we could change our flight. They weren’t able to confirm a seat, but sounded quite hopeful. Like most flights from Delhi, this flight left at 12:30am (i.e. in the middle of the night). After being so sick,and after spending a month in downscale hotels, we decided to splurge, and get a room at the Radisson Hotel near the airport, until our midnight flight.

What a wondrous experience it was to have the door of the Radisson opened for us, and be swept into the lobby of a 5-star international hotel – no dirt anywhere, marble floors, big chandeliers, music softly playing – we had re-entered the first world! Heaven! Up to our room we went – soft white sheets! Water that flowed fast and hot from the tap! Big, soft, fluffy pillows! Air conditioning that really kept things cool! Carpeting! And, to top it off, wireless broadband access! We reveled in our first-world luxury room for a while, then had dinner at the Italian restaurant for some exorbitant (“1st world”) price, and return to the room to pack. But, when Scott called to see if they’d found us seats, they sounded pessimistic about our chances of getting on the flight that evening – very overbooked, the next day “looks much better”. We wondered whether they were working with an Astrologer: “signs are very bad, tomorrow will be better”. And there was our bed, so white and soft and tempting. It wasn’t a hard choice – we’d take our chances tomorrow, and sleep in the lap of luxury tonight.

The next day, the hotel wouldn’t let us extend our check-out time by even a minute, so we were kicked out of our room by noon, with 12 hours to kill until our flight. We sat here and there around the hotel, the wireless access still working for a while. Scott surfed, Kathy read. We called the airline again – ominously, the forecast had changed from “looking likely to get on the flight” to “overbooked — come to the airport and take your chances”. By 8pm we’d had our fill of the hotel lobby, and headed off to the airport so we’d be first on the waiting list. We hadn’t bothered eating, assuming we could get food at the airport. Yeah, right.

We were first in line when the ticket counter opened, but the agent couldn’t give us any idea as to whether we would make it – it was overbooked by 35 people. We were to just sit and wait by the gate until 11:30, when they would start calling stand-bys, if they had any free seats. Worryingly, a fellow traveler we talked to said that every flight for the last two weeks heading from Delhi to Asia had been sold out (no idea why). It was hot, there was nowhere comfortable to sit, nothing to eat, we nowhere to go if we couldn’t get on the flight, and we were still feeling poorly from the aftereffects of food poisoning. Not an especially positive airport experience.

There’s a lot of glamour to traveling around the world, but there are also a fair share of crappy times like this. Gotta take the bad with the good. So we sat glumly in our molded plastic, stomachs grumbling, until 11:30pm rolled around. They started calling names – we’d expected to be top of the list, because we both have elite status on United (we were flying Thai, a United partner) and we had arrived so early. But they called someone else. And someone else. And someone else. “the signs are not good“. Finally – they called us. We were jammed into tiny, uncomfortable seats, flying upright and cramped into the morning. But, we were on our way back to comfortable, familiar Thailand. Saved!

Ref: Travel/Asia/Thailand/ThaiIndia-0104/HuaHin.html”>Recovering from India

Taj Mahal — Even Better in Person

Taj Mahal — Even Better in Person


So, of course, the Taj is the “must see” sight in all of India — and we had both came down with food poisoning. It didn’t start out too bad — just a few stomach cramps. We weren’t too worried, and left the bird park by jeep, driving to (yet another) fort — this was in virtually pristine condition. It had been built by a maharaja in the 1500s, its location ordained by a priest. Well, he forgot one thing – there was no water anywhere near this palace in the desert. They stuck it out for 15 years, and its been abandoned ever since. Kathy felt increasingly unwell, and as we exited the fort for the drive to Agra, she realized her breakfast wasn’t going to stay down. Fortunately, as with just about everywhere in India, there was an open sewer running nearby, which she quickly moved to take advantage of.
We’ll spare you the details of the rest of the day – let’s just say we became well acquainted with the porcelain goddess in our room. Kathy was quite sure that she was going to have to miss visiting the Taj the next morning – but miraculously, she felt better enough to head out at dawn, to catch the Taj as the sun rose. Scott, who never seems to get as sick as Kathy, was feeling quite chipper.
Unlike any of the other palaces and historical sites we’d visited, there was impressive security at the Taj. You were allowed to bring nothing in except cameras, and had to twice go through metals detectors and body searches. (Apparently there had been terrorist threats against the Taj). There were probably a hundred or so people who arrived at dawn – it wasn’t crowded at all.
Entering the grounds, there was a light fog and the sun had yet to rise. The light was gray, the fog was gray, the Taj was gray. It was magical and unearthly. The pictures don’t come close to the reality — it is absolutely stunning. We spent a couple of hours, watching the the Taj turn pink as it reflected the rising sun. We were awestruck (and Scott has seen it before).
 We headed back to the hotel mid-morning. Kathy was exhausted (having not eaten for almost two days) and neither of were in top form. We slept through the afternoon, then headed off to catch the train back to Delhi. As we waited for the train to arrive, we were entertained by several urchins who apparently live at the train station. Keeping a close eye on our belongings, we blew up balloons for them to play with – they were enthralled.

Next: Change of Plans

Bharatpur — It’s for the Birds

Bharatpur — It’s for the Birds

birds

The last bus ride (hurrah!) took us to the tiny town of Bharatpur, where there is a big park for water birds. This may seem unlikely, sited as it is in the middle of the great Thar desert. But one of the maharajas found a water source and built a couple of lakes (lake-building was a standard maharaja activity). They were built to provide duck-hunting for the royals. But, as the land was turned over to the government, it turned into a National Park. Birds from as far away as Siberia spend time here – over 500 species in this small park. As one might expect, the only people to make it to this remote park, besides bus-riding Intrepid travelers, were rabid birders from Britain, with camera lenses the size of small cannons.

We spent a lovely late afternoon touring the bird park by cycle-rickshaw. It was indeed full of birds; water birds and “regular” birds. It was a delightful way to spend an afternoon, away from the noise and dirt and pollution of the cities. tigersign We wished only for a proper beverage: gin and tonic; rum ‘n Coke — as we enjoy in our favorite “Bird Island” forays down in the Florida Keys.

The hotel we stayed at was one of the nicest of the entire trip. Since there were no restaurants in the nonexistent town, we all had dinner at the hotel. And being a package-tour hotel (for Birders), dinner was served as a buffet. As a rule, one should never eat at a buffet in a country where sanitation is questionable – there are just too many opportunities for the bugs to multiply while the food sits out. But this seemed like a very nice hotel, and most of the dishes on the buffer were kept hot, except of course the dessert – a tasty cake with a thick custard frosting. Besides, we had proven ourselves hardy – almost everyone else on the trip had gotten sick at least once, but we’d been hale and hearty throughout. Mistake.

Jaipur – Forts & Palaces

Jaipur – Forts & Palaces

amberfort
Getting to Jaipur from Udaipur was another adventure – we headed out on a 3-tier, non-A/C train for an overnite trip. Narrow berths stacked 3 high with no bedding – it was “cozy” (in the real-estate sense that is to say “cramped”) and not particularly comfortable. But we made it.

By this time, we were getting a little worn out — a new city every day or two, out into the dirty, noisy, crowded streets to visit castles and forts; back to a hotel with uncertain hot water supplies and hard beds. We’d been having a fascinating time – but we needed a break. ralf

 We were fortunate to have just that – a friend of a friend lived in Jaipur with his family, and we had arranged to get together. He’s helping oversee a major irrigation canal to bring water to this parched region. We had a lovely time, escaping from the city into the quiet of his home, then out to dinner at a lovely clean restaurant. It was just what we needed!

Next morning, it was off to see another fort, the famous Amber Fort of Jaipur. At this point, all the forts were starting to blur together. The fort is up a big hill, and the big attraction for most tourists was the chance to ride an elephant up to the fort. (We walked).

One memorable Jaipur “attraction” were the feral pigs. They were everywhere, nosing around in the garbage, blocking the road, sprawling in the dirt. Many Hindus are vegetarians and Muslims don’t eat pork so these pigs had no one coming after them. Ugh.
pig

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Romantic Udaipur

Romantic Udaipur

lakepalace
Udaipur was another favorite for all of us. It’s best known for its Lake Palace, a stunning palace that rises out of the center of a man-made lake in the center of thie city, which is now a (very expensive) hotel. The hotel was the site of the James Bond film “Octopussy”, which all the local guesthouses showed nightly. Our hotel was located right on the lake opposite the hotel (the picture above shows the view from our hotel.) The highlight of the visit to Udaipur for Kathy was getting luxuriant henna tattoos on both her hands and feet. These are a traditional ornament for women, and are made by free-hand painting of henna, which is allowed to dry, then re-wetted with a mixture of lemon sugar water and allowed to dry again. The result is a dye that lasts for many days – basically, until the skin wears off.

The city palace in Udaipur was one of the most stunning palaces we had visited to date – and that’s saying something! Every surface is intricately covered in artwork. The rooms were a combination of (rather garish) mirrored tiling and detailed paintings. (The mirrors helped reflect the lamp light in the evenings). Fabulously intricate murals
highlighted the most important function rooms. Most of the palaces were built over a period of several hundred years, with each new descendant trying to outdo his predecessors in grandeur. It is unimaginable how much these must have cost.

Kathy, along with several other trip members, took a couple of yoga classes in Udaipur. The classes were fun – and the instructor amazinging limber – they really can do all those unbelievable poses. But, the highlight turned out to be something that happened while walking the short distance to the class. On a sidestreet, out of nowhere, came a a procession of brightly-dressed women, each carrying a coconut in a pot on her head, led by drummers. The women were chanting and rolling their heads — it was some type of puja (religious ceremony). One of the wonderful things about India is that you never know what you’ll find when you turn the corner. It turns out that there were three weddings being held that evening. Since three is an inauspicious number of religious events to hold in one day, the women performed with additional ceremony, making the total four, which is auspicious.

Meanwhile, Scott headed off for a cooking class, where he learned the techniques for making all the tasty dishes we’d been sampling along the way. Mmmmm. Kathy headed off to get a henna tatoo on her hands and feet – elaborate designs that are painted on by hand with a thick henna paste and left to dry. When the dried paste falls off, the pattern remains on the skin, lasting for up to a couple of weeks.

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