Sunday, December 01, 2013

Travelogue: Underwater walking


After everyone completes para-sailing from the group they will push you back on the speedboat you came in and drive to the next location which is on another floating platform built in the sea. There will be many speedboats dropping people for the activity but every boat has one guide who keeps track of people in their group – and you can’t really get lost in the middle of the sea!
(the pic is the parasailing event)



There were two screens showing what happens here; this activity can be a little frightening for those who don’t know swimming or are scared of putting their head underwater. It’s called underwater sea walking; you change to a swimming costume if you have one – else you can just go in with your normal dress as well. All bags and shoes will have to be left on the platform. We were a little worried of leaving our stuff but there’s really no choice unless you want to split up your group to safeguard belongings. Since our main valuables were in the hotel we left our bag and went together. If you want to get snaps + a video of you/your group taken underwater then there is an extra charge for that of 500 Bahts or so; otherwise the activity costs 1200 Bahts.

You walk to the edge of the platform, you turn around, put your foot on the ladder that goes downwards from the platform into the water. When you are half immersed and holding to the ladder, the organizers manning the platform will put a large helmet on your head. The helmet is connected by a hose to some cylinders on the platforms.
This isn’t your bike type helmet – it’s like a helmet made by chopping a large plastic ball at a 75% height; like a spacesuit helmet. The bottom is not sealed – it’s open and that is frightening because you will have open space between your neck and the bottom of the helmet and it will feel as if the water will flood your helmet. 

The one instruction they give you is “You will have some ear pain but that will go. But if you find it is too much then signal with your hand.” Once the helmet is on they will push you into the water where someone down will pull you and midway on your downward descent he will pause and ask if you are ok – ask with a thumbs up sign and if you are fine then you respond with a thumbs up. It is very likely that you won’t be fine because of the pain in your ear – it is a lot worse than what you feel in airplanes. I did show the thumbs up because I felt it was bearable for now and hoped it will disappear. The fear of water gushing in is constantly there.

Once dragged to the ocean floor they will hook you up with some other tourist and tell you to hold their hands – they bring people one by one and form a small group of people holding hands in a circle. While holding hands you will sway a little as you struggle to remain straight; and as you sway you will drag the rest of the people – the idea with the circle is that others will help you hang on! The organizer who dragged you will then return once the circle is formed and he will lead the way – from a circle we break up into a line; it’s a little fun walking but the ear pain didn’t go away. It was still bearable. You can watch the fishes up close; the organizer guy will give you some bread crumbs – the minute you hold them in your hand, fish will attack your hand to nibble at the bread crumbs. The experience is fun and a little frightening – you feel you will get washed away under the sea; there are times when you feel you have no control on where you are moving; times when you feel the helmet will pop off and what not!

Our expert photographer had the best fun in the group! More on that later…

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Travelogue: Flying High


Another scam?

We had to rush in the morning; the tour operators will tell specific timings when they pick up tourists from hotels for particular activities. First thing in the morning was to carry enough money for the event; and we had locked most of our cash and passports and whatever anyone felt valuable within our hotel safety locker in our room; due to the fear created by the hotel owner the previous day. Guess what – the electronic locker didn’t open in the morning! We called the hotel owner (who is the receptionist, cashier, manager and everything rolled in one).

I’ve described a few scams that happen in Thailand; being suspicious I wondered if we had fallen into some lesser known scam. I wondered how we easily trusted a hotel safe! Truth be told – in Thailand it is probably safer to keep valuables with you in hand as long as you are not getting into a tussle with anyone or getting into something illegal; because here tourists are given priority when it comes to police cases. The owner gave us some cash to cover for the time being and said he will have it opened by the time we return. It felt uncomfortable – passport, cash, card, our expert photographer’s camera and what not.

A van picked us up and we went to another hotel where we picked a couple of north Indian families – there was also one kid. The Indian family really frustrated the van driver because they kept delaying with each person coming one by one – the driver threatened many times to move. The van dropped us on a small beach. Over here the van operator hands you over to another event organizer – they collect money for activities like parasailing and underwater sea walking. These are pretty much fixed rates that you can Google; no negotiations there. 500 Baht for parasailing, 1200 for underwater walking and the tour guy takes 500 for the whole trip (boat, lunch, pickup and drop).

Up up and away

We were all loaded into a speed boat and taken out to the middle of the sea where there was a flurry of activity atop a relatively large platform constructed with wooden planks. The organizing lady asked, “dip no dip?” and then put a mark on our hand and pushed us out of the boat onto the platform. Actually they even have 2 dips if you want – this decides how many times you want to touch the water when you do parasailing; default is 1 dip.

The activity is pretty well organized on the platform in the middle of the sea – between the speed boat organizer and the parasailing guys. They’ll strap on a life jacket on you with some places where they can hook up the strings that will attach you to a speed boat; you will also be clipped on to a type of parachute. The speed boat will force you to start running on the platform (even if you don’t you will get dragged off!), the parachute will spread open and you will find yourself floating higher and higher in the air till you reach a maximum height. The driver of the boat will then slow down a little and you will slowly descend to the water, sink up to waist level, most likely swallow some salty sea water and then he will again accelerate while you fly again. He will go around the platform and then slowdown in such a way to let you land on the wooden platform from where you started where a few organizers will grab you and unbuckle you from the speedboat. The sensation of ascent and descent is great – what starts out initially as fear will turn to joy. Take heart from the kids who are more than eager to fly - there was a little kid who insisted on doing the ride and he was buckled up with one of the organizers to take the ride. Don’t worry too much about the fear of drowning in the middle of the sea and you should be ok :-)

Our expert photographer had good fun – he got to do a 2nd round free! For some reason the speed boat driver wasn’t able to get him to land on the platform and so he took him around once again. Our photographer had another bigger surprise in store for later!

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Travelogue: Fish spa


Temptations are hard to fight; and they say that one way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it! But it’s very likely that you will regret it later. As we passed down Walking Street I wondered how many people had yielded to their temptations; how many people had Walking Street conquered?

The street is not as jam packed as the most famous street in Chennai but it comes close. As you cross the midway mark the crowd starts to thin out. Towards the end of the street there was an Indian pub playing Bollywood music; there were many playing music so loud that we could feel the beats outside. And further beyond this there was a pier (a platform extending over the shore into the sea with a few boats tied to it). Veggie friend and I spent quite a while sitting on the small wall that extended across the pier. There were a few folks on the opposite side enjoying a drink; a few meters away a few young adult Asians were huddled in a group enjoying jokes – most people had a drink in their hand.

It was around 1am when we took the return walk down Walking Street. On the way we saw a Fish Spa – it is very popular in Thailand. Look out for durations of 15 or 20 minutes because doing 30 minutes to 60 minutes will be boring and also more costly. In a fish spa you will have large glass boxes filled with water and plenty of small fish. Next to the box is a bench; you sit on the bench and with a slightly wet towel your legs below the knee level will be scrubbed to ensure there is no dirt. Then you dip your legs up to knee level in the water. And what follows is one of the weirdest sensations that you will experience – ticklish, tingling and a little worrying when you see all those little fish attacking your legs. Along with the two of us, there were two foreigners who took a dip (each person gets a separate glass box). Both of them screamed and pulled out their legs two seconds after dipping it in. Aided by the shop assistants they tried once again by slowly lowering their legs – they made funny expressions and held up for 2 minutes before resigning! Once you get over the first couple of minutes you can relax – you get used to the strange sensation and the concept of fish eating humans for a change.

The fish are called ‘doctor fish’ and they eat the dead skin on your leg; there are claims and counter-claims over health benefits. There are also concerns about infection spreading through water since the water isn’t cleaned after each customer dips their legs – when we put our legs we really didn’t know about any of this!

Veggie friend bought a cowboy type hat in Walking Street for the cheapest price we had seen in Thailand. The Thai girl who sold it to us was extremely grateful and thankful – this shop was near the end of the street and I don’t think they would have got many customers. 

It was nearing 3am when we hit the bed back in our hotel room.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Travelogue: The famous Walking Street


Honey massage!

After visiting one of the bigger shopping malls in Pattaya (nothing great - and prices also weren’t anything great), we found an Indian restaurant while roaming around the main road; our veggie friend was delighted and the aloo parathas they served were pretty good. The Pakistani driver had left us - once the tour operators know that you aren’t going to go to any other attractions, they will want to leave because they won’t get any more commission because of you. Even for getting tourists or visitors to certain massage centers (called honey massage) they get commission. Do beware because these aren’t the typical massage centers that you see in Bangkok - these do cost a lot of money (over 2000 Bahts) and they are very popular in Pattaya. Tourists operators will try their best to push you into these places.

Tuk-tuk

Our next stop was Walking street and this was near our hotel. To get back to our hotel we jumped into one of the local tuk-tusk (a tuk tuk is an auto-rickshaw); the ones in Pattaya were lengthy in the back with two rows of seats facing each other. They run around the city like share-autos and you can get off anywhere along their route. An Australian passenger joined us and he got started about cricket and the pathetic performance of the Australian team in India. He told us which stop is Walking Street - it’s not hard to find; it is the most crowded street in Pattaya at night and if you walk a few steps inside you will see a board saying ‘Walking Street’. There were a few police cops standing at the entrance.

Walking Street

You’ll see all sorts of things out here - many outlets in this 
street are pubs and dance bars or a combo of both. Some of the pubs have very loud music and you’ll sometimes find a few people dancing on the street outside the pub. There are plenty of transgenders and like our hotel owner had said, sometimes they will look more pretty than women! And guys had got into problems thinking so. Some dance bars have been setup with showcase areas - it’s like in clothing stores you have dummy models with dress placed behind see through wall; over here instead of the dummies there are real women or transgenders swaying to music coming from the bar inside. It’s to attract people to enter the bar. Some bars have setup balconies from where these live models try to attract attention of the crowd below. All these bars with models dancing tend to charge a lot more money for drinks - so beware; and it isn’t nice practice if you step into one of these outlets, sit and watch the dancing and then leave the place without buying anything! Most of these outlets try to attract Westerners; there is the belief out here that Indians will not spend much money. So even on the street, the women and transgenders will flirt with Westerners.

Lonely men and scams

Another common sight is that of single elderly Western men sitting with a young Asian girl having a drink. And from the many instances that we saw, it seemed like the men were doing all the talking while the women were just listening (or appeared to be listening!) The men probably wanted someone to whom they could pour out their mind. A lot of Westerners tend to spend a few months in Thailand when the winters in their native country is harsh - the cost of living here is a lot less than in Europe or US; it costs about $10 per night if you take up monthly accommodation in Pattaya.

There is another scam out here that is common in this street - I had read about it and here we saw a few guys who seemed to be a part of it. Local guys will run up to you and show a menu card - it’s not a regular food menu card but will have a list of a-rated items with price tags. Beware of these; they will tell customers that they can watch whatever they picked. They’ll take the victims to somewhere upstairs on one of the buildings, play some little video or maybe nothing at all and demand money from the victim; being surrounded by the local guys there is no option but to pay and leave!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Travelogue: Alcazar show at Pattaya


We got into conversation with the burly driver of Pakistani origin. As darkness set, we could see a lot more people on the streets. He strictly followed the traffic rules and we discussed about the plight back home.
“Over here if someone comes from a side road, we will wait for them to turn and go in front. But there no one will. Basic road sense everyone has.”

True; back home everyone seems to be in a hurry as if the whole world depends on them reaching their destination 10 seconds early. The driver said that he goes to Pakistan only occasionally – he was well settled in Thailand. We discussed about development and corruption back home; and I guess the state was similar in both our countries. Soon we were into a street that seemed like a main road based on the amount of shops and lights on the sides. He parked the taxi in a parking lot and asked us to follow him.

The Alcazar show is a cabaret show – you get to pick a drink (flavoured orange juice) and watch the show in a huge indoor auditorium; the lower level seating and the ones close to the stage cost a little more than the balcony seats. There were plenty of families, couples and even elderly folks in the audience. The show mostly consists of dance performances with one or two comedy acts or mimes. We got to watch a mime which depicted a conversation between a guy and a girl – the stage setting was simple; completely black curtain and the spotlight would shift from the guy to the girl – at any given time you can only see one character because the rest of the stage is pitch dark. The surprise was right at the end of the act – it was a guy who was acting as both the guy and the girl; one half he had makeup of a guy and the other half as a girl – quite fascinating it was. 

The rest of the show was filled with group dances. The dance itself wasn’t that great but the costumes, backdrops and stage decorations were very well done. Background music was mostly English and a little Thai; there were even a couple of Bollywood songs – obviously to attract the Indian crowd. Few memorable ones were the James Bond song “world is not enough” for which they lowered a large dome with plenty of holes from the ceiling; the light from the center of the dome made patterns outside the dome as the dome kept spinning. Another one was a museum setting where the performers were completely painted in grey and looked like statues before they suddenly started dancing.

 
In Pattaya you will find a lot of transgenders on the streets from late in the evening. And many of Alcazar performers are transgenders – they do use a lot of heavy makeup and at the end of the show you can see them up close; you can also take snaps with them but not for free. Couple of our guys tried – our expert waved a 10-Baht note but the lady was definitely not interested in that; our photographer tried 40 Bahts and he was successful in getting her to pose for a snap with him. You might read in some places that the transgenders will force you to give money after the show but that isn’t true. Similar to the Alcazar there are a couple of other shows like a Russian show which runs at about the same time (around 8pm); but from what I heard from the driver, they are not for family audience!
(pick above is from the outside)

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Travelogue: Gem factory scam


A beautiful peacock beyond words

It wasn’t long before the host just closed the door while we were only 4 people in the medium sized theatre. A video started playing which showed how gems are extracted, cleaned, polished and cut; it also mentioned about how gems are valued and parameters to look at while selecting gems - kind of similar to what they say for diamonds; about cut, clarity, carat etc.

Once the video was over (not too long), the host led us outside down a long passageway. On the way were a few pictures on gems; the passageway connected to another passageway. Behind us I could see that another employee was guiding another set of tourists into the theatre. This passageway had a few showpiece items made of gems - the most beautiful sight was that of a peacock built with gemstone crystals (height of about 3 feet); it was simply dazzling - blue, green, purple and a variety of colors shining under the lights. The cost was somewhere in the range of Rs. 20 lakhs or so. On the other end of the passage were a pair of serpents related to the Chinese calendar; they also looked majestic but I found the peacock more fascinating. You could just stand and observe it for a few hours without feeling tired - unfortunately photos aren’t allowed inside this gem factory.

The gem factory scam

Next the host led us into a huge hall that had plenty of items on display like a jewelry shop - necklaces, rings etc.; everything with some gemstone embedded. Our expert enquired about one of his lucky gemstones and the host led us to a place where there were a few rings with the gemstone. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a floor that is so huge with so many display items – there were even showpiece items; price ranged from few hundred Rupees to a few thousands.

Now you may ask, what’s the scam in this? You need to beware of what the salesman say; very often the item shown is not genuine; in fact in some gem factories, they will even say that the gems here cost a fraction of what is their original cost and they will tempt you to buy it by saying that you can make a lot of money back home; and many people have fallen to the persuasion. You are not forced to buy but the salesmen will put pressure – in our case the host kept following us and leading us to different sections in the hope that we might pick something; but I don’t think he was that enthusiastic about us since he might have had the feeling that we weren’t a group that would buy something. The tour operators and travel guys have some deal with the gem factories - their duty is to bring as many tourists as they can; so you don’t even need to pay the travel guy for bringing you there because the gem factory will reward him for bringing people.

The whole operation (gem scam) is very well organized; when we came outside we really didn’t have to tell anyone to call our cab driver – in a few minutes our cab arrived from the parking lot. And as we got in, I could see a few other travelers being dropped at the entrance to the gem factory.

Tickets always sold out! 

It was around 5pm when we reached our hotel; the plan for the night was to attend the Alcazar show. When we told our hotel owner (he was owner, cashier, waiter and receptionist as well!) he suddenly said, “Oh, but the 7-o-clock show is sold out.” 

We were disappointed, especially our ‘veggie’ friend because he had heard a lot about the Alcazar show and was told that there was no other show equal to it in Thailand; not even the Tiffany show in Bangkok. We went to our room and a couple of them went for a shower while one person slept off. I got a call from the owner saying, “I can get you tickets for the 7-o-clock show.” Our veggie friend was delighted. But having happened the second time in the day we were suspicious; he did the same for Nong Nooch as well.

“I think it’s part of their plan. If you ask just before the event, they will say no tickets. They make you feel as if it is very hard to get a ticket and then they’ll say it’s available at the last minute and charge extra.”

“But price is still ok.”

That was true; we knew the official rates and what he quoted was still around the same figure - 600 Bahts.

The four of us got ready; we had heard enough stories from our owner about safety and we had also read things online which made us leave a good amount of cash and card in the electronic locker in our room. Out of the same fear our photographer left his camera in the room as well. The owner demonstrated how the locker worked. Soon we were in the lobby where we paid the owner and our ‘expert’ had a can of beer while we waited. The owner handed us over to a lanky local who led the way to the main road. The four of us waited for our pickup car which was driven by a man of Pakistani origin. 

Our night adventure had just begun!

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Travelogue: Thai tourism network, Nong Nooch and elephants


Modus operandi

Thailand thrives on tourism and this can be seen in the well-connected network of operators. From the list of alternatives that our hotel host showed us, we picked ‘Nong Nooch garden’ for our afternoon trip. He said he’ll call the tour organizer to pick us and then he told us that it will cost slightly more than the listed price on his catalog since we were late. Not having any choice we accepted – point to note is that if you were to go on your own to Nong Nooch garden, the official entrance fee is more than what this intermediate tour guy was asking for.

Typically all hotels have a tie up with a tour provider; the tour provider will pick you up by cab or van (might pick few other people from other hotels) and take you to the destination. He will get you the entrance tickets since he has a tie-up with the park/garden/event. This wasn’t just in Pattaya but even in Bangkok it was the same – hotel, cab drivers, tourist guys and tourist attraction spots are part of a network; it makes the life of a visitor easy because you don’t need to argue over prices with cab drivers and all – it’s a flat rate and they take care of you till you return.

Nong Nooch

We strolled on the streets near our hotel and drank some fruit juice from a roadside vendor - a very common sight in Thailand. The tour van guy took us to Nong Nooch – about 30 mins. drive from our place. Conversation with the driver was difficult due to language barrier!

The driver rushed us off to the Thai cultural show which was in a large auditorium with plenty of fans to keep the audience cool; the fans would also blow a few drops of water to cool the place. We went to the last row on the top (the only one free) and people even stood on the benches to view the performance on the stage – there was a demo of kickboxing, a show with elephants and a cultural dance; the dresses they wore were similar to the ones we saw in the textile museum. After this we rushed for the elephant show – on the way was a park staff with a medium sized tiger lying near him. 200 Bahts for taking a snap with the tiger! It was obvious that the tiger was drugged and I felt pity for the animal; the way the staff slapped it once in a while to make it wake up to pose for a snap.

Soon we were in an open air auditorium where plenty of elephants were paraded – I don’t think I’ve ever seen like 30 elephants at a time. They did some basketball, bowling, shooting, painting and dancing. There were little boys (like the ones we see in India in small restaurants cleaning tables) who were running around selling bananas to the audience for feeding the elephants. And if you bought one, the guys handling the elephants will make sure that the elephant comes to you. Was fun on one side but on the other you feel a little bad – for the elephants and for the kids; I wonder how much of training the elephants must have had to undergo to do these tasks which is so unnatural for them – and here we were, the audience with Asians and westerners applauding the spectacle! Huh!

I was reminded of Planet of the Apes while I watched the spectacle of the crowd cheering the elephants. What if the situation were reversed? – if we had rings on our necks and were being prodded to do things like climbing and swinging from trees while another species applauded, made fun of us and enjoyed the show?
To add to the fun, a few members from the audience were picked for a few acts – like asking the person to lie down while the elephant stepped across their body. There did seem to be some partiality in the way the participants were picked!

Packaging

After the elephant show we were free to wander the gardens which is the primary highlight of Nong Nooch. We took a semi-bus ride that had two stops while it took us through a few sections of the garden (the garden is huge); it was well maintained and there was a lot of garden designing – like the way the grass was trimmed in particular shapes. Along with this they did some add-on work like keeping animal models etc. They had created something out of almost nothing – the way it was packaged and designed, attracted crowds. In a lot of places we saw vendors with trolleys selling coconut water – similar to what you see in India but they had a unique touch – the coconuts were neatly shaved on the top for an elegant look and they were stored in ice; they cost more than in India but with that form of packaging people are willing to pay more.

Another scam

We really didn’t have much time to loiter a lot; our cabbie told us to return by 5:30pm. After taking dozens of snaps with different artifacts we left the place. As we stepped out, there was a group of transgenders in colorful attire stepping down from a bus – this is a common sight in Pattaya. All through the ride our photographer and our ‘expert’ debated on their photography skills by taking different snaps; very soon we stopped outside a gigantic building which seemed like a hotel with a few pretty faces welcoming us. We thought there was some mistake – did the driver forget our hotel? The driver using sign language insisted that we step out. A man in coat, standing beside the pretty faces spoke decent English and welcomed us. When I saw the entrance I realized that we were into the next scam that Thailand is popular for – the gem scam! This place was a gem factory – the interiors were posh and you had a typical hotel style reception desk with everyone dressed in smart formals and having an ‘always-smiling’ face. A host led us to a medium sized room and switched off the lights. It was a mini-theatre. This was just the beginning – when you know about scams and you land up in one, you have mixed feelings – a little worried and a little thrilled.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Travelogue: Philosophical time in Sin City


We finally reached the place at about 11am; we hoped it was sufficient time to complete all that we wanted to do. Coming by cab turned out to be good because we didn’t know where the hotel was and had to search quite a bit. Our hotel, run by an Indian, was situated in a narrow street. Massage parlors are quite famous in Thailand – even in Bangkok we saw many places, even really small shops like barber shops all over the city. In fact there was one even opposite our hotel in Bangkok which our veggie friend visited on the first day night to check out his swollen ankle.

Sin City

Anyway, back to Pattaya – the street was cramped but it looked more like 6am than 11am; hardly anyone outside! We walked into the hotel and met the receptionist; she was the owner’s wife and there was a sweet little kid watching a hindi program on TV. Our veggie friend was probably delighted because he knew he could get some typical North India veg food here! Over three cups of tea and a glass of beer we sat at the dining table and chatted with the owner. He took an instant liking to our expert (and who wouldn’t!). He shared his story with us – was working in UK, quit, bought a building and converted it to a hotel and was now full time into the business. We learnt that many westerners actually spend a significant amount of time in Pattaya to avoid the harsh winters in their home country; cost of living is pretty cheap and life is relaxed – just like Vegas there is a certain amount of vice in this city; temptations galore everywhere. Thailand has tried to clean up the image of a city but links to the past still remain. And like Vegas this is also referred to as a sin city.

I’ll leave it up to you to read the history about Pattaya but you should have got the picture by now. He told us stories of how some Indian guys got mugged, how some got cornered and came to him for help, how some people got deceived by looks and got in trouble – you might think this is a bad city but point to be noted is that in all the incidents the tourists were the ones who invited trouble. Some people say that the devil in life is just temptation – temptation is what leads one down the wrong road. Ah well, whatever – it was fun talking to him and some incidents that he mentioned can’t be shared in this forum. This might sound strange but I became a little philosophical during the 2 days that we spent in Pattaya – more about this as we go along. The picture on the left is also something that added to my thoughts.

Anyway, the bad news for day 1 in Pattaya was that our plan of parasailing and sea walking were washed away.

“You need to start early in the morning by 8; afternoon time they return from the sea,” the hotel owner said.

And so we had to come up with an alternative and he gave us a list of items that we could do.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Travelogue: A sleepy ride


Plan for day 2 was to get to Pattaya; there are 3 options - train, bus and taxi. Train was something we wanted to try but it was the slowest and we had read on a few forums that this particular section wasn’t a scenic journey; for the bus we had to go from our hotel to the bus stand, then take the bus and then from bus stand to our hotel in Pattaya. Finally we decided on picking the taxi while having our breakfast. The noodles was good; as usual there was steamed white rice along with eggs, cornflakes and bread.

When we asked the receptionist (the same one who will deliver bad news with a smile) for a taxi, she replied in a shrill voice with a smile, "Now you won't get taxi. Late. Take 2 hours."
And then she drew her lips together in an ‘O’ shape, drew her eyebrows together and nodded as she delivered the news.
A two hour delay would mean that all our plans for Pattaya would take a hit because we would reach in the late afternoon - too late for what we planned to do.
"Can you give his number?" we asked her. This hotel had a tie-up with the driver who picked us from the airport and we thought that maybe we could talk to him and see.
"Nooooo," she smiled wide!
As we guys discussed our options, she made a call. And then she said, "He will come now." Again with a smile!

(Pic: Pink Toyota corolla taxis are quite common)

Next stop

We packed up our bags and were ready when the pink taxi came at the doorstep; the elderly driver was happy to see us and kept patting us – it’s a pretty good fare that they get. The drive takes about a couple of hours from Bangkok to Pattaya; clean wide highway roads you will see and it is very likely that you will doze off after a while like a few in our cab did! Our expert tried desperately to avoid the sun but no matter which seat he sat on, the sun seemed to follow him! It was a fairly warm, bright, sunny day.

Tip: Confirm before you start on whether the toll fee is included in the total negotiated fare or not; we had a little argument at the end to make the driver remember that he promised us that toll will be paid by him.

As we entered the city there were some not-so-decent posters tucked away on a few walls and street corners. Some compare Pattaya to Las Vegas; we could now see why. Another odd thing was that there wasn’t much activity happening in the city – no hustle and bustle during the day; looked more relaxed like how it is in villages. Our expert was making a habit of losing things – he almost lost his mobile in the cab; when we found it we tried hard to prolong the prank and his anxiety!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Travelogue: Eating snow


There were a few open air restaurants where some musicians were performing. There were also stalls for getting tequila shots. We wandered all over the place and couldn’t resist the temptation of getting into the giant wheel; this was pretty high and it was moderately expensive as well. They had a regular fare and vip fare – the vip one would fetch you a seat in one of the vip cabins that were concealed in black, with privacy and more comfortable cushions inside. It took us a while to get our ‘normal’ cabin but we used the opportunity to click plenty of snaps. Once inside, our expert, photographer and veggie friend clicked over a hundred snaps on two cameras trying to capture every possible angle and every possible view. Slowly I started developing a stinging pain on my right foot – I think it was the impact of me trying to see every Buddha posture in Wat Pho. Our veggie friend was still managing with his sprained ankle while our expert was a completely new person now – no signs of being sick! After the giant wheel we met a European who said he is heading to India after a few days; I do think that they are better than us when it comes to taking vacations – we seem to be so tied up with the hustle and bustle of work everyday.
Next up was time to try some desserts – and ice cream it was but of a different kind. It seems that the ‘snowy ice-cream’ is kind of popular in Thailand because we saw it in many places later. Thinking it was just ice-cream all of us ordered different flavors with toppings. They gave us a fairly large cup with a good quantity of ice cream. And on first taste we went, ‘yuck’! It’s called snowy because it is truly like snow – the way snow feels if you eat it. The problem was that the flavor on snow tasted really weird. Our veggie friend was the smartest – he had opted for a safe flavor and that wasn’t so bad; the other 3 of us were keen to try variety and ended up on the wrong side!
Our return from Asiatique was not as eventful as the earlier cab ride; outside the mall it was dark and past 10pm. Taxi drivers hounded us with exorbitant rates and just like in India we avoided the taxis that were standing outside the mall. We flagged a few on the road and tried to put a Thai accent while saying our destination, negotiated a rate, showed our location on the map to confirm that they knew the place and stepped into one. Most of the city was asleep – there are a few areas where there are pubs that do stay open late into the night; but this is only in few places. The 7-11 shop was still open; they are open 24 hours. The areas around our hotel was dead silent.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Travelogue: Raw food...


The setup of the mall was like a mix of bazaar type shops as well as regular shopping mall buildings – it was lively. Our first requirement was dinner – there was one near the entrance. On the menu we saw a few items that seemed to be pure vegetarian and so our ‘expert’ gave his name and the waiter said it will take 20 minutes. We wandered around and saw a few more eateries. Our ‘expert’ friend rejected the regular fast food shops since we could have the same in India – he wanted exotic cuisines; we saw something of Vietnamese and he was fascinated by that. But by the looks of it, there didn’t seem to be even a single veg item available there. Even KFC didn’t have a veg burger!
We returned to the first eatery; the waiter pronounced our ‘expert’s’ name in a weird way and the 4 of us went in. We were curious by what we saw on the table. There was a medium sized steel vessel which was sitting on a heat pan – there were switches to increase/decrease the heat. Inside the vessel was what seemed like water. The waiter gave us menus and our ‘expert’ asked for a drink – you can guess what drink he ordered (read earlier editions!); the rest of us had some form of green tea (see pic). We ordered a bunch of items – fortunately the menu was in English and they also had pictures of the items. Our veggie friend ordered ‘green noodles’. The restaurant had a bright ambience and kind of lifted your spirits.
A few minutes later the dishes came one after the other along with wooden chopsticks! And each dish that we ordered came on a little plate and the size of the items were tiny – the fish was hardly the length of French fries! Talk about pictures that give you a wrong impression about size :-)
All the items looked raw except the green noodles which was true to its name – noodles that were green in color with nothing else; not one vegetable piece! With some actions, the waiter understood we were asking how to eat this – she said we should put the food in the pot and wait for five minutes. We followed her advice faithfully and waited while our veggie friend ate tentatively. “There’s no taste,” he said. Hopefully it was veg.!

We tried to make conversation with another waiter – we asked him, “Name” and he showed his name badge which was written in Thai! We said, “No Thai.” He told us his name but we didn’t understand him and couldn’t talk to him. We were on our own; we dumped the items in the boiling water and pulled them out after a while and placed them in our cup and ate it (tried to with chopsticks). And it tasted tasteless! Then we put some sauce that was also served with the dish. We went a step further and put some sauce in the water. Slowly things started having some flavor – in the end we realized that it tastes good when you put all the ingredients in the boiling water, add some sauce, leave it for some time and then eat it. Even the water becomes like a soup and we pretty much emptied the whole thing.
“What a concept! They make us cook the food and ask us to pay for it!”
Memorable eating experience on day 1 but the best was yet to come!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Travelogue: A wild cab ride!


To our surprise our ‘expert’ friend was in the room; we paid for our room and went up the stairs (2 people per room); no elevator here. For baggage they had a large mechanical cage where they placed the bags and sent it up to our floor. The room was small but cozy – two beds, one tv, one small fridge, an ac and a small attached bathroom with shower. There was also a little balcony. I was happy that it was clean and there were no signs of insects – in some hotels we had read reviews warning us about bed bugs; quite a torture they can be. I jumped into the shower and struggled with the hot water; in the end only managed to get warm water.

By 7pm, all four of us were fresh after a nap. Our ‘expert’ was no longer sick – he felt fresh.
“The medicine he gave is great,” he said referring to the Thai pharmacist who prescribed a bunch of tablets.
“And I got my sunglasses. The pharmacist kept it in the front; as soon as I entered I saw it.”
I had heard that Thai people are honest. Sometime later, we were out on the street. We went to the main road and decided to take a cab to Asiatique mall. It was dark and there were cars whizzing by the main road. We tried to flag down a few but no one stopped. We then crossed the road and tried from the other side because we saw a few people get cabs there. Communication was a problem. And the bigger problem was that we hadn’t checked how far Asiatique was from our place.

The ride


Finally we did get a cab and the driver did understand Asiatique. After a little price haggling we settled on 200 Bahts. What we had read was to always ask the driver to put the meter and never set a price. But having struggled to even stop one cab, and running out of time, we went against the principle.
The drive was a long one and I was unfortunately stuck in the front seat beside the driver, on his left.

This guy wasn’t too friendly and unfortunately he spoke some English. He asked how long we are here and tried to zero in on the hotel we were staying at but we evaded that question. We were getting suspicious of the guy. He said he’ll take us to Pattaya whenever we wanted and quoted 1800 Baht. That was way too high and that too without the toll fee. He kept arguing and was adamant to strike a deal. He tried negotiating and then when we mentioned bus, he said buses will cost more.
“I take you to bus station. You ask.”
“No no. Go to Asiatique,” we told him.

I decided to switch off speaking and just waved away all subsequent offers. He was getting hot by the minute; I knew his temper was rising from his voice. He made a call on his mobile and started narrating something about us and referred quite often to ‘Indians’. For a minute I wondered if he would set us up to get mugged! But then Thailand is supposed to be tourist friendly and we were glad to see the Asiatique signboard. Phew; we jumped off after paying him his fare but he still kept cursing us.

(Pic on right - a fish spa; for a change fish eat humans!)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Travelogue: Climbing Up...


Wat Arun (also called Temple of the Dawn) is relatively small compared to Wat Pho. This one goes vertically upwards. There are 2 guardian statutes facing outwards (unlike the Emerald Temple where they face inwards); again the guardians are based on Ramayana. And I read that the name Arun itself comes from the god Aruna (brother of the Garuda).
(Pic on left: Temple Guardians)
There are three flights of stairs to climb. The first set of stairs are not very steep; the second set is medium and the last set to go to the top is the steepest; it feels almost like climbing up a ladder. Small kids and elderly people probably won’t be able to make it to the top. And when you climb such steep steps you always have the fear of ‘what if someone climbing ahead slips’! At each level you can go around the structure but the area keeps narrowing down because the whole structure is like an inverted cone. Being tired, it felt great to stand on top to absorb the strong breeze. Our veggie friend with the sprained ankle didn’t want to miss this and he pushed himself to climb up and possibly worsened his foot because it was quite swollen. The height of the temple is about 60 meters.
We cautiously climbed down; some preferred going down facing outwards (back facing the stairs) while some preferred going down inwards.
You’ll find a lot of roadside food vendors in Bangkok; and for our veggie friend this was a relief because some had fruit juices and cut fruits; they cost between 10 Baht and 20 Baht. Our veggie friend had a few long pieces of green mango – that was his lunch!
To head back to our hotel, we opted to take the bus again! We knew the numbers and so we waited at the bus stop and didn’t have to wait long. The fun was as to whether we’d know where to get off because obviously we didn’t want to rely on the conductor. And so I opened the Bangkok map (paper map) and tried to follow the route on the bus. If you spot your location correctly then you will be perfectly right while using a map else you’ll find yourself lost; today I was perfectly right. But our veggie friend and photographer also found the bus stop based on the locality.
(Pic on right: View from the top)
We wondered if our ‘expert’ friend would be in the room or if he would have left on some adventure!

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Travelogue: Wat next?


The three of us were tired when we stepped out of Wat Pho; next stop was Wat Arun. It wasn’t far away – we could see the structure but it was across the water. While we headed towards the taxi boats, we saw a group of people crowd around a showman; he was a local guy with a fat and long python around his neck. In broken English he asked people to take snaps. Some people took snaps of him with the python while one Westerner stretched his hand to hold the python. Seeing the Western man, the local guy immediately placed the python across the Western guy’s shoulders; the python stretched from the left to right of his outstretched hands. After his wife and many of the onlookers took plenty of snaps of him, the guy passed the python to the local guy, casually turned around and started walking away with his wife.

The local guy was stunned by this act; he shouted, “500 Baht,” and confronted the Western guy.

“What?”
“500 Baht.”
“No. I don’t know.”
“You pay.”

Voices rose as the tempers rose under the hot sun. I wondered if a fight would ensue; in a 1 on 1 duel, the Western guy would surely have over-powered him – he was huge compared to the local. But then there were a couple of other locals very close to the snake guy; and there was also the snake to handle!

“I’m not paying 500,” the guy shouted back and then added, “Too much.”
“400.”
“No.”
“300.”
“No,” and he gave pulled out a 100 Baht note and placed it in the local guy’s hand. “That’s all,” he said and walked away.

The local guy pocketed the money and turned his attention to the crowd in the hope of attracting another customer.

Thailand is very strict when it comes tourist related incidents; I had read that if there is a conflict between a local person and a tourist, then the police tend to favour the tourist. So if a fight had broken out, the snake guy might have had more to lose. And to be fair, he never told the cost before placing the snake.

The boat ride is very cheap; we ran across a platform built on top of wooden boards where there were many small shops. At the end, before the pier, was a small counter where a lady was collecting money for the taxi boat. The boat is medium sized; it was an enjoyable ride across – takes 5 minutes and they drop you near Wat Arun; in fact each of these boats goes only between 2 points across the lengthy water body that divides Bangkok.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Travelogue: Aren't we lucky?


While buying the entrance ticket for Wat Pho, we saw an amusing notice board that read something like this, “Beware of pick pocketers - they are non-Thai nationals”! 

Along with the entrance ticket we were entitled to a free 300 ml water bottle - it was timely for us because we were exhausted in the heat and we were happy with every single drop that we got. 
 
Inside the main hall, was the huge structure of the Buddha in a reclining posture (thus the name ‘Temple of the Reclining Buddha’) - 160 feet in length! The sight of massive structures tends to calm the mind - maybe because you reflect on how small you are in this huge universe. The feet of the Buddha has 108 symbols inlaid with a material called mother-of-pearl. We followed the crowd, picked a cup filled with coins from a table and dropped one coin in each of the 108 bowls that were lined up beside the Buddha. 

Most people tend to leave after seeing this hall with the reclining Buddha but this temple has a lot more areas behind the main hall. In some places we saw old anatomy type drawings; we didn’t know what it meant but after looking online we learnt that this place was originally used for traditional Thai medicine and many of the diagrams are still being researched. Our veggie friend was struggling with his sprained foot which happened before our journey began; the pain and swelling increased and he was forced to sit out at this point.

A few of the temple corridors had a row of small 50 or so Buddha structures sitting in a row. As our photographer and I trudged along we came across a building that was setup similar to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. And the sight within was just as spectacular with a golden color in the room. I don’t think the picture we took does justice to the real sight.

After this point our photographer friend also semi-retired; one by one we were going down - one with fever, one with sprain, one tired with the steps! To get to the main hall of each of these buildings you had to climb a few steps - it was really tough to go up and down the steps so many times. 

Some of the halls didn’t have the golden tinge but just had a huge structure of the Buddha in a particular pose - lying down, standing, sitting under the Bodhi tree etc. Most of these rooms were empty since tourists hardly walked up to this point.

When you stand in an empty room with a large Buddha in front of you, there is that feeling of calmness and humbleness that automatically sets in; a feeling of awe. And that pushed me to visit as many of the halls as I could!

It feels apt to end this edition with a quote from the book ‘The Black Swan’; the author says that we are extremely lucky to be born and that we should be thankful for it. 

“I am sometimes taken aback by how people can have a miserable day or get angry because they feel cheated by a bad meal, cold coffee, a social rebuff, or a rude reception… We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous proportions.” - Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Travelogue: A scam!


Coins galore
The air conditioner in the Textile Museum was a welcome relief – till that point we were pretty much roaming in the hot sun. For lunch we opted to play safe – we saw a Subway sandwich shop; the rates were pretty similar to India; only the choices were different – there were no paneer items and no veg. option. Our veggie friend watched us eating and planned to get some fruits from the roadside vendors. It was past noon and this was check-in time; our expert took directions from us and headed to the hotel because there was no way he could have roamed with us for the remainder of the day without sleep.
Our next stop was the Temple of the Reclining Buddha which was within walking distance. Along the way we picked up a water bottle (Nestle is quite popular) - cost about Rs.20. On the way towards the temple there were plenty of roadside shops – displaying their items on the footpath itself or on a table. Most of these were small antique items, stamps, coins, etc. Some customers looked like professionals with the way they examined these tiny items using a magnifying glass that could be fit on one eye. And it was not just one shop selling coins but a row of shops with similar stuff – almost like what we see in India in crowded shopping areas.
The scam           
After ten minutes of walking we crossed a pretty Indian couple – the lady looked a little frustrated. The guy asked us, “Have you gone to Wat Pho?”
“No,” I replied.
“They are saying it is closed today,” the guy said while raising both his arms in dismay. The lady seemed visibly upset.
There were two temples pending on our list: Wat Pho and Wat Arun but I wasn’t sure which one was the one with the reclining Buddha. Just as I was about to speak, a local Thai guy interrupted us saying, “Today Wat Pho close. It is special Buddha day; it comes once in one year and Buddha temples closed.”
The Indian man nodded his head in agreement and disappointment. I was eager to pull the guy aside to warn him but the local fellow was yapping away.
“Don’t go. I take you to another temple,” he said but we didn’t listen to him. The three of us moved on while he kept talking with the Indian couple.
A few minutes later we were at the entrance of Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and it was open!
This is a very common scam that happens in Thailand – and we had read about it otherwise we might also have returned; unfortunately we couldn’t warn the couple about it. Some guys (maybe Thai or from some neighbouring country), will tell tourists that a particular spot is closed for the day. They will instead offer to take you to some other location. The alternate place might be a gem shop – more on that in another edition. The exact same thing happened earlier in the day before we took the bus for Grand Palace – we enquired for a tuk-tuk (this is the local auto-rickshaw) and the driver said Grand Palace is closed today! 
So beware!