Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My Mood Swings

It's not all roses and sunshine in the land of smiles. No, my friends, my arrival in Thailand has come with a few rough spots. I’m happy to be here, smiling in fact, but these first few hours have been a test. It's not the full-blown culture shock of Indonesia, but neither has it been the warm welcome of Malaysia and Singapore. Let’s just call it first date jitters. Matt, meet Thailand. Thailand, Matt. Treat him well.

The day started with an early pick up at my hotel in Penang. Three young Brits occupied the rear seat of the minivan, settled in for their eight-hour journey to Krabi. I took a window seat in the middle row. Five Indian men in their 30s piled in after me. It was an uneventful two-and-a-half-hour drive to the border, and an unremarkable trip through immigration (however, the Thai stamp in my passport could not be mnore dull).

The Indian guys got out at the first hotel on the Thai side of the border, none of them carrying more than a small daypack. I hadn’t thought about their lack of luggage until one of the Brits said pointed out the obvious: for what they were doing they didn’t need luggage. Yes, not more than a half a kilometer into the country and Thailand’s infamous sex industry rears its ugly mug.

According to Lonely Planet, prostitution accounts for 3 percent of Thailand’s GDP, something like 19 billion baht every year, or somewhere in the range of half a billion U.S. dollars. Despite the country’s loose reputation in the west, however, locals drive 95 percent of the sex industry. The Indians will most likely get their rocks off, have a cup of coffee and be home in time to tuck in the kids.

I have desires like everyone else, sure, but I have no desire to pay for companionship or contribute to the trafficking of women, amny of them underage and under the delusion that there are no other options. I realize my lack of participation will not achieve anything, that the planes will fly whether or not I buy a seat. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe paying a guide a dollar an hour to steer me up and down Mount Kinabalu is just as bad. At least I won't get AIDS climbing a mountain. I I could fall off the summit and die, though.

Anyway, back to reality. I bring up the sex industry because I know it’s going to be a presence throughout my trip through Thailand. I’m tempted to count the number of times I’m offered illicit sex, but that would just depress me (three times in the first six hours). I came here to eat, to lounge on beaches and to hike through magnificent landscapes, even visit a temple or three.

I'm staying tonight in a decrepit town called Hat Yai, a thousand kilometers south of Bangkok. I chose Hat Yai because I didn't want to spend a full day on the road, and it is halfway between Penang and my next destination, the island of Koh Lanta. Hat Yai is southern Thailand’s commercial center, and one of the largest cities in the country. That doesn’t mean it’s nice. It’s gritty and exudes an air of menace. The only games in town (other than the ladies) are bullfighting – a local variation in which the bulls fight each other! – and Muy Thai kickboxing. Oh yeah, and there have been bombings by separatists in recent years.

A post on the Lonely Planet discussion board summed it up for me. Don't blame me for the cryptic references, I don't know what they mean either.

"Hat Yai has never been a safe place for the past 50 or more years. It is a border town dominated by criminals of all kinds, armed gangs, communists (up 1998), capitalist (ongoing) including murderers, rapists, money launderers, drug smugglers and swindlers. Activities include organized smuggling from guns to consumer goods, brothels, mono, bi, di and multiple, illegal gambling. This town is a haven for extremists of all religious denominations.

In short they are too busy going about their business to bother with decent people like you."

In other words, the most wretched hive of scum and villiany this side of Mos Eisley. Don't hold my room.

Downtown Hat Yai, Thailand

The minivan driver asked me on the way into town where I was staying. I gave him the name of a hostel recommended by my guidebook. I assumed the driver would drop me at the front door. Instead, he stopped at a travel agency and called it the end of the line. The trio of Brits was huddled in conference, deciding what their next move was going to be.

Here we go again, I thought. Time to raise my guard, play hardball, stand firm, no matter what. I told the people at the travel agency I wanted to go to a specific hostel, gave them the name and demanded they take me there. They pointed to an old man and said he’d take lead the way. He tottered off into the streets and led me to another hotel, a place I'd never heard of. The old switcheroo, eh?. I said no, put my foot down, held my cards, etc. He pointed at a tuk tuk, said the driver would take me where I wanted to go. The tuk tuk driver asked five times the going rate. I walked off, reminding myself to be like Fonzie, to just be cool.

The first thing I noticed when crossing the border, and it was now a pronounced and potentially hazardous detail, was that I was now functionally illiterate. The Roman script used in Malaysia has been replaced by Thai, an unrecognizable collection of squiggles and lines that may as well have been the output of a two-year-old with a blank wall and a box of crayons. Thankfully, the tourism industry caters to an international clientele and every hotel advertises in English. I found one that looked inviting, or at least friendly, and through a complicated serious of gestures – somewhere in there was the international symbol for “Help me, I’m lost” – I managed to convey my desire for a map and directions. The desk clerk pinpointed my location on a tourist map, showing me that I was only about six blocks from where I wanted to be. I set out to walk. Two blocks later a guy on a moped offered to take me there for three times the going rate. I was making progress.

View of Hat Yai From My Hotel Window

I arrived at the hostel and it was a pit – nothing too bad for the money, but far below the standards I’ve set for myself. I scanned the guidebook and chose the first mid-range place on the list. It was better, affordable, with three locks on the door. I checked in and what was the first happened next? A middle-aged woman who works at the hotel came into my room as I was setting down my bag and asked me something in Thai that I didn’t understand. I scanned my guidebook for useful phrases and found the Thai for “I don’t understand.” She laughed, extended her hands, her index fingers aligned side by side. “Girl?” she said. “Later” I said, then waved her off. I’m not buying what she’s selling, but at least I could remain polite.

Ok, to be fair to Thailand, this was a first date and we are just getting to know each other. I’ve felt jitters each time I’ve entered a country, relaxing with each day and discovering first impressions are not always reliable. I realize this post may sound bitter; I hope you can see there's some healthy sarcasm below the surface. The next few months are going to be gritty, there are going to be scams and setbacks. I would say “Bring it on,” but W. spoiled that phrase for me. But you know what? I’m taking it back. Bring It On! Just get me out of Hat Yai first.

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