Sunday, July 01, 2007

Of Scams and Stupas

I've been both a recluse and a tourist these past few days in Bangkok. No one would confuse me with Howard Hughes or Syd Barrett; I'm just a traveler taking a break from new the open road. It was merely a combination of travel fatigue and, finally, after five months of pokey service, finding a fast Internet connection.

My hotel on Suhkumvit Soi 10 has free ADSL Internet in every room. With a fast connection I was able to finally able to download video from the iTunes store, notably the end of the third season of "Lost" (more questions, few answers, imagine that), catch up on some internet videos and BitTorrent a handful of recent shows by Ryan Adams & the Cardinals (all recordings sanctioned by the band, for personal use only). Plugged in for a few days felt like being home, like I was on familiar ground for the first time in months.

I also caught up on a few movies. "Transformers" is another piece of wham-bam-thank-you-maam excrement from Michael Bay, but I saw it in the largest multiplex theater in Asia, the 1,200-seat Siam Pavalai. The highlight of the show was when an afternoon electrical storm knocked out power to the entire shopping mall. I also caught an afternoon screening of "Ocean's Thirteen" after watching a bootleg of "Ocean's Twelve" (I don't want to support piracy, but a movie-nut has few options on the road). Both are tart, pulpy and good for a few hours of breezy entertainment. I also watched a fuzzy camcorder-captured copy of "Ratatouille." Pixar and Brad Bird are the best combination working in mainstream movies today. I loved it and can't wait to see it for real.

I took a day out from these personal pursuits to play tourist. The day started with a tuk-tuk ride from Suhkumvit to Khao San Road, the backpacker epicenter of Bangkok. I stayed on Khao San Road for one night in 1994 and recall it as grungy, crowded and cheap. Budget hovels, I mean hotels, and restaurants lined the street, but it wasn't so crowded that you couldn't sit at an outdoor table and watch the action pass by. Khao San Road has expanded over the years and is now a full-blown backpacker ghetto filled with bars, travel agents, tattoo parlors and clothing stores selling the latest in hippie fashion. Signage is everywhere, extending beyond the storefronts and over the sidewalks.

Bangkok by Tuk-Tuk

Khao San Road

Disturbing T-Shirts

But there's hope for the future of Khao San Road. There's a sort of gentrification happening, with a few upscale establishments opening their doors and young Thais, artists and students mostly, moving in. Gentrification is generally regarded as a bad thing. A little cleaning up of Khao San Road could only be good.

Still, the present road has little or me, so I quickly covered its length and left it behind for good. and was very happy to leave Khao San Road behind for good. There are sidewalk vendors everywhere, and touts pitch enticements every few feet. One popular offer is from tuk-tuk drivers: hour-long tours for 20 Baht or less. In reality, they get you in the vehicle and take you to businesses offering ultra-hard sells and outright scams. The tuk-tuk driver gets a commission for roping in the unsuspecting tourist. The general rule of thumb is that if something sounds too good to be true, it's a scam. The Bangkok Gem Scam is a classic example.

I stopped on the way from Khao San Road to the Grand Palace to get my bearings on a map. A Thai man in his thirties asked me where I wanted to go and started offering unsolicited advice. He told me the Grand Palace was closed for the afternoon (a holiday, regular Friday routine, etc.) and said that I should take a tuk-tuk to see the "Lucky Buddha" across town. My guard is up most of the time these days, and my radar was on high alert with Khao San Road just around the corner. So I thanked him and started to walk away, which prompted him to start yelling at me, telling me again that the palace was closed and calling me an "idiot tourist."

Not only was the Grand Palace open, there were signs at the entrance warning tourists to "Beware of strangers offering services." The sign also mentioned tuk-tuks and the lucky buddha. Still, Bangkok has not been overwhelming in the way that Indonesia was. And I've been able to maintain a clear conscience while ignoring the creeps trying to rip me off.

The main attraction at the Grand Palace is not the palace itself, but Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The temple is part of a complex of gleaming golden stupas and ornate statues and buildings. The interior walls of the compound are covered with an extensive mural depicting scenes from Thailand's national epic, the "Ramakian" (derived from the Indian epic "Ramayana"). I don't know the Ramakian from ramen, but was entranced by the paintings. I even found a visual representation of my battle with the flying termites in Ko Lanta. (Full disclosure: I know a lot about ramen!)

Wat Phra Kaew

Family Photo

Battling Bugs


After the opulence of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace itself was something of a let down. Which is odd, since the Grand Palace is jaw-dropping as well. I think I'd had my fill for sightseeing for the day. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being a tourist again and look forward to Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand. I've had my fill of big, dirty BKK. Time to hit the open road again.

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Blogger Peggy said...

Heh There!

Sure hope you get to ride an elephant in Chiang Mai!

Have you had any more delicious banana and cheese ice cream?

1:53 PM  

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