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Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok has been the biggest surprise of the trip so far. I originally stopped there for a week just because I had to stop for a day or two to get a good airfare. I figured I might as well see it since I was already there with time to kill. I ended up just loving the place, and it's the first place on this trip I was really sorry to leave. Bangkok is reputed to be a very dirty and crowded city, but I didn't find it so, particularly after just leaving Cairo. I really enjoyed the place, the food was excellent, and it is generally just a great place to visit. I'm even giving serious thought to adding a bike trip through Thailand to the adventure. I'll decide somewhere in the middle of Vietnam.

Bangkok is the greenest city I can remember seeing. There are lots of nice parks like this one all over the place, and there are also a lot of green plants and flowers wherever you look. In the middle of the streets, in shop windows, in planter boxes, everywhere you look you'll find greenery. It makes for a very nice stay.

You can learn some facts about Thailand from the usual FactBook. Thailand is about 5% of the size of the U.S., or about 25% bigger than California. It's population is 22% of the U.S. population, giving it a population density about four times the U.S. or roughly the same as France. Bangkok is by far the largest city, with the next smaller city being about 2.5% of it's size. Roughly 1/6 of all Thais live in Bangkok, and it contains 80% of all motor vehicles. At ten million, it's a little less than half the population of Cairo (16 million), or slightly larger than New York City (8 million).

Bangkok is a relatively new city. It was a small village and customs port until the late 18th century, when it was selected as the site for a new capital. It was originally created with a series of canals for transportation across the city. This made it's structure something like Venice, except that in Venice the city was built up from the sea, while in Bangkok the canals were cut from land that was already above sea level. Most of the canals have since been filled in to make roads. You can still see a few of them here and there, and there is a famous floating market outside the city where people sell all kinds of stuff from boats, but motor vehicles rule the day now.

Thailand has maintained independence for the last 700 years. In particular, it was the only country in the region that managed to avoid the whole European colonial mess that turned out so badly in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It was one of the few places in the region that figured out how to deal with Europeans without getting run over. It was called Siam until 1939.

Since 1932, Thailand has had what's called a "Constitutional Monarchy". This means that they have a king who is the official head of state, but legislation and policy decisions are carried out by a prime minister and parliament. It's a lot like the British system, except that in Britain the king or queen is entirely superfluous, while in Thailand the king is very active both in an advisory capacity, and through various special projects initiated by the royal family. At times, it's been quite tense, and it's not quite as democratic as it might sound. The military has had a big influence on the history, and there have been several military coupes, with the most recent being in 1991.

The people love their king. Saying something bad about him is considered extremely bad form. Images of the king are everywhere. You never go more than a few km without seeing a billboard or something like this. His picture is on the money, in shop windows, and in all sorts of other places. If you need a portrait of him, you can probably purchase one framed and ready to go without moving more than four or five blocks. In fact, if you go into any Thai restaurant in the U.S., look around and you'll see his picture there as well. It's all part of the culture.

My first experience in Bangkok was a test to restore some of my faith in humanity. I asked the ISO-9002 certified Taxi Dispatcher at the airport to point me to a nice and reasonable hotel. In Cairo, this would have been like playing Russian Roulette with six bullets. In Bangkok, they took me to a place that was reasonably nice, in a good and convenient part of town for US$ 25/night.  It's possible to get one a bit cheaper if you look around, but that wasn't bad for a full service hotel.

Traffic in Bangkok is a lot like Cairo, except without the horns. It's not quite as chaotic, and the mix of vehicles is quite a bit different. There are lots more motorcycles and scooters, and fewer cars. The driving rules aren't quite as ambiguous as in Egypt, but any time traffic is stopped or slow, and there's a clear lane, motorcycles will take advantage of it. For example, if traffic is stopped at a light, but there's no traffic in the opposite lane, bikes just go out into that lane and advance as far as they can until a car comes along. If another motorcycle comes along going the opposite direction, they simply avoid each other and keep moving. When a car comes along going the other direction, or they finally get to the stop light, they just assume they'll be able to find a place on the right edge of the lane to stop, and it always works out that way. The same thing happens if traffic is slow, and there's room in the other lane. They just expect people to make room. It's also quite common to pull into an intersection with someone coming, and expect them to slow down or stop for you. Nobody waits for an all-clear before merging. This is not considered rude or inconsiderate, and it makes perfect sense. The best way to prevent gridlock is to keep traffic moving, and doing this certainly doesn't hurt the cars any. It was eerily quiet after the horn obsessed Egyptians.

Despite the chaotic nature of the traffic, I didn't see any evidence of a single accident while I was here. They even seemed to have a few situations that were even more hairy than in Egypt. For example, I went through an uncontrolled intersection, with two lanes in each direction for a total of eight lanes coming together. Basically, each person comes to the line at the intersection and stops once. Then they wait until there is some kind of hole in the traffic flow for three or four feet, and shove the vehicle into that hole, assuming that anyone that's coming along will stop. They keep working across the intersection like this, with everyone doing the same thing. A top view of the intersection would show 10-20 cars, tuk-tuks, scooters and motorcycles in the middle of the intersection at any one time, with some of them going straight through, and others turning. Despite this, it all appears to work out fine.

The most pervasive form of transportation in Bangkok is called a tuk-tuk, which looks like this. It's a little three wheeled two-stroke sort-of cross between a car and a motorcycle. There are thousands of them in Bangkok, and they're everywhere. The drivers are a bit annoying. Most of them are just persistent touts, but a few are scammers too. The most common scam was them offering to take you sight-seeing, which inevitably ends up with you at some kind of store that gives the driver free gas. I did use them a fair amount, but you have to be careful with them and negotiate the rate before you get in. They're a pretty fast way to get around town, because traffic is not quite as chaotic as in Cairo, but it's close. These guys will work their way in and out of holes in traffic using the well known Bonzai technique of just shoving themselves into it. These are not great for sightseeing because the roof comes down to about the level of my eyes, so the view wasn't all that good. One interesting aspect of these things (for mechanics, anyway) is that at all of the tuk-tuks appear to have been originally powered by propane or something similar (see the tank in the back view), and were converted to gasoline. The conversion didn't go quite as well as one would hope, but every one I saw had been converted. The conversion failed to get a good carburetor on the machine, so none of them will idle. Whenever one comes to a stop, the driver will sit there and play with the throttle trying to keep it running. This may go on for a minute, or they may get bored and let it die. Then they restart it when they are ready to go. The funny thing is that there are thousands of these things, all with the same crappy conversion. These are an effective and cheap way to get around, but the drivers are annoying as heck, and after a while you want to use a taxi just so you don't have to negotiate with them or be cheated. There are two types of taxis, metered and un-metered. The metered ones are theoretically the most expensive, but you don't have to barter or bargain or know how much to pay in advance, so I found them more comfortable on the very few times I took a taxi. Most of the time, I used mass transit.

Another interesting transportation option I've seen in Thailand and Vietnam is the Taxi Motorcycle. This is just what it sounds like, a guy on a motorcycle that will give you a ride where you want to go. It sounds a bit suicidal, and it's a little strange to see. Women routinely ride sidesaddle on the back of these and other bikes, to get from place to place and think nothing of it. In Bangkok, the motorcycle taxis are regulated, and all wear numbered vests for identification. In Vietnam, anyone that has a motorcycle and wants to make a few dong just starts hauling people around. Part of the appeal is that they are cheap, and the other part is that they're very fast. Motorcycles can make much better time than cars or even tuk-tuks, because they can exploit holes in traffic, and because they always gain on the cars at every stop light.

One other thing that I've seen lots of in both Bangkok and Vietnam is small children on motorcycles, scooters or bicycles. It's completely commonplace. Children as young as 2-3 years old routinely sit in front of a parent on a motorcycle, and grab the handlebars. Even younger children are routinely sandwiched between two people on a bike or motorcycle, or stuffed into a child carrier on the back. I even saw a factory made child seat that fits on the front of one of the very common motorcycles you see around here. The most extreme example I saw was a woman breastfeeding a baby, while going down the road in a pack of traffic in Hanoi that was roughly equivalent to El Camino. You'll almost never see the child wearing a helmet.

One very common form of transportation I see in both Bangkok and Vietnam is somewhere between the scooters you occasionally see in the U.S., and a motorcycle. They have big tires like a motorcycle, but the engine is mounted very low, and there's a space in front of the seat where you could sit with a skirt. I've never seen one in the U.S., but they're all over the place here. They look something like this. Most are between 70 and 125 cc. Almost all are chain drive, and the chain is fully enclosed in just about every one I saw. The wheels and brakes give me flashbacks, because they appear to be exactly the same as the wheels and brakes on my Honda 350 I rode back in the 70s. (It was nicknamed the "Death Sled", because it was very fast, and had exceedingly bad handling and braking). The white splash guard you see on the front is very common, and in Vietnam I saw lots of shops that seem to make a living just retrofitting them onto bikes. They deflect quite a bit of the rain, which is nice because for most people here, if they own a motorcycle, it's their only form of transportation, and they have to ride it in all weather. Most of the newer cycles I saw had the rain guard built in, and painted the same color as the rest of the machine. The basket in front, and the little rack in front of the seat are quite common as well, and lots of shops retrofit them as well. In Thailand, (but not Vietnam), I also saw lots of bigger motorcycles just like you'd see in the U.S., mostly Japanese of course. Most of the cars appear to be Japanese as well, which makes perfect sense.

One thing you don't see in Bangkok is a lot of bicycles. Motorcycles and public transportation seem to rule the day. I saw less than a dozen during the entire week in Bangkok. There were a few bike shops, and I managed to buy some components for my bike that I thought I wouldn't be able to get, so there are some bikes, and some of them are new. The shop I went to was a tiny little store, but they had clipless pedals, a cyclometer and various other components that will only be used on a new modern bike. I don't know exactly where they are though, since I always notice bikes and I didn't see any. It probably means I just didn't get into the right area.

Travel Tip

In lots of places, the hotel staff doesn't get paid a lot of money, so make it a point to tip them. Include people you normally don't think of, such as the people that clean your room, and the desk staff.

As a general rule, I've found the advice from hotel desk clerks is better than the advice from taxi drivers. If they have a suggestion, ask them to write down the address in the local language, and give that to the taxi driver. If it's a place where you have to negotiate the fares, ask them what it should cost.

Bangkok has a very nice public transit system called the Sky Train. This is a lot like a metro, but as the name implies, it's above ground instead of below. The tracks are mounted about 10 meters (30 feet) above street level on concrete pillars. I find this to be a very civilized idea. You get to travel across the city in the daylight, and look around and see things. I rode both lines all the way to the end, just to see what they had. As far as public transit goes, I like this a lot and took it somewhere nearly every day. It was very clean, very quite and smooth, and reasonably fast. It's a new system (only a few years old), and they did it right. The signs are well done and consistent, the maps work well, and all in all I just didn't find much to complain about. The only weird thing is that you have to buy tickets from a machine, but the machine doesn't take bills. If you don't have the coins, you have to go to a ticket booth, but they just give you change in coins. Then you have to carry that back to the machines to get the ticket. Bangkok also has a bus system very similar to the one in Cairo except the busses are a lot cleaner and newer.

The food in Bangkok is absolutely fabulous. I almost never ate in restaurants, because I found I could just wander the streets completely at random, and sooner or later a street vendor would have something I just had to try, or I'd see a little hole in the wall restaurant I felt compelled to eat at. For a lot of my wandering time, I was completely bummed because I'd be passing lots of great looking food, but just wasn't hungry enough to try it. Locally grown pineapple is really good, better than any I've had in the states, although I have to admit it's even better in Vietnam. A sandwich bag full of fresh pineapple costs 10 Baht (pronounced Bot) (US$ .25). The price in Vietnam is about the same. Local strawberries and papaya weren't good enough to get all excited about, since California strawberries are much better. I also tried out a couple other kinds of fruit, but never managed to figure out what they were called. The best is something that looks sort of like a big pear. It's about double the size of a typical pear. The flavor is something like a cross between an pear and a melon.

You can get just about any kind of meat you like, barbequed on a stick or otherwise, any time you want. The only thing to watch out for, is that the stuff barbequed on a stick is quite likely to be hearts or gizzards or something else you wouldn't think of. If you're not very adventurous, don't assume it's something you'd expect in the U.S. I tried several of these, but of course don't know exactly which ones I did try. Some were very good, and some were less appealing, but none were terrible. I did find chicken hearts to be pretty appealing.

For most of the stuff I ate, I don't know what it's called, or even necessarily what's in it. My favorite dessert or snack was some little crepes gizmos. Picture crepes batter in a circle about the size of a coke can. Let it cook until it turns brown, and dump something that tastes vaguely like a cross between vanilla cake frosting, and yogurt, sprinkle a few flakes of some unknown fruit, and fold it like a taco. You get a bag of them double the size of a typical bag of potato chips for 10 Baht (US$ .25).

I also had Black Egg Salad, which was a bit weird. The eggs were in fact black (I didn't ask how), and boiled. The yolks are black, and the whites have a black tint, but remain translucent like when they're raw. I'm not sure how they managed that, but it was interesting. This was mixed with greens, and way too much ginger for my taste.

There are all kinds of restaurants. Some are simply carts that you walk up to and take away, like a hot dog stand. There are some that are just like that, except they have a few small plastic tables staked out on the sidewalk or in the street for you to use. It escalates up to the usual fancy top-end restaurants you can find anywhere. I didn't try any of the high end restaurants, because I was having so much fun with the others. In lots of cases, I would simply order with the Tourist's Point, which consists of pointing at something that looks good. I sat down in several restaurants that didn't have a menu in English, and didn't have anyone that spoke English, but it didn't turn out to be too much of a problem. I will however in the next city have the desk clerk make me a small note that just says "Bring me your best stuff" in the local language.

I got a couple of meals that were close but not quite like the Curry Noodle Soup we eat in Mountain View all the time. I even managed to find some peppers that were fit to eat (meaning they were hot).

Speaking of English, getting by on English in Bangkok is pretty easy. Most of the street signs are in both Thai and English, and it's not hard to get an English map. The Sky Train maps are all in both Thai and English. This is great, because like Arabic, the Thai script looks completely different from English. If you had to get by in Thai, it would be very tough, because the letters don't look even vaguely recognizable. Everything just looks like little squiggleys to me.

While I was in Bangkok, I made up a geeks hack to get my email from my laptop back and forth using a floppy disk from an Internet Cafe. This is a good, as I've found getting reliable modem connections to be somewhat problematic. The system I have is kludge, but it seems to work pretty well, and finding Internet Cafes is generally easy, and much cheaper than the phone connection. You can get use of a PC with a slow connection for about US$ 1.00 per hour, whereas a modem connection to the U.S. costs US$ 2-4 per minute. I've found Internet Cafes in the oddest places too. I tend to wander completely at random. I call it "Columbus Style Navigation", which means I don't know where I'm going, when I get there I don't know where I am, and when I return I don't know where I've been. Frequently, I'd end up in some distinctly non-prosperous looking area, and there's an Internet spot right there. So far, everywhere I went the signs for Internet Cafes always have the words "Internet" and/or "Email" on the sign in English. At first, I was surprised to find so many of these in non-prosperous areas, but when you think a little bit, it makes complete sense. Most people here can't afford to own a computer, but there are still a lot of them interested in technology and communicating with the rest of the world. It makes perfect sense to rent computers to them.

Another interesting thing I've noticed is that the most commonly understood English word in the circles I've been traveling appears to be "Internet". Every time I pull out my laptop, someone points at it and sagely says "Internet". I tried getting the concept across to an old man that I was actually writing Internet software, but I was a complete failure. On the subject of laptops, if you want to draw a crowd but don't have a recumbent bike, a laptop seems to work almost as well. So far, the best attention grabber was when I was waiting for some other people in a restaurant in Hanoi, so I pulled out my laptop and camera and started transferring pictures. Everyone in the restaurant just had to get in on that, and then look at the rest of my pictures as well. It was a lot of fun. If you want to have a friend for life, take a picture of a small child, then show it to him on the camera, and then download it, and show it on the computer. I've done that a couple of times, and it's great fun. I then get the family's address, and I'll send copies of the pictures later.

Everywhere I've been so far, you see quite a bit of American influence. Coca Cola, McDonalds, and the PepsiCo companies (KFC, Pizza Hut, etc) are just about everywhere I've gone. They were even more noticeable in Bangkok than in other places, but I suspect that's just a function of where I went. I also saw a few surprising ones, such as TGI Fridays, Tony Roma's (a rib place in the Bay Area) and Starbucks Coffee. I will have to admit that I went off the wagon and went into Starbucks a couple times. I generally try to avoid American food while traveling, but I just had to have a good cup of espresso and Thai coffee never showed up on my radar. I also couldn't quite resist the A&W Root Beer stand, where I went for a Root Beer Float. The interesting thing about this place is the keywords they listed on the door. It was "Root Beer, Chicken, Waffles". Now who would think those words go together?

Bangkok is the hottest metropolis in the world, with an average temperature of 32C (90F). It was between 30 and 32 the whole time I was there. Heat doesn't really bother me, so I didn't find it uncomfortable. I think it could be pretty miserable during the rainy season, but for me it was just right. I found myself sweating a bit more than I liked with minor exertions, but other than that it was fine.

Shopping in Bangkok is excellent. There's lots of really-really nice stuff, at bargain prices. There's also a lot of fake knock-offs, so you have to be careful. I actually (believe it or not) quite enjoyed hitting the shopping areas. Thailand is famous for silk and silver, and both are readily available and very nicely done. I also saw some very nice examples of wood carving. I bought a few things for my nieces and nephews, and I'm going to torture them by not saying another word until their birthdays or something.

They have an interesting phenomena known as district shopping. I'll be wandering at random, and all of a sudden, every store for two or three blocks is selling the same kind of stuff. For example, the first night I wandered into the Bridal Dress District. I walked by at least 20 shops in a few blocks. The interesting part of this district, is that they don't appear to follow the American tradition of making the bride look good by forcing the bridesmaids to wear hideous dresses. Everything I saw was absolutely gorgeous. I've also stumbled onto wood carving districts, and silk districts.

They have a big market here for pirate videos. The formatting is a bit weird. It's called a Video CD. It's the movie as you would get it on a DVD, but compressed onto an MP3 or some other format, and burned onto 2-3 CDs. This will work on PCs without a DVD player, and in Hanoi I actually saw a Video CD player you hook to your TV just like you would a DVD. These are obviously pirated, because the picture has some kind of marker in the middle of the screen for the entire movie, and most of them are in English with Thai, Japanese or Chinese subtitles. The quality isn't very good, but you can get movies before they even open in theatres in the U.S. They typically cost 100 Baht (US $2.50).

This seems to be the land of ISO. ISO-900x certification is all over the place, particularly in the airport and the business districts. In the airport, everything from the airport offices, to some of the change places, to the taxi stands are all ISO-9002 certified. Driving through town, you see ISO signs all over the place.

My funniest Bangkok story started before the trip. I made Tim, the engineer across the hall from me laugh his ass off one day when Todd walked by and I asked him "Bangkok is in Thailand, right?" Tim was amused as could be that I wasn't exactly sure what country a place that I already had a ticket to visit was in. Connie wouldn't have been a bit surprised, and in fact she wouldn't have been surprised if she asked where I was going and I replied "Asia". She wouldn't even have been surprised if she asked "More specifically?" and I replied "Southeast Asia".

One thing I definitely decided in Bangkok is that if I were Master Of The Universe, I'd reserve a Special Place in Hell for any engineer that ever worked on the ringer software for Cell Phones. I'd make them listen to the stupid and annoying rings constantly until the End Of Time. That actually was the biggest annoyance I ran into in Bangkok, so that says a lot if you have to stretch that far to find something to complain about.

Travel TipIf you see a line of tourist busses, assume you're in hostile territory. Anyone that initiates conversation with you is almost certain to be a tout or a hustler, so be ready to get ugly with them immediately. Better yet, get out of Tourist Land and go somewhere interesting.

In Thailand, they have a phenomena called Thai Massage. It's a very interesting kind of massage. Maybe brutal would be a better word. It consists of massaging all the muscle groups hard using the thumbs, elbows and feet. If you watched it in progress, you'd assume the masseuse was trying to injure the client, but in the end, it does feel pretty good. I'm not sure I'd want to get one every day, but they were interesting, and you should try it if you ever go there.

One thing I've noticed in Thailand and Vietnam is that there are very few overweight people (besides myself and the other tourists of course). This is at least partly genetic, but I suspect it's also because the average person eats a healthier diet, and because they walk more. There were also fewer overweight people in France than in the U.S., but more than in Thailand or Vietnam. I do know that when I just wandered around the city and bought whatever caught my fancy, the odds were very good that whatever it is would be pretty healthy, and much healthier than what I would find randomly wandering an American city. The only reliable way to get something unhealthy in Bangkok is to get American fast food.

Bangkok had much less smoking than Egypt. Egypt was the smokiest place I've ever been, and Bangkok reminded me of California. They don't segregate smokers, and people smoke wherever they like, but there just didn't seem to be as many of them.

You see very few people wearing shorts in Bangkok or Vietnam. The vast majority of the people in the streets in Bangkok were wearing either long pants, or a skirt and blouse. The other noticeable thing is that most of the school-age children seem to wear school uniforms. The color variation in clothing isn't what I'm used to. I'd say about 80% of what people were wearing was either white, blue or black, with lots and lots of black. You almost never see red, or any kind of pastels. Sandals are very common, and it's quite common to ride motorcycles in sandals or other open toe shoes.

The strangest thing I think I saw in Bangkok was a billboard for fake blood spray. Apparently you spray this stuff on to look like you've been in a fight or something. Very strange.

Thailand is primarily Buddhist. Most of the national treasures, tourist attractions and art you see are related to that. I'm not as knowledgeable about Buddhism as I am about other religions, but it seems to be much less objectionable to me. At least, I can't remember anything like the Christian's Crusades or the Islamic Jihad being perpetrated by Buddhists. The typical Wat (temple) looks something like this one, which is a place I went to on the first day. It was the birthday of one of their senior members, so they had free food which was excellent. The Tuk-tuk driver guided me to tables where I could get something to eat, and it was my first bit of food in Thailand. The most interesting part of the meal was a dessert that consisted of something that looked sort of like peas or string beans, but swimming in a very sugary liquid. It was very good.

Most Wats have some kind of Buddha statue or image, generally made of either bronze, wood or stone. A typical brass one looks like this. The table in front is for offerings, which can be food, or something valuable. People will also light candles or incense. All of this will reputedly bring good luck. The biggest tourist attractions are Wat Po and the Grand Palace which is directly across from it. Note the height of the entryway for the Grand Palace. It's that high because they would ride fully equipped war elephants through it for military ceremonies. Both of these are both old royal palaces, as well as religious shrines. They show the typical Thai shrine construction, consisting of high spires made out of various shiny materials. A close look will show them to be made of very intricate mosaics of stone, mirrors, and metals, which may or may not be precious metals. They also have stone statues.

Two of the most famous are the Reclining Buddha, which is made of brass and is about 30 m (100 feet) long, and the Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha is actually made of Green Jasper, and it's relatively small, but it's quite valuable as a national symbol. You can't photograph it, and in fact to visit it you have to be properly dressed, as well as quiet and respectful. If you go to see the Grand Palace, which contains this and other shrines, you are required to be properly dressed. If you aren't, then they have loaner clothes for you to wear while visiting.

That's about it for Bangkok. I was only there for a week, and I'd have to say I unequivocally give it a thumbs up as a destination. I'm even giving some consideration to riding through Laos and Thailand before Australia. I'll be giving it some thought as I ride through Vietnam. If I don't do it on this trip, I believe I'll come back and see more of Thailand. Bangkok is definitely not typical of Thailand. Thailand has tons of natural beauty, and it covers a very large geographical range so there are all kinds of very nice things to see, from highlands to beautiful beaches. But alas, it's time to more on.