Archive for November, 2007

multiple fire hazards – a loi krathong retrospective

The city is old– old enough that the oldest part has a completely intact wall surrounding it. We ended up in a guesthouse far away from the Old Town, though, and the tuk-tuk ride was about 60 baht each way, so I stayed in our little bungalow at the Pun Pun guesthouse most of the time. It was tiny as hell and noisy and chilly at night, but I liked the open-air feel.

We were there along the river for Loi Krathong. The Loi Krathong festival turns the entire city of Chiang Mai into a fireman’s worst nightmare for the third weekend of November, so at night our guesthouse was a hell of a lot noisier than usual– one night we woke up to shouting about a misfired firework that nearly set the backyard next to us on fire. Fireworks were ridiculously cheap and readily available in the makeshift vendors that lined the river that weekend. Krathong to float on the river were also easy to come by. Even our guesthouse owner’s really sweet wife knew how to make beautiful ones.

Kom loi are the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. They’re cheap paper hot air balloon lanterns, with a masking tape roll-shaped candle suspended by wire at the bottom to inflate. Some people attach long streams of sparklers to the end of the candle, but if you’re not experienced in doing this you can very well set the whole thing on fire. It’s baffling how the local police and firemen deal with this entire weekend without going into a collective nervous breakdown.

My sister and I had a blast lighting kom loi, letting them go, and hoping they didn’t make a building catch fire. You’re supposed to pray and make a wish before you let it go, but sometimes we were kinda busy worrying about whether it’d kill someone first. ‘Cause, you know, that’s pretty bad karma.


a guide to tuk-tuk riding in chiang mai

I love tuk-tuks. We take them all the time in Chiang Mai. The Pun Pun guesthouse has a deal with one particularly nice driver named Watchalee, who made our trip loads more pleasant. Riding in one may seem like a bad idea– it’s basically a motorcycle with a roof and a backseat– but once you’re on the street and see a family of four (plus a sack of rice) on the moped next to you, you figure, well, it’s not THAT dangerous.

Here are a few tips to make your tuk-tuk ride as pleasant as possible.

Don’t take taxis in Chiang Mai. They rip you off even more than tuk-tuks. (In Bangkok, though, it’s the opposite.) Tuk-tuks are also more environmentally friendly, believe it or not: They use less gas.

A normal ride ranges from 30-60. They’ll try to up the price if you’re obviously a foreigner, or even multiply it by the number of people getting on. Don’t let them.

Negotiate the fare before getting in, or you may seriously piss off the driver.

Don’t go lower than 30 baht beneath their first price (or below 50 baht total). If you do, expect a shitty ride with a lot of wrong turns.

Renting one for the day can be useful, especially if you visit the jade, silk and umbrella factories about an hour away. It cost us about 500-700 baht for a 5-6 hour day with Watchalee. The price was jacked up (not by her) because we got back to the guesthouse late.

They’re best on the highway, when you get minimal exhaust from the car in front, since they’re open-air vehicles.

Prices skyrocket during Loi Krathong to about 100 baht. Deal with it.

Expect to hunt for a tuk-tuk on Sundays, because it’s a rest day. Go to a well-populated area with lots of traffic.

Don’t get off at places that aren’t your destination. Drivers may get a commission for those places, which is why they often pretend to be lost and confused.

The younger the driver, the more likely they speak English. And if you flirt, you might just get a better discount.

a change in itinerary– sunburn and thunderstorms

I got sunburned at the Chatuchak market, but the forecast for the next week or so is rain, rain, rain. That’s why we’re currently in a bungalow along the river in Chiang Mai up in the north instead of a bungalow along the beach in Krabi down in the south. And I’ve been running a fever, so I’m not riding elephants or taking pictures of long-necked women today. Oh well; all the touristy stuff makes me feel awkward anyway. And as long as we’re in town for Loi Krathong, I’ll be happy.

Bargaining, part 2
A few important rules to take note of when bargaining: First, don’t bargain too much or the vendor will lose face. Second, don’t bargain when the price is already written somewhere– it’s rude. You can probably ask, “Is that your best price?”, but beyond that, Thais aren’t shameless enough to discount further if they see you walking away.

Today’s oxymoron: Eco-friendly frequent flyer
I’m vegetarian, I still don’t know how to drive, I use less toilet paper than most people, I don’t take many showers, I have a laptop and I don’t keep it plugged in all the time, and I don’t buy new books when I can help it. But no matter how environmentally friendly my lifestyle is, my jet fuel usage probably cancels it all out.

Borrowing Lonely Planet guides from guesthouses
If you’re staying in a hostel or a guesthouse, chances are they have a bookshelf full of travel guides for the borrowing. Take advantage of this. You have to return it when your stay at that place is over, but it beats lugging a really heavy one around with you all over the country.

Girls liking boys liking boys liking girls liking girls
Despite its Buddhist precepts, Thailand is wonderfully open to homosexuality. In Bangkok in particular, there are a lot of girls who just happen to have an extra appendage in between their legs, and everywhere there are lots of girls who astound me with their androgyny (btw, our waiter last night was really cute! I didn’t realize he was a she until my sister pointed out the sports bra outline under her shirt.) Are Thais just naturally gender-bendingly gorgeous? No wonder so many sketchy men from all over the world (and by world, I mean Australia) converge on Thailand to prey on its exceedingly beautiful and friendly people.

Getting hit on by sketchy white men in Thailand when you look Thai
My sister and I (well, mostly my sister) have been hit on by one too many old, fat white men in this country. Plus we get taken for locals by tourists and locals alike. (We’ve been wearing the clothes we got from Chatuchak.) It’s a nice change from France, where I was sometimes the only Asian in the arrondissement despite its ethnic diversity, but I feel pretty bad for still not being able to speak much Thai. The same thing happened to me in Japan, but since my accent in Japanese was flawless, people thought I was mentally challenged and the “ohhh she isn’t Japanese” part rarely ever dawned on them.

The white guy thing, though, it’s driving me nuts. They use their baby English to try and woo us into giving them a “massage” for a couple hundred baht. Sometimes I want to pretend not to speak English for about thirty seconds before erupting into “Look, you little shit, you’re pretty fucking pathetic (not to mention idiotic) if all the ass you can get is from girls who just want your money and can’t even speak a lick of English.” Argh. Even Thai men have a hell of a lot more decency than that.

a few notes on things

Jet Lag
I went through 20 time zones in one week. They say that it takes about one day to adjust for each hour in time you lost or gained. I say extreme sleep deprivation is a quick and fun (read: mind-altering) way to deal with being sleepy and awake at all the wrong times.

I got my French cell phone unlocked for 250 baht ($8). The vendors originally offered 300-350, but then my sister jabbed her thumb in the direction we came from and said, “But the other guy said 250!”. Problem solved.

7-Eleven is to Bangkok as Starbucks is to Manhattan. The best part is, if you buy enough stuff you get these flimsy little paper tabs that you can redeem for small rewards. Like SIM cards, apparently. Too bad we bought one before realizing this.

Tourist Boat
There’s a 100-baht tourist boat that runs along the river and takes you to all the right piers if you want to visit the wats (Buddhist temples) and the Grand Palace– but it’s only reliable until 4pm, when most of the piers close. The public bus boat costs about 9-18 baht per ride, so it’s theoretically more cost-effective (and doesn’t include the unintelligible Thai guide auction-chanting over the speakers), but if you’re not Thai, no one will tell you where it is.

My sister and I swore we’d only bring a few changes of clothing so we could buy local clothes and not be huge pickpocket targets. However, we didn’t realize our budget would be on the slim side. That’s why I need to learn numbers in Thai, so as to bargain my dignity away at the Chatuchak weekend market.

Cleanliness is next to godliness
Thais take showers twice a day, dress well (the youngsters’ style is sort of Hong Kong meets Tokyo) and clean their stores and sidewalks regularly. The water is incredibly dirty, but at least the rest of the city is clean.

“Long Live the King” t-shirts
If you aren’t fashionable, you can wear a yellow “Long Live the King” t-shirt to blend in. At least if you look Thai. If you’re white, well… sorry, can’t help you there. You’ll stick out no matter what you do.

writing on the move is harder than i thought

So I’m gonna back post some of the entries I wrote before leaving Paris. But that’ll probably happen in late December at the earliest because I left my laptop in California.

I’m currently in Bangkok with my sister, staying at an American (or Australian?)-run guest house a few Skytrain stops away from everything. I’ve been taking about three hours of sleep at a time at night and through the morning (polyphasic-style), so my jet lag hasn’t left me dead– but then again I’m completely used to being wide awake at 11:30 pm.

On the way here we had a 10-hour, nausea-filled flight from SFO to Narita, where I spent two hours trying to dredge up the remnants of my Japanese, then slept through most of the 7-hour flight to Bangkok, then woke up and watched The Beach for the first time. Unfortunately my sister isn’t taking Alex Garland’s message to heart so we’ll be hitting a lot of tourist stops– and probably running into a lot of drunk Anglophones on the way. :P

Bangkok feels a lot like Manila, but it’s got a better mix of Tokyo and Hong Kong and is a hell of a lot cleaner. Our first glimpse into it was in the huge Siam mall complex, which is more of a luxury than a real shopping experience. We haven’t bought much of anything yet, but the food is much more reasonable price-wise and we’ll be buying local clothes and stuff from the markets so we don’t look like pickpocket targets.

The weather on Ko Pha Ngan is going to be crappy for a while, so we might stay on the mainland until it stops raining. We’ve got four days in the city to acclimatize and get a crash course in Thai culture. Plus I need to learn how to read Thai really effing soon, so we’re armed with a couple thousand baht, a 15-year-old Lonely Planet guide to the country, and a Thai dictionary and phrasebook.

Wish us luck.


This is a blog of things place-related, by a cash-strapped Stanford grad who's lived in various places and writes about life. She's currently looking for a job in Manhattan or the Bay Area.

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