Monday, January 12, 2009

Tony Tries Thailand’s Thrilling Treats, Part 1: The First Day

I left on the 18th already, seems like so long ago. Good thing I have so many pictures to jog my memory, I’ll keep this as family friendly as possible as I discovered after I arrived that Thailand is kinda seedy. I suppose legalized prostitution will do that, let’s call those girls “workers”. More on that later.

My adventure began by staying over at my friend Patricia’s place as my little, lovable town of Tatsuno no longer receives airport service... She was coming back from a party around the time I was waking up at 4 to catch the bus. I was traveling alone. The first day is always the hardest with all the transportation involved, not to mention the lack of sleep that contributes to the whole experience, but our plane still flew over a crater of some sort that was really cool; a pocketed hole in the Earth far below and became a lake.

I want to clarify something important: of course, my current reflections leave me with millions of ways on how I’d do things differently next time, and of course I am a very different person than the one that left for Thailand over 3 weeks ago. I made a fatal mistake, which I discovered much later in my trip, in that I approached Thailand as if it was Vietnam. It is not.

One of my biggest humbling moments of the trip was when I finally realized, finally understood… is that no matter how much you learn and how much experience you gather, you still don’t know much. “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge” -Confucius. I should have known this lesson already from my Engineering oath, but perhaps I got the necessary smack I needed in re-affirming my, and every person’s role for that matter, as a student.

Now that that’s out of the way and before I start sounding pretentious, I arrived in Bangkok around 8 at night Japan time. I thought I was maybe getting ripped off right away with the hotel and taxi service I seemed to be persuaded into booking, but I don’t think I did too bad considering. I checked in to a place that was cheap by Tokyo standards, but swanky by Bangkok standards. I wanted to go to Cambodia with a friend the next day and buy travel guides for cheap, but because I didn’t book ahead the plane ticket prices were ridiculous. Some travel people downstairs helped me right away book a tour for the next day instead and got little protest from me as it was cheap and a great way to see things close to the city. It’s easy to be overwhelmed when you first arrive. I got an in-house Thai massage and went to bed, as I had to wake up in 6 hours.

This was my first time getting a Thai massage, and it was a greater treat than what I experienced in Vietnam. It seemed like the common and recommended massage was for 2 hours, and it’s fairly physical. The first hour is work on your legs, and the last hour is work on your upper body. The 2 hours massage was about $10, and there were girls in the hotel ready to give them; don't worry, I was assured they weren’t “workers.” It’s really relaxing and interesting; so much so that before I left Thailand on a much later day, I took a class on how to give such a treat. I guess I’ll talk about that later, and through massage I met someone very special, Anna. I don’t want to talk too much about the different girls I met like my Vietnam trip, but she’s special and I’ll talk about her later.

My first day in Thailand started off early in a van to see the floating market. There are various places around Thailand that have these boats that float down the river selling their stuff; be it goods, food, drinks or whatever. They ranged from paintings to spicy noodles. It was really cool to see floating shops like that, they were too varied to describe them all. The place we visited was a particularly busy market more geared for tourists.

We rode on a similar banana shaped boat to get to the market and saw all kinds of interesting things along the way. The local’s houses (wooden cabins), their pets (some monkeys), their laundry and how they cleaned it in the river, their food (lots of fresh vegetables), their vehicles (some boats were like ours, complete with a car’s engine outfitted with a long propeller!) and other cool things.

On the many tours we saw lots of students interviewing tourists. I’ll pick stories from various tours I went on and tell you now. One group of university girls came after me saying “you!” as I don’t think they knew “excuse me” yet and wanted a picture with me. Other students had no idea what poor-grammar questions were even on their paper, as they couldn’t read them out to ask them, and when I was spelling my answers to them, they struggled understanding what letter I was saying. Maybe I just ran into a lower-level batch, as most people I talked to had really good English; this is a country that thrives on tourism after all.

All these full day tours were less than $50 each, included buffets for lunch, and went to multiple destinations. Our next destination gave us an option to see a monkey show, snake show or ride elephants. I saw the monkey show where they dressed up like people and ran around doing things like dunking basketballs, catching fish in a pool, picking fruit from a tree and jumping through burning hoops. It was entertaining I suppose, but I felt bad for the monkeys a couple times, as they were always on a leash around their neck, not too far away from someone leading them around.

After this we watched an Elephant show, where they explained how and why they were the symbol of Thailand, performing mock battles complete with swords, cannons and fireball explosions. On the light side, they also danced to techno; swinging their trunks in circles and doing handstands. They dressed up in soccer uniforms and took turns booting balls at a goalie, this and various other performances. A crocodile show followed, where they put their head in their mouths, slid on concrete into their face, wrestled a bit and other dangerous looking things. Crocodiles sure don’t seem to be a happy lot.

The last stop for the day was to watch various Thai cultural performances and have them explained. Many things were shown from folk dances with bamboo, to rice/harvest dances, to various fighting styles with various weapons like swords, bows and pikes. The part I was really interested in was when they showed a Thai wedding: The couple places paper halos attached to each other on their heads while family members come up and send their greetings.

The bus stopped at a couple shops to coax us into buying treats; I got a couple things already but the last stop was a huge jewelry store. I laughed inside, knowing they were wasting their time on someone like me, but I still found interest in the one room where you got to get close and see them cutting the stones and setting the rings. As a geek/engineer, I find that stuff fascinating. It wasn’t too long before an employee found me and started leading me around the huge show room of expensive shiny stuff.

Lots of the stuff was pretty, sure, but what a waste. I’d much sooner buy the same stuff from a pawn shop for a fraction of the price, should I ever need something shiny (I don’t). Either way, I was setting myself up in many social situations to practice my people skills; this particular trial for me involved talking to a sales person, keeping it interesting, and not giving in to their pitches. This skill helps tremendously with bartering and teasing cute girls. (life is a big video game) If I go through a day and haven't felt anxiety, fear or being nervous, then I didn't take enough risks and need to push myself harder the next day. Baby steps.

I wonder if I should even mentioned social skills I am grinding and how I’m doing it, but then I remembered this blog serves 3 purposes: one is my email home telling everyone I’m not dead and I miss them without spamming their in-boxes, another is my personal diary, and another is cultural differences/new things as I encounter them and my opinion about or experience with it. If I can do all that and keep it interesting I think that’s a good skill to develop. Everything is a learning experience, but of course I can't talk about everything.

Anyways, part of her strategy to shake my state was to shoot at my weak points obviously. “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” came up a couple times, and “isn’t it lonely?” I remember being rattled at the time and the old Tony’s blog post would have been “why do people go out of their way to remind me how lonely I am” but now I’m kinda chuckling. I went through a lot, and sometimes I’d be thinking to myself “if only I could go back blah blah years and slap myself silly with the stuff I know now” and then had something of an epiphany: “how would I smack myself silly today one month from now?” I’m learning to take risks. Heh it’s funny, when I’m going through a difficult trial, I start imagining how I’d write it up on my blog and it seems to help, but I do this less and less now, and more living in the moment.

In the end I didn’t give in, but I did buy a silk shirt later because it looked nice and since I lost so much weight I need clothes that aren’t so baggy. When I visit Canada I’m going on some big shopping trips I think; now that the Canadian dollar is so weak, things are so cheap and everything will be in my size. I understand now why John spent so much on clothes like he did when my sisters were helping him out. I’m indifferent about it all, but responses you receive are not.

That night, after getting back and booking another tour for the next day, I was quickly making friends with the tour guides. I went out for lunch and the one guy, Peter, tagged along. We went to some cool street-stand restaurants and got some spicy delicacies. Thailand knows how to do spicy and I was delighted. I had a good talk with Peter and he even bought me some food to eat with him.

One thing I tried a couple times was this “papaya salad” or something, where they minced things up right in front of you. A weird thing about food in Thailand though, is that some ingredients are for flavour and not consumption. So there I was one day with this chicken soup/curry. Over half the things in the bowl I wasn’t suppose to eat, but I didn’t know that as I crunched away on these horrible roots, cloves and other weird stuff I’ve never seen before; other than those it was quite tasty. A lot of the food is soup based.

So while we’re talking, Peter asks me if I want to see a “sexy show”. Anyone and everyone has heard of the mythical “ping pong show” and it’s practically a cultural experience in itself. He said he'd go with me and it’s cheap so why not.

For the faint of heart, you can skip the rest of this post and visit back tomorrow when I post part 2, but I’ll still try and keep the story clean. If that is even possible… let’s use more code words then. You already know “workers”, and now the girl’s ‘place down there’ will be her “hat”.

We got to the place and Peter told me he had to do something and would join me in a little bit. I’m treated to a dim room with a triangle stage in the middle, surrounded by 3-4 rows of chairs and people with funny looks on their faces. Right after I’m seated alone in the back, a ‘worker’ is all over me. She could hardly hold my attention though because of the crazy stuff that was happening on the stage. While everyone knows ‘ping pong’ show, what I didn’t know was that ‘ping pongs’ are actually a very small part of the show; one ‘act’ in a play of around 20 ‘acts’ that kept running in a loop with no breaks or end with dance music in the background.

It’s hard to describe, but you’ve seen a McDonald’s worker right? You know the soul-less look in their face of being bored with work, the monotony of the same thing over and over again. Imagine that face, then imagine a naked body underneath, doing things you’ve never imaged of with their “hat”. Some acts looked painful, like removing a bottle cap. Some looked skillful like shooting darts through a straw to pop balloons far away, or writing message with a pen. Some were dumb like smoking, and some were interesting and almost pretty (if you can say that) where they turned on the black lights and she slowly pulled many meters of neon ribbon out of her “hat”, and wrapped it in patterns around the poles on stage while dancing; or a glowing strand of flowers.

It was almost more fun to watch the audience and the looks they would get on their faces. What really stood out for me was when this girl showed up to join her friends in the front row. She sat down, then looked up at the stage in front of her. Maybe 3 feet from her face a guy was doing his thing with a girl. The look she had was priceless. Another dude with his girlfriend would get up and try to read what the girl was writing passionately, and held his hands out to catch ping pong balls flying out of the “hat”.

So here this “worker” was hanging all over me, as a young guy like me sitting alone must be sending all kinds of signals and she wants “work”. It was pretty funny talking to her (remember that social skill I mentioned earlier?). Anyways, while they kept lowering the price, they got more creative with their offering. Her friend came along and says “if you pay 3000 (less than $100) then you can have me too for free.”

Heh, not too long later, she was up onstage doing her bit of the show. She sees me in the audience and starts yelling at me with a big smile “I’m free! I’m free!” jumping up and down excitedly. Everyone turned their heads to look at me sitting there laughing with this “worker” hanging off me. It was amusing, and then she started to pull razor blades out of her “hat”. Ya. Razor blades. Later, she sliced through paper to prove they were razor blades. What a crazy show, I’m glad I went. The one that was hanging on me all night later gave me a toy. It was a little stuffed dog puppet that was cute. She was either really into me for real, or was putting on an impressive act for “work”, as when it was time for me to leave because the show started looping, I returned the toy to her to say goodbye, she was quite sad. You may like me, but your track record causes me to worry.

Peter was still outside; he never did join me inside. I later found out part of the tour-guide’s job was to take us to these kinds of places as well, as prostitution is legal, and they wait for you to “finish up” with a "worker" and help you get back. That, or they maybe get a commission for leading us to these places, and here I though we were going out like buddies to see a ‘sexy show’. Anyways, Peter took me back to the hotel and I got much needed sleep; not bad for my first day eh?

Peter later informed of these “girl farms” where you go in and there are rows of girls behind a pane of glass. You pick a number, and you get 2 hours with her. I’ve heard the argument from people before that prostitution should be legalized because it’ll happen anyways and at least this way it’s somewhat controlled. There are no pimps, the girls are in ‘safe’ places where they won’t get hurt by ‘bad dates’, they are tested weekly for diseases, pay taxes like normal people, and have other services provided for them.

The part that's hard to swallow is a lot of these girls are almost exploited because they’re pretty, and most times poor and have no other choice. Many can’t find jobs, or they have a kid or family they’re trying to support. I guess this is a crazy topic I won’t debate on, but because it’s so crazy to me I naturally asked a lot of questions and was surprised more by just how open and honest they are talking about “workers”. This trip was the first time I’ve heard of “sex tourism” but after what I was told I can see why Bangkok is so popular now.

"Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts." -Arnold Bennett


No comments: