Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Eight things I've learned from eight months in Bangkok

Eight things I've noticed from eight months in Bangkok

1.) Walking with purpose doesn't exist here. Neither does multi-tasking. Especially when talking on the phone and/or texting is involved. And don't even get me started on the packs of people who drag their feet and their carcasses along at a snail's pace and won't let anyone pass them. If only I owned a Kalashnikov...

2.) Vehicles have the right of way and pedestrian crossings actually mean 'step on the accelerator'.

3.) Passive aggressiveness isn't a positive attribute.

4.) Safety is underrated.

5.)The closer people are to denture-wearing age, the more inclined they are to elbow you or shove you out of their way.  

6.) Pop culture seems to be fascinating to most. But not to me. Do yourself a favor: go broaden your horizons & increase your rapidly-dwindling attention span by reading a fookin' book or meditating or something.

7.) Looking you up and down seems to be a popular pastime amongst the females in this city, but even more so in rural areas. Judging a book by its cover is soooo fifth world...

8.) Few seem to grasp the concept that 195 other nations exist in the world. It's one thing to be a nationalist, and another thing, entirely, to be ignorant. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Beware of the Ativan Gang and other scams in Manila!

On October 14, 2014, at around 5 pm or so, I was walking up Roxas Blvd along Manila Bay, towards the ferris wheel. There were many people hanging around, some just lounging, some were fishing in the bay. I had just passed Aristocrats Restaurant when I was approached by 2 women, a chubby light-skinned Filipina with a round face, that looked to be in her early 30's and about 5 feet tall, with dyed light brown hair that was just past her shoulders, and the other looked to be in her 60's and was very petite, maybe 4'9, with a darker complexion and short black hair. She was dressed in a purple top, and what looked to be a traditional Filipino style purple skirt, and purple plastic thong sandals. 

The younger woman complimented me on my green dress, she said green was her favorite color. She also said she liked my height, and how did I get so tall? She was wearing a t-shirt that accentuated her bulbous belly, and jean shorts. The 2 women asked me what my name was and told me theirs', the younger chubby one was named Karyn, and the older petite one was named Imelda. They asked if this was my first visit to Manila and I replied that it was. 

I asked if they were visiting Manila as well and they told me that they had had to evacuate their home in Legazpi, south of Mayon volcano, that the impending eruptions had led to volcanic ash contaminating the air and their water supply. They asked me whether I was alone, and if I had any plans. I said I didn't. They said they were on their way to visit a church made of all metal and said I should see the church and ride in a jeepney, and asked if I would like to come along. I took some selfies with Karyn since she was seated next to me in the jeepney, and she warned me about letting others see expensive phones. She said people snatch phones out of jeepneys all the time, and necklaces also. She looked at my necklace and asked what it was made of. I told her it was white gold. In retrospect, I should have said it was tinfoil. She was wearing a white gold ring with a small white diamond set in it on her left middle finger.

    Me in a jeepney.

 Imelda said she had researched how to get to this all metal church, but when we got there, it seemed like she had been there before. She halfheartedly walked me around the church and then we went outside. I placed some money in the donation box outside, lit a candle, and placed it in the candlelabra, and prayed for my deceased loved ones. Imelda took pictures of me with my camera while I was lighting the votive. We all walked back inside the church and Imelda and Karyn both touched the holy water and prayed. When we left the church, I asked a security guard to take a few photos of the three of us, with San Sebastian church in the background. 

    San Sebastian Church in Quiapo

Imelda and Karyn walked around like they knew the area very well, and we ended up at a small non-descript local shop that served beer and had a karaoke machine. Karyn and Imelda insisted that I have some beer. Imelda said she was very stressed about having to evacuate her home and needed to relax with a beer, and I should drink with her. Karen and Imelda wanted to sing karaoke, but the shop was obviously closing soon, so we went to Golden Banana Eatery. Imelda said her male relative would be joining us, but she said she didn't tell him they were with a foreign guest, as he was very shy, and still single. We ordered a few rounds of San Miguel, lechon, mami, buttered chicken, and sang several karaoke songs. Karyn went to 7-11 during dinner, but was gone for quite some time. She had some candy in her hand when she came back and fed it to me. I went to the toilet once while we were at Golden Banana Eatery. Yes, my glass was unattended. 

A few rounds of beer will not normally make me feel even slightly intoxicated, mind you. I remember paying 500 pesos of the 1100 peso bill, because I ordered the majority of the food and ate most of it. I vaguely remember Karyn taking my necklace off, and me grabbing it from her fat hand and stuffing it in my pouch. I remember walking out of the Golden Banana Eatery, and I think Karyn was holding my hand, which I thought was strange.

I was also convinced that I had to go to the atm, but I was very groggy at that point and didn't know why I was at the atm in the first place because I had cash in my wallet, and I noticed Karyn was peering at the keypad. Perhaps I had been coerced into going to the atm? I told her I needed privacy when I saw her keep looking over my shoulder. I don't remember anything after this. I have a bunch of receipts that say no money was dispensed due to incorrect pin entry, thank Buddha. If I remember correctly, I had $22, 2500 baht, and 7,000 pesos in my wallet before i ran into Karyn and Imelda. 

I must have fallen down at some point because I have a scrape on my right elbow and a small abrasion on my right pinky finger. I remember bits of staggering into Tune Hotel Ermita lobby, and blacking out. I woke up fully clothed, alone, and in my hotel bed. The next day, I was very very groggy and went downstairs to buy food at 7-11, but struggled to walk. The 7-11 clerk said i owed her 160 pesos from the previous night, so I paid her. I had a few hundred pesos left in my wallet, but everything else was cleared out. My white gold necklace, worth $250, was also gone. All the photos of Karyn, Imelda, and I, had been deleted. I'm surprised they hadn't taken my camera or my cellphones. The 7-11 security guard asked me if I remembered what had happened the previous night. I was so groggy I didn't think to ask him why? I even missed my flight to Puerto Princesa City that day because I was so disoriented. 

I've traveled solo through all of Southeast Asia and parts of Western Europe, and I usually have my wits about me, but being drugged and robbed is not a situation I ever imagined myself in, and I don't wish it upon anyone. I later read that there is at least one robbery every day in Ermita, and that local authorities have done nothing to protect tourists. Be warned when visiting Manila. There are scam artists everywhere, starting at NAIA Airport with non-metered white van taxis that charge 5 times the normal metered fare. You are forewarned.

Friday, October 3, 2014

My Solo Journey to Preah Vihear

 Always waitin' on a bus...       

      Wow. What an adventure. I left Sikhiu on Wed Oct 1, 2014 and got to Korat Bus Terminal around noon that day. The bus to Kantharalak would depart at 2pm but it was 10 to 3 when it actually departed. The entire bus, save for 3 civilians including me, was full of Thai soldiers. 

When I got to Kantharalak just before 9 pm, I was greeted by a light show of a carnival directly adjacent to the bus terminal. It was bizarre that this non-descript looking town had a massive carnival, and a large Tesco Lotus as well! 2 drivers for hire approached me and I inquired about my intended destination: Preah Vihear, the 11th century temple nestled in the mountains separating Thailand and Kampuchea, which has been the subject of border disputes for the last decade or so, since part of the temple is in Kantharalak district, on Thai soil, and part is in Choam Khsant province, on Kampuchean soil.

The carnival in Kantharalak

   Casualties and losses have occured, including damage to the temple. The 2 drivers for hire told me that the closest border had been closed due to unrest and I would have to hire a car and driver to get there. One of the men was wearing a severely faded pink t shirt and had sak yant tattoos. I asked for a moment and walked to the information booth of the empty bus terminal. There was a man seated there who looked like he was dozing off and I asked him if I really had to hire a car and driver to Preah Vihear. He said yes, that that was the case. Ugh!

 The man in the pink t shirt had followed me in and I asked for his phone number in case i needed his services. He showed me a guesthouse right around the corner from the bus terminal and I thanked him and went in search of a clean bed. 

The rooms at Sala Villa were pretty decent, and clean. I asked the receptionist about transport to Preah Vihear and she told me the same thing that I was told at the bus terminal, the border at Kantharalak closest to Preah Vihear had been closed. Ughhh. She yelled across the room at a man across the lobby and asked if he'd be willing to drive that way. Apparently he was the receptionist's brother. He also quoted 300 less than the drivers at the bus terminal. I said, "Alright, 5:30 am tomorrow. See you then." 

 And so the journey began the following day, about 150 km to Choam border, and some of the roads were paved, but with huge potholes. If the driver's truck had been an automatic, he surely would have lost his transmission, a couple times. We arrived at the Choam immigration checkpoint just after 7:30. I thanked my driver and paid him, then proceeded to have my passport inspected.

 When i had officially arrived in Kampuchea, there were a group of smartly dressed immigration officers sat around a table, not doing much of anything. I told them where I intended to go, and one of them told me it was another 250 km away from the checkpoint. Ha! 

The only attraction near Choam border was a bloody casino. I had used my Thai passport to enter Kampuchea, and Thais are forbidden to enter Preah Vihear. I had to speak to yet another immigration officer, showed him on my passport that I was actually born in the USA, and he relented and told me, under no circumstances, should I show my Thai passport to anyone, or speak any Thai while I was at Preah Vihear.

The price quoted for a car and driver was absolutely horrendous, (a little over $100) but I said,"Fuck it. I'm here. Let's go!" So off we went, my driver and I, through many red dirt roads, herds of cows, villages, and after stopping on numerous occasions at military checkpoints, I spotted the Dangrek Mountains where my coveted temple was built on. 

The red dirt road leading to Preah Vihear

We passed several military checkpoints, ornate gated homes, wood houses on stilts with red tiled ceilings in rows like little soldiers, and finally, a path with makeshift wooden structures on either side and a little shanty hut with a sleepy soldier in it. I don't think my driver had ever been to Preah Vihear because he stopped on several occasions for directions. 

We drove right by Preah Vihear ticket booth and had to make a u turn up the red dirt road and then pulled into the ticket booth. The entire place was teeming with monks and locals, I never saw a single tourist the entire time I was there. Tickets were on a donation basis. 
From the ticket booth, the path up the mountain could only be accessed by motorbike, $5 for a bike with a driver.

 At first I thought the girl at the ticket booth meant I had to ride the bike up 525 meters on my own and I laughed, cuz it might have taken me 2 days to get up there. The moto driver was very very skilled, thank buddha, and he had a green plastic container filled with petrol strapped to the middle console of his motorbike. The inclines were severely steep, but the view! Oh the view! 

I nearly flew off a few times, as I was too busy gawking at the scenery. We passed a few shacks that were people's homes and a few hundred meters away, parked the bike. It was about 10:30 am at the time. There were several food stalls, and I bought a bottle of water, then proceeded up a slushy stone path. 

The Dangrek Mountain range

There was natural spring water seeped out everywhere, and the stone path had been eroded in many places. A few hundred more meters and I saw 2 blue flags, a Kampuchean flag, and my long awaited ruins. Preah Vihear, declared a UNESCO site in 2008, was built along a north-south axis, unlike the rectangular plan of most Angkor temples. 

The temple is about 800 meters from beginning to end, and is quite easy to climb, albeit uphill. Many of the steps were actually huge misshapen boulders with gaps throughout. I wonder how strong people in olden days must have been to carry boulders up a mountain to build such an impressive structure. 
  Preah Vihear Temple

I was loitering about near the top tier of ruins and a Khmer soldier was perched on a cliff with his telescope and gestured for me to come over. He said," Look! See Thailand!" I held the telescope to my eye and saw a Thai flag & red roofed sala perched on the Thai side of the mountains, and it was teeming with tourists and a few Thai soldiers.

  Me taking in the view

 It felt weird, like I was spying on my own country or something. I thanked the soldier, turned his telescope back towards him, and began my journey back down the mountain. Another dream, fulfilled. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bangkok--->Koh Chang

Recollections of this morning...The V.I.P. bus (ooooooooh fancyyyy) took longer than expected, and was tardy from the very start. A motorbike had picked me up and dropped me off at the roundabout, where 10 or so other passengers were already impatiently waiting. Normally, it's a 6 hour journey from a Bangkok to Trat Province. Today was clearly my lucky day because the voyage ended up taking 8 hours. The female bus attendant apologized to me about good ol' Bangkok traffic.

When we arrived at Centerpoint Ferry Pier, every single passenger ferociously hurled themselves off the bus, and shoved in front of everyone else to grab their luggage, and more shoving with a little added elbowing ensued, as we approached the ferry ticket counter. Were we not all boarding the same large ferry, headed for the same island? What is the difference in a matter of minutes? Sheesh! Somehow, common courtesy and manners were conveniently misplaced when the crowd had been festering on a coach for too long?!

 The shuttle from the coach to the pier was packed to the brim, with not even half a vacant seat. As such, I took made my own standing spot next to one of the rails, and dangled precariously, half inside, and half outside of the vehicle, with my arm wrapped tightly around the rail. A young boy, of about 9 or 10 years of age, with a shaggy, grown out rice bowl haircut, and large, black rimmed spectacles, stood up and gave me his seat. His mother beamed at my protests and chuckled with an ever-so-slight, charming French drawl to her English, "He's just trying to be a gentleman." I think she had a lot to do with that. Well done, mom. 

 In the interim, my backpack had mysteriously tumbled off the shuttle, unbeknownst to me. I exited the shuttle and stared at the empty cargo area of the shuttle with a look of puzzled bewilderment. The girl from the ticket counter was riding towards the pier on her motorbike, and from afar, I could see my white pack hanging from her left arm. My hero! Again!

The sunset in Bailan Bay
My toenail varnish is brighter than the sunset

Enjoying a Leo

Monday, July 1, 2013

Friday, June 28, 2013 Part 2 of The Myanmar Blue And White LocalBusChronicles, Pathein via Ngwe Saung

Our guesthouse receptionist flagged down some motorbike taxis for us, one for me, and one for my friend Chris. Zigzagging is an understatement for the amount of rapid movement necessary to maneuver through the town toward  Pathein bus station.  It had been raining on and off, and the streets were slick and slushy. Each time we splashed through muddy brown puddles, my feet and ankles were christened by a spray of watery muck. The bus station, just like every other bus station we'd been to in Myanmar, was an unmarked, large dirt field, lined on both sides by vendor shacks.

The shacks always offer the exact same items; snacks that appear to be several months past their expiration date, fat, stumpy bananas, various soft drinks, bottled water, facial tissue, Myanmar smokes, and individually wrapped,  heavily scented wet wipes. Today the dirt field had been transformed into a viscous and uneven mire mound, by the ever present rain, and as we gingerly made our way across the mud field, over to the passenger waiting area, I almost lost a flip flop in the sludge. Another day, another blue and white bus.

This voyage only took about 2 hours, along a narrow, one-laned,  snake-like road, up some hills, through the rainforest, and several rice paddies, all the while, Myanmar pop music blasts from a portable speaker in the front of the bus. The 20 something male passenger behind me coughs, and hawks loogies out of the window the entire way.  I knew I shouldn't have bothered to wash my hair. From a distance, the rice fields resembled vibrant green patchwork quilts, dotted with light brown embroidery.

We finally caught a glimpse of the much anticipated coastline, blue-slate coloured water, against a candescent white sky. Knowing full well that it's monsoon season, we were, nevertheless, relentless in our pursuits to find a way to Ngwe Saung Beach, if only to experience a Myanmar beach. We had inquired about a bus from Yangon to the coastline, but were informed by several ticket agents that buses to the beach don't operate in the rainy season. It took us 3 towns, 3 buses,  3 moto-wagons, and 2 motorbikes, to get here. We hopped off the bus at an unmarked bus stop, and were taken to a resort by yet another set of motorbike taxis.

The sun came out to taunt us for a bit, and drenched the crashing dark blue-gray waves with sparkling silver. The long stretch of beach with powder-fine,  light caramel coloured sand, was nothing short of majestic, and virtually empty, save for a handful of local fisherman casting their nets, their wet clothes whipping around them in the gusty wind, water up to their knees.

Mid afternoon, the white clouds took on a light gray lining, the gray eventually graduating to a deep, dark, charcoal, until the entire sky became the color of soot. And then there was rain. It's easy to appreciate the beach on a sunny day, but the ocean on a rainy day is just as beautiful, in it's own right. Writing on the deck of our beach bungalow, completely sprawled out on a large wooden chair, just a few hundred meters from the pounding, massive waves, to the soundtrack of the deep, throaty, roar of the wind...It doesn't get much better than this.

    Ngwe Saung. Such a welcome sight!

Thursday, June 27, 2013


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Our bus to Pyay arrived in the alloted time, 8 hours and some change. We were taken to Smile Hotel in a converted moto-wagon, but alas, there were no vacancies. We surveilled Myat Loging Guesthouse next (that's actually how it was spelled.) The owners got out of bed to show us a room, a severely outdated and moldy smelling room, that is.  The price was lowered as I was making my exit, and it was getting late, so we decided to suck it up and spend a night there, flaky, moldy wallpaper, astroturf carpet with burn marks, and all.

It was reminiscent of someone's eccentric auntie's house circa 1970, with a relic of a television set to prove it. The power kept cutting in and out, and we found out later that the entire city of Pyay turns it's electricity off twice a day, and the more affluent businesses have generators as supplements. We had asked the guesthouse owner about bus tickets to Chaung Tha, and he sleepily and vaguely mentioned that the buses from Pyay to Chaung Tha depart several times daily, but when we went to inquire again during regular business hours, he told us 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. were the only time slots available. 6 p.m. was already sold out for that day, which meant spending another night in mildewy room 103. Thankfully the a/c was crisp and cool (when the power was on)...The shared bathroom at the end of the hall creeped me out a bit, especially since there was a hospital neighbouring the guesthouse. As I burrowed myself under the covers, I kept hearing intermittent knocking?!

Needless to say, I didn't manage to sleep well, and our transfer service to Pyay bus terminal was scheduled for 5:30 a.m. It took us under 20 minutes to get there, in the makeshift moto-wagon that definitely had no shocks, and made my boobs hurt. We waited 40 minutes for no good reason, batting off flies, and locals who spat out squirts of red betel juice however they saw fit.

When our bus finally pulled up, it was the run down, blue and white, non air-conditioned bus we had jeered at earlier, the aisles lined with sacks, produce, and more than slightly scented with last week's produce. There were 2 rows of narrow seats, and we sat behind 2 young monks. The seat cushions were made of pvc, and I slid around in every direction, trying to get comfortable, but to no avail. There were no floorboards, so my left leg swang, while my right leg was either hunched up, or laid out, depending on whether there was someone sitting in the aisle to my right or not, and there was a very real tetanus threat from all the rusty, protruding metal.

We had been promised a/c, and 6 hours of travel time; our journey ended up being a little under 13 hours, in a bus that was basically old sheet metal glued together, which just happened to have an engine, that stopped every 5-15 minutes, to pick up locals, drop off locals, pick up packages, drop off motorbikes (oh yes, there were 2 motorbikes in the cargo space), and/or stop in the middle of the road to chat up their colleagues. Not to mention, the driver of the bus would pay attention to everything but the road, with one hand on the massive steering wheel, and the other dangling a cigarette out the window. We only hydroplaned once, so I guess all's well that ends well? P.S. We're not very happy with the owner of Myat Guesthouse. 

We made it to Patthein.

The infamous blue & white bus

Such a cozy interior!

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Yangon, Day 2

We actually made it to breakfast this morn, which was included with our room rate. It was very pleasant, stir fried thin rice noodles with veggies and garlic, a flat banana fritter, and a side of passion fruit, along with "birthday" instant coffee, and tea. With breakfast in our bellies, we set off on an expedition: Kan Daw Gyi Lake, then, Shwe Dagon Pagoda.

 The morning started out cloudy and overcast, but the sun soon poked it's head. Lake entry fee for foreigners: $2 We had already made it about halfway across the wooden bridge over Kan Daw Gyi Lake before the sun's rays started pounding down on us, and had to stop and buy water from the only vendor we saw. Small bottle of water, 600 kyat. I guzzled mine and disposed of the empty plastic bottle in one of the small black trash bins that were located all along the wooden bridge.

Across the lake was a large, immensely ostentatious palace, that was in the shape of a boat. The lake and surrounding areas were very peaceful, and even though the body of water looked small on out map, it turned out to be a nice long, leisurely walk, with some shade offered from nearby trees. From Kan Daw Gyi Lake, it didn't take us very long to walk to Shwe Dagon Pagoda, across the road, up the slope, up up up the steps, a donation to the shoe check girl, a 5100 kyat pagoda entry fee, a 10,000 kyat deposit to borrow a top that covered my shoulders & a long skirt to cover my legs, and finally, we entered the pagoda.

 All I've got to say is WOW. I've been to countless places of religious worship in my travels, and my lifetime, but Shwe Dagon Pagoda took my breath away. The gold gilded stupa, visible from miles away, was massive, surrounded by a veritable "village" of smaller shrines. The sky was relatively clear and made for a beautiful blue backdrop against the ornate roof tops.

We hailed a cab in front of the Pagoda back to 32nd Street (2,000 kyat), and walked around for a long while, in search of a decent looking place to have lunch. I saw a red awning from a distance, and it turned out to be a Cafe offering a nice mix of western and asian dishes, as well as a coffee menu, but no wifi. After lunch we asked our server about a bus to Ngapali on the western coast of Myanmar, and she thought we were inquiring where the local bus stop was. After clarifying, she physically walked us a few doors over to a bus ticket kiosk, but the next ride to Ngapali was Friday, 6 days from now. Hmm.

We wandered into an actual travel agency, just as they were closing up, and the man who was walking out of there told us that during rainy season, there isn't much transportstion to the coast, and shook his head at me as i entertained the idea of renting a car. After much aimless wandering, we found a lady at the top 32nd Street who sold bus tickets. She too, told us that no buses run to the coast in the wet season, and helped us in selecting a destination. Tomorrow afternoon, we will be on an overnight bus to Innlay, bus fare: 15,000 kyat (about $15) Alleged travel time: 12 hours

Being that neither one of us has ever heard of Innlay before, we thought it'd be an interesting stop.