Readers' Submissions

Travel Observations

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • August 4th, 2007
  • 19 min read




It’s 0500 Saturday morning and contrary to my normal routine I’ve just awoken after five hours of much needed sleep vs. just going to bed as I often do at this time. This is one of those times where I can really feel my age, yet I try to convince myself that even a fit 20 year old would be feeling the same way after a week of planes, trains, and automobiles halfway around the globe and back again. I had to be somewhere in the states on July 31st and there was no getting out of it. Considering whether I wanted to combine this obligation with a two week vacation in the states, perhaps more, I decided that I really didn’t want to spend that much time there and as it turns out I’m glad I didn’t. I was nudged from my sleep by the morning calls to prayer and the chorus of 1001 dogs as they joined in with their relentless barking and howling as they too did their best to join in and compete for the attention of the god the prayers honor. Soon the morning cooking fires were lit, smells of food drifted in the windows, and from my computer I’m witnessing the sun slowly but steadily shining it’s light on the city soi by soi by soi.. I’m home.

I knew I would be going on this trip for at least three months and during that time I ordered anything I thought I might need or want and had it waiting for me with a friend I’d be visiting. Perhaps because of the weakening of the dollar the savings I realized on virtually every item was more than significant. One item for example was a Logitech VX Notebook mouse. 5000 baht ($150 USD) at the cheapest place at Pantip, $29 on sale at www.buy.com delivered to the states. Virtually every other item I picked up on this trip was of a similar savings. I really didn’t need that much, but it was enough to really sink in the point about just how far the dollar has weakened which served further my commitment to get my new business up and running as quickly as possible. I came to Thailand partly to get away from the career / money / material race that so many find themselves committed to as part of their culture, the race that tells you if you don’t have your house bought by age 30, 401k plans maxed out, and a diversified stock portfolio well started by age 40 then you’d be sleeping on the park bench and eating dog food by age 60. I remind myself that I’ve already taken care of my financial future, yet the weakening of the dollar is more than a gentle reminder that nothing is ever certain, nothing is forever, and everything changes.

Going up to the check in counter I present my mileage card and tell them I’ve already reserved my upgrade to business class from the normal coach fare, and quickly learned what I already knew, never trust a Thai worker to do what they promise to do. Check, double check, triple check, and then get it in writing. Even then you have no better than a 50/50 shot at getting what you wanted. The Thai China Airlines rep smiled at me as he told me they had no record of reserving my upgrade and all the upgrade seats had been booked for the last two weeks! Yes I explained, I made my reservations three months ago! I sigh, it was going to be ‘that’ kind of trip and I’ve lived long enough to know to just roll with the punches, fighting back won’t get me anywhere. It’s my fault, I’ve enough experience with the Thai worker to know I should have called China Airlines reservation office in Taiwan and not Bangkok and let the ever efficient Chinese workers secure my upgrade. Is it really any wonder the Thais seem doomed to third world status while its neighbors all leave Thailand behind in the smoke of their progress? As a sort of consolation prize the smiling Thai worker tells me my airport tax has been included in the price of my ticket and that he was able to secure an emergency exit seat for me on the aisle where I would be able to stretch my legs. Thanking him for the small favors I grab my carry-on’s handle and wheel it towards security.

The security checkpoint isn’t very intense, no lines waiting, just put your stuff up on the belt and walk on through. I didn’t even bother to take off my large chronograph or metal belt buckle or take my lucky Double Eagle out of my pocket as I walked through their magnetron with no alarms at all. I’m somewhat convinced some enterprising Thai discovered that if you turn the sensitivity of the magnetron down to “AK-47” level, then they’ll have much less work to do with those people who are just carrying handguns and knives. As if to reinforce my thoughts I remember that in both Taiwan and Japan they have additional security points travelers must go through even though you’ll never go outside the secure portion of their airport. Does anyone know if they just herd the people from Bangkok through these additional security points or is it everyone? I suspect the former.

Moving on through the airport I take note of the duty free shops and wonder how many travelers can afford Gucci handbags and all the other top designer items? Where’s the clothes and items for the middle class? Ah, that’s right.. There really is no significant middle class in Thailand, if you can afford to travel then you are rich and able to afford Gucci. Too bad they miss out on all the business they could get from the middle class travelers who compromise the overwhelming majority of visitors. Has anyone ever purchased the $1200 purses, $150 bottles of aftershave, and $25,000 watches they’d normally buy at an airport? Just passing the time folks, I think I’ll buy that $25,000 watch with the thick owner's manual so I’ll have something to read on my flight. Perhaps they should take notice of how many coach seats there are on each plane vs. first class seats? What do I want? I want a duty free Wal-Mart that stretches from one end of the airport to the next, and on the other side a smattering of consumer electronic shops, camera stores, and stores with items in the price realm I’d normally buy. Take Singapore’s excellent airport shopping for instance.. yes, I know.. Singapore is one of Thailand’s neighbors who left Thailand behind as they moved to first world status.

123, 124, 125, OUCH!!! What am I doing? I’m keeping a record of how many times the flight attendants hit me with their small azzes as they move past my aisle seat. The “ouch” was the food carts. I’m rather broad shouldered but at 190 pounds not all that large. With a 48 inch chest I’m already wider than a coach seat, and that’s without my arms! What am I supposed to do with my arms when I travel? Perhaps they expect me to remove my arms and put them in the overhead storage? 145, 146, 147.. and it's just not the flight attendants though I am convinced more than a few are rubbing their azzes up against my arms just for the pure pleasure of it all, like a cat rubbing a scratching post sprinkled with katnip, the cute young things rub against my arms and shoulders with a huge smile and sometimes use it as an excuse to stop and chat a bit during the flight. It’s also my fellow passengers as they stumble down the aisles bumping into everyone in their haste to use the bathroom. No one cares who they hit, and I’m convinced the ones doing the hitting think “those guys who refuse to store their arms in the overhead” deserve to be hit. I’m tired as the cute small thing seated next to me puts a small pillow on her shoulder and pulls my head down to rest so the battering can be put on hold a while. I drift off noticing she smells nice, and in my dreams I continue to be battered 458, 459, 500..

Arriving in San Francisco my pillow lady asks me if she can walk with me because this is her first trip to the states and she’s never been in SFO before. Happy to return a favor I stick with her through immigration and get her through the “US PASSPORT” lines as they probably think we’re married or traveling together. Helping her find her luggage we walk through customs and upstairs where she can catch a taxi. Shoving her business card at me she says if I’m ever in Hanoi to give her a call and she’d be glad to show me around. Watching her get into a taxi I turn to go up two more escalators to the “air train” which will take me to the rental car center. The air train is nice, much nicer than the rental car buses at LAX where you have to dodge traffic and risk life and limb and then hope you got on the right company's bus. The air train takes you into a rental car center where all the companies are consolidated in one place and all you have to do is read the signs to know where to go. My sign says “Hertz Gold Club Members” with an arrow pointing out to the parking garage area. I see a big signboard and there’s my name and a parking place number and a short walk later there’s a brand new Mustang with 10 miles on it with the keys in the ignition and the paperwork on the passenger seat. Quickly putting my luggage in the trunk, GPS on the windshield, and remembering to get in on the left side, I start the car and head to the gate where they check your license with the name on your paperwork and wish you a good stay. I noticed this man barely spoke English, he sounded just like the computer support centers in India you get connected to when trying to sort out technical problems with your computer “Hello, my name is Amir and I’ll be helping you solve your complex computer problem today”, and moments later you realize they’ve really practiced their greeting but still have trouble pronouncing “Windows” “hard disk” and “RAM.”

Driving out of the rental car parking garage I’m tired and sore and FREE! Back in the land of the free, home of the brave, land of native English speakers! I’m thirsty and checking my GPS I see I have about 30 miles to go to my hotel so I stop at a convenience store to grab a drink. The Iranian store owner couldn’t speak English! Shrugging it off I drink my Pepsi in silence during my short drive to the hotel marveling at how wonderful a country this is with all the English speaking radio stations available, they weren’t that hard to find between all the Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Indian channels! Arriving at my hotel the Arab hotel clerk “Mohammed” (did you really expect someone else?) knew just enough English to ask for my credit card and hand me a key to my room. I asked for directions and I must say he was prepared, instead of saying “down the hall and to the left” he pulled out a pen and a map and drew me a nice visual aid. Once in my room I decide to order a pizza before I take my shower so I can eat, sleep, and hit the road first thing in the morning. Scanning the yellow pages I find Dominoes and dial their number only to be greeted by a nice Spanish speaking man who took my order. My Spanish is probably weak after so many years, but we both knew “pizza” and “cheese” so I was confident. 30 minutes later after my shower was taken there was a knock on the door and opening the door there stands a mid-30’s guy with blond hair, blue eyes, and who said in perfect English “$12.99 please.” I was home!

The next day I hit the road, only 800 miles to my destination and I couldn’t help but think of all the nice steak restaurants I was going to stop at. Hell, I’ll admit it, I made up excuses to stop and eat! Not that I was hungry, but because they were serving real beef and real American dishes and the prices were great, and I ate and ate and ate for the rest of my five days in country. I probably gained 20 pounds, maybe more. However, the food was great, the service wonderful, no one tried to short change me, and the one place where the food wasn’t what I ordered they took it back and with a smile replaced it with the proper dish. <Hell, you're making me envious hereStick>

Driving over the bay bridge and through the well marked freeways of the bay area I couldn’t help but think of the congested roads in Thailand and how small and relatively insignificant their “express motorway” and BTS and Skytrain seemed when compared to this area. LED signs along the road gave real time estimates of how long it would take to arrive at your destination and while the traffic was heavy, I rarely drove less than 70 mph. Soon the city was behind me and I’m on I-5 (interstate five) driving north thinking about the next place I’d stop and eat. The hotels I stopped at ALL had free broadband internet and I marveled at the speed, even the cheapest hotels had faster internet (by 10-20x) than I get in my home in Bangkok. Ice machines. Ice machines on every floor, right next to the soda machines. What a concept! No need to call room service where after a 30 minute wait a smiling guy in a monkey suit uniform would appear with a single glass of ice only half full, expecting a tip. Here they provide the buckets for the ice in your room and you can have all you want!!! I got carried away at one place and filled the bathtub with ice and.. well.. that’s another submission..

All in all the next few days went as expected. I visited friends, took care of business, enjoyed nice meals, went shopping, and enjoyed myself. Two things stood out though. Dell had a new laptop waiting for me to replace the one “Dell Thailand” had repaired, and I was very pleased to see they upgraded the processor and other components making it worth the effort of carrying it all over the place. Normally I carry my 4 pound laptop, so a 8.5 pound laptop with a 130 watt power brick was a bit much. Still, a brand new upgraded laptop made it all worth it.

The second thing that stood out was visiting my storage areas. Driving up to the gates I entered my security code and the gates rolled back and I drove down to my building. Taking the key I brought with me from Thailand I opened the locks, turned off the alarm, and powered on the lights to find everything exactly as I left it. There was a degree of comfort knowing that my most prized material possessions hasn't been disturbed for the last two years and were exactly as I left them. Closing the door behind me I opened both safes and replaced their batteries with new 10 year Lithiums, opened a few of the special packing bags to make sure the items inside were not corroded or damaged before resealing them and closing the doors back up for who knows how many years. Walking along the walls I checked all my stuff on the shelves making a mental inventory of what I’d like to have in Thailand. In fact, I was pulling some smaller items aside and putting them in a duffle bag to bring back with me. Then the cars. I uncovered by the 99’ and 68’ and just sat there a while appreciating them. The 99’ I’d put up well, filling the tank with aviation fuel with no additives and a bottle of Stabil (a magic potion that keeps gas fresh for up to five years or more) and letting it run through all the lines before storage. I’d disconnected both leads from the battery. I wondered how much charge the battery would have after two years? Connecting the leads I saw the interior dome light come on so I went and sat in the drivers seat, put in the key, and turned it to the “on” position. I could hear the electric fuel pump come on and pressurize the fuel lines, the dash lights come on, and the fuel pressure gauge settled on 65 pounds where it should be. I waited a few seconds and turning the key to the “start” position she turned over on the first crank and settled into the pleasing sort of idle only a car with a bit too much cam can do. After two years she started like I’d just parked her the day before! A bit surprised the battery held the charge, even if it was the new dry cell Optima type, I was even more surprised to see the amp meter not register much at all, the battery was almost fully charged! I let her warm, blipped the throttle a few times, but resisted taking her out for a spin. I’ve kept these cars safe through the years by not advertising what was in my storage so no need to start now. It was however a very pleasing experience.

My trip was short and the day came where I needed to drive back to SFO and head back to BKK. I was wresting with spending one more day with friends and then doing the driving and flying all in one setting, or driving, hotel room, then flying. Making the mistake of not reading the age on my drivers license I decided to stay and visit friends one more day. The next day I head out and drive the 800 miles into SFO arriving in just enough time to drop off the rental, ride the air train, and make the early check-in. And guess what? The smiling Thai clerk at BKK who swore up and down he’d make sure I was booked in business class on the way back lied to me. No surprise right? They didn’t even have an emergency exit seat available, but they did have a seat next to an empty seat and that was as good as it was going to get. The best part about the flight from San Francisco to Taipei was the flight ending and directing my sore and tired body to the VIP lounge where I was able to stretch out on a sofa and rest for about four hours before my next flight. I considered taking a shower as the Taipei VIP lounge has showers and towels and all that stuff available, but I didn’t have any clean clothes in my carry-on (it was full of See’s candy for the wife and friends, new laptop, and other necessities including two big boxes of peanut brittle). I did manage to eat my fill of free dumplings and drinks, and then the lady with the little chalk board with the bell was gently reminding us to head to the gate.

Six hours later I’m through Thai customs and up on the arrival deck looking for a taxi ride. A cop was hassling a hard working taxi driver so I approached him and asked if he’s been waiting long and started putting my bags in his trunk. The taxi driver looks at the cop and says something like “see I told you I was picking up someone” and we quickly get out of there. I notice he didn’t turn the meter on so I turned it on myself and he just looked at me and said “you live here?” I confirmed I did and that my place was no more than 120 baht from the airport. Arriving at my building I pull my bags through the lobby and the staff greets me home. Home? I suppose. With all its faults, all my complaints, and all my frustrations Thailand is for now my home and it felt good to return. It was only a solid week of high intensity travel and business, but it felt like I’d been away much longer. My wife was surprised, it was 1400 and my flights usually arrive after midnight. 14 hours of driving, 20 hours of flying, and about 10 hours of waiting, all in one stretch and the need for a shower was overwhelming. My wife said “oh, you smell!” And my parrot goes “you smell, smell smell smell” “shower ja?” Sigh.. I head toward the shower.

A few hours later I’ve already distributed the gifts to my wife and housekeeper, unpacked, moved computer files from the laptop to the desktop, and was sitting there on the sofa watching the girls in the kitchen making me dinner, excited that I was home and stuffing Sees candies in their mouths, and I really felt like I was home. Like many others, in these last few months I’ve been thinking about relocating to another country or maybe just going back to the states. Thailand has become less than friendly in many ways. Still, for some reason this last trip, the return, perhaps the realization of what I have here that I was taking for granted, all combined to remove any doubts I had about relocating. I’ll be sticking it out here in Thailand, at least through the next elections, and starting my new business and enjoying my life here. The grass almost always seems greener on the other side, so sometimes a brief look at that other side provides some perspective and this was one of those times.

Until next time…

Stickman's thoughts:

Excellent submission. I personally really enjoyed it. But I tell you, when you talk of things working perfectly well in the West and the superior service often offered there, it does get my mind thinking!