Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

The First Day

August 18, 2003

In August/September I traveled to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

August 18, the first official day of my trip. At first dark and overcast, it soon began raining this morning in Bangkok as I walked around the downtown area not far from hotel trying to get my bearings. Ducking under the awnings provided by construction along the road or street vendors and shops, I managed to get back to the hotel before the rain set in, just in time to grab my raincoat and umbrella. It began pouring and the streets immediately flooded with the rain water, putting a damper on my original plans to go straight to the Grand Palace this morning. But amazingly, things started to fall into place. My cell phone rang just as I reached the hotel- it was my friend coming through with the email address of her guide in Siem Reap, Cambodia for the temples of Angkor. I went to plan B- checked my email to confirm the receipt of my Vietnam visa pre-approval letter and to contact the guide for Angkor.

Since I had done quite a bit of research and preparation, I already knew that there was World Travel Agency nearby where I could inquire about various airfares and tour arrangements. I promptly went there next to make arrangements for my next destination- Cambodia. I was in an information gathering mode and had several questions for the travel agent, a middle aged woman with short silver colored hair and black framed glasses. I assumed that she’d have a standard price list of air fares, so I asked her one by one about rates to Phuket, Krabi, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. After each question she picked up the phone, called for the fare, then hung up and started all over again. She soon became exasperated and told me that I should have asked her all my questions upfront so that she wouldn’t have to make 3 separate phone calls. She was definitely peeved.

I quickly decided to take a one day trip to Ayutthaya one of Thailand’s ancient capitals on August 19 and instantly, her attitude changed; I had to get my traveler’s checks changed and she told me where I could go and even cautioned me in a most motherly fashion to be careful of pickpockets and to always conceal my money and passport in my money belt under my clothes as I already had.

Later, I also purchased plane tickets for my next stop Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia, slated for August 20. When I returned for my second purchase she told me that she was ethnically Chinese and that she had the same Chinese last name as me. She continued by tipping me off that the best way to bargain was in Chinese if possible, since most of the street merchants were Chinese, and that I could get the best bargains in Chinatown. She also told me that as long as I didn’t speak as I walked around the city, I’d be safe because I could probably pass as a Thai.

I told her that I also planned to visit Vietnam and she asked if I had secured a visa yet. When I told her that I had arranged for a pre-approval visa letter through a Vietnamese travel agency, which would enable me to get a landing visa at the airport, she sternly scolded me saying that that was a risky proposition and that I shouldn’t even consider going to Vietnam with out a visa first. She told me that she knew of overseas Vietnamese who had returned to Vietnam for a visit and had encountered problems entering the country. She shook her head in disapproval and for a moment, I felt like a child being reprimanded for my foolhardiness. But I knew that my arrangements were solid and reliable because I had the assurance of a friend that other Canadians had applied for visas to Vietnam successfully through this very reputable travel agency.

The next order of business was lunch. Back out into the bustling streets, the sounds of city traffic, dodging vehicles of various shapes and sizes to cross the street, the rain had stopped and the sun was out in full force. I eyed the food carts lined along the sidewalks, with the most delicious and authentic looking food, but I didn’t know how or what I’d possibly order from them. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to identify what was in the dishes since I have so many food allergies. Finally, I found a fast food Thai restaurant called S & P , complete with an English menu. Interestingly enough, they were selling mooncakes which are eaten in honor of the upcoming Mid-Autumn Moon Festival which is celebrated in many Chinese cultures. The wait staff actually spoke Thai to me a few times and quickly realized that I didn’t have a clue what they were saying.

After lunch I haggled with a tuk-tuk driver for a ride to the Grand Palace and tried not to get side tracked from my destination. Tuk-tuks are basically a sort of noisy, open air cheap taxi. They are best described like a high speed cart with a roof but no doors, windows and certainly no seatbelts! The Lonely Planet had warned that tuk-tuk drivers would often take you to government sponsored souvenir shops en route to your destination, thereby delaying your sight seeing plans in an attempt to get you to spend money on souvenirs. I was adamant about not making any stops since I knew that the Grand Palace closed at 3:30pm, but when the tuk-tuk driver explained that he’d get a discount on fuel by bringing customers, I softened my resolve and agreed to go. I originally had no intention of buying anything and wanted to stick to my schedule, but when I arrived to the shop, I saw that it was a jewelry shop and I couldn’t resist.

As I browsed, a saleswoman approached me asked where I was from and I went into my explanation of being born in America, raised in Canada and now living in Taiwan. She asked if I spoke Chinese and I remembered what the travel agent had told me earlier that day. And there it was, the instant connection. Many Thais proudly consider themselves ethnically Chinese and there’s an instant familiarity if they know you are also ethnically Chinese… and even more so if you speak the language. She started speaking to me in Mandarin saying since we were both ethnically Chinese she’d give me a special deal. It was a little surreal as I haggled with her in Mandarin; just a year ago I wouldn’t have been able to do so with such confidence. I felt that I could be bolder in my tactics and drive a hard bargain. It’s just something that people of Chinese ethnicity seem to embrace- the necessity of haggling and bargaining- it’s expected and accepted in Asia. I've become quite a ruthless bargainer since moving to Taiwan; even my mother is sometimes embarassed at my bargaining tactics. Most foreigners that I met during my travels complained of how exhausting having to constantly bargain was, but I just tried to have some fun with it, I had nothing to loose and decided to see how close I could get to the bottom line. I see it as a sort of social exchange- a friendly give and take between buyer and seller. Sometimes a seller might cut you a deal because they really think that necklace is for you, or you stop and think that that last dollar would make more of a difference to the seller than you.

Needless to say, I didn’t make it to the Grand Palace in time. But I did have a chance to visit the Temple of the Reclining(46m) Buddha and time for an amazing 30 minute massage at Wat Pho, Bangkok’s oldest temple for less than 5 dollars.

This was followed by a ride on a long tail boat along the Chao Phraya River at dusk. I had a lovely view of temples, traditional Thai style buildings and the modern skyline lighting up into the evening sky.

I was transported to the Oriental hotel for what turned out to be highlight of my visit in Bangkok- a traditional Thai dinner and dance. It was my first evening out in Bangkok. I was alone and dressed neatly but casually. So I felt a little out of place compared to the other stylish tourists who had made reservations and come in pairs or with family or friends. Although this dinner was on my list of things to see and do, I certainly hadn’t planned for it or dressed the part that day. But it was just so tempting and perfect to stop by after my short cruise along the Chao Phraya.

My self-consciousness melted away as the warm wait staff greeted me and graciously served me. They accommodated all of my special food requests with great attentiveness. I felt completely taken care of. The meal and service was definitely first class and the Thai classical dance performance that followed was unforgettable. During the dance, the staff recognized my enthusiasm and encouraged me to move closer to the stage for a better view and photo opportunities. I was enraptured by the glittering, ornate costumes of the dancers, charmed by the gentle grace of their movements and mesmerized by the back bending curves of their hands and elongated fingers. I couldn’t take my eyes off the curvature of the dancers hands and fingers which were so beautiful, but probably painstakingly achieved through training or some sort of bondage. It’s a strange thing, the juxtaposition of the beauty of art and the pain or physical sacrifice to achieve it.

At the end of the meal one of the waiters, curious about me asked where I was from and if I was traveling alone and I blushed when he unabashedly said, “You’re very charming.”


The flooded streets of Bangkok on my first day there Posted by Hello


A view from the long tail boat ride along the Chao Phraya River
 Posted by Hello


Thai classical dancers

1 Comments:

  • At 7/06/2005 4:05 AM, Blogger Ryan Sherlock said…

    I will be doing a trip similar to yours in a couple of days. I'm Irish but currently in the US and will be arriving in Thailand (8pm)the night before I leave for Vietnam (8am). I don't have a Visa yet, so I finally get to the point of my post. How did you get you "pre-approval" letter and what company did you use?

    Thanks a million :)
    Ryan

     

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