Bangkok is a cool city. The new parts remind me of Miami (mainland Miami, that is, not Miami Beach). Very flat, very hot, full of suped-up cars, and a 7-Eleven on every corner. It's much more modern and developed than I expected, and yet everything is still really cheap, a combination that makes it great for someone traveling for a long time.
The older part of the city is more run-down but more interesting from a tourist perspective. There are some nice Buddhist temples, a museum I haven't made it too yet, and a river you can ferry across for nine cents.
The old center is also where the "tourist ghetto" is. It's where there are a lot of cheap hotels and some western-style restaurants. It attracts a certain demographic of people who call themselves "backpackers." These are folks who, with traveling as an excuse, spend a year without showering and doing lots of drugs. Basically long-haired hippies without a cause. I find myself looking for ways to differentiate myself from them (aside from the fact I don't do drugs and would look ridiculous with dredlocks). For one thing, I'm spending (wasting?) my own money, that I earned from seven years of writing software and investing. For another (I tell myself), I already know more of the Thai language than some who have been here six months to a year. I believe that's an important part of experiencing a new place. Even if you only go there for a week or so, learn the words for "hello" and "thank you." That goes a long way. Numbers help, too.
It has been often a challenge when traveling long-term to avoid the feeling of wasting time, especially for an American with a priority on being productive, and when spending money much faster than earning it. I console myself by figuring that as long as I keep writing songs and working on software projects, I'm as productive as I would have been back in Boston. I'm also reminded of a quote I saw recently from Ernest Hemingway:
In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had to put it on the grindstone and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining, and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.
(I just finished reading To Have and Have Not, and I still find Hemingway overrated, but I like that quote.)
Sorry for the non-destination-related rambling, but that's a part of the experience of being on the road. Back to Thailand…
I love the food here. In Bangkok, you can find all kinds of food right on the street, where-ever you go. Skewered meat, spring rolls, pad thai, other vaguely recognizable things. Almost everything I tried in Bangkok was cheap and delicious and fresh and safe. It was only in the tourist-oriented spots where it became a little sketchy. I do suspect I had some bad chicken-on-a-stick in Koh Tao, leading to a few days of upset stomach (I'll spare you the details.)
Bangkok, and Thailand in general, has a bit of a sleazy reputation as a destination for so-called "sex-tourism," and there is certainly some of that around, often in public display. In addition to the ubiquitous girly-bars (essentially brothels), it is common to see what are known as "Nana couples," which consist of an older white man with a young pretty Thai woman, walking around town. It's not clear if this is a weekend arrangement or a more permanent relationship. Probably both types exist. It is sad that for these women – girls, really – that's the one of the few ways they have to improve their lives. I hear the government has cracked down recently and a rising economy has presented better opportunities for Thais, so hopefully the situation will be improving in the future.
One of Thailand's assets for building the future is its natural beauty. Down south, the water off both coasts is sprinkled with islands. I visited three: Koh Tao, Koh Samui, and Koh Pha-Ngan. (In case you haven't guessed, Koh means "island.") These three islands have all become tourist traps to an extent, but in very different ways.
Koh Tao is the divers' destination. That's what I did there, that's what everyone does there, that's basically all there is to do there: eat, sleep, and scuba dive. And the eating and sleeping didn't work out so well: that's where I got the bad chicken, I think, and I was in tiny little bungalow with no breeze and a noisy fan, making sleeping difficult. Scuba is a blast, though. The idea of being able to breath under water is such a foreign concept that most of the lessons I took involved just getting used to breathing normally. Once the initial nerves are overcome (and the chicken-on-a-stick has been, ahem, eliminated), it's easy to relax and enjoy the clear views of undersea life. There really is an entire world to see in every square inch.
So now I can proudly say you're reading the rambling writings of a freshly certified PADI open-water scuba diver.
Koh Samui has beautiful beaches. It's the largest Thai island and the one with the most infrastructure, so if you're looking for Italian food, you can find it. If you're looking for a luxury resort, you can find it. If you're looking for a toilet that flushes – well, this is still Thailand, so don't get your hopes up.
Samui is the most expensive place I went in Thailand, but it's still cheap by US standards, so it's a nice vacation destination, though beaches of the same quality can probably be found closer to home.
For $50 I did take a nice day-long speedboat tour of Angthong Marine National Park, which is an archipelago of about 40 ancient islands, formed from limestone and rising from the sea in strange formations. The tour involved snorkeling, kayaking, breakfast, a delicious lunch at a small fishermen's village on one of the islands, and some general frolicking on the beach. Oh yeah, and pineapples. Mmmm, pineapples… That tour was probably the highlight of my southern Thailand excursion.
This island is known as the party island. Every full moon, the place gets jammed with revelers and crazies from all over for a night of drunken mayhem. When I was there, it was nowhere near the full moon, but I vaguely and fuzzily remember there was still some active nightlife.
The downside is that during the day there is not much to do. The beach in the main town, Hat Rin, is disgustingly dirty. In the sixties, hippies (or at least the ones on TV) played good music and protested for civil rights. Nowadays they leave cigarette butts all over the beach, so the sand here is pretty ugh-y. And they listen to something called House Music, which has now surpassed Reggaeton in my opinion as the worst music ever. From what I can gather, it involves a monotonous thudding bass-line, with occasionally a random black woman screaming something over it. I'm pretty sure every song is in the key of F. I guess there are subtle differences between House and Techno and Drum'n'Bass and blah blah blah who cares it all sucks.
I suppose Koh Pha-Ngan was worth a visit just to see it, and the Full Moon Party would be something to experience, I bet. Watch out for that Thai whiskey, though!
Back in Bangkok for a few days, then on to a final stop in Australia before returning to the good ole USA.
Thailand has been a lot of fun.