After spending a week sweating through the south, we felt emotionally ready for that assault and were even a little excited for Bangkok because we were going to stay in the same place for THE ENTIRE TIME which is about as close as you can get to living while vacationing (vs. being a transient backpacker). Best of all, the apartment we were renting from AirBnB had a WASHER!!
(Traveling really helps you see how long you can go without doing laundry, and how big of a closet you really need. This particular trip it was: get more bathing suits in case they don’t dry, and clothes that let you sweat profusely.)
The most striking thing about Bangkok is that it is big in every single sense of that word. It spans space, time, even different standards of behavior from the strictly enforced dress code at the Royal Palace to unassuming middle-aged matrons asking if you want to see a ping-pong show while you’re souvenir shopping at the night market. The two main public transportation arteries of the city embody this chasm: ferry boats on the Chao Phraya River and the BTS, an above ground train. The ferry boats have engines, but are otherwise open-air longboats with conductors that walk around shaking tin canisters for the 15 baht fee (payable fully in change as bills don’t start until 20 in Thailand). The BTS, on the other hand, is almost completely automated from the touch screens used to purchase tokens to the turnstiles you tap to be let in and out. Trains are sleek, air-conditioned, and arrive in a very regular fashion from the greater Bangkok area.
We were staying in said “greater Bangkok area,” just across the river from the historical tourist attractions including the Palace and Khaosan/Backpacker’s Road, so we got to see Bangkok like a non-city-dwelling Thai (who doesn’t speak Thai) would have: taking the BTS in for the day and coming home at night away from the congestive madness.
Having seen Bangkok in this way for about a week, I’ve got to say that Bangkok was nice but…maybe I’m jaded from growing up near New York City, or maybe there’s something too depressing about cities, especially in developing countries or heavily visited tourist locations. There are too many dreams, expectations, disappointments, fatigue, cynicism, optimism, commercialism, brutal capitalism, and people-people everywhere. It’s a jumbled, heady mix of potential that assaults you with sights, smells, sounds, and sensations foreign and familiar. Cities push you to dream big and speak in hyperboles; they’re giant living clichés were no one ever sleeps, and everyone is alone, but you can become anyone if you just try.
And there is an exhaustion in that constant deluge that made us so, so glad to go back to our apartment at the end of the day. We retreated to suburbs, air-conditioning, Chang from the quiet 7-11 in the side streets with a few street vendors selling longans by the kilo and fresh kebabs. Sometimes the best part of cities is not being in them, but seeing them from 30+ floors above ground-level and the madness.
Side note: There is also a sprawling network of bus routes, but the thing with Thai buses is that they tend to be either pickup trucks with benches and a tarp covering, or the white mini-buses favored by church groups and hotels in the US. In neither instance is there any indication of what the next stop is, or if the bus will even stop at the pre-listed stops. If you don’t speak Thai, you’re much better off taking the river ferry or BTS.
Sitting on the pier at Koh Phi Phi this time, Christine and Will had to catch a 9:00 am ferry to see Kaho Sok before they bus up north to Bangkok. Sarah and I are taking the 10:30 am ferry to Krabi before we fly up to Bangkok. And it was a sweaty walk to the pier so we are going to stay for a little to, um, dry off before we melt.
Phi Phi is a nice island, stunningly beautiful, but expensive, small, and overrun with tourists which drives prices up even more (no airport means there is only one way for goods to arrive and no cars means they’re all moved by hand) and makes it possible to buy all sorts of international foods, but not as much Thai.
And now I’m on a ferry, officially gone from Phi Phi. While leaving we saw some private beaches on the other sides of the island, away from the single pier. I recognized shanty huts that locals probably called home, but others may have been private getaways. Definitely would be something cool to check out if you were staying on the island and looking for something away from the congestion of the main drag. Just have a generous budget!
The main “city” area springing from the pier is where we spent the bulk of our time on the island. It is sometimes called “Tourist Village” in the guide books and no matter how lost you get, and we were pretty good at that, you were never more than 15 minutes from a landmark you’d recognize. So, although there are no cars, I can’t imagine it being too arduous to see or spend time at a more remote part of the island.
Upon reflection I don’t know if I would recommend Phi Phi. It is undeniably beautiful, and I promise to share pictures, but given the price and congestion… If you think there is value to seeing loud European tourists, or don’t stay too long, I think it could be all right. How you vacation says a lot about who you are, after all, and people-watching is a great and valid part of sight-seeing.
If, however, this is the only part of South Thailand you see, then you are doing both yourself and the area a disservice.
Making a list of observations while sitting on a log swing at the beach, because you can only get so much work done on vacation:
1. There are a lot of European tourists, especially Scandinavian, Russian, and German. Basically all the people you would expect to burn but are instead the color of dark mahogany wood. There is also a good chance the ladies will be topless on the smaller beaches like Kamala on Phuket.
2. In the tourist-heavy areas people will probably speak English and Chinese (also a lot of tourists from the Mainland), but in the residential areas…not so much.
3. If you stay in a quieter boutique hotel, it is probably in one of those aforementioned suburbs where English is not a given. But the people are nice and you’ll find food and drink on the street with the locals and it’ll be a delicious and super cheap leap of faith.
4. There are a lot of animals, pets and stray. More dogs in Phuket and more cats in Koh Phi Phi. Some are friendly, and all are hot. There wrote some long-haired cats and a stray boxer I felt particularly bad for when I saw them. Mostly it’s a lot of mutts and cats with small
Heads relative to their frames.
5. It’s pronounced “Koh Pee-Pee” or just “Pee-Pee.” I laugh a little every time I hear it.
6. Taxi rides are a vaguely terrifying, but air-conditioned!, adventure. The open-air bus is the same, minus the a/c and with an uncertain destination. They don’t announce the stops, or necessarily stop at every one. Through some miracle of the divine, we managed to take two buses from Phuket town to Kamala Beach. It took approximately 90 minutes and we literally went straight from the pink bus to the connecting blue after missing our stop and trying to ride to the end of the line. We decided not to push our luck on the way back and paid 6 times more to see sunset on the beach and be driven to dinner at the night market and back to the hotel after. In total came out to about US$13 round trip, so not bad at all!
7. A strong dollar doesn’t really make you feel that much better about being charged exorbitant tourist trap fees, although it does make it a l little more gentle on your wallet so I suppose that is some consolation.
8. There is sugar in all of your shakes, including watermelon and banana. There is a lot of sugar and white-white bread in general, and meat. It is definitely a miracle of nature that the Thai aren’t all obese, it constipated.
9. There are a lot of ex-pats running tours on Koh Phi Phi. You can definitely find someone to speak your native tongue.
10. And although Phi Phi and Phuket are both overrun with tourists, if you look a little of the main paths you can still find more private pieces of paradise.
Last week, the week before, the days are all a blur, my friends, I had the amazing opportunity to go see an old friend, Yvette ElFawal, send some of her beautiful dress designs down the runway at the Fashion Gallery’s Designer Review with a handful of other designers.
This event was not very well covered from a social media perspective (where is the site??) and, to be totally honest, the only write-up I could find which even told you WHO THE OTHER DESIGNERS WERE, because no, we did not get programs, is a lovely blog by Manchester Public Relations. Glad SOMEONE got to learn the designers names… If I sound too critical it’s because not knowing anyone’s name, other than Yvette’s means I cannot do their work justice. So, aside from the designs clearly labeled as hers, your guess is as good as mine as to who designed the other pieces. Rather a disappointing disservice to the designers, I’d say.
Having gotten that little rant of my chest, I want to make clear that the experience itself was lovely with so much to see. The collections were all cohesive down to the accompanying soundtracks, and yes, there were the requisite models shoved into shoes far too high with skirts cut too tight. Wobble, wobble, good thing you’ve got a strong core because you definitely don’t have enough padding to sustain a fall from that height!
P.S. People watching the crowd was also pretty enjoyable!
I had dinner the other night with a friend who’s going leaving his job next week to travel the world. And, as we sat discussing the unknowns of his new adventure and what I thought I was going to do with my life (equally unknown), he made an off-hand comment about the weather: in India, no one talks about the weather because it is so consistently hot, then wet, and then “cold.”
The weather is a topic of last resort, a socially understood sign that the conversation is boring you. It’s easier and less deceitful than pretending you have an urgent phone call or text message necessitating an immediate cessation of conversation and you running away.
(Don’t pretend like you’ve never done that. I even put “run” instead of “scurry” to increase the number of people who can relate. Tall people, don’t say I didn’t try.)
When a friend of his, who grew up in India, first arrived in America, every conversation she had with a stranger slowly morphed into a discussion of the weather. It was like that movie Groundhog Day where no matter what happened the same thing would happen in every conversation. She spoke more passionately and tried desperately to come up with other topics that would be more engaging, but nothing worked.
Everyone wanted to talk about the weather.
She went from being a rather likable girl to a social pariah who could only accumulate commentary on cloud formations and the various types of precipitation that were falling or might fall. There was a lot of self-consciousnesses, soul-searching, and probably a fair amount of paranoia and homesickness.
And then she realized that it wasn’t her. Sometimes when everyone around you has the same problem, it’s you; other times, it’s just that they all have the same problem.
In America, and especially in the parts with four distinct seasons, the weather is our FAVORITE topic of conversation. It is good for all ages, genders, and creeds. Even the HR folk are okay with small talk about the weather during job interviews! It’s basically the only thing you can talk about at a job interview, for the record, aside from the actual listed questions. I mean this from an interviewer perspective, by the way, HR doesn’t have much say over want an interviewee says.
These opposite views on the weather don’t really mean much, until you suddenly move from one extreme to the other. Then you’re wrought with anxiety that you’ve offended (his friend) or are offending (me, every single time I ask one of my vendors in India about the weather, or so I’ve learned).
That is the gift, and burden, of travel: knowledge of what life is like outside your little corner of the world.
And the coolest thing about that knowledge? You don’t have to travel to learn it!
Consider this my stab at a travel tip: don’t travel (exclusively), befriend people who do and you’ll get all the stories free with the price of dinner.