Sorry for the lack of posts recently. I’ve been on holiday in Thailand for the last two weeks and though I had hoped to have internet access while down there it wasn’t to be. Not that I’m complaining though. Sure, the sun, sand, and all were nice but my faithful readers know that I would much rather be punching out poker posts than sitting on a beach with a beer in my hand. Ha!
This is my third time out there which officially makes it one of the places I’ve visited most often purely for vacation. Thailand is a difficult place to describe. When people ask me why I like it there so much I really don’t have a good answer for them.
Officially it’s a second-world country but only if your definition of second-world is rather loose. Hell they just had a successful military coup a few months back and the country is operating under a temporary government. Not exactly a shining example of stability.
It’s hot and humid. You sweat so profusely that you can actually wring out your clothing after wearing it. I typically go through at least two shirts a day.
The cities like Bangkok absolutely reek. I’ll never forget that wall of stench that hit me when I stepped off the plane at BKK for the first time.
It’s a tourist trap. Everywhere you go people are grabbing you and touching you and trying to get you to buy the crap that their selling. Everyone is working a scam. Everyone is working an angle.
It’s corrupt. Remember what I just said about everyone working an angle? Yeah, cops and politicians too. It makes Mexico look like Mayberry.
And if I just stopped describing it there it would sound like a detestable place. For some people it might be but for me the part that makes it hard to describe is exactly what makes all of what I just said seem to completely meaningless. As a friend of mine who has been to Thailand many times before put it “Thailand is something either you’ve experienced or you haven’t. If someone has never been it’s a complete waste of your time even trying to explain it.”
I think it’s because Thailand is not a place. Thailand is an experience. I’ve been to better beaches. I’ve been scuba diving in better spots. I’ve had better food. Yadda, yadda, yadda. But it’s the people, the culture and the atmosphere that make it so unique. In many ways it’s like Vegas except edgier. It just has a vibe to it that you either completely dig or you hate.
You just get this attitude when you’re down there that I refer to as This is Thailand (T.I.T.). Some street vendor is trying to charge you 8000 baht for something you know should cost 1800 baht; that’s cool, T.I.T. You’re walking down some soi and a gaggle of katoey (lady boys) is walking towards you the other way with their boobs all hanging out of their dresses; whatever floats your boat ladies, T.I.T. You’re standing at the light waiting to cross the street in the middle of Bangkok and some guy walks up with an elephant; rock on brother, T.I.T.
Nothing surprises you there because This is Thailand. Anything can happen and a lot of it probably will. If you can’t shake your head and laugh then Thailand is not the place for you. And, in my opinion, the problem is you, not Thailand.
I mentioned the people and the culture previously and I think that’s what makes everything just roll off your back. The Thai’s are seriously laid back people. They call Thailand the Land of Smiles (LOS) and wherever you go people smile for you. Walk down any street and make eye contact with any almost any Thai person and they’ll smile (street vendors excluded). Walk into your hotel and everyone from the doorman to the receptionist to the guy who hurriedly runs to push the elevator button for you bows (wai) and smiles. You can’t help but smile around Thai people.
And they love, love, love their culture. They love it more than any other people I’ve ever met. I’ve been sitting in the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles and I see a dealer sit down at my table with an obviously Thai name on their nametag and I’ll say something as simple as Sawadee Krup (hi) or Khop Khun Krup (thank you) and they light up asking where I learned Thai, did I like their country, when am I going back next, etc.
Anyway, enough trying to describe the place because I’ve already admitted it’s a futile effort so I’ll just jump into a random stream of consciousness posting of various experiences I had while I was there. Remember, there’s no theme, chronology, or anything else so read these as one or two paragraph short stories.
What Would Buddha Do?
First night in Bangkok and we decide to go out for a few beers. I start talking to this waitress at the bar we’re at and she ends up telling me this story about how some crazy taxi cab driver scared the hell out of her. She lives in this little village outside of the city and she takes the taxi to and from work everyday. One night the taxi stops about two miles out from her place and the guy just goes crazy. He stops the taxi, jumps out, and starts yelling at her as he’s trying to pull the door to the back seat open. They’re out in the middle of the sticks so she’s thinking he’s going to rape or kill her (or both). Turns out he just yanks her out of the taxi and takes off (that’s her version of the story and she’s sticking to it). She’s sitting there on the side of the road crying and she’s telling me that all the way home she kept thanking Buddha for taking care of her. She even went to temple the next day and made an offering to Buddha.
Anyway, as a result of this near attack she’s armed herself with some pepper spray she shows me in her purse. I asked her if she’s used it on anybody and she said only on a dog. The road going into her village gets too narrow for cars so the taxi has to drop her and she walks it the last half mile or so to her place. There’s a dog that always comes out and harasses her every night. He barks and nips at her heels every single night. So one night she peppers him in the face. She says it with a bit of an evil smile and a laugh so I ask her “So, do you think Buddha would have pepper sprayed that dog?” Turns out she’s making a second trip to the temple. This time to apologize.
Recommendations in Phuket
If you every make it down to Phuket and are in Patong, stop by the Star Bar on Soi Crocodile. It’s a great place to sit and relax and have a blow out time. It’s right off of Bangala Road (the main nightlife street) on your left (assuming you’re heading away from the beach). When you get to the soi with all of the katoey (lady boys) hanging out in front, that’s it. Don’t worry, they don’t bite and they don’t go into many of the regular bars there. They dance out on Bangala to attract attention to the cabaret show which is all the way in the back of the soi. Anyway, one guy Dave owns the joint and another Dave manages it. Dave the manager is good friends with the buddy I went out there with. They both used to manage pubs in the UK years ago. Tell Dave you know Alex’s friend Bill and you’ll get treated well all around. It won’t get you any free drinks or anything (#1 rule in Thailand is that NOTHING is free) but if you need anything in Phuket Dave can hook you up. Alex was just chatting about wanting to look at golf clubs when he was there and the next night Dave told him he had asked around a few friends and told us where to go for the best deals.
If you like steak, try the Buffalo Steak House on the right hand side of Bangala. I don’t know the name of the soi but it’s on the same one as First Foot Relax foot massage. I also would describe it by saying that you make a right at the first vendor who rushes up to and tries to shake your hand while saying “G’day mate. Australian?” but I think that only works because everybody thought Alex was Australian. I’ve had better steaks but these are truly not bad and a welcome meal when you’re hankering for some beef. The pepper steak is excellent and so are the ribs. The ribs looked to be a special though so can’t guarantee you’ll get them when you go.
There’s an Italian joint, Le Vele, all the way up Bangala just before Rock Hard that I highly recommend. It’s up on the second floor so you’ll have to look for it. I ordered the muscles and clams as an appetizer and they brought me enough for a meal. And they were perfect. Just delicious. By the time I got to the main course of asparagus risotto I was in heaven. One of the few places where I took the time out to go over and thank the owner and compliment him on the meal. I would say that this was the best meal I had while in Phuket and on par with any good restaurant in the US.
I can also recommend Patong Seafood right on the beach before you get to Bangala. The food is great. It’s one of those places where you go and pick out your own lobster or fish and they weigh it and price it for you before taking it in the back and cooking it up. I ordered the crab in garlic butter and they put some Thai chilli in there that had me sucking down beers after beer just to put the fire out. The meal was excellent though. We ate there another night and I ordered the clams which were listed as a main course but they only served an appetizer sized portion. They were still great but I left still feeling a bit hungry.
If you’re up for a late night snack (say 5am when everything is closed) you can always hit the street vendors for some authentic Thai food. This isn’t the stuff they serve at your local Thai restaurant. This is the stuff where you go, “What exactly animal am I eating here? (actually it might be better not to know)” You go up Bangala Road and make a left at the major cross street at the other end. Make another left down the first soi from there and there will be all kinds of food being cooked up. All the Thais go there after the bars close and not too many tourists know about it so you’re totally on your own. Bring an iron stomach and some Imodium.
Although it’s a bit touristy, I also thought Molly Malone’s was a decent Irish pub (staffed entirely by Thais). Alex and I caught breakfast there a few times and we stopped off there one night for a drink(s). They happened to be training a new crew of girls to work the bar that night and so the Irish manager was teaching them how to pull a pint and everything else you need to know.
There was one girl there named Parn who just looked on top of it. I mean, she didn’t just watch how he was showing them to pull a pint she was really looking to absorb every piece of information. The other two girls seemed amazed that beer was coming out of the tap. And when the training was done Parn jumped right in and started trying to do a little of everything. And when things slowed down she grabbed a towel and started wiping down the bar and cleaning the beer catches, both of which were not things that the manager had taught them but she had seen the other bartenders doing. Next she was showing the other two girls she had just trained with what they should be doing and was telling them not to stand around. It wasn’t long before Alex and I quit watching the soccer game and just starting watching her. She was a real go-getter.
This girl is probably off some farm up north some place and for her this is a serious chance to get out of the farm life and into a real job. Alex and I kept joking between us that she would be running the place in a few months. In fact, before we left we pulled the manager aside and told him that she was a keeper and what we had observed. He said he had also gotten that impression and was glad we said something. On the way out, Alex told Parn that he’s owned pubs for 20 years and he had just told the manager that she was one of the best first day employees he’s ever seen. She smiled ear to ear and thanked us as we left a nice fat tip for the future manager of Molly Malone’s.
In Bangkok I always recommend the President Solitaire on Soi 11 on Sukhumvit. First class hotel all the way. Nice sized rooms with 42″ plasma televisions and DVD players. You’ll pay about $100 a night there and it’s about as 4 star as a 4 star gets. You’re close to Nana and Cowboy but far enough up Soi 11 that you don’t get much noise or traffic.
You can also check out the Montien in Bangkok which is right across the street from the infamous Patpong district. The neighbourhood is a little dodgy at night but the hotel is right across the street from Patpong and the hotel is gated and they keep guards posted so you’re usually never in any bad situations to begin with. Montien is a bit pricey. I think the last time I priced it they wanted $250 a night and I didn’t think the rooms were anywhere near as nice as President Solitaire. Plus Patpong is a little on the sleazy side anyway.
In Phuket I’ve stayed at the Patong Resort which survived and rebuilt after the tsunami. I like the Patong Resort but it’s a tad pricey. It’s a short walk to the beach from the Patong Resort close to Bangala so the location is great.
On this trip we stayed that the Tropica Bungalows which are one street over from Bangala and right off of the beach. I wouldn’t say the rooms were great. Maybe a 2 or 3 star hotel but it’s got a great location and you’re paying about $40 a night. The rooms have the bare essentials, a bed, a bathroom and shower, and a mini-bar. Most of the time on holiday you only sleep in the hotel so . . . for $40 a night I would stay there again. I’ve seen worse :-)
My first trip to Thailand was to Phuket in 2003 before the tsunami. I remember seeing pictures and video coverage of places I knew firsthand which made the tragedy really hit home. I would see a picture of Soi Eric or a news clip of some restaurant I had eaten at completely flooded out and it was really made me understand the devastating impact.
This year when I went back I was expecting to see some places still in recovery. I’m not sure why but I thought it would take many years for the place to get back to where it was before. Strangely though, it’s better than it was before. What was destroyed has been built back brand new. What was damaged has been completely refurbished. Some of the places I knew are no longer there but new businesses have sprung up to take their place.
In fact, they’ve built a wonderful shopping center at the top of Bangala Road that would rival any US mall. The JungCeylon is a massive complex with brand name stores, a food court, and even a water show (think Bellagio water show but on a much, much smaller scale).
The only part still in recovery is the psychological part. I was sitting at a restaurant right on the beach next to a Thai woman and I commented how great the view was. She said “Yes, very close to the water,” but there was a sound in her voice which indicated that she didn’t feel that was all that good of a thing. As I ate my meal I watched her and noticed how she kept glancing over her shoulder out at the sea. It wasn’t a paranoid thing but you could tell that it was always somewhere in the back of her mind.
When I strolled down the beach I couldn’t help but think of all the people who must have been on the beach that day. As the water receded out to help give power to the wave that was to come they strolled out into where the sea had previously been. They must have thought this to be somewhat strange and so they walked out into the wet sand to investigate. The danger with a tsunami like the one that struck is that it is not some 30 foot wave crashing down; rather it is a strong forceful push of water that keeps going and going. Many of the amateur video that came out of the tsunami showed people calmly watching the water come back in and by the time they realized that the water wasn’t going to stop nicely at the edge of the beach it was far too late already.
I remember a story an expat posted on a message board right after the tsunami. I tried to find the story but it’s buried in the debris of the internet and too many other postings about the tsunami. Basically this expat who lived in Phuket went down to Patong the day after the tsunami to take pictures and help where he could. As he was walking down the street he saw to Thai girls about 20 years old playfully holding hands laughing and smiling. With all of this death and destruction around them to see two girls acting like young schoolgirls seemed a bit surreal to him so he stopped them and asked them what they were so happy about. They very simply told him “Because we’re alive.”
Soi Eric 2007
Soi Eric after tsunami
Buying a Frog
There was one night we were sitting in a bar on Soi Tiger in Phuket and this street vendor girl comes up to Alex and me. She must have been about 15 or so. She was selling the same crap that every other street vendor sells. They all work for the same guy so that’s no big surprise. She holds out a wooden frog that you draw a stick across its back and it sounds like it’s croaking (they all do this because the sound usually makes you turn around). We’re about to brush her off but she’s got this energy and smile about her. How can you blow off someone like that? So many street vendors do their job like zombies. They walk from person to person shoving their wares in your face and keep hounding you even after you’ve told them you’re not interested. Here’s someone who is animated and full of life. If you have to buy the obligatory souvenirs I would much rather buy from someone like her.
Alex says that he’s interested in the frog for his daughter and wants to know how much. She quotes 300 baht ($10). He offers 100 baht. Her smile only got bigger as she said “No.” They go back and forth and finally he’s got her down to 120 baht but he’s trying for an even 100. She’s sticking to her guns but there’s this sparkle in her eyes and she hasn’t quit smiling the entire time. They keep going back and forth on the 20 baht difference and you can tell she’s having fun. She knows she’s got the sale and she’s going to hold out for that extra 20 baht (about 75 cents).
We stopped in this pub called the Up2U bar on Soi Eric one night for a couple of drinks. There was a Norwegian guy who had a Friar Tuck haircut sitting at the other end of the bar. He was a big man and not in a muscular sort of way. He had a girl on each arm and he was in heaven. He had unbuttoned his shirt and his rolls of fat were flowing freely.
Alex says to me “I really don’t need to see that.” So on my way to the restroom I decided to mess with him a bit and as I walked by I said “Listen mate, why don’t you button up that shirt? We’re trying to have a nice drink down there and you’re flashing your boobs all over the place.” The look on his face was like a frightened school boy. He quickly buttoned up his shirt. I felt bad. I had only meant it as a joke but he obviously thought I was dead serious. On the way back from the bathroom I stopped and told him I was only joking around with him and to do whatever he wanted.
Every night we walked by that place he was in there and always had a girl on his arm. One night as we’re walking by one of the girls tells us it’s the Norwegian’s last night so we stopped in, bought him a drink, and then I talked him into going up on the outdoor stage and doing some pole dancing.
Several days in a row Alex and I stopped off in this pool hall and shot pool. The place was air conditioned and the beer was cold so it was a great way to get out of the heat and do something to kill a few hours.
Now, I’m going to tell you guys a little secret that I don’t want anyone stealing from me and going off and making a fortune. Both in Bangkok and down in Phuket all of these pool halls have tons of women who are paid just to rack the balls. You set the money on the table and whenever you finish a game they come over and rack â€˜em up for you. In Bangkok the ladies were just normal gals but in this one pool join in Phuket they’re all stunningly beautiful. And if you’re there by yourself they’ll shoot pool with you as long as you buy them an occasional drink. If some pool hall in the US set up something similar it would be packed around the clock.
Anyway, Alex and I had gone in there several days in a row and so while they gals there knew us we had never really spoken to them other than to ask them to rack the balls for us. One of the rack girls comes over and asks if we want to play doubles. Now, having watched these girls play before, these aren’t gals who are new to the game. What the heck though, right? We play one game against them and it’s a close game but they win. Now they propose we play for 100 baht a game. Sometimes you just know you’re being hustled but you go along with it anyway. Sure. Of course they smoked us. We paid up, bought them each a drink, and told them that no more pool for money. Surprisingly they weren’t interested in playing any more.
More Getting Hustled
Nearly every beer bar in Phuket has three things:
â€¢ A game of Connect Four
â€¢ A tree stump
â€¢ A dice game
When you come in you’ll eventually be asked if you want to play a game. Usually they want to play Connect Four. It’s a trap. They’re good. Deadly good. To this day, I have never won a single game of Connect Four, ever! I just laugh when they suggest that game now and won’t even play it.
The tree stump is also a sucker’s bet but it’s easy to be fooled by it. Here’s the setup: They drive two nails an equal depth into a tree stump. They hand you a hammer with a very, very slim face to it and you attempt to whack the nail flush into the tree stump. Then you hand the hammer to your opponent and they do the same. First one to bury their nail wins. They’ll usually string you along a few games and make it close. Then you’ll be asked to wager a drink on a game. After that, it will no longer be a close match. First strike and they’ll bury 90% of the nail.
The only game you actually have a chance with is the dice game. I’m not sure what it’s called but you have two dice and a wooden box with the numbers 1 â€“ 9 painted on small tabs. As you roll numbers you flip up the tabs to hide the number. You keep rolling until you hit a number that won’t allow you to flip up a tab (you roll a 6 and a 1 and the 6, 1, and 7 tabs are already flipped over). You win by flipping up all the tabs. So for instance, if you roll a 5 and a 4 you can flip up 5, 4, or 9. To anyone not completely brain dead you take the 9 since there are fewer ways to make a 9 than there are to make a 5 or 4. As long as you know that simple rule it’s completely luck based thus it’s really the only game you have a chance of winning.
Fon in Thai means rain. One night as we were leaving the pool hall one of the gals said “Fon, fon.” I knew it meant rain so I looked outside and it was barely sprinkling. It rained every day we were there but usually early in the morning when you wouldn’t catch me awake. “It’s small fon,” I said as we walked out onto the street. We didn’t get but two blocks and it started coming down harder than I had ever seen it rain in my entire life. Thunder, lightning, sheets of water. We took cover under the awning of some shop along with some others. We decide it can’t last more than a few minutes and we’ll wait it out. After about 10 minutes we decide to take refuge in a bar we had passed on the way down.
We run in drenched. And as they do in almost all bars the lady hands us a cold, moist towelette. Usually they’re a welcome site because it’s so damn hot that you bury your face in the towlette and cool off. When you’re dripping wet it’s just comical.
One of the changes since the tsunami is that you don’t have to drive into Phuket Town to see Thai kickboxing (Muay Thai). There’s a joint at the top of Bangala Road. It’s been really tourist-ized but I guess if you don’t know much about Muay Thai you won’t know the difference.
Anyway, the Muay Thai place drives a truck around Phuket all day with a loudspeaker going trying to drive customers to the match.
Muay Thai kickboxing. The most dangerous martial art in the world. Come see the champ of the champions. Tonight. Tonight. Tonight. Bangala Road. Bangala Road. Bangala Road. 9pm. 9pm. 9pm.
The above is repeated over and over and over again. The truck just goes up and down the street with this going all day.
I played snooker for the first time. We found some out of the way joint that only the local Thai’s go to. We walk in and we’re the only farang (westerner) in there. They clear the table for us and included in the 100 baht an hour rate give us a referee who places the balls and keeps the score on the board.
I got my ass kicked. Alex is a better player to begin with and combine that with the fact that you’re shooting across a table that has twice or three times the surface area of a regular pool table and I was toast. I don’t think I ever really adjusted my shooting. Certain shots work because of the limited distance. For instance, on a slice shot, I can make certain shots because even if you’re not 100% accurate with the shot the distance the ball has to travel to the pocket is so short that the inaccuracy of the shot doesn’t have enough room to really manifest itself. On a big table you have to be dead on. Your slices have to be exact.
Anyway, got my ass kicked. You know it’s bad when you have to end the game because it’s mathematically impossible for you to win.
All the Thai’s were gambling on some dice game in the corner. I slipped over a few times and watched 100 baht notes changing hands but couldn’t really figure out the game. With the gambling going on over in the corner it gave the place a bit of a dodgy feel which I thought made the place even cooler.
Okay, I’m done for now. More later . . . maybe
Here’s a nice blog about Bangkok that is worth a read, Bangkok Diaries.