Sunday, June 24, 2018

Three Nights In Bangkok

Wheels down at the Bangkok International Airport brought a bit of nervous trepidation. I had done my research about the visa requirements for Canadians entering Thailand for less than 30 days but my confidence was ebbing. I do what so many of us do, I over researched it and started doubting myself.

Canadians are one of 60 countries that can enter Thailand without a visa if you stay for less than 30 days.You must have a booked onward ticket and can show that you have $500 US in cash as you enter. If planning on staying longer than 30 days you need to go through the standard "Visa on Arrival process". Fill out the application, provide 2 passport sized photos and pay the visa fee. I started mixing up both processes like the knuckle head I can be.

I thought "whatever lets just see what happens" and off I went to immigration. Most stories of foreigners languishing in a Thai prison cell usually start with "whatever, let's just see what happens" . I left the plane, went through immigration, got stamped, picked up my pack and met my driver in less than 30 minutes. I was not asked for anything at immigration and was greeted with a bored "Welcome to Thailand" from the young girl at immigration. I scurried through like a mouse, quiet and fast.

Suvarnabhumi Airport is sleek, modern, efficient and a long way from the city centre so naturally I arranged an airport pickup. It was only 800 Baht but twice the price of a regular taxi. A simple luxury I can afford. I was in Bangkok for 3 days and planned to walk around, see the major sites and get a feel for the place. I actually wanted to be approached by all the schemers and touts that I have read about. Bangkok is the belly of the beast when it comes to these motherfu**ers. Click here to read about the top 10 scams in Bangkok. Click here to read about the top 20 scams in Thailand. I honestly wound myself up reading about it as I did when I went to Varanasi India. I needed to walk the streets and relax. There was Pad Thai to discover.

In my opinion The Grand Palace  in Bangkok is the winner for the most beautiful National Palace of any place I have visited. Massive, historic, ornate, colorful and crowed with the most intense group of people I have ever been massed with.

Here's the rub. You can not enter the temple with your shoulders or legs showing. No singlets, skirts or shorts. However you can buy the required pants or scarves inside a shop conveniently located just before you purchase your tickets. At one time you could receive pants and scarves for free and hand them back at the end but I get it the revenue grab. The pants are 300 Baht, about $12 and are complete low end market garbage, even for Thailand. However, outside the walls along the main road there is a group of shops dedicated to selling...wait for Thai pants for 100 Baht. OK, 100 Baht it is. They lasted about 15 minutes before they started coming apart at the seams. By the time I left the Palace the crotch was split down each leg to the ankle.

Once inside it was a mad house, and this is the off season. There is no need to describe the situation in detail because it would be worse than you are imagining. I think the initial "wow factor" gets everyone once they enter. After you start wandering through the palace the crowds thin and people regain their composure for the most part. I get it. I managed to spend a couple of hours wandering the grounds, going through various temples and stupas and taking enough photos without being extreme. I am trying to learn and become better with my DSLR but I am finding I put it away quick and just enjoy where I am and what I am doing. The whole "be in the moment thing". 

The debaucherous Khao San road was a 20 minute walk from the Palace. As it is Bangkok if you get bored walking here you are brain dead. I found myself at a huge traffic circle, them being all the rage in Asia, but nobody was moving. There was a line of cars heading to my right that was stopped and being held by what I thought was a very serious traffic cop. I was also told not to cross the street so I played statues. I did notice there were quite a few police and heavily armed soldiers along the road and there was no traffic at all. The roads into the traffic circle were clear of any traffic. Then as if on cue a motorcade lead by police vans with lights blazing, followed by a military truck of some type but armed to the teeth. Then came the large Suburbans and finally 4 cream colored limos, each with lightly tinted windows. I could see a shadow inside sitting opposite of the driver in the back. All 4 limos all set up the same. OK, I get it, some high level official spending Thai tax dollars on security for a trip to the market.

A few hours later after being served lunch by a lady boy at a busy restaurant on Khao San Road I figured I would walk back to my room near Hua Lamphong (Train Station) and Chinatown, about an hour. I had my trusty map and started back down various new side streets. I stumbled across a street of dudes repairing electronics, various food markets and working temples. The monks having the brightest orange robes I have seen to date. Everything was busy, the smells were incredible and I was just enjoying the sunshine.

Then I turned a corner and the streets was a ghost town. I walked about 2 blocks lined with military and police standing about 15 meters apart on both sides. Nobody was walking, except your truly but that came to a screeching halt when I crossed my third intersection. I heard a loud STOP behind me as well as the soldier to my right put his hand up. Need trick for him to send his voice behind me like that. I turned and there was the boss. He told me quite firmly to stop walking and get off the sidewalk. So that is exactly what I did. I smiled and said thank you (I have no idea why) and asked why? He quickly relaxed and said "the queen will be coming soon". Ahhhh, its the Thai Queen causing all the commotion. He looked at my camera which I was carrying and without malice said "NO". I snapped off a quick one as I was putting it away. He knew.

Some procession as before. Police cars, army vehicle, dark scary suburbans and 4 cream colored limos. The soldiers stiffened and everyone stopped and looked. My only takeaway from the moment was nobody was waving, everyone just stood looking bored of it all. I quietly asked the lady next to me "the queen" to break the silence. She quickly responded just a quietly "wastes all our tax money". I immediately understood the security requirements.

I had my spidey senses on high alert when I hit the streets of Bangkok and took about 5 minutes for them to disappear. It goes back to a point I have made a few times of over researching a new location. It's achieves the same result as when you use Google to self diagnose an ache or pain you have. Suddenly you have (fill in the deadly disease here).

My neighborhood was filled with cheap delicious coffee shops, incredible street food carts and of course a huge 7-11. I think there must be a law in Thailand that 7-11 have to be on every corner. I did not take a taxi or tuk tuk so I have that to look forward to when I return. I read later that the police did a sweep around the Palace clearing out over 400 touts and scammers the previous week. Nobody hassled me which was shitty because I was ready for it and wanted to play along. I guess I should better be careful for what I wish for.

People were kind, accommodating and honest. That is all we can really ask for. I will have 4 more days on my way back from the North so I am going to dive right into this city.  I do keep my senses on high alert when I talk to any female here. Lady boys are not just in strip clubs and message parlors and I have to tell you, some of these gals are eye catching and deceiving. I will probably just hang with the Monks while I am here. It's safer. It's not like they are Catholic priests.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Kong: Skull Island

A few hours in any direction from Hanoi you will find a myriad of places to visit and explore. I set off for a couple of day trips around Ninh Binh. I was going to hike around small villages, ride along remote trails through tranquil green fields and relax on a long river boats.

Day 1
A two drive from Hanoi brought our intrepid little tour group to the ancient capital of Hoa Lu near Ninh Binh. I walked down the steps from my air conditioned world into the searing mid morning heat that was not going to take any prisoners. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and I longed for my great fedora that I left on the bus in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Sensing blood in the water it did not take long for the cheerful lady vendors to swarm me. I struck up a conversation with one of the vendors because I needed a hat and she knew I needed a hat and I knew that she knew that I needed a hat. So I bought a hat. Now I never ever try to barter for something that costs the equivalent of $2 and with that I topped my head with a traditional conical field hat that is iconic in Vietnam. With my hat firmly in place I was now told I needed an umbrella, a cotton scarf and various other trinkets. I guess if you have the fish on the hook you have to try and reel him in.

The old city, dating back to the 11th century was quite nice and the surrounding countryside gave it a great feel and look. However I know nothing of ancient Vietnamese history and sadly the more our knowledgeable guide explained the more he sounded like Charlie Browns teacher.

After a buffet lunch that was include in the day it was time to enjoy a boat ride down the Tam Coc River . The little village was a bit touristy but I never pay any attention to that, after all I am a tourist on this day. The boats were small, designed for no more than 4 plus the ferryman. It allowed for attempts at conversations and lots of laughter. It took no time in noticing that all the ferryman rowed with their feet.That alone was worth the price of admission.

The trip was about 3 hours and was calm and relaxing. The river flowed through 3 caves of about 300 meters each but only about 4 to 8 feet high. Our boat captain was flawless going through the winding and twisting caves. There was only one person who was not paying attention and bumped their head on a low hanging rock. I wonder who that was?

Day 2
Bring on the bikes. I would like to say our bike were modern light weight and good quality but why lie. A few looked like relics from their days running supplies up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail. Oddly they worked quite well and as you know sometimes you need to take your first world attitude and embrace what you are doing and where you are doing it. In this case you can add what you are doing it on.

I kept my camera in my pack for most of the morning ride. First because I was really enjoying the experience of riding through old villages and along rice fields. Second because I did not want to fall off the bike into a rice paddy and get stomped on by one of the huge and very intimidating water buffalo that wandered the paddy fields.

We passed through rice fields with the classic farmers working but I did not bring my large lens (that what she said). I like the photo regardless. There were village farmers drying the rice harvest in an open courtyard, something we saw everywhere. There were small ponds that had lots of fish because there were quite a few locals catching dinner, mostly bottom feeders like carp and catfish but fresh non the less. I have met a few people along the way who are biking through Asia. I can honestly see the reason why and I was only out for a couple of hours. The back roads and villages in the countryside would lend to an entirely new experience let along personal challenge. I salute all you crazy buggers and I am a bit inspired.

To rest our legs from the "Authentic Vietnamese Bike Ride" we set off for the short trip to At Trang. We donned life vests and again hit the river for another 3 hour boat trip through various caves. The boats were different, the caves were longer and the views were arguably more impressive than the day before. On this part of the trip I found myself on our rickety craft with a couple of first time travelers from Brantford Ontario, home of the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky. Good guys whose names I forget (as usual) and it was nice to have conversations through the trip about relate-able subjects from home.

The high light of this day was the turnaround point where we could explore the movies set for Kong, Skull Island. I watched the movie when I got back and it was shit, so don't bother. Parts of the set were left behind as legacy and to create a tourist attraction for the locals. Some even dressed the part in the village, taking pictures with happy camera toting tourists for a small "donation". If you can make a few bucks why not, that is why it's here. So good for them. I did not take any pictures but "donated" a few thousand dong to the cause

This was a good couple of days. The food was great and included but they must figure that those of us from the west are gluttons because it was all buffet all the time. Coffee, water, soda or beer whenever you wanted it with water  continuously forced on us for good reason. It was Vietnam hot. There is so much to explore and experience in the Ninh Binh area. The town itself is nice enough but we only stayed the night and did not venture to far.

The hotel had a bar with a TV playing the World Cup. After a really nice cultural activity it was time to get back to our Western ways. Which way to the buffet?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Hanoi Hilton

Last night I watched the Hanoi Hilton. Today I went to Hao Lo prison in Hanoi. It is yet another brutal reminder of the reality of the horrific abuses humans will inflict on each other. For the record the movie was a piece of 1987 propaganda and acting garbage.

Hao Lo was not only used for American Airman during the Vietnam War/ War with America. The prison was built by the French in the late 1880's and was used to house, torture and execute political prisoners who rallies for Vietnam independence from France. The French were brutal with Hao Lo and other prisons in Vietnam in order to illicit fear and control over the Vietnamese thus supporting colonial rule.

I ended up having a 20 minute conversation with this older Aussie dude and his wife as we were looking at some of the artifacts and displays. I had commented that the entire complex was a testament to the suffering of the Vietnamese at the hands of the French. The propaganda against the American criminals and how well they were treated was nonsense. I understood that the museum was going to be what it was but it still took my aback a bit. His response was simple and on point. "Each side writes it's own version of history. The truth is somewhere in the middle". I like to think I always understood that and "History is written by the victors" narrative. I was a great to have someone verbally smack me upside the head  and knock some sense into me as I was a bit agitated during most of the tour. With my thoughts back on track I wandered the jail and took in the history for the reality that  it was, regardless of the narrative.

Located on Hao Lo street and easy to find the prison itself is quite large but only about 25% of it has been opened and curated for the general public. The fee is 30000 Dong, or about $2C.

Hanoi is a great city and as with all large cities in Asia chaotic with the adjective of choice. My hotel was in the heart of the ancient quarter. The Hanoi Brother hotel was a great choice at $14 a night for a single room, private bath and air conditioning. It included breakfast that I could chose from a menu plus if I was still hungry I could order extra. Coffee, juice and water was free all day.

Across the street was a family business that had incredible Banh Mi. It was open air as most places are with a large TV screen where friends were made every night over $1 bottles of Hanoi beer while watching the world cup. Over the course of 5 nights there were Canadians, Americans, Mexicans, Germans, Aussies, A Dane, French, Spanish, and a couple of very sad Italians. The owners did not even bother to get out of their chairs when I started walking in and grabbing my own beer from the fridge . They just smiled. A home on the road.

This city is packed. There is a great bar scene / bar zone with a few places serving up live music nightly. I found it was all acoustic and mostly serving Budweiser, for whatever reason. There are plenty of museums, the Ho Chi Minh memorial and mausoleum (which was closed when I went) and as many food choices as you can handle. I was talking to a few Expats who ran the hotel next to where I was staying, after all they were giving away free beer before the world cup games.

Anyways, they were telling me that there is a real seedy underbelly to Hanoi. The latest thing being inhaling CO2 cartridges. The young crowd just can not get enough of them. Open them, suck back the CO2 and off you go into la la land. That is dumb enough but is not the real issue. The trouble is that they are running out of CO2 and the locals are filling the cartridges with whatever gas they can get their hands on. Naturally the results are awful and sometimes tragic.

I found a cheap flight on, my new go to for flights. $49 got me from Hoi An to Hanoi. It was great to be in the North and my only Vietnam regret is that I did not come here sooner. I read so many blogs and articles warning me about the fact that Vietnam was bigger than you think. Lesson learned.

My visa was expiring and so Sapa, Halong Bay and Dien Bien Phu would have to wait until next time, and there will be a next time for Vietnam.