There is a famous street in Bangkok called Khao San Road which is known as the "backpacker ghetto". It has cheap rooms, cheap food, lots of bars and hence, lots of backpackers.
Before we arrived in Bangkok for the first time, people said "Go see Khao San, but don't stay there". Being you can't get there by train and Bangkok traffic is a joke, we didn't make it to Khao San Rd. until today (our 3rd visit to Bangkok).
I'm really glad we're not staying there. Something that I've learned about my travel style is that I don't want to be surrounded by other travelers. Seeing other westerners in a secluded temple in Kyoto takes something away from the experience for me. I'd prefer to feel like the only foreigner in a place that no one can find. When I look at Khao San road, I see the opposite of that. It's wall-to-wall backpackers, strutting around with their day-old dreadlocks, sunburned cheeks and too-cool-for-school attitudes. Though we carry a backpack, it is abundantly clear to us that we don't identify with the average 20 year old unkept-and-proud backpacker. It seems that the badge of honor among backpackers is to appear that your lodging does not have a shower. It also seems that Khao San road is as much about travel fashion and looking cool for other backpackers than anything else, and I'm over it. And yes, I am perhaps jealous that I'm not that young anymore and realize that I sound even older.
If I were 20, though, I'd love Khao San Rd. and would be right there with them. But as a 32 year old traveler with a backpack, I can't help but wonder if the Bangkok they experience happens without the company of 15 other people wearing a "Same Same But Different" t-shirt.
8:15AM: Wake up, shower, pack backpacks, post to TwinF.
9:08AM: Depart Kanazawa Garden Hotel for the beautiful Kanazawa train station (literally best exterior we've seen)- no train schedule to Takayama in hand.
9:22AM: Arrive at station, get coffee, breakfast, visit ticket counter. Ticket guy gives us ticket to Toyama (next town up) and says little but "change change change- change change change".
9:49AM: Board train to Toyama.
10:30AM: Arrive at Toyama, find schedule for next train to Takayama- see that next train leaves at 10:31 on Track 3.
10:31AM: Race to Track 3 in time to view the caboose of Takayama train mock us while departing station. Exasperate knowing former train guy could have let us know.
10:35AM: Visit ticket counter to discover meaning of "change change change". To get to Takayama, we must depart at 1:47PM (3 hours later), change to a bus, and then change back to train to arrive at 5:15PM. Feel pangs of discouragement.
10:47AM: Resolve to tour Toyama. Put bags in locker (US$5), rip out page in guidebook, which reads "The heavily industrialized city of Toyama has few tourist attractions." Roll eyes, take page with us.
11:21AM: While sitting on park swings at Toyama Castle Park, discuss Ben Franklin's public library idea and the naming of UPenn's Oxymoronic Fighting Quaker Marching Band (of which Sachi's brother Mark was percussion leader).
12:17PM: Eat ramen noodles for lunch next to Japanese businessmen. Despite delicious noodles, discussed our preference for the rich and hearty Southern Kyushu ramen.
1:44PM: Buy two giant maple cream puffs and salmon sushi. Board two-car train packed with Japanese school girls, which seem to make up at least 60% of the Japanese population on weekdays around 12-2. Wonder outloud- why aren't they in school right now? Why do they ALL have the same haircut?
2:35PM: Arrive in the tiny mountain town of Inotani having gobbled cream puffs and sushi. Oishi!
3:25PM: Depart Inotani on a small bus containing 3 people (us included) with legroom about 3 inches shorter than Lee's femur. Ride through the brand new 2.6 km Koshiji Tunnel. Even on the rickety mountain bus, an automated female voice reminds us of the stops in Japanese.
4:35PM: Arrive in the two-horse town of Tsunogawa to catch final train.
4:45PM: Depart Tsunogawa for Takayama in 2 car train, containing the same 3 people as the bus.
5:15PM: Arrive in Takayama- on time as usual. Pick up map from tourist office. Walk to first choice hotel- closed for renovation. Walk back to tourist office for more info. Walk to Rickshaw Inn (7 minutes) to find it is full- realize we should had the tourist office call first. Walk to Hotel Hana- get room for US$93 per night for 2 nights- expected. Relax.
6:05PM: Tour town on foot, laugh at our knack for walking streets after closing time.
6:45PM: Eat at tiny bar restaurant run by a friendly couple knowing little English. Have local specialty Hida Beef and sake. Sachi translates conversations about us between unsuspecting people at the bar.
8:15PM: Return to hotel for long hard night's sleep.
This was one of the errands we were supposed to be doing in Bangkok. Unlike many of the others on the list, the haircut was successful, as you can see. The problem is that the two days we reserved for getting things done were on a Sunday and Monday- and Monday turned out to be May Day- a public holiday- much to our surprise. I guess that means we have to schlep a bunch of stuff we were sending home to Japan tomorrow and pay out the yen to send it.
6:30AM: awake after 5 hours of sleep, pack bags.
7AM: Arrive at resort reception to check out and have breakfast. Scrape enough Baht together for bill- 7 nights, 6 breakfasts, 5 dinners for US$280. We heard they accepted credit cards.
7:30AM: Depart for 8AM boat to Phuket in back of pickup truck.
7:38AM: Truck proceeds one quarter of the way, stops, turns around, heads back to resort to pick up forgotten passenger- Jack from the UK. Begin frantic drive to catch boat.
7:58AM: Arrive at boat, both whacked with motion sickness, sweating and feeling green. Banana shaped boat departs into moderate swells and a cloud of diesel exhaust.
8:35AM: Thanks to the heat and exhaust fumes, Sachi promply tosses breakfast out the starboard side window and returns to seat, refreshed.
9:15AM: Arrive in Ko Phi Phi, switch to larger, air conditioned boat. Lee contemplates the adventures of his right flip-flop after a mix up last night that resulted in a mismatched pair of footwear.
9:45AM Jack from the UK sits with us and pours through our Japan guidebook, circling things we should see and do. We both feel much better than before.
11AM: Arrive in Phuket port and try to find a cheaper way into the town center than the standard charge of US$1.25 (50 Baht) per person. No luck.
11:15AM: On the way to Phuket Town, remind taxi driver- no we do not want to see your friend's hotel- no we do not need a new suit. No stops.
11:30AM Begin sweltering search for air conditioned lunch and place to chill out in 90(f) heat with everything we have on our backs-on a Saturday-when fewer things are open for lunch. Find an oasis at a coffeeshop called Kopi de Phuket and stay for a while. Mmmm.
2pm: Try to find taxi to Phuket airport for less than US$10 (400 baht). We give up, it's hot and they let us walk away when we insist on 350 baht- the taxi drivers are feeling the gas prices here too. Listen to "Hey Jude" (Beatles), "Hang On Sloopy" (The McCoys), "Venus" (Bananarama), "Sugar, Sugar" (The Archies) via mix cassette tape. Mmmm.
3:55PM Board plane bound for Bangkok with mostly Thai people. Plane's speaker system is excruciatingly loud. Witnessed the fastest ever bi-lingual safety demonstration, performed through no less that 20 blasts of piercing feedback, each followed by attemps to finish the demo and spare everyone's sanity. Lee wonders why it is that people in front of him on planes insist on putting their seat back with enough force to catapult a pack of peanuts to the back galley.
5:37PM: Arrive in Bankok and survey the taxi situation. A typical dilemma: catch a cab right now for US$12 (negotiated) or wait in a line of 64 people for a metered cab, usually costing US$5-7? We wait- it takes about 15 minutes and costs about US$7.
6:43PM: Arrive at nicer-than-we-need Asia Hotel in Siam Square for 3 nights at US$41 per night. Our reserved room type is not available, so we get a free upgrade to Delux. Sweet.
So this ends a pretty typical and low pressure travel day, minus the tossing of breakfasts. The author is happy that he can now stop referring to himself in the third person.
Worker Efficiencies in India Originally uploaded by sachilefever_twinf.
One of the obvious contrasts to India, here in Bangkok, seems to be the efficiency of workers...at least in larger businesses than a family run food stall. Yesterday we walked by two men laying down a pipe in a small ditch across a road and then cementing it over. Two hours later the job was complete. In India, it would have taken at least eight men and several days.
One example is when we arrived at the domestic airport in Delhi, there were, I counted them twice, 15 baggage handlers waiting for our plane of 120 passengers. I'm not sure what they all did. I wish we were allowed to take pictures of their airports.
On a similar flight with 11 baggage handlers loading the plane, I watched one guy throw a bag on the conveyor belt and press a button to watch the single bag ride alone to the top. Then he threw a second bag on...Five others were squatting in the baggage carts watching him do this until a supervisor came up and scolded them. The scene was very entertaining.
At each hotel reception desk, five people check in one reservation at a time. Each of the five seem to find a time to point at the paperwork and mumble something before the transaction is complete.
We passed a gas station in Delhi that had 3-4 uniformed attendants for each of the 4 gas pumps.
I'm not sure if it's a statement about the low cost of labor or inefficiencies of service or a motivation to employ as many people as possible in the country, but it seemed to be the way of doing business everywhere we went. Again, I qualify my statements by saying this doesn't apply to small entrepreneurial shops and stalls, which were almost too efficient, never giving you enough time to count your change.
One of the most striking things about being a westerner in India is the aggressiveness of tenacity of touts or hawkers - people who approach you on the street wanting to sell something or provide a service.
Indians are very enterprising and given many of their situations, it's no surprise that they really want to do business. Unfortunately their methods do more to repel business than attract it for people like me. The touts are a lot like email spam, or as Sachi says, pop-up windows. We call it "sidewalk spam".
First, they are selling something you don't want or need and never asked for.
Second, their message is indescriminate -we often hear offers to shine our shoes, which are usually sandals.
Third, they will not take "no" or "nahin" for an answer, ever.
Fourth, they are inexhaustable. Behind each tout is a line waiting (or not) for their turn.
Fifth, they do not speak English very well.
Sixth, the majority have hidden agendas and their only goal is to extract a maximum amount of money, even through dishonest means.
Seventh, responding in any way only encourages them. Showing a bit of interest causes a feeding frenzy.
Eighth, they interfere with the messages you want to hear. Well meaning individuals are often lost in the melee.
Ninth, it is a numbers game. Their MO seems to be tenacity and bombardment. Sending the message repetitively to 1000s of people is how to get one to bite.
Tenth and finally, they are learning quickly. Recently I saw two interesting products from the touts
- Foreign newspapers including USA Today
- SD memory cards
This is a vast improvement over faux wood carved elephants, postcards and bracelets.
Unfortunately, like email spam, the ignorant and naive folks make the sidewalk spam business model work. So, the message here is to do your part to fight sidewalk spam - ignore it completely and hope that it goes away.
The goal is to deliver passengers from one city to another, where the players tip (based on speed, # of accidents and near-miss bonuses) will be the measure of success.
It is a driving game with the most skillful players will use quick reaction times, the horn, the brake and some yelling out of the window to proceed and win.
Each course will be between two destinations in India and include likely scenarios from that route.
The driver will be tested in navigating the real obstacles on the streets of India. Some examples:
Animals will constantly appear in the road, including Brahma bulls, dogs, goats, camels, water buffalo, boars. Elephants and monkeys. Hitting a bull or cow in India kills the driver ends game play.
Since there are no sidewalks, people will constantly appear in the road and show little respect for a vehicle. Again, skillful use of the horn will ensure safe navigation through masses of pilgrams, farm workers, beggars and pedestrians.
The other vehicles on the road represent the most dangerous objects. Freight trucks, buses, rickshaws, motorcycles and bicycles appear constanly. The driver will have to contend with sudden stops, constant passing, vehicles going the wrong way on a one way street, aggressive merging and general unpredictability. Full concentration is required.
The road itself will change often. Large potholes, unmarked speed bumps, construction areas, sudden detours, and one way bridges are to be expected and navigated skillfully.
In some cases, the driver may have to make stops for the passengers to be sick, eat or take pictures. The driver may make extra money by picking extra passengers, but this reduces the tip amount. Answering stupid questions is optional.
Ultimately, it is a game of speed and survival in a place where rules of the road do not apply. It is every driver for himself and the one who finds the most creative and death defying way to safely deliver his passenger(s) to their destination wins and advances.
As an experienced driver in India once put it, "To be able to drive in India, you need 3 things: Good brake, good horn and good luck".
This game could be applied to several other destinations around the world.
We had so many expectations about Darjeeling- a cool mountain town inhabited by Tibetan and Nepalese people with awesome scenery and even better tea. Our expectations were partially fulfilled.
I was most looking forward to the scenery- the Mount Kanchenjunga
range of the Himalayas specifically. In this respect, we were a bit disappointed. We did see it for a bit one morning, but for the rest of the time, the town was shrouded in a mist/fog, obscuring any view. Apparently this is the norm except April/May and October/November.
We did enjoy the daily life aspects of the town. The people were very friendly and it was MUCH less of a hassle than Delhi or Mumbai. Here are some photos to tell the story.
One ofthe most famous things in Darjeeling is the "toy train" on the Darjeeling Himilayan Railway- a train that runs on a narrow gauge track (about 2 feet wide) that has been designated a World Heritage Monument by UNESCO.
There seemed to be school kids everywhere, all in their very neat uniforms, complete with vests, ties and even sport coats. Here are a couple of small ones on their way home.
Tibetan prayer flags are also very pervasive in the area, being that Darjeeling has a high population of Tibetan refugees. Here is Sachi at the monastary on Observation Hill.
We found the people od Darjeeling to be the most friendly and curious that we've met in India. The Tibetans have a very soft and peaceful manner that is in sharp contrast to the touts in Dehli. Here is a nice couple we met- though I'm not sure about their ethnicity.
India is filled with contrasts. The Lloyd Botanical Garden is one of the most beautiful, peaceful and quiet places in the town- a nice place to get away. Yet, each grove of trees is surrounded by rusty, tangled, barbed-wire. The wire's don't even encircle- they just block. We were left wondering about the reasoning.
We had experienced enough squalor inthe cities and hoped that Darjeeling would be different. It was less polluted, but unfortunately, still pretty sickening for us Seattleites.
But in the end, it was worth the trip to Darjeeling. I want to go back sometime in better health and do a multi-day trek into the woods.
Yesterday, we had one big goal - to take our sick butts back to Delhi, where we have a hotel room for two nights where we planned to recharge before heading north. We took some Immodium and hoped for the best for the 4 hour journey from Jaipur.
Since the ride, I've been better, but Sachi, not so much. She isn't deathly ill, but goes to the bathroom every hour or so and sometimes runs a fever. She's been in bed since yesterday and I've spent a good portion of my time there too.
Fortunately, the hotel (Nirula's in Connaught Place) is nice and has cable TV, and a couple of English channels, including HBO (edited and with commercials). We've seen commercials for a car called a Xeta approximately 2000 times. Many commercials seem to speak Hinglish - Hindi and English. One, for "Anti-aging" motor oil has a catchy jingle at the end that, the best I can tell sings "Magic Anti-Aging...Jah Boo-jah Boo".
There are a few Indian music video channels that seem to play the same 4 songs over and over (much like home). Apparently synchronized dancing is a required element of any Indian video. That, and a duet with a hot female with an extremely high voice that may or may not be the actual singer.
The movies have been a mixed bag, but when there's no choice and inaction is a requirement, Problem Child 2 or Anaconda can pass the time quite nicely. We were excited to catch Shaun of the Dead last night, followed up by Ray and Men in Black. I fell asleep to Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, which I wish I could have Tivo'd. Today we saw Indentity with John Cusack and the kid movie Matilda.
It's looking like we may hang out here for a couple of days to recover fully. Maybe we'll pick up a little Hindi or learn a few dance moves, to be practiced on the way to the bathroom.
We're in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India and I wish I was telling a different story; one about the Pink City, the Water Palace or the Tiger Fort.
Instead, what is much more front-of-mind is the condition of my digestive system (again). I very nearly left an unwelcomed mark on Jaipur today with what is often known as "Dehli Belly".
Right now I have a slight fever and trying to replace electrolytes while I hope that I recover before a long day of sightseeing tomorrow. We have both been really diligent about food, sanitation, but the little bugs have a way of getting in.
I figure that by the time I get home, I'll have the toughest immune system around.
Pictures and some positive news coming soon...