Sunday, October 20, 2013

Travelogue: The famous Walking Street

Honey massage!

After visiting one of the bigger shopping malls in Pattaya (nothing great - and prices also weren’t anything great), we found an Indian restaurant while roaming around the main road; our veggie friend was delighted and the aloo parathas they served were pretty good. The Pakistani driver had left us - once the tour operators know that you aren’t going to go to any other attractions, they will want to leave because they won’t get any more commission because of you. Even for getting tourists or visitors to certain massage centers (called honey massage) they get commission. Do beware because these aren’t the typical massage centers that you see in Bangkok - these do cost a lot of money (over 2000 Bahts) and they are very popular in Pattaya. Tourists operators will try their best to push you into these places.


Our next stop was Walking street and this was near our hotel. To get back to our hotel we jumped into one of the local tuk-tusk (a tuk tuk is an auto-rickshaw); the ones in Pattaya were lengthy in the back with two rows of seats facing each other. They run around the city like share-autos and you can get off anywhere along their route. An Australian passenger joined us and he got started about cricket and the pathetic performance of the Australian team in India. He told us which stop is Walking Street - it’s not hard to find; it is the most crowded street in Pattaya at night and if you walk a few steps inside you will see a board saying ‘Walking Street’. There were a few police cops standing at the entrance.

Walking Street

You’ll see all sorts of things out here - many outlets in this 
street are pubs and dance bars or a combo of both. Some of the pubs have very loud music and you’ll sometimes find a few people dancing on the street outside the pub. There are plenty of transgenders and like our hotel owner had said, sometimes they will look more pretty than women! And guys had got into problems thinking so. Some dance bars have been setup with showcase areas - it’s like in clothing stores you have dummy models with dress placed behind see through wall; over here instead of the dummies there are real women or transgenders swaying to music coming from the bar inside. It’s to attract people to enter the bar. Some bars have setup balconies from where these live models try to attract attention of the crowd below. All these bars with models dancing tend to charge a lot more money for drinks - so beware; and it isn’t nice practice if you step into one of these outlets, sit and watch the dancing and then leave the place without buying anything! Most of these outlets try to attract Westerners; there is the belief out here that Indians will not spend much money. So even on the street, the women and transgenders will flirt with Westerners.

Lonely men and scams

Another common sight is that of single elderly Western men sitting with a young Asian girl having a drink. And from the many instances that we saw, it seemed like the men were doing all the talking while the women were just listening (or appeared to be listening!) The men probably wanted someone to whom they could pour out their mind. A lot of Westerners tend to spend a few months in Thailand when the winters in their native country is harsh - the cost of living here is a lot less than in Europe or US; it costs about $10 per night if you take up monthly accommodation in Pattaya.

There is another scam out here that is common in this street - I had read about it and here we saw a few guys who seemed to be a part of it. Local guys will run up to you and show a menu card - it’s not a regular food menu card but will have a list of a-rated items with price tags. Beware of these; they will tell customers that they can watch whatever they picked. They’ll take the victims to somewhere upstairs on one of the buildings, play some little video or maybe nothing at all and demand money from the victim; being surrounded by the local guys there is no option but to pay and leave!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Travelogue: Alcazar show at Pattaya

We got into conversation with the burly driver of Pakistani origin. As darkness set, we could see a lot more people on the streets. He strictly followed the traffic rules and we discussed about the plight back home.
“Over here if someone comes from a side road, we will wait for them to turn and go in front. But there no one will. Basic road sense everyone has.”

True; back home everyone seems to be in a hurry as if the whole world depends on them reaching their destination 10 seconds early. The driver said that he goes to Pakistan only occasionally – he was well settled in Thailand. We discussed about development and corruption back home; and I guess the state was similar in both our countries. Soon we were into a street that seemed like a main road based on the amount of shops and lights on the sides. He parked the taxi in a parking lot and asked us to follow him.

The Alcazar show is a cabaret show – you get to pick a drink (flavoured orange juice) and watch the show in a huge indoor auditorium; the lower level seating and the ones close to the stage cost a little more than the balcony seats. There were plenty of families, couples and even elderly folks in the audience. The show mostly consists of dance performances with one or two comedy acts or mimes. We got to watch a mime which depicted a conversation between a guy and a girl – the stage setting was simple; completely black curtain and the spotlight would shift from the guy to the girl – at any given time you can only see one character because the rest of the stage is pitch dark. The surprise was right at the end of the act – it was a guy who was acting as both the guy and the girl; one half he had makeup of a guy and the other half as a girl – quite fascinating it was. 

The rest of the show was filled with group dances. The dance itself wasn’t that great but the costumes, backdrops and stage decorations were very well done. Background music was mostly English and a little Thai; there were even a couple of Bollywood songs – obviously to attract the Indian crowd. Few memorable ones were the James Bond song “world is not enough” for which they lowered a large dome with plenty of holes from the ceiling; the light from the center of the dome made patterns outside the dome as the dome kept spinning. Another one was a museum setting where the performers were completely painted in grey and looked like statues before they suddenly started dancing.

In Pattaya you will find a lot of transgenders on the streets from late in the evening. And many of Alcazar performers are transgenders – they do use a lot of heavy makeup and at the end of the show you can see them up close; you can also take snaps with them but not for free. Couple of our guys tried – our expert waved a 10-Baht note but the lady was definitely not interested in that; our photographer tried 40 Bahts and he was successful in getting her to pose for a snap with him. You might read in some places that the transgenders will force you to give money after the show but that isn’t true. Similar to the Alcazar there are a couple of other shows like a Russian show which runs at about the same time (around 8pm); but from what I heard from the driver, they are not for family audience!
(pick above is from the outside)

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Travelogue: Gem factory scam

A beautiful peacock beyond words

It wasn’t long before the host just closed the door while we were only 4 people in the medium sized theatre. A video started playing which showed how gems are extracted, cleaned, polished and cut; it also mentioned about how gems are valued and parameters to look at while selecting gems - kind of similar to what they say for diamonds; about cut, clarity, carat etc.

Once the video was over (not too long), the host led us outside down a long passageway. On the way were a few pictures on gems; the passageway connected to another passageway. Behind us I could see that another employee was guiding another set of tourists into the theatre. This passageway had a few showpiece items made of gems - the most beautiful sight was that of a peacock built with gemstone crystals (height of about 3 feet); it was simply dazzling - blue, green, purple and a variety of colors shining under the lights. The cost was somewhere in the range of Rs. 20 lakhs or so. On the other end of the passage were a pair of serpents related to the Chinese calendar; they also looked majestic but I found the peacock more fascinating. You could just stand and observe it for a few hours without feeling tired - unfortunately photos aren’t allowed inside this gem factory.

The gem factory scam

Next the host led us into a huge hall that had plenty of items on display like a jewelry shop - necklaces, rings etc.; everything with some gemstone embedded. Our expert enquired about one of his lucky gemstones and the host led us to a place where there were a few rings with the gemstone. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a floor that is so huge with so many display items – there were even showpiece items; price ranged from few hundred Rupees to a few thousands.

Now you may ask, what’s the scam in this? You need to beware of what the salesman say; very often the item shown is not genuine; in fact in some gem factories, they will even say that the gems here cost a fraction of what is their original cost and they will tempt you to buy it by saying that you can make a lot of money back home; and many people have fallen to the persuasion. You are not forced to buy but the salesmen will put pressure – in our case the host kept following us and leading us to different sections in the hope that we might pick something; but I don’t think he was that enthusiastic about us since he might have had the feeling that we weren’t a group that would buy something. The tour operators and travel guys have some deal with the gem factories - their duty is to bring as many tourists as they can; so you don’t even need to pay the travel guy for bringing you there because the gem factory will reward him for bringing people.

The whole operation (gem scam) is very well organized; when we came outside we really didn’t have to tell anyone to call our cab driver – in a few minutes our cab arrived from the parking lot. And as we got in, I could see a few other travelers being dropped at the entrance to the gem factory.

Tickets always sold out! 

It was around 5pm when we reached our hotel; the plan for the night was to attend the Alcazar show. When we told our hotel owner (he was owner, cashier, waiter and receptionist as well!) he suddenly said, “Oh, but the 7-o-clock show is sold out.” 

We were disappointed, especially our ‘veggie’ friend because he had heard a lot about the Alcazar show and was told that there was no other show equal to it in Thailand; not even the Tiffany show in Bangkok. We went to our room and a couple of them went for a shower while one person slept off. I got a call from the owner saying, “I can get you tickets for the 7-o-clock show.” Our veggie friend was delighted. But having happened the second time in the day we were suspicious; he did the same for Nong Nooch as well.

“I think it’s part of their plan. If you ask just before the event, they will say no tickets. They make you feel as if it is very hard to get a ticket and then they’ll say it’s available at the last minute and charge extra.”

“But price is still ok.”

That was true; we knew the official rates and what he quoted was still around the same figure - 600 Bahts.

The four of us got ready; we had heard enough stories from our owner about safety and we had also read things online which made us leave a good amount of cash and card in the electronic locker in our room. Out of the same fear our photographer left his camera in the room as well. The owner demonstrated how the locker worked. Soon we were in the lobby where we paid the owner and our ‘expert’ had a can of beer while we waited. The owner handed us over to a lanky local who led the way to the main road. The four of us waited for our pickup car which was driven by a man of Pakistani origin. 

Our night adventure had just begun!

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Travelogue: Thai tourism network, Nong Nooch and elephants

Modus operandi

Thailand thrives on tourism and this can be seen in the well-connected network of operators. From the list of alternatives that our hotel host showed us, we picked ‘Nong Nooch garden’ for our afternoon trip. He said he’ll call the tour organizer to pick us and then he told us that it will cost slightly more than the listed price on his catalog since we were late. Not having any choice we accepted – point to note is that if you were to go on your own to Nong Nooch garden, the official entrance fee is more than what this intermediate tour guy was asking for.

Typically all hotels have a tie up with a tour provider; the tour provider will pick you up by cab or van (might pick few other people from other hotels) and take you to the destination. He will get you the entrance tickets since he has a tie-up with the park/garden/event. This wasn’t just in Pattaya but even in Bangkok it was the same – hotel, cab drivers, tourist guys and tourist attraction spots are part of a network; it makes the life of a visitor easy because you don’t need to argue over prices with cab drivers and all – it’s a flat rate and they take care of you till you return.

Nong Nooch

We strolled on the streets near our hotel and drank some fruit juice from a roadside vendor - a very common sight in Thailand. The tour van guy took us to Nong Nooch – about 30 mins. drive from our place. Conversation with the driver was difficult due to language barrier!

The driver rushed us off to the Thai cultural show which was in a large auditorium with plenty of fans to keep the audience cool; the fans would also blow a few drops of water to cool the place. We went to the last row on the top (the only one free) and people even stood on the benches to view the performance on the stage – there was a demo of kickboxing, a show with elephants and a cultural dance; the dresses they wore were similar to the ones we saw in the textile museum. After this we rushed for the elephant show – on the way was a park staff with a medium sized tiger lying near him. 200 Bahts for taking a snap with the tiger! It was obvious that the tiger was drugged and I felt pity for the animal; the way the staff slapped it once in a while to make it wake up to pose for a snap.

Soon we were in an open air auditorium where plenty of elephants were paraded – I don’t think I’ve ever seen like 30 elephants at a time. They did some basketball, bowling, shooting, painting and dancing. There were little boys (like the ones we see in India in small restaurants cleaning tables) who were running around selling bananas to the audience for feeding the elephants. And if you bought one, the guys handling the elephants will make sure that the elephant comes to you. Was fun on one side but on the other you feel a little bad – for the elephants and for the kids; I wonder how much of training the elephants must have had to undergo to do these tasks which is so unnatural for them – and here we were, the audience with Asians and westerners applauding the spectacle! Huh!

I was reminded of Planet of the Apes while I watched the spectacle of the crowd cheering the elephants. What if the situation were reversed? – if we had rings on our necks and were being prodded to do things like climbing and swinging from trees while another species applauded, made fun of us and enjoyed the show?
To add to the fun, a few members from the audience were picked for a few acts – like asking the person to lie down while the elephant stepped across their body. There did seem to be some partiality in the way the participants were picked!


After the elephant show we were free to wander the gardens which is the primary highlight of Nong Nooch. We took a semi-bus ride that had two stops while it took us through a few sections of the garden (the garden is huge); it was well maintained and there was a lot of garden designing – like the way the grass was trimmed in particular shapes. Along with this they did some add-on work like keeping animal models etc. They had created something out of almost nothing – the way it was packaged and designed, attracted crowds. In a lot of places we saw vendors with trolleys selling coconut water – similar to what you see in India but they had a unique touch – the coconuts were neatly shaved on the top for an elegant look and they were stored in ice; they cost more than in India but with that form of packaging people are willing to pay more.

Another scam

We really didn’t have much time to loiter a lot; our cabbie told us to return by 5:30pm. After taking dozens of snaps with different artifacts we left the place. As we stepped out, there was a group of transgenders in colorful attire stepping down from a bus – this is a common sight in Pattaya. All through the ride our photographer and our ‘expert’ debated on their photography skills by taking different snaps; very soon we stopped outside a gigantic building which seemed like a hotel with a few pretty faces welcoming us. We thought there was some mistake – did the driver forget our hotel? The driver using sign language insisted that we step out. A man in coat, standing beside the pretty faces spoke decent English and welcomed us. When I saw the entrance I realized that we were into the next scam that Thailand is popular for – the gem scam! This place was a gem factory – the interiors were posh and you had a typical hotel style reception desk with everyone dressed in smart formals and having an ‘always-smiling’ face. A host led us to a medium sized room and switched off the lights. It was a mini-theatre. This was just the beginning – when you know about scams and you land up in one, you have mixed feelings – a little worried and a little thrilled.