Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thai travelogue: Things we can learn...

The ATMs felt odd for us in Thailand; we are very used to having ATMs within small closed rooms but here the ATMs were lined up on the footpath - anyone walking on the street could see you and there was no security for each ATM. We felt insecure in operating them! We had a forex card to withdraw money - the forex card is loaded in dollars so you can withdraw from any country; it would get converted at the current conversion rate and you will also incur a transaction charge. If you are making large purchases like a TV then you can use the card directly in those shops and avoid the transaction charge. Also if you are converting cash then $50 and $100 notes will get you the best exchange rate compared to using lower denominations. I've noticed the same in a couple of other countries as well.

(Pic is of the BTS metro station at night)

Healthy dinner

For today's dinner we tried out a few dishes from the hotel itself. And strange as it might sound, we ordered chicken conjee! Conjee or Kanji is a rice porridge; we do consider it as being healthy but definitely not something that we order in restaurants. The Thai version of the conjee was quite tasty. After dinner, our expert friend and me decided to visit an ex-colleague who had settled in Bangkok with her family.

Armed with the address we asked the hotel receptionist to get us a cab. While we waited, we saw a few cars in formation pass by. It seems it was the Queen travelling - I wonder how the situation would have been had there been traffic on the road; would they stop all traffic to let the Queen through?

The receptionist stopped a taxi and told us that we'd need to only pay the meter fare. After some confusion about the location it was again the mobile phone's GPS that came to our rescue. We spent about 30 minutes in the residence and learnt a few more things about the Thai way of life. There is a minimum percentage of local workforce that companies have to maintain in Thailand - so if they take more foreign workers they'll have to increase the local workforce to maintain the percentage. Our friend also said that generally Thai people are not aggressive in terms of wanting designation changes and fighting to go up the corporate ladder; they like to keep a good work life balance. Wouldn't it be nice if we had the same in India? If a person doesn't want to go up the corporate ladder, let him be where he is - but in India we have office pressure, peer pressure and society's pressure - "Is something wrong? By now you should be leading a team. See your classmate, he is a manager and is in US". The comparisons from childhood continue to office.

A stroll late night

Being our 2nd last day in Bangkok, the four of us decided to roam around the city at night. We didn't have any plans on things to cover - it was just a walking night. A few local guys surrounded us - they asked us if we wanted to go for massage etc. They also had pamphlets which they kept waving. The good thing is that they don't pester you beyond a point and so you don't feel threatened.

Even after midnight, the streets felt safe to walk in. Many places were dark but you didn't feel like you would get mugged. The streets were clean and I felt that even women would feel safe walking alone here. Wouldn't it be nice if we could say the same back home? The restaurant where we had oyster bhel puri for dinner yesterday was winding up at 2am. They were not only cleaning their area but even a portion of the road near their restaurant. Everyone did their part to keep the city clean.

It was early in the morning at about 3am that we hit bed. Our veggie friend and I planned to visit a couple of things in the morning. Can't believe that our short trip had almost come to an end! Today morning we did have discussions about extending our trip but it was a little too late since we'd lose money on our flight tickets - and i don't think any of our managers back home would have liked a sudden change in plan! The one thing we had missed on the trip was Phuket.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Thai travelogue: Red Fanta offering...

In the morning, from our hotel we had arranged for a trip to Safari World which is within Bangkok. Again it is better to go through an operator since you will get a better deal than buying tickets directly. And almost every hotel can help you with making the arrangement. Breakfast was sumptuous and it had some typical Thai cuisine items - like the Tom Yum soup with a coconut flavour and Pad Thai (stir fried noodles).

Safari World is pretty much like a zoo with a few animal shows. There was a lot of crowd when we reached in the morning at around 9am - lot of school kids as well as Asian tourist groups. Our driver purchased the tickets for us and also stuck a sticker on all our shirts - seems like every tour operator uses a sticker of their own with a number to help identify which group you belong to.

There was one thing that stuck to my mind and I guess it will influence me whenever I see animals in future. The first show was an Orangutan (they are animals like chimpanzees) boxing show. The chimps looked pretty old and were clothed in shorts and t-shirt and women's dress as well. And they had to perform a set of routines that were obviously not part of their nature. I wondered how we would feel if we were made to perform such things with an audience watching us and laughing at us? Looking at the chimps I felt sorry for them and I felt bad that I was in my own way contributing to this. There have been news stories about chimps being smuggled for use in this zoo.

The giraffe area was different in the sense that the giraffes were free to roam within a large enclosure and visitors were permitted to feed them. There was a standard seal and dolphin show. And there were animals and birds in cages. There was a bird show and there was a explosive stunt show (pic on left). And as usual, in shows involving water, the first few rows would definitely get wet. To beat the heat, I thought it would be good to sit in the front. The zoo was charging money in case you wanted to feed baby tigers - we saw a small girl feeding a tiger with a baby bottle! In the evening at about 4pm, the driver took us on a mini-safari; you can drive your own vehicle through this open area which has entrance like a smaller version of the Jurassic park gate - it opens and closes automatically. Once inside there are wild animals roaming freely; not entirely freely since there are some nets and fences but the area available for the animals is large - must be better than being enclosed in a cage; you can see rhinos, tigers, lions, deers, pigs, peacocks etc.

Buzzing street by the malls

For the night while our expert and veggie friend went to check out TV shops (TVs are a lot cheaper here than in India but be careful from where you get them), our photographer friend and me took a stroll towards the malls. On the pavement were many small handmade craft shops - not really shops but people who put their stuff for sale on display. There were plenty of items and I guess it was a way to make some pocket money - create some stuff and sell it on the weekend in the evening over here. The whole street was buzzing with activity and in a way it reminded me of Times Square.

Our photographer observed an interesting trend - we would see red fanta bottles (filled with Fanta) kept near statues and shrines; and it wasn't just in one or two places but in many. Some sort of offering? On Googling I read that it is offered for appeasing the spirits - and red probably because it is the colour of blood meaning vitality or maybe because it is for luck -

The pavement shops (left) and the red Fanta offering (right)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Thai travelogue: Oyster bhel puri!

It was late in the evening when we reached Bangkok city; from the GPS I knew that we were fairly close to our hotel. It was near a BTS (Bangkok Transit System) skytrain station. But since we had baggage we didn't want to try the train. There were some tuk-tuks that passed by (they are like auto rickshaws) - you have to negotiate with them. The problem was that we were four people with baggage; it was a struggle saying "Petchburi soi" to the drivers but one tuk-tuk guy understood us. GPS comes in handy but you need to have a SIM card in your phone for it to work; mobile phones use the GPS via cellular towers. Fortunately our expert had a Thai SIM in his phone. The driver was surprised when the four of us crammed ourselves into his tuk-tuk - we paid more than the normal fare but we were overloading his tuk-tuk!

(The pic is of a longer tuk-tuk; the one we had was a 3-seater)

The Bangkok City Hotel was the best of the lot during our trip since this was a full fledged hotel and not a B&B (bread and breakfast) - search online and you get offers sometimes on decent hotels that make the price range comparable to B&B inns. Please read reviews since they help you pick good places - the three places we stayed in were all nice ones. This hotel was located near some shopping malls - one of the reasons we picked this. We had a shower, took a nap and then strolled in the city. Malls close early on weekdays so you’ll have to plan accordingly. We just got to spend a short time in the MBK mall during which time one of our group members got lost inside a closed shop! There were a few nice t-shirts souvenirs available for cheap prices but the shops had closed. Pantip mall (this is an exclusive electronics mall) was also closing down; you can find iPads with Android on them! There are many cheap tablets and phones - they even give a 1-year warranty which is good if you are staying in Thailand because for that price it is ok to change phones every year.

For dinner we wanted to have something authentic; between MBK and our hotel we had seen a few restaurants - these are neither full road-side restaurants nor the normal type; they are a hybrid version - there is not much room inside and most people eat on tables on the footpath. We picked the restaurant that had the largest crowd assuming that it was the most popular one. There were just 2 or 3 tables free - we took the one that was very close to the edge of the footpath. 

Beer is quite common in Thailand; one person in our group had beer while another had strawberry milk - which is also quite common in Thailand! We were given the menu and we had one heck of a time trying to place our order. The waitress, a middle aged lady, was very polite and tried hard to understand what we were saying. But it was obvious that this hotel wasn’t a place where foreigners stopped - everyone dining were locals. The pictures on the menu were a big help for us - we pointed out each item; we tried to tell her to substitute beef for chicken in one dish; I tried to say it the Thai way - Gor gai - but you got to get the accent right; our expert tried mimicking a chicken voice! The waitress tried bringing someone else to help but even they didn’t know English. “No beef. Only chicken. Only ghor ghai,” we kept repeating in different accents. In the end we pointed out some other dish on the menu that seemed like chicken. We also ordered for oyster — recommended by our photographer. Our veggie friend stayed out of this whole thing - he just had a glass of coke since there was no way to confirm if any of the dishes were pure vegetarian. In Pattaya, the hotel owner told us that even the sauces supplied with dishes would have some meat!

The special dish that came to our table was the oyster - it was served in a plate along with 6 cups and green stems. Each cup had some side dish like grated onions, sauce etc. We had no idea how to eat it and tried to ask our waitress. She took an oyster, placed it on a plate, added one spoon from each cup on top of the oyster and presented us with the plate. When you eat that it tastes like bhel puri! The oyster on its own doesn’t have any taste - it is served raw; the toppings are what give the flavour - oyster bhel puri! I must say we did enjoy our light meal. People kept coming to this restaurant even after 10 in the night.

(The pic is of the special dish!)

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Thai travelogue: Coral Island

When we returned to the top (they will push you up when the time is up), we found only three of us there – our photographer friend was missing! We waited and waited and realized that our whole group of co-passengers was out of the water except him – he couldn’t have got lost since there is no land nearby; you can only get lost underwater but the oxygen tubes won’t let you go too far outside the limit either. After a very long wait of more than 15 minutes he appeared from the water with a big smile on his face.

There was a point in the underwater walk where our photographer friend was behind me and the leader took us dangerously close to the ladder which we had used to step into the water. At this point he thought he had to go up and took the ladder on his own. The guys on top happily pulled him on deck – when he realized no one had returned and he had hardly spent 10 minutes underwater, he checked with the organizers and they sent him back into the water again; this time he joined anther group and in effect he kind of did underwater walking twice; just like he did parasailing twice! One lucky day for him.

The adventurous fun ends with this event; you are then taken to a beach on an island called ‘coral island’ where you are left free for an hour. You can relax on the beach chairs or go on some jet skiing for extra money or play in the water near the beach. The beach and water were relatively clean compared to Chennai even though we had read reviews that this place was polluted a lot by tourists. The tour ends with a speed boat drive back to mainland Pattaya where you are taken for an Indian buffet lunch in a very spacious dining hall. They transport you by a van to the hall but I happened to have a chance to be a pillion rider on our organizing lady’s bike since the van was full; our ‘expert’ friend also tried to join but was unsuccessful. Strap on the half helmet (just protects your brain) and off you go on the moped (a light motorcycle) – the good part is that they always carry the extra helmet for the passenger; the bad part is that the helmet won't cover your face - only your head.

If you are craving for Indian food, then the lunch will feel heavenly – our veggie friend obviously relished it! Finally you are dropped off at the hotel – but again they might try to take you to the gem palace; I was tempted to go again just to see the peacock but no one else was. We were joined in the van by a gang of 3 North Indians who were on a fun travel trip across Asia – they had just been through Hong Kong and told us stories from there. Another location for added to our bucket list!
When we reached our hotel, the Indian owner gave us the contents of our safety locker –I was suspicious and wondered if we might have lost something in the apparently ‘accidental’ malfunctioning of our electronic safety box. But at a high level it seemed like our things were intact – we did a quick money check and that seemed ok. Thankfully we left the place in the evening. We took a van which operates on a sharing basis – like a share-auto in India; this costs just 100 Bahts per person whereas a cab will cost you 1500 Bahts per cab.