Monthly Archives: April 2009

This shouldn’t be this hard

It’s six in the morning and the time has come to go on a diatribe against the tourism industry of South East Asia.  This morning we were woken up suddenly by evil lights turning on in the bus at 5:25 and someone yelling, “Get off now, Bangkok!”  By the time we gathered our stuff and put on our shoes, our luggage had already been ejected into the middle of the street.  We were met at the bus by a frenzied swarm of wild, ravenous taxi drivers, all of whom were completely unrestrained by our obvious disorientation and discomfort.  They did all they could to literally get in our face and ask of us girls, “Scooze me sir, where are you going now?”

The question struck us as particularly disconcerting as we had no clue as to where we were, much less as to where we were going.  Running away from the rabid drivers, we wandered hurriedly and blindly down the street.  Jill thought she knew where she was, though she wasn’t really sure.  Fortunately, there were many other westerners about, so we felt  at ease as far as physical safety was concerned.  Then again, they all looked equally disoriented, particularly since they seemed to all head in different directions, all of them similarly heavy-laden with luggage.  All I wanted was a clean bathroom.

Eventually we found Khosan Road and got some breakfast.  For a moment, upon discovering Khaosan, I immediately felt happy finally knowing where we were.  Then I realized we were on Khaosan.  Khaosan Road is infamous for cheating tourists.  We too had succumbed to a scam earlier in the week when we bought tickets to Krabi.  We look back on this decision as a lapse in judgement.  Jill had read that one ought never to buy anything on Khaosan.  To be sure, we were wooed by the words of the nice lady at the tourist office and, naive us, we did indeed believe her when she said we would get first class, air conditioned train cabins and that the bus company would in fact pick us up at the train station.  We were so young then.

Our train tickets ended up being second class seats that converted into beds.  We kind of slept, but the train creaked horribly, and we worried about what would happen next in this so-called “tour.”  Stepping off the train, our fears were realized, and there was no one there to greet us but yet another hungry pack of taxi drivers ready to herd us into cars and buses.  After a public bus, a tuk tuk and a car ride, we were finally told that the bus was not coming for another two to three hours, at which point we got mad and stormed off looking for other options.  Eventually we found a mini bus which took us to Aonang, where we caught a long-tail boat to Ton Sai.

Here is the million dollar question: Do all budget travelers to Thailand put up with this?  If one cannot afford to fly everywhere, what choices is she left with?  Should traveling on a budget really equate with feeling like cattle–tagged, herded, yelled at and fed meagerly?

On the one hand, traveling like this adds to the sensation of an authentic experience.  Unlike in Northern Vietnam where we felt persecuted for being western, Thailand seems to treat all the passengers this way.  To be fair, a large part of our difficulties arose out of the constant language barrier.  Sometimes it is easier to herd and be herded than it is to try to hold a conversation with ESL folks.  A little trust goes a long way and I must admit that we did get to Bangkok on time this morning even with all the hassle.  Perhaps it is a little much to expect that all tour guides speak English and offer soothing words when passengers start to get nervous.  Besides, what tales of hardship would I have to brag about if not for traveling difficulties?

When I asked this question of Jill, she understood the sentiment, but also reminded me that, across the board, tour guides and drivers didn’t even try to communicate, even when they wanted to process our passports.  They just want to take them and look at you funny when you freak out.  They also don’t tell you where you are going when they herd you into various vehicles.  Yesterday we were taken to three different stops before waiting for an hour for the overnight bus to arrive.  Why the superfluous stops?  Jill figured it was for job creation.  Our cattle-like movements facilitated paying work for many people.  We can’t, of course, know this for sure, especially since we were told nothing each time we were loaded into a bus or tuk tuk.  We had no idea if a bus even existed, or if it did, when it might come.

On the upside, last night we were both in good spirits, and we knew we were in for the whole night no matter when the bus came.  We assumed the following attitude, which I attribute to my friend Lance:  The worse it gets, the better a story it makes later.  Thinking brightly, it’s nice to have a budget option at all, unlike in America where travelling like this would be an enormous time and money consideration.  I do appreciate the budget option, even with its hardships.

Then again, need it really be so hard?  I say this not so much in complaint but in genuine concern for the tourism industry in this country.  I feel like the Thais are foregoing an enormous economic opportunity.  For a country that relies so heavily on tourism it confounds me utterly to see how poorly tourists are treated.  A company would make a fortune in this industry if only it would rise above its sketchtastic counterparts.  Adopting the rule that the customer is always right would work wonders here, and from a financial standpoint it seems like a real shame when there appears to be absolutely no analysis of tourist incentives.  Instead of encouragement, they sell through fear.  Instead of comforting their guests, they intimidate them into feeling lost and helpless.  Now, I don’t know exactly how financially viable fear and intimidation are compared with kindness and comfort, but my capitalist intuition, and not to mention, my strong adherence towards the existence of human dignity, informs me that the latter method of employing kindness would, in the long run, benefit producers and consumers alike. But alas, this is not yet the case in South East Asia.  Travellers, be ready to lose sleep.

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Thai Massage: Prepare to be touched

Everywhere we’ve been in South East Asia so far we hear voices calling to us from every direction, all of them saying the same thing in the same tone:  “Eh Laydee, you wanna massage?”  We sought out a massage in Hanoi and it was so bad it’s not worth mentioning.  Ever since then we cringed at the idea of trying another.  With these massages, anything could happen.  We could get hurt, or swindled, or just end up wasting time. 

In Thailand, however, we had heard the massages were regularly phenomenal no matter where you went.  With this assurance, we decided to try again.  Thai massages are legendary, we just didn’t know why.  It wasn’t until my foot was thrown over this lady’s shoulder and her heel wedged itself into my bum that I found out.  When they say full body massage, they really mean full body.  And not just your body, but the masseuse’s full body too.  The other day in my massage the woman threw my arms over my head, pulled my whole body backwards onto her bent legs and had me arch my back using her as support.  Then she stood on top of me.

At one point, I looked over at Jill and her masseuse was sitting on her butt, leaning forward on Jill’s back nudging her elbows into Jill’s muscles.  Jill looked so serene I figured she was either really enjoying this intensive treatment or had simply been squashed dead.  She did look flatter.

In a traditional Thai massage, the masseuse starts at the extremities and works inwards.  They pull on your fingers and toes, press firmly on different spots in your forehead, and alternate compression and stretching, gradually working toward your butt, back, neck and shoulders.  Then they contort you.  They contort themselves.  Eventually, such contortion forces your muscles to submit. 

The most impressive thing about these massages was how creative they were.  I never knew how compression upon one’s thighs helps relieve tension in the whole leg, or a headlock can be a great position for someone to twist your back for you.   Did you know that standing on some one’s bum and pulling back on their arms stretches them out and actually relaxes them? 

Massages, I feel, have the potential to be both uncomfortable and awkward.   You don’t know what is going to happen next, and because of this it gets difficult to relax.  What I found particularly difficult was that I couldn’t rely on humor if ever I got uncomfortable, either physically or socially.  These ladies rarely speak good enough English, so getting a massage essentially entails a strange woman with whom you cannot communicate pressing her hands right into your groin and you can’t do anything about it.  My advice is to get passed this.  It is not your job to ease tension, it’s theirs.  That is what you are paying them to do.  You might as well sit back and relax and enjoy it when they stand on top of you.

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