Here in Thailand, hostels have never really taken off as the budget accommodation option of choice. That's because the country is chock-full of guesthouses — small, often family-run places with private rooms and a bit more charm — and these guesthouses are already such incredibly good value, that other budget places simply have no chance of competing against them. I have no problem with guesthouses: a private room (often a private bathroom as well) is nicer than a dorm; and there are plenty of other places to meet fellow travellers, apart from in a dorm room — on tours, on buses and in bars being a few examples. However, what I do have a problem with, is the insidious way in which guesthouses around here have expanded to offer bookings for such extra services as tours, buses and further accommodation. And, more to the point, I have a problem with the way in which they take advantage of their position as "the place where you sleep", to establish a monopoly over any and every service that a tourist could possibly want.
As well as the smiling, joking *Cluck" — whose favourite sayings are "oh my Buddha" (ostensibly because they believe in Buddha, not G-d), and "no money no honey" — we also have another guide on this trek. I don't know his real name, but I call him "Mr. Baht". He's the accountant of the tour. He enjoys telling us repeatedly, and well in advance, whenever there's an additional cost coming our way, and exactly what the amount will be. And he takes great pride in keeping a drinks tab for all of us, every night, and in meticulously tracking our purchases and in chasing down our money every morning. Mr. Baht like his money.
I've heard the stories, same as everyone else. But I must admit, I never took them that seriously. Well, I should have believed — because every tale that ever passed by my ears is 100% true. Bangkok really is full of 50-year-old American men, walking hand-in-hand (or hand-somewhere-else) with 19-year-old Thai girls. And despite the blatant grotesqueness and desperation, most of them stroll the streets loudly and proudly, with no shame whatsoever. It's cliché, it's oh-so-stereotypical, and it's downright sad — but when you look around you, it's undeniable: this is the true story of "Thai love". This is one strange, sleazy and deplorable place: never before have I seen romance being so widely touted to the highest bidder.
It's been a while: but having now finished my stint in upmarket, "iz too expenzive fohr us" Europe, achim sheli are back! Like South America, Thailand too is one of the world's hotspots for young, IDF-complete, weed-smoking, shag-seeking, stingy-as-hell hordes of Israelis looking for a good time. And in Bangkok's Khao San Road, the yehudim do make themselves known. Reminiscent of such cities as Cusco and La Paz, here in Bangkok you can see Hebrew cardboard signs in shop windows, you can hear Hebrew being spoken as you walk along the street, and you can eat a falafel for every 50m that you cover (if you're crazy enough to not take advantage of the cheap and delicious local food, that is).
Farang is Thai for "foreigner". And here in Thailand, all foreigners — no matter how vile or undeserving their behaviour may be — all of us are very welcome indeed. Having just arrived here this evening, I once again find myself a rich, Western foreigner travelling in the developing world. After Europe, that will take some getting used to. Whereas I was previously the "s$#% of kings", I'm suddenly now the "king of s$#%" again: and with this new situation comes the advantages of constant pampering, of being surrounded by all things cheap, and of a heady wonderland where anything and everything is possible, based on nothing more than a fat wallet and an on-the-spot whim. Gringo... farang... same diff, new lingo. It's unfair, it's exploitative, and it's artificial. But hey, it's nice to be special again — nice to be back "in the club".
One of the people staying at Bob's (apart from José) who wasn't completely stoned, was a friendly backpacker dude from Croatia. A bunch of us were sitting and having a few drinks in the dungeon this evening; and gradually, we all decided to call it a night and to head up to bed. The Croatian guy and myself ended up being the last people left downstairs. I asked him when he was heading upstairs, and he said: "I'm staying here until they close the lounge (which is at 3am) — after that I'll find somewhere else to sleep for the night". After a bit more questioning, it seemed that what he meant was that he was actually completely broke, and that he was waiting to go to the Croatian embassy tomorrow and to beg for money (to get a flight home); and that he couldn't even afford another night here at Bob's.
In a continuing battle with the forces of incompetence, I finally received and managed to pick up my new ATM card today. at 10:30am, I went online from my hostel in Freiburg, checked DHL's tracking service, and saw that my package was in Zürich, and was "with courier vehicle" (i.e. actually in the van, about to be delivered to Mark and Susi's surgery). So I grabbed the tram to Freiburg train station, just managed to catch the 11am train back to Zürich; and by 1:45pm, I too had arrived back in Zürich, and had caught the tram over to the surgery. And what did I see, quite literally just as I walked in? I saw the DHL guy walking out of the building, having only just delivered the package — took him all day just to drop it off there; how bloody pathetic!
You can't go to Rome and not visit the Pope, can you now? Today, with the weather unfortunately still grey, and with nothing more pressing on my itinerary, I went and visited the Vatican. The Vatican is a ridiculously crowded attraction — it's clear that everyone, without fail everyone, who visits Rome pops in to it — but it is nevertheless very moving and very imposing. Didn't see the old man himself, but apparently he came out for a public appearance yesterday — pity I missed that, although apparently the crowds yesterday were even worse.
One of the really fun things about travelling in dodgy, economically-mismanaged Latin America is the value for money. Although the mathematics are slightly different wherever you go — in Peru, you divide the local price by 3 to get the dollar price; in Mexico, you divide by 10; and in inflation-scarred Chile, you divide by 500 — in every country, the local currencies are weak, and there's always division involved. Suddenly, now that I'm in Europe, it's reverse mathematics — all the local currencies here (with "all" being the Euro, almost everwhere) are stronger than the dollar; and instead of dividing local prices, I'm multiplying them! Eek!
For a little excursion out of town (and interstate!), today my dad and I got a bus down to Newport, Rhode Island (about 1½ hours south of Boston). About 100 years ago, Newport was the exclusive summer retreat for the wealthiest millionaires in America — and as such, these millionaires built some super-impressive mansions in the town. Today, Newport is still a very posh area, and many of the mansions are still privately owned and inhabited; but quite a few of them have been converted into museums and event facilities, and are open to the public. We went on a tour of the two most famous mansions in town — "The Breakers" and "Rose Cliff" — and we also explored the cliff-edge ocean shore that straddles the mansions.