I may be the last Aussie on Earth to have visited; but now, at the grand conclusion of my world trip, I've finally visited Thailand. And let's face it: Thailand is the no. 1 budget travel destination in the world, and no true round-the-world backpacking trip would be complete without it. The Land of Smiles is home to sunny beach paradises, steamy tropical jungles, curry that redefines curry, a Buddhist religious heritage of great richness, cheap shopping to please anyone... and more. The only thing that remains a puzzle: what took me so long to get here?
Thailand's No. 1 catch-phrase sums up the country perfectly. Same same... but different. To be honest, I thought (for some strange reason) that I already knew pretty much what to expect before I arrived, and that Thailand would hold no great surprises for me. Boy, was I wrong! Thailand is in many ways the "same same" as what I imagine other parts of Asia are like (not that I know — I haven't been anywhere else in Asia): it has similar cuisine; similar government and economic problems; similar mass-produced goods and shopping opportunities (thanks to similar illegal sweatshops); similar amusing (but still impressive) command of the English language; and a similar attitude towards Westerners (i.e. "we think you're weird, but you and your money are welcome nonetheless"). And yet, in so many other ways, it's completely unique from all of its neighbours, and its status as the world's top tourist destination is more than deserved. Thailand has been the perfect end to an incredible and epic trip — I'm very glad I stopped by; and I don't regret shirking on the rest of Asia, because doing otherwise would only have robbed me of precious Thai time.
By the way, did you know that unlike in East Asia, chopsticks are generally not used in Thailand, or in the rest of South-East Asia? Until I arrived here, I wasn't aware of this; but after having now spent a month in Thailand, and having barely used a pair of chopsticks, I'm pretty clear about it. Apparently, chopsticks are the traditional eating utensil only in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. In Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Tibet and Nepal, chopsticks are used in a limited context, and even that is merely as a result of Chinese influence. In Thailand, a spoon and fork is the preferred utensil set when eating all kinds of foods; except in the case of noodles, when chopsticks may be used. So if you're chopstick-challenged (which, incidentally, I'm not), then don't worry: it's not a required skill when visiting Thailand.
It's been a while since I blogged about a country's music — and when I did it previously, I had mainly good things to say. Unfortunately, the verdict is not so rosy for Thailand. This country has many great and captivating qualities, but I'm afraid that its music simply isn't one of them. The main local music around here — in the urban centres I've visited, at least — is Thai pop. Put simply, Thai pop is about as bad as music gets. Pop music in general is widely recognised as rubbish; Asian pop is known to be particularly rubbish; and Thai pop is without doubt at the bottom of the heap. It's super-soppy, it's super-boppy, and it's super-lacking in talent. And as if it wasn't bad enough, the locals insist on singing along to the cheesy pop tracks, in one of their favourite pastimes — karaoke. Thank heavens I've been sticking mainly to farang hangouts, and that I've as such largely avoided the pop scene — because, hell, even Bob is better than that poison.
When asked why you'd want to go to Thailand (instead of to Bonnie Doon), Con replied: "it's the culture, Mr. Kerrigan." And he's right: Thailand does have an amazing culture. And that's exactly why I had to purchase a few souvenirs of that culture, to bring back to my loudly and proudly uncultured homeland. An absolutely essential purchase was the elephant — so essential was it, in fact, that I decided to take two — because as we all know: "When an elephant's trunk is up it means good luck(?). And this one's trunk was up(?)." Also scored a little mantlepiece plate, and a Kung Fu dude picking his ear. These are all such precious, adorable souvenirs, that there can be only one possible home for them: "these are going straight to the pool room."
Cute little fella, innee? He's got little velcro dots sewn into his hands, so that you can wrap his arms around your neck, and let him "hold on" and dangle there for a while. He also makes a horrible screeching monkey noise, if you squeeze him hard enough — this will be sure to induce plenty of headaches upon all who hear it. Picked the monkey up in Khao San Road today, although there is (naturally) nothing Thai about him — but a quick snip of the 'ol label, and nobody ever need know his humble "made in China" origins. As well as being a cuddly teddy, I believe this monkey would also serve well as a long-hanging wall decoration.
Khao San Road is absolutely chock-full of little stalls selling cheesy t-shirts. And since this is my last full day in Thailand, I couldn't resist picking up a few of them as souvenirs. As their brand name suggests, they are all pretty much "same same... but different". I especially like the "iPood" one, which is a not-at-all-subtle satire on that overpriced fashion accessory which I've avoided owning for so many years. Also good is the one with the picture of cave man evolving into upright man, and then ultimately devolving into man hunched over a computer screen, with the inscription: "something somewhere went terrible wrong." Geek power! The tuk-tuk one is cute, too. It was tough to pick out a mere three, since they're all so funny and so wearable — but sadly, I can't take the entire contents of Khao San Road back home with me.
It was about 4pm this afternoon, and I was trying to get back to Khao San Road, after my shopping spree in Pantip Plaza and nearby Pratunam Market. I managed to get a metered cab in the morning — and this was good, since as far as taxis in Bangkok go, meter is cheaper. For getting back, however, it seemed that competition was a bit more fierce: the majority of taxis around Pantip were full; and of those that were empty and that I did manage to hail, they all refused to use their meter, and instead quoted me their outrageous farang special flat fees, which I rejected. In the end, I was forced (reluctantly) to take a tuk-tuk. And when the driver said: "velly cheap, but make some stops on the way", I knew that what I'd managed to heretofore avoid in Bangkok was now inevitable — I was going to take the famous "Bangkok Scenic Route".
Apart from the classic entertainment stock-up, Bangkok is also a great place to expand the ol' wardrobe for a bargain. This afternoon, I wandered over to Pratunam Market, where I came across the wholesale outlet of "Nobody Jeans". Their stock is a bit pricey (by Thai standards), and their policy of "no trying on" is absurd (even after you've bought it — I tried changing clothes in the shop after I'd paid them, and they threatened to hand my money back!); but they do sell very nice jeans. Since my traveller jeans are threatening to vaporise into thin air, if worn for too much longer, I figured it was time to invest in a new pair. Luckily, the new jeans do fit (despite the complications in trying them on).
Getting a haircut in Bangkok may be cheap, but you really do get what you pay for. I figured I should get some hair chopped off before I head home — it's a bargain here, plus I never get round to it when I'm in Sydney. I asked the lady: "number one on the sides, and nice and short on top — but don't shave the top." And what does she do? She says: "OK, no ploblem" — and then proceeds to brandish her shaver, and... vrooomp! There goes my hair. All but completely shaved off. "You say number one on side and short on top", she explained (this was just before I strangled her to death with a hair-dryer cord, you understand). "So I do number two on top." Arrgghhh! Hence, when you see me back in Sydney and I look like a gawdaym US Marine, you'll appreciate why and how this came to be. Next time, I think I'll get my hair cut by someone who speaks just a little more English.