Archive for March 8, 2012

I first arrived in Bangkok thirty seven years ago. I came and went many times over the years. I live there now, for how long I don’t know. For a time traveler like myself it has been a fantastic voyage of discovery. When I first got here I found a country that hadn’t been discovered by mass tourism. There wasn’t the infrastructure to support a tourist industry. Few high rise buildings had risen against the sweltering skyline and fewer ‘star class’ hotels were in existence. Only one notable hotel had the capacity to entertain the whims and wants of western visitors and that was the ancient Oriental Hotel in Bang Rak on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.

The original hotel in it’s entirety did not survive a renovation, only a partial facade remains of the place that attracted many great writers such as Joesph Conrad and Somerset Maugham. Charoen Krung Road was the city center back then before the Silom business district arose from the maze of clap board shacks that had stood there before modernity took over. Charoen Krung was where the main post office stands, where we would communicate with the world before the days of email , internet and Skype. From the post office to the Sri Hualompong railway station was a pleasant walk along a shady khlong under the shade of leafy tree’s. Traffic was ….unusual. In the opposite direction I could walk down Rama IV Road to Lumphini Park past shop-houses and listen to the conversations of people going about their neo-rural existence in this quiet city. Back then you had to look in a few special places if you wanted to see another traveler, at any one time there would have only been a handful in town.

My time in Bangkok has been intermittent, I come and go for varying lengths of time. This pattern of involvement has allowed me to notice the development more profoundly than if I had become accustomed to something gradually come into being. Originally my line of sight was always focused at street level, because above the two and three story shop-house fronts there was nothing but blue sky. Thai society was much more traditional at the time. Women wore long  demure skirts of homespun material down to their ankles and well tailored blouses that covered their arms to the wrist.

Thai fabric is woven into patterns that striate the  horizontal hems with regular lines of subtle color highlit against a solid somber background usually blue or brown. The silk or cotton blouses usually involve faux lace work or ‘cut work’ as it is called in the industry. Every women whether Thai or Chinese, and the two societies were very separate back then, would  cover her face with a thick layer of white paste to keep off the sun and to conform to the acknowledged color code. Sometimes they would scratch in a pattern of lines and swirls with their long fingernails. It was not unusual to see women at rest smoking the long thin dark rolled leaf cigars of black tobacco in the shops and kiosks.

Men on the other had only begun to shift into western style clothing but still primarily wore the checked sarong pleated in the front by an ingenious knot while wearing a loose fit shirt over top when at home , in the market or doing traditional work. Cab drivers to shop keepers would wear traditional clothes a majority of the time. The first thing that struck me was that men did not wear short pants, even young boys. The way I was dressed, coming from India, was entirely unacceptable and it was made quite apparent to me as I moved around the city. Thai society was far more conforming in those days . They obviously did not like outsiders bringing change and were not accustomed to having  ‘farang’ in their midst. Aside from the loose fitting cotton draw string pajama pants that I had worn in India I didn’t own a pair of long pants. I wore shorts and  Thai’s made their disapproval quite plain.

When in public it wasn’t uncommon to hear children making fun of my hairy exposed legs. They would hoot and make cheeky monkey sounds behind my back as I passed. I noticed that the Thai were obsessed with keeping every hair plucked away before it grew. It was a very common sight to see people of every age plucking at themselves with readily available wide headed tweezers and hand held mirrors to prick away  any hairs that had sprouted during the night. This seemed to be a national past time, and quite amusing, if not a bit hypocritical.

This has now changed  to the point where every man who isn’t working in a bank  wears short pants,  to a near degree of  exclusivity. I’m glad that rigid custom changed because the daily temperatures in Bangkok haven’t, averaging ninety one degrees year round. I still wear shorts every day, I have a lot of company, and no more hooting monkey sounds from the kids. Another huge social faux pas was to cross ones legs while sitting. This was considered extremely rude. Apparently the root of all this is the Thai belief that the feet are dirty and should never be pointed in the direction of any other, even if there isn’t any other. I remember riding a bus and having a gentleman come over to me and tap my foot gently so that I would conform to local custom. It was not an aggressive gesture. More like the action of a concerned dog owner teaching his puppy to sit.

Bangkok has been described as a city of ‘flawed modernity’, this is substantially correct. They have rushed headlong into the twenty first century without completely making peace with the eighteenth. Much of the skyline is drawn over by sky scratching towers of glass and steel and bamboo and twine and mud brick covered over with swaths of lathe and mortar to make them look like real western style buildings as long as an earthquake or other calamity doesn’t hit and  expose the basic flaws in construction materials and engineering. Thai planners have fallen in love with freeway flyovers, and like the improvements in transportation or not, the city has lost a certain ‘savoire faire’, that it will never recapture. Much of the city trades on it’s past reputation, that facade is wearing thin,  we have got to recognize the Bangkok of 2012 for what it is.

Knowing what I do about what was here before I  still catch an occasional  fleeting glimpse of the past glory when Bangkok was the quiet city by the river. I’m not sure how a newcomer would see those things. The roar of this modern metropolis is deafening. The cacophony of the street life and the boom in population forces one to concentrate one foot in front of the other, so crowded are the sidewalks that daydreaming will only lead to calamity. People coming to Bangkok today are looking for different things, I recognize that when I speak to them.

What has been popularized is the shopping and the night life. The sleazy scene of hookers and foreign punters is actually on the wane and of no interest to the average Thai, or even long term resident for that matter, that’s strictly for the newbies whose lives have been abnormally sheltered. This industry is sucking off the notoriety of the past when Thailand’s two rest and recuperation centers for Vietnam soldiers was Bangkok’s Patpong Road  and Pattaya where there was still a navy base, long since abandoned.

A rather fresh faced and naive foreign media also serves to perpetuate the sex industry myth. If this industry was flourishing in Vancouver or Seattle there would be the reporters on the front line waging the war against such a politically incorrect horror in the midst. Why they report on the sex industry in Thailand as if it’s ‘fun and normal’ here is only slightly illogical.

In 1975 there wasn’t a single shopping mall, buying anything was done at street level. Now the malls litter the landscape like dead flies after a room spray, there are hundreds of malls, many of world class proportions. They are ubiquitous and the selection is fiercely competitive, the products well priced compared to western shops. In fairness most westerners would have never stuck their noses into a traditional wet market anyway. Too hot , too stinky, way too alien for your average ‘boob from the burbs’. A wet market takes fresh food to a whole new level.

Many visitors are still coming after the possibility of a fantasy life as portrayed in the Leo de Caprio movie ‘The Beach’. The fact that this has never happened  in Thailand hasn’t deterred the noble and spiritually starved western traveler  to seek it out. Far be it from me to stop someone from wearing tie dye and getting a hair braid while they holiday in the sun. Spiritual experiences are where you find them, good luck with that quest on the tourist islands of Thailand.

Bangkok may have changed in many ways, but if you look hard enough and keep an open mind it can still offer many beautiful moments. I like the mod-cons that have been brought in. I can live in a modern condo with all the treats as opposed to staying in a run down hotel. I can ride the air conditioned Skytrain and not have it take three to four hours to cross the city by bus in the screaming heat. I have streaming video and can post my travel articles instantaneously instead of sending a telegram from the post office and waiting several weeks for a reply. I have accustomed myself to appreciate the art of popping in to an air conditioned mall to escape the blistering heat of the day. KFC makes a great soft ice cream cone and that is something you couldn’t get anywhere within a thousand miles thirty seven years ago.I still find the people as good hearted and gentle as they were when I first laid eyes on Thailand.

End of Part Two – The time traveler-Bangkok then and now. Look for Part Three of ‘The Time Traveler-Paradise Lost- the unfortunate unraveling of Bali

critters

Posted: March 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

Insects are an equal opportunity annoyance, they bug everyone, some more than others. Every place has it’s particular species of pests and rodent. Wherever I am , I am at war with the insect world. If you spend as much of your time traveling as I do, then you’re well aware that cockroaches, rats, bedbugs, lice  and mosquito’s are an everyday issue. I come prepared whenever I enter into the ‘battle zone’ of the travelers world. When it comes to bugs, I am the death dealer. I take no prisoners. I do not negotiate terms. There is no coexistence. I don’t like getting bitten or contaminated  for reasons of health and comfort. I certainly don’t want to bring any critters home to begin an infestation that will surely cost me thousands of dollars to treat with an uncertain efficacy.

When I am planning a trip away from home I research the type of insect adversaries I will  face in the field of operation while I try holding my ground temporarily to survey the scene with my camera’s , notebooks and thoughts of relaxation . Repellants and repellant technologies are at the top of my preparation list and the first thing that goes into my bag. Although we travelers can find everything we need ‘on the ground’ in the cities where we’ll visit,  I like to be prepared for the unprepared times between the acquisition , the infestation and the biting.

Mosquito’s

First are the mosquito lotions, front line and rearguard. I search out any product that has at least 30% DEET content per volume. Anything less, in my experience, is simply ineffective for the time you are exposed . For example, you walk, sit and sleep in the hammock several hours day you must protect yourself . DEET can have negative effects on poly fiber clothing and plastics such as your camera face and cell phone, so be careful to wash your hands after application. Read the directions if you are applying DEET to children’s skin.

If your ball point pen starts to feel a little ‘melty’ it’s probably because you forgot to wash your hands or have been rubbing yourself or someone with DEET on their skin. When applying mosquito repellant it is best to know your adversary, they like twilight, the cool of the evening, green wet grass and shade wherever it may be found. The most common variety found in Asia is the Asian Tiger, appropriately named because of their stealthy hunting skills.

Asian Tigers are low flying, they bounce along the ground, so take special care to guard your feet, ankles and the backs of your legs and arms. They are attracted to dark clothing. They are small and almost invisible but they can pack a nasty punch as they carry disease and infection. Malaria and Dengue Fever are two of the biggest threats to your health, Encephalitis is the third major concern. The aggressive biting  Asian Tiger is particularly ravenous at dusk and dawn. You can counter the bugs strategy by going on vacation prepared. Mosquito nets, easy to purchase in a camping/outdoor , irreplaceable if you’re in the tropics. Nets weigh nothing and space wise are far more important in your bag than the extra cool T-shirts you wanted to bring.

I am not a user of the anti malarial drugs that are prescribed by most doctors at western travel medial clinics, that’s my choice, you decide yours. I do however use lotions, herbal and chemical, nets and coils. It is sometimes not a bad idea to wear socks if you’re going to be sitting out where the little buggers drift. Citronella works temporarily but don’t make that your first line of defense. Lemon grass and herbal concoctions are temporarily effective but nothing as good as the big guns as described. Anyone who has had malaria will tell you that it’s very unpleasant, not something that goes away quickly when you return home.

You might be surprised that many western doctors have little to no training in tropical medicine. The approach to your cure may be long and drawn out as they sift through the possibilities like you’re a science experiment. The best defense is a good offense. If you are bitten, try not to scratch the bites, the bites once opened can become infected and go septic. In the tropics disease can go ‘steroid’s  on you in a shockingly short period of time. Instead use the ‘after itch lotion’ you’ve brought. Barring that you can use menthol toothpaste or baking soda.

No matter where you are headed, make sure you know what the mosquito issues are in that location and go prepared to defend yourself. I have befriended a gecko couple who have taken up residence behind the curtains. Now, before you say ‘yuk’  remember that a gecko can eat his/her own body weight in mozzies every day. The gecko’s are welcome in my home as honored guests. I named them both ‘Chirpy’ as I can’t tell them apart.

Cockroaches

There has never been a time in human history when cockroaches were venerated, and there’s a good reason for that, they spread disease. The ubiquitous cockroach is everywhere. In the west the one common variety is small but infestations count in the zillions. In the tropics there are many different species of roach, all of them dirty, but varying in size. It is not uncommon to confront several varieties in the same space, they are not territorial. Some have evolved wings and can fly.

This morning I encountered a large roach laying upside down in my shower stall that must have come out of the drain. When I went to pick it up with a wad of paper it was as if I had merely woken it up and it scampered away. I thought it may have been having a comfortable sleep and had rolled over onto it’s back like a happy puppy having a dream. I chased it of course and brought it down with a pinch of tissue for the ceremonial flush. My building in Bangkok is on top of the  roach problem , they bomb the drains every two weeks, but it’s not a perfect system and bugs still resurface occasionally.

What I do is to bring no food into my apartment that isn’t immediately consumed and all waste disposed of at a remote location. Roaches have amazing sensory ability and pick up on single molecules floating through the air to follow back to your house, kitchen , bedroom. Isn’t that nice, new friends….not! My approach does limit the number I see to one or two a week but you can never completely eliminate the buggers.

My experience in Australia was different in that the Aussies seem to express  complete indifference to the roach problem they have. I lived in several apartment buildings of various ages in Queensland towns like Tugun and  Coolingata. I found every building was over run, new and old. The big Asian Cockroach is in residence there. I remember putting heavy tea mugs over the bathroom tub  and kitchen sink drains to stop the roaches from coming up at night and then listening to the porcelain rattle and scrape as the roaches moved the weight around to try and gain access. We always said that if we heard one of the tea cups fall over then it was time to run!

The main reason that roaches are such a problem is that they are extremely dirty creatures. They defaecate at the same time as they eat in a continual cycle of infestation and evacuation. They are crapping machines. Any type of food they have touched is likely contaminated with feces laden with sickness bearing bacteria. Similarly roaches crawl over everything and leave a trail of poo behind them as they go resulting in everything being a potential bio-hazard.

I was disappointed that the Ozzie’s  have let this issue go under the radar, but the country is a ‘special ‘ place and they do have their ways, God love ’em. Of the twelve most venomous snakes on the planet, eleven of them call Queensland home, so maybe they have ‘other’ issues. I’ve decided not to live there as my best line of defense against death from the animal/insect world. Did I mention the spiders? Brrrrrrrrr shudder ! If you are traveling and the roach problem becomes unbearable, move. It is a sanitation fault of your service provider, bottom line. You shouldn’t have to defend yourself against roach infestations while on holiday, it’s inexcusable.

Rats

Like roach infestations, if you have rats in your rental room at your hotel or guest house, leave immediately. There are rats aplenty in most parts of the world but there are simple strategies to deal with them, and that should be your landlords problem. Rats are not cute, they are disease bearing rodents. Currently there is a ‘soft sell’ argument that rats can be a good source of protein. In the fields and villages of the world where sewage is off the septic percolation variety and the rats primary food source is grain that may be the case, but not in an urban environment. In the worst case scenario’s some  deadly building fires have been attributed to rats chewing through electrical wiring  causing short circuits to explode into conflagration.

Bedbugs

I have a real issue with bedbugs. Not only will they bite you, but they’ll follow you home and bite you again. North America and Europe have a fairly effective Bed Bug Registry so that the traveler can make an informed decision on where they want to stay. Trip Advisor is also a ‘real time’ look out for your safety because it collects anecdotal information from other travelers. Yes, the hotel associations hate Trip Advisor citing their many reasons as to why they think it’s unfair for travelers to ‘out’ the issues of individual hotels and guest houses, too bad for them, we’re important too.

Beg bugs are primarily a big city issue. Not because travelers can’t pick up beg bugs in smaller locations but because so many travelers visit the big city venues. The problem has been spread by two things, the ban of chemicals that have been traditionally effective against infestation and the increase in international travel to multiple locations by an unwitting traveler whose luggage and clothing may have become infested and then checks into a new hotel in another city, voila, second city infestation, in some circles they call that ‘pandemic’.

This has also become a huge residential problem in the affluent western cities that generate a lot of travelers. They are bringing the infestations home in luggage and infesting their apartments, the rest of the building , then the dry cleaner, the movie theater down the block, restaurant seating, offices, the list goes on. Bed Bug Registry sites show cities like Toronto, Vancouver, New York on fire with outbreak circles, like a plague spreading exponentially. If you are traveling to a major city, look at the registry in that city, check out the hotels you may want to stay in. You can read how they are dealing with the issue or have dealt with the issues, age of premises do not matter, good and bad can be hell on you. This is what I do and I remain ‘Bug free 2012. There should be a T-shirt for that accomplishment.

I take a multi-pronged approach to dealing with my horror of bed bugs. I use the Bed Bug registry religiously. I take a sheet of synthetic fabric that acts as a mattress cover. You can buy these bed bug sheets on the net and some travel stores. Bed Bugs come from behind fixtures and under mattresses and pillows, so check under and behind everything before dropping your bags. Look for dry bed bug casings from a recent molt and look for pencil point sized droppings.

Remove the bottom sheet and look for blood stains. Check the seams of the mattress. Any reputable hotel will immediately offer you a different room if any sign of bugs is noted. They have to clean from room to room as the bugs travel behind the walls after a room is sprayed and disinfected. Your next room may be bug free…for now. Bed Bugs can smell your blood and they come during the night when they sense your presence. A masking of body lotion has proven effective in some reported cases. In particular, lotions laced or based on lavender seem effective in blocking your smell.

Head and Body Lice

In Asia it is common to see friends and work mates picking nits out of each others hair. It is just that common. in the west, people freak out and head to the drug store, having lice is the ultimate embarrassment. Although there are plenty of lice lethal products available on the market in Asia, the time honoured ‘pick’ seems to have deeper social implications. We groom each other to stay friends. And you thought you were so far removed from our primate brothers and sisters? The close quarters of Asian society and the huge numbers of children crammed into primary schools are a sure breeding ground for the ubiquitous louse. It is common, annoying but not deadly, easily dealt with.

The less romantic sights I would rather forget but can’t are scenes around tourist hotel swimming pools where visiting  ‘trekkers’ coming back the hill towns and beach resorts are lazing beside the pool picking nits and tossing them into the water. People please, don’t do that, nasty personal habits should be restricted to your own domain out of sight by the rest of us. But , this is also why hotel rooms become infested with lice. It isn’t 100% that the hotel is going to spray the mattress and delouse the carpets after every use.

On the horrific side of cleanliness, a recent multiple death by accidental exposure to toxic chemicals was reported in a hotel in Chiang Mai Thailand when an over zealous manager ordered the cleaning staff to spray the mattresses with a deadly toxin resulting in the death by suffocation of several foreign tourists. Travel smart, travel safe and travel informed and by all means travel bug free , have fun.