I left Prague on 18 October and caught an overnight flight to Bangkok, arriving the next day. I didn't have a good reason, I just wanted a change of scenery and some Thai food, and I could get a cheap flight. I had been in Bangkok before and posted a web page in 2000 with pictures of Wats, museums, streets, rivers, etc. I won't do that again. If I get ambitious I may re-post the old web pages.
I got a 600 baht/$14 room on Sukhumvit Road, shown below, and spent a few days eating Thai food, drinking Singha beer, and reading a current travel guide to decide on my next move. Since I was on my way to Costa Rica I hadn't planned on Thailand. I kept this up for a week without accomplishing much. I did learn that Thailand is now enforcing the 2:00 a.m. bar closing, even at the Thermae coffee shop. After 2:00 enterprising Thai street vendors will set up food booths with chairs and tables on sidewalks near 24 hour markets that sell beer. Then when the bars closed their customers would move to these alternate locations, and many would stay until sunrise. I know this because I tried it once. I was at one of these after hours spots and met an American jewelry merchant who worked a south Asia buying circuit and an Irishman drinking off a lot of hostility accumulated while working with an oil company in Saudi Arabia. This is not a diplomatic thing to say, but I've observed that nobody has worse things to say about Arabs than people who have worked in Saudi Arabia. We talked and drank beer and fended off prostitutes (I and the jewelry merchant did, the Irishman was not as successful) until I noticed the monks were coming out with their bowls, which always happens just before sunrise. It was an entertaining night, but the day that followed was not productive.
Two nights later, at Charlie's Cheap Bar, I met an American named Dan, a retired soldier, who looked like Jesse Ventura. He had just started a new job in Bangkok and was checking out some places he knew from his Vietnam days. He is the one who introduced me to the Thermae. He worked as a courier for some big organization--all he had to do was be available on short notice to travel to out of the way places with packages that couldn't be trusted to the mail. I remember this because he freely admitted he was under worked and overpaid. I've been looking for a job like that. I know it sounds suspicious but it was a legitimate business and legal packages. You meet interesting people and get interesting ideas in Bangkok.
This is the $14 dollar room I had on Sukhumvit. Nothing great, but it had a stocked refrigerator, TV, air conditioning, full bath. With excellent Thai meals for a few dollars and more entertainment in the city than a man can handle, it's tempting to just hang out for a while.
After a week of accomplishing almost nothing, I got an overnight train/bus/ferry ticket to Ko Samui. I overcame the best efforts of a driver who was trying to steer me to a place that would pay him a commission and got a hut at Charlies Huts on Chaweng Beach for 300 baht, about $7. Huts could be had for half that much at other beaches and on other islands, but Chaweng was the best beach for swimming, water sports, people watching, and night life. This was my 300 baht hut, some views from my deck, and a couple of views of Chaweng.
On Chaweng I did a little wind surfing (clumsy beginner), body surfing (not well, but looked better than most of the other tourists), swimming (also better than most of the other tourists), got a Thai massage, foot massage, face massage, checked out the bars (I recently saw "Wild On..." do a segment on the Green Mango in Chaweng--it's not as great as they made it out to be), did a snorkeling and kayaking tour of islands in Ang Thon marine park, found drinking buddies (mostly English, Scottish, Irish or Australian, I don't recall any Americans), and generally killed about two weeks with no effort at all. I had to force myself to leave, I was enjoying the routine.
One short story and a note about Thai women. One of my new drinking buddies at Charlies Huts was a young Englishman who picked up a Thai woman at the Green Mango. She then stayed with him for the rest of his visit to Ko Samui, about a week. When he was ready to move on he was amazed to learn that she expected him to marry her. I'm certain she would have accepted cash instead. Some Thai women, usually because they grew up in a kind of poverty few Americans can imagine, become bar girls. Some are obvious prostitutes, others are easy women at discos and other places "rich" foreigners congregate. The latter type are often hoping to find a western husband or generous boyfriend, but will settle for cash. I don't look down on them; they have had a life much harder than mine and they are doing what they think is necessary to survive. However the majority of Thai women are entirely different. A traditional Thai woman will not go out with any man her parents have not approved and will allow little or no physical contact before marriage. Some Thai women have adopted more modern ideas, but are still far more modest, reserved, and chaste than most women in the western world. So if you are in Thailand and meet a woman in a bar who immediately falls in love with you in a carnal way, you have met a pro. That is obvious to most men, but evidently not to all.
Halloween this year coincided with the full moon, which meant the Full Moon Party at Ko Pha-Ngan. This island was a short boat ride from Ko Samui, so of course I went. The party was, uh, ok. I guess it was what a party was supposed to be. Early in the evening the beach was packed, lots of young people were dancing to techno-pop, and lots more people were standing or sitting around while drinking and talking. Later in the evening far fewer people were dancing, many were still drinking and talking, and a few were sleeping on the beach. I'm not sure what else I expected, but the party gets so much hype I thought there would be something more. It probably would have been better if I'd met up with some of the drinking buddies mentioned above who were there somewhere; I underestimated how spread out the party would be and just assumed I would bump into them. Or it's also possible that I'm at that age where I compare everything to a past that my selective memory has glorified (You call that a Party!? You should have been with me in New Orleans for Mardi Gras '79 when the cops were on strike! There were twenty of us in a garage crash pad and we ...(for further details see my upcoming book: Not to be published until 20 years after my death.)).
On 10 Nov I began the reverse ferry/bus/overnight train trip back to Bangkok. For the next five days I did more hanging out in Bangkok while getting a Cambodia visa. Next time I'll just get the visa at the border, having a pre-approved visa did not speed things up for me. My only Bangkok story this time was one night when I was ending the evening with a bowl of noodles sold by a street vendor outside my hotel. The vendor only had a few tables and more than a few customers, so I was seated at a table with Sasha. Sasha was a Moscow prostitute with all steel upper teeth. She sort of looked like Jaws in the James Bond movies, and was about as attractive. She was very up front about what she did and said she worked the street outside the Ambassador Hotel. She was politely friendly, made casual conversation while not pushing for business, and was probably an all right person who had had a tough life (I like to give people the benefit of the doubt). However I couldn't imagine who would give her any business. It was a curious end to an otherwise uneventful day, meeting a steel toothed Russian prostitute. Like I said before, you meet interesting people in Bangkok.
On 16 November I left Bangkok for Cambodia and stayed until the 30th. After I re-entered Thailand at Aranya Prathet I took the bus to Khorat. I spent one day and two nights, walked around, mailed a package home, and was totally unimpressed. Khorat struck me as a city with the noise, traffic and pollution of Bangkok but with few of the restaurants, bars, museums, impressive Wats, etc., that make Bangkok worthwhile.
On 1 Dec I left Khorat for Khon Kaen. Khon Kaen is a small city in central northeast Thailand that disproves the claims that all of Thailand is full of tourists. I went there to take a few lessons on Thai, and it was perfect for it. With the exception of the language school at Khon Kaen University and a few people at the reception desk of my hotel, almost nobody spoke English. The U.S. sends State Department and military people there to learn Thai. I arrived between classes for these people, which is why they could accept me as a walk in.
The university has a large nursing school and the student body seemed to be about 80% female, who were distractingly cute and most spoke no English. The ideal place for a young soldier to learn the language; I bet the ones who were sent there were phenomenally motivated. I wasn't surprised to learn that the language school kept losing female teachers who would marry U.S. soldiers. This in spite of a policy against students and teachers dating. A motivated soldier can overcome an obstacle like that.
Unfortunately Thai is much harder for an English speaker than Czech; I learned little and recalled less. However I liked my teachers, Nan on the right, Oi on the left and the school secretary on the far left.
After my last class Ron, the head of the language school, told me if I wanted to come back some day and teach English he could almost guarantee me a job. Just like the job offer in the Czech Republic, the pay wouldn't be much but life would be comfortable and interesting. I have taken a few days of language classes in two countries and been offered jobs in both, and I had learned that is was easy to get a job in Cambodia, where the pay was decent. It's nice to have options.
Other than the language classes the only thing going on in Khon Kaen was the silk festival. I didn't get any pictures, but it was entertaining and a good place to eat and pick up Thai crafts. If you're looking for well made teak and mahogany furniture at a good price this is the place. Unfortunately I don't know how to to ship furniture halfway around the world at a reasonable price.
On 7 December I left Khon Kaen for Nong Khai, a small city on the Me Kong river across the border from Laos and near Vientiane. According to information at the hotel I stayed at Nong Khai was rated by some U.S. magazine as one of the top places in the world for Americans to retire. It wasn't bad, but I can think of a few places in Thailand I'd rather be, like one of the beaches. I stayed a couple days and took some pictures-- two of Wat Pho Chai and three of Wat Noen Phra Nao, a forest temple popular with westerners for meditation in the '60's and '70's.
The weirdest place in Nong Khai is Sala Kaew Ku, also know as Wat Khaek--Indian Temple. It was built as a shrine to a Brahmanic yogi-priest-shaman who had a large following in North-Eastern Thailand and Laos. My guidebook provided that information in a futile attempt to explain the statues in the compound. They are a blend of Hindu-Buddhist-bizarre influences.
The next picture is of a feed-the-fish pond in Wat Khaek. They look similar to my dinner the night before, snakehead fish. I recently heard on the news that snakehead fish have somehow been introduced to a river in Maryland, where people are afraid of what they will do to the local ecology. The good news is they are really tasty. In northeast Thailand they would somehow gut them without cutting them open, stuff them with banana leaves, roll them in rock salt then grill them over hot coals. If you don't want to go to that much trouble I'm sure they fry up nicely. They are meaty with a mild flavored, flaky white flesh.
Just two more Nong Khai shots. The first is of a big drum that young Buddhist monks were banging on late Saturday afternoon. I don't know why but they seemed to be enjoying it. The last photo is of the Friendship Bridge which crosses from Thailand to Laos. I crossed the bridge the next day.