Posts Tagged ‘thailand’

As I’m certain most will know Thailand is renowned for its shopping and I have to admit I was underprepared for what I saw. First of all there are traditional markets all over and while most will carry the same generic tourist bait such Buddha statues, masks and postcards some markets will often specialise in certain items. Some of the most exotic looking food I have every come across exists at some of these markets and I would love to let you know what it all tasted like but even if I had been brave enough to try more, there was just too much on offer.

One particular market that was quite unique was the floating market at Damnoen Saduak which consisted of several canoes all floating past each other stocked to the brim with their wares. As a group, one would rent a canoe and idle past these vendors until one would literally pull you in “tractor beam” style and perform their sales pitch in broken English. While this was quite unique and a most memorable experience I can see why most shopping malls don’t use this format of commerce as it took us about 90mins to travel about 100m with each and every vendor sucking us in for their shot at making a sale.

Another reason this type of sales technique wasn’t too successful was that you had such a limited amount of time to not only differentiate anything interesting from the aforementioned cracker jacks, but in the remaining seconds one could do very little bartering.

Bartering is probably the most distinct aspect of shopping in Thailand and I can’t think of a single time where we paid the asking price. After probably paying far too much the first few times or getting “rinsed” as a young British couple referred to I, we developed some techniques that were quite ingenious (or at least we thought they were).
Without giving away too much, one technique was to have one of us purchase a small item to work out what the discount percentage was. For example if a pair of sunglasses was marked 300 baht and we said we’d pay 150 baht. If the sales person agreed without checking with the store owner we knew that we could pretty much offer half of the asking price without a problem. It became a game to try and hit the “sweet spot”; that price that was low enough to avoid a “rinsing” and not too low that we received under the breath insults in Thai. The key indicator, it seemed, was if the salesperson spoke to the manager whether he could accept our offer.

While I wish we hadn’t spent so much money on the small markets before we went to the biggest mall in Thailand on our last day of our holiday, I’m glad we had some practice at bartering before we were thrown into the feeding frenzy that is the 7 storey monolith known as MBK.

MBK is a testament to capitalism and melting pot of Western and Eastern sensibilities. You will find every brand name on the planet, but whether it is genuine or a “same same but different” would take a forensic team to decipher. It really is a shopper’s fantasy so as long as you can deal with the fact that you are probably not buying the genuine article (for example a pair of Ray Ban Wayfarers that melted on the way home). We bought so much that we had to purchase more luggage to take it all home. The mall has hundreds of shops as well as stalls and markets covering every square inch of the centre. We were so exhilarated by the experience and to unleash our new bartering prowess that on more than one occasion we had to be calmed down by employees of certain stores to be told that “the price seen is the price paid” when we tried to negotiate the price we were willing to pay at restaurants. Oh well… if you don’t shoot you don’t score.

The most difficult part was convincing the South African customs officials that we had brought these goods into Thailand in the first place…especially the “I heart Thailand” shirts.

Thailand is certainly a country that is geared towards tourists and generally speaking very accommodating towards the needs of tourists, which is certainly testament to the amount of Pizza and Burger joints you’ll find in some of the more touristy areas. The fact that you don’t need a visa to enter the country, and as I mentioned earlier the exchange rate definitely plays in one’s favour and at about 4.5 baht to 1 rand, you have to stop yourself from getting irate when a restaurant charges 5 baht more for a beer than the next place depending on how undeniably frugal you are of course.

Strangely enough despite how courteous and friendly the local population is towards tourists there seems to be a very distinct attempt by Westerns who have spent or are spending extended amounts of time in Thailand to take on a very specific look, as if to avoid being considered a “farang” or “outsider”. It’s a look that is difficult to describe, not because the vocabulary eludes me, but because I don’t really want to be describing what is no more than a particular niche of “hippy”. You’ll know the look as soon as you see it. (think Captain Jack Sparrow meets Jack Johnson meets Hobo University graduate)

In terms of the nationalities of most tourists it really does run the full catalogue from Europeans, to Americans, Australians, Africans and even an Asian or two. It really is just a melting pot of different travellers all soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of Thailand.

One thing did strike us as peculiar, and as we spoke to other tourists they appeared to have noticed it too though no one could provide too much clarity on the details. This peculiarity was the amount of single white men who had Asian partners. When I say “partner” I’m not disguising it under the veil of the sex trade or anything, but legitimate partners that they would go to shops with, visit museums and temples (called “Wots”) and have dinner with. These Asian “ladies” (sorry had to use quotation marks as you never can be 100% certain in Thailand), seemed to provide the service of a travel buddy and without being sleazy seemed to be fairly intimate with their Western companions, holding hands in public.

We did a bit of research and it turns out that these “ladies” (sorry again) are paid escorts that travel agencies hire out to tourists as companions. They help with translations, directions and provide companionship in exchange for accommodation, meals and small gifts as well as at the end of the journey, they are paid an agreed upon rate. I was also told that depending on the agency (and sorry guys I don’t have any numbers) sex can also be arranged with your travel buddy (obviously for an agreed fee and proof of a clean bill of health).

It became quite a game trying to spot these couples which we soon began referring to as “Sweet and Sour Combos”. It’s like the game “ranga puch” (a subject for another blog) but with a Thai twist. We did however feel quite embarrassed at times when we had pre-assessed a situation as being a combo deal only to find out we had an Asian and Caucasian American couple.

In theory the idea is great, go on holiday as a single male (or dishonest married male) and meet up with a lovely young Thai “Lady” (last time I promise) and enjoy a holiday with benefits. Although on certain occasions we were fascinated to see a couple at a restaurant sitting in absolute silence over dinner as neither had a single thing in common. Nothing quite like an awkward date, in a foreign country, with someone who’s company you’re paying for in the first place (awesome).

Our research, from very credible sources I might add, mentioned that while you would be partnered with a travel buddy based loosely on age, you also “got what you paid for” and by that I mean (very romantically of course) that not all “ladies” (ok that was the last time) are the same. So if you are interested in going on a Thai holiday with a hired travel buddy, make sure you are willing to spend some money or you might not get everything you expected; or worse you could get more than you expected.

As I mentioned previously, food in Thailand is incredible and I’ll be the first to admit that this does have a lot to do with the prices. The average meal in Thailand is about 60 baht, which at the time I was there was about 15 rand which is incredible given the fact that the average meal at a Thai Restaurant in South Africa is about 70 rand.

Thus, it goes without saying that we ate out every single meal, it didn’t make sense to do otherwise. Even drinks (as long as they weren’t alcoholic) were reasonably priced. Alcohol was relatively expensive and even by saying that I have to stress the word “relatively” as the average price of a beer was 15 rand and a cocktail was 25 rand. I don’t drink, but I did have a sip of the local beers, namely Singha, Chang and Leo and I must say they are quite good.

Tipping is strangely uncommon though and we were treated like the most generous philanthropists when we tipped what we considered to be the customary 10%. I tried pretty much everything on the menus which was often as much an experience for the taste buds as it was for the bowels and using some of the Thai toilets was quite an experience.

More often than not the hotels and guesthouses would have conventional Western flush toilets, although all would have the “Bidet Gun” or “Bumfungun” as it became known, and seldom if ever was there toilet paper in the public toilets. As one moved further away from the city the presence of these toilets became nonexistent and in their stead were what can only be described as ablutions of a “more manual” approach. Usually these “bathrooms” would consist of a hole in the ground with the water level a few inches below it and an uninviting yet all too recognisable seat design a few inches about the hole. There were no pipes or handles or anything, just a big drum filled with water and jug floating in it… the rest I leave to your imagination. All part of the Thai experience I presume.

Back on the food side of things, in terms of buying convenience items such as water, deodorant, tooth paste, sweets and similar toiletries and impulse items, one couldn’t go more than 200m without walking past a 7-11 which as far as I could see was the only chain of convenience stores in the country. To say they are common is quite an understatement as in the street we were living in, Samsen Road, there were 4 in the space of about 300m. It was at these stores that we noticed some of the most interesting consumer goods and strangely named items.

There was “Winky Eye” bubblegum, “Emo Energy” soft drink as well as a Lays Potato Chip variant called “Salty Sour”. We were pleased to see some recognisable and trusted brands from home such as the ever present Coke and Fanta as well as chains such as Burger King and Starbucks which aren’t too familiar in South Africa.

Interestingly enough the cigarette boxes and cartons in Thailand have the most disturbing imagery of cancer patients, growths, blackened lungs and all means of graphic horror aimed at discouraging smoking. As disturbing as the pictures were I don’t think they were having the desired effect as it appeared from my observation that young kids were using these images more a challenge to “collect the whole set”.

I recently returned from a two week vacation from Thailand hence the reason for no blog updates from April 15th – 30th (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). Upon hearing of my vacation people generally ask whether the trip was for “business or pleasure” and for some reason one feels guilty answering the latter given some of the preconceptions about Thailand; particularly, preconceived ideas of the sex trade, lady boys and indiscriminate disregard for the proper use of ping pong balls. How could you blame them, when the capital of Thailand is so provocatively named? I must confess that I had subscribed to many of these preconceptions and had prepared myself to be accosted by sex workers and see lady boys on every corner (when in fact that are only on every alternate corner).

Now having spent some time in this amazing country I’d like to share with you some of my experiences that hopefully will broaden what you know about the former kingdom of Siam.

Upon arriving at Suvarnabhumi International Airport my fiancé and I were immediately faced with the daunting task of trying to direct a taxi driver to our hotel in his broken English and our completely nonexistent Thai. An hour later and 350 bath poorer we arrived at our destination, but not before noticing the manic traffic that is inner city Bangkok. Like a swarm of bees in a hive the streets crawled and buzzed with all manner of vehicular activity; busses, cars, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles the soon to be infamous Tuktuks and several composite variations of vehicle that appeared either to be constructed on the set of Junk Wars or in Salvador Dali’s Garage.

Another thing that you will instantly notice on the streets of Bangkok, is the smells. The streets become an olfactory melting pot of some the best, worst and strangest smells the Western nose has ever encountered. The streets are awash with vendors cooking what I would love to be able to tell you, but I simple do not know. And in that lies half the intrigue. Is it spicy? Is it sweet? Is the reason there is no sign saying what it is because it some sort of taste beyond linguistic confinement (in neither English nor Thai?) Who’s to say, because the better part of valour meant that we decided to get our food from some of the more “established” establishments (read “has a menu with English descriptions”).

While on the subject of food I have to say that Thai food is without equal, there are just so many different flavours and dishes and we were not stretched on our two week stay to find a different dish to try every meal. In fact, given the sheer volume of options, we resorted to sharing meals and ordering two courses in order to experience as much as we could. This statement obviously presumes that you enjoy Thai food otherwise Thailand could be your 9th circle of hell because although you are able to find Western food don’t expect to be amazed by it. We ordered a pizza on one of the evenings (perhaps out of a sense of home sickness or appreciation of the tireless efforts of Western Imperialism) and were completely satisfied in the fact that we would not need to do that again (besides the fact that Western food, be it hamburgers, pizza or similar are without doubt some of the most expensive options on the menu. Obviously the price of nostalgia and a cure for homesickness comes with a price.

This was just a small taste (bad pun intended) of Thailand and I will be sure to keep you informed through future posts…