Michael A. Sisti

Author, Lecturer, Consultant

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Test of Strength

When Sara and I planned this trip with Tom and Maggie Mulvihill, our friends asked how our friendship would survive a month of spending every day together. But we’ve been close for many years, and were sure we could handle each other’s quirks, warts and baggage. And everyone contributed to the process.Luca

Tom spent months researching and planning itineraries, must-see sights, logistics, etc. He accumulated a file folder that was an inch thick with information. He and Sara also searched for hotels and flights, seeking the best rates to fit our preferences and schedules. But even with all that, there were many unexpected disappointments, and difficult situations. And overcoming them became a large part of the adventure. Bangkok, while beautiful and full of amazing attractions, was so congested that it was near impossible to go anywhere without hours of traffic delays. And the air was so polluted, breathing was uncomfortable, and the skyline obscured. As result we cancelled our planned final week return to that city.

Upon leaving Bangkok, we rented a van to travel to the seaside community of Pattaya before heading north to the mountains. Pattaya turned out to be an even bigger disappointment than Bangkok. The beach was very narrow, and so packed with beach chairs that walking along the surf was nearly impossible. And the city was just as traffic-jammed and dirty as BK.Beach Chairs So once again we changed plans, and drove to the other side of the country to a seashore town called Cha Am. And while this beach was wide and uncrowded, it was overrun with dogs and cats. And guess what they used for toilet facilities? We stayed overnight and then turned around and headed north. Our plan was to get halfway to Chang Mai that day, but we only covered about 20% of the distance.

So let me tell you about the driving. Cars and trucks drive on the right side of the road, and have right hand steering and controls. Motorcycles drive wherever they want,including sidewalks and shoulders. And go in any direction they want. T&M Elephant RideWhile the roads are clearly marked, none of us can read Thai. The English translation, when it appears on road signs, is very small. Tom brought his GPS which he had updated with current Thai driving information. For some reason, instead of a Garmin, he bought a brand called Tom Tom. None of the addresses he put in came up on the GPS. So we approximated the area on the map where we thought we were going, and we used the iPhone’s GPS as a backup. The Tom Tom was mounted on the windshield, and I held the phone, giving Tom instructions. Can you see where this is going? Well, neither could we. WeSara Mike Selfie would drive for an hour, check the highway exits, and possibly change direction, not knowing exactly why. Tom was getting frustrated. I was giggling. Sara kept saying, “Why don’t we stop and ask for directions?” And Maggie would say, “Sweetie, did you take your medication this morning?”Maggie, Sara

Tom also dictated a rule that we would never let the tank go to less than half full (which I agreed to at first). This despite the fact that there was an occupied commercial or residential building every fifty feet along the highway. We were not in the untamed jungles far from civilization. And every time he used his directionals, the windshield wipers came on, which made me giggle. After a few hours of aimless driving, and considering what I just described, it was getting a little tense in the car. At one point, Tom was so stressed, he said, “I need a piece of gum.” Sara offered him some of hers, but he wanted his own brand. So we pulled over, and he opened the tailgate and started going through his luggage, looking for gum. And Maggie commented, “We’re not doing this shit anymore.” And Sara said, “Shouldn’t we ask for directions?” And I giggled.Tom-Mag Banyan

Maggie pulled out a map from one of the tour books, and suggested we go to the Kingsri River Hotel in Ayuthaya. She thought it wasn’t that far away. So we made a decision to find that city and go to that hotel. At that point I was really feeling for Tom, as it was a frustrating ride. Truth EntranceWe found the hotel with no trouble. They had two rooms, but for only one night. We took them, and went to the dining room for lunch, and a drink. After a relaxing lunch, the girls suggested we change plans again, and skip Chang Mai in the mountains, and go to Cambodia next, instead of at the end of the vacation. No one wanted to be driving on the road again. Sara thought we should consider the beaches at Phuket for the last leg of the vacation. Despite being much more expensive, we all thought that area may be the only location to end the trip on a high note.

Maggie & ElephantWell Cambodia turned out to be a wonderful surprise, not because of the temples at Ankgor Wat, but the delightful hotel and staff where we stayed. And then Patong Beach in Phuket became the highlight of the vacation. Unfortunately Tom got sick in Phuket, and spent a day or two in his room, putting a damper on his last few days.King's Dancers

In summary, Sara and Maggie enjoyed the shopping, the sights and the people. They especially liked hanging out at the various pools, and the excellent restaurants we visited. Always being up for an adventure, I thoroughly enjoyed the country, the people, and finding humor in everything I saw. Tom appreciated the marvelous architecture and other attractions, the challenge of the driving, and the fettuccine carbonara, which he had at least twice a week. The relationship? It’s as strong as ever, despite the challenges and the stress. And it proved our mutual love and respect.

Patong Sunset

Further Impressions

The Tourists

Sixteen million tourists come to Bangkok every year from all over the world. From there they scatter around the country to the major attractions. We were fortunate to see a good cross section, although it was difficult to photograph them. So you will have to visualize my descriptions.

One of the most interesting visitor stories we heard was from the owner of an Italian Trattoria. In addition to the restaurant, he owns a farm that supplies meat and produce for the eatery. All year long he stocks his freezers with brains and testicles. And every November hordes of Siberian men vacation in Thailand and clean out his entire stock of these two delicacies. Makes you wonder what deficiency is causing this? Or maybe they are just trying to reinforce what they think they really have.i-nostri-salumi

Every city we visited had its share of middle aged men with a beautiful, young Thai woman as their companion. The incongruity was so obvious that you wonder why they are not embarrassed walking around. At our last stop in Patong, there was a group of Pakistani men, all with their attractive playthings. They drank and frolicked from 10 in the morning til late at night and then they went to bed (I guess).

The hotel lobbies and airports had the usual mix of very wealthy travelers, impeccably dressed, alongside grubby, grungy backpackers that smelled like gym socks gone bad. Some of them were so offensive that you couldn’t be within ten feet of them. We were fortunate that we didn’t have to sit next to any of them on the cramped local flights.

An unusually higTatsh percentage of men (and women) visitors have tattoos in Thailand, and there’s a ink shop on every street and alley. The men have most of their bodies covered, and for the most part they look grotesque, but that’s my undefiled body’s opinion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Women of Southeast Asia

We found the young Thai women to be beautiful with light skin and slender bodies. When they speak it is soft and melodic. Saying hello (Sawasdee Ka) comes out more like a sigh than a word. They are also obsessed with their skin color, keeping themselves covered in the sun. Many of them use whitening cream to make their pigment even lighter. By contrast, all the Caucasians are lying in the sun reinforcing their dark tans in an attempt to achieve the American Indian look. It is obvious that the older Thai women are not focused on looks or weight, and they develop loud, screechy voices that assault your hearing. They make great street vendors, which many of them are.Attendants

Flight Attendants

Food VendorBangkok Lady

 

 

 

Breathtaking Beauty

Throughout these posts, I’ve shared photos of the crumbling buildings and shabby, corrugated sheet metal housing. But by contrast, Thailand has some of the most modern office buildings, and temples and sculptures of sheer beauty. The immaculate temple complexes are everywhere, like churches in the USA, and the Buddhist-inspired art can be found in the most unusual locations. The stature below was in one of the smaller terminals of Don Mueang Airport, the older of the two Bangkok airports.

Airport Statue G Building Lego BuildingBuilding

Roof Detail

Addressing the Nation’s Transportation Needs

Every vehicle in Thailand, regardless of its intended purpose is frequently used to transport people. And apparently, there are no safety rules. For instance, in the US we have infant car seats that can withstand a high speed head-on collision. And toddlers must be in one of those car seats. (In a previous post, I showed an infant being carried in a spackle bucket on the arm of a motorcycle passenger.) In Thailand, if you can fit in or on a vehicle, you’re good. Except of course if you’re an American. Then if you’re not wearing a seat belt, you’re subject to a “fine” payable in cash, with no receipt provided. Kids in America wear helmets while riding trikes on the sidewalk. In Thailand, it seems only foreigners wear helmets. And driving on roads is not required.

Red Jitney Box Truck

Dump TruckFight TruckMuslim PickupSidecarThigh CartTruck on Beach

Impressions of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia Children

We encountered a surprising number of young Asian families vacationing in both Thailand and Cambodia. They were all well dressed and stayed at the better hotels. I’m guessing that most were Koreans, but there were also many Thais, Filipinos, Malaysians, among others. The kids are all adorable and very photogenic. The parents are very affectionate with their children and spoil them terribly. Although most are very well behaved, some are incorrigible.

Asian GirlChild in Jeans Mother & Child

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Positive Thinking

In communicating with the locals, even among those speaking some English, there is a major barrier. Their pronunciation is very strange, and they go back and forth from English to Thai. And no matter what question you ask them, you get a confused look, a smile and a nod, and then an affirmative, “Yes!”

“Is this necklace 18 carat gold or gold plate?” “Yes!”

“Will I die if I walk down this alley to get to my hotel?” “Yes!”

“Is this Spicy Pepper Dragon Rice with Curry and Habanero mild enough for Americans to eat?” “Yes!”

Relative Safety

In every US City, as well as the capitals of the world, there are streets that you would never venture down. But in Thailand, the most intimidating alleys are frequented by tourists and locals alike. It was in one of these dark, dank passages that Sara came upon a stand exhibiting several cases of beautifully designed silver jewelry. Alleyway Jewelry StoreDespite an inventory of tens thousands of dollars in precious metal, the emporium was unmanned. Sara asked the people at the tee shirt stand across the way about the jewelry store owner, and the guy laughed and said, “In Toilet, be back.” So as we’re browsing the tee shirts, I spot this guy that looks 16, has an Odell Beckham haircut, and is sporting piercings in both ears, one nostril, one eyelid,  and one eyebrow. I say to Sara, “You’re about to meet Harry Winston.”Odell

Sara found a couple of bracelets that she liked, and an excited Odell thought he was making a double sale. Lowering the price for each, he made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. I kept shaking my head, no. But after playing hard to get, the way she did with me when we dated, she kept squeezing his ingronies and finally bought the one she really wanted at an incredible price that even I couldn’t believe. When we left him dazed, and bleeding profusely from his wallet, he learned just how dangerous that alley really could be.

Bracelet

 

A Clean Sweep

I’ve previously chronicled the dirty conditions in Thailand, but there is a paradox. These people are obsessed with sweeping. There are stores, stands and and rolling carts selling brooms in every size and configuration, and it seems half the population is employed as sweepers. They sweep streets, sidewalks, hallways, nature paths and even the beaches, all by hand – every day.

Street SweeperSweeper

Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Angkor Management

Just when we thought we were all temple and shrined out, we arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the largest temple complex in the world. It was built over a period of time during more than three centuries, with hundreds of structures occupying a 250 square mile area. We only got to visit a handful of temples and other buildings, and stopped to photograph others, but barely saw one percent of the sprawling ancient kingdom. The photos below will give you some idea of the construction effort, but you will not be able to appreciate the size of some of the towers that reach up to 700 feet (70 story building). Using hand labor, rocks the size of cAngor Thom Gateaskets were piled up and cemented into place, forming endless walls, homes, shrines,and temples.

 

SOMEONE SNEEZED

SOMEONE SNEEZED

Angor WatAngor Wat Wall

 

 

 

 

Dancers

 

Home

 

 

 

 

 

Small TempleTemple Towers2

 

 

 

Temple Tower

 

 

Wall Decor

The Temples of Doom

River View

The River is Green

Ayutthaya is an ancient city, founded as the capitol of Siam in the 13th century. We spent five days here, exploring the ruins and hanging out at our hotel. The hotel is situated on the river that separates the ancient city from the modern one. Here’s the view from our hotel window. The building on the other bank only look like they were built in the 12 hundreds. They are more recent, but could use a little updating.

Prang

Early Saturn Rocket

The size of the area comprising the old city is enormous, and the remains of the structures are nothing less than amazing. Some of the spires rise over 100 feet in the air. Most of the structures are temples with surrounding buildings, walls and statues.Tall Temple

And with all the tourists, there are dozens of buses. And they are sights to be seen as well. Each is a work of art, and are all individually designed with outrageous graphics.

Bus

Buses

 

 

 

 

 

Fal Doun Soon (Leaning Tower of Siam

Fal Doun Soon (Leaning Tower of Siam)

Wat Dat Chit (Heads Will Roll)

Wat Dat Chit (Heads Will Roll)

 

 

 

 

 

Courtyyard

Towers in Village

Observations of a Curious Traveler

Shopping in Thailand. There are two venues for shopping in Thailand. There’s the malls, which are beyond huge, often taking up an entire square block and rising seven to nine stories. They contain everything from stands, to shops, to designated concessions in the larger stores. The food courts are immense, sometimes taking up two floors of a mall. And there you can find everything from fine dining to ice cream stands. The other shopping opportunity comeMarkets from the endless number of stalls and stands that line the streets, alleys and highways. At these entrepreneurial, dust covered establishments, you can uncover just about anything from tee shirts, to building materials, to airplane parts. And food! There is no shortage of push carts with people preparing unimaginable and odorific selections of fish, fruit, soups, and meat dishes. The entire country comprises the world’s largest flea market, fleas and all.

A Word About Security. Getting to Thailand required us to go through three airport screenings – Tampa, JFK and Beijing, the last requiring four separate screening stages, including a pat down. The Chinese official commented in Beijingese that he thought I had firm buns. At least that’s what I think he said. Arriving at Bangkok, we got checked through customs, and then the next day when I went back to retrieve our lost luggage, I needed my passport just to get into the airport, and then the luggage was scanned and my passport again checked, before I could leave the airport.

On the second day of our trip, we went to the other side of Bangkok to tour the palace grounds. Near the site, we encountered and an unannounced, make-shift identification check of everyone (several hundred) walking doRoad Checkwn that street. Foreigners were required to get on one line and show their passports, and locals had to show identification on another line. To everyone, except us Americans, all of this security seemed routine. Traveling anywhere in the world, this protection is accepted, and getting more intense. So it makes me wonder why we are protesting against securing our own borders, when we have so much to lose.

Air Quality. We have now traveled to several parts of Thailand and the air goes from bad to horrific. There is no control over emissions from any road vehicles, including tarps over dump truck materials. Fires are burning everywhere, from cooking to underbrush burns. Combine this with the heat and you have temperature inversions creating smog that envelopes the landscape in a constant haze. A large number of people wear face masks, not to prevent the spread of germs, but to keep all these particulates out of their lungs. After a while you can see the black soot building up around the nose and mouth portions of the masks. The cities are the worst, but even on the open road, the mountains are barely visible in the distance.

SmogMotorists ride on a road as thick haze from wildfires blanket the city in Pekanbaru, Riau province, Indonesia, Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. The haze, which has shrouded parts of neighboring Malaysia and Singapore for about a month, also spread to Thailand on Monday, the first time it has reached hazardous levels so far north. (AP Photo)

Dining in Thailand. There are several types of cuisine available throughout the country. Thai, of course, including everything from mild American style, to super-hot dishes that will burn holes in your clothing. The Chinese food is much closer to the authentic food from China, rather than Chicken Chow Mien. We haven’t tried the Indian cuisine, as none of us are into curry. And the Japanese dishes consist of noodles, soups and entrees made mostly with fish. The sushi is very good, and the wasabi has the same effect as swallowing a radio-active pellet. I saw a Scandinavian woman put an ice creams scoop of wasabi on two small pieces of sushi, and I sat there waiting for the 911 call for an ambulance. Believe it or not, one of the most popular types of cuisine in Thailand is Italian, and it is really well done. The pizza has been excellent, as have the various pasta dishes with a multitude of authentic sauces. We’ve probably had more Italian food here than at home.street-food-thailand

We have deliberately avoided the street vendors, as the smells and the filth are a major turn-off. While the fruits and vegetables look really good, and some of the meat selections are appetizing, it just seems too risky. And if you stand on a sidewalk and eat a piece of chicken satay on a stick, it immediately gets covered with soot, so it looks like you put too much pepper on it.

Caving In

We drove down the west peninsular of Thailand to Cha-An Beach in Phetchaburi. The most interesting attraction there was not the beach, which was overrun with dogs and cats and a couple of chickens. We didn’t want to walk a beach that was actually a mile-long pet toilet. Instead we went to Luang Mountain, which holds the Khao Luang Cave. At the base of the mountain, parking is free. The parking area however, is crawling with monkeys, scavenging for food, hats, sunglasses, cameras, and anything you are overrun that they can steal. So you have to pay the monkey monitor 40 bahts to feed the monkeys and keep them occupied while you tour the cave. He has a bag of corn cobs, cut in sections that he tosses to the dozens of monkeys that he has trained to both steal your belongings, and sit on your car and scratch the paint.Two Monkeys

A jitney truck took us to the upper staging area, where we hiked up to the entrance of the cave and climbed down into the chambers. The interior of the cavern was set up as an underground temple, with Buddhas arranged in the various rooms.  The largest chamber had a huge Buddha with an oversized prayer mat set in front. I was afraid to kneel down and meditate, because with my luck, my kneecaps would be covered in bat guano.

Cave Opening Cave Buddhas  Sitting Buddhas Buddha Inserts    Giant Buddha

Thailand’s Criminal Justice System

We previously related the extortion caper with the taxi driver, but this one is even better. Being aware that even good driving gets punished in this country, Tom was especially careful to stay well within the bounds of the traffic rules. It was like he was taking his driving test all over again.

We were cruising along the coast, taking in the sights. Tom stopped the car so I could jump out and snap a couple of photos near the water. I got back in the car, and less than a block later, we were pulled over at a roadside traffic stop. The polite police officer pointed out that my seat belt was not fastened. He showed me a piece of paper on his clipboard with handwritten scribbles and pointed to the number 500. Knowing the drill, I reached in my pocket to retrieve a 500 baht note ($15), but Tom said to the constable, “500 bahts? How about 200?” Not knowing if he understood the American sense of humor, I couldn’t tell whether the officer was going to laugh or pull his weapon. Fortunately, he started laughing, took the 500 baht note, and slipped it under his clipboard. I then asked for a receipt. “No receipt for you.” “OK. Can I take your picture?” He shook his head, obviously running out of patience. He then gave us a salute and waved us on. As we drove away, we returned the favor and gave him a salute.middle-finger_11

The $15 photo was worth it.

Beach

The Mean Streets of Thailand

After several near-death experiences while walking and riding taxis in Bangkok, we are now driving a mini-van in Pattaya and the region surrounding it. If we’re going to die, we want it on our terms.

First Lesson – Rule #1. There are no rules. Traffic lights, road signs, directional markers on streets are all suggestions, and you obey them at your own risk.

Lesson Two – There arBiker Familye no traffic laws that apply to motorcycles. They can drive on sidewalks, against traffic, and through people’s property. They can also carry as many people as they can on the bikes, with or without helmets (another suggestion). And they are involved in 80% of all vehicular accidents, although we have yet to see one fender-bender.

Cargo Biker

Lesson Three – Don’t mess with buses. They are huge, double-decker vehicles that take up the entire two lanes of traffic. And they stop for no one.

Cycle1Lesson Four – Traffic Lanes. Most streets have painted lane lines, but they mean nothing. The narrow streets (alleys) have no markings, and by necessity are one way. That doesn’t stop the bikers from going the wrong way, and walkers to clog the entire street. Driving down one is an experience. Two lane streets always have cars illegally parked in one lane and every other vehicle squeezed into the second lane, except motorcycles. They weave in and out of the traffic, drive in the oncoming lane, and on the sidewalk, if there is a sidewalk. It is more dangerous to walk on the sidewalk then in the street, and the street is really risky. Most sidewalks are about two feet wide and are made with paver stones, which are uneven and loose. Every 20 feet or so, there is a raised cement step in the middle of the sidewalk, that’s there for no apparent reason. Utility poles and signposts also occupy the sidewalk. The sidewalks are also infested with street vendors, selling everything from clothing to jewelry to unidentifiable food. Now picture tBangkok Streetwo-way pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks.

Lesson Five – Traffic Signals. Traffic lights are red for a minimum of 2 minutes, and then another two minutes for turning traffic, and sometimes another two minutes for pedestrians. When the light finally turns green, if you’re still awake, you charge through the intersection in the midst of a crush of bikers, who have all snaked their way to the front of the queue. You have to move quickly, because the green light turns red in 20 seconds. Yea, I couldn’t figure that out either.

Clogged StreetLesson Six – Get out of Dodge. By now you have realized that there is no way to navigate any of the streets in the urban jungles by any mode of transportation. Yes it’s much safer dealing with the elephants, tigers, snakes and zika-carrying mosquitoes of the inland jungles, then to set foot out of your hotel in any of the cities.

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