Thailand: The Ugly

There are so many good things to say about Thailand, as I described earlier.  However, there is this really, really dark side to the country and quite frankly, these are the deal breakers for me returning. 

Major Scam Alert
As I stated earlier, scams are very prevalent in Thailand.  I was able to experience first-hand someone trying to pull one over on me.  While in Bangkok, I was trying to decide if I wanted to head to southern Thailand. I am not a huge party animal, and not really interested in beaches but I needed to get away from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok.  I had been looking through my Lonely Planet book and settled on a small town south of Bangkok, called Ban Krut.  There was a Hosteling International hostel there, which usually means there is a certain standard they have to adhere to.  I was wrong on this.  Very, very wrong.

Let me be very clear.  DO NOT STAY HERE!  The HI-Ban Krut may have stellar reviews on many of the hosteling sites but my experience was horrible. 

I made my reservation the night before I left Bangkok.  The price online was 300 baht/night for a dorm bed, which I thought was fair for a beachside hostel.  I reserved five nights.  I made the mistake of not printing a copy of the reservation, instead just making note of the reservation number in my travel notebook.

Getting there was a bit of a challenge but I arrived unscathed after a scary ride on a scooter.  I went to check into the hostel and was met with a blank stare by the woman at the desk when I said I had a reservation.  She asked what the price for the room was. I told her 300 baht and mentioned I had booked on the HI website.   Never once did she even acknowledge that she had my reservation, but she did ask to see the booking reference number, which I had written the final balance due right next to it.  She asked if this was the rate "per night" (the final balance was 1425 baht) and I said "No! This is the total balance due after a deposit I made on the HI site when I made my reservation."  

She logged onto the slower than dial-up satellite internet and I showed her the HI site where it plainly stated the dorm room beds were 300 baht per night. She told me, "Internet wrong price, dorm bed 400 baht a night".  She continued to tell me about a "bungalow" (I use that term lightly) for 300 baht a night (which is not what I reserved) so I said, "Fine, I'll take it if that is what my reservation is for." She offered to show it to me first. 

We walked over to a bug-infested "bungalow" that was barely large enough for me and my backpack, with a 2 inch thick mattress and looked like it hadn't been cleaned in weeks, with no bathroom anywhere in sight. I again told her I would take it if this is what the reservation was for. She was not too pleased with my enthusiasm and went back to the front desk. She made a few phone calls and finally said she could give me the dorm room for 300 baht per night.  I spent an hour negotiating with her and never once did she look to see if I had a reservation!  I shouldn't have had to negotiate a reservation from a reputable site like Hosteling International.

For the record, I did send a letter of complaint to Hosteling International.  Their response was to refer me to the Thai YHA and of course, they never addressed my concerns.  I am not a complainer.  It takes a really egregious offense for me to even write a letter of complaint, much less write a long blog post about it.

My recommendation to avoid a situation like this anywhere is to always print a copy of the website displaying the prices and to make sure you print out a copy of the reservation.  This is not always possible on the road, but if you can, it may save you some headache in the future.

Sex Trade
While I can deal with the scams and people trying to rip me off, one of the things I cannot tolerate is the sex trade in SE Asia.  It disgusts me.  It varies from prostitution to ping pong shows (google it if you don't know what I'm talking about) to using children for pornography and sex.  Sometimes I feel like SE Asia is the equivelant of Tijuana in Mexico. It's a playground for Americans, Canadians, and other Westerners.  There are actual tours designed for sex tourism.  If you see an older Western man traveling solo, chances are he's in Thailand to satiate his sexual urges with children, ladyboys, or prostitutes.  Bangkok is one of the big players and so is Pattaya, down on the coast.  The sex trade runs rampant and there's no escaping it.

Three friends from my hostel were on Khao San Road one night and a prostitute was propositioning one of the fellows and he kept telling her to leave them alone.  Finally, he put his arm around one of the girls (an Asian-Canadian) and said he was with her.  That was the wrong thing to do!  The prostitute started screaming, yelling and hit the poor guy in the head with one of her 6-inch stillettos!  He had to go to the hospital for sutures and it left an impression, to say the least.
super putty on patpong road

My last night in Thailand, I went walking with another friend and we inadvertently found Patpong Road, one of the well known places to catch a ping pong show.  There also happened to be a night market going on (when is there not a night market going on somewhere in Bangkok?) so we wandered around so I could do some last minute shopping.  Then we started to walk around Patpong and noticed places like the "Pussy Connection" and "Super Pussy".  I snapped a few pictures and by doing so, got some threatening glares from the club owners and bouncers. 

Thai Girlfriends
Yep, I am going to go there.  In every city I traveled to, I noticed Western men with Thai women.  Some were married, many were girlfriends.  And some were just plain prostitutes (I'm getting ahead of myself here with that story).  I understand that some men can't find a girlfriend in their home country and they come to Thailand and other countries in SE Asia to find their "match".  But really, who are they kidding?  I sat in bars and restaurants and observed interactions with the Western men and their Thai girlfriends.   The look of genuine boredom on the faces of most Thai women was priceless.  Do these men really think these women find them attractive and want to be with them?  Or is it just the companionship they seek?  I don't get it.

One of the last days I was in Bangkok, I wanted to watch a movie.  I headed over to MBK to see what they had showing.  I didn't find one I liked so I went over to Siam Paragon to see if there selection was any better.  I found a movie and got in line behind a rather morbidly obese American.  He was standing next to a petite, skinny Thai woman wearing a tight tank top, a short skirt that barely covered her lady bits and six inch stilletto heels.  Apparently, this man was oblivious to the fact I was standing behind him.  It's not like I "blend" in SE Asia.  I'm a short, white Western-looking woman wearing travel clothes. 

The line was moving slow which allowed me plenty of time to hear him talk to this woman about his wife and kid at home.  He even showed her pictures!  He was wearing business casual clothing-a tie, dress shirt and khaki dress pants with standard black dress shoes.  I could tell by his body language he knew he was doing something wrong.  He was laughing nervously, even sweating a little.  He kept looking around, trying to be careful not to touch the woman standing very close to him.  It took all of my energy to not call him out and say, "Um hello??!!  Yes, I speak english and yes, I think you are an f-ing bastard for cheating on your wife."  Actually I would have used much choicer words, but you get the idea.  But I was in shock.  So, I continued to listen and my disgust continued to grow until eventually the line moved, they bought their tickets and went into the theater.  I decided I had had enough and didn't want to pay $30 to see the movie, so I went window shopping instead.

These three things are deal breakers for me.  These are the reasons I might not go back to Thailand.  At the very least, I won't be going back to Bangkok.  Chiang Mai is still a very special place to me because of the experiences I had there.  But, all of the above things exist there, too. They just left a bad taste in my mouth.  I just wish Westerners didn't treat developing countries like their personal playgrounds.  It makes the rest of us look bad.

Thailand: The Good

Okay, I've been holding off on talking about Thailand.  It was an interesting experience and I've really struggled with how I wanted to write about Thailand.  So, I've decided to do a three-part series on Thailand: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  I am going to start out with the positives, because there are plenty and then progressively move toward the not-so-positives because I think they are important too.

I spent a few days shy of 5 weeks in Thailand and experienced the following locations: Bangkok, Ban Krut (Ban Krood), and Chiang Mai.  Here are "The Good" things about those places.

HI-Udee Bangkok This hostel was the first place I stayed at in Bangkok.  I stayed in the female dorm for 350 baht/night (around $12) which is probably double what you would pay on Khao San Road, but it was completely worth it!  It is within walking distance of the BTS Skytrain, as well as the public bus system.  It is close to the Big C, a large grocery store/mall/food court.  Udee Bangkok is a short tuk tuk ride away to Chatuchak Market.  They have free wi-fi, friendly staff, small lockers to lock up valuables, air conditioning (only at night) and it's super clean.

Green Tulip (Chiang Mai)  This hostel is hands down my favorite hostel in all of Thailand.  It is located in the "old city" of Chiang Mai, within walking distance of probably ten Buddhist temples and priced at 380 baht/night (around $13) for a single bed, no a/c (with floor fan) and shared bathroom.  Stella and Nine, the two owners, are probably the two most genuinely nice Thai people I met the entire time I was in Thailand.  Nine took such good care of me that I spent more time in Chiang Mai than originally planned.  She helped book me a ziplining trip, as well as a cooking class.  She will book you any trip you want, and you will pay a fair price.  The hostel is close to the night and weekend markets, has free wi-fi plus regular computers with internet, serves a decent American breakfast and has a positive vibe.  It's not a party hostel, it's the perfect place to chill out.

Lub'd Silom (Bangkok)  I stayed here my last night in Thailand with a friend from the States who happened to be going through Bangkok on their way to Chiang Mai.  It was the perfect choice.  We stayed in a spacious dorm room for 350 baht/night (around $12), it had a/c, individual lights and electrical sockets, large lockers and wi-fi in the rooms (and common area).  It was close to the BTS and there was a great night market just down the street.

I didn't spend a lot of time actually buying things, but it sure was fun to go shopping!  There are knock-offs galore throughout Thailand, with varying degrees of quality.  Electronics are not any cheaper than at home, so I would steer clear of them.  Clothing and other stuff, all fair game.   In Bangkok, I really liked Chatuchak Market because it didn't seem to be as high pressure as other places like MBK.  I found better deals at Chatuchak Market, too.

For grocery store food, the Big C in Bangkok is all kinds of amazing. I spent most of my time there either grocery shopping, eating in their food court, or just people-watching.  There was also a vendor out in front who served the most delicious coconut ice cream that I would order at least once a day.

In Chiang Mai, I was a big fan of the Night & Weekend Market.  Both offered the same kinds of things, though I felt the Weekend Market had more "homemade" kinds of items, whereas the Night Market had more knock-offs and souvenirs.

This is going to get a post of it's own soon, but until then, I cannot rave enough about the street food in Thailand.  I ate everything I thought looked interesting.  Roti, pad thai, meat on a stick, fresh fruit, green papaya salad, smoothies, and khao man gai.

I also highly recommend taking a cooking class in Chiang Mai.  There are cooking schools all over the city.  I went to Siam Rice Thai Cookery School.  It was so much fun!  When I came home from traveling, I had a bunch of my friends over to cook for them and they said it was the best Thai food they had ever tasted.  You will learn how to make everything, including the curry sauce from scratch and it will amaze your friends and family when you get home.

Sights & Activities
I am not a huge fan of Buddhist temples.....the reason will come in one of my next posts.  I found other interesting things to see and do while I was in Thailand.  

I really enjoyed finding Ban Baat aka Monk Bowl Village.  This is the soi where there are Thais who make the Buddhist monk begging bowls in the traditional way.  We didn't get too far down the soi before we met this woman who showed me her wares.

She demonstrated how the bowls are made and even let my friend, Natalie try her hand at it.  It's a really neat experience and I was able to purchase one for myself and one for a gift.

Another place I went to was the Medical Museum at Siriraj Hospital.  I work in healthcare in my "real" life, so I thought it might be fun to go check it out.  Unfortunately, they didn't allow pictures inside, so this is the only one I got.

This place was a bit of a challenge to get to.  The easiest way is to take one of the river taxis, then walk through the amazing food market and then over to the hospital.  Siriraj Hospital is HUGE!  There were signs for the museum all over, so we just followed them through the maze of buildings and bought our ticket for 40 baht (just over $1).  This museum was creepy, yet fascinating.  It features several smaller exhibits within its walls.  My favorite was the forensic museum, which had Thailand's first serial killer's body on display.  My second favorite was the parasite museum featuring the various types of parasites in Thailand, how they are contracted and what the treatment options are.  I got a little queasy after that one!  I enjoyed the exhibit on the 2004 tsunami, which explained the relief efforts as well as body recovery.  Some of the exhibits had English translations and they have started to rent out audio tour devices to assist you in getting the most out of the visit.  It's a little morbid, but if you don't mind, it's one of those things that should not be missed!

When I was in India volunteering, I met a Thai Catholic nun, Sr. Monica, who invited me to visit her in Bangkok.  I spent my final 5 days in Thailand with her, staying at the Catholic school her religious order runs.  Since I had been teaching English in India, I asked Sr. Monica if there was anything I could do to help "earn" my keep, since she was putting me up in a nice little studio apartment.  She put me in contact with another one of the sisters, and I spent my mornings with the 4 and 5 year olds in the Montessori classroom.  They were so cute!  I would work with a small group of children for about 45 minutes, using their educational aids to teach them English pronunciation and a few words.  If you get a chance to volunteer in Thailand, take it.  There are so many opportunities and it really made my experience more enjoyable.

Well, there you have it.  This is Thailand: The Good.  Stay tuned for Thailand: The Bad.
The Rough Guide to Thailand (Rough Guides)