Saturday, January 22, 2011

Thailand: The Bad (Taxi Driver Edition)

These longboat taxi's were everywhere in Thailand. You could definitely haggle with the drivers.

(Editor’s Note: 30 Baht = $1)

Since my venture into Thailand started off so promising but then only got worse from there (it wasn’t as bad as that sounds), I left with what Patrick Bateman might call, a negative attitude. As a way to combat that, I’ll first bring up all that I didn’t like about Thailand and finish on the good. Maybe that will help me remember Thailand in a fairer light. So first, the bad.

Doesn't wanna haggle? (This was taken in Malaysia, as this type of sign would never be on a Thia taxi)

I knew Thailand would be different than Malaysia because I wouldn’t be traveling with my mother, which meant less money, no hotel reservations, and the freedom of roaming alone (I’ll get to how that worked out later). From Langkawi, I first headed to the island of Koh Lanta, since a pair of British girls I had met in Kuala Lumpur had spoken so highly of it. I loved Koh Lanta (again, a subject I will get to later), but when I finally reached the dock after a long ten hours of ferry travel, the first thing that happened to me would be a portentous sign of things to come; a native tried to hustle me.

For good measure

There are tons of grafters waiting by the dock when the evening ferry comes in, and they are all trying to rip you off in a variety of ways (motor-bike rental, taxis, tuck-tuck’s [motor-bikes with a cab attached to the side], and ‘resorts’ offering ‘cheap’ rooms or bungalows). It’s one big heist. I didn’t fall prey because I had my bullshit-detector on full force, but here’s how my first conversation went.

Guy: Hey, my friend (everybody uses this in Thailand, including the actual good guys, which makes it’s even harder to detect the bad guys), do you have bungalow?

Me: No, but I’m heading to Long Beach.

Guy: Long Beach… oh, very far. 200 Baht.

Me: It’s the next beach over, so, no.

Guy: 100 Baht.

Me: 50 Baht.

Guy: Oh no, my friend. Way to low. (Speaks to someone in Thai). Long Beach you say?

Me: Yeah.

Guy: Long Beach sold out, no rooms there. (Walks away)

This was a hideously dressed manikin at the night market on Koh Lanta. How are you gonna sell anything with that type of advertisement.

So if I was willing to pay 200 Baht (I later found out that it was almost always 50 Baht to Long Beach), then there are rooms, but when I haggle (and everything, I mean everything, is negotiable in Thailand), it’s sold out? I doubted there wasn’t a single room available in Long Beach (a fact I later confirmed), but it had been a long day and I decided to just grab a room in a guest house near the dock, rent a motor bike the next day, and then find a place in Long Beach for the next few nights. It all worked out fantastically in the end, but it didn’t dawn on me then how ominous that first exchange would be for my remaining time in Thailand. Welcome to Thailand you ignorant tourist, now bend over.

This was the guest house I stayed in on Koh Lanta; actually really nice with friendly service

It wasn’t the last time I had issues with transportation. After an all night 13-hour bus ride to Bangkok from the South, the bus dropped us off somewhere in Bangkok at 4:30 a.m. while all I had was a giant backpack and the address of my hostel. There were cabs, tuck-tucks, and drivers everywhere. I was too tired to haggle, so when a guy said to me, ‘Oh, very far, my friend, 300 Baht,’ I just said okay, and he looked at me like I was crazy. Only after I said, ‘Let’s go,’ did he snap out of his stupor to realize he lucked out with the dumbest tourist on the bus. In actuality, the ride probably only should have cost about 100 Baht. Hell, my three-hour ferry and then 800 km bus ride combined only cost twice as much as it cost to get me the final few kilometers in Bangkok.

I don't have too many pictures representative of me getting ripped off by Thai people, so I just threw in this purty pic to lighten the mood.

But the final straw came 24 hours later, when my Mother (I met her in Bangkok after ten days, after which we flew to Vietnam) and I took a cab at five in the morning to the airport. We were both too tired to notice that the meter was off, but my Mother had flown into Bangkok a few days before, had taken the exact same ride, and knew it should only cost 350 Baht. When we got off at the airport this was the exchange:

Driver: Okay my friend, 1000 Baht.

Me: What, you’ve got to be kidding me? That should cost, at most 500 Baht (my Mother saying over me, ‘350 Baht.’ We’re not exactly the best combo negotiators).

Driver: Oh no, my friend. I get no ride back to town this early in the morning.

Me: (Panning the 5:30 a.m. extremely busy Bangkok International Airport). I’m pretty sure you’ll get a ride in less than twenty minutes.

Driver: 800 Baht.

Me: This is all I got (as I shove 500 Baht into his hand).

The Bungalows that a few of my friends were staying at on Long Beach, Koh Lanta

And it was the truth; it was all the Baht we had left. Either way, we were still ripped off. But that was, really, the last straw for me. I got on that plane thinking, Good riddance, Thailand. The biggest problem with these types of experiences is that I go on my blog, email my friends, or talk to other tourists and all I do is complain about how this guy in such-in-such, Thailand tried to rip me off. Then on the other hand, the cab driver goes back to his garage, house, or coffee shop and complains about a customer bitching about a matter of dollars when the driver is already convinced the customer makes thousands in their job at home (sometimes true). The point is, it breads a dislike or even a hatred. That’s why I hate haggling; someone seems to always come away screwed.

This is a Canadian, Chris, and his mother, Paulette, who rented a tuck-tuck for a day. Unsure of if they got ripped off on the rental price.

See, I worked in the transportation business, in a giant tourist town (Charleston, SC), and I prided myself on being honest and trying, at all costs, to be as fair as possible. I would say the only people I ripped off were the obnoxious drunks and the rich pricks (often times the two categories overlapped), and that was only after I realized they fit the description. I could have made more money, but two things restrained me: my own code of ethics, and pride in my job, company, and city. I could even add family to the latter and then meld the two together. The point is, I wanted people to get off my rickshaw thinking it was well worth the money.

This place definitely didn't rip you off. 60 Baht for some Pad Thai? Plus, it's made on a boat.

One of the things I’ve liked about Georgia so much is the straight forwardness in commerce. A marshrutka from here to here costs this much, every time. You don’t even haggle at bazaars here. It’s no nonsense and there’s clearly a line drawn in the sand. Also, it’s not like they don’t know I’m a foreigner and have little idea how much things cost (most of the time, true). I never feel as if there’s a price for locals and a price for foreigners. I’ve seen a little bit of it in Tbilisi, but as Jesus said, Nobody’s perfect. He said that, right?

The elevated train in Bangkok, which seemed an anomaly in Thailand: well run and cheap.

 (Well, that’s 1200 words on my beef with Thai taxi drivers and I think it’s enough for now. I have a few more bones to pick, which I’ll get to tomorrow, but then I will round it off with some [many, in fact] aspects of Thailand, Thai culture, and even the Thai people that I really did admire).

I don't know if you can call this guy a taxi driver, but he would have probably charged you double what you expected. Plus, is it legal to talk on a cell phone and drive an Elaphant at the same time? In Thailand, probably.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Malaysia Recap

I hurried back to my village in West Georgia only to find out that school does not start until Monday, so I have the next few days all to myself in Bandza. It's cold, half my family is sick, and there is no heat in my bedroom (also on my list of things to do in the next few days, find a space heater). Did I mention it's cold?

In order to combat this oncoming cabin fever, I'll set my mind to spewing out all I can on my winter trip. I never finished my thoughts on Malaysia, so that's first up. Next will be Thailand, followed by Vietnam. Enjoy.

It’s been so long since I was in Malaysia that it’s tough for me to conjure up anything significant or interesting about the country, but there are still a few thoughts hanging around the ole’ noggin’ that I’d like to address. I’ll stand by my initial assessment that it was better than Singapore, although there were still some things that didn't rub with me. Let’s start with the good.

Street sign in Johor Bahru

I found the people of Malaysia to be the most pleasant of all my travels this winter (although the few Turkish people I ran into during my five-hour layover in Istanbul were tremendously friendly). There were definitely plenty of individuals that saw the Western Tourist stamp on my forehead and smelled the money in my pockets (the joke was on them, all the money was in my Mother’s pocket!), but I didn’t see the dishonesty I felt from the Thai people or the hawkers that roamed the backpacker district in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), which I’ll get to in another post.

But for the most part, I found the people in Malaysia to be upfront, honest, and friendly, much like the people of Georgia, and these characteristics are what I value most in a people. It’s why I love Georgia but don’t really care as much for Italy.

The point is, I really liked the people of Malaysia, and although it was tough to get used to all the headscarves on a majority of the women (my Mother corrected me in calling them burqas, which cover everything but a woman’s eyes), it would be irrational of me to criticize that.

I had never been in a Muslim country before we crossed into Johor Bahru a few days before Christmas, but here are a few things I noticed.

Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang. That's one big statue.

Erti – Malaysia isn’t a Muslim country in the same sense that, say, Saudi Arabia is, but I didn’t see one headscarf in Istanbul even though Turkey has much larger Muslim majority (I know it may sound like I'm measuring a country's level of Islamic faith by their female fashion trends, but there's more to it). So it’s tough to rate the importance of religion within Malaysian society just based on dress. But the variety of religious buildings made me feel as if Malaysia were an extremely tolerant society. In between all the mosques (some old with character, others new and tacky) everywhere you looked there were churches, cathedrals, Buddhist temples, and Chinese pagodas. While Malaysia has the mosque with the tallest minarets in the world (Blue Mosque outside of Kuala Lumpur), it also has one of the most famous Buddhist temples (Kek Lok Si Temple) which sits on Penang Island.

The Blue Mosque outside of Kuala Lumpur

Ori – The religious tolerance wasn’t only apparent in the architecture, but also in the amount of Christmas decorations that adorned public spaces and restaurants. Although I don’t know how much of that is based on the Christmas spirit or the shopping spirit. This is something I’m sure I’ll bring up again, but shopping seemed to be a pillar of Southeast Asian culture. You couldn’t throw a stone in Malaysia without hitting a mall or market of some sort. Either way, the mass amounts of Christmas trees and cardboard cutout snowmen were pleasantly surprising. It was especially nice for my Mother who has spent the past three Christmas’ in Muslim countries (Turkey, Afghanistan, and Malaysia respectively). So she’s kind of an expert in the field.17th Century Church on a hill in the middle of Malacca

Sami – While roaming around Georgetown (a city with English origins [hence the name] in the Northeast corner of Penang Island), I wandered onto the property of a Mosque that sat in the middle of downtown. This guy who was sitting in the visitors office invited me in to rest my feet and have glass of water. His name was Kang, he was a member of the mosque but directed tours on certain days, and he was a super nice guy. He didn’t even pass judgment when I told him I didn’t practice any particular faith. Basically, he represented everything I love about meeting new people in new places. Totally welcoming and without even getting to know me, considered me a friend (or brother as he liked to use). This shouldn’t mean much, as there are plenty of people just like Kang that I have met everywhere in the world, but I just think if more people met Muslims like him, they wouldn’t have such a jaded view on the religion.

Another Church in the middle of Malacca (I may be spelling the city wrong, but something I've learned while traveling abroad, there are always more than one way to spell something in English).

There were certainly a few things I found off-putting about Malaysian culture. The cities seemed like they didn’t know what century they wanted to belong to. They would have historic structures from English, Dutch, or even Portuguese imperialism neighboring some monstrosity of a 21st century mall, and then across the street would be some morose 1950’s concrete office building. There just didn’t seem to be a ton of planning put into anything (don’t even get me started on the streets of Malacca).

How can I not include an awesome Shawn Kemp Seattle Super Sonics jersey? Rain Man!

There are probably a few more bones I could pick: the sea pollution on the Southwest coast made it impossible to even stick a foot in the water (mostly due to all the freight traffic that runs through the Straight of Malacca) and the high price of alcohol (although that is to be expected in a Muslim country). But all in all, Langkawi (the farthest island North off the West coast of the peninsula) settled both of those concerns as it was duty free (much cheaper alcohol) and had incredible (and clean) beaches.

The Cameron Highlands (a set of towns that sit on the mountain range that runs down the middle of the peninsula) was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip as well. It lacked the humidity that made Malaysia unbearable at times, while it had much more to do in terms of healthy activities (hiking instead of banana boating, shopping or, drinking on a beach), some stunning views of the high tropical climate and rolling hills, and two vast tea plantations that visitors can tour.

Tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands. That's a lotta Tea.

My ten days in Malaysia definitely provided a fine taste of the country and enticed me to eventually return for a bigger bite (I’d like to check out more of the highlands and also explore the East coast, which is where the better surf is supposed to be, although I don’t surf, so…). I’ll certainly be bringing up Malaysia again as it compares to both Thailand and Vietnam, as there are tons of similarities and slight differences.

I will say that the biggest similarity I found between Georgian and Malay people had to be their disgust for government. I met a ton of Malaysians who only wanted to talk politics, and in doing so, only wanted to complain about their corrupt and dysfunctional government. Definitely reminded me of a few conversations I’ve shared with Georgian men, except the Malaysians speak English.

I didn't much care for Kuala Lumpur, although to be fair, I didn't spend more than 24 hours there, but they did have an awesome National Park smack dab in the middle of downtown. I love a good park.

To make it even more specific, many of the Malaysian men I met (because, to be honest, I just didn’t meet that many women in the country who weren’t English, American, or Scandanavian) would complain about their own government while praising Singapore as the golden standard. I remember when I told Lasha (my host-father who constantly complains about the Georgian government) that I would be meeting my mother in Singapore, he put his thumbs up and said, Singapore… Very good. Great minds think alike, I guess.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Years

A few spare thoughts for your 1/1/11 (it's true whether you write in the American or European style!).

Erti - Malaysians share with Georgians the annoying tendency to play DJ with their mobile phones in public places. In Georgia, you could be trying to enjoy yourself on a marshrutka (if such a thing is possible) when some guy pulls out his phone and begins blasting either Waka Waka or Waving Flag (since those are the only two songs played in Georgia) via their budget mobile.

The same thing happens in Malaysia and I just don't get it. It's probably due to my American sense of respecting other people's surroundings. But apparently, nobody gives a shit in Malaysia... or Georgia. I mean, it happens in America, but usually we have the forethought to play music through descent means, like iPod speakers or a boom-box (if you're still stuck in the early-90s). But is the difference really just a matter of disposable income?

Ori - For some reason, all the cats in Malaysia have their tails cut short. I don't know how it happens, or why it happens, but it is odd nonetheless. I haven't seen many stray dogs in Malaysia (unlike Georgia, which I'm pretty sure is where the stray dogs of Europe go to retire, much like they do with Alabama in the States). But there are a ton of stray cats with nubs for tails who roam the restaurants and beaches. It does make me second guess the "chicken" in the plate of noodles I eat at hawker centers.

Sami - It's late and I have to catch an early ferry to Thailand tomorrow, so I won't go on much further (yes, the two thoughts I could come up with this evening were about cellphone music and cat tails). But I just wanted to thank everyone again for coming here and spending useful minutes on my useless thoughts. I wish the best in 2011. Gilotsva.