A Travellerspoint blog

November 2008

The Swirling Sands of Time

Into The Desert to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer

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My apologies to anyone who considers our last post a case of over-sharing. I thought it was a pretty humorous situation, even at the time it was happening. But now, back to our regular travel blog with its astute observations and pithy thoughts on India, rather than disgusting diarrhoeaic details...

There is no easy train connection between Udaipur and our next stop, Jodhpur. Rather than risk a public bus when we were still not at 100%, we decided to splurge on hiring a car and driver to make the six-hour trip. Let me tell you, the roads in India are a real experience. Some time in the future (probably when we are back and have a more reliable and speedy internet connection) there will be a post of photos of stuff we saw on the road to Jodhpur. And I mean, ON the road to Jodhpur. Driving in India is not for the faint of heart. Even being a passenger requires some guts -- or a blindfold and Valium.

Jodhpur is magnificent. Lying on the edge of western India’s Great Thar Desert, it seems torn from the pages of a history book. With the huge and imposing Meherangarh Fort guarding bright blue houses tumbling down a rocky red cliff, it is Rajasthan’s most dramatic city...

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Jodhpur: you can almost hear the echoes of the Maharajas’ horns

...and also one of India’s noisiest and most chaotic. The tangle of narrow bazaars in the old city accommodates a ridiculous amount of autorickshaw, motorbike, bicycle, human, and bovine traffic, and the cramped alleyways reflect and even seem to magnify the incessant horns.

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Watch your step -- “cow chocolate” everywhere

In search of a little quiet, we took a jeep ride out into the countryside with Deepak Choudri, a local guide. Deepak is from a region that is home to a sect called the Bishnoi, and he runs tours that raise money for economic and social development, and support local artisan cooperatives.

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That’s a vintage 1959 U.S. Army Jeep that he’s restored

The Bishnoi are farmers and herders who traditionally live in grass-roofed mud huts and are very conservation-minded, protecting the endangered trees and antelope with their lives if necessary. We took a drive out among the villages.

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Bishnoi village, now complete with solar electricity

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Traditionally, Bishnoi women wear elaborate jewellery as a symbol of marriage

We stopped and had chai (sweet, milky Indian tea) with a local family Deepak knew. They spoke almost no English, but the teenage daughters, Sharda and Neema, had a great time getting Lynn all dolled up in local fashion -- Indians really seem to find fair skin fascinating.

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Bishnoi fashion plates -- the latest in desert couture

From Jodhpur, we took an overnight train to the end of the line: the remote outpost of Jaisalmer (JYE-sahl-meer). Rising like a desert dream from the dusty Rajasthani landscape, Jaisalmer really feels like another world.

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”Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore...”

Only 100km from the Pakistan border, Jaisalmer is ancient. Within its massive sandstone fortress, the oldest inhabited fort in the world, lie dozens of golden havelis (traditional merchant mansions built around courtyards).

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Echoes of the silk road caravansarais of the past

As one might expect from its proximity to Pakistan (a fact you cannot forget due to the frequent roar of Indian Air Force jets on patrol), the city has a distinctly middle-eastern flavor. There is a definite frontier-town feel in the air; the streets are a little dustier, the saris a bit brighter, and the turbans a touch whiter than anywhere else. This feels like India’s wild, wild west.

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Everything you need for outfitting your expedition over the dunes

However, Jaisalmer is anything but undiscovered; the whole fort seems to exist for three things: selling food and beds to tourists, selling jewellery and textiles to tourists, and especially, selling camel safaris to tourists.

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The main square of the old city: autorickshaws, cows, and carpets

No one comes to Jaisalmer without going off on a camel safari (ranging from an afternoon to a week), and we were no exception. Choosing a local outfit called Ganesh Travels that is owned by its camel drivers, we joined a small group that drove out into the desert to meet up with our new humpy pals.

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Sweet ride, dude -- tricked out with the cool nose spikes and all

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You ain’t lived ‘til you’ve mounted a camel

I am here to tell you that riding a camel for two days is excruciating -- there are no stirrups, so it’s just you, your *ss, and the camel bumpin’ along the sands. My thigh muscles will never be the same. But it was great fun. Our drivers, Mr. Khan and Mr. Ramadan, were hystically funny. Both of them grew up in the area and have been camel drivers with Ganesh for years (“Camel College -- plenty knowledge!”). One camel in our group had serious need of some Tums, frequently letting loud and particularly sour farts...

“OH my GOD! Camel naughty -- make desert perfume!”

They had a rhyme for everything... “No chapati, no chai, no woman, no cry.” “No hurry, no worry, no chicken, no curry.” I have no clue what the point was, but they cracked us up, bantering as they sat around the fire making vegetable curry and chapatis (whole wheat unleavened bread).

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Chapatis, fried over an open fire then finished in the ashes -- gritty goodness

The Great Thar Desert is desolate but not barren -- in fact, it is the most densely populated desert in the world. There are many villages inhabited by goat and sheep herders among the scrub brush and acacia trees. During the annual monsoon, the desert blooms and they grow wheat where only a few short months later it is just rocks.

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Waning daylight in a Thar desert metropolis

We slept among sand dunes under a pile of blankets -- it gets really cold in the desert. But sunrise over the desert with a cup of hot chai brewed by a turbaned camel driver over an open fire is a pretty darn special morning.

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Posted by Bwinky 00:14 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Toilet Traumas II: The Squatter Strikes Back

The Joys of Delhi Belly in Udaipur

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UPDATE: We were nowhere near Mumbai during the terrorist attacks. Please join us in prayers for the victims and their families.

They say that if you travel to India, it’s going to happen to you. Clinically known as “Traveler’s Diarrhoea” (I do prefer the British spelling; that extra ‘o’ makes the word look so much prettier), everyone on the road calls it simply “Delhi Belly.” No matter how careful you are, inspecting the seal on each bottle of water, carefully assessing the hygiene of every dining establishment, avoiding food that has been sitting out, and washing your hands religiously, it’s just a fact of life. Come to India, and you are almost certain, as travel host Anthony Bourdain so eloquently puts it, to spend some quality time on the “Thunder Bucket.”

Our adventure -- and trust me, this is a story worth hearing -- began at the Pushkar Camel Fair, where we inhaled prodigious amounts of dust and camel fur, both of which we are allergic to. Combined with the toxic goo still stuck in our lungs from breathing the air (and I use the term loosely) in Delhi, we both were feeling the beginnings of some pretty unpleasant respiratory issues as we settled into the evening train ride to Udaipur.

And then came the fatal error in judgement: dinner on the train. It was such simple food; dhal (lentil curry), rice, and chapatis (unleavened whole wheat bread). It looked so innocent. It didn’t even have any meat. Well, something was hiding in there, alive, lying in wait...

As I have discussed in several previous posts, on this trip we are frequently staying with local people that we have met through an online hospitality organization called Couchsurfing. In Udaipur, we were supposed to be staying for three nights with an Indian man named Raj and his family. We arrived late (about 10:30pm) and they welcomed us warmly: Raj and his wife, his two beautiful little girls, and his mother. A really nice family, typical Indian middle class. They have a very pleasant flat in a classic building in Udaipur’s old city. We sat together in the small living room talking for a while, and they brought us some palak paneer (fresh cheese in spinach sauce) to taste -- we think they probably had a whole dinner waiting for us and were disappointed we had already eaten. But we were very tired, so we said we would like to go to bed.

“Alright, no problem,” said Raj. “You and I will sleep in the room across the courtyard, and the women will sleep in the other room here.”

OK, interesting. Not a sleeping arrangement we had anticipated or ever encountered before, but then, this is India and as I said they are a very traditional Indian family. So, putting on our best game faces, we headed off to separate sides of the house to sleep. Interesting and unusual, but certainly nothing we couldn’t handle.

And then, about an hour later, it happened: the Gut Gurgglies. You know what I’m talking about; that ominous feeling of the flood gates at both ends of your stomach being thrown open, emptying its entire contents into the express lanes to the nearest exits. The harbinger of imminent and extreme digestive unpleasantness. “This is Mission Control, T-minus-five and counting...”

I was going to be sick, and I knew it. In someone else’s house.

I got up and went out to scout the bathroom situation. It was just off the courtyard; thankfully not attached to either bedroom area -- not that Raj was likely to hear any unpleasant sound effects considering the depth of his slumber. I opened the door; yep, as expected, it was a squatter. Well, not ideal, but I would make do. Toilet paper? Of course not; this is India, where only foreigners wipe instead of wash. But no problem; I had a roll in my backpack, which was still in the living room. I went to the door to the other part of the house, where the women were asleep.

Padlocked shut.

Apparently they really take protecting their women seriously in India. I did not take personal offense at this, since my own wife was in there as well, though I did pause to consider the implications if there were a fire. But I can’t say I was very pleased with the development. Beginning to feel an urgent situation arising, I went back to the bathroom that would be my personal chamber of horrors for the rest of the night, resigned to the unfamiliar and unpleasant task of washing after each round of fireworks.

Diarrhoea with cramps on a squat toilet is not a very amusing experience. Vomiting into one is worse. The old plumbing leaked water all over the floor, so I had to kind of straddle the puddle, crouching with my knees against the edge of the toilet platform, and get my face quite unpleasantly close to the squatter to avoid missing it. In retrospect I am sure I looked really funny. Say what you want about the squat toilet being more ergonomic for defecation, the western toilet is way better for vomiting.

About 6am, I heard movement (and an unlocking padlock) from the other side of the flat, and I went to find Lynn. She had spent the night attempting not to cough in the faces of the wife and daughter with whom she had shared the bed. One look at my face as I croaked, “Hotel...” and she understood that things had not gone well for me either.

We apologized profusely to Raj and his family for needing to leave and be sick in private. They were all very concerned for us and sorry to see us go. And we were sad to leave -- they were lovely people, and we would have enjoyed getting to know them better. But it’s really hard to be a good guest when you are dreadfully ill. So we caught a lift to a cheap guesthouse and spent the next four days recovering. And there are certainly worse places than Udaipur to be stuck in a hotel room, looking at the view out of your window.

India. It has a way of getting into your head, and your heart.

As well as your guts.

Posted by Bwinky 22:27 Archived in India Tagged health_and_medicine Comments (1)

Of Camels And Castles

Into Rajasthan: The Lakeside Cities of Pushkar and Udaipur

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Rajasthan is the India of dreams: Lying on the edge of the western sands along the Pakistani border, it is imposing fortress walls, swirls of bright-hued saris, and camel caravans into the desert. After two days, we were more than ready to leave Delhi, so we rode off into the domain of the Maharajas, taking an overnight train and morning bus to the lakeside Hindu pilgrimage city of Pushkar.

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Peaceful Pushkar, by its holy lake

The train was pretty normal, but the bus was quite an experience: a brightly-painted old school bus, packed full of excited Indian locals in their Sunday (or whatever day is appropriate for Hindus...) best. And, two bemused Westerners.

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What this picture does not fully capture is that the kids in the front are all singing at the top of their lungs

And the reason for all the hullabaloo?

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The Pushkar Camel Fair, for which we were arriving on the tail-end. It was over-the-hump several days earlier.

Sorry.

Anyway, the Camel Fair is a huge deal, one of the biggest festivals in India, with tribal people from all over Rajasthan coming into town to trade livestock...

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”OK, ten thousand camels, but only because your sister broke a glass!”

...gossip and buy the latest in deserty fashions...

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”So Vikram told Arvind that Nitin likes Kiran, but Deepti told...”

...and strike marriage bargains (I am of course not making this up).

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If you can’t read the bottom, it says “Arrangement of Marriages & Parties”

The Fair coincides with Kartik Purnima, a festival in which the Hindu faithful come to bathe in the waters of the sacred lake where Brahma, the creator, dropped a lotus flower. They go down to the ghats, steps to the lakeshore, and ceremonially wash while saying prayers.

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These are the steps down to the ghats; photos there are not allowed

From Pushkar, we travelled south to another lakeside city: lovely Udaipur, a city of grand palaces. Capital of the kingdom of Mewar, which maintained sovereignty under its proud Maharanas right through ‘til independence from Britain in 1947, Udaipur has numerous palaces ringing, and in the middle of, peaceful Lake Pichola.

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The City Palace, now restored as a museum

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Fateh Prakash Palace next door, a swanky hotel

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Lake Palace, an even swankier hotel, and James Bond hangout

Udaipur is an incredibly romantic place; wonderful for sitting on a veranda, sipping a cocktail as the sun slips below the mountains across the lake. Unfortunately, we didn’t experience a whole lot of that romance, because we were mostly holed up in our room. Stay tuned for exciting details in our next post...

Toilet Traumas II: The Squatter Strikes Back

Posted by Bwinky 23:17 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Juxtaposition

Koh Chang And Delhi: From Island Paradise To Urban Onslaught

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From Bangkok, we took a brief sidetrip north to check out the ruined city of Ayutthaya (eye-YOU-tay-uh). When Europe was just emerging from the Middle Ages, this place was one of the capitals of the world, larger and more splendid than London or Paris. Then the Burmese came in and sacked it, and now it is a sleepy provincial town with a backyard full of evocative ruined temples.

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The way of the world: the sun sets on everything eventually

After the intensity of Bangkok and the preceding month of rushing through Southeast Asia, we needed a vacation from our vacation before taking the plunge into India. So we set off for the Thai coast and the island of Koh Chang, enduring a rather unpleasant five-hour van ride with a group of four French stoners who insisted on smoking in the van, doing more to damage Franco-US relations than Dominique de Villepin. But it didn’t matter once the ferry pulled up to the island.

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Mountainous Koh Chang under a glowering sky

After its food, Thailand is probably best known for its beaches, and its islands are legendary. Swish Koh Phi Phi is too budget-breaking and party heaven Koh Phangan with its beach raves isn’t really our scene, so we opted for Koh Chang both because of its proximity to Bangkok and its status as a National Marine Park, meaning slightly less development. We were just looking for a place to chill out for a few days, and we found it: on the more quiet eastern side of the island, at a secluded beach-side spot called The Souk.

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Nuthin’ but the sound of the surf (and the rain...)

Just what the doctor ordered: for $10 a night, you get your own thatch-roofed, whitewashed bungalow, complete with groovy under-the-bed lighting...

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Note that the drug laws in Thailand are very severe, which I think is sort of too bad because how can you not be tempted when you’ve got a bed like this?

...and trippy tunes in the beachside cabana where Ed, the long-haired hippyish Thai “Head Dude” (so it says on his business card) holds forth behind the bar, mixing a mean margarita.

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Yes, we can see you behind the glass, Lynn

So, after a pleasantly unhurried couple of days of mellowness, we took a deep breath, plugged our noses, and jumped off the pier from paradise into the swirling maelstrom that is Delhi, India.

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Hope you’ve got your hanky handy, because you’re in black snot land now

There is absolutely no way to prepare yourself for India. The noise, the filth and pollution, the crush of people, and the poverty are unlike anything else that I have experienced... ever. We sat on the highway while our cabbie argued with another motorist after a fender-bender on the way into the city from the airport. We sat in the streets -- twice -- while wedding processions with brass marching bands and elephants stopped traffic. We were accosted by beggars with every possible deformity. We witnessed people defecating in the streets. It is, without question, the most soul-wrenching place I have ever seen.

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Delhi: the bazaar of the bizarre

And yet, that is not the only side of Delhi. We were there during a big Sikh religious festival (celebrating the death of one of the gurus, not sure exactly), for example, and at times beauty pierced the ugliness. From colors on the street...

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Offering flowers

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Old Sikh warriors marching in a parade

...to stately architecture amid the decay...

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The Mughal-style Jami Mosque, the largest in India

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The British Raj-era government buildlings -- and note that this is at mid-afternoon, not sunset

...to simple glimpses of the faces of the people being human in a place that drains humanity...

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A gorgeous sari at sunset

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Morning light

...there are moments when Delhi has a certain charm. Moments when grace contrasts with chaos and filth.

It reminds me of some lines by a poetic songwriter named Jeff Johnson:

On and on this cycle goes
Wretchedness and beauty juxtaposed

The modern world often amazes me -- we can wake up on Koh Chang, in a quiet island paradise, and go to sleep in Delhi, a frenetic, seething cauldron. I can't think of two places that are more radically different. The concept of juxtaposition is one that has always fascinated me, pairing two opposites to highlight each other's qualities. The beauty of Koh Chang amplifies the ugliness of Delhi. And yet Delhi's ugliness in a way provides an ideal lens to magnify its charms.

Posted by Bwinky 22:05 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

One Night In Bangkok

Scratching the Seedy Underbelly of Asia

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WARNING: This blog entry has received a PG-13 rating from the Blog Rating Board due to adult content

Bangkok: Oriental setting
And the city don’t know what the city is getting

Actually, this city knows perfectly well what it is getting: tourists, in droves. Bangkok’s attractions along the Chao Phraya river are well-known, and we hit them: the Grand Palace, Wat Pho temple.

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Bangkok’s gilded Grand Palace

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”This enlightenment stuff is hard work; feels good to take a load off”

But we had an impulse to dig deeper into what makes Bangkok tick.

This grips me more than would a
Muddy old river or Reclining Buddha

For a significant portion of those who come to Bangkok, this city means one thing...

Sex.

Thailand, dubbed the “Land of Smiles” for the friendliness of its people, has built quite a business of putting smiles on the faces of lonely men (and yes, women too) from around the globe who come there for the sole purpose of getting their rocks off. The “sex tourism” industry -- and it is definitely an industry -- is practiced almost as openly in Bangkok as the silk trade. And it is just as smooth.

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In the lobby of our hostel

So as night fell we set off, curiousity piqued and guard up, to observe Bangkok’s nocturnal offerings.

One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky, then the god’s a she
I can feel an angel walking next to me

Our first stop was the brightly-lit commercial strip of Sukhumvit Road, home to the Mambo Cabaret, one of Bangkok’s most famous floor shows. Muscular young Thai men in tuxes dance to hits Asian and Western with lip-synching chorus girls strutting their stuff in feathers and sequins.

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”You’re just too good to be true, can’t take my eyes off of you...”

It’s classic Vegas-style schtick, but with a twist. The chorus girls... aren’t girls.

They’re transexuals. Very convincing, and very beautiful, they are kathoey (“third gender”), or “lady boys.” This has a long history in Thailand and is an accepted part of the culture, and Bangkok has them in spades. Many of them practice the street trade, which could make for a big surprise for a unsuspecting customer, since many of them are impossible to distinguish from the real thing.

But the Mambo Cabaret is more cheese than sleaze; it’s just good clean fun with great choreography, flashy costumes, and... umm... chicks with... well, you know.

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”Dude looks like a lady...”

After the end of the cabaret show, we set off for someplace a bit darker, and more historic.

”Tea girls, warm, sweet
Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite”

Get Thai'd! You’re talking to a tourist
Whose every move's among the purest
I get my kicks above the waistline, Sunshine

During the Vietnam war, American GI’s came to Bangkok on R&R, and the center of action was a soi (side street) that went by the name of “Cowboy.”

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Echoes of ”Hey Joe, me love you long time!”

Soi Cowboy is still going strong 40 years later, and remains an underworld circus of cheap beer joints, go-go bars (where the dancers wear bikinis -- ironically, Thailand is quite conservative about public nudity), and hostess clubs. In these establishments, “hostesses” are waiting to engage in flirtatious conversation with you for as long as you are willing to buy them outrageously expensive drinks.

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Waiting outside for customers

Hit it off with your new “friend”? Simply go to the bar and pay the “bar fine” to allow her to leave with you. Any further negotiation is between you and her.

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The girls come with numbers for easy identification -- and dehumanization?

Let it not be said that the Thais in this business don’t have a sense of humor, though...

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Now that’s what I call truth in advertising

And they aren’t lying -- we saw some real elephants on that street.

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I did say it was a circus, didn’t I?

You can’t visit Bangkok without noticing a certain phenomenon. There are a lot of older -- and often bald and pudgy -- farangs (foreign men) walking around with young, hot Thai women. This has become so common that there is a slang term for it: “Nana couples.”

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Oh yeah, she’s out of his league, alright

The name comes from the Nana Entertainment Complex, a three-story outdoor strip mall of bars, pool halls and dance clubs, all of them featuring women who are in business. Everything you could want, under one roof -- makes comparison shopping easier, I suppose.

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A veritable one-stop sin emporium

I asked the young woman who worked at the desk at our hostel what she and other Thais thought about this. Did they look down on their countrywomen who take up with farangs for economic reasons?

“Yes,” she nodded. “We don’t really approve. But at the same time, many of them come to Bangkok from very poor areas of Thailand, and they have no other skills. They are just trying to make a better life for themselves. So even if we don’t approve, we don’t really condemn them, either. I can understand their choice.”

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstacy

And as we walked around that night, and the days since, I started to notice a pattern in my thinking. I found myself becoming suspicious of nearly everyone that I passed on the street.

One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company

That well-dressed and attractive young Thai woman getting off the Skytrain...

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Is she just gorgeous and out for a night on the town, or is she open for business?

That older farang pausing at a food stall near Soi Cowboy...

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Is he just a friendly guy out for a snack, or a sex tourist taking a break between bar girls?

That Westerner and local woman sitting together at the restaurant where we ate dinner...

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Is the basis of their relationship love, or money?

Awareness can be a dangerous thing. When your eyes are opened to what’s really going on around you, it changes your perceptions. The “Land of Smiles” can all too easily become the “Land of Leers.” Sometimes maybe it’s better to keep your eyes closed.

I can feel the devil walking next to me

  • * *

Disclosure: Should go without saying, but most of the background information for this post comes not from personal experience, but from a website called “Stickman’s Guide to Bangkok,” which is recommended in Lonely Planet as a pretty palatable look into this world.

Song lyrics for One Night In Bangkok from Chess by Tim Rice. Copyright sometime in the ‘80s, but I’m pretty sure this falls under the fair use clause anyway, so who cares.

Posted by Bwinky 02:30 Archived in Thailand Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

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