Tuesday, August 09, 2005

I'm in Seoul. At the same Internet cafe I started out at two weeks ago. At that time, I thought $3.00 for an hour's Internet usage was pretty cheap. But that's almost 150 Baht an hour - quite a bit more than the 30 Baht I've become accustomed to paying. How perspectives can change.

My flight to Chicago leaves in about 2 hours. I think it'll take a little bit of time to digest my trip. So many images. So many sights. I suppose it's inevitable to think about the contrasts between the urban hipness and busy-ness of Bangkok and the smaller towns of Chiang Mai, Lop Buri, and Ayuthaya. Which is the real Thailand? The rural areas or the urban center? I guess it's no different that asking the same thing about the US: If the only place a foreign visitor sees is New York, does he get a real picture of America? Or does he need to go to Kansas, too? Probably the latter but looking closely at New York, it's not hard to see that it really is a microcosm for America. I suspect the same thing is true about Bangkok, but it would take spending a lot more time there to really figure that out.

There really is a lot of truth to the usual portrait of Thai people as being friendly and open. Other than all the touts (i.e. scam artists) in Bangkok, it was my experience that people would generally help out whenever I needed.

The touts were really amazing. Yesterday, I was sitting on a bench looking at my map when a guy carrying a bag over his shoulder came walking by, along with a bunch of school kids in uniforms. He stopped and asked if I spoke Thai. I said no and he said that he was the kids English teacher and he could help translate for a tuk-tuk driver if I needed. Then he asked me the big tip-off question that every tout starts out with: Where are you from? So he said he could get me a tuk-tuk ride to the next place I wanted to go for 30 Baht and we'd even go to some extra places. At that point, I said no. After a bit more haggling, he gave up. But I had to give him points for creativity. That bit about being a teacher was pretty good. He did look the part. And the kids were walking by just as he came up. It was a pretty good scam.

But balance that with the people I met in Ayuthaya and Lop Buri and the scales tip heavily to the positive.

Politically, things are a bit dicey at the moment. The newspapers daily referred to the "situation in the south." And the prime minister recently pushed through his version of the Patriot Act, which is much more draconian than we'll ever see in the US. And I was surprised at the lack of news about the US and Europe. You'd never know there was war on by the English language newspapers in Bangkok.

But it's a vibrant country, with a durable culture and a people who have been through a lot. They seem to always manage to bounce back.

Almost time to head out to the airport to begin the long trek home. My flight is at 1:20 a.m. Wednesday morning. I lose a couple of hours going to Seoul but then pick up a day when I cross the date line and get into the states. This time change thing is weird. The upshot is that I spend about 30 hours flying and sitting in airports and end up getting home the same day that I leave. Wednesday.

Today I rented a long-tail boat for a ride around the river and canals. Bangkok used to have a lot more canals, in fact at one time it was known as the Venice of the Far East. But with its rapid growth many of the canals were filled in to create space for roads. Bad move. Now traffic is gridlocked and the river is still a pretty convenient way to get around.

I ran into a couple of school teacher from New Jersey, who saw my WSU luggage tag on my camera bag and introduced herself. Her son went to UM so she had a kind of connection to Michigan. We chatted on the train for a bit. She's here on a 3 week holiday with a colleague and had also been to Chiang Mai. She also went to the Death Train Bridge, which sounded like fun, and to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Both are things I'd like to do sometime.

But at the moment, I'm focused on getting home. Looking forward to seeing more than three TV stations in English (with two of them all news stations), sleeping in my own bed, getting a bagel from Brueggers, and drinking water straight from the tap. It's the little things that add up.