Bangkok or bust – a further episode from down under!

OK fellow travelers, you have decided on a holiday to Thailand. You have prepared yourself by buying books and looking at travel brochures. Spoken to your friends who have been there before, and you are ready to experience all that is on offer. Well now I will let you know the things that you don’t know.

This report is generalities because your age, sex, budget, mode of transport and destination are unknown. Therefore for this episode we will concentrate on Bangkok and feature other destinations later. Is that OK? We also assume that you are flying in to Bangkok.

As you approach and prepare for touch down, you can see the size of Bangkok from the window. But only night flights can heighten the sense of excitement as you stare at the fairy lights of the city, which disappear into the distance. Bangkok is immense and not to be taken as a sleepy backwater. After you disembark it is easy to follow the directions or just follow the other passengers to the immigration area where they check your passports, visas etc.

Depending on the time of arrival the duty free shops may be open as well as cafes and retail shops. Toilet and shower facilities are available for your convenience, and very important, there are Automatic Teller Machines located in the walkways. You should use these machines to obtain Thai currency. These machines are connected to the banking system and you will get the best possible rate of exchange without any additional fees.

Once you have passed through immigration descend the stairs and collect your luggage. Now you are required to pass through customs, and lets hope you are not the one with contraband and get caught. Every thing is going good right? As you exit the door to the public area persons offering taxis or cars will swoop you on. If at this stage you have not changed money at an ATM then there is a moneychanger near the door. They don’t give a good rate and charge a fee. Try to avoid this situation.

Now proceed outside and you will see the ‘taxi meter’ stand with lots of cabs. You go to a booth to organize the ride to your destination and there is a surcharge. You [the customer] also have to pay the toll. Now if you arrive on a Sunday tell the driver not to take the toll way, as the traffic is light and no quicker. The shuttle bus is also located in this area and around 70 baht for a ride into town. The train station is across the road, and once again depending on time of your arrival dictates what mode of travel you should take.

For those who are traveling on organized tours someone may pick you up and spirit you away to your hotel. But for the budget or backpacker where every dollar counts, it should be made aware to you that there are thousands of rooms available?everywhere. After check in, it may be time to explore or snore. Factors of age, time and jet lag will determine your activities on arrival. However lets say after 2-4 hours you are ready to explore. Armed with your translator or dictionary or what ever, out you go full of confidence. Use your brains ask the management of the hotel about the immediate area and a few places to see. Perhaps they will suggest a private car or tour. It is not a bad idea for the first day until you get your bearings.

Remember there are some unhappy experiences to be had as well if you fall into the wrong company. But you are an adult now and can handle anything, right? Wrong? Not in a country that speaks a tongue other than your own. Bangkok is not a city for the faint hearted but its vibrancy and love for fun is hard to be beaten. Many beautiful sights can be seen in this city devoted to ‘Sanuk’.

Good Luck and I hope this story adds a little to your life.

Garry

Tuk-Tuk or Taxi?

Tuk Tuk or Taxi“Tuk Tuk or Taxi?” it sounds like one those truth or dare questions doesn’t it? Life’s never easy at the best of times and people are often faced with moral and personal dilemmas. Every day we’re faced with puzzles to solve like “Skimmed or Full Cream?” “Organic or GM?” “Pub or gym?” “Regular or bit on the side?” “Charity box or ciggies?” “Takeaway or home cooked” “Fried or Grilled?” It’s a constant battle of ethics.

Every now and then I get these spiritual urges and they can vary in length and degree. When I spawned an interest in Buddhist philosophy some fifteen years ago I started to look at the world in a different light.

I don’t proclaim myself as an authority on Buddhist matters, or wish to preach, but Buddha does speak a lot of truth. His first ever sermon, and I don’t believe in coincidences was entitled “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth”.

As a lay man my simple interpretation of the Lord Buddha’s teaching, is he aims to end suffering or “Dukkha” which is caused by “Tanha” or temptation. In order to prevent Dukkha, we must avoid Tanha and enrol on the Noble Eightfold Path. I hope people don’t take offence at me having abridged the world’s nicest religion to six lines, but that’s really what it’s all about. The Noble Eightfold Path is a way of life that people adhere to, in which they try to do as little harm as possible to themselves and the environment, and thus reducing the suffering endured by themselves and others.

True conscripts to the Noble Eightfold Path avoid anything that a tortured soul like myself would see as “fun” and regard it as “Tanha” i.e., Marlborough Lights, Carlsberg, Singha, Mekong, Steak Pie and Chips, because it leads to “Dukkha” or suffering, i.e. Sore throat and bad breath, hangover, worse hangover, schizophrenia, and obesity.

If an individual wishes to end their suffering and follow the NEP, they must make sacrifices, which appear to be sufferings (i.e. give up the booze and fags) to actually reduce the long-term suffering.
Now the above examples are pretty obvious cases of Tanha and Dukkha, but among highly ranked monks the debate as to the more “disputed” forms of Tanha and Dukkha has been as long and undulating as the road from Wat Po to Angkor Wat. For example, and this is true it has long been a moot point among Buddhist factions as to whether cleaning ones bathroom with bleach makes us part of the “NEP” because it removes the chance of infection, or whether it is actually a subtle form of Tanha, because it tortures the souls of the poor bacteria we eradicate in the process.

I can already see you scratching your heads and asking “What has all this got to with Tuk Tuks and Taxi’s.”

As a famous Belgian once said, “Soon my Dear Hastings all will be revealed.‚” In simple terms the answer as to whether to “Tuk tuk or taxi‚” is down to the individuals own personal belief. Which of course you can decide on, but let me help lay out a few facts which might help you decide. Anecdotes often make things easier to grasp.

On one of my recent trips to Thailand (I try cash permitting to get there twice a year) I was talking to a couple of guys who’d graduated from some University in California (I think it was the one where they discovered LSD) and they were doing their bit for international relations by getting on a plane to Bangkok and fraternizing with as many different nationalities as possible, whilst underpinning the local economy by liquidizing their assets (much to the delight of the Boon Rawd Distillery). After the introductions were made, the two guys explained that they’d passed with flying colours and were starting off their PhD. One guy was interested in Mechanical Engineering and had scribbled some notes, which he read out to me as being the basis of his doctoral research and it read as follows, “Vehicularisation in Asia. The Tuk Tuk… The tuk tuk embodies a number of innovative design features, which combine the comfort and safety of a motorbike, with the maneuverability of a Winnebago…”

I think it had been a long journey and he also mentioned something about his girlfriend and the baseball team.

The other guys, interests lay in the field of Human Anthropology and Genetics and he mentioned something about having observed traits in Tuk Tuk drivers that were alarming in their similarity to Japanese Kamikaze Pilots and Charles Manson’s band of suicidal evangelists.

Although these guys were a little cynical in their outlook I enjoyed a drink with them (two bottles of Mekong and a lot of Chang) they headed, cursing out into the street and into the path of a Tuk Tuk with an urgent delivery, tripped and came within an inch of the “Wheel of Truth‚” and I sat in my chair and watched, as the driver wrestled with his “Tanha‚” as to whether or not he should give them some first class data for a couple of research programmes entitled “ High momentum impact effects of the motorised trishaw on the human body‚” and “ Healthcare in South East Asia‚” After they got up and staggered into the darkness, I got in an aircon Meter Taxi, muttered NEP and woke up with a whole load of Dukkha.

The history of the tuk tuk, is an interesting one. It,s believed that it,s predecessor the rickshaw, was introduced to Thailand by a Chinese resident in 1871, but was banned in 1901, because of the traffic chaos it caused. By 1950 the bicycle powered version or Samalor underwent a similar restrictive edict and today we are furnished with one of Bangkok’s most congenial features, the ubiquitous tuk tuk.

You can describe them a lot of ways. The first time I saw one I likened it to a “scooter/shopping trolley combination‚” or a “motorbike with a misplaced sidecar‚”. It’s a three wheeled thing with a double seat at the back and a tarpaulin roof. They operate on 250 – 660 cc 2 stroke engines which can easily be converted to LPG thus reducing the environmental harm they do and come in a number of different models, including the “Classic‚”, “Classic X‚”, “Grand‚” or “Sporty‚” models.

As a first time visitor I was quiet taken with their whimsical appearance and romantic charm, then I got in one with my travelling mate.

At first it was great and I smiled with glee as we cornered at high speed and the wind rushed through my hair. I likened it to the rickety old roller coasters my dad took me on as a kid, which made me squeal with delight and him turn green. It was like the first time I went on the “Revolution‚” at Blackpool, the first ride in Britain to do a three sixty degree loop, I was young and care free again and the stress of my office job seemed to wash away into the back of my mind. Then I realised that there was no safety harness. “OK‚” I told myself, I’ve lead an honest life and if we die I’m sure to go to heaven. I did my best to recite the “Hail Mary‚” although it had been a while since I’d called upon the Mother of Christ for assistance.

Then my mate, who had mechanical inclinations, told me that the bearings on the axle sounded “F***ed‚” to use the slang of the trade. To compound matters we hit traffic, and the driver didn’t ease the throttle. I think he was using some sort of Zen technique to guide him through the traffic or maybe he was a Luke Skywalker fan and was “using the force‚”. Anyway using powers that would put Uri Gella to shame, he steered us through grid locked traffic, while lighting a cigarette and showing us some promotional literature for a “Stress Management Centre”.

We stopped at our destination. I asked if he could recommend a dry cleaners. For the remainder of our trip we used tuk tuks and were proud of how we negotiated the prices down. Until someone explained to me that using a “Taxi Meter‚” is actually cheaper and safer and they have air conditioning.

Nowadays when I visit Thailand, and those who prefer to feel the “Ethnic Soul‚” of country will hate me for this, I use the cabs.

It sounds like I’m giving tuk tuks a rough ride and I really don’t mean to, but because of their quaint charm people often feel that they’re quaint and charming. In reality, the drivers can quiet often be scam merchants who get petrol coupons in commission for dropping you at fashion or gem stores, or they try and overcharge you.

In all honesty there are a few tricks to getting the best out of them and I ain’t a guru on Siam, so you’ll forgive me if the odd rogue slips through the net, but a few hints worth remembering are likely to give you a safer trip. Try and avoid tuk tuks who actually tout you, these are the guys on commission. The older tuk tuk drivers are usually less psychotic and have managed to reach maturity through safe driving. Agree the price before you get onboard. Speaking a little bit of Thai (even a couple of phrases from the guide book) makes you less susceptible to a sales pitch or rip off. There is a very useful phrase when you ride in one “Cha Cha‚” it means slowly, or “Mai Rieu Rieu‚” it means not too fast. Try and smile at the driver when you get in and if unless you like breakneck speeds, avoid the ones with an array of lights above the cab, these are the “Sporty‚” versions and the driver is more likely to have “boy racer‚” tendencies.

Tuk tuk’s can weave in and out of traffic if you’re in a rush. Taxis are aircon and closed to pollution. Tuk tuk’s are sometimes a bit scary but an essential part of your trip. Taxis pollute more. Tuk tuks are a little more eco friendly. The other options are walking, motorbike taxis (only of the suicidal).

Like I said earlier, “Tanha‚”, “Dukkha‚” “NEP‚” as they say in Thailand, “Up to you.”

Dominic Lavin