Monday, January 5, 2015

Throwback Travels IV: Thailand, not a "no man's land" (June 2012)

This blog entry contains fragments of stories and observations of my first travel abroad with one of my best friends, Harold. We spent our weekend in Thailand and visited the famous Buddhist Temples, the Floating Market, and Elephant Village, among others. Of course, we spent our last Thai bahts for shopping! They say that when you write about your travel experiences, it’s as if you are travelling all over again. So come on, join me with my journey!

June 22, Before Flight

The trip to Thailand was my first travel abroad. The flight was booked in April and Harold was the one who called me up and convinced me to take the seat sale of Cebu Pacific. Harold had been in Thailand before, so it was very generous of him to go back to the Land of the Free, just to serve as my tour guide. With all the experiences he had before, I was pretty sure that the trip would be exciting.

My things were packed the night before our departure. I made sure that I had enough clothes to sustain me during our entire stay in Thailand. In the morning, however, when I was about to leave, I almost forgot the most important thing that must be brought – my passport! It was my mom who reminded me about my passport, and good thing, I was able to secure it before I stepped out of the door.

The first mark on my passport!
We were supposed to be in the airport by 7pm or 2 hours before the flight. Thus, I should be leaving the office by 430pm because the Friday EDSA traffic could be as disastrous as you could possibly imagine. But, unexpectedly, my meeting with the Chairman ended at 5pm (I was the one who gave the presentation)! I rushed out of the door as soon as the meeting was over and hoped to find a cab that would bring me to NAIA 3, since I was carrying a bulky luggage. But I could not find a cab! So I rode a jeepney going to EDSA and took a bus afterwards. I was standing inside the bus, carrying and moving my luggage left and right to give way to people riding off. It was stressful. I was looking at my phone constantly to check on the time. Harold was already in the airport while I was still in Makati. As soon as we reached Taft, I alighted the bus. Like a lightning, I dashed towards the approaching cab and told the driver to bring me to NAIA 3 the fastest way he could. We reached the airport at 715pm. According to Harold, we would still be admitted until 730pm. Buti na lang!

I found Harold waiting at the Commission for Filipino Overseas (CFO) booth. He works for the said government agency so it was fine. He was wearing the Ateneo Blue Eagle mascot cap which became his identifying item of clothing from thereon. We checked in and paid the necessary fees. I found out that it is only in the Philippines where travel taxes are being collected – well, the fees are supposed to be spent on the upkeep of the airport where walkalators do not move and where CCTV cameras are malfunctioning (remember the Claudine Barretto-Mon Tulfo incident?)

Japanese dish for dinner, 2 hours before the flight!

We decided to have our dinner at a Japanese fastfood inside the airport. While we were eating, we could hear the drilling and hammering from the on-going construction works done  beside the fastfood. What a lovely sound, indeed!

At the waiting area, I saw my college colleagues Jules and Angie who were also bound to Thailand for, guess what, just shopping! They came from office on a Friday and would leave Thailand on Monday morning so they could still report for work on the same day.

Our flight was 15 minutes delayed. But when we got on board, everything went smoothly. Oh, not really. We couldn’t sleep well because the foreigners seated before us stinked! We just covered our nose and ordered hot chocolate drink to have a relaxing 3-hour flight to Thailand.

June 23, Day 1

Talking walkalators, yes they are working!
We were suspended in the air for about 20 minutes prior to landing on Suvarnabhumi International Airport. From above, I could see the magnificent view of Thailand at night – all the lighting, the structures, everything. Thailand’s airport was just amazing. It’s made of steel and glass; truly modern in terms of design. I was observing and comparing NAIA to  Suvarnabhumi International Airport while we were walking: their walkalators were not just “walking”, but “talking” as well; the walls had art installations and landscaping, and not telecoms or real estate lightbox advertisements; and most of all, it was very neat and orderly.

After passing thru the scanners and picking up our luggages, we went to the Foreigh Exchange and had our dollars converted into Thai baht (Yes, we needed to bring dollars because you could only bring up to P10,000, or you’d be charged with money laundering). I had around 15,000 Thai baht  with me after the conversion.

I noticed that Thai baht bills vary in size depending on value. For example, in terms of size, 1000 baht is bigger than 500, 500 is bigger than 100, and so on. The face of the king is imprinted on the bills.

Thai baht bills comparison: size decreases with the amount

We went straight to the travelling agency and selected our preferred tour. Harold was able to haggle the price being offered to us to 1,600 baht for city tour, Temple Tour, and Floating Market tour. Elephant ride had to be paid separately.
Harold arranging our tour with the agency

Going to First Hotel, the hotel that Harold booked on-line, we needed to ride a cab that cost us 500 baht. Cabs in Thailand were multi-colored – they had yellow, green, and hot pink cabs! Also, I noticed that cabs are called “taxi meter”; “taxis” in Thailand are actually the “tuktuks” (“Tuktuks” are similar to our tricycles here in the Philippines. The difference is that it’s quite pricey to ride in these “tuktuks”.)

Posing beside the "hot pink" taximeter

Along the way to our hotel, I noticed that Thailand’s road structures were similar to ours. I really felt at home because the place seemed familiar. When we reached the hotel, it was 1am.  We bought packed spicy Thai food that cost 29 baht at the convenience store beside the hotel. That was our midnight snack.

Our very first "meal" in Thailand

First Hotel was a pleasant hotel to stay in Thailand. It’s situated in Bangkok, just a walking distance to the malls and markets which we would visit on our second and third day. We only paid 4000 baht for 3 days/2 nights stay with free buffet breakfast! We had 2 comfortable beds, a cable TV (that showed selected channels only, most of which I could not understand), a personal refrigerator, and a spacious toilet and bath with bath tub! The only downside of the hotel was that it didn’t offer free Wi-Fi, so we could not do real-time updates. You needed to pay 60 baht for 15 (or 30)-minute usage of Wi-Fi. Excited for the tour in the next 6 hours, I took a shower and slept.

Our comfortable beds

Wall-mounted TV
Toilet and bath with bath tub!

Day 1-Breakfast

A wide selection of mouth-watering buffet breakfast was served in the hotel. They had Halal (food that Moslems could eat), Western, and Oriental food. I had rice, noodles, bacon, pork sausages, dried anchovies, peanuts, ham, bread with butter and marmalade for breakfast. It was free (or better, I paid for it) so I should maximize it!
Wide selection of delectable breakfast!
I ate these...
...and these! Whooahh!!!

Day 1 – Tour: Buddhist Temples and The Grand Palace

Mr. Chai, our Thai-Chinese tour guide picked us up from the hotel at 8am. While navigating through the city on our way to the famous Buddhist Temples, I noticed that the photos of the king were all over the place. As a constitutional monarchy, Thailand and its people revere their king. I saw Chulalongkorn University, the premier university in Thailand similar to our own UP, on our way to our destination. Also, it was a fascinating to see Bangkok’s waiting sheds: they have built-in lighted billboards, that made the streets clean. And when I say clean, they were really clean!
The typical waiting shed in Bangkok.
Notice how they do advertising. 

It was sunny in Thailand when we had our tour. Actually, the temperature was hotter compared to the Philippines. In the first Buddhist Temple that we visited, we needed to take off our footwears to pay respect. Buddhist Temples were swarmed by a lot of tourists. Thailand preserves these areas as they generate huge amount of money from them. According to our tour guide, there are 7 Buddhas, representing each day of the week. Among the striking ones were the Monday Buddha (the one with raised palm, displaying “stop” gesture), Tuesday Buddha (reclining Buddha), and Saturday Buddha (the one with snakes at the back). From the temple, the view of Thailand’s Chinatown could be seen.

Posing before the image of the king

Behind us was the Chinatown!

Parade of Buddhas!

Passing by the Chinatown

This was where we put our footwears.
We went to Wat Pho where the gigantic reclining Buddha put me in awe. We said our prayers first and offered some lotus flowers. Shoes must be taken off as well. We were given cloth bags which would contain our footwears; we needed to bring these bags with us while going around the temple. Inside the hall where the reclining Buddha was located, another ritual must be done, i.e. dropping 20 baht worth of coins into the long stretch of metal plates. The funny thing in this experience was, while you were dropping the coins, immediately behind you were temple personnel collecting the coins! The clanking sound of coins, though, was music to the ears.

The gigantic reclining Buddha - awesome!
Tourists visiting Wat Pho

Roaming around, we saw various sizes of stupas. As per Mr. Chai, the bigger ones were for the members of the royalty, while the smaller ones were for the members of the government, or something like that. “Guards” were stationed at the portals. More golden Buddhas were scattered inside Wat Pho! We were also lucky, according to our tour guide, to be able to chance upon a congregation of monks. Rarely does it happen that they gather, so we took advantage and had some photos with them!

The "portal guards"
And more Buddhas!

Posing with the monks

Tourists paid respect to the Emerald Buddha, located inside the compound of The Grand Palace, whenever they visit Thailand (Honestly, I expected that the Emerald Buddha would be bigger than its actual size.)
The Emerald Buddha (hardly seen)

Thai temples and statues of mythical characters were just amazing. From the tour, I learned that Cambodia’s Angkor Wat was actually built by a Thai king when Cambodia was still under Thai rule. That’s why there’s a model Angkor Wat the Grand Palace.
A sample of a mythical character
The replica of Angkor Wat

The Grand Palace is a magnificent structure, inspired by Thai and English architecture. According to Mr. Chai, the upper half of the structure was Thai and the lower half was English/Western.

The Grand Palace: fusion of Western + Thai architecture

Harold, discussing with Mr. Chai, our tour guide
Apart from the Grand Palace, we’re able to visit a museum where it’s not allowed to take photos. We got some juicy bits of information about the Thai royalty from our tour guide. He mentioned that the king was ailing and he could not transfer the throne to the crown prince because the people do not “love” him. Also, there was a sort of conspiracy that happened before because the previous king was killed and nobody knew who did the crime. Rumors spread around, saying that the present king actually ordered the killing of the previous king. Weeewww!!!

We went to jewelry store afterwards where we had a funny story of discrimination. We were planning to buy jewelry as gift to our friends and families. In the first store, we were asked what our nationality was, and we said Filipino. The lady offered us jade, which she mentioned, “cheap” and “for good luck”. When we declined and said we would think about it, she said “up to you!” and hid the jewelry in the box quickly. In the second store, we were asked of our nationality again, and when we mentioned Filipino, another “cheap” type of jewelry was offered to us. When a Caucasian family came in, they were led to the other side of the store. When we declined and said we would think about it, the man assisting us said “up to you!” and hid the jewelry in the box quickly. Rather, more quickly.

Macdonald doing the "Kapon ka"
Mr. Chai, as part of the tour and his job, should bring us to these shops. One shop that we hesitated to go into, but was forced to go in, anyway, was this made-to-order suits shops owned by Indians. Because we would not be buying despite their persistence, we just said we do not wear such clothes because Harold was a dancer and I was a student. They let us go.

It was a fun-filled day, indeed. I learned to say “sawasdee ka” (hi!) and “Kapon ka” (thank you, which varies depending on gender). Oops, by the way, Ronald Macdonald was in Kapon ka gesture here in Thailand.

Day 1 – Patpong

One of the most famous places in Bangkok was Patpong, or the red-light district of the city. Here, sexy shows by all sexes, male, female, and lady boys are legal. We visited Patpong that night just to see how it looked. We also had our dinner of spicy Thai food, but we never entered any of the establishments that offer these shows. We’re saving our money for shopping. But next time that I’m in Thailand (I know I would be back), I’d visit and see these shows.

Thailand's "Red Light" district
Dinner at Patpong

June 24, Day 2

Day 2 – Floating Market and Elephant Ride

At the Floating Market
After having our breakfast, our Floating Market and Elephant Ride tour guide fetched us from the hotel. Inside the van were a Filipino couple from Davao, three Caucasian, and an Egyptian doctor whom we became friends with.

Colorful and vibrant, Floating Market seemed familiar.  It looked like a flooded market in Malabon, but was dressed up and branded to attract tourists. Several goods were being sold in the Floating Market – street food, fruits, and souvenir items, among others. Paddle boat rides cost 150 baht per person. This was over and above what we paid for the tour.

Elephant ride was thrilling!
At the Elephant Village, we’re able to ride an actual elephant, her name was Shirley. It was my first time, and it was both fun and exhilarating! The most thrilling part was when the elephant dipped and walked into the waters! It’s as if you would fall! Before the end of the ride, the elephant master/guide would offer jewelry made of ivory from elephant’s tusks. Oh, most of the elephants were owned by these guides. It’s the family legacy bequeathed to them; each member has his/her own elephant to raise and get earnings from.

We went to a furniture shop and saw some intricate and superb pieces of work. Of course, we took advantage of these attractive backgrounds and took photographs of ourselves!

Taking advantage of the attractive props!

There we met 2 Filipinas who became our Facebook friends later on: Ms Edge and Ms Sharry, who work for Shell. They went with us to find best buys in Chatuchak, which according to Harold, was their Divisoria. Chatuchak opens on weekends only.

At Chatuchak, we had our lunch. In fairness to the place, despite being a “Divisoria”, it was really clean! It’s not smelly just like how Philippine wet (and dry) markets are. Wastes were properly segregated and disposed, and you would not feel that you’d be robbed by someone anytime. We’re able to buy some 50 baht worth of clothes, but really, according to Harold, prices already went up.

We parted ways with our newfound friends, and promised to help them tour the city the next day to find the best bargains. We went home, freshened up and walked to Platinum, a mall selling fashionable clothing. We bought long and short sleeved polos, shorts, and bags at very affordable price. For example, a long-sleeved polo which cost around P800 in Manila cost only 200 baht in Thailand (or roughly around P300).

In the evening, we just bought bread from the bakery of the hotel and went to a nearby internet shop to “connect to the world” and check-in on-line. Well, we’re able to check in, but we couldn’t print the validation document because the hi-tech internet shop didn’t have a printer! We also sent message to Harold’s aunt (Tita Mean) to pick us up from the airport on June 26.

June 25, Day 3

Day 3 – Pratunam

We started our day buying pasalubong at Pratunam Market. Wow, the best bargains were there! We bought Thai pasalubong from a store owned and manned by Filipinos. I bought bags, shirts, and shorts for my mom and my sister, shorts for my cousins, and some clothes for friends. Of course, I should not forget the refrigerator magnet.

Platinum Center Coupon Booth
We went back to the hotel, packed our things, and checked out. We left our bags at the lobby and promised to pick them up at 7pm. We searched for an internet shop where we could have our on-line check in validation printed. We went to the mall that sells computers and gadgets and to our surprise, no computer shop is available! Interesting information: malls (at least the ones we visited) didn’t have Wi-Fi. It’s an order from the government, for security purposes. Good thing we asked the information center at Platinum and we’re directed to a t-shirt printing store. The store had a printer and we begged the lady to allow us to access the internet and print our document. We had our lunch at their foodcourt, which was another remarkable feature of the mall. At the food court, they would issue stored value coupons (like MRT cards), which you would present to the store where you wanted to buy food. The store would swipe the card and return the card to you. You could either use up the entire value of the card, say 100 baht, or return it to the booth and asked for your change.

What I ate at Platinum Food Center

After having our lunch, we visited Isetan, a high-end mall in Bangkok. In front of the mall, a Buddhist ceremony was happening. We never bought anything from Isetan and instead, returned to Platinum. When we’re looking for additional things to buy, our friends (Edge and Sharry) saw us because of Harold’s famous hat! We accompanied them to Pratunam, and they were so glad to find the cheap items! They bought baht worth of accessories worth 15 baht each!
Isetan, a high-end mall in Bangkok

Pratunam closes at 4pm (or 5pm), so it was good that we were there just before it closes. We’re able to find another Filipino-owned store where we booked the cab that would pick us up at 7pm from First Hotel to the airport. We returned to Platinum and had our dinner. We introduced our two friends to the coupon system in their food court. After parting ways, Harold and I went to Starbucks and bought Starbucks Thailand tumbler. I decided to collect these tumblers to signify the countries I had been.

7pm – To the airport

First Hotel's weighing machine
We had our luggages weighed using First Hotel’s weighing machine. Weighing services cost 5 baht. That left us with only 20 baht. Luckily, our respective luggages did not exceed the 20 kilo-limit. The cab that we hired picked us up at 7pm. It was good that we left early because Bangkok road traffic was hell! Of all the experiences we had, this trip back to the airport was the one I did not want to do all over again. It was definitely worse than EDSA traffic! The driver of the taxi got our 20 baht to pay for toll, leaving us with no baht at all! We reached the hotel after 2 ½ hours.

No security guard checked us upon entrance. High tech security surrounded the airport so no “human intervention” was needed. However, we still needed to go through the usual scanning. One would not be allowed to pass through unless “beeping” (due to presence of metal accessories on the body) stopped.

Wi-Fi was available at the airport but the password must be secured from the information desk which was very distant from where we’re waiting. We met an Australian civil engineering student, a girl, whom we had chat with, before we got on board. She would be going to Amsterdam for a vacation. Cebu Pac flight back to Manila was again delayed and we’re already hungry.

June 26 – Back to Manila

We landed in Manila at 5:30pm and we were picked up by Tita Mean and her husband. The trip to Thailand was indeed an experience to remember. It bonded me and Harold tighter as friends. Now, whenever “Payphone” by Maroon 5 plays, memories of Thailand revisit my mind. It became our “national anthem”. I also learned to love Jason Mraz because in MTV China (yup, not MTV Thailand), he’s the only artist I knew. There was a special documentary about him and I appreciated how he changed to become an ambassador against human trafficking. (Aside from Mraz, a new artist, Rita Ora dominated the channel!) I know, we’ll be sharing more travels abroad in the future. And I am looking forward to that.

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