Sunday, March 13, 2011

ASIAN ODYSSEY PART FIVE--THAILAND--BANG FOR THE BUCK IN BANGKOK
















We continued our odyssey through Southeast Asia, crossing the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Our ship docked at the port of Laem Chebang where, across the street is an enormous truck factory with thousands of Japanese trucks and cars parked in the lots. Even the Japanese farm out their manufacturing jobs--in this case, to Thailand.


Thailand, a country of 65 million people, used to be called Siam--until 1949. The Siamese were best known for twins and cats. Siam is a name derived from the Indian Sanskrit language. Apparently they decided to change the name of the country to intellectually distance it from foreign powers. Thailand is said to mean "land of the free" to express pride that it was never colonized by Western powers. That is true, although the French did try. To remain independent, Thailand's 19th Century rulers adroitly exploited the rivalry between the British and French in neighboring Burma and Indo-China.


As in the other countries of Southeast Asia, the principal religion is Buddhism, and there are numerous temples decked out in the unique Thai style. Incidentally, the Thai word wat mean temple as in the Cambodian Angkor Wat. Our guide explained the Buddhist religion with one word--karma. It means what goes around comes around. Buddhist are taught not to kill, steal, lie or commit adultery. That part sounds like some of the Ten Commandments.



Another common Thai word is bang which means "city" or "town". Thus, the biggest bang for the buck is "Bangkok", but we also have Laem Chebang, and many other cities with bang in them.


The country is ruled by the King, Bhumibol Adulyadej (don't ask me to pronounce it) who is now 84 years old. He has reigned since 1946 and is revered as a god. Criticizing him can land one in jail. His pictures are all over the place, but they were taken 30 years ago.


Close to our port is the large city of Pattaya, which is known as the sin city of Thailand. There is no gambling there (except maybe with your life), but much prostitution. The age of consent there is about 9. It is reputed that men from all over Asia and even American go there if they are into girls, guys, kids, transgender, you name it. The word was spread by American GI's who went there for R & R during the Vietnam War. Today it is illegal (in the U.S.) for Americans to travel there for such immoral purposes. Other than the aforementioned nightlife, Pattaya has museums, parks and looks like any other modern city.


BANGKOK


Whatever the case, we chose not to travel there. We went the other direction, about 100 miles to Bangkok, the nation's capital and largest city. Bangkok is a city of 9 million straddling the Chao Phraya River. It it filled with waterways and canals and is often referred to as the Venice of the East. The 10-12 lane superhighway to Bangkok was well maintained. As in Vietnam and other countries we visited, it was a toll road. Along the way, we saw coconut and tapioca plantations. As we entered Bangkok, we passed the modern Suvarnabhumi ("golden land") Airport which has a monorail train connecting into downtown. The airport has a Chicago connection--it was designed by architect Helmut Jahn. The monorail was built by the Germans and Chinese.


Bangkok has some very beautiful attractions. The largest and most beautiful is the Grand Palace which is a combination of a historical Disneyland and the House on the Rock. This is a place where God would live if He had the money. The "wow" factor is evident at every turn where one sees a new pagoda or a brightly painted temple in the unique Thai architecture. The Grand Palace is the official residence of the kings of Thailand since the 1700's. The King doesn't live there now, but they still use it for official functions.


In building it, they started small, and every time they accumulated some money, they built another structure, and these structures are awe inspiring. The most spectacular is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) which we removed our shoes and visited. It was completed in 1785 as the King's personal place of worship.


In Bangkok's Chinatown we explored Wat Traimit, the Temple of the Golden Buddha. As you've probably determined from my previous articles, the Buddhists spare no expense in religious extravagance, and I mean that in a positive way. Because Dianne was still wearing a cast on her foot, we were shown to a private elevator and whisked to the 4th floor to see the famous statue.


This is the world's largest solid gold (actually 83% gold) Buddha, 15 feet tall and weighing in at 5 1/2 tons. With gold selling for $1400 or so an ounce, the U.S. could balance the budget with this thing. This statue was cast during the 13th Century and was covered with plaster and lacquer, probably to discourage looters. The authorities didn't known what they had until 1955 when they decided to move it to its present location on the 4th floor at Wat Traimir. While moving it, the ropes broke, and some of the plaster chipped off, revealing the gold underneath. The Buddhists enforce a dress code, and everyone must remove their shoes and hats to go into the temple. Shorts are not allowed. If a tourist shows up wearing them, they are given baggy, gaudily printed pajama pants to wear inside and look ridiculous. Some members of our group did look awfully silly wearing them.


We boarded a boat for a ride down the river and canals among the colorful small boats and water taxis. Merchants load their goods on small boats and sell them to the inhabitants living along the river in their quaint houses.


In the markets we could find good bargains in jewelry and carved elephants. The outdoor grills and food stands smelled good, but we weren't sure if our stomachs could handle it. On the traffic congested streets, tuk-tuks are the favored mode of transportation. These are small taxis, about the size of golf carts, weaving in and out of traffic. They are named for the sound of the small engines. We were told to steer clear of con-men, which is good advice in any major city.


KO SAMUI


On our second day in Thailand, we visited Ko Samui, a trendy island filled with resorts and beaches, not to mention coconut and rubber plantations. We tendered to shore because the

port city, the famous Nathon, doesn't have the facilities to handle large ships. Our ship was anchored a mile or two offshore. We signed up for the tour to see the Namuang Safari Park, a cultural theme park, we we could get up close and personal with the elephants.


The entertainment at the safari park included watching the trained monkey (on a leash) climb the coconut palm tree and throw down the coconuts. The locals gather up the coconuts and use one gadget to split the coconuts in half and another to scoop out the meat into a bowl. They then pour water into it and mash it into a gooey paste and make delicious coconut milk.


The other attraction is the elephant rides. We climbed onto a platform so we could step off onto the animal's back into a chair seating two. Dianne was still wearing a cast on her ankle and carrying a crutch, but she was able (with great difficulty) to balance on the fidgety elephant to climb on. The driver sat directly on the elephant's head. The elephant started walking up and down the trails through the jungle for probably a mile or so. The trails are very narrow and flanked by rocky outcroppings. The 9 foot tall elephant sways from side to side, and you'd better hang on tight, because if you fall, you're dead, literally. The drop off down to the river is very steep and rocky. this was scary! Fortunately for us, the elephant completed the trail without incident, and we gratefully climbed off.


After the elephant ride, they presented a circus type show in which the elephants climbed onto platforms and stood up and performed other tricks like spinning hula hoops. They talked an unfortunate tourist volunteer into lying down while the elephant put his foot on the tourist's back. The elephants are well trained, and no tourists were trampled that day. We got some good photos when they brought the elephants over so we could pet them while they ran their trunks over us.


Indian elephants are significantly smaller than their African cousins, but they still weigh a few tons. They eat over 500 pounds of food a day, including bananas, leaves, papayas and even peanuts. They also drink a lot of water. They leave deposits along the trail, the size of softballs.


Before we left, we saw on the news that Thailand and Cambodia were fighting s shooting war on the frontier, but we saw no evidence of it on our trip. We haven't heard any more about it, and don't know who won, but we didn't have a dog in that fight.


NEXT: Singapore, the Alpha Asian Tiger


KENNETH SUSKIN

3/13/11

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Darryl said...

Actually the 4.5 tons at 83% gold would be about 146,000 oz at $1400 per oz would be about 200 million or so. That's not even a drop in the bucket. Maybe a drop in a swimming pool if you consider all the unfunded obligations.

March 14, 2011 at 2:32 PM  

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