Getting some good karma in thailand
For my first vacation outside Korea, I was torn between Thailand and the Phillipines, but when I learned that some friends were having a convention in Thailand, I decided to go with the flow, because they say the flow knows where to go.
On the flight to Bangkok I got a free upgrade to business class, so maybe I was on the right path.
My mood changed, however, during the 40-minute cab ride from the airport to Bangkok. The ride was stressfully fast with no seatbelts and major road bumps — plus the driver ignored my request to slow down, a taste of things to come.
In Bangkok I stayed at the Top Inn, a tiny hotel in the heart of Khao San Road, a sweltering beehive of activity that looks like a cross between Itaewon and Tijuana, Mexico. Khao San is an international mishmash of dreadlocked backpackers, old tin roofs, grime, street vendors, crippled beggars on the dirty streets, young working girls and pensive feral cats slithering down alleyways.
The Top Inn had no TV or hot water and was perfect. There was no need for hot water and the staff was gracious. The Internet was only pennies and good, cheap restaurants were steps away.
In Bangkok I bought a one-day package tour for about $35 and for the first two hours, it was the tour from hell. After a late start, our van driver drove recklessly to make up time. Jammed with nine tourists, the van had no seat belts, marginal tires, bad shocks and a high center of gravity — a death trap on wheels. Our “driver” spoke English at his convenience and passed literally every vehicle on a two-lane road while giggling on his cell phone, chain-smoking steering with one knee and chortling through a red light.
Two British women and I finally badgered him into slowing down. For the record, he did improve his hospitality and customer service later and won me over.
On the tour we enjoyed the floating market, touched tigers at a monastery and walked across the Bridge on the River Kwai near Burma.
The Thai-Burma Railway Center was fascinating and I whistled the song from the 1957 Oscar-winning movie.
A highlight of Bangkok was just walking around viewing temples. To handle the heat, I took a relaxing, refreshing, cheap boat trip down the Chao Phraya River, with temples on one side and Bangkok residents on the other — some buildings looked grim and bombed out, like something you would see in Lebanon.
Leaving Bangkok I took a two-hour bus ride to Pattaya, Thailand’s biggest resort. Some of my convention friends there called it a holy place. Some called it a cathouse on the beach.
By day I saw young Thai girls in their prime burning incense and meditating. By night you may see them escorting pot-bellied grandpas.
Like Bangkok, the best things in Pattaya were simple — walking, soaking up sun, riding a motorbike around town to a flea market, learning a little Thai history — the coups and high violence rate amid the serene palm trees that bring to mind the movie “Apocalypse Now.”
There is some squalor here, but there are broad smiles and kind eyes in the middle of the strife and the ever-present sex industry.
For me, it was the first time I’ve sat on a lovely beach and been pampered without worrying about money. Just sitting on the beach sipping a fresh banana drink as two Thai girls massaged my feet was heavenly. Soon another vendor brought by delicious corn on the cob and shrimp.
Finally came confirmation that I was in the right place. As waves broke gently 10 feet away and the sun become a huge orange ball, a Thai couple came by, offering to draw a fake tattoo on my arm. I scanned their tattoo book and found a grumpy-looking Donald Duck (I’m an Oregon Duck fan). I bought the tattoo.
At night, Pattaya of course has its “walking street,” a place with lots of noise but little dancing or joy. I love live blues and saw a blues club advertised on TV but never checked it out, so I can’t be too criticcal. From what I saw, it’s mainly sex business, and I saw very few smiles on the girls or their dates.
One night, however, I hired a motorcycle to take me to a big outdoor flea market about 25 minutes from the beach. There I found a young couple snuggled in the bed of pickup truck, with the adorable head of their baby peaking out. They sold trinkets and cute clothes, and they looked happy.
On my last day at the beach, while sitting under an umbrella with a friend, a tiny Thai girl with braces, maybe 13 years old, approached.
She wanted to sell me a small wood cage with baby birds inside. If I bought the cage and freed them, she said, it would bring good karma.
At first I ignored her.
My friend said the girl would soon recapture the birds and sell them over again.
The child kept sitting there, quiet and small. Three minutes passed.
“Please sir, set my birds free.”
I said no.
After another minute reflecting on how I’d been graced on this trip and for the last 50 years — I got an answered prayer during that crazy van ride earlier — I decided to do the right thing.
The next day I was reluctant to fly back to Seoul and snow. I would like to see more of Thailand someday. In some ways it reminded me of “Greeneland,” a term used to describe the settings for the novels of Graham Greene, my favorite writer.
On the bus ride to the airport, we passed two rusted-out cargo planes that may well have been used in World War II. Now it appeared some Thais had converted them into homes.
Along the road were three or four big metal billboard structures for ads — all empty except one for Samsung.
For the flight to Seoul, I somehow got another upgrade to business class after standing behind a throng of Korean golfers at check-in.
Perhaps the little bird seller on the beach was right about karma.
By Pat King Deputy Editor [firstname.lastname@example.org]