Ups and Downs in Thailand: Part 1

Travel is volatile. One minute we're on top of the world, chatting with Chinese astrologers under a 1,000-year-old banyan tree, the next we're sweating out 20% of our body weight (despite full bladders) on a 7-hour, second-class bus ride.

The pendulum keeps swinging. Here are our ups and downs during the past week:

Took a 14-hour overnight bus from Thailand's southern islands back to Bangkok. We arrived at 6 am, which didn't leave loads of hotel options. That's how we found ourselves staying in a concrete bunker with peeling pale-blue paint and mosquito carcasses splatted on the wall. We went out later for some food, and once again the cute-but-violent street kids came up to us. One little girl punched Eric, then tweaked his nose.

Feeling down.

Decided to get the hell out of Bangkok, heading northeast to Khorat. Caught a dreamy first-class bus that had TV, air-conditioning, and a stewardess who served free Coke, cookies, and wet towels to wash up with afterward.

Feeling up.

Three hours later the stewardess pointed to us, then pointed to the door. The bus pulled over to the side of the road. Two other passengers queued up to disembark.

"This is Khorat?" we asked our friendly stewardess.

"Khorat," she said, and pushed us out the door.

"Khorat?" we asked the baggage man as he chucked our bags into a cloud of dust.

"Khorat," he said, and slammed shut the door.

The bus sped away.

The row of seven dilapidated shacks at the side of the road didn't seem like Thailand's second-largest city. Maybe we were at the edge of town.

Just then a man in fatigues with tattoos on his neck came up to us.

"Khorat?" he asked.

"Khorat," we said.

"Get in my truck. I take you there."

He proceeded to drive us 25 MILES into town (though it only took a few minutes, since he was driving at breakneck speed). Swell guy that he was, he only charged us twice that of our first-class bus, which we passed en route to town.

Feeling down.

Sidebar on vehicular operation: Inside each bus or car, above the rearview mirror, is a shrine to Buddha. The driver offers a fresh jasmine-and-marigold necklace, or a lotus bud, or maybe a cold drink. Then we're off.

A quick glance at the dashboard reveals that the fuel gage isn't working, nor the speedometer, and two red warning lights are glowing. But who needs dashboard instruments when you've got Buddha on your side?

Buddha protects you during all high-speed maneuvers, including U-turns across multiple racing rows of traffic, driving in the lane of oncoming traffic until squeezed out at the last possible second, and - our favorite - taking both hands off the wheel to bow your head and pray to Buddha each time you pass a roadside temple at 80 miles per hour.

But back to our arrival in Khorat: stayed at the Sima Thani, a swanky 5-star hotel with a.c., cable TV, swimming pool, marble shower, and carved rosewood furniture. Giant buffet breakfast each morning. All this for $25 per night.

Feeling up.

Needed to have laundry done. Couldn't find a price list at the hotel, nor could we communicate well enough with the staff to obtain costs. Figured since the room was cheap, laundry would be cheap.

Three hours later a maid returned with our 8 grungy T-shirts and underwear now immaculately cleaned, pressed, folded, and individually wrapped in cellophane bags. Never has our underwear looked so fresh! Price: more than the room.

Feeling up and down (because we're clean, but poor).

Speaking of up and down (you'll see that we mean this in the literal, bodily sense), our first night in Khorat we went to redeem our complimentary beverage tickets at the Sha Sha Music and Karaoke House in the hotel. A Thai cover band was playing Hotel California. The dance floor was filled with young, short-haired American men groping the butts of scantily clad Thai women.

We'll provide more details on our encounter at the Sha Sha in the next installment.

Apr 28 - May 5, 2000

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