EDUCATE: My SEA Journey in Bangkok, Thailand

Monday, January 9, 2017

After a long delay, our short 30-minute flight landed in Bangkok. Compared to the relatively smaller cities of Ho Chi Minh and Siem Reap, I was surprised by how large the airport and city was. It’s bigger than Chicago! The streets are much more organized, but traffic is still heavy and chaotic. Despite the size, tuk tuks are still popular. For the first time in Asia, we saw multi-lane interstates like we’re so used to in the States. I didn’t even realize what a difference that must make for business in Vietnam and Cambodia.

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After a quick check-in to our gorgeous hotel, we headed for a late dinner at Cabbages & Condoms. Decorated with condoms (literally, a condom Christmas tree), this restaurant is an NGO that promotes safe sex. The food was incredible — don’t worry, no condoms served with the food. Our side of the table split some deliciously unique appetizers and I had stir fry vegetables with chicken. We took a “party cab” home and went straight to bed after a long day.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

In the morning, I found the gym was the best so far. Still small, but it had everything I needed. BBC was on several TVs, so I was able to catch up on some news since I unfortunately hadn’t been keeping up. Although I’ve received the Skimm, it’s sent at 4pm for me here, making it difficult to remember.

Since it was raining, we began our day on a boat. Despite the gloom, it was a great way to see the city and how the river is vital to all business in Bangkok. With constant barges and transportation across the river, there is even traffic in the river. We saw a crocodile, fed fishes, and saw our first glimpses of the Palace and temples.

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We headed to the Grand Palace first. As the caboose of the group, I almost got left behind because my blouse wasn’t conservative enough. Lesson learned — always pack long sleeves and don’t rely on souvenir shawls. The Palace was beautiful and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was so ornate and richly decorated. For someone who grew up with a love of rhinestones and shiny things, I was blown away.

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The King of Thailand died in October, so the country is officially in mourning until October of this year, when they will cremate him. Many Thai were visiting his body and paying their respects. Everyone was wearing black with special brooches, and all around the city, you’ll find large pictures of him draped in white and black with flowers. It makes me question how the economy will do if they are in a state of mourning for a year.

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For lunch, we took a ferry across the river to a restaurant. It was mostly Chinese food, but there was Thai flair. We spoke to Jeff, who has been coordinating our entire trip. I’m not sure who I expected him to be, but I did not expect an older American-expat that moved to Thailand to start his own boutique travel agency. All of the personalized reservations suddenly made sense.

After lunch, we headed to Wat Pho, the temple of the Reclining Buddha. A massive Buddha, I had never seen a reclining one before. As many things in Asia, we had to take our shoes off to enter. We toured the rest of the area and saw even more ornate buildings. Everything is relatively new from the 1800s, so everything is intact and still gorgeous. Thankfully, I didn’t have to borrow a jacket for this.

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With the passing of the King and many visitors, several volunteer organizations were giving out free food. First was vegetable ice cream, which even the biggest ice cream lovers didn’t approve of (actually peas and carrots in ice cream!), but then we got some fried banana, taro, and yams. I really don’t like taro, but the fried bananas were even better than the ones I had in Singapore. We quickly learned how generous and friendly Thai people are when one of the cooks enthusiastically wanted pictures with us. Then, it turns out that one of the volunteers was Ratanapol Sor Varapin, a 2x boxing champion (please read his Wikipedia page for a sad laugh). Then we got pictures with him and they sent us off with even more fried foods.

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Next, we went to the Flower Market. After seeing the late King’s decorations and all of the restaurant decorations, it’s understandable how such a large market of flowers can thrive.

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A few of us then headed to Thai Times Square to get custom made suits. I don’t hardly any dress clothes since my jobs have luckily mainly required athleisure, so I viewed this splurge as an investment to my job search and an early graduation present. I picked out the three-piece designs, fabric, and the tailor measured me specifically. The next day, the tailor came to my hotel room for an initial fitting and returned the next day with the final product. They keep measurements for 5 years, so I can always order more clothes if I desire. A classmate on the trip actually had her wedding dress custom made in Thailand, and it was over half the price.

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After a long drive and a quick change, we had a presentation dinner by Chris Bruton from DataConsult. He gave an excellent overview of the economy in Asia and what is to come of the world in 2017, between Trump, the Brexit, the economies of Italy and Greece, potential leadership change of France, and Russia with OPEC. As a British-expat in Thailand, he was very critical of the United States and Trump, even comparing him to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un. As others have, he discussed how the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will prevail over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). While Southeast Asia may not be growing GDP-wise and has a lot of debt with low quality education, the Asian era will definitely become more apparent in the near future.

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Throughout our trip, we’ve had a lot of questions about counterfeit items. At all the street markets, there are extremely cheap name brand products that don’t even look like a knockoff with a fake logo. Their logo is identical, but the quality is much lower, whether it’s Nike, Adidas, Tory Burch, or the North Face. Chris actually told us about one of his outdoor apparel clients (I’m assuming the North Face) had an issue with “counterfeit” products that weren’t actually counterfeit. Instead, the factories were producing excess and selling it to other markets, like in South America. This is the case of overproduction, which is an issue in many countries, especially Southeast Asia.

Other types of counterfeit than overproduction and straight-up knockoffs are generic and fake products. Generic products are usually fine, as long as quality control ensures they are safe to use and simply offers a cheaper option for those who don’t mind the brand. Fake products, however are a huge issue, especially with pharmaceuticals. As we learned in Cambodia, pharmacies can rent licenses to sell and end up selling more than sugar pills, but often dangerously mislabeled medicines. With little regulation, counterfeit of all sorts is a big issue in these emerging markets.

One of my biggest questions is about the maintenance of the main industries of Southeast Asia: agriculture and tourism/hospitality. Agriculture is necessary, and tourism is a great way to show the rest of the world what Asia is “actually” like, but when do these farmers have the chance to innovate and move past the simplistic ways of the past? Chris argued that rural farmers have votes, so leaders like to keep them “stupid and loyal.” Productivity and innovation is key for developing markets, but if leaders want to stay in power, they will create barriers to entry and make it more difficult for the impoverished to improve their quality of life.

With analysts and forecasters being wrong as much as they were in 2016, Chris suggests that no one truly knows what’s going to happen. 2017 will definitely be an interesting year.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The next morning, I did some sprints and agility training before we had a relaxing beach day. The weather actually cooperated perfectly with our timing, and we drove a couple hours south to Pattaya. An interesting beach town, businesses catered to a variety of populations. On the way there, most advertisements for Pattaya, like many other Asian ads, were geared towards Westerners. You can tell from the wear/tear of businesses when different countries boomed in tourism. Some older restaurants were German and Dutch, some a little newer businesses had Russian intentions, but many new ones were English. English has likely become the easiest to gear towards, but I expect that Americans have boomed lately. Russians ebb and flow depending on the economy, and we were surrounded by Russians on this day. With a Polish roommate, it was really funny to hear her comments about Russia since there is so clearly tension, even if jokingly.

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After a relaxing day on the beach and a Thai lunch, we drove back to the hotel. Our longest break yet of an hour and a half, we were all able to shower and rest leisurely before heading to our farewell dinner cruise. A beautiful dinner with incredible food, it was so fun to share one final feast. However, all the spicy curry did not fare well with me and still is bothering me days later. Worth it? Absolutely.

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I went to the bathroom before we got off the boat, but as the caboose as always, I was the last out and the boat actually left the dock without me! Standing in the middle of the river on an empty boat was worrisome, and I was sure they had left without me since they weren’t in site and I tend to be the quiet one in the back. Thankfully, they waited and it was funny that of course I’m the one that doesn’t want to leave!

We took tuk tuks to Khaosan Street, which is the wild backpackers district. Our tuk tuk had an aux cord, so we were all partying in our double seaters and zooming around in Bangkok. This was probably the most fun I had the entire trip.

Khaosan Street is incredibly overwhelming — Pub Street x 10. Street food everywhere including scorpions on a stick, so many counterfeit shops, alcoholic buckets everywhere, and backpackers dancing in the street. So fun, but so crazy.

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Ania and I shared a passion mojito bucket, my new favorite drink. Then, we went to a restaurant where the others enjoyed a giant beer tower and I got a Mai Tai. A demon seemed to be judging us for our decisions.

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We headed to the streets to dance and had a blast for our last night out together. We were all sad to say our goodbyes, but we promised to hang out in the States. I’m still close with my friend group from Rome, so I look forward to another group of friends to reminisce and catch up with.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

After the food and the drinks, I didn’t feel too hot in the morning so I slept in for a bit. Every city I’ve visited, I always feel like I learn the city. From running and using transportation, I love feeling like I actually can get around and understand the city layout. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anywhere near enough of Bangkok to feel that way. After a mile walk to the park and back with 6 miles there, I felt like I had learned that area around our hotel and Lumpini Park, but I still was clueless. It’s near impossible to run on the street with other pedestrians, vendors, and walkways, but the park was absolutely beautiful. Probably one of my favorite parks I’ve visited in the world (Lincoln Park, I still love you!). Many runners, cyclists, and Tai Chi practices filled the park like I’ve seen everywhere else. With a combination of Asian architecture with a modern skyline backdrop, I for once didn’t mind taking multiple laps around the park with so many different paths.

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I’ve seen outdoor fitness centers in New Orleans and every other Asian city (looking at you, Lincoln Park — time to catch up!), but this was by far the largest and nicest. It was also the most used, by young and old. There was also a separate outdoor gym with weights. Looking like a grungy, jungle CrossFit, it looked badass. Tires on barbells and everything. I wanted to join in, but gym-timidation got the best of me and I decided to keep running.

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On the way back, I stopped at 7-11 (you’ll find them EVERYwhere) and found my favorite 100 sports drink. Compared to a few dollars in Singapore, I got this for 17 Baht, or less than 50 cents USD. Water bottles are even 7 Baht, which is 20 cents. Now I understand why everyone said Singapore was expensive. While the same price as the United States, it’s so much more expensive than other ASEAN countries.

Unfortunately, the pool ended up being closed for the next 5 days. I was sad I didn’t get to see this rooftop pool in daylight, but I was about to head to a yoga retreat with multiple infinity pools — I was fine.

I went shopping in the nearby markets. While some street vendors, I mainly checked out a small mall. Unlike the lavish malls of Siam or Singapore, this mall seemed to be for the middle class, not tourists. It was mainly plain business clothes and basic items. It was an interesting environment to see since we really haven’t seen much of a middle class thus far — either upper class or extreme poverty.

I got tired of trying to find food, so I settled on KFC. I’ve heard before that Asians love KFC. While it seems preposterous, Americans love Asian food too. The menu is much different since like many other fast food chains, KFC practices a glocalized strategy with global markets and local customization. I ordered a green curry chicken and rice bowl. The same KFC secret recipe chicken, but it was paired with fairly decent rice and veggies for just less than $2.

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Since it was an Asian, middle market mall, I stood out as the white blonde girl. One woman actually stroked my arm, admiring my white skin. Considering I was sunburnt from laying out in the sun, it’s ironic. It reminds me that I should take better care of my skin and enjoy it naturally, since an entire culture admires white skin and actually uses skin-whitening products the way we use self-tanner. Just as you often see Western girls with poor makeup or spray tans, you see many Asians with fake white skin that looks caked on. It’s always greener on the other side.

I then tried my third massage, a Thai massage. For only $5, it was the best one I have received but by far the most personal and handsy (okay, and footsy!). It felt wonderful, especially after my long run. I got a manicure after, but it was probably the worst manicure I’ve ever gotten. I think my 9 year old niece could have done better, but then again, you get what you pay for!

Ania and I wanted to go to the River Front and see the Asiatique Ferris wheel and markets, but it proved to be way too complicated, so we went in with an open mind. We decided to take the Sky Train to Siam Center and Paragon. These malls were comparable to the cities in Singapore. Massive with designer brands, these were for tourists and the upper classes. We got dinner at a delicious Thai restaurant, but we could tell it was Westernized. We tried Pad Thai, noodles and curry, and a seafood pickled salad.

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We continued to walk around and realized Siam Paragon is the extreme luxury mall with all designer brands. Downstairs, there was a massive food court and a Gourmet Market. Imagine Mariano’s on steroids. We went around sampling all the yummy treats, including the same coconut chews we tried at the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. We learned Bael Fruit Tea is definitely our favorite. We got some Asian snacks to bring back as souvenirs, and we headed home on a tuk tuk. The traffic was so badly congested that Ania couldn’t breathe with the pollution. Thankfully, I’m still used to not being able to breathe through my nose pre-surgery, that with my loss of sense of smell, I can survive through it. There are fewer people wearing masks around the city, but it’s definitely still prevalent. Bangkok is one of the most developed cities in Southeast Asia, and I hope I can return in the future to experience more of it.

‘Til next time,

++ Mary K

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