HOT INFO On The Road

Ben van den Anker
SE Asia: REPORT #13

8th December, Y2K, Bangkok, Thailand

Cabbages and condoms

Ubon Ratchathani is one of the larger cities in Thailand, the local TAT (Tourism Authority Thailand) tries to promote the area as "The emerald triangle", in counterpart to Thailand's Golden Triangle. It refers to the relatively intact monsoon forest in this part of the province. This area shares borders with Laos and Cambodia, it's safe to visit as the Khmer Rouge seems to be sleeping for years now. From the first moments here I liked it already. Ubon looks like the "real" Thailand to me, not that many tourists walk the streets, the town isn't "polluted" with hotels and restaurants offering "Banana pancakes". Northern - and southern Laos don't give me this good feeling, no one should feel sorry to "miss" Laos.

There's one shop that rents bicycle's now, the woman that kindly answered my questions doesn't look Thai to me, I can't help for asking "Are you Thai?". She tells me that her German father married a Japanese woman; she was on a "backpacking world tour" and met her later Thai husband in Ubon. Now she's a "housewife" and ten days ago she set this business up. I'm her fourth customer what says something about how many people visit this town. Around Ubol the rice fields have all turned yellow, the woman are busy weaving in the small villages, "Farang", the Thai word for foreigner, I hear them softly saying. I don't hear any sounds of "civilization", no cars, just water buffaloes and cows that work in the fields. I want these moments to last foreverc

Khorat is like Ubon, a former US air base, a bustling town. I ask a passing "Farang" for a good place to go out, we go to the H2O bar. Alex worked seven years for Berlioz, teaching English in Brazil and Thailand, now he's working for a NGO, he had enough of education and running the Berlioz language school in Phuket didn't give him that satisfaction neither. After a woman gently drops my bottle of beer on the ground, she apologies and asks us if we want to join their group. They're celebrating the birthday of a 24 year old woman, in Thailand people celebrate in a bar or restaurant with friends and not at home. "Are you happy?" asks the birthday girl us every half hour, after some bottles of beer and wine and three bottles of Johnny Walker black label; the answer is not difficult to guess. A girl empties her belly content stylish on the pavement as we continue our way to the disco. It's great here, "I just never thought about visiting a disco" other travelers told me, the life music plays exclusively Thai dance songs. It's part of the culture too.

According to UN's Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), Thailand ranks fifth worldwide in consumption of alcohol, behind South Korea, the Bahamas, Taiwan and Bermuda, well ahead of Ireland and France. Hmm, I could have guessed this! In the Netherlands I only drink beer in the summer, here it's every day summer. What of course doesn't say that I drink beer here every day!

Khorat is Thailand's largest province, the heavy US influence that was present in the late seventies has faded away. The retired GI's live with their Thai families in the area and I seldom saw them together walking the streets. While having dinner in the restaurant next door I wondered about the many Vietnam veterans that hung around the place, till I found out that the VFW-cafeteria in fact is an abbreviation of the Veterans of Foreign Wars cafeteria. The pizza, steaks and ice must attract them though it doesn't resemble the ones "back home".

When looking through the list of restaurants I found one that's called "Cabbages and Condoms", "Hmm a restaurant"? It turned out that the owner kind of introduced condoms in the area, after a meal you don't get a candy, no, you get one condom. The restaurant is sponsored by the Population and Community development Association and seems to be a non-profit organization.

At the outskirts of Bangkok you'll enter a new province without even realizing it. Half an hour from downtown Bangkok, Samut Prakan province packs 70.000 people into 7.3 sq km. Foreigners seldom visit the major attraction, the ancient city, they miss quit something. The park highly impresses me, it covers more than 80 hectares and presents over one hundred scaled down facsimiles of many of Thailand's most famous monuments. The owner of the park, Bangkok's former largest Mercedes Benz dealer, passed away this year but his guidelines are still followed. The entrance fee of the park, 50 baht, hasn't been raised for over thirty years. It's a quit escape from the pollution and traffic jams of Bangkok, a good place for long undistracted walks.

For some people the first day in Bangkok is like the last on the titanic, I like this town. I feels good coming back and leaving isn't easy. I will fly back to the Netherlands for ten days, the 20th of December I will fly to India. I wonder what this country will bring me. "It will change you!",people said to me. "For the first time, I was glad to get out of a country!" one backpacker told me, "We stayed in our hotel for one week and then flew out!" a couple told me. Am I scared? No... just curious what it is that some people love this country so much and other people hate it, is there an in between...? Can't wait to find out!

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