THAILAND
   
   Of the four countries we went to on this vacation, the most time was
spent in Thailand.  Upon returning from Cambodia, we decided to head up
north first and visit Bangkok at the end of the trip instead of at the
beginning.  It turned out that for the most part, this was a wise idea,
because throughout Thailand, we managed to have perfect timing with our
travels.
   When trying to get to Cambodia from Hong Kong, we were forced to have a
layover at Bangkok Airport on the way to Cambodia.  This worked out well in
the end because we had time that day between flights to go over to the Thai
ticket counter and make some airline reservations for when we would return
back to Thailand.  Travelling by plane within Thailand is very cheap.  Many
one-ways are only $20 or $30, and the most we paid for a one-way was around
$60 (on Thai Airways). Bangkok Airways is a private company that flies to
Koh Samui, and that was more expensive (over twice the amount of a similar
Thai ticket) but Bangkok Airways has the monopoly on flights to the few
places they serve (like Koh Samui).
   Phones: While in the airport for that layover, I wanted to call home to
check messages on the answering machine, but the payphones in Thailand won't
work with the "call-home" numbers that Sprint, MCI, and AT&T give out
(apparently, only private phones will allow calls to these numbers).  So I
went to the booth that handled post and telecommunications, and they wanted
to charge a lot of money to place the call.  The problem was, if my phone
didn't answer by the 2nd ring, I wanted to be able to hang up and not pay
for the call (ie, no messages) but you couldn't do this if someone else
placed the call for you.  Later, I found out there was only one dedicated
"call-home" phone at the airport (on the upper level, hidden in a corner),
and down below, only a scarce few that allow overseas calling.  There are
both coin and card payphones in Thailand, but neither allow direct overseas
calls unless they're of the special overseas type.  If they're not, they
allow only calls within Thailand, or to Malaysia.  Note that the Thai
telephone cards resemble Taiwan's telephone cards rather than Japan's.
   
CHIANG MAI
   At any rate, we arrived in Bangkok airport from Cambodia in the early
evening, and immediately took the next flight up to Chaing Mai, a large city
in the North, where we spent our first night in Thailand.  Outside of Chiang
Mai is where many of the Hill Tribe people live (as well as other places in
Northern Thailand).  It's a nice, medium-sized town.  It can be compared, I
think, to Sapporo.  Big enough to be the "big city" of the area, yet not
overcrowded and polluted like Bangkok.  However, when we were there, there
was much talk about the recent traffic problems and congestion caused by a
recent spurt in growth.  It appears Chiang Mai is one of the fastest-growing
cities because of its features (nice climate, and a lack of bad Bangkok
drawbacks like pollution and traffic congestion), but many people are moving
there, and growth is now moving ahead at a fantastic rate.  There was much
discussion on what to do about it.  We didn't spend a lot of time in Chaing
Mai... my dad wasn't feeling well, and I was recovering from a nasty flu I
caught from the car-driver in Cambodia.  We stayed at the YMCA in Chiang
Mai... a nice place, not super-cheap, but not too expensive.  As you enter
the building, a sign (in English) said "please do not splash water inside
the building."  A strange sign to see at first, until you realize what time
of year it was (more on this later).  Through the YMCA, we hired a car for
1/2 a day to take us up to the mountain nearby.  On the way, we stopped at a
pharmacy to get some Dimetapp for me, and it was quite cheap.  The exchange
rate at the time was just under 25:1 (US$1 = 24.5B), and while supposedly
the dollar had dropped against the Baht from what it was before our arrival,
things were still a pretty good value.  Not super-cheap, but usually a bit
cheaper than similar things would be at home.  (For instance, Fuji or Kodak
35mm/200-ASA, 36-exp color print film was 90B (under $4) at most places,
compared to about $5.50 at home.
   We were driven up the mountain outside Chiang Mai to visit a village of
"hill people."  About half way up, we changed vehicles at the point where
the road turned to dirt.  We got out of the car, and hopped onto a
"songthaew," which is a pickup-truck taxi.  It's basically just a normal
pickup truck with a shell and two long benches in the back where the
passengers squeeze in and sit down.  Note that the songthaew is one of the
most popular ways for Thais to get around.  They are everywhere, and you
just flag them down like you would a taxi.  You negotiate the price --
usually much more for a "farang" (foreigner), but still quite cheap.  The
more people there are piled in with you, the more likely the fare will go
down.  Fares of 20B (85c) are quite common--sometimes even as low as 10B
(remember, 24.5B = $1).  In some areas, people are not only piled in back,
but placed up in the front seat, and occasionally -- very dangerously -- up
on TOP of the shell, with the passengers' baggage.  Anything for a buck (or
in this case, a baht).
   We arrived at the Hill Tribe village, and immediately noticed that it was
there only for tourists, with the Thai government making no attempt to hide
this.  There is an ongoing program in Thailand to bring the Hill Tribe
people into the mainstream of Thai society.  Posters and brochures from the
government happily explain this policy in English.  (The hill tribe people
have traditionally cultivated opium, and the Thai government is trying to
find ways to "modernize" these people and give them incomes other than from
opium.  One such way is to turn the people themselves into tourist
attractions).  So this village was set up for tourism.  Apparently, this
tribe once lived free and wild on the mountain, cultivating opium, until the
Thai government wanted them to stop and gave them this way to make money. 
Basically, everyone was selling something at little stalls, from handmade
"hill tribe" products to Cokes.  I took some pictures of the children
(dressed in hill-tribe garb, no doubt, now more for tourists than for any
traditional reason) and was told it's customary to give a little money after
taking their picture.  The children, at least were much friendlier here than
those we'd see a few days later who would accoust us with "Take my picture! 
100 baht!"
   After visiting this Hill Tribe "village" (it reminded me of the Ainu
"village" in Hokkaido I visited), we went to a nice temple on top of the
mountain.  Like the others temples in Thailand, it was beautiful and well
kept-up.  For some reason that I can't put my finger on, Thai temples are
much more interesting to this foreigner's eyes than Japanese or Cambodian
(modern) temples.  They are highly decorated and very colorful.  For 5B
(20c) you can take a cable-car up to the top instead of climbing the
stairs.  My dad (still feeling a bit sick) stayed at the bottom while I took
the cable-car up and looked around for a bit.
   That afternoon while my dad rested, I walked around the city for a few
hours and got a good feel for it.  The comparison I made to Sapporo is
pretty valid.  At least presently (who knows what it will be like in 5 or 10
years) the city was just the right size, and like Sapporo, seemed a nice
place to live if one had to live in Thailand.  There are, in fact, many
foreigners that live in Chiang Mai, and everything from Mexican restaurants
to European bakeries can be found.
   That evening we had one of the strangest experiences of the entire trip. 
We heard Chiang Mai has a huge night market, so we took a songthaew from the
YMCA to check it out on a very still and hot night.  After walking around,
browsing for a while, we decided to have a bite to eat around 8pm.  We
stopped in (of all places) the Pizza Hut for a filling, non-threatening meal
for our recovering bodies.  While we waited for our order, my dad went to
the bank window across the alley to exchange some money (money exchange
places are open pretty late), and I went out to see what was taking him so
long.  Suddenly, there was a HUGE gust of wind.  It came up suddenly, and
from out of nowhere.  All the vendors clung to their things as the wind kept
blowing.  Then, in just the short span of a few minutes while we ate some
pizza, the power went out -- not only inside the Pizza Hut (which had some
backup lights turn on) but for the entire area.  Everyone went to look
outside.  Then, out of nowhere, it started raining -- POURING rain.  The
power came back on, and we left Pizza Hut to walk a few feet to some covered
steps that were the entrance to an indoor shopping area.  We sat down on the
steps with everyone else, watching the rain and waiting for it to pass.  It
never did.  When the rain didn't stop, the vendors closed up for the night,
and there were countless people waiting for a way to get home.  Now, there
are 3 types of taxis in Thailand: normal taxi cars (both metered, and
non-metered), songthaews (pickup-truck taxis), and tuk-tuks (little
3-wheeled motorcycle-like taxis that fit two people).  But the tuk-tuks are
open, so anyone taking one home that night would have been soaked.  Finally,
with the rain still coming down hard, we saw a songthaew on the other side
of the street and ran with some others to catch it.  Because it was raining,
the driver could have tried to extort a higher fare for my dad and I (being
foreigners), but thankfully, he didn't, and 20B each got us back to the Y.
The drive back though, was eerie.  The power had come back on only for the
small area of town where we had waited on those steps.  Everywhere else in
Chaing Mai was completely blacked out, and driving through the pitch-black,
darkened town with the rain coming down relentlessly was quite interesting,
especially as we were the last ones to be left off.  At the Y, there was no
power, and the staff in the lobby were giving out candles for the guests to
use.  We took one and walked up 5 flights of stairs with it to the rooms
where I had a flashlight in my bag.  No power, no lights, no air-con. 
Looking out the window of the room, you could see the city, all dark except
for a few emergency lights here and there (in the distance, you could see
what must have been the stairways of some of the larger hotels lit, but
all their rooms were dark.  Only these, and a few other things such as
rooftop airplane-warning lights had power).  Luckily, down below us, there
was a lone mercury lamp apparently powered by a backup generator, providing
a small amount of light in the room.  After waiting for a while to see if
the power would come back on, we finally went to sleep.  Around 2:30am, I
woke up as the lights and air-con suddenly came on in the room.  Chiang Mai
had power again.  It took about 6 or 7 hours for them to fix the outage. 
   One thing to note: This was the only time we had rain on our entire
trip.  Typically, it was hot, hot, hot, but that one night in Chiang Mai had
to be the strangest weather I've ever experienced.
   
MAE HONG SON
   The next day we left for Mae Hong Son, a smaller town even further north
than Chiang Mai.  It's nowhere near Chiang Mai's size, but has much more
charm.  Like everyplace else in Thailand, it was hot, hot, hot.  You'd
normally think that the further north you go, the cooler it should be, but
according to the paper, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son were hotter than
Bangkok.  It was constantly hot, ranging from 90-103 degrees F.  Mae Hong
Son reminded me a lot of smaller Japanese towns just in the way everything
was laid out, with little neighborhood stores that are really part of
people's homes, etc.  We stayed in a cheap hotel run by Thai Chinese (as in
Cambodia, there are many ethnic Chinese in Thailand, and many of the
businesses are owned and run by Thai Chinese).
   Hearing that the Hill Tribe treks from Mae Hong Son were better than
Chiang Mai, we checked out the many businesses in town hanging signs
advertising such trips.  But out of curiosity, we also wanted to see what
the Holiday Inn at the other end of town offered.  (Yes, there is a Holiday
Inn in Mae Hong Son.  It's small, and the only hotel of its kind there).
What great timing though!  While taking a songtheaw to the Holiday Inn, we
passed a procession on the left-hand side of the road (in Thailand, they
drive on the left), with lots of people dressed in colorful, traditional
Thai clothing.  It just so happens that every year on a certain day, young
Shan boys become Buddhist monks in Mae Hong Son, and we happened to be there
on that same day!  It's tradition for the procession to walk through town
(where various businesses give the boys little gifts before they become
monks).  It's interesting to note that the boys don't have much say in the
matter -- it's the parents, (ie, the father) that decides.  But it doesn't
have to be for life.  The boys will become monks for just a while, after
which some will choose not to continue, while others will choose to remain
monks for the rest of their lives.
   The procession arrived at the Holiday Inn, and entered the lobby, as
everyone rested a bit from the hot sun.  The hotel served the boys orange
drinks, while the proud parents and interested observers were snapping
pictures everywhere.  Note that it's Shan tradition that the boys be dressed
up with very ornate, colorful, (and flowery) clothes.  Plus, the young boys
wear lipstick, so at a distance, they almost have the appearance of being
girls.  Also, it's tradition on this day that the boys be carried on the
backs of their parents and kept cool with shade umbrellas, so the procession
throughout the town had many young boys with lipstick and ornate clothes
riding on the backs of their parents while others carried shade umbrellas
for them.  The procession also had a traditional Thai band (drums and gongs
and the like).
   After a brief pause at the Holiday Inn, the procession continued towards
the city office building where there would be a ceremony (not the actual
ceremony which would be held later, but a public one for officials to speak,
and parents to snap photographs).  We followed and walked with the
procession inside the building, where we were seated, and given cold Cokes
(as was everyone else, including the boys) by the townsfolk who were
enjoying the celebration.  Officials of the town and of the monastary got up
to speak, and pictures were taken by the proud parents.  We were with the
group for about 2 hours in all, and it was a very interesting look into Thai
culture.
   Later, we decided to book the Hill Tribe tour at a place in town
recommended by the Lonely Planet.  However, a few notes on the Holiday Inn
(which is at the very edge of town): since we were there already, we ate
lunch there (pretty disappointing) and were told proudly by the guest
relations guy that many movie stars have stayed there, including just
recently, Danny Glover.  Mae Hong Son, it turns out, has been used as a
location for several movies, including "Air America" (with Mel Gibson) and
"Volunteers" (with Tom Hanks).  After heading back into town and booking the
tour for the next day, we took a songthaew up the local mountaintop (Doi
Kong Mu) where there is a temple and a spectacular view of the city.  After
relaxing and taking in the view, we decided just to walk down into town
instead of waiting for a songthaew back.  Very enjoyable.
   Unlike Chiang Mai, there is almost no nightlife in Mae Hong Son.  There
was once a night market, but they were in the process of moving the
location, so the only market is a day one, and closes around dinnertime.  We
did meet an interesting fellow in Mae Hong Son--a Dutch guy who married a
Thai and settled in town, opening up a European-food-only restaurant just
around the corner from the small hotel we stayed at (no Thai food --
European/American food only, from spaghetti to omlettes).  He told us he was
ready to close his place for the slow season (summer) the next week, but was
an interesting person to meet, and his restaurant was one of those strange,
out-of-place things you see every once in a while in this world of ours. 
Later that evening, we walked around the outskirts of the small city to cool
off a bit.  Really, a very pleasant town the reminded me of such small
Japanese towns as Hiraizumi.
   The next day, we were up bright and early for our little "trek."  There
are many longer treks (lasting up to a week) but because of our limited
time, we opted for just a 1-day trip.  We made a good choice though -- the
trip was excellent.
   The first part of the day consisted of riding a bamboo raft upriver for
almost two hours while a guy steered and pushed with a long bamboo pole.
Occasionally, there'd be a spot or two of rapids on the normally-tranquil
river.  There were 3 other people taking the same tour with us, and their
raft overturned once (ours didn't), but the water was warm, so no harm was
done.  I foolishly kept my shoes (Reeboks) on for a while, and started to
get cramped (being in a position so the shoes wouldn't get wet) until I
finally just said "screw it," took off my shoes, and let my feet get wet.  A
nice, relaxing ride.  Then, we were met upriver by a songthaew and taken to
a hill tribe village.  Though this hill tribe village also had things for
sale, it was a bit less tourist-oriented than the one at Chiang Mai.  We
were told that the tribe moves quite often, and this is where they were
now.  It was a long-neck tribe (named so because of the heavy metal rings
the women wear that appear to stretch their necks.  However, what actually
happens is that these heavy metal rings push down on the collarbone, giving
the women the look of having a giraffe-like, stretched neck).  Even the
girls wore these heavy rings (but of course the men and boys don't have to).
While we were there, a different neighboring hill tribe came by to talk and
trade with the long-necks, and they had their own, different colorful dress.
   After the hill tribe, the last part of the trek was spent riding an
elephant.  Now, I remember reading once in an interview with Harrison Ford
("Indiana Jones") that the part he hated most about making the 2nd Indiana
Jones movie was riding the elephants... that they're a pain to ride, and
really stink.  However, these elephants were clean, and no problem at all to
ride, with a seat placed atop the elephant for you to sit on.  (However, to
be perfectly honest, I would have preferred to ride the elephant without a
seat, uncomfortable or not).  Elephants are slow, and need to be led. 
They'll also stop every 10 seconds to eat.  Anytime they'd see some green
plants, the elephants would stop to munch on them.  But the two-hour
elephant ride was a lot of fun.
   All in all, it was a fun day, and along with the previous day in Mae Hong
Son, this turned out to be one of the best times we had in Thailand.
   
GOLDEN TRIANGLE/CHIANG RAI/MAE SAI AREAS
   The next day, we headed up even further north to the golden triangle area
(the Thai/Laos/Myanmar  border, famous for opium).  We stayed in the
town of Chiang Rai at yet another cheap, nice Chinese-Thai-run hotel called
the Krung Thong Hotel.  The people in this area were very friendly --
seemingly even more so than in the rest of Thailand, and this region was a
very enjoyable place to spend some time.
   Upon arrivial the first evening, we met a European married to a Thai who
recommended we eat at the restaurant of a certain hotel in town.  We did,
and it was a perfect example of Thai tackiness.  More like a bar than a
restaurant, it was decorated with cowboy items everywhere and was so dark we
couldn't even read the menu.  On stage were a couple of musicians with a guy
trying to sing some pop tunes.  Though not enjoyable, it was nonetheless
interesting.
   The next day, we took the bus up to Chiang Saen, where we'd catch a
songtheaw to the Golden Triangle.  Thai buses (normal, not tour) are
interesting.  They're old, and the "air-con" is an open window, and the
seats are really scrunched together.  However, some of them actually have a
TV at the front.  We only stayed and looked around Chiang Saen for an hour
or so before going on to the Golden Triangle, but the kids were hard at work
in Chiang Saen splashing anyone they could with water.
   April is the hottest month in Thailand, and there is a tradition
(especially in the north) to splash people with water at Thai New Years
time.  The Songkran Festival celebrates the Thai (lunar) New Year.  Buddha
images are "bathed," monks and elders receive the repsect of younger Thais
by the sprinkling of water over their hands, and of course over the years,
this has turned into an all-out splashing activity with younger Thais taking
delight in splashing anyone they can with water (from squirt guns to entire
buckets).  At the hottest time of the year, it's a way to cool off and have
some fun.  Everywhere we went, we were hit by water anytime within a week of
Thai New Years (welcome relief actually, considering the hot weather). 
Sometimes just a squirt of water from a kid's Rambo-like squirt gun, other
times, entire buckets of water from passing pickup trucks.  Teenagers and
young Thais sometimes drive around in pickups, splashing water onto everyone
they see.  Sometimes, it's the other way around, with "water brigades"
waiting by the sides of the road to splash any motorcyclist or pedestrian
(or bus passengers through an open window) passing by.  Some people of
course don't like this, but most are resigned to the fact that it's "that
time of year again" and take it in stride.  (Most foreigners, too, take it
in stride, but not all.  While walking to the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok,
we met up with a middle-aged British couple where the wife had just been
splashed again, and threw a hissy-fit, screaming that she just couldn't take
it anymore!)  While taking the bus back from Mae Sai the following day, kids
were waiting to splash us for the entire trip (not helping matters was that
it was a weekend, with the kids off from school).  The lady who collected
the bus fare stood guard on the bus, and when she saw any kids up ahead,
she'd close the bus door (kept open for the breeze) and make sure everyone's
windows were closed.  It was quite a hilarious sight to see the lady
frantically opening, then closing, then opening, then closing the bus doors
and windows when she would spot kids up ahead.  But the kids were pretty
clever.  They know that the buses (usually to save time) often don't stop
completely at a bus stop, but rather just slow down and open their door to
see if anyone comes running to the bus (if so, then they stop), so the kids
would be stationed right before a bus stop, hoping the bus door would open
as usual to check for possible passengers.  The lady in charge of "water
protection" was pretty diligent, but one big splash finally got through the
windows towards the end of the trip.  Everywhere we went during the week
around Thai New Years, we were splashed with water in one way or another, as
much as a dozen times a day.
   At the Golden Triangle itself, there's nothing much there.  You can see
all three countries of the region (Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar ), all
separated by rivers, but there's really not much to do.  We went to the
small Golden Triangle Museum (devoted to the history of opium trade in the
area) which was small but interesting.  However, people in the area were
very friendly.  They were happy to help us out or answer questions, or start
a conversation -- much more so than in other parts of the country, it
seemed.  On one of the songthaews to the Golden Triangle, a young woman
started a nice conversation with us.  Then, while eating lunch at a mom &
pop guesthouse/restaurant, the lady running it was quite friendly and gave
us a lot of useful information.  Then, while waiting for a songthaew to take
us back to Chiang Saen (where we'd catch the bus back to Chiang Rai), no
songthaew came.  Usually, they come by every few mintues, but it was
lunchtime, and none were coming in the direction we wanted to go.  Standing
outside in the hot sun in front of some roadside vendors, one of the vendors
(and older lady) offered a stool for both me and my dad under her
umbrella -- a very nice gesture.  After no songthaew showed up for quite a
while, one of the locals in town figured we were trying to get to Chiang
Saen and asked a family driving a (normal) pickup truck in that direction if
they could take us back.  Very nice of them.  The family didn't ask for
payment, but we paid them a songtheaw fare anyway.  Oh, and of course, along
the way, we were sitting targets for the roadside water brigades as well as
the water-brigades-on-wheels that would pass us going the other direction,
but it was quite a refreshing trip out in the open, in the back of the
pickup truck.
   About the only bit of tacky commercialism that we saw in the Golden
Triangle area was some young Hill Tribe girls that kept coming up to the
tourists at the GOLDEN TRIANGLE sign telling them they could take their
picture for 100B, and bargaining with them for the right to have their
picture taken.  One lady from Australia just said "heck, I have a zoom, I'll
just take them from here", but other than this one thing, the people up in
this area were much friendlier, and less $$-oriented than in the rest of
Thailand.
   Back in Chiang Rai that evening, we went to dinner at another restaurant
the couple from the first night had recommended.  Luckily, this was a much
better choice.  It was actually a "real" Thai restaurant, and though it was
no more expensive than a good Thai restaurant here in the States, it was
still the fanciest place we ate at on vacation.  It was a traditional Thai
restaurant where you sit on the floor (though there was one table with tiny
stools for farangs not used to sitting on the floor), and throughout the
evening while you eat, you are entertained with traditional Thai dancing and
music on stage.  We were the only foreigners in the restaurant and the lady
who runs it spoke some English.  She came up to us to talk, and when I told
her I was a musician and played violin, she had me sit down with the
musicians and try out the Thai instruments. :)  Very fun, especially in
front of the other Thais who were there watching.  There were about 4 or 5
musicians, and one of them played the Thai version of the Chinese ar-hu (a
small cello-like instrument that sits on your knee or on the ground).  I
tried it out a bit.  The lady wanted me to play along with them on the
songs, but unfortunately, the music "wasn't written in music or do re mi" as
she put it, but instead, in Thai script, so I wasn't able to read it.  But
still, I tried it out, and everyone had a good laugh at my expense,
including me.  The musicians would play some Thai tunes for a bit, then the
dancers would come out to do traditional Thai dances to the music, and then
take short breaks while the musicians played some more until the next set of
dancing.  The food was good, and it was a fun evening.  Like a typical Thai
(I believe she was Thai-Chinese), the lady asked where we were staying (what
hotel) and said "next time you come to Chiang Rai, you stay with me, ok?  I
have a nice place here next to the restaurant" and gave us a brochure, on
which she wrote "10% off" for us.  By the way, the restaurant (a VERY nice
place to have a dinner for anyone planning to be in Chiang Rai) is called
"Bang-On Court and Guest House."
   The next morning, we took a bus up to Mae Sai, which is the border town
with Myanmar (the new name for Burma).  We were originally going to spend
the night in Mae Sai (a nice, large border town), but stayed both nights in
Chiang Rai because the town had started to grow on us.  Up in Mae Sai, we
wanted to cross the border into Myanmar for a bit, but couldn't.  There were
nightly reports of gunfire right across the border in Myanmar, and because
of that, the border was closed.  We couldn't visit Myanmar, but we could see
it right there in front of us.  In fact, the only thing separating the two
countries is a small river only a few feet wide that anyone can walk across
(though I wouldn't suggest anyone try it).  The weather was hot, and kids
were playing in the muddy (and probably polluted) river, going back and
forth from one side to the other, splashing each other.  The official
crossing is the "Friendship Bridge," built by the Australians.  However,
with the border being closed, the bridge was as well, at least to the
general public.  While there was nothing special about Mae Sai, the town,
like Chiang Rai, grew on me, and had we more time to spend in Thailand, I
probably would have stayed at least one night in Mae Sai as well as the
nights in Chaing Rai.  The north (north of Chiang Mai) seemed the best part
of Thailand.
                     
KOH SAMUI
   "Koh" means "island" in Thai, and one of the places we wanted to visit
was Koh Samui, because of the beautiful things we had heard about the
island.  Originally, my dad just wanted to visit a nice beach somewhere --
it didn't matter where -- but as we started hearing bad things about the
more famous beaches, we decided on Koh Samui.  In recent years, Koh Samui
has become very touristy, but luckily, the place was more than beautiful
enough to erase the many bad impressions that can be felt there.
   Getting to Koh Samui was a problem though.  We wanted to go there during
Thai New Years time -- the busiest travel time in the country (much like
"Golden Week" in Japan).  After flying from Chiang Rai back to Bangkok, the
only way to get to Koh Samui (located in southern Thailand) was either a
Bangkok Airways flight (Bangkok to Koh Samui) or a long train to Surat
Thani, and a ferry from there to Koh Samui.  But all the trains were booked,
and so were all the flights.  Luckily, at the airport, one lady working
alone at the Bangkok Airways office (with her daughter hanging out at work)
made some calls and tried to push through a reservation for us.  Between
them adding another flight, and probably some overbooking, we managed to get
the tickets, and were very, VERY lucky.  Again, we had been in Thailand all
this time, and still hadn't seen Bangkok (except the airport) as we pushed
Bangkok now to the very end of the trip.
   We boarded our flight to Koh Samui (a French ATR turbo-prop like the ones
we took in Cambodia), and arrived on the island.  Koh Samui originally was a
coconut island, and had no tourism 20 years ago.  However, that all changed
rapidly as word of the island spread and tourists began to come.  Now
everything is tourist-related, and the coconuts are picked by trained
monkeys (people are too busy trying to make $$ off the tourists to worry
about coconuts now).  There was a bad atmosphere I felt on the island: a
"soak the tourist and charge what you like" feeling.  Stores were charging
15B for Thai bottled water that was 5B at mainland stores (as well as other
for-Thai island stores that weren't next to the tourist track).  Even the
airport had a rip-you-off atmosphere: there was no fee (of course), to use
the airport when arriving, but when LEAVING, you had to pay a 100B service
fee -- much more than the 30B fee at all other domestic Thai airports.  If
you didn't pay it, you didn't fly off the island.  Also, elsewhere in
Thailand, Thais love to bargain.  They see a farang, and automatically
charge a hugely inflated price, yet you can then start the process of
bargaining down as much as you can.  Not on Koh Samui.  If a T-shirt was
$20, then it was $20.  No bargaining.  Elsewhere in Thailand, if you begin
to leave a store, the store owner will often come after you to keep the
bargaining going.  Not here.  People wanted their hugely inflated prices,
and if the buyer didn't want to pay that much, so be it.  Probably not
helping matters was that two days from then, the island's busiest tourist
week was slated to begin as Thais would flock there on vacation.  People on
Koh Samui, therefore, had nothing but $$ on their minds.  Everywhere you
went, everything was much more expensive on the island: not because of cost,
(believe it or not, gasoline was actually CHEAPER on Koh Samui than anywhere
else in Thailand we went), but because of the tourist-trap mentality.  Upon
first arriving, we needed to get from the airport to main town of Na Thon. 
The "official" airport van cost much more than we felt it should, so we
tried to ask where to catch the normal island bus, but kept being accousted
by taxi drivers saying "oh, we'll take you to Na Thon!  300B!!  300B!!  (The
island bus would be around 10B per person).  We were told you must walk 1km
to the main road to catch the bus.  In a pissed-off mood, my dad and I
decided to walk (with heavy backpacks) out to the main road.  There, we
found the bus stop, but no bus came.  We asked a lady whose house was
nearby, and she said "bus stops running at 5pm."  Then (of course) she asked
if we wanted to rent scooters from her.  So, we had to walk back to the
airport and wait for the last flight of the day to come in (so there'd be an
airport van to meet them), and wound up taking the airport van into town
(with all the taxi drivers running up to us saying "300B! 300B!")
   The town of Na Thon isn't anything special.  It's the town not where the
famous beaches are, but where the ferry landing is.  It's the largest town
on the island (though still quite small).  Still, it was interesting to walk
around town, and we managed to find a cheap hotel that was decent.  The town
was noisy though, with everyone talking and playing music, getting ready for
the big rush of young Thais that would flock there in a day or two (much
like Flordia is on spring break).  Hitachi set up a huge music-blasting van
with dozens of TV screens for music videos right at the docks.  I suppose we
had great timing in that we were there THEN, rather than a few days later
when it would REALLY be crazy.
   In town, we found a restaurant not too far from the pier: the Marco Polo,
that served Thai versions of western foods like pizza and rolls, as well as
Thai and Chinese dishes.  We wound up going there a couple of times,
including for breakfast the next morning when we were to catch a ferry from
Na Thon to Ang Thong National Park.
   The ferry trip to Ang Thong (a group of islands that are kept as a
national park -- even though now some beach bungalows have popped up for
nightly rental on the beach there -- anything for $$!) was a nice one, but
some people were angry at a discrepancy in what was advertised and what was
really given on the ferry.  Many places in town sold the tickets for the
trip, and most of them had signs that said what was included for the price. 
The signs all mentioned breakfast and lunch, with coffee, tea, and sodas. 
Well, on board, it turned out that our "breakfast" was only a cookie and
choice of tea or coffee.  Everyone thought the sodas were free (as
advertised) but they weren't--they were also mighty expensive.  A bunch of
people complained about the sodas, but the guy on the ship just said "I
don't know what the shops advertise, but you must pay for the sodas." I
realize this was trivial, but it was a good example of the attitude on the
island.  However, sodas aside, everything else about the trip and that day
was great, (including a decent lunch) and I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone
visiting the area.
   On the ferry, we met a young French guy who worked at the French embassy
in Bangkok (and who last had been to Koh Samui 10 years ago, before it was a
tourist island) and his friend, a Thai guy who spoke English quite well.  We
must have spent an hour talking about Thailand, and the anything-for-money
attitude of some of its people.
   Upon arriving at the first island of the national park, we got out and
climbed to the top of a cliff overlooking the white, sandy beach.  The
beaches at Koh Samui and Ang Thong National Park must be among the better
beaches in Thailand.  They're like the pictures you see of the Cook Islands,
or some tropical paradise, with white, sandy beaches and crystal-clear
light-blue water.  Really beautiful.  After clmibing, everyone was tired,
and went down for a swim.  Then, onto the next island, where once again, we
climbed up to the top of a hill to see a hidden lake (we didn't go down to
the lake, but it was a nice view) and then went swimming down below
afterwards.  The ferry that took us to Ang Thong was a big boat, and
couldn't dock close to the islands (since there was a lot of shallow
coastline) so they'd get us from ferry to shore by way of these long,
easy-to-tip-over boats run by a tiny propeller at the end of a long pole. 
Getting in and out of these small boats was quite interesting to say the
least.  At any rate though, Ang Thong park was a GREAT place to visit, and
there was (amazingly) somewhat of an effort to get people to throw their
trash away instead of just tossing it anywhere.  Ang Thong and Koh Samui are
probably two of the few areas in Thailand where there's clean water at the
beaches.  (At the same time we were in Koh Samui, there was a huge oil slick
that washed up along the coast at one of the popular mainland beaches near
where we originally considered going.  They didn't know who caused the oil
slick, and if it was dumped or caused by accident, but the beach that got
slicked was a popular New Years vacation destination, and lost all business
at the busiest time of the year because of the oil slick, and more
indirectly, Thailand's lax attitude toward the environment).
   It was interesting to note that on Koh Samui (as well as all around
Thailand), of all the farangs (foreigners) we saw in Thailand, the vast
majority of them were from Germany and Australia.  After that, came other
Europeans, Japanese, and then Americans, but by far, the vast majority were
German or Australian.  I don't know if this is typical or just happened to
be the case at that time of the year (April).
   The next day, we decided to go to the other side of Koh Samui (where the
famous beaches are).  We didn't have to fly back to Bangkok until the late
afternoon, so we had a fair amount of time for the beach.  We went to
Chaweng Beach (and much to my surprise, actually encountered a person on the
island whose honesty was higher than his wish for profit).  We took a
songthaew from Na Thong to Chaweng Beach, and didn't know that there were
posted rates for this route (the government trying to prevent tourists from
getting TOO ripped-off, I guess).  The posted rate was 20B per person, and
after spending a few days seeing the rip-off prices on the island, I went up
to the driver, and, (not knowing the rates, but expecting to be quoted some
astronomical rate like 200B), said "30B, ok?"   He looked at me, and said
"okay, get in."  Only after getting in (and others getting aboard) did I
notice the posted sign with the rate of 20B.  But I had already agreed to
pay 30B, so we didn't say anything.  (The 10B difference was only about
40c).  When the trip was over, we gave the man a 100B note, but he was
honest enough to give us 60B back, charging us only the posted 20B per
person.  It made me feel a little better about the island.  And finally, we
were at Chaweng Beach.  This is a BEAUTIFUL place, and most people here stay
in the little individual huts either right on the beach, or right off of
it.  Next time I go there, I'll do that myself.  The beach was beautiful. 
We sat under a palm tree next to one of the little "on-the-beach" hut
villages, and while one of us watched the backpacks, the other went in
swimming.  The water was clean and clear (except for an odd bit of trash
that would float by every once in a while, not unlike what you'd see at a
California beach, but certainly much cleaner than the rest of Thailand), and
very warm.  The quest for money brought out speed boats, parasailing, and
jet-skis but still, just hanging out in the water was great.  The waves were
medium at most, and I didn't want to leave.  Meanwhile, my dad got a nice
traditional Thai massage under the palm trees that he really enjoyed. 
(People were walking along the beach, offering massages, cold waters,
clothes for sale, and food.  Particularly nice after swimming was having an
ear of corn freshly grilled right in front of you for 20B).  We took turns
between going in and just resting under the palm trees, taking in the
beautiful views all around us.  Finally, it was time to go back to the
airport, and even with all the money-minded, rip-offs the island had, I was
still sad to leave.  It was a beautiful place, and had beaches unlike any
I'd been to before.  As a footnote, both my dad and I got sunburned that
day -- the only such day on our trip.  We had always put on sunblock, but it
came off while swimming.  Mine wasn't too bad though, and I also wore a
baseball cap even while in the water.  Lucky I did, or my head would have
been red as well.
   Once more we had great timing.  We left Koh Samui the evening before the
day hoards of young Thais were to desend upon the island for vacation.
   
BANGKOK/AYUTHAYA
   Finally, after going first to Cambodia, then everywhere else in Thailand
EXCEPT Bangkok, we arrived in Bangkok for the last leg of our Thailand trip.
Yet again, we had good timing.  Bangkok is known for its incredibly bad
traffic and congestion, and we were visiting it during a holiday time.  This
was GREAT!  So many people were off work, with many having left the city to
go to their hometowns or just escape for a few days, yet the only thing that
was really closed were many of the businesses in Chinatown.  Other than
that, most everything else was open, and it was probably the best time (if
there is a best time) to see Bangkok.
   We stayed at a place called "Charlie House"... they had an ad in the free
maps of Chaing Mai and Chiang Rai that are given away, and we kept their
number.  In the beginning though, we decided to stay someplace else: the
Nana Plaza Inn.  We took a tuk-tuk to the Nana Plaza Inn, but the tuk-tuk
left us off at the Nana Hotel.  It was a nice, fancy place, and we couldn't
believe that such a hotel was so CHEAP!  Well, it wasn't.  This was the big
Nana Hotel.  The place I read about in the Lonely Planet (and had made a
reservation at) was a dingy little place across the street called the Nana
Plaza Inn.  Normally, we would have stayed there, but before even walking in
the door, we suddenly decided to turn around and find someplace else.  The
reason?  It was the start of Party Time in town (Thai New Years time), and
the hotel was located above a plaza, with blasting music, bars, and both
Thais and foreigners yelling and screaming while drenching each other with
water -- even then at night.  Not exactly the place to stay when you want to
get some sleep.  (By the way, when I called information for the number of
the Nana Plaza Hotel from Koh Samui, they made the same mistake as the
tuk-tuk driver, and gave me the number for the large, tourist Nana Hotel. 
When the hotel told us it was 963B per person, I knew there was something
wrong, and waited until the next day when I had the book with me to phone
the right number).  At any rate, getting drenched as we left the area, we
took out the Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai map I had saved and flagged down a taxi
to take us to "Charlie House."  We had no reservations, but luckily they had
rooms left (though it was on the 3rd floor with no elevator -- which really
meant about 5 flights of stairs to walk up, with the lower floors already
being occupied).  This is an interesting hotel, and one I really recommend
it to anyone staying in Bagnkok who wants a western-style hotel for cheap. 
Though the normal rate was around $29, we had the coupon from the map (the
hotel is apparently quite new) and it cost only US$18 a night.  Expensive
compared to the cheap Thai hotels we had stayed at in other cities, but for
a nice, quiet room of its type in Bangkok, very, VERY cheap.  The rooms were
all new, had remote-controlled color TV (with English Star TV satellite
feed), and even remote-controlled air-con!  The staff (I think again,
Thai-Chinese run) was very friendly, and tried very hard to make it "your
home away from home" as the brochure said.  The hotel wasn't very big (only
a few rooms on each floor, occupying a few stories) but it was just the
right size, and other than the rooms being just a bit smaller than, say, a
Hilton room, I couldn't find any other difference.  The rooms were brand new
and fully-furnished -- for US$18 a night.  The neighborhood was also nice
and quiet, yet just a block in from a major street (so getting a cab was
never a problem).  There was also a small Chinese shrine across the street,
and we watched one evening, as there was a small ceremony there (we were
told it was the birthday of some important person back in China).
   Of all the places we were at in Thailand, I'd have to say I enjoyed
Bangkok the least.  Not that it's a bad city, but it's crowded, noisy, and
hot (and I can only imagine how much worse it is during a normal,
non-holiday period).  Still, through it all, the city did have some nice
points to it.  The famous Grand Palace area and temple were fantastic.  When
things got too hot, we took the Khao Phraya River Express Boat (a kind of
boat-bus) for an hour or two to cool off (for about 20c!) and got to see a
lot of the city's shoreline from the boat.  Chinatown was basically closed
because of the holiday, but a few places were open there, and we walked
around a bit.  In the evening, we went out shopping (everything from indoor
shopping areas to a Tokyu Department store), and afterwards, caught a movie.
I make it a personal habit of mine to see a movie in a foreign country each
time I travel (either an American movie, or a local one).  This time, we saw
"Forest Gump."  Like in many countries, you not only buy a ticket, but a
reserved seat.  As in Taiwan, the closing credits are cut.  As soon as the
end music starts and the names appear, the picture is turned off.  I really
hate this, but they do it so they can start ushering people in for the next
show sooner.  Also, while watching Forest Gump, the sound started going
bad.  At first, the center dialogue track was lost, with only the surround
tracks working.  I went out and tried to tell the guy the sound was bad.  He
went up and fixed it, but it didn't last for long.  Soon, the sound cut off
completely.  This time, as soon as it happened, everyone in the theatre
started clapping their hands to get the attention of the workers out in the
lobby.  One person came in and tried to fix the sound, but all together
between two total sound losses and one partial sound loss, about 10-15 mins
of the movie was lost (though the picture kept on running).
   By the end of the first full day (in which we went from early morning to
late at night) we were exhausted, and felt we had had enough of Bangkok. 
The next morning, we took a train up north a few hours to the old capital of
Ayuthaya.  There isn't much anything in the city of Ayuthaya except the
ruins from the time when Ayuthaya, not Bangkok, was the capital.
Interesting, but many of the ruins contained bricks (not stone) and many
were still in decent shape.  Going to Ayuthaya, we decided to take the
train.  The Thai trains are nothing like the Japanese ones.  Japanese trains
run on time, down to the second.  Our train didn't even arrive into the
station until 20 minutes after it was supposed to depart.  The train ran
smooth enough, but it's no luxury car.  There is no air-con (only a fan and
open windows) and the benches/seats are hard, not cushioned.  Still, the
ride TO Ayuthaya was much better than the ride back into Bangkok that
afternoon, when the cars were so full, people were squeezed into the train
cars like sardines.  Making matters worse, vendors (unofficial, I'm sure),
walk through the cars selling their cooked chicken, drinks, dried fruits, or
whatever else they have.  This is no problem on an empty train, but on one
packed wall-to-wall with people, it becomes quite a nuisance, especially
when the same person comes through the same car time and time again. 
Surprisingly, I noticed no other foreigners on the train in either
direction.  Probably because air travel is so cheap within Thailand, most
foreigners take flights (as we did for much of our travels) where most Thais
will take the train.  But travelling by Thai train was an interesting
experience too, and I'm glad we were able to do it at least once.
   After returning to Bangkok from Ayuthaya in the mid-afternoon, we were
both getting sick of Bangkok, and decided to head onto Hong Kong one day
early the next day (miracle of miracles, Cathay Pacific actually let us make
the change and didn't charge us anything for it).  So that last afternoon in
Bangkok, we walked down along the Khao San Road area of Bangkok, known as
"backpacker's alley" for its super-cheap guesthouses and noisy atmosphere,
filled with farang backpackers everywhere.  Along the road, we saw many
things for sale, including some Chinese pirate GameBoy games (which
contained multiple games on the same chip).  However, since none of the
stalls selling them had an actual GameBoy to try them out on, I didn't buy
them, especially upon inspecting the packages closer.  One said "9 in 1." 
Ok, I can buy that.  The next said "21 in 1".  Still possible.  The next
said "101 in 1."  Hmm, I'm starting to doubt this... and the last one said
"1000 in 1."  I don't think so.  Needless to say, I didn't buy them, but as
an interesting footnote, while in Hong Kong a few days later, I saw the same
pirate games for sale, and the places actually let me try them out.  Indeed,
the 9-in-1 and 12-in-1s delivered as advertised.  I also tried one that said
"128 in 1."  Sure enough, there were multiple games, but not 128: they
cheated by just having about 20 different games in the cartridge, and
getting the 128 by simply listing different titles for the same 20 games
until it reached 128.  But while I didn't buy the pirate GameBoy games in
Thailand, I did opt for something else: fake ID badges.  I have no real use
for them except to show friends and have some fun with (obviously, I'm not
going to try them out for real) but many stands were selling real (or VERY
good copies -- EXACTLY like the originals) press badges and Student ID cards
(complete with the correct hologram).  I opted for two press badges (one of
each type).  I didn't have a picture with me, but easily got passport photos
taken at the nearby camera shop for only a few dollars, and gave it to the
guy, who went into a building, typed up, and laminated me two fake press
badges.  He even stamped it with the correct official IPA press badge stamp,
and they cost only $3 each.  A nice gag gift for myself.
   Even though New Years had already passed, we still got drenched with
water while walking along Khao San Road -- as much by other foreigners as
Thais.  (We also were splashed on the way to the Jim Thompson house the day
before).  There were many things for sale along Khao San Road, and it was so
full of tourists that just about every Thai there spoke good English.  A
good comparison would be Canal Street in New York City's Chinatown.
   We spent that last night in relaxing, watching TV and washing our laundry
in the bathroom at Charlie House before catching a taxi early the next
morning to the airport.
   
   
MISC NOTES ON THAILAND
   
   Probably the most annoying part about visiting Thailand are all the touts
and rip-off artists in the country.  By no means do I mean to imply that all
Thai people are this way.  In fact, quite the opposite.  Many of the people
we met were genuinely kind and more than anxious to help someone out. 
However, there were plenty of others not so nice -- enough to give a bad
impression.  We were lucky that we were warned about such things beforehand,
so nothing surprised us.  But for the traveller who comes to Thailand
unprepared, it can be quite nasty.
   First to discuss are the "touts."  These are the people that will try to
sell you anything, whether it's an object or a service.  No sooner do you
land at the airport than people come up to you and actually accoust you with
"Hello!  Where you want to go?!"  Just waiting in the airport for our flight
to Koh Samui for a few hours, I must have been asked that a dozen times. 
The best advice is just to IGNORE them completely, and usually they will go
onto someone else -- but not always.  Sometimes they'll keep harassing you
even if you ignore them.  At the airport that day, I had to go to the
restroom, and yet again a man came up and stood right in front of me. 
"Hello, where you want to go?"  "To the BATHROOM!" I said, and walked
aside.  No matter where you go, the touts are always there... ready to rip
you off.  When we arrived in Chiang Rai, we had a reservation at the Krung
Thong hotel (the nice small Thai-Chinese-run hotel).  At the airport, the
taxi driver wanted to charge us 5 times the going rate, and we had to
bargain him down constantly, as there were no metered taxis (more on this
later) and finally we turned to start walking away before he agreed.  But
that wasn't all.  On the way into town he told us "Oh your hotel BAD hotel. 
Come with me, I take you to GOOD hotel" (for which, no doubt, he would
receive a commission).  When we were insistant that he take us to the hotel
we WANTED, then he tried to ask us if we were interested in any girls for
the evening.  It just never stops.  I don't mind bargaining, because that's
a part of life in many countries of the world, but the aggressive (and even
conning as I'll explain more later) touts really give a sour taste to
Thailand -- especially unfair against the many Thais that are sincerely,
open, friendly, and kind.
   The taxis in Thailand are really something else too.  Because of
continued complaints, Thailand instituted a system where there are both
metered and non-metered taxis (the metered ones are clearly marked with a
"METERED" sign on top).  For non-metered ones, it's up to you to negotiate a
price, so everyone naturally tries for the metered ones.  The problem is, as
soon as a Thai taxi driver sees a foreigner, dollar-signs go off in his
head.  In Japan at times, it can be hard for a foreigner just to get a taxi
to stop for him/her.  In Thailand, it's just the opposite.  CONSTANTLY, we
were being yelled at: "HEY!  YOU WANT TAXI?!" -- ALL THE TIME.  We'd even
get OUT of a taxi or tuk-tuk, and have another taxi or tuk-tuk driver drive
right up to us and ask if we wanted another one.  Heaven forbid we should
actually WALK somewhere.  If we did need a taxi though, we'd flag down a
metered one.  While waiting for a clearly-marked metered one to come by,
numerous tuk-tuks (which aren't metered) and non-metered taxis would stop by
saying "where you want to go?"  Once or twice, I answered, and quoted what
would be a normal rate to pay.  Sometimes they accepted, but more often than
not, they'd say "oh, no..." and demand 5 or 10 times the amount, so in the
end, I usually just ignored such calls and would just wait for a metered
taxi.  Sooner or later, a metered one would come by.  But of course, they
NEVER turn the meter on, and will first say "300B" or some outrageous price
when you tell them where you want to go.  So I'd say "Meter, ok?"  Only
about 50% of the time would they say "ok" and then turn on the meter.  At
least 1/2 would say "no... 300B" and I'd have to argue with them that they
are a METERED cab.  Other times, they'd lie and tell me that the meter is
broken.  However, each time they tried one of these things, I'd just say
"ok, forget it" and close the door, and then suddenly, they'd say "Ok, get
in.  Meter."  No apology or anything about their lying.  Just a way of doing
business in Thailand.
   As an American, it's hard sometimes to just ignore people when they're
talking to you, but you learn it VERY quickly in Thailand.  Constantly,
everywhere you go, you'll be harassed by touts.  In order to be left alone,
you simply must COMPLETELY IGNORE them.  Then, and only then, will they
leave you alone.  Sometimes, if you don't respond, they'll try speaking a
few words in German (if they know any), hoping you'll respond to that, but
after it becomes apparent that you don't want what they're selling, they'll
leave you alone.  But it is a major nuisance in the country.
   Even worse than the touts that are "honest" touts are the ones that are
cons.  Luckily, this is mentioned quite often in the Lonely Planet book, so
we were more than prepared for this, but often we'd be walking towards a
famous museum or temple, and someone in a nice suit would come up to us and
say "hey, are you going to Jim Thompson's House?" or "Are you going to the
National Museum?  It's closed today."  This is an old trick, and many
foreigners, from what I hear, believe it.  (And why not?  After all, why
would a countryman lie about something being closed in his country?)  Why,
so he can take you someplace ELSE of course--to another attraction run by
friends, or to his shop where he'll make you a "special deal", etc. 
Luckily, we didn't have to go through this experience ourselves, but found
plenty of these Thai con-men coming up to us to tell us that "oh, that is
closed today."  Once, just once, on the way to Wat Pho (a temple in Bangkok
that has the largest reclining Buddha image) when a man came up to us to say
"You're going to Wat Pho?  It's closed today.  Really, it's closed," I felt
like grabbing the guy by the shirt and yelling back in the man's face to
stop lying, but of course I didn't.  I knew it was open.  The man kept
following us for a bit, very sincere for anyone not knowing about this scam,
insisting that the temple was closed.  I retored merely by turning around
and yelling back "good, so we'll go to a closed temple, ok?!"  Of course not
only was the temple not closed, but it was one of the busiest days of the
year, with everyone spashing water on themselves for the New Years.  The
same thing happened other places as well, such as on the way to Jim
Thompson's house.  Even more annoying was that the police either are in this
con too, or just help out and let it pass by without any qualms.  While
walking towards Jim Thompson's House (a museum; once the home of American
Jim Thompson, a Thai silk businessman), we asked a policeman for directions
to the place (a very famous landmark of the city).  He pointed the way we
needed to go, but then a man came up to us, even with the policeman right
there, and said "Where are you going?  Are you going to Jim Thompson House? 
It's closed today.  It's not open today."  I tried to ask the policman again
to repeat the directions, but then the POLICEMAN said "oh yes, perhaps I
think it's closed today.  Yes, it's probably closed today" when he KNEW it
was not.  And of course, it wasn't.  While on the way there, we ran into
other foreigners who had been told the same thing, and were unsure.  But we
were sure.  We knew it would be open.  It certainly was.
   While obviously not all Thais are this way (and again, the majority were
NOT), there were SO MANY touts and con-men everywhere we went, that it
really can leave a very bad impression of the country to a visitor.  This is
really a shame, especially considering the number of really nice Thais we
met.  But everywhere we went, as soon as someone would be kind and helpful
and sincere, we'd immediately be harassed by touts and cons.  It's quite a
problem.  Visitor beware.  This is almost a bad thing to say, but it's quite
simple: don't believe anything anyone tells you in Thailand.  SEE FOR
YOURSELF.
   Another trait that many people had (especially those dealing with
tourists) was a distinct lack of help if profit wasn't involved.  For
instance, while having a layover at the Bangkok airport, I needed to get the
number of a hotel on Koh Samui (the phone number wasn't listed in the Lonely
Planet book).  I went to the Post/Telecommunications window to ask the
person how I reach information, and he didn't want to be bothered.  I
couldn't get an answer out of him.  As soon as he found out I didn't wish to
mail something or have him place a long distance call for me, he immediately
ignored me, even though he was the only worker at the official Post and
Telecommunications office at the airport.  I had to find out how to reach
information by asking a clerk at one of the airline counters at the airport,
who easily enough gave me the information on how to reach directory
assistance (it's only a 3-digit number!  How much effort would it have been
for that Post/Telecommunications clerk just to tell me what it was?!)  To be
fair, there were of course others who went out of their way to help us (such
as the Bangkok Airways agent who tried very hard and succeeded in getting us
on a flight to Koh Samui), and plenty of others who helped us without any
condition of business.  I suppose after all the hassles and greedy people
that shove their way into your life in Thailand, anyone who helps just for
the sake of helping is really appriciated.  For those thinking of going to
Thailand, take along a healthy supply of "kiss off" and "I'm ignoring you",
but as well, take along a supply of "thank you very much" for the many Thais
who are genuinely kind.
   Thailand has many American comapnies present, just like many other Asian
countries.  Thankfully (especially in the hot weather) there were 7-11s, and
often, the best thing to beat the heat was a Slurpee break. :)  (It seems
there are only two flavors available: Coke Slurpee, and a white flavor I
tried once, but couldn't figure out what it was -- though it was pretty bad
to my palette).  It's not really safe to drink the tap water in Thailand,
but bottled water is very cheap (average price at non-tourist places: 4B for
a bottle about 3/4 of a litre.  That's only about 18c a bottle, but in
tourist areas, that 4B goes up to as high as 18B).  There are more expensive
brands, of course, but the Thai brands of bottled water were just fine. 
There are McDonalds, Mr Donut, Burger King, Pizza Hut... everything the
lonely American needs if you really want it (though usually much more
expensive than home, and certainly more expensive than a nice Thai dinner).
There's also a Tower Records in Bangkok.
   If you feel the need for news from home, Star TV (satellite) can be
picked up in some hotels.  It was very amusing watching American TV shows
such as M*A*S*H, Remington Steele, and Moonlighting in the middle of both
Cambodia, and Thailand (via Star TV).  Even more interesting was seeing them
in original, un-cut form (still with commercials, but without the extra cuts
taken when they are syndicated as repeats on American TV).  Seeing those
extra 2-3 minutes of M*A*S*H (cut for local TV syndication here in America)
was quite interesting.  In hotels that had only local TV (no satellite
reception -- which was most of the places we stayed at) -- watching the
local shows were quite interesting, even though I couldn't understand a
word.  Some programs were familiar -- I saw "Doraemon" (very famous Japanese
cartoon for kids) dubbed into Thai, and also saw some American movies (also
dubbed into Thai) on TV.  Watching the news and talk shows was interesting
too, even though I had no idea what was being said.  There are also a
surprisingly large number of English-language newspapers in Thailand (based
in Bangkok).  There are 3 major English newspapers, and a 4th that had a
business slant.  They were good sources of news not only from home and the
world, but had especially comprehensive coverage of Asia (something horribly
lacking at home, I realized, as I came back to read my L.A. Times).
   ATM cards hooked to the major networks (PLUS, Cirrus, etc) work in
Thailand, and are a very cost-effective way of getting cash.  The
rate-of-exchange used is always the inner-bank rate -- much better than the
rate you get changing cash or travellers checks at a bank or currency
exchange booth.  I used my bank ATM card (part of the Cirrus network) to get
money from my savings account back home three times while in Thailand.
   The price of gas in Thailand is more expensive than in the U.S., but
cheaper than other countries.  Around $1.80 a gallon if I remember right
(sold in litres).  Interesting, but the price of gas on Koh Samui (an
island) was cheaper than in the rest of (mainland) Thailand.
   The prices of things in geneal in Thailand were pretty good for the
visitor.  While not as good as they used to be from what I'm told, things
were still cheaper than at home, and vacationing in Thailand was not as
expensive as other Asian countries (though still more than others).
   
   We had a great time in Thailand, and even with its warts, it was a
wonderful place to visit, and a place I'd like to go back to again someday.
   
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