Thailand – about dollar bills and false love

“For Thais, we are nothing but Dollar bills” is what Neil, in his mid-forties and from England, claimed. I had met him in a hotel in Trat, south Thailand and close to the Cambodian border. He had been living in South East Asia since a couple of years. “When I first arrived here when I was 23 years old, young and handsome, a wise man warned me, ‘never fall in love with the girls here. They will play a game with you, pretend big love. And then they will rip you off, they will get all money out of you and finally leave you when you have nothing more to give.’ I followed his advice, and I was never taken in by one of those ladies.” He then told me about a waitress that used to work for him, “she was married to a Thai. At the same time, she had ten lovers, all white, none of them living here. She spent her time with her lovers whenever they were in Thailand so to get money out of them. Her husband even knew about it. I met those poor fellas, who of course all thought they were the only ones, completely fallen for her.”

His words made me sit up and take notice. I remembered James, who I got to know in Vietnam and who had told me a similar story. He had spent a couple of months with a Vietnamese girl, who apparently was married but separated from her husband. He told me that he cannot remember ever having had so strong feelings for a woman in his life, although he had been married before. They had even made plans together for the future – but then things were to turn out quite differently. She somehow changed her mind, got back with her husband and stopped talking to James who, at that time, had already spent several thousand Dollars on her.

James and Neil were not the only ones telling me those things. Of course, I had heard stories like that before, even seen a documentary about German men leaving their country and hoping for a better life with young and beautiful girls in Thailand. When I came to the country though, my intention was anything but getting involved into that topic and I definitely wasn’t going to spend time in Pattaya, Thailand’s party city and famous for exact those stories.

Island Koh Chang – anything but local

My plan was to relax at the beach, discovering beautiful landscapes and learning about local life. That was why I chose to travel to Koh Chang, one of the beautiful islands my travel guide from Lonely Planet had recommended.

Unfortunately, the guide is not appropriate for people who seek places off the beaten track. I had a very good time there, but rather thanks to two lovely girls from Germany/Switzerland, than for the reasons I had chosen this place: Because of its beauty, the island also became a very touristy place and beaches were filled with huge hotels and night bars. What I did not like about the place was the obvious distribution of power between tourists and locals: I didn’t feel that the girls were actually seen as real human beings. When they sat with us at table, it was rare for them to participate in our conversation, and no one really tried to make them get involved. The rule apparently was easy: I pay for you, you look pretty and do what I ask you to.

Don’t get me wrong – I am the last person to criticize that kind of relationship, if both are happy with the situation. But here’s the thing: To me the girls didn’t seem to be happy. It’s just the easiest, if not the only way to make money for themselves and their families. Once again, a proof for the unequal world we live in.

Thailand’s capital Bangkok probably is most famous for these inequalities. My time in the metropolis therefore was accompanied by situations that reflected those extreme contrasts.

I got to know two local girls from Couchsurfing. They showed me the city’s best places to go out, we had great fun together and I slept and their place – for free, the only “payment” they accepted was to listen to my stories and share travel experiences.

Bad decision: Looking for a ping pong show

On my last night however, I decided to go to see what tourists do in Bangkok. It might be inappropriate or morally wrong, but I was being too curious: I wanted to see a Thai ping pong show. Together with two English guys we made our way to a hidden and gloomy night club a man that had talked to us on the street brought us to. He mentioned a “happy hour”, and said that we would pay 100 Baht (about US$ 3) per entrance and per drink. Inside the club except for us there were only a few (old) women, some of them ladyboys. One started to dance on stage, or whatever you might call dancing. She put a cigarette between her legs and asked one of the guys to light it. When her vagina had finished to “smoke” it, she insisted in getting tips which made us feel uncomfortable and we decided to leave the club. At the exit door however they surprised us with the bill: 5200 Baht was what they wanted us to pay! Included were entrances, drinks and the “show” we had just watched. They showed us their price list: First drink 300 Baht, second about 600 and so on. When we refused to pay that huge amount, all women started to get really aggressive and said they would call the police. Insisting that we did not have that money, they finally opened us the door and let us go after having paid 500 Baht each. I spend more than I was prepared to, but it was worth it – now I got an impression about Thailand’s sinister nightlife and I know that it really is not worth time and money.

blog thailand
Bangkok, Khaosan Road

That evening, Neil’s words came into my mind again. Was he right after all? For those people in the club we were nothing but dollar bills. But surely there must be more lovely people like my Couchsurfing friends in Thailand! I was disappointed to have to leave the country with this bad last example on my mind.

Good ending story

The next morning, I had to take a cab from my hotel to the airport. I had problems with my phone, so the receptionist called a taxi for me and made sure that the driver knew where I needed to go. When I sat in the car already, the lady from the reception suddenly ran after us and knocked on my window. I opened it and she gave me my purse – I must have lost it in the hotel! Inside, there was probably as much money as she would have earned during a week or two, not to mention two credit cards. I was relieved and thankful – not many people would have been that honest.

Yes, Thailand is famous for sex tourism, which is a huge problem for many young women, and not acceptable, especially when it comes to children sex tourism. Many women see white people as dollar bills, because this is the way they were brought up. Sad but true, it would be hard, if not impossible for them, to earn enough money in another way. However, my Couchsurfing friends, as well as the receptionist and all the nice and smiley people I had met in Thailand throughout my journey, proved what I actually knew before – there is no “Thais”, just as much as there is no “blonds” or “blacks”. Everyone has their own character and their own decisions to take – and those will define their lives. Apparently, Neil had met so many people all behaving in the same way that he forgot that not everybody is the same and that generalizations never can be true.

I am so happy to have gained these experiences and met these people. Not only the good, but also the bad memories taught me life lessons and always will make part of me.

Cambodia

I must admit that before visiting Cambodia, I really did not know a lot about it. Now however I understand why this country will teach you so much about history, politics and humanity and why it is really worth going there.map_of_cambodia

From Vietnam I arrived in its capital, Phnom Penh, where I was hosted by Apollo, Nigerian and from Couchsurfing. He and his flat mate live not far from the centre in a really nice and big apartment.

Illegally in Cambodia

Apollo told me something I was quite surprised of: In Phnom Penh there are actually quite a lot of Nigerian people living. For many of them this country is more like a prison though: Back in Nigeria, they sold all their belongings just to be able to live in Asia, in hope of having a better life, which is what migrant smugglers told them in order to get their money.

Once arrived there, they suddenly realize that what people told them was wrong and that they cannot work legally with their visas. After a certain time their visas expire and they start staying in the country illegally, but they cannot return to Africa after having sold everything. And the worst: With each day they illegally stay in Cambodia, their fine when they finally leave the country would get higher – the longer they stay, the more complicated it is for them to leave. Because of their hopeless situation, many Nigerians become criminals or end up in prison.

Khmer Rouge and Autogenocide in Asia

Probably one of the most important things to do in Phnom Penh is to visit its Genocide Museum called “Tuol Sleng” or “S-21”. It certainly will not be a happy day for you, but a very important one.

This museum shows and explains in a very good manner, with audio guides and a lot of documentaries, to what extend their former regime, the Khmer Rouge, destroyed the country and their own population by torturing and killing millions of innocent people.

From 1975-1979, the communist regime under Pol Pot decided that they wanted to change the whole country by destroying anything modern and industrialized and creating a form of agrarian socialism. Academics and people that were considered as being intellectuals, for example if they wore glasses, were tortured and executed in Security Prison 21 (“S-21”) among other places. Any signs of religion and industrialization were destroyed, like machines and temples. People were resettled out of big cities to the countryside – Phnom Penh for example became a ghost town. Whoever was opposed to the Khmer Rouge or being suspected of opposing the regime was tortured and finally killed.

I spend my whole afternoon in the museum, which used to be a school before it became this place of horror. When I finally left, I felt like every smile was a smile too much.

Angkor Wat and temples – more exhausting than interesting

After the capital, I moved on to what Cambodia is most famous for: Its temple complex and the largest religious monument of the world, Angkor Wat.

Since I am the kind of person to never organize my journey, I was lucky to arrive early in the morning in a hostel in Siem Reap and to meet a young American lady, Kelsy, who offered me to share a “tuk-tuk” (three wheeler taxi) to the temples. We succeeded in watching the beautiful sun rise, and then moved on to visit the biggest and oldest temple, Angkor Wat, and two more, one where the film “Tomb Raider” was made, “Ta Prohm”.

angkor-wat-with-water
Again it wasn’t me who took this wonderful picture of Angkor Wat, since with my phone all my photos got stolen, too.

I don’t know if it was because of the sweltering heat, or the fact that we didn’t want to spend our money on a guide, hoping that our tuk-tuk driver was knowledgeable, or even more probable for the fact that I got my phone stolen – this day surely was not my favourite one in Cambodia. I think for a next time I’d definitely pay for someone who could teach us something about the place and even more definitely I would pay more attention to my valuables: It was only when we had left the temple already when I realized that my mobile was gone. At least everything took a turn for the better: In a phone shop in Siem Reap I soon found a new and better one, for which I paid AU$200, worth AU$700. And on my last stop in Cambodia, Battambang, I decided to just relax and watch some documentaries, where I finally learned why those temples are actually worth a visit.

I do not regret at all having visited Cambodia, as I had the chance to learn so much. However, after being confronted with topics and incidents that wouldn’t really make me feel as being on holidays, I was looking forward to doing something more cheerful and pleasant – beach time in Thailand!

Learning shopping rules in Hoi An

From Ninh Binh I took the night train to Da Nang, and from there a cab to Hoi An. First time for me to sleep in a bed in a train, I was really looking forward to it and it was fun I have to say. Better than the bus for sure, at least I could stretch my legs.18160552_405827193119698_342471122995904512_n

Hoi An was lovely and I wished I could have stayed longer than only for one day. Beautiful, empty beaches and a very cute downtown, especially at night when Chinese lanterns light up the town in all sorts of colours. Hoi An also is the right place to buy souvenirs and more – dozens of shoe and clothing shops that produce on your request and to your size for very few money. Although I had not intended to spend money on clothes, I couldn’t help but bought one Asian style shirt and two pairs of shoes.

This shopping trip taught me a lesson though. Since all the shops have so many competitors, it is quite common to negotiate prices. I was looking for sandals and talked to a couple of sellers to know about their prices.

Finally, I found one who went lower and lower with the price, she absolutely didn’t want me to leave without buying one pair. I negotiated with her without really wanting to and finally accepted her very low offer. I felt that I would have been rude to leave although she made me such a good offer.

However, after leaving the shop I realized that I had just negotiated for a couple of dollars, something less I would have spent on a coffee in Australia. I got so much used to Vietnamese prices that this amount of money seemed a lot to me. Later, when I went back to fetch my shoes, I paid her more than I had to and she offered me a big smile, which was more worth than those few bucks.

Discovering landscapes in Sa Pa and Ninh Binh

Having spent a couple of days in Vietnam’s heat, I decided to take a sleeping bus (beds are in Asian size, not so comfortable for me) further north in the mountains to Sa Pa, which is known as one of the most beautiful landscapes in Vietnam, with huge rice fields and lots of green spots.

Unfortunately, I was unlucky enough to spent almost all time in rain. No beautiful sights at all, so no reason for me to stay longer than a day and a half. At least I met James from America who had been travelling for four years and who knew Vietnam very well. He showed me some nice corners in town and shared with me his sad ending love story with a Vietnamese girl who apparently was particularly interested in his money. Later, Dong told me that this sort of story is not the only one she had heard of.

Because of the bad weather I decided to leave Sa Pa earlier and had one day more, which I spent in Ninh Binh. Beautiful little city!

And also the first time for me to try to ride a motorbike by myself. I was quite nervous before I started, since traffic rules do not exactly work as I am used to. But soon I realized there was nothing to worry about as long as you know how to beep the horn.

I think this day was probably one of the best: Even though I got to know a very nice group of French guys and we took a canoe together to discover the cliffs and caves in Tam Coc, 9km from Ninh Binh, I couldn’t wait to be alone on my bike again and just drive without any destination. I didn’t want to follow big streets but rather enter in small lanes, where local life took place. Again, people welcomed me with a big smile and a “hello” on every corner.

At some point I saw a big tunnel and although I was on my way home I changed plans and entered. Behind I spotted a big lake and steps to something that looked like a temple. I climbed the steps and discovered a big cave illuminated with golden lights. Inside there was an altar decorated with Buddha statues and jags, all in gold. The temple smelled great thanks to joss sticks someone had lightened. I was really impressed by its beauty. In front of the cave, from the building I had seen downstairs, I had an amazing view all over the lake and the mountains next to it. I was almost the only person, and it felt great.

Leaving down under, Starting far east (Saigon)

Another farewell, another new begin. I think I got kind of used to it now, after almost six years of travelling. I was looking forward to my trip to South East Asia so much when I bought my plane tickets to Vietnam. However, my last month in Australia was probably my best and therefore leaving Sydney was not as easy as I had hoped.

Luckily exciting Vietnam makes me change ideas and I did not at all lay in bed nostalgically.

vietnam_karte

Saigon – learning about motorbikes, money and war

My start was in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, south of the country. Getting out of the plane, driving to my hotel (first time to have my own room since months!), discovering the neighbourhood… all that was a wonderful feeling! So much culture, so much going on! Almost too busy, with all the motorbikes and noises everywhere. Quickly I had to learn how to cross a Vietnamese street – best is eyes closed, drivers will stop anyway and apparently the most common reason why there are accidents are pedestrians hesitating where to go while crossing the street. If I crossed a street like that in Germany I’d probably be in the newspapers on the next day, here it’s just everyday life.

Also, I had to get used to their currency – no coins at all, since they would not be worth a “penny”. One Australian Dollar is about 17.000 Vietnamese Dong, one Euro something like 25.000 Dong. To give you an idea about what life costs: One bottle of water between 9.000 and 15.000 Dong usually, a one course dish depending on the food and if it’s in a touristy area or not between 15.000 and 120.000 Dong. Amazingly cheap!

Saigon to me was a place where to learn about Vietnam’s interesting and at the same time horrible history. I have never been to a country that had to suffer so many wars. I visited the cu chi tunnels that were constructed by Vietnamese soldiers, the Viet Cong, and helped them to hide and fight against Americans and I also went to one of the most important war museums in the world, the war remnants museum where I learned historical facts, such as about the dangerous chemical agent orange used against the country. Those who were exposed to it, and also their descendants still suffer from serious health problems – during my journey I saw a couple of Vietnamese without hands, arms or other handicaps. Surely country’s history was presented subjectively, but even after my own reserches I strongly believe that the former American government bears the most blame for what has happened. I couldn’t help but felt very angry about how far people go to destroy other people’s lives.

However, and that was something that really surprised me a lot during my journey, I understood later that nowadays most Vietnamese have forgiven Americans and they are even very often known to be their “favourite” tourists: Apparently American culture, whatever that actually is, is something Vietnamese are very curious about and they want to live more this Western life style.

Hanoi – About Vietnamese culture and communism

After Saigon, I headed up to the country’s capital, Hanoi, by plane. Famous for its Old Town, the city is, just as Saigon, quite busy, full of motorbikes all the time, which scared me a bit sometimes.

17883092_1448011788563575_321779138794881024_n

I very much appreciated the fact that I could stay at a local’s place, Dong, who is a journalist, too. We talked about French (the presidential elections were close!) and Vietnamese politics and she explained me to what extend Vietnam still is a communist country. In fact, I had been looking for signs of communism, but it didn’t really feel different to any other country I had been to so far. Everywhere you go people ask you to buy something from them, negotiation is quite common and of course there are different sort of social classes – some people only earn one dollar per hours or even less, some much more. However, according to Dong, you cannot say or write at all what you want to: the media is controlled or owned by the government. Reason enough for her to stop working for them and starting her career as a freelancer.

Getting to know true Vietnamese life

The best part of living in her area was the fact that I was the only tourist everywhere I went. People were often smiling at me, waving and telling me things in Vietnamese or trying to communicate with hands and feet. Some pointed at me to their friends, and children, who often spoke better English than their parents, sometimes walked next to me and told me their few words they could say. I don’t think I have ever said “hello” more often in such a short time. Once two men showed me their camera and I thought they wanted me to take a photo of them, but I soon understood that they wanted a photo with me – I just laughed and accepted. Soon I’ll be probably known as somebody like “Julia, my American friend” within their Facebook friends. 😀

I really started to like Vietnamese people. In the beginning, I was probably more cautious, since I wasn’t too sure if they would take advantage of the fact that I was a foreigner and did not understand their language. And although I am pretty sure they sometimes charged me a bit more than a local, I still feel that they were being caring somehow. When the motorbike driver wasn’t sure if the address I gave him was correct, he called Dong and asked her since he couldn’t communicate with me. Very often a big smile was the only communication possible and that was enough for me to appreciate these people.

IMG-20170419-WA0013
A Vietnamese baby, Bao An, I “found” in the plane from Saigon to Hanoi… sooo cute!
IMG-20170419-WA0015
Street food in Hanoi
IMG-20170419-WA0016
Best fruits ever… I went there every day while staying at Dong’s place, and each time the seller cwelcomed me with a huge smile!
IMG-20170420-WA0011
Typical dinner with Dong. I paid $1… for both of us!