A Special Deal

January 31, 2007 8 Comments »

Thailand sunset

Thailand sunset

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My sister, Cyndi, and our friend Mary decided to come join me in Bangkok and Southern Thailand for some shopping and sunbathing. Thanks to my sister’s friends with connections this also marked the beginning of my 5 star travel through Thailand. Cyndi knew someone who could get a ‘special deal’ at the Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok (and we could split it 3 ways!). Once again I’m reminded – connections are everything! The special deal afforded us the opportunity to stay in the nicest hotel in Bangkok, one of the nicest hotels in all of Asia and hands down the best hotel that I’ve ever stayed at…it was an experience. It was fun to see the finely oiled machine they call Customer Service hum. It was such a change from my last 2 weeks of budget travel just praying for hot water and no big bugs – I felt like I was in a dream. I met Cyndi and Mary at the hotel and we settled into our suite. It was large and had an amazing view of the river, a HUGE bathroom and dressing room and more electrical gadgets and amenities than I’ve ever experienced. My highlight was the big tub in the bathroom…with a TV! I had visions of taking a bubble bath and watching the Patriots vs. Colts playoff game at the same time…who needs beer and peanuts when you have a bubble bath!

However – there was no time to sit around playing with all of the gadgets. Little did I know – but in addition to being the sex capital of Asia, Bangkok’s sweet spot was also shopping. We were headed to the famous Chatuchak weekend market in search of bargains. Cyndi also arranged to hire a driver for the day that would assist us with our every shopping need. I wasn’t really sure what my shopping needs were – but I liked the sounds of ‘having a diver’…definitely a special deal! Our driver, Nick, dropped us off in front of the Chatuchak market – but before he let us shop till we dropped, he had a few instructions for us. He gave us each a bottle of ice cold water (as you know it’s not good to be a dehydrated shopper!) and he gave a cell phone with his cell number programmed into it. He told us to call him when we had bags that we wanted him to take back to the car – he would meet us at the entrance. Yes…this was not shopping for rookies – this was Major League shopping. We set off…money belts and water in hand. It really was huge and the variety of items was boggling. We bargained for clothes, housewares, and antiques and Nick would come pick them up for us an bring us more water. He even had a marker with him so we could put our names on each bag in order to tell them apart in the trunk. We barely stopped for food and finally I had to break down and stop for a bathroom break. Let me tell you – there was nothing 5 Star about the public toilets at Chatuchak – all I can say is bring Purel!

In my travels to date I have gotten much better at bargaining at markets (thanks to some tutoring from my sister). As an American the idea of bargaining for goods is quite uncomfortable, it doesn’t really come naturally to us…especially to Midwesterners! You have to practice…just like learning a new dance-step – practice, practice, practice. Start with the cheap items though (I actually tried to bargain for water once in Bali)…then move on to the more expensive things. The bargaining shouldn’t just stop at the markets…you can bargain for hotel rooms, bus tickets, taxis, you name it – everything is a negotiation in Asia/Malaysia/Indonesia. It’s like a ballroom dance where you and your partner (the seller) knows all of the steps flawlessly – all you do is execute – hopefully without stepping on each others feet.

They state their initial price, you act shocked and say “Too Expensive!” Then they say,”We give you special discount today, How much you pay?” This normally includes them pushing a calculator into your hand so that you can punch in your price and show it to them. You take the calculator and display half of their original price and show them the calculator. They agitatedly say “No, No – I have to make money – you trying to kill me!” They take the calculator and say “I give you special deal – for you special deal.” They punch in a slightly lower number than their first one and hand you the calculator saying “Special deal…for you….you take?”. They even start to get out a bag and put the item in the bag at this point – just assuming you are going to agree. This next move is important – it’s the make/or break moment of the dance – the difference between getting rated a 2.5 or a 9.7 on your bargaining skills. You take the calculator and say “No, no, no, you give me best price.” Now they know that you aren’t completely gullible and the real bargaining begins…yeehaw! The calculator is exchanged many more times like a hot potato. In the middle of the hot potato game they normally make a statement “How can I feed my family – give me something – just a little.” Don’t let this pull at your heart strings…you have to be tough. If you are really giving them too low of price – they simply won’t sell it to you. Eventually you come to an agreement signified by you typing a number in the calculator and saying “This is the MOST I’ll pay.” At this point, you can’t be afraid to walk away…you may just have to move on and leave the item behind…don’t worry there are many more around the corner. Even though this may seem like a silly or uncomfortable process, this really can be a fun theatrical process – it doesn’t have to be intimidating. The funny thing is that you are normally negotiating over a difference of $3 US so be familiar and quick with your currency conversations! One of my favorite bargaining exchanges that day at Chatuchak was with a guy selling us shirts. We agreed on a price and then we threw in the curve ball – “Ok – better deal if we buy 3?” That sent him into a calculator frenzy! It was really hot and he would fan me with his hand fan as we worked on the calculator. We left with 3 shirts and all of us were laughing and enjoying ourselves – even the vendor! Sometimes I think that they should send all University business students to a big market and make them bargain for a day…it does teach you good negotiation skills!

Photo: Man made of birth control!
Finally the market was closing and Nick met us to take us to the car. When we got to the car he had more water and little, cold, wet washcloths for us to freshen up – brilliant! With our car full of purchases we had Nick take us straight to a restaurant for nourishment and a chance to get off our feet. We went to Cabbages and Condoms – a Thai restaurant well-known for it’s philanthropy and it’s goofy name. A portion of their proceeds go back into the community to support the food bank (Cabbages) and AIDS research (Condoms). The food was great – but I was most impressed with the decor. Everywhere they had life size figurines made of condoms! Instead of an after dinner mint, they handed you the bill and a condom for each person – what a fabulous idea! Now they just have to figure out how to give me a tall, cut boy to go with that!

We looked around at the gift shop and they had some demonstrations of how to make silk from the worm to the actual hand weaving. They were boiling silk worms and unraveling their ‘cocoon’ for the silk thread. We watched them for a bit and then the lady took one out and unwrapped a cooked worm and handed to me. The guy next to us saw our confusion and said – “You can eat it.” I thought a couple of seconds about it and said Ok – what the hell…it tasted like corn – but a bit mushier. Somehow I convinced Cyndi and Mary to try one too…I think the drinks at dinner helped in that decision. I was pretty proud of all of us for having our after-dinner worms. As we were leaving the lady cooking the worms said…”good protein”.

We went home that night and relaxed in our ultimate ‘special deal’ of 5 Star comfort. I took a bubble bath and watched TV – heavenly! The next day we awoke to a gray, rainy day so we changed our original site-seeing plan and decided to go hunting for silver instead. silver Photo: Silver shopping!
Good quality silverware is in high supply in Bangkok for cheap prices and Cyndi and Mary were on the hunt- I kind of felt like Yukon Cornelius. We made a few stops and finally ended up at the silver mecca…a little market that was willing to do the bargaining dance. I honestly can’t shop too much as I don’t have room in my suitcase to buy many things, but it’s really hard to pass up these bargains in Asia…especially when I know that I would pay 3 times as much at Pottery Barn for the same thing. The silver was high quality and calling my name! After a couple of hours of bargaining, choosing the design, determining the number of place settings, and the number of pieces…we all 3 left with new silverware! One problem…it was heavy, and the airlines have weight limits. In addition – how the hell was I going to get it all shipped back to NY…where there is a will – there is a way – and a credit card.

The last day we were in Bangkok we had a lazy morning at the hotel gym where the help there would open our bottles of water for us, and bring us a cold, wet washcloth when we were done working out…I really could get used to being rich. We got cleaned up and went to visit the Grand Palace. This was a huge temple site that housed the famed Emerald Buddha. It was actually a great fortress of Buddhism with many temples and intricate design, and tons of gold – Yukon Cornelius would have made a killing here! grand palace Thai kings stopped living in the Palace around the turn of the 20th century and it now houses various government offices and remains the spiritual heart of of the Thai community.

That afternoon it was time for us to head to the beach and say goodbye to our wonderful staff at the Peninsula. We packed all of our new, shiny, silver knives in our checked luggage, and tried to put the rest of the heavy items in our carry on so that we could meet the weight limits of 15kg. It’s a good think we are all pretty strong women…most would have buckled under the weight. We actually weighed each of our suitcases and carry-ons on the scale in our bathroom and I found that I was carrying a total of 30kg…thank god massages were cheap! We took off for the new Bangkok airport. The Bangkok airport was just completed a few months ago and is officially the largest passenger terminal in the world. It was quite massive and impressive, but still had a number of kinks. We managed to play dumb when they told us our bags were overweight. They gave us a warning and sent us on our way. The Limestone cliffs and sand beaches of Railay Bay awaited us!

Photo: Cyndi and Mary carrying bags through water – that’s the town that we walked from in the distance!
waterWe arrived at sunset and we had arranged transfer to our beach hotel. The only problem was that the only way to get to our hotel was by long tail boat – and the tide was low. The driver dropped us off at the peer, and next we had to wade out in knee deep water with our silverware laden suitcases and hoist them into a long-tail boat for our transport to the hotel. I had a little flashlight that I carry on my backpack – so we used that and the moonlight to guide out way. We only dropped one bag in the water because the strap broke, and we had many laughs! We had certainly left our 5 star treatment behind in Bangkok…now we were wading through a muddy beach in the dark! We had a nice little bungalow near the beach and got settled in after a beer and some dinner. Since we arrived under the cover of darkness, it wasn’t until the morning that we could really see our surroundings. cliffs
We awoke to a breathtaking view of a beach surrounded by massive limestone cliffs. I had never really seen anything quite like it before. It sort of reminded me of Milford sound…but instead of a huge range of cliffs – it was more singular. The cliffs would jut up out of the water in the middle of the Andaman Sea. They were carved out at the bottom by the sea and there were also many caves in this region. The first day we took a speed boat tour to 4 different islands, basically just snorkeling and sunbathing the day away. The water was aqua colored and warm, the sun was beating down, and I was lathering up with sunscreen! The next day we lazed around the pool, the beach, and the spa…just what we needed after our intense shopping in Bangkok!
Photo: Guy jumping from cliff…pretty freaky!

Cyndi and Mary left Railay and I decided to go stay by myself in Ao Nang – a little beach town that seemed to have a ton of variety and Internet cafes! I relaxed for 3 more days in Ao Nang enjoying my alone time, catching up on writing, laying on the beach, and working on future trip planning! I also did a full day cave kayaking trip – the only word I can find to describe it was “unusual”. The kayaking was great – and great exercise. cave However the monkeys were plentiful and hopping all over out kayak. Then our guide (who didn’t speak much English) would lead us into caves with a lighter and show us bats – I honestly didn’t want to see the bats. The bats would start flying over my head and I would get a little freaked out…I knew I should have never passed up that rabies shot…damn. He took my camera and did take some pictures for me though…even one of me crouching down hiding from the bats!

I was sad to be leaving Thailand, I really enjoyed it more than I expected to. There’s no better feeling than when your expectations are exceeded. I enjoyed Northern Thailand the best as that’s where we seemed to find the most historical culture, but it was great to see all areas and really understand the differences. I just love being on the road!
I did a little tally of my time in Thailand:
1 worm
2 rats
3 great travel partners
4 temples
6 tigers
7 massages
14 girly-boys
17 spicy papaya salads
32 pieces of silver
A pile of used one-ply napkins
And an infinite amount of special deals…
Photo: Me on my last night in Thailand by myself…doing what I love, drinking wine, writing, and eating spicy papaya salad!

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