Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Fast Break to Bangkok

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Monks strolling past a golden stupa in the Grand Palace complex. Click on the picture to view the photo album.

The first thing I noticed was that traffic in Bangkok was a nightmare. Endless cars lined the streets and moved at a snail's pace. Public transportation was inconvenient as well. Although there was a metro and the Skytrain, they still didn't go to all the important parts of the city.

My flight was pretty cheap, about US$200, but the downside is that I arrived at 10:30 p.m. The airport bus I was supposed to take to my hostel had stopped running by then, so I had to take a different one. I got off at what I thought was my stop, then realized I had made a mistake and was lost. I hailed a taxi and got in.

I started to give the driver directions in Chinese before it hit me: Thailand was the first non-Chinese place I'd visited in a long time. Since leaving China, I'd been to Singapore and Taiwan, which still have huge Chinese influences. I resorted to hand motions and the driver understood. I was surprised at how calm I was, despite being lost in a foreign country. Dealing with unexpected problems is part of travel, so I wasn't bothered anymore.

I stayed at HI Sukhumvit, a part of the Hostelling International association. I usually prefer to stay at independent hostels because they have more character. HI hostels are good in the sense that they're as dependable as McDonald's; most HI hostels are pretty clean and standard. The hostel was in Sukhumvit, a relatively upper-class neighborhood. I'd been warned to avoid staying at Khao San Road, the main venue for backpackers. I'd heard it was a chaotic circus there. While the hostel was very nice, I think I'll try to find somewhere more central, like Siam Square, the next time I visit Bangkok.

Like I mentioned before, traffic is terrible. The best way to see the main sights, like Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, is to go there by boat taxi. Take the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin station, then walk to the pier and take a boat taxi.

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Don't go to the main ticket booth. They only sell all-day boat passes, which you don't need. Instead, buy single-journey tickets from the woman at the little wooden table next to the official-looking ticket booth. A ticket costs 13 baht (USD$0.41)

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Despite being a big city, I found Bangkok people to be much more relaxed and laidback. People in Shanghai seemed much more driven and charging forward, always on the lookout for a better job, the next opportunity.

Thai food took some getting used to, as it's much more spicy and flavorful than Chinese food. Thai cooks like to put in exotic spices that aren't as widely used in China. Food is usually eaten with a spoon and fork, no knife, which reminded me of the Philippines, where it's the same. It must be a Southeast Asian thing.

Coming from the West, I'm used to people criticizing their leaders. Thai people are different in that they truly love their king, even wearing special yellow t-shirts on designated days. You'd never get Americans to wear presidential t-shirts without enormous protest.

I'm used to Chinese temples by now, so it was cool to see Thai architecture, which is radically different. Much more flamboyant, colorful and flashy. Lots of bright colors and interwoven gold. I imagined what the first Westerners to visit Thailand must have thourght. They must have believed they had stumbled into another world.

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To see how the other half lives, I went to Khao San Road, the backpackers' mecca. It was as much of a freak show as I'd been told, a riot of guesthouses, restaurants, travel agencies and other businesses devoted to backpackers. I saw more Westerners and heard more European langauges there than anywhere I've been in Asia. Khao San was like a massive international flea market. I got to see the fake college degrees Khao San is notorious for.

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One of the coolest things that happened to me in Bangkok was when I was at a skytrain station near MBK, a huge shopping center. I heard some hip-hop music playing, so I followed my ears to the source. I stumbled onto a Thai breakdancing crew!

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Although they didn't speak English, I was able to use body language to ask if I could take photos and videos of them. They cheerfully agreed. Click on the picture to see the video.

Thailand was so different from my previous experience that I actually felt homesick for China. I went over to Chinatown. The tacky electric signs and dirty streets seemed familiar. I went into a dim sum shop and ordered my dinner using Mandarin. The waitress handed me a fork and spoon, the usual Thai utensils, but I used chopsticks instead. Eating Chinese food, using chopsticks, speaking Mandarin, I finally felt at home.

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A tuk-tuk, Thailand's alternative to taxis.

Inside Information

Getting into town

By bus: If you're arriving at Suvarnabhumi airport, here are the main airport bus routes. Here's the basic overview.

AE1: Silom
AE2: Khao San Road
AE3: Sukhumvit
AE4: Hualamphong Railway Station and MBK Mall

Where to stay

Khao San Road is the backpackers' ghetto. The best deals are for places that are around or nearby, not on Khao San itself. One place that gets consistent good reviews from backpackers is Bella Bella House.

A worthy alternative to Khao San Road is Soi Kasem San 1, near MBK mall and BTS Skytrain National Stadium. It has a fantastic location in the city center with the best budget guesthouses in the area. Siam Square and the major shopping centers are only one stop away by Skytrain.

The A-One Inn is my favorite place to stay in Bangkok. Comfortable, clean, and has a good Internet cafe. The private bathrooms are tiny, but they have the best high-pressure showers! The White Lodge is my backup choice. Quite social in the evenings, when guests sit at the outside tables to chat.

Another place I like is Take a Nap. It's a budget hotel and hostel in Silom, a major business area. Close to BTS Sala Daeng and the notorious Patpong red-light district. One of the nicest hostels I've seen in Southeast Asia. Very colorful and full of personality. The dorm rooms have regular beds, not bunk beds! Dorm rooms have their own bathroom and shower. There's even an elevator, although it's the smallest I've ever seen.

For people who can't help being hip, here are two "designer hostels": Lub D and HQ Hostel. If you need a hostel near Suvarnabhumi airport, check out Refill Now.

You can read a detailed overview with this Travelfish article, "What is a good guesthouse in Bangkok?"

Getting around

The Skytrain and Metro lines go to all the business areas. Great, if you weren't planning on seeing the sights!

The best way to get to the sights in Banglamphu, in the western part of Bangkok, is to go by Chao Praya Express Boat. "Boat buses" frequently leave from the Central Pier. Take the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin station. Don't buy an all-day ticket from the official-looking ticket booth. Buy a single-journey ticket from the woman at the little wooden table.

For Wat Pho, get off at "N8 Tha Thien." For the Grand Palace, get off at "N9 Tha Chang." Khao San Road is close to "N13 Phra Arthit."

Need to get to Khao San Road from the city center? Hop on a Khlong Saen Saep Express Boat. For photos and details, check out the Thai Mass Transport Systems blog. Long boats run along the khlong (canal) through east to west parts of the city.

Go to BTS Skytrain National Stadium. Go to "Hua Chang Bridge" canal stop. Take the boat to the end of the line at "Tha Phanfa" stop. Walk toward the Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Klang and keep walking past it. Turn right on to Tanao Road. Turn left at the Burger King and cross Tanao Road to enter Khao San Road.

Where to party

Khao San Road is the classic hangout for foreigners. Lots of restaurants for international foods, bars all over the place, and there are vendors for everything you might need (legal and otherwise).

Bed Supperclub is the most famous nightspot in Bangkok. Mingle with the jetset fashionable crowd there.

My favorite place to go is Royal City Avenue. It's a street filled with cool clubs, bars, and hangouts. Young Thais like university students go there for a night on the town. Best way to get there is by taxi. Just tell the taxi driver, "RCA."

The clubs play a wide range of music and the bars cater to different crowds. There's even an art-house cinema, House RCA. So you'll probably find a joint that suits your style.

Killer combination of designer venues, young upbeat crowd, and a lack of foreigners. Go there soon before the tourists discover it.

Getting visas for Southeast Asia

As a hub for travel in the region, Bangkok is a popular place to get visas. At the time of writing, you could get a visa on arrival for Laos and Cambodia, so it's not necessary to apply for visas in advance. Vietnam is the exception.

Vietnam Embassy in Bangkok
83/1 Wireless Road
Lumpini, Pathumwan
Bangkok 10330, Thailand
Phone: (662) 267 9602
Consular: 251 5837/ 115 / 116
For additional info, see this Travelhappy article.

Directions (from Travelhappy):
"Get a taxi or Skytrain to Wireless Road (Soi Wittayu) in the centre of Bangkok. On the Skytrain you get off at the Phloen Chit stop.

Walk out through the elevated skywalk and then down the stairs onto Wireless Road going towards All Seasons Place, which is a huge mall and office block. (There is a big map on a board in the BTS station - check it before you go out through the exits to ensure you know where you're going)."

Getting a Myanmar visa

Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma) is one of the most exotic and fascinating destinations in Southeast Asia. Click here for an amazing photo essay, The Spirit of Burma. Although it suffers from a brutal military regime, international isolation, and extreme poverty, it is a magical place. Air Asia has daily flights from Bangkok to Yangon. But you have to apply for a visa in advance.

Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok
132 Sathorn Nua Road
Bangkok 10500 Thailand
Phone: (662) 233-2237, 234-4698, 233-7250, 234-0320, 637-9406
For addtional info, see this Travelhappy article.

Directions (from Travelhappy):
"It is very near to Surasak BTS Skytrain station. From Surasak station, go to Exit 3. Walk down onto street level and then turn right when you get to the bottom of the stairs so that you are walking along the pavement underneath the Skytrain station. You will pass the Skytrain's escalator entrance. If you don't, you are walking the wrong way down Sathorn Road!

Continue walking up the busy Sathorn Road for about 200 metres. You will arrive at a forbidding grey looking wall with big spikes on top at the corner of Sathorn Road and Thanon Pan. This is the Myanmar Embassy. Walk a few metres down the side road Thanon Pan and you will find the entrance to the Myanmar Embassy's Visa section. It is a unmarked steel door with no handle."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Taiwan Times Vol. 1 -- Beat the Clock

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The dreaded "visa-exempt entry" stamp in my passport. Read on for details.

From the moment I first stepped into Taipei back in April 2006, I felt at home. It was hard to go back to Shanghai.

Now, I was in Taiwan to stay. But that wouldn't be easy, due to the country's onerous visa laws. I had tried to apply for a Taiwan visitor visa in Singapore before my arrival in Taiwan. A visitor visa lasts 60 days and can be converted into a one-year resident visa. If you get a visitor visa that allows extensions, you can extend it twice, making it last 6 months in total.

Unfortunately, the Taiwan embassy in Singapore rejected my visa request. They wanted a ridiculous amount of documentation and even said I had to have a letter of invitation from a Taiwanese citizen! If I always had to have a friend in a country before I could visit it, I'd never be able to travel anywhere!

So instead, I came into Taiwan on the dreaded "visa-exempt entry" that you get on arrival at the airport. It meant I only had 30 days to find a job and I had to leave the country at the end of that period. No extensions, no conversions, no nothing because there was no visa to extend or convert, just a stamp in my passport. Basically, the message was to get the hell out after 30 days.

I almost felt like giving up, before I even got started. There was no way I could find a job in 30 days! I've faced some challenges as a traveler before, but I wasn't a miracle worker.

Nevertheless, I threw myself into it. I actually made a list of the things I should have done when I first arrived in China. That way, I wouldn't repeat my mistakes in Taiwan. Some examples:

--Stay in a hostel for the first few weeks and talk to other backpackers. This is by the far the best thing a newly arrived English teacher can do. In a short time, you can get up to speed on what the job market is like, employers to call and to avoid, how to do visa runs, etc. The knowledge gained is invaluable. I stayed at World Scholar House and highly recommend it.

--Get a local phone number. Either get a new mobile phone or a SIM card as soon as you arrive in the country. Employers, friends, and other people all need a way to contact you.

--Research the visa situation before arriving in the country. Sometimes, it's easier to apply for a visa in your home country instead of abroad.

--Get a medical examination at a local hospital to get a health clearance certificate. This is often required to get a work permit. In Taipei, my hospital took a week to process a health clearance, so I had to act fast.

--Find the local expat website. Most countries with a significant expat population will have at least one website where expats can find jobs, apartments, etc. You'll be checking it a lot when you first arrive. Here are a few in Asia:

Taiwan: Tealit
Japan: Gaijin Pot
China: Asia Expat (especially Shanghai)
Korea: ESL Cafe

Now on to the job search. Since I had experience in Shanghai, it was relatively easy to secure interviews. The maddening part was that Taiwanese English school directors could be just as racist as their counterparts in China. The difference was that Chinese bosses were more direct, saying, "You can't be American, you look Chinese." Taiwanese bosses generally spoke better English and were more subtle, asking, "So, where are your parents from?"

I also had some liabilities that were instant dealbreakers: I wanted to be in Taipei City, I wanted to teach adults, and worst of all, I was Asian-American. If I could have given up one of the first two (the third was impossible), I would have had more of a chance to get a job. But I didn't want to make too many concessions, otherwise my time in Taiwan would be miserable. Also, Taiwan had been opened up to the West for longer than China, so many adult professionals could already speak English, driving down demand for teachers.

I was facing racism, a decline in the adult-teaching market and competition from other English teachers who wanted to live in Taipei. The battle was wearing me down.

Elizabeth, my British flatmate in Shanghai, threw me a lifeline by contacting a friend of hers. Petula had majored in Chinese with Elizabeth at the same university and worked in Taipei as a translator. She found out that an English-language newspaper in Taipei was looking for a copy editor and e-mailed me the info.

When I read the job ad from Petula, I was excited and depressed. The job sounded really cool, like getting paid to learn about Taiwan. The downside was that it required two years of experience and journalism qualifications I didn't have. This was the dream job I was guaranteed not to get.

So I applied and kept an eye on the newspaper while I kept going after English-teaching jobs. As the rejections from English schools piled up, I noticed that the newspaper job seemed to keep progressing. I got invited to take a writing test, then to come in for an interview. I started to have some hope. The 30-day visa limit loomed and the editor job was the only one that was going anywhere.

Then the hammer fell. I got an e-mail from the newspaper, thanking me for applying and saying I was the "second reserve candidate." What was that, like being third place?

Game over, I thought. The grand adventure of living abroad will end, and I'll go back to Hawaii. Strangely, I wasn't as sad as I expected. I think it was because I had survived a year in China. At least I had proven to myself I could live abroad. I knew I could have handled Taiwan too, if I had been given the chance.

I quit job-hunting and started making preparations to go home. I'd taken my best shot and lost, time to cut my losses. Now that the burden of finding a job was off, I concentrated on enjoying the time I had left with my new friends.

The most prominent was Colin, an English teacher from Montreal, Canada. We had hit it off right away, because we both had been to China and Singapore. He'd worked for a TV network in Beijing and had studied abroad in Singapore.

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He had a super-nice apartment, but it was in Sanchong, one of the worst areas of Taipei County. It made sense, as there was no way a rookie English teacher could afford a place like his in a trendy area of Taipei City, like Zhongxiao-Dunhua or Xinyi. Colin jokingly called Sanchong "The Ghetto" because it was so dirty and crappy.

Colin took me around on a tour of the The Ghetto. While we were walking on the street, my cell phone vibrated.

"Yes?" I said.

"Marcus, this is Edwin--" He was a writer for the newspaper! I couldn't make out the rest, because scooters were whining all over the place. I ducked into a convenience store.

"Sorry, what did you say?" I asked.

"I said, 'We are still considering you for the editor position."

Huh?! "Oh, that's great! What do you want me to do?"

"Can you produce your college degree?" Edwin asked.

"Sure. I can come by the office this afternoon."

I forgot to mention, you have to bring your college degree with you when you apply for English teaching jobs in Asia. Before, a photocopy authenticated by an embassy was enough, but too many backpackers have used fake degrees purchased off Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand, so now employers are more careful.

After I showed Edwin the degree, he said I might have the copy editor job. The problem I was, I couldn't wait longer to find out, since my visa-free entry was about to expire.

Time for a visa run.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Slacking off in Singapore

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A trash can in Singapore. Click on the photo to see the album.

Although I found it difficult to live in China, it was hard for me to actually leave. I was close to staying in Shanghai for another year. I'd made some awesome friends while I was there and I loved being where all the action was. People read about China in the news everyday, but I was actually living there.

Eventually, I felt it was time to go. I already knew where I wanted to live next. Ever since my visit I had been talking to friends nonstop on how great it was and how much I wanted to go back.

Before I could move there, I had to get a visa in another country before I entered. I went to Singapore because it was exactly what I was looking for: clean, modern and convenient, as different from China as I could get. Flying on China Eastern Airlines would have been cheaper, but I decided to splurge on a flight with Singapore Air. After a year in China, I was going to reward myself with a comfortable flight to a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world.

People say how great Singapore Air is--believe it. I've never had such good food on an airplane before. Japan Airlines had good food too, especially the cold noodles they serve after the main meal. I've heard good things about the Korean airlines too. In general, I'd say the East Asian airlines are far superior to U.S. carriers. Better service, better food, and prettier stewardesses (that's because of discriminatory hiring practices, though). If any of you are flying within China, I'd recommend Hainan Airlines, that was the nicest of the Chinese airlines I used. China Eastern often has the cheapest tickets, though.

The Singapore airport was magnificent! It could have been a luxury shopping center. There were computer terminals offering free Internet access. Getting through immigration was amazingly fast, too. The final surprise was when I got to baggage claim--my bags had beaten me to the arrival area, despite the fast immigration process. I swear, this whole country ran as well as a fine Swiss watch.

The other big reason to go with Singapore was to see my friends there. In Beijing, I'd met a bunch of European students studying abroad in Singapore. They were so cool that I was happy to have an excuse to go visit them.

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Having dinner at a hawker center with Colin and Caroline.

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At a basketball game with Miikka.

I didn't realize how much I'd adapted to China until I went to Singapore. I had major culture shock. Everything's in English! It's so clean! Cars don't try to run me down! The list was endless. I felt so stupid, my first instinct was to speak to people in Mandarin, because many of the people in Singapore are ethnic Chinese, but then they'd speak back to me in English. The problem was, I'd gotten used to Chinglish, but Singlish was new to me. A bastard mix of English with an Indian/Malaysian accent. So although everyone spoke English, it wasn't quite as perfect as I expected. Why do they end every sentence with "lah"?

A pleasant surprise was how affordable things were. Friends had told me horror stories about how expensive Hong Kong was, so I expected Singapore to be the same. Luckily, public transportation was extensive and the food was great. Singapore has "hawker centers," open-air food courts where you can get a meal on the cheap. Chinese food dominated, along with Indian, Malaysian and Southeast Asian cuisines. The roast duck I had at a hawker center near my hostel rivaled anything I had in Beijing. I never spent more than 5 Singapore dollars on a meal.

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Photos of a typical hawker center.

Colin, an engineering student from Scotland, took me to the ethnic enclaves: Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street. I haven't been to India or the Middle East, so I can't say how "authentic" they were. But if the Chinatown is any indication, they're highly sanitized versions of the actual countries. China was way more gritty and real. In fact, Singapore has the only clean Chinatown I've ever seen! Here are photos of Little India, Chinatown and Arab Street:

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I liked how mutlicultural Singapore was. Lots of Chinese, Malaysians and Indians coexisting. Asian countries tend to be homogeneous, where everyone has similar backgrounds. I was glad to be in a place that had more kinds of people. Singapore reminded me of Hawaii in that way.

There's a stereotype that Singapore is boring. I was glad this wasn't true. There's always lots of public events going on, and Singapore has some of the best nightclubs I've danced in. They also recently started issuing 24-hour licenses for clubs and allowed dancing on top of bars, in an effort to make Singapore more fun.

Another friend I looking forward to reuniting with was Aurore, a girl from Switzerland. When we were in Beijing, she was responsible for chartering a bus to the Great Wall. Although I wasn't a member of their group, Aurore kindly invited me to come along with them. In Singapore, I thanked her again and showed her some of my dance moves when we went out clubbing.

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Before, I used to travel in order to see famous places. Now, I travel to make new friends. While it's cool to have photos of world-famous landmarks, it's the people photos that I look at again and again. They're the true reward of the journey.