Dreaming of Iraq; a reflection on my time in Vietnam

May 20, 2008 at 2:50 pm (Reflections)

Maybe 50 years from now another generation will be able to experience Mesopotamia as I did Vietnam – disfigured war crime victims turned souvenir handicraft-makers, American tanks, artillery and fighter jets preserved in museums, IED production facilities made into a tourist attraction documenting the heroic resistance of indigenous people against unprovoked aggression. Maybe 50 years from now my grandson will travel to Baghdad and writhe with the visceral realization that his government committed unfathomable atrocities against a people struggling to survive – a people still struggling to survive only now by providing for his every need and want. Or maybe 50 years from now we’ll still be at war in Iraq.

 

I have great hope after visiting Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) and Reunification Palace (Independence Palace), the rough Vietnamese equivalents of Baghdad and the “Green Zone” in Iraq. The Vietnamese people are healing, as are the Vietnamese economy, state and ecosystems. The resilience I witnessed in my six short days in Vietnam are an inspiration and a testament to the toughness of humankind.

 

Baffling American military planners, the Viet Cong resisted modern weaponry with simple technologies, ingenuity and grit – much as Iraqis of various stripes are doing today. While US forces have upgraded their standard gear many times over, added GPS guided weaponry, conventional bombs that pack more punch than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, networked the battlefield so it can be controlled like a video game, developed stealth technology and adopted a doctrine of overwhelming force, the current “enemy” of the US still uses AK-47’s and homemade explosives, and the “enemy” is still winning.

 

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are armed largely with weapons left over from the CIA arming the Mujahadeen to fight Russians, the Viet Com made land mines with unexploded American bombs and deadly “American traps” with re-worked shrapnel from bombs that did explode. IEDs in Iraq are detonated with cellular phones – an icon of western culture encroaching on the strict way of life some Muslim fundamentalists seek to preserve.

 

For all the parallels between these wars – unprovoked American aggression, widespread war crimes, targeting of civilian populations and facilities, successful low-tech guerrilla resistance to modern military might, racist nationalism, undemocratic decision making – there are a few things that keep me from believing Iraq in 50 years will be anything like Vietnam today.

 

Vietnam now feeds its people with less than half the world average of agricultural land. America destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres with agent orange during the war – a war crime, environmental catastrophe and a nightmare in terms of food production. But we didn’t used depleted uranium to harden anti-tank munitions back then, as we do now. Remember all that talk of a “dirty bomb,” a low-grade nuclear weapon that terrorists could build if they got their hands on some nuclear material? That’s essentially standard issue for American anti-tank guns. The depleted uranium hardens the shell enough to penetrate thick armor. The rate of birth defects in Iraq has skyrocketed since America invaded, and while the Vietnamese still suffer the lingering effects of American chemical warfare, the effects of American nuclear warfare in Iraq will certainly far outlast those of Agent Orange.

 

The other factor stacked against Iraq is that it actually has strategic significance, even without the “war on terror” propaganda. In the realist and neo-conservative schools of thought, maintaining a strong presence in the gulf is critical to America’s geopolitical position. As oil supplies dwindle, it becomes ever more important to keep the Middle East’s oil flowing out of wells, through the straight of Hormuz and into American automobiles (and weaponry). As the story goes, it isn’t that we need to be dominant in the region, rather we need to make sure no one else is, for if a less benevolent power were in control of all that oil it would be disastrous for the world economy. This is the Carter Doctrine, and has been the underpinning of US policy towards the region since the Iran hostage crisis.

 

For these reasons, I am not hopeful that Iraq will be a popular vacation destination in my lifetime or my daughter’s. I went to Vietnam hoping to reach that conclusion – and all things in Vietnam pointed in that direction. While it is astute to compare the battlefield challenges of American in Iraq and Vietnam, the gross waste of resources and human toll, the complete disregard of the “democratic” American government for the will of its people and the world’s and the impressive might of fighters effectively defeating the world’s greatest superpower, it is naïve to envision a future for Iraq that is anything like Vietnam’s.

 

I’ll keep on dreaming for Iraq despite this. Keep on protesting and speaking out against the new American empire, keep on trying to convince Republicans that voting for R’s generally means voting for war and for squandering the next generations’ future. I’ll keep up hope that Iraqis will be free someday.

 

And though I’m no Buddhist, as I have at every temple and shrine where I have prayed so far here in Thailand, at every moment where I pause to focus energy on the future, I will continue to ask for peace, health and longevity for all my friends and family – which includes all the inhabitants of this planet.

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Tourist traps and gasoline coupons

May 20, 2008 at 2:48 pm (Uncategorized)

After visiting countless Chiang Mai wats (temples) Laura and I finally gave in and hired a driver to see some out-of-town sites. The man was gentle in his sale, and gave us a good rate (150b =$3) for 3 hours of personal taxi service in exchange for our acceptance of a stop at some “handicraft factories,” which if you don’t know is a code word for tourist traps where goods available at rock-bottom prices in markets nation-wide are sold at the same price you’d pay for them retail at home. Our trip was to include two wats, one in the forest and one of Indian style, one handicraft factory stop, and one trip to the hospital to get my stitches out.

After grabbing a quick Thai meal while our driver waited, we got on the road. Our driver spoke good English and we engaged in some small talk. He was a Chiang Mai native and we learned he had three sons – age 27, 12 and two months. That day I had taken a survey being given by an Exeter graduate student to guests at the backpacker hostel we’re staying in on responsible tourism. One of the questions was have you and have you intended to patronize locally owned businesses. I felt good for hiring a local with a family.

When we arrived at our first stop, our driver dropped us off beyond all the info booths and parking lots, door-to-wat service. We went exploring and each time we came near where he was parked, he jumped out to open our doors – only to find we weren’t quite ready, to which he responded with a great big smile.

After our visit to the Indian style wat, he had two cold bottles of water ready for us. Now it was time to go the handicraft factories. On the way I asked him what exactly he got out of taking us to these places. “Gasoline coupons. Good for you, I give you low price, good for me, I get gasoline.” I was amused by this, and he could tell. “You no buy anything here, very expensive. Just look around.” I was game to play along, and he seemed happy to have it out in the open. There were countless potential stops where he could get from one to three one-liter gasoline coupons for bringing us to them. At 38b/liter, with enough stops the gasoline coupons would be worth more to him than the price we were to pay.

The first, a one-coupon stop, was a jewelery factory with a parking lot full of tour buses and white people in preppy clothes. The production facilities we quickly toured with a guide were interesting – even worth seeing. Then we were brought into the showroom, a basketball court-sized jewelery shop with at least a few million dollars worth of gold, silver and precious stones. I got to hold a $10,000 star sapphire ring. There were fish tanks with three foot long sharks. It was impressive. After seeing all the expensive stuff, we got to the end of the showroom, where there were tons of people being sold hard on the affordable items they had to offer – simple silver jewelery, small pieces of jade, knick-knacks one could buy anywhere in Thailand for cheaper, but these tourists were biting.

I saw one man darting back into the depths of the showroom with a fist full of 1000 baht notes. Another at the exit door, bag in hand, had to fend off the salesperson goading him to buy more. We left, and our driver eagerly awaited. “Next we go to Indian silk – they give me three coupons! Don’t stay long, just five minutes, very very expensive!” It was as he said – all overpriced, polite but pushy salesperson, no customers but us, and more importantly no “factory” to make it seem like a tourist attraction.

The next stop was a silk factory, and was actually worth seeing. We saw some silk worms at different stages, thread being extracted, and fabrics being woven. Next was a Kashmir carpet factory, where after going through the intricacies of the carpets and their making, the salesman assured us that there were “very affordable, this one (about three by five feet) is only $3,000.” Right… After this stop our driver gave a shot at taking us to more places, but we’d had enough. By now he had gotten six liters of gas, worth about 220b, and we were ready for the hospital. The smoothness of getting the stitches out made up for the drag of going to tourist traps – in and out in 10 minutes at a cost of 50b.

Having the driver was nice, but now that my stitches were out, we decided to look into hiring a motorcycle. Rental costs 200b/day, just over what we paid for a driver. Time to explore northern Thailand!

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An extended tour in Vietnam (part three)

May 17, 2008 at 12:32 pm (Experiences, Things I've seen)

After getting healed up enough to get out of the hospital, it was time to get a look at some of Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City’s history and the history of the American War of Aggression in Vietnam. To do this we visited Reunification Palace (formerly Independence Palace, base of American operations during the war), the War Remnants Museum (formerly the American War Crimes museum) and the Cu Chi tunnels, a site where VC fighters successfully resisted American forces turned into a tourist attraction popular with foreigners and Vietnamese alike.

Reunification Palace is the site the VC won the war against the Americans on April 30, 1975, the event we refer to as “the fall of Saigon.” Outside the palace are replicas of the tanks that crashed through the gates on that fateful day. The history was interesting, the rooms were beautiful, the tour guide was funny.

The Cu Chi Tunnels visit was part of a package tour we went on with a bus full of (mostly) Aussies. On the way we stopped at a tourist trap where some people purchased grossly overpriced handicrafts. I never could have anticipated the experience of visiting the tunnels.

VC fighters used an extensive network of tunnels throughout the country to defend themselves from GIs and bomb attacks. The tunnels start 3m underground, deep enough to withstand heavy aerial bombardment. The ground here is about 70% clay, excellent for building strong tunnels. There are two levels of tunnels below the first, much deeper and smaller. Along the tour we got to crawl through a 100m stretch of tunnel to get an idea of what it was like to be in them. That was interesting, but much less powerful than other aspects of the tour.

On display is a real American tank destroyed by a land mine. The land mine, of course, was manufactured by VC from unexploded American ordnance. How ironic.

We got to see a number of “traps” used to “hunt” Americans. The terminology seems gruesome at first, until you consider that these people used the same technology to defend themselves against American invaders that they had previously used to hunt animals for food. That’s right, a modern military superpower fighting an essentially agrarian people. The first trap we saw was the bamboo trap, which consisted of a 1x2m rotating trap door with an axle in the center, weighted to balance perfectly. Stepping on any point on this surface it would rotate, dropping the victim into a pit of sharpened bamboo sticks driven into the ground. This was the least gruesome of the traps we saw. 

The more fascinating ones, of which there were about 8 varieties we saw examples of, were fashioned with metal spikes forged from shrapnel gathered from craters where American bombs had fallen. They all achieved variants on man steps on trap door, things turn, flip or rotate, man gets various metal spikes in feet, legs, groin, abdomen or chest. I imagine a lot of GI’s must have shot themselves after falling into these traps. The phrase “hunting Americans” was used a number of times in the explanations.

In the middle of the tour we stopped for a bathroom break and refreshments/souvenir purchase. At this point we had the opportunity to use the firing range. For about $1/bullet, tourists can fire a variety of guns, including American M1s and M2s, machine guns, and VC AK-47’s. I bought a clip of 10 bullets and gave it a shot.

Before leaving the tunnels we watched a short film documenting the lives of Cu Chi people, how they would work in the fields by day and fight by night, how a young girl was given an award of heroism for killing many Americans and that despite the fact that the Cu Chi were a simple agrarian people, they were still determined to fiercely resist the American attack on their land.

After the tunnel tour we visited the War Remnants museum. The museum itself is unimpressive, but the story it tells is heavy. The photo/text exhibit is all in one large room, and shows pictures of American GIs committing various war crimes, massacres, abuses, etc. The end of the exhibit documents the affects of American chemical warfare in Vietnam with Agent Orange and the devastating effects still felt to this day.

Outside the museum are various captured American aircraft and tanks, and a replica tiger cage like those used by the “Independence” forces.

In a smaller room outside the museum is a gallery of photographs documenting the international resistance to the American war of Aggression in Vietnam. I had always been acutely aware of the protests here in the States, but in this exhibit I saw posters and photographs from the resistance in countries around the world. I felt content that the museum told that story as well – distinguishing the crimes of the American government from the will of the American people.

Before we left the museum, torrential rain started coming down. We bought some $1 ponchos and headed out into the streets. After a taxi driver tried to charge us 100,000d (about $7), we jumped out of the cab in disgust. The metered price for the ride would be about 20,000, but, he explained, it’s raining. This was a blessing in disguise, as we were quickly approached by two bicycle taxi drivers who were happy to have our business. The exhilarating, if slow, ride back to our hotel in pouring rain put a perfect cap on a not-so-perfect trip to Vietnam. We got our bags at the hotel, grabbed a bite to eat, and headed for the airport. 

Goodbye, Vietnam!

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Can I ask you a personal question?

May 17, 2008 at 12:02 pm (Uncategorized)

Being as he was dressed in hospital garb, I first assumed the kind gentleman who knocked then game into our room was there on hospital business. Wrong. There must have been some buzz about the American healing in room 513, because he had come in to practice his English. To begin the conversation he asked “Can I ask you a personal question?” None of the questions were particularly personal, so I suppose it was his way of asking if he could impose on my personal space. I didn’t mind a bit.

Most of his questions related to the ease or difficulty of finding work in America, and of getting a visa to come to the US. It is extremely difficult for Vietnamese people to get visas to the US, he explained, and while he would very much like to move to the US and work, he is still unable to. Furthermore, learning English in Vietnam is very difficult for him, as his teachers are all Vietnamese, not native English speakers. His English showed this, as his grammar and vocabulary aptitude were leaps and bounds above his pronunciation accuracy. He had been studying English for many many years.

This guest to our room wasn’t the only English language student in the hospital. The entire staff is in some stage of learning English, and this aspect of the quality of service is the subject of at least four points on the customer satisfaction survey I was given at the end of my stay at FVH. This is interesting as the vast majority of the hospital’s clientele are rich Vietnamese, not English speakers.

 Besides the man who tended to me immediately after surgery who was interested in talking politics, we had one other eager language student. Her daughter was working in Washington DC, and she met Laura waiting in line at the hospital coffee shop. She was checked in to the hospital for some sort of nasal surgery. After complimenting Laura for her beauty, she found her way to me while I was online and proceeded to ask every question she could – how long have you been in Vietnam, are you married (the answer to which was “yes” as Laura and I were faking it so she could be with me at the hospital), do you have children, what do you do for a living, etc. This was all well and good except I was trying to work out getting new flights back to Bangkok and quite frustrated at the time. Laura got back up to the floor with the computers and the woman assaulted her with questions too. It got awkward as we were frantically trying to get our flight worked out before our 30 minute internet pass expired. 

Nearly everyone we interacted with in Vietnam seemed eager to speak and learn English, much different than Bangkok. For a country that only one generation ago was raped and pillaged by the United States, the Vietnamese people were incredibly warm, welcoming and eager to make us Americans feel at ease. 

If I ever do decide to go abroad and teach English, Vietnam will be at the top of my list of possible locations.

 

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An extended tour in Vietnam (part two)

May 17, 2008 at 4:36 am (Experiences)

Coming in the back door of Franco Vietnamese Hospital in HCM City undersells it a bit. When the ambulance driver dropped me off I no longer got wheelchair escort, and I was taken to a curtained room in the emergency ward. My IV was empty and Laura was taken away from me. All in all, my first impression of this hospital where I was soon to be cut open wasn’t fantastic.

That changed when a nurse came to try to rescue my failing IV line, chatted with me a bit, and finally gave up and re-needled me. She explained the advantages of having another line in my wrist vs. the crook of my elbow, which would hurt less but severely restrict movement. I went with the wrist, which hurt more than the other two I’d had in that day, but was happy with the choice as I remained attached to this one for 36 hours.

The French doctor who came to see me to confirm my appendicitis, need for surgery, and empty stomach was friendly, intelligent and had recently been to Missouri. He explained we’d dot the surgery at twois-heur (3:00), to be sure my belly was empty. At this point I still didn’t really understand that I’d be in the hospital for a few days. As the nurse put it, the good thing about being hospitalized is that you get an excuse to lay around and do nothing.

About an hour later I was moved into a double room to await surgery. At this point I got to be with Laura again, who had been stuck in the waiting room up to that point. The nurses came in and gave me a cup of iodine soap and sort of mimed for me to wash myself with it. The bathroom in this room, however, had no lights. After waiting for 30 minutes or so to get someone to change the light, they finally escorted me across the hall to another room with a working bathroom light. The nurse who escorted me answered my questions with miming. I wasn’t sure if I was to wash just the surgery area, take a shower, wash my whole body with the iodine (betamine?) soap, or what. I asked some questions, and she mimed washing everywhere, then pointed to the cup and her mouth and shook her head NO!. Okay, don’t drink the soap, no problem.

Showering with an IV in is a bit difficult, but I figured it out, got cleaned up, and went to await surgery. Roughly one hour later, they came to take me away. As I was being whisked into the surgery area, we passed the surgeon who said “See you soon, very soon!” which the orderlies transporting me both repeated enthusiastically. Everyone in the hospital is eager to improve their English, which results in some awkward conversations when you’re the only native English speaker(s) in the building. (More later)

The OR was like any I’d seen in the movies, complete with a somewhat sadistic looking table, bright lights, fancy equipment, and an air-locked door. One nurse secured my IV with a few extra layers of tape, I was disrobed and covered with a light blanket under which was inserted a heat blowing tube to keep me warm in the cold OR. The anesthetist showed up in the room and said, “OK, I make you sleepy now!” I was relieved. I think at this point he gave me some gas, I remember vaguely inhaling through a respirator of some sort, but that may not be the case. They didn’t insert anything in to my IV to my knowledge, so it must be. Anyhow, I woke up two and a half hours later in a haze.

The one injection of morphine I got didn’t do much to ease the pain, and I asked the nurse still there if I could have more. “Good to use, bad for abuse.” Good call I suppose, but my gut still hurt like hell. The more effective pain relief was when he came back in a few moments later, when I was a few notches more lucid, to discuss the Democratic primary. Apparently everyone in Vietnam favors Hillary because she is not black. I assured him that Obama would be a much better president for the US and for the world.

After stabilizing I was brought out of the surgery ward and up to my new room. Laura, thank God, had managed to get us a single room where she was waiting for me.

Begin recovery…

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An extended tour in Vietnam (part one)

May 13, 2008 at 4:08 am (Experiences)

We planned to come to Vietnam for a weekend.

When I woke up early Friday morning with a severe stomach ache I was sure it would go away. When it was time to go to class and it hadn’t gotten any better, Laura said I should go to the hospital. When I came back from class early and it had gotten worse, Laura said we should cancel the Vietnam trip and stay in Bangkok.

Some day I will learn to listen to the wisdom of women. This time, I went to Vietnam with appendicitis.

The cab ride from the airport was amusing. We were the lone car in a sea of motorcycles, I felt like Hunter Thompson in “Where the Buffalo Roam,” the scene where he’s covering the race. Dust in my beer and everything. Unfortunately, the novelty of honking motorcycles could only outweight the agony of whateverthefuck was wrong with me for so long, and eventually I gave up and laid down in the back seat. I don’t know how many u-turns and attempts to avoid the paralyzed traffic later it was that we ended up at the hotel, but we made it.

I suppose I shouldn’t say the hotel, because it wasn’t where we thought we were going, and they didn’t have a reservation for us. Spring House Hotel, Spring Hotel, potato, patato. I nearly fainted while Laura was getting the news that they were “very busy,” so I sat down and got a second wind. This was fortunate, because the hotel around the block where we ended up staying showed us up to our 5th floor room, no elevator. When you haven’t eaten for 24 hours (oh and have appendicitis too) walking up 5 stories in heat is hard. He could have showed us a broom close and I would have taken it if only for the opportunity to lay down.

Laura went to get us some water, and herself some food, and I got some rest.

The next day we went out to get some Pho, of which I was able to eat approximately five bites. Most food I’d had in 36 hours, progress. Still completely sure I just had a mean stomach ache.  After going home and getting some more rest, I decided I was on the mend and we found a lovely place to go for dinner. Walking there was fun – remember that game “frogger?” Every street crossing was like that, except you don’t get do-overs when your weaving in and out of motorcycles!

The restaurant we made it to (The Temple Club) was lovely – matching any top-notch restaurant at home in service, ambiance and food, but with main dishes going for less than $10. I felt awful for being so sick – I barely finished half a beer and a few bites of my cashew chicken. I really wanted to have dessert, but it just wasn’t happening.

We took a cab home, as there was a storm brewing, and headed in for the night. Surely, I thought, I’d be better by morning, and we’d have at least a half-day to see the various attractions that drew me to this city.

Wrong! Around 6 AM I had a dream that I was in a hospital, and they thought I was a doctor. I signed in and was thrown into treating a patient, very confused. I awoke somewhere between shivers and convulsions, completely out of control, freezing cold but sweating, more than enough to scare Laura a bit. At this point I gave in – “I need to go to a doctor.”

Laura (of course) had already looked up the best medical facilities in HCMC, and quickly packed up our things to go. We left the key and some cash with the receptionists (who were asleep on cots in the hotel lobby) and got a cab. Unfortunately, hospital #1 had no doctor! The 24-hour SOS was around the corner.

After an ultrasound, a lot of stomach-prodding and a hypothesis that maybe it was “just Dengue fever,” the team of Vietnamese and French Canadian doctors said I needed a CT-scan at another hospital to make sure I didn’t have appendicitis. As soon as the CT scan was over (but not before I was out of the sci-fi machine) the doctors all rushed into the room, “Appendicitis!” I was a bit confused, but they nodded eagerly and repeated, “you have appendicitis.”

They whisked me back to the hospital, gave me some morphine, and began preparations for my next ambulance trip, this time to the Franco-Vietnamese Hospital.

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Tuk-tuk roller coaster

May 5, 2008 at 12:03 pm (Uncategorized)

For those of you who haven’t been to Bangkok, a “Tuk Tuk” is a motorcycle with a bench for a back seat and a roof over the whole thing. Riding a tuk tuk is one of many things we would consider unsafe and completely unacceptable in the West, but is an essential part of daily life here in Bangkok. I rode in a Tuk Tuk for the first (two) time(s) tonight; it was everything I expected – hazard a given, haggling a must.

 

The first ride was a freebie – myself and a Frank, a British classmate, hitched a free ride from Pang Pong to “Spicy,” a very hip night club with a 300b cover charge. Taxi and tuk-tuk drivers somehow get paid to drag people to this club, and others, all over town. The ride was hair raising – weaving in and out of traffic on a bench sans seatbelt, drunk at night in an unknown territory. Treacherous as it may have seemed, we made it to the destination quickly and unharmed.

 

The night club was nothing special, just the usual loud music, flashy lights and drunken twenty somethings. This one was very different from the last one we went to in that it was populated by about one quarter Westerners by my count. Mostly what that means is more testosterone. I’m not sure what the circumstances were, but Frank got a table shoved into him and forcefully shoved it back. Somehow it didn’t result in any serious confrontation. At this point I figure we should go, Frank thought otherwise, so I was left to find my ow way home.

 

The first tuk-tuk ride was fun, but the ride home was really a treat. By this time, four AM or so, the streets were more or less empty. The ride between the club and where I stay was also mostly on main thoroughfares, meaning we got to go fast! (Pretend you aren’t reading this Mom…) It’s hard to say how fast these things actually go – slower than the taxis on the road, but much much louder. The thick, hot, humid polluted air almost beats the sterile a/c of a taxi when you’re zipping through the Bangkok streets by tuk tuk. Aside from having to cover my mouth whenever we stopped, and one big bump that almost knocked me out the back, after which the driver checked to be sure he still had a passenger, it was quite a thrill.

 

Well worth the 100b I paid for the ride. Paying for a tuk tuk is another unique part of the experience. When we went out (four Westerners and two Thai in one taxi) we had our native speakers to negotiate a fare. The taxis are metered, but when you’re piling six people in, the meter goes off. We went from 200 down to 150, a great deal split six ways. On my way out of the night club, the taxi and tuk tuk mafia representative asked where I was going (bai ratchada, soi sip hok) and said “four hundred.” I laughed, “no, one fifty,” he laughed back said okay and ushered me towards a line of tuk tuks.

 

Knowing that tuk tuks should be much cheaper than taxis, and that there was no real communication between the driver and the broker, I worked up the nerve during the ride to hold firm to paying less than 150b. When we arrived at my destination, I gave the driver a 100b note. “No, no, one FIFTY” he said.

 

I insisted, “No, he said ONE HUNDRED. Korp-koon krap! (thank you)”

 

One fifty, one fifty, I am very poor!”

 

No, no, one hundred, I am very poor too! Korp koon krap!”

 

He grabbed my hand, “Ok, thank you, korp koon krap!”

 

We had a good two-hand shake and thanked each other repeatedly.

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Go-Go boredom

May 2, 2008 at 7:26 am (Experiences, Things I've seen) (, )

When I agreed to head to Pang Pong, a district notorious for go-go bars, ping pong shows and lady-boys (transvestites), I thought I was headed for a land of sultry, pornographic sexual excess. What I found was bored women on stage in uniforms who looked more like minimum wage employees trying half-heartedly to look busy than, well, go-go-prostitutes. At least the lady-boys were all they were cracked up to be.

The first bar we went to was laid out with a stage in the middle, about 2m x 10m with poles every meter or so on each side. Along the stage are stools, behind that tables, and behind that an elevated bar with a bench behind it, on each side. We ordered some (over-priced) beer and sat down.

Every woman in the club wore a standard uniform with a slight variation. Grey/blue plaid skirt, think school uniform, and white blouse. The girls cycling on and off of the stage wore skirts short enough they don’t really count as skirts, and blouses tied up to expose the mid section. They also wear numbers on round plastic plaques a little bigger than a silver dollar. The non-stage women wear normal short skirts, and normal blouses. They were the servers.

It’s an interesting contrast to the strip clubs I’m more familiar with. In Oregon, everyone is expected to pay to see naked women dance, no touching allowed and certainly no sex. (At least not over the table) It’s roughly the opposite at this club. Men who are shopping go up to the bar can touch the women, but do not tip or see any nudity. If they choose, they can take a woman home with them.

The women on stage reminded me of a cattle auction. The tags look like the ones that are clipped into the ears of steer being sold. It was much more degrading than I expected. The women all looked bored and/or sad with a few exceptions, and from what I could tell they only earn money if their services are purchased. The only interested customers were three men all fixated on one woman, whose ankles they continuously touched, occasionally reaching higher. She danced very enthusiastically. When the song ended and the new dancers cycled onto the stage she went down to sit with them. At this point we were leaving, so I can only imagine where that led.

All in all, it was about the least sexy I could have imagined the scene being. We had our one drink, a good laugh, took a picture (how could I resist) and moved on to a tourist-filled dance club.

This club was much more fun, an open-air bar with a live DJ. We had a drink, danced for a bit, and ended up milling about out o the street. Up and down the street there was no shortage of winking, waving lady-boys, often convincing enough to keep the eyes of straight men for quite a while. Before long, we had a tuk tuk driver ready to take us to another club a ways off, for free. How could we resist?

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Full Service

April 27, 2008 at 3:47 am (Experiences)

The dance club next door to my hotel gets going around 1 am every night, with bass thumping loud enough I can almost hear it in my room. Friday some of my classmates and I decided to give it a go. Everything was as expected more or less except for one unique service I’ll get to later. We arrived at about 12:30 to be sure we’d get a table. Other bars close around 1, and by 2 o’clock the place was quite lively. We were the only Westerners in the club.

My initial surprise was the way drinks are sold – we paid about 3,000 baht ($100) for a bottle of black label whisky and mixers. After getting you set up, which includes opening all bottles, pouring drinks and wrapping napkins onto your drink glasses, the servers return repeatedly to pour you more drinks, refill the ice bin (100 bah) and bring more mixers.

There is no dance floor in this dance club, just space between the varied tables – which from couches with low tables, high tables with high chairs, round beds surrounded by tables and chares – but that doesn’t stop people from dancing once the place gets packed.

More servers than I’ve ever seen anywhere work at this place. Probably two dozen in the main area. Despite the clear emphasis on service, I never would have expected that the bathroom would be full of masseurs! That’s right, masseurs in the men’s bathroom. While you pee, they give you a very nice shoulder rub. They then escort you to the sink and provide a hot towel wo wash your hands with, and give your neck a good crack while you do it. A small tip of 10 baht is standard. I’ve been in bathrooms with an attendant before, but this bathroom had at least a DOZEN bathroom masseurs. All clad in all white, in contrast to the floor servers in black and red.

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The American War(s)

April 25, 2008 at 10:37 am (Uncategorized)

Two weeks from today I’ll be heading to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Of the many attractions there, I’m anticipating the War Remnants Museum (formerly American War Crimes Museum) the most. I’m thinking of it as a right of passage to begin my second quarter-century as an American. Reading about the museum, and Vietnamese history in general in preparation for the trip, has renewed my awareness of the country I come from.

The Brits in my ESL class have asked a few times what I think about the election, particularly after Hillary’s win in Pennsylvania. They think Hillary will win because America is more ready for a white woman than a Black man. I think she’ll win because I am fundamentally cynical about anything good happening through the American electoral system, and President Obama would be a good thing. In any case, the conversation finishes with me saying the only way the Democrats could lose the general election is if Hillary is their nominee, which means McCain will assume the throne, we’ll promptly invade Iran, and be in Iraq for at least another generation.

Here in Thailand, neighbor to Vietnam, the Iraq of my parents’ generation, I can see the other American war unfolding. Perhaps calling it American is unfair, as it is being perpetrated by a coalition of forces – American, English, French. The open-market world means that foreign investment can go just about anywhere. In Bangkok it takes the form of monumental shopping malls full of internationally branded stores most Thai could never afford to shop in. For that matter, neither can I.

As an American English teacher I met this week put it “They are really trying to not be a third world country.” Of course, while development proceeds at a break-neck speed, most Thai still live in poverty. My favorite place to eat so far is a Carrefour shopping center. Carrefour is sort of a French Wal-Mart, and this shopping center has a wonderful food court with a wide selection of Thai and Asian food and beverage for an affordable price. I usually pay about 60 baht ($2) for a meal with beverage and dessert. While that seems great to me, I realize that it’s at least double what a meal costs at a street stall, and is enough to be out of reach for most Thai.

On my way home from lunch today, I passed two severely maimed individuals, one with four half-limbs laying on his belly on the sidewalk writhing, one in a wheelchair with a completely burned face and eyes that looked like open wounds. Their age was right, and while their wounds had probably not been caused by the American war of the 60’s and early 70’s, I couldn’t help but wonder. That war is over (save the land mines an unexploded ordinance that still cause casualties today), but the economic war continues. Wealth is being extracted from this country by foreign and multinational corporations every second.

All this stirs around in my head with the uncomfortable truth that America is spiraling downward. The neo-fascist Bush regime is eroding democracy and civil rights, our dollar is losing value daily, we have less access to health care than Iraqis did before the US invaded, and our cultural influence is weaker than it has been since the end of the cold war.

I hope that some time soon we’ll find a way to make our country something to be proud of again. I hope that someday soon there will be no American War abroad, but rather a struggle at home, a mobilization to re-build ourselves and our country.

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