Blog from August 2017

There are 10 blog entries from August 2017

Singapore - Master of the Hot/Crazy Matrix
August 29th, 2017 | View Post
Singapore is quite possibly the single nicest city that I have ever seen in my life. It's so well organized. It is unbelievably clean. The transit is amazing. It's busy and vibrant, but not so crowded that you hate walking down the street. Even the weather, while definitely hot and humid, is not nearly as bad as the rest of Southeast Asia; it has the convenience of a constant ocean breeze. Everything seems to be perfectly ordered. People seem to be very happy and friendly. It's phenomenally successful in the world market. It's also a fascinating to consider that the city is essentially the entire country. You can cross the entire city/country in about an hour. Visible to the north is Malaysia and visible to the south is Indonesia. It is truly an amazing city - period.

The famed Singapore Helix bridge

The flags of Singapore

My Uber driver picked me up at the airport and it took us about an hour to get to my hotel due to Friday night traffic. Naturally we sparked up a conversation and I let him lead it. So after writing all of those lovely things, how come the bulk of his thoughts regarding Singapore were him interjecting time and again “Fuck Singapore. Fuck this place. Fuck this fucking country.”? I didn't prompt him for any of that or even get into anything regarding the government (I would never do that being unfamiliar with a country's customs).

Singapore is a land of rules and they are harsh rules. While the Japanese seem to have managed immaculately clean and orderly cities while still exercising a fair bit of personal freedom, Singapore took a very different route. There is no carrot in sight and a whole lot of sticks behind you. In fact many people probably remember the famous case of an American who vandalized a car literally getting the stick.

If you don't know that story, it happened in 1994 when I was a freshman in high school. An American by the name of Michael Fay was found guilty of vandalizing vehicles in Singapore. Allegedly he was actually stealing street signs, but the vandalism charge was a better one to be found guilty of – who knows - but he pleaded guilty to the vandalism charges and was sentenced to “six strokes of the cane.” He was forced to bend over a bar, had his hands and feet restrained with irons, and was publicly beaten six times over his back with a rattan cane. This is one of the methods of punishment administered in both Malaysia and Singapore.

I think the most interesting part of this story making its way to America is that when most westerners hear (or remember) the story, they immediately assume that Singapore is just a backwards country with brutal legal standards (maybe not unlike being told people have their hands cut off for stealing in Saudi Arabia or something similar). Regarding Singapore though, this simply could not be further from the truth. Singapore is all of the things that I wrote above. It's very much a first world country with a wonderful and astute population of educated people. They just also happen to have some very strict standards that they force people to live to.

Among those standards is that it's illegal to chew gum. It's illegal to spit (at least in public). Smoking restrictions are extremely strict. There are those laws that most countries have, but Singapore just happens to take very seriously such as littering, jaywalking, and etc. The city is lined with signs instructing you what you cannot do and in most cases what happens if you're caught doing whatever you're told not to do. The fines you'll pay are generally spelled out rather clearly. Fishing in an unauthorized spot, for example, will net you an instant $3000 SD fine (about $2,200 USD). Smoking in an unauthorized spot (even outside) will net you an instant $500 SD fine (about $365 USD).

Looking up at the ceiling in a Hindu temple

Outside of the Masjid Sultan Mosque

Strongest of all of these rules, however, is with respect to drugs. While marijuana is classified differently in this case, all other drugs including ecstasy, cocaine, methamphetamine, opium, and heroin are punishable by death. That's right, death. If you are caught with even a very small amount of any of these drugs (though I believe there IS actually a minimum weight, it's just very small) you will face execution. The country reminds its citizens of this in many different ways. Not only will you be executed, but you will be hanged.

So my Uber driver is not a fan of his country because as a person who doesn't make a ton of money, he is in the class of people that simply cannot pay their way out of the fines or even escape death. His illustration of the country is the same thing that happens in all countries that issue fines for relatively trivial matters. If you have the money, it really doesn't matter to you since it's a regressive system. If you don't, you're in a lot of trouble – again, because it's a regressive system. For him, smoking in the wrong place, or getting caught randomly spitting could financially devastate him.

That all said, the system does seem to work. The country seems to maintain its order. It truly is clean because nobody is going to litter – the penalties are just too steep for most people and they don't mess around with enforcement. If you get caught, you are going to be found guilty and held accountable of the offense.

So that's the spin to Singapore that I found most interesting. It's a gorgeous, clean, vibrant, fast-paced metropolis with a wonderful mix of people, races, and languages. It's just not a place where you want to break the law; the stick is just too harsh in most every case.

I should also mention that Singapore has some of the best food in all of Southeast Asia. Since the country is such a blend of cultures (albeit predominantly Chinese), there are specific subcultures all over the city that have set up "Hawker Centers", areas that sell street food on the cheap. Chinatown, Little India, etc. all have some of the most amazing food I've ever had and it's all relatively cheap (probably $3 - $6 SGD).

Wan Shan and I eating some BBQ stingray and an assortment of vegetables

Picking out the best durian for my first go at eating one. While most westerners think that they smell terribly and don't care for the taste, I found the smell appealing and the taste delicious

Understanding Soi Cowboy
August 21st, 2017 | View Post
Before leaving for Thailand I had told a number of my friends that I would not just look into the sex industry, but rather stare intently into it and see what it's actually all about. I did just that.

I'm not especially interested in it myself from a customer point of view, but there is a certain mystique and fascination around how “legalized” prostitution works around the world. I should also note that prostitution in Thailand is better categorized as “not illegal” rather than legal. There are a host of laws that could be used to stop it from happening, but the powers that be turn a blind eye to this. I also want to acknowledge up front that I fully comprehend that at least some portion of the sex industry in Thailand fuels sex trafficking (something I, and I assume most any decent person is fervently opposed to for rather obvious reasons).

All told, my friend and I visited six of the clubs in the Soi Cowboy area. Here's some notes from the experience.

Firstly, when you arrive at Soi Cowboy, it will probably be a lot smaller than you think it is. When I had seen pictures of it over the years I thought the iconic neon signs that I was seeing were the entrance to it or something like that. As it turns out, the street is probably only a few hundred meters long and there are maybe 20 clubs in total. I'm ballparking, but thereabout anyways.

The iconic photo view of Soi Cowboy from just outside of the main street

The first club that we entered was Baccara. This club sits on the far east end of the block and has a reputation for being one of the nicer clubs there. Having been to strip clubs all over the United States, the South Pacific, South America, and Mexico, I will say that the experience here was pretty crazy and a little overwhelming.

The club is very small. There are booths about 3 seats deep around the entirety of it with a small portion kept for the bar. There is a single stage that sits in the middle of the room with a handful of poles for the girls to hang on to. Above them is a glass ceiling with ladies dancing on the 2nd floor (so yes, you can see right up into them).
The most shocking difference from an American point of view is just the sheer number of women that are on stage and how it works. Put very bluntly, it is much more literally like a meat market than you've likely ever heard that term used before.

What I mean is that at any other club I've ever been to, a single stage will be occupied by maybe two to three girls at once; often times a single stage is just a single girl. Not here. At Baccara (as with most of the clubs on the strip), there were about 30 to 40 young Thai women on the stage at a time. They're all wearing what is essentially a skimpy bathing bikini bathing suit, but none of them on the main stage are naked (not even topless). There were three different groups of these women. One group wore an orange outfit, another wore a black outfit, and the third group (the upstairs group) wore a kind of schoolgirl dress – no doubt fulfilling some creepy old guy fantasies there.

The schoolgirl-dressed girls were on the second floor. They would be half-assed dancing around on the glass floor (ceiling from our point of view) and after set intervals would become topless and then ultimately naked. After enough time had elapsed, they would go back to being dressed and then start the process over again. This could be an incorrect assessment, but we ultimately decided that these were the freshmen of the group. Not necessarily the youngest, in fact most likely not the youngest, but the newer girls or “less marketable” girls who actually did have to get naked to keep their job. They essentially just kept the whole thing stimulating.

Now onto the other two groups. The orange and black teams would come out on stage only with their fellow teammates. Thirty or so girls would march off the stage and thirty or so new girls would come back on. But here's where it gets crazy: they don't do anything. They don't dance. They don't interact with the customers (hardly anyways). They literally just stand on the stage and show off what they have. To the meat market comment, each one of them literally has a number pinned to their chest.

The process is as follows. You see a girl that you like and so you tell the madam of the house (one woman who is essentially just keeping tabs on everything in a pimp-like fashion) that you like number 224. This is the buying a drink phase. The madam will summon girl 224 to come and sit with you and you immediately are expected to purchase her a drink. Best we would tell, the drink would just be a glass of cola, but you're still paying about 300 baht for it (about $9.00 USD). You talk with the girl, make sure you like her, and then one of two things happens.

Either option one is that either you don't really like her after all or you weren't really planning to do anything with her in the first place (this was our category) and so after her drink is done she thanks you and goes back to the herd. Or option two is that you pay for her. The madam will present you with a price sheet that essentially dictates how much you would have to pay to take her back to your hotel either for an hour, or for the evening. The prices were about 3,000 baht (about $91 USD) for the hourly service or about double that for the entire evening. That's it.

So this kind of club (of which there are several of in Soi Cowboy) aren't really strip clubs at all, at least not in the sense that Americans think of them. They are literal brothels where you are just looking at a live menu and deciding what/who to pay for. Again, the freshman team dancing naked upstairs keeps the strip club feel alive, but that's definitely not the intent of them.

After we left Baccara we stopped by another well known club called Crazy House. It had the same methodology as Baccara. It was definitely a wilder vibe and these girls would at least interact with people a little bit more on the stage. I wound up slipping a few 20 baht notes (about $0.60 USD) into leg garters they were wearing. Eventually a pair of them came and sat with me for a bit. We actually had a really fun time drinking and trying to communicate in broken English and Thai, but that was the extent of it. Like Baccara, this one also had the glass ceiling although some of the girls on the main stage would actually strip. Some went topless while others were fully nude. As a somewhat sad interjection, it became pretty obvious which of the girls were new. You could tell rather clearly that they were being told to strip down, but were then lightly covering themselves with their hands and things of this nature. It was subtle, but easy to spot if you were looking for it.

The Cowboy2 Bar and Spice Girls were mostly the same kind of setup. Each one of them had their own little twist to how they ran the operation, but the process was the same. The girls all had numbers pinned to them, you selected one, bought her a drink, were presented with a list of payment options, and then you'd either send her back to the herd or leave with her.

There were two bars that had a very different methodology to them. Afterskool Bar and Toy Bar were an entirely different beast. These clubs were narrow in their design with the bar taking up one entire wall and the stage taking up the other entire bar. You'd essentially sit between these two elements. There would only be a few girls on the stage at one time and they were stripping in the sense that you would see in America. Except that they're doing a lot more than that.

Some of the dancers from the Afterskool Bar. The one posing sat and chatted with me for awhile

The same girl from Afterskool whose name I unfortunately forget now

These girls were entirely blatant about what the purpose of your visit was. There was no menu presented, there was no process (informal or otherwise) for how the interaction happened. If a girl noticed that you were looking at her long enough or perhaps if she just liked the cut of your jib, she would come and talk to you. Toy Bar was considerably more direct about it, but they would tell you outright what they could do and would negotiate prices directly with you. I suspect that the varied it based on how much they thought you could afford, what you looked like, and frankly just how they felt at any given moment. These girls were not drinking cola, but rather were getting pretty fucked up. I'd imagine a number of them were doing drugs, but I didn't see any of this directly.

Cutting right to the chase, a hand job in the bar would cost anywhere from 500 to 700 baht ($15 to $21 USD respectively) whereas a blowjob would cost anywhere from 1000 to 1500 baht ($30 to $45 USD respectively). You could certainly pay to take them home as well and I'd imagine the prices were a little cheaper than the meat market bars, but the general idea was that they would just take you somewhere in the club and you'd get your time with them.

Again, I have been to a lot of strip clubs over the years for countless different reasons ranging from bachelor parties to friends wanting to go to girlfriends wanting to see what they're all about to everywhere else in between. In all of those experiences though, I've never had a woman directly proposition me for anything other than a dance. To be clear, you're not asked something like “hey baby, what are you looking for”, but rather shown explicit gestures of exactly what you can get. Even in the Mexican border towns they're not quite that brazen. It's a weird experience. While I ultimately support prostitution (namely as I don't think somebody should be told they cannot sell their own body), I'd imagine that there is an entire underbelly of creepy old men who are regular visitors to these bars; many likely provide them with regular services.

I was highly entertained by this sign in the street

All in all Soi Cowboy was a ton of fun and I would highly recommend anybody checking it out, but just keep in mind that it's not like going to an American strip club, but rather is like entering a brothel. Also bear in mind that while sex tourism is entirely fine, there are certainly people there who have been trafficked. This is an awful thing and so it's hard to say whether you should support the business in any way. Regardless, there's a world of difference between American and Thai strip clubs.
What is Tourist Bangkok Really Like?
August 19th, 2017 | View Post
Bangkok is enormous. Absolutely enormous. All told there are more than 11 million people living in the area and it definitely feels like that. Getting around Bangkok can be a slow and painful process at times. While the foot traffic is dense, it pales in comparison to the actual street traffic. Cars, buses, motorcycles, mopeds, tuk tuks, and everything in between can and DO drive down any visible path they can find. It was frequently the case that you would have to pull yourself close to a wall while walking down a narrow alley so that a car or even bus could drive past you. Like other places in Southeast Asia, it somehow all just works. I tend to think that being a driver oneself would overwhelm most westerners.

A reclining Buddha

The city has its share of scams like most every other destination of the like, but the most common ones are just tuk tuk drivers and other transportation services trying to rip you off. No doubt we overpaid for services here and there, but having done a ton of research before entering the country, I had a pretty good idea of what to look out for. As an aside to that, Uber really makes a huge difference now that it's available in the country. For one, you know you're not going to get ripped off. You can follow along on the map and so you know if your driver is intentionally trying to run up the price (which even Uber has made difficult to do since the fares are now pre-calculated within reason of traffic). Perhaps better than that though is just overcoming the communication barrier. While it's generally easy to explain where you're going when you can read the alphabet (even if you can't understand the words), the same cannot be said of the Thai language. I literally could not explain to a person where I was going in some cases as I cannot read the Thai characters. It's just not possible to "sound it out". Thankfully Uber just lets you set your destination on the phone and so that problem goes away. Yay for technology!

One noticeable component to being in a more tourist-driven area of Bangkok is the salesman harassment. It's not unlike other 3rd world countries I have visited, but I do think the intensity of it is much worse in Bangkok.

My friend John and me riding around on a tuk tuk in Bangkok

I'm really only using Bangkok as a stopover destination to the many other cities and countries that I'm exploring and so other than seeing all of the sites, I'm not planning to do a whole bunch here. All in all it's a fun city, but I'm not certain how reflective it is of the majority of Southeast Asia that I'll be exploring.

That said, and like so many places in Asia, it does have some absolutely amazing temples worth exploring. Since my time is pretty limited here, that's mostly what I am planning to do, but there will be plenty more to come elsewhere!

Standing in a long line of golden Buddhas

Packing Everything Up!
August 14th, 2017 | View Post
After an 8-day long visit with my dear old friend DaveG in Kansas City, Missouri, I am finally ready for my trip. I leave for Chicago at 7:43 in the morning via Amtrak, am meeting up with some friends in Chicago for lunch, and then head to Chicago O'Hare Airport in the evening for the first leg of my trip – a flight to Bangkok, Thailand by way of Taipei, Taiwan.

Everything laid out and getting ready to be packed up

Being quite the world traveler himself, Dave had a number of little bags that he was able to let me borrow to make my trip considerably more organized. A little bag for socks and underwear, another one for pills and medicine, another for electronics, etc.

Condensed down into the smaller packing bags

Ultimately I am bringing two bags with me. One of them is my actual backpacking pack, a beautiful new Osprey X-58 that I got from REI. It's considerably larger than I actually need for all of my stuff, but there is a reason for this that I will come to. The other bag is a smaller CamelBak that Dave actually traded me for the Timbuk2 that I was originally planning to bring. The smaller one is intended to hold my food, computer, and electronics – the items that I never check in. The larger Osprey holds all of my clothes, medicine, toiletries (except for my toothbrush as you never know when you'll need it). Once I clear customs in Thailand, my plan is to pack the CamelBak inside of the Osprey. That's why I got one that has extra space in it. Once I am situated in my hostile in Bangkok, I will reduce the CamelBak to just the bare necessities that I want to have while exploring the city.

...and finally down into just these two bags

This will mostly be limited to my water, camera, wallet, and copies of my identification just in case something should happen. I am sure that I'll wind up purging a few items a long the way, but after experimenting with all sorts of configurations (and having done this many times in the past), I'm pretty sure that I have a good setup. I guess I will find out tomorrow on my way!

And for my final trick, the smaller bag goes into the larger bag

Sporting Clays
August 14th, 2017 | View Post
Another little mini adventure that my good friend Dave took me on while I was in Kansas City staying with him was some sporting clay shooting. We went to this really amazing course out by Lenexa, Kansas with Dave's neighbor and friend, Scott, as well as some of Scott's friends (a husband and wife duo).

While I had not gone sport shooting in quite some time (having frequently done it in the past with my other good friend, Grant), I wound up doing a littler better than I thought I would. The course was a relatively standard one, albeit had a great variance between the “normal” holes (designated in blue) and the “advanced” holes (designated in red). We stuck to the blue path. While Neo may have been conflicted, we certainly we not. It was the right way to go.

I don't think I would have done much better with my own shotgun, but I am extremely partial to 20 gauge shotguns and both Dave and Scott only had 12 gauges.

After shooting 100 shots over 12 different blinds, I wound up with a 59% (meaning I had 41 misses over the course). Dave did phenomenally well with 85% (only 15 missed shots), while his neighbor-friend Scott, shot an impressive 92% (with just 8 misses overall). It's always such am amazing sight to shoot with people who are so much better than myself as it makes me work a little harder at it. Both Dave and Scott had a lot of good pointers to share with me that I'd actually starting getting much better as the round went on.

After we wrapped up the shooting, Dave and Scott took me to a delicious El Salvador restaurant, unsurprisingly called El Salvadoreño. I have to say, it was some of the best Central American food that I've had in a long time.
Kayaking the Missouri River
August 12th, 2017 | View Post
As part of my adventure through Kansas City, Dave had organized a super badass trip to kayak down the Missouri River with me and our mutual friend, Dawn. He had actually done a shorter version of the trip before on a canoe with his brother and niece, but this particular trip was a three and a half hour tour in kayaks. While I wouldn't have thought it would be super difficult, I know that my arms and shoulders were sore for two days following and it definitely puts a toll on your back too, so it was a lot harder than I'd have thought.

From left to right: Dawn, Dave, me

The Missouri River is enormous for one; at certain places it has to be a few hundred yards wide. The trip started with the river moving pretty slow, but it would certainly pick up at various places. There are never really rapids in it, per se, but there are parts where it turns pretty hard and creates powerful eddies on the surface. One of those would eventually get me.

While the river itself is enough to contend with, there is also boat traffic as well as barge traffic. There are old graineries, strip mines, and power plants along the way, so it's very much setup to accommodate enormous commercial and industrial traffic.

When we were about two hours into the float I decided to tackle one of the “rapids”. Getting through the water itself was fine, but as I merged back towards the steady flow of the current, I wound up getting swept into a giant eddy. I didn't have any problem with it spinning me backwards and then twirling me around a little bit, but the force of it turned me so quickly that it threw off the balance of the kayak and eventually turned me over into the water. Both Dave and Dawn were too far downstream to immediately do anything about it. Of course I was also the only of us not to be wearing his life-jacket (it was extremely uncomfortable wearing it while also squeezed into the tiny compartment of the kayak).

Shortly after having tipped over twice in the kayak and now soaking wet (which felt pretty wonderful in the hot Missouri sun)

Given that I had our wallets, keys, and other valuables in my dry bag, my first priority was to make sure that didn't sink. It didn't, but I've never owned a dry bag before and so I wasn't sure if it would or not. Once I had that in my hand, I donned my life-jacket from within the water as I was being pulled downstream and started working to flip my kayak back over. I quickly succeeded and started to climb back into it. Unaware of just how much water it had taken on when it flipped, it immediately flipped over again given how unstable it was. It wasn't until that moment that I realized I had a real problem. I was stuck about 100 yards from the shore in a river swirling with eddies and unable to gain any control of my kayak. I finally managed to flip it over again, place all of my belongings inside of it, and very carefully balance myself on top of it while I slowly paddled orthogonal to the current towards the muddy shoreline. It wasn't over once I got there.

The shoreline was an almost immediate drop off and so it was not particularly easy to pull the boat onto the shore (though I was lucky this particular part of the river even had a shoreline at all). Once I eventually got it up there I had to flip it upside down and then lift it from side to side in order to evacuate all of the water from it. When I finally accomplished that, I fixed myself snugly inside of it from the shore and then started throwing my body weight forward to slowly push it back into the water (noting again that even a few feet from the shore was way over my head since it's a dredged river).

Thankfully Dawn had come back to ensure that I was okay while Dave was just too far downstream to fight the current. It was actually a lot more comfortable in the boat once I was soaking wet and when I eventually caught back up and re-formed our little kayak trio, we had a good laugh. At me, not with me.