The last month or so has provided a lot of travel opportunities for me. Most have been on business, but I did get to squeeze a weekend in there for myself. Traveling in SE Asia has its good points and bad points. Let’s start with the good…In less than an hour I can be in either Vientiane or Luang Prabang, Laos. In two hours, I’m in Bangkok. In just fours hours I can make it as far as Hong Kong or even Japan. Living in this part of the world where a bunch of countries are mushed together has its benefits. It’s one of the reasons I traveled through SE Asia last year. It’s super easy to get from one place to the next. And while there are some general similarities between Asian countries, an hour flight takes you to an entirely different culture. And I love that.
The bad part about this area of the world is that it is still behind more developed areas. Let’s take Vietnam for example…The Hanoi airport would be better off if they leveled the damn thing and put up tents. The building is old, the airline employees are not all that nice and the waiting areas are tired-looking and uncomfortable. Before you even get your boarding pass, you deal with people blatantly cutting in line, people who are standing so close behind you you can feel their breath on your neck (or smell their breath when they cough, as was the case on one travel occasion) and agents who appear that can’t be bothered to do their job. Never mind the ridiculous number of delays the airline experiences and the lack of communication with passengers.
I’ve likened Vietnam Airlines to being one chicken short of a local bus. It is probably the worst airline I’ve traveled with – ever. Not only for the lack of professionalism of the attendants – falling asleep in the jumper seat as the plane is preparing for take-off should not be acceptable in my book – but also for the condition of the planes. On one of my last fights to Saigon, I noticed that the hardware, like plastic coverings on some of the seat fixtures, were missing on several rows. I’m still shocked by how many people on board have probably never flown before. They have no idea that their ticket holds a seat number. Many people sit where they want and get bumped a few times until an attendant explains where their seat is located. Others walk aimlessly through the cabin and don’t know how to find their seat number, never mind figuring out if their seat is an aisle or window. I quite nearly punched a guy who kept pushing me when the row of people in front of me making their way through the plane stopped and he yelled, “Move!”
Vietnam Airlines also has a very strange way of seating people. If a flight is not full, they will clump people together in groups and leave several rows completely empty. As of lately, I’ve been involuntarily seated in the exit rows on most of my flights. I actually don’t like the exit rows. You are not allowed to put your items underneath the seat, and call me crazy, but I’m not willing to put all my belongings out of sight. The seat doesn’t go back, either. I’m not 6’5″ and I don’t think I look particularly helpful or someone who stays calm in an emergency. I have a feeling that in some training course, the reservation staff were told, “The foreigners like the exit rows.” And so now I am getting in the habit of asking to NOT be seated in emergency rows.
It’s kind of funny that everyday I’m learning something new about this country and about working in SE Asia. Everyday poses some challenge. I just never expected that I would learn so much while sitting in a plane so high in the sky!
On the Bright Side,
So with the craziness of work building up and my wardrobe falling apart in the past 8 months, I decided it was time to go to Bangkok and have a weekend of pure fun and shopping. I also got a complete health check, but that’s another blog entry! I arrived very late Thursday night, was pleased to see the staff of my hotel had already given me a free upgrade in room and happily plopped into the down bedding and drifted into dream land.
Thailand is one of my favorite places to travel to for such a variety of reasons. The people are super friendly. The tourist infrastructure is pretty solid, so it’s easy to travel most everywhere in Thailand. The food is superbly delicious. The first meal I ate was at my hotel, off menu. I just asked for a nice red veggie curry, medium spice and was served perfection in a bowl. You may remember that I took that one week cooking class in Chiang Mai last year. And while my skills in cooking any of those dishes have rusted a bit, I can say with certainty that I know a good curry when I taste one. And I know just the spice level I like (that and how much palm sugar to use – right Annette? ;p ).
After ease of travel and yummy food comes massages. I can get any number of awesome massages for super cheap. When I was at the health spa last year, I got a massage everyday. And while I traveled in Thailand, I indulged often. This weekend, I was able to squeeze in two massages. One came Saturday morning. I arranged an early morning massage, 8am, so that I could still have time to stop by the health center to pick up my results and then head out for shopping. The second came after I spent about 8 hours in the malls and barely made it back to my hotel! I had a leg massage in-room and lucked out with Sleepless in Seattle on TV! Awesome! I have to say, though that my first massage was a bit alarming. The goose eggs in my shoulder blades and neck – the same ones which were there when I slipped that disc in my neck – have reared their ugly heads. I was surprised how tight my shoulders were, which actually makes for a not-so-relaxing massage! (Note to self – schedule a weekly massage to combat goose eggs making nests in shoulders.)
Bangkok also has no shortage of nightlife. This is something Hanoi greatly lacks. We do have our parties and certain after-hours bars, but the police roll through town right at midnight and the town goes dark. On Friday, I met up with colleagues in BKK and had a night out on the town. I still love going out on the town. I love going dancing and meeting new people and just being out. I do question how long I can relive my youth, though. I didn’t get back to the hotel until 2am. The next day after the big night out was a little rough, to say the least. Not my preferred frame of mind for a big day of shopping.
And then let’s talk about shopping. There are some great malls in Bangkok. And I hit them on a big sale weekend, which was perfect. A bit surprised to see that the malls weren’t all that busy. A sure sign that we are still not climbing out of this tourism hell hole just yet. When I say big sale, I mean most stores had sale items 50% – 70% off. Even though I didn’t have to nudge my way through crowds, I still dealt with rude people. I mean, sometimes I swear I think I am invisible. As soon as I would go to a rack, someone else would walk up and look at the same section. In one store, this Russian chick got a mouthful from me because as I was flipping through a rack of shirts, she grabbed one which I had my hand on. “What the hell is wrong with you? You don’t grab a shirt someone is looking at! How rude can you be?” She didn’t even say sorry, so apparently, she’s comfortable in her rudeness.
At least shopping in BKK is a bit easier than Vietnam. The Thai don’t really push to make a sale, nor do they care if you buy anything. Vietnamese, on the other hand, follow you around the store and watch every move you make. While Thai sizes are more manageable, women’s clothes, for the most part, still look as thought hey were made for children. You cannot go to Asia and worry about what the number says on the size label. You just have to find what fits, and that may be a 6 in one store and a 42 in another. No shame in finding something that looks good.
I have to ask, though. Why are 80’s fashions making a come back? Long shirts with elastic and a ruffle over the hips (not so good for those of us who actually have hips)? One sleeve numbers? I’m pretty sure I saw acid-washed jeans. There is also this whole trend of very thin, cotton blouses which are pretty much see-through. What exactly am I supposed to wear underneath? Just a bra? A tank top? Can I expose my little boobies? I mean – what’s the protocol? And why do I want to pay $50 for a shirt that’s thinner than a handkerchief? This is when shopping becomes a chore and I feel very perplexed.
Nonetheless, I came back from my Bangkok weekend with four pairs of shoes, a few tops, a hand bag, one suit and a pair of linen pants. Oh, and a new love of black sesame ice cream, which – trust me – is to die for! I can’t wait for the next visit!!!
On the Bright Side,
When I lived in Japan, I was lucky to enjoy a great healthcare system. As a civil servant, I also was required to do a full health check once per year. This was always something I sort of enjoyed doing. I think folks are kind of 50/50 on this topic. You either don’t see a doctor until you have to or you see one so you don’t have to see one. I like the peace of mind in knowing that I’m healthy, alive and kicking!
The hospitals in Bangkok have really become more like 5 Star hotels. All the facilities are sparkling clean, staff is super friendly and the health check runs very efficiently. In fact, the term for people who go abroad for health care and procedures is called Medical Tourism. And so in addition to feeding my shopoholic frenzy, I played medical tourist for a day! Oh, I’m so well-rounded!
I took a later appointment, which allowed me a 10% discount on my bill. It also allowed me to sleep in. I arrived in Bangkok late last night and today, slept until 9am and couldn’t drag myself out of bed until 10am! Oooohhh that felt so good! The appointment was at 11:30, and so I had to fast for 10-12 hours before my blood work. Thankfully, they weigh you, take your blood pressure and your blood at your lightest. Still, I’ve gotta loose about 4 kilos. I’m back to a zone I’ve been in before, but am not comfortable staying in. Not fat, but just not me. Right after they take your blood, you are ushered through a number of other stations to check your eyes and EKG and an ultrasound and #1 and #2 and the female-only tests. It’s all very thorough and everyone is incredibly professional.
What’s clear when you are waiting in the lounges is that people from all over the world come to the hospitals for these services. The month of July is popular for those from the Middle East. While very few men wore traditional garb, the women all remained in their black arayas. It reminded me of my trip to Europe last summer and the tiny little lake side town of Zell Am See in Austria. Remote and quaint, and a now popular destination for Saudi families. Out of context, it is just a strange site to see the women in traditional dress amongst those in travel gear in the mountain towns of Austria or the hospital loungewear which patients are provided at a hospital in Bangkok.
While I was in one small section of the health center, each building of the hospital I chose is a good 12 stories tall and provide all sorts of services. Out in the parking lots, I’d say eye and nose jobs are a popular procedure!!! My friend Pete and I laughed as he warned me not to come back to Hanoi with a new set of boobs!
Other than being a little heavy for my own good, I’m a healthy gal. I like seeing the word “normal” on all of the pages of reports! With all of the tests taken and a one-on-one review of the results with a doctor, my total bill came to $268. Small price to pay to make sure you are A-OK!!!
On the Bright Side,
I am a mule.
def. A mule is the offspring of strictly a male donkey and a female horse, typically sterile and used as a beast of burden.
I would like to clarify immediately that I am not a mode of transport for illegal drugs. But over the last several months, as I’ve traveled between Vietnam and Laos, and back and froth from Hanoi to Saigon, I have carried my fair share of boxes of materials and things our hospitality team members needed. No worries.
This weekend, I am headed to Bangkok. I am cashing in on a whopping 1.5 days of vacation and heading out on Thursday night. It’s a mini, mini-vacation. Friday is health check day, as Bangkok’s hospitals are state-of-the-art and provide a wonderful and complete check-up service. I’m actually looking forward to this, as it has been two years since I did this in Japan. I am overdue.
I’m going out with some colleagues on Friday night and hopefully meeting up with an old college buddy Saturday. Every other moment of my time will be consumed with shopping. Indeed, my intention is to take an empty suitcase and come back with an over-stuffed one. (But one which does not go over the Air Aisia 15kg limit.) But I reiterate – this is a vacation weekend for me!
My colleagues in Bangkok had a lightbulb go off in their heads yesterday and I was asked to carry over some brochures…and a few bottles of wine. If you live in this region long enough, you know what’s up. And they know I’m coming to shop. And coming with an empty suitcase. Shanna can be our mule! Cool!
Me being me, I agreed to bring the 3 bottles of wine and the 10kg (??seriously??) of brochures. But today, I got another phone call and another request to transport goods into Thailand. The Bumrungrad Hospital rep in Hanoi asked if I could take some food to one of her friends who is getting treatment for leukemia. How in the world can I say no to that? Of course the agents of Air Asia can say no to my suitcase if it is over the 15kg limit…that or be happy to get more money from me!
So as I pack my suitcase tonight, I am trying to pack as lightly as I can, simply so I can pack everyone else’s stuff to carry over. I don’t mind being a good friend and serving as a mule in this situation. Beast of burden. Fine. I just hope the part of being typically sterile isn’t true! Yikes!
On the Bright Side,