Monday, February 13, 2006

How to bargain for success

Bargaining, haggling, discussing prices - its a way of life here but sometimes hard to know what is a fair price.

I have been complimented on my good bargaining skills by several vendors here so I guess I have learnt a few things.

I do know that no one will sell an item for less than they paid for it so I feel its fair to "discuss the price". I don't think that its fair to just bargain for the fun of it without any intention of buying so I try not to get into a discussion unless have some plans to make the purchase as long as the price is right.

I usually try to purchase "in bulk" I will ask "What is your best price" for one item, then having got a response I pick up several items and offer a price that works out to about half the price asked for. This seems to work quite well, so if for example I am told $2 for one item, I pick up 5 items that are similar and offer $5. Here they often ask for a bit more as "lucky money" and I can choose to say yes or no.

Sometimes the will look in amazement and say "oh no" and then I will say thank you and start to walk away. Usually they will quickly some after me and say OK. The other day a delightful little old lady, wrinkled as a brown walnut, followed me and actually took me gently by the hand and led me back to her stall. We were both giggling like a couple of school girls by the time we got there and how could I not buy from her after that?

When I had completed my purchases with her, she gave me a little carved jade elephant that now hangs on a chain around my neck, along with my rose quartz and my amethyst ball. A gentle reminder of how nice the Thai people are.

Bargaining is fun for the seller and, on the odd occasion that I felt the price was so little that I do not try and bargain, there is almost a look of disappointment on the face of the vendor

So did I get a lot of bargains - well I think I did - now if only I can bargain for more baggage allowance at the airport!

The Elephant Farm

I am not much of a tourist, particularly when its on an organized bus tour but as the elephant farm was a couple of miles in the bush off the bus route with no tuk-tuk or taxi, I chose a small group tour in a mini-bus and I am glad that I did.

We first went to a small paper-making facility where they make very nice paper out of elephant dung!

Then to see the beasts. They were amazing and performed lots of great tricks, even doing "hand stands" and walking upright. They played soccer, had a band and painted pictures with water colour. Following this we rode on their backs through the river and through the jungle for about an hour, stopping at tree-high stalls to buy bunches of bananas and cane sticks. The long trunks came searching over their backs, until they located the food, which was then gently taken from us and, curving through the air in a graceful ark, found its target and into their mouths, bananas a whole bunch at a time!

A long lazy bamboo raft ride down the river, then a bumpy ride in an ox cart led to a huge buffet lunch in a lovely building on the rivers edge.

Following lunch we went to the Monkey School which was fun and amusing, the highlight for me being a tiny baby monkey who contentedly sat on my hand and played with my necklace.

The day ended with a visit to the butterfly and orchid farm.

It was a fun day and I can understand why its one of the main attractions for tourists coming to Chaing Mai.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Hippies are alive and well and living in Pai Thailand

Pai - according to the travel books, is a small peaceful town high in the hills of Northern Thailand. What better place to visit to escape the bussle of Chaing Mai.

I went by mini-bus, up bumpy and winding roads, high into the mountains. Almost four hours later I arrived and looked for a small hotel in a quite location. I found what seemed to be ideal, on a side road, with an inside courtyard, the quaint rooms had rustic balconies surrounded by trees and tea and coffee were delivered each morning. I checked in and went for a walk.

Pai has four north/south roads and four east/west roads and is bounded by a small river, The streets mostly contain small shops, bars and restaurants, AND everywhere, MOTORBIKES, driven by topless foreign men with scruffy hair or dreadlocks (thought they went out with the ark) and on the curb dozens of hill tribe women all selling the same goods. Music blared out from bars and cafes, mostly ancient rock. The only mode of public transporation is on the back of "taxi motorbikes" no tuk-tuk or car taxis.

Seeking refuge from the noise I went back to my hotel to be entertained by the sound of Elvis blaring from a record player in the maids bedroom. I went to her door, she was fast asleep and not at all accomodating when I asked her to turn down the music.

After an expensive and not very satisfactory meal, I went to bed early, to be awakened constantly by the sounds of dogs barking, people arguing and for some reason, pots and pans being thrown around.

I thought that it could not get much worse but at five in the morning I was awakened by cocks crowing, dogs barking and the high pitch of the faithful being called to prayer by the small local Muslim community.

I left on the first mini-bus out that morning.

I think that the moral to this story is not to believe everything the lonely planet writes.

Visiting Burma

Quaint Thai visa rules insist that visitors go out of the country and come back in once a month. Hence there is an active "visa-run" mini-bus business. However on the Visa Run you only
get to stay at the boarder about an hour and I wanted to spend more time so I took the bus there.

There are three main bus services, VIP which is almost as good as first class on Air
Canada with wide leather seats that recline almost flat, padded foot rests and refreshment service. Then there is the "air-con" which is considered second class but is still pretty good and finally the cheap way, no air-con but fans and open windows. Prices vary but its about $7 for VIP, $6 for Air-con and $2 for local.

The boarder closes at 4.30 p.m. so I got the afternoon VIP bus and arrived around 6 p.m. The bus station is not too close to the boarder so it is necessary to get the "Red Bus" for a few pennies. The method of making the most money by Red Bus driver/owners, is to stuff as many people as possible inside on the two long benches then more people sitting on tiny stools in the aisle and then have as many people as possible hanging off the back. The bus does not leave until it it totally full and of course stops every few minutes.

I was the last to get off but the driver did take me to the very best hotel in town, a huge building run by a Chinese family. The rooms were first class, very clean and spacious, big TV and two phones, nice modern bathrooms and lovely "juliette" balconies. The price was a whopping $35 but did include a large buffet breakfast.

As is usual, there was a night market along the main street so that provided the entertainment for the evening. The many food stalls offered tempting dishes but, being careful I chose to go to the only restaurant that seemed to be open where I actually got at scotch and soda in a single order (scotch is usually only served by the bottle) and some wonderful prawns cooked in glass noodles and, for the first time since I left Canada, a side order of french fries. (I know, I know but one can finally get tired of rice.)

The next day I entered Burma. After leaving my pasport with some trepidation, I hired a tuk-tuk for $3 for the morning for trips to some of the temples. It was lovely, high in the mountains it was cool and the air was very fresh and smelled of jasmine.

The temples are very different from the Thai ones, no so elaborate. but very peaceful. My favourite temple had worship points for each day of the week. The guide had a book which showed, according to birthday, the day of the week you were born on. I was born on a Tuesday, which makes me a Lion so I bought flowers and candles and inscense to place in front of the goddess of Tuesday. Then I had to pour water three times over the statue and the lion symbol, then hit a small gong three times. After this I went to a huge gong on a balcony overlooking the lovely countryside where I had to hit the gong any odd number of times. My guide was a delightful man who spoke perfect English and had a deformity of two thumbs on one hand.

After my tour of other temples and a visit to the golf course and a small tourist-oriented tribal village of "long necks" (women who are forced from childhood to wear brass rings around their necks which pushes their shoulders down). I did not stay there very long I thought that it was a very cruel practice that tourism was encouraging to continue.

Then it was to the market (of course). Not too different to the markets in Thailand but quite a few beggers which is not something you see much of in Chiang Mai. Had hoped to find some Burmese Jade which often has colours of pale pink and soft green flowing into each other. I had bought some in Bangkok so guess I will have to look for the shop again to add to my collection.

By the time I got back over the boarder I had just missed the VIP bus and had to take the local bus, complete with non-working fans and lots of people leaving work, to the next town of Chaing Rai where I was finally able to connect with the VIP bus for the 4 hour journey back to C.M.

It was good to get back "home" but it was an interesting trip and a chance to see a little bit more of the world.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Busy Bangkok

Went to Bangkok for the weekend to hook-up with my friend Bernadette who had been to Borneo to see the orangutan. She had made reservations for the Atlanta Hotel, mostly because of the convenient location. It is close to several mass transit links which is vital in BK as the traffic is so chaotic that walking is faster than a taxi. They do have hire transportation on the back seats of motor cycles but I did not fancy sitting on the back seat of a motor cycle clutching my suitcase. Actually the nicest mode of transportation is by river boat and whenever possible I try and use the river, however it did not go anywhere near to the Atlanta Hotel.

My first clue that the Atlanta was different to most hotels was a huge sign outside the door "No sex trade tourists". It got stranger. There is a big poster at the front desk stating "We do not listen to complaints. If you have complaints then maybe you should go a stay in a 5 star hotel" and so it went on. In the dining room a sign says "Feet on the floor please" On the menu it says "do not hog the menu, we only have 3 copies" On each floor is a wall to ceiling sign denouncing tourists who come to BK for sex in no uncertain terms. I actually took a photograph of it it was so funny.

The hotel was built in 1952 and no doubt was a jewel at that time. Its a bit like a faded old lady now, clean but definitely out of date. No elevators and 5 floors to climb up sweeping marble staircases with grand iron railings. Still the beds were comfortable and the rooms were very spacious and air-conditioned. Behind the hotel was a very over-grown garden and a big swimming pool with hammocks around the sides in the shade of the overgrown trees.

On the corner of the soi by the main road was the Marriott Hotel and I was shocked to see guards with what looked like children's scooters on sticks but which turned out to be mirrors - all the better to look under the chasis of the arriving cars and taxis. Seems the threat of terrorism is everywhere there is a American Hotel.

Sitting on an outside patio in the evening I was surprised to see a baby elephant being lead by its ear, the handler selling bags of what looked like big bamboo sticks, for tourists to feed and pet the animal. It had learnt its tricks very well and almost consumed my dinner before I could get my money out to buy some food for it! All part of the hectic, crazy place called Bangkok.

The main two pastimes seem to be eating and shopping. There are markets everywhere but none like the weekend market with over 7,000 stalls selling everything from clothes to live exotic animals and birds. We managed to visit several including the "Thieves Market" and "The street that melts away your money". (and it did). I am now the proud owner of a lovely Bulgari watch, two new hand-bags and a new silk??? pant suit, plus more beads than you can imagine for jewelry making.

The highlight of a trip to Bangkok for me is lunch or dinner on the patio of the Oriental Hotel, overlooking the river. The exquisite attention to detail, the elegance, the charm of the staff - not to mention the wonderful food and drinks and, the last twice I have been here, seeing the kings' favorite car, an old yellow rolls Royce, parked outside made it a meal to remember. AND it cost less than many average Toronto restaurants!!

It was good to return to the relative peace of Chaing Mai but I do enjoy Bangkok in small doses and will have 5 days there just before I return to Toronto at the end of Feb.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Down the Soi

A soi is a small laneway between two major roads. They are numbered, odd numbers on one side, even numbers on another. There are usually several soi between each road. As I walk around the old town of CM I take a different soi each time. This is a great way to see life as it really is for Thai people. Sometimes you get a big surprise, a lovely court-yard with fountains and flowers or a fantastic cafe run by a cooking school.

Often you see family life being enacted before your eyes. Tiny stores, selling very few items that seem to be open 24 hours a day. Micro-businesses, tailors, laundresses, shoe repair, hairdressers, massage and tiny cafes and stalls of street food.

After visiting the dentist here yet again, I took a small soi with lovely old teak houses and gardens which suddenly opened out into what I can only describe as the Yorkdale of Chiang Mai. In the middle of average commercial and residential mix were several small side streets of amazing small shops and galleries.

This was not at all in a tourist area but in an area outside the moat that surrounds the old town and close to the university. UCM. I spent a happy couple of hours browsing. A couple of the shops had wonderful old jewelry pieces from surrounding countries and ancient tribal beads. Most were very expensive but I did manage to find a piece of carved lapis set in silver with lapis beads. I was wearing it as I write this and have just broken the string and lapis beads are all around me. Guess I should have known better than to wear it but its so lovely. Now I will have to wait until I get home to safely re-string it.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Barbara in Prison

Today I went to prison!

It was only a minimum security prison and I went there to get a $1 pedicure. Most of the women there are in prison because of drug offences, often carrying for their boyfriend. Rehabilition includes learning a trade, beauty treatments, massage and sewing and embroidery. The prison has a fully equipped salon and a nice little store. Service is spotty, depending on how long the lady has been training but hey for $1 I got everything I would get for $30 in Canada.

Actually I had not really intended to go there but after visiting the the new Chaing Mai museum my feet were sore and the prison is right next door.

The museum is lovely with lots of inter-active videos in many languages. I learnt so much about the history of CM and I thought I knew quite a bit. There is also a nice cafe and a small gift shop and a substantial library.

After my pedicure I went to the grocery store. Just about everything you see in a major Canadian grocery store is there but everything is in small sizes. Local brands, about 1 tenth the price of mulit-national brands, sit side by side. I bought milk and sugar, lots of fruit and some wonderful smoked salmon and other snacks. I usually eat breakfast on my balcony and sometimes a drink and snacks with friends on the roof in the evening. The rest of the day I eat and snack out. A fresh fruit smoothie here for $1.00, a cup of great Arabica coffee for 60 cents somewhere else. A Thai dish of noodles or rice for about $1 does me nicely for lunch.

Walking back from the grocery store there were lots of cops. hmmm... hard to find out what was going on. Then all the traffic stopped coming down the main street but nothing happened. Noisy as usual, I stepped the the curb to look down the road and was suddenly dragged backwards by two pairs of strong cop hands! I thought I was being arrested! - back to prison - wow. A finger wagging and loud instructions to stay back quickly got me back in control. Then with a great woosh a stream of cars, followed by an ambulance trying desperately to keep up the pace - seems the princess was visiting. As the King (60 years of reign this year) was born and raised in CM, the palace in the hills outside of the city is his second home. Of course traffic was perfect chaos for hours after.

I was glad I was walking.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Great excitement at Grand Apt Hotel.

There was lots of excitement at the hotel this morning. The arrival of a new small monument to the Buddha. It is quite lovely and stands on a new pedestal by the entrance to the hotel.

Made of teak its in the form of a miniature temple with working wooden shutters and doors, sitting in a garden of flowers and little trees. There are china horses and dogs and people in the garden, Buddha sitting on a throne and other people around including dancing girls and dogs. There are places for tiny dishes of food, offerings to the gods. The whole thing is only about 5 feet x 6 feet. It is already garlanded with gardenias and roses and swags of ribbons. In all a delightful addition to the hotel.

It will bring good health and good fortune to all who enter the hotel and the restaurant/bar/kareoke centre.

I hope that will include me although I already consider myself very fortunate to be here and not plowing through the snow in Toronto.

Monday, January 23, 2006

weekend markets

Chiang Mai is a city of markets but none is more popular than the "walking market" which on Sunday afternoons and evenings takes over several of the main streets and the plaza square at Tai Pae Gate. I started at the square where many of the hill tribes display their wares and where sometimes I meet old friends from the hills. Yesterday I was lucky enough to meet with one of them. A spray old lady, brown and wrinked as a walnut with a mind like a steel trap. Hidden in her pocket - she just knew I would turn up - were three stone carvings, perfect for pendants. She also had some cream coloured horns carved with Salamanders and three more tigers. She then escorted me around some of the other tables, picking out treasures and bargaining to the teeth. In fact she bargained so hard with one poor lady that I went back and slipped her another 20 blaht.

After sitting at a table drinking freshly squeezed mandarin juice and eating sticky rice and mango I had to take a ride back to my apt., I was so laden down with heavy beads and stuff.

Still I could not stay in my apt. all evening when this great market was taking place, so after a cup of tea I shuffled off again looking for more treasures. My find of the night was a silver chain belt with 24 lapis lazuli and silver decorations hanging from it. Alas I did not have 4,500 blaht left and the only ATM I could find was out of cash so I am hoping that it will still be there when I go back in two weeks time.

The other thing I found was some wonderful silk tubes with tassled lids (wine bottle gift wrap)
I may try and import some into Canada. Need to check out the shipping costs first.

This morning I went to the far corner of the old town, an area I had not visited before, just to see what was there. Found the tribal gift shop run by the social services department. Lovely stuff but mostly weavings. Maybe I will go back before I leave.

Tomorrow I am thinking of going to the Monkey School - where they train monkeys to assist handicapped people. Should be interesting. Will report in due course Barbara


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