Monday, February 04, 2008

Expedia Doesn't Suck Any More

Back in October, I got quite upset with Expedia, the online travel agency, for refusing to give me a refund after their computer double-billed me for a round-trip ticket from Bangkok to India via Sri Lanka. To me it seemed a no-brainer; the evidence was there in their own computer, two tickets issued (and both delivered to my California address via FedEx) back in July. But I returned the duplicate and called Expedia repeatedly before leaving the U.S., and I emailed them, growing increasingly shrill with my complaint, until all I received was stony silence. SriLankan Airlines was unable to help because the tickets were inexplicably issued by British Airways. So I flew to India and back thinking that the extra money I paid was in the toilet. Then today a refund from British Airways showed up in my Visa account for $489.80, the amount of the extra ticket. So I want to be generous and apologize to Expedia for my nasty words here four months ago. You no longer suck, Expedia, but you certainly are slow in correcting your mistakes.

Here I am, standing outside of the local 7-11, with a typical day's shopping, carrying my supplies in plastic bags, three or four in each hand. You don't get the "paper or plastic" choice here in Bangkok. Without a car, everything has to be carried, on the Skytrain, the back of a motorbike taxi and while walking down the street. Some people lift weights; I get to lift plastic bags which are often quite heavy. In the film "American Beauty," a plastic bag becomes an object of beauty and I've thought of them differently ever since. They may be the penultimate symbol of today's global market place. In India where trash collection is an overwhelming task, they litter the landscape. Here in Thailand the Thais are scrupulously clean. Trash pickups in Bangkok are regular and thorough. But despite their best efforts, plastic bags are the detritus of a swollen population. They clog the klongs and the river. I dump my empty bags down the trash chute in my 15-floor building. I don't know where they end up.

Kathe Hilberman and her friend Michael came to Bangkok last week and arrived late at night, blitzed after a 20-hour plane flight from San Francisco. Letting the weary travelers rest for a day, I met them the following morning at their hotel near Khao San Road, the backpackers' home away from home. They wanted out of Bangkok in the worst way, seeing it as dirty, crowded and noisy, a typical reaction. I saw it as my duty to show them another side of the city I have come to love. The day before they had only walked in circles around Khao San Road, an area favored by farangs that resembles tourist ghettos everywhere, filled with travel agencies, internet shops, lousy restaurants, cheap clothes and pirated CDs and DVDs on sale, signs in English and white faces. I took them to Ricky's on Phra Athit Road for a tasty western breakfast, and then in a tuk tuk to Wat Pho to see the giant reclining Budhha and to marvel over the incredible temple architecture. Then we walked to Tha Thien Pier for a ride on a Chao Phraya river taxi past Wat Arun, Chinatown and the Oriental and Shangri La hotels to the Sathorn pier where we got on the elevated Skytrain for a trip through the cityscape of Bangkok (the variety of buildings you can see from the cars is fascinating). In Sukhumvit, I walked them past the Nana Entertainment Complex, a pale shadow of its nighttime self when seen in the light, and took them to my travel agent so they could buy plane tickets to Chiang Mai the next day. Back on the Skytrain, we entered shopping mall heaven at the upscale Siam Paragon and sampled Asian culinary delights in the extensive basement Food Court. From there we walked to the nearby Erawan Shrine to see how devout Buddhists pray to Brahma, the Hindu god, and thank him for favors received by hiring musicians and dancers to perform. We then walked down Rama 1 Road through Siam Square to giant MBK, the people's mall where shops are small and prices cheap (Kathe got a camera storage chip for less than half the regular price). Our last jaunt (Michael was hobbling on sore feet) was on a klong taxi to the Golden Mount where we climbed up to the top (well almost, the top was closed by construction) for a magnificent view of Bangkok. Afterwards, we took a tuk tuk back to their hotel where they retired for a well-earned nap and I went to a cafe to read and drink cappuccino until Pim got off work at the Banglamphu Post Office. I love giving tours and I think I convinced them that Bangkok was much more than initially meets the eye.

On the weekend, Pim and I went to Chatuchak, the huge flea market on the north side of the city. She was looking for items to decorate her cousin's Thai restaurant in Dublin, Ireland, and I was looking for a replacement for the plant I killed when I left it waterless for a month while I sojourned in India. I do not have a green thumb. Despite my love for nature, I am the Grim Reaper when it comes to cultivating greenery. This little baby, I was assured, will need little water and sun and will thrive despite my neglect. I left it on the balcony during a brief rain storm yesterday before transplanting it and I think it looks happy. Damned if I know what it should be called. George? (Anyone recognizing the breed, please email me.) On the way home from Chatuchak, we stopped in Saphan Khwai at Big C, the closest thing to a Costco I've seen yet in Thailand (Makro is another big-box chain, along with Tesco Lotus which I think is a British import). There I found a pair of slightly used Levis for 150 baht (about $5), and they even fit (though I'm not as fat as I thought). Finding underwear has been more difficult. The problem is that Thais are smaller and size their clothes differently. I've bought L and XL briefs and both were too small. Few stores carry XXL. Finally I got a couple of pair at Tokyu, the department store within MBK, and both sort of fit; one is L and the other XL. Go figure.

Up in Surin for the wedding, I met Wit, a good friend of Jerry and Lamyai's, who invited us to his 31st birthday party at a club in Bangkok. Jerry and he had taken Lamyai to the same club for her birthday and it was a pretty wild scene, he said. Wit is a charming fellow, a gay man who lives with his mother and works at a noodle shop in Silom. On Saturday night he came to get Pim, Jerry and I (Lamyai had to stay home with her mother who is ill), and we took a taxi to the club in a remote part of the city. The noise when we entered the packed room was deafening. A rock band was pounding out covers to hits by Thai bands like Carabao, the Grateful Dead of Thailand. We were led to a table front and center already occupied by Wit's mother and a group of friends. There were bottles of whiskey and plates of food which included fish cooking over a barbecue. Jerry and I opted for beer. Pim kept my plate full of food and Wit's mother liberally poured beer whenever my glass looked partly empty. People were dancing in the aisles and at their tables, singing along with the band and applauding at the start of every song. Jerry and I were the only farangs in the place. Before long I was up and dancing, with Pim and with Wit's mom, as well as Wit and Jerry. When the birthday cakes with candles were delivered, it turned out we were not the only table with someone celebrating. Pim spontaneously gave her shawl to Wit, who had taken a liking to it, for a birthday present (Jerry had given him a bottle of whiskey and I contributed cash for the party and for mixes, soda and water). After the band retired, a DJ took over and the music and dancing continued non-stop until we slipped away for home. I couldn't help thinking about how rock and roll has become a universal language. Led Zeppelin and the heavy metal rockers have left descendants everywhere, and Thais know how to rock as well as anyone else. They also know how to party, I decided the next morning as I popped a couple of aspirins to stop a throbbing head.

The job search is on hold for the moment. Pandit is up in Chiang Mai so I won't be able to see the chairman of the English department at Wat Si before Friday. This week I'll visit Bumrungrad Hospital to get refills of my asthma and cholesterol lowering meds. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, but I am not thinking of giving up anything unless it might be any remaining identification with the Christian church. Thursday is Chinese New Year's and I'm looking forward to attending the celebration in Chinatown with Pim.

And a week from Thursday is Valentine's Day which the Thais celebrate along with every other holiday on the planet. Red hearts are showing up in the stores. This year for the first time in I can't remember when there is someone whom I want to be my valentine. My heart is overflowing with love. Despite the difficulties of a May-December romance (I remain a secret to her family and friends), we are very happy together. My closet has his and hers sides to it now. The small apartment seems somehow bigger with her in it. She reads to me in English and helps me pronounce the Thai vowels. I buy her a leather bag for her job with Thai Post and a shawl to replace the one she gave to Wit. She cleans the bathroom and irons my tee shirts. I warn her that old men have shortened life spans and that I cannot give her a child. We dance to the music I put for her on the iPod. She brings croissants for breakfast and dips pieces of them in the café mocha I make for her. We hold hands at the movies and afterwards she tries to sing the theme song in English. I don't know what will happen in the future. Pim and I are together now, and that seems all that is important.


Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

Wonderful wonderful post! So nice to hear all about Pim.

And what a tour of the city! All in one day! Fabulous! Your poor (lucky) friends!

I know what you mean about the plastic too. Perhaps a small string bag in your pocket? I'd sometimes remember, sometimes forget.

Thanks again Will for such an interesting blog!



littlebang said...

I agree with Marcus - nice to hear a bit about Pim.
I get the Ventolin inhaler for asthma for about 200 baht. Also buy Franol for taking when breathing gets tight, and cost mere pennies. Salbutemol is available in pill form for pennies too, but makes my heart race. Amenophilin I used to take twice a day in the rainy season (when I get asthma) and is also very cheap.
The butyeka breathing method is superb for asthma, and there are several good western teachers of it in Bangkok. Together with my mini air-con it has controlled my seasonal battle with breathing immensely

littlebang said...

Oh, and on the Expedia thing - remember the saying:
Never assume malice for something stupidity can explain...