Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Angkor Wat tour guides

January 18th, 2009

After climbing down from watching the sunset at Ba Kheng, a temple in the Angor Thom city, I met two tour guides. Both of them spoke multiple languages including Japanese, which I also speak. They wanted to practice their Japanese so we didn't speak English. After exchanging the usual where are you from's and the usual niceties, one of the guides asked me about my family. I casually told him about my parents and siblings. Then I asked him about his family and he said, "I don't know. They were killed. I was only two." How did you become a tour guide, I asked. He explained, "I was lucky. A teacher took me in and sent me to school." I asked him if he learned about the Khmer Rouge in school. He said, "Nothing. I know nothing." So I asked him if he wanted to learn about the Khmer Rouge and if he wanted to remember what happened during that time. His answer was, "Yes!"

Thai Generosity

January 17th, 2009

While I lived in Japan, I did a homestay. During this time, one of the students who had previously done a homestay with the same family came to visit us in Japan. His name is Cha and he is from Bangkok. I only met him one day for a brief time, but we exchanged e-mail addresses and have sporadically kept in touch over the past 6 months.

So when I knew that I would be in Bangkok, I told Cha and asked him for some recommendations of places to go. He surpirsed me by saying that he would meet me if I had time. So we made plans to meet for dinner in Bangkok.

We went to a nice Thai restaurant for dinner. The food was great and we talked for a long time. During our conversation I had told him that I wanted to get a massage that night. He arranged for me to have a massage and even got one himself. Much to my surprise he paid not only for dinner but also for the massage. Then he took me back to my hotel and gave me a beautiful pashmina as a parting gift. I couldn't believe how generous he was. We were not well acquainted before we met that day, but his kindness and generosity made a strong impression on me.

3 (Christine W.)

Bangkok, Day 2

Reclining Buddha
The second day we spent in Bangkok was extremely exhausting, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We started off the day by taking a river taxi to visit the reclining Buddha, which sadly I knew and still know very little about. It was a giant statue of a golden Buddha lying down, and far more enormous than I had expected. The grounds where he lies are equally breathtaking-ornate, colorful wats (temples), with many other statues inside. We then walked to the grand palace, which we did not see because the entrance fee was exorbitant. I did have fun watching the tuc tucs, which are sort of like romanticized golf carts for transport, and endless street vendors on our walk. There are street vendors all over Bangkok and their carts emanate quite a mixed bag of smells including anything from sweet fresh fruit to crispy grasshoppers.
Later Pushpa, Rachael and I each got a full two-hour Thai massage at a very upscale massage parlour, which it seems are quite popular in Thailand. We were given flip flops and pajamas and shown to our own private room where we spent the proceeding two hours in nirvana. And all to the tune of fifteen dollars.

Night Market
After dinner I went to the night market with Pushpa. This market was far bigger than I had expected, well-lit, weaving in and out of massive tents, and filled with treasures, trinkets, and tourist trap items. It reminded me of a carnival with all of the neon lighting and customers darting about. Haggling with the vendors is protocol, but luckily for me, I was given a “very special price” at every stand I patronized. Statues of Buddha are popular items as well as loose fitting fisherman’s pants that tie at the waist. These look better on the rack than they do on me, but they sure are comfortable. There were also many flip-flops, pirated dvd’s and elephant themed everything.

Red Light District
I ended my night with a bang, if you can call it that, in the red light district with Pushpa and Adam. This is a series of streets in Bangkok where you can find drugs, prostitution, and sex tourism running rampant. There is an infinite number of bars with girls in bikinis gyrating on counters while potential customers on the street stroll by and check out the goods. As Adam said, some of the girls wait to be picked up like groceries. On one street the prostitutes stand outside with their pimps, some of them wear numbers, while they wait for business. The people in charge of advertising all kinds of sex show options including the infamous “ping pong show” are extremely aggressive and grab your arms as you make your way through the street. Some will even follow you. If you look into the faces of these girls, some of them very young, you can tell that they are not all there. Whether they have numbed themselves to the circumstances or they are intoxicated, it is obvious that this is not something they do for personal fulfillment. As Pushpa said would be the case, many of the sex tourists were old, pot-bellied, white men who only had eyes for the women they were pursuing. I tried to make eye contact with a few of them to guess what was going on in their head, and shame was definitely not part of the equation. I had to deaden myself a little in order to just walk through the district, and I imagine most of these girls would not choose this as their career given other opportunities.
When we returned to the hotel, Pushpa, Adam, Rachael, Melissa and I had an interesting conversation regarding power and why it is that we, as westerners, are so appalled at the idea of sex tourism when there are many strippers in America, and prostitution is not exactly a novel concept. Are we being overly sensitive and victimizing the prostitutes because we did not grow up embracing this type of industry? Do we just feel guilty when we see such a high concentration of white men in these establishments? After all, there are many strippers and prostitutes in the states who pursue this type of work because they know they will bring in more income than they would get working a 9-5 job. I hear that some strippers even like what they do. I am having stomach pains at the previous two sentences I wrote, but even if I cannot understand this idea at all, I have to take it into account when I think about our collective reaction to the sex tourism we see happening in Bangkok relative to our reaction to strippers in the U.S., which is not necessarily as drastic.
I think one reason the idea of sex tourism is so insidious to me is that although these women are not physically forced into their profession, the circumstances and societal structure that surrounds them leads them to this path, and then they get stuck. In the U.S. there may be other options, but in Bangkok, I’m not convinced that this is the case for these women. They are unwanted by the men that solicit their sex, the pimps that live off of the majority of their income, and the society that brushes them into dark alleys in the night for lack of a better plan. Additionally, not only is the physical risk of STI’s and beatings part of their reality, the idea that they are completely powerless in these transactions affects the way they understand the world they live in. How can a young girl feel empowered when she has never been conditioned into subservience? Essentially, the notion that we live in an anything goes type of world in which money is power, power trumps human dignity, and the powerful use their money to strip dignity from the weak in order to maintain that sense of power is horrific to me.