Ignore the media hype. Bangkok is not that bad. Jammie and I landed a few days ago and our suspicions were confirmed: not much was different from when we left in December. As mentioned in my last post, we had postponed our plans to move back to Thailand because of the media hype about the violence and political protesting aimed at overthrowing the current government. From news reports it was sounding awful – explosions, deaths, shootings, fearful uncertainty. The reality, we are quickly noticing, is far less dramatic.
Business as usual
Some of the biggest changes I’ve noticed so far have been the renovations to my favorite super market, the completion of the pedestrian bridge over the insanely busy intersection next to the high-rise we live in and some major excitement about the fact that Justin Timberlake is coming to town. So much for revolution.
I’m not denying that some horrible things have happened – even this week there was a lethal clash as police were clearing protest sites. And yes, there have been several other deaths and many injured. As I have said a number of times on CultureMutt, Bangkok is no stranger to political trouble. Here’s the thing though: the vast majority of Bangkok is continuing on as usual – the bursts of violence have happened at protest sites. If you employ some basic common sense and avoid these places (just like you would avoid any bad area of town at home), you are safe. Day-to-day life for most people, including Jammie and I, is basically the same as always. The picture the media paints of chaotic unrest simply is not an accurate reflection of reality for Bangkok in general.
My biggest lesson learned so far in 2014
For me, this confirms a personal belief that has been gaining strength over the 15 months or so since I quit my stateside job to pursue my dream of international travel and work: risks are less scary once you take them. This is perfectly illustrated by our situation in Bangkok: as much as the media depends on hyping the unrest here to fatten their profit margins, when we actually took the risk and flew over, we were greeted with the same smiles, politeness, incredible food and sunny weather as always.
So often we sit on our dreams and goals and do nothing because of nebulous, ill-defined and often unfounded fear. My biggest lessons learned in 2014 so far is that this tendency is a huge pity. Don’t give in to it.
What’s next? What happens after your travel year? Everyone’s asking us the same question so I figured it was time to answer it.
Now that we have sampled a series of 3-month relocations around the world in 2013, we’ve decided to test living in one of them, Bangkok, for longer. What’s “longer”? Well, another 12 months, of course!
Here’s why we picked Bangkok for 2014:
We can’t stop now!! – 2013 was hands-down the best year of our lives so far. Jettisoning the predictable grind of our Northern Californian lives and taking off on the adventure of our lives was the most invigorating thing either of us had done. There is something about intentionally designing a new life in a new place that is extremely fulfilling. Previously we had basically accepted the default life options that were right in front of us. When we decided that was a dead end we took off on our 2013 world service trip. We have not once regretted it. We are going to continue rather than return to the old.
Meaningful service opportunities - Intentionally taking out a year of our lives for service has only given us an appetite to do more of it. In the last few weeks we have hunted down a whole range of volunteer activities for next year. In addition to our original Bangkok projects (orphanage and prison visits), we may be adding visits to refugees in their homes, volunteer journalism projects and high school teaching.
Unbeatable continued travel options - We are definitely not done traveling. The only thing that is changing is the model. Bangkok is the ideal hub for discount flights anywhere in Asia (and, coincidentally, anywhere in the world) because of its popularity as a tourist destination. In 2014 we plan to make Bangkok our base but be able to visit other parts of Asia on a frequent basis. This may actually end up meaning more travel than we did in 2013.
A job offer I could not refuse - I’ve said in previous posts that this year has brought a lot of really interesting job opportunities our way. I want to say a big thank you to all the CultureMutt readers that have gone out of their way to provide us with these opportunities. You guys are amazing! We really appreciate your looking out for us!
There was one offer I simply could not refuse: Business Development for a US-based educational company. More details on this job will have to come in another post but for now I will say that it is a dream come true and will allow us to make a solid living during our 2014 Bangkok Experiment. Thanks for this opportunity goes to yet another CultureMutt reader. You know who you are. Thank you for sharing our vision and appetite for service and global adventure!
Quality of life for a lot less. Nowhere we have lived (or heard of) allows you to live as well as you can in Bangkok for so little. The extremely low cost of living in Bangkok allows you to save more easily than anywhere else we’ve lived. In a world where it is hard to get a job and often even harder to make ends meet, let alone save, working in Southeast Asia offers an amazing alternative. If you have a degree from a Western country and a little bit of work experience under your belt, the job possibilities in a place like Thailand are endless. Thousands of Westerners live and work in Bangkok for this reason. There is more work, you can often find decent pay and your living expenses are (even conservatively speaking) a third of what you were spending on scraping by in the US or Europe. I have gone over actual dollar figures and why it makes a lot of economic sense to live in a country like Thailand before but if you want a brief recap, check out “Things I wish I’d known about long-term world travel before I quit my job”.
The future is Asia. The writing’s on the wall almost everywhere we look: there is absolutely no place on earth that can match the pace of progress in Asia. Yes, there are also risks, of course. Those who follow the news know that Thailand is not immune to political turmoil. But the fundamentals of life and work availability have not really changed in decades (no matter what set of politicians is ousted). And foreigners are generally safer living in Bangkok than they are in most American cities.
No other part of the world that we visited in 2013 can match the frenzied pace of progress and the giddy optimism of Asia. Everywhere you look, there is construction. There is an obsession with education and advancement that absolutely blows the US and Western Europe out of the water in comparison. It may upset some to hear it, but it is true: the 21st century is the Asian century. The balance of world opportunity, wealth and influence has shifted East. For Millennials it makes a lot of sense to follow this trend and go where the opportunity is.
More updates to come. We are home with family in Los Angeles for the holidays and head back to Thailand in January. Do you have any tips for us as we tackle our first longer term relocation? Hit us up in the comments.
Sooooooo, we’re not in India.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted, so bear with me as I take a rather circuitous route to the explanation.
September and October were rather busy months for us, travel-wise. For my birthday, we took a little trip down to Milan, Italy, because hey, we were nearish (actual reason: I wanted to try real Italian gelato and pizza. Yes, a separate blog post is forthcoming.)
We flew back to Berlin for about 3 days, and then we headed out again, this time to Berrien Springs Michigan, U.S.A. for about a week as Bjorn had a speaking engagement at his alma mater over the weekend. I was excited as this trip was my first to the Midwest and I had the chance to see some really related relatives (Filipinos understand) and snuffle some very cute kids. (Post is coming, blah blah blah.)
We returned to Berlin, Germany, but only for 2 days. Then we were off to merry old England.
V is for visa problems
Now before we left Berlin, it had come to our attention that we needed visas to get into India. Between my American passport arrogance and Bjorn’s smugness in his Swedish one, we had blithely assumed that we would either get a visa waiver like we had in
Bangkok and Berlin, or could just pay a fee at the airport, like we did in Buenos Aires.
Nope. Turns out if you don’t have a visa, you can get deported. Some people said they were sure we could probably bribe our way through the airport. However, as we didn’t know the language or anyone there, I didn’t want to take the risk, especially after reading about the Indian prisons in “Shantaram,” which some well-meaning friends had loaned to me. And you know, all that stuff about bribing being illegal and immoral.
Instead of an hours-long layover in London, we decided to stick around and try to get our visas in England. Unfortunately, we lost the last leg of our round-the-world ticket as British Airways couldn’t seem to comprehend that we wanted to leave later, nor would they give us any credit for the flights we didn’t use (why British Airways, why??)
It was Oct. 2. We set about the task of getting our visas to India from England, only to discover that we had to mail our passports in and it would take 15 working days to get them, not including mail processing and delivery time. This proved to be a problem, as we were attending a wedding in the United States (in Georgia! My first time in the South!) and were planning to leave on Oct. 17.
We decided not to apply for the visas in England after all, as we didn’t want to chance mailing our passports in and then not having them for our trip to the States.
We spent a few pleasant weeks in England with Bjorn’s family, taking brisk walks which did nothing to mitigate the vast amounts of food we were consuming. Then we were off to Hotlanta! (Forthcoming post, yadda yadda yadda.)
After a spectacular time in the South that included copious amounts of Coca-Cola sodas and a wedding assistant marveling at my multiple plate, double-fisted eating style at the wedding buffet, we jetted back to England.
Looking for a shortcut
We had learned that it only took 6 days to get a visa to India from Bangkok, Thailand, so we bade a fond farewell to England and arrived in Bangkok around the end of October.
We went to the visa office the very next day, after spending two hours filling out forms online and another hour and a half spent in getting our visa photos and traveling to the office.
The very first thing we were asked: “Have you booked your hotel and flights already?”
Well, no. But we did have the numbers for the flights we would like to take and the details for the hotel we would book when we got our visas.
But it wasn’t good enough. We countered with, “If we book our flights and hotel tonight and come back tomorrow, can you guarantee that we will get the visas on the sixth working day?”
Well, no, she couldn’t. In fact, she couldn’t guarantee that we would get a visa at all.
If we did get one, she told us it might take up to 10 working days.
If we booked our flights and hotel with the 10-working days timeline In mind, it meant that Bjorn and I would only be in India for a week before we had to catch a flight back to Bangkok and England.
By this point, we were plenty fed up with all the hurdles and hassles, and couldn’t see how we would be able to find and do meaningful service projects in that amount of time. Why not stay in Bangkok where we had connections and could pick up where we left off on our previous service projects?
So we did.
The best-laid plans…
Our plan to live in four world cities that begin with “B” is ending up more like 3 1/2 cities (I have to give Bracknell, England, props as we did spend a good amount of time there), but one thing I’ve learned about international living and travel: You have to be determined enough to move, but flexible enough to stay.
Besides, there’s a Little India here. Maybe that will be close enough. (I’m kiiiiidding. Relax.)
“They actually walk up to bar girls and other trafficked women in bars and brothels and try to offer them ways to escape.
I was listening to a friend of mine who I’ll call Kim.
“It’s a really bold approach. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it really backfires. When it works they can sometimes work with a UN agency that can transport the trafficked women back to their home countries. When it backfires the pimps find out, it gets ugly and you’ve got to get out quick.”
Jammie and I leaned in with interest. We had never heard of any organization tackling sex slavery this directly.
The trap of sex slavery
“Sometimes they can get enough time with the girls that they are able to befriend them.
The stories are so sad. Whether they are Thai women from up north or young Cambodian or Burmese girls, many come here because they are promised well-paid work through which they can support their families. When they get to Bangkok they are forced into the sex industry.”
Kim continued “It’s very hard to leave. Thai girls that are forced into prostitution are often controlled by pimps that threaten them and hold them in economic bondage.
Due to their low levels of education, prostitution is often the most lucrative work available. If they don’t bring in enough “work” they are fined by their handlers and they fall into debt. It’s nasty.
With foreign girls it is even worse because they are often here illegally. Unless they cooperate with their employers, they can be reported to the authorities and locked up at the Immigration Detention Center without documentation.”
It was deeply depressing to listen to. And the results of what Kim was describing are on open display in Bangkok.
The sexpats that fuel human trafficking
Walk down the street after dark in areas like the Nana district of Bangkok (a major shopping and eating area) and you will see middle-aged male tourists leaning in to negotiate prices with Thai bar girls.
Everywhere you look, men are pulling purchased women into cabs and others are being stopped in the street by prostitutes pressured to meet quotas.
As much as most visitors to Bangkok are shocked by the strength of the sex industry, and while many Thais and foreigners agree that something must be done, most are left scratching their heads about what to actually do to help.
Which brings me back to what Kim was talking about. There are a handful of organizations that are tackling the issue aggressively.
To protect individuals and “undercover” organizations from unwanted mafia-like intervention, I am going to omit names of specific individuals and organizations.
But I will say that I have the utmost admiration for their bravery and willingness to step up to the plate.
One lady that I talked to had moved to Bangkok from the US with her husband and kids to work with a ministry that taught ex prostitutes valuable life skills including how to make a decent living making jewelry.
A handful of organizations do what Kim described at the top of this post: Female aid workers walk Nana, Soi Cowboy and Patpong (the biggest red light districts) and try to start a dialogue with bar girls, massage parlor (often a front for brothels) staff and other prostitutes.
They befriend their contacts and offer them alternate ways to make a living or ways to get the financial and legal means to return to their home countries if they are foreign.
It is hard work. Although prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, police are paid off by pimps and bar owners to look the other way. So it is hard to count on support from the authorities.
Sometimes you feel like you are not even making the smallest dent in the problem. Everything feels hopeless and the challenges of fighting sex slavery seem insurmountable.
But I want to end on an admittedly sentimental note: As I write these words I am on a British Airways flight 32,000 feet above Russia. Jammie and I have completed our three months in Bangkok and are headed to Buenos Aires to start our work there.
It’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotion as I think back to the orphans we said goodbye to a few hours ago, the inmates that we had the privilege of working with and the dozens of friends that we made during our time in Thailand. We leave feeling incredibly inspired by the stories they have told us and the way each of them works to improve their community, their city.
One of the most inspirational things I got to personally witness happened during the coffee hour at a church I visited one Sunday.
I was quizzing an aid worker and she told me about the results of her organization’s work fighting the sex industry.
“There’s an entire table over there full of women that have been liberated from prostitution. They are now making a living for themselves and their families creating jewelry. This can work. They can have a brighter future!”
Indeed they can.
This, my final post before I start chronicling our Argentina adventures, is dedicated to the brave heroes that take the risks to rescue those that are currently enslaved. We will forever be inspired by your bravery, dedication and service. Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you do.
FOR MORE OF OUR STORIES , PICTURES AND ADVENTURES, CHECK OUT GOKARLMANS, JAMMIE’S AMAZING BLOG!!
It kills me every time. Walking past beggars in Bangkok is harder than it is in most of the places I have lived around the world. There is something about the depth of desperation and despair that just feels more acute here.
You may see an amputee with no legs, dragging himself across the sidewalk amidst the storm of pedestrian traffic. Or it may be a mother with two tiny babies, holding up a soda cup on top of a foot bridge. Or it could be the dad with his two kids (pictured), pleading for change outside 7-Eleven. It’s hard to know how to respond.
I wrote a post – Should you give to beggars? – when I still lived in Northern California. At the time I lived in a college town with a large population of transient 20 somethings that begged for cash. The knowledge that there were relatively well-funded shelters nearby and the fact that the travelers looked to be in good physical shape made it easier to walk past. In Bangkok, the same is not true.
Here are the questions I struggle with in Bangkok. I’d would really like to hear your ideas and reactions in the comments. Jammie and I really want to make a difference out here, however we can:
Does the fact that begging is professionally organized make it unwise to give? It’s no secret: begging in Bangkok is an extension of organized crime. Beggars are organized by bosses that function much the same way pimps do in prostitution rings. It is merciless and pure exploitation. There is no doubt the beggar is suffering. The problem with giving them cash is that the money goes back to the bosses and the beggars only get a pittance. Google “beggar mafia Bangkok” to see what I mean.
Will my giving help? – If the bosses take the cash, how will my giving help? In an immediate sense, giving beggars food instead of cash will help meet needs like basic nutrition. But it does little to address their larger needs like shelter, security and healthcare.
Is it OK to simply help aid organizations? I used to think that the real answer was to give to charitable organizations that would in turn help the people. After spending half a decade in the world of professional fundraising though, I know that a lot of my cash will go to things I don’t support, like executive salaries that are often in the six figure range.
How much is enough? So I am caught in a quandary. I still give to organizations that I believe are ethical, not overly top-heavy and make a difference but between that and the occasional direct gift to someone in need, I think “how much is enough?”
What is the bigger picture? Most professional aid workers I talk to will talk about the big picture of poverty alleviation. Often politics come into play. The right will say that you “have to allow people to fail and learn to help themselves.” The left claims you “can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you don’t have boots” and then tries to justify another government program as a solution. I am not convinced by either approach.
No response is going to be perfect (this is easy to see) but this cannot freeze me in undecided inaction. I’ve got to start somewhere.
As mentioned before, Jammie and I are currently working with an orphanage and with prison visitation. We want to expand our work to help homeless beggars. Help us think of an effective way to help beggars by leaving a comment with your thoughts and suggestions. We are all in this together.
Thanks in advance for your comments!
FOR MORE OF OUR STORIES , PICTURES AND ADVENTURES, CHECK OUT GOKARLMANS, JAMMIE’S AMAZING BLOG!!
Bjorn Karlman Bangkok, Thailand
Here’s a little break from the usual programming to share a little video adventure of our Valentine’s Day in Bangkok. We’ve got clips from our Valentines adventure all over the city, including one of me lying on a bed of nails. Enjoy!
If you’ve seen The Beach, you saw Leonardo DiCaprio drink snake blood on Khao San Road. If you saw The Hangover Part II, you saw Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis panic all over Bangkok but, interestingly, none of the scenes were shot on Khao San Road. This may have been because Khao San Road has so many foreigners it doesn’t look remotely scary in real life. At any rate, this 60 Seconds of Bangkok video gives you some live night footage featuring the backpacker haven of Bangkok, Khao San Road. Enjoy!
I haven’t yet said enough about the obscene amount of mall and brand shopping that is to be done in Bangkok. Partly because we aren’t really doing much shopping (we can’t carry the shopping in our luggage and we don’t want to spend the money) and partly because it is hard to know where to start. There is just so much.
But just in case you thought of Bangkok simply as temples, backpackers and go-go bar craziness a la Hangover 2, here is a little photo quiz that hopefully will illustrate a little bit about a side of Bangkok that cannot be ignored if you are here.
For each pic, guess where it was taken – options available are Bangkok, San Francisco , Los Angeles or London. (Hint, 3 of the cities are represented in the pictures)
1) OK, easy one to start with – where could you get Ronald McDonald posing like this next to Colonel Sanders?
2) Alright, feeling confident? Is this Guess store in LA, San Francisco, London or Bangkok?
3) You already know I am way into IKEA. Where is this IKEA?
4) And where is this picture taken?
5) How about this one?
6) One of these New Look Stores is in the UK, the other is in Bangkok, which is which?
7) Anyone a Mrs. Field’s cookie fan? Where is this picture taken?
8) OK, Forever 21 devotees, where is this store located?
9) This is my personal bias coming through here. I couldn’t write this post without including my second home. Where is this Starbucks?
10) And finally, where is this mall entrance?
Think you got them right? Here are the answers:
4) San Francisco
6) a) London b) Bangkok
He was bawling his little lungs out when they handed him to me. I was on my first visit to the Thai Red Cross Children Home in Bangkok and when a staff member handed little Phop over to me, I was immediately nervous.
I carried him to the play room, following the other volunteers that had come with the Church of Sweden. Every one else had a quiet, obedient child in their arms. I had landed the vocal 3 year-old.
“Phop always cries,” explained Mimi, one of the other volunteers. I tried bouncing him up and down as I carried him around the play room. No luck, he was still screaming. I tried to distract him with a stuffed toy. Even worse. “I’m on to your tricks!” it seemed he was saying.
“It’s OK buddy,” I tried. “Here, how about this toy?” The action figure I held up drew a brief flicker of interest (he was wearing action figure PJs) and then it was back to bawling. Just as I started despairing that I would be the only volunteer who could not handle a kid, Phop, calmed down and stopped screaming. A miracle!
I tried putting him down. Maybe he wanted to play? Nope. He was clearly not interested. He just wanted to be carried around. So we walked around the play room looking at the other volunteers and toddlers, me talking to him and him content to have an adult all to himself.
And that’s how it went for two whole hours, with a break where he let me feed him chicken noodles and an obsession with standing on the windowsill for the last five minutes. Then it was all over, I handed Phop back to the staff, I saw him run over to his crib and jump in.
“It’s always hardest for us to say goodbye at the end,” offered another volunteer. Indeed it was. I hope to see you again, Phop.